Independent and small presses may have a difficult time competing in today's lackluster market, but as the following three books show, they are more than capable of delivering accomplished writers and stories worthy of our attention.
French Postcards by Jane Merchant (Spinsters Ink)
When Elinor Demitru heard she'd be moving to France for her husband's job, she immediately thought back to the awe-inspiring year she spent as an exchange student in Paris. She did not anticipate the lonely and bleak industrial city of Cherbourg. She did not foresee her days divided between transporting her daughters to and from their private school or mingling with other expat wives she only considered friends out of convenience. And, most definitely, she did not expect to fall in love with another woman.
In the tradition of E.M Forster's A Room With a View, first-time novelist Jane Merchant's beautiful book French Postcards is the story of how Elinor struggles to keep her family together in this foreign country as she pines for a woman whose children attend the same school as hers.
Elinor's husband, Victor, is a handsome man from Romania. He is a brilliant engineer, but his "exotic foreignness and gypsy beauty" has slowly been diluted in the span of a 10-year-marriage. Though she adores her daughters, the competent Clara and the vulnerable Alexi, Elinor is insecure about her ability to be a good mother.
Amid all of this and the pressures of trying to adjust to a new culture and language, Elinor spots a stunning Frenchwoman, Beatrice, dropping off her own children at school. Standing in the courtyard and talking with one of the teachers, Elinor is paralyzed by Beatrice's beauty and grace: "[She] would not admit then that she had chosen her as decidedly as if she had stated out loud to Mrs. Randall, 'she's the one.'"
As the women continue to notice each other and exchange eye contact, Elinor's attraction intensifies: "Elinor anticipated each encounter as she dropped off and picked up the children at school with an oddly familiar excitement she recalled from her youth — the same awkward palpitations that characterized youth itself and all its possibilities."
Merchant's prose is exquisite. She maintains the tension between the two women by focusing on the subtleties — like eye contact — that often make these relationships so powerful. "When Elinor looked up, the woman gave her a lazy appraisal and a fair smile of recognition, but said nothing, meeting Elinor's curious stare with such frank directness of an unmistakable intensity that suggested she knew and understood her perfectly."
Elinor is completely taken off guard by her crush — and for good reason. From a young age, she recalls, she always admired men ("beautiful, well-formed and muscled") over women ("lush and untidy — slovenly even"). Indeed, she observes, in the print of Albrecht Dürer's Adam and Eve that hangs in her living room, it is "clearly Adam who drew the eye, not Eve."
Thus Elinor is determined to put an end to all of this quixotic nonsense. She goes out of her way to ignore Beatrice. She avoids certain places in town so they don't run into each other accidentally. She decides to hate her.
Of course, none of these attempts actually work. Elinor finally admits that she has fallen in love, and it is then that she is forced to meet the very real consequences of her desire.
In the backdrop, Merchant addresses the difficulty of being an American abroad in today's divisive world. Set on the eve of the war in Iraq, Elinor finds herself both disgusted with and defensive of her home country.
French Postcards is a complex and multifaceted love story about a woman who finally comes to understand herself when everything she knows about her life, love and country is challenged. It is a superb debut.
Many people debate the reason for poetry's lack of popularity. Reading, in general, is down. Poetry, in particular, can be obtuse and difficult to access. Theory of Orange, the debut collection by lesbian poet Rachel M. Simon, takes all of this into consideration with poems that are thoughtful, quirky and downright relatable.
Winner of the prestigious Pavement Saw Transcontinental Award, Theory of Orange moves through issues of family and work (Simon teaches at a college in New York) to childhood (including a brilliant poem about a summer spent at a camp for children with diabetes) and, of course, love.
At 80 pages, Theory of Orange is a fairly lengthy collection for a poetry debut. It opens with the clever "Recipe for Success," where the first ingredient is a "dollop of eighth-grade embarrassment" and the instructions include considering "what a cape might do for your aesthetic." The answer: "Return cape/to store clothing rack. Mix it/Mix it good."
Simon explores the impact of language in a variety of settings. In a piece titled "A Poem in Which I Use Everyone's Real Name," she begins, "The black woman who cuts/my mother's jewfro is named Bunny." In "Early Correspondence," a beautiful love poem, she writes, "I am uncovering your childhood nicknames/and sibling injury in the first livingroom/where you control the heat."
Among Simon's many gifts is her ability to uncover important insights through relatively benign situations. In "On Giving a Presentation in the Bible Belt on Interracial Lesbian Couples in Film," she explains how "More than one Christian fundamentalist student/carried a non-miniature version of the bible to class,/but only one took out and flattened her palm/on the page that speaks to homosexual abomination."
Toward the end, Simon moves out of the classroom and shows us a young girl trying to understand herself by writing poems about "being misunderstood or elated/or about the wind sounds in my treeless Texas/settling for a slope instead of a hill."
In another poem, where she laments her "genetic" propensity for gossip, Simon describes the subway as a tempting place to divulge her thoughts and opinions — and many are worth hearing. "I consider telling the sweatered man next to me/that the trained gorilla in the book he is reading/is actually a lesbian in a gorilla costume—/so hurt by people she stopped being one."
Then, just as easily, Simon offers relief with several humorous and irreverent poems. "I'd never buy a door smaller than a tuba," she writes in "Improvisation," "you never know/what sort of friends you'll make."
If you're looking for a good collection of poetry, Theory of Orange will be sure to entertain.