Close Encounters, by Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski is a Baltimore writer who had a great year in 2013. I wrote about her amazing novel The Tide King. Her collection of novellas, Could You Be With Her Now also came out that year, and she was named one of “50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and won a “Best of Baltimore” for Best Writer from Baltimore Magazine. She is also the editor of the literary quarterly jmww, host of a local reading series, and editor of City Sages, an anthology of Baltimore writers.

Now this year, she has a new collection of short stories out, From Here. It is as a short story writer that I first heard of her. Her short fiction workshops are jammed, and when I took one I could see why. Her generous but incisive comments made me look at my story in a new way and enabled me to strengthen it.

It is an earlier collection of short stories that I’d like to talk about today. My friendship with the author aside, I found these stories astounding. The title is perfect, for these encounters with odd and ordinary people bring us close indeed to their worlds.

Some are children, such as a girl named Lincoln in “The Body” who discovers just that in the woods behind the trailer park where she lives. Some are teens, discovering how to appreciate those who are different. Some are adults, such as Diana Sprigg in “The Assistant”, famous as America’s Housewife, who comes across as a slightly deranged Martha Stewart. And then there is the hilarious “Commencement Speech, Whitney Houston, East Southern University, June 9, 2006″.

Some stories stretch the imagination, such as “In Fetu” where two people, two separate souls, inhabit one body. The accommodations they must make for each other from babyhood on are astutely described. By limiting the fantastic to that single element, making everything else thoroughly realistic, Michalski helps the reader suspend disbelief.

Her sentences evoke an entire world, such as in this excerpt from “The Body”:

The body—was it someone she might have known? There were many characters who swept in and out of the trailer park, boyfriends and drug dealers of some of the women who lived there. These women had the weight of children gathered around them like moths—children who cried, wanted, needed those dim blue flames that lit up only when the women smoked. Men like Harmon, shiftless but virile, lethargic but prone to rage. Dark shadows that moved quickly over the sun in random sequences.

Michalski has a marvelous ability to inhabit each of her characters fully and to find each one’s unique voice. Given a short story by a writer whose work I’ve read, without being told I can usually identify the author. I would never mistake a story by Ron Rash for one by Ryan O’Neill. However, here Michalski displays a chameleon-like ability to take on a new speech pattern with each story. She explores a variety of characters, adapting her style to suit each one. Here is an excerpt from “The Assistant”:

I think these reports of my being difficult are exaggerated. As you know, I am the hardest-working woman in the business. I have to be to keep up my numerous projects that are designed to make your life Easier. Better. Smarter. Of course my assistant will be expected to work as hard as I do.

Even Michalski’s ordinary people become extraordinary as we come to know them. Our journey with each is intense, whether the story is told in few or many pages. I look forward to reading her new collection.

Many of us read classic stories in school, such as those by Chekhov, Faulkner, and Joyce. What modern short story writers have you read?

The Mower: New and Selected Poems, by Andrew Motion

This is the first poetry collection by the former British poet laureate to be published in the U.S. However, I first heard him read some years ago at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. His low-key manner and wry sense of humor did not prepare me for the emotional impact of the poems he read that evening, some of which are included in this collection. Reading them now, I am moved all over again.

In his poetry, Motion beautifully achieves the balance to which I, as a poet, aspire: to write poems in clear and comprehensible language that pack an emotional wallop. I enjoy puzzling out a difficult poem as much as the next person, and meet with a like-minded group of people once a month to do just that: we read and discuss the work of a different poet each month.

But there is something magical to me in the delicate craftsmanship required to phrase a line that could almost be speech but is so much more. I love to read a poem that suddenly transcends itself, the leaping poetry that Robert Bly describes in his book of the same name. Such poems have within them a gap, a leap, that requires the reader to engage and leap as well, encountering that which is mysterious and unspoken.

Motion achieves such an effect with surprising imagery or clever word choice or a line that changes your understanding of the whole poem. It could be something that increases the gravity of some everyday event, such as cutting the grass, or something that undercuts it, such as a comparison to “a wind-hammered plastic bag.” It could be an unexpected image, such as a fox climbing the garden wall appearing to have slipped out of his skeleton.

An example of a poem where he manages all three—imagery, word choice and the leap—is “Mythology”. Here is the second and last verse:

And you? Your life was not your own to keep
or lose. Beside the river, swerving underground
the future tracked you, snapping at your heels:
Diana, breathless, hunted by your own quick hounds.

Some of his most remarkable poems achieve their power through total immersion in the experience, such as in “Serenade”, a poem about his mother's horse that moved me to tears in that long-ago Toronto evening and again when I read it now. The first three-quarters of this long poem describe a blacksmith’s visit to reshoe the horse. The detail—of the blacksmith's apron, the waiting collie, of the horse “gone loose in her skin”—draws the reader irresistibly into the moment, into that world, until the final matter-of-fact lines tumble us out into heartbreak.

I have several of Motion's poetry books, some picked up in Canada, some in England, and his stunning biography of Keats. Even though there are some duplicates in this volume, I purchased it for the new poems, as well as for the chance to examine his choices.

I've found in assembling my own poetry collections, and helping others assemble theirs, that a poem sometimes takes on new and unexpected meaning when set alongside another poem. I was curious, not only as to which poems he'd selected, but also in how he ordered them.

For example, in Public Property, “Serenade” is the last part of a four-part poem, each a memory of childhood: “fragments of the world / in place, yet muddled, and me floating too.” Here, not only does it stand alone, but it is bookended by poems about losses that are not just ameliorated but transformed by a companion, presumably his spouse.

The title poem, while about his father, also reflects his link to the pastoral poetry of Andrew Marvell, according to the introduction by Langdon Hammer. I enjoy the balance of past and present in these poems, and enjoyed hearing Motion read them again recently at Johns Hopkins University.

What poet have you read recently whose work you particularly liked?

And She Was, by Alison Gaylin

Recently there has been a Facebook challenge going around to name a book that changed your life. There have been several for me, but certainly one was the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Near the end, as the two hapless courtiers realise that their deaths are imminent, they wonder if there wasn’t a moment when they could have chosen differently, a moment they did not recognise, that slid by and left them on this fatal trajectory.

This idea has haunted me ever since: that I will make the wrong decision or—worse—not realise that I had made a decision that would have awful consequences. Already risk-averse and preferring to keep my options open, I tried to be hyper-aware of turning points. Looking back, I can certainly see the places where a single decision changed my life irrevocably, but at least I was aware of making the decisions and—even though I might choose differently now—am not unhappy with who and where I am as a result.

In the prologue of this book, Carol Wentz, a suburban housewife, has one of those moments. At a neighborhood barbecue, Carol snaps at six-year-old Iris Neff who has demanded a juice box. Later that afternoon, Iris wanders off and disappears, leaving her mother, Lydia Neff, heartbroken and Carol consumed by guilt. For the next ten years, Carol continues to search secretly for Iris, hiring private investigators and joining a missing persons chat room. Then she receives a mysterious phone call that jolts her into renewed action.

With the end of the prologue, we move to the point of view of Brenna Spector, the private investigator to whom Carol turns. Brenna specializes in missing person cases, a legacy of the loss of her older sister, Clea, who stepped into a blue car when Brenna was only ten and never came back. Shortly after Clea disappeared, Brenna developed an extremely rare syndrome called Hyperthymesia causing her from that point on to remember everything she experiences with complete accuracy.

I found Brenna a fascinating character, someone who is constantly dragged into the past and has to develop tricks to keep from disappearing into a memory, forced to relive it completely. I also enjoyed her 27-year-old assistant, Trent, a technological genius who thinks he is God’s gift to women. His bizarre clothing and slang sparkle like rhinestones in the story. Detective Nick Morasco also satisfied my taste for new and interesting characters. Gaylin expertly avoids the cop stereotypes to give us a man with secrets.

As other people disappear, it becomes apparent that everyone has secrets. The joy of the prologue is that the reader knows some things about Carol that Brenna doesn’t. As one secret is revealed, there are always more to keep you reading. Working within the mystery/PI genre framework, Gaylin gives us not only remarkable characters, but also a plot full of twists and turns.

I read a lot of mysteries, partly for the puzzle but mostly because the writing is so often excellent. This story makes me understand that another reason I love them is this idea of secrets. What can we truly know about other people? In mysteries, the detective or PI must peel away the layers that people use to veil their secrets, sometimes revealing things even the culprits themselves are not aware of or moments of decision that slid by without being noticed.

I enjoyed this debut novel immensely and am delighted that there are already two more books in the series.

Have you discovered a new mystery series that you enjoy?

A Place Called Armageddon, by C. C. Humphreys

I don't often read historical fiction, but occasionally a story of a particular period or event will pique my interest. This saga by Humphreys is about the fall of Constantinople to Mehmet II in 1453.

Originally the Greek city of Byzantium, Constantine the Great rebuilt and renamed it in 324 CE as the capital of the Roman Empire. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it remained the capital of the Byzantine Empire until the events of this book, after which it became part of the Ottoman Empire and eventually renamed Istanbul. So its fall, after 1,129 years must truly have seemed like the end of the world, of a world at least.

Although there is plenty of description of both sides' strategies and vivid battle scenes, Humphreys wisely conveys all of that information through the characters. We learn it as they do. And I was truly interested in the people through whose eyes we experience these events.

They are a mix of real and fictional characters. The protagonist is a fictional one: Gregoras, who has been unjustly condemned as a traitor and banished from Constantinople to make his way as a mercenary, leaving his twin brother to marry Gregoras's beloved and become one of King Constantine's most trusted advisors. This Cain and Abel pair gives us a view into the king's secret deliberations as well as the front line of battle. On the Turkish side, we experience the life of a foot soldier through Achmed, a farmer hoping to find rich plunder in the fabled city, enough to protect his family through droughts and destruction. Moving between Greeks and Turks is the sorceress Leilah, whose prophecies and visions weave through the events like a glittering thread.

Besides Constantine and Mehmet, other real characters include John Grant, the Scotsman trying to open the ancient secret of Greek Fire; Giovanni Giustiniani Longo, a former mercenary who commanded the Greek defenses, and Hamza Pasha, Mehmet's servant, through whose eyes we see the 21-year-old Turkish sultan.

Part of the problem with historical fiction is that you know the ending. The solution, of course, is to give us characters we care about and whose fate we are desperate to discover. Humphries does this effectively.

He uses multiple point of view characters, which sometimes made scenes feel superficial. I normally dislike shifting points of view, and particularly when they shift too often. Staying with one or two characters provides a more in-depth experience, I believe. However, as the story unfolded, I understood that he needed all of these people in order to tell it. I would have preferred that he stick to one character at time, which he mostly does. But sometimes he shifts point of view within a single scene, also known as head-hopping, a maneuver that distracts and confuses me.

Still, I loved the characters and found the story exciting. I rather dreaded the battle scenes, but we experienced them through the characters, so that I found them fascinating too. I'm impressed with the way Humphreys revealed the necessary information—such as battle plans, geography, and history—seamlessly through the characters' stories.

What historical fiction have you enjoyed?

World War One: History in an Hour, by Rupert Colley

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the start of the first Battle of the Marne on 5 September 1914, I want to mention this excellent introduction to WWI. Colley has written a number of these History in an Hour books intended to give you basic information about a subject in an easily digestible form. At only 60 pages and illustrated by photographs, this ebook provides an accessible and accurate primer on the war, from Sarajevo to the Paris Peace Conference. Appendices identify key people and provide a timeline for easy reference.

I've long been interested in this war and have three shelves of books on the subject to prove it. As Colley says in his Introduction:

This, the first ‘world' war, was not just about armies winning and losing battles, but whole populations mobilized for war, at the mercy of the enemy, civilians starved and bombed. It was an industrial war where a country's whole economic output was geared to war; a war of empires that pulled in combatants from nations across the globe. It was a war of land, air and sea, a war of politics, espionage, and also the Home Front. For the first time in history, this was total war.

For me, immersed in the literature of England as I have been all my life, August 1914 was when the world changed. It spelled the end of the British and Ottoman Empires, but more importantly it was when the long enlightenment ended and the modern era began, when notions of duty and honor were replaced by cynicism and disillusionment. At the outbreak of the war, Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the Foreign Secretary from 1905-1916, said, “ The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time”.

Aside from facts memorised in school, I first came to the war through its poets: Rupert Brooke who died before he could lose his idealism, Wilfred Owen who learned to write a new kind of poetry in the trenches and mental hospitals, Siegfried Sassoon whose satiric poetry reflected his disenchantment, and others, all of whom seemed to know each other.

In “The Send-Off”, Owen wrote:

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.
. . .

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

Once I started going to Europe and visiting the sites, I began reading more widely, memoirs, histories, even a modern guide to the war's locations. I became fascinated by the role played by supply chain logistics, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Russian Revolution, and the much-delayed entry of the U.S. Reading Timothy Findley's book The Wars brought home to me what wrestling with the mud must have been like. As Colley says of the Battle of Passchendaele, “guns disappeared into it, tanks sunk in it, a quarter of the men killed at Passchendaele drowned in it.” I began to understand J.R.R. Tolkien’s remark that the Dead Marshes where Frodo and Sam saw the faces of the dead looming up at them through the mud and water had their source in the Battle of the Somme.

And of course, the war was not won. It ended with an armistice, which as it turned out, only provided a breathing space until the war resumed as what we now call World War II.

With all I have read, I still found it good to come back and review the facts of the war in this short book.

Which WWI poets have you read?