“A marriage” by Karen Donovan

Hello, Story366! Here we are, last day of May, last day of National Short Story Month, and I haven’t posted in three weeks. Ugh. Meant to do a wicked-lot amount of posts this month, but May has been the cruelest month for me, full of grading, calculations, finals, a couple of beer-vending weekends in Chicago, and a house overhaul, as by the end of this (and every) semester, our place looks like a tornado came over, did some aerobics, then took off without tidying up. Our house in tip-top shape, my summer class not starting for another week and a half, my decks are cleared, hence today’s post. And yeah, I really wanted to get one more in during National Short Story Month, for what it’s worth.

I have been compiling books for this project this whole time, however, and have recently acquired a whole bunch that I’d to get to sooner rather than later. Here’s the stack that’s on deck:

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Lots to keep me busy, but again, if you or your press has a story collection forthcoming and you want me to feature it here on the blog, send it my way and I’ll put it on the stack.

But let’s get to today’s book, Aardvark to Axolotl by Karen Donovan, recently out from Etruscan Press. I became aware of Donovan’s work a couple of years ago, when some of the stories from the book were accepted for publication in SmokeLong Quarterly, where I moonlight as Interviews Editor. I saw Karen’s story—more on this in a sec—and knew I’d want to interview her myself (yeah, I cherrypick the story/author I want to interview myself). Great story, fun interview. From Donovan’s bio, I ascertained that her story was part of a series, so I asked her if she’d send some of her work to Moon City Review, and she did, and we took two of her pieces, which also appear in her book. In fact, one of them, “A gothic tale,” has been selected to be reprinted in the forthcoming Best Small Fictions anthology. So, Donovan and I have been in contact a lot, and since I knew this collection was coming out, I knew I’d be featuring it on Story366.

Above, I said that as soon as I “saw” Donovan’s story, I knew I’d be the one to interview her, and by that, I’m referring to the fact that alongside each one of Donovan’s stories is a drawing, an old drawing, something out of an old zoology textbook—further inspection in the colophon reveals that all of the drawings came from the 1925 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language, which, duh, makes sense, as the book’s subtitle is pictures from my grandfather’s dictionary (which I just noticed now). So what we’re dealing with here is a little old dictionary illustration—hand-drawn and rendered and shaded like something from that era—next to each one of Donovan’s page-long (if that) little stories. As the drawings either directly or indirectly inspire their corresponding texts, I guess that makes this an ekphrastic project, the first such book, or story, I’ve covered in this blog.

Or maybe I should just post a shot of one of the stories, in case my description above isn’t painting the right picture for you? Here you go, the first entry in the book:

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Note that I’m not giving away the entire story, nor will I do so for today’s focus, “A marriage,” as it seems weird, to just give an entire piece away in a review like this—usually not an issue for stories, as they’re seldom a page long, but even reviews of poetry books don’t feature pictures of entire poems, so I won’t do that here, either. In any case, this is what the stories in Donovan’s book look like, how they function, how you read Aardvark to Axolotl: pictures from my grandfather’s dictionary. (If you want to read a few, including “Earth pig,” click on the SLQ link I posted above.)

Donovan includes seventy-nine stories in this book, and like any short-short collection, it’s hard to pick one (as they’re all pretty interesting), let alone write about one without revealing the entire story—they’re all a hundred to three hundred words long, a fraction of what this entry will be when I’m done. I’ve read through the entire book, a couple of times, and I’ll say that the experience of reading the entire thing, in one sitting, really adds to what Donovan is doing, falling into her rhythms, her themes, her poetic prose (my students read Donovan’s pieces in Moon City Review this past year and thought they read like poems more than stories—I agree). Still, the pieces are interesting on their own, and since Story366 tradition tells me I have to pick one, I’ve chosen “A marriage,” as it’s stuck with me as much as any of the others, maybe a bit more.

The illustration accompanying “A marriage” is of four axe heads, or maybe they’re pickaxe heads, arranged side by side, drawn from various angles; further inspection (again with that …) reveals that they’re not axeheads, but adzheads—it says so in the caption (duh)—and like a normal smart person, I went to the dictionary (the online one, not Donovan’s grandad’s) to see if “adz” is something different, or if it’s just an old spelling of “axe” (or “ax”), like how “encyclopedia” apparently used to be spelled “encyclopaedia,” or “ketchup” and “catsup” are somehow the same word even today. Anyway, it turns out that adzes are indeed different than axes, as adzes seem to be for scooping and digging wood more than they are for chopping. So, if you wanted to hollow out a log and needed a sharp, axe-like tool to pull wood shavings such out, the adz would be your tool. And that’s the illustration we have for today’s featured story: four adzheads.

This is especially helpful because the story, “A marriage,” involves the building of a boat from said log, a boat necessary for the titular married couple to set out in. Set out for where, you may ask? Donovan doesn’t tell us, not in the short paragraph that makes this story up. What we know is that there’s a large fallen tree on a shore, there’s some inspiration to get to work and fashion that tree—using the pictured adzes—into a boat and mast, and if and only if that backbreaking task is completed, can the journey begin (which makes sense, as you need a boat if you’re gonna float).

But why is the journey necessary, not to mention the need for it to happen in this fallen tree’s potential boat? That question brings you and me back to the title, “A marriage.” I can’t help but think that this entire endeavor is serving as a grand metaphor for what a marriage is like (duh again), how that fallen tree (i.e., any obstacle in a couple’s union) needs to be made into something, that what seems like a tragedy should be painstakingly fashioned into a useful and transformative tool. Or, what does kill you makes you stronger. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah!

Remember, we’re only working with a couple-few hundred words here, so all of this has been implied by the author and inferred by me, much in the way poems work, which I’ve compared Donovan’s stories to already. As the story progresses/ends, even more metaphor (or symbol?) gets chipped out of that giant tree, beautiful images of boatmaking and nature abound. Maybe I picked this story, out of all the possibilities, because I like boats and like nature. Maybe I really love my wife. Or maybe I wanted to know what an adz was and knew I wouldn’t look it up unless I wrote about this story. Not sure. But I liked reading this story and writing about it and I think I came up with a good interpretation (which is overly simplistic, I understand—writing doesn’t translate so directly), which is what you need to write a Story366 post.

“A marriage” is just one little gems in a whole collections of little gems, eloquent, evocative, and beautiful images crafted into sentences, aligned into fiction, all matched up with these strange and nostalgic illustrations. What a unique and brilliant concept for a book, for a writer (Donovan has, by the way, two other books, both collections of poetry) to concoct then see through to its completion. A friend of mine just listed her syllabus for her summer course today and is using all books of short shorts, and was looking for recommendations; I quickly recommended Aardvark to Axolotl, as it’s its own unique thing. What a wonderful that is.

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“Jaws of Life” by Laura Leigh Morris

Hello, Story366! I hope you’re having a great Wednesday. Today is May 2, the second day  of National Short Story Month, and here I am, writing about a short story. Brings to mind this time last year, how I made a plan to do a Story366 entry every day during May—you know, to celebrate—as I’d only done a few up to that point in 2017. I took some time off after the rigors of the everyday 2016 schedule, so I wanted to catch up, read some books. Come May, I got off to a great start, doing an entry the first four or five or six days. Then something came up and I didn’t do one one day. Then finals and grading happened, and I didn’t do another entry that month, more or less spitting in the face of National Short Story Month. So sorry, NSSM!

I’m doing an entry today without making any grandiose plans, just reading and writing when I can. National Short Story Month doesn’t get as much press or fanfare as National Poetry Month, as it’s newer and we don’t have a famous story first line—like the poets do with Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month”—to mark May as the occasion (or am I wrong about that?). In fact, I wouldn’t know anything about National Short Story Month if it weren’t for inexhaustible Dan Wickett, who really goes all out on his Emerging Writers Network blog, fighting the good fight for stories, as he always has. Since stories are probably the most important thing to me outside of family, the Cubs, and well spiced meat dishes covered in melted cheese, I can help spread the excitement, tell everyone to read stories this month, and make some pretty good recommendations.

Last night I picked up Jaws of Life by Laura Leigh Morris, her debut collection that’s fresh out from Vandalia Press. Laura took some online workshops from me a decade or so ago and I’ve been following her career ever since. I’m of course thrilled for her that this collection has been published, as Laura has always had a lot of talent and has worked very hard to learn her craft. The stories in Jaws of Life mostly take place in Morris’ home state of West Virginia, and for the most part, are stories about regular West Virginians, working-class ilk, who run into particular predicaments, or as we like to call them in the story world, conflicts. Morris masterfully implements interesting people and interesting predicaments, time after time, finding her heroes en medias res, prime to make decisions that will affect the stories’ outcomes. What I’m describing here is a rather standard storytelling technique, sure, but it’s what Morris excels at, what made me gobble these stories up, one after another, when I really should have gone to bed.

There’s a lot of highlights in Jaws of Life, including the lead story, “Frackers,” about woman who’s sold her land to a fracking outfit, only to rebel against them, and their sleep-depriving floodlights, via a ninja costume and BB gun. “Fat Bottomed Girls” plays around with perspective a bit and has some memorable  images. “The Tattoo” is a playful relationship story. Still, Morris has chosen “Jaws of Life” as her title story, and since it’s a story I like, maybe the most of any in the book, I’m writing about that.

“Jaws of Life” is about Harold, a seventy-year-old guy whose wife, Iris, has Alzheimer’s. Iris is starting to forget things more frequently, including Harold, and the story begins with Iris forgetting a doctor’s appointment. Iris’ disease hasn’t quite reached the point where she’s rejecting Harold, becoming upset by his presence (i.e., a stranger in her midst), but she has recently wandered in the middle of the night, forcing Harold to put padlocks on the doors. They head out to the appointment in Harold’s truck, another step toward a long and darkening road.

Only, when Harold and Iris get to the office, Iris in the nurses’ hands, Harold makes a decision: He leaves. He makes an excuse about needing his phone from his truck. Perhaps, when Harold makes this lie, it’s not a lie, as he has forgotten his phone and he thinks that he could use it during Iris’ hour-long appointment. When Harold gets to his truck, however, he’s already made up his mind that he’s going to get inside, maybe just to chill; when he finds himself driving away, perhaps he’s just going for a ride, that he’ll be back within the hour, no one really noticing he’s gone. Soon, though, Harold has gone too far to make it back in time and he’s officially abandoned his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife at the hospital.

Morris could have spent the rest of the story justifying Harold’s action, explaining to us how Harold doesn’t have the make-up to deal with Iris’ condition, or some other way to justify Harold driving off. That would have been a story, for sure, but Morris wisely steers clear of that, as really, there’s no way to make that work: Harold’s just a bad guy here. Morris also tells us, in this same stretch, how Harold and Iris met, years earlier: At a widow’s/widower’s support group. Nice, right? Sort of, except that Iris’ husband had just died but Harold had never been married: He was just trolling the widow support group. Maybe the guy who picks up women at this type of place isn’t necessarily the same guy who abandons his sick wife at the hospital, but that’s where we are with Harold, a complex protagonist, for sure.

It takes Morris about half of her story to get to this point, and so far, we haven’t even gotten to the titular jaws of life yet, As a story enthusiast, I firmly believe in that age-old philosophy of Chekhov’s jaws of life, that if you title a story “Jaws of Life,” you gotta feature someone cut out of their car sooner or later or I’ll call bullshit. The only question becomes, will the wreck involve Harold, or will it involve someone else? Harold himself narrowly avoids the accident, but the little Miata behind him, which slams on its brakes right after Harold slams on his, isn’t so lucky: A big truck climbs up the back of the tiny car, crushing it like a soda can, its driver still inside.

Despite Harold’s recent cowardice, it’s admirable how he doesn’t hesitate to jump out of his truck and tend to the mess behind him—he’s spied an arm sticking out of the twisted metal, which in no regards is a good sign. Harold is relieved to get an answer when he calls inside the wreck, a voice that belongs to Angie, the unfortunate driver who is trapped and has become the sardined focus of the story.

As you might guess, the jaws of life eventually find their way onto the page, but “Jaws of Life” isn’t really about that drama, whether or not some sort of emergency personnel get Angie out in time. The story is about Harold still, how he faces adversity, how he relates to humans, and whether or not anything that happens can redeem him. Remember, Iris is probably finishing her appointment around this time, and while Harold might be distracted by the accident, by Angie—certainly, he’ll have to make statements, something that will take up time, something Harold could use to justify his absence—the nurses at Iris’ doctor’s office are going to start looking for him. Iris may start to panic. Maybe Harold has temporarily forgotten about all that, and maybe we readers have, too. But that’s what this story is fundamentally about: How these incidents relate to each other, how they play off each other, how they form off our expectations and judgments.

“Jaws of Life” is a well written story, one that makes some really interesting choices—I particularly like the support group detail, that Harold was posing just to score a special ladyfriend. It’s a traditional story, for sure, and as I noted when I wrote about David Armstrong earlier this year, it’s almost experimental to be a realist in today’s increasingly fabulist literary landscape. Morris’ stories are refreshing in that way, tales of real people being real, faced with real situations, forced to make real choices. It’s fundamental, but fundamentals work: I liked each and every story I read in Jaws of Life. I’m proud of Laura for writing this book, an exceptionally solid debut, a great choice to kick off National Short Story Month.

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