In many ways, Amy Jo Burns' Cinderland is a typical coming-of-age memoir that takes place in a small town in the Pennsylvanian Rust Belt. Readers will witness the young narrator journeying through her teenage years with descriptions of summer community pool excursions, high school musicals and plays, friendships that form and also dissolve, and the heartache of that first love.
Yet, unlike the traditional coming-of-age memoir, which is usually told through a linear storyline that follows the transistion of a child or young teenager to the adult world and features a defining moment that changes everything about the main character, Burns' work introduces this defining moment at the start of her book. Thus, she weaves the consequences of her actions through her teenage years as she grapples with what happens to those who tell the truth and what happens to those who don't.
The year that Amy Jo Burns turns ten, she finds herself in a scandal that has shaken the tiny town of Mercury, Pennsylvania, located halfway between Pittsburgh and Erie. Howard Lotte, the town's highly respected piano teacher, has been accused of sexually assaulting several of his female students. Out of Lotte's many students who were questioned, seven came forward to tell the truth, while others lied. Burns was one of the students who lied. Those who told the truth were ostracized by the town; those who lied were safe from the repercussions.
Or were they? Burns' memoir traces this incident through her teenage years, exploring the role of women in the rural Rust Belt (as well as perhaps America, in general). Silence is supposed to be golden. But in many ways, these young women got lost in the silence. As Burns explains, "We are the girls who lied about Mr. Lotte when others told the truth and most of Mercury hated them for it. We performed for a fickle crowd and lost ourselves in th charade."
Full of vivid characters and scenes that are familiar to me (Afterall, I am also a product of Pennsylvania's rural Rust Belt), Cinderland is a lyrical response to an issue that could have been the equivlaent of a Lifetime made-for-tv movie. But it's not. Instead, Amy Jo Burns reminds us that being silent is not always as easy as it seems, and that there are always consequences to our actions.
For more information about Cinderland by Amy Jo Burns, visit her website. Burns also discusses her book at Belt Magazine.
At least one reviewer has named Tom Bouman's debut novel, Dry Bones in the Valley, a work of rural noir, but as I read through the opening chapters, I couldn't help but think, I know this place. And I do. That is because Bouman's novel takes place in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, in a world not so different than where I grew up. So, I am going to reclassify Dry Bones in the Valley as a work of Pennsylvania rural noir.
Officer Henry Farrell, who is hiding his own painful past, spends his days breaking up bar brawls and looking for stolen farm equipment, so when he stumbles upon a body on the land of a local recluse, he finds himself deep in a world of meth labs, violence, and family secrets that date back for generations. Easily marketed as a crime novel exploring a who-done-it theme, Dry Bones in the Valley is more than just a mystery. It's an exploration of people and place and how secrets can tear both apart.
Bouman, whether he is exploring the landscape and its history or examining the lives of people, is a master of description. And it's his descriptions, more than the plot, that pull the reader into this world. For instance, when the narrator explores the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania, he sees "rusted strands of barbed wire" disappearing "into tree trunks that have grown around them." One dirt road that he travels is little more than a creek bed: "you could see great ribbons of muddy water cut through it." Bouman's characters also share similar descriptions, descriptions that often seem to mirror the environment around them. For instance, Aub Dunigan, the local crazy recluse, is described as a man with "stooped shoulders" and a "pink scalp" shining through "yellowed hair." His eyes are "dark and sunk deep."
Bouman's book is a solid read. I felt like I was traveling through the backwoods of Pennsylvania with every turn of the page. If anything, when I closed the book, I wanted more: more about this harsh world that somehow sparks both violence and hope.
For more information about Dry Bones in the Valley, see the author's website.
Jeannine Hall Gailey's fourth full-length collection of poetry, The Robot Scientist's Daughter, is a part coming-of-age exploration of the poet's life growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, part critical look at nuclear history in America. It's a departure from Gailey's previous collections, which often convey retellings of traditional fairy tales and stories of women in popular culture. Yet, fans of Gailey's work will be happy to see that her exploration of the fantastic has not disappeared in her newest book, as she travels back in time to use both personal narratives and segments of American history to explore our love/hate relationship with nuclear power.
Gailey opens her collection with an author's note explaning some autobiographical material, and thus, the genesis of the book. The Robot Scientist's Daughter, who waves her way in and out of this collection is fictional in some aspects, but as Gailey notes, she "also shares many charactertisitcs with me." Many of the Robot Scientist Daughter's poems display surreal elements, helping to explain her role in this Nuclear World. For instance, in one poem, she is a medical wonder with "nails made of plastic and paper mache" and "one kidney curled inside her ribs, her blood trying/to escape." In another poem, she explores the image of the woman in popular culture nuclear films: "The robot scientist's daughter must be there/to humanize the robot scientist; he is both a protagonist/we identify with and a villain we know must fail." In yet another poem, we see the Robot Scientist's daughter journey west, away from her childhood home: "She's a bit of an alien here in the land/of tanned legs and blonde hair, beaches/and bongo drums."
Still, many poems leave this surreal world behind in more concrete, narrative writing. In one poem, "The Taste of Rust in August" the narrator, as she licks "lampposts, iron grates, jewelry" for the rust flavor, laments her own complexion, which is "dull and transparent as wax paper." In another poem, "Death by Drowning" she recounts an incident where she almost drowns: "I cannot float/merely thrash six feet underwater. If only I was a smooth/sleek sale, a dolphin, a mermaid, if ony vestigial gills/might open." In yet another poem, "The Girls Next Door" the narrator describes her neighbors who taught her how "to curl her bangs," "put on lipstick," and "tuck a rose" behind her ear. Oak Ridge also becomes its own character in several poems including "Oak Ridge, Tennessee" where the poet describes a world tht is "Always things hovering over us -- mountains, thunderstorms/a poisoned valley. Lightning bouncing across the yard/Bees swarming a horse. My father strode off to work/with government-issue TLD cards and a black suit/How much radiation today?/The card would tell him, but he knew it lied."
Finally, infused throughout the book are glimpses of America's relationship with the nuclear power. One poem looks at the role women played in 1945 secret city, while another poem references Dr. Manhattan, a comic book character from The Watchmen. More current history is also included, with many poems alluding to the devastation surrounding Fukushima. Even the mysterious Roswell, New Mexico, makes an appearance in this collection!
THe official release date for The Robot Scientist's Daughter is March 1, but preorders are already being taken. See Mayapple Press for information. See also Gailey's website for information about this book as well as her previous books.
I grew up in a Blue-collar Catholic town, so I grew up with Saints -- whether they were garden ornaments, portraits on medals, or parts of prayers, it seemed like the Catholic Saints were part of my life even if I, myself, was not a Catholic. St. Peter's B-List, edited by Mary Ann B. Miller, is a wonderful anthology of poetry that explores how Catholic saints are part of our lives.
The collection is divided into three sections. The first section is dedicated to "Family and Friends" and is my favorite part of the book as it details the way saints find themselves in our world. For example, in "Ode to Saint Barbara of the Barbara Shoppe" poet Rebecca Lauren calls the hairdressers saints, saying "Bless us, your patrons/with shears. Baptize s with holy hairspray/before we go inot the world and preach/the gospel with fixed bouffant of faith." In another poem by Kelli Russell Agodon, the narrator found in "Patron Saint of Worry" invents a new saint when she bemoans the fact that no one "had invented/a babyproof lock for the bathroom faucet."
The second section, titled "Faith and Worship" showcases works that describe Saints' influences on more spiritual matters. Some poems describe more formal worship, while others look at religous awakenings in everyday events, such as the narrator in Brett Foster's "Spiritual Exercises in a Cellar Bookstore" who struggles to find some kind of wisdom and peace among dust and books. In another poem, "The Patron Saint of Lost and Found" by Greg Kosmicki, the narrator retells his experience with praying for something that he is struggling to find.
Finally, there is the third section titled "Sickness and Death" which brings the saints into our lives, often when we believe we most need them, in times of personal sickness or times of prayer for those of us around us who are sick. Dean Kostos, for instance, in his poem, "Elegy for a Living Man" offers both hope and prayer for someone who is struggling with Parkinson's disease.
St. Peter's B-List contains over 100 poems by contemporary poets -- some may be familiar to the reader while others may not. For me, I was happy to see some favorites such as poets Erika Meitner, Kate Daniels, Martha Silano, Annette Spaulding-Convey, Sarah J. Sloat, C. Dale Young, Rebecca Lauren, Jim Daniels and Kelli Russell Agodon. Yet, the collection also introduced me to many poets whose work I did not know (and thus, I found myself looking at the contributors' notes to see where I could find more of their work).
Readers looking for contemporary retellings of Catholic Saints' lives will not find them in this collection. (However, the editor does include a helpful and very interesting guide to the Saints at the end of the book) Instead, St. Peter's B-List includes a wonderful array of poets who find both humor and hope in their personal encounters with saints.
For more information about this anthology, visit Ava Maria Press's website.
In many ways, I am more of a reader than a writer. This page will serve as a home for my informal reviews of what I've been reading.