Review: I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody by Sinan Antoon

I’jaam: An Iraqi Rhapsody

by Sinan Antoon

City Lights Publishers, 2007

“Pentimento” is a fine descriptor for Sinan Antoon’s layered novella, one that incorporates a young student’s gritty and terrifying incarceration, poetic and beautifully rendered romantic memories, and recollections on life under Saddam Hussein’s harsh totalitarian regime. The text whirls between joy, humor, sadness, horror, and fear; dipping in and out of what the protagonist is experiencing or has experienced; blurring the lines between past, present, reality, dreams, and hallucinations. The evocative first line: “Two clouds kissed silently in the Baghdad sky” soon collides with the line uttered by a member of the secret police: “If you move again, I swear to God I’ll crush your teeth.” This is a rhapsody to the author’s country as it once was, to the proud spirit of the Iraqi people, yet it is also a cry of profound grief, as Antoon has witnessed his nation being trampled by dictators and its riches plundered. The work is powerful and complex, authentic and honest, a devastating warning. –Laury A. Egan


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A Swirling, Deftly Written Collection

The Jungle Around Us: Stories by Anne Raeff

2016, University of Georgia Press – Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Stories

These stories are beguiling in their quiet simplicity, but, as one proceeds through the collection, they gather mass, until, at the book’s end, the reader marvels at their accumulative weight. Raeff achieves this, all the while maintaining a light elegance in her prose; she is that rare writer, a humble one, who keeps her head down and hides her power, or attempts to do so, yet her brilliance shines through. She draws her characters with deftness, interconnecting many of them throughout the book, which is why, perhaps, it feels that the author keeps cracking open doors to show a bigger picture than the one within the pages. Indeed, each story seems to contain a novella or a novel within, as if the text had been gently whittled down. Though Raeff is expert at this short length, it would be wonderful to have these stories expanded into longer works.

Due to the interweaving of some characters, the collection eddies in our consciousness, as, one by one, we meet the protagonists and then move on to another set of people, only to return to the original characters again. This swirling effect is increased by their heady dislocation into humid jungles, literally and psychically, and then their escape into the cool, colorless cities of New York or Leningrad. The extreme contrasts inherent in these environments are augmented by the peculiar displacement of the characters and their families—most are of Jewish/Middle-European heritage, who have escaped Nazi Germany. These transplants seem incompatible in their new locations, places such as Bolivia, yet they often find unexpected solace and self-awareness there.

This collection should be read twice in order to draw the strings more tightly between stories with repeated characters and also to experience the nuanced themes more fully–Laury A. Egan, author of Fog and Other Stories and Fabulous! (forthcoming, November)


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“After the Parade” by Lori Ostlund

After the Parade

by Lori Ostlund

2015, Scribner/Simon & Schuster

The image of the parade in the book’s title seems profoundly significant, both in terms of the plot’s before and after this event, a demarcation in young Aaron Englund’s history, but it is also an apt symbol for an activity that must be watched from the sidelines. In many ways, Lori Ostlund’s narrator is primarily an observer, less of a participant or instigator in his own life. While this type of outsider, an almost passive character, can create an empty center in a book, in this case, the author encourages us to see Aaron and his world more acutely, to perceive the sensitivities he observes; to forego violent action, fast pace, and superficiality, qualities that have become the norm in much of contemporary fiction. Ostlund’s tale is haunting and subtle like snow falling against a winter white sky, yet there is drama and trauma throughout, pointing up the story and adding depth and poignancy and movement. The writing is fresh, frequently beautiful, with observations that are profound, sometimes wry, usually kind and gentle, reflecting Aaron’s personality: “He had always liked sleeping in cars, waking up in a different place. It was the closest he came to understanding the passage of time.” Or: “Once people thought they knew you, it was almost impossible to change yourself.” This is a character who notices that an old woman “on many nights…watched for him from her kitchen window and then hurried out with a jar she could not open.” This a man who cares about others, even strangers.

Although Aaron is gay, this is not a gay novel any more than a story about a straight narrator is a heterosexual work; instead, this is a human book, a unselfconsciously wrought bridge between the two orientations, constructed by the author with the assumption that we all live on an interconnected continuum, even if some us—like Aaron—feel a little lost and unmoored.

We need more books like After the Parade, which eschew labels and boundaries; books written for everyone rather than for a specific, narrow readership; books that challenge us to perceive more deeply, with greater depth. Aaron’s road to understanding himself, his history and relationships, is a multi-layered, complex story, yet one that is tightly woven, a moving parade worthy of applause.—Laury A. Egan, author of The Outcast Oracle

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Featured: Susan Gabriel, author of The Secret Sense of Wildflower
As part of the Authors’ Virtual Tour, I am delighted to showcase Susan Gabriel, whose book, The Secret Sense of Wildflower, I read with pleasure. The book has earned notable recognition, most importantly from Kirkus Reviews, where it received a starred review and inclusion in their prestigious “Best Books of 2012.”

“A quietly powerful story, at times harrowing but ultimately a joy to read…Astute observations and wonderfully turned phrases, with nary a cliché to be found. She could be an adolescent Scout Finch…A quietly powerful story, at times harrowing but ultimately a joy to read.”—Kirkus Reviews

“…An eloquent and moving tale chock-filled with themes of inner strength, family and love that will resonate with teenagers and adults alike.”—Maya Fleischmann,

The Secret Sense of Wildflower is southern historical fiction. It is about a girl coming-of-age who faces danger, death, and new life in 1940s Appalachia, whose life has been shaped around the recent death of her beloved father in a sawmill accident. While her mother hardens in her grief, Wildflower and her three sisters must cope with their loss themselves, as well as with the demands of daily survival. When Johnny Monroe, the town’s teenage ne’er-do-well, sets his sights on Wildflower, she must draw on the strength of her relations, both living and dead, to deal with his threat.

Ultimately, it is a story about courage, about honoring your “secret sense” and about resilience.

Susan writes about the inspiration for the book:

“Thirteen years ago, I woke up in the middle of the night and heard a voice say: There are two things I’m afraid of. One is dying young. The other is Johnny Monroe. Does mental illness run in my family? Did this voice come from a dream? Was it a product of a writer’s imagination? Had one of my dead relatives come home with me after a recent visit to the family cemetery? Who knows. But any fiction writer will tell you that if you can get the “voice” of the main character in your book, it is a gift. So I followed that voice. I got up at four in the morning and began to write the story of Louisa May “Wildflower” McAllister.”

About Susan Gabriel:

Over a decade ago, Susan Gabriel gave up her successful psychotherapy practice in Charleston, South Carolina, to simplify her life and pursue writing. She writes with passion, humor, and insight about Southerners, as well as a wide variety of other ordinary, odd, and interesting characters, young and old. She lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Website (and for autographed copies):

S. Gabriel portraitWILDFLOWER_FA-196x300
Buy the book (paperback and eBook formats):
Barnes & Noble
Google Play

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Authors’ Virtual Tour: Gregg Cusick, featured author

Gregg Cusick, author of My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible and Other Stories

I’ve been chuckling to myself. Seems like I’ve called this a Virtual Authors’ Tour (as have others). So, what is a Virtual Author? Hmm? Well, in this installment, I would like to introduce you to a writer who is quite real and very excited about having his first book published.

Gregg Cusick and I “met” a few years ago after our stories appeared in Short Story America. Ever since, we’ve exchanged enthusiastic comments. I’ve been eagerly waiting his collection and intend on placing the book on the top of my reading pile once it arrives. You should, too.

Gregg has received great acclaim for his short fiction. He is a winner of the Lorian Hemmingway Short Story Competition, Florida Review’s Editor’s Prize, Ernest Hemingway Festival Fiction Prize, E.M. Koeppel Award, Robert Ruark Fiction Prizes, as well as many other prestigious contests. He holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing from North Carolina State University, where he later taught composition, and has had 25 stories published in literary journals and anthologies, 14 of which will appear in his new collection: My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible and Other Stories (Livingston Press of the University of West Alabama), to be released October 1, 2014.

About My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible:

A small town suicide ripples through the lives of a series of acquaintances. An aging professor wavers before his class while reliving the sinking of his WWII troop ship where hundreds perished. A middle-aged woman confronts her dying abuser of thirty years before. And in the title story, an old man recalls his boyhood view of his father and the great rigid airship Shenandoah that passed over just hours before its dramatic crash. In these stories, ordinary, yet remarkable individuals face common human challenges in original, often surprising ways.

An Excerpt:

“Lakehurst, NJ. September 2, 1925. 2:52 p.m. Despite objections of Commander Zachary Lansdowne, an Ohio native, fearing line squalls and late-summer storms, the navy orders the 682-foot blimp Shenandoah to set off for its tour of Midwest state fairs. As Lansdowne and his crew of forty in the rigid airship sail out over the pine woods of New Jersey, his wife watching from the ground turns her head away. So do wives and families of the other crewmen who have come to the field. It is considered bad luck to watch your husband’s ship fade out of sight.”

Some Advance Comments:

“Gregg Cusick’s prose reaches a zenith few fiction writers ever achieve: the ability to make the reader ponder both the internal and external intricacies of the human condition. His grasp of craft is impeccable, but more indelible are the depths of wisdom and humanity he offers in words that strike not one false note. His prose contains substrates—subtle and variable—that only the most seasoned of writers can render. Each story in this collection comes full circle, each voice is so solidly unique, and each leaves us philosophically more rich, more attuned to the empathic sense with which Cusick imbues his work. It is not overstatement to predict that Gregg Cusick will prove to be one of the finest literary writers of our time.”—Lorian Hemingway, author of Walk on Water

“This is one fine collection of smart, irresistible stories, written by a brilliant storyteller.”
—George Singleton, author of Between Wrecks

“Cusick’s viewpoint is dead-on though compassionate; his language is exact, clear, and lovely. My Father Moves Through Time Like a Dirigible is the most rewarding collection of new fiction I have read in years.”—Lee Smith, author of Guests on Earth

Gregg CusickCusick cover
Available October 1 in hardcover ($30) and trade paperback ($17.95), Livingston Press

Livingston Press:

Gregg’s website:

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Karla Linn Merrifield

Karla Linn Merrifield

Karla Linn Merrifield

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Karla Linn Merrifield

Karla Linn Merrifield

Karla Linn Merrifield

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