Broken Record Nostalgia

The opening story of Broken Record Nostalgia by Caleb Michael Sarvis reads like something out of Raymond Carver — or something Carver might have written if he’d been a twenty-something writer applying his craft in the twenty-somethingth century. It’s called “Click Click Harvey,” and it follows the adventures (or lack thereof) of three roommates who track down the man who sideswiped the car that belongs to one of them. Some mayhem ensues but, as is frequently the case in Carver’s no-frills fiction, what’s really front and center is the broken world in which the characters live: cars drive by, televisions churn out hours and hours of meaningless drivel, women and men struggle halfheartedly to understand each other, and lot of drinking takes place. It’s an atmosphere that persists throughout the collection, but with each successive story, Broken Record Nostalgia grows increasingly surreal — and increasingly poignant.

Many of the stories in the collection center on a character named Marcus, whose brother Noah’s suicide has left a hole in the center of his life. Early in the collection, in a story titled “Thoreau in a Phone Booth,” Marcus contemplates committing suicide himself, much to the dismay of Noah’s one-time girlfriend, Arella, who spends a phantasmagorical night trying to keep the seemingly inevitable from happening. Later in the collection, we learn that Noah used to dress in a bear costume and wander through the woods in a vain attempt at escaping the madness of life among humans. In the same story, “Bewildered Idea of Resurrection,” Marcus is engaged in a misguided attempt at rewriting the past a la something akin to Donnie Darko.

Through it all, characters come and go, drifting beyond the boundaries of their own stories to appear in the margins of others, always searching for meaning, always coming up short. Indeed, if there is any meaning to be found in the chaos of life, Sarvis insists throughout Broken Record Nostalgia, it’s meaning we create from the scattered pieces of our lives.

Two Free Horror Titles Just in Time for… Valentine’s Day?

Okay, so the real “holiday” is Friday 13th, but for some of us, downloading a free horror book might be the perfect antidote to all the chocolate hearts and roses invading our mental space on the following day. For the next five days, Crystal Lake Publishing will be giving away free e-copies of their anthology Fear the Reaper and their nonfiction guide to writing Horror 101: The Way Forward. Having read Horror 101, I can say that while its focus is horror writing, much of the book’s advice is applicable to writing in general — and at this price, it’s certainly worth a look! (Click on the titles above to access the free downloads.)

Fear the Reaper

Yoga for Freedom

Yoga for FreedomIn Yoga for Freedom, John Vourlis relates the experiences of twenty volunteers who travel to Nepal with an organization called the Imagine Foundation to raise awareness of child slavery and human trafficking in the area. Early on, Vourlis provides background information on the issue, noting that widespread poverty in Nepal “leaves children vulnerable to a form of indentured servitude known as the Kamlari system.” As the narrative progresses, Vourlis and his fellow travelers go from appreciating their mission in the abstract to fully embracing the work they’re doing. In addition to offering his own thoughts on this journey, Vourlis also brings in the voices of the other volunteers who took part. Indeed, what’s particularly interesting about the book is that it does offer multiple perspectives on the experience, thus underscoring one of the underlying themes of the book — that while everyone comes at life from a different angle, we’re all in it together and need to work with each other to make the best of it. Given the title, it’s not surprising that an interest in yoga unites all of the volunteers, but Yoga for Freedom is by no means an attempt to proselytize. Rather, it’s a heartfelt and realistic depiction of one group’s efforts to bring hope to a poverty-stricken corner of the world.

Home with Henry – Review by Curtis Smith

At the age of 52, I adopted my first dog. I’d never been keen on being a pet owner. I enjoyed taking my walks when I wanted, enjoyed taking an overnight excursion without worrying about who would feed and pick up after my pet. But my son won me over, and we brought home a ten-pound mutt that carried his history as a stray in his limp and in the scars beneath his fur. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love, and now I wish I had known this part of my heart sooner.

In Home with Henry Anne Kaier explores the unique relationships we form with our pets. Her journey starts with a rescue made in the street, a stopping of traffic and a picking up of a cat she fears is dead. She takes the cat home and names him Henry. Their relationship isn’t easy—the cat is wild and frightened, and Kaier embarks on a quest to win its trust. Of course this takes time, and along the way Kaier learns one of life’s truest lessons—that often times, the things we reach out to save end up turning around and saving us.

Why would Kaier rescue such a creature? She knew what waited—the vet bills, the disturbance of routine, the looming territorial struggle between this interloper and the cat that was waiting for her at home. Such concerns pale in the mind of a compassionate soul, and what motivates one are the less tangible and nobler aspects of our kind. And perhaps Kaier was also urged on by other currents, ones she explores as we witness the developing relationship between her and Henry. Henry joins her at a meaningful juncture in her life. She’s a woman in her fifties, and she’s come to peace with the fact that her reality is different than the imagined notions of her childhood. Marriage, children, the dream house in the country—these will not be hers. Yet her life is rich—she has family and friends and a job, a house that might not be her ideal but which she makes both beautiful and a true home. Through her interactions with Henry, Kaier shows there are other avenues of connection waiting for us if we’re willing to open our eyes and seek. She shows us that love and caring can take many forms, and the nourishment they provide can make any life both sweeter and more meaningful.

An interesting current is also at play—Kaier lives near the Schuylkill, yet in her neighborhood, the river is hidden, hemmed in by the local architecture. Her wondering about the river and her eventual discovery of it form a pleasing tie with her developing relationship with Henry.

Home With Henry features lovely illustrations by Carol Chu, and it can be read in a single day. It’s more than a story about pet and owner. It’s a testament to the powers of love, the rewards of patience, and the triumph of trust.

Available October 15 from PS Books.

Curtis Smith is the author of eight books, including Witness, Truth or Something Like It, and Bad Monkey. Visit him on the web at CurtisJSmith.com.

Five Bullets – Review by Marc Schuster

A tragic, hopeful, finely wrought novel about the possibility of possibility even under impossible circumstances, Larry Duberstein’s Five Bullets offers a heartrending examination of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The book consists of two intertwined novellas. In one, Karel Bondy is a family man who watches helplessly as everyone he loves is murdered by the Nazi war machine. In the other, Karel reinvents himself as Carl Barry and gradually builds a new life for himself in America. Yet even as his new life comes together, Carl is haunted by the memories of those he lost as well as by everything he did to survive and, perhaps more to the point, to take revenge upon the officer who oversaw the systematic murder of his family. Throughout the narrative, Carl emerges as a curious creature, a man with a clearly delineated past and present that are at once wholly separate yet simultaneously inseparable.

Early on, Carl reflects, “When millions are killed, when an entire race of widows and widowers is created—such a time might call for a brand new category, and a new word to define those few who were not killed.” In essence, Five Bullets sheds light on the struggle to define that category, and Carl’s ceaseless effort to suppress his own memories of the past speaks in large part to everybody’s fraught relationship with history. We are made of memories both joyful and tragic, Carl’s story suggests, and we can only find ourselves when we pay due respect to the full emotional range of our experiences.

Haunting as it is compelling, Five Bullets offers an engaging, intelligent meditation on memory, hope, and survival.

Lost in Space – Review by Joshua Isard

imageI’ve come across a lot of dad-writing lately, probably because I’ve been a dad for 20 months now. A friend gave me a copy of Abbot Awaits as soon as he found out my wife was pregnant. When Cobalt Press released Four Fathers, I jumped to review it, half because I knew it’d be good (it was), and half to figure out this whole dad thing.

I’m not sure this genre—the existence of which makes me exceedingly happy—shows any father how to operate, but rather functions as a canon of shared experiences. With these stories out there and available, I think today’s dads are more confident and open than ever. We don’t even joke about not changing diapers—of course we change them. Jay-Z changes his kid’s diapers. We put our kids to bed, even on the difficult nights, and hug them where everyone can see. This is beyond accepted, it is expected.

This is 21st century fatherhood and not only is it awesome but dads all get to talk freely about how much they love it. To their wives, to each other, and in print.

Lost in Space, a collection of essays by Ben Tanzer about his own experiences as a father—and, in a few selections, a son—fits clearly into this canon in its candor and humor. In a way, he shows how sacred fatherhood is by stripping away the facade of anything hallowed and dealing honestly with the funny, wacky, sometimes paradoxical nature of being a dad. He engages the weird, which is engaging the truth of it all.

For example, in an essay about his first son’s bris: “…what they don’t tell you about circumcisions, is that when the hood is gone, much of the size goes with it, and seeing this made me sad.” Later on in the same essay: “I know I am going to do everything to be a good father by modeling confidence even when I’m lacking it, providing positive reinforcement, and looking to build their self-esteem in a healthy manner. I also know that I will fail them as a man in some fashion… but there is no question in my mind that a larger penis would help ameliorate these problems from the start.”

If we’re being honest, the bris is one of the stranger Jewish traditions, but no Jewish father would ever think of not having his son circumcised (if I’d had a son, you bet the mohel would have been at our house eight days after the kid was born). Tanzer, in embracing the nature of the ceremony, looks at all sides. Sure he drops a few dick jokes—they’re funny, which makes it OK, and really, how can he not? But he goes beyond that, takes the opportunity of a penis-centric ceremony to explore what it means to be the father of sons.

These essays, while all good humored, delve further into Tanzer’s connection with his sons than just being guys of different ages. One thing that comes up frequently is insomnia, that he often can’t sleep and neither can his son. Most parents have frustrations from sleep-depravation at some point, but for Tanzer it’s more than a kid who can’t close his eyes and relax, it’s a family heritage:

“Sleep is not the enemy, isolation and the anxieties that surround it are. It is the lack of touch, love, and intimacy, and the voices that keep reminding you just how alone you are in the world and what a failure you have become. I didn’t understand that at ten, but now I recognize this is what we had in common, not the lack of sleep per se, but all the reasons we cannot.”

Through the collection, Tanzer captures the cacophony of emotions that come with being a father: the affection for your kids clawing at the heritage of being an American tough guy tackled by the anxiety of a child that has to go into surgery. He owns it all. I’m glad he does. It’s guys like him that let the rest of us own it too.

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Joshua Isard is the author of Conquistador of the Useless, a novel, and several short stories. He is the director of Arcadia University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing. You can find him on the web at JoshuaIsard.com, and on Twitter @JoshuaIsard.