“In the Village of Elmsta” by Jensen Beach

Say hey, Story366! It’s been almost two weeks since I last posted. That last offering, on Melissa Goodrich’s fine debut collection, was straight from the Moon City Press table at the AWP Book Fair, in the heat of moment, interested attendees stepping up to our display from the right and from the left. This was at the very beginning of the while shebang, too, on Thursday morning, right after setting up and settling in. Really, AWP hadn’t happened yet, and today, I’m finally getting around to my report.

Like every AWP for the last six or seven years, my personal time was split between two factions of AWP, that Book Fair and then the off-sight events held around the host city (DC this time) in the evening. From 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., I was anchored to the table—save breaks for lunches each day, when the table was covered by the lone student-editor from Springfield to attend the conference. Otherwise, it was all me, all the time, and really, that’s what I prefer. I’m very proud of the books that MCP puts out, and at this point, four years into that foray, we’ve garnered quite the catalogue. It’s thrilling for me to sit there, all of these beautiful titles on display, all of them together, tilted on bookstands, and see people come up and genuinely react as if impressed. Dozens of times, conference goers told me how incredible our books look, and for me, that’s enough to make me want to stay in the Book Fair the entire time (of course, I have almost nothing to do with how the books look on the outsise, as that’s handled by MCP’s designer, Charli Barnes).

On top of that, me sitting at a table in the Book Fair is the best way for me to run into people I know, people who are looking for me, people I only see once a year, at the Book Fair, while I’m sitting at a table. There’s a lot of those types, former students and colleagues—it’s always a bit of a Bowling Green MFA reunion at these things—writers I’ve published, and even the occasional person who has read my books and -gasp!- wants me to sign a copy. You know how they tell you when you’re a kid that if you’re lost, stay in one place, then the people looking for you will eventually run into you? That’s me at AWP: If I’m in one place, everyone can find me.

After 5 p.m., Karen—who attended for the first time in five years, making my whole conference—and I hit the town and attended off-sight events. On Friday, we scooted across town to Karen’s reading for Sundress, where we saw about a dozen fantastic poets read, Karen being the last. Then we split up and I saw this awesome reading that featured five new authors who had just published story collections, including Michelle Ross (whose There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You just came out from MCP), Matt Fogarty (whose book I blurbed), Sequoia Nagamatsu (ditto), and Allegra Hyde and Dana Diehl, both of whom I featured on Story366 last year. What a great evening, seeing the sweet Karen read from her new book, take in another batch of great poets, and then see these five young writers read together. Thursday night was the best night of the conference.

On Friday, Karen and I high-tailed to Catholic University and saw perhaps the most impressive lineup of poets I’ve ever seen performing together. The whole thing was a celebration  of female poets over the age of sixty and included luminaries like Michelle Boisseau, Marianne Boruch, Terese Svoboda, Rosellen Brown, Robin Becker, and several others. Not sure if I’ll see a line up like that again, and to boot, all of the poets read a poem by another poet they admired, women like Louise Glück, Ruth Stone, and Mary Oliver. It was a long event, but they had prosciutto and wine, so I wasn’t exactly in a hurry.

Karen and I had a plane leaving Saturday night, so the last day of the Book Fair was all about me trying to get rid of stock. We gave out nine boxes of the new Moon City Review during the conference—as a still-newish mag, I think it’s more imperative to get the word out than it is to sell a handful of copies at full price—and by 2 o’clock, we were out of everything, meaning all I had to cram into my carry-ons was the MCP table skirt and a dozen bookstands.

Sadly, that doesn’t include what I bought/picked up at the Book Fair, which, this year, was only two books. One was The Real Natasha by Michael Leone from the fine people at Braddock Avenue Books, which I’ll write about here soon, and a copy of The Santa Fe Literary Review, which one of their editors dropped off at our table. Two books?! From that HUGE-ASS Book Fair?!  That’s my only regret of AWP 2017, that I never really made my rounds, talked to editors, got the skinny on new lit journals, or picked up more collections for this project. Next year, I’ll have to make that my priority, because really, what a waste of a fantastic event, of a fantastic resource.

I almost just wrote a paragraph about our travels from the conference back home, how it was kind of a pain and long and complicated, but then I realized that a) I’m almost a thousand words into this and haven’t talked about Jensen Beach yet, and b) a rundown of our travel stories—planes, trains, and automobiles—might be the most boring thing ever.

That said, 961 words in, I’ve been reading from Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold, out from Graywolf, for a couple of weeks now, which I guess is the rate at which I read books post-2016. In any case, I’ve known Jensen and his work for a bit, and should disclose that he works for Green Mountains Review, which took a story of mine a few years back. But in any case, I was happy to see this collection announced for last year, and am happy to finally get to it. As noted, I’ve read several stories from the collection—which is made up on interlinked tales, set in Sweden over a two-year period—but I really love a lot of things about the opening story, “In the Village of Elmsta,” so here we go.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is a story with a unique structure and approach to POV, which for me more and more seems to be determining factor when picking a story; I teach, so craft is important, and anyone who breaks from the Freitag model is going to grab my attention. In any case, this story starts off with a really engaging and funny anecdote about this guy named Rolf Strand, who lives in Elmsta—not far from Stockholm—who has just played the best tennis of his life. Rolf is in his seventies, so that means something, especially since he’s just defeated a retiredSwedish tennis hero (who twice made it to the semis of the French Open). This seems impressive, but Beach lets leak, rather casually, that this tennis pro is not only old and retired, but that his arm—his playing arm—is now a  prosthetic. In close psychic distance, this is a brief but key detail in accessing Rolf’s psyche, and it’s pretty funny to hear someone brag about an athletic feat, only to find out soon after it was against a one-armed opponent.

As the story moves forward, Rolf heads home on his bicycle and is planning on calling his son when he gets there, planning on inviting him for dinner. He is a beaming father, proud papa, and along with his late-life tennis accomplishments, Rolf becomes a really likable guy. Which is too bad, because Rolf, a few pages later, dies, only about a third of the way into the story. Beach has Rolf ride home on his bike, alongside a canal, where he sees a sailboat moving alongside him. Rolf sees the bridge ahead of them, knows that if he doesn’t beat the boat to the bridge, he’ll have to wait for it to be raised and then put back down, so he high-tails it. When he’s just about to the bridge, he has an accident, one that sends him over his handlebars and into the canal, where he bumps his head on a rock. Profuse bleeding commences. Rolf settles on the shore, blood pouring out of his head, and he even tries to signal the people on the sailboat that he’d just raced to the bridge, people who wave back as if he’s just saying hi. Rolf dies, sitting on that shore.

After a space break, Beach backtracks a bit to that sailboat, to the guy whose captaining it, right before the aforedescribed events. Our pilot is Henrik Brandt and he’s taking a leisurely trip with his wife, Lisa, a colleague named Peter, and Peter’s wife, Helle. We get into Henrik’s head, him recapping things for us, letting us know that Peter and Helle are staying with Henrik and Lisa for the week. Just as he’s about to cross the bridge, he sees Helle waving at someone on the shore, a man sitting next to a bicycle—of course, readers know it’s Rolf and he’s not waving—but inside Henrik’s head, it’s just a happy-go-lucky guy, sitting with his feet in the canal, out for a bike ride. The bridge goes up and down and the quartet anchor their boat and resume their vacation at Henrik’s house.

Remember, Henrik’s POV takes up the last two-thirds of the story, and as much as I’ve already revealed—I toyed with not telling you about Rolf’s demise at all—I won’t go much further. I will say that this is really Henrik’s story and Beach captures him at a key point in his life. He’s just taken a new job, he and Lisa are at odds, and oh, during this weeklong visit, he’s initiated a passionate affair with Helle. When everyone finds out about Rolf’s death, deducing that he was the one sitting on the shore and he was not waving, all of Henrik’s thoughts and troubles explode from the background and cause quite an ado.

Reading a story where the POV focus dies a third of the way through, only to pick up with another POV—a person who saw him die—isn’t groundbreaking (think “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), but it’s still rare enough to take note of, to remember, to write about. That’s not to underscore anything else that Beach does in this story, as his characterization of both men is pretty in-depth and he has a knack for description, putting me right there on that shore. Most of all, he’s smart enough to catch a couple of people at crucial junctures in their lives, understanding how that makes the best kind of fiction. I literally just told my students that on Friday, how important this is, and then I read Beach’s story, the perfect example.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is just the first story, too. Some of these characters return in later entries, sometimes as the protagonists, sometimes as supporting characters. What’s the overall end of these stories, two days in Sweden that we see through a variety of its people? I can’t say for sure yet, as I haven’t gotten that far. What I have read, though, showcases a writer utilizing his incredible skill set. I’m so pleased I picked this book up and spent some time with it. My rec is you do the same.

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“Daughters of Monsters” by Melissa Goodrich

Hello, Story366! I suppose this is officially AWP week, ‘cause AWP is this week, and I’m headed that way myself. Last year, the big Story366 year, I wisely chose to do a short-short week this week, meaning I didn’t have to spend nearly as much time concentrating on any particular piece, which is hard to do at a book fair table. It was a hectic but rewarding week—I sure do like shorts—and I made my deadlines every day. As I’m no longer facing the daily challenge of the blog, I’m certainly not going to be crouched in some lobby, frantically stabbing at keys so I can make it to readings and dinner dates. I do want to do at least one entry during the conference—after today—just to check in. I mean, this is still a writer’s blog, right? And AWP is still the major writers’ conference, right? Seems like I should say a few thing while I’m there, read a book while I’m at it.

Right now, though, I still have to get there, and as I type this, I’m on a plane, en route to DC. Karen and I are in the third-to-last row, our luggage is stowed several rows ahead of us, and the guy in front of me has put the seat back all the way and is tossing and turning as he tries to sleep. I have the window seat and my ears have shut. I’m trying hard to forget I’m high-end claustrophobic, that I sorta want to get up, do some, some jumping jacks, then walk out the side door of the plane to more open spaces. So far, meh, but if either of my legs falls asleep, Karen and the nice lady on the aisle might have to get up and out of my way and quick.

For today’s entry, I read a bunch of stories from Melissa Goodrich’s collection Daughters of Monsters, out from Jellyfish Highway Press. Another JHP author, Dana Diehl, recommended this book to me, as the two of them are friends and often collaborate together. I liked Diehl’s book a lot and have enjoyed Goodrich’s collection just as much, even though each writer has a completely different style. Diehl’s stories, if I recall, seemed like realism, while Goodrich could easily be pegged as a fabulist, if I were into pegging writing in  that way (note: Goodrich has some nonfiction writing, I’ve noticed, specifically on fabulism). Still, there’s some magical realism, some absurdism, and some retold fairy tales among her stories, so, yeah, that’s what she does.

By the way, cut ahead a bit, like twelve hours. The plane started its descent right as I typed that last paragraph and I had to put my computer away. Since, we deboarded, got to the train station, got to the convention center, registered, found our room, got a shit-ton of boxes onto the Moon City Press table (125-T!) at the book fair, showered, ate some Tapas, went to a reading for Newfound, Waxwing, and As/US, went to my reading where I read for Ninth Letter at the Monster Mags of the Midwest reading (which I used to organized, years back), walked back to our hotel, running into 478 people we knew. So, that’s the last twelve hours. And the conference hasn’t officially started yet.

Back to Goodrich. I certainly read some fabulist-type stories, including the title story, “Daughters of Monsters,” which I’ll focus on today. “Daughters of Monsters” is about a fourteen-year-old girl who is the daughter of a monster—a platypus-seeming thing that lays eggs and has fur and such—who is also the daughter of a monster. Goodrich has poet-level skills in both decription and lyricism, and in “Daughters of Monsters,” she unloads image after image of what these so-called monsters look like, from their beaks to their feathers to the slimy aftertrails. So, this term “monster” comes off as quite literal, as it seems like some half-human, half-animal creatures populate an otherwise contemporary landscape, with school, boyfriends, cooking and other everyday challenges.

Goodrich also includes some very contemporary themes in the lives of her daughters and monsters, mainly the kinds of things that pester and haunt most fourteen-year-old girls, things like sex, pregnancy, and personal appearance anxiety. The protagonist here, whose name we never get, is worried about her wings coming in like a normal human girl might consider her breasts, full monsterdom arriving with puberty. How terrifying it is—for girls and boys—to go through these changes, and I think that’s what Goodrich is getting at. They’re confused, basically, and horrified. At the end of the first paragraph of the story, Goodrich conflates her hero’s worries with the line “You don’t have to eat the chicken bones while your mother eats the meat,  you’re fourteen years old still, what is sex,” everything jumbled together in one mind-meandering sentence.

The comparisons to adolescence don’t stop at the physical, however, as Goodrich’s monster-daughter faces social fears as well, such as her boyfriend pressuring her for sex, her boyfriend being more attracted to her fully developed mother than to her, and a baby sister usurping all the attention; all three of these scenarios make for weird and wonderful scenes in the story, reminding me of David Lynch’s anxious father in Eraserhead. So, Goodrich makes her hero like any other fourteen-year-old, in body and in mind, only this young woman has wings and fangs and such.

Overall, the metaphoric value of this character perceiving herself as a monster doesn’t take away from what’s really on the page and that’s a really intense, lyrical story about a family of monsters interacting with each other in strange ways. I was riveted to every part of this, surprised over and over again, and read the story three times, finding something new each pass.

Most of the stories I read in Daughters of Monsters had the same effect on me as the title piece, daring, innovative pieces of fiction that introduced me to a strong and distinct new voice. I really liked everything I read in this collection, making it an impressive debut, an impressive book in general. Check it out.

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“Those Like Us” by Christopher Lowe

Good to be back, Story366! Wow, did I go the whole month of January and only do one post? Wow, I knew I’d take a break, ease off, let my mind do its thing for a while, but I didn’t think I’d cut back that much. Well, my mind is rested and I’ve been missing the blog, missing the books, missing the new stories, so here I am, almost 1 a.m. the morning after Groundhog Day, back at it. Long live the story!

What’s funny is, despite only putting up one post all month, January 2017 was not the month with the least hits for the blog—that honor, for some reason, goes to April and June of last year, when I did thirty posts each time. As a baseball fan, I’m all into stats, which is one of the reasons I love doing this on WordPress, just because they give you tons. Before I started writing this tonight, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that people still go to the blog, every day, and read various entries. In fact, it totally makes my day, night, week, and young month of February. Every day it’s a different author that seems to be getting attention, too, which is awesome. I knew I’d finish the original 366 one day, but always hoped this would carry on as a living archive. so far, so good.

It’s also strange that I’m doing a post tonight because I’m, for the first time in four days, not deathly ill. I had a bout with the brutal kind of nasty this week, a mix of flu and either bronchitis or pneumonia (I’ve had both before and think this has felt like pneumonia so I’ve been telling people pneumonia because that’s more badass than bronchitis, which is what little kids get when they don’t button their snow boots tight). It came on Monday, almost killed me Tuesday, added a bad head cold Wednesday, and more or less left town on Thursday. Still taking antibiotics—which I’m thinking of marrying right now—and the fact that I’ve been able to read, write, and type is a good sign. Still, here’s a shot of me at the university health center that Karen took (she drove me and waited for me even though it’s a block from our house and I can see it right now from our back window as I write this):

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That’s me in the foreground. That guy in the background? Now he’s famous. Or maybe infected. Either one.

Not sure how much I’ll be writing in the coming week or so, either, seeing as how AWP is next week in DC and Moon City Press just had two titles come back from the printer today, Michelle Ross‘ There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You and Moon City Review 2017. Take a peek:

I’m pretty stoked to be adding these titles to the catalogue, along with all our other great books. I also can’t wait to see them all stacked up together on the MCP table at AWP. I’m such a collector, adding another Moon City Short Fiction Award winner and another issue of the mag to their respective series is like a dream, especially two coming on the same day. Bliss!

Wait! Aren’t I supposed to write about a story or something today? Right! For tonight’s entry, I read from Christopher Lowe‘s collection Those Like Us, out from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. I’ve known Chris and his work for a while now, always enjoying what he does, but never sat down and read any in succession. I read a quad of tales tonight, finding out that his stories read really well like that, together, most likely because Those Like Us is a book of linked stories—one of Lowe’s blurbists even calls it a novel—a collection set in the fictional Wyeth, Mississippi. I’m writing about the title story tonight, but saw a couple of supporting characters from it show up as supporting characters in other stories as well (and, I’m assuming, in more stories, perhaps even as the leads). What I read, jumping all over the book, all feels so homogenous, sure, but genuine, too, as Lowe has surely captured smalltown Mississippi in this outstanding effort.

“Those Like Us” is about this guy who finds himself, at the start of the story, dealing with Hurricane Jonathan, thinking about that name, Jonathan, and how inappropriate it feels for a hurricane. Of course, none of that matters, as nothing changes the fact Jonathan has hit the coast and caused a lot of damage. Wyeth is a bit inland, saving it from the brunt of things, but some powerful storms have still knocked power out, namely to the bar our hero has just inherited from his uncle. The joint is called The Porch and it has one big room, a bathroom, and a little room in back where our guy sleeps and lives. It’s located down the road a bit from the Wyeth Walmart, so the two establishments share some traffic. It’s the kind of place the local college kids go to because they know our protagonist, just a few years older than they are, won’t ID, won’t keep them in check, and won’t even close when the whole town is in the dark. All of it is a recipe for things going wrong, which is cool, because this is a short story and that’s what stories are supposed to do.

One thing does seem to be going well—”seem” being the key word—and that’s how Karen, the Porch’s pretty waitress, has had to stay the night at the bar, the roads too bad to travel after close. Karen wakes up in his bed in the back just when our guy is considering Jonathan as a hurricane moniker. There’s mention of a woman named Sally (in the narration, not out loud), and it seems as if our barkeep has cheated on the lovely Sally with the lovely Karen. That’s a ruse, however, as we soon find out that Karen slept alone in that bed—our guy sleeping on the bar, I guess?—and nothing happened, though everything about Karen’s body language says she would have loved some company, the way she touches him, how she says she’ll come back and hang out with him, even if they don’t open, just to hang out alone in his dark bar. Sounds appealing—I should note that our protagonist is really into Karen, too, so it’s not just her—but there’s still the Sally factor, which seems to complicate things.

Only, it doesn’t, not really, as Sally already left our guy and took her daughter (which our guy was helping her to raise, which he considered his own) months ago and split. Lowe informs us that the only thing delaying a hook-up with Karen in the back of the bar on a rainy, dark day is our guy’s inability to act. He just can’t do it, not even when Karen bumps hips with him on the way out and flashes him her best smile. Our guy just freezes, a trait that becomes his most dominant.

Even worse, instead of closing the bar and taking Karen up on her offer to do whatever, our guy opens his doors, lets in a bunch of college kids, college kids that end up drinking too much (it happens), and … well, that’s about all I’ll reveal in terms of plot. Other things happen, a lot of backstory comes into play, and in the end, the story ends (as they tend to do).

As much as what happens in “Those Like Us” and what Lowe’d protagonist doesn’t do, this story should be marked by the atmosphere that its author so carefully paints. Wyeth seems pretty swell, even to this Chicago Yank, a place where friendly people sip beer, watch and talk college football, eat barbecue, and fall in love with the people they grew up with. It’s rainy in this title story because of the hurricane, but other stories seem to pulse green and freshness, crickets and other critters buzzing on every page. Wyeth, like Winesburg, Ohio, or even Knockemstiff, needs to be where it is, these stories existing in this place, this place existing for these stories. Lowe’s also wickedly good at weaving his seemingly simple tales into a larger, broader vision, one that I’m guessing becomes more and more enriched with every story you read.

So, I really like “Those Like Us,” the strong title story from one of two Christopher Lowe story collections (he also has a book of essays). Lowe utilizes place as well as anyone I’ve read—and that’s no overstatement, even considering how much I’ve read—but also made me really like every character I encountered, put me in every story I visited, made me care about these people, want to visit this town. No easy order, but this really good book pulls it off.

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