August 28: “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks

A good Sunday to you, Story366! Today I’m writing about “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks, and really, I’m surprised I haven’t read this story before. As soon as I opened the book to the table of contents today—I always try to start with the title story, but there isn’t one in Success Stories (from Harper Perennial)—I saw it and immediately recognized its title. That usually means I’ve read it before, but after thinking about it, I realized it was part of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, the one with the American flag on it, edited by Tobias Wolff, the contemporary anthology that came out when I was in college, that all my professors used, one that I used early in my teaching career, when it was the it-anthology. I still have it on the shelf in my office here. Given how many times I’ve been assigned this anthology and how many times I’ve used it, you’re probably thinking that I should have read this story by now, that I should have read all the stories in the book, and I would have thought so, too. I checked, too, reading the first few pages, figuring I’d recognize it, but no. New story to me, so totally eligible for Story366.

Because that anthology was edited by Tobias Wolff, you’d expect there’d be a lot of writers and stories from that post-minimalist school of short fiction, that Carver-inspired brand of minimalism, of down-and-out characters, and unreliable narrators. I was in college in the early nineties, most of my professors learning to write and succeeding during the late seventies and into the eighties, so Carver was kind of the first and last word of what fiction was, was supposed to be. As an easily influenced eager-to-please student, I tried to be a minimalist, too, reading and trying to copy all of those Carver students and contemporaries like Richard Ford, Mona Simpson, Ann Beattie, and Wolff himself. My thesis me basically trying to rewrite Rock Springs.

As I see it, in that era, there were some definitive trademarks of these writers’ stories. Their characters were flawed, but the way they told it, they were the victims of circumstance, of a flawed system; the stories themselves were people just trying to smooth things over, explain away horrible judgment, try to talk their listeners, the readers, into believing they weren’t such bad people. In fact, what happened in the story wasn’t as important as the reader knowing that they weren’t to blame for all the bad stuff that happened as a direct result of their actions. Think of most stories in Rock Springs, primarily that title story, that character asking us in the end, What would you do?

“Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” is maybe the best example of this approach to storytelling, to narration, as it seems like the whole story is one big apology from its narrator and central character to the world, him trying to work through the fact that he’d done a horrible thing, was a horrible person, and as a result, negatively affected the people around him. Early on and throughout the story, this narrator tells lies, and on top of that, tells us he’s telling us lies, starting with his name. As he tells his story—this is a very meta piece, as the narrator is aware that he’s relaying a tale—he uses “Ron” as the name of his character, says that this person is him, but is clear that his name may not be Ron. He also places the story in Concord, New Hampshire, doesn’t say whether or not it’s where the story takes place, but since stories have to take somewhere, Concord is as good a place as any. This is this tone that Ron (I’ll make it easy on myself and call him Ron from now on) uses throughout the piece: He’s not only going out of his way to be cryptic, but he’s pointing out how cryptic he’s being. What an interesting and wonderfully executed voice on Banks’ part.

What Ron (or not-Ron) is really doing in this story is separating himself from this horrible thing that he did. Sadly, though, trying to weasel out of it, plus telling us what he did, anyway, just makes him come off worse. What did Ron do? What’s the story? What Ron did was this: He dated a woman named Sarah Cole for a while, a woman he goes out of his way to describe as the ugliest woman he’d ever seen. He immediately recognized her as unattractive (according to him, remember: There are no pictures in this story, or aesthetic judgments on my part), but after a few chance meetings, he finds himself thinking about her, and eventually, falling for her. He makes a stab at spending a night together, and they almost do it, but there’s hesitation, as he simply won’t be nice enough to her for her to go all the way—she’s been hurt before, by her ex-husband, and is understandably defensive. Eventually, though, the two become lovers.

What becomes apparent, however, to both the reader and to Sarah Cole, is that Ron doesn’t want to be seen with her, doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s dating a person of her level of attractiveness. She calls him on it, describing how they always meet at his place, never go anywhere, how he’s reluctant to even go out for a drink, let alone meet her kids. The narrator … Ron … won’t admit this, making excuses, but it’s clear: He’s ashamed of her. It reminds me of Karen‘s favorite TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the episode when the Will Smith character dates guest star Queen Latifah, but doesn’t want anyone to know it (because she’s heavy set); despite the fact they hit it off stupendously, she dumps him, because she has too much self worth. I’m still kinda mad that the show didn’t end with him and her together, him growing as a person, making an overture, them living happily ever after.

Anyway, Ron is much worse than the Fresh Prince, just weasel of a guy who made the woman he loves feel like shit, and for some reason, tries to garner sympathy by telling this story, though with some kind of disconnect, separating himself from the person who would do such a thing. The plot isn’t overly complicated—just an example of male ego and misogynistic bullshit coming to life—but again, it’s the telling, this meta-unreliability, that makes the story so interesting, the character as bad of a liar as he is a human being. Heck, he even does it in the title, refuses to admit out-and-out love, declaring Sarah Cole a type of love instead of love. Bad man, great writer (who just got compared to an episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air … sorry, Russell Banks).

I probably should go back to that Wolff contemporary anthology and see if there’s anything else I never read, plus run down the stories, try to see if I’m being accurate, that the characters are mainly unreliable, people trying to talk themselves out of a bad rep. Regardless, I really enjoyed “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story,” as I did the other stories I read from Success Stories (which, by the way, also featured unreliable narrators). Banks is probably more famous for his tragic novels than his stories, but his stories are also top notch. Glad to finally get to them.

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August 27: “The Dog Hair” by Lydia Davis

Happy Saturday, Story366! Today I’m writing about Lydia Davis and her book, Can’t and Won’t. As Lydia Davis is a great practitioner of the short short/flash fiction/micro fiction/sudden fiction genre, in the spirit of the form, I think I’m going to make this short, but still include an anecdote, an intro, a summary, a critique, a snarky joke, and a wrap-up, as I do most days, so here goes … Take a look at the cover below: For a long time, I thought the actual, official  title of this book was … because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions, for instance, I would not write out in full the words and cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t. I believed it so much that when I ordered this book from the bookstore here on campus, I actually wrote all that out on the order slip. Since then I’ve heard people refer to it as Can’t and Won’t, (out from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) which is much more reasonable, but I have a fantasy that when Davis refers to this book in public, she says that long clause as the title, each and every time, even if she names the book like twenty times in a lecture or reading. (The irony being, of course, that this title would be longer than many of her stories.) … I could have written about almost any of the stories in Can’t and Won’t—there are over a hundred—and I’ve all of them—and I even thought about writing about one of the longer stories (there are a few), but since this is Lydia Davis, I’ll stick to one of the shorter pieces, many of which weigh in at a fraction of a page. “The Dog Hair” is probably my favorite—who doesn’t love dogs?—and is about this family who loses a dog, but still finds its hair around the house. I won’t go into any further detail, lest I spoil it, but it’s a satisfying and surprising ending, all fitting into a couple of sentences, what Davis is so good at, what she’s known for. “Economy,” I bet they call her down at the racquet club, “Economy Davis,” for her great short short fiction and her efficient backstroke. … I’ve long been a fan of Lydia Davis—remember, my three books are predominantly made up of shorts—and ate up this collection, will continue to, over and over. She’s one of the best, if not the best at the form, and … because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions, for instance, I would not write out in full the words and cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t. is as great as anything she’s ever done. I worship her.

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August 26: “Uncle” by Daniel Woodrell

Happy Friday, Story366! I finished up the first week of classes here at Missouri State, and I have to say, it’s taken its toll on me. I have sort of a sweet schedule, teaching three classes, each with a period off in-between, meaning I have an hour and fifteen minutes, twice, in the middle of the day, to do things. A lot of that is sucked up by email and social media, but it’s a nice, focused amount of time, at a key part of the day, to get things done. I can make a handout. I can read a story. I can write a blog post.

This week, however, with my nights stretching to early morning, the alarm still going off at 7, I’ve found myself using those free periods for catnaps. I don’t intend that, but I sit in my chair, put my head back, and I’m out. Sadly, I’m having weird allergies now, which means I’m always a little stuffed up, meaning I wake myself up snoring. Today, I was thinking that it was a luxury to start that gap off with a little snooze, recharge the batteries a little. Then I realized that I turned 43 on Monday, not 73, and my office is for handouts and short stories and blogs, not sleeping. Add in the fact that I really don’t want students , my colleagues, or even the army of textbook buyers that think I use textbooks finding me snoring in my chair in the middle of the day.

In short, I need to get to bed tonight.

Not before I present my post on Daniel Woodrell, however. Today I read several stories from his collection The Outlaw Album, a book I picked up when Woodrell visited MSU a couple of years ago. I hadn’t been overly familiar with Woodrell’s work at that point, though I knew Winter’s Bone had been a big success as a film and that his visit was a big deal. MSU is in Springfield, Missouri, the Queen City of the Ozarks, and Daniel Woodrell is the Ozark fiction writer. The fact that Winter’s Bone the movie had done so well, earning some Oscar nominations, only made his work more known and accessible. My department went out of its way to get ready for this event—W.D. Blackmon, our Chair, sites him as his favorite writer—and like any good literary citizen, I was eager as well. I got to have dinner with Woodrell, and a ton of other people, and was treated to an excellent reading from Woodrell’s new book, The Maid’s Version, in front of a capacity crowd.

The Outlaw Album is filled with a lot of Ozark stories, and of the few I read tonight, I think the second, “Uncle,” the best example of what Woodrell does. “Uncle” is about this young Ozarkian woman, perhaps even a girl, who has to take care of a baby—that’s how she starts the story, telling us about her baby, how he’s not a baby, but her uncle, a large older man in a wheelchair in a vegetative state. Our protagonist has to bathe him, feed him, change him, which is why she calls him her baby. She also refers to him as her former evil uncle, so it’s a pretty good start—all of this is a tiny first paragraph—how an evil uncle has digressed to this pathetic state.

And it’s the worst answer in history. Uncle was not only evil, but he was in the running for most evil person ever, pretty much a serial rapist and murderer, using our protagonist and her mother (Uncle’s sister) as his unwilling but trapped accomplices. The narration relays Uncle’s history, how he acquires his victims (many were canoeing on a river that runs past their farm), how he assaults them, how he expects his niece to get rid of them. The worst trait I can remember in any of my uncles was that half of them were White Sox fans. Uncle in this story is the devil.

Our hero, however, is not the devil, and after a particularly rough encounter between Uncle and a victim, she directs a rather heavy object onto Uncle’s head, causing the incapacitated state that we find him in at the start of the story.

More things happen between our protagonist and her baby-uncle, none of which I’ll reveal here, giving you something to discover on your own. I’ve already described some pretty grotesque goings-down, and from what I’ve read of The Outlaw Album, that’s a well that Woodrell goes to pretty often. The Ozarks, in general, is an area stricken by poverty, poverty that leads to desperation, which leads to crime. The stories I read all involve grisly murders, people taking the law into their own hands, Ozark justice doled out with extreme prejudice. Woodrell’s characters have (and use) guns, they smoke meth (417, our area code, is a popular name for the drug), they engage in incest, they make ridiculously stupid decisions. I’ve taken note that Woodrell seems to write about the worst element of the Ozarks, but he might have to. Maybe Woodrell’s identified the romance of the region to outsiders, what separates Ozarkians from other Americans, or more likely, what outsiders want to believe. What they’ll buy. Whatever his reasoning, Woodrell’s good at it in these stories, depicting the lowest common denominator, but they always prove fascinating, show me something I don’t see every day (and I live here). That’s what great fiction does and Woodrell is a great writer.

The Outlaw Album is a memorable, vivid book. Its ultra-realism can be tough to take, if you’re not ready, and even though Daniel Woodrell is focusing on the Ozarks’ worst element, he does so with an unforgiving grace. The stories as stark and straightforward as they can be. There is no decline to these awful states, no drastic character arcs or stunning epiphanies; the stories and people are what they are and Woodrell doesn’t apologize.

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August 25: “Plum Tree” by Natalie Serber

Hello there, Story366! Today is my oldest’s birthday, so I had some cake tonight. That seems like enough to make a day great, doesn’t it? Since it was my birthday Monday, that means we had cake twice this week, but actually, we’ve had cake every day so far, with the leftovers and all. That won’t change, either, as a good portion of my son’s cake—a Pokeball—is still left. Can’t let that go to waste, can we?

You all like cake, right? One time, I was at a wedding, and literally every person at the table but me didn’t eat their cake. We were at those round tables, eight people per, and seven people got a slice of cake put in front of them and they all uniformly said No, thank you! to the catering servers. I remember being pretty shocked by that, but even more weird was the conversation that followed, when seven people realized that they were at a wedding, seating at an eight-person table, and six other people shared in their dislike for cake.

“You don’t like cake, either?” one person said.

“No. It’ just not very good,” said another.

“I’ve always thought that,” said a third. And then they high-fived (and I’m not kidding about that—two people found common ground in their hatred for cake and celebrated like a backcourt after a free throw.

This was at a wedding I went to in college, for a delivery guy at the pizza place I’d worked at in high school and a little bit after. I was probably nineteen or twenty and thrilled to death that I was at this wedding and drinking as much as I wanted to, and openly, and that seven pieces of wedding cake suddenly fell under my command. I mean, don’t most people like cake? I get it if it’s vichyssois or artichoke leaves or steak tartare, something that is legitimately disgusting. But cake? Isn’t that, like, really good? Especially wedding cake, that’s made by a professional cake maker, the cake costing more than my car at that time. But there I was, half in the bag, about ready to sugarcoat my heart, and people were dissing their fucking cake. What was next? Air? I always think of that night, this anecdote, when I eat cake. Now I’ve shared it with you.

Today’s story, “Plum Tree” comes to us from Natalie Serber’s collection Shout Her Lovely Name, out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I bought this book a few years ago and read about half of it, immediately struck by the daring that Serber employs in the title story, a piece about a girl with anorexia, told, partly, by photographs, diagrams, and other graphical element. It was my first semester teaching in Missouri and my classes were looking at nontraditional stories, so I shared that piece with them and we discussed. I ran across Serber’s book on my office shelf the other day and realized it wasn’t on the Story366 to-read pile. I’ve been thinking about it every since, so I was happy to pick it up again today. I read a few more stories and today I am writing about “Plum Tree.”

I have to admit, I started reading “Plum Tree” because I have a story called “The Plum Tree” and I wanted to see if Serber plagiarized it. No, just kidding (because Serber’s book was out before I wrote that story)! I did think of my story, though, so I started reading Serber’s and found that I really liked her piece, better than the title story that I’d shared with my class (and yes, better than I liked my own story). “Plum Tree” is about Nora, a high schooler who is hanging out with her friend Zellie, ditching, actually, summer less than a week away, her whole life still in front of her. We start with Nora and Zellie sitting in Nora’s back yard, under her plum tree, smoking a joint they made from Nora’s mom’s pot and a tampon wrapper, eating plums off the tree. The girls seem carefree, aside from the regular school tension, what they’re going to do all summer, and what’s going to happen at a party they’re attending later that night. The story’s told in a close third person, but it’s so close and that prose is so engaging, it feels like first person, a credit to Serber’s writing and characterization.

The girls mill about, killing time until the party—such a life they lead, smoking free pot until it’s time to go get free beer—and this milling about is really my favorite part of the story. I like Nora’s voice, but also like the details of her life, the picture that Serber paints. Nora lives with her mom, Ruby, a woman who might be the most developed character in the story despite only appearing, physically, in the last few paragraphs. Ruby is a free spirit, fickle and impulsive, moving herself and Nora about the country, sunbathing in the nude in the yard, sharing her joints with Nora, simply because, it seems, she doesn’t want to have to wait until Nora’s gone to get high. Ruby gives Nora a long leash, fixing her up with not only pot and an endless curfew, but a diaphragm. Nora more or less appreciates this, but knows her mom is half super-cool and half neglectful. She’s smart and old enough to recognize the difference, but she’s still Ruby’s daughter: Off to the party she goes.

Things happen at the party, things that happen at high school drinking parties, and I won’t go any further into plot, leaving something for you to discover on your own. I’ll repeat that I really love the characterization in this story, especially the relationships. Nora and Zellie have a solid relationship, Zellie a bit prettier, but with more traditionally conservative parents, and makes for a good foil. This story is about Nora and Ruby, though, how these free spirits interact with each other, how they influence each other, but clearly, how they coexist. It’s a sweet relationship, if not a bit irresponsible, but the characters felt real to me. Serber has an ear for the teenage voice, the teenage dilemma, in “Plum Tree” and in the title story, for sure.

Glad I went snooping around my office books while cleaning up on Monday, as otherwise, I might have missed Natalie Serber and Shout Her Lovely Name this year. Solid writer, solid stories. I recommend.

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August 24: “Altar Boy” by James McManus

Say hey, Story366! Busy day back at the old schoolhouse. On top of having to actually teach classes today—Monday is just syallbus reading—and then I had to ship some books—Jeannine Hall Gailey’s newest—to the distribution warehouse for Moon City Press. After that, I had to fall asleep while watching the Cubs, and after that, I had a Cub Scout meeting. During the summer, I usually do the part where I fall asleep while watching the Cubs. All that other stuff? Well, that complicates the napping.

After all of that, I was able to read a hefty story by James McManus from his collection The Education of a Poker Player, out from BOA Editions. I knew McManus by reputation, as he’s a bestselling author and a celebrity poker player, which is rather rare for Story366 authors. I hadn’t read anything by him before, either, nor did I know anything about him, really. Catching up, I found out that McManus was Catholic kid from the Chicago suburbs, just like me, and The Education of a Poker Player isn’t about learning poker (at least not early on), but about McManus growing up Catholic, almost becoming a priest, and then moving on to poker and other such sinful pursuits later on. The first story of the book is fifty pages long and called “Altar Boy,” and as soon as I got started, I knew I’d found my story.

“Altar Boy,” and all the stories in The Education of a Poker Player, is narrated by a kid named Vincent Killeen, whose family moved to Lisle, a southwest Chicago suburb, from New York in the late fifties. His grandfather died from a heart attack at 36, never meeting Vincent’s father, without life insurance, leaving his family in poverty. Times were tough, local Jesuit priests stepped in to help out, and before long, Vincent’s grandmother became the secretary in a parish rectory and Vincent’s father had a scholarship to both the Catholic prep school and Fordham University. Vincent and his family (he has five siblings) grew up with more opportunities because of this generosity, working-class suburbanites who liked the Bears and the … sigh … White Sox.

The story “Altar Boy” is a practically stream-of-consciousness telling of Vincent’s life as a Catholic kid in the early sixties. The story is in first person present and jumps from scene to scene, life event to life event, seamlessly and effortlessly. We have touchstones, however, that become themes. Everyone in Vincent’s family loves Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and Vincent works him into every conversation whether he’s relative to the topic or not. His daily life is preoccupied by thoughts of the Holy Spirit, the mysteries of divinity, what boobs look like, and the specifics of what it’s like to burn in hell (for wondering what boobs look like). The plot of the story, more or less, is Vincent making his way through life, thinking about these things.

The real glory of “Altar Boy” is the voice that McManus employs for his character, this really sincere kid who just wants to figure out life, maneuver through the tough parts, enjoy the better days. He’s unreliable in that he buys all of the Catholic doctrine—and there’s a lot of it—hook, line, and sinker. In fact, it’s Vincent’s stern belief in the threats bestowed upon him by the priests and nuns in his parish that initiate the overall plot of the book, Vincent’s interest in becoming a priest. He doesn’t want to burn in hell, he doesn’t want his family to burn in hell (priests’ families get special dispensation, he’s told); the fact that wet dreams are really yucky is also a major factor.

Vincent Killeen is a proxy for McManus himself, more or less, as McManus is just telling his own story (the back cover calls these stories “autobiographical”). I found myself so attracted to  “Altar Boy” (wait, I should rephrase that …) because I had a similar upbringing, growing up Catholic and Polish (instead of Irish) in Calumet City, not far from McManus’ Lisle, and a lot of the malarkey that McManus was fed—e.g., the difference between the flames in purgatory and the flames in hell—was fed to me. My major absolution was doing my time after Vatican II so I didn’t have to deal with Latin like McManus (or Vincent) did. I really enjoyed all the altar boy vocabulary, words like paten and thurifer that I haven’t thought of in thirty years. More than words or sounds, I remember how I felt when I was up on the altar, assisting those priests, thinking that every mass I went to, served at, brought me closer to avoiding hell, to making up for what I thought were pretty terrible sins at the time (goofing around, going to bed too late, wondering what boobs looked like). I’ve read one other author who invoked these stories, Stuart Dybek in Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, but even that’s been twenty years. So, a trip down memory lane, guided by a brilliant storyteller.

It’s late and I only read this long story from The Education of a Poker Player, the lead story, what I’m assuming is Vincent at his youngest. James McManus has a tale here, one that leads to priests, poker, and writing, and I hope to get to the rest of it soon.

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August 23: “Faulty Predictions” by Karin Lin-Greenberg

Hello, Story366! Today is the day after my birthday, meaning it’s the further point from my next birthday all year. I remember, as a spoiled, obnoxious, narcissistic kid, I’d actually start taking inventory of what I hadn’t received for my birthday but had asked for. I then began making a plan for what I would ask for for Christmas, then what I’d have to wait for the following year to ask for, my greed planned that far ahead. I am a huge collector—you can see this, if you follow this blog and have seen my bookshelves, how I have each collection that I’ve covered so far, in order, behind me as I write. Back when I was a kid, I collected G.I. Joe action figures—the little 3.5-inch ones—and comic books. Basically, a collector always has a high when they get something to put in their collection, but it’s immediately replaced with the need to get the next thing. It’s an awful personality trait, really, to never be satisfied, to never be grateful, to always want more: People probably openly disliked me for it. They still might. As a kid, I got away with it because I was a kid. When I got older, it cost me tons of money, as I got into collecting CDs and Simpson action figures in my twenties and ran up credit card debt doing so.

Now, however, it’s kind of paying off. Those same urges are now applied to Story366, and really, it’s probably why I’ve been able to make it this far in the blog without missing a day. (I’m not sure why this same urge hasn’t translated into me getting on the treadmill every night, but I’m guessing that’s because there’s no brightly-colored, manufactured object at the end of the session.) It’s also why I insist on having a physical copy of any collection before I consider featuring it, because I want to hold the book in my hand, take the picture, then put it on the bookshelf, in order, when I’m done. Authors and presses have offered me pdfs a few times and I’ve turned them down for this very reason. In other words, this horrible trait, the urge to collect, is finally being used (mostly) for good instead of for evil.

Today’s featured author and book is Karin Lin-Greenberg and her Flannery O’Connor Award-winning collection Faulty Predictions, out from the University of Georgia Press. I’ve seen Lin-Greenberg’s work in journals before, but wasn’t sure if I’d read anything. It matters not now, I suppose, especially since I read a few of the stories and absolutely love them. I started with the title story and within a few sentences, I knew I had my target.

“Faulty Predictions” is about this unnamed widow who lives with another widow named Hazel Stump in a small North Carolina town. Hazel is sort of a local psychic, as she’s made some legitimate calls in recent times, including a fire at the local police station; of course, everyone had thought she was ridiculous, but when lightning struck and burned a hole in the center of the building the very night she’d pointed to, her crackpot status was suddenly reconsidered.

But that’s all backstory, which we get a bit into the story. What I love about “Faulty Predictions” is that we start en medias res, Hazel and our protagonist in Hazel’s car, on Halloween night, driving furiously across North Carolina, Hazel having seen a vision a murder at a small college. Legit or not in her home town, Hazel doesn’t have the kind of power to stop a murder across the state, so she grabs her roomie and some costumes—cheapie, generic ghosts, just bedsheets with holes for eyes—and starts driving to a frat costume party in Charlotte with the intention of stopping a deadly stabbing. If that setup isn’t one of the best I’ve ever read, I don’t know.

As this pair of seventy-something ladies traverses the state, Lin-Greenberg really builds their characters. Each of them loved their husbands, of course, and neither could afford to live alone. We find, however, that they’re not exactly close friends, as Hazel is not only an amateur psychic, but kind of a right-wing kook as well. For example, she believes the two black guys living across the street are obviously rappers, and that their pet cat is a serval that might eat her own cat, Millicent. Why does she believe that? Because she read saw on Fox News once that rappers have been buying servals. It’s a funny bit—the protagonist makes it clear that the guys aren’t rappers nor is their cat a serval—but Hazel will have none of it. While she seems to truly have the gift, the sixth sense, she has terrible human instincts. This makes for lots of interesting conflict between the two ladies, which is pretty funny on the surface, but reveals some tragic flaws in Hazel, which come to play later (because that’s how short stories work).

When the ladies get to the college in Hazel’s vision, they attempt to enter the first frat party they find in their bed sheet costumes, but are quickly denied access. Hazel wants to give up, but our hero presses her forward, which soon becomes her main characteristic: Hazel’s foil, Hazel’s motivator. The two set off across campus, Hazel leading and our protagonist prodding, and they—these seventy-something women dressed like Charlie Brown—seek to stop a murder. The story has a long way’s to go from here before resolution, but I won’t go any further in revealing plot, as I can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t ruin it. This story is such a wonder, though, because of these characters, this predicament, and how smoothly Lin-Greenberg guides them through their journey on this dangerous, yet sort of hilarious, mission. She strikes the right balance between humor and suspense and empathy, not once treating these seniors like stereotypes (remember those rapping grannies from eighties commercials?), or predictably. I enjoyed every word of this story and can’t remember the las time I was so flat-out entertained.

All the stories I read in Faulty Predictions are impressive, Karin Lin-Greenberg writing an excellent debut. Yet another great Story366 discovery, one I’ll be glad to get on the shelf, to have it there for whenever I need it (but mainly to know it’s there, with all the others).

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August 22: “Contributor’s Note” by Michael Martone

Happy birthday to me, Story366! I’ve been waiting for this post all year. Is it because I like aging? Is it because I like receiving warm wishes? Is it because I like cake and presents? A couple of those are true, but really, I’ve been waiting because I’ve been holding off on covering Michael Martone until today, as IT’S HIS BIRTHDAY, TOO!!! I have long admired Michael’s work—he’s one of my most direct and traceable influences—and for almost twenty years, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the guy, too—he’s one of my favorite people in the whole writing world. I ran into him at AWP  in LA and he told me I was doing a good job on Story366, which of course means the world to me. I thanked him and said that I was holding out for our birthday to cover him, so here I am, celebrating with Michael Martone, Valerie Harper, Ivan Lendl, Beanie Man, Kristin Wiig, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Richard Armitage, Carl Yastrzemski, Ray Bradbury, one of the Backstreet Boys, the Loch Ness monster, and a whole bunch of other people with whom we share today.

I’ve read everything that Martone has put out except Michael Martone by Michael Martone, which I finally picked up at AWP this year (already with the intention of reading it for today), and got more than halfway through it before it was time to go to my birthday dinner. I’ve always been a fan of his work, especially his high-concept projects. Early in his career, in Alive and Dead in Indiana and Fort Wayne Is Seventh on Hitler’s List, he wrote a lot about his home state, Indiana, often from the POV of famous Hoosiers. I first met him when he visited Bowling Green, around 1998, and he had just released Penseés: The Thoughts of Dan Quayle, a whole book of shorts from the perspective of the former VP and fellow statesman. I published one of his 4-themed stories in Mid-American Review, over fifteen years before that book, Four for a Quarter: Fictions, was finished and came out. He published The Blue Guide to Indiana, which features fake Indiana tourist spots, written exactly like the Blue Guide travel series. The great thing about these projects is that Martone knows that they’ll become books one day and in his cover letters, he explains to the editor what he’s doing, how the individual piece fits in, and editor after editor falls in love and publishes them. My last two projects, Chicago Stories and the Breakup Stories book, are modeled after this type of project. I wouldn’t be this me without Michael Martone.

Michael Martone by Michael Martone might be his most clever, well conceived, and well executed concept. Each story is titled “Contributor’s Note,” save one, which is titled “Vita,” hidden in the middle of the book, and each story, more or less, begins “Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Inidiana, in 1955 …” then diverges from there. In each piece, Martone fabricates a fake mini-biographies of himself, focusing on different aspects of his (fake) life. They are fashioned like contributors notes in literary magazines, though most are much longer, running several pages. The real miracle: Martone actually talked twenty or so literary magazine editors into publishing these pieces in the contributor’s notes section of their magazines. This probably took the most legwork, the most convincing of any of Martone’s projects, as again, many of these stories—or “fictions,” as Martone would call them, as they don’t necessarily have antagonists, conflict, etc.—are several pages long. So picture a lit mag like Ninth Letter or Sou’wester, Martone’s name on the back cover. You flip to the table of contents and don’t find his name there, nor do you find any work in the contents of the mag. Later, you flip through the contrib notes, and smack dab in the middle of everyone’s fifty-word bios is this seven-page monstrosity of a note, which is actually Martone’s story, his contribution. I’ll have to ask him who was the first, what mag agreed to this before seeing anyone else do it, becoming the first. What an idea, but kudos to him, equally, for actually pulling it off.

Since Martone isn’t afraid to spit in the face of lit mag convention, I’ll spit a little at Story366 convention today and discuss the stories in the book in general instead of any particular piece. Remember, just about all of them have the same title, and when you read a dozen or more of them in a row, they do tend to slightly run together. That’s intentional, though, Martone building a rhythm, a lyricism, and some patterns. Most of these patterns are contradictions (what someone might call “lies”), Martone in one story describing how he got his job at Alabama, while in another, he depicts himself as a lifelong grave digger. In one piece, Martone reveals that his mother, a high school English teacher, is the actual author of his early creative work, but in another, she dies during childbirth. Martone discusses his family a lot, plus his career, his travels, his accomplishments, and yes, his Indiana, which he can’t seem to escape. Each piece reads as much like a poem as it does an actual contributor note and I ate them up, one after another, enjoying the paths through his not-lives that he takes us down.

Like any great satirist, Martone is most sharp when he points the lens at himself, what makes this project so great. Reading through Michael Martone by Michael Martone, it’s easy to spot those inconsistencies, but after a while it makes sense: All of it is a tribute. Martone ribs his parents a lot, not always portraying them in the brightest of lights, but he does so because it’s clear he’s fond of them, that’s he’s incuding them in on the joke. Same thing with Indiana. He keeps going back to his beloved state because he loves it. He could write about Utah or Maine or Mississippi, but he doesn’t care about those states. The people and things close to Martone must be screaming, Me! Do me next!

Clearly, I’m a fan of Michael Martone and Michael Martone by Michael Martone might be my favorite thing he’s written. He’s done us all a great service with his teaching, editing (I use both his Scribner’s anthology and Not Normal, Illinois in my classes), and his innovation as a writer. He inspires me and continues to do so, year after year. Happy birthday, sir.

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August 21: “The Return of the Argentine Tango Masters” by Erin McGraw

Hello there, Story366! It’s Sunday night and in the morning, I begin my fall semester, marking the end of summer. Today also marked the end of the Olympics, as well as my time as a forty-two year old. It is truly a transitional day, and as I’ve referred to today as the New Year’s Eve for academics, I suppose I should put forth a resolution (as well as find a date and drink champagne). Like each actual New Year’s Eve, I don’t have very surprising or complicated goals for any given year, thinking I’ll lose weight, write more, spend more time with my family, and in general, try to be a better person.

It was this past New Year’s Eve, however, that I enacted my Story366 plan, decided to go forward with this idea that I’d devised at least a year earlier. So, in addition to all of those other usual suspects, I swore I’d read a story every day and write about it, posting on a blog (which I didn’t know how to make until around 5 p.m. on January 1, thanks to Karen). Nearly eight months later, here we are, me not missing a day, the resolution that I’ve kept far, far longer than any other.

Do I have any Story366 resolutions for the rest of the year? Actually, I don’t. I hope to finish things, of course, keep going for the last third of the year, to not miss a day, but that’s the same resolution I made when I got this all started. I’d like improve the Archives, though, so that’s something. I added the alphabetical listing at the start of summer—because that’s the kind of thing you take on at the start of summer. But I’d like to do a date-order archive, as well as a listing of presses. I’d also like to continue to round out the year with authors that I need to fit in, to continue to receive recommendations from you, the reader. What book/author haven’t I covered? What are your suggestions?

Finally, I’d like to do something with the books that are ineligible for Story366, the story collections I’ve already read. As the Story366 rules state that I have to read a new-to-me story every day, I can’t revisit collections that I’ve already read all the way through. There are so many, including friends like Seth Fried and Al Heathcock, authors I teach all the time like Aimee Bender and George Saunders, or authors I simply read and enjoyed, like Shannon Cain and Michael Nye. I want to give those authors and their books a shout-out, but I’ve read them already. How could I fit them in? I’m open to suggestions.

For today I read from Erin McGraw‘s collection Lies of the Saints, out from Chronicle Books. Not that anyone else probably does this, but I’ve alway confused this collection, on my bookshelf and in my mind, with Mary O’Connell‘s collection Living With Saints. I’d published one of the stories from O’Connell’s book in Mid-American Review, so I was happy to see it come out a few years later. That book features stories that fictionalize a different saint in each story, some of them about the saint, some actually from the saint’s POV. I’ve had McGraw’s collection on the shelf for a while, and honestly, hadn’t gotten to it because I’d assumed it was O’Connell’s. A recent shift of my Story366 workspace revealed the truth, so here we are, focusing on McGraw’s book (though I need to also now track down my copy of O’Connell’s, as I’d like to feature it here as well).

McGraw’s book isn’t really like O’Connell’s, as the lies of the saints aren’t really about actual Catholic saints, but about real people in contemporary times, sainthood and such more peripherally involved, perhaps just subtly implied. McGraw’s book is split into halves, the first just six random short stories, the second half a series of three interconnected stories called “Lies of the Saints.” I read a story from each half, including “Saint Tracy” from the back half, a story about a dad, his daughter, and their dog, which I like. I like today’s story, “The Return of the Argentine Tango Masters,” the collection’s lead story, a bit better, so let’s talk about that one.

“The Return of the Argentine Tango Masters” is about Gwen DeRitter, a radio call-in host in a small town in Indiana, who at the start of the story, is running late for work. Her alarm didn’t go off and there’s been some flooding, making her arrive at her station just five minutes before her show. Flustered, her boss giving her the stink eye, Gwen takes a call at the start of her show from a guy who’s very forward, who seems to know a lot about Gwen, who turns out to be Gwen’s ex-husband, Rafe, whom Gwen hasn’t seen or spoken to in fifteen years. Gwen is not happy to hear from Rafe, let alone be talking to him on the air, thus launching our story. Interesting character, interesting predicament—I was drawn in immediately.

Rafe’s call into Gwen’s show causes a bit of a local sensation, as it turns out, as Gwen’s normal listeners fall in love with Rafe. To Gwen, he was a verbally abusive ass hole whom she was glad to be rid of, but to her listeners, many of them lonely, middle-aged women, he seems like a romantic, a guy in search of a second chance, a chance they believe Gwen should afford him. Forget the fact that Gwen is happily remarried to a wonderful and patient guy named Leo, Gwen’s producer wants to make a bit out of it, Rafe calling in every day, for them to become a sort of team. During one of these early sessions, Rafe reveals his  favorite memory of his and Gwen’s marriage, the time they took a tango lesson at the Y, a revelation that launches the story in another direction: The same Argentinian tango teachers who taught the Rafe-Gwen class nearly twenty years before is willing to come back to Indiana, to the Y, and provide a reunion lesson, which Gwen’s boss and all of her listeners are enthusiastically in favor of.

That’s about as far as I’ll go, as revealing anything more would ruin the story. I’ll just express how much I admire this story. In the first couple of pages, we get the set-up, radio host taking a call from her ex, ex suddenly becoming part of her show, to her ultimate chagrin. Then McGraw keeps piling it on, making things more complicated with every page, yet still believable in every way. Rafe, whom we meet in person only briefly, is a tremendous character, this unstoppable, unkillable force who just keeps ruining Gwen’s sanity with each minor, and perhaps innocent, gesture. That’s the key, too, how multi-dimensional Rafe is. On one hand, he’s a monster, as he should know better, that he’s fucking with Gwen’s happiness. On the other, he’s making so many other people happy; in fact, every woman in Gwen’s listening range not only like his banter, but wants to date him, Rafe still trim, handsome, and boy can he tango. Worse, when Gwen tries to get rid of him on the air, at the tango reunion, only make her seem like a heartless bitch to her former fans, and all she die was rid herself of—or so she’d assumed—an abusive husband. What a story.

I like Erin McGraw’s stories, in Lies of the Saints, and in the other place I’ve read them. She’s a well established and talented author and I’m embarrassed to have waited so long to read this book, for Story366, or in general, thinking it was another book. Silly me.

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August 20: “Prospectus” by John Brandon

Play ball, Story366! Today I’m in my office, writing up syllabi (yes, school starts Monday), watching the Cubs, and writing today’s post. Today I posted a comment on Facebook about the Olympic gold medal men’s soccer game ending in a 1-1 tie (until Brazil won in penalty kicks), and bemoaned soccer (as I often have in my life) for having too many games ending in a tie, forcing not-soccer to resolve the match. A couple of hours later, no one’s argued with me, no die-hard footballers defending their sport, ripping on my beloved baseball in the meantime. Maybe it’s just Saturday evening and soccer fans are at pubs, shattering steins of ale over each other’s heads. Or maybe they just agree with me. It’s odd that a game, the most popular in the world, could be around so long, have such a tremendous core concept, and still have fundamental problems like this. It’s as if someone invented skyscrapers before they invented elevators: logistics and infrastructure need to fall into place.

During this same week, the MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred, is over-commissioning, announcing some ideas to shave five minutes or so off pro baseball games, history-altering moves like limiting pitching changes and outlawing shifts. Again, all to shave a few minutes off of game time, and somehow, at the same time, increase scoring. Even though the Cubs are selling out every game and more or less have for thirty-five years now, I fully understand that attendance and ratings are down in some MLB cities, that Mr. Commissioner is thinking that the way to get more asses in seats is to change 150-year-old rules. Outrageous prices have nothing to do with that, I suppose, as the commish didn’t exactly mention any ticket price freezes, let alone lowerings. I work at a Major League Baseball stadium and have for twenty-seven years now, and not once have I heard a fan complain that there are too many pitching changes or infield shifts; if the game is going on too long, they simply leave. How many fans, though, complain about the prices, of tickets, parking, and yes, the beers that I sell them? Dozens, every day. Hmm.

Let’s stick with the baseball theme tonight and discuss John Brandon‘s “Prospectus,” which is at least partly about baseball, the first scene set at a Little League game, because right now, the Cubs are winning 7-1 and I fucking love baseball. “Prospectus” is from Brandon’s debut collection, Further Joy, out from McSweeney’s, though Brandon is the author of three previous novels (all from McSweeney’s, who must like him or something). I began his book by reading the title story, “Further Joy,” and really liked it, assumed I would write about it. It’s a cool piece about these upper middle-class girls and their fathers, told in the fashion of One of the girls does this, one of the girls does that, one of the girls’ fathers is like this …, seemingly all of the sentences beginning with “One of the girls ….” Kind of reminded me of Rick Moody’s oft-anthologized “Boys.” I went to “Prospectus” next, and as soon as I found myself on a ball field, I knew I had today’s story.

“Prospectus” is about Marky Sessions, a Little League second baseman who can field but can’t hit. The story starts at one of his games, a game in which his team is losing, as usual, a hulkingly fat kid pitching for the other team and having his way with Marky and his mates. Marky displays some ingenuity during his second at bat (having been embarrassed in his first), just standing in the box, holding the bat straight out, across the plate, no matter what. The first pitch is out of the zone, but the ump calls it a strike—as he should, Marky’s bat out across the plate like he’s bunting—but the second pitch finds the barrel and is looped out into right for a hit. Soon, we’ll find out this is Marky’s main trait: The ability to figure his way out of a problem. Little League is just one part of his life in which he employs this skill.

Backing up a little, we get the set-up for the game in the first paragraph, but we also meet Nelson Greer, a mid-twenties guy who sits in the stands at a lot of Little League games, eating sandwiches and watching games. Marky notes his presence, which is important later, but just another detail in the first paragraph that could be a throwaway.

After the game, who Marky is and what the story is about starts to really come into focus. On his way home from the field, Marky stops by this guy’s house, a guy who’s going to make and sell Marky a huge drum for a band that he’s managing. Jokingly, the guy offers Marky a drink, but really, it’s easy to see why: Marky’s not yet a teen (or else he wouldn’t be in Little League), but he manages a band and makes deals with local craftsmen to invent musical instruments (which he thinks will make a promising band more memorable). And he just talks and acts like an adult. After the drum deal is signed, Marky heads home, where he lives with his uncle and cousin (Marky’s an orphan), and is clearly running the household. Great characterization from Brandon here, as the uncle is unemployed, but well meaning and collects everything he can, including chili recipes and vintage Japanese pornography (what a combo!). His cousin is obsessed with shooting things and knows it. Marky makes deals, invents things, consults, stunted only by his age and circumstances. Marky thirsts for more.

And that’s when we loop back to Nelson Greer, that guy from the Little League games who hangs out. In a lot of stories, Nelson Greer would seem like a creepy guy, someone who doesn’t have kids but likes to watch them play, the type of guy for whom they made the no-kids, no-entry rule at Chuck E. Cheese. But from Marky’s point of view, his smart, mature, confident perspective, it’s not really a thing. Greer is a guy who had it all, got fired for some insider training, and is a broken man. Marky doesn’t see a possible child molester, but a guy with skills, with something to prove, who’s also at peak buy time, his stock way low. I won’t go any further into the plot, or to explain this story, but I’ll say this: Marky is one fantastic character, one of my favorite protagonists all year on Story366.

Okay, Cubs up 8-2 in the eighth and this syllabi still need me to type “Fall 2016” over every place it says “Spring 2016.” Wait, what am I thinking? I just have to type “Fall” over “Spring,” as this is still 2016! I’ve just doubled my productivity! Anyway, I’m glad I got to John Brandon’s collection, though, as the stories I read were both really great and were really different from each other, one a traditional story featuring a fantastic lead, the other a stylistic exercise with equally great details. I like Further Joy a whole lot and hope to read more.

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August 19: “The Borovsky Circus Goes to Littlefield” by Aubrey Hirsch

Happy Friday, Story366! Yesterday, I lied to you. I started off the post by saying how I didn’t have any great anecdotes or topics to use as a lead-in, then went into a bit of a rant about academic meetings, but really, come on: Lochte. I posted a note about this guy on FB yesterday and got a semi-overwhelming response, more likes and comments than I usually get, as this whole Lochte thing was becoming the crazy news story of the year, if not the decade. Since yesterday, it’s calmed down a bit, as this just seems to be a case of vandalism, some drunk, privileged Americans embarrassing the hell out of our country. Still, why did these guys lie, make up a robbery? They had an incident with a gas station security guard, but they got away from it, were ready to leave the country. Then it dawned on me: Is this all about Ryan Lochte telling his mom that he was robbed—because he felt like he had to expunge some energy to someone, vent a bit, even if it was all untrue—and his mom relaying this on social media, making it a story? I think that’s exactly what happened, that Lochte told his mom some lie and she made it a story by taking it live. The IOC, NBC, and Brazil couldn’t ignore it at that point—moms are like that—so here we are, wherever we are now, an apology given and suspensions coming. All because his mom has Facebook.

Still, I’m dead-on, absolutely convinced that Ryan Lochte is still in Brazil, pretending to be in America. That’s the theory I’ll take to my grave, that I’ll believe until Ryan Lochte knocks on my front door and says, Hi, I’m Ryan Lochte. I’m in America. I mean, why only phone interviews? Why no footage of him getting on a plane? I think he’s hiding in the Olympic village with his blue-blond muss, calling Matt Lauer, trying to figure out what the fuck to do to save his endorsement and reality show deals. His cohort in all this just got fined $10,800 and was able to leave Brazil, so perhaps now he’ll pop out of his swim hole and proclaim, Here I am! Sorry! I want to go home! I want to go to the closing ceremonies! I’m Ryan Fucking Lochte!

We’ll see. I can’t wait.

For today’s post, I read from Aubrey Hirsch’s collection Why We Never Talk About Sugar, out from Braddock Avenue Books. I’ve read Hirsch’s stories in journals over the years and have always enjoyed them, so I was excited to get into this book and read a bunch of them in a row. I started with the title story, which is also the last story in the  book and a short, and loved that, then moved on to the opening story, “Leaving Seoul,” about this guy who goes to South Korea to teach English. After a series of misfortunes, he’s stuck there for years. I was originally thinking, Wow! That guy’s like Lochte! My lead-in will match up with my story discussion today! Then I read the next story, “The Borovsky Circus Goes to Littlefield,” which I like for the post for a lot of reasons, so here we go with a circus story (making me thinking of Cathy Day’s book from March 1).

“The Borovsky Circus Goes to Littlefield” is about a Russian circus, the Borosky Circus, that is on tour in Texas when all of a sudden, their backers pull out. This is possible because of a clause in their contract that no one in the circus knew about, none of them speakers of English. Their equipment and facilities are either returned, sold, or called back to Russia, while the performers and the animals (which belong to the performers), are left stranded in Littlefield, Texas, the tiniest and driest of places to be abandoned.

At first, the circus performers don’t know what to do, but eventually, they get help from the locals who sympathize with their plight. An abandoned women’s prison is turned into a dormitory—a lot like in the third and fourth seasons of The Walking Dead—the cages perfect for the animals (for obvious reasons) as well as  the performers, all of them used to the constrictive quarters. Even the elephants find a home in the gymnasium.

Eventually, the circus figures out that a prison yard is a decent place to not only practice their circus acts, to hone their skills, but to give live performances, and before long, the circus is on again, live from the abandoned women’s prison, and that’s most (but not all) of the plot of this story.

The plot of “The Borovsky Circus Goes to Littlefield” isn’t really the point of “The Borovsky Circus Goes to Littlefield,” however, or at least not the main reason I chose it as today’s focus. The story’s structure is the real interesting angle, as it’s told in a series of vignettes, each about a page-long and from a different one of the circus performers’ point of view. It’s a lot like the Song of Ice and Fire novels, if you read those, rotating point-of-view chapters, each chapter moving the story forward. The same thing happens here. We start with Sandeep, the tiger trainer, which is where we get the info on the backers backing out. Then we move on to the elephant trainer, then the strong man, where we find out about the prison accommodations, and so on. It’s a really cool way to tell a story, especially a short, different from Martin’s series because each person gets just one shot, one page, for their character to come alive, to have their story told. And then that’s it; Hirsch takes us to the next person, the next sketch, the plot moving forward at the same time. This is one I’ll definitely share with my classes, a story that will inspire an exercise. English 701 students, if you’re reading this, you might as well get started on your forward-moving, POV-switching stories now.

I really love Aubrey Hirsch’s Why We Never Talk About Sugar (as opposed to What We Talk About When We Never Talk About Sugar). I’d read some of these stories before in journals, and I’ve read a bunch more today, and I really like what she does, with her shorts, with her slightly longer stories, too. I know I’ll finish this book and await her next—this is one I’m going to remember long after the 366 run out.

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