By Amy Brozio-Andrews

Missing Mom
By Joyce Carol Oates

In Missing Mom, Joyce Carol Oates turns her observant eye to the subjects of loss and grief. Thirty-one-year-old Nikki Eaton doesn't regularly give much thought to her mother. Nikki is hip, sexy, writes for the local paper, and enjoys a salacious relationship with a married man, much to the dismay of her widowed mother Gwen. She figures she knows all there is to know about her other-- that what she sees on the surface: her kindness, trusting nature, and
willingness to demure to others on just about everything-- is all there is. At least, that's how she and her older sister Clare treat Gwen.

It's not until Gwen's awful murder at the hands of a paroled drifter that Nikki realizes that her mother had a depth and breadth beyond anything she'd imagined. Sparring with Clare over everything from the murerer's trial to clearing their parents' belongings from the house, Nikki, floundering in her grief, finally decides to move back in to her mother's house, at least temporarily, infuriating Clare.

But from this vantage point, Nikki has the unique opportunity to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes" as the saying goes. Following along in the activities penciled in on her calendar by Gwen before she died, Nikki finds unexpected solace in continuing Gwen's exercise at the Y and visiting elderly relatives, for example. As Nikki learns more about the person her mother really was while the first anniversary of her death draws closer, only then can she face up to what her mother really meant to her and how much she will miss having her mother in her life.

Joyce Carol Oates (We Were the Mulvaneys) has written a poignant novel, tackling the tangled relationship between mothers and daughters, especially daughters who think they've got Mom all figured out. The pace and style of Missing Mom evoke a melancholy mood with a chilling awareness of the reader: "This is my story of missing my mother. One day, in a way unique to you, it will be your story, too."

The characterization is amazing. When the novel opens with Gwen's Mother's Day dinner for friends and family, Oates sets her up so that the reader can see Gwen the way her daughters do, slowing bringing the reader around to share in Nikki's revelations along with her. As the novel progresses, what begins as a picture of a simple housewife as viewed by her children becomes a nuanced portrait of a woman who's life was infinitely more complicated and richer than either of her
girls gave her credit for.

Nikki's evolution-- over the course of one year, wrestling with shock, anger, grief, sorrow, and longing-- from a rather self-centered baby of the family to a perceptive, self-possessed young woman is a transformation sparked by picking up the pieces of her mother's life and then realizing that with this knowledge, she can begin to better understand her own.

The Secret Society of Demolition Writers
Marc Parent, ed.

"What would you write if no one knew who you were?" That's the premise
of The Secret Society of Demolition Writers, a new book of short stories edited by Marc Parent. Like the demolition derby drivers that tear around the track with fearless abandon, nothing left to lose, Parent wondered what he'd write if he had the freedom from readers' and publishers' expectations he suspects can shackle known writers with established reputations for penning this or that kind of book.

Challenging other writers-- well-known authors of novels, nonfiction books, and magazine articles-- whose work he held in high esteem, he asked them for their submissions. He vowed to keep their stories un-credited, withholding from agents, family, friends, and fans who wrote what. In his foreword, Parent teases the reader with his opinion that the observant reader may be able to match story to writer, regardless of the red herrings the authors may have strewn about their work to throw off suspicion. With un-attributed work from Aimee Bender, Benjamin Cheever (The Good Nanny), Michael Connelly, Sebastian Junger, Elizabeth McCracken, Rosie O'Donnell (Find Me), Chris Offutt, Anna Quindlen, John Burnham Schwartz, Alice Sebold, Lauren Slater (Prozac Diary), and Marc Parent himself, readers will find The Secret Society of Demolition Writers to be an eclectic collection of short stories.

In "The Safe Man," a locksmith finds there's more than just stale air and dust in a mysterious, aged safe. Meanwhile, a bickering couple's tension reaches new heights in "An Eye for An Eye." A young woman in "Eggs" wrestles with her decision to donate her eggs while her mother struggles against a terminal illness. And in "Modern Times," the most self-referential of the stories, the contributors' names are sprinkled throughout this tale of a highly-selective writing professor and one of her students.

These and other stories in the book have broad literary appeal—not especially oriented toward one genre or another. The overall effect is a solid collection of stories but none has the punch to really stand out against the others.

Unfortunately, the only thing that seems to unite them is their "anonymous" status. If these were really anonymous works, there'd be no list of big-name writers on the cover. The premise makes for an interesting literary game but it's hard to see why any of the writers invited to participate wouldn't have been willing to attach their name to their work; all of the stories are of a quality and skill that I think most readers would expect from these writers and none are so daring or risqué that any of these authors could not have published
them under their own name, which leaves the whole "anonymous" thing feeling more like a ruse meant to tease readers than anything else.


© Melt Magazine 2006