Review: Sugar Land by Tammy Lynne Stoner

Sugar Land is the story of one hell of a character called Miss Dara. The novel starts in Midland, Texas, in 1923 and it spans her whole life, divided into three sections. We meet her as a 19 yr. old when she falls for her best friend, Rhodie. The attraction is mutual and they spend a few weeks together in bliss before being caught by Rhodie’s mother. The local preacher is brought in to deal with the girls. Rhodie, the girlfriend, leaves town for college and Dara takes a job in the local prison, Sugar Land, as a cook. Once there she becomes close to Lead Belly, the historically wellknown blues singer. He is determined to get out, legally, and does by singing to the Warden and Governor who grant him a release. Lead Belly makes Dara promise to leave as well, to follow her own passions.

The second section, Nana Dara, is the shortest with only 44 pages, and is focused on her time after marrying her way out of prison. Her husband is the Warden, an easy-going man, with two young children of his own. It’s a surprisingly happy marriage despite knowing she’s gay and missing her first love.

The last section, Mrs. Dara, the longest one, is also the funniest and most engaging. Mrs. Dara is a widower, full of herself with a wonderful inner logic and attitude to life. She’s grown into a mischievous character:

‘Now I was an older lady–a widower even–I felt somehow above the law. “I’m going to sneak in and take the pictures down.”

“This is criminal behavior we are discussing here.”

I tsked and pulled up the leg of my coveralls to scratch my knee.’

Stoner writes such great character descriptions that stay with you the whole way through the book. You’ll not forget these images for example Stoner opened Sugar Land with Dara describing herself:

“I wore a dress that made me look like a curvy brown sack and I couldn’t stop burping up the oatmeal I’d had for breakfast.”
The tone, voice, and Dara character all are given to us immediately so lightly and vividly, it’s great. Later on, Dara described her husband, the Warden, as a “big-chested man with precisely trimmed sideburns.” Again, the description of when they’re first married, Dara said, “he held me all night long with his forearm as warm as butter on my belly.”

Stoner’s use of language is so precise and perfect for the time and era, for these characters. This skill shows up in the chapter titles too, such as ‘The Preacher said sit down, so I did,’ ‘Pepto Dismal’ and ‘Hairnet.’

The simple sentences suit Dara and her inner monologues catch her emotions in a few words.

When Dara receives a love letter from her girlfriend soon after taking the job in the prison, and still a teenager in love, “I didn’t care about making my bed. I didn’t care about pie.”

Later on, when Dara faced another painful moment with her step-children, she said, “a tumbleweed rolled across the empty space inside my chest.”

I’d expected more of a harsh tale about being gay in that time frame given how the blurb on the back cover had mentioned how Dara discovered that life ‘outside isn’t all sweet tea and roses.’ It was instead a light read, generous spirited, and satisfying in many ways. The friendships and relationships were done with such humor and witty observations that you couldn’t help but like them all, even the fussy daughter, Debbie, the useless but well-meaning Fiddler who moves in to her trailer for a while. Dara describes him by the results of him helping out:

“By the end of the first year I’d lost three clocks and two phones and had to have the oil seal on my truck redone, God bless him.”

There are great moments of slapstick done in a deadpan voice and this is what’s so magical about this book– Dara’s voice. You want to stick with her, hear what she gets up and you’re never that surprised, in a good way, like when she breaks into her daughter’s place and utterly fails. “I was lying in the exact location the Rottweilers visited every evening to relieve themselves of what must be high fiber meals.”

Stoner has written a book that is heartfelt and tender. The relationship with the step-children and their own challenges come across without fanfare but depth. The budding relationship with Mrs. Tanya May Rogerton’s is wonderfully awkward and sweet. Her hand “burned a mark on my thigh the same way holy water marks the possessed–deep, hot, and permanent.”

These characters linger and are quite unforgettable. It’s very much a Southern book in language and with Stoner’s observations that are wry and thoughtful. Sugar Land spans decades in a well-told, easy going manner and I finished the book with a satisfied smile.

Red Hen Press, California

Tentative Pub date: 10/23/2018

Price $16.95,  334 pp.

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Fast into the Night by Debbie Clarke Moderow

Book Review: Just what I needed. It was a snowy afternoon in Vermont and I was bored. I picked it up from the pile of books next to my bed. I started Fast into the Night and then put it down. Why? I knew I wanted to settle in to it, and have a chance to read a good chunk undisturbed.

Dogs walked and fed. Snacks on a plate. Pjs on. Glass of malbec. Back to the memoir.

And what an amazing memoir. What an amazing world she brought us into. Iditarod, the Alaskan landscape, the characters, the dogs, and her family’s support. Incredible. I pulled up the covers and kept reading.

Moderow is passionate and compassionate. Her focus was constantly on the comfort and health of her team of dogs, she was so in tune with the needs of their individual needs and personalities. She wouldn’t put them in danger just to finish Iditarod. That would have gone against her integrity and heart. You have to respect her for that. Her goal was simply–if it could be simple–to complete the course with happy and healthy dogs. She tried twice, once in 2003 and again two years later. She finished with a healthy team in 13 days, 19 hours, 10 minutes and 32 seconds.

Moderow captures the character so well, the four and two legged ones, that we see her all the more clearly too. Moderow, even when struggling so intensely, carried on. This is bravery in action. She is such a role model for following your dreams without hurting others. Incredible journey, her internal and external journey.

Fast into the Night is written in the present tense, which takes us into the challenges she faced, the preparation, the cold, the details and all the emotional side of running Iditarod as a rookie.

“Sixteen huskies donning crimson harnesses charge into the chute.”

The first chapters were so immersive: Moderow, before being sent on the way, spent time with each of her dogs, one by one, walking along the team and so introducing us to all sixteen of the family. “Kanga is a serious brown girl with a tan trim. She knows more about Iditarod than I do. Juliet is my playful Tinker Bell. She’s the whimsical cheerleader, my tiny grey spitfire who runs up front with a light-hearted disposition.”

Her first few hours set the pace for the next two weeks on the trail. “When the team scrambles up an icy bank and the sled ricochets around a tight, dark wooded corner, I exhale relief.”

Yes, so did I. Time for another glass of wine and a snack. The snow still fell outside my apartment in town. I had it easy. Moderow didn’t.

“I cover my nose with my neck gaiter, and my goggles fog up. To take them off would risk my eyes, so every few minutes I scrape ice from the lenses with the back of my arctic mittens.”

Oh boy. Details such as those kept my turning pages, her story just stunned me, and the level of cold and endurance was beyond impressive. “A granola bar – it’s frozen and the last thing I need is a broken tooth. So I stuff it into my armpit to thaw.”

As you do, nothing unusual, right? Right. Sheesh. I read on, huddled in my little bed with my two well-fed huskie mutts on the end of my bed. No, we’d not be trying this ourselves.

Iditarod is a challenge obviously, all of it, that is the physical conditions but also there are the emotional hurdles she faced. There were times when she had to make potentially life-altering decisions when so completely drained and exhausted that clear thought was not easily grasped. What was best for each of her dogs? When should she ‘scratch’ even if the volunteers showed no compassion for her place and experience? I wanted her to make it, I knew she did from the blurb on the back, but I wanted to know how, how did she do it? What kept her going?

“I stand alongside my dogs and everything is quiet. It’s the profound stillness that arrives in a flash, when everything changes.”

You’ll have to read it yourselves if you want to find out how. Please do.

9781597099769_FC

Red Hen Press

Memoir

$16.95, 288 pp.

ISBN 978-1-59709-976-9

Tentative publication date: 6/2018

Bryan Hurt’s Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France

Book Review: Wonderfully absurd and weird stories fill this collection by Bryan Hurt.

His characters range from astronaut-artists, a British aristocrat with his adopted girls, a goat and seagull questioning the after life on the edge of a cliff, and a run-down American writer panicking about the demands of his agents.

The opening lines are often so succinct and direct that Hurt pulls you in immediately: “Thomas Day was rich but very ugly.” Oh really? I wanted to know more, would he be an interesting man to know? I kept reading.

The simplicity of language is compelling, it’s concise and precise as short stories need to be, there are no wasted words. There is a great rhythm and Hurt comes across as a narrator to trust. We know where we are immediately upon starting a new story, he grounds us as readers yet there are such great turns and unexpected digressions and drifts that demand you pay attention. I did.

Panic Attack is one of the more touching stories for me with a great moment of tenderness. That’s all I’m saying. Look for it.

Hurt plays with the form of these short stories, more so in the second half of the collection, as if he’s trusting us to come along with him however it now looks. The Contract follows a CEO’s own contract with life and relationships, and yes, form follows content. There are more pieces in the remainder of the book where form changes to suit each story, such as lists in some places, or when some paragraphs have their own titles and other paragraphs are seperated with numbers. Titles are evocative although mostly in hindsight, you read the chapter and then the title will pop out at you again, such as the last chapter, Good With Words. Here is our struggling writer overcome with the demands of an agent hungry for more words. He turns to his toddler once back home. There he is reminded of the power of language. He asks his child, “tell me something about love.”

“Mama.”

Red Hen

978-59709-077-0

168 pp $15.95

Tentative pub date: 6/28/2018

pavement stains

Flash Fiction: Pavement stains. I broke your wings on the way home. Sorry about that.

I broke your wings on the way home. Sorry about that but your fingers were like antennae and my skin split. The mess, it’s all mine, and now that stain on the sidewalk won’t wash away. I tried, I did, I hosed it down. I’d even bagged you up, stuffed into a grocery bag from Trader Joes, and you bled, still dead on the sidewalk’s dust and time screamed slow down under foot pushing me back into those glorious guts that didn’t bring you back. Jealousy’s a killer, isn’t it my love, that burn of shame and those black-outs drowning with desire and desperation and I’m thinking of how all the stupid things I’ve said are now caught inside but I never meant to cause you trouble or do you harm or kill you, not really, sorry love. Your belly button and all its fluff tossed me sideways alone and alive with me begging you still breathless wrapped up in arms. You bled me dry scraped on pavement and nameless and numb without eyes. Confusion steeps in the clouds pouring down in the drizzle like chilled tea. What if you’d wanted me back? You’d waited too long to leave: I blame those flying broken dreams. My landlord won’t return my deposit now there’s yet another stain in front of my home.

Book Review: Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me

Abandon Me (Memoirs) by Melissa Febos

Raw. Vulnerable. Intelligent. Insightful.

Didn’t I use these same words for her first book Whip Smart? Yes, and Febos has built upon that first book by offering us another look into her life in a way that is just as honest. Her gift with words and stories takes us into the darkness of an obsessive love. In Abandon Me, Febos creates a work that we can relate on one level or another. Who hasn’t lost/ found something magical through such an absorbing love? I’ve drowned and learned to breath underwater for another’s attentions even as my friends were throwing me a lifeline.

Febos has a fearless look at herself and it’s done with insight and intimacy. At times, it makes me want to put the book down and say, hush, hush, it’s okay. (Yes, my reviews are personal responses, not academic studies: I’m okay with that.)

The line between love and obsession here is woven within a framework taken from many sources. She writes about her struggles using psychology, historic and current culture, literature, music, and other influences such as Bowie, Jung, and Borges to understand her actions within a broader context. So well read she is that it comes naturally and it is easy to understand her references. There is fluency to her thoughts and how she expresses these links and echoes. The layers bring out universal truths lying within a complex lover relationship, her childhood, and a birth father that she builds a connection with throughout the book. As such, her essays are poetic and intelligent.
They are also heartfelt.

“If we break up,” I said slowly, “Everything you’ve give me will be ruined, transformed into shrouds of miserly.” I smiled.

Of her birth father: I was a curious child but I was never curious about Jon. Jon was Jon. She had known of him, her mother had spoken of him, yet they had never met.

Febos writes of finding him, her first impressions and how over time, she came to know or at least accept him as a flawed man and was okay with that. She developed a genuine compassion for him in her essays.

Mostly though, Abandon Me describes the stages of Febos’ flawed obsession with a lover. One that asked of her to make peace with a temper and mind that subtly controlled her: I didn’t care if I was right or wrong. I’m sorry, I whispered.

In this memoir, Febos once again takes us deep into her emotional struggles, seeing how desperately she wanted that love and how she was willing, or rather for a long time, unable, to say anything but yes to her lover, needing that connection, woken up by it in ways she’d not known. It’s addictive that love, that obsessive need and intense connection, especially for those who’d not yet known any other like it. The sensuality, the raw emotion, the incredible highs and lows, it’s all part of it. And when Febos writes, looking can by the truest kind of love, I thought of how she has looked so keenly at her own actions and emotions. I sense a deepest kind of love of self: She’s taken us with her, into dark times, compulsions, anger, loss, fire, passion, and come out the other side with a hard-won love for her own flawed vulnerable and heartfelt self. It’s quite a gift.

 

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MFA: well, I’d wanted a challenge

“Those blanks to be filled are like the variables in an algebraic equation, a network of complex relationships, their meaning determined largely by superposition, juxtaposition, and a literary order of operations that requires the computation of successive disparate parts individually first and then in small groups, and finally as one large whole-a lyric equation of the quadratic order, the results of which depended upon the data provided by the reader, but which all reside on the same curve of meaning, subjective iterations of the primary form envisioned by the author.” Joey Franklin. (An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay.)

Oh boy…

Flash Fiction: Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you

Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.

 

(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)