Today, for the first time on this blog, I’m posting a review of a book written by a friend. The Secret Games of Words: Stories is a collection I highly recommend, by a very smart fiction writer, Karen Stefano, whose work, I hope, will be known to more people each day.
Karen did not request this review. For the record, I understand I am not a New York Times book reviewer and the impact of any opinion of mine, stated here, will likely not be monumental. Nonetheless, over the past few days I’ve come up with a philosophy and a practice about reviewing writer-friends’ work I think I can live with.
When it comes to books, we like what we like–there’s often little logic to it. I’m an expert only in recognizing what I’m crazy about.
So let’s just start here: I’m crazy about The Secret Games of Words. In it, Karen Stefano serves up a heartbreakingly funny array of stories in an entertaining variety of forms. I don’t think form can make or break a story but the collection includes odd gems like a searing, fifteen-page email rant from one partner to another in a 25-year relationship gone awry (title story, “The Secret Games of Words”); a take-off on a personality questionnaire filled in by a woman whose life is falling apart due to mistakes of her own and others’ doing (“Undone”); and a poem about relative truths with a footnote to every line (“The Asymmetrical Science of Love”). There’s flash fiction, too, some of which, “Under,” for example, about a mother’s overprotection (“But a piece of the room is shining. Mother missed a spot and a sliver of sunlight forces its way in.”) reside in that curious and lovely place between fiction and prose poetry.
As for words and their secret games, if that’s what you were hoping for–you’re in luck. The title story, one of my favorites, opens with the following:
You’ve bravely opened countless Word documents of mine in recent months, yet now inexplicably refuse me any form of attachment. You know I’m not the type of woman to pass a virus. I believe in both safe sex and safe text…
See what I mean? And you haven’t even gotten to the meat of the story yet, in which Missus Jack 1 (aka Leslie) confesses to her then (and always philandering) husband that she’d lost her job because of a typo:
“You got fired?” Your adam’s apple bobbed as you swallowed.
“I made a typo.”
“You made a typo?”
You went on like this, repeating my words like some hysterical fucking Mockingbird until I handed you the press release.
Your voice quavered as you read the title aloud. “City Council Shits on Mayor’s New Policy.”
“It was supposed to say shifts.” I pummeled a pillow with my fists as the cat leapt off my lap. “Shifts, Shifts, Shifts.”
Later, in the therapist’s office, philandering (and worse) Jack is stumped by the therapist’s request to say something he likes about Leslie.
Had this session been a game show, an oversized clock would have begun ticking in time with a message flashing onscreen: Bonus round! No penalty for clichés!
But there aren’t any clichés, there’s pretty much nothing…nothing, that is, but Leslie’s misreading of words everywhere: a title on the therapist’s bookshelf, The Rapist’s Guide to the DSM IV, “pimping” instead of “pinning,” “workfarce” in place of “workforce.” Finally,
“You got laid. I got laid off. One’s good, the other’s bad, get it?”
So you’re laughing at these word games, but crying, too, crying and cheering for Leslie, aghast at her naiveté, crushed by her…what? By a trait she and other protagonists in this collection share: a stunning honesty, a devastatingly open-hearted analysis of self and mistakes and longing that makes your heart break, for her and for you, over and over again. In “Chronology,” a poem, we get this representative summary:
I confess my sins: trying too hard, wanting too much.
Besides candid, fallible women and overprotective if distant mothers, you’ll find a variety of other appealing characters. I love the recurring single-parent Dad (who, I admit, sounds a lot like my recently passed father) with his “Crazier than a rat in a shithouse” analogy; his never-melodramatic devotion to a simple dinner every night with his daughter; his surprise rescue of her, on the eve of a middle-school homework apocalypse, with a copy of Cliff Notes. There’s an aunt, too, whom I love: Aunt Gracie in “The Rule Against Perpetuities,” one of the last stories of this wonderful collection. Lest you think word-play is restricted to the title story (and it is most definitely NOT; in fact, games with words is clearly the theme threaded through each short story, flash fiction piece and poem in the collection), here’s a wonderful line from “The Rule Against Perpetuities:”
Gracie had made it half way through grade school and could add, but never learned to subtract.
How good is that?
And here’s why the whole book is good. In “All the Bad Words Start With V,” a woman slowly and painfully pieces together the clues of her husband’s infidelity. She and said husband are at the wedding of some gays friends.
The vows begin promptly and Jeff goes first. “Trevor, you are my best friend and I love you so much. I am prepared for the challenges that being married to you will involve.” The church erupts into laughter and Jeff has to pause before continuing. Why do we find it so comical when a simple truth gets spoken aloud?
Sign on for your share of simple truths, spoken aloud. Read Karen Stefano’s The Secret Games of Words.