One More Day

In her third novel, One More Day, Kelly Simmons deftly demonstrates that she is an author who is not afraid to take risks when it comes to the art of storytelling. The novel centers on a young mother whose child is snatched from his car seat while she’s tending to a particularly onerous parking meter. Roughly a year later, however, the child reappears for (as the title suggests) a single day before disappearing again. His reappearance and subsequent disappearance opens old wounds and forces the young mother to reflect on her marriage, her culpability in the disappearance of her child, and to come to grips with distant memories that continue to haunt her. In this respect, One More Day is similar to the author’s previous novels, Standing Still and The Bird House, both of which take memory and the tendency of the past to haunt the present as major themes. With One More Day, however, Simmons pushes into new territory, experimenting with unreliable narration and a healthy dose of magic realism. One also catches a very slight hint of Christian allegory a la William P. Young’s The Shack, particularly given the protagonist’s occasional reflections on faith in general and her relationship to her church in particular. Overall, One More Day is not only a mystery but an existential reflection on the frequently fraught relationships between the past and the present, not to mention the living and the dead.

PS: Shout out to FP Dorchak: This one is right up your alley!

Back in the Game

Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s protests to the contrary, there are plenty of second acts in American lives, and Charles Holdefer’s Back in the Game offers a case in point. The novel follows former AAA and European League baseball player Stanley Mercer as he struggles to make a life for himself as a schoolteacher in the small town of Legion, Iowa. That Stanley has never graduated from college is the least of his worries as he falls for a married woman who also happens to be the mother of one of his worst students.

Throughout the novel, Holdefer develops a perfect level of synergy between setting and character. Like any small town, Legion is home to a wide range of endearing individuals, not the least of which are a pair of misfit siblings named the Snows, who ride the school bus with Stanley amid a constant barrage of verbal slings and arrows from their classmates. Yet while the people of Legion may fit the traditional profile in many ways, Holdefer offers a complex vision of Small Town America that firmly resists cliché. Indeed, while the townspeople cheer their high-school football team by donning rubber pig noses and squealing from the sidelines, methamphetamine abuse runs rampant behind closed doors and environmental disaster looms on the horizon in the form of a massive sewage lagoon. To put it mildly, the simple life has never been so complicated.

Back in the Game explores the changing face of Middle America in a moving and nuanced way. Quirky as they are heartbreaking, Holdefer’s characters come across as nothing less than fully human in this loving study of the relationship between people and the places we call home.

Related: A Conversation with Charles Holdefer.

Minus One: A Twelve Step Journey – Review by Cindy Zelman

It’s not often that I continue reading a book when, at first, I don’t like the lead character. For quite a few pages, this was the case with protagonist, Terry Manescu, in Bridget Bufford’s novel, Minus One: A Twelve-Step Journey. My dislike was due to her attitude: I found the twenty-something Terry to be grating, self-absorbed, and annoyingly angry.  Normally, such derisive feelings toward a protagonist spell disaster in terms of continuing to read a book, but something kept me moving forward, and that was simply the author’s superb writing.

Not far into the book, Bufford managed to deftly convert me into a Terry-loving cheerleader. The author transformed Terry into a multi-dimensional, open, and sympathetic character in a powerful and pivotal scene involving sex and pain and mental anguish.  I was stunned and breathless throughout the violently sexual episode between Terry and Pat, a woman she meets at a diner and with whom she has a one night stand. The scene turns out to be Terry’s low point, and from there, she works her way up to sobriety and emotional health.  She’s still a hot head at times, but now she has self-awareness – and that’s the key. Now I, as reader, like her and root for her.

Bufford has a way of teaching us about the 12-Steps that is fascinating, beginning with some laconic and often humorous quotes overheard at AA meetings. One of my favorites: “Getting lost in my head is like talking to an asshole in a bad neighborhood.” Bufford also is expert at having characters dialogue in meaningful ways about the Twelve Steps and what they mean and how to use them in one’s life.  Terry’s attitude is one of both resistance and embrace.

Just for the ability to engage us in such a topic that could have been deadly boring, I designate Bufford a word-wielding, character-building, story-telling magician. Bufford infuses humor and self-deprecation in throughout the book, which helps to lighten a very serious story of overcoming alcohol abuse.  I learned a lot about the 12-Step Program, and I found it applicable to my life, too, even though I’m not in recovery from drugs or alcohol. Perhaps we are all in recovery from something.

For example, I found myself making amends this week to someone I felt I had wronged months ago, and I don’t believe I would have done this – the act itself or the labeling of it as “amends” – if not for Bufford’s book. It’s a powerful story and a powerful author who can actually affect my behavior.

I need to mention that Bufford writes fabulous sex scenes between women. Her scenes are natural, smooth, emotional, suspenseful,  and passionate. Yet, she avoids any blushing moments and doesn’t need to use any “dirty” words. As a lesbian and a writer, too, I admire what she does with her sex scenes. The ones I write are sometimes embarrassing in their rawness, often sadly humorous, and full of bad words and bad sex. I see Bufford’s work as a lesson in how to write such scenes with perfect pacing, tone, mood, and emotion.

Here is a short excerpt:  “Her hands on my shoulders betray a fine tremor. I grip her hips,lean my forehead against her, knead the muscles of her hamstrings, her calves, pull every part of her close…”

Bufford’s novel reads like the finest creative nonfiction memoir, and for saying that, I suspect the author would like to clobber me over the head, so I will acknowledge this book as a work of fiction.For anyone interested in alcoholism, in the way gay women interact with one another, or just in a very human story of triumph over adversity, this is a great read by a very talented author. I look forward to reading her second book, Cemetery Bird.