December 31, 2020: “Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks” by Pablo Piñero Stillmann

Happy New Year’s Eve, Story366!

I’m not finished yet, but am just about there, but still: I did it! I once again made it through a whole leap year of books and posts without missing a day. I don’t often congratulate myself—quite the opposite, actually—but I’ll congratulate myself today. Yesterday, I ran down what I’ll be doing going forward, and for my last post, I promised to come up with a best-of list of story collections released in 2020.

But you know what? That’s a bigger task than I’m ready for today. I have the list of collections I’ve covered this year, but when I started to make my ranked list, I realized that I didn’t remember the ones I covered earlier and my list was trending toward books I posted on more recently. I could definitely have put something up here, but since I know how much these lists mean to writers, not to mention me, I think I’d like to spend more time with it, do it right, do the year justice. So stay tuned

So what do I put here instead, the last preamble of the last post of the year? I think I’ll keep it simple—daylight is running out and we’d like to go for a walk—and say this: I really love short stories. I’ve read well over a thousand this year—at least three from every book, plus many books from which I’ve read more (or all)—and while I look forward to waking up tomorrow and not having this task waiting for me, I’ll still miss it. Desperately. It’s truly been an honor to read all of these authors’ works, to spend some time with their art, and to have made short stories my pursuit. I am always going to love stories, am always going to read stories, and I will always champion them, whether I’m writing, editing, publishing or teaching. My library is now even more vast than it was before, and my understanding of the art is 366 days better. Story every day, to be sure!

Thanks to every who sent me a book or a suggestion, thanks to all of you who have read, liked, commented and shared the posts, and most of all, thanks to my family, the Karen and our two boys for their endless patience as I dedicated so much time to this this. I’ll see all of you on the flip side of the New Year, will be back before you know it.

For the last entry of the year, I’ll be doing the final and most recent book in the Moon City Short Fiction Award series, Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks by Pablo Piñero Stillmann, which won Moon City Press‘s 2019 Moon City Short Fiction Award and was published earlier this year. I used the last six slots of 2020 to cover the six collections that have won this contest so far, more of a revisit than a review, and I have to say, this has—with all the bias in the world—been my favorite week of the year. I of course knew all of these books quite intimately going in, but I hadn’t read some of them in years. It’s been a real pleasure, to not only look at them again, but to see them in a different light for this project. Since Pablo’s book came out earlier this year (and the first one I typeset myself), I was probably most familiar, memory-wise, of this book going in. Still, I immensely enjoyed the time I spent with it today, so, for the last time this year, let’s talk about it.

The first story in the collection is “Versus the Brown Socks,” about a kid in Mexico whose parents just got divorced. The main way he passes time, and copes with his new reality, is by watching the syndicated show Buenas tardes con Omar, a variety show hosted by the loquacious and uncanny Omar. His favorite segment is the serialized “The Adventures of Débora and Gastón,” about two sock puppets that have adventures and solve mysteries and crimes. The boy watches religiously, basically centering his whole life around Omar’s teachings. When Buenas tardes con Omar has suddenly vanished, replaced in the time slot by something else, the boy is lost, desperate to know what happened next to his beloved sock puppets, each and every episode a cliffhanger. The boy finds some solace in a classmate, whom he meets at the courthouse, both of them there to testify in their parents’ divorce hearings, insult on top of injury to the highest degree.

“The Longest Earthquake” is about a man researching his roots, mostly through how his grandparents met. To note, the grandfather was a famous mapmaker, so to tell this story (which is somewhat metafictional), the narrator uses symbols, like from a map key, to stand for the different characters and places in the story (which I’m not going to try to replicate here—but it’s a bunch of little Zapf Dingbats-type things that I couldn’t track down here right away). The story starts with the grandfather leaving his country when a new president is elected, fearing what will become of his homeland, going so far as to fear for his life. He settles in a new country and begins his life as an in-demand mapmaker, one who is more artist than geographer, all his maps drawn and painted by hand. He also visits a pharmacy every day for a “tonic,” and years into his exile, realizes the beautiful young clerk and the pharmacy is the owners’ little girl, all grown up. This clerk—seventeen, half the grandfather’s age at the time—occupies his head, and of course, they eventually get together and have children (hence the story). The grandfather’s worst fears come true, however, as after that hated president in his home country is elected a fifth time, he turns his country into a dictatorship, sending the narrator’s grandfather into a tailspin, his tale into this story.

“The First Man in Space,” which we published in Moon City Review a few years before this collection came out (note, the collection was also the runner-up the year before, so I knew Pablo’s work very well by this time), is about a man who befriends a couple, a couple who is working on a rocket ship in their barn. The couple has a quandary: They only know how to fit enough fuel in the rocket to get out into space, but not enough for a return trip. The protagonist, Foroux, whispers the word “rope,” as in Why not tie a rope to it and pull it back when it’s done? This leads the couple to stick Foroux in the spaceship, to make him the first man in space. Unlucky for Foroux, something happens to his tether while he’s up there and he ends up being not only the first man in space, but the first man lost in space.

This leads me to the title story, “Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks,” which I’ll focus on today. This story’s about a young man who not only suffers from depression, but also suffers from loneliness. To solve each problem, he seeks the aid of psilocybin mushrooms and an online dating service, respectively, which gives us a sweet setup for a sweet story.

The idea for the magic mushrooms came from a TV interview our hero saw, an interview with a Dr. Bengoechea a researcher hoping to find a breakthrough. Our hero meets with the doctor for therapy—the mushrooms aren’t quite ready yet—but also runs into him out in publish, at bars and cafés, and the men become friends of sorts.

The dating app is skewed just as much, as our hero realizes that the matches are simply based on physical attraction (it’s a lot like Tinder), that the women he’s meeting aren’t all that interesting … though even bad dates are better than being alone, he is forced to admit.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, as part of his mania, he also sees the number 39 everywhere, Flight 039 crashing, thirty-nine pigs dying in a truck crash, that sort of thing. On his dates he has to make himself not bring that up—because it’s not sexy—and in his therapy sessions he has to force himself to do the opposite, fearing this extra malady might exclude him the shroom trials.

We haven’t even gotten to the miniature shark angle yet, as Dr. Bengoechea has realized that the brain patterns of depressed miniature sharks is very similar to that of depressed people, making them ideal test subjects for his funny fungi and all kinds of other science-type stuff. Too bad this leads to him being removed from his post for unethical and unapproved experimentation, which our hero finds out by walking into his therapy session and finding another shrink in Bengoechea’s seat.

I don’t want to go much further into this story, but I love how Pablo weaves all of these storylines together, someone making a coherent story, yet at the sometime, somehow mimicking this type of shallow descent into madness. It’s a tricky maneuver, but Pablo’s up to the task, making this one of my favorite pieces in the book.

Pablo Piñero Stillmann writes a tremendously absurd and heartfelt book with Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks, the most recent book I published, due out right about the time COVID hit. Not a good time to have a good debut—we canceled AWP and his signings/readings/etc. right when things went down—and I fear not enough of the world has been exposed to his brilliance. I recommend that you pick a copy of this book up, as you’ll find a collection of short stories that extends, redefines, and perfects what a “story” can be, presenting tales of keen insight, laugh-out-loud humor, and huge flashes of a unique creativity. I love this book, love Pablo’s writing, and hope the world, when it comes back, can give this book and this author the celebration he deserves.

December 30, 2020: “Claiming a Body” by Amanda Marbais

Hey there, Story366!

So, here we are, two days to go in the year. Yesterday, I said I’d use these last two days to run down my best of 2020 list for story collections and to pitch my plan for Story366 beyond 2020. I don’t have my list of books together yet, so I that leaves my future plans for this project, for this blog.

I have enjoyed the daily dedication to Story366 this year. Three hundred sixty-five days and books and posts in, I can say that I’ve learned a lot about fiction-writing, having become familiar with a lot of writers’ work, and have gotten to know some of these writers, too, via social media. I think I’ve done a service to myself, firstly, then a service to each one of these writers, and mostly, a service to the art of short stories in general. Short stories are my life, my love, my vocation, and pulling off a year like 2020 has been rewarding in ways I can’t describe or even realize yet.

That said, I can’t ever do another full year again. In 2016, when I started this idea, I had 250 books on my shelf, waiting to be read and written about. A few trips to used bookstores and some generosity from writers and especially presses allowed me to finish the year without much worry about where the books were going to come from. I spent maybe a few hundred dollars of my own money, but most of that was for new-release hardcovers that I wanted to feature right when they came out.

This year, I started with only about sixty books, which is a mere two months’ worth of books. Again, presses were very generous, but for the most part, I filled in over two hundred books out of my own pocket, mostly through online used sales. I found some ninety-nine-cent books, but eventually, ran out of those. By November, I was spending over ten dollars per book between the cost and shipping, which drained funds my available funds rather quickly. Financially, doing another full year of entries—366—just can’t happen, not unless I get rich or figure out a way to procure all those books.

More than the money, however, is the time. It takes me two hours, minimum, to do one of these posts every day. I’ll never say that isn’t time well spent, as it’s reading stories and that’s a great use of my time. I’ve become a better writer, a better essayist, too, writing a thousand or so words a day. But when I think about it, I probably need to put those two to three hours every day into something else now. I need to write more of my own work. I need to spend more time on my teaching and on Moon City Press. Those are just the professional aspects, too: I also need to spend more time with my wife and kids and perhaps even develop something of a social life; I haven’t been out with a “friend,” nor have I done anything strictly social (that’s not family-related), in maybe five years. As much as I like spending two or three hours every day on short stories, I need that time for other things.

Some days I’d also like to do nothing, to not start reading a book at nine at night and race to finish the post before midnight. Maybe I could spend that time watching TV, playing a video game, or going to sleep early. It’s nice to have projects and be ambitious, but maybe I could get my blood pressure down if I just sat around and didn’t think all the time. Eh?

To be clear, I will continue to post at Story366. When someone sends me a book (keep sending me books!), I’ll cover it here. When a friend or close colleague has a book come out, I’ll track it down and Story366 it right up. When a major author releases a book, I’ll probably jump on board with it, make sure I get my hands on a copy. I’ve thought about doing a post once a week—which I could handle—but I don’t think I want to make any promises, set myself up for anything remotely regular. What if I’m busy one week, on a vacation, or whatever? The cool thing about only doing a post whenever I feel like it—like I did in 2017-2019—is that I’m not a slave to any schedule or pledge. This will make the project a lot more manageable, and as a result, more enjoyable, too.

I’ll probably do entries for Story366 as long as I can read and type, or until someone takes this platform away from me. Faithful readers, please keep the suggestions coming, keep reading the entries, keep spreading the word. I’ll be here. Just not every day.

For today’s entry, I’m covering the next book in the series of Moon City Short Fiction Award winners, using those six books to inhabit my last six slots of the year. I of course chose and published these books (in case you didn’t know that), so this is a revisit, me wanting to list those collections among the annals of Story366, and more than anything, to simply reacquaint myself with books I know I love. Amanda Marbais was the fifth winner of the contest, taking home the prize in the 2018 Moon City Short Fiction Award for Claiming a Body, which Moon City published in 2019. Like with the previous few entries, I was very aware of Marbais’ work before this, having published one of the stories in Moon City Review a couple of years prior (and another since), also choosing Claming a Body as a finalist and then a runner-up in the two previous contests. Plus, I just knew her from Chicago, from that very vivid and amazing writing scene. I have always loved and believed in this book and it’s such a pleasure to read it again—for the first time in over a year—and to work with Amanda these last couple of years, to get to know her and her work so intimately.

“Claiming a Body” is the lead and title story of Marbais’ book, what I’ll focus on today. This story’s about a unnamed little family—known as “the woman,” “the boyfriend,” and “the boy”—Chicago city folk who go camping one night. The woman, who’s our protagonist, and her boyfriend have been hot into sex lately, having it often and making it kinky. They want to do it in the tent, so they send the boy—the woman’s son—off with a can of bear spray and go on a hike. When the boy comes back, obviously shaken, they’re relieved to find that he was not attacked by a bear. Instead, he found a dead body out in the woods.

The boyfriend goes to investigate and realizes the man has been recently beaten to death with a flashlight—as in like just now—meaning the boy is probably lucky to be alive. The sad thing is, seeing this dead man, so badly maligned with wounds, really screws the kid up. He becomes obsessed with death and can’t sleep alone or in his room anymore. So, it’s kind of what you think would happen to a little kid who stumbles upon a grizzly murder scene. That’s a lot to unpack.

At the same time, the woman also deals with the boyfriend. Their sexcapades continue—they have serious conversations while he’s taking off her handcuffs—but they differ in philosophies on how to make the boy better. Meanwhile, the boy has taken to the lingo of the investigating police and also writes a condolence letter to the dead man’s family. They write the boy back, offering one of the man’s belt buckles, which the boy wears all the time.

The kid also acts out, getting into trouble at school, taking back, that sort of thing. He is also nearly hit by a truck, and when the man in the truck gets out to help him, the boy throws his bike over an overpass. The driver shows up one afternoon with the kid in his front seat and the destroyed bike in the back, leering at the woman for letting her son—who’s obviously disturbed—ride his bike around town. Perhaps this is a kid who shouldn’t be sent out by himself, especially so the woman and her boyfriend can play hide-the-parental-responsibility.

Side bar 1: I just had a weird thought, something I’ve not considered before: Did the kid kill the guy? And has that been obvious to everyone but me?!

This story sets a good tone for the book, as there are real bodies to be claimed, some of them dead, some of them still alive. It goes beyond that, but I’ll save that theory for the wrap-up.

“Werewolf DNA” is about a woman named Nico (not her real name, but a nickname given to her by her boss) who is an office manager for a real estate company that’s not only about to go under, but its bosses are likely headed to jail. Her boss is a human id, this guy named Julian who uses the cover of “entertaining clients” as an excuse to dip into the till, frequent strip clubs, and drink himself into a fleshy pickle juice. Nico and everyone in the office can sense what’s going on, but no one knows how to handle it. Nico is on the verge of either quitting or going to the cops, but she needs the job and the money. This is why she puts up with Julian and his bullshit, though there’s really not a light at the end of any tunnel for her here. Did I mention she’s spent a fortune on fertilization drugs, desperately trying to get pregnant?

“The Calumet” is about a woman named Liz. Liz is involved in some shady shit, dealing with some shady people. There’s a real en medias res feel to this one, as the story begins right as Liz and her boyfriend, Rich, are about to scam a friend of theirs, Janet, out of a ton of meth, worth seventy-five grand. They are supposed to buy it from Janet for fifteen, then turn it around for a huge profit, unbeknownst to Janet, a coked-up stripper who’s just one rung lower on the pathetic ladder than they are. There’s a guy named Derrick involved, too—Liz has dated/slept with both him and Rich, sometimes at the same time—and their big plan is to get the drugs from Janet, not give her anything close to fifteen grand, maybe nothing. Oh, and all of this is supposed to go down at a Gary, Indiana, strip club, where Janet dances. Before the big exchange, Liz makes a plan to take most of the money for herself and skip out on Rich and Derrick. Rich and Derrick, and a surprise third party, have other ideas, though, proving that age-old theory about ripping your friends off for their meth in Gary in the parking lot of a strip club: Don’t do it.

Side bar 2: “The Calumet” is a reference to a river that flows south out of Lake Michigan, the place where this story ultimately ends. One of its tributaries, the Little Calumet, bifurcates the two towns I grew up in, Calumet City and Lansing. And now you know that.

Like with every Moon City contest winner this week, I’ve had a delightful time revisiting Amanda Marbais’ Claiming a Body today, the fifth short story collection I accepted, edited, and published for Moon City Press. Amanda has a soft spot for desperation, the characters in her stories finding themselves in dire straights, often not of their own making (but sometimes), sending them into deep logistical and moral quandaries. These are people who have known loss, have tried to make their lives better, but the universes the live in have other plans. I noted earlier that the title of this book, “Claing a Body,” has to do with literal bodies, both dead and alive, but after rereading most of this book today, I think it refers to the protagonists themselves, everyone just wanting theirs, for their existence to be okay, to claim themselves for the sake of themselves, which turns out to be the real trick. These are harrowing tales, populated by deeply drawn, self-conscious people, an intense and character-driven read. I love this book even more today than I did before, seeing it in a whole new light.

December 29, 2020: “When in Rome” by Kim Magowan

Hello there, Story366!

Wow! Only three entries left in 2020! I’m not sure where the time went, as … who am I kidding? 2020 has been grueling, depressing year, and has moved along at snail’s pace—if the snail was asleep and not very fast in the snail world, some sort of impairment giving him the ironic nickname of “Speedy.” I’ve mentioned here in the past that Story366 has really kept me going this year, has served as the world’s best distraction to the horrors we’ve all undergone (that on top of everything else it’s done). Somehow, though, the last few weeks have flown by—probably because I finished a tough semester and Biden’s victory has brought me genuine hope—and I’ve not done a whole lot of year-end reporting. At some point, I’m supposed to list my best-of for story collections for 2020, and it looks like I’ll have two days to fit that in. I’ll also want to run down the future of Story366 after this 366-post year. Sounds like I have my next two, my last two, intros laid out for me for the year, and since nothing happening in the world today is worth noting (The Cubs trading Yu Darvish? The stimulus bill in limbo? Me lifting weights today for the first time in twenty-five years?), I think I’ll move on to the book.

Today I continue my run through the winners of the Moon City Short Fiction Award, the six books so far comprising the last six slots of Story366 2020. Kim Magowan was our fourth winner and is up today for her collection, Undoing, winner of the 2017 Moon City Short Fiction Award and released by Moon City Press in 2018. Like the previous two authors, I’d known Kim’s work going into the contest, her having published “Pop Goes the Weasel”—a story from the collection—in Moon City Review the year before (on top of Undoing being a runner-up to the contest in 2016). So, going in, she probably had a length on the field, though I remember us specifically rereading and being careful to not simply choose her book because she’d come so close the previous time out. Turns out we loved the collection still, or even more, and were more than happy to make Kim the winner, to publish her book, and have a great relationship with her ever since (two more stories in MCR).

Undoing is kind of a sad book, I’ve been reminded today, about the undoing of relationships, often because of indiscretions. Magowan writes on this topic beautifully, the characters three-dimensional and unique in their situations and personalities. But yeah, there’s a lot of funny business going on this book, and you know, it’s really all that funny.

The first story, what I’ll focus on today—I could have focused on any of these stories, really—is “When in Rome,” a story that not only leads off the collection, but really sets the tone in terms of theme and … tone. This one’s about Emily, a woman who’s married but is deeply considering an affair with a friend of hers, a man who is the subject of the story’s second-person perspective (Emily tells it in first person), the you.

In fact, if we’re keeping score, Emily and the man have officially begun the affair. They’ve done a whole lot of making out and there’s even been some trips to second base, bras clumsily removed, bodies prone on a hotel room bed. Emily insists, though, that they’ve never actually had sex, that they’ve come super-close, but are still deliberating. There’s some unreliability here, because, like, who’s she kidding?

Side bar: If this was me and the Karen asked, “Are you having affair?” and if I said, “No! Don’t be silly! Me and this other woman, we just took off each other’s unmentionables and made out on a hotel bed a bunch of times,” Karen would ask me to to immediately leave, then ask where my car would be parked so the lawyer could deliver the divorce papers to me to sign. The point of this is, Emily’s already having an affair.

Yet, at the core of “When in Rome” is this hesitancy, this patience, as the you puts it, the question of why these people don’t just go all the way, have the affair, as it’s already kind of too late. No one’s pregnant yet—that tends to throw a wrench into things—but really, both these people have been unfaithful. Emily is clearly obsessed with this man, with going through with it, as after all, it’s the impetus for her telling this story.

Magowan digs deep into this kind of situation—here and throughout Undoing—as Emily does explore why they are in this relationship and what’s keeping them from going forward,. Why not get naked, fuck like rabbits, and quit only when they either get caught or get tired of each other. First off, both parties are married and love their spouses, so they don’t want to hurt anyone. There’s kids involved, too, so that means more people get hurt. Emily has a friend who’s on her third marriage, having cheated a couple of times herself, and isn’t all that happy. The you guy talks about logistics, that neither one of them has the time to really get into this, though it’s clear he’s just making excuses.

What happens? Maybe we don’t know—not with Emily’s case—but to see the outcome of affairs like this, one needs to simply read on into Undoing. Those answers are coming.

“Why We Are With the Men We Are With” is next, and is a short. Here, an unnamed woman is having drinks with her besties, Shelley and Jem, the three ladies discussing their relationships. Jem wants another baby but her and her man never have sex because they put all their energy into their first baby. Shelley has sex all the time with her guy and isn’t afraid to flaunt it. Our narrator mostly listens (and drinks), listening and nodding, holding a secret that would screw up a lot of lives, one night, years ago, with one of the friend’s husbands, something she has over them, something that’s for her to know and them to never find out.

“Eleanor of Aquitaine” introduces us to Ellie, a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents are divorced and because of an uncommon agreement, she lives with her dad while her brother lives with her mom, the parents deciding it would be good for everyone if the genders were mixed in the settlement. Ellie has to deal with the divorce, the back and forth, both her parents dating new people, trying to one-up their ex. Ellie has a sleepover one night with her best friend, Laurel, whose parents are also divorced, but for longer, and handles it much differently than Ellie has been. The girls watch TV and smoke pot when Dad goes to bed, Ellie wondering how all of this will form her, what effect it all will have on her as adult. Spoiler: We meet Ellie, and Laurel, again in later stories, years down the road, and we get a pretty good picture of how all of this affects the girls, long term.

“Warmer, Colder” is the next story and is from Laurel’s perspective. Laurel’s post- parents’ divorce life is much different from Ellie’s, as Laurel has had a much rougher go of it (unbeknownst to Ellie), Laurel having been sexually active for some time. This story’s focused on her relationship with the adult man she babysits for, Mr. D. He flirts with her, clearly setting up the opportunity, taking advantage of Laurel by starting a full sexual relationship with her; “taking advantage of” translates to “statutory rapes,” just to be clear, Laurel 13. So, Laurel’s parents’ divorce is really the least of her worries, as she has to deal with Mr. D not wanting to wear condoms—he “doesn’t feel anything” that way—Laurel already having had an abortion and not wanting another. We also get more of Laurel later in the book, see how all of this affects her, and like with Ellie, the answer is resoundingly “quite a bit.”

I read through most of Undoing today and most if not all of the stories feature characters who are either experiencing infidelities—from one side or the other—or are living through the results of such actions, all kinds of broken homes, second marriages, step-kids, and philanderers populating the rest of the book. Kim Magowan is ridiculously talented, more than skilled enough to make each story fresh, using indiscretion as a theme and a motif, one that somehow never gets tiresome. The effect, for the reader, piles on, giving Undoing a sense of unease, of mistakes played out, for better or for worse, Kim catching people at their most vulnerable, when they’re the most interesting they’ll ever be. Beneath all the tragedy and heartache, though, she finds the humanity, making this such an easy choice for this award. I’m so glad to be friends with Kim now, to keep publishing her work, and to have so much more coming to us in the future.

December 28, 2020: “Alien Eye” by Michelle Ross

And a good Monday to you, Story366!

I acquired a new obsession of late and it spooks me out to no end: true-crime mystery videos. This all started with the Zodiac 340 cypher being uncoded a couple of weeks ago, sending me down my yearly spiral of Zodiac investigating. I don’t actually investigate the crime, but merely read all the websites, follow the case leads, and watch the David Fincher film. This year, my surfing led me to a web series called Buzzfeed Unsolved, where two guys joke around in a studio while detailing a different case each episode. Their Zodiac episode was okay—certainly not the more revealing program I’d seen on the subject—but the suggested Up Next videos looked interesting and I clicked on one of those, some other unsolved serial killer case. Then I clicked on and watched that. Then another. And so on. Before long, I started to get into the rhythm of the series, took a liking to the co-hosts, and eventually found the home page and started consuming the case files in order. The episodes started out less than ten minutes long, but evolved into half-hour programs, going more in-depth as their fandom and budget grew; seasons leading up to COVID actually take the hosts to the crime scenes before they were forced back to a studio setting in 2020, though outdoors and socially distanced, sitting around a campfire (which is creepy in and of itself—that’s where ghost stories are told!).

This is all fine and good—gotta watch something, right?—except these grizzly crimes are starting to have their effect on me. The production value of the show got better and better and some of the more mysterious, odd cases are presented in that disturbing-ass way—foreboding music and voices and such—that watching this show has turned me into a shivering wimp. It doesn’t especially help that I watch these while sitting in my dark house, alone, late at night, my family safely asleep upstairs. People in these cases disappear, or worse, they’re found dead under strange, gruesome circumstances. On the whole, there’s a sense of hopelessness—after all, the series is called Unsolved—that makes me feel like any of theperpetrators could be watching me as I watch the show. It doesn’t help much that my cats run around the house making literal bumps in the night, like every few minutes. Do I know that these noises are my cats? Yes. Do I nonetheless believe it’s a hooded man with a fillet knife, trying to jimmy open a window? Also yes. Do I turn all the lights on when I walk through the kitchen and living room to go the bathroom? Yep. Do I avoid looking at the windows just in case I’d spy someone staring back, someone who’s hunting me, just waiting for me to let my guard down? You know it.

Worse than this, when I eventually muster the courage the bolt upstairs and go to bed—once I’m under my blanket, I’m safe, of course—I have nightmares. In these dreams, I’m either the victim or the perpetrator of some horrible, convoluted murder/kidnapping plot, and honestly, I’m not sure what’s worse: being the victim or being the killer. I wake up fully disturbed, though happy that I’m alive, not a killer, and most of all, that it’s light out.

I’ve only have a few more episodes of the show left and will probably stick it out, then move onto something else. What’s this My Little Pony series about again? One positive I can take from these “murder shows” (as the Karen has taken to calling them) is I’ve gotten some good ideas for stories. Inspired by a source like this will inevitably take my work in another direction in terms of themes and tone and batshit craziness. But I need a change of pace, so why not? Could be fun.

Request: If I disappear or am found in pieces in the woods, if the police can’t solve the case, at least make a compelling half-hour TV program about me.

Today’s post continues on with the Moon City Short Fiction Series, Moon City Press‘s annual short story collection contest. I’ve been wanting to cover these books here for a while, so when I ran out of titles to review, leaving me with six open slots to end the year, it seemed like a good time. Today I’m featuring Michelle Ross and her collection, There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, winner of the 2016 Moon City Short Fiction Award and out from MCP in 2017. I had been an admirer of Michelle’s work before she won or even entered the book contest, having published one of the stories in Moon City Review not long before that. Seeing a name I recognize in the entry list is always good, and when we got into the entire book, we were of course taken, shooting her entry to the top of the finalist list and eventually choosing it as the winner. Working with Michelle has been a real treat ever since, and we’ve published a couple more stories of hers in the meantime. I’m happy that her second collection, Shapeshifting, is coming out next year from Stillhouse Press, that even more of her brilliant writing will be available to the world.

There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You is a mix of short-shorts and longer stories, intertwined, almost, as in going back and forth between the forms. I like that format, a shorter piece, then a longer one, and so on, and I think this is one of the characteristics of this book that drew me to it four years ago. The first story is “Atoms,” a short one, and is about this girl in elementary school who learns about atoms, that mostly, we and everything else in the universe are just a bunch of empty space. This blows her away and she wonders why no one’s told her about this before—in fact, she gets downright accusatory and angry about it (like a precocious insane person). Someone on the bus hears her griping and tells her about some other things, leading to the book’s titular line—”There’s so much more they haven’t told you,” leaving our hero in a daze.

“Prologue” is a complex retelling of the Hansel and Gretel myth, the narrator claiming that her mother is the one who pushed the witch into the oven, but only after an apprenticeship with said witch, no brother or sweet tooth mentioned.

“Alien Eye” is a long story and one of my favorites, so I’m going to focus on it here today. This one’s about this kid named Sam who’s in high school, working his way to engineering school as an inventory specialist, assigned to different stores to count their shit for them. The story begins in a Home Depot where he and Carla—an older, pregnant woman—are counting nails in the nail aisle. Could be that they count hundreds of thousands of nails in a day, then move on to count toilet seats or glue guns or whatever the next. I love this scene, as it sets up such an absurd premise and theme, so ridiculous that humans do this, get paid for it, that we live in a world where this job exists.

Anyway, Sam feels bad for Carla because she’s been doing this for years, likes doing it, and doesn’t have any ambitions other than being a counter-for-hire for life. She’s got this baby coming, little Rico, who kicks all night and keeps her up. The baby daddy is a loser who lives with his mom and can’t hold down a job, so Carla cuts him out and just plans on it being her and Rico and inventory from here on out.

Carla and the inventory job are just one storyline here, however, as there’s also Sam’s parents, Leonard and Bonnie—he calls them by their first names, in his narration and to their faces. They used to be a happier family until Leonard got canned from his job, well over a year ago, and now he lies around on the couch and watches movies. Bonnie, who used to be the more cheerful mom in the world, now resents Leonard, having to bear the burden for the whole family. As a result, Sam couldn’t go to space camp for six weeks like he’d planned—he goes one week instead—and it’s going to fall on him to pay for that engineering degree. He’s mostly okay with this—Sam’s not sentimental about his family—and you get the idea that once Sam leaves for college, he might never come back (something we see in other characters in the story, cutting and running where family’s concerned).

The third storyline involves Alex—Sam’s best friend—and Janelle, his girlfriend. This thread exhibits more of Sam’s indifference toward other humans, even those close to him, as he acknowledges that Alex isn’t the type of guy he ever saw himself hanging out with. Like with his parents, Alex is just there, and in a small town, it’s the best Sam can do. For example, when Sam gets back from space camp, he runs into Alex and Janelle on an overpass, dropping eggs on passing cars. These kids are young, it’s summer, their whole lives ahead of them, and that’s what they’re doing. But they’re who Sam has to choose from, kind of holding-pattern friends until he can get the fuck out of Dodge and start his real life. Did I mention that later in the story, Sam fingers Janelle while the three are driving along, Janelle in the middle of the bench seat, Alex knowing what’s going on the whole time and not caring?

I also almost forgot about a fourth storyline, or perhaps more of a motif, that Sam has this crooked pinky finger—he broke it once—and he can bend it out and away from his other fingers an unnaturally long way. It’s kind of super-grotesque in that Sam thinks this pinky is a transmitter to an alien race—his alien eye—that the aliens use it as a microphone and camera to spy on the earthlings (but only when Sam has it extended). Is is the finger he uses on Janelle, wondering the whole time what the aliens are thinking as they get that that footage? Yes, it is.

Somehow, all of it comes together and Sam—who’s basically lonely as all fuck—throws together a last-ditch plan at real human connection. I won’t reveal what that is, what character it involves, but for a story with so much going on, so many possible endings, Ross really nails this one, making this a truly satisfying and fabulous read.

“If You Were a Serial Killer”—fitting, given today’s lead-in—is about a guy who’s trying his damnedest to leave his wife. The wife, Marina, simply won’t accept what he’s telling her, and to save their union for the benefit of their daughter, Gretchen, perhaps, she decides they will soldier on.

“Taxidermy Q&A” is about Sylvie, a woman who’s pretty directionless, but seeks counsel from an unlikely source: the local taxidermist, Chester, who writes a taxidermy advice column for their small-town paper. Ross doesn’t get there for a while, as we see Sylvie toil a bit in her aimlessness first. She tries a few careers, including dominatrix, which she messes up, pitting herself as the slave instead of as the master (Ross has some fun with those scenes). And that’s probably the theme of this story, if we’re seeing the forest part of the forest, how Sylvie can really only play that one part, what holds her back. She, for example, lives with Anna in a house that Anna won in a game show—the crappy part is the house is in a nowhere, shitty town and the women had to move across the country to claim their prize. Sylvie does eventually track down Chester, who has no idea what this strange woman wants from him—it’s certainly not taxidermy related—even when Sylvie shows him her messed-up foot, which she intentionally shoved under a bus tire right after getting fired from the dom gig. Good thing the taxidermist’s handsome young assistant is there—getting a haircut from Chester at the taxidermy place—when Sylvie comes a calling.

It’s to be expected that I’m having a blast this week, rereading and writing about these stellar Moon City Press story collections. I mean, of course I’m loving them. In fact, it’s been hard, every day, to put each of these books down, and Michelle Ross’s There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You is no exception. I spent a lot longer reading these books these past few days than I normally do, as I just want to reread the whole thing, seeing a title in the table of contents and yearning to revisit, to experience that story again, a few years later, with some slightly objective eyes. I find it so fascinating how some of Michelle’s stories, particularly the longer ones, don’t have an easily identifiable plot, that they’re more or less just about their protagonists. If you would have asked me what the plot of “Alien Eye” is when I was halfway through today, I don’t think I could have come up with a reasonable answer. Same thing with “Taxidermy Q&A.” The thing that makes Michelle’s stories so great is her precise yet chaotic characterization—it’s rare that I meet characters in a story that are as greatly (and creatively) detailed as Sam or Sylvie. Every one of these tales is an adventure, and maybe I don’t exactly know where I’m going, but when I get there, I tend to say, “Wow, that’s really something,” the motives and the plots suddenly becoming so clear. That’s what attracted me to this author’s work years ago, what keeps me reading everything she puts out, everything ever will.

December 27, 2020: “A Record of Our Debts” by Laura Hendrix Ezell

Happy Sunday, Story366!

My main Christmas gift this year was an air fryer from the boys. It wasn’t a gift I specifically asked for—I didn’t ask for anything—but something we’d talked about in the past as sounding pretty cool, something that one day we would have wanted to have, would think was neat. Those are the kind of things that we might or might not ever acquire one day (we still don’t have a smoker or indoor plumbing, e.g.), and gifts are the most likely way for them to come home. My oldest son, when shopping with the Karen, supposedly called it out, insisted I’d love it. And you know what? He was right.

We made some chicken thighs last night, first messing around with how exactly the thing worked. Once I figure out the buttons and settings, I soaked the thighs in milk, ran them through some panko crumbs, and put them straight into the air fryer. Ten minutes on each side later, they were perfect. Since I’m not eating carbs, I made some naked ones, two, seasoned with a boatload of spices, and those turned out to be divine.

Since, we’ve been looking through our cupboards for anything that could possibly go into an air fryer. Anything that can be heated could go in, we supposed, though we didn’t put in the hot dogs we ate for lunch, nor the eggs that we made for breakfast. Cheeseburgers are on the menu soon, that tube of meat staring me down every time I open the fridge—do we dare stick ground beef in the air fryer? Oh, we dare. I have a feeling they’ll be pretty good. And from there, there’s no telling where we can take this, how far we can fly.

Yesterday, I started revisiting the six winners of the Moon City Short Fiction Award, six days to go in the year, six winners so far, a perfect way to end 366 straight entries on Story366. Up today is our second author, Laura Hendrix Ezell, winner of the 2015 Moon City Short Fiction Award for her collection, A Record of Our Debts. It’s implied, of course, that I very much like all of these winners, having picked and published them for Moon City Press, so will only have good things to say. This will be more of a revisiting—it’s been a few years since I’ve read this book—a revisiting I very much looked forward to.

The opening story, “The Drowning Season,” is about Evie and is a story I’d also accepted for Mid-American Review a few years before coming to Missouri or MCP. Evie lives in a little farm cabin with her sister, Helen, in a somewhat undefined period in the American South. To note, a lot of the stories in this book take place in Abel, what feels like a Depression-era small-town, though Abel is not named in this piece, nor is it an actual town, just Ezell’s construct. In any case, a man named John has been hired on by Helen to help around the house, though Evie doesn’t believe the man is at all handy, let alone necessary. She also snooped into his belongings and found out his name is really Samuel. Helen, fearing old maidhood, doesn’t want to hear it and allows the mysterious stranger to stay at their house. The man ends up driving a wedge between the sisters, Helen growing very ill and Evie feeling conflicted, John/Samuel a polarizing yet exciting force in their existence.

“Mister Visits” is an even sadder story, about Lydee, a young woman living with her father and brother in Abel. The family gets by, it seems, because Lydee’s dad is prostituting her out to a man named Mister, who visits every once in a while. Lydee takes him back to her room, counting the moments until he leaves. In general, Lydee accepts her fate, doesn’t particularly hate her father or her life—she’s more concerned with her brother, Handy, with whom she has a sexual relationship, too (told you it was sad). She’s mostly worried that Handy is going to come in from the fields and find her with Mister, that he might just murder him. Things go from horrible to more horrible when Lydee’s father reveals his true intention: To give Lydee over to Mister, a landowner who could take better care of her, and as an extension, him. There’s no winning situation here, as the “good” end to this story is that Lydee lives happily ever after with her brother, and the “bad” ending is that she forever belongs to the guy who used to rent her out; or maybe that’s reversed. Oh, and did I mention she’s pregnant, doesn’t know whose kid it is, and is cooking up a self-induced abortion?

The title story, “A Record of Our Debts,” is about an unnamed young girl in Abel. The town is going through a serious outbreak of madness and at the core of this madness seems to be our hero’s sister, Selma. The story begins with our protagonist looking out the window and watching Selma dance about, speak in a sort of tongues, and eat at the wood on a log. Her and and her father wonder what to do, Selma getting worse.

In town, our girl runs into Lon Henry, a boy who’s her friend, and the two go to Mrs. Lemon’s store. There, Mrs. Lemon seems to have the madness, too, as she’s just letting everyone take what they want, watching them as they choose their item as Mrs. Lemon watches, then walk out after she refuses payment. Our hero wonders how long this can go on and if Mrs. Lemon is keeping track, a record of their debts, if they’ll ever need to pay her back.

She also finds that people around Abel blame their family, namely Selma, for what’s happened to everyone. She gets back and tells her dad, who considers how this will affect them. In the meantime, the mom in this story starts to lose it, too, and perhaps ironically, Selma slips into a more cogent state. Is this some sort of virus? Is everyone coincidentally going mad at the same time? Or maybe this is magical realism at work, Ezell perhaps summoning something akin to García Màrquez’s amnesia outbreak.

A mob eventually comes for Selma, believing that getting rid of Selma will also dispel Abel’s afflictions. The dad comes out with his shotgun, which doesn’t seem to phase the mob, but does get it to disperse. This is only the calm in the middle of the storm, however, as the mob returns the next day, greater in both number and resolve. Selma has lost herself again, too, not making things any better.

I won’t go any further into this story, leaving the resolution for you to discover. It’s another tale about a young woman who has a lot on her plate, facing some interminable odds while simply trying to survive. Not every story in A Record of Our Debts fits this mold, or takes place in the desperate town of Abel. Laura Hendrix Ezell instills some themes and motifs, though, and while often bordering on macabre—or at least Southern Gothic—I couldn’t put this book down. I remember loving every story five years ago and loving everything I reread today. There’s a mix of magic and history and real humanity here, Hendrix’s approach to storytelling accessible but also gut-wrenching, beautiful but perfectly flawed. I’m so proud to have printed this book, to have brought Laura’s collection into the world. It’s so great—I can’t recommend this one enough.

December 26, 2020: “Thirty Men, Not One” by Cate McGowan

Happy … Boxing Day …, Story366?!

I know today is Boxing Day in England and as I start this paragraph, I don’t remember what that is. A quick scan of Wikipedia reveals that it’s an old English holiday, which basically designated the first weekday after Christmas for giving a gift to tradespersons, such as delivery people and servants of the wealthy, kind of like a Christmas for those who couldn’t take Christmas off because they were working for people who could take Christmas off. That seems to have gone by the wayside, as it’s become a “shopping holiday,” which is sad, as more than ever, people who are forced to work on Christmas need a day for themselves. I feel horrible for anyone who has to work at a store or a gas station, or has to deliver shit, or is on call for emergency services, or whatever—I’m lucky to have a job where I never have to go to work on these days but instead can be at home with my family. Maybe Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable of sources, but it seems like something that started off as a nice thing has morphed into something else—I picture people around the world taking their newly acquired gift cards (the ones they don’t regift) and just heading to the mall. Nothing really wrong with that, is there? Or is everything wrong with that?

The entry also tells me that some European countries celebrate Christmas for more than one day, Boxing Day the Second Day of Christmas. One of these countries is Poland, but I can say that I’ve never, ever heard of that tradition in my family or in my Polish Catholic community. Granted, that’s not actually Poland, but a lot of the older traditions certainly made it over and to the greater Chicagoland area. Seems like I would have heard of someone, somewhere, celebrating a second day of Christmas on the twenty-sixth. But nope, nic. In fact, every tradition I’ve experienced and have followed is that Christmas really takes place on Christmas Eve for Poles, the whole gift exchange and meatless dinner with the pickled herring and shrimp and opłatki. To hear, just now, for the first time, that there’s some Polish tradition that takes the holiday an extra day? I guess I’m not too surprised—Poles need little excuse to party and drink longer—and am generally pleased to know a little something extra about my heritage (even if it comes from a single line in a Wikipedia entry).

Today I start the final six entries of the year, which will mark 366 straight entries and will also launch a hiatus of sorts from this project. A month ago, I had all of my books for the year lined up, but for some reason, five books that I ordered—from different online vendors—did not arrive. For all five books, the outside status reads “On Its Way, but Delayed,” but when I track these books further, I get to a screen that says, “Your package may be lost. Contact the vendor for a refund.” That’s all fine and good, as we’re in the time of corona and also the holidays, so maybe some packages get lost. I’ll try to get a refund and that will be that.

What’s more important it that I don’t have these books to cover this last six days (I would have bought a new book somewhere for the sixth entry), and those books, for now, will not be covered. That’s a shame because I was really looking forward to reading those specific titles, a couple by acquaintances’ books mixed in. I hope that I can get ahold of these books down the road some time, write a post about them later, when I decide to pick up again. I want to enjoy what they have to offer and spread the word.

Instead, I’m delving into an idea that I’ve had for a while that matches up conveniently and might as well commence: I’m going to cover the six books that have won the Moon City Short Fiction Award. Now, this is definitely a departure from what I’ve done in the past, and for anyone who looks at this project as a straight-up review site, then it might even seem like nepotism at is finest. I selected these books (with my staff) and published them at the press of which I’m Editor. More so, I’ve avoided reading books for Story366 that I’ve read in the past; obviously, I’ve read all of these books, over and over again, through selection, editing, publishing, and teaching. But, since it’s my blog, my idea, and my site, I can break the rules whenever I want and that’s that.

I’ve always thought it weird that I’ve never broken these books down in this forum, and since I’m the only one writing these, that these books would never get showcased. When I first thought about covering them all, I thought it might be next year some time, if not later, but since there have been six books in the series so far and I have six slots to fill, it seemed like a good idea to jump on this.

First up is Cate McGowan, our inaugural winner, with True Places Never Are, which took home the prize in the 2014 Moon City Short Fiction Award from Moon City Press. It seems like a lifetime ago since we started this contest and we fell in love with Cate’s book, so of course I revisited it (as I will for all six MCP books) today, reading through several stories.

The opening story, “Arm Clean Off,” is a stunner (the kind of thing that gets the attention of a reader in a book contest). It’s about this teenaged kid who’s working out on his family’s land, fixing a piece of machinery. The kid drops his wrench down into the machine and while looking up at some birds, absentmindedly reaches inside to get the wrench and Vrampf! the arm is cut off just below the elbow. What makes this story so intriguing is the mindset McGowan gives her hero, a kid carrying his arm in a pickup truck, looking for the nearest house, more worried about getting in trouble with his parents than he is about bleeding to death. Or living with one arm.

“Everything’s Lighter in Water” features Tara, a high school student who plays a lot of hooky so she can fish with her grandpa. She’s been staying with him lately as both her mom—his daughter—and her grandma—his wife—have recently died. Almost as bad, her father quickly married another woman—whom Tara doesn’t care for—who’s moved in with her dad, brining along a son. Tara requested to move in with Grandpa so she can take care of him while he takes care of her, only Tara kind of needs to go to school, merge back into traffic, which doesn’t to be happening at the fishing hole.

“Let Go,” a story we printed in Moon City Review right before the book came out, is about a drag queen (not currently dressed up) who’s in line at Krispy Kreme when another drag queen (in full regalia) and her son are up at the counter, unable to pay for their donuts. Our hero just wants some coffee and grows impatient, but the dickhead in-between the two is much less graceful. Our protagonist takes offense of behalf of the woman and her son, stepping in to take care of the situation.

The story in True Places Never Are that really caught our attention is “Thirty Men, Not One.” While most of the stories in this collection are contemporary tales, generally taking place in the South, “Thirty Men, Not One,” is a historical piece, early twentieth century, taking place in France and New York and some places in-between. Its protagonist is André Chapellier, a performance artist … of sorts … who seems to be central to the Dada movement.

Now, I tend to mix up my movements, and remember having to look up Dadaism when I read this story six or so years ago. And yeah, I had to look it up again tonight. In any case, André seems to fit right in with the Dadaists, as the story begins with him on stage. This show involves André putting his testicles up on table—he must have some pretty impressive balls—and then feigning suicide by pointing a gun at his temple and pulling the trigger. Luckily for André, it’s not loaded, earning a mix of cheers and boos. Then André pees all over the stage and Voilà! Dadaism. Take that, bourgeoisie!

André lives an exciting life from there, traveling and performing and picking fights in pubs. One such fight is with Johnny Parker, a heavyweight boxing champ. André declares himself champ instead, baiting Johnny into the ring, where Johnny promptly flattens him. The two men retire afterwards to a local pub/brothel, and while the two drink and court the talent, they realize they are much more attracted to each other. McGowan implies they head off and have an affair, which I’m sure most sparring partners do after their matches.

This comes to that, and eventually, Johnny steals André’s wife, Olivia, and André moves to New York, downtrodden. There he falls on hard times—Knickerbockers ain’t into his stage-pissing routine—but runs into Johnny and Olivia again, out on a street, coming toward him in a. carriage. André tries to hide, literally in a ditch, as he is too ashamed to confront his former lovers, who have faired quite a bit better than he. While hiding, a little kid comes up to him and starts making all kind of noise, threatening to reveal André’s hiding spot. André, desperate and anxious, muffles the boy, accidentally killing him, and once the coast is clear, he skidaddles, leaving the poor boy’s body to be found by the very people he’d been trying to avoid.

André’s story doesn’t end there, but that’s as far as I’ll go into the plot. I’m also not doing justice to how the story is written, not to the voice or the unconventional ways McGowan writes her story, using lists and letters and other devices. Overall, this piece just might be the one that put this collection over all the others, the really different story that made her book stand out, made us pull the trigger and make her our first winner.

Obviously I like Cate McGowan’s writing a whole lot, enough to make True Places Never Are the first collection of stories I ever published. Cate has the innate ability to tell a traditional story, but also flex her poetic senses in a shorter pieces, and then top things off with a story like “Thirty Men, Not One” that changes the pace, shows how eclectic and brilliant she is. I’m so happy to have my stamp on this book, to have Cate in our stable of authors, setting the pace for so many more writers who would follow.

December 25, 2020: “A Beautiful Song, Very Melancholy and Very Old” by Bess Winter

Merry Christmas, Story366!

I hope you’re having a good Christmas holiday, no matter what you believe or celebrate. We’ve had a good day here, though we’re disturbed by the bombing today in Memphis (RIP, K.C. Jones, too). I stayed up until three a.m., wrapping and cleaning, setting the scene just right, and at 7:38 a.m., my youngest woke and announced it was time, crow-barring me from slumber. The boys got what they wanted in the gift department, were very happy and appreciative, which is what we were going for. We got the Karen some nice things, and on my end, I now own an air fryer, which will be put to use tomorrow. Congrats, chicken thighs, you’ll be the first meat on the moon.

The boys played with their toys—video games for the younger one and a new keyboard and a guitar pedal for the older one—and I took a short nap. We played a rousing game of Sorry!, which left me in fourth place, and we’ll have Christmas dinner soon. We have a Zoom call with my family later this evening, then I hope to relax with the family, just be together. That’s really all I want this year, and while I can’t be with my whole family because of COVID, I’ll take the three people and four cats I have here.

Today I had the pleasure of reading from Bess Winter‘s forthcoming debut story collection, Machines of Another Era, out on New Year’s Day from Gold Wake Press. Bess was a student of mine at Bowling Green, and actually, before that, having taken some workshops from me via Mid-American Review. I still remember a story she wrote for that called “Peddle,” about an amateur painter who discovers a new color, her star rising when it’s verified (with the people who verify such things), but not really wanting the celebrity she gains. It’s been close to fifteen years since I read that story, yet I still remember it. I was so pleased when Bess then applied to BG and was accepted, where I got to work with her on MAR and eventually her thesis. Bess is now a professor, too, and I’m so, so happy to see this book out, a fantastic collection that now belongs to the world.

The collection features a mix of flash fiction and more regularly-sized stories, and I read a mix. First up is “Signs,” which is about Koko the gorilla, the one who knew sign language. It’s told through the eyes of Dr. Thomas, the person in charge of the lab, of the project. Thomas has as many observations about the people who work in his lab as he has about Koko at this point, for instance, what different students and lab techs do when Koko signs nipple and fully expects the humans in the room to show her their nipples. Thomas must then point those observant eyes inward, perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned via himself.

“Bad” is about a girl named Sasha at an private school who decides one day to cut the tail off of one of the school’s beloved norses, sweet old Niblet. The sneaks out in the middle of the night and does the nefarious deed, wrapping the long, corse tail up in some scrunchies and tossing it in her bag (note: before this, I thought horse’s tails were like cat or dog tails, extensions of the spine, full of bones, but no, it’s mostly hair). The student body is apalled when they wake the next day and see what’s happened, then rallies around poor Niblet. Sasha’s mischief turns to regret, especially when Niblet can’t swat the flies away from its nethers. Like with “Signs,” this one ends with some self-reflection, her considering her course.

The title story, “Machines of Another Era,” is a love letter to both Gabriel García Màrquez and loving in general. This one’s about the waning days of the Columbian author, mostly from his brother’s perspective, how he manages talking with the author when the author is losing his faculties. It’s sweet but also sad—spoiler: García Màrquez dies—his brother not sure how to converse with a genius who no longer knows what year it is. Winter even sneaks in a dose of magical realism, García Màrquez style, adding onto her tribute.

The story I’m focusing on today, “A Beautiful Song, Very Melancholy and Very Old,” is a longer piece (the previous three were shorts). This one’s about Leland, a guy who lives in Toronto pre-World War I, in the time of a huge fly outbreak. The flies are so bad, the Health Department has issued a competition to all children 16 and under: The kid who kills the most flies in a given month is awarded fifty bucks. Leland knows his daughter Myrtle, one of six, wants some music lessons, and this fifty bucks is her road in.

Myrtle sets all kinds of traps in the yard and starts to really rack up the kills. The story gets a little absurd—which is awesome—as kids show up for the weekly tallies on Saturdays with barrels full of dead flies, millions of them, and somehow, they’re counted. Myrtle takes the lead the first week, but even better, her and Leland bond over this mass extermination.

For a day job, Leland toils at the leather factory with a couple of other guys—Greek Spiros and black Henry—who help him out, trying to beat smug co-worker O’Brien, the blatant racist who has nine kids, trying to steal Myrtle’s fifty dollars. Eventually, enough words are passed and fisticuffs evolve, Leland and Spiros and Henry brawling with O’Brien and his army of cousins. Meanwhile, a third family swoops in and causes all kinds of havoc.

I don’t want to reveal where this story goes from here, how it’s resolved, but will note that Winter takes her tale to an unexpected level, offering a twist or two that not only soundly resolves the story, but mirrors the previous pieces I detailed, a protagonist left at the end, having to ponder what they’ve done. That seems to be what Bess Winter does really well in Machines of Another Era, creating wonderfully complex characters and situations, seeing one through the other, then leaving that character with a whole lot to think about by story’s end. Not every entry is like this, of course, but I like that approach to story, a thinking person’s denouement. Congrats to Bess Winter on this great accomplishment—I highly recommend you go out and get this book, it being pretty terrific.

December 24, 2020: “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin

Happy Christmas Eve, Story366!

Lots of family stuff going on today, as you might guess. I of course want to continue on with my posts—just eight to go this year—but I also don’t want to be tied to my desk whilst merriment is afoot. I’ll note that me and the fam are staying in Springfield this year, as we don’t want to have a family-based super-spreader event, but that we’re really okay with that. Some years, sans pandemic, we don’t travel, either, so it’s no huge thing. We have a Zoom planned for tomorrow night, so that will at least keep us in touch.

All in all, we’re going to have the most normal type of Christmas for our boys that we can, which includes a couple of nice meals, the usual present-opening ceremony in the morning, and lots of being together, doing things as a family (nobody sneaking off to do their own thing, if we can swing it). When I was a kid, Christmas was mostly celebrated on Christmas Eve—that’s a Polish thing—and by the time gifts and presents were over on Christmas Day, around noon, we had hours to fill. A few times we went bowling as a family (also a Polish thing), but after my dad died, some of us started to go to see movies. No church or bowling or movies this year, but we’ll probably head outside, take a hike, drive around and see Christmas decorations, and in general, share in the love we have for each other, thankful we have that option in this crazy year.

For today’s entry, I read for Ethan Canin‘s collection, The Palace Thief, out from Picador in 1994 (yep, this is an older one). Canin is the author of several novels, another story collection, and has seen his work made into films several times. I’ve certainly read work by Canin before, likely in anthologies, but am not overly familiar with what he does. At least not until today.

The Palace Thief is comprised of four short stories, all about fifty pages long, and I read a couple of them. I started with “City of Broken Hearts,” about Wilson, a middle-aged Boston man whose wife has left him and son, Brent, has gone to college in Oregon. The story starts with Brent coming to Boston—just passing through—and Wilson going all out for good Red Sox tickets, wanting Brent’s visit to be a memorable one. The two talk about this and that, but mostly Wilson’s love life, which has been pathetic. Wilson’s dated, but really doesn’t understand modern relationships and often screws up, sadly what seem to have been good things. He’s still hung up on his ex, but also pigheaded and somewhat of a goof. A long passage, at another Sox game, introduces Margaret, a woman Wilson’s age that Brent meets and invites to dinner later that night. Wilson eventually starts seeing Margaret, a good thing he doesn’t screw up, and Wilson realizes that Brent hooked him up, recognizes both his father’s loneliness and ineptitude.

“The Palace Thief,” the last story, features Mr. Hundert, a classics teacher at the exclusive boys prep school, St. Benedict’s. It’s the type of school where the boys live on site and go on to great things, becoming politicians and captains of industry and the like. Hundert, as a young teacher, lives in a small room within the dormitory, eats in the dining hall with the boys, and doesn’t really own anything or have his own pursuits. He just teaches classics and tries to mold young men.

Hundert takes particular issue with Sedgewick Bell, the dull but enigmatic son of a dull, enigmatic West Virginia senator. Sedgewick is cocky and well liked, mocking Hundert openly in class. Hundert talks with the boy, then with his father, who makes it clear that he’s not all that worried about his son, his standing in the school, or the classics, that Sedgewick will be just fine. Hundert leaves, confused and distraught.

Yet, Sedgewick improves quite a bit after this and becomes one of the better students in the class. When Hundert tallies the grades at the end of the term, he sees Sedgewick is fourth in total points, which is important. The top three boys get to compete in the Julius Caesar contest, where Hundert asks questions on Roman history and the winner is named Julius Caesar for the year. All of it in front of the entire school. Hundert, taking a liking to Sedgewick and his improvement, raises him above the real third-place boy, placing him in the contest.

The contest comes down to Sedgewick and Deepak, the top student in the class. Deepak rattles off every answer quickly, but Sedgewick takes a long time to think it over, burying his face in his hands, looking down. Hundert realizes Sedgewick has a cheat sheet inside his toga (yeah, they wear togas). He tells his headmaster, who orders him to ignore it, to let him proceed, as the senator is in the audience, his checkbook in hand. Handert doesn’t expose him, but asks him a question he knows won’t be on the cheat sheet, a question Deepak will nail. Deepak wins, the class graduates, and Hundert doesn’t think about Sedegwick again for forty years.

In the meantime, Hundert rises through the school to Assistant Headmaster, and when his boss dies (the same guy from the Caesar competition), Hundert wants the job. He’s 68 at this point and is beaten out by a colleague, the Latin teacher who had been his closest colleague over the years, the man for whom he campaigned to get hired years before. Soon after he’s not awarded this post, the same man asks Hundert to retire and he does.

Sedgewick Bell returns to Hundert’s life, himself well into his fifties, the CEO of his family’s steel mill. Sedgewick is having a reunion at an island resort and wants Hundert there to run a rematch of the Julius Caesar contest. He gives Hundert a large sum of money to do it and flies him to the resort, promising also to give a lot of money to St. Benedict’s (which Hundert is less enthused by). He still goes, happy to see Sedgewick has become a man. After all, it’s been four decades, and it will be good to see some of these former students as men.

There is in fact a rematch of the Julius Caesar contest, but I think I’ve gone far enough into this story. There’s more to it all, well beyond this second trivia night, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

I enjoyed reading these two long stories, Ethan Canin delving deep into the psychology of two proud, somewhat lost men. They are complex and simple at the same time, and it’s interesting to watch them evolve, to change. I’m glad I spent time with The Palace Thief today, and will now head off for more family fun. Merry Christmas!

December 23, 2020: “The Musical Illusionist” by Alex Rose

Happy day to you, Story366!

We’ve had a major snooping problem in the household. Yesterday, I put my book dow on the couch in the receiving room, the one that’s right next to the Christmas tree. I went into the other room for something, then heard my youngest boy yell out, “Dad, are you going to read on the couch in the receiving room?”


“Can you read somewhere else? I want to do something in the receiving room and need to be alone.”


His failing here was that I needed to retrieve my book from the couch. When I went in to get it, I saw him standing with a roll of Scotch tape, looking coy, looking guilty. I then looked down to his feet and saw one of his presents—the ones from us, which we’d put under the tree earlier that day. One of the corners of the package was clearly ripped, about two square inches, but was resealed with tape, sloppily, like a seven year old would do. I then examined his other boxes and they all had similarly patched leaks.

Our son had opened all his Christmas presents to see what was inside. He was also awful at covering it up.

It gets worse. One of our new cats, Wrigley, has taken to sleeping under the tree, on the skirt, and our son blamed this cat for opening all the packages. He was just taping them shut again so Wrigley wouldn’t get in trouble. That was his story and he was sticking to it.

I don’t know if there are scientifically acknowledged stages of snooping like there are for grief, but his denial soon morphed into bargaining. He knew what one of he presents was, thanked us for buying it for him, and later reasoned that since he knew what it was, there wasn’t any reason to wait until Christmas morning to just rip into it and play with it right there. That wasn’t happening for a variety of reasons, which then jettisoned him into the next stage: anger. He was actually mad at us for not letting him open and play with his Christmas present, on December 22, after he’d been caught peeking.

If you’re saying that we shouldn’t have put the presents out, two or three days early, maybe you’re right. At the same time, we’re not mad at him for snooping, as the Karen and I each did our own fair share of snooping when we were kids ( … and after). Sure, I wasn’t thrilled when he started yelling at me for not letting him open that package last night. Did I want to take some vegetables (or cat poop, as Karen suggested) and wrap them up after that, leaving them for him to discover later? Yes, but that would just waste wrapping paper (and my time), so we let him off with a warning, getting him to admit what he did and apologize this morning.

Overall, it’s just nice to have kids, to have something like this—innocence spiced with mischief—as a story to tell. One day our boys will be grown, gone, no presents for them under the tree anymore, nobody sneaking into rooms with Scotch tape or flashlights. Just glad to be here right now, with them all, ready for a nice couple of days together. Let’s make some memories.

Today I read from Alex Rose‘s 2007 collection, The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, out from Hotel St. George Press (a division of Akashic). This collection is hard to really describe as a typical “short story collection,” as it’s more of an interwoven smattering of fables, following a specific mythology that Rose has created for this project. There’s not even a table of contents, let alone the term short story anywhere to be seen. Still, I’m happy I read from this book today, discovering what Rose has created for us. Let’s discuss.

The book has a preface—one that picks up again after each story/chapter—after a diagram on the opening page that reads The Library of Tangents. The preface then explains what this library is—in italics, with the text stretching from the left page to the right page (took me a bit to catch onto that)—written in an encyclopedic voice, describing the library as a real place, but as a place of wonder. Just as interesting is the journey to the library, on a special train, through the woods, in an isolated and undisclosed part of the world.

The stories, then, read like entries in this encyclopedia-type presentation, called “Special Exhibitions,” and there are seven of them in the book, starting with “Special Exhibition I: In the Fullness of Time.” There is always a title page to lead things off, including a diagram, subtitle, and caption. Then the story begins, sometimes with chapter titles/subtitles, sometimes utilizing Roman numerals. “In the Fullness of Time” is really scientific, exploring some manufactured (but real-sounding) theories and people in the world of numerology and time. Take Francis of Gaul, who posited that keeping time, let alone having a number system, was blasphemous, to attempt to put order on something so natural. Francis’ theories took hold for a bit, giving his contemporaries something to think about, but eventually, he was dismissed and executed, as clearly, the world and the church liked having its numbers—think seven days of the week, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and other such damning evidence found in scripture.

The last story is the title story, “The Musical Illusionist.” This one traces the life and career of Welsch inventor Phelix Lamark. Lamark was credited with changing music, though eventually became forgotten, necessitating this story/entry at the Library of Tangents.

What Lamark did, more or less, is convert sound into color, into visuals. A son of a musician, Lamark was more interested in the science of sound than he was making sounds, in making music. He is able to, early in his career, find a connection between the senses, particularly between light and sound. He finds a sponsor, a rich Italian named Samson Peterdi. Peterdi’s money allows him to construct Elysium Laboratories, where he’s able to engineer machines and also form an orchestra. His first exhibit—note, not concert—gets mixed reviews, audience members hearing strange music coming from places outside the stage, while also smelling something foul (another sense touched upon).

Another exhibit—which is supposed to be a musical experience, remember—features a screen and a light show, something that reminds me of old psychedelic light shows, e.g., that river tunnel sequence in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. To note, the room is completely silent the entire time, save the audience’s reactions. Do people like this? No, not really, and eventually, Lamark is accused of connections to the occult (this is the 1860s, by the way).

Lamark’s legacy is tarnished, and if anyone remembers him at all, it’s not positive. He and his work receive a resuscitation in the 1920s, but in the end, music is music, not something we see (not until MTV, anyway), but the story’s a cool trip, reminiscent of Steven Milhauser’s “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (which might be intentional, given the title), focusing on the rise and fall and legend of another kind of genius.

The Musical Illusionist by Alex Rose is certainly a different kind of story collection, an interesting exploration into what fiction can be. That’s a term I’ve used before, something I saw whenever I run across something different. But I’ll stand by it. The story aspect here is present in a broad sense, with Rose’s concept and straight-man voice the real stars, all of it an excuse to explore science, art, and religion, via his characters and their endeavors. Glad I ran across this book, experienced it for a bit.

December 22, 2020: “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set” by James McBride

Happy Tuesday, Story366!

Just ten posts to go, including today, for 2020. For most of us, 2020 has been the longest year of our lives. In so many ways, I’m glad I’ve had Story366 to keep me company, to give me a focus every day, and of course, to expose me to all these writers and the stories they’ve had to tell. We all wish 2020 was different, and I can’t help but think of what my year would have been like without all these stories to pace me through, to fill time, and distract from some obvious hardships and anxieties. And what a distraction, to read over a thousand stories, to get into over a thousand different mindsets, to follow over a thousand different plots, for my mind to wonder into so many other directions when I didn’t necessarily want to be thinking too much about the world. Vivid and continuous for sure, and what a relief for that.

Of course, just as much, I have delved straight into the world via these preambles, discussing the pandemic and the election—2020’s main storylines—more than any other topics. Sometimes it was too much to bear, to report grim statistics, to point at idiotic behavior, and to hope and pray (and eventually receive) the result I wanted for president; on those days, it was fun to talk about baseball or Scouts or whatever. If this blog is going to double as a diary for me, I’ll be glad, in the future, that I was eclectic in my musings, that I didn’t get too repetitive, obsessive, or annoying (I hope).

For today’s post, I read from James McBride‘s collection, Five-Carat Soul, out in 2017 from Riverhead Books. McBride has won a National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird, a book I have not yet read. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read much by McBride before—maybe a story in an anthology—so I’m glad I got ahold of this book and got to know his work a bit before I finish up this year.

The first story, “The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” is what I’ll focus on today. This is a long story, over fifty pages, and a good one. It’s about Leo Banskoff, a successful toy dealer. McBride gives us some background first, Leo telling us what kind of a toy dealer he is and what basic operation works for him. He scouts out big-time collector’s items, negotiates by ingratiating himself to the client (he’s a character, complete with costume), then takes his percentage. This gives Leo a pretty good life, not to mention the rep as the best in the business, the guy even Christie’s and Sotheby’s doesn’t want to cross.

Leo gets a tip about a guy named Reverend Spurgeon Hart, that he might own something looking into. Included in the tip package is a photograph, a photograph that includes an old train set, the train set, a one-of-a-kind made specifically for Robert E. Lee to give to his grandson. This grandson died before he could play with it, and at the same time, the family’s slave, who took care of the grandson, escaped, taking the train with her, never to be seen again. The train became a legend, several fakes popping up throughout the years, but nothing real for over a century (this story takes place in 1992, btw).

Leo makes an effort to get in contact with Reverend Hart, who is a hard man to get ahold of. Leo talks to his wife instead, who tells Leo he can talk to Hart whenever he wants. Leo wants now, so he drives from his farm in Pennsylvania to the Reverend’s apartment in Queens immediately. When he shows up, the reverend’s wife lets him in, gives him some pie and buttermilk, driving Leo insane with her distractions. He just wants to see the train so he can start negotiations. The reverend’s wife brings out the train, from a shoebox on the top of the fridge, not really understanding why this grown man is so concerned about these toys and not eating her pie.

The train is legit. Leo can’t believe how good a condition it’s in, or that the family also has the box that was made to contain it, containing the Reverend’s son’s Legos. What blows him away even more is that the Reverend has told his wife just to give the train to Leo, to not take any money. Leo has brought ninety thousand dollars in cash—just as a down payment—but his host just quotes scripture and insists Leo take the train for nothing. Leo, desperate but scrupulous, refuses, and goes to track down Hart at his job at the Domino sugar plant in Brooklyn.

At the plant, the reverend doesn’t understand what Leo wants with him any more than his wife did, insisting Leo just take the train and leave him alone so he can do his job. Leo has a release contract and all that money with him in a briefcase, but this isn’t what the reverend wants. Leo has to figure out a way to get the train—what he wants more than anything in the world—but still make the transaction legit, both morally and officially.

I don’t want to go any further into the plot of this story, but I’ll not that Leo gets his train, and he does it the right way. The story isn’t really close to ending there, however, as there’s an epilogue that goes on for quite a while, providing one of the most unexpected twists I could have figured. What a story.

“Father Abe” is about a little kid named Abe Lincoln who lives in a black orphanage in Richmond near the end of the Civil War. While walking from the orphanage to dinner one day, several Union soldiers start messing with him, telling the kid—five years old—that President Abraham Lincoln is not only his father, but that he’s coming to Richmond to give a speech the next day. The next morning, young Abe runs away and is discovered by the soldiers of another Union battalion. Little Abe has come to see his father, to be taken home by him, to not be an orphan anymore. The soldiers, including one Abe Porter, try to tell this kid he’s not the president’s son, and the captain insists that Porter take him back to the orphanage. Instead, Port has other ideas, seeing an opportunity, the world providing him with the means and distraction to make it happen.

“The Fish Man Angel” features Abraham Lincoln, the president, as its protagonist. Lincoln, in the early days of the war, the Union getting smeared, likes to take midnight walks to the War Department, down the street from the White House, to read documents and to think in private. One night he slips out—to his bodyguard’s chagrin—but runs into some men talking out by the staples, so Abe hides. His coachman and a stable hand, along with the stable hand’s son, are talking about this and that, including Lincoln’s dead son’s pony. Lincoln listens as the coachman berates the stable hand, then as the stable hand explains the incident away to his son, who is angered and embarrassed. The stable hand relays the story of the Fish Man Angel, a figure that predicts the coming of freedom for all black men. Hearing this story, Lincoln is inspired to write his most famous speech, citing the words of the Fish Man Angel, making history.

James McBride writes some pretty fantastic stories in Five-Carat Soul, stories that swoop into history and tell historical tales, stories of great scope and range and heart. I’m so happy to have come across this book and to have fit it in, to know what this writer does. I hope to read more of McBride’s stories and his novels, to see what other great yarns he has to spin.