June 30: “Bust” by Susan Jackson Rodgers

Greetings, Story366! Writing to you on this last day of June, which is in a lot of ways the halfway point of the Story366 project. After doing some math, tomorrow’s post will be the 183rd, so I’ll probably reflect more on the halfness of it tomorrow. Still, six months down, six to go. I look at all the book I have piled up on my shelf—at least sixty—and all the books I know I haven’t read yet, and I can’t believe there will a time in the not-too-distant future when I’ll not be running out of books, but of days. Does the end of 2016 mean the end of Story366, of story reviews? I don’t think so. I’ve realized, though, that I’m not going to review a selection every short story collection out there. That kind of kills me—note the collector persona I mentioned yesterday—but there’ll be more days to read and review after 2016 is over.

Today I’m writing about Susan Jackson Rodgers’ collection The Trouble With You Is, out from Mid-List Press as a winner of one of their First Series Award winners in fiction. I haven’t done a Mid-List Press book yet this year, and picking up Rodgers’ book made me think of an occasion when I met the press’ founders and editors. It was 2004 and I was on a panel of editors in Washington D.C., in the basement of one of the Smithsonian Museums, for a packed Saturday morning panel. I’m not sure what the event was, or if there even was an event, but I drove out from Bowling Green, stayed in some hotel off the Mall, did this panel, then basically drove home. I was gone less than forty-eight hours (though those forty-eight were during cherry blossom time, so that was cool).

Lots of things about that trip, remembering it now, make me kind of sad and nostalgic. Firstly, I can’t remember the names of that couple I sat on the panel with, the Mid-List Press people, even though they were very sweet to me. They were in their sixties, I believe, had been married for over forty years, and hung out with me after, taking me to lunch and to the art museum across the Mall. We talked about publishing and they explained what Mid-List was, how they got their name. Here goes: Mid-list titles, according to them, are the best titles in a press’ catalogue. There’s the front list, meaning the new titles, and the backlist, meaning the standards, the books that keep the press alive, things like dictionaries and The Illiad and The Odyssey, titles a press doesn’t have to deal with much but sell tons of copies nevertheless. The mid-list, however is comprised of the books the press really loves, the special projects, those literary titles that aren’t new and don’t sell all that much, but are the editors’ favorites. They wanted every book to be a mid-list book. It sounded good to me, especially since that was before I had a book out and was entering all the collection contests (with what would become Elephants in Our Bedroom) with no luck. One year, I had to have lost to Rodgers and The Trouble With You Is, which makes sense, as this is a really nice collection, certainly better than what I circulating in 2014 (Elephants was accepted in late 2007 and was released in early 2009). But those were nice people, and researching Mid-List Press just now, I couldn’t find any founders’ names or any names on their website; the press has moved from Minneapolis to Nashville, and they haven’t run the First Series Awards in quite some time. They still take queries, so maybe they will make books again.

Rodgers’ collection seems to be dealing with lost, troubled souls, and maybe that’s what the title means, that everyone—at least all of Rodgers’ protagonists—have trouble, or are trouble.I read a few of the stories to write this entry, including “The Trouble With You Is,” the title coming from the protagonist’s boyfriend, who likes to start sentences—unfortunately aimed at the protagonist—with that phrase. Not an encouraging way to start a conversation. I like that story, about this lost woman who follow boyfriends around the Midwest, around town, simply because she doesn’t have a plan, as in no life plan at all. It’s a solid story, but I liked one I read a bit better: “Bust.”

“Bust” is about Nora, a thirty-five-year-old two-time divorcee who has breast cancer and is about to have a double mastectomy. Nora has never had large or in any other way enviable breasts—it had been a sore subject most of her life—but now that she’s about to lose them, she doesn’t want to forget them. She has a friend who is dating a sculptor and somehow the idea pops into Nora’s head to have this sculptor cast her, make a molding of her chest, then turn that into a statue, a piece of art to commemorate her soon-to-be removed parts. Nora goes to the sculptor’s apartment and finds the sculptor—Deirdre—to be an energetic, larger-than-life personality, if not a little enigmatic. After a brief chat, Deirdre is ready to get on with it and has Nora, shy, shy Nora, strip off her top so they can get started, right there in her apartment. To ease Nora’s qualms, Deirdre whips off her shirt and bra as well, and ironically, Deirdre has large, round, perfect breasts. Still, Nora relents and within seconds Deirdre is smearing her with Vaseline and plaster, her hands all over her, in the most professional way. Nora is going to have her cast, her bust, and that makes her feel a little better about her situation.

Nora has the surgery, which is successful, though followed up by radiation. Weeks turn into months without Nora thinking of Deirdre or her sculpture, not until Deirdre sends her a postcard notice about a show opening in a chic Manhattan gallery. Nora doesn’t want to see a show—she just wants the bust of her now-removed breasts, the piece she commissioned. Only there’s a trick: The gallery doesn’t want to give it to her. The gallery isn’t a storage facility and it isn’t a pick-up window for art. Nora’s bust is in a show, the first piece in a series of naked torsos that Deirdre has assembled. Nora thinks about grabbing her bust and running, but the gallery curator makes it clear that if Nora doesn’t leave, he’ll call the cops. Nora instead seeks out Deirdre, whose been avoiding her, and it’s soon obvious as to why.

That’s as far as I’ll go with the plot. As you might guess, Nora runs into more trouble trying to procure her sculpture, especially when confronting Deirdre herself. The ending the story is really perfect, taking this narrative—at its core, remember this is a breast cancer story—in an unexpected and satisfying direction. This is a great story.

Thematically, though, is how “Bust” really shines. Poor Nora, whose own mother died from breast cancer, is trying to survive this disease, and splurges both emotionally and economically on this sculpture, hoping for a small victory. Like with her actual breasts, she finds out she can’t have it. The parallels to the cancer are pretty obvious, that Nora is again having her breasts taken from her by an uncompromising force. Nora simply won’t go down without a fight, not to the disease, not to some snobby museum employee, not to the woman whom she’s trusted so intimately, a woman who’s betraying her on so many levels. I kept thinking: Wait, you need to get something for letting that woman violate you! And that’s really only one part of it all.

Susan Jackson Rodgers has a way with people when they’re at their most desperate, the absolute best time to write about them, one of the bullet points on my “How to Write Stories” handout (I’m not making this up—this actually exists). I enjoyed reading Rodgers’ stories from The Trouble With You Is. Good stuff.

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June 29: “Letting Loose the Hounds” by Brady Udall

Happy humpday, Story366! I know, I know, I know: You’re probably wondering why I chose Brady Udall for today’s post. Okay, you’re probably not, as Udall is a well established and talented author who wrote a book of stories and fits right in with the Story366 project. Really, reading from Letting Loose the Hounds (from Norton) is a slam dunk. What I’m getting at is that I really want to tell you why I’ve chosen Brady Udall today: It’s because his last name starts with U.

This morning, I posted the alphabetical archive to Story366, a project that I’ve had in the back of my mind, in all parts of my mind, since January 1. Once I figured out what “Pages” meant in WordPress, that this was where I’d stick this archive, I just had to execute it, retyping/copying and pasting all the entries, scrolling through months, attaching the links so that you, the Story366 reader, can simply click on your favorite author, favorite day of the year, or favorite story title, and read my little corresponding essay. It took a few days to compile, but now it’s there and I’ll update it every day. So, click away and make all my efforts worthwhile!

What does this have to do with Brady Udall? Udall is my first U, filling an empty gap in the archive that was driving me a little nuts. Before this post, there were three letters unexplored—Q, U, and X—so when I sought out a book for today, the day I posted the archive, Udall screamed out at me. I’m a little compulsive, and a huge collector (as Karen likes to call it), and I can’t stand having most of anything, any hole in the set, any blips on the radar. Those three letters, when I completed the archive, immediately made me think, I have got to find authors whose last names begin with those letters and do it ASAP. After all, I can’t afford to lose any sleep over this, which I surely will(/already have).

With U out of the way (and some great Udall stories read), I ventured out to find authors whose last names begin with Q and X. I didn’t spend a lot of time on this—maybe an hour, two tops—and have so far come up empty for Q. A search for Xs, however, produced Gao Xingjian, and Chinese ex-patriot living in the States, a Nobel Prize winner and author of the collection Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather: Stories. I ordered it immediately. Am I already thinking that since Gao Xingjian is Chinese that I should maybe alphabetize him under G instead of X? It’s crossed my mind, but I’ll deal with that when I have to deal with it. I’m more concerned about finding that elusive Q. I need your help, Story366 readers. If we can’t find one, it might be that one of you will have to change your names to Quiñones or Quincy or Quackenbush or the like and put out a collection before December 31. We can do this, but only if we believe in ourselves. Let’s make it happen—private message me if you’re interested in volunteering.

With that out of the way, we can now focus on Mr. U himself and his excellent stories. I’ve read two of them so far, the titular “Letting Loose the Hounds” and “Buckeye the Elder,” adding to the three stories from the book that I read in Story (the second manifestation) back in the day, when Udall was writing stories and publishing there a lot. Hard for me to pick between the two I read today, but I’ll stick to my plan to use title stories when I have trouble deciding. “Buckeye the Elder” is a really fantastic character study, though—maybe one of the best I’ve ever read—a first-peripheral piece told by this teenage kid about his sister’s boyfriend, a big, strapping guy named Buckeye, who is a Mormon elder, a gun enthusiast, a exercise fiend, and … I can go on and on. “Buckeye the Elder” is a long story and Udall keeps piling on the details about Buckeye, all of them really creative and seamlessly inserted, making for a Paul Bunyanlike folklore of a man. Great story for sure.

“Letting Loose the Hounds” is equally as impressive, the story of this dude named Goody Yates who opens the story in a lot of trouble. He’s walking along a highway, in a ditch, and has had someone do a number on his face. He can’t see himself, seems to have no memory of such an incident, but is in serious pain and can tell that he’s been mauled. Along comes a guy in an El Camino, who looks like a squat General Custer and is therefore called “Custer” by Goody (and Udall) for the rest of the story. Custer is a kind man and takes Goody back to his place to take care of him, to figure out what exactly’s happened.

Udall uses a little sleight of hand here as we find out Goody wasn’t beaten to his current state, but dentisted. Custer finds a prescription for painkillers from a dentist’s office and deduces that Goody has had his wisdom teeth removed. Upon hearing this theory, Goody begins to remember this very thing and a call to said dentist confirms that Goody should not have left the office in his state (which the dentist doesn’t exactly take responsibility for). Custer has some pills lying around—his wife has just left him and her extensive stash behind—and Goody is lucky to get some Demerol to ease his pain.

“Letting Loose the Hounds” is a story of friendship, of two lost souls finding each other and coming together. Udall reveals more about each of the men as Goody heals. Goody has lost everything, his job, his health, his family, and his girl, while Custer has lost his wife to an affair. Goody washes dishes and lives in poverty while Custer hunts vicious wild animals—mountain lions and bears and the like—that invade human territory and become a threat; arriving home early from an expedition, Custer finds a man’s shirt on his bed, his wife not denying anything and leaving soon after. Both men are decent, but are victims of lesser humans, so it’s nice that they find each other, especially since Goody probably would have died in that ditch had Custer not come along.

While Goody has no plan for the rest of his life—except maybe letting his face heal—Custer certainly does. He has mad skills, a pack of hunting hounds, and the wife-stealing man’s shirt, all the elements of a plan. Udall is smooth in implying what Custer’s intentions are, revealing that in a way, the story is really about Custer, even though it’s told from Goody’s perspective, in a close third person. Given the first peripherality of “Buckeye the Elder,” I wonder if that’s Udall’s thing, writing about someone through someone else’s eyes. Too small a sample to make that assumption, but it’s an interesting way to tell a story, through, perhaps, more innocent eyes, the reader catching on at the same time as the protagonist.

So, twenty-four letters down, two to go. Thank you, Brady Udall, for writing Letting Loose the Hounds and being named what you are. Both are awesome and purpose-serving.

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June 28: “Pulp and Paper” by Josh Rolnick

Hello, Story366! It’s been a rather uneventful Tuesday here in Springfield, Missouri, other than my family’s TRIP TO THE MALL!!! Why is that such a big deal? Because it’s the mall. We’re Americans. Is there any more symbolic venture in our society than a nuclear family heading to one of our great shopping emporiums? Really, it’s a testament to capitalism, to excess, to the auxiliary and the trivial. To America in the twenty-first century.

Actually, I’m not that skeptical of capitalism or malls or America. I guess I like all three, to varying degrees. But it was hot has asphalt outside today and we had to get our kids out of the house, and since we’d been saving up this mall trip for the better part of a month, to fill this very void, we used that card today and headed to Battlefield Mall.

The mall, when I was a kid and now, has represented certain things for me, and that’s something I’ve already mentioned: air conditioning. When I was a kid, my family didn’t have central air or even a window unit, so we went off to Southlake Mall in Merrillville, Indiana—the local mall, River Oaks in Calumet City, wasn’t enclosed and therefore not air-conditioned—way more often that I go to the mall with my kids. I used it for that today, but really, it’s just a chance to stretch our legs and look at all kinds of things we might want one day, but certainly don’t need. When I was a kid, there was a store called Karmelkorn where we’d always get a big box or tin or bucket of carmel corn; my kids like hot pretzels, so we’re a staple at Auntie Anne’s. When I was a kid, we’d duck into little toy and game stores, duck through the anchors like Sears and JC Penny, and each of us—me and my siblings—would get one little gift/item, something for five bucks or less; sadly, we do about the same for our kids, thirty-five years later and they still only get about five bucks, inflation be damned. When I was a kid, it’d take us a few hours to walk around the mall, but since it took forty-five minutes to drive each way, it seemed like an all-day thing, especially if we stopped at Sizzler on the way home; Battlefield Mall is just up the street from our house and much smaller than Southlake Mall, so no, not an all-day adventure.

Karen and I had similar childhood mall experiences, as we discussed on the way home today. One thing we had in common: We never actually bought clothes at the mall. Today, me and my family passed dozens and dozens of clothing outlets, the thought never crossing our minds to stop in, try something on, and take it home to wear another day. Same with our kids: They don’t care about clothes and we would never buy anything at the mall. Unquestionably, most of this has to do with price—Karen looked at skirt that we passed at Dillard’s that cost $125—but some of it has to do with training. When I was a kid, I got my school clothes at Venture and K-Mart (yes, I’m officially tired of tagging stores now, so I’ll stop; besides, you damn well know what K-Mart is), and if we needed something specific, a little nicer, Sears. Of course, there weren’t the high-end brand-name stores that malls have today, no Hollister, Aeropostale, Structure, Banana Republic, Forever 21, etc., as all the really expensive brand-name stuff was at Carson’s and Marshall Fields. These were two stores that my mother talked about as if only the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Trumpses shopped there, without question a class issue. We went to the mall for carmel corn and my kids go to the mall for pretzels, both generations of Czyzniejewskis looking at toys and games we’d ask for at Christmas. Those expensive clothes in the windows? They might as well be on fire, or made of shit, as we’d be just as likely to go in and buy any of them.

Now that all that is off my chest, let me get to Josh Rolnick, Pulp and Paper, and “Pulp and Paper.” Pulp and Paper won a John Simmons Award from the University of Iowa Press and is a cool collection. The book is split in half, the first four stories falling under the heading of “New Jersey” (and set in New Jersey) and the second part designated “New York” (you get the picture). I read a story from each section and liked them both, the stories in some ways as different as I could imagine, and in other ways, very similar (the settings are different but the insistence on and need for human connection are identical). The first story I read, “Funnyboy,” leading off the Jersey section, is about a dad who is reverse-stalking the teenage girl who hit his son with her car and killed him. The girl keeps showing up in his life, and before long, the dad figures out she’s following him, trying to talk to him about what happened, a chance he refuses to give her. I then read the first story in the New York section, the title story, and here we go.

“Pulp and Paper” starts with a train barreling across Western New York, a two-and-a-half page section told from a pretty distant narrator. Upon rereading this first section a couple of times, I realize it’s written in retrospect, as there’s some testimony from witnesses after the fact, witnesses to the train crashing into a plant, which I can best infer to be a paper mill. Rolnick skips POV then, after a section break, to Gale Denny a widow hanging around her house with her cat, listening to the train coming, hearing it crash, smelling the chemicals in the air and knowing something is not right. Skip again, after another break, to Avery Mayberry, a neighbor whose ex-wife used to check in on Gale, but who left after Avery cheated on her. Avery, knowing even better than Gale what this crash and potential chemical disaster is about to unleash, heads over to throw Gale in his car before flooring the fuck out of Dodge.

Only it’s not that easy, getting Gale out, as otherwise there’d be no story (except the train crash, explosion, and chemical leak, I guess …). Really, I can’t go any further without ruining it, so I won’t, but I really like how this story is written, what “Pulp and Paper” is all about, this interesting three-act structure, the first from a neutral POV, the second from Gale’s (actually a close third), and the last from Avery’s (again a close third). It’s not exactly how I’m drawing it up in my intro fiction classes this summer, but I like this piece because of that structure, the sensible POV switches. But I’m not trying to sell the plot short: And all of this craft stuff is on top of the heart-pulsing action that Skolnick writes, the actual story, which is well executed (action is hard to write). I enjoyed everything about this piece.

Pulp and Paper is, two stories in, a solid collection, revealing Josh Rolnick’s talents to me, talents I had not partaken in before. Looking forward to getting deeper in, to see what else he’s got in his arsenal.

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June 27: “Mercy the Midget” by Mary Troy

Hey, there, Story366! Good to be blogging at you on this fine Monday. Today I want to use my pre-story space to spill about the release of Karen’s new book, No More Milk, which is officially being released this Friday, July 1, though a copy came in the mail today. Still, I’m going to place a pre-order link here, so you can click and see how cool it looks, and of course pick up a copy for yourself. Karen is the funniest, smartest, most insightful poet I know, and since No More Milk is her first full-length collection (after two chapbooks), it’s been quite joyous around the Czyzniago household. To celebrate, we … well, we’ll celebrate over the weekend, but I have been extra-flirty with Karen all day, sneaking kisses and such, which is a celebration all its own. She especially likes when I sneak up on her,  gross food in my beard, and smack a big one right on her, leaving my beard print on her chin. Check that: She loves it!

I also got to read from my friend Mary Troy’s collection, The Alibi Café, out from BKMK Press, Troy’s first collection. She also has two others, Cookie Lily and Joe Baker Is Dead. Coming this November 1 from Moon City Press is a novel I edited and am seeing to life, Swimming on Hwy N, a book I’m really stoked about. I’ve gotten to know Mary pretty well since we’ve been working on this project, which has been a ridiculous honor and pleasure. I’m looking forward to meeting her on her tour—she’ll stop at Missouri State—as somehow she lives in St. Louis and I live in Springfield and somehow we’ve never crossed paths. Weird.

I read a few stories from The Alibi Café and am writing about “Mercy the Midget,” a story that Mary suggested I might like (she was right). “Mercy the Midget” tells the tale of Mercy, who is not really a midget—most everything about her is what people would call “normal-sized,” though her legs stopped growing when she was a kid. Still, people call her a midget (which isn’t even the PC term for what people think she is, a dwarf), namely Tim, the proprietor and emcee of The Hideout, a strip club in Illinois right across the Mississippi from St. Louis. Sure, she got the job for the “freak factor”—creepy dudes have all kinds of fetishes—but also because she has absolutely perfect breasts. Mercy is proud of them, took the job at The Hideout because she likes to show them to people, and believes they even things out, karmically speaking, for the short legs.

This is Mercy, who drives sixty-eight miles from rural Missouri every night to get a shot at a bigger audience, but also to stay clear of her churchy community, namely her Aunt Faith, who would die, kill her, or both if she ever found out what Mercy did every night (she thinks she works midnights at a convenience store three towns over). This conflict pays off later—because that’s how stories work—but first, Mercy and the folks at The Hideout have to deal with more local churchies, a group called CHAPs (Churches Against Pornography), who sets up every night outside the club, protesting, harassing, and praying for the souls of the people inside.

The joy of Troy’s work is how she builds her characters, builds her plots. Swimming on Hwy N is/will be like that, as every chapter brings new characters, characters who add complexity, plus fun, to the mix. In “Mercy the Midget,” we just keep finding out more and more about Mercy and her world, all of it enriching, all of it a hoot. Mercy’s dad was in his sixties when he impregnated Mercy’s mom, who was eighteen, yet her mom died first, when Mercy was ten, and her dad, in his seventies, chugs along. Mercy dated one of her forty-something high school teachers for a while, right after graduation, a match that was deemed, by her family, favorable, Mercy and her short legs not going to do much better. Mercy bonds with one of the CHAPs protestors, a redhead who has her back when Aunt Faith’s group shows up. Every page, every paragraph, we get some new detail, a new twist, all of it adding up to an incredibly intricate, yet easy-as-heck to read story, one that I was sorry had to ever end.

Mary Troy seems to initiate, manage, and control chaos in her stories, in her novels, and since I not only like reading that kind of story, I flat-out admire it, it’s no wonder we have connected on a book project. The Alibi Café, “Mercy the Midget,” Swimming on Hwy N, everything she writes is full of grotesque, wonderful, ingenius characters and predicaments. Troy’s quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Stay tuned: It only gets better.

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June 26: “Monstress” by Lysley Tenorio

Happy Sunday, Story366! Right about now, the Season 6 finale of Game of Thrones is airing, ending new episodes of the show for at least ten months, though I wonder, since the show is already a year ahead of George R. R. Martin’s books, if they might pull a Sopranos and take longer off between seasons, even two years, giving Martin a chance to catch up. Probably not, though, as HBO seems to want this juggernaut to keep its steam. Still, I’ll be watching later, and then after I watch, I’ll go back to waiting, waiting to find out what happens next, waiting for almost a year.

Last year after the finale—the season ended in early May last year, if I’m not mistaken—I set myself on a path that I still haven’t returned from. As soon as that episode ended, Jon Snow lying in the snow, stabbed to death by his brothers in the Night’s Watch, I simply could not wait another ten months. I hit the YouTube and started to watch review/preview/theory videos, along with the complete history of Westeros, several animated clips which appeared as bonus material on a blu-ray season disk set. I watched those history videos about four times each, learning the show’s/world’s entire background (neatly told by the real actors, in character), and I got all the tinfoil-hat theories of what was going to happen in the next season, the next book. Some were right on (and obvious), while others were a lot of fun, but turned out to be not at all true. For the first time in my life, I subscribed to channels, mainly Emergency Awesome, which handily also covers superhero shows and movies (high five, Charlie!); I also enjoy Alt Shift X and Ozzy Man Reviews. I also rewatched the entire show on YouTube, character by character, arc by arc, because, hey, it’s fun and easy to watch, say, all the Tyrion scenes in a row, five seasons’ worth.

What I’m trying to say is, all this has ruined me. Every since that finale ended last year, watching GoT and GoT-related video has more or less been my hobby. I’ve watched very little other TV (half a season of Walking Dead, a season of Archer, and maybe the first episode or two of Agent Carter, Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt, and Wet, Hot, American Summer). Would I rather watch a new episode of a show I enjoy, or watch a crazy theory video about GoT that I’ve seen a few times before? Sadly, the latter.

One of the factors as to why I’d started Story366 was because I wasn’t reading enough, and one of the contributing factors to not reading was this GoT YouTube obsession. I can’t say that I’ve curbed my watching much—especially not in-season—but I have read a whole lot more stories.

Today, coinciding with the Season 6 finale, I read from Lysley Tenorio’s excellent, excellent book Monstress, out from Ecco. I read the first couple of stories, “Monstress” and “Brothers,” and absolutely loved them both. I’m going to write about the title story, but “Brothers” is a gem, too. It’s the story of a guy who has to bury his estranged brother, Eric, who had been banished from their Filipino Catholic family by their mother because he came out as both gay and a drag queen. The story focuses on the few days after Eric’s death, when the world of Eric’s conservative family and his life at the club, along with all his fellow dragsters, collide. It’s what I call a good brother-bad brother story, though in this case, that’s misleading: I don’t mean to call Eric bad because of who he is, not at all—it’s just what I’ve called this character dynamic up to this point, harkening back to classical examples like Cane and Abel and Loki and Thor. The best other modern example I have is Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” with the narrator serving as the brother who’s loyal to the family, walking the straight line, but ultimately proving to be boring and regretful, while Sonny is the heroin addict who broke his family’s hearts, but is also the genius jazz pianist who lived a full and exciting life. That’s the exact dynamic going on in Tenario’s story, and like “Monstress,” I’m going to be giving it to my students to read.

“Monstress” isn’t a story I can categorize so easily, and I can’t think of another story like it (my old colleague Wendell Mayo’s “B. Horror” features a similar setting, though). “Monstress” starts in 1966 when our protagonist, Reva Gogo, and her boyfriend, Checkers, are being fired by their film production company. Checkers writes and directs B-level horror movies in the Philippines, Reva serving as the star; interestingly, Reva, though gorgeous, doesn’t play the damsel in distress, but the monsters themselves.  Still, their studio, Cocoloco Pictures, is tired of them losing money. Their last feature, Squid Children, played once on one screen, a midnight horror fest that shows films on a white bed sheet. Checkers and Reva are done making movies, it seems, their dreams of Hollywood never coming true.

Fast forward to 1970 and Reva is working as a secretary to a failing dentist and Checkers is drinking himself to death. Lo and behold, Hollywood comes knocking, in the form of Gaz Gazman, who thinks Checkers is a genius and wants to splice his monsters into an American horror film. Better yet, he’s willing to pay. Checkers is hesitant, but when Gaz agrees to fly them to Hollywood so they can watch the process, wait to give full approval, Reva talks him into it. It’s a trip to American, plus they need the money, $2500, which in their situation, in 1970, is a windfall.

The team arrives in Hollywood, and very soon, it’s apparent that Gaz is simply the American version of Checkers. His movies are just as corny and his budget may actually be smaller. His set is his mother’s dilapidated Victorian (which Checkers salivates over), and his actors seem as hackneyed as Reva. After some delays and some minor disasters, they are ready to start shooting, with one last-second revision: Reva has to be the star, this time as that damsel, when the scheduled star quits.

So far, so good, right? Aside from the fact that the film has zero chance of going anywhere, of making any money, the story seems to be conflict-free and only growing more so as it progresses. There’s  one snag, though: Checkers doesn’t like Gaz’s American style. Gaz, as small-time as he is, knows what’s sells, and that’s romance tied to the action and horror, which Checkers finds unbelievable and despicable. Reva, however, likes it, sees how it’s more audience-friendly, and decides to stay in America to finish the picture, even when Checkers goes back home, disgusted.

That’s most of what happens, but there’s more plot right after, plus a nice little epilogue, which I won’t spoil here. I really love the ending, though, as much as I love the whole story and what I’ve read of Tenorio’s book. In “Monstress,” he seems to be touching on a lot of themes, including feminism, artistry, and loyalty. Checkers is a true artist and visionary, but it costs him his career and his love. Reva is pragmatic and it pays off for her. Who do we root for, though, if that’s the case? Maybe Checkers is Hitchcock and just never got his break. Maybe Reva is a careerist ass. Maybe they’re just destined to go in different directions. There’s so much going on in this story, on top of the fact that it’s about these fucking awesome B movies that feature squid monsters and pygmy revolts and werewolf girls and two-headed vampires. What great imagery, creativity, and execution. I said, “Wow.” when I read the last word.

Put Monstress right up there with some of the great discoveries I’ve made so far in Story366, the first half winding down this week. It’s no wonder that Tenorio earned all kind of honors, including fellowships from the NEA, Yaddo, McDowell, the University of Wisconsin, and the Stegner Foundation. Lysley Tenorio is one of my new favorite story writers and I can’t wait to read more, to see what he does next.

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June 25: “La Mayonette” by Lily Tuck

Hello, Story366! Today I’m writing about Lily Tuck’s collection Limbo and Other Places I Have Lived, out from Riverhead. Tuck is the author of another story collection, a biograpy, and several novels in addition to Limbo, most notably The News From Paraguay, which won a National Book Award. I’d never read anything by Tuck before today, so I looked her up, and in addition to all her books, I found out that she was born in France, but now splits time between New York and Maine, and that she has lived all over the world, on a few different continents. This makes sense, as Limbo is a collection of stories about people spending time in other places, be it because they’re on holiday, living somewhere for work, or because they’re in forced exile. The characters originate from many different countries to begin with, so what we have is a real hodge-podge of cultures colliding with each other, making for a lot people out of their element, a lot of people dealing with cultural and social differences, and as you might guess, a lot of people not necessarily making the adjustments.

I’ve read a few of the stories in this collection and am settling on the first story I read, the lead piece, “La Mayonette.” “La Mayonette” is the story of a family—a mom, dad, and two young boys—who rent a house (the house is named La Mayonette) in France for a month, a house that’s near the Riviera beaches and just next door to the mom’s college friend, Francine, and her husband and two young daughters. We’re not exactly sure where the visiting family is from—I assumed America for a long time, but reading into the book and understanding the project made disregard that assumption—or all that much about them in general. The mom, the first-person protagonist, doesn’t reveal too much about them, instead focusing on what everyone’s up to in the frontstory, more or less. The family rides bikes, cooks simple meals with foods from the local market, and wander over to the beach, just a twenty-minute drive away. Oh, and they drink a lot of wine: They buy more at the start of the month than they think they can drink, and gosh darn it, before the month’s over, they’ve emptied the coffers and wish they’d bought more.

This sounds like a pretty ideal set-up, doesn’t it? I don’t speak French, nor have I traveled outside the U.S. except to Mexico and Canada, but this situation—staying in a house just off the Riviera for a month, drinking wine and eating baguettes—sounds nifty. Because this is a short story, though, and not a fairy tale, things do go wrong, although not as wrong as you’d think. One of the boys breaks his arm. Our protagonist and her husband fight. The protagonist has eyes for Francine’s husband, Didier, even “forgetting” to put on her top when she’s sunbathing and Didier stops by. So, it’s not exactly Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, but we get a glimpse into people’s lives, lives that the average Joe might find ideal, but maybe they aren’t. Remember: I told you they ran out of wine.

Because we never get that shocking plot point, the subtleties of “La Mayonette”—and the other stories I read in Limbo—are what reveal Tuck’s talents. Little character tics mean a lot here, often coming in reaction to something another character does, causing an avalanche, often of emotion rather than action. In addition to the minor setbacks I list above, our protagonist notices a woman’s face in the wallpaper—which seems to actually be there as part of the pattern—and psyches herself into a “Yellow Wallpaper”esque mini-breakdown. She never sleeps with Didier, but showing him her boobs and at one point, getting drunk and telling everyone what she’s thinking, all that is enough to paint some pretty intricate sketches.

All in all, Lily Tuck is able to really capture the feeling of being displaced in the stories in Limbo. Having just lived in my mom’s guest room for eight days made me feel for these characters, as limbo is a good way to describe what we went through. We don’t have our own space, we don’t have privacy, and even though there’s other options, I always myself sleeping on the living room floor, amid the morning bustle. This is no fault of my mom or my older brother (who lives with my mom), who are the most gracious and accommodating of hosts, just like the shenanigans of “La Mayonette” aren’t because of Francine or Didier. It’s about being in someone else’s space, and although I grew up in the house in question, it’s still an out-of-suitcase situation, which just isn’t home. Tuck captures that feeling with great skill, and takes us to some rather exotic locales to boot.

Lily Tuck

June 24: “The Ballad of Easy Earl” by Barry Gifford

Good Friday to you, Story366! It was nice to be back in Springfield today, my first day back in over a week, but it’s felt like longer. Being away from home always does, as you have to catch up on your life in chunks. My plants have all gone dry, my lawn needs mowing, there’s a stack of mail to go through, and a million things to do at the office, Moon City and teaching-related. I was able to get a lot of that done today, which I have to admit, gives me supreme satisfaction. My natural tendency is to do nothing, just fall into shambles and cry until someone rescues me. So, paying a bill, opening envelopes, and dumping a cup of water on an aloe plant all seem like major victories.

I also ducked in the local used bookstore, Bookmarx, as I’m always on the lookout for collections. Pretty quickly, I found a few to take home with me. As it turns out, there’s a neat little cupcake shop right next door (The Urban Cup), so me and my youngest ducked in, got a cupcake, and I read from one of my new finds, Night People by Barry Gifford, out from Grove.

I’d never read anything by Barry Gifford before, though I’ve been aware of the name. He is the author of dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. His most famous work is Wild at Heart, one of his novels that features the characters Sailor and Lula, which at one time fetched the interest of David Lynch, who made it into a movie starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern. Having seen that movie, read from Night People, and eyed a jacketful of blurbs about Gifford’s work, I would describe his style as “hard-boiled,” as there’s plenty of questionable, colorful characters, in precarious situations, living in very romantic worlds, underbellies of American civilizations. That would be my blurb for Gifford, though no one’s asked for one, as he has plenty.

Night People is only a story collection, by the way, if you blur some definitions. At Bookmarx today, I thumbed through its pages, none of the usual indicators of what type of book it was on the cover, no A Novel or Stories. That thumb-through told me it was stories, as there were a bunch of title pages with different titles on them, the headers revealing the same. When I sat down at the cupcakery to read, though, it appeared to be so much more. What Night People is, it turns out, is a book of four related novellas, all told in flash. That’s probably a first for me, a book comprised of novellas-in-flash, all related to each other. A person with all the time in the world and less than 170 blog posts left to write this year would have disqualified the book from the Story366 project, but let’s face it: I was ready to read, this was the book I had, and novellas-in-flash are mostly short stories, right? Onward.

To be fair, or lazy—not sure which—I picked the shortest of the novellas, The Ballad of Easy Earl, or “The Ballad of Easy Early,” depending on whether you’re supposed to italicize novella titles or put them in quotation marks (I really don’t know). In any case, it weighs in at a brisk thirty pages, but it’s still made up of eight mini-parts, which could be called chapters as much as they could be considered flash selections—they couldn’t really stand alone, so maybe they are indeed mini-chapters. “The Ballad of Easy Earl” (I’m going with quotes, as that’s more story-like) is about Earl, a guy who goes into a New Orleans joint, Alfonzo’s Mexicali Club, for a drink. Earl is definitely easy, as he pays a kid outside to watch his Mercury Monarch, orders the same exotic potion (Crown Royal and milk), and knows the bartender’s name. Earl is set up as a cool cat, ready for whatever the night brings him. We also find out his special lady friend has just left him, taking her four kids with her, after having an abortion and regretting it. Earl appears to be out to forget about all this, and the Mexicali Club seems like the ideal locale.

Things unravel quickly for the cool Earl, however, when a pimp tries to bring one of his working ladies into the club for a shift and that bartender that’s so fond of Earl isn’t having it. Words are exchanged, a fight ensues, a .38 revolver appears from behind the bar. Earl is just a bystander, but when the gun is lost in the tussle, Early makes the biggest mistake of his life (self-admitted): He picks up the gun.

From there, we cut forward and Earl is in his Monarch, speeding away, the gun in his passenger seat, one cop shot in the gut, the other dead on the club’s floor. How did the cops get there? Why did Earl shoot them? What happened to the pimp? Gifford doesn’t tell us any of this, opting instead for the cut, Earl suddenly on the run. And that’s what the rest of the novella is, Earl on the run from the law, because, as Earl hears on the radio, the cops are liking him for the cop killing, which means he’s in big shit, whether he actually pulled the trigger or not.

Gifford’s strengths are many. This fast-pace piece of plot that I describe above happens in the first chapter, which is only four pages long, meaning Gifford can get right down to it. The author also has a flare for the unexpected, as there’s more cuts like the one taking us from the fight to Earl speeding away. Earl tracks down his lady, Rita, in one scene and relays the story of a childhood pal, Willie Wong, in another. Those characters, those settings, are just gone then, making their mark on “The Ballad of Easy Earl” overall, forming Early, but not necessarily changing his course. Gifford’s also good at names, as Rita’s is actually Rita Hayworth Rapides, and has sisters named Lana Turner Rapides and Pocahontas Rapides; Rita’s four kids—none of whom are Earl’s—are named Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Colorado. There’s also this easy diction, colloquialisms scattered throughout, giving a real ear for the Louisiana voice. All this makes the stories fast-paced, interesting, and unique, not what I usually read, not for Story366, not for anything.

Earl eventually has to get out of town, out of the state, and he believes Florida to be the best destination (of course he does). First, he’s got to get there. After a series of evasive maneuvers—many of which are actually pretty smart—Earl finds himself on a backroads bus to the Sunshine State. Does Earl get away? Does he meet anyone on the bus? Or does destiny catch up with him? You’ll have to read Barry Gifford’s “The Ballad of Easy Earl” for yourself. I enjoyed it, though, as it ends as oddly and quickly and as unexpectedly as it starts, as it is on every page.

Barry Gifford

June 23: “Red Velvet Couch” by Erin K. Parker

Hello, Story366! Great to be blogging at you today. As of now, I’m home in Missouri after a long travel day, the fam and I returning from a week in Chicago. Knowing I would have to read and write for Story366 today, Karen offered to read a story or two from today’s book as I drove. I am a horrible passenger, getting carsick just sitting there. Reading while I’m driving in a car? Forget it. It’s instant dizziness and nausea and I’ll throw up by the end of the first paragraph. I’m probably not cut out for that astronaut training you see on TV and in the movies, but then again, as those guys are spinning around and diving to the ground at ridiculous speeds, none of them are reading short stories. So maybe there’s still hope I’ll make it to space yet.

Karen’s offer—which I declined, as I knew we’d be home by eight, plenty of time to read and write—made me think of a FB post I put up a couple of summers ago, the post that got the most attention of any post I’d ever put up. That summer, I had a grad student taking an independent study with me as she lived and taught high school three hours away and couldn’t take any advanced workshops, which are only offered in the fall and spring. This student was on the ball, and a week before we were supposed to start, she asked me what books she’d need to get for the semester, as she’d want to order them on tape, as she had a four three-hour commutes a week (two trips, back and forth) and would just do the “reading” that way. Immediately, I wondered: Does that count as reading, listening to the books on tape?

Part of the point was moot, because we were using Moon City Review, which is not released as an audio version, but her other books were. I wasn’t necessarily saying that listening to these books didn’t count—I was generally curious as to the nature of listening to audio books, and as a college professor, if this was enough to qualify as having done the assignment. Of course, a lot of this depended on how she was able to perform in discussions and assignments relating to the work, but it got me thinking on the topic overall, outside this independent study: Does listening to a book count as reading the book?

As noted, I posed the question to FB and saw the responses explode. Some people took the old school route and declared this to be completely unsatisfactory, while others more or less attacked me for being closed-minded, some reminding me that different people learn in different ways, and it wasn’t my job to care how they learned, just that they did (which was my point to begin with); a few people even accused me of violating ADA regulations, claiming that some students are physically unable to read books and listening to them is the only way they can participate in our part of the world. I assured everyone that this student was not blind or otherwise disabled, just trying to put her twelve hours a week to good use. And in full disclosure, I had a long conversation with the student before I put the question up on FB, told her I was going to do it, and friended her so she could see the entire thing, even participate (which she chose not to). Really, the question wasn’t about her any more, it was more general, as in, if you were at a party, and people were talking about the books they’d read, and they said, “I read The Corrections,” and you’d listened to it at the gym on your iPod, would you be able to honestly say, “Yeah, I read The Corrections, too.” It was a good discussion, garnering a wide variety of responses, and if you’re reading this, I’ll encourage you to reply in the Comments section to let me know what you think about audio books.

None of this mattered today as we traveled down I-55 and I-44 as we never got around to having Karen read me a story (by the way, I would have surely counted). Instead, I came home and read from The Secret & the Sacred by Erin K. Parker, a new book from Unknown Press. I got a copy of this book at AWP, the last of those books I picked up there that I haven’t covered here yet (if you recall, I did a whole week of AWP finds right when I got home). The Secret & the Sacred is a relatively short book of stories, running only 127 pages, utilizing a 14-point font and large margins. None of the stories are very long, either, and I ended up reading about half the book before stopping so I could write.

Today I’ll focus on the lead story, “Red Velvet Couch,” as it’s the longest story and most complex, structurewise, in the book, and maybe the best representation of what Parker does of any story I’ve read. The story starts with its protagonist, an unnamed young woman, leaving home in 1988 to move to San Francisco. All she takes with her are crates of records, her clothes, and a beater car. The car is so ready to break down, she’s memorized where the call boxes are on her way to work so she’ll know where to walk when it inevitably fails her. She’s found a job working as a server at a diner, and as long as that car holds up, she can make it, month to month, on what she makes.

Like all people trying to find their way in the city, our hero eventually needs help, and that help comes in the form of furniture. Enter the titular couch, a nearly new gift given to her by a coworker at the diner, Victor, who says he just wants a new look. Victor tells her how he remembers being on his own for the first time, and our protagonist not only has her first piece of furniture—she’s been sitting on the record crates—but also her first friend.

An accident one night after work reveals things about Victor that we didn’t know before, an incident that leads to the two coworkers becoming even closer, sharing some two-day-old pie and their secrets. I won’t reveal what happens, what Victor tells her, but Parker does a nice job in depicting a tender human moment, of revealing some desperate people as more than just desperate. That’s a theme that can be found throughout The Secret & the Sacred, humans in dire straits, their true character revealed. Parker’s stories aren’t overly complex, structurally or thematically, but they ring true, and sometimes straightforward can be as effective as anything.

So, this is Erin K. Parker’s day on Story366, and I enjoyed reading her stories. But I’m also curious about this audio book thing, see if there’s anything else I can get out of a discussion, anything you all would like to add.

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June 22: “The Logic of a Rose” by Billy Lombardo

Hello, Story366! I hope you’re having a pretty fantastic day. It’s my last day in Chicago for a few weeks, and to celebrate, Karen, the boys, and I headed out to one of my favorite local restaurants here in the south suburbs, the Warsaw Inn. If you’re not living in Chicago (or Poland, I guess), you might not have Polish smorgasbord restaurants, which are basically buffets that feature Polish food. There’s several throughout the city and suburbs, and my mom just happens to live near one of the best. It’s a pretty eclectic buffet, one that over the years has adopted quite a few American foods (fried chicken, ribs, that kind of thing), but as a trained smorgasbord enthusiast, I know not to waste my time—or stomach space—on such frivolities. The Warsaw Inn doesn’t make otherwordly anything you can’t get at most carryout joints and grocery store delis throughout the city. What I go to these types of places for are the specifically Polish delicacies like kielbasa (fresh, never smoked), pierogi, blintzes, kolaczki, and the like. I go in, sit down, order a drink, then head straight for these items. Wasting time on their takes on American standards—not to mention salad/salads—is an affront to smorgasbords. I’m glad I was raised correctly.

While on this trip to Chicago, I’m also glad I brought along The Logic of a Rose: Chicago Stories by Billy Lombardo, out from BKMK Books as a winner of a G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. I know Billy a little—Chicago writers tend to know each other—as I’ve read with him once or twice and he blurbed my second book, Chicago Stories. He’s a cool guy and a good writer—I loved his novel, The Man With Two Arms—so I’m glad to be able to include him on this project.

“The Logic of a Rose” is the story I’m focusing on today, the title story, and like the other pieces in Lombardo’s book, it’s set in Bridgeport, a near-Southside neighborhood, a working-class area that also happens to include Comiskey Park (or whatever they call it now). It’s also set in the seventies, and from what else I’ve read of the book, it seems like this is when The Logic of the Rose takes place.

“The Logic of a Rose” begins with the Bellapini family—who has appeared in earlier stories in the collection—moving to Thirty-first and Wallace, a block from their old apartment, which was above a bakery, a bakery that burned down (which I believe happened as a major plot point in one of those previous stories). Mary Bellapini seems to be the central character of the story (told in third person), as she finds a little rectangle of dirt in the mostly concrete world and decides to clean it up and plant a bed of tulips. Given the title of the story, I was thinking this a story about gardening, Mary planting tulips but growing roses instead. My mind started making metaphors, writing scenes, wondering where this story would go.

Lombardo shifts gears, though—luckily—and the tulip garden falls pretty far into the background. Petey, Mary’s son, becomes the story’s real protagonist, and the story isn’t about gardening, but about Petey’s coming of age. He’s twelve, but becoming a man about his neighborhood, and he’s particularly interested in Rosalie Calabrese, the younger daughter of a family who has moved upstairs from them. The Calabrese clan doesn’t speak English, but Rosalie is also twelve and lovely as the day is long. Rosalie is shy to boot and kept clear of leering Petey by her conservative parents. The two manages to share glimpses of each other, plus Rosalie likes hanging in the hallway and listening to Petey’s sister’s Billy Joel records emanating from their dining room (though she runs off whenever someone sees her).

“The Logic of a Rose” is a long and complex story and Lombardo fills a lot of it with what Petey does when he’s not sneaking peeks at Rosalie. Petey hangs with neighborhood boys, boys who are enjoying the newfound freedoms of being twelve. They flip nickels outside of stores, pick up unsmoked cigarettes butts from curbs and smoke them, and pee off of buildings when no one’s looking. There’s even a scene where Petey’s friend’s aunt has the boys roll a bunch of pot into joints and then gives them one to smoke. These boys aren’t just trading baseball cards and going on bike rides—they’re getting into some actual trouble.

In the background, however, it’s always Rosalie, a touchstone, of sorts, for Petey’s days, Lombardo taking us through spring, then summer, watching the two grow closer, waiting for their opportunity, though it all seems to take forever. We get some updates from the tulip patch as well, which works as a subtle (as possible in this situation) metaphor for the young people in this story, and we also get the real meaning of the title. The last several pages place Petey and Rosalie on their front stoop, having their first genuine moment together, a moment that’s so wonderfully wrought, so pure, so original, and so touching, it’s no wonder Lombardo named his entire collection after this single moment, a single image.

I should also note that this story is written mostly in third person limited, inside Petey’s head, but if I had to check a box on the “The Logic of a Rose” quiz, I’d have to pick third person omniscient; we’re inside Mary’s head early in the story, and get a long passage with Rosalie. My summer intro courses are trying to swallow POV right now, and the trickiest thing is always how to stay in one person’s head, and how hard it is to write contemporary fiction, especially stories, with omniscience. “The Logic of a Rose” is a good story to show them, how omniscience can work in a story if rendered correctly, and there’s so few stories that I can say that about (I’ve been using Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” as an example, but it’s not the most complex of omniscience, to be honest).

I’m loving Chicago right now and am so sad to be heading back to Missouri in the morning. Reading Billy Lombardo’s book today isn’t making that any easier, as he surely captures a place and a time in this great city that expands its universe even more. It’s a great book by a great writer, from Chicago or anywhere.

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June 21: “When Mystical Creatures Attack!” by Kathleen Founds

Hello, Story366! Another beautiful day, this second day of summer. By less than a minute, it will get darker sooner today, and I have to be honest with you, that saddens me just a bit. It’s tied to a lifelong investment in the school year—I’m someone who considers a calendar in terms of semesters, summer, fall, and spring, even to people not in school, who find it weird when I say the word “semester” to them. Ever since I was a kid, however, I’ve always relished summer, even though I was a good student, liked school, and basically chose to never leave. While Karen (who also chose this life) loves the start of each school year, loves to go shopping for school supplies, sees each fall semester as a new beginning, I’m more or less someone who starts to see the downslide of the summer break starting today. It’s still June, so my anxiety is unnoticeable, but I really start to feel it after the Fourth of July, as I can feel those emails coming from work about starting the semester; it doesn’t help that somehow the start of school has slipped backward from the first week of September to around August 20 (my birthday is August 22 and I never used to be anywhere near school at that point, but now always am engaged in that first week). I’m not sad or depressed or anything, and “anxiety” is a relative term. But I do have an internal clock that says I like the start of summer best, May to June, and I like that period from December 22 to June 21 when the days get longer—yeah, even in the dead of winter, there’s a slight positivity, knowing we’re headed in the right direction.

Anyway, all of this is silly as I still have two months of summer (though I’m teaching two online courses) and it’s an absolutely beautiful day here in Chicago and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by all of my favorite people at the same time, Karen and the boys plus almost my whole immediate family. There’s a sense of calmness in me when I can be near everyone who matters most to me. That more than makes up for that twenty-seven seconds less of sunlight we’ll get tonight.

For today post, I read from Kathleen Founds’ fantastic collection When Mystical Creatures Attack, winner of a John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. I hadn’t read any of Founds’ fiction (hey, that sounds like a genre, “found fiction,” doesn’t it?) before today, but I know after reading the first five stories in her collection that I’ve been missing out. When Mystical Creatures Attack!, at least five stories in, is a lot of fun, a collection of around twenty-five (yes, I’m too lazy to count) shorts that seem to tell the story of Laura Freedman, an elementary school teacher who has a breakdown in class (she throws a terrarium out a window after flushing her meds down the toilet) and is sent off to live in Bridges a New-Agey, expensive mental hospital. The stories inside are sometimes stories, but are mostly fictions, artifacts from Laura’s journey as she tries to cope with being an intelligent adult stuck in a place she doesn’t want to belong, but very will might.

The pieces in the book certainly don’t fall under any traditional formats so far, no Fretag’s Triangle-types, but instead use alternative forms to relay Laura’s plight. One story, “The Un-Game,” is an epistolary between Laura and one of her favorite students, a back-and-forth that gets cut off by hospital admins who deem Laura too “stimulated.” Another, “Warm Greetings,” is simply a document that Laura receives outlining the ward’s “wellness points” program, how she can earn points by behaving in certain ways, and then how she can cash those points in for bonuses like TV time and snacks. Today’s Story366 focus, the title and first story, “When Mystical Creatures Attack!” is an assignment that Laura gives her students, along with their corresponding responses; it might be the last assignment Laura gave before her breakdown, which may or may not imply that the students’ responses are what put Laura over the edge (on top of flushing her meds). Flipping through the rest of When Mystical Creatures Attack! It seems like most of the stories follow theses forms, as there’s more students papers, more letters, more memos from Bridges. I absolutely love it all, this adventurous undertaking, the risks Founds took, how they paid off of her.

So, the journaling assignment in “When Mystical Creatures Attack” is for the kids to A) choose their favorite mystical creature, B) identify the most pressing social problem in the world, and then C) write a one-page paper defining how that mystical creature would solve that problem. I think that sounds like a fun assignment for a bunch of kids—I never did anything like that at St. Andrew the Apostle in Calumet City—or even a group of creative writing students; in fact, because I want to assign this story to my classes, I think I might just tie an exercise, having them do this very thing.

The rest of Founds’ story, then, is just the collection of the various students’ writings on the topic. Kids pick a lot of mystical creatures—unicorns, werewolves, sphinxes—and a lot of typical social problems—hunger, AIDS, and the environment—and then combine them in unlikely pairings. Some of the responses are just cute and typical, such as a werewolf fixing hunger by eating everyone, leaving only himself, who, of course, would no longer be hungry because he just ate everyone. Cute. But as they would in a real classroom, some of the responses are more serious, more thoughtful, like the kid writing about his father fixing the lawnmower (you can guess why the dad is considered mystical), and finally, how administrators got rid of poor Laura Freeman.

A selection like this really sets the tone for Founds, as a reader is going to know exactly what they’re getting into from page one. This is not a typical story collection (though not many are), and if that read is on board with this first piece, recognizing the difference between a story and a fiction, and they like that distinction, like experimental forms, then they’re going to love this book. There’s a real humor here, a lot of creativity, but at the same time, a lot of heart—Laura Freeman’s story is tragic, rendering this all dark comedy. Really, really comic dark comedy.

I laughed and smiled at When Mystical Creatures Attack! but also admire how its author, Kathleen Founds, still manages to tell a story, a novel-in-fictions, I would call it, maybe the first one of those I’ve ever read. I am very excited about this book, excited to share it with anyone who doesn’t know it. It’s really great—go out and get one for yourself.

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