TOP SHELF: Twenty-one Vignettes of Vulnerability

(Originally appeared in the August 30, 2012, edition of The Monitor.)

McAllen native Jan Seale is most widely recognized for her verse—incisive, heartfelt, and often humorous pieces that led to her being selected Texas Poet Laureate for 2012.  However, she is also the author of several volumes of short fiction, the latest of which, a collection of 21 stories entitled Appearances, was published in April by Lamar University Press.

It’s rare that I like every story in such a book, but Appearances speaks to me at a deeply human level, as I suspect it will many readers. I’ll single out some of my favorites. In “The Noise Expert” a troubled man finds a solution to his crippling need for noise, thanks to the help of his co-workers.  A second-grader asserts her creative individuality and connects with her stepmother in “The Only Dancing Dog in Captivity.” “After Long Silence” describes the reunion of three cousins after thirty years of separation, a single day in which friendship blossoms anew. “Going Forth” tells the powerful story of a man who decides to leave his wife, his every reason for the abandonment an indictment of his own character.  In “Wheels,” a man with Parkinson’s finds a lovely, selfless use for the Mustang he can no longer drive and in doing so rediscovers joy. Finally, “Personal Effects” describes the final hours a woman spends with her dying friend, encountering her grief and her affection in a wooden carving of Archangel Gabriel: “The icons of love. Every sawn figure, book, painted pot, doll. Things that our rough hands must cling to. Clay comforting clay. Brief appearances of a hidden spirit.”

What an apt description of these stories themselves. Seale’s deft hand has carved narratives of dense, poetic beauty that serve, for those who are willing to clutch her words close, as reminders that—beyond human foibles and frailties, our vices and virtues, our fleeting notions of gender, race, right and wrong—a delicate specialness sits at the heart of every man, woman and child. The author explores the experiences of vulnerable people for whom life is often a mystery, whose attempts to control and understand fail more often than not, but whom we invariably pity and love by the end because she has revealed them to us fully. To read these stories is peer into ourselves and find our “hidden spirit,” the potential to transcend that we often ignore.

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