TO BE BRIEF: If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train by Ryan Werner

TO BE BRIEF is a review series focusing on chapbooks, novellas, and other short-form fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. If you’d like for your work to be reviewed in TO BE BRIEF, please email us at


1. Weight

In the title story of Ryan Werner’s excellent fiction chapbook If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, two brothers trade blows and head in opposite directions.  It’s brief and powerful, packed tight with the heft of violence, familial breakage, and movement – physical and emotional – that Werner invests in all of the stories in the collection.

2. Tension

There’s a beautiful tension that rises up in the chapbook, a tension between the big actions and emotions of the characters and the relatively small spaces in which those lives are fleshed out on the page.

3. Motion

Werner’s people are constantly in motion, even when their lives have become static.  There’s bad advice out there about needing to get characters out of their day-to-day lives.  Werner disproves that advice by having the day-to-day be the thing that is creating movement internally and externally.  And what we call movement can also be called desire.

4. Echo

What holds Werner’s stories together other than that movement, that tension?  Echoing ideas and images.  Take “Origin Story,” in which a young boy is missing his brother, who has disappeared.  The boy looks for answers in comics and in his family.  Everywhere he looks, there is the echoing of “two.”  Everything in the story is paired up, though of course, the unstated pairing – the fractured one – consists of the narrator and his missing brother.  The echoes remove the need for a more fully fleshed-out narrative.  They create trajectory through repetition.

5. Simplicity

Werner’s masterstroke in the collection is the pure simplicity of emotion that manifests in the characters.  Werner’s not afraid to let his characters show very simple emotional reactions – love, desire, jealousy, anger, all of the above – though he’s also not afraid to take those simple emotions and reveal their complexity by investing them in the scenes he builds.  The narrator of “Origin Story” closes by saying, “I walked around to the front of the grandfather clock and stood under the light by myself. The room became louder than the people in it and I could feel us all feel it, tools and dust and foundation settling in deep until even that went away and it was just me and the clock and a click, the pendulum swinging one way and another.”  The emotions that Werner has fleshed out earlier in the story thrum with the scene, and what was simplistic becomes complex.  In the stories in If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, Werner strikes this balance again and again.  The result is beautiful, terrifying, and human in the best possible way.


If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train is available from Passenger Side Books.


Someone Else’s Wedding Vows by Bianca Stone

stone-coverWhen I was seventeen years old, I joined my first organized baseball team.  I’d been a soccer player all my life, but that year, my school didn’t field a team, so my coach asked me to come out for baseball instead.  At the first practice, I was sent to the outfield, where I toed the grass in right and waited for a ball to be hit my way.  It didn’t take long to discover that my throwing ability was somewhere between awful and non-existent.  Even then, I understood that my problem was one of stability.  I had no form.  Each throw was from a different position.  The first time, my hand cocked at the end of the throw, cart-wheeling the ball straight up in the air.  The next time, I did a little hop before I drilled the ball into the dirt ten yards in front of me.  On some throws, I put all the torque on my shoulder; on others, I put it on my wrist.  I didn’t know how to correct these different approaches, how to consolidate them into a single, smooth throwing motion.  My coaches tried their best, but I was a bench-warmer, and we all knew it, so they didn’t take much time to work with me on my lack of throwing ability.

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Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella by Christian Anton Gerard

CAG_BookPlus1. Conflation

There are two quotes at the front of Christian Anton Gerard’s new poetry collection, Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella. The first is Sir Philip Sidney’s first sonnet in the Astrophil & Stella sequence, a series of love poems in the Petrarchan form. The second is an excerpt from a letter written by John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester to his wife.  Laid alongside one another, the pieces introduce us to the driving force of Gerard’s book. There is immediate tension on the page, generated by the complexity of those two voices, Sidney and Wilmot. Both the poem and the letter give us voices that are wrapped up in love and guilt. We will return to this.

The poems in Wilmot Here, Collect for Stella track the lives of one couple, Wilmot and Stella. They are married. They are not Wilmot, Earl of Rochester or Sidney’s Stella in any literal sense, though their point of origin is clear. Wilmot cheats. Stella struggles with what to do. Wilmot struggles with what not to do. Their pasts intrude on the present. Push and pull. Escalation. They tumble toward an end-point.

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Casualties by Kirsten Clodfelter

CasualtiesIn his book on writing The Lie That Tells a Truth, John Dufresne argues that, “Every character has a public self and a private self and a self that he doesn’t even know about.” As I moved through the five stories in Kirsten Clodfelter’s fiction chapbook Casualties, the tension between those three selves manifested again and again. Clodfelter’s characters are forced, often through societal expectations, to present one image of themselves, but their internal lives – known and unknown to them – push against that social standard.

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Rose by Li-Young Lee

Several years ago, I taught dual-enrollment English Composition to seniors at three high schools scattered across Southwest Louisiana. I drove to the high schools three days a week, met with the students who were advanced enough to take a university course, and diligently taught them how to write college-level essays. At Welsh High School, I met with the students in a computer lab. This worked out quite well, because I needed them – for assessment purposes – to type all of their essays. As they typed, I’d loop the room, reading over shoulders, giving advice, making corrections to form or structure or word usage. In between, I’d prop up against the desk at the front of the room and leaf through the Literature books and anthologies stacked in one corner of the room. That’s where I first encountered Li-Young Lee. Continue reading

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the HouseThere is a house. There is dirt, and there are woods and a lake. Living in the house are a husband and wife. In the woods there is a bear. That’s all the table-setting Matt Bell’s new book In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods indulges in. For a work of mythic fabulism, that’s pretty bare-bones. There is a tendency in books of this type to shoot for the grandiose in setting alone, to construct intricate and complex worlds that are only intricate and complex on the surface. At their core, they are standard, typical. The beauty of Bell’s book is his ability to sidestep that, to invest the mundane with the grandiose. Yes, house and dirt and lake and woods and husband and wife are simple elements, but each of those elements is infused with the trappings of the epic, the weight of the fable. Continue reading