New Rivers Press continues to publish winning books, the latest being Karen Lee Boren's short-story collection "Mother Tongue." Her stories pulse with the chaos and craziness of city life.
In "HOME, MADNESS, LOVE, and SUNDRY," a waitress handles the summer heat better than she does her musician boyfriend's tantrums. The heat makes people irrational. Lovers quarrel. En route to work at a soul food restaurant, Sylvia notices "the odor of dead smelt and alewives and perch" in the humid morning air along the Chicago lakefront. Later, she learns a woman has died on an "L" train stopped in the tunnel. In the evening, Sylvia has her self-serving musician to try to figure out.
In "Collision," three women watch a brutal attack in a New York City bar before one of them helps the victim. In "Laden Things," a homeless woman in Providence, hoping to avoid an assault, recalls a similar incident from childhood.
In story after story, the author places characters that are losing control of their lives into yet more perilous situations. Often, Boren's female protagonists become too frightened or too numb or drunk to stop what is about to happen to them.
When the Chicago-based tour guide in "Entrudo" escorts the Affiliated Grocers group to Rio's Copacabana Beach, "the beach dunes covered with dark bodies look [to the guide] like a face swarmed by angry bees — nose, eyes, lips no longer distinguishable." As the naïve tourists gaze at the "shimmering, crystal sea" promised in the brochures, the tour guide witnesses the violence and crime plaguing the city, although she won't alert the group to it.
In several stories, emotional (not physical) dangers threaten Boren's lonely women. These dangers are brought on by footloose men such as Stash in "The Slovenian Gypsy," who plays "dirty sax" in a band, or the sailor Leo in "Illusion," who prompts his soon-to-be-jilted girlfriend to wonder, "Does this man feel?"
In other stories, disaffected daughters deal with overbearing mothers. As a result of their upbringing, Boren's big-hearted protagonists become increasingly hardened to the world. Like their mothers, they respond with jaded humor to their predicaments. In the Slovenian Gypsy story, Dottie, the protagonist, recalls how, before an operation on her hip, her mother quipped, "Now get me that hair spray. I don't want my hair falling during the surgery." How else to bear up to life's affronts than with wry humor and guarded optimism? When she thinks about Stash, Dottie dreams of their future, even though their special song will probably be "The Hopeless Polka."
An altogether delightful collection, "Mother Tongue" represents Boren's second book. Her first, the novella "Girls in Peril," was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award series book.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.