[REVIEW] Communion by TJ Beitelman


Black Lawrence Press, 2016



“Most things don’t take root, and that is as it was intended.”

The above quote, a cryptic line from the story “Sister Blanche” in TJ Beitelman’s Communion, captures much of the magic and tragedy suffusing the collection’s stories—stories of marriages halfway ended, affairs partway consummated, vows only partially kept, and conversations only begun but never finished.

The full title of Beitelman’s new book is Communion: Stories, but that doesn’t quite describe the animal that is this book. While in places a reader may well be lulled into thinking they’re leafing through an ordinary short story collection, such as in “Antony and Cleopatra,” or “Joy,” other sections will lead to questions of genre. The early short pieces of the collection (“Artic Circle,” “Masks”) could be read both as prose poetry as well as flash fiction, testament to Beitelman’s lyrical dexterity as well as his strength at setting a scene and selling a mood. In a further departure, the book’s longest piece, “Notes on an Intercessory Prayer,” is less a story and more a lyric essay with brief fictional incisions into what is by-and-large a tribute to the late Benazir Bhutto. The last flush of stories (“Hope, Faith, and Love,” “Communion”) toward the end of the book can stand as individual pieces as well as chapters to a larger surrealist work that tells the myth of a working-class Messiah and the family he leaves behind without saving.

While most of the stories in Communion are set in Southern locales, their characters traditional (after a fashion) Southerners of working-class extraction, there are some notable exceptions. One of my favorites, “Yoi, Hajime” centers on a Japanese chicken-sexer reflecting on his time working in Atlanta, Georgia alongside a young black woman who he longs for but never gets around to courting. The model guiding most of Beitelman’s stories is less the lopsided pyramid taught in creative writing workshops around the country and more the asymptote: the curving line that draws closer and closer to the line that would be its mate without ever touching. The endings are often open-ended: pots left simmering on the stove. A wonderful example of this is the excellent flash piece “Blackface,” which leaves the reader with a powerful and pervading sense of mystification mixed with enlightenment as we see a drunken teenager break into a neighbor’s house only to come face to face with his own mother—naked and in blackface. The motivations are irrelevant, as are the consequences to the characters in the aftermath—all that matters is the powerful moment of recognition between the mother and son before the son flees the house.

TJ Beitelman’s Communion is not a conventional short story collection, nor is it the sort of collection that one could use as an easy, marketable model for putting together a first book. It is, however, memorable and equal-parts troubling, affecting, and inspiring.

[REVIEW] Witchita Stories, by Troy James Weaver


Future Tense Books

200 pages, $12


Review by Ryan Werner


Previous general portrayal of the Midwest has been decidedly not-my-Midwest: Garrison Keillor’s rosy-cheeked shitheads and the good-guys-win-bad-guys-lose world of John Hughes. My Midwest is boredom and its trappings—drugs and sex and Tori Amos tapes—and as those ideas run through Troy James Weaver’s Witchita Stories, it does to Wichita, Kansas what Gummo did to sub-rural Ohio or what Alice Munro did to small town Canada. It shows how those not on the map survive without the map.

Opening jam “Summer” is the best of them all. It doesn’t go far, because nothing in town goes far. “My sister is sixteen and she’s already at that stage in life where she’s bringing over guys that look like Fonzie or Vanilla Ice.” That’s the first sentence, and I wish I had written it. I wish I had written the next part, too, about these guys and their bad music, their misappropriated styles. How the sister is distracted to a point of neglect and how hot it is outside and how you just won’t die one way or the other, won’t melt away in the heat and won’t freeze to death in counteracting it.

And that’s it. 329 words and maybe ten steps off the front porch, a walk into the kitchen to eat what your sister didn’t make you. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Families Among Us, by Blake Kimzey


Black Lawrence Press

40 pages, $8.95



Review by Thomas Michael Duncan


In the first episode of his podcast, The Monthly, Mike Meginnis observes that the chapbook, as a form, appears to be something “people enjoy publishing much more than they enjoy reading.” This struck me as a smart, if generalized, reflection on the medium. Like new literary magazines, a spattering of chapbook publishers appears to sprout from nowhere every few days. This is likely an outcome of the current economic and cultural climate, where it is too expensive for upstart presses to print full-length books when more and more readers gravitate towards digital editions or free online content. The chapbook offers a cost-effective way to put something physical in a reader’s hands, but the ease of production also lends the form to hurried publication and incohesive collections.

Yet when a publisher puts real time and consideration into a chapbook, when a writer tells vibrant stories that bleed into the margins, and when a sharp design meets fitting, fascinating artwork, the result is too great to ignore. In other words, the result is Families Among Us, winner of the 2013 Black Lawrence Press Chapbook Competition. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Range of Motion, by Meagan Cass


Magic Helicopter Press

56 pages, $8


Review by Caitlin Corrigan


In Range of Motion, Megan Cass performs the magic trick of presenting the inner lives of an entire family with novelistic depth in less than 60 pages.  Less sleight of hand and more clown car chauffer, Cass’s gift for manipulating structure and detail creates a dense, but very readable collection of linked stories.

We begin with a flash fiction after poet Craig Raine’s “A Martian Sends a Postcard Home.” In Cass’s version, the Martian is writing from a suburban summer in upstate New York, observing human rituals in all of their fleshy, sweaty glory: “They make the pilgrimage once a year, in that season when the heat blurs the trees in their yards, when they plug up their light squares with grey boxes, when they shout their language across fields that could almost be our surface, redbrown and dry.” The repeated “they” here is broad, but in the following stories, we move much closer, hovering above the more intimate rituals of a family riding the tide of their years together. Alcoholism, affairs, the unreliability of memory—these dark spirits of the American suburban psyche are all present in Cass’ debut chapbook, but there is also warmth, playfulness, and an attention to sound on the line level that elevates these stories beyond what, in lesser hands, could be mere Cheever mimicry for millennials. Continue reading

[REVIEW] What Happened Here, by Bonnie ZoBell

Zo Bell

Press 53
192 pages, $17.95


Review by David S. Atkinson


Some people believe each of us is ultimately alone in life, alone with our dreams, fears, and the ghosts that haunt us. However, others insist our individual problems are just variations on what others experience and we are more connected to each other than we can possibly imagine. I found myself thinking about these two positions while reading What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell.

This book is a linked collection of stories and a novella centering around a neighborhood in North Park, San Diego where PSA Flight 182 crashed horribly in 1978. The crash was long ago, but the characters in the various pieces reflect upon the tragedy, mysteriously affected in some way, while going about their own lives, lives filled with their individual problems and hopes:

The accident was posed to me as a ghoulish fringe benefit by the previous owner of my house. I’d be able to say I resided in a place where the tragedy had occurred….I worried about how the annihilation of these bodies that landed on my property would affect me. Would I feel engulfed by doom simply living on this patch of earth? I’d had bouts of depression. I didn’t need to think about dead families sprawled on my back patio, even if it had been decades. But while I’d never be cured of this incessant disease, my own particular strain had been restrained after too many years of therapy and a lifetime of commitment to antidepressants. My husband’s had not. Continue reading

Virtual Blog Tour: What Happened Here, by Bonnie ZoBell


Follow Along With Bonnie’s Virtual Book Tour Using the Link on the Banner!

What Happened Here delivers a wildly different cast of characters living on the same block in North Park, San Diego, site of the PSA Flight 182 crash in 1978. The crash is history, but its legacy seeps in the stories of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, bringing grief, anxiety, and rebellion to the surface and eventually assists in burning clean the lives of those who live in the shadow of disaster. Amidst the pathos of contemporary life, humor flits through these stories like the macaws that have taken to the trees of North Park. The birds ensure that there’s never a dull moment in the neighborhood, and their outrageous colors and noisome squawks serve as constant reminds of regrowth. Continue reading

Virtual Blog Tour: Elegantly Naked In My Sexy Mental Illness, by Heather Fowler

Virtual blog tour fowler

Heather is here as a stop on her Virtual Blog Tour  to answer interview questions regarding how she generates her wildly different stories and the role of multiple influences in her newest work.  Also here in this post is an audio reading of a story set during the French revolution.



As an author, you create work that is both highly modern in its sensibilities and also work that has historical influences.  Can you tell us what factors impact a desire to write in both realms?

Every piece of work has historical influences.  For me, it simply matters whether the history is personal or a history with reading.  In the latest collection, for example, there are pieces set in the French Revolution and during the time of the Italian bubonic plague.  There is another story set in what I would imagine to be the1920s.  These stories were driven by reading of texts that came from their time frame, literary readings.  The plague piece, for example, “Mother’s Angels,” began as an inquiry into the first historical use of the marking of Jews with the fabric badges—the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany, and my readings done as research into how this “marking” phenomenon began.  To discover that the same sort of persecution happened in the 1300s was fascinating, and I began to read all I could find on the Catholic/Jew relations during those times and circumstances, including how both the plague itself and the instances of floods, referenced in the piece, came to be blamed on Jews by anti-Semites, partially out of the sort of paranoia mass deaths caused but also out of an ugly desire for vengeance or the acquisition of wealth. Even the politician in the piece was lifted directly from historical documents.  The relationship between the mother and daughter, however, was purely my imagination. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Any Deadly Thing, by Roy Kesey

Dzanc Books

250 pages, $15.95

Review by Thomas Michael Duncan

Roy Kesey’s Any Deadly Thing spans more of the globe than any other collection in recent memory. The stories within these pages take place in Peru, Croatia, China, Paraguay, Paris, Louisiana, and much of northern California. A single story touches on Beijing, Guatemala, Mexico, and New York. It’s a departure from the trend of tying a collection of stories together through a common location or region, a decision that allows space for Kesey to demonstrate his versatile command over voice and language.

The collection begins with the story of a troubled, protective single father in the rural town of Fallash. He is a hardened, no nonsense man who works with his hands, and Kesey uses short, choppy sentences in plain English:

“Jay takes the bag, nods at the register girl, runs out to the truck. He gets home and already the dog is sitting up, licking at the air around his daughter’s face. He watches, looks. Haircut could have been worse. Dog’s got no collar but it’s clean, somebody’s for sure but nobody’s from around here close. He boils up the potatoes, fries some venison sausage, lets her feed a little to the dog. The rain stops. An okay day.”

Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Whack-Job Girls & Other Stories, by Bonnie ZoBell


Monkey Puzzle Press

58 pgs. / $10.00

Review by Matt Pincus

The Whack-Job Girls & Other Stories is a chapbook compiled from flash fiction pieces, the nouveau riche vignettes of current literature. ZoBell, in an interview with Rumjhum Biswas says, “Every single story came from prompts in the Flash Factory at Zoetrope Virtual Studio.” She goes on to say that prompts are ways for her to write about characters, scenarios, or themes she would normally not conceive or imagine.

Although this is true for most authors, ZoBell is able to capture a poetic lyric in short narratives of socially and economically outcast women in her text: the maid working at an upscale hotel called upon to attend to a room at three AM, or the Midwesterner from Spokane who rides a train to Harlem when “the only black people [she] ever saw were Crips and Bloods in movies of the week.” These stories develop their characters’ personal situations (a mother having phone sex for extra income or a woman who sells her Mustang to pay the credit card bill) but there is also a layer of gothic séance, which produces a feeling one gets from a Denis Johnson or Shirley Jackson novel. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Songs for the Deaf, by John Henry Fleming


Burrow Press

172 pages, $15

Review by Thomas Michael Duncan

For one reason or another, so much short fiction is preoccupied with everyday people. Perhaps because ordinary, relatable characters are the quickest and easiest way to connect with readers. Of course, quickest and easiest are not synonyms for best.

The characters in John Henry Fleming’s stories are not ordinary. Take the father in “Chomolungma.” When a crisis threatens to tear his family apart, the man of the house takes drastic measures. Or maybe “drastic” isn’t the right word. “Insane” might be a better descriptor. He orchestrates a leisurely family outing to the peak of Mount Everest. But with the family strapped for cash, he can only afford “discount Sherpas” who “can’t even tie their own shoelaces.” A lack of physical conditioning, proper equipment and provisions, bone-chilling walks along shaky ladders spanning deadly chasms—these perilous obstacles are mole hills to this man. The basic idea is noble, to unite the family by working together to reach a common goal. But the father pits his family against an unconquerable opponent, dooming them from the start. His wife and son succumb to delirium, and his daughter begins an ill-fated romance with one of the young, cheap Sherpas. Continue reading