Jeanne Holtzman: Almost Wanton (Red Bird Chapbooks 2014)

Angela hated the word horny. It sounded so crude. There must be a better way to describe the way she felt these days. Lascivious. Aflame. Maybe even wanton.

~~”Waiting for Mr. Goodman”

I’m always thrilled to see one of my former writing-and-reviewing comrades publish.

I spent some time in Zoetrope’s Flash Factory with Jeanne Holtzman; in fact, she’s one of only two Zoetrope people I’ve met in person (which is why I refer to her by her first name), since, by one of those bizarre coincidences, her daughter Molly lived in the same building as I do while she was a student at the Maine College of Art. The three of us went to a Steve Almond reading, in fact, and we ran into each other a few other times.

When she offered to send me a copy of her first published chapbook, I bought it myself, instead, since, well, I knew I wanted a copy but I didn’t want to feel like a leech once again. The hand-made book from Red Bird Chapbooks is lovely, with French flaps and bound with a delicate cord dangling enticingly from the spine. It’s something of a family project, as one of daughter Molly’s paintings serves as the cover art.

The first thing I did when the book arrived was look up “wanton”.

I was surprised: the initial meaning of the word was “undisciplined”. Of boys, “childishly cruel and unruly”. Of animals: “skittish, refractory”; also, “frisky, frolicsome”. Of color or music, “cheerful, exuberant”. Of money, “luxurious, extravagant”. Of plants, “abundant, prolific”. Of health: “robust, vigorous”. Of an act: “reckless, arbitrary”.

And of course, of a woman: “Lustful; not chaste; sexually promiscuous”.

It’s true that most of the stories revolve around sex, but there many sides to sex – curiosity, heartbreak, generosity, secrecy – and this collection gives us a tour of them all, as well as the less obvious kinds of wantonness. These are women – girls, in some cases – who color outside the lines of societal dictates, in thought or deed. Jeanne’s done something very interesting in the ordering of these fifteen flashes: they’re arranged by age of the main character, so we see how “wanton” changes over time, from pre-pubescence, with all the bewilderment that entails, to old age, with its wealth of experience.

These are stories that illuminate the possibilities of wantonness in ways I never could have imagined. Some of my favorites sorted by variety of wantonness:

Of a woman: Lustful; not chaste; sexually promiscuous

Teddy laughs like a machine gun.

~~ “Better than Chocolate”

Three stories – “I Know My Love Can Save The World” (on the 2012 Wigleaf Longlist for best online flash) and “Better than Chocolate” (which contains my favorite first line quoted above, so evocative), and “(Com)passion”, are indeed lustful, yet the wanton women involved are more interested in healing others – and perhaps, obliquely, the broken parts of themselves – through sex than in carnal pleasure. Is it not good, to help others? Who decides when some line has been crossed?

"Pink Ribbon" by demonrat

“Pink Ribbon” by demonrat


Of an act: reckless

The next day Ana came home to a mailbox stuffed with invitations. She heard voices inside them, calling to her. “Come join us Ana. You’re special now. You belong.”

~~ “One of Them”

Two stories about reactions to breast cancer show how restrictive society’s expectations have become: “Million Dollar Movie” brings to mind the unique relationship between best friends, and “One of Them” – the 2009 Whidbey Students Choice Award winner – made me wish I’d been at that meeting, so I could stand up and cheer at the recklessness.

Of Secret wantonness

He posts pictures of the two of them labeled Mr. and Mrs. Gummi. He’s gaining weight.”

~~”You Don’t Unfriend Them”

Most of my favorite stories fell in this category, a wantonness of mind or emotion, a wantonness no one but the wantonee knew about. Maybe the person sitting next to you, some stranger who passes by unnoticed, or the person who shares your life, is being secretly wanton, right now.

"Gummy Murder" by raynebowbear

“Gummy Murder” by raynebowbear


“You Don’t Unfriend Them” – published in Necessary Fiction as “You Don’t Defriend Them” (it took some time for Facebook lingo to settle down) is a story Zin Kenter recognized because – it was from Zin’s Flash Factory prompt: a flash in second person including Gummi bears and gruel. Yep, that’s Zin – and Jeanne turned it out.

“No Dysfunctional Lovers” and “Cry of the Loon Lodge” similarly feature women who let their wantonness remain in their thoughts.

And then there’s the title story, “Waiting for Mr. Goodman”, secret wantonness caught in the act. There’s a terrific “turn” in this story, right about when the g-string starts to chafe… but then, our fantasies rarely survive the transplant to reality.

I asked Jeanne what it feels like to have her collection published:

I’m not a particularly goal-oriented person and my one and only writing goal, really the only specific goal in my life, was to have a chapbook of my flash fiction published. I’m thrilled that Red Bird Chapbooks chose my manuscript. Evan Kingston was wonderful to work with and Dana Hoeschen was completely open to my cover suggestions. I’m so pleased with the hand sewn binding and beautiful physicality of the book and proud and tickled that my daughter’s art graces the cover!

Beautiful job, both of you – and congratulations!

Charles E. May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies (2013) – “Introduction”

The important distinction that must be made is between narratives that strive to make the realm of value seem temporal, and thus graspable by experience and reason, and narratives that strive to transform the temporal into the transcendent. What I wish to suggest in this book is that the novel is a form dominated primarily by the first impulse, whereas the short story, at its most successful, is dominated by the second.… There are therefore two basic modes of experience in prose fiction: the one, that involves the development and acceptance of the everyday world of phenomenal, sensate, and logical relations – a realm that the novel has always taken for its own – and the other, that involves single experiences that challenge reality as simply sensate and reasonable – a realm that has dominated the short story since its beginnings.

I discovered Charles May – Professor Emeritus at Cal State, short story specialist – several years ago through his blog in which he discussed some BASS and PEN/O’Henry stories; he was particularly helpful as I untangled Alice Munro’s “Corrie” and a few other of her stories. I don’t always see what he sees in particular short stories, but I’m always interested in what he has to say, so when he recently self-published I Am Your Brother, a collection of previously published essays on the short story form, I bought it right away. I’ll be going through it slowly, chapter by chapter, over the coming months, enjoying along the way some of the stories he uses to illustrate his points.

In the Introduction (which is available online via two posts on his blog) May delimits the short story and the novel: “As many artists have noted and short stories will testify, the source of story lies indeed in myth, folk tale, fairy tale, and thus in dreams–not in the concept of external reality that most often constitutes the novel.” Maybe this is why short stories appeal to me, given my fondness for the “weird” – unusual narrative techniques, structures, diction, characters, situations, reactions.

Another key concept May uses is that of the “I” versus “other”, which weaves through psychology, theology, philosophy, cognitive science, and, of course, literature. Last summer I spent a few months happily exploring this theme (“the only way to understand the other is to become the other”) in literature via The Fiction of Relationship , a MOOC taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, which spanned novels – Beloved, Jane Eyre, Disgrace – as well as short-form (Borges, Kafka, Melville), so I’m not sure I’m ready to concede the “mythic” to the short story quite yet. Still, it’s a theme that resonates with me:

The human dilemma is that we are always caught between the demands of our deepest wish for unity and the demands of our social being for self-assertion – which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.… This tension constitute fiction’s chief resemblance to life, says CS Lewis… For Lewis, life and art reflect each other, for both embody the tension between our desire for a state and our despair of ever catching that state in our everyday net of time and events.

I’m intrigued by May’s exploration of this theme through, first, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. During my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I encountered several explanations for various parts of this tale: Cain’s “fruits on the ground” meant rotten fruit, it wasn’t a blood sacrifice, he didn’t offer enough. Just poking around the Internet, I see lots of similar explanations, including one that admits the appearance of unfairness, and incorporates it into the theme of the story. All of these, however, have a religious, rather than a literary, grounding. May sees it a bit differently, as I understand it: it’s almost as if God models free will by capriciously rejecting Cain’s offering, then Cain turns around and exercises his own free will by killing Abel, resulting in separation from his brother, and, later, from his people.

He also examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, one of my own favorites from the standard Western canon I’ve otherwise largely ignored. I spent some time listening to a splendid dramatic reading (Richard Burton, John Neville) while following along with the text. May’s reading: the Mariner’s act of killing the albatross is an expression of free will, one pole of the human dilemma mentioned above; the rest of the poem shows the consequences of this free will, this separation from the whole resulting in a loss of unity, in aloneness: “The voyage is not a punishment, but an objectification of the isolation and aloneness of all humankind. The poem bears dramatic witness to our deepest fears about our place in the world… a world in which in the midst of water we die of thirst; a world in which we bear the burden of our shame and guilt like an albatross around our neck.…”

May also references Robert Penn Warren’s essay on Coleridge, “A Poem of Pure Imagination.” I have to admit I don’t quite see the distinction, as May does, between Robert Penn Warren’s “One Life” assertion, and his own “Separation of Life” but they both go deeper into literary theory than I’m equipped to handle. What I love about Penn’s essay is his discussion of the Mariner’s motivation for shooting the albatross in the first place, a starting place for many an English Lit paper:

The fact that the act is unmotivated in any practical sense, that it appears merely perverse, has offended literalists and Aristotelians alike… The lack of motivation, the perversity, which flies in the face of the Aristotelian doctrine of hamartia, is exactly the significant thing about the Mariner’s act. The act symbolizes the Fall, and the Fall has two qualities important here: it is a condition of will, as Coleridge says, “out of time,” and it is the result of no single human motive.

It’s right there in the poem, with the placement of a comma: we are all, all alone. Whether you want to call it Original Sin – separation from God – or free will – separation from each other – and whether you see one as a creation, or consequence of the other, is up to you.

May also uses Andre Dubus’ “Dancing After Hours,” from the story collection of the same name, in this Introduction. It’s a story new to me, and though I didn’t see what he saw in it (that happens sometimes). I enjoyed it for the focus on time from the very start. “Dancing after Hours” is an evocative phrase itself, speaking of an evening that’s over but must continue. The story opens with Emily’s age – 40 – which, as unfair and ridiculous as it is, has a certain echo; a 40-year-old woman bartender is very different from a 40-year-old male bartender, or a 25-year-old female bartender (stop before you write that nasty comment: 40 was a long time ago for me). In the first paragraph: “….she went outside to see the sun before it set.…” And she does.

Where Prof. May and I didn’t connect on this one was in the central climax of the story, the actual dancing after hours, which I saw as clichéd and overwrought with a Hallmark Hall of Fame Epiphany of the Week: Let Love In Even If You Fear Getting Hurt. May sees in the dancing that occurs, this union that fulfills the yearning proposed of the psyche. I see it in terms of what might be called “flow,” the sense of time stopping when you’re fully immersed in a soul-deep venture, be it physical (like sports), creative (writing), or exploration (reading, listening to music). I can see how the possibilities intersect I can also see the wonderful writer’s touches that go into the story, from the details of the opening I’ve already mentioned, to how Emily observes in great detail a man in a wheelchair exiting his van, eating, talking. That kind of detail, taking it all in, noticing, isn’t just exposition; it’s part of her character to be so intrigued. But the “And they all rode off into the sunset having grown a bit and everything will be all right and tomorrow’s full of possibility” ending felt a bit too pat for me; I have a nasty urge to see a postscript in which Emily gets seasick on her fishing trip with Jeff, Kay and Rita find no chemistry and come to work the next day awkward and embarrassed, and Drew never returns to the bar. I still have some growing to do as a reader.

I’m looking forward to continuing this book, and to encountering more stories new to me along the way and learning more about how the short story works.

Tim Horvath: Understories (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)

The title of the collection, “Understories” has several layers of meaning. The most literal is a reference from “The Understory” to the plants that grow at the base of the forest canopy, farthest from the crowns’ light and glory but just as critical to the overall habitat, and surely as intriguing when you hunker down close and know what to look for. I took a class called Forest Communities of New Hampshire where we went out hiking and examined the various layers in different forest stands, and I was amazed at how much you could learn by looking down as well as up and discerning connections between the levels. Even in “The Understory,” though, the word has a double meaning, referring also to the hidden stories, the stories that lie underneath the received version of events or the surface narrative that a person presents.

~~Tim Horvath, BLP Book Extra

Ok, now I’m mad. How come no one ever told me about Tim Horvath? Why did no one ever say, “Hey, Karen, you’ve got to read this book, you really do”?

So that this mistake is not repeated, let me say it to you: You’ve got to read this book. You really do.

In his htmlgiant review, Jarret Middleton refers to the collection as a city with the longer stories as skyscrapers surrounded by the shorter works. Sure, the big stories are magnificent – truly they are – but the little ones are gems as well; do not overlook the charming little bodegas and mom & pop shops while you are agape in wonder at the loftier architecture. As the man said, look down as well as up. And, by the way, look up as well as down. Look.

It’s not what I’d call an “easy” read. More than a few of the stories, especially the early ones, had me a little dubious at first: is this “the story”? Are we there yet? If you’re wondering that as you read – nope, you’re not there yet. Keep going. Suddenly, you’ll hit it, and you’ll realize, oh, that’s what it’s about, and a universe opens in your mind and heart. It’s worth the wait.

I loved this book. And it had to climb over a few barriers to get me to say that.

Tim contacted me through Goodreads after seeing some of my comments on BASS stories and One Story issues – he uses both as sources of fiction in his teaching – and asked if he could send me his book. I’m always thrilled to talk stories with anyone (and always surprised anyone wants to bother talking stories, or anything else, with me), and I very much want to hear about books I might like, but I always (on the few occasions it’s happened) feel a bit awkward when I’m (rarely) handed a free book; no matter how many times they say “no obligation,” I feel there surely is, somewhere; I can’t escape it, so why not admit it and go from there. I’m also hesitant to commit myself to an unexpected reading/posting project (I’m slow), particularly when I’m conscious of the author metaphorically looking over my shoulder on every page (“is she smiling? She isn’t crying, is that a bad sign?“). But no author ever worked harder to get an obscure blogger with virtually no following to read his book (Tim is almost as addicted to loquacious email discussions of Books/Stories I Have Loved as I, with my middle name of “TL;DR” am). I made some ambiguous comments about having a full plate from January through March (which is true), to leave my options open should I discover this was not my cup of tea, figuring by Spring he’d have forgotten all about me and I could avoid any potential discomfort entirely.

The book arrived at my door in mid-December, and I glanced at the table of contents. Just this first one, maybe – “The Lobby” – it’s very, very short flash – to get a sense of things before I put it aside, but that flash worked so well (and it was so short) I had to read “Urban Planning Case Study Number One,” also very short – I read them both standing in my hallway – and I was hooked before I’d even put down the shreds of the postal envelope it came in. Note to myself: if you’re trying not to read a book, do not start reading the book. But hey, I had this three-week hiatus, and sure, I have Hamlet to re-read before the class starts on Jan. 13 (oh, come on, I can do that during the class, right?) and a group read of Bernadette Mayer’s Midwinter Day to celebrate the Solstice with ModPo (the MOOC that never ends) and calculus to brush up on and Platonic solids to assemble as prep for three – THREE?? – upcoming math courses, and there are the those Uncreative Writing projects I have started (and have stalled on… someone give me a push, please?) and pfeffernusse to make and all the usual holiday and end-of-year things to do… but I can fit in one final collection. Especially this one.

A slowness, a quasi-geological time governs the circulation of books: the punctuation of frantic movements as a book takes on a buzz, gets reviewed, followed by years of stillness, silence, neglect. Perhaps a motion picture is commissioned, produced, released; the book stirs, reenters the commerce of the world, mingles and becomes inebriated in the gala of its success, and eventually tapers off, only somewhat reluctantly, into a second retirement. Envision a remake 30 years later – it happens. There is always hope, you see.

~~from “Circulation”

Most of the Understories reviews you’ll find around the blogosphere (let me say once again for the record: I don’t do book reviews because I don’t know how; I’m not sure what these posts are, but they’re just my reactions to what I read) will talk about similarities to Calvino and Borges; even I can see those very clearly. You can’t have a book with eight Urban Planning: Case Study stories sprinkled throughout and not think Invisible Cities, but if you can, then there’s the cover itself, and Borges is explicitly referenced in one of the stories and intimated in the interplay of philosophy, science, and literature in others. In a conversation with Philadelphia Review of Books, Tim himself cites DFW and Tobias Wolff as influences; I’m not familiar enough with Wolff to speak to that, and DFW, well, who isn’t influenced (or doesn’t wish she were) by him. I’m not very good at this kind of literogenetic tracing, since I tend to come up with oddball connections, but this isn’t high-stakes so I’ll play: If Calvino and Borges had a baby, it was adopted by Aimee Bender (who is always wacky) and Bennett Sims (who combines lyric prose with academia), lived next door to Jim Shepard (who personalizes history with exquisite detail and heart) and down the block from Manuel Gonzales (whose The Miniature Wife and Other Stories interspersed its fantasy stories with brief stories-in-the-form-of-obituaries), you might come close.

But why not just look on it as what it is: Tim Horvath (website here), who, like all those other souls, takes what he likes and combines it with a little something of his own, be it shadows, or caves, or a historic New England storm.

The stories (in somewhat disheveled order):

“The Lobby” – available online at jmww, Fall 2010

Note that a voyeur is not even capable of fully appreciating the lobby, since architect’s express mission was “to create a transitional venue to be absorbed molecularly in daily passage, subordinating ocular experience to a dopaminergic rush simulating the intake of certain illicit substances and overcoming the perils of habit(u)ation.” Note that even we have only a partial clue of what the fuck the architect was talking about, hence to pretend that you, a mere pedestrian onlooker (henceforth “voyeur”), will “get it” in some fell swoop like some mathematician-savant bypassing all the dirty little scratchpad pencil-and-eraserwork is just plain ludicrous.

Having finished the collection, I can say that seldom has an initial story so perfectly introduced the feel and content of a collection as “The Lobby” did this one. Taken by itself, well, I love a writer who can turn a legal contract into a heartbreaking little sigh. Note, however, that like the Residents contemplating their Architect, I also have only a partial clue of what the fuck the author is talking about – even Tim admits in his ShortForm interview that the guy is “somewhat cryptic” – but it’s one of those enticing mysteries I encounter from time to time that upholsters my lostness in an ineffable beauty. After all, no one knows what God is, or why we fall in love, or how music makes us cry, or what “Hotel California” is about (which is perhaps the most concrete comparison that occurred to me, and that should tell you something), but that doesn’t stop us from building entire cultures around such things. Surely a flash can have some mystery, and still be beautiful.

“Circulation”

When we were awash with youth, we were all led to believe that our father was assembling a book called The Atlas of Voyages of Things, or, as we shortened it, The Atlas. That it was eventually destined to enter the world was incontestable – one day, assuredly, we would march into the bookshop behind his gallant stride, and there, on the shelf, which set the book, sprawling, coffee-table-ready, his name beaming from the front as on a theater marquee. “You see, boys?” he’d say, and we would solemnly nod.

The premise, for all of the book’s unwieldy history, was disarmingly straightforward. My father was eternally fascinated by how things came to be where they currently were.

I’m tempted to just list a bunch of excerpts and let that whet your appetite – and you would get mighty hungry – but I suppose that wouldn’t be helpful in conveying what the story is about. But, like many of the stories in this book, it’s nearly impossible for me to say what this one is about. An unfinished book? A son saying goodbye to his dying father? Sure. But so much more than that.

Trying to explain the plot requires retelling the story, and Horvath does that just fine on his own. So why not just read the original? You’ll be glad you did. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out and you see where it’s going (“oh, it’s storyline G42, the estranged brother subdivision”), something completely unexpected happens.

So what’s it about? The overpowering, narcissistic father Gus, son Jay, and how books hold them together: the unfinished Atlas, through their congruent lives, then Spelos: An Ode to Caves as those lives diverge. And in one of the most charming surprises I’ve read, Scheherezade: the librarian son who spins tales of the voyages of a book that’s never left its shelf, and wonders: “My father was on his deathbed, and I was hardly saving my own life. Or was I?”

It’s about who runs for daylight, and who finds the only daylight he needs right where he is. It’s about Ding an Sich, Kant’s essence of things, and Borges’ Library of Babel. Connections between things, one of my personal favorite themes. How we survive. Family. How, when we think we’re least able to learn, it turns out we can learn everything we ever wanted to know.

The Atlas, in its non-existence the central image of the story, is itself about circulation. I don’t think it was even intended to be written – yet it was the heartbeat of the family, that pumped the hot blood through the arteries and brought them each nourishment and oxygen:

Do all families have such unifying themes? And if not, what replaces them? How, otherwise, do they make sense of it all, bring together the noblest and the basest in their histories within a single binding?

How, indeed?

Family is about circulation. Library books are about circulation – most literally, perhaps, but let’s face it, every atom on this planet is in circulation (I was going James Burke with the Atlas, but in a great interview with Greg Gerke on The Nervous Breakdown, Tim cites Primo Levy’s “Carbon” chapter of The Periodic Table which is just something I’m going to have to read now. As you’re going to have to read “Circulation.”

Within the library that Borges conjures, not only is every book ever written shelved somewhere but every possible book, every conceivable configuration of the alphabet. The conceit is too dizzying to think about for very long, but it serves as a good antidote to certain fundamental realities: funds are limited, books go unread, tumble out of print, serve as door stops – all too effectively, I might add; the greatest libraries of civilizations burn down, suns collapse, abandon planets without child support. And each life is limited – there is only so much reading that one can consume in the course of a lifetime, and the guests are waiting for the ham.

See? Circulation. Let the guests wait for their ham. They’ll enjoy it more afterwards, I promise.

“The Understory”

“A rainforest,” his daughter, Sabine, calls it, “in the middle of Peterborough, New Hampshire.”
He jokes that if they can find an anaconda there, they can have the woods, do with them what they will.… But he will wait it out until they drag out that anaconda. Will not submit to the desire to clean up the woods, to haul away the degenerating matter that trips one up at every turn. It is not purity he is after; on the contrary, it is precisely the lack of purity on which he insists.

Where I found “Circulation” so difficult to summarize, this one’s a lot easier: Schöner, aging philosopher-turned landscaper, a German Jew who escaped to the US just in the nick of time back in the 30s, reflects on his deep personal and intellectual friendship with Martin Heidegger during his post at University, and the feelings of betrayal as Heidegger failed to stand against the Nazis back when people still thought that was possible. And of course, it isn’t anywhere near that simple; the present-time story brings several strong symbolic elements – gardening, storms, and lots of philosophy – to give depth and resonance to what could have been merely an extended flashback.

I wish I knew more about Heidegger, yet another point of brilliance ruined by the Nazis; so much of what they couldn’t kill, they tainted, more of the incalculable waste (we all like to think we would’ve been among those who spoke up, or at least among those who left – but would we have? Are we, now? For make no mistake, it could happen again, and it could happen, could be happening right now, here, wherever “here” is for you, wherever the will to power gains enough momentum through fear to override reason). But after the storm, something new grew up, and that – the understory – is part of the legacy, too.

In addition to the figurative storm of fascism and WWII, there’s a literal (and historical) storm: the Great Hurricane of 1938, a storm before storms were named, a storm that destroyed great swaths of the Northeast – including Schöner’s newly acquired New Hampshire woods, the woods he so staunchly defends in the present against even benign encroaching civilization.

So it is with an eagerness verging on rapture that he looks forward to Heidegger’s Rectoral address. The program has been printed, and its title, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” is already creating a buzz. Heidegger will, it is thought, speak out against tyranny. He will speak up for the intellectual life, Hitler’s impatience for such things be damned.… But he’s jarred awake. Phrases like “German destiny” and “the historical spiritual mission of the German people.” He hears “‘Knowing, however, is far weaker than necessity.'” Again and again – it is unmistakable. “German.” “Destiny.” “Historical mission.” “Spiritual.” “German.” “German.” The new rector repeats them like mantras. Wide awake now, Schöner shivers at the thunderous applause that greets each one. He looks around, expecting monsters, and sees worse: aught but the ruddy enthusiasm of a pep rally.… Where is the assertion of the University that was promised? Where is Heidegger? Finally, with a flourish Schöner imagines he must bring to his great lectures, Heidegger quotes Plato: “‘All that is great stands in the storm.'” And he is done.

This is indeed Heidegger’s actual Rectoral address, including that controversial modification of Plato. I’m afraid I lack the knowledge of either The Republic or, especially, Heidegger, to thoughtfully discuss the nuances, but many such discussions are just a google away (and the insertion of Google, and googlebooks, is not an accident at this juncture; “Where is Heidegger?” is a question I’ve been asking a lot this year, though not in that form).

“You know, Martin, it’s strange. Trees have always defined the forest for me. I climbed in the canopy, because I thought that’s where the best, truest view was. But in the wake of the Storm of 1938, I find that the little plants of the understory have become very dear to me, dearer than I could have ever imagined. I will not burden you with their Latin names, but I do urge you to take notice of them the next time you’re out walking in the woods.”

When Heidegger dies in 1976, Schöner rushes to read a post-war interview he gave, on the condition it only be released after his death. He is disappointed; and I’ll say no more other than I get a whiff of my buddy Wittgenstein from the Fall (no, I haven’t forgotten you, my friend) who famously said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

The forest with its crowns and understory: the University and the woods? The Ivory Tower and the gardener? Hurricane and the holocaust, both destroy, and the understory builds up anew; in some cases, surprising, and different; a tree from Finland – or a German philosophy professor – landing in New Hampshire.

“The Discipline of Shadows”

“Umbrology? The study of umbrellas?” Impossible to know, then, how typical this reaction will be. Countless times I’ll hear it over the years, even hear about ingenious designs from closet inventors, giddy for an audience. “No,” I’ll learn to cut in gently, “the study of shadows.” (Always shadows, the vernacular, never shadow, though semantics is hardly uncontroversial in the field; one either deems it substance or quantifiable entity and thus divisible. Each has consequences.)

This one was written for me, with my fondness for finding meaning in that which is regarded as meaningless, and connections between the broadest dissimilarities possible. Yet at first I thought I was “missing” the story.The central conflict – one professor trying to make a fortune from an algorithm discovered as part of his University study, everyone else trying to stop him – didn’t interest me much, maybe because, though it’s dramatically staged in a final legal meeting, it isn’t all that well-defined, at least to those of us outside the battles of intellectual property against an academic backdrop. I found the underlying faculty shenanigans are confusing and not that interesting. I was far more taken with the shadows than with the reality – then I realized, that may be the very point: as our narrator says, “It is not what shadows show about the figure but the ground.”

I was very affected by a somewhat ancillary character development: our narrator has things he wants to share with people, like the miracle of an eclipse, or his idea about words being shadows, but there’s no one to share with. He is the Introduction to Umbrology guy, the one who does the orientation and then watches his newbies, his students, leave to find their specialties; he is thus alone, acquaintance to all, but friends with none. A shadow: mysterious, unique, omnipresent, impactful, but not really there.

Who am I kidding; I loved this character, this umbrologist forever explaining what that is, lost in the shadows, with his intolerance of flatness and his understandable antipathy towards Plato. And in this era of shrinking budgets for anything that doesn’t show up immediately on standardized tests or a higher profit margin, I loved the ethos of this story.

In his interview with Larry Dark for the Story Prize blog, Tim described the origin of this story in a prompt for his writing group:

We decided to open up books at random and choose a sentence that would be our prompt for the next meeting, and the first thing I opened to was from an Antonya Nelson story: “How is it the squirrel did not slide?” What a line, I thought. My fellow writers had some imaginative takes, and as for me, I envisioned someone observing a squirrel whose shadow moved even while the squirrel itself didn’t budge, and this was a total crisis for him (the man, not the squirrel). Why was it a crisis? Well, clearly he was obsessed with shadows himself, and the reason the squirrel didn’t slide was because he was losing his mind because he was studying something outlandish. But what if it wasn’t crazy? And then I began to watch some Wayang Kulit Indonesian shadow theater and the work of a San Francisco company called Shadowlight Productions that brilliantly combines traditional work with a modern vibe, and I felt, “It’s crazy not to study this.” Hence, I invented a field I called umbrology, the study of shadows, and that got the story off and running, with shadow theater and optics and film noir all rubbing shoulders. The squirrel didn’t slide, but plenty of other things did.

~~Tim Horvath, interview from The Story Prize blog

I’ve been discovering shadows everywhere in the couple of weeks since I read this story: in two – two! – mathematical lectures, plus coverage of an art exhibit. And by the way, Shadowlight Productions is doing some amazing things combining traditional Balinese shadow theater with stories from a variety of cultures; I spent some time watching their YouTube videos referenced above and by the image at the left; “Ghosts of the River” was heartbreaking, but the technique is fascinating.This is why I love reading: the universe, reality, so wants to be a whole, and we so insist on dividing it up into departments and categories: serious things here – math in this room, literature next door, art down the hall – and frivolous shadows way, way over there. The shadows have beauty and meaning, and are part of reality, too. Don’t just walk through them to something else; see them.

The “Urban Planning”stories:

Each of these eight Studies – seven flashes and one story – examines a unique city, and when I say unique, I mean just that: the cities, and the residents, are unlike anything in our experience. Yet we’re still able to find our truths in them. Some things are universal, no matter how strange the setting. One of the particular charms of these selections is that the stories refer to other cities in passing, giving them a sense of unity.

Those still paying attention will notice only six Case Studies listed in this section; since Number Seven is a full-length story, with a title and everything, I’ve treated it as such in a separate heading, and because Number Eight is the final story of the collection, I’m likewise placing it on its own at the end, to give the close the same due I have the opening flash “The Lobby.” To further confuse matters, a few of them were published with numbers that differ from those used in this volume. It is what it is. Any complaints, go see Emerson for a lesson on foolish consistency. It’s not likely you’ll confuse one Case Study with another, trust me.

“Case Study Number One”: available online at Sein und Werden #12; audio at Soundzine

The mayor of Morrisania decreed that no longer would its citizens be plagued by rain.… Immediately, building began citywide with fanfare and all-hands-on-deck resolve. Grandmothers simmered marvelous soups, salvaging bones from the near oblivion of trash mounds. Construction teams went out their brawniest, resplendent in colorful T-shirts sporting memorable slogans. Street performers busked with renewed vigor, sending sweat and falcons skyward and forging their own signatures in luminous contrails. Philosophers set up tables at which they contemplated in lively and vigorous fashion the premises and consequences of the whole endeavor, debating, for instance, whether the open or closed form of the umbrella was more authentic and fundamental. Closed was originary, yet its very existence had meaning only in the context of the open; never had these pallid intellectuals come so close to blows.…
Then, it began to rain.

Call it what you will: a random fantasy, a study of political megalomania and its aftermath, a climate change fable. For me, the umbrella question alone was worth it.

“Case Study Number Two”:

I was mystified, as I would be in those early weeks. How was it that no one in Delagotha complained about these suffocating crowds, this steady bombardment, this all-at-onceness? How could a place persist under such conditions? Why didn’t its citizens unite their voices and demand respites – parks, plazas, sound-swallowing walls? And yet I was stunned at how easily and smoothly I was able to get along without the glasses, girded by the flesh of those around me.

Like a Vegas showgirl, I’m torn between showing my favorite parts, and avoiding spoilers; one of the features of these stories is that the final paragraphs twist the focusing ring and make everything sharp and clear, but it’s that process that is the delight of each piece. So forgive me for not saying more, other than: multitasking.

“Case Study Number Three”:

For a city so utterly shut down, it is strangely alive, bustling with pedestrians. After some of the places he’s been prior, he is most grateful for this heavy foot traffic, this to-and-fro. Whenever he thinks about starting, he reminds himself that when he has pictured his own death in the past, it has always been him alone. Because nonexistence runs so counter to the spirit of such company, he feels protected by the crowds. So long as he can distract the part of himself that will decide to die, he reasons, it cannot happen.

He is, of course, wrong, and trapped in a place where he can’t sit down and rest, not even for a moment. But he doesn’t yet understand why. In fact, he still doesn’t at the close of the story – but we do.

“Case Study Number Four” – available online at Conjunctions, 5/13/08

Planning to relocate here? Great! However, please keep some advice from those who have preceded you here (and there are many). Your first days and nights (but especially days) in Ganzoneer can be disconcerting… Remember that YOU are mostly water yourself, and thus that the polymer-based proprietary hydropolylipidinous compounds that comprise most of the city’s architecture are hardly alien to your own anatomical makeup. In fact, you are more like Ganzoneer then you are like Paris, Delagotha, New York, or Raedmeon (unless you are a cement-, metal-, and glass-based sentient creature. In which case, Welcome, Cement-, Metal-, and Glass-based Sentient Creature!). Become, then, more like what you are…

One of the many smaller delights of these Case Studies is that several of them refer to other Case Study cities, creating a network of stories that fulfill the structural and transitional role in the collection, as well as making the fantastic more real. Ganzoneer is soft, rather than hard; pliant, rather than rigid. I find the sociological theory advanced within to be most interesting; who’s to say it isn’t true, somewhere?
Oh, wait, yes, there is someone to say that, isn’t there… people are still people, even in fantastic stories.

“Case Study Number Five”:

An unfathomable gulf divides us from that time, makes it so hard to believe that people were people then, moving about in three robust dimensions with the vivacity,… flinging spices blindly into the waiting maws of pots, sometimes checking the label afterward, the stovetop a welter of activity, a percussive clatter, the cook whistling or gossiping all the while – unthinking, careless, saucy. They needed no justification for their indulgence; food was the cornerstone of Vassilonian existence. Our existence – I remind myself, “this people” was me.
…The collapse was, looking back, as inevitable as it was sudden.

This was published in Alimentum – “The Literature of Food” – but it goes so far beyond that, it’s almost (almost) unfortunate the food is so well-written; it’s a story that’ll make you hungry, maybe make you want to cook. But it could be anything, really: Austria and music (until the Nazis showed up), Indiana and basketball, American insouciance before. Yeah. Like I said, it goes way beyond food.

“Case Study Number Six” – available online from wigleaf (as #7), 11/7/10

The city that was in denial that it was a city called the skyscrapers “mountains,” its giant central train station “The Butte,” its industrial waterfront “the marshlands,” its spindly bridges “land bridges,” its vacant lots “the ocotillo patches,” its sewers “the arroyos,” its sidewalks “eskers,” its elevated trains “cutbanks,” its skyline “the treeline”…. They glanced occasionally at their watches, which they stopped short of calling “the sun.”
… Under a weird sky in which silvery pollution had congealed into a solid concavity, the city that was in denial that it was a city caught a glimpse of itself one day.

For the record: as a lifelong city girl, I had to look up exactly what some of these words mean, and I still couldn’t tell an esker from a hill if my life depended on it. But that’s beside the point. I’m not sure exactly what the point is – the self-congratulatory feeling that one is not like all those others, until one happens to stare uncomprehendingly at one’s reflection when it refuses to fall in line with one’s self-image, perhaps.

Additional Flash Fiction:

In addition to the opening and closing stories and the Urban Planning group, there’s other flash fiction interspersed. I find I like that; it isn’t a rigid pattern, but it’s nice to have the variety. I think it also encourages me as a reader to treat the flashes more seriously. I read a lot of flash, but typically online, one at a time. In a book of flash, there’s a tendency to end up turning pages faster and faster, without allowing each story to have its moment; I found that by encountering them here, never knowing whether the next story would go on for two pages or twenty, I was more likely to pause and let things sink in a bit, ponder what I’d just read and what it connected to, either in this collection, or in daily reading and living. That said: overall, these flashes didn’t work for me as well as the rest of the collection.

“The Gendarmes”:

“We’re trying to teach animals to grasp the concept of extinction,” said Pitcher/Spokesperson. “We’re tired of having to bail out endangered species. It’s high time they learned individual responsibility.”

It may seem improbable that a story titled “The Gendarmes” might feature the above lines and a baseball game played on a roof, but there’s also a leech-cauliflower salad and by the way the baseballs are highly combustible. This story left me behind in the dust, but I do love that above quote.

“A Box of One’s Own“:

“I will not relent,” said the box. “Narrative structure would dictate a gradual withering away of my defenses and a climactic divulgence of the contents of my secret interiority. But I know all about narrative structure. So don’t even try it, buddy.”

I adored this flash; I’m fond of self-referential fiction anyway, so add talking boxes and I’m all yours. The whimsy is not without its point; don’t we all need a box of our own? And who can’t identify with:

When you are not in need of a box, the prospect of snaring one appears piddlingly easy and straightforward. Boxes abound, this world a surfeit of boxes.… And yet, when bereft of a box, in a non-box-possessing state, the simple procurement of one becomes staggeringly difficult obstacle, as I was soon to discover.

So the next time you’re walking down the street toting your box, and you hear a chorus chanting, “This End Up! This End Up! This End Up!” brace yourself – you might just be ready to invert, and then, who knows what will happen. You could find yourself writing a city of stories.

“Internodium”:

Whatever else we are, we are surely a beard that has convinced its owner to stop shaving.

Another one I can’t make heads nor tails out of, so I’m a bit at a loss and would have to classify it as a not-favorite – but I do love the sentences. How they hang together, I don’t know. At least not yet.

“Pocket” – available online at Diagram 9.2

My father is semiporous. Even now that he’s been fully disassembled and the schematics rendered in a dizzying cross-section, he remains largely unknowable to us.… Oh, his pocket. Plural: Pocket. Not pockets. Pocket – like deer, like moose. His coinage. I can still hear him rage at those times when, still young, we threw an s onto the end.…


((())) If the string theorists are right, the universe teems with hidden dimensions; pockets abound. To make even a
single new one, then, is to play at being God.

I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for footnotes in fiction. Especially footnotes that aren’t really footnotes; the compounded weirdness appeals to me. If this went on for any longer than it does – a bare paragraph, plus footnotes – it’d get annoying, but it knows when to stop, and I appreciate that. Understanding is a different matter. But I wouldn’t be so inflexible as to insist that everything must be understandable.

“Altered Native” – available online as an MP3 audio reading by Tim Horvath, from Conjunctions Audio Vault.

1. Crossing Tahiti of his itinerary, Gauguin heads instead for points north in his gambit to ditch civilization. The more his mind has lolled in the tropics, the more convinced he’s become that the languorous heat, syrupy voyeurism, and ornate adzes will merely reiterate Parisian clamor and clutter sans the solace of steaming coffee and pain. Greenland – now that promises true primitivism. Shifting ice tetrahedrons, shuddering rumbles, and terns’ glancing landings will translate nature morte more exactly than gaudy mangoes.

I don’t know nearly enough about Gaugin to fully appreciate this (other than Tahiti, does anyone other than an artist know much about Gaugin? Jaclyn Michelle at wineandbook.com makes me want to read a biography when she says the story is “Particularly deliciously crafted for the reader who knows a bit about Gauguin’s Tahiti experiences”; it was “Vincent” by Don McLean that first got me interested in Van Gogh, after all; who cares where the urge comes from as long as you go looking for something) but I like the whole idea of considering what might’ve happened had he headed for Greenland (and, for all I know, he considered it).

15. Over a century later, Museum, his works make spectators unpleasantly cold. Some say, “We should go someplace warm.” “Starbucks?” “Tahiti!”

And I’m particularly fond of list formats. By the way, one of my claims to fame is that I’ve never been inside a Starbucks.

And back to full-length short stories for a while:

“Planetarium”

What I mean is, he wasn’t the guy I’d always assumed he’d become. I hadn’t really thought about him over the years, but in my non-thinking, punctuated with the occasional thought, he’d become someone else. An engineer, like me. Or a lawyer. Or maybe gotten his MBA, gone into business.… The guy in front of me quite simply wasn’t the right Scully. It was someone who had begun as Scully but whose life had diverged imperceptibly from Scully’s at some point, two vectors departing from a single node.

This is probably the story with the most traditional arc, including a dramatic confrontation fraught with danger (as any confrontation on the side of a mountain is liable to be), yet (or, perhaps, thus) I think it’s my least favorite of the full-length stories. A man on vacation with his family runs into an old high school pal at the Continental Divide, and since the pal has changed a great deal, he wonders if he may have left pieces of his own self unexplored. Their adventures at the high school planetarium feature in their reminiscence (the second high school I went to had a planetarium that was hardly ever used; we had no astronomy courses, but I took the full three years of science classes and was only allowed inside once), as well as their relative roles as leader and follower, as the guy who does the work and the guy who gets the credit, the guy who’s remembered and the one who’s forgotten. Dualism is well-played throughout: the east/west of the Continental Divide itself, inside and outside, the old Scully and the new Scully, the planetarium/city vs the stars/nature (a theme that shows up in “Urban Planning: Case Study Number Six”); there’s also the thricefold denial (of himself, interestingly enough), which is so subtle and underplayed I even wonder if it was intended to evoke the Biblical betrayal (I have been known to overread… often).

I was slightly distracted by a couple of things: the guy named his kids Emmett and Kelly – after the clown? And Emmett has to be reminded not to stick his finger in his eye? Shades of Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels!

All of this orbited around me, but I somehow couldn’t get into the rhythm. It’s a well-done story. But it didn’t quite reach me the way the others did. That’s a good thing, though; it shows me I’m not just star-struck.

Tim’s comments on the story, and the “voice” he tries to capture in his works, in his Story Prize interview, however… now this resonated: “I think he embodies a key aspect of why we’re reading and writing fiction, partly to get out of our skins, even while another part of us wants to be more fully inside them. This tension—or maybe these impulses dovetail perfectly — is an element that drives some of my favorite stories: they make us other in some way that makes us more fully ourselves….” Having just spent most of last summer examining the need to become “the other” in order to understand the other through the Fiction of Relationship MOOC I took (and blogged about extensively for months; still do in fact, as “the other” crops up a lot in literature), I get this. At least, I get it in “The Understory” and “Circulation” and “The Discipline of Shadows” and in most of the Urban Planning: Case Studies; I just don’t get it in this story. Maybe I will on next read, now that I know what to look for here.

“Runaroundandscreamalot!”

It seemed as if Angus has picked up their father’s ingenuity, while Pete had inherited his patience and gumption. Everyone could see what a shame it was that these traits had been doled out to two distinct sons. Really, Angus and Pete’s father’s ultimate invention would have been a way to combine Angus and Pete.… Instead, Pete and Angus stagger around like severed halves of a whole.… And let’s face it, having these traits combined into one hadn’t worked out for their dad to begin with, so maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

I’m reverting to list format, which I do when I’m overwhelmed with much to say and unsure how to say it. This is a cleaned-up version of my notes, because the best thing I learned from ModPo is, if you can’t get it right, show the process:

1. In his recent interview with Edward Rathke at Monkeybicycle, Tim said this story began, not with an idea, but “with the title, which in turn set the stage for a certain mood, an energy that would propel the dynamics of the story. The challenge was to write a story manic enough to earn out the advance of that outrageous title, but also to have characters who could stand in the midst of mania and juvenileness and have you somehow care about them.” To me, Pete was the epitome of responsibility and maturity, dealing in a somewhat detached and bemused way with the flow of juvenalia around him. More on the theme of two-halves-of-a-whole?

2. We have invented indoor playgrounds; playgrounds have become meat markets; adults are children; leaders are followers and the follower becomes the leader when he’s finally, at long last, able to see the leader is not someone he should be following. As an experienced follower (and crappy leader), I’m big on recognizing the skill needed for effective followship.

3. It begins and ends with bad weather, and with Runaroundandscreamalot. Don’t you just want to start an indoor playground with that name, now? A chain of playcenters all over the country? But that’s what everyone does, in different ways – trying to make ends meet, to maintain their dominance, to find companionship, to adjust to life’s changes.

4. Like Gus to his father in “Circulation,” Pete has always been the planet revolving around his brother, the son. Until the end.

5. If Docent isn’t a real online game, it should be. I don’t know who’s in charge of stuff like that, but if you do, send them this story.

6. The playcenter is in the same space as the porn video shop was before it “mysteriously” burned down – I’m gonna get some weird hits on this post (like I don’t already; you wouldn’t believe…), but I must, I simply must:

Now, as he makes his way around the space, he can remember, vile though it is, exactly where each aisle was, the one that held interracial videos, the one that was devoted to amateurs and teens, the one for thirtysomethings, the aisle set aside for “gonzo,” whatever that was, and the fellatio section, right where now there is a giant whale beanbag, like someone’s sick joke. It is as disgusting as though a child was murdered here, the bones interred beneath the ground, he thinks. But he also thinks about the irony of it all…

7. Aha, a shortcoming: Angus’ offbeat business ideas (trail surface simulating treadmills, the vacation that never ends, an obsession swap reality TV show) aren’t anywhere near bad enough. Or offbeat enough. I wonder if that’s a bug, or a feature?

8. It doesn’t have much to do with the overall story (but it must, or it wouldn’t be in there; what am I missing?) but Ariana’s story about adopting her son– she wonders what she was doing when the mother’s contractions started, what she was doing when the mother signed the papers giving up her child – is just beautiful. And I’m not big on maternal instinct.

9. Any story with the dialogue line “Can the parent or guardian of this stingray please remove him from my daughter?” – in a perfectly sensible context – should be bronzed.

“Urban Planning: Case Study Number Seven, The City in the Light of Moths available online at Conjunctions, June 20, 2011

Till he was three, Wes had fallen asleep each night with Mothlight flickering against his ceiling: semitranslucent red-pink wings that burst into petals and fading leaves and ratifying shapes that then broke apart into a red-pink snow, all of it fluttering above him gentle as a blanket.

Here’s another one where a basic description of the story – in a city where life is lived around movies, through movies, about movies, a projectionist discovers an unpleasant little secret in a unique way, and moves from rage to confusion to resolution – doesn’t begin to cover the scope or the impact.

Mothlight (1963) is a real movie, made by Stan Brakhage:

Here is a film that I made out of a deep grief. The grief is my business in a way, but the grief was helpful in squeezing the little film out of me, that I said “these crazy moths are flying into the candelight, and burning themselves to death, and that’s what’s happening to me….

David Blakeslee describes it as a “three-and-a-half minute experiment that mostly consists of gluing insect parts and plant debris on to strips of clear tape that was later transferred to 16mm film.” In every frame, you can see something different: maybe a moth wing, sure, or a leaf, but also, maybe a guy in a baseball cap and his girlfriend running through Central Park, or a mountain climber braving a snowstorm to get to the top. Yeah, you’ve got to want it. But I was so glad the story brought me to this film.

Everything in Palamoa is done in mothlight, literal or figurative; movies are the background of life. It wasn’t always that way, and we get some sense of how things came to be this way: the decision that led to The Dimming, and the ascendance of movies – as ubiquitous in Palamoa as cell phones, computers, email in our lives today. And in Palamoa, as today, there are some hold-outs.

It was something of a cliché: you’d go anticinemitic in college and then become some industry clone a year after graduation. There were, too, the older ones who predated the Dimming and still spoke nostalgically of before, right up to the citywide debates that tried their tongues and brought forth arguments of such verve and eloquence, they were sure they’d triumph. But the darkness had gone forward.

One of these hold-outs is Gunther, an old friend of Wes. He becomes crucial later on as Wes seeks solace and finds his own strength instead; what better friend than that.

We pick up the norms as we read. Cineaddiction may or may not be a real thing; Wes didn’t believe in it himself (“Nervous systems so enmeshed with films that they were needed?”) until he saw a guy freak out from staying at a movie-less party too long. The town itself is wonderfully conceived and demonstrated: an Xtown for X-rated movies, and, far more touchingly, the Memorial District:

Here they showed sold the home movies of the dead, and it was transfixing simply to stand there, taking in snippets of life, candid moments…. Only the wealthy got their own walls; for most, an hour if they were lucky, and you learned to time your paying of respects, developed a fondness for the spirits who shared that brick space with you and loves. Visiting his own dad’s four-minute, thirty-seven second wall, he’d been struck at various times by:

– Though they never spoke, the mourner who came after him, a woman who said she could never place, who slipped her black male only in the blank seconds before her own father or husband came on, then lower it immediately after, like a curtain
– the awareness that the moths who brought him such comfort as an infant had been dead, allowed to live again only as long as the film played
– the notion that one day the Memorial District would run out of walls

A projectionist, not surprisingly, is not a high-status job. It’s always been my experience that closer any worker is to the ultimate customer (a projectionist is at least in the same building as the moviegoer, unlike the actors and directors) the less status they have; this is particularly true in the medical sphere, where the nurse’s aide who has the most hands-on role in patient care (and spends the most time at the bedside, as well) has the least status – and the least pay, while the doctor, who pokes her head in for thirty seconds a day, is a different story. This connection came to me only because the projectionist’s status is mentioned specifically in the story, and from his bio I saw that Tim worked in a hospital for a time. Whether he intended this connection is not for me to say.

There’s a brilliant idea about playing movies together, one over the other: “One night he took a nature documentary and draped it, like sheer fabric, over a thriller about investment bankers…. Was that plankton in the vending machines? Marvelous.” Yes, it is. Has anyone tried this? It sounds like a Ken Goldsmith-y idea.

Narratively, the standout moment is the end, when Wes, dealing with his own confusion, gets his audience to participate in a new way of viewing a movie:

Wordlessly, then, they began to rise to their feet, some quicker than others, and reach out, tentatively at first, then with growing resolve, for the film, each of them taking a small strand, positioning their fingers carefully, pinching at the edges. To disentangle it, they had to spread out, and the line that began to form went in both directions, up the stairs, down the block. He could envision a whole new way of watching a film, walking beside it, even zooming along at twenty-four frames per second – what a ride that would be! Their arms were outstretched: matronly women, businessmen with sleeves rolled up, a woman in a wheelchair, familiar faces and new ones, arms with wrist chains and bare ones. Even Gunther, it struck him, could get behind this. In the lamplight, they resembled nothing more than mourners bearing aloft a long, winding casket. All films, he thought – everyone – should be held like this once.

In the context of the story, it’s a victory for Wes in several ways; even without that connotation, it’s a brilliant idea for a community art project. Fiction that generates art: what could be better?

“Tilkez”

… Well, the way you described it to me triggered, as I was writing it all down afterward, what I can only call a pang of jealousy toward the damned language. Yes, I know, I sound like a little bit retarded just confessing such a thing, but the way you talked about it it was like you were describing a person, and to me Tilkez is undoubtedly guy, buff/chiseled/loaded…

I think it’s quite adorable that, according to his interview at The Short Form, Tim placed this story late in the collection, because it “gets a little racy, and I feel like it only works after, you know, the reader’s gotten to know me a little bit.” It also makes sense that this is the story he chose to read at the Boston Literary Death Match in October, 2010, given the natural “racy” aura of the LDMs I’ve attended.

This epistolary story is so completely different at the end from what it seemed to be at the beginning, it’s like a seed that turns into a stem then leaves and finally a flower: how’d it do that? It covers a lot of very interesting ground for a story without much of a plot. That’s not a complaint, by the way; as long as there’s something there to read, I’m happy, and there’s definitely something here to read.

Is it flattering, or creepy, if someone takes notes on conversations you’ve had with them, and studies them before dates? If flattering, consider this: which would it be if a written record of one’s sexual encounters were kept, complete with metrics of observable enjoyment indices (I’m trying to be delicate here, rather than racy, and when I get delicate, I frequently turn academic)?

and, Is it possible to be jealous of a language?

Of course it is. Not a language, specifically, but a passion for something, anything, which appears to exceed the passion one’s beloved has for oneself; Jonathan Lethem made wonderful hay of this in Then She Climbed Across the Table. This is why human relationships are so hard; the very thing that is what interests us in a person becomes the thing we must compete with. No one wants to hang out with someone who has nothing to do but gaze adoringly all day, no matter how much fun that may be for a few minutes, but that necessarily means the gaze is diverted to something else at some point.

… But something about the way you knew the tiny quirks of the language, the exceptions and inflections – how the a rises musically through the ribs in words related to good fortune, how th and thht distinguish the two clans split by the river, how their eight words for types of fog use all thirty-seven consonants – and the passion with which you told me about these, demonstrating with your hands and mouth and throat, and by the way, as we played Scrabble, you lamented the “tragedy” of not being able to put to words in the language, and even those you were joking, partly, you still imagined moves you might have made, tallied points accordingly, rearranging your tiles, for all I know, so that they spelled out little things in Tilkez, all this even while you lacked the ability to speak it fluently, only enhanced the sense of your being in a relationship with him/it.

And since I concentrated in linguistics in college, I have to admit a fondness for any story that brings in the Sapir Whorf hypothesis (language is linked to our perception of reality) and phonemic analysis (or is it phonetic? I never could keep them straight). Tim informs me that Jennifer Haigh declared this story “The most Doritian” of LDM; I’m not sure if that refers to Doritos or a gaming character (or something that doesn’t come up on the first page of a google search), but I’m fine with it either way.

“The Conversations” – available online at The Collagist, 5/8/12

The first of the Conversations had taken place at once in Rome, in Vegas, and in Hoboken. No one knew then what they were, of course; they just seemed the talk of talkers, mundane as could be, the little dramas that unfold in the lives of all in front of the private audience of the participants and whoever else happens to be within earshot.
… The other thing that made it difficult to pick up the Conversations is that no one had the faintest fucking clue as to what they could possibly be.
They were, it ought to be emphasized, about everything and nothing. … No one knew exactly how long the Conversations had been going on before it was recognized what they were. It took a damned spot of time to figure these things out.

And what, you may be wondering, makes these conversations Conversations? Ah, now that would be spoiling; the story is online, after all. Much better to read it to find out.

One of the things that so struck me as I read was how contemporary it was. It was published in May 2012, so I suppose that’s not surprising, and the theme of lack of willingness to compromise, of rancorous argument, is hardly new. But then there’s the privacy issue.

It was only with the design of the pocket black boxes that it became possible to trace them, to record them as they transpired and then play them back….[I]t was surprising that the black boxes made it through the Court’s strenuous weeks of deliberation. They did, with the proviso that the only time their contents would be open to screening would be after a Conversation or if a Conversation was strongly suspected to be imminent. Over time, the free market took the boxes and compressed them, made them compact and funky, allowed you to personalize yours so that you felt some ownership over it, the sides aglow with yellow-green, imprinted with your floating genome map or a rotating skull. It was, like, your life. It would outlast your body.

This was written pre-Snowden. I suppose we all knew all along what Snowden finally told us, anyway, didn’t we. Maybe that’s the root of the anger directed towards him now; he’s forcing us to look at what we’ve given up, and to wonder about why.

I’m not sure this is the most successful story in terms of traditional narrative flow – it just kind of goes into reverse and stops, with no single protagonist, nor with any sign of lasting change – but that’s beside the point (or, maybe that is the point); we have very short memory spans – poor Tad, the Pro-Privacy advocate (“His trademark shirt read on the front THE ORIGINAL BLACK BOX, a play on the notion that he had “recorded” his Conversation — that is, could recall it — without the government shoving its wires into his personal space, and on the back, REMEMBER TO REMEMBER WHY WE REMEMBER…”) never stood a chance – and without memory, a long, durable memory, an accurate cultural memory of what happened, not what we want to tell our kids happened, change is impossible.

Still, I found it impossible to stop reading, and that’s probably the best definition there is of narrative flow. Maybe what it’s not successful at is presenting a narrative flow that can be described in a traditional three-point arc; it’s more of a circle, and it just so happens circular stories are a particular favorite of mine.

What scares me most in this collection is a single sentence from this story: “It would be years before the Conversations petered out into nonexistence, and by that time people had grown inured to all the changes wrought by them.” In context, it doesn’t even carry the same connotation, but it still leaps out at me and asks me, What are we doing? Don’t we realize we’ll look back in twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years and wonder what the hell were we thinking? Two hundred years ago, slavery was the way things were; seventy years ago, throwing American citizens into internment camps simply because of their origins seemed like a great idea; what will our grandchildren make of the past ten years, and especially the past five, or just this year just completed? Will the sounds of 9/11 ever completely stop, or will it just echo on and on? Will we even remember a time when we didn’t take off our shoes in the airport, or wonder who was reading our email? Will the wounds of even the past few years heal, or will we see the scars as our inheritance? But the story ends on a hopeful note: “We started back, started to come back. We started to talk again.”

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Let’s start to come back.

“Urban Planning: Case Study Number Eight”

Raedmeon is a city built by committee, riding in on slow, lumbering beasts of burden, Weston a committee man if ever there was one. Among his secret joys is the way the dry cleaner folds and boxes his shirts, the new-map sensation of the creases cascading over his shoulders and chest each morning….
When and how did he come to be “the Bread Machine”?… So into the Machine go problems that beleaguer any self-respecting city.… Out come Proposals. Solutions (or leastways Disasters Narrowly Averted).

I think I was tired when I first read this; it went by me completely. I was a little disappointed, to be honest: here’s this great collection, and for the final word, you give me this? The next time I read it, I got it. At least I think I did; I’m becoming more and more a devotee of the “reader writes the story” idea, so what I got, may not be what you get. I got a writer, constantly asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” I got a writer in a job that requires a certain kind of writing, perhaps, a certain discipline, a writer who, when he put this collection together, this city of stories, had one thing in mind:

…relishing the thought of devoting himself fully at last to the Raedmeon he’s been quietly constructing all along, one that would never appoint a committee, where the streets are lined with luminous balustrades, and planning means nothing other than dancing in the pineapple rotundas of an untranslatable night.

Not a committee in sight in this book. But lots of pineapple rotundas.

I’m glad Tim happened along my Goodreads profile, and in spite of my initial reluctance, I’m very glad I ended up reading this book. Next time a book like this comes along – someone tell me about it, ok? And if I won’t stand still long enough to listen, remind me of Understories.

Robin Black: If I Loved You I Would Tell You This (Random House, 2011)

Every single one of my stories grew out of a need on my part to deal with something. The plots don’t come from my life but the central issues do. Loss. Anger. A certain stuckness in one’s own story. Grief over a child’s uncertain path. The way we disappoint and both knowingly and unknowingly betray those whom we love. I needed a way to sort through a life that by the time I was forty felt overwhelming to me. Writing stories is how I did that. And do that still.

~~Robin Black, Rumpus interview with Natalie Baszile

When is it an act of love to keep a secret? Is honesty always the best policy, or are some truths better kept to oneself? Perhaps I was overly influenced by the title of this wonderful collection, but it seemed to me each story had at its core the question of revealing and withholding information from loved ones. When is it a betrayal to speak, when is it a kindness? Knowledge can also be a weapon: Once we know something, we can’t un-know it, so it’s a crucial decision, to tell or not to tell. So often, it’s one we make for imperfect reasons, or even without any conscious thought at all. These stories make us think about it.

Each story is an intense emotional journey. Some have a hint of odd about them. Maybe not odd, just unusual; yes, that’s it, an unusual element. A father thinks about his mistress while on the way to introduce his teenaged daughter to her first guide dog. A woman writes a letter – in second-person conditional, no less – to a neighbor about the intrusive fence he’s planned. A young widow mentally remodels a fellow soccer-mom’s kitchen to better accommodate the sound of her prosthetic leg. A house develops electrified water (and this is directly from Black’s real-life experience). Come on, when was the last time you read a story that not just mentioned but featured – starred – such things? Yet each story is clearly, unmistakably real, with a very human purpose.

Black has a number of excellent interviews online (I’ll refer to a few of them in connection with individual stories), as well as an essay about “late bloomers” on Oprah.com, with the lead-in, “If you’re one of the legions of people who didn’t hit their sweet spot at age 25, there are a few things Robin Black would like you to know”:

Dear fellow late-bloomer, I thought you could use some advice. I know I would have benefited from some along the way, but back when I most needed it, there wasn’t much to be found. I earned my MFA in writing in 2005, when I was 43 years old and, much to my distress, the phrase “young emerging artist” seemed to be everywhere. There were prizes for young emerging artists; there were words of wisdom for young emerging artists; there were lists of the most exciting young emerging artists to watch. Anxious to find my peers, I did an online search—only to be told: “Your search for middle-aged emerging artists has yielded no results.”

~~Robin Black, ““Why It’s Never Too Late” on Oprah.com

Several of her stories feature older main characters. I like that, heading as I am for 60, a lot. But there’s also a 10-year-old who leaps off the page. Three stories are from a male perspective. Most of the stories include nuggets of humor, but one (the “extra story” added for the paperback edition) is wall-to-wall hilarity. I thought about this as I read what Black had to say in her Bombsite interview about her tendency to focus on rather grim circumstances:

You know, I’ve been waiting for someone to figure out that I’m just into Old Testament-type vengeance and that’s why all my characters are so miserable. As my friends are fond of pointing out, no one wants to be a character in a Robin Black story…. I’ve been wondering lately if the people who don’t like story collections would like them more if they had permission to take a year to read through them. After my book came out it really hit me that people might sit down and read it straight through in a day or a few, and I have to say, it wasn’t a happy thought. In part because If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This does deal with so much tragedy, I think it’s better taken in small bits.

~~Robin Black, Bombsite.com interview

While I typically take three or four months to read BASS or PEN/O.Henry, I read this in about six days. I guess I have a high tolerance for tragedy, because I thought it was wonderful; I didn’t notice these stories were any more or less tragedy-laden than other collections. Then again, I’d just read a boatload of tragic novels for a class, including Light in August, Beloved, and Disgrace; after those, mere tragedy seems like a vacation. I would’ve liked to have taken longer, but only because I enjoy digging into a story in great detail, often posting about one at a time. The title story in particular would’ve been fun to dissect on a sentence-by-sentence basis, but that wasn’t practical for me. So I just read, and reacted.

The stories:

“If I Loved You” (The Southern Review, Autumn 2006 as “A Fence Between Our Homes”)

If I loved you, I would invite you in, sit you down in our kitchen, and I would say to you: You just never know. You, the yeti. You don’t know why this matters so much to us, why we care. You don’t know what secret pains we have that we haven’t shared with you. You don’t know us.
But then I would have to admit that I don’t know everything either, wouldn’t I? Like I don’t know why it matters so much to you to build that fence exactly there.
What happened in your life that makes a property line mean so much?

I know a lot of people who hate cancer stories, no matter what. I know a lot of people who hate second-person stories, no matter what. A second person cancer story – one that luxuriates in sentiment as well as technique (for instance, use of the conditional mood) and eschews action – that’s a tough sell. But this isn’t a cancer story (though there is cancer in it) and it isn’t a technique story (though the technique fascinates me) and it isn’t a sentimental story. It’s just a human story. It’s beautiful reading, shading towards prose poetry in places. But it’s also the kind of story that shines a spotlight on the little corners of your own life, makes you wonder just where and when you could’ve moved the fence a foot, and just why you didn’t – and makes you wonder who the lady with 37 items who got into the express line might be, and what she’s dealing with, before you start harrumphing. And in that, in its potential to affect the reader’s life and possibly even better the world, it’s important, as well as beautiful.

I further wondered about the withholding of truth in the context of this story: is it an act of hostility? Or an act of self-protection? Is there an expectation, a hope even, that at some point, the yeti will learn what she did not tell him and feel terrible, or is there a fear that even if they did humble themselves to the point of revealing what may or may not be new information to him, it would not matter? I’m not sure; it could go either way, and that’s what’s ultimately mesmerizing to me.

“The Guide” (Indiana Review, Winter 2004)

“Would you like to compare coping mechanisms?” she’d asked him once, when he let fly his rapidly growing anger at her rapidly shrinking world. “Yours versus mine? What’s her name, again? Amanda? Miranda? Would you like to have this conversation? Or should we just keep trying to help each other stumble through for a few more years? For Lila’s good?”
Stumble. It was the obvious answer. They would stumble through, of course.

It’d be easy to sum this story up as “A man takes his teenaged daughter to get her first guide dog and encounters his feelings about her approaching departure for college” but that would be doing it a disservice; it’s a lot more complicated than that. Just who are we protecting when we shield others from difficult realities? When we tell someone, “Don’t cry,” or “Don’t feel bad, it’ll be ok,” is it to soothe them, or to protect ourselves from the intense emotion they radiate? This for me was the crux of this story, but how Black got there – the journey she planned for me – was particularly interesting.

In her Rumpus interview, she specifically discusses the technique she used: “[O]ne form of misbehavior that interests me a lot is inattention. That question of where the gravitational center of one’s thoughts is at any given time – which is so very often not in the scene that’s unfolding and in which one is participating. There’s just something kind of flat to me about characters who are always, in mind and body, fully engaged in a scene. It’s a delicate balance though because when you have a character perpetually preoccupied or whose memories are continually competing with the scene it can begin to make that character seem oddly hollow, just a vehicle for the author to dump out a lot of exposition or back story.” I think she hit it right on the money, since in the first paragraphs I despised Jack for thinking about his mistress while driving his teenaged daughter Lila to meet her first guide dog. Later I came to reluctantly acknowledge some good points, even admire him. Then I hated him again. And like that, back and forth. Because you know what: people are complicated, when we tell the truth about them. And Black tells us the truth.

So does Lila:

“Maybe I could have the first ever seeing-eye cat.” Lila crosses her arms. “Some real haughty feline with attitude.”
“You mean like you?”
But his daughter shakes her head. “No.” She turns her face toward the breeze of the open window, lifting her sunglasses. “No,” she repeats. “I’d want a guide cat who really doesn’t give a flying fuck.” She draws an audible breath through her nose. “Manure?”

It’s also a story laced with Lila’s black humor, such as her t-shirt printed with: “If you can read this T-shirt, maybe YOU can tell ME what it says.” But it’s Lila who delivers the take-home here, as she decides what to reveal, what not, and to whom.

“Tableau Vivant” (Georgia Review, Winter 2009)

So what choice did she have to but unbraid the different strands of love and learn devotion without desire again? Desire without devotion?

Every family has secrets; every family member has her own set of secrets, and there’s nothing like a family visit to expose the seams. It’s an intricate story about, among other things, the importance of retelling family stories over and over, just for the reassurance. I find this a difficult story to comment on, and I’m not sure why; I enjoyed it a great deal. Maybe the story itself says what needs to be said. I could talk about symbols and the passage of time, but I think I’ll just leave it at this, with a sad smile.

“Immortalizing John Parker” (available online at Freight Stories

And his brows have grown so bushy that if she were still his wife, she decides, she would insist that he deal with them—somehow. If necessary, she would cut them herself, in his sleep. She finds it ridiculous the way they trail down over his eyes, so one must look at him as though through an upside down, overgrown hedge. She wouldn’t be able to live with them, she’s sure. For a moment, she is sure. But then something else occurs to her. Maybe she would love them, she thinks. If she still loved him. Maybe she would want him as he is.
It’s a painful thought. The ravages of time rendered irrelevant by love.

Clara Feinberg is a portrait artist who for thirty years has been driven to study faces and reveal their secrets on canvas. But: “the paintings themselves upset her now. The act of painting them upsets her now.” It’s the analogue to death: both her portraits, and death, freeze us in a moment of time. And, at 70 years of age, it’s not like death is an abstract concept any more, especially after the recent death of the man she had an affair with, unbeknownst to his wife. Once, almost. Once, later on, in fact. After, of course, she’d thrown her own husband out for cheating.

But she has this portrait to paint, this John Parker, who seems… dulled. “The word isn’t dull. It’s dulled.… A process.” She normally doesn’t like direct eye contact with her portrait subjects, but “the only route through that dullness she had detected in John Parker, back to whatever had preceded it, would be through his gaze.”

Black brings these threads together with the issue of what to tell, what not, primary in both. It’s so rare to see an older woman – a real older woman, not a 40-year-old who’s called an “older woman” because the ideal age of our era is somehow absurdly considered to be 25 – revealed so fully. She has flaws, but she isn’t an old biddy. She has passions, but she isn’t sentimental. And she has some decisions to make. Did she make the right ones?

“Pine” (Colorado Review, Spring 2005)

… [H]e has been my yes-man for years and I, his yes-woman – which for all this time has meant that we weren’t allowed to disagree with each other… Kevin has long been my best friend, and this unquestioning affirmation of each other has formed the central tenet of our best friendship.
…But Kevin’s inherently agreeable nature ruined the sex for me….With Joe gone, I needed sex to be something more like a knock-down drag-out fight, one I could only win by fucking the living crap out of someone. And without having to think about making love. Or about love at all. Most importantly, not about love. And I couldn’t fuck the living crap out of Kevin; he was just too nice.

Claire and Heidi: two women – no, maybe the same woman in two different stages of adjustment. Heidi has adjusted to the loss of her leg, the sound of it on the kitchen floor, her husband’s hand on plastic knee. Claire has not adjusted to her widowhood at all. Claire explains to best-friend-husband-substitute Kevin: “Did I tell you this is her fourth leg? Her fifth, actually, if you count the first. The original limb.” The original limb, lost to cancer – just like Claire’s original husband. Heidi’s had half a lifetime and five different legs; Claire’s only had three years, and Kevin. So far. Yes, she botches it with Kevin, but I’m willing to bet Heidi’s experience with her first prosthesis wasn’t a picnic, either.

The opening scene in Heidi’s kitchen is terrific: Claire introduces us to Heidi by way of the sound Heidi’s prosthetic leg makes moving across the kitchen floor, and the steps Claire would take to mitigate that sound. Heidi’s way beyond the need to mitigate anything to do with her leg.

Black captures Claire’s “outsider” feel in the cooking scene perfectly: “I don’t really know Roger, I admit; and as if I have disqualified myself somehow, the tall woman allows her eyes to drift off me as she states to no one in particular: ‘Well, anyway.'” That’s as authentic as it gets; I’ve been in that scene. She also captures Claire’s widow’s envy in numerous ways throughout the piece (“‘I lost my leg to cancer, when I was sixteen,’ she said, catching me stare. I lost my husband to cancer when I was thirty-six.“), but nowhere more honestly and surprisingly than in her observations of Heidi and her husband at the kids’ soccer practice:

… I see Roger across the field place his hand on Heidi’s knee. It is a casual, marital gesture, except that it’s her senseless, artificial leg touches. He rests his palm on her as though she can feel him. Or as though that bloodless leg cannot disrupt any aspect of their bond. And Heidi sees the caress she cannot feel. She turns a little, smiles at him, and lays her hand over his. I look away and say nothing to Kevin. I make no jokes, no smart comments about Heidi and her feet.

But here’s where I start nit-picking (and I wonder if I’m just looking for flaws now, because, come on, every story I’ve read so far has been so pitch perfect): I wish the last two or three sentences had been edited out of that paragraph. To me, it’s a turn towards construct that continues for the rest of the piece, and finally culminates in exactly the conversation you’d expect between Claire and her not-boyfriend Kevin. That conversation, unlike the other conversations in the book, could come from some 80s Meg Ryan romcom. But that’s ok; it was one of the Black’s earlier stories. Her third, maybe fourth, leg, so to speak. And a pretty damn good third or fourth leg at that.

“Harriet Elliot” (One Story #104, 4/30/08)

We were taught tolerance by our Quaker teacher at every chance. There was God in each of us – even in those of us, like me, who had been raised to believe there was no God. …
When our parents asked us how the new girl was fitting in, we shrugged, knowing better than to share our unanimous judgment. We said she seemed okay. We tried to make our faces look as though we had found a glimpse of God inside of her.
As there was God in each of us. Sometimes I would try to find him there. At night, in my room, my eyes closed, escaping the unmistakable tones of an unending parental argument forcing its way up the stairwell through my door, I would stare inside myself… I would look until I slept for the God I had been told did not exist.

I loved this coming-of-age (well, coming-of-something) story; after I read Black’s One Story Q&A, I loved it even more. It’s an emotionally satisfying story – as the narrator finds God, the capacity to believe, within herself – and a technically intriguing one, playing with voice and person. The last sentence is almost Borgean – then again, I have been a little stuck on Borges and ideas of interpretive reality lately, so I may be reading way past the text, but it seems to me there are multiple readings here. Black does say, “For this story to work, it really has to end with that final blink” in her Q&A; it certainly does. That final blink is magic.

I feel justified in calling this a coming-of-age story, though the main character is only 10 years old, because that’s what it felt like, culminating in a growth spurt rather than a mere epiphany. In her “Conversation” with Karen Russell included at the end of the collection (almost, but not quite, an interview; very informative), Black defines coming-of-age stories, and their importance to her:

I think of coming-of-age stories as narratives in which the balance between innocence and experience shifts, and I absolutely believe my stories fit that definition…. [W]hat adult life reveals is that our capacity to perceive complexity always outpaces our ability to understand it, so life never actually seems simpler. If anything, quite the opposite. And it’s that process that I am drawn to as I write – the business of life becoming more and more complicated and all of us working to keep up with that. So I am drawn to the points in life at which that process is exposed.

~~Robin Black, “A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Robin Black”

The Conversation (which I’ll return to it later; I love books that include supplementary information) is looking at the older-adult stories at that point, but I think it applies to this story as well. It’s also a “stranger comes to town” set in fourth grade. I didn’t even realize the first-person narrator was unnamed until I started writing notes on the story; it’s almost a first-person plural narration for quite some time, in fact; I’m pretty sure that’s deliberate, as we’re introduced to Harriet, the oddball newcomer who doesn’t fit in at all.

I just read The Ice Palace for a class, and though the girls there are older and there’s a very different synergy between them, this story recalled it. The narrator befriends Harriet, learns from her, and is changed. I also greatly appreciated the setting of the progressive Quaker school; all that effort to foster respect, community, and individualism, and yet the odd girl is shunned, just like in any fourth grade classroom.

“Gaining Ground” (Alaska Quarterly Review, Fall/Winter 2003)

My dad died on the night my bathwater ran with an electric current in it. Or maybe it was the other way around. My water ran electric on the night my father died. In some ways that sounds better, more poetic, I guess. For one thing, it scans. Ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh ba-duh. But it isn’t truly accurate as to what it felt like at the time. It felt more like the first way.

This was Black’s first published story. It’s surprising how different the style is from every other story in the collection: short rhythmic bursts instead of smooth lyricism, flat-out sarcasm and confusion instead of thoughtfulness and occasional humor. That isn’t to say it’s any less thoughtful; it’s just a different kind of thoughtful.

Like many of the stories, if you think you’ve got the story figured out by the first paragraph quoted above, you’ll find out in the second paragraph that you’re wrong about everything:

Harris says the whole worry is stupid, the whole question of how to put it, because it makes it sound like I’m debating some point of causality, as if the two events were in some way related. Linked. Which they obviously were not. The water ran electric because the house was not properly grounded. Because my electrician is an asshole. And always has been. And ought to be shot. Or at the very least not be an electrician anymore. My father died because he walked in front of a train. On purpose. Like in a movie. Like Anna Karenina. Because he was a whack job. Mentally ill. And always had been. No connection.

We’re all trying to gain ground. In the Conversation, Black calls this her “unintentional manifesto…I think that the subtext there is me saying: I am going to try to make sense of the world and of my own existence by telling stories.” The narrator tries to make sense of the craziness of her father and the electricity in her home water supply by phrasing things in scanning lines, finally coming up with a poem, as her ex-husband looks on with a sneer. The style is disjointed, and the story elements don’t quite fit together in a neat little package, but that’s rather the point, isn’t it?

“A Country Where You Once Lived” (available online from Hunger Mountain, Winter 2009)

… But what Cathleen said in jest resonated with him. It’s strangely appealing to imagine himself and his daughter slaughtering a bird, engaging together in so blessedly impolite and uncivil an act, making it impossible to keep the niceties so unremittingly nice after that, impossible to ignore life’s darker, more difficult side. And it’s more than that. They would be killing something. It’s fitting somehow. He’s hesitant to pin the symbolism down, to let the thoughts go very far, but he’s aware of a longing in himself that he hadn’t thought possible. The desire to solve a problem without working it through for once, the hope that a ritual might do all the labor for him.

In her self-interview for The Nervous Breakdown, Black said she’s surprised by critical reactions including words like “brutal” or phrases like “not for the faint of heart.” I’m guessing those reactions were thinking of metaphorical, psychic brutality – you know, like we all have in our lives from time to time – but that word might’ve also come up in connection with this story’s planned father-daughter outing to slaughter a chicken, a ritual dad seems to view as a cross between burying the hatchet and scapegoating. That ritual is, however, superseded by a far more challenging event (in her Conversation, she explains she knew reconciliation over a chicken beheading would’ve been “capital B Bad and capital H Hokey”; she’s right; by this story, she’d moved on to her fifth leg) and Black returns to the heart of this collection: what to tell, what to keep secret, from those we love.

I’m very fond of the train imagery that opens the story and is echoed near the close:

… It’s one of those trips that seems to carry you much farther than the time might imply. By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken off all evidence of the city, all evidence, really, of the past century or two.… Jeremy is riding backwards so is watching it all recede, and the sensation is oddly saddening.… He knows well that for all the brain’s cellular elegance, it has too this kind of simple, simplistic aspect to it. Leaving is sad. Even just the illusion of leaving is sad. As each view receipts, his eyes are tricked and in turn trick his brain: he is leaving… leaving… leaving… of course he feels sad.

I’m so glad this story is available online; it’s a journey of its own, with wonderful sights to see along the way, including the backstory of the daughter’s youth, and the interesting interpretation of Skype-sex: “We’ve never experienced the pleasures of absence.” In the same self-interview mentioned above, Black says she started writing about one character, but ended up wondering about another. So it seems the story itself was on a journey.

“…Divorced, Beheaded, Survived” (Bellevue Literary Review, Fall 2004)

I was afraid my brother’s face would become a fearful thing for them. And maybe for me as well, with kids of my own. So I put him in the dresser drawer I use for the few really fine scarves and gloves I possess, the softest place for storage I could find.
But of course the children have always known that I had a brother and that he died. A brother named Terrance, Terry. They know about him without my ever having had to tell either of them. Uncle Terry, he would have been. It’s family information. The kind that travels in the air the children breathe.

I was ready to love this story before I read a word of it, just from the title; after I read it, I loved it more. It’s shorter than the other stories in the collection (Black mentions in several interviews that she writes long stories), and maybe in some ways the least developed; the path from beginning to end is fairly straight, with few surprises. But as a meditation on loss, it’s beautiful; if you’ve ever lost anyone – and who hasn’t? – it’ll make you cry as you nod along. BLR, who first published it in 2004, has an online guide. Study guide, actually, but this isn’t a story you have to study; just breathe.

“Some Women Eat Tar” (available online at $.99 for iOS or Adobe DRM )

“People say things to me that make no sense at all,” she told her mother on the phone that afternoon. “No restrictions? You should see me. What does that even mean?”
“Your problem, Nina,” her mother replied, “is that you are unable to contextualize discourse. Within the context of weighing six hundred pounds and being kicked brutally from within, you are free as a bird. Welcome to motherhood.”

And now, amongst all the preceding poignancy and pathos, a complete change of pace in the form of a hilarious pregnancy story. If you’ve ever been pregnant, or have shared bed and board with someone who was pregnant, you’ll love it too. I’ve kept as far away from pregnancy and the results thereof as possible, but even I loved it. Still, I have to admit, it’s a pretty thin story; it’s more of an excuse to string pregnancy jokes together. But they’re such great jokes, and it’s such a great change of pace (Black is one versatile writer) I’m more than ok with that.

The pregnancy was Artie’s idea; too bad it’s Nina’s body. She isn’t sure she likes the doctor Artie picked out: a “young, pretty woman” with “perfect hair and makeup,” and a sign reading “Because I’m the Pediatrician, That’s Why” on her desk, a woman “who made Nina feel invisible from the moment they met. Especially when she repeated the phrase Nipple Confusion and Artie nodded knowingly. For just a second there, Nina thought she would rather steal her own car, jump on a plane, and take on a new identity than hear her husband discussed her potentially confusing nipples with this girl.”

Then we have Nina’s job:

She took on extra work from the greeting card company where she had freelanced for years, doubling the number of witty/touching/rhyming/not rhyming captions she produced for them each week. Her just-out-of-college editor at Rainwater Greetings thought it was way cool that pregnancy really did bring on creative bursts.
…She wrote a total of eighty-seven salutations/congratulations/condolences – an inordinate number of which ended with the phrase Believe me, I understand – between weeks eighteen and twenty-eight…

I’m willing to bet Black has held, or knows someone who held, a similar job. Nina’s response to the doctor’s instruction to “notify us immediately if the baby stops kicking” is pure writer/editor/usage geek: “Shouldn’t that be if you no longer feel the baby kick? How do you feel someone stop kicking you?”

Plot-wise, the story moves along with Nina’s crush on the florist. But as I said, it’s thin. And, as I said, I didn’t care; I loved every word of it.

“A History of the World”

As a child Kate suspected that it was her own umbilical cord, and not his, that had wrapped itself around Arthur’s neck, depriving him of oxygen for just long enough. No one ever told her this. No one ever told her much of anything about why Arthur spoke the way he did why his otherwise razor-sharp brain seemed to have these holes in it, lacunae into which words would disappear. Their parents chose silence on the subject of Arthur’s odd silences as the kindest and maybe the easiest course and left it to their daughter to glean what little she might from bits of private conversations slipping out from under closed doors, or from relatives who gossiped, neighbors who thought they knew.

And here we are, back at the heart of things, with what we keep secret and what we reveal, and how our history affects us forever. Kate and Arthur are sixty-five-year-old twins, in Italy to celebrate their shared birthday. It’s literally a guilt trip – and it only gets guiltier. I’m afraid this wasn’t my favorite story of the book; it read much to “long” for me. Yet when I asked myself, as I do when a story seems “too long,” what should be cut, I could see how everything was necessary to the piece as a whole. Chalk it up to a matter of personal preference, and probably my mood at the time.

I can see why it was chosen to end the collection. The final scene is glorious: a history of the world from Eve on, drawn in flower petals along the streets of this Italian village. Forever, just waiting for the lady with the broom to sweep it all away at the end of the day. The Infiorata, Flower Festival, is a real thing, by the way, taking place in many Italian cities. The symbolism, the connection to the story, is unmistakable.

In her Conversation, the section on coming-of-age stories in fact, Black refers to ending the collection with this: “The appearance of Adam and Eve in the flower scene at the end of ‘The History of the World’ is a kind of clue to the fact that everything that comes before in the book really has been about the double-edged nature of the acquisition of knowledge and the accompanying loss of innocence.”

As I read through the first three or four stories in this collection, I wondered, “These are extraordinary; why aren’t more people talking about this book?” And I realized people were talking about it back in 2010 when it was originally published (and when it appeared on the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award shortlist), but I was doing something else back then and consigned it to a bookmark in my “highly-recommended-library-available” list, where it waited patiently until about a week ago when I felt the need, after a long stretch of reading novels for classes, to revel in short stories again (I’m suffering withdrawal, thanks to PEN/O.Henry delaying publication from Spring to Fall). I chose it now from my very long highly-recommended list because, among other more sensible reasons, I loved the cover. Yes, I am that shallow. That shallowness becomes stupidity when you realize there are multiple covers, and by the way the UK cover is awful enough to deserve Isobel Montgomery’s scorn in her Guardian review. The cover doesn’t matter; what’s under the cover is wonderful.

I envision the ending of a story as the point at which I complete the process by handing the story over to the reader. It belongs to her by then. It’s common for people to recommend starting stories in mid-action or in media res, but there’s at least as good an argument for ending them that way too. There’s a kind of generosity to not closing down a story entirely, a way that includes the reader, and I aspire to that.

~~Robin Black, “A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Robin Black”

I’ve said before (most recently, by coincidence, in a post about a story by Karen Russell, with whom Black’s Conversation takes place) that I like stories that project into the future. I can’t define exactly what I mean by that, other than what it isn’t: it’s not an unfinished story, or a lady-or-the-tiger ending, but an ending that lets me imagine a future – several possible futures – for the characters. I’m especially happy to see Black has the same idea. Most of the stories invited such projection; a few demanded it.

I very much enjoyed this collection. If I seem to have nitpicked a few times, well, that’s my way of keeping myself honest, making sure I’m not being carried away by a beautiful read. Also: I need to make myself aware, on a regular basis, that a few flaws are inevitable, acceptable, and even desirable – in people, and in stories.

Black has a novel, Life Drawing, due out in 2014: “a fierce, honest, and moving portrait of a marriage—the betrayals and intimacies, the needs and regrets, the secrets that sustain love and the ones that threaten to destroy it.”

Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones

Art by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Art by Sophia Foster-Dimino

The work of Jorge Luis Borges is a species of international literary metaphor. He knowledgeably makes a transfer of inherited meanings from Spanish and English, French and German, and sums up a series of analogies, of confrontations, of appositions in other nations’ literatures. His Argentinians act out Parisian dramas, his central European Jews are wise in the ways of the Amazon, his Babylonians are fluent in the paradigms of Babel.… Perhaps, though, his meaning is simply in the ritual tone of voice with which he suggests some eternal, an answerable question.

~~ Anthony Kerrigan, Introduction to Ficciones

Now this was fun.

Ficciones is another of the assigned texts for the Fiction of Relationship class taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University through Coursera. I see a distinct progression now that I understand better the drift of the course: we’ve had something of a progression from love relationships to societal relationships to family relationships, even self-relationships, relationships with “the other” – and now we start considering our relationship with reality.

That’s a gross oversimplification, of course; Jane Eyre is as much a novel about the relation to society as is Light In August, and Manon Lescaut has as much to do with our relationship to reality as does Borges. Maybe this is the mark of a “great” novel: it covers a multitude of relationships. Or maybe it’s inherent in all literature. Maybe people are incapable of writing, thinking even, except in terms of relationship. Or maybe it’s all just sophistry: if there is more than one thing, one element to a story, if there is a setting and a character, there must be a relationship. I wonder if it’s possible to write a story where there is no relationship – doesn’t any story have a relationship with the author and the reader, at the very least? Is it possible to have a story with no relationship to reality?

Where to start with this book: One of the themes that recurs a few times in these stories is the overwhelmingness of an abundance of riches: a library with too many books, a man with too many memories. It is an overwhelming book: I am left a reader with too many ideas.

So let’s start with the outlandish: Did Borges foresee the Internet?

Noam Cohen makes a decent case in his 2008 NYT article “Borges and the Forseeable Future.” The collaborative, mutating encyclopedia of Tlön, for instance, sounds like (brace yourself) Wikipedia; Funes’ prodigious memory a mega-gig drive; the Universal Library comes closer to your fingertips every day. I’m pretty sure these story elements read a lot differently now – less “gee whiz” – than they did in the 30s and 40s.

Laura Delgado, 'La Otra'As I read the collection, something else occurred to me: where are the women? Only a handful of his stories include women in more than a fleeting role, and they aren’t in this collection. Scholarly opinions differ as to the significance of this. Daniel Balderston and Herbert Brandt feel the homosocial relationships of the stories are standins for more homosexual images. E. D. Carter argues that women “ultimately stand in the way of what Borges has called ‘the one redeeming Argentine passion’: friendship.” I’ll forgive Borges for that, seeing as early 20th century Argentinian academia was quite different from 21st century America… isn’t it? Please tell me it is. In any event, no matter how tangled and folded on itself reality becomes in these stories, Ficciones is a men-only club.

October 1944, in the sky above Paris, sheets of paper are floating down to the ground. A few people below are looking up, waiting for the sheets to reach them. Most pay no particular attention, accustomed as they are to receiving political pamphlets in such a fashion…
…The pages are written in French, but they come from far away: from across the ocean, from Argentina. The pages include Néstor Ibarra’s French translations of Majstorovic 48 Jorge Luis Borges’ stories “[The Babylon Lottery]” and “[The Library of Babel]”.

~~ Gorica Majstorovic, A Contracorriente, Spring 2006

Borges has been recommended to me several times over the years, usually by people way, way out of my intellectual league, so I’ve always been too intimidated to just pick it up and start reading; I’m glad this course has forced the issue. I spent nearly an hour on just the Introduction (by translator Andrew Kerrigan) and Prologue (where Borges blogs his own book). Much of that was remedial (heresiarch? propitiatory lupanar?) but much was just an effort to clarify concepts vaguely familiar (Pascal’s Abyss turned out to be something Find out more about David Shook's Poetry Drone Kickstarter Campaigncompletely different from what I’d thought; the passing mention of a previous “Library of Babel” led me to the above-quoted story of Victoria Ocampo, editor of the Argentinian literary magazine Sur, dropping literary pamphlets over Paris shortly after the Liberation, a move David Shook right now seeks to update via his Poetry Drone Kickstarter campaign). I didn’t want to miss a thing.

I’m sure I did, of course, but these are stories to read over and over, to remember, to link to other readings and other courses and other ideas. I used to be a spec-fic reader, favoring the more oddball works that involved time folding over itself and Möbius strips; much of that sprang from these stories, and, to pick a concrete example, with some stories I was reminded structurally of Manuel Gonzales’ “fictional journalism.” Borges himself found inspiration in everyone from Aristotle to Schopenhauer to C.S. Lewis to German writer Kurd Lasswitz. Let’s face it: everyone stands on the shoulders of giants, even giants. It just gets harder and harder to reach those shoulders as history goes on.

Borges wrote these stories before “the linked collection” became a marketing concept; they’re gathered for convenience, not because they fit some publisher’s idea of what the market wants (though wouldn’t that be fun, a series of collections of linked stories using these stories as a base…then a series of linked stories for each of those stories… an infinite collection…). They vary in technique and mood, but certain motifs recur: Mirrors. Labyrinths. Time, history, reality. Most are very short; the entire collection of seventeen stories is only 174 pages. Most of the stories are available online; I’ve linked the titles where possible.

The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.

~~ JL Borges, Prologue to Ficciones

Several of the stories, particularly in Part 1 of the collection, feature invented books (and in one case an invented library), but they also look for explanations behind our assumptions, making them something like myths. Why do bad things happen to good people? “The Babylon Lottery” may explain it. Do we have control over our lives? Look to “The Circular Ruin” and “Garden of the Forking Paths.” Labyrinths, mirrors; time, reality; philosophy, history, science, mathematics, psychology: Borges’ palette is broad and draws from a variety of disciplines. Like I said: Now this was fun.

The stories:

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

If you write it, they will come, in this extreme life-imitates-art tale. It’s also a mystery, an investigation, into an elusive (fictional) encyclopedia entry that leads to a (fictional) encyclopedia originated by a multigenerational group that invented a country. But it didn’t stop there; an eccentric American millionaire got into the act and “declared that in America it was absurd to invent a country, and proposed the invention of the whole planet.” Borges understood America, all right.

The planet exists in a state of Berkeleyan idealism: the world is “not a concurrence of objects in space, but a heterogeneous series of independent acts”; “the present is undefined, that the future has no other reality than as present hope, that the past is no more than present memory”; even numbers are “indefinite” and “the operation of counting modifies the quantities and converts them from indefinite into definite sums” (aha! I always suspected); some objects are “brought into being by hope”, and all objects “lose their detail when people forget them.”

Most dramatically, in a theme echoed by Borges again and again in these stories: “there is only one Individual, and that this indivisible Individual is every one of the separate beings in the universe, and that those beings are the instruments and masks of divinity itself.”

While all of this is fascinating – and leads me to resolve yet again to improve my understanding of philosophical schools – the thrust of the story is that this fictional encyclopedia about a fictional world transformed the actual world into Tlön. If that seems far-fetched, consider the New Testament – or any public school textbook. Wars have been fought over who gets to write the history, because history only exists in memory, and we cannot help but live under the thumb of what has come before. Or, at least, what we believe has come before.

The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim

This fictional review of a fictional book about an Indian pilgrimage is so detailed, it’s hard to remember the levels of invention. The review judges the second edition of the book to be far inferior – “In the 1932 version, the supernatural notes are scarce… Unfortunately, this literary good conduct did not last long. In the 1934 version – which I have at hand – the novel sinks into allegory… ” This jazzing up of a text to appeal to a more widespread audience sounds familiar. Geraldo Rivera was once a real journalist, Jim Jones started out as an earnest preacher, and everyone knows how I feel about what’s happened to Bravo and The Food Network.

Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote

He did not want to compose another Don Quixote – which would be easy – but the Don Quixote. It is unnecessary to add that his aim was never to produce a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable ambition was to produce pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.
…To be, in some way, Cervantes and to arrive at Don Quixote seemed to him less arduous – and consequently less interesting – then to continue being Pierre Menard and to arrive at Don Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.

I remember an art course in which the instructor said that painting flowers during the sixteenth century was not the same as painting flowers during the Industrial Revolution, or in the Information Age. Context matters. You can’t wade into the same stream twice.

Borges drew this self-portrait - after he went blind - for Burt BrittonBy creating an author, start with his bibliography, showing his struggles (“The number of rough drafts kept on increasing; he tenaciously made corrections and tore up thousands of manuscript pages”), as well as the reviewer’s reader experience of the work (“…the fragmentary Don Quixote of Menard is more subtle than that of Cervantes. The latter indulges in a rather coarse opposition between tales of knighthood and the Meeker, provincial reality of his country; Menard chooses as ‘reality’ the land of Carmen during the century of Lepanto and Lope.”), Borges turns an aphorism into flesh and blood: an idea becomes a story.

John T. Irwin adds some background to the piece: “One of the more interesting aspects of Borges’ development as a fiction writer in the late 30’s and early 40’s was his decision to turn away from the French literary influence that represented the artistic ideal for most of his fellow Argentinians (an Argentine obsession that he was to satirize in “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”) and to turn toward English, and particularly North American, fiction as the principal foreign literary influence on his work.” That was the point at which he became interested in Poe.

An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain

He also affirmed that of the various pleasures offered by literature, the greatest is invention. Since not everyone is capable of this pleasure, many must content themselves with shams. For these “imperfect writers,” whose name is legion, Quain wrote the eight stories in Statements. Each of them prefigures or promises a good plot, deliberately frustrated by the author. One of them – not the best – insinuates two arguments. The reader, led astray by vanity, thinks he has invented them. I was ingenuous enough to extract from the third, “The Rose of Yesterday,” my story of “The Circular Ruins.”

A literary obituary of sorts. The books Borges invents are so clever, it’s easy to forgive him for not actually writing them. The narrator is indignant that Quain’s books are compared to Agatha Christie and Gertrude Stein; “evocations which no one would consider inevitable and which would not have gratified the deceased.” This becomes especially delicious when we consider that Borges wrote three “doubles” of Poe stories as homages, and he himself served as inspiration for so many. This story itself folds back on itself, with the reference to his own story at the end. Is this Borges’ self-litobit? A tongue-in-cheek future impression of his oeuvre? Much of his work has this sense of humor about it; it’s almost like he’s entering into a shared joke with the reader – laughing with us, not at us.

The Library of Babel

I have just written the word “infinite.” I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end — which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

This may be one of Borges’ most famous stories; I’d actually read it before, though I didn’t realize it was Borges. There are, after all, only so many books, so many combinations of letters one could possibly write. In 1913, Emile Borel started the “infinite monkeys” concept (enough monkeys for enough time would eventually produce Hamlet), to be carried forward by physicist Arthur Edington; here Borges makes it concrete. It’s interesting that this Library has so much information as to make it unintelligible; it’s impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff, thus everyone goes hungry. Yet, The Book exists: the perfect book, and that is what we’re looking for.

Prof. Weinstein mentions in the introductory material to the Fiction of Relationship course, “Dry, esoteric and philosophical, Borges appears to have none of the heat our other writers bring, but think again.” Yes: look at the quote above, and think again. Look at Borges referring to the story: “In my story there is an intellectual component, and another, of greater importance, I think, that has to do with my sense of loneliness, anguish, uselessness, and of the mysterious nature of the universe, of time, and more importantly, of ourselves. Or rather, of myself.” Anything but dry and esoteric. I want to hug him.

The Circular Ruins

In his Prologue, Borges refers to this as a story in which “nothing is real.” It’s interesting, then, especially in light of the above-mentioned comments about Borges being esoteric and philosophical, that I found this story dripping with human passion. It’s another strange story: the protagonist simply enters the scene, from where or why or even how we don’t really know. His mission is to dream a son.

Sophia Sycamore: from her series of illustrations to accompany 'The Circular Ruins'The choice I love here is that his first attempt fails; he dreams a classroom setting and chooses the most thoughtful student but is unable to bring him to life. It’s only when he tries again, and begins at the heart (“He dreamed that it was warm, secret, about the size of a clenched fist, and of a garnet color within the penumbra of a human body as yet without face or sex; during fourteen lucid nights he dreamt of it with meticulous love”) that he is able to create. I was so captivated by the phrase “meticulous love” I looked up the original Spanish: con minucioso amor lo soñó; while there is the word meticuloso for “meticulous,” minucioso also translates there, as well as “thorough” and “minute.” A new kind of reproduction, perhaps, but one that is, literally, heartfelt.

Of course, that isn’t the end of the story; this is Borges, and everything has to fold back in on itself.

The Babylon Lottery

In the early 70s, when I visited Boston (from Florida) for the first time, I was confused by all the advertisements I saw for The Game; they never explained what The Game was, just exhorted people to play it. Forget notions of omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence: God is the guy who sells the lottery tickets. In his Prologue, Borges notes the story is “not entirely innocent of symbolism.” Neil D. Isaacs raises the same thought I did (boy, do I feel smart!) in his article “The Labyrinth of Art in Four Ficciones of Jorge Luis Borges”: of course there’s symbolism, all his stories are symbolic, pretty much all literature is symbolic. But Isaacs identifies the symbolism at a level that would have never occurred to me:

[I]n “The Babylon Lottery” one must appreciate the ironic inversion of the typical, the traditional, and the archetypal.

Borges’ “symbolism” is a remarkably sustained piece of irony. “The Babylon Lottery” describes an attempt to impose a deliberate and infinitely various disorder upon an orderly world. Yet the lottery (both the story itself and the institutions it describes) is systematic and formal. In other words, it is a program (or programmatic presentation) designed to give the semblance of formal order, that is to say, a semblance of meaning, to the chaotic and ostensibly meaningless world of human experience.…

It’s a lot more sophisticated than “S#&t Happens,” you have to admit.

The Garden of the Forking Paths

Borges wrote this story with Poe in mind (and it was first published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine; he puts a slight spoiler in his Prologue, calling it a “detective story; its readers will assist at the execution, and all the preliminaries, of a crime, a crime whose purpose will not be unknown to them, but which they will not understand – it seems to me – until the last paragraph.” That’s true, but it also gets into destiny and parallel universes, not to mention a mathematical theory of birfurcation. In fact, this story and “The Library of Babel” was recommended to me by my math class last Spring when I was looking for a “mathlit” series of readings (I still intend to get there, it’s just taking a while).Of course, this theory is way beyond me – much of this is beyond me – but that doesn’t stop me from having fun. Although Edward Packer wouldn’t invent Choose Your Own Adventure stories until the 1970s, I see it as an exploration of a CYOA structure in life. We do, in fact, choose our own adventures, every moment of every day, but most of the time we don’t realize it.

Funes, the Memorious

Funes the Memorious is as Borgesian a character as they come, a man tormented by his hyperencylopedic mind, tragically unable to forget anything…. he is incapacitated by the compulsive absoluteness of his knowledge, unable to think and communicate with the rest of the humanity. Casting himself as the imperfect, inferior countercharacter to Funes, Borges suggests that forgetting—that is, forgetting ceaselessly—is essential and necessary for thought and language and literature, for simply being a human being.

~~ Aleksander Hemon, from Object Lessons, excerpted online

An anthropology professor once told our class that death was essential to life; it seems forgetting works somewhat the same way with knowledge. The story itself makes this point: “The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything,” which brings us back to the “every man is all men” theme sprinkled throughout this volume.

I’m also reminded of “The Library of Babel,” or, for that matter, the internet, where a flood of information means nothing gets through. Hemon goes on to equate Funes’ memory with omniscience, and thus, Godhood, which leads to those thoughts about divinity – literally, separateness – and how perhaps that is what people long for when they long for God: to know everything. But that itself separates the now-God from the rest of humanity, and leaves him paralyzed, lying alone on a cot in a hut. But, by his own account, quite content: “immobility was a minimum price to pay.”

The Form of the Sword

I realized then that his cowardice was irreparable. I awkwardly urged him to take care of himself and took my leave. I blushed for this fearful man, as if I, and not Vincent Moon, were the coward. What one man does is something done, in some measure, by all men. For that reason a disobedience committed in a garden contaminates the human race; for that reason it is not unjust that the crucifixion of a single Jew suffices to save it.”

Mauricio Nizzero: 'El otro'There it is, that theme again. I knew what was going on some time before the story revealed it; I wondered for a time if the narrator knew where the story would end up, but gave the storyteller the opportunity to make his confession. It’s a story about becoming “the other” through narrative – telling your story from someone else’s angle. For this character, this role-swap must take place in front of an audience in order to accomplish his aim.

In Jorge Luis Borges: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations, with Richard Burgin, Borges is quite dismissive of this story: “That’s one of the stories I like least, because it’s a trick story after all… But of course, when I wrote that story I was quite young and then I believed in cleverness, and now I think that cleverness is a hindrance.” Still, I found it to be an interesting examination of identity, fitting the “law of metamorphosis” that’s running through the class.

Theme of the Traitor and Hero

If you like mind-twisting paradoxical mazes, this is the story for you: a consideration of free will and destiny, all wrapped up in a Shakespearean paradox of art imitating life. Or is it life imitating art? For a very short story – barely five pages – it gets a lot done.

Death and the Compass

Erik Lonnrot studied the documents. The three sites were in fact equidistant. Symmetry in time (the third of December, the third of January, the third of February); symmetry in space as well . . . Of a sudden he sensed he was about to decipher the mystery. A set of calipers and a compass completed his sudden intuition. He smiled, pronounced the word “Tetragrammaton” (of recent acquisition), and called the Commissioner on the telephone.

His second detective story after “Garden of the Forking Paths,” this one was, in his words, “flatly rejected” by Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. If that doesn’t serve as a balm to rejected writers everywhere, I don’t know what will. In order to solve this mystery, the detective calls upon religion, geometry, and Zeno; for the reader, a knowledge of German helps, but I confess I mostly just followed along and went back to pick up what I missed. After all, a Borges mystery is not just any mystery; there’s going to be a philosophical question in there somewhere, and here, it’s symmetry and, again, identity.

The Secret Miracle

A librarian wearing dark glasses asked him: What are you
looking for? Hladik answered: God. The Librarian told him: God is in one of the letters on one of the pages of one of the 400,000 volumes of the Clementine.

'El paraíso según Borges' (or 'Paradise According to Borges') by Gabriel CapraIf libraries – infinite, divine libraries, whose vast stores of information create problems of locating any one particular item for mere mortals – feature prominently in Borges – “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” he said – it’s worth remembering that he was Director of the National Library of Argentina for nearly twenty years, until political issues made that untenable. This story blends notions of this Divine Library, dreams, and time, yet for me it above all is a writer’s story; I see a link to Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” If you write something and no one reads it – have you written anything at all? In fact, yes. I write a blog very few people read, and I spend a ridiculous amount of time on these posts, but I write it because it forces me to organize my thoughts; I frequently uncover new evidence and thus change my mind when I put together notes and write a coherent post, and that is worth the time it takes. Writing for me exists for its own sake, it is the discovery; having a place to “publish” it is merely a bonus.

It’s something of a reframing of “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” though it adds some elements and creates a convincing emotional picture (something Bierce never did for me). Clark M. Zlotchew goes into great detail about the use of mise en abyme, a term new to me though I recognize the concept. See, that’s why I write blog posts no one may ever read (certainly not ones this long): I learn things. Writing is its own reward.

And we haven’t heard the last of protagonist Jaromir Hladik…

Three Versions of Judas

The first edition of Kristus och Judas bears the following categorical epigraph, whose meaning, some years later, Nils Runeberg himself would monstrously dilate: Not one thing, but everything tradition attributes to Judas Iscariot is false. (De Quincey, 1857.)

I was seriously religious in my early teens, and I never understood the scorn heaped upon Judas: it seemed to me his betrayal of Jesus was a necessary part of the plan. I never said a word, of course; I got into enough trouble asking where all the people after Adam and Eve came from. But it’s nice to see someone else wonders the same thing, though this story takes it a step beyond that.

I promised more Jaromir Hladik from “The Secret Miracle,” and here he is in a footnote, though I’ll admit I wouldn’t have noticed it but for Borges’ bio page on the Poetry Foundation website: “The note refers the reader to the “Vindication of Eternity,” a work said to be written by Hladik. In this instance, Borges used a fictional work written by one of his fictitious characters to lend an air of erudition to another fictional work about the works of another fictitious author.” Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

I wonder what else I’ve been missing in these stories – like the small detail of protagonist Nils Runeberg’s name pointed out by Edna Aizenberg: “Runes were ancient mystic letters, and ‘Nils’ suggests null, or nothingness, as well as ‘Nil,’ the River Nile.” I suppose it would help if Aizenberg’s essay were not a spot-on spoof of the story itself, which also makes my head spin. I just love it when my head spins. But for more practical analysis, Timothy McGrath examines Borges’ use of historical narrative. It isn’t as much fun, but it does provide some of the religious background those who didn’t spend years in Sunday School might find helpful.

The End

Borges: “Aside from one character, Recabarren, whose immobility and passivity serve as contrast., nothing (or almost nothing ) in the brief course of that last story is of my invention-everything in it is implicit in a famous book, though I have been the first to perceive it, or at least to declare openly that I have.” Turns out Martin Fierro is a rather popular figure in an Argentinian story of the “gaucho genre” (similar to the American Western), and this story continues his tale.

The South

In his Prologue, Borges says: “Of ‘The South,’ which may be my best story, I shall tell the reader only that it is possible to read it both as a forthright narration of novelistic events and in quite another way, as well.” Again, I’m puzzled, since this could be said of all his stories. Time and reality are again twisted, leading us to wonder if we are really where and when we think we are. Having had some experience, due to a “medical misadventure,” with a delirious state a few years ago during which I could not tell the difference between dreams and reality, I felt a great deal of sympathy for the protagonist.

The Sect of the Phoenix

Once upon a time, in addition to the Secret, there was a legend (and perhaps also a cosmogonic myth), but the superficial men of the Phoenix have forgotten it, and today… they scarcely hint at the verdict of a God who grants eternity to a race of men if they will only carry out a certain rite, generation after generation. I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians; and I can testify that the performance of the rite is the only religious practice observed by the sectarians. The rite itself constitutes the Secret.

Caution: Spoiler-ish notes. It’s really a story you should read before you read about it; much of the fun is in the reading. And it’s quite a hilarious story, once you’re in on the joke.

Borges: “I set myself the problem of suggesting a common act – the Secret – hesitatingly, gradually, and yet, in the end, unequivocally; I am not sure to what extent I have succeeded.” While I was on to “The Form of the Sword” and I had a pretty good idea how “The Circular Ruins” would turn out, I missed this one completely. That may say more about me than about Borges, who, I read somewhere (though I can never find it when I need it; damn, I’ve recorded it at least twice, too) was a bit awkward and possibly uninformed about the subject himself, making it one of the few things he knew little about. While there is fairly uniform agreement on the nature of the Secret described, some, like Daniel Balderston, have a slightly different angle. And in his Borges overview The Mythmaker, Carter Wheelock denies that the Rite is anything at all; the whole story is an allegory for “the creation of the esthetic situation.” Take your pick, or make up your own interpretation.

In Borges and his Fiction, Bell-Villada enumerates the debatable points one by one (gum Arabic being the, shall we say, stickiest wicket, cork and wax being fairly easy to dispense with): “As the narrator of the story himself points out, all words allude to this rite – frequently to the discomfort of both speaker and listener – is the result that the hallowed ‘secret’ can often seem ‘ridiculous.'” That’s rather true – ask any six-year-old.

Like I said: This was fun. I’m delighted I finally had a reason to break through the intimidation factor, and surprised at how accessible most of the stories were. Not that I caught everything, of course; I’m woefully undereducated in the various philosophical schools, and the more I learn about literature, the less I seem to know. But it’s a start, and an inspiration. And fun.

Bonnie ZoBell: The Whack-Job Girls (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2013)

Cover design by Cynthia Reeser; photo by Al Faraone

Cover design by Cynthia Reeser; photo by Al Faraone

You know who they are – the women who can’t get out of their own way, or can’t get started; the ones lost in whatever dreams they’ve had since childhood that are preferable to reality, women who’ve missed the mark somewhere, gone over the edge, around the bend. Women who never cared about the mark, the edge, the bend in the first place. Whack-job girls. They aren’t stupid. And they aren’t crazy, certainly not in a technical sense, not at first, though in time, they could be. They’re just like the rest of us, and they’re just doing the best they can with what they’ve got.

These are the women Bonnie ZoBell has gathered together in her chapbook, The Whack-Job Girls.

I knew Bonnie back in my Zoetrope days, from the Newbie office and the Flash Factory where we read and reviewed each others’ work (and I understand Zin lurks in her latest Office there even now). One of the benefits of Zoetrope was the opportunity to hang around with writers like Bonnie (who, I should mention, has an MFA from Columbia, an NEA Grant, and serves as associate editor of the Northville Review and contributing editor of the Flash Fiction Chronicles, among other things like her day job teaching writing to college students). I was lucky enough to see the beginnings of some of these stories; I recognize the prompts from a few of them (“500 words combining public transportation and the death of a pet…” “…using the name of a Factory member and at least one of these elements…”). I knew I had to read the collection, and I was very happy to find it in downloadable format as well as in paperback.

I asked Bonnie a few question, and, bless her heart, she answered.

How did the collection come about? Did you decide to put together a collection of your favorites, and noticed they were all about, well, whack-job girls, or was it a conscious decision to select pieces that fit that description?

Funny you should put it that way, Karen. That’s pretty close to how the collection came about. I had a lot of flash I’d written, so I made a list of the ones that I thought were my best. As I’m sure you know, flash writer that you are, it’s pretty hard to be objective about that since they’re all your babies. Yes, I looked through them trying to see any connecting themes. I did know that I thought “The Whack-Job Girls” was my best title for a story, which was confirmed by some writer friends I asked. And then, yes, I noticed that there were a lot of, well, whacky girls in these stories—alienated, acting in unusual ways, not quite right socially. So then I took out all the stories with male protagonists and started trying to arrange the rest of the stories around the theme of whackiness.

Though I read a lot of collections, I don’t know much about how they’re organized. How did you decide on the order of the stories?

I considered several things when I put the stories in order and changed my mind a few times as well. I wanted the first few stories to be some of my strongest as well as my last story. But also I was trying to vary the stories so that, for instance, if there were only two second-person stories, I didn’t put them next to each other. I tried to have a nice mix of first-, second-, and third-person stories throughout, though other considerations meant I couldn’t always do that. The other type of stories I tried to keep apart were stories on the same topic. For instance, I think there ended up being two stories with domestic abuse in them, and since it’s definitely not a book about domestic abuse, I made sure those weren’t right next to each other because I didn’t want people to get that idea.

I love the trailer – can you talk about the process of creating it?

The trailer was a lot of fun. I’m writing an article about that and other trailers for Flash Fiction Chronicles. I wanted a trailer because I think they’re cool and help give a flavor for a book you might be considering buying. However, I’m not rich and I have very little time since I teach. I knew there were big-shot places that you could spend a lot of money on them, but I also had friends who had friends who had made them, so I started looking around for someone more reasonable who might make one for me. A friend, Talia Carner, referred me to John Ray Gutierrez at Big Burrito Media. He’s very reasonable, a lot of fun to work with, and best of all, a lot of his work his crazy, which went right along with the book.

I recognize some of the stories and prompts from the Flash Factory. What do you think are the benefits of working from prompts? The drawbacks?

Every single one of the flashes in the book came from The Flash Factory on Zoetrope. I’ve gotten a lot of story ideas from the prompts given in that office, too. The biggest benefit of working from prompts, at least for me, is that they encourage me to write about topics and characters that wouldn’t normally come to mind. There are no drawbacks that I know of. If you don’t want to write from a prompt because you already have a story in mind, then don’t!

You have another book coming out next year – What Happened Here. I read at least one story (I think) that will be included in that collection. Did you set out to write a series of linked stories, or did it just evolve that way?

Yes, the publisher of my dreams, Press 53, has taken my connected collection, What Happened Here. I couldn’t be happier about that because I think Kevin Morgan Watson is so smart and a wonderful editor. I’m still having some trouble getting the title story the way I’d like it to be, and he’s given me some great advice—not prescriptive so much as talking to me and helping me to understand what it is I’m trying to say in that story. No, they weren’t originally connected, but I came up with a central incident to connect them all to, which was a plane crash that occurred in my neighborhood of North Park in San Diego some thirty years ago. I do think that even when we writers are writing about wildly different topics—or so we tell ourselves—the stories are still all from the core of who we are, so they weren’t very hard to connect.

With all this going on, are you having the time of your life right now?

Ha! Silly girl. You’d think, huh? I’m very happy that more people will be reading my work, most of all. But I’m also on a big learning curve finding out how to promote a book, which takes a lot of time—both the learning and the promoting. I’m looking forward to a time in the future when I can sort of unplug from everything and go back to doing more writing.

A quick take on a few of my favorite flashes:

Nonnie Wore No Clothes” from Foundling Review, December 2011.

Nonnie felt that if she bared as much of herself as she could, if she were as open as she could possibly be, she might glean something from the Virgin, some deeper understanding and therefore willingness might be accorded to her. Maybe she’d catch a break. Maybe Mary would perceive that while Nonnie wasn’t perfect, she really did need some help right now.

What it’s like to be desperate enough to see the Virgin Mary in a smudge on the wall – and how sometimes that can let you love, just enough. Since I recognized the prompt, I was particularly interested in Bonnie’s contributor note about the origin of the story. It’s also available as an audio recording, complete with music and sound effects.

Black Thumb” from Used Furniture Review

“She’s only heard me once. I take great pains. And it wasn’t that bad, simply me telling a man he had beautiful nose, no matter what other women told him.”

You can’t be everywhere at once – or all things to all people – but that doesn’t stop some women. The problem is when worlds collide, and your daughter hears you on the phone with a client.

You Are Not Langston Hughes” from FRiGG, Winter 2008.

You wanted something different. In Spokane, you were tired of working as a lunch waitress at the Bon Marche department store. You wanted more urbane city centers than the NorthTown Mall, to surround yourself with more important bodies of water than Lake Coeur d’Alene, to know people whose dreams extended beyond nine to five.

I’ve never been bitten by the New York bug, but if I ever were, this is the way I’d want to do it. I love the voice – and yes, second person might be why.

The Whack-Job Girls” from Bartleby Snopes, January 2010.

That’s what the men have started calling the regulars at Nellie’s since all the trouble started, the Whack-Job Girls. And the Girls call them the Short-Fuse Dudes. The Girls don’t have to sit around and take it. Not according to Oprah.

To be honest, I’m not sure what’s going on here (except for the dedication) but it’s a story with snakes and Chinese food and a Loretta Lynn song, “Love is Like Bad Noodles.” Would you think I was incredibly stupid if I admitted I googled that to see if there really was such a song? There is, actually – it’s on the trailer created by Big Burrito Media – but Loretta Lynn had nothing to do with it. The fun part is, I know who these women are. I recognize them. I see them every day.

Black Friday” from Night Train,

Howard lit a cigarette, not seeming to notice anything amiss. A clear sign that it was never going to work with him.

The leftover turkey was just the first hint.

Serial” from Necessary Fiction, October 2010

Rich is still seated, but soon after dinner we’ll recline into prone positions on our separate couches, our “boats,” as we like to call them. On our boats we are safe, neither sharks nor serial killers can get us. We idle unthreatened in our living room.

When I heard this passage on the trailer, I knew I had to have this book.

Graveyard from Wigleaf, October 28, 2011

Could the man or the woman in the hotel room have been defecating on the wall and using the hair dryer at the same time? I should want to know, since my major is anthropology, what makes human beings do the things they do.

Hotel maids have all the fun.


The stories are very short – they’re flash, after all – and display a variety of voices and styles. Some are wildly abstract. Some are somber and earnest; they led me into my own heart, and I nodded along as I read. Many are funny, in that way that seems so about-someone-else and becomes so surprising when we see ourselves in a mirror. All are fundamentally heartbreaking.

And they all feature whack-job girls: women in various stages of oddness, of differentness; women who are just a thought away from being… us.

Manuel Gonzales: The Miniature Wife and Other Stories (Riverhead Books, 2013)

…I can’t help but wonder that maybe we need this kinds of moments. Not moments of quiet, but moments when our lives are upended by violent tragedy, monsters, zombies, because without them, how would we meet the men and women of our dreams, how would we make up for the sins of our pasts, how would we show our true natures – brave, caring, strong, intelligent?
I wonder, How would we?

—“Escape from the Mall”

Manuel Gonzales bakes pies. And he writes fiction. I have no idea if his pies are any good, but his short stories are terrific.

I’ll admit it: I prefer my fiction weird. Oh, it’s not that I don’t truly appreciate a gentle coming-of-age tale, or a piece that powerfully employs characterization and conflict in a conventional setting; I can be truly captivated by great realism. But – my heart belongs to weird.

In The Miniature Wife, Gonzales approaches weird from every possible angle. And a few impossible ones.

There’s the discourse-weird: the fictional obituaries, the fake journalistic interviews. And the situation-weird: the plane circling the airport for twenty years, a woman who’s injured by sound. And the supernatural-weird: zombies, a werewolf, a unicorn. But when was the last time a werewolf story turned out to be about family structure and Oedipal conflict? Or a zombie story left you wondering about the premise, or a war story shifted, like the figure-ground vase optical illusion, into something else?

This is weird in the service of the living, breathing soul of people who experience weird every day of their lives, whether it’s a guy in “The Artist’s Voice” who talks through his ears – or just one of us real-life people trying to get through to our spouse. This is weird that makes you forget it’s a zombie story because it becomes a story of growth and change; weird that makes the werewolf the least important character in the story; weird that forces you up against all the trials of the real world, weird that makes you cry.

How do people deal with extraordinary circumstances – retreat, attack, adapt? What needs – for love, for communication, for creation – are so great, they overcome impossible obstacles? What’s amazing to me is how effectively these things can be evoked by, say, an obituary. Or a zombie story.

It’s a weird that is always, always, about something else. Read these stories twice: once for the surface story, and once for the meta story. It’s immense fun.

I decided to read this book because Aimee Bender loved it, though I was primed by the time I read that review: he’d published in One Story, my favorite literary magazine (before I’d subscribed, unfortunately), and I’d been hearing a lot of good things about this collection.

I’ve only recently begun paying attention to how story collection are put together. In this case, I might not have been able to miss it. The opening story – the One Story offering from 2005 – provides a splendid introduction, setting us up for an unexpected ride. The final story, quoted above, puts the entire book in perspective. Maybe we need to look outside the ordinary, the safe, the comfortable, to find out what we’re capable of. Who knows, we might find a zombie that makes us cry, or a hit man who makes us laugh.

Rather than enumerate the stories in the order they appear, I’m going to clump them into categories.

Fictional Journalism

As nervous as it makes me to put those two words together, given how recent events have been handled by the news media, that’s the only thing I can call this: the interview as fiction. As a narrative technique it creates a third-person story via first-person: a story, told in third-person, and there’s the meta story, told in first person. I’m not sure if there’s a technical description of this (please tell me if there is), but it’s wonderful. It evokes much of the medical non-fiction I have (Sacks, Roueche, Klawans). It may not be by accident that the content of these stories leans scientific.

Farewell, Africa” (available online at Guernica)

It was not the speech we knew. Mitchell had managed somehow to boil it down to its essence, or maybe he made it into something entirely new. I can’t remember it now, not its specifics, not past those first few words, and Mitchell hadn’t written it down, had abandoned, at the last moment, his own notes, and cannot remember it himself. It spoke of tragedy, I think. I think, too, that it spoke to the enormous loss of life, to the sense that this world had been pushed to the brink, but in truth, the speech might not have been about any of that. It was not the speech we knew, yet by the end of the speech, I felt as if I weren’t listening to Mitchell as he spoke in front of us, as if the words weren’t coming from him, but had been born inside my own head, had always been part of my own thoughts, that Mitchell was simply reminding me of something I already knew and had somehow forgotten.

I’m astounded at how wonderful this was to read on so many levels. The overt story, a near-future history about the snafus at an elaborate art gala and a former presidential speech-writer who’s never managed to live up to the one great speech he once wrote. But then, with the last paragraph, it becomes a different story entirely, a story about how this story is told, about the story some are telling right now. About where the characters – where we – are directing our attention. And, by the way, there’s some great writer-stuff in there as well:

Whenever he would come across the speech in a bookstore or when he was at someone’s house and saw that they owned a copy of the speech, which was, for a long time, being reprinted in textbooks and on its own, he would pull it off the shelf and turn to the beginning of his speech and then start to cross out words and sentences and, sometimes, entire sections.
“Once,” he told me, “I got carried away and accidentally edited a friend’s copy of the speech down to a five-minute affair. Ten minutes if you read it really slowly.” He laughed and said, “I saw what I’d done and quietly put the book back on the shelf and then, later in the evening, made a show of finding it on the shelf again and pulling it down and then pretended to be shocked at what someone else had done to it. My friend was so embarrassed and upset that for a moment I almost told him the truth, but I never did.”

Read it for the speech. Read it for the flirtation. Read it for Australia, Japan, and Africa, before it’s too late.

The Artist’s Voice

The question I want to ask him, but don’t have the heart to, or don’t need to because I feel like I already know the answer to it, is this: is it worth it? This piece of music you are composing in your head, will it really be so good that it is worth all of this?

What would you sacrifice for art? What if the very thought process involved in creation left you tied up in knots, unable to move? Would you still create? But that isn’t the only question raised by this story. It’s also, again, about the human need to communicate, no matter what. Karl Abbasonov speaks through his ears. There’s a fairly technical explanation of how this is possible (which seems fairly reasonable until the final stages), but don’t let that scare you away; the heart of the story requires no scientific knowledge at all. If you ever read Berton Roueche in TNY (I have several volumes of his collected “Annals of Medicine” columns) or Oliver Sacks (the neurologist with the heart of a poet), you’ll feel right at home. And if you haven’t, but you’ve ever had a need that couldn’t be squelched by the limitations of reality, you’ll feel right at home anyway. The presence of the first-person narrator allows for voices, points of view, other than Karl’s, to be heard. It’s a terrific technique, and if I ever take another crack at fiction, it’s one I may explore.

The Disappearance of the Sebali Tribe

If you were to ask her, as I did, how it felt knowing that she had helped uncover the Sebali tribe hoax, she might shake her head and smile, somewhat ruefully, and say, “I hardly did a thing about it, really.” She might then ask you where you’re from, if you’d had a nice trip, if you needed another cup of coffee, if you’d ever been to Boston before, if you’d made a visit to the Common yet, “which is really much nicer in the spring and early summer,” she might go on to say, “but we just had a good snow, and you should really go see the park before too many other people go tramping through it.” And then she might mention Frederick Law Olmsted, who, she will explain, is best known for his design of Central Park in Manhattan, but who also designed a series of parks joining the Boston Common to its outlying neighbors, which is called the Emerald Necklace, and then she might suggest that you visit Jamaica Pond, a component of the Emerald Necklace, located in Jamaica Plain, “which hardly anyone ever goes to anymore,” she will continue, “because the neighborhood’s been run down a bit, but it’s a nice park really and if you go at the right time, it’s quiet and empty, and you can sit on the bench and look out over the pond that is there and sometimes see a goose or a swan or a cormorant, even. But if you go there, then you’ve got to visit El Oriental for lunch, and since the thought of anyone else going to El Oriental only makes me want to go there, too, then I just might have to join you,” which is how I eventually found myself sitting with her, one recent afternoon, in a small Cuban restaurant (El Oriental de Cuba) in Jamaica Plain… I tried my best to figure out how this small, unassuming young woman from Abilene, Texas, uncovered the truth behind one of the largest anthropological scams of the past 50 years.

Gonzales doesn’t just have a grasp on narrative technique and theme; his prose is beautiful, too. But it’s not just beautiful: this paragraph, wandering and meandering, also reveals character, character that I think becomes crucial later in the story. And by the end, I had a whole different theory of the Sebali Tribe hoax.

A Meritorious Life: The Fictional Obituaries

These short interstitial pieces, a subdivision of “Fictional Journalism,” yet with a flavor all their own, capture some of the little absurdities of life.

Juan Refugio Rocha: A Meritorious Life

When the fire started, Rocha was with the gorillas, standing outside their habitat talking to them, as he often did, from a safe distance.

Remember the old E. M. Forster tenet: “The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” This piece gives us the story, and plenty of nuance to construct our own plot. I love a writer who trusts the reader – but still prepares for the worst, just in case.

William Corbin: A Meritorious Life

Corbin owed his fascination with Klouns to his father, a village constable, who often took his three sons (of which William was the youngest) to variety acts and lowbrow, death-defying street shows, carnivals performed by traveling circuses hailing from Eastern European regions near or bordering the Black Sea. Inevitably, performing as part of one troupe or another, would be a Kloun, who, big-footed, of pale complexion, and with an over-expressive face, would often steal the show through popular movements skits and drama tumbles and the performance of ineffable sleights of hand.… One day, a young William broke from his family, found his way to a small congregation of Klouns, separate from the amassing crowd, and offer himself to them as an apprentice.

Oh come on, where did you think clowns came from? The “obit voice” of this adds to the mounting humor; I couldn’t stop smiling.

Henry Richard Niles: A Meritorious Life

Niles’s first words were oeghene lachen. And from there, he let loose with a string of vowel sounds, grunts, and guttural whines released at an imperceptible and near constant speed: “The sound of it hurt our ears,” his father said. It would be another three years before his parents would learn that his first words, when translated into English, were eyes laughing. Some believe this to have been Niles’s first poem.

Don’t worry if you’re not familiar with Ostrogothic; no one is. You’ll get the jist of it anyway. Language – poetry – is a very strange thing, and sometimes the need for expression is so powerful, it leaps over what is possible.

Juan Manuel Gonzales: A Meritorious Life

A cute little O. Henry story. I keep wondering if there’s any significance to the character’s name.

Harold Withy Keith: A Meritorious Life

According to hospital records, Harold and Martin Keith were born simultaneously, and, never quite the younger or the elder twin, H. W. Keith was referred to by family members as the Left Twin.

Seems a man tries to turn himself into a plant, but maybe not. I didn’t quite get this one, which tells me I’ve still got my judgment in spite of my growing enthusiasm for this collection.

Supernatural Creature Stories: The Werewolf, the Unicorn, the Zombies

I’m a little concerned these stories might lose the literary-fiction audience – though they might also lure in a whole other audience. Wouldn’t that be… zombie-like.

While I’ve always loved high-end spec fic, I’ve also been pretty dismissive of zombie and werewolf stories (and vampire stories as well, though none are included in this volume). It’s the anti-Twilight reaction. I don’t know much about the folklore of these things, something about silver bullets and Jack Nicholson in a terrible movie quite some time ago. But here, these creatures become participants in something else, something wonderful. Recalculating…

All of Me

The zombie in me would like to make a few things clear. The zombie in me would like to make it clear that there is no zombie in me, per se. Would like to make it known that there is only me, in fact, and that all of me is zombie.

What I find especially fascinating about this story is, again, how it’s told. I can’t say more without venturing into spoiler territory, but some nuances pointed me in a particular direction. Of course, sometimes I go in wrong directions, but I still wonder. No matter how you see it, this is, again, beautiful writing – beautiful for a purpose (motion, train of thought: look at the rhythm in this paragraph) – beautiful enough to make a zombie seem sympathetic, courageous, heroically flawed:

There was that one time. There was that one time with the memories, a slew of them. Relentless memories, a series of them, flashing through my head for fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes, one right after the other, nonstop, these memories, in no particular order, of no special significance, but personal, deeply personal, brief sensations, images, smells, sounds, forced out of hiding, maybe, by that darker part of me, forced out into the open to be devoured or simply to dissipate, those last remaining pieces of the me that was made before. A park bench, the quality of light in a dormitory cafeteria, the smell of lavender, the smell of cooking oil cooked too hot, a swimming pool, a bloodied knee, soft, soft lips, a blue couch, a darkroom, a bright blue sky, a man’s voice saying “sometimes I just don’t know about you, son,” a flat tire, a long, hot stretch of road, mist rising off a small pond, a kite shaped like a swan overhead, the first cool day in October, and on and on, these memories rose up from within me, traveled through me and then out. I staggered under the rush of them, and then they were gone, so quickly gone, I stumbled, grabbed for a chair, sat down hard on the floor, and that was it. I remember them still, but I remember them now as things I have seen in a movie or on the television, as disconnected sensations that don’t touch me at all.
So let’s not demean ourselves with talk of who I was and if this person still lives inside me. If my eyes are this person’s eyes and if in them you can see remnants of who this person once was.
Let’s not resort to this kind of nostalgic preening.
Let’s not reduce my story to that kind of tragedy.
Instead, let’s remark on how unsurprising this outcome really is, and then let’s move on, inexorably, deliberately on.

In his Book Club Conversation with The Rumpus, Gonzales said he wrote this a long time ago, “just on the cusp or right before the cusp of all the zombie stuff happening,” but he never placed it. Someone dropped the ball when they rejected this one; it’s great. And I say that as someone who hates zombie stories. I do wish I could get Lily Tomlin out of my head, though.

Escape from the Mall

This story has nothing to do with me. I know this, even as I am in the middle of it. This story has everything to do with Roger and Mary and Tyrone and the security guard. I don’t know the security guard’s name, but he’s got a look about him, a look that makes me think that this story is his story, too, more his story, anyway, than my own. He’s got that reformed-addict-turned-security-guard-waiting-to-make-the-ultimate-sacrifice-for-the-misery-he-caused-in-his-youth kind of look. That, or maybe it’s just that he looks bigger than the rest of us.

This final story of the collection is in itself suspenseful and psychologically astute. It also sums up the collection as a whole: how do we react when confronted with the unexpected? With danger? When we don’t have a lot of information and need to trust our instincts? I read this just after the Boston Marathon bombing, but it’ll apply to the next mass casualty situation as well, whether it’s a tornado or a gas leak or violence. Some people grow into leadership. Even when the zombies are out to get you. Dang, I love what this guy does with zombies.

“Wolf!”

What if I were to confess that I loved my mother dearly but that I am happy the rest of them are gone, eaten, disposed of? Noah, Josephine, William, Richard, Sarah, Rebecca, and Ruth? Even Father?
What then? Am I a bad son? A bad brother? A bad person, if I tell you that I liked that it was just Mother and me and no one else? Does that make me a monster, too?

Any story can be told in many ways. One of the most obvious choices a writer makes is to decide who’s telling the story; who is the Point of View character? Here, Gonzales makes an interesting choice. When a man is bitten by a wolf and turns into a werewolf, we don’t hear about what it’s like for him. We don’t even hear about what it’s like for his wife. We hear, instead, what it’s like for his son. Turns out, even a werewolf story can have a great deal of psychological complexity.

I did not build a cage for my father. Nor did I knock him unconscious, secure him, with a rope and tape, to the kitchen table in order to slice him open, figure him out.
I did not drag him by chains from town to town, calling out, “Come, see the eighth natural wonder! Come, look upon the horror that is my father, the Wolfman!”
I did not charge for admission, did not benefit by his capture in any way whatsoever.
What I mean to say is: I was not cruel. Not at first.

Dang, I love what he does with werewolves, too.

One-Horned & Wild-Eyed” (available online at IO9)

After he first told me it was a unicorn, and after I got over the initial shock of the thing, and when I was still just playing along, I asked him, “Does it have a name?” ignoring for the moment the unreality of the thing he was showing me, or, rather, the unreality of his belief in it.

We all have to ignore the unreality of something. Might as well be a unicorn.

Weirdness Not Otherwise Specified

In a recent interview with Book People Blog, Gonzales discussed his use of the bizarre in his stories:

“When it comes to the fantastic or science-fiction elements, what compels me about them is the idea that you can introduce something fantastic or horrific—like a unicorn or a zombie—to a story and then play around with expectations and actions and reactions. These set-pieces are there to act as a catalyst, to stir things up in these characters’ lives, but not generally in an expected way. The unicorn in the unicorn story isn’t typical, doesn’t bring a goodness or purity to the world it inhabits, but causes rifts and strife. I always feel that the fantastic, when introduced into real life, will complicate life, not make life better, and I think it’s fun to play with those complications, and speculate on how characters will react to them.”

But he doesn’t need zombies or unicorns. He can create weird with anything.

Pilot, Copilot, Writer” (excerpt available at Poets & Writers)

We had become a fixture of the Dallas skyline, no different or more exciting than the neon Mobile Pegasus.

People will get used to anything if they see it long enough.

As the lead story in the collection, this snared me in right away with the bizarre premise of a plane hijacked not to go somewhere, but to circle the airport for twenty years. The story kept me, however, with its depth of exploration of how such an event might affect people. I don’t think the reactions are specific to the extraordinary situation here, but rather might occur, at some level, in any context in which a group of strangers discovers they will be spending more time together than planned. Maybe it’s universal, considering we’re all pretty much stuck here together on this planet. And what of the boy born to one of the passengers on the plane, a child of the sky? Was it by chance the Pilot chose him to be his successor? How does the social structure mutate over time? What do they see as the eventual outcome? As resistant as Gonzales was, in his 2005 One Story Q&A when the story was first published, to characterize this as a fable or allegory, I find that impulse to be irresistible. I will agree, however, that the practical matters added a (forgive me) grounding touch.

The Miniature Wife

The truth of the matter is: I have managed to make my wife very, very small.
This was done unintentionally. This was an accident.

Many of the stories here feature a restrained, calm voice, but it’s in this story I think Gonzales best uses that restraint as a painter uses brush strokes to indicate movement or stasis. The calm initially felt rather dismissive towards the wife (“she doesn’t have a job to speak of” nor her own friends; miniaturized indeed. Hey, whaddya know, this is feminist fiction). But as the situation escalates, it sounds more forced, until it seems to mask hysteria, resignation, triumph. But that could just be my reaction. And again, the choice of the point-of-view character is amazing. We don’t hear anything from the, ahem, little woman, only from him. That can’t be an accident, now can it?

My wife is stronger than I am. I am ready to admit that now.
You are stronger than me.
I haven’t slept in three days.
Can you see the white flag, dear? Am I waving it high enough for you?

And we all know what happens when a woman proves herself to be stronger than a man.

The Sounds of Early Morning

My, I’m jumpy, she said.
She said this thinking she should at least be able to hear her own voice inside her head.
Anxious, she said.
Anxious, she said again.
Anxious, she said. And again. Louder. And louder. Straining her throat. Yelling, screaming.
She closed her eyes and cupped her hands over her ears as if she were in a concert hall and yelled as loud as she possibly could. Try to imagine what her voice, so loud, might sound like.
Nothing.
She opened her eyes then, and, seeing what was left now of her husband’s face, she let out a small gasp and then covered her mouth, afraid even the softest sound might ruin him beyond repair.

I’m always relieved, when I have an overwhelmingly positive reaction to a book, to find a few negatives. It shows I’m not deluded. This one went by me. Sound is a destructive force, I get that, but there’s something going on with the husband – home surgery? – and there are looters and kids… The whole idea of sound hurting makes me a little nervous in itself, since it’s along the lines of Ben Marcus’ Flame Alphabet (or maybe I’m just free-associating; Gonzales studied under Ben Marcus when he was working on his MFA at Columbia) in which children’s language becomes toxic to adults. But mostly, I just can’t follow the story.

Cash to a Killing” (available online at Esquire)

I wish I could say that killing the guy was an accident, and maybe if you were to take the long view of the situation, take into account the events of his life, those of my life, of Roger’s, the arbitrary successes and failures that befell the three of us, or, even further back, befell our parents, grandparents, great grands, back to our oldest ancestors, and determined that it was some accident of fate that he ended up who he was and I ended up who I am, and Roger ended up as Roger, you might say it was an accident, but taking the short view of things, we killed him deliberately and with specific purpose. And despite Roger’s argument, just because we killed the wrong guy doesn’t change, for me, the fact of the matter: he was the guy we intended to kill, we killed him, end of story.

If you feared Gonzales could only write in a restrained, formal voice, this story will ease your mind. But I don’t think it’s one of the strongest stories; it’s almost an extended Abbot & Costello routine.

The Animal House” (available online at Five Chapters)

You could say, too, that over time I became attached to these animals. Not to all of them, but to enough of them that on occasion I had to stop myself from giving a certain squirrel or a certain pigeon a name, and that on other occasions, unable to stop myself from naming a raccoon, say, I had to stop from speaking that name aloud, from trying to scratch it behind its ears, had to stop myself from thinking of them as pets or friends.

Like “Escape from the Mall,” this story deals with the ways in which we change under certain circumstances, like when your town is clearing out and you’re at loose ends so you end up squatting in an abandoned house with this girl who’s really into animals. Again, not one of my favorites, but the last scene is powerful.

Life on Capra II

I think about hoisting him up out of the muck and throwing him over my shoulder and pushing him back to the convoy, if only to have some good story to tell Becky once we get back to the barracks, maybe make like he wasn’t killed with the first shot, that he was barely breathing but that I wouldn’t leave my good friend Ricky behind, and that he expended his last breath to tell me to keep going, to never give up, that I would someday find true love in the sympathetic heart of a beautiful woman. But then I figure I don’t actually have to go through all the trouble of carrying Ricky’s deadweight body to be able to tell the same story, so I leave him where he is and start beating a hasty retreat.
That’s one of the first lessons any new cadet learns here on Capra II: Simplify your life.

The best part of the story is the gradual (or, if you’re sharper than me, not so gradual) realization of what’s going on (or what I think is going on), so I won’t spoil it. Becky, who never appears, but is nonetheless a cool character. I got the sense I got a whiff of Heinlein’s Venus fiction (maybe “Logic of Empire” without the slavery angle) and Stephen O’Connor’s “Ziggurat.”

Manuel Gonzales is himself an interesting character. He owned a pie company before heading off to Columbia to get his MFA. In his One Story Q&A that accompanied publication of “Pilot, Copilot, Author,” he tells a story about going through the airport on the way to a pie-baking contest and worrying they’d take away his favorite whisk. You gotta love a guy with a favorite whisk. While he’s a little puzzled at the curiosity it generates, he credits his pie baking with getting him in to Columbia’s MFA program.

And, in case I didn’t mention it, he writes great stories.

But I’m not done yet. I can pull myself up. I can pull myself to my feet and run and run harder and faster than I’ve ever run before. I can make it to those stores and burst through them and into the parking lot and find my car. I can outrun those bastards and start this all over. I will watch less television. I will spend more time outside. I will foster stray animals and donate to charity walk-a-thons and look both ways at intersections. I will call my sister and apologize for what I said to her on her wedding day. I will let love into my heart. I can survive this. I can run and my life will be different and I will not look back.

— from “Escape From the Mall”

Sunday with Zin: Un-STRIPPED!

Hello I am Zin and we all were UNSTRIPPED on February 1!

Rewind: last summer my friend Jeanne Holtzman (hi, Jeanne!) sent me a copy of STRIPPED, an anthology with a twist! The names of the authors were stripped from the stories! Editor Nicole Monaghan hoped readers would investigate whether they could tell if the writers were male or female.

I read the book and did some work to post some background about the project, and a table of my opinion, and that of two online gender analzyers! And now Nicole has posted The Big Reveal matching up stories and authors!

Here is the good news: I did better than the computers! Score one for people!

Here is the not-so-good-news: I still did very badly!

Overall I guessed correctly on 29 out of 47 stories, for a score of 62%. That is only a little better than random guessing which would have been 50%.

The computers did not even hit 50%: Stevens Institute got 20 of 47 (43%) and the Gender Genie got 23 of 47, or 49%! Ok, I guess you could say Gender Genie hit the 50/50 mark. And Stevens came close.

I will talk more about numbers but first I want to talk about the stories because I was surprised by some of them! Many I just guessed on, but some I was pretty sure, and I was pretty sure of a couple of authors as well, and I was usually wrong, wrong, wrong! I will put the three evaluations (Zin, Stevens, Gender Genie) in parens, and when I say “we” it means me and the computers in this case. for the stories that are available online, either as text or in a video of a reading, I will make the title clickable.

The “IT” section: Editor Nicole Monaghan said, ” The stories I put in “It” were ones I felt either had objects as their center or used an inanimate thing to reveal the desire(s) of the character(s) and motivation(s) of the character(s).”

“Boy-Girl” – Sara Lippmann (F) (MMM): In my notes I wrote, “Male style, female content” and I am not sure what I meant by that! I could not tell if the narrator was male or female, and it is a story about the “poly-gender parade” and “neuter people” and she fooled all three of us so I think she did an excellent job!

Found Objects” by Tara L. Masih (F) (FMF): This was one of my favorites and I felt it had a clearly female sensibility (even though I am not sure what I mean by “female sensibility”). The protagonist is male, or perhaps in a larger sense the protagonist is the house and “he” is just the most predominant person! I do not think I have read anything else by this author, though I know the name, so I will have to make sure to look for her work!

The Bear” by Len Kuntz (M) (FMF): In this story the female protagonist, in a uniquely female situation, must make a terrible choice, and it read very authentically to me! Len did a great job!

“Moratorium” by Sean Lovelace (M) (MMM): I loved this story! It reminds me of some of the flash Courtney Bledsoe wrote a few years ago. We all agreed the writer was male, but here is the twist: until I saw the list Nicole put up, I had thought Sean Lovelace was female! I think I may be mixing him up with another Sean! The narrator/protagonist could be either male or female, but I got a very clear sense it was a man swearing off women.

Afterglow” by Michelle Reale (F) (MFM): I am not sure why I thought this was male, as I reread it I clearly get female, but that is hindsight for you! It is easy to know the answers once you know the answers!

Marooned in a Borrowed Mansion” by Kierstin Bridger (F) (FMM): I was the only one who got this right! I am glad because I liked this story a lot! As I read it the first time I thought the narrator was female but then at the end it becomes clear he is male but that might have affected my vote. A house again is at the center of the piece. Houses are interesting characters! I need to consider that more!

“Cisco” by Darlin’ Neal (F) (FMF): I liked the very clear focus of this story. The narrator could be either but I thought he was male, still I thought it had that undefinable female sensibility to it.

Sculpted” by Rae Bryant (F) (FMF): I thought the erotic elements read feminine, and I am happy to see I was right! I think the narrator is female but not necessarily.

“A Conservator In The National Museum of American History Rigged Into a Suspended Harness Floats Inches Above the Star-Spangled Banner” by Michael Martone (M) (MMM): The story is only five words longer than the title! I love that! I was sure either Randall Brown or Robert Swartwood wrote this, but I was wrong. I need to find out more about Michael Martone! There is no reason the narrator could not be female, but it read strongly male to me.

“HER” – stories where a female character is at the heart of the piece.

“Momma” by Casey Hannan (M) (MMF): I am not sure why I read this as male, maybe it was all the blood and the knife and Dracula. It is a very female story though. And a good one!

“Behind the Eight-Ball” by Robert Vaughan (M) (FFM): I went back and forth on this so I am not surprised I got it wrong! It started very male, but the issues were so female I changed my mind.

” The Distance Between the Bridge and the Water” by Will Henderson (M) (FFF): He fooled us all! The female protagonist comes through very strongly! Excellent job!

“Santa Caterina” by Christopher Allen (M) (FFF): Again we were all fooled! I am surprised! This protagonist was really well-written as a very specific woman. Great job!

” Jericho Beach” by Gay Degani (F) (MMF): I know Gay a little from Zoetrope and from Smokelong so I am happy that she fooled me!

“Chips from the Broken Sky” by Ethel Rohan (F) (FFF): It is a beautiful story and something about the banana felt like such a thing a woman would think of!

“Rosalia” by Gill Hoffs (F) (FFM): I went back and forth on the gender of the writer but I was entranced by this story! It seems to hang perilously close to a “trick” ending that we all get scolded for, but I think it is not, the issue goes deeper than the one detail, it is a matter of what one believes rather than fact. I do not want to spoil the story by being more specific but it is very impressive! I even looked up Gill to make sure the “F” was not a little mistake and sure enough Gillian is female! So even after I knew I wanted to check!

“Seven Happy Endings” by Ashley Inguanta (F) (MFF): Here is where the computers had an advantage over me, just looking at language without actually reading! I thought the sexual elements and the humor read more male than female, but I was wrong!

“Gorgo, Queen of Sparta” by Aubrey Hirsch (F) (FFF): Historical flash, maybe a new thing!

“Eruptions” by Heather Fowler (F) (MFF): Oops! My bad!

“Go Deejay” by Roxane Gay (F) (FMF): At the time I read this I had not read any fiction by Roxane, only her essays. I am glad I got it right! “I decided to become the girl I normally hate” was my clue.

The Turn” by Marc Schuster (M) (MNF): I was surprised this was not in the “Them” category since the reaction of the man felt so strong to me, even though the main character is the woman. It is a very interesting story!

“Porch Light” by Sherrie Flick (F) (FFF): Again we all agreed and we were all right!

“Love Letter” by Kerri D. Schuster (F) (FFF): And again!

HIM: the focus is on a male character

“Limp” by Sheldon Lee Compton (M) (MMM): I liked this, and I felt sorry for the narrator!

“Almost Ivory” by Randall Brown (M) (FNF): I would never have guessed this was a Randall story! Even though the main character is male, I think the female character is so strong and well-written it became to me a “female” story. Or maybe I just paid more attention to the female character!

“Life Without Operas” by Peter Schwartz (M) (MMF): I think I read this as male because I did not really follow it but liked the structure! This is my habit of thinking of experimental writing as more male, and I need to stop that!

Grover Cleveland Has It Out With America On the Eve Of His Second Inauguration” by Amber Sparks (F) (MMM): Amber fooled us all! I have enjoyed several of her flashes and I need to get my hands on May We Shed These Human Bodies! This is such a wonderful story and she did a terrific job of writing not only a male but a historical, powerful male and still incorporating a lyric by Don McLean which not everyone will realize! When I read this I immediately thought of Jeff Rose because he sometimes writes about historical characters in a way that is totally authentic but very human but he was not on the list of authors so I knew it was not him but I could see him writing this!

Jerry’s Life as sung to ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’” by Kenneth Pobo (M) (MMF): What an interesting idea! I have such a visceral negative reaction to the song (which was very popular in my youth and was decried by the people I was hanging out with at the time as being the epitome of raunchiness, which shows you why I stopped hanging out with them) I had trouble reading the story!

Dog Beach” Jess Charest (F) (FMM): I got a little mixed up in here so I am surprised I got it right!

“Give Me License” by Nicole Monaghan (F) (FNF): Nicole is the editor of the collection so I am glad I guessed her story right!

“What Is Best In Life?” by Erin Fitzgerald (F) (FNF): I thought this would turn out to be written by Ellen Parker since it just seemed like something she would do so I got it right for the wrong reason!

“Hard” by Jeanne Holtzman (F) (FMF): Jeanne is the writer who gave me the book in the first place so I am glad I guessed her story!

“And the One Guy Turns to the Other and Says, ‘I’ll Trade You Mine for Yours'” by Tara Laskowski (F) (MMM): I know Tara from the Flash Factory on Zoetrope and from Smokelong so I am very happy she fooled us all! This is a very male story! Great job!

Sniffing Out The Boundaries” by Eric Bosse (M) (FMF): I was very surprised to find this was written by a male but when I look at it I am not sure why, I suppose because it involves children! I really need to keep an eye on my assumptions!

“One More Thing I Didn’t Do” by Ellen Parker (F) (MFM): I love Ellen Parker so I am glad she fooled me writing a male voice! Good job Ellen!

Beasts and Men” by Curtis Smith (M) (FMM): Here I was too smart for my own good and that is not something I am often! I thought this was a counterreaction and a woman wrote the most masculine elements she could think of into a story to fool us! So I was fooled instead!

The Taster’s Last Meal” by Devan Goldstein (M) (FFF): This was a wonderful flash that fooled us all with the subtle emotional element and themes of love and loyalty and betrayal!

THEM – Nicole placed stories in this section if they “gave a hard look into both male and female perspectives or struck me as portraying their characters as connecting as humans, with gender being less of a focus.”

“Breaking Tradition” by Nathan Alling Long (M) (FFF): Again I think I was fooled by a child character! I love the play on the word “break” it is a very interesting word linguistically speaking and Nathan has made great use of it!

“The Ballad of This and That” by Robert Swartwood (M) (MNM): When I posted about this story last summer, I said this was “a very Zin story” and it is, it is the Zinnest story in the book, so I am very happy to find it was written by the “inventor” of “hint fiction!” And surprised! But mostly happy!

“Locked” by Myfanwy Collins (F) (FMM): I enjoyed this story about religion and I am surprised that the computers read it as male because to me it was very female.

Waffles and Honey” by J. Bradley (M) (MMF): I thought this was written by Randall Brown! I was wrong! It has that enigmatic echo where the words just feel right.

“Circling the Flame” by Meg Tuite (F) (FNM): I think this would depend on which character you identify with and I went back and forth on it several times! I got it right by luck!

“The Breaking Heart of God” by Rusty Barnes (M) (FFF): Again I read a powerfully emotional story as female! Good for you Rusty!

“Lies” by Pamela Painter (F) (FMF): Now that I reread this, I am surprised I thought it was female since it has mechanics I would think of as male. Well, I should not complain since I got it right but I am not sure why!

“Emergency” by Mark Nieson (M) (MMM): I loved this story! It is written in the form of a medical chart but the end really works! It is a story that lets the reader write the story!

Let’s Get Together Again Soon” by Scott Garson (M) (MFF): Scott is a hero of the online flash community for the annual Wigleaf Top 50 List (and Wigleaf just got their first Pushcart Prize, congratulations!) so I was very happy that I enjoyed his story so much.

Akimbo” by Kathy Fish (F) (FMF): An earthquake through a different point of view! This has some wonderful images and is very sad!

Here is a chart with all the data from last time, with the names of the authors added in. Correct guesses are in red! I am not sure what to make of all this data (if anyone understands statistical analysis I would love a consult)! I do not see any particular patters, other than the computers did particularly poorly on stories in the “Them” section. I looked at stories we all agreed on: sometimes we were all right, sometimes all wrong!

This was a fantastic project! More than anything else it has reminded me that we all have underlying attitudes and we need to understand them and recognize them so we know when they are misleading us! And that good writers can write characters who are different from them because that is what writers do! But we knew that already, yes? If you want to know more about how they do it, four participants, still anonymous, discussed the project and how they write in the opposite gender at Necessary Fiction.

IT
Title Author (M/F) Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
Boy-Girl Sara Lippmann (F) M M M 571 701 61 55 616
Found Objects Tara L. Masih (F) F M F 390 314 63 55 356
The Bear Len Kuntz (M) F M F 447 410 57 52 259
Moratorium Sean Lovelace (M) M M M 146 492 72 77 256
Afterglow Michelle Reale (F) M F M 528 721 53 58 435
Marooned in a Borrowed Mansion Kierstin Bridger (F) F M M 593 760 54 56 574
Cisco Darlin’ Neal (F) F M F 243 182 62 57 244
Sculpted Rae Bryant (F) F M F 445 214 60 68 232
A Conservator… Michael Martone (M) M M M 0 30 59 100 27
HER
Title Author (M/F) Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
Momma Casey Hannan (M) M M F 690 593 62 54 442
Behind the Eight-Ball Robert Vaughan (M) F F M 475 520 68 52 429
The Distance Betw the Bridge & The River Will Henderson (M) F F F 972 769 66 56 500
Santa Caterina Christopher Allen (M) F F F 911 707 68 56 612
Jericho Beach Gay Degani (F) M M F 1016 898 65 53 598
Chips From the Broken Sky Ethel Rohan (F) F F F 975 574 67 63 607
Rosalia Gill Hoffs (F) F F M 632 701 69 53 601
Seven Happy Endings Ashley Inguanta (F) M F F 888 511 55 63 620
Gorgo, Queen of Sparta Aubrey Hirsch (F) F F F 1030 865 71 54 610
Eruptions Heather Fowler (F) M F F 760 538 91 59 580
Go Deejay Roxane Gay (F) F M F 812 642 78 56 608
The Turn Marc Schuster (M) M N F 810 392 96 67 294
Porch Light Sherrie Flick (F) F F F 500 204 52 71 277
Love Letter Kerri D. Schuster (F) F F F 801 612 73 57 454
HIM
Title Author (M/F) Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
Limp Sheldon Lee Compton (M) M M M 130 197 60 100
Almost Ivory Randall Brown (M) F N F 545 438 96 55 497
Life Without Operas Peter Schwartz (M) M M F 248 191 58 56 218
Grover Cleveland… Amber Sparks (F) M M M 380 447 64 54 371
Jerry’s Life… Kenneth Pobo (M) M M F 1032 741 60 58 601
Dog Beach Jess Charest (F) F M M 459 760 92 62 510
Give Me License Nicole Monaghan (F) F N F 867 632 96 58 577
What Is Best In Life? Erin Fitzgerald (F) F N F 764 661 97 54 579
Hard Jeane Holtzman (F) F M F 1504 567 67 73 623
And The One Guy Turns… Tara Laskowski (F) M M M 485 742 59 60 685
Sniffing Out the Boundaries Eric Bosse (M) F M F 215 83 60 72 124
One More Thing I Didn’t Do Ellen Parker (F) M F M 562 685 54 55 618
Beasts and Men Curtis Smith (M) F M M 548 687 82 56 591
The Taster’s Last Meal Devan Goldstein (M) F F F 721 668 57 52 618
THEM
Title Author (M/F) Zin Stvns GG GG-f GG-m Stv% GG% #wds
Breaking Tradition Nathan Alling Long (M) F F F 1019 604 61 63 615
The Ballad of This and That Robert Swartwood (M) M N M 407 564 96 58 439
Locked Myfanwy Collins (F) F M M 282 610 63 68 391
Waffles and Honey J. Bradley (M) M M F 339 131 66 72 92
Circling the Flame Meg Tuite (F) F N M 549 577 100 51 403
The Breaking Heart of God Rusty Barnes (M) F F F 606 472 58 56 514
Lies Pamela Painter (F) F M F 623 345 59 64 231
Emergency Mark Nieson (M) M M M 9 23 52 72 99
Let’s Get Together Again Soon Scott Garson (M) M F F 502 222 54 69 201
Akimbo Kathy Fish (F) F M F 228 152 59 60 230

Laura Maylene Walter: Living Arrangements (BkMk Press, 2011)

I have always considered the story “Living Arrangements” to be the heart of this collection. It introduces the theme of searching for a place in the world and feeling that something vital has been left in the past. Just as the narrator in the title story returns to visit her former homes, the other characters in the collection are determining where they belong and, often, reconciling the past as they move forward.

More people should be reading this book.

I found it through a series of coincidences: Walter’s website showed up on my blog as a referral, after she used one of the pictures from Zin’s Second Person Study in a blog post listing “Google Image Search Results for “Second Person”. I checked out her blog, and discovered she’d recently published a short story collection that sounded interesting; being already intrigued by someone who would bother to do a Google image search – an image search, you see – for “Second Person,” I impulsively requested it through Mainecat, my state’s interlibrary loan service. I’m glad I did.

I confess, I’m prone to overreading, but many of the stories here seem to invite it. It can’t just be a story about music lessons, or a dead sister; surely the little quirks that stood out to me must indicate something more. Whichever way they’re read, there are some beautiful stories here.

Not that they’re perfect. The stories tend to be short, and, with the exception of the last story, they’re perhaps not as fleshed out as those of a more experienced writer. Some snuggle right up to the line of cliché and sentimentality; a few step over it, but twist to step back. Most have familiar characters – the mother who pushes her child to succeed in the realm she once dominated, the brother who can’t let go of his dead sister, the scary Halloween fun that turns into real horror. But: they also have these little quirks that keep them from being the stories you’ve read a hundred times, they’re lovely to read, and resonate nicely. My tear count, and giggle count (always reliable indicators) were high.

The stories:

Living Arrangements” (American Literary Review, Spring 2011)

The first house is in upstate New York, a brick ranch with a sickly linden tree and a chain-link run for the Old English sheepdog. Your parents shave the dog in hot weather and then complain when his hair grows in coarse and wiry. He weighs more than your mother. She lets him pull her around the neighborhood on his red leash while she waves and laughs to the neighbors. Her hair is blond. She is the most beautiful during this time, but you wouldn’t know it. You are a newborn, a wrinkled girl confined to your crib, the high chair, the stroller.

Neither of your parents realize that this is the summer to remember. This is a time your family is happy, your mother vibrant and young.

A woman’s life is traced through the houses she’s lived in, from birth to death. We all have a longing for home; sometimes the tricky part is figuring out where “home” is. We learn the barest details of her life – parents, husband, dogs – but by the end, we know her.

Now you are in a room on the sixth floor, with a roommate named Monica and a window overlooking the parking lot. You had an apartment, once, overlooking a parking lot. And then there were cobblestones, and a bed frame, and a factory that produced time. So much time, rolling down the conveyor, the workers standing back to watch its measured march.

In her Fiction Writer’s Review interview Walter says she considered moving it from the lead spot; I’m glad she didn’t. The story sets the theme for the collection perfectly: the pull of home, a place, a time, a something that seems safer, better.

Live Model” (Crab Creek Review, Fall 2010)

There will always be people who think these horrible things about me, whether they show it through insults or keep quiet and kind.

Walter discusses the inspiration for this story on her website: on a bus trip, she saw an artist sketching a girl, unaware of his interest, and was struck by the sense of loving care she saw. She transferred this to an unlikely scenario: an ugly girl becomes a live model in the window of a lingerie shop. It’s completely engaging, funny until it turns heartbreaking, which is just as it should be. A lovely story about beauty, perception, admiration. The last scene on the bus takes it up another level, and ties it in to the theme of home; it’s a seriously good story, my favorite in the collection.

The Clarinet

When I asked my mother if she would still teach me the clarinet if I had been born a boy, she told me of course not, these lessons are for girls. She said one day I would have a daughter and teach her, too. That was when I learned how to put an instrument together, how to connect it piece by piece, and also how to resist: I decided on the spot that I would grow up and have only boys, who could play trumpet or snare drum or maybe even nothing at all.

Oh, the lessons we learn from our mothers, without them even consciously teaching us. And the burdens we pass on to our children as gifts. It’s something of a familiar story: a mother who wants to pass on something to her daughter, maybe to relive her triumphs; one daughter who’s having none of it, and one who’s all in. What keeps this out of cliché territory is the focus on the conflict between the two daughters, and the line neither of them can cross. As an aside, I just wonder: are my double entendres hopelessly outdated, or is the clarinet more than just a musical instrument? I see a lot of preparation for life – for sex and marriage, especially, coming from a divorced mother of two – going into the clarinet lessons, which adds a level of nuance to the story.

The Ballad Solemn of Lady Malena” (South Dakota Review, Summer 2010)

And then she smiled at him, in her glitzy, flirty, showgirl way,and held out one long, trembling orange rose from her pile of congratulatory presents. He accepted it, and she pushed back from the boards and skated away. The purple skirt appeared paler now from this distance, dropping lightly against her skin as if even the fabric couldn’t believe what it had a hold of, what luminous body it captured in its clinging grasp.

It’s really great when you suddenly “get” a story. Unfortunately, like many great pleasures, that moment must be preceded by deprivation. I didn’t like this story at all on first read. Sure, the skating parts read perfectly (I’ve never skated, but I’ve been an avid viewer of any televised event since Peggy Fleming wore that awful chartreuse dress her mother made for her). I was a little interested that the would-be rapist takes such offense at the girl’s request for a smoke, in the interests of her health and athletic career; that he’s invested in her success. I understood her need to stop being such a good little girl and do something over the line for a change. But I wasn’t buying it. I thought it was perhaps a matter of timing, that I wasn’t in the mood for threat. But no, it was more that the story was too precise, too measured.

Then I “got” it. At least, I think I did.

I was in my dentist’s waiting room, about to begin the next story, when it struck me: the title. The title is the story. The choreographed quality I’d found so stilted was exactly that: choreography of a rape by a predator, a routine just as carefully planned as the skating moves the girl performs. The title doesn’t refer to the skater’s routine, but to the predator’s, complete with rehearsal and warm-up. I’m not sure if it’s significant that a film featured a prostitute named Malena (and was nominated for Best Original Score), or if that’s coincidental.

I’m still not crazy about the story – I felt the psychological quirks of both characters were straight out of Law & Order – but at least I understand it. I think.

To Elizabeth Bishop, With Love” (available online at Inkwell Journal, Spring 2011)

Here’s the truth: I write to you because you’re a secret.
I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the average person today has no idea who you are. And not only my eighth grade students, who don’t seem to know much of anything, or the man who drives the morning bus or that woman in Armani always on her cell phone in the downtown café. When I say no one knows who you are, I mean no one knows anything about poets, period.
Not that I’m any better. I won’t admit this to just anyone, Elizabeth, but I’ve been known to watch reality TV.
I just realized you don’t even know what that is.

Sometimes you come up hard against how you’ve failed yourself. In this story, it only takes a glimpse of a National Geographic in a doctor’s waiting room. As I happened to be in a dentist’s waiting room at the time – albeit for something a lot more routine than the narrator’s mission – this one struck me right in the heart. Do you know that if you cry when the dental hygienist has you tilted back in the chair to get a better look at your gums, you get tears in your ears? Then she asks you if she’s hurting you, and of course she isn’t but you don’t want to have to explain, “See, there’s this story I was just reading about a woman who wrote a letter to a dead poet…”

I had dreams like anyone else. I was going to be a musician, Elizabeth. I was going to be a sculptor, I was going to be a poet. I was going to be someone more than a woman who leaves work tired at the end of the day, who watches two hours of television before grading some papers and visiting a few online gardening forums before going to bed.
My story is not a new one. I know this. What’s so surprising is to sit down and write you a letter only to realize how unlike my own self I have become.

I wanted to tell the narrator not to worry; she’s reached across a huge divide (she isn’t even real, after all, she’s just a figment of a writer’s imagination… isn’t she?) and tell her: you’re more like yourself than you realize.

The Second Rule of Yoga” (available online at The Northville Review, 5/11/10)

These rules of yoga amount to a promise. If you do all this, but especially the second rule, you will obtain what few people ever do. It might be enlightenment or inner peace; whatever it is, you are far from it. It’s possible you experienced it briefly in the past, but then you stopped to think about it, and disappeared.

A nice little meditation; in the structure of the collection, it’s a welcome break after so much intensity in the preceding stories. Can someone driven to perfection turn it off and just breathe? Or does that turn into its own drive for perfection?

Festival of the Dove

That was the beginning. When Abi grew older and became the star of every swim meet, Jeremy took credit. When she won college scholarships for her diving, he went around telling everyone he was the one to teach her.
And when, as a college freshman, Abi went with her friends to a quarry and dove straight in and never came up again, Jeremy was responsible for that, too.

In an interview with Averil Dean, Walter said she was amused that this story was critiqued in workshop as “a New Yorker story” because it didn’t have an ending. I see a clear ending; I see a several things, which heightens my concern that I’m overreading.

Jeremy’s dealing with the death of his sister Abi, an up-and-coming diver good enough to win a college scholarship, in a grief group at his college. In the paragraph quoted above, I think it’s interesting that the tense changes from future (“you’ll rise up,” “it will be”) to present (“your body arcs like a song,” “they can’t see”) to past (“an entire quarry wasn’t big enough”). It’s a little story right there, in a few sentences; that’s cool writing, how the most significant event of his life plays like a train coming, running him down, and moving on.

Jeremy taught Abi to dive, but he never warned her about quarries. He never said, “A day will come. You’ll be nineteen. You and your friends will drive out to a quarry, maybe have a beer or two, and then you’ll rise up in that perfect form and position yourself to fly. It will be your last dive, and to your friends sitting at a distance your body arcs like a song without even parting it. They can’t see what you never considered: the rocks on the bottom, the shallowness. How an entire quarry wasn’t big enough to hold you.”

I’m intrigued by the title. The Festival of the Dove is an event at Jeremy’s college, coinciding with the end of the story. The Dove is, of course, a sign of peace. It’s also the (lesser-used) past tense of “dive.” From the millions of festival names Walters could have picked, settling on this one couldn’t be a coincidence.

Three characters, and the moves they make towards and away from each other, play important roles in the story: Jeremy, of course; Gretchen, another Grief Group member, recovering from the loss of her father, who was dead in the attic for two days before she and her mom noticed; and Susannah, the inexperienced leader of the group. Jeremy makes some mild overtures to Gretchen; she’s cool with that, until he tells her she looks just like his sister Abi. Is this deliberate distancing on his part? Because it gave me the creeps. In fact I started doubting myself, seeing sibling incest in something that was probably a close relationship that’s entirely within normal limits, or at least the desire for incest in his interest in Gretchen. Have I become so twisted by “pushing the limits” literature that I see the ick factor in everything? Or is that the idea?

The Last Halloween

I didn’t know it yet, but that would be the last year I believed in Halloween. It was the year my best friend and I would walk deeper into the dark woods toward the pale glow of fire. But at the time, after our pumpkin was carved and the ghosts hung outside, I was only thinking of my costume.

Once you start with a ten-year-old dressing up as Sylvia Plath for Halloween, anything is possible.

It’s possible you’ll laugh at the first half, at her repeated attempts to explain to candy-givers who she is. And even while you’re laughing at a great line like “This was the year I finally graduated from carrying one of those plastic pumpkins because if you were serious about candy, you needed a pillowcase,” you recognize there’s an undertone there. And on second read, you realize that the plastic pumpkin becoming a pillowcase is not a casually-chosen image; it’s very precise, and perfect. This is a dark coming-of-age tale, as Genevieve and her friend Ariel (who, Ariel’s mom emphatically informs her, was not named after Plath’s poem) travel through the woods towards the fire and more than they bargained for. Terrific build, great use of imagery; the transition from humor to horror feels natural. Sure, it’s been done before, this shift from fun-scary to scary-scary; it’s pretty much the plot of a thousand teenage horror movies. But I thought it was used well here in conjunction with the growing-up symbolism. And, well, I have two Plath biographies and two editions of The Bell Jar plus Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams on my shelves, what more could I want in a story.

In the Backyard

This is the moment that dreaded feeling starts to creep up on you, no matter how much you try to push it away. It is your biggest fear, the one you keep secret and far: Maybe he really isn’t a monster. Maybe you are making a mistake. Maybe he will die, and you will spend your whole life thinking, I should have forgiven him. I should, I should. But this, too, you push away.

This is a very skillful telling of a story without actually telling the story; it’s like looking through a mirror. A few flashbacks, remembrances, really, are scattered throughout, but it’s solidly set in the present as the unnamed second-person narrator attends a family gathering at her paternal grandparents’ home. We gradually realize there’s been an estrangement for some time. The details are never spelled out, but it’s pretty clear her father sexually abused her at some point when she was younger. And somehow she’s the bad guy, the one who won’t forgive. The impression is it’s not a he said/she said situation, but more of a “let’s not deal with this unpleasantness” sort of thing.

I’m a little torn here. On the one hand, I want more information. What made her decide to go to the party at all – for that matter, how was she invited? Is it an annual event she’s always skipped in the past? Or was the invitation unexpected? She thought they’d welcome her, they missed her; is that based on anything, or is it a wish? I’m fine with the specifics of the offense being blurry – I think it’s a great choice, in fact – but I’d like to know more about the woman’s motivation. But on the other hand, it’s all about her indecision, the flipping back and forth – “He’s a monster/Maybe he’s not” – and anything that distracts from that is well omitted. When in doubt, I go with the author’s instincts.

I love the use of second person here (but of course, I would). In this story, second person creates a talking-to-myself feeling, a se eerie sense of dissociation, which is perfect for this situation. The eggplant balloon is probably just a little over the top, opening and closing the piece, but I love it; I’ve never seen an eggplant balloon, and I hope someday, I will, and I’ll think of this story.

A System Based on Counting

“Tabby,” her mother says in that measured, even tone that once infuriated Tabitha but now is a comfort, “You sound positively terrified.
“I am.” It feels good to admit it. I am, I am, I am.

Even without the Sylvia Plath Refresher Course of “The Last Halloween,” I would’ve recognized those “I am”‘s from The Bell Jar where the line occurs twice – first, without commas (“I am I am I am.”), then later, with (“I am, I am, I am.”). I once wrote a paper on those commas (I wasn’t kidding about being a chronic overreader; you don’t want to know what I did with the fig tree dream sequence). I’m pretty sure it’s significant that the commas are included here, given where they appear in the story. But maybe I’m overreading again.

Tabitha is obsessive-compulsive, may be developing an eating disorder, has a boyfriend she doesn’t want and a girlfriend who doesn’t want her – not as that kind of girlfriend, anyway.

She wonders if, after she leaves him, he’ll find out he was never the one she really wanted. Tabitha closes her eyes and thinks of someone darker, someone smoky and rich and swelling with life.

It’s a story about hitting bottom, and, keeping true to the volume’s theme of returning somewhere home-like, about rebounding. Not my favorite piece – but oh, those commas!

How to Speak Czech” (available online at Mason’s Road, Summer 2010)

Milena wrote in shaking pencil on the backs of used note-book paper everything she planned to make during her granddaughter’s visit. Lentil soup, spiced with pepper. Cabbage noodles. Dumplings stuffed with prune butter. Pairs of sweating sausages. A vat of creamed spinach, steaming green and dotted with bread torn ragged from the loaf.

The three women in this story may all drive each other crazy, but each has a backstory that makes them highly sympathetic to the reader. Milena just wants to nourish her granddaughter, pass along what she knows, to show her life, her skills and knowledge – she – still has value. Granddaughter Alema, a 33-year-old plant biologist determined not to need anything, is trying only to ease what she sees as Milena’s burden by supplying her own fast food for dinner, in a sweetly heartbreaking, almost “The Gift of the Magi” setup. Lida, Milena’s sister and an unmarried woman raised to believe her worth is measured in children, frequently steals the show with her cakes and pies, but is just trying to borrow a little bit of the daughter she should have had.

It’s a story that means well, with its heart in the right place. I try to take what the author gives and go with the choices made, but I wonder why some of those choices were made here. The POV changes between characters; I have no problem with this in itself; it’s a common enough technique in contemporary literature, but in this case, I think I’d appreciate the more subtle approach of showing everything through Milena’s eyes. I found the initial switch to Alema to be particularly grating, almost of the bad chick-lit quality in an attempt to describe her and her job, most of which is included later in smoother fashion. Her visit to her friend in Chicago didn’t add much to the story; their conversation doesn’t include anything new, and I’m really not sure why the scene is there: to provide a road map, a concrete sign of the distance between her life and Milena’s? I didn’t need the section inside Lida’s head, either; it seemed like Walter was worried the reader wouldn’t get how devastating her childlessness has been, or how she views Alema as the daughter she should have had. If so, she’s a better writer than she realizes. Though Milena’s view of her as “stealing” Alema is harsh, I had no trouble imagining a more desperate motivation at the root of her actions.

Max, Milena’s son and Alema’s divorced father, is an empty character with no real function in the story but to stock Milena’s fridge with what he knows Alema will really want, the Tastycakes and Lean Cuisine and soda. It’s kind of interesting how Max hasn’t absorbed the culture Milena so wants to pass on to her granddaughter; then again, he’s a man, so his lessons would be different. It’s quite possible he embodies the “through Milena’s eyes” approach, as she doesn’t seem concerned with including him in her cultural education process. Or maybe she feels she did her best when he was a child who lived with her, and he’s a lost cause. It’s a difficult thing, to see yourself becoming obsolete in the course of two generation. That’s why this story is so very much worth reading, in spite of what I see as its flaws.

The emotional punch at the climax seems overblown and doesn’t really proceed out of any need on Alema’s part; it’s almost as if it’s forced on her, much like the food. I’m not sure the placement of the story in the collection helps it, either: after a story about an eating disorder, do you really want to put one that screams, “Food is love”?

But on the last two pages, I forgave all the above when Alema chooses which will be her first words of Czech. I love the overall theme of battling generations. We all have them with our parents, who want to pass along what they treasure. In this, it’s similar to “Clarinet Lessons” but while that story had a whiff of cliché, this one nearly reeks of it. And I have to wonder it it’s me: why am I having such a strong negative reaction to the first 7/8 of the story? Maybe I need to make some Kroppkakor or Vetebröd, (I still have my Aunt Elsie’s hand-written recipe), and to remember my few long-ago words of Swedish – “Tack så mycket,” ” Svenska flicka.” Any story that evokes that – the writer’s decisions can’t have been that bad.

The Wig Shop

Right away Margot sees that they are arranged for two different types of customers: the sensible wigs in muted blonds and browns, and then the section of hot pinks and purples with spikes of glitter combed through. Those are the fun wigs. Those are the wigs for people who are not dying.

A very talented writer and litmag editor I know hates cancer stories. And for good reason: it must be hard to read the thousands of submissions containing malignancies. When you see a story titled “The Wig Shop” you know it’s about cancer. This one starts out pretty much the same, but it alludes to one truth of this mother and daughter: every daughter of a mother with cancer wonders if it’ll happen to her, someday. And then there’s the secret Daughter is hiding from Mom, the secret at the heart of the piece, the secret that changes the read.

Return to Stillbrook Farm

A stable was a place full of risk and heartbreak and the potential for disaster. If she had learned nothing else growing up, she had learned this.

This story felt far more “mature,” if I understand the use of that word, than most of the others. There’s a fullness to the story itself, the details included, the multiple situations encountered, that makes it read far more like something from One Story. Following the death of her mother in a riding accident, Caroline returns to the horse farm after an eleven-year absence. Her father, long divorced from mom, and Mom’s long-time partner Denise round out the cast in this play about what you can and can’t leave behind when you leave home. If I may veer into music for a moment: many of the other stories read like melodies, with a single thread, the purpose of which is to bring us to a single point. This one feels more like a small ensemble, with harmonies running throughout. With a story more directly about returning home, it serves as a nice close to the collection.

One of the nice touches is the inclusion of an author interview and discussion questions at the end of the book. I’m fine with coming up with my own discussion questions – most of which no author thinks of – but I always welcome more insight into the intent of the author.

Richard Russo: Interventions

It took five months (!), but finally, the library copy of Interventions finally ran through the however many people requested it before I did, and got to me.

Last July Richard Russo gave a talk about the project at the Portland Public Library. It’s not so much a book as an homage to the Form of The Book. I’m afraid I’m a bit of a Philistine when it comes to books as objects. I’m perfectly able to appreciate a beautiful book: teeny-tiny books appeal to me greatly, I felt enormous relief when BASS went from irritating chartreuse in 2011 to beautiful navy blue in 2012, and I practically had a sexual relationship with the matte cover of Cliff Garstang’s What the Zhang Boys Know. But I don’t care much about First Editions, I don’t worry about “mint condition” (I underline, I dog-ear, I crack spines like a sadist), and I prefer paperbacks simply because they’re cheaper and easier to carry.

So while I greatly respect Russo’s intent and his efforts to have it locally and ecologically produced, and it is in fact made up of four almost teeny-tiny books plus post-card-sized art all included in a slipcase, I wasn’t going to spend $40 on a collection of four pieces, one of which I’d read already, and one of which was available online. But I’m glad I’ve now had the chance to hold it in my hand, and to read the material I hadn’t seen previously.

“Intervention”

The stuff of other people’s lives is problematic mostly for them. The disinterested eye sees where things go and in what order. Not where they belong, just where they fit….
By the same token, though, could a man judge his own merits, reward his own efforts, and call it justice?

Note the story title is singular, while the book title is plural. I was especially interested in this story after hearing his discussion of it at the library, and it didn’t disappoint. Ray’s a real estate agent, trying to sell Nicki’s house. She’s desperate to sell, since she’s lost her job, and is only weeks away from foreclosure. But she’s packed everything up in boxes and left them sitting in piles throughout the house, making it nearly impossible to show effectively. Every suggestion Ray makes is batted down as unacceptable for various reasons.

But though I got the impression at the talk that this was the main story, it’s really a story about Ray. He’s got a tumor, and he needs to do something about it, quickly, but he’s resisting every attempt to help, every suggestion. It’s his version of boxes. And it’s not fear of dying that’s stopping him:

He’d have to give the bastards his pants…. He was about to become yet another bare-assed, middle-aged man, the kind who didn’t get to make decisions.

I’ve often said that I could fix everyone’s problems, if they’d just do what I’d say; my own, not so much. This story was very effective at zeroing in on that. Maybe a little too effective – too on-the-nose – but there’s another subplot involving Ray’s parents that broadens the scope a bit to include issues of perception and freedom. A highly readable, engaging, enjoyable story.

“Horseman”

“I thought,” she said carefully, rubbing her moist palms against the cushion of her chair, “that was the whole idea of literary criticism. Isn’t the ‘I’ supposed to disappear? Isn’t the argument itself what matters?”
“That’s what we teach,” he conceded. He’d taken his glasses off and was cleaning them with a handkerchief—unnecessarily, it occurred to her, an affectation. “It’s what I was taught, and I used to believe it. Now I’m not so sure. The first-person pronoun can be dispensed with, it’s true. But not the writer behind the pronoun.”


I sometimes get nervous that my posts contain too much of my personal reactions to stories and books; maybe I should focus on point of view and character and not get so much into why something reminded me of what happened in fourth grade or how I sympathize with a character who has familiar shortcomings. I’m enormously grateful to this story (available online as well as in BASS 2007) for giving me permission to personalize – for showing me how powerful a personal interpretation of literature can be:

… they’d argued, the way only happy, drunken graduate students can, about which was the greatest lyric poem ever written. You could nominate a poem only if you were able to recite it, start to finish, from memory. Then you had to make the case for its greatness. Robbie had surprised her by reciting Kubla Khan in its entirety, to wild applause. When it was Bellamy’s turn, he’d recited “Windy Nights,” a children’s poem everyone but Janet remembered. He emphasized its childish iambic downbeat by slapping the table so hard the water glasses jumped, and by the time he finished the entire group was weak with laughter. “Okay, okay, okay. Now the explanation,” someone insisted. “Tell us why that’s the greatest poem ever in the English language.”
“Because,” Bellamy said, suddenly serious, his eyes full, “when I speak those words aloud, my father is alive again.”

Janet’s an English professor dealing with a student who’s handed in an old exam as his. But that’s just the vehicle for the real story, which is about Janet’s tendency to back away from things and handle them by the book. It’s why her marriage is a bit tense, now that her husband is primary caretaker for their autistic son. The son who rejects her.

“High and Dry”

But if she thought I wasn’t paying attention on Martha’s Vineyard, she was wrong.… When we saw people in the dining room we’d met the day before, everybody stood up and we all shook hands. “Did you notice how clean his fingernails were?” my mother whispered when whoever it was had left, and I knew I was supposed to compare them to the fingernails of men who worked in the skin mills.
What I’d noticed, actually, was that none of the men on the island were missing fingers.

This essay about Gloversville in upstate NY, Russo’s home town, appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Granta (an excerpt of one section, “The Foothills,” is available online). A town famous for glove-making, it also housed a community of immigrant leatherworkers who flocked there from Europe at the turn of the century, then were discarded in the 60s as declining demand, paired with use of cheap foreign labor, turned the town obsolete. But Russo is a storyteller, and that’s evident in the essay. Not only for the sad irony of the glove workers’ most telltale injury – destruction or amputation of their hands and fingers – or for the description of the “vertical” nature of the mill buildings – the worst jobs, receiving and tanning leather, were on the bottom floors, and the best, cutting and sewing, were on the top floors, “high and dry” – but for the ending, as he finds himself with an apartment in what used to be the Leather District of Boston.

Because coastal Maine, where my wife and I live, is remote and I now have to travel a good deal, we recently got an apartment in downtown Boston with easy access to the airport and train station. We looked in a lot of different areas but finally settled, as I knew we would, in the Leather District, a neighborhood of mostly abandoned leather businesses. We’re on the seventh floor of an eight-story building, high and dry, which I think would make my grandfather smile.… At some point I became aware of the tears streaming down my face, aware that I wasn’t in Boston anymore, not really, but rather back in Gloversville, the only place I’ve ever called home and meant by that what people mean who never leave.

“The Whore’s Child”

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, as much as when I first read it in his collection of the same title almost two years ago. The nun’s desperation to tell her heartbreaking story, and the students’ gradual understanding of what is happening, make for a wonderful build in tension.

What struck me, after reading “High and Dry,” was the autobiographical nature of all these stories. Granted, most of the stories I’ve read from Russo feel autobiographical; when I read The Whore’s Child I made some remark about all the New England beaches and writers parading through the collection. But I was especially struck by how personal a story “Intervention” was, after reading about his childhood in Gloversville.

It was definitely worth the wait.

Clifford Garstang: What the Zhang Boys Know: A Novel in Stories (Press 53, 2012)

A really good book or story is like a really deep sleep: you don’t realize how much you’re enjoying it in the moment, because it takes over the space/time continuum. It isn’t until outside forces act to bring you out of the state of flow that you recognize: wow, that was really good.

The journey of the Zhang family took me into that state several times over the past few weeks.

I’m still a little hazy on the concept of the ” novel-in-stories ” and how it differs from the “Collection of Linked Stories.” Monica Wood was insistent that Ernie’s Ark was not a novel-in-stories, that she didn’t like that designation because a reader might feel cheated; to her it was a linked collection. And it was, of course, but it also was a novel structured to permit shifting points of view, voices, and characters – which may be the point of a novel-in-stories. I’m not too fussy about definitions, so I’ll say that, like Wood’s book, What The Zhang Boys Know presents a thematically cohesive narrative about a group with a geographic commonality that allows multidimensional views of the characters and events.

Each story focuses on a resident of Nanking Mansion, a “semi-gentrified” Washington DC condo. I love that term, semi-gentrified; it speaks of rising from the ashes, of what is to come, of progress, of the need for progress, but also of dislocation, disruption, and destruction of whoever won’t, or can’t, get out of the way. The human race itself is perhaps semi-gentrified.

Each story allows for a different style and voice. And each story allows the characters to be seen by other eyes. Here’s how Cliff describes it in an online interview with WriteNowRightNow:

Some collections of stories are just a bunch of disparate stories that have little to do with each other. Some collections, like my first book, are linked in some ways. Either the stories have overlapping and recurring characters, or they share a setting, or they have a unified theme, or some combination of the three. A novel in stories, though, carries that linkage further. In the case of What the Zhang Boys Know, all the stories are set in the same condominium building and serve in some way—to a greater or lesser extent—to move a single narrative forward. The stories are independent of one another, but they also contribute to the overall story of Zhang Feng-qi, a Chinese immigrant who is looking for a new wife for himself and mother for his sons.

While Feng-qi is the most dominant character of the total work, his young sons, Simon and Wesley, weave in and out of the lives of the other residents, holding a mirror to adult behavior as they learn about the world. The title story featuring the boys, situated in the middle of the book, is a highlight as they both recap and project forward the various plot lines and characters. And Nanking Mansion itself – especially the Gallery, a common hallway where the resident artists display some of their work – is a character with a central role to play. What do buildings do? They protect us from the elements, from chaos. Or, they contain chaos. Or trap us inside with chaos.

Chaos is an important theme throughout the collection, as is loss; these are primary elements to each story. What losses are these people dealing with, where is the chaos in their lives? Who do they turn to when they need help? How do they deal with chaos created by loss – do they thrive on it, run from it, control it, hide it, distract themselves with minutia?

I have print of Hexagram #3 from the I Ching: “Before a great vision can become reality there may be difficulty. Before a person begins a great endeavor, they may encounter chaos. As a new plant breaks the ground with great difficulty, foreshadowing the huge tree, so must we sometimes push against difficulty in bringing forth our dreams. Out of Chaos, Brilliant Stars are Born.” The residents of Nanking Mansion are dealing with chaos born of recent loss; whether they become brilliant stars, or fruitlessly burn themselves to a cinder, to me forms the tension of each story and the book as a whole. The last story shows a return to some kind of stability; not necessarily a forever state, but a “new normal.”

I was slightly acquainted with Cliff back when I was doing some fiction writing at Zoetrope Virtual Studios (and I’ve been a big fan of his blog “Perpetual Folly” since). One of these stories, in draft form, was the first Zoetrope story I reviewed that blew me away, that said, “This is a real story by a real writer.” A second one equally enchanted me. I’m so glad to see these works, which I read in draft form so many years ago – it must’ve been 2006, 2007? – come to fruition.

There’s something that struck me about the book, before I’d even read a word, or, for that matter, even opened it: the unique tactile texture of the cover. It’s soft, like sueded or sanded fabric, or possibly like a waxed stock. It’s mesmerizing (“right up there with the smell of Tin House,” I told Cliff, though a more apt comparison might be to bubble wrap, since I can’t stop stroking the cover in what might be perceived by onlookers as a rather kinky fetishism). Cliff gave me this explanation: “Press 53 produced a book with matte finish (that’s what you’re feeling) by mistake! The publisher thought he had ordered the normal glossy finish from the printer, but it came out matte. This was actually for our print annual at Prime Number Magazine that was released in January. He loved it, and most people do, too, so he’s continued to order that from his printer. It’s definitely not the normal feel of a book, but it is for Press 53 these days.” It also lends a watery diffusion, intriguingly coupled with an intensity of color, to the cover art by Ben Will; it’s quite special, this matte finish business, and I’m surprised it’s not more commonly used.

I noticed something else while researching for this post (and many thanks to Cliff for his generosity in answering these oddball questions): in his early drafts of the story on his blog, and in the versions published online by various literary magazines, the protagonist’s first name is spelled Fengqi. But in the book, it’s hyphenated, as Feng-qi. Why the change?

As I assembled the manuscript for publishing, I began to get worried about readers being frustrated with pronunciation. I almost changed the title of the book because I know that most people will be unsure of how to pronounce Zhang, and most will guess wrong. Not that it matters, but that moment of hesitation, I think, is unsettling. The surname is one thing and its pronunciation isn’t important. But when I looked at Fengqi from the POV of a reader unfamiliar with Chinese, I thought people wouldn’t even know where to start to pronounce his first name. (Some readers have told me that they adopt “Frank” as suggested in the first story, which I think is an excellent strategy.) The Chinese themselves follow different conventions on how names are rendered – sometimes it is with a hyphen, sometimes the two given names are put together, sometimes they are separate: Mao Ze-dong, Mao Zedong, Mao Ze Dong. I decided that the hyphenated version was least confusing to readers who might be unfamiliar with Chinese names.

I rather like the hyphenated version, myself, so I have used it here; just be aware that if you should follow the links to read some of the stories (and, oh, you should, you really should, for those that are available online), it will be rendered a little differently.

But it is the stories that are, of course, the heart of the matter:

“Nanking Mansion” (Previously Published: New South GSU Review Spring/Summer 2007; excerpt (opening six pages) available online)

How did it happen that every person Zhang Feng-qi knows in America is in the same place at the same time?

The Zhang family has lost their Maddie, Feng-qi’s wife and mother to little Simon and littler Wesley. It’s a lovely opening to the novel, introducing all the characters we will come to know in later chapters, and giving us our first taste of chaos in the Gallery of Nanking Mansion: Feng-qi has just brought his father here from China, and as they enter the building, doors pop open one by one and residents peek out to see what’s up. And if that isn’t enough, this is the moment his wife’s hostile mother chooses to show up, unannounced, to take the boys back to Connecticut with her, and his boss is here to deliver some papers, and by the way, he’s late for his first date with Jessica so she shows up… “Feng-qi is a man dealing with chaos, trying to restore order, but under his own terms.” It’s not told as frenetically as some writers might tell it; there’s an air of sadness through the story, even with the crazy situation, particularly when we find out the boys are still waiting for their mother to come back: “‘People come back, sometimes,’ Simon insisted. ‘They told us so in church.'”

“A Hole In The Wall” (Previously Published: Bellevue Literary Review, Spring 2012; available online

“Our mother is dead,” says Simon. “She had an accident.”
“But she’s coming back,” says Wesley. He says it with confidence as if repeating words he has learned, but then looks at his big brother. He tilts his head, eyes welling. “Isn’t she?”
Simon nods, but in his eyes Aloysius sees understanding, a depth of awareness that he recognizes and is sure the boy won’t articulate. Aloysius knows, too, that they don’t come back. Even when they’re not dead. They walk out, they don’t say goodbye, and they’re never heard from again. They leave a void, and the void never gets filled.

Aloysius is also dealing with the loss of his wife, but through divorce. He has no furniture in his apartment. What he does have, is a hole in the wall, thanks to his own efforts with a sledgehammer; it’s in preparation for a balcony, the contractors are coming the next day, and Aloysius was just in the mood to hit something: “This will be his view when the balcony is finished. Simple enough to manage: he’ll keep his head high, ignore what lies below.” He wasn’t expecting the pigeons, though… or his sister with news of the father who abandoned them decades ago. Or two little kids, dropped off by his Chinese neighbor because they have no school and he’s running late, who turn out to be helpful in rounding up the pigeons.

“The Face in the Window” (Previously published in Valparaiso Fiction Review #1, Winter 2011; available online

And now he runs again because he cannot paint.

In a reflection of the torment and chaos this blocked artist feels, the story jumps around to multiple points of view, keeping the painting itself at center stage as the artist rediscovers his creative power thanks to an encounter with neighbor Susanna and her enraged boyfriend.

“Last Lilacs” (Previously Published in FRiGG Fall 2010; available online

With Chips, I felt, we’d allowed ourselves too long to hope he would be returned to us, and that made the loss when we finally accepted it that much more difficult to absorb. Now I had a different outlook. Loss can be prepared for and managed; loss can motivate, stimulate.

A gay couple is dealing with the disappearance of their pug; but they’re secretly dealing with a lot more than that, in this story about holding on and letting go.

“The Game of Love”

She does remember the first time they made love, how there’d been anger beforehand over something petty, his habitual lateness maybe or her insecurity, her jealousy. He’d become forceful, taking control, moving beyond their longstanding friendship. And so the game had begun.

Susanna and Thomas have made a game of minor masochism, but maybe it isn’t masochism at all, but rage. Then she notices the painting the hall is missing, and goes in search of the artist.

“Counterpoint”

I molded him like a piece of clay, gave him shape, carved his nose to mirror mine. His eyes – black like mine. The dark skin, wild hair the color of charred earth, even the crooked smile – all from me. All of that is mine. His bearing, his height, his ranginess. His fucking arrogance.

A sculptor gets a visit from the son he never knew. Then he meets the now-pregnant Susanna.

“What the Zhang Boys Know About Life on Planet Earth”

More than ever, he wishes Mam were here, to take him home to Nanking Mansion, to cook dinner for their family, to tell him stories, to bring him pudding in bed and talk to him about all the things he doesn’t understand. But she isn’t there, and for the first time since the accident he thinks maybe she isn’t coming back.

Children see the world differently from adults, and as we see the world through Simon’s eyes, we begin to understand more about him and about the people in Nanking Mansion. The placement of this story in the center of the book makes it a natural spot to recap where we’ve already been, and to get a new perspective on some of the characters. But most dramatically, it’s an emotional turning point for Simon: he and Wesley set out bravely to look for their mother (“He wonders if heaven is on Mars and if that’s where his mother went”) and instead he begins to understand the reality of this planet, just a little bit.

“Hunger” (Previously Published in Cream City Review, Spring 2009)

Claudia’s sinking into poverty following a divorce and the loss of her job. In desperation, she asks her sister for money.

“The Nations of Witness”

It occurred to me then, and I only become more firmly convinced as the years go by, that in some ways the world is united by being witness to unspeakable evil. We seem to be powerless to prevent it from arising, and we do not succeed in stopping it (when we recognize at all) even by flinging ourselves under its wheels. But what we can do, and have done unfailingly through millennia of malevolence, is to give voice to the victims.

This is the story I was so taken with on Zoetrope; it remains a favorite of mine. In fact, the quote above, plus a minor note about one of the characters (and a lovely sculpture of 12th century Armenian calligraphy displayed in my local public library) played a part in the conceptualizing of one of Zin’s stories several years later, that’s how much of an impression this story made on me. Nathan is the Famous Author who’s sublet his condo out to Susanna while he’s travelling around the globe, collecting material for his book documenting the horrors done to Nanking and European Jewry, along with a Chinese wife and her daughter Little Plum, who eventually becomes his lover when she reaches majority, all of which makes the above quote somewhat ironic. It’s an engrossing saga of a complicated man on a complicated journey.

“Artoyen’s Razor” (Previously Published in Tampa Review #40, Fall 2010

This was the second story I read on Zoetrope, and I was immediately struck by the title. It alludes to the philosophical concept of Ockham’s Razor, often related as: the simplest explanation is always best. And Artoyen, the condo developer and manager, could use some simplicity in his life. He’s hiding a host of secrets from girlfriend Shelley: money problems, health issues, and most difficult to conceal, his living arrangements, as he’s staying in a storeroom in the cellar of the condo. He’s discovered by the Zhang boys, who get a dollar for their silence. But as he’s showing the one vacant unit to a young couple – if he can only make this sale, he’ll be ok, the trouble breathing and pains in his chest notwithstanding, he’ll be able to move somewhere nice and propose to Shelley, get her a nice ring – the suspense mounts as it all threatens to come apart.

“The Replacement Wife” (previously published in Blackbird, Fall 2011; available online

“It’s just that, maybe, I’m not totally recovered. From the surgery.” A thud, followed by laughter, reverberates from the boys’ room. A fly bounces noisily inside the lampshade. “Another month or two should do it.”

Jessica, age 30, has just lost her uterus. She focuses all the feelings about that onto worrying that Feng-qi won’t want to marry her when he finds out, and, when it turns out not to be an issue, on a neighbor. The above passage (in which she tells Feng-qi she wants to postpone their wedding) perfectly demonstrates the Prime Directive for Writers, “Show, don’t tell,” in subtle service of chaos.

“The Shrine To His Ancestors” (previously published in Prime Mincer, Winter, 2011; available online)

Feng-qi lights the stick of incense, watches the drifting string of smoke rise, and inhales the scent of sandalwood that he will forever associate with his father. The shrine had been the old man’s creation, his link to the ancient ways. Feng-qi doesn’t believe in such things. And yet, the memories abide here and they comfort him. He bows to the pictures, and rises.

In this final story, the denouement of the novel-in-stories, we come full circle as the loose ends are tied up, and we get a sense of a change in Feng-qi (conveyed exquisitely by the omission of a single word), and a settling in to a “new normal” for Nanking Mansion.

I know next to nothing about the Chinese language, my hexagram print notwithstanding (one of the three words I know, “hao” meaning “good,” appears in the book; I was so excited to see it, but I have no delusions about my ignorance). So I’m not certain, but I’m guessing from a few clues that the name “Feng-qi” means something like “breath of life” (and if I’m wrong, feel free to tell me, but I may choose to live in ignorance). I can imagine a hurricane of chaos blowing through Nanking Mansion, rattling the paintings in the Gallery, disrupting lives, as Feng-qi and the other residents try to deal with losses. Some hide from chaos, some thrive on it; some wall it out, some invite it in. And in the end, the wind moves on to a place more conducive to its force, where it might exist without destroying.

Of course, that’s an hysterically romantic interpretation, based on the flimsiest of facts (Jessica does call Feng-qi “Wind” at times, though it’s not explained). But it works for me. You’re free to find your own, and I urge you to try. It’s a book well worth reading.

Sunday with Zin: Monica Wood: Ernie’s Ark – Ballantine Books, 2002

Ernie’s building [the ark] is an act of desperation, of communion, of hope, of despair. It worked on many levels for me, which is why so many stories resulted from it. Ernie understands that the town will never be the same after what’s happened, so he’s determined to survive, whether he knows it consciously or not. It’s significant he doesn’t think twice about his ability to build the ark. My favorite line of the book is this one: “Ernie figured that Noah himself was a man of the soil and didn’t know spit about boatbuilding.”
— “A Conversation With Monica Wood,” appendix to Ernie’s Ark

Hello I am Zin! I went to a reading by Monica Wood for her memoir When We Were The Kennedys a few weeks ago (I wrote about her talk last week), and the prologue was lovely so I thought I would read some of her fiction! I am glad I did!

This collection is a set of closely linked stories set in the same mill town – it is called Abbott Falls and Wood calls it “a composite” of paper mill towns all over the country but it is clearly informed by her experience growing up in the Oxford-Rumford-Mexico area of Maine. It is used in Maine schools especially, because the kids can see how a writer treats a real setting! On her website there is a picture of an ark students in Scarborough built after they read the story!

There is a whole appendix of wonderful material at the end, including an interview with Bill Roorbach and a guide for reading groups! She did not plan to write a story collection, just the title story! She noticed a man walking a teeny-tiny dog, then she realized there were a lot of older men out walking teeny-tiny dogs, all the time, and finally realized they were widowers taking care of the dogs their wives had loved! And the story came from that single image! Then the collection came from that single story! That is quite a lot to get out of noticing one little thing!

She does not write a draft and then edit – “language itself is what leads me through the story” (I wonder if this is something like the process Ron Carlson used in his book about his Governor’s Ball story. Or maybe I just have Ron Carlson on the brain because my friend Marko Fong recently did a workshop with him). Then at the end she might have to throw away some stuff but she uses the language as a map!

She is adamant that this is NOT a novel! It is not a novel-in-stories, a form she does not really like! She would hate to have someone buy the book thinking it is a novel! And I agree, each story has a different sense to it. But they are very closely linked stories, and I am not really sure some of them work alone. The later stories get a lot of their impact from the reader knowing the characters and events from earlier stories! And some stories just go together! I think in particular “The Joy Business” and “Take Care Good Boy” require each other, and I am pretty sure for me “That One Autumn” works best when it follows “Ernie’s Ark.” And “The Temperature of Desire” might not be one of my favorites without the background of the preceding stories, but I am not sure, I can not really go back and find out! It was published in a literary magazine by itself, so someone thought it worked solo!

The Stories:

Ernie’s Ark

Ernie was an angry man. He felt his anger as something apart from him, like an urn of water balanced on his head, a precarious weight that affected his gait, the set of his shoulders, his willingness to move through a crowd. He was angry at the melon-faced CEO from New York City who had forced a strike in a paper mill all the way up in Maine – a decision made, Ernie was sure, in that fancy restaurant atop the World Trade Center where Ernie had taken his wife, Marie, for their forty-fifth wedding anniversary last winter, another season, another life. Every Thursday as he stood in line at Manpower Services to wait for his unemployment check he thought of that jelly-assed CEO – Henry John MCCoy, with his parted blond hair – yuucking it up at a table laid out in bleached linen and phony silver, figuring out all the ways he could cut a man off at the knees three weeks before retirement.

I think Ernie has good cause to be angry! On top of the strike which is holding up his pension, probably forever, his wife is dying and is in a hospital 35 miles away! He sees a newspaper story about an “installation contest” at the college, and builds an ark in his back yard! A man from the city tells him he is not zoned for an ark! It is such a charming story! Yet there is a point to it!

Everything fits: the installation competition, the wife, the city guy. The dog the city man has in his car, I am not so sure, but it fits ok, not quite as perfectly as the rest but well enough. When every thread works together like this, without anything feeling forced or jammed in there because “I need a character who will do this” or “I need to get him from here to there” a story tumbles, as I call it, under its own steam and is a pleasure to read!

This story was in the Winter 1998 issue of Glimmer Train and the 1999 Pushcart Prize anthology! And it made me cry!

At the Mercy

I am not a patient man. My daughter is reading poetry, aloud, in the seat next to me, because (she says) she has always loved poetry. Her mouth opens and closes over the words—wide, narrow, wide, narrow—which is either the way people read poetry aloud these days or a signal to me that she suspects I might be unfamiliar with words like urticant or sidereal, which I am. My daughter’s abiding love of poetry is one of many facts that I have not (she says) managed to apprehend about her character, either because I was never home (which is true) or didn’t give a sweet goddamn about the machinations of her inchoate soul. She says.

We always say there are two sides to every story, so here comes the other side! The melon-faced CEO who put the plant on strike has his own problems! It is a much more internal story, with less of a plot than “Ernie’s Ark” and it seems to me, while this man has troubles, they are of his own making! Still there are similarities! He too grew up on a small town, he was not born rich it seems! His wife left him and later died and he was in Japan at a meeting so could not attend her funeral and the daughter, 26, has never forgiven him. She sounds more like a petulant, if precocious, 15-year-old than a 26-year-old! She is a brat! But she has her own story too, I am sure! And father and daughter, two-by-two, are in a car for almost the whole story, which could be seen as similar to an ark!

In the material at the end of the book (there is an interview and even a study guide!) she says this was the biggest stretch for Wood, writing for a CEO. And maybe that is why, or maybe it is because he is a character it is hard to feel close to, or maybe it is the off note about the daughter, but I did not enjoy it as much as “Ernie’s Ark.” I might have liked to have read it first so I could read it without having Ernie peeking out! It was published in Confrontation under a different title (and she does not tell us and Confrontation does not list stories or authors in their archives so I do not know when or what title).

That One Autumn

And then? They no longer looked back on this season as the autumn when they lost their second child. This season – with its uneven temperatures and propensity for inspiring flight – they recalled instead as that one autumn when those awful people,that terrible pair, broke into the cabin. They exchanged one memory for the other…. This moment became the turning point – this moment and no other – when two long-married people decided to stay married, to succumb to the shape of the rest of their life, to live with things they would not speak of.

Marie, the same Marie in “Ernie’s Ark” – his wife – lay dying and thinks back to “That One Autumn” back in the early 70s. It was traumatic for many reasons! Their son left for Berkeley, and Marie miscarried a surprise pregnancy. She went up to their vacation cabin to be alone, hinting that maybe she was thinking about separation, and finds a girl squatter living there! The girl is not a nice girl! She has a switchblade! Her boyfriend is on the lam from robbing a couple of gas stations and he has gone to get something, for a day and a half, and she is not sure he is coming back, but he does! And that is too bad, because he ties Marie up! But he can not kill her! He tells the girl to kill her and the girl can not kill her either, they are bad kids but not killers! So they leave Marie tied to a chair, and she waits, knowing that Ernie will come up, he will miss her and will want to follow her even though he is not supposed to, she knows this in a way the girl did not know if her boyfriend was coming back! And this is the memory that replaces the miscarriage, because even though it was scary, it was also full of love!

The Temperature of Desire

Our father was a faithful man, and I miss him still, that machinist who loved scales, everything calibrated, quantified. He measured anger in ounces, surprise in feet, and happiness in degrees Celsius.
The happy scale, he called it….He died four weeks later, and we froze in that house for years. our mother never thawed – I don’t think there was a day when her personal mercury rose above a degree and a half – so it was left to me to pass Dad’s lessons on.

This one is amazing, and it covers the whole town just about! In fact, if I have a criticism it is that it is not very focused, there are many themes. But it is still truly wonderful! This story was previously published in Orchid, which I think is not in publication any longer.

It is told in first person by Dan Little; he is an electrician at the paper mill and is on strike. But he is also now working part-time as a city code officer so he is the guy from the city who tells Ernie he is not zoned for an ark! But it turns out he loves the ark! He also loves his younger brother, Tim. He pretty much raised Tim as father, because their father died right after Tim was born, when Dan was fifteen. So he is confused that Tim has chosen to cross the picket line and work at the plant as a replacement worker: “I taught my little brother how to read a micrometer and sharpen a drill bit, but also how to navigate a library, flip and omelette, tell a clean joke….It never occurred to me to include in Tim’s instruction the sin of crossing a picket line.” I have never belonged to a union or been caught up in an emotional strike, but I have seen on the news how it can get nasty, and we already have an idea from “At Their Mercy” of how angry people are! But Tim is only twenty, and has his own agenda. He wants to leave town, go somewhere else, be something else, and he needs money so that is why he crossed the picket line:

My brother’s crime was in wanting to get out so badly he’d step on his brothers’ necks to do it. It had cost him big, but he was willing to pay. That’s how much he didn’t want to end up like me. As much as it hurt me to know this, I couldn’t think of a blessed thing I wanted that bad, and a weird, vague, crushed part of me wished I did.

The story ends with them on a horrible rainy night with Tim on his way out of town, and they go to look at the ark and… well, you have to read the story!

When she gave her reading of When We Were the Kennedys, Wood said that she did not use autobiographical material in her novels and stories, but I think she does a little bit here, at least for the family structure! I remember her talking about an older sister who took care of her right after her father died and her mother was in a depression, so that is a similar kind of dynamic used for the Little brothers! It is not identical of course, but I can see the roots of inspiration there! It is most interesting she chooses the older brother (or in her case sister) point of view, as if thanking her sister for all she did, showing that she knows!

The Joy Business

This one felt like exposition or a connecting chapter (and when I read “Take Care Good Boy” I realized it is!). It is third person but with Cindy as the point-of-view character. She is the ex-wife Dan was talking about! With the flower shop – that is The Joy Business! She is remarried to Bruce, the sculptor! Yes, that sculptor! The one that won the prize that Ernie saw when he got the idea to build his boat! She is now stepmother to his two children. Bruce is a creep, cheating on her as he did on his first wife with every student he can get his hands on, son Kenny is the typical too-good-for-this teen, and Francine is the daughter who clings to Cindy and is the reason she will not leave Bruce but demands he stop being such a jerk! But the story just kind of shows us who the characters are, it does not really go anywhere!

Visitors

This refers extensively back to “That One Autumn” and I found it quite disappointing – I am so sad to say that! Marie has just died, and the girl from the cabin shows up on the day of her funeral to apologize but does not know she has died. I am very willing to go where a story wants to lead but this was just stretching credulity a little too much! We also meet the son, James, who had just gone off to Berkeley when the incident happened, in fact it starts with him in California, and his ex-wife, coming to the funeral. There are some intense interactions of course, but James felt two-dimensional, and even Ernie did not feel like the man who built the ark in his back yard! I was almost angry because as a follow-up to those two stories I almost felt like this almost ruined them retroactively! I would rather have enjoyed the pleasant afterglow of the previous stories rather than this continuation of events! But it is ok, because if you just keep reading you find out why this story is here in the collection! It is not one of the “stars” but it has an important supporting role!

Take Care Good Boy

Now he saw this place as an apology. Money had changed hands, his mother had fled, and Ellery was the kind of man who would have felt sorry for the good boy left behind. And if he’d known about the good girl, the four-year-old birl his mother hadn’t mentioned? Something twisted inside him, a physical hurt which he took for the spiritual waking he had so wished for. If this place was an appology, then Francine deserved it, too.

This story was previously published in Yankee.

Did you know that when Thoreau did his little wilderness visit, his mother and sister supplied most of his meals and did his laundry? And he mooched off Emerson and his wife for his other meals! So the myth of self-reliance is a bit overblown! Kenny Love, the main character of this story, is the son of sculptor Bruce and stepmother Cindy, as we were introduced in “The Joy Business.” Maybe that is why that story did not go anywhere, it was exposition for this story! I do wish they were combined, because together in a longer story, maybe a novella. At first this story seems to be skimming the surface, but once it settles in, it turns into something really special! Kenny finished high school a semester early (which seems to me a little like some plot convenience rather than anything organic to the story, I am afraid, but it is not glaring) and was going to go to Harvard the following Fall, but he finds out he has been bequeathed a cabin (another cabin! Another ark?) by a relative he only met once, a great-uncle, from his mother. He decides to play Thoreau though his father is enraged, and tells him he must fulfill his “obligation to Harvard” and that he is more of a math guy than a nature freak! And his sister makes fun of him and tells him about Thoreau and the women that made Walden Pond possible! And at first it seems they are right, he does not really know what he is doing, but he finds some old calendars his great-uncle kept, with a lot of notations about nature and other things – like for his one visit at age eight there was a note that he was a “good boy”, but no indication why the man thought that! He finds a diner within walking distance and becomes friendly with the waitress, a friend of his great-uncle! Then… well, I do not want to tell you everything, but he really does grow up, he discovers some family truths, and it is quite nice how it happens! He outstrips his parents in maturity and character! At the end I had the feeling he has now outgrown his self-absorbed teenager self and is ready to be a “good man.”

Solidarity Is Not A Floor

Francine grasps all this, fleetingly, in the grayish privacy of her own head, where she works out the problem of family as if it were algebra, coming up with formulas that work cleanly, both sides equal. But in practice the formulas don’t hold, they never hold, they crumble into pieces so fine they can’t be put back.

Another terrific story! It reminds me a lot of “Rothko Eggs” because it is a teenage girl trying to figure out a very confusing world! In “Rothko”, art is the lens through which the character sees the world, and here, it is a speech by Jesse Jackson!

I liked this girl very much! I was very interested in her and her discoveries; I am not completely sure I would be so invested if I had not read the material leading up to this, however! Not the parts about the Love family, but the parts about the mill workers and the strike. But I can not know for sure!

Francine is the daughter of Bruce and Cindy Love from “The Joy Business” and the younger sister of Kenny from “Take Care, Good Boy.” She is 13 and goes with her father to the college one Saturday to find material about Jesse Jackson (he is coming to the mill to speak in a few days), she finds out another secret instead! All this time, the town is still on strike, and she feels like an oustider because her family has no connection to the mill. The teacher gives her an A on her report and praises her, but then when it comes time to pick a student to greet Jesse Jackson, the son of the union president is picked by the class! Francine has probably not read Animal Farm yet, but she is discovering that even among the downtrodden some people are more equal than others:

Not everybody has suffered equally. At first everybody was equally angry, their anger a straight, perfectly directed line, like an electrical current….Their anger is no longer perfect. It is less an electrical current than a lightning bolt, jagged and hard to control and not as fussy about its target….Solidarity forever, solidarity forever, they have sung many times, standing on this hallowed floor: The union makes us stronnng! Francine loves that song, she hums it all the time. But solidarity is not a floor, she has found. It is a ladder. People end up on different rungs.

Just before Jesse Jackson arrives to address the union, word comes that the company is selling the mill! This is terrible news! They are just out of work now! There is no more strike but no more work either! They may never get what they were owed! And while Francine is trying to figure this out, she returns home with knowledge of the secret about her father she discovered at the college, and learns one more new thing: “that she, Francine Love, is a person about whom it is possible to have inside knowledge. That her father is the one who possesses it.”

Shuffle, Step

With Marie gone, Ernie saw the world more than ever as a place for two-by-two.

This is an excellent closing story! It ties some of the characters together and fills in some information that gives the reader an idea of where things will go from here! And it closes with the ark, where it opened, and I like closing circles very much!

Francine Love, the girl from “Solidarity is Not A Floor,” has sold Ernie a winning ticket for dance lessons, but he does not want to go! He has no one to go with! So she goes with him! The dance class turns out to be tap dancing which is where the title comes from, but it fits perfectly in the overall storyline of the collection: things change! We change our gait to match, then go on! We tap dance through the difficulties and the fun stuff too, just to keep our footing! And the son James, from “Visitors,” comes to visit Ernie! And though that story was not one I particularly liked, it now fits and fills in this story, the whole flow of the collection!

So yes it is excellent structure for the collection overall, and it is also a lovely story! It reminds me a little bit of the very end of The Financial Lives of the Poets – or I should say the other way around since this collection came years before the novel! The story ends with Ernie and his son working on the ark – two by two – like “Poets” ends with the family working on the treeless tree house! Something about building things, a concrete sign of rebuilding a life and starting over! It is a wonderful story and left me very happy!

Overall:
Some collections, you can read the stories out of order. Maybe there is a story you have heard of, or , or one someone recommended to you. But here, the stories are in chronological order, so there is a progression in time! It does need to be read consecutively, from beginning to end! And that means the less-interesting stories can not be skipped; do not worry, they enrich what is to come!

One of the themes that is emphasized in the “Questions for reading groups” part of the end material is the ark itself, how it is viewed by people, how that view changes, how the symbolism works in each story even when it is not mentioned! Sometimes it is about safety during times of trouble – the original Ark was intended to keep Noah et al safe from the Flood, and the strike is like the Flood! But there is also the idea of two-by-two which is there at the start and comes to full fruition with the last story! It is very effective!

I am very happy I read this book and I happily recommend it!

Sunday with Zin: An Inconvenient Book

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child's Garden of Verses by RLS

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from 1905 Edition of A Child’s Garden of Verses by RLS

Hello, I am Zin! And this week, Richard Russo brought his Interventions book tour to the library!

He and his daughter Kate spoke about the stories, the art (which Kate did, she is an accomplished artist) and the design of the book by Tom Butler (he was not able to be at this particular presentation), an artist who is married to Kate – a family project! It was also very important to Richard that he use a Maine publisher (Down East Books), that it be made in the US, and that it be printed on sustainable paper. All of this adds to the cost of the book, of course – and the book is not cheap, it costs $40, which is a lot for 4 works (one essay, one novella, and two stories), three of which have been published before. But the idea was not to release new material, it is to create a synthesis of art forms into a beautiful reading experience!

The first thing Richard wanted to discuss was to get out of the way the claim, which first appeared in a BBC web report, that he is anti-e-book! He is not boycotting ebooks! All of his work, except this one, is available as ebooks, and he has a novella coming out that will initially be available only as an e-book! It is just that he envisioned this as a tribute to the printed book, and because of the way it was conceived, he did not think it would translate to e-book form! So lighten up on the e-book thing!

When he was a little boy, Richard used to be almost happy to get sick – just a little sick – so he could stay home from school and read in bed! One of his most prominent memories of reading was being in bed with A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, a beautifully illustrated edition! I am not sure the link points to the same edition with the same illustrations, but it gives the idea! He was particularly drawn to “The Land of Counterpane” (a counterpane is a blanket or bedspread) about a boy reading and playing with toy soldiers on his bed – and including a picture, as the one above! Young Richard thought it was fun to be reading in bed looking at a picture of a boy reading in bed! And that was the basic genesis of the idea to create an illustrated book, an object in addition to text! I suppose some day an author will talk about how he used to love looking at a picture of a child reading a Kindle while he was reading a Kindle, and that will be an ebook!

When it came time to design the book, they ended up with nine pieces: four individual volumes (one for each story), four paperback-book-sized pieces of removable art (Richard wanted the reader to be able to take something of the book with him/her), and a slipcase! This is why he calls it “an inconvenient book”! Again, this all adds to the cost of the book, but it is unique! You can buy 12″ x 18″ prints of the art by Kate Russo on Etsy!

He wanted some connection between the narratives, which became the idea of intervention, and that became the story he wrote to tie the other three together!

High and Dry” is an essay that was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Granta, themed “Going Back.” It is about his home town of Gloversville, NY, which used to be the center of glovemaking in the country, and how the recession affected the people there. It also serves as a model for the setting of most of his novels.

My other grandfather, who lived in an Italian village near Rome, had heard about this place where so many leather artisans had gathered in upstate New York, and so he journeyed to America in hope of making a living there as a shoemaker…. Did he have any real idea of where he was headed, or what his new life would be like? You tell me. Among the few material possessions he brought with him from the old country was an opera cape.

For the art, Kate thought about the gloves, and how making the gloves ironically would harm the hands of the workers, so that resulted in a painting of beautiful gloves side-by-side with bloody hands! That is making a statement!

Horseman” was published in the August 2006 issue of The Atlantic (and is available online). It starts with a few lines from the poem “Windy Nights,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.

…When she jogged in the woods behind the New England college where she taught, she’d realize she was running to that unwelcome, unforgiving iambic cadence — whenever the moon and the stars are set — as if she were a horse. And then the familiar heartsickness, as if she were suddenly clomping not through the woods but through an endless cemetery.

Kate read the story and set it aside for a few weeks to see what would stick most with her when she returned to it later: it was the last line of the poem, and the obsession with the wind which started at night but was still going the next morning! The character is a woman obsessed with a poem from childhood, aware of her own mortality, imagining the woods becoming a cemetery! So the painting is from the point of view of the character, physically – when you look at it, it is as if you are riding a horse and can see the back of the head of the horse, and the road stretching out, and gravestones cropping up later on, just like what the character envisions! I like the explanation a lot better than I like the painting! The cover for the book is a repetitive pattern (patterns are what Kate is known for) of the bent leg of a horse!

Kate had read “The Whore’s Child” before (as have we – it is wonderful; the first section is available online). It is about an elderly Belgian nun who shows up for a creative writing course and writes her autobiography in a search for witnesses, justice, or just to finally express her rage:

The first installment… detailed the suffering of a young girl taken to live in a Belgian convent school where the treatment of the children was determined by the social and financial status of the parents who had abandoned them there. As a charity case and the daughter of a prostitute, young Sister Ursula (for there could be no doubt that she was the first-person narrator) found herself at the very bottom of the ecclesiastical food chain…. The shoes she was given were two sizes too small, an accident, Sister Ursula imagined, until she asked if she might exchange them for the shoes of a younger girl that were two sizes too large, only to be scorned for her impertinence. So before long she developed the tortured gait of a cripple, which was much imitated by the other children, who immediately perceived in her a suitable object for their cruelest derision.

Kate wanted to capture the idea of memory, embodied in the black and white saddle shoes, stained with blood on black and white tile; black and white because those are the colors a nun would wear, and it shows the discrepancy between nuns who are supposed to be kind and caring but were in reality cruel and heartless! It is a very powerful painting in combination with the story! The cover is the black and white tile pattern!

Intervention” (in the singular; the title of the whole book is Interventions) is the new story written to tie these things together! In the essay, businesses, and later the economy, interfere in the lives of craftsmen to their detriment; the memory of the horseman poem intervene in the life of the college professor; and there are many interventions in “The Whore’s Child” from the nuns who take her in to her appearing in class to the students who critique her work and thus provide some measure of objectivity to her self-examination! So he wanted to write a story expressly about an intervention!

He started with a character: Ray is a realtor in Camden, ME. Now, it just so happens that Richard is married to a realtor and lives in Camden! She has told him numerous stories but he feels they are confidential, kind of like a priest or bartender (he never specifies if this comes from a story she told him or not)! Ray has a medical problem that will become life-threatening if he does not deal with it, and he shows no signs of dealing with it! He is reluctant to do the simple, right, good thing!

Enter a young woman who, due to the economic downturn, must sell her home before she loses it to foreclosure! But there are problems, such as, she has gone to Portland to find work, leaving Ray in charge of selling the house; and she is a bit of a hoarder (such a popular obsession these days!) so she has left many many cartons stacked in the house, unable to pay for storage! She seems to be sabotaging a sale she desperately needs to make! People who come to see the house can only see her stuff, her mess! It is easy for Ray to see her problem and the solution, because after all it is always easy to see the problem someone else has, as it does not have the emotional connotation that prevents you from fixing it in the first place! So the tension of the story becomes: should he intervene, and how? And of course there is the underlying question about his own need for intervention, will he recognize it before it is too late? This sounds like a great story!

Kate decided the painting would be a stack of boxes blocking the window, using the metaphor of the boxes being in the way, they are the mess, you can not see anything but your own mess so you can not see a way out! I love that! And again I like the explanation better than the art itself!

We then had a brief Q&A which of course went to writing! I only took notes on two questions:
How do you learn to write better if you can not go to a university program? The advice from the Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist was to read voraciously, write daily, and get someone else to read your work and give you feedback, someone who 1) knows more than you do and 2) does not love you, like a spouse or parent!

He was also asked why the teenage girl in Empire Falls was in present tense! I have not read the book (one of these years that will be my project, all the Pulitzer-prize winning books, except for A Visit From the Goon Squad which I have tried to read four times and I refuse to try again!) but he said something interesting about present tense: it brings you closer, slows you down, and has an immediacy, and for a teenager that was perfect because everything is happening right now since they do not have the perspective of time an older person might have!

I did not buy Interventions – I had decided I would not before I went – but I have to admit I was very tempted, and am again tempted just writing about his visit! I do have a hold on the library copy so I can read the stories I have not already read, and I will post more when it comes in! Until then, you can listen to a radio interview with Richard and Kate on a radio interview from June 26 on WMAC!

[Addendum: Comments on “Intervention,” “Horseman,” and “High and Dry” now posted. – KC]

Sunday with Zin: STRIPPED (edited by Nicole Monaghan, PS Books 2011)

STRIPPED, ed. by Nicole Monaghan, cover art by Anne Buckwalter

STRIPPED, ed. by Nicole Monaghan, cover art by Anne Buckwalter

Hello, I am Zin, and I got STRIPPED! And here is how:

Back in March 2011, writer Nicole Monaghan mused in a blog post:

I’ve also been thinking lately about authorial gender and the differences in my reactions to male and female flash writers….When men can put down the words that I thought only the recesses of my girly heart harbored, I’m like, HOLY SHIT, how did they (he) know that? ….On the other side, when the women writers I read blow me away, I am crazy-excited….

But wouldn’t it be a curious and wondrous thing if for some allotted time period – I don’t know, we’ll say a year – flash writers had to remain anonymous and we all had to read them wondering, is this written by a man or woman? Would we be able to tell? How often would we be surprised by the author’s gender? How much as writers can we understand about the opposite sex so that we can flesh them out flashy, and do the deed right.

Blog follower Marc Schuster of PS Books (they knew each other from grad school) read the post and thought: this would be a terrific idea for a book! And a year later, STRIPPED was published! You can read more about the idea-to-publication-on-a-shoestring-budget process at his blog post, “ Hey! This Is Cool! (Or: How Books Happen).”

And now I have read it and you can too and we can see how well we can tell men from women by their writing, and see where our assumptions are flawed! And as Marc wrote on the back cover of the book: “More to the point, does it really matter? Or is there something bigger going on when men and women stretch their minds and imagine what it might be like to be the other?”

STRIPPED is a collection of 47 flash fiction stories from 25 to 685 words by both authors you know – Pamela Painter (whose excellent craft book What If? began this blog and is used in many college creative writing programs), Robert Swartwood (who invented the term “hint fiction”), Roxane Gay, Kathy Fish, Randall Brown, Myfanwy Collins, and on and on – and by more whose names might not be so familiar (yet). But while we know the names of the authors (a complete list is in the comment that follows this post), and we know twenty-six are women and twenty-one are men, we do not know who wrote what story! The stories have been stripped of the identities of their authors! We must figure out, who wrote what!

I became aware of this book when my friend Jeanne Holtzmann, one of the authors included, asked if I would like a copy. Of course I would! So she sent it to me and I have been working on it for weeks now, reading the stories, and trying to figure out which ones were written by men, and by women! And most importantly, trying to figure out just how I figure that out, and what it means!

And in February 2013 – one year after publication – Nicole will post the match-ups and we will know if our guesses are right! ADDENDUM: See “Un-STRIPPED” for the results!

Nicole told me:

I think it’s an important book because I think flash fiction is important. Very short fiction, to me, is a beautiful and aggressive artform, and every bit as worthy of our attention as other literary forms, and I love that this collection attempts to re-excite an audience of short fiction readers and rejuvenate a spirit of wonder.

It has certainly excited me!

I put the stories through two online gender analyzers! So I have included, in the comment that follows this post, a table of the data from this! By the way, I would love for anyone who knows something about data analysis to look at the table and see if there are any statistical patterns evident! Then, next February, when there is snow on the ground and we are complaining about the cold instead of the heat, I will bring the table out again and see how many I got right, how many the Gender Genie got right, and how many the Stevens Institute analyzer got right! More information on this is also in the comment after this post!

You too can read the stories, too, and see what you think! Did a woman get inside the head of Grover Cleveland? Did a man understand why a woman facing a medical trauma would travel to Italy to recapture a perfect moment from her youth? Who was it that told the story of Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, or The Last Taster for the Emperor of China? Does a woman show what it is to howl with the beasts?

And how do you decide?

That is what got me! How did I decide? I… just guessed! Sometimes it was the focus of the story, sometimes the language, sometimes the structure! I will tell you my biases, and please do not be mad at me, because I am being honest here, I could just keep it to myself but that is not what we are here for!

I think men are more likely to experiment with format and style. Maybe that is because men are allowed to experiment, expected to be adventurous, while women are encouraged to be “good girls” and color within the lines! Maybe I will discover it is not the case at all – many women write strange stuff! In any case, most of the time unusual structures and forms struck me as male! And a focus on internal emotional conflicts and relationships struck me as female whereas power and external conflict seemed male! Is that stereotypical? Probably! But it is what it is, and the first step to change bias is to understand what is! The real danger comes from saying one is “good” and one is inferior, not in noticing a difference!

Many of the stories are available online in one form or another! And it just so happens some of these are among my favorites!

You can watch videos of readings of several stories from the STRIPPED launch party (the readers are not the authors of the works they are reading; that would be silly!):

Nicole gives an introduction to the project and the book and then reads “Found Objects” – a house gives back! One of my favorites!
Kiersten Bridges reads “Marooned in a Borrowed Mansion” – you can run and you can hide but not forever! Another of my favorites!
Robert Swartwood reads “Akimbo” – I feel the earth move! Another favorite of mine!
Sherrie Flick reads “The Bear” – a grim decision!
Randall Brown reads “Grover Cleveland Has It Out With America On The Eve Of His Second Election” – I thought I knew who wrote this, but that writer is not in this collection! An election year treat! I love it!
Devan Goldstein reads “Beasts and Men” – what it is to howl!
Jess Charest reads “Let’s Get Together Again Soon” – we have all been there on that couch!
Marc Nieson reads “Sculpted” – a sensual prose poem.

A few other stories are available in online publications. Shelf Unbound, April/May 2012, (pg. 52 online, pg 50 hard copy) offers an interview with Nicole and three stories:
The Turn” – a suspenseful drive to a party.
Sniffing Out The Boundaries” – a charming story of youngest love. Another favorite.
Waffles & Honey” – an enigmatic micro whose author I think I know! But I will have to wait to find out!

Philadelphia Stories, publisher of PS Books, offers four more stories on their website:
Dog Beach” – everyone always goes for the lifeguard!
Jerry’s Life As Sung To ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’” – When I started this project, in addition to the gender analyzer systems I used “I Write Like” which determines which of 20 famous authors a work resembles in style; I gave up after a while because half of them – half! – came out Chuck Palanhiuk, but one result that made me laugh was that this story was considered similar to Gertrude Stein! Just imagine, Gertrude Stein wrote one of the stupidest pop songs to come out of the 60s (no of course not, the lyrics to the song are a very small part of the story, but I still love the bizarre association)!
The Taster’s Last Meal” – of love, and duty. Another of my favorites!
Afterglow” – some people should not be parents!
A Conservator In The National Museum Of American History Rigged Into A Suspended Harness Floats Inches Above The Star-Spangled Banner” – the shortest story (25 words) and the longest title (21 words). I love the confidence it takes to do that!

Most of my favorites are included above, but I must also mention:
Moratorium” – “No more fucking moons!” – a non-traditional narrative; the last paragraph hits perfectly!
Rosalia” – I can not help it, I love it, and I know I should not! But it is done so well!
What Is Best In Life?” – I may know who wrote this, too! Probably not, but I keep thinking I do!
The Ballad of This and That” – “This spotted That through the crowd…” A very Zin story!

Let me note that because the authors are unknown, I have not talked to them about their stories (other than the briefest email conversation with Jeanne when she sent me the book), how they approached them for this volume, how they think about writing a character of the opposite sex! Or the same sex, for that matter! But face it, writers write all kinds of characters, and the best writers find ways to get inside corporate execs, drug dealers, doctors, politicians, mothers, genius kids, dorks, and the six billion other varieties of people, male and female that cohabit this tiny world! You can read “an online discussion” with four of the authors (whose identities have been obscured), led by Nicole and posted on the Necessary Fiction blog – it is a must for writers to see these approaches and techniques, whether you write beyond your own sex or not!

The book is divided into four sections: It, Her, Him, Them. Because I was uncertain about the division – some stories seemed to belong in different sections, to me – I asked Nicole to talk about it a little bit:

I very much like the “chunking” of stories in a collection like this for a dual purpose: 1) to give the reader a sense of organization and 2) to inform the pieces. These titles came to me because pronouns very much denote objectivity, gender, and singularity or plurality. Once they popped into my head, I really liked the simplicity of the single words as titles and all that each could suggest about every story under that umbrella.

Deciding which stories should go into which sections was a challenge, but a very satisfying one, and I felt that once placed, they very much belonged, and that relationships formed among the pieces as a result. There weren’t specific criterion but rather my own “gut” sense of who and what the central perspective and sensibility of each piece was. The stories I put in “It” were ones I felt either had objects as their center or used an inanimate thing to reveal the desire(s) of the character(s) and motivation(s) of the character(s). If I felt that a male character was at the heart of a story, I put that piece under “Him.” Likewise if a female character was at the crux of a piece, I put it under “Her.” The stories in “Them” were ones I felt gave a hard look into both male and female perspectives or struck me as portraying their characters as connecting as humans, with gender being less of a focus. I liked that focusing on objectivity, gender, and singularity or plurality of the characters had nothing to do with the authors. I wanted the characters to emerge here, and the authors to lie dormant, for a time.

One more thing I’d like to say about the chapter titles is that I liked the way the development from “It” to “Them” gave an ultimately optimistic or hopeful feeling about men and women “getting” each other. I hoped readers would be left with a sense that authors, just like the characters we create, are all very much the same.

This explanation, though it should have been obvious to me, still added to my appreciation of several stories – particularly, “The Bear” in the “It” section, and several of the stories I might have expected to have been “Them” stories – “Jericho Beach” for example – and most particularly “What is Best in Life” and “Rosalia” which are among my favorites, but I would have had a hard time figuring out where to put them!

So do you think you can tell which stories were written by women and which by men? Join me in the Comments to compare notes and keep track! And in February I will revisit and we will see just how right, or wrong, we were!

ADDENDUM: See “Un-Stripped” for the results!

Nalini Jones: What You Call Winter: Stories (Knopf, 2007)

I think these stories grew out of my questions about distance and closeness in families, the sorts of questions that all people in all families probably ask themselves, and perhaps can never fully answer.
–Nalini Jones, WIP reflections

I chose to read this collection after encountering Nalini Jones via her May 2011 One Story selection, “Tiger.” It, like the stories in this collection, is set in Santa Clara, a Catholic enclave in Mumbai. “Tiger” was not included in the collection (because it was “overrun with cats” and needed work said Jones) but was rewritten as a stand-alone story. I enjoyed it, and I wanted to read more about the people I met there.

Each story in What You Call Winter involves some combination of the town’s current and former residents (primarily the Almeida family: Essie and Francis, their children Marian, Jude, Simon, plus extended family members) and touches base on common themes: home, parents, children, change, secrets, departures and returns, distance. Some stories are much stronger than others; for me, there’s sometimes a tendency for too much choreography, and a very loose third-person point of view lends an unfocused, jumbled feeling to a few of the stories. Still, the stories I enjoyed most, typically those focusing on Marian, are very good.

Jones gives some background about the collection on WIP: “All of its stories began with a single preoccupation: what we call home.” Santa Clara is a place of her own invention, though based on the place where her mother grew up.

Her parents live in the same neighborhood and even the same house (wildly updated) where she grew up. Of course that place remains a touchstone for her. But when I was a child, I think I felt bewildered and perhaps a little worried that my mother and I didn’t share the same home. Hers was a place we had never lived, where she could speak languages I couldn’t speak and eat foods I was not permitted to eat. I experienced this as a strange sort of disconnect. But as I became an adult, I was more and more intrigued by the complicated relationships she and other emigrées had with their original home. Whether they wanted to go or felt driven, whether they longed for home or were relieved to have escaped it, they all had to forge a new understanding of the place they had left. The India they knew was changing all the time, so that their sense of home was moored to time as well as to place. And I was interested in the people who stayed.

I’m not sure why the collection isn’t ordered chronologically. It does start with the earliest, and to me the strongest, story, which sets the stage; the last story would not be that great on its own, but serves as a terrific denouement to the collection as a whole.

In the Garden” – an Edenesque tale of Marian, three days before her tenth birthday, encountering a dress, a snake, and her period, all on the same day. It’s a lovely story, perhaps my favorite in the collection, full of familiar ingredients with Indian flavors. Marian, alone at home when her piano practice at a neighbor’s house is unexpectedly cancelled, looks in her mother’s closet for an old sari so she can play dress-up. Instead she discovers a beautiful dress, meant for her birthday present. She tries it on, and is swept away by the transformation, and imagines how proud her parents will be of her when they see her. Her father comes home and she hides in the back yard, planning to surprise him; instead his reaction is to tell her to get down. Terrified that she’s about to be punished for wearing the dress, she finds out instead that he’d seen a poisonous tree viper in the branches over her head. He never notices the dress. When she takes it off, she finds bloodstains, and realizes she is bleeding from some wound that must be punishment from God The symbolism could be heavy-handed but fades into the background as we’re skillfully directed instead to the girl’s reaction to the dress, her father, the snake, and the blood. The scene with the father is powerfully bracketed by the sounds Marian hears, both in her expectation of his delight, and in the aftermath of her fear. And we get a hint of what’s ahead in these linked stories:

…her father gripped her shoulder so tightly that for a moment she could imagine him lifting her off the ground. She wanted to stay just like that, the bruising pressure of his fingers on her arm, until her mother and Simon and Martha were home. Until the twins were born and the new school built and all the snakes in the world shriveled to skins. She could not imagine a time when she would want to leave the safety of his grasp.

You can read a long excerpt (the first 5+ pages) of the story at the Powell’s website.

What You Call Winter
Deep into his mandatory retirement from the University of Bombay (he’s just realized that, of the twenty-five yearly ledgers he brought home with him on that day to keep his home accounts, only three remain), Roddy D’Souza sees his father riding past the house on a bicycle. Which would be fine, except that the man died many years ago, when Roddy was twelve. The story is an extended meditation on aging, change (should he sell his house to a developer and take a flat?), memory, and fading connection to a son now off in America.

He saw his life shrinking, cinched in closer and closer by the slow, calm circles of the ghost on his bicycle.

The Bold, The Beautiful
Grace needs an operation for her cataract, and daughter Colleen comes to visit from the States. There’s a comic touch to some of this, as Colleen and sister Biddy try help Grace. But all that takes a back seat to two other elements: when she was thirteen, Colleen pretended she was nearsighted so she would need glasses like those of an admired classmate. That doesn’t go as planned; she ends up with horrible heavy dark frames that don’t give her the intelligent look she’d hoped for, so she eventually drops the pretense by proclaiming her eyes are now fixed; she retains a lot of guilt over the deception. And in the present, her roommate Vanessa is more than a roommate. She hasn’t told Grace, and there’s a tense moment when she finds out Vanessa has sent Grace a get-well card with a letter enclosed. I’m afraid I found the story less than satisfying, a little too cluttered with an I-Love-Lucyesque rendition of Grace’s surgery and recovery.

Later, her father had come in to wish her good night. Her shame was so great that she had tried to feign sleep, but instead (a new shame) she began to cry. He sat with her until her sobs had subsided, patting her hand, while Biddy, who shared the bed, looked on with solemn interest. “Say a little prayer,” he told Colleen. “God forgives anyone who comes to Him.” She had tried to concern her self with God’s forgiveness when it was really theirs she wanted, her father’s and mother’s. But for months afterward, she had risen early to hear daily Mass at St. Anthony’s, in case God’s forgiveness might satisfy her after all.

The Crow and the Monkey
Six-year-old Jude, one of the twins Marian was anticipating in the first selection, narrates this story of a marital break-up at a New Year’s Eve party. Because it’s from the POV of a very young child, an “impaired narrator,” it seems a bit random at times. This one goes here and that one says that and the other comes by and she laughs and all this doesn’t really make sense – or, in hindsight, seem necessary. It begins with Jude being required by his mother to take an afternoon nap, when he badly wants to help his uncle and cousin with preparations for the evening’s party. The central axis of the story is Jude’s Aunt Freddy, who uses the party as a way to embarrass her husband. It’s a bit strange, filtered through the eyes of a child, but in the end everything fits, from the overprotectiveness Jude misses when it’s not around him, to the coat Aunt Freddy borrowed though she had no place to go wearing it. Turns out, she did.

He could feel another day surging past him while hie was trapped in a dim room. His chest reeked, a fly buzzed. The overhead fan did not become a propeller. Some days it gained speed until the whole roof lifted off and the bed hovered above the rest of the house, but today it was just a fan, dull and stupid, its blade sluggish as clock hands.

“Half the Story”
Marian, now grown up and living in America with a husband and children of her own, is travelling back to India to visit her family. She impulsively invites her neighbor Vee, in the throes of a divorce, to accompany her, leading to a series of nested flashbacks of Marian’s experience as a student-turned-immigrant, and straddler of two cultures. The timeline is a bit hard to follow with so many back-and-forth leaps, but it’s a wonderful story until the last few pages when a flash-forward seems to disrupt things for me; then we leave Marian’s story for teen daughter Nicole’s. I think the idea was a comparison to Marian as the girl growing up “In the Garden.” I’m not sure it was successful, but the first 9/10 of the story was so good, it carries over. There’s a terrific scene in which Vee and her soon-to-be-ex participate in a bizarre ill-conceived arbitration: each has a friend accompany him/her to the house where they go from room to room, picking in turns what they want, flipping a coin in each room for first pick. Vee ends up with a dining room table and five chairs; husband ends up with three chairs. Marian’s encounter with Americans – who stare at her bindi and assume she came to America looking for a husband to escape poverty – and her loneliness, is intensely sad and moving; I was uplifted, as was she, by her attachment to flighty and brash Vee. Here is a story which, along with “Tiger,” I would like to see told in chronological order as a novel, this story of side-by-side cultures, side-by-side marriages, side-by-side women. Marian is a wonderful character with so many aspects worth knowing, and Vee provides a good foil.

But for Marian, India was not an impulse of escape or delight; it was the clock set in the middle of the night, the pull from sleep, the prayer. She felt s a tremor of loneliness, swift and unsettling – she was not fully seen, she was not understood. It happened sometimes with Vee, even with Daniel and the children. Some essential part of her was out of reach, turned away like the far side of the moon no matter how they moved around each other.

Home For a Short Time
Anyone who’s moved away from his family of origin knows this: you can go home again, and when you do, it’s likely to raise tensions all around, no matter how much love the family keeps in trust. Who stayed behind, who left, and why? Who looks down on whom, who resents whom? It all makes for a cauldron of emotion. Toby went into the family printing business with Father, lives with him in their flat, and now Michael, who moved to the States, comes home for a short visit full of advice and insistence on how things should be done. Jean is also visiting. She was years ago engaged to Toby, but she went to America for school and then met someone there, so hers is a loaded visit for Toby as well, even though it’s been many years and her husband is now dead. Jones uses the juxtaposition of Michael’s decorating the walls with old photos from boxes stored in the back room, and a burst pipe that destroys the pictures he didn’t select, to ratchet up the conflict. It’s a different kind of structure, however, and it throws me. It’s a quiet story, busy with tiny details that sometimes seem tedious, that suddenly bursts into song in a few places. Flashbacks meld into current time, and it’s kind of a struggle at times to figure out which is which, but there’s a beautiful story in there.

For the first time her realized he had not thought to follow Jean. She had gone and he had stayed; he had chosen India. It had never before occurred to him to think in such terms He had barely noticed the choices he had made or that they were choices at all; one thing seemed to lead to the next and he had fallen into a life that had not seemed to require much vision. But perhaps he had seen what he needed.

We Think Of You Every Day
Point of view shift constantly throughout this story set back in time again from Essie (mom) to Marian (at twelve and sixteen) to Francis (dad) to Jude (at three and seven). Not to Simon, who at eleven and fifteen is at the center of the story. Interesting choices, given the story is about shifting perspectives and complex family dynamics. And one of the most successful stories in the collection for me. Simon writes Essie from boarding school, a sort of seminary prep school, begging to come home; she hides the letters, and keeps his distress a secret until Marian stumbles across it. Still, no one is able to dissuade her from keeping him in the school, which she sees as securing his future. The effect of the school, and/or his mother’s deaf ear, on Simon, seen four years later on a visit home, is anything but Christian. An excellent, if tragic, story.

Marian put the letter down in confusion. She understood at once that her mother had deliberately hidden Simon’s misery, but the revelation jolted her – a sudden stop on a carnival ride, leaving her swinging in midair. She had been with Simon at Juhu the day she rode a Ferris wheel; she had clutched Simon’s hand until the nausea passed and she could look down to where their mother smiled and waved below. She looked different, small, from such a height.

Carrying
A meditation on secrets and the very particular private pain of infertility, this story has its moments but sometimes feels like a string of events. Michael and his wife Rowena are in from the States, visiting his mother Grace; Rowena is secretly inquiring about adopting a second child, since Michael isn’t really on board with the idea, at least not yet. The final paragraph, quoted below, is chillingly honest.

If Lizzie has had a good nap, Rowena will bring her out to this tree. They can look up at the leaves together. Rowena can tell her daughter about playing on such branches as a child, and then, if Lizzie likes, she can repeat what Sister Agnes has told them. When you were a tiny baby… Soon, after only a few tellings, it will sound as if Rowena had been there.

This Is Your Home Also
In this final story is the mirror on the Almeida family, a view from the outside, and an excellent summary of the primary mission of the collection: to look at the different points of view from all angles within this family, this community. The guardsman’s grandson Naresh comes to stay for a while, against some initial resistance from Essie and Francis (memsahib and badasahib from the boy’s point of view) though Jude is more accepting. There’s some friction with the next-door Hindu school when the boys there accidentally throw balls over the wall. It’s pretty classic middle-class Dennis-the-Menace-and-Mr.-Wilson stuff, really, except it reaches epic proportions somehow, with letters of apology. Naresh finds badasahib throwing balls himself, which is what Naresh has longed and feared to do all along; he gets blamed for it, and is sent back. Naresh provides an interesting perspective, and it’s a fine way to close out this collection. The saddest twist of all is the last sentence, which belongs to Simon, who “had gone…and who would not be coming back.”

But Naresh didn’t mind his punishment, or even the strange new feeling that only he knew what had really happened to him. Even badasahib did not know all of it. He thought perhaps that it would always be so, that the world he’d imagined as common and shared was different for every man, for badasahib and his grandfather and every one of the Hindu boys. The idea made him feel lonely and powerful, and so he hoarded the secret of badasahib at the top of the landing. It struck him as a different sort of thing to be guarded.
And he was relieved to be going home. He was tired and he missed his mother.

I think this is the kind of book that benefits from a second reading: oh, here, I remember this person from later story, I see now why this is important. That’s a good thing; and it’s a problem: most of the stories just didn’t grab me enough, emotionally or stylistically, to make me want to delve into it more deeply. At least not right now; I no doubt will at some future point. And I’m glad the Almeidas will be there on my shelf, waiting for me with new insights into what they call home.

Jess Row: Nobody Ever Gets Lost – Stories

"This is my cathedral"

"This is my cathedral"

I first thought I might want to read this collection when I read the gripping “Sheep May Safely Graze” in the 2011 Pushcart volume. I ordered it after I read “Call of Blood” in BASS 2011. It’s a smallish collection – only five additional stories – but I had to read them, based on those two.

Christopher Feliciano of The Rumpus puts it well in his introduction to his author interview: “Row grapples with questions of identity, religion, and extremism, exploring how we manage (or fail) to co-exist in a post 9/11 world.” I’d add grief and loss to that list. Row’s interview with Charlotte Boulay of Fiction Writers Review is likewise informative, asking about not only craft but his exploration of fundamentalism and race in these stories.

I found the stories beautifully written, extremely intelligent and thoughtful. My favorites were emotionally engaging, often devastating, with images and metaphors that put complex things in a new light, such as the changing harmony Guruhka speaks of in “Amritsar” or the heartbreaking cathedral image in the title story. I have to admit I was surprised by the use of, well, harangue in “The World in Flames,” “Call of Blood,” and “The Answer.” Each contains extensive monologues in which a character explains his philosophy. I’m fine with this, but it strikes me as old-fashioned (the latter part of The Jungle, Magic Mountain) and no longer condoned, though I can hardly figure out why given the power of those “old-fashioned” books. I guess I need to learn the difference between talking heads and effective use of monologue. While I found “Call of Blood” mesmerizing, I had less connection to “The Answer” and “The World in Flames,” perhaps because in the former, the people doing the lecturing seemed to be wondering aloud rather than dictating, looking for answers instead of insisting they already had them all. In the latter two, they seemed to have their positions firmly entrenched, but I never saw much of the path towards those beliefs.

It’s a collection for someone who wants to think about issues, to see several points of view, not to just nod and agree with what they’ve already decided. Stories to think about. I wonder how some of these stories will look five, ten, twenty years from now.

The World in Flames” (Full text available online at Five Chapters)

She’d always seen herself as a fairly good interpreter of men, their attitudes and postures and elaborately disguised emotional agendas, but here, she thought, these waters just get deeper and stranger.

Samantha – Sam – is a young British woman backpacking through Asia. It’s her “last best chance to see the world” before settling down to all the things in a regular life. In Bangkok, she sees an American man, Foster, who somehow intrigues her, and she pulls a fast one: she tells him she’s lost her money and is waiting for the credit card company to send her a new card. It works, and he invites her to stay at his house overnight. His wife is upcountry. It’s a small dishonesty. She isn’t particularly looking for sex, or for anything; the shower and real bed and private room are extremely welcomed after months of bathing from pots and sleeping in communal rooms. She finds a cross hanging in his bathroom, and the conversation develops around religion; she discovers more than she bargained for about his brand of Christianity. He’s out to speed up the pace of things, to get the Rapture going once and for all. And for him, that means a grenade launcher. Poor Sam’s radar was seriously off with this guy. The evolution of their encounter is the thread that pulls the reader through this story.

I sometimes joke about my misspent youth as a fundamentalist. I know the territory. Though it reads like horror story, everything in the story is pretty much based on truth. The “Left Behind” books are still flying off the shelves. There are organizations that return diasporic Jews to Israel in an attempt to speed up the Rapture. Christianity: it isn’t just for Sundays any more. Foster turns out to be a cross between Pat Robertson and Charles Manson, and I don’t need convincing. Row’s intent was to look at how fundamentalism can lead to violence. None of us need convincing about that, not any more, though some may be surprised to see this setting. This is what I wonder: how can people who truly believe their religion is the difference between eternal paradise and eternal damnation, not be fanatics?

Amritsar” (Full text available online at The Atlantic Monthly)

Having found it only late in my lifetime, you could say I believe strongly in harmony. An outdated concept, you might say. It carries with it a strong whiff of the Beatles and that terrible Coca-Cola commercial I watched with the children when they were young. But, of course, a marriage relies on harmony, a family is composed of nothing but….
I am learning to fish because the components of a harmony change over time. Because the song changes, if you’ll excuse the terrible analogy.

I love stories that teach me about something I didn’t know before. Then again, I get annoyed by stories that are so unfamiliar they require research before I can follow along. It’s a delicate balance, and this one falls right in the sweet spot. It’s not the easiest read – after a magnificent opening scene of the narrator (I didn’t now for most of the story if the narrator was male or female) climbing nervously into a boat with his son, there’s a flashback to his childhood in the Punjab and the first reference to Amritsar, which jumbles the timeline for me; I was no longer sure where the present of the story was, in 1919, fifty years later, or fifty years after that. But, as I’ve learned, I just kept reading, with an open mind, and it came together. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading over my head, it’s that an open mind is crucial.
The short version: This story is about assimilation, but that’s like saying Othello is about jealousy; true, but not sufficient. Gurukha, our first person narrator, doesn’t like boats, but he is learning to fish because his son Ajay is marrying Christine, the girl next door (literally) whose father Tom is an avid fisherman. It wouldn’t do for one father-in-law to teach the other, so Gurukha has asked Ajay – “this son, who has never known a barrier he couldn’t leap, who will never have to do anything in his life he doesn’t want to” – to teach him. And on this day, a lot comes up. Memories of his childhood in India; his childhood friend Gopal, who was always intrigued by the massacre at Amritsar fifty years before, and later became an extremist himself. His emigration to Virginia to become a radiologist. The day his daughter found sand nigger painted on her school locker, and Ajay ended up arrested when things got convoluted and misunderstandings multiplied. His feelings about 9/11, with neighbor Tom parked in his driveway with a shotgun when reports of Sikhs, mistaken for Arabs, being attacked were all over the news (“Don’t be ridiculous, our neighbors know who we are, we’ve lived here for 20 years” says Gurukha when his best friend calls to warn him about the backlash; this reminds me of the line in Diary of Anne Frank, when one of the people hiding in the attic says, “I always thought I was Dutch”), and the terrible fight he had with his wife that night. His feelings about Christine making efforts to be a little bit Indian – watching his wife cook Indian food, asking about wearing a sari for her wedding – “in the way that so many Americans want to be something they aren’t.” So many points of view – the “other,” the ally, the vengeful militant, the concerned father, the kid who thinks it’s all worked out now, the parent who knows it isn’t. I’m still a little hazy on a few points, but along the way, the story wrings a lot out of me; it’s very special, and a beautiful read.

Nobody Ever Gets Lost” (from American Short Fiction)

You have to stop looking, she thinks. You have to stop lying your way into the right metaphor. Nothing works by analogy anymore. The act of comparing is another kind of violence.

This story, maybe the shortest in the collection, is worth the price of the book in itself. Let me take a different approach, and tell you my reactions as I read, because I think Susan, the protagonist, would understand. Despite the numerous references to 9/11 (September again, stores with T-shirts saying “I [heart] NY – More Than Ever”) including the obvious one about her fascination with an elevator accident that killed two children, I believed her when she said her boyfriend died of an aneurism. I was relieved, if a bit surprised and possibly disappointed somewhere I didn’t want to look. Oh, it’s that kind of story, not the kind that means I need to go get more paper towels (I’m a Olympic-level crier; tissues are for wimps). And of course, she lied to me, because that’s part of what the story is all about, glossing over things, getting on with our lives, erasing the scars. “It wouldn’t be fair, she finally decided, to expect them to realize that despite its seeming surface continuity, the world’s underlying chemistry had been permanently altered….Somebody has to remain innocent…” The last page is transcendent.

The Answer” (Full text available online at Granta)

When you come to Yale, you relinquish the right to be a mad prophet…. You take on the humiliation of belonging.

Isaac meets Rafael during Orientation Week at Yale in 1993. Most of the story is monologue: Rafael’s defense of jihadist Islam, and his attempt to lure Isaac to Karachi to study the Quran and convert. Isaac is not Jewish, by the way; he was raised Unitarian, which (to me) is religion in the vaguest sense. There’s a beautiful rhythm to this story; the sections flow perfectly and end on just the right note for the next one to start. The main story covers one night, more or less; four appendices provide additional context. There are no surprises here, really, outside of the unconventional structure of the appendices.

The Lives of the Saints” (from Ploughshares; full text available online at Numéro Cinq)

It’s because you’re a woman that you don’t want me to die, Tayari says.

That’s the first sentence of this story, and I gave up trying to figure out why dying was an issue quite soon; so at the very end, I realized Tayari was referring to the impending crucifixion. In the name of art. I’ve been known to get impatient with people who have pretentious and pseudo-intellectual views about art, but if someone’s going to have nails driven into his palms, I’m thinking he’s suffered enough. It’s the story of a very mixed-up couple. He’s the artist, bordering on famous; they live in a deserted storage shed where he completes his projects such as False Postitive, pinning a year’s worth of pregnancy tests to a board, and videos of martyrdom. The title refers to a book detailing the treasured gory details of persecution throughout history. He’s got some idea about bursting through artifice, to really affect people. Hence the crucifixion. His girlfriend is pretty much led down the garden path by this huckster, abandoning dance and education, and becoming pregnant. I was sorry the collection ended on this note, because it all smacked of pretentious nonsense and left a bad taste in my mouth. And yet – is there something here about the artist’s martyrdom, in comparison with religious and political martyrdom? I’m not sure. For one thing, he crucifies himself, not unwilling bystanders.

Overall, it was quite a collection. Out of the seven stories, I loved four. I generally bat about .500 on collections, but I loved these stories more than usual. It’s interesting how both the first and last stories were titled for books that appeared within them, that gave a character an avenue for “rationally” considered (rather than overtly anger- or hatred-driven) violence. It’s also interesting that I considered those the two stories I responded to the least. I’m assuming they were over my head, which means I have more work to do.

The Loose Fish Chronicles by Beverly Jackson: A Different Kind of Online Lit

Cover photo from "The Loose Fish Chronicles"

Cover photo from "The Loose Fish Chronicles"

1) A fast fish belongs to the party fast to it. [nearest to it]
2) A loose fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
“…these two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish will, on reflection, be found in the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence . . . what are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What are all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish too?” — Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Marko Fong has been working on something a little different. His fiction (“My Father’s Paradox,” “The Amnesia Academy“) has appeared in these pages frequently as well as his essays on “flashlight voice” and “memoir voice.” But he’s recently been working with author Beverly Jackson to create The Loose Fish Chronicles, an online literary chapbook that’s a bit different:

One of my goals was to make reading a long text online a more attractive immersive experience. I was thinking about the fact that video games are extremely addictive and often have very long “storylines”, yet people can’t stay with a 5,000 word text. My theory is that it has to do with “click” twitchiness. The screen literally vibrates (has its own frequency) and I think it might result in a physical reflex.

Instead of reading a static page for 20 minutes, we set it up to encourage the reader to click fairly frequently, but stay with the text. It helps that I love Bev’s memoir regardless, but I think linking to her poetry at certain points in the narrative or to photos really does make it a stronger experience that enhances the text rather than pushes it aside.

Jackson’s memoir, in six sections, offers her honest and poignant account of coming of age in the dynamic atmosphere of Greenwich Village in the early sixties (what a time and place!), punctuated by links to her poetry, photographs, and occasional background music. My favorite, “Dreams and Dreads,” describes her attempt, via therapy, to deal with mother issues she’s projecting onto a friend.

Jackson’s writing and painting have appeared in over 70 literary publications, including Zoetrope:All Story and The Wilderness House Literary Review.

What do you think? Take a look, and leave a comment on their Facebook page.

Seth Fried – The Great Frustration: Stories

Channeling Steven Millhauser by way of George Saunders, The Great Frustration is a sparkling debut, equal parts fable and wry satire. Seth Fried balances the dark—a town besieged, a yearly massacre, the harem of a pathological king—with moments of sweet optimism—researchers unexpectedly inspired by discovery, the triumph of a doomed monkey, the big implications found in a series of tiny creatures. – Soft Skull Press listing

I’m crazy about Seth Fried. Or at least his stories. He combines a very cool sense of humor with a way of getting to the heart of important matters. He likes first person plural. I’m so new to this voice, I don’t always recognize it; I think of it as “reportorial” style. This was true when I read Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came To The End and it’s just as true now; I had to be told some of these stories were “we” stories, because it isn’t, to me at least, always obvious. I’m going to sic Zin on first person plural. [note: Zin refuses to be sic’d, beyond citing Brian Richardson’s claim that first person plural is often used by members of minority or underappreciated classes, and manages to be first-person and third-person simultaneously, as opposed to second person which sometimes vacillates between the two].

I’ve already discussed “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” that terrific story in the 2011 Pushcart volume that goaded me to get this collection. He’s been compared to George Saunders, and I think there’s also a bit of Steve Almond in there (or maybe I just think so because I just read Almond’s new collection). In a great interview at TheBarking.com, he cites his influences as Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, Donald Barthelme, Rainer Rilke, and Woody Allen. He’s got an amusing blog and he’s been making trailers for this book, he’s got a brand-new flash on the brand-new Tin House blog’s Flash Fridays, and some other things. I’m obsessed with all things Seth Fried. Can you tell?

It’s a great collection. Wacky. Heartbreaking. Smooth reads with unusual situations, occasional technical tricks, and great emotional payoff. Characters who are confused because they feel things they don’t think they should feel. Funny-sad in that way that makes you jump up and down and say, “Yes, I’m so glad someone gets it!” and then makes you want to be the change you want to see in the world. Astute observations about relationships, current events, and human behavior. Every time I read a story I had the impulse to run around blathering about it. I’ve restrained myself since I knew I’d be doing a post about the collection. So now I can blather. Damn, you’ve got to read this book. (And no, I don’t get commissions)

In the interview mentioned above, he talks about how he combines urgency and concept:

If a story is all concept and no urgency, I think that’s when you run the risk of shallowness and/or gimmickry. Conversely, if a story is all urgency with no concept to make it compelling, you can start to run the risk of sentimentality and/or preachiness. What works for me is to decide first what urgent thing I’m hoping to express, and then to come up with a concept/scenario that suits that urgent thing. Of course, both the urgent thing and the concept can change radically throughout the writing of a given story. What’s important is that there be a strong relationship between the two.

These stories are great examples of this. The other thing he does so well is come up with details about a situation. I mentioned this in my comments on “Massacre” – the methods of massacre. In each story, there are little samples that are inspired, from the way scientists’ behaviors change in “Loeka” to methods of hazing in “Plaid” to how each animal experiences paradise in “Frustration.”

I loved “Massacre,” and I loved the rest of the stories in this book. I read it mostly in public, on busses and in waiting rooms, and I discovered something: while it’s embarrassing to cry in public, as I have over so many stories, it’s even worse to giggle.

Loeka Discovered” (originally published in The Missouri Review and available online, along with an introduction and study questions):

Occasionally some small reminder will make us cringe. The outline of a tooth on a dentist’s window. A picture of a mountain. A small man on the street with a pained look on his face. Though just as often, we’ll see the stars at night and wonder once again how they might have looked to Loeka. We’ll try to remind ourselves that despite everything, we had believed in something. And what was the matter with that?

A group of scientists work on a prehistoric body they’ve named Loeka. They’re thrilled to pieces, to the point where one is writing poems to a young intern (his briefcase bulging) and work is flying along at breakneck pace. Then another prehistoric body, Big Man, is discovered, and the mood changes; the briefcase deflates, work becomes tedious. When the arrowhead is found, the mood changes yet again. And the press all along has a role to play, as well. Oh, it’s hilarious, but it also has something to say about science and faith and truth and belief, about the press, and about group dynamics (which is why first person plural is a good choice). Go ahead, read the story. Seriously, aren’t you curious about the briefcase?

Life in the Harem” (originally published in Tin House):

The scale itself ranged from one penis to roughly thirty.

You want to read this story now, don’t you? A young man is placed in a harem (in an undefined time and place where such kings and such harems exist) after the king hears him moan while looking out the window. He fears the worst, but finds out he had no idea. And he learns a great deal about the nature of desire (and a little bit about what it’s like to be a woman). The crazy details amaze me. Penises instead of stars in the king’s little black book? A chart of women by missing or extra body part? How does anyone come up with this stuff?

Those Of Us In Plaid” (originally published in McSweeney’s):

Still, regardless of everything experience had taught us, we hoped that one day we’d deliver the beaker filled with strange liquid to the testing facility so promptly and so without incident, or paint the numbers on the capsule so perfectly and so without dribbles, that we would somehow win them over. That we’d begin receiving invitations to their famed barbecues, or to a raucous birthday party at the nudie bar near the airport…
The only problem was that as we grew closer to the monkey, the idea of dropping him into a volcano and then blowing him up seemed, more and more, to be unbearably cruel.

“Thrills! Moral Imperatives! Perturbations of the Human Spirit! And a Monkey!” says the trailer for the story (at least I think it does; videos make my computer burp and fart so I avoid them). Barbecue sauce, too. Pay attention to the barbecue sauce, it’s highly symbolic. Another first person plural story, and again I didn’t realize it until I was done. The grunts, low men on the totem pole in plaid coveralls, endure a lot of bullying from those in more desirable coveralls. Hornet pheremones in the hand sanitizer? Monistat in the coffee? Maybe I’ve just been hanging around boring people all my life. The story goes exactly where you expect it to go, but it’s so well done, I was happy to go there.

The Misery of the Conquistador” (originally published in Story Quarterly):

Practically speaking, my purpose is not to collect gold, but to collect gold with violence. After all, unless it is gathered in a way that requires as many men and resources as possible, gold itself is useless. If gold is to be worth anything, then the act of collecting it needs to involve shipbuilders, arms makers. It needs to involve the men who grind the gunpowder, the men who pour that powder into barrels, the porters who load those barrels onto a ship. It needs to involve men who rent those porters rooms, the men who sell those porters bread. It needs to involve the men who bake that bread, the men who grind that wheat. It needs to involve the farmers who stand grimly at the edges of those wheat fields, drenched in sweat. Gold is arbitrary. What is significant is the way in which it is seized and toward what end it drives the toil of many.

I’ve always been bothered (well, not always, but over the last couple of decades when I’ve been paying slightly more attention to that dumbfounding craziness known as “the economy”) by the idea that the economy must be “growing” in order to be considered “good.” At some point, when the earth is saturated with people (like, um, now), maybe we should think about a new model which makes a stable economy the goal. If for no other reason than because we’re running out of things to put advertising on. I had a brainstorm a few years ago while attending a Christmas pageant at a local church, noting all the thank-yous in the program to those who’d donated costumes or props or whatever: “Welcome to the Hannaford Christmas Pageant!” or “the Paul’s Market Veteran’s Day Parade” and eventually, “A Maine Savings Bank Funeral.” I suspect somewhere there’s already a “Vera Wang Wedding.” But I missed the obvious: “Operation Desert Thunder, brought to you by Haliburton.”

That isn’t even the main point of this story, however. The title conquistador has killed a native woman. He keeps replaying it in his mind, changing it a little each time, to provide different motivations or outcomes. His primary concern is to not look weak in front of his men, which means he has to violate his sensibilities over and over again. The story reminded me a lot of Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.” Maybe a little too much, though the concerns of the conquistador are different from those of the Viking. And maybe it’s more of a meditation than a story. But it’s still damn good reading.

The Great Frustration

Near a small pond, the penguin waves the dull blades of its arms up at the sky, as if already protesting the existence of a dense and impractical God.

It’s Paradise, and the animals in the Garden of Eden deal with it. I don’t want to say more, because it’s such a perfectly written story, it needs to unfold in its own way. On first read I was left with the sense that it’s all exposition, no plot. And it sort of is. But I think it’s supposed to be; I think that is the point, which the last paragraph makes clear: we know the plot already, and this is the exposition that makes sense of it. It’s also a story you can’t help smiling and laughing over as you read, while shaking your head in sad recognition.

The Siege” (originally published in The Missouri Review)

The question now is: When will the enemy make their final escalade over the walls? This question seems to resonate within a larger question, which is: Why have they not already made their final escalade over the walls?

I have the same sense with this story as with the previous one: it’s exposition (though there is some backstory). And again, I think that’s deliberate, because the plot is the waiting, the dread. And, of course, how it came to this. For me this was one of the less-terrific stories, which doesn’t mean it isn’t good; there’s still tremendous power in the acceptance of responsibility for their plight: “But maybe if we had fallen asleep with our arms draped lovingly across our wives, their leaving would have woken us, allowing us to say something, even if it were only good-bye. Maybe if we knew our children better, it would have been easier to turn eating a rat into a kind of game.” And I began wondering about different types of courage along with the story (again, written in first person plural, making the responsibility and the pondering on courage a community affair). I think I just had a similar reaction as I had to some of Jim Shepard’s stories in Like You’d Understand, Anyway, that while they’re great stories, I really don’t want to suffer that much. And of course the fact that the story causes me to suffer is a testimony to its power.

The Frenchman

When did the massive shortcomings of my youth become a door that I walked through?

A memoir of a major faux pas of his childhood: the narrator appeared, enthusiastically, in a play written by his gym teacher (that’s what I love about these stories; even the tiny details amuse and/or resonate). He didn’t realize at the time it espoused a “shockingly intolerant worldview” full of stereotypes about every race and nationality. He was a seventh grader, after all. And pretty soon, an outcast himself. It’s hilarious, and it leads to the larger question above. And it smacked me in the head. In one of my school choral events, we performed a similarly shocking piece about Christmas Around the World – “jing-ee-ber, jing-ee-ber, ah-mond-coo-keee” followed by Santa and his Mexican reindeer Pablo, among other things. Riots would ensue if the piece were performed today. At the time (before the 60s became the 60s), it was what passed for multiculturalism.

This is the story most recently written. That surprises me, since it’s my least favorite story in the collection. Which is ok, it’s the middle of the collection, it’s where writers and editors always stick the least-favorite stories. It’s not a bad story, I just don’t think the concept was worked in that effectively. But it’s still fun to read, and, for some of us, embarrassing, just as a memoirish tale.

Lie Down and Die” (originally published in McSweeney’s)

My family was full of stories like that: dubious suicides, sudden disappearances, the police always suspecting foul play….It was as if our family tree had been written in invisible ink, names and branches disappearing as quickly as they were written.

This is the oldest story in the collection, written when Seth was 20. It kind of went by me. It’s very short – flash length – so it was over before I felt like I was struggling. And again, it’s not that it’s bad. A lot of it’s great – again the details he comes up with to illustrate the unlucky nature of his family show flair. And I’m not one to argue with McSweeney’s. But I just didn’t get it. Sorry. No, I’m not sorry, at least I’m pretty sure I’m not just swept away and handing out praise randomly; the stories do have to earn it, individually. If I’d read this on a flash site, I’d probably love it. But for me, it didn’t reach the level of the rest of the work here.

The Scribes’ Lament

We copied manuscripts with a keen understanding, one word leading logically into the next. Great lovers of language, we recognized the same look of fulfillment in one another’s faces as we worked, an abiding gratitude to the Lord for having given us access to the world of words, their firm and apprehensible meaning. After all, wasn’t that the foundation of our faith? It was the word of God that we followed. It was the word of God that instructed us and which propagated all goodness in the world.

Superb. This is that perfect blending of concept and urgency. The foundations of religion, what better concept? And there’s a little writers’ workshop thrown in, though that might go by anyone who’s never been in one. And of course it’s first person plural again. It has to be. Throw in Beowulf, and it’s the perfect story (I spent a semester as an undergrad obsessed with Beowulf). The story follows this group of scribes writing down the epic under the direction of Ælfric, with the unwilling assistance of Wigbert in the role of hapless victim. I don’t even want to try to summarize. It’s hilarious. But all the time, there’s the element of the scribes writing, describing, and collaborating to produce a cohesive narrative – and the difficulties they have doing that. The implications of same. Like I said, superb. And it earns it.

Animacula: A Young Scientist’s Guide to New Creatures” (portions published in Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, and JMWW)

However, before you allow this skepticism to taint your research, keep in mind that your own vision manipulates reality more than any microscope ever could. Far less distortion takes place between the objective lens and eyepiece of a microscope than takes place in your own mind when you stare at your feet in the bath.

This is a collection of fifteen descriptive essays about various critters, plus one overall essay about observation. [Addendum: this story is contained in the Pushcart 2013 Prize Anthology, which makes it the second story from this collection to win the honor] The critters are, of course, unlike any you may have encountered or read about. The kessel has a lifespan of a few one-hundred-millionths of a second. The dawson is beautiful. And the bartlett cannot be observed at all. Each essay starts with a description of the critter, followed by the implications. For example, the peregite, who live in rings orbiting the earth, are the first creatures to adapt to life in space; it is they, not people, who have stepped out of the oceans and onto dry land, so to speak: “On one hand, we feel usurped and irrelevant. Excluded and jealous. Yet, we also cannot help but maintain that first touch of pride we experienced upon learning of life’s great journey out into the universe. Despite ourselves, we regard those far-off rings affectionately. We wish them well.” One of these tales – about the delicious bastrom, which becomes even more delicious when frightened or in pain (can you tell where this is going?) – is available online at JMWW, thank whatever. As much as I tried to anticipate what kind of critters would crop up once I read a few sections, the directions these essays go constantly surprise and, while fanciful, again, left me laughing, or shaking my head in dismayed agreement.

But it goes further, I think. The bastrom is perhaps about addiction – or maybe just the need of people to feel something, anything, no matter what the cost; pain is preferable to numbness. The dawson is about the impossibility of love. The kessel is about making the most of what time we have, whether it’s 70 years or four one-hundred-millionths of a second. The lasar is about war. And the sonitum affects me most of all, the organisms that “increase in size when confronted with noise” because I connect it to writing:

…[H]uman thought is not unlike the sonita in the sense that, once agitated, it grow and grows. Stirred by discourse, thought begins to swell…..
Can you see it yet, in the dish? Keep shouting.

You bet I will.

Steve Almond – God Bless America: Stories

This collection spans humor, loneliness, the creepy, the bawdy, the American Dream, several American Nightmares, humor, and heartbreak. For that matter, most of the stories include three or four of those elements. I found the stories, in general, got stronger as I read, but that could be more that I was more attuned to what was going on. I tend to have trouble with humor; I miss it sometimes. My fallback position is pathos, not funny. So there are a few instances where I think I missed the boat completely, and I take full responsibility for that. One of the funniest stories is also one of my favorites; my other favorite is one of the saddest. And the story that had me most baffled – and still does – I still don’t know if it’s humor or not. But each was an enjoyable read.

I didn’t comment on “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched” here because I already discussed it when I read BASS 2010. In fact, it was the first story I blogged about, a little over a year ago; I’m sure I’d have very different comments today. I won’t even read the post now, because I’ll probably be embarrassed.

“God Bless America” (Southern Review) –

Billy Clamm had not signed up for Drama I, he had signed up for a tax-preparation course called Loopholes Ahoy! But the Medford Adult Education facility was a confusing one, full of strange underground corridors and bunkers, and Billy was somewhat easily disoriented, somewhat prone to distraction, particularly during the bleak winter months, and so he had found his way to the wrong classroom.

I was nervous after reading this story. While I enjoyed the Boston landmarks (I lived there for 20 years), the story itself did nothing for me. Not that it’s a bad story – it’s a rather enjoyable misadventure, doubling as a comedic mis-allegory for The American Dream, a fun satire. But I didn’t feel that whooosh in my soul that I’ve come to expect from Steve Almond (he gets graded on a curve; good isn’t good enough). And since I’d already read “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” (which I liked), I felt like 15% of the book was already gone and I didn’t have much to show for it. Does that make me a tough audience?

So I read it again, and found additional enjoyment in the misunderstood-allegory part. Billy hasn’t really paid much attention in History and Civics classes, about as much as some of the politicians who have stumbled onto the scene recently, substituting catchprases for policy and vague misrecollections for actual understanding:

But this was America, the land of opportunists, and here it wasn’t enough to want something, you had to fight for what you wanted and fight hard, fight through your own resistance and the jeers of others and physical adversity, which was what the Pilgrims had done vis-à-vis the Thanksgiving situation, and after them the colonists, who had bucked the most powerful empire on earth even though they were basically just a bunch of underfed tax evaders. And then the pioneers. No, you couldn’t forget the pioneers, who had traversed vast prairies and mountains, and battled Indians and grizzly bears and inclement weather and various kinds of pox, and some had even starved and had to eat each other to survive, which, by the way, would make a terrific film treatment, Billy thought, because it said so much about he indomitable spirit that had built the country. Not that cannibalism was part of the indomitable American spirit, but it showed how far some people would go to find good property.

At least he didn’t go on a TV reality show to find his fortune, which seems to be the preferred route these days.

“Hope Wood” (The Sun) –

Already our framed degrees were wilting. The future which we had talked about eagerly for years was upon us and our shock was not that this future should entail depression – which, idiotically, we took as a measure of our depth – but that it should prove so uninteresting.

Here is the whooosh. I’m not usually a fan of description, no matter how good, but I could become one thanks to stories like this. Two recent college grads learn something from the junkman, and somehow it doesn’t come across as hokey as all that. And I want to paint my windows so the house looks like it’s batting its eyelashes, and I want a fridge and a crib and a cash register just like the ones in the story. A little care, a little genius, and trash turns into treasure. And then there’s the baby…

“Not Until You Say Yes” (Ninth Letter) –

…her ideas about life had yellowed one by one, like old movie posters.

I’m torn on this story. I like the story, I’m just not sure about the way it’s told. Now, I have total confidence that Steve Almond can choose to tell a story in many, many ways, so he picked this way, and that choice puzzles me. It concerns a crochety sixty-seven-year-old woman who takes a job as a TSA agent, and a wise-ass ten-year-old who knows how to scam the airlines’ overbooking policies. Both characters are perfectly drawn, it’s true. There’s no sentiment here, in a story that could easily be derailed by cuteness. But the story proceeds in mincing little choppy steps, and I found it kind of unpleasant as a matter of style. I’m not saying lush prose is called for – that wouldn’t do at all – but there is a middle ground. Maybe the idea was to make me as irritated as the old woman. Considering I pretty much am the old woman, that wasn’t necessary, so it was overkill for me, but for others it might work. I’m also not crazy about how the ending was handled. There’s a line of dialogue that isn’t recorded for a couple of paragraphs, and that rang false to me. But I’m not about to start questioning Steve Almond’s choices; my purpose here is to learn.

Shotgun Wedding (New England Review) –

There were other discussions, later on. But these had been grim and cautious, more in the spirit of negotiations. As the years passed, as they racked up accolades and anniversaries, the idea of children was quietly subsumed into the looming issues of cohabitation and marriage. These, in turn, were weighed against career advancement and logistics. Brian didn’t avoid these matters. He was too clever for that. Instead he bled them of passion.

Carrie, ad exec at a San Diego boutique agency (“projects rather than campaigns, meaning they had integrity and a modern-art installation in the lobby that looked very much like a disemboweled ostrich”), goes to the doctor for the flu and discovers she’s pregnant by Brian, who’s in Milwaukee setting up his own agency (“then to send for her, as if she were some lady pioneer”). The story is pretty much her reaction to that, and her phone call to Brian, and culminates in food porn about a Philly cheesesteak (in San Diego? sacrilege!). Elliot Holt’s “Fem Care” was a much richer exploration of the topic. Except without the transplanted food porn. This felt… boilerplate. Which scares the hell out of me: have I learned anything in the past year?

Tamalpais (Virginia Quarterly Review)

I should have said something to Pound at that point. But I was very young and not much good at identifying my feelings. Besides, this was the best job I’d ever had and it was going to help me pay for the SAT prep course I was going to need to have a shot at Cal, and I felt, bizarrely, that Charlotte herself was a kind of test, a chance to see if I was worthy of better circumstances.

This is a lovely character study – a different kind of coming-of-age story with an ambiguous ending that I love. Austin is a sixteen-year-old waiter and UC-Berkeley aspirant (Electrical Engineering) at a snazzy restaurant on the hill overlooking the working-class valley where he lives. Charlotte is a customer who morphs over the course of the story from one thing into another. Watching Austin deal with her, with her kind of adult brokenness he seems to have not encountered up close before, is both sweet and sad as he fumbles and regroups and struggles to find his footing.

What the Bird Says (Southern Review) –

He had assumed his mother and sisters would run the show, that he’d be more of a special guest. But the old man had little use for the women. He’d been raised in a family of men, in a world of men, and now that he was departing that world he seemed to feel the need to settle up with the man he’d brought into it.

Jim visits the family manse in Old Dominion (or somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line) to attend the death of his patriarch father. I should recuse myself from this story, because I have a similar going-home-to-watch-Daddy-die tale. In fact, it’s the first story I ever wanted to write. I still haven’t written it. I was one of the women the old man had no use for, and as I hung around hoping to get my apology, the rest of my family made it clear they had no use for me, either. So I had some sympathy with Jim. But, again, I didn’t really care for the way the story was told. There were terrific scenes – the Bishop and the old man going through their joint recollections, which, owing to the illness of the old man, “settled into a kind of shorthand – the invocation of names. Ted Houghton. Forrest Drury. Buzz Shaw. The dear departed, all those jolly young souls fallen into graves.” And the linen that binds the women together: “linens which were to be washed, dried, folded, and tucked. He had never seen so much linen in his life.” And the final scene is great. But overall, it just didn’t work for me, mostly due to the voice of the prose. I just couldn’t find a person on the other end.

The Darkness Together (Southern Review) –

Then the train lurched and Hank stumbled against her and she let out a happy shriek, and as all this happened – Hank drawing his knee first into and then away from his mother’s bosom, she clinging to his belt loops, her forehead brushing his thigh – a third figure slipped into the compartment.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” he said.

Yes, it’s creepy. Ewwww creepy, not horror-story creepy. And the rest of the story is the interaction of these three players – teenage Hank, his not-very-subtly seductive mother, and stranger-come-to-town-on-a-train Nicholas Chaleaux, who sized them up right away and eases into confronting Mom with her behavior as the train ride continues, always backing off at the last possible moment. At any moment, of course, Mom could call the conductor and insist he be seated elsewhere. But she doesn’t. And it’s not just because then the story would be over. The final scene is the closest possible thing to a sex scene without actually sex, it’s really remarkably written. But it’s still creepy. And I didn’t really want to know much more about this mother after the first couple of pages. I did want to know where Nicholas came from, why he showed up, and what happened when Henry and Mom got home, but that’s pretty much left for speculation. It’s a psychological tour de force, and one I admired, but didn’t particularly like, perhaps because it was so effective it made me uncomfortable. It reminded me very much of a Flannery O’Connor story I read recently, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” but I’m not sure why; maybe because that was about a strange mother and son pair, too.

A Jew Berserk On Christmas Eve (Nerve and Pisgah Review)

So much drunken hope! Isn’t that a version of love also, some central, infant aspect of the thing: the dumb throb, the frantic seep? How else do we withstand the rest of the bullshit?

The quote probably does a disservice to the story; it isn’t representative at all. It’s a hilarious sexual farce featuring Jacob, the Jew berserk on Christmas eve. He is berserk because his girlfriend of eight months, Dria, has invited him home (to meet her very WASP one-percenter parents) for Christmas, and has told him she’ll have sex with him on Christmas Eve. What college boy could resist? Dria calls Jacob her “dirty little Jew horn” and “matzo fucker.” The terminology is appalling to him, but: “I wanted to have sex with her really badly.” So he calls her “frog slut” and “Parisian whore.” What happens on Christmas Eve night, I won’t even hint at. I couldn’t possibly. It’s a riot. All that’s missing is Tevye fiddling on the roof. This is the raunchy, irreverant, hilarious Steve Almond at his best.

Akedah (Southern Review) –

You are the mother of a soldier returned from war. He is all you have. Your husband is dead. He married you young, moved you across the state to Philadelphia, away from your family and your congregation. Then he died in a trolley accident. And now your son, Ike, is home from the war, from the Battle of the Bulge, from the coast of France, which you imagine as someplace white and jagged, but he smells different now, of cigarettes and rank cotton. It bothers you especially because you work in a laundry. Your hands are perpetually chapped; the hot water stings.

And we slip into a very different Jewish tale. It’s a magnificent story. This is the one, this story, the one to buy the book for. The story speaks for itself, especially if you’re familiar with the term “Akedah.”

Hagar’s Sons (Ecotone) –

“I am coming to know you. I know, for one example, that you are worried about corruption. You regard it as an unnatural condition. It offends your morality. But what has been accomplished by our species that didn’t involve foresight? Jacob and his birthright. David. Saul. We make the arrangements necessary to honor our covenants.”
“I’m really only half-Jewish,” Cohen said.

I’m perplexed by this story. I follow everything that happens. Thanks to my misspent youth as a fundamentalist, I even have the background knowledge of the biblical Daniel and his dream interpretations, the Colossus, the handwriting on the wall, and the apocalyptic nature of the Biblical text. I have some vague familiarity with Dubai from an old Anthony Bourdain show (the tallest building in the world, the artificial Palm Islands – but I don’t think they’re in the shape of Arabic characters, are they? – the shopping mall in the desert which includes a ski resort complete with snow-covered mountain). But I’m still left trying to figure out what the heck is going on. Is it real, or a fantasy/dream, or a combination? Why is Cohen (the Hebrew word for “priest”) only half-Jewish? Why was Cohen picked at all, for that matter? Is it really saying what it seems to be saying about foreknowledge of 9/11? Or is it a farce about what coulda-woulda happened, the power of greed? A spoof of the tin-hatter theory that the Jews were responsible for 9/11? It’s a fascinating spy story, but I need the Cliff’s notes. Or at least the cue cards so I know when to laugh.

First Date Back (New England Review) –

Strangers kept coming up to Tedesco. They wanted to shake his hand and say thank you. They stared into his eyes with self-satisfied reverence. It was like he’d performed some unpleasant task for them and now they were square.

In this modern reframe of The Best Years Of Our Lives, a homeward-bound soldier falls in love at first sight with a flight attendant. He’s fully aware that his time in Iraq has left him without the social skills needed to conduct a proper romance, and his flashbacks keep getting in the way, but he does his best. It’s one thing to have Brian Williams or Mike Wallace talk about the trauma vets have suffered, or to see documentaries on the issue; it’s another to follow this one guy though his first day back. An excellent tragedy.

A Dream of Sleep (New England Review) –

Death did this. It transmuted each act of love into something unbearable.Was it any wonder he had buried himself?

Wolf Pinkas is a man more comfortable with death than with life. He lives in a cemetery crypt converted into a caretaker’s cottage, and he tends forgotten graves. The more the world changes, the more he withdraws into the world of the dead, his dreams and memories of Poland and the war, his cats, music. In one of his great essays on writing, Almond said, “Plot is the mechanism by which your protagonist is forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires” – and here a teenager does just that.

A good collection – I’m glad I read it, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. I have to admit, that I still prefer Almond’s nonfiction (and the flash I found in This Won’t Take But A Minute, Honey) to his short stories. Even so – I’m already waiting for his next collection.

Miranda July: No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories

The website for "No One Belongs Here More Than You"

Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it is really worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass them on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.

Hello, I am Zin! I read a story from this collection (“Swim Team”) for my Second Person Study, and I went ahead and read the rest of the stories little by little. It is a wonderful book! Wonderful stories! She also has an adorable website (shown above) – it is written on her stove! She started out writing on her refrigerator but it was too hard to keep erasing.

It reads at times like the writings of an angst-ridden teenager. I do not mean to be snooty, I love that! But it is surprising that it is acceptable to do that! Many of the stories also have a lot of serious digressions! Now, no one loves digressions more than me, but do you know how bad you get smacked down for digressions? And somehow Miranda July can do them and win prizes – big prizes, like the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and it was named one of the top ten fiction books of 2007 by Time (it is strange they would name a story collection, when publishers everywhere insist that people do not read short stories, only novels).

I am very jealous! These are stories I should have written! And awed! Just about every story made me cry. It was very awkward, reading them on the bus to the supermarket or while waiting for a bus or an appointment because I would start crying, but also very beautiful.

This is the book I want to write! Well, no, not this book of course, since Miranda July already wrote it. But a book like this, with stories like these. Simple, straightforward, but intensely feeling, heartbreaking, stories where you love the protagonist, really love her! And by extension the writer.

I have never been someone who says, I like this author or that. I like books, and stories, and sometimes they are by the same author, but if I like 50% of the stories in a collection, that is really good! But I think I am a Miranda July fan! I think I loved maybe all of these stories, at least came very close.

Describing these stories does not do them justice. Every sentence, every element, is necessary, so you will just have to read them! The book itself is so perfectly simple – no cover art, just a bright cover (mine is yellow, I understand some are red) with non-serif lettering, a small blurb and pic on the back. No splashy banners about the prizes won. No intriguing art. Just a book. It is a perfect work of art, exactly as it is (of course which cover you get depends on which edition, and that can vary). And because it was published back in 2007, you can probably find a used copy for about $7.

Some of the stories are online, so you can try them out before you risk your $7:

This Person” for example. If you are at work, be forewarned: it will make you cry. It was published in Bridge in 2003.

The Shared Patio” is available in the Zoetrope: All Story archives (it was published there in 2005). It is the story the opening quote above is from. But that quote is not at all in the style of the story. It is one of those stories that can not possibly work: what do people who share a patio, who work at a printer and a magazine printed by the printer, one of whom has an epileptic seizure while the other falls asleep and dreams they are having an affair, only to be awakened by an alarmed wife and discovering a wonderful display of intimacy – not the sexual kind, the real kind – on the refrigerator – what can these things do to work? It can not possibly work! And yet it does! Oh, go ahead, read it, it is not very long! None of these are very long, and most are quite short.

If you read my comments on “The Swim Team” you might find a surprise hidden there. It is an incredible story. Only a small part of it is in second person. Most of it is about a woman who teaches old people to swim in her living room. Please go see! Just click on the very tiny link, it is easy, it will be worth it, I promise!

The Man on the Stairs” is online in the Fence archives where it was published in 2004. How did I miss all these wonderful stories? What was I reading in 2004? Oh, 2004, that was not really a reading year for me.

The other stories in the book (those I can not find online) are well worth your $7. “Ten True Things,” for example, which tells the story of a secretary who takes a sewing class to meet the wife of her sleazeball boss. “Something That Needs Nothing” (which was published in Bridge and in The New Yorker tells of the relationship between two girls, how it stretches and breaks and reforms. “I Kiss A Door” which is about how you do not really know what anyone is going through, and the coolest person around might be in agony every day of her life. And “Majesty” which combines a girl planning to meet Prince William, a lost dog, and sex. Again, an impossible story, but it is not only possible, it is wonderful! Other stories in this book were published in McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, Harvard Review, and Tin House. This is not teenage angst literature.

I see she has a new book coming out in November, It Chooses You. It is not fiction, but is the story of how she made her current movie, The Future, including tracking down and interviewing thirteen people with for-sale ads in Pennysaver.

Miranda July is someone I could easily find annoyingly quirky, kind of like the old Goldie Hawn character on Laugh-In or the Zoey Deschanel character in the TV series “The New Girl” which debuted a few weeks ago (the promos tempted me, but I could only tolerate half of one episode). I mean, look at the whole refrigerator/stove website thing. She has a lot of cool people around her and she does a lot of cool things. I do not do cool things, and cool people run when they see me coming. But, somehow, her stories touch me. That goes a long way. In fact, it’s the only thing that matters.