Bette Howland was an outsider—an intellectual from a Jewish working-class neighborhood in Chicago; a divorcée and single mother, to the disapproval of her family; an artist chipped away at by poverty and self-doubt. Each of these facets plays a central role in her work. In this posthumous selection of short stories, Howland chronicles the tensions of her generation, and unflinchingly examines her own life.
These stories are beautifully linked—a character here pops up there, a road name is recognized—such that it almost feels like living in a neighborhood and watching days go by for all the faces you recognize on the corners. Howland displays a sociological lucidity when addressing her native city ... Throughout the Chicago stories Howland’s political insights rise to be part of the text ... stories display a frenetic emotional register that jumps from page to page, telling the stories of women left isolated but not left alone. The titular story spreads like a spill and focuses on death ... Howland’s primary concern throughout the collection is the quotidian, and its existence as the expression of material, systemic struggle and existential, metaphysical struggle ... Her characters are single mothers, noisy neighbors, students living on the cheap, heavily accented cousins, shopkeeps, beat cops—all described delicately with boundless feeling but full of holes ... Calm Sea is a wonderful book ... criminally, there is not much else widely available—Howland published three books in her lifetime and we can only wait to see if they will come into print again. Of course this is a criminal state of affairs—we’ve forgotten a genius.
The energy in her fiction comes...from a ferocious sense of engagement ... a stubborn avidity crowds out despair. Most often that avidity expresses itself in the language of precise observation ... No less vigorous are Howland’s descriptions of her hometown ... Urban tensions and the 'icy vengeful exterminating cold' of the long winters roil through these stories, but there are also moments of grace ... As the Chicago writer Isaac Rosenfeld once wrote, such humor 'loves the world from which it seeks to be delivered.' That’s as good a formulation as one can imagine for the literary sensibility of Bette Howland, whose sentences continue to beat with a stylish percussion and a glowing heart.
Reading [Howland] for the first time this past summer felt like receiving an unexpected note slipped under the door from someone I’d never heard of, but who totally got me — who knew what I wanted to hear about, and how and why I wanted to hear it, and who just told me, page after beautiful page ... Howland’s sense of humor illuminates every page, and even her sharpest barbs glint with wisdom and humanity ... Her lyrical passages approach not merely poetry, but something like the sacred, almost holy in their cadences ... At last Howland’s claim has been re-staked, hopefully with a degree more permanence this time, for the rightful (after)life that awaits her work is that she be recognized as a Chicago writer of near-universal delight.