People Like Frank and Other Stories from the Edge of Normal
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And Other Stories from the Edge of Normal

Author: Jenn Ashton

On the edge of normal, challenges take many forms—the everday can be an adventure and the ordinary a triumph.

A young woman in a group home investigates a mysterious piece of knitting.  An obsessed bag boy does grim battle with a squirrel. A woman, an asparagus bag and a garbageman have a tumultuous short-term relationship. Otherwise unremarkable achievements become epic on the edge of normal. 

  • Fiction
  • ISBN 978-1-7770101-6-4 (softcover)
  • ISBN 978-1-7770101-7-1 (html)
  • 5.5″ x 8.5″
  • Publication date: October 2020
  • CAD $ 19.95

North Vancouver writer’s survival stories from the edge

Jenn Ashton crafts a fierce, delicate collection that honours people facing physical, psychological or social barriers

Jenn Ashton, author of People Like Frank, is a renaissance woman. The writer (who has published poetry, children’s books, journalism, historical research and technical manuals) is also an accomplished visual artist. She has also worked as a manager for non-profit organizations, which may be where she developed the insights into and respectful empathy for the damaged characters who inhabit her short stories.

Ashton belongs to the Writers Union of Canada, The Creative Nonfiction Collective Society, The North Shore Authors Collection, Access Copyright and The B.C. Indigenous Writers Collective.

Her quirky and evocative visual work illustrates this book. The art is oddly reminiscent of early Picasso, but it expresses a unique and nuanced sensibility, as does her short fiction.

Ashton dedicates this collection to “the many people I have known, individuals who face barriers from within and without,” and expresses her goal as a writer: “To honor your courage and resilience in these stories.” Most readers who discover this fierce, delicate and lovely collection will agree that the author has more than achieved her goal.

“People Like Frank,” the collection’s title story, is narrated by Frank’s wife. It opens with a matter of fact statement: “The new microwave has a reminder function on it,” and continues in the same quiet tone as the reader learns more and more heart-breaking detail about how Frank’s descent into dementia and rage upends their lives. The tension between sometimes menacing content and quiet, understated tone makes this one of the collection’s most powerful stories.

In this, as in many of her stories, Ashton achieves an unusual blend of dark material with delicate, quiet language. Imagine Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights done in water colours, without losing any of its searing impact.

Another standout story in this collection is the eerie “Remembering Vincent Price,” in which the protagonist revisits an unhappy past and retrieves memories of unspeakable crime she witnessed as a child. Here, too, Ashton’s quiet tone enhances rather than diminishes the narrative impact.

In “Nest,” the author evokes the consciousness of a cognitively challenged woman in a sheltered workshop, and in “Pee” she shows her protagonist, severely damaged by a stroke, heroically fighting her way from bed to bathroom. In these stories, as in all of Ashton’s fictions, the damaged character is presented in ways that underscore dignity and agency. Ashton’s use of free indirect discourse here is magisterial.

Highly recommended.

Tom Sandborn, Vancouver Sun

In this superb collection of haunting and darkly humorous stories, Jenn Ashton casts a compassionate eye over the banal and deftly plucks out the extraordinary.

Jenn Ashton’s People Like Frank & Other Stories From the Edge of Normal convinces me I live on the edge of normal. I know her characters. I can relate with them. I know their thought processes.

I find Jenn’s collection to flow very film-like. Who ever thought the vision of an asparagus bag floating off the garbage truck could feel so satisfying? People Like Frank is a series of vignettes that displays Jenn’s artistic nature of observing life and the characters in it. Jenn is a talented multimedia artist and this is apparent in the sensory nature of her stories. All the senses are stimulated when reading this collection.

Chrissy returning to the house where she grew up is probably something we all think about. The last house I lived in a woman knocked on our door wanting to walk around the house recalling memories. This incident was a bit spooky because I knew the woman to have some mental problems. for a time she wore a football helmet to protect her head. “Remembering Vincent Price” briefly ponders memory. When I was a plaintiff in an Indian residential school trial memory was deliberated regularly. The trial relied on memories and those memories were always at question.

“All Nations Soup” in my household is known as “Hobo Soup” and we love it.

Jenn Ashton’s collection of stories is a pleasure to read over and over. The character studies are full of interesting and sometimes hilarious recognizable personalities. In a way, Jenn’s writing is poetic in that she can create a scene with a minimal amount of words.

I love this style of ‘straight ahead’ story sharing.

Jenn Ashton’s short stories are peopled with humble and forward-leaning characters, the collection aptly called People Like Frank.
Like many avid readers, I enjoy a good and satisfying dive into dark waters. I regularly embrace contradictions, twists and moral ambiguity. So it was completely unexpected for me to find myself quite simply relieved by the optimism in this collection. People Like Frank felt like a balm, particularly coming as it did during violent social unrest and a pandemic.

Each story in the collection is closely aligned to a singular view, carefully drawn and made credible by intimate observations. Many of the characters are solitary, their worlds conscribed, and Ashton applies a sympathetic but hyper-focused lens to their habits, their thoughts, the details of their daily lives.

In “Nest”, the lead story, a Goodwill employee named Francine, “who knows a bit about abandonment”, makes a discovery of what strikes her as a special item. As she dedicates herself to its reinstatement, we are uncomfortably aware that we expected less from her. We are astonished by our misconceptions about people like Francine – humbled by her sense of mission, her resourcefulness. (Would I go to such lengths, I wondered?)
“She enjoyed the Christmas morning feeling of opening a box with no idea what was inside of it, like it was a gift just for her. Sometimes, when she was done, she would mouth the words “thankyou” as if the giver was in the room.”

Never too sweet or patronizing, Ashton’s descriptions are precise without being obvious and she doesn’t impose herself on the voices of her characters. The writing is direct and true making it a pleasure to read. In “Pee”, a woman who has recently suffered an immobilizing stroke tries to navigate her way to the bathroom when her caregiver fails to show. “Her plan, now that she had decided to do it, involved a number of steps, a number of small perfect movements, that would see her come off the bed gracefully and make her way to the bathroom without much effort at all.”

An appreciation for perseverance runs through the collection, and the reader has the sense that the characters value their own lives, no matter how insignificant or unimportant they may seem to others. There is a wakefulness to small experience, a curiosity, a delight. There are gratitude and a celebration of effort. I particularly loved the inclusion of Ashton’s drawings which are whimsical, poignant and funny.

I encountered a great deal of kindness in People Like Frank. As I finished the final line of the last story, I recalled thinking “we need more of these”.

Valerie Mills-Milde, The Miramichi Reader

You know people like Frank. People who put their socks in the cutlery cupboard, people who knit nests for orphaned birds, who tell stories on t-shirts. Maybe you’re even one of them. You’ll find yourself and the world around you in the magically quirky world of Jenn Ashton’s People Like Frank.

Jenn’s stories are quirky, that’s for sure, and you should read them just for that. But they go deeper. They show a profound wonder and compassion for humanity, and you’ll find yourself reading them over and over again, revealing each time a new level of insight and magic.

I finished People Like Frank last night. Loved all the stories which are snippets of lives lived by some who are understood and others who are misunderstood. All of us, human…warts and all. The stories are about all of us in various stages in our lives…the joy, the sadness, the triumphs and everything in between. I thought about my father when I read “Sundown” and “People Like Frank.” Thought about my parents and in particular my mom, when I read “All Nation Soup.” And thought about the mistakes I’d also made when I read “Mea Culpa.” And I loved the freedom of finding who you are in “Mona Lisa” – we all eventually come to be who we were meant to be, despite detours, side trips and getting lost. And finally I saw some of my former clients in stories like “Virginia, Ten” and “Material Remains.” In all these stories it felt as though you captured bits and pieces of my own life along with so many other lives. Well done!

Stella Leventoyannis Harvey, Author of Finding Callidora