Summer Brenner: I-5, A Novel of Crime, Transport, and Sex

December 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Fiction

detail_93_i5frtcover300978-1-60486-019-1 – Paperback – PM Press – $15.95

This is a slim novel that packs a pretty powerful punch.  Summer Brenner was best known to me as a poet, but it turns out she has been writing fiction for quite some time.  She has a political interest, as this novel demonstrates, but it is not a tract.  It’s a sensitive portrayal of an Eastern European woman who has been tricked into coming to America, where she has been enslaved in a money for sex ring that makes a business out of the correlation between the desires of women to escape the misery of their lives and men who are willing to pay for sex of all kinds with women, whose real lives they care nothing about.

As the story of I-5 unfolds, Anya, the main character, is traveling the interstate corridor up central California from Los Angeles to Oakland; adventures ensue, some of them strange, some of them desperate, all of them painful and sad.  Still, Brenner’s characters matter, she is sympathetic to all of them as human beings, even the worst exploiters in the crew.  That makes this novel much more than a book about sex, money, power and violence; in Brenner’s hands, these characters transcend their typologies to become real people trapped in their individual gulags.  She writes visually, so that with a relatively few words, we can see what she wants us to see, the places her characters inhabit, and even their interior worlds.  It’s gut wrenching book, but our faith in the ability of people to overcome the obstacles between themselves and their humanity is never lost.

This is really a terrific book; yes, the cover makes it look like a trashy paperback from the 50s, but done in a modern enough way that there is no mistaking it for anything exploitative.  I-5 is a hardboiled story, and it is as noir as any book you will read, but it’s a transformative experience to read and one that should not be missed.  In my interview with Summer, we talked quite a bit about the how she came to write this book, and many of the issues of sexual slavery in America and worldwide today.  She expresses a deep emotional connection with the characters in her novel, based on her own experiences as a woman.  Her abilities to imagine her characters and their stories is remarkable.  Summer Brenner is a writer more people should know, and one who important things to say.

Summer Brenner: My Life in Clothes

April 16, 2011 by  
Filed under Fiction, WritersCast

978-1597091633 – Paperback – Red Hen Press – $18.95  (ebook versions also available)

Summer Brenner is an economical and elegant writer whose fiction I have become very attached to (I read her noir novel, I-5, which I think is a terrific book, and interviewed her for Writerscast in December, 2009.  Her latest book, published by the very fine Southern California based independent literary press, Red Hen, is a collection of stories called My Life in Clothes.  It may as well be considered a novel, as the stories are interlocked and related enough to make one, marked by Ms. Brenner’s characteristically beautiful writing throughout.

That she was a poet first is evident in the carefulness and precision of her language; she writes a gorgeous and transparent prose that is warm and fluid and easy to inhabit.  The Economist gave My Life in Clothes a terrific review, and called this book “a fierce and funny slip of a thing,” and while I love the allusion to clothes in that comment, I think this book is much more than a “slip.”   Brenner loves her characters and tells their stories effortlessly.  It’s the retelling and and reimagining of her own life after all.  Clothes are the reference point throughout.

The story begins with Moshe Auerbach, a Lithuanian refugee who comes to America, then follows his family line to Atlanta and then the protagonist and her friends and lovers in California from the sixties onward. Along the way we meet Marguerite, the protagonist’s mother, whose fixation on clothing and appearances is a key element of the book and her cousin Peggy, whose own interest in clothes and what they mean for self image is profoundly meaningful for her in every respect.

Brenner’s writing shines.  She’s funny, poignant and sharp.  Here’s just one of the many great turns of phrase she manages in this book: “Peter and I used to sit for hours with rod and bait, our legs dangling over the pier, sipping beer, waiting for something to happen,” she begins one story. “Most of the time, nothing did. But that didn’t matter. We were looking for an excuse to do nothing and preferred if it had a name. Fishing is the best apology ever invented.”  There are many more – I highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates wonderful writing, and stories well told.

Brenner is a prolific and diverse writer.  She has published a dozen books of poetry, fiction, and novels for children.  Another recent title is Richmond Tales, Lost Secrets of the Iron Triangle, a novel for youth, which received a 2010 Richmond Historic Preservation award. Gallimard’s “la serie noire” published another of Brenner’s crime novels, Presque nulle part which PM Press will release by its English title, Nearly Nowhere, in 2012.

Her voice is wonderful to listen to as well, and I think you will enjoy our conversation about My Life in Clothes, and its wonderful stories and characters.