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.

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.

Upcoming Readings

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Saturday, September 18, 2010 5:00 pm – 7:00 pm I’ll be at the Salem Literary Festival, where I’m delighted to be among the readers for Quick Fiction’s Utter Amazement:

Meet us at Gulu Gulu for a phenomenal line-up of readers whose work has appeared in the literary journal Quick Fiction, including Steve Almond, Brian Evenson, Kim Chinquee, Myfanwy Collins, Michael Thurston, and William Walsh. We don’t even know what to expect, other than a whole lot of utter amazement.

Here’s the info on Newtonville Book’s Small Press Saturday, October 2nd:

SMALL PRESS SATURDAY | October 2 | Five authors published by four local and national small presses will show major publishers exactly what they’re missing. Adam Golaski (Rose Metal Press), Joseph McElroy (Small Anchor Press), Sumanth Prabhaker (Madras Press), and William Walsh and Myfanwy Collins (Dzanc), plus others, will read their work. | Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut St, Newtonville | 2 pm | Free | 617.244.6619 or newtonvillebooks.com

Sorta Like A Rock Star, by Matthew Quick

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This one is for all of the kids who live outside the edge of normal, all of the kids who have secrets behind what their faces show at school each day, all of the kids who have been picked on, and especially for all of the kids who when faced with the worst, offer up their best.

This one is for all of you who are rock stars of hope, just like Amber Appleton the winning heroine of Matthew Quick’s charmingly heartbreaking YA novel Sorta Like a Rock Star.

I’ve been a fan of Quick’s writing for a while now and I expect a lot from his work. I expect honesty and humor and a wacky set of characters doing interesting things: and, boy, does this book deliver all of those things in spades. Most importantly, this book delivers a great big heart, all packaged within the body of Amber Appleton–who is one part Dorothy in Oz, one part Alice in Wonderland, and one part all her own. She’s a girl who has been pushed down into a dark place due to circumstances beyond her control and when life deals her an unfair and devastating hand, even though she wants to give up, she refuses to.

Partly she keeps going because Amber is not alone in her hardships; through her dark times she has her friends (a group of misfit kids, a haiku writing war vet, a Nietzsche quoting nursing home villain, and a Catholic priest among others). In her darkest hour when all she wants to do is be alone, they will not give up on her. They fight for her in the way no one else ever has–not even her parents.

Amber teaches us to never give up yearning for a better future. She teaches us what it means to survive. Most importantly, she gives us hope.

Buy this book for your favorite high school kid. Buy this book for your mother and father. Buy this book for a complete stranger who looks like he is having a crappy day and needs a reason to believe. Buy this book.

Newburyport Literary Festival, April 23-34, 2010

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The Newburyport Literary Festival is next weekend. It’s a great event and I’m honored to be on a panel in support of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.

Hope to see you there!