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What She Left Behind

61bLHO4EiELWhat She Left Behind
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans
New York Journal of Books
12 December 2013

“What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding.”

She’s done it again. At this time last year, Ms. Wiseman’s first novel The Plum Tree was released. It was excellent and received deservedly wonderful reviews. It is rare that a writer’s follow up work is as good as their first. Such a rarity has been accomplished with What She Left Behind. The author has once again delved into the lives of teenage girls, albeit in different circumstances than her first work, yet with the same insight, nuance, and raw emotion readers can appreciate and enjoy.

One of the girls in the story is 18 and is living in the 1930s (Clara) and the other (Izzy), lives in the 1990s. Clara is sent to a state mental institution (Willard State), because she challenges her father’s wishes for whom she should marry and Izzy must adapt to a new set of foster parents and her last year in high school, as a result of her mother having killed her father when she was seven. The girls’ lives intersect when Izzy gets involved in a project that unearths suitcases in the now defunct mental institution in which Clara was captive—she finds Clara’s journal and photo inside.

The scenes of Clara’s experience and travails at Willard State are all too real and affecting in part because many similar circumstances actually took place at that mental facility and others around the country for many decades. Izzy’s struggle with a school bully, harming herself, and learning who and how to accept love and whom to trust, is no less impactful than Clara’s chapters.

What She Left Behind screams with authenticity, depth, and understanding of human behavior and what can and has been done to others to maintain control.

Read entire review and more at New York Journal of Books.

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Hiranya’s Tongue

Saint Catherine’s Baby – Stories
(Excerpt) by Gabriel Constans

I was pregnant with words from the day of my birth. They seep through my pores and melt into my blood, swimming downstream to find release in the ocean of the blank page. Words are my heart . . . my body . . . my passion . . . my only possession.”

The second Hiranya lifted her pen from the gray white paper; the crippling reality leaped up and licked her face with unwanted attention . . . the chilling . . . the aching . . . the shutting of lips too swollen to speak, to inoculated with fear to believe in their own unique use of the tongue.

She could smell his obsessively clean scented face a marathon away. His mouthwash breath was tainted with liquorous oat, barley and hops. Her body armed itself in false security, tension wrapping around her spine like a funeral procession for God.

Hearing the front door shutter she shoved her cloth bound journal under the king size mattress, tossed the ball point in the drawer, turned off the bedside light and smuggled herself under the comforter playing opossum.

Within the time it takes to crack a leather whip, Hiranaya’s core could turn as cold as the North Sea or as sensitive as a blind bat in flight. Her mind decided which defensive mode to employ and often chose both, leaving her in a state of adrenaline induced myopathy.

Clarence strode into the bedroom feigning consideration until his pulsating ego skipped a beat and he flicked on the blinding hundred-watt bulb affixed to the ivory- speckled ceiling. Hiranya aroused her eyelids from their fake slumber, raising a wafer thin forearm to protect her constricted pupils from seizures of sudden illumination. Her tired, bloodshot eyes peeked between her fingers and saw Clarence’s sadistic grin. “Surprise!” he bellowed, holding up a rectangular package tied with yellow silk ribbon. He couldn’t keep his dimples from dancing as he paraded masterfully to the bed and sat with practiced precision, making sure not to wrinkle his iron creased slacks.

Hiranya’s muscles flinched with history as the fumes from his alcoholic travels invaded her nostrils. “Play along,” her mind whispered. “It’ll be OK.” Her knotted thighs tight as a spring and stomach turning sour as curdled milk, told her otherwise.

Revealing his smooth incisors he offered the prize of condolence. “Here. This is for you.” A flash of something wicked quivered at his temple, darted below his crystal blues and snapped with a spark at the corner of his plastered smile. He gently brushed some strands of mahogany brown hair from his poster boy mug and shifted his two hundred pound carcass from one hip to the other.

She hesitated. “Don’t you want to know what it is?” he baited.
Uncovering her adjusting eyes and placing her recently mended arm on the covers she replied, “Of course.” Gingerly she removed the package from his hand, as if taking food from the claws of a sleeping vulture.

As she began to unwrap the appeasing token he was so anxious for her to undress, she asked, “Where have you been?”

A flame ignited, desecrating his beatific face into an ugly semblance of humanity as his eyes burned with the devils own. “None of your damn business; just open it!” She fumbled nervously with the ribbon. He grabbed the offending article from her palm. “I’ll open it, you moron!”

While he raped open the package she breathlessly inched away. A few millimeters of distance could mean the difference between common catastrophe and total annihilation.

Having thoroughly plundered his offering and discarded the torn paper like used Kleenex; Clarence thrust a two-bit, thrift store journal in front of her nose. Hiranaya gasped as oxygen played a game of hide and seek in her lungs. “What’s wrong your Highness, not good enough for you?!” he sneered.

Reaching haltingly for the gift, she ventured a faint, “Thank you.” As her trembling hand grazed the plastic cover he drew it away and hurled it at the freshly painted army green wall, where it burst open and fell to the floor.

He stood so violently that Hiranya’s involuntary reflexes of swallowing and blinking went on sabbatical. “You take me for a fool?!” he surmised. “Where’s that crap you call writing?!”

He yanked open the dresser, savaged the walk-in closet, tore the corners of the thick shag carpet from their tacks and smashed the night stand drawer over the lamp when his search failed to produce her lifeline to sanity.

His grotesque, turbulent form careened like a runaway train towards the bed, crash landing with venomous intent. His large, grizzly sized paw grabbed her by the throat and slammed her skull against the headboard. His knuckles turned white. The calluses of death rubbed her heart like sandpaper. Then she heard laughter . . . distant laughter making its way up the shifting sands of her skin like a side-winding snake on a dessert dune. The hand that held her in death’s caress was gone.

Clarence was on his knees, laughing mischievously as he reached under the mattress. She bolted upright gasping for her dearest friend . . .air. He held up her journal triumphantly. “You little cuss you. It was right under my ass all along.”

Against all caution and common sense she grabbed for the journal. He slapped her hand as if it was an infected mosquito, shook his head and admonished, “No no no . . . finders keepers.” She reached out once again, catching only his surprise.

“What’s this?” he dangled the journal like a carrot, answering his own question, “It’s garbage; useless garbage from an ungrateful slob. Oh yes,” he nodded, “I read every stinking lie in here.”

He rose to a crouch and concluded his literary court martial. “Don’t worry, it’s good for something. It should get the fire going on a cold night like this.”

She abruptly pounced from the sheets, snatched the journal from his disbelieving hands and darted into the closet. Closing the hollow door, sliding to the floor with her back to the wall and crushing the journal protectively against her breast, she awaited her sentence. Her blood changed color as she heard his hissing respiration’s boil with rage.

His polished black patent leather shoes squeaked loudly as he approached. The latch clicked. The door opened. A flood of fluorescent light smothered her senses until being eclipsed by his massive frame.

An unearthly voice growled, “Give it . . . now!”

“No!” she said.

“Give it now or I’ll wring your scrawny little neck!”

“No!” she shrieked.

A rumbling thundercloud moved upon her. She felt her body take the blow and hit the floor. She heard his footsteps and the tearing of paper as he slammed the bedroom door and casually made his way downstairs.

There was nothing left between her fingers except splintered space. She clutched at the emptiness as she lay on the closet floor and silently prayed, “I was pregnant with words from the day of my birth”.

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Traveling With Pomegranates

Traveling With Pomegranates
by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor.
(Penguin Books, 2009)
Reviewed by Gabriel Constans

A mother and daughter travel to Greece, Turkey, France and home to South Carolina and provide their respective perspectives on the experience. Sue Monk Kidd (the well-known author of The Secret Life of Bees) is reflecting about her life and turning 50, while her daughter Ann navigates periods of depression, self-doubt and uncertainty about her future, her career and sense of self-worth. The consistent and similar traits that hold the story together, as well as both authors (one to the other), are the love; respect and admiration each have for the other. Sue writes, “The laughter has cracked the heaviness that formed around us like tight, brittle skin, and even now delivers me peeled and fresh to this moment, to Ann, to myself.”

Traveling With Pomegranates is a combination of memoir, journal writing and travelogue, which takes readers to places that will be familiar (externally and internally) and others that seem to fit for the author’s reflections alone. There are times when the prose is engaging, such as when Sue is speaking about turning 50 and says, “The spiritual composition of the Old Woman, not through words, but through the wisdom of a journey” is an apt summation of how she is seeing herself at that time. Many may find it hard to think of 50 as “old”, but it is used in this context as a starting point to look at change, old age, death and birth. At other times, it seems as if the writing should have been left in a private journal or in letters shared between mother and daughter. Not because of any private content or big secrets, but because it had no weight or meaning for a larger audience.

Sue has long had a kinship with the Black Virgin and used it as metaphor and object throughout her novel The Mermaid Chair. She speaks of it in length once again, on their visit to see the statue of the Black Virgin of Rocamadour in France. “As I look at her, my throat tightens and I dig through my bag for the travel-size Kleenex. Just in case. I’m not sure what moves me about her, only that she’s beautiful to me. Someone vacates a chair, and I sit down, staring at the flinty old Virgin until the tears really do start to leak. I rub them away and focus on the back of Ann’s brown hair. Ann’s fingers, I notice, are curled around the stubby piece of chain, and I wonder what she has decided about it. What I will decide about mine… I know suddenly what moves me about the Black Virgin of Rocamadour: She’s the Old Woman. It comes with some surprise, as if the bird on the altar has just pecked me on the forehead.”

While her mother is having the previous insights and feelings, Ann is writing about hers. “I glance over at my mother. Her eyes are closed, her fingers interlocked. I wonder what her prayers are about. Her novel? Her blood pressure? Peace on earth? The two of us praying like this to the Black Madonna suddenly washes over me, and I’m filled with love for my mother. The best gift she has given me is the constancy of her belief. Whatever I become, she loves me. To her, I am enough. I look up at Mary and concede what I am coming to know. I will become a writer.”

It is obvious that traveling together and writing about it were important for the author’s lives. Whether their reflections and insights are also of relevance for those outside their family will have to be left up to others to decide. This reader has mixed feelings about Traveling with Pomegranates, and doesn’t expect those feelings to be any less cloudy in the foreseeable future.

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The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier

Review of The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier for the New York Journal of Books.

It is an intriguing idea: How would we live if all of our wounds were made visible by an illuminating light that shone from every cut, bruise, malady, or illness? This premise is thoughtfully rendered in The Illumination.

All around the world “we are receiving continuing reports of this strange occurrence: light, pouring from the injuries of the sick and wounded.” Nobody is immune. Everything is out on the table for all to see. What were once private scars and suffering are now public. Some are drawn to pain’s light, while others try to hide from it. The characters in this book live with conflicting feelings of curiosity and despair. They believe their individual suffering sets them apart, but also find pain (at times) to be a unifying experience of shared humanity. One man in the story states, “Compassion. A cultivated interest in suffering.”

Intermix this new worldwide reality of illuminated pain with an intensely intimate and private journal of love notes from a husband to his wife, and you will find a story that keeps your eyes moving to discover into whose lap and life the journal lands next.

It all begins when Carol Ann Page accidentally cuts off the end of her thumb and is recovering from surgery in the hospital. Just before the injuries from a car accident take her life, the woman in the bed next to Carol tells her to take her journal. She says she knows that her husband died in the same accident, and she wants someone to keep the journal of love notes that he left for her every day they were together. Carol reluctantly holds onto the journal, which is soon passed on or falls into the possession of a number of unique individuals who are each experiencing their own losses and realizations in the midst of “The Illumination.”

Each of the characters who possess the journal (young and old) is living with a great sense of isolation and loneliness. The words in the journal are the only words of love, affirmation, and support that most of them have or experience in their daily lives. Thus the journal is a symbol of the hope, acceptance, and affirmation which they lack and, consciously or unconsciously, seek. This is eloquently written when it is said about one of those in possession of the journal, “No matter where he looked, he saw nothing but pain.” Another possessor of the journal’s thoughts are portrayed as, “She didn’t want adulation anymore. She didn’t want love. She only wanted to carve a small path of painlessness and blunted feeling through her life until she came out the other side.”

Mr. Brockmeier has skillfully written about the intimate interior lives of a variety of distinct individuals with depth, understanding, and realism. While learning about each character and the threads that bind them (the most obvious being the journal), the author also explores more universal questions and considerations. Why does suffering exist? Does it have a purpose and if so what is it? Why care about others suffering? Do all beings and inanimate objects suffer? Is it all a play? Is all life connected?

CONTINUED

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