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Author Chistine Sneed, whose poems and short stories have won numerous prizes, teaches creative writing, composition and literature at DePaul University. Her new prize-winning book, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” is a collection of short stories, some new, others published previously.
Ms. Sneed’s grandmother, years ago a member of the Woman’s Club of Evanston, lived on Salem Lane. Her father lived in Evanston as a child, and Ms. Sneed moved here herself in 2007, having grown up in Green Bay, Wis., and in Libertyville. Ms. Sneed’s veterinarian mother, Susan Sneed, and options broker father, Terry Webb (a journalism major in college) still live in Libertyville.
From the age of 12, Ms. Sneed says, she began writing poetry and kept a journal. “I read all the time,” she says. “My parents took me to the library a lot.” She went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and majored in French literature. It was, she says, during her junior year in Strasbourg in 1991-92 that she “realized she wanted to become a writer.” She took a poetry workshop upon her return, which led to MFA studies in poetry at Indiana University.
In her third year at Indiana, says Ms. Sneed, though she was a poetry student, she won first place in a short fiction contest. She continues to write poetry, but fiction is now her primary genre. She is a four-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, once for a poem, three times for fiction. One of the stories – “Quality of Life” – is in the book reviewed here. Salman Rushdie chose that story for inclusion in his “Best American Short Stories 2008. “Twelve + Twelve,” another story in this collection, won second place in Glimmer Train’s June 2008 Fiction Open. The collection itself won the Associated Writing Programs’ 2009 Grace Paley Short Fiction Prize; its publication was part of the prize.
The evocative language and descriptions in the poems that Ms. Sneed published earlier in her career foreshadow the language and style of her fiction. In both poetry and prose, the flow, choppy or smooth, feels like life. In her stories, the courses of her characters’ lives surge, become dammed or stream around obstructions, as do the lives of her readers. Ms. Sneed refers to John Updike as one of her favorite writers. A quote she particularly favors is “When I write, I have always tried to give the mundane its beautiful due.”
Ms. Sneed’s poems are sensual vignettes that glory in language and illuminate their subjects. For example, “Rolling,” is set in a bowling alley. It begins with the “spangled ball” selected by the unnamed friend of the speaker, works through a first game and a second, complete with beer-drinking and cursing. Full of the sounds of the alley – “slap,” “slam,” uproar, laughing, gasping and yelling – it as at once poetry and narrative, a story told with rhythm and lilt. “Rolling” climbs toward the end of the friends’ evening and closes – sparkling again – with the celebrities of the bowling alley:
We’re envious of Larry and Tina,
these people with green glitter names on the alley’s
A-list, their best games a perfect score – three hundred points, twelve strikes in a row,
the bowler’s PhD, the coup de grace, the coupe de ville, the Cadillac, the one percent of people
in the U.S. who’ve laminated their score sheets
and covered their balls with gold.
How people look up to celebrities is a theme Ms. Sneed returns to in her fiction.
A poem titled “Refugee” depicts vividly the sights, sounds, feel of the lost former world of a refugee, mediated through the reported recollection of a speaker in the second person. Loss, too, and fear of it, is a subject to which Ms. Sneed returns.
Ms. Sneed says she has another collection in the works, and that she is on the third revision of a novel. “It makes me smile,” she says, adding that she loves satire and gets “a great deal of joy” from this book: “‘O Husbands!’” is different. It is very much a feminist novel … set in [an alternate U.S.]. The main character is a psychologist who decides that [women]having three husbands – polyandry – will cure the world of its problems.” The book is presently with her agent, and Ms. Sneed hopes to see it published soon.
She has been one of three authors writing for the Ploughshares Literary Journal online blog. Ms. Sneed’s story, “The Prettiest Girls,” appears in Ploughshares Winter 2010-11 issue. Her website is www.christinesneed.com
All the women, and some of the men, in “Portraits of People I Have Made Cry” (University of Massachusetts Press), are characters Christine Sneed has written
to cry. The female protagonists in these 10 stories find themselves in relationships with men that entangle them in imbalances of control and perceived authority. They have been, are, or become unable to make choices and act in the face of life’s chance meetings and the behavior of others.
The motif of how celebrity clouds judgment and otherwise affects people recurs in several stories. Both are issues of
“Quality of Life” is a bleakly effective story of a young woman, Lyndsey, who begins an affair with an older man – whom she rarely calls anything but “Mr. Fulger” – about whom she knows nothing. She finds herself agreeing even to move to where he wishes her to live and to take a wonderful job he will provide for her in her area of expertise at a salary twice what she currently makes. Despite its great distance from her friends and the apartment she loves, she cannot refuse the offer. The job is real, but she is lonely there. She cannot even discover Mr. Fulger’s relationship to the business for which she works. She begins to see a man, while continuing to meet with Mr. Fulger. When the other man (no name is given him) asks her to marry him, she says yes, and tells Mr. Fulger she will have to stop seeing him. The latter says that it is fine with him if she marries, but that he and she will continue to see each other. The engagement is ultimately broken off. Lyndsey tries to move away, but in the end is unable to go through with this. Mr. Fulger does not understand why she continues to be unhappy: “Why was she wasting time feeling so sorry for herself? She had so much freedom, was accountable to him for so little, only a few hours a month, and it wasn’t like he did anything but spoil her.” She cannot cut through the logic to push him away. And yet, the choice of whether to be happy ostensibly remains hers.
The 55-year-old woman in “By the Way” is frightened of aging; she has represented herself as younger to her 35-year-old lover, and fears his response should he discover her true age. She worries, too, that she might alresdy have very early Alzheimer’s. “I loved who I once was,” she says. “I do not know if I will ever love who I am becoming.”
In “Alex Rice Inc.,” a female professor teaches a class which a male TV star plans to attend. She is disconcerted thinking about it, and even more so when he arrives, complete with bodyguard. The rest of the class is also put off balance. “You’re So Different,” “Interview With the Second Wife,” and the title story, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” also consider celebrity.
In the quite different, last story in the book, the rather absurdist and futuristic “Walled City,” the main character, a telephone operator, is named Penny. She comes from outside the suffocatingly enclosed city, and is therefore better able to see the errors and wrongness in how the city works. It is easy to find oneself thinking of expressions that might tag along with her portrayal: “The penny dropped,” “a penny for your thoughts, “in for a penny, in for a pound.”
The author’s relationship to language and the way she plays with it is a pleasure to encounter. Ms. Sneed says she “comes up with titles or story ideas and writes them down,” often writing the story to the title. She tells as much as she shows, something of an anathema in contemporary writing, but Ms. Sneed does it oh, so well.
All of the stories in the “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry” are equally engaging, seductively complicated and moving, with “Walled City” different, but nonetheless intriguing. This is a collection well worth reading – and Ms. Sneed a writer well worth watching out for.
“Portraits of A Few of the People I Have Made Cry,” has been nominated for the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize’s Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The winner will be announced on April 29.