September 29, 2020: “Honey in the Carcase” by Josip Novakovich

Hey, Story366!

Right, now the first Presidential debate is going on, and I’m kind of afraid to watch. In some ways, this should be a slam dunk, as I believe Joe Biden to be a better debater, in the way that I believe anyone could outdebate Donald Trump … if it’s about issues. I don’t believe our current president has any actual knowledge of policy, don’t believe he has any sound plan going forward, and generally believe he’s a poor public speaker. Joe Biden is a lifelong public servant, has been in government his entire adult life, and can hold his own against anyone. Remember the 2012 VP debates, that his only mission was to not look like a bully against Sara Palin? Well, that turned out okay.

I’m sure the president will make it not about issues, though, as he knows he can’t hang. I can’t help but think of 2016, how his entire debate strategy was to make fun of the other Republican candidates, which worked, I have to admit; such is his base, reacting to that instead of any real knowledge of government or actual plan to make Ameri … you know where that’s going.

I also recall the debate with Hilary, the one where he followed her around like a hawk, looming over her shoulder, interrupting whenever she was making a point. Again, his voters must have seen this as a sign of strength, not a string of gimmicks he probably found on the Google when he typed in “how to look like you’re in charge when you don’t have any idea what you’re doing.”

I’m not sure what is going to go down tonight, as really, anything can happen. Remember, Trump is the one who made fun of handicapped people, incited hatred for immigrants coming across our southern border, and mocked his adversaries, their wives, and their parents—and that got him elected. So, if he put on a KKK mask and swore allegiance to Hitler, would it hurt him or harm him? I’m not sure at this point.

Amidst a Two-Timers Week at Story366—where I cover an author here for a second time—I read from another book by Croatian writer Josip Novakovich. Back in November of 2016, I focused on Salvation and Other Disasters, and today I’ve read from Honey in the Carcase, his latest, out in 2019 from Dzanc. I probably said this four years ago, but I met Novakovich when he came to read at Bowling Green, over twenty years ago, and have admired him and his work ever since. Getting to read and cover another of his collections here is a real joy.

The title story, “Honey in the Carcase” is first up, and I’m focusing on that piece today. This one’s about Ivan, a man living with his wife in Croatia in the time of war, specifically with Chetnik invaders. Bombs are dropping everywhere, at random, but one thing is steadfast: Ivan is tending to his bees, producing honey, and eating it like there might not be a tomorrow.

Ivan lives with his wife, Estera, and also has four boys, the youngest of which still lives with him, studying to be an agricultural engineer. Two of his sons are safe abroad, but the fourth is a doctor working right smack dab in the worst part of the war.

Getting back to the honey, Ivan is really into the honey, if I haven’t made it clear. He loves it, eating it at every meal, even dancing around his hives. Keep that in mind.

One day Estera goes out for bread and Ivan receives a phone call. The baker has called to tell him Estera has been wounded by shrapnel. Ivan goes to find her in bad shape. He takes her to the local hospital, which isn’t really a hospital, but a filthy basement where people are basically stored until they die. It’s good, then, that their son the doctor comes to take care of her, take her to a real hospital, the one where he works on the Croatian wounded.

During all this, Ivan’s house becomes battlefield central and he can’t go back. His sons survives an attack out—bombs strike the front and back yards—but Ivan’s bees are still there.

You might get, from my build-up, that Ivan isn’t going to sit idly by and let his bees get bombed to shit, let alone sit back and be neglected. What follows is a heroic journey, for which Ivan would receive a medal, if they gave out medals for saving bees. This is a great story, employing one of Novakovich’s trademark skills: Levity amidst utter destruction. I’ve read a lot of his stories, many set in the backdrop of war, and Novakovich is always able to find the human stories, often making me smile as I navigate the horrors.

“Tumbleweeds” is about a Columbia grad student on a green card from Yugoslavia, hitchhiking his way down the upper Midwest. He’s in Minnesota, via some oil rig work in Wyoming, when he’s picked up by a guy in a pickup truck. The guy agrees to take him all the way down to I-80 in Iowa, where he’s hoping to find more work. He and the guy end up drinking a case of beer on the way, then stop in a small town to drink whiskey in a hole in the wall. Both of them are incredibly drunk when they get back on the road, and before long, the man gets belligerent, accusing our hero of being a commie. He kicks our guy out of his truck, in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere in northern Iowa. Soon he’s picked up by the cops for hitchhiking and public intoxication, and, well, he can’t really catch a break.

“Yahbo the Hawk” is the last story in the book, and one I may have read, over twenty years ago, but wanted to revisit. This one’s about a young boy who trades a candy store owner for a hawk, a hawk he takes home and names Yahbo. The kid keeps the hawk up in the attic, where it sits perched in the rafters, throwing itself against the attic’s single window, hoping to escape. The boy feeds the hawk his family’s meat, which isn’t making Yahbo happy or healthy. When his cat captures a smaller bird, the kid grabs it and takes it up to Yahbo, who hunts and kills the maimed animal, emerging strong and healthy. The kid tries to hunt for fresh game for Yahbo, but when that doesn’t quite work for him, he realizes he has to release his precious hawk, that he has no business keeping it in his attic. He does just this, but then an ironic twist brings this, and the collection, to an end.

Glad to see Josip Novakovich still publishing story collections, Honey in the Carcase just his latest grouping of his fully pleasurable stories. I’ve always admired his imagination, his perspective, and his ability to draw me into characters who live in worlds I can only read about, and only try to understand. I’m always going to read his work when I come across it, so here’s to more books, more stories, by this master storyteller.

September 28, 2020: “Delivery” by Jac Jemc

Another Monday, Story366!

Today I’m starting up another Two-Timer’s Week at Story366. That means I’ll be covering a week’s worth of authors I’ve read before. This is the third such week already this year, and is one of the better changes to my “rules” that I’ve made in 2020. Before, I had a very limiting policy of not covering an author more than once. That didn’t make any sense, not in the long run, as writers write more than one good story collection. I’d be leaving out a lot of really great books if I’d kept that policy, books by talented people who do amazing things. Writers evolve, too, so covering one collection five years ago doesn’t mean I should personally be done reading their catalogue (my own book projects are all drastically different), that I’ve figured them out, or are finished with what they have to offer. Sometimes they’re just friends and I want to help promote their books.

Today’s selection, False Bingo by Jac Jemc, is a book like all of that. It’s out from FSG in 2019, and is my second time covering Jemc here. I discussed her second collection, A Different Bed Every Time, back in March of 2016. I’ve known Jac from Chicago in the way back, stretching to a time when we were both with Dzanc, and in this whole world since. I’m so happy to be covering this latest collection here, to be reading these new stories. Let’s get to it.

Since Jemc writes a lot of shorts, I read a good smattering of stories today, not particularly wanting to stop. I started with the first offering, “Any Other,” about a woman who meets a man in a coffee shop. The man has an offer for her, to buy a family heirloom for fifty grand, then raises his price to seventy-five. The woman thinks about it, but eventually says no. Saddened, the man leaves, and we find out what exactly it is this woman has that he wants.

“Strange Loop” is about an amateur taxidermist who becomes less and less of an amateur as the story goes on. Jemc either did a whole lot of research on taxidermy, or she already was a killer taxidermist, taking us through this patient procedure.

“The Principal’s Ashes” features a veteran elementary school teacher who has things figured out, or so she thinks. She starts doing things differently than prescribed, and soon has students citing “Howl” on the playground, just one example of how she’s taken the train off the rails.

“Pastoral” is about Kim, a porn star, and her co-star, Dave. They are working in the high-end smut industry (but smut nonetheless). We get a view of their warm-up routine, as well as Kim’s insights into what she does and who she is. We also see what Kim’s like outside of work, when she’s at home, with her family, not the person you think she’d be, given her day job.

“Loitering,” the last story in the book, is about Amy, a woman in a bar, who tells the bartender a sob story. It’s about a woman who finds her ideal life, but perhaps loses it, then perhaps becomes a real woman, but not the woman who’s telling the story. I think that makes this a paradox of some sort, but it’s also sweet.

I’m focusing on “Delivery” today, as it’s my favorite of the entire bunch. This one’s told from a we-communal perspective, a group of young adults/teens relaying the story of their father. “Delivery” starts off with this household receiving a package—a delivery—and inside is a computer printer. They think it’s a mistake and want to send it back, but at the last second, they ask their recently retired father, hiding out in the basement. He claims it, says he might have ordered it.

From there, more packages are delivered, most of them pricey electronics. There’s a Nintendo Wii, then a big-screen TV. At this point, the kids/narrator start to ask questions, inquiring what their dad is doing with all this stuff. At first, he plays the Wii, but then he unhooks it. When the TV comes, they assume he’s been waiting for it for the Wii, but the two are unrelated. The printer? That never prints anything.

More items start appearing at the house, non-electronics, but so do some doubles and even triples: There’s three Wiis before long, none of them hooked up. There are multiple TVs, printers, and other things as well. Stuff starts to pile up. Things that had previously piled up need to go, and there’s a nice anecdote detailing the absurdity of that thread.

Worried, the kids eventually find the checkbook, fearing there’s not enough money to pay for all of this. They find that their parents have more money than they thought, but that Dad is also paying bills multiple times, writing the same check to the same place several days in a row. It’s at this point that Mom starts to get involved, to actually worry.

It’d be easy to pin this behavior on something like Alzheimer’s, that the dad simply doesn’t have control over what he does or what he remembers. This story is better than that, though, as it takes the dad, and his kids, on a more complex and rewarding journey, through home-shopping pitfalls and the literal walls of their home.

And that’s what I take out of Jac Jemc’s False Bingo, a sense of originality and purpose in every story. Jemc’s stories start off familiarly enough, but just when you think you know where she’s going with it, something completely new and unexpected happens that puts your perception, and the entire story, in a new perspective. This makes for exciting and satisfying reading, never knowing where a story will go. It makes me want to read Jemc’s fiction over and over again, for her to keep publishing story collections forever.

September 27, 2020: “Great Sex” by Alice Adams

Good to be here, Story366!

The Cubs are headed to the playoffs! Wait, I think I said that earlier, as they clinched on Thursday. Yesterday, they also clinched the division, and today … they won. Nothing more to clinch today, just a nice way to end the regular season. I’ll be spending a lot of time on them in the coming weeks—I hope—as they start their series Wednesday versus the Marlins. During all this COVID nonsense and our lives turned upside down, it has truly be a prime distraction. I’ve probably enjoyed watching them this year more than ever—even more than the epic 2016 championship season—this sixty-game burst just what the doctor ordered. Stay tuned for a lot of Cub updates and philosophy in the coming days. Because once it’s over, it’s over, and then I’ll move on to something else.

Today I’ve read from Alice Adams‘ collected stories, entitled The Stories of Alice Adams, out in 2002 from Knopf. Adams died in 1999, and back when I was just getting into this business, I’d read a lot of her stories, in places like The New Yorker, because that’s where she places a lot of stories. She wrote over twenty books, both novels and story collections, and was one of the more prestigious writers of her day. I first got into her because I saw that she’d once edited Best American Short Stories, which at the time was my bible. I automatically assumed that everyone who did that job was a writer I should read (which is true), though I still haven’t read a single word by Hortense Calisher. In any case, Adams was royalty when I stepped into this game, so I’m pretty glad to be covering her here now.

Back in my early 20s, I looked at Adams as a writer who wrote adult stories. Not like sex stories (ignore the title of the story I’m covering today), but stories about adults, in large metropolitan cities, doing things like taking airplanes for work, having extramarital affairs, and seeing psychiatrists. Updike seems like that type of writer to me. Cheever maybe, too. After reading Adams’ stories today, I don’t really see anything that contradicts that. Now, however, as a real adult, and a tad more “worldly,” none of that seems all that strange to me.

I started with the first story, “Verlie I Say Unto You.” This one’s about Verilie, a black maid working for the Todd family in the 1930s. She has four kids, but most of her life is spent taking care of the Todds and their children, getting there early enough to make breakfast, not leaving until everyone’s had dinner. She develops a relationship with the handyman, Carlton, but soon we find out she’s married—when her husband is killed in a knife fight in Memphis and the Todds are the one to tell her. Jessica Todd, the wife/mom in the family, is super-depressed and doesn’t understand how Verilie is so positive despite the bad news she’s gotten, not understanding that Verilie just couldn’t stand her husband. When Carlton dies from a brain hemorhage, however, she sees what true grief really is.

The last story in the book (and note, this is a thick book) is “Earthquake Damage.” This one more embodies some of those “adult” themes I was talking about before. This one features Lila, who’s stuck on a plane headed home to San Francisco in the wake of the 1989 earthquake. When her plane experiences turbulence, she starts to think of Julian, her on-again, off-again lover. She knew Julian in grad school (they’re both shrinks), and then kept up an affair with him during both their marriages, their divorces, and Julian’s current do-over with his ex. Adams actually switches us over to Julian for a while. He’s just about tired of his ex again, thinking of Lila as the earthquake disrupts his world. There’s a little back and forth, but at the end of it all (including this massive collection), Lila has a pleasant epiphany, sending us off proper.

I cherry-picked a story from the middle of the book by title, so that’s how I landed on “Great Sex” out of fifty or so others, because sex (that’s great). This one finds Alison at lunch with her friend Sheila, who is bemoaning a recent breakup, ending the conversation with a nod to the sex they had. This gets Alison to thinking about the sex she’s had, wondering if it’s as great as the sex Sheila is bragging about to her at lunch.

From there we get to a list of Alison’s most memorable lovers, the first being a grad student in math at Berkeley. Then there was a sculptor she met at a gallery. These weren’t her only lovers, but are worthy of paragraph-long anecdotes.

The third is the one that really launches the story. This lover was a married man, quite older, from out of town, and definitely the best of the sex she’s had. She and he really got along, always with the implication that he wasn’t ever going to leave his wife and kids for her. This was all fine with Alison, being his squeeze when he flies in for business, her San Francisco fling. That is until he got Alison pregnant.

Jack, the married guy, wanted Alison to abort the kid, but she didn’t. She decided to keep it—she’d already had one high school abortion—and just wanted this piece of Jack, a chance at a family.

Jump ahead fifteen or so years and now Alison’s kid, Jennifer, is out of town, visiting her grandma, and Alison is having lunch with Sheila, hearing about sex, making her think of Jack. They speak infrequently—he sends support checks that Lila never cashes—but she can’t stop thinking of him.

Lo and behold, while Jennifer is out of town, Jack is coming in for business and Lila finds this out. All of a sudden, all these years later, she’s thinking of her lover, her best lover, in that way again. I won’t reveal what happens here, but hey, this story is called “Great Sex.”

At 47, I appreciate Alice Adams a lot more than I did when I was 22, all of her mature (not in that way!) themes throwing me off then, but seeming like pretty standard conflicts and characteristics for a short story now. The Stories of Alice Adams is mine now, soon to be on my shelf, a thick, white book that I’ll see near the start of my story collection collection, one that I won’t be able to miss, one I can always grab. Lots more stories here, and I hope to get to all of them sooner or later.

September 26, 2020: “Let’s Tell This Story Properly” by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Happy Saturday, Story366!

Today, my oldest boy had a buddy over. It was the first time we had anyone into our house since all this COVID stuff went down. Since we’ve been so busy lately, the place had been a mess, especially in the kitchen. We don’t eat out anymore, which is great, only that makes for an awful lot of dishes. I try to do a batch or two a day, but by Friday, I get behind and sometimes most of what we have in the cabinets is piled up on the counters, waiting to get squeaky. The Karen and I spent all day, until this kid’s arrival at three, making the place spotless. He came, he left, and now we have a pristine house. In fact, Karen’s really good at not only cleaning to the baseline, but going a bit further, getting rid of stuff we don’t need and cleaning areas that we don’t necessarily need clean for guests. We keep inching toward that perfect home, ready for the magazine people to feature us in a summer spread. At this rate, we should be ready for the June 2088 issue.

Is it weird, though, to clean your house for your son’s 14-year-old friend? We talked about that last night, Karen and I, how much effort we should put in for this kid. On one hand, we have a perfectly clean house, and that’s something. On the other hand, this kid is 14 and doesn’t give a shit what his friend’s house looks like. If we had razorbacks wallowing in their own filth in our living room, the kid’s reaction wouldn’t have been any different than it was for super-clean. Right? I pointed out that when I was a kid, I was in my friends’ houses all the time, and they were in mine, too. Did any of our parents spend a Saturday busting their butts to get their place clean for me? No, of course not. If pressed, they probably would have noted how that Czyzniejewski boy could go to hell if he doesn’t like dishes in my sink when he comes to my house. And they’d be right.

Today’s book is Let’s Tell This Story Properly by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, out in 2019 by Transit Books. Makumbi is a Ugandan writer who was educated in the UK and lives and teaches there still. This is the first time I’ve read any of her work, so let’s talk about that.

This book is cut up into two parts, plus a prologue that includes one story, “Christmas Is Coming.” This one’s about Luzinda, who has just turned 13 and is deeply unhappy. He is living in the UK with his family but desperately wants to go back to Uganda. It’s his birthday, and all his relatives are coming over, but he refuses to come out of the bathroom—he never does open their presents, shifting them under his bed. He petitions his family to return home for Christmas as his present, but the family can’t afford the airline tickets. Luzinda has to gut it out. One of his hangups is how his mom tends to drink since coming to the UK, making his existence hard. This isn’t made any better on Christmas, when his family decides to host a part for all their Ugandan friends and family (bookending this story with large parties). Here, both Luzina’s mom and dad drink too much, causing quite a scene, making for a sad holiday, though at least they’re together (Luzinda’s little brother actually saves the day with a pretty hilarious stunt).

“The Nod” is about a guy named Lucky who goes to a party (another party …)hosted by a friend from school. What happens next is a large conversation on identity, race, and economic status that not only takes up most of the evening, but puts an odd turn Lucky’s disposition.

“Let’s Tell This Story Properly” is my favorite of the bunch and is about Nnam, a woman whose husband, Kayita, has just died. It is a sudden death, at just 45, and embarrassing, as Kayita collapsed in the bathroom, his underpants around his ankles, Nnam dressing him before the ambulance comes to take him away.

This is an ominous beginning to the story and and a symbolic end to Kayita. Once Nnam is told that her husband is dead at the hospital, she goes home to start making arrangements. Here we find that the couple—Nnam a lawyer and a Kayita a janitor—saved and bought a retirement home back in Uganda, so this is one thing that Nnam has to get into order, search for deeds, find out whose name the house is in, etc. We also find that Kayita has a couple of sons and an ex-wife back in Africa, and Nname has been sending extra money and clothes their way. These were often delivered by Kayita himself, as he travels to take care of the retirement home—rented out—and see his sons.

When Nnam travels to Uganda for the funeral, she finds that things are not what they seemed. Different people greet her at the airport than she’d expected, boys claiming to be Kayita’s sons but are not the boys she’s seen pictures of. As she’s escorted to the retirement property, she finds out several truths. The boys from the airport are also Kayita’s sons, sons he never told her about, sons he had after he moved to the UK and married her. The family “renting” the retirement property? Kayita’s Ugandan family, of course, including his not ex-wife, who is still his wife, his legal wife. Nnam is the usurper in this situation, albeit one who has paid for this other family, unwittingly, for years. Nnam is still getting a lot of dirty looks, as everyone’s wondering why Kayita’s side hustle is suddenly in Uganda, in their home, their husband and father dead, this woman adding insult to their injury.

Nname never did anything wrong, except trust Kayita, and luckily for her she has a large support system back home. All of her family and friends come to her aid. She also receives some help from a surprise source, but I think I’ve already revealed enough here already. This is a well told story about a secret bigamist, picking up upon his death, showing the aftermath of his decisions. Nname is a worthy perspective, showcasing the terror and confusion so well, along with some class and gender politics to boot. This is a great story.

I enjoyed my time with Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s Let’s Tell This Story Properly, her book about Ugandan ex-pats trying to make their way in the UK. Home keeps calling them back and it’s tempting to just return, given how little anyone in their new country really wants them there. The whole scenario is a conflict in and of itself, making for easy stories, characters struggling to to find themselves, such a warm alternative always in their back pocket.

September 25, 2020: “Safe as Houses” by Marie-Helene Bertino

What’s up with you, Story366?

Have I not filled you in on the cat drama as of late?

Anyway, we got two more cats on my birthday, back on August 22, and to make the story as short as possible, didn’t shut the basement door, so the new cats ran down there and have been there since, over a month. I’ve been spending time down there, trying to coax them out, but the closest I get is across the room, the same room. If I move too close, they disappear deep into the crawlspace, and that’s that. The cats are well fed, have their own litter box, and I talk to them when I’m down there. But they’ve refused to come upstairs.

Until today. The Karen decided it was time to open the basement door, which we’ve been keeping shut, just so our two older cats can’t eat then cats’ food or terrorize them. Door open, almost immediately both downstairs kitties wandered upstairs: a breakthrough! They didn’t get close to us, and when we inched toward them, they ran back down. But then they’d come back up, lured by treats, sirened by human contact.

That was until Salami, our longest-tenured cat, decided to play thug. I saw him head down there and perch at the third stair from the bottom, right above the new cats’ food and water dishes. A few minutes later, me in another room, we were the cat throwdown, all kinds of angry kitty sounds filling the air. Salami sauntered up, looking shaken, and when I went downstairs, all the food and water was dumped over. My guess? Salami waited for the new kitties to saunter over for a bite, then descended on them, getting into a thing.

Now the new cats haven’t been upstairs all day, though they’re at least hanging in the basement when I go down there. We still haven’t made physical contact with these cats in over month, but we see today as progress.

Or the start of a major gang war.

Today I read from Marie-Helene Bertino‘s 2012 collection, Safe as Houses, out from the University of Iowa Press as a winner of their Iowa Short Fiction Award. This is my first reading of Bertino’s work, which I always appreciate, so let’s dive in.

The opening story, “Free Ham” is the kind of story I would read no matter what, just because it’s called “Free Ham.” With the bar set so high, Bertino delivers, as this is a quirky piece about this girl whose house burns down, and that’s when the fun really starts. She and her mom move in with her super-conservative aunt, who doesn’t approve of anything she does. Her dad, who lives across town, is an unsympathetic ass. Her mother mostly parents by entering her into sweepstakes, which she often wins, including the titular free ham—Bertino turns this into a running joke, as our hero refuses to pick up her ham, for various reasons, to the chagrin of the grocery store. Oh, and there’s also a lot of dogs in this story, which is always a bonus.

“This Is Your Will to Live” features some of the best back-and-forth dialogue I’ve seen in a story. This one features Elaine, who’s in front of her house one day when a door-to-door salesman comes by, selling his wares. He can only show her what he has inside her house, which of course makes Elaine suspicious, but she seems game for whatever comes next, and lets him in. The salesman, Foster Grass, sets up, and what comes next is a series of oddball actions and reactions from each character. First Foster pulls out a dummy and does a little ventriloquist act, claiming to be selling his sob story. This leads to both characters (the human ones) trading sob stories, and the tête-à-tête begins, filled with one upmanship and witty repartee. The story is funny, tragic, and just plain bizarre, and I can’t wait to work it into my rotation, to see what my students think.

The title story, “Safe as Houses,” is another gem. This one features Pluto, a guy who kind-of robs houses with his sidekick, Mars. I say kind-of because Pluto doesn’t take valuables. In fact, the valuables he leaves put. Instead of filching anything of value, he instead ruins objects of sentimental value: stuffed animals, photos, and children’s art projects. That’s the way to really mess with someone, he believes, what he’s doing in these people’s houses.

The victimized house in this story belongs to Jill Anderson, someone Pluto sees at the gym. Jill and her friend run the treadmills and talk openly, so all Pluto has to do is listen. He knows Jill is rich, that he doesn’t like her, and that she and her family will be in Mexico on vacation during the night in question. I used to bike at the university gym in Bowling Green and I’d hear all kinds of conversations—people will literally say anything while exercising, it seems, so I grooved with Pluto, at least when he’s in recon mode.

Mars makes for a great secondary character as he doesn’t quite understand what’s going on. We eventually find out that Pluto took him on after entering Mars’ house, messing it up, and then finding Mars in the back bedroom—Mars was going to turn him in if he didn’t cut him in. Mars wants to steal Jill’s money and stereo and jewels, but Pluto won’t allow it. A point of tension soon arises because we’re wondering just how long Mars, without the same code and motivations as Pluto, is going to take orders.

There’s a couple-few climaxes/turning points to this story. One goes down when Pluto and Mars hear a human voice calling out from the basement. They investigate and find Debbie, a neighbor who’s walking Jake, the Andersons’ Pomeranian, while they’re gone. Debbie comes in unannounced, though with a key, and Pluto has to convince her that he’s a friend of the family and just came by to pick up something Jill left for him. It’s one of those scenes where Debbie is trying to look past Pluto into the house, but Pluto is using his body to block the doorway, smiling as he tells her it’s all good and she can go.

But this isn’t where this story ultimately goes. By its end, Pluto’s odd sense of honor and thievery just runs afoul of Mars’ lust for material possessions, and the two square off. This is also around the time that we find out the impetus for all of this, why Pluto is trying to ruin people emotionally instead of financially. Hint: His wife is gone. Second hint: He’s not over it.

I’m Marie-Helene Bertino’s newest fan, as I really love the stories in Safe as Houses. The tales I read present preposterously fun and complex situations, and on top of that, throw two cats in a bag, just to see what happens. It’s damned interesting to watch Bertino spin dialogue, pit human natures against each other, and take her stories down paths I didn’t know were there. What a great book.

September 24, 2020: “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” by Denis Johnson

A good Thursday to you, Story366!

Lately in these intros, I’ve been self-focused. I’ve talked a lot about my Scouting adventures with my son, a lot about my new workout routine, and a whole lot about how I’m adjusting to the semester with all the Zooming and social distancing and (lack of) attendance by my students. I’ve promoted our Moon City reading series. I’ve talked sports, and certainly will do so more in the coming weeks, the Cubs heading into the playoffs.

It’s been too long since I’ve addressed any of the more important, worldly topics here. Everything I list above certainly has a dash of COVID-19 sprinkled on, as it’s implied, in my discussions of sports, teaching, and outdoor shenanigans, that the virus has had a significant effect, is shaping the conversation. So I’ve kind of addressed that.

What I haven’t gotten into much here at all are the social justice issues that have been at the forefront of the news. I haven’t said the term Black Lives Matter in a while, haven’t referred to the news, and haven’t been very supportive in general. With the Breonna Taylor verdict coming out in the last day, I thought it might be a good time to chime in again.

I won’t pretend to know all the details of the Taylor story, or that I’m a legal expert. But yet again, this seemed like an open-and-shut case, that the police officers that shot and killed her in her own apartment should have been prosecuted, to some degree. Adding to this murder, the fact they tried to cover it up, or at least fudge the facts, points even more directly toward guilt. Yet, our legal system is not giving her, or her family, justice.

Given everything that’s happened this year, I’m not sure I should be surprised by this or not surprised by this. The attention that the Black Lives Matter movement has given to these atrocities should be making people understand what’s going on, trying to correct their actions. In other ways, maybe—or even obviously—it has worked against Taylor, the powers that be more inclined to make horrible choices. We hope in any legal matter that truth and justice prevail, but you can’t blame any of these victims if they stop believing in either of those concepts, in our judicial system, or in America in general.

I hope that in my lifetime, the world sees significant change. In some ways we have, as this certainly isn’t the antebellum South or even pre-Civil Rights anywhere. But until something as obvious as this takes its proper course and renders the just outcome, there’s still a ridiculously long way to go.

Black Lives Matter.

Today I read from Denis Johnson‘s 2018 collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, out from Random House. Like every writer I know has read and admires Johnson’s first collection, Jesus’ Son, which stands, almost thirty years after I first read it, as one of my favorite collections. Johnson, who passed away in 2017, also wrote a ton of novels, stories, and plays, and snared himself a National Book Award, too. I’m glad to finally get to this second collection, to be featuring this luminary writer here at Story366.

The title story, “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” leads things off. This story is about Bill Whitman, a 63-year-old former New York ad exec who split mid-life and took a different job in San Diego. He got married there, had two daughters, and became happy, his life in NYC the stuff of legend—almost Don Draperlike proportions—until he burned out and found his second life.

But we don’t find out most of this until the last quarter of the story, though, as Johnson settles us into this character via a series of anecdotes; the anecdotes even have titles, serving as subheadings for the whole story. In any case, we start out at a dinner party, Bill at someone’s house, people drinking, having increasingly inappropriate conversations, and before long, a guy who lost a leg in Afghanistan is taking off his prosthetic and a woman is kissing his stump and six months later these people are married. That seems to be the lesson in that first part, our guy Bill noting how crazy it is, the way people come together.

For a while after that, Johnson really jumps around, and it feels like maybe this story will be a series of random tales that may or may not come together at the end. It didn’t really matter to me, early in the story, because the anecdotes were all compelling, told interesting stories, and were of course written extremely well. What would be so bad about forty pages of Denis Johnson randomness? Nada.

Eventually, though, things start to add up. We slowly find out more about Bill’s career in advertising, including an award he’s getting for a very famous bank commercial he made in the eighties. In fact, Bill eventually travels to New York to accept this award, the first time he’s been back in decades. This more or less is the impetus for all of this, as Bill takes a literal trip down his memory lane, seeing people (or their descendants) that he hasn’t seen in years, walking down streets and past buildings that were an everyday part of his life, but have since become lodged in the past. That’s what this story comes to be about, then, those ghosts and how they haunt Bill, how they haunt us, years down the line. I’m not quite as old as Bill, but it’s already struck me that I’m past my halfway point, and some of those people, places, and things from my youth are so far in the past, they may as well be dreams.

Bill is constantly reminded of his past, whether he’s running into old friends, visiting old stomping grounds, or getting a call from an ex-wife. One anecdote is most illustrative of all this, as he gets this call, hearing the woman say her name, announce she’s in hospice and soon to be dead from cancer, and proclaim that she’d like to forgive him for his deeds, if only he’ll apologize. The funny/sad thing is, Bill doesn’t remember which ex-wife this is, but successfully apologizes, anyway, as the crimes he committed in his twenties were identical to each ex. One long speech takes care of either. That’s how in the past Bill’s former life is, how little he cares about it now, and how much he’s evolved since those days.

“The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” is not only unlike any story I’ve ever read by Johnson–Bill and Fuckhead have zero in common–but unlike any story I remember reading. What a joy this piece is.

I read one other story from this book today—these are all very long, forty and fifty-pagers—”Triumph Over the Grave.” This one’s about a writer, similar to Johnson in a lot of ways, who tells a lot of stories (kind of like Bill), this time more focused on a particular topic: death. We start out with a riveting sequence about our guy, sitting in a restaurant in San Francisco, and believing he’s seeing his friend, Nan. Only this Nan is a little younger, has different-colored hair, and then he remembers that Nan has family in San Francisco. So he calls Nan and her husband, Robert, who live out East, to see if this woman could be related. Only when Nan answers, she’s hysterical, sobbing and wailing, as Robert has just died of a heart attack. She even mentions that she has to call her sister, who loved Robert dearly, and hangs up. Seconds later, back in San Francisco, the woman our guy thought was Nan reaches into her purse, her phone ringing, and … scene.

From there we get into a stream-of-consciousness that gets our guy talking about several different parts of his past. There’s a surgery he had back in college to fix a trick knee, a large audience in one of those surgical galleries. We then get into a much more significant part of the story, his relationship with one Darcy Miller. Our guy meets Darcy at some point, but years later, while teaching in Austin, is called by another writer—whom he’s never met or spoken to before—saying that Darcy needs help. This other writer wants him to check on Darcy, who’s living in a university house outside of town. Our hero also talks about how he lived with and took care of Link, a friend of his who slowly expires. There’s also an artist named Tony who dies. The message here? People die. You get to know them, they’re gone, and soon, you will be, too. That final message is particularly haunting, there in the last line, and since this book came out posthumously, it rings horribly too true.

Denis Johnson’s second collection, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, presents just five new pieces, long stories that really delve into themes like memory and aging, as well as self-examination and regret. Johnson gives himself a lot of room to grow these characters, to have seemingly unrelated events come together and make something whole. I was engrossed in these pieces, as long as they were, gliding through Johnson’s anecdotes and bridges, his straightforward prose and less-than-straightforward people. It’s great we have this book, but too bad we lost this writer, much too soon.

September 23, 2020: “Anatomy of a Father, of a Moose” by Brenna Womer

Hey hey hey, Story366!

Today my little preamble is going to tie directly into today’s post. Yesterday, I talked about setting up one of those live Facebook readings that so many of us have attended in the last six months, how truly trick it was. I think we have that figured out, so again, I’ll plug Brenna Womer reading for the 2020 Virtual Moon City Reading Series, put on by Moon City Press, the Missouri State University Department of English, and Pagination Bookshop (whose Zoom we’re bogarting once again). Here’s the link to the event, be it live tonight at 7 p.m., CT, or later on, if you want to jump in some other time:

Should be a good reading—I even got a haircut (i.e., shaved my head in the bathroom) so I can host more presentably!

Anyway, Brenna Womer. I’ve covered several of my former students here at Story366Matt Bell and Dustin M. Hoffman and Alison Balaskovits, to name a few—but Brenna is the first from Missouri State (all those others are Bowling Green Falcons). She’s the first of my MSU students to publish a book, so that makes sense, though I hope I have many more to come. To boot, Brenna’s book isn’t even a short story collection, but a hybrid collection of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Pretty funky, eh? At least Brenna had the decency to tell us which was which, even cutting them up into marked sections, just so we don’t read poetry or nonfiction on accident. I kid—all of it’s good! But I’m focusing on the the fiction in honeypot (Sputen Duyvil, 2019) , not that other stuff, just to be clear.

Also to be clear, some of the stories in this book were actually workshopped in my grad workshop here, including the story I’m focusing on today, “Anatomy of a Father, of a Moose.” Of course, that version of the story was like a hundred generations ago, and while the same premise and general arc are intact, it’s much more polished now than before, as in, ready to go into a good lit journal (it was in Fugue) and into a book. It’s the longest story here, and the last story in the fiction section, but hey, let’s start with that, as it’s on my brain.

“Anatomy of a Father, of a Moose” is about an Army brat whose dad has been stationed all over the world, during various conflicts, sometimes in harm’s way, sometimes not particularly. Still, he was the kind of guy who had to carry a gun, be it an M-16 or a sidepiece. After that setup, the story really begins toward the end of his career when he’s stationed in Alaska, when our protagonist is 15. That means we know that she hasn’t seen her dad all that much—four year-long deployments in her lifetime—and that she’s not been anywhere long enough to put down roots.

That sets up the rest of the story (as story beginnings tend to do), a teenaged girl in the middle of nowhere suddenly having the chance to connect to her dad once again. The family—Dad, Mom, and daughter—start to work their way into the community of their Alaskan town (not far from North Pole, Alaska). They attend a small church, nice people who have potlucks after the services, which one Sunday, includes a moose stew.

This leads to the pastor telling of a yearly event when all the men in the congregation go out into the woods, with their sons, and hunt moose, mostly for population control, too many accidents plaguing the roads. It’s also a big-time bonding opportunity for dads and their boys. Our hero, trying to reconnect with her dad, decides this is the perfect opportunity and decides to go.

When she proposes her plan, her dad agrees to take her along. That’s not the hard part of the task (though in the workshop version, five years ago, I think it was), as Dad needs more convincing to pick up a gun than he is to break gender roles. Despite serving so long in the military, Dad doesn’t really like guns, doesn’t hunt, and isn’t all about shooting animals. But, it’s implied that he’d like this opportunity for Daddy-Daughter Moose Hunt as well, and off they go.

Throw a gun into a story and any good writer is going to make that gun go off, and all I’ll say here, to wrap this story up, is that Brenna is a good writer, so that gun goes off. What happens when it does? You should read this story to find out.

There’s only a half dozen other stories in this collection, and I read all of them today. Another story I remember from a workshop, “Patsy Sings for Me,” is about a waitress who comes across a moral, even philosophical dilemma. Again, as these things tend to go, it’s so nice to see the evolution of that piece into book form. Kind of like a before-and-after comparison, the old version on the left, the published version on the right.

“What’s Mine Is Yours” is a short about a couple who comes together, really learning to live with each other, to complement each other, and become a unit. It’s too bad we find out that there’s an end to it all, that all the beauty of their relationship early on does not equal happily ever after.

“IUD” is another short, this one about the paranoid—maybe?—suspicions a woman has at her gynecologist’s, that something went up and in and maybe stayed up and in. Spoiler alert: That something is alive.

Brenna Womer’s reading starts in about fifteen minutes, and I’m pretty excited to be hosting this golden child, one of my all-time favorite students and a treasured colleague. honeypot is her second book, full of all kinds of writing, all of it powerful, all of it able to focus an acute lens at what makes people happy, what makes them sad, what makes them human, some killer prose thrown in to boot. I’m so proud to feature Brenna here, to know her as a writer and as a person. Congrats!

September 22, 2020: “Guided Tours in Living Color” by Donna Miscolta

Hey, there, Story366!

Tomorrow, Moon City Press is hosting its next virtual reading, this time featuring Missouri State alum and my former student, Brenna Womer. Here’s the link to the event:

I’m excited, as I’ll be hosting. Brenna’s become a valuable colleague and friend to me since graduating, making me and everyone proud.

To note, to host one of these things, you need the prime-supreme-deluxe version of Zoom. I’m embarrassed to say, it took me a while to figure this out. We finally got in touch with the university people who handle all the Zoominations. In the end, we’ve had to purchase this extra-special level of Zoomness, as it did not come with the massive package the school had purchased before. To make sure everything goes down tomorrow, we’re again borrowing mega-Zoom capability from our colleague, Jen Murvin, who hosts these things through her awesome indie bookstore, Pagination Bookshop. I hope you can make it, as Brenna’s a great reader, andshe’ll answer some questions after the reading to boot.

Today I’m covering another writer I’ve covered here before, what I call a two-timer here at Story366. Today’s two-timer is Donna Miscolta, who I covered back on March 10, reading from her first collection, Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories. I have an entire two-timer week planned for next week, but since Miscolta’s new collection, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, comes out today from Jaded Ibis Press, I’m jumping ahead a bit. I love that first book so much and was looking forward to this one. Spoiler alert: I wasn’t wrong for anticipating more great stories.

To set up what Living Color is, I’ll note that these are interrelated pieces, all featuring the same protagonist, Angie Rubio. Angie is a Mexican-American girl living in not-urban California. The first story, “Welcome to Kindergarten,” picks up with Angie on her first day of school, at five years old, in the early 1960s. I skipped ahead to read other stories, finding Angie again as a sixth grader, then as a junior in high school. So, this is sort of a novel-in-stories—or maybe it’s not—but certainly follows the life of this young hero, Miscolta making Angie grow up before our eyes.

That first one, “Welcome to Kindergarten,” pits Angie against the horrors of school when she’d never been anywhere before. Angie generally doesn’t like school, as she isn’t making fast friends, doesn’t get along with her teacher, and basically wants to do her own thing at home. Angie realizes the horrors of the group mentality when she brings her prized doll to show and tell—still wrapped in plastic and in its box—and her classmates descend upon it, rendering it not-mint. This is just one of the traumatic events that Angie faces while out and about in the world for the first time.

Sixth-grade Angie faces full-blown Beatlemania in “Help.” By this point in the book, it’s clear Angie hasn’t adjusted well to school, still not making many friends. The other sixth-grade girls sing Beatle lyrics and learn to dance, anticipating an invite from one of the boys to the spring dance (which is how they get to go to the dance—remember that?). Angie likes the Beatles, but not as much as her rival, Jori-Page. Jori-Page’s name is actually Debbie, but she’s taken the first two letters of all the fabs’ names to make a new name, which has caught on, even with teachers and parents. In this story, we start to get the idea that our hero is an outcast, as Angie isn’t included in the other girls’ fun. When she claims to be a Beatles’ fan, too, they’re skeptical at best. The rest of the story shows Angie preparing for a dance she may or may not ever be invited to (I won’t tell here), but there’s also this great bit: There’s a fourth-grader from the UK that all the girls chase around , hoping he’ll ask them to the dance, just for his Britishness, the closest to their idols they’ll ever get.

The semi-title story, “Guided Tours in Living Color,” two stories from the end of the book, sees Angie in high school. Most of the story takes place on a school trip to LA, where these rural kids are dragged to galleries and museums, culturing them up despite protests.

Angie is looking forward to the trip, as it’s the kind where everyone goes on a bus, eats at restaurants every meal, and stays in a hotel. Angie is again looking to be just one of the girls, and is thrilled to be staying in a room with two of her more popular classmates (and one of their moms). This dream is shattered right way when another chaperon, her teacher’s sister, says she has room in her room, and before Angie knows it, the popular girls’ door has shut in her face and she’s in with one of the adults. So much for shenanigans, let alone hanging with the cool kids.

Angie’s mom has equipped her with some new outfits for her trip, including a navy blue pantsuit with red pinstripes, which makes Angie think she’ll be the belle of the ball. As it turns out, kids are going pretty casual, shorts and T-shirts, so Angie’s fantasy of fashion supremacy is quickly diminished, and Miscolta plays it for laughs (think Parisian night suit).

Angie’s trip is a series of museums, galleries, and other sightseeing trips that get old for the kids real fast. Most of her time is spent with her roommate, chaperone Bernadette, who’s nice … but is one of the chaperones. Angie also works on a project for her English class, writing her own autobiography, which reveals a whole lot of Angie’s interior. Angie is a pretty fantastic writer, chronicling her existence so poetically, yet tragically. A young girl who doesn’t fit in and can’t make friends who can write well ends up making her tragedy beautiful, but a tragedy nonetheless. The bright spot? Angie owns it.

Angie Rucio is a tragic comic hero, and I loved reading about her today, seeing her grow up, learning what it’s like inside her complicated and wonderful head. It’s easy to see why Donna Miscolta liked this character enough to write a whole book about her, Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories a worthy follow-up to her impressive debut. Happy book birthday, Donna! Congratulations!

September 21, 2020: “The Fourth Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival” by Kate Zambreno

Monday again, Story366!

It is Monday and I’m back at it, fully engaged in teaching and learning and reading and writing. On Saturday, I was away on a Scout campout, as I’ve detailed, so I wrote two posts on Friday and set one to go live Saturday morning. Saturday, then, was the first day this year that I didn’t read from a book or write a blog post. While the Scouts finished up with their climbs, I found a large rock in the middle of a meadow, in the sun, and stretched out, snoozing for a few minutes. As I drifted off and listening to some sick goat bleats—this ranch had free-range goats, mules, and horses—I thought about that, books. When I sit down to read these books every day, it usually bookends or is bookended by a nap/some naps. There I was, napping in the sun, nature all around me, the most serene environment, and I couldn’t help but think, “Shouldn’t I be reading a book right now?” What this means is, I’ve conditioned myself to associate naps with reading, and vice versa. It’s a Pavlov’s dog, only quieter than a bell (though I do snore) and with a different type of reward. However you add it up, sounds like a pretty good life, these daily naps and books. I highly recommend it.

Today I read from Kate Zambreno‘s 2019 collection, Screen Tests, out from Harper Perennial. I’ve seen Zambreno’s work before and have always liked it, so it was nice to have a complete book of her stories here, to read and enjoy them one after another. Let’s talk about it.

Before I get into any specific piece, I should at least try to describe, or define, what Zambrano does and calls short stories. Her protagonists throughout Screen Tests often seem like her, as they include details from her life that appear to be true: She’s a writer; she lives in New York and teaches at colleges there; she’s from Mt. Prospect, Illinois; and she has a husband and a certain amount of kids. So, in a lot of ways, these feel like nonfiction pieces, as opposed to fiction. However, since I wanted to cover this book—which, to note, uses the term “short stories” in the colophon—I did some exploring and verified that Zambrano does indeed use her own life details, but also fudges those details when she needs to, like, to make the story better. So, she’s like every creative nonfiction writer, only Zambrano is at least copping to it and calling it fiction.

In addition to all this, Zambreno’s stories mostly feature her—the real and fudged Kate Zambrano—approaching a subject and then riffing on that subject for two or four or whatever pages. I read two dozen of these pieces today and don’t think I ever came across a true antagonist, plot, rising action, or much in the way of resolution. Instead, this Zambrenoesque character comes across a topic, starts to think on it, and then Zambreno the actual writer just sends her character down the rabbithole, one thought leading to another, one train leaving the station and then traveling until it reaches its destination.

The first story, “Susan Sontag,” is a good example of this. It starts off with the narrator wondering what people think about when they’re alone. By the third sentence, she’s using a magazine article about Sontag that she read as a springboard, how she read that Sontag notoriously hated crowds. We get a little investigation into the narrator’s own preference of solitude, but she always goes back to Sontago—Sontag’s books, Sontag’s relationships, Sontag’s books on people shelves when she goes to parties and would rather look at them than talk to live people. She also wonders what would happen if she ran into Sontag at a party, the introvert world perhaps closing in on itself.

The second story, “The Fourth Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival,” is what I’m focusing on today, and is probably the best example of what I’m talking about. Here, the narrator persona, is a writer, and is asked to be a panelist at The Fourth Annual Jean Seberg International Film Festival in Marshalltown, Iowa, Seberg’s home town.

She’s written a couple of articles on Seberg’s career, years prior, but this grass-roots panel has contacted her, anyway, offering her a meager sum and no travel expenses; she’d lose money on the trip. She’s thinking of going, anyway, though she refers back to that trait in “Susan Sontag,” claiming to never go anywhere she’ll run into people. Still, she starts to read up on Seberg again, this time with better research tools. We’re treated a lot of facts about Seberg, and the plot of the story basically has the narrator looking up Seberg on Google and Wikipedia. She’s fascinated by what she finds out; admittedly, I didn’t really know who Seberg was and this info was a helpful reminder of her success in French cinema—e.g., she’s from Iowa, but was picked out of eighteen thousand hopefuls by Otto Preminger to play Joan of Arc. She had a solid career after that, though she committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 41.

See, now I’m doing it, just trailing off with facts about Jean Seberg! This character—who does seem to be the same character in every story—is curious; that and she likes to talk about what she’s discovered. In the form of these stories, that’s called narration and exposition. For some reason, it works—I really enjoyed seeing this person delve further and further into a subject, basically because she feels like knowing more and then feel like sharing what she’s discovered. Isn’t that what we all do now, in the Internet age? At least those of us who like factoids, who like the sound of our own voices relaying those facts to others, new authorities on a particular bit of trivia.

Zambreno has a soft spot for American icons and European stars of yesteryear, as we get stories on Amal Clooney, Samuel Beckett, John Wayne, Gertrude Stein, Andrew Dworkin, a bunch of French film directors, and even more on Susan Sontag.

There’s also stories where the narrator investigates herself, like “Double.” This one has her thinking about how her Wikipedia entry lists her as 41 (at the time the story was written) on the “People Who Are 41” page, but she’s actually 40, as her birthday is December 30 and she hasn’t turned 41 yet. It’s weird to her that she’s lumped in with a friend who has been 41 for months and months, but not with another friend, born the next year, just a couple of weeks later. So, she has other interests besides her celebrity investigations—pretty much anything can send her down the path.

All in all, Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is unlike any book I’ve ever read before. It’s an investigation into information, a fascination with odd facts, and a testament to what can be considered fiction, how diverse this field can truly be. Best of all, all of these pontifications and declarations come to us in tight, poetic prose, mimicking, perhaps, the stream of consciousness of the speaker, a lovely rhythm that made me read on and on, sentence to sentence, story to story. I really love this book, this reading experience, and commend Zambreno for doing something so original, and so effectively.

September 20, 2020: “The Teeth of the Comb” by Osama Alomar, Translated by C.J. Collins with the Author

Happy Sunday, Story366!

Today I got back from my Scout campout and am chilling out, watching the Cubs, and just getting ready for the week. After the campout, we actually took a day trip to Joplin to hike in a specific nature center we like, then explore an eatery downtown. As it turns out, just about everything in downtown Joplin is closed on Sundays, so we ended up getting burgers and dogs at a food truck. It was pretty good, all we really expected from a food truck, from burgers and dogs.

Anyway, back to the Scout trip. This campout was the climbing campout, and as I detailed in my prewritten post from yesterday, I didn’t climb. I hadn’t thought it was a good idea, and when I saw people actually doing it up close, my mind was not changed. I’d never seen people rock climb before, except in movies, and you don’t realize how high these people go until you’re standing below them. You probably know more about rock climbing than I do, but if you don’t, they take these ropes, string them through rings that are bolted into the rock, and then attach them to the climber. Then the climber goes for it, putting their fingers and toes into wedges, making their way up the natural ladder to the top. The “beginner” climb was a full fifty feet in the air, and I watched Scouts aged 10 through 16 scale that climb like spider monkeys. It’s pretty amazing to watch, on top of terrifying.

But that’s just the way up; the real trick is getting down. This is when the climber has to put full faith into this rope, attached to this harness. While it’s posible to climb down the way you came up, step by step, you’re supposed to repel down. This means you put all your weight—and your life—into this rope and the harness that’s wrapped around your hips and thighs. You can then bounce down, gliding along the rope, hitting your feet on the rock, or you can walk down, backwards, your body perpendicular with the wall, a sideways Lionel Richie.

Of course, nobody fell from our group, or any group—this would be a very different post if they had. Climbers, in general, believe in their gear. The instructor who put up the rings and ropes and taught our guys to climb probably said, “I trust this gear with my life” twenty times over the course of the day, and the Scouts (and other parents) who climbed had no problem doing the same. A few Scouts couldn’t make that commitment, though—they got up to the top, but when it was time to lean back and just let the gear take them down, they froze. They waited until the instructor guy got up there and walked them down, step by step. I felt for these boys, up there, fifty feet above a solid rock floor, asked to do something that we are not supposed to do: let go from way up high. No shame in that, guys. You went up there, and now you’re down. Mission accomplished.

Yesterday, I listed reasons why I wasn’t going to climb. Now that I’ve seen it, I can add another: I don’t think I would have been able to get down. I saw a hundred people climb all kinds of rocks yesterday, up to over a hundred feet. Their gear was never in question. They looked like they were having a good time. But if I was up ten stories, and they told me to trust a skinny little rope to carry big-ol’ me to safety, I’d freeze, too. In fact, I’d still be up there.

Upon my return, I read from Syrian author Osama Alomar‘s 2017 collection of shorts and microfictions, The Teeth of the Comb and Other Stories, out from New Directions Publishing and translated from the Arabic by C.J. Collins with the author. I’d not read any of Alomar’s work before today, and it was a real treat getting to know this author.

The Teeth of the Comb is a book of flash fiction and includes well over a hundred stories. In fact, the book is put together unlike any other book I’ve reviewed here, let alone read before. There is no table of contents, and whoever designed this book didn’t hit “Insert: Page Break” at the end of each story—when one story is over, a line is skipped, then we get the next title of the story in bold, then another line skip, then story. Repeat over a hundred times. The stories just run into each other, and for some patches of micros, which are often only a sentence long, you might find four or five pieces on a single page. To organize everything, there’s an index of titles at the end, just in case you’re looking for something. So, not the standard colophon, for sure, but that’s okay—I liked reading these one after another, wolfing them down with no white space to fill me up.

I picked the title story to focus on here, as I like it, but also so I’ll get more hits when someone’s looking up Alomar and his book online (which is usually why I try to pick the title story, fyi …). “The Teeth of the Comb” is the penultimate story in the collection (tracked down by that handy index), and is a good story. Not to give too much away—this one’s only four sentences long—but Alomar here personifies some teeth on a comb, and, well, that carries the first half of the story. What happens when the human owner of said comb picks up said comb and attempts to use it, post-personification? That you’ll have to find out for yourself.

“The Teeth of the Comb” does something that Alomar does often in this book, and that’s give life and personality and consciousness to something that normally wouldn’t have it. “Quicksand” and “The Feather and the Wind” and “Tears Without a Flame” all do this, too, giving perspective and sentience to quicksand, a feather, and a candle, respectively, all in one-sentences stories. That sets a whimsical tone for the book—for those stories, anyway—and gets me thinking to how I sometimes think, like when I wonder if the other steak knives from our wood block are jealous because I keep using the one all the way to the right first. It’s that kind of thinking that makes me feel akin to Alomar, to those particular stories he presents here.

Alomar has other tricks, though, that keep all these stories running. Some stories are turns of phrases, like “Swamp,” which uses swamp imagery and such to form a pun.

The first story, “Journey of Life,” feels like a bible parable, as it follow a character as they walk through life, looking for answers for their various questions; Alomar can get philosophical, not too mention spiritual, with the best of them.

“Arrest” is a magical story that reads like a fable (as a lot of magically real stories do), this one about a king who’s tired of the thunder and lightning, so he has it studied, then arrested. This means no more rain for his people’s crops or livestock, meaning everything dies, people turning to cannibalism at their eleventh hour. Still, the king is pretty stoked he took care of that lightning proplem.

As you might guess, The Teeth of the Comb is a creative, witty book, a lot of fun to read, maybe the most fun I’ve had covering a book in quite some time. Osama Alomar gives insight to the insightless, sets you to thinking on the unthinkable, and … combs the uncombable? In any case, this book is a real pleasure, be it short story, fiction, witty barbs, or just cleverly put-together words.