Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Bette Howland. A Public Space, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-9982675-0-0

This stellar posthumous collection of stories from Howland (1937–2017) brings together works that span her career. Largely autobiographical and incredibly self-aware, Howland’s stories conjure vivid portraits of her home city of Chicago and bring to life the hypnotic thoughts of her narrators among their wide casts of vividly drawn characters. In “Blue in Chicago,” the narrator attends a wedding with her eccentric extended family, which is juxtaposed in the story against moments of peace on her own as a single mother living on the city’s South Side. “To the Country” follows the same character to a summer rental house, but its charms are marred by the neighbors—including a family of farmers she has known since her own childhood. Within these straightforward setups, Howland creates stark and strange works of genius, portraying the complexities of family relationships as beautifully as she portrays her narrators’ insecurities, judgments, and anxieties. Her descriptions are darkly funny and delightful (“Up went my mother’s head, straight as a barrel rifle. Loaded, of course”). The collection’s masterpiece title novella is written from its heartbroken narrator to a “you,” a recently deceased love, following his last days living as an academic legend, famed lover of women, and devastating alcoholic. This character, Victor Lazarus—“your long arms, your long legs, your rigid upright drunken dignity”—comes alive through his death in this potent, heartbreaking, often hilarious showstopper of a story. This is a collection to savor, and Howland is an author to celebrate. [em](May) [/em]