Hungry Heart Review – Ray Greenblatt

A Review of THE HUNGRY HEART, written by: Ray Greenblatt, Wayne, Pennsylvania

 Ray Greenblatt has lived in New England, the West Indies, and along the Eastern Shore. He has written short stories, essays, and poetry which have been published across the U.S. in periodicals as diverse as America, English Journal, and Joseph Conrad Today. He was nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and won the Anthony Byrne Prize. He was also  editor of the magazine General Eclectic. A teacher for many years Ray Greenblatt has taught writing in the Philadelphia Writers Conference as well as spoken at the John Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California.“ 
by Fran Metzman
(Wilderness House Press, 2012)

 In her new collection of short stories, Fran Metzman proves that she is a daring experimenter. Most of her stories deal with contemporary issues that surge daily through the media; from family relationships (My Inheritance) to black-white relationships (Reunion) to white collar fraud (Dinner).

 Most of the stories are told from a third person point-of-view with a  woman as the major character. In “Dinner with the Mob” a woman speaks for herself. In “The Right Seasoning” a man takes the stage to reveal his  development.  One story Metzman places smack dab in our “City of Brotherly Love” with references to: Montgomery Avenue, the Main Line, the University of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Orchestra, West Philly, Center City Philadelphia.

 Her genres vary too. “Dinner with the Mob” is nearly Theater of the Absurd with so many of the guests at a posh dinner party having served time and crowing about it. “The Invisible Wife”  is Surrealism since the ex-wife secretly lives in her ex-husband’s attic to observe him with his new wife. “The Right Seasoning” grows into Comic Horror as a widower recaptures his wife’s essence by using her ashes as seasoning in his cooking.  It reminds me of Roald Dahl’s story “The Landlady” in which a traveling salesman has tea—which tastes peculiar—with the sweet old landlady then discovers upstairs embalmed tenants who were poisoned.

 Metzman is skilled in choosing just the right wording to fit the storyline. Her imagery is striking: “He put himself right out there, allowing her scathing words to claw his soul.” (Redemption). “She goes to a dermatologist who pumps poison into her face until she looks like a dolphin.” (The Early Bird Special) “A thickening silence bound Andrea in place.” (The Girls from Mapleton)

 Entire paragraphs vibrate with meaning.  In “The Girls from Mapleton” Chris tries to deny that her friend’s preacher father seduced her as a child: “Her voice pushed out against some invisible force that tried to silence her. Once the words were out they seemed to spin and then hang in the air menacingly. Chris produced  a tube of orange lipstick that matched her nails. In three broad strokes her lips became vibrant but refused to open to emit sound.” In “Christmas in August” an old boy friend wants to force himself back into Nancy’s life: “Now she sensed he wanted to backfill the void of the last four years to make it firm enough to walk across. It set her even more on edge and she began babbling about her graphic design job and how she’d been made director of the department. When a  hole appeared in her monologue, she plugged it with giggles.  The calmer he appeared, the faster she talked. She felt feverish.” Finally Nancy realizes that Curtis had always been and is still just trying to use her: “It was as though Curtis had placed a bookmark before the last chapter of a thrilling book when he left, and now she had read the disturbing conclusion. The book was closed, and she had a sense of peace.”

 As we can see, Metzman can be a mesmerizer in her word usage. Here she probes even more deeply into psychological depths. “She told herself to sit and listen to how she herself continued the legacy of repressing emotions” and “My head woke up too late. It forgot my body is nearly dead.” (The Early Bird Special) An inanimate object becomes a forbidding thing: “She recalled with repugnance that the plaster walls in that evil house had absorbed the smell of chicken soup that Barbara’s mother cooked twice a week.” (The Girls from Mapleton) Metzman’s insights into human nature are telling: from “Poverty doesn’t equate to a bad childhood” (Reunion) to “They both knew her body language had always been an open window to her interior landscape” (Christmas in August); until Metzman puts her finger on a real secret of happiness though rendered maniacally—“A craving to find something she lost or never owned overwhelmed her. She intended to teach Bruce the real meaning of love, offer her larger house for them to live in, share her inheritance with him. Other women offered sex which many men interpreted as love. She offered love.” (Myra’s garden).

 Although we’ve been getting hints of it, we shouldn’t overlook Metzman’s sense of humor, even in serious situations. “The Right Seasoning” is an especially fascinating and starkly funny story. Charles loved his wife Ruth and her cooking. “Food had fulfilled him, rounding his belly and marking events in his life, much like keeping a diary.”  He even thinks of a meat thermometer in a new way. “How nice if he had such an instrument to gauge his emotional health on any given day.” Meals became more and more special. “He had the notion that these sumptuous dinners coated their vital organs like a buffer against disease and that they’d live forever.”

Unexpectedly Ruth dies. “Pleasant dreams turned into a repetitive nightmare of a four foot tongue, lashing at the tasteless air.” He tries to recapture the magic. ”Each brick  seemed old and tired now, but once a week the kitchen came to life when he started the fire.” Memories return to him. “Rose, in her crisp, white apron had always created multi-colored hues round herself; vermilion filled the room when she cooked red sauces, dots of purple spun through the air when she stuffed  eggplants.”

Soon his grief has created a  fantasy around Donna, his next door neighbor who is nothing like Ruth. “When she wasn’t looking, he inhaled the faintest scent of rosemary from a sundress. Tears burned his eyes.”  Eventually Donna transforms into Ruth. “Soon Donna’s   nose took on a girth and her eyes went to ink black. A beauty mark appeared on Donna’s newly olive-toned cheek, and her pencil thin, skim milk colored mouth swelled and shaded into terra-cotta. Heat rose from his skin and his knees buckled. He wanted to shout out his wife’s name, but contained himself.”

Two stories I want to focus on because for me they are the most powerful in the collection. “Getting Close” has ties to “The Right Seasoning” with the theme of food common to both; you might also observe that their endings “go over the top.” Yet “Getting Close” offers so many dynamically memorable truths.

The story opens dramatically: “The scent of earthy root coming from a pot of potatoes boiling on the stove invades my nostrils.”  Things are not well between the two women: “Our relationship was on the brink of total extinction, and I saw this as the last chance to rebuild an endangered species—mother and daughter.” Food again becomes larger than itself: “Parboiling, braising, steaming, sautéing, roasting and frying are sacred rituals.”

 The mother holds so many demons inside: “Now I sense that she is searching through her unending bag of torturous comments she has on the ready for me”; “It scares me to look at her and see my future.” Another symbol: “Beside the window is her blue wing chair that retains the shape of her. It is the saddest chair I have ever seen”; “melancholy oozed into every inch of space in the apartment until it bulged at the seams.” The mother moans:  “It’s a cry of mournful horns blown on mountaintops for the dead,  for lost love, sickness, evil and torment”; “I don’t have the courage to walk into her deadly radiation zone.”

In an act of defiance mixed with appeasement, the daughter tries to accept the only thing her mother has openly offered: “I stand at the dividing archway between the kitchen and the living room holding a ball of dough. I fling it against the wall. It flattens, clings for a  moment then plops to the floor. Strangely, the sound makes me want to giggle.  Looking up, I see my mother in a violent blur. She’s banging her head against the wall with a rapid, steady beat …She wails and calls to God to end her miserable life.”

“Ripping away the coverings, I begin stuffing food in my mouth. My mother stops her head banging rituals and watches me, a stunned look on her face. I wash down the chicken with a turkey leg, and then break off a piece of baked potato and smash it into my mouth. I gobble half a loaf of bread. Filling a tall glass with water, I slurp it, forcing my impacted food down my throat.” Inevitably, “there is a furious protest from my stomach, and I rush to the bathroom. Falling to my knees, I cling to the toilet bowl and retch. Like a punch to my gut I vomit nearly choking on the volume.” Yet nothing is really solved between them.

In the final story I wish to discuss, Metzman’s opening story “My Inheritance,” the mother is older, more withdrawn, actually dying from cancer. Reference to food and wild displays of emotion are absent. Again, the opening is powerful: “My mother is dying. There are shuffling noises overhead coming from her bedroom. She has cancer, and her death is imminent. I am her only child.  We never liked each other.”  Then both women are partially revealed: “Her belongings are like her emotions; meager and held tight to her body, like the empty pocketbook she takes to bed each night. Neither of us can live freely. That became only too clear to me after my two marriages failed. Still, I’ve decided that we will have some kind of solution before she goes even if it kills me, too. It looks as though it might.”

It seems the sole nourishment between them is a special tea: “Without my mother knowing, I fix us marijuana-laced tea every night. It helps her sleep, eases nausea and calms my nerves. She brightens. ‘That’s really good tea.’” Metzman digs more deeply in this story: “Unanswered questions rattle in my mind like bingo balls whirling in mesh cages. I picture the cage stopping and the winning ball rolling into the cup. It has my father’s name on it.  I only saw him three times since he left.” Her mother finally confesses: “I’m angry because you remind me of your father. No backbone to either one of you. And your face is exactly like his. It’s like looking at his glazed eyes that never saw me. And, oh my God, when I see your full mouth, always pouting, I only see him. Just looking at you makes my bones hurt.” 

That’s the amount of closure we get, and as real human beings we can feel for both characters on this page. “I tuck her into bed, lean over and kiss her cheek. It feels like disintegrating old newspaper.” No exaggerations, no gimmicks, not a wasted word. With incisive use of dialogue, these last two stories discussed are told in an intimate first person . Metzman’s writing style has deepened so that it shimmers, speaks truth, and affects us emotionally.

In a Postscript of my own, I would like to comment on Ms Metzman’s short Afterward called “Writing and Healing.” A reader or indeed writer can learn a lot from this brief chapter about the dynamics of an author in the process of creating her stories. Yet as I sit here, still with a hungry heart, I do not think of sugar plum fairies. Dancing through my head, due to Fran Metzman’s vivid writing, I daydream about knishes, kugel, blintzes, latkes …

Ray Greenblatt
Wayne, Pennsylvania


Tip #1

One rule of thumb in writing, particularly in fiction, that I adhere to is learning structure in writing. Would you trust a doctor to operate on you if he/she didn’t have a working knowledge of anatomy? Well, I liken that to writing – structure, structure, structure. Once you learn the elements of dialogue, narration, point of view, description, setting, time & place, etc. and the balance between all of these elements, you are off to a flying start whether you write non-fiction, literary or commercial fiction.

There are visual images that need to be addressed such as white space on a page. In today’s world, there is a greater push for white space (tends toward commercial) rather than dense words on every page (tends toward literary). Again, balance enters into this. Think of your audience. If writing more commercial fiction give your reader more white spaces, less description. Even in literary pieces, people raised on speed in computers, texting and iPads easily tire of long passages that go on and on about the landscape. Readers like to get to the story quickly and absorbed in the conflict that ensues whether it is physical or psychological or both. And don’t forget CONFLICT! That is the heart of your story.

There should also be adherence to reality – what motivates people in real life and how does that translate into fiction. Study human behavior for an understanding of human behavior even if writing commercial fiction. 

That is not to say you can’t experiment, but you need understanding of structural elements in order to innovate. Like great artists who have gone experimental, almost always they can do realistic work first. Picasso did realistic portraits before his famous bombastic pieces.

Statistically Independent

An article in The New York Times by Sam Roberts, January 16, 2007 said: “For what experts say is probably the first time, more American women are living without a husband than with one, according to a New York Times analysis of census results.
“In 2005, 51 percent of women said they were living without a spouse, up from 35 percent in 1950 and 49 percent in 2000.”
When divorces occur, men are much more likely to remarry than women. At ages 45 and plus, around 1/3 of men remarry and approximately 25% of women. I was intrigued by this statistic and curious as to the reasoning behind it, and looked at it from different angles.
Most women are reluctant to leave a marriage for reasons such as; family, economics, image of stability and fear of traumatizing children. For another thing, they don’t want the stigma of failure as problems in marriages are usually attributed to woman.
I find that women will live with many flaws in their marriage before committing to the heart-rending deed of divorce. There are many women who know their husbands are cheating (either with women or men) who might even be keeping a mistresses. Still, they stick with the marriage.
No doubt, there are women who leave marriages because they are on a mission to find themselves and although the union is good, they leave. I believe they are in the minority. For the most part, when a woman wants out there is good, solid reason. Perhaps once out of a bad marriage many are reluctant to jump in again – especially if they have the means of earning a decent income.
In this modern world where the sexes are supposedly equal, women are still doing the majority of household chores. Tie that into a husband who is unresponsive to their needs, is emotionally distanced and/or underlying it all has little respect for women. Yes, there is still a strong prejudice that women are not as smart as men. It might be a nasty holdover from yesteryear but there it is – in your face. Can we rid society of this deeply embedded and destructive perception? We need to explore many of the reasons before anything else. 

Do People Rush Into Second Marriages Too Soon

The tendency to rush into marriage too soon after becoming single is risky. Approximately 68% of second marriages fail. The percentages go up with subsequent marriages. Males might be too eager to reenter marriage because they miss the amenities society grants to men in that institution. They might be seeking remarriage because they want an easier and simpler personal life style – aided by the little woman.

When single women marry too soon after a divorce or widowhood, they, too, face a negative impact. If they are only seeking security and/or the image a married woman presents to society they might be overlooking red flags or perhaps recognizing them and putting them aside. There is still the misconception that marriage will change a spouse. This happens infrequently. 

Single women often have a good support system with other women. Men usually don’t do that kind of networking. Women are more into making social arrangements than men. Men can become more dependent because they often lack the skills to keep a social life together. In marriage men might find relief from domestic responsibility and daily living decisions, leaving all that sissy stuff to their wives whereas women often feel put upon in taking up more and more tasks.  

It might boost the success rate of second plus marriages if all newly single people would become more amenable to waiting longer. That hiatus should be used to discover reasons why the first or second (or more) time around failed. That means unearthing and understanding motivations and behavior. Once one develops insight into themselves, they are in a better position to find a satisfying relationship based on love, commonality of interests, communication, carefully planned blending of families or any other issues of importance in relationships. This is the path to being much more mature in a relationship and therefore better able to find contentment.

ROMANTIC CHEMISTRY MIGHT BE LEADING US ASTRAY

My intense curiosity about the inner workings of relationships has inspired me to write short stories that have now been published into a short story collection, The Hungry Heart Stories by Fran Metzman, Wilderness House Press, 2012. These will be my point of reference.

I’ve written numerous articles about relationships and how to make them better. They can be found on: www.wildriverreview.com/metzman, entitled: The Age of Reasonable Doubt. It is my passion to seek answers to why so many relationships fail. Presently, at least half of all marriages end in divorce, and an even greater percentage of second marriages go down the tubes.

When we find dissatisfaction within a relationship, we must think through the pivotal elements that send us off-kilter. Internal chemistry can draw us to a wrong person – even repetitively.

Would you entrust your life to a doctor when you have a serious illness because your instinct tells you he’s good? Wouldn’t you research the doctor’s credentials – what is his background, where did he go to school and more? Why not be as thorough with romance? It is the opposite of instinctive, but it is imperative to involve our brains along with hearts.

Relationships of all kinds are basic needs to humans – good, bad or indifferent. There is a yearning, whether we are aware of it or not, to fill the emotional chasms that are lacking from our past. Confronting past issues contributes toward making for good present relationships.

As an example, some of the short stories that address this in The Hungry Heart Stories, are:

1) The Invisible Wife, a tale about a woman who lived in the attic of her ex-husband’s home to spy on him and his new wife. 
2) Getting Closer, depicts a mother/daughter in deep conflict where food intersects their lives.
3) In the story, My Inheritance, again a mother/daughter clash has the protagonist desperately wanting to resolve issues from the past as she cares for her dying mother.
4) The protagonist must choose between a previous lover who appears after a long absence and the man who replaced him in the story, Christmas in August.  
5) Food dominated the life of a couple in the, The Right Seasoning, and now the husband must wrestle with grief in order to survive after his beloved wife dies.
6) A once poverty stricken woman hits her stride in her 30’s but realizes the sacrifices she made to get ahead in the story, The Reunion.
7) The Girls from Mapleton, raises the question of how a never discussed, shared childhood trauma impacts three women when they reach adulthood.

Through translating real life into fiction, I am seeking to reveal the secrets of relationships. Seeking the golden grail of romance may require a journey into hell. If we’ve backfilled the trauma of our lives carelessly rather than dealt with them head-on it could lead to bad romantic choices. The chemistry that stems from early childhood along with many social demands (particularly to be married) can veer us off-course. Yes, it means digging into the past and our unconscious, but it is a necessary tough task. And that brings us to why I write edgy stories about human behavior in relationships. I struggle to uncover the elements that drive us all.

Press Release for The Hungry Heart Stories

THE HUNGRY HEART STORIES is a short story collection that deals with the universal search to fill a void. Fran Metzman, co-author of UGLY COOKIES, serves up a plate of quirky and disparate characters in these captivating stories.

A grieving husband in the darkly funny “Right Seasoning” conjures up his deceased wife’s presence in the beloved kitchen they once shared.

From “My Inheritance” tells of a grown daughter, trying to find the love and peace she has always craved with her dying mother to “Getting Closer”, the story of a woman left with the violent legacy of food that defined her life – we find the characters reaching the low points and triumphs of human emotions.

Particularly poignant is the story, “The Reunion”, about a woman born into poverty who reaches the pinnacle of success but with questionable sacrifice.

Each of the twelve stories and one essay incorporates food as a means to some end or fulfillment.