My review of American Lives: A Reader, an anthology of short stories excerpted from a series of memoirs, ran today at PopMatters.
By and large, this collection was very spotty, full of the kind of self-indulgent, melodramatic material that you’ll often find in memoirs. Murder, kidnapping, suicide, alcoholism, terminal illness, all rendered in tedious, eye-rolling prose. There were, however, a few strong exceptions. Brenda Serotte’s “Fortuna” from her book The Fortune Teller’s Kiss was so excellent I didn’t want it to end. In it, she tells the story of her grandmother Nona, an Old World fortune teller making a living in her ethnically diverse mid-century Lower East Side neighborhood. Serotte expertly defines this unique character and pieces together her compelling narrative from shards of memory and stories from her parents. Eli Hastings’ “Good, Alright, Fine” from Falling Room is another highlight, managing to discuss addiction and familial obligations with good humor and a wry sense of the story’s inherent absurdity. Hastings avoids the easy path of self-pity and overwhelming grimness that many of the other entries in this book fall into and emerges with a touching, humorous story about serious matters.