Science, art. music, Brooklyn: all American and all in various states of change. These titles lead off the list of new books from small and university presses on sale this week.
A small triumph, a growing awareness, a pleasant irony: these stories draw forth satisfaction.
The nine stories in Sam Allingham’s Great American Songbook are a brilliant array of forms, character and relationship types, prose styles, and points of view. Different though these pieces are, they all explore the sometimes merging themes of identity and the creative process.
Music is, at varying times, either an incidental or a prominent feature in the former music instructor’s work. While music is touted to be “the essence,” silence is sought in several of these stories as a necessary adjunct to creativity. A character in “Bar Joke” exclaims, “Someday I’m going to shut up and it’ll be the happiest day of my life.”
In the title story, the most powerful in the collection, the clarinetist Artie Shaw battles madness during a Pennsylvania winter until “the sound of nothing at all” becomes an ending and a beginning, and brings a peace that jump-starts new compositions. As in music, silence, repetition, pattern, substitution, and imitation become the dramatic structure in some stories, while they are the finer details in others.
“Assassins” and “Rodgers and Hart” offer two variations on the question of identity. The latter is a study in the contrasts, in which each descriptive detail contributes to an impression. In “Assassins,” the four characters are fixed in descriptive detail until Assassin A shoots Assassin D; Assassin A, having killed off someone like himself, “has the strange sensation of merging into himself, like paper folding inward to form a picture that had previously been hidden.”
While these pieces involve conflict or loss or estrangement, their endings are satisfying—a small triumph, a growing awareness, a pleasant irony. In “Stockholm Syndrome,” a conventional third-person narrative, a woman escapes the clutches of a man who she once thought was a victim of the syndrome, but is in reality a potential perpetrator. In “Love Comes to a Building on Fire,” the jilted lover/narrator has a last healthy thought: “When fire comes to a building, Ramona, you have long since disappeared.”
Sam Allingham’s debut collection puts forth nine variants on the short-story genre—and nine reasons for believing there is more to come.
JOE TAYLOR (November 9, 2016)
These stories deserve a cherished place in the canon of Jewish literature.
Oedipus in Brooklyn gathers stories and personal essays from Blume Lempel, a Yiddish-speaking refugee who escaped the Holocaust in America but who never stopped writing about its impact upon her family and community. Stories throughout the collection are searing, both defiantly vibrant and achingly brutal, and cover topics from madness to beginning again, always with masterful attention to detail.
Stories trade between the real and the imagined. In one, a woman survives the war only to experience a total psychological break, and is haunted by the memory of the brutal villager who raped her as she hid; a heart-wrenching tribute to the author’s friend produces similar details. Lempel says Kaddish for the departed, either overtly in the course of relaying memories, or in fictionalized accounts of lives taken.
Lines strain to catch elusive moments: the light as it falls across a Pesach table; magical prisms in a distant field. Mothers reach out to children broken or departed; survivors seek revenge. Those who are left carry scars, either directly inflicted or as the result of broken bonds. Lempel’s language is poetic throughout, a gorgeous tribute to human desires and potential, even though individual works express ambivalence about the power of language, particularly at resurrecting the departed.
In the wake of tragedies, from the Holocaust to family disasters, chasms open up between characters, all of whom ache for intimacy that seems unattainable. Touch is both a balm and a thing that burns in many stories—or is sometimes both at once; sex is a recurring craving in these tales, but one never sated, and hunger, which manifests itself across settings, is similarly never satisfied.
From Italy to Brooklyn, Lempel’s characters prove incapable of outrunning the past. They try—but memories abandoned “like a stack of unsigned poems” return as specters, and trying to outrun them leaves speakers “grasping blindly like fantastical fins at the faces that swim by.”
Lempel’s lines work to make ravaged land flourish again, and what flowers forth is both lovely and heartbreaking. These are stories that deserve a cherished place in the canon of Jewish literature.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (November 4, 2016)
A Personal History of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation
For a book about nuclear waste cleanup, paradox and irony figure prominently—Atomic Geography is an intelligent, probing, and strangely poetic read.
Environmental engineer Melvin Adams spent more than two decades working at the Hanford nuclear site in eastern Washington. His keen personal history reveals how a rural stretch of arid steppe along the Columbia River was converted into America’s preeminent plutonium factory during World War II and the Cold War. That weapons of mass destruction sprung from an idyllic setting of sagebrush and bunchgrass is one of the book’s overarching ironies.
Adams explores technical issues of environmental mitigation with clear, personable prose reminiscent of nonfiction greats like John McPhee. The scale of both contamination and cleanup at the Hanford site are mind-boggling, but the book does a good job of putting scientific information within a human context.
The paradox that emerges is a rather amazing one: life flourishes even in a toxic environment. Adams waxes poetic about the resilient species of plants and animals that thrive in and around the site. Hanford has since become a national monument and part of a historic park dedicated to the Manhattan Project. In this transformation, the author sees redemption of the human race. Atomic Geography doesn’t merely map a specific place in time; it charts a greater course away from nuclear armament and toward environmental stewardship.
SCOTT NEUFFER (November 11, 2016)
Morbidly engrossing, the novel probes the lengths women go to in order to be seen as beautiful.
Kate Howard’s The Ornatrix is a dazzling exploration of the meaning and conveyance of feminine beauty.
Flavia lives with the blemish of a bird-shaped birthmark across her face. Under the weight of her mother’s judgment, she is forced to hide away from most of the world, only allowed outside if she dons a hat with a veil to cover her blatant imperfection. When she ruins her sister’s wedding dress out of spite, Flavia is banished by her family to the convent of Saint Guiliana.
There, she meets Ghostanza, a striking Venetian and a widowed courtesan who takes Flavia as her ornatrix, her personal handmaid. She also introduces Flavia to cerussa, a white lead makeup that can erase her birthmark. Thus Flavia is drawn into the dark world of obsessive vanity, where she must come to terms with herself or risk drowning in vice.
Beauty and ugliness are contrasted throughout the novel, interspersed with historical recipes for drawing out female loveliness that, though they may be strange and laughable in modernity, illustrate the lengths that women have gone to to attain physical appeal. Caught up in such ritualistic masks, Flavia must confront the physical and emotional dangers of sharp concern with outward appearances.
In pursuit of the ultimate standard of beauty, characters often become twisted. Once-innocent Flavia uncovers a wiliness in herself through the influence of Il Sicofante, the apothecary. Sweet Gilia, Ghostanza’s step-daughter, is also not all she is on the surface, and though Flavia’s mother is far too poor to indulge in the coveted cerussa, she imposes her own harsh ceremonies to remove Flavia’s embarrassing mark. Only Vitale, a kindly doctor, seems to escape being bent, serving as a possible avenue of salvation.
At times morbidly engrossing, The Ornatrix is a powerful testament to both the wonders and pitfalls of feminine identity when entwined with ever-shifting perceptions of beauty.
MEAGAN LOGSDON (November 2, 2016)
With images as vivid and searing as a cattle brand, this is an exquisitely crafted book, and one to be savored.
The discovery of the remains of a long-missing local man is the hinge that opens the door of Allen Morris Jones’s beautifully crafted A Bloom of Bones.
From the first time Eli and Chloe meet, there’s a spark. After a mesmerizing week together, Chloe follows Eli back to Montana to see if the magic was real. In the meantime, a man’s remains are discovered, and now his murder must be solved.
Eli, a self-educated rancher, poet, and veteran, is a wholly believable character. Chloe, far from a chick-lit stereotype, has a rough-around-the-edges personality and a healthy dose of skepticism. When authorities suspect Eli of withholding information about the murder, Chloe hires a private investigator to dig into his past.
The story is told from alternating points of view, Eli’s in the first person, Chloe’s in the third, and both are distinctive. Eli’s narrative sounds like a poet wrote it. When a cloudburst mixes with the clay-rich ground, mud “scrolls” around trees; a mother trying to hold back her daughter’s budding sexuality forces her to wear floral-print skirts and “the braids of a sixties folk singer.” Chloe’s point of view captures the interior back-and-forth of a woman who is emotionally engaged, even if she has doubts about the man whom she has feelings for.
Montana itself has a starring role with its ranch country—cold, dry, unforgiving land, home to hard-bitten men and disappointed women. The book’s secondary characters, especially Eli’s family, show how thoroughly the environment shapes and tests all who live there, doling out cupfuls of bitterness and measuring out happiness by the teaspoon.
The book unfolds at a leisurely pace, using flashbacks to illuminate and build sympathy for the characters. The murder is solved, but the true emotional climax is Eli’s exploration of his past.
With images as vivid and searing as a cattle brand, this is an exquisitely crafted book, and one to be savored.
SUSAN WAGGONER (November 1, 2016)
A Thoughtful, Organized Approach for Women
Manage Your Financial Life may have a target audience among women, but it’s an excellent comprehensive financial management plan for anyone.
In Manage Your Financial Life, financial analyst and consultant Nancy Doyle argues that women in particular should have a plan to manage their financial lives. This book eloquently explains such a plan in clear, no-frills language: Get organized, analyze your own financial profile, learn about investment strategies and vehicles, and then invest money wisely. Each of these areas comprises a part in the book, which is loaded with sensible counsel on how any consumer can systematize personal financial management.
The first part of the book appropriately addresses the need to organize financial records, and provides a helpful road map for just how to do that. Steps include gathering the correct information and determining what to keep and what to discard. The section also offers excellent advice on creating an “In Case of Emergency” file.
The section that follows concentrates on building and analyzing a personal financial profile. Included is basic information about how to create an income statement, prepare a balance sheet, handle cash flow, and evaluate debt and insurance needs. The section makes wise use of concepts that are more commonly associated with businesses to show how a consumer can apply the same principles to personal finance.
Next comes a crash course in investing, with detailed information about potential assets, investment structures, and investment accounts. Basic terms, such as yield, compounding, and diversification, are explained and illustrated. This investing section includes a highly readable and understandable description of asset classes, as well as an enlightening discussion of appropriate reasons to invest.
All of this work culminates in a superb mini-investment guide, the book’s fourth section. This part is divided into easy-to-read portions that address time-based needs: the immediate need of an emergency fund, long-term retirement needs, and intermediate-term needs, such as paying for college. Also included is the author’s objective guidance regarding whether to invest as an individual or with the assistance of a financial professional. This guidance concludes with some valuable lessons about understanding metrics and how to monitor investments.
Doyle does a masterful job of incorporating basic financial concepts into a step-by-step plan for personal financial management. Clearly recognizing that the topic can be intimidating, the author simplifies and streamlines the content, but without talking down to her audience. The result is a book that is both instructional and uplifting.
“Women undergoing challenging transitions” prompted this work, in which Doyle’s insights will prove to be a valuable service. This is a finely organized, extremely well-written guide that any consumer should be able to put to great use.
BARRY SILVERSTEIN (August 23, 2016)
365 Day Devotional
These pages affirm God’s love, a theme that pairs nicely with the stress relief offered by coloring. Uplifting and heartfelt, the images accompany Bible verses.
HANNAH HOHMAN (October 28, 2016)
Seth Dellon is director of audience development at Foreword Reviews. You can meet him or hear him speak at most of the events Foreword attends, and contact him at email@example.com.