May 31, 2018: “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:


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:


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.