In Moving Waters (Argo, $14), a stunning debut collection of 18 stories set in Los Angeles — Racelle Rosett slips into the minds and hearts of her characters with thrilling intimacy. Her stories are peopled with affluent Reform Jews whose seemingly orderly family façades and material wealth disguise murkier, messier emotional complexities.
“Winter Bloom didn’t plan to fall in love with the nanny of her son’s classmate,” admits the protagonist in the opening story. In the next line, the reader learns that Winter is “married for one thing, and a moment before straight.” There is no dancing around the edges of what needs to be faced. As the story progresses, an outing to the grocery store manifests Winter’s profound yearnings: “While she pushed her cart around Whole Foods, she was winding her way out of her marriage.”
In “Levi,” Rosett takes us into the mind of a gifted little boy struggling to come to terms with the loss of his older brother, Natan, who was stillborn. “There are seventy-two disturbing images on the way to my school,” says Levi, launching his story of grief. Bombarded by observations he is unable to filter, and overwhelmed by the largess of his feelings, he tries to locate where his brother has gone. In a beautiful rendering, full of longing and heartache, Levi imagines meeting and playing with his brother in heaven “at the feet of G-d’s throne.” But heaven is a distant, dreamlike place where Levi himself cannot stay for long. In the end, he must leave Natan (and not the other way around) to return “falling, falling” back to earth.
In “The Unveiling,” the reader is privy to widow Iris’ deepest thoughts as she prepares for the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death. At the beauty parlor, in an ongoing inner dialogue with her dead husband, Iris says: “I can’t believe you left me. I have to go. They are wrapping my head in a towel and wondering why I have tears running down my cheeks.” It is this pairing of the comedic with heartbreak, the prosaic with sacred on a micro level that is one of Rosett’s many triumphs.
In Venus in the Afternoon (University of North Texas Press, $14.95) by Tehila Lieberman, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in short fiction, characters are driven to stand at the edge of their own tales and look back on themselves. The men and women in her urban world are unanchored, living sparely, often shell-shocked from the force of their pasts intruding on their present. Lieberman’s stories are set in New York City, with occasional forays to Mexico and Boston. Characters are doomed to wander geographically between continents as well as between their personal time zones, dragged down by the weight of their stories.
In “Reinventing Olivia” one of nine stories in the collection, Michael, an aspiring novelist and adjunct professor who teaches creative writing to adults, struggles to locate the boundary between his imagination and the less-than desirable reality he has found himself in as a way to control what he can’t fix: his diminishing relationship with his young wife, Olivia. The couples’ original, shared aspiration of pursuing their art — Olivia to paint, and he to write — has diverged to the point of no return. Whereas Olivia has embraced corporate life and financial success, Michael clings to their disappearing past by ramping up a fictive version of Olivia, creating an alter-story as a way to hold on to who they once were: “two lovers on a mattress in an empty room, our lives still undreamed.”
In the powerful “Waltz on East 6th Street,” an adult daughter of a Holocaust survivor struggles to reach her mother. “There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter.”
With “Anya’s Angel,” we meet a young man from Manhattan living out of a suitcase, traveling to exotic places like Mexico, where he meets the love of his life, except that she’s suffering a fatal illness. Still, he chooses to love what will soon be lost rather than not love at all. The promise of love in Lieberman’s collection is an ache, an unguided boat which has sadly and quietly slipped away.
In “Cul de Sac,” a husband faces the impending end-of-the road death of his cancer-ridden wife, Lila. Told from multiple points of view that include neighbors, Lila at one point observes: “They all look at her as if she has the answers. She doesn’t have the answers.” This salient thought could serve as a theme for all the stories in Venus in the Afternoon.
Lieberman’s vision constitutes a restlessness, a sense of wandering Jew in search of emotional safety and a firm place, a sense of somewhere better that is out of reach. Rosett’s families, in danger of drowning in their emotional struggles, keep paddling through life’s moving waters to stay afloat.
Jessica Keener has a debut novel, Night Swim, set in a 1970 Boston suburb. It tells the tale of the upper-middle class Kunitz family who closet their troubles until tragedy breaks through. www.jessicakeener.com