Tag Archives: Maile Meloy

On a Carousel

To Begin Again: Stories by Jen Knox (All Things That Matter Press, $15.99, 139 pages)

Jen Knox, author of the memoir Musical Chairs, has crafted a selection of short stories about life’s small and big surprises.   These tales remind us that life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

Knox can write:  “…when Wallace would glance over at his son, he saw, finally, the boy’s ability to appreciate the silence as much as he did, and he knew that the boy was learning, finally beginning to understand how important it is to be still.”   And the best of the stories (“The Probability of Him”) call to mind Maile Meloy and Alethea Black.   Some of the stories (“The Millers,” “Cheers”), however, go  nowhere.

This is a themed compilation about life’s lessons.   What seems to be missing is the overall message that the reader is supposed to take away from the experience of reading them.   I felt as if I had listened to a concept record album, with a few excellent songs, many average ones, and a handful of throw aways.   This raises another issue with Knox’s writing.   While she has a uniquely strong voice, it’s never a singular one.   If this were music, I’d say that some of the songs were too loud, some too soft and what was missing is the pleasing mid-range tone that the human ear desires to hear.

Perhaps To Begin Again is the writing exercise that Knox needed to undertake before tacking a debut novel.   If so, this reader believes that she has the potential to deliver one of general interest; although, there will be those who will continue to find her view of life a bit too harsh and gritty.

If you like reading the works of a writer who has not yet been toned down by the publishing industry, you may well enjoy the stories in To Begin Again.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   To Begin Again is also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.   “…a unique collection of stories that urges us to examine the complex wounds and wonderments of the human experience.”   Beth Hoffman, author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.

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For What It’s Worth

This is a link to a handy listing of 61 book reviews that we’ve written for this site and the New York Journal of Books:

http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/reviewer/joseph-arellano/

The listing may be useful as a quick reference guide when you’re considering whether or not to purchase a particular book.   Thank you to author Therese Fowler for discovering this link!  

Joseph Arellano

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Driven to Tears

i-knew-youd-be-lovely

I Knew You’d Be Lovely: Stories by Alethea Black (Broadway, $14.00, 240 pages)

“I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.”

Consider a formula for producing a promising new writer: the courage of Jane Mendelsohn and Emily St. John Mandel; the calm and precise voice of Maile Meloy; the microscopic focus of Joan Didion; and the world-weary irony of Roald Dahl.   This just about sums up what you get with Alethea Black, the author of this new collection of short stories; a collection that stands up well alongside Meloy’s Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It.

Meloy wrote about people who wanted more than they were offered in their life’s current circumstances.   Black writes about people who are at the end of the dock, ready to jump into the water.   They’re not sure that a change is going to improve their life – they only know that life cannot continue the way it is.   Her stories take us to the point where each character is about to experience a major change.   We’re never quite sure as to whether the change is for the better, as her characters have disdained the need to look before they leap.   In a sense, she writes about people who have been driven to tears and near madness, either by their past imperfect actions or sheer inertia.   Now, they’re going to improve their lives even if its kills them.

Black writes on a very human scale, without exaggeration; however, as with Dahl, her stories are sometimes symbolic of both larger and smaller things.   And, as with Dahl’s short stories, there’s often a sense of unreality just off-stage – as if we’re going to be surprised by something unexpected any second now.

The weaknesses in this compilation might best be explained by analogy.   If it were a record album, this reviewer would state that the songs were placed in imperfect order.   And the weakest song (story) was selected for the title.   Instead of, I Knew You’d Be Lovely – a tale about a young woman who attempts to select the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend, and comes up with something extremely unexpected – a better selection would have been the second of the thirteen tracks (stories) which was earlier published in Narrative magazine, The Only Way Out is Through.   (On a bookshelf, The Only Way Out is Through would sit well next to Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.   Case closed.)

“Law school had been the classic intellectual sanctuary from certain practical considerations.   Then it had ended, and he’d needed to make a living.   So here he was.”

Despite a few minor issues, I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.   If Ms. Black has a fault it is that her coiled strength is never fully let loose…  There’s a sense of structure that’s a bit too quiet and organized (and intellectually proper) from this Harvard-educated writer who quite likely has the ability to “roar like forest fire” when she’s ready.   Perhaps she’ll roar when she releases her debut novel.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Both Sides, Now

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t/ have it/ both ways/ and both/ ways is / the only/ way I/ want it.   – A. R. Ammons

both-ways

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on the door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a wildly great time showing their students the hidden meanings and life lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Joseph Arellano

Well recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   Richard Ford


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Everybody Knows This is Nowhere

Mrs. Somebody Somebody: Fiction by Tracy Winn (Random House; $14.00)

“Lucy Mattsen was nobody – like all the women I worked with – until the day the baby fell out the window.”

With that near-perfect opening sentence, Tracy Winn delivers a collection of short stories that promises more than they deliver.   This is not a bad collection, it’s just that the stories are uneven in tone although they – in theory – are joined by being the tales of a group of individuals who lived in a dying mill town in the Northeastern region of the United States.   These are stories about people in different walks of life:  rich by inheritance and work versus the poor; old bloods versus immigrant arrivals; foppish people of privilege who live in dated but glorious mansions versus the people who live down in the boondocks in the abandoned mills.

What these individuals have in common is that of all the places to live in the world, in this country, they have chosen (or had chosen for them) to live in a place whose time has come and gone.   There’s a sense that they are ghosts in the town where one mill operates in the place of the six that once made it a place of prosperity.   And even that one remaining mill closes.

It is left to the reader to determine the time frame, the date, of each story.   Generally the only clue provided by Winn is a mention of the make and model of an automobile (Chevy Bel Air, Chevette, Dodge Aspen).   Other than this, there’s a sense of disorientation that occasionally may remind the reader of Audrey Niffenegger’s (Her Fearful Symmetry) prose.

Winn can write:  “He imagined her taking long strides under the sprawling shade trees, past the trim hedges of sunny Fairmont Avenue…  the lithe lines of her, the symmetry of her lean face, her pulse beating in the tender skin below her ear.   She’d swing her bare arms, the hot sun on her face, her skirt swishing declaratively.   She walked the way she thought, in a straight clear path.   She sliced through life, clean-edged.”

The issue is that while Winn can build interest in her characters, to this reader they never felt like real persons, true human beings; the stories  often have the feel of writing exercises, of something written for an academic assignment.   Thus, we never come to feel at one with these individuals; these quasi-ghosts remain just that.   (They are not persons we wish to spend much time with.)

The best stories in this group come at the end, as if Winn was beginning to warm up, to find her voice, the closer she came to completing the work.   Tracy Winn surely shows her potential here, although the potential is largely unrealized.   If you’re currently in the market for a collection of short stories, a preferable choice would be Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy (reviewed on this site on June 21, 2010, “Having It All”).   But be warned that Meloy does not open her set with a near-perfect first sentence.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Having It All

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t / have it / both ways / and both / ways is / the only / way I / want it.   – A. R.  Ammons

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on his door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to again listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a great time showing their students the hidden meanings and lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy, author of Liars and Saints.   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   – Richard Ford

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