Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Summerset Review/Allie Larkin/Mary Akers/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Joseph Levens

The Summerset Review is a journal of contemporary literary fiction and essays, published online quarterly and in print form periodically. Founded in 2002, the journal is devoted to publishing five unsolicited pieces per quarter. Starting in the fall of 2007, several new features have been introduced: Readers are compensated based upon critical comments they contribute, and a specific question is provided on each published story, allowing for discussion in reader groups. The journal is hoping these features will increase the awareness and penetration of literary magazines in our world and culture.

Joseph Levens is founder and editor of The Summerset Review, and his own fiction has appeared in places such as Florida Review, New Orleans Review, Sou’wester, Agni, Swink, and Other Voices.

Nominated Short Story: "Bathtub Mary"- Allie Larkin

Reviewed: by Mary Akers

I found so much to love about Allie Larkin’s "Bathtub Mary." But first—at a time when many editors and journals routinely and automatically shy away from stories that touch on religious themes—I would like to commend Summerset Review for fearlessly publishing a story with a young girl, Jewish by birth, who secretly yearns to experience the cadence and rituals of Catholicism. Religion, after all, is in the news; it’s all around us—even permeating the political process—and we must not shy away from examining its role in our lives, useful or otherwise. For art to fully reflect life, we must be willing to depict faith and religion in our short stories.

And although religion is present in this story, it never takes over. It is only a religious story in the sense that Flannery O’Connor’s "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is a religious story. Like the rescued Mary hidden in the weeds behind young Margie’s house, the idea of redemption hovers discreetly beneath the surface of this coming-of-age story. In fact, the story very artfully says more by what it doesn’t say—a wonderful aspect of strong writing that reminds me of the negative space in a sculpture—expressing with absence.

Another aspect of this story that I found especially endearing was the way in which Larkin’s innocent young protagonist describes things that she does not fully understand and describes them in a way that allows us to grasp the import (mainly related to a male neighbor suffering from AIDS) without coming at the expense of the narrator. So often, authors seem unable to resist the temptation to have a private joke at the expense of their characters, a wink-wink, nudge-nudge over a character’s head that says, “We get it but she doesn’t.” Fortunately Larkin avoids this, and the story is much stronger for it.

Most importantly, Larkin’s story never preaches. “We’re realists,” says the mother when Margie asks, “Well, what are we then?” after being told that their religion is not “up for grabs”. Later in the story, after Margie’s mother replaces their bathtub Mary with a gargoyle and suggests they might put antlers on it at Christmas, Margie reminds her mother, “We’re Jewish. We don’t celebrate Christmas.” Many such lovely, light brushstrokes (the young daughter needling her mother for perceived hypocrisy) permeate this story.

And the positive mother-daughter interactions also felt very real. Touching, but not saccharine. An example: “We went to K-mart and Sears, and had lunch in a restaurant, and she let me buy a pair of pink sneakers with double Velcro straps even though she said the sound of the Velcro made her teeth itch…I sat on the couch next to her with my pink sneakers on, holding my hand over the Velcro strap. ‘I’m going to do it,’ I said, laughing.”

"Bathtub Mary" is a delightful, thoughtful read, and one that I first found while web browsing on my own; I actually read it and fell in love with it the day before I was asked to review it for this blog. With web publishing such a huge and densely populated space, how can you argue with such serendipity?

Reviewer's Bio:

Mary Akers is the author of Women Up On Blocks, a short story collection that explores the price women pay when they allow the roles of wife, mother, daughter or lover to define them. She co-authored the non-fiction book Radical Gratitude: And Other Life Lessons Learned in Siberia (Allen & Unwin, Australia) and also titled The Greatest Gift: Lessons Learned in Exile in Siberia (Simon & Schuster UK/Canada).

Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, Ars Medica, Brevity and other journals. She has work in the anthologies The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers at the Intersection of Motherhood and Social Change and Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform.

Akers also co-founded the Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology, a study abroad marine ecology program located in Roseau, Dominica. She enjoys snorkeling, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, and snowshoeing. Although raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia—which she will always call home—she currently lives in Western New York.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.


Theodore Q. Rorschalk said...

Having such a great recommendation to motivate you to actually read the story is quite a novel concept and one I hope takes hold! My compliments to the chief.

E.P. Chiew said...

What a great idea for a blog, T.J. I look forward to checking in all the time. I'm always dying for good reads online. Sometimes the problem is one is too totally overwhelmed by too many offerings. Now I know where to go to find that one good story to take to bed!

Anonymous said...

So nice to see you've got this up and running, TJ! It looks beautiful, and the first entry is so well written about such a fine story. This is a great idea.

Ride Between the Stars said...

Thanks, I appreciate the kind words.

equa yona(Big Bear) said...

I just read Allie Larkin's lovely, touching story and this excellent review. I was so pleased that the story was not a satire of the simple devotion which prompts believers to put up'bathtub Mary' shrines. Indeed it was beautifully respectful. What a wonderful writer.