Stories from a master of the genre that exquisitely distill emotions from the hilarious to the erotic to the tragic.
About the Author
Michelle Latiolais is the author of Widow: Stories, a New York Times Editor's Choice selection, and two previous novels, including A Proper Knowledge, also published by Bellevue Literary Press. She is the recipient of the Gold Medal for Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California and an English professor and co-director of the Programs in Writing at the University of California at Irvine.
Praise for Widow: Stories…
BELIEVER BOOK AWARD FINALIST
Pulse[s] with a surprising, offbeat erotic energy.” Elle
Latiolais is as close to Alice Munro as a writer can get, but with a more modern edge to her tone, low graceful notes, not too much flash, perfect restraint and the feeling of contents under pressure.” Los Angeles Times
Sublime . . . [Latiolais] manages to find something luminous in the broken shardsstill sharp, still drawing bloodthat remain in the wake of losing what could not feasibly be lost.” San Francisco Chronicle
Filled with an intensity of vision . . . Latiolais plunges courageously into odd territory, noticing and observing the felt life in precise and often beautiful language.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
Latiolais has a supple, sensitive way with words. . . . [Widow] celebrates the Geiger counter aspect of human consciousness that records and overwrites a deep document of self-reflection.” OCMetro magazine
For the intimate ways that it explores the recesses of grief with warmth, earthiness, and humor, Widow is the most emotionally resonant book I’ve read this year.” Open Letters Monthly
Latiolais is bold and frank, and utterly unsentimental. . . . Widow rivets our attention because it offers what all literature, tragic, comical or otherwise, should: a distillation of experience and a concentration of thought that invests a simple moment with all the profundity of existence itself.” Zyzzyva
Excellent, heartbreaking . . . reading Widow was a profound experience. . . . [Latiolais] takes the ordinary and shows how it doesn’t exist. There is only the great mystery of the moments of our lives, which can at best turn into vivid memories. And after that? It is that afterlife, the after of all those mysterious, precious moments, that soaks this book. Death, something so final, still remains the unanswerable question that follows our lives, and Latiolias ponders this beautifully, painfully, honestly.” Nervous Breakdown
All who venture here will discover some very fine writing.” Library Journal
Latiolais uses the finest details to weave strands of hope.” ForeWord Reviews
Every story in this collection is uniquely enjoyable.” Shelf Awareness
New York Times Book Review
When we speak of literary taste, we may imagine we refer to preferences regarding subject matter, genre, form and the varieties of narrative prowess. But much of what taste in reading boils down to is less conducive to objective analysis, less neatly parceled into scholarly-sounding brackets. Simply, it’s the extent to which we take pleasure in the company of the author or rather, a facsimile thereof, a phantom version composed of and subsisting on words alone.
Michelle Latiolais (by which I mean not the writer but her specter, whose presence wafts and fumes and writhes and blooms across each page) could not be called easy company. Her new story collection, Widow,” lets us make no mistake about this. The very cover forewarns us, with its detail of a medieval painting depicting a sword-bearing woman in armored gloves, and its ascetic title evoking fairy tale fathoms of dread. To scan the table of contents is to have one’s impressions confirmed: the slender column contains 17 entries, most no more than a single grim word (Thorns,” Gut,” Hoarding,” Burqa”), like pearls spat from a queen’s mouth.
Here is the opening line of the first and title story: She is sitting on the examining table wrapped in a paper gown, one of those dull pretty colors chosen for women, mauve, and she might as well be trying to cover herself with a refrigerator box, as the paper gown is all eaves and walls and encloses her like a shed or fallen timbers.” Already we know so much about the world of this fiction. It provides inadequate comfort to the naked. It pretends to care, but barely, and its desultory efforts at displaying this (witness the mauve gown) only intensify the mood of alienation. It lacks a sense of clear agency and identity (witness the passive voice, the nameless woman; the most powerful character here is, scarily, the anthropomorphic paper gown). It is a world in which things do not remain as they should (witness the rapid-fire shifts of the gown: from patronizing pink cover-up to incongruous, stiff container to something like a benevolent shelter those eaves for nesting to something like a ruin). In this world things may change in an uncanny rush, and nothing comply with our expectations, and nothing be counted on to remain certain or safe.
This is the world of the entire spare collection: bracing, exposed, ruthlessly mercurial and, for all its spiked bales of barbed wire, laden with extreme beauty. Part of that beauty has to do with Latiolais’s evident adoration of words. She is besotted with language, its meanings and mouth-sounds alike, and she wears that besottedness on her sleeve, lavishing wordplay across the page, often returning to certain roots and phonemes, collecting them like keys to elusive locks. So we have vitrine” in one story, and then in another vitriol,” vitrify” and vitreous.” We find a granite lap” here, a silken lap” there, a lap dance” elsewhere, not to mention the loose silken purse of his genitalia in her lap.” We stumble upon involution” in one story, involutional” in the next, and later a story titled Involution.” We read of one protagonist that she is beginning to marmorealize into that character called widow,’ ” and of another that in bed, in sex, her feet and legs” feel like marble.” All this doubling, the many conspicuous echoes both aural and etymological, suggest this may be not a series of distinct pieces but a single fractured or multifaceted story.
Frequently the protagonist is a young woman,” elsewhere she is in late middle age; twice she tells her own tale, otherwise she is at the mercy of an omniscient narrator; sometimes her circumstances unfold realistically, sometimes a metafictional aesthetic takes hold. But in all the stories some no longer than a page or two the nameless female protagonists’ (or protagonist’s?) penchant for interrogating language, for rolling around bodily in meanings and sounds, so closely resembles Latiolais’s own apparent proclivity that the line between fictional character and authorial persona blurs. The she” of Boys” notices that fry” can mean both electrocute” and children.” The she” of Involution” muses that chocolate” spelled backward more closely resembles the Aztec xocolatl, from which the word chocolate’ derived.” The she” of Pink” regales us with the linguistic links among porcelain and pigs and vulvas. And the story Place” begins, Narthex is the word she keeps repeating to herself, narthex, but she knows this is not the right word.”
Readers who do not share a similar degree of affection for the workings of words and their arcane connections may tire of these meditations, but it would be a mistake to read them as affectations or indulgences. They are central to the kind of art Latiolais is making: an art ever mindful of the tools that render it, an art that insists on a cleareyed accounting of the limitations and possibilities inherent in those tools, and as such a rigorously honest art. One senses that Latiolais the writer would sacrifice the power to entrance us for the power to rattle us any day, and this is at once a peculiar and a bold virtue.
If part of the book’s beauty resides in its language, both its precision and its sheer, wild exaltation, another part the greater part resides in its insistence on shunning prettiness, etiquette, niceness, guile. Latiolais trades in a kind of radical honesty. Also loss: all these stories are haunted by the indelible, immutable fact of loss. In Caduceus,” one of several stories that deal explicitly with widowhood, the protagonist recalls never having grieved publicly: What she had allowed to show was her anger, which, of course, was so much less acceptable.” Latiolais proves an unblinking match for the bloody-mindedness of life. The protagonist of Caduceus” thinks, You will be alone now, but never alone again from the company of loss.” These characters understand all too well what freight the word widow” carries. We are told that it means empty” in Sanskrit, and that the Bible associates it with whore and harlot, the defiled and the profane. Even the more innocuous old woman” summons bilious associations: She too had been taught to hate old women, and getting old, and rats, their long gray tails like a grandmother’s thin gray braid.”
Yet Widow” also contains passages of searing tenderness. In The Long Table,” an elderly aunt at a wedding reception molds animals out of bread to entertain the children. Nothing much else happens except that she begins to cry and the children discover their power to cheer her by begging for more animals, but somehow Latiolais brings this briefest of tales to an ending that made me cry. The book is absurdly sexy, too, in the way that truth can be sexy, and marks of ravage can stir us, and sweaty labors awaken appetite. The writing thrums with aggression and a lush, rooted sensuality. In form an experimentalist, in content Latiolais is an empiricist, forever grounding us in the irreplaceable real. One wants what one has loved,” she writes, not the idea of love.” Easy company she is not, but for those whose pleasure isn’t wedded to ease, the rewards here are enormous.
Leah Hager Cohen, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, teaches writing at the College of the Holy Cross. Her new novel, The Grief of Others,” will be published this fall.
Alan Cheuse, NPR All Things Considered
A husband dies and a writer goes deep into the place of suffering and regret. But in the case of Michelle Latiolais, this begins with an exploration of the language of widowhood.
In Sanskrit, she teaches us, the word means empty. And in the Old Testament, God instructs Moses that a widow is in the same category as profane and whore. The widowed author goes on to produce an incisive exploration of her state of being: the constancy of grief. It's, as she writes, its immediacy, its unrelenting physical pain and the creatural anguish, as she writes, of losing somebody else's body, their touch, their heat, their oceanic heart.
You can probably already tell that you don't come to this book seeking the pleasures of plot or character. Latiolais' radical love of language binds the entire book together in its gathering of experience, most of it dark. She makes us see and feel the beauty and power of flowers, knives, oysters, wine, tablecloths, and she can eroticize a teacup with a drop of a phrase.
The inveterate readers among you may be asking yourselves, do I read this book or Joyce Carol Oates' book of stories about widows and her recent memoir about widowhood? And I say to you, read them all, but begin first with Michelle Latiolais.