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"Brilliant miniatures. . . . Like the fables of Calvino, Millhauser, or W.S. Merwin. . . . Beautifully blends short story and prose poem. . . . Mermaids, subways, floods, cucumbers, magicians. . . .The book is a gallery of marvels. Phillips guides us through the 'Hall of Nostalgia For Things We Have Never Seen,' 'the factory where the virgins are made,' and 'the Anne Frank School for Expectant Mothers.' A depressed Noah admits he 'didn't get them all,' a wife guesses which of two identical men is her husband, a regime orders citizens to grow
"Brilliant miniatures. . . . Like the fables of Calvino, Millhauser, or W.S. Merwin. . . . Beautifully blends short story and prose poem. . . . Mermaids, subways, floods, cucumbers, magicians. . . .The book is a gallery of marvels. Phillips guides us through the 'Hall of Nostalgia For Things We Have Never Seen,' 'the factory where the virgins are made,' and 'the Anne Frank School for Expectant Mothers.' A depressed Noah admits he 'didn't get them all,' a wife guesses which of two identical men is her husband, a regime orders citizens to grow raspberries on windowsills. [Helen Phillips'] quietly elegant sentences are as clear as spring water, haunting as our own childhood memories."—Michael Dirda
"A deeply interesting mind is at work in these wry, lyrical stories. Phillips exploits the duality of our nature to create a timeless and most engaging collection."—Amy Hempel
"Haunted and lyrical and edible all at once."—Rivka Galchen
A young couple sets out to build a life together in an unstable world haunted by monsters, plagued by disasters, full of longing—but also one of transformation, wonder, and delight, peopled by the likes of Noah, Bob Dylan, the Virgin Mary, and Anne Frank. Hovering between reality and fantasy, whimsy and darkness, these linked fables describe a universe both surreal and familiar.
Helen Phillips received a 2009 Rona Jaffe Writer's Award, 2009 Meridian Editors' Prize, and 2008 Italo Calvino Fabulist Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in many literary journals and two anthologies. She holds degrees from Yale University and Brooklyn College, and teaches creative writing at Brooklyn College.
"[Helen] Phillips' brashly experimental debut novel charts via linked fables the course of a young couple who fall in love, survive many floods, get married, have fights, make mistakes, and create a family—the whole shebang revealed in completely surreal yet oddly everyday prose."—Elle
"Surreal miniaturist Helen Phillips’s debut collection, And Yet They Were Happy, is full of gems."—Vanity Fair
The collection is made up entirely of two-page short stories, clumped together by theme. The first, "The Floods," introduces the end of the world by water, starting with a blowout party to which everyone's invited, and ending with a Snow Whiteinspired rumor that all the apples have been poisoned. "We hear of babies born with traces of twenty-seven poisons in their umbilical cords," Phillips writes. "We sit in the kitchen, eating nothing." It's a world where the original Eve and Noah stroll in deep conversation, where a bitchy Bob Dylan helps with the grocery shopping, where our narrator walks all the way to the North Pole to find its most famous resident, only to be insulted for her efforts. There's quite a lot of humor in these stories, although it's very dark comedy indeed. And there's a lovely bit of universality to certain sections, some of the best being themes that examine fights, failures, mistakes and punishments. In the middle, between "The Floods" and "The Apocalypses," Phillips dwells on the cycles of family with a section that shines a light on the journey from bride to mother to the raising of offspring. Others are disturbing, portraying hauntings, monsters and other fantasies in ways that have to be read, and not described. Phillips' unique worldview and clarity of language make every story a treat, be it miniature portraits of Anne Frank or Charlie Chaplin, or a sad instructional manual about how to rid oneself of all possessions.
A literary reflection to The Magnetic Fields' album 69 Love Songs.
Posted July 23, 2011
This collection of essays describes the loneliness, courtship, marriage, and life building of a young couple. These narratives of day dreams and nightmares may be difficult for the reader to enter into at first; but then, one of the essays will touch your heart. The reader may feel that the author has illustrated a part of their lives with surprising clarity. For instance, "failure #1" captures the essence of knowing or not knowing simply how to live. And "envy #4" explains a feeling that many might have considered frivolous;"those who achieve even five minutes of such perfection-mediated or no-deserve our envy."
Adult readers will find essays in the collection which enlighten their own thoughts and feelings in entertaining, lyrical prose.
Posted April 19, 2011
Some stories simply win you over with sheer perseverance.
Opening the cover of And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips I was certainly not prepared for the fable-like entries on each page. More than a collection of short-stories, Phillips' work consists of brief snippets into her mind, tiny replications of places, moments, moods. Fears. Each scene part of a theme, the floods, the envies, the regimes, taking place in the limited span of a spread of open-faced pages.
Yes, I'd read the collection would somehow involve the likes of Noah and Bob Dylan, amongst others, and I was intrigued. But chalking it up to short themed-fables does not encompass the fictional way our characters find themselves in horrifying plights and comic-relief-scenarios. These stories tug at your heartstrings, and before you know it, you're eagerly devouring each spread to see what fantastic tale comes next. Will it be strangely magical, or hauntingly melancholic?
Something about Phillips' stories hooked me when I was least expecting it. I thought it came at the end, but looking back, I think it was we? #5 that did it. The brief entry of a woman "whose sadness was so enormous she knew it would kill her if she didn't squeeze it into a cube one centimeter by centimeter by one centimeter." Or perhaps it was we? #6, the story of a couple who devises detailed plans for what to do if they're ever separated from each other, whether by train or death.
Maybe it was just Helen that won me over, something autobiographical in her writing that opens her head to the voyeurs beyond the page. How she ends the themes with a section entitled the helens. How I can feel passion and pain from her words. Who are we to turn away when someone has opened their mind up like she has?
No matter the reason, And Yet They Were Happy is unique in ways you just don't find these days. Support Helen's book (coming May 1, 2011 from Leapfrog Press), and all books published by independent presses. Pre-order And Yet They Were Happy and help save the dying art that is unconventional fiction.