Reviewed by Lindsay Denninger -

Now Playing by Shellie Zacharia

    Stories
    Keyhole Press - October 2009
    ISBN-10: 0982151241, 192 pages, $13.95 (softcover)


Now Playing opens with a favorite game—Uno. Shellie Zacharia's opening narrator tells the brief—two pages, in fact—story of a group of friends who gather together for a weekly dinner. They get drunk, sometimes they get high, one of them cooks, and they play games. The setup and plot sound simple, and, indeed, they are. It is in this unfussiness of language and story that Zacharia's first collection is so successful.

Although most of the pieces are very short, Zacharia says in three pages what it may take some of her peers to say in eight. She drops the reader immediately into a scene—a grocery store, a woman recounting a past love, a movie set that just lost its prop master—and her brevity is what keeps the reader hooked. It doesn't allow for confusion; one jumps right in and starts swimming.

The only author to have appeared in The Summerset Review more than once (in this journal's eight-year history), the stories in Now Playing are discernibly Zacharia's. Focused primarily on female characters/narrators telling stories of card games and marijuana brownies and problems with their local Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Zacharia uses everyday topics and events to connect with readers. Though seemingly mundane, these events and places are universal. Zacharia's writing artfully balances those "is this really happening to me?" moments with unedited human reaction. There is a great yin and yang between the unbelievable and the everyday, because, really, the "truth" is stranger than any fiction could ever be.

Zacharia's title story opens, "First, let me say this: I do not hate Jonathan Green anymore," which, of course, is a lie. The go-to human response to begin any snarky story about an ex, never mind one who has unceremoniously dumped you, is to be oddly and irrationally civil. What follows is a rambling and hilarious rant by the narrator, a theater critic for a local newspaper that has to review her ex-boyfriend's new play. The narrator, as any woman scorned, attempts to be courteous towards her former lover's play, while snarkily throwing verbal darts and asides about their relationship, his family, and their interactions. It is relatable and, most importantly, very true to life. "Luckily, Lucy Sims Has No Stamps" follows a woman who is writing letters to people and places in her life to air her grievances, "Lizzie Sharpe's Nose" tells the tale of a fifth-grader who has snipped the tip of her nose off with a scissor and the subsequent reactions of class and teacher, and "Stitch" follows a woman remembering a scar on a former classmate while she tries to make sense of her own life.

Zacharia is the friend we all have—the funny one, the witty one who we wish we could be as quick as. Most importantly, though, Zacharia's humor is backed by heart. This collection feels like a bag of Pop Rocks—the stories are short, quick bursts of flavor that are sometimes sweet, sometimes tart, and sometimes painful. But, like the crack of flavored sugar between your teeth, they are wholly satisfying.