Book Review: Brief but Indelible, These Two Slender Volumes Make a Big Impression
When next you find yourself with a few unplanned hours — a lazy Sunday and nothing on the calendar, perhaps — I recommend reaching for Tara Campbell’s Midnight at the Organporium or Tyrese Coleman’s How to Sit, two slender volumes, both of which offer the satisfaction of being consumable in a single sitting. The authors are both masters of the short form, packing freight and resonance into a small space. The books may be brief, but the stories they tell are indelible.
Midnight at the Organporium
Aquaduct Press, 2019
I’ve met the real-life inspiration for Eugene, the overly protective houseplant that spills out of “New Growth,” one of eleven stories in Tara Campbell’s most recent collection. The real plant is named Maxine, and her sprawling vines, like those of her fictional alter ego, are taped up across the ceiling of her living room, reaching out, cascading — a green canopy in the interior landscape.
I’m pretty sure that’s where the resemblance to Eugene ends, but leave it to Campbell’s febrile imagination to consider the use to which those viney arms might be put. More than that, though, is how the author, in just a few quick strokes, shows us the fraught relationship between Misty and Joe, practically giving us their entire backstory in the simple sentence, “The edge in his voice told her to stay on the couch, out of his way.”
Campbell is the author of the novel TreeVolution, another view into vegetative revenge, and the story collection Circe’s Bicycle. The genius in so much of Campbell’s speculative and science fiction is how she simply takes a quarter turn on reality and presents it back to us, so fully recognizable — except. Or how she considers a fairy tale that needs just one more twist on the familiar tale.
Another story, “Speculum Crede,” riffs on the concept of how we see ourselves compared to how others see us, following that idea towards its logical conclusion, in a fever dream sort of way. And the title story, “Midnight at the Organporium,” transforms the sentiment, “I gave you my heart,” from the figurative to the literal.
Yet my favorite story in the collection is reality with no twist at all, just a painfully funny snippet of life unfiltered. “Aftermilk” offers us the harried fifteen minutes of breakfast time before the school bus pulls up, staggering under the weight of jaundiced advice from a divorced mother to her children.
She is an unwilling expert on how the course of your entire life really can turn on whether you’re just pretending to be able to afford the brand-name cereal. And her exegesis on the timing required to produce the perfect slice of buttered toast is both inspired and a fully realized metaphor for life.
How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays
Mason Jar Press, 2018
In the introductory note to this, her debut collection, author Tyrese Coleman considers the line between fact and fiction, especially when it comes to memoir, and whether any distinction really matters. As she observes, “memories contain their own truth regardless of how they are documented.”
Indeed, how we remember significant events in our lives — whether or not they are precisely accurate — materially affects both our view of the world and our relationships within it. Our perceptions are our own realities, and there is no argument to be made against that truth.
That’s what makes memoir not so very different from fiction. The line blurs, but the truth that the memories carry remains the same.
Each of these pieces has appeared elsewhere in some form; the collective force of putting them together results in a gut punch. Coursing through these stories of abuse and neglect, racism, anger, guilt, and regret, is also acceptance, forgiveness — of self and others — and the love that survives somehow, forged in the connective tissue of family.
Coleman’s writing is captivating in its variety, with form, voice, and tone varying widely from piece to piece, each capturing a glimpse of a life from different angles and focal points, collectively forming a nuanced portrait.
That portrait is of a talented girl and woman pulling herself out of family chaos, of overcoming the damage inflicted when those who are supposed to protect you betray you in ways both incidental and profound. Or at the very least are never able to grow up enough to realize they are supposed to be the responsible ones.
“Thoughts on My Ancestry.com DNA Results” is perhaps the most sweeping of the pieces, heartbreaking in its clear-eyed view of the forces that brought Coleman into being and that carry on through her.
Of her twin sons, one is darker than the rest of the family, and she sees already what a difference that will mean to him — how the doctor is impatient with him but gentle with his brother, how uneven is the attention paid by strangers. “One day . . . he will understand the luxury of his brother’s, his mother’s, his father’s light skin, and feel the lack of it sting his own.”
Coleman’s mother and grandmother are central figures throughout: infuriating women, self-absorbed, absent even when physically present, forceful in their wrong-headedness — and yet, theirs is a survivor’s strength that is passed down. “In the back room of her grandmother’s house, T learned how to escape,” she says in “How to Mourn”. That escape, as every writer knows, was through reading.
And perhaps through writing as well — the catharsis of working out on the page what isn’t possible to work out elsewhere. At any rate, the escape is such that Coleman dedicates this debut memoir, “To my family, especially my grandmother, whose smile I will always remember.”
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
Jenny Yacovissi grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, just a bit farther up the hill from Washington, D.C. Her debut novel Up the Hill to Home is a fictionalized account of her mother’s family in Washington from the Civil War to the Great Depression. In addition to writing historical and contemporary literary fiction, Jenny reviews regularly for the Washington Independent Review of Books and the Historical Novel Society. She belongs to the National Book Critic’s Circle and PEN/America. She also owns a small project management and engineering consulting firm, and enjoys gardening and being on the water. Jenny lives with her husband Jim in Crownsville, Maryland. To learn more about the families in Up the Hill to Home and see photos and artifacts from their lives, visit http://www.jbyacovissi.com/about-the-book.
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