Thursday, July 14, 2016

The small presses outwrite the giants

kw: book reviews, story reviews, collections, short stories, poetry, literature

Bill Henderson has now been the chief editor of the Pushcart Prize series, which he and some friends founded, for forty years. One thing I like about a collection is, if I don't like something, I haven't carried a whole book home in vain. I can skip or skim, and soon find something more worth reading (to me). I am about a third of the way through the current volume, Pushcart Prize XL: Best of the Small Presses, and so far I have skipped or skimmed very little, though as I noted for volume XXXVIII, I have little liking for "free verse", which to me seems an oxymoron.

Having around 100 co-editors, Mr. Henderson naturally gathers a great variety of literature. I'll remark on three items among those I've read to date, that particularly spoke to me.

The opening piece, "Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets" by Zadie Smith, was an uncomfortable read. Miss Adele is an aging, cross-dressing performer. The corset she needs to approximate the female shape, starting with a pudgy male body, has split, and a new one must be obtained quickly. The intersection of her requirements with a corset shop owner who really doesn't want to do business with her provides a stage for a piquant confrontation in which nobody can possibly win. Life is like that. When we fail, it is either by doing too little or doing too much. Miss Adele manages both, but does get a corset.

"The Branch Way of Doing" by Wendell Berry is a pleasure from all angles. Nobody can limn a character, and through him or her, take the measure of a society, better than Wendell Berry. The Branch family, descended from Danny Branch—who was unusually sired, unusually raised, and a hyper-steady throwback to values of pre-technological America—are a window into what is possible for those who, somehow, think through ahead of time those things worth doing and worth having, and eschew the rest.

Did you ever see one of those adds for "Russian Brides", and wonder whether they are for real, or whether they ever get what they are looking for? Although "Wanderlust" by Laleh Khadivi is labeled as fiction, it evokes the lives of young Russian women, what drives some of them to sign up to be, effectively, mail-order brides, and where most such assignations wind up. If you take a moment to consider, "What kind of American man looks for an overseas bride (or mistress, usually)?", you can predict much of the outcome, but you'd have to be a topnotch writer to express it so well as Ms Khadavi.

If I come across a bit of actual verse among the purported poetry, I'll be sure to include it in a later post as I work my way through the book. The pieces themselves take up just under 550 pages. Being an omnibus, anniversary volume, more than 100 pages of apparatus follow, including a comprehensive index of all the pieces published in the series since 1976.

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