August 30, 2020: “The Emerald Light in the Air” by Donald Antrim

Sunday is here, Story366!

When I’m not writing, reading, teaching, or editing, or spending time with my family in a domestic capacity, I spend a lot of time following the world of comic books movies. Not only do I watch these movies, but I watch YouTube programming about these movies. YouTubers break down trailers, fill me in on Easter eggs, and offer predictions on future castings, plots, and films. It’s how I turn my brain off, how I don’t think.

Chadwick Boseman’s passing on Friday has hit me and the world pretty hard. This has been a shitty year, for sure, and losing people has been a part of this. But no celebrity loss this year—not Carl Reiner, not Fred Willard, not Terry Jones—has surprised or shocked or saddened me as much as Chadwick Boseman. Not only was Boseman in more of the things I currently watch (though Fred Willard seemed to be in everything), the fact he was a young man and I didn’t know he was sick really made my jaw drop, made me tear up. All those other guys? Older, not in great health. Boseman? He was 43 and looked 25, in excellent physical health … aside from the colon cancer.

Boseman had cancer since early 2016 means he had cancer through most of his role as Black Panther, if not all of it. I look back now and wonder if there would have been more action sequences featuring him, without his panther helmet, had he been healthier. I’ll guess yes. He fought in a waterfall a couple of times, but I wonder how much of that was him, how much was doubling, and how much of his in-costume scenes were him at all. I wonder if he might have been one of the Avengers who survived the snap had he been healthier, if they didn’t dust him just to limit his role—a character coming off a $1.2 billion-dollar box office could have been feature more prominently, right? Marvel knew what was going on, but never tried to replace him, never violated his privacy, and posted a nice tribute to him yesterday.

I commend Boseman for sticking it out, for keeping his public persona upbeat, and for getting the most out his life and his gifts, all the way to the end. A lot of people looked up to him, including so many kids, and he lived bravely and honorably to the end.

Rest In Peace. Wakanda forever.

Today’s book is The Emerald Light in Air by Donald Antrim, out in 2014 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Antrim is a rather distinguished author, having written several novels, publishing in the slicks, earning himself a MacArthur Grant, and tons of other accolades. Yet, this is the first time I’ve read any of his work. Story366 bails me again, so here we go, some Donald Antrim.

Turns out, Antrim is pretty hilarious. Or at least darkly funny, which is how I would describe the three stories I read today. “An Actor Prepares,” the lead story, is about Reg Barry, a college dean and theater professor at a small liberal arts college named after his family. Reg plans a production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, only we soon find out that Reg is a bit of a loose cannon. He’s had several questionable productions, like a nude interpretations of plays that don’t call for nudity, and is planning to go all out for his new project. Most noteworthy, he’s put himself in the role of Lysander, one of the young lovers, who will, not so coincidentally, be nude again, this time with some young undergrads he finds attractive. The story is of the doomed-production ilk, e.g., the first show occurs right after a flood kills several members of the campus community, as the college president wants Reg to stage the show, on the quad after the funeral, the entire audience made up of mourners. Hedonistic interactive Shakespeare is good for what ails, them, only it’s really not.

“Pond, With Mud,” is about Patrick, who’s trying to woo the affections of a special lady, Caroline. He also writes in his journal a lot, which he names “Pond, With Mud,” everything from philosophy to verse to screenplay ideas. He’s the kind of guy that carries it with him everywhere, taking notes when it strikes him, even if it means halting the world to scribble something down—you know, like every new writer ever, including moi. Anyway, Patrick buys Caroline some new lingerie, and it’s implied he’s trying to make good after an incident—two pages in he goes into that flashback and never comes out. There we find out that Patrick takes Caroline’s young son to the zoo, only to run into the kid’s real dad, buskering on his violin in the park. For some reason, Patrick thinks it’s a good idea to flag the dad down, then ask him to go for a beer. Before long, the two men and Gregory are in a bar, getting blitzed, making it easy to see why he’s buying expensive lingerie.

The last and title story, “The Emerald Light in Green Air,” is about Billy French. Early on, we find out that he’s recently lost each of his parents, as well as the love of his life—though for the latter, it was leaving him for another man, not death. Billy is a depressed guy, an art teacher/artist with a drinking problem, and receives electroshock therapy three times a week. So, Billy’s got a lot going on, a lot to be sad about, but it’s all part of his idiom—which is easier to see after you’ve read the whole story.

One afternoon in a bar, Billy randomly runs into the girl he lost his virginity to in high school and gets to talking. He’s able to score a date, dinner at his place, for that night. On the way home, however, he’s driving his Mercedes—which was his grandfather and father’s before him—and slides off the road in a rainstorm. He’s banged up, but more important, the car teeters on an embankment—if he leans the wrong way, it might tip and topple down the hill (you’ve seen this scene in movies, I’ll bet). He makes his way out and starts walking around the woods—or, the hollow, as he dubs it—trying to find someone to help him.

Help comes in the form of a young boy, who’s not there to help him, but who thinks he’s the doctor they’ve called, some time ago, to tend to his sick mother. Billy isn’t a doctor, but does need help, so he agrees to go with the boy to a remote cabin. When he gets there, he realizes that he’s not going to get any help—it’s a primitive cabin without water or electricity or phone service—and everyone there expects him to save the dying mother.

Or, mostly. The family is very kind and understands their mother is very sick, with cancer, and that even a real doctor probably can’t do anything at this point. They even concede that they know Billy’s not a physician after a while. Still, these people, holed up in this cabin in the holler, don’t care. They are just glad to see him and this point, more appreciative of him than he is of them.

Strangely, Billy can kind of help this woman and does. When exiting his car, he thought it wise to retrieve his stash of pharmaceuticals from the glove box—none of them particularly legal—just in case a law-enforcement official happens along; he’s actually got some pretty high-dosage pills He gives the mom one, which helps her sleep, which is all that any hospice facility would do in her case, anyway.

Billy heads off, but I won’t reveal his fate, where he goes from the cabin. That’s for you to discover on your own.

Donald Antrim writes stories that are darkly comic—I’ll use that exact term again—tales about men who find themselves in interesting predicaments, usually of their own middle-age-life-crisis making. The Emerald Light in the Air was a sweet introduction to this writer, a skilled storyteller who is not afraid to have a little fun with his characters, even when they’re not in on the joke. Solid collection, time well spent today.


August 29, 2020: “Loves Songs for a Lost Continent” by Anita Felicelli

Saturday, Story366! Saturday!

Today, me and the older boy spent four hours helping to build a pergola for another Scout’s Eagle project. Even better than the pergola, he also set up one of those free lending libraries, the kind that’s a box that sits on a post. People can drop off books, pick them up, sit under the pergola, read, whathaveyou. It hasn’t rained here in a month, but of course we got some Hurricane Laura residual and spent half the time in the rain (after forty-five minutes hiding in the car). At the end of the day (or really, at 1:30), there was a brand-new pergola and library standing in front of the church where we have our meetings. I like what I do and understand its value, but I also like to work in my yard and to build things, to have immediate, tangible products of my labor. Later in the day, the whole family drove by and stared at the pergolibrary for a few minutes. I felt proud. My son felt proud. I’m sure the kid whose project it was feels especially proud. A good thing amidst another particularly shitty week (Randall Keenan and Chadwick Boseman died! And Cliff Robinson. And Lute Olson. Crap).

This evening, I read from Anita Felicelli‘s 2017 collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent, out from Stillhouse Press. This is my first experience with Felicelli’s work, for which I’m always game. Here we go.

Yesterday, I covered Mahesh Rao’s book, a collection of stories set in India. Today, I was right back in India, at least for the first two stories I read. “Elephants in the Pink City” is about Kai, a soon-to-be high school graduate who is traveling with his family in Northern India, part of their yearly trip to his parents’ homeland. Kai is not happy about being along for this trip, especially after coming out just before they left. Tension is high, to say the least. Kai gets a chance to break away and follows a player from the elephant polo match the family just attended, a player who is more than happy to show Kai around the bazaar, then have an encounter with him in a bar restroom. Kai eventually returns to his family, changed by his experience, going home a different person.

The title story, “Love Songs for a Lost Continent,” is also set in India and also features an Indian-American man. This time, it’s a post-grad student on a Fulbright, studying the Kumari Kandam continent, legendary and somewhat lost home to his mother’s people, the Tamilians. He earns a Fulbright to India to research Kumari Kandam and Tamilian culture, and hopes to make a documentary, while also completing his masters in folklore. He travels to India, ready to interview anyone he can find who will talk to him on film.

Along the way, he meets Komakal, a painter with whom hes starts a relationship. Her family is Tamilian, but also from the Indian caste system that better understands wealth and social standing. He and Komakal have a loving and honest affair, sidetracking him from his studies, though he and Komakal spend a lot of time talking shop. They inspire each other, work well in so many ways.

Eventually, our guy needs to get going on his work, but also wants to meet Komakal’s parents. They travel to her home city and spend an evening together, after which Komakal does not return his calls. When he tracks her down, she proclaims that her parents do not approve of him, of his aimlessness and lack of serious job prospects. She says she cannot see him anymore. He proposes. She declines.

Instead, he focuses on his work. He’s set to travel more, finish his interviews, but receives word from San Francisco that his mother has fallen ill. Just as he’s about to leave, Komakal calls him, says she cannot paint without him, and accepts his proposal, claiming she can talk her parents into it. He’s torn, his bags packed for home, and tells her so, and why. Still, she insists she loves him and comes to his house, where they reunite, start to make plans.

When he leaves a few days later, however, telling Komakal (in a note) that’s he’s returning to his mother, to America, it has devastating effects. Will I go into those here? No, as I want to leave something to discover. It’s a tragic story, though, as love stories go, with a lot of interesting cultural background thrown in—I know very little about most things, but know even less about Indian culture, history, and ethnicities. I liked reading this story for a lot of reasons, as it offers quite a bit.

I read the last story in the collection, too, “The Lookout.” This one’s shorter than the other stories and not specifically set in India. It’s about a young mother in some dystopian world, stationed on top of a lighthouse with her baby daughter, watching for clouds. Apparently, it hasn’t rained in this reality for quite some time, despite scientists pumping all sorts of ionized this-and-that into the air—hey, maybe this takes place in the past, when people thought they could do stuff like that? But probably not, as it hasn’t rained in years—the daughter begins to walk and even talk in their tenure—and when our hero sees that first cloud, well, it’s an historic moment for all involved.

I enjoyed the stories in Love Songs for a Lost Continent, Anita Felicelli’s debut collection. There are some striking similarities to the stories I read in Mahesh Rao’s collection yesterday, but not only the Indian setting. Felicelli is equally skilled at creating characters, characters she takes the time to build, to grow, and to fashion into the interesting souls that have long, complex arcs. These are the most memorable characters, making for memorable stories, and for a good book.



August 28, 2020: “The Philanderer” by Mahesh Rao

It’s Friday, Story366!

Yesterday, I gave a lot of credit to pro athletes for sitting out games, for considering to boycott the rest of their seasons. Athletes have a lot of power and influence, and while many of them are barely adults, they made some sound decisions yesterday that both made a statement about their priorities and stood as a model for people who admire them. I don’t expect much from athletes—again, they’re young, and nothing about being an amazing athlete says that they’re smart, let alone good people. But they do have that spotlight, influence people a great deal, and carry with them a level of responsibility, whether they want to or are qualified to. I’m proud of them, as a whole, for making a statement, and the right one.

Which is why it’s so disappointing that Brian Urlacher, legendary Chicago Bear, said the things he said yesterday. In short, he disparaged the pros for boycotting their games, and did so with faulty-ass logic. Basically, he made a comparison to Brett Favre, how Favre played the day his dad died and threw four touchdowns in the first half. What this means is, Urlacher doesn’t get it. Not one bit. He somehow equates the devastating loss of your father to ongoing systematic racism, yet again recently personified in the form of Jacob Blake’s killing. One is a personal issue, a personal choice—Favre had not endured hundreds of years of his father’s death. He chose to play, did well, and that’s commendable, but not any more commendable than choosing to skip the game and be with family; one is not greater than the other, no matter what some tough-guy athlete says. The NBA and MLB players boycotting games is the reaction to hundreds of years of racism and violence, however. They are not boycotting the games because they are sad for Jacob Blake; they are boycotting to make an impression on the world, to bring about awareness and change. Was Favre playing so everyone in the world knew his dad died, and to prevent his dad from dying again in the future? No. Are the NBA players trying to make a difference, change the world, and make it so there is no next Trayvon Martin or George Floyd or Jacob Blake? Yes.

Therefore, Brian Urlacher’s argument via comparison is nonsensical. Therefore, Brian Urlacher is an idiot.

I’ve always tried to keep politics out of sports. I don’t want to hear that my favorite player on the Cubs is a racist homophobe who rallies for and donates to Trump. Maybe I should want to, but if I did know that, how could I ever root for that player again? Brian Urlacher isn’t quite on the Mount Rushmore of Chicago sports figures, but he might be on the Third Team, if not an Honorable Mention. I enjoyed watching him play, never minded seeing him in ads, and would have liked to have seen him as part of the Bears’ family for the rest of his life. Now, the actual Chicago Bears team has released a statement, distancing themselves from Urlacher. I hope he’s happy. He’s out of the family.

And he’s no longer someone I respect.

Black Lives Matter.

Today I read from Mahesh Rao‘s 2015 collection, One Point Two Billion, out from Daunt Books, a London publisher. Rao was born and raised in Kenya, but educated in England, where he practiced law after studying at Cambridge. He now lives in India, where all of the stories in One Point Two Billion is set—the 1.2 billion refers to that country’s population. This is definitely my introduction to Rao’s work, and it’s a good one. Let’s discuss.

The first story is “Eternal Bliss” and features Bindu. She’s a worrisome person, if I had to use one word to describe her, someone who cannot sleep at night because she worries about all she has to do, all that might go wrong. Lines form on her forehead during a job interview process, and even when she gets the job—at a yoga retreat spa—she worries about the actual job instead. The story becomes kind of a Grand Hotel-type story, as we meet several of the spa employees (with some brief POV-sliding) and there are a few subplots, an upcoming inspection, some thieving, that sort of thing. In the end, it’s too much for Bindu to handle, sadly, making for anti-climactic arc.

The last story, “Fizz Pop Aah,” is a dual-narrative story, one thread about the narrator’s father, who’s sick and in the hospital, the other about the rise and fall of the Shakti-Cola company. Shakti-Cola rises when Coke leaves India after refusing to divulge their secret formula. A driven billionaire and executive named Mr Eddie Edalji Engineer almost bankrupts himself trying to make a go of it, and for a while succeeds. I thought maybe that the dad in the hospital was Eddie Engineer, but it turns out he was just another upper-level executive. By the end of the story, memories of the soda disappear more sufficiently than that of Like, and the family, at the same time, is left bereft.

The story that grabbed me is “The Philanderer,” about an unnamed man who goes through quite an arc in the story. Yes, he’s the philanderer described in the title, but Rao works hard to make him a well rounded and interesting guy, as opposed to your average philanderer, anyway.

Rao starts out by telling us about the philanderer’s failed marriage. He is a lawyer and his ex-wife is also a professional. They never had an expressive, loving relationship, keeping separate bank accounts, not arguing about any sort of settlement, and going through the process rather mechanically. He cheated on her during the marriage, but it’s not clear if that’s the reason they split.

After the divorce, the philanderer is free to sleep with whomever he wants, so he does. There’s a montage of partners, a variety of women he enjoys, but is just as happy to see disappear after a few encounters. He allows no real emotion or interaction, and doesn’t even like talking during sex—when one of his lovers begins to chat, he shoves his hand in her face and commands her to bite his thumb.

The story takes a serious turn when the philanderer meets his match. He starts encounters with a woman who wants the same out of a sexual relationship that he wants: sex and nothing else. No displays of emotion are allowed—she threatens to leave him for good when he makes a joke—and the two know nothing of each other’s lives. The meet in a hotel room, do their deed, and then part until next time.

After a year of this, it’s the philanderer who breaks, surprising himself, wanting at least some common friendliness, even if it’s out of curiosity. The philanderer looks through the woman’s bag while she’s in the bathroom and finds her address. He stakes her out one day, watching her from his car, and in a bold gesture, knocks on her door. She answers, and as you might guess, is not happy.

What happens after this point really changes the story. Her opening that door opens a Pandora’s box of sorts, as there could be anything or anyone behind her. Our hero thinks there will be children, probably a husband, or maybe some sort of abject poverty. Instead, what he sees is his lover’s ancient parents, sitting at the table, needing care.

I don’t want to go any further into this story, as I’ve revealed a great bit of it already. Again, I like this story and chose to feature it because of the arc this character experiences, plus that twist at the end, what he finds when he visits his super-secretive and distant lover.

I like all of Mahesh Rao’s stories I read in One Point Two Billion, as he’s a character-driven writer, an author who’s not afraid to stretch a story out if that means building on the traits he’s already established, evolving a person into more and more dimensions as they react to the situations Rao has created for them. It’s a good formula for success, and this is certainly a successful book.



August 27, 2020: “The Dark” by Deborah Willis

Hello there, Story366!

Black Lives Matter.

I’m tempted to leave it at that today, and after I’ve written this post, am tempted to literally leave it at that, to not otherwise have a post at all. Professional athletes, whom I used to worship as a kid, envy as I grew older, then as an adult became indifferent toward, have really impressed me with their solidarity protests today, choosing to boycott games. LeBron James, the most notable athlete in America right now (right?), suggested that they abandon the NBA season, protesting what happened to Jacob Blake in Milwaukee this past week. Part of me sees these athletes as kids (though James is only ten years young than I am), part of me thinks they’re spoiled millionaires, hard-working but lucky. Today these athletes have manufactured a newfound respect in me. Good for them.

Black Lives Matter.

Today I read from Canadian author (two in row!) Deborah Willis‘ 2017 collection, The Dark and Other Love Stories, out from Norton. I’ve read Willis’ stories before—her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories is also well regarded—and was happy to jump into this book today.

The title story is the lead story. “The Dark” is about Jessie, a story told by her as an adult about summer camp when she was thirteen. On the first day, she shares a canoe with Andrea, and from there, Willis doesn’t waste any time declaring Jessie’s motivations, or her impetus for telling the story: She declares this moment to be love at first sight.

Andrea and Jessie are inseparable for the rest of the summer. They eat together, talk together, and play on the same sports teams. They look like mini versions of Betty and Veronica, too, Andrea the brunette and Jessie the blonde. There are other kids there, as well as counselors, but there may as well not be, as these two are in a world of their own.

The girls alike to sneak out every night. At first, they head out to the field where the camp keeps the horses. They pet the horses—old nags lent to the camp by local farms—but mostly moon over each other, stare into each other’s eyes. Remember, Jessie told us it was love at first sight, so the romance is in the air, for at least one of these girls.

Eventually, the girls’ counselor catches them, so the girls cool it on the horse field. It isn’t long before they’re sneaking out again, though, this time to the lake. This is big-time forbidden—drowning liabilities, you know—but the girls are soon swimming, every night, in the nude, returning to their cabins just before light, soaking wet in their clothes. Remember, this story is being told from older (and married [to a man]) Jessie, so you can imagine how an experience like this would lead someone to tell a story about it years later, even if they were happy, even if they had moved on.

Because this is a short story, the spell has to be broken. A couple of older boys—men, actually—happen to be driving in their boat past the girls as they’re swimming in the lake. The men are very interested, as you might guess, in these naked girls, out by themselves in the middle of the night. They are charming and dangerous at the same time, and one of them has a fishing hook stuck in his hand. They are drinking so the hook hand can get drunk enough to just yank that hook out. Jessie is suspicious, but like Veronica, Andrea is game for whatever the boys have in store.

I won’t reveal what happens after this, but it’s a fitting end to this story, helping to form a memory that lasts forever, inspiring the telling of the tale years later, inspiring a title story from the book’s author.

“I Am Optimus Prime” also features a person looking back on childhood. This time it’s a boy, Davy, who remembers when a strange man comes to the house where he lives with his mother; his mother tells him it’s his father, missing since he was born. He’s back, claiming to be straight, in AA, and in search of another chance. We get a heartwarming attempt by Dad to do right by Davy, working in a grocery store, helping him with homework, taking him trick-or-treating. But again, this is a story, and we figure that’s going to go bad. What Willis does here that’s different from “The Dark” is shift into the future perspective more, tell us about adult  Davy, show us what this time with his Dad did to him, for better or for worse. And remember, I’m a sucker for dad stories, so this one had me.

I skipped ahead to the last story, “The Nap,” also the shortest piece in the book. Here, Willis kind of warps that looking-back motif. A young couple, on their way to a weekend at a B&B, can’t wait that long to get their hands on each other so they stop in a roadside town, find a house with nobody home, break in, and have sex in the bedroom. Then they fall asleep. Immediately, they wake up, and in a magically real moment, it’s fifty years later. They’re in the same house, just older. They start to realize they have memories, memories of fifty years together, with children, with ups and down, along with the tale of how they one day saw this very house for sale—their roadside sex hostel—and bought it, cleverly explaining why they’re there still fifty years later (well, sort of). It’s a neat little story, but also a commentary, in a way, on looking back, on memory, on those stories I read before.

Deborah Willis is a superstar story writer and I had a great experience with her collection, The Dark and Other Love Stories, today. The stories are love stories, but loves stories about memory, about the impressions that stay with us forever, and what’s really important. It’s the kind of book that I thought about ever since I read from it, the kind of stories that stay with me. What more can you ask from stories? Nothing, I say. Great book.



August 26, 2020: “The Path of Most Resistance” by Russell Wangersky

Hey there, Story366!

Today I taught in-person classes for the first time since early March, since before the spring break that lasted for five months. My classes are blended and the seated portions are small, just half the students, once a week, seven total sessions for each student across the entire semester. Seven of eleven showed up for the first class, then three out of eleven for the second. I introduced myself, we talked about how weird the world is, and then they got busy on some writing exercises. They seemed to enjoy being there and expressed a definitive hope that in-person teaching would continue, even if it just means them working on some on their laptops while I lurk behind my desk. I think the human contact is enough to lure them to campus, and me joking around and being really laid back is probably going to keep them coming.

Nobody has any idea how long this is going to last, as my school’s positive rate is already higher than some of the other schools that have already retreated back to online-only learning. I’m sure the administrators are meeting right now—no matter when you’re reading this, I think it’s possible—discussing what they’re going to do, at what point they pull the plug. My building was practically abandoned today, most of my colleagues opting for online-only. I never got within ten feet of another person. I wore my mask and sanitized my hands a dozen times, each class period. I didn’t talk to anyone outside of my students and was in and out in less than an hour each time. If this is how it goes, I feel safe going to campus, being there for those students who want it. If this is how it goes, I hope we get to keep doing it.

When it comes down to it, though, our fate is in the students’ hands. Faculty, staff, and administration are being careful, insisting upon the utmost caution, keeping apart from each other. It’s what happens outside the classroom, in the dorms, the Greek houses, and in the students’ private lives that’s going to determine our future. I want to believe that students know this, and that this positive tests are largely incidental, the unavoidable consequence of cohabitation.

Like everything else in 2020, we shall see. And I’ll keep you posted.

Today I read from Canadian author Russell Wangersky‘s 2012 collection, The Path of Most Resistance, out from the House of Anansi Press. This is definitely the first time I’ve read Wangersky’s work, so again, Story366 does its job, finds me another new author. Good job, Story366! An extra GB of RAM for you tonight!

The first story in this book is “Rage,” about a pharmaceutical rep, Ian, who’s just found out he has cancer, melanoma, but has kept his job. His life has been turned upside down by his diagnosis, so he’s wanted his work to remain the same, to steady him. Between appointments with doctors—both his clients and his own—he drives around, his mind occupied by how people drive and why accidents happen. He thinks he’s figured it out, paring it down to human error and cockiness. Of course, Ian himself ends up in an accident by the end—Chekov’s accident, I guess—but considering what he’s got to think about, it’s understandable.

“Armenia” is my favorite of the three I’ve read, the story of Tom, who has moved in with Ray. Ray is short for Raisa and their relationship is based on passion. From their first date on, Ray has consumed Tom, been a voracious, eager, and satisfying lover, unlike any Tom has ever had before. Within a couple of months, he gives up his own little place and moves in with Ray. The one hitch in their relationship is the mold, dark spots growing all over, but most pointedly the Armenia-shaped patch right above the toilet. Tom wants to wash it and all the mold away before they get seriously ill. Ray, however, is a self-proclaimed Buddhist, and looks at the molds as living things, and therefore, earning their right to live and grow, unhindered. Tom becomes obsessed with the stain, with this aspect of his relationship, but before he can act, his world is pulled out from under him in a somewhat unexpected twist.

The title story, “The Path to Most Resistance,” is an epistolary story. This one’s told by Nell, writing to Sara, a woman she believes is, or at least was, her girlfriend. The letter’s written from Mexico, and, well, as the format implies, Nell is in Mexico and Sara is not.

After some lovely description of the Mexican setting and a rundown of what Nell’s been up to, we get an idea of why Nell is writing to Sara and why her tone is so abrasive. Sara and Nell used to share an apartment, after living together two years in college, and were best friends … plus. Together, they survived bad times, the typical-post college growing pains. Part of this involved them sharing a bed, though it’s implied it was because of lack of space and heat—no direct reference to anything sexual is ever mentioned.

In any case, Nell reveals this long-time plan the women had, to one day travel to Mexico, to the exact spot from which Nell has written her letter. Nell has made it there, but Sara has not.

What got in the way? Not too hard to guess, but it’s a guy, a guy with whom Sara sleeps, and not because of space or temperature.

It’s at this point, more or less, that Nell becomes super-unreliable, that perhaps her vision of Sara & Nell is not the most accurate vision of Sara & Nell. Once you realize that, then the story’s blanks are filled in. Wangersky is artful in this pursuit, too—he withholds info at just the right pace, giving us the proper details at the proper time. I really like this story and am glad I have another epistolary piece in my arsenal, and a good one at that.

Glad to have spent some time with The Path of Most Resistance today, and glad to have become familiar with Russell Wangersky, with what he does. All I can expect from a Wednesday, so I’ll call it a good day.


August 25, 2020: “Birds of a Lesser Paradise” by Megan Mayhew Bergman

It’s Tuesday, Story366!

Today is my oldest son’s birthday. Yesterday he had his first day of high school and today he adds a number to his age. Lots of pictures and occasion-marking for kid in a short span. He’s not overly happy that he and I are FB friends—we sorta had to be a for a Scout project—and doesn’t like it when I tag him in pictures, especially those of him as a baby. Good thing for him that literally none of his friends from school really use FB the way adults do—to post pictures, wish someone a happy birthday, etc.—meaning nobody really noticed the baby pic, or that today is his birthday. Me or the Karen? We get like three hundred people wishing us well. Him? He slides by without anyone noticing.

The big present this year is a bass guitar and amp. We originally figured we’d get the bass, but then were advised that he can’t just use the same amp he does for his guitar—which he got for graduation earlier this summer—or else it will burn out. So we added an amp to the list. When I got to the music store today, I realized he would need a strap. And a cord. We wanted him to be able to play today. The salesperson wanted to sell me a stand and a case, too, but I declined, figuring we could work our way toward those. Immediately when he was done playing, I regretted not buying a stand or a case, as he doesn’t have anywhere to put his bass. So, it’s probably back to the music store tomorrow for a stand.

But let me stress: The kid has never held a real bass before but can already jam, spewing out “Seven Nation Army” like a pro. I don’t know if he learned how to play that on his phone, on his guitar, or is simply a genius. Whatever the case, all of that stuff is well worth it, just to see his face as he jams, just to listen to his sound.

Today I’m Two-Timing again, covering Megan Mayhew Bergman for a second time. I really like her other collection, Almost Famous Women, which I covered here at Story366 back in September of 2016. Today I read from her first book, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, out from Scribner in 2012. I really admire what Bergman does, enjoy reading her stories, and am pleased to be featuring her here for a second time.

The lead story is “Housewifely Arts,” about a woman whose mother has recently passed away. The trick here is there’s a bird, an African-gray parrot, who can mimic her mother’s voice perfectly and she wants to hear her mother’s voice one more time. She wants her son to hear it, too, so they head off to Myrtle Beach, where said bird has been sold to a roadside zoo by the plumber who inherited the bird from the mom. The story is cut up, alternating sections of the frontstory, the journey to find the bird and the backstory, the woman’s relationship with her mother before she died. They do find the bird at the end, but the story’s really about things left in the past, things no longer accessible, and decisions that are better left unvisited. It’s a fantastic piece, probably my favorite of the ones I read.

“The Cow That Milks Herself” is about a pregnant woman who’s dealing with some of the corresponding anxieties. Her husband, a rural veterinarian (like Bergman’s own husband), has a lot of advice for the doctors and prenatal class teachers, having overseen quite a few livestock births—not the most flattering of comparisons (including the title line) for our hero. There’s also a dog on its last legs down at the office that she’s particularly fond of, giving story a three-thread approach, threads that weave together, thematically, quite well.

The title story, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” is about a woman (all these protagonists seem to be women, not quite middle age, but at the step right before, thinking about it) who lives in a North Carolina swamp with her father. She and her father have lived in the swamp nearly all their lives (Mom died in childbirth), save a spell where our hero went off to Raleigh to study biology . The swamp is romanticized a lot here, a place where people who have nowhere else to go go to hide, where someone can do whatever they want and be left alone.

She and her father own a lot of land, so much so that Dad builds several full-length golf holes in their back yard. They also own an abandoned middle school, which they bought for a thousand bucks, because why not? For money, which they don’t seem to need, they run a bird-watching business. People pay them a fee and they take them out to the swamp with a bird book, a map, and a lunch, then pick them up before dark.

In the first line of the story, our hero declares her love for a man named Smith Jones. Since the story’s told in past tense, the rest of the piece, after that first line, is her explaining how she came to fall in love with Smith Jones. Smith, as it turns out, is a customer for the bird-watching business, a guy who comes in and wants a deluxe package. He doesn’t want to be dropped off in the swamp by himself, but instead wants our protagonist to escort him, to spend the day with him. He’s looking for a legendary bird, an ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird even her father has never seen and wants to see before he dies (this is a real thing, by the way, every birdwatcher’s dream, to see this maybe-extinct bird). The trek is set, before long, for all three of them, and will span longer than a day: They’re set to camp out in the sticks. They want to see this bird and will do whatever it takes to make it happen (over the course of the weekend, anyway).

One of the reasons our hero is so attracted to Smith is because he’s handsome and nice and intelligent, but also because she just doesn’t see that many men who aren’t her father. She’s thirty-six and is wondering how many men like Smith are going to wander into the bird shack, insisting on spending the day with her. She does what she can to show Smith a good time, and he seems, at least early in the trek, to be game.

Getting in the way of any further love affair is her father, who has a heart attack, right there in the middle of the swamp. He collapses to the ground, miles away from anything resembling cell service. Our hero sends Smith for help—she demands that he run all the way out of the swamp and into a service area—and stays with her father. It’s four hours before anyone comes, but miraculously, her father turns out to be fine.

Sadly, though, she never sees Smith again. He doesn’t return to the swamp with the EMTs, doesn’t show up at the hospital, and disappears from the swamp without saying good-bye. Yet, some time in the future, our hero still pines for him, still declares her love, and of course, still tells this story.

Did they see the ivory-billed woodpecker before Dad went down? That, I won’t reveal.

My second time around with Megan Mayhew Bergman has been time well spent. I read three fantastic stories from Birds of a Lesser Paradise, stories about women in North Carolina trying to find their place, dealing with their worlds if they think they already have. Bergman is a talented writer, a fine storyteller, and an animal enthusiast, and I look forward to her next collection.



August 24, 2020: “Taking a Shit in the Future” by Casper Kelly

Hello, Story366!

The boys had their first day of school today, and from all angles, it was a total success. My youngest son started second grade, meaning he went to the same school, at the same time, to a teacher we’ve met and have known for several years. He had a smashing day and earned a milk shake and some French fries after. My oldest son, however, started high school, meaning a complete transition to a new time, building, schedule, and environment. We’re not eligible for busing somehow—even though were .6 miles further away than his last school, for which he took the bus—so my part in all this was figuring out where to pick him up, when, and how to embarrass him most effectively in front of his peers. For his part, he made it to all his classes, didn’t get expelled, and didn’t even get beat up. In fact, when I picked him up, he was talking to a girl, someone he knew from junior high. He also earned a milk shake and French fries afterward.

We’re taking a risk, we know, sending our boys to seated schooling, but it’s only two days a week, with the school population split in half. Our boys go Monday and Tuesday and that’s it. The students I saw were all wearing masks, which are required, and didn’t appear to be dog-piling on each other much at all. We don’t know how long it will last, but for now, our kids went to school, had a good day, and before long, might actually learn something from seasoned professionals; somehow my son has Physics as a freshman and I’m already thinking about how I got a D in that, in both high school and college, and he’s not going to get much help at home.

The boys at school also meant I came home to an empty house. In a lot of ways, that’s fantastic, as I got all my teaching done by eleven a.m, then took a nap, then did some housework, then did some press work. Then I picked up the boys and procured said milk shakes and fries. But I had five hours all to myself, the Karen at work, probably more time alone in the house than I’ve had, combined, since school was cut off back in March. It was productive, but weird. On top of everything, I missed those boys, missed having them around, missed hearing their sounds. All part of real life, I know, but it was still tough, in a way, that silence, that isolation. Good thing I have plenty to keep me busy, or else I might go a little nuts.

Today I read from Casper Kelly‘s 2012 collection, More Stories About Spaceships and Cancer, out from Fried Society Press (its only release, from what I can tell). Kelly is perhaps better known as a script writer for Adult Swim TV shows like Aquateen Hunger ForceSquidbilliesStroker & Hoop, and other shows I’ve heard great things about, but have never watched. I’ve been trying to get ahold of this book for a while, curious how that type of writer translates to the short story world. I was treated to some good stories, different from pretty much any book I’ve ever read before.

Kelly gets really metafictional here, almost continuously, and that’s one aspect that makes for the unique reading. The story starts out with an introduction, titled “Introduction,” first detailing the author’s take on the short story, which is kind of grim, if you like contemporary short stories. He makes an often-made claim that short stories ain’t what they used to be, not like when Hemingway and O’Connor and Faulkner wrote them, when they were grand events the general public paid attention to. Now, they seem more like a chore, like homework, especially with way-better things to devote your mind to, such as video games and watching TV. I can’t blame Kelly too much for this take, as I’ve stated similar facts myself, when asked why short story collections don’t sell, why the kids aren’t reading them on Friday nights, and why I’m successful at writing them but somehow not incredibly wealthy.

Before Kelly can get condescending, this intro turns into an introduction of another kind, of Professor Badbones. He’s a cartoonish figure who leaps out at you from the page (or e-reader screen), bores his way into your brain, and sets up headquarters. From your brain—this is in second person, so yeah, it’s in your brain, my brain, all our brains—he sort of acts as the emcee for the event that is this book. There’s even intermissions between all the stories stories, sort of like a studio host during a monster movie Saturday showcase, e.g., the Son of Svengoolie, that sort of thing. Only the host here is a skeleton who’s in your brain and has a sexy sidekick named Stiffany Corpose and a clown-type named Snervely that he kicks around.

So, yeah, there’s some gimmicks here, but really, I don’t mind them. They’re kind of fun, and if this only happens in one story collection I read, I can think it innovative, which it is, even bordering on brilliant.

The first story after the intro is “The Sensitive Person’s Joke Book” and characterizes and humanizes and expandizes on some old-time joke tropes. A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar? Yeah, they become characters. A woman’s vagina is so big, men get sucked inside? Yeah, she’s present and accounted for. There’s also a Polack, which I’m not thrilled about (side not: it’s been a decade, if not more, since I’ve heard a Polack joke), but I guess this is that type of story and he almost had to do it, if we’re talking outdated, off-color jokes. Overall, I do like the concept here, and especially how Kelly does more with it by story’s end, really gets into these characters’ character, giving them real traits and real roles that take them beyond their punchlines.

“Sneezy” features a lovestruck Sneezy of Seven Dwarves fame. We get the whole gang here, too, the story set during those gleeful days when boys find Snow White and she lives in their house, cooking and cleaning for them between gleeful songs. Like all the dwarves, Sneezy is taken by Snow White, but he’s the only one to make a move, visiting her in her bedroom one night. Sneezy, despite his titular shortcoming, is kind of a player, part Don Juan, part sweetie pie, and part lothario, putting the moves on Snow White so successfully, she asks him to come back the next night, spending the next day winking at him, sneaking in some extra smiles on top. Does this prevent Snow Whites’s run-in with the witch and her apple? No. And in fact, it might even kind of cause it.

I really like the story I’m featuring today, “Taking a Shit in the Future.” I started reading this one and didn’t really know what to expect, but in a lot of ways, the story delivers on its title. Only, it’d in an opposite kind of way: In the future, in this story, we’ve found a way to stop having to go to the bathroom.

The story starts with our protagonist out at a lunch with his wife, her sister, and her sister’s friends. Randomly, the topic of the process comes up. The fact our hero has never heard of this process gives Kelly an excuse to have it explained to him, and as a result, us. Basically, the process is like Lasik, an out-patient procedure with little risk—after a couple of days, you’re fine, and then some, never having to go to the bathroom again. At first, it seems cutting-edge and risky and even silly. Then the rich and famous have it done. Then more people. Eventually, like with Lasik, or the integration of cell phones, just about everyone joins in. The only people left are those who purposely decide to not have the process done—kind of like that old relative who still uses a wall phone and answering machine.

Our protagonist is among those holdouts. He doesn’t have it done because he thinks it’s expensive. Then the office where he works, as well as most every store, restaurant, and other public place, removes their bathrooms, kind of like how payphones slowly disappeared, and then were just gone. This forces him in to see the doctor, where he finds the process to be so common, it’s affordable as all hell. He has it done, and like most everyone else, he’s potty-free forever.

The only people left who still go to the bathroom are basically performance artists. Our hero and his wife and some friends go to a show, off-off-off-Broadway, I guess, where woman pretty much goes to the bathroom the whole time on stage, people Ooing and Ahing as she does her duty (sorry, couldn’t resist).

At this point, I was already impressed with how Kelly handled this idea, how he turned a sophomoric concept into something pretty clever, how the process was integrated into society before it became everyday. From there, however, Kelly takes it further, like he does with the joke story and the Sneezy story, moving wellbeyond concept. Once our hero has the process done, there are complications. A lot of them have to do with the machine built into everyone’s stomachs, in place of their intestines, to atomize the waste and release it from the body in waves. Unfortunately for our guy, he’s one of the people for whom the process doesn’t entirely work. The vibrations he feels as he atomizes food don’t ever subside—they’re supposed to—meaning his unit is probably off. And when your unit’s off, well, you can guess which direction that goes.

I won’t reveal any more of this story, but surely, Casper Kelly can take some pretty zany and even silly concepts and turn them into pretty meaningful, high-stakes fiction, transforming not-real, barely-people into sympathetic heroes. More Stories About Spaceships and Cancer is a rare book, a short story collection that plays by its own rules, presents a format, an occasion, a venue, whatever you want to call Professor Badbones’ intermissions. I had a good time reading this book today (Polack joke deconstruction notwithstanding) and want to check out what Kelly does, in his other medium.




August 23, 2020: “Other People’s Love Affairs” by D. Wystan Owen

Sunday Sunday Sunday, Story366!

Yesterday (my birthday!) I explained how my main present was going down to the shelter and adopting two new cats, Wrigley and Zelda. Both were advertised as shy, so we knew it would take a while for them to get acclimated to us. For the entirety of the day after we brought them home, they hid from us, one under a table, one under a couch. All of us spent a long time on our bellies, reaching under furniture and petting our new fur babies.

Some time while we slept, the new kitties made their way down to our basement, which we basically use as storage. Big mistake on our part, not shutting that door. There’s literally a thousand places for a shy kitty to hide. The Karen and I journeyed down to find them, maybe coax them upstairs and then shut the basement door. It was not an easy task. I found Wrigley right away, but he squirmed out of our grasps and rehid himself. We still haven’t found Zelda.

So, Day 1 with new kitties has been ghosts. We just want to find them and integrate them into our family, give them love. They’re going to have to recognize, sooner or later, that we just want to pet them and adore them and let them grow fat with food. Speaking of which, before long, they’re going to get hungry. Maybe they think they can wait us out, eat and got to the bathroom while we sleep. And maybe they’re right. I’m pretty sure love is supposed to be patient, however, and we’re counting on that.

For today’s entry, I read from D. Wystan Owen‘s 2018 collection, Other People’s Love Affairs, out from Algonquin Books. I’ve never read any stories by this author before, so I was happy to dive in and discover a new writer, as I so often am at Story366.

Wystan is a Brit (though he has dual citizenship now) and all of these stories in Other People’s Love Affairs take place in the coastal city of Glass. It’s a small fishing village that gets some tourists in the summer months, people wanting to be by the sea, eat at different restaurants, sleep in a bed other than their own. Glass is an old city, like most European cities, with a deep roots for its current residents, people living there their whole lives, just like their parents and grandparents and so on.

The first story, “Lovers of a Different Kind,” is about Eleanor, a young woman who lives with her father in Glass and volunteers in the infant unit at the hospital. For years, Eleanor’s mother has had the tendency to disappear, and as the story unfolds, she’s been gone for longer than she’s ever been gone—Eleanor’s father suggests Eleanor let her go, that she’s not meant to be in one place, to be that kind of mother. Eleanor also takes on a friendship of sorts with Wen Whitaker, a local scavenger whom everyone assumes is homeless, though he has a shack out in the marsh. Wen knew Eleanor’s mother when she was young and Eleanor uses her ties to Wen to find out information about her, stories her father never told her. She does not return the kindness to Wen, however, and loses his trust.

“At the Circus” explores similar themes. This one’s about Beryl, a woman living in Glass who’s taken on her nephew after her step-sister abandoned him. A local man named Joe Avery escorts the nephew, Tony, to the circus one day, giving Beryl a rare day to herself. She drinks sherry and fantasizes about calling up a man and having him over for a lay, a marred man she fancies and guesses is not happy with his wife. Meanwhile, Joe Avery, kind of the town alcoholic, drops Tony off in his seat, leaving to go buy cotton candy (candy floss, to the Brits), but not returning for over an hour, until well after the surrounding people and even circus folk grow concerned. At the end, when Joe Avery brings Tony home, there’s some existential considerations about loneliness and relativity, Beryl wondering if perhaps she could accept Joe Avery’s faults—not knowing he left Tony  to put a few back—and make a life with him work.

The title story, “Other People’s Love Affairs,” is my favorite of the three I’ve read. This one starts off by depicting the relationship between Erma and Violet, a couple of middle-aged women who are more than friends but are not lovers. They live together in a small house in Glass, share a bedroom, but sleep in separate twin beds with a nightstand and lamp between them. They tell each other “I love you” before shutting the light and going to sleep. Only once have the shared a bed, the day Violet’s mother died, but in a show of emotional support, not anything sexual.

The story takes a sudden and drastic turn when Violet, one day after a lunch and during a walk, collapses and dies. Erma is crushed, holds a funeral, but after, must deal with the probate-type stuff. She has to call a distant cousin in London to unlock a safety deposit box at a bank—gay marriage laws and rights not a thing yet in Glass—exposing Violet’s will. Erma gets everything, she finds out, everything except an antique rolltop desk. That goes to John Killian, the owner and barkeep of the local pub. Killian was at the funeral, as was everyone in Glass, but Erma doesn’t know why Violet left him this desk.

Erma arranges a time for Killian to come and pick up the desk. When he does, Erma finds him to be charming and handsome, invoking thoughts for a man, or anyone, that she hasn’t had since she was a girl. Erma believes Violet was in love with Killian, giving him the desk for that reason, as she feels in love with him, too.

Erma begins to shadow Killian, mostly at the pub, where she watches him without engaging him. Eventually, Killian notices her and then shows up at her house, asking why she’s creeping him. Erma comes right out and asks him why he thinks Violet gave him the desk. Killian details a life for Violet that was very different than the Violet Erma knew for the last twenty-one years of her life, information that reinforces some info she got from that distant cousin from London. By the story’s end, Erma has a very different view of her beloved Violet, which makes her reassess her own life and wants.

The stories in Other People’s Love Affairs are often melancholy. When you consider the title, of course they do, because it seems like someone else is always having all the fun. There’s the corresponding heartbreak, too, but for the protagonists in his collection, the old adage seems true: Better to have love and lost than to never have loved at all. D. Wystan Owen paints a quaint town in his debut collection, though one full of bridled passion, unrequited love, and chances squandered. It’s a smart and beautiful but sad collection, sending me to this little town across the pond, to all its disconsolate heroes.


August 22, 2020: “Four for a Quarter” by Michael Martone

Happy Birthday, Story366!

Okay, it’s not Story366‘s birthday—it’s my birthday! Another trip around the sun, another gorgeous August day, and another glorious book to read from. I’ve already had a great day, my family making me breakfast, taking me out to lunch (Korean BBQ!), going with me on a hike, and being super-sweet in general, as is their nature. The real highlight was heading to the C.A.R.E. animal shelter, in a planned expedition, to adopt a third kitty, something we’ve been planning for a while. We had our eye on this little white beauty in one of the rooms. Turns out, she shared a room with another cat, a slightly older gray male, and after some deliberation, we decided we couldn’t split up the happy couple—they’ve already had a litter together—and decided to bring both of them home. So, today, in my birthday, we’ve doubled our catcount to four.

The new kitties are shy, which we were told, and one is under the couch and the other is under the end table by the front door. They’ve been under there for six hours now, but we’re not too alarmed, as that’s what each of our other cats did when we brought them home: hide. Sooner or later, they’re going to get hungry or have to go to the bathroom, we figure. Before long, we hope they warm up to us. We’re sure they will: We love them and will lavish them with affection (and food).

The shelter names for these new cats were Padme and Anakin, but we weren’t feeling it. My younger son wanted Zelda and Link, and we liked Zelda for the little white female, so that stuck. The Karen and I aren’t that sold on Legend of Zelda to go all Hyrule, and since it’s my birthday, they let me pick. Running down the things I like, it didn’t take me long to come up with Wrigley, so now we have Salami Sandwich, Nora June, Zelda, and Wrigley.

All in all, a pretty great birthday, and it’s not even over yet. Every time Karen walks by, I feign an ache or some tightness in my back, trying to set myself up for a little massage action later. That’s conniving, sure, but hey, it’s my birthday and I’ll manipulate my wife for a massage if I want to.

Today I’m featuring a Two-Timer here at Story366, Michael Martone. Today’s is Martone’s birthday as well—something we’ve shared ever since I was born. Since I have a few of his books at the ready, I figured Why not? I first covered Martone four years ago today when I wrote about his collection Michael Martone by Michael Martone. For this post, I chose Four for a Quarter, out in 2011 from FC2. I’ve read a lot of these stories before, but rounded out the collection today, enjoying every step, every word.

Martone writes thematically quite a bit, and in fact, I can’t think of a book of his that doesn’t follow some sort of project. Whether he’s writing about his native Indiana, faking a whole collection of his own contributor notes, or creating a faux Blue Guide to his Hoosier homeland, he’s great at coming up with ideas and then seeing them become published books. This one, Four for a Quarter, is all about the number four, a project he worked on for a long time before this came out. When I was a student at Bowling Green, over twenty years ago, he read “The Sex Lives of the Fantastic Four,” which is insightful and hilarious. I also got the opportunity to publish one of these pieces in Mid-American Review around the same time, “Four Sides of a Triangle: Proof.”

Today, I filled in the gaps of what I hadn’t read—this is a long book with a lot of stories—starting with the title and lead story, “Four for a Quarter.” Of course, this is a tremendous title for this project, and this title story is a good one. It’s a short—as are most of these pieces—cut into four vignettes—as are a lot of these pieces—each with its own little subtitle.

Basically, Martone writes an eloquent little prose poem taking place in four locations, locations where those automatic photo booths can be found. Sometimes these mini-tales detail who’s in the pictures, sometimes why the speaker is there, and sometimes it just describes the scene, the smells, the feel of these once-magical little machines. It’s a nostalgic piece, a four-part poem to a hunk of our pasts, a perfect table-setter for what comes in the rest of the collection.

I more or less picked that title piece as the focus story today because it starts the collection, but also because it’s the title piece and I just like to do it, maybe get me more hits through random searches. I perhaps like “Four Fifth Beatles” as much as any piece I read today. This one again cuts itself into vignettes, each vignette separated into bulleted points. That is, except for Yoko, who’s simply listed first, nothing else said. From there we get Stuart Sutcliffe, who left the Beatles early on, then died young; Brian Epstein, their longtime manager; Billy Preston, who played a lot of organ for them, both live and in the studio, and George Martin, their producer, who’s as responsible for their sound as anyone.

“Four Postcards From Indiana” gives us postcard stories—a class Martone used to teach at Alabama—from some interestingly named Indiana cities: Story, Santa Claus, French Lick, and Muncie. These quarter-stories are a bit longer than actual postcards (unless you write really, really small), and detail a road trip through the state, written from the speaker to the receiver (as all good post cards tend to do).

Not every story in the collection is light, such as “The First Four Deaths in My High School Class,” which very quickly runs down how these four people died, all pretty gruesomely, because of course they died young, too young, young enough to make this list. “Four Dead in Ohio” chronicles that fateful day in Kent, Ohio, when the National Guard opened fire on student protestors and took four lives.

“Mount Rushmore” catalogues the four presidents currently idolized on that mountain, giving us facts, with a bit of an attitude to the voice. “Chili 4-Way” tells tales of four places, spread across the Midwest, where you can get this unlikely delicacy, a bunch of chili and cheese piled on top of a mound of spaghetti and sauce. “Four Corners” gives us little prose poems about the four states that meet at a point, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. “The I States” fictionalizes, briefly, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Idaho.

I think you get the gist. To note, I’ve oversimplified what these stories do, giving you a rundown of the concept, not doing Martone’s skills as a writer any justice as all. He’s a poet as well a fiction writer, a master craftsperson, and brings narrative, along with character, theme, and all kinds of other writerly devices to each and every story, each sub-story, and each line. The state stories aren’t about those states, for example, but random, unnamed people who visit there, who have a story to tell. That’s what makes this a book instead of a clickbate list on FB, his enormous talent to find the story in anything.

Michael Martone is one of my favorite writers, has had some of the largest influence on my own work, and is one of my favorite people in the writing world. Four for a Quarter is such a great book, I’m so glad I’m fitting it in today. Happy birthday, Michael. Here’s to many, many more for both of us!



August 21, 2020: “Today I Am a Writer” by xTx

It’s Friday, Story366!

Wow, and just like that, we’re at the end of the first week of the semester. It’s so weird, as I haven’t met any of my students, not in person, and won’t until next week. But I’ve been posting online like a fiend. At some point, I’m going to have to have a Zoom or something, just to put eyes on these students, make them more than an email address, name, and a series of posts and assignments. I have more or less sworn to be asynchronous, as most students prefer that, but some optional face time won’t hurt anyone, plus allow me to connect on a more human basis.

Last night, I posted right as Joe Biden took the stand for his speech at the DNC. I said something about hoping to fall in love with Joe Biden after this speech, already having committed to voting for him. After listening to him last night, it happened: I want to stand behind this man and I look forward to his Presidency. I’m not sure what else I can say, but what struck me is his passion, that he showed more emotion and more fire last night that a typical Barack Obama speech, which is also great, just a more even-keeled type of speech. Joe seemed mad at times, but mad at the same things I’m mad at, and posited that he’s going to do something about those things. I’m all for that. I’m all for Joe, for Kamala, and the end to this regime of hate, bigotry, and general ignorance. My kids deserve better. So do I. So does America.

Today I read from xTx‘s 2015 collection, Today I Am a Book, out from Civil Coping Mechanisms. I didn’t know much about xTx before purchasing her book recently, remembering her stories in magazines and liking them. There’s a bit of a shroud of mystery surrounding her, as she obviously doesn’t use a birth name, isn’t on open social media streams, and has made it so there are no pictures of her to be found. That’s all fine and good, as I just want to read stories. Besides, if superheroes and rappers and computer hackers can have mysterious alter egos, why not writers?

Today I Am a Book is a collection of stories, I’ll say, but it’s a very particular project. All of the stories here begin with the phrase “Today I am a …” and then fill in the rest with items and concepts like book (just for the book as a whole, on the cover) and dedication (for the dedication at the start), then more random items like genienieceslavebasketball coachnun, and writer. I don’t think any of the stories are over three pages long, most of them shorter, making for a somewhat slim collection. Is it possible there’s a lot of nonfiction here? Yes, but like the writer herself, there’s some mystery surrounding the book, with no real colophon aside from that dedication, which technically seems more like the first story than anything legal or informative.

Why am I picking “Today I Am a Writer” to focus on? No reason, except, hey, I’m a writer and this blog is for writers and about writers. All the stories work really well and form a collection as a whole, so choosing a particular piece is kind of silly. Plus, maybe I’ll get more random Google hits with this particular selection.

“Today I Am a Surgeon” is the first story after the dedication, and while there’s this declaration in the title and first line, it focuses more on a woman’s obsession with her pink bathrobe and her relationship with her mother.

“Today I Am a Genie,” in contrast, offers what it advertises, the story about a lonely genie and everything that type of job entails, including decades of downtime, stuck in the bottle, between rubbings and wish-grantings. This is the existential genie story, and I like it.

“Today I Am a Wife” pits a woman named Ann in the title role, a woman married to an action-movie-loving guy who likes to have his meals served and for his wife to watch American Ninja with him on the couch, then retire to the bedroom for some marital delights. Ann’s reaction is like a sigh, but she seems to have fallen into the routine, relented, and I feel terrible for her, terrible I’m the same gender as this guy.

“Today I Am a Babysitter” is about the plump babysitter who has an affair with the dad/husband, this time during the night out: The dad drugs his wife, takes her to a long movie, and as soon as she falls asleep, rushes back to his house and has amorous, rough (he leaves bruises) sex with the babysitter on the couch. The babysitter here, unlike Coover’s, is in charge, though, so it’s a unique perspective on this old trope.

xTx has some fun with form in  “Today I Am a Hypnotist,” as we get the general hypnotism routine, then more than two whole pages of …s, supposedly simulating being under. I’m not sure I was actually hypnotized, but hey, how would I know?

The last story, “Today I Am a Summer Field,” is more romantic, the speaker first asking her lover to pretend she’s a summer field, giving us a lot of summer-field imagery. Then the metaphors grow and expand and evolve into a lovely series of things I should steal to use on the Karen later on.

“Today I Am a Writer” is near the end of the book and depicts a writer’s-block nightmare, the speaker trying to get words on the page at a coffee shop, distracted by all the ridiculous orders, eventually getting tossed to the street—loitering, don’t you know …—an act that produces some blood. This is today’s focus story and I’ve pretty much run the whole thing down already, but I will say this: That’s the best metaphor for writing that I’ve seen yet: It has blank pages, distractions, and blood. That’s pretty much dead-on.

I really like this project. Coming from someone who’s done focused book projects of his own, I admire this format and what xTx was able to come up with here in Today I Am a Book. The stories are eclectic, randomly selected from all walks of life. Sometimes they fit the title, sometimes not. All in all, I enjoyed reading through this today.