July 31, 2018: “Interstellar Space” by Scott O’Connor

What a great day this is, Story366!  I say this because it’s sunny outside, but not hot. I say this because during that twenty-five minutes between the Karen leaving in the morning with the older boy and me having to wake the younger boy and get him ready for school, I took out all the garbage and did all the dishes, meaning I don’t have to do that the rest of the day. I say this because I have the entire day to myself, the boys at school, even though I know it’s the last day of summer school and tomorrow I’m a dad all day again, for two weeks. I say it’s a great day because I got to read from another collection today and write about it.

I mainly say that because today is the non-waiver trade deadline day for Major League Baseball, one of the best and most exciting days of the year for any baseball fan. It’s a great day, in particular, if your team is a buyer—i.e., they’re having a good year and are looking to add someone for the playoff run—as opposed to being a seller—your team’s season is over and they’re trying to unload dead weight in exchange for prospects. Since the Cubs have been competitive in the last four years, I’ve been on the buyer side of the experience,  watching some pretty pivotal guys suddenly added to the roster. It’s been a good four years to be a Cub fan, the true salad days, and things should play out like this for at least a couple more years, most of the Cubs’ talent still young and, well, talented.

I have to say, though, that I’ve taken a tiny bit of guilty pleasure in watching the Cardinals start their dismantling today, trading what was going to be a key piece of their present and future—OF Tommy Pham—for basically a bag of balls. It’s been coming all year, the Cardinals hovering just above .500, but in all my years of watching baseball (every year I’ve been alive), the Cards have never been sellers. Not really. Sure, I know that this is because the Cards have never been bad enough to be sellers, that they’re a top-notch organization who is almost always competitive. It’s the burden I live with. So that makes a day like today even more special, to see them moving on for the year while the Cubs try to reload for another title run. Again, a tiny bit of pleasure. These are, after all, the fans who bandy the “Completely Useless By September” acronym around like a motto.

I won’t even get into how entertaining it was to listen to Cardinals sports talk radio on my way to and from Chicago last weekend, to hear the frenzy in their voices, the disgust, paired with the resentful admiration for what the Cubs have going. I don’t smile a whole lot—those of you who know me will attest—but I think I smiled all the way through that broadcast range, both directions.

For today’s post, I read from Scott O’Connor‘s new story collection, A Perfect Universe, out this year from Scout Press, a new Imprint of Simon & Schuster. O’Connor has written three successful novels, A Perfect Universe being his first collection. Since I don’t read all that many novels, I haven’t read O’Connor’s work before, but as always, I find that a treat, to find new authors (kind of why I do this blog).

The first story in A Perfect Universe is “Hold On,” about the sole survivor of a building collapse in LA, a guy who spent several days in the rubble, holding on to a voice on a bullhorn yelling “Hold on!” and reading the names of the people inside. The guy is pretty messed up after the event, increasingly so, and O’Connor does a nice job in showing how his PTSD unfolds as time moves on (the first-person present narrative helps with that, too). The next story, “It Was Over So Quickly, Doug,” puts a person in another traumatic event, this one unfolding in real time: A robbery at a coffee shop were the protagonist (and again, first-person present speaker) is fetching coffee for her office superiors. Two stories in, we had two people dealing with trauma, with life-altering moments; not to reveal too much, but in each story, people react to the stress and pressure by screaming, which, hey, seems understandable. Both are fast-moving stories and I liked them both.

I moved into the middle of the book to find “Interstellar Space,” which sounded like it might be the sort-of title story … you know, because space … universe … okay, I was wrong and it’s not. But it is my favorite of the three stories, a bit different than the other two, but in some ways, carrying the same themes.

“Insterstellar Space” is told in the past tense from Cate’s point of view, clearly as an adult relaying the goings-on of her childhood (without having an uber-present narrator or anything like that). Cate relays the story of her and her sister, Meg, who is two years younger and her best friend. The girls play all kinds of morbid role-playing games as kids—the description of which opens the story—games like Dead Man’s Float, where they float facedown on the surface of the backyard pool, looking like drowning victims, until their mother yells out the window in a panic. Another game is Prisoner, where they take turns duct-taping each other’s wrists to a pole in the shed, duct-taping their mouths, too, playacting some kind of hostage situation. Weird, creative kids, to be sure, the kind of kids who populate this story.

Things become less of a game when Meg starts hearing voices. They start, one afternoon, during a game of Prisoner, Meg taped in captivity, tiny, tinny children’s voices calling out to her. At first, she thinks the voices are coming from somewhere specific, maybe a new part of Cate’s Prisoner routine, some sort of auditory torture. That’s not it, however. Meg continues to these voices, and worse, she starts to listen to them.

Added into the voices and Meg’s delicate age—she’s 13 when they start—the girls’ dad is an engineer for a astronautical corporation and during the story, sees one of his rocket projects launched into space. The family hosts a celebratory party in their backyard, one that doesn’t go particularly well for Meg: She immediately associates the voices with the rocket, with space in general, and believes that the voices are coming from outside our atmosphere. As you can imagine, this doesn’t make the relationship between Meg and her dad very smooth.

The story moves on from there, jumping ahead through Meg’s teen years, revealing her decline, which kind of peaks at the police finding her on a corner, handing out flyers that warn everyone about the voices, about the aliens’ dastardly plans. This causes a big change for the family, but I won’t go into that here, leaving you something to find for yourself.

I like, by the way, how O’Connor tells this story, from the first-peripheral perspective (Cate), as that’s how he more or less has to. I talk about this POV with my students, from intro level to grad, how it’s often used to describe someone whose head you really don’t want to go into—I often cite the Sherlock Holmes stories, how Watson tells those, because really, how do you write the transcript of that brain? And sure, O’Connor could have chronicled Meg’s condition through her own thoughts, actually depicted the voices, her stream of consciousness. That would have made it a much different (not to mention more difficult) story. Using Cate, the best friend and confidante and sister, just lets the story unravel, gives it a more solid perspective instead of something like “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman’s telling makes for a great story, surely, but just a different piece, which O’Connor obviously chose not to approach.

I like the stories in A Perfect Universe, stories where Scott O’Connor finds people in a bad way, going through some intense moments, telling us how they react, in both the short term and long. It’s a really interesting and effective approach to character, to put them through such extremes, then watch as they unravel. I smell a writing assignment coming from this, students reading O’Connor’s work, then trying to craft an O’Connoresque tale (Scott … Flannery … Carol?!). In any case, good collection, both intense and thoughtful, one I enjoyed.


July 30, 2018: “A Story of Happiness” by Akil Kumarasamy

Hello there, Story366! Happy to be writing again today on this overcast Missouri Monday. After the trauma of last week, of almost losing this blog site—detailed in my Tod Goldberg post from Friday—I’m glad to just be back, doing these reviews again. For a few days, my apocalypto brain started imagining what would have happened had I never gotten back in. As a storyteller, my mind immediately went to conflict, conflict that had me fighting the good fight with the WordPress people, saying “fuck” a lot, but also me tossing my bookshelves like a crazed lunatic. Somewhere down the line, I’d swear off stories, books, writing, and reading, live in a box in an alley, and eat ants and old shoelaces. So, all in all, I’m glad that’s over, glad to be reading and writing, my bookshelves intact, American letters still appealing.

This past weekend, I took the oldest boy on a three-hour journey to Linn, Missouri, for a merit badge university. An MBU is when some college sets up an all-day event where Scouts can sign up for classes to earn merit badges. Most of the badges are all-day classes, like my son’s (he earned Citizenship in the Community), as they have a lot of requirements and would otherwise take the boys quite a long time to do on their own. Others are a bit easier, like chess, which they do in the morning, freeing up the afternoon for another easy one: two badges in one day. The one my son earned is one of the twelve required for Eagle Scout, so it was a good one to get out of the way, though I think he learned a lot about local government (which is timely, because the Karen is now a smalltown reporter who goes to aldermen meetings and has chats with the mayor; plus we’re watching all of Parks and Rec again).

As I sat there, I started to think of how great of a system that merit badges are, that when you learn enough about a subject, they give you a little circular picture to pin on a sash, showing everyone what you’ve earned, what you’ve learned, and in a sense, who you are. Since I’ve been involved with my son in Scouts, I keep thinking about how cool it would be if we, as adults in the world, could continue to earn merit badges for what we do in real life. Sure, I have a couple of diplomas in my office, but what if I had little patches on my shirt—a shirt I wore to work every day—instead? We could get badges for every kid we had. We could get badges for paying off a car. For getting a mortgage (and a better, harder one for paying it off). For fixing things around our houses—I’d love a lawn mowing badge and a doing the dishes badge and replacing the screen door badge. For fitting into our summer clothes again each spring. For paying our taxes. Losing our virginity. Staying sober. Getting through six seasons of Parks and Rec in one calendar month.

For kids, it’s easy to let them show their accomplishments, for them to literally wear them like clothing for everyone to see. For us, well, we have to try harder. With all of that MBU downtime—always lots of downtime for parents at Scouting events—I meet a lot of other parents and talk to them and we exchange information, salutory stuff. We tell each other where we’re from. What we do for a living. How old our boys are and what rank they’ve earned. What sports teams we root for. What we think about all this weather we’ve been having. Couldn’t we eliminate it if we just got badges and wore them around? My son can look at any other boy in Scouts, know what troop he’s in and where he’s from (those patches are worn on their sleeves [which is not, by the way, a metaphor for anything]). He knows what rank they are because that’s on their breast pocket. And he know what they’re interested in because all their merit badges tell him that story. Wouldn’t it be nifty if I could just scan some guy’s chest, know where he was from, know if he liked the Cubs and know if I could talk to him about books and perennials? I think so. I think we, as adults, should wear our lives on our bodies like these kids do. Then, that—along with social media—would mean we’d never have to chitchat with anyone ever again. A quick scan and then we could get to it.

For today’s entry, I read from Akil Kumarasamy‘s new collection, Half Gods, out last month from FSG. I’d not read anything by Kumarasamy before—though a lot of these stories appeared in lit mags—so I was eager to see what was up. I always like books from FSG and generally think of them as one of the presses that puts out the best work by the best new talent. So in I dove.

What I found out was that the stories in Half Gods are interrelated, all of them about a particular family—generations of it—settled in America after leaving Sri Lanka amidst an ethnic conflict. I didn’t know a lot about Sri Lanka or its history, but now I know that there was ethnic derision between the Sinhala, who seem to have come out on top in all this, and the Tamil, the group that our protagonists come from. In the midst of all the fighting, Muthu—the family patriarch—left for America, taking his daughter, Nalini, with him. Muthu’s wife and twin sons were killed in a skirmish, and it’s made clear Muthu and Nalinia would have probably died, too, had they not escaped. Eventually, the father and daughter settle in New Jersey, where Muthu finds work as a janitor and Nalini marries an Indian man (note: as much as the Sinhala and Tamil hate each other, they both hate India even more) and has two sons of her own, Arjun and Karna. These are the characters that these stories are about—at least the first three stories, anyway; Kumarasamy is quite liberal in moving back and forth in time, covering a lot of ground in each story, eeking out family details as we move along.

The first story, “Last Prayer,” is told from Arjun’s point of view and is about his senior year of high school, about his wild friend, Rasheed, preported as the year his grandfather, Muthu, dies. The next story, “New World,” goes way back in time to Sri Lanka, when Muthu was a boy living on a tea plantation, where his father worked for a rich Englishman (who departs in the first sentence, Sri Lanka earning its independence). This one’s told as a communal narrator from the POV of the women of the plantation who work the field. The third story, the focus of today’s post, is “A Story of Happiness,” shooting back to New Jersey, focusing on the last days of Muthu’s life, this one told from Muthu’s own perspective.

“A Story of Happiness” is told in two intertwined narratives, the first a bolded, fairytale-like tale of a mother having three abnormal children, getting rid of (yes, it’s cruel) the first two (a hairy baby with a tail and a lizard-child), but feeling remorse the third time and keeping the boy with the bird wings. This story is interspersed with the Muthu narrative, and eventually, we find out the origin of this bird-chiledstory, why it’s hanging out with the main narrative—I’m not going to reveal that here. The Muthu narrative, though, is more or less Muthu’s retrospective of himself, his interior monologue—mixed with some scene—revealing what he did in Sri Lanka, how he met his wife, the birth of his children, and most pointedly, how those three family members died and he and Nalini ended up in America. The story’s told in little vignettes, easy to stick between the bold bird-baby parts, and jumps through time, one vignette set years ago in Sri Lanka, the next in New Jersey, and so forth. It’s kind of like a puzzle, “A Story of Happiness,” and when it comes together in the end, it’s nice to see the whole picture (unlike puzzles, though, there’s no final product on the box, making this story much more surprising).

(And now I can’t help but think of how much more challenging puzzles would be if you didn’t know what the picture was supposed to look like when you finished. Hmm ….)

And really, that’s all I’m going to say about “A Story of Happiness” here, or any of the stories in Half Gods. I really liked reading this book, the connected stories, the faraway land that I didn’t know anything about, the pieces coming together to paint the bigger picture; I definitely want to finish and see where Kumarasamy takes these people. Or if she goes back further. In that way, these stories don’t act like most stories I’ve read because there isn’t one particular plot that we’re following, no clear conflict in any of these stories. Sure, there are little narratives, ups and downs, things that happen, but no sense of real rising action or finality to any of the selections. And once I read a couple, I got used to that idea, and more or less felt like I was reading chapters in a book, POV chapters, as George R. R. Martin likes to call them. Certainly, people come and go, they are born and they die, but none of those events are that central to these pieces that I’d call them “plots.” Kumarasamy masterfully reveals what she wants, when she wants, and I was captivated the whole time. So, Half Gods is a really different story collection, but after reading the first three entries, I like it as much as any stories I’ve read. She’s talented, and this is a good book.


July 27, 2018: “Other Resort Cities” by Tod Goldberg

Boy, am I glad to see you, Story366! Those of you who follow me on Facebook know there’s been a crisis this week, a crisis of an absolute Story366 nature: I forgot my WordPress password. The Karen and I set this site up on January 1, 2016, and ever since, the login info has been stored on my laptop and I’ve just been going to the site, to my logged-in WordPress account, ever since. Somewhere along the way, my office computer lost that password and I hadn’t been able to use that computer to make posts and was unable to figure out how to log int. But that was fine: I had my laptop! Surely the password and login cookies would never disappear from my laptop, right?!?!

Nope. This past Tuesday, I read a few stories from today’s book and was ready to post, when all of a sudden, I wasn’t logged into Story366. I tried logging in—tried logging in a dozen times, using all kinds of go-to passwords and such—but no dice. I tried having a new password sent to my two active email accounts—my MSU and my gmail—but both of those led me to a blank WordPress account, one that did not allow me access to Story366. I contacted WordPress and they said I simply needed the account confirmation from when I made the site, which I didn’t have: I had literally never received a single email from WordPress about this website account I’ve had for over two and a half years. I immediately worried, as this started to sound odd, that I hadn’t received notices and emails, like, every day since I had the blog. But no, nothing.

Eventually, I got in touch with WordPress techs and after a few emails of guessing (and beggin), I surmised that I set this all up with my old, now-defunct BG email. Without saying so (because they can’t), WordPress kind of winked at me:  “Yeah, that’s it. Go get ’em!” That brought about a new problem: I hadn’t had access to my BG email since early 2013, so I couldn’t have a new password sent to me there. Still, to get back into Story366, I had to get into my BG email account. I jumped through some hoops there, explaining why I needed it, and a sympathetic IT person said that she’d patch me through to the Alumni Association, see if they could verify me as an alum, help me out. Two days later, this morning, another Falcon techie called to help me get my account going again, and voila! Here I am, back in, posting my little heart out.

I have to admit, I kind of lost it at several points in this process, despair growing inside and transforming me into a complete blabbering fool. I’ve put a lot of effort into Story366, have made it part of  my identity, and simply didn’t want to lose access to the ongoing site. Sure, I could have started another account and went from there, made it “Story366 II: The Revenge” or something like that. Or I could have started a new account and copy-and-pasted all four-hundred-or-so posts over to the new site and started over. But really, would I have wanted to do that? No. I would have done it, but I’m glad I don’t have to. The Karen was quite instrumental in keeping me together and figuring out what I had to do, so eternal thanks to her, yet again, for being there for me.

As I said, I read a few stories from Tod Goldberg‘s Other Resort Cities (OV Books, 2009) a couple of days ago, and after a refresher, here I go. From what I can tell, from the stories I read and from the blurbs and reviews, Goldberg is a master of loss. His characters seem to have all experienced some great tragedy, losing someone in some final way, and shuffle through the stories trying to piece something together, forging ahead while not quite able to let go. The sheriff in “Granite City” lives through the deaths of two wives—one long ago, one recently—to deal with the discovery of a missing local family, found brutally murdered up a nearby mountain. How he handles the case is certainly affected by what he’s gone through, what he wants to steer others from if he can. I also read “Palm Springs,” about a cocktail waitress named Tania, living and working in the desert oasis, who’s also … wait, I don’t want to say. Why? I read “Palm Springs” first, rather randomly, then read “Granite City,” and then read the title story, “Other Resort Cities,” which turns out, is a prequel to “Palm Springs.” “Other Resort Cities” tells of how Tania ended up in Palm Springs, meaning by the time we all get to the title story in the collection (if we read the book in order), we’ll kind of know what happens, both in the resolution and in the denouement. Interesting approach for sure, but no less impactful.

In fact, knowing how Tania’s story turns out—a dozen years later, anyway—makes “Other Resort Cities” all the more powerful. Maybe this is a drastic comparison, but it’s kind of like watching the Episodes I-III of the Star Wars franchise, or the superior Clone Wars animated series, knowing full well that the hero of those stories is going to turn into Darth Vader. You still root for Anakin, want him to defeat evil, but know he’s doomed; before long, he’s going to kill a whole lot of people and take over the galaxy. Nothing that drastic happens in Goldberg’s Tania stories, but I still read this title story in that same light, hoping that something wouldn’t happen, but knowing that it would, yet still wondering how it came about. That’s the hook, I guess, to already know but not know how.

Anyway, “Other Resort Cities” is indeed about Tania, at the time a thirty-something cocktail waitress in Vegas who one day gets a generous tip from a creepy ogler. Instead of saving it or sensibly applying it to expenses, she puts in all on a single hand of poker. Wouldn’t you know it, Tania draws a royal flush and at the end of her shift, on the way out of the casino, and finds herself fifty grand richer.

At first, Tania thinks she’ll spend the money on new house, a nice investment for herself, a nest egg for the future. That night, however, her dog and longtime companion pees blood. The next morning, that longtime companion is put down and Tania is alone and depressed. While crying herself through her nightly television watching, she runs across a documentary about Russian orphans, and right there and then decides she’s going to use the fifty grand to adopt a needy Russian kid. This process, Tania finds out over the following months, is difficult and expensive, and Tania ends up having to borrow ten grand more from her parents to just get to Moscow. There, she has to wade through a month’s worth of paperwork, during which she gets to visit with her new daughter, Natalya, for fifteen minutes a day. Tania, on leave from her life in America, soldiers through, and gets to take Natalya back home, where Tania plans to be the girl’s best friend, mom, and confidant all at the same time.

The sad twist of the story is, by the time the whole adoption process plays out and Tania has Natalya home, Natalya has changed. Gone is the sad but hopeful and sweet little girl that Tania first picked out. Instead, Natalya has become a stiff, disinterested twelve year old, a girl more interested in texting her friends at the Moscow orphanage than forming any real bond with Tania. Tania feels it during those fifteen-minute sessions in Russia, but assumes that once Natalya comes to America, once they spend time together, Natalya will come around. A couple of weeks into their new life together, Natalya is just as cold and disinterested as ever, and Tania begins to regret this major life decision.

But kids are like that, right? Hard to connect with because they’re always on their phones. Moody. Needy, but not affectionate. Natalya will soon grow out of it, Tania figures, and perhaps she will.

I won’t go any further into what happens at the end of “Other Resort Cities,” how Tania’s conflict plays out. Nor will I go into the flash forward that is “Palm Springs,” Tania still dealing with her choices over a decade later. You’ll have to read both to find out, but the journey there—Goldberg’s timing, his rate of revelation, the side stories he tells along the way—make everything well worth it. Goldberg has a real knack for diving into his characters’ thoughts, guiding them through their tragedies as they face new challenges, or even just everyday life obstacles. He also paints lush backdrops, the towns these stories take place in as much a character as any of the people. I really love how all of this adds up to Goldberg finding these people at their lowest—so much of the conflict already in their pasts—but finding story in the healing—or not healing. It’s a tough trick to pull off, to place those greater conflicts, those larger incidents, off the page, but Tod Goldberg, in Other Resort Cities, does it as well as any author I’ve seen. Great collection by a talented and heartfelt writer.


July 16, 2018: “All the Names for God” by Anjali Sachdeva

And a good Monday to you, too, Story366! Nice to be back and reading and writing again after a weekend on the road. No camping or vacation this time, and with the Cubs in San Diego, my trip the past few days was comprised of selling beer at two concerts at Wrigley: Jimmy Buffet on Friday and The Pretenders/Journey/Def Leppard on Saturday. I haven’t worked a concert since Roger Waters did The Wall in the Friendly Confines six or seven years ago, but my brother and nephew (also beer vendors) talked me into it, pointing out how much more concert-goers drink than (even) baseball fans. I had a pretty good weekend in terms of sales—better for the three acts on Saturday than for the stoned, margarita-wanted Parrotheads on Saturday—but I also genuinely enjoyed the concerts. After spending most of my high school and college years going to any show I could, I’ve fallen off the scene since adulthood and especially since kids. Karen and I saw Bob Dylan at the basketball stadium on the MSU campus some years back, and we also saw Elvis Costello one night and Neutral Milk Hotel another at the really nice venue in downtown Springfield. That was 2013. It was nice to get back to a live show, even if I had to run around on hot, humid Chicago nights selling beer to do it.

And even if I’m not necessarily a fan of these particular acts. I do adore the Pretenders, who absolutely rocked. Chrissie Hynde’s voice has really aged well (though her jet-black hair is now white), as she’s never been a screamer or a falsetto; it’s not like she’s Robert Plant up there trying to hide the fact that some notes just aren’t hittable anymore. Otherwise, I’ve been indifferent, or maybe a non-fan, to the other three acts. I was never into Journey, though they put on a great show, doing what they do, playing their many recognizable hits . I have to admit, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a pretty great rock song, how it moves in stages, builds in intensity, and then delivers a great, singalong chorus. I guess I bought Hysteria by Def Leppard when I was in high school—we all did—and banged my head to their mostly alike-sounding songs until I discovered REM, the Pixies, and other, better bands soon after. (Note, when Hysteria came out, they played three shows at the World Music Theater outside Chicago one weekend and that following Monday, I’d guess that three-fifths of my high school wore a Def Leppard T-shirt to school.) Boz Scaggs opened for Buffett, and while I like to consider myself knowledgeable about rock music, I couldn’t name a song before the concert but now realize he sings a couple of rock radio semi-staples, “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown.”

I’ve certainly never been a Parrothead, considering Buffett to be a relic from the generation before mine. I never got into that identity, the Hawaiian shirts, the longing for the sea, a bunch of old dudes thinking they’re some sort of pirates, steering their own vessels through drunkenness and failed marriages. Still, seeing him play for a couple of hours and immersing myself in the crowd, I have to admit, it was fun. I only knew two songs, “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and Buffett has a couple of others songs that sound almost exactly like those two, with different lyrics. But it was fun. People—beautiful, tan, affluent-looking people—were having a good time, smoking the shit out of pot, sporting leis and shark hats, and dancing in the aisles. I’m not converted or anything, but considering the general mopeyness and outright violence of the punk rock and alternative music I listen to, dancing and having fun (and probably getting laid soon after) suddenly seemed like a positive alternative to my moshpitting and shoegazing. I’ve been to a lot of shows, but how many can I say that I actually had fun at? That I left smiling? Not too many.

This morning I read a few stories from Anjali Sachdeva’s brand-new collection, All the Names They Used for God, out this summer from Spiegel & Grau. From three stories, I confidently proclaim this: Sachdeva is eclectic as all hell, as one story was about this blind poet, a buddy of Galileo, who is pushed into writing an epic poem by a couple of angels. Another, “Anything You Might Want”—which, okay, I read because it sounds like a Journey song—is about a young, rich Montana woman who runs away from home with one of the workers from her father’s mine, setting out on a series of adventures and life lessons. Two stories, set centuries and oceans apart, with characters who couldn’t be more different. Sachdeva nailed them both, though, as I enjoyed each of them quite a bit.

And then there’s the focus of today’s post, the almost-titular “All the Names for God,” which I read first. Before I start in on my usual plot rundown, I want to get out that this story moved me, as a person and a writer, and is one of the most powerful, clever, and interestingly rendered stories I’ve read in a while. It’s a story I will certainly be using in my classes, a story I need for my students to read, because of what happens, but also because how Sachdeva pulls it off, the feats she performs within.

“All the Names for God” is about Promise, a woman whose friend, Abike, kicks the story off by asking if she wants to go on a trip to visit their (respective) parents. Promise runs the idea through her head in the first couple of paragraphs, and in that short expanse, we find out that Promise hasn’t seen her family in eight years because she and Abike were the victims of a kidnapping when they were teens. Sachdeva puts it all out there, making me want to read on, find out the circumstances of the kidnapping, yes, but also why it’s taken Promise so long to get home, to see her family, when it seems like Abike’s question is so casual. I was hooked right away, to say the least, a neat convention that Sachdeva uses slyly and confidently.

The story proceeds in two timelines, the women going to see their families in the frontstory, the tale of the kidnapping in the back. In the present, Abike and Promise sojourn to their hometown, which Promise hasn’t been to since being taken (though Abike has, several times). When they get there, Promise suggests the two spend a night on the town before visiting their folks. Again: Why hadn’t she run home to her family? Why hadn’t she done this at first opportunity? What’s going on? Sachdeva even addresses these questions later in the story, via a short breaking of the fourth wall, and again, keeps us reading to find this out.

(By the way, I got a real sense of Camus here, Promise wanting to disco instead of going home, kind of like The Stranger going for a dip despite Mother died today.)

The women do indeed hit a local club that night, but not before getting a free luxury hotel room, apparently by willing it to happen, by assuaging the clerk to do it. Later, the ladies need some money and simply walk up to a man by the pool and ask him for it, watching as he reaches into his wallet and hands them his billfold. At this point, it seems as if something’s up, that these women have a certain power over others, that they’re able to influence people in ways that don’t quite make sense.

Back in the backstory, we hear the horrible tale that maybe we’re all expecting to hear. Promise and Abike and all the girls in their school are violently removed, their teacher shot in the face, and carted off to a camp (yes, like the Chibok girls in Nigeria). There, the girls are programmed to pray, to obey, to be well behaved, conservative Muslims, under the threat of death—any girl who falls out of line is literally beaten to death in front of the others. Several weeks in, government soldiers come to rescue the girls, but the kidnappers, using the girls as human shields, kill all the soldiers. They then move camp, but not before making their detainees pile and burn the dead. On the way out, the surviving girls are paired with their abductors and married, followed by being raped, over and over again, into even deeper submission. Like I said, it’s the horror story we all knew was coming, but Sachdeva is able to depict it with empathy, compassion, and intensity, all of which she projects on to us as we read.

After a night on the town in the present story, Promise and Abike head to their respective parents’ houses. Promise hasn’t been since the abduction, and we finally find out why: She’s ashamed of the things she’s done—because of both threat and programming—but she’s been ashamed nonetheless, keeping her from looking her family in their eyes. She has a nice visit for a couple of days—of course, the reunion scenes are touching and well done—but after that, Promise gathers up Abike and heads back to from where they came, promising her parents to soon return.

Remember, at this point we don’t know how the backstory ends, how Promise and Abike were able to get away, to get to the point where they could go to clubs and visit their parents. Not to mention the whole mind control thing. I won’t reveal anything further here, as it’s all cool and weird and surprising, an ending that makes this story truly great. You’ll need to read it for yourself, and I highly recommend that you do. What a fucking story. What a great writer.

So, big thumbs up for All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva. These stories appeared in a lot of lit mags, but I hadn’t read anything by her before I saw people buzzing it, recommending it, over on social media. Anyone who told me to get this was right, as Sachdeva’s imagination and ability have led to quite the fantastic debut. I predict this will end up being one of the best books of 2018, on a lot of those year-end lists. It’ll be on mine. I’d mark it now.



July 12, 2018: “The Last Island” by William Wall

Good day to you, Story366! Coming at you on another beautiful but hot day in Southwest Missouri.

I have been enjoying the freedom of the house to myself this week—this whole month, in fact. My kids are in summer school and the Karen is at work at the paper, and since my class this summer is online, I have from about nine until three every day to do what I want. This hasn’t actually happened all that often, as Karen used to work from home for the most part, and the kids, well, the kids seemed like they were always here, even when they weren’t. Months would go by sometimes without this type of solitude, Karen’s weekly trip to church on Sundays with the boys the only time I could ever rally count on. This month, though, I have a home base.

I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up, or why it’s important I have time alone in my house. I often retreat to my campus office for this alone time, and really always have, when I was in Bowling Green and now here in Springfield, as that’s how I get work done, with quiet isolation, as few distractions as I could manage. And today, after a couple of hours of piddling around the house, doing chores and finding excuses to lie down on the couch, I got dressed and went to my office again. I needed to check my mail and water my plants, sure, but I’ve gotten used to working at my office. So I went there, leaving the aloneness. I have a big desk and my office computer has twice the screen that the laptap has that I use at home. I can open up a few windows at once, listen to all my music there (on that computer’s iTunes), and stretch out. So, even with time to be alone, in my own abode, I found myself wondering off.

I think there’s some nostalgia involved in all of this home alone time, going back to my time as a pre-teen and young teenager, my parents starting to trust me at home, left alone without supervision. As a coddled and overprotected kid, I remember that step being important for me, how I relished it, looked forward to it. Not that I had anything particular planned, but it was another rung up the maturity ladder. My parents could go to church or play bingo or go shopping and they could trust that I wouldn’t hurt myself, burn the house down, or let evil strangers through the door. They gave me a key. I was growing up, and as the accidental youngest of seven kids, that meant a lot. Sure, one time I watched the turn the corner down the street, ran to a pack of firecrackers I had stashed, then blew them off behind the garage. And before long, the masturbation started, so then …. Overall, though, I came to associate being alone, in my house, with being an adult. Maybe that’s why I’ve been feeling so important this past week, like some sort of king: I’ve been having some programmed response to feeling like an adult, to feel like I matter. The funny thing is I have some leftover fireworks from the Fourth. And regarding masturbation, ….

For today’s entry, I read from William Wall‘s latest collection of fiction, The Islands: Six Fictions, winner of a Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Wall is the author of a bunch of previous books, including novels and poetry and short story collections, though I don’t think I’ve read anything by him before today. I’m always a fan of what the Heinz competition has to offer, so I was happy to receive and jump into this latest of their efforts.

I read a few of the stories from The Islands, skipping over the novella-sized opener, “Grace’s Story,” as I just don’t usually read anything that long for Story366. I moved ahead to a couple of short pieces in the middle before settling into the somewhat longer end story, “The Last Island,” which seemed like the closest thing to a title story, at least from glancing at the table of contents. Soon, I found out this plan might have been a mistake, as most of the six stories in the book are interconnected, using the same characters and following a pretty consistent timeline. I didn’t find that out until I was done with “The Last Island” when I realized this story’s protagonist was named Grace, as in “Grace’s Story.” But hey, I read what I read and I think I read the overall story’s ending: No going backwards now.

Because these stories are related and because I’m writing on the final chapter, I’ll probably give more about the book away than I usually would, but again, it is what it is. “The Last Island” is indeed Grace’s story, a grown-up version of the girl in the previous stories, a psychologist who is visiting her father for his seventieth birthday. The titular island is an island off the northwest coast of Ireland, the edge of Europe, Wall proclaims, the latest island the father has taken refuge upon. Grace arrives and her father meets her at the ferry, and from the get-go, there’s a tension in the air, as if these people don’t get along. Or maybe like they’re not daughter and father. But Grace settles into the guest room of his house and from there we wait to see what’s up.

The story is cut into seven chapters, and in the second chapter, we discover that Grace has a sister, Jeannie, and a mother, Jane, who is dead now but spent time in a mental facility after the girls’ younger sister, Emily, died tragically (really, the only way children can die). After their parents divorced, Grace ended up with Jane and Jeannie with the dad, meaning that Grace saw Jane fall apart after Emily’s death, watched her dwindle until she had to be committed. This chapter catches us up on the dynamics of the family, and really, I’m guessing, on the book as a whole, so it’s a handy chapter. We now know that, in short, this family has a lot of baggage.

From there, more family members and other guests start arriving for the birthday celebration, which is going to include, we find out, the shooting of a documentary about Grace’s dad, a famous writer. Jeannie arrives next, and then Bill, Grace’s estranged husband, who is leading the film crew. Grace and Bill don’t seem to get along very well—Bill can’t keep it in his pants, we’re told (just like Jane, we’re also told)—and sure enough, Grace uses this island getaway as an opportunity to serve Bill with divorce papers. Bill, who is already staying on the island with a young assistant, isn’t all that upset, but the two manage to toss vicious barbs at each other regardless.

The story, and the book, I guess, culminates in a climactic dinner sequence on the dad’s birthday, everyone in the same room at the same time (including the dad’s new wife, an Italian bombshell [think Jay and Gloria from Modern Family]), everyone finally getting a chance to air grievances that have festered for about 125 pages of short fiction. “The Last Island”—a title that appears to be more than a subtle metaphor—is a story about people coming together, not so they can come together, but so they can address old wounds, strike new ones, and drink a lot of wine.

The story, and this collection, are more than these people and their tragic circumstances, however. Wall is a true master of the image, of the sentence, and putting one into the other. His striking descriptions of the island, of all the settings of his stories, is truly remarkable. As is his style, a sprawling, free sort of narration that follows Grace in and around her head, lavishly detailing her hopes and fears, stopping sparsely for quick lines of (unquotation-marked) dialogue. Wall seems as much of a poet as he is a fiction writer, his words placing me on his islands, with his characters, at a level so few writers can muster.

William Wall’s The Islands is a nice find in Story366, reminding me why I still do this blog: So I can find new writers, read more books, and learn something from people who write differently than I do. Wall checks all three boxes today, a fine way to spend my day alone, on my own island.


July 10, 2018: “My Father’s Tattoo” by Veronica Montes

Greetings to you on a beautiful day, Story366! It’s a Tuesday in Springfield, Missouri, and I’m so glad to be writing this today. I posted on Doug Ramspeck’s collection on Friday on my way out of town, as the family and I headed off to Mark Twain State Park for a few days and a couple of nights of camping. We’d been wanting to go to Hannibal and see the Mark Twain sites—we’re writers living in Missouri, after all—and we’ve also wanted to give family camping a try. I’ve been to the woods with the oldest a dozen times now, all for Scouts, and we’ve had the little one tag along a couple of times, too. This past weekend was the first time we’ve done non-Scout camping, as well as the first time we’ve included the Karen on the fun. We were pretty sure it would work out fine, and lo and behold, it did. Karen’s need for coffee in the morning was a bit of a problem, and my insistence on keeping the camp organized and clean in a Scoutlike way made me kind of annoying, I’m sure. But all was well overall, as we saw some nature—I had a conversation with a raccoon in our camp when everyone else was asleep—and we also saw all the Mark Twain stuff, like his boyhood home in Hannibal, his museum, and the cabin where he was born—that’s inside the welcome center/gift shop at the state park. Here’s me at his front door, trying to get some of that Twain mojo to rub off on my arm:


Now I’m home, I’m trying my best to read and write like a fiend, summer slipping away. I guess I’m getting that sort of done—I really need to be writing fiction—as I read from Veronica Montes‘ new story collection, Benedicta Takes Wing (Philippine American Literary House, 2018), and just had to get this post in. I read the first hunk of stories from this book while sitting by the fire at our camp, right before my aforementioned conversation with that raccoon (after which, I promptly went to bed, as the critter requested I go into the tent so he and his buddies could tear through our garbage). All warm and smokey, enjoyed those stories and read another today, the story I’m posting on, “My Father’s Tattoo.”

“My Father’s Tattoo” is told from the point of  view of a woman who is recollecting a story from her past, or more pointedly, her parents’ past. She tells the tale of her father, Ricky, who at nineteen falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Rosario, and in drunken longing, has her name tattooed on his biceps, embellished with squigglies (at no extra charge) by the Chinatown artist. To Ricky’s dismay, he sees Rosario riding around town the next day with another man. Heartbroken, Ricky spends the next couple of years telling anyone who asks that his mother’s name was Rosario, both sad and embarrassed over his boner.

Two years after the tattoo, Ricky meets Isabel, the narrator’s mother, and the two hit if off, going on a few dates before heading to the beach. There Isabel spies the Rosario tattoo for the first time. Isabel is not only jealous, but is furious, and almost ends their courtship. Ricky saves their relationship by agreeing to never appear before her without a shirt and to always make love with the lights out. That’s a tall order, to never show your wife your arm, which means Ricky must have really loved Isabel. Before long, the couple marries and the narrator is born. For a while, the little family seems pretty happy. Ricky and his brother Alex, “Tito Alex,” have a tailor shop together and do well enough, and for years, the tattoo doesn’t come up, both parents keeping up their sides of the bargain: Ricky doesn’t expose it and Isabel doesn’t bring it up.

One day, when our narrator is nine, Ricky is walking from the bedroom to the bathroom, his shirt off, and he runs into Isabel, exposing her to his Rosario tattoo. This incites all kinds of bad juju. Isabel, pregnant with the narrator’s sibling, cries and screams until her eyes are red and puffy, cursing the day she met Ricky, the day Ricky met Rosario, and the fact that Ricky ever had to be nineteen to begin with. She is so heartbroken and angry, she leaves Ricky and the narrator, forcing our hero to care for herself and her regretful but loving father.

I won’t go any further into the plot of “My Father’s Tattoo,” just to leave you something to discover. I like this story a lot, how it’s told from the daughter’s point of view, this peripheral character who tells the story through the eyes of a sad and hopeful child (though it’s not clear how old the narrator is whilst narrating). I like that perspective, the earnestness and affinity that style of narration offers the story. I also like this piece as an extension of Montes’ worlds. Up to this point in the book, the stories had all been told from the vantage point of young Filipino women, women who seemed to be living in the shadows of more beautiful, glamorous women, usually a sister or a cousin. The first three stories of the collection feature narrators like this, including the title piece, “Benedicta Takes Wing.” I liked all those stories and the perspective they assumed, protagonists thinking they didn’t belong, that they weren’t wanted because there was someone prettier standing next to them. In some cases, this proved true, while in others, it (tragically) did not. Perhaps this is a theme that Montes carries throughout her book, but I’m hoping, as I read onward, that these young women gain confidence, play different, more frontwards roles.

I’ve corresponded with Veronica Montes a bit online, as she has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, both as a talented writer and as a reliable interviewer. I was happy to see this debut collection surface, following up her contributions to Angelica’s Daughters, a dugtungan. (What’s a dugtungan? According to Montes’ website, a dugtungan is “… a genre of Tagalog novel popular early in the 20th century, in which each writer creates a chapter and hands it off to the next, who writes another chapter without direction.”) So, neat. It’s a good thing that this book exists, that Montes’ stories about young Filipino women are out there for us to enjoy. And I did.



July 6, 2018: “The Owl That Carries Us Away” by Doug Ramspeck

Hello again, Story366! Back at you again on this Friday. Yesterday I posted a pic of all the books I recently received by requesting review copies, adding to my pile of must-reads. Later in the day I received a shipment of books I ordered from the Google, another nice stack:


I’m getting back to a 2016-level pile of books to read and write about, which suits me just fine. Today’s entry is the seventeenth I’ve written this year, matching my 2017 total. Don’t know if I’ll ever get to my bucket-list goal of covering every short story collection—there has to be hundreds out there I haven’t read—but I’m enjoying my to-do list, one at a time.

Today is July 6, which is after the Fourth of July, that time every summer when I start feeling mortal, feeling that my long summer isn’t quite as neverending as it felt a month ago. I know I have six weeks left and can accomplish a whole lot in six weeks, but just as the days are getting shorter now instead of longer, I feel like the summer is slipping away in a similar fashion. It’s about this time I start to evaluate what I’ve done, check back on that mental list I make after I turn in my spring grades and start making plans to conquer the world. So far, I’ve done a nice job on Story366, one of my main goals this summer, and I’ve spent lots of quality time with the family. I’ve also sold beer at nine Cub games (I need to get in twenty to get rehired next year), and I’ve invested a lot of time with my son on Scouting (including a whole week at camp).

What I haven’t done is write a story a day (I used to do that when I was younger … and didn’t have kids or a house to take care of), nor have I made super-great progress on my novel-in-progress (i.e., none). Sure, I’ve done a little writing, but that’s about the best I can say: a little.

I’ve got a full slate of family fun planned this weekend—more on that when I get back—but the plan is, right now, for me to kick it into high gear starting Monday. Lots of writing, as in I should plan on ODing on writing, so much writing that I’ll have to change the ribbon in my laptop. Must write stories. Must make progress on novel. Must not squander three months away from teaching.

Isn’t it fun, this pressure we hoist upon ourselves?

For today’s post, I read from Doug Ramspeck‘s brand-new collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, his debut book of fiction, just out from BkMk as its latest winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. I’ve been familiar with Ramspeck for a while now—he has six previous collections of poetry—and am happy to see his fiction collected here. Ramspeck includes a lot of stories in his book, twenty-nine, as he writes a lot of shorts (and is damn good at it), but also includes his fair share of regularly long stories (though nothing over a dozen pages or so). I read a good smattering of the selections, long and short, and have—per usual—settled on the title piece for my entry, the volume-starting “The Owl That Carries Us Away.”

“The Owl That Carries Us Away” is about a kid, simply called “the boy” throughout the story, who is pretty messed up. Aside from the normal trials of being a kid, his messed-upness can be traced to his father’s recent botched suicide, Dad firing a gun into his head, leaving himself maimed, physically and mentally, instead of dead. Dad lies around a lot and mumbles incoherently, and can’t really get around without help. The boy is sad and his mother is sad, but they move on with life, though the dad is still bleeding inside his head, meaning more surgery and further loss of his faculties. It’s a shitty situation, which would explain why our protagonist, let alone anyone, falls on the fucked-up side of the normal scale.

While the boy’s mother cries a lot, the boy finds solace in an opossum skull he dug up from the river bank behind his house. The boy cleans the skull, examines it, touches it, and eventually, sleeps with it, running his fingertips along all the parts. He even sleeps with it on his chest like a teddy bear. Obsessed with the skull, the boy finds a shovel and searches and searches the riverbank for the rest of the opossum, digging and digging for the rest of his treasure.

On top of the problems with his dad, the boy is bullied on his bus by Biggs, a bigger kid who likes to punch him in the arm and tease him about his father (the failed suicide was news, of course). To make the situation even more of a nightmare, the boy’s mother has arranged for a play date between the boys with Biggs’ mother, who apparently uses bullying initiate chumhood. Surprisingly, the two get along for a while, Biggs bringing his BB gun to the boy’s house, the two of them soon out in the woods and shooting at small critters (mercilessly killing a bird … with extreme prejudice). The two become allies, though uneasy ones.

The story really goes awry when the boy entrusts Biggs with his secret, that he keeps the opossum skull in his closet. The boy brings it out of hiding, strokes it, stares at it, etc., and Biggs asks to take it home, borrow it from the boy for a while. Despite the boy’s adamant protests, the will-imposing Biggs walks out of the boy’s house with his prize possession.

Ramspeck takes his readers on a few more twists to the end of “The Owl That Carries Us Away,” details I won’t reveal here. There is also the titular owl, which I haven’t brought up yet, and all I’ll say is that the owl serves almost the exact same function as the large animals in Jess Arndt’s “Large Animals,” which I covered yesterday. All in all, “The Owl That Carries Us Away” is a tragic story, the story of a kid dealing with a tragedy, becoming a tragedy in his own right. I mean, this is textbook on how serial killers are born, right? Playing with animal skulls, killing small animals, etc.? It’s a well written, touching, shocking, and memorable story, one I gobbled up.

The book The Owl That Carried Us Away is full of stories like its title story, normal, once-happy people working their way through tragedies, dealing with massive adversity in bizarrely creative ways. It seems like every story features a secondary character dying or recently dead, those left behind serving as protagonists, catalysts of Ramspeck’s imagination; here, the author finds new reasons for someone to grieve, new ways for them to cope. “Ocho Rios” is about a guy whose wife dies from a brain hemorrhage on their honeymoon (like Private Benjamin!). “Crow Death” is about a kid whose mother has also suddenly died. “Folklore” is another story about a kid whose father has botched a suicide attempt. A father’s son goes to jail for killing his girlfriend in “The World We Know.” Ramspeck likes to write—in long, descriptive, dialogue-less paragraphs—about people who have been dealt a major blow, who have to overcome something really awful, then grieve in really interesting ways, be it loving an opossum skull or reliving a robbery through a Degas painting or imagining your father as a bear. I love those long paragraphs, how Ramspeck wanders through his characters’ thoughts, letting them roam, letting them work things out (or try to). Ramspeck is a damn fine writer and we’re lucky to have this first books of stories, to have all these offbeat, tragic tales in one place.


July 5, 2018: “Large Animals” by Jess Arndt

Hey there, Story366! It’s been a week since I posted, after three straight days of posting. Firstly, I’ve been out of town—a few days in Chicago for family-visiting and beer vending. Sad to admit this, but for a tiny bit there, I wondered if I was going to make it back. It was hot in Chicago this past weekend, in the hundreds Friday and Saturday, heat that’s intensified whilst carrying heavy things up and down stairs for three straight hours. For a good part of Friday, I didn’t quite feel right, not in the body and not in the brain, and at the end there, I started to think maybe I was putting together the symptoms for a stroke, or at the very least, heat stroke (never having had either, this is based on nothing). Before anything serious went down, both my legs intervened on my behalf, cramping up at once, making me hobble up the stairs and check out in the top of the seventh inning. I then took a very long walk to my brother’s car, where I pledged my eternal love to his AC (I offered quite the dowery). Before I knew it, I was okay again. Better prep for Saturday and Sunday (more sleep, more water, something to eat) made me okay both days, but yeah, for a second there, I wondered if I should be making peace with my gods (or maybe just take a break).

The fam and I spent the morning of the Fourth at the Marshfield city parade and the evening at the Webster County Fair, both of which we did so we could spend the day with the Karen, who was shooting both events for her gig at the paper. We’ve not exactly embraced the parade scene here in Springfield, or in general since we’ve had kids, so it felt dutiful to plop the boys down on a curb in this tiny town so they could complain about the heat and gather candy from politicians and Shriners. All of this came to pass. We then had a fun time at the Fair at night, the boys riding armbands’ full of rides until we lured them to the car with fireworks—after a long day, we had no desire to stick around the grounds for the city display, fighting for a spot on the lawn and then sitting through traffic out of town. So, for the first time—ever—I purchased fireworks at one of the many, many tents stationed roadside here in Missouri. Unlike most kids, I’ve never been a huge fireworks guy, something instilled in me by my overly paranoid and protective mother (who tells the story of at least three people she once knew who lost parts of their hands in such a fashion). Hey, to get out of a late-night bottleneck in this little town? I was willing to try something new. Fireworks, I found, aren’t all that expensive (though we showed up around nine p.m. on the Fourth—might have been deal time) and we set off some fountains and smoke bombs and other explosives on our back patio. All our fingers are intact and the Fourth has been properly honored.

Also, before I left for Chicago, I spent a night sending out queries for review copies of collections—one of the perks of doing this blog so regularly—so I returned to a whole bunch of packages in my mailbox. The initial haul:


Not bad. I look forward to diving into all of these, and soon. Yay!

I’ve had the focus of today’s post, Large Animals by Jess Arndt (Catapult, 2017), with me for the past week, hopeful I’d get to it, squeeze out a post, but like so many trips out of town, that didn’t happen. Now that I’m back to my somewhat normal summer routine today, I was able to sit down and read some of Arndt’s stories. Large Animals was the last of the books I picked up at AWP this year, so I’ve not only had this one with me for a week, but it’s been looking at me for the better part of four months.

The wait, a few stories in, was certainly worth it, too, as Arndt presents one of the more original voices I’ve come across in a while. In describing her stories, a lot of adjectives come to mind, but the one I’ll start with is “understated,” as Arndt’s type of narration isn’t the kind that’s overly revelatory. Arndt is a writer who, more than mostly every writer I’ve read, pays heed to the show-don’t-tell advice that we writers get (and give). Her stories happen and end without much in the way of summary or clarification as to what any of it means. Not that most good (or published) writers do, but there’s a feeling in Arndt’s work that she’s particularly letting her scenes, her images, and the choices by her protagonists speak for themselves.

Part of all this has to do with Arndt’s style—I think she withholds any type of explanation as part of who she is as a writer—but I also think it’s because her characters couldn’t explain their choices if they had to. The characters in Arndt’s stories seem a bit lost, and on top of that, there’s no indication that they’re particularly in search of direction. As Arndt’s stories happen, her characters simply do.

For example, “Moon Colonies,” the book’s opener, is about a trio of seemingly homeless youths venturing upon a night on the Atlantic City strip. The protagonist of that story happens upon a sizable payout, one that’s going to change the lives of the whole gang. Sooner rather than later, that payout finds its way into a slot machine and everyone’s back to square one. We don’t know exactly what any of the characters’ stories are, why they’re in their situation or why they make their choices, but the story’s not about that. It’s more about the interactions between the characters, the dynamic of the situation, and the unpredictable twists that lead them, more or less, back where they’ve started.

The title story, “Large Animals,” which ends the book, features perhaps the most lost of all the characters, an unnamed person who’s living in the Mojave Desert, trying to get work done (what that work is, we don’t know, but it involves a computer), but is constantly distracted by the surroundings, or lack thereof. The story opens with an admission of troubling dreams, how our hero is dreaming of large animals—bears, wolves, rhinos—converging during sleep. Most dominant of all these creatures is a giant walrus, which seems to both disgust and tantalize our protagonist, a vision of horror, sloth, and inexplicable sexual attraction all at the same time.

From there, we see the protagonist work through a variety of daily routines, which includes a lot of drinking, a lot of blacking out, eating at the local Mexican restaurant, and spending time at the Eagles Lodge, which serves as the community’s library. There’s a neighbor named Gary, who always drops by with an invite to Taco Wednesday, and Tamara, the tall, chain-smoking waitress from the Mexican restaurant. Our protagonist spends a lot of time just passing time, and because of the six packs and the walrus dreams, isn’t quite sure, at times, what’s real and what’s not—a recurring bit has our hero wake to a kitchen sink full of dishes even though there’s been no cooking or eating to explain them.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve avoided using a gender-specific pronoun in describing the protagonist in “Large Animals,” and that’s because the story more than hints at some gender identity issues. At one point, our hero makes reference to his (in this case?) balls, and there’s some lingering divorce papers on the table from someone named CeCe (I know—women can marry women, but I was looking for clues …). Then Tamara comes by for some beers and when it seems like things might get intimate, Tamara asks our hero what it’s like to be a lesbian, making reference to a non-existent Adam’s apple. And this isn’t the first time in the book when gender identity and its questioning has reared itself, as each of the other stories I read—”Moon Colonies” and “Shadow of an Ape”—make at least passing references to the same. In a book that’s apparently filled with characters uncertain of where they’re going or who they are, gender identity (and sexual identify) fits in well thematically; maybe, though, it’s the other way around: the book is all about gender identity and the stories are just metaphors for that theme. Not sure, but if ambiguity’s a theme, then it’s certainly working on all cylinders.

I won’t tell you anything else about “Large Animals,” as I’ll let what I’ve said serve by itself. What I should make clear, however, is that I like what Arndt does with this story, with all her stories I’ve read, how she’s able to connect her readers to her characters’ aimlessness, to their anonymity. Part of me wants to liken Arndt’s style to a variation of stream of consciousness, where the reader has to follow a narrator’s scattered thoughts; I won’t go so far as that, as Arndt’s stories certainly aren’t that interior. Arndt’s style gave me that same feeling, however, like reading Joyce or Faulkner, that I was along for a ride, part of the whole process, part of the world unfolding. I was on board with this approach from the start, enjoying what Arndt’s characters experienced as they did, catching on—mostly from context—as each new adventure unfolded. I like Jess Arndt’s book for challenging me as a reader and a critic, for showing me, yet again, what stories can be.