Book Bag: ‘What Shines From It’ by Sara Rauch; ‘Unrigged’ by David Daley

Published: 3/12/2020 3:52:09 PM

By Steve Pfarrer


By Sara Rauch

Alternating Current Press

Sara Rauch wears a number of hats — author, editor, book reviewer and writing instructor — and one of her most recent projects is “What Shines From It,” a short story collection that won the 2017 Electric Book Award, a prize distributed by Alternating Current Press of Louisville, Colorado, for best unpublished manuscript.

Rauch’s collection, “What Shines From It,” has now been published, offering 11 stories that portray contemporary life in all its confusion and heartbreak. In lean, unadorned prose, Rauch, who lives in Holyoke and previously lived in Northampton and Holyoke, profiles women and men — gay, straight and in between — who are struggling with relationships, fate and the future.

Using both first- and third-person narrators, Rauch’s stories also feature characters whose inner lives are suddenly revealed by small, unexpected moments of despair and doubt — and sometimes by hope.

Samantha, the young woman who narrates “Secondhand,” is growing increasingly frustrated with her boyfriend, Jacob. The couple have moved into a tiny apartment in southern California and they’re getting by with just a handful of basic necessities such as furniture and cookware. Jacob, meantime, is in no hurry to get a bed.

“My back’s going to be broke if we don’t get a mattress,” says Samantha.

“Let’s give it a few weeks,” Jacob says with a laugh. “Then we can reevaluate.”

“You seriously want to sleep on the floor?”

To Samantha, Jacob’s general insouciance — he’s dealing drugs at the moment for his income — seems emblematic of his general regard for her. The sex between them is good, but what else is? Though they’re living on the ocean in ritzy Santa Barbara, the good life seems far away.

“If I was dreaming of a life of bikinis and salt-tousled hair and surfboards and endless sun and big windows for all that light to pour into,” says Samantha, “what I got was a full-time job and old shag carpet, peeling linoleum, front steps covered with the neighbors’ junk. We do have two big windows, but they only magnify how dirty everything is.”

In “Kitten,” Eddie, a veteran who’s lost part of one leg, presumably from a disaster in Iraq or Afghanistan, and his wife, Carmen, are hanging on by their fingernails in a crummy apartment. Carmen, the story’s narrator, is already haunted by what’s happened to her husband — “He’s put on at least fifty pounds since he’s been home” — and now she’s alarmed that he wants to bring home a stray kitten.

“No way,” says Carmen. “We can’t afford it.”

The hungry kitten, which Eddie insists on feeding outside from cans of tuna and mackerel, only contributes to the widening emotional rift between husband and wife. “I kneel on the bathroom linoleum and pray,” Carmen relates, “something I haven’t done since Eddie came home. My forehead pressed to the cool edge of the sink, the words run out fast: Have mercy on us have mercy on us have mercy on us.”

Rauch’s stories also examine the shifting boundaries of sexuality. In “Answer,” a businessman from outside Boston chats up a woman in a small bar in lower Manhattan. He’s straight, she’s a lesbian, but they find some common ground, sharing some of the hurt from their lives — such as the fact the man’s wife is openly cheating on him.

And in “Kintsukuroi,” a man and a woman are having an intense affair. They’re both married — to other women. The narrator, a potter, relates that she hasn’t been with a man in a long time but is really hooked by her lover, Michael, and is ready to leave her wife, Dot, for him. But is Michael ready to leave his wife? He has two children, complicating things immensely.

But attraction is attraction. “Michael’s hand lingers, starting the familiar swirl in my center. That feeling like when I first start forming a new piece on the wheel, how the clay yields to my hands and the centripetal force, as if already aware of its shape.”

As one reviewer says of “What Shines From It,” Rauch’s stories offer “[f]amiliar plots and settings [that] become refreshed with new angles ... stories that appear placid reveal tremendous depth and nuance. The characters in these stories are complex, tender, and deeply human.”

Rauch, who has written for several literary magazines, is also a longtime book reviewer for Lambda Literary Review and has written reviews and author profiles for Bitch Media, WBUR, Bust, Curve Magazine, The Rumpus, The Establishment and more.

Sara Rauch will read from “What Shines From It” tonight (Friday) at Pinch Pottery, 179 Main St. in Northampton, at 7 p.m. Pinch owner Jena Sujat says Rauch wrote many of the stories from the collection while she worked at the business for four years.

In other book-related news: Valley author and journalist David Daley reads from his new book, “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy,” on Monday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. 

Daley, a former editor of Salon magazine who now lives in Haydenville, won national attention four years ago for his first book, “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count.” His account chronicled efforts by Republican operatives, beginning after 2010, to rig voting districts — gerrymandering — and lock in Republican control of the U.S. House and a majority of states, despite Democratic candidates receiving more overall votes in many cases.

But in “Unrigged,” Daley presents a much more hopeful story of citizen activists and grassroots groups — nonpoliticians — who have since begun fighting back against efforts to restrict democracy, from creating a citizen-based redistricting commission in Michigan to passing a ballot measure restoring the vote in Florida to ex-felons. 

Daley calls it a “David and Goliath story for the twenty-first century,” a case of everyday citizens taking on “the deepest structural inequities in our democracy” and in just the last few years pushing back gerrymandering even in conservative states, restoring voting rights to millions of people, and passing ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid coverage in ruby-red states such as Idaho, Utah and Nebraska.

“Americans want their democracy back, and they’re doing something about it,” Daley writes. “This is their story.” 

​​​​​​Steve Pfarrer can be reached at


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