|Jan/Feb 2007 Book Reviews|
Julie Ann Shapiro.
Flashes of the Other World.
Pulp Bits. 2006.
Julie Ann Shapiro Flashes of the Other World is an intriguing collection of short stories and one-act, to-the-point flash fiction covering everything from dark family secrets and death to lovers transforming into dinosaurs and mental patients making a meal out of their mothers' closets.
On the more down-to-earth side, the stories explore relationships and what makes them work or rather, not work. In "The Hats," traumas of the past concealed in different types of headgear are brought to light during a memorial service, whereas in "Stickiness," the tragedy of an alcoholic father is told in the context of gum, making it very genuine, very sad, and very odd all at once.
Several of the stories deal with the dynamics of the often problematic mother/daughter relationship. "Looking Glass" is a poignant saga about a mother's attempt to hide her lacking self-esteem under layers of makeup, and her daughter's revolt against this behavior. We share paths with these two dissimilar characters for many years—from the beginning of the conflict and as the tension builds up. At one point, the mother is so blinded by her insecurity that when she goes bald, she actually wishes it were cancer and chemo-based hair loss, because at least then it could grow back. It's intimidating, beautiful, and a theme that rings very true in the superficial society of today. "Circles of Gala" is a flash on the same subject, in which the conflict materializes as a missing outfit for a gala event. Contrasting these two is "The Old Woman in the Dream," where no one understands the grandmother better than her own kin does. It captures all our fears about death, loss, and letting go, and leaves us with a sense of relief and inevitability as—through the workings of the granddaughter—the old woman is finally set free.
Julie Ann Shapiro takes on the popular topic of love and hate and the closeness between the two in several cases, but always with a funky and original twist. "The Wicked, Bitter Shell," about how a girl's addiction to Internet sex turns her boyfriend into a possible murderer, holds so much anger and heartache, it physically hurts to read it. On a similar theme, "Itchy Feet" tells us about a relationship that between romantic dinners, garden parties and social events could have been perfect, had it not been for the boyfriend's shoe fetish. The story of how Trevor's perverted obsession and Clara's itchy feet pull them apart is downright hilarious.
The emotions provoked by Ms. Shapiro's fiction are all over the board. For example, few readings have cracked me up the way "Blue Moon No Carbs" did. It's my guess it was written a couple of years ago, when even cookies came as lo-carb and carbohydrates were staged as enemies and squashed in TV commercials. In this, say, extension of the lo-carb trend, buying carbohydrates is outlawed. When the heroine makes a desperate attempt to check out bread, chips, pizza and pasta, she is fought not only by a frustrated (read carb-deprived) cashier, but starving fellow shoppers as well, who would do anything including go to jail for a nice loaf of bread and a bag of Cheetos.
To the contrary, "Not Cold, Not Hot" is a true tearjerker. It's not as strange as the others; neither is there trauma. At the heart of it there's rather a growing sadness, an emptiness, and most painful of all, acceptance. It's the story of a wife mourning her husband and understanding that the life they used to share has inevitably come to an end.
"The Wisps of Shadows" stands on its own as the only real creepy tale among a multitude of bizarre, witty, sad, and cheering ones. A loving father's attempts to be supportive of his son's occult fetishes end up costing him his life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, one finds "Bio Clock and Nutty Photos", the story of a lonely 37-year old woman with an insistent biological clock who becomes obsessed with a doll. In her eyes, the doll comes alive, as a child - something amazing. It changes her entire world. Unfortunately, no one is willing to share the joy with her. They all think she has lost her mind, worry about her and toward the end even refuse to acknowledge her. Then there's a twist in the plot and the ending is as surprising as it is satisfying.
Though Julie Ann Shapiro does a great job of adding new touches to popular themes, she also doesn't hesitate to throw herself into the unknown. Don't be surprised if you encounter creatures of the forest, sandmen, talking whipped cream and insane obsessions between the covers of her book. "Don't Mix Carrots and Peas" is an adorable interpretation of the old saying, which gives it a whole new meaning. In this story, a child overhears a pea and carrot fight for space in the refrigerator bin, and later plan an escape attempt. In "The Antennae," a woman transforms into a snail during Mass, petrifying her children. Also on this theme, "Dinosaur Kisses" is an out-of-the-ordinary Valentine's saga. The main characteristics are all there: the bubble bath, the lovers, the chocolate, and the champagne. But what's striking about it is that the boyfriend—rather than the usual Don Juan—is a dinosaur, and the sinking into the bathub for the girlfriend is not an invitation to sex, but to become a creature of the past, too.
Another theme present in many of the stories is sanity vs. insanity. Many of Shapiro's characters live in the borderland between the two, a borderland I found surprisingly enticing. "Lunch Not the Typical Fare" is a shockingly real-feeling description of a man's culinary cravings for clothes. In fact, the whole chomping-on-sweaters-and-pants is so vivid, one is left to wonder whether the author did some research on the subject. "Identity Unfolding" is equally fascinating in that it starts out as your usual espresso fiction, but from there it only gets darker and darker. Ultimately, it ends up very far from where it began.
Between the heartbreak, misunderstandings, craziness and surrealism, Julie Ann Shapiro has blended in some fantastic descriptions, funky yet easy-to-relate to characters, and genius plot twists. I feel like I entered 40 different worlds in her book, and I didn't want to leave any of them.