The Virgins, by Pamela Erens

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Pamela Erens‘ smashing second novel, THE VIRGINS, is a novel destined to be a classic, mostly because it is so expertly written and expresses such truths, but also because it pulls from many classics all the while inverting them, offering readers a fresh view of that which we thought we knew.

In many ways, the novel’s narrator Bruce Bennett-Jones is Nick Carraway to Seung Jung’s Gatsby, as Bennett-Jones smugly and expertly narrates all of the action and emotion of the characters around him at his East Coast prep school, especially that of fish-out-of-water turned golden boy, Seung, and his sexy and exotic girlfriend, Aviva. The world that Bennett-Jones creates for us is fully his own, but director that he is, he is completely comfortable showing us the work of those who act around him, casting them, oftentimes, against the grain of expectation.

At the center of Bennett-Jones’s world are the beautiful, aspirational couple of Aviva and Seung. Bennett-Jones both covets their relationship and is repulsed by it. He does not wish to posses Aviva in every emotional way that Seung does. Instead, he wishes to ravage her, which could make Seung the hero, the romantic lead, Romeo Montague, and Bennett-Jones the villian. But wait, that is all too simplistic, for Aviva is no Juliet. She is not willing to give up anything for her romance with Seung, certainly not her life.

Aviva wants out. She wants someone who can please her as much as she wants to restrict herself from pleasure. She wants to breathe. She doesn’t know what she wants other than she wants to not be a virgin anymore, because after all, she is not the woman everyone perceives her to be. She’s a kid, she’s starving herself, and she’s scared.

She is also liberated. She can ask for sex. She can want to have it. She can be disappointed when she doesn’t get it.

So is Aviva Emma Bovary then? Is she Anna Karenina? Is she Edna Pontellier?

Through the eyes of Bennett-Jones, she is all of them and none of them, for she is not oppressed by anything external to her own thoughts and the desires that she wished she didn’t have. It is Seung who is oppressed. It is he who has to fight most against the confines of the world where he exists and the expectations of those around him, especially those of Aviva and his parents.

And it is Seung who, like Bovary, Karenina, Pontellier, pays the price in the end, as he stupidly sacrifices himself for that which he thought was lost.

Though they are central to the plot, the novel is not really about Aviva and Seung. From the beginning, we know who we are meant to follow and that is Bennett-Jones, who is Meursault in L’étranger, guilty, judged as much as he is The Talented Mr. Ripley, easily pushing forward when he has ruined the lives of others. And yet he seems to have something of a conscience, or at least he wants his audience to believe he does.

Even though we are not meant to like him, we can’t help but admire the way he maneuvers through his life and the lives of others, eventually getting his way (or at least telling us that he does). Ultimately, Bennett-Jones is utterly compelling; out from behind the curtain, he becomes the star of the show, and when it is his turn to take a bow, we give him a standing ovation.

Publishers Weekly reviews I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND

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From the Publishers Weekly review of I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND:

“Much of the appeal of Collins’s fiction comes from the idiosyncratic way that the longer stories unfold, their lurch from subject to subject challenging convention, but possessing an inner logic that conforms to character. Typically, initially disjointed subjects dovetail to resonant climaxes.”

Enter for your chance to win a copy of I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND

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 I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND is forthcoming from [PANK] Books in January 2013.

Click here and enter for your chance to WIN one of two signed copies. And please spread the word!

 

 

Joy to the World

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Has been an up and down sort of time for my family. As already noted, we lost our beloved pet recently and on top of that we’ve all been sick. And yet, there is so much to celebrate. That we are together. That we are whole. That we love one another.

And yesterday, all of the blurbs for my book came in; joy to the world, indeed! I’m truly grateful to these writers who have lent their names to my book. Thank you!

“Myfanwy Collins tells a deep and resonant story about people she loves, and along the way shows us how to love them as well.” —Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller

“Fearless, elegant, and accessible, Echolocation is literary fiction at its best. With heartbreakingly beautiful prose, Myfanwy Collins tells a gripping and tender tale of broken souls yearning for wholeness. These are characters who will stay with you long after you turn the last page. It’s a dazzling debut!”
Ellen Meister, author of The Other Life

“Myfanwy Collins has the goods. It’s that simple. Echolocation is about love in all its magnificent slipperiness; it’s about how secrets bind us rather than rend us; it’s about the endless series of personal reinventions we call a lifetime. And these are things we had all better be thinking–and reading–about, if we plan to try and get out of this alive.” —Ron Currie Jr., author of God is Dead and Everything Matters!

“Myfanwy Collins’ debut novel calls to mind the grim and radiant work of Daniel Woodrell. From page one, I was chilled by the landscape, caught up in the trouble, and riveted by these women of northernmost New York who slam back together and figure out how live with what’s missing.” —Pia Z. Ehrhardt, author of Famous Father and Other Stories

“A moving and delicate novel, tracing the poignant destinies of women who long for a home they never had.” —Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son

“Get ready to fall madly, sadly in love with the fiction of Myfanwy Collins.” —Benjamin Percy, author of The Wilding and Refresh, Refresh

And then there is this beauty–give it a listen:

Joy to the World

The Burning House, by Paul Lisicky

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Isidore Mirsky, the narrator of Paul Lisicky’s gorgeous novel The Burning House, desperately wants to be a good man. He loves his wife. He loves where he lives. He wants to do good work. He wants a purpose. He wants to be good. The problem is that Isidore doesn’t really know who he is anymore outside of his lusts and fears and indiscretions. Indeed, it seems he has lost the ability to function in the moment.

Even as he feels his wife, Laura, falling away from him into illness, he also pushes her away–out of fear, and, ultimately, lust. The one person who brings Isidore back to life is his sister-in-law, Joan. It is as if the two women are halves of one perfect woman for Isidore–a person who has never existed and can never exist.

Told in gorgeous, hypnotic language, we follow Isidore through his travails and hope that he will come back to living within the moment, which he does. For in the end, after all seems lost, it is Isidore who is found as he listens to his wife sing once more:

So she lets go and gives voice to everything coming at her: the love on the way, the love left behind. And good health. The possibilities. What more could a good man want? And how very nice for the weary traveler, who’s had enough of the same old thing, who could stand a little refreshment every now and then.

It’s a beautiful book. Read it.

Hard to Say, by Ethel Rohan

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I do believe that Hard to Say, a painfully beautiful linked collection of stories by Ethel Rohan, will leave you as speechless as it did me. The book begins with a young woman whose own desire not to speak her family’s many secrets chokes her. It is not until she envisions herself speaking, through a dream of bloodletting, that her stories are set free.

Long kept hidden away in the narrator’s secret spaces, the stories burst onto the page with confessions of wrong doing–both that which is done to the narrator and that which she does out of necessity and survival and desire. Indeed, the book reminded me of the first time I went to confession. I remember being disappointed because the priest was not in a booth as I had anticipated. Instead, we sat in a small room together, nearly facing each other. I could not possibly tell him all of my sins face-to-face.  Instead, I told him those I thought he could most easily swallow. Had I been able to speak freely in a dark booth, away from his eyes, I might have told the truth as the narrator does in these stories.

While all of the stories moved me, the one that broke me was the final story, “Mammy,” which is peeled back to the first word and possibly the final word any human being thinks or says and that is a name for mother: Mammy, Maw, Ma, Mummy, Mommy, Mama, etc.  The narrator, leaving her ailing mother in Dublin as she flies back to the US, watches a documentary about girls’ circumcision in a Ugandan village. She is on the plane and her thoughts are, obviously, with her mother, as are mine while I read it. I have been on that plane, flying back and forth to and from my sick mother, wishing for relief from the anguish of it all. And then the final lines which pierced me deep in my heart and continue to:

Then, on the plane, from the TV, those girls’ cries from that hut in Uganda, calling their mothers, Mammy, Mammy, Mammy. Cries that stabbed me, that should have cracked the earth.

It’s a gorgeous book. Read it.

Ayiti, by Roxane Gay

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At the heart of Roxane Gay‘s devastating debut collection, Ayiti, is truth. Whether a language is shared or a language divides, what it offers, when spoken with strength and authority, is an opportunity to share the truth. There is a connection to the desire for truth from the title of the book, which is the Haitian Creole for Haiti, to the final words, which are about more than language. The final words are about that which is beyond language. That which we all share: a desire for love, a release from fear, a necessary need for freedom.

Each of the stories within this book is a slice of heartache and of truth, but the one that struck me most was the one at the very heart of the book–both its physical center and its spiritual center–and that is, “In the Manner of Water or Light.” From the very first words, I was swept into a dark, puzzling, and beautiful world:

My mother was conceived in what would ever be known as the Massacre River. The sharp smell of blood has followed her since.

The Massacre River is both the taker and giver of life. It offers a baptism in blood. And as important as the river is to the players in the story, it is also the keeper of their secrets:

The ugly details are trapped between the fragments of our family history. We are secrets ourselves.

Indeed, “we are secrets ourselves” is at the core of the stories within these books. It is as if each is a confession whispered into a deaf ear, or, conversely, a secret bursting forth, no longer able to be contained, screamed loudly from the tallest mountain, “You will hear me!” These are secrets that need telling. It is in telling and sharing the secrets that people are set free:

I had pictured the river as a wide, yawning and bloody beast, but where we stood, the river flowed weakly. The waters did not run deep. It was just a border between two geographies of grief.

If you had never read anything else Roxane Gay had written, you would certainly know from these stories that she is a truth teller, which she is. She does not hide her face or turn away from that which people do not want told. Ayiti is a brave and beautiful book, filled with truths that need to be told. Read it.

Other Heartbreaks, by Patricia Henley

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It seems an oversimplification to say that Patricia Henley’s gorgeous new short story collection, Other Heartbreaks, will break your heart. But it will. It will break your heart again and again but you will come back to it, begging for more.

You will come back because this is what love it about. The thrill of attraction, the comfort of togetherness, the razor’s edge of disintegration. Love is, in fact, a heartbreak the second it begins because within that second what you know, but do not dare voice or even allow yourself to think, is that someday love will end. Either you will stop loving or the other person will stop loving or, worst of all, one (or both) of you will die.

Patricia Henley knows all of these things about love and these are the gifts that she generously offers us with her stories. And she gives us these gifts with great skill, with great humor, and with a great deal of empathy. She is, in short, a master.

Usually there are one (or sometimes two) stories within a collection that I feel I must push myself through; not so here. Each story was as skillfully wrought and humane as the next. The book is perfectly bookended with two examinations of family’s dealing with loss and.

The first story of the book, “Rocky Gap,” totally knocked me out. The setting is a family reunion at a campground. Innocuous enough, or is it? What we all know about family is that usually when we come together as adults there are many past wounds lingering in the shadows. Same here for this family which is coming together for the first time since the death of one of the sisters. At the same time that the the protagonist is mourning for her lost sister, she is also mourning for the loss of her partner as she watches their relationship disintegrate. And yet, through all of this sadness, there is beauty. One sees a way forward. No matter what, June will survive.

The final stories are a tale in triptych of the March family, within which there is an examination of the parents falling in and falling out of love all leading to the heart of the story, the daughter, Sophie, who has lost her young husband to random violence. Indeed, it is within Sophie story that I found the echo from many of the other stories and that is the biggest heartbreak–the one of love lost too soon. I was reminded so keenly of Gabriel and Gretta in the final scene of “The Dead” where he knows that he can never (and could never) replace the love his wife has lost. It is the same for Sophie; while her heart is opening up again, it may never again be as open as it was with Luis. As it is for many of the other characters within “Other Heartbreaks”–they may be heartbroken but they are not broken. They are not dead. They live and as long as they live, there is hope.