May 30, 2020: “Blueprints” by Barbara Kingsolver

Saturday: Story366 is looking at you!

Today I took part in a live Zoom reading series called SpoFest, run out of Sedalia, Missouri, by a really cool guy named James Brynt. It started as a local reading series that focuses on Missouri authors, but is branching out as it gains popularity. The Karen, as Poet Laureate of Missouri, has been a guest several times, and hooked me up with the gig. It was fun as I got to read  a couple of my new stories, hear some other people read with me—Walter Bargen, Aliki Barnstone, my colleague at MSU, Jen Murvin—and also go to chat with the other authors after the reading was over. I had a tremendous time and got to meet some interesting people, which nowadays, is all I can ask for when I log onto my computer. I highly recommend that you check out SpoFest, as they do a weekly live reading and it seems like it’s a blast, each and every time.

Today I read from Barbara Kingsolver‘s 1990 collection, Homeland, brought to us by HarperCollins. Before today, I’ve not read any of Kingsolver’s writing, and until I picked up this collection yesterday, didn’t know she wrote stories. She is known for her novels, particularly The Poisonwood Bible, and recently, some interesting nonfiction projects. I remember her serving as guest editor for Best American Short Stories one year and kind of wondering how they chose her, as she wasn’t known for stories. But hey, I don’t think that’s necessarily one of the criteria they look for, if the writers are known for stories. In any case, I was happy to have this book, to jump in and see what Kingsolver does.

The first story is the title story, “Homeland,” and is about a young girl, Glorie, who lives in Kentucky with her mom, dad, brothers, and grandmother, Ruth, whom she calls Great Mam. Great Mam is the very definition of a matriarch, the last link to past generations, but also containing this stateliness and regality that makes her seem like a living icon. Great Mam is at the end of her life and the family decides she needs to see her home in Tennessee, a Cherokee reservation, one more time before she dies. They make the trip, only to find out her home isn’t exactly what anyone thinks it is.

“Covered Bridges” is about a couple thinking of having a kid after a lot of years of thinking they weren’t going to have a kid. When they babysit for a friend of theirs and things go awry, they begin to rethink, but not in the way you’d expect.

Today I’m focusing on “Blueprints,” instead of the title story like I usually would, as I just really enjoyed this story. This one’s about Lydia, who just moved to a cabin in the middle of nowhere with her husband, Whitman. The couple used to live in Sacramento and were kind of a power couple, lots of friends, a big house, and cemented identities. For this reason and that, they decide to Green Acres it out to the sticks, where they don’t have friends, identities, or even all that much space.

That third one’s the trick, as before long, the two are on top of each other (and not in the sexy way). Their old house had closets they didn’t use, but now, the cabin is one big room, save the bathroom, where both of them run off for alone time. They think about solutions like drawing a line across the middle of the room neither can cross, à la It Happened One Night, just to stake out their space. What was supposed to be a new start, a second, happier life, instead leads them down a path toward divorce.

Lydia has one new friend, Verna, an old local who is her lone confidant, always full of advice and reassurance and rural treasures. Verna on one hand exemplifies how Lydia could be happy in this place, and on the other hand, offers all kind of suggestions on how to make life more palatable. Unfortunately for Whitman, sometimes that goes against what he thinks, or for that matter, his own good.

Kingsolver ends “Blueprints” with an exciting twist (which she also does in “Covered Bridges”), raising the stakes of her story and leaving the ending somewhat mysterious. It’s a good story, for the plot and characters I’ve described, but Kingsolver has a knack for making her readers like her characters, to root for them through the dilemmas, as they’re easy to empathize with.They’re good people who find themselves in interesting predicaments. It’s a good formula, a skill she no doubt employs to even greater success in her novels.

So, I’ve now read Barbara Kingsolver, via her lone story collection, Homeland, which is one of the beauties of Story366: Me reading writers I should have read a long time ago. I should find time to read The Poisonwood Bible, too, at the very least, as it’s a notable book from my lifetime by a writer I now admire, a writer who’s worked I’ve enjoyed. Why wouldn’t I?


May 29, 2020: “Sacred” by James Tadd Adcox

Friday has arrived, Story366!

It’s hard to believe I’m saying this, but it feels like the world, yesterday, was crazier than I’ve ever seen it. One part of the news depicted the {resident of the United States trying to shut down Twitter—which has been, like, his right arm—using an executive order to make it happen ASAP. That’s absolutely insane on every level, this spoiled child mad because he didn’t win the game, so now he wants to take his ball and go home—only it’s not his ball.

Somehow, topping all thise were the riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul, people looting and rioting and burning down police stations. It’s not insane that they’re doing it—what happened to George Floyd is fucked up—but what’s insane is the need for it, that what happened to him keeps happening. It’s like no one ever learns from previous incidents, this latest killing of an unarmed black man even more unnecessary and violent and bold than the previous incidents: This time, people were recording it, people were screaming at the cops to stop, warning them of what they were doing. But then they kept doing it and a man is dead, the image of four well armed and well trained men shoving a knee into his neck what everyone will remember of him, what are some of his las moments. It’s sickening.

I don’t condone the rioting, the attack on random community businesses, especially if people are just grabbing stuff they sorta want, using it as an opportunity for gain. The police station burning? Sure, it’s going to syphon a lot of tax dollars at some point, and it did risk the death of more innocents—when I went to bed, there was worry about a gas line exploding. I sincerely hope nobody got hurt,  but maybe a police station has to burn to the ground in order for change to happen, for the right people to start paying attention, for this to finally stop.

For today, I read James Tadd Adcox‘s gem of a little book, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, published by Tiny Hardcore Press back in 2012. I got to know Tadd back when we both lived in Chicago a decade ago, well enough to call him a pal, and I also got to publish one of the stories from the book, “Divination,” in Mid-American Review. I know I’ve read at least part of this book before, but recently came across it in a box and knew I’d wanted to revisit, to read the whole thing, which I did today. What a great experience it was. Here’s some notes.

There’s a concept behind The Map of the System of Human Knowledge that seems scientific, if not a bit New Agey. Adcox’s table of contents looks like a giant flowchart or outline of some scientist’s (or philosopher’s [or guru’s]) breakdown of what composes the human brain. There are sections to this book that have titles, which have subtitles, which often have subtitles and even more subtitles. One of the stories is fundamentally titled, “Economics,” but the title at the top of the page is “Philosophy/Science of Math/Ethics/Particular/Science of the Laws of Jurisprudence/Economics,” for one of the longer examples; the book is meant to serve as the text built off that aforementioned table of contents. “Divination,” the one from Mid-American Review, has a similar classification list before it, “Philosophy/Science of God/Science of Good and Evil Spirits/Divination,” but we just printed it as “Divination” (and didn’t know anything about this book’s concept when we did).

So, this is how the human mind is broken down—fictionally, anyway—a neat concept for a book, or really, sort of brilliant. I liked reading the table of contents, just to see how Adcox maps this all out. It’s almost as if you’re reading a story right there—or a text from a class I took as a gen-ed requirement. Or maybe a found poem.

I should note that the stories themseves are more or less just stories, stories about story-type things, not about anatomy or psychology or anything terribly metaphysical. If you really studied the title and the sub-category the story is placed in, you might be able to make connections to what happens in the stories, or perhaps the story’s theme. Overall, though, when I got deeper into this book, I more or less abandoned that approach and just started reading the stories, which are quite enjoyable, in and of themselves. “Philosophy/Science of God/Science of Good and Evil Spirits/Divination” is about a guy whose daughter wakes him up because she’s afraid of the vacuum cleaner in the closet. He investigates, thinks about the nature of the world a bit, and then boom, on to the next story.

There’s a lot of favorites in this book, though I kind of hating naming pieces, if that in any way would imply some pieces aren’t worth naming: This is like London Calling: It’s all good, but you just remember some songs more than others. Some of those highlights: “Memoir,” “Literary History,” “History of Animals,” “Monstrous Animals,” “Diamond Cutter,” “Hosiery,” “Divination” (still love this story), “Apprehension,” “Cipher,” “Mechanics,” “Statics,” … you know what? I’m listing two of every three stories here, pretty much—did I mention these were shorts, one to three pages long?—and it seems silly, as I’m passing by good stories and it’s a fool’s errand to differentiate one from another, “good” from “not as good but still good.” I guess I like the more narrative stories here, the ones that stretch into absurdity, the ones that also have heart. Which is just about all of the stories.

I’m focusing on “Sacred” today, which is actually the title of two stories, the first and last in the book. Opener “Sacred” is about this guy who cleans out his sink drain and digs out an old St. Anthony metal, one his mother gave him, one he thought he left at a woman’s apartment years prior. It’s a story about memory, about iconography, about sustainability, all in a couple-few pages, yet all of it invoking a tone of nostalgia, mixed with sentimentality, presented with simple beauty.

Closing “Sacred” is also about a guy and his mom, though this time, the mom’s speaking in tongues. She just starts babbling and everyone thinks she’s had a stroke, but really, she’s speaking the now-unspoken language of God. Soon, priests, rabbis, scholars, and mystics alike make pilgrimmages to hear her speak, whether it’s to decypher her words or just to be in her presence.

Yes, she’s still this guy’s mom, still putzing around, doing mom things like dishes and laundry. It’s a fun story, exacting and clever and poignant, and again, its simplicity contributes to its success, to an elegance that Adcox seems to strike each and every time.

I cherish the time I spent with The Map of the System of Human Knowledge today, just getting a feel for it again, for learning what it presents itself as, then simply enjoying it for what it is. James Tadd Adcox knows what he’s trying to accomplish with each of these, and when he stacks them all together, they fashion a particularly impressive effect, a grand vision, a child he should be proud of.


May 28, 2020: “Wake in the Night” by Laura Krughoff

Thursday ahoy, Story366!

Right when the whole coronavirus thing started, the Karen and I did what everyone else did and decided to binge-watch a show on Netflix. There were a lot of shows we wanted to watch, a couple of which were on Hulu, which, for whatever reason, just doesn’t want to work on our TV. We ditched it. We settled into rewatching 30 Rock, which we hadn’t seen since it aired, and had by no means seen every episode. It’s light, funny, and fast-paced, the perfect choice. We watched all six seasons, at a pace of about two episodes per night, and finished up this past weekend.

We have since started Community, a show that I definitely lost track of after its first two season, and are already in the middle of season 2.

Before that, we watched the entire run of New Girl, which neither of us had seen before. Before that it was Parks & Rec. Before that, a long stint with The Office (which I love, but it bums me out sometimes, how sad these folks’ lives are—that health insurance episode gets not-funny, really quick).

Recently, I happened to catch one of those best-of lists, one from the end of last year, a best-of-the-2000s-so-far kind of thing. Maybe it was in the AV Club, or maybe I found the link at the bottom of some web page. In any case, I saw that the top five network comedies on this list were the five shows I just listed, the five shows we have been watching over the past year.

Makes me wonder about the nature of my viewership, the nature of “critically acclaimed” and how much I pay this kind of thing any heed. Traditionally, I’ve been a fan of what’s deemed good by the powers that be, as I seem to have the eye of a critic. I’ve seen all but two or three of the Top 100 Films from AFI, that list they put out a dozen years ago, and generally understand why those films are considered classics and mostly agree (at least that they’re good movies).

I also remember sitting at a restaurant, over twenty years ago now, with an old girlfriend, her coming across a list in some magazine that featured the Best 100 Albums of All Time. She started the conversation with something like a “Huh, I don’t know any of these albums.” She told me what she was looking at and then we played a game where I tried to see how many I could name. I got like 85 of them without any real problem. She was  stunned and asked how I knew about all those albums, knew what would be on the list—she admitted that she hadn’t heard most of them, and probably hadn’t listened to any of them all the way through. Or any album all the way through—just not what she did.

 I didn’t know what to say. Everyone knew those albums, right? Pretty easy to guess things like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s and Exile on Main Street and London Calling would be in the top five, and they were (now I can’t remember the fifth). It wasn’t hard to fill in the rest of the hundred, either, with albums I’d listened to two dozen times or more, albums I owned, albums that are always on these lists, lists that made me go out and listen to them two dozen times or more: Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television, The ClashCarole King, etc.

This little game, which we played while we waited for our food, then throughout dinner when I wanted to keep going, ended in a fight. My then-girlfriend said I was being pretentious, maybe even facetious, smirking when I found out she’d never heard of Patti Smith or  Television or De La Soul or The MC5, treating her like she was some silly child. She accused me of being a pop culture snob. And an asshole.

To this day, I still think back to that fight (like right now) and mark it as one of the tentpoles of our eventual breakup, which was four years and eleven months in the making (in a five-year relationship).

But am I a snob? Am I a bad person? Do my tastes just align with those of the average critic, or am I a slave to what they dictate?

More importantly, what should we watch next?

Today’s post led me to Wake in the Night by Laura Krughoff, a fiction chapbook from Arc Pair Press that came out in 2018. I’d not read Krughoff’s work before today, so it was a good day to put that to an end and see what she does.

The first story is “This Is One Way,” a tale written in second person, some of it imperative, some of it more generally using the you as if it’s just the name of the main character. This story follows the life of Billie (as her husband calls her …), who, again, is referred to as “you” throughout most of the story. Anyway, when I say it follows “the life of” Billie, I mean that it follows her relationship with her husband, all the way from high school until her failing health, some sixty-odd years later. The two meet and marry, they have a kid, he goes to World War II, comes back, they have more kids, they have grandkids, they get sick, and well, that’s most of it. And maybe, just maybe, they also fall in love.

“History of a Hunting Accident” is another story with an interesting style, as every single sentence is a question. Sure, they’re all loaded questions, implying there’s an affirmative to each one in response, but it’s still sets an interesting tone, making the whole thing seem like a rumor, perhaps hearsay, nothing definitive but certainly assumed. The story chronicles the quick marriage of a young man to a very young woman, a marriage that quickly dissolves into abuse and regret. Eventually, a solution is found that fixes the problem, to put everything to rest.

The final story, the titular “Wake in the Night,” is another second-person piece, written in the same style and voice as “This Is One Way.” This piece follows what seems to be a runaway, a young person who is moving through life by breaking into abandoned houses, stopping for a rest, raiding necessities, and moving on. Maybe it’s because of that post-apocalyptic lit class I’m teaching—we’re doing Station Eleven this week—but I couldn’t help but think that this was all taking place in some barren world, most everyone dead, our hero here—whose name and gender are never revealed—perhaps the omega, the last person on earth.

That was quickly dispelled inside the second house, when someone—someone who lives in the house—comes home, hears someone putzing around, and calls out. This sends our hero running, running as far away as they can. So, probably not a dystopian wasteland, which kind of makes this character even more interesting. Why are they randomly entering houses and geting comfy?

Our protatonist discovers a river, along with an overpass bridge, and hears voices coming from down on the bank. Girls’ voices. Upon further discovery, the girls are skinny dipping, their clothes strewn about the shore, all kinds of laughs and splashes afoot. From the cover of bushes, our hero watches, this nubile sight unfolding, headed who knows where.

The fun is put on hold when a biker gang—or, at least, a bunch of guys on bikes—come upon the overpass, see the girls, and stop. Their reaction is less innocent than the dumbstruck voyeurism of our protagonist, and, well, brings a new menace to the story, one that adds depth and perspective, one that switches its gears toward the bleak and too real.

I enjoyed the pieces I read from Wake in the Night, Laura Krughoff’s chapbook of short stories that, firstly, tells its tales in an interesting voice, and secondly, follows some pretty interesting characters. These stories feel like journeys, braving highs and lows, knowing there’s more road ahead, always interesting stops along the way.



May 27, 2020: “The Temporary Life” by Eric Wasserman

Good Wednesday to you, Story366!

I’m a bit at a loss for what I should write about today in terms of my pre-book ramblings. I don’t want to keep repeating myself, even though our world is now all about repetition. In any case, here goes: After a longish day for each of us, the Karen and I were happy to head out, as we do a few nights a week, for a drive around town and some milkshakes. We usually hit a local chain called Braum’s, who has good stuff and is by far the most reasonably priced option in town. Every time we pull up to the drive-through, Karen and the boys know what they want—they all like malts for some reason—but I’m stuck on what to get. I like milkshakes, and since Braum’s is one of those places that has thirty-something flavors of ice cream to choose from, I always have this urge to try something new, hoping for a new milkshake adventure. The weird thing is, time after time, I blank on ice cream flavors. I know they have a long list, can picture them in my head, but when it’s my turn at the box, I find myself at a loss for words. Sure, I could order the trational chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, or my old standby, mint chip. But I don’t want to be boring, and can’t get anything with candy or nuts in it becaue those piece won’t won’t suck up through the straw (milkshakes are essential, by the way, driving whilst consuming). Each and every night, I panic when it’s my turn and order chocolate almond, a superior flavor of ice cream, but a poor choice for a milkshake base, the almonds either clogging up the straw or staying put at the bottom. I know what ice cream is, but fuck me, when someone asks me what kind I like, I get the yips. It’s weird and happens every time we go.

See? I told you I was at a loss for something.

For today’s post, I read from Eric Wasserman‘s 2005 collection, The Temporary Life, out from La Questa Press originally, but recently reissued via the University of Akron Press and available there. I ran into Eric several times when I lived in Ohio, him in Akron, me in Bowling Green, and always knew him to be a smart, affable guy, someone I was glad to know. I picked up his book way back when and am just getting to it now, I’m ashamed to say, but still, as always, am glad that eventually is better than never at all. Here goes, then, a lot of years later.

The Temporary Life is a collection of stories with primarily Jewish themes and characters In fact, the three stories I read all took place on or just before Yom Kippur, and there’s a lot of Jewish culture strewn throughout the stories. Me being me, I skipped right to the baseball story first, “He’s No Sandy Koufax,” about a cranky old fella, Sid, who isn’t impressed when fictional Jewish baseball player, Scott Solomon, decides not to play in the World Series on Yom Kippur, just like Sandy Koufax did back in the sixties. Sid complains about everything, but his meddle is tested when he runs into Solomon, on Yom Kippur, at his synogogue, with a chance to speak his mind.

“Replacement” is about Reuben, freshly divorced after thirty-five years of marriage, in his own place in LA, living the bachelor life. He’s just had sex for the first time with Debbie, who’s a departure from his ex, Debbie all about yoga and other new-age ways Reuben can improve himself. The day his oldest son is supposed to visit him the first time, Reuben gets an unexpected package in the mail, one that sets him down a strange but familiar path.

The title story, “The Temporary Life,” is also the last story in the collection. It’s about Benjamin, a high school kid who has to get home without his parents realizing he’s been drinking bourbon with his buds. The story seems like it’s going to be about that, but Ben has another hurdle he has to clear: Telling his mother and father that he’s not going to services on Yom Kippur, that he’s conscientiously bowing out. In fact, the bourbon was imbibed partially for courage, courage to face his traditional old mother, who’s not going to like this, not one bit.

When Ben gets home, it’s no surprise he finds his mother cooking, several pots on the stove, getting ready for the coming holiday. His dad is at the table, calculating a pile of bills. Ben, paranoid from the booze, doesn’t know if they’re onto him or not, but he knows one thing: Now is not the time to bring up the newly lapsed nature of his faith. He’ll be happy to just get to his room, tackle one problem at a time. He has to taste what his mom is cooking, has to make smalltalk, though, but he passes those tests and is almost free and clear.

That is, right until his mom announces that his Grandma will be coming in for the services from Arizona, that for some logistical reason, Ben will have to drive her and his brother to the synogogue. She asks if that’s okay with Ben—it’s a rhetorical question—but Ben, feeling like he’s in a corner, fesses up: He tells them he’s not going to the synogogue.

As Ben expected, this decision doesn’t go over well with Mom, and when he finally starts paying attention, Dad. Mom’s confused at first, thinking Ben just doesn’t feel like it, that he’s being lazy. This only prompts Ben into further explanation. Ben boldly confesses that there’s no point to services, as he doesn’t understand the words, anyway, nothing he recited during his bat mitzvah, nothing they say every weekend. When Mom presses further, Ben folds, just comes out and says it: He no longer believes in God. Ben’s as agitated as his mom is at this point and starts sounding more like a petulant child than a guy who wants to have a philosophical conversation on religion, what he’d planned in his head. This leads him to add some colorful language to his stance, along with some potshots lobbed at his parents, particularly his mom.

What happens next I won’t reveal, but in short, Ben either can’t read a room, doesn’t know his parents as well as he thinks he does, or he’s just a regular thick teenager. More likely than not, it’s a little bit of each, and Ben, more than I’d expected, really pays the price. Wasserman sticks the perfect-ten landing here, making this an intense, powerful ending for his book.

I enjoyed reading Eric Wasserman’s stories today, The Temporary Life a solid short story debut, one that immerses itself in Jewish-American culture, Wasserman immersing his characters in tense, compassionate fiction.


May 26, 2020: “You May See a Stranger” by Paula Whyman

A good Tuesday to you, Story366!

Today ended a longterm issue in our family: recycling. Springfield doesn’t have city-run trash service, meaning you have to pick from one of the several private services in town. People around here like it, I guess, because it’s one less government-run function, something that opens up the market to competition, all good for the economy. I think it’s probably overdoing it, as I really don’t want to make that kind of choice: Let the city run it, profit from it if they can, and that’s that. It would also mean one garbage truck down our street, once a week, instead of the dozen or so that come by, spread out Monday to Friday. Who wants that?

When we moved into our house in 2012, we had to pick one of the services, and really, how do you decided which company’s truck gets to drive by once a week and empty your can? Of course, you’d go with price—it’s not like someone’s babysitting your kid or doing your roof. One catch: We wanted our recycling picked up as well. We came to find out that Springfield isn’t all that into that and only one of the companies offered recycling pickup, too. We went with them.

Flash forward to 2017 and something went wrong with paying the garbage bill, which is like twenty-three bucks every other month, including recycling. I didn’t pay it, the Karen didn’t pay it, they called us to remind us, and we still failed to pay it. It was a clear case of I thought you paid it and I thought you paid it, but nobody paid it. A lot of this had to do with them not accepting ongoing, scheduled payments: For whatever reason, you had to go into their website every time and pay, no auto-deductions. Still, our fault. Sure.

But after missing one payment, the service came and took our recycling can (by the way, when I say “can” here, I mean one of those big plastic bins with the lid, the kind the robot arm reaches out, grabs, and dumps). They didn’t take the garbage can, though. It was odd. They continued to pick up our trash, but because we missed payment, they decided we couldn’t have recycling service. Thus started a three-year run of us sorting, storing, and delivering our own recycling to the center. It was a tremendous pain, as it piled up quickly in our house (much faster than garbage), and had been a thing we’ve had to do, all the time. Often, you’d walk into our kitchen and the little plastic can for recycling would be so overflowing, plastic bottles would be everywhere: the floor, the counters, the sink. It drove me nuts.

A year or so later, Karen and I were talking about money and I thanked her for taking care of the garbage service, for taking that over. Karen was like, “I took what now?” Karen hadn’t been paying. I hadn’t been paying. Yet, our can was emptied every Tuesday. I’d wave at the guy when I was outside. He’d wave back. We were cool.

And then we let it happen for two more years.

Flash forward again, to 2020. As we’ve been quarantined for two months, we’ve been cooking more—like every single meal—and the recycling has really stacked up. Plus, for two months, the recycling center in town was closed. Our garage has been overflowing with bags and bags of cans, bottles, cardboard, the whole mix. It got to be too much. When we got our stimulus money, Karen said it was time to square up with the garbage people. We needed to bite the bullet, pay for three years of service, and get our recycling service back.

So, Karen called last week and said we wanted our service back. The woman on the phone told her we’d have to square up first, that there was a past-due balance. Karen said fine. The woman said we owed twenty-three dollars.


Karen paid, plus added for six months of service ahead of time. Today, they delivered the new cans—including a new garbage can—and later, the trucks came by and emptied them both (separately, of course).

For three-plus years, we dealt with this crap because of twenty-three bucks?! At first, we didn’t know we weren’t paying them. Then, we thought the bill would be so high, we avoided it.

What happened? Maybe there’s a law in Springfield that says you can’t cut off anyone’s garbage service, for the better good, or else too many people would just toss it in their yard and this town would turn into one big dump. That’s our main theory.

Secondary theory? We’ve always taken care of the garbage guys at Christmas, with an envelope or a bottle, sometimes both. They’ve just been letting it go, taking our trash.

Today, we entered the new era. No more recyclables stacking up. No more trips to the center. And we have two garbage cans, plus a recycling can. Not sure how to reckon that, but hey, I’m sure I’ll manage to put something in there. Maybe a plant?

Today, I read from Paula Whyman‘s 2016 collection, You May See a Stranger, out from Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. I’ve said this so many times this year, but I haven’t read Whyman before today, despite prolific journal appearances. I’m glad Story366 exists to right these wrongs, so let’s do it.

I started with the opening story, “Driver’s Education,” about a high-school girl who’s taking driver’s ed once a week in the basement of a mall, no time in her schedule at school. She’s there with a dozen other people, including Kevin, a dreamy surfer-kid from California, and Todd, a lunk who’s also a loudmouth, really stupid, and a racist. Tensions rise between Todd and Mr. White, the black Vietnam vet with one leg who’s teaching the class. Eventually, our hero, Miranda, has to choose between what type of guy she likes: The good guy or the bad, bad boy, both of whom thinks she’s nifty.

Drosophila,” the second story, again features Miranda—hey, all these stories do!—this time a bit later, dating a guy named Victor, performing experiments on fruit flies for biology class, and taking care of her mentally handicapped older sister, Donna. Whyman weaves these three stories together, each part sort of a metaphor, or maybe an extension, of the other. By story’s end, we find out that Miranda, at least as a teen, is an imperfect person, someone figuring out who she is, making some bad choices along the way.

We meet up with Miranda again in the third and title piece, “You May See a Stranger,” which I’ll focus on today. In this story, Miranda is slightly older, just done with college, and dating a guy named Pogo, a rich guy from a rich family. Pogo has just made a huge real estate deal and has even more money than usual and takes Miranda out on the town to celebrate. Tagging along is Cheever, Pogo’s younger brother, and Natasha, Cheever’s girlfriend.

The four rage through the night like they have endless funds—Pogo has six grand in cash on him, which he shows people throughout the story—but they start in the parking lot of a luxury grocery store, fucking in the reclined seat. This is more than okay with Miranda, though, as Pogo is funny and exciting and a pretty good boyfriend. It’s just what they do.

Note: In three stories, Miranda sneaks away for sex to some little confined space. In the first story, it’s a tent inside a sporting good store. In the second, a tool shed at the high school. In this story, a car. Maybe that’s just where young people have to go to have sex, no privacy of their own, but I can’t help but see the pattern and mention it here. What to take from this? I can point to how I think she compartmentalizes this act, keeps it separate from the rest of her life, but I’m sure there’s other interpretations, too.

I should also mention that Miranda’s pregnant. She found out earlier in the day, but is letting Pogo have his fun, for it to be about him and his sale. She carries the test in her purse and thinks about it through the night, every time Pogo shoves another drink in her face, every time Pogo acts like someone who’s not ready to be a dad—Pogo’s 29, by the way, to Miranda’s 22, yet she’s still worried about his maturity. And with good reason.

Over the course of the evening—clubbing and a dinner that costs more than her rent—Miranda starts to wonder if it’s not only Pogo’s maturity, but how he and the rest of the party are maybe too unlike her, class-wise. Miranda’s parents are straight-up middle-class, and all of their money has gone to taking care of Donna (Note: There’s indications that Donna’s fate is about the most tragic thing you’ll ever read, coming in some later story). Pogo and Cheever and Natasha are straight out of Metropolitan, privileged snots who aren’t necessarily bad people, but just haven’t ever worked a day in their lives, haven’t wanted anything, and aren’t worried about how they’re going to pay rent, let alone how their offspring are going to pay for college. Pogo’s goofiness she can handle, but his uppity core might be too much for her to sign on for, long-term.

I won’t reveal anything else from this story, the turn in takes at the end, what it (probably) means for Miranda’s future. I really want to keep reading, though, as this novel-in-stories really has me hooked. I want to see what happens to Miranda’s baby, want to see if she sticks with Pogo, and I even want to find out the tragedy that will befall poor Donna. You May See a Stranger is my first introduction to Paula Whyman’s work, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon this book. Great stories, captivating character, more than enough to make this a book I’d recommend.


May 25, 2020: “The Mummy’s Bitter and Melancholy Exile” by Norman Lock

Happy Memorial Day, Story366!

Here’s to all the active-duty military and veterans out there! I wish I had a military-themed book or a book by a vet to cover today, but I just don’t, as I’m down to about a dozen collections on my shelf. Four years ago, I covered Phil Klay’s Redeployment like a month too early, but did get to Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog on Veteran’s Day in 2018, which I believe was a total accident, me not knowing his book was about the Iraqi War until I opened it, coincidentally on Veteran’s Day. What are the odds of that?

In any case, I never served, never even considered it. My father did during Korea (in Germany). My grandfathers fought in World War I and my uncles in World War II. Two of my nephews are in the Army Reserve now. I salute them here today. Thanks, man!

I should note: I have no idea if Norman Lock is vet, or for that matter, active-duty. This book simply isn’t war-themed. That’s what I mean.

Today I read from Lock’s 2013 collection, Love Among the Particles, out from Bellevue Literary Press. It appears, if I’m looking at their website correctly, that this is BLP’s first-ever book, and the first of theirs by Lock, who’s written other things for them and other presses, award-winning novels and poetry and such. And you know what? I don’t think I’ve read anything by him before today, even though he’s got a long list of journal pubs and is in general, quite good at this. No time like the present, I guess.

Lock is dubbed by some folks on his book jacket a Modernist, and I can see that allusion throughout Lock’s stories, from his specifically honed voices, to his non-traditional structures, to his non-linear, non-Freytagian arcs. Everything about this books oozes creativity and ingenuity—if the table of contents was a story by itself, it would be a better story than most of the stuff I’ve written. As soon as I opened this book and scanned its list of stories, I wanted to read every one.

Some hiking and barbecuing and intersession teaching prevented that, for now, but I did enjoy what I read. The opener is “The Monster in Winter,” about this cocky journalist who gains access to Mr. Hyde, as in Dr. Jekyll and, who is a real character here, Stevenson’s book just one of his biographies. The journalist has an ulterior motive in visiting Hyde in a sanitorium (Hyde survived his fall, after all), the monster in his seventies at this point, calmer in his demeanor, gentlemanly. The question, as you get deep into the story, is who the real monster is, and the answer may or may not surprise you (I mean, it’s a fifty-fifty chance, right?).

“The Sleep Institute” is about a guy who seeks professional help for his particular disorder: He dreams of nothing but Africa. He’s never been to Africa, and I don’t think his ancestors came from there, but his dreams have been taken over by the Continent, and he basically wants his dreams back. He enters the titular institute and meets people with much more serious problems, insomnia, narcolepsy, sleepwalking, etc. At first, he tries to highlight himself and his problem, but soon, starts toying around with the other patients, right until someone offers him an interesting opportunity that could make him both rich and famous. Or kill him right quick.

The story I’m focusing on is “The Mummy’s Bitter and Melancholy Exile,” which is just too fun and amazing to not highlight here. In this story, a real-life mummy, a resurrected pharaoh, is living in Manhattan in 1934 and has become somewhat of a celebrity. At the outset of the story, he’s in a radio station, ready to go on the air, with who turns out to be Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. The dummy spends most of the show making fun of the mummy while Bergen, the straight man there, corrects him. The mummy (get it: the dummy and the mummy!) sits and takes it, and it’s clear, after a while, he doesn’t get that it’s Bergen making the cracks, instead cursing (figuratively, not literally) the dummy for his insolence.

See? That’s already better than anything I’ve come up with. Think about it: a mummy getting lambasted by Charlie McCarthy on live radio? Who thinks of this kind of thing? Norman Fucking Lock, that’s who.

Anyway, the mummy hears from this Hollywood director, who’s making the biography of the mummy’s life and wants him to fly out to LA to be the technical advisor. The mummy, with not a whole lot else to do, complies, and all of a sudden, the mummy’s in sunny California. The mummy gets his hands on the script, which Lock writes in part for us here. This is Lock at his most clever, as it’s a really original way to get the mummy’s backstory out without simply transcribing the backstory. We find out the mummy was dug up out of his pyramid by three archeaologists, who then die when their boat goes down in a storm on its way across the Atlantic. Just as the last archaeologist drowns, he sees lightning strike the floating mummy corpse, then the mummy’s eyes open: It’s alive! The mummy was then rescued by some bootleggers and taken to New York, where he’s unveiled as an actual mummy—alive or dead, he still looks like hell (people telling advising him on how he could have his face fixed is a running joke).

That’s most of the plot of “The Mummy’s Bitter and Melancholy Exile,” but there’s so much more to the story. There’s the voice, this confused king who doesn’t really understand where, when, or why he’s existing—him not understanding ventriloquism os just one bit that lands.

There’s also the fact he’s alone in this new world, a celebrity, sure, but it’s not like anyone really wants to be with him, or love him. And don’t forget: Everyone who used to love him, everyone he’s loved, including his wife, Tey, is long dead, ashes in some far-off tomb. He’s like Captain America, but three thousand years older. The mummy is a living relic, but is sad and lonely, too. It’s not surprising he misses home, and perhaps, misses death as well.

I’m not sure why I haven’t run into Norman Lock’s work before, but the stories I read today make me wish he’d been my favorite writer for the last twenty years. Love Among the Particles is such an exciting book for me, as I feel like I’ve found a long-lost muse, an author I’ve been searching for with this project. This is a huge win for Story366, for this blog, introducing me to this fabulous, incredible storytelling.


May 24, 2020: “Because They Wanted To” by Mary Gaitskill

Happy Sunday, Story366!

Yesterday, I revealed the plan for the surprise graduation party for my oldest son. He’s headed off to high school in the fall, and since there wasn’t a ceremony and he couldn’t be with his pals, we did the best we could. We got some premium cupcakes from a local bakery, grilled some prime ribeyes that were as big as his face, and bought him the electric guitar and amp he’d had his eye on. He was only minimally surprised by the general event—he came downstairs twenty minutes early and saw the balloons and other decorations—but was really, really surprised by the guitar. He played that thing all night, and by ten or eleven p.m., I already started yelling, “Cut out that racket!” up the stairs (jokingly … for now).

We also held a Zoom for my immediate family, all my siblings and their kids. We had about a 75 percent turnout, which is more than I expected. As much as it was about the graduation, everyone wishing him warm regards and asking him about high school, it eventually morphed into a family meeting. This was the first time the family had “been together” since Chrsitmas—for which me and my Missouri contingency couldn’t make it out. When was the last time I was gathered with my family like that? About a year ago, during a visit home to Chicago, at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Crown Point, Indiana. I.e., too, too long.

I made a joke in my post yesterday about my family not being able to figure Zoom out, maybe losing track of the mute button, something inappropriate showing up in the background, that kind of shenanigans. As it turned out, everyone was a pro, even the ones who were Zoom virgins (my sister called herself that). The overall verdict: This was a great idea and we should do it every two weeks (generally, not to celebrate an eighth-grade graduation).

The only thing that would have made this experience better, of course, is if everyone could have made it. A few of my nieces had to work, but the big omission was my mom and brother, who live together and don’t possess any kind of technology: no smart phone, no computer. A couple of my sisters tried inviting them over, to sit on the front lawn, in lawn chairs, with an up-and-running laptop handed to them. Right now, my mom, 84 and often under the weather, just isn’t comfortable with leaving the house, with being around anyone, not even in a mask or with social-distancing and hands-washing policies. We’re going to try to figure something out, eventually, so we can get everyone on board, namely our matriarch, our beloved.

For today’s post, I read from Mary Gaitskill‘s 1997 collection, Because They Wanted To, brought to us by Simon & Schuster. This is another older book, one that I’m pretty sure I bought when it first came out, and for whatever reason, never read. That was … twenty-three years ago?!?? This surprises me, as I remember reading Bad Behavior back in grad school, which was around the same time, and was probably pretty stoked to see Gaitskill come out with a new collection. Still, it’s 2020, I’m 46, and I’m just getting to it. But at least I’m getting to it.

The funny thing is, I’ve gone back to Bad Behavior quite a bit, as it’s a great book, and specifically, when students are doing something akin to literary erotica, I recommend it, even share a story or two. “Literary erotica” is higher on the erotica quotient than I’d describe Bad Behavior, but along with all the other things that Gaitskill does well, her frank representation of sexual relationships and how they affect people is textbook. Students writing about sex should read her, for so many reasons.

Going into this book today, I wasn’t sure what to expect, so I just read and tried not to think about it. The opening story, “Tiny, Smiling Daddy,” presents a clever predicament: A  middle-aged guy, Stew, wakes up to a phone call from his friend, the friend telling him he’s just read a magazine article by Stew’s mostly-estranged daughter, an article that’s about their relationship. This guy, Stew, races out to buy a copy and read it. What happens next more or less confirms why his daughter is mostly estranged, why she wrote the article.

“The Blanket” is about a thirty-six-year-old woman, Valerie, who’s been celibate for two years, but starts dating a twenty-four-year old man who wants sex constantly. This is okay with her at first, and in fact, she immediately makes the sex “non-traditional,” instituting some basic role-playing into the fray: her not having the rent, her man being the unforgiving but horny landlord, that kind of thing. Eventually, everything goes too far—both in terms of the volume and nature of the role play—and Valerie has to not only figure out some boundaries, but go ahead and enforce them.

The title story, “Because They Wanted To,” which I’m focusing on tody, is a long piece, thirty-four pages, but it felt more like three or four. This is a compelling tale about a sixteen-year-old runaway, Elise, who finds herself in Vancouver, panhandling but needing a longterm plan, namely a job. The story starts off with Elise in what seems like a Planned Parenthood clinic (or whatever they’re called in Canada), looking at posters for HIV/AIDS testing. We’re not sure exactly why she’s there, other than to get checked out and give a blood sample; it’s not only until much later in the story is the reason for her visit specifically implied (which is an oxymoron, I realize).

Anyway, Elise sees a bulletin-board ad for a babysitting job and heads over to the address, finding herself in a Vancouver slum, talking to a single mother of three kids—two toddler/pre-teen boys and a baby girl. The mom, Robin, has a job interview the next day and needs her to come and watch the kids, maybe for a few hours, or longer, if she gets the job and has to start immediately. One more catch: Robin can’t pay her for a few weeks, until she gets a job and starts getting paid. Elise, without options—she admits it’s been a while since she’s showered, not to mention the lack of paperwork—accepts.

The next day starts off as planned, Robin leaving for the interview, Elise taking care of the kids. At this point, we’ve already been getting some flashbacks to Elise’s recent childhood intermingled with these frontstory scenes. We find out, over the course of a lot of cuts back and forth, that Elise has two brothers, one of which might be a serial killer-in-training, a kid who likes to hurt his younger brother. This more or less causes the parents to split, Elise going with Dad and the psycho killer, the little victimized brother going with Mom. Dad soon remarries and brings another daughter into the mix. For a while, as Elise describes it, it seems to work okay, as broken families goes. The possibly-demented bro even stops hurting other people.

Meanwhile, it becomes more and more clear that Elise doesn’t know how to babysit, other than the basic stuff like keeping the kids from drinking bleach or running into traffic. The two boys are okay, playing with toys and using their imaginations, but the baby perplexes Elise. She changes her diaper and feeds her formula, though, and it seems to go pretty well. Within few hours, Elise is telling the kids that their mom could walk through the door at any time.

Nope. The I-might-work-so-it’ll-be-longer time comes and goes and the kids are starting to get antsy, especially the baby. Elise starts to lose patience, raising her voice, telling the kids to shut up, and eventually, when the kids keep wanting her attention, she smacks one of the boys across the face. It’s a point-of-no-return point, but sadly, it’s get worse.

Back in the backstory, Elise, her siblings, and step-siblings grow up. For the most part, it doesn’t appear if there’s anything in particular that makes Elise run to Canada—I mean, that’s what we’re waiting for her, the explanation for Elise’s extreme departure—but Gaitskill doesn’t give that to us, sort of like she doesn’t specifically tell us why Elise is getting an AIDS test. We can infer an accurate scenario, but the tiny shroud of mystery makes it almost more disturbing.

By the end of the night, hours past Robin’s latest-possible return time, Elise has to decide what action to take. She’s sixteen and illegally living in Canada, remember, so calling the authorities isn’t exactly high on the list. At the same time, the mom gave full responsibility for her three kids to a sixteen-year-old stinky vagrant who saw the ad at an AIDS testing center. Makes you think what the real motives ever were, what this story is actually depicting.

I don’t want to go any further into the plot, to spoil it, but it’s a real kick in the teeth. The whole story is written in third person, but it’s that super-close, over-the-shoulder third person that includes a lot of unreliability. This story never really seemed on a path toward a happy ending, and in that way, Gaitskill doesn’t disappoint.

Beause They Wanted To sitting on my shelf, in several residences over the past two decades, simply doesn’t make sense. I’d like to say it was worth the wait—I’d rank this book to be better than Bad Behavior—only there was no real reason to wait. Mary Gaitskill delivers a heckuva one-two punch with these collections, making her one of the more vital writers I’ve encountered, one of our masters.


May 23, 2020: “Bring Everybody” by Dwight Yates

A good Saturday to you, Story366!

Later today, we’re having a suprise graduation party for our oldest son, who just finished eighth grade and is heading to high school in the fall—whatever high school is going to be by then. The party isn’t going to quite be the fest that we may have had in a normal year, but we’re still going as all-out as we can. We have decorations, we have special-made cupcakes, we have a special dinner planned, and we have a Zoom scheduled for our entire immediate family, twenty-something aunts, uncles, and cousins. We also picked up an electric guitar and amp for him, something he’s wanted for a while, though he’s gotten pretty good on his acoustic, which he’s been teaching himself to play. I’ve never played guitar, and before I carried this new one into its hiding place in the back room, I don’t think I’d ever held an electric guitar before. It’s really as sleek and beautiful and sexy as I imagined a guitar would be in my hands. Makes me kinda wish I was graduating eighth grade and my family was plotting some surprise behind my back.

We’re trying, as of now, to make this a surprise, but we have a few more hours to pull this all off somehow—and yes, I’m completely conident there’s no way he’s going to read this blog post, before six tonight, not in a million years. We’ll see how it goes. The part we’re most looking forward to is seeing our son realize he’s gotten this guitar. A close second is seeing my family try to work their way through Zoom, from controlling the mute function to seeing how many of them carry their computers into the bathroom without realizing it.

For today’s post, I read from Dwight Yates‘ 2006 collection, Bring Everybody, out from the University of Massachusetts Press as the winner of its inaugural—yep, the first one—Juniper Prize in Fiction. This is an older book, and Yates has an even older collection, but I don’t think I’ve ready any of his work before. First times are great, so here we go.

“The Black Mercedes” is the opener and is about this guy and his wife who are housesitting for an acquaintance, spending the summer living in someone else’s house. One day a man knocks on the door, asks for the owner, and when he finds out he’s not there, asks to come inside. The protagonist lets him in, only to have him die minutes later. The housesitters have to deal with this dead guy, make the arrangements, his family mostly unreachable. Eventually, the dead man’s grandaughter, Cheetah (not a typo), comes to claim him, which causes a stir, for a few reasons, in a totally different way.

“A Certain Samaritan” is about a couple, again, who drive by a broken-down car up in the mountains and decide to stop and help. They take the car’s owner, with them into town so she can get a towtruck, only to find that she’s born-again, trying to convince them, on their drive to rethink their lives.

I really enjoyed “Gophers,” an all-out positive, almost conflict-free story about a woman attending an animal rights conference, where she runs into a professor who agrees to come to her house and help her with her gopher problem. Levity and humanity ensues as the two solve their problems, then get busy.

Those are the first three stories in the book. From there, I jumped to the end, to the title story, “Bring Everybody.” This one’s about Leonard, an older fella whose two best friends pass away within a few weeks of each other. This sends Leonard on an existential journey of self-consideration, which, after several leaps, leads him to believing his best course of action is moving his wife to a new town, to a nice place to settle down, and then  kill himself.

Leonard’s logic here is that he wants Vera, his wife, to be in the place she wants to end up when he goes, that he’ll handle all of the moving out and moving in, all the maintenance and such, so she won’t have to. As for the suicide, Leonard’s convinced that his number will soon be up, no matter what else he does, and he might as well get Vera some insurance money, if he can manage to make his death look like an accident.

Leonard takes the plan so far as to talk Vera into moving, asking her where she wants to go, without, of course, letting on about the other part of his plan. Vera’s still having none of it, however, and when Leonard says he’s looking for fulfillment in this move, Vera suggests he look into some charity work, to put some miles on his soul instead of on a moving van.

This leads Leonard to “The Listening Post,” a service at the local university where students can go to get advice on their problems, sort of a mom-and-pop mental health service (which, today, would almost certainly not exist, for liability’s sake). There, Leonard works with Madge, an old pro, and is replacing her former partner, who suddenly died.

Soon, Leonard finds out about the bevy of problems that young people have, young people who want advice from grandparent-types instead of parent-types, which is why The Listening Post uses senior citizens (my guess it’s the same reason why kids’ cartoons don’t every have any parents in them, but grandparents instead). Leonard knows he doesn’t know much about young people, but if it’s one thing old white guys are good at, it’s giving advice, so Leonard should be able to function.

Leonard almost instantly connects with a young woman named Caroline, who’s a mess. She has what we would now recognize as a diagnosable issue, but back then—John Lennon the The Carpenters are all over the radio—is something you just had to work through. Caroline doesn’t like her roommate, and vice versa, and nobody in her dorm likes her, either. She’s also putting on weight and her face is breaking out horribly. Leonard’s suggestion? Surprise the whole group with a pizza when they’re all hanging out—young people sure do love pizza!—and they’re likely to come around. Caroline is a bit confused, but agrees, and Madge pats Leonard on his back.

It seems as though Leonard’s plan works, as Caroline comes back—she stops by a lot—and says the group was totally surprised by the pizza, even invited her to go boating with them that weekend. Leonard is pleased for Caroline, but is especially pleased with his good deed. He sees himself as some super-advisor to the young. He’s forgets all about his suicide plan and envisions himself as a hero, someone every lauds for his skills, for being a great guy. Hee goes from a self-pitying dilemma to a God complex in just a matter of a week or so. What an arc!

Since this is a short story, Leonard is brought down to earth, and hard. I won’t go into detail as to what happens, but overall, Yates takes Leonard’s existential crises full circle, ending his story in a surprising and satisfying way, making this a fine title story, a fine way to end his collection.

My first foray into Dwight Yates’ work in Bring Everybody was a good reading experience. Yates is good at finding predicaments for characters already kind of in predicaments, facing someone’s crisis while already facing their own. It’s a solid formula for solid fiction, which Yates delivers, story after story.


May 22, 2020: “Slingshot” by Souvankham Thammavongsa

Happy Friday to you, Story366!

This week is the first week of summer break from classes at MSU, what would normally be the start of a summer vacation. I’ve taught at least one summer class every year for the past six summers, so I’ve not fully left teaching for any length of time, not for a while. This time around, I’ve also taken on an intersession course. It’s a three-week, three-hour course, jammed between the spring and summer semesters, and it’s keeping me busy, non-stop, for the whole summer (I’ll have a intro fiction class that starts up right away the next week).

Back in January, when I proposed this course, I wanted something that students would want to take, as primarily, my goal was for the course to make. The course caps at twenty-two and I’d need half that for a go-head. I chose an idea I’d been fostering for a bit, dystopian lit, and came up with this title: “Grim Outlooks: Literature of Dystopia, the Apocalypse, and Alternative Futures.” This kind of thing is pretty hot, all kinds of novels, comics, TV shows, movies, and even short stories falling under the umbrella. It seemed, even back in January, I could form an entire course out of such stories I’d covered here for this blog. When I turned in my proposal, I was informed that at least two other profs in the department had taught special-topics classes on the same subject. Still, they let me turn in the paperwork, the course was accepted, and now, somehow, we’re nearly a third of the way through.

Since the semester is abbreviated, we’re focusing on a couple of novels—The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel—as well as a novella, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, and two poetry books: Our Lady of the Ruins by Traci Brimhall and Moon City Press‘s own Field Guide to the End of the World by Jeannine Hall Gailey. The students have already finished The Handmaid’s Tale and are turning their first short paper in on Sunday. We’ll move on to Station Eleven, then cover the three shorter books that last week. It’s a pedal-to-the-metal approach, and sure, it’s got me on my toes. You know what, though? I kind of like it. Almost makes me wonder why don’t we do all classes in three-week bursts, just crazy focus on one thing for a bit, then move on? That’s sorta what schools on quarters do, to an extent, right? Fewer classes, fewer weeks, a more intense immersion? I could get used to it, for sure.

Of course, not every class can be crammed into three weeks. There are skill-building classes, including fiction-writing, that take time, time that condensing wouldn’t allow for. It’s also rather obvious that if this were a regular, sixteen-week class, the syllabus would include considerably more books than the five I mentioned. My original proposal included these five, plus a glut of short stories—ones I found in Story366—but the Chair and Assistant Chair of English, both lit profs, said it was way too much. So, with their blessing, I condensed, and now, moving as quickly as we are, I’m glad for it.

So, no time off for me, not until the first two weeks of August. I’m not complaining. Really, I don’t have a whole lot else to do this summer, so why not teach? It’s one thing, unlike most of my summer resolutions, I can’t go back on—they’d fire me. So yeah, no summer break. And I’m cool with that.

Today I read a book I just got in the mail yesterday, the brand-new How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa (who knocked me out in the third round of the unpronounceable writer name tourney last year), out from Little, Brown. I spotted this book as a recommendation somewhere and asked the L,B folks to send me one, which they did pronto. Thammavongsa has had a lot of work published in lit mags and anthologies, including last year’s O. Henry collection (third person from that book I’ve covered in the last ten days, coincidentally), and before that, published four collections of poetry. Still, this is my first known run-in with her work. Here we go, then, another brand-new author.

The title story is first in the collection, a shortish piece about a little girl, a Laotian immigrant at an English-speaking school (Thammavongsa grew up in Toronto, btw), who is trying to adjust, trying to do what she’s supposed to. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of cooperation from home, though, as the teacher has to pin notes to her coat to make sure her parents are getting the messages (one of my younger son’s pre-schools did this and it was kind of weird). The mom doesn’t like it, either, and throws the messages away, which means the girl doesn’t know when to dress for school pictures, what homework to do, etc. When she has a reading assignment and asks her father to help her pronounce a certain word, his interpretation is somewhat askew.

“Paris” is about a woman, Red, working in a chicken plant, a plant where every woman is trying to get prettier—through various plastic surgeries—because one woman who did so got promoted to office manager and another married the owner; sadly, a third seems to have become the owner’s mistress, forcing the owner’s wife into Red’s arms.

“Randy Travis” is about a kid whose mother becomes obsessed with Randy Travis, so much so it’s slowly destroying her life and her marriage. The story’s about the narrator trying to reckon things with her mother’s fandom, which spills over into neglect, and eventually, other, more destructive vices.

“Ewwrrrkk” is about a tweenish girl who sprouts breasts for the first time and receives a lesson in womanhood from a bitterish great-grandmother, whose lessons includes whipping out her own breasts as examples, if not warnings of what is to come.

In the middle of all this is the story I’m focusing on today, “Slingshot,” my favorite of the bunch, the one that was in O. Henry. It’s a helluva story. This one’s about an unnamed seventy-year-old woman who’s befriened Richard, her thirty-two-year-old neighbor. Richard is a player, has weird parties at his house, and talks about the hundreds—his number—of women he’s had sex with. Our hero thinks it’s all very interesting—one party has his adult guests crawling through a cardboard-box fort, the kind you’d make for a kid—and has struck up an honest, regular conversation with him, as a neighbor, and as a voyeur.

Eventually, their conversatioins turn to love and sex. As much sex as Richard claims to have, he denounces love, claims it doesn’t exist. He’s pretty staunch in his beliefs, but the narrator, wiser and more intuitive than Richard, knows he’s hiding something, or someone. Sure enough, there’s Eve, a longtime ex, who Richard still talks to, who has taken up with another man, in another town. Clearly, Richard hurts and our protagonist knows it.

Our narrator is less experienced in the ways of sex, however, as she’s only been with her husband, who died thirty years ago. When Richard asks how long it’s been since she’s had sex, she pauses to think on that, which makes him guess the truth. It seems like this unlikely pair have a lot to learn from each other.

Eventually, this type of stark, frequent honesty, and continuous access, leads our hero into Richard’s bed. Richard is a lovely specimen and also very tender and caring, but again, less than half her age. It’s unclear if Richard is curious, a nymphomaniac, or maybe not as experienced as he claims—our hero has never actually seen him with a woman, or a single woman leaving his apartment at a strange hour—but he hesitates to completely consummate their union. In fact, they don’t do so until the second, or even third time (depending on how you look at consummation); a second and third time, of course, indicates there’s more to this than a chance encounter or convenient expedition. Our protagonist really wants to experience sex—she’s the one that fully commits the first time—and Richard really wants something more emotional. It’s not quite Harold & Maude, but it’s close; these people aren’t necessarily soulmates, but instead, merely have something the other needs, and because of their proximity and practical natures, they’re more than willing to share.

Eventually, because this is a short story, conflict arises, mostly in the form of Eve, who visits town. She, her new boyfriend, Richard, and our hero get together for drinks, which is a strangely comfortable scene, but it gets Richard to thinking, forces a schism between the two. In the end, it seems as if Richard needs love more than our hero needs sex, which might be the point of this story, in the long run, though a little sex ain’t bad, either.

I had a great experience reading How to Pronounce Knife, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s brand-new collection of stories. All of the pieces in the book are about Laotian immigrants, like Thammavongsa, except for “Slingshot,” which doesn’t mention it. I liked that aspect of these stories, learning about the struggles of these particular refugees and ex-pats. More so, I just liked the stories, the conflicts and resolutions and journeys therefore that their author took us on. This is a tremendous debut, sure to be one of my favorite books of 2020, one you should get your hands on.




May 21, 2020: “White Birds” by Dinty W. Moore

Hey there, Story366!

I’ve been leading up to this all week, but my boys finished school today and are off for the summer. Each of them is taking an online summer school class—the new second-grader is doing something with National Parks and the new high school freshman is taking algebra—but my job as homeschooler is over for now. I think we’re all glad. The highlight of the day was driving through the elementary school parking lot, where that new second-grader entered as a first-grader, waved at all his teachers, and then exited two minutes later a second-grader. As simple a gesture as this was, it made him feel really good, special,  and was a nice ending for this wacky-ass school year.

One aspect of homeschooling the older boy that the Karen and I really enjoyed was his English class—go figure—the simplicity of the teacher’s plan: Read Tom Sawyer. They had to read a chapter a day, then take a short quiz online, and that was it for the term. We decided we would do this with him, orally—I’d never read Tom Sawyer before—so each weeknight, we read a chapter out loud. Of course, we got behind, so we had to read the last six chapters last night, breaking after each for its corresponding quiz. Within two hours, we finished, the last assignment he’d turn in before high school, earning him an A for the class.

It was a lovely experience, reading this beautiful (and sometimes racist) book out loud, experiencing it with our son, taking turns reading, helping him with the quizes, seeing him complete the whole thing. We are looking for another book to start, though we might take a week off first. It’s summer after all, and we could all use a break.

Today I read from another book I’ve had for a long time, Toothpick Men, Dinty W. Moore‘s 1998 collection from Mammoth Books. I got this book back in 2003, when Moore visited Bowling Green—I know this because he signed and dated it—and I know I read at least some of these stories back then, including the semi-title piece, “My Father Was the Toothpick Man.” As I was sorting out my books earlier this year, I almost didn’t put it on the story collection shelf, assuming, all these years later, it was probably nonfiction—that’s what Moore’s so very known for now, isn’t he, Brevity and all those memoirs and books on writing CNF? But I did spot the “Short Stories by” part of the cover and put it aside, wanting to revisit it, which I did today, just now.

“White Birds” is the opener and my favorite story, so I’ll focus on that. This one’s about this guy, Daniel, who comes home to find his best friend, Tommy, in his kitchen, raiding his fridge for a beer. This isn’t uncommon, as the two live half a mile apart, have been friends for decades, and Tommy doesn’t have much to do. Tommy’s particularly rattled on this day, and when Daniel asks why, he eventually stutters out that he was down at the lake, watching these three twelve-year-old girls playing in the water—both me and Daniel found this creepy, the story headed in the wrong direction. That’s when Tommy surprised us both and said the girls changed into egrets and flew away. And he’s serious: Tommy believes this happened.

Immediately I wondered if this was magical realism. It hardly feels like it, as Tommy’s as unreliable-sounding as they come. Along with the second-hand nature of the telling, none of the other characteristics of magical realism are present here. So, this just seems like some drunken story, a tall tale.

But, as I type this up, it’s striking me that Tommy was watching some twelve-year-old girls and then they disappeared down by the lake. It’s dawning on me, now, that the creepy vibe I’d gotten from this is true and the yarn about therianthropy that Tommy is selling is probably a cover sory. Awful things probably have happened, I should have been thinking. I mean, right?

Still, Daniel’s wife has just left him at this point, after a miscarriage, a disagreement about trying again, and Tommy’s not only his best friend, but his only friend. Since Daniel has more free time on his hands as well—and he wants to believe him—he spends a lot of time down by the lake, watching egrets with Tommy. I guess they’re waiting for one of them to turn back into a twelve-year-old girl. Or maybe something else fantastic to happen. Or maybe Tommy’s realized he shouldn’t have told Daniel any of this and he’s going to murder him, too.

Nothing else fanastic does happen, not like Tommy described in Daniel’s kitchen. Instead, the two talk a lot, mostly about Daniel’s wife. Tommy thinks Daniel should call her, says they broke up over something stupid. Just as Daniel’s explaining why he can’t do this, Tommy does the unthinkable: He launches himself onto a nearby egret and grasps it in his arms. Without missing a beat, he tells Daniel to open the trunk of his car so he can stash the egret inside, so he can have the egret. It’s not really clear if Tommy wants to eat the egret, wants to keep it as a pet, or is hoping it’ll turn back into a little girl for him to … whatever. But for sure, Tommy is screaming at Daniel to hurry up and open the car, this struggling, pecking giant bird in his arms, desperately trying to get away from this bad, bad man.

Daniel, who’s been level-headed if nothing else, doesn’t play along. I won’t go any further than this into the story, but will note that the egret takes on more symbolism than you’d think, and in the end, Daniel doesn’t find Tommy as crazy as he probably should. The story is sad, funny, and beautiful, a fine jumping-off point for a collection.

I read other stories in the book as well, some that came back to me from years before, some that felt new. “Racism in America: The Official Report” is about a guy named Adolph—I shit you not—who lives in some snowy town that’s been hit by a blizzard, covering everything in feet of snow. Adolph is a self-professed racist who enjoys watching his foreign neighbor—who’s described as having skin the color of a paper bag—struggle to get his car out of its place. The story intensifies when this neighbor sees Adolph in the window and knocks on his door for help.

“One Day in Therapy” is a dialogue-heavy tale about a guy named Eddie in a session with a smack-talking therapist. Eddie is having trouble at home, unable to have sex with his wife, for various reasons, a situation his therapist is flippantly trying to help him conquer.

That almost-title story, “My Father Was the Toothpick Man” is a short, about a kid with a drunk, abusive father, how he sees him, how he deals with him (or doesn’t).

Today wasn’t my first visit to Toothpick Men, Dinty W. Moore’s early story collection, but this second run made my visit more complete. These are good stories, compelling and urgent, people trying to cope with their shit, their shit not always wanting to be coped. It’s a good formula, one that Moore employs quite well.