William T. Vollman, Cynthia Linville and Stephan Eirik Clark deliver must-reads for your fall reading list

Bill Gainer’s new poetry book contains works that are blunt but warm.

Bill Gainer’s new poetry book contains works that are blunt but warm.

photo by kari ann spencer

Sweetness #9 hits that seriously sweet spot between speculative and literary fiction—the place where writers like Margaret Atwood live. Put this on the must-read list.

Even without the required reading lists of the back-to-school crowd, fall is still a great time to settle in with a good book—or two or three or more. Here are a few additions to consider for your fall reading list. All are recent books with strong Sacramento connections.

Fortunately, there are many choices.

Bill Gainer’s latest collection isn’t nearly as noir-ish as this cover would suggest.

“Sacramento has a deep, varied pool of writing talent,” said Valerie Fioravanti, author of the prizewinning short-story collection Garbage Night at the Opera (BkMk Press, $15.95). “Novelists, poets, short-story writers, memoirists and journalists are all part of an engaged, supportive community.”

Published over the summer—while you were at a fair, an outdoor concert, a farmers market or floating down the river—are collections of short fiction, novels, poetry and a literary take on great food.

In the short-fiction category, American River College English professor Lois Ann Abraham makes her debut with Circus Girl and Other Stories (Ad Lumen Press, $16.95). Abraham’s stories take place over a variety of geographical terrain—from Central California to Texas—but are peopled by salt-of-the-Earth folks with average problems and the normal desires for human connection and to feel at peace in their own skins.

The titular circus girl, raised—quite literally—by clowns, is looking for something she sees in the faces of the audiences who come to their traveling shows, which leads her to settle down with a “townie.” But he’s exoticized her to the point that he finds it hard to believe that someone raised by clowns can possibly be a competent wife and mother. What’s more, she’s begun to believe it as well. The process by which she comes to find her own way is at the heart of this story.

Lois Ann Abraham’s latest is a collection of short stories tackling marriage.

photo by jessica eger

Many of the stories in this collection are about marriages on the edge, some failing (“A Perfectly Good Marriage”), some succeeding (“Smitty’s Love Story”), and some still in that in-between place where both parties are stepping their way as if on ice, figuring out how to meet each other on solid ground (“Seraphim, Cherubim, and Sally”).

Abraham’s interest in tales of wedded misery (and bliss) comes naturally to her.

“I’ve been married a number of times—now happily—so it’s really very interesting to me,” she said. “When I’m watching television, I’ll think, ’Well, I sure hope she appreciates his neck,’ or, ’Wow, they’re bizarre.’ So I’m very interested in watching relationships.”

There are hilarious moments in Abraham’s writing, as when a woman discovers that the therapist she’s seeing has issues that make her own seem mild in comparison (“Therapy”). There are some heart-rending ones as well, such as a little girl who can’t find happiness in her home (“Little Comfort”) and a young woman who learns the price of popularity may be too high (“Donna’s Story”).

Lois Ann Abraham’s collection is a study in failed marriages.

Also out with new short fiction is William T. Vollmann, although “short” is a relative term when describing his work. With 32 stories and clocking in at 704 pages, Last Stories and Other Stories (Viking Adult, $36) isn’t his longest work by far, but it is an undertaking.

The good news is that Vollmann, who works from a studio in the Alkali Flat neighborhood, has tackled a genre that many find irresistible: the ghost story. He begins, encyclopedist that he is, by defining “spiritual axioms” which set the parameters for accepting the concept that there is an afterlife and that those in it must resemble the living.

These stories are set all around the world, although the ghosts themselves are not limited by time and space. The overall theme is one of an urge toward and an embrace of sensuality, even once this particular body is shed. Not horror-filled genre fiction by any description, Last Stories asks us to question if desire is limited to this particular life span—and that makes it perfect reading for the approach of Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

Sacramento writer and teacher Zoe Keithley’s novel, The Calling of Mother Adelli (CreateSpace, $8.99), at first seems like a feel-good novel with a plot similar to the old movie with Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills, The Trouble With Angels, in which a rebellious Catholic boarding-school student is led to a happy ending by a smart and loving nun.

In a new collection of short stories, William T. Vollman takes on the ghost-story genre.

Photo courtesy of William T. Vollman

But Keithley’s book takes a much darker turn. It quickly becomes apparent that Helene, the angry and depressed 10-year-old we meet first, is not the main character. She is, instead, the antagonist to the 27-year-old Mother Adelli, the spark that lights the conflagration that may eventually cost the young nun her vocation.

The Calling of Mother Adelli is a deeply spiritual novel wrapped in a tension-filled narrative that becomes—both because of the setting in a small Catholic girls’ school and the deep interior lives of the main characters—almost as claustrophobic as the cement drainage pipe where the precipitating event for the novel’s climax takes place. Fortunately, there are some moments of levity to break the meditative nature of a novel that is concerned with such deep matters as what God’s plan is for the non-Christian, the nature of evil, and the suffering that is attendant with life itself. Keithley provides a naturalness to her portraits of prepubescent girls, all of whom are individuals with their own agendas, although still very much children.

Just don’t expect any of these kids to end up in a habit— at least, not after the education in life that they’re getting.

A former graduate student and writing teacher at UC Davis, Stephan Eirik Clark has written a debut novel, Sweetness #9 (Little, Brown and Company; $26), that benefits from the current conflict between online book behemoth Amazon.com and the not-quite-as-large-and-powerful book publishing conglomerate, Hachette Book Group. Clark’s novel—he previously published a collection of stories—has recieved some publicity from Stephen Colbert and other Hachette authors who are trying to break Amazon’s boycott of Hachette titles.

It also has a very intriguing and frightening premise. What the heck are food additives, anyway, and wouldn’t they be a great way to drug the entire planet? Clark’s hero, David Leveraux, worked for the company that made Sweetness #9, an additive that had some pretty wonky effects on the people who consumed it. But he’s fired, then committed—and now, the side effects to the chemical are showing up in his own family.

Sweetness #9 hits that seriously sweet spot between speculative and literary fiction—the place where writers like Margaret Atwood live. Put this on the must-read list.

Bill Gainer is well-known to local poetry fans as the host of Red Alice’s Poetry Emporium, a reading and open-mic series held at Shine coffee house on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month. His latest collection, Lipstick and Bullet Holes (Epic Rites Press, $10), contains poems that, as is his wont, are deceptively simple, almost Zen koans with a sharp undercurrent of dark humor.

For example, “Hello to a Memory”:

Cynthia Linville’s latest poetry collection embodies a quality the writer calls “future nostalgia.”



for somebody


I got a few tears

for you.


hurry up.

The poems are not nearly as noir-ish as the collection’s cover and title would suggest, though. Gainer is, as always, emotionally blunt but warm. In fact, these poems would be much happier cuddling a loved one and passing a bottle around the campfire than starting a bar fight. Think of them as a teddy bear in a black-leather jacket, read them and chuckle.

In Sacramento State University professor Cynthia Linville’s latest poetry collection, Out of Reach (Cold River Press, $14.95), she once again melds language into something fleshy, warm and sensual, whether she’s describing a lover’s lips or a walk around a lake in lines such as: “I point to cirrus clouds stretched cotton-thin.”

But there’s also an elegiac quality to these poems that Linville describes as “future nostalgia.”

“It’s something we wanted, but know we’ll never have,” she said. “Or perhaps something that exists only in dream time.” In this sense, like her last collection, The Lost Thing, these are also poems of loss. “But some of the things we’re grieving are things we’ve never really had.”

For the reader who leans toward nonfiction, food, or both, UC Davis professor emeritus Sandra M. Gilbert’s The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity (W.W. Norton, $29.95) does for food what she did for grief in Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve.

Gilbert is probably better known as a poet and best known for her trailblazing work of feminist literary criticism with Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. In The Culinary Imagination, she funnels food critics, poets, novelists and anyone else who’s ever written about eating into a nourishing stew of cultural commentary. If you’ve ever wondered how Gertrude Stein, the Food Network and Pixar’s Ratatouille all relate to each other, Gilbert can offer some suggestions.

Suggestion: Curl up with some food while you curl up with a good book. There’s nothing better for the fall.