July 31, 2020: “The World Has Many Butterflies” by Curtis Sittenfeld

Friday’s here, Story366!

Seems like there’s a million things I could write about today, be it Trump’s Tweet about postponing the election, the microcosm of a COVID outbreak in MLB, or my continued push to the end of the semester, coming this weekend. I haven’t even commented on the BLM movement as of late, and don’t think I’m mentioned what’s going on in Portland, not at all.

Nearly two weeks ago now, I did post about a close family member contracing the virus. That person is one of my sisters, who’s not making this a secret, though I’ll still withhold her name, which one of the three it is. When last I talked to her, Wednesday evening, she was still sick—ridiculous fever and body aches—and in fact feeling worse than she had a few days before. That sucks, to put it mildly. Today is the two-week point of her contraction, the day that she’s supposed to be feeling better. Maybe she is—I just wrote and asked. She remains in the forefront of my thoughts, however, making everything that’s happening very real and very close to home.

Today I read from Curtis Sittenfeld‘s You Think It, I’ll Say It, out in 2018 from Random House. This might be my first reading of Sittenfeld’s work—unless I read a story or two somewhere—work that has been quite successful, bestsellers and such. I found out today she can write a heckuva story, too, all of them here in front of me. In fact, she’s edited this year’s forthcoming Best American Short Stories anthology, which I look forward to every fall. So, she’s a writer with a lot of things going her way, and it’s nice to finally feature her here at Story366.

“Gender Studies,” the opener, is about Nell, a gender studies prof who is recently divorced and is headed to a conference. Her airport van driver, Luke, starts up a conversation—he’s a Trump fan—and she dismisses him, politely, even accepting the card with his phone number, a prompt to call if she needs anything. In her room, she realizes she’s lost her driver’s licence and suspects it’s in Luke’s van, so she has to use that number after all—she can’t get on the plane on Sunday without ID. After calling Luke and leaving a message, she goes to a conference function and gets pretty drunk, finding a message from Luke when she gets back to her room. Luke wants to meet at the hotel to return the license and meets Nell inside the lobby. Then he wants to have a drink as thanks—she offers forty bucks—getting Nell drunker. One thing leads to another and they’re in Nell’s room, undressed, this gender studies professor and a much-younger Trump-loving cabbie.

“Bad Latch” is about Rachel, a woman who takes a prenatal yoga class and runs into Gretchen, a well-to-do, gorgeous mom-to-be. Gretchen can’t stop talking about her at-home and med-free birth, her plan to stay at home, and her general mom superiority. As luck has it, Gretchen is also in Rache’s breast-feeding class a couple of months later, bragging about how well her baby, Piper, eats and eats, while Rachel can’t get her baby to latch at all. Of course, Rachel runs into Gretchen at infant swim classes, and … you get the idea. Rachel hates Gretchen,, but thing are not always as they seem, she soon finds out.

“The World Has Many Butterflies” is what I’ll focus on today. It’s the second story in the book, and while it’s not the title story, it does contain the title line, “you think it, I’ll say it.” This line appears courtesy of Julie, a middle-aged Houston-suburbs mom who falls for Graham, a local man who works with her husband, who sends his kids to the same school where Julie’s kids go. This puts Julie and Graham in each other’s presence quite a bit—anyone with kids knows how often you see those school parents—and it’s in these meetings that Julie falls for him, be it at a basketball game, after-school pick-up, or office party.

Specifically, Julie and Graham interract by playing a game called You Think It, I’ll Say It, which is a fancy word for gossip, or maybe just being a shit. Julie and Graham stand off to the side at various functions, point at the other people in attendance, and say awful things about them, negative speculations. Julie and Graham seem to have the same instincts, both skeptical of bullshit and cruel in their assessments. Maybe we all do this—with our own spouses, in private—but Julie takes special pleasure in it (we later find out her husband, Keith, refused to play this game years ago). She starts to look forward to seeing Graham again, to play the game, but really, she’s decided she’s going to have an affair with him.

News soon comes down the wire that Graham and his wife are divorcing. If Julie couldn’t stop thinking about Graham before, she’s totally ga-ga for him now, Graham part schoolgirl crush, part obsession. She looks forward to making a move—she waits until after Christmas, not wanting this deception during the holidays. Come Janury, she emails Graham for a lunch. This lunch conveniently happens at a hotel, and Julie dreams of Graham accepting her proposal, accepting her, and whisking her upstairs for an afternoon of passion.

I’m tempted to reveal how that luncheon went, exactly what happens when Julie makes her indecent proposal, but won’t. There’s a lot of story after that point, too, but I’m still going to leave this one where it’s at, let you read it and find out what happens for yourself.

The women in Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It navigate through some peculiar and tense situations, not always making the best of choices, not always getting the result they’re hoping for. All of this is the ministration of a master storyteller, one who knows that peculiar + bad decision =  a pretty damn good tale, each and every time. My time with this book was as well spent a time as I can imagine—check it out if you haven’t.


July 30, 2020: “Bad Boy” by Kristen Roupenian

Good evening to you, Story366!

With my semester winding down and my son’s summer school term winding down—both ending tomorrow—I’m pretty wiped out today. I got up to send the Karen off to work and have been at it since, reading stories, writing comments figuring grades, proctoring online exams. Today’s also the first day for those desperate emails, someone wondering if they can still turn something in, someone asking about a deadline, someone else swearing I said their final projects were due _________ instead of ________, wondering if they should drop the class—on the last day —because they don’t think they can finish it by _________ (meaning that second __________, of course). I’ve become one with my chair, fearing that if I stand, I’ll either collapse because there hasn’t been blood in my legs since noon, or the chair will call me back, tell me I can’t go, that we’re one now, that I’ll be like this forever. I’ll be pretty happy at this time tomorrow, 95 percent done, but then again, I’ll be write here—you can hold me to that thought.

Tonight I read from Kristen Roupenian‘s 2019 collection, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories, out from Scout Press. Roupenian is pretty well known for her story, “Cat Person,” which appeared in The New Yorker—more on that in a bit—which led to lots of conversations about a short story, as well as a seven-figure, two-book deal for Roupenian. You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories is the first book of this deal, and aside from “Cat Person,” this is the first time I’ve read any of her work. And you know what? It’s really, really great—I love this book.

Firstly, though, have you ever seen a title like this, You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories? My assumption is that everyone wanted to get “Cat Person” into the title, as that’s the famous story, the one that’s going to get the Google hits, its recognitionableness simply proned to sell more books. That’s understandable—you got to cash in while the iron’s hot. But then someone, probably Roupenian, didn’t want to call it Cat Person and Other Storeis, so they came up with this, two titles. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to write about this, but as an editor, writer, and publisher, I think about this kind of thing and like to point it out.

Next, I read “Cat Person” a couple years ago, not long after it came out and started all those conversations. I don’t want to spend all night talking about that, but I immediately assigned it to my classes, as I felt they needed to be in on these conversations. Really, it’s not often that a short story causes the kind of press, the kind of debate, that “Cat Person” caused. I felt it was my job to point that out, to have those conversations in my classes. If I didn’t, it would be like if when that major eclipse happened last year and some astronomy professor didn’t mention it in class; “Oh, yeah, I read about that,” he’d say, then go back to whatever else he was be doing instead.

To be honest, I learned a lot more from my students when we talked about that story. I was at least smart enough to know to be quiet, to listenbecause I certainly didn’t want to pretend I knew what was going on, dictate what the correct politics were, or simply say something foolish, either embarrassing myself or indicting myself. I think I understand that story a lot better now, understand the perspective I need to understand, but here that story is, from The New Yorker, and you can judge for yourself.

So, going into You Know You Want This, did I expect every story to be that controversial, for me to question my own feminism, to send me to those key confidantes, women who could help me interpret? No. I mean, I hope not—that would be exhausting. Instead, what I encountered were some pretty stories, stories nothing really like “Cat Person,” stories I’ll tell you about now

The lead story, “Bad Boy,” is a we-told story from the perspective of this couple. This couple has a friend who just broke up with a girlfriend, for the third time, and he’s pretty torn up about it. He comes to their place, has dinner, has some drinks, cries his eyes out, and before long, is falling asleep on their couch. They tell him he can stay as long as he wants but are surprised when he takes them up on it, is still there in the morning. They’re cool with that, but they did refrain from sex the night before, this friend of theirs in the next room, the walls so thin.

The guy doesn’t get any better and stays more night, stays until he pretty much lives there. They give him dinner, hang out with him, and at night, they go to their room and he pulls out the pull-out. Only after that first night, they don’t let him keep them from having sex—they have sex every night, their friend like fifteen feet away.

From there, Roupenian only escalates the situation. Soon, the couple realizes that they’re not only willing to have sex with their friend so close, listening in, but they like sex better that way. They get louder and louder, rowdier and rowdier, and more daring, too, leaving the door cracked, then open, sneaking into the living room for something in just a towel or their underwear. They know he knows what’s going on, and they love it.

Everything comes out into the open when they’re drunk—like you do—the couple not only broaching the subject, but taunting their friend about it, bullying him into a corner. This couple is not only getting off by having sex in proximity of this man, but they’re throwing it in his face. One thing leads to another, and perhaps in the natural order of things, the friend is soon invited to come join in. Sadly, though, it’s not in a loving way, nothing all that sexy or beautiful: They treat him like a sub, bossing him, depriving him, and humiliating him, all for their own pleasure and none of his.

Are they better or worse than the awful girlfriend the friend broke up with, the woman who pushed the first domino? Well, probably ,but he’s at least getting naked with consenting adults, which hadn’t been happening with his girlfriend. That’s a pretty low bar in which to judge this situation, especially when the domino chain becomes an avalanche. Things happen that are so depraved, the protagonists easily morph into the antagonists, villains we feel sick saying “we” for as we read their pronoun and speak their thoughts.

“Look at Your Game, Girl” is about a twelve-year-girl living in California in the nineties who likes to listen to her Discman in the skate park and read, hoping the skater boys will notice her. One day a man, who she mistakes for a skater, approaches her and starts talking music. He returns another day with a present, a cassette tape. When she says she doesn’t have a cassette player, he returns a week later with a crappy but funtional Walkman. Turns out, the grungy old pop is Charles Manson’s album and the guy wants her to borrow it, but then wants her to meet him at the park to return it—at midnight. The girl doesn’t do it—she knows better than to meet a strange man in the park at midnight. The same night, however a local girl is kidnapped from a sleepover and goes missing (and eventually, shows up dead). Our hero of course thinks it’s her Charles Manson fan. She feels a terrible fear, and a terrible guilt, thinking it should have been her instead of this other girl.

I skipped ahead to the end and read the last story, “Biter,” about Ellie, who bites. She gets into all kinds of trouble as a kid, until someone shames her from biting. Jump ahead twenty years and Ellie hasn’t biten anyone since kindergarten, but she’s still dying to. She has a boring office job writing spam emails, but daydreams about biting her coworkers, how it would happen, how they’d react, what the consquences would be. Enter Corie Allen, a handsome young elf-man who looks like a piece of prime rib to Ellie. From there, Roupenian has a lot of fun deconstructing Ellie’s biting and we get to read all her thoughts, how she just about convinces herself that she’d be doing everyone a favor if she just bit Corie Allen; besides, what are the odds, if she just went up to him and bit him, that she’d get in any real trouble?

I relished the opportunity to tell you about these stories from You Know You Want This: “Cat Person” and Other Stories, as wow, they all are such well crafted tales, all great concepts, all stories that cleverly, perversely, and effortlessly handle their material. Sometimes these protagonists are villains, sometimes they’re victims, but often enough, it’s kind of hard to tell, and that’s what makes this book so special, what will keep it burnt in my mind for a long time. Kristen Roupenian can flat-out tell a story, some of the best I’ve read this year.


July 29, 2020: “Sabrina & Corina” by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Wednesday here, Story366! Wednesday!

Should I talk about baseball more today? I don’t think so, as I did that quite a bit the last two days. In 2020, I don’t think anything deserve three straight days of conversation unless it’s about COVID-19 or the BLM protests. Maybe the election? Not yet: Please, God, no, not yet.

Today I’ll keep it short, actually, as I need to run some errands and get to that soon. I’ll just note that this is the last week of my summer classes and I’ve been scrambling, reading final drafts, grading what’s been sitting in my Inbox for a while, and encouraging students to keep going, just two more days. It’s left me homebound the last week or so, and really, if I didn’t venture out to my yard to take pictures of these book covers, I’m not sure I’d go outside. Even today’s errands, in that light, make me feel like I’m heading out on an exhibition. The baseball (always back to the baseball …) isn’t helping, either, as I watch those games here on my phone, no need to, you know, move. Starting Saturday, when most everything should be graded and turned in, I vow to live a more interesting and active life.

For now, you get posts about my unintesting and inactive life.

Today I read from Kali Fajardo-Anstine‘s celebrated 2019 collection, Sabrina & Corina, out from One World. This book has earned Fajardo-Anstine a whole lot of awards, including a National Book Award finalistism, and from what I’ve read so far, they’re well earned. I’ve had my eye on this one for a long time and am happy to be reporting on this book, at last, to share my thoughts.

The opening story, “Sugar Babies,” is a pretty fantastic story, a great intro to this book and Fajardo-Anstine’s work. This one’s about Sierra, a thirteen-year-old student in Colorado who’s given that classic home-ec assignment of watching a fake baby. This version employs a bag of sugar, as well as a partner, Roberto. While Sierra’s dealing with this, she and her dad also get a visit from her mom, who left years ago, but shows up once in a while to visit, more like an aunt than a mom. All of this is happening in the wake of an archaeological discovery, several skeletons up on a ridge. Fajardo-Anstine blends it all together, especially the sugar bag and mom’s appearance, capturing just how a thirteen-year-old girl’s salad of emotions would strike at key moments in her life.

The title story, “Sabrina & Corina,” is up next. This one’s about a relative of Sierra’s, I’m guessing, as everyone in “Sabrina & Corina” is named Cordova, just like Sierra, and they’re all living in or around Denver. In any case, at the outset of the story, Corina, our protagonist and narrator, is working at a makeup counter at Macy’s when she gets bad news: Sabrina, her cousin, is dead, strangled.

Actually, we don’t know who’s dead right away, only that someone’s been strangled. Corina makes her way to a family house, where everyone is gathered. Some people are consoling Sabrina’s mom, the men are watching sports with the volume off, and the women are cooking, making menudo and some fixings for the men.

Here we finally get the details, that’s it’s Sabrina, Corina’s first cousin. The two grew up together, Corina just a year younger, and for most of their lives, were inseparable. Sabrina was always the beautiful one, though—something everyone announces at that house with the sobbing and the menudo—making her more popular than Corina. Like the story often goes, Sabrina’s looks and popularity took her down a different path than Corina. Corina’s father paid for her to go to cosmetology school, while Sabrina seemed to party a lot more, including lots of heavy drinking.

The intriguing part of Sabrina’s death, for Corina, is that the family has asked her to do Sabrina’s makeup in the casket. Carlos, the local mortician, probably won’t capture Sabrina’s beauty, especially with the marks on her neck, so Corina is allotted the task. The story is then a back-and-forth between her carrying out this task and memories of her and Sabrina’s life, mostly how they grew apart. There’s even an incident or two where the two women, as adults, run into each other, Corina’s life consistent, if not boring, and Sabrina looking and feeling like she’s spent the last ten years drunk. So, we find out early that Corina has this awful task, but by the time she has to do it, we find out that she’s not overly surprised or even moved by her cousin’s lifeless, mangled body.

“Sabrina & Corina” is pretty much what I categorize as a good brother-bad brother story, calling to mind Cain and Abel, Thor and Loki, and the brothers in “Sonny’s Blues” as famous examples. This one reads a lot like Baldwin’s story, as the “bad brother” in this equation, Sabrina, seems to have a lot more fun, or at least is more interesting, than the good brother, Corina, who doesn’t make anyone cry, but doesn’t make anyone turn their heads, either. It’s a solid formula for a story, to see two people from the same general background diverge so much, and Fajardo-Anstine is more than up to the task here.

I jumped ahead then to the last story, “Ghost Sickness,” about Ana Garcia (not Cordova, but since I skipped a bunch, it’s possible there’s a tie), a college student living in Colorado. Ana is taking a class on the history of the West in the U.S., a class taught by a white woman from New England and populated by white people from all over. Ana’s ancestry is a mix, but includes Native blood, and she sadly has to endure the white people speaking of her heritage off-handedly (this is still a Eurocentric course somehow) and with disrespect. In the meantime, her live-in boyfriend has been missing for a long time. Ana fears he is dead, though can only confirm this through a vision she had in a bathtub.

I’m so happy to get to Sabrina & Corina today, a book that’s received a lot of accolades, a book that’s earned them. Kali Fajardo-Anstine has written a tremendous collection about these Latin (et al) women from Colorado, their history in their back pockets as they move forward and stake future identities. Through the eyes of these working-class heroes, we see a microcosm of American culture, stories from a particular perspective, and some fine writing, too. This is a great book, a triumph.




July 28, 2020: “The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain” by Don Waters

Hey, there, Story366!

Because this MLB story changes more quickly than other news items, such as COVID-19 or BLM protesting, I’ll stick with MLB today for this portion of my entry, even though I covered it in detail yesterday. The scoop today is that the Florida Marlins, now up to nineteen positive tests, are on official hiatus for a week, meaning all those games are postponed or canceled. That means the teams who were going to play them also have off. Are those automatic wins for the Marlins’ opponents? No, I don’t think that’s how they’ll do this. For one, that’s no fair, and for two, that promotes an ablist agenda; if you carry that type of thinking out, before long, the best team in baseball will literally be the team that’s healthiest, that can stay on the field the longest. MLB won’t want any part of that, so no forfeit wins for the Marlins’ foes, I’ll predict.

Still, that’s going to leave this crazy season unbalanced, as some teams, e.g., will finish the sixty-game season with fifty-seven games played. Others with fifty-five. The Marlins are looking at considerably fewer. How do you figure out standing and send teams to the playoffs with such discrepency?

One positive here is that it’s easier now to play double-headers. MLB ceased scheduling those because each double-header took a day of gate revenue away from the home team, but since revenue isn’t a factor, teams can play a double-header every day and nobody loses anything. Plus, in a shortened season, the players can’t really complain, can they, about being at the ball park all day, about the stress on their bodies, as they’re only playing sixty games, 37 percent of the normal card. We might see a lot of double-headers, is what I’m trying to say. Somewhere, Ernie Bank is cracking a smile.

Of course, this is merely the news as I type this sentence. A few other teams—like the Phillies, who just played the Marlins—are postponed tonight as well, awaiting extra-stringent testing. If they develop a bunch of positives, then they’re out, too. Then the teams they were supposed to play don’t play games, either. You can see how this can domino so quickly, that by the end of the week, they might have to just scrap it, either go into a two-week holding pattern, or worse, call off the season.

Amidst all these logistics—and my desire to watch my team play baseball—is the actual health factor. Nineteen people have tested postive so far. That’s nineteen households also affected. That’s nineteen sets of contacts affected, too. We’re already talking about a large group of people, and someone in that large group of people might not only get coronavirus, but might get seriously ill. And they might die. All because we want baseball, to have our pastime.

So, I’m going to post about the Cubs a lot in the coming days, if not weeks and months. I am aware, however, of the ramifications of this pursuit, what’s at risk. I wish all these players, their families, and everyone they’ve come in contact with the best of health. And I hope that MLB, its teams, and its players, do better. They have to, or they should quit right now.

For today’s entry, I read from Don Waters‘ collection, The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain, out from the University of Nevada Press in 2017. Pretty much all of the stories in this book have appeared in major lit mags, and this is Waters’ second collection (he previously won an Iowa Short Fiction Award). Therefore, I’ve been aware of his work for a while, but as always, was glad to sit down with a whole book, string a couple of these tales together.

The lead and title story, “The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain,” is about Emmett, a can’t-win guy who ends up with a twelve-year prison sentence for a string of minor crimes that culminated in an assault—he got into a fight at a convenience store and won, basically. For five years, Emmett couldn’t deal with prison, five empty years of darkness. After that five years, he felt assimilated, started to be soothed by the sounds of the bars, the wake-ups, and the guards. He took to the routine. A few years later, he was handpicked by the warden for a special program, springing a few “lucky” prisoners for work detail on a ranch. I put “lucky” in quotes because cowboy life might just be harder than life inside, hard work in the sun all day, every day, leading to a locked trailer, shared with another inmate, every night. It’s like Cool Hand Luke: Sure, those guys got to be outside, see a little bit of the world, only they had to slave away in the unforgiving sun on a chain gang. Same thing with Emmett on this ranch: He may have been better off in his cell.

The story starts with a modern round-up of some wild horses. Instead of cowboys on horses with lassos, herding animals the old-fashioned way, these cowboys basically hold the gate open while a low-flying helicopter buzzes the horses into the corral. The hardest part is not catching a random hoof as they horses run by. That and the overwhelming sour smell of shit, the horses crapping all over, they’re so spooked.

Emmett is paired with Billy, a young kid caught with some personal-use pharmaceuticals.  Neither man really deserves a life of hard labor, but the ranch—where they’re known as “trustees”—at least gives them purpose and direction. They also get a few privileges. Their overseer, Gustavo, slips them sips from his flask, and once in a while, Gustavo will let one of them drive into town with him for an errand. Both men, favored by the warden, should be up for early parole before too long.

Emmett has one more perk in that he’s got a thing going with Kim, the ranch vet. Kim visits his trailer, is eager to see him, her rough-and-tumble cowboy jailbird lover. Waters makes it pretty clear that Kim is more into this than Emmett is, which is kind of surprising, as Emmett was in jail and she’s a human woman, visiting him for sex. Then again, that’s how characters are characterized, by the choices they make, the oddities they reveal. Writing!

One horse didn’t get into corral during the helicopter blitz, a beautiful blue roan stallion that seems to want to pudder around outside. It’s not running away—Gustavo points out it wants to be near its kin—and the warden directs Emmett to get him that horse, that he wants it in the corral, pronto. This horse leads to more plot later in the story, as well as a pretty big metaphor, the free horse that can’t bring itself to be free, that kind of thing. This also bookends another incident, a nasty accident involving Billy’s face. Mostly, the story establishes this setting and its rules, shows some easy interaction between Emmett and Gustavo and Emmett and Kim, and focuses on this blue roan, deciding its fate.

In the end, Emmett has to make some choices, of which he has few, but he’s in this special situation. Without giving too much away, I’ll note that he takes advantage of someone’s trust, kind of screwing himself, though I’m pretty sure this lonesome cowboy knows what he’s doing.

“Deborah” is a fascinating case study of a woman who, at first, seems like an animal activist. She lives in a little house in the middle of nowhere with several animals, mostly rescues, and even sleeps with a guy just so she can get access to the collie chained up in his yard, set it free. That could have been a good story all by itself. Deborah, however, also spends Sundays at the local discount zoo—mostly retired animals, nothing overly funded—where she sneaks into a mountain lion enclosure and feeds it raw hamburger, not overly worried when the cat takes a finger, repeatedly, as a side dish.

“Two Kinds of Temples” is a split story, depicting a different type of temple in each half. The first depicts a hippie spring resort, the kind of place where they eat cale burgers and skinny dip in hot springs. A man and a woman, both married to other people but out for solos retreats, get all up and over each other during their stays, passionate, vegan-fueled lovemaking that celebrates life, if not monogamy. In the second half, a proprietor/maid of a roadside motel sees a couple check in, then remain for nearly a month, not paying any bills. Yet, this narrator becomes obsessed with their affairs, the couple occupying the room next to hers, the kind with the door in-between.

Don Waters’ second collection, The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain, is full-on fiction. This is just a delightful book, full of intense, high-action stories that have deep, developed characters. So much happens in every one of these tales, and Waters possesses the skill to draw us into his worlds so completely. I perhaps had greater connections to these worlds and people than I’ve had to anything I’ve read in a long time. Such a good book, time so well spent.


July 27, 2020: “Karate Chop” by Dorthe Nors, Translated by Martin Aitken

Hey, there, Story366!

Today, the Miami Marlins have fourteen of their people testing positive for COVID-19, meaning they canceled their game for today. Three days into the season, the league’s fears have all come true, as most of a team is out and will be for two weeks. Everyone is scrambling to figure out what comes next, and I spent a great deal of time discussing this with my baseball folks this morning, guessing as to what we think will happen next. These fourteen Marlins people are out, but can be replaced by players from the “taxi squad,” guys put aside for this very purpose; no one thought they’d need so many players (twelve, as two positives were coaches) this soon. Do the Marlins just play for two weeks with the second string? Apparently. Do they ever make up today’s game? Don’t know. The Phillies, who just played the Marlins, also called their game today, just as a precaution. The situation changes and develops as the minutes pass, so it’s likely that by the time I post this, there might be drastic changes. There’s a lot of talk of the season being canceled because of this, but I hope not. We’ll have to wait and see

Otherwise, as of me writing this sentence, other games are being played. The Cubs are supposed to be playing now, but are in a rain delay. I’m sure a lot of those players are sitting in the clubhouse—doing whatever they do in a rain delay while social distancing—and wondering if they’ll ever get another at-bat this year, ever throw another pitch. I’m wondering the same thing, if this past weekend—which I enjoyed immensely—will turn out to be an anomaly, a tease. At best, it might serve entertaining reminder of what’s really going on in the world, what we’re up against, and what we still have in store.

For today’s entry, I read from Danish writer Dorthe Nors‘ collection, Karate Chop, out from Graywolf in 2008 and translated to English by Martin Aitken. Nors has a bunch of novels to her credit, and many of these stories having appeared in American lit mags. Yet, I can’t recall ever reading anything by her before today. So, without further ado, here’s what I discovered about Nors’ short stories today.

The first story is “Do You Know Jussi?” and is about a woman watching a program about missing persons. In this episode, there’s a man whose son is looking for him. The reporter for the program tracks down one of his old residences, knocks on the door, camera over her shoulder, and speaks to the woman who lives there now. The reporter asks if the woman knows Jussi, the missing man, and the woman replies that she does, and knows where he’s at right then. Our protagonist turns off the TV, though, and starts thinking about her man who just left her house, and then about another man, in a dreamworld, a horrific vision that propels her through her evening.

“Nat Newsom” is about an existential philosophy professor at Columbia, Jack Soya, who declarss that the person who’s had the biggest impact on his work, and perhaps his life, is Nat Newsom. Nat Newsom was a panhandler who opened the door for people entering a McDonald’s on Soya’s commute. Soya is intrigued by Nat’s acumen, and asks if he’d like to join him for a beer. There’s Nat tells him a story about a con man who approached him and a friend of his at the public library, a man who claimed to be collecting money for homeless drug addicts. The man was white and said his name was one thing, but wore an ID badge that showed he was black and named another. Something about Nat Newsom’s reaction to this man intrigues Soya, leading to his declaration about Nat’s importance in his life.

The title story, “Karate Chop,” seems like it’s going to be another deeply introspective and philosophical piece, and for a good length of the story, it is. This one’s about Annelise, who’s sitting on the edge of a bed, looking at her sleeping boyfriend, Carl Erik, and considering him, as well as men in general. The story, for quite a while, features Annelise traveling down the rabbit hole of stream of consciousness.

She begins with a generality she’s noticed about men, that every time a woman starts to talk seriously about herself, men tend to cut them off with something direct and self-deprecating about themselves, something like, “I’ve always been an asshole.” or “I’m a terrible person.” For whatever reason, Annelise realizes she’s never taken men at their word for this, was their way of either making her stop talking, or setting themselves up to be better than they claim, to be an automatic improvement. It’s an ominous revelation, but we’ll get to that.

Annelise eventually revels her sexual history, especially how she learned about sex, mainly through her brother’s dirty magazines. She talks about her relationship with her family, insular people who didn’t exactly open up about feelings, let alone life lessons.

This leads Annelise to her relationship with Carl Erik, which is questionable at best. In some ways, he seems like a regular chap, but he also has the tendency to “lend” Annelise out to people he thinks need some cheering up. Once, at a bar, he tells her to make a stranger, an alternately abled man, happy. Annelise, aiming to please, dances with the man, laughs at his jokes, and lets him buy her a beer. It’s unclear how far these arrangements go, but by the end of the story, I have to wonder if Carl Erik’s game doesn’t play itself out to the end.

Near the end of the story, Nors makes her way back to that bed, to Annelise sitting on the edge, watching the sleeping Carl Erik. Annelise studies his hand, deconstructs its fuction, and eventually, we see where all this flashbacking has led us: This all takes place soon after Carl Erik struck Annelise (with the titular chop, we guess, though the word karate is never use) and then forced himself on her in a violent, bloody haze.

I don’t want to say anything else about this story, at least not where it goes, but did want to note this revelation, what we find out about Annelise on this fateful night. It’s perhaps what makes this the title story, the stakes so much higher than in the previous stories I read, the action more defined (and ugly). It’s a powerful story about abuse, mixed inside Nors’ interiority, making for an interesting and stark combination.

Today was my first run-in with Dorthe Nors and her work, and it was a good experience. The pieces in Karate Chop feels particularly European, somehow. Maybe it’s their lack of traditional plotting—Freytag took this one off—and deeply philosophical treatments. That’s okay, though, as I dig that kind of thing, my own college forays into Sarte and Camus at least allowing me to recognize when someone’s smarter than I am and still make me enjoy what they have to say. All this and the Cubs are now playing, up 8-2. Not a bad day.







July 26, 2020: “A Real Doll” by A.M. Homes

Another Sunday arrives, Story366!

Today’s another office day. Yesterday I noted how it was the first time in over three weeks I spent any time away from the house and my boys. I didn’t like it much—I felt like a stranger in a strange land—but today I return. Lots of work to do, plus lots of work to set up: Anything I need copied or scanned, I leave on my desk and the administrative assistant will pick it up, do the job, and return it to my desk. Any mail I need sent, same thing: Leave it on my desk and they’ll come get it. The main English office opens in a week, but we’ve been asked to stay out of there until after Labor Day, as it will be flooded with students and they don’t need faculty adding to the numbers. I have sworn to stay in my office, and perhaps the bathroom, and that’s it.

I also found out I can bring my office computer home, which completely changes the game. Last fall, I fried my Mac Powerbook by dumping a cup of liquid on it. Luckily, Karen had an old and barely functional Macbook, which weighs a hundred pounds and is slow as fuck, but I’ve adjusted, as it’s still a Mac and it was free. Whenever I go to my office, it’s like the future, that computer so fast, with so much memory, and lighter, despite its much larger screen. I am now going to have that machine at home, giving me the power to do anything here I could do there. Less time in the office makes everyone happy, so there we go.

Will any liquids be allowed remotely near this fancy office computer? Nope. In fact, we might practice COVID-19 protocol with this thing—we need to wear a mask and gloves, we need to santize our hands constantly, and we need to keep six feet away from it all times. I might not get any work done, but damn it, it’s going to stay safe.

Today I read from A.M. Homes‘ collection The Safety of Objects, originally published in 1990 but reissued in 2013 by Penguin. I remember reading some of Homes’ stories in that nineties version of Story magazine, but probably haven’t read anything since, even with another collection and several novels to her name. I was excited to get into this book, one I should have read decades ago—how often is a major motion picture made off a book of stories? Story366 rescues me once again.

The opening story, “Adults Alone,” introduces us to Paul and Elaine. In the opening scene, Elaine drops the kids off with her mother-in-law down in Miami so she and Paul can have ten days to themselves. The couple has recently moved to the fancy suburbs and is still adjusting to their gated community and expansive house. Paul wants to act like it’s spring break, smoking pot, playing video games, and constantly hounding Elaine for sex; Elaine just wants to unplug and chill, and not with Paul. After a couple of days of letting loose, the couple decides they’d like to try some crack—I thought this was a dream sequence until I remembered when this book was written—and their week takes a serious turn. Homes uses Elaine and Paul again in a novel, Music for Torching, so she must like this story, must have been fond of these parents behaving badly.

“Yours Truly” features Jody, who spends the entire story locked in a linen closet while her mom hosts a dieting club meeting for overweight women. Jody is smitten with Odessa, one of these women, and fantasizes about interactions of all kinds, and eventually, as well as standing up to the group and her parents. To note, most of the story is told in a will/would tense, meaning it’s all just speculation, and poor Jody is likely still in that linen closet, daydreaming about what she’d do if .

The final story in the collection is “A Real Doll,” what I’ll focus on today. I read this story and then I looked it up on the Google, discovering that it’s kind of infamous, as literary short stories go. If you’ve read this story, you know why. If you haven’t, well, here you go.

“A Real Doll” is about this teenage boy who starts playing with his little sister’s Barbie doll. He goes into her room when she’s not there and picks it up, says hi, and like nothing’s odd, Barbie talks back. It’s perhaps not magical realism as much as absurdism, and of course, people will make the comment and argument that everything Barbie says, every physical action she takes, is all in the boy’s head. But I don’t think you’re supposed to read this story with any of that in mind. Homes keeps everything moving quickly enough so you’re not thinking about any of that, at least not until you’re researching the story online and composing 1500-word blog posts about it.

Like most teenage boys home alone, our hero here looks for new ways to masturbate, to have sex without having another person present. This kid so happens to choose his sister’s Barbie. His first run-in with her is strange and violent, as if he doesn’t know what intimacy is (spoiler: he doesn’t), sticking Barbie in his mouth, biting down on her, much to Barbie’s dismay. She tells him just how much she dislikes this treatment, and, well, that’s their first date. Pretty ominous, but then again, it never had a chance and this kid isn’t exactly an experienced hearthrob.

As the story moves forward, Homes emboldens her protagonist more and more. Before you know it, Barbie’s clothes are off and the kid is touching her plastic parts, the stakes and rising until he’s fucking the doll, rubbing it up and down on his dick until he orgasms.

You’d think that since Barbie didn’t like being put in his mouth and bit down on, she wouldn’t like getting jerked off on, but no, this Barbie’s had a change of heart. She seems open to them taking their relationship to this level, even cooing when she sees his dick—(“I’ve never seen anything so big before!”) and squealing with pleasure during the more heated moments. Barbie’s into it, which leads to all kinds of possibilities for our narrator—a trip to the toy store is like sensory overload, rows and rows of Barbies, and you can imagine where his thoughts go.

Two different figures stand in the way of this couple’s happiness. One is Ken, who is always there, always a factor—much is made of his lack of genitalia. The other is Jennifer, the protagonist’s sister, who, remember, actually owns the dolls. Our hero has to hide his activities from her, has to keep separate from his new gal-pal while his sister plays with her toys. To his horror, sometimes she’s rougher with these toys than he is—I know, hard to believe—recalling vicious Sid from Toy Story (though remember, this book and this story are older than that, so Homes came up with all of it first). In any case, this guy never knows what he’s going to find when he sneaks into his sister’s room. Sometimes, it’s grotesque, sometimes, homoerotic, but trust me, he adapts.

One scene in this story makes it transcend what I’ve described so far. Jennifer has a fall outside, scraping her knee badly, while our guy is having a session in her room with Barbie. Jennifer comes inside, screaming and crying, and our guy has to quit what he’s doing and tend to his sister. I held my breath as this kid took off his sister’s torn tights, wondering what this horny little weirdo was going to do next. Homes gets as much as she can out of that moment—she knows what she’s doing—and happily, the kid turns out to be a pretty good brother in this instance (aside from the fact he was supposed to be watching her, keeping her from falling, not having sex with her toys).

I think I’ve gone as far into “A Real Doll” as I need to, to give an accurate picture of what this story is. It’s one of the more unusual stories I’ve read in a long time, and again, it’s over thirty years old. It’s also a fine way to end this collection, because at this point, I was wondering what Homes could have her characters do as a finale. I had to ask, didn’t I?

What an interesting way to spend an Sunday afternoon, with this thirty-year-old A.M. Homes collection that I probably should have read when it came out and should have been citing and assigning since I’ve been teaching. The Safety of Objects will stay with me for a long time, a collection that’s had a few different lives, and deservedly so. I can’t wait to see what else it has in store.



July 25, 2020: “Lost Girls” by Ellen Birkett Morris

Welcome to Saturday, Story366!

Today I am in my office, given special permission to enter a campus building, as no one else will be here. During most of June, I was going in a couple of times a week, usually at night, as things seems to be opening up; I also had a lot to do. I was careful, avoiding people, wearing a mask, walking around with hand sanitizer, and so forth. Then restrictions were amped up and campus was officially reclosed—I actually had to be referred to an email saying this, as I wandered in once after the order came down and I wasn’t supposed to be here. Oops.

In any case, this is the first time I’ve come here in three weeks. In 2020, that’s no big deal, as I’ve adjusted to life as we know it now and three weeks is nothing. However, it’s struck me that this is the first time in three weeks that I haven’t been with my kids. For three solid weeks, I’ve been glued to my boys, nonstop, and well, that’s a lot of time to spend with anyone. We wake up together, spend all day together, then go to bed together. I work at home, teaching classes and editing and this, and they go to school, at home, all of this done through our computers. We keep the house and yard going, and if we ever venture out, to pick up essentials or perhaps take a walk, it’s together. For three weeks.

I love my boys quite a bit. I know that one day, when they’re moved out, moved on, we’ll talk about this time with some odd fondness. It’ll be the time we got to be together, all the time. It hasn’t been the most productive time for me, though, not in terms of my own writing, as there’s been nowhere to go, no place to concentrate. At the same time, I don’t think my boys me all up in their faces, all day, every day, either. Our older boy is a teenager, meaning he locks himself in his room when he can, though it’s never long before I’m knocking on his door, telling him it’s time for algebra or some chore. Both of them need their time away from me, whether it’s to be with the Karen or to get my stink off of them, as much as I need my time alone. It’s good that I’m here. Change of scenery for them, the scenery being me.

So why have I been here for just a few of hours and already I’m missing those boys immensely? It’s Stockholm syndrome, me convinced that our hips are meant to be connected. I’m worried about them, wonder what they’re up to, and just plain miss them.

Today’s post paired me with Ellen Birkett Morris‘s collection, the brand-new Lost Girls, out less than a month ago from TouchPoint Press. I was not familiar with Morris’ work before I read it today, though I’ve been social media friends with her for a while, and was excited to see her debut finally arrive.

“Lost Girls” is the first story and title story, so I’m focusing on that, but could have really picked any of the stories I read, all of them solid and engaging, all unique in theme and character. “Lost Girls” is about a young woman, a narrator who becomes obsessed with a missing girl from her small town. The girl, Dana Lampton, was taken from a strip mall right across the street from her apartment.

What’s made the narrator so obsessed with Dana’s disappearance is that she always thought she’d be kidnapped. It was a dream she had that convinced her, combined with previous kidnappings from the news. She feared every man she encountered, assumed they were all going to grab her, turn her into some hippie commune slave.

Dana disappearing only enhances our protagonist’s fears, fears that follow and haunt her until she realizes, in a relieving revelation, that she’s simply too old to be kidnapped, at least not in the way children are taken.

Yet, Dana is never found. Like the missing women here in Springfield, she vanishes without a trace, her parents and the community left in the wake of the tragedy, of their own grief. Because of her previous obsession, of the proximity of the crime and her age, our hero is uniquely affected, responding accordingly, coping in her own way.

“Inheritance” is about a sin-eater, those people who eat food laid on the stomachs of the dead, food that absorbs all their sins before the afterlife. This sin-eater is a young woman who eats sins to support her family. She is commissioned to eat for the matriarch of the Cabot family, a woman whose family holds public standing over her narrator’s family. Things are complicated further when she starts an affair with the deceased’s grandson, a man who has little use for her once her job is done.

The protagonist of “Religion” needs to fill time in her life. In a Palahniukian gesture, she stumbles into a meeting for lactating moms while looking for a decoupage group—and stays. She has no children and produces no milk, but this doesn’t stop her from trying her best to participate.

Abby in “Harvest” is a former Homecoming Queen who never took to the role, never exhibited the confidence someone of her position would normally have. She went to the dance with a boy named Tank simply because he asked, then had sex with him in his car for the same reason. All of her life choices seemed to be based on this logic, meaning she’s fallen into everything she’s ever done, including a forty-year ownership of a candy store. She confronts what could have been when she visits an old friend in a nursing home, and relives that chance when a charming high school boy paints a mural on her store wall and they have a connection.

The women in Lost Girls are lost, for sure, looking for their lives as their lives pass them by. Ellen Birkett Morris crafts each one of these tales carefully, throwing her heroes into vicarious situations that leave them all wanting, all searching. Poor Dana in that title story is gone, never having had a chance, but you hold out hope for these other women, that sooner or later, they’ll find their way home.


July 24, 2020: “Winter Montage, Hoboken Station” by Tobias Carroll

Happy Friday, Story366!

Today is Opening Day for Major League Baseball! Only it’s not—yesterday was Opening Day for Major League Baseball! Since the Cubs didn’t play last night, I didn’t consider that there’d be other games. There were, one of which was rained on and finalized after six innings, a fitting end to this particular start. Tonight at six, on ESPN, the Cubs play the Brewers, the first real game since their ultra-disappointing 2019 season. I’m pretty excited, because it’s just something I like, returned, another pursuit to distract me from the horribleness that is 2020.

Do I need baseball every day back in my life? Probably not. In fact, no. Since this version of the Cubs has been good, dating back to 2015, I’ve watched 95 percent of their games—the ones I wasn’t beer-vending at, anyway. That’s a huge time commitment for something I’m not personally involved in, something that merely entertains me, as opposed to something that accomplishes anything. I’ve had to busiest summer of my life so far, taking on classes several classes, paired with home-schooling my own two boys. Time has gone by faster than in any part of my life, and days slip away—as of me writing this sentence, it’s not noon, but the next time I’ll check, it’ll be time for dinner, then time for everyone to go to bed. That’s how it’s been since March, the clocks on fast forward.

I’m not sure I can find three hours in a day to accommodate a baseball game. In the past, I’ve tried having it on in the background, working at the same time, which would be a great fix. Only I don’t really concentrate on either, especially not my work, and I end up watching the game. More often than not, I’ve planned my days around the Cub game, and in turn, my family has had their lives planned on that schedule, too. Can I afford that now? No, no I can’t.

Welcome back, baseball. I will enjoy you tonight, root for my beloved team, and applaud the collaboration that has made this venture possible in these times. Not sure about what happens tomorrow, though. Go Cubs!

For today’s post, I read from Tobias Carroll‘s 2016 collection, Transitory, out from Civil Coping Mechanisms. I only know Carroll’s work from stories I’ve read in journals, so I’m glad to have gotten my hands on this collection, to string some of his efforts together. Without further delay—Cubs on before you know it—here we go.

The stories in Transitory involve people on the move, as you might guess. Actually, four stories into the colleciton, it’s possible that the people is just one person, as all the narrators (but one) are unnamed and seem to be men in their thirties. It’s a composite narrator who seems between places, but also between times, between people, and between identities and motivations. The collection is existential and introspective, the characters observing and deconstructing, but usually not reacting, unless that reaction is leaving, moving on. This collection has a particular style, but is also a mindset, Carroll striking a unique and intriguing tone.

In “Winter Montage, Hoboken Station,” the lead story, a man obsessed with travel, maps, and locations agrees to meet an old friend for a drink, their paths crossing in the same city for the first time in years (which he chronicles for us in his head). They don’t remember not knowing each other, but they haven’t been in touch more than every few years for a while. They have both moved around, for school, for work, for other commitments, life taking over.

While the narrator prepares for this meeting, he gets, as promised, introspective about the past. It’s not that a simple kind of introspective, though. There’s some sentimentality involved, but our narrator thinks about the nature of time and memories and how all of that relates to seeing this person, now; he’s a person so ensconced in the past, but repositioning himself in the present. In some ways, it feels like the kind of thing you think about when you’re high and sitting on the couch of your first college apartment. In other ways, it’s growing up, realizing that things that happened to you twenty or thirty years ago don’t necessarily have bearing on your life now: They are memories and can stay there, if you so choose. Is this guy a weirdo, a heartless robot, or is he just accepting the fact that he and this old friend don’t need to be friends anymore, that no law says they have to keep in touch.

The meet-up at the bar is awkward. These are two men who are men now, no longer boys or even young men. They order whiskey in small glasses and sip on it as they exchange pleasantries. Then, as abstract as most of the rest of the story has been, this friend, Nathan, reveals something very concrete, something that’s been troubling him: He’s in love with his little brother’s girlfriend. He took a road trip with her and became infatuated, now can’t stop thinking about her, about them being together. When he sees his little brother with her, he’s repulsed and angered. Still, he knows that he can’t make a move. This emotion might not be reciprocated, but most of all, it’s his little brother. He is not so blinded by love that he misses the implications and consequences of such actions.

And this is why he wanted to talk to our narrator, his oldest friend, for advice. We’re even left wondering if the reason he’s come to town—a meeting with some attorney—is real, if he hadn’t made it up, just to travel all this way, just to talk to the only person who knows him, and his little brother, so intimately.

I won’t got any further into this story, which basically reverts to the more interior tone in its final lines, to thoughts of action instead of action. But it’s a deep, philosophical story, one with an appropriate ending, one that got me thinking about those types of encounters in my own life, with the equivalent kind of people.

“The Wenceslas Men” is about a guy, staying in friend’s apartment, who begins seeing shadowing humanoid-type figures outside his window every night. There’s a real Poe feel to this one, as we wonder if the man seeing these strange figures is sane or has been driven mad by some unknown catalyst.

“Last Screening of A Hoax Cantana” is about a similar-type man, one who remembers a cult film, A Hoax Cantana, from his youth. It’s the type of film passed around on VHS when he was a kid, probably the recording of a recording or a recording (and so on), a movie he and his friends would watch in someone’s basement after dark, or in a school classroom during an unchaperoned activities meeting. As the years went on, the film disappeared and reappeared, a copy showing up in a store, someone playing it at a party. It’s kind of like Room in that way, but it’s more magical, as the cut of the movie seems to change, and at some point, nobody remembers it, not even the people he’s sure he’s watched it with before. This is my favorite of the ones I’ve read, probably, because, well, it is.

“Airport Ghost Hotel Tour” is again about that type of man, this time named Marco, stuck between places. He’s at an airport hotel called the New Orleans. He has dinner in the Denny’s in the lobby and on his way to his room, runs into a guy named Otto, giving a ghost tour. Something about Otto and the mystery of these hotel ghosts grabs him, so he gives two fins over and they head off. For a while, the tour reveals nothing, and Marco even starts to think that he’s either been conned or he’s being led somewhere to be murdered. In the end, however, Otto delivers, though perhaps not in the way he’d guessed.

The stories in Tobias Carroll’s Transitory aren’t exactly plot-driven, nor do they feature a whole lot in terms of distinct resolution. That doesn’t get in the way of how good these stories are, these self-examining, bizarre, cerebral adventures that the characters partake in. I very much enjoyed this book, this approach to story, and look forward to absorbing more of it, to see where these characters go, and how. And why.


July 23, 2020: “Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life” by Ronna Wineberg

Hey, hey, hey, Story366!

Word officially came from Springfield Public Schools today that they’ll be offering two separate modalities for fall, and we can pick either one: two days in person/three days at home or all five days at home. We actually have the an option as to whether or not we want to send our boys to school, to an actual building, to meet teachers, interact with other humans, and, most of all, possibly contract coronavirus. I won’t talk about which option we’re going to choose today, as we’re not sure ourselves yet and don’t have to be until July 31. I want to focus more on the fact that this choice exists, that they’ve developed these options as the only options.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I don’t think any of this would have been an option here. They  would have instead gone hard for returning to schools. In 2020, a lot can happen in two week, however, and it has. Remember, I last week reported that our youngest son’s summer progrm was put on two-week hiatus because a staff member tested positive. Other programs in the district (the biggest in Missouri, somehow) were halted as well, including a high school football camp when the coach tested positive, too. All in all, five of nine summer programs had to cease operations because of the virus, and there’s no doubt in our minds that this got the district rethinking its fall plans.

This option, two days or no days, seems like an advanced mode of thining. Perhaps the most forward thinking is to not have in-person classes at all, but that doesnt really solve every problem: It makes it so no one can get or spread COVID-19 within schools, sure, but it doesn’t solve the problem of where all these youngsters spend their days, how far behind they get, or if some of them will ever get a meal if they’re not in school. There is no perfect answer, but SPS is at least giving it a well thought-out try. While we make a decision, we can at least commend them for that.

Today I read from Ronna Weinberg‘s 2016 collection, Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life, out from Serving House Books. This is my first foray into Wineberg’s work, as I mostly know of her editorial work with Bellevue Literary Review. As always, I’m excited about and grateful for the chance to discover a new author, so let’s get to it.

The book is split into three parts, none of which are titled, and I haven’t read enough to say what the distinction between the sections are or if there even is one. I read a story from each one of the sections, including the opener, “Legacy.” This one’s about Morris, who opens the story reading a bedtime story to his grandson, who seems to adore him. Morris is visiting his son, Ted, from whom he’s been estranged as of late. Ted married a not-Jewish girl, Emily, but father and son are trying to patch things up, even though Morris doesn’t yet completely approve of Ted’s choice. During dinner (I guess kids go to bed before the adults have dinner in some households?), Morris reveals a story that dates back to Austria, 1939, at the precipice of war, basically describing how he got out and why his faith is such an important part of his life, his legacy.

The title story I’ll get to in a bit, as it’s in the middle section, but the third-section story I read is “Open House,” about Lacey, a real estate agent. Lacey is in her mid-forties and has been married and divorced. She is past the man she left her husband for and is seeing Jim, a man with a wife and kids. She spends a lot of the story showing houses to Nora Ruth, another midlife woman, this one married to a rich businessman. Nora Ruth has been looking at houses with Lacey for two and a half years and the women have become friends. Through Nora Ruth’s life and trials, Lacey examines her own path, divorced, seeing a married man, trying to find what makes her happy.

That title story, “Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life,” is about Grace, a schoolteacher living in New York who is suddenly faced with a horrible reality: Her husband of twenty-five years, Thomas, wants a divorce.

This comes as a big shock to Grace, who believed they were entering a great rest of their lives. Their children are grown and off to college, and despite statistics, they still make love at least twice a week, passionately—including just a couple of days before Thomas’ declaration. Was the sex making Grace too confident in their overall relationship? Apparently. Thomas questions whether Grace loves him, if he ever loved Grace, and eventually admits there’s someone else. It’s surreal for Grace, who tries to talk Thomas out of it, as if he’s having a bad day. Thomas suggests she find a lawyer.

Everything becomes even more real for Grace when she receives the letter from the lawyer, instructing her to have her own attorney contact him on her behalf. Grace doesn’t open this letter for two weeks, knowing what it is, and then puts off finding her own representation until she gets another letter, two months later. Grace sees a lot of attorneys, none of whom tell her what she wants to hear. Instead, they have the same advice: She should sue Thomas for divorce and take him for every penny she can. Grace doesn’t want that, as she still doesn’t understand why they can’t work things out. In my limited experience with divorce, this seems real, one person trying to fix things while the other has moved on already.

One aspect of this story I really like is how Wineberg complicates Grace by putting her in an affair. For a while, Grace has been seeing Paul, a married guy, a guy she’s sees sparingly, faking conferences to Connecticut and runs to her school across town. I don’t think we’re supposed to blame Grace’s infidelity for the divorce, but we’re all thinking it, right? If she’s wondering why Thomas wants something different, perhaps she should investigate why she started things with Paul, what Thomas wasn’t giving her. Could be that’s how he’s feeling now—he’s choosing divorce, she chose deception. It’s particularly rewarding in the story, though, as Wineberg makes Grace all kinds of unreliable in this light, her never considering her affair with Paul as a catalyst, as if blinders fall onto her head whenever Paul’s name comes up.

The title of this story and the collection comes from Grace’s newfound interest in a wellness magazine, the kind you find in the supermarket checkout line. There’s mini-articles filled with charts and lists and tips for a better you, and Grace becomes infatuated with its messages and easy-peasy deliver method. She’s out there looking for answers, but overall, lawyers, magazine articles, and introspection don’t change the fact that Thomas simply doesn’t want her anymore, and there’s nothing she can do to change that.

Ronna Wineberg’s Nine Facts That Can Change Your Life is a good collection. I like these characters, people further on in their lives, yet still making tough choices and facing challenges, conflicts that aren’t any easier just because they’re older. Wineberg has a knack for making them relatable, mistakes and all, making us want them to find what their looking for in the second act.


July 22, 2020: “The Wrong Heaven” by Amy Bonnaffons

Hey there, Story366!

Sooner or later, this was probaby going to happen, but now it’s happened and we’re dealing with it: A person very close to us—not in our household, fyi—has tested positive for COVID-19. We have been lucky so far, but now we know somebody, a member of my immediate family, who officially has to survive the coronavirus. We are officially woke on this, all over again. In case you didn’t know, the virus seems so much more real when a person you love comes down with it. Our attitudes about the virus are the same, as are our daily procedures and strategies, makingour day-to-day lives pretty much the same. Now we’re just extremely, extremely worried, watching the phone for updates, and hoping our loved ones pull out of this unscathed. It certainly puts everything that we’ve experienced so far into context. I’ll post updates if anything changes. But yikes, the world is a much more real place all of a sudden.

For today’s entry, I read from Amy Bonnaffons‘ 2018 collection, The Wrong Heaven, out from Little, Brown and Company. I’m not sure I’ve read any work by Bonnaffons before, but am glad I got her book, as I enjoyed my time with it today. Let’s talk about it.

The first and title story, “The Wrong Heaven,” is about a woman, a second-grade teacher, who’s having a crisis of faith. She doesn’t know exactly what heaven is, for one, but also doesn’t know if Jesus is on her side or against her. In fact, the story begins with a couple of lists, one where she lists the things in her life that prove Jesus is looking out for her, the other list that shows the opposite, reasons why she’s lost her faith. There’s a wide range of items on each list, from food and music she likes, to the inevitabilities of life, such as the death of Billie Holiday, her favorite singer, and the death of Billie Holliday, her dog, who also loved Billie Holiday, the singer. So, some of this seems lightly approached, but this is a serious self-investigation of beliefs. A fun treatment of a high-stakes issue? Sounds like a recipe for a good story.

It is, in fact, the death of Billie Holiday the dog that more or less sparks this self-exam, the poor thing struck by leukemia. To cheer herself up, she tries to buy lawn ornaments, but instead, ends up with a pair of light-up holy statues, of Mary and Jesus. Wouldn’t you know it, when she plugs them in back at her place, they talk to her.

Mary, or at least this statue of her, seems like a pretty down-to-earth version of the blessed virgin, a woman who tries to relate to our hero (probably because she’s that Mary in mom jeans from the cover of the book). Jesus, however, just can’t stop it with the preaching and the guilt, pointing to the bloodied holes in his hands every time our hero asks if he’s on her side (as in Yeah, I’m on your side—remember that crucifixion?). The statues, in the end, don’t give any real answers, just a lot of conflicting information (not unlike actual Catholicism!).

The story goes on for a while with our protagonist trying to live her life, sort everything out, only to come home and hear all kinds of adages and philosophies from these idols. Her job as a second-grade teacher only makes things worse, as the kids share their tragedies, everything from the death of the class caterpillar to one kid’s baby brother being stillborn. Did I mention that Billie Holiday the dog is still in the freezer, unburied (like in that story by Maureen Aitken!), keeping her from that closure.

Eventually, our hero heads to the garden store—which already refused to take returns on the statues—to buy a shovel to bury her beloved. It’s the middle of the night. There, she runs into Felix, who listens to her plea, helps her bury Billie Holiday; he even sits through a long funeral service, her sobbing and recanting tales of Billie Holiday’s exploits. Amen.

After, she wants help with something else: Getting rid of the statues. I won’t describe how they (attempt to) do this, or what happens, but it’s an ending that fits the absurdity, the faith, and the attitude of this story, the unruly questioning of authority, the assumption that everything will go wrong, and the passivity that embraces every point of conflict.

“The Other One” features Chrissy, a young lawyer who’s taken up with one of the partners in her firm, an older married man, thus ending his marriage. With this stroke of questionable morality (questioned by her), she realizes she’s not the person she ever wanted to be. She went to law school to help people, to be a public voice, but ended up taking a sketchy job, making lots of money, caring way too much about material things, and turning into a generally selfish person. Everything is accentuated when she has what must be a surprise miscarriage—surprise in that she didn’t know she was pregnant—sending her down a path of self-reflection.

I also read “Black Stones,” a much shorter piece than the others. It’s about a woman in a hospital bed, recovering (or so she thought) from major surgery, who’s visited by a very sexy angel. The angel instantly makes her pain go away, slipping a black stone in her mouth from his. She suddenly feels very attracted to the sexy angel man, and in fact, makes a serious play for him, right there in the hospital bed, reaching for his erect penis and offering him a blow job. The angel, somewhat surprisingly, wants that, too, but declines with a basic Not yet. From what I can tell, she and the angel are going to do it—he’ll visit her with another black stone each day—but she’ll also die a little bit more along the way, with each stone she consumes.

There’s a lot of magic in Amy Bonnaffons’ debut collection, The Wrong Heaven, both in terms of what happens and within the author’s storytelling prowess. I really liked reading these stories, stories that are particularly introspective, its narrators contemplating life’s big questions as they shuffle through their daily existences. I also admire the use of religious doctrines and imagery and tropes here, utilized by the author with an uncanny sense of grace and mischief. Everything about this book makes me want to read on, to meet more of these characters, to see how Bonnaffons sets them loose on their unforgiving worlds.