December 30: “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” by Kathleen Collins

Feeling penultimate, Story366? I sure am. I’d like to intro with the sub-mission of Story366: literary citizenship. The main mission has been, is, and always will be me reading for me. I started this blog to become a better reader, professor, critic, and friend, improving myself, I’ve hoped, with every entry, with every story I read, every point I make. I wanted to get to the books that I’d been collecting for twenty years. As the person in front of the classroom, I wanted to be the person who read a collection first, heard of an author first, had insight—professing. I wanted to be able to discern trends, styles, and themes in short stories and collections, understand what people did, what they do, what the difference is. I wanted to improve my writing by being a more well informed reader. I wanted to be a part of the literary community in a way I’d never been, in a way perhaps nobody else had been, either.

Coming in close second to my own needs is literary citizenship, me giving something to authors for what they’ve given me. Some of the collections I read this year were brand-new releases  from large presses, authors who boasted a team of marketing and public relations people to promote their book, score reviews, make sure the right people read it at the right time. Other writers, from smaller presses, face a DIY approach and could use all the help they could get. Some books were new, other books older, some even forgotten. Many of the authors I’ve written about embraced the entry, shared my post on social media, even put a link to the entry up on their website. Other writers either didn’t respond at all or weren’t on social media—I’m glad I did their books, anyway, as I value them for their writing, not their electronic viability. I’ve made some friends. I’ve confounded a few people, too. Some of these writers, weeks or even months later, said they came across the post and got a hold of me later—those people for some reason seemed especially grateful.

What’s great about this project is that the whole thing will live on as an artifact, that someone’s post might do some student, some writer some good, years down the road, whether it’s writing a paper or trying to figure out a technique. Some entries have only garnered a handful of clicks this year—a couple of them less than five—and I can’t say that it doesn’t break my heart a bit. Perhaps, one day in the future, someone will be writing about those authors, about that collection, and Story366 will become a valuable resource to them. Or maybe not. People will visit the site every day, click on what they want. It’ll be what it is and I’m good with that because I’m proud of what I’ve done here.

For today, I read from Kathleen Collins‘ recently released collection, What Ever Happened to Interracial Love? out from Ecco. A week ago, I had never heard of Collins or this book, but then I saw a couple of people post about it on FB and then heard a story about it on NPR. Sadly, Collins passed away in 1988, this book and her fiction mostly lost to the ages. Like with Lucia Berlin, who I reviewed way back on January 4, Collins had the fortune of having someone remember her work, someone believe in it, want to see it in print years after her death. For Collins, that was A Public Space‘s Brigid Hughes, the Walker Percy to her John Kennedy Toole (sort of). You can read the story of how Hughes came across Collins’ work in this NYT article, but in short, Hughes had seen Collins’ film, Losing Ground (the first film ever written, directed, and produced by an African-American woman, by the way) and contacted her daughter to see if she had any unpublished writing. Many steps later, here we are, this new collection, a whole new generation of readers and writers discovering Collins’ writings.

I read several stories from Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? today, but will write about the title story, which is the longest piece in the book and also one that seems to capture the spirit of Collins’ stories the best. “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about a pair of roommates living in Harlem in 1963, as well as their boyfriends, who also play prominent roles. For the first half of the story, at least, these four characters are referred to not by their names, but by their races, their roles, and general descriptions. One woman is a Harlem community organizer (“white”), while the other (“negro”) has just been released from prison in Georgia. The white community organizer is dating an Umbra poet (“negro”), while her black roommate is dating a freedom rider (“white”), who just got back from getting his jaw broken in prison after being arrested for protesting in the South. These characters, under these monikers, interact with each other, or alone, in New York City at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which presents quite a few plots points and conflicts, as you might imagine. Collins’ story isn’t only about all of these characters’ places in Civil Rights history, however, as each person faces their own unique dilemmas caused by their choices, including how they deal with their families, who don’t always agree with the paths their lives have taken.

As we move through the story, Collins adds to her story’s complexity even more, as the story also becomes about sexual identity. The white girl, who came from money and went to Sarah Lawrence, is well versed in lovemaking, while the black girl from Georgia starts out the story as a virgin, confined by her strict father and her personal fears. Collins challenges us in the passages to move beyond the roles she’s outlined by naming these women by their race. Soon, we discover that the white girl’s name is Charlotte and the black girl’s Cheryl, who date Henry and Alan, respectively. The more we find out about these characters, the more we see them in scenes, interacting, becoming real, the more we lose the sense of trope and move toward fully formed, unique people. In so many ways, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about transition, about growth (which is kind of what all stories are about, right?).

As much as anything, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about New York City, the setting in this story and all of Collins’ work as much of a character as any of the people. Collins is careful to describe the streets, the subway stops, the buildings and the sounds and smells, making this place the most fully realized element of the story. Collins makes the city vital, as crucial to these stories as Wyoming is to Annie Proulx or the suburbs are to John Cheever. By the time I finished reading, I wanted one of those spicy Times Square cart sausages real, real bad.

The stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are unlike any stories I’ve read this year, depicting African American women in a commanding light, during a particularly crucial juncture in American history. If it’s anything, it’s a perspective, a witness to the world and its events that we don’t often hear from. I’m glad to have found Kathleen Collins’ work, via the hard work of others, that these stories did not end up lost. Earlier I mentioned literary citizenship, and wow, what an example this is, willing this book into existence. Maybe Collins’ work find new life, stay with us forever.

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December 29: “The Indestructible Man” by William Jablonsky

Wow, Story366! We’re down to the last three posts of the year! Someone just asked me if I was nervous about messing this up, if I was worried that I’d somehow not finish, get this far only to fall short of achieving this yearlong goal of posting every day. In some ways, I have been overly nervous about that, fearing some accident or emergency or arrest to derail me. Certainly, however, I could have done the last several entries ahead of time, scheduled them to appear on their proper days, and that would have been that, goal achieved. That seems like cheating at this point, though, right? I’ve written ahead before—twice for Cub Scout campouts—and it’s not like anyone’s holding me to doing this a certain way. More than that, I’m enjoying the countdown, reading from a book and writing this post every day. To work ahead, to finish this before New Year’s Eve? That seems unfair in some way. I don’t know how, don’t know why, but it just does. So, for two days after today, the last two of 2016,I’ll read, I’ll write, I’ll post before midnight. And then I’ll be done.

Tonight I’m actually doing something that I’ve not done in Springfield in … over a year? I’m going to meet someone for a drink. It’s a former student, one who went away for his MFA two years ago and has been back since summer, though we’re just getting together now to have a drink, talk about his time away, talk about whatever. One thing this Story366 project has done has eliminated a lot of the free time I would normally reserve for such outings. Even on days that I finish my post early in the day, it seems like I should either be spending time with my family, catching up on school work, writing, treadmilling, or getting a head start on tomorrow’s post; some nights, it’s been the best dea to just get caught up on sleep. Way, way in the back of my mind, I think, It would be cool to go sit at a bar, have a drink, have friends, be a real person. Such a pursuit is, at best, the seventh priority on my list, so it’s easy to see why I don’t get out much, or haven’t at all since 2015. Sure, I’ve been in bars, at AWP, after Cub games in Wrigleyville, after a couple of readings here in town. The last time I just made plans with someone to be social, just to have fun? 2015. Needless to say, 2016 being 2016, I could use a drink.

For today’s installment of Story366, I read one final collection by a Bowling Green Creative Writing Program grad, William Jablonsky. Bill came in the year after I graduated, making him the third writer from the fiction class of ’99 to publish a collection and be featured here (Anthony Doerr and Joanna Howard are the other two), a pretty good turnout for any year, given there’s only five people in every class. I got to know Bill pretty well in his years at BG and have kept in touch and followed his career. He married another BG MFA grad and is a professor at Loras College, where I visited once while touring with Elephants. It was a pleasure today to visit with The Indestructible Man, out from Livingston Press, and I’ll focus on the title story for this post.

“The Indestructible Man” is about Bobby Mercer (not the Yankee), a kid in a small town who is kind of a bully. He’s not a particularly bad kid, but he does like to pick on the kids who are smaller than he is or geekier. Before long, that blows up in his face. One kid in particular that he likes to pick on is named Romulus Wayne, a kid with skinny arms and kind of a smart mouth. Bobby picks on him for years, all the way up to eighth grade, when Romulus starts to draw positive attention as the class daredevil. He can, somehow, jump from high structures like roofs and water towers and not sustain any injuries. This draws the attention of Abigail, whom Bobby has been sweet on for a while. One day, upon seeing Romulus perform one of his daring deeds and Abigail applaud, Bobby convinces himself that whatever Romulus can do, he can do better. Dumb idea. He climbs up an eighty-foot-tall structure and leaps off, only to find himself handicapped for life, forced to make his way around in a wheelchair.

After high school, Romulus disappears from town—with Abigail, who remains beyond smitten—and despite his physical condition and heartache, Bobby moves on. He gets a job and finds a girlfriend, the needlessly dedicated Cindy, who dotes on him despite his saltier traits. He’s able to keep going forward until Romulus Wayne, the seemingly indestructible boy from his youth, starts showing up on talk shows and in commercials. Bobby is especially bothered by a series of insurance ads, which depict Romulus in a series of should-have-been-killed-instantly situations, the voiceover doting on how you, the viewer, isn’t indestructible like Romulus Wayne, but even he has blahblahblah insurance. Considering the commercials are a reenactment of Bobby’s life tragedy, it’s easy to see why his hatred for Romulus soon achieves a zenith.

From this point forward, Bobby, convinced he has nothing left to live for, decides to kill Romulus, who is touring mid-sized cities with a daredevil act, one that’s gaining popularity, making his local celebrity skyrocket. Passing through for a show in nearby Rockford (where Jablonsky’s from), Bobby sees his opportunity to enact his revenge on the  guy he blames for all of his troubles—the fact Abigail has married Romulus doesn’t help things, either.

I won’t go any further into the plot of the “The Indestructible Man,” leaving that confrontation between the old foes for you to discover on your own. The story, at forty-one pages, leaves a lot of room for all of this aforedescribed tension to build and for Jablonsky to develop these characters beyond bitter, vengeful villain and local boy done good. Romulus, for example, seems to be wasting his incredible gift on medicine shows and minor celebrity, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Bobby or some of the other locals. Though this is mainly Bobby’s story, Jablonsky also gives himself license to roam point of view, wandering into some of the supporting characters if that’s the best way to get into their heads. Most of all, I like that this is told from Bobby’s perspective, not Romulus’, Jablonsky understanding the lessons of the Superman mythology, that the Man of Steel isn’t nearly as interesting as his more fallible foes and even his lesser cohorts. I’m not sure what a story from Romulus’ POV would be like, but I think Jablonsky made the best fiction choice here, one of the reasons I really like this long entry in his solid collection.

William Jablonsky’s The Indestructible Man is a book that isn’t afraid to cross genre barriers—way before it was chic—to tell imaginative, unique stories, all of them filled with unique characters, engaging conflicts, and memorable passages. Bill’s a talented writer and it was a real luxury to read a few of his stories back to back, to feature him here at Story366.

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December 28: “Graceland” by Claire Vaye Watkins

What’s going on, Story366? Earlier today, I posted the Press Archive for this project, finally finishing it after starting over Thanksgiving weekend, a project I thought I’d knock out in one night, in a couple of hours. Nope. Aside from all the copying and pasting—which has left my left thumb and pointer quite raw—there was a lot of looking up of presses and such, as well as figuring out how the whole thing should look. I think it’s finally right, so if you click that link above (or on the masthead of the site), you can check it out.

I know this is my project and I care about it, as well as tracking it, more than anyone, but I do think it’s interesting to see how things turned out, how many books from each press and how many presses I featured this past year. Some houses with the most books were no-duhs, big presses like Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Knopf, Norton, and Vintage, all well represented as they are all dedicated to publishing great short fiction. I was also not surprised to see so many university presses having long lists, especially those that sponsor contest series like the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, or the Iowa Short Fiction Award. There’s the two presses I’ve conned into publishing my books, Dzanc and Curbside Splendor, which have been generous, as any time I’ve wanted something , I’ve only had to ask and they’ve sent it right along; Karen got her press, ELJ Editions, to do the same. I’ve also discovered a lot of small presses this year, indies like Braddock Avenue Books, Burrow Press, and Subito Press, presses from which I’ve featured multiple books, all of which were fantastic, all of which I’m keeping an eye on from here on out. Then there’s … okay, I can keep doing this until I relist every press here, but that’s dumb, as that’s why I made the index. Check it out.

In short, though, if you like stories, like story collections, there’s a lot of presses doing those. I haven’t covered every press that publishes short stories collections—for various reasons—but I hope to get to more of them, if not all of them, as I go forward.

Above all else, if you run a press and want me to feature your story collections on this project, send them to me! Message me at FB and we’ll work out the details.

Okay, pitch time over. Today, I had the pleasure of reading from Claire Vaye Watkins‘ collection Battleborn, out from Riverhead Books, a much-celebrated collection that I’d not read before. Battleborn earned Watkins all kinds of awards, included the Story Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and got her named a 5 Under 35 Fiction Writer from the National Book Foundation. Where was I when this book came out? Ah! 2012! The year I turned my life upside down and moved across the country and had a kid and started a new job. My life’s black hole, I like to call it, of all things not concerned with those three events. In any case, I’ve read stories by Watkins before and have been aware of her success, and of course, didn’t want to make it through the year without featuring this heralded collection. I got my copy delivered today, in fact, and dove right in, absorbing four stories before other duties called. I’ll be finishing this book for sure, but for this post, I still had to pick just one entry. I really like the opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” but that has some historical ties that I’d have to look into, research, so I’m going to write on my next favorite, “Graceland,” which ends the collection, making for some tight bookends.

“Graceland” is about Catie, the story protagonist who narrates in first-person present. She begins the story by noting how she laments the loss of the large, carnivorous mammals, how there used to be giant creatures that roamed the Earth like killer jackrabbits and armadillos that would eat you as soon as you tried to take their picture. Even now, all the big hunters, or anything big, for that matter, are dying off, leaving the grizzly bear as the largest flesh hunter on the planet. Pretty soon, that will be the human, she fears, as the whales need saving and polar bears are drowning as their glaciers melt. A cool intro to the story and this character by Watkins, as, well, she’s kind of right: That does suck. I mean, unless you’re headed to the Walmart and an armadillo picks you off as you rollerblade past his cave.

The rest of the story isn’t really about this fear, although it’s one of the many anxieties that Catie has that comes up here and there. Part of her fear is due to the fact she’s tiny, just over five feet, and has been the subject of short jokes her whole life (which should mean she wants fewer predators, but whatever, its her anxiety). She’s also reeling from the recent suicide of her mother, whose ashes she’s just scattered on a mountain in Vegas. Recovering from her mother’s death is more or less both the theme and the plot of this story, as we follow this quirky young woman as she tries to deal with it, plus everything else that makes up her life.

Watkins builds Catie through a series of facts, revealed through anecdotes and encounters. We know that she has a particular love-hate relationship with the movie Dumbo (which I think is perhaps the saddest movie ever). She spends a lot of time with her sister Gwen (who is even shorter than her, by the way), both in person and through thinking about her. She has a boyfriend, Peter, a marine biologist, who seems to facilitate her eccentricities. And there’s a particular tie to Graceland, the Paul Simon album from the title—this story is not about Elvis’ estate, but more about Simon’s themes from that album, his quest, his own redemption.

I won’t reveal anything else about the plot, because really, there’s not a traditional plot here, not in terms of rising action and climax and all those other Freitagian points. The story builds its tension and momentum by that aforementioned list of character traits and such that Watkins gives to Catie. Sure, there’s an ending that brings it all together, both physically and syntactically, but the real joy of this piece is just seeing where Watkins takes her hero next, what she has her say or do or pontificate on (primarily the latter). I’ll bet that before her mother’s suicide, Catie was a trip, someone worthy of writing a story about because of all her little habits and fears and obsessions. After her mother’s death, though, all of those things became magnified, we have to assume, depicting a woman who maybe isn’t defined by these characteristics any more, but by grief.

I enjoyed all of the stories I read in Battleborn, Clare Vaye Watkins’ debut collection, a book that has garnered more praise and awards than I can possibly improve upon here. I love what Watkins does in these pieces, how she starts each one in an interesting way, seemingly in another story, another place, but brings everything together, makes it all makes sense. That opening story, “Cowboys, Ghosts,” begins with several anecdotes about characters settling out west, starting in the nineteenth century, working its way to the Manson family (and Watkins herself). Nothing in Watkins work is predictable, nothing that I’ve seen done before. What a great book.

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December 27: “The Tsar of Love and Techno” by Anthony Marra

Say hey, Story366! Today has been somewhat of a back-to-it day, as I’d spent the last four days without doing much of anything, save this blog, focusing on holiday prep, the holidays, and finally a day when I didn’t do much at all. Everything started this morning with one of those half-awake, half-asleep states, me dreaming that I was waking up for a couple of hours before I actually did. I knew when I went to sleep that I’d have a full plate today, but didn’t set an alarm, causing my brain to completely fuck with me instead. In today’s scenario, I dreamed that I had indeed woken up, but was doing my work from my bed, reaching over the side to a computer console and making a word find for my class. I’d found a good program online that makes word finds automatically, so all I had to do was type in the words I wanted my students to find. As soon as I finished the word find, I woke up (at least I think I did …). It was 10:48. I hate my brain.

You might be wondering why a college professor is having an anxiety dream about making word finds, but it’s based on the fact that my Intro to Fiction final, one semester, featured a word find on the back page as extra credit. I hid a bunch of authors’ last names in the letter cube and thought it would be a fun way for them to end the semester, pick up a couple of bonus points, make me look clever and cool. Nope. Only a couple of the students even attempted the word find, most of them getting to it, smiling a bit—there was a chortle or two—then turning in their final, ready to start break. I’d spent a couple of hours making that goddamn word find, but the message was clearly received: I cut the word find from the final after that. The only reason I can figure why this all showed up in my dreams last night is because this last semester, I told my students this story—about the word find on the final—and they were all like, Yeah, do that! That would rock! However, I went in the night before to print the final and forgot to include it. The next morning, they were all like, Hey, where’s the word find? I’m rusty on my Jung, but I’m pretty sure that’s why I had a two-hour dream about word finds this morning instead of waking up (again, if I am indeed awake now).

One of the things that made today’s plate full was doing this post, of course, and I knew that I was going to be reading from Anthony Marra‘s The Tsar of Love and Techno, out from Hogarth, the book that, hands down, has been on my to-do stack the longest. I think I picked this book up in February or March. Since, I’ve grabbed it on several occasions, choosing it as the book to read and write about that day. As soon as I’d open the table of contents, though, I’d always shrug and put it back, as The Tsar of Love and Techno features all long-as stories, inclduing a title story at the center that’s seventy-four pages long (with a few title pages thrown in for style). Still, my days are always full, no matter what time of year it is, so when I’m planning my day, it’s rare that I think, “I’ll read a seventy-page story today” when I could instead say, “I’ll read an eleven-page story today.” Yes, I know, I teach creative writing and literature and seventy pages is really nothing—last year I read Adam Johnson’s entire Orphan Master’s Son in one day, in one sitting—but psychologically, Marra’s book and its long stories intimidated me and I started avoiding it.

Determined to include The Tsar of Love and Techno in this first 366, I planned on featuring it this week, and this morning—after my word find nightmares—I tucked that book in my bag and ran off to my office, set on reading that long title story and at least one more piece. I owed it to Marra—who I think has somehow magically known about this avoidance and has felt slighted—and I owed it to myself, plunking twenty-five bones down on this book at the local B&N. In my office, I did all that stuff that had been lingering for the past week, then sat back and opened Marra’s book to “The Tsar of Love and Techno.”

Before I go any further, I should tell you about this collection, which is made up of linked stories, set in Russia over the course of the last century—plus a concluding piece that takes place in the future in outer space—all of them involving a rather obscure Russian painting by an obscure Russian painter named Zakharov. The painting serves as a MacGuffin of sorts, featured as a talking point in some stories, a major plot point in others, passed along from character to character like a chain. The characters all seem to be related, or at least know each other, each character getting their own story, their own time with the painting, sort of Marra’s version of the Stanley Cup.

The book is also organized, at least in the table of contents, like a mix tape, with the first half of the stories constituting “Side 1” and the second half “Side 2,” “The Tsar of Love and Techno” smack-dab in the middle as the “Intermission.” Each story also has a subheading of sorts that lists where the story is taking place and in what year, Marra giving clues to the reader so he doesn’t have to be all didactic and reveal it somehow in each and every story.

“The Tsar of Love and Techno”—subtitled “St. Petersburg, 2010; Kirovsk, 1990s,” features Alexei, a young college student who’s not making much progress on his degree, not sure what he wants to do with his life, sharing an apartment in St. Petersburg with his landlady’s sons, who have set a disco up in the bathroom and won’t let him use it. Alexei is thrilled, then, to get a first-class ticket to Moscow from Galina, a girl from his home town who used to date his brother and is now Russia’s top runway model and movie star, her picture on every billboard in every town in Russia. He has not seen Galina in years and is taken aback by her life in a luxury hotel, where she spends more money in a day than Alexei sees in a year. Galina has called Alexei to Russia for two reasons: 1) to tell him that his brother, Kolya, is dead; and 2) to give him a painting, the painting, the Zakharov. As it turns out, when filming in Chechnya, she used her celebrity to ask around about Kolya and was told he died in a field, the very field that the Zakharov painting depicts. She bought the painting, but now that she’s divorcing Oleg, a nickel magnate, she doesn’t want it counted as an asset and offers it to Alexei as a keepsake, of sorts, of his brother’s death (which is pretty grim, as I know from reading another story how Kolya died in that field). Alexei returns to his hellish life as a man who can’t graduate, who can’t use his own bathroom, who doesn’t have a place in the world.

That gets things in motion in terms of the frontstory, as Alexei decides his to be a complete sham. He robs the disco brothers of all their valuables and buys a plane ticket to Chechnya, where he attempts to find Zakharov and return the painting to him, plus see that field where his brother died.

This is only half of “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” however. Marra goes back and forth, using numbered sections, alternating between the Alexei-painting plot and Alexei and Kolya’s backstory. He traces their lives from the time they were kids in Kirovsk, which is described as the most polluted city in the world, its lake so filled with mercury and other chemicals, half the town’s population dies from cancer by fifty. The first scene with young Alexei and Kolya has them witnessing a mob execution out in the woods—a story, I’m guessing, we get the full picture of in one of the other pieces in this book—and then their lives as the sons of a man who is building a homemade cosmonaut museum, honoring Russia’s space program. The boys grow up, lose their mother, move from school to school, but most of all, this half of the story is the tale of how Kolya, a poor kid from a dirty town, came to date (and almost wed) the country’s most beautiful and glamorous starlet, Galina. I won’t go too far into that, but in short, it’s because she was a kid in that same dirty town, Kolya was a badass and a sweetheart, and, well, future supermodels have to date somebody before they’re famous.

“The Tsar of Love and Techno” features a whole lot more story than this, as I still haven’t revealed what the the mix tape has to do with any of this, how Kolya and Galina got separated, and what our protagonist and narrator, Alexei, has to do with all of it. He’s a peripheral narrator for most of the story, but his impulsive sojourn to the site of Kolya’s death makes him more of a player and less of a narrator (though, of course, he narrates those parts as well). Even though this story is seventy pages long, I don’t want to go any further, as this piece, it’s back-and-forth format, its intensity, its exotic setting, its historical ties, and its vivid characters all made the read far beyond worth it, those seventy pages flying by before I knew it.

I read another story when I was done with “The Tsar of Love and Techno”—”The Prisoner of Caucusus,” Kolya’s story, which falls as the last piece on Side 1—and really want to read the rest of this book, find out what happens to these characters, to this painting, discover how it all ends in outer space in the distant future. The Tsar of Love and Techno, the first work I’ve read by Anthony Marra, is one of my favorite collections from 2016 (meaning, of the ones released this year), though if someone called this novel (or at the very least, a novel in stories), I wouldn’t argue with their nomenclature. Great book. Glad I got off the schneid and finally pulled it down from the shelf.

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December 26: “Big Bad Love” by Mary Miller

How’s it going, Story366? My existence has been exactly what I like it to be today, sleeping in, accomplishing small tasks, reading and writing, eating good food (of the leftover variety), and in general, not having a particular place or time to worry about. The family and I had some nice time together—still a joy to watch the boys enjoy their toys—but we also all had separate, private time to be in our own heads, make the day what we wanted it to be. Days like this are few and far between, so I’m cherishing. Still five hours to go, too. Who knows what else is in store?

Today I read from Mary Miller‘s forthcoming collection, Always Happy Hour, coming this January from Liveright.Publishing. This is the second book I’ve done on Story366 (after A.A. Balaskovits’) that’s not out yet, but I’ve had Miller’s ARC for about a month and have been itching to read it, wanting to fit it in before the end of the year. I’ve known Miller’s work for a long time, having read it in lit journals, having heard her read it live, and having published one of these stories, “He Says I Am a Little Oven,” in Mid-American Review before I left there. The leisurely nature of the day, combined with how much I was enjoying these stories, lead me pretty deep into the collection, and after reading five or six stories, I’ve settled on “Big Bad Love” to write about today.

Side bar: “Big Bad Love” is also the title of a Larry Brown collection and story, one I read over twenty years ago and is very awesome (also made into a movie by Arliss Howard, which is pretty good as well). The real anecdote here is that searching out info on this book led me to one of my first interweb foibles: Imagine it being ’95, the Internet so new, and typing “Big Bad Love” into Netscape Navigator. Now imagine the search results, as computers, unlike me, don’t assume surfers are looking for short story collections. The result was my first “Yikes! Sorry!” in a university computer lab, me trying to cover the screen with my hand as I frantically searched for the back button, only bringing more eyes to what I was doing, to the big, bad love displayed for all to see.

Back to Mary Miller and her “Big Bad Love.” Her story is about this young woman, mid-twenties I’d guess, who is working at a home for abused, neglected, and abandoned kids. We don’t find that out, not right away, as the opening scene of the story is just this narrator—we don’t know who she is yet, or even more importantly, how old she is—hanging out with these kids, who are playing with broken roller skates and bikes. One of the girls, Diamond, wants attention, and when she doesn’t get it, she stands on an ant hill until the ants bite the shit out of her, forcing our narrator to pay attention, give her care. They go insides, slab on some Neosporin, then the narrator then checks on a nursery, where a single baby is inside a crib in a room filled with cribs, crying and soaking wet. She changes the baby, but by this time, Miller has us asking questions, like where exactly we are and who this narrator is. Is she one of the kids? Is this place in some sort of post-apocalypse setting, the shelter so bleak and seemingly lacking in adults?

We eventually figure out that no, the narrator is the adult, but sounds young enough to be one of the other kids, maybe a teenager (oft referred to as “the older kids” in the story). She is also hopeful and helpful in ways some of the other workers, whom we meet one by one, no longer are. Our narrator wants to help Diamond—victim of everything horrible you can think of—and her tone, actions, mannerisms indicate that she, unlike her coworkers and a lot of the kids, hasn’t had her spirit broken, her soul drained from her by everything she’s seen. At least not yet. It’s a neat trick by Miller, making the setting, even the character, a bit vague at first, as that part of what this story is about, just how close this woman is to these kids and their awful situations.

Once the setting becomes clear, the inner workings mapped out for us (in short, the shelter is understaffed, underfunded, and overcrowded), we start to get to know our protagonist more intimately, Miller good at peppering poignant details in when she can. We know she’s the de facto dietician and lunch lady because she has a college degree and her superior—which she’s only met twice—wants her to go to a seminar to learn the minimum amount of protein they can get away with putting into a serving. We know she is married to a very nice guy who reads motorcycle magazines but has never been on a motorcycle. We know she snags a pill or two, mostly Adderall, to keep her going, no one really keeping track. We know she has taken a particular shine to Diamond, whose multiple problems require more attention than the shelter can afford.

Through all of this, our hero still tries to do the right thing because that’s just who she is. Maybe one day she’ll be more jaded, see enough Diamonds come and go, cut herself off emotionally so she doesn’t die. Or maybe she won’t. I won’t reveal anymore of the plot here, as I’m pretty far in already, and you can read for yourself to find out what happens.

The young protagonist in “Big Bad Love” is like a lot of the protagonists in Always Happy Hour, young women who have found a niche in life, but aren’t particularly thrilled with the niche, assuming it to be temporary, trying to figure out what to do instead. “He Says I Am a Little Oven” is about a woman on a cruise with her boyfriend, trying to make that work. “Where All the Beautiful People Go” is about a young woman who hangs around an older couple and their kids just to get a free supply of pills. “Little Bear” is about a young mother, wondering why she had a kid, assuming she’s going to have another. The characters in these stories feel, above all else, very real, characters who have gravitated to situations, not because they necessarily chose them, but because that what their lives dictated. The little details, characters reading magazines that don’t apply to them, a woman’s unnatural fondness for a little boy, are heaped on, selling each of these women as unique, all of them individuals with specific problems, eclectic ways of handling them (or not). I really loved this collection and look forward to finishing it and recommend you pick this up as soon as it comes out. It’s an early frontrunner, in the way-too-soon polls, for one of my favorites for 2017.

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December 25: “The Migration” by Matt Bell

Merry Christmas to you, Story366! Today is a special day for many people, including my family, who perhaps has had a most perfect day, what Karen and I are calling the best Christmas ever (RIP, George Michael, plus all those Russians on that plane, however …). After a late night last night, sneaking off to shop a bit more—I invaded a Walgreen’s as it was closing after finding all the Walmarts closed—the alarm clock was set to whenever the boys woke up and wanted to commence with the opening of their gifts. The older one was up and ready to go at 6:30—there was NO WAY we were doing that—but we kept him occupied until 8, when Christmas morning was launched. My kids had an extremely happy Christmas, receiving all they asked for and more, and what made it satisfying was how clearly excited they appeared when the wrapping paper came off and they registered what was in their hands. They are good, grateful boys, and I’m glad they had a day like many I had as a kid, the youngest of seven, spoiled by his parents and aunts and uncles and everyone. The highlight was my youngest, opening a giant present he’d asked for, then laughing uncontrollably, the joy flowing out of him in this really basic but lovely route.

We ate a lot, too, starting with a massive breakfast that I thought for some reason was a good idea, followed by snacking all day, then the main event, a really perfect prime rib that Karen and I conspired into perfection—I don’t think I’ve ever made better-tasting food. I got to call some loved ones, took a much-needed nap, and watched my kids play with their presents, more satisfaction, more reliving my fondest childhood memories through them. Is there anything better than that?

I also got to do one of my other favorite things, read short stories, and for today, I saved one of my favorite authors, one of my best friends, and one of the best people I know, Matt Bell. I’ve been too busy and disorganized this last month to plan any great holiday extravaganza for Story366, but knew a while ago I wanted something kind of special on Christmas and chose Matt. Matt’s stories are Christmas-themed at all—far from it—and for a split second, I reconsidered, pegging this story called “The Gift of the Magi,” penned by the candy bar magnate O. Henry. Then I realized that I’d read “The Gift of the Magi” a few dozen times, meaning it was, by my rules, eliminated from Story366 consideration. So back to Matt and his Christmaslessness. However, because I didn’t want to disappoint, I was able to fashion a semi-holiday theme to today and yesterday combined, as yesterday, I covered Marisa Silver and today I’m doing Matt Bell. Get it? Silver bell? Like the Christmas song? Anyway, that’s all I got, holiday-wise. If you’re holding out for a Boxing Day story tomorrow or a New Year’s Eve story on Saturday, well, anything can (but probably won’t) happen.

I sat down today with Matt’s latest collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall, out from Soho Press, which was for the most part a trip down memory lane. I’ve read so many of these stories before, but even so, I couldn’t help rereading them as they’re so good and I felt nostalgic and that’s what today’s all about, doing things that make you feel good. Pieces like “The Cartographer” or “His Last Great Gift” rank among my favorites, but as prime rib duty called, I realized that I’d spent a lot of time with this book and hadn’t read a new (to me) story yet, which I was going to have to find if I was going to write my post. Even some stories that I thought I hadn’t read I’d read, either forgetting about them or because Matt changed the title. Finally, I got serious, even having to abandon some stories mid-first page, and found a couple of pieces that I’d not read before. One is pretty darned depressing, about a dad whose son is dying in a hospital (“A Long Walk With Only Chalk to Mark the Way,” which ends the collection), and after yesterday’s child death story, I decided to write about the other new piece, “The Migration.”

Note that “The Migration” isn’t all marching bands and cobbler, either. Matt Bell is a lot of things as a writer, but a non-stop joke machine isn’t one of his cap’s particularly large feathers. Several years ago, Matt and I did a few readings together here and there, and at the first one—which I believe was at the KGB Bar—I read first, Matt second. I performed my usual goofy, light shit, which people, while drinking fourteen-dollar cocktails in the East Village on a Friday night, could giggle at. Matt then followed up with his story “Index of How Our Family Was Killed,” which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a fantastic story, written as an actual index (as in the back of a textbook), but it’s as grim as can be, everyone dying horrible deaths, even kids and dogs and at least nine goldfish. After that, we decided Matt would go first if we read together and me second, so when people left, they’d be in a relatively good mood, noting things like, “That first guy was intense and that second guy said ‘fart’ a couple of times.”

That said, “The Migration” is about men who kill and men who migrate. Literally, that’s who the story is about, as we don’t get any character names, just those repeated general descriptions when referring to whomever he’s referring to (both hallmark of much of Bell’s work, repetition and anonymity). We are immediately thrust into a situation, an alternative universe, almost, where the men who kill do a lot of killing, and the men who migrate leave a lot, just to avoid being killed. The story’s longish, twenty-four page, and Bell spends a lot of time setting up the rules of this world via scenarios, like how many killings it takes for a particular group of migrators to jump ship. We also get a lot of details on the circumstances surrounding the killings, like how the killings were executed, how the me wanted the killings to look, and a few rules about the kinds of people they wouldn’t kill (which, eventually, turns out to be nobody).

As the story moves forward, the situations and explanations and justifications for the killings become more intricate, more intense, but at the same time, less discriminate. When it comes down to it, the men in “The Migration” kill not only to kill, but for the side effect: the survivors leaving the place in which they all live. Some of the perpetrators are brought to trial—this is no lawless land—but neither courts nor public opinion can control the inevitable. This is not to say that there isn’t remorse (there is), but the killings seem like duty, like the new world order. Then again, Bell implies that the men who kill might not necessarily be the bad guys, that their cause is just or at the very least, they believe it is just. If anything, the men who kill—this story’s de facto protagonist—are complex.

I’m actually going to stop here, in terms of plot revelation, as I’m actually pretty far into the story. If it seems like I’ve not expressed much specific detail, it’s because “The Migration” isn’t that type of story. This tale is told from a distant third person, from an extremely omniscient viewpoint. Bell’s lens is so far removed because he’s giving us a history here, a rundown, and wants us to see the whole picture, from a particular, well informed vantage point. He does not employ traditional scenes in this story, nor does he utilize anecdotes or even dialogue. The story is told in a cold summary, no hint of judgment in the narrator’s voice, the storyteller’s job to simply relay what has happened. This is the story of a place where men kill other men just because they are killers and they want to be the ones in this place instead of the ones they kill.

A story like “The Migration,” told in this omniscient way, is often allegorical, or at least metaphorical. From what I know about Matt Bell and his work, he’s the least didactic writer working today, meaning he’s not going to let his readers off easy. Still, everything about this story, almost every line, smacks of something standing for something else, Bell trying to tell us this is what the world—our world—is like (though he’s not going to admit it anywhere here). At its most basic, isn’t that what happens, men killing other men to get them to leave? It’s an old story, though told here as if for the first time, Bell’s approach so fresh, so engaging, so syntactically perfect, it’s a masterpiece. Not something for a warm Christmas fire, some cookies and a mug of cocoa at hand, but hey, to each his own.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is a fine collection, one of the very best of 2016, by one of our best young writers, Matt Bell. It’s easy for me to say that, as I’ve long been an admirer of his work and count him amongst my better friends. If you’ve been in this writing world at all for the past ten years, you probably know about Matt, about his work, his work ethic, his meteoric rise to prominence. I’m really lucky to know this guy, who texted me with holiday wishes as I started this post—my answer to him was to stay tuned. Let this post serves as my response. Happy Christmas to Matt and to all!

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December 24: “What I Saw From Where I Stood” by Marisa Silver

Merry Christmas Eve, Story366! And Happy Hanukkah, too! What a day it’s been! Last night after my kids went to bed, I did some last-minute shopping (always good to be in a Walmart at 1 a.m.) and then some last-minute wrapping, all while watching this season’s premiere of The Walking Dead (I’d just caught up). Not exactly how I remember my parents doing it, but then again, some other store substituted for Walmart and I’m sure they watched some late-night TV show instead. Maybe my experience was more intense than Sears and Johnny Carson—that Walking Dead season opener is brutal—but that’s a small detail. Tons of parents out there did the same last night and are doing the same again tonight. I know I won’t be in bed for several hours, that very early wake-up call looming as soon as my kids smell daylight.

Today, we readied things for a nice Christmas Eve dinner that included a new family tradition: enchiladas and quesadillas. Karen and I discussed things early yesterday, tried to decide when we’d do the big dinner and what we’d eat and decided on some prime rib for Christmas Day. That left tonight open, and what I make that Karen likes more than anything are enchiladas, so I made enchiladas. The kids like quesadillas, which are just flat, cut-up enchiladas, so they’re not any harder to throw together when I’m already making enchiladas. Karen also got some pre-cooked, monstrous shrimp that we gnoshed on while the chicken cooked (I used crock pots so it would shred). So, no Polish sausage or pierogi or any of those things I grew up with, but that’s stuff is a lot harder to make and like I said, Karen likes the enchiladas. By the time we ate—after 9 p.m.—we were so filled from shrimp and snacking all day, we each ate some rice and barely an enchilada each. We now have eight full enchiladas in the fridge, which we’ll have to work around a pretty massive prime rib.

I’ll also predict, unless there’s a story coming in the next week about enchiladas, that this is the Story366 post that will feature the word “enchilada” more than any other. Anyone want to take that bet?

For today’s post, I never rallied and found a holiday story to write about, so instead I read from Marisa Silver‘s collection Babe in Paradise, out from Norton. Babe in Paradise is one of those books I came across in a box in my basement last week, a book I remember having bought a long time ago and then losing track of; it’s one of those that spurred Story366, those collections I’m so glad to have unearthed and enjoyed, one I probably never would have gotten to without this blog. I read a few stories and thought all of them were pretty intense, about people experiencing a life-changing incident while already dealing with some other life-changing incident that’ has been fucking with them for a while. The title story, for instancefeatures a sixteen-year-old girl named Babe whose house is about to be eaten by a wild fire just as she’s trying to figure out her sexual relationship with this older guy who works (and lives) in a Goodwill donation truck —it’s really about coming to terms with her own sexual identity after being abused as a kid. “What I Saw From Where I Stood” has a similar structure, and is a little (an eensie-weensie little) less depressing on this fine holiday evening, so let’s hit it.

“What I Saw From Where I Stood” is about this young couple who at the start of the story is driving home from work through Los Angeles when they are crashed into from behind by a van. Dulcie is the driver, but the story is told by her unnamed husband, technically the protagonist and narrator. Thinking it’s just an innocent accident, our guy gets out of the car to access the damage and confront the people in the van, only to find out they’ve been crashed into on purpose and are being robbed and eventually carjacked. The couple is happy to have escaped the incident with their lives—the whole thing happened at gunpoint, there were six guys, all of whom were whacked-out—but then, of course, the reality of having this happen sinks in for them pretty quickly in a lingering way: In short, it sucks.

The event has a profound effect on Dulcie, making her afraid of opening her door (Halloween happening that week is not much fun), sleeping with the lights off, or even going to work. The story started sounding a lot like the story I wrote about for yesterday, “The Burglar” by Mary L. Tabor, which features a home break-in and a woman who can’t get the incident out of her head. “What I Saw From Where I Stood” is a different story very quickly, though, as other variant things are going on for Dulcie and our protagonist. Mainly, they’re still getting over the loss of their baby from a few years prior, a pregnancy that saw massive complications at six months, induced labor, and a stillbirth. I should also mention that the carjacking at the outset of this story happened right in front of the hospital where they lost their baby. Is that a coincidence? In the real lives of these characters, sure, but in the world of short stories, no: Silver has set up a nifty metaphor here, one that drives the rest of her story.

While the robber and carjacking occupy this couple’s minds, at least for now, our narrator can’t shake memories of his baby’s death, which he relays quite often through backstory. Sure, being robbed at gunpoint, having everything valuable being forced from you, is kind of like what happened to Dulcie and the baby, but really, the crime that begins the story falls into the background and thoughts of the baby’s death, how’s it’s shaken their foundation, start to play a larger role. There’s also a sub-story and lesser metaphor about a rat in their apartment’s wall, but really, I’ve given a lot away and don’t want to reveal anything further, so I won’t.

I really enjoyed Marisa Silver’s approach to story, how there’s a plot and then there’s a backstory plot, each overlapping with meaning and images and language and metaphor. To oversimplify this work and say an armed carjacking is like an induced stillbirth, or a creeping wildfire is like one’s sexual history slowly catching up with you, burning you as you try to escape it, would be unfair to Silver and her talent. It’s easy for me (especially 358 days into this) to break stuff like this down, but Silver’s stories flow well, are fantastically written, and don’t broadcast these conclusions at all. I was compelled by the characters in and impressed by the intensity Silver is able to reach and maintain. Some great incident befalling a person as they’re already dealing with some other shit is a savory recipe for great fiction. Babe in Paradise is Silver’s first book, of six, including four novels and a second collection, and I’m curious to see what else she does. I enjoyed this enough to most certainly want more.

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December 23: “The Burglar” by Mary L. Tabor

Merry Christmas Eve EveStory366! Today is the last day to get ready before the last day to get ready, and considering how I’m Polish and all and traditionally, Polish folk celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve more than on Christmas, I should be more ready than I am. I have to run out to one more store tonight for one more gift—kill me—but for the most part, the next step is just making the joint respectable so we can destroy it with cooking and wrapping paper carnage. That’s really not usually so bad, only there’s a stew of Legos, Lincoln Logs, Duplos, Waffle Blocks, Tinker Toys, Cars cars, kids meal toys, art supplies, and miscellaneous all over every room of our house. My instincts as a holiday/anytime cleaner is to not only get all that together and move it all out of the way, but to sort it all out, put it into their proper containers/piles/spots, and admire the heck out of my accomplishment before the kids just play 52-pickup with it when they wake up the next day. That kind of task—along with dedusting, deketcuping, and derootbeering it all, makes me want to go shopping and maybe just stay there. Ho ho ho!

In any case, as Best Buy calls, I’ll get right into today’s post—only nine left for the year! I read from Mary L. Tabor‘s collection The Woman Who Never Cooked, out from Mid-List Press, one of their First Series: Short Fiction winners. I’ve been aware of Mary’s work for some time, as I published one of the pieces, “To Swim?” in Mid-American Review as a winner of their Sherwood Anderson contest before the book came out. Of course, I was thrilled to see Mary win this book prize, for this collection to come out, and she signed my copy at AWP right after it did. Good to see good things happen to good people.

I read a few stories today and the piece that has stuck with me the most is “The Burglar.” “The Burglar”‘s not the title story, which I usually pick, but hey, why be predictable?

Side bar: Typing the word “burglar” makes me think I’m spelling it incorrectly, that there’s a vowel syllable somewhere in the middle, maybe “burgalar” or “burgelar” or even “burgulühr.” But no, there’s not.

“The Burglar” is about Ruth, a woman whose house is burgled one day while her and her husband, Ben, are out. The job seems to be professionally done, as the perps didn’t wreck the house and only the true valuables are missing—the burglar even knew which pieces of Ruth’s jewelry to take and which to leave, trinkets either too hard to fence of with distinguishable marks, making them traceable. The police give this upper middle-class couple very little consolation, as they don’t predict they’ll ever catch this person, nor will they recover Ruth’s stolen jewelry (which includes one heirloom piece from her mother). Ben mentions something about getting a security system installed, but never follows up on it, the professional thief already taking everything of value.

Ruth, though, is deeply affected by the incident. At first, she has a normal reaction, feeling unsafe when she comes home, calling out as she walks in the door to check if anyone’s there. Soon, though, the burglar invades Ruth’s every thought as she can’t get him out of her head. She thinks about him when she’s alone, when she’s working, even when she’s having sex with Ben, unable to climax for the first time in ages because she can’t concentrate—she imagines the burglar to be with her, not Ben. Things only get worse when Ruth starts to develop a profile for this burglar, turning him into a character from some kind of a heist novel. Ruth’s burglar wears expensive pinstriped suits, is a lawyer by trade, and only steals from the wealthy to give to the poor (like Robin Hood, which incites an old ethics quandary that Tabor touches on throughout the story). He is handsome, suave, and would never hurt her, sort of like Cary Grant (To Catch a Thief is also referenced throughout) or David Niven.

This still probably isn’t so bad—I mean, Cary Grant is better than some creepy scumbag, right?—not until Ruth starts to imagine this guy as more than a healthy personification of a scary memory. Eventually, this handsome burglar starts to physically visit Ruth—she’s concocted a scenario for that, too—and converse with her; yes, Ruth then begins to answer. So, to say that this incident has gotten into Ruth’s head is an understatement: It’s caused a full-blown mental crisis, which is the real conflict of the story (not what happened to that gold chain or string of pearls).

“The Burglar” is a complex story, one that introduces a lot of elements on top of the Robin Hood ethics puzzle and Hitchcock references. There’s more to Ruth’s sexual identity, more to how this incident has affected her than picturing Ben as the pinstriped burglar. There’s also an obsession with her mother, more pointedly, her mother’s breasts, which were large and motherly, a contrast to Ruth’s own bosom. Beneath the surface of this story also lies the psychology of Ruth, what makes a woman react this way to a simple, violentless break-in. Does a healthy, happy woman become as haunted as Ruth? She and Ben seem normal, seem happy, but this crime really violates Ruth to her core, in a few different ways. Tabor has created a multi-dimensional, memorable character in Ruth, the main reason I enjoyed “The Burglar,” chose to write about it today.

Other stories in The Woman Who Never Cooked sport similar themes and characters to “The Burglar,” including that title story, about an older woman who has suddenly stopped cooking, despite owning over three hundred cookbooks. I know that one of Mary L. Tabor’s other books is the memoir (Re)MAKING LOVE: a sex after sixty story, which makes me think of the characters in this book, suspect that memoir’s subject in what I read today (in short, I think the woman who stops cooking in the title story is really talking about how she’s stopped having sex). That’s probably unfair, as not every story can be about that. Whatever the theme, though, Tabor is a gifted storyteller who has a fantastic collection of stories here. Glad I came across this book again and sat down with it for a while.

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December 22: “Don’t Think” by Richard Burgin

Na Zdorovie, Story366! Can you believe we are down to the final ten posts of the year? Yeah, neither can I. The weirdest part of all this—and I’ve mentioned this before—is that I somehow have a ton of story collections left at my house, collections I obviously won’t get to until next year. Had you told me back in January that I could not only accumulate 366 different story collections, but somehow also procure more than I would need for the yearlong project, I would not have believed you. I have mentioned this for months, but when I started, I never, ever thought that I’d be doing 366 different authors from 366 different books. If you look back in the Story366 Archives, I started with Adam Johnson, Rebecca Makkai, and Jean Thompson, and I really though, after that, I would rotate my way through those three books, doing at least three or four stories from each, taking me to mid-January. Then I’d find more books, do the same, while also hitting anthologies and lit mags. Then I started finding more books in the crevasses of my house (heck, I just found a stack of ten down in my basement this past weekend) and started to get the idea that I could maybe assemble a new book for every day of the year. It really helped when authors—by January 2—were writing to request my address because they wanted to send me their books (and if I’m not mistaken, I’ve featured every single book that’s come to me in that way). Some time in the beginning of summer, I finally got around to writing presses and asking for review copies and that method has produced over a hundred books as well. Now, on December 22, here I am with ten days left and at least fifty books left in stacks, waiting for their turn. What have I done?

I’m really starting to have a clear picture of how I’ll run Story366 after 2016, and some time this coming week, I’ll outline those plans here. In short, I’ll keep reviewing books, new and old, but won’t do some every day, because, well, the yearlong challenge will be over and there are some days I just can’t read stories and write critical personal essays. But I still want authors and presses to send me their books and I’ll still try to get to as many books as I can. I’m not sure how I’ll index it all yet, separate 2016 from future posts, but those are the lingering details I’ll hammer out very soon.

In any case, books like Richard Burgin‘s Don’t Think, out from Johns Hopkins University Press, don’t make these final ten selections easy. I just saw an ad for Burgin’s book on FB last week and the next thing I know, I’m joining a group for the book and asking for a copy; within a day, Burgin and I are emailing each other, he’s getting my address, UPS is bringing me his book, and here we are. Had there been another book slated for today’s slot, before I saw that FB ad? Sure. But that’s book was an older release, and since I really want to promote new releases in a timely way, and the cover painting of Don’t Think is so damn cool (Look below: I love the blues [Go, Cubs!], the flashlight path in the sea, the woman with the towel …), I moved that other book to the next-year pile and jumped on Don’t Think for today.

I don’t think I’ve ever met Richard Burgin before, even though he and I have been lit mag editors for over twenty years, him longer than me, Burgin serving as the Editor-in-Chief of Boulevard for as long as I’ve been in this game. In fact, Boulevard is the first literary magazine I ever saw, ever held in my hands, ever read. Quick story: Freshman year of college, I was a mechanical engineering major and was a member of the forensics team at the University of Illinois (a team that included future poet Steve Fellner and future ABC news correspondent Steve Osunsami), carrying that pursuit  over from high school, and needed to find short stories I could use for my Prose interpretive event. In high school, the coaches just found stuff for you, but in college, my coach was all like, “Go find a good first person short story.” I was like, “Huh?” He was like, “Go to the English Library. They have a periodicals section. Find literary magazines and read stories until you find a first person story you like.” So I the English Library and went up and down the shelves, in alphabetical order, and picked Boulevard, as it was nicest-looking, I remember (though now I can’t picture that cover any more). I read through an issue or two and selected a story by a writer named Andy Solomon, cut the story down to ten minutes, memorized it, and performed that piece for the Prose event all that year (my only year in college forensics). It would be another year before I was on the other end of lit mags, before I started writing, but I’ll always remember that experience, that periodicals room, and seeing and holding a literary journal for the first time.

In any case, I read a few stories from Don’t Think and while I liked all of them, I’m going to write about the title story, “Don’t Think,” as it’s my favorite. “Don’t Think” is a story that carries the imperativeness of its title throughout most of its twenty-two pages, a narrator of sorts addressing the protagonist of the story in second-person matter, listing things that this protagonist isn’t supposed to think about. Another way to put that is that this guy, in his head, is telling himself (calling himself “you”) what to do and not to do. So, it’s that kind of stylized monologue, the kind that masquerades as a second-person imperative story, whichever way you want to look it.

Beyond this technical stuff, Burgin feeds us information about our hero bit by bit, these instructions of what not to think about slowly building a character, and eventually, a narrative. At first, we find out about his childhood, how he lived in a huge house, how his parents were both musicians (former child prodigies, in fact), and at seven years old, his father finally talked his mother into letting him quit piano lessons—which he hadn’t been taking to—and go outside to play with his friends. Most importantly, we find out that his dad was an older dad, but the cool parent, and his mom was hard on him. These facts form the future man more than anything, coming up several times later in the story.

From there, we find out that this story is being told from the perspective of a much older version of our protagonist, as he himself is an older father, trying to raise a son. All the while, he’s telling himself to avoid those mistakes his own parents made, to be a better father, but like with most parents, that’s easier said than done. He loses touch with his son in myriad ways, mainly due to the fact that he and the boy’s mother, Justine, split when his son was three. For a while they lived in close proximity (outside Philadelphia), but eventually, meeting up becomes harder and less frequent. Like a lot kids, our hero’s son, as that tween stage, starts drifting away emotionally as well as physically, locked in the world of computers and video games, spreading the divide even further.

What “Don’t Think” turns out to be, I realized, is a story about a man who loves his son, loves him so much, he can’t bear to be away from, his assigned days of the week too few and too far between. He and his son form a unique bond—my favorite part of the story—where they take on personas and identities in made-up countries and worlds that his son creates. It’s a bond that carries this man through his time alone, along with all those instructions he gives himself on how to cope, what he should avoid thinking about to not make his loneliness even worse. Some events in the story, which I’ll not reveal here, complicate things, but you’ll have to find that out for yourself.

As a father of two boys, and the son of a father, I’ve always been a sucker for father-son stories, and one as sweet as “Don’t Think”—the father such a sympathetic schlub—will get me every time. I liked all the stories I read from Don’t Think, though, glad to finally get a collection of Richard Burgin’s (he has several others) in my hands, to enjoy what he does in this form. Like me, Burgin is an author and editor, one who has been doing both for a long time, contributing to American letters, to literary citizenship, like a fiend. Glad I got ahold of this new collection—I recommend you check it out.

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December 21: “Compression Scars” by Kellie Wells

Hey there, Story366! Today is the Winter Solstice, which means it got dark around two in the afternoon, the sun is pouting off somewhere really far away from us, and all kinds of new and fancy religions are putting their feast days this week so they are not revealed as pagans for too much celebrating. Roman Emperor Constantine first had Christmas, for example, on December 25 in 336 A.D., prompting Pope Julius I to say, yeah, sure, let’s make Jesus’ birthday on 12/25, just to cut down on the beheadings and such. My family personally benefitted from today’s sunlessness via a Winter Solstice party, where the hosts made a couple bûche de noël and some glogg, which is coincidentally what I was going to make for dinner, anyway, but am glad we had a rotisserie chicken from Walmart instead—you never want too much bûche at this time of the year.

My childhood dog and best bud ever, Corky, was also born on this day in 1982. He would have been thirty-four years old today. Happy birthday, old friend.

For today’s post, I read from Kellie Wells‘ collection Compression Scars, out from the University of Georgia Press as a winner of their Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. I’ve read Wells’ work quite often in the past, always admiring it, but never read it in book form until today. I am so glad that I found a copy of this collection last week, as I supremely enjoyed each of the four stories I read today. Each story is uniquely complex in their own right, and equally awesome, but I’ll write about the title story today, as it’s my favorite of the batch.

“Compression Scars” is about Ivy, an early-teen living in a suburb-type subdivision, the kind where kids run through neighbors’ yards on their way to their personal adventures and know whose house is whose, a fact or two about each person in each residence. The story starts with Ivy staring at some bats, bats who have converged upon the neighborhood. The bats fascinate Ivy and she follows them into one of those neighbors’ yards. Ivy, we soon find, is precocious (can a kid that old be precocious—I mean, wouldn’t they just be smart at that point?) and loquacious.Everything that Ivy sees, everything she experiences seems to get a page and a half of inner monologue, Ivy relaying whatever story she knows about that person or thing. This is what makes Ivy such an interesting character, how she diverges from the main story to tell us about one of her neighbors, or about the bats,  revealing Wells’ talent—everything Ivy thinks or says is really interesting and well written, its own story-within-a-story. Anyway, that’s the tone of “Compression Scars,” the technique Wells uses to tell Ivy’s tale.

Ivy follows the bats into Mr. Dorsett’s yard. Mr. Dorsett is a local deacon from a strict church, a deacon who once forbade his daughter from playing with Ivy because of her aforementioned precociousness and loquaciousness and general godlessness. It turns out that Mr. Dorsett’s sump pump is busted and is stinking up the neighborhood and he’s out trying to fix it when he comes across Ivy, staring up one of his trees, looking at bats. One of my favorite parts of the story is their initial confrontation, when Mr. Dorsett asks Ivy what she’s doing in his yard. Ivy tells him that she was wondering if the new tree spray was working, a spray that, if sprayed on average trees, will make them grow fruits like apples and bananas and mangos. Ivy makes this up off the cuff, not because she has to, but because that’s who Ivy is—and Mr. Dorsett isn’t having any of it. When he gives her a look of disapproval, she immediately relents and just says, “Bats.”

This is a pretty long opening scene in a twenty-two page story, and when it comes down to it, isn’t really what the story’s about—it’s just setting up Ivy, this neighborhood setting, how Ivy occupies it. The story really is about Ivy and her best friend-type, Duncan, a boy she thinks is perfectly beautiful, inside and out. After her run-in with Mr. Dorsett, Ivy heads over to Duncan’s, only to be greeted by his mom at the door, a mom who embraces her, tears running down her face, explaining how terrible it is for something like this to happen to someone so young. She then lets Ivy in to see Duncan, giving no explanation, making Ivy and us wonder what the heck is going on.

I hate giving too much away, but we’re still early in the story, so I think this is fair game. In his room, Duncan describes a condition known as morphea, which according to Duncan, makes scars on his legs stand out, seem prominent, and eventually, eat him alive. The way Duncan tells it, there is no cure for morphea, implying that he’s going to die (though my Google search of the disease notes that morphea is never fatal, but can cause disability). Ivy prods Duncan and through their dialogue we find out that Duncan was in some kind of crash where he’d been pressed up against a curb, giving him what he calls compression scars, from pressure, which can hide in the body and emerge at any time. It’s actually pretty complicated and Ivy, like me, wonders if Duncan is making this all up—remember, Ivy had just thrown magic fruit spray at Mr. Dorsett, so maybe Duncan, as Ivy’s best friend, has just as good of an imagination? In any case, the scars are real and wrap around Duncan’s legs and almost glow and Ivy can’t dispute them (and therefore, neither can we, not totally).

Wells takes this scene in another direction when Duncan tries kissing Ivy, sticking his tongue down her throat, then later, puts his hand on her breast (which Ivy had noted earlier to have grown a cup size in the last month), claiming he doesn’t want to die a virgin. The Duncan that Ivy has described wouldn’t use an illness like this to get some action—though maybe Ivy is unaware of a teenage boy’s libido—and Ivy is certainly not having any of it. Maybe it’s the scars. Maybe it’s because she thinks of Duncan as a friend. Or maybe Ivy’s just not ready—no matter how mature she seems up to this point. She is not going to sleep with Duncan in his room this afternoon. Things can get strange so fast, she notes, then leaves.

I won’t reveal anything further about this story, as other things happen, things that are completely original, surprising, and wonderful. There’s a run-in with another neighborhood character, plus another scene with Duncan, a really beautiful scene that simply has to be read. In the end, this story is about these two kids and their offbeat and wonderful personalities, their friendship, how that friendship changes as they grow older, become not-kids, but full functional adults. Ivy is one of the most well drawn characters I’ve come across this entire year—356 posts in—making this is a late entry in the “My Favorite Stories of the Year” race. Nothing about this story is like anything I’ve read before, every paragraph, every turn taking me in a direction I could not have predicted, be it a characterization, a plot twist, or a description. Wow, I want to say. Wow.

Compression Scars by Kellie Wells is a masterful collection, its stories reaching beyond traditional fiction, yet not anything I would describe as particularly experimental. I did read one list story, but otherwise, Wells’ imagination, quirky sense of humor, and willingness to head in untrackable directions mark her work as entertaining and unique, but not off-putting or pretentious. She’s one of the authors I’ve read this year who truly has her own style, a style I want to read more and more of, as much as I can.

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