This is a textbook example of what I’d call magical realism. On the one hand, it’s a story about the mining of uranium in the Southwest, and the health effects it had on the miners.

But there’s more to this story, and Bruce weaves it together with the myths and legends of the native peoples. The meat of the tale is about people, beaten down by the materialistic and greedy society around them, learning to let go of their linear conceptions of time and to embrace a cosmic, cyclical view of life.

This all sounds a bit esoteric, I’m sure. And it is, but Bruce makes it understandable and relatable. With just a few sentences, I could empathize with his characters, and it was a pleasure to join them on what ultimately becomes a story of healing.

This book is definitely in the same mold as Bruce’s novel Oblivion, about a sort of commune built in the desert, around motifs of nature and healing. Like Tolkien and so many of the greats, Bruce loves his native landscape and deplores its destruction by modernity.

It’s funny; I think everyone knows, deep down, that there’s something wrong with the annihilation of nature to make way for more technology, more artificial and unwholesome modes of life. And yet no one can stop it. Like Leonard Cohen sang: “Everybody knows the war is over. / Everybody knows the good guys lost.”

Still, it’s never too late to heal, and the best time to start is always now. Quite apart from being a commentary on society, or an exploration of ancient legends, the book is about people coming to terms with their own mortality, and making peace with it.

This is a small book; but it contains massive ideas. I highly recommend it.

If I made a Mount Rushmore of authors from the millennial generation, it would consist of Peter Martuneac, H.R.R. Gorman, Zachary Shatzer, and Bertocci. I don’t mean to imply they are the only good millennial authors, of course. As Tom Lehrer would say, “there may be many others, but they haven’t been discovered.” It’s just that they are the ones I know about, and each of them, in their own unique ways, captures something about our generation.

And of the four, Bertocci may be the most thoroughly millennial of the lot. Martuneac, Gorman, and Shatzer write of the future and the past, of the supernatural, the fantastic and the bizarre, weaving their millennial themes into their tales. Bertocci, though, writes literary fiction set in the present day, and squarely about millennials.

The Hundred Other Rileys is a perfect example: it follows a woman named Riley who is adrift in life. Here is her description of her job:

[M]y own job is not to understand, it’s to keep track of who’s doing what in Google Sheets and send a lot of emails with exclamation points asking when other people who do things will do them. ‘Riley Bender – Innovation Associate’, my signature reads…

There are versions of me in every sprawling corporation–the hubs, the go-betweens, the copier-pasters and checkers of boxes, whose lot it is neither to know nor to do, but to merely assign, assess, go after, be whatever fills the gap. We look. We circle back. We forward. We facilitate. Sometimes we liaise. We don’t strategize, that’s too serious. We sync. We send updates. We tell ourselves we don’t shuffle papers, it’s all in the digital realm. We thank in advance. No worries if not. We don’t really do what our companies do, but we get on the same page, no worries if not. We do nothing that matters, and we’re all so behind.

Isn’t that dead-on? If you’ve had a job like this, you know how it feels. It isn’t hard… it’s just so blatantly pointless.

But one day Riley sees a picture of a woman who looks like her in an advertisement. And from there, she starts seeing the same stock photo model everywhere, as if mocking her own career’s dead-endedness, alluding to all the other opportunities she missed, all the paths not taken.

What follows is a mind-bending, fourth-wall-breaking, exploration of frustration, stultification and ultimately, how to get past them. There’s even a little bit about writer’s block in it, though I won’t discuss that in detail for fear of spoilers. But every writer I know will want to read it. And that goes double for millennials, to whom Bertocci speaks like no other writer I’ve read.

Be warned, I’m about to speak in broad generalities about an entire generation. Obviously, not every millennial will fit the description I’m about to give. I myself am something of a mixed bag in this regard: in some ways, I fit certain millennial stereotypes to a “t”. In other respects, not so much. So, please don’t think I’m asserting every person born between 1981 and 1996 has all these qualities.

Okay, so what’s up with us millennials? Why, to quote some beloved Boomer family members of mine, are we such whiners? Back in my parents’ day, they had to fight two lions every day… etc. My generation has it so easy!

Well, in a sense, yes, we do have it easy. I was born in 1990. I am much happier I was born in 1990 than in say, 1950, or God forbid, 1850. This is actually an excellent time to be alive in any meaningful historical context.

Are we millennials simply coddled, spoiled, soft, decadent weaklings, like the debased aristocrats of the very late Roman Empire? Are we, or more to the point, all our complaints about society, reflective of nothing but moral turpitude brought on by the proverbial idle hands?

Well, I don’t think so. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

The problem millennials face is exactly the one illustrated by Riley’s obsession with her doppelgänger: we face too many opportunities. In a world of endless possibilities, we all have to choose one, and it’s hard to be sure which one to take. Thus, we end up either choosing one and regretting it later, or worse yet, staying in a holding pattern too long.

Is this a good problem to have? I think so. Certainly, if Riley had been born a peasant in 1327, she would not face the same problems that she does as young person in the 2020s. And it’s hard to argue that the latter set of problems is not preferable.

What Bertocci has masterfully shown in literary form is that abundance can itself be a problem. It may be a better problem than scarcity, but it’s still a problem. And as a species, we’ve had millennia to learn to cope with scarcity. Abundance? That’s something new, weird, and very much foreign to us.  Because biologically speaking, we’re not much different than the peasants of 1327.

That’s not uniquely a millennial issue, of course. Technological progress took off earlier in the 20th century, before the millennials’ parents were even born. Other things that characterize my generation include a sense of humor that relies heavily on cultural references, and a strong desire not to get beaten down by a nose-to-the-grindstone mentality in our work lives. Whether these are positive or negative qualities is something I leave entirely up to you to decide. What I do know is that this book captures all these aspects of the millennial weltanschauung.

This is why I describe Bertocci as, well, the voice of his generation. In many ways, this is the spiritual sequel to Bertocci’s wonderful Samantha, 25, on October 31, which I consider a masterpiece. This book is every bit a worthy successor to Samantha, and in some ways is even more inventive and original. It’s another splendid work of literary fiction, and deserves to be widely read.

[Note: Special thanks to Richard L. Pastore for reading an early draft of this review and making suggestions on how to improve it.] 

Brace up, my friends! Today’s review will be a long one, because today’s book, although small in terms of length, contains vast concepts. Concepts which a mere critic probably cannot adequately address. But, I feel compelled to try anyway. Really, the best decision you could make would be to get this book now and read it before Halloween. Then, come back and read this review if you want. Or better yet, write your own! This is one of those books that I suspect will inspire strong feelings in readers. Lydia Schoch, to whom I owe thanks for bringing this book to my attention, already wrote one yesterday, and I encourage you to read it.

So, what is this book about? Well, as you likely guessed, it’s about a 25 year-old woman named Samantha, born in Ohio and now living in New York City, which she imagined would be glamorous, but is finding her life lacking in purpose and direction. She is unhappy, but she cannot pinpoint exactly why.

Among other things, this book is about millennial angst. The millennials are the generation born between approximately 1981-1996, which makes Samantha one of the last ones.

If you are a millennial, as I am, you probably know what I mean by “millennial angst.” If you’re not, you might be skeptical of this whole phenomenon. And I can’t blame you. It is possible every generation experiences these growing pains, and imagines themselves to be unique when in reality they’re just like their parents, and their grandparents, and so on. When Don McLean sang of “A generation Lost in Space / With no time left to start again,” he wasn’t singing about millennials. But he might as well have been.

So, maybe it’s unfair to call it “millennial angst.” But whatever you call it, this book captures it.

Now, possibly, you are getting nervous. You might be asking yourself, “Is this book part of that sub-genre of literary fiction known as ‘Spoiled People Who Are Unhappy In Vague and Complicated Ways?'” This is a very popular sub-genre among pretentious literary critics and scholars. I hold F. Scott Fitzgerald responsible for this, as his beautifully-written but soulless novel The Great Gatsby taught generations of writers that this is what fiction is supposed to be like.

Gatsby is about unhappy people in New York. Samantha, 25, on October 31 is also about unhappy people in New York. Gatsby is full of symbolism. Perhaps someday the literary critics will get their hands on Samantha, 25, and then they’ll say it’s full of symbolism, too. And perhaps it is, but here at Ruined Chapel we rarely employ such modes of analysis.

Anyway, let me actually answer the question: is this one of those books? No, it isn’t. You might think it is, since it shares common elements, but no. This book is something very different. It is much stranger and much more powerful than that.

Samantha dreams of rediscovering the magic of Halloweens of her childhood. Somehow it slipped away, without her even being aware of it, and now it’s gone and the world is drab and humdrum. This book, then, is not in the tradition of Gatsby, but of Something Wicked This Way Comes and even of Lovecraft’s more esoteric works. I particularly thought of the opening of his never-completed novel Azathoth:

When age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men; when grey cities reared to smoky skies tall towers grim and ugly, in whose shadow none might dream of the sun or of Spring’s flowering meads; when learning stripped earth of her mantle of beauty, and poets sang no more save of twisted phantoms seen with bleared and inward looking eyes; when these things had come to pass, and childish hopes had gone away forever, there was a man who traveled out of life on a quest into spaces whither the world’s dreams had fled.

And here, I have written myself into a corner and given lie to my own thesis. Namely, by showing that H.P. Lovecraft, who was about as antithetical to the values of my generation as it is possible to be, nevertheless was feeling some angst of his own.

It is entirely possible that writers in every generation are like this. It may be just some weird mutation that keeps cropping up. We can’t rule out this possibility.

Why is it, do you suppose, that these mystical, irrational ideas persist? What spirit is it that moves Samantha to wish for “spooktacular Halloween adventure?” Is it just the whims of idle youth? Or is it… something else?

We’ll return to this question. But in the meantime, we’ve got to talk about Halloween itself.

What, exactly, is Halloween about? For comparison, think about what every other holiday is about. Every Western holiday I can think of can be traced to something specific, and commemorates a particular thing, whether it’s an actual event, a person, a myth, a miracle, or something of the sort.

Halloween… doesn’t. At least, nothing specific. It’s the night before the Day of the Dead, which, under various names, is the day of remembrance of departed ancestors. But even that’s not Halloween.

Halloween itself is about the mystery of what lurks in the darkness. It’s celebrated when it is because the days are getting shorter, and the sun is sinking lower, and frankly, this was just a rough time of year if you were a pagan farmer. Your thoughts probably weren’t of a cheerful sort during this time.

Of all holidays, Halloween is the most closely associated with the mysterious and the unknown. And, I would contend, it is the holiday that most closely binds us to a darker, more primitive age, when, as HPL might say, “wonder was still in the minds of men.” (And women, too. Like I said, ol’ Howard wasn’t really up to speed with our modern values.)

And now, we’re in a position to evaluate what Samantha wants, and why Halloween is the catalyst for making her want it. As Samantha says at the climax of the book:

“I spent an awful lot of the past two decades and change just kind of following the rules, keep your head down, jump through hoops, impress the teacher, check every box and go to a good school and check the boxes there and now, whoops, that’s all crap because you do that and you work an essential starvation-wage job selling five different kinds of kombucha and no one gives a shit and nothing matters and soon enough society collapses and the best that the people in charge can tell you is keep following the rules.”

I understand if you’re agnostic about the concept of millennial angst. Yet, if it exists at all, this is surely as perfect a summary of it as was ever put to the page.

And that is why Samantha finds herself standing with a bunch of witches around a fire on Halloween night. Because she is tired of following the rules and jumping through the hoops.

It’s a night when rules are broken, and the world seems a little less rote and a little more mysterious.

Friends, the world is not a spreadsheet. It can’t be neatly and efficiently organized, at least not without resorting to methods ripped from dystopian novels. There must always be a sense of indescribable magic in life, or else it’s not really life at all.

Samantha, 25, on October 31 is a great book. There’s no rubric I can use to articulate why, no arithmetic formula I can point to and say, “Ah, there! That is what makes it great!” Only it is, because it has the power to say things I always thought, but never could articulate, even to myself.

Of course, you might disagree. Maybe you’ll read it, and look at me the way I look at people who tell me Gatsby is the Great American Novel. Every book really is like the cave on Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back: What’s in it? “Only what you take with you.”

Therefore, I advise you to bring with you the spirit of Halloween; the feeling of curiosity and wonder that all of us keep somewhere in ourselves, and let yourself get lost in the magic of this weird and wonderful holiday.

Mark Paxson has this thing he does where he tells a story beginning with seemingly-innocuous prompts and making them a starting point to craft wonderful characters. He can use anything for raw material, and from it weave a tapestry full of the most vibrant and memorable figures.

Some of his stories, like those in this collection, are quick sketches in terms of length, but in terms of depth might as well be full-length novels. The characters are deep, well-rounded and developed. In a few words, he shows us a whole world, populated with real people. The simplest way I can say it is, reading Paxson is like experiencing a combination of a John Steinbeck novel and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Some examples include one of my favorite stories in this book, “The Life of a Shoe.” Told from the perspective of, yes, a shoe, it tells a powerful story of growing up, experiencing hardship, and having faith. Or take “The Rosewood,” which gives us a picture of all the residents of an apartment complex, and how their disparate lives intertwine in different ways.

In some of Paxson’s works, there are recurring patterns, like leitmotifs in music. The family dynamic in “What Happens When A Pet Dies” shares a little with that in “Deviation”: two bickering siblings confronting their relationship with themselves and their parents. And the irresponsible protagonist of “Nobody Important” is just about as thoughtless as the protagonist of Paxson’s early novel, One Night in Bridgeport, acting without considering the consequences.

Then there are the stories about war and the people who become caught up in it, like “Memories of Foom” and “Aleppo.” A more satirical take on war is found in “The Last Dance.” There are stories of relationships gone right (“Spaces After The Period”) and gone very wrong. (“Beelzebub & Lucifer”) And then there are the pieces like “An Obituary,” “Coyote,” and “Carnies” that defy categorization.

Interspersed throughout the book are fragments of poetry and flash fiction which are every bit as haunting and moving as the longer stories they serve to season.

Every time I read a collection of Mark’s stories, I’m struck by how versatile and imaginative he is, and this one is no different. If you’ve read his other books, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you about it; you’ve probably already picked this one up.

If you haven’t read Paxson before, this is a fine collection to start with. I loved it, and I think anyone who enjoys good fiction will too. Go ye now, and pick it up already!

Oh, ah, that’s right… there is one other story in this collection, isn’t there? One that I didn’t discuss yet. The titular piece. The one about killing a certain author, yes?

I figured that one would grab your eye. It’s on the cover, after all. Perhaps it’s my vanity talking, but I have to assume it got the attention of a few readers.

But, why spoil such a great hook? No, no; if you read my blog, then you simply have to read this book, and this story in particular. What is the story behind the story, you wonder? Never fear, for Paxson will tell, as he does with all the stories. But first you have to read it for yourself, with as few preconceived notions as possible.

So I’ll say nothing about it, except this: it’s perfect. Perfect for what it is and what it was meant to be. Anything more than that is for you to say.

Killing Berthold Gambrel is a must-read.

Do I even need to tell you what this book is about? You can probably tell from the cover. That’s right, it’s about baseball. In particular, a minor league phenom named Joe Carpenter who quickly takes the sport by storm. The scout who discovers Joe, Bud Esterhaus, is a grizzled but likable veteran of the American pastime, who narrates the budding star’s meteoric rise from one league to the next, as the two of them pursue Joe’s ultimate dream of making it to “The Show”.

Of course, Joe has a secret that threatens to derail any hope of playing in the major leagues, and Bud has problems of his own–an ex-wife, an estranged son–that make their journey far from smooth.

I admit, I’ve never been much of a baseball fan. Fortunately, Brennan’s wonderful prose is so finely crafted that knowing anything about the sport is purely optional. The story moves along well, and the characters are interesting and likable. Especially Joe, who I was rooting for from the start.

This book also includes another Brennan staple: long and vividly-described road trips during which characters can explore their pasts. Like Fascination and Eternity Began Tomorrowthis is partially a road trip story, if only because the “here today, gone tomorrow” ethos of the minor leagues requires near-constant travel.

If you love baseball, you’ll love this book. If you don’t love baseball, you’ll still probably love it, simply because Brennan is a fantastic writer who knows how to spin a compelling yarn in any setting.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is the second book in the Dr. Rowena Halley series, the first of which I reviewed here. This one picks up right where the first one left off in following the career of Rowena Arwen Halley, the Russian language Ph.D. struggling to navigate a brutal academic job market as well as her own desire for a relationship. But, her heart is torn between Alex, another struggling post-doc, and Dima, the Russian soldier-turned-journalist who broke up with her and sent her back to the U.S. while he continued reporting on conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

Dr. Halley has started a new one-semester teaching position, and from day one, is beset by annoyances, the most prominent of which is Jason, a student in one of her classes who wants to use her to help him fight a custody battle with his estranged Russian wife.

The start of the book is a bit slow, although it does give a good window into the dreary reality of academia. Where it really picks up is with the arrival of Rowena’s brother, Ivanhoe Elladan Halley, the rough-and-tumble Marine Corps officer recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, who comes to visit in the middle of the book. (Disregarding his parents’ decision to name him after Sir Walter Scott and Tolkien characters, he goes by “John” most of the time.)

John is my favorite character in the book. For one thing, his lines are pretty funny, especially his unsolicited blunt advice to his sister and his foul-mouthed contempt for her boyfriends, past and present. But he’s also a more complex character: a veteran who probably has PTSD but masks it with machismo, alcohol, and womanizing. He’s basically a good guy, but he’s been through some bad stuff, and it has taken its toll on him.

I won’t lie, the middle third of the book, in which John appears regularly, is definitely my favorite part. The ending suffers from some of the same issues as the beginning; namely, that it gives a very accurate portrayal of the current state of seeking employment in academia, particularly in the humanities.

There’s one other issue I have with this book. Unlike the first installment, which really was a mystery that needed to be figured out, here, the main conflict isn’t a mystery. The person who is obviously bad ultimately turns out to be… bad. Which is kind of a letdown. It’s not that exciting when at the climax of the story, a character turns out to be exactly who you thought they were.

But that’s okay. This is a character-driven book, more so than the first one was. The interesting thing is less about seeing where it all goes than how it gets there, and how it gets there is pretty interesting. Stark tackles a variety of social and geopolitical issues, from the overproduction of elites in American higher education leading to a glut on the academic job market, to the many ruined lives resulting from ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, to the destruction of society at the most fundamental level as a result of people lacking basic virtues.

So, don’t go into it expecting some kind of plot-twist filled mystery. Instead, read it as a commentary on the many deeply-rooted problems in modern society. Read that way, it paints a vivid and memorable picture.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a literary novel about a young woman named Faby who lives in Vermont in the 1920s. Faby is obsessed with vaudeville acts that come to town. Every year, she attends with her sister and relishes watching the different acts.

One performer in particular who catches her eye is a dancer called Slim White, who bills himself as “America’s Favorite Hoofer.” Faby catches his eye as well, and after a quick fling one evening, Faby becomes pregnant. White, whose real name is Louis Kittell, seems willing to do the right thing and marries her, and the newlyweds start off on a trip across the Eastern United States, as Kittell moves from one town to another performing in various shows.

Normally, what I’ll find most memorable about a book is either the plot or the characters. I’ve just described about 80% of the plot, saving one semi-twist near the end, and while it’s certainly fine, it wasn’t what grabbed me.

As for the characters: Faby starts out as a naive girl, barely more than a child, and while it’s easy to feel pity for the situation she finds herself in, she’s a very passive type. Things happen to her, rather than her doing them.

And then we’ve got Louis: he’s basically a con man. A charming con man, to be sure, (think Robert Preston in The Music Man, or Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker) but still ultimately a con man. It quickly becomes clear to Faby that he lies routinely and often for no apparent reason. Given this, many of his later actions are not really surprising. He’s not an absolutely terrible person, and he does in some sense care for Faby, but he’s far from being a good guy, and much of the book is just waiting for the inevitable in that regard.

But even though the characters weren’t the most likable folks in the world, and the plot is straightforward, I recommend this book strongly to fans of literary fiction. There are two reasons: one, the writing is just beautiful. It reminds me of Mark Paxson’s, and his mentor, Zoe Keithley’s, knack for crafting gorgeous paragraphs that really make you feel what the characters are feeling. For that reason alone, this is worth picking up.

The other reason is the setting. The author clearly spent a lot of time researching the culture, the fashions, the technology, and the slang of the 1920s, and it paid off in a big way. And I loved all the references to vaudeville. Louis may be a lying scoundrel, but I can’t deny that his little tidbits about the vaudeville life are enjoyable.

There are numerous references to many then-famous performers, including a brief mention of Elsie Janis. Janis is little-remembered today, but she was known as “The Sweetheart of the American Expeditionary Force” for her benefit shows in World War I. (She also hailed from my own stomping grounds of Central Ohio.  I once lived in an apartment built more or less on the site of her Columbus home.)

As you can tell from the above, I love history, and this book is like stepping into a time machine to a bygone era. I’ve read a decent amount of historical fiction, but it’s rare to find something that transports you so completely to another era. That, combined with the wonderful prose, are what make Telling Sonny memorable.

[Audio version of this post available below.]

This is a novel with layers. Superficially, it’s a “chick lit” relationship novel. The narrator, Dr. Sarah Phelan, says as much in the first chapter. This layer is a classic romance of a woman falling in love with a man who at first seems to be Mr. Perfect, but who has hidden Byronic depths.

The difference with this book is, Dr. Phelan is aware of how her story fits into the conventions of the genre, and repeatedly makes meta references to what part of the standard story she’s in, or acknowledges different tropes that she encounters.

And she has more going on in her life than just her relationship with her new beau (name: Dylan Cakebread). She’s still getting over her ex-husband, who has become a published author, and dealing with a long-running feud with her sister Ella. Fortunately, she has the support of her close friend, Jules, whose chatty, gossiping manner made her a treat every time she appeared.

But there’s more to this book than a mere girl-meets-boy light romance. It’s deeper than that, and it doesn’t always hew to the conventions of the genre. In fact, it’s not really a “genre” book at all, though of course at first glance it appears to be. Like other Brennan books I’ve reviewed, it’s not one you can easily pigeonhole.

Also like other Brennan books, it’s full of memorable lines. Like Dr. Phelan’s comments on a certain genre of fiction:

“I think there’s really only one enormous thriller out there now, made up of the hundreds of thousands of them that are published every ten minutes or so, and our job as readers is to somehow knit them all together.”

And then there’s this line from Jules’ husband, Wayne:

“Everything is unsustainable,[…]We’re living in the Apocalypse Years, right? Nobody knows when the shit’s gonna hit the fan, but it’s pretty obvious that it is.”

Occasional Soulmates was published in 2014, and this line reminded me of Brennan’s later novel, Eternity Began Tomorrow, an environmentalist political thriller that painted a picture of the year 2020 almost as insane as the real one.

Like Eternity Began Tomorrow, Occasional Soulmates doesn’t conform to the genre it superficially appears to be. It winds up going in a very different direction than I expected, but I should have known it would. Brennan never falls back on tired clichés, and always strives to surprise his readers.

If you like clever literary fiction that has more to it than meets the eye, this is a good read. Also impressive is how well Brennan writes his female protagonist. As Audrey Driscoll said in her review, “Either Mr. Brennan is a mind-reader or he had really good intel from women. I loved the girly-gossipy tone of the narration, especially the parts where Sarah and her best pal Jules dissect relationships and classify men.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing female characters when you’re a male is quite tricky, but Brennan manages it beautifully. This is just one more reason why this book is worth your time: Brennan is a master of the craft, and it shows on every page.

[Listen to an audio version of this post below]

This is a collection of three short stories set in Chicago. I’ll be reviewing them in the reverse of the order they appear in the book.

“Annie Doesn’t Mean Any Harm” was my least-favorite story in the book, which is not to say it was bad. On the contrary, it was quite good. Keithley writes beautiful prose and creates characters who stick in your mind long after you close the book.

So, why was this my least-favorite? Simply because it’s so brutal and tragic. As in her novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli, Keithley portrays cruelty upon cruelty. The story deals with a petty tyrant who works as an aide in a senior citizen home, but who badly mistreats those in his care. The story is a terrific character study, but its unrelenting bleakness can be a lot to take.

The middle story in the collection “The Only Thanks I Wanted” is another grim tale that illustrates the old adage “No good deed goes unpunished.” It has a darkly comic undertone to it that resolves in a way that layers irony upon irony.

And this brings me to my favorite story in the collection, “The Second Marriage of Albert Li Wu,” which tells the story of a widower trying to cope with loneliness and haunted by unpleasant memories of his first wife.

This story was my favorite, not because it was written better than the rest, (Keithley’s prose is uniformly excellent in every story.) but because it strikes a bittersweet note, and leaves the reader with a sense of hope. It’s also the longest story, with the most room to develop and get to know the characters.

I’ve been meaning to read this collection for years, ever since Mark Paxson told me about Keithley’s work. I read and reviewed Mother Adelli shortly after. It’s a wonderful novel, but incredibly haunting and emotionally tough to take. I admit, I wanted to wait until I was in the right frame of mind to read this, and reading Mark’s recent novel The Dime, which is dedicated to Keithley, inspired me to do it.

Anyone who loves literary fiction with gorgeous writing, fascinating characters, and a fatalistic, tragic sensibility, should read this collection.

Mark Paxson has often said that he writes in order to see things from other perspectives. The Dime is a great example of this. There are three main characters: Sophie, a teenage girl, now in a wheelchair after the car crash that killed her parents; Lily, her sister, who has been her guardian since turning 18, and Pete, a boy Sophie’s age with a violent alcoholic father and a distant, uncaring mother.

The three are brought together by a chance encounter between Pete and Lily at the Five & Dime where the latter works. Together, they are forced to navigate their difficult circumstances, and confront a lot of personal trauma and pain.

The book is told from the perspectives of all three, supplemented by the voices of secondary characters, such as Pete’s mother, the owner of the Five & Dime, a boyfriend of Lily’s, etc. The book is great at showing multiple people’s perspectives. Often, characters I initially disliked became more understandable once I heard their side of it. Not always likable, but at the very least, pitiable.

This book combines many of the features of Mark’s previous works: the almost poetic character study found in The Irrepairable Past with the many different perspectives and people woven throughout his short stories collected in Shady Acres and The Marfa Lights. Elements of both are in The Dime. It’s a focused portrait of specific characters and also a portrayal of a whole world.

If you like the idea of getting in somebody else’s shoes and walking around a bit, of seeing the world through new eyes, then The Dime is a good book for you. It’s a powerful, emotional, and ultimately uplifting story, told with empathy and thoughtfulness.

One other thing: the book is dedicated to a writer named Zoe Keithley. I’ve only read one of Keithley’s books so far, but it haunts me still, as one of the most emotionally powerful books I’ve ever read. Two of the most memorable pieces of imagery used in The Dime were inspired by her literary techniques, and I can definitely see it, because they have a way of staying with you long after you close the book.

But I won’t say what they are! The Dime is more driven by characters than plot, it’s true; but even so, I wouldn’t want to give away too much about it. You must meet Sophie, Lily, Pete, and the rest for yourself. Inhabit their world; get to know them a bit. What is the point of books, after all, if not to learn to connect with other people?