"Tell Everyone I Said Hi" by Chad Simpson

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From the University of Iowa Press comes another winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; this time it’s Tell Everyone I Said Hi by Chad Simpson. For being a slim volume, it has a wide variety of effects, in a wide variety of lengths and treatment. Throughout, however, Mr. Simpson shows such insight into people’s mental states, in the oblique way people react to strife, and the way they seek company on their lonely journeys – even the snippets pack a wallop out of all proportion to their length.

The collection, in fact, leads off with Miracle, a mere seven paragraphs long, including one of one sentence. In it, a man responds to his addled brother’s phone call about an accident, and cannot keep from laughing, although at night, he dreams the worst. In a very few short, matter-of-fact sentences, Mr. Simpson sets the tone for this collection: harrowed, highly personal, thought-provoking, and even uplifting. In Potential an exceptional young athlete stares millions of dollars in the face, as he tries to get past his conflict about being the first overall draft choice and moving on to the next phase of his life. In this story, we get a glimpse of the closeness between the son and his father who never pressured him on the field of play. It is a touching, superb piece. Let x rises very nearly to poetry, even though its subject includes thoughtless deeds by junior high-schoolers, deeds which change two young lives.

In this collection, people work momentously to fend for themselves, usually because of some mistake or unavoidable tendency which drove loved ones off. There are two stories that reprise one set of characters. Eponymous Peloma is twelve years old in the first one, over six feet tall, orange-haired, and heavy. She and her dad try to muddle through respective challenges in the wake of the mother/wife’s fatal auto accident. Peloma tries half-heartedly a couple of times to kill herself, but her father, telling the stories in the first person, finds the path they can travel together. The first story leaves us on a cliffhanger, almost literally. The second story with these characters concludes the collection. In it, Dad chides himself when he hears of Peloma’s almost disastrous first day of driving at driver’s ed. He acknowledges that he should have given Peloma some practice behind the wheel, and so takes her out. The final sequence of their experience together in his pickup truck forms a lovely climax to this sometimes haunting collection. It’s worth the price of admission by itself.

This is a remarkable, distinctive collection, and proves what the folks in Iowa City know so well: short fiction is in exceedingly capable hands. Kudos once again on this selection for the prize!

"Battleborn" by Claire Vaye Watkins

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Stunningly clean and efficient, raw and cruel, this collection of short pieces announces the arresting arrival of Claire Vaye Watkins. Ms. Watkins mirrors the desolation of her suffering, addled denizens with the desolation of harsh, empty Great Basin Nevada. Replete with hardship, haunt, and worry, these stories nevertheless also impress us with the author’s already highly-developed skill with English that cuts directly to the meat of the matter.

The characters populating this collection are indeed born of battle, and for many, life presents the overwhelming sense that they must continue to fight every day. In Ghosts, Cowboys, a young woman traces the effects of a curse that starts with the exploitation and death of prospectors for silver in Nevada, through the poverty and obscurity of a movie-set ranch operator, to the early depredations of the Manson family. The battle has only started for the two teenage girls out for kicks in Rondine Al Nido.  It ends in painful loss and gradual estrangement, all with such inevitability. The perhaps ironic title may refer to the lost bond of love between the two girls. In Past Perfect, Past Continuous, Simple Past, an unfortunate young Italian man vacationing in Las Vegas suffers first through the loss of his friend in the desert, and then through the disillusionment of frustrated infatuation with a prostitute. Its wrenching climax crystallizes the man’s pain.

Wish You Were Here features another young woman dealing with an unnamed and bottomless emptiness, which surfaces in her inability ever to hear her infant crying. This woman has no wish to live by the too-restrictive dictates of her husband, and repels the married man with whom they are camping when she tries to proposition him. Man o War contains memorable characters in the retired miner and the young girl he finds unconscious in the desert. It also contains some of the bleakest and most comprehensive descriptions of the (un)natural desert. How about the fictional trope used here, wherein the 67-year-old quasi-hermit shoots off fireworks scavenged from the desert floor, his jaded and manipulative teenage damsel by his side? One of the best in the book. 

Ms. Watkins’s apparently effortless shift to a 19th-century style in The Diggings is impressive, as is the story itself. It tells of the desperation, physical as well as emotional, suffered by the color-struck prospectors of 1849 California. Racial prejudice, greed, and insanity all receive full treatment, and the result is a history lesson for anyone interested in the California Gold Rush.

Some stories repeat themes and characters, but this is a quibble. When the treatment is so real, and the problems cut to the bone the way they do, they deserve multiple treatments. I was stunned by the language and transported by the experiences here. This volume is well worth it.

"Sacred Hearts" by Sarah Dunant

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Take up Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, and enter a convent in medieval Ferrara, and follow the lives of nuns who strive to be next to Jesus, hoping for inspiration, or better yet, to be transported completely out of themselves in spiritual ecstasy. In this full, memorable tale, they also grapple with each other in the more worldly arena of deceit, rebellion, and betrayal.

Yes, this is a microcosm, brilliantly realized by Ms. Dunant. As in her other novels of that milieu, The Birth of Venus and In the Company of the Courtesan, she renders the lives of women in Renaissance Italy in high relief. I have read Venus and as good as it is, this is rather superior. For me, the characters are fuller, the plot more suspenseful, and the stakes just as high. The Santa Caterina convent in Ferrara and 1567 AD, form our setting. A convent enjoying perhaps its twilight of privilege, the nuns there still entertain the nobility with theatrical productions, and they have a deservedly high reputation for their choir. The choir director even composes music for the Psalms and other sacred texts. But the Protestant Reformation looms ever larger in the background, with its constant push for purer devotion, less ostentation, and removal of the Church – especially its convents – from the earthly realm. 

Enter Serafina, a sweet-voiced young novice whose father forces her into Santa Caterina against her will. Her background includes a forbidden flirtation, and she panics at the incarceration, as she views it, and creates a large disturbance. Suora (sister) Zuana, the convent’s dispensary sister (healer), inherits the responsibility of trying to orient the young rebel to her new life. It doesn’t work very well. The captivating, exceptional story that follows embroils us in the power struggle within the convent walls. On one side the abbess would maintain the freedoms and privileges so many other establishments are losing. She is threatened by the nun in charge of training the novices, who would focus the world on the glorious transports of a holy ascetic sister, who inspires the rest of the community with her pious zeal. Young Serafina catalyzes the conflict, and remains the focus of Zuana, whose point of view serves as the novel’s center.

The characters and events of this novel will stay with you. Ms. Dunant’s pacing is superb, and the story’s events flow as though inevitable. There are surprises, and shocks, and enough intrigue to delight any lover of internecine conflict. As odd as that sounds. 

I recommend this book to anyone interested in noblewomen in Renaissance Italy, in the practice of convent dowries, or in Reformation politics. But most of all I recommend this book for its spot-on observations of human nature in duress, for its lovely description of devotional chorale work, and for its lively, full description of an insular place at a remote time. For the first time in a long time, I find myself stumbling over all the thoughts I want to express about this shining story. Take it up and enjoy it.