September 29: “Miniature Elephants Are Popular” by Joe Meno

A pleasant Thursday to you, Story366! In yesterday’s post, I wrote about writer’s block, how  I had a harder time getting that post started than I had any other day this year, how I started the entry at least four other times before settling in and just writing about my inability to write. Today, I’m not going to do that (though I realize that so far, I’m writing about writing about writer’s block, which is worse), as I have a ton to do, it’s a beautifully sunny day, and I think I’ll just get into the story. After tomorrow, a lot of my pressures will be relieved and we have the MLB playoffs, the election, Halloween, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Today, though, let’s put the story back in Story366.

Today, I read a few pieces from Joe Meno‘s fantastic collection Demons in the Spring, out from Akashic Books. The first thing I’ll note about Demons in the Spring is how gorgeous it is as a physical product, both inside and out. It’s maybe the most beautiful hardcover book I’ve ever bought. Part of this might be because it was never sold with a dust jacket, unheard of for a cloth hardcover, so maybe I’m looking at it in an unusual way, that all books look as good as this one does, only I never take off the dust jacket to find out. Good theory, but the book also has a stunning design etched into the cloth, and some research online reveals that Akashic released several versions of the book, several illustrations available. Inside, Meno employed an army of artists to provide subtle but standout pieces to accompany his stories, the illustrations as eclectic as Meno’s own writing. So, not only a book, but a lovely object, the fruit of a lot of artists’ labor. I’m glad I picked up a copy (and so sad that there’s a stain on the bottom of the front cover, something my oldest son spilled on it, years ago, though it at least makes the book look loved).

The stories in Demons in the Spring exemplify the type of writer that Meno is. Meno possesses vast amounts of ingenuity and heart, as each of his stories, as whimsical as they sound when you read the title—like today’s story, “Miniature Elephants Are Popular”—they all pack quite a bit of emotional content. The book’s first story, “Frances the Ghost,” begins with that aforementioned whimsy, an elementary school girl who won’t take off the blanket she wears as a ghost costume (à la Peanuts); the story turns into so much more, however, as it’s revealed the girl’s father is serving overseas and her mother is starting to lose it, taking care of Frances and her two siblings (with no help from a forgetful grandma). I’ve read a lot of Joe Meno’s stories in the past—I’ve published some, in both Mid-American Review and Moon City Review—and this is not unlike him to be be brilliantly interesting and soulfully meaningful at the same time.

A story that exhibits this pretty masterfully is “Miniature Elephants Are Popular,” a mid-collection tale that I jumped to be cause the title intrigued me (in a sea on intriguing titles). “Miniature Elephants Are Popular” is the story of one Mr. Larchmont, an umbrella salesman and widower (not sure which is more depressing) who hears about the popularity of mini-elephants in on the radio and decides that this is how he’ll get himself out of his funk: a playful and adventuresome pet. Mr. Larchmont brings the elephant home and away we go.

Like most new pets, the mini-elephant is both what Mr. Larchmont wants and what he doesn’t. It’s fun having this new creature in his life, but it’s not like the elephant starts off playing fetch, rubbing against his leg, and waiting for him at the door, tail wagging,. As pets have to adjust to their new people, people have to adjust to their new pets. Eventually, the two find common ground, enjoying walks with each other, and the mini-elephant is on its way to becoming a member of the family (though neither Mr. Larchmont nor Meno ever bother to name it).

Things start to change, i.e., incident incited, when the elephant stops stone-still on one of their walks, staring downward into a sewer grate. Mr. Larchmont, at first, doesn’t know what the deal is, but when he peeks down into the sewer, he sees a human head, decaying, the mini-elephant’s gaze transfixed. Further investigation proves an unlikely skill/habit/quirk for the animal: It senses dead things. Like a police-trained German shepherd, Mr. Larchmont’s mini-elephant is not only drawn to dead creatures, but can sense where something has died. Again, Meno takes a comical and unusual concept and adds something grave. And again, to great effect.

After finding the human head, Mr. Larchmont realizes his mini-elephant will stop at the site of any recent death, including road kill and even rare steaks. He alters his walk routes, avoiding any place where death might have been present—cemeteries, of course, are a nightmare—but soon, word of his pet’s skills get out and Mr. Larchmont is employed to help people, mostly in missing persons cases; sadly, we know as readers, if they’re calling in Mr. Larchmont’s miniature elephant, hope has all but expired.

I thought for sure Meno would take “Miniature Elephants Are Popular” in a particular direction (hint: Mr. Larchmont is a widower), but Meno, as he does in all his writing, surprised me, going in a direction that I didn’t or couldn’t have predicted. What he came up with is better than anything I concocted in my head, a testament to how great this story is, from beginning to end.

I’m a big fan of Joe Meno and have been honored to publish him, read with him, host him for events. He’s a machine as a writer, as he’s penned quite a few novels and collections, some of them bestsellers. If somehow you’ve not read any Joe Meno yet, you’ve got to: He’s amazing at writing.

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September 28: “The Hunger Bone” by Debra Marquart

Greetings, Story366! Over the course of the year, I don’t think I’ve ever written about writer’s block on this blog. In general, it’s my belief that writer’s block doesn’t exist, that what people call writer’s block is actually I don’t feel like doing this right now. Maybe there’s a bit of I’m distracted thrown in there, but really, I don’t subscribe to some phenomenon that blocks creative processes. Students tell me they have writer’s block all the time—comes with the job—and I have a list of suggestions for how they can get around this, get words on the page: Take a break. Get up and walk around. Call your mom. Eat and/or drink something. Exercise (had to look this on up in the dictionary). Write something else, be it another creative project, something for another class, or an email. Whatever you have to do, remove your mind from the task at hand, then from there, see if you can reenter the atmosphere, put yourself in the right frame of mind, jog your creativity. I’ve said these things to students for over twenty years. I stick by them.

That said, this is about the fifth try I’ve made on today’s post. Because I’m in the midst of a super-busy week, I’ve been trying to get ahead on Story366, having written yesterday’s post the day before, meaning I had almost two whole days to write today’s. I even read from today’s book yesterday morning, planning to write the essay right away, maybe even get started on tomorrow’s post two days early. I had a Microsoft Word file opened at least four previous times, typing “Greetings, Story366!” and then stopping dead. What’s going on in the world? What’s interesting about me this week? Is this a holiday? Do I have some zany story about Debra Marquart to share? I kept staring at the screen, at that stupid “Greetings, Story366!” over and over. Then it hit me: I was having writer’s block. Noooooooooooooooooo!

Anyway, on the fifth try, here we are, and I’ve perhaps broken my writer’s block in the most cliché way possible: I’m writing about writer’s block. I’m not quite as cool or interesting—not nearly so—as Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, nor am I going to turn Marquart’s analysis into an investigation of my psyche, let alone the very nature of writer’s block. The only thing worse, the only thing more cliché, is if I would have started this post by quoting the Webster’s definition of short story in the first line. I’ll take solace in that fact (and am saving the Webster’s definition of story for another day).

And here we are at the point of the post where I start to discuss the story, so here goes: Today I read from Debra Marquart’s collection The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories, out from New Rivers Press as part of its Headwaters Series. Marquart had published some nonfiction in Mid-American Review when I was editor and had come to read at our Winter Wheat conference, and I remember her talking about this book, reading from it, a collection inspired by her other life as a singer in various rock bands (including one called The Bone People). The book alternates between short short stories and longer pieces, in an every-other pattern, and I was happy to read a few stories of each length. In the end, I’m picking the title story to write about today, the piece that best represents what Marquart is going for.

“The Hunger Bone” is about Sal, a musician-turned salesman, and the journey/transition he makes from one to the other (and perhaps back again). Sal has been in bands his whole adult life, trying to make it big, often getting to the point when he had what he describes as “cupboard-was-bare hunger,” that poor, that desperate for a gig. At one point—which we find out in a backstory scene, later in the story—Sal’s band takes a job playing 50s-type songs for rich people at a yacht club, a gig that their agent sells them on by explaining how nobody will recognize them and they’ll never have to see any of this people again. Hungry as he is, Sal takes the job, only the band doesn’t actually know any fifties staples. They fake it, playing those early-rock &-roll melodies, everyone in the crowd having a blast. One of the attendees likes Sal’s enthusiasm and presence so much, he offers him a job with his company: selling tombstones to the families of the recently deceased.

As the story begins, Sal is on the road with his band, piggybacking off his sales job. They are travelling the Midwest, Sal doing sales calls during the day, the band playing in dives at night. Sal had been surprised that morning, though, when Jack Kelly knocked on his door, telling Sal that he’d be accompanying him on calls that day. Sal’s no dummy—Jack is the company’s top salesman and Sal knows that Jack is there for one purpose: A last-ditch effort to turn Sal around. Has Sal done all that badly? As of the morning of Jack’s intervention, Sal had still not sold a single tombstone.

Most of the story, then, is this call that Sal goes on with Jack Kelly, to visit a Mr. Brecker, whose wife has recently passed, tragically, unexpectedly, and very young (in her thirties). Apparently, there is an actual law that says a salesperson can’t approach a grieving family for two weeks, so it’s exactly two weeks after Mrs. Brecker’s death that this pair comes a-callin’. From there, we get some of the ins and outs of tombstone sales, of sales in general, Sal watching a maestro at work. It’s not quite Glengarry Glen Ross, but there’s still some slick maneuvering by Jack, hoping to take advantage of the grieving widower; as legend tells it, Jack once sold an entire mausoleum to a woman simply by playing to her vulnerability. It’s this kind of business these men have entered into, the kind that needs for people to die and for people to be saddened by it for them to make money.

As it turns out, Sal’s not been a huge success as sales of this kind because he doesn’t have the stomach for it. I won’t reveal any more of the plot—you can read more for yourself—but in the end, Sal’s a musician, an artist, and a poet, not someone who manipulates people for personal gain. He’s an interesting character, for sure, this tortured soul, a guy who sadly fails at something he loves and something he doesn’t all the same—depending on how you (or Webster’s) defines failure. Good thing for Sal his heart’s in at least one of them.

I liked the stories I read in The Hunger Bone, Debra Marquart taking her readers to the world of hard playing and hard living, the loneliness and excitement of a musician’s life on the road. It’s one of the more intriguing themed collections I’ve read all year, a book in which the characters all start off as interesting—they’re musicians—Marquart taking them in all different directions. A solid, solid read.

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September 27: “Nothing But the Dead and Dying” by Ryan W. Bradley

How’s it hanging, Story366! I hope you are all recovered from last night’s debates and the after-debate parties. Now it’s Tuesday, which means garbage day around these parts, and if you want to extract some sort of metaphor linking those two things, then go ahead. I got nothing that doesn’t already speak for itself. Or that social media hasn’t already gobbled up and spit out in the form of memes. I can add nothing.

For today’s post, I read from Ryan W. Bradley’s collection, Nothing But the Dead and Dying, out from Civil Coping Mechanisms. Full disclosure here, Ryan designed the cover for my third book, I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories, a cover that I love, love, love, so I have a soft spot in my heart for him regardless. And honestly, I haven’t read much of Ryan’s work, so I was more than happy to rectify that for today, enjoying several of the stories from this collection.

Nothing But the Dead and Dying uses a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song, “My Little Town” for its title, something I can see as I read these stories. These pieces reveal the small but desperately serious problems of people in rural America, and while it’s not clear if all of these people are living in the same small town (Bradley’s website reveals they all take place in Alaska), down-and-outers from the towns between the towns on the map are well represented here. At times, Bradley depicts some regular, working-class agendas, but at other times, he really reaches for the fringe element, delving into the most desperate of the desperate. At times the collection feels very working class, and at other times, it feels more like Daniel Woodrell, Donald Ray Pollack, or Frank Bill, writers who I’ve already covered this year on this blog.

And since we favor extremes at Story366, I am of course going to write about one of the stories that lies on said fringe, the title story, “Nothing But the Dead and Dying.” It’s the first story I read, which set a particular bar for the collection, in terms of intensity, effect, and nastiness. The story is about a trio of teens stuck in a love triangle, if you can use the word “love” to describe anything in this story. Sarah, who is in the middle of all of this, is pregnant, only she doesn’t know if it’s Tug’s baby—he’s her steady—or if it’s Holt’s, Tug’s best friend. Sarah hasn’t told Tug about the baby, let alone about her affair with Holt, leaving that to Holt, who still likes Tug as a best friend. Tug, meanwhile, does a lot of meth (as does Holt and Sarah) as Tug’s Uncle Pete is the local gourmet. Pete (we get a section of his POV, too) considers bringing Tug into the family business, but he knows Tug is flat-out too dumb; Pete has a good thing going and makes a lot of money and doesn’t need Tug screwing that up (yeah, this is a lot like the Frank Bill story I covered this summer). Consolation prize for Tug: Uncle Pete gives him his meth for cheap because a) he’s his nephew, and b) it’s kind of Uncle Pete’s fault that Tug’s dad, Pete’s old partner, is doing a long stretch in the clink for … drumroll … selling meth!

So, this is the world that Bradley is describing here, though it’s the extreme case I found so far in his book. The other stories let up on the gas a little bit, examining some folks with a considerably larger shred of human decency, not to mention common sense. Does that mean I dislike “Nothing But the Dead and Dying?” No, I liked the story a lot, for its honesty, its shock value, and the risks Bradley takes in telling it, including POV shifts to whichever character need to be telling the story at any particular moment. I won’t reveal what happens to this merry band, as you can read it and find out for yourself, but I’ll give you a hint: They have Jordan almonds at the baby shower, the pastel kind, which match the nursery.

Or not.

I like all the stories I read in Ryan Bradley’s Nothing But the Dead and Dying, straightforward, real tales about people who don’t seem to have been born with a lot of luck, who don’t seem to make a lot on their own. Bradley dishes it, dishes it hard, making for a sobering read.

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September 26: “The Year We Are Twenty-Three” by Jessica Hollander

Good Monday to you, Story366! Tonight, I’m working on various projects around the office, watching the Cubs, and more or less avoiding the presidential debate. Really, I should be watching, and I more or less I want to, but since I have a few rather large projects that need working on, I’m using those as my excuse to shirk my responsibilities as an American and as a fan of theater. This is historic stuff we’re dealing with, for a lot of reasons. Plus, already this year, the debates have proven to be endlessly entertaining. I mean, it’s one thing to watch the Republicans hopefuls yell at each other, insult one another, weed themselves out with strange, unpresidential behavior (or, in one case, use it to seal the nomination); it’s another thing, however, to watch the winner of that melee face a flawed yet rational and experienced and ultra-qualified politician. In short, I wonder how far the insulting  lying is going to go, if Trump is just going to attack Clinton like he did Jeb Bush, or if he acts more civil, opting instead of the boring but effective Benghazi-email 1-2 combo. I won’t be watching until tomorrow—I really have a lot of work to do—but whatever happens, I’ll watch the clips.

That said, I stumbled upon a political connection in today’s book, In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place by Jessica Hollander, out from the University of North Texas Press as a winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize. I read several stories from Hollander’s collection, starting with the title piece, which is a series of deconstructed events in the lives of a particular family, cut into three parts, each part broken into several numbered chapters. This disjointed narrative would have been a good choice for today’s post, as was an earlier story in the collection, “This Kind of Happiness,” about a young pregnant woman who has to make choices about her future. As soon as I started reading “The Year We Are Twenty-Three,” however, it was pretty obvious I was going to write about it instead.

“The Year We Are Twenty-Three” is about a young couple (the female half is the unnamed protagonist), twenty-three years old, fresh out of college, working not-dream jobs, she managing a gym for the dawn shift, he a clerk at a grocery store. Hollander sets up their lives with minute and quirky details, including their whining refrigerator, their discourteously loud neighbors, and the fact that they aren’t married and aren’t planning to change that any time soon. One morning, pre-work, our protagonist turns on the kitchen light to find two cockroaches doing it in the middle of the linoleum floor. She wakes Cedric, her man, who sprays them with Raid, and it’s noted that the roaches try to get away, but can’t, their coitus somehow bonding them in love, then in horrible, poisonous death (soon to be topped off by the stomping of a random shoe). It’s pretty obvious this is a metaphor, this young couple with such loose plans, betrothed by convenience (and sex when they can get it), but really nothing else. Is this pair headed for a horrible death? A horrible breakup? That’s what Hollander is implying, anyway, as she gets things started.

From there, Hollander settles us into the couple’s routine, which is sad and lonely. Our gym manager works from 5 a.m. until 2 p.m. and Cedric works from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m., meaning that she pretty much has to stay up way past her bedtime to spend any time with him at all. It’s a coexistence more than a relationship, but Hollander has them make due. Mainly, they correspond by taping notes to the refrigerator, tidbits of bumper-sticker philosophy, loving and poignant and somewhat related to their lives. It’s a neat device, a clever way for them to communicate; or, really, not communicate.

At work, our protagonist faces a problem that she can’t handle: Half of the people at her gym have decided to be nudists, not only in the locker room, but in the common areas of the gym, and worse, all over the exercise equipment. This group of nudists she dubs the “liberals,” while the group of clothed half of the populace she calls the “conservatives;” see, I told you there was a connection to tonight’s debate! In any case, our hero has to solve the nudist problem or else her boss is going to fire her. This is the story that Hollander creates for us, a couple trying to figure out life while one half of it tries to solve a pretty interesting (and also metaphorical) problem at the same time. (And to note, a rare occasion when I’m for the conservatives—gotta wear pants at the gym, folks.)

I won’t go any further with plot details, as you’ll have to read for yourself to find out how the issues get worked out (if they do), both the nudist problem and this couple’s relationship. Hollander employs the refrigerator notes to the max, the device becoming more than a device, both a respite and a crutch. I loved this story for this and a lot of reasons.

In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place is filled with family and relationship stories, Jessica Hollander really twisting the dynamic of the domestic landscape in each and every one. Theme isn’t the only thing to point out, though, as many of the stories utilize interesting forms as well as varied syntax, each piece original in voice as well as style: Hollander obviously pays as much attention to how the stories sound as she does to what happens. On top of that, each story offers something new, yet also works as part of a cohesive unit. This is a fabulous collection.

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September 25: “Witch” by Roland Sodowsky

Story366, how are you? It’s a rainy Sunday here in Springfield, which makes me happy that the Cub Scout campout ended around nine this morning, well before the sky opened up. The only real downside is that I spread our tent out in the back yard because I needed it to dry (that’s dew for you) and now it’s, you know, even more wet. Still, the campout was a ton of fun. The deciding factor was always going to be how our three year old would react, having never been camping before. On the way, me and the older boy were commenting how the little one didn’t really know what camping was, just that every once in a while, we packed up the car with this weird gear and drove off for a couple/few days without him. Instead of going to a campground and setting up a tent, we could have literally driven to a Walmart and just slept in the car all night and he wouldn’t have known the difference. “That’s camping, man!” But that’s cruel, though, so we just went regular camping instead. And he loved it.

Oh, one more thing. When we were leaving, I put the little one into his car seat and almost instantly, this giant spider crawled up his leg. I brushed it off him right away—and yes, I let out a high-pitched scream—but managed to pick it up with this a piece of paper. Here’s the best shot of it I got:

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I keep imagining what would have happened if that spider waited until we got on I-44 to start its journey. The little guy would have started screaming and I would probably have been like, “Hey, just chill out. We’re almost home,” not knowing that some movie monster was making its way toward his throat. So, camping!

Back home, I read from Roland Sodowsky’s collection Things We Lose, which won the AWP Short Fiction Award back in 1989, before it was called the Grace Paley Prize and before it was put out by the University of Massachusetts Press—Sodowsky’s was put out by the University of Missouri Press. I got this book when I met Sodowsky at Pittsburg State University, where I interviewed for a job the same year I got my current Missouri State job. Sodowsky, as it turns out, was a professor here at Missouri State for quite some time, but retired and moved to Pittsburg with his wife, Laura Lee Washburn, PSU’s poetry prof. Ironically, I ended up here in his old job. Now, four years later, I finally cracked his collection.

As it turns out, Things We Lose is a themed collection, as all of the stories’ protagonists are white westerners living in Africa, on the continent to work various jobs, adjusting to local cultures and realities. I read a few of the stories in the book (though not the title piece, which is long novella), enjoying them all, and will write about “Witch,” my personal favorite.

“Witch” is about this American couple living in Africa, a story told from the husband’s point of view. He’s employed at the Harbourworks on a dredging operation, apparently making good money, good enough to move himself and his wife to Africa. His wife, Mary, isn’t doing so well, though, as she’s stopped doing a lot of the things she liked to do back home, like swim and read, sleeping the days away alone in bed. So, lots of basic tension already going on as the story starts.

On top of all this, on his cab rides home, our protagonist notices a woman sitting very still, in the same spot on the side of the road, every day. He asks the cabbie what the deal is and the cabbie tells him the woman is a witch. Our hero attempts to find out what he means—miscarriages might be involved—but doesn’t get much info: She’s simply a witch. He gets home, discovers that Mary has never gotten out of bed, and makes a suggestion: Mary should help the witch, the unmoving woman he’s been seeing, see if she can do something to change her life. They argue fiercely but eventually leave the subject alone.

What happens from there is unexpected and interesting and well played by Sodowsky. Indeed, Mary engages with this so-called witch, but perhaps it’s the witch who helps her more than she helps the witch. Remember, this is a book about white westerners having to adjust to African society, not the other way around. Out of the three stories I’ve read, none exemplies this more than “Witch,” in the scene when our protagonist finds his wife out by the road, sitting still next to this local woman. This story, and apparently all of them in Things We Lose, show how this large continent takes people over, makes them succumb to its will, altering what the characters expect. They all lose something, as the book’s title suggests, and our protagonist in “Witch” loses Mary.

There’s more to “Witch” than this, more in-between, including an attempt to find a missing ring and some backstory that helps explains why the couple made such a drastic move, but I’ll leave that for you to discover. I really enjoyed “Witch” for a lot of reasons and am glad I found Roland Sodowsky on my shelf, which very well could have been, at one time, his shelf, too.

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September 24: “Paco, Dreaming” by Rosellen Brown

Happy Saturday, Story366! Today is harried. My boys and I are set to head out to Cub Scout camp for an overnighter, but of course, I have to get my post up before I go because this is one of those campouts that does not encourage blogging and laptops and machines that light up when plugged into a wall. Can’t wait to get to camp and get set up, but between this blog and the reading hangover—Laura Hendrix Ezell read at MSU yesterday and was amazing—I’m a bit frenzied, with a few steps to go between now and then.

So let’s get to it. Today I read from Rosellen Brown‘s collection Street Games, a book I picked up when Brown came to visit Bowling Green quite a while ago. That was actually her second visit to BG in about seven years. The first time, right when I got to BG in ’95, she talked a lot about Before and After, her book which had recently been turned into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson. She talked about that a lot, revealed some on-set details, like meeting with Streep, who was researching the role. It was the first time I’d ever heard talk about that aspect of writing, the film world, and it seemed glamorous and exotic. Both of her visits were memorable, mostly, though, because she’s a terrific writer and reader, and at the same time, extremely generous as a visitor.

Street Games was reissued by Norton in 2001, which is the version I have, but actually came out originally in 1974 from Doubleday and then again in 1991 from Milkweed, making this the first three-time release I’m reviewing for Story366 this year (in case you’re keeping track), and by far, the oldest stories as well. I jumped around Street Games, taking in a piece here and there. To note, the stories are all about people living and working on George Street in New York. In fact, each story has a heading at the top of the first page in addition to the title, an address, Brown traveling up and down the block. She tells the stories from the people who live in the apartments, the duplexes, and the houses, along with a few businesses, such as the bodega on the corner in the opening story, “I Am Not Luis Beech-Nut.” Today I’ll write about “Paco, Dreaming,” however, about a family living at 251 George, in the basement apartment.

“Paco, Dreaming,” does feature a character named Paco, but he’s not really the protagonist, not right away. The story is about his mother, Ines, who is up early, cleaning and cooking while all her children, pets, and other various relatives sleep. She is on fire, the house sparkling, and has shifted her attention to the food. Distracted and hurrying and taking her skills for granted, Ines tries to unclog the blender with her hand, something stuck in the blades. Just like that, she hears a snap, blood is sprayed across the entire kitchen, and her fingers are no longer attached, a crimson mixture inside the pitcher. Everyone’s sleeping, so Ines has to wake her most trustworthy offspring, Paco, who, after some panic and wonder, takes his mother to the emergency room. There, she’s repaired, at least as much as is possible at this point, coming out with a boxing glove-sized cast.

And really, that’s the forward-moving plot of the story, though there’s a lot more going on thematically and structurally. Right after Ines loses her fingers, there’s a scene change to a disturbing place not far from George Street, where Papi works, a place that sets an odd tone. The last scene, on the way home from the hospital, shifts to Paco’s point of view, revealing a bit of his consciousness, his take on this event. So, not a traditional story by any means, at least in not how it’s told, and I like those surprises that Brown made, over forty years ago. “Paco, Dreaming” is about more than just a traumatic and macabre home accident. She gives the family in 251 George a more holistic approach, exposing us to a trio of people instead of one.

I’ve read a few of Rosellen Brown’s books now and have enjoyed all of them. She’s certainly one of our most enduring talents, and Street Games, an early book and her only collection of stories, is worth taking a look, all these years later.

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September 23: “Against Specificity” by Douglas Watson

Happy Friday, Story366! This morning began a hectic forty-eight hours in the life of your short story blogger. As noted yesterday, Laura Hendrix Ezell is in town to give a reading and hang out with students. She’s visiting all my classes, talking about her awesome collection of stories, A Record of Our Debts, which won Moon City Press‘s Moon City Short Fiction Award. At the same time, Karen will be heading up to Kansas City for a reading, promoting her also-awesome poetry collection No More Milk. Somewhere in the midst of all this, we still have these two sons that need to get to and from school and eat and such. All in all, a fun day, but that’s just today. Tomorrow, me and the boys take Laura to the airport early, then have to pack up and go camping overnight with the Cub Scouts. That’s not normally a hard thing, only since Karen will be on her way to Chicago for two Saturday readings, I gotta take the three-year-old boy camping. He’s game for it, or at least he thinks he is. Who knows how sleeping in the tent in the middle of the woods is going to play once it’s happening? Regardless, by Sunday morning, we’ll be on our way home, as will Karen (albeit from much further away), and life will return to to normal. Living life, I like to call it, although sometimes I wish living life involved sleeping more than it’s going to involve this weekend.

For today’s entry, I read several stories from Douglas Watson‘s collection The Era of Not Quite, winner of a BOA Short Fiction Prize from BOA Editions. I like all the stories I’ve read, teetering between writing about the title story—”The Era of Not Quite,” about this guy who wants to ask a librarian out but can’t bring himself to do it—and the lead story, “Against Specificity.” As you’ve probably read the title of today’s entry by now, you know I’m going with the latter, so here we go, “Against Specificity.”

“Against Specificity” is a second person story, in the most basic terms, as it uses “you” as the main character, directing it’s narration at this pronoun. It’s a bit different than a lot of second-person stories I’ve read, that I’ve covered here on Story366, not really an imperative second person like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel or a straight-up second-person narration like an early Lorrie Moore story. It’s more of a hypothetical second person, I’ll dub it, a sort of royal you, as the narrator tells you that he/she wants Thing A but instead has Thing B. The story, from there, explains why Thing A is so great and why you wants it instead of Thing B, as well as what you has to do to swap Thing B for Thing A.

As you (random Story366 reader, not the character in “Against Specificity”) can probably tell, “Against Specificity” is a satire, something that pokes at human nature, our whims, our fickleness. And all of that is certainly true, right from the start, that first sentence that sets up the need for Thing A over Thing B. I love the concept, love the execution, love the story.

What really stands out about “Against Specificity,” however, is how long that Watson is able to maintain this premise, how long that we as readers are interested in this story, a story that, by design, lacks detail. We have no idea what the hell Thing A or Thing B (or Thing C or D or so on) is, but it doesn’t matter. Why? Watson makes his point. It’s not only satire, but a deconstruction of story and its elements. It’s less didactic and metafictional than, say, “Lost in the Funhouse,” but broken down to the bare bones of fictional elements nonetheless. I care about the narrator, you, and whether or not he or she was able to go down to the Thing Exchange and swap Thing B for Thing A. I care about her/his frustrating wait in the empty office before a representative would consider her/his case. I thought the bait-and-switch approach—offering up Things C, D, and so on instead—was amusing, poignant in a different way. And once a deal is finally struck, you safe at home and enjoying her/his bounty, I love the introspective, philosophical sidecut that Watson takes this story.

I’d not read any Douglas Watson before today, but I’ve been missing out. I read a handful of stories from The Era of Not Quite last night, then gobbled up a few more today, when I had some free moments. It’s a truly standout collection, in the vein of some of the great satirists and absurdists, writers like Vonnegut, Barthelme, and Coover, a collection I’ll certainly finish, go back to again.

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September 22: “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Say hey, Story366! I’m getting pretty excited because as soon as I finish this post, I get drive across town and pick up Laura Hendrix Ezell at the airport, as she’s in town for a reading at MSU tomorrow. I have been rereading her excellent book A Record of Our Debts all this week, and am oh so glad that we snagged this collection out of the 2015 Moon City Short Fiction Award entries. I hadn’t read Laura’s book since very early this year, and had never read it in anything but online manuscript form. To actually hold a finished copy in my hands and enjoy it has been a wonder, adding to the experience of the book. Charli Barnes’ amazing design and cover art really make the project complete, a wonderful book on the whole. Too bad for Laura that she was stuck in Atlanta for a few hours as they fixed her plane—inducing all kinds of confidence in her flying machine, I’m sure—but hopefully, she had a good book. Or can sleep in airports. More on Laura tomorrow, as that’s when she’s visiting all my classes and doing her reading and signing. I’m stoked.

For today’s post, I read a couple of stories from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s collection The Thing Around Your Neck, out from Knopf. Adichie is a Nigerian writer who’s had a lot of success, notably in the United States, as all three of her novels have won awards of some kind or another, including the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist Half of a Yellow Sun. Despite her stories appearing in some notable magazines and anthologies, I hadn’t read anything by her before. So I started with the title story, “The Thing Around Your Neck,” which I enjoyed a great deal and thought I’d be writing about when I’d finished (plus, it’s a great second-person story, which I’m always on the lookout for for my classes). Then I read the last story in the book, “The Headstrong Historian,” and changed my mine: I had my story.

“The Headstrong Historian” is about Nwamgba, a woman living in southern Nigeria around the start of the twentieth century. She resides in a small village and as a child, falls in love with the sweet Obierika. When it’s time for families to make matches of their children, Nwamgba wants Obierika, and the feeling’s mutual, but Obierika has a history of miscarriages in his family and many of Nwamgba’s family members are concerned, wanting her to pick a better prospect. Love wins out, however, and Nwamgba’s father allows the union.

Sadly, the curse on Obierika’s family persists and Nwamgba has a string of miscarriages, devastating to the couple. As polygamy is legal in their village, friends and relatives suggest that Obierika take another wife—implying this is all Nwamgba’s fault—and even Nwamgba is starting to believe it’s a good idea. Lo and behold, before this happens, Nwamgba gets pregnant again and gives birth to what will be the couple’s only child, Anikwenwa.

Sadly, “The Headstrong Historian” becomes a story of survival, as Obierika dies rather young—everyone (especially Nwamgba) suspects he was poisoned by his cousins, who were set to inherit his lands and titles—and Nwamgba has to figure out how to fend for herself and son. She fends off the pesky cousins, manages to survive, all with a persistent slavery looming from white invaders and other African villages. Nwamgba stays strong, makes the right decisions, and this widow in a patriarchal stronghold does a pretty good job of making her way.

Eventually, to avoid the worst for her son (slavery), Nwamgba sends Anikwenwa off with some white Christian missionaries, where he’ll learn the word of Christ and become a teacher (i.e., converter) for his village. In some ways, it’s the right idea, but in others, it drives Anikwenwa away from his Nigerian heritage. Before long, he’s baptized as “Michael” and is trying to convince the people he grew up with that there is one but god, who has a son, but no wife, etcetera, etcetera. Nwamgba is torn, as she’s happy that her only child is safe, but at the same time, his culture being stripped from him isn’t what she wanted, either.

“The Headstrong Historian” moves through Nwamgba’s entire life, covering a couple of generations of her family. Anikwenwa marries and has a child of his own (though only after several miscarriages), forcing Nwamgba to watch her granddaughter grow up inundated with Christian values. I’ll stop there, in terms of the plot, but “The Headstrong Historian” is one of the more powerful and moving stories I’ve read for Story366 this year, as the ending—reached not by Nwamgba, but by her progeny—is as touching and as endearing as any ending I’ve come across; I just about cried when I finished. It’s really wonderful.

I’m so glad to have discovered Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for this project, yet another Story366 victory, finding an author I wouldn’t have otherwise. Adichie is special, too, with strong, meaningful stories, tales that exposed me to a part of the world, and people, I’ve never read about before. On top of everything else, I learned something today.

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September 21: “The Mayor” by Matt Rowan

What’s up, Story366? Coming at you on this fine Wednesday evening. I’ve been teaching and in meetings all day today, so I really don’t know what’s going on in the world, except of course, maybe the biggest news story of the century so far: Brad and Angelina are divorcing. I usually don’t pay any heed to this kind of thing (except, actually, always), only his Bradness is from here in Springfield, local royalty by definition, so this story has direct impact on me and everyone I know and love (except, actually, not at all). It’s been fun to hear about the arrival of the royal couple in town, someone spotting a private plane land at the airport, a limo waiting to take the family to stately Pitt Manor, some baggage handler or mobile staircase pusher cashing in with the local news station. When the couple’s kids were younger, before I lived here, there were sightings at Chuck E. Cheese, which, admittedly, would have been pretty weird/cool/surreal, even for the staunchest declarers of “I don’t care,” Angelina playing Whack-a-Mole while Brad holds armloads of tickets. They are as suspect as all of us of those animatronic animals on stage, singing and making jokes, their eyes haunting our dreams and theirs. Alas, no more … at least until he marries another gorgeous starlet and has kids some with her.

Tonight I’m writing about one of the really good people in this whole literary world, the kind and abominable Matt Rowan. Matt and I both identify as Chicago-types, so we have a history of running into each other at events, hanging out, pouring back more than our share. He’s a great literary citizen as well, working at reading series and editing journals, currently serving as Fiction Editor for Another Chicago Magazine. And of course, since we’re talking about him here, h’s a writer with a short story collection, Why God Why, from Love Symbol Press. The book is basically a collection of shorts, the pieces running from two to six pages, so I got to read quite a few before I had to get writing here. Like with all collections of shorts covered on Story366, it’s really hard to pick just one piece—often, my write-up is longer than the story I’m writing about—plus I genuinely like all the stories in Why God Why. Because I have to pick one—Story366 is a strict master—I’m going with “The Mayor,” the tenth or so story in the collection.

“The Mayor” is about a small-town mayor who steals sections of pavement from the town in which he’s mayor. He has guys lift the sections of pavement from the city streets and stack them in his kitchen, then his living room. The people asked him to fix the streets, but instead of doing that, he stole the roads, claiming them for himself. No one knows why, but they do know he’s doing it, not like he could keep something like that a secret.

So it seems like this story is a surreal, if not magically real metaphor for how politicians work, how our elected officials tend to be crooked, taking from us instead of providing. I mean, that’s pretty obvious, too obvious to call it a metaphor. That’s an interesting story right there, regardless of what you call it. But Rowan’s a better writer than that, doing more with the concept than a simple A = B metaphor. The whole town incensed, the mayor’s car starts to give him shit about stealing the sections of the road. What seemed a bit surreal already—the pieces of pavement were being grabbed and moved around like sections of drywall, and pavement doesn’t work like that—but the fact that the mayor’s car starts talking to him, as a guilty conscience, changes the story, making it a different type of story, an absurdity, or maybe a satire of absurdity.

Again, since this is a short, I think that’s what you need to know about “The Mayor” to understand what the story is like, what all the stories in Matt Rowan’s Why God Why are like. Rowan emulates some of my favorite short-short writers, including Amelia Gray, Lyndsay Hunter (who blurbs Rowan here), Stephen Dixon, and Donald Barthelme. At the same time, he delivers his own, unique perspective, a voice that’s playful, terse, deep, and poignant. I like Rowan’s work as much as I like him (an avid Story366 fan, to note), and I like him a whole lot.

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September 20: “Clothed, Female Figure” by Kirstin Allio

Say hey, Story366! I’m not sure why I haven’t brought this name up before on this blog—well, maybe I have, but not nearly enough—but Dan Wickett is sure a Jim Dandy of a guy. I’m a bit biased because I know Dan, which means I automatically like him, and he was the editor of Dzanc Books when they took my first collection, Elephants in Our Bedroom oh so many years ago. Dan’s original place in this crazy literary world was as the proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network website, a blog that liked to post articles about books, specifically literary fiction books and literary magazines. The EWN would print reviews of stories that appeared in journals, and that’s how Dan and I found each other, because EWN reviewed a piece or two of mine. That’s how we eventually discovered that I had a short story collection that needed a publisher and he was a publisher (he formed Dzanc with Steve Gillis soon after starting the EWN) who needed short story collections. Maybe that makes me biased, but on the other hand, it definitely makes me biased.

More importantly to this project, Dan’s posts about short stories is the main inspiration for this blog. I’d done a couple of posts for him in the past, namely for Short Story Month, which happens every May, my first foray into single-story response/critique/close reading. Having done a handful of those over the course of a couple of years of course meant I could do 366 in a row—that was my thinking this past New Year’s Eve, anyway—so I have Dan to either thank or strangle for sending me down this path.

And now Dan is working on a new project, putting together a list of every short story collection published in 2016. I think he got inspired by the list I posted here on September 15, so now he’s trying to get a comprehensive list, every single story collection out this calendar year. I’m especially appreciative of this effort because, you know, I need to know these things to write this blog.

Anyway, long story short, Dan Wickett is a gift to everyone who writes or reads short stories. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

I bring a lot of this up because I’m doing a Dzanc book today, Clothed, Female Figure by Kirstin Allio, winner of a Dzanc Short Story Collection Prize. I’ve seen Allio’s name here and there—she had a big novel, Garner, a few years back, but I’m not sure if I’ve read anything buy her before. I generally like all of the books Dzanc puts out, which sounds like me being a homer, but really, I think that’s why I had a book on their press, because of our aesthetic kindredness. Anyway, I read a couple of stories from Clothed, Female Figure today, including the title story, which I’ll focus on here.

“Clothed, Female Figure” is about this Russian woman, Natasha, who’s living in New York and working as a nanny. The story starts with Natasha telling us (in first person past tense) that she isn’t supposed to have favorites, but there was one girl she looked after, Leah, whom she obviously remembers, whom she’s telling the story about now. Leah’s mom is a lawyer and her dad an artist and Natasha watches Leah so the dad can spend time on his art, the mom’s job lucrative enough to pay her. Leah is a precocious, if not spoiled child, but Natasha, as implied, takes a liking to her, and is saddened, five years into the gig, when the money dries up and the marriage dissolves and her services are no longer needed.

Jump ahead a dozen years or so and Natasha is working for a new couple, another upper-middle-class New York professional couple. Out of the blue, she gets a letter from Leah, a freshman at college, who just wanted to reconnect, get in touch. Structurally, Allio includes the full text of this letter in the story, offset with an indent and a smaller text. It seems like Leah is doing well and that she sincerely misses Natasha. In fact, it seems as if Leah cites Natasha as a major influence in her life. Natasha is obviously pleased.

The story then becomes a series of letters from Leah, all of which Allio writes out for us; in fact, the story becomes more Leah letters than Natasha narration. She reacts to the letters, places them in time and context, and judges Leah, who eventually tags along with a sculpture professor and his family to Italy, where she serves as nanny to his two children. In a lot of ways, “Clothed, Female Figure” becomes Leah’s story, via this correspondence. Even the title is influenced by an art project Leah describes to Natasha, to make a woman-sized woman sculpture that is wearing clothes, which she thinks is harder to pull off and sexier than a nude.

One other thing to note: Natasha never writes Leah back. It’s something that Natasha states in her narration and Leah remarks on in her letters, not that it stops her from writing them.

Eventually, Natasha stops reacting to Leah’s letters and the intermingled paragraphs of Natasha’s interior monologue are about her life before coming to America, when she had a husband and a baby. The narration becomes dueling monologues, Leah going on and on about her life in Italy, all the things she sees, all the people she meets, while Natasha’s backstory comes out, her life as a neglected and verbally abused wife and mother back in Europe. I won’t go any further into the plot—the story rises quickly to climax at this point—but I’ll note that Allio does some really interesting things with the narration, along with reliability, a strategy you’ll have to read the story to understand (without me giving it all away, or at least my theory of what “it” is). All in all, I really liked this story, the interesting format, the intensity of Natasha’s personality, and the general patience that Allio exhibits in telling her tale (it’s over thirty pages long and worth every word).

Clothed, Female Figure is brand new, the latest from the fine people at Dzanc Books. The reviews for this book are vast and overwhelmingly positive, making me think I’d better keep going, read the rest, not that you’d have to twist my arm.

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