Hannah Tinti, ed.: Small Odysseys (Algonquin, 2022) [IBR2022]

Recorded civilization started a few thousand years ago, but people have been walking, talking, fire-using, tool-making hominids for a vast span of time – before we began writing our histories. And in that time before time began, over those hundreds of thousands of years, we told each other stories. There are satisfying places where stories go, where stories take us: in our minds, on journeys we will never make, with people we will never otherwise meet, voyages that take us East of the Sun and West of the Moon, and leave us satisfied when the story is over and yet we have not moved, and are still sitting beside the fire.
There are stories that are still told that we can date from geological events they refer to that are older than any city, older than any country, older than the oldest living thing we know of on this planet (it’s a five-thousand-year-old bristlecone pine tree in California).
Stories are currency. Stories are the way we interact, the place that groups come together. Stories unite us. We look out through other eyes, imagine ourselves in other skins, experience lives we wished we could lead or are relieved we never will.

Neil Gaiman, Foreword

Selected Shorts is celebrating its thirty-fifth year with this collection of thirty-five new stories by a wide variety of writers. Much like the writers collected in any BASS or Pushcart edition, some of them are quite familiar to me; others I’ve heard of but have never read; and still others are brand-new to me. As you can guess – thirty-five stories in a 300-page book – most of them are very short; about half are under seven pages, and only a few are more than ten pages. There’s a wide variety of subgenre and form, from traditional realism to unconventional fantasy. Several deal directly or indirectly with the COVID pandemic. Many of the stories are funny, but even they tug at the heart, and some tear it open the way only funny can do.

Editor Hannah Tinti has arranged the book in three sections:

Part one, Departures, focuses on the first step of any adventure: leaving home and saying goodbye….
Part two of this collection is titled Journeys and follows characters in a state of transition and movement….
The final section of Small Odysseys is titled New Worlds and investigates arrivals, those strange and exciting first steps into unfamiliar territory.

Hannah Tinti, Introduction

Tinti includes a brief summary of each story in these sections in her Introduction. And: for those of us who love the BASS Contributor Notes, a special touch: following each story, the author gives us a glimpse of where it came from.

It takes me two months to blog twenty BASS stories, and four months to work through Pushcart, so obviously I can’t describe each story. In fact, I had to leave out some great work just to whittle the list down to a manageable number for a blog post. My favorites, possibly because of my mental state, tended to be shorter, were less about realism, and leaned towards humor and novelty rather than traditional literary structures and tones; however, there were exceptions.

A couple of stories look at our relationship with technology, which has perhaps become more intense in the past two years as we’ve isolated and quarantined. Weiki Wang’s “iPhone SE” features an anxiety-ridden woman struggling with an out-of-control Siri who can’t be disabled:

Because I couldn’t shut her off, I put Siri in a drawer. That did only so much when I was addicted to checking my phone. News was addicting. A country was usually on fire. Others ravaged by disease and war. Our climate was turning on us and human beings in power could really suck. Then I liked to text my friends, to see if they would laugh at any of my stupid jokes. So, I couldn’t be away from my phone and when Siri asked why I had hidden her, I said I needed to be alone, but just for that one minute.
I’m here! The most common phrase she liked to shout. Especially at night when I got up to pee. I’m here! How can I help? Do you need to see a urologist? Do you need to set a later alarm? On your schedule for tomorrow are these two things.
After that I was awake.

Weiki Wang, “iPhone SE”

In eight pages, Wang covers a lot of ground, from climate change and how algorithms end up with biases to The Nine Chapters on the Mathematical Art, a 2000-year-old Chinese math textbook. And, more poignantly, the human desire to connect.

Mira Jacob’s “Death by Printer” features a woman grieving for her dead wife who finds solace in a channel of how-to videos when her printer stops working. “It’s been so long since she’d fixed anything.”

“A Survey of Recent American Happenings Told Through Six Commercials for the Tennyson ClearJet Premium Touchless Bidet” by Omar El Akkad is best described by the author’s note:

In April of 2020 I was stuck at home and watching a lot of television. I became fascinated with how quickly the ads on TV had been retooled to take advantage of our collective fear and anxiety. There was something surreal about being in the middle of a global pandemic and historically bad recession and yet watching this parade of commercials for billion-dollar companies full of phrases like “from our family to yours” and “in these uncertain times,” as though this was all just a minor inconvenience. I got to wondering how apocalyptic things would have to get before the wheels of commerce finally ground to a halt.

Omar El Akkad, From the Author

The commercials start with “a new president” and go through “we’re more divided than ever,” “staying home, staying safe, staying clean,” murder hornets (wow, remember murder hornets, they were before the giant spiders and this week’s terror, jumping worms – does someone sit up at night looking for scary insects to scare us with?), rampaging horn-donkeys, to “as we start the slow excruciating work of rebuilding some semblance of civilization,” ending with “Tennyson Bidets: Everything is fine. Everything is fine now. Buy stuff.” It’s hilarious and at the same time enraging because we’re living it.

Susan Perabo wrote one of my all-time favorite stories (“Indulgence”) and follows it up with what I think will become another one: “The Project” (You can hear the Selected Shorts reading of this story here). In the surface it’s about a family helping their fifth-grader complete her science fair project: Can you recognize your dog by its nose print? Thus it makes sense that it’s divided into something like a scientific paper, with sections titled “Question,” “Hypothesis,” “Research” etc. But woven into the tale of trifold boards and measuring and gluing are strewn little hints about something much deeper, which lends punch to the final section, “Conclusion”:

Can you identify a dog by its nose print? If dog who resembles your long-lost dog comes to your door, starving, skin and bones, its fur matted, ears crusty, dirt caked between the pads of its paws, would you know him? If you take his chin in your hand, tilt up his head, get a good look at his nose, the grooves, the teardrop nostrils, is there enough to go on? Can you say, with certainty: yes, yes, I recognize you.

Susan Perabo, “The Project”

As I read that paragraph into dictation software for transcribing, I start to cry, have to stop because the app can no longer recognize what I’m saying. And it has nothing to do with the dog.

Jess Walter’s “Love Interest” is more of a traditional narrative (I told you there were exceptions). It’s a charming story of a digital detective who typically digs up a spouse’s hidden assets but finds himself helping a former actress, long past the brief career she voluntarily left, find her heart’s desire:

I think, in the end, this was her true gift: the rare ability to see through fantasy. And now that she’d had one more little glimpse, she was ready to go back to the real.

Jess Walter, “Love Interest”

That’s just a sprinkling of the stories in Small Odysseys. There’s so much more: Edwidge Danticat brings a migration manifesto to life; Dave Eggars “figured the world needs more stories set in Idaho, so I wrote one” about crossed generations and how we find our dreams in strange places; Juan Martinez ride-shares to an unexpected destination; Rivers Solomon acquaints us with the language of the dead; Ben Loory turns dandelions from a despised weed to a work of art; Etgar Keret turns the Gift of the Magi on its ear; Lesley Nneka Arimah writes about options from the point of view of one who has few; Luis Alberto Urrea takes us for a ride on his father’s bread truck; and so on.

This was an impulse buy, added to my already overly ambitious reading list for this in-between period. But I spend a lot of time reading short stories, so I felt it was worth squeezing in. I also liked the idea of supporting Selected Shorts, as I’ve enjoyed listening to the recordings of readings they’ve released. The book is also a lovely physical object, a paperback (my preferred format) with French flaps and deckled edges and color-balanced geometric designs. More than that, it’s a way to discover an author you’ve always wanted to read but haven’t gotten to yet, find a familiar voice, or try something completely new.

ZZ Packer: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead 2003) [IBR2022]

One must care deeply about what we write or else we won’t see deeply enough to make others care and see.
Still, caring and seeing are not enough. Words and sentences must somehow translate, somehow mediate, our thoughts and feelings into characters and events. Only for the characters to turn around and have to relay themselves to others through words. We writers may see, observe, care and feel, but language is the medium by which that all comes across. Language is the transom of thought and feeling.

ZZ Packer, Interview at Writer’s Digest

One of the things I use this in-between reading period for is to catch up on books I keep reading about, seeing referenced when writers talk about books, but haven’t read yet. This was my year to find ZZ Packer – who, for an embarrassingly long time, I thought was a white male bro-lit writer. When I get it wrong, I really get it wrong. Instead, she’s a black woman who writes stories about black women (mostly) who are uncomfortable where they are. Some manage to find ways to change that; others don’t. But it’s the looking that is the story.

The title story follows a young black woman, Dina, as she starts college at Yale. The opening scene shows us “orientation games;” if this is how they orient you to Yale, I’m so glad I went to a state commuter school where they mailed you a schedule and a map and you were on your own. Dina isn’t about to play Trust, leaning back to the white boys waiting to catch her. Other inanity follows, until we reach the high point:

When it was my turn I said, “My name is Dina, and if I had to be any object, I guess I’d be a revolver.” The sunlight dulled as if on cue. Clouds passed rapidly overhead, presaging rain. I don’t know why I said it. Until that moment I’d been good in all the ways that were meant to matter. I was an honor roll student – though I’d learned long ago not to mention it in the part of Baltimore where I lived. Suddenly I was hard-bitten and recalcitrant, the kind of kid who took pleasure in sticking pins into cats; the kind who chased down smart kids to spray them with Mace.

This is, we gather, an effort to create a persona she can retreat into, and it works: she’s rewarded with a “suicide single,” a room to herself, but it comes with mandatory counselling. She manages to keep the RAs away by sitting naked in her room, but she hadn’t planned on Heidi, aka Henrik, who sits outside her door and cries and recites Frank O’Hara’s “Autobiographica Literaria” as if it’s her own babbling. Dina is drawn to Heidi in spite of herself, beginning with that poem, one she loves presumably because it echoes her own misfit status, a status that she deliberately maintains rather than trying to connect. But Heidi somehow sneaks in under the radar.

The story details their year: they read outside the coursework, work shifts together in the cafeteria, have sleepovers. Some of these moments venture to the edge of sexual attraction, but never quite get there. Dina makes up stories for her counsellor about an encounter with a boy when she was younger; her overwhelming emotion at the time was anxiety and awkwardness, but she recites it differently.

The shrink seems to see beyond the words she’s saying. When the relationship with Heidi becomes too painful for Dina to continue for a couple of reasons, he tells her how she’s “constructing stories” about herself for others to consume, rather than being genuine:

“Oh, just that constantly saying what one doesn’t mean accustoms the mouth to meaningless phrases.” His eyes narrowed. “Maybe you’ll understand that when you finally need to express something truly significant your mouth will revert to the insignificant nonsense it knows so well.” He looked at me, his hands sputtering in the air in a gesture of defeat. “Who knows?” he asked with a glib, psychiatric smile I’d never seen before. “Maybe it’s your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world.”
I heard him, but only vaguely. I’d hooked onto that one word, pretending. Dr. Raeburn would never realize that “pretending” was what had got me this far. I remembered the morning of my mother’s funeral. I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days

But how far is “this far?” From Baltimore to Yale, yes, that could be a triumph, but she’s not doing well academically, and she’s cut herself off from her only friend at this point. The shrink seems to function partly as an explainer to the reader, if a flawed one; this strikes me as a bit heavy-handed, as if we’re going to miss what’s happening if he isn’t there to tell us. But he also functions as a clarion call to Dina, one she, alas, ignores.

O’Hara’s poem ends with an ironic twist on hope for a better future – “And here I am, the / center of all beauty! / writing these poems! / Imagine!” – seeing himself still alone, but at least productive. The story ends with Dina, alone in Baltimore again, imagining a future for herself where Heidi again returns and forces her way into her life, taking O’Hara one step further, to a future without irony, without loneliness.

I’d be visiting her in some vague time in the future, deliberately vague, for people like me, who realign past events to suit themselves. In that future time, you always have a chance to catch the groceries before they fall; your words can always be rewound and erased, rewritten and revised.
Then I’d imagine Heidi visiting me. There are no psychiatrists or deans, no boys with nice shoes or flip cashiers. Just me and my single room. She knocks on the door and says, “open up.”


The first story, “Brownies,” was just as captivating (Packer reads this story online via a 2009 Berkeley reading). A Brownie troop of black girls watches another troop of white girls arrive at a campsite:

By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions of blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla. They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse; or the generic ones cheap parents bought: washed out rainbows, unicorns, curly-eyelashed frogs. Some clutched Igloo coolers and still others held on to stuffed toys like pacifiers, looking all around them like tourists determined to be dazzled.

Our point of view character is Laurel (nicknamed Snot from an unfortunate sneeze back in first grade; this is Mean Girls, The Early Years). She’s thoughtful and mostly quiet, giving herself time to consider how the ass-kicking could turn out.

The confrontation occurs between the black Mean Girls and the white Troop 909, but it doesn’t go as planned when it becomes evident the Troop 909 Brownies are delayed learners. “WE’RE NOT RETARDED” insists one, and their troop leader echoes that. To their credit, the girls back off – there are lines even Mean Girls won’t cross – but still insist one of the 909s used a racial slur. “That one,” she points. Impossible, says the troop leader. “She doesn’t speak. She can, but she doesn’t.” The confused definitions don’t help the situation.

A somewhat heavy-handed analysis closes the story, underlining how being dumped on all your life makes you look for someone else to dump on. But there are other details that deepen the story and bring it in, make the universal more personal and the personal universal.

For one thing, it’s very funny. The Mean Girls delightedly refer to the 909 girls as smelling like wet chihuahuas. You can guess where they got that from. Hey, I said it was funny, I didn’t say it wasn’t also painful. The troop leaders are clueless: one loves Brownie songs, so they sing her a few, plus a donut song about the hole in your soul without Jesus, to cheer her up. Then there are the sarcastic asides about the entire expedition: one girl says, “I mean, I really don’t know why it’s even called camping – all we ever do with nature is find some twigs and say something like, ‘Wow, this fell from a tree.’” That sounds a lot like my camping experiences.

Then there are the parallels between the two troops. In both, there’s a leader, and a quiet girl, and the quiet girl turns out to be key, in different ways. The 909 quiet girl couldn’t have said the slur because she doesn’t talk; the Mean Girls quiet girl, Daphne, isn’t mean at all – she won’t even join the group as they head to the bathroom to kick white ass – and is someone Laurel would like to be friends with maybe, because she wrote an evocative poem about her father and her family is a lot poorer than the rest of them.

It’s the interaction between Daphne and Laurel that gets a close-up lens. In Fiction Writer’s Review, Michael Byers has a marvelous interpretation of the two as writers: when Daphne passes Laurel her empty journal, it’s an invitation to write her story, as Daphne hasn’t been able to begin hers. The writing connection hadn’t occurred to me, but the passing of the journal seemed like a way of Daphne telling Laurel, don’t be silent like me. It also links this story to the title story, where Dina mentally writes herself as a character and rewrites her past to suit her present needs.

“The Ant of the Self” is the only story with a male protagonist, teenage honor student Spurgeon. He bails his father out of jail, and ends up in a cross-country trip aimed at selling macaws at the Million Man March in DC. “You’re gonna have Afrocentric folks there,” reasons his father, and they’ll want birds to remind them of Africa.

One of the speeches at the March draws from a pamphlet by a white Jamaican slaveholder, William Lynch, which advises ways to break men into slaves by dividing them against each other. This makes the divisions in the story – father and son, Afrocentric and my-dad-made-me-come, town and gown, rich and poor, divorced parents – more electric. By the way, the pamphlet referenced is now regarded as a modern fake, which just adds to the pathos.  

Things go downhill from there, and Spurgeon ends up in a bus station, no car, no money, no way of getting home until a stranger gives him $20. The stranger is carrying his little boy on his shoulders, and Spurgeon initially considers him a terrible father for dragging the kid out in the hot sun all day then not getting him into bed at a reasonable hour, reflecting his own parental disappointment. But then the man asks the ticket agent to say, “All Aboard!” to give his kid a thrill, and boy, does the sun break through in the darkest night:

The father sets the boy down, feet first, onto the ground. An intercom crackles and a voice says:
“All aboard!”
The voice is hearty and successful. The boy jumps up and down with delight. He is the happiest I’ve seen anyone, ever. And though the urge to weep comes over me, I wait – holding my head in my hands – and it passes.

Yeah. Me, too.

All of the characters in these eight stories are having trouble fitting in where they expect to fit in, be it school, church, or family. Sometimes it’s race, though it’s usually more about their embodiment or interpretation of race; sometimes it’s about gender or sexuality. And sometimes they’re just fish out of water. Some of them try to find ways to fit in, as Laurel does by connecting with Daphne; others revel in their oddness, as does Dina. In “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” it’s abuse by a church elder that complicates Clareese’s comfort in her own congregation. In “Our Lady of Peace,” Lynnea goes from Kentucky to a teacher training program in Baltimore to fit in, to no avail.

In her Ploughshares blog article, Franny Zhang points out how often travel is part of these stories. Not only does Spurgeon end up driving all over on behalf of his father before having to find his own way home, and does Lynnea go looking for something better than Kentucky, but other characters use physical travel as a way of escape or search. In “Geese,” Dina (who may or may not be the same Dina from “Coffee”) goes to Japan only to find herself just as isolated. In “Speaking in Tongues,” teenage Tia, feeling estranged from her church group and unhappy with her guardian, hops a bus for Atlanta to find her mother; instead, she finds a potential world of trouble, but heads home before it actualizes.

Packer was one of James Alan McPherson’s students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; I’ve run into several in my reading over the past few years. Her collection recollected his Elbow Room a bit, not in theme or style but in the presentation of black lives, in her case primarily women, and the invitation to consider how life looks from different points of view. She seems to have shifted to nonfiction in recent years, which may be why it took me so long to get to her. Better late than never – at least, to some degree.

Helen DeWitt: Some Trick: Thirteen Stories (New Directions, 2018) [IBR2022]

Cover Painting: “The Satisfied Hare” by Kevin Sloan
For sheer unpredictable brilliance, Gogol may come to mind, but no author alive today takes a reader as far as Helen DeWitt into the funniest, most far-reaching dimensions of possibility. Her jumping-off points might be statistics, romance, the art world’s piranha tank, games of chance and of skill, the travails of publishing, or success. “Look,” a character begins to explain, laying out some gambit reasonably enough, though in the face of situations spinning out to their utmost logical extremes, where things prove “more complicated than they had first appeared” and “at 3 a.m. the circumstances seem to attenuate.” In various ways, each of these thirteen razor-sharp tales carries DeWitt’s signature poker-face lament regarding the near-impossibility of the life of the mind when one is made to pay to have the time for it, in a world so sadly “taken up with all sorts of paraphernalia superfluous, not to say impedimental, to ratiocination.”

New Directions Books promo

I fell in love with DeWitt’s The Last Samurai last year; I was obsessed with it, reading and re-reading over the course of several weeks. And now I’m experiencing much the same with this book. That isn’t to say I understand all parts of every story; I’m nowhere near DeWitt’s level. But the aspiration alone keeps me reading, over and over, and makes me want to read everything that might help me gain more insight. And it’s just a really fun joyread as well.

Then I read this DeWitt interview and I go, uh oh:

But in some ways DeWitt has the bullshit of the publishing world nailed. “I don’t know,” she said, “how to deal with a world where there’s this language of infatuation that people use. ‘Well, I didn’t fall in love with the book.’ Or: ‘I fell in love with the book!’ ‘Infatuated!’ ‘Besotted!’ ‘Obsessed!’ I’m not sure that that has ever been my attitude toward any text. Throwing around this language is really a way of denying the mechanics of attachment. You hear this all the time: If they don’t fall in love with it the first time, that’s it. Well, that’s a psychological issue. Look, I sometimes think I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m really bad at people’s emotional investment in things.” She compared editors who don’t respond to rational arguments about a book to Thrasymachus, Callicles, and Gorgias — sophists who sulk whenever Socrates frustrates their conventional arguments.

Christian Lorentzen: “Publishing Can Break Your Heart” available online at Vulture

In defense of my emotional attachment, I’ve said over and over in this blog that I love a book that teaches me something. And DeWitt teaches me more things than I ever dreamed there were to learn. But her comment does somewhat explain the tone of her books: rather than explicit emotion, we’re allowed to figure out what’s happening in the hearts while we see what’s happening in the world and sometimes in the minds of the characters. There’s no “sensitive portrayal” as I keep sneering of so much contemporary domestic realism. There’s wackiness, and strangeness, and injustice and cruelty and obsession, and we get to decorate the slopes of the volcano ourselves (those who read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden – the novel, not, god forbid, the song – might recognize that metaphor which I’ve found useful for forty-some-odd years).

The collection’s title comes from the opening poem, which sets up a Wizard of Oz theme.

If ever if ever a wiz there was
The Wizard of Oz was one because
Because because because because because

‘I have nothing to give you but that’s all right because
Knowledge of lack is possession
Recognised absence is presence
Perceived emptiness plenitude.
To have not
And know it
Is to have.’

Some trick….

As I said, I’m not wise enough to play Wizard here, but if you google around you’ll find far more sophisticated analyses of the book: TNY, NYT, Atlantic, The Nation, pretty much anywhere that books are reviewed. As usual, I’m here to relate my own experience, what I saw, what I cared about. That’s my only area of expertise. But I’m also here to be something of a cheerleader for those of us who aren’t sophisticated enough to pick out allusions or techniques. It’s still a great read. And there’s so much to learn.

“Brutto,” the first story, sets the tone for much of the rest.

It’s easy to say you can just walk away from it.
….People think it would be easy to walk away.
….If you have never been there you think it is easy to walk away.

Cooking shows are always talking about layering flavors. I’m never completely sure exactly what they mean; it seems to have something to do with adding ingredients at different times so they take on different characteristics. A sauteed mirepoix might be the first part of a stew, letting the onions melt and sweeten while retaining their savory character. Meat is then browned to provide the luscious fond. Tomatoes would be added later, tempering but not losing their sweetness while emphasizing their acidity; other vegetables follow, letting them soak up everything else in the pot. And fresh herbs make an appearance in the last moments so they retain freshness. 

This story – like all of DeWitt’s stories – is similarly layered. We start with the starving artist at a show of her work. The details of her artwork – she layers the paint so thick, some take a year to dry before they can be hung; the white is a very specific white – plus the backstory of her frustrated genius and miseducation in the practical craft of dressmaking as a youth in 1962 East Germany are like the mirepoix, and the economic realities of art underlie everything that comes.

But I’ve been inaccurate. We start with her father, an engineer, and his attitude towards Jews. Throughout the story, this flavor keeps coming back: the Holocaust, the interaction between Italy and Germany during WWII. Which is convenient because…

Enter the Italian gallerist Adalberto who is enamored with the suit, the Gesellenstück our artist produced to graduate from her dressmaker apprenticeship years ago, a suit that screams technical precision and aesthetic horror. The brutto of the title. But even this one word is layered, aesthetic upon economic, I discovered:

The layers of translational wordplay at work in the story’s title constitute a neat synopsis of what happens, as well as DeWitt’s analysis of art-making under the pressures of industry. In Italian, brutto means ugly or coarse; in German the same word means gross, as in a total profit before deductions. Pun on that in English and you get gross as in disgusting, as well as obvious.

Lauren Oyler, “The Screwer and the Screwed” at The Baffler

Our artist – whose name is never given – is no longer an ingenue, but a middle-aged woman, one year away from the cutoff age of 50 for the prestigious Turner Prize. And she needs money. So she initially refuses when Adalberto offers her $1000 per suit to recreate, times 19, what she is wearing. It isn’t until he offers $2500 that she utters the first “walk away” line, and we’re off to the races.

And because she is no longer an ingenue, she makes an extra suit, and keeps the original one. Because she knows how these things go. And just in case we don’t, she gives an example:

If you watch art auctions maybe you will think there are some very rich artists, because Hockney’s Portrait Of Nick Wilder sold for £3 million. But Hockney sold the painting a long time ago. It is the paintings from the 60s and the 70s that make that money and it is the people who own those paintings, and the people who handle the sale, who make the money. So it is too bad for Hockney that he did not keep aside a painting from that time.
…. But what if somebody discovers what he were doing in 1962, and they Commission you to do 19 more of what you were doing in 1962? If you can do even one you can do 19, and if you can do 19 you can do 20.
So she did 20, and add Alberto never saw her Gesellenstück again, because it stayed on its padded hanger.

And as we started with the father, we end with… spermicidal jelly? There’s a context there (hey, I have to leave something for readers to discover) but this could refer to so much. The artist’s sterility, actual or desired. The sterility of art, or of this particular art, contrasted with Adalberto’s vision of the denial of the body. And because of the father, perhaps his sterility, or a wish that he had been, which is quite a statement from his daughter. Perhaps a statement against the human race? All of the above? Choose your metaphor? It’s the sprinkle of crispy fried shallots on top of the finished stew, completing the layers.

It wasn’t until I read Brittany Allen’s article “Getting Tricked by Helen DeWitt” in Longreads that I realized the narration switches tense. But not just tense: they switch to second person, and sometimes to subjunctive mood. I have a feeling there’s a terrific stylistics paper in there: the narrator stays in past to relay events, then “head hops,” as Allen says, to provide closer thoughts. Or maybe, the narration switches to one of the characters. This is most plausible in the first switch, when we’re in third person past tense as Adalberto is looking at various paintings. The narration describes him, and gives his position: “He was standing by 1.1.4” and suddenly there’s a switch to second person present:

When people number paintings they do it the wrong way. You get an idea while you’re working on a painting and you have to do it in another painting because otherwise you would use the first painting. It’s like taking cuttings from a plant. So if you just use ordinal numbers you lose all that. You lose a distinction, because sometimes a painting is just out of the blue.
Sometimes you know there’s a gap between one painting and another, that was a painting you didn’t do, so you can show that with the number and that’s good, the missing painting still has its number like a name on a grave.

I’m not sure if this insert is Adalberto’s consideration, or the artist’s, or an intrusive narrator. I suspect it’s the artist, because after a single sentence describing Adalberto’s clothing, we’re back to a second-person present meditation on the work she puts into her paintings, on a purchaser who wasn’t willing to wait the year for the paint to dry and thus saw it fall from the painting onto his floor, and on the particularity of white paint and the fear of a particular brand ceasing production of their special white that you’ve based your work on.

It’s this kind of frenetic flood of information from different sources that makes these stories so much fun to read, and so difficult.

 Some trick, as she says.

This theme of an artist – or musician, or writer – unable to get her vision to the public because of all the middlemen in the way (agents, editors, publishers, gallerists, impresarios) is repeated often in the book in various ways. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie” a mathematician published a book of robot stories for children years ago. His agent wants another book, but Peter is still upset that Euler’s Identity (I can’t figure out how to do superscripts in WordPress, and the irony just about slays me) was removed from the book. Peter brings sheafs of PDFs of graphs to show the probability of being born to a parent who is an addict, introducing a new idea: “The point is simply, said Peter, that the family is a barbarous institution. One is, for the most part, stuck with the look of a single draw.”

Now, this makes for an interesting story (and I haven’t even mentioned the conversations Peter has with the robots while this is going on) but what’s really interesting is that both the idea of a publisher refusing to publish a book as envisioned by an author, specifically including non-standard characters, AND the idea that one’s birth parents often aren’t the best environment for the development of artistry, rationality, and/or genius, are themes from The Last Samurai or its publication history. So I was pretty much bouncing up and down to see them here.

“On the Town” similarly has so many great ideas packed into one story, it’s hard to follow but still delightful to read. There’s Benny, living in New York and in need of a roommate. His father wrote several famous children’s books, but got himself financially stalled because of his inability to get the Crap Free Deal (which seems to preclude theater tickets and other perks most authors would swoon over and requires a fixer-upper in Pittsburgh). As a result, Benny grew up relatively poor, and wants a roommate who’s never heard of his father’s books. Enter Gil, from Iowa. Iowans seem to be of two opinions about New York: it’s The City and thus an abomination, or it’s where dreams come true. Gil is of the second, and his sense of wonder running around New York is kind of grating and adorable in equal measure: “And on his very first day, when he even hadn’t unpacked, he saw Harvey Keitel eating a pancake in a diner! A diner in the Village!” Gil also possesses some strong trade skills from having built a tree house in Iowa, as well as some outstanding computer graphics capabilities from having a Entenmann’s Cookie Empire as a kid, and within a week he’s got Benny’s dad all set and everybody’s happy. It’s another fun story though I’m pretty sure I’m missing something. Madeleine Schwartz in Dissent Magazine proclaims “DeWitt is a master (!) of the exclamation point as dis” except Gil, who speaks in italics and exclamation points, is so much the hero of this story, I wonder if he’s the unicorn that makes the point.

“Famous Last Words” takes Barthes’ “Death of the Author” quite literally as a group of pretentious literati search for deathbed declarations of various writers, while “Climbers” plays on the same pretentiousness as a group of literary wannabes swarm after an obscure European author. “In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16K Having Once Been Very Young” is again an art-vs-commerce struggle as a record producer comes up with a horrid album cover (wow, remember album art?) and commits other acts of artricide because “you don’t want to disappoint your fans.”

And then there’s “The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto” which contrasts musical styles: “What was remarkable was Mlle Matsumoto’s ability to realize the impossible, to transform a percussive instrument into one which had the fluidity of the voice.” This, too, is something that’s familiar from The Last Samurai, one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel for me. The story also includes a reference to Charles-Valentin Alkan’s Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot; I can’t find any mention that the Monty Python crew knew anything about this, but it’s a fun thought.

The collection closes with “Entourage,” which starts out being about obsessive book collecting.

He went to Krakow for no particular reason.
He had found a flight for 5 euros; For an additional 9 euros one could take a suitcase weighing 20 kg, or 44 pounds. He packed a small suitcase with books.
He went into a bookstore and began opening books.
…Note the frequency of the letters z, w and y. The sample is, in fact, unrepresentative; in a larger sample of Polish words the letters j and k are also common.
…. It was now unexpectedly necessary to purchase a small suitcase and fill it with books replete with the letters z, w, y, j and k. It was necessary to hire someone to fly with him to Berlin to accompany the suitcase. Słowosław was the applicant whose name had the best letters.
…. He would travel, at any rate, to, as it might be, Istanbul with his first suitcase under his own supervision and the second suitcase in the care of an escort, and on arrival in Istanbul we discover all sorts of books that one simply never sees. Books, you know, with a dotless i. Umlauts up the gazoo. It would be necessary, obviously, to purchase a new suitcase and hire someone locally to fly back with it.
…. He went to Copenhagen at one point. The Danish word for island is Ø. The common run of visitors do not see the phenomenon as necessitating purchase of a suitcase and hiring of a Dane.

Eventually he has 20 escorts in his entourage. “He buys books to remind himself to read them.” And of course he needs someone to select and manage the entourage, to select people with the correct names for the various countries.

But it turns out it isn’t the books that are the ultimate draw here: it’s the system. While looking for an entourage manager, he hears about a restaurant with a sushi train, that is, a model train that travels around the counter loaded with sushi, and customers can select their desired dish. He wonders if that could be used to teach children, using a sort of delayed gratification model: if one learns the Cyrillic alphabet, or logarithms, and completes an exercise showing proficiency, one may select cake from a moving train.

He fine-tunes the idea:

He saw presently that it would be a mistake to try to establish a chain of schools. One is subject to so much unwelcome supervision. What was wanted, surely, was a chain of child-oriented restaurants. The sort of place where a parent could leave a child at any time day or night. Everyone cannot afford the fees for a private school. One might be able to afford a session or two a week at an educational restaurant. One might be able to send a child full-time to the restaurant while flush, then fall back on the public school system when funds run short.

I was reminded of the momentum of descent in a couple of stories by Julia Elliot (“Bride,” “The Erl-King”) and one by Elizabeth McCracken (“It’s Not You” and possibly “Thunderstruck”). Whereas Elliott and McCracken slide down the banister from odd-but-normal to bizarre and count on the momentum of Familiarity to override Reason and thus blur the exact moment we’ve left Morality behind, DeWitt clumps down the stairs, forcing us to help Familiarity continue in light of reduced momentum of Reason. Descent becomes more of, though never completely, a choice. Of course, the banister is greased with booze, or money, or power, so it’s a choice to hop on in the first place.

Ben Streeter has written a far more sophisticated sociopolitical analysis of this story at Politics/Letters. He uses words like bureaucracy, utility maximization, neoliberalism, and entrepreneurial interest and quotes people I’ve never heard of who have intricate theories of these words. It’s well worth reading if only for the killer ending:

Just as in the Wizard of Oz Dorothy goes from somewhere over the rainbow, in Technicolor, to Kansas, in black and white, in “Entourage” a bibliophile goes from traveling around Krakow and Bilbao and Berlin collecting untranslated books to running an empire of assembly lines that bear an eerie resemblance to child labor. And with that, the story collection that began with an enigmatic Oz-inspired poem comes full circle.
DeWitt’s stories have the texture of fairy tales. Kandice Chuh might classify them as “gleeful departures from the ordinary.”
But her fairy tales have a brothers Grimm-like underbelly to them. In “Entourage,” an idiosyncratic passion for foreign-language books — only three percent of books in the United States are in translation — turns into a demented fervor for the manipulation of human behavior.
The sense of possibility represented in that innocent love of books, all those umlauts and dotless-i-s, morphs into a banal propensity for workforce development. How do we get there? Some trick.

Ben Streeter, “Ben Streeter Sees the Neoliberalism in Helen DeWitt’s ‘Some Trick’” at The Baffler

I’m a little hazy on the Wizard of Oz connection, but I stated up front I wasn’t equal to this book. Given DeWitt’s constant theme of the struggle between artists and those who profit from them, as well as her own struggle with publishing, I wouldn’t dismiss Streeter’s point of view.  

Whenever someone asks that nothing-else-to-talk-about question, “So who’s your favorite author?” I always get uncomfortable. I don’t have one. I have favorite books, hundreds of them, and I’ve been very fond of several books by a few authors, but I’ve never felt like one author was mine. I’m beginning to think Helen Dewitt is my author. I’m not sure yet – I have her 2011 novel Lightning Rods to read, and she’s coming out with a novella this year – but I think so. I love the way she teaches me things.

Amy Bloom: Come to Me: Stories (HC 1993) [IBR2021]

My sister’s voice was like mountain water in a silver pitcher; the clear blue beauty of it cools you and lifts you up beyond your heat, beyond your body. After we went to see La Traviata, when she was fourteen and I was twelve, she elbowed me in the parking lot and said, “Check this out” And she opened her mouth unnaturally wide and her voice came out, so crystalline and bright that all the departing operagoers stood frozen by their cars, unable to take out their keys or open their doors until she had finished, and then they cheered like hell.
That’s what I like to remember and that’s the story I told to all of her therapists. I wanted them to know her, to know that who they saw was not all there was to see.

“Silver Water”

After I’d read most of the stories in this collection, I went googling for some insight. I discovered Bloom was, before and during her writing career, a psychotherapist. Something clicked: the central plots of these stories  could be summed up by a therapist in a sentence or two. It’s the stories’ job to show us what else there is. And these stories do their job well.

Many of the stories deal with adult romantic relationships beyond the traditional boundaries of marriage. Several deal with mental illness and/or therapeutic relationships. A couple deal with children who experience things they shouldn’t have to handle. Some include more than one of these elements. Some are linked. Many include a bit of humor, but the last one leaves us laughing out loud.  

I decided to read this book last April after the second (and, apparently, final, heavy sigh) Zoom meeting of the Short Story Club, a discussion of a selection of works chosen by Vince Scarpa. “Silver Water” was the story covered in that meeting; the opening paragraph is quoted above. It’s the reminiscence of the sister of a mentally ill woman who found relative peace for a few years in the hands of a skilled psychiatrist, then foundered when he died. It leaves us with the question: Is suicide always a tragedy? Is it possible some people just know when they’ve had enough? How does one react when faced with another’s decision, and how does one live with it afterward? For me, it was the most intense story of the book. Other stories include:

Love is Not a Pie

I called and John was very sweet, asking how was feeling, how the memorial service had gone, how my father was. And I told him all that and then I knew I couldn’t tell him the rest and that I couldn’t marry a man I couldn’t tell this story to.
“I’m so sorry, Ellen,” he said. “You must be very upset. What a difficult day for you.”
I realise that was a perfectly normal response; it just was all-wrong for me. I didn’t come from a normal family: I wasn’t ready to get normal.

Clinical note: Subject has trouble with “normal” men, so has decided not to marry her fiance after all. Possibly related to her discovery, at age 9, of her parents’ intimate relationship with a family friend.

The title comes from Ellen’s mother’s explanation that the love she and her husband have for each other is not diminished by the addition of a third party into their sex life. That Ellen spent many years before asking about it – not until the man’s funeral – and that she recalls this advice during her mother’s funeral, underlines the importance of the discovery, but also convinces me that, although her family’s approach to marital monogamy may be unusual, the family itself is not really strange at all.

Only You

Marie has fallen in love with beauty.

The clinical note: Pt. has sexual relationship with transvestite, ? transference.

Marie, who watched her husband become entranced by a Beautiful Woman in a linked story, now has the chance to become beautiful herself, or at least to see herself as beautiful. So she fixates on her hair stylist, who happens to like dressing up like her. Think Jenna learning to love herself through Paul on 30 Rock.

Semper Fidelis

All-night grocery stores seem to be the personal savior and favorite haunt of dazed young women of all colors, who haul their crumpled sleeping babies like extra items in the cart; of single middle-aged men and women, to healthy and too lonely to fall asleep at ten o’clock; and of people like me, who are scared to go home.

Clinical note: Pt. preparing for widowhood at young age; husband much older.

A once-scandalous May-December marriage grown ordinary over ten years is now drawing to its inevitable, and extremely ordinary, end: death. There’s enough tenderness in her last night with her husband to convince me she didn’t marry him for his money. And the observation about grocery stores is so spot-on, I nearly stood and applauded.


I would tell him that we were looking at wreckage and he would not want to know.

Clinical note: Pt. unsure how to react to sexual encounter with stepson following his father’s death.

This would be my candidate for the most shocking story of the collection. Does it count as incest if you aren’t related by blood? Or, maybe, what the hell was she thinking? The portrait of the marriage is generous and loving, so the nighttime visit feels like a record scratch. Wreckage is the right word. The story does include another perfectly observed grocery store moment:

I went to the grocery store and bought weird, disconnected items: marinated artichoke hearts for Lionel, who was dead; red caviar to make into dip for his son, whose life I had just ruined; peanut butter with the grape jelly already striped into it for Buster, as a special treat that he would probably have outgrown by the time I got home; a pack of Kools for me, who stopped smoking fifteen years ago. I also bought a wood-refinishing kit, a jar of car wax, a six-pack of Michelob Light, five TV dinners, some hamburger but no buns, and a box of Pop-Tarts. Clearly the cart of a woman at the end of her rope.

Am I obsessed with grocery stores, or is Bloom?

Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines

The pleasure on Mr. Klein’s face made me forget everything I had heard in the low tones of my parents’ conversation and all that I had seen in my own mirror. I chose to believe Mr Klein.

Clinical note: Childhood abuse; distant parents.

We’ve finally learned that it’s not the weird guy in the trench coat you have to watch out for, but the nice guy the kids love. A little girl whose parents see her as not-good-enough finds validation modeling fur coats for a shopkeeper. The hair didn’t start to stand up on my arms, however, until, the modelling sessions halted by the man for unspecified reasons, the piano lessons began. It’s like cross-abuser grooming.

When the Year Grows Old

When Laura failed to smile triumphantly, Kay’s heart sank. It was not a contest, after all.

Clinical note: Pt’s mother bipolar.

And again we have a child dealing with something no child should have to deal with, but nevertheless they do. Kay’s somewhere in her tweens, perhaps, before she sees her mother experience a full-blown psychotic break. She’s ready to side with Mom against Dad, having been alienated from him for unspecified reasons, but that’s when she thinks Mom is just dramatizing a fight.

Psychoanalysis Changed My Life

On Tuesday, Dr. Zurmur interrupted Marianne’s memory of her grandfather shaving with an old-fashioned straight razor to tell her that beige was not her color….
During the next week’s sessions, Dr. Zurmur gave Marianne the name of a good masseuse, an expert hair colorist, and a store that specialized in narrow-width Swiss shoes, which turned out to be perfect for Marianne’s feet and sensibilities. At the end of Thursday’s session, Dr. Zurmur suggested that Marianne focus less on the past and more on the present.

Clinical note: Hmmm, kill two birds with one stone?

When therapist turns matchmaker.

I’ve said before I’m not a huge fan of domestic realism, but I’ve also come to realize there’s value to recognizing stories well-written, even if they aren’t going to be my favorites. These are very well done, keeping my attention with astute observations and small cross-threads while pursuing a deeper emotional vein beneath the everyday foibles evident in most families. There’s always a pulse beneath the clinical note.

Chris Stuck: Give My Love to the Savages (Amistad, 2021) [IBR2021]

The nine tales in Give My Love to the Savages illuminate the multifaceted Black experience, exploring the thorny intersections of race, masculinity, and Black life through an extraordinary cast of characters. From the absurd to the starkly realistic, these stories take aim at the ironies and contradictions of the American racial experience. Chris Stuck traverses the dividing lines, and attempts to create meaning from them in unique and unusual ways. Each story considers a marker of our current culture, from uprisings and sly and not-so-sly racism, to Black fetishization and conservatism, to the obstacles placed in front of Black masculinity and Black and interracial relationships by society and circumstance.
Setting these stories across America – in large and small cities – Stuck uses place to expose the absurdity of race and the odd ways that Black people and white people converge and retreat, rub against and bump into one another.

Jacket copy

Chris Stuck does a number of things I really like in this volume. He plays with names. He varies the tone from one story to the next, sometimes even within a story. And boy, does he ever stick the endings.

Although all of the stories focus on Black or biracial men, there’s a lot of diversity. In several of his interviews, Stuck mentions that he wants to balance out the books that show Black people poor or oppressed or in danger, show more successful Black people. There are indeed successful Black men in these stories, but there are also those who have lost, or are losing, that success, and those who haven’t quite gotten there yet. Ages range from teens to middle age; a few stories are second person; one reads like a memoir. Not all of these men seem like good guys at first, but they’re all struggling to figure it out, and that generates a great deal of empathy.

The opening story, “Every Time They Call You Nigger,” sets a contemplative tone, recounting this specific event that remains ingrained in the memories of so many Black people. But there’s humor, too, as both Black and white people try to figure out the rules for when it’s ok to use this reclaimed, rehabilitated term. But our protagonist “never had the right cadence” so he skipped it. It’s weird how angry some white people get when they find out they can’t do something a Black person can. Sometimes they ask questions about it. Usually they’re just being dicks.

Which brings us to the second story. It seems to track with several other stories in the collection, stories I’d call “looking in the mirror and not liking what I see.” In “How to Be A Dick in the 21st Century,”  Richard Dickerson knows he’s a dick. He’s always known he was a dick. It didn’t seem like a problem.

The testosterone, it was how I got ahead, my assertiveness, my swagger. As a man, it was expected of me. As a Black man, it was required. Every single morning of my adulthood, as I took a leak, I adjusted my medicine cabinet door so I could get a glimpse of my morning wood in the mirror.
Somehow, everything would then seem right, if not in the world then at least in my life.

Until he woke up one morning as a six-foot penis.

I’m still somewhat under the influence of George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, having just read it  a couple of months ago, so I couldn’t help but compare this story to Gogol’s “The Nose,” discussed in that book. It’s a very different story: Dickerson is a lot less upset at his predicament than Kovalyov was at his. Instead of running to a doctor, he figures out how to walk on two testicles and how to dress so as to cover the most shocking aspects of his new appearance. He knew, after all, that he was a dick in the first place.

But I also see a real similarity to Gogol: as Saunders puts it, “[T]he meaning of a story in which something impossible happens is not that the thing happened… but in the way the story reacts to the impossibility. That is how the story tells us what it believes.” What this story believes is that change is possible. It may take a massive shock to bring it on, but once you face your dickishness, you can do something about it, if you choose. And this is one of those beautifully stuck endings, as Richard has a brief exchange with a doorman who seems to feel as though he’s lost something, while Richard feels he’s gained.

Another facing-yourself story, though in a far more realistic vein, is “Cowboys.” A wax museum guard decides to make some extra cash by helping his co-worker’s brother track down a bail jumper. Things get a little rough, and he has a moment: “I couldn’t believe I was standing there with two white dudes I barely knew, over the body of a woman I just helped hunt down, a Black woman.” There are a lot of funny moments in this story, but that isn’t one of them. But again, change is possible.

Then there are those who don’t change, who get impossibly stuck, and it’s not entirely their fault. In “This Isn’t Music,” there’s disappointment and tragedy all around. Nick’s career that stalled out, and he had to return to his childhood home to take care of a father who doesn’t recognize his son (“My son doesn’t look like you….Well, for one thing, you’re Black”), who can’t tell the difference between an electric shaver and a cornet. A wife who’s happy there. And an old girlfriend. They only sleep together once, but Nick’s clearly having what the Twelve Steppers call an emotional affair. Names play such an important role in the story – the white wife’s name is Lily, the Black girlfriend’s married to “the only white guy in the world named Tyrone.” All of these things could be played for laughs, but the tone is too bleak to create humor.

The very geography of the road sums it all up:

You are 286 feet below the surface, in the bowels of a man-made crater, a big-ass hole. … It was all the entertainment you had. A bump. A bump to jump, you used to say. Bumps are hard to come by here, since it’s so flat. You both loved the launch, that moment of flight. It was better than drugs, better than sex. You’re an asshole, but there are still some things you can appreciate.

Yes, the self-recognition is there, but the weight of the air is just too much to allow for change.

“Chuck and Tina Go On Vacation,” on the other hand, is hilarious. They don’t so much want a vacation as they want to post vacation photos to impress the friends who’ve been posting their own vacation photos. It’s Keeping Up with the Joneses on Social Media. And though they pay for it in a couple of ways, they still don’t get it. Some people are too self-absorbed for change.

For showing how change can happen after self-recognition, the prize goes to “The Life and Loves of Melvin J. Plump, Esq.” Melvin is a Black conservative political operative who cut a few too many corners, and found himself in court-ordered therapy. His therapist urges him to take a cruise for unseen souls:  “People who are shunned by society because of their physcial appearance. It’s just like how it sounds. Unseen souls, Melvin.” And why should he take that particular cruise? He’s developed vitiligo; his formerly dark skin has turned pink-white.

Malavika Praseed of the Chicago Review of Books felt this story was off: “the catchiness of the premise trumps the events of the story itself.” I strongly disagree; the whole idea of a cruise of disfigured and/or disabled people felt disgusting to me, but by the end of the story, I’d forgotten all about the vitiligo, about the politics, about the therapist, about my disgust. It’s a longer story, so that allows for a lot of development as Melvin meets Zarrella, another unseen soul.

…[S]he was obviously bookish but then again obviously not. There was something else there, a variety of roughness I couldn’t place. Perhaps she was a reformed thug with a knack for words. Whatever it was, it made her interesting. She was tall, possibly well proportioned if you squinted a little. There was a certain dignity in the way she could disregard people, even me.

She’s fascinating, and their relationship goes through many twists and turns, culminating in a beautiful moment that works as metaphor and as plot, as it provides the impetus for Melvin to change. Maybe not a lot – he’s probably still a conservative – but enough to provide that empathy story readers look for.

“And Then We Were the Norrises” is another story that rode relationships beautifully, in this case a couple of relationships in the life of a teenager in Witness Protection due to some shenanigans by his parents. Stuck plays with names again; this time, unlike in “Music,” we can enjoy the humor as we find out the boy’s newly assigned name is Chuck Norris, and his newly found friend is Sterling Silver. Man, that’s child abuse, y’know? But the two boys developing feelings for each other, dancing around the edges of homoeroticism without actually going there; it’s a high-wire act. The other relationship is with the agent assigned to look out for the family, a crank who only becomes genuine when he faces a personal loss. It’s perhaps a tad unrealistic, but it was drawn so nicely, I just went with it. Reason as slave to the passions and all that.

The title story is last; I read it in this year’s Pushcart (and discussed it then), and that’s why I decided to read the collection. I was going to wait for the paperback, but I got impatient. I’m glad I did, because I would have missed what is one of the nicest dust jackets I’ve seen in a while. The art, by Arnold R. Butler, is cool enough, but it’s magnificently rendered: gold foil, and a slightly rough texture to the heavy paper, with the title in smeared white. Photos don’t do it justice.

One of the things that interests me about short story collections is how authors put them together. Stuck has said in several interviews that he wanted stories about biracial men to bookend the collection, a clever idea. He’d tucked the penis story in the middle, hoping readers would have a sense of his writing before they came to it, but his agent wanted it right up front. That makes a stark contrast with the contemplative first story, but seeing as it grows contemplative itself, it works. The cruise story, being longer, went next-to-last because he’d read that’s where authors put novellas in collections. I can’t find examples, but it works where it is, so I have no complaints.

In fact, I have no complaints at all about this book. I enjoyed it all around, and I’m glad I ran across the story that led me here.

* * *

An Interview with Author Chris Stuck by Tom Williams – mixedmag.com : “But I want to see more successful black folks in books. For whatever reason, the publishing industry has a predilection for black trauma stories, black folks being held down by a system of oppression. It seems like those are the only stories that get out there. We’re not all from the ghetto or the inner city or the poor south or gang-infested west. Those realities exist, of course, but I just want to balance the representation, complicate it.”

Malavika Praseed for Chicago Review of Books : “To me this collection helps debunk the idea that men are not privy to their own flaws and insecurities. Rather, when these are claimed and understood, art can result.”

Chris Stuck, in conversation with Chris L. Terry at BookSoup: “I don’t plot before writing; I freewrite and discover as I go. Most of the time I have an idea and try to figure a way into it, like the first sentence. Then I just explore the voice or whatever is happening in the story. At some point I realize I need the narrative drive, or something to riff on in the story… The plot comes out of trying to figure out what I’m doing.”

Ten Best Book Covers of July 2021 – LitHub

Arnold R. Butler, Artist

Karen Bender: The New Order (Counterpoint, 2018) [IBR2021]

I view everything through absurdism and humor. I think humor works best in literature and fiction when it’s borne of deep feeling, and the deep feeling it’s borne of here is fear, and then the crazy things people do to cope with fear to maintain control, which is really human…
I do write to figure things out, either internally or externally, something that I find really troubling. So I stared writing the other stories in response to things that were going on. … writing is a way of controlling chaos, a way of controlling what is difficult in life, and I’ve found it a comfort to me all my life.

Karen Bender, interview with Charity Nebbe on Iowa Public Radio

As soon as I finished reading Bender’s short story “The Shame Exchange” in 2021’s Pushcart, I went looking for something else she’d written. Out of the five choices, I picked this one, partly because of the description that promised it “boldly examines the sense of instability that has grown stronger in American culture over the last two years through the increasing presence of violence, bigotry, sexual harassment, and the emotional costs of living under constant threat.” That, it does.

Several of the stories are told from spaces adjacent to violence; they’re not about acts of violence or the people directly affected, but about how people  removed from the violence react to it. That is, it’s about most of us. 

“Where to Hide in a Synagogue,” the first story in the book, is one of these adjacent stories.

“Come on,” I said. “We can set out a policy. If there is an attack, congregants are permitted to remove the Torahs from the Ark and climb in for safety purposes.” I paused. “We can add, ‘Congregants removing Torahs are responsible for getting them back into the Ark after the shooter has left.’” I thought to add if they are alive, but I thought I’d leave that out.

Eva and Harriet have been appointed to their synagogue’s advisory Board for Safety and Well-Being following the attack on churchgoers in Charlottesville. They’re walking through the sanctuary in order to come up with a report of strategies to protect congregants in case of an attack. In real life, Bender started this story as a flash  after hearing her daughter and friend discussing how they’d hide if shooting broke out in their movie theater; it changed after Charlottesville, moving to a synagogue.

The two women, long-time friends, argue about whether the Torahs or the safety of people should be prioritized, about how much normality can be sacrificed to safety: a dress code requiring sneakers for faster escape? Flower arrangements including thorns for potential defense? It shows how the perception of threat can divide even those who are close; is it any wonder the question of what is and is not a threat is a major wedge issue today?

The story balances on the edge of tragedy and humor; Bender’s fondness for absurdity, in its everyday form rather than its more extreme avant garde form, more often tips it into humor, but it is that tipping that underlines the tragedy.

The story ends with an everyday occurrence perceived as threat, and leaves us wondering if they would perceive it that way if they weren’t already immersed in an atmosphere of threat. That’s of the many costs of pervasive violence, isn’t it: an air of suspicion, dividing friends, invading even a house of worship.

There is a horrific real-life connection to this story: ten days before the book was released, eleven congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh were murdered in an attack. No wonder Bender’s voice shook as she discussed the story in her interview.

The title story, “The New Order” is also a violence-adjacent story.

I felt powerful for the first time since the incident, as though I had to become a steel spike, completely hard and sharp; but I also trembled, for I simultaneously felt a plunging sense of loss. It was confusing to experience both of these at once. I realized then how much I admired my friend, even loved her, and that I had damaged something I could not see. Lori didn’t stand up and walk away; she changed the subject to the staleness of the carrot cake on our plates, but it felt as though something finished between us, and that we were now unknowable to one another, separate, an ostrich and a bear.

This story starts out back in the 1970s, when school shootings weren’t a social phenomenon yet, but just got described as some guy brought a gun into the cafeteria and shot two teachers and a student, for reasons unknown. The student, Sandra, seemed to be collateral damage, but it’s her seat in the cello section of the school orchestra that must now be filled.

For those who never paid attention to the intricacies of school music programs, seats for each instrument are doled out based on merit. In my school, anyone could challenge for a better seat at any time, giving a week’s notice or so. In this story, it seems the auditions are scheduled instead.

The story centers on our narrator and her friend, Lori, who are both preparing to audition. Their relationship, the conflict between competition and generosity, is the focus of the first two-thirds of the story, though it’s all infused with the reason for the audition: the empty chair where Sandra used to be. The title of the story, and the contemporary reader’s knowledge that school shootings are going to become a lot more common, also adds to the painful atmosphere.

What makes the story compelling is the jump to thirty years later when the two friends meet again for the first time since audition day, and the echoes of the past get updated.

In the interview quoted above, Bender said she wanted to write about a misunderstanding, and was inspired by Alice Munro’s short story “Fiction,” a story I haven’t read but now must. And again, the way Bender writes about, not the shooting, but one small slice of aftermath, is equally terrifying and impressive.

“This is Who You Are, ” the longest story in the book, is violence-adjacent on two fronts.

“What do you think they were thinking?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“Right before the grenade. When they were in the corner.”
I didn’t know what I wanted from her. Diane was just fourteen, two years older than I, but all of her ballet training gave her a straight, proud carriage that she made her older than she was. She touched her tongue and picked a loose hair off it. Then she took a deep, crinkly breath.
“How to get out,” she said. “I bet that’s what they thought. Where can I go.”

It’s another story set in the 70s and is far more plotted than most of the others, which focus more on ideas.

It’s something of a partial coming-of-age story. Coming of age doesn’t happen all at once, after all; here, Celia is dealing with a couple of issues at the tender age of 14. One is the attack on a group of schoolgirls in Israel, an event she only knows about because it was brought up in her weekly Hebrew school session. The teacher has them write letters to the families of the murdered girls, which seems a little creepy to me but it’s presented as supportive, so I’ll go with that. Celia becomes a bit enmeshed with the girl she has chosen, Ilana, imagining she has survived after all:

I had a secret: in my locker, I stored some extra clothes for Ilana. An old sleep shirt and shorts and flip-flops. While I was somewhat embarrassed that I had done this, I was also a little proud, for I wanted to take some, any, action; I felt I was preparing for her arrival. When I had trouble focusing in class, I imagined her trudging up to the locker, perhaps at night, her clothes smelly from her long trip; I imagined her wandering through the junior high school to my locker, changing her clothes right then, and slipping on the shirt and shorts I had left for her. She would thank me; she would be grateful that someone believed she was not doomed but could get out of that classroom. I saw her letting out a breath when she had the right clothes, turning around in the warm, honeyed silence, trying to decide what to do next.

Celia is also dealing with a different kind of violence at her high school:  a predator coach. In the 70s, it was the creepy guy in the trench coat everyone worried about, not the teacher who got girls to sit on his lap before he signed their late slips, the coach whose office was papered with glossy images of women in swimsuits and skimpy, sweaty athletic gear. One of Celia’s friends brings the violence more adjacent than Celia is comfortable with; in a special twist of irony, Celia mentions that Laila is not allowed to see R-rated movies because her mother thinks she’s too young to handle that kind of imagery, while she’s handling a lot more than that when she meets up with the coach at the beach.

A couple of the stories are overtly political. “Mrs. America” follows a senatorial candidate on a trail of attack. In her interview, Bender says Sarah Palin was the inspiration for this story; she wanted to explore how a decent  could compartmentalize indecent actions. It’s my least favorite in the book; it seems over the top, and while that might be this current of absurdity that runs through many of the stories, instead of illuminating anything, it just seems like a hatchet job.

“The Good Mothers in the Parking Lot,” on the other hand, is shockingly familiar. A woman watches other mothers pick up their kids from a field trip and wonders which ones voted for the guy. Yeah, you know which one. She’s amazed that these women, friends, fellow bake sale veterans and committee co-chairs, could be the ones who did this, who changed everything.

They walk through the world as though it is still the world. Their innoence is a sort of violence and makes you want to look away.

I’d just read Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections last week, so ringing in my head as I read this was its epigraph from James Baldwin: “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” And of course I was struck by how I’d written a blog post, four days after the election, with pretty much the same sentiment. My tirade took place in a supermarket, pushing my cart and watching other shoppers, wondering “Which ones?” The story – and it’s not really a story, since there’s no plot, it’s more of a scene – felt like a mirror. I was very grateful.

Other stories, like “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” were also inspired by current events. Bender tells us she wrote this in response to non-disclosure agreements  between women and their harassers, and wondered what it’s like to be part of the mechanism that arranges such things. Not the harasser or the victim, but the lawyers, and the accountants to figure out what category the expense goes into. It’s an interesting story, though I found the preamble a little long. Necessary, but too long.

The book closes with “The Cell Phones,” another story that’s more concept than a plot, but a great way to end. You know how it is, there’s always someone in the meeting, audience, or service who forgets to turn off their cell phone. This time, it’s a little more complicated than that. It’s really quite wonderful; Bender said she wanted to end on a hopeful note, and she did.

I very much enjoyed this book; I can’t help but wonder what kind of pandemic stories she might come up with. I think I might check out one of her novels, see what she does with more plot. Though I have to admit, I’m very fond of concept as a genre.

Danielle Evans: The Office of Historical Corrections (Riverhead, 2020) [IBR2021]

I do think the calibration of a collection is ideally to make it feel like you’re talking to yourself but not repeating yourself. So, the book opens with the story that I think contains the collection in miniature in some way. All of the themes that come up again—grief, racism, our weird ahistorical fetishizing of history, commitments, sex, anxiety about the future, mothering, daughtering, depression, ambivalence about becoming a parent—start there. And then ideally I think the next few stories in a collection should offer some form of complication or surprise about what the collection can contain. And then I just tried to avoid either jarring transitions or stories with a lot of themes in common until the last story, which I hope circles back to most of the themes in the first story, but in a different light.

Danielle Evans, interview with Melissa Scholes Young at Fiction Writers Review

I’d originally planned to get this book in paperback for next year; I prefer paperback editions whenever they’re available. But as the heat around who gets to define history got turned up in real life, I decided I couldn’t wait. I’m really glad I did that. As I read, I kept nodding, seeing contemporary life in every story, but seeing other possibilities, other viewpoints as well.

I could almost call it part of my Re-Reading project, since it contains two stories I read when they appeared in the 2017 and 2018 editions of Best American Short Stories. “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” and “Boys Go to Jupiter” both stand up well to re-reading, expanding to accommodate a reader’s growth in both lived experience in a time of upheaval, and in the act of reading itself.

“Alcatraz” shows us an attempt, via a visit to the historic prison, to put a family back together after circumstance and human frailty took it apart.

I had orchestrated the visit confident that my mother’s cousin would be grateful for the chance to make amends, that she and her family would be eager to prove themselves better than the people who raised her. It had honestly not occurred to me that my mother and I would have to make a case for ourselves, that conditions could possibly be such that we were the ones who were supposed to impress them.

Cecilia had the idea to go to the source: the prison that housed her great-grandfather for a crime he didn’t commit, an acknowledged mistake that her mother has been trying to fully purge for decades with no success. At the prison, Cecilia notices signs about Indians and the military and penitentiary life: “All that history, bleeding into itself in the wrong order.” That’s the story of this family, right there. I had a surprisingly hard time getting the family relationships straight, partly because I’ve never understood cousins, but mostly because family members are viewed at several different ages – all that history, bleeding together –  and one is  absent; or, more accurately, was barely there to begin with.

The story ends in the Alcatraz gift shop. Wrap your mind around that: Alcatraz has a gift shop, where you can buy, among other things, replicas of keys to the cells. In the Fiction Writers Review interview mentioned above, Evans reveals that she only realized that two stories ended in gift shops (with a couple of other stories including gift shops in less dramatic sections) when the collection was about to go to press: “I freaked out and rewrote the ending,” but her agent talked her down. I’m glad, because it’s perfect.

“Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” is another extraordinary story that skates on brittle humor over hot, vicious depths of truth.

When the apologies began, they were public and simultaneous. It was late summer, and they appeared suddenly and all at once, like brief afternoon thunderstorms. The High School Sweetheart’s apology came over the PA system at the grocery store where she was buying bread and cheese… the Long-Suffering Ex-Wife’s came as a short film projected on a giant screen in the park nearest the house where she lived with their daughter. It played in the loop until the city took it down. The daughter’s apology was posted on Instagram….
They were unlike him in that they were, in fact, actual apologies, and in that way for no resemblance to his previous efforts at making amends….

As I was reading about these apologies, it occurred to me they were actually additional abuses. Maybe some of the women had made their experiences with this man public, but others had not. This brings to the fore the question of why the abusee, rather than the abuser, is often the one embarrassed by revelation of the abuse, a quirk abusers use to their advantage. That the guy then turns the apologies into a literal art exhibit, featuring a volcano (apparently inspired by some literary magazine joking about a “throw men into a volcano” issue) and a dare, brings Evans’ point out clearly:

The second-to-last thing I wrote for the book was the story “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” which in some ways is an outlier, but in other ways, it revealed the thematic core of the book, which is apology and correction. I’m interested in this emotional question of apology and what we want in an apology, or what it means to try to correct something that in some ways can’t be fixed, but I’m also interested in who the narrative of apology belongs to.

Danielle Evans, interview with Adrienne Westenfeld at Esquire

In a collection where nearly every story is a standout, the title novella stands out among the standouts, and carries forward with this idea of correcting what can’t really be fixed but that’s no excuse for not trying.

We were not supposed to be aggressive in demanding people’s time – correct the misinformation as swiftly and politely as possible (guideline 3) – but we were supposed to make it clear we were available for further inquiry or a longer conversation if anyone wanted to know more (guideline 5). We were supposed to be prepared to cite our sources (guideline 7).

Envisioned  as a “public works project for the intellectual class,” including our protagonist, Cassie, a history professor disenchanted with academia, the OHC has been compressed and blunted into uselessness. Or had been, until Genevieve came along. Cassie and Genevieve, frenemies, go way back to when they were the only Black students in an exclusive prep school. Genevieve was Genie then, polite and obedient to authority and annoying as hell to Cassie. They ended up in the same graduate program by chance, where Genie made all her milestones – marriage, children – while Cassie just did her work.

And now they both find themselves in the same office. Genie has become Genevieve, divorced, and a lot less deferential to authority.

The Genie I remembered would have had expansive ideas about our mission but would have spent years charming the director into coming around to them, while parroting her parents on the virtues of treading lightly. Genevieve said in our first office meeting during her first week that we were tiptoeing around history to the point that we might as well be lying to people. She wanted a guideline emphasizing that lies of omission were still lies. In the field, she amended a sign quoting the Declaration of Independence with portions of the worst of Notes on the State of Virginia. She was instructed not to come back to the National Portrait Gallery after she stood in front of the Gauguin for hours telling viewers about his abuse of underage Tahitian girls. She made a tourist child cry at Mount Vernon when she talked about Washington’s vicious pursuit of his runaway slaves, and she was formally asked by the only Virginia field historian to avoid making further corrections in the state….
My problem, alas, had never been a simple as Genie being wrong.

Predictably, Genevieve doesn’t last in the job, and leaves behind a pile of corrections to her corrections. One of them involves a long-ago incident in Wisconsin and a Black man who may or may  not have been killed when a town mob burned his store to drive him out of town. Genevieve only wanted to expose the murderers, but now Cassie finds a few mysteries about the whole affair: did the man survive, and why did he go there in the first place, to a town that clearly didn’t want him?

I’m impressed by how much Evans puts in tnis story without losing its forward motion. Everything from the woes of academia – “Landing a good academic job here was serendipity bordering on magic in a market where ‘professor’ increasingly meant teaching seven classes on four different campuses for no health insurance and below minimum wage” – to the tension of what I call casual racism, to an old relationship and a new relationship and Genevieve and victims and perpetrators and a domestic terrorist viewed as a goofy kid – “Either a town is going to let a person run around goddamn calling himself White Justice or it isn’t” – and several shades of family secrets. Yet it’s something of a page-turner, particularly in this moment when the question of who has the power to decide what History is front and center.

In re-reading “Richard of York…,” I was impressed all over again with Evans’ way of ending a story: not with a bang but an echo. She does that here in this novella as well, turning from high drama to a flashback from a moment in high school: she wasn’t aware a shooter drill had been scheduled, so hid in earnest, and was found by Genie, of course, when she never came out of hiding.

“You always think when something like that happens you’re going to be the bravest version of yourself. I thought I was ready, and I wouldn’t be terrified.”
“Oh Cassie,” Genie said. “No, you didn’t.”

I’m still mulling this over. In her interviews, Evans talks a lot about “the gap between our internal lives and our external lives” and how we are often performing rather than being. I wonder how much each girl is performing in that moment, and how much is real. Is Genie just being her usual critical self, or is she on to something? In the context of the story, the scene shifts – or does it? I see Cassie as being quite genuine throughout, and Genie/Genevieve as being all about performance, but what if it isn’t that simple?

Evans discusses how she ends a story, and that, too, illuminates the scene:

I think of stories in terms of their operative questions. First there’s the active question (or the narrative question, or the “small” question)—the question I owe it to the reader to resolve. Gradually, the larger, thematic or moral or intellectual questions of the story arise, and that’s what I intend to leave open for the reader when the story closes. I rarely know how a story ends before I start—I think it’s only happened twice. But I usually recognize the ending when I get there, because by the time I get to the end of the active plot, I’ve already written past and recognized the open question, the thing I didn’t know the story was actually about until I got there, and once I get there everything else about the arc of the story becomes clear to me. I’m waiting usually not for the moment when I’m certain of the plot, but the moment when whatever’s underneath the story comes to the surface and illuminates the project for me.

Danielle Evans, interview with Lily Meyer at Believer

That’s what is so satisfying about the novella, about all the stories in this book: they leave a lot for consideration, like a song that gets stuck in your head and seems to change with every mood and every situation you find yourself in. The themes of grief, performance/interiority, quotidian racism (a superb phrase Evans uses in that FWR interview), the power to dictate history, weave together throughout each story and throughout the book, leaving the reader with a lot more to think about beyond characters and plots and resolutions. That every page seems to reflect today is either a bonus or a curse. I want to put it into a Re-Reading project for twenty years from now, and see how it reads then. I doubt I’ll be around then, but maybe someone else could do that for me.

Ted Chiang, Exhalation (Vintage 2020) [IBR2020]

TC: OK, so the term conceptual breakthrough is sometimes used in science fiction criticism to describe the moment in the story in which a character’s understanding of their universe changes in some fundamental manner. They are experiencing a sort of paradigm shift about their place in the universe. I think that’s a way of dramatizing the process of scientific discovery. That process is one of the reasons I was interested in reading about science as a kid; I could vicariously experience that thrill. Stories about conceptual breakthrough offer a way to re-create that experience in fiction. In the actual history of science, there are only a handful of really dramatic scientific discoveries, but you can’t keep telling their stories over and over again. Most of the history of science isn’t actually that dramatic. In science fiction, you can have your characters make discoveries that radically expand their view of the world just as much as Galileo’s or Darwin’s discoveries expanded ours.
BLVR: Do you feel that emotional and psychological breakthroughs can be used similarly?
TC: I would categorize those as being something different. Science fiction is known for the sense of wonder it can engender, and I think that sense of wonder is something that is generated by stories of conceptual breakthrough. I don’t know if a sense of wonder is engendered by stories of personal epiphany.

Interview with James Yeh for The Believer

In the category of Oh, I Get It Now: That explanation articulates for me the difference between these stories as science fiction, and literary fiction stories that use science to explain a setting or move into the future. Take, for example, Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” or Téa Obreht’s “Items Awaiting Protective Enclosure.” I greatly enjoyed those two stories, which tell personal stories in settings understood through science and time. But the connection between the science and the impact point of the story – the character’s epiphanies, decisions, and changes – is metaphor. In Chiang’s science fiction stories, the impact point is the moment a character sees the universe differently: understands the link between present, past, and future; debates the consequences of perfect memory technology; discovers entropy; sees evidence their world is not the center of the universe it has always been assumed to be.

But, having read this collection, my favorite stories of his are those that do both: where the expanded understanding of the universe contains the answer to a personal struggle. The man who understands the nature of time travel does so against the magic of repentance, atonement, and forgiveness, and learns that the immutability of the past – or the future – is not necessarily tragic; the father who debates new technology also finds the human-ness of memory as he realizes an error in a key recollection of his own.  Or maybe it gives us as readers a window to view the extinction of one species against our fascination with extraterrestrial life, and leaves us wondering why one is considered expendible and the other is eagerly sought, and whether we ought to see that differently, all while mourning the death of the last parrot. 

There’s something paradoxical about many of these stories. They might end in failure, loss, or tragedy, yet the sense at the end is one of hope, of purposeful momentum. They aren’t necessarily happy endings, but there’s a definite uplift that’s rare in literary fiction.

I must again admit I am not a big reader of contemporary science fiction, so there are references and nuances I may be missing. What’s interesting is that I’ve read a couple of Chiang stories before now: a friend recommended “The Story of Your Life” (which became the film Arrival), and I read “The Great Silence,” included in this collection, when I read BASS 2016. I greatly enjoyed both of those, so I was looking forward to this. I wasn’t disappointed. And of course several of these stories have won major prizes. Chiang isn’t a prolific writer, but he sure has a knack for hitting the sweet spot.

One exciting thing about this book had nothing to do with the stories themselves: it includes story notes! I’ve always loved the Contributor Notes in BASS; this is the first time I’ve encountered them in an author’s collection. In the Believer interview quoted above, he says he included them because he enjoys them in other collections (they’re more popular in science fiction than literary fiction) and it’s a handy way to reframe the question, “Where did you get the idea for the story” in a way that fits the circumstances. I know literary fiction writers are trained in “the story must stand on its own” but it’s so great to have a little more insight – and often, the context he chooses to share is surprising.

One of my clear favorites was the first story, “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate,” possibly because I’d just read The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye and was primed for the stories-within-a-story approach, this time in Baghdad and Cairo instead of Anatolia.

All the while I thought on the truth of Bashaarat’s words: past and future are the same, and we cannot change either, only know them more fully. My journey to the past had changed nothing, but what I learned had changed everything, and I understood that it could not have been otherwise. If our lives are tales that Allah tells, then we are the audience as well as the players, and it is by living these tales that we receive their lessons.

from “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”

Of the story, Chiang says: “While we can all understand the desire to change things in our past, I wanted to try writing a time-travel story where the inability to do so wasn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.” In the first two of the embedded stories, the future enables the past to enfold in that head-spinning way time travel stories tend to work, yet nothing changes; the future and the past are linked, but immutable. The third of these tales delivers the impact point: we can’t change the past, but we can change how we feel about it.

“Exhalation,” the title story, is literally the discovery of entropy, albeit in a universe very different from ours.

Our universe might have slid into equilibrium emitting nothing more than a quiet hiss. The fact that it spawned such plenitude is a miracle, one that is matched only by your universe giving rise to you.

from “Exhalation”

The protagonist engages in self-study via dissection of her own self, a task perhaps easier than ours would be since she is made of metal. Chiang’s Note tells us this was inspired by Philip K. Dick’s story “The Electric Ant,” involving a robot discovering his own nature; “That image of a person literally looking at his own mind has always stayed with me.” A lot of beginning neuroscience courses express the same wonder, as brains examine brains, though I’ve yet to read of a scientist studying his own brain. Such a thing via EEG or PET scan would not be impossible, however.

The story moves into the contemplation of the mechanism of life for the protagonist’s universe. It’s based on air pressure forming a gradient. This happens to coincide with the biological creation, in our universe, of ATP, the molecule of energy, through the creation of a proton gradient in our mitochondria. though it’s on a microscopic scale. Even the idea of air comes into it, as oxygen accepting protons becomes the last step allowing ATP production to continue. We breathe to enable this chain. It’s one of those elements of biochemistry that amazes me. And here, Chiang has my counterpart just as amazed as she notices the crucial function of air pressure.

But in doing this, she  makes another terrifying discovery: air pressure must, of necessity, be evening out all over the universe, just as, in our universe, entropy increases. He puts it very well in his Note, drawing from Roger Penrose: “In effect, we are consuming order and generating disorder; we live by increasing the disorder or the universe. It’s only because the universe started in a highly ordered state that we are able to exist at all.”

Our protagonist moves beyond this terrifying discovery, however, to hope, and this is where the power of the story lies. In envisioning a multiverse, she imagines other beings able to visit her universe and discover what remains even after the air pressure has equalized and life is no longer possible. And in that, she believes, her world will live again. It’s something like the way we send records with music and art and literature into space, hoping to show others who we were, when Voyager at last finds someone who can, and wants to, examine it. It’s an amazing feat to combine so many different scientific elements into one story, and yet have it be so emotionally satisfying. This is why this guy wins all the awards.

People are made of stories. Our memories are not the impartial accumulation of every second we’ve lived; they are the narrative that we assembled out of selected moments. Which is why, even when we’ve experienced the same events as other individuals, we never constructed identical narratives: the criteria used for selecting moments were different for each of us, and a reflection of our personalities. … Digital memory will not stop us from telling stories about ourselves. As I said earlier, we are made of stories, and nothing can change that. What digital memory will do is change those stories from fabulation’s that emphasize our best acts and elide our worst, into ones that – I hope – acknowledge our fallibility and make us less judgmental about the fallibility of others.

Story note on “Exhalation”

“The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling” is another story that, when described, sounds like a mess, but works  beautifully to examine the difference between objective and subjective memory; that is, what we record in pictures and notes and data, and what we remember.

In most cases we have to forget a little bit before we can forgive; when we no longer experience the pain as fresh, the insult is easier to forgive, which in turn makes it less memorable, and so on. It’s this psychological feedback loop that makes initially infuriating offenses seeing pardonable in the mirror of hindsight.
What I feared was that Remem would make it impossible for this feedback loop to get rolling. By fixing every detail of an insult in indelible video, it would prevent the softening that’s needed for forgiveness to begin.

from “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”

It’s two stories alternating in sections, one in the future, one in the past. The future story often reads more like a lecture, as it describes new technology that allows digital recording of everything we see, available on instant recall with merely a thought. The past story recounts the change from orality to literacy in a Nigerian village as European missionaries arrive. In his Note, Chiang cites Walter Ong’s work and notes, “…[T]here might be a parallel to be drawn between the last time a technology changed our cognition and the next time.”

The protagonist in the future story is a father whose primary emotional drive is his relationship with his daughter. They’ve recovered somewhat from a nasty fight years before, but ties between them are still strained. The past story focuses on one villager who learns to read and works with Europeans to keep records of tribal disputes. Both protagonists make discoveries about objective vs subjective memory that have great impact on their lives, and on how they view truth itself.

I keep running into this hazy idea of truth when I read memoirs, nonfiction essays that, theoretically, reflect what happened. Several scandals of embroidered memoirs have made this a touchy subject, and I’m probably too much of a hardass for expecting nonfiction to be, well, nonfiction. I went into this extensively in my post about Pam Houston’s “Corn Maze” so I won’t relitigate. I’m perfectly fine with errors of memory, and with writing techniques that allow for lack of recall, but it seems to me if you add a conversation or a scene because it makes the story read better and don’t acknowledge it, that writing is called fiction.

In another of the coincidences that seem to happen with some regularity when I read good work, I happened to be looking at Plato’s Symposium for another book I’ll be posting about in a week or so, and came across this:

For what is implied in the word ‘recollection,’ but the departure of knowledge, which is ever being forgotten, and is renewed and preserved by recollection, and appears to be the same although in reality new, according to that law of succession by which all mortal things are preserved, not absolutely the same, but by substitution, the old worn-out mortality leaving another new and similar existence behind unlike the divine, which is always the same and not another?

Plato, Symposium

This connects memory with immortality via the love one has for one’s offspring, for the closest we can come to living forever is to leave someone to carry on for us.

But this story is more about how we sometimes remember wrong, not because we’re trying to lie, but because we can’t face the truth. It invites us to consider the wisdom of turning memory, with all its inconsistencies and glitches and individuations, into data. When I consider how the father-daughter relationship played out, I wonder what would have happened had the father’s recollection been more accurate. Better? Worse? By what means could that quality be measured, if at all?

“Omphalos” puts an interesting twist on the relationship between religion and science, in a world where they serve each other – until they don’t:

Is it wrong of me to question whether the construction of cathedrals is, as we approach the twenty-first century, the best use of countless millions of dollars and the effort of generations of people? I agree that a project lasting longer than a human life span provides its participants with aspirations beyond the temporal. I even understand the motivation for carving a cathedral out of the Earth’s substrate, to create a testament to both human and divine architecture. But for me, science is the true modern cathedral, an edifice of knowledge every bit as majestic as anything made of stone.

from “Omphalos”

This story takes the form of a prayer, but not from a priest. The pray-er is a scientist who works on discovering artifacts of the original creation dated to eight thousand years before, when trees had no rings, and people had no navels. The central tenet of the religion was that the universe was created as a setting for humanity. The scientist encounters evidence that may shift that view. This is the moment at which science may need to split off from religion, or it may be the end of religion. It’s interesting because while it recalls certain historical conflicts between religion and science in Western history, it shifts things around sufficiently to keep us off-balance and the story fresh and new.

I’ve already written about “The Great Silence” so I’ll just link to that post; I did want to include it in this list of my favorite stories from this collection.

Here’s where I usually stop when I’m writing about story collections. But what about my not-favorite stories? I usually don’t mention them.  Time for a change-up: I want to mention one of my most not-favorite stories, because it won a Hugo, is universally adored by reviewers I’ve found (with one exception) and, hey, there isn’t anyone who really cares about my opinion of Ted Chiang, let’s be honest. That gives me a little freedom to state: I really did not like “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” at all.

Based on our experience with human minds, it takes at least twenty years of steady effort to produce a useful person, and I see no reason that teaching an artificial being would go any faster. I wanted to write a story about what might happen during those twenty years.

Story note on “The Lifecycle of Software Objects”

I’m not a gamer, and I suspect it would be a lot more fun for those who enjoy interacting with virtual characters and imagining how AI could take them to the next level. And remember: I’m not really a science fiction reader at heart.

I get the general idea: the ways in which AI digients (digital entities) might develop over time can be compared to some degree with raising a child, and certain issues develop. The issues are interesting, particularly set against the instability of the technical milieu required to instantiate the digients. What do you do when a website goes bust, if your digient’s existence depends on that website? What about when huge sums are offered to uses digients in ways that would be unspeakable if they were considered people or even pets? Can they gain autonomy (yes, along the lines of Asimov’s “Bicentenial Man”)? At what point can they make major decisions on their own, even against their owner’s (or is it parent’s) advice? These are all good questions.

And I have no doubt it was a good story. At 110 pages, it was the longest story in the book, and yet I think one of the problems was that it was too short. Paul Kincaid at SFSite gives his analysis:

In the pursuit of realism, or at least verisimilitude, therefore, how do you enclose the whole mystery of passing time within the relatively limited confines of a story or play? There are, essentially, two strategies. You can cherry-pick key moments along the timeline, describe those moments in detail and allow the reader to imagine what might fill in the gaps. At its most extreme, this means offering just the beginning and end of the process. This strategy allows full novelistic depth for those points along the line, but at the expense of any full representation of, and hence awareness of, the time scales involved.
Alternatively, you can present a synopsis of the entire period. This gives a clear impression of the time scales involved, the various forces that come into play shaping and directing the flow of history. But it necessarily skims across the surface, refusing the depth that allows us to share the individual experience of the historical momentum.
This dilemma becomes more pronounced, of course, the longer the period that has to be encompassed by the story. And this dilemma lies at the heart of the new novella from Ted Chiang…. His solution is a mixture of the two strategies, though as so often happens in such circumstances, highlighting the worst elements of both.

Paul Kincaid for SFSite

As I read, I felt the disconnect between the world at large, and the world of the story, was problematic. The only outside events were in the romantic lives of the two humans each raising digients, with a kind of hint that they would eventually get together. As much as that possibility dismayed me – it just seemed too Lifetime TV Movie – the fact that it went nowhere dismayed me more. Why not replace that with interactions with the world at large? Something significant must have happened during that time: a must-read book, a war, a hurricane or earthquake, a pandemic, an election… yes, I’m letting Real Life bleed through, but it’s like they were digients themselves. In fact, I thought that might be how things wrapped up. And yes, I was relieved when that didn’t happen, either, because if I can see it coming, it has to be cheesy.

I have a feeling that, in a novel setting, there might be more substrate for the main interaction to play out against. Alternatively, cutting it down might have worked better for me, since I really didn’t care about entire sections discussing various software issues.

But, it was not a story written for me; it was written for people who would be enthralled with such issues. And it seems they loved it. As a SF tourist, I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t expect Japan to stop serving sushi just because I chose to visit, after all; I can just eat something else. I have no complaints. There was plenty in this book that I loved.

Because I encountered him in a literary fiction setting, I tend to think of Chiang as a literary fiction writer. He does manage to write stories overflowing with human connections, with love and loss and moments of joy and pain. That they are based on science, and show a kind of wonder at the way the universe works at the same time as laying bare the human soul, is a plus. One of these days I’m going to pick up his first collection. Probably sooner than later. I suspect I’ll learn a lot there, too.

Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories (Vintage, 2015) [IBR2020]

When I started writing weird Florida tales in graduate school, more than one person was appalled that I hadn’t read any Joy Williams. And they were so correct—I had been deeply remiss. More than the setting of her work—some of which does indeed take place in the queer light of Florida, as well as New Mexico and Arizona and Maine—I was amazed by the emotional states Joy Williams could imprint so fluidly on the page. Unlike any other writer I know, she can render the interior slide from grief to strange cravings to jokey observation to superstitious fears, all in the span of a single paragraph, or even sentence. Her leaps floor me: she sails with a freakish grace from poignancy to sarcasm, or from one character’s fantasy to another’s nightmare, or from a kitschy deer-foot lamp to a disagreement with Kierkegaard. Nobody in her stories behaves the way you expect and yet somehow even their craziest actions feel inevitable, preordained. When I read her, I feel like I’m in direct contact with the deep irrationality of our species.

Karen Russell at LOA, 2011

I confess that I, too, have been remiss; I’d never heard of Joy Williams until I encountered her last March via her story “Flour” in Pushcart 2020 (her appearances in BASS predated my annual reads which began in 2010). “I understand the words, the turn of events, but I don’t have a clue what the story is about,” I wrote in my post. I did what I do in those cases: I researched it to death, both the story which hinged on a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and Williams herself. I had a blast with the former – I love mucking around in religious arcania – and as for the latter, was chastised to discover I was reading what many would call one of the best American short story writers around. “I don’t understand this story. But the journey was a lot of fun,” I wrote, and that’s how I came to choose this book for my In-Between Reading this year, as a comfort-zone-stretcher.

It was a rough start. The first story went smoothly enough, but then I was befuddled by the next several. I took a Twitter break (oh, yeah, like you don’t) and saw Robert Long Foreman doing something with the “books no one wants on their bookshelves” meme that was going around last week (I always thought Infinite Jest was a sign of literary potency, color me surprised) and realized he might be helpful, since, while his stories and essays make perfect sense to me, I rarely understand what he’s talking about on Twitter:

Me: You might be able to educate me: have you read Joy Williams?
RLF: Oh yeah. She’s amazing.
Me: I thought you’d think so. I have no idea what to do with her.
RLF: Yeah me neither! But I’m drawn to that.
Me: lol, ok, that makes me feel a little better.

(Yes, I still lol, go ahead, laugh. And by the way, Rob’s first novel Weird Pig was just published and everyone should be reading it)

So relieved of the need to make sense of things (as relieved as I can be; by nature I have that tendency Billy Collins described in “Introduction to Poetry” as “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means” and to search for the authorial intent that anyone who’s taken litcrit will tell you is irrelevant), but this is comfort-zone-stretching time, so I read on.

The stories in this collection are taken from three prior collections, with thirteen new stories appended. That’s forty-six stories. Granted, most of them are fairly short – 490 pages total – but these are not stories you finish and turn the page to read the next one. I realized this wasn’t going to be a four- or five-day read when, at four days, I was still less than a quarter through. So I started skipping. As a result, I ended up reading most of her first and third collections, and all of the new stories.

Although there’s really no such thing as a spoiler to most of Williams’ stories, the final paragraphs tend to require what preceded them, and as they are often the most powerful I’ve quoted several below; use discretion. And, by the way, there is one story that has a clear spoiler; to point it out would be to spoil it already. Life’s tough, y’know?

I found a lot of help scattered around the interwebs. One particular moment came from Vincent Scarpa, writing about the story “Dangerous” featuring, among other things, a woman building a tortoise enclosure following the death of her husband. That was interesting enough, but there’s a moment that tripped me up, as our narrator, the woman’s also-bereaved daughter, is talking about a group of survivalists who lived in a nearby house:

They did have an ingenious water-collection system and I was given a tour of all the tanks and tubes and purifiers and washers and chambers that provided them with such good water and made them happy. They also kept bees and had an obese cat. The cat, or rather its alarming weight, seemed out of character for their way of life but I didn’t mention it. Instead, I asked them if his name was spelled with an ew or an ou. They found this wildly amusing and later told my mother they’d liked me very much. That and a dollar fifty will get me an organic peach, I said.


I must’ve spent ten minutes scouring that paragraph, and a couple before it, looking for the name of the cat that might be spelled one of two ways, literally reading word by word, I was so sure I’d missed it. Eventually I went on, and, a few paragraphs later: “It was Lewis with an ew that kept bringing diseased rodents into the house, is my suspicion.”

That missing name tormented me until I found Scarpa’s commentary:

It has everything to do with the delay. The delay between our being made aware of that which we do not know—in this case, simply the cat’s name—and then the unexpected revelation of it. It doesn’t take so long that we forget something has been withheld from us, but it is long enough for us to consider—indeed, to believe—that we may never be told. And what I’ve just described there—this coexistence of knowledge and confusion and incomprehension, the lag time between a given moment and our understanding of it—does it not have a certain resonance with the way grief so often operates? That deferment of detail, that defying of narrative expectation, that disinterest in clarifying in a timely manner that which one has been made to see as concealed but knowable—these movements simulate the very essence of grief: its unwieldiness, its errancy, its total disregard for the yearnings of the grieving person.

Vincent Scarpa for Lithub

Then I could throw in, among the other interesting things in the story (like survivalists possibly killed by disease brought in by the cat, and the refrain “Grief is dangerous,” and the mother discovering she’d built the enclosure on the wrong land) how distracted I was from everything else by one little detail I couldn’t line up neatly, which also fits with grief. Just ask a funeral director how that fits with grief.

I have to say I found the new stories, like “Dangerous,” to be more comprehensible than the older ones. Jason DeYoung, writing in Numéro Cinq, finds a difference, citing “thematic or temporal iterations” creating density in her earlier stories, versus “longer, looser” style in her later ones, and they do seem more like typical stories to me, but I have to wonder if I just got better acclimated and stopped worrying so much as I read. By the way, that DeYoung article is, like Scarpa’s, great. So is Karen Russell’s, which opens this post and served as a kind of mast for this ship. And while I’m citing sources, Lincoln Michel’s article at Vice (I discovered it when I was working on “Flour”) and James Wood for TNY are both fundamental Williamsology.

The first story, “Taking Care,” was, as I said above, a good place for me to start; it seemed one of the most coherent of the early stories. The title tells it all: it’s a tour of the ways we take care of each other, of the world. Jones, a preacher, takes in his daughter’s baby and dog as his wife becomes ill and is hospitalized. On the day he baptizes the baby, his wife’s blood count is perilously low, and two sentences from the sermon predominate: We are not saved because we are worthy. We are saved because we are loved and There is nothing wrong in what one does but there is something w4rong in what one becomes. At one point he plays some records, including Kindertotenlieder. “He makes no attempt to seek the words’ translation. The music is enough.” The translation, which he must on some level realize, is some version of “Songs for dead children.” Ignorance is sometimes the best defense.

The final paragraph is a mixture of reality and fantasy. At first I thought it was simple realism, but then I read Williams’s interview in Paris Review where she recalls she was advised to cut the last line. “Of course I will not cut the line. It carries the story into the celestial, where it longs to go.” Maybe this isn’t about actual dying, but at the very least it evokes the dying that will eventually occur for these two people connected by caring, and I am so happy that they will together enter shining rooms.

By the way, in that interview Williams also tells how TNY rejected the story, calling it “insincere, inorganic, labored.” Of course, this was one of her first stories, she wasn’t Joy Williams yet.

Then there are stories I don’t claim to understand at all, but they stick with me. Like “Yard Boy,” about the “spiritual materialist…free from the karmic chain” who, after two months of enlightenment, realizes it isn’t easy. “He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own.” I’d believe that if it didn’t come down to the rabbit’s foot fern and the Spanish bayonet fighting it out after he loses everything he owns and his girlfriend walks out on him. Then again, he said “not necessarily” which allows some wiggle room. Again, the final paragraph makes the preceding, however confusing, work:

The rabbit’s-foot-fern brightens at the yard boy’s true annoyance. Its fuzzy long-haired rhizomes clutch its pot tightly. The space around it simmers, it bubbles. Each cell mobilizes its intent of skillful and creative action. It turns its leaves toward the Spanish bayonet. It straightens and sways. Straightens and sways. A moment passes. The message of retribution is received along the heated air. The yard boy sees the Spanish bayonet uproot itself and move out.

Yard Boy

“Anodyne” presents us with a diabetic mother and daughter, recently bereaved by the loss of their husband/father. We see Mother through Daughter’s eyes, which is funny or horrifying, but more likely funny. Mother quits yoga and takes up shooting – “Be aware of who can do unto you” reads a sign at the door of the Pistol Institute – then takes up the Marksman, the owner of the Institute and instructor. Daughter kind of figures this out – “I knew my mother did not exactly want him in our life… but she wanted him somehow.” Mother arranged for Daughter to see a psychiatrist, which I’m thinking is more for Mother’s sake (so many anodynes in this story) since Daughter doesn’t seem to be in any pain. Then again, maybe that’s the problem. Again, I find the end of the story justifies it all, though I still can’t define exactly why:

When my time was almost up he said, “You’re a smart girl, so tell me, what’s your preference, the manifest world or the unmanifest one?”
It was like he was asking me which flavor of ice cream I liked. I thought for a moment, then went to the dictionary he kept on a stand and looked the word up.
“The manifest one,” I said, and there was not much he could do about that.


That last line makes me want to see what this kid’s like when she’s twenty-five.

Death, animals (especially dogs, but also cats and birds and elephants etc), and religion run through these stories, and in the later ones, the environment becomes a prominent theme. Sometimes these themes are subtle. In “Another Season,” the death and animals are evident, but the religion comes in through the name of the main character, Nicodemus. He lives on an island mostly populated in the summer by the well-to-do. He starts out as a handyman but after many years he ends up asked to pick up road kill to keep the island looking nice for the rich. “They would provide him with a truck, a gasoline card at the dock’s pumps, and two thousand dollars a year to make the island appear as though death on the minor plane were unknown to it.” Though it sounds grotesque, it’s the most realistic scenario in the book; this is exactly what such an island would do, and I’m willing to bet most have some kind of arrangements just like this, maybe with public works employees instead of individuals, but the motivation is recognizable.

The name Nicodemus is not random. In the Gospel of John, Jesus and Nicodemus have a long talk about the means of salvation. It’s one of those passages that gets quoted a lot, all about light and dark and that famous one John 3:16 that someone’s always holding up on a big sign at baseball games. But what really makes it interesting is that Nicodemus provides the spices and other materials needed to care for Jesus’ body after death. He that hath an ear, let him hear who it is the animals are symbolizing. Uh oh, I’m beating it with a hose again, aren’t I.

Two stories feature mothers of murderers. “The Mother Cell” consists of seven such mothers who end up, coincidentally, in the same town for no apparent reason. Then one dies and there are only six. And again I get out my rubber hose: why seven? What does it mean that there are then only six? There’s this organic moment of suspense in which we wait to see if a replacement will show up, but is that enough of a reason? But I’ll put that away and instead enjoy the biological sense evoked by the title, the sense in which all of these women were a mother cell.

Fathers don’t look very good in this story. Not only are all the mothers now single, but the fathers seem to have gone on with their lives as if nothing happened, while the mothers huddle to defend themselves against the world’s blame. God doesn’t fare so well, either. After telling a story about Jupiter, a featherless bird, and a hairless goat (the story has a hilarious tag line about a Russian philosophy professor) they start to wonder if something like that could happen to the current God.

Then Barbara said, “Well, I don’t know why you told that story about the old god, but the nice thing about it was that he wasn’t alone at the end.”
“What about the one we got now,” Emily asked.
“The one what?”
“The god we got now. Do you think somebody in the future will be telling a story about finding him exiled to some desolate island and crying when he learns that everything he had fashioned and understood has vanished and that he is subject to the same miserable destiny as any created thing?”

The Mother Cell

One detail I love about that is the lack of capitalization. I wonder if Williams had to fight about that. Forgive me, I know it’s sacrilege to have me and Williams in the same sentence, but I once had the line “they called him god” in a story, and the editor insisted on capitalizing it or inserting a “the.” Whenever I see something like this, I wish I’d fought harder. Then again, I’m not Joy Williams.

But, again, the power comes at the end, here in the last two paragraphs:

“We’ve settled nothing,” the eldest mother said. “We cannot make amends for the sins of our children. We gave birth to mayhem and therefore history. Oh, ladies, oh, my friends, we have resolved nothing and the earth is no more beautiful.”
She struggled to her feet and was helped inside. Her old knees creaked like doors. She always liked to end these evenings on an uncompromising note. Of course it was all just whistling in the dark, but sometimes she would conclude by saying that despite their clumsy grief and all the lost and puzzling years that still lay ahead of them, the earth was no less beautiful.

The Mother Cell

I go back and forth on whether these two paragraphs, taken together, are an expression of hope, or hopelessness. Or both at once. Or either, as the day requires.

The other offspring-murderer story – and here I run into the spoiler that, simply by saying it’s a spoiler, spoils – is “Brass.” Until the last few sentences, it seems to be a father describing family life with his outspoken son. There’s some discussion of neurodiversity, and the kid can be pretty harsh, but he also takes poetry at the community college. The title is based on a passage in one of Rimbaud’s letters:

For I is someone else. If brass wakes up a trumpet, it isn’t to blame. To me this is evident: I give a stroke of the bow: the Symphony begins to stir in the depths.
“That ain’t even grammatical,” I say.
For I is someone else, ” he says somberly. “If brass wakes up a trumpet it isn’t to blame. ” Then he smirks at me. He’s been working on this smirk.
“Now that’s the translation,” he says. “But for class I’m going to translate the translation.”
“Somebody should translate you,” I say.
“No one’s going to be able to translate me,” he says.


At this point I could use a translation of the translation myself. But then, as with so many other stories, in the final sentences the focus shifts into tragedy and the rest of the story becomes relevant. Not comprehensible, but I know now why we’re looking at this kid and how he interacts with his family. The trumpet’s awake and trying to figure out how the hell it all happened.

So maybe this was, for me, a successful failure, to borrow from NASA. Yes, I skipped almost a quarter of the stories. It was too much book for me, for one reading. I saw some comments while webcrawling that made me very interested in reading “Honored Guest”, “Congress”, and “Marabou”, and I’m very curious to see why “Bromeliads” got separated from the other Escape stories and was moved to the end of the Collected Stories section, but I realized I was Done and little of value was to be accomplished by forcing myself forward. I needed to read something… easier. Something more eager to give itself up, sans hose.

I wonder if I’d have had a different experience if the nine new stories had been released on their own, or if I’d read them first. This seems more like a reference work, a Complete Works you take down and read a bit of once in a while or when something reminds you of it, not something you sit down and plow through in a week. But it did push on the boundaries of my comfort zone, and I will go back for another look. And I’m glad I now know something about Joy Williams; I look forward to seeing her again.

A. S. Byatt, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories (RH, 1994) [IBR2020]

Is there anyone who doesn’t love fairy tales? They are some of our first stories, and by reading them (or hearing them) we learn what stories should be like: that wealth and beauty don’t guarantee happiness; that kindness to all kinds of creatures will help keep you safe in a dangerous world; that loyalty to your goals may get you past obstacles where others have failed; that the villain must be punished and that magic is unpredictable. Whether it’s the story of a spell or a curse, a quest or a fool, a forest or a village, we learn the same lessons over and over: Be cautious. Be kind and brave. Be wise. Know what your wishes are, should anyone ask.

Shelflove review, 11/24/2008

Did you ever lose a book for fifteen years? Not lose in the sense of leaving it on the subway or knocking it behind a massive dresser that never gets moved, but lose in the sense of wanting to read it but putting it aside for something else and way leads on to way and you never get back to reading it? That’s what happened for me with this book.

Some time in the early years of this misbegotten millennium, I read something about Byatt’s use of metafictional elements in her fairy tale “The Story of the Eldest Princess” contained within this collection. I was very interested to find out how that worked, but I was also short on funds, so I found a copy at my local public library. Before I read a word, I fell in love with the physical object of the book: it’s hardbound but small, between the size of mass-market and trade paperback, each story’s opening page is illustrated with a woodcut, and the dust jacket, with its lush green background and deep-toned images, is stunning. Poverty be damned, I had to buy it, but first, I read the story that had started my quest. When the book arrived, I’d already read the part that interested me, so I put it in a line-of-sight location rather than on my to-be-read shelf. Where it sat. And sat. I looked at it most days, admiring anew the cover design, but never read the other four stories.

Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, when Rabia Chaudry announced her new podcast about djinn lore. I wondered: Why had I never read further in this book? And courtesy of that tiny nudge, so it moved, so belatedly, on-deck, unlost.

The individual stories have diverse origins – two are from an earlier novel, two were separately commissioned, and the final novella was written as a standalone – yet maintain a certain thematic constancy: self-awareness while in a story, familiarity with the conventions of fairy tales, conflicts between the expectations of society and personal desires, and a kind of self-reliance and courage that is sometimes noticeable in its absence. And the cleverness of women, unwilling to commit the mistakes of women in the past.

“The Glass Coffin”

There was once a little tailor, a good and unremarkable man, who happened to be journeying through a forest, in search of work perhaps, for in those days men travelled great distances to make a meagre living, and the services of a fine craftsman, like our hero, were less in demand than cheap and cobbling hasty work that fitted ill and lasted only briefly. He believed he should come across someone who would want his skills — he was an incurable optimist, and imagined a fortunate meeting around every corner, though how that should come about was hard to see, as he advanced farther and farther into the dark, dense trees, where even the moonlight was split into dull little needles of bluish light on the moss, not enough to see by. But he did come upon the little house that was waiting for him, in a clearing in the depths, and was cheered by the lines of yellow light he could see between and under the shutters.

I have little background in the structure of fairy tales, but this is what I think of as typical: someone is offered choices. What seems a little different to me here is that often there are different participants who are used to demonstrate the results of each choice, with only one being the “right” one. But there is no bad-actor for contrast, so that’s just a guess.

Our tailor also seems to use different criteria to decide each set of choices. The first choice is triggered by his honorable good work in making dinner for the man he finds in the house in the woods:

And he laid before the tailor three things. The first was a little purse of soft leather, which clinked a little as he put it down. The second was a cooking pot, black outside, polished and gleaming inside, solid and commodious. And the third was a little glass key, wrought into a fantastic fragile shape, and glittering with all the colours of the rainbow. And the tailor looked at the watching animals for advice, and they all stared benignly back. And he thought to himself, I know about such gifts from forest people. It may be that the first is a purse which is never empty, and the second a pot which provides a wholesome meal whenever you demand one in the right way. I have heard of such things and met men who have been paid from such purses and eaten from such pots. But a glass key I never saw or heard of and cannot imagine what use it might be; it would shiver in any lock. But he desired the little glass key, because he was a craftsman, and could see that it had taken masterly skill to blow all these delicate wards and barrel, and because he did not have any idea about what it was or might do, and curiosity is a great power in men’s lives. So he said to the little man, ‘I will take the pretty glass key.’ And the little man answered, ‘You have chosen not with prudence, but with daring. The key is the key to an adventure, if you will go in search of it.’

He uses a combination of an appreciation for craftsmanship, and natural curiosity, to select the key, choosing daring over prudence. Yet his response to that observation is telling: “Why not? Since there is no use for my craft in this wild place.” We learn a lot in a short time about this tailor: he loves his craft, he is willing to work, and he has an imagination.

He follows the little man’s intricate and somewhat daunting instructions and arrives at his second choice, between a collection of sealed bottles, a tiny village encased in something like a snow globe, and a glass coffin containing a beautiful woman with long golden hair. And again, he wonders about the contents of the little bottles, admires the craftsmanship of the miniature village, yet chooses the woman in the coffin because “the true adventure was the release of this sleeper.” When she wakes, she tells him her story – fulfilling the story-within-a-story quality that runs through this collection – and he continues his adventure to reverse the evil magic that has brought her here.

In the end his love of craftsmanship is reduced to a mere mention in the denouement, which leads me to think that love of adventure supersedes all other motivations. I also get the sense, given how all the objects and characters are tied together, that any decisions he made along the way would have given him opportunity to arrive at the same end, and so it is less his decisions, and more his character in reacting to changing circumstances, that provides the fairy-tale happy ending.

“Gode’s Story”

There was once a young sailor who had nothing but his courage and his bright eyes – but those were very bright – and the strength the gods gave him, which was sufficient.
He was not a good match for any girl in the village, for he was thought to be rash as well as poor, but the young girls liked to see him go by, you can believe, and they liked most particularly to see him dance, with his long, long legs and his clever feet and his laughing mouth.
And most of all one girl liked to see him, who was the Millers daughter , beautiful and stately and proud, with three deep velvet ribbons to her skirt, who would by no means let him see that she liked to see him, but look sideways with glimpy eyes, when he was not watching. And so did many another. It is always so.

The danger of pride seems to be the overarching message of this tale, as the sailor and the miller’s daughter both come to poor ends when they could have lived as happily ever after as the tailor and the woman from the glass coffin in the previous tale. Both of these stories were set in Byatt’s novel Possession, and several online commentaries mention how they are set in a context there that is lost here. That might be why this story passed me by somehow, though it doesn’t explain why the Glass Coffin was such a delight to read.

In any case, it seems a counterweight to the first story, perhaps an externally situated example of following the wrong path or making the wrong decisions that was missing in that tale.

“The Story of the Eldest Princess”

When the eldest Princess was born, the sky was a speedwell blue, covered with very large, lazy, sheep-curly white clouds. When the second Princess was born, there were grey and creamy mares’ tails streaming at great speed across the blue. And when the third Princess was born, the sky was a perfectly clear pane of sky-blue, with not a cloud to be seen, so that you might think the blue was spangled with sun-gold, though this was an illusion.
By the time they were young women, things had changed greatly….

The great change is that the sky has now turned green. You might think that a story about the sky turning green instead of blue would be some kind of eco-fable, but other than the initiating event, that aspect isn’t significant. Byatt’s writing, both in terms of story and style, are strong enough to make the reader forget all about climate change and pollution, in fact, a pretty remarkable feat.

This was the story I originally wanted to read fifteen years ago, in my investigation of metafiction, and I’m just as charmed now on re-reading it as I was then, except more so. If you think fairy tales are boring, this one might change your mind, since it’s shot through with wit more aimed at an adult reader than a child:

The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might be usefully set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame, and the marches and battles would distract the people.
The witches and wizards on the whole favored a quest.

Again I see what I imagine as a general fairy tale, but in this case, the Eldest Princess is also aware of fairy tale motifs and so watches her decisions, makes sure she isn’t rash or avoidant, and that she covers her bases as she searches for a way to make the sky blue again.

She began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a travelling princess. This meant both that she enjoyed her new striding solitude in the fresh air, and that she had read a great many stories in her spare time, including several stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters, or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person, who did everything well, restored the first and second, and fulfilled the Quest.
She thought she would not like to waste seven years of her brief life as a statue or prisoner if it could be avoided.
She thought that of course she could be vigilant, and very courteous to all passers-by – most elder princesses’ failings were failings of courtesy or over-confidence.

Along the way she encounters a scorpion and a frog – no, not that substory, she’s on the alert for it, even mentions it, and thus turns their journey in a more successful direction – and an old woman who appeared at times to be ahead of her on the road, and behind her, and ends up with her.

The story-within-a-story motif plays out as the Eldest Princess, knowing that when she doesn’t return her sisters will be sent, imagines their journeys. The ending is surprising: not at all what you would have expected given the whole of the story, but quite positive. Downright happy-ending, in fact, and in favor of adapting to change. A lot better than what the ministers, the priests, and the generals came up with.

“Dragon’s Breath”

The short story ‘Dragon’s Breath’ was commissioned by the Scheherazade 2001 Foundation, a project which took place during the bombardment of Sarajevo in 1994. As Byatt explains, this project consisted in reading aloud commissioned tales from different European writers simultaneously in theatres in Sarajevo itself and all over Europe every Friday until the fighting ended. This tale features two dragons which destroy everything in their wake, thus representing war anywhere as the story is not set in Sarajevo. According to old tales, as one of the character puts it, dragon’s breath paralyses the will – an apt metaphor for war’s effects.

Alexandra Cheira: Evil Monsters as War Metaphors in A. S. Byatt’s Fiction, chapter abstract

With this kind of background, I’m intimidated by this story; some things seem too sacred to dissect. I’m also hesitant because I’m not sure I follow the story as written. But maybe by approaching it, with the background in mind, I’ll begin to understand it better.

We start out with a family including the children are Harry, Jack, and Eva. Their valley is surrounded by mountains, and their lives by ancient lore:

In England the circular impressions around certain hills are ascribed to the coiling grip of ancient dragons, and in that country there was a tale that in some primeval time the channels had been cut by the descent of giant worms from the peaks. In the night, by the fire, parents frightened children pleasurably with tales of the flaming, cavorting descent of the dragons.
Harry, Jack and Eva were not afraid of dragons, but they were, in their different ways, afraid of boredom. Life in that village repeated itself, generation after generation.

And again the inciting event might be seen as ecological: changes in water coming from the mountains, in colors of the sky. While they are afraid, they’re also excited, since this is something new. Until the hills seemed to generate fire and sent trails of burning rock towards the village: “almost as though it was not landslides but creatures, great worms with fat heads creeping down on us.” This Dragon’s Breath, slowly oozing lava from a volcanic source, is headed to the village, but the residents talk about it rather than planning to evacuate so are forced to leave hurriedly and too late, to take refuge in the forest.

They were watching the destruction of their world, and yet they felt a kind of ennui which was part of all the other distress they felt. You might ask – where were the knights, where were the warriors…. The old women said that old tales told that dragons’ breath paralyzed the will, but when they were asked for practical advice, now, they had none to offer.

The lava eventually burrows under a lake and the villagers can return. Jack and Eva find their house, amazingly enough, intact, even the rug Eva was weaving. Harry’s pig returns, and they wait for Harry to return – “But he did not.”

In spite of all the action of this story, of villagers watching their homes destroyed, living in primitive conditions in the forest, what stands out is the final paragraph. For they made the event into stories, naturally enough. Some things they left out.

And these tales, made from those people’s wonder at their own survival, became in time, charms against boredom for their children and grandchildren, riddling hints of the true relations between peace and beauty and terror.

This theme of boredom interests me (how paradoxical). Some people are bored under any circumstances, others are never bored, though they may be frustrated by an inability to access resources. I think we sometimes claim to be bored as a way of expressing that lack of access; it’s not that we’re bored, but we’re disappointed that the game was cancelled or we can’t hang out with our friends and nothing else fills that particular gap. I can understand how containment, even in the midst of horrible conditions like dragon’s breath or war, can generate a kind of boredom that becomes blended with the horror. And I very much understand how stories might be used to alleviate that boredom, and to motivate actions that, however limited, are possible in restricted circumstances.

I can’t begin to understand how the people of Sarajevo might have felt listening to this story as their own city was being destroyed. But let’s look at it more broadly. Stories survive disaster. Stories grow out of disaster, using destruction as a kind of fertile soil. How many war stories are in the contemporary canon, from Anne Frank to The Things They Carried? My generation’s equivalent of “What’s your major” was “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” 9/11 is still generating stories. In the first days of the stay-at-home phase of pandemic control in Maine, the library started its “Isolating Together” archive, a collection of comments, poems, diary entries, etc. from patrons. It’ll be interesting to see how this compares with the stories we tell ten years from now.

“The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye”

In this case, it’s a present-day story-teller meditating on Scheherazade, rather than Scheherazade seen directly. (The other two stories, “The Story of the Eldest Princess” and “Dragons’ Breath,” are also meditations on the nature of story-telling.) It’s less optimistic than Barth on the possibility of any stable union possible within marriage, but Gillian the story-teller wins through to a reasonably happy­after­ever ending. She confronts the misogyny built into classics both Western (Chaucer’s “Patient Griselda”) and Eastern (Scheherazade), and when she winds up with a djinn of very own, she defeats the traditional dangerousness of wishes by a mixture of cleverness (one of her wishes is that the djinn should love her) and generosity (another is to give the djinn his own wish, which is for freedom). The balance between freedom for the djinn and his continued love for her leaves them with choices and possibilities.

~ Ruth Berman review in Mythprint 35:2, published and excerpted online by the Mythopoeic Society

The title story is more of a novella, comprising half the book. It’s an absolute delight to read, with its hat trick of 1) stories that teach me something, 2) stories that resonate with something I’ve seen before, and 3) stories that aren’t afraid to have fun.

Unlike the other stories, it takes place in the present day and, for at least the first half, in total realism, or at least as close to realism as academia gets. Dr. Gillian Perholt is a British narratologist who spends the story attending academic conferences on mythic storytelling. Yet it is told in fairy tale style:

Once upon a time, when men and women hurled through the air on metal wings, when they wore webbed feet and walked on the bottom of the sea, learning the speech of whales and the songs of the dolphins, when pearly-fleshed and jew­elled apparitions of Texan herdsmen and houris shimmered in the dusk on Nicaraguan hillsides, when folk in Norway and Tasmania in dead of winter could dream of fresh strawberries, dates, guavas and passion fruits and find them spread next morning on their tables, there was a woman who was largely irrelevant, and therefore happy.
Her business was storytelling, but she was no ingenious queen in fear of the shroud brought in with the dawn, nor was she a naquibolmalek to usher a shah through the gates of sleep, nor an ashik, lover-minstrel singing songs of Mehmet the Conqueror and the sack of Byzantium…. She was merely a narratologist, a being of secondary order, whose days were spent hunched in great libraries scrying, interpreting, decoding the fairy-tales of childhood and the vodka-posters of the grown-up world, the unending romances of golden coffee-drinkers, and the impeded couplings of doctors and nurses, dukes and poor maidens, horsewomen and musicians. Sometimes also, she flew. In her impoverished youth she had supposed that scholar­ship was dry, dusty and static, but now she knew better.

Having just read Ayşe Papatya Bucak’s short story collection The Trojan War Museum, I wondered if that opening was a salute to the traditional Turkish fairy tale openings; later in the story, Dr. Perholt travels to Turkey and confirms it. For this opening, we are informed via a rather present narrator that Dr. Perholt is in her 50s and happily divorced with a couple of children now independent of her, and that she is professionally in great demand at narratology conferences.

In Ankara she presents an analysis of The Clerk’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, analyzing the woes of Patient Griselda, and her outrage that, though the moral of the tale is that women should bear all things and will be rewarded, as a woman she has a different reaction: “the stories of women’s lives in fiction are the stories of stopped energies… and all come to that moment of strangling, willed oblivion.” The story as a whole shows how she has refused, and continues to refuse, to let this happen to her.

We are also treated to an analysis of Scheherazade by Perholt’s good friend and in-country host, Orhan Rifat, as well as tours of Ankara and Istanbul, antiquity museums and soirees and Hagia Sophia, places that serve as settings for more story analysis (an old soldier who may or may not be a guide relates Gilgamesh, partygoers discuss Persian tales). With these in mind, with echoes of Paul in Ephesus, with remembrances of prior trips when she was younger and more comfortable in her body, we arrive at a small shop selling, among other things, glass bottles.

‘I’m not an expert in glass,’ he said. ‘It could be çeşm-i bülbül, nightingale’s eye. Or it could be fairly recent Venetian glass. “Çeşm-i Bülbül” means nightingale’s eye. There was a famous Turkish glass workshop at İncirköy – round about 1845, I think – made this famous Turkish glass, with this spiral pattern of opaque blue and white stripes, or red sometimes, I think. I don’t know why it’s called eye of the nightingale. Perhaps nightingales have eyes that are transparent and opaque. In this country we were obsessed with nightingales. Our poetry is full of nightingales.’
‘Before pollution,’ said Orhan, ‘before television, everyone came out and walked along the Bosphorus and in all the gardens, to hear the first nightingales of the year. It was very beautiful. Like the Japanese and the cherry blossom. A whole people, walking quietly in the spring weather, listening.’

I wasn’t able to find anything by searching for “nightingale’s eye,” but had much better luck with “Çeşm-i Bülbül.” The most interesting site I found is, alas, in Turkish, but Google Translate does the job. NYT also has a travel story that gives a clearer history.

And then the title begins to make sense, as Dr. Perholt brings the bottle back to her hotel room and discovers there’s a djinn – what we in the West would call a genie – inside. This rests on the previously encountered information about wishing and fairy tales, so we have some context in which to understand how Perholt applies her knowledge, and her personal history, to get the most out of her genie, and at the same time learns his history (more storytelling within the story) and introduces him to the contemporary world.

It’s a story held together by style, linking the academic world with the mythic imagination and cultural artifact. I wish I’d read it, and the other stories here, fifteen years ago. Then again, I hadn’t started blogging at that point, and was a much less experienced reader, so maybe the book wasn’t so much lost as waiting for me to be ready to read it.

Ayşe Papatya Bucak, The Trojan War Museum and Other Stories (Norton, 2019) [IBR2020]

“I would like to tell a story,” Emineh said and everyone turned to her, surprised.
She tried to make the nightingale’s sound, but her voice came out as sharp as the cold wind on the top of the eastern mountains.
Once there was and once there wasn’t, in the time when genies were jinn and camels were couriers, during that time there was a baby bird who broke its wing and so could not make the winter migration to warmer air. And so the baby bird’s mother went first to the oak tree to ask if it would shelter her baby bird in winter, but the oak tree said no. And then she asked the walnut tree. And the olive tree. And every tree she could find, but they all said no. Until finally she asked the pine. And the pine made a nest among its needles for the baby bird, and all winter long, it kept the baby bird warm and safe by not dropping its needles. And ever since that winter, the pine tree has never shed its needles.
“It would have been kinder to let the bird die,” Mother Zeyno said. “It probably grew up weak and coddled and couldn’t take care of itself.”
“I think that’s very cruel,” Emineh said.
“Then you take care of the baby bird,” Mother Zeyno said, and all the others laughed.

“Little Sister and Emineh”

Folk tales; elaborated stories about real, if obscure, people; timelines that reach from antiquity to today and even a bit beyond; stories containing stories; stories that address the reader; stories with mystery and tragedy and love: it’s all in here. This is a collection for those who want to hear a storyteller when they read, who want to get a peek at the unusual alongside the ordinary. Interested in chess-playing automatons? A Turkish wrestler on tour? A man who got rich harvesting sponges and never bothered to contemplate his life? An art collection full of stories? A series of museums created by the Gods of Olympus? The poetic, the harsh, the episodic, the subtle, the overt? It’s in here.

Back in 2014, I fell in love with Bucak’s story “Iconography” after reading it in Pushcart XLVIII. When I saw this collection hit the market last year, I put it on my list, but wanted to wait for the paperback. I just find them easier to carry around and to read. And I see via Twitter that Bucak has the same preference, one of several minor intersections between us.

The “storyteller voice” is prominent in these stories, which sometimes include little preludes and/or postludes that use storyteller formulas or revert to first-person. In her FWR interview, Bucak explains she’s drawn to that style, and discusses an Armenian folk tale formula for ending a story:

With a couple of stories I wanted to end with the storyteller addressing the reader more overtly, which is something I think I stole from Armenian folktales, which often end “Three apples fell from heaven” and then usually include some variation on “one for the storyteller, one for the listener” and one for some odd third. I like the breaking of the wall that happens there.

Interview with Natalie Rowland at FWR

That closing formula is another intersection I have with Bucak, one with particular power for me. The Portland (Maine) Public Library, just a couple of blocks from where I sit, a sculpture
by local artist and teacher John Ventimiglia titled “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” decorates the elevator niche on the first floor. Folds of metal form an alphabet based on Armenian calligraphy of a bygone century, and cast shadows on the wall behind the piece. The artist’s statement explains how it honors the traditional folk tale formula. I’ve loved that scupture for years. In 2011, in fact, when I was in my Zin Kenter phase (if you don’t know, you don’t want to, trust me) I wrote a goofy flash about an Armenian man who, while looking for a book elsewhere in the library, finds himself drawn back to that sculpture, and to his own story, by the yarn of his own sweater which caught on it as he walked past. Alas, Prick of the Spindle is no more so I can’t link to it, but it was there.

Bucak links that third apple to her sense, as someone of mixed heritage (her father was Turkish, her mother American), of writing from “the third position of being both.” All of the stories feature Turks, usually as main characters, and in her Rumpus Book Club chat she admits she’s amused, having been raised in America, that readers might get the impression she’s more culturally Turkish than she is. “I suspect American readers notice the Turkishness a lot more than they notice the Americanness,” she says, which was, for most stories, the case for me. I’d love to know the impression of Turkish readers!

I’m always interested in how a collection is put together. She’d written two stories – “The History of Girls” and “Iconography’ – before she started thinking in terms of a collection. She wanted variety, so moved away from girls to “A Cautionary Tale” featuring a wrestler, then a Southern story, perhaps the most traditional narrative in the book. She started fitting stories within stories, which created some wonderful effects. When things started to feel “too magical” she went back to reality. Then came the process of ordering the stories:

Actually the decision to put “Gathering of Desire” at the end came very late. My agent and I went back and forth a few times on the order. She wanted a more contemporary story at the end, but I didn’t have that many contemporary stories. And originally “The History of Girls” was more toward the middle. But that was the first story I wrote for the book so it had been out a while and I knew firsthand that it was my most reader-friendly story, so I suggested we put it first—as a kind of warm greeting, everybody welcome kind of story. But then I wanted “The Trojan War Museum” to be last as it’s my personal fave (Julie was not so keen on that idea). Then I realized on albums—when we used to listen to those—I often liked the sixth song best… so I put “The Trojan War Museum” sixth. And at that point, it felt like “Gathering of Desire” could work as anchor, and in fact more people would notice the story (which is maybe my second favorite) if it was at the end.

I now want to go through all my favorite albums and see what the sixth cut is. The problem is: whereas she’s of the age when album probably meant CD, I gathered my music in the vinyl age, and the sixth cut tends to be right at the side flip, which probably has some impact on the song chosen for that spot – either the last song on side A or the first on side B. In any case, I find her stories to have such intriguing beginnings, and such strong endings, I’d be fine beginning and finishing the collection with any one of them.

How about a more detailed look at some of the stories.

The History of Girls (available online at LitHub)

While we waited we were visited by the ghosts of the girls who had already died. Those who were closest to the explosion, in the kitchen sneaking butter and bread when the gas ignited, the ones who died immediately, in a sense without injury, the girls who died explosively.
The dead girls waited with us, amidst the rubble, our heads pillowed on it, our arms and legs canopied by it, some of us punctured by it. The rubble was heavy, of course. The weight of it made us wonder what happened to the softer things. Our sheets and blankets, our letters from home, our Korans, our class notes, the slips of paper we exchanged throughout the day, expressing our affections and disaffections for each other, for our teachers, for the rituals of our contained life. What about the curtains on our windows? we thought.… The explosion, it seemed, turned everything to stone. Except us. We were soft then, softer than we ever were.

Given my fondness for unusual narrative points of view, of course I was enchanted by this first-person-plural story. Then, at the end, it shifts into singular, a change Bucak made at the urging of one of her early readers. It’s interesting that she chose an accident, rather than malfeasance, for the cause of the explosion. Throughout, the girls show caring for each other – whether living or dead – and fear is pushed into the background. They produce their own hope, and they aim to survive, even when that seems unlikely. This is the history of girls.

As a bonus, Bucak followed this up with “Microeditorial: The History of Girls, Part II”, also available online, a contemplation of the difference between Anne Frank and Malala based on a conversation she had with her mother, and how hard it is for girls to find the right balance between power and humility. Or, more accurately, how difficult it is for the world to see girls who don’t fit the expected balance. Just ask any female political candidate; it doesn’t get easier with age.

A Cautionary Tale

I imagine that before the collision, on the boat, Yusuf must have thought often of reaching home. He was ready to retire. But I imagine, too, that he was afraid. He had some money, he had a family to return to, but it was all unknown; he had spent his life wrestling, traveling. He was famous, of course, but he had daughters he barely knew and a wife who had grown accustomed to living without a husband. He had things to be ashamed of. He had never had much of a life outside of wrestling, So what would it be like to no longer have wrestling?
It would be nice to imagine that in the water he did not think of his fights with men but, rather, of how he used to train against nature, and how though he never defeated it, nature always made him stronger. How beautiful if he was able to remember his home with the cypress trees, the wind from the east, and the fields full of filberts and pistachios and chestnuts, later to be roasted in a fire.

There was, in the late 19th century a real Yusuf Ismail, a Turkish wrestler whose life did follow the path outlined in this story. That in itself would be an interesting story – Ismail is what tactful sources often refer to as colorful – but what makes it really work is that it’s being told, by an immigration officer, to an applicant during an entry interview:

You don’t like my asking you questions, do you?
You’re just doing your job.
Yes. But you don’t like it.
It’s not what I expected.
What did you expect?
Different kinds of questions.
What kind?
About my work. About where I’ll live. About, I don’t know, paying taxes, obeying the law.
We’ll get to those.
Do you tell everybody these stories?
I tell everybody stories.
But not these stories.
No, not these stories.

We have no information about the officer or the applicant, other than their conversation about Ismail’s story, which lets us as readers tell the real story ourselves. It’s hard to resist, given the present moment in which we are living, putting a malevolent spin on the officer, but it’s possible he (or she) has some understanding of the transitions involved in immigration, and is hoping to reduce expectations a bit. Bucak shared her motivations in an interview with Joshua Graber for Asterix:

The interview style of this story was inspired by the young adult novel I am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. There’s an interviewer/interviewee format to much of the novel that I found hugely [word(s) omitted]. So I wanted to try it. On the simplest level, the border agent (as I imagine him) is offering the interviewee a cautionary tale about leaving home. And while I view the interviewer as a fairly negative force, trying to control things he shouldn’t, I wrote the story out of the ambivalence that I know my father felt about having immigrated to the United States. He never really knew if he wanted to be here or there. I worry now about how this story will be read in an unnuanced world that doesn’t necessarily have room for the idea that immigration doesn’t always work out. But it doesn’t always work out. (That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed, of course.)

Interview at Asterix

Having read quite a few stories by immigrants about immigrants, I’ll agree that there’s often at least some ambivalence involved, even in cases where they go to great lengths to get here. Literary fiction, re-nuancing the world one story at a time. It’s a great use of the story-within-a-story technique.

Mysteries of the Mountain South

As much as I continue to love “Iconography,” this story is stiff competition for my favorite of the collection. It’s quite different from most of the other stories in several ways. First, it’s set in the present, with blogs and drones and computer simulations, all of which are critical to the turn of events. Second, though it’s set in the rural South, it doesn’t borrow much from folk tales. Third, its Turkish content is minimal, though it does have a powerful theme around race and ethnicity. But other similarities remain, in particular the storyteller voice, though in more subdued form. And it does have a pov-switching coda at the end, including a final paragraph that shook loose all the tears I had stored up.

Edie is a recent college graduate who expected to go to Mountain View and code 24/7, but she ends up in Mountain Home, North Carolina, instead, due to her grandmother’s terminal illness and need for a caretaker. Armed with a video-equipped drone, she puts her technical expertise to work creating Virtual Valley, a computer simulation of the area.

Her relationship with her grandmother blossoms, and she finds out her great-great-grandfather was black. Or, rather, Melungeon, as her grandmother explains. I’d never heard of Melungeons, people of mixed ethnicity that’s described as white, black, and Indian, maybe Portuguese and Turkish. Edie reacts to this, but carefully – “trying to sound nonchalant, utterly and absolutely unsurprised, nothing that could make her sound insensitive or racist. Because she wasn’t!” This is such an incredibly authentic thought I had to smile.

This thickens when Grandma starts planning for her green funeral. Edie meets Michael, the young, and black, owner of the local mortuary which specializes in “environmentally sustainable practices and death midwifery – but also the regular stuff, if you want it.” After some paperwork, Michael goes over a delicate issue with Edie:

“She understands,” he said, “that I’ll be the one to prepare her?
“Prepare her how?”
“Her body,” he said.
“I’m sure she understands. That’s why we called you. What are you saying?”
“It’s just that sometimes… people think they aren’t prejudiced, and they thing they can handle” – he paused again – “a black man washing their body, but then suddenly they can’t.”
“Well, she’ll be dead anyway, right?” Edie said, her voice rising in pitch. God, how she hated that.
“Right,” he said and looked at her.
“So you mean me? Do I understand?”
“You and your family.”
“We’re not racist,” Edie said. “My grandmother’s black. Melungeon. Whatever.” How convenient to have this information to wield! She was not a racist! How could she be! She kept going: “My father’s grandfather was black. No, my grandmother’s grandfather was black. My great-great-grandfather or something, was black. Melungeon.”
Michael laughed.
“So you’re black?”
“What do you mean, preparing the body?” Edie asked suddenly. She nearly stumbled right into him, as if her words were spewing her rather than the other way round.

She stumbles into him, all right. Again I had to laugh at the perfection of this interaction. In her FWR interview, Bucak worries that she’s lost her dialog-writing skills, but it seems like she found them again for this section. It’s exactly that awkward conversation that would happen. I’m relieved Edie stumbled into Michael in private, face-to-face, rather than over Twitter, where she would immediately be eviscerated and Cancelled. Here, there’s a chance for someone to give her the benefit of the doubt, and accept there’s a learning curve. May we all stumble into someone who will give us that break.

This is one of those stories that makes me wish we had something like General Electric Theater, a way of making short stories into half-hour or one-hour television spots (movies involve too much money) so maybe people will learn to love short stories, like this one, again.

The Trojan War Museum (available online at Guernica)

Sing to me now, you Muses, of armies bursting forth like flowers in a blaze of bronze.
Soldier: I begged for sleep, and if not sleep, death. I was willing to settle for death. Then again, I’ve never felt more loved.
He looked at his father, a veteran; his grandfather, a veteran; his uncle, a veteran; his sister, a veteran; and he saw his future foretold, no different than birds and snakes foretelling nine more years of war.
Think: museums turn war to poetry. So to poets. So to war.
You know, Athena forgot Odysseus was out there.
Oh Muses.

This beautifully imaginative piece gives us a series of Trojan War museums – the first one being “not much more than a field of remains” – run by the Gods of Olympus, from antiquity to the 22nd century as a meditation on the wisdom of glorifying war. In recent days, there’s been a lot of discussion about soldiers as losers and as heroes. I’d never think of anyone who volunteers for service out of duty, or family tradition, or because it’s the only path to a job or college, as a loser. But lionizing dead soldiers also bothers me, because I have to wonder if it creates more dead soldiers. What if war was a rare necessity rather than a chance for glory? What if monuments to schoolteachers were as common as those honoring military figures? Even without the present impinging on it, it’s a beautiful story, poetic and allusive. And yes, there’s a real irony to poeticizing a story that critiques the romanticizing of war.

The Dead (available online at Bomb)

In Key West, Arapian was known as the Turk, though he was Armenian.
The extraction of fingernails; the application of burning irons to the breast; the pinching of skin with burning clamps; boiled butter poured into wounds; the tearing off of genitalia; the penetration of orifices with swords, with brooms, with flesh; the sawing off of hands and feet, arms and legs; the bayoneting of babies; the slitting of throats, the exhibition of the massacred.
The difference between Turk and Armenian? The Turk extracted the Armenian’s fingernails. The Turk applied burning irons to the Armenian’s breast. The Turk pinched the skin of the Armenian with burning clamps. Or he had the Kurd do it.
Turkey for the Turks, they said.
In Key West, sponges made Arapian a millionaire, one of the richest men in America at the time, an immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, which would have killed him if it could.
Bow down to the almighty sponge! Either the highest order of plant or the lowest order of animal.

Although it may not seem like it from those opening lines, this is less a story about genocide than it is a story about what seems to be true versus what is true, which is, now that I think about it, the story of the Armenian genocide after all. And it’s about the violence that pervades our lives, in ways large and small: “…his men smoked to cover up the terrible smell of sponges, which, after all, were living creatures beaten to death with clubs before they were bleached.” Arapian’s wife indicates, somewhat subtly but clearly enough, that she’s ready to die, and he misreads her, either deliberately or through inattention. Then there’s the societal violence: “People would remember the starving Armenians, but more as a chastisement to eat their own dinners than to sacrifice those dinners on the Armenian’s behalf,” just as American kids are told to “think of the starving children in Europe/Asia/Africa” (depending on their generation) and clean their plates, not to do anything to actually benefit starving children.

The Sponge King and his wife are hosting a party for Anahid, who escaped those who would murder her. Though he himself could have been in her shoes, he shows no particular compassion towards her, but only uses her as a focus of the party. Anahid is rather incapacitated by trauma, so others take her place, at the party, and in the commercialization of her story. She’s based on Aurora Mardiganian, who was an actual escapee, and was likewise commercialized beyond her actuality.

It’s a story with a lot of layers and many subtleties, yet it’s a compelling narrative.

The Gathering of Desire

And once there was, and once there wasn’t,
in the time when magic was mystery and science was fact,
in the time when God’s hand could arm man’s puppet,
when miracles were seen to be believed, and schemes were believed to be seen,
there was the Ottoman Turk, the chess playing mechanical man.

And again we have this wonderful blend of folk tale and reality, delivered with several varieties of chiasmus from the traditional opening to the text itself.

There was a Mechanical Turk, a chess-playing automaton built in the late 18th century, and it was of course a fake; there are automatons, and some of them can perform very complex maneuvers, but they weren’t computers. At the time of the story, hidden inside the cabinet was a former chess master, here referred to as S. but known to be William Schlumberger. He was past his prime but still able to consistently beat non-masters. And, like most of us, he’s a little confused about his fate: “When all options were open to him, he desired only chess, but now that only chess is open to him, he desires everything else” (I told you, chiasmus).

And there was a woman who beat him, here unnamed but recorded in chess history as Mrs. Fisher (in fact, the game they played has been recorded as well). The unnamed woman in the story has two children and a husband who was lost for months and then died, the circumstances unknown. The children see him while she’s playing the Turk. There are times when she feels him “emanating from the machine opposite her.”

To deepen these characters with backstories is not an unusual technique; Bucak has done it in many of these stories. But it’s what she does with the Turk that makes this special: “The Turk knows that inside each of us is a black light and a love without end. He wishes he could tell her so.”

I hate to go all sappy and romantic here, but it’s a story about our desires and our hopes and grief and love and whatever there is, be it in us, around us, or be it us, all tempered by placing it within a chess match between a has-been, a widow, and… something else.


Never does the Starving Girl think of herself as anything but hungry. It is the others who give her act drama, and meaning, which, in the end, she is happy to accept.

This is the story I’d encountered in Pushcart 2014. In my post about it from six years ago, I blathered at length about the narrator. That seems a bit silly to me now (hey, it could have been worse; the further I go back in this blog, the more embarrassed I get), but I’d like to think it’s a good thing I’ve developed a better sense for the storyteller voice, a subtype of third-person narration – with accents of first-person – Bucak uses so effectively throughout this collection. It’s still a great story about projection, our need to fit others into roles that suit our needs. But it’s also about a girl who comes to understand what matters.

I’ve always been partial to fiction that teaches me something about the world, and every story here held something new for me to discover. It was a collection worth the six-year wait.

N. K. Jemisin, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (Hachette, 2018) [IBR2020]

Once upon a time, I didn’t think I could write short stories.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month Takes its name from an essay that I wrote in 2013…. It’s a shameless paean to an Afrofuturist icon, the artist Janelle Monáe, but it’s also a meditation on how hard it’s been for me to love science fiction and fantasy as a black woman. How much I’ve had to fight my own internalised racism in addition to that radiating from the fiction and the business. How terrifying it’s been to realize no one thinks my people have a future. And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.
Now I mentor up-and-coming writers of color wherever I find them …And there are so many to find. Now I am bolder, and angrier, and more joyful; none of those things contradict each other. Now I am the writer that short stories made me.
So come on. There’s the future over there. Let’s all go.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read much contemporary science fiction. Nearly every year now, BASS and Pushcart have stories that use science-fiction elements, particularly near-future dystopias predictable by current climate science. But they still read as literary fiction rather than science fiction. I’ve never understood the sharp line of demarcation between them, but it’s there. The point is, I’m out of my element. The most recent SF/F writer I’ve read to any degree is Harlan Ellison (I did read Sagan’s Contact if that counts); my bookshelves hold an assortment of Golden Age collections and anthologies: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, etc.

Be that as it may, I greatly enjoyed nearly all of the stories in this collection. I’m a bit overwhelmed, in fact, since there are twenty-two stories. I take three months and twenty-two posts to consider a BASS anthology; most collections include maybe ten or twelve stories. So I’m off-balance, not sure how to communicate how beautifully something like “The Ones who Stay and Fight” or “Cloud Dragon Skies” or “The Narcomancer” worked, or how much fun “The Effluent Engine” was, or how deeply “Red Dirt Witch” touched me. There are many, many professional reviews of this volume, so I can stick to my own method of reacting and analyzing my reaction. But still, how to do that with so much to react to?

I decided to let Jemison lead the way via her Introduction.

As she mentions above, the title is from an essay available on her website, an essay inspired by her childhood sense of being excluded from a genre she loved, and by Janelle Monáe’s video
“Tightrope”. It starts with her noticing, as an adult, the cartoon The Jetsons doesn’t include any black people at all. The future was all white.

So Jemisin created a future with black people in it. Even black women. In many of the stories, race isn’t a primary issue, it’s just one of the many features of a character, a feature that brings along a history and a culture and preferences, which is true of white characters as well (surprise!).

<div On rereading my fiction to select pieces for this collection, I’ve been struck by how hesitant I once was to mention characters’ races. I notice that many of my stories are about accepting differences and change …and very few are about fighting threats from elsewhere. I’m surprised to realize how often I’d write stories that are talking back at classics of the genre.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

That “talking back” made the first story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” unforgettable. It’s talking back to Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, a story published in 1973. I just read it a few months ago. LeGuin’s story “Pity and Shame” appeared in BASS 2019. I hadn’t read her before (stop judging) and it didn’t seem commensurate with her reputation, so I went looking for something to get a better idea of her work. “Omelas” it was, a story that shows the ugly truth that beneath any Utopia is an ugly Dystopia, a story that kicks Utilitarianism to the curb (I just this week am reading Bentham’s presentation of felicific calculus for a philosophy mooc and I couldn’t get either of these stories out of my mind).

But where LeGuin honors those who walk away from Omelas – forego the pleasures of a Utopia built on the suffering of another person – Jemisin challenges us to do more: to stay and fight. Her situation is a bit different, as she’s dealing with the pollution caused by the ugly idea that some people are worth more than other people. For me, it brought in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from the original Utopia, which makes the case that, if people are going to be more than mindless automatons, evil is going to happen. So do you throw up your hands and give up? Do you accept it in the “what a shame” category? Do you walk away? Jemisin’s Paris Review interview makes the case that, at this time, there’s really no place to go that isn’t benefiting from the underpaid, suffering-laden labors of others – that is, those who have been “othered.” That leaves staying, and fighting to change things.

Perhaps you will speak of Um-Helat to others, and spread the notion farther still, like joyous birds migrating on trade winds. It’s possible. Everyone—even the poor, even the lazy, even the undesirable—can matter. Do you see how just the idea of this provokes utter rage in some? That is the infection defending itself . . . because if enough of us believe a thing is possible, then it becomes so.

Literary conversations are a great tradition. Sometimes they span centuries, sometimes years, sometimes months.

Another story I read as not really pushing back but running along the same lines is “Non-Zero Probabilities”. I thought of Heinlein’s story, “The Year of the Jackpot” when a statistician noticed all the cycles he keeps track of – the 54-year cycle, the 18.3, the 9+ year cycles, the 41 month cycle, and all the others – would peak and trough at a single moment in the near future. He predicted massive acts of random craziness, such as people taking their clothes off for no reason (which is the instigating incident in the story).

Adele, the protagonist of Jemisin’s story, is obsessed with luck. She prays in the tradition of several religions, uses special herbs, wears a St. Christopher medal and personal good-luck charms, things she happened to be wearing when something good happened.

And for good reason: New York is experiencing an upswing in the occurrence of very-low-probability events, which all seem to be happening. Some are bad (a train derailment downtown) (but some are, arguably, good (cancer remissions, more lottery winners). Adele finds herself in the middle of one of these events, a concatenation of unlikeliness involving a child, a frisbee, and a snowcone vendor.

“I work on Wall Street,” says another woman, who speaks briskly and clutches a bag of fresh fish as if it’s gold. Might as well be; fish is expensive now. A tiny Egyptian scarab pendant dangles from a necklace the woman wears. “Quantitative analysis. All the models are fucked now. We’re the only ones they didn’t fire when the housing market went south, and now this.” So she’s going to pray, too. “Even though I’m kind of an atheist. Whatever, if it works, right?”
Adele finds others, all tired of performing their own daily rituals, all worried about their likelihood of being outliered to death.

I love this idea of non-zero probability. No matter how low it is, if it’s not zero, it can happen. I still remember a science teacher long ago telling us about uncertainty and randomness in physics, and how it’s possible that all the oxygen molecules in the room in which you’re sitting will move to one side and leave you gasping for breath. Possible, yes. Of course, there really isn’t enough time in the history of the universe for this to have happened anywhere in the universe, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

While the math in Heinlein’s story provided lots of fun in other stories (“The Crazy Years” came up frequently), the plot was romance, as the statistician and the impulsive ecdysiast find themselves, unlikely as it is, in love. Jemisin’s story goes in a deeper direction, as she confronts the idea that maybe this isn’t all bad:

She still plans her mornings around her ritual ablutions, and her walks to work around danger spots – but how is that different, really, from what she did before? Back then it was makeup and hair, and fear of muggers. Now she walks more than she used to; she’s lost ten pounds. Now she knows her neighbors’ names. …
Some people react to fear by seeking security, change, control. The rest accept the change and just go on about their lives.

I connected that with the current moment. We can acknowledge the tragedy and loss of the past few months: so many have died, have long-lasting symptoms, have financial catastrophes, and for families with children there’s incredible stress. But there are also some moments of wonder, brilliantly creative work coming across the internet, examples of neighbors helping each other, nature’s residents reclaiming empty streets, some people finding the slower pace of life without the running to the gym and appointments after work is kind of nice. Maybe some of us might want to keep some aspects of lockdown.

I’m sure there are other correlations I don’t recognize given my thin repertoire of SF/F reading. For example, Jemisin gives “Walking Awake” as a response to Heinlein’s Puppet Masters, which I haven’t read.

<div On If you’re coming to these tales as someone who primarily knows me through my novels, you’re going to see the early forms of plot elements or characters that later got refined in novels. Sometimes that’s deliberate, since I write “proof of concept” stories in order to test drive potential novel worlds….sometimes the re versioning is completely unconscious And I don’t realize I’ve trodden familiar ground until long after. The world of the Broken Earth trilogy wasn’t my first time playing with genii locorum, for example – places with minds of their own. The concept appears in several of my stories, sometimes flavored with a dash of animism.

~~ N. K. Jemisin, Introduction

I haven’t read Jemisin’s trilogy, but I recognize immediately the stories she’s referring to here. One is “The City Born Great,” a tale of a New York street kid who discovers he has a role to play in a great drama: “This is the lesson: Great cities are like any other living things, being born and maturing and wearying and dying in their turn.” This isn’t a metaphor; it’s an actual quickening and he’s instrumental in the birth. One of the later stories, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” gives us a young man struggling to stay alive in New Orleans during Katrina; he, too, discovers a city can be more than roads and buildings.

Then there’s “Cloud Dragon Skies” which isn’t about a city but about the Earth deserted by most after an ecological catastrophe. Those who remain have made a life for themselves, a life different from before, but a life they enjoy and celebrate:

I was a child when the sky changed. I can still remember days when it was endlessly blue, the clouds passive and gentle. The change occurred without warning: one morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.
We adapted. We had never taken more than we needed from the land, and we always kept our animals far from water. Now we moistened wild cotton and stretched this across our smoke holes as filters. Sometimes the clouds would gather over fires that were out in the open. A tendril would stretch down, weaving like a snake’s head, opening delicate mist jaws to nip the plume of smoke. Even the bravest warriors would quickly put such fires out.

But those who left Earth for an artificial ring habitat think they’ve figured out a way to fix Earth. The people who live there want nothing of it. Turns out, Earth wants nothing of it, either. It’s a story where we’re never sure if the cloud dragons and the reactions of the sky are natural or supernatural; it could play either way, which is a delightful trick.

I’m guessing the world imagined in “The Narcomancer” is at least related to Jemisin’s Dreamblood novel series. It’s a wonderful story that blends characters with different viewpoints into a single mission, and requires each of them to do something for the other. It is one of the few “threat from without” stories, but it also has several threats from within that are strung along the thread of the rescue mission. I was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit at the end.

I can’t close this post without mentioning a few other stories that don’t fall into one of these categories. “The Elevator Dancer” is very short, pretty much a current-day story with fascist overtones about a guy who’s just run out of enthusiasm for life and maybe, just maybe, rediscovers it while monitoring the elevator security cameras.

It is shameful and sinful to question the will of God. Still, the guard cannot help wondering. He does not want to think this thought, but it’s like, like temptation, it comes anyhow. And, well …
if …
if a tree falls …
if a tree falls and there’s no one around to hear it (but God)…
would it really bother with anything so mundane as making a sound?

or would it

One of the longest stories is “The Effluent Engine” which I have discovered is a Steampunk Romance. I’ve finally read something Steampunk! It’s set in New Orleans in the early 19th century (I’m gathering) and features a spy who is a Haitian woman trying to help her country get back on its feet following the slave rebellion that freed her people. That she falls in love with a Creole woman is the icing on the cake. Some of the escapes and double-crosses are a little facile, but it’s very enjoyable.

“Cuisine des Mémoires” is a natural for this former Top Chef addict. The cooks and judges on the show always talk about how the greatest food evokes emotion and memory; Jemisin turns that into a story that’s part mystery and part delicious. It features a very special restaurant, and a very curious diner who just can’t leave well enough alone:

The hunger to know burned in me right alongside the warm satisfaction of the meal itself, and underneath all of that lay anger. It was irrational anger, I knew. Someone had looked into my heart and found a long forgotten moment of love, plucked it forth and dusted it off and polished it up and shoved it back in, sharp and shiny and powerful as it had been on the day of the memory was made. But I didn’t have Angelina anymore, and that turned the memory from one of sweetness into one of pain.
So I had to know how they done it.

As a special treat, you can listen to LeVar Burton read the story at Stitcher.

There’s another cuisine story, “L’Alchemista”, on more of a Chopped theme. A stranger shows up with a bag of strange ingredients and a recipe. What do you think might happen?

I could go on about nearly all the stories. Several involve computers, AI, robots, and the like. Some are about the struggles to stop abuses of power. Some are about skills they don’t teach in computer programming classes. And, of course, race and power: “Red Dirt Witch” takes a look at the future from the past, and a mother makes the wisest decision a mother ever made: to believe in the hope of her daughter, even when her own hope has run out.

If this is contemporary science fiction, maybe I should be reading more of it.

Robert Long Foreman: I Am Here to Make Friends (Sundress, 2020) [IBR2020]

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

— Emily Dickinson

The stories in I’m Just Here to Make Friends are not what the stories are about. Wait, let me say that better. The stories – at least most of them – feature a character rather obsessed with something. Maybe it’s watching a woman give birth in order to experience awe. Or getting a random trinket appraised at an Antiques Road Show event. Or reading someone else’s dream journal. But it turns out, what the character is obsessed with, is not what the story is about; the story is about what’s going on while the character chases down pregnant ladies willing to give birth in front of a stranger, or invades an ARS venue and accidentally sets up shop as an appraiser, or reads a dream journal which itself has to be the product of someone who was in a story about something else.

A line from Mad Men comes back to me: “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.” [I had a long bit in here about how new iPhones every two years and designer coffees are distractions to keep us from noticing how everything’s going to hell, and how college debt isn’t a bug but a feature since by the time a kid racks up $20, $100, $300 grand of loans, she’s going to be distracted from social justice and instead worrying about the stock market and how that homeless guy is devaluing her property, but it seemed… inappropriate. So I cut it.] That these stories foreground the anything only highlights the anxiety in the background. The stories tell the truth – but tell it slant.

The thing is, the distractions, the surface stories, are mesmerizing. They’re bright shiny lights and Led Zeppelin and the man on the flying trapeze. And the Truth is quietly sitting alone under a tree, easy to miss.

After the first few stories, I was really confused. I knew I was missing the Truth, but I didn’t know how or where. So I went to story sherpa Jake Weber’s post, which I’d been so careful not to read other than a couple of phrases about bemused narrators and warm-hearted stories. And I saw what my problem was: I needed to stop looking for the usual landmarks.

We’re so used to the cycle of want, followed by inability to achieve the wanted thing, followed then by some kind of epiphany that allows the character to achieve what he wants–the “tyranny of the epiphany” as Jim Shepard calls it–that it’s entirely arresting to read Robert Long Foreman’s short story collection I Am Here To Make Friends (Sundress Publications, 2020, 215 pages). Arresting, because most of the stories involve a protagonist who breaks the rules by not being sure what they really want, mostly being passive and misunderstood, and yet every one of the stories is a joy with more than enough forward momentum to keep the reader happily flipping pages to the end….
Much more than this, though, is the way these stories remind us how appropriate it is to feel disoriented.

– Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic

If there was ever a time when we needed to be reminded that disorientation is a normal reaction to disorienting circumstances, it’s 2020.

The title of the collection isn’t the title of a story; it isn’t a quote from a story. It’s just the title of the collection. That’s not unheard of – I found a couple of examples on my own bookshelves – but it’s unusual. It plays off the reality-TV trope I’ve heard so many times on Top Chef and Project Runway, the well-armored, obnoxious contestant assuring viewers “I’m not here to make friends” but to win, because somehow they can’t conceive of doing both successfully. In this context, it’s more ironic: the characters in these stories may truly want friends, but their efforts are ineffective or counterproductive. Still, in most of the stories they connect: maybe not with the important people in their lives, maybe not with themselves, but with the reader. Maybe we see our own thrashing through their lives.

My curiosity about the title, some other questions that cropped up during my reading (as questions always do), and a few prior conversations with Foreman led me to ask if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for this post. Turns out he would. I don’t often do author interviews, mostly because few authors would bother with me, so when I have the opportunity I jump at the chance. I’m very grateful for his willingness to spend time answering what might seem some pretty strange questions:

1 The title – it looks like it’s not in the text anywhere (if i missed it, please let me know); obviously it’s not a title of a story. I’m assuming it’s an overall title – So many of the characters are losing relationships while they’re distracted by goofy stuff, or they’re distracting themselves from their relationships with goofy stuff, is it more of an overall title about all these people? With the melting snowman, it makes me so sad – like Frosty the Snowman, hurry up and make friends with me before I melt! Anything you want to say about it?

You’re right; the title is not in the text. I had thought of calling it Here to Make Friends; my friend Kate suggested adding I Am Here since all the stories are in the first-person, since it would indicate something about the collection. At first I just thought it would be a funny title, but then I realized it’s actually an accurate statement about me. I am indeed here to make friends! And my hope is that something else comes out in it, too, a sense of something bordering on desperation, which I think the narrators in the stories feel. They tell their stories because they want so badly to be better understood, and there’s so much about themselves they don’t see.

2 I often have trouble telling if the narrator/main char is male or female. Is that deliberate? It could be a statement about gender fluidity, or it could be, well, just the byproduct of first person narration.

I think it’s mostly the latter–a consequence of first-person narration. But I don’t usually make it a priority to identify the narrator’s gender. Sometimes you have to make gender apparent for the sake of clarity, but I like the idea of a story being read differently based on what you perceive the narrator’s gender to be. I’ve been told I need to make it clearer when my narrator is a woman, because I’m a man, but I still don’t usually do that.

3 Story order, selection – how did you decide the order of the stories? It seemed to me the last two stories are the most “traditional”. Is that a matter of your writing evolving, or a deliberate choice? How did you decide what stories to include or leave out?

I put the longest story last; that seemed to make sense. For the longest time, in earlier drafts of the collection, I had “Cadiz, Missouri” first in the collection, because it won a Pushcart, and is therefore the most decorated story, maybe the best one. But I think that was holding it back; it’s a subdued, essayistic story, and doesn’t leap out at the reader. “Awe” is a story that does, and once I put it first I found the collection got a much better reaction–was a finalist for a contest, was published by Sundress. I didn’t think that mattered for the longest time, that I needed to ensnare a reader quickly. But I did! Anyway, I mostly just wanted to make sure the collection was ordered in a way that would keep the reader interested, keep surprising them. It’s all about justifying putting the stories together in a collection by creating a book-length experience that you can’t get by reading each story out in the wild.

4 When was Gunmen written? In an interview after The Man with the Nightmare Gun, you said you’d lost interest in guns, couldn’t write it that way now (then). The scenario is very different, of course, but you did return to guns, was that to change the conversation the earlier story started, or was it more about reality calling for a reaction?

It’s true; I finished writing my other gun story in the collection right before I found out Trayvon Martin was shot, and I was then more repulsed by guns as a fact of American life than I ever was before. I felt gross for having written about guns with even a character’s fictionalized fascination, even if I still think that’s a good story. But then guns never went anywhere, and years later people were talking seriously about arming teachers. I was a teacher at the time, and knew what a horrible, stupid idea that was and still is. So I felt compelled to write about how I think that might actually look in practice, with all the decent people leaving the profession and the only teachers left being rotten and vacuous, hanging onto their jobs just because they’re willing to carry firearms into classrooms. I was also feeling really out-of-place in academia, which I then left, and that informs the story, too.

5 I’ve never read Cormac McCarthy, if I had, would I have noticed all kinds of connections and references in Gunmen? As much as I liked the story, I wonder if I missed a whole world.

I don’t think you missed too much. There are some jokes that are funnier if you’ve read McCarthy’s novels, like how the narrator says The Orchard Keeper is a terrible novel that no one should read. But all you really need to know is how McCarthy is perceived, as a kind of man’s man of writers, who writes about guns and horses, to get why he’s in that story.

6 This isn’t a question, though you’re welcome to respond if you’d like. I guess the Rob Save America tour is cancelled; too bad, I was hoping it would work. We’re screwed now. And I was hoping you’d get to Maine, though I communicate much better online than in person. I feel so bad for all of the writers who’ve worked so hard, and had their book releases coincide with this crap.

It’s not a great time to have a book coming out! Let alone to have two coming out (my novel’s out in October). I’m not with any big, monied presses, so it’s hard to get much attention on my books as it is; one way that works is to make personal appearances in different places. And that’s not possible right now. I wish I could do Rob, Save America! and visit all fifty states; it was always meant to be a comical way to set myself up for failure, since I have kids at home and lots of work always and can barely leave the house to do anything ever. But I would have liked to go to a few places. I really wanted to, like, go to Lawrence, Kansas with a map of the US and just two thumbtacks on it to mark the states I’ve been to, in November, and talk about how hard it would be to get to 48 more states by December 31st, and ask the audience if they knew anyone in Montana who owned a bookstore that could host me.

7 Is there anything you wish someone would ask you so you could say something in an answer?

I wish people would ask why I’m the way I am all the time. Like, what’s it like to wake up in the morning and be like that? My answer is that it’s really terrible, I hate being like this.

– Interview with Robert Long Foreman, July 2020

As to that last: I have no idea what it means, but to me it brings up Thomas Nagel, Stevie Smith, and BoJack Horseman (which I haven’t really watched, but my blogging buddy Jake Weber keeps dropping pearls of wisdom he’s found in it, so, like Cormac McCarthy, it’s one of those things I may need to grit my teeth and tolerate for a while to get to the good part). Rob’s whole Twitter feed is like this, I’m never sure if I should be laughing at a joke that went over my head, or calling a suicide hotline.

But let’s go back to his stories. Some of my favorites:


Had I known the gunman was on his way, had I known what I was dreaming when I dreamt his arrival in advance, I would have prepared for his coming. I would have stashed an extra gun in the desk at the front of the room and ensured that the students knew it was there. I would have planted a claymore at the entrance to the classroom, just above the door. I would have rigged a steel trap that might have kept the gunman from bringing any harm to the students I was meant to keep safe.
Better yet: I would have told the students not to come in that day. Had I known not only that he would come, but when, I would have cancelled my class and saved the lives of nine people.

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler; it’s the first paragraph. This is the last story of the book – Foreman refers to it as a novella, and, at 62 pages, that makes sense – but I wanted to start off with it in case readers get discouraged by the length of this post and stop reading (who am I kidding; too late) to make sure at least this one gets on their radar screen. There’s a huge range here: one bit about adjuncts had me giggling, another about trademark violations got a full-blown snort; the climactic scene had me hyperventilating and brought me to the edge of a panic attack. And it almost has me wanting to read Cormac McCarthy. But not quite.

It’s a campus novella with a terrifyingly possible alternative-present premise: teachers at all levels are required to carry guns. Our protagonist is an English professor, and a pretty crappy one at that. When the Must Carry law went into effect, most of the professors quit, so he’s what’s left. To his credit, he knows he’s not much of a scholar or a professor. His students keep complaining that the World Literature course he’s teaching only covers Cormac McCarthy novels. He hopes that somehow, in a class with students fresh with ideas, he’ll find an idea worth writing about.

His transition to arms hasn’t gone totally smoothly. His girlfriend left him because he started checking for dangers everywhere, and talked about gunmen in his sleep. But he’s found the bright side of Must Carry: respect.

… before we had guns I’d found that the respect I was supposed to get as a professor eluded me….
The United States had always seemed to look on its teachers as an enormous population of lay-about distant cousins, living liabilities to the sensible and business-minded world. We were bad examples to the children, they seemed to think, and should have all gone to school for business and opened a business.
That attitude changed, when we got our guns. Everything changed, except how much students didn’t like the things I assigned them to read. They kept not liking any of that.

I’ve never read McCarthy, but I suspect I’d find multiple intersections. In fact, I noticed one even from my unenlightened state: the lack of quotation marks. Foreman uses them in other stories, so it’s a choice not to use them here. McCarthy wasn’t the first to eliminate quotation marks in his writing, but he’s rather famous for it (since even I know about it). The three epigraphs from Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West come into play. Wiki lists them and Shmoop tells me they’re about the continued savagery of the human animal even as we become supposedly more and more civilized. That certainly plays in a story about arming English professors and holding gun fairs on campus so they can choose their University-supplied firearms, because (and I’m editorializing here) it’s more profitable for campaign contributors than getting military weapons away from people who might be crazy enough to shoot up a classroom.

One comment the professor makes about McCarthy’s writing style also seems in line with the story:

When McCarthy has the novel trudge along the way it does, with significant events mixed with insignificant events, indiscriminately, in a perfectly linear fashion, it makes the narrative seem more real. It makes it plain that McCarthy is anchoring his imagination to a historical record.

This seems particularly appropriate when he interrupts an account of a class discussion to inform us that Philip, one of his students is black. Not only is it a bit of a digression, but he relates it directly to writing. And it’s one of those writing issues that gets tossed around once in a while: will a reader assume all characters are white unless they have characteristics associated with black people, and in that case, isn’t that stereotyping, etc etc. In the context of the story it’s more about how a McCarthy narrative suddenly stops and a long passage about a horse ensues, but it’s also a genuine social issue that’s pretty front-burner right now. The whole story is chock full of front-burner issues. Then again, right now just about everything is a front-burner issue.

And about Philip: it seems to me he’s the reason the students were still in the classroom when the gunman burst in. The narrator never states it outright, but does indicate Philip’s course evaluation was very long and they probably would have left earlier if he hadn’t been so diligent at outlining the Professor’s weaknesses. Which gives us a deeper answer to the question, who was the real reason the students were in the room? And then leaves us with, why the hell should it matter how long they were there, or why, since the real issue is why isn’t the classroom safe no matter how long they say?

At the center of all of it is the professor, whose name we never know, someone who isn’t up to his job or his relationship or much of anything, really. And he knows it, and seems to accept it without feeling a need to do anything about it. At the end, he’s alone, but he seems to have some direction for the future. Or at least, he knows one thing he doesn’t want to to do, which is a start.


Maybe he was right, I thought, and I could use some awe in my life. It was making Gary glow. What could it do for me?

This is a story that could have been written another way – a more traditional way – and it would have been sweet and sad and moving, but written this way, it’s kind of like white-water rafting (at least, as I imagine it, since I’ve never been anywhere close to white water nor have I ever been within shouting distance of a raft).

I happen to be very fond of awe, in the Edmund Burke sense (he’s kind of a jerk otherwise, but he knew awe), and I always feel like I find it in places I’m not supposed to. The night sky is beautiful, but awe? Naw. Ditto for the Grand Canyon. People who find awe there, are they serious? Then again, I’ve never been, so who knows. No, where I find awe is in an animation of DNA replication, in all of biology really: we need oxygen for the last of around 30 steps that somehow just happen, in every cell of our bodies, not because molecules make decisions but because positive and negative attract. It’s amazing we’re alive, let alone reading books and having babies. But people look at me like I’m weird when I say stuff like this.

Our narrator – nameless, again – gets some advice from a friend: get some awe in your life, watch a baby get born. The friend just watched his son being born, which it seems to me is a very different experience from watching a stranger give birth, but our guy doesn’t have a son in the oven, so he uses Craigslist to find a woman willing to give birth in front of him. I wasn’t kidding when I said these stories were full of bright shiny lights and stuff.

And then there’s the Truth, sitting in the corner smiling a half-smile:

“I haven’t touched a camera in a year,” I said. “Not since my last subject. She died. She killed herself.” With a half smile, I said, “I guess that’s what I get for making a film about people on the brink of suicide.”

Life and death weave around each other throughout the story, amid sinks and semicolons and a house that looks “as if Frank Lloyd Wright had designed it after banging his head and forgetting what century he lived in.”

As the first story in the collection, it sets the tone. It’s not as baffling as some other ones – there’s an actual resolution – but it’s not your standard How I Came Through the Darkness thing either. At the beginning of the story he’s recovering from having seen something awful. At the end, he’s healed by having seen something aweful.


I went to the Antiques Roadshow with my mother’s green marble frog in the inside pocket of the jacket of the black suit I wore to her funeral that morning. I had taken the frog from her house. I wanted to know what it was worth.

One of the best pieces of advice in the hundreds of pages Miss Manners has published (I love Miss Manners) is about answering a question like, “Would you like to see some pictures of my grandchildren?” A literal answer would almost always be “No,” but she fudges it by looking at “the truth of the situation, rather than the crude literal surface truth.” The grandparent is really asking for communication, sharing, some kind of connection, and only a heartless bastard would refuse that.

The problem is, Antiques Roadshow assumes that, when you show up with a useless trinket, you want to know the actual value of the thing. They don’t know it’s your mother’s, and that you just buried her hours before. They only know it’s worthless crap.

Our bereaved narrator (need I mention he is unnamed) tries to drink off his disappointment, but is mistaken for one of the appraisers. “I imagined that most of the Roadshow appraisers weren’t equipped to take harsh truths and soften them for the ones they told them to. They were like bad eulogists, one of which I heard that morning. It was my dad.” But he has more freedom than the appraisers, so he starts giving out more uplifting judgments. He gets more and more elaborate as time goes on – the “Sears” doesn’t refer to the store, but to subversive artists making a statement – and also more and more generous. “A theme of extinction ran through my late appraisals.” Of course it did.

The end feels wrenching, like any tragedy worth its salt.

The Vinyl Canal

I’ve spent enough of my life listening to weird men talk about things that matter to them but that don’t really matter at all.
How much more of my life would I spend doing that – sitting patiently while someone like Ben told me all about something that really meant something – to him?
How much longer would it be before I had a man living inside my head, droning on about records, or traffic, or the independent comedy scene, for the independent literature scene, or the independent scenery scene, whenever there wasn’t a real man around to do it? How long before I had a man living in my apartment, who would serve the same purpose?

Sometimes, the distraction of the story is, in fact, a lot more interesting to me than the story itself. In fact, I’m not even sure what the Truth is, besides this woman going through some lousy relationships she’s only half paying attention to, because they aren’t worth it. And because the Vinyl Canal is a lot more interesting.

The Vinyl Canal starts out as a way of skipping over tracks of a record you don’t like. I miss records. I still have a few, though I got rid of most of them, things that could be replaced, a long time ago. Records would develop their own quirks over time: skips, repeats, and so forth. Those of us with cheap phonographs (and cheap records that could be replaced) balanced quarters on the tone arm to keep the stylus in slightly damaged grooves, even though this resulted in more damage.

Ben found a way to use those skips to his advantage: by creating canals that would move across cuts he didn’t want to listen to. That’s pretty brilliant; I have to wonder if Foreman actually did this at some point, or knew someone who did. But Ben discovers it’s a lot more work to carve these canals than it is to just let the record play as it was made (by the way, there were turntables available from the late 70s that offered programmable track selection with linear tracking tonearms; my husband had a couple); thus the term Vinyl Canal evolves to mean a way of avoiding something you don’t want to deal with, but actually causing yourself more trouble than if you’d just gone ahead and faced it like a grownup.

This meaning keeps expanding, and he applies it to a wide variety of societal ills: The poisoned water in Flint, MI; the Iraq war; police violence; defunding libraries. It’s maybe the story most broadly pertinent to today, and by today, I mean literally today, this week, 2020 in general, as we’re at 130,000 deaths and the fourth month of pandemic affecting people’s lives every day because someone (we won’t name names) thought it would be better to ignore it. We’re in the Vinyl Canal right now.

The story is available online at Willow Springs, along with a contributor note from Foreman:

What surprised me most as I wrote the story was that it didn’t end where I meant it to, at first. I thought the narrator’s exit from the radio station, about 2/3 of the way into the story, would be the right place to leave her. I realized, when I extended the story to where it ultimately went, that it wasn’t until later that the story’s animating tension was resolved, or its anxiety soothed (I don’t like the word “conflict”). It seemed to me that the right place to leave the narrator was at the mouth of the canal her weird acquaintance had dug. And so I learned a lot from continuing to work on this story, even after I saw I could have decided it was finished and moved on. I used to be less patient than that.

~ Robert Foreman, contributor note

It seems to me that the shorter version makes the narrator the focus, and the longer version makes Ben the primary character; I far prefer it that way, since I have no idea what the narrator’s issues are. I’m too distracted by the Vinyl Canal. See, it works.

On Brian’s Dreams of Submarines

I told some of these dreams to Brian – my husband Brian – as we ate breakfast, but he wasn’t interested. It takes him an hour every morning to be ready to engage with the world, and he’d only been awake for thirty minutes when I relayed my dreams to him , so that was part of it , but I also think he just didn’t care.
I developed a theory, that dreams are interesting to people other than their dreamer only when they’ve been written down and processed through the act of writing into something more concrete. If I wrote down my dreams and left them in a folder in the apartment, Brian might find them when I was dead or at a conference, and he might be as engrossed in my dreams as I was in those had by work-Brian

I always feel inadequate when I read a story about dreams, because my dreams aren’t anything like the dreams in stories or books. I have categories of dreams (house dreams, still-married nightmares, pain dreams) but I never have the same dream, or even close to the same dream twice. And my dreams are very fragmented, but the fragments rarely connect.

In spite of my inferiority complex around dreams, this was another fascinating story with a brilliant distraction. It reminded me a lot, in fact, of “The Vinyl Canal” except to me it worked better as a story, since I understood the narrator’s underlying Truth: her marriage was dying of disinterest.

The narrator is tasked with cleaning out the desk of Brian, who quit his job precipitously some time ago. She finds a notebook which she initially thinks is a technical manual of some kind: it’s typed and has charts and diagrams. It turns out to be Brian’s dream journal. The charts are ways of categorizing his dreams by themes, by gender or race of the population in the dream, by deaths in the dream, etc. These charts are reproduced in the book, by the way; I can only assume that Mid-American Review also reproduced them when they printed the story in 2013, and offer them a high-five for doing so; it’s the sort of thing that befuddles text-only litmags, but allows so much to blossom forth from fiction.

The narrator’s husband is also named Brian. This is not the first time I’ve sensed Foreman playing with doubling. In this case, there’s a hint of the narrator being work-wife and home-wife, even though she and work-Brian rarely interacted. That just emphasizes how distant she and her husband have become.

The title refers to a series of submarine dreams, in which everyone on board is killed. There’s a lot of concern about whether this includes Brian, if he’s the crew, as the dreamer, or if he’s the captain, or something else. These aren’t just plug-in dreams, these are detailed examinations, which makes the story work. I’m reminded of Seth Fried explaining he kept a notebook of creative ways for people to be killed when writing his story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” and at one point he got worried that if he left the notebook somewhere and someone else found it, they might call SWAT on him. Work went into these dreams. And it wasn’t Brian’s work.

Our narrator comments at one point she thinks this journal might be a practical joke played by her boss to freak her out. That sounds like a fun story right there.

The diary turns out to affect the narrator’s life as she and her husband discuss the submarine dreams. It’s a delightful pun on the cliché about marriage being founded on shared dreams. The graph that results from that evening (hey, I can’t reveal everything) makes a delightfully happy ending to a story.


I’ve followed Foreman on Twitter for quite some time, and usually have no idea what he’s talking about (I understand less and less of what’s on Twitter every day; pretty soon, it’ll be like a stream of undecipherable language, but I’ve arranged it so that I get lots of pretty pictures, which comfort me). I read his essay collection last year, and it surprised me: I always figured he was just too cool for me, but I discovered we have lots of intersections. This story collection sometimes gets beyond me, but much of it hits the target perfectly: I am these people, way too much. His novel, Weird Pig, is scheduled for release in October 2020.

James Alan McPherson: Elbow Room (Fawcett, 1979) [IBR2020]

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson's “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

Background image: Ben Wohlberg, Original Oil Illustration, McPherson’s “Why I Like Country Music” from Elbow Room

A point of information. What has form to do with caste restrictions?
You are saying you want to be white?
A narrator needs as much access to the world as the advocates of that mythology theory.
You are ashamed then of being black?
Only of not being nimble enough to dodge other people’s straitjackets.
Are you not too much obsessed here with integration?
I was cursed with a healthy imagination.
What have caste restrictions to do with imagination?
A point of information. What is your idea of personal freedom?
Unrestricted access to new stories for me.
Have you paid strict attention to the forming of this present one?
Once upon a time there was a wedding in San Francisco

As is evident to those who read here often, I’m fond of switching up narrative approaches to short stories. So I’ve got to hand it to a story that presents a kind of metanarrative of an editor questioning a narrator/writer along with the story itself about two young people searching for their own stories, and one of them finding it, perhaps, in their child. This is the title story of Elbow Room, a story that looks at stories, how we find and create them in our lives, and how we hear and use language in ways meaningful to us, all while protecting ourselves from walking into a shitload of pain.

It’s the last story in the collection, and I think that’s a good choice, partly because it’s a terrific story, and partly because we’ve had a chance to see other ways McPherson writes. There’s outright hilarity, irony, social commentary, warm and gentle memoir, and some bro-lit as my blogging buddy Jake likes to call it. The themes of language and storytelling come up often, as do ideas of hiding what is true behind a façade and self-protection against emotional damage. In this last story, it all comes together. Along with, in a central position, the n-word.

“I’m black. I’ve accepted myself as that. But didn’t I make some elbow room, though?” She tapped her temple with her forefinger. “I mean up here! Then she laughed bitterly and sipped her tea. “When times get tough, anybody can pass for white. Niggers been doing that for centuries, so it ain’t nothing new. But shit, wouldn’t it of been something to be a nigger that could relate to white and black and everything else in the world out of a self as big as the world is?” She laughed. Then she said, “That would have been some nigger.”

It’s a word I will quote, obviously, but won’t use. It’s not just that I’m uncomfortable with it or that I feel it isn’t a word I have title to use (though both of those are true), but more that I don’t want to get used to using it; I want it to remain a word that’s difficult for me to speak or type. That’s my choice. But in this story, it becomes very important, so can’t be overlooked. Not that the word isn’t used in other stories; it is in many. But if this were the first story in the collection, showcasing the significance of the word, it might become the central issue of the book before the foundation is laid. Here, after having read story after story about people who view their own blackness in different ways, who experience blackness in the world differently, it becomes more of a climax, or an epiphany. At least, for me.

I chose to read this book after reading, in Pushcart 2020, Allen Gee’s memoir of McPherson, “Old School”. McPherson was Gee’s teacher, then mentor, at the Iowa MFA program, then friend for almost thirty years until McPherson’s death in 2016. It was through this essay that I learned McPherson was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with this very book. I was embarrassed that I was unaware of him, so chose it to fill in yet another gap in my reading history.

Many of the stories deal with differences in the generational and geographical expectations of individual black people – and, for that matter, in the white community both within itself and as it interacted with the black community. As brought out most clearly in the final story, younger people were now writing their own stories of their lives and especially laying the groundwork for the next generation to be free to write its own story; the older generations had trouble catching up. There’s a terrific thought experiment in the story about an African mask in an art museum, and how to convince customers that it’s beautiful, since all the other art dealers think it is not.

That thought experiment, by the way, is a scene between the narrator and one of the characters. Throughout the story, I kept wondering if the narrator was a person he knew, or if this was more of a metaphor for a writer creating characters who sometimes do surprising things. I know a lot of writers who claim to talk with their characters. I can’t decide; maybe both, and that ambiguity is one of the reasons I liked this story so much.

The collection starts off with “Why I Like Country Music”, a wonderfully heart-warming story about a childhood crush. Even here, though, there is depth, starting from the beginning when our unnamed first-person narrator, decades and half a country removed from his South Carolina grade school, tries to explain his musical taste to his wife. It’s all about Gweneth, the little girl he pined for when he was ten. And, possibly, because square dancing is the only kind of dancing he has ever learned – from, or because of, Gweneth.

In those days, down in our small corner of South Carolina, proficiency in dance was a form of storytelling. ….But, sadly, I could do none of it. Development of these skills depended on the ministrations of family and neighbors. My family did not dance; our closest neighbor was a true-believing Seventh Day Adventist. Moreover, most new dances came from up North, brought to town usually by people returning to riff on the good life said to exist in those far northern places…. Each of their movements, as well as their world weary smoothness, told us locals meaningful tales of what was missing in our lives. Unfortunately, those of us under strict parental supervision, or those of us without northern connections, could only stand at a distance and worship these envoys of culture. We stood on the sidelines – styleless, gestureless, danceless, doing nothing more than an improvised one butt shuffle – hoping for one of them to touch our lives. It was my good fortune, during my tenth year on the sidelines, to have one of these Northerners introduced me to the square dance.

The plot concerns a school pageant including both a maypole dance and a square dance, and our narrator’s foiled attempts to squire Gweneth. His rival is the ebullient Leon Pugh whose father and brother told him “to git anything’ in this world you gotta learn how to blow your own horn.” Leon does that quite well. Our narrator, not so much. The stern teacher plays a role in all this, possibly the foiler, possibly the subtle, behind-the-scenes enabler. But it’s mostly a spotlight on our narrator’s ten-year-old heart, and powerful desire to do-si-do and allemande with Gweneth.

Included in the story are the differences between Northern and Southern Negroes, as already hinted at. That our narrator is now in New York shows how that works. He describes Gweneth in a wonderful way: “I remember the rainbow of deep, rich colors in which she lived.” The colors are the brown of her neck and the black of her hair against the white of her collar, and sometimes the blues or reds of the hair ribbons she wore on her braids. Black and brown as part of a color palette have a particular implication here.

Within this recognition of North and South is the realization that in this town there are two cultures that, somehow, coexist yet don’t:

Still, our school books, our required classroom songs, our flags, our very relation to the statues and monuments in public parks, negated the story that these dreamers from the North had ever come. …Given the silent circumstances of our cultural environment, it was ironic, and perhaps just, that we maintained a synthesis of two traditions no longer supportive of each other.

Like I said, it’s a lot deeper than a schoolboy crush.

“The Faithful” deals directly with what we used to call the generation gap back in my day. A barber / preacher can’t adjust to Afros or to more contemporary sermons. “The Story of a Dead Man” is more of a character gap between two cousins, one following the straight and narrow, one who’s constantly in trouble. The title hung over the whole story for me: who is the dead man? Then I found a wonderful paper from 1988 by the now late Prof. Jon Wallace that had an intriguing idea: does that last line echo Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”?

In looking into McPherson’s background, I discovered he was in law school when he published his first story. He graduated but apparently never practiced. In a few stories his legal background shows, once in a humorous tone, and once more somberly.

“Problems of Art” concerns one Mrs. Farragot who is facing a revocation of her drivers’ license for driving under the influence. The story begins with Milford, her lawyer from Project Gratis, interviewing her at her home; she’s insisted on a white lawyer, wanting someone who can “make logic” out of the story her witness tells. And it’s quite a story; I couldn’t quite follow it, except it involved her not wanting to “walk a line” because she was in her nightie. It’s a (very funny) story about making order out of chaos, but at the same time, about the false façade that order can create, masking the chaos underneath:

Milford’s suspicion of an undisclosed reality was heightened by the figure in the painting on the wall across the room. It was the portrait of a sad eyed Jesus.…A disturbing absence of nuance undermined the face: the small brown eyes were dimensionless, as if even they did not believe the message they had been calculated to convey….In the entire face, from forehead to chin, there was not the slightest hint of tragedy or transcendence. To appreciate it, Milford concluded, required of one an act of faith.

When her lawyer hears the witness, he’s kind of enchanted, but agrees that he can’t possibly testify: “And as colorful as were the circumstances of her case, there was not the slightest possibility that any responsible lawyer could include them in her defense.” Again I’m tweaked by word colorful. It’s clear that a court of law is no place for color. And Milford gets a bit of a surprise at the end – or maybe it’s just confirmation of what he suspected all along.

This theme of the law being white is played out far more seriously in “A Sense of Story”. Robert Charles, the black defendant, is charged with the murder of Frank Johnson, his boss at an auto repair shop. An outburst by the defendant forces the judge to dismiss the jury and issue a verdict based on the transcripts; we watch over his shoulder as he reads documents that glow with hints and nuance about the relationship between Charles and Johnson: Charles invented an engine lubricant that would work in foreign cars, but Johnson shut him down, or possibly stole it. At one point, Johnson hands out paychecks, which include a raise for one man but not for Charles, and mutters, “I’m white.” If Charles is convicted, he will be the first death row prisoner under a new law; his lawyer is arguing mitigation to reduce that to a prison term. The transcript is full of assumptions about Negroes and how ‘they’ are. The mitigation seems to focus on such points, like Charles drinking and carrying a gun, rather than any genuine circumstances of mitigation. As the judge reads the transcript the narration tells us, “The specially treated glass in the picture window made the sky seem more bright and blue than it really was.”

I still wasn’t sure what I was reading here, so I went poking around as I tend to do, and found a highly relevant passage in the book Whispered Consolations: Law and Narrative in African American Life by the late Jon-Christian Suggs, a professor of African American History at CUNY. He puts it right out there:

That is, the transcript to which we have access shows nobility of character, perfectionism, commitment to hard work, genuine creative intelligence, and patience on the part of Charles and the blind racial insensitivity, class privilege, institutional racism, and personal betrayal in the larger world around him. We come away with solid intimations of the theology of the crime. But of course, that is not in any way admissible, nor was it even visible to Charles his own attorney. Nor did the judge admit it even on his review of the transcript. What was allowed to be told was enough to convict, though not enough to create an accessible and “true” story of a man’s life….McPherson’s story argues once again a larger point, one we saw in Wright, Motley, Bell, and Williams: the law is no lens through which to view the lives of African Americans. In McPherson’s text we see perhaps more clearly than in the others where the narrative shortcomings of the law may lie.

Whispered Consolations::Law and Narrative in African American Life By Jon-Christian Suggs

As Mrs. Farragot’s lawyer said, colorful is not for the courtroom.

McPherson turns his pen on economic inequality in “A Loaf of Bread”. Harold Green, a white grocer, has three stores, one in a black neighborhood. His black customers discover his prices are significantly higher in this store (55 cents vs 39 cents) than his prices in a wealthier neighborhood, or in a neighboring poor white area. The story is loaded with subtle commentary on ways capitalism screws over black folks while spinning credible excuses. When the customers picket, Green mutters, “Where do they get so much power?” He gives the obligatory “I’m not a racist” speech pointing out his name, and finishing with, “Green is the only color I’m interested in.” The association of green with money, of course, gives a double meaning to that remark. Then his brother-in-law has a suggestion to ease the situation:

“How would it be if you visited one of their meetings and chalked out, on a blackboard, the dollars and cents of your operation? Explain your overhead, your security fees, all the additional expenses. If you treat them with respect, they might understand.”
Green frowned. “That I would never do,” he said. “It would be admission of a certain guilt.”
The brother-in-law smiled, but only with one corner of his mouth. “Then you have something to feel guilty about?” he asked.
The grocer frowned at him. “Nothing! he said with great emphasis.

As in “Elbow Room”, there’s a wonderful thought experiment here, this time about a man buying a used stove. Green thinks it’s exonerating, but it’s actually quite damning, approving of exploitation. We, as readers, are given information the customers in the story don’t get: Green’s other two stores, the ones with lower prices, are basically subsidized by the higher prices at this one, so his rationale of paying more for security bars and such falls flat.

The story turns when his wife insists he run the store for one day selling everything for free. She also suggests he not buy any meats or expensive items beforehand to mitigate the loss, but otherwise give away anything anyone comes in to buy. She will leave him, and take his children, if he doesn’t do this. Talk about exploitation. He follows through, and the titular loaf of bread comes in at the very end in a spectacular way: even when being given a break, he has to tweak just a little more out of it.

“The Story of a Scar” features two people vying to tell a story only one of them knows. At one point I wrote “mansplaining!” in the margin. Something about the male figure seemed almost Satan-like to me, but I don’t see that anywhere else, so I’ll mark it as my idiosyncratic experience. At heart it’s about good people who seem bad, and bad people who seem good.

“I am an American” is another very funny story about a black couple touring Europe

One reason might have been our having grown tired of being mere tourists. In the Louvre two mornings before, among a crowd of American tourists standing transfixed before the Old Masters of Renaissance painting, I had suddenly found myself pointing a finger and exclaiming to Eunice, “Hey, didn’t they name a cheese after that guy?”
“Leroy, they did no such a-thing!” Eunice had hissed.
The other tourists had laughed nervously.
Eunice had pulled me out of the Louvre though not by the ear.
That same morning I had decided to wire one of a list of London people suggested to us by friends back home in Atlanta.

There’s a great deal of confusion over national identity of everyone: this guy might be Bulgarian because of the coat he wears, are the Orientals Chinese or Japanese, and one couple keeps asking what tribe in Africa the couple is from; the situation gets compounded when the husband tries to answer in what he thinks is Japanese. I had so much fun reading it, I didn’t really want to dissect the overriding necessity some people feel of figuring out who’s what. And then there’s the frequent refrain, “Eunice was right.” Now you’re talking.

There were a couple of stories that I couldn’t do much with. “Just Enough for the City” seems to be about religious alienation, but it could be anything; I kept wondering what city has that many proselytizers of so many widely different sects showing up every day. The language theme intrigued me, but I couldn’t connect with it; maybe I’ll run into something later on that will jog something loose. “The Silver Bullet” was too bro-lit; whereas “The Story of a Dead Man” was also strongly tough-guy, it had a center to return to. I started letting my eyes skim over sentences of “Bullet” and never really saw where it was going. That’s more or less a personal preference, or bias, if you will, and doesn’t reflect on the story as much as on my difficulty with certain styles.

I’m so glad I discovered McPherson, late as it is. I wondered why I haven’t seen this book out there more. Then I remember. Well, here it is. Yes, it’s more than 40 years old. Sadly, some things haven’t changed, and this book is a great touchstone for realizing how important it is that they do.

Jason Brown: A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed (Missouri Review Books, 2019) [IBR2020]

I love reading a good novel, but the linked collection has always been my favorite form. When I first read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich, my jaw dropped. While some people I knew felt as if the book straddled an awkward territory between the novel and a collection of stories, I felt that it was written for the way my mind works. Other linked collections have had a similar effect on me. Alice Munro’s books, Sebald’s The Emigrants. These books present cohesive but fractured narratives.

In an era in which commercial publishing has pushed out most forms of innovation and shown zero tolerance for risk, I believe linked collections represent some of the best work available because they are not commercial. A linked collection can establish a main character for the book and then wander away from that character and the central themes. A linked collection can function like a conventional novel by focusing on one or more main characters and following a narrative arc through time to some kind of crisis and resolution.

Jason Brown: Interview with Marjorie Celona for Fiction Writers Review

In searching for a theme or vantage point from which to discuss this book, I saw many options. Family ties that comfort even as they bind. A respect for the past that seems to be fading from American life. Boats. We will, in fact, talk about all these things, but I want to start with the overall structure of this book, which is classified as linked stories, and how that helps emphasize the themes and images within.

It wasn’t until I read Brown’s interview quoted above that I realized the form of the book reflects its subject: the fragmentation of narrative to heighten its themes, the fragmentation of a family to expose its push and pull, the fragmentation of the past in an effort to both remember and forget. Even the literal fragmentation of highly symbolic boats as they carry our loved ones, or maybe wander off on their own.

I’ve always been a little hazy on the concept of linked stories versus the novel in stories, but the more I thought about this book as a whole, the clearer it seemed to me that fragmented novel fit the bill. That feels a little arrogant, since the cover proclaims it is linked stories, as does Brown. But I felt like I read a novel, a saga over centuries with some of the pages, even entire chapters missing (at least two major events are referred to only in past tense from stories set well beyond their occurrence), maybe torn out by readers who loved them – or hated them – too much to leave them behind, or just disconnected from the tatters of age.

Then again, maybe I’ve been paying too much attention to medieval fragments. It’s an entire discipline, you know, the study of manuscript fragments used as backing for other manuscripts, or in some cases linings for hats or just pieces swept together long ago. And then, by coincidence – and coincidence plays such a big part in my reading, though I’m pretty sure it’s more like confirmation bias, something’s on my mind so I’m more prone to notice relevant items – an article by Sinéad Gleeson discussing her essay collection Constellations titled “Fragmented Narratives Are Broken, Independent, and Honest” came across my feed:

Sometimes the world steers you towards the broken apart, the work that refuses to be glued together, that basks in its un-ness.
What is a life but a series of fragments?

Sinéad Gleeson, article online at LitHub

That changed how I saw the book. And I’ll repeat: it not only describes the form of the book, but the families, stories, and lives within.

The family saga gives us a glimpse into how various characters deal with, or dispense with, the family’s legacy, which at this point is little more than bragging rights and a name recognized only on one small Maine island and another tiny inland town. This is to some extent the story of modernity; we used to grow where we were planted, now we have options to uproot and travel the world. Yet, for many, home soil keeps calling us back. And in this family, travel has been a tradition: across oceans, up and down continents, only recently have they rooted in Maine.

One of the minor recurring themes is the lure of California, the state farthest from Maine that serves as a way for some of the family to escape. In the informative podcast with G. P. Gottleib for New Books in Literature, Brown mentions a pertinent scene from The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “There’s a sense in California that everything is so new, and that you can reinvent yourself, and that the past is gone.” I can see this in at least two stories, though in one case, the escaping character comes to terms with the past and reclaims it. It’s also interesting that the primary point-of-view character ends up in Oregon (where Brown lives, btw), which I read as a way, not to escape the past, but to crawl out from under its domination. Brown’s comment also reminded me of a scene from Mad Men, the “Christmas Waltz” episode in which Harry encourages Paul to leave the Hare Krishna cult and go to California to start over: “You don’t understand what it’s like out there. This failure, this life, it’ll all seem like it happened to someone else.” Lightness is on my list for this year’s in-between read because of these connections.

Each story is dated, but those dates are deceptive. Although most of the stories occur from the 80s to today, they often recount events from much earlier, events that underline what is going on in the present of the story. The first story is dated 2003, and in the second, we go back to 1981. From there the stories work their way forward in time to 2014; then the final piece looks back to 1741. This constant overlapping of present and past slightly unmoors the stories in time, adding to my impression that this is a novel, and emphasizes the importance of the past within the present for the primary characters. If I were to lapse into poetic metaphor, I might say it also feels like waves lapping forever at the same shore, but always different.

The tentpole character is John Howland, not to be confused with his grandfather, also John Howland. That’s the thing with these old New England families, with old families everywhere I suppose, they keep recycling the names. There’s a handy family tree in the first pages, and I think its main point is to underline the procession of Johns in the early years of the family, petering out in the present. It’s not by accident that grandson John is the last John Howland; in fact, it’s explicitly mentioned in one story and shows the kind of unspoken pressure he feels as part of a family that traces itself back to the sixteenth century. Other characters take their turns – sisters, parents, cousins, and people from outside the family entirely – but the story structure allows small groups of characters at a time, making it easier to keep track of who’s who. It’s a clever way to keep track of a large cast. The family tree helps, too.

The Stories: (hey, you knew I’d get there eventually, right?)

The first story, “Instructions to the Living from the Condition of the Dead,” introduces us to the family via grandfather John Howland, now a widower in his 90s. Some of the family, including great-grandson Will and his parents visiting from California, have descended on the family house in Vaughn, Maine, for Thanksgiving. So we have breadth of age and geography, as well as sensibility. John still feels his wife Sarah’s presence, and hears her voice in his ear. He has lately, however, been keeping company with Isabel Vaughn, a younger woman of eighty-five from the other prominent family of the town.

He decides he will bring Isabel a cupcake and a copy of Emily Dickinson (he was an English teacher) for her birthday. She will tell him her birthday isn’t until next week, but that isn’t the reason, shortly into the visit, he needs to “run for his life.” He shares something with her, something from the War, something he’s never shared with anyone, and she discounts it.

Cue the boat:

He hobbled around the edge of the woods. His breath seized every time a dry branch snapped under his boots. He had left the Dickinson in her kitchen , but he didn’t think he would read anymore Dickinson in the time he had left.
Isabel kept an old wooden rowboat down by the river for when her daughter and grandchildren visited. He spotted the upturned blue hull, made of plywood, half its paint gone. He flipped it over and found the gray oars rotting but still solid. Larry had pulled the dock for her already. With his back to the river, he tugged the boat a few feet at a time to the marshy shore. The tide would pinch anytime now. He waded up to his knees and pulled the boat in after him. Sensing Isabel watching him, he tried to climb quickly into the boat, but he couldn’t raise his feet. He dove head first over the side and used his arms to right himself. When he craned his neck, he spotted her halfway between the river and her house and moving fast on her springy legs.
“John,” he heard Sarah say in his ear, “why did you never tell me what you saw?”
“I just wanted to forget it,” he said.
“John…” Isabel, calling his name. Though he’d launched himself into ebbtide, he did have the wind in his favor. Before he could set the locks and oars in place, he’d already drifted out of Isabel’s view and traveled fifty yards, maybe seventy five. Rowing, he picked up speed and felt the satisfying whoosh of the oars and the bow cleaving the water. He had rowed this stretch as a boy many times, and now all he wanted to do was get home to Sarah.

The boat was leaking period up to his ankles now. Nothing he could do but harder. The rotten oar cracked, and his shoulder seized with pain. He sighted the field in front of his house and gave an extra hard tug. A small person stood at the shoreline shielding his eyes. His great grandson, Will, shouted, “Grand, Grand,“ over the water. “What are you doing?”

“There’s a problem with your boat,” Will observed from the safety of his position on the bank.…Despite his California origins, possibly Will had inherited a tendency to look at all boats, even this boat, with longing.

I wasn’t able to realize how well this story introduced the rest until I’d finished the book. The title, by the way, comes from a 1717 sermon by Cotton Mather concerning some shipwrecked pirates and their execution. The link between the living and the dead ranges from John’s continuation of his relationship with his dead wife Sarah, his memory of WWII, and the ever-increasing distance of the past, both as it pertains to family and to his life in general. This distance from the past, like the use of boats, continues through all the stories.

The second story, “The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas”, I’ve already discussed at length from its appearance in the 2020 Pushcart volume. It takes us back to 1981 and introduces us to grandson John at age 15, living with his grandparents during the summer on Howland Island. This is the story that details the decline of the Howland family, how it went from founding the island to owning one small house while the rich take over the rest, and shows John on the verge of finding his own path via a pair of sunglasses bestowed upon him by a visiting writer. The Alice B. Toklas is, need I say, a boat of significant symbolic value.

In “Return of the Native” we move ahead to the next summer, and stay focused on John again on Howland Island with his grandparents. This time, we learn about his relationship with his mother, now divorced. This comes about via a conversation with a family friend and his mother’s current boyfriend, Dickie Saltonstall, who had “a lot of problems with boats over the years.” The reference is to his family’s naval history, but as we’ll see, the story makes it trouble of a more personal nature. John’s mother has gone to Mexico for the summer, supposedly to teach, though there’s a distinct impression teaching has little to do with it. Dickie has received a letter from her, but isn’t yet disclosing what it says. Mom is due to return home that evening, so they’re going to take the skiff over to the mainland and meet her plane in Portland. Dickie tells John a few things in the meantime:

“Then there was the night your grandfather threw the ham through the window. You were only about three years old then, right before your mother went out to San Francisco for six months.”
I’d never heard of my grandfather doing such a thing, and I’d never heard of my mother going to San Francisco at all. I asked why she’d gone, though what I really wanted to know was why I didn’t know she had disappeared for such a long time when I was so young.

Dickey shook his head with his eyes closed. “When your mother went out to San Francisco, your father wouldn’t go after her, and neither would your other grandfather, the minister. They gave up on her. So I went. And, I have to tell you, people loved her out there. She still had that accent from Castine. I wish you could have seen her. She was the queen out there. She wanted everyone – all people – to be free. It wasn’t just to talk with her.” Dickey bobbed his head. “She felt it. And in the middle of this batshit circus, she raised people out of their chrysalis. Not everyone, though,” he said, nodding gravely, “not herself. She got arrested at People’s Park. I was there. They were jealous of her flame.”
The mother I knew took hour-long baths, blasted Neil Young until 1:00 a.m. on school nights, and heated up supper from cans. In the morning she guzzled coffee and never cooked breakfast.
“Your mom knew I was there to bring her back. You can’t rescue me, she told me. For as long as I’ve known her – when she first came here with her parents those two summers her father was the island minister – she’s dreamed of escaping. You have to understand the way she grew up in Castine, a smaller town than Vaughn, an only child living in that tiny house next to the vestry. Anyway, she did come back, but not because of me. She was starting to show with your sister by then.”

It’s one thing to dream of escaping. It’s another to be what someone is escaping from, especially when they’re supposed to love you and care for you. It isn’t until John and his grandparents get into the skiff to go pick up Mom that Dickie reveals she’s not coming back. Problems with boats, indeed. Even when the boat ride is aborted, it’s still central to the story. I keep wondering just how much of a friend Dickie was to Mom back then, and, of course, about the sister she’s carrying. Then there’s the California connection, the aborted attempt to escape, which becomes more manifest in a later story.

“Make Way for Ducklings” brings us forward another few years to 1990. John has not fared so well in his in-between youth. He’s been in rehab, and is now working in Portland as a house counselor for disturbed children. It’s not going well for him. Boats only appear as a promise in this story, but it’s an important promise, and a broken one. By the end of the story, he isn’t a counselor any more. I felt both disappointed and concerned, hoping he would land somewhere.

“Flood” detours from the Howlands and shows us similar issues of dealing with the effects of one’s past via a very different character. He doesn’t have the storied past, and is something of a town misfit in Vaughn. He treasures the past, running some kind of second-hand shop in which he knows and loves every item. As a flood approaches, he moves things out of harm’s way. It’s an interesting check of perspective to see this connection to family, this appreciation of the past, play out with a person from a different background.

“The Wreck of the Ipswich Sparrow features Phoebe, young John’s cousin, in the second story about the lure of California and its power to erase the past, and how the same place can seem suffocating one moment, and comforting the next. It’s a complicated story – and one of my favorites – with too much involved to summarize in a couple of paragraphs, but involves the same issues: what does it mean to be home, and how family history binds or boosts. Phoebe, recently divorced and raising two kids, finds herself dealing with the old family house in Vaughn, and discovers her Aunt Helen’s journal – her Aunt Helen’s heretofore unknown life, sailing with her husband, surviving a shipwreck – in a trunk. Predictably, it connects her to someone she never knew, and affects her previously cynical attitude towards what was, in her childhood, her home.

The kids fell asleep slouched against their seatbelts. Looking at them, she realized that she’d lived longer in California than in Maine, and now that she was selling the house the kids would never know the place where their mother, Grandfather, and ancestors had grown up. They were California kids – whatever that meant.

When the wave reached the height of its arc through the air, she began to tell her children about an island of blowing sand that swallowed ships whole – an island where horses stood as tall as buildings, where waves reached higher than skyscrapers, where storms lasted for weeks come up and wear a person with the wind at her back would fly thirty feet with one step. It was a place people could end up – an island where survivors waited for the drowned to walk out of the sea.

The title story, set in 2001, returns us to the narration of young John and his grandfather on Howland Island. John is not spending the summer there this time; he’s there with his fiancée Melissa to attend his sister’s wedding, except Melissa hasn’t yet answered his proposal and Bridget is already married. Add in that grandfather John digs a hole and declares he will die that day, and you’ve got a lot of fakery going on. When Grandfather tells the assembled family that John is to inherit the house – a house with no electricity, in need of repairs, on a summer island half a continent away from John’s home in Tuscon where he’s sleepwalking through life in recovery – the fun begins, with Uncle Alden contesting the bequeathal and Bridget, the only Howland with any money, coming up with ideas for the house. It’s a wonderful story, teetering on the edge of screwball comedy but always coming back to the central point:

We stared out our windows for awhile. [Melissa said] “It’s exciting that’s the house is really yours, John Howland. Of Howland island.”
This sounded better than John Howland, adjunct community college instructor. Back in Arizona, where no one gave a shit about New England, I could forget all that John Howland stuff, but here the name John Howland also belonged to my grandfather and his father, et cetera, in a more or less unbroken line of Johns going back twelve generations to the John Howland who accidentally fell off the stern of the Mayflower in a storm but thank God somehow managed to pull himself back aboard before landing at Plymouth so the rest of us could someday exist.
“Whenever I’m back here I feel as if I should be doing something more important with my life, “ I said.

To most of the family, my sister represented Greed, Ambition, Aggression. Striving constituted an unforgivable sin to those of us who believed ourselves chosen a priori and, therefore, beyond the indignity of scrabbling after the very things without which, of course, one found it difficult to feel chosen.
She [Bridget] looked over her shoulder. …”You’re the last John Howland, and not only that: you are the last chance at another John Howland – not that I care. But if the old man gives the house to everyone, it will be sold because everyone but me lives on minimum fucking wage. My name should be John Howland for Christ’s sake. That would solve a lot of problems.” Like the old man, my sister had gone to Harvard. He talked slowly, with silent r’s, while she (when she wasn’t cursing like a fisherman ) usually talked rapidly in lilting, hyperarticulate blocks of prose.

The title, by the way, is also from a Cotton Mather sermon.

We skip over a decade to the next story, “Goat,” and end up right back on the island, this time for uncle Alden’s funeral. A great deal has occurred in the ensuing years: Grandfather John has died, young John, no longer young, has married (not to Melissa), has a son (not named John) and lives quite happily in Oregon, where he can feel but not be overwhelmed by the gravitational pull of family history. The story involves John’s cousin Anna who has promised to take a goat to a house on a neighboring island that may or may not be inhabited by drug dealers. This involves, of course, a boat, which, loaded with Uncle Alden’s ashes and his cane, gets lost, as do I in weaving together “boat” and “goat” and “GOAT” and John’s Herculean effort to recover the boat and the ashes and the cane within. It’s magnificent, and is the third story to come very close to knocking Toklas out of its My Favorite Story In this Collection spot.

I had flown all the way back here for a funeral just to drown while returning a goat to its summer residence – an allegory my grandfather would have told about the dangers of moving west. Of course he hadn’t been worried about me as much as himself. What would happen to him without an audience? I never found out because I wasn’t here. I had just moved to Oregon when he flew over the handlebars of his electric tricycle and ended up in the hospital with broken ribs. When I called the hospital, I told him I would get on a plane right away. “It’s not that kind of thing,” he told me from his bed. I should have ignored him – he was ninety seven. That night he had a heart attack but survived. The next day he got out of bed, pulled the tubes out of his arms, pushed Uncle Alden and a nurse out of the way, and stormed down the hall. He died, I was told, five feet short of the front doors.

By the time I dog-paddled to the hull, I could touch bottom. Though I had a hard time pulling myself over the side (at home I exercised only to walk the dog), I still had enough energy to stand and wave to Anna. She waved back with her whole left arm, then both arms, swinging in the air. I was still alive. We were both still alive!
I yelled across the water that I was coming to get her, but the wind had picked up. I doubted she heard me.
The keys rested in the ignition of the console, the urn in the backpack on the floor of the boat next to my grandfather’s cane. I could push off the mud with the oar and pick up Anna in less than a minute. For the moment, though, I sat behind the wheel, looked across the water at my cousin, and thought of hanging out on the back deck with my family when I returned home to Oregon. I would slice up a cold watermelon while Mary passed out paper towels. They’d want to know about my trip, and I’d be eager to tell them the story. As soon as I let slip the part about the goat and the urn, the tale of how I almost drowned as I boldly swam through rough water and gale force winds to rescue my pregnant cousin would begin to tell itself. Before I even finished, Justin would ask me to stop and go back to the beginning. He’d want to know what I’d been wearing, about the time of day, the temperature of the water, the number of sharks. Just like me at his age, he’d want us to go over and over what had happened until he knew every detail by heart.

He didn’t need to name his kid John to carry forth the family tradition after all.

“Sarah Campbell’s Story” provides a nice coda instead of an ending for the collection. It brings us back to 1741 and the struggles she, at nineteen, faced when she and the rest of her family joined their father and husband in Pennsylvania. The relative ease of her life after marrying a Howland is comrepessed into a single sentence. It’s an effective way to finish off the collection.

Alert readers will note that I skipped over the next-to-last story, “Wintering Over.” While by itself it’s a good story – a failing writer and his wife rent the Howland house in Vaughn for the winter, and they both start to go a little bonkers (shades of The Shining), just how bonkers is for the reader to decide – I felt like it disrupted the wonderful flow from “Ipswich” to “Faithful” to “Goat”, the ending of which I just wanted to let echo around for a while before the brief denouement of “Sarah Campbell” closed the book. So I just ignored it for the purposes of this post, because I have the luxury to do so.

I still can’t believe how much I like this book, since I really can’t claim connection on the overall issues. My family was pretty low on the identity thing; there’s no legacy there. But I greatly enjoyed the combination of humor and loneliness, the urgency with which some characters approach family and others ignore it, the conflict between escape and belonging.

Brown has a couple of other short story collections out there, one focusing on Portland, and one on the fictional town of Vaughn. It’s likely at least one of them will show up on my shelves at some point in the future.

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black (HMH, 2018) [IBR2019]

I use fiction as a way to find truth. I try to avoid the lies that come from euphemism or complete erasure. I’d say, in general, my work is concerned specifically with making the truth unavoidably clear.

Adjei-Brenyah’s PEN Ten Interview with Lily Phipott

Going into this, I didn’t think, “Let me try to write dystopian fiction.” I think I just sort of create spaces that I know I can create energy from. So if that ends up feeling like dystopia, I guess that’s just what happens. But what I do like is sometimes turning the volume up on something so that you can’t ignore it. Or pushing the needle just a little bit, shining a light on whatever issue….
[I]f the house is on fire, I’m not going to talk about what’s in the fridge. If people are getting killed around me, that’s something I care about and have to talk about. And so maybe I have to be violent on the page to represent that meaningfully. And on some level, getting people to react to violence on the page is part of the project of the book because there’s already violence that I don’t feel like we’re reacting to. I’m just trying to be as ethical as possible when creating this violence as I can be, and I try my best to do different things to make sure it’s done purposefully.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

That’s a great description of the stories in this book. Whether he’s writing about the shortcomings of justice when the victims are black people, or about abortion, or about rampant consumerism, or gun violence, or troubled families, Adjei-Brenyah scrapes the veneer of civilization off our savage moments and shines a spotlight on what lies beneath. Some of his stories literally go inside character’s minds to take a closer look. There is a lot of violence in this book; if that sounds like a trigger warning, maybe that’s what it is. It can be a difficult experience, reading this book, but a worthwhile one if you’re sick of thoughts and prayers and bullshit.

We start right off with “The Finklestein 5” which highlights the ease with which “I was afraid for my life” is accepted as an excuse for any violence against any black person, including a group of five kids standing outside a public library. In an interview with Christian Coleman at Lightspeed, Adjei-Brenyah said he put that story first because “if this reader only reads one thing from me ever, I want it to be that.” Other elements get blended in – a job interview, how Blackness needs to be calibrated for particular activities to minimize obstacles, Say Her Name – but it’s the beheadings with a chain saw that overwhelmed me. Thing is, it’s not that exaggerated, if you examine our trajectory.

Another story clearly emanates from the Trayvon Martin murder: “Zimmer Land”, a kind of theme park where hunting black people for sport is monetized.

Zimmer Land Mission
1) To create a safe space for adults to explore problem-solving, justice, and judgment.
2) To provide the tools for patrons to learn about themselves in curated heightened situations.
3) To entertain.

The question keeps coming up: safe for whom? Is the mecha-suit, protecting the body, enough? For that matter, in a discussion with management, it becomes clear the mecha-suit isn’t primarily about safety of the hunted, but the paying hunter’s experience. When they add on a new feature, Isaiah has to rethink things.

That brings us to the consumerism part of our program. The title story takes Black Friday – which I’ve never done, by the way, I avoid going anywhere near a store on Thanksgiving Weekend – and takes it up to eleven. The guy with the job of pulling bodies out of the way isn’t even the worst part. It’s the desperation of the various customers, the needs they see their purchases fulfilling, that makes my heart ache:

“Blue! Son! SleekPack!” a man with wild eyes and a bubble vest screams as he grabs my left ankle. White foam drips from his mouth. I use my right foot to stomp his hand, and I feel his fingers crush beneath my boots. He howls, “SleekPack. Son!” while licking his injured hand. I look him in his eyes, deep red around his lids, redder at the corners. I understand him perfectly. What he’s saying is this: My son. Loves me most on Christmas. I have him holidays. Me and him. Wants the one thing. Only thing. His mother won’t. On me. Need to feel like Father!

I’m the only one at work without one…. How can I be a senior manager without one?

I won’t be alone with this. They’ll like me.

And again, I feel like, while this is exaggerated and surreal, is it that far off reality? This is followed up by two more stories, one featuring the same sales associate, and one about a sales clerk’s suicide at the mall, which generates a new verb, to Lucy. “I didn’t know her name then” pretty much sums it up. Turns out Adjei-Brenyah, who worked in retail for a while, experienced a similar incident.

“Lark Street” takes all the rhetoric about abortion and turns it into a teenage guy who finds himself surrounded by the fetuses his girlfriend just aborted. It’s a well-imagined story: “We’re not gonna be people” just keeps echoing over and over. “The Era” manages to combine pushback to political correctness, genetic engineering, and the high-priced side of the self-help industry; this story will appear in BASS 2019 so I’ll save my comments for then.

There are subtler stories, based more on relationships. “The Hospital Where” is something like a hallucinatory horror story; I read it several times before I got some idea of what was happening. A boy who, during a childhood of poverty, evictions, dark cold nights without any lights, makes a deal with the Twelve-Tongued God:

“I can give you new eyes. Eyes that will work, that won’t cry. I can put your hurt to use,” Twelve-tongue said. “I can give you what you want.” After every other word, it pulled off a mask to reveal yet another beautiful new face. Its voice sounded like every voice I’d ever heard speaking at once. “I can give you the power to be anywhere. To heal the world. To own time. To turn lies to truth. To make day into night and night into day.” I nodded viciously. “You will have the power to change everything, to make the life you want.”

To write, in other words. But the effects are, you might say, not what he expected.

“The Lion & The Spider” also features a duel between reality and story, though in a very different way, entwining a folk tale from West Africa about a trickster god, Anansi, who appears as a spider, with a teen’s efforts to keep going when his father disappears on him. “I imagined you gone forever, and I survived.” I thought, Thank you. I don’t know why. This is the story that inspired the cover art by Mark Robinson, using uniquely colored stock images of engravings. The chaotic lion’s mane appears to be many things before it is recognized, just like the story.

School shootings make up the background of “Light Spitter”, but as usual, Adjei-Brenyah gives it a twist, this time a post-mortem fantasy: the shooter and the victim meet when he is dying and she is dead, become an angel of sorts, and pay a visit on another incipient shooter.

Most of the stories feature young black men, often teenagers, as protagonists. A debut collection, the book has received a lot of attention from a lot of heavy-hitters, picked up a major prize, and made some impressive lists.

I just write whatever a story needs, but I did spend a lot of time with the surreal, or I guess stories that were outside the realm of straight literary fiction or straight reality. I spent a long time wondering if they could coexist in a cohesive book with stories that are a little bit more bound to reality or at least closer to reality. Working with George Saunders, I asked him, “Should I be this kind of writer, or should I be that kind of writer?” And he just said, “Yes.” And that was very helpful for me.

Adjei-Brenyah’s BookRiot Interview with Emily Martin

Who knows where he’ll go next.

Lincoln Michel: Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press 2015) [IBR2019]

For the abyss. Thanks for always gazing back.

~~Upright Beasts dedication

“The guy’s crazy” can mean a lot of things. There’s cross-the-street-to-avoid-him crazy, and there’s courage-to-go-there / think-outside-the-box creativity. So let’s be specific: when I say Lincoln Michel is crazy, I mean the second kind. Mostly. Because there’s also some very grim stuff here. Stuff from the abyss.

I put this book on my TBR list about three years ago, when I read “If It Were Anyone Else” in the 2015 Pushcart anthology. I struggled with it, until I gave up, at which point it was no struggle at all (the main reason I write all these posts is so I can look back back three years later and know exactly what I was thinking; it sure isn’t for fame and fortune). I never did figure out exactly what was going on, but that doesn’t always have to be the point of reading, does it? Emily dwelt in possibility; so can I.Turns out, Michel’s ok with that:

I’m a big fan of mystery and ambiguity in writing. I don’t think that writing should be a mystery, but rather open the mysterious inside you. Which is to say, I’m not as much of a fan of “puzzle” fiction that you are supposed to solve (unless it’s a good mystery novel) and more of a fan of work that’s dreamy, evocative, and can be read in different ways.

Reddit AMA

Most of the stories are short, four to six pages; some are barely two, a few are much longer. The book is divided into four named sections; Michel paid a lot of attention to the organization, but stops short of explaining it. While I can see hints of patterns – the first section is surreal and very flash-like in tone if not length, the second section is more about realism, the last are longer stories – that doesn’t quite work for all of them. But I learned my lesson three years ago; I’m not going to beat myself up for not figuring it out.

“The River Trick” is my emotionally-favorite story.

One by one the people on the bridge hurtle into the cold waters, their arms wrapped around microwaves and cordless vacuums. They fall straighter than I ever though possible.
“Will there be love?”
“That I can’t promise,” I say, “but we can try to fight our way through it together.”
And perhaps seconds later, the people come rocketing back to the surface, having abandoned their appliances. They bob and gasp. And maybe they will have found something down there while starving for air. On the surface, they will seek each other out and cling tightly, saying, “This is what I need. This is what I’ve been waiting for.”
I’m not sure. Patricia and I have walked too far away to see.

The narrator’s job is showing up just in time to save people from pre-arranged suicide attempts. The thematic emphasis on the need for connecting brought to mind the Australian David Brooks’ story “Blue” – still on any top-five-flashes list I would make – though it’s completely different in tone. It’s a theme that’s been front and center for me this summer: I moved in July, and I keep saying I feel so much more open and connected in my new place, thanks to huge windows overlooking both busy streets and distant waters. My sense of well-being has greatly improved as a result, even though it’s all illusory. But what works, works.

But wait, there’s more to the story. At one point, the government, so alarmed by all these attempted (and, occasionally, accidentally successful) suicides, tries to connect people by projecting pictures on building walls, and by pouring a dye into the city river that turns it into a giant mood ring (I’m old enough to remember mood rings; are you?). That reminded me of something Facebook tried several years back (well after I’d left), before it went into the election-tampering-enablement business; didn’t they push posts that were upbeat, according to an algorithm, to make everyone happy to be on Facebook reading ads? I was happy to find Kyle Lucia Wu was thinking along the same lines when she interviewed Michel for The Rumpus. But it turns out the story was written before social media was really a big thing; AIM and ICQ were around, but they weren’t anywhere near as public as the current generation of apps.

The idiocy of government features into several other stories in the collection. In “The Mayor’s Plan”, the plan is to give keys to the city to pretty much anyone, causing a business boom and massive expansion. “I’m not sure if the keys are saving his job. I do know that everyone I meet seems angry.” Good thing they weren’t red hats.

And then continuing along the theme of government there’s my intellectually-favorite story, “What We Have Surmised About the John Adams Incarnation”: a historian/anthropologist of the future trying to make sense of the United States, and characterizing government as a pagan religion.

Long assumed to be a prince or demon of a lesser cult, we now know that John Adams was an important figure in the dominant United Statsian mythology. He appears to have originally been conceived as a familiar or minion of George Washington, the first of the hundred tyrants that are said to have ruled the country until its infamous, self-inflicted demise.

A hundred presidents, eh? Not sure we’re going to make it to 46 at this point, but this story was first published in 2012 when we never would have believed this is where we’d be. Turns out Michel wrote it for an election-year anthology about the Presidents; that anthology is available online.

Some of the creepiest stories feature kids. “Our Education” presents a school sans teachers, with just one student who still wants to complete his assignment:

I keep the paper folded in my back pocket. I don’t remember when I received it, but it’s my strongest proof that our teachers are coming back. The sheet of paper says:
In your own words, a) what is the goal of your education and b) how far are you, in your mind, to achieving this goal?

It gave me something of a Lord of the Flies meets the Inquisition vibe, but man, Halimah Marcus really nailed: “…in the absence of a hero, what once was a pillar, an organizing principle, is now a dark center — the vacuous teachers’ lounge.”

Even creepier is “Little Girls By the Side of the Pool” which should come with a trigger warning. But there’s something else, an amazing writing technique. Over the course of four pages, the little girls subtly grow up, but keep talking about the same thing (men’s hands – I told you, trigger warning) until it ends where it began and it all makes horrible sense.

The stories based in realism have their charm as well. “Some Notes on my Brother’s Brief Travels” takes us to a town where Foster is photographing old abandoned mines, maybe to put together an exhibition, maybe on his way to law school, but really, as his brother says, “he just wanted to pretend he was doing something with his life.” Don’t we all. There’s a guy in a chicken suit by the road most days, advertising a fast-food joint, and this leads us in two related directions: they can’t know who the guy in the chicken suit is – maybe he was sitting at the next table in the bar they just left – but everybody in town knows he dresses up like a chicken, and what’s it like to know everyone knows. The unknowability, right next to the familiarity you can’t escape. Neither really feels good, does it. It’s close to a slacker story – in fact, it is a slacker story – but it got to me anyway.

The Deer in Virginia” is a little gruesome, unless you’re a hunter in which case it’s probably milquetoast, but, like the girls at the pool, there’s a writing technique I admire. The first sentence starts with “Or take the day my father handed me his glass of lemonade and reached for the rifle.” It’s a pair of anecdotes about injuring deer, one on purpose, one accidentally. Either way, they’re just as injured. Then it ends with “So many days seem to end this way:….” and we’re back to this deep sense of being lost in an ongoing horror.

Like Michel says, “Ideally, I’d like my stories to go past the surface level of fun and weird and find their way, at least a little bit, into the more hidden parts of a reader’s mind.” Yeah, that they do. “The Room Inside My Father’s Room” was just a reasonably clever piece about a son’s room nested in his father’s room nested in his father’s room ad infinitum, until I got to the father’s line, “I did the best I could.” Then it turned into something else, a memoir, a therapy session, a spider hiding in a corner. Michel couldn’t have known that was the line my father trotted out every time a therapist put the two of us in a room together. He said it with an almost playful, self-depreciating self-depreciating shrug, less concerned that I was broken than that someone might think he was to blame (and, to be fair, he wasn’t, not more than five or ten percent, anyway). We’re all born in our parents’ rooms; it’s amazing how long it takes some of us to realize we can leave, we can bust out through a wall if that’s what it takes.

Then there’s the chef’s kiss on an already good read: “A Note on the Type”. I’d read a couple of pages before it occurred to me that Berdych probably isn’t an actual font. No, an actual printer’s note tells us the font is Weiss, and again, you never know what’s going on in this book. At least I wasn’t the only one fooled; Ilana Masad of The Collagist calls it a bonus track, and admits he got her, too.

I think it’s good it took me three years to get to this book. I’d like to think I can handle weirdness better, though handling it well is still a ways off. But see, even in his weirdest stories, the weirdness isn’t the point; it’s a path to the point. Or maybe a whole bunch of points. Good read.

Lesley Nneka Arimah: What it Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (Riverhead, 2017) [IBR2019]

There was something in my father’s eyes, in his voice, as though he hadn’t meant to tell this much of the story, as though, perhaps, he had forgotten that this was how it had ended.

This 2017 collection started cropping up in my twitter feed this summer, mostly because Arimah won the Caine Prize for African Fiction for a more recent story (“Skinned”, published in McSweeney’s Quarterly). I kept thinking I should look into it; Michael Schaub loved it, and I seem to enjoy stories by Nigerian women. But I had my list, and I’d already deviated from it several times, so I kept resisting. Eventually, gave in, because we all have our breaking point. I’m glad I did; it’s wonderful.

I’ll have to admit, though, it’s not a cheerful book. These aren’t stories of heroic characters breaking out of desperate situations, perpetuating the myth that anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough. It’s about those for whom it’s all they can do to survive; their stories are just as worth telling. Amy Weiss-Meyer of The Atlantic put it perfectly in her review: “These tales don’t celebrate virtue, but they pay tribute to tenacity.”

Most of the stories deal with family issues, particularly mother-daughter problems. Some are straighforward realism; some are fanciful with touches of the supernatural; others are outright spec-fic, and one is a lovely folk tale of the gods. A couple are notable for writing techniques, and in all, wonderful lines tend to bubble up unexpectedly, lines like “My mother was a small woman who carried her weight in her personality.“

I noticed that for several of the stories, I loved them while reading, caught up in the story, and when I finished and, perhaps, came to put down some notes about them for this post, I had second thoughts about certain aspects. I don’t think that means they’re flawed; I think they’re going in unexpected directions. I still loved the stories, even when I wasn’t sure about an ending, or an element, just like you still love your dog – or your kid, or your best friend, or your country – even when they don’t quite meet your expectations. Maybe it’s time to examine those expectations, hmmm?

Some of my favorites:

The Future Looks Good

Enzinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her.

The paradigm of short story structure is: begin near the end, in media res, then fill in the backstory once you’ve got the reader hooked on the present conflict. This story takes some liberties with that. The initial sentence, which is indeed in media res, very near the end of the action of the story, is repeated four times. It’s that phrase, “what came behind her” that works the magic: for the first three iterations, what comes behind Enzinma is her past. This sets us up perfectly for the fourth iteration, the completion of the present of the story in a single phrase that hits like a ton of bricks. Given my fondness for using structure, it’s my favorite of the collection.

Second Chances

Ignore for a moment that two years out of grad school I’m old enough to buy my own bed and shouldn’t ask my father to chip in on a mattress, so that he shows up with my mother, who looks like she’s stepped out of a photograph, and she tries to charm the salesman, something she was never good at, but it somehow works this time and he takes off 20 percent. Ignore for a moment that she is wearing an outfit I haven’t seen in eighteen years ….Ignore that she flits from bed to bed, bouncing on each one like she hasn’t sat on a mattress in a while, and the salesman follows her around like he’d like to crawl in with her. Ignore all this because my mother has been dead for eight years.

Again, I find this division between story and backstory to be key. The backstory is of course crucial; without it, there wouldn’t be much of a story. I wasn’t really sure where this was going for a while, but I had to keep reading to find out, and then it was worth it. I have a nagging feeling that it ends twice, and I’d prefer it only end once, but I’m not sure, maybe it works better this way.


The first time you fell, you were six. Before then, you were too young to fall and had to be dropped, pushed, made to slip for the sake of authenticity.

Again, I’m ambivalent. I loved it while I was reading; I was totally immersed. I loved thinking about how well second-person worked here, distanced the narrator from her own victimhood, gave her some control at least over how her story is related, avoided cloying pathos. But it is still a child-abuse story, and I balk at those. The girl is not in denial at all; at one point her mother asks, “Do you think I’m a bad mother?” and the girl thinks, “Was she a bad mother? You were fifteen years old and pregnant because she wanted a price cut on a battered green Toyota.” But, crucially, she stays silent. The ending intrigues and repulses me; the silence, again, is maddening. But, remember, it isn’t the end of her, it’s just the end of the story; she goes on, and there’s hope in that. In this case, my ambivalence fits with the story, which, as the last line makes clear, is all about how we look at things. And I do appreciate good use of second person. So in the end, yes, I loved it.

Who Will Greet You At Home

Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love.

Another mother-daughter struggle, told in a magical realism setting where young women make pretend-babies which are blessed into life by their mothers – unless they fall apart first. Ogechi’s mother charges for her blessing in the currency of empathy and joy. I was intrigued by the premise of the story, then went back to figure out what the ending was telling me.

What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky

When things began to fall apart, the world cracked open by earthquakes and long dormant volcanoes stretched, yawned and bellowed, the churches (mosques, temples) fell, not just the physical buildings shaken to dust by tremors, but the institutions as well. Into the vacuum stepped Francisco Furcal, a Chilean Mathematician who discovered a formula that explained the universe. It, like the universe, was infinite and the idea that the formula had no end and, perhaps, by extension, humanity had no end, was exactly what the world had needed.

But then a man fell from the sky. Something always goes wrong, when you think you’ve got the perfect solution. This is another story I loved; it’s set in the future, and combines environmental disaster, racism, everyday hubris, news vultures, and a few family dramas. On the other hand, I have some reservations. I don’t like the use of the word Mathematician for those who are more like healers; to me, the mathematicians are the ones experimenting with the formula. Hard-SF fans might not go with the math and science, but they are put to terrific use in the story so I’ll go with them. If you like, you can listen to LeVar Burton read this one on his podcast.

What Is a Volcano?

The god of ants and the goddess of rivers were feuding.

This is pure fable, and remarkably enjoyable as the feud escalates. It’s also packed with wonderful phrases and sentences: “…and who even knew there was a god of ants, did you?” Reader address is pretty unusual, and works beautifully here; I kept flashing to Peter Falk reading about Westley and Buttercup. “They backed and forthed for five human centuries…” “The problem with those who don’t know real power is that they do not know real power.” And at the end, we do indeed get an answer.

It’s a short book; it’s literally small, and the type is set with wide spacing, so even the long stories read quickly. Because the stories work in different genres, it’s possible for a reader to dislike a couple and love others; I tend to be less enthusiastic about straight-off domestic realism, but even there, the stories worked. Given the payoff of even two or three of the stories, it’s more than worth the time to read.

C. Michael Curtis, ed., God: Stories (HM, 1998) [IBR2019]

This is a collection of stories about spiritual experiences of several sorts. Some are comic, some vaguely anticlerical, some only grudgingly engaged with any sort of denominational mainstream, at least a few outwardly skeptical of a divine presence or intention at any level. Others, however, make their way shrewdly into the perplexities and challenges of belief, explore the hazy perimeter of unconditional love and forgiveness, examine sympathetically the paradoxes of discipleship. Above all, these stories encounter spirituality in its human dimensions. They are about men and women, children and venerables, proselytizers and skeptics, the obsessed and the weak at heart. They tell us something important about our literary culture, point to the impact of religious sensibility in the way we lead or question our lives. Holding them together is a recognition that God, however conceived, challenges our deepest yearnings, provides our greatest comfort, assures us of our fundamental worth, grants us the only absolution we fully trust, makes possible, in ways both mysterious and immense, a loving regard for other characters in the larger narrative of life.

~~ Introduction, C. Michael Curtis

In his introduction, Curtis, a long-time editor at The Atlantic (among other things), tells us this anthology grew out of a cobbled-together text for an adult education class on story and religion. Turns out, it’s pretty middle-of-the-road stuff, the stories by prominent writers spanning the 20th century (1914 to 1997, as far as I can tell). Most of the stories are based in Christianity, though a few are distinctly Jewish, and the writers are predominantly American. The stories feature clergy, believers, and doubters; those who believe devoutly and thoughtfully, and those who casually connect with a religion for reasons other than spiritual longing.

While I was reading this book, the podcast for Jo Walton’s historical-theological-fantasy novel Lent was released. I was surprised to realize that book, for me, was far more powerful and made a deeper spiritual impression on me than this collection. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy these stories; some were delightful, and several raised interesting questions. But apparently the path to my soul is more in history, with Hypa and his battles with Azazeel, and with the tormented Girolamo and his Renaissance humanist friends.

The James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor stories (“Grace” and “Parker’s Back”) were, unsurprisingly, the most deeply symbolic; it was only through a bit of internet research that I glimpsed the intensity under the surface story. Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith” was a terrific read, and I was delighted to find an academic paper by Gillian Steinberg proposing a connection to the Haggadah of the Four Sons. Her question: which of the two main characters is the Defender of the Faith, the “good” son? The question doesn’t need to be answered; just raising it is interesting enough.

Brendan Gill’s “The Knife” and William Hoffman’s “A Question of Rain” gave insights into the purpose of prayer. The child in the Gill story is given a rather glib explanation of prayer, giving his father something of a shock when he follows it to its logical conclusion. Hoffman’s minister, taking a more sophisticated view of prayer, is shocked by unexpected results.

And speaking of shock: the minister in Peggy Payne’s “The Pure in Heart” hears the voice of God. Twice. Nothing profound or specific – in fact, its petty cryptic – but what really surprises him is the reaction of his congregation, who debate whether he should be ousted.

“Doesn’t it seem contradictory?” Swain says. Bill is watching him carefully. “It’s okay to believe in God, but only if God is distant. A presence in history. Is that the idea?”

“I thought maybe a few people would be curious about what actually happened. Would want to hear more.” He shakes his head. “They don’t.” It makes him mad to think about it. They’ve decided to put up with him – that’s what they’ve made of all this. They’re being broad-minded and tolerant, that’s all.

“The Rabbi in the Attic” by Eileen Pollack is also a lively, fun read, but here’s where I wish I hadn’t gone researching. Pollack relates that the plot came from an overheard conversation. She added an interesting element, pitting an Orthodox rabbi against a young Reform woman; this presents such wonderful opportunities, I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more. But the moment with the scroll was everything: Solomon speaks yet again.

This was an interesting way to expand my reading of several short-story authors I’ve mostly ignored. And if it wasn’t the most personally meaningful anthology I’ve read, that doesn’t mean it was meaningless. I prefer a more oblique approach: tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson says, and several of these stories did just that.

Ellen Litman , The Last Chicken in America (Norton, 2007) [IBR2019]

I used to have this confused idea, this delirious noble dream – we come to America and I immediately begin to work, an unglamorous, hard job. I support the whole family and they are grateful, grateful and also proud of me because I go to school at night. But things are different. I can’t get a job because of the welfare thing, and I can’t go to school because of the financial aid thing. So instead I translate and interpret for my parents. I make all the phone calls too, while they argue over my head, pushing me to say contradictory things. I told them that if they want to argue they can make their own phone calls. I tell them that I’m tired and nervous, and that my English isn’t good, at least not good enough to deal with them screaming and with an American person on the other end not understanding me. They call me lazy and irresponsible and say that the next time they will have to ask Alick, a stranger, for help, because their own daughter is too damn selfish. Which is fine, they say, because the next time I needed something from them, I better be prepared to wait a long, very long time.

– “The Last Chicken in America”

With all the political focus on immigration these days, it’s easy to forget that immigrants aren’t all alike. Not only do they come from different places, for different reasons, and in different circumstances, but even within those subdivisions, there are differences, differences between generations, sexes, and just differences in personalities, expectations, and goals. Litman’s story collection does a nice job of introducing us to several members of a community of Russian Jewish immigrants who landed in Pittsburgh, and pointing out how, while there are some common threads, each of them has different challenges and different approaches to life in America.

Many of the stories feature Masha, who in the first story is about eighteen. We follow her from shortly after arrival, her anxiety and frustration abounding as shown in the quote above, and through college as a commuter student studying computer science (“The safest job in Squirrel Hill was still in computer programming”); then, in the last story, we catch up with her a few years later and see she left Pittsburgh, and left her programming job, for Harvard’s Slavic Languages graduate program.

In the meantime we meet other members of the community: Liberman, an older widower encouraged – or coerced – by his kids to emigrate for health reasons; Natasha, a divorcee trying to find a social circle; Anya, another teenager torn between obedience and her own desires; Mike, aka Mishka, who gets entangled in a coworker’s personal life; a group of three men and their wives, bound together by circumstance. Among the ancillary characters we see glimpses of twin teenage girls from Donetsk, Ukraine, and how they form a closed circle; we meet Pamela, an American who shows Masha a different way of being Jewish; and we run across a visiting Russian professor who is everyone’s idea of the egotistical visiting professor, and has his own idea of what it is to be Russian, an idea Masha recognizes can’t share.

It’s subtitled “a novel in stories” but Litman tells Arsen Kashkashian of Kash’s Book Corner that was the publisher’s decision for marketing purposes; she simply wrote a set of stories set in the same neighborhood, sometimes sharing characters. There is a chronological progression, particularly in the “Masha” stories, and the hallmarks of a novel – change over a span of time – holds true. I was reminded of Ernie’s Ark, Monica Wood’s similarly constructed, though thematically different, collection of linked about numerous characters in a papermill town in Maine. Wood resisted the novel-in-stories label in favor of linked stories because she feared readers might have different expectations of a novelization. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Masha, the central character of the collection, has a number of similarities to Litman, who came here at age 19 with her family. In an interview with Katharine Whittemore of UConn Magazine (where Litman is a professor of creative writing), she tells of a specific incident in 1990, after Perestroika but before the breakup of the Soviet Union, that spurred her parents to emigrate: a Russian general on television called for pogroms against Jews. This was an exacerbation of the typical anti-Semitic sentiment, as Litman explained in the interview:

In Russia, you simply couldn’t be a writer if you were Jewish. You couldn’t aspire to certain things. We were taught very early that you have to work twice as hard as others to get things. I kept a journal and wrote poetry, but there was no way to “be a writer.”
You have to understand that Russian Jews were never considered Russians. On my passport under nationality, it said “Jewish,” not “Russian.” Being Jewish affects a lot of things, unofficially and officially. Which college you can attend, which job you can get. Some colleges won’t accept Jews because “they have bad vision.” Others admit under a quota from the local party district.

This background is reflected in Masha’s story line in a couple of places.

Several online reviews refer to the humor in the book. I tend to be more finely attuned to darkness, but yes, there are many humorous scenes, not necessarily in a laugh-out-loud way but more in a recognition of our common frailties way. Airplane behavior; expressions of romantic interest; unexpected houseguests; and that great American coming of age story, father-daughter driving lessons.

As might be expected, references to Russian culture abound. Two Russian songs make their appearance in separate stories. Poets are quoted. I did my second read in front of my computer so I could be better acquainted with these elements.

And then there’s the language. Just in the first story, I was struck by two phrases that I figured had to be some kind of reference: God’s dandelion, in reference to an elderly woman, and How many winters? How many springs? opening a phone call to someone not heard from in a long time. It turns out, these are typical Russian phrases, and, in fact, Penn State Slavic Language professor Adrian Wanner used these, and other examples from the collection, in his book Out of Russia: Fictions of a New Translingual Diaspora:

A stylistic feature of Litman’s book that deserves special mention is her loan translations of Russian idioms. The result is a “strange’-sounding discourse which, while not technically wrong, gives English language a vaguely foreign feel. …
Litman’s English language becomes a sort of palimpsest of an imaginary primary text – it is as if the narrative were a clumsy, literal translation of a Russian original, or perhaps the conscious choice of a translator who rejects a “smooth,” assimilationist rendering in favor of a “foreignizing” solution. But in the present case this translational effect is illusionary, of course, since the author wrote the text directly in English. The hybrid discourse, mimicking an English surface rendering of a Russian deep structure, serves as an apt representation of the heroine’s own bicultural background and unresolved tension between her Russian and American identities.

And again I come across that idea of the immigrant as palimpsest.

Norton has a Reading Group Guide that includes some excellent discussion questions and a brief interview with Litman. She mentions the title: it comes from a supermarket scene in the first story in which Lina, Masha’s mother, keeps picking up frozen chickens. “It’s not the last chicken in America,” her husband tells her. This phrase was chosen for the story’s title following the suggestion of a teacher. This is, in fact, how I became aware of the book; the teacher’s advice shows up in Steve Almond’s This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, and I’ve wanted to read this book ever since. So it took me six or seven years, so what.

A brief (hah; I’m not known for brevity) rundown of my favorite stories:

“The Last Chicken in America”
As the lead story, this sets us up with a picture of the early days of a family’s immigration. Teenage Masha struggles to figure out her role in America, while her parents struggle to learn enough English to find jobs, having left good employment as an engineer and a teacher. This all causes a great deal of conflict within the family, but also a good deal of resilience. The ending of the story leaves a lot of room for hope, hope that pays off as we read through the rest of the stories.

This is what’s wrong with immigration. Those who could be your friends at home here become cautious competitors. Parents envy their children. Sisters become dangerous – all that private information they can unleash at a strategically chosen moment. It’s about surviving. Immigration distorts people. We walk around distorted.

In my room I study what it means to be an American woman: strappy sandals, skimpy suits, the hair – straight and shiny. A Russian woman is all about hardships, guilt, and endurance. She waits and forgives and then waits some more. But an American woman doesn’t wait: she puts on a push up bra and has meaningless sex whenever she feels like it.

My parents are irrational, impossible to be around. There seems to be an angry electric current running through their blood. I understand. I try to be understanding. it’s because of the jobs, there are no jobs in Pittsburgh. They’ve been to the resume-writing workshops and to the interview-going workshops ; they’ve memorized hundreds of sample dialogues and know how to write the perfect thank you letter. But nobody wants a former teacher and an engineer with minimal English skills.
They take it out on me and on each other. We don’t look much like a family anymore. But we have to stick together – there are still appointments, phone calls, and Giant Eagle.

And it probably won’t last, the way the three of us are together like this and laughing. But tonight we are perfect. Tonight we’re the way a family should be. It’s warm and the heat is rattling in the basement like a high speed train, sending puffs of hot air through the floor vents. There’s plenty of chicken and frozen pizza in our refrigerator. And there’s Child’s Play 2 starting on the Movie Channel, which we somehow get for free. After supper my mother will distribute the bars of Klondike ice cream and we will huddle together in front of the TV, shuddering and laughing at the horrors of Chucky the doll, feeling warm and fortunate in our American apartment. Feeling like we have everything.

“What Do You Dream Of, Cruiser Aurora?”
Now we get a look at immigration through the eyes of an older man, a widower whose adult children have nagged him to come to America, where his daughter has lived for five years. He’s rather ambivalent about the transition, which isn’t helped by his daughter’s attitude once he’s here, or by his grandson’s fear of him. On the plane, he plays a game of I’m ignoring you with the woman across the aisle from him, a tactic he uses again later in the story. The title comes from a Soviet song about a historically-laden warship, now a museum in St. Petersburg.

Liberman met Mira on the flight to New York. For twelve hours, they sat across the aisle from each other –
stretching, lurching into bleary dreams, stirring awake when there was turbulence, sipping tomato juice from plastic see-through cups, not risking anything stronger – two ponderous old people, both traveling alone. He didn’t want to talk to her. She was a chatterbox; he could tell by the way she’d been going on to her neighbor, an Armenian woman in the window seat. To avoid conversation, he kept his eyes closed. But eventually a restrained understanding developed between them. When Mira’s earphones broke, Lieberman offered her his pair. When he had to use the bathroom, he asked her to look after his things.
They were on a charter flight from Leningrad, an uneasy mass of immigrants, and everybody had a story to tell.

Had he made a mistake? Could he go back now? Or was it too late? He’d left his Leningrad apartment to Arkasha, which meant he would have nowhere to live. He could live with Arkasha, but Arkasha’s wife wouldn’t like it. He wondered now if Mira had ideas like that. Of course they weren’t acquainted enough so he could ask her.

In the lunchroom, Russian seniors were clustered to the right. You could recognize them immediately: men in ill-fitting brown trousers, women in cotton dresses and knitted cardigans, all of it purchased a long time ago and altered repeatedly. Lips pursed sternly, faces stiff. Compared to them, the Americans (mostly women) looked like careless parakeets – bright, excessively painted, and cheerful.

We, she said, and he knew she had come with her family. That was how people at JFK airport had talked – we – perched on top of their orphans’ bags, each family banded together, spreading like a gypsy encampment. That was the proper way to emigrate, so you wouldn’t feel like an intruder later, so your grandson wouldn’t get afraid.

“Russian Club”
We join Masha, still living at home but now in college studying computer science. She joins the campus Russian Club, a lightweight social club light on actual Russians, on a whim. Victor Harlamov, a visiting philology professor from Moscow, shows up at a meeting, and she is bewitched; whether it’s a literary or a romantic crush is never quite clear, but she joins his class and he treats her as a star pupil. The Russian Club works on a trip to Russia, but Masha has trouble arranging the logistics; she might be less than eager to begin with. This causes a rift between her and the professor. This could play as a romcom, but the resonances (all Russians are not alike) allow for much more.

“What do you miss the most?“ he asked.
I said I missed walking in Moscow, traversing old boulevards, the sidewalks glistening in the night, Pushkin Square, the lovers clutching flowers beneath the poets statue – the sentinels of love.
He said he also liked the boulevards, and Eskimo ice cream sticks for twenty-five kopecks.
What Victor missed was the Russian brokenness. He said it was the core of the Russian soul. “You see it in poets: Tsvetaeva’s suicide, Esenin, Mayakovsky. But it’s not just the poets. We are sensitive, foolish, illogical. We live in a state of turmoil, on the brink of being destroyed, steps away from the next drunken bout.”
I knew what he meant. I had my own brokenness.

He was convinced that had I stayed in Moscow, I would have applied to Moscow State. He was mistaken. Philology was too prestigious, the competition rigorous, with tens of applicants contending for each space, and a Jewish person with no connections would have been felled. That’s what we called it – felled – when you did well on the exams, but the committee tricked or failed you.
“This doesn’t happen anymore,“ said Victor.

There were topics we never discussed. My Jewishness, for example. He never asked about my parents or why we had come to America. I wanted to tell him. I thought he’d understand. He was open-minded, intelligent, a boy from a little Siberian village who’d made his way up, first to Moscow, then to America.
But he never asked, never shared his own reasons for I leaving.

Here they were, burning to save my old country, spoiling for a fight. Didn’t I care? Didn’t I love it?
But it wasn’t my country anymore. I’d never really belonged there, in the Russian they imagined, among its fields and chapels, the clamor of its bells, the beggars in black shadows along the walls, the golden light bleeding from tiles, candles, and icons. It had been the fall of my senior year in high school, our class trip to the Troitsky monastery, and the boy I liked was crossing himself by the icon of Nikolai the Miracle Worker. He had a silver crucifix under his shirt, which probably meant nothing, except it was what nationalist patriots wore in those days, when they went on TV at midnight and talked of planned pogroms. No I didn’t miss Russia.

At our last class, Victor said the silver age outlived itself. The best poets perished in Russia, while those who escaped were nothing but pale imitations. He wrote on the back of my paper, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration. “

“When the Neighbors Love You”
Anya wants to go to BU, her parents want her to go to Pittsburgh and live at home. She resolves the conflict on a secret roadtrip with a friend. This story contains some of the most beautiful writing in the collection.

You think: you were twelve and wore brown corduroys. You once read Père Goriot and Eugénie Grandet , but you don’t remember the plots anymore. The neighbors called you a clever girl and a darling. You weren’t supposed to hear but you did anyway, through the running water in the kitchen, where mother-of-pearl teacups lay in your hands like seashells. Your heart swooped at the praise and you imagined a brilliant future: articles, book jackets, scholarships to Europe. You were Anna Akhmatova , with her choker and rosary beads; you were Marie Curie at the Sorbonne, austere in her grief. You were in love with the handsomest of professors – British, possibly married, with a sarcastic crinkle around his eyes. But the romance, too, had an exceptionally happy ending, because you were a smart girl, a girl who made smart decisions, and nothing bad could happen to a girl like this.

One aspect of the book that initially didn’t impress me at all was the cover. But the more I read, the more I realized the girl-jumping-over-puddle image was perfect. It’s a long leap; she might land on her butt in the middle; she might get her boots muddy. But she’ll get to the other side.

Those who were born here often have the idea that immigrants arrive brimming with eagerness and gratitude. What’s often left out of the picture is the anxiety of adjusting, and the sorrow at leaving behind what – and who – was, for however many years, home. Litman gives us a more complete picture than our imaginations allow, and also shows how heterogeneous the immigrant experience can be. Masha’s journey is very different from her parents’ or Liberman’s, and everyone’s journey changes en route. Moving to a new town can be unsettling; how much more unsettling then is moving to a new country. Give ‘em a break while they work it out.