April 29, 2020: “The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms” by Chauna Craig

Hey, there, Story366!

If anyone’s getting anything done now, it’s the Boy Scouts. I guess that makes sense, the resourceful group that they are. But between our local council here in the Ozarks and several national efforts, my son is signed up for no fewer than seven merit badge courses this week and next. This week, he’s doing three via Zoom meetings, presented by Scout leaders from Columbus, Ohio. Every afternoon, he sits there, with a hundred other kids, and listens to strangers talk about Electronics and Energy and Digital Technology. This weekend, he’s doing Movie Making, and next week, he’s doing Photography, Genealogy, Animal Science, and Personal Fitness. The boy is kind of a beast in that way, one prodded by his parents, but a beast nonetheless. While his summer camps are likely to be canceled—they’re making those decisions Friday—he’s actually working ahead of schedule, keeping busy, and learning a whole lot along the way.

I only bring this up because I love how organized this type of life progress is, how pointed and specific and satisfying merit badges are. I admire the merit badge system, these self-contained lessons in life’s many intricacies, a blast of knowledge about a topic before moving on to another. I also like the system of work and reward. There’s a workbook to fill out. There’s a counselor who guides you. And at the end, you get a colorful little patch to sew onto a piece of clothing—a sash—that shows everyone exactly what you’ve learned. Right now, my son doesn’t know anything about animal science, but supposedly, by next Friday, he’ll have conversational knowledge of the topic. Neat.

Don’t you wish they had this system for adults? That life’s lessons could be condensed into a five-to-twenty-page workbook, for there to be a registered expert to help you, and at the end, for you to have something to show for it? I’d probably learn a lot more about the world, useful stuff and trivial accumulation, if that were so. If there happened to be a Gutters merit badge, I firmly believe there wouldn’t be tiny oak trees growing along the edges of our roof every summer. If there was a Treadmill merit badge … well, you get the idea.

Somewhere along the way, someone decided that adults don’t need these types of rewards, and certainly don’t need to display them on top of our shirts. (Unless you’re in the military, I guess.) As I see my son sitting at the table every day, listening and scribbling as he stuffs info into his head, I’m a bit jealous. Can’t wait to see his sash when all this is over. He’s going to be decked out. Maybe even a bit more useful.

Today I read from Chauna Craig‘s 2017 collection, The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms, out from Press 53. I’ve seen and read Craig’s work before, but never in book form—this is her debut—so I was happy to crack this one, read some of her pieces one after the other.

The opening story, “Thirsty,” is about a woman from LA who travels with her partner so he can do some construction work in a tiny Arizona desert town. It’s  also a way for them to work on their dying relationship. The woman, dubbed “Thirsty” by an Arizona local, doesn’t want to go, though, as she’s just started a relationship, of sorts, with Luissa, her next-door neighbor, and pines for her every moment she’s away.

“This is History” is about a sixteen-year-old girl in Great Falls, Montana, whose family is experiencing the proposed demolition of a minor local landmark, an enormous smokestack that no longer serves any purpose. Efforts have been made to save the stack as a historical marker, and as Craig counts down to the big event, literally, we wonder if it will happen, and how this girl and her family will react.

“Gray Dogs” is a short, about a woman on her first date in a while. The two meet in a park. The man brings along his dog. Awkward conversation, and even more awkward occurrences, ensues, making this a unforgettable return to the world of the other.

The title story, “The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms,” features Margret, a recent widow. She and her college-aged son—and his new girlfriend, Rory—are on a mission. They are in the woods—woods beloved by them all, particularly the dead husband, Lewis—to find a morel mushroom, dig it out, then bury Lewis’ ashes in the hole it left behind. It’s a sweet idea—especially if you like mushrooms—but the trip is tainted by the fact Margret doesn’t like Rory, or at the very least, doesn’t like her being there, this stranger, taking part in this personal mission.

If you haven’t been mushroom hunting, particularly for morels, it’s pretty hard. I know a guy from my son’s Scout troop, the Scoutmaster, who’s an expert mushroom hunter. The only times I’ve ever had morels is when he’s found some and brought them to camp for us to cook up on the fire. I know that they’re hard to find, unless you know exactly where to look. I also know that they’re valuable—you can’t grow them; you have to just find them—and hunters will sell them for ridiculous prices to restaurants and grocery stores. I also know, from the Scoutmaster guy, that expert hunters will not share their hunting spots—this guy has taken people with him, blindfolding them as they drive out into the woods, so they can’t retrace their steps in the future and raid his spots. That’s serious. But such is the world of mushroom hunting

Margret and Tim, her son, seem to be experts, having gone out with Lewis many times. Eventually, they find a morel big enough to cut and replace with Lewis’ remains. They head home, having closed this chapter, and they have a giant morel to eat, too.

Back at Margret’s, the trio cooks up the morel and starts to talking. It kind of comes out at this point that Margret and Tim have grown apart. Or, maybe, they were never close. Margret doesn’t even know what Tim’s major is and has to ask Rory when Tim’s stepped out. This is where the story gets even more dramatic, as Rory—who, by the way, practically spit out her piece of the morel when she tried it, a pretty symbolic gesture—tells Margret a secret. Hint: It’s not Tim’s major.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to tell you that secret here as part of my recap, and my answer is no, I won’t, as it’s too close to the end of the story, revealing way too much. There’s something left for you to discover in this engaging, heartfelt, and well told tale, something that’s worth seeking it out.

I enjoyed reading about the women who populate Chauna Craig’s debut, The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms. It’s an endearing book of stories, well crafted pieces that really know their characters, that know how to relay their deepest and darkest desires in the most effective way. Craig’s got a good sense of these people, and of the world and its disappointments, brought to us through their soulful, hopeful eyes. Not all Craig’s characters are widows, but they’ve all lost something, and that’s enough.


April 28, 2020: “Blood” by Matthew Cheney

Hey, Story366!

Missouri’s governor (somethings Parsons, I think) announced yesterday that Missouri would reopen this coming Monday, May 4. He announced a multi-phase plan that seems to include only a one phase: reopening on May 4. This was announced in a confusing press conference that ended before it was finished, before he answered any questions. Missouri, along with other states, are basically moving toward a reopen despite many health experts warning that this is exactly how the second wave starts: an early relaxing of stay-at-home guidelines. Provisions will supposedly be put in place for people to follow, to be safe, but that’s only if they are followed to the T. Previously, I’ve reported here on how little I’ve seen people adhere to these rules, and that was under strict quarantine rules. How will people react to the “reopen” mindset? I fear it’s going to be synonymous with “All good!” and the curve, so wonderfully flattened this past month, will spike again.

In Missouri, not to mention Springfield, we’ve not seen a massive spike. I’ve already heard several people I know attribute this to the fact that the coronavirus problem has been overhyped, that this isn’t as bad as we think it is—ignoring other parts of the world where people are dying, by the hundreds, every day. Or if they are acknowledging those stats—and many aren’t, claiming falsification by the media—they’re claiming that this is a big-city problem, that since we’re more rural, spread out, it’s not going to affect us like that. Kansas City  and St. Louis’ mayors disagree and will not be exercising much of a reopening on Monday. I wonder, then, as Missouri’s third-largest city, what Springfield will say? Granted, we’re only about a seventh the size of those other cities, but still, I do wonder.

The Karen and I have decided that we will not be joining in the reopening, avoiding it as much as we can, as we simply don’t trust people. We didn’t trust people during total lockdown, so we’re certainly not going to trust them during this way-too-early, willy-nilly attempt at rejoining society. We’re not sure when we’ll be ready for that—might be when a proven vaccine hits the market—but we know it’s not this Monday.

Today I had the pleasure of reading several stories from Matthew Cheney‘s debut collection, Blood: Stories, out in 2016 from Black Lawrence Press. This is a massive book, over three hundred pages, and I was only able to read a fraction of it today. Everything I read, though, was pretty spectacular. So let’s hit it.

The title story, “Blood,” is second in the book and is about a young girl named Jill. Really, though, the story is told from adult Jill’s perspective. Early in the story, we sort of get her denouement, as we see the results of what seems like a pretty awful childhood. That ended, we know, when she moved north for college to Maine, then into Canada, then deeper into Canada, until she ended up in St. Lunaire, Newfoundland, the upper right corner of North America. Jill ran and kept running. But from what?

We also get some backstory, told in rather ominous fashion by Cheney, how Jill has kept in sorta-contact with her Mom, writing a couple of times a years. One letter is sadly returned to her, some time letter, stamped DECEASED. This is when she also  reveals that three of her brothers might be alive—she doesn’t know—leading into a soliloquy about death that would make Camus’ stranger seem like a heart-warming sap: “Mother died today ….”

Cheney then takes us backward, explains how we got there. I wouldn’t call this a frame, but I guess it is, though it’s one that goes pretty deeply into the character’s resolution, not really leaving anything for the final paragraphs of the story to reveal. In any case, we find out that Jill’s mom left her dad just before the outset of the story, and soon after that, Dad moved Jill and her four brothers out to a cabin in the woods. Only the cabin isn’t just a cabin, but a compound, a survivalist’s bunker, complete with food, water, medical supplies, and lots and lots of guns—Jill’s dad is actually a gunsmith by trade. (You could say, for fun, that he makes Camus’ stranger seem like a pacifist: “Standing on the beach with a gun in my hand ….”)

The family gets along without Mom, the kids are on a strict regimen of discipline and outdoor life. Jill’s oldest two brothers, Winchester, 18, and Colt, 17, are bascially enlisted men, and even pre-teen Jill is trained to shoot, to hunt, to survive. They’re wild kids, too, taking out anything that moves, and often, it seems, for sport. One rule: If someone kills something, it’s everyone’s job to bury it.

Then something inside Dad suddenly snaps and he puts the family on lockdown. He acts as if the U.S., or more likely the cabin, is under attack, going out on patrols, keeping everyone inside, armed and away from the windows. At one point, a guy in a pickup pulls up the driveway, and for some reason, grabs a rifle from the bed. Dad instantly puts him down, then the kids have to go out, clean up the blood, bury him in the woods. But hey: new rifle and pickup truck!

Another incident involves the older boys dragging the three younger kids downstairs, tying them to chairs, and leaving them there, in the dark, for nearly three days, untying them only so they can defecate in the corner of the room, only to be immediately retied.

Is the family really under attack? Is the liberal goverment coming to get their guns? Who was that guy they killed in their driveway? We don’t get the answers to these questions because Jill simply doesn’t know, doesn’t ever find out, so she can’t tell us, even as an adult.

Eventually, as you might guess, this all comes to a head, gets rather bloody—don’t forget that title. I won’t detail what happens, or why, but remember the start of the story, that we know how all this ends, eventually, Jill up in Canada, as far away as she could get, completely out of touch with her family, with this world.

“Blood” is an intense story and I loved it, its blunt action, high stakes, and interesting structure. It’s certainly a solid building block, and title story, to a collection.

I enjoyed others as well. Cheney begins his book with a short, “How to Play With Dolls,” about a guy who builds his daughter an elaborate dollhouse, only to see her turn it into a lunatic asylum for dolls, complete with toilet-paper straight jackets and barred cells constructed with toothpicks.

“Revelations” takes place during an unnamed war, two young girls living in the rubble of a solid stone house, sharing the place with a guy named J.C., who, yes, claims to be Jesus Christ.

The young boy narrating “Getting a Date for Amelia” might have told me the most fucked-up story I’ve read this year, about a kid trying to find his mentally handicapped little sister a date—to make up for the fact he tried to sell her … for a dollar. When he finds no takers, he instead takes Amelia on a date himself, which ends … poorly.

“Prague” is about a father and son who want to go to Prague, may have already been to Prague, and talk about going to Prague, only both of them are liars so it’s unclear if they’ve been there, or heck, if Prague even exists.

Matthew Cheney isn’t going to win any prizes for upliftingness or positivity, as all his stories in Blood seem pretty twisted. They also exist right on the line between our reality and one slightly more messed up than ours, but those are the most telling kinds of stories—I mean, right now, haven’t we in the real world just crossed the line, past what we thought was possible just two months ago? Cheney seems to prosper in those places, likes to set his stories there. I’m a bit disturbed by these pieces, but in all the right ways, Cheney pushing the exact buttons to make me care, to believe, to and to want to read on, lavish myself with more of his uncanny visions.





April 27, 2020: “Maggie in the Trees” by Robin MacArthur

A good Monday to you, Story366!

After my Tom Hanks post yesterday, I hope I haven’t raised the bar too high for these lead-in anecdotes. That’s a doozy, a real coming-of-age moment for me, and no better place to share that—unless I actually wrote an essay about it—than my post on Hanks himself. Not sure if Hanks is ever going to read it—I tagged him—but I assume he’s busy. He’s Tom freakin’ Hanks.

For today, I don’t have any such story for Robin MacArthur—thank God—but I do have story: Today, as I sat down to write this post, I got my today’s-birthdays message from FB, and lo and behold, it’s Robin MacArthur’s birthday today. That’s more coincidence and dumb luck than it is an amusing story of youth, but hey, I was literally holding her book in my hand when that message flashed on the screen. There’s a one 1 in 366 chance of that happening, and it happened today. So, maybe I should buy a lottery ticket (is there still a lottery?) or maybe I’ve used that type of luck up. Either way, Happy Birthday, Robin MacArthur!

Today I read from MacArthur’s 2016 collection, Half Wild, brought to us by Ecco. I just happened to grab this book off my pile this morning. Having just received it in the mail the other day, and I’d been wondering, in my subconscience, what “half” wild meant. I was happy to find out, to spend a chunk of my afternoon with this collection.

“Creek Dippers” is the lead story and is about a teenager, Angel, living out in the Vermont wilderness with her mom. Mom is only 33 with a 17-year-old daughter, and the years have worn her down, making her look much, much older. She’s worked several handfuls of rugged jobs, from logger to trapper to slaughterhouse slaughterer, and if she had it her way, Angel would follow in that logical path in life. Angel, being 17, has other ideas.

Sally in “The Heart of the Woods” is the daughter of a logger, the sister of a contractor, and the wife of a real estate developer, the complete set of clearing out and developing old family land in, again, the Vermont woods. Sally’s job is to go to people she and her family have known for decades and convince them to sell to her husband, so her dad can begrudgingly (he needs the money) clear the land and her brother can build. Her conscience gets the best of her, though, as two forces pull at her from opposite ends.

Katie in “Wings, 1989,” introduces us to another family in this same Vermont forest, only back in time a bit. Katie and her mom work their plot of land while Katie’s dad disappears for work, several days at a time, but sometimes stays away longer, getting stoned with his buddies. Katie, like Sally, is pulled in opposiste directions, between loving, goof-off Dad and over-him Mom.

This brings us to the featured story for today, “Maggie in the Trees.” This story is centered around Pete, a washed-out drunk living in his best friend Rich’s trailer. Pete and Rich have been friends for forever, both of them moving from Massachusetts up to Vermont when they were young men. The kicker here Pete has been sleeping with Rich’s wife, Maggie, for quite some time, and spends his days drunk and worried that Rich is going to figure things out, come for him.

The story is told in a few different timeframes, woven throughout the story. There’s frontstory Pete, the one who’s really gone downhill, the one who’s kind of telling us the story of Maggie, in the bag and looking over his shoulder. Then there are flashback scenes, the ones that explain how Pete and Rich came to Vermont, how Pete got married to Deb—who’s let him in the frontstory—and had a daughter with her named Julie, who doesn’t want to speak with him until he dries out. These flashbacks also introduce us to Maggie, how she came into Rich’s life, and eventually, how she came into Pete’s as well.

A third storyline seems to be in the near-recency (I just made that term up) and shows Pete and Maggie together, including their courtship, the pattern they fall into, and eventually, the lull. It’s a sweet romance, MacArthur making us like Pete and Maggie together; present-time Pete, constantly reminding us of his guilt and fear, kind of drags that down. It’s all set in perfect balance to get the most out of the conflict, for us to like people who have made mistakes and dislike those who have been wronged.

Eventually, all of this comes to a head—it has to, right?—but I won’t reveal those details here. MacArthur provides us with a twist or two, plus some eloquent, somber prose to carry us through to the end. This is a beautifully sad story, meticulously crafted, exactly what it needs to be.

Robin MacArthur’s debut collection, Half Wild, explores life in the Vermont forests, spanning several years and maybe even generations. The stories I read are loosely interconnected—Rich from “Maggie in the Trees” works for Sally’s husband from “The Heart of the Woods”—forming a picture of working-class life in this particular Vermont region. We see this world from a variety of angles, including the rich people capitalizing on the land and the poor people they extort to keep the money rolling in. MacArthur captures their anxieties, honing in on individuals, bringing them together here to form a holisitic vision of a sad but strong people, people tied to a land, for the better oror the worse.



April 26, 2020: “Three Exhausting Weeks” by Tom Hanks

Hey, there, Story366! Happy Sunday to you!

Today I read from Tom Hanks’ 2017 collection, Uncommon Type: Some Stories, out from Vintage. Most everyone knows Hanks from his forays into acting, directing, and general human kindness. Everybody likes Tom Hanks, I’d bet, for something that he’s done, incuding me. I kind of like the goofy-comedy Hanks the best, the guy who was in Bosom Buddies and Splash! and the grossly underrated The ‘Burbs. It’s cool that he also has this dramatic side to him, the Oscar roles, Cast Away, Sully, etc., but he’ll also still host SNL and break out into David Pumpkins when he has to, and rather effortlessly, too.

Notably for me, there’s Bachelor Party, his early-eighties sex comedy about a bachelor party. I might have told this story somewhere here before, but today seems like a day to retell. In any case, Bachelor Party came out in 1984, the year I turned 11. Of course, I was a kid, raised Catholic by a strict mom, and I did not see that movie in the theater. Sometime later, though, it arrived on HBO, which, of course, my strict Catholic mother did not allow into our household, all those boobs, right there, in our living room. However, my mom’s older and somewhat more liberal-minded sister—and her horny retired husband—did. This just so happened to be the aunt and uncle who had the only pool in the family, the aunt and uncle at whose house I’d sleep over, after long days of swimming, at least once a week. It didn’t take long for 11-year-old me, fresh into puberty, to put together a plan: I’d arrange a pool day/sleepover at this aunt and uncle’s on a night when Bachelor Party was on HBO.

I checked the TV guide for a workable time—after ten p.m., after my aunt and uncle went to bed—called my aunt to set it up, and it was done. My mom didn’t mind so much when I left, and my dad worked shift work, was usually gone weird hours or sleeping weird hours. My aunt and uncle were childless and spoiled their nieces and nephews, especially me, the last of the lot, the accident. I’d ride my bike over to their house, bring my swim trunks and a change of clothes. Most of all, I was going to learn what was sex was, finally, because I was going to watch Bachelor Party on HBO.

My plan went as perfectly as I could have imagined. I arrived at the aunt and uncle house. I went swimming all day. I stuffed my belly with popsicles and fruit-flavored generic soda from the fridge in the garage. I ate something like hot dogs and frozen pizza for both lunch and dinner. I watched a baseball game, perhaps, with my uncle at night, or whatever sitcomes/action series I was into. My uncle fell asleep, watching TV in his room, and my aunt, who slept in the living room, fell asleep soon after. I had the TV room to myself. Bachelor Party would start soon.Guys in my class had talked about the scene where Tom Hanks, the groom-to-be, goes into a room where a hooker is waiting to have sex with him, his last fling until he’d be married the next day. The guys said it was great, and that was it, but that was enough: Since I didn’t know what sex was, “great” sounded pretty great. This is the tip that set this whole plan into action.

The scene-in-question happens near the end of the movie, so I patiently waited out the rest of the film. There was a lot of swearing, a lot of jokes about sex I didn’t understand, and a few flashes of breasts that kept my eyes glued to the screen. At some point, I heard my aunt get up to go to the bathroom and I had to change the channel. She actually said something like, “Don’t watch anything you’re not supposed to,” before going back to bed. I turned Bachelor Party back on, my heart thumping, terrified I’d missed the big scene.

I think you’re probably catching on by now, but I was fully expecting the sex scene in that back bedroom, between the hooker and Tom Hanks, to be full-on sex. I was under the illusion that this is what R-rated movies consisted of, not just nudity and simulated humping, but hardcore pornography. Even then, I remember thinking that watching Tom Hanks, in particular, having actual sex was pretty weird, this actor whose work I was already enjoying. However, I was already way too old to not know what was up, and opportunities like this rarely presented themselves. I wasn’t going to be picky: Tom Hanks would be my guide into manhood.

When the scene began, Hanks’ character sheepishly walking into the back room (after his groomsmen had their turns—the groom is last in this scenario?), I thought to myself This is it! I’m going to know what sex is! The scene started promisingly, the woman emerging from a place by the window, removing her negligee, and sitting on the bed: naked! Holy shit! I was staring at a naked woman! I’m not sure, today, if that was the first time in my life, but it was certainly the first time on TV, the woman moving around and talking, not just a picture in a magazine.

From there, the situation quickly went downhill. Hanks’ character, despite his loose demeanor and party-animal persona, really loved his fiancee. Having sex with this prositute was cheating. His guilt manfested itself in an odd way—disturbing and confusing for a kid expecting what I was expecting—the naked woman’s head changing into his fiancee’s head, his mother’s head, and a nun’s head, the hooker’s body remaining intact, naked. All of the talking heads made him feel like shit for what he was about to do. Just as I was starting to think this was an unusual lead-in to some hot, steamy lovemaking, Hanks’ character ran out of the room, unable to go through with the deed.

And that was it. That’s what was so “great.” Tom Hanks didn’t have sex with that woman, on screen, in Bachelor Party. I still didn’t know what sex was until my brother got divorced a year later and moved back in, bringing home a copy of The Joy of Sex. 

I didn’t read from Uncommon Type today, pissed off at Hanks, or his character, for not having sex with that prostitute for me. Had Bachelor Party been his last movie, maybe, but he’s done quite a bit since, won a couple of Oscars, and has cemented himself as America’s favorite personality. He and his wife recently surived the coronavirus, and he even hosted SNL, for like the tenth time, the first stay-at-home version a few weeks ago. What I’m trying to say is, the aforedescribed incident didn’t inform my reading of his book. But it’s a good story and I was a little tired of talking about quarantine stuff.

The first story in Uncommon Type is “Three Exhausting Weeks,” about this guy who starts dating one of his long-time friends, Anna. He and Anna have known each other since high school and they’ve had plenty of chances to date before, but they haven’t. Early in the story, she puts it out there like she invented it, kisses him, and takes off her clothes. Our guy can’t help but succumb at this point, and he and Anna start up their relationship.

Anna, we find out, has an agenda, for her life and for our guy. She’s a former triathlete who still engages in a ridiculously ambitious regimen of exercise, healthy eating, and other life-extending rituals. She and our guy have a lot of sex—no better way to keep a guy interested and in shape—but also has him jogging, eating mushy vegetables, going to acupuncture, and taking yoga. Being her boyfriend has its benefits, but also its costs: Our guy is eager, but she’s killing him with her unrelenting vision. He just wants to take a nap.

Along for the ride are Steve Wong—another old high school friend—and MDash, a guy they met through Steve Wong who works with him at Home Depot; MDash’s naturalization ceremony as an American citizen is actually how the story begins. The foursome have been hanging out for a while, though our narrator clearly uses the two men as his sounding boards. They think it’s funny how Anna is killing him as she’s trying to make him healthy. They have teasing discussions about which one of them will get the two in the inevitable break-up—and how they’re clearly the minority subcharacters in this tale. I like these two guys. More on them later.

Anna’s plans grow larger and larger, as our guy is suddenly taking SCUBA lessons, traveling with her on whirlwind business trips, and planning for a three-month voyage to Anarctica. Our guy likes the idea of this relationship, and the sex, but all of a sudden, he’s falling asleep before the sex part happens.

Things between he and Anna come to a head when he develops a cold, which Anna doesn’t believe in: People are only sick when they acknowledge that they’re sick. When his sickness is apparent, Anna puts him through an exhausting ritual of paliative remedies, all of which our guy ignores: He just wants to take some Nyquil and sleep it off. Overall, this difference of opinion leads to conflict, which might be too great for the relationship to overcome.

I won’t reveal any more about this story here, but if you’re wondering what happens to this couple, and the foursome, the last story in the collection, “Steve Wong Is Perfect,” picks back up with the quartet a year later. Turns out Steve Wong is an excellent bowler, so good, during one particular spree, he bowls six consecutive perfect games, shattering the world record for consecutive strikes. Steve Wong starts getting media attention, including the negative kind, some skeptics believing he faked it all. This leads to a live ESPN special where Steve Wong can win a hundred grand if he bowls a perfect game, on live TV. Nice to revisit this bunch, and you can tell Hanks has a soft spot for this unlikely foursome.

“Welcome to Mars!” is about this guy, Kirk, whose father drags him to Mars beach to surf, early on his birthday. Kirk hasn’t been to Mars in years, nor has he hung much with his dad, but accepts the offer. The two head out and Kirk rides some wicked waves, until he’s badly injured. When he tries to find his dad to take him to the hospital, his dad is suddenly missing.

I also read a couple of the stories featuring Hank Fiset, an older fella from the Midwest who writes a blog column, detailing his adventures. We get Hank’s naive, but detailed views on topics like visiting New York City. These stories, four of them, are fun to read, presented in column form, a different font, a header and biline, the whole faux-newspaper shebang.

I’d heard a review of Tom Hanks’ book on NPR when it came out, lauding it as a good collection. Today, I spent some time with Uncommon Type and enjoyed the book quite a bit. In some instances, Hanks has a classic view of storytelling, detailed internal paragraphing mixed with sprees of scene, plots building and unfolding to their eventual climax. But then there’s the Hank Fiset stories, interludes, almost, perhaps even Hanks’ own boyish persona seeping through. All in all, this is a solid collection. Glad to see Hanks recovered from the virus, back to work, giving us all the things he gives us. Maybe one day he’ll write more stories. I hope he does.




April 25, 2020: “Useful Phrases for Immigrants” by May-Lee Chai

Good Saturday to you, Story366!

Yesterday I received confirmation that my summer classes had enough students to make. I’ll be teaching an intersession lit course for three weeks, mid-May to early June, then a full eight-week introductory fiction course during June and July. I’m also teaching the SmokeLong Quarterly summer workshop, and have taken on an individual workshop as well. My oldest son just signed up for Algebra I, along with a bunch of online merit badge classes (the outlook for actual summer camp is bleak). We’ve been quarantined here for about a month now, working online, learning, writing, reading; the summer looks to be a lot more of the same, only it’ll be hotter. And we won’t be able to travel. Or see our relatives.

But books! And screens! And typing!

If I seem sarcastic—hard to tells these days—I’m not. I actually don’t mind books and screens and typing. It’s my wheelhouse. We soldier on.

For today, I read from Useful Phrases for Immigrants, May-Lee Chai‘s 2018 collection, out from Blair. This is a collection that won an American Book Award last year and has seen several of its stories in journals. Still, I’ve not read any thing by Chai before, so I was happy for the opportunity.

The first and title story, “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” features Guili, a Chinese ex-pat living in America with her husband and her husband’s parents. Guili’s whole life has been full of calculated risks intended to give her a better life, from the time she left her tiny Chinese village for the city as a girl, to emigrating to the States with her husband, Xiaobing, hoping to invest in real estate and other ventures . The latter especially turned sour when she arrived in America at the wrong time, post-recession, real estate prices too high. Worse, many of the Chinese-Americans she knows came earlier and are already wealthy. She and Xiaobing struggle, work too many hours, and don’t have a lot to show for it. The story opens in a Staples-like store, Guili there for a special deal on containers, the plastic kind with lids that we all put our shit in. When the cashier won’t give her the special offer, claiming it’s expired, Guili decides to wait, the discount necessary to complete her plan. This is the life she lives, the existence she’s carved.

The main conflict of the story comes from her mother-in-law, Anping, who constantly dogs Guili over anything that crosses her mind. She is an unhappy woman who finds fault in everything Guili does, from her cooking, to the way she looks, to the way she raises her daughter. Life is hard for Guili, having made a lot of sacrifices that haven’t panned out, but it’s compounded by Anping’s harping in their tiny apartment. Guiliwould rather sit in a Staples for hours, hoping to talk to a manager and save a few bucks, than go home and face her mother-in-law’s incessant badgering.

Another storyline running throughout “Useful Phrases for Immigrants” is Guili’s coat, a fine garment made by her mother in China, given to her the day she left her village. It’s actually the dippy cashier at the office supply store who notices it, calls it out as Prada. We find out that Guili’s mother sold her grandmother’s jade earrings to buy the fabric, expensive silk from Italy, after seeing it on the cover of an American fashion magazine. Her mother gave up this family heirloom so she could have something nice to wear on her journey to a better life, one thing that Guili still has during this story to remember her mother. The coat isn’t even warm, but so fashionable, as fashionable as it is symbolic.

The title of the story, “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” comes from the title of a book Guili carries around, of the same name, one she uses throughout the story. E.g., at the office store, she whips out “rain check” like it’s a secret code—and it works!

The day the story takes place, Xiaobing departs for Japan, researching a new investment, leaving Guili home with his parents. A string of insults and complaints eventually leads to a revelation, which I won’t reveal here, one that changes the story, changes these characters’ lives, and brings all of the threads together. All in all, this is a great story, one that introduces the themes I found in the rest of the stories I read: displaced Chinese finding their way in a new place.

“Fish Boy” might be my favorite story I read from the book. At the start, the titular character is a poor kid from the country, in the big city, trying to make his way. He starts work as a fish scaler at a restaurant, and on his first day, he’s badly beaten in the alley while dumping guts in the dumpter, a group of rowdy teens claiming the alley to be their turf. The story flashes forward at the end, the boy still working as a scaler, only he’s become a part of the underworld, running side operations, running with a gang of his own.

“Ghost Festivals” is about a little girl, living in a big American city. She narrates how her Catholic Chinese family navigates her uncle’s homosexuality over the course of many years.

“The Lucky Day” is about a woman traveling eight hours in a snowstorm to visit her mother on her birthday and the hijinks she encounters, her mother feisty and tired of her assisted-living prison.

May-Lee Chai, in Useful Phrases for Immigrants, tells a lot of stories, most of them about displacement, the euphoric anxiety felt by her characters in their new situations, trying to adjust, trying to adapt into the people who fit in. It’s a rich source of material, a fantastic idea for a book, and easy to empathize with—all of us, at one time, have felt out of place at some point, be it in a new country, a new job, or that first day of kindergarten (some stupid kid not letting me play with the Flinstones phone when it was clearly my turn). I loved the nuances Chai injects, the smale details, like the homemade Prada coat, that make the characters so real. I liked learning about China, snippets of its history, why people have left, where they’ve gone, how they’ve survived. Overall, this is a solid collection, one I easily recommend.



April 24, 2020: “Slick MF” by Ryan Ridge & Mel Bosworth

Great to see you Friday, and you, too, Story366!

If Story366 is indeed a diary of my life—on top of all the short story stuff—I think I need to mark this day as the day (or day after) our president, on national TV, asked if there was a way to inject disinfectants or household cleaners straight into our bodies to kill the coronavirus. I first heard about this via social media posts, and despite everything that’s happened in the last four years, I didn’t believe it. It had to be misquoted, second-hand, or perhaps just a news parody story. Then I saw the video, him actually saying it. Then I saw all the posts, all the righteous indignation, all the memes—people with Lysol IVs, Trump with a black light in his mouth, etc. Then I saw Trump’s rebuttal today, that he was being sarcastic—because that was the time to make jokes that would potentially kill Americans—that it was him being funny, funny directed at his advisor, sitting off to his right. You know, maybe if he would have winked or said he was kidding or broke out in laughter, then maybe it … no, it still wouldn’t be okay. But he didn’t do any of that, either. Like most sane people, I don’t believe him.

So far, no one’s actually done this—no reported deaths of poisoning by lethal disinfectant injection—and that’s very, very good. But if there’s a clip we’ll see during the election this fall—if we have such a thing—it’ll be of our president, leaning over to one of his consultant, asking if we could find a way to get household cleaners directly into our bodies, on national TV, with America looking to him for comfort, advice, and leadership. Really, that clip should be Joe Biden’s campaign song—Pharrell should do the remix! I’d break down and buy a portable mp3 player for that, put it on every mix tape I made for every girl in school.

Today I read from Ryan Ridge and Mel Bosworth‘s co-authored collection of flash fiction (illustrated by Jacob Heustis), Second Acts in American Lives, out in 2018 from Alternating Current Press. I’d read a few of these stories before—there are well over a hundred in the collection—and have always enjoyed these authors’ work (together and individually. Nice to get a big chunk of their output in a collection, to have it at my fingertips.

I’ve done a lot of flash/short-short collections this year—way more than in 2016, to note—and I’ve said this every time: When there are so many stories in a book, and they’re so short, it’s hard to both pinpoint one story and to summarize it, as the story is sometimes longer than my post. That’s more true than for any other book, all of Ridge and Bosworth’s stories less than a page long, some of them only a sentence or two. I chose the “feature” story for today, “Slick MF,” (note, not “Slack Motherfucker”) because it’s one of my favorites in the book, has a much more complicated plot and arc than most of the other stories, and I knew I could slip that Superchunk joke in, have an excuse to go and listen to that song as I typed this.

In any case, “Slick MF” is about a guy whose sister starts dating a guy named Rick. The he mom embraces Rick as a son, and the narrator can’t stand him. The dad of the family has died. Rick becomes a larger part of the family’s life, sending the narrator into a spiral of worsening agoraphobia: He doesn’t leave the house, eats poorly, and maxes his credit. Just when all hope seems lost, his dad—on Easter Sunday!—returns from the dead. From there … and that’s as far as I’ll go. That’s already 95 percent of the story.

I swore I’d use fewer words to describe “Slick MF” than it took Ridge and Bosworth to write it, and I accomplished that—barely. I’ll go on a bit about what I like about this: I like the realistic setting and predicament here, as sad as it is, a guy not liking his sister’s boyfriend, this creepy guy creeping on his family. I like the turns it takes, from the phobia-inspired depression to the dad returning on Easter, to the ending, which presents an even more drastic twist; I like that there’s this weird Jesus reference in all this, and it comes out of nowhere, that it makes me wonder if the dad is Jesus or the authors are just messing with us. I like that the story just ends, after that final twist, nothing resolved, characters not really changed, arcs not specifically reached. This story is what it is, a lot of fun, in an odd way, but somehow, also really poignant.

And that’s how I would describe most of the stories I read, which is about half the book’s worth. The stories are short and they present uncanny situations, yes, but there’s stakes here, and that’s what I think makes these stories so interesting, so indelible. It’s not all that hard to put together a couple hundred words of absurdity. But to make those words still serve as fiction, as story, over a hundred times in a collection? Well, that’s the genius of this book, of these writers.

I usually list highlights at this point. For longer/regular-lengthed stories, I do mini-summaries of two to three other stories; for flash, one-sentence riffs. Here, though, it’s hard to pick favorites, as I literally see worth in all these stories. On top of that, every single one of them made me smile, to some degree, ranging from an upturned lip to a full-on belly laugh. Reading the entire book together, one story after another, just compounds the effect. It’s kind of like watching a comedian’s stand-up special instead of cherry-picking one gag. Sure, a single joke is funny, but when you listen to her or him for an hour, see what they do with a theme, with a voice, that entire routine becomes epic, that comedian no longer just funny, but a philosopher poet, the kind of person you follow. I kind of got that from reading Ridge and Bosworth’s book today. Each story, individually, is an achievement, but this whole wonderful, unpredictable smattering of irony and parody and sarcasm? I want to donate to their church.

So, huge thumbs up and highest recommendation for Second Acts of American Lives by Ryan Ridge and Mel Bosworth. It made my Friday, reading this book. And it might even replace Barthelme’s 40 Stories as the book I Hinckley around in my backpack.


April 23, 2020: “Swimming in Hong Kong” by Stephanie Han

Good day to you, Story366!

Yesterday, I detailed how I was set to venture out to a store for the first time in a month. I made an online order at Lowe’s and they did not offer curbside pickup (which I found out after I made the order). After I posted yesterday, I went to pick up my order.

To say the least, it was weird.

To say the more …

I geared up in mask and gloves and headed over. As I noted yesterday, Lowe’s is the one place in Springfield that’s constantly packed, a full parking lot all day, the Lowe’s superstore deemed very essential. I parked at the far end of the lot and walked up to the In door, where a few guys were standing outside, seemingly six feet apart. So far so good. As I got closer, I realized there were also people inside the foyer, not adhering to social-distancing standards—it was raining and the young person “working the door” told me it was okay to come in out of the rain. I chose to remain outside, distant, while most others did not. Right off the bat, strike one.

Every time someone left, someone else was allowed in. The maximum occupancy for the store was 170 people—another employee with some hand-held device was at the Out door, relaying info whenever someone left. That was all good, only, again, people weren’t staying isolated. Right after I got in line, another guy walked up, stood right behind me, as he normally would have. I stepped away and he took the opportunity, at the employee’s prompting, to go into the foyer.

Most unsettling about the whole experience was the older couple—as in well into their eighties—that sauntered up right after that. They did not look well, in the way people well into their eighties don’t sometimes look well. They were accompanied by a somewhat younger man, but still in his early sixties. I immediately thought, What the fuck are these people doing here? I was there, yeah, but I was geared-up, keeping my distance, and was just picking up a bag. These folks were there, unprotected, not adhering to any safety precautions, and when it was their turn to go into the store, they grabbed a basket and just started walking around. I couldn’t believe it. My own mother, eighty-four years old, hasn’t left her house in month. If she tried to go to Lowe’s, I think we’d tackle her and tie her to a chair.

I got out of Lowe’s as quickly as possible. I checked in, signed for my, and was on my way, noting that the Lowe’s employees—at the door, at the register, walking around—weren’t wearing masks or gloves. The only real precaution was the Plexiglass sneeze guard between me and the clerk; yet she still had to pass me the receipt and a pen so I could sign. Clearly, it was a place out of time, where nobody was all that concerned with what was going on. Sure, other individuals had masks on and were keeping away, but on the whole, not a great scene. My return to the world was brief and I doubt it’ll be repeated any time soon.

For today, I read from Stephanie Han‘s collection, Swimming in Hong Kong, out in 2016 from Willow Springs Books. I’d not read Han’s work before cracking the book, so it was nice to jump in an see what she does.

Han’s collection is set mostly in Hong Kong, as you might guess, though not all. I started with the opening story, “Invisibile,” which sets the tone of the collection pretty well. The story takes place in a bar in Hong Kong and features a young Korean woman, noticing how invisible she is, sitting alone at a bar in Hong Kong. She usually does not blend in—there’s a lot of distinction noted in the difference between people from different Asian nations—but the story is more about her blending in, as a person, how much she matters, especially in this foreigner-heavy establishment.

“The Ki Difference” is set in Seoul, about a couple eating at a vegan restaurant, noting how well the place would do in LA, everyone their loving veganAsian restaurants. The man is quite boorish, it turns out, a rude, older Westerner who can’t shut up. The woman—whose perspective from which the story is told—is Korean, quite a bit younger, and trying to figure out her place, ashamed of her mate, for how he’s acting, for who he is, for the choice she’s made.

“Hong Kong Rebound” is told from the POV of a young girl in a Hong Kong sports bar, frequented by foreigners. She is watching a soccer game with her father, wondering how she fits in, the same theme of identity that Han touches on throughout.

The title and final story, “Swimming in Hong Kong,” is told from alternating perspective. The first is Froggy’s. Froggy is an old man, a Honk Kong local, and he and his two friends go to the local rec center every day to swim. For the past couple of months, the three have seen a Westerner, a young black woman, swimming there every day, too—only she’s not really been swimming: She’s been learning (which, in swimming, is very close to drowning). For months, she’s been trying to do one lap across the pool, but so far, has only made it halfway, at most, before struggling and having to touch bottom. The three men comment on her progress, one of them mocking her, one of them wanting to bet on her ever succeeding, while Froggy is at least sympathetic.

The other perspective, then, is the woman, Ruth, who is indeed trying to learn to swim. She is determined, and physically capable—she’s run a marathon before—but simply doesn’t have anyone to teach her. Her thoughts aren’t on making it across, though. Her mind, and her parts of the story, are occupied by her work, the fact that she’s the most valuable employee at her company but recently took a pay cut. She furious with her boss, who mocks her, keeping her in her place. Ruth’s just about at the end of her rope with this boss and her job, and thinks about making a move.

The story vascillates between the two, maybe five times, each time going further into each character’s origins. Froggy’s wife is dead. He doesn’t speak to one son anymore and constantly criticizes the other for being fat. Ruth’s lived all over the world. She’s not only run a marathon, but got hit on afterwards by the winner and they dated for a while. Froggy is full of regret. Ruth wants to change her life before she feels the same way.

Eventually, the two storylines collide, the characters exhibiting the briefest of interactions, though a crucial one, especially for this story. Overall, I really like the format, the whole back-and-forth approach, but most of all I liked meeting these two characters, finding out what makes them who they are, and then seeing Han bring them together. It’s a solid story, a really good piece of fiction.

Overall, Stephanie Han uses the stories in Swimming in Hong Kong to tell us stories, but also to introduce us to characters in setting and situations that maybe we don’t think about a whole lot. I found it informative, even refreshing, to read these characters’ perspectives, to see the challenges they faced, through their eyes. Had I ever wondered if a Korean woman would feel out of place in a Hong Kong bar? No, but that’s my luxury (i.e., white privilege). Have I ever considered what it’s like for a local, in Korea, to show up at a bar with an older man, a white American? Have I ever thought about what it would be like to a woman—and a minority—trying to get what she deserves in a foreign country? No, but Han made me think about all of those scenarios in her colleciton. For that, and the adroit storytelling, I’m grateful.


April 22, 2020: “Better Than War” by Siamak Vossoughi

Hey hey, Story366!

Today is Earth Day, another “holiday” for which I did not plan, so no earthy, environmentally conscious story today. Not sure why I keep bringing this up, what I’m not doing, but hey, Happy Earth Day.

Later today, I’m headed out for what will be the family’s first non-grocery shopping trip: Lowe’s. I’ve ordered ahead and my order will be ready, though I’m not sure yet if there’s going to be a curbside pick-up situation or if I’m going to have to go inside. All signs point to me having to go inside, so I guess I’ll mask up and head on in; if I would have known that when I made the order, I probably wouldn’t have made the order. None of the items I’ve purchased—chainsaw oil, hooks for our garage wall, and a new pair of pruning shears—are essential, just things that make the stay-at-home time go by a bit more easily, help me get some things done around the yard. I guess I’m going to go, though, as I don’t see me cancelling the order. All I know is, when the family and I take rides around town, the one place with a full parking lot—even fuller than the grocery stores—is Lowe’s. Looks like they’re thriving, in fact. So it looks like I’m going to have to prepare for a relatively crowded scene, my first in over a month.

Today, I read from Siakam Vossoughi‘s collection, Better Than War, out in 2015 from the the University of Georgia Press as a winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. I don’t think I’ve read Vossoughi before today, but he did read as part of one of the SmokeLong Quarterly online parties I attended last week. I liked what I heard, ordered his book, and here we are.

The stories in Vossoughi’s book are all relatively short, without being flash, most of them three to six pages long. So, I’d guess, at the short end, he barely fits into SLQ‘s one-thousand-word limit, and then he runs twice that length at his most extended. The stories all feature, thematically and centrally, Vossoughi’s Iranian heritage and culture, the author having grown up in Iran before being educated in and moving to America later on.

On top of that, the stories in this book read as ethical ponderings, perhaps moral dilemmas, the protagonists often faced with a conflict, or even a simple topic. The stories are then comprised of the internal dialogue the character conducts  as he or she (note: I didn’t come across any shes) works through the topic; sometimes this is done in dialogue with another character, the back-and-forth serving the same purpose, basically, as the protagonist hashing it out internally.

The title story, “Better Than War,” is like that, dialogue-heavy. It’s about a man (who we assume is Iranian) who has a conversation with an Iranian boy, the boy wanting to ask out an American girl. The boy is worried, however, that she won’t accept him for being Iranian; on top of that, the boy invents all kinds of scenarios for what could go wrong if she accepts. Basically, the kid is nervous, justifiably, because of the preconceived bigotry he’s expecting—and because he’s a young boy asking a young girl on a date. I experienced the latter, turning me into a sack of jellied nerves, so I can hardly imagine adding the bigotry aspect in as well (i.e, white privilege).

The narrator/protagonist of this story tries to reason with the kid, tells him to simply ask the girl out and not worry about it. The boy thinks the girl won’t like him, and even if she does, her father won’t like him. Most of all, the boy is worried that between the asking for a date and the date, a war will break out between the U.S. and Iran, changing the girl’s feelings toward him. What if she’s super-patriotic? What if he dad’s super-patriotic?

The conversation grows deeper, though, about the nature of war, of the self, and of happiness. Some of it is the boy just being scared, but some of it allows the protagonist to reflect on his own thoughts on war. In the end—which I won’t specifically reveal here—Vossoughi offers up a vision of idealism that makes this story feel hopeful, whether or not this one boy asks this one girl on a date.

Other stories follow similar methodologies, only with different topics. “Shoes,” the first story in the book, is about a guy buying a pair of shoes, his first in a long time. This purchase leads him to reminisce about a guy he knew in the resistance back in Iran, how he wouldn’t travel down from the mountains for meetings because he didn’t want to scuff his new shoes; this made everyone go up to the mountains, to him, instead. The luxury of shoes becomes the overall point of this story, a luxury the narrator doesn’t take for granted.

“The Broken Finger” tells the story of a man who as a boy, knew a man whose finger was broken in interrogation. The man handled his torture well, better than could be expected, and the boy—now a man, now our narrator—has taken some surprsing lessons from that story.

“Nine Innings” is a love story about a guy in San Francisco dating a woman who lives in New York. The story pits him in a bar, watching a Giants-Mets game. The woman isn’t watching in New York, but he feels closer to her, his team in the Big Apple, this scant connection giving him a sliver of joy. The score, however, isn’t going the Giants’ way, down 16-2 early, and when the bartender wants to change the channel, our hero asks him not to and has to explain himself. Thus starts a deep conversation about love; the bartender will keep the game on—the Giants stage an epic comeback—only if the man agrees to go to New York, immediately, to be with his love in person. Ruminations on love and the situation end the story, to which I was becoming accustomed.

Those are just a few highlights from Better Than War, Siamak Vossoughi’s story collection that reads so differently from any collection I’ve encountered so far. The stories feel a lot like essays, especially because it’s easy to picture the author as the narrator in most cases, all of them young Iranian-American men. I’d rather not make that assumption—this is fiction, after all. Vossoughi’s unique style and approach also throw me back to a different era of writing, when writers weren’t mere storytellers, but philosophers, ethicists, and statesmen as well. I liked reading every one of these stories, in any case, and learned a lot about Iran and Iranian-American relations to boot. A bonus, though the stories were enough.





April 21, 2020: “Pure Hollywood” by Christine Schutt

Happy day to you, Story366!

The future is a fickle animal right now, isn’t it? When all the quarantining started three weeks ago, I thought we’d be on the shelf for a month. Suspicions that it would last the rest of the academic year were certainly abound, but it was far from fact. A week ago, I was positive that we’d be in-house for much longer, well into June or July, maybe even the end of the year. In terms of avoiding second and third waves, all the experts stated that we’d be looking at a solid six months, perhaps even until next year: until a vaccine was produced, tested, and mass-distributed. Our time alone, at home, grew.

The good news is that it’s all been working. New York’s mayor announced that they are past their peak. Any news you’d care to watch shows the curve flattened. We’d put three hard weeks in and the dividends have come in. Go, America! Go, common sense!

All of a sudden, though, there’s all this talk of restarting, of going back. Maybe that’s a product of our success, people confusing quarantine with immunity. Maybe people are losing their houses and their businesses and don’t care—the protestors that emerged this last week speak to that likelihood. Maybe our money-first numbskull president is just getting his way. But several states are putting forth plans for our reinstatement into normalcy. That’s oversimplifying it, probably, as any business allowed to open back up would have to follow pretty stringent safety precautions; no one’s yelling out, “It’s over! Let’s go back to normal!” Moon City Press‘s distributor, the Chicago Distribution Center, opened last week after installing multiple safety precautions, purchasing new equipment, and enforcing high-end distancing protocols. If a book warehouse can reopen, who’s to say a barber or hairdresser couldn’t open to one appointment an hour, do the hairstyling while wearing a mask and gloves, then totally sanitize before the next person comes in? I had a garage door opener installed last week and the guy didn’t wear a mask or gloves. Why can he make money, completely disregard simple precautions, and other business owners can’t?

My fear is that people, the average citizen, will interpret an inch as the opportunity to leap a mile. As soon as the precautions are relaxed, I’m worried that people will take this prompt—along with the flattened curve—as a sign to go all-out, just act like nothing’s happened. Then we get the second wave, which has been considerably worse in other countries who have reacted exactly as I’ve described. Then it repeats and the third wave comes. Just like that, a lot of people are dead.

Beautiful day here in Springfield, as nice of a day as I could imagine, and I hate thinking about all this. We’ll just wait and see, though. All we can do.

For today’s post, I read from Christine Schutt‘s latest book and collection, Pure Hollywood, out from Grove Press in 2018. This is Schutt’s third book of stories and fifth overall, and she’s been a finalist for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. I’ve certainly read stories of hers in magazines before, but how have I not read a collection of hers yet?

The lead and title story, “Pure Hollywood,” is about Mimi Fine, nee Deminthe. At the outset of a story, Mimi is in a reputed Hollywood house—famous for its architect and Modern stilt design—after fires have devastated most of their neighborhood. The stilted house stands. Mimi has called her brother, Stetson, over to be with her, as Mimi’s husband, famous comedian Arnie Fine, has recently died of a heart attack out in their pool. Mimi drinks and acts oddly in front of Stetson, taking her clothes off to go for a dip in the pool. Stetson follows suit and the pair swim, amidst a still-heavy cover of smoke and a gross yellow tint to the water.

The story feels disjointed at the outset, these happenings, along with Mimi’s thoughts, ranging from somewhat scattered to quite scattered. Mimi, as it turns out, does not get the famous house as Arnie’s widow—his kids from his first wife, who all hate Mimi (she’s 41 years younger than Arnie and younger than all of them)—inherit that. Mimi gets a nostalgic Ford Mustang, though, and there’s a scene in the Mustang. At some point in the story, Mimi is locked out of her own house by her stepchildren, held back from getting her personal things by hired security.

What I’ve described so far is the inciting incident and main plot, in the frontstory, but this tale is much more complex. We shift out of Mimi’s point of view at various times to meet other characters. There’s her famous-actor dad, Jack Deminthe, who never liked her marrying Arnie, who’d as old as he is.

Then there’s Mimi’s mom, who committed suicide when Mimi was nine (and Stetson was seven). Memories of her mother haunt Mimi throughout the story—at one point, Mimi drives her Mustang out into the desert to track down the little house she lived in with her mom and brother when her parents were separated, the house where her mother committed suicide. Mimi finds what she thinks is the house, even moves in with its current owner, only to have Stetson visit and point out it’s not the house, that their old house is down the street.

Mimi also takes stabs at an acting career, tring to overcome being Jack’s daughter and Arnie’s widow. Most of her roles set her in the background, looking beautiful, yelling out choice phrases about how she doesn’t understand what the hell is going on.

As noted, there’s a disjointedness to this story, perspectives switching, time moving forward and back, scenes starting en medias res and ending still dead in the center. That all works to Schutt’s advantage, her planned chaos an asset. If this story truly is “pure Hollywood,” then Schutt has made it read the same way, an intentionally confused conglomeration of booze, money, sex, and broken dreams, minus, perhaps, the noir-era nostalgica. I really like this story, how it uses some familiar tropes—maybe even most of them—but still presents its characters and setting in a way I haven’t experienced them before. I feel like I stumbled through the story as Mimi stumbles through it, obscured by the same haze of smoke, the same film of yellow tainting the pool.

The second story, “The Hedges,” is about a family, the Hedges, vacationing on an island. Mom and Dad trade parenting strategies for a time-and-energy-consuming young child who’s not well. It’s another story that feels a bit disjointed—the POV switching back and forth between parents Dick and Lolly—and pays off a sense of foreboding Schutt triggers from the start.

Next I read, “Species of Special Concern,” another story set on an island, this one encompassed by a coversation between Bob Cokr and Dan, at the Cork nursery. Nancy Cork—Bob’s sickly wife—often serves as the subject of their discussion.

I admire Christine Schutt’s work quite a bit, her stories in Pure Hollywood quite unlike any I’ve read. I’ve used word “disjointed” to describe what’s going on, but really, it’s not meant as a pejorative. What I think is going on here is Schutt is writing a contemporary version of the omniscient story, stories about people instead of a person, stories about events and places as much as they are about their characters. It was a truly enlightening experience, and wonderful, too, to see her craft her stories, scene by scene, never quite sure where she was going, or even where I was at. This is bold fiction. I highly recommend you check it out, see this thing she does for yourself.


April 20, 2020: “A Modern Way to Die” by Peter Wortsman

Here’s another Monday, Story366!

Today I took part in the great American ritual of mowing my lawn. First time this year. We have a lot of bulbs growing in our lawn—daffodils, hyacinths, grape hyacinths—so we wait for those flowers to fall before mowing. I started by cleaning out the shed, just so I could get to the mower. Then I filled it with gas, performed the parts of a checklist I found online (i.e., filling it with gas), and let ‘er rip. I enjoy mowing my lawn, the fresh air, the exercise, the immediate dividends of my efforts. Two other lawns on my block were being mowed, by services, and I had the satisfaction of waving when my eyes met the eyes of these landscapers-for-hire.

Yeah, I mow my own lawn.
No, I can’t float you more work.
What’s that, I have a really nice mower?
Well, thank you! That’s kind of you to say.

In reality, my lawn isn’t much of a lawn. It’s mostly weeds, a mix of dandelions, crabgrass, violets, chickweed, clover, and ground ivy has taken over, so much so, the weeds must look at the grass blades and say, Who’re these fuckin’ guys? The Karen and I have sworn off fertilizers and lawn treatments, so as to not poison our kids or kill our planted flowers. Besides, when the lawn’s cut short, like it is now, you really can’t tell what’s weeds and what’s grass; this effect lasts about two days, before the weeds start to grow like … weeds. At the same time, we don’t really care—we’re not in a competition—and considering we live on a laid-back block, more college rentals than permanent residences, nobody else cares, either.

Still feels good to go out there and get that first one in, though.

Today I read from a book that’s being released today, as a reprint, Peter Wortsman‘s A Modern Way to Die, out again from Pelekinesis. This collection originally appeared in 1991, which is pretty impressive, considering the book is mostly composed of short-shorts and micro-fictions—see my note on the history of short-shorts in yesterday’s post on Kathy Fish. I’m glad to see the book reappear again and to have gotten my hands on a copy, a copy I enjoyed reading from today.

The book is cut into two main sections, Small Stories and Microtales, each of which is divided into their own subsections. I tried to read a couple of the stories from each subsection, just to get a feel of the structure. I’ve come to this conclusion: Wortsman is eclectic, his range impressive, not unlike Kathy Fish’s, the ability to work in one-paragraph prose-poemy pieces or longer pieces, six or seven pages, pretty much regular short stories. He can be lyrical or he can be traditional. He can be experimental or traditional. I liked reading this book, starting every new story, because I never knew what to expect next.

I started with the lead and title story, “A Modern Way to Die,” which turns out to be more timely, in the era of our pandemic, than is perhaps comfortable. This story is set in a world where people just die—normal, healthy people of all ages—someone just dropping where they stand, dead. There’s no explanation for it, no cure, just a new fact of life in this world: When you’re up, you’re up, and then you’re down. People are anxious about it, but as the narrator points out, we have the ability to adjust. It’s the new normal, in this new world

All of that is established in the first paragraph, so the reast of the story follows “golden fingers.” Golden fingers started out with a children’s game, kids pointing at people, wondering if they’d die next, like a kid in cowboy outfit might point his cap gun at a passing car. Eventually, people get really good at predicting who’ll drop next and those people are called golden fingers, reflecting how morbidly ironic this new world has become.

Golden fingers become sort of like traveling magicians, the really talented ones commanding huge fees, selling lots of tickets. The kicker here is that a certain number of people at every performance are going to die—that’s what everyone’s there to see, after all, the golden finger point at someone and for that someone to immediately fall dead. Makes the mosh pits I moshed in as a youth, almost always emerging with some kind of sprain or good bleeding, pretty tame in comparison.

One golden finger in particular makes a name for himself, becomes the guy, selling out arenas, stunning people with his uncanny accuracy. That is until, of course … well, I won’t go any further into the plot, though I’ll bet you can figure out where this goes. Still, Wortsman gets there in a surprising and convincing way, making this a solid entryway into his collection.

I enjoyed numerous other stories in A Modern Way to Die, reading on and forcing myself to skip around (for time’s sake), a good sign for a collection. “The House of Phantasy” pits SS officers in the roles of Jews at a diabolical brothel in Nazi Germany. A scream collector cultivates his collection in “Exquisite Scream, According to X.” A man grows gills and can only sate his need for water by rushing to a local aquarium in “Jonah: A Fish Story.” A boy becomes a gate in “Gate.” We meet a bestiary of prose poems delights in “Pigeons,” “Seagulls,” “Beware the Cat,” “Subway Mice,” and several other animals in the “Urban Fauna” section. “Cornell Listening to Rice Krispies” sees its hero more than entranced by the snap, the crackle, and the pop. “Are There Any Catfish in the Thames?” is an epistle from Mark Twain to his boyhood friend. The Little Red Riding Hood myth is revisited in “The Return of Little Read Riding Hood in a Red Convertible.” That’s just a small fraction of Wortsman what offers us here, a smorgasbord of formidable shortish fiction.

Happy Book Birthday to Peter Wortsman, today the rerelease date for A Modern Way to Die.” It’s a more-than-solid book of short stories, micros, and everything in-between, a fine way to spend an afternoon.