Pushcart 2012: Finis

I’ve come to the end of the Pushcart volume, and it’s time to move on – and just in time, since I picked up my copy of the PEN/O.Henry 2012 Prize Stories 2012 this week… but that’s another post.

Yes, I’ve completed the 2012 Pushcart volume (which some call the 2011 volume, but it says right on the cover “2012” even though prizes are announced in 2011 and the book is published in 2011 and includes stories published in 2010… are you still with me?). I didn’t comment on the essays, didn’t read them all for that matter, but quite enjoyed “Logophilia” by B. H. Fairchild and Anis Shivani’s “The MFA/Creative Writing System is a Closed, Undemocratic, Medieval Guild System That Represses Good Writing.” No, I’m not editorializing, that’s the actual title. This article made the rounds of writing workshops at the time it was published; it was very popular, particularly with those who (like me) don’t have MFAs. I, however, respect degrees, titles, and all manner of authority, so I am automatically impressed and intimidated by MFAs; this blog was started, in part, as an effort to educate myself, a sort of do-it-yourself MFA. I don’t think that makes me closed and undemocratic, and I’m certainly not medieval. I hope.

I was a little skeptical when I reviewed the Table of Contents back At The Beginning, because, while I was very happy to see two selections from One Story, a couple of other stories I’d already read were not my favorites. I do think this volume wasn’t as terrific as last year’s, but that could be because last year was my virgin experience with reading Pushcart cover to cover.

Which isn’t to say XXXVI wasn’t worth reading. On the contrary. And this time I looked at the poetry as well, which was fun, even though I know little about poetry.

My favorites? Mazzini’s “That Winter,” “How To Fall In Love Properly”
by Julian Gough, and Celeste Ng’s “Girls, At Play.” Those were my A-plus-list. My A-list included most of what’s left. Only a couple of newly-read stories were disappointing to me: “Father Olufemi” so distressed me, for its unfulfilled potential, I actually requested a consult from Aaron Riccio, who frequently reads A Public Space and, I figured, could tell me what I was missing if anyone could. Turns out, he pretty much agreed with me. I also found “The Ballad Of Mushie Momzer” to be downright annoying, which is pretty unusual, but I think that’s more a matter of my particular taste. I just don’t have the right sense of humor to appreciate it.

But you know what? I can’t wait ’til November, when I get to start all over again.

Pushcart 2012: E. C. Osondu, “Janjaweed Wife” from Kenyon Review, Spring 2010

From "Drawings from Darfur" - Human Rights Watch

From "Drawings from Darfur" - Human Rights Watch

“Have you people forgotten that you are girls? Good girls do not run around screeching, feet pounding gidim, gidim, gidim like the hooves of Janjaweed horses. Both of you had better go and sit down quietly in some corner before I marry you off to some Janjaweed so you can spend all your lives brewing tea.”
Nur turned to me and said, “I do not mind brewing tea. It sounds much easier compared to gathering firewood and all the grinding and pounding of sorghum and corn on mortar and the unending trips to the water well that we have to do every day.”
“God forbid,” I said. “How can you say that, or don ‘t you know that the Janjaweed are djinns riding on horses, and if they pick you as their wife, any day you do not brew their tea fast enough, they will pluck out your heart and eat it like wicked djinns are wont to do?”
“You have never seen a Janjaweed with your two eyes – or have you?”
“No, but that is because they are spirits, and spirits are invisible. The day you see one you will suddenly grow giant goose bumps, catch cold, and begin to shiver. Your teeth will start to chatter and then you die and become a spirit yourself.”

The people on the news, however they move us to sorrow, anger, and action, are often anonymous strangers. Osondu tells us a story that turns Darfur into a real place with real people – even if our guide is a young girl whose name we never know.

She and her sister Nur grew up on their farm hearing tales of the Janjaweed from their mother as quoted above. Seems like some kind of bogeyman, an imaginary creature to frighten children into behaving. But the Janjaweed are, unfortunately, very real, and one night they burn the village and kill the father. Mum and the two girls live in a refugee camp that we get to know better than actual pictures, as we see it through the eyes of a child. And we see Mum become the wife of the Janjaweed, in a desperate and loving, however misguided, effort to improve the lives of her children.

Osondu, originally from Nigeria and now teaching at Providence College, won the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing with his story “Waiting,” also the story of a child in a refugee camp. His 2010 collection Voice of America includes both stories.

The art above speaks volumes as well:

Drawings from Darfur: In early 2005, Human Rights Watch investigators traveled to camps along Chad-Sudan border housing refugee men, women and children from Darfur. During interviews with these refugees, Human Rights Watch investigators gave children paper and crayons to keep them occupied while they gathered testimony from the children’s parents and caregivers. The images presented below are images of violence they drew without any instruction — pictures of Janjaweed on horseback and camel shooting civilians, Antonovs dropping bombs on civilians and houses, an army tank firing on fleeing villagers. Read more about Human Rights Watch’s efforts in Darfur on their web site.

The names of the children have been changed for their protection.

Because sometimes, in some parts of the world, drawing a picture can be dangerous.

Pushcart 2012: Celeste Ng, “Girls, At Play” from Bellevue Literary Review Fall 2010

No talking other than hello. Don’t tell anyone if you hate it, if his tongue feels like a dead fish in your mouth, if his hands leave snail-trails of sweat down your sides. No talking with the boys outside of the game. No talking about it afterwards, no laughing, no anything, even if it’s just the three of us. Pretend it never happened. Rub the dent on your arm, the red welt where the bracelet snapped and split, until it goes away.

Story available online at Bellevue Literary Review

When I was about 11, I visited family in New York during the World’s Fair and brought home a tiny diorama as a souvenir for my brother: it was wonderful, a little wooden box with a photo – in color! – of the Statue of Liberty in the background and a landscape of trees and boulders and grass in the foreground, all protected by a pane of glass that slipped in as the lid. At that time I had no idea of the value of things, and was amazed this treasure was within my quarter-a-week-allowance budget. My brother taught me the value of critique when he sneered, “It’s just a postcard in a picture frame.”

That’s how it is with this story. I was, corny as it sounds, enrapt, amazed that words could capture this tale of pubescent passage so perfectly. I was happy to recognize the collective “we” voice (I’m finally getting it). I ached for Grace, remembered being her in many ways, cheered for Angie, Carol and Mandy when they went right, wept for them when they, for the second time, threw away their childhood and lost their Grace. I loved this story.

And now I’m just waiting for someone to come along and tell me the voice is gimmicky and there are some events that don’t quite seem inevitable and the name Grace is overused, forced into sentences blatantly designed for that name, that without the name Grace, the whole story falls apart.

Hey: Without a white whale, Moby-Dick is just a long, boring novel about blubber and harpoons.

This is a gorgeous story, creating a world that’s horrifying and real. A trio of eighth graders, Angie, Carol, and Mandy, wear jelly bracelets on their wrists in various colors indicating which sexual acts they’ll perform. At recess, they stand by the flagpole (what a perfect place to stand) and boys come over and snap off a bracelet. The girl so chosen goes with the boy to the bleachers and makes good on the bracelet’s promise, which can be anything from a kiss to intercourse. There are rules, listed in the quote above. That’s the game they play.

This is how we are when Grace moves to town.

You’ll notice two things right off the bat: the “Stranger Comes To Town” standard-plot, and the importance of using the name Grace, as opposed to, oh, Sandra or Francine or even Mary. “Grace” is one of those words with so many meanings, such evocative power, it’s almost a novel in itself.

“Grace,” we repeat. “Grace.” Awe like the sound of it, the round single syllable, like a polished metal bead. A simple name, a sweet name. A name not yet corrupted into a diminutive. We wonder, for a moment, if with Grace we can be Angela, Caroline, Amanda.

Yes, they can. Grace is a year younger, and, let’s face it, lame. She wears oversized t-shirts bearing ecological cartoons. Her dad’s in the military, so she’s never lived in one place more than six months; her mom’s dead, and it’s pretty apparent her dad pays little attention to Grace, because she’s a very odd duck.

But these three girls gravitate to her. That’s a little strange, actually. She’s the kind of girl who would end up being the target of some serious bullying in most stories. But here, they grab onto her like a life raft. They let her pull them back from the flagpole into the lifeboat of childhood again.

Weeks pass and we don’t go near the flagpole. At recess we see the boys out of the corner of our eyes. Some of them move on to other things, football, kick,ball, skateboarding. But some keep on, as out of habit, moving towards the flagpole like a fog and then dissipating, disappointed. After a while we forget to even watch them. We’re busy, with Grace, because she hardly knows anything at all.

The girls go to Grace’s house and play Monopoly and Candyland and Funny Bone. They teach her about the best seats in movie theatres and cherry Cokes and eyelash wishes, “the most sacred of wishes, a tiny curl bearing your most secret hopes.” Grace asks if she can wish for the same thing twice, and the trio is amazed, because they have such an endless list of things to wish for, they never considered running out: “We are awed to be in the presence of someone who wants so little”

Things change, of course. It’s a story, and in a story, things change, and in life, things change. Twelve-year-old girls, even lame ones, grow up. She wants to go see an R-rated movie, and they show her how to sneak in. They’re playing dress-up with Grace’s old Halloween costumes, and she puts on their clothes, a lace top and denim miniskirt and platform shoes. It’s probably as strange a getup for her as the witch’s hat is for them. She dresses differently after that. And she starts wearing make-up, except it isn’t real make-up, it’s watercolor paint because she doesn’t have make-up (I used colored pencils and Magic Markers, with equally disastrous results). The girls teach her how to shoplift a small stash of cosmetics.

Sometimes we look at her, at this new creature with darkened eyes and sleek clothing, who keeps her head up in the hallways, who sees people look at her and bats her eyes and smiles. At first she looks like a stranger. But there’s something familiar about her….She’s still Grace, we remind ourselves. We cling to the simple things, the Candyland, to milkshakes, to eyelash wishes. She’s still our Grace.

Grace hears about the game from another classmate, and asks the girls about it. They won’t tell her. She snubs them for eight days (and I’d love to speculate on why eight days – the day after God rested after creation, bris bat, luck, something, but that would probably be over-reading), then shows up, worried she’s dying: that staple coming-of-age scene, another clueless girl’s first period. I have a problem with this, because no matter how sheltered she is, she’s got to have seen ads and products and heard conversations, and didn’t she ever attend a health class? I also find it unnecessary to the story. I’m sure it’s something to do with innocence, but it would be enough, I think, for her to need the girls’ help with her first period, without the dubious element of shock, to serve as fulcrum for what happens next:

She still wants to know about the game. Now more than ever.

We know, now, that we can keep nothing from her, that we will have to teach her everything we know. The girl in front of us doesn’t even look like our Grace anymore….She looks just like us except fo her bare wrist. We want to slap her, to tell her she’s ungrateful.

They teach her the game. It’s a brutal scene equivalent to rape, and that’s even before they leave her standing alone at the flagpole, her wrists decorated with bracelets of all colors, the boys “lean and hungry” after “a long, lonely winter.”

So go ahead, tell me all the flaws. It’s still a gorgeous story, a perfect read even as I was ticking off flaws in my head, because it generated a power and a beauty of language and depth of empathy that drew me along, much as the power between boys and girls, between the safety and fun of childhood and the allure of adulthood, between the game and Grace. It’s a lot more than a postcard in box. It’s a diorama.

Pushcart 2012: Jack Driscoll, “That Story” from The Georgia Review, Winter 2010

GR Winter 2010 Cover: Ian Boyden & Timothy C. Ely, "Squaring the Circle, #11" (2010)

GR Winter 2010 Cover: Ian Boyden & Timothy C. Ely, “Squaring the Circle, #11” (2010)

Life father, like son, and it takes only a matter of seconds for me to calculate that weeks or months or years from now I might own up that, “Here, overtaken by rage and revenge, is where I pummeled and perhaps maimed or even killed a man.” Or, “Here’s where I stood with my only two friends on Earth one February night. The snow suddenly coming down so hard that a man my mom believed mattered passed unaware within ten feet of us after being with another woman.We could smell her perfume, her nakedness, his beery breath, could hear him hiss between his teeth as we watched him disappear.”

Here’s a story akin to last year’s “Two Midnights In A Jug,” right down to the scene of him sitting in the undriveable car – “[r]ear risers but no tires, and snow up to both doors so we have to crawl inside, like it’s an igloo or a fort, and always with some half-wrapped notion of someday firing it alive and driving hellbent away from Bethlehem. Not the one in Pennsylvania, but a town so remote you can’t even locate its position ona USGS map” – complete with a kid from the very wrong side of the tracks fighting against a despair that seems almost genetic. Fritzi’s dad’s in prison for manslaughter; his mom, almost divorced and getting on pretty tight with Bobby Bigelow, looks for miracles in the newspaper, since an image of Christ in a lint filter at the laundromat might bring throngs of the faithful to their door. She’s making Jesus ornaments so she’ll be ready to cash in, and sometimes the drivers at the truck stop where she waitresses will buy one.

Fritzi, on the other hand, is more proud of his quarter-Ottowa blood from his dad, and he doesn’t like Bobby Bigelow at all. His two best friends from the reservation take him to Bigelow’s house on their snowmobile to dish out some righting of wrongs, as they see it – except they discover more wrong than they expected, when it turns out it isn’t Bigelow’s home but that of another woman. He doesn’t lose it, not yet, per the quote above, and they ride home:

Three lost-cause kids in crazy get-ups, straddling not the wide seat of a Polaris sled, but rather a bareback horse, its black tail combed shiny by the wind.

It’s a story about miracles and otherness and anger and revenge: “Dads who’ve gone missing, and a mom who, against all the evidence, believes in miracles she’s determined to pass along to her son.” We all need to believe in miracles now and then; some of us need them more than others.

At first, it didn’t work for me as well as “Jug” did, maybe because it’s a little more enigmatic. But there’s some serious power here. The snowmobile becoming a horse gives me goosebumps. So it grew on me. Still is, in fact: I find something new every time I read it (it’s fairly short) or think about it, which is why enigmatic is a good thing.

In his interview with The Georgia Review, Driscoll says he uses the extreme weather of the Northern climes (primarily northern Michigan) as a crucial element in his fiction:

Take away this frozen landscape and the story ceases to exist: its verbal zeal, at least as I hear it anyway, would begin immediately to dissipate—as would the miracles themselves, and the boys’ tough-talking need to mock and disbelieve in them, and their stand’s head-on collision with the mother’s small-odds hope and trust in Providence.

I see what he means. Winter always requires faith in the miracle that spring will, even when there’s six feet of snow on the ground, eventually come.

Pushcart 2012: Poetry

Poster designed by Chin-Yee Lai

Poster designed by Chin-Yee Lai

It’s National Poetry Month.

I confess, I’m afraid of poetry. I loved it when I was a kid, when “poetry” meant “Annabelle Lee” and “The Highwayman”. And I still have a couple of general anthologies I picked up in high school. I had a lot of fun in college memorizing all the different meters and feet (Higgledgy Piggledy was my favorite, though I now can’t remember the official name for it). [addendum: double dactyl]

But I never really got to the point where I could distinguish between adolescent emo and art.

So, what better way to nose back into poetry than via the Pushcart volume. I’ve been working on this post over the course of the past couple of months, one poem at a time (and many thanks to Panos at wpbtips who was so helpful with my questions about indents within blockquotes).

So many of these poems were so wonderful. And, so many of them are available online. So, for those of you who, like me, are a little nervous, just try. And for those of you who know what you’re talking about, I welcome further enlightenment on any or all, particularly the ones that went over my head.

Station” by Maria Hummel – from Poetry Sept 2010
Read online or listen to the poet reading

We wear our hats and ride the knives.
They cannot fix you. They try and try.
Tunnel! Into the dark open we go.
Days you are sick, we get dressed slow.

Great imagery; riding the knives (trains, but also surgery). The sing-song quality makes me think “you” is a child. This is in the form of a pantoum, which, I’ve discovered, is similar to a villanelle, a form I’ve always loved (“I think I made you up inside my head,” and “Do not go gentle” among others).

Horse Latitudes” by Kathleen Flenniken – from Third Coast, Spring 2010
Read online at Orcas Interviews.
An ecopoem bemoaning the trash gyre in the Pacific by the Washington State Poet Laureate.

… – a spiral so huge,your mind mutinies and denies it all.


Laugh” by Stephen Dobyns – from American Poetry Review Jan/Feb 2010
Read online.

What he wished was to have his ashes flushed
Down the ladies’ room toilet of Syracuse City Hall,
Which would so clog the pipes that the resulting
Blast of glutinous broth would douse the place clean…

A memoir of someone with a sense of humor; terrific blend of sorrow and joy.

Song” by John Murillo – from his collection Up Jump the Boogie
Watch the poet reading.

And I say, praise it all. Even this ride, its every
Bump and stall, and each funky body pressed
To another, sweat earned over hours, bent over moats,
Caged in cubicles, and after it all, the pouring
Of us, like scotch, into daylight….

A joyously musical paean to urban life; it deserves to be sung out in every subway stop.

Ode to Late Middle Age” by Richard Cecil – from Atlanta Review October 1 2010
(sorry, no longer online).
At last, someone else who can’t stand the forced happiness of summer, and he extends it into the lifespan.

Free at last from summer’s hectoring
how come you’re not having a great time?

But there is the downside:

Why am I reluctant to embrace it/just because it ends so horribly?


Man on the Dump” by Donald Platt – from Alaska Quarterly Review Fall & Winter 2010
The poet observes a photographer taking pictures of a murdered Iraqi man thrown on a garbage dump (“But my eyes always return to the blue hands…”) and connects though Susan Sontag’s “Let the atrocious images haunt us” to other images. Powerful.

December Fever” by Joy Katz – from Ploughshares
Read online.
A mother lies sick and delirious while her baby rips up a book: “Please keep ripping up the words/Please don’t need anything from me.”

Black People Can’t Swim” by Douglas Goetch – from The Gettysburg Review winter 2010
Read online.
A unique and clever take on racial harmony, as a white man gets schooled in the secret lives of black women.

We were all toddlers, or unborn, when Martin dreamed
of little black children and little white children
going to school arm in arm. He dreamed this too:
a restaurant table where we were free to reveal
not just our true but our mysterious, irrational selves
in the presence of the other tribe without apology.


Tracing Back by Alice Friman – from The Gettysburg Review Autumn 2010
Following an essay “Logophilia” makes this poem of the seductive quality of language particularly interesting. She uses the example of the serpent in Eden; the Fall was caused by words, after all:

…What do you
think that first slither was,
coiling the winesap…

and the result:

…the key
to what she didn’t know yet
but would be looking for
in all her troubled incarnations.


Mending Wall” by Janice N. Harrington – from Quiddity Spring/Summer 2010

You learn to take the splitting skin
And seeping scabs for granted, understanding
that the body refuses, at last, to keep its wall.

Harrington drew the poems in her collection, The Hands of Strangers, from her experience working as a nurse’s aide during college. As I read, I was thinking, this is a lovely but routine poem about old people – until I got to the last stanza and especially the last sentence, which, in combination with the allusion to Frost’s poem of the same title, turns it into something very special. Reading this poem immediately after finishing Head Cases gave it extra punch, I think.

Orphanage” by Elaine Terranova – from Salamander, Summer 2010

All day, I watched my mother: what she
could clean up, what she could
get out of the way. You know, in the rush,
in the desperation to do the laundry.
…I walked
with my parents past the orphanage. I looked
with longing at the empty swings

and the wide green playing field behind the gate.
The children. Where were they? Locked away
like a treasure. What was freedom then, what?

I think (I’m a little hazy here) this is a childs-eye view of life during “the war” – WWII? the poet would have been a small child then – wondering what is this freedom everyone’s fighting for, since her mother is enslaved by housework and the children at the orphanage are locked safely away, leaving only the empty swings and fields.

Roll Out the Fool” by William Trowbridge – from Poems & Plays, 2010

In cave days, Fool. mated
with the pratfall…

A lighthearted explanation of human history. It’s from his collection Ship of Fool; other poems from this collection, in the same vein, plus videos of Trowbridge reading, are available at his website. This is why I don’t understand poetry. It’s fine stuff, you realize; that’s not it. I just don’t understand why it’s a poem. But I’m glad I read it anyway – and I agree.

After 11 A.M. Bombardment” by Ilya Kaminksy – from Spillway #15

When they shot fifty women on Tedna St.,
I sat down to write and tell you what I know:
A child learns the world by putting it in his mouth,
A boy becomes a man and a man earth.

This poem is available, under different titles, such as “Tedna Street”, at various online sites as well as in Spillway. It’s moving, in a dark and obscure way, and I’m again reminded how all our complaining about this and that is so ridiculous; we don’t know how good we’ve got it. Ilya Kaminsky, founder of Poets for Peace, has several books of poetry available.

Watching My Mother Take Her Last Breath” by Leon Stokesbury – from Georgia Review, Fall 2010

…the body holds some tenets of its own.

Pretty much what you’d expect from the title. Lovely.

A Tibetan Man in Hawley, Massachusetts by Pamela Stewart – from Ghost Farm
Read the poem online in an excerpt from the collection on the B&N website

It’s hot, but the man from Tibet will pace this roadside ditch
waiting for his shoes to rise out of the shadows.

A mysterious, intriguing, and wonderful short poem.

I’m Only Sleeping” by John Rybicki – from Ecotone Fall 2010
Read online (scroll down to page 12 of the excerpt).
Exquisite: a man drunkenly mourns his recently passed wife (I think).

Casals” by Gerald Stern – from Five Points
Read online or listen to the poet read.
It helps to know a little about cellist Pablo Casals. I especially like the idea that music comes from a quilt (soft and comforting), a glass top table (hard and fragile), and rage (hot and emotional).

Patronized” by Tara Hart – from Little Patuxent Review, Summer 2010
Read online.

I can’t believe that you, with your eyes to the sky,
is all that the Church has to give me when
I have lost everything – love, labor, lost.

The title makes it perfect.

My Sky Diary” by Claire Bateman – from New Ohio Review 7 Spring 2010

…..it will take me millenia
to progress from tedious tracing
to the graphomaniacal excess
my right hand assures me
I was born for.

The poet meditates on leaving school and facing the world. The sky is the underside of a table next to her bed. Completely charming; a great progression of themes and language, culminating in the final lines above.

Spell Against Gods” by Patrick Phillips – from New England Review 2010

Let them know they will die.
And all those they love.

Wishing the worst part of humanity on the gods – and then sitting back to watch.

Theory of Lipstick” by Karla Huston – from Verse Wisconsin, Winter 2010
Read online (PDF, pg. 25; or, if you don’t like PDFs, here)
I’ve been doing really well with the poetry so far, even though I don’t understand poetry, but then something like this comes along and I have no idea what to make of it, why it’s “better” than other poems, what the art is in it. Maybe it’s because I don’t like lipstick. Best I can figure is, lipstick is a weapon.

Ocean State Job Lot” by Stephen Burt – from New Ohio Review

where every piece of evidence
has a notional price and a buyer, and we find our own
among its premises:

Yes, there is an Ocean State Job Lot online (stores scattered though New England), “Home of Adventure Shopping” – “we prefer to think of ourselves as opportunistic merchants.” But the poem laments the sadness of these horrible orphan items, and somehow creates art out of overstocked canned oysters – which, if you watch cooking competitions, have their own sad history. How to create art from the hideously tacky. Love the dual meaning of “premises.”

Grace Notes” by Nancy Mitchell – from Green Mountain Review Vol. XXIII, No. 1
A woman more at home with nature, messy as it is, than with modern life and her husband, who is very picky about his yellows and blues:

Easier to find a four leaf clover
in a nettle patch than the linen pants

on line for him – no, not yellow,
more a golden rod

I’m not sure about the title, though. The grace notes are the chirps which may be the cardinal or the battery warning? There’s a lot of music in this – sheep grazing, Philip Glass, creaking, chirping, a voice in her mind telling her she’s plainer than a marsh hen – her mother? And the day grows late, she still can’t get herself to tear herself away from here and meet him for drinks. Really nice.

Meditation After An Excellent Dinner” by Mark Halliday – from Court Green #7, 2010
Read online

All the new thinking is about not getting
Squashed like a bug under the boot of time.
In this it resembles all the old
Bundles of tropes and rhetorical maneuvers
On the shelves in your basement next to
Scattergories, Scrabble, Mastermind, Monopoly and Clue.

For someone who doesn’t really “get” poetry, as I admitted right up front, I’ve done pretty well, and I’ve followed along so far. But here I get lost. I love the opening, quoted above, but then I get lost in Whole Foods among the olives, and have no idea how we ended up in a morass of pouty lips screaming banana banana banana. However, I have faith that there is a reason for all of it, and there is a strange kind of appealing kookiness to it. Still, I’m not sure I’d be able to tell the difference between this poem and one by a clever and playful Drama major. Hints welcome.

Family Math” by Alan Michael Parker, from The Kenyon Review, Spring 2010

Tomorrow is not my birthday
but all the math will change again.

Vince Corvaia perfectly in his review for The Review Review website: “The poem is both a cataloguing and a celebration of cataloguing, the narrator not unlike a baseball fan who lives for the statistics.” It starts off with something that sounds like a series of word problems, and since I’ve been doing a review of algebra (why? Because, like Mt. Everest, it’s there) I had to concentrate to keep myself from figuring out how old the guy is, how old his computer is, etc etc. But it morphs into something moving and profound. Math is sometimes like that.

Murder Ballad” by Jane Springer from The Cincinnatti Review Winter 2010.

I don’t know what dark country of the heart this music comes from.

In a Cincinnati Review interview Springer talks about her collection Murder Ballad which is about “the decline of the oral tradition of storytelling” and “acknowledges the violence inherent in that form of music;” she also talks about the importance of duende in music, and poems, like these. Really nice muse on dark Appalachian folk ballads.

Russians” by David Rigsbee from The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems, Black Lawrence Press, 2010
Read online at the Black Lawrence Press blog.
An exquisite catalog of the power of denial.

Silhouettes” by Sarah Busse, from Think, Fall 2010

Well. More upside than down, as these things go.
I never saw him again. As far as I know.

A frightening encounter with an intruder whose face she never saw. I’m puzzled by the rhyme of the last stanza; is it deliberate?

The Telephone” by Kathleen Graber, from The Kenyon Review, Summer 2010
I don’t really have a clue on this one, other than it’s a paean to the telephone. It’s pretty much what I fear when I say I fear poetry.

The B’s” by Steve Myers, from Lake Effect, Spring 2010

weddings in the Eighties? The serial
nuptials of Youth for Reagan – black tux,
white gown, garden variety born-again
clergyman sucking the lifeblood
from the Song of Songs? It seemed possible
no one would ever get drunk again…

I don’t quite understand nostalgia for the 80s, but I remember how amusing my parents found 50s nostalgia. This will probably be more meaningful to B-52’s fans. And, really, here we are again, aren’t we?

Little Wet Monster” by Chad Sweeney, from American Poetry Review, November 2010

You devour the night’s holy sound
Come home my little wet monster

Watch the poet read; the intro is, for me, better than the poem. It’s quite a performance. Or, you can read it online, but it’s nowhere near as fun. A dark and scary meditation on the impending arrival of his baby son, who he thought of as the little wet monster, which is gonna make for some fun Parent-Teacher conferences, y’think?

Pushcart 2012: Tim O’Sullivan, “Father Olufemi” from A Public Space #10

"Snow Storm People" by Oliver Fluck, October 2011

"Snow Storm People" by Oliver Fluck, October 2011

The Catholic Diocese of Toledo had paid for his flight from Abuja to Boston, his surgery, the cost of his monthlong convalescence, the walker, and the bus ticket to Halfestus, Ohio, where he’d agreed to preside for three years over the parish of a Father Krinkle. It was probably unhealthy to imagine what his welcomers would think. He was replacing a priest accused of child molestation. He was as dark as could be and, from the photos he’d found on the Internet, the people of Halfestus wre as white as could be. He’d arrive a cripple.
At least this last bit would improve. He would heal….It would take months, but one day he’d stand at the pulpit and raise his arms – a man upright, his limbs deliriously functional – and proclaim, “This is the day of the Lord.”
But who was this man, proclaiming? He’d never been this man. He’d never been as helpless as he was now, being carted across a foreign continent to a foreign town.

I’m not sure how a story with a setting and situation as rich and intriguing as that could manage to be tedious reading with little payoff. I’m sure there was a payoff – I’m positive – but I missed it. There’s something about the priest taking this bus ride, the people he goes through – the old priest who accompanies him to the bus station in Boston, the driver who is solicitous at first but not so much by the end, the passenger who just got out of prison, the little boy who’s never seen a Bible before, the dream/memory of Mrs. Ogunye’s party, the girl at the bus station who leads him off through the snow into nowhere – there’s something there. There has to be. There’s just too much cool stuff going on, and I wonder what’s wrong with me that it seemed, to me, to add up to nothing but a collection of threads with no warp or weft. As always, I take full blame for my inadequate reading, and welcome direction.

It’s interesting this is the second story I’ve read this week in which disabled limbs feature prominently. But that’s merely coincidence.

I do like the ending, though I wish I could find a way to comprehend it. Usually, with a story that eludes me, yet that dangles something profound just out of my reach, I spend a lot of time, perhaps unfruitfully, pondering, considering. In this case, I’m, well, just not that interested. And that strikes me as bizarre, since, to read how I’ve described it above, it’s fascinating.

Pushcart 2012: Lydia Davis, “Five” from Little Star #1, 2010

Photo by Jon's Magic Lens

Photo by Jon's Magic Lens

Into how small a space the word judgment can be compressed: it must fit inside the brain of a ladybug as she, before my eyes, makes a decision.

I’m a big fan of micro-fiction. I worship at the feet of Randall Brown, my flash idol; even when I don’t get exactly what he’s doing, I’m intrigued by how he does it.

And I very much like these micros by Lydia Davis. But I like some of Randall’s better than some of these, and I’m puzzled by how this collection of five micros is Pushcart-worthy whereas others are not. My guess is: if you’re only going to allow one set of micros or flashes in the Pushcart volume for a given year, it’s got to be a “name.”

Be that as it may, it’s a lovely little set. I’m wowed by JUDGMENT (quoted above), her HOUSEKEEPING OBSERVATION, the artist so enrapt by THE SKY ABOVE LOS ANGELES that she is lured away from her painting, and the comparison of the pleasures of the narrator reading with the dog licking its leg while SITTING WITH MY LITTLE FRIEND (even if the title does evoke Bob Dole’s 90’s era Pepsi commercial/Viagra spoof; that’s my warped mind, and I take full responsibility for it). I’m not so sure about HANDEL, but that’s me.

Overall, it’s a cavalcade of thought, art, music, the physical world, the compromise of marriage, and joy of reading, a portrait of a woman I might like to know, and, I’m grasping here, examination of the ability we all have to judge the world around us: the sky is more beautiful than my painting, pained tolerance of a husband’s Handel obsession is worth it (I had a husband who played Viennese operetta all day, I can sympathize), a reasonable view of a dirty floor, and the sensual nature of reading.

But my (micro)heart still belongs to Randall Brown.

Pushcart 2012: Frederic Tuten, “The Veranda” from Conjunctions Spring 2010

Paul Cezanne.  The Large Bathers, 1906.  Oil on canvas, 82 7/8" by 98 3/4".  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Paul Cezanne. The Large Bathers, 1906. Oil on canvas, 82 7/8" by 98 3/4". Philadelphia Museum of Art.

He wrote about the Bathers, how he loved the awkwardness of the nude figures, the almost childish painting of their forms. As if Cezanne had set out to fail. As if he had sought through that failure a great visual truth at once obvious and occult. He quoted from a letter of Cezanne’s, in which he spoke about his unfinished paintings – paintings he had deliberately left unfinished, patches here and there of raw canvas as if left to be later painted. Cezanne had found truth in their incompleteness. That empty spaces invited color, leaving he viewer to imagine that color, leaving the viewer his exciting share in the completing of the visual narrative; blank spaces suggesting also that art, like life, does not contain all the information and that it is a lie when it pretends so.

We start and end with Her – only the artists and writers in this story have names, other than an initialed butler – and in between learn about Him, and Them. But only enough about both of them to understand how the empty space left by his death has affected her. Besides the Cezanne painting, also unfinished was His life, of course, but so is Her life, and, having known the love of Her life after two false starts, She just waits for it to be over instead of completing the narrative. In this way, She betrays Him.

I think. What do I know, anyway. When I look at the painting, I see the face of a smiling woman, her long hair parted in the middle, looking slightly to the left. But only if I squint.

In a Conjunctions reading at Montauk Bookshop on August 28, 2010 (you can read the transcript or listen), Dr. Tuten (an artist as well as a Professor of Literature) described his story this way:

It’s about a very serious, unfashionable artist. How can I say it? I mean it’s so corny to say it—a man of integrity, of character. He has a vision, it’s not current, it’s not trendy, and he does it all his life; he’s very quiet, very unassuming, and very shy. Except with women. And with women he dares everything. So his feeling about life is, to lose an opportunity to meet a new woman that you’re attracted to is to lose a part of your life. So he takes chances.

He “did not have friends in the full sense of the word, though he believed in the idea of friendship as found in the essays of Montaigne. He liked the idea so much that he did not attempt to injure it through experience” but He is willing to take risks with women, in particular, women “who read books he honored….You could be fooled or betrayed by friends but never by books.” I love this distinction between women and friends. He goes to great lengths to enjoy art (similar, perhaps, to the risks he takes for women), travelling to Europe or, as it happens, Philadelphia, where his favorite work, Cezanne’s Large Bathers, is exhibited.

They meet through His art, after She sees his work in a gallery She frequents, where the owner displays His art. The gallery owner notices His art soon explodes with “new vigor and insight…a kind of generosity lacking earlier but still keeping the work within its usual reserved boundaries.” This dealer becomes concerned when he learns She is building a house in Montauk: he has known other artists and “…sometimes, their flame went out because the hungry fuel that had fed it was no longer there, and the rich life took its place.” This leads to an interesting exchange between the dealer and Her:

He knew artists who, when they reached the pinnacle of their art and reputation and had earned vast sums, turned out facsimiles of their earlier, hard-earned work and were more concerned with their homes, trips, social calendars, their placement at dinner parties than with anything that might have nourished their art, which coasted on its laurels.
And for that last reason the dealer said to her, “Go slow and keep the life contained, for his sake and yours.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry, no one will come to our dinner parties, should we ever give them, and we shall not go if ever asked.”
“This is not a moralistic issue,” he said. “And I’m not against money. You know it’s not about you. I love you,” he said, turning red.
“And I love you for how you were in his life and in his work from the start.”
He made an exaggeratedly alarmed face and said, “Were?”
“Were, are, and always will be,” she said, then repeated it.
They left on good terms…

So we also have an echo of boundaries, which in the case of this particular artist’s work, seem to be a good thing. I’m not sure I understand that.

Maybe that’s why it’s a story that grabs me by the neurons instead of the heart; I’m interested by the choices Tuten made, rather than captivated or moved by any emotion he evokes. To paraphrase my favorite writing book, writing is all about choices. I’m intrigued by Tuten’s choices in this piece, because, though I don’t really understand them, I feel a mind at work behind them. If I understood the choices, I might be grabbed by the heart as well. I can always hope.

For example, he uses some interesting (and I’m not using that word casually – it isinteresting) sentence construction, such as:

His picture had never appeared in any of the art magazines she subscribed to, which, with the exception of the bulletin from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was a trustee, were none.

There must be a reason for the roundabout phrasing there.

And then, we have the third person omniscient narration. Mostly it swaps between the two principles, and dabbling with the gallery owner, but we get a brief glimpse into the thoughts of a bit player, on the first night She spends with Him: “She gave her driver the day off. He was glad and made his escape across the bridge to Astoria, Queens, where his wife and children watched TV until they went blind.” It’s here that I wish this story had been included in BASS or PEN/O.Henry, because I’d really like to know why the writer uses this little flicker into a character who is, really, unimportant to the story. I wonder if it has something to do with the painting, with some shift of focus between figures, including a tiny bit of interest in one of the most minor ones. But I don’t know much about art.

Time also has an, dare I say it, interesting way of not making itself known. Immediately after Her conversation with the art dealer about moving to Montauk, we read:

Now he was dissolved in the sea, vanished in a soup of bones and brine. And now she was alone until the sea took her away, too, if it were the sea who one day would be her executioner.

Did they live there for years? Weeks? Did they even move in? Did he drown himself, perhaps in despair over losing his artistic fire, as his dealer feared? Or did he simply drown by accident? Tuten chooses to let us surmise, to let the reader imagine the colors that should be painted in those empty spots.

The story ends with Her reading His comments on the Cezanne, quoted above. That shift to the unfinished, along with a woman somewhere in her middle years, considering Her life to be over, waiting for the end, leaves a sense of sadness. But it’s not really a sad story; it’s more that She is a sad character, unwilling to finish Her life without Him, He whose live was unfinished.

Maybe she’ll change her mind some day.

Pushcart 2012: Steve Stern, “The Ballad of Mushie Momzer” from Prairie Schooner, Spring 2010

I was conceived when my brother Doodya, who was also my father, sat in the privy behind the family’s hovel in Vidderpol playing with his schwantz. This is what they told me, and the Jews loved telling me at every least opportunity. My mother, fat and blind, eyeballs like soft-boiled eggs, had lumbered into the outhouse to move her bowels. She hosted the skirts of her tent-sized shift to squat over the hole, where she felt herself impaled on an alien organ as it spurted its load. When she shrieked, Doodya opened his eyes and, bellowing like a gelded calf himself, shoved my mother onto the outhouse floor. Then pulling up his moleskins, he trounced through the muddy yard scattering fowl, gathered his patched caftan and phylacteries from a hook, and vanished from the earth as surely as the Ten Lost Tribes.

And then his life really goes downhill.

I tried with this one. I tend to enjoy Jewish stories, and Steve Stern writes almost exclusively from Yiddish folk tales, so I was looking forward to it. But this, this was agonizing. I’m not even sure it was supposed to be funny. I was so miserable reading it, I couldn’t tell. I kept waiting for it to turn the corner. Not into a happy ending – into something, anything that made it worth slogging through page after page of misery. Was I supposed to be laughing at this guy’s misfortunes?

Such as his harelip, cleft palate, and other deformities? His annoyingly cheerful buddy Angel? His kidnapping into the Army? His castration following his only sexual encounter? His seeming return to try again? Is there a message here I’m supposed to get?

I kept thinking, this is the Jewish version of Jim Shepard. But I didn’t enjoy this story at all. In fact, it annoyed me, which is unusual. It does have a very strong voice, with a kind of sneery whimper of derision to it; that might add to that.

I’m positive there’s some larger picture I’m completely missing. It’s a parable about the Jewish experience, or about Life, or about The Human Condition, or The King of the Schlemazels, or some such thing. Or it’s a perfect example of some form: the Yiddish folk tale, the Hero Myth, the Job parable. Or maybe it’s an homage to someone, like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, both of whom are among Stern’s inspirations.

I can glimpse a few hints – he thinks the afterlife can’t be worse, yet it is. The scenes he sees through the scrim are of him; the desire he has to impart hope to the struggling actor, to empower him to change his life, is made manifest as he is returned to his life at a point at which he can still effect change. Really? That’s it? All this misery, for that?

I freely admit my ignorance, and my complete lack of whatever aesthetic sensibility (dark humor? irony?) is required here. I’m glad it’s a great story, and if someone wants to explain why, I’ll be delighted to listen. Just don’t make me read it, ever, again, please.

Pushcart 2012: Anna Solomon, “The Lobster Mafia Story” from Georgia Review, Spring 2010

Getting Ready for a Trip, a 1905 postcard

Getting Ready for a Trip, a 1905 postcard

I’d told no one. To tell would have been to tell everything. But now I thought of the boys, with their secret, and how it would haunt them, as they ate, and slept, and woke, and went to school, and walked through hallways, and I thought of the women they would confess to one day, on benches or in beds, women who were now girls, like Emma, waiting to hold someone else’s sorrows.

Marcella knows a lot about holding someone else’s sorrows. Her husband Buddy gave her plenty to hold. And she doesn’t put them down until awkward teenage neighbor Emma starts visiting after Buddy’s death.

You can read a six-page excerpt of the story online, and I recommend it, because it’s wonderful writing; but of course there is the caveat that you might be irresistibly driven to finish the story. And that would be, oh, pretty cool, actually, says the story evangelist in me.

If there’s a weak link in the story, it’s why Emma visits Marcella following Buddy’s funeral. There’s really no reason for the other Lobster Mafia Widow to push Emma into these visits. But Marcella has her own interpretation of what Emma gets out of it:

I had some idea of what Emma was doing, why she watched my mouth as though trying to memorize my words. As I spoke, I was unrolling a map she wanted, of how to become a woman with a quiet life, with a husband who leaves only when he dies. She looked at my calico dresses and aprons. She thought my life had been pure and sweet.

Marcella’s life hasn’t been pure and sweet. She grew up in Boston’s North end, “praying to be delivered from the crowded, garlic-stinking streets, from family, from spinsterhood, from tackiness, that when Bobby finally found me, I was grateful to him the way you are grateful when the hairdresser makes your hair into something it isn’t, though you feel a little nervous, every time the wind lifts, that the style won’t last.” And years before, Buddy and his Lobster Mafia buddies beat to death a man whose major sin was being an outsider, but who pushed them over the edge on that particular day by showing them up, by going out lobstering in bad weather while they sat in a shed on the dock.

Buddy and his friends aren’t totally unsympathetic, however. They have their own problems.

These men are part of a lobster gang stuck somewhere in the middle ranks of the gangs, powerful enough they can sabotage their inferiors but weak enough they need the mafia kingpins to protect them. They are the sort who never imagined being anywhere but this middle, who at sixteen would have said that washing back rum and Coke next to an electric space heater with their finest friends would mean they had achieved a place in the world. None of them imagined that they would reach this place and feel nothing.

Lanza heading out into the storm, showing them up, isn’t even the last straw:

But maybe they could manage all the pressures bearing down on them. Maybe all they would do, if things weren’t about to go the way they go, is curse Lanza to the air and slump back into their crates. They might go on with their lives; there might be no story to tell. But in that moment in the doorway, they make the mistake of looking at each other. They see their own rummed eyes in each others’, and the fear there, and the shame, and the wives in the houses swinging their ankles down from the beds now, the wives with their skinny or swollen laments – and when the men turn back into the shack, they see flashlights hanging. Then the rum bottle slips from one man’s fingers, and the rum spills onto the floorboards, making a preposterous map, and the men can no longer deny how cold it is or how inadequate their space heater. One man kicks its grill, and they are off.

After Lanza’s funeral, Marcella waits to hear what happened, but Buddy doesn’t volunteer. Eventually she demands he tell her, and she turns into the minimal wife. Sort of her own version of sitting in the shed drinking rum and Coke around a space heater, except without the friends. When Emma starts visiting, a part of her wakes up.

I’d been waiting, ever since I was thirty-eight and Bobby finally stopped trying to have a child, for us to begin living. I’d been waiting for an urge, a courage, to alter myself in some way – a special undergarment, maybe a modern haircut – or to change the house with a colorful rug, plants in the windows. but now I understood that we had been living all along – that to call the passing days and weeks and years anything but one’s life was to admit to a great despair.

It’s a marvellous character development here, an evolution over decades, a woman brought to maturity by the admiration of a socially inept girl. I’m beginning to understand the term “character-driven fiction.” Some women would’ve left Buddy long ago. But for Marcella, it’s clear why that’s impossible for her: not only was he her only way out, she’s ashamed of the kind of life she’s living. The only thing she can’t bear is the thought of another generation bearing someone else’s sorrows. Then I go back and think: maybe that’s why the other Lobster Mafia widow sent Emma, hoping Marcella will accomplish what she cannot.

Every time I think I’m really more interested in clever tricks of voice, form, or language, a plain old-fashioned story comes along to remind me how perfect a plain old-fashioned story can be. Which isn’t to say there aren’t important elements of voice, form, and language at work here. The voice and language is perfect, evoking both evidence of higher aspirations from Marcella’s youth and the eventual fatalism of dashed dreams, a kind of stoniness solid with acceptance rather than brittle with bitterness. The form is pretty typical, starting “as near the end as possible” as we’re all taught to do by the high priests of in media res and catching us up with the story of the Lobster Mafia, and, at the very end, the truth about Buddy’s death, which Marcella was ready to bear as just desserts until Emma happened along. The climax occurs at the very end, the denouement is short and exquisite, relating back to Buddy, and I was left in awe at the connection between Marcella and me, between Marcella and all of us, the daughters of Eve who bear the guilt and shame and sorrow until we decide not to any more.

Pushcart 2012: Julian Gough, “How To Fall In Love Properly” from A Public Space #11

Slowed a little by a stone in my shoe, I arrived in Galway City a while after dark. Galway City, the Sodom of the West! I reached the very crest of fabled Prospect Hill, to see a bolt of lightning split the sky. Its white flash outlined a dark cloud of bats against the soaring tower of Galway’s greatest building, the Car-Park of the Roaches. I plunged down Prospect Hill toward the heart of the city, toward Eyre Square.

Looking behind me, I saw I had shaken off the pursuing mob.

I covered half of Eyre Square at a sprint, the next quarter of Eyre Square at a trot. I ambled through an eight of Eyre Square, and I drifted to a halt with only a sixteenth of Eyre Square ahead of me.

I never really understand what people are talking about when they bring up “the great tradition of Irish literature.” I just nod and hmmm. It isn’t that I haven’t read any; I’ve encountered the standards, Joyce and O’Brien, but I don’t really see the distinction between Irish fiction as a body of work and, say, English or American, other than setting. I’ve always felt bad about that. And stupid.

This story, this character, this voice, I get. I’ve obviously been reading the wrong Irishmen.

He’s young, naive, guileless. Yet he stumbles into craziness just by being himself. And it’s all completely believable, once you absorb that premise.

The story is hilarious. It starts out with the above expository paragraphs that evoke nearly every grim image possible – lightning, bats, prospects, roaches – yet is, as far as I can tell, completely legit. There is a Roaches Car Park. There are bats in Galway. And there is an Eyre Square, which was officially renamed Kennedy Park (after JFK) but it’s still determinedly called Eyre Park – perhaps the reason for the repetition?

Not only is the Car-Park of the Roaches the greatest building in Galway, but the Supermac chipshop (I gather this is the Irish equivalent of McDonalds) becomes a cathedral (and, per the picture above, it truly is “a transparent building, lit from within with golden light”) in which Jude sees The Most Beautiful Woman In The World at the fryer. He falls in love instantly, and tells her so. “In a voice like the whisper of silk against an angel’s wing, she said, ‘You’re taking this piss, right?'”

In a comedy of errors cause by a manager confusing a lama – the Buddhist kind – with a sheep, Jude ends up pursued by yet another angry mob. He takes refuge in a Protestant church, where additional comedic misunderstandings evoke Freemasons:

Trying to remove the stone from inside the heel of my shoe, I absentmindedly extended my right hand under my raised left knee, to shake his hand. He raised his knee and did likewise, with a great creaking of bones.

“You are a Mason!” he exclaimed with pleasure, standing on one leg.

Lost in thought, I put down my left food. Unfortunately, the stone had been stood on end, sharp point up, by my poking. It pierced my heel as I placed all my weight on it.

I spoke in tongues, put my head between my knees, lifted the foot, lost my balance, and recovered it by grabbing the old man, through his loose tweed, by the testicle, and slowly lowering my forehead to the cold stone.

I let go his testicle, raised my head, and hopped.

“Well, well, well,” said the old man. “A Mason of so high a rank, and so young! You were modest earlier, with your greeting of the Fourth Rank. We may skip the formalities.” He bowed low.

Then there’s the Hunchback of Notre Dame trope, but I wouldn’t want to spoil all the suspense.

And here’s the magic of this story: whether his contorted handshake while trying to remove a stone from his shoe is being interpreted as the secret handshake of a Mason, or he’s spying The Most Beautiful Girl In The World the bell tower of his new employer with a pillow glued to his back and toothpaste foaming out of his mouth and a crick in his neck (ok, so I spoiled the suspense a little), everything flows from one thing to the next, with that “inevitable but surprising” progression I never seem to achieve.

Distraught, I called from the tower as she reappeared in the church grounds below me, “Is there not a task I could perform to change your mind and win your heart?”
“Yeah, sure!” she called up as she ran, and my hear leaped like a salmon. “Get plastic surgery to look like Leonardo DiCaprio. And make a million more on…”
And with that tantalizing promise, she was gone.
The first part of her request was clear, though I puzzled over the second one briefly. A million more on what? But of course! A million more on top of what I had already!
I was ecstatic, transformed. The woman I loved had set me a task.

Wow, it’s the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Quest, which I’ve never understood until now.

It’s pretty clearly an excerpt from a larger piece (probably his first novel, Jude Level 1 since we never find out anything about the mob pursuing our protagonist and the end feels like a beginning. If this is indicative of Gough’s writing as a whole, I just might take a look; after all, his second Jude novel, Jude in London is available as a free – that’s FREE – download (and begins with a quick bringing-you-up-to-date summary which seems to include this episode), with an option to pay what you thought it was worth when you’re finished. He’s been compared to Wodehouse and Roddy Doyle, neither of which I’m familiar enough with to recognize; I was thinking A Fish Called Wanda throughout, but that was English, right? No matter – this is great stuff.

It’s quite a short little story (or excerpt), and I wish it was available online, since the voice is key to appreciating the events. What I appreciate after I stopped giggling is that it truly works. Every step is logical, everything is authentic and, sort of, logical. I’m not sure total strangers running in off the street are truly handed the keys to the bell tower in Irish churches, nor am I sure that pillows can end up glued to backs (ok, the glue is a bit of a stretch, and the toothpaste) but if you go with it, if you’re willing, it’s a perfectly cohesive story rather than a string of gags, and the ending is just right, leaving me to crave further adventures. And you know, I finally found some Irish literature I get.

Pushcart 2012: Lydia Conklin, “Rockaway” from New Letters Fall 2010

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

Dani and Laurel hold hands. Laurel leans on Dani’s shoulder, even though Laurel’s taller. She likes Dani’s shoulder blade bumping her temple at each stride. Dani is tough but junior-sized, with long, gelled curls that stand between her and real-boyhood. Laurel is mixed race – Puerto Rican and black and a little Chinese – with an ironed spray of ponytail. There’s a scar on her jaw from opening a bottle with her teeth. Sometimes tears and sweat or milky drips of moisturizer form tiny ponds in the scar. Dani monitors the ponds as they change with the light of day. She kisses them out of their beds. They’re salty.

Part of the appeal of this story, for me, was the placement. It followed an essay by B. H. Fairchild on the love of language, and a poem about the seductive nature of language (I’ll be dealing with the poetry and essays in this volume in separate posts later on). Then comes “Rockaway,” which uses language perfectly.

That isn’t to say it’s elegant or poetic. It’s just evocative as hell.

Dani and Laurel are a couple of fifteen-year-old lovers from the projects who visit Rockaway Beach to search for whale barf. They’ve heard a rumor someone just found a small piece that netted him eight thousand dollars, so off they go. They don’t know what whale barf is, what it looks like, or why it’s so valuable. They just go.

It’s sort of how they fell in love. Their moms got pregnant together as teens, and they grew up across the hall from each other, though they ran in different crowds until one day, Laurel noticed Dani “was more boy than girl.” They’ve been keeping it quiet, with Laurel sneaking into Dani’s bed late at night and leaving before her mom wakes up. Now Laurel wants to tell their moms about their love. Dani’s more cautious:

Dani wonders what would happen if she ever wanted to dump Laurel. They’re in love, really, and she can’t imagine it ending. But there’s the option. If they tell the moms, and then Dani wanted out, she’d be stuck. The moms would give her shit for the rest of her life for hurting Laurel. Before Laurel, anytime Dani got sick of a girl clinging on her she blocked her number and IM, looked away on the street. Some of the girls got mad, hit her in public. The boys on the block gave her high-fives and winks, had her back if things got dangerous. It was only time they respected her. Now that they sense she’s settled down, they’re dicks again.

Dani keeps putting off the issue; they’re at the beach looking for whale barf, after all.

A few things happen at the beach, including a party in a hole in the sand, that clarify the relationship, and it’s all very beautifully handled. The kids are in that adolescent state of zigzagging from hypermature ‘hood toughness to needy infancy to motherly tenderness at a moment’s notice, and the language lets them do that. Little touches – like “clinging on her” instead of “clinging to her” – matter.

The story works on face value, and it works in symbolics as well – the elusive ambergris, the hole in the sand at the beach, the adolescent view of committment. Very nice, but not intrusive. It’s just there if you want it.

Conklin, a Harvard grad, was an MFA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when the story was originally published. She’s an artist, cartoonist, and now writer. Given her ability to use language, that seems right.

Pushcart 2012: Sandra Leong, “We Don’t Deserve This” from Ploughshares, Fall 2010

"Fractured Family" by Marie Findlay

"Fractured Family" by Marie Findlay

The notification came on a weekend, and Jake’s, in Iceland, had gotten through first. Sarah was in a desert, her cell phone wasn’t working well, and she had to go back to the base to find out what was wrong.
She calls him from the landline,and he tells her as much as he knows.
“Whatever’s coming, I feel I don’t deserve it,” he adds.
“You’re breaking up,” she says.
Through static, they agree to drop everything and take a week to straighten things out.
These days there aren’t that many things that happen to both of them. Their children is one of them.

If you’re thrown by that story opening, well, I think you should be. I probably read it six times before continuing on, since I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Iceland? Base? Desert? And it feels like a tense switch, though it isn’t; it just starts out in flashback mode. It’s a very strange opening. But not really, because everything is pretty ordinary, when you get right down to it: Jake is working in Iceland, Sarah in some desert somewhere else, and have received some kind of notification about their children who are yet another place. That’s what really confused me; I got the impression, from the word “notification,” that the children had died, but the parents seemed much to calm for that, and reacting to death by “straightening it out” seemed like an odd reaction.

Turns out, it was much, much stranger than I thought.

You know how Catch-22 is surreal in a realistic way? Nothing is truly bizarre, it’s just that no one reacts to anything the way you’d think they would, and nothing seems to mean, to the characters, what the reader thinks it should mean. That’s what we’ve got here. Weird realizm (I keep typing the “z” in that by mistake, but I’ve decided, since I’m inventing the term, I’m keeping it).

Jake and Sarah, we find out in the next page or so, are public health physicians whose mission in life is much bigger than their two children, Ned and Samantha, now 15 and 12. When they were younger, Sarah worked only full-time (which hardly counts at all):

…envying the freedom of those who were about to travel to Viet Nam to look at the life cycles of schistosomes in the rice paddies or to study the incidence of cryptosporidium in hikers due to gannet guano encounters in the Orkneys. But mainly she wished she was able to just plain intervene in refugee migrations or plagues or the other holocausts that swirled around the planet.

What she didn’t particularly want to do was intervene in the lives of her kids, who, at ages 9 and 12, went to boarding school at their own request. “No one cried.” Jake and Sarah travelled the globe fixing other people. Doctoring gradually morphed into something else: consulting, microfinance consortiums, charity management, non-charitable management. Wealth building in developing countries became their specialties. And it’s all thanks to the boarding school.

And, as the title indicates, they become the people whose picture you see in the dictionary under “narcissist:”

They became the sort of people of whom they used to be wary, people with a deep sense of entitlement stemming rom knowledge of how unnecessary most barriers and restrictions are. They knew others were oppressed. They refused to be oppressed themselves. They became the kind of people who don’t suffer.
It didn’t begin about class. It ended up that way.
Perhaps they were poorly understood. Confusing to themselves, and their children.

The notification was not a death at all; the children were suspended from school and about to face an expulsion hearing for running a nascent and vaguely described “trafficking ring” using as cover a kind of reverse of the Fresh Air program: instead of sending inner city kids to the country, they were arranging rural hosts for “overprivileged and understimulated” boarding school kids – presumably, with nefarious purposes in mind. The school is worried about its sterling reputation, and its endowments. Jake and Sarah are worried about losing a permanent 24/7/365 baby sitter. No one’s really worried about the kids, who seem to be a bit odd: Sarah starts sucking her thumb, she carries a doll, and Ned has these strange facial expressions.

Jake and Sarah take the kids home, and get their comeuppance in dramatic and appropriate fashion, before Sarah finds salvation (which to me is perhaps the weak point of the story; her salvation seems to just happen rather than to evolve in a way that makes it inevitable, and as a result, it doesn’t seem all that sincere). Step by step, it’s all so logical. It just gets weird when it’s looked at from a distance, as a whole.

There are some amazing touches here. I like how the weird realizm builds, from eccentricity to pathology to downright absurdity. And there are some wonderfully subtle moments. Sarah waits in the headmistress’ office: “Accustomed to visiting schools of airy thatch and newly poured concrete, she finds all this carved-wood panelling coffinlike.” The kids, who have been in touch occasionally with their parents via Skype and DVDs, are surprised to see them in three dimensions. And Sarah is not without the occasional sliver of ironic insight: “She’s not proud of a certain ruthlessness behind all the do-gooding but there is nothing so wrong with ambition if you’re for the causes that matter.”

And there we have the crux of the matter. Sandra Leong discussed her process, and the importance of deadlines, for this piece on the Ploughshares blog:

I’d just completed a second revision of a novel that had taken five years to write, and was feeling acutely – and depressingly – how much ambition and narcissism it would take to persevere beyond the first few rejections. I was also feeling rather defensive about the writers’ right and duty to bring unsympathetic characters into the world and cherish them as adored children. Luckily, for the purposes of my feeling able to continue to write, Jim Shepard gave me a deadline, and this self-important married couple came to mind. I was intrigued by the way their notions of their own good will and selflessness might be called into question by their blithe neglect of their offspring. And as I began, all sorts of other roiling and fragmented preoccupations – from the plight of women and the perversity of artists to the mysterious state of the Democratic party and the fate of modern liberalism – began to cohere.

That coherence is impressive. And why am I not surprised to find Sandra Leong is a psychotherapist? I hope to read more by her soon.

Pushcart 2012: Susan Steinberg, “Cowboys” from American Short Fiction, Spring 2010

From The Getty Collection

There are some who say I did not kill my father.
Not technically, they mean.
But the one who say I did not kill my father are the ones who want to have sex with me.
They say I did not kill my father because they cannot have sex with a woman who killed.

It’s one of those stories where every line contains something important to the whole, so it’s not easy to discuss without copying the whole thing. It’s stark. It’s touching. It’s true.

She’s not much for artifice, this woman. She recognizes the desire and need for it, like when the doctor called to tell her that her father, an abusive addict long estranged, was on a respirator and a decision needed to be made.

The doctor said my father would be a vegetable, and upon hearing this word, I imagined a plate; I imagined vegetables on this plate.
One does not want to imagine this. One wants to imagine one’s father spinning through a field, arms spread, something dynamic like that.
Even something totally made up like that.
My father would never have spun through a field.
He was mad, yes, but not that kind of mad. He was not that kind of happy mad. He was the other kind He was ferocious.
And besides, what field. And where.

She’s living in Missouri, where there are cowboys and tornadoes and brown recluse spiders. A guy at work was bitten by one, in his own bed.

Because he was trying to tell me the bite dissolved the skin on his ass. Because he was trying to tell me that this just wasn’t right.
The technical term is necrotized.
The point is, I was not always serious.
No, the point is we’re limited.

She captures the family outcast perfectly as she comes up against this wall of artifice and pretense, all their sighs because she won’t go along with it, similar to the guys she sleeps with who sigh because she doesn’t do what they want: “The woman is supposed to know the subtle difference between being a woman and performing one.” There’s a scene about dipping french fries in a milkshake, and a scene about organ donation (everything but the eyes), and some direct address to the reader, first as to why she’s writing this story now, since it happened years ago, and second, to assure the reader:

There is no intentional meaning in this story.
I would not subject you to intentional meaning.
I would not subject you to some grand scheme.

The closing half-page, from a better place than Missouri, is astounding. And I wonder, is this a suicide note? A letter to someone? Or, as she assures us, just a story she wrote down, and I’m just one of those who insist on finding intentional meaning where there is none?

I was debating about the choppy style. It’s distracting, I thought. Yes, it is, isn’t it. Distracting, from the father’s death, from Missouri.

There I was, just some poor soul. Same as you.

But there’s no intentional meaning there, I’m sure.

Pushcart 2012: L. Annette Binder, “Nephilim” from One Story #141, 10/15/10

"Water Rights" by Marcia Petty

"Water Rights" by Marcia Petty

God was a blacksmith and her bones were the iron. He was drawing them out with a hammer. God was a spinner working the wheel and she was his silken thread. Seven feet even by the time she was sixteen and she knew all the names they called her. Tripod and eel and swizzle stick. Stork and bones and Merkel, like the triple-jointed Ragdoll who fought against the Flash. Red for the redwoods out in California. Socket like a wrench and Malibu like the car, and she took those names. She held her book bag against her chest and she took them as her own.

I read this in One Story before I started blogging the stories I’d read. I was glad to see it in the Pushcart volume, though surprised: while I enjoyed it and thought it was different and moving and nicely written, I didn’t realize it was Pushcart good. I’m glad to see it is.

Freda is a giant (due to a pituitary tumor; the medical aspects are explained briefly, as if only to assure the reader this is not anything supernatural), and the story recounts her life as it intersects with that of Teddy Fitz, a little boy who moves in down the block. Legends of nephilim are interwoven throughout the story. They were the giants of the Old Testament, the offspring of fallen angels and women. Their bones became the mountains. We can almost imagine they were called whatever the 1000 BCE equivalent of Ragdoll or tripod, maybe Cedars instead of Red. They ate all the food, and the Lord ordered archangels Michael and Rafael to exterminate them so people wouldn’t be hungry. “Hunger is a terrible thing, Freda’s mother had told her more than once….But hunger was their burden, and they should have carried it.” Freda knows burdens, after all.

Teddy is her main contact with humanity now that her mother is gone, it seems. He does chores for her: shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, planting flower bulbs. She sees him through his parents’ arguments and his mother’s departure as he grows up. We see her mobility decrease (cane, walker) and his increase (skateboard, bike, car). When he leaves for college, there is a moment of connection, and then she’s alone.

He returns years later, his wife (three inches taller than him) and child in tow, and Freda is in a wheelchair. In a heartbreaking decision, she won’t open the door when he comes to visit. Her health has deteriorated, and she’s wheelchair-bound.

He wouldn’t have said anything about her jawbone or her bent fingers or how her back was shaped like an S. He would have taken her hand and knelt down to greet her, but she stayed in her spot by the windows. His face was like a mirror, and it was better not to look.

Binder discusses her process in the One Story Q&A. She has a story collection, Rise, coming out in August.

Pushcart 2012: Paul Zimmer, “Brief Lives” from The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2010

The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2010

The Gettysburg Review, Autumn 2010

When I’m discouraged, I think about throwing the whole thing over. Have I wasted my life, stuffing my brain with this horde of minibiographies? It was the one thing I could do well, and when you get as old as I am, you want just a little appreciation for what you’ve done.
Sometimes, I swear if I could locate the place in my brain where I’ve collected all these brief lives, I’d tilt my head and drain them all out through my ear hole into a bucket. Then late one night I’d sneak out of the care home and funnel the whole mess into the book drop lot of the Squires Grove Library and start my life over.

There’s a guy in my town – you’ll run into him eventually if you ride the city busses – who will, given any opportunity, start talking about Amtrak. He’ll tell you the entire New York timetable, as well as every service change Amtrack has made, since it began in 1971. Then he’ll tell you about the schedule of the bus you’re on in Portland. I’m not sure about Amtrak, but his knowledge of the local bus schedule is extensive and, from what I’ve seen, completely accurate. People tend to move away from him. Or stare. He’s said he’s been diagnosed with everything from manic depression to Asperger’s, and he’s been kicked out of just about every elderly housing facility in Portland (though eventually he works through them all and someone has to take him back) as he can get a bit argumentative. Those trains, those timetables, are his connections.

He reminds me a little of the old man in this story: Cyril’s an old man in assisted living. He doesn’t do trains, he does lives.

See, when he was a kid with two drunk parents, he found salvation in a set of encyclopedias, reading about the lives of great people listed therein. As a teen he spent his money from odd jobs to buy another set of encyclopedias, and became a fixture at the drug store where he’d read all the magazines for information about movie stars, sports figures, and people in the news:

I was ravenous for lives – politicians, scientists, actors, musicians, scholars, soldiers, writers, artists, clergy, entertainers, architects, thinkers, athletes, and other famous people. I wanted to know how they got into and out of this world while doing something important enough to be remembered. It is my vicarious pleasure to collect this information, and I always try to pass on some of these lives to others.

He never married or had children, never travelled, just worked nondescript jobs in town and spent his “spare time collecting lives.” His experience with life is pretty much second-hand. It’s as if, as a kid, he gave up the idea of having a life of his own, and settled instead for knitting together the second-hand lives of others.

He’s alternately proud of and cursed by this talent. It’s not an easy way to live. People in the care home get tired of listening. So once in a while, as on the night in this story, he sneaks out to the tavern across the street for a few beers; he’s just got to share his lives with someone. Sometimes people, say, a guy just having a drink in a bar who finds himself bombarded first by the life story of Vivaldi and then obscure ballplayer Cookie Lavagetto and then offered up a menu of dozens of people to choose from, might get a little nervous and move away.

I’m the keeper of the lives! But I’m like a guy who mucks out stables for a living. People stand clear of me.

Sometimes, he gets into a little pickle, if someone else suggests a life. Instead of him rifling through his storehouse and coming up with someone appropriate, someone, say, Nobleson, another resident at the care home who also sneaks across the street for a beer, might decide, no, I don’t look like Arthur Godfrey, I’ve always been told I look like Van Johnson. Because, after all, who wouldn’t rather look like Van Johnson than Arthur Godfrey. And then Cyril, who is after all eighty-three and has had a few beers, might struggle with some mental archaeology:

I have to admit here, though, I’m in a bit of a panic, scuffling with my gray cells, trying to come up with the goods on Johnson. I’m getting just a little rusty as I get older. I haven’t thought about Van Johnson in year, and the four Peinies have addled me – but there’s some Johnson stuff in there. I know it, and I can feel it beginning to shake loose – the filamentous branching of my neurons is extending. Then – aha! Bingo.

And as happens on the night in this story, sometimes his penchant for lives gets him into bigger trouble. I won’t go into detail (the story is available online) other than to say his lives also get him out of trouble. They provide companionship for him – more dependable than drunken parents, potentially unfaithful lovers, inconstant friends. Perhaps in remembering others, he is putting a down payment on his own immortality. Maybe this is how he creates his own importance, his own right to be here.

The story opens with an epigram from John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century Keeper of Lives:

So that the retriving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art
of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their graves many
hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Customes and Fashions,
that were of old Times.
—John Aubrey, Brief Lives

Aubrey’s Brief Lives contains anecdotes about his contemporaries. Rather than list Robert Boyle as a chemist and discoverer of Boyle’s Law, for example, he notes such things as: “He was nursed by an Irish nurse, after the Irish manner, where they put the child in a pendulous satchel instead of a cradle, with a slit for the child’s head to peep out.” Aubrey, too, mixed fact and fiction. In fact, I can almost see him cornering some hapless guy at a pub with, “Hey, you remind me of Thomas Hobbes…”

It’s a nice story; it must be, since it took me so many places. But it doesn’t quite grip me. It lost me towards the end, with the final encounter – a man in a balaclava, a gun, a truck – that seemed forcedly dramatic. Someone workshopping one of my stories once tried to get me to throw a life-or-death scene into what had been a relationship piece. Helicopters! Forest fires! Drowning! Something at Stake! He was probably right about upping the drama level (the climax of my story was the discarding of a coffee cup into a trash bin – yeah, he was definitely right). But I didn’t want to write about helicopters and fires, I wanted to write about two misfits. Here, I felt like the story got lost when it got into danger and guns. I’m sure it’s an integral part of the piece and I’m missing something crucial – who am I to second guess the Gettysburg Review and the Pushcart editors – but that’s where I checked out, emotionally. That’s where I went from being Cyril’s friend, looking over his shoulder and feeling for him, his need to not be forgotten, to be important, as he shared his lives, to reading a story about a guy who remembered a lot of biographies.

Pushcart 2012: Miha Mazzini, “That Winter” from Ecotone 9, Spring 2010

From the story collection Ghosts

How many time had I pondered how the others could bear what we had done? I came to see it all from close-up; Cane had been the innkeeper, Pavle the mechanic, Branimir a farmer, and so on, then along came the idea of our great country and we did what we did. Now Cane is again the innkeeper, Pavle the mechanic, and Branimir is a salesman of Chinese goods, since it does not pay any longer to live off the land. And here I am. And was that all? Like a flu, as Cane had said, something came and infected us.
There was something escaping me that I wanted to find out before I went. Nikola’s second option; to forget. Was it possible?

What is justice? Is it accountability, punishment, rehabilitation, restitution? Is justice even possible, for some things? What of guilt, and forgiveness, where do they fit in? If the wrongdoer is remorseful enough, is the wronged required to forgive? And again, is any such remorse, such forgiveness, possible, for extreme wrongs?

This is not an easy story to read. First, it’s set in Bosnia, with all that bewildering history, countries splitting and reforming, enmities that erupted seemingly (to those of us snuggled safely between two oceans and with a fluctuating but tenacious agreement to live together as one nation) out of nowhere all of a sudden in the 90s and led to nightly reports of horrors and tragedy. And second, the protagonist is a war criminal, who turns out (to me) to be a very sympathetic character, for a mass murderer. But it was not my family, my nation, that was murdered. I was left feeling very uncomfortable with my sympathy, as though that sympathy itself was a betrayal of someone, something, somewhere.

He is called Boss, Chief, Commandant. While Sarajevo was being destroyed, he led a squad of ten or so men in his small village, aiding in the war effort by killing Muslims and burying the bodies in fields one winter. When spring came and the bodies were exposed by the thaw, he led the reburial. An American photographer happened by and caught this on film. Eventually he gave himself up, and went to prison as a war criminal, for eleven years. Now, he’s returning to his village.

He finds the members of his old squad, which is more of an informal group that just happened to cluster together to murder rather than an official military organization. A few are dead or gone. Nikola is drinking himself to death:

“Listen to me, boss, listen. Let me state it clear: the first option is to die. You can choose only the speed: fast or slow. The second option is to forget, like the others from our group did. But, boss, you said you can’t sleep, so you’re not like Cane and the others.” He gestured toward the inn, but in the wrong direction. “Why are you still alive? How will you kill yourself?”
I opened my mouth to speak but he didn’t let me.
“Boss, nobody wants you here. Nobody waited for you. You’re a ghost, a reminder. Please, do us a favor.”

He discovers the ruins of the houses of the Muslims – ruins he created, homes he burned – have been cleaned up, and some minor rebuilding has started. A wall here, a pile of bricks there. Cane, innkeeper and former crew member, tells him the Muslims have scattered to other, safer countries, but come back on their week-long vacations to work on the rebuilding. One of these Muslim families included Sead, a boy Boss went to school with, a friend, in fact. His father was their first prisoner.

…[W]e really believed they were spies for the Muslim army, and therefore traitors. But our belief was like a balloon, we had to pump it up all the time with shouts, with frenzy, with constant movement, never stopping, never thinking. Some of our neighbors confessed. Sead’s father didn’t. He died after three nights of interrogation.

Boss prepares to kill himself, and considers what Nikola has said, in the introductory quote above. He wants to check something before he dies. He asks the crew, sans Nikola, to meet him at the inn. They have a subdued but reasonable time, until Boss begins his exhortations, the one he still remembers from that winter eleven years before: “Will we let them trample on our heroic thousand-year-old history?”

The crew musters and is ready to tear through the doors of the inn, and start in all over again. Just as Boss feared, knew they would; many things had changed, but this basic thing, this basic mistrust, hatred just waiting for a concrete target, was still there. He blocks the door so they can’t get out, and looks them in the eye.

Cane was the first whose arms gave way; he began to scratch his waist. They quickly followed his example, scattering around the room, moving the tables about, straightening the tablecloths, picking their caps up off the floor – waiting for me to move away from the door.

Is this shame? Some kind of coming to terms with their own evil? I’m guessing, probably not. They’d probably do the same thing the next night, if Boss returned and played his part again. Boss has the guilt, the remorse, the sleeplessness. They have pretty much their lives as usual.

Boss goes home and readies the noose. But he hears a truck. It’s Sead. He’s brought a truckload of bricks. He’s here for his week of rebuilding what his family lost, what Boss and the others took from him that winter.

He was going to build a house in which nobody would ever live. A husk, a ghost, reminding the torturers that even if they forgot everything, somebody else would not….
I was merely a dead cell, a flake of dandruff that had fallen off and from which there would never come any benefit. I was insignificant. I coul kill myself now or later with a rope or with alcohol. However , something else… something else… There had to be something other than Nikola’s two options…. Was it really easier to kill again than to ask forgiveness?

The story ends with Boss prostrating himself before Sead, begging forgiveness, and he is rebuffed. Ignored, really. And that’s where the story leaves us – with a criminal who is changed, but justice still undone.

The implications for those involved in “justice” – and those who know generational warfare up close and personal – are scary. It’s also scary how easily we’re worked up into a murderous frenzy by the right words. It’s especially scary while the election rhetoric is ringing all around us.

It’s a powerful story. And I’ve left out many elements. Ecotone focuses on place, and this story includes the kind of descriptions and narration that makes you feel damp and cold while reading it. “A summer storm had just passed by, the wet hair of clouds still hung over a neighboring hill.” That’s one hell of an evocative sentence. Boss had a wife, who testified against him in exchange for a new identity for her and their daughters, toddlers when he left; he figures his girls are better off that way, and hopes she never mentions him to them. The destruction of Sarajevo, the hysteria that led to it, the burned out village, the field of bodies, Nikola’s drunken stupor, these are overwhelming. And of course the primary plot, which I’ve outlined. It’s sort of like a literary mugging.

Mazzini is a prolific Slovenian writer and filmmaker, though apparently little of his work has made it into English. I’m not sure if this is a translation or not. The story from a volume of short stories, Ghosts – “Ten stories, ten persons or objects that won’t remain in the past.” The collection is not available in English. But there’s no note about translation, and it doesn’t read like a translation. Or, maybe more accurately, like my conception of a translation.

The first few paragraphs are available on Ecotone (not any more), but not the whole story. Which is too bad. It’s a story that should be widely read. It has a lot to say, and it says it very, very well.

Pushcart XXXVI (2012) – At the Beginning

When I was a teen (in the late 60s and early 70s), I’d take my allowance to WaldenBooks (and the mall record store, which carried all the Peter, Paul & Mary, Melanie, and Don McLean I could afford) or school book fairs. I didn’t buy makeup, or jeans (they weren’t allowed in my house, and my schools had dress codes until I was a senior); I bought books. I had a complete collection of Herman Hesse, having read Beneath the Wheel in an English class. I tried Ayn Rand because she was in a Paul Simon song. Death Be Not Proud led to a volume of John Donne. Catch-22 (which made no sense to me). The Bell Jar (yes, I was a pretty depressed teenager). And a lot of goofball stuff – Love Story, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the like. I even bought a copy of The Naked Ape purely for the chapter on sex (I was very sheltered) which led to a lifelong aversion to red lipstick and placement of personal mementos on my desk at work.

All of these were paperbacks.

“Papercovers!” my father would sneer. Paperbacks weren’t books, to him; they were the dime-store westerns and romances he’d seen in drug stores and Five-and-Tens in his youth (he was born in 1908). He never accepted that a real book could be published in paperback.

Not that a real book was that good a thing, either. He worried that I didn’t spend my allowance on tangibles – things with practical use or resale value. When I’d come home with another book, he’d fret. “Books! You have books!” Records were similarly dismissed. If you have one or two books or records, after all, why would you need more?

My father was an accountant. He was born in Sweden, and came of age in New Jersey during the Depression. (and I inherited that attitude towards shoes).

I still have many of the paperbacks I bought back then. Though not The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Ilya Kuryakin, cute as he was, didn’t stand the test of time. Neither, by the way, did The Naked Ape.

When he rails against online fiction, Bill Henderson reminds me of my father. He’s someone who started something impressive and new and important back in 1975, when the first Pushcart volume was printed, someone who respects Schumacher’s Small-is-Beautiful notion, but he can’t get past this change in format to accept that there are good things out there in cyberspace. I can hear him sneering, “Papercovers!” every time I read a Pushcart introduction.

Fine. He’s entitled to his opinion (even if XXXV made a mockery of that opinion, including works available only online). I’m not interested in the debate over the validity of the Pushcart Prize. I just want to read good stories, and this one of many places to find them.

I was so excited when I went through the Table of Contents of XXXV (which was, to me, an extraordinary volume, prompting me to obtain XXXVI immediately). I’d already read the stories by Charles Baxter and Anthony Doerr, and loved them, and I recognized some other names I admired – Deb Olin Unferth, Joe Meno, Terrence Hayes – so I was eager to jump in.

I’m a little more cautious with XXXVI. I know four of the stories. I very much enjoyed “Number Stations” by Smith Henderson and “Nephilim” by L. Annette Binder for the blend of impact and quirk. I was less enthusiastic about “Soldier of Fortune” by Bret Anthony Johnston, a perfectly executed and interesting but less-than-unexpected coming-of-age tale, and Steven Millhauser’s “Phantoms” which just went over my head and left me disappointed by lack of anything I could really hook on to. So I’m thinking maybe this (stories from 2010) was just not the year for my kind of fiction. Or maybe 2009 was annus mirabilis in terms of stories that resonated with both me and the Pushcart editors, and I should not expect such a thing again.

We’ll see.

BASS 2011: Steven Millhauser – “Phantoms” from McSweeney’s #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

McSweeney's, Issue #35

The Phantoms, which some call Presences, are not easy to distinguish from ordinary citizens: they are not trnanslucent, or smokelike, or hazy; they do not ripple like heat waves, nor are they in any way unusual in figure or dress. Indeed they are so much like us that it sometimes happens we mistake them for someone we know…. They themselves appear to be uneasy during an encounter and switftly withdraw. They always look at us before turning away. They never speak. They are wary, elusive, secretive, haughty, unfriendly, remote.

I want so badly to like Steven Millhauser. This is the second of his stories I’ve read recently, and I’m not really seeing the appeal. I enjoyed “Miracle Polish” considerably more than this piece. I think I’ll read his new collection, “We Others: New and Selected Stories” and see if I can develop whatever sense it is that makes him so highly revered by people I highly revere.

Sometimes I get the feeling that the BASS people want to make sure each annual volume contains a variety of stories, so they encourage – perhaps require – that perhaps a couple of non-traditional narratives are included. Maybe they want one speculative fiction story. With this story, they get two quotas for the price of one. Of course, I could be overcomplicating the process.

It’s written in the form of a report, describing the phenomonon of Phantoms in a small town. It’s broken into sections, including multiple Explanations (with evidence against each one) and Case Studies. I tried looking at is as a portrait of a small town, but that didn’t really work. Is there some significance to the study of things we don’t understand? Of course, but that seems like too small a payoff. The phantoms depicted in the case studies behave in different ways (probably why they were chosen as case studies; you wouldn’t pick all the same types of encounters, after all) and the people who experience them vary widely as well. I don’t even find it to be a particularly interesting examination of astral phenomena. I feel like a failure.

There are people who love cilantro, and those who insist it tastes like soap. This has led to speculation about a “cilantro gene.” Maybe I’m missing the Millhauser gene. That thought makes me sad. So I’ll keep trying. Eventually, I’ll get it.

Addendum: This story is also in the Pushcart 2012 volume, making me feel even more stupid.

And again: it’s in the 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories anthology too; three for three. I still don’t get it.

BASS 2011: Bret Anthony Johnston, “Soldier of Fortune” from Glimmer Train

It was the year the president denied trading arms for hostages in Iran and the space shuttle Challenger exploded and Halley’s Comet scorched through the sky. It was the year I loved a reckless girl, the year being around my best friend made me lonely.

This is a very sweet and well-told coming-of-age tale that Johnston admits he hardly remembers writing. While it is extremely well-paced and well-written – the paragraphs and sections end with perfect cadences – it’s also quite predictable, and I have a feeling I’ll hardly remember reading it a year from now.

Josh is fourteen and a freshman; Holly, his neighbor and crush, is eighteen and a senior. She’s lived across the street for all his life, except for those two years when her family went to Florida, but they’ve been back a year now. Her little brother Sam, three years old and born when they were away, has a tragic kitchen accident and is severely scalded; Josh is enlisted to feed the dog while her family is occupied. He spends a lot of time in Holly’s bedroom, making aborted phone calls from her phone, and admiring a picture of her and Sam in an orange grove. He and his best friend Matt have been collecting war trinkets – ninja stars, blank bullets, MREs – for years, but Josh has lost interest lately and has packed up the stuff for Matt to pick up.

Josh does a lot of growing up in those few days, aided by Holly’s surreptitious return from the hospital. He learns about secrets. He learns the oranges in the picture were frozen. He learns what you’d expect him to learn in a sweet, well-told coming-of-age tale.

It’s told in that “memoir voice,” an adult looking back. In this case, he’s looking back from twenty years hence: “Now I think of 1986 as the year my life pivoted away from what it had been, maybe the year when all of our lives pivoted.” Holly joined the Coast Guard (and later the Army) right as Josh lost interest in military matters, and made quite a career for herself over twenty years. His mother emailed him the obituary. He wonders if he can find the picture he stole, of Holly and Sam in the orange grove.

Oddly, we never find out whether or not Sam survived his accident. A lot of interesting family dynamics are hinted at, but not directly exposed. We find out a lot about rumors, and about how slippery truth can be.

I wish I could work up more enthusiasm for the story, because it truly is exquisitely crafted. But I can’t, because it was so familiar. There was nothing in it that surprised or excited or even interested me, other than the skill level. Except maybe the oranges. But from a “best” story, I expect more. Still, if you’re fond of the Bildungsroman genre, this is a great example.

ETA: Oops, my bad – this story is in the Pushcart XXXVI (2012) volume. I’m a little surprised, but I guess I need to read it again and figure out what I missed (hints from readers are welcome). And, oddly, this makes two “scalding” stories in XXXVI.