March 31, 2020: “The Empty House” by Nathan Oates

Hey hey, Story366!

Today is another beautiful, sunny day in Springfield. And it couldn’t come soon enough. Last night, after doing some work and putzing around, I wandered up to bed around two a.m. At 3:12 a.m., I jolted awake from an anxiety dream, some simple combination of me being stuck somewhere/me not being able to do something, which for me is sort of a mental claustrophobia. Usually, I can get up, turn on a light or two, get a drink, and regain my bearings. This morning, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling. When I tried going back to bed again, five minutes after I woke, I almost immediately felt trapped, enveloped by my bed, the blankets, the sheets and pillows, and most of all, the darkness.

I jumped up again. This time, the Karen woke, too, and worked with me. She followed me downstairs, rubbed my shoulders, said sweet things. After ten minutes of this, I tried one more time to get into bed, but nope. I again felt the overwhelmingness of our situation, of the night combined with the quarantine: I wanted it all to be over, both night and our inability to do what we wanted. Rationally, I knew both things would end in time—darkness in a couple of hours and quarantine in a month or two. But when I become anxious like this, feel the mental claustrophobia, rationality doesn’t apply.

Karen, who usually gets up around four on Tuesdays—her paper’s production day—was happy to sit with me in the wide-open living room/kitchen area, help coax me out of it. We put on shoes and stood on the back deck, in the cold and rain; we talked about nonsensical whimsy; we watched a couple of episodes of 30 Rock, which we’ve been rebinging the last week; she rubbed my back some more and we tried to fall asleep on the couch.

At five, her alarm went off and it was time for her to get to work—she usually has a dozen stories to write every Tuesday, little local paper snippets that she’s researched, conducted interviews for, and taken notes on during the previous week. I was more than happy to occupy myself and my thoughts, to make Karen her breakfast, to pack her a lunch. By the time I was done with that, the sun started to peek out from eastward and I felt better. I sat down on the couch and nodded off. Around six-thirty, Karen suggested I try the bed again, so I went up and immediately fell asleep, not waking until just before eleven, and only because the boys were up and wanting breakfast.

So, that was my early morning: a panic attack. I feel fine now. I’ve cleaned up around the house, read, took a shower, and got the boys outside to rake up the deck. Now we’re sitting at the table, me writing this post, them attempting at-home schooling.

How are you?

That book I read from today was The Empty House by Nathan Oates, out in 2013 from Lost Horse Press/Willow Springs Books as winner of the 2012 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. I’m familiar with Oates’ work—he was a runner-up in last year’s Moon City Short Fiction Award—but I’d not read any of these stories from The Empty House, his first book, despite them appearing in a lot of magazines and anthologies. So, here we go.

Oates’ collection basically deals with people travelling abroad, sort of the like other collections I’ve covered this year, including Derek Green and Serena Crawford. While Green’s book is about people working abroad and trying to profit from those situations, and Crawford’s is about lost people trying to find themselves, Oates’ stories lie somewhere in-between, as his travelers are sometimes lost when they embark on their journeys, but also become lost—or worse—while on them. The three books read similarly enough, thematically; at the same time, each author’s style is so distinct, they stand on their own.

Oates’ opening story, “Nearby, the Edge of Europe,” is about a college professor’s trip to Ireland with his family. Martin, our protagonist, traveled to these same parts as a boy, only to see tragedy befall his extended family while there. Now, he’s back with Caitlin—his famous novelist wife—and their three kids, trying to save his marriage. Caitlin, by the way, doesn’t want to be there, on top of the fact she’s started drinking heavily in the past couple of years. The family stays with Martin’s cousins, the same cousins he stayed with as a boy, and Martin must not only face the reality of his marriage, but an old relative to whom that tragedy befell.

“Looking for Service” is about an unnamed guy who journeys somewhere down to South America. He’s an accountant for a major mining corporation and his job is to travel to foreign branches and be the bad guy, look over their books and make sure they’re doing what they say they’re doing. While on his current trip, he runs into a young American couple, idealists who take to him like strays dogs, full of pep and looking for handouts. Their idealism eventually gets the best of them, however, and our guy’s stuck in the middle of it all.

“The Yellow House” is a shorter piece, the shortest in the book, and is about a guy who spies a particular yellow house on his way to and from work every day from his train window. The house makes him think of the house he lived in as a kid, the story sending its protagonist on a journey of a different kind.

That brings us to the title story, “The Empty House,” the last story in the book and my favorite of those I’ve read. “The Empty House” is a split point-of-view story, firstly about Ryan, an American journalist set to meet an old college friend, now a missionary in Guatemala. Ryan has been working in Chile and Argentina, writing about political uprisings and such, and has perhaps pressed the wrong buttons with the wrong government officials. He’s on his way home when he stops in Guatemala to see his friend.

At this point, the story cuts over to Ryan’s younger brother, a decade and a half later (and switches from third to first person at the same time). Ryan has been missing for years, since the proceedings of Ryan’s half of the story, and his brother, now in his twenties, has come to Guatemala in search of answers. He wants to at least talk to someone about the case, or perhaps merely to retrace his brother’s last-known steps. The civil war has recently ended, but this unnamed brother is still a stranger in a strange land, and there’s definitely still danger about, especially for a lone American asking too many questions about long-past disappearances.

The story follows this pattern, Oates shifting back and forth between timelines and brothers. Ryan wades deeper into his investigation. His priest friend never meets him at the train station, and after some looking around, Ryan finds his body in the courtyard of his parish, badly beaten and malformed. Ryan’s work—for which this Guatemala story was always just an extra—takes a backseat: He now just wants to get back to the States. He isn’t sure who to trust or how to even arrrive safely at the airport, however, his plane just a day away.

The brother’s story, which is given fewer words, keeps on Ryan’s trail, but sadly, there’s not much to go on: The details surrounding Ryan’s disappearance are slight. He can’t even find a case file at any police station.

Eventually, Oates reveals why this is, solving the mystery of what happened to Ryan, why  he never returned to America, why his brother had to come looking for him fifteen years later. I won’t reveal that here, though, as that would be too much. “The Empty House” is a really well told tale, cleverly structured, key details revealed at the exact right moment, yet snaring us into the narrative early with the right details. This, mixed with Oates’ keen sense for his settings, rings a true, exciting tone. It’s no wonder this story ended up in the Best American Mystery Stories anthology, a whodunnit, or perhaps a whuthappind.

I thoroughly enjoyed Nathan Oates’ debut collection, The Empty House. Ficton is all about giving characters problems to deal with, only some authors handle that better, and more uniquely, than others. I liked reading about these characters’ issues, set amidst these unfamiliar (to me) landscapes. Oates weaves conflict and setting so seamlessly, I wonder if he hasn’t been to all these places, hasn’t experienced all these events. He’s is a skilled writer and I’m thrilled to have spent this time with his earlier work today.


March 30, 2020: “We Show What We Have Learned” by Clare Beams

I hope you’re having a good Monday, Story366.

Today, I started teaching again, which means, in our new world, contacting my students via Blackboard announcement. Today was kind of like the first day of class, the day I just pass out and read the syllabus, not doing anything substantive, easing us into things. Today’s version was me telling them how the class will be different in the wake of the pandemic. For one class, already online, I simply rearranged the syllabus. For the other, I rearranged the syllabus and discussed the merits and logistics of teaching online. So, baby steps today. Something real tomorrow.

By the way, online teaching for me kind of takes away a lot of me. If you know me, you’ll know what I’m talking about, the fact that I’m loud, gregarious, loquacious, but at the same time, laid back. Online, not so much. Electronically, for some reason, I’m more get-to-it Mike, making sure everything the students know is put into words, into announcements and documents and the occasional rehearsed video, as clearly and effectively as I can. A lot of the personality and humor are stripped away. Students who have taken my online intro fiction workshop, then took me for a later, seated class, have noted that they had no idea what I was really like after a semester online. They were completely shocked by my loudness, gregariousness, loquacivity, and laid-back nature. I’ve asked which they prefer and they’ve all said they like in-person Mike better. I mean, of course they do: Even if you hate me—and many people do—you have to admit I’m at least interesting.

My suspicion is that it’s like that for most teachers, that they’re better in person than online. I’m sure there’s that small percentage, the introverts, who shine online. Maybe they’re great on video, rehearsing a bunch, reading from a script, extemporaneous speaking not their forté. Maybe they’re what I call syllabus and handout warriors, people who rely heavily upon materials to teach, things that transfer online well, better than they do out loud, off the cuff. Or maybe they just hate people and typing on a keyboard and talking into a camera makes more sense to them—wait, I think that’s just a pejorative explanation of “introvert.”

In any case, I hope to get better at the online stuff. Partly because I want to do a good job this last six or seven weeks. But also because I think this is the future: Colleges and universities have already been forced to offer as much online content as they can manage. Once everyone sees just how much of our job can be done this way, without having to be anywhere, in any particular place, at any particular time—in buildings that require costly maintenance—we’ll be teaching more and more online, worldwide pandemic or not. I shiver at the thought, but hey, the future is here.

For today’s post, I read from Clare Beams‘ 2016 debut, We Show What We Have Learned, out from Lookout Books. I’ve been aware of Beams as a writer and a social media friend for a while, but I can’t say that I’ve ever read her work before today. So, Story366 fixes another injustice.

I really liked everything I read from Beam’s book and could have written, in detail, about any of the stories. I’m defaulting to the title story, but that’s actually the shortest piece in the book, functioning on a slightly different arc than the others. “We Show What We Have Learned” is about this class of students and their teacher, Ms. Swenson. The story’s told from a we perspective, from the entire class, though several of the individual students are named throughout, as is often the case with first-plural stories, with communal narrators.

Beams announces in the story’s first line Ms. Swenson’s fate, telling us, “Before her disintegration, we had long held an absolute and unwavering contempt for Ms. Swenson.” Here, we know what’s going to happen right away, then Beams backtracks and sets the scene, leading us to the eventual disintegration. It’s a risky trick, giving away the twist in the first sentence, but we see that a lot in contemporary fiction and it worked here, grabbing my attention.

In any case, we basically find out that the narrator of this story, this class full of youngsters, is a bunch of misbehaving shits. Ms. Swenson seems to be doing her best to teach, though maybe that’s not good enough; students question her authority, not recognizing the wall between acceptable and unforgiveable. One boy pulls down a girl’s pants—as in, like, all the way—to show everyone her pubic hair; in most classroom settings, this probably equals suspension, if not expulsion and legal action. In Ms. Swenson’s class, the boy gets away with a simple Stop it! 

While Ms. Swenson is lecturing on wigwams, illustrating the hole at the top so smoke can escape, a different boy makes a crude comment about another girl (what escapes her “hole”0, trying to rope Ms. Swenson into a dirty joke. Again, Ms. Swenson admonishes the kid. This time, something else happens: When she flicks her hair from behind her ear, Ms. Swenson tears off a piece of her ear, the lobe and earring flying over her desk, landing in front of the students. The children scream and gasp, yet Ms. Swenson treats it like a sneeze, cleaning her ear off the floor with a Kleenex and dropping it in the trash.

As the school year goes on, more and more of Ms. Swenson falls apart, disintegrates. She loses teeth, fingers, and other minor appendages, all without pain or ado, always prompted by the misbehavior from the class. The kids either don’t learn thieir lesson or don’t care about Ms. Swenson’s predicament, as they keep it up, pushing her to her limits, then beyond. I won’t go into detail about that here. Even in the end, however, Ms. Swenson hopes they’ve learned from what’s happened to her, as her demise, like everything, is done for their sakes, for their enrichment.

Is this a fable? A magically real fairy tale? I hate to make this summary sound like there’s one explanation for what’s happened to Ms. Swenson, that there’s definitive, one-to-one interpretation. It’s easy, even lazy, to say this story is drastically pro-educator, an exaggeration of just how much teachers are willing to give to their students, who, in turn, take and take and take. That’s a legit reading, but Beams is more than enough skilled to include enough vaguery so the story can be read in a variety of ways, whether it’s this obvious read, something more complex, or maybe nothing at all: Sometimes writers don’t intend anything and leave that for the readers to decide (blogger raises his hand as guilty of that kind of shit).

Earlier I mentioned that “We Show What We Have Learned” is shorter and thus has a different arc than the other stories I read. By that, I mean that Beams isn’t always up-front with the twists in her story. In the title piece, we know Ms. Swenson is going to disintegrate right away. In the longer stories, Beams keeps that kind of twist, that kind of premise, from us, revealing it later on. In “Hourglass,” for example, the true nature of this super-strict girls’ boarding school isn’t revealed until the pentultimate page. And that’s a story filled with unpredictability, as the rebellious, aloof protagonist doesn’t rebel or even remain aloof—as we think she will—but instead conforms, leaving the rebellion to someone else.

“World’s End” is about a nineteenth-century architect who takes on a strange client and his strange vision for a living community: The guy basically wants him to create the very first suburb, to turn a huge tract of farmland into rows and rows of high-end houses. The architect dives in with glee, but then a changes of plans, which happens near the end of the story, turns everything on its ear.

“Granna” at first plays like a realistic story. It centers on Teresa, whose husband has just left her, claiming she doesn’t strike him as “mother material,” that she’s too selfish to be a mom. Teresa tries to prove him wrong by taking her aged grandmother, Granna, out of the nursing home she stuck her in to spend a week with her up in Vermont, where Granna used to take Teresa as a child. Again, Beams waits until past the halfway point to reveal something peculiar and unexpected, changing the story completely.

I like everything about We Show What We Have Learned, and by the end, the only thing I could predict about these stories was that something unpredictable and wonderful was going to happen. Clare Beams infuses her tales with warmth and empathy, making us care about her characters, about their unique situations. That’s when she likes to pull the rug out, change direction, execute the strange and unforeseen. Not a bad approach, especially when it produces results like these.





March 29, 2020: “Islands” by Aleksandar Hemon

Hello, Story366!

Yesterday, the fam and I went for a hike to what has normally been a sparsely crowded trail. It’s a mile north of the city limits and isn’t a loop (meaning you have to just walk out for a while, then turn around and retrace your steps), keeping the average hobbyist away. Yesterday, all of a sudden, it was pretty crowded. It was a gorgeous day, in the high seventies and breezy, coming off a day of thunderstorms and even some hail. People wanted to get out, and sooner or later, everyone’s going to find out about nice things. Such is life.

Sadly, we had to turn around about ten minutes into our walk, as most everyone else on the trail wasn’t adhering to social distancing. Since all of this started, we have been walking along the right edge of every trail we hit, usually in single file, moving several feet off whenever we pass someone or someone wants to pass us. Yesterday, however, we ran into groups of people who just weren’t cooperating. One group, who’d been wading in the river, spread themselves out on the trail, drying their shirts on a ledge as they all put their shoes and socks back on. Since this was under an overpass, there was no way to avoid them; this is where we turned around. Another group—a couple and their eight or nine kids—lurched up behind us, their kids running wild, also spreading out across the entire trail. Two women were walking dogs, on long leashes, and took up the whole trail, us having to push ourselves against a fence to avoid them and their pitbulls. Several couples walked hand in hand, in the center of the trail, not giving any room. What’s worse, all of this is bad trail etiquette even when there’s no coronavirus scare. Yesterday, their stupidity was compounded. And it’s starting to piss me off.

We’ve all witnessed the scenes at the bars before St. Patrick’s Day, the beaches during spring break, and other gatherings of people ignoring this lockdown. The trails were the one place we could actually go, but now I wonder if even that’s going to be a good idea. Part of it is me not wanting to get sick or for my family to get sick. Another part, I must admit, is how mad all of this makes me. When a couple of mouth-breathing jackasses spring along, hand in hand, basically pushing us to the side, it makes me think they’re rude, or maybe just self-absorbed; during this particular crisis, it flat-out infuriates me. After the fifth or sixth instance of these imbeciles taking over the trail—not to mention giving us the stinkeye when we moved over—my hike felt ruined. The last thing I need is to head out to get some fresh air and relax, only to get worked up and see my blood pressure rise.

I don’t think I’m dumb enough at this stage of my life to actually get into it with anyone—to hit someone would be a definite violtion of the six-foot rule. Then again, if anyone touches me, or worse, says something to me about being smart, I might lose it. Is that what we need? Maybe I just need to chill the fuck out. Or maybe we need to take our walks on campus—which is abandoned—for the millionth time. Ugh.

For today, I got into that “I’ve had these forever” stack again, this time picking up Aleksandar Hemon‘s collection, The Question of Bruno, out in 2001 from Vintage. Hemon has gone on to great success since this, his first book, publishing four highly touted novels. Currently, he’s penning the forthcoming Matrix sequel. That’s a pretty impressive progression, especially considering Hemon emigrated to the U.S.—to Chicago—from Sarajevo in 1992, barely speaking English. Makes me think I should have read him sooner. Also makes me think I should be doing more with my own writing, in my native language.

I read the first four stories in The Question of Bruno today, and will focus this entry on the opener, “Islands.” “Islands” is told in numbered vignettes, most about a pargraph long (though sometimes, there’s a scene packed in). It’s about a kid’s weeklong trip to Mljet, an island off the coast of Croatia, what, at the time, was Yugoslavia. The boy, who’s never named, travels by boat with his parents and meets some aunts and uncles, stays with them, where they enjoy the beaches and sites, basically getting away from the mainland for a while.

I’ll get into this more in a bit, but reading The Question of Bruno is like reading a book of twentieth-century Eastern European history, especially that of that former Yugoslavia, Hemon’s home country. While this story is set during a relatively peaceful time—remember, the 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo—there’s a lot of recent history that has scarred these people (on top of the ongoing civil wars).

This boy, our protagonist, gets a lot of the horrible details of his country from his uncles while on this getaway, particularly Uncle Julius. While the family treks to the beach or examines the family beehives (lots of beehives in this book), Uncle Julius regales our young hero with stories of occupiers, pirates, and snakes, which all more or less serve as metaphors for each other, for their history. We hear of how the island was rid of its stifling snake infestation by importing a ton on mongoose (mongeese?) from Africa to kill the snakes, only to see the mongoose bring about another kind of tyranny. This smacks of how “liberation” usually goes, how occupied countries often trade one evil for something worse. I don’t know my Yugoslvian history, but I’m pretty sure this story is referring to the Germans and the Russians (as a Pole, this sounds all too familiar).

We, as in the protagonist kid, also hear about Uncle Julius’ time in Russian prisons, about a guy he knew who found a way to survive, only to extend his anguish, make his suffering last. Again, I can’t help but think this is standing for something else.

Eventually, the family does leave the island, returning home, only to find things aren’t quite the same as they were when they left. Hemon sneaks in one final history lesson, as he’s right, nothing’s ever like you remember it. Or maybe he’s pointing out what kind of an effect neglect has on a community—the family made no plans to care for their plants or pets and sees the consequences when they return. Even the boy’s longing for his lost hat—it blows off his head and into the sea at the start of the story—is another lesson, this about the nature of loss. Everything in “Islands”—where nothing really happens, I’ll note—stands for something else. In that way, “Islands” is a masterpiece. I just wish I knew more about this country so it’d have its full effect.

Other stories function in the same vein, including a great deal of the history of these people, often overlapping with grand figures and events. “The Life and Work of Alphonse Kauders” is a biography, told in vignettes, of one man who seems to have been the most connected and influential man of the century, having run-ins with Stalin, Hitler, Eva Braun (with whom he has an affair), and Milošević. It’s a tall tale, part Paul Bunyan and part Dos Equis’ Most Interesting Man in the World, but there still seems to be truth here, something to gain.

“The Sorge Spy Ring” is a dual story, one told from the perspective of a boy who thinks his father is a spy, the other told in third person via footnotes, the very real and detailed story of Richard Sorge, a real-life spy. This story is about reality and story intermingling, depending on what perspective you believe.

Lastly, I read “The Accordian,” which is mostly from the point of view of Archduke Ferdinand, his fateful journey along the parade route, and a man with an accordian he spies right before his assassination. At the end, the perspective switches to a first-person storyteller, who might be Hemon himself, who might be a metafictional stand-in, comparing the accordian story to what really happened.

I enjoyed reading from The Question of Bruno, engaging myself with Aleksandar Hemon’s style, his mission, and his lessons. I like the fiction moves he makes, ustilizing unique formats, approaches, and perspectives, but also spy the longing, the suffering, and isolation of these characters. I never did find out who Bruno is, not getting to that reference yet, though I’m starting to think that Bruno might be the author, as this book feels strongly autobiographical. Overall, this was time well spent today, checking so many boxes for what a book can do, what fiction can be.




March 28, 2020: “Pig Latin” by Clarice Lispector, Translated by Katrina Dodson

Happy Anniversary, Story366!


Today’s post is the 500th post on Story366! Congratulations to me, I guess, for keeping this weird and wonderful mission on course. The great abundance of those posts came in the inception year, 2016, when I wrote on 366 stories/collections/authors in 366 days. This year, I’ve now written eighty-eight posts, a scattershot of books in-between the leap years. That’s a lot of stories, a lot of books, a lot of authors, and a lot of styles, voices, characters, plots, paragraph, sentences, and words. I can honestly say, after absorbing so much short story, that I’m a better reader, a smarter critic, and a more inspired writer.

Story366 serves a lot of purposes, and primarily, it educates me. Sure, I post these on a blog, for the public, and shout about them all over social media. But thousands upon thousands of readers do what I do, enjoy book, get smarter, etc., without sharing that, without reporting it in blog form. It’s just what reading is, a personal endeavor, and I’ve benefitted from in in infinitesimal way.

As a close second, my mission has always been to exhalt these names, hoping that others will see what I see, get interested in these authors, discover some great stories. I’m hoping, of course, that I can help sell some books, help these authors’ careers progress, even if by a reader or two. The fact that this blog will always exist, as an archive, makes that all the more possible. I think I’ve done that, too, though that’s more difficult for me to gauge.

Overall, thanks to everyone who reads this blog, who comments, who likes the posts, and who shares them, and to all those who have sent me books to read and write about. Without this type of encouragement, I would not have kept going. This has become part of my life and identity and that makes me very, very happy.

Here’s to another five hundred, and beyond. Keep writing stories, keep writing books. I’ll keep doing my thing, too.

For today’s post, I wanted to do a special writer, a luminary, the way I started 2016 with Adam Johnson, ended it with Junot Díaz, and started this year with Zadie Smith. A quick scan through my to-read pile revealed a no-brainer choice,  Clarice Lispector‘s Complete Stories, out in 2018 from New Directions. The entire book is translated by Katrina Dodson and was edited by Benjamin Moser, her primary English-language biographer. This book was quite an event when it came out in 2018, as Lispector’s stories had never been collected before, not even in her native Portuguese. So, getting ahold of this book meant instant box set. While I’m someone who likes to collect stories collections, this edition makes it all-too-easy to just have it all, all at once.

A bit of background on my experience with Lispector: In college, for some English or comparative lit class, I bought a Norton Anthology of short fiction or world literature, and some University of Illinois TA was smart enough to put Lispector’s story “A Chicken” on the syllabus. I read that story and liked it, but ever since then, haven’t read much, if any, of Lispector’s work. Still, whenever someone mentions her, I either think or say, “A Chicken!” as if I were some expert on Lispector. Sadly, that kind of knowledge of trivia can actually work, can make you seem like you’re part of a richer conversation. It’s similar to my passing knowledge of drug use, The Smiths, and Frederico Fellini. If anyone would ever atempt to engage in deeper conversation with me on any of those subjects, I can always yell out, “It’s like the time I was smoking a blunt, listening to Meat Is Murder, while La Dolce Vida was playing in the background.” Then I could fake a heart attack to weasel my way out of further questioning. Lispector and “A Chicken” are on that list. (Though who reads a short story while listening to an album and watching a movie? Must be some prime blunt.)

Complete Stories is arranged sequentially, meaning all of Lispector’s collections can be found in this book, in order. The table of contents is handy in splitting the stories up by collection, so it’s easy to figure out what stories are included in which books. Today I read a couple-few stories from each book; normally I try to read three or four stories per collection, but since Complete Stories is so massive and covers so much time, I wanted to get a broader scope of Lispector’s efforts.

I’m not going to summarize every story I read for today, as I normally would do, but will point out which stories I especially enjoyed (which, by the way, were pretty much all the stories I read): “The Triumph”; “The Escape”; “Love”; “A Chicken” again; “The Smallest Woman in the World”; “The Dinner”; “The Egg and the Chicken”; “The Fifth Story”; “Profiles of Chosen Beings”; “Eat Up, My Son”; “The Servant”; “Report on the Thing”; “Better Than to Burn”; “But It’s Going to Rain”; and finally, the coda, “One Day Less,” which is in a two-part section called “Final Stories,” which I assume are the last pieces Lispector wrote before she passed in 1977. It was a splendid hour or two of my life, the time I spent with these stories, and I hope to engage in this collection more, until I’ve read it all. I see this book working the same way Barthelme’s 40 Stories and 60 Stories does for me now, books I keep on hand, read from, reference when I need to be inspired.

To sum up Lispector’s work is a gargantuan task, one I might not have the critical vocabulary to properly tackle. I’ll say that Lispector does have a Post-Modern sensibility, like Berthelme, her stories beyond the simple Freytag mold that more traditional writers lean on in their work. The stories often employ a third-person omniscient narrator, and even when they don’t, the noticeable psychic distance makes it seem like they do. Often, I felt like I was reading a fairy tale or fable when I was reading these stories, as if there was a grand narrator trying to teach me something as I read. There’s an absurdity and a surrealness to these stories, though some are completely realistic, too. Lispector’s tone and voice bring gravitas to each of her works, make even the smallest story, with the most trifling of premise, seem like a masterwork. That’s probably because they are.

Runner-up candidates or today’s focus included “The Egg and the Chicken,” a nice companion piece to “A Chicken,” and “The Smallest Woman in the Word,” which is one of Lispector’s less-subtle examinations of race and identity. I chose “Pig Latin,” which explores a lot of the themes Lispector used, but in the end, has a slightly easier plot to describe here.

“Pig Latin” is about Cidinha, a Brazilian English teacher who embarks on a journey by train to Rio, where she’ll take a plane to New York and hone her craft. She is excited to be heading to America, but her enthusiasm is soon quelled by two seedy-looking men who board the train and sit in the bench across from her. Cidinha and the men are the only people in their car, which of course makes Cidinha nervous—that would make a woman nervous anywhere, in any era.

Cidinha, a speaker of many languages, hears the two men speaking in a tongue she can’t understand. Before long, she realizes they’re speaking Pig Latin (which must also exist in Portuguese … but why wouldn’t it?). She huddles into herself, stares out the window, and begins to translate. The two men, it seems, find her attractive and want to have sex with her (but say it in a much cruder manner). If this isn’t disturbing enough, the talk escalates and the men discuss raping her, then murdering her, then what they’ll do with her body. Cidinha is obviously distressed.

As a woman who’s never traveled along—and also happens to be a virgin—Cidinha does the only thing she can think of: She begins to act like a prostitute, thinking she’ll spook the men. She unbuttons her blouse, gyrates seductively, and liberally applies lipstick. She also hums and stares at the men, her would-be assailants, kind of turning the tables on advancement. Her plan works, it seems, as she has indeed bugged the rapists out. Soon, they are, still in Pig Latin, discussing plans to call the police and turn Cidinha in to authorities.

Apparently, in Brazil, in this era, a woman acting like a prostitute is illegal, as at the next stop, Cidinha is arrested and removed from the train. On her way off the platform, she spies a little girl who is boarding the train, a girl who looks at her with disgust. Cidinha has perhaps saved her life, but she is ashamed—and she’s going to miss her flight to New York.

Eventually, Cidinha is released from custody, only to discover an abysmal horror. I won’t reveal that here, but there’s some existential irony at work. In her bio, I read that Lispector was heavily influenced by Sartre, and I see that influence here. “Pig Latin” is a horrific story, but it’s a great story, one that holds up today as well as ever.

So, five hundred posts in. I am so pleased I marked this occasion with such a milestone of a book, Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories. Lispector is one of the twentieth century’s masters and now I have all of her stories here, at my fingertips. I suggest you do the same, place this book close to where you read and write. It’s a reference book as much as a collection of art, a guide to how to do the thing we do and excel at it.



March 27, 2020: “The Dead Girls Show” by Sarah Harris Wallman

Friday again, Story366!

Last week I made a post where I said I would no longer talk about what would have been, no more references to what I or we would be doing if not for the coronavirus quarantine. In the eight days since, I’ve kept to that. It’s a good idea, not worrying about what’s not going to happen, what’s in the past—only it’s not in the past: Just the idea of it is. I’ve focused on the today and the tomorrow and I’m proud.

Today I’m going to go back on that for just a second, as yesterday would have been MLB’s Opening Day. The day came and went without me thinking on it at all, but when I logged into social media before bed, I couldn’t get away from it. For a few minutes, I felt genuinely sad, as opposed to worried or anxious, my new norms. I’ve documented my feelings over this whole quarantine, almost daily, how grateful my family is that it hasn’t affected us, yet, as much as it’s affected others. Since we got to go for a hike yesterday—which we had thought would be off limits—it really seemed as if we were going to go about our lives as normal (save being able to visit my family). When I’d made those claims, I hadn’t considered baseball, my beloved Chicago Cubs.

Today—which, ironically, would have been that stupid mandatory second-day off day—I’m admitting that I could use some baseball right now. The sun is out, my allergies are ripe, and my internal calendar has filled me with the hope that this will be a Cubs championship season (so far, I’m 1 for 46 in that department). I know people are dying and people are sick, miseable in Army hospitals set up in warehouses and dormitories and on fairgrounds. But I wish we’d have baseball, like we did after 9/11, during wars, and during this Trump administration nightmare. We could all use the distraction now, right? I remember them cancelling a game or two after 9/11, but then it was back to business. Saturday Night Live aired a live episode, in downtown Manhattan, four days after the attacks. People needed that. And I wonder, as we head further into this dilemma, if people won’t need baseball. I think they will. I could surely use it, even now.

Today, I get to review a book on its release day—yay!  Hearty congrats to Sarah Harris Wallman, whose debut collection, Senseless Women, is out from the University of Massachusetts Press as the winner of its latest Juniper Prize for Fiction. I’ve gotten to know Wallman a bit on social media, but hadn’t read her stories before today. So, on the book’s birthday, here we go.

I started reading today by tackling the opener, “The Dead Girls Show,” To employ a terrible pun, it’s a show-stopper. “The Dead Girls Show” is about a high school sophomore named Carly, who wonders into the seedy side of town—full of strips clubs and the town’s least-expensive dentist. One club stuck between the more conventional Girl! Girls! Girls!-type places is the Dead Girls Show, where actual dead girls make up the bill. The girls in the show all died gruesome, sad deaths, including the girl who hung herself, the girl raped and dismembered by a serial killer, and the girl who died from anorexia. It’s a morbid venue, but Carly is drawn to it, a sad girl herself, an orphan, relating to the tragedies that took all of the girls’ lives. It’s kind of a sick, gothic version of tweens at a Britney Spears concert, only Carly doesn’t wish she were a pop star. To note, the show isn’t really about sex, but most of the girls are naked on stage (which is weird, as they’re all way underage—I guess statuatory laws don’t apply to the dead). One other person is in the crowd, a large, older man, who heckles the show—he’s a regular and his banter with the dead girls has become part of the acts.

Wow, right? This is high-octane fiction and I was hooked from the start. I usually post on the title story, which I’ll sum up later on, but I couldn’t stop myself from using “The Dead Girls Show” as today’s centerpiece.

Carly, so moved by the dead girls, goes backstage and tries to meet with them, with their manager, and as fate would have it, the manager, Milo, runs her over in the alley, killing her. Our protagonist is dead four pages into the story.

Lucky for Carly, she died at the exact right place and in the right piece of fiction, as Milo is not only the manager, but he’s the one who can resurrect the girls. Really, time travel gets more of an explanation in Back to the Future than resurrection does in this story, but that’s not what this piece is about. This piece is about Carly moving from live fan of the Dead Girls to sort of a viable candidate for the marquee. The girls try to find a way to work Carly into their act, “ironic car crash victim” unmarketable. For a while, Carly takes on the role of stage manager and understady.

As much as Carly geeks out on the girls—some nice passages describe “life” for the Dead Girls while not on stage—she also teaches them a few things about the living since their demise. Part of this includes a field trip to a neighboring club, where they cause a ruckus, of sorts. Worse, the strippers from this club decide to visit the Dead Girls Show the next night, basically to start a fight, to bring the shit down on the Dead Girls,. Territorial pissing is a thing even between living and deceased sex workers.

This visit by the live dancers leads us to the climax, which I won’t reveal here. Wallman has set up quite a scenario for herself, but with her climactic scene and denouement, she fulfills the promise of her premise, making “The Dead Girls Show” one of the most exciting, unique, creative, emotional, and overall great stories I’ve read this year. It’s messed up because it’s about underage dead girls being exploited, but that’s just the metaphor, the cover for what’s really happened to these poor souls when alive, the tragedy of the lives, but especially of their ends.

The second story is “One Car Hooks Into the Next and Pools,” which is mostly from the point of view of a train that suddenly becomes aware. Along with some observations on the state of itself, how its passengers interact, and sheep, the train focuses on one woman in particular, her brief affair with another passenger, and the resulting aftermath of their schism.

“North of Eden” is a really great shorter piece about a college dorm that goes all Eden—mixed-gender dorms and bathrooms—the hedonism that ensues, and how society falls apart when one dude’s python gets loose on the floor. Love this piece and will use in classes in the future.

I then read the title story, “Senseless Women,” about Miriam, a nurse at a coma-care facility. Miriam’s job is pretty easy, as her patients either lie there and do nothing or die, hence the book and story’s title (though there’s double meaning ther of course). To pass the time, she monitors their involuntary exhaltations, little noises and words they utter while vegetating. Things get shook when a new patient, a Jane Doe, arrives and won’t stop talking. Miriam dubs her “Lady Voice,” and while recording Lady Voice’s utterings, tries to solve the mystery of who put her in this state—she was poisoned! Along with the answer to that question, Miriam discovers a parallel to her own life that forces her to change her own existence as well.

I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Senseless Women, the daring plots, the absurdity, the careful attention that Sarah Harris Wallman gives to her characters. I love the mixture, how she defines her protagonists by their reactions to the absurdity, making all these pieces particularly memorable—I could have written about any of the stories in this book, I’m sure. This is what we in this business call a “stunning debut,” a book I can’t recommend enough.



March 26, 2020: “Welcome to Freedom Point” by Marina Mularz

Hello, Story366!

Today is the first official day of the stay-home order here in Springfield. Last night, a few minutes after midnight, I felt a tiny bit of anxiety strike, almost as if all the doors and windows automatically shut and locked themselves, trapping me inside. Or maybe it was like the garbage chute scene in Star Wars, stuck in a tiny room of filth and one-eyed predators as the walls collapse. It passed pretty quickly, but I still had that feeling, as if something, at midnight, had changed.

Today, in reality, turned out to be no different than yesterday. We got up. We cooked. We ate. We cleaned. I worked on class prep. I picked up an order of groceries. We all went for a walk on a trail. This last part was a bit of a surprise, as I kinda thought the trails would be closed, too. Karen checked and they weren’t. In fact, since today was absolutely gorgeous—eighty degrees for a high—more people were out than I’ve seen since Christmas, when it got into the sixties. So, we were out and about, did a couple of miles, passed people and were passed by others, keeping our distance. We got some dirty looks when we moved off trail, but I can live with dirty looks.

Again, I’ll say it, especially since we know we can go for hikes: Our lives aren’t all that different under quarantine. We’re extremely lucky in that way and have stressed this to our boys. We’ve made it clear that other people—including two of their aunts—are healthcare workers (nurses) and will work the frontlines every day. Then there’s all the grocery store, gas station, and pharmacy employees who can’t just go home and isolate themselves like we can. Kudos to them, making it easy for us to stay home and feel comfortable.

For today’s post, I read from Marina Mularz‘s 2019 collection, Welcome to Freedom Point, out from New American Press as the winner of their New American Fiction Prize. I just got this book in the mail yesterday after requesting it from the press, and I hadn’t read anything by Mularz before. I decided to dive right in and see what Mularz does with a story.

Welcome to Freedom Point is another collection of linked stories, one in which every story (I think) takes place in or around Freedom Point, a remote city in Wisconsin. All of the stories I read involved youngsters from Freedom Point Junior High, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders who get into all sorts of scrapes. The book even looks like a black marble-patterned notebook, complete with doodles and stickers. All in all, a neat concept turned into a well executed collection.

The lead story, “Welcome to Freedom Point,” gives the most insight into the origins of the town, its backstory, if you will. We find out that the plot of land that would become Freedom Point was a stop on a much larger journey. As it turns out, the original settlers of Freedom Point overslept, and instead of rushing to catch up with the others, on their way to California, they took a vote and decided to stay. This lethargy and apathy is symbolic of Freedom Point from there on out, as a Freedom Pointer, or a Settler (the junior high mascot) is someone who would rather not bother. It’s their idiom, settling, and they wear it like a medal.

Flash forward to modern day and a yawn epidemic hits the town—that’s how the rising action is initiated in “Welcome to Freedom Point.” Deciding enough is enough—every yawn is taking an average of six seconds and everyone yawns over a hundred times a day—the junior high calls in a motivational speaker and set him up in the gym during first period. This after caffeine, scary spiders, and air horns all fail. A motivational speaker was the next logical step in Freedom Point’s universe.

Enter Del Calhoun, motivational speaker extraoridnaire. Del is dressed like a frontiersman, complete with buckskin outfit and moccassins; his face is painted, too, Chippewa-like, as he claims to be the direct ancestor of Chief Shenandoah. To round out the outfit, he’s got a bald eagle named Coyote with him, which flies circles around the gym and lands on his shoulder on command. Del certainly has flare.

Del proceeds to try to pump the kids up, yelling at them though a microphone, telling them to start dreaming. His logic? If you can yawn, you can sleep. If you can sleep, you can dream. Dell calls the crowd his dreamcatchers, in fact. He then parlays that into a challenge to become ambitious, asking for volunteers to tell him what their dreams are. Del has to pull teeth to get anyone to participate—they’re all still yawning—until one of the teachers finally raises her hand and tells Del she wants to read about gardening more. When Del tells her to take her dreams further, to actually garden and not just read about it, the teacher instantly retreats. She claims that there are too many bees in a garden and her husband doesn’t allow her around bees.

Del is just about give up when the principal sacrifices himself, comes down to the floor, and sparticipates—it was his idea to bring Del in, after all. As the principal starts to engage in Del’s motivational program, Del pulls out  a snake that the principal has to pick up, facing a fear. The students actually stop yawning and start to pay attention. That’s when the gym doors open to a surprising new guest.

Enter Del Calhoun—another Del Calhoun. This one is dressed similarly, in a different frontier outfit, with different paint, and instead of an eagle on his shoulder, he has a bobcat on a leash. Still, he’s cut from the same mold as the original Del.

All of a sudden, the two Del Calhouns are arguing about who the real Del Calhoun is. The arguing leads to fighting and when the new Del rubs off some of the first Del’s facepaint, he recognizes the first Del as Walt, his intern. Walt, hoping to be Del Calhoun, at least for a day, decided to step in and be Del Calhoun, only he forgot to tell the original Del, to take the assembly in Freedom Point off the calendar.

I won’t go any further into the plot, but will say this: Watching two Del Calhouns—certainly more Del Calhoun than anyone can handle—fight it out, their eagle, bobcat, and snake in on the melee, the yawn epidemic at FPJH is certainly sated. At least for first period.

That’s the tone that Mularz sets for her collection. The next story, “Go Home, Karlee Starr,” is an unreliable-narrator piece about an eighth grader, Karlee Starr, who falls in love with her teacher, Mr. Marbury. Mr. Marbury, sensing Karlee has no friends and will not be invited to the school dance, hires Karlee on as a student monitor to help him keep order. Little does he know, Karlee has been planning their wedding since sixth grade.

“We Love You, Ben Bertram” is about Ben Bertram on the day he comes home from camp, his parents picking him up, taking him for ice cream, and trying deperately to break some bad news. The problem is, Ben has horrible anxiety problems, so much so his parents have had to go through therapy training just to learn how to talk to him so he doesn’t freak out. Considering the news they have to give, they are right to be worried.

I also read “The Other Side,” which has a very similar outcome to “We Love You, Ben Bertram,” so much so I wondered if they were the same story (it’s not). The difference in “The Other Side” is that it’s told in second person and is much more vague than Ben Bertram’s tale, Mularz flexing a bit of an experimental approach in this one.

Overall, Welcome to Freedom Point is an enjoyable collection, one that succeeds because it never takes itself too seriously and knows what it wants to be. Marina Mularz has a distinct style, one she’s mastered, and that allows her to take chances, to write interesting stories. That title story is pretty cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, these ridiculous figures fighting it out amidst this ridiculous presence, but it makes for one of the most unique reading experiences I’ve had this year. Good for Mularz. Good for us.


March 25, 2020: “Two Strangers” by Michael Croley

Hello, Story366!

Two major updates since I posted yesterday. The first is that Springfield, like a lot of places, is going stay-at-home, starting at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow, and will stay that way for thirty days. This is the right move, prompted by three residents here recently dying from coronavirus complications, three elderly nursing house residents. I’m so sad for them and the people mourning them, and sad that it likely took their deaths for a decision like this to be made (as is so often the case). I do like living in a community that is taking this seriously, though, and if that means I have to stay at home with my family for a month, so be it. We’ve basically been doing that, anyway, practicing strict social distancing since last Monday. I think we’ll be set. Here’s to the next month, then—see you all on the other side! Or just right here.

Secondly, I got a Twitter! Seriously, after all this time, I finally took the plunge. It was a random decision, me seeing someone’s Twitter handle link on an article, clicking on it, and what do you know, five minutes later, I had a profile. Really, if life is going to be at home, all of my work and relations online, then I might as well go full-on and get with the times. I want to be sure to be in the loop, but I’ve also heard that some people are using Twitter for their online classes (how, I’m not yet sure). More than anything, though, I want to promote Moon City Press, its authors, and this blog, Story366. I don’t think I’ve been reaching enough people, maybe not seeing this project reach its full potential. If there was something I could do to change that, something as easy as getting a Twitter account, then I needed to do that. And I have. So you can now find me at Twitter here. Whatever you do with that information is up to you.

Today, I read four really good stories from Michael Croley‘s collection, Any Other Place, out in 2019 from Blair. I’d not run into Croley’s work before today, though he’s been in a lot of journals and won an NEA for 2016. So it’s high time I see what it is that he does.

The first four stories in this collection reveal a lot. Most are set in Croley’s native Kentucky, in the town of Fordyce, but also have ties to Korea, speaking to Croley’s heritage. All four of the stories involve very personal conflicts between a protagonist and another person. Croley keeps the drama close to his characters, letting us watch as his protagonists are pained by the choices they have to make, and sometimes, pained further by the results of their decisions.

Take Wren in the opening story, “Slope,” a guy who has fallen in love with a woman who has just moved to Paris—to live with her boyfriend. Seems like a good time to move on, but the woman, Hannah, makes it hard, calling him every day as soon as her boyfriend leaves for work, when it’s eight a.m. for her and two a.m. for him. Wren has it bad for Hannah. Though it seems an impossible situation, neither one of them wants it to end, even if what they have is sparse and painful. This affair is paired with revelations of an anger problem Wren hides, a propensity to get into fights, making a reader wonder how those two lines will come together.

“Larger Than the Sea” is really different, is historical, set in Korea during World War II. The protagonist, Hyo, knows the Japanese are coming to his village to force all the men into service, where they will be used as front-line fighters against the Americans; they will all likely die quick deaths. Most of the men have already retreated into the mountains, where they will wait out the war, but Hyo stays behind to look after his wife, Seo-Yun, and their infant daughter, Sook-Cha. The question of what is braver, to hide and live or stay and die, is argued between the couple, then put to the test when the Japanese suddenly arrive and Hyo must make a move.

“Since the Accident” is about Emma, whose marriage to Richard is deteriorating. Part of this is due to a car accident, one that left the driver in the oncoming, at-fault vehicle decapitated in front of Emma. The other is the couple’s inability to conceive, which turns out to be less inability and more unwillingness. A second grave incident brings the truth to the forefront.

The story I’ll highlight today is “Two Strangers.” This story is about J.D., a Kentucky-born doctor who suddenly finds himself the legal guardian of Carly Ray. Carly Ray is the orphaned daughter of Burl, J.D.’s recently deceased best friend, who made J.D. her legal godparent years earlier, not having any idea that J.D. would actually have to care for her one day (Carly Ray’s mother took off as soon as she was born). J.D. had been living in New York, working as a doctor when all this went down, and is now, suddenly, the father of an eleven-year-old girl. J.D. has a lot of decisions to make.

The story is called “Two Strangers,” and indeed, this story is about these two people who don’t know each other at all—Carly Ray didn’t remember J.D. at all before her father died, not even mention of him in conversation. Croley doesn’t focus on that so much, though, so there’s not a lot of the Kramer vs. Kramer-type getting to know each other. The story centers more around J.D. and his struggle with this new life. At the outset, he’s already decided to move back to Fordyce so Carly Ray can keep her life: They’ll live in Burl’s house, she’ll go to the same school, and she’ll have the same friends. The only difference is, this weird guy will be her dad.

J.D.’s decision to move back to Kentucky tears him apart. When you’re living in New York, especially with the means of a physician, you probably get used to a certain lifestyle, one that Kentucky can’t offer. J.D. also has a girlfriend, who he’s been seeing for four months—just enough time to not blow it off, but not enough time to make a life-changing commitment. Julie, the girlfriend, is, however, ready for that commitment, though only if it involves J.D. and Carly Ray moving to New York. Or, at the very least, Julie wants J.D. to fight for her, to at least consider it. J.D. stoically insists Carly Ray belongs in Fordyce, some kind of fleeting promise to Burl.

All of this stress leads J.D. to put one on one afternoon while Carly Ray’s at school. He slams beer after beer as he tries to clean up and fix Burl’s house (now his, as Burl left him everything). This leads to a drunken tantrum in Carly Ray’s bedroom, which Carly Ray unfortunately witnesses; J.D.’s mom, who still lives in Fordyce, had to pick Carly Ray up from school, J.D. too drunk to remember. Mom is not happy and Carly Ray runs out of the house and disappears.

I’ll not reveal here what happens next, but going along with the theme of all of the stories I’ve read, Croley forces J.D. to make a choice, makes him confront the thing he leasts wants to face: Carly Ray, this literal stranger. J.D. doesn’t know if he can do this, but considering Carly Ray’s options, he doesn’t really have any other option.

Any Other Place, Michael Croley’s impressive debut collection, mixes interesting settings, high-stakes decision making, and real-as-life characters, crafting tight, engaging fiction. I enjoyed my time with his book today, getting to know another talented writer’s work.


March 24, 2020: “Not Dead Yet” by Hadley Moore

Good day to you, Story366!

Yesterday, I found out that Moon City Press‘s distributor, the Chicago Distribution Center (CDC), has been closed down as part of Illinois’ social-distancing order. I think this is a fantastic idea, forced social distancing, and I stand by this decree. However, it does mean that no Moon City title will ship, when ordered, until the order is lifted, which right now stands at April 9. I do believe that anyone who is ordering books at this point has to know that the mail, and mail-order items, are going to be put on hold. At the very least, they shouldn’t be surprised by it if it’s their first encounter with such an inconvenience. Since we don’t deal in things like medical supplies, food, diapers, or other essentials, two extra weeks to wait on a book is no big deal, right? I do think it’s going to be longer than two weeks—at least it should be—but still. People will get their books, the press will survive, and all of this pales in comparison to the things that are really important out there, like all those warehouse and shipping employees staying safe.

Concerning this matter, my heart does goes out to Pablo Piñero Stillmann, whose debut collection, Our Brains and the Brains of Miniature Sharks, was supposed to come out on April 1. Pablo just had his big (soft) release at AWP canceled because of all this. We moved on from that, and I literally promised him that we’d make it up to him. There’d be other readings/events, a big splash for the actual release. Now this. So, if you like great stories—and you being on this page tells me that you do—click here to pre-order a copy of this fantastic new collection. The release date is now May 15, but we’ll keep you posted.

With that in mind, on to the story.

For today, I read from Hadley Moore‘s 2018 collection, Not Dead Yet, out from Autumn House Press as winner of their 2018 Fiction Prize. I’d not come across Moore’s work yet, so without further ado ….

Lately, it seems like I’ve been reading a lot of collections of linked stories. And if the books haven’t been specifically linked, they’ve been thematically consistent, really feeling like books that were written as a project. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s book, which I covered yesterday, is just a recent example; though just a few days ago, I guess I did boast of Peter LaSalle’s eclecticism. Moore’s work is more in the vein of LaSalle, I guess, as I really enjoyed reading different types of stories here, featuring different types of characters.

I started with the opener, “When My Father Was in Prison,” from the POV of a nine-year-old boy whose father is in prison (she delivers what she promises …). The story is told in short, poignant vignettes and focuses more on the kid’s obsession with his brother being gay than his dad being in prison. I liked how tight the language is in this story, forced by the vignette format, also mixing humor with the tragedy and awkwardness of the situation.

Next up was “The Entomologist,” about a retired bug professor who has termites eating her joists and hippies growing efficient vegetables in her back yard. I liked this story, too, the irony of a woman having so expertise in an area that’s systematically destroying her.

After, I skipped ahead a bit to “Baby True Tot,” about a woman in a mental health facility who buys an expensive, creepy doll to replace her dead cat. The story fences the POV between this woman and a younger man, also committed to this facility, who takes a special shine to her, though not the doll.

“Not Dead Yet,” our featured story today, is about Dean, an elderly black man whose wife has been diagnosed with cancer. That’s a pretty commonly told story, but the trick is this: This woman, Loraine, is Dean’s second wife, and his first wife, Marie, has already died of cancer. In fact, Dean met Loraine at a survivor’s meeting, Lorraine also having lost her husband. Lorraine, like Dean, is black, and both of their deceased spouses were white (though I’m not sure this has any bearing on the story).

So, this is a sad piece, highlighting just how shitty life can, how randomly unforgiving. Moore wisely doesn’t write about the trials and tribulations of Lorraine’s cancer, though. The story really happens right after she and Dean find out, when they get the grave news that Lorraine has, at most, two years. Dean starts to do the math in his head: There’ll be so many months of semi-normalcy, so many months of more serious illness, a period of decline, and then a month or two of just awful dying. Dean’s been through this. He knows what’s coming. And so does Lorraine.

It’s at this point that Dean starts to consider: Hey, instead of going through this again, seeing another life partner suffer and disappear, wouldn’t it be better if were to die instead? It’s not just a passing thought, either. Dean starts imagining what would happen if he suddenly had a heart attack. How would Lorraine endure? Does it matter, because he’d be dead? It’s a pretty stunning moment for a character in a story, to shift so drastically to survival mode (ironically) at a point when someone else needs him so much. You kinda can’t blame the guy for thinking it, all he’s been through. Maybe it’s a reaction, even a defense mechanism.

The story, which is only six pages long, takes another twist, once Dean has established, in his head, that he wants to go first. I won’t reveal that here, but it’s a touching, quiet ending, much in the spirit of the rest of the story. I liked this story a lot, a fine cap to my afternoon’s investigation into Moore’s debut.

So, a nine-year-old boy, a retired biology professor, a mentally unstable older lady and her young suitor, and an elderly black man. None of these profiles describe—physically, anyway—Hadley Moore. What I’m saying is, Moore has the chops to write outside herself, to investigate different characters, different storylines, even different lengths and styles. I enjoyed Not Dead Yet for this reason, each story unique, and each story well crafted and engaging. I’m impressed.


March 23, 2020: “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Daniyal Mueenuddin

Monday again, Story366!

Here we are, one week of isolation/quarantining/sheltering-in-place in the books. In retrospect, we survived. Mid-week, there were a lot of questions, especially from the younger boy, about going to stores to buy things, going out to eat, living life as normal—we’d decided to take the self-quarantining to the extreme, contacting people only when absolutely necessary; so far, that’s happened exactly zero times. Once or twice, we kind of got in each other’s faces and voices were raised, but nothing out of the ordinary. So, considering we’re stocked up on groceries and supplies and we’re still allowed to go on walks and hikes, we’re doing fine. I’ve mentioned this before, but this type of situation speaks to our strengths. We’re fortunate, we realize, in that regard. And we’re trying to explain to the boys just how lucky we are, make them appreciate it. Hopefully, it will stick.

For today’s post, I read from Daniyal Mueenudin‘s 2009 collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, from Norton. This is another book I’ve had for a long time, one I’m glad to be finally getting to, especially considering it was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and 2010 Pulitzer Prize, I’m really not sure what the hell I was waiting for.

I’d read a couple of Mueendin’s stories in the Best American Short Stories series, but that was a decade ago, so I was more or less going in fresh today. I quickly remembered Mueendin’s style, halfway through the first story, though, but I was also glad to read his stories together, with a bit more context. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is set in Pakistan—Mueenuddin is Pakistani-American—and is also a book of connected stories, many of the characters appearing and reappearing throughout. I started with the opener, “Nawabdin Electrician,” and a minor character in that story is the focus (though not the POV) in the title story, which I’m highlighting today. In fact, most of the story surrounds this particular character, the wealthy landowner, K. K. Hourini. The stories in this book, from what I can tell and from what I’ve read in the promotional materials, surround Hourini and his properties. His servants, employees, and family are featured in the other stories, such as “Nawabdin Electrician,” which is about … his electrician. It’s an interesting approach to a book, unique even to the linked story collections I’ve read, but I’ll get more into all this in a bit.

“In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” kind of features Hourini, but is more about a young woman. The story begins with this woman, Husna, approaching Hourini for a job. She presents herself at his estate and is accepted because she comes from a good, old family—who has lost most of their money—and because Hourini’s butler recognizes her: Husna had been working for Hourini’s ex-wife. Hourini, at first, doesn’t give Husna a job, but instead, invites her over to learn typing, a skill she can then turn into a better job. Husna accepts, and soon, she is working on her typing several times a week under Hourini’s supervision.

Husna’s motives aren’t hidden from us, as she is tired of her lot in life, to have to work, to be someone’s servant. She’s well aware that her family, generations before, once lived a life very similar to Hourini’s. She is not below using her charms to insinuate herself further and further into Hourini’s life. Hourini, by the way, is rich and powerful, but he’s also pretty old. The comely young Husna is able to, without much effort, get closer and closer to him with little effort. First she’s bringing him tea, then she’s conversing with him, then they’re going for long, daily walks. Not long after that, Husna leaps forward and is massaging Hourini. At that point, Husna easily manages an invitation to live at the house, in an annex far from Hourini’s quarters. Frequent access to frequent massages leads to Husna’s inevitable seduction, and before long, afternoon typing lessons have evolved into afternoon lovemaking sessions in the master bedroom.

While it wasn’t hard to predict this eventual outcome, it’s not the final outcome, or the true point of this story. Husna, for one, is still kept at arm’s length. In contemporary America, it’s easy to picture the same situation, the woman moving into the man’s room, becoming his girlfriend, maybe even his fiancee. In Pakistan, however—at least in these stories—such a thing would not be tolerated by societal convention. Husna, for one, is of a lower class. Despite the fact Hourini is rich and powerful, it just wouldn’t be acceptable for him to make Husna to woman of the household. Secondly, Hourini doesn’t seem quick to break convention, to use his power or influence to change the rules. He enjoys Husna’s company, buys her things, even gives her an allowance. But to make her his wife, or at least official consort? It never comes up—he still talks to her like a servant rather than as an equal.

Husna finds herself in a catch-22 of sorts. She has, in many ways, elevated her class rank: She drives a fancy car, has gold and jewels, is served meals by the servants, and is even invited to stay in the room adjacent to Hourini’s instead of the far side of the mansion. Certainly, she’s living the high life, on the surface. Overall, though, she is basically Hourini’s concubine and she knows it: Her status has not been raised, she is not in Hourini’s will, and she has no authority over his business or estate.

All of this becomes more than apparent by the end of the story, which I won’t reveal here. Husna, who kind of an Emma Bovary mixed with Anna Nicole Smith, does not see a happy ending in this story, to this love affair—and to emphasize, despite all of this talk of money and power and place, Husna and Hourini do seem to have genuine affection for each other.

And that’s what this collection is about: place. Each of the stories I read spend extra time outlining just where each character stands in the grand hierarchy of K. K. Hourini’s properties, and perhaps, in Pakistani society. We read about their rights, how much they can earn, where they can live, and even how they can address Hourini and his family, their betters. The electrician, for instance, seems to be more of a slave than a servant, as he begs Hourini to be released from his duties. Instead, he’s given a motorcycle to replace his bicycle, making it more feasible to make his rounds. Him no longer being the electrician—he’s a wizard and Hourini doesn’t want to lose him—isn’t an option. Makes me think the line from Thor: Ragnorak, how they’re not slaves, but “prisoners with jobs.”

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is definitely a unique collection, one that reads as much like a book of Pakistani social customs and manners as it does short fiction. There’s story here, too, fantastic story that I enjoyed reading, the lives and choices and conflicts of these characters just as enveloping and endearing as any I’ve read for this project. The time I spent with Daniyal Mueenuddin’s work today was time well spent—what a great book.


March 22, 2020: “Miss Muriel” by Ann Petry

Hello, Story366!

Today we tried something we’ve never tried before: online grocery ordering. Not really wanting to risk going to stores anymore, we have decided to severely limit the human interaction quotient and pick up a load of groceries from Walmart. This was something, a month ago, I would have laughed at, online grocery shopping for the aged, the infirmed, and lazy millennials who think it’s the only way to get avocados and White Claw. Now, in the midst of the coronascare, we set up an account, made an order, and picked it up.

Really, we had most of what we’ll need, but we’ve found this out in the past seven days: 1) We drink a lot more milk when there’s a lot of milk on hand. 2) A grilled cheese sandwich lunch can decimate most of a loaf of bread. 3) It’s impossible not to snack when you’re home twenty-four hours a day, reading, working on your computer, and watching TV. 4) We use about three rolls of toilet paper a week.

So, we put in for milk and bread, restocked on produce, and splurged on some candy and chips and salsa. We tried to get fresh meat, TP, and sanitizing products, but no dice. Walmart reserves the right to make substitutions for any item they want, and that happend with a few things, but they were comparable items at comparable prices.

Most surprisingly, there wasn’t a line. We actually tried this on Friday, hoping for a Saturday pickup, but all pickup times were reserved, which didn’t surprise me. I then logged on after midnight, wondering when they’d open up Sunday time slots, and sure enough, that got me in. So when I went today and I was the only one picking up groceries—the rest of the store, the normal shopping type, was busy as usuall—I was shocked. The two women who brought me my things, Katrina and Ashley, said it comes in waves, this pickup thing, but I was their first and only customer today. Huh.

The only sour part of the experience was that the young women who brought me my groceries and loaded them into the trunk refused a tip. I held out a five and they turned it down, headed back inside the store, even when I insisted. At first, I thought it was because they didn’t want to grab it/touch it/get within six feet of me. Then they said no, it’s the store policy, and glanced up at the cameras on top of the light posts. This ticked me off. Not Katrina and Ashley, but Walmart. I get it, that this corporation doesn’t want people to shy from pickups because of the apparent need to tip. But overall, it sucks, these two young people on the frontlines, putting their neck out when I was clearly not willing to to do the same. Pisses me off, this policy made by someone making a lot more money than anyone facing people day after day. Plus, it’s not really up to them what I do with my folding money, right?

So, I liked this, not having to trudge through the store and expose myself. But I’m not too happy with this no-tip policy. Maybe I’ll try another store. Maybe I’ll get over it. Maybe I’ll keep you updated.

Today, I read from Miss Muriel and Other Stories, Ann Petry‘s collection of stories published in 1971 by Houghton Mifflin, but reissued several times since, most recently in 2017 by Northwestern University Press—twenty years after Petry’s death in 1997. I read from a 2008 Dafina Books edition that includes an introduction by Edwidge Danticat. Stories from the book appeared in journals and magazines like Redbook and The New Yorker between the early forties and when the collection first came out in 1971, so the book was a long time forming and has an even longer shelf life, constant interest in keeping this writer’s stories alive.

I don’t often write about non-contemporary books, but I picked up Miss Muriel when I was forming my Black History Month Week lineup. This books came in the mail a couple of days after that, and honestly, I didn’t know it was a reissue of an older book when I’d ordered it. I researched collections by black authors and this came up, on most lists, and I think I saw the reissue dates as release dates, so I ordered it. When the book came in and I persused it, I saw it wasn’t a new book, but I threw it on the pile, anyway. I mean, I don’t have a rule about how old books can be. Sure, I lean toward the contemporary, and that makes up 99 percent of my archive. But overall, who cares? This is a book of stories, one that’s endured, one I hadn’t read. So let’s talk Miss Muriel.

The title story of the book, “Miss Muriel,” might just be a novella, at fifty-seven pages long. I decided to start there, and feature that piece here today, as I often do with title stories. Anyway, “Miss Muriel” is about an unnamed young girl living in Wheeling, New York, in the 1940s, the daughter of a pharmacist, or druggist, and his wife. She seems like a happy, intelligent, precocious kid, spending her days either at school or hanging out in the pharmacy—remember, these are old-time pharmacies, not some corner CVS; her dad fills prescriptions, but also makes sodas and sundaes. It’s not unusual for people to hang out with their orders, or for this to be the favorite reading and homework spot for our protagonist.

Also living with the family is Aunt Sophronia, who is our protagonist’s dad’s sister, also a pharmacist. It’s pretty unusual, yes, for a woman, let alone a black woman, to have a pharmacy degree. This is even pointed out when Aunt Sophronia shows our hero her class picture: a bunch of white dudes and her. Wheeling is obviously a progressive community, though—this family is the only black family in town and the town embraces them as their trusted pharmacists.

Aunt Sophronia is actully the featured character in this story, or at least the person around whom the plot centers. Sophronia is not only a pharmacist, but she’s single, making her the object of desire of quite a few suitors. First off, we meet Mr. Bemish, the local cobbler, who makes the firsts stab at Sophronia’s affections. He uses our protagonist as a go-between at first, asking her about her aunt, even if it seems like light spying. Bemish, by the way, is white much older, and our protagonist reminds him of that quite often. Bemish is undeterred, however, and gradually makes his way to the pharmacy, where he spends long hours sipping on sodas, and then to the family’s backyard gatherings. He soon makes his intentions obvious, yet Sophronia barely acknowledges him.

His chief rival for Sophonia’s affections (aside from age and race) is Chink Johnson, the piano player at the inn who’s in town just for the summer. Chink is black and more age-appropriate, so it seems like he’d have a better shot with Sophronia, though he’s not as churchy as this family is—he sings blues and jazz instead of hymns and the family looks at him with distrust in their eyes.

The story plays out over this one particular summer, when our protagonist spends most of her time either in the drugstore or playing outside it. This makes her privvy to all the new info, basically watching, as a first-peripheral narrator, as these men bend over backwards to catch her aunt’s eye. Her parents don’t like either of them, though that’s easy for them to say, as they have each other. Another candidate emerges, family friend Dottle Smith, who has the gift of gab, able to regale the family with stories and songs from his native South. Aunt Frank also shows up, too, less tolerant of all these shenanigans, providing more of a foil to these men and their desires.

Given all these suitors, in this tight space, of course things are going to come to a head. Eventually, Bemish, Chink, and Dottle are all up in Sophronia’s face so long, so often, and so at the same time, civil discourse is put aside and tempers flare. I won’t reveal what happens, how all this ends, but the boiling points occurs in one chaotic, funny, and intense scene in the drugstore; a victor does not necessarily emerge, but the herd is thinned out a bit, in any case.

I read a couple more stories from the collection, just to see what else Petry had to offer. “Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean?” is actually about the same protagonist that’s in “Miss Muriel,” though now she’s all grown up. She’s still living in Wheeling, but gets a call from an old friend from the block, asking her to travel to Connecticut, as someone is on her deathbed and has something  to give her. I liked seeing this character again, to see her further adventures, where she landed. I  went deeper into the book for another story, kind of hoping it would be her again, but it wasn’t. “Solo on the Drums” is about a drummer, the best drummer in the world, actually, who’s performing in Harlem in a night club, doing three shows a day. He performs with an orchestra, but he gets his turns at solos and the spotlight, not to mention his name on the marquee. In this particular story, he spends his solo time with his mind elsewhere, and we eventually discover why: His wife has had an affair, with none other than the band leader and piano player.

I enjoyed reading these stories in Miss Muriel and am glad I more or less stumbled upon Ann Petry’s fine, lasting collection. The stories all deal with very personal issues of these well drawn characters, but I enjoyed the time trip, able to look back on not only the social conventions of the era, but also at Petry’s style. Just goes to remind me that good stories last, as these stories obviously have.