December 3: “Damage Control” by Amber Dermont

Saturday it up, Story366! Today is a rainy Saturday, and it’s kinda cold, but I guess that makes sense because it’s December. Usually on Saturday, the family and I head out for a walk on a trail in some majestic Missouri woodland. Not today, as we like neither rainy nor cold when getting our casual family exercise and fresh air break. We did have Indian buffet for lunch, though, and experienced the rare occurrence where this place had chicken korma on the buffet, chicken korma being my favorite of the popular Indian buffet (or menu) dishes. That’s like a one-in-twenty occurrence, which made the trip worthwhile: I actually had wanted to go for Big Macs and General Tso’s chicken, but once we uttered the words “Indian food,” the kids had their hearts set, and that was that. Still, chicken korma on the buffet is no small reward.

Hey, Mike, you might be wondering, why did you want to get a Big Mac and some General Tso’s today? Well, I’m glad I imagined you asking that, folks. This past week, fast food lost two icons, the creators of the Big Mac and General Tso’s chicken, Michael James Delligatti and Peng Chang-kuei, respectively. Delligatti died on Monday and Peng on Wednesday. Both were 98—what are the odds of that? Not quite John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both dying on Fourth of July, 1826, or Shakespeare and Cervantes both dying on April 23, 1616, but it’s a distant third, don’t you think? I’m not a huge Big Mac fan—in fact, I can’t remember the last time I’ve had one, as I prefer the Quarter Pounder with Cheese—but General Tso’s is my take-out Chinese dish of choice half the time (sharing that honor with Kung Pao). More than anything, this is America, and when two people who contributed so much to making us as a nation (and me especially) so fat, we have to doff our caps and bow our heads. One day soon (maybe tomorrow), I will sit down with Tso and have a meal in honor of his maker.

My fear: Since these things come in threes, I’m now worried that the inventor circus peanuts or that peanut butter and jelly that comes together all striped in a jar is going to go, too. Can, we, as a nation, bear such a loss?

Today I read a few stories from Amber Dermont‘s collection Damage Control, out from St. Martin’s Press. Before I go any further, I’ll point out two facts: 1) I’ve somehow never rad an Amber Dermont story before today. 2) Amber Dermont is now one of my favorite writers. I’ve only gotten through a few of these, as noted, but already, I can tell that Dermont is exactly the kind of writer that I will read and read and read, one who speaks to me and my tastes and my aesthetic as much as anyone. That said, let’s discuss the title story!

“Damage Control” is about his guy named Martin Foster who teaches at a Southern belle etiquette school outside of Houston. At the outset of the story, he’s in the midst of a class, “Handshaking and Courteous Touching” when he gets a call his girlfriend—who’s also his boss’s daughter—a call he doesn’t take because it’s exactly the type of thing he’s trying to teach in his classes (which include other topics, such as “Husband Hunting,” “Rising Above Your Social Station,” and “How to Behave at the White House”). It’s kind of important that he gets the call, though, as Landon (the girlfriend/boss’s daughter) has been accused of some heavy-duty embezzlement, her arraignment on CourtTV; she could very easily be going to jail. Martin—Mr. Foster throughout most of the story—tries to maintain positivity, however, as he keeps telling Landon that she has nothing to worry about because she’s innocent. We find out later that this may or may not be true, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

We find out that Martin has had a pretty sweet deal going at this school, which he runs for Landon’s parents. Her father, Hasty Breedlove an eccentric millionaire Texan-type (if you couldn’t tell that from the name), saw him at a kid’s birthday party, serving pizza in a mouse costume, and offered him a job. Hasty has since died, but Martin has lived at the school since, along with Hasty’s widow and Landon’s mom, Sis, with whom he spends most of his time as her caretaker and best friend. He also has to recruit boys to attend the school—it’s more something young ladies from Houston’s economic elite are interested in—implying that they’d have their pick os some pretty wealthy young ladies if they played their cards right. Oh, and he has to satisfy the beautiful Landon’s carnal desires, too. For a guy recently dressed as a mouse at a pizza joint, it’s a pretty good gig, and maybe why he’s ignoring the fact that Landon might be going to jail and his days at the school are numbered.

Dermont gives Martin a lot to do and rotates her dialogue-heavy scenes a lot between Martin and Sis, Martin and Landon (who, surprisingly, seems genuinely into Martin, as humble as his beginnings are), backstory, and interactions with the students. There are several subplots involving the school’s students, subplots that escalate to a trio of the kids making a porno tape, as well as … well, I won’t give any more of these escapades away. What all of this scene-switching leads to is a fast-paced story, Dermont getting a handle of Martin’s crazy life just enough so we can peek in and watch. There’s also a constant creation going on, as each scene seems to introduce a new plotline, a new location, a new detail about the school, trial, or these people. Plus, all that dialogue is just spot-on, doing its job in characterizing the overly nosy students, the straight-to-the point Landon, and the increasingly befuddled Sis.

On top of everything, “Damage Control” is just a lot of fun. Martin Foster is a great protagonist, this guy who’s kind of wandered into this really privileged existence and everything he does and says and thinks just to keep the belief in this shangri-la life of his going. Really, the match has been up to the powder keg for a while—to an extent that we find out in details I’ll not reveal here—and he either just doesn’t get it or want to accept it. The whole operation has been a vicarious house of cards, the house sitting on a two-legged table at a ceiling fan store right on top of an overdue fault line. In any case, this is just one of the awesome stories I read from Damage Control today, each of the others just as inventive and funny and inciteful. Amber Dermont has other books and I need to get them, finish this one. She does what I think writing should be.

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December 2: “Potlatch” by Colin Fleming

Happy Friday to you, Story366! I hope you’ve had a good one. Tonight, Karen and I had a date, as there was a Parents Night Out at one of my son’s schools, which we take advantage of each and every time. A Parents Night Out, if you don’t know, is people from the school volunteering to watch kids on Friday night for super-cheap. Karen and I never miss it, as we never get to go out otherwise, not really, without paying a babysitting and cleaning our house for said sitter. On these excursions, we almost always go to a movie, for some reason, which is a lot of the date night eaten up by time we can’t talk or interact. Tonight we saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is pretty good, but not as good as any of the Harry Potter films, not by a longshot. I’m not feeling like getting into that topic, though, as I’m just not.

It was also Artwalk tonight, which happens in Springfield every first Friday of the month. Springfield has an excellent little downtown and in that downtown an excellent artist community, one celebrated at this Artwalk event every month. The galleries—twenty of them or more—all stay open until ten or eleven and have special offers, demonstrations, and sometimes live music and/or free food and/or drink. Tonight, we picked up this painting by a friend of ours, poet and artist Chad Woody:

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Woody takes old landscape paintings (mostly reprints), the kind that populated living rooms, hallways, and rec rooms in the Eisenhower era, real Robert Wood-type stuff, and paints in monsters and robots. Before the movie, we just about had one picked out, but then were going to be late, so we came back after only to find my favorite had been sold. This one that we bought hadn’t been on display yet, though, and I like it even more, as it has a robot and a monster, the only one with this combination. Anyway, we think they’re brilliant and we’re happy to have one and I can see it right now on the wall in front of me.

I also read from Colin Fleming‘s collection The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, out from Dzanc, stories that I very much enjoyed. The stories are linked thematically, most of them about the end of the relationships and how characters deal with the grief that comes after, but that’s only one way to describe Fleming’s work. I’ll also note that his stories are full of abstraction, magical realism, and absurdity, and don’t really feature a lot of the elements of traditional stories like protagonist-vs.-antagonist conflicts, tension-building arcs, or even audience-satisfying resolutions. Fleming starts his stories with a conceit, which is always pretty interesting, be it a guy who watches the same TV program in the middle of the night, every night, or a Nerf ping pong (I had that game) match, then takes it to a different plane of reality. His characters going on journeys, often of introspection and interior monologue, that warp the sense of plot and other expectations. Each one I read—and they’re short, so I read five or six—was unique and interesting and challenging. A couple, I didn’t have a clue what was going on, but I liked the, anyway, because they were unlike anything I’d read.

Because it’s hard to choose a story to talk about (and again, I wouldn’t know what to say about a couple of them), I’m choosing the last story in the collection, “Potlatch,” which is just over two pages long. It’s a stylized monologue featuring a guy talking to his overworked and now-disfunctional printer. This guy has typed and printed over a million words on this printer and now it’s failing him, ready to move on to the printer afterlife. As printers are the kind of gadget, like VCRs and knife-sharpeners, that cost more to fix than replace, it’s time for this printer and the speaker to part. The only problem is, the guy’s talking to the printer like it’s a living thing, a buddy of his, some ultra-personification. The guy’s even agreed to try and hook it up with the old microwave, who is apparently an attractive she-microwave, a fact I get from context.

In any case, we eventually get to the title word, “potlatch,” which I didn’t know before reading this story—see, short stories teach us as well as entertain us!—and a potlatch is the notion of giving something meaningful away to someone who needs it more than you do. Once, I gave my oldest son’s first pair of shoes away to a shoe drive and kind of regretted it—that’s the kind of thing a parent is supposed to keep—but always feel better when I picture some baby whose parents couldn’t afford shoes having those shoes. So it’s that. How does this beloved printer become a potlatch? Well, I’ve got to leave something for you to discover here, so I won’t reveal that. Let’s just say, however, that promises are made for the printer to make its journey with that swinging single microwave oven.

“Potlatch,” as absurd and funny and outlandish as it sounds, isn’t the kind of non-traditional story that is found in most of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe, as a man making a pledge of friendship and regret to his printer (key thing to ponder: why someone writes a million words of anything) is actually more concrete and realistic than most of what Colin Fleming presents to us. His stories are unpredictable, funny, and freshly structured. This is a cool book, one I had fun reading.

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December 1: “Wild Things I-Ghosts” by Jaimee Wriston Colbert

Good evening, Story366! Welcome to December! Is it crazy that it’s December already? It is. Before long, the semester, and this blog project, will be over, and then it will be January again (if I’m right about how time works). Today was a busy-ass day, but for me to go over what I was busy doing all day would be torturous for you, let alone me, so I’m going to skip it. And because I’m absolutely wiped out tonight, I don’t think I’m going to be providing much of an intro today, no anecdote or topic to lead us into the story. Yes, I think so.

Today I read from Jaimee Wriston Colbert‘s  collection Wild Things, out from BkMk Press (though not as a winner of its Chandra Prize, making it the first book from this press I’ve read that’s not a contest winner). In any case, I’d never read anything from Colbert before—despite her having published all over the place—so heading in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I like to read title stories, I scanned the table of contents and found the title, Wild Things, in two different pieces, “Wild Things I-Ghosts” and “Wild Things II—Migrants,” acting as duel title stories. To note, the Acknowledgements page reveals that these stories weren’t published as “Wild Things,” but as “Ghosts” and “Migrants” instead. Both stories involve the same characters, so it makes sense for Colbert to connect them. So, FYI.

Oh, Ok, one little side bar: Does Colbert pronounce her name like “Bel-Air,” the Stephen Colbert French way (which he used only after he became famous), or does she use the more Anglosized version, rhyming with “Mole Bert?” As I type her name, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to say it in my head.

In any case, I’ve chosen the first “Wild Things” story to write about, as it introduces the characters and establishes the world. That world? Kind of grim. But I’m getting ahead of myself. “Wild Things I-Ghosts” starts with Jones Robert (yes, that’s his name, in that order), a thirteen-year-old kid who is put on a Greyhound by his mom in rural Pennsylvania to visit his dad on the Oregon coast. Jones doesn’t know his dad—he’s never been around—and it’s kind of weird that you’d put a kid Jones’ age on a bus for four days. That’s just the first indication that maybe Jones isn’t living the charmed life. He makes his way across the country unharmed, eating little cans of food his mother packed into his backpack, avoiding some of the things I assume would happen to a kid this age, like not getting back on the bus in time after a stop, or, you know, someone doing horrible things to him because he’s alone. No, that’s not the story Colbert is telling us.

Jones makes it to Oregon spends some time with his dad, who doesn’t seem all that interested in having him around. Jones spends some time on the beach, gets a good dose of his long-lost (who works as a manager of a little travel lodge), and then Dad (“Call me ‘Bruce.'”) puts him back on the bus with no money or food. And then Jones never sees or hears from his father again. Jones does make it all the way to Chicago, eating on the money he’d found in the couches and beds and rooms at the motel. Then he doesn’t eat for the last day and a half, something that would happen at home, anyway, another indication his mother is more or less negligent.

Then the story shifts. After a space break, we get a totally new character, a young woman named Loulie who, we find out after a page or two, is the captive of an older man. The guy’s got her in his trailer and it’s gross and she’s being held in squalor, though the guy’s never hurt her, never touched her—he’s just keeping her there, because, he claims, he’s saving her. We find out that Loulie uses meth, provided by this man, and get the idea that she’s perhaps used it before. Maybe that’s what he’s saving her from, but that doesn’t make sense, then, as he’s still giving it to her. All in all, it’s sad and creepy, this poor young woman held captive by this older guy.

Then we shift back to Jones and figure out that a grown-up version of Jones is the creepy guy holding Loulie  in his trailer. Since that trip out west to see his dad, he’s not had a great life, the featured tragedy being his mother’s death by meth house explosion, the house being the house that Jones grew up in. He lives on that property now, the site of his exploded house, of his mother’s death, in a trailer on the wooded property. It’s where he’s got Loulie, where he’s, according to him, saving her.

From there, the story switches back and forth a couple more times, outlining Jones’ life as Loulie’s captor and Loulie’s life as his captive. I won’t reveal anything further, letting you find something out for yourself. There’s also a whole storyline, diversion, about the titular ghosts, particularly one of Jones’ dead mother, who haunts him. Or he thinks she does. I’ll give one little spoiler: The second story, the “Migrants” one, also features Jones and Loulie, who sadly is still in the former’s charge.

I really liked these two stories from Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s Wildl Things, but want to read more and see what else she does, what other characters are like, what else she writes about. She writes these stories with long, lyrical sentences, one after another, and I’m curious to see if she does that in every story, too. But so far so good on Colbert’s work, on this collection.

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November 30: “School Bus” by Peter Grandbois

Hey there, Story366! Today is the last day of November, which means that I’ve now completed 11/12 of the Story366 project. Thinking back to January, I remember posting updates the first few days, the first week, the first month, celebrating little milestones like three straight days of still doing the blog, a week of it, a month, as I’d more or less assumed that I would have gotten tired of it sooner or later, or something would have come up, and I would’ve quit. Really, I was most shocked at the end of the first week because there’s very few things in my life I’ve stuck to for a whole week. By the end of that first month, I’d convinced myself that if I could do a month of daily blog posts, I could do a year. Now here I am, just a month to go, and I’m feeling about the same, that I can do this, that there’s no doubt in my mind that I can do thirty-one more of these entries. Today, that makes sense. On February 1, I have no idea what I was thinking, why I believed in myself. What an idiot!

As a basball fan—hey, is Spring Training starting yet?—I’m big into stats, and while there’s a lot of nice features on WordPress blogs, one is undoubtedly how much you can track your posts and your visitors. At least a dozen times a day, I check to see how many hits each page has gotten, comparing stats as if I’m sabermetrics deity Bill James (except I’m not as good at math as he is). One stat I pay particular attention to is which post, out of the 334 I’ve done so far, has the most visits. For a long time, like for ten months, the “leader” was Adam Johnson, whose story “Nirvana” I reviewed on January 1, was still by far the record post for most visits. Some time early this month (November), however, that lead start to winnow, then slip more quickly, then got disintegrated. The story post that’s surpassed Johnson’s in the last thirty day, the one that’s now leading by a considerable margin? “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link. I wrote my post on “Secret Identity” in January, and after the initial post, what happened to it is what happens to most of the posts: Nobody really visits it except for the occasional one person, 1 tally on the stats chart. Then, in late October, I noticed daily hits on Link’s entry, while in the past few weeks, there’s been multiple daily visits, by unique visitors, often outnumbering any given day’s post. I’m not going to reveal my numbers here, but right now, I don’t see any other post catching the link post at this point on its way to the gold (though, to note, my post on Jill McCorkle’s “Intervention” has since passed the Johnson post as well).

Because I’m curious and not only a stats geek, I can’t help but wonder: Why have so many people—unique people—clicked on the Link link today? Is there some kind of assignment going around on “Secret Identity?” Did someone make that page their home page by accident? Did “Secret Identity” just win some kind of award? Is Kelly Link herself just needing affirmation every few minutes and rereading my overly positive review for a pick-me-up? I don’t know.

In any case, if you like stats and have a favorite story and/or entry that I’ve posted, you now know that you can skew the results, click on that favorite over and over again and see if it wins the non-existent, only-in-my-head trophy. Click away! Here’s a link to the archives, in case you really want to mess with the results.

For today’s post, I read from Peter Grandbois‘ excellent collection of fictions Domestic Disturbances, out from Subito Press. I’ve read some work by Grandbois before, mostly shorts in literary journals, and have always been a fan. Domestic Disturbances is a thin collection and is made up of one long story, today’s focus, “School Bus,” coming in at thirty-five pages, and then a series of short-shorts, under the subheading “Disturbances,” that are all between one and three pages long. I have no problem writing about a short for this project—back in April, I did an entire week of posts on shorts, after all—and I really like all of the “Disturbances,” which I ate up until they were gone. But I really love “School Bus,” that comparative bohemoth of a story, so that’s where we’re headed now.

“School Bus” is about a school bus, a bus that has a very distinct and authoritative driver to go alone with an array of colorful characters that come in the form of kids on their way to school. Nothing tricky there except for, well, everything. The story is cut up on to page-long-or-so vignettes, for one, all of which have headings. The first vignette is “Before the School Bus” and is more or less about the origin of time—at least for this story—as it takes an almost Genesislike (as in the Bible book, not the band) tone. Before the school bus, there was nothing, and the biblical comparisons continue as the bus, bus stop, and even the road are created in the same way God built the oceans and the mountains. Then we have “The Second Age,” which explores the origins of the people and the bussing system. The bus driver emerges at this point, constructed sort of how Eve is constructed, out of sticks and mud. Next we are introduced to a character called “the spiky-haired boy,” who plays a larger role in the story,  who enters the bus (in a flourish).

From there, Grandbois basically starts describing all the bus riders. The biblical tone eases off almost entirely (except for when the bus driver is a character, as she still talks fire and brimstone and is referred to with a capital H-type “he”). Almost every vignette after that is titled after the kid’s place on the bus, e.g., “Window #1,” “Window #2,” etcetera, denoting where the particular kid sits. Under “Window #1,” we meet the red-haired girl. Under “Window #2,” we meet the weird kid, a class clown who will do anything for a giggle, including smashing a PB&J across his face and pretending he’s a zombie. There’s a girl who’s tall. There’s kid who’s blue. There’s a kid that no one is sure is real because he’s never in focus. Each kid gets his own little story, sometimes about something completely foreign to the bus ride, sometimes concerning things happening on the bus right there and then. Grandbois, who writes a lot of shorts, certainly finds a way to get the form into a longer story, this stacking of little interrelated thumbnail sketches. I liked meeting all the kids as they all seem interesting and unique and well described. The kids get weirder and more interesting as Grandbois goes on, and the sections get longer, too, as the story progresses. All in all, Grandbois captures this ride to school, from beginning to end, but it’s a surreal, imaginative trip, each window shining light down on a pretty impressive creation. My clear favorite is the girl who has a big tree growing out of the top of her spine—I told you they got weirder as we went along—watching as the other kids on the bus (who have been profiled already) tease her then try to help her when she loses all of her leaves; she’s an autumn tree, by the way.

What does this all add up to by the end of “School Bus?” I’m pretty sure I care way more about the journey here than the destination, as once the kids reach the place they’re headed, the story has to end. The bus driver—who is clearly a stand-in for God, or at least god—is there at the end, this group’s mission in correspondence with his desires, his existence. I’m not sure if this a metaphor or allegory for something other than that, but it’s all done masterfully, a story truly unlike any I’ve ever read.

I’m so glad I read Peter Grandbois’ Domestic Disturbances today, one of the only books I’ve read all the way through for this project in a given day (it helps it’s only this one long story and a bunch of awesome shorts). When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think I’d read an entire book, but here we are. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

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November 29: “The Prettiest Girls” by Christine Sneed

Greetings, Story366! I hope your day is going well. Today is Tuesday, rumored to be the busiest day of the week, and today, I believe it. Karen and I were supposed to go on a date tonight, to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, but we looked at each other this morning and both admitted that we had way too much to do today to go off on some date, only two weeks left in the semester, everything stacking upward speeding toward its end. I worked in my office today for four straight hours and must have knocked twenty things off my to-do list, yet I still have twenty more things to do … for tomorrow. I know I just had nine straight days off, but really, I wasted the fuck out of most of those days. Maybe my batteries are recharged—that’s the story I’m going with, anyway. I am a horrible adult.

Speaking of, just a little bit ago, my oldest was telling me about how he wishes he could be an adult, have his “own life.” He’s ten. I assured him every kid has these feelings, but we still had a discussion about the pros and cons of adulthood. Here’s an excerpt (him talking):

“Then there’s the issue of having pizza for dinner. The wife wants hot pizza, but you want cold pizza, leftover from the refrigerator. Do you microwave it to make the wife happy or do you eat it cold the way you want to? The wife wants it hot, but once she sees those soggy crusts, she might be like ‘Oh.'”

We agreed, eventually, that since pizza can be cut up—that it actually comes that way—this might not be the biggest problem he and his future wife will face.

This is funny for a couple of reasons, mostly because it’s me having this discussion with my child, which is preposterous as I’m still just a kid, too, right? It’s also hilarious that this is what he’s worried about, microwaving pizza years from now. Finally, it’s notable that he employs second person, as in the universal you.

But then, when I thought about it, it’s like, Why is he thinking this? Is this what Karen and I do, argue over how to reheat the pizza? Is that what we’ve modeled for him, how he’s formed his expectations of adulthood? Plus, what’s with the use of this term, “the wife?” What started as an unbelievably funny anecdote—we were driving as he was saying this and I almost drove off the road—which I shared on FB, but then it got serious, morphed into me questioning my parenting skills. The boy and I had a talk after I realized all this and I asked him where he heard this term and why he was so worried about day-old pizza. His responses were somewhat reassuring, somewhat mysterious, somewhat time to stop thinking about this and write about today’s story.

Today’s author is Christine Sneed, a writer friend from Chicago who currently teaches at my undergrad alma mater, the University of Illinois. Her latest book is the collection The Virginity of Famous Men, out from Bloomsbury Publishing. Sneed writes longish stories—all twenty to twenty-five pages, about people going through dilemmas, moments of self-doubt, inner conflicts as well as outer ones. I’ve read a couple of stories from this collection before (including the title story, which took me a couple of pages to recognize—there’s been a title change … it’s complicated …), and I’ve always liked her work. One story in particular stood out, “The Prettiest Girls,” so here we go.

“The Prettiest Girls” is about this middle-aged guy (47 … just four years older than me …) named Jim who works as a location scout (amongst other things) in Hollywood. He’s twice divorced, has two kids he never sees who go to expensive East Coast colleges, and he’s decently good at his job. The story starts with him in Mexico, looking for a particular type of church for a dream sequence shot, where he meets a young Mexican woman named Elsa. Elsa is ridiculously beautiful—she reminds Jim of Sophia Loren at her peak—and serves as Jim’s guide. She claims she knows exactly where there’s a church like the one Jim is looking for and what she wants in return is a role as an extra in the film. Jim can say yes—he has the kind of sway to get an extra hired—but he also needs to get his church, so he’s coy with her, strings her along, leading her eventually (as in that first night) to bed. Yet, Elsa got the role. This is the very start of a kind of chess match between Jim and Elsa, lovers who each have something the other wants; Elsa wants to be in movies, to leave Mexico and be in America, while Jim just wants Elsa, this beautiful woman less than half his age.

This comes to that and Jim is paying some border guards to let him take Elsa back with him to LA. When he gets there, he has to first break up with his longtime (and age-appropriate) girlfriend, Lisette, whom everyone in his life was fond of, who despises him for his cowardice. It’s too late, though, as he’s been sleeping with Elsa, she’s already living in his house, and he’s got her there illegally to boot. From there, Jim and Elsa live together, having lots of sex and Jim buying her lots of things to keep her happy. Jim continues working, too, moving from set to set, location to location, leaving Elsa alone for long stretches, gone sometimes fifteen hours a day. This doesn’t make the impatient and restless Elsa very happy, so Jim has to make it up to her with more gifts, more promises, etc.

There’s a lot of this back and forth between the two, who fight a lot, trying to find a balance between manipulating the other and living their lives. For example, even after Jim breaks up with Lisette, Elsa isn’t satisfied and wants him to slice open his finger and swear a blood oath that he’ll never talk to Lisette again—it’s not a pursuit she gives up, either. Elsa also wants to be in movies—duh—but Jim doesn’t really care about all that (even though he has that kind of power). He’s thrilled he gets to walk around Hollywood, around sets, where he knows a lot of people, with Elsa on his arm. It’s a complicated but well drawn relationship that Sneed’s painted here.

And that’s what I really like about this story, how unconventional and messed-up this union proves to be. The sweet, starry-eyed girl of Mexico becomes a demanding mistress almost magically when they cross the border. She understands she is a trophy but is going to milk it, anyway, ride it to the top. Jim understands all of this but because he’s rich, 47, and horny, he’s blind to what’s happening to him, but at the same time, worries constantly that it’ll end, that Elsa will be taken from him, by a director or actor probably, someone with better connections than his. I’ve read a lot of stories this year about relationships, but I can’t think of any about a couple who knows their relationship is temporary but soldiers through it, anyway, just because they each need something from the other. It’s an old dynamic, sure, the young beauty trading her body for something she wants, the older man destroying his dignity so he can feel young again. The setting and the writing and the everything make Sneed’s version so, so good, the characters so fresh, so unknowing and uncaring of just how short a time they have.

Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men is a brand-new collection and it’s a good one. I really like how Sneed takes complicated characters with seemingly uncomplicated lives and makes the most of their situations, crafts stories around the little insecurities, the minor decisions that dictate who they are. I’m all-in on this collection, one of the more solid books released this year.

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November 28: “If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands” by Nicholas Montemarano

S’up, Story366? The long, nine-day break is over and my family and I returned to school today. To fend off any potential problems, we tried our best to go to bed early last night, get that amount of sleep that we got used to getting over break, but to no avail. The three year old just wouldn’t go down, fighting for over an hour before succumbing. When it was time to get up, he simply replied, “No!” and when I prodded, he insisted, “I need the sleep!” I carried him down the stairs and force-dressed and fed him and carried him out to the car. He cried all the way to school. By the time I walked out of his daycare, I was shaking, shaken. Not the best start to the semester’s home stretch, but it could only get better from there (and it did—I like teaching, so it was good to get back to it).

Something that came up in my graduate workshop was The New York Times“100 Notable Books of 2016,” which appeared today. I’ve known this for a long time, but “book” to many people in the world means something nonfiction—which I almost never read—and TNYT always dedicates exactly half of its yearly list to works that fall under that umbrella. Of the fifty books under the “Fiction & Poetry” heading, exactly three can be classified as collections of short stories. One is Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World, which I’ve covered already on Story366, a micro-fiction collection by Joy Williams, and a novel-in-stories by David Szalay (both of which I hope to cover in the coming month). Am I a bit disappointed by this? More than. Is this the same argument as the one I made earlier this year, when the long list of twenty National Book Award finalists came out and zero story collections were featured? Yes, yes it is. Since then, Dan Wickett, Amber Sparks, and I have been working (occasionally) on putting together a list of all the story collections released in 2016, and if my figures are correct, we’re in the mid-two hundreds. Only three of those were in the top fifty for the year? None, according to the NBA? Ugh.

During the discussion I had with my students, I pointed out that The New York Times had not read every book that came out this year, nor did the National Book Committee. I can’t say for sure how books get nominated or how many books they do consider, but I’m guessing that with TNYT, they probably start with the books that they’ve reviewed. In some ways, that makes sense, as if a book wasn’t worth reviewing in their eyes, then why make it a notable book overall? As the editor of a small literary press (Moon City Press), it all gives me pause. We send all our books to TNYT for consideration to be reviewed, and in the two years I’ve been making books for MCP, they’ve yet to review one (in fact, we just sent off our latest, Michelle Ross‘s There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, today). I realize they can’t review every collection, let alone read them, but when these lists come out, it’s a blow to realize that our books, these authors’ books, aren’t even in the running.

Of course, like with the NBAs earlier this year, I’m sure all the books on this Notable list are good, worthy books—I’m not clamoring for any of them to be removed or replaced. It’s a solid list, full of diversity, full big names and newcomers, piebald with some smaller presses like Graywolf (if they can be considered a small press at this point), Biblioasis, and Two Dollar Radio. Of course, I have to admit that I’ve not read all the books on their list, nor will I. As a fan of the short story, perhaps the fan (this year, anyway), it just sticks in my craw that there’s not more than three books out of fifty that are story collections. In fact, I find it incredulous. That’s my point.

It would have been cool if somehow I’d timed the Williams or Szalay book for today, but it would have been a case of tremendous serendipity had that worked out. Or, if I’d picked up Nicholas Montemarano‘s collection If the Sky Falls (out from LSU Press as part of their Yellow Shoe Fiction series) on November 15, as then I could have written about Montemarano’s story “The November Fifteen.” That didn’t miraculously pan out, either. I did get to read a couple of stories from the book, include the (semi-) title story, “If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands.” I like this story a lot, and since I like (semi-) title stories, let’s go with it for today.

“If the Sky Falls, Hold Up Your Hands” is about this sixty-something-year-old guy named Paul Gruber who at the outset of his story watches his daughter die, describing it in detail. Right off the bat, Montemarano hits us pretty hard and things can only get better from there, right? Not really. We soon find out that this death bed scene is the first time Paul has seen his daughter, Lois, in fifteen years. It’s terribly depressing, of course, the death, the estrangement, the occasion of their reunion, but at least they’ve had a couple of weeks to get to know each other (Lois has become very new-agey and has relented to death, believing her energy is being released back into the universe, that sort of thing). So, pretty brutal.

The rest of the story, more or less, backtracks, explaining how we got to this point, how Paul and Lois reached this tragic reunion. We find out in a piece of way-back backstory that Paul, as a child, ran into a guy on his paper route who looked just like his grandma, and when he asked his mom about said guy, his mother explained that he looked like his grandma because he was her brother, a brother she had not spoken to in fifty years, despite them living literally two blocks apart in Philadelphia. Young Paul has a hard time wrapping his mind around this and tries to reunite the estranged siblings, only to find out that his grandma and great uncle would rather just go on not speaking to each other ever and die than make peace. Does it affect Paul? Of course it does. It’s a backstory scene and that’s how stories work.

Paul would never have thought he’d grow up and see this very thing happen between him and his only child, yet, that’s the story here. We get a lot of introspection/interior monologue/philosophizing on Paul’s part, wondering how this could have happened. Paul, if you haven’t guessed, is rather unreliable, however, as no matter how it pains him for he and Lois to be so dramatically at odds, he turns down chances to rectify the situation, to make amends. One time his ex-wife (who divorced him right after he and Lois stopped speaking) calls him to talk Lois out of marrying an abusive boyfriend. Paul refuses, and lo and behold, Lois marries the guy and gets abused. Years later, Lois calls him, posing as a polling agent, and Paul refuses to acknowledge it’s her, or that he has any children, Lois practically begging him to reach out.

The irony is not lost on Paul that it took his daughter’s imminent death to end his stubbornness, to visit her, to sit bedside as she expires. Sure, Montemarano gives away the ending—Lois’ death—in the first sentence, but it’s not simple, as there’s more complications between these people along the way, right up to the end. It’s an intense story, in a lot of ways, but not, in others.

Years ago, like in 2000, I published a piece by Nicholas Montemarano in Mid-American Review, “In All These Ways,” in which a man shatters a glass pitcher against his wife’s head in the first sentence, then spends the rest of the story in backstory anecdotes and introspection as to how it was possible for him to commit such a vile act. Another story from If the Sky Falls features a guy whose sister calls him up, begs him to drive three hours up from New York City upstate to rescue her from her abusive husband; most of this story, “Note to Future Self,” takes place inside the guy’s head, long paragraphs of exposition where he considers his moves, reckons his decisions. So, in three stories, I’m sensing a pattern, all of them dealing with violent/deadly occurrences in the first line, all of them including spousal abuse, all of them featuring lots and lots of inner consideration by the protagonist, sometimes as the abuser, sometimes not. I’m not saying that every Montemarano story is like that—it’s unlikely that this is the case—but in three stories that I’ve read, I am recognizing some common themes.

No matter what the case, however, I admire what Montemarano does. He writes great sentences that make up great paragraphs, featuring unreliable men trying to convince themselves what they’ve done, what they’re doing (or not doing) is the right thing, that they’re good guys, whether they’re the powerless hero or the empowered villain. It’s a unique take on character. These stories stand out because of it.

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November 27: “The Quick-Change Artist” by Cary Holladay`

What’s up, Story366! Today is Sunday and it’s the last day of my nine-day Thanksgiving Break. At this point, my tanks should be refilled and I should be caught up on all the work I’d fallen behind on, but really, I’m only good on one of those. I’ve gotten eight hours of sleep most of these off days, including a whopping nine hours last night, which is unheard of for me. I didn’t even want to take a nap today (but did doze off once for about four seconds … then someone beeped their horn, I swerved back out of their lane). Am I caught up on my work? No, not really. I do have a clean house, though, and our freezer is filled with turkey and turkey chili. So, really, it’s break even.

Sundays have also become the night I watch TV, the only night, starting a few years ago with Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Right now, my DVR is set to record Westworld and The Walking Dead. I’m not sure if I’m ever going to watch this season of The Walking Dead—I already know who Neegan killed, and otherwise, I was getting bored with the show’s repetition—but Westworld is my new obsession. I watch YouTube recap and theory videos about the show all week, on top of rewatching the entire series, picking up on what I missed (which is a lot). Next Sunday is the season finale and I’m stoked because the show is so good (but I’m sad because it’s ending already). Because I am who I am, I’m also dreading the cliffhanger that will no doubt drive me nuts until next fall. I will celebrate the show and that last episode next Sunday, however, by doing a story from Charles Yu’s second collection, Sorry Please Thank You, as Charlie is one of the main writers on Westworld and is generally awesome in every way.

That’s me getting ahead of myself, however, as today I read from Cary Holladay‘s collection The Quick-Change Artist, out from Swallow Press, which seems to be an imprint of Ohio University Press, or at least related, as they have the same web address. In any case, these were the first stories I read by Holladay, though she is the author of several other books, including two other collections of stories. I started reading with the first story of the book, also the title story, and went on from there, getting three stories in. I’m going to write about “The Quick-Change Artist,” so here we go.

“The Quick-Change Artist” centers on Vangie, an eighteen-year-old woman living in rural Virginia, in the town of Glen Allen, at the crossroads of something and something. The story opens with Vangie fishing with her blind brother, Luke, on the bank of the river at night, her dreaming about her life, what it could be. Vangie works in the town’s big resort hotel, cooking and cleaning, and Luke lives nearby in a school for the blind. It’s 1928, by the way, which matters for a lot of reasons, mainly because the Civil War is not only still a thing to the locals, but some of the locals were actually in the Civil War, its end only sixty-five years prior (though those locals are very old). There’s also a Confederate parade every year (which takes place in this story) and the circumstances of Luke’s blindness are also questionable, a local doctor completely removing his eyeballs to stop the spread of fever and infection (I didn’t go to medical school, but it seems like that’s something that’s done differently nowadays). Vangie is also seeing Jolly, the hotel’s magician, who does shows on the weekends and is older and “foreign.” Two sisters own and run the resort and are good to Vangie and Luke, though it’s implied that they may have screwed the previous owner out of the place, both he and his lawyer in the bag when the papers were drafted and signed.

Wow, that’s a lot for a story and we haven’t even gotten to the plot yet! That’s more or less instigated when Luke, who is blind, remember, goes missing. Vangie left him at the riverbank to go and meet Jolly, and when she goes to bring him some fried chicken from the hotel a couple of days later, he’s not there—he never came back from when Vangie checked him out. It’s important, perhaps, to note, that Luke is a really skilled blind kid, one who, according to Vangie, gets around better than most people with sight, which is why she was okay with having him find his way back to the school. Vangie, needless to say,  who is not the most reliable of characters.  Still, her blind brother’s missing, he was in her charge, and appropriately, she’s flipping out, trying to get the entire town to help her find them (which includes, sadly, dragging the river).

And this is where “The Quick-Change Artist” gets weird. There’s this blind kid missing, he was last seen near a river at night, and it seems as if people in the town and around the hotel are trying to keep Vangie from finding him, as if it’s not a priority … or that there’s a reason for them to keep her from her task. Holladay turns the story into kind of a mystery, but there’s a lot of elements and variables that make the situation hard to decipher. For one, there’s Jolly, this quick-change artist and magician and stranger whom no one trusts except Vangie. There’s skeptical headmaster at the blind school. There’s a semi-cooperative sheriff. There’s the sketchy doctor at the hotel, the one who took out Luke’s eyes. There’s the seductive widow of the hotel’s previous owner. On an episode of Law & Order, these people would be called “suspects,” many of them serving as red herrings, but it’s hard to determine what’s truly going on. Vangie also has vivid dreams, which always throw me in a story, and there’s also an uncanny magical quality to Jolly, something beyond trickery. Is everything in this story real? I found myself asking some of that because of these elements and because how odd things get.

Nothing’s stranger, however, than the Major, a one-hundred-year-old Civil War veteran who pops up in the middle of the story with a marriage proposal for Vangie. He has a pension (wait, from where, the Confederacy?!) and promises it all to to Vangie if she’ll just be his bride. She doesn’t have to love him, he makes it clear, but mostly likely, it involves him putting his wrinkly self all over her in a sexual way—that much is implied. Vangie is grossed out by it, the thought of this man, eighty-eight years her senior, naked and in bed, and she doesn’t want to do it. Her Grammah thinks it’s a great idea, seeing as how the old man will be dead soon, anyway, and she’s got few prospects to extend her past being a maid in the resort her whole life.

All of this courting and discussion of dowries is happening, remember, while Luke is missing, Vangie’s poor, beloved, blind brother. What’s going on here? I read the story as being mostly real, but there does seem to be at least a bit of a surreal element to it, perhaps implied more than definitive. In the end—more stuff happens, by the way, including some extra twists—I enjoyed that about this story, that it wasn’t a straight-up mystery or coming-of-age tale, but one that made me consider how stories are written, made me read the story again. I like this piece, a lot, because of how it challenged me as a reader.

The Quick-Change Artist is a collection of linked stories, as the pieces all take place in and around this resort hotel in Glen Allen, Virginia, in different eras and time periods. I haven’t read far enough into the book to see if stories cross over, but I suspect they do, as Lila, the protagonist of the second story, lived in the resort as a child the same time the events of the first story were going on. I liked all three stories I read and hope to read more by Cary Holladay, whose work is distinct and very good.

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November 26: “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” by Josip Novakovich

Hello, Story366! I hope you’ve had a good … Saturday? Yeah, I guess so: Saturday. Today was Day 8 of my nine-day Thanksgiving Break and it’s felt like Saturday for about five days now. I suppose it should feel like a true Saturday because I watched a college football game today—Ohio State vs. Michigan—and those are only played on Saturdays. It’s the first college football game I’ve watched this year, as I’ve been busy with Story366 and the Cubs and other such stuff. If I was going to delay watching a game this long, at least I waited for a good one, as #2 Ohio State came back to beat #3 Michigan in double overtime. For eighteen years, I lived in Bowling Green, Ohio, which was pretty close to the center point of these two schools and was a dividing line, of sorts, of allegiance. I went to Illinois—which doesn’t really exist on the college football radar—so I never really cared who won between the two teams that routinely pounded the Illini year after year. Today, that held form, as I could make arguments as to why I wanted each to win. I lived in Ohio for so long, I couldn’t help but develop a bit of a homer attitude, though on the other hand, I’d visited both Columbus and Ann Arbor multiple times and enjoyed Ann Arbor considerably more. In the end, I’m glad I watched a good game, and perhaps, while filling the time until the Cubs to start up again next year, I might just watch another.

More commonly this year, I’ve read short stories, including a few from Josip Novakovich‘s collection Salvation and Other Disasters, out from Graywolf. I’ve met Novakovich several times, first when he read at Bowling Green (in the nineties … yeesh I’m old) and then several times at conferences and such and always counted on him for a good, friendly conversation about writing and Eastern Europe. I’ve not spoken to him in quite some time and haven’t read much by him lately, either, so it was good to get back to him and read some of his stories today. From Croatia, Novakovich writes a lot about his home country, about growing up as well as more contemporary issues. The story from Salvation that sticks out most today is “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail,” so I’ll write about it.

“The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” is about this kid growing up in the mid-sixties in Croatia (then still a part of Yugoslavia) who likes to go to the movies. The story opens with him, eight years old, going to a movie with his brother, only to run out of the theater, screaming, when a locomotive barrels down on them from the screen—the kids didn’t know the difference between movie and reality. It’s a funny opening scene, but sets the tone, sets up a metaphor, for the rest of the story.

The kid, terrified at first and then embarrassed about what he did once he realizes it, avoids movies for a year, but then returns with gusto. His older sister goes all the time, and so does he, only since movies cost money and he doesn’t have any, he and his cronies stage elaborate schemes to get inside for free (okay, sometimes they use the old trick of having one kid pay then open the fire door for the other kids, which isn’t very elaborate or schemey). They see all kinds of movies, from Cleopatra to the James Bond films, and more often than not, can see the whole thing before they’re discovered and kicked out.

One catch to all of this is the kid’s dad doesn’t want him to go to the movies, as he believes the are the devil’s doing, a sentiment backed up by the family’s church. By all their accounts, kids see people do bad things in movies and then the kids go do the bad things themselves. It’s not an unheard-of philosophy, as it’s one my own mother adopted for many years—in fact, she still doesn’t like when we watch anything R-rated when I’m visiting, the utterance of the word “fuck” still shaking her to her core. But in any case, the kid in “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail” is forbidden from going to the movies, but goes anyway (sort of like how I watch R-rated stuff, with the sound down, me sitting right next to the TV, at my mom’s house, me in my forties …).

What’s interesting about where Novakovich goes next is that the kid’s dad is kind of right about what would happen. The kid sees a heist film and soon after fashions himself a master thief, ripping off people at the market (on top of his movie theater break-ins). It’s not like he sees a Western and then goes and shoots up a saloon, but there’s some definitive modeling going on, a pretty direct correlation between what he sees on the screen and what he does with his free time. I won’t reveal anything else about this piece, leaving you to discover it on your own, but it’s an interesting investigation into not only a unique-to-me place, but also of an era, kids sneaking into the picture show, just to get a glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor’s hips. Novakovich certainly catches an era, a mystique, a culture, and I liked this story a lot.

A lot of the stories in Salvation and Other Disasters are a bit weightier than “The Devil’s Celluloid Tail,” many dealing with the Yugoslav Wars, which were still raging when Josip Novakovich wrote these stories and released the book. It reminds me of when I saw Mrs. Miniver for the first time, that British movie with Greer Garson about the bombing of England by Germany, the surviving characters in the film praying together at the end of the film in a bombed-out church. It dawned on me during the end credits that this movie, out in 1942, was conceived, released, and seen while World War II was still going on, that there was still a distinct possibility that England was going to lose the war. Heck, most of it was probably done before Pearl Harbor’s attack brought the U.S. into the fray. I get that same feeling from Salvation and Other Disasters, that Novakovich is a reporter as much as he’s a storyteller here, capturing a tense moment in his country’s history before the story was close to being finished. That sense of urgency, of immediacy, can be felt in Novakovich’s work, making for a unique and powerful read.

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November 25: “The Unforgetting” by Lan Samantha Chang

What’s going down, Story366? Depending on how you look at it, today was either Black Friday or just Friday. I’m not one for setting up a tent along the outside wall of a Walmart in order to get a cheap flatscreen, but I’m also not one to bemoan whatever gives a person pleasure (or a cheap flatscreen). My family and I more or less try to avoid shopping areas, not necessarily out of some statement or protest, but because today, driving by the mall, let alone going to it, means lines, traffic, and anxious people, three things we try to avoid at all costs, even on a normal day. So, no shopping for us.

Yet, today, we randomly found ourselves at a couple of places of business. While there, we inquired about Black Friday deals, hoping that we perhaps had stumbled upon something super-cheap or even free, as that’s how I’m sure it works. Unfortunately, neither the popcorn store nor the kids’ haircut place were featuring deals today, so we went home empty-handed—except for the fact we bought popcorn and the kids got haircuts and we paid full price. Take that, Black Friday.

Amidst all this chaos, I still managed to read a few stories from Lan Samantha Chang‘s collection Hunger, out from Penguin. I’ve read part of this book before, and read some more today, (though I still haven’t read the hundred-page title novella, “Hunger”), so I knew her work a little. I also know that Hunger won all kind of awards and that Chang soon after took over as the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which in my line of work, is a pretty good job, and she’s written two novels as well. Reading her work today reminded me of what her stories are about, mainly her Chinese heritage, her characters mostly Chinese-American immigrants adjusting to life in the United States. The story that stuck with me most today is “The Unforgetting,” so here we go.

“The Unforgetting” is about a family of Chinese immigrants who in the first scene cross the plains into Iowa, where they’re moving, and stop to check out what looks to them like another ocean, the rolling landscape of farms as far as their eyes can see. It’s a scene-setting opening, one filled with hope, these people coming to this new, strange land and encountering such a gorgeous sight, embracing it, when so many others would look out at those same fields and think they were in the middle of nowhere. This family, the Hwangs—a dad named Ming, a mom named Sansan, and a little boy named Charles—are a picture of the American dream, nothing but hope of a better life ahead of them.

The Hwangs settle in. Ming is a lab instructor at a university and Charles begins American elementary school, where he’s behind from the start because his English is shoddy and, well, he’s in Iowa all of a sudden and his native tongue is not English. A letter sent home describes his problems and suggests the family maybe start speaking English at home, a letter that at first enrages Ming. Sansan reminds him, though, this was all his idea, moving to the States, and they knew this was going to happen. The family then commits themselves to absorbing young Charles in English language and culture. They not only start speaking English at home, but also steer him toward more Western traditions. Within a year, Charles’ grades improve makably, and within two or three, he’s at the top of his class.

The family is of course happy with his progress, but at the same time, they know they’ve sacrificed a lot of their Chinese identities. Charles begins to lose his native tongue and Sansan stops reading him Chinese bedtime stories, instead opting for his American textbooks. On top of that, she’s stopped reading her own culture’s stories, placing her favorite books on the shelf, never to be touched again. Even more distressing is the fact that Charles grows into a penchant for history, U.S. history, particularly the World War II-era Pacific Theater. In other words, not only have the reduced Charles’ knowledge and experience in his heritage, but he’s somehow adopted the history of his adopted country and is seeing a very important part of Chinese history (the Japanese occupation, which Chang’s own family endured) from a distinctly different point of view.

Charles grows into quite the scholar, earning early admission into Harvard, which Ming and Sansan know they’re supposed to be insanely proud of, but this choice in schools leaves Ming especially rather annoyed—there’s a perfectly fine university, Iowa, right down the road.

And that’s all I’ll reveal tonight in terms of plot. “The Unforgetting” might not be so much about what happens, anyway, but what’s happening. What I mean by that is the cultural changes that Charles experiences, causing him to lose track of his heritage, are more relevant here than what any of them does. This story is about this cultural aspect, but it’s predominantly about the humanity of its characters, how they interact, particularly Ming and Sansan (Charles is a secondary presence here, despite the story focusing on him so much). Chang very intriguingly employing an omniscient third person—we skip all around in Ming and Sansan’s perspectives—something I don’t see all that much in stories, but it works here. It’s important that we get into both of their heads, to see two different viewpoints on Charles’ progress as a human and new(ish) American. Plus, it’s just interesting, seeing Chang’s skills on display, her flowing so effortlessly between Ming’s impatience and Sansan’s quieter loss—that’s the main reason I avoid omniscience and advise my students to as well, not because it breaks some Fiction 101 rule, but because it’s so hard to pull off and be convincing. Yet, Chang makes it look easy.

“The Unforgetting” has so much going for it, and even though it’s the first story I read today, I wanted to write about it because it is so good and there’s some many ways of discussing it. The same could be said about all of the stories in Hunger, as Lan Samantha Chang seems to start with a theme—Chinese ex-pats in America—but does so much with style, structure, and character, her theme is only a small part of what her work has to offer.

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November 24: “The Harp Department in Love” by Richard Bausch

Happy Thanksgiving, Story366! I hope you’ve had a truly wonderful day, no matter what you ate, who you spent it with, how you celebrated (or didn’t). My family and I were supposed to host a few people, students and friends here in Springfield with nowhere else to go, but all three of them pulled out today, giving the day back to us as a family unit. It would have been fun to have guests, show off our cooking skills, that kind of thing, but when it became just us, it became a different type of day. I stayed up pretty late last night, baking pies and cleaning the house (my rooms were the dining room and kitchen and I nailed it), but with a family-only holiday, we eased off on the Level 1 cleaning job and just made a bunch of food that we then stuffed into our faces. We had all the basics, plus added a sweet corn casserole, courtesy of the disgraced Paula Dean (hey, I wonder what she thinks of the election results? actually, no, no I don’t), which is a big-time winner, forever replacing that green bean casserole made with Campbell’s mushroom soup, which everyone in my family detests, a fact we found out a year or two ago, after enduring it for so long, assuming everyone else liked it and never speaking up. But click here for the corn casserole recipe, which is fantastic and is almost exactly like that awesome sweet corn cake that Chi-Chi’s used to scoop a dollop of onto all their entry plates, only with cheese on top (RIP, btw, the Chi-Chi’s franchise, which I used to like a lot [which the Wikipedia entry for says still exists in places like China, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates: Time to update my passport!]).

But really, we all went into food comas and fell asleep on the couch, a football game on mute, like good Americans. Later, we took the kids to the playground and after that I actually got on the treadmill, just to process some of the gravy flowing through my veins, trying to make nice with my heart. I also read a couple of stories from Richard Bausch‘s collection Something is out there., out from Knopf. I’ve been a fan of Bausch’s since I’ve been in the writing game, having read “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” over twenty-five years ago, then seeing him read that story aloud when he came to visit U of I in Champaign (near where he’d been stationed in the Air Force at Chanute). I was in Jean Thompson‘s class at the time and he and Jean were friends and he even came to our class on a workshop day and led the discussion on my friend Laura Otto’s story (I still know Laura, the only writer from my undergrad I still talk to). After his reading, Jean hosted a cocktail party at her house an me and Laura and this guy named Brad were invited (Brad wore a tux-type thing, the kind with the red vest and no jacket and served drinks) and we sat in the room with the food, cowering, terrified of mingling with the U of I faculty, the writers, and Jean’s high-society Urbana friends. Most of all, we were terrified of Richard Bausch, this famous short story writer and novelist, who actually poked his head in that room for a drink and talked to us for a while, a real nice guy. Twenty years later, someone introduced me to him again at an AWP and we talked and I think I relayed that story and he remembered that visit, but not necessarily me or the other nervous students. And he was still a really nice guy.

After that visit, I remember getting my hands on everything I could by Bausch and following his career, reading several short story collections and his novel Violence, which was new when he came to visit campus that time and read from during our class. I hadn’t picked up Something is out there. (yeah, I’m going with the title the way it is on the cover of the book, which I think is supposed to look like a sentence more than a title) before, but as with all of Bausch’s stories, enjoyed what I was reading a great deal. I read the title story, which is about this family in which the father is shot by an ex-business partner and is recovering in the hospital, the family stuck at home in a snowstorm later that night, other angry people perhaps on their way to inflict further violence. It’s an intense story, this scared family dealing with visitors and phone calls and bumps in the night, reminding me of what Bausch does so well, sticking his characters (and his readers) in uncomfortable, tense situations and letting them stew there for pages and pages, really building the tension as they try to work themselves out of their predicaments (which often doesn’t happen). It goes down like that with the guy in “The Man Who Knew Belle Starr,” with some people in a convenience story in Violence, and in most of Bausch’s stories—”The Fireman’s Wife” comes to mind, those people just sitting there, waiting to hear word of their loved one gone to battle a blaze. For whatever reason, I’m going to write about the collection’s first story instead, “The Harp Departmant in Love,” so here we go.

“The Harp Department in Love” is about Josephine Stanislowski, the young wife of a retired music professor, one of his former prized students. Her husband, Stan as he’s known, has just moved out, staying in his little apartment downtown that he uses to compose in private. The day before, a man whom Josephine had been seeing, with whom she had gotten too close, confronted Stan outside his building, declaring his love for Josephine, which Josephine did not return; she’s spent time with this other man, even kissed him, but certainly wasn’t in love and definitely wasn’t going to leave her husband for him. Still, the damage is done and she has to deal with the reality that she and her older-by-thirty-five-years husband might be getting divorced (though that’s okay, as she’d been considering a breakaway before any of this other-man stuff went down).

Bausch doesn’t start with that, though, or even seem to be making it what the story’s about, however. We instead are initiated with another plot, one in which Josephine is helping her neighbor and friend, Ruthie, host a surprise party for Ruthie’s husband, Andrew, who has just graduated from college (the one Stan teaches at) as a non-trad, first-generation college feel-good story. It doesn’t help that both Ruthie and Josephine have somehow both forgotten about the party until the morning of and Ruthie needs Josephine to help her pull it off, guests invited and food ordered. Josephine likes Ruthie, but would rather not even go to the party at this point—her husband has just moved out, after all—but she still agrees to run some interference on Andrew as he makes his way home, stall him, giving Ruthie extra time to get everything in place.

Again, Josephine doesn’t really feel like doing this, and we get the idea, here and there, that’s it’s not only because her husband’s left her. Josephine is described as Ruthie’s friend, but we get the idea that Josephine is kind of a loner and doesn’t really want that type of relationship with Ruthie, with anyone. She’s described, in backstory, as a lifelong vagabond; as a kid, she’d lived in over a dozen places, her mother a stripper and her dad a question mark. Her relationship with Ruthie is convenient. The only reason she’s even liked her husband, married the old boy, is their mutual love of music, their born skills—each can literally play any instrument. Going to friends’ husbands’ graduation parties, even the ones she helped plan? Not a priority for Josephine.

Anyway, Josephine’s one job—delaying Andrew on his way home—sets up that never-ending, tense encounter, as Josephine catches Andrew on his way home, at the liquor store where he stops, daily, for a quart. Josephine and Andrew share the beer outside the store—all brown paper baglike—and still needing to get Ruthie more time, she asks Andrew (who had some champagne at work before leaving as well) to come back to her house, up the street from his, to help her carry some winter clothes (metaphor alert!) up to the attic, the box too heavy for her to get rid of on her own. Andrew accepts.

I don’t want to go any further into “The Harp Department in Love,” as that would give away too much. I will say that I enjoyed the parallel storylines—the separation of the Stanislowskis and Andrew’s surprise party—one running alongside the other before they ultimately converge, but I mostly like Josephine’s character, how much depth that Bausch provides. She’s truly well drawn, as I could feel the contempt in her voice—and so does Ruthie—as she has to do this task when she has her own shit to deal with, and that’s before everything goes awry with Andrew. I’ve liked every Richard Bausch story I’ve read and now that I’ve read a couple more from Something is out there., my streak is still intact. No Thankgiving-themed story today (I’d already read Julie Orringer’s “Pilgrims,” an obvious choice), but at least I featured an author very dear to me and my career.

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