Reviews by Lindsay Denninger
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles D'Ambrosio
Tin House Books -- forthcoming November 2014
The Downriver Horseshoe: Stories by Scott Miles
Stolen Time Publishing -- May 27, 2014
Review by Nick Sweeney
The Wilds: Stories by Julia Elliott
Tin House Books -- forthcoming October 2014
Review by Alex Vidiani
The Night We're Not Sleeping In: Poems by Sean Bishop
Sarabande Books -- forthcoming November 2014
|When Iowa Writing Workshop graduate (and teacher) and PEN/Faulkner Award-finalist Charles D'Ambrosio released his essay collection, Orphans, in 2005, little did he know the cult following it would spawn. He's back, nearly ten years later, with a new collection of essays, this time ranging in topics from Mary Kay Letourneau and J.D. Salinger to cheating lovers and an orphanage in Russia.|
D'Ambrosio's work brings something largely unseen to today's literary landscape—a constant voice, unerring in its efficacy and technical merit. Through each essay, D'Ambrosio hurtles toward the finish line, never losing steam until (and barely then) the book's covers are closed shut. Usually in a collection of essays there are one or two weaker spots; such is not the case here, where every piece is beautifully written.
Part of D'Ambrosio's allure is that he focuses so much on family and the way that it shapes the people we grow up to be. From attempted and successful suicides to gambling debts and post-traumatic stress disorders, the people we are with ultimately decide how we end up, and D'Ambrosio is a master of this family language—extracting reason without necessarily assigning blame.
"This is Living" tells the tale of a son and his ex-bookie father during a trip to the bank; "Orphans" is the hugely affecting story of a journey to a Russian orphanage and learning how these children get by with so little; and "Whaling Out West" touches on Freud, Thalassal Theory, and Ronald Reagan. D'Ambrosio's subject matter certainly runs the gamut, but it never feels as if he is diversifying for diversification's sake. Every point is plotted and every thought contemplated, making for a gorgeous sophomore book of essays from this strong voice in today's literary world.
|It's widely known that Detroit's heyday has been over for quite some time, with the decline of the city's auto industry and its filing for bankruptcy. It's thought of as a city of crime and poverty, largely forgotten by the rest of the country, but what about the people who still live there? In The Downriver Horseshoe, Summerset Review contributor Scott Miles (his story "Ćupco" appeared in our Summer 2009 issue) analyzes the lives of the inhabitants of the Downriver neighborhood of Detroit, located on the metropolis' south side.|
Miles' prose is brutal, but in the best way possible. His brutality isn't sheer violence and brawn, it is a new take on the situations and places that his characters find themselves in. Darkly funny and original, Miles has the talent to make the reader feel for characters who are in and of themselves pretty despicable (as in "When You're The Mailman," where a postal worker reveals that he doesn't exactly spend his days delivering mail). Miles analyzes aspects of the human condition like love (in "Mt. Trashmore," a dump worker named Simon Touhy finds himself enamored with a prosthetic leg he finds in the trash) and ennui (in "Freezer Burn," which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, two friends are forced to contemplate the listlessness of their daily lives) and upends them, forcing us to contemplate these own things within us. Could we feel the way these characters feel? Their eroded humanity causes a great deal of self-reflection.
Though each of the stories has previously appeared in nationally published magazines like LIT, Cimarron Review, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and Pebble Lake Review, they feel fresher, newer, here when strung together like popcorn kernels on a thread. When read consecutively, their gravity deepens, and the story of the city Miles loves so is better portrayed. The Downriver Horseshoe is better than a love letter—it is a testament of the people and city, warts and all, that Miles so adores.
|If Julia Elliott's intentions in this collection are to convince readers that life is a beast, she also amply displays why she is life's tamer. With stories of television-induced comas and religious senior citizens levitating at slumber parties, Elliott has an eye for exposing the every-day feral behavior that we often overlook. Given any situation, we all can become the animals we see on National Geographic willing to do whatever is necessary to survive. She does what all writers do, she observes carefully.|
Many of the included stories come from kernels of Elliot's own personal history: "The Whipping" is a gross exaggeration of her own feral family; "The Wilds" grew from a rumor of a large pack-like family who feasted on freezers of food weekly, and "Rapture" is based off a youthful slumber party gone Book of Revelations. They all hit reality more than most of us would like to admit. Her ability to grow these moments into memorable stories is outstanding, a true accomplishment that pushes her through the crowd of writers begging to bend genre for the sake of change—she doesn't do this merely to be noticed. These stories are real not because of the validity they possess but because of the strong and rare emotions she sets free.
"Jaws" carries an emotional weight few stories can hold, and Elliott does it with ease. She doesn't rely on typical tropes or a fancy display of word play to disguise weak points in a narrative; she shows us the basic nature of ourselves. The narrator, a young and nearly defeated woman, travels with her parents to Universal Studios—one last trip as her mother seems to be losing her battle with old age and unspoken dementia or "senior moments." Her father, a man who would "come home drunk and disheveled, as though he'd turned into a beast out in the wild" partakes as a last effort to give her happiness. Her mother is excited, giddy as a young child going on vacation for the first time. The trip, however, takes an unexpected turn: as the mechanical leviathan from the old Jaws movie chases the narrator and her parents, her mother is unware of the faux-reality around her and shrieks. The screams at the end of the story are reminiscent of the classic film itself and resonate far after you flip through the collection's pages. The narrator attempts to figure out why this is happening; sometimes we forget we are human and are capable of forgetting the very nature that separates us from the animals.
While many have and will continue to compare Julia Elliott to the likes of Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and even George Saunders (fair comparisons and good company), I would venture to travel farther back into literary history to find her roots. If you were to take the road leading to Flannery O'Connor's grotesque South and drive past William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, you may come across a love stricken robot and hear the sounds of the werewolf in the neighborhood. If you witness this and more, you are not lost, you have simply made your way to the realm of Julia Elliott. It's not a bad place to pitch a tent and call home.
|Sean Bishop's collection of poems, The Night We're Not Sleeping In, winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and forthcoming from Sarabande Books, is a disconcertingly calm trip down a disturbed memory lane. Throughout, Bishop's speaker exhibits defiance and acceptance, hot anger and cold regret, while re-tracing the scars of both mundane and extraordinary moments of trauma.|
Progressing through the four sections of this collection, the reader is transplanted from the battlefield to a psychiatrist's office, to what are surely fluorescently-lit white-washed rooms in a support group setting. However, eventually both the speaker and the reader realize that the wounds from past trauma never fully heal, only dull to imitate the skin around them. In this seemingly white collar world it is clear that much more is being said below the surface of the page, in the silence after a bomb drops, and during the hush before an emotional breakdown.
As evidenced by the first poem, "Terms of Service," this collection also functions as a self-help manual. It develops the symbiotic relationship between poems and reader, allowing the latter to explore the inner machinations of the speaker's mind in order to garner a deeper appreciation of the accompanying suffering. Ultimately, this speaker is on your side, as seen in the support-group setting in the installments of "Secret Fellow Sufferers," "We can think we'd be better off / for being able to do something we don't want to do, if we wanted to…I am talking to you—whom I haven't / even told yet, in this story, what to win is."
These poems don't shout at you from the page, but instead incite a scream inside of you. One instance is mentioned in the foreword, which deserves repeating here, "I made for my wound a poultice of wounds / and the ones I wounded made poultices too. / We've come here this evening to give them to you." These poems do wound you, but with their beauty and craft they quickly bandage your wounds with deft hands, "For once, inner bitterness…I'd like / not to forgive it…but at least allow its fact— / the way the girl burned by the bombings learns to live only among her basic beauties, / and not the way the pilot opening the hatch / inhabited entirely the motive for the war." In this way, Bishop's The Night We're Not Sleeping In leaves its scar on you, or perhaps it rubs your skin just the right way to reveal the birthmark that was there all along.