Reviewing Reviews

I’ve been remiss in blogging all of the reviews that Before and Afterlives has brought in. And while reviews don’t always interest everyone, they usually interest the writer of a book. So either indulge me or flee as fast as you can! One only has a book come out every so often (at least if you write at my pace), so I’m trying to enjoy the first several months in the life of my newest.

Last month, Lambda Literary reviewed the collection, and said this:

Barzak has a talent for pulling you into a story within the first two or three paragraphs. All writers strive to accomplish that, but few do with such regularity and finesse as Barzak. He weaves complex plotlines into a short space and brings to life an assortment of characters and personalities that each stand on their own as unique and believable, even amidst the supernatural hauntings.

– See the whole review by clicking here. 

Likewise the book lover Curt Jarrell had this to say:

Reading these tales is akin to consuming a literary banquet. You will be rewarded with the rich blend of fine, often lyrical writing, touches of the otherworldly (i.e. ghosts, mermaids, etc.), subtle plotting and characters you’ll identify with, people who will touch your heart. 

  The collection also contains a story I consider a masterpiece.Each detail, every word and description build images and emotions that linger in the mind and heart long after reading.

The Boy Who Was Born Wrapped in Barbed Wire” is a beautiful and terrible tale of a child born with a unique affliction. Easily the most lyrical of the collection, the story overflows with joy and sorrow, blood and laughter, love and loss. It is thought provoking and emotional. It reminded me of a story Flannery O’Connor might have written. I was dazzled, moved by it’s beauty and brought to tears at it’s conclusion. Wow!

You can read that entire review here.

And over at the Lit Pub, Eddy Rathke reviews the collection too:

Who is to say that the unreal and the real cannot inhabit the same pages? Barzak’s skill here is making a foundation in reality so solid and believable that when the world’s glimmering shifts fantastic you are so swept up in it that it had to be that way. His fiction does not contain magic and monsters to illustrate magic and monsters but to show how beautiful and unknown and haunting our world is. 

The entire review is readable by clicking here. 


Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (Vanishing Point)

Today’s preview from Before and Afterlives is the opening of my story, “Vanishing Point”, which first appeared in the Canadian literary journal, Descant. It’s a story about a mother whose son has been afflicted with a mysterious disease that is plaguing her community. People begin to vanish slowly, to become invisible and to lose their solidity in increments, and over a period of time, they disappear altogether. The narration style is a monologue, or a letter, however you’d like to imagine it, in which she speaks to a social scientist who is attempting to collect narratives from people who have lost a loved one to the strange illness.


Vanishing Point


You asked me, sir, to tell you about my son’s disappearance.  I must admit that I did not know what to think when your first letter arrived.  And when you phoned, I think I was a bit startled by all your attention.  We don’t get many phone calls here, you see.  But since last week, when I told you an interview was out of the question, I’ve been unable to stop thinking about Nathan and how, as a mother, I have a duty.  Others should know the truth.  You wanted to know what life was like here, in my house, in my family, with Nathan and then, afterwards, without him.  It’s not as simple as that, though.  A person isn’t here one day, then gone the next.  If I’m going to tell you anything, it won’t be what you’re expecting.  It might not be what you want to hear.  But, in any case, I’ll tell you what I know.  What I know is the truth.

From the beginning, his growing absence was oppressive.  If I was not in the kitchen making supper for Sarah and myself, I was attending to my son in his room.  We seemed to eat a lot during those days.  An affliction of hunger consumed us that could not be satisfied.  As Nathan disappeared, Sarah and I ate and ate.  I made meals we’d never heard of, recipes out of foreign cookbooks, fancy dishes that required an orange peel or a sculptured radish rosette on the side.  We were pretending to have money, even though we had no money.  I do have money now, though.  Now that Nathan is not so demanding.  Yes, sir, Sarah and I are off the dole.

We ate exotic foods, Thai and Indian curries.  We ground our own spices in the coffee grinder.  Also we had a peculiar taste for Ethiopian, and Sarah and I would sometimes joke about this.  You know, how starving those people are and how we craved their recipes.  What a laugh!  It was a laugh then, I tell you.  I had my own boy starving.  Starving for solidity.  Sometimes he could barely move off of his bed.

Do you know those movies where a person suddenly acquires the ability to walk through walls?  The ones where someone becomes transparent to the point that no one else can see them unless looked at very hard?  The Invisible Man?  Movies like that?  Let me tell you, they’re a pack of lies.  Those people never seem to have problems.  They move through life more easily in fact.  Now they can walk through moving traffic and never have to wait for the light.  Now they can strip off their clothes and sneak into shower rooms to watch people, bodies, drifting through steam, larger than life, without ever getting caught.

There were days when Nathan couldn’t bring himself to go to the bathroom on his own.  There were days when Sarah and I tried to help him into the shower, but he fell through our hands, through the hardwood floor, down into the living room.  We’d find him lying under the coffee table, his arms threaded through the table legs.  Or, once, splayed out in the middle of the broken plants and pottery he’d landed on.  I was always frightened.  Someday, I thought, he will fall and fall forever, and then where will he go?  I remembered how, when we were little, we thought if a person dug a deep enough hole in the ground, they’d fall through to China.  Our parents frightened us with thoughts like that.  Why was it they wanted to frighten us?

Nathan never fell to China.  Or if he did, he fell back in time for me not to notice.  I don’t think this is possible.  I don’t think this ever happened.  Still, though, I’ll leave it open.  I have learned to leave things open, sir.  Have you?


     It was a Friday last September the school called me.  The school nurse said, “I think you need to come down.”  I told her that I had to work, and she said, “I really think you should come down, Miss Livingston.”  She said my name real tough-like, like she was gritting her teeth.

“All right,” I said.  “All right.  I’ll come down.”

Nathan was waiting for me in the nurse’s office.  He was lying on a table, like in a doctor’s exam room, with the crackling paper rolled over its top.  Only that paper didn’t crackle.  It didn’t make any noise at all.  Now being a doctor yourself, sir, you know you can’t shut that paper up.  Even though you are up there at the university studying “the social implications of phenomena”, as you put it in your letter, and are in great need of “personal narratives” and “statistics” so that the research will be “pure”, and are not a real doctor, practicing medicine and such, I’m sure you have been on one of those tables before.  Not even staying completely still, which is impossible if you ask me, will shut that paper up.  I asked, “What’s wrong?  What’s happened here?”  And the nurse, a woman who was not as severe as I had expected, a woman who wore a fuzzy blue sweater and did not have her hair up in a bun but let it fall over her shoulders like dark cream, she said, “I’m so sorry.”

I went over to Nathan and looked at his eyes.  His eyes were open, but he didn’t seem to see me.  They were blue eyes, watery eyes, my father’s eyes.  When he was born, how happy I was to see those eyes!  Not my husband’s, who was a drunkard and a cheater, not his eyes.  I said, “Nathan?  Honey, what’s wrong?”  His lips trembled.  I thought, What am I going to do?  Already I knew without knowing what afflicted him that things were going to change.

The nurse put her arm around me and said, “Be calm.”  She unbuttoned Nathan’s shirt, one button at a time, her fingers were so deft, and pulled back each side of his shirt like a curtain.  If you could see what I saw that day.  It was not always like that, I assure you.  Nathan:  his chest, only his chest, had gone translucent.  I saw those lungs filling and expelling air, two brownish, soggy sacs going up and down, up and down.  And his heart, it throbbed beneath them.  The blood slid through his veins and I thought of blue rivers winding on a map.  The nurse covered him over again and began buttoning his tiny buttons.  And look here, I thought, even those buttons are clear.

Perhaps I am exaggerating this all a bit.  I don’t know.  This is how I remember it:  his lungs, his heart, the blood in his veins and arteries, the webbing of his nerves.  Sir, I know you are a not a real doctor and all, but let me ask you something.  Have you ever seen anything like this?  Have you ever seen your own child like this?  Sir, do you have children?

I took my son home and, while we drove in the car, neither of us said anything.  Nathan looked out the window at the passing mills and factories, the ones that all closed down years ago.  Their smokeless stacks loomed above us, gray against the gray sky.  I live on the South side of town, not the best place to raise children, Lord knows, but I did the best I could.

The factories we passed were tattooed with graffiti.  The gridwork of their windows was busted out.  Kids used to come down to the mills to paint their names, to spray-paint their useless childhood loves, to mark down their childhood enemies as though they were making hit lists.  They threw rocks, pieces of broken concrete, at the gridded windows high overhead.  The glass would shatter and rain down at their feet, onto the factory floors, and oh, how we laughed and gripped each other’s shoulders at these small victories.  It felt good to bust up those places that broke first our parents’ backs, and then, after shutting down, their spirits.

I think Nathan and his friends did this, too.  To let out frustration.  I don’t know.  I’m only guessing.  It’s something I’ve learned to do.

Sneak Peeks of Before and Afterlives (A Resurrection Artist)

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll occasionally be posting previews from the 17 stories in my new short story collection, Before and Afterlives. If you like what you read, take a hop over to your favorite online bookseller and purchase either the print book or the e-book, and leave a review when you’re finished reading. It helps other people figure out if they’d like to read the book (and strokes my ego, at least when they’re good reviews). 😉

Today’s excerpt comes from “A Resurrection Artist” which was published in 2004, in the UK magazine, The Third Alternative, which was rebranded a year or so after the story came out as the magazine now called Black Static. It’s a story I was thinking about while my reading took me across both Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist” and Sylvia Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus”. I’ve always been interested in writing about characters whose talents (often magical gifts and/or curses) are somehow used or abused by others for personal gain, and I’ve always been interested in cultures of spectacle (like our own here in the U.S.). This is one of my stories where those interests converged.


A Resurrection Artist

Lying here in this abandoned hotel, I have done it once again. Once every year or so, depending on my finances, I allow myself to die. It’s a way of life, a means to an end, or an end to life as a way of surviving. Any way you look at it, my body is a miracle.

Now comes the burning sensation of re-entry, a tingling that grows to feel like fire.  As I find myself returning to my body, every cell expands, flooding with electricity. Then my eyes blink over and over, making adjustments to reality and to the grade of light. I gasp for a first breath, then howl like a newborn. After this I can begin to see the people who killed me hovering over my body, their oval faces peering down, curious, amazed.

This audience has been the eighth group to kill me. It was a thrill for them, I’m sure, even though some have already seen me do this. I’m developing a following. Times are rough, Jan constantly tells me. People need something to believe in. Jan is my manager. She’s my sister, too. Improvisation, spins on old ideas, variations on a theme, she advises, is what’s needed to keep this act alive.

This act can’t die, though, even if I tried. Like the cat, I have nine lives. More than nine most likely, but in matters like this there’s always the unpredictable to take into account. So far, though, Jan and I haven’t figured out how to mess up death.

A young man wearing a dark suit says, “This can’t be happening.” I cough and spit up blood in my hands. There’s a golden ring on one of my fingers that wasn’t there when I died. This must be what I brought back this time. I try to recall how they killed me, but can only remember in pieces: a burn under my ribs where a knife slid in, the jolt of a gunshot splitting my chest open, my eyes flooding with blood after the blow of a hammer.

“Believe,” says Jan. I follow her voice to find her standing beside me. She waves her hand over my body, from head to toe. “You did it yourselves,” she tells them. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is his body, his arms, his legs, his head and torso. You’ve kept vigil beside him since the moment of death. I hope the experience has been satisfying.”

There’s an old lady whose eyes have slowly narrowed to slits. “I’m not so sure,” she says. “I mean, I know he died.  We saw the heart monitor, the flat line. But now that he’s alive again, it just doesn’t seem fair.”

A typical reaction, really. Some people are confused about what they truly want. She didn’t pay for a resurrection; she only wanted the death.

But we have their money, ten thousand dollars a head, and there are eight of them. We kept this group small since outings like this–a killing instead of a suicide–are illegal. Hence the abandoned hotel, once known as The Flamingo. The carpet, the striped wallpaper, the floor of the drained pool, everything here is pink.

“Mrs. Bertrand,” Jan says, “you’ve just witnessed a miracle. My little brother, barely twenty-three years old, allowed you to kill him so he could return to us from death. How can you possibly be disappointed?”

Mrs. Bertrand sniffles. “Oh yes,” she says. “I know. I wasn’t really complaining. Don’t mind me.”

Jan smiles. Mrs. Bertrand smiles.  The rest of the killers smile. I try, but only manage a weak sneer.