Posts Tagged 'Joan Frank'

All the News I Need

All the News I Need
Joan Frank
University of Massachusetts Press 2017

Reviewed by Bob Wake

allthenewsJoan Frank’s fourth novel, All the News I Need, winner of the 2016 Juniper Prize for Fiction from the University of Massachusetts Press, is a deep dive into the heart of friendship, of memory and regret, of aging and loss. Frances Ferguson, former newspaper columnist and book reviewer, is widowed after sixteen years of marriage. She’s fifty-eight and living alone in the novel’s lushly depicted wine region of Northern California. Oliver Gaffney, retired San Francisco preschool teacher, is gay and single at sixty-two. He’s prone to fatalism and panic attacks.

Human beings getting on one another’s nerves. Joan Frank has long been a master at showing how the best among us can entertain on occasion the worst of thoughts. All the News I Need is told through vivid third-person intimate narration that toggles between Frances and Oliver. Fran and Ollie. Ollie was close friends with Fran’s late husband, Kirk. The friendship between Fran and Ollie, minus Kirk, is iffy. By Ollie’s estimation:

Fran practices survivor manners, which is to say, none. She plunks her shod feet on the dining table, laughs with a honk, swears graphically, drinks wine chased by beer from the bottle—lifted high with each swig, as if she were taking aim with a spyglass.

The centerpiece of the novel is a life-shifting excursion to Paris undertaken by Fran and Ollie at Fran’s instigation. They will visit sights she remembers from previous trips with her late husband. There will be mishaps. (“Travel beats the living shit out of you,” Fran at one point muses in italicized exhaustion.) Fran and Ollie will each have opportunities to bless one another with kindness, even share moments of transcendence, while still wondering privately what the hell is wrong with the other person. (“Ollie’s insane, but that was never exactly a revelation,” Fran tells herself.) At unexpected moments the city erupts with a kind of quotidian sensuality and grace:

They march to the Place des Vosges, through the shadowy arched entry into the pale sunlight of the square: a time-travel portal. Once through, they stop and stare. Sounds issue at them: splashing water from the fountain, echoes from the cool arcades surrounding the lawn, the demure trees: chatter, music, scents of coffee and roasting meats and fresh bread and perfume, laughter. Couples strewn on the grass, entwined, twirling strands of each other’s hair; mothers and nannies trail young charges who lurch around shrieking, arms in the air, just as they do at the park at home.

At an outdoor Paris cafe, Ollie recalls the AIDS epidemic that took so many of his friends, years during which “he kept two funeral suits in his closet.” Fran talks openly about “the targeted feeling” of sexual harrassment that “never stopped, in one form or another, until, oh, my forties.” Scenes like this give All the News I Need an unvarnished sense of what human dignity under assault looks like and feels like. The relevance is unmistakable. This is not fake news.

“Nobody gives a fuck what we saw or what we ate,” says Fran in morose anticipation of their return home. There will be redemptive and wholly satisfying surprises to come. Joan Frank has gifted us with two unforgettable characters in a novel filled to bursting with hard truths and shimmering beauty.

Rosebud 60

issue60Rosebud 60 (Fall/Winter 2015) is a beauty. There’s the joyous cover art by featured artist Toni Pawlowsky. Inside, for starters, you’ll find all five winning essays in Rosebud’s eighth biennial X. J. Kennedy Award for Nonfiction (which I had the pleasure of co-judging with editor Rod Clark): Grand Prize winner Chris Ellery (“A Boy of Bethany”), and runners-up Jennifer Arin (“Adrián de Sevilla”), Katherine Baker (“No Gas, No Soap in Cuba”), Joan Frank (“The Where of It”), and Brett Alan Sanders (“Attractions of Barbarity, or Dreaming a Complete Argentina”). The winning essays this year are international in scope with timely and thought-provoking visits to Jerusalem, Paris, Havana, and Buenos Aires.

There’s much more goodness to unpack in Rosebud 60, from poetry by Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Thich Nhat Hanh, to the “medical science fiction” of Dr. Tatsuaki Ishiguro (“The Hope Shore Sea Squirt”). Even a graphic short story (“What Is” by Mort Castle) illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre. And we’re still only scratching the surface. Regular features include top-of-their-game work from Rod Clark, P. S. Mueller, and Rick Geary. Guest art director Kathy Sherwood (filling in for Parnell Nelson, sidelined with health concerns, but returning for Rosebud 61) has given the magazine a sleek presentation.

Because You Have To: A Writing Life

Because You Have To: A Writing Life
Joan Frank
University of Notre Dame Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Joan Frank poses a stark riddle in Because You Have To: A Writing Life, her disarming and candid collection of literary essays. She asks, “What do you call a state of mind which anticipates its own recurring annihilation?” For many of us, whether writers or not, this is a chillingly accurate description of compromised serenity. “In usual fact,” Frank states, “few of us have the money to buy necessary pockets of stillness.”

The struggle to write becomes the struggle to wrest clear-headedness from the anxious bread-and-butter strivings and obligations that demand our attention throughout the day. As the author of three novels (most recently, Make It Stay), two short story collections, and an earlier volume of essays, Joan Frank is one of the clearest-headed writers working. Because You Have To shows us how she gets the work done. The roadblocks, sometimes self-imposed, are legion and Frank fearlessly exposes them:

I have long wished to dissect envy, in a naïve yearning to be rid of it. Writers like to peer at the forbidden, to tease out components of the monstrous; why not spotlight envy, turning it like mildew toward the noon sun to banish it? Heaven knows envy’s democratic enough; old and young, published and unpublished do their time on one or the other end of the strained congratulatory remarks, the sharp reconfigurations of the face. A writing teacher I admire once mused to a class: “Writers are some of the least charitable people there are.”

Acerbic insights are a hallmark of Frank’s fiction. Her essays are no less uncompromising. She shares with us her writer’s life of exhaustive day jobs and economic hardship. In an epochal election year when the widening chasm of class disparity haunts so many of us, her essay “Never Enough” has the righteous fire of an Occupy manifesto. Comprising 173 numbered paragraphs mixing autobiography and her own hard-boiled aphorisms on the themes of money and inequality in America, “Never Enough”—to put a price on it—is worth the cost of the book:

10. I disdained wealth, distrusted wealthy people. They seemed to prove my private theory: big money—though it gets things done—really, really fucks you up. Wealthy people wore a manner: the gleam of distaste in the eye, the lean-meat-and-white-wine body. I found them pitiful. I felt sorry for all they did not comprehend, for all the life they were missing.

There is also good-humored encouragement to be found in these essays. “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Rejection Business,” for example, offers Frank’s hilarious deconstruction of a form letter rejection. More to the point, she advises us not to fear the world turning its back on us: “Rejection, then, is like the wake of a boat: proof of motion. No action from the writer means no reaction from the world. To risk rejection is to risk reaction and, as such, a courageous step.”

Joan Frank

Threaded throughout Because You Have To are warm and sometimes conflicted reminiscences of her father, a humanities professor, whose death came too early from a heart attack at age 54. (“He was searching desperately, recklessly. As if liquor and sex were large, clumsy keys he kept fumbling with, trying to fit them into a stubborn lock.”) Her own marriage to a college English professor comes under similar laser-like scrutiny, although it appears her husband was granted vetting privileges over occasionally unflattering anecdotes and recounted arguments. (“He has read these words and raised no objection.”)

Frank unabashedly shares her vulnerabilities with us. A scene of the author trying to read uninterrupted at the kitchen table is pointed and funny but also captures the awful tension between solitude and companionship that makes marriage (and, Frank is suggesting, the art of writing) a precarious balancing act:

I am trying to read a short Sunday newspaper piece at the kitchen table. My husband also reads across the table, but he stops his reading to comment to me. I make acknowledging noises and smile and refocus on my page, hoping he will be drawn into the section before him. He speaks again. I make the same noises and resume the same sentence I am reading. We have so little time together I cannot bring myself to utter, “Sweetheart, please, I need to finish this.” Because if I had my way I would always need to finish something, always need to be alone. If I achieved that—and the option to live alone again is always available, after all—I could not bear it. I love my husband, my family. Therein, the paradox.

Authors and books are name-checked and quoted frequently in these 23 essays as if part of the air Joan Frank breathes. Her enthusiasms are infectious and readers may find themselves wanting to revisit or visit for the first time some of the writers that inspire her: Martin Amis, Charles Baxter, Sven Birkerts, Robert Bly, Raymond Chandler, Thaisa Frank, Bonnie Friedman, Gail Godwin, Shirley Hazzard, Anne Lamott, William Maxwell, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Anne Porter, and Jane Smiley, to name a few.

“I wrote these essays in the grip of them, as serial obsessions,” Frank writes in the Preface to Because You Have To. A serial obsession to read these essays and share them with friends is sure to grip lovers of literature and seekers of time well spent.

cbr 19 / summer 2012

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cbr 19 / summer 2012

The Pale King
David Foster Wallace
Reviewed by Dwight Allen

the eelgrass meadow
Robin Chapman
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Unexpected Shiny Things
Bruce Dethlefsen
Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Make it Stay
Joan Frank
Reviewed by Bob Wake

Ann Prayer
A short story
Elli Hazit

Men without Meaning
A short story
Gerald Fosdal & Jack Lehman

Fisherman’s Beach
An excerpt from the novel
George Vukelich

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Make it Stay

Make it Stay
Joan Frank
The Permanent Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Joan Frank’s Make it Stay is a brief novel, but it skimps on nothing under the sun, particularly the lush sun of Northern California where the story is set. This tale of aging Boomer marital discord is so thoroughly embedded within the sensuality of the natural world that it seems sprouted rather than written. In Frank’s lovingly rendered vineyard town of Mira Flores (“the fresh sharp smell of pines in the warm sun, the drifty morning fog, heavy sweetness of roses spilling over fences in Popsicle colors, faint salt scents of ocean”), impulsiveness and passion are as intuitive as the Pacific Coast tides forty miles away.

Impulses, like stories, are renewable resources that can turn destructive if we refuse their lessons. It seems appropriate that Rachel, the narrator of Make it Stay, is a writer. Whether or not this better equips her to deal with the serial adultery of her husband’s best friend is not so easily answered. “Why must this be the story, over and over and over,” she laments in italicized dismay. Rachel, we discover (somewhat to our discomfort as readers), is not so much an unreliable narrator as a recognizably flawed one overcome by self-doubt and jealousy. “Lord,” she confesses to us after making one of several breathtakingly cruel observations about others, “what an unkind thought.”

The first half of Make it Stay is a stylistic tour-de-force with chapters alternating between dinner-party preparations overseen by Rachel’s husband, Neil, a Scottish-born legal aid attorney and amateur gourmand, and the backstory of Neil’s friendship with the adulterous Mike and his alcoholic wife, Tilda, both due for dinner that evening. In Joan Frank’s energetic telling, this set-up becomes a page-turning psychedelic Wayback Machine as we’re transported to Mira Flores in the 1970s: Mike, a marine biology dropout, owns an aquarium shop in town called Finny Business; Neil, waiting to pass the California bar, interns two blocks away at the Legal Aid office. There are diving excursions to the Polynesian Islands in search of rare tropical fish for Mike’s shop. A near-drowning bonds their friendship for life.

The novel takes a decidedly darker turn in its second half. Joan Frank refuses to judge her characters even when her characters are quick to judge one another. Rachel’s wisdom, by novel’s end, is real and hard-won, but it is also world-weary and not necessarily built to last. Like the marriages splayed and dissected with such scalding precision in Make it Stay. Readers whose sympathies fall in one direction early on, may be surprised to find their hardened hearts reversing course as Frank skillfully and tough-mindedly overturns our expectations and rattles our complacency. Rachel’s writerly indignation is as up-to-date and CNN-ready as it is timeless and universal:

Crazy shit—and I don’t mean pissy little Jamesian drawing-room slights, but atrocity—bombards folks with no warning every day; decent, forthright, shoelace-tying folks. If they have shoelaces. Look at Neil’s clients; look at the news. Anything that’s functional, that’s actually been good for us? Passable health, freedom from pain? Something to eat, clean water? Nobody pull a weapon today?

When the phrase “make it stay” is finally spoken—haltingly, painfully—by one of the characters, it is a cri de coeur not of nostalgic longing but of something deeper, an animating force submerged and mysterious, seldom glimpsed, as elusive as the rarest tropical fish, but most assuredly captured in the pages of Joan Frank’s memorable novel.

In Envy Country

In Envy Country
Joan Frank
University of Notre Dame Press 2010

Reviewed by Bob Wake

There’s not a false note in Joan Frank’s short story collection, In Envy Country, winner of the 2010 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction from the University of Notre Dame Press. Her stories combine rapturous surface detail and harrowing psychological acuity. Frank’s characters, like most of us, can’t resist measuring themselves against those friends, family and business associates who seem blessed with beauty or success, privilege or power.

“The very beautiful owned a secret,” declares the forty-year-old narrator of “Savoir Faire, Savoir Vivre,” a displaced Californian in Paris (“trying to write, and to read all I can”), where she has met up with a former high school friend, a professional swimmer from Sacramento, whose sister Nikki, a painter, had been “the most dazzling girl in school.” Sipping wine cocktails in a French café, the two women reminisce and commiserate, sharing their nearly morbid fascination with the unbearably gorgeous Nikki. (“You could never come to terms with beauty like that, but even at fourteen you could see that the world was ruled by it.”) As we learn of the rise and fall of Nikki’s fortunes, the birth of a daughter, a broken marriage, artistic struggles, and finally “showing her age, like other mortals,” we’re asked to consider beauty as an abstract force, troubling and destructive to all who fall within its orbit. “Beauty torches the place,” the narrator insists.

Perception is a prism that changes with the light. In Frank’s stories, a character’s epiphany is no sure bet or shortcut to the truth of the matter. Her characters always respond in character. Point of view is everything. We’re uncertain at times where to place our allegiance. Reader anxiety is half the fun here, but it requires a willingness to step outside of our comfort zone. Frank works unsettling magic with awkward social situations like dinner parties and family gatherings, all of which invariably erupt with repressed hostilities and dark revelations.

In the title story an ostentatiously wealthy couple argue and storm out of their mansion at dinnertime, leaving their guests—a married couple of modest middle-class means—to watch the oven as well as the argument itself framed in the picture window like a silent movie. The visiting couple find themselves reevaluating their own marriage. In “A Thing That Happens” a dinner party is derailed when two guests describe an experience from a recent European vacation: the different way men vs. women respond to the sight of a twentysomething blonde with enormous breasts (“way out of proportion to the rest of her… like a neon sign… a wheelbarrow”). The men, predictably, are delighted, whereas the women’s gaze is fraught with anger and, yes, envy. (“Because that is what men want.”)  The anecdote, told by an aging couple, is set against the short story’s central character, a young woman coming into her sexuality, whom we meet in the opening sentence: “Sara Bream gathered her breath so that her pillowy twenty-year-old chest, in its soft China-blue sweater, filled to even greater, lovelier loft: she let it out slowly and forcefully.”

Frank’s range is impressive. She can write funny and sharp about modern office politics (“A Note on the Type” and “Betting on Men”), craft a heartbreaking coming-of-age tale about growing up in 1960s Sacramento (“Rearview”), and even take us on a wildly disturbing transgressive visit to a Spanish sex club (“Sandy Candy”). While In Envy Country hasn’t received the high-profile attention of, say, Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, or Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, Joan Frank’s provocative short story collection is fully deserving of similar praise and wide readership.


Mudstone

Recall: A Short Story

Walden West and the Twilight of Transcendentalism

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