Friday Reads

Friday Reads - June 14

We met Michael Epstein at a reading at The Norwich Bookstore last year and were recently in touch with him again. If you are looking for your next read, he has a wonderful blog called BookMarks, which is chock-a-block full of reviews and his own personal reading lists. When we invited him to be a guest for our Friday Reads feature, we were delighted to discover that he wanted to write about our friend Peter Orner’s upcoming release, Maggie Brown & Others, which is due out on July 2 from Little, Brown and Company.

Thank you, Michael, for this thoughtful review of Maggie Brown & Others. We were already looking forward to reading this book—now we really can’t wait!


Peter Orner’s new book, Maggie Brown & Others is superb. In 44 short stories and one novella, Orner introduces vibrant and vital characters in both mundane and exotic settings, and says to the reader, “Here’s life with all its complexities and beauties. See it and weep.”

Orner is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth and the author of two previous novels, two story collections, and a memoir, Am I Alone Here? In that book, he writes about what he has learned in reading authors from Chekhov to Woolf, from Welty to Kafka. In one typically offbeat and fascinating chapter, Orner introduced Herbert Morris, whose book of poetry he had pulled from a free bin outside a used bookstore in San Francisco. I’ve now read Morris’ poetry and found wonder and solace in his sketches of people in their “most intimate, unguarded moments.”

It is this same ability to provide the reader with the intimacy of knowing a character in just a few sentences and being plunged into a situation that evolves in a few pages that is Orner’s gift. The first section comprises 13 stories situated in California where drugs, mental illness, suicide, divorce, and death provide a contemporary frame for the passing of time, the passing of people, and the sadness of life. In the nine stories in the section entitled “Lighted Windows,” Orner leaves California for places that appear to be more autobiographical and associated with relationships---a brother who calls his sister after disappearing from the family for 12 years, various extra-marital experiences, and my favorite story in the collection about a summer camp counselor, “An Ineffectual Tribute to Len.”

In that story, the narrator, a cab-driving grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, looks back on his counselor with gratitude and sadness—“Len was one of the first people to notice something in me, anything in me.” The student vows to write a novel about Len who died young of AIDS, but he can’t manage to move from the manila folder full of notes to the novel. Ultimately, he decides to write a short Chekhovian short story. Orner writes, “All hail Chekhov. If done right, he tells a story that never ends. A story lurks. A story, a good story, is just out of reach, always. Wake up in an unfamiliar darkness, in a room you don’t seem to recognize. Flip on the light. Nothing there….The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon…..We’re talking about the quest for infinity here….a story, one that ends but doesn’t end, that’s infinity, immortality right there.”

And this is precisely what Orner does throughout this entire volume, sketching a character, a location, a situation with a few quick brush strokes, developing the complex lives of these characters in a mere page or two, and leaving the reader to reach their own conclusion about the outcome, the horizon that refuses to be defined in simple terms.

From Lighted Windows, Orner moves to the last three sections of the book. The epigram that introduces one section is a quote from the poet Robert Creeley: “Turn left by the old house that used to be there before it burned down.” How apt an introduction to Orner’s world. The author takes his character back to his boyhood Chicago settings to revisit relatives, friends, and family members in an attempt to sort out the now vanished past and how it influences and even determines the present

And finally, we settle into the 100+page novella that concludes the volume, the story of Walt Kaplan, a life-long resident of the crumbling New England town of Fall River, a furniture store salesman, the father of Miriam, the husband of Sarah, the best friend of Alf. One could not find a more bland character, and yet I felt deeply about Walt and his mundane, every-day, life. That is Orner’s great skill.

In his “Notes For An Introduction” in Am I Alone Here?, Orner writes that he is “drawn to certain stories because of their defiant refusal to explain themselves. Fiction isn’t machinery; it’s alchemy….A piece of fiction can have all the so-called essential elements, setting character, plot, tension, conflict, and still be so dead on the page that no amount of resuscitation would ever do any good.” Orner’s stories in Maggie Brown & Others are not in need of any resuscitation. They are vibrantly alive, taking the reader to horizons that in their enigmatic unreachability, force one to think, to consider, to ponder who we are and who we might be able to become before the final sentence in our final chapter.

This is a wonderful book.


Michael F. Epstein reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He can be reached at www.EpsteinReads.com, where you can find over 1000 review of books to answer the question of “What should I read next?” or on Facebook and Instagram.

Friday Reads - May 17, 2019

Welcome to another guest edition of Friday Reads. We invited the charming Sierra Dickey to share her current read with us. If you haven’t had a chance to read her essay, “The Lives of Plovers”, we highly recommend it. Thank you, Sierra!

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There are some feelings that seem real only when you are experiencing them. Once they pass, or the situation that conjured them dissipates, you look back on those emotional states like a tourist reminiscing on a long-past trip.

For instance, when I worked as a live-in Nanny in Spain for a summer when I was 17, I vaguely remember feeling at once disgusted by and in love with the family. I felt captive a lot of the time but not so oppressed that I had to quit and flee. I was kept, or I kept myself in the fraught space between kin and staff that inevitable gets condensed with domestic labor.

In The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani hovers over social situations that are long-past for me, stirring up a micro-clime of forgotten feelings. The short and heady novel follows the foreshortened arc of one family and their nanny. The new parents begin desperate, they hire Louise and gain their lives back, the children fall in love with their caretaker and she even joins them on vacation. Then, Louise, who is destitute and gravely mentally ill, begins to transgress more and more boundaries. She does so slowly, quietly, and with a lot of tact. The parents don’t realize that she is troubled until it’s much too late—she is practically living in their house by this point. If you have heard about this novel you probably know that the children die on page 1. This fact makes the book scandalous before you even pick it up, but I insist that the real sensation is how Slimani excavates the complicated feelings involved in care work.

Slimani has written a sly and horrific page-turner that takes readers into the living tissue of a feminist labor politics. In one of the most quietly devastating passages, Wafa, a Moroccan nanny who befriends Louise at the park, wonders about her weary future and the class-bound cycles that her life and the life of her white French charge will likely follow:

“Wafa sometimes feels afraid that she will grow old in one of these parks. That she’ll feel her knees crack on these old frozen benches, that she won’t be strong enough to lift up a child anymore. Alphonse will grow up. Soon he won’t set foot in a park on a winter afternoon. He’ll follow the sun. He’ll go on vacation. Perhaps one day he’ll sleep in one of the rooms of the Grand Hotel, where she used to massage men. This boy she raised will be serviced by one of her sisters or her cousins, on the terrace with its yellow and blue tiles.”

The perils of growing up, of having babies, the facts of the infant and senile body, and the need to hire other people to “service” those bodies are the rigging on which Slimani has hung a sexy, dark, and salacious story.

Sierra Dickey is a writer, organizer, and educator currently teaching ESL in immigrant and refugee populations in Vermont and Western Massachusetts. She writes a weekly literary newsletter called Stay Fluent and collects her other writing work on sierradickey.com.

Friday Reads - April 26

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My husband, knowing how obsessed I’ve become about whales since reading Moby-Dick last year, gave me Philip Hoare’s Leviathan for my birthday. If you have the same fascinations—Melville and his novel; the history of whaling and the economies that depended upon it; the delicate relationship between whales, the ocean, and the climate; and the miraculous private lives of the great animals themselves—I think you’ll love this book, too. Part memoir, history, biography, literary criticism, and nature writing, this beautifully written book ticks all the boxes. —Rebecca

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Elizabeth Rush’s book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, is harrowing, thoughtful, personal and important. Her description of “endsickness” is something I think about daily. “What I used to call climate anxiety has become more like a disease. I call it endsickness. Like motion sickness or seasickness, endsickness is a physical response to living in a world that is moving in unusual ways, toward what I imagine as a kind of event horizon.” —Shari

Friday Reads - April 19, 2019

We asked our friend, poet Rena Mosteirin, to recommend a book for Friday Reads. She chose We Begin in Gladness by Craig Morgan Teicher.

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Craig Morgan Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness is a must-read for poets and lovers of poetry. He begins the book by looking at the style of poem known as the Ars Poetica; then moves through the works of Sylvia Plath, John Ashberry, Susan Wheeler, francine j. harris, W.S. Merwin, Louise Glück, W.B. Yeats, Robert Hayden, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Delmore Schwartz and Lucille Clifton.

Teicher refuses the stereotype that all the best work happens early in a poet’s life. He charts the lives of these poets as journeys, shows us where the work surges and where it subsides. He shows us poets looking at themselves in the mirror. We see the mechanics of the poem taking off, and how the best of them land. This is criticism that makes itself available, and is very readable. This is a lively thinker and an accomplished poet at his best.

Friday Reads - April 5, 2019

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I’ve enjoyed picking up Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey each morning to read about the creative habits of a fascinating, talented woman. It’s the perfect inspiration I needed for spring.—Shari

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Reading Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic is like reading a grim fable that has come true. These poems speak of horror and love, of war and heartless policy, and of real and imagined humans suffering and finding comfort from each other. Once I started reading it I found it impossible to stop until I’d reached the end. Many of you may have already read the unforgettable first poem in the book, “We Lived Happily During the War.” The final poem acts as a perfect bookend to the first. I won’t link to it here. You have to earn it by reading the book—Rebecca