Yuvi Zalkow’s second and newest novel, I Only Cry With Emoticons, is a hilarious ride through dealing with human connection in a modern age littered with smartphones, tablets, dating apps, and hashtags. At its core, it’s a story about responsibility. It begs the question, how do we take responsibility for our irresponsible reliance on technology? How do we take responsibility for allowing ourselves to become so disconnected not just with one another, but our own lives?
Coming of age stories are nothing new, and neither are stories about characters who are “on the run.” Yet when these types of stories are executed in an original fresh way, it’s impossible to not find yourself being invested in the characters and themes. That was my experience when reading Lori Ann Stephens’ upcoming novel, Blue Running. In this novel, Stephens manages to take the classic thriller style story of a young girl, or rather two young women, on the run, desperate to escape their past actions, and melds it with a heartfelt coming of age story. The end result of this can only be described as one of the most nail-biting depictions of adolescence I’ve ever read.
Against the backdrop of a slowly dying world, Helene Bukowski writes a beautiful and brutal story about living with trauma, the strain of motherhood, and the danger of fearing the unknown.
In the opening lines of Milk Teeth, Helene Bukowski sets the tone for the story to come: “The fog has swallowed up the sea. It stands like a wall, there, where the beach begins. I can’t get used to the sight of the water. I’m always looking for a bank on the opposite side that could reassure me, but there’s nothing but sea and sky. These days, even this line is blurred.” Beautiful, brutal, and eerily accessible, the story of Milk Teeth is one that peels back the layers we build around fear; it lays them bare along tainted waters and dares its readers to move through the fear and into the beyond.
At times, Milk Teeth feels like a dark fairytale, and at times it feels like a mirror, as if Bukowski is revealing how close our own world is to the one that she has invented. While the circumstances surrounding Skalde’s town are hazy—made even more so by the vague pieces of information we learn alongside her from her mother and the other townspeople—it is close enough to our own situation for us to understand what is going on. The language of Milk Teeth is grounded and real, and it pulls in its audience from the very beginning, as the opening of the story follows Skalde’s childhood. We get down in the dirt and weeds with Skalde as she tries to keep their meager garden alive; we bear witness to the harshness and mental illness that plague her mother’s parenting; we learn to see this dying world through her eyes. By the time Skalde transitions to an adult, not even a quarter of the way through the book, we are utterly entangled in her world and her life. And then she finds a child in the woods.
When Skalde finds Meisis, everything changes, and the perspective of the narrative shifts from that of a beleaguered daughter to one of a struggling mother. She becomes determined to protect this child and hide her from the eyes of the people around her—something that becomes more and more difficult. Her relationship with Meisis also reveals the reasoning behind her mother’s harshness, something that Skalde struggles to come to terms with as she finds herself repeating her own mother’s parenting mistakes out of fear for Meisis’ safety. She also struggles with bitterness and resentment towards Edith, as Edith is often kinder to Meisis than she ever was to Skalde. This bitterness begins to put strain on Skalde’s relationship with her daughter. This is a reckoning that a lot of children from broken homes have to deal with—whether they should forgive their parents, whether they are doomed to repeat the same mistakes, or how they can break out of the generational cycles of pain. Skalde is on the receiving end of two kinds of generational baggage—as someone who was born and raised in this town but the daughter of an outsider, she inherits both her mother’s fear of their neighbors and their neighbor’s fear of the outside world.
Interspersed throughout the story are bits of Skalde’s poetry that she starts writing as a child. Like the language of the story, they are simple and intense, but their meaning is drenched in implied metaphor. Skalde’s first poem: “I SAW THE BLUE OF THE SKY, IT LOOKED AS IF IT HAD BEEN HOLLOWED OUT, AND I THINK THAT EVENTUALLY THE HOUSES WILL ALSO STAND LIKE SKELETONS” (23). The poems are lovely to read, and they provide a nice transitional flow in between the narration. “WHICH BONDS WOULD REMAIN IF I WERE TO FORGET AN EMBER IN THE STRAW,” Skalde writes as her world dissolves around her, “THE FLAMES WOULD BE SEEN FOR MILES AROUND” (163).
In many ways, Bukowski is telling the story of cycles. Cycles of distrust, cycles of abuse, cycles of fear. Again and again, we see history repeat itself—in the townspeople’s treatment of outsiders, first Edith and then Meisis, and in the ways that Skalde repeats her mother’s parenting mistakes. Fear drives every action in this story, in one way or another, often manifesting in a special kind of fear we all can relate to—fear for the people we love. It is fear that causes first Edith and then Skalde to set such strict rules about the house, to dissolve into shouts and panic when these rules are broken. It is fear that makes the townspeople so hostile towards outsiders.
Milk Teeth tackles so many complex issues that I initially found it difficult to put them into words. Difficult parent relationships, fear of the outsiders, environmental catastrophe—these seem like very different topics. But they are actually intertwined. It is the author’s own fears reflected in the narrative: the fear of repeating a parent’s mistakes, the fear of the ever-looming environmental apocalypse, the fear that all of society could be like the town Skalde grows up in.
The horror of Milk Teeth is that the world it presents is not a distant or detached one. Unlike the worlds of so many dystopian novels, the future that Bukowski paints is one of some far off, imagined society—one that we could see perhaps existing, but that is far too fanciful or contrived to ever really feel threatening. Instead, the world of Milk Teeth is uncomfortably close to home. The threat of an environmental collapse feels closer every day, and the aggressively xenophobic nature of this small, closed off town is not a farfetched fantasy. It brings forth a challenge to the reader: can you really claim you would be any different? If you were cut off from society, living in brutal survival; a generation removed from the world we know—wouldn’t we, too, learn to fear outsiders?
The fear of the unknown is in all of us. It manifests in different ways, but it has been present for all of human history, and it is easily twisted. It is something we all have to face when we try and move towards something better than the life we know. As Skalde writes, “TO LEAVE A FAMILIAR TERRITORY I COULD NAVIGATE BLIND. WHAT LASTS, AND WHAT REMAINS, IF I GO? WHO WILL REMEMBER THE PATH I LEAVE BEHIND?” (215). But so many of the problems in Milk Teeth come from stewing in fear, from staying in the same place with the same mindset. What Bukowski wants both her audience and her characters to understand is that the familiar and comfortable hold their own kind of danger; only by facing the unknown and the difficult, by acknowledging and confronting our fear, can we begin to build a better future. The waters of uncertainty are waiting for us, if we only jump in and search for a better way.
“Failure to thrive” is the medical term used for the slow development of an infant due to a lack of nutrients. Babies who receive this diagnosis will often have developmental delays later in life. This condition can be the result of an internal, chromosomal issue or the environment around the child. In either case, death is imminent unless there is interference.
Meghan Lamb’s debut novel, Failure to Thrive captures that slow process and the inability to thrive in settings that produce nothing but death and decay. The story takes place in a Pennsylvania coal town poisoned by an underground fire. Divided into three sections, it centers around three families: a young couple struggling to raise a neurodivergent daughter, a woman caring for a dying parent and dealing with the after-effects of her past substance abuse, and a young man dealing with memory loss after a catastrophic accident. Lamb uses genre-bending prose, vivid imagery, and subtle characterization to highlight the major themes of her novel.
In each section, readers follow each of the characters into a slow decline. We watch their lives fall apart as they struggle to overcome their situations. The spaces that they occupy generate an atmospheric sense of emptiness, a feeling that the prose’s design replicates. There is something wonderfully haunting about Lamb’s prose and the strategic way she arranges the words on the page. Readers who pick up this book will likely first notice the short snapshots that make up each chapter and the text that drifts across the page like whispers of smoke. She lets sounds speak for themselves; spelling out every “cooroo” (19) of the birds and “Kkkkkk-AHHHH” (131) of a dying man’s cough so that it can be felt. She gives life and voice to the words and sounds that make up the character’s world until you can’t help but feel them move through you.
Lamb doesn’t capture her characters’ decline through grand, dramatic scenes of conflict or action. Instead, it’s the subtle, unsettling details of mundane experiences that encapsulate this slow process of decay and death. In the first section, the narrator introduces Olivia, a woman who is neurodivergent and trying desperately to stick to her daily schedule in the absence of her parents. Lamb contrasts Olivia’s lonely present with her parents’ thriving past, the life they lived before they had her. This contrast only sharpens Olivia’s loneliness and hunger as she waits for a breakfast that never comes. It is accentuated by a single, heartbreaking description: “Her stomach feels like a long-forgotten basement” (26).
Lamb sprinkles descriptions like this throughout the novel, effectively highlighting the absences that loss and trauma leave behind. With Helen, Lamb takes simple pleasures like enjoying a meal with a parent and turns them into something sickening. Forced to thicken and blend everything her father drinks and eats, Helen serves him water that is “the consistency of honey” and is “pale yellow sick and smells like sulfur.” (143). A desire to relive her childhood and enjoy their favorite shared treat of ice cream with dark chocolate bits results in dissatisfaction. With Jack, his life is a blend of odd-tasting pills and life with loved ones he can’t fully remember. The stilted dialogue and awkward pauses transform family dinners and a night out with the boys into an unfamiliar place.
Connecting them all is the fire that speaks in italics and breathes its poisonous smoke into the town, disrupting seasons and their way of life. While the characters grapple with survival and hang over the edge of death, the fire remains constant, the only remaining witness of what was once a thriving town.
What Lamb takes the time to describe is just as important as what she leaves out. Readers can expect to finish this novel with questions still lingering in the back of their minds. What happened to Olivia’s mother? How did Helen really lose her job? Will Jack ever recover his memories and what has he forgotten? To enjoy this book, you have to be prepared to exist in uncertainty. Lamb trusts her readers to fill in the details she omits and read into the under-running stories the existing narratives hint at.
Failure to Thrive shows us how quickly the little things in life—the disappointments, the mistakes, the choices we make—pile up over time. How little control we sometimes have over our environments and the things that make us. How life has to be desired and fought for, and just how hard that fight can be at times.
“What is a soul?” In the beginning of Ellen Cooney’s One Night Two Souls Went Walking, the narrator, a hospital chaplain, brings our attention to this curiosity and, throughout the novel, explores situations that shed light on this inquiry as she interacts with her patients and coworkers in the medical center. As Cooney takes us through the young chaplain’s journey on her night-shift rounds, the reader takes a look at some of the hypotheses to that very question: What is a soul?
One Night Two Souls Went Walking is written in a diary-entry-esque form where the narrator expresses herself in a straightforward, conversational manner. At times, this style of writing was difficult to understand, causing me to go back and reread a sentence or phrase; but it gave the narrator an authenticity that felt natural in speech.
Each chapter is written like its own short story; most chapters, specifically the ones in the beginning of the book, have the ability to stand on their own and give potential readers a gist of what the book is about.