February 28, 2020: “Charlie’s Kidney” by Jaclyn Watterson

Happy Friday to you, Story366!

Today, a lot of the work I’ve done for Moon City Press came to fruition as our two newest titles were shipped. Take a gander:

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Both titles are existing on soft-release status until after the AWP Conference, as we just didn’t get them done in time to stock up at the distributor and do a proper release before leaving for San Antonio. Look for me to blast info about ordering both titles—Moon City Review 2020 and Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks by Pablo Piñero Stillmann—soon after the conference.

To note, when we’re in production mode and I’m working on these titles—as I’d been since the beginning of the year—I’m always a bit stressed out. I never really sleep that soundly, as I worry about the books being perfect. The fact we waited almost until the very end to have them finished in time didn’t help. Worse,, the week between ordering the books and having them delivered is particularly a grind, as I’m worried about them looking good, that I’ve just ordered a botched titl. No matter how many times we check the book before submission—and that’s after major edits, revisions, and a standard galleying process—and no matter how long I stare at the proofs from the printer, I somehow think the books will come back all screwed up. Maybe there’s a page missing and the odd-numbered pages will show up on the left side. Maybe the cover art won’t reproduce too well. Maybe I’ll misspell the author’s name on the spine. Maybe there won’t be a page 44 and no one will understand what the hell is going on. You know, mistakes that would negate the entire print run, cost the press thousands of dollars, and make me look like an idiot hack dumbass.

Luckily, none of that happened and the books look super-awesome. I’m stoked about that, glad for our authors, particularly Pablo. And I hope to sleep well tonight. I have a feeling I will.

For today, I read from Jaclyn Watterson‘s 2017 collection Ventriloquisms, out from Willow Springs Books as the winner of The Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. I’d not read anything by Watterson before tonight, despite prolific publishing in lit mags, so I was, as always, excited to dive in and see what was up.

Ventriloquisms is a book of shorts, so I read the whole thing tonight. There’s a multitude of stories I could have focused on in this entry, stories that stood out to me, stories I’ll remember. I really love “A Baby Is a Dreadful Thing,” my second choice to write on today, about a woman who’s trying not to turn into a baby, like all the women in her society are doing. “Pinchbelly” is sort of a nursery rhyme, or at least reads like one, at least of the tragic variety. “Some of Us Had Been Sucking Our Friend Carrie” tells of a group of women literally consuming their friend—lots of nice, twisted description in this one. “My Laxative” is about a woman who is more or less dating a man who is also a laxative, ordered online and delivered to her house. “Apology for My Brother” is a crude kind of discovery between a brother and sister, exploring genitals and identity and whathaveyou. So, lots of good, strange stories here, but really, I liked something about most of the pieces in the book, to varying degrees.

Tonight, though, I’m focusing on one of the longer stories, “Charlie’s Kidney,” a story that has more of a plot and traditional arc. Maybe I chose it because of that, because subconsciously, I knew it’d be a little easier to write about—or at least not reveal the entire story in one paragraph of description.

“Charlie’s Kidney” presents to us a world where everyone is freezing and the frozen are being distributed as meat. In the meantime, we’re also introduced to Charlie Habsburg, the guy every girl wants to marry, from whom every girl wants affection and favor. Our protagonist and narrator, Maria, is among those women, and she sets out to win Charlie’s eye, to become his bride.

Maria sets out to win Charlie with a curtsy, which doesn’t work, and also puts on a wolf costume she bought at a department store, which doesn’t work, either. In the meantime, Maria’s older sister, Baby Grace, is also trying to woo Charlie, as are several other women in this world. There’s an interesting, fun scene where the women all line up and get to ask Charlie a favor—he’s rich, by the way, and in need of an heir—and Maria takes her sister’s advice and asks for a kidney. That’s about when the curtsy doesn’t win her any favor, and shortly after, when she auditions the wolf costume.

If it seems like I’m not making too much sense in summarizing this story, it’s because I’m not. Watterson’s worlds are often metaphorical, absurd, and dreamlike, which she’s really good at relaying in her stories, via her prose, the progression of the narrative, and the simple expecation of what she’s doing after you read two or three of the stories. Me, when I’m trying to sum up? I’m bad at it.

Anyway, the story recounts more of the courtship era, several women doing this and that to become Mrs. Habsburg. It’s not unlike an episode of The Bachelor, I would guess, never having seen the show, but understanding the concept. Charlie seems just as fickle as a guy would have to be on a game show, women doing all kinds of crazy things to become the one, wearing monster outfits and asking for organs and whatnot. I loved that about the story, that there was a plot here, a motivation, but that didn’t make Watterson follow any rules, fulfill our expectations of story, or dot any of her small Js.

Remember that part about the world being frozen and the living eating the dead? Have I mentioned that I think Charlie might be dead for part of this and the women are fighting over his organs, wanting to eat him instead of marry him? No?

Eventually, Charlie does make a choice, which I won’t reveal. Probably my favorite part of this, however, is that Maria ends up with three kidneys—yeah, she just puts the other one inside her. Maria notes, “You may say three kidneys is too many, and I say, Two were not enough.” Watterson won me over totally and completely at that point because damnit, she’s right: If two kidneys work so well, why wouldn’t three be better?

That’s the kind of logic and grace and irreverence I found in Ventriloquisms, Jaclyn Watterson’s debut collection of weird and wonderful shorts. I never knew what to expect when I started any story, nor did I know where or how any particular piece would end. Watterson really pushes the definition of what story is and can be, reminding me of the best works of Lydia Davis and Amelia Gray, two authors I’m quite fond of. This was the perfect book for a Friday night, after a long, triumphant week. So glad to have picked it up tonight.

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February 27, 2020: “George Bull” by Erika T. Wurth

Hey there, Story366!

Update from yesterday’s post on the coronavirus: Still going to AWP. I talked to the Karen last night after she read the entry and I asked her point blank: “Do you think I should still go to San Antonio next week?” She said of course I should go, that if there’s going to be a problem here (in the U.S.), it’s not going to be this week or next week. So, I told you I’d keep you posted. And I have. And will continue to do so.

Meanwhile, the AWP packing and planning are going swimmingly. We have verified our venue for the Moon City Press offsite reading, which I’ll post about tomorrow after we do the thorough social media blast. All of our books are accounted for and packed. The supplies, table skirt, and T-shirts are boxed, too. We have printed fliers for our submission guidlines and our contests and those are tucked safely away. We have verified our hotel and have even filled out the credit card authorization form, which we’ve forgotten to do at least three times before, causing us all kinds of problems at check-in. We have the van. I got a haircut. I found my conference-going clothes. I set up the thing on my e-mail that tells people I won’t get back to them at all if they write me next week. I bought some mints.

I need to get new shoes. And probably break them in.

Next up is planning for the time I’m actually there. I’m reading a couple of times and I have to figure that out, the whens and the wheres and whats. I have a panel I need to seriously prepare for. I’ve made promises to several people to grab a drink or even a meal and I need to start picking and choosing. I think I have enough money, but considering how many books are for sale at this thing, I can never have enough money.

All in all, if we can avoid a deadly pandemic, it should be an epic conference. I hope to run into you if you’re going. It would be great to see you.

Not sure why I’ve never posted on Buckskin Cocaine (Astrophil Press, 2016) before, as I like this book a lot, and in fact, used it in my classes last semester. Its author, Erika T. Wurth, came to Missouri State for a visit and rocked the house. It’s time I give this book the Story366 treatment, so here we go.

The stories in Buckskin Cocaine can be called stylized monologues, I guess, a term I’ve just come in contact with recently. In any case, all nine stories are first-person testimonials, each piece named after its protagonist/narrator, each of them basically letting its character rip, just tell their story.

Each character is Native, by the way, as is Wurth, in case you didn’t know that. The stories are all interconnected, too, as all the characters know each other, refer to most of the other characters at some point in their own stories. All of these folks seem to be part of a network of Native filmmaker/dancer/artist/model/poet people, people who run into each other, travel in the same circles, even though they don’t necessarily live in the same place at the same time. I love this concept and structure for a book, as I knew once a character showed up as a secondary player in one story, I could flip ahead, and sure enough, he or she had his or her own story down the line. Maybe Winesburg, Ohio works like that, a focused interweaving of characters within a small group, each character getting a shot at the spotlight. In any case, a brilliant project to embark on and see through.

I’d read most of this book before, having assigned several stories to my students, and of course, just prepping or those classes. One story that somehow slipped past me, though, is “George Bull,” a longer story at the center of the book, what I’ll focus on tonight.

George Bull is a character I knew from reading most of the other stories, a guy referred to by the narrators/title characters of the other stories. Frankly, no one really has that great of an opinion of George Bull, and going in, I was thinking he was perhaps an asshole. Reading his take tonight, I don’t see much that contradicts that notion, as George Bull is pretty much an asshole. He’s one of two filmmakers in the book, a guy who’s had some success, at least one of his projects shown at Sundance and another categorized as a “feature film.” While other characters might think he’s an asshole—he’s an abusive drunk and a womanizer—they do respect his art, and more importantly, his influence; despite not liking him, a lot of the other characters end up kissing his ass, including Candy Francois and Gary Hollywood, the former an aspiring actress, the latter a veteran actor, having portrayed dozens of Buckskin Indians (buckskin-wearing Natives in frontier movies, the guys who attack the white leads). George Bull is legit, despite what anyone thinks of him, and a lot of people want a piece.

The story “George Bull” finds George in his prime, making movies—when he can find the funding—going to parties, attending festivals, but mostly getting drunk and hooking up. He’s a self-described Viking, a short fat guy who can drink the house dry then fuck all night. He’s constantly on the prowl, either looking to gladhand at parties—funding for his next project could be the next person he meets—or screw whomever he finds in a mini-skirt and earrings.

In his story, George is particularly fixated on Olivia, a charater whose story ends the collection with a novella-length piece. In George’s story, Olivia is dating Luis at the outset, a poet who can smell what George is up to. Over several parties, over several years, Luis and George trade narrowing eyes while George openly hits on Olivia. George, of course, moves on to another conquest when things don’t work out, so he can be patient, let that pot stew.

Eventually, George ends up in Olivia’s town and stays with Olivia and her roommate, sleeping on their couch. This gives George ample opportunity to achieve his goal, to wear Olivia down Olivia eventually gives in to George’s advances and the two embark on an affair, George no longer sleeping on the couch.

I don’t want to reveal any more of the plot of “George Bull,” as I’ve revealed a lot already, especially with that last paragraph. What happens next, though, is something that doesn’t happen to every character in Buckskin Cocaine: George changes. It’s probably not in the way you think, or to the degree, but George Bull is probably the most well rounded character in this book, save maybe Olivia herself, who just gets a lot more room in which to range.

I’ve known Erika T. Wurth since I met her at Curbside Splendor party way long ago, each of us having books on that press, each of us in Chicago and slumbering over at Jacob Knabb‘s joint after. She’s a truly cool person, a talented author, one of my favorite writers to hang with. Buckskin Cocaine is her only collection amidst a couple of novels and a couple of poetry collections and it’s a winner, a great experiment executed ridiculously well.

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February 26, 2020: “A Moral Tale” by Josh Emmons

Hello, Story366!

So, if this blog also acts as my personal diary, where one day, I’ll be able to look back and see what was happening on any particular day, I should probably cover this: coronavirus. Today, San Francisco declared a local emergency, which isn’t quite what it sounds like, I guess. Supposedly, this makes any future problems much easier to deal with, as they’ll be ready, the procedures up and running. So, it’s not like San Francisco has people dying in the streets, gymnasiums turned into makeshift hospitals, bodies piled up in a ditch, waiting to be burned. Not yet, anyway. But what’s happened has happened.

There’s been some buzz amongst writers on Facebook. Six confirmed passengers from that quarantined Japanese cruise have been taken to San Antonio, where the AWP conference is happening in less than a week. That’s fifteen thousand writers coming to town, from all over the country and world. Writers are wondering what precautions are being taken, if AWP should happen, and if it does, whether or not anyone should go. Someone predicted that several attendees will walk around with surgical masks (more than usual, anyway). Today, my university released a statement, mostly explaining how campus health officials are right now being trained in handling the virus, as well as educated on what coronavirus is and what to expect. They’ve also cut off travel to China—we have a lot of Chinese students and an exchange program, including one English faculty member who was supposed to go at the start of the semester but has been grounded. Our president guy, as in U.S., just pawned off the responsibility for this possible crisis on his vice, fumbling through a speech as if explaining string theory.

So, this is real. Yet, so far, no one’s suggested we not go to San Antonio. The six cruise passengers are in quarantine, on a military base, so it’s unlikely that they will be released into the city if there’s any chance the virus is in their system (or luggage). From another point of view, a lot of money—unrefundable—has been spent on AWP already, for me, my students, and Moon City Press; if we knew there was a danger, we obviously wouldn’t go, money be damned. But since no one’s telling us not to go, and it’s only a scare right now, then money is a factor we can’t deny.

As always, I’ll keep you posted. For now, we’re packing the van and leaving Tuesday.

For today’s post, I read from Josh Emmons‘ collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, out in 2017 from Dzanc Books. I’ve been aware of Emmons’ work, mostly because of his reputation, as he is the author of two novels before this collection, so he’s been in this world for a while. This has been my first time reading him, however, so let’s talk about him and his work.

I read the first few stories in A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, then skipped ahead to read a couple of shorts in the middle of the book. The longer stories are more patient, take time to develop characters and plots, using a lot of descriptive paragraphs, well paced exposition, and fleeting passages of key dialogue. I feel like they served as character studies as well as stories, including “Nu,” about recently divorced woman finding herself in the middle of a fracking debate. “The Stranger” is about Roger, and Anne, sort of an anti-relationship story circling around a movie director and a lot of tuna. The shorts, “Stargazing” and “Jane Says,” got to the point a bit more quickly, as shorts tend to do, packing their dynamics into their smaller spaces, orgies and hookers and all.

“A Moral Tale,” the lead and title story, is about Bernard, a French guy who just started a job as a video game designer, who has moved in with his cousin, Veronique, who has an arthritic knee and is on disability.

But that’s getting ahead of myself, as the story actually starts off with a paragraph of political philosophy—I think—comparing the South of France to the North of France, quoting Stendahl, who I’ve heard of before but couldn’t place as I read; he’s a 19th Century French novelist, as it turns out, an early realist. But what’s important is, Emmons chose to start his story off like this, making it clear that northern and southern France have blurred into one another, and anyone reading this story can take that for what it’s worth as they head into the rest of the piece. Emmons made a choice, not typing that paragraph by accident.

Back to Bernard. Bernard has a hard time connecting to Veronique, who smokes pot all day and asks him questions about his job. She sets him up on a date, saying she has a recently divorced friend—and she calls her to come over right then and there. The friend, Odette, can’t come over, but invites the cousins to her place for pastries the next night. Bernard hardly knows what’s happening and he’s going on a dinner date the next day. Veronique doesn’t mess around when it comes to matchmaking, apparently.

The next day, Bernard wanders into a church—it’s his church, but he’s also cold—and spots a striking blonde woman. He can’t take his eyes off her. After mass, both leave, and when the blonde slips on the black ice outside, Bernard jumps to help her up, see if she’s okay. Bernard makes a date with her at a café for later that night, which seems like a good thing.

Only Veronique made the dinner date with Odette for that night as well. The cousins go to Odette’s and eat pastries (which, in France, doesn’t mean donut, I’ve discovered). Bernard and Veronique get into a fight over Veronique’s disability, as she’s asked him to lie if anyone calls and asks on her condition. Veronique storms out, leaving Bernard with Odette, his date with Sally (the blonde) looming down the road.

Odette and Bernard get to talking. Bernard wants to be polite, but Odette calls him out, figures out he cares too much about his cousin’s fraudulent disability, calls him a liar for things he’s lied about. The snow outside is getting deeper and heavier and Bernard makes a move to go. Yet, he finds Odette, older but striking, alluring as well as honest. He ends up staying the night with Odette—after some protest on his part—leaving the next morning. Veronique had asked him to move out, by the way, so he’s got to figure out where’s going to live, among other things.

The story takes a couple of turns after this, Bernard having to confront some issues that had been raised in the story. I won’t reveal any of that here, but will note the last act includes another paragraph of French musings, including more Stendahl, as if Emmons is trying to remind us of a theme, right before he ends his tale.

It’s fun to wonder what the moral tale in “A Moral Tale” really is. Is it Veronique’s grifting of her own government? Is it Bernard opportunistically standing up one woman to sleep with another? Is it something in the French nationalistic rhetoric? All of it combined? I enjoyed thinking about that as I read this, and after, as much as I enjoyed watching Bernard twitch and fidget about, all these women turning him around and over again.

A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales is a solid book of stories by the talented Josh Emmons. It’s an interesting premise for a collection, setting the conflict of each story up as a question of right or wrong, making each case pretty ambiguous while you’re at it. That’s probably oversimplifying what Emmons does here, as he also builds strong, interesting, real characters. I liked getting to know these people, watching them have to make decisions, or in some cases, not make them. Made for a good read, a good evening with a good book.

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February 25, 2020: “I Have Always Been Here Before” by Joey R. Poole

Good day to you, Story366!

Today, as I’m sure all of you know, was Pączki Day, as I’m sure all of you are filled with fresh, delicious pączki, and have probably passed out from a sugar coma. Good for you, avid reader, for partaking in this Polish delicacy before tomorrow’s Lenten fast. I salute you, good eater. Godspeed.

Pączki Day is for some reason very important to me, one of those old family traditions that I try to hold onto as I get older. A lot of the previous generation is gone, so I don’t have a lot of family connection to my grandparents, half of whom were born in Poland. Living here in Missouri also doesn’t put me in contact with a lot of Poles, let alone Polish traditions. So, to kind of keep things going, I always purchase several pączki and take them to my department, put them out on the counter in the mailroom, and send out an email explaining what Pączki Day is. Doesn’t take long for dozens of professors, instructors, and grad students to munch them out of existence between their classes, this yearly jolt of Polish diabetes to get them through their day. I should probably run for Department President every year on Pączki Day, because who else is putting out a spread like this:

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Tomorrow, I’m sorta supposed to start a diet, partly because that’s what good Polish Catholic boys do on Ash Wednesday; while I’m not all that good, celebrating Pączki Day and then ignoring the Lenten fast seems like I’m asking for some bad karma. I also just need to go on a diet, start going to the gym, take better care of myself. I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, and if I had to be persnickety, I’ve just not been healthy enough to work out, nor has the weather been particularly nice to even be extraordinarily active with hikes and walks and other things I usually enjoy. I feel good now, almost 100 percent, and it’s at least a little bit warmer out these days. Tomorrow is as good a day as any to get on the road to a better me.

I’ll keep you posted.

Four years ago, during my last everyday Story366, I covered a Polish writer for Pączki Day, the Polish writer (to me, anyway), Stuart Dybek. Today, I couldn’t find an obviously Polish writer on my book stack, and had someone else planned, but then found this new book by Joey R. PooleI Have Always Been Here Before (Cowboy Jamboree Press), in my mailbox. Today is actually the book birthday for Poole’s collection, so I decided to go ahead and cover it today, on the actual day of its release. I don’t get to do that all that often—I’m not like some periodical that’s all organized and times these things—but when I see the opportunity, I pounce. Sorry, Pączki Day 2020: No Pole for you (but a Poole instead!).

I published one of the stories from this collection, “The Big, Scary Woods,” in Moon City Review about five years ago, so I’ve been aware of Poole’s work. I loved that story—hence, publication—and remember teaching it that year, as I use every issue of MCR in my classes. My students dug it, too, I remember, as it’s a great story, about a guy whose marriage is falling apart, who has to remove some raccoons from his chimney as a last-ditch effort to keep his wife from leaving for good. It’s a wild and touching story, funny above all else, and I revisted that piece today—hasn’t lost a bit of its charm. I also enjoyed both “The Lizard Man of Okamasee County” and “The Lizard Woman of Okamasee County,” the former a short and the latter a regular-sized story, both about a mythical lizard creature, though from two completely different perspectives (and I don’t mean the gender thing).

But I’m going to focus on the title and lead story today, “I Have Always Been Here Before,” as it’s a great story and I tend to like the title story for this, anyway. “I Have Always Been Here Before” is about a guy named Jones (that’s his last name and we never get a first) who runs a trailer park and lives with his brother, Bailey. Bailey starts off the story eating several giant hissing cockroaches, and we eventually find out this is in preparation for an upcoming contest, sponsored by the local pet store: The person who easts the most cockroaches gets a rare white python of some sort. Since Bailey is a lizard maniac, all kinds of iguanas and snakes in glass cages in their house, he’s willing to eat bugs to score that snake.

Jones also has a baby, and again, Poole reveals facts about the baby at a good, tension-building rate (he’s good at that). We eventually find out that one of the trailer park tenants asked him to watch the little baby for a bit, and just like that, she never came back. Two months later, Jones is caring for the baby as if it’s his own, running the park, helping his brother train for the roach-eating derby. Pretty great set-up for a story.

Since this is a short story, something has to go wrong, and it does, in the form of Smiley, a P.I. hired to find the baby. Yet again, Poole doesn’t tell us that right away, instead giving Smiley a line about a different missing person. Later, though, we find out that Smiley is indeed looking for Jones’ baby, hired by the baby’s father’s wife; the mom is missing, probably dead, and the wife, barren herself, just wants her husband’s bastard as her own, sort of an anti-Jon Snow situation. Nice complication to go with the great set-up.

So, Jones has to figure out what to do, as he’s grown awfully fond of the little baby. He simply doesn’t have any legal claim on him, while the only living person who does, the biological father, has hired (via his wife) a pro to look for him. Jones, however, is ready to do whatever he has to do to keep this baby, make him his own. Good thing for Jones that Smiley is willing to deal, that there’s something he wants more than closing his case.

I won’t reveal the details of how Poole ends this story, but was completely satisified by the resolution. I loved everything about this story, from the cool setting, the quirky charcters, the premise, the conflict, and especially Poole’s patience, revealing what we needed to know a bit later than he could have, just to keep us guessing, just to keep us reading. In a lesser writer’s hand, it would have been easy to lay everything out in a big summarizing paragraph. Instead, Poole lets the details slip out, almost as if on cues, making the reading more than a series of exposition paragraphs. This is a finely crafted story, everything coming together perfectly, the author in charge of his world, of his tale.

All the stories I read in I Have Always Been Here Before have a real easy feel to them, stories about good ol’ boys, never meaning no harm, but causing quite a ruckus, anyway. These stories are alive with colorful characters, settings, and transpirings, all a lot of fun, but still the work of a careful master, weaving his elements into impressive fiction. Congrats to Joey R. Poole on his debut collection: It’s a good one.

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February 24, 2020: “Departure Lounge” by Ramona Ausubel

Hey there, Story366!

Another Monday back at work, but a pretty damn good Monday. After a weekend of rest and relaxation, I was ready to get to it. I didn’t have a whole lot to do today, save grade some papers and teach a class, but feeling rested, healthy, and alert makes a lot of difference in how I can approach a Monday, the alarm clock going off at six a.m. and the day never letting up until deep into the dark hours. It was a good day, and better yet, I’m not at all dreading tomorrow.

After nearly two months, I’ve noticed that I’ve adjusted to daily life with Story366 quite well. This year, I’ve not looked at it as a task, something I need to race toward a finish line to accomplish. I’ve made it more of a lifestyle, committing myself to reading for an hour and then composing these little essays in a half an hour to an hour, depending on how well I’ve grasped the material and how much I can concentrate. It’s been a pleasure to curl up every day with my book, read until I think I’ve read enough, and then eventually write out my response. Four years ago, I remember scrambling a lot more often, reading as quickly as I could, often just so I could make the midnight deadline. This time around, even if I start reading late—like tonight, at 9:15 p.m.—I never feel any pressure, any urgency, and above all else, any sort of displeaure. I’ve been enjoying the books for the books this year, whereas before, maybe I was reading the books to finish the project. It’s make a markable difference in my daily attitude, on how I’ve enjoyed these stories, and my relationship to reading and writing overall. So far this year, Story366 has been my friend.

Tonight, I read from an absolutely wonderful collection, the 2018 Ramona Ausubel offering, Awayland, brought to us by Riverhead Books. I remember holding this book at the local Barnes & Noble when it came out, reading some of the lead story, really wanting to take it home, and finish it, only that purchase wasn’t really in the budget on that day, for some reason. So I put it off. I recently found it at a used bookstore, much to my delight, so here I am, having read a good hunk of it and writing about it for my blog.

I read six of the eleven stories from Awayland tonight and had a hard time picking which one to write about. This was another case of me thinking I could write about any of them, so in the end, without a true title story, I’m going with the last story I read tonight, “Departure Lounge.”

Stepping back, this book is cut up into four sections, which are as follows: “Bay of Hungers,” “The Cape of Persistent Hope,” “The Lonesome Flats,” and “The Dream Isles,” which, I had a hunch, had something to do with Odysseus, a character referenced several times throughout the stories. Sure enough, I looked it up, and discovered that I have no idea what I’m talking about, as these titles were generated by Ausubel herself, not Homer, the blind poet attributed to that tale. I read at least one story from each of the four sections, and in a lot of cases, can see how those stories fit under the headings, like how “Club Zeus” is about this lonely kid working at a resort in Turkey and how that story is in “The Lonesome Flats” section. It’s not always that obvious, but hey, I was thinking this was all about The Odyssey when I sat down, so it’s all good. Not everything has to be that simple.

“Departure Lounge” is about this woman who starts the story as a chef in a Mars simulation dome, situated on top of a Hawaiian mountain. There, she uses the ingredients the future Mars astronauts will have on Mars to cook them meals, taking notes on what works and what they like (which never, by the way, alligns). The team of astronauts, set to leave Earth forever in four or five years, is a peppy, well qualified, enthusiastic group, all of whom know they’re on a one-way mission into history, where they’ll either colonize this far-off planet or die some horrible death because something’s gone wrong. Our hero, who never gets a name in the story, is just there to figure out what they’ll be able to eat. She has no real stake in this game except a paycheck and the constant smiles from the chipper astronauts.

Eventually, she gets an email from an ex-boyfriend and they get to talking about where they’ve landed. She’s been through a bad divorce and now lives on fake Mars, cooking intentionally terrible food for the smartest, fittest, and most ambitious humans in history. Peter, the ex, is gay and wanting a baby. After more emailing, Peter drops the bomb that he’s coming to Hawaii, and the two decide to reconnect. For Peter, this means booking a trip to Hawaii. For our protagonist, this means quitting her job, abandoning the project, and leaving the Mars astronauts without a chef, at least until NASA can find a replacement.

I’m really surprised at the turn Ausubel takes this story. I was postive that our protagonist was somehow going to make it on trip to Mars. Sure, she’s not remotely as qualified as the heavily screened real astronauts, but I read a lot of stories and I write them, too; I was convinced they’d fall in love with her food and insist she come along. Ausubel has the skill throughout Awayland, however, to take stories to an obvious point and then completely pull the rug out from under you. It makes her a great writer.

In the actual “Departure Lounge” and not the one I was writing in my head, our hero, instead of heading to Mars, embarks on a long journey with Peter, trying to get pregnant. It doesn’t make much sense, as she doesn’t love Peter, not in the way people trying to have a baby usually do, and they don’t even live in the same town—she in San Francisco and Peter in LA—so they have to plan get-togethers for when she’s ovulating. They are determined, even when the natural way to have children doesn’t work; they have sex, yes, but our hero’s just not getting pregnant.

The further I read into this story, the more I started to see what Ausubel was doing, how this journey into the impossible, into the implausible, and even the nonsensical was a lot like the mission to Mars. So much trouble for something that could be accomplished in other ways, through easier means, with only slightly less desirable results. Here I was, thinking the story was about an unskilled chef suddenly finding herself on a mission to Mars. Instead, Ausubel takes her on a much more important journey.

Other stories in the book were just as engaging and interesting and original. The opener, “You Can Find Love Now,” is about a cyclops—the brother of the one in The Odyssey—filling out an online dating profile form. “Club Zeus,” as noted, is about this kid working at this Turkish resort and being bored out of his mind until tragedy strikes one of the guests. “The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following” is exactly that, a listing of everyone and everything that an exhibit of mummified animals would want to thank. The last story, “Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender,” is about three survivors of  shipwreck who encounter a new castaway and have three very different reactions to her presence. All the stories are clever, and like “Departure Lounge,” all of them—save maybe the dating cyclops story—go in directions I never saw coming, find their ways toward something deeper, something more introspective, something more wonderful than I would have thought of without Ausubel writing these stories for me.

I loved reading from Awayland tonight. Ramona Ausubel has an almost uncanny ability to concoct completely original premises for short stories, then to take them to places well beyond cliché, trope, or even simple expectations. Reading her book has been a tremendous experience, as I was sucked into every story and then thoroughly shaken about in my seat as I read, never knowing where I was going, always appreciating where I landed. I highly recommend this one, one of the best of my year so far.

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February 23, 2020: “David Sherman, the Last Son of God” by Rion Amilcar Scott

Good evening to you, Story366!

The weekend is coming to an end, but it was a good weekend, full of rest, relaxation, and catching up on a lot of things I had to do—the house is pretty clean, we started cooking again, and we even went for a swim today. It was the Karen‘s idea, thinking it best to get out of the house and put our bodies in motion, and I have to admit, I was hesitant: I really wanted to do nothing this weekend. But as soon as the word “pool” hit the airwaves, the boys were pretty psyched, as it’s been overcast, rainy, and cold here for weeks. We got into our swimsuits and headed the community center on the south side of town, the one with the biggest pool, the most room to watergraze our day away.

As I’ve noted in this blog all year, I’ve not felt particularly healthy since sometime around Thanksgiving. That’s a long time to feel nasty. There was the Sickpocalypse, but that was just a bad week. Overall, I’ve had some sort of bug for the longest time, with intermitten colds thrown in. Along with not feeling well, I’ve not been active at all, no sense of exercise, not even hikes out in the woods, which we usually go on two or three times a week. Going to the pool today seemed like a task, but as it turns out, it was a blessing. In the pool, I was able to stretch out, stretch like I can’t on dry land. I can twist my legs and back and hips into all kinds of positions without the fear of falling on my face or pulling something vital. The low-impact environment was the perfect transition from completely inactive Mike to somewhat limber Mike. Somewhat limber Mike doesn’t ache when he walks or breathes or thinks, meaning I can actually picture myself exercising in the near future, when this morning, I could not. After an hour of contorting my body into all configurations, I actually journeyed over to the lap lanes to see what I could do.

The oldest boy, who’s working on Scout badges, went first. He hasn’t swam in months, yet he knocked out several laps like it was nothing. The kid is 13 and that’s just one of the great benefits of being 13. My turn next and I attempted the Scout swim test—three lengths of the pool freestyle, one length backstroke—and was barely able to eek it out. I’d qualify for the deep end, had we been at camp. More than that, I actually exercised, used my muscles to do more than grade a paper or open the fridge.

I feel a new wind beneath my sails.

For today’s post, the seventh and final day of my Black History Month Week, I read from Rion Amilcar Scott‘s 2019 collection, The World Doesn’t Require You, brought to us by Liveright Publishing. This is a book I knew about when it came out last summer because of all the hype it had generated, but left until now because I wasn’t in reading mode until this year. Glad to get to such an important book—on a lot of year-end best lists and prize-finalist-type things—so here we go.

I’m writing about the lead story today, as I like it a lot. Plus, there is no official title story, and in my readings, I didn’t come across a story that used that phrase. Anyway, “David Sherman, the Last Son of God” is about David Sherman, whose father is God. Or at least that’s what the story claims and sticks to it. God was a man who lived in Scott’s fictional Cross River (something like the author’s native Maryland, methinks) and sired five boys by five different women. David Sherman was the last, because God told himself to stop having boys, and as Scott notes, who is God to argue with himself? God wasn’t around full-time for David, leaving for good when David turned twelve, then committing suicide when David was sixteen, walking into a river with a pocketful of rocks, like “a crazy poet.” The story moves forward with the notion that David’s father was indeed God and that’s that.

David grows up with a gift for music, able to teach himself to play anything. He starts by banging on overturned buckets and pans and thinks himself the king of bucket drumming, until he gets scorched in a face-off with Randall, who quickly becomes his best friend and bandmate. David and Randall start playing in David’s brother’s church—David’s brother is named Jesus Jesuson, or Jeez for short, and is the oldest of God’s five boys. It’s a legitimate gig and Jeez does his best to keep David on the straight and narrow.

All of this is tested when David spies a new drumset in a store window, one that he and Randall absolutely have to have if they’re going to make it as musicians. The pair tries pooling their money, asking for loans, and outright petitioning Jeez to buy them the set. They strike out on all attempts. David then remembers his father’s, God’s, shotgun, hidden in his mother’s house, so he and Randall set out on robbing a liquor store to get the money for the drums. Tragically, Randall is killed by the liquor store owner—not his first armed robbery—and David is shot in the ass and sent to prison for three and a half years.

When David gets out, he’s still determined to become a musician. He seeks out the help of another brother, also the pastor of his own church, this one called Christ Christson, or Christ III. Christ III lets David form a gospel band and play at his church. David puts together a talented group, but keeps firing drummers, no one filling the role as well as Randall (at least in David’s heavy-hearted eyes). David meets and marries a member of Christ III’s congregation, has a baby of his own, and seems to be on the road to a good life.

Eventually, though, attendance at Christ III’s church falls and Christ III gives David an ultimatum: He has a month to come up with a new type of music, the same old gospel not filling the pews like it used to. It’s a Herculean task, inventing a new type of music, and David eventually gets counsel from God, his father, on what he should do, how he can save his job and make his mark.

I won’t reveal what that advice is, or what happens in the rest of the story. Scott, however, delivers the goods, as what happens more than satisfactorily ends this story, matches the promise of everything that came before it. “David Sherman, the Last Son of God” is a long story, but I burned through it without looking up, Scott’s prose and compelling narrative not letting me go for a second.

I like the other stories I read from the book. “The Nigger Knockers” is about a couple of old friends reliving an old childhood game, sort of in the name of science, but also sort of not. “The Electric Joy of Service” is like the most disturbing Isaac Asimov story of all time, but I loved what Scott does with it, how exactly he makes it so unsettling. “On the Occasion of the Death of Freddie Lee” is a touching piece about a guy dealing with the death of his friend. I really want to read the novella at the end of the book, “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies,” but just didn’t have time today; I hope I get to it soon.

So, thus ends my week of covering books by black authors, commemorating Black History Month. As I noted at the start of this, I really wish I’d found more books, had put something lengthier together. Still, I read seven excellent collections, not a weak link in the bunch, giving me new perspectives on issues I have the privilege of not having to think about all the time. I also have a lot of new stories for the storybank, the index of pdfs I use for my classes, and my students will be reading some of these stories soon. The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott is as good of an ending for the week as I can think of, his stories smart, well crafted, and compelling from beginning to end. I will read and write about more books by black authors throughout the year—it’s my goal to read every story collection ever, don’t forget—but for now, here’s to a great week, a great experience.

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February 22, 2020: “The Finkelstein 5” by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Good Saturday to you, Story366!

Today is the best kind of Saturday, I think, because I don’t have any plans. I slept in—which, nowadays, for me, means eight-thirty—had a bagel, and talked to the Karen about how we weren’t going to set up any expectations for today. Yesterday, I outlined how it’d been a rough couple of weeks, how much I was looking forward to a free weekend. We’ve made good on our promise, not planning any excursions or goals. Usually, we get a lot of the basic housechores done on these days—dishes, laundry, gargabe, recycling, etc.—which seems almost pleasurable when you have all day, nowhere to be, and some of that stuff is piling up so high you need mountain-climbing boots to navigate the house. I found the floors around three p.m. today, planted a flag, and took a nap. Perfect day.

I also got to read for a while, maing the day even better. Today’s book is Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, out in 2018 from Mariner Books. Today is the sixth day of Black History Month Week here at Story366, and again today I’m reading a book by an author with whom I’d not been familiar with before cracking the cover today. This is a book I knew about, though, one that has garnered a lot of attention since its release. About time I caught up, so here we go.

“The Finkelstein 5” centers around Emmanuel, a young black man living in a troubled world. Race relations have disintegrated to the point where a middle-aged white man can chainsaw the heads off of five black youths in front of a public library; it’s the Finkelstein Library, by the way, giving the five, and this story, their name. Worst of all, the decapitator is found innocent in a court of law and released. His defense? Self-defense. They were coming after him—including a seven-year-old girl—he insists from the witness stand, and it works. This incident, having already happened at the outset of the story, sets the tone and environment for Adjei-Brenyah’s world.

Meanwhile, Emmanuel is trying to figure out what he’s going to do. Firstly, he’s trying to keep his “black” down, as there seems to be some sort of meter to gauge how black he’s being—listening to rap music, for example, raises his black. Wearing baggy pants raises his black. Et cetera. I’m not 100 percent sure if this is a real thing in this world or if it’s something Emmanuel does internally. But in any case, given all that’s happened, Emmanuel starts the story, and his day, trying to get his black down in the 2 range, which of course means stripping most of his identity away. He really doesn’t want to get attacked in the streets, however, and with the climate the way it is, someone ranging too high on the black meter will likely get lynched.

We also meet Boogie, Emmanuel’s friend, who is more on the offensive side of the conflict. There have been several attacks on white people in recent days, people murdered while their assailants scream the names of the Finkelstein 5. Boogie meets Emmanuel on a bus and works to convince him that the time to act is now, sensing Emmanuel’s hesitation. Emmanuel agrees to meet him later, and as he gets off the bus, watches as Boogie punches a white lady in the face, repeatedly, screaming the name of one of the 5. Boogie boogies while Emmanuel calls 911, but is still looked on by the bus riders with suspicion. Things are coming to a head.

Adjei-Brenyah intertwines scenes from the white killer’s trial with Emmanuel’s present-time scenes throughout the story, skillfully depicting how a guy—who, again, chainsawed the heads off of five kids—could get off. The defendent’s rhetoric is steadfast and simple, repeating the names of his own kids, swearing he was only providing defense. Even when the prosecutor suggests alternatives, such as simply driving away, the defendent claims he was protecting his children, repeating their names, drawing tears from the naive gallery.

Emmanuel meets up with Boogie later that night, which is as far as I’ll go with the plot. Adjei-Brenyah sets us up for a violent, gripping climax and delivers. Will Emmanuel join in Boogie’s attacks? Will he take the high road? But really, at this point, after what’s transgressed, what even is the high road?

As much as I love “The Finkelstein 5,” I love “The Era” just as much, a story set in an alternate future/reality where kids can be given boosts, of sorts, upon conception, chemicals that make them more athletic, ambitious, etc. This story centers around Ben, a kid who didn’t receive any boosts, by accident, not by choice, who realizes he’s not keeping up with his genetically enhanced peers at school. He’s offered sanctuary by a family of Antis—people who choose not to boost—but society has trained Ben to be too honest and he insults his possible saviors instead of embracing their outreach—he literally calls them poor and stupid when they invite him over for his birthday and make him a cake. I’m teaching a post-apocalyptic/alternative-future lit class in the next intersession and I know my students will be reading “The Era” as part of the syllabus.

I’m really stoked about Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, one of the best collections I’ve come across this year. The stories are inventive, complex, and have something to say about the world, things I’ve never quite heard put this way before. Adjei-Brenyah is a helluvah talent. So glad to spend time with his stories today, knowing I’ll be coming back to them in the future.

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February 21, 2020: “Training School for Negro Girls” by Camille Acker

Good Friday to you, Story366!

I’m a bit worn out today, as this has been a busy week, or busy couple of weeks. I have been finalizing Moon City Press titles for the AWP Conference at the start of March, and have them, finally, off to print. It takes a lot of energy to get a title finished, to make sure it’s perfect (knock on wood), and I finished two titles simultaneously in the last couple of days. I had the nice interlude of hosting the Ron Austin/Jason Vasser-Elong reading yesterday, but also had some pressing committee work for … a committee I’m on. I’m pretty drained and am happy to be heading into a commitment-free weekend. I don’t think there’s anything that sounds nearly as sweet as that.

As always, it’s nice to relax with a book after a hard day, and tonight, I sat down with Camille Acker‘s collection, Training School for Negro Girls, out in 2018 from Feminist Press. Acker’s collection continues my Black History Month Week here at Story366. Unlike some of the previous entries this week, I’d not read any of Acker’s work before tonight. No time like the present, so let’s get to it.

Acker’s collection is split into two parts, “The Lower School” and “The Upper School.” From what I can tell, having read two stories from each part, the division refers, somehow, to class, to economic status, or just plain geography. All of the stories in Training School for Negro Girls (again, from what I can tell) take place in Washington, DC, and feature black women as protagonists (as the title kind of implies). Otherwise, the stories vary a lot in tone, voice, and subject matter, story to story, and I admire Acker for how well she employs a theme without being at all repetitive. I enjoyed all the stories I read, for sure, and could have written about any of them here.

I’m focusing on the title story tonight, though, as I tend to do. “Training School for Negro Girls” is about Janice, a not-yet-middle-aged woman who’s looking to move up in the status world of Metropolitan DC. She has a lead on membership in an exclusive black social club called Toby & Tiffany, or T&T. It’s a club that will lead to a lot of fancy parties, a lot of dressing up in nice clothes, and a lot of being careful with what she and her family say, so as to not offend anyone. Janice also dreams of the repercussions of club membership, better schools for her children, better job or her husband, and better lives for her and her family in general.

Entry into T&T seems legitimately possible when Janice runs into a member—a recruiter—at a dinner and finds they have a lot in common. Janice and the recruiter, Shelby, hit it off during their brief interaction and Shelby teases Janice with club membership, promising she’ll call her to get the ball rolling. Janice, it’s implied, waits by the phone for an entire month before Shelby finally calls, dreaming of how different her life is going to be once she and her family are T&T elites. When the call finally comes, her dreams seem to be coming true. She must prepare.

It’s important to note that this club, especially with Shelby as its mouthpiece, seems like some real elitist bullshit. Acker makes that more than evident—to everyone but Janice, that is. The story’s written in third person, but Acker writes Janice as an unreliable protagonist. The more Shelby talks down to her, the more she insults Janice’s life—her neighborhood, her clothes, her education—the more Janice seems to be enthralled by what T&T has to offer; Janice doesn’t want to be among the mocked, but alongside Shelby, peering down.

Membership in T&T comes down to a meet-and-greet at a dinner party: Janice seems like a shoo-in, but she still has to impress at this shindig. Trailing along is her husband, Nathan, who doesn’t seem like he cares much about T&T either way; more than once, Janice has to kick him under the table for some off-color remark he’s made that could cost them favor points. The room is filled with Shelbys, people who already belong to T&T and completely buy into it, that they’re better because of what college they went to, where their house is, and how lightly or darkly toned their skin is—yeah, it’s even about that. The group gets to evaluate Janice, but at the same time, Janice starts to evaluate the group.

I won’t go any further into the plot of “Training School for Negro Girls,” as I’ve just about reached the climax. Acker takes advantage of the situation she’s created, giving us a confrontation, or two, to really make the conflict hit its peak, while at the same time, offering an epiphany we had to hope was coming.

Other stories I read from the collection include the opener, “Who We Are,” a short about a group of girls rebelling against anything and everything. “Cicadas” is about a little girl’s piano competition, and the end story, “You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You,” is a bonding story between a father and his daughter, centered around listening to Marvin Gay. Like I said, I enjoyed all the stories in the collection, especially because they were so different, from the rowdy “Who We Are” to the more sentimental “You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You.” Acker has a lot of storytelling skills and range is certainly among them.

Training School for Negro Girls, Camille Acker’s debut, is a strong collection, a book I disappeared into after a tough day. I was more than happy to meet all the women she created, to see the world through their eyes. Nothing more than I can ask from a book, and Acker delivers, and then some.

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February 20, 2020: “The Gatecrasher of Hyboria” by Ron A. Austin

Hey there, Story366!

Today I have a rare treat: I get to hang out with the author I’m featuring in today’s post. I’ve done it before, mostly for writers visiting MSU, people like Trudy Lewis, Phong Nguyen, and Donald QuistRon A. Austin is visiting Springfield today and giving a reading at MSU. Of course, this was all planned, me holding off on his book until today’s visit. In fact, that’s why I placed my Black History Month Week so late in the month, so I could center it around Ron’s visit. I’m so looking forward to hanging out with him and hearing him read. It’s one of those days I look forward to, stories and literature and cool writers at the forefront. What else can you ask for?

Because it’s a busy day, I’ll get right into Austin’s book, Avery Colt Is a Snake. A Thief. A Liar, out in 2019 from Southeast Missouri State University Press. I’ve read a large part of this book before—I’ve assigned it to my classes this semester—and I should note that this is a novel-in-stories, that Austin has indeed won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. I’m writing about it here because it’s made up of stories, stories that were in lit mags. The books has also been longlisted for the PEN Bingham Prize for Debut Story Collections. So, Austin is living the good live, receiving accolades for both novels and collections. Good for him.

Since it is a novel-in-stories and I don’t want to give away too much about the later narrative, I am going to focus on an early story, “The Gatecrasher of Hyboria,” the second piece in the collection. Like all the stories in the book, this one focuses on the title characer, Avery Colt, a kid growing up lower-middle class in St. Louis. Avery lives on the second floor of a house with his mom, dad, sister Yell, while his grandparents live on the first floor and run the general store on the corner. Avery attends the Lutheran school in his neighborhood—the Catholic school is too expensive and his parents want the fear of God in him. He has friends, reads comic books, and argues with his sister. Avery, in most ways, is a good kid, maybe a little rambunctious, despite what the book’s title alludes to—Avery wasn’t born a snake, a thief, or a liar.

The trouble in “The Gatecrasher of Hyboria” happens when Avery decides not to focus so much on school, commanding the attention of his teacher, Mr. Dunn. Mr. Dunn is a strict but fair teacher, and really only wants to help Avery achieve his potential—Avery tests well on the standardized batteries and is clearly intelligent. He just doesn’t apply himself. Avery spends more time reading the old Conan comics his dead uncle left in the attic than he does studying (hence the reference to Hyboria in the title, the mythical land of the infamous Barbarian). Mr. Dunn encourages Avery, and when that doesn’t work, he starts pinning notes to Avery’s teachers onto his collar, notes addressed to his parents. Avery is embarrassed as all hell about this, and on the way home, destroys the notes, blowing them up with bottle rockets.

For a while, Avery’s able to get away with it all. He handles the notes sent home, and since he’s more or less a latchkey kid, he gets home first to check the mail and erase the answering machine. Avery is riding high, at least until he comes out of school one day to see his dad and Mr. Dunn talking on the sidewalk. As you might imagine, Avery’s only made everything worse by deceiving his parents.

What happens next is shocking, even brutal, the story switching from a lighter tone to something a lot more serious. I don’t want to reveal what happens on the way home from school, or after, as that would be spoiling the ending. Austin, though, has a keen sense of story, knowing when a tonal shift is appropriate, how to depict a tough scene, a scene that’s going to stay with you, and Avery, for the rest of his life.

I like so much about this story, and this book. I like Avery’s smooth attitude in the early-going, his rebellion, even though he’s kind of a big comic book nerd. Austin has fun with that, Avery’s go-to distraction these other worlds, including Hyboria. And sometimes it’s not so fun, like when a retreat to these fake realms is the best option when he needs to escape. As the stories progress and Avery comes more and more of age, the line between what’s nostalgic and what’s traumatic is blurred. Austin is able to keep it all in balance, too, a testament to his skill as a writer and storyteller.

Avery Colt Is a Snake. A Thief. A Liar is one of the freshest, most entertaining, and most heartfelt books I’ve read so far this year. I’m totally psyched that I get to hear Ron A. Austin read from it tonight, that we get to hang out after. This is a book you should read. This is a great book.

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February 19, 2020: “The Easthound” by Nalo Hopkinson

Good evening to you, Story366!

So, Rod Blagojevich is out of jail, just because. I sort-of remember him being on the Trump reality show about stars running a business, seeing a clip where he introduced himself as the governor of Illinois to room full of G-list celebrities, most of them wondering who he was, why he was a contestant, and what they’d have to do to get him to stop touching them. I don’t know how he did on the show—he went to jail soon after—but apparently, he made a powerful friend.

All of this reminds me of the chance I once had to do an impression of Blagojevich on TV. When Chicago Stories came out in 2012, my publisher booked a cool interview for me on Chicago Tonight, this cool daily new magazine show that runs on PBS every evening. Most of the show was taken up by a panel discussing the G8 (now G7) Conference that was happening in town that week, but they kept the last five minutes of the show for me and my kooky book.

In the green room before, all the reporters and important people talking about G8 were being adults, discussing this huge political event. Meanwhile, there I was, sitting off to the side, having no idea what G8 even stood for. Someone eventually asked me why I was there and I told them I wrote a book of stories, and they were actually nice about it, said that it was cool. Then they returned to going at each other, which poured over into the actual taping, then after as they all shuffled out of the studio.

I was up next and the host, Phil Ponce, was super-enthusiastic. He had to be relieved, somewhat, that this fluff portion of the show was ending his night, as that G8 panel had been intense. I remember it being super-hot under the lights and the time going really quickly. Someone—I think it was my editor, Jacob Fucking Knabb—had told them that I did an impression of Blago, and right as the segment ended, Phil Ponce looked at me, said, “I heard you do impressions, too,” giving me the perfect opening.

I froze.

After what seemed like an hour but was actually more like two seconds, Phil Ponce wrapped the show, chatted with me as the cameras went to dark, and then he shook my hand and that was that.

Today, I thought about that, Blago now out of jail. I can’t help but think, had I pulled off that impression—which, by the way, was laden with curse words and not suitable for PBS, anyway—maybe both our lives would have turned out differently. Guess we’ll never know.

Tonight, I read from Nalo Hopkinson‘s collection of sci-fi/fantasy stories, Falling in Love with Hominids, out in 2015 from Tachyon Publications. I hadn’t read Hopkinson before tonight, and I’m ashamed to say, I hadn’t heard of her before researching books for my Black History Month Week. But, that’s what Story366 is mainly for, to introduce me to writers I hadn’t know before. Here we go.

I really, really loved the opening story, “The Easthound,” so I’m writing about that tonight. “The Easthound” features Millie, a teenage girl living with a group of other teens/young people in some sort of group—a “warren,” Hopkinson calls it, like they’re a bunch of rabbits. Along with Millie are Jolly (Millie’s twin sister), Citron, Max, and Sai. When we meet this group, they’re sitting around a fire in a yard and playing a game called Loup-de-lou, sort of an oral exquisite corpse with rhymes and repetition. The kids play the game to pass the time and to keep their minds off something else, which Hopkinson is wisely coy about for a while.

As the story progress, we get a good feel for Millie’s relationship with the other kids, especially Jolly, her somewhat domineering slightly older sister. The kids argue, especially the twins, while they play, while they eat, while they keep warm beside the fire.

Turns out, it’s not a good idea to argue, or to make too much noise, as there’s something out there. Hopkinson reveals details at just the right pace, pulling us through the story, the evil becoming more apparent as the tension rises. What we find out, eventually, is this: The adults of the world have all “sprouted,” turned into horrible beasts of some kind, covered in fur with sharp teeth and claws. And they seem to get bigger and bigger as time goes by. The sprouted, the kids call them, now hunt the kids when it’s dark, when they make too much noise, or when they’re just plain hungry.

So, this is a post-apocalyptic story, kind of like a zombie story, only with these werewolf-type things called the sprouted. Hopkinson one-ups zombie lore, too: Not only have all the adults turned into these things, but the kids, when they become adults, they sprout, too. So, this means that all the kids in the group will eventually sprout and then try to eat the rest of the group. As a matter of fact, this has already happened, one of their band having changed in the middle of the night, the rest of the group barely escaping with their lives.

All of this, as you might guess, sets up a confrontation, the kids vs. the sprouted, as of course this has to happen because this is a short story. I won’t reveal any more plot details, but will stress that this a great story, full of interesting characters, a killer setting, and this creative monster-thing that’s going to lead to the end of the world. Hopkinson’s rate of reveal is working especially well here, as we always know something’s up, yet are never too anxious, the other elements of the story effectively distracting us as we slowly discover this horrible reality.

Along with “The Easthound,” I read the next two stories as well. “Soul Case” is about a civilazation of former slaves in South America looking to defend their home from a European invasion. “Message in a Bottle” is about this kid who has something called DGS, or Delayed Growth Syndrome, where kids’ bodies age at an incredibly slow rate as their brains reach genius-level just as quickly. I.e., super-smart pre-teens who can’t grow up. Both of these stories are cool and imaginitive, both of which I enjoyed a lot.

So glad that this project has led me to writers like Nalo Hopkinson and her collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. Hopkinson’s books number in the teens and her awards, especially from sci-fi and fantasy-type societies, are just as numerous. I loved exploring her imagination, her settings, and her characters, eating up her super-awesome stories one after another.

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