“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.

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“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.

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“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:

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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.

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“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:

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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.

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“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:

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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.

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