The Mechanics' Institute Review
Issue 6

Birkbeck (University of London)
2009, Paperback

The Mechanics’ Institute Review is an annual anthology of new writing, edited and produced by students on the MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. The anthology now in its sixth year, is produced under the direction of author and Birkbeck tutor Julia Bell.

"I watched fascinated as the needles took up their familiar and soothing dance through the wool, their clicking lost in the awful crescendo coming from the door."

Reviewed by Jason Makansi

Don’t be fooled by the name (like I was). I didn’t know what the Mechanics' Institute was. It sure didn’t sound like a place where quality writing took precedence over, say, car repair. Happily, a surprising consistency in quality and depth permeates these twenty six stories, many with a decidedly British veneer (although two of them remind you that America may be the rougher, tougher version of England). I wondered whether this is a testament to the authors or the editors. No matter. To deliver such a diverse collection with only one or two falling in the "unreadable" category is quite a feat. Barring those few, I was able to capture some quality in each of them that made them worth reading.

A story by Peter Ho Davies, as close to a "known quantity" author here, spills more wisdom about writing over the edges of its pages than an entire essay I just read in one of America’s leading intellectual rags by a well regarded writer known for his "southern" sensibilities. Davies’ What You Know reminded me of a latter-day Proust, the agonizing (in a good way) mental gyrations, in this case of a writing instructor grappling with why one of his students just shot and killed his father.
"The gap between thought and action is so fine. It’s like standing on a cliff, the way the fear of falling makes you want to end the tension, take control, jump before you fall. I felt the death mole if you like. I felt it burrowing forward, undermining me."
Four Corners, by Maggie Williams, does a good job of re-working the cliché of a man picking up a woman in a bar. As I started reading, I couldn’t decide if this was going to be the most abridged caricature of Lonesome Dove I’d ever read or endless lyrics for a country and western tune. Once you get past this particularly awful line – "Trouble is a two-lane road. I expect she’d be bringin’ just as good as she be gettin'" – Williams delivers real charm and curiosity about two accidental lovers.

Notes of Experiments on Mice and other Mammals, by M L Stedman, is a terrific tale of a terrible young man. I’d plant this one squarely in the horror genre, but the shocking sexual overture that takes place at the end I found to be an original twist. Let’s just say if this narrator moved in next door, you’d probably put a "for sale" sign up pretty quickly.

Loving Relatives, Mary Irene Masaba, may not have been a scintillating story but I did enjoy learning about funeral customs in other countries. Confessions of a Fuzzy Man, Maggie Wornersly engaged me but after trying a few times, I didn’t really understand what the narrator’s physical deformity was. However, like Masaba’s tale, I felt a great deal about the horrors of battle, in this case World War I. Hope and the Stag, Johanna Ingham, wasn’t one I particularly cared for, but I also thought it read like an excellent piece of adolescent poetry and since the narrator is an adolescent, why not?

My favorite of the lot, though, is Revolutionary Colours, by Moira Sharpe. After four brief pages, I felt I had been affected as if I had just read an entire novel about war. Soldiers invade and occupy a town while a woman knits. When invaders bring lemons, give them lemonade. I don’t think I’ve read anything so enchanting about peaceful resistance. This passage well sums up the story:
"I watched fascinated as the needles took up their familiar and soothing dance through the wool, their clicking lost in the awful crescendo coming from the door."

I’m not sure this collection quite lived up to the billing in one of the quotes on the back flap: "Here, you can glimpse writers that your friends will be recommending to you in six or seven years’ time." But I can assure you that I will be looking for more of Ms. Sharpe’s work.

Jason Makansi has published half a dozen short stories and several poems in a variety of literary journals, as well as one story accepted by the Amazon Shorts Program. In 2009, he attended the renowned Sewanee Writer’s Conference held at the University of the South. Makansi has also published three professional books and numerous works of non-fiction in the fields of engineering, energy, environmental science, and economics.

Jason's other Short Reviews: Susie Bright (ed) "The Best of Best American Erotica"

Warren Adler "New York Echoes"

Frances Thimann "Cell and Other Stories"

Steven Coy (ed) "See You Next Tuesday: The Second Coming"

Deborah Bostock Kelley "Damaged Goods: Narrative Unendings from Inside My Heart and Mind"

David Gardiner "The Other End of the Rainbow"

Ellis Sharp "Dead Iraqis"

Daniel A. Hoyt "And Then We Saw The Flames"

Russell Bittner "Stories in the Key of C Minor"

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