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The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel by Amy Hempel
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel

mhartford, April 14, 2009

Amy Hempel’s stories are like nothing else in contemporary fiction. They are plotless, almost characterless, but rich in imagery and emotion, more in the mode of confessional poetry than fiction. The language is careful but chatty at the same time, and deceptive in its apparent honesty; the stories invite us in for an intimate talk, but push us away with undisclosed facts.

The “unreliable narrator” is typically a subtle technique: over the course of a story, we begin to suspect that the governess is seeing something other than ghosts, that the grieving husband has an ulterior motive, that . But in Amy Hempel’s stories, the narrators announce their unreliability in plain and direct language, and even warn us when they’re lying.
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Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives

mhartford, April 14, 2009

In the afterlife, you will populate the dreams of the living, as others who have moved on to the next stage of death populate yours; you will meet old gods, bereft of their worshipers, reduced to a deathless, homeless nomadism; you will be a series of e-mail autoresponders and cron jobs, maintaining the web of human relationships long after the last human being has returned to dust.

The forty visions of the afterlife presented in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives are contradictory, mutually exclusive, and fascinating. They are as likely to be atheistic as suffused with God (or gods), both technological and supernatural. Eagleman doesn’t present anything like stories–there are no characters, only the barest hint of plot or setting. And they aren’t really prose poems, either, though some are heartbreakingly lyrical and elegiacal. They are more like scientific or philosophical thought experiments, taking a notion (whether from a traditional view of death, or from some flight of fancy) and extending it to its final implications. (That Eagleman is neuroscientist, with other publications in topics like synesthesia and the brain’s plasticity, should not surprise readers of “Sum.”) The pieces are brief–one or two pages for the most part, the longest no more than five–but they are rich in insight and inference.

If there’s a common thread that runs through the book, it’s disappointment. The afterlife is never quite what its inhabitants (including the intelligence behind it) expected. In one piece, humans have been created as sophisticated mapping machines unleashed on the Earth’s surface to record its every contour and corner; and though they do spread far and wide as designed, they spend much more time mapping themselves and each other than their designers intended. In another, God gives each ascending soul the book of true knowledge, which should answer every secret question, but because the answers are so different from what people have learned from their own flawed books of knowledge they refuse to believe, insisting on holding to their old beliefs about God and Heaven.

Love, too, is a unifying theme, and the source of much of the book’s lyricism. Eagleman is too much of a realist, or at least too conscious of disappointment, to suggest that love is the true afterlife, or that love will defeat death; but he does imply, in ways both touching and funny, that love is a mystery at least as troubling as death, and certainly the source of much that makes this side of the afterlife delightful.
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Letters from the Country (Minnesota) by Carol Bly
Letters from the Country (Minnesota)

mhartford, April 14, 2009

Bly apologizes for being “shrill,” but these essays are hardly that. Rather, Bly has a quietly rumbling voice: though she writes candidly, and doesn’t shy away from making very specific condemnations when they’re called for, she is for the most part reasoned and loving in her criticism. Her main topic is the decay of civic culture in the “lost Swede towns” of southwestern Minnesota, and her deep affection for the people in these towns comes through in every essay. If she is critical of some of the people and institutions in these towns, it’s because she expects better of them and knows they can rise to the occasion. Indeed, her dismissive tone is reserved for the urban elites of the Twin Cities; her jokes at the expense of the small towns are gentle and tinged with love.

Bly calls the bluff on many of Minnesota’s most cherished myths, particularly “Minnesota Nice.” She considers the Minnesotan tendency to avoid controversy and conflict a stultifying tendency, inimical to true civic life. She proposes intentionally conflict-laden events, where people with real, deep divisions are forced to interact about those topics. Her ideal of civic life is not a place where everyone gets along; it’s a vision of candor and conflict that leads people into creative solutions for common problems.
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The Quiet Hours: City Photographs by Mike Melman
The Quiet Hours: City Photographs

mhartford, April 14, 2009

The photographs capture city scenes in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Duluth in the quiet hours just before dawn. Some of them are of places I know well: the railyard and grain elevators in my South Minneapolis neighborhood, the streets of Northeast Minneapolis, the bridges of St. Paul. Quite a few are interiors that I have never seen: the abandoned commandant’s quarters at Fort Snelling, the steam plant at the Ford factory, a violin shop with an array of instruments–violins, a cello, a lute–that seem to float in the air. These photographs remind me a little bit of many of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings: there are no people in the pictures, but there’s a very real sense of the people who populate these places. This is what our world looks like when we’re away.

Holm’s essay is well-paired to the images. It includes reflections on Whitman, Sandburg, and Wordsworth, very much in the spirit of similar essays in The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth. Holm, Minnesota’s poet of failure, quiet, and solitude, understands what Melman is doing with these photographs.
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The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Forest of Hands and Teeth

mhartford, April 14, 2009

What makes “The Forest of Hands and Teeth” so interesting is that it is as much about the roiling emotions of a young woman as it is about the horde of “Unconsecrated” zombies prowling the forest beyond the village’s protective fence. Mary lives in a severely constricted society, a village that has been cut off for generations from the outside world by the Unconsecrated; her options in life are to marry and help to rebuild the human race; live as a low-caste guest in her brother’s household; or join the Sisterhood, the mysterious religious organization that maintains the village culture and hides the history of the world before the Return.

The novel is told in a first-person present voice, lending urgency to the action and giving us a great deal of insight into Mary. Interestingly, she is not a particularly sympathetic character; she’s jealous, selfish, and short-sighted, not unlike teens who aren’t harried by zombies every day. But she’s likable, full of curiosity and passion. The other characters, unfortunately, aren’t as well-rounded; Travis is just a little bit too good, Cass just a little too fickle, Harry more a plot device than a person. Sister Tabitha, a sort of mother superior in the Sisterhood, comes close to being as nuanced as Mary, but in the end she serves the plot more than her own character. Still, this may not be an inappropriate portrayal for a novel narrated by a teenage girl; Mary exhibits the solipsism of youth, and no doubt fails to see much of the complexity around her.

This seems like a good novel to give a young adult. It has an ethical core but it doesn’tpreach, it explores the real concerns of young adults, and it moves quickly. I may not especially want Mary on my team in the face of a zombie crisis, but she was certainly a compelling person to tell this tale.
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