Salon’s What to Read Awards: Top critics choose the best books of 2013
1. “Going Clear,” by Lawrence Wright
2. “TransAtlantic,” by Colum McCann
3. “Someone,” by Alice McDermott
4. “Tenth of December,” by George Saunders
5. “Thank You for Your Service,” David Finkel
6. “Five Days at Memorial,” by Sheri Fink
7. “The Country Girl,” by Edna O’Brien
8. “Stealing Sugar from the Castle,” by Robert Bly
9. “The Home Jar,” stories by Nancy Zafris
10. “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” by Anya Von Bremzen
Laurie Hertzel is books editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and author of “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.”
Review of The Home Jar Stories
The Home Jar by Nancy Zafris
by Nick White
“Behind the brain’s curtains,” supposes the narrator in “The Home Jar,” the titular story in Nancy Zafris’s latest collection, “runs a pleasure that is against your own will.” This ruminative statement resides at the center of these clear-eyed stories; that is, characters at war with their own hearts. Zafris’s fiction invigorates this traditional conflict. Whether her characters are reuniting old lovers, fashioning a wax figure of a young girl in a coma, following a group of drunken Americans in Rome, or stealing a llama farm, Zafris bestows them with her own special blend of humanity, loneliness, and wry humor. Indeed, what she accomplishes in just a few pages of story would have taken a lesser writer an entire novel.
Throughout her beautiful collection, a feeling of unease haunts the periphery. For instance, in “Prix Fixe,” Miller, a disgraced chef struggling in his new life of obscurity, looks out at the Ohio woods where the “fog in the dark hollows […] evaporating as he watched, captured the sensation breathing on him late nights, a feeling growing ever vaguer that visited sometimes when he was writing in his journal and found himself addressing an entry to his old friend” (33). Charles Baxter would call such a moment “the experience of the truth caught in midair.” I call it—quite simply—some damn fine writing.
More than fifteen years after Zafris published the story collection The People I Know, which won the Flannery O’Connor Prize, her newest work, The Home Jar, proves well worth the wait.
Nick White's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Indiana Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Ohio State's creative writing program, he is currently working toward a Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Review of The Home Jar Stories
The Home Jar by Nancy Zafris
by Christine Sneed
In each of the 11 short stories that constitute "The Home Jar," Nancy Zafris' entrancing fourth book, we are immersed in the seductively off-kilter sensibilities of diverse characters that range impressively from an unscrupulous property developer to an octogenarian unhappily contemplating a past crime to a young Japanese flight attendant who trails a group of Americans in Rome, mourners who have traveled to the Eternal City to scatter a friend's ashes.
Throughout the collection, there's the unsettling sense that Zafris' characters exist in a world recognizable as our own, but one with subtle, sometimes hair-raising differences. In "Furgus Welcomes You," a town where an underappreciated wife and mother lives with her spoiled, inflexible husband and sons literally rings with her own and other inhabitants' discontent as soon as they set foot within the town limits.
Equally fascinating and more chilling is the grieving couple in "A Modified Cylinder," wealthy parents who hire an artist to sculpt their brain-dead daughter out of wax. Once her wax likeness is complete, they plan to unplug the life-support system and replace the girl with her sculpted double.
The final and most ambitious story, "Digging the Hole," spans 60 years in the life of Jarmilla Price, a woman who worked as a kind of bounty hunter for a leper colony: For many years, she traveled the country picking up children who may or may not have been leprous, some, it is hinted, only too fractious for their parents to handle.
In these original, disquieting stories, many of them darkly comic, Zafris challenges us to deliberate over her characters' moral choices - would we also exact revenge for a boss if it meant saving our dying wife? Would we respond to unwanted sexual advances if desperate enough for money?
No offhand or simple answers are offered for the quandaries Zafris poses in these stories: Their emotional complexity and nuanced circumstances reflect the baffling nature of human life. I wanted Zafris to take us even farther into her fascinating characters' lives, further proof of these stories' great depth.
Christine Sneed is the author of the novel "Little Known Facts" and the story collection "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry."
Review of The Home Jar Stories
In her second story collection and fourth book, Nancy Zafris depicts the Midwest in often grim but always interesting ways.
by Nick Healy
Sometimes a short story can pack a novel’s ambition and weight into 25 or 30 pages of energized prose. Not all short stories have such aspirations. Not all should. But when one of them delivers in this way, it’s a wonderful thing.
The final story in “The Home Jar,” a new collection from Nancy Zafris, is one of those efficient, memorable gems. “Digging the Hole” bumps around within 60 years of history and crosses several state lines with Jarmilla, a powerhouse of a woman who for years gets paid to retrieve children from their parents and transport them to a “leper farm” in Louisiana (something like an old plantation enclosed by barbed wire).
Long a remorseless person, the aging Jarmilla seems surprised to find herself “lying in bed regretting things: Her son Leonard. A husband who had deserted her. The way the headlights of her Packard had broken through the mist and landed on a little boy, the buttons of his velvet coat fastened up to his chin.” One question driving the plot is whether those regrets will amount to anything.
Clearly, “Digging the Hole” is the kind of short story that might lead some readers to say, “This should be a novel.” To those readers, let’s imagine the author replying, “Why? It’s all there.”
Zafris was a longtime fiction editor for the Kenyon Review, an admired literary magazine, and writes like someone who has seen thousands of stories, knows how they can work, and sees fresh ground while others till tired soil.
Many of the stories in “The Home Jar” focus on people and places of the Midwest, which Zafris portrays in bleak tones and where interesting, thoughtful characters have complicated lives. Zafris lives in Ohio, and her settings include its cities and small towns. Some stories range across oceans, but none of them does more with place than “Furgus Welcomes You,” a wrenching encounter with Angela Dahlgren, a young mother in small-town Iowa.
Beset by family stresses, Angela is jarred when she sees the body outlines of two people killed while changing a tire on the shoulder of a country highway. She thinks, “How could such a thing have happened near Furgus, in the middle of nowhere? Nothing happened in nowhere, that was the point.”
One regrettable fact about “The Home Jar” is that the book’s first two stories are not among its best. They’re solid but not as engaging as others. Readers who press on will be rewarded with places, characters and events that come alive and may live in their memories for a long time.
Nick Healy is the author of “It Takes You Over,” a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award and recipient of a Friends of American Writers Literary Award. He lives in Mankato.
Review of The Home Jar Stories
Sensuous prose teases out peculiarities in ostensibly conventional host of characters.
by Michelle Anne Schingler
“Life itself … just prolong[s] the inevitable” reflects a character in Flannery O’Connor Award recipient Nancy Zafris’s (The People I Know, 2009) latest collection of stories, a darkly luminescent compilation which succeeds in inverting the notion that human lives follow ordinary paths. Such outwardly macabre statements are at home in the mouths of her eclectic characters, many of whom nevertheless choose vivacity over despondence.
Outwardly, Zafris’s characters are prosaic folks, living in or traveling through uncelebrated backwaters, employed without much distinction. There are farmers, graduate students, and flight attendants amongst them, but the author chips away at these veneers to afford readers a glimpse of the teeming depths beneath their surfaces.
In the title story, an African immigrant withstands a hotel porter’s standard tribulations, his outward cheer fed by the knowledge that the cash he receives from querulous guests flows straight to a cache intended for his beloved back home. “Furgus Welcomes You” follows a housewife as the confines of her small Midwestern town become too unbearable, its boundaries tightening around her until she’s forced to take action. In “Stealing the Llama Farm,” the act through which the protagonist moves to declare his love is both gruesome and final. “Prix Fixe” focuses on a once celebrated chef now relegated to an unimpressive hotel kitchen, and in “Digging the Hole,” cantankerous Jarmilla returns to the site where, years ago, a career spent secreting unwanted folks away enabled her to make an atrocious, life-altering decision.
While these pages will prompt some to draw comparisons—to Flannery O’Connor via the grotesque, or to William Trevor, owing to frequent melancholia—Zafris’s pages possess a particular dynamism which resists similitude. Readers will move from tale to tale with undiminished fascination as Zafris breathes life into her ostensibly conventional host of characters, her sensuous prose teasing out their peculiarities even as it illuminates locales which the eye might otherwise pass over. Phrases such as “the forest panted out its beefy halitosis” and “she was touching living death, and the feel of it was bituminous, hard and soft” are both chilling and evocative, and are well-complimented by eerie allusions elsewhere. “The sun faces a sad journey over this country,” comments a character in “White’s Lake,” one of many innocuous phrases which may, in their context, send readers diving under the covers.
A complex collection, at turns unsettling, provocative, and invigorating—and sometimes, all at once—The Home Jar resonates throughout. It’s an unerringly veracious offering from a writer of impressive skill.
Review of The Home Jar
‘The Home Jar’
by Kate Tuttle
The characters in Nancy Zafris’s new story collection work: There’s a farm worker, a realtor, an American teaching English in the Czech Republic. We meet them as they navigate the knotted landscapes of power, money, and identity, arenas often invisible in contemporary short fiction. There’s a sense of dislocation, difficulty, and hard times in these stories – money is real here, as it is in real life. A former culinary wunderkind finds himself cooking for small-time businessmen at a Midwestern resort. An Eritrean refugee cleans hotel rooms and does anything he can to afford his nephew’s Americanized tastes.
While conjuring a sense of struggle and even dread, Zafris writes with both compassion and wit, as well as almost thrilling zigzags of emotion, as in the thoughts of a Japanese flight attendant on a Rome layover: “Boredom. I am bored. It’s hardly a violent experience. Then it would at least have something to recommend it.” Zafris writes prose so clean and strong we almost don’t notice the magic by which she renders the familiar strange, and the strange achingly familiar.
Review of The Home Jar
Book review | The Home Jar: Tales turn from normalcy
by Margaret Quamme
The characters in the intense stories of Nancy Zafris have challenging relationships with other characters and even more challenging relationships with themselves. They’re constantly being blindsided by strong impulses that seem to come out of nowhere. Readers are likely to find themselves subject to the same shocking shifts in perspective.
The 11 stories in her second collection, The Home Jar, seem at first to be realistic rather than radically experimental. But Zafris, who lives in Columbus and is fiction editor for the Kenyon Review, finds the strange undercurrents in everyday experiences.
Take Prix Fixe, about a day in the life of the chef at a southern Ohio state-park lodge. As Miller, who used to be a chef in France and returned home to take care of his dying parents, putters about picking thyme and marinating meat, his interactions with his fellow kitchen workers and customers reveal the longings and fears splintering his existence.
After Lunch takes place in an even more familiar setting: a budget cafeteria where “ elderly women poked along authoritatively, steering their guest away from the lead-off treats with the assurance that better desserts lay ahead.” Here, developer Eskrich, plagued by conscience and twitchy legs, begins to wonder whether the people around him are real, starts hearing his lunch mate’s conversation as “arf arf arf,” and ends up in the emergency room.
Many of Zafris’ characters don’t quite fit into their lives, including the Eritrean immigrant at the center of the title story, who works as a porter and garage attendant at a hotel, and finds himself engaged in an increasingly unnerving series of interchanges with one of the hotel guests.
Not much happens in White’s Lake — two Czechs and an American, all teachers at a Czech university, visit the summer cottage of one of the Czechs, and hear some noises in the night — but it is a surprisingly unsettling story.
Zafris also uses humor to disarm the reader: The narrator of Stealing the Llama Farm begins by getting the reader on his side with some good-natured complaints about his girlfriend, whose short stories all focus on llamas, “llamas wondering what to do with themselves, biorhythmic llamas, llamas practicing euthanasia on other llamas” — and then shifts into an alarming direction.
In Furgus Welcomes You, a housewife hears a high-pitched sound, “an insistent, fragile tickling trying to get inside her.” Zafris’ compact stories emit a similar, compelling frequency, as they make their readers tune in to psychological wavelengths more comfortably ignored.
Review of The People I Know
E.J. Levy on Nancy Zafris' The People I Know
by E.J. Levy
Good short stories, I’ve always believed, draw you into their worlds, but great stories convince you that their characters are out there, living their lives beyond the borders of the page. Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” is great by such a measure, as is Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge,” so, I would say, is Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” George Saunders’ “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” and the title story from Nancy Zafris’ hilarious and heartbreaking collection, The People I Know.
Each of these stories haunts me as if I had lived among its characters and leaves me with the sense that they are living still, somewhere out there, making their way through the world as we are. Unlike stories that I study for their craft or to steal moves, I read and reread Zafris’ collection because the stories leave me amazed by human character, baffled by how love is forged of such flimsy material as we.
In Zafris’ magnificent title story, “The People I Know,” a daughter in her senior year of high school and her mother battle with their alcoholic roommate, as the daughter battles for a foothold in her mother’s affections and the world. There is a best friend, a Heimlich maneuver, a hypochondriac, a poolside encounter, a heroic restaurant rescue, but it’s not what happens that matters so much as the sensibility it is refracted through. The daughter is indelible in a way I cannot take apart, in the way that people I love are. The things she thinks and experiences linger in my mind and return to me like memory:
“In my heart I don’t believe that he ever existed, biological necessity to the contrary. Nevertheless, references to my father always intrigue me. Because I have never seen him, not even in photographs, I dream of him in my own version of Braille—odors and shadows, and sounds (usually of a pan being thrown). There’s never a face, though often the camera follows a pair of feet. Sometimes there are several pairs of feet. They follow behind me like visible footsteps of invisible men.”These stories range broadly in subject and setting—from a Japanese businessman pursuing a fleeting affair in Tokyo to an American metal shredder discovering riches in the trunk of a corpse-reeking car, from a mother who loses her eldest son to drowning to the widower of an alcoholic wife who finds consolation in an AA meeting.
What unites these seemingly disparate fictions is their concern for what’s missing: these are stories haunted by absence (missing corpses, missing family members; missing feelings). The Japanese businessman is mystified by his demotion to a remote island town, the coldness of his marriage, the disappearance of his childhood friend—unsure how he has lost what mattered most. The successful lawyer narrator of the final story seems mystified by her inability to feel more fiercely, as her chaotic older sister does. “Could I sense already that my future contained a procession of humble pleasures which would give more joy to others than to me…that the more alarming passions would not be mine?”
Bleak and beautiful, these stories are the best kind of funny—rising above sad; here, wit comes of close observation until heartbreak gives rise to something else, as when the protagonist of “Cosmetic Surgery” observes: “Men who liked themselves, she noticed, tended to keep their hands in their pockets, jangling their change as if their pennies were bonus testicles.” Or “Even so young, she was full of untimely obituaries. She watched each year contribute to a growing casualty list. Death of her face. Death of pleasure from being slightly ugly. Death of social embarrassment. Death of gustatory excitement. Great passions of a year ago lacked so much as the tingle of taste you get from licking a postage stamp.”
These are terrifically smart stories about which I find it hard to be smart, because to do so would reduce them, make them smaller than they are. The highest compliment I can offer. All I can really say about The People I Know is, Read It. These are people you want to know, too.
E. J. Levy is the author of LOVE, IN THEORY (2012), which is a finalist for the Edmund White Award and the ForeWord Book of the Year Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in the Paris Review, Orion, the New York Times, and Best American Essays, among other places.
Review of The Home Jar
The Home Jar: Stories by Nancy Zafris
by Hugh Sheehy
Anybody can forget anybody. So claims the vanished husband of Jarmilla Price, protagonist of “Digging the Hole,” the final story in Nancy Zafris’s challenging and powerful new collection The Home Jar. His assertion seems to have been the fatal gamble for many of Zafris’s characters. For Jarmilla, her husband’s conceit might as well be the principle guiding a career of bad choices: she’s spent decades “depositing” (as she sees it) unwanted, leprous children in a backwoods colony, a place where “they would be born again…but remain as nothing for the rest of their lives to the world outside.” This dark work prepares her to do something awful when, years later, her son brings home a former charge’s twin sister; Jarmilla’s retaliation against cosmic irony comes to seem like a dare the universe is only too happy to accept.
In “Swimming in the Dark,” painful memory lies in wait for a Japanese stewardess on brief holiday in Rome. Charmed by the decadently enacted bereavement of Americans who have come to dispose of a cremated loved one, the stewardess sneaks away from her crew to join in with what amounts to a bar-hopping mummer’s parade, and in doing so she pantomimes a private, personal tragedy of her own.
In “Prix Fixe,” a world-class chef hiding out from former renown in the sticks of southern Ohio gets the test he both desires and dreads when a condescending guest appears on a night whose diners otherwise “put the death in death row” (as he tells his sous chef). What this chef is unprepared for is how the challenge of artfully cooking up the local flora and fauna will return him to the sensation of letting go of his life’s big love. (On a side note—or as a side dish, if you like—the food writing here vividly captures both the erotic charge of impassioned cooking and the artistic mentality the chef has achieved by deferring an essential drive: “He grabbed the fire-hot rabbit loin from the oven and placed it over the eyeball tears of oil. The plate immediately burst with an exotic heat.”)
Rich as these and other tales of this nature are, they do not map the limit of Zafris’s interests and art. For here too see characters discover where their personal worlds end and a far larger, alien landscape begins (“Furgus Welcomes You” and “After Lunch,” the second enters a long tradition of Jewish shlemiel stories); watch wanderers reform and sometimes deform themselves to fit their circumstances. “White’s Lake”, a sophisticated tragi-comic story about an American, a Slovak, and a Czech trying to communicate in a dead Jew’s dacha in a Czech countryside where the ghosts of World War II and the Soviet Occupation threaten to transcend reality (let me refer readers to the impressive outhouse scene), performs the hat trick of amusing and saddening the reader before leaving her feeling hopeful for these characters. “The Home Jar,” about an Eritrean hotel employee supporting a wife and children back home, strikes out for the graver side of modern international experience. “My face grew old in a week’s passage under the weight of so many conflicting emotions,” he tells us, of leaving his family to travel to the U.S., “yet each time I handed over my passport or had my baggage sniffed by dogs and then fingered item by item before my eyes, or was asked to wait against a wall, I considered all the money and endless logistics and international agreements that enforced these precautions and it was as if the whole world was for a moment focused on me. This was a sensation I liked and only by pressing myself hard against the wall could I tamp down what threatened to become a smile.”
Zafris has built her reputation as a regionalist unafraid of leaving behind the safer subjects of atmosphere and local quirk and lighting out for the stranger territory of individual minds. Her novels The Metal Shredders and Lucky Strike treat settings as disparate as rustbelt Ohio and 1950s uranium-rush Utah, and her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning short story collection The People I Know was even more ambitious in its willingness to range far from home, exploring milieus as remote from each other as Tokyo and Miami. Yet where lesser writers would rest here on descriptions of place or cultural caricature in the hope of holding the reader’s interest, Zafris sets her sights on the higher ground of knowing characters on the terms they know themselves. What this requires is the courage to offer a theory of another person, a task steep enough that we often applaud when well-intended writers fail. Yet Zafris pursues her horizon until she finds it underfoot, sharing not only the habits of someone who hails from a different culture, but undergirding her portrayal with a sympathy that extends beyond anthropological curiosity into the realm of human respect. Consider this handling of a rural middle-aged couple from southern Ohio:
June Dieter moved in to help her husband. Her laborer’s hand swelled stop the spatula Dieter was holding. She guided his bigger, crustier hand, digging into it like prey, and forced out the energy and confidence. Together they stabbed at the eggs, then shoved them onto a plate. She flung her iron-colored ponytail over shoulder with what appeared to be flirtatiousness, for Dieter was watching her closely, his hand released to hang powerfully dead by his side, kicked over the door and delivered the breakfast plates herself. She left no doubt about whose hands had guided whose when they had first learned to love each other—and now, lesson given and lesson received, it was easy to picture them pawing each other in bed, something unbearably forceful and close to non- Christian in their tussling.
This is serious, imaginative, intellectual work, and its demands for attention and care are also promises of engagement, insight, and transformative emotional experience. There is plenty of darkness and weight in these stories, and yet they are watched over by a spirit of laughter and visited by a saving light, as in “A Modified Cylinder,” in which an apprentice wax figure artist sets about rendering the likeness of a girl whose parents have sustained her on life support for six years. This grim task, set the protagonist by an emotionally cold and artistically inferior master, calls to mind to nothing so much as Poe’s story “The Oval Portrait,” though crucial elements, including the quietly miraculous outcome, are perfectly reversed. Formally, the stories resemble tales and have an almost Twainian texture, and yet they are unmistakably contemporary in their concerns. The Home Jar makes for a deep and vivid read, one I recommend to lovers of serious fiction.
Hugh Sheehy is the author of The Invisibles. He lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at Yeshiva College.
Review of The Home Jar
The Home Jar: Stories by Nancy Zafris
In 1990, Nancy Zafris won the Flannery O’Connor Award for her collection of stories The People I Know. In April, Switchgrass Books is publishing Zafris’s second story collection, The Home Jar. With characters that are resolute, sympathetic, and indelible, the stories in The Home Jar are laugh-out-loud funny one minute and bittersweet the next. Zafris now serves as editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award series. Before that she was the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review for nine years. She is also the author of two novels and the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts grants.
Review of Lucky Strike
'Strike' It Rich: Characters and setting make rewarding reading
by Tracy V. Wilson
Nancy Zafris makes great characters even better by putting them in extraordinary settings. Her first novel, The Metal Shredders, explored the world of a family-owned scrap metal business, and her eccentric band of misfits was made richer by their particular industrial surroundings. Her new book, Lucky Strike, takes place in Utah during the 1950s uranium rush and proves that her gift is blending unique characters with vivid settings.
Jean Waterman is a widowed mother of two, and she has brought her children to Utah more for their own pleasure than to find uranium. Her son, Charlie, has cystic fibrosis, or something similar the book takes place long before the disease was identified or named.
Jean's daughter, Beth, is precocious and tolerant of her brother's insistence that she act as his "bethometer" and pace off measurements of their campsite. While Charlie draws maps of the desert, Beth reads and writes book reports.
The novel begins when the family meets Harry, a traveling salesman who peddles repair parts to mining camps and Geiger counters to tourists who hope to strike it rich.
Jean hasn't really researched what it takes to survive in the desert. She's wearing a dress and heels, and she and the children don't have a supply of water. Harry likes them immediately. After recovering from heatstroke, he helps them get the supplies they need.
Jean and her children don't make any organized efforts to find uranium, but they do spend some time exploring the desert. At their campsite, they meet Jo Dawson and her villainous, abusive husband, Leonard.
When Jean takes her station wagon into town for repairs, they meet Miss Dazzle, who owns the local hotel, and a troupe of elderly women who spend their days gossiping around the swimming pool.
Among the other supporting characters are polygamists, claim-jumpers and a whole community of people willing to donate all their ice to keep a body cold after anyone dies.
Beth and Charlie are bright, optimistic children. Ages 10 and 12, they live largely in their own imaginations, and Zafris translates their musings into prose without seeming silly. The children appear happy in spite of Charlie's illness and the daily poundings he endures to loosen his chest. They delight in their time in Utah, which is part of what makes such a lively novel seem so disturbing in the end.
Events take a turn for the worse midway through the novel, but Beth and Charlie barely slow down. They continue to swim, play and even go on a helicopter ride
When the story stops on a rather foreboding note, a few loose ends trail behind. But the unanswered questions are the sort that lead the reader to thinking about the book for the next few days.
If Beth were to write a book report about it, it would begin, "Lucky Strike is a book I like because it tells you a lot about how to find uranium, and all the characters are fun to read about."
Tracy Wilson is a reviewer who lives in Atlanta.
Review of Lucky Strike
Uranium prospector comes to widow’s aid
by Sybil Downing
Nancy Zafris, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for her short-story collection "The People I Know," sets her latest novel in the '50s when, like lemmings racing to the sea, thousands flocked to the Utah desert in search of uranium and a fortune.
One such hopeful is Harry Lindstrom, who is slowly wending his way toward a mining camp in an International Harvester loaded with detection instruments and portable compressors. The day is already a sizzler, and he stops to help a boy and a girl he sees on top of a rock in the distance. But no sooner is he out of the truck than he discovers he has a flat.
The children's mother, Jean, materializes, and before Harry can protest she leads him off for water and rest in a precious patch of shade. Feeling a certain responsibility for them, Harry drives the family to town the next day so that the mother can buy the claim stakes and powder she needs for prospecting. Thinking young Beth and Charlie would like a swim first, he stops at the Stagecoach Oasis motel.
The manager's name is Miss Dazzle. Among the regulars are three elderly ladies who spend their days poolside, playing cards and keeping an eye on the scene. But it is Miss Dazzle who seems to understand more than anyone else in town about what is actually going on.
Once back at the family's campsite, Harry, Jean and the children discover a silver Airstream trailer has moved in. Other hopefuls begin to show up. Because she is a widow solely responsible for her two children, Jean wishes she knew what was going on.
Laced with quiet tongue-in-cheek humor and told from multiple viewpoints, the adventures of this cast of quirky characters makes for a warmhearted, entertaining read.
Review of Lucky Strike
Stories that compel, or come apart
by Diane White
An honest fictional voice is intangible, impossible to describe. But readers know when they encounter one.
"Lucky Strike," Zafris's second novel, is set in 1954 in the Utah desert, where thousands of prospectors are looking for uranium. Many are naïve amateurs infected with uranium fever after reading government literature that makes striking it rich sound easy. ''Pick up a rock. If it ticks, you're rich," one pamphlet promises.
Jean Waterman, a young widow, has driven her Rambler from Dayton, Ohio, not to prospect, but to provide a memorable trip for her seriously ill 12-year-old son Charlie. Jean thinks of the trip as ''Charlie's Adventure." It's Beth's adventure too. Charlie's sharp-eyed 10-year-old sister has read all the books she brought with her (''Coal Camp Girl," ''Houseboat Girl," etc.) and has started writing her own, ''Uranium Girl." Zafris tells her story, in part, from Beth's point of view.
Jean and her children fall in with an assortment of odd and complex characters, none of them quite what he or she seems. All their lives are touched, to one degree or another, by uranium fever. Zafris's dry sense of humor runs through the story, a counterpoint to the poignancy of Charlie's illness, the desperation of the uranium seekers, and the not-yet-understood danger of radiation poisoning. The sinister, thrilling mushroom cloud of the bomb casts its shadow over everything. ''Lucky Strike" is a quirky novel that rewards careful reading.
Review of Lucky Strike
Prospecting for happiness in barren desert
by David Kirby
Nancy Zafris' sunny new novel is set in the 1950s, when "pasta" was not yet an English word, spaghetti came in cans and "chili con carne" was considered an ethnic dish.
Jean Waterman, a young widow from Ohio, comes to Utah's canyon country with her children, Beth and Charlie, to join a swelling army of "uraniumaires," a ragtag batch of pitiable saps caught up in the early glow of the nuclear era. Jean is as much of a baby as her kids are, a city slicker turned prospector and easy prey to the hucksters who want to sell her junky Geiger counters and other dubious keys to the Fort Knox that, to the guileless, has always been America.
Not that everybody selling scintillators and mineral lights is a con man. The Watermans are lucky to run into Harry Lindstrom, an honest salesman (there was some uranium in the desert, after all) who is too sweet and goofy to be a threat to anyone, except perhaps himself. Harry's most objectionable habit is his logorrhea: "He was always in mid-sentence, heading toward that motherlode noun and its precious adjectives. When he re-entered a town, he had to remind himself to clamp his jaw shut so he wouldn't seem crazy. Probably too late. He had a feeling he had already built a reputation."
Harry sizes up Jean early as a "faucet turner," to use his phrase, and as late as Page 312, she's still wearing heels as she clambers over the rocky terrain. But she's a smart, cute widow, and before long, Harry falls for her big-time and learns "two main lessons in life: love makes you horribly wretchedly happy and love makes you electrically wonderfully miserable."
Zafris' writing lets emotions and memories penetrate each other the way they do in ordinary thought, though seldom in fiction. Sometimes you have to go back and see what's really being said, as when Harry's windshield cracks and he imagines the toy soldiers of his childhood marching back and forth across it, though "in keeping him company they also stripped him down to loneliness," at least until Jean and Beth and Charlie come along. Much of the action is seen through Beth's eyes, and her lack of self-consciousness also makes for a fluid style that contrasts sharply with the harsh landscape. Yet each of Zafris' sentences is as sharp-edged as a miner's pick, and to have to reread one occasionally is a pleasure.
Into so happy a world some misfortune must fall, of course, and stinkers show up at an accelerating rate: desert rats, nasty husbands, swindlers, an outright criminal or two. There is an attempted land grab. A shot is fired. Beth sees a couple of bottom-feeders duking it out and thinks one is trying to stab the other, though the hand that's poised to kill turns out to hold a cigar; a knife's not even a knife in this occasionally menacing yet ultimately happy world.
If you're the sort of reader who still thrills to the words "trading post filling station" and remember begging your dad to stop every time you passed one, even though he probably never did, you'll love Lucky Strike. Like many movies from the post-war period, this novel sends its cast of characters on quite a ride. There are probably more bad guys than good ones in this novel, but in the sunny world of Nancy Zafris, even the villains don't cast much of a shadow.
Poet David Kirby strikes paydirt every day in Tallahassee, where he teaches English at FSU.
Review of Lucky Strike
Uranium hunters fuel unsettling tale
by Margaret Quamme
Nancy Zafris' eerie second novel might have been titled How I Spent My Summer Vacation. And what a summer vacation it is. In 1954, 10-year-old Beth Waterman heads from Dayton to the deserts of Utah with her 12-year-old brother, Charlie, and her widowed mother, Jean, whose behavior reminds Beth of "someone on a trampoline who wouldn't get off."
In 1954, 10-year-old Beth Waterman heads from Dayton to the deserts of Utah with her 12-year-old brother, Charlie, and her widowed mother, Jean, whose behavior reminds Beth of "someone on a trampoline who wouldn't get off."
In Utah, Jean hopes to make some money by laying claim to a patch of uraniumrich land. The family is armed with government pamphlets that make it appear "that searching for uranium was an enjoyable social outing that involved pulling a Geiger counter from a picnic basket."
They set up a precarious camp in the desert, where Charlie begins carefully mapping the area, using "bethometers" (one of Beth's strides when her feet are tied together with rope) as a measure.
Beth, who finds her mind "jumping in the hot bronze emptiness of the desert's palm . . . jumping like a jumping bean from nothing to nothing," occupies herself with "writing book reports on the complete works of Lois Lenski: Strawberry Girl, Coal Camp Girl, Houseboat Girl." And she begins thinking of herself as "Beth Waterman, Uranium Girl," whose defining attributes are "resilient, exploratory and radioactive."
The family is soon joined by volatile Leonard Dawson and his needy wife, Jo, who arrive in an Airstream, and by erratic traveling Geiger-counter salesman Harry, who takes pity on the women and children and whisks them off to the nearest town. There he gets them rooms at Miss Dazzle's motel, where they cool off at the pool and meet an assortment of shady claim stakers, helicopter pilots and old ladies.
Here, Jean thinks, "People didn't do things, the everyday things, like they did in normal places. It was too easy to nap away the stifling afternoons, dreams piling up like dirty dishes, awaking groggy and happy about tomorrow's million dollars."
Zafris, a Columbus resident and fiction editor of the Kenyon Review, grounds her noir-tinged adventure story in well-researched details of life in this time and place: A "Lucky Strike," for example, is a cheap and unreliable brand of Geiger counter. A "polyg" is a derogatory term for a Mormon. A mining camp looks like "a lost city flipped on its head."
One could read Lucky Strike as a historical portrait of a time and place. All the realistic details, though, reverberate with unsettling implications. The characters don't know how poisonous their environment is, but readers know and dread the future effects on the characters of the uranium they long to find.
The sun-drenched landscape appears with feverish clarity, but much that matters is deliberately buried. Charlie is sick, for example, and readers can guess what condition causes him and his mother to go off together, leaving the others to suffer through what they overhear of "choking and hacking and sounds of smacking," but that condition is never named. And Jean is unable to talk to Charlie about what their "sessions" mean.
In the beginning, the novel meanders, peeking into one character's mind and then another's. It's only vaguely threatening. But soon enough, it relentlessly pulls together its cast of characters and sends them out into the desert again to meet their fate.
Zafris' prose is delicately antic, skittering up to the edge of hysteria. But somehow, miraculously, its desperation doesn't descend into despair.
Review of Lucky Strike
"Tough Mamas" Reading List
by Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel
In honor of Mother's Day, the Book Babes went looking for the most resilient moms in the current crop of fiction. Here is advertisement our new list of "Top 10 Tough Mamas" in literature today. Match the book to the personal taste of your mom or someone who has filled in for your mom, and then give it with love.
- Tuscany for Beginners, by Imogen Edwards-Jones. A funny book featuring two strong-willed mothers — one English and the other American — who clash as they vie for attention in the small Tuscan town where they've taken up residence. While the moms are battling, their daughter and son are falling in love. This is a rollicking satire for those of us sick to death of books telling us how ideal life would be if only we moved to Tuscany. Bonus: It contains delicious recipes!
- The Mermaid Chair, by Sue Monk Kidd. After proving herself a master at portraying strong women in The Secret Life of Bees, Kidd is back with a book conjuring another strong female: Jessie Sullivan. A wife, mother and artist who returns to her childhood home, Sullivan finds her unambiguous world as "Hugh's wife and Dee's mother" turned upside down when she falls in love with a Benedictine monk.
- The Bad Mother's Handbook: A Novel, by Kate Long. No one ever said that being a mother was easy. So you've got to laugh while you're shedding all those tears. By examining the lives of three generations of struggling, fictional mothers, Long — a former high school English teacher — explores the difficulties of being a mom and leaves us with the sense that there are as many kinds of mothers as there are children.
- The Interruption of Everything, by Terry McMillan. The author of the popular Waiting to Exhale and How Stella Got Her Groove Back is back herself, this time with Marilyn Grimes, weighed down by a workaholic husband, three demanding grown kids and a live-in mother-in-law. In other words, the perfect formula for a midlife crisis. So where does she find space for herself? If you believe — as the Book Babes do — that the best medicine is not a how-to book but someone else's story, this one's for you.
- Accidental Happiness, by Jean Reynolds Page. The plot summary sounds like a hen fight: Two women who were married to the same man now compete for the affections of the daughter he seems to have left behind. But this is really a moving story by a Seattle writer about motherhood in today's uncertain world. Reese, an earthy and erratic woman, is the actual mom of eight-year-old Angel. Gina, the second wife and new widow of the man who never told her Angel existed, discovers her own mothering instincts after the girl comes into her life.
- The Turk and My Mother, by Mary Helen Stefaniak. This jewel of a debut novel has the flavor of the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, framing the immigrant experience with humor and humanity. Told by the American-born, fully assimilated George, it reaches back to the Hungarian village life of his parents and the community-altering events of World War I. There are two mothers of note: Agnes, the mom mentioned in the title, who fell for the Omar Sharif look-alike in the book's title after husband Josef hightailed it for America to avoid the war, and George's long-suffering but resolute grandmother, Staramajka.
- The Red Hat Club Rides Again, by Haywood Smith. Those who initially cheered on Georgia, SuSu, Teeny, Diane and Linda in The Red Hat Club will welcome back this irrepressible group of southern belles. As Georgia puts it, they've been through "Junior League, potty training, wayward husbands, wayward children, menopause, aging parents and the frightful resurrection of seventies clothing." This time they welcome a newcomer to their Tuesday luncheons, the alcoholic Pru Bonner, whom they feel obliged to kidnap and take to rehab. As a bonus, Smith includes her favorite low-carb recipes. Hmm...do we see a pattern?
- The News from Paraguay, by Lily Tuck. Although this historical epic received lots of press when it won the National Book Award for fiction last fall, it's a shame that most of the news involved what a surprise winner it was. The story of Ella, the ambitious and striking Irishwoman who places her bets on the future dictator of Paraguay, is a beautifully imagined tale set during the mid-19th century. Ella shows her mettle as she endures her impetuous lover, bears him a brood of sons and rides the waves of political intrigue.
- Raising Hope, by Katie Willard. Twelve-year-old Hope, whose father took off after her mother died in childbirth, has been left in the care of both foul-mouthed Ruth Teller, her father's sister, and prim Sara Lynn Hoffman, her father's former lover. The women are complete opposites who have been fierce rivals since high school, but they join forces with Sara Lynn's mother to raise Hope and become a family. Raising Hope is sweetly told from the perspective of all four members of their cobbled-together household.
- Lucky Strike, by Nancy Zafris. The search for a fresh start is a classic American story, and one that Zafris makes new with this novel about a young widow and her children who flee the confines of their circumstances to prospect for uranium in the remote canyons of Utah during the 1950s. Low-key but persuasive, this period piece evokes the innocence of an earlier era and underscores the desperation and hope of the eclectic bunch this mom and her kids meet in their pursuit of the new gold.
Review of Lucky Strike
Lucky Strike by Nancy Zafris
Nancy Zafris' credentials are impressive: Flannery O'Connor award winner for her short story collection; recipient of a New York Times Notable Book designation for her first novel; and fiction editor for The Kenyon Review.
This latest book should further cast Ms. Zafris' credentials in stone. The strength of Lucky Strike is thanks in part to its quirky cast of characters. Each one is distinctly drawn and wholly human. Cementing these characters together is the author's considerable skill as story teller. The location is Utah in the 1950s. Widow Jean Waterman has fled west with her two children in search of the motherlode. Pamphlets distributed by the government promise that searching for uranium is profitable and fun. And a friendly Atomic Energy Commission promises to stand behind each treasure seeker, underwriting every expense.
It's supposed to be that simple. Jean's precocious twelve year old son Charlie is ill. Their trip from Ohio to Utah in search of uranium is an adventure she hopes he will enjoy. Her ten year old daughter Beth is blessed with imagination and a flair for the dramatic. Once they've set up a rough camp in the wilds of Utah, the adventure begins in earnest. In short order, strangers become friends and certain friends prove to be less than trustworthy by book's end.
Harry Lindstrom is a traveling salesman, selling geiger counters and other equipment necessary to hopeful uranium hunters. Harry is a lapsed Mormon, a lonely man whose unresolved past haunts his present. From first meeting, he sees himself as protector of Jean and her children. Jean has issues of her own to contemplate, but sees in Harry a kindred spirit seeking shelter from life's unpredictability.
Jo and Leonard Dawson play the role of squatters at Jean's campsite. Leonard is a bully, Jo a browbeaten woman who discovers there is strength in numbers. Jimmy Splendid is a handsome mine owner, a natural born lady's man who sees Jean as easy prey. Belinda Dazzle owns a motel populated only by three aging sisters and an occasional wandering tourist. Belinda gives far more than she receives from life and seeks comfort in whiskey. She and Jimmy have a history, but lately her interest has focused on the bashful Harry.
Vincent Flaherty is a money man who hides his insecurities behind scholarly humor. With his helicoptor, huge belly, and toothpick legs, Jean's children are drawn to Flaherty by their curious natures. These characters and others equally interesting come together in an age of innocence, before humans fully understood the effects of radiation. They pool their strengths and offset each other's weaknesses as they work towards the common goal of hitting a lucky strike.
This was a book of many fascinating layers. Ms. Zafris draws her readers into complicated corners of the human mind, revealing thouaghts and hopes with humor and insight. I cared about the characters and their individual fates. That's what good writing is all about.
Review of Lucky Strike
Uranium-fueled story leaves a lasting mark
Fortune takes a back seat to love and friendship in Lucky Strike by Nancy Zafris
Welcome to purgatory: Utah's uranium mining camps in desert summer, 1954. Lost souls, seekers of redemption and get-rich-quick junkies all are welcome in Nancy Zafris' second novel, "Lucky Strike."
To this nicely understated stage, Zafris brings her characters: Jean, a young widow with a passionate history; her daughter, Beth, and gravely ill son, Charlie, for whom this may be a last adventure; Harry, a traveling Geiger counter salesman suffering a crisis of faith, on the lam from his Mormon heritage; Jo, the beautiful wife of an emotionally and physically abusive lout; and Miss Dazzle, the needy, heartbroken proprietor of the Stagecoach Oasis motel. All collide like atomic particles in their differing quests; all learn that love and friendship endure beyond fortune.
In Zafris' disturbing and ironic novel, the universe operates under skies where the laws of atomic energy are highly visible. Above-ground nuclear testing is the ultimate lure for a couple of kids on vacation. Our historical perspective is poignantly underscored by the knowledge that the down-winders and uranium miners had life spans appreciably shortened by their exposure to radioactivity, knowledge kept from Zafris' odd assortment of characters by the U.S. government, whose brochures in the 1950s invited American families to plan their vacations around the crackle of Geiger counters.
In fact, there was competition among the various Native American tribes for their abilities to soak up radiation. "In truth the Navajo lung could handle anything," she writes. "The Navajos made money on their lungs, side wagers on whose breath would push the needle of the Geiger counter the farthest and register the highest radioactivity."
Events in this comi-tragedy are witnessed primarily through the eyes of Beth, who rediscovers an abandoned uranium mine. She loves to write book reports but ultimately begins to frame her own story, "Uranium Girl." Her worldview is clear-eyed but still colored by childhood: ". . . it was more like past-breakfasttime, and everybody was drinking. . . . And yet there was absolutely no alcohol in this town. . . . Not a single bit of liquor because that's how God wanted it. A guy named Jim Beam . . . could mention 80 percent proof that there was in fact drinking in this town. . . . Yet these people took zero point zero percent proof that God existed and treated it like one hundred. Pretty much the whole town needed to be in her fourth grade math class."
Zafris' pacing, initially leisurely and uneven, picks up speed, then propels the reader forward as "Lucky Strike" careens toward its stunning conclusion, which haunts long after the reader puts the book down. Zafris is the fiction editor of the Kenyon Review and recipient of a Flannery O'Connor Award for her short-story collection, "The People I Know."
Zafris discusses "Lucky Strike" at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Powell's Books on Hawthorne, 3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.
Evelyn Sharenov recently reviewed "Going Coastal" by Wendy French for The Oregonian.
Review of Lucky Strike
New novel strikes gold with quirky characters, conflicts
by Frank Bentayou
If Utah's craggy desert became a preferred destination in 1954, any place could. Yet this place drew hordes of fortune seekers, and the world still shudders at what forces blasted into view there.
Ohio writer Nancy Zafris de scribes this setting in her likable and thought-provoking second novel, "Lucky Strike." The forces were primal, beyond even standard fiction motivators of love, hate, suffering and greed. Those get a hearing, too, as they did in Zafris' well-received 2003 novel, "The Metal Shredders."
This time, she tracks atomic forces and mines in another winner, winding quirky conflicts around an obsession still battering the world. "Lucky Strike" also brings another weird kennel of characters together, all connecting over their hope for digging up riches.
Uranium prospecting, that is. The characters fixate on the U-235 that fueled post-war energy thirst and signified membership in the select club of countries with weapons of mass desolation. But all that's background radiation in "Lucky Strike." Zafris draws readers into a string of melodramas, then stretches her book with tight language and often funny irony.
To bring characters to life, she distributes the narrative chapter by chapter among an ensemble of players, ushering readers into the winding caves of their minds. Harry Lindstrom, lanky prospecting- equipment salesman, for instance, wonders in one of his chapters if an "easily hushed temperament was a good or bad thing, there by nature or forged by his religious upbringing." In this empty landscape, "maybe it had more to do with loneliness."
The widow Jean Waterman's sad voice spills distracted, gloomy stories of loss from a previous life in Dayton and her current struggles. Her 12-year-old son battles chronic respiratory disease. She and others are there to prospect, but the cast's real search is for themselves. A 10-year-old girl, especially, filters the world through a smart child's hopeful eyes.
Zafris weaves plot lines that never quite knit together, but that's no loss. She makes characters convincing, distinct and entertaining. Then the author rains down on them the dark forces they're up against. That makes humor and horror steam out of the same sun-baked images. A street banner announces $14.99 bus rides to an A-bomb test site, "barbecue included!" Navajo mine workers compete over who can urge the loudest Geiger counter buzz by blowing poison breath on sensors.
The poignant joke of hope-challenged characters on a dreamy, deadly mission runs through this novel, but "Lucky Strike" never preaches. Still, the towering image is the mushroom cloud, a "pillar pushed out of the horizon's red soil, uncurling from the earth like a flower's stem." That and cheering success in a landscape aglow with radiation will remind some readers how duck-and-cover used to be practice for something unthinkable.
Bentayou is a Plain Dealer features reporter.
Review of Lucky Strike
Lucky Strike by Nancy Zafris
With its cast of quirky Ohio scrap-metal workers, Zafris's first novel, The Metal Shredders (2002), revealed her talent for capturing an unfamiliar world; her second accomplishes a similar feat with uranium prospectors in Utah.
It's 1954, and widowed Jean Waterman has brought her two children west, hoping that the desert air will soothe the weak lungs of her son, Charlie, and that the desert's soil will yield treasures of uranium. She meets Harry, an ex-Mormon traveling salesman who deals in Geiger counters and other prospecting paraphernalia; Jo Dawson, the girlish wife of a good-for-nothing lout determined to spend his last pennies in a quest for uranium; Miss Dazzle, the "people person" proprietress of the Stagecoach Oasis motel and a host of colorful folk. In the lonely Utah desert, the wanderers form an unlikely family; there are loves, loyalties and secrets, though nothing much happens. Harry falls in love with Jean and Jo and worries that polygamy is in his genes; Miss Dazzle's cheerful personality hides a deeper loneliness.
In this lovely book, Zafris finds power in the slow, mute strangeness of everyday anxiety, the blossoming of hope in a barren desert and the terrible irony of what uranium means to those who seek it.