Recommended Reading: We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams

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Clare Beams’s story collection We Show What We Have Learned* is gleefully good reading—and, as the cover suggests, mighty creepy too. I mean that in the best possible way. Horror isn’t my cup of tea, but suspense is another matter.  You won’t find gore in these nine stories, or monsters, really, except those we carry with us. However, each of Ms. Beams’s nine stories (some historical, some slipstream, some contemporary) offers tension so acute that I often found myself squirming in my chair.

img_2833A boarding school’s promise of “transformational education” isn’t limited to the mind in “Hourglass.” An unnamed landscape architect with a talent for making his clients’ desires to rtakes on the project of a lifetime in “World’s End,” but finds himself bewildered by the orders he’s given. A young woman decides to reclaim childhood happiness and demonstrate her own giving nature by taking her elderly grandmother back to the country cabin where they vacationed long ago, but the excursion does not have the effect on “Granna” that she expected. In the haunting “All the Keys to All the Doors,” an older woman in a small town wonders if she could have done more to prevent a horrific act of violence. In “The Saltwater Cure,” a Depression-era Plymouth health resort is the setting for a young man’s coming of age. Two sisters love the same plague doctor in “Ailments.” A teacher falls apart in “We Show What We Have Learned,” while a new bride becomes more and more concerned about her wedding dress (made from her husband’s wartime parachute) in “The Drop.” Finally, in “The Renaissance Person Tournament” we meet another teacher—this one holding herself together as she coaches a promising student.

All nine stories are affecting and beautifully written, the sentences crafted for maximum impact without calling attention to the writing in a way that would pull a reader out of the world of the story. Take just one example, from the opening of “Hourglass,” which drew me in: “With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, the school looked ideal for transformations, like a nineteenth-century invalids’ home, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad.”

I love that sentence, which I read with an equal measure of delight and apprehension–exactly what I think you’ll feel once you start reading this fabulous collection, which I highly recommend.

And three cheers for small presses like Lookout, which published this book! What small press books have you loved this year?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

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5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s The Bowl with Gold Seams

IMG_6764After I reviewed Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s excellent short story collection Contents Under Pressure this winter, we struck up a friendly correspondence via email, and so I think writing a straightforward review of her first novel,The Bowl with Gold Seams,* would fall into an ethical gray area.

However, I very much enjoyed the book, so instead, here are:

5 Reasons I’m Glad I Read The Bowl with Gold Seams
  1. The novel deals with difficult ethical dilemmas: Hazel Shaw, who narrates The Bowl with Gold Seams from the late 1980s, struggles to discern the right path forward when faced with accusations against one of the teachers at the boarding school she leads. As she ponders her choices, she encounters a figure from her past. When she was young woman, she worked as a secretary at a local hotel when it served as a detainment center for diplomatic prisoners (more on this below). She forged relationships with some of the “guests” while simultaneously processing her grief from a series of personal losses, leading to questions about honor, justice, and the shared experience of humanity.
  2. I learned something: Most of the narrative is set in Pennsylvania, at the Bedford Springs Hotel, which during the Second World War briefly became the detainment center for the Japanese ambassador to Germany (captured when the Allies took Berlin) along with his family and staff. I didn’t know that hotels served as (effectively) prisons during the war, while I’ve read about the shameful internment of Japanese Americans and about prisoner-of-war camps, I hadn’t given much thought to the fate of diplomatic prisoners until now.
  3. The writing is lovely: Ms. Campbell is a gifted storyteller, as I noted in my review of Contents Under Pressure, and I admired her portrait of the bright, strong, vulnerable Hazel, an observant and self-reflective narrator (“She loved him, I believe, but my father was married to his job, and in some quiet way, still married to my mother. I understand how that can be.”).
  4. It made me want to learn more about Quakers: Hazel and her father, the town jailer, are Quakers, and the school Hazel runs as an adult is a Quaker school. I found their methods and customs fascinating, so now I’m itching to read some good nonfiction about the Religious Society of Friends.  Any recommendations?
  5. I loved the way it plays with tropes: The Bowl with Gold Seams is a bildungsroman, but it’s also deeply engaged with how we continue to form our moral selves as adults. It’s a novel about the home front in World War II, but then brings the war to the home front with the introduction of the hotel as prison.

The Bowl with Gold Seams is available from Apprentice House, a small press based in Maryland.

[Readers, I’m curious: What do you think of this format for the occasional recommendation, as opposed to a standard review?]

 

*I received a copy of this book from the author for review consideration, which did not affect the content of this post.