Book Quote:

“The zookeeper’s heart is broke. His wife has left him and gone on an airplane with some stranger to Peru. In his grief, the zookeeper has opened all of the animals’ cages and thrown away the keys.” (from Animals in the Zoo)

Book Review:

Review by Maggie Hill (SEP 17, 2010)

Joe Meno’s stories are like taking a trip, on a magic school bus, to the twilight zone. One after the other, in this virtuoso collection of 20 stories, Joe Meno gets behind the wheel and deftly navigates the reader through oddly poignant drive-by visits to the human condition. And in case you haven’t been able to picture it – but you can, no problem – twenty artists have illustrated each of the stories from their own perspective. The illustrations lend each story a touch of whimsy, a hint of color, a bit of hopefulness. It’s a good thing because these stories charm us into entering frightful and fantastical moments wrapped up as ordinary life.

Take, for instance, a high school teacher who runs a fine program about the U.N., where each student lobbies from the point of view of their assigned country. Great idea! The story, “It is Romance,” is unnerving. It’s the teacher who is having a romance – with the entire class. Meno creates one of the most ticking-time-bomb teacher stories I’ve ever read. His language is flawless as he paints a picture of Mr. Albee spinning out of control with love for his students. Listen:

“Mr. Albee does not get involved in today’s discussion; today he only watches his wards, mesmerized by the sounds of their formal intonations. When their young and unsure voices begin to tremulously shake, to explode, to rattle with multisyllabic words, with complex ideas, with imperious intentions, when one of his students begins to raise a hand, when one of them begins to raise a point, when one of them begins to raise a protest in their adopted country’s defense, Mr. Albee feels as if he could love them all forever.”

Later, in the “pale gray fatality of the teacher’s lounge,” Mr. Albee is so wracked with joy and guilt that he cancels the next day’s class. In these 15 pages, the teacher’s profound loneliness and occasional forays into perversity keep driving him deeper into the romance of what his students represent – innocence, idealism, hope, the future. The story moves forward with such a sense of impending catastrophe that the reader will imagine all sorts of scenarios before the final line: “One of the children begins to pray.”

Most of the stories, though, have a lighter, humorous touch. “Frances the Ghost” tells the heroic tale of what it’s like to live with an intractable first grader. It is heroic in that Meno understands exactly the kind of diplomacy, conniving, politicking it takes for a mother to simply get out the door in the morning, armed with a baby and a seven-year-old who insists on wearing a sheet over her head. I love this story. Listen to this:

“The station wagon sounds like it is going to die. Janet stares at her daughter, ready to cry herself, waiting for her daughter to begin screaming. But Frances turns, still pouting, staring straight ahead. She is mad, she is angry, but she does not cry. Janet decides this is okay, this is fine. Angry she can handle. Angry sounds great.”

The best thing about this story collection is that, seriously, no two stories are alike. You just have to arrive at each story, ready to view the cultural landscape. Some of the places are fantastical, some are realistic until you realize you have never been to the place where it’s taking you. And some, you’ll just want to visit because of the great advertisements of their titles: “Children Are the Only Ones Who Blush,” “The Unabomber and My Brother,” “I Want the Quiet Moments of a Party Girl.”

One quick word about the book itself: In reviewing Demons in the Spring, this reviewer focused exclusively on the narrative because, well, that’s her thing. However, the artistic interpretations were fascinating to look at, giving this story collection the beauty and heft of a more expensive coffee-table book. We’ll be keeping this volume out to rifle through long after the words of this review spin out into the black hole of the internet.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Akashic Books; Reprint edition (August 1, 2010)
REVIEWER: Maggie Hill
EXTRAS: The Millions interview with Joe Meno on The Great Perhaps
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Another short story collection to enjoy, if you like this one:

Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle


September 17, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Posted in: Short Stories

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