Book review: handwringers

A smorgasbord of cartoon people with no social distancing and no masks in sight. An appalling illustration for a pandemic released book. Hannah Eiserman

Debut flash fiction collection presents sophisticated characterization, commentary on Jewish identity

Reading as a writer is often different than just reading for fun. As a creative writer – because my writing endeavours do go beyond the pages of the Carillon – I tend to look for different things in books than the average reviewer. The qualities in a creative work that I admire are the ones I want to adapt in my own writing: decadent prose that hits like a gut punch, characters compelling in their honesty (or dishonesty), and moments that sit in the discomfort of the weird and inexplicable.

All this preamble is to say I’ve wanted to review the short story collection handwringers by Sarah Mintz since I was hired as the Arts & Culture editor, and I finally have a gap where I’m able to! However, as I started coming up with what I wanted to say about this book, I realized a lot of what I thought about it may not be “conventional” review material, per se. So, I hope you’ll bear with me as I conduct my own unconventional review of this collection!

First, I have to note how exciting this book is to me as a student in my final year of the English program here at the U of R. Sarah Mintz is a recent alumna of our M.A. program, and handwringers is a version of her thesis! It’s so inspiring to me that material she wrote during her time at university went on to be an actual published book – and one that’s pretty darn good! The book was also produced here in Regina by Radiant Press, who have heaps of other cool titles out like the flash-fiction novella Tiny Ruins by Nicole Haldoupis, a resident of Saskatoon. And for anyone else grinding away at NaNoWriMo[1], be advised that Radiant Press is actually open for general submissions of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction manuscripts!

On to the collection! The title is fitting for a collection as unconventional as this one: Mintz leaves a note at the end of the book to explain that the title comes from a quote from an essay by Susan A. Glenn, which says a “‘good deal of hand wringing ensued’ over a study that seemed to demonstrate that people who held strong prejudices against ‘Jews, Blacks, and Catholics,’ tended to be the most accurate in their selection of Jewish faces.”[2] The stories themselves are largely concerned with identity, but particularly Jewish identity. As a result, there are small sketches of faces distributed on random pages throughout the text.

One of the most important things to know about Mintz’s collection is that the stories are actually flash or micro fiction, meaning they are around five pages at most or four short lines of dialogue and parenthetical action at least. Flash and micro are forms that have become very popular in the last decade, probably because social media has radically altered our attention spans. They’re not generally my chosen form to write in, but I do truly enjoy reading them. It’s certainly remarkable what storytelling can be done with only a few words. Within their short page span, some of Mintz’s stories use traditional narrative styles and some play with form. A few more closely resemble poetry, like “Invitations” and “L’Shana Tova, I Guess.” One is written in a very experimental form which features exposition coupled with file titles, called “to whom life happens.”

The thing that struck me the most about this collection were the opening lines. Mintz is an absolute expert at crafting the first lines of stories. Some personal favourites include: “Miranda was sure she’d get shit on her head,” from “Little Wisdom I”, and “Josephine holds the leash taut then yanks and kicks the dog – no, she would never!” from “Crowded Rooms.” The first lines of her stories are generally provocative, enticing, and/or hilarious – and in the case of the second one, very indicative of character. Clearly, the narrator is unreliable, and Josephine may or may not be the kind of person who kicks dogs. Don’t you want to know more about these people?

Some of the stories are just downright weird, which is really what I live for lately. My two personal favourites were “Please Don’t Eat That” and “Strangers in the Vent.” The former is about a young lady who eats trash (out of necessity at first) and has exceptionally poor luck in dating. The latter is about a tenant who “understand[s] why someone would murder the Russian girl in the adjacent apartment just for cutting her food rhythmically.” This is also an example of another one of her spectacular opening lines.

I did find, at times, that though I knew there was a comment on contemporary Jewish identity being made, I just didn’t have enough knowledge or context for it to click. But I also knew Mintz’ writing wasn’t meant to cater to me. As she notes in her explanation of the title, Jewish folks “chosen to attempt to identify Jewish faces in pictures” were “unexpectedly incompetent” in identifying Jewish faces. Contrasting this with the other quotes about non-Jewish people, one of the problems seems to be letting outsiders determine Jewish identity. Mintz is clearly speaking to other Jewish people who may be feeling fragmented or disconnected from their people and culture. It’s not important I understand her message: it’s important that her community does.

And that doesn’t mean that the stories aren’t enjoyable without that context, or that I didn’t learn anything from it. I certainly do feel like I know a lot more about Jewish culture than I did before, and found I related to lots of the struggles of identity Mintz’s characters face that had nothing to do with whether or not I was also of the faith.

To conclude, I would absolutely recommend picking up a copy of handwringers next time you’re at The Penny University or ordering off Radiant Press’ website! If you’re anything like me, entering into either of those places – a bookstore or a book website – with a credit card can be a dangerous endeavour. Proceed with caution! Or don’t. I wouldn’t blame you if you judged some books by their covers, and took home most of Radiant Press’ collection based solely on their beautiful designs.

[1] National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated. NaNoWriMo is a non-profit organization who helps you achieve your writing goals every November by encouraging you to write a first draft of 50,000 words. That’s 1,667 words per day, for those who aren’t great at mental math (like me).

[2] handwringers, 147


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