June 28, 2018: “The Foot” by Ryan Habermeyer

Happy Thursday to you, Story366! The heat has returned to Southwest Missouri, along with a lot of other places, so I’m happy to be traveling later today, in the AC, as opposed to splitting timbers or tarring a roof or something like that. I will soon be en route to Chicago, where I’ll catch a few games at Wrigley, slinging suds up and down the aisles and making up for my the eight hours on my ass in the AC. I’ve only vended beer at six games so far this year and none in over a month, so I’m pretty eager to see what else they’ve done to Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood—there’d been quite a few changes over the winter—as I’m half-expecting a new skyscraper in left field or a racetrack around the park, something of that order. Not that I’m into racing—of any kind—but I am amused by the thought, people or horses or dragsters circling the stadium during the game, some spectacle to add to the carnival atmosphere. Maybe they could have peacocks race iguanas, something interesting like that. More than likely, another fancy bar with overpriced burgers and craft beers will have shown up instead, as if these people need to drink $13 Blue Moons outside the park when they could be pre-gaming inside instead, buying a $10.50 312 from me.

Speaking of my vending gig, the world went ahead and did it: The Surpreme Court made the world even shittier yesterday by sticking it to unions—we beer vendors are unionized (it’s Chicago, so of course we are). This on top of the fact that one of the nine—the sensible right guy—has announced his retirement, meaning someone like Jeff Sessions or Voldemort will be nominated promptly. When I said on Tuesday that I didn’t think I’d be writing about politics for a third entry in a row, I honestly thought these knobs would take a day off from the awful and I could talk more about the weather, but like so many times this past couple of years, I was proven incorrect. So, there you go.

For today’s entry, I read from Ryan Habermeyer‘s 2018 collection The Science of Lost Futures, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize from BOA, and it’s a book I’m somewhat familiar with. A couple of years ago, this book was a finalist in the Moon City Short Fiction Award, so I’d read at least a part of it, though if memory serves me correctly, Habermeyer pulled the book before we finished the judging, as he’d won this BOA award. We couldn’t be happier for him, as we took an extremely awesome book (I think that was the Michelle Ross-There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You year) and Habermeyer ended up on a really awesome, reputable press in BOA. Everybody wins (or at least Ross and Habermeyer, anyway).

Not sure if I’ve ever made this pronouncement before, but this may be the book that I had the hardest time in picking the story to write about. I read four of the stories in The Science of Lost Futures and I loved all of them, firstly, but all of them are also quite unique, completely different stories in style and theme from one another. The first story I read is the opener, “A Cosmonaut’s Guide to Microgravitic Reproduction,” about this regular Joe who signs up for the Cosmonaut program, goes through rigorous training, only to find that he’s being shot into space with a woman to test for the sexual positions that are most reproductive in zero gravity. Habermeyer has fun with this, as the dude’s log reads like a zero-G Kama Sutra, the whole thing absurd, yet the author makes it strangely moving. The third story in the book, “Visitation,” is about this guy whose wife’s womb falls out, then just kind of hangs around, sort of like if a hot water bottle was a houseguest. I flipped ahead a bit to get to “Indulgences,” in which the protagonist works at a doll factory, in quality control, where every fifty seconds or so, he’s got to strip naked on the assembly line and let the dolls—who have all kind of sensitivities and abilities—stare at him. He doesn’t know why he has to be naked or what comes of it, but nearly six hundred times a day, a piece of robotic plastic gets to eye his junk. And then there’s just a bunch of stories I want to read based on their titles alone, pieces like “Frustrations of a Coyote” and “A Genealogical Approach to My Father’s Ass.” I mean, what’re those about? I’m going to find out.

Still, I had to pick one, so I picked “The Foot,” the second story in the collection, one that I think is just perfect. In this story, there’s an unnamed, and for the most part, undescribed village, and one day, a giant foot washes ashore. The foot is as big as the town’s biggest water tower, and because it’s been in the sea for God knows how long, it’s covered in seaweed and barnacles and is pale and bloated like, well, a whole person would be if they washed up on a seashore. The story, told (mostly) in first plural, ventures on describing what happens afterward, and like any good communal narrator story, it reveals the reaction of the entire town, what some people think about this, what others think about that. There’s all kinds of theories about where the foot came from and what it means, and eventually, someone wonders where the rest of the person is that this foot belongs to; my favorite line is when one woman tells the crowd to call her when the cock washes up. There’s a lot of humor in this story, some of it tongue in cheek, the rest of it unnecessary to hide in that manner. This is a funny story, because of course it is: A giant foot has washed up on a beach.

Habermeyer takes us through the town’s stages of reaction, from shock and awe, to curious, to weird, to a whole bunch else. Scientists eventually show up and do all sorts of tests, while at the same time, the people of the town clean and care for the giant foot. Children eventually use it as a playground; teenagers use it as a makeout point. The foot becomes part of the town, an odd fixture like a sinkhole or tire fire, becoming as much a part of the community as anything. One particularly touching passage involves the possible identification of the foot, someone remembering an old folk tale about an orphaned girl named Ada who disappeared, who once said something about feet before she vanished. It’s a passage that comes out of nowhere, writing that gives real depth to this story, proving it’s not quite as light as I’ve perhaps made it out to be.

I won’t go any further into what happens next, but even at this point, I’m sure a lot of you might recognize this somewhat, as it’s strikingly familiar to Gabriel García Màrquez’s classic “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” which is one of my favorite stories of all time. In that story, a giant man—maybe like a dozen feet tall—washes up on the shores of this tiny Columbian village and before long, the villagers are cleaning him, dressing him, calling him Esteban, and well, you can read that story, too. I’m pretty sure someone with Habermeyer’s pedigree (all kinds of degrees and publications) has read this story and had García Màrquez’s tale in mind when he wrote it. Habermeyer’s story is not a rewriting, I don’t think, but it’s certainly homage, and a fine one at that, worthy of being named alongside that perfect piece of literature.

I could have written about any of the stories I read in The Science of Lost Futures, as all of the stores were not only a lot of fun, but they worked, as they say, on a lot of levels. Ryan Habermeyer instills depth within his protagonists, surprises just when you think you’ve figured his stories out, and wit that you really can’t learn. This is one of my favorite collections I’ve read this year, but also for this entire project, each piece speaking to me as a reader and a writer. What a talent, what a collection.


June 27, 2018: “Kiss Me Someone” by Karen Shepard

Happy Tuesday, Story366! It’s a beautiful day here in Missouri after some torrential (and frightening) thunderstorms last night, storms that have rendered everything green and lush. What I really should be doing right now is mowing the lawn, before it rains again and it becomes unmanageable, but it’s hot and I just wanted to sit on the couch and read. Nothing wrong with that, right? Neighbors, sooner or later, might argue, but hey, maybe I’ll mow the lawn when I’m done with this post. Stranger things have happened.

Building on what I said yesterday about the parent-child separations at the border, our right-heavy Supreme Court upheld the president’s border restrictions, policies that I’d more or less forgot about in recent months with, you know, all the other bad shit going on. Today’s reminder is a stiff and depressing one, however, as now we are, without any form of resolve, legally telling very specific people they can’t come to our country, based not on their needs, the content of their character, or their abilities, but based on where they’re from. My guess is the Supreme Court has a rigid schedule and doesn’t really hear cases and vote on them at the president’s whim—not even in this administration—but the timing for this decision is convenient, as it gives liberals and other decent folk something else to focus on, helping us to forget how all those kids were locked up, separated from their parents, and it took a lot for the powers that be to realize their fuck-up and starting reversing course. Now our attention is on this other thing—which is a giant-sized shitstorm all its own—and maybe not the lonely kids in cages? Again, I don’t think the Supreme Court timed this just to help spin the news, but it’s awfully damn convenient.

By the way, whatever happened to distracting people from bad things with really good things, like newscasts about waterskiing squirrels on the day a bunch of people are murdered? Why are we being distracted from an awful thing by perhaps an equally awful thing? That’s where America is right now, I guess: Piling one horrible act upon the last.

I regress, though, as this is two days in a row of posting and two days in a row of uncharacteristic political commentary. I have this blog and I felt it was time to say something, have it on record that I’ve not been blind or immune to the upside-down nature of the world. Still, I never thought yesterday that I’d be back at it today. Just like today, I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll be on this crusade tomorrow, whether I do a Story366 post or not. Then again, let’s see what the news brings. If the National Guard for some reason shoots all the bunny rabbits in America or the House votes to outlaw afros or something, maybe I’ll be back at it.

Perhaps I jumped on another collection today because I needed my own distraction from the world, and as an avid reader, what better way to do that than with stories? Today I grabbed Karen Shepard‘s 2017 collection, Kiss Me Someone, out from Tin House Books, as my route of escape. This is one of the pile of collections the Karen got me for Christmas last year and it’s been waiting patiently on the Story366 stack for me to call. It’s number finally came up and I enjoyed a few of Shepard’s fine stories, the first I’ve ever read by this author, and enjoyed them very much. I knew a lot of them appeared in Tin House—I always check the Acknowledgments page first—and that Shepard is married to Jim Shepard, another great story writer and Story366 subject. Otherwise, I had no idea what to expect, but did suspect some kissing.

Shepard certainly delivers on the kissing, and a lot more, in these tales. The three stories I read, “Popular Girls,” “Magic With Animals,” and “Kiss Me Someone,” all had some kissing featured prominently in their telling, but then again, a lot of stories do. All three also happen to feature a similar theme, that of their female protagonists working through rather important life decisions, and perhaps not making the best of choices. In “Popular Girls,” we get a communal narrator, a group of 80s New York socialite teens in a whirlwind of sex and drugs and generally bad behavior, written montage-style, to the tune of Rick Moody’s oft-anthologized “Boys.” “Magic for Animals,” which I admit I chose solely for the intriguing title, features Kayla, who’s wondering if she should leave her magician/animal trainer boyfriend, escaping to an old friend’s house, an old friend who is suffering from dementia. The stories couldn’t feel any more different, one a general sketch of a type of woman at a particular time, in a particular place, the other a more traditional story (though half is told from the maternal figure’s husband), one in which its hero doesn’t have the luxury of wealth or youth to explain away bad choices. Yet, in each, the women have found themselves in a predicament, wish they could regress to simpler times, but have to face the music nonetheless.

The same cold be said of Natalie, the protagonist of “Kiss Me Someone,” a woman who finds herself at crucial time in her life, a midlife crisis, I suppose, the kind where she wonders how she got where she is and suddenly isn’t so sure she likes it. The story opens with Natalie ruminating about conversations she once had with Lloyd, her husband of thirty-five years. One conversation was about what would be deal-breakers would be on a first date: all kinds of right-wing behavior (neither Natalie nor Lloyd would date John Roberts today, we’ll assume). A later conversation, from early in their marriage, on what could possibly break up their perfect union: infidelity, abuse, etc., the no-brainers that break up most couples, huge violations of trust that no self-respecting person puts up with.

Thirty-five years in, Natalie is wondering why those young lovers never thought of the little things, only considered big-ticket items. Lloyd, from the obtuse angle, has lived up to his end of the bargain: He’s been a loving, faithful husband whose work as a banker has provided a comfortable life for Natalie and their twin daughters, a big house, college paid for, all without Natalie ever having to work a day. Yet, fifty-something Natalie regrets—if that’s the word for it—that back when they made those deal-breaker proclamations, she didn’t have the foresight to picture the more subtle offenses, like how Lloyd doesn’t always talk to her when they’re alone, or how he says he misses her, even when she’s right next to him; I’m guessing they haven’t had sex in years. Lloyd’s no abuser or philanderer, but he’s not all that attentive, either, and that’s what Natalie craves: attention. Lloyd isn’t a fan of this, especially not when Natalie points it out, and this altercation leads him do something pretty messed up: he breaks his toothbrush in half and then does the same to Natalie’s and the girls’, hiding the broken pieces in Natalie’s purse for her to find later. Natalie says she forgives him, but this isn’t what she’d pictured all those years ago.

Natalie’s thoughts get drawn into action after a couple of choice encounters. One is with Susan, a recently divorced friend who has just gotten large fake boobs, boobs she shows to Natalie in a restaurant bathroom stall, boobs she persuades Natalie to fondle. Susan can’t stop talking about how her new boyfriend can’t keep his hands off of her, which, I guess, gets Natalie thinking, not really about getting fake boobs of her own, but about what it would take to really get Lloyd’s attention, to make him react in any way. Enter the second choice encounter, Cullen, Natalie’s handsome ex-boyfriend who looks like he might be wearing the exact same pair of tight black jeans he wore when they dated, some forty years before. Cullen looks good, and even though Natalie runs into him when she’s out with Lloyd, she can’t hide that she’s thinking of what might have been these last few decades.

This is where the really bad choices come in, the ones that Natalie will have to deal with, in the story and its denouement. First, she calls Cullen, which can, of course, lead to nothing but no-good. Next, she sleeps with Cullen, in his crappy apartment, in the crappy complex of which he’s the manager. Then here’s where the story really gets interesting: After the rather lackluster tryst, Natalie asks Cullen if she’ll come home with her, for dinner with Lloyd and the girls, which is, of course, the most bat-shit crazy choice of all.

I won’t tell you what happens next, as you’ll have to read the story to find out, but Shepard doesn’t disappoint, making “Kiss Me Someone” a tremendously entertaining, if not somewhat uncomfortable (as in the British The Office), story. I like what Shepard does in this piece, how she didn’t fail to surprise me at any turn, how she focuses on her protagonist, on the choices she makes, on how those choices affect the plot and outcome of the story: What I like to call Story 101. This is tied to the theme I referred to earlier, characters getting themselves in situations and then making choices that will either make things better or make things worse. To me, this is how stories are put together, what I try to do in my work, what I teach my students. Karen Shepard seems to be pretty darn good at it, which is why today I enjoyed reading from Kiss Me Someone so much.


June 25, 2018: “Every Single Bone in My Brain” by Aaron Tillman

It’s Monday, Story366, and I wish you good will. I don’t have much to report in the way of exciting life events, as me and the fam had a pretty chill weekend, which is just what we needed. This is especially true as we’ll be traveling a lot in the coming weekends—someone’s going somewhere for the next month or so—which kind of makes time go by and the summer drift away. Of course, we’re going to have fun on those trips, lots of great experiences. At the same time, I long for when the Karen announces: “I don’t think we have anything this weekend” as much as, if not more than, large-scale adventures.

As I don’t have anything fun or exciting, I’m going to take an opportunity to go on record here about how the world’s functioning—which I normally don’t do here on Story366—but this shit has reached new heights. As much as I’ve said that this weekend has been relaxing, that doesn’t mean that the current state of things—namely the border situation and the kids separated from the parents—hasn’t been devastating. Devastating for these families, of course, as they’re the ones who are going through this and very well might not ever recover. If you pay attention to the world at all, you know the scenario; if you’re at all intelligent, you know that these people and their lives are pawns in a large political game, a very bad man using them to get what he wants, to win a battle. It’s tragic. In fact, even with everything that’s happened in the last couple of years, all the horrible and embarrassing and depressing events, separating these refugee kids from their parents, moving them to different, secret locations, and in some cases, losing track of who’s where and who’s who, is the absolutely worst thing I can imagine. In terms of acts perpetrated by our beloved country, the US of A, anyway. I don’t use this blog as a platform very often, but I also don’t want my playful demeanor and attention to these fine story collections imply that I don’t give a crap about the world, our country, or these poor kids, kids who are suffering because of my government. It sucks. My family and I are heartbroken. We chill, yeah but it hurts. It’s on my mind and it’s affecting me. Just so I’m clear: I’m with Robert DeNiro.

Shifting gears (quite dramatically), now let’s talk about the awesomeness that is Aaron Tillman‘s 2017 collection Every Single Bone in My Brain, an Alleyway Book (an imprint of Braddock Avenue Books). I picked this collection up at AWP this past spring and have finally made my way through the stack. I can say without hesitation that boy, it was worth this wait. I’d not read Tillman’s work before venturing inside his book today, and now I know I’ve been missing out. Tillman has a gift for longer (or regular-sized) stories, of which I’ve read a couple, and an equal talent for shorts, which he’s won quite a few awards for, including a couple of entries in The Best Small Fictions anthology. Tillman’s got the skills and I’m glad to finally be in the know.

I read a couple of the longer stories, including the beautifully sad “The Great Salt Lake Desert,” about a kid who takes a cross-country journey with an older woman, hoping to find himself. I also enjoyed the title story, “Every Single Bone in My Brain,” which I’ll write about today. To note, though, all of the shorts in the book, particularly “One Rib Short,” are super-great. But today, I’m writing about “Every Single Bone in My Brain,” which I absolutely love.

“Every Single Bone in My Brain” is about this unnamed protagonist who firmly believes he has a minor superpower, the power to shock and kill people who touch him. We find out how he got this power, or why he believes he has it, in a lengthy intro, given in the form of a monologue where the character sets out to tell us exactly how this happens; it’s all very metafictional, and at one point, the character even acknowledges that he’s talking to a reader, mentioning the breaking of the fourth wall. Anyway, he tells the entire story like that, starting with this origin story (fit for any super-powered being), how he almost died as an infant and had to be shocked back to life by defibrillation. Because of this, he believes he carries an electric charge, not one he can use to fly or throw lightning bolts, but one that, in certain situations, can shock the life out of people. In fact, he believes he shock both his parents—his dad when he was an infant, in the bathtub, his mom when he was in college, when she grabbed his arm—killing them by inducing cardiac arrest. He carries this burden with him, like so many heroes do, living the next ten years virtually alone, fearful he’ll inadvertently kill again.

We also get a lot about our hero’s job, at which he updates reference software for library search engines, but also takes calls from desperate undergrads unable to find sources (often because they wait until the last minute to write their papers). Whenever he gets a call, his computer panks like a raindrop and he goes running, walking the students through the system, while in his head, mocking them for their insufferable incompetence. We find out that our hero is alone, believes a strange narrative about himself, has this library job that he performs from home, and is kind of a pompous ass. So far, so good—I was hooked.

After this long origin story—nearly half the page count—Tillman moves on to the inciting incident: The call from WW. To WW, WW is what she uses as her sign-in to the library system, but to our protagonist, WW is short for Water Woman, the name he’s given to the mate he’s convinced he’ll eventually find, the complement to his Electric Man persona. WW just needs helps with her creative writing research (which even Tillman acknowledges to be absurd), and before we know it, the two are talking about non-research topics. This leads to a bevy of personal revelations, and eventually, a live meeting. Turns out WW is named Willow and she genuinely seems interested in our isolated hero.

As the two make plans to meet, Willow confirms that she’s heard of our guy—with some help from the hero himself—that he’s famous for killing his mom on campus, how she dropped him off for an exam and died right there, at the curb; from there, our hero never returned to campus, finishing his degree from home and becoming the subject of a very inspirational graduation speech. From Willow’s dialogue, we find out that our hero has an immunity deficiency (possibly due to burns from the defibrillator?) and he wears a cumbersome suit, one that completely covers his body (Willow asks if he’s a bubble boy). We readers can infer that his malady could be a genuine susceptibility to germs, but he possibly could be susceptible to a variety of mental shortcomings, including germophobia. Suddenly, twenty pages of story, of monologue, come into question, as Willow, this outsider, is giving us a different picture of our guy: He’s at the least unreliable, but at the most, he’s really messed up (and very unreliable). Tillman’s been playing us a bit, but plays his cards at the exact right time to make his story really great, for the reveal to have its deepest impact.

Willow and our guy eventually meet up and a bunch of other stuff happens, none of which I’ll go into here, as I don’t want to spoil any more of the twists. I’ll point out, though, that when our guy was helping Willow write her creative assignment for her writing class, one of his suggestions is a “village of imaginary friends,” where a woman creates all the friends around her as she doesn’t have any, a solipsist’s wet dream. Am I saying that Willow doesn’t exist and this OCD guy living all alone made up their interactions, that none of the story happened? Of course not. But Tillman is sly enough to at least imply it, which makes us think about this story all the more, offers us even more possibilities, more interpretations.

“Every Single Bone in My Brain” is a complex story, but one that I enjoyed from the first page all the way until the last (it’s thirty pages, so that’s good). I like the cocky, tragic voice of the protagonist as he tells his story, his vulnerabilities peeking through the cracks in his thick, person-proof gloves. I like how Tillman uses Willow as both a puppet and puppeteer. And I like how despite all the crazy theories I could concoct regarding this story, it also works as straightforward, that’s what’s on the page—as opposed to what’s in-between the lines—works just as well as a story as anything I can imagine.

That’s what I think Tillman’s strength is, presenting complex narratives—even in his shorts—that read simply and easily (I just watch the finale of Westworld late last night and can’t say the same about that story). This is Tillman’s power, to present these complicated but beautiful worlds in a way that we become engrossed and entangled, but never lost. I was captivated by the stories in Every Single Bone in My Brain and am so glad to share my discovery: Check it out.


June 20, 2018: “The Merry Spinster” by Mallory Ortberg

A good Wednesday to you, Story366! Coming at you on a rainy and overcast humpday. It’s been in the mid-90s for going on two weeks here in Springfield, but the heat finally broke a bit today with a torrential downpour, one that’s kept today’s proceedings rather cool. I’ve been especially lazy to turn down the AC (which is working just fine, in case you’ve been keeping track and are wondering), and that, combined with the fact I had to run out into the rain to shut the car windows, means I’m actually writing this entry cold and shivering. Add to the fact that me and the oldest went for a hike this morning, so my wet shirt is now particularly stinky. I could change shirts and make it warmer, surely, but Story366 calls. I have no time for such frivolities.

I’m enjoying the fact that I’ve done three of these posts in the last week, as that means I’ve been reading a lot more than I had been at the end of the spring semester, or really, during the semester. I know that when I’m reading stories, I have the urge to write stories, and in the past week, I’ve actually done some writing. Not sure why that is, but it’s always been true. My most inspired moments? When I’m at other writers’ readings, sitting in an audience, hearing their intro, their work, seeing all the people hang on their every words, seeing the reaction at the end. It’s a blissful feeling when art has been shared and everyone approves. At the end of these events, I always have a million ideas and a ton of energy to write, to create. More often than not, I instead go off to celebrate with the readers, often by imbibing alcohol, drowning out that inspiration. Or sometimes, the drive home will do me in. In short, other writers’ stories make me want to write. I should read more.

That’s as true for Story366 entries as much as any other reading, though I’ve certainly trained myself to start writing these entries as soon as I get done reading the stories. I’m wondering now if I shouldn’t read from a book, write a bit of my own work, then write the entry. Certainly, I’d lose some of my trains of thought, forget some of the things I was going to say. Or not. I guess I’ll have to try it out and see. Maybe next time.

I certainly feel good about stories after reading from today’s book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg, a Holt Paperback out this year from Henry Holt and Company. I actually started this book a couple of weeks ago at Scout camp, but then lost track of where I put it, though it turns out it was just in the bottom of my backpack, where I’d left it. I remember starting the first story at a picnic table, Scouts running to and fro, but enjoying the opening story, “The Daughter Cells,” or at least what of it I got to read before I was called off to duty. That story was a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” from what I could tell, and reading further into it, and the collection, I see that Ortberg’s collection is one of retold fairy tales. From the book’s subtitle, you can probably guess that they go more in the direction of the Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Andersen, and especially Disney movie adaptations (which I’m sadly most familiar with of the three). The third-ever Story366 entry, on Jean Thompson’s The Witch back in 2016, came to mind as I read (hey, I never did read and cover that Michael Cunningham collection that came out around the same time …), though Ortberg does different things with her stories, has a different tone.

I did read one story, “The Thankless Child,” to which I couldn’t match a particular tale, though there’s an awful lot of salt involved (a Google search implies that it’s maybe”The Salt Prince,” or maybe “The Salt Princess,” which is based on King Lear), but then I moved on to the title story, in the middle of the book, “The Merry Spinster,” which I thought for sure was going to be a retelling of Cinderella, as there was a rich mom, two beautiful sisters, and one less-than-beautiful sister, whom they teasingly call “Lil’ Beauty”—she’s rather plain, making her name the ironic kind. Anyway, this nickname should have told me I was really reading a new “Beauty and the Beast” and not “Cinderella.” As I slowly started to realize this, I also realized that I didn’t really know the story of the beauty and her beast, at least not how Belle got caught up in that castle with the beast, why she couldn’t leave until she fell in love with him and broke his spell. Another trip to Google filled me, so I think I’m ready now to write a decent post.

Just like in the original tale, in “The Merry Spinster,” there’s a beast guy in a castle, though in this story he’s called both Mr. Beale and the Beast. Much like in the original, Beauty’s mother (it’s her father in the other versions) wanders upon the Beast’s castle, seeking shelter, and while she’s there, steals a rose to give to Beauty (who likes roses). The beast captures her and tells her she’s his prisoner, pretty much for forever. This comes to that and Beauty has offered herself up instead, to save her mother. The Beast accepts and Beauty moves in, pretty much like the other versions of the story

After this, we expect, of course, for the Beast to want Beauty to fall in love with her, because that will break his curse and he won’t be the Beast anymore, perhaps just Mr. Beale again. Ortberg’s tale diverges from the expected course a bit here, as for one, the Beast is just called the Beast, but we’re never given any description of him as some snarling, hairy monster. Next, there are no servants in the castle, meaning no singing candlesticks or clocks, no Angela Landsbury entertaining us with song. Beauty is just at the castle, alone with the Beast. And he lurks. He attends dinner in the dining room with Beauty every night, but never partakes. Instead, he watches her and he proposes to her. Beauty always declines his advances and often the Beast sends her to bed without supper, which she eats when he leaves. Certainly, this Beast is not aware of the workplace harassment cases that are being brought against a lot of celebrities these days—he could exchange sob stories with with Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose.

I won’t go any further into plot details, just to not give anything away. As you might guess, things don’t go the way of the Disney version, not with Ortberg’s subtitle, Tales of Everyday Horror. Note, though, this could mean a lot of things, and if you’re trying to guess, pay attention to the “everyday” part, as that plays as much into these stories’ endings as the “horror” aspect.

A few of notes about the book: Ortberg’s narrators—third-person omniscient all-seers—have an interesting voice, one that’s coy and playful, one that likes to twist words around and even come off as ornery; one passage begins, “Some time passed, and nothing happened ….” At times, there’s even a metafictional feel to the book, and somewhere, in one of the stories, the narrator refers to him/herself as “I” and is a bit of an active character. This voice/tone/approach makes Ortberg’s book pretty fresh and fun to read, giving it an attitude.

Speaking of him/herself, Ortberg also uses gender pronouns interchangeably in the book, a Paul referred to as a she, a Sylvia as a he. One of the stories, “The Frog’s Princess,” is about the youngest daughter in the family, the titular princess, but is referred to by masculine pronouns throughout. Not sure if Ortberg is commenting on the universality of her tales or if she’s just writing progressively, or both, but I found it interesting. (Note: After writing this post, when looking up Ortberg to link to her name [Google again!], I found out that Ortberg transitioned to Daniel Mallory Ortberg during the writing of this book: My apologies for being so ham-handed with this.)

Lastly, the book isn’t only divided by individually titled stories, but are numbered as chapters as well, one, two, three, etc. I don’t see any relationship between the stories, except thematically, and as far as I can tell, the characters don’t all come together in the end to make this a novel-in-stories, no Shrek-like ending with Smashmouth blasting, I’m afraid to report. Anyway, I’m not sure why the stories are numbered.

Most of all, though, I just enjoyed reading the stories in The Merry Spinster. Like with any project of this nature—I always like Fractured Fairy Tales when I was a kid—it’s fun to identify what story you’re reading a retelling of, then seeing how the author takes it in other directions. That was particularly true with my reading of Mallory Ortberg’s tales, as she never failed to surprise me, to satisfy my urge for something new, creative, and shocking. This is a great collection, some of the best flat-out fun I’ve had with a book.


June 18, 2018: “You or a Loved One” by Gabriel Houck

Happy Monday, Story366! It’s nice to start off the week with some reading and blogging, as that’s the great advantage of summer. Hard to believe I’ve been done with that spring semester for a month now. Part of me is tempted to look back and evaluate what I’ve accomplished in the past month, but part of me knows, from experience, that there’s not a whole lot of good to come from that. I’m pretty sure most academic-types have grand plans for summer as they turn their spring grades in, plan to write seventeen novels and a bunch of stories, lose twenty-five pounds, and get their house in to having-company-shape, all by the end of May. It never really works out like that, not for for mere mortals like me, anyway, so I look at the small victories. Writing this post, for example, is more than a small victory, as I love doing these, but I don’t necessarily have to. I could be doing anything else right now, including sleeping or watching television. I’m not, though. And that’s a victory. After this, I probably will nap. And I might work on a story. But no matter what, I’ve done this. So, I salute you, summer, for both giving me the time to do great things and making me feel awful about it when I don’t.

I had a tremendous Father’s Day weekend to boot, as the boys (via Karen) got me and everyone a family pass to the Wonders of Wildlife, this giant new aquarium right here in Springfield, Missouri, part of the enormous Bass Pro complex and headquarters just a couple of miles from our house. We chose to visit on Saturday, even though we knew it would be crowded, but we were excited to see what was up (they’ve been building this attraction since before we moved here six years ago). Like with my story reviews here on this blog, I don’t want to give much away, but I will say that the aquarium lives up to the hype: Me and the fam had a great time, and tomorrow after school, I’m taking the boys back for another trip. Springfield doesn’t have a lot to offer out-of-towners in terms of attractions, but this jumps to the top of the list: I can legitimately say that it’s worth traveling here to visit this place. Happy Father’s Day, indeed.

Back to the blog, though. Today I read the first few stories from Gabriel Houck‘s new collection, You or a Loved One, just out from Orison Books as the winner of their 2017 Orison Fiction Prize. I hadn’t read anything from this press before, but I have read a few of Houck’s stories. One piece I read was in Mid-American Review a bit ago (I still get that mag!) and another (though this one not in the book) was in Moon City Review 2015. Obviously, I’ve liked what I’d seen, but it was nice to sit down with a whole collection, read a few in a row, see what Houck really does.

I liked all three of the stories I read in this book, including the title story (which is first), “The Dot Matrix,” about a kid stealing crappy porn printouts back in the nineties, and “Hero’s Theater,” the MAR piece, about a guy who has to play Spider-man at a kid’s birthday party. I liked all the stories a great deal, so I’m defaulting to the title story, as I usually do, as that’s what I’m doing.

“You or a Loved One” is about Belle, a crisis center phone operator who is, more or less, skimming along the surface of her life. She is forty years old and has moved across the country, away from her eighty-something-year-old parents, just to avoid them, be alone. She feels comfortable lying about her situation, insisting she’s been dating a wonderful man and has all kinds of gallery shows for her paintings, what she went to school for. She hasn’t painted in years, and her current boyfriend, twenty-five-year old Nick, has unique designs on what constitutes monogamy. She posits that she could still have a happy, nuclear life, complete with normal relationship and kids, but also admits that this window is closing, that it “… feels like a shuttered part of a shuttered house from which I’ve long since moved away.” So, Belle isn’t particularly happy, and knows she can do better, but isn’t the type of person who does.

The one human contact that she’s still fully invested in is her younger brother, Kip, a grown man with Aspergers (though they didn’t know that until he was grown), who calls Belle regularly, whom Belle even calls back. Belle still keeps herself isolated enough, though, as she never answers her phone, just listens to Kip’s messages on Voicemail, then returns his calls when she knows he won’t answer, so he can experience her second-hand as well. And this is who Belle is: A buffer between her and anyone she can get close to: The physical distance between her and her parents, the voicemail deal with Kip, the age difference with Nick, and the phone relationship with her clients at work. Belle won’t let anyone close to her, not physically or emotionally, which is some pretty great characterizing by Houck.

All this is happening with the crisis center in the backdrop, where Belle genuinely excels. Her boss, Raymond, calls her in, about halfway through the story, to tell her that she’s doing a great job (calls are monitored for quality assurance, don’t you know). He wants to promote her to the rank of Diamond associate, even though a counselor is supposed to be with the company two years before reaching that rank and Belle isn’t near that time. What this means is, Belle is going to move from simple, non-emergency cases like the woman who hears a dog barking in her house (her dog has long since died) to serious emergencies people at the edge of death, callers in dire situations with only one person to turn to, using their personal crisis call-in device (like the kind we see on TV: “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”). All of a sudden, Belle’s finds herself in a much higher level of human contact, and dependency, than she’s comfortable with.

And that’s as much rundown as I’ll give on “You or a Loved One,” as any more would give away the super-special twists and details that make this story such a delight. Houck has a knack, it appears, for depicting marginally odd protagonists, seemingly normal people with just enough quirk to make them interesting, to make them story-worthy. Belle in today’s selection is probably like a lot of Americans, someone who just wants to do her thing and otherwise be left alone, only it doesn’t work that way, not when people love you, want to interact with you out of genuine human compulsion. The teenaged kid in “The Dot Matrix” only wants to fit in, have the same pinup printout that every other kid in his grade has, even if it means giving up the safety of his D&D game for a bit. And the Spider-man actor in “Hero’s Theater” just wants to play Spider-man, at the Celebration Station, but is bitter he has to go to someone else’s house, play it by their rules. Gabriel Houck’s protagonists, from what I can tell, just want their vision of the universe to be the norm, to keep doing their thing, keep coasting from one day to the next as they bask in the intricacies of life they have grown to enjoy. Conflict arises when everyone else prevents them from doing so, leading to some pretty great fiction. It also makes You or a Loved One an impressive debut collection, one I recommend.


June 14, 2018: “We Are Taking Only What We Need” by Stephanie Powell Watts

Hey there, Story366! While it’s not officially summer yet, not for another week, it sure feels like summer. Baseball is suddenly and gloriously the only sport; my kids are going to weird, across-town schools for consolidated summer school; and I just spent a week in Marshfield, Missouri, for Boy Scout camp with my oldest. It’s also hot as balls out, too. Just to think, this is spring!

The real story of Summer 2018 is how every major appliance in our house has broken down. Pretty much since we’ve lived here, we haven’t gotten our dryer to function properly, as often, it takes two to three hour-long cycles to dry a small load—a week ago, we were up to five. We’ve had repairmen out twice to clean the line, figure it out, but soon after they left, things reverted back to their nineteenth-century ways. Our Internet stopped working somewhere around the last week of classes, and not once, not twice, but three times, we had a Mediacom rep out to fix it, each time swearing they’ve discovered the problem, some worn wire, something disconnected, whatever. Right now, it works like 95 percent of the time, but considering we’ve had three visits from tech guys (meaning three days of us as prisoners in our house, waiting around), we should have the best internet on the planet, right? No, 95 percent. The big-pricetag item that terrified us was the air conditioner, which was running but not kicking out cold air (i.e,. an expensive, warm-air fan). We got a guy to come out, it worked for a few hours, then didn’t work again. We called the same guy back—his work was guaranteed—and he took nine freaking days to return and not fix it. Two days after he left, it’s suddenly, and for some reason, working again, and working well. This leads me up to yesterday, when I woke to Karen telling me our fridge was dead, the motor frozen, and since she had to go to work (to, you know, support us), I had to throw away all the bad food, salvage what I could, and clean up a ridiculous mess. The repair person is coming tomorrow: I assume it will be the first of many visits before we can have cold food again, sometime around the Fourth of July.

This morning, my oldest said to me, “We should take bets one what will break next,” completely unprompted, talk of our bad luck, shoddy repair work, and our general frustration not coming up at all since the previous morning, both of us elbows-deep in gray sour cream and mayonnaise. He’s certainly one of us, I can see, aware of the tragic irony it often is to be a Czyzniago. My money’s on the oven. His is on the toaster.

But again, the air works, and after I fiddled with the dryer yesterday, cleaned out the tube and reattached it, the damn thing is working like a dryer is supposed to, about an hour for a load of clothes, even a load of towels. To celebrate, I did eight loads of laundry yesterday, that shit stacking up, so today I had time to get back to the blog, back to books.

Today I read from Stephanie Powell Watts‘ collection We Are Taking Only What We Need, out earlier this year from Ecco as part of their Art of the Story series. I ran across this book while perusing the lit section at Barnes & Noble a bit ago, and quickly picked up a copy (in fact, I grabbed two, giving one to a GA as a year-end gift). It’s been hovering near the top of my pile for about a month now, and for a beautiful, sunny day like today (i.e., hot as balls), I could no longer resist that bright yellow cover, to find out what the woman on the cover is thinking.

I read the first three stories in We Are Taking Only What We Need this morning and enjoyed all of them: “Family Museum of Ancient Postcards,” “If You Hit Randolph County, You’ve Gone Too Far,” and the title story, “We Are Taking Only What We Need,” which I’ll write about today. All three stories share strikingly similar themes, settings, and styles, and all are told from the point of view of a young African American girl living in the South, only from the perspective of that young girl when she’s older, looking back. I thought for a bit that maybe these characters were all the same, that this is a novel in stories, as the girl’s father in the first and third stories are both named Roger; further inspection leads me to believe that no, these are different stories and different young girls, as other family member names and minor details prove inconsistent. Still, these stories give off a similar vibe and use overlapping plot points, such as infidelity and deadbeat moms, enough to make this book wholly coherent. At least in the first three entries.

“We Are Taking Only What We Need” is about Portia, a young girl whose mother has just left the family, which includes her, her brother, Cal, and her father, Roger. We don’t know exactly why the mom is leaving, only it’s to move in with a girlfriend (and the girlfriend’s boyfriend), to not be the mom anymore. With Roger having to work and Portia and Cal too young to stay home all day, they’re forced into a babysitter. Roger chooses a young white girl named Tammy, who seems as foreign to Portia as an alien; an aunt suggests the children no get too close, as “White people tend to smell like wet dog.” Portia is intrigued at this wholly different human, but it wears off soon when she realizes that Tammy is doing the bare minimum to get by until Roger gets home and pays her, that there’s no real bond, no care or affection.

That changes one Saturday, however, when Tammy shows up with Roger home, Roger announcing to Portia that the two ladies will spend the day together at the flea market. Portia finds it weird, as she doesn’t need a babysitter, not when her father is home from work, yet off they go, to this vast shopping land, not a penny in Portia’s pocket. They don’t need money, though, as Tammy seems like the belle of the market, everyone coming up to her, hugging her, offering her free stuff. By the end of the trip, Tammy and Portia leave with a box of newborn puppies, sworn by their former owner to be of pure breed, even though their father is a German shepherd and the mother is something else.

Portia and Tammy arrive with the dogs, to the delight of Cal and the anger and bewilderment of Roger. Tammy proclaims that they have a dog for everyone (like Game of Thrones!), one for Portia and one for Cal and one for her and Roger. For Portia, it’s suddenly clear what’s going on between Tammy and her father, that they’re closeness and occasional touching is no accident. Roger, who vehemently dislikes the idea of dogs, especially those around the house, acquiesces, and Portia understands it’s because Tammy has a spell on her father, this white girl in short-shorts, half his age.

Okay, good setup for a story. Still, I’m not sure how deeply to go into the plot of “We Are Taking Only What We Need,” as we’re not yet halfway in at this point and there’s quite a few twists and turns. I won’t go into too much more detail, but will remind you that I mentioned infidelity before, so there’s more of that on the way, along a trigger warning: If you’re not into stories where dogs die, especially cute little puppies, then maybe this ain’t the story for you.

On top of what happens, though, this story, like its two predecessors in the collection, strikes an intriguing balance between what the young teenage protagonist thinks about the story as it’s happening, against what she thinks about the same events years later, when she’s old, wiser, and telling her tale. So, there’s an innocence to the stories in Powell Watts’ book, an unreliability, but that’s sort of canceled out, often, by that same person translating each particular lesson into the broader scope. It’s an interesting way to tell a story and an even more interesting way to read one. Powell Watts didn’t invent this technique, but she’s as good at it as anyone I’ve read.

There’s also a great feeling of place in these stories, like they surely could only take place in the South, in Powell Watts’ native North Carolina, from the food, to the landscapes, to the heat. Most of all, I enjoyed the window these stories gave me to another region, another culture, to people who may not look like me or didn’t grow up in the same place as me, but are so delicately rendered, I feel like I know them, that I was immersed—Powell Watts has that power as a writer.

“We Are Taking Only What We Need Here” is a beautiful and tragic story, one that stuck with me even though I read it first, read two other stories, but still wanted to write about it. I feel for older, perspective-laden Portia, even now, even more than I felt for young Portia as all the events of the story befell her. I think it’s because I’m getting old and am starting to understand how the residual effect of something terrible, over time, can really add up, can wear on you. That’s the way this fine collection speaks to me. But there’s so much more about it admire.


June 2, 2018: “Building Cities in the Desert” by Jeffrey Condran

Happy Saturday, Story366! I love summer!

While I was writing Thursday’s post on Karen Donovan, some AC guys were at my house, then not at my house, then at my house again, fixing our AC. We had been suffering through some mild outside heat lately, heat that’s intensified inside our big old house by at least ten degrees. With temps rising into the nineties this week, it was becoming unbearable, so we broke down and called somebody, hoping for better bad news than the worst news: the death sentence. In NCAA basketball, the death sentence is a ban from postseason play for a year. In life, it means they kill you because you killed someone else. In AC, it’s the person from the AC place telling you your AC system is shot and you need to install an entire new system, which runs into the thousands of dollars. Of course, we were fearing the worst, that we’d get that death sentence, that they guy would tell us that we fried our unit (“If only you done this __________ incredibly easy thing, you would have saved a fortune!”); one year, we didn’t unfasten our outside hose from the nozzle and it ended up costing us $600 in pipe and wall repairs because we didn’t know that connected hoses for some reason cause pipes to freeze and burst.

Anyway, we were afraid if we wanted air this year, we’d have to sell one of our children, both of whom we’ve grown fond of. I grew up without air conditioning in my house until I was 13; my wife, who moved around a lot, had it and didn’t have it, depending where she lived. Last week, to avoid the inevitable, I found every fan we owned—four box fans and three oscillators—and had those set up, but after a week of that—you can’t hear shit in your house with seven fans running, all the ambient noise, not the TV, not the doorbell, not each other—and the coming summer, we decided to find out what this was going to cost us.

Luckily, we for now just needed a coolant recharge, which, with labor, cost us a paltry $297. We went with a new company, a guy just trying to get jobs and make a name for himself, so he gave us a big discount He and his brother came out at ten, told us what the story was, then took off on another call as he let our line defrost (it had frozen). Then he came back for another four hours. By five he was done, but had put in five hours—times two guys—and with freon costing $70 per pound, he only make $157. So, we got off cheap, but now I feel bad. I feel cool, but bad at the same time. We got a deal. Maybe too good of one.

Yesterday, as the temperature slowly ticked down, I read a few stories from Jeffrey Condron‘s collection A Fingerprint Repeated, out in 2013 from Press 53. I met Jeffrey at AWP this year, but knew of his work, and that he was editor of the fine press, Braddock Avenue Books, who have put out many collections I’ve covered on this blog. This was the first venture into anything but a story here or there, so I was excited to get into the book, to see what Condron really does.

In the few stories I’ve read, and the others I’ve perused, Condron certainly seems to have some themes that he employs over and over in his stories. Most of the pieces seem to involve an American white male, a guy who travels overseas a lot, involved in a romantic (or purely sexual) relationship with a younger Arab woman. The woman always seems to be married, to an Arab man she’s much more compatible with, making the relationships with the white Americans lurid, though admittedly passionate. The women in these stories seem to be lawyers, while the men seems to be from or about to settle in Pittsburgh. Two stories, “Praha” and the title story, “A Fingerprint Repeated,” depict these relationships after they’ve ended and the feelings have gone bitter. In fact, I read those two stories first and they have almost identical setups, only one is told from the white dude’s POV and the other from the Arab woman’s. I checked to make sure we weren’t dealing with the same characters here, but we weren’t, as one white guy is named Henry and the other Jonathan.

The third story, I read, “Bulding Cities in the Desert,” does feature a white guy named Jonathan, though this Jonathan is profoundly different from the Jonathan in the title story (that Jonathan is kind of a psycho). Reading through, I’d say it might be the same guy, only older, wiser, and maybe kinder in “Building Cities in the Desert”. I liked the complexity and general feel of “Building Cities in the Desert,” so I’ve chosen that one to write about today.

“Building Cities in the Desert” takes place in California, and as mentioned, features a middle-aged guy, Jonathan, and his relationship with Yasmin, his daughter’s childhood friend, a single mother who’s returned to the area after being gone and needs some help getting her house in order. Jonathan, the only person she knows and trusts, starts coming over to take care of things, setting up a lot bunch of storylines and questions. Condron’s pretty clever here, as he uses a slow rate of reveal, the true backstory of this relationship remaining a mystery for at least half the story. Where has Yasmin been? Where is her son’s father? What happened to Jonathan’s daughter, or for that matter, anyone else he knows? Condron is wise to establish one tension here—the growing relationship between Jonathan and Yasmin—before answering any of that. His patience gives the story an uncanny, intense feel, making this possible union—an older man and his daughter’s former playmate—seem even more eyebrow-raising, maybe even salacious.

Eventually, as the two grow closer, we get more of the backstory, more of the setup: Yasmin’s husband, Rami, was arrested after a terrorist incident, perhaps because of his ties to his Palestinian cousin, and is simply gone, being detained with no hint of when or if he’ll return. Yasmin is in some ways a widow, though without the finality, in need of help, but also lonely and growing lonelier. Jonathan, just as lonely, has an equally complex history, as years before, he’d abandoned his family (to, you guessed it, work in the Middle East [and perhaps have a string of affairs with Arab women]); this abandonment includes his daughter, Margaret, Yasmin’s friend, whom he hasn’t seen or talked to her in over twenty years. Margaret is a constant elephant in the room—she and Yasmin keep in touch—and there’s times when Jonathan wants to ask Yasmin about her, though he knows the truth: Margaret refuses to ever have anything to do with him again. This makes Yasmin both a conduit and a stand-in, which complicates the fatherly/handyman relationship quite a bit.

Because this is a short story and Condron’s a good writer, it doesn’t stop there: Jonathan starts feeling more for Yasmin than just nostalgia or comfort, and after a night of drinking, Yasmin’s son, Sami, in bed, the two become more intimate, Jonathan spending the night; it’s clear, however, that the couple do not have sex, but just spend the night holding each other, providing comfort, filling the gaps in their lives with familiar faces. Still, Sami catches Jonathan peeing in the yard the next morning (so as to not wake Yasmin), Jonathan sees Sami come to conclusions, conclusions that Jonathan both wants and doesn’t want.

I won’t go any further into the plot of “Building Cities in the Desert,” as that would be giving away too much. This is a fine, complicated story, featuring warm but desperate people, an anti-hero as protagonist, and all that suspense Condron can muster, skillfully telling us what we need to know only when we need to know it. I really like the geometry of the relationships here, and informed by the previous stories in the book, I’m able to form a lush tapestry of emotions and situations, Condron easily weaving them together into good fiction. I liked the book in general, too, the consistent and unique themes, how Condron has apparently chosen some variables, and in order to make the collection cohesive, has used, reused, and shuffled these variables, exploring all aspects of the theme. The end product is a tight, readable, and provocative collection.