There Were These People
By Brian Leli
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
Not much gets said about the miscellany these days. It’s a slippery shambolic genre, underappreciated when placed against the likes of the short story collection or The Great American Novel(TM). Not as immediately disposable as the latest pundit’s screed or a candidate’s campaign biography, yet it’s not quite journalism either, at least not in the traditional sense. But that doesn’t mean that the genre is lacking in examples. There’s the cottage industry spawned by Schott’s Miscellany, with volumes ranging in topics from literature to stage and screen to food and drink. There’s the Lovecraft Miscellany, collecting all the random bits of writing, including his sonnet sequence. Anthony Bourdain had The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Bits, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bone. So to say There Were These People, by Brian Leli, is a literary miscellany would not mean I’m selling it short.
Leli, a teacher, writer, and photographer, collects fiction and non-fiction pieces in There Were These People. The collection has a global range, including pieces about England and Thailand, along with being written in a variety of styles. Memoir, confessional, journal entry, short story, and so forth.
In an entry set in London, England, Leli investigates the lives of several patients of St. Christopher’s Hospice. He goes into detail recounting their former lives, focusing on those in the music therapy program. Whether patient or therapist, Leli recounts their lives with empathy yet avoiding the crass sentimentality that can sometimes derail things, a common pitfall in the literature of disease. It remains the stand-out piece of this collection.
Other notable pieces include another London piece charting the life of Aaron Biber. Biber is an elderly barber who fled Germany during the Second World War. Since the riots, he hasn’t had a lot of business, but this doesn’t bother Biber. The riots occurred after a fatal police shooting of a 29-year-old. Yet Biber still carries on, despite the panic and hysteria. The London riots contrast sharply with the street chaos leading up to Hitler’s back room power grab. But politics stays in the background, since Leli chooses to focus on Biber’s account as an individual. Because the riots threatened to destroy his business, he becomes the focus of a social media campaign to preserve his shop. It survives, but Aaron keeps on keeping on. Again, the story is told with all sensationalism and sentimentality removed. While the writing itself seems a little flat, it is an advantage. It isn’t about the author’s literary flourishes or witty bon mots. The story’s focus remains Aaron Biber and his daily life. It works beautifully.
In a Chicago story, he meets a man on the train singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The narrator has a transcendent experience through the music. Unlike the journalistic pieces from London, this one is told through a series of numbered bullet points. The following story begins “Dear Tom Waits” and involves Brian waking up in the Cultural Center. The letter is confessional and details Brian’s contemplations. It also displays the thin veil separating writers from stalkers. Writers require material for their works and collecting this material can, in retrospect, seem a bit stalkerish.
There Were These People offers a varied introduction to the writings of Brian Leli. From unadorned journalistic pieces to more mannered formal experiments, it represents a writer with promise and the ability to turn life experiences into uniquely engaging pieces.
Out of 10/8.0