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637 words
SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

“The Crying Card”
by Lisa Alexander

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

From the first sentence in Alexander’s story—“It was always the same.”—and throughout the connecting paragraph, this reader knew he was in the hands of a skilled writer. I have no doubt that her superb narrative went through many, many revisions, each expression analyzed and balanced with all the other words and phrases sentence after sentence to make sure nothing was wasted and each word was pulling its own weight. A fine seamlessness stitches her pages together smoothly, with not only artfully lyrical writing but also the type of metaphors that wedge their way into the underlying meaning of what she is saying:

“Eve would describe the in-between time as misery shot through with radiance.”
“ was like a door swung open to the kind of relationship that might be possible, but then something would happen to slam it closed.”

I could fill the page with more examples, but let me speak to the story as a whole. In effect, Alexander is asking a question that many thousands of people have asked themselves over the course of their lifetimes. How should one handle the inevitable scarring that follows in the wake of a divorce and the breakup of a family? In “The Crying Card,” we see this question illustrated through the eyes of a stepmother named Eve as she tries to cope with her husband’s two daughters who obviously resent her and do their best to undermine her, especially the sixteen-year-old aptly named “Scarlet.” The deliberately oblivious husband is no help when it comes to handling Scarlet. He and Eve now have a five-year-old daughter named Lucy. She is “...someone everyone agreed on.”

The family is driving to a vacation spot called Tomales Bay when Eve checks the back seat and sees the girls “...barricaded behind an assortment of electronic stonewalls—testers, gamers, iPads...” How do we connect with each other when such stonewall barriers lie between us? Eve, as do many mothers, sees herself as the main problem. She even half believes that she somehow caused Lucy’s asthma. “...she had done this, cursing her child to a family without enough oxygen.” The observation is wonderfully astute. A family without enough oxygen is a dysfunctional family. The story brings to mind another question: Are there any functional families anymore? I could name one or two that appear functional, but in their own ways they could be as dysfunctional as Eve’s current family. Within Alexander’s tale there is always the implication that what we are witnessing is appearance versus reality.

Subtly, but now and then openly, the characters pick at each other and whine when things aren’t “perfect.” Fault-finding comes naturally to them. Unable to handle her situation, Eve resorts to taking Ambien—“a chemical cast-iron frying pan.” What happens next is something that surprised and delighted me. I won’t give it away except to say that on careful re-reading, the incident I’m referring to was softly signaled early in the story.

The craftsmanship that marks Alexander’s writing is evident on every page. Even the mention of sharks in the bay plays an unobtrusively symbolic role: the family has the equivalent of a shark swimming in its midst. Will this shark eat the others? The story gives a remarkably perceptive answer. I don’t see how “The Crying Card” could have ended better. All I can add is a familiar observation made decades ago by Isaac Babel: “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put in just the right place.”


Founding Editor’s Postscript

“The Crying Card” by Lisa Alexander won First Place honors in the 2013 Fugue Writing Contest (University of Idaho’s All of the entries were very worthy efforts. Not one bad story or essay among them. But the First Place and Runner-Up stories were two entries that I found particularly impressive.

Alexander’s work has been featured, or is forthcoming, in Fugue, The Common, Cimarron Review and The Bennington Review (for which she served as Fiction Editor). A story of hers appeared in the anthology Mourning Sickness, and she is the recipient of the 2011 UCLA James Kirkwood Award. She received her MFA from Bennington College and, in other work, she was Emmy-nominated for producing the mini series, The Mists of Avalon.

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SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, a Pushcart Honorable Mention—and, most recently, a 2013 Indie Book Award (Minnesota Memoirs was chosen as Winner in the Short Story category).

Brenna’s latest books include a memoir, Murdering the Mom (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2012), and a collection of short stories, Minnesota Memoirs (Serving House Books, 2012).

His novel, The Holy Book of the Beard, which he says is one of his favorites, was re-released in 2010 (New American Press). A New York Times review of this book says, “It is loaded with all the ingredients of an underground is nearly impossible to put down.”

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury