Briefly Noted – October 9, 2014

Quick-to-Read Monthly Reviews

Filed under: Blog, Briefly Noted |


Vol. 3 Issue 6. October 9, 2014. Ed. Paul Clark.

The Map of What Happened by Susan Elbe | Reviewed by James Crews

You Will Never See Any God: Stories by Ervin Krause | Reviewed by Tom Bennitt

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill | Reviewed by Ellen Birkett Morris


Susan Elbe. The Map of What Happened. Backwaters Press, 2013.

Reviewed by James Crews

I was genuinely floored by the honesty and verve of this second collection from Susan Elbe, who dares to tell it like it is. Take, for instance, this confession from the title poem:

Look, it wasn't only death that pushed me down,
scraped my shins and tore my sleeves.
It was the bridge from there to here,
the hum of its metal, how the girl who needed
to cross couldn't trust it would hold.

Elbe's lyrical lines strip the moments of her remembered life down to their most essential truths. In "Childhood," she captures the dizzying ache and tension of wanting to grow up fast, wanting to be shaken out of innocence: "There are songs to ruin you with their ringing/flat-line, sirens that unzip the sleeping dark." Happily, these poems locate the reader in a specific time and place, which in this case, is the gritty Chicago of the fifties and sixties. "On the Street" conjures one of those long ago nights:

AWOL sons sleep cold and stoned
in back-seats of low-slung Impalas, gambling
on the weather, pushing death out to the edges,
a dreamless dark
blowing down the block, slinking in
over the transoms, nothing lonelier
than the black windows of a silver train of rain.

And "The Summers, Like Tomatoes" brings to life again the men leaving the late-night shift at the Campbell's Soup factory: "Flicking Zippos to Camels, they inhale blue smoke/to scour the sharp taste of acid from their tongues." The hard-won, rich language of The Map of What Happened, winner of the 2012 Backwaters Prize, is both infectious and unflinching. In his introduction to the collection, judge David Clewell, himself the maker of humane, rich, satisfying poems, puts it best when he says: "There is such palpable life here because there are so many human lives in its pages." Susan Elbe has given us an unforgettable book brimming with Lucky Strikes, roller rinks and polio summers, the sum of what John Updike called "the human news." We are all the better for reading it.

Ervin Krause (Edited by Timothy Schaffert). You Will Never See Any God: Stories. Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2014.

In this collection, You Will Never See Any God, the stories of the late Ervin Krause are bleak, spare, and haunting. Krause was raised by poor tenant farmers during the Great Depression, wrote about poor Midwestern farmers living on the fringes of God-fearing communities, and died of Hodgkin’s disease at age thirty-nine. His stories follow people who suffer hardships–droughts, failed crops, accidents, and disease–and distrust their neighbors. Yet somehow they resist death, as if they endure to spite each other. Like the stories of Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O’Connor, these tales are gothic and grotesque, yet his vivid descriptions of landscape also bring Larry Brown or William Gay to mind.

In “The Metal Sky,” a farmer near death–bleeding and pinned under his own tractor–ponders the fragility of life and beauty as he watches a butterfly. The young son of a farmer in “The Right Hand” spies on his reclusive neighbor. In the haunting final story, “The Snake,” a farmer’s anger surfaces when his nephew kills a rare, beautiful snake simply because they’re “ugly and terrible,” and he shows no remorse. “I thought, you little brute, you nasty, selfish beast, with brutality already developed and in those eyes,” the narrator says. “I wanted to slap his face, to wipe forever the insolence and brutal glee from his mouth…”  I love the versatility of Krause’s prose: how he merges short, spare, descriptions with long, flowing, sentences. In short, this powerful collection highlights the talent of a Nebraskan writer whose life was cut short.

Jenny Offill. Dept. of Speculation. Knopf, 2014.

Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage writ small, rendered through short paragraphs grouped together in chapters. I had seen this before in Maggie Nelson's nonfiction meditation Bluets, I wondered if short form musings would work for a novel, a form notable for its weight, both intellectually and structurally. I read tentatively, only to quickly discover that the myriad of small interwoven threads in the narrative created something beautiful and strong.

Offill explores the challenges and joys of a long-term marriage from the point of view of the wife and mother. She guides the reader through the emotional changes that accompany a budding romance, marriage, the birth of a baby, and the challenges of employment, infidelity, and parenthood with a voice that is smart and witty:

When we first met I had a persistent cough. A smoker's cough, though I'd never smoked. I went from doctor to doctor, but no one ever fixed it. In those early days I spent a great deal of energy trying not to cough so much. I would lie awake next to you at night and try my best not to. I had an idea that I might have contracted TB. Here lies one whose name is writ in water, I thought pleasingly. But no, that wasn't it either. Just after we married, the cough went away. So what was it, I wonder? Loneliness?

The story is told in short narrative sections like these, as well as observations, lists, jokes, and even song lyrics. Throughout these seemingly random bits the reader stays grounded thanks to the repetition of certain images and themes, such as a piano that comes and goes from the family home. All of this builds a portrait of a character, sometimes strong, sometimes broken by circumstance, but always wholly authentic.

James Crews is the author of The Book of What Stays, winner of the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Ploughshares and The New Republic, and he is a regular contributor to the Times Literary SupplementTom Bennitt received an MFA in Fiction at the University of Mississippi, where he held a Grisham Fellowship and was Co-Editor of The Yalobusha Review. My short fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Texas Review, Binnacle, Burnt Bridge, Twisted Tongue, Monongahela Review, River Walk Journal, and Fiction Writers Review, among others. Ellen Birkett Morris is a writer who lives in Louisville. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, Notre Dame Review, and South Carolina Review. She is the author of Surrender, a poetry chapbook, and holds an M.F.A. in creative writing from Queens University Charlotte.