“In the Village of Elmsta” by Jensen Beach

Say hey, Story366! It’s been almost two weeks since I last posted. That last offering, on Melissa Goodrich’s fine debut collection, was straight from the Moon City Press table at the AWP Book Fair, in the heat of moment, interested attendees stepping up to our display from the right and from the left. This was at the very beginning of the while shebang, too, on Thursday morning, right after setting up and settling in. Really, AWP hadn’t happened yet, and today, I’m finally getting around to my report.

Like every AWP for the last six or seven years, my personal time was split between two factions of AWP, that Book Fair and then the off-sight events held around the host city (DC this time) in the evening. From 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., I was anchored to the table—save breaks for lunches each day, when the table was covered by the lone student-editor from Springfield to attend the conference. Otherwise, it was all me, all the time, and really, that’s what I prefer. I’m very proud of the books that MCP puts out, and at this point, four years into that foray, we’ve garnered quite the catalogue. It’s thrilling for me to sit there, all of these beautiful titles on display, all of them together, tilted on bookstands, and see people come up and genuinely react as if impressed. Dozens of times, conference goers told me how incredible our books look, and for me, that’s enough to make me want to stay in the Book Fair the entire time (of course, I have almost nothing to do with how the books look on the outsise, as that’s handled by MCP’s designer, Charli Barnes).

On top of that, me sitting at a table in the Book Fair is the best way for me to run into people I know, people who are looking for me, people I only see once a year, at the Book Fair, while I’m sitting at a table. There’s a lot of those types, former students and colleagues—it’s always a bit of a Bowling Green MFA reunion at these things—writers I’ve published, and even the occasional person who has read my books and -gasp!- wants me to sign a copy. You know how they tell you when you’re a kid that if you’re lost, stay in one place, then the people looking for you will eventually run into you? That’s me at AWP: If I’m in one place, everyone can find me.

After 5 p.m., Karen—who attended for the first time in five years, making my whole conference—and I hit the town and attended off-sight events. On Friday, we scooted across town to Karen’s reading for Sundress, where we saw about a dozen fantastic poets read, Karen being the last. Then we split up and I saw this awesome reading that featured five new authors who had just published story collections, including Michelle Ross (whose There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You just came out from MCP), Matt Fogarty (whose book I blurbed), Sequoia Nagamatsu (ditto), and Allegra Hyde and Dana Diehl, both of whom I featured on Story366 last year. What a great evening, seeing the sweet Karen read from her new book, take in another batch of great poets, and then see these five young writers read together. Thursday night was the best night of the conference.

On Friday, Karen and I high-tailed to Catholic University and saw perhaps the most impressive lineup of poets I’ve ever seen performing together. The whole thing was a celebration  of female poets over the age of sixty and included luminaries like Michelle Boisseau, Marianne Boruch, Terese Svoboda, Rosellen Brown, Robin Becker, and several others. Not sure if I’ll see a line up like that again, and to boot, all of the poets read a poem by another poet they admired, women like Louise Glück, Ruth Stone, and Mary Oliver. It was a long event, but they had prosciutto and wine, so I wasn’t exactly in a hurry.

Karen and I had a plane leaving Saturday night, so the last day of the Book Fair was all about me trying to get rid of stock. We gave out nine boxes of the new Moon City Review during the conference—as a still-newish mag, I think it’s more imperative to get the word out than it is to sell a handful of copies at full price—and by 2 o’clock, we were out of everything, meaning all I had to cram into my carry-ons was the MCP table skirt and a dozen bookstands.

Sadly, that doesn’t include what I bought/picked up at the Book Fair, which, this year, was only two books. One was The Real Natasha by Michael Leone from the fine people at Braddock Avenue Books, which I’ll write about here soon, and a copy of The Santa Fe Literary Review, which one of their editors dropped off at our table. Two books?! From that HUGE-ASS Book Fair?!  That’s my only regret of AWP 2017, that I never really made my rounds, talked to editors, got the skinny on new lit journals, or picked up more collections for this project. Next year, I’ll have to make that my priority, because really, what a waste of a fantastic event, of a fantastic resource.

I almost just wrote a paragraph about our travels from the conference back home, how it was kind of a pain and long and complicated, but then I realized that a) I’m almost a thousand words into this and haven’t talked about Jensen Beach yet, and b) a rundown of our travel stories—planes, trains, and automobiles—might be the most boring thing ever.

That said, 961 words in, I’ve been reading from Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold, out from Graywolf, for a couple of weeks now, which I guess is the rate at which I read books post-2016. In any case, I’ve known Jensen and his work for a bit, and should disclose that he works for Green Mountains Review, which took a story of mine a few years back. But in any case, I was happy to see this collection announced for last year, and am happy to finally get to it. As noted, I’ve read several stories from the collection—which is made up on interlinked tales, set in Sweden over a two-year period—but I really love a lot of things about the opening story, “In the Village of Elmsta,” so here we go.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is a story with a unique structure and approach to POV, which for me more and more seems to be determining factor when picking a story; I teach, so craft is important, and anyone who breaks from the Freitag model is going to grab my attention. In any case, this story starts off with a really engaging and funny anecdote about this guy named Rolf Strand, who lives in Elmsta—not far from Stockholm—who has just played the best tennis of his life. Rolf is in his seventies, so that means something, especially since he’s just defeated a retiredSwedish tennis hero (who twice made it to the semis of the French Open). This seems impressive, but Beach lets leak, rather casually, that this tennis pro is not only old and retired, but that his arm—his playing arm—is now a  prosthetic. In close psychic distance, this is a brief but key detail in accessing Rolf’s psyche, and it’s pretty funny to hear someone brag about an athletic feat, only to find out soon after it was against a one-armed opponent.

As the story moves forward, Rolf heads home on his bicycle and is planning on calling his son when he gets there, planning on inviting him for dinner. He is a beaming father, proud papa, and along with his late-life tennis accomplishments, Rolf becomes a really likable guy. Which is too bad, because Rolf, a few pages later, dies, only about a third of the way into the story. Beach has Rolf ride home on his bike, alongside a canal, where he sees a sailboat moving alongside him. Rolf sees the bridge ahead of them, knows that if he doesn’t beat the boat to the bridge, he’ll have to wait for it to be raised and then put back down, so he high-tails it. When he’s just about to the bridge, he has an accident, one that sends him over his handlebars and into the canal, where he bumps his head on a rock. Profuse bleeding commences. Rolf settles on the shore, blood pouring out of his head, and he even tries to signal the people on the sailboat that he’d just raced to the bridge, people who wave back as if he’s just saying hi. Rolf dies, sitting on that shore.

After a space break, Beach backtracks a bit to that sailboat, to the guy whose captaining it, right before the aforedescribed events. Our pilot is Henrik Brandt and he’s taking a leisurely trip with his wife, Lisa, a colleague named Peter, and Peter’s wife, Helle. We get into Henrik’s head, him recapping things for us, letting us know that Peter and Helle are staying with Henrik and Lisa for the week. Just as he’s about to cross the bridge, he sees Helle waving at someone on the shore, a man sitting next to a bicycle—of course, readers know it’s Rolf and he’s not waving—but inside Henrik’s head, it’s just a happy-go-lucky guy, sitting with his feet in the canal, out for a bike ride. The bridge goes up and down and the quartet anchor their boat and resume their vacation at Henrik’s house.

Remember, Henrik’s POV takes up the last two-thirds of the story, and as much as I’ve already revealed—I toyed with not telling you about Rolf’s demise at all—I won’t go much further. I will say that this is really Henrik’s story and Beach captures him at a key point in his life. He’s just taken a new job, he and Lisa are at odds, and oh, during this weeklong visit, he’s initiated a passionate affair with Helle. When everyone finds out about Rolf’s death, deducing that he was the one sitting on the shore and he was not waving, all of Henrik’s thoughts and troubles explode from the background and cause quite an ado.

Reading a story where the POV focus dies a third of the way through, only to pick up with another POV—a person who saw him die—isn’t groundbreaking (think “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”), but it’s still rare enough to take note of, to remember, to write about. That’s not to underscore anything else that Beach does in this story, as his characterization of both men is pretty in-depth and he has a knack for description, putting me right there on that shore. Most of all, he’s smart enough to catch a couple of people at crucial junctures in their lives, understanding how that makes the best kind of fiction. I literally just told my students that on Friday, how important this is, and then I read Beach’s story, the perfect example.

“In the Village of Elmsta” is just the first story, too. Some of these characters return in later entries, sometimes as the protagonists, sometimes as supporting characters. What’s the overall end of these stories, two days in Sweden that we see through a variety of its people? I can’t say for sure yet, as I haven’t gotten that far. What I have read, though, showcases a writer utilizing his incredible skill set. I’m so pleased I picked this book up and spent some time with it. My rec is you do the same.

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“Daughters of Monsters” by Melissa Goodrich

Hello, Story366! I suppose this is officially AWP week, ‘cause AWP is this week, and I’m headed that way myself. Last year, the big Story366 year, I wisely chose to do a short-short week this week, meaning I didn’t have to spend nearly as much time concentrating on any particular piece, which is hard to do at a book fair table. It was a hectic but rewarding week—I sure do like shorts—and I made my deadlines every day. As I’m no longer facing the daily challenge of the blog, I’m certainly not going to be crouched in some lobby, frantically stabbing at keys so I can make it to readings and dinner dates. I do want to do at least one entry during the conference—after today—just to check in. I mean, this is still a writer’s blog, right? And AWP is still the major writers’ conference, right? Seems like I should say a few thing while I’m there, read a book while I’m at it.

Right now, though, I still have to get there, and as I type this, I’m on a plane, en route to DC. Karen and I are in the third-to-last row, our luggage is stowed several rows ahead of us, and the guy in front of me has put the seat back all the way and is tossing and turning as he tries to sleep. I have the window seat and my ears have shut. I’m trying hard to forget I’m high-end claustrophobic, that I sorta want to get up, do some, some jumping jacks, then walk out the side door of the plane to more open spaces. So far, meh, but if either of my legs falls asleep, Karen and the nice lady on the aisle might have to get up and out of my way and quick.

For today’s entry, I read a bunch of stories from Melissa Goodrich’s collection Daughters of Monsters, out from Jellyfish Highway Press. Another JHP author, Dana Diehl, recommended this book to me, as the two of them are friends and often collaborate together. I liked Diehl’s book a lot and have enjoyed Goodrich’s collection just as much, even though each writer has a completely different style. Diehl’s stories, if I recall, seemed like realism, while Goodrich could easily be pegged as a fabulist, if I were into pegging writing in  that way (note: Goodrich has some nonfiction writing, I’ve noticed, specifically on fabulism). Still, there’s some magical realism, some absurdism, and some retold fairy tales among her stories, so, yeah, that’s what she does.

By the way, cut ahead a bit, like twelve hours. The plane started its descent right as I typed that last paragraph and I had to put my computer away. Since, we deboarded, got to the train station, got to the convention center, registered, found our room, got a shit-ton of boxes onto the Moon City Press table (125-T!) at the book fair, showered, ate some Tapas, went to a reading for Newfound, Waxwing, and As/US, went to my reading where I read for Ninth Letter at the Monster Mags of the Midwest reading (which I used to organized, years back), walked back to our hotel, running into 478 people we knew. So, that’s the last twelve hours. And the conference hasn’t officially started yet.

Back to Goodrich. I certainly read some fabulist-type stories, including the title story, “Daughters of Monsters,” which I’ll focus on today. “Daughters of Monsters” is about a fourteen-year-old girl who is the daughter of a monster—a platypus-seeming thing that lays eggs and has fur and such—who is also the daughter of a monster. Goodrich has poet-level skills in both decription and lyricism, and in “Daughters of Monsters,” she unloads image after image of what these so-called monsters look like, from their beaks to their feathers to the slimy aftertrails. So, this term “monster” comes off as quite literal, as it seems like some half-human, half-animal creatures populate an otherwise contemporary landscape, with school, boyfriends, cooking and other everyday challenges.

Goodrich also includes some very contemporary themes in the lives of her daughters and monsters, mainly the kinds of things that pester and haunt most fourteen-year-old girls, things like sex, pregnancy, and personal appearance anxiety. The protagonist here, whose name we never get, is worried about her wings coming in like a normal human girl might consider her breasts, full monsterdom arriving with puberty. How terrifying it is—for girls and boys—to go through these changes, and I think that’s what Goodrich is getting at. They’re confused, basically, and horrified. At the end of the first paragraph of the story, Goodrich conflates her hero’s worries with the line “You don’t have to eat the chicken bones while your mother eats the meat,  you’re fourteen years old still, what is sex,” everything jumbled together in one mind-meandering sentence.

The comparisons to adolescence don’t stop at the physical, however, as Goodrich’s monster-daughter faces social fears as well, such as her boyfriend pressuring her for sex, her boyfriend being more attracted to her fully developed mother than to her, and a baby sister usurping all the attention; all three of these scenarios make for weird and wonderful scenes in the story, reminding me of David Lynch’s anxious father in Eraserhead. So, Goodrich makes her hero like any other fourteen-year-old, in body and in mind, only this young woman has wings and fangs and such.

Overall, the metaphoric value of this character perceiving herself as a monster doesn’t take away from what’s really on the page and that’s a really intense, lyrical story about a family of monsters interacting with each other in strange ways. I was riveted to every part of this, surprised over and over again, and read the story three times, finding something new each pass.

Most of the stories I read in Daughters of Monsters had the same effect on me as the title piece, daring, innovative pieces of fiction that introduced me to a strong and distinct new voice. I really liked everything I read in this collection, making it an impressive debut, an impressive book in general. Check it out.

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“Those Like Us” by Christopher Lowe

Good to be back, Story366! Wow, did I go the whole month of January and only do one post? Wow, I knew I’d take a break, ease off, let my mind do its thing for a while, but I didn’t think I’d cut back that much. Well, my mind is rested and I’ve been missing the blog, missing the books, missing the new stories, so here I am, almost 1 a.m. the morning after Groundhog Day, back at it. Long live the story!

What’s funny is, despite only putting up one post all month, January 2017 was not the month with the least hits for the blog—that honor, for some reason, goes to April and June of last year, when I did thirty posts each time. As a baseball fan, I’m all into stats, which is one of the reasons I love doing this on WordPress, just because they give you tons. Before I started writing this tonight, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that people still go to the blog, every day, and read various entries. In fact, it totally makes my day, night, week, and young month of February. Every day it’s a different author that seems to be getting attention, too, which is awesome. I knew I’d finish the original 366 one day, but always hoped this would carry on as a living archive. so far, so good.

It’s also strange that I’m doing a post tonight because I’m, for the first time in four days, not deathly ill. I had a bout with the brutal kind of nasty this week, a mix of flu and either bronchitis or pneumonia (I’ve had both before and think this has felt like pneumonia so I’ve been telling people pneumonia because that’s more badass than bronchitis, which is what little kids get when they don’t button their snow boots tight). It came on Monday, almost killed me Tuesday, added a bad head cold Wednesday, and more or less left town on Thursday. Still taking antibiotics—which I’m thinking of marrying right now—and the fact that I’ve been able to read, write, and type is a good sign. Still, here’s a shot of me at the university health center that Karen took (she drove me and waited for me even though it’s a block from our house and I can see it right now from our back window as I write this):

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That’s me in the foreground. That guy in the background? Now he’s famous. Or maybe infected. Either one.

Not sure how much I’ll be writing in the coming week or so, either, seeing as how AWP is next week in DC and Moon City Press just had two titles come back from the printer today, Michelle Ross‘ There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You and Moon City Review 2017. Take a peek:

I’m pretty stoked to be adding these titles to the catalogue, along with all our other great books. I also can’t wait to see them all stacked up together on the MCP table at AWP. I’m such a collector, adding another Moon City Short Fiction Award winner and another issue of the mag to their respective series is like a dream, especially two coming on the same day. Bliss!

Wait! Aren’t I supposed to write about a story or something today? Right! For tonight’s entry, I read from Christopher Lowe‘s collection Those Like Us, out from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. I’ve known Chris and his work for a while now, always enjoying what he does, but never sat down and read any in succession. I read a quad of tales tonight, finding out that his stories read really well like that, together, most likely because Those Like Us is a book of linked stories—one of Lowe’s blurbists even calls it a novel—a collection set in the fictional Wyeth, Mississippi. I’m writing about the title story tonight, but saw a couple of supporting characters from it show up as supporting characters in other stories as well (and, I’m assuming, in more stories, perhaps even as the leads). What I read, jumping all over the book, all feels so homogenous, sure, but genuine, too, as Lowe has surely captured smalltown Mississippi in this outstanding effort.

“Those Like Us” is about this guy who finds himself, at the start of the story, dealing with Hurricane Jonathan, thinking about that name, Jonathan, and how inappropriate it feels for a hurricane. Of course, none of that matters, as nothing changes the fact Jonathan has hit the coast and caused a lot of damage. Wyeth is a bit inland, saving it from the brunt of things, but some powerful storms have still knocked power out, namely to the bar our hero has just inherited from his uncle. The joint is called The Porch and it has one big room, a bathroom, and a little room in back where our guy sleeps and lives. It’s located down the road a bit from the Wyeth Walmart, so the two establishments share some traffic. It’s the kind of place the local college kids go to because they know our protagonist, just a few years older than they are, won’t ID, won’t keep them in check, and won’t even close when the whole town is in the dark. All of it is a recipe for things going wrong, which is cool, because this is a short story and that’s what stories are supposed to do.

One thing does seem to be going well—”seem” being the key word—and that’s how Karen, the Porch’s pretty waitress, has had to stay the night at the bar, the roads too bad to travel after close. Karen wakes up in his bed in the back just when our guy is considering Jonathan as a hurricane moniker. There’s mention of a woman named Sally (in the narration, not out loud), and it seems as if our barkeep has cheated on the lovely Sally with the lovely Karen. That’s a ruse, however, as we soon find out that Karen slept alone in that bed—our guy sleeping on the bar, I guess?—and nothing happened, though everything about Karen’s body language says she would have loved some company, the way she touches him, how she says she’ll come back and hang out with him, even if they don’t open, just to hang out alone in his dark bar. Sounds appealing—I should note that our protagonist is really into Karen, too, so it’s not just her—but there’s still the Sally factor, which seems to complicate things.

Only, it doesn’t, not really, as Sally already left our guy and took her daughter (which our guy was helping her to raise, which he considered his own) months ago and split. Lowe informs us that the only thing delaying a hook-up with Karen in the back of the bar on a rainy, dark day is our guy’s inability to act. He just can’t do it, not even when Karen bumps hips with him on the way out and flashes him her best smile. Our guy just freezes, a trait that becomes his most dominant.

Even worse, instead of closing the bar and taking Karen up on her offer to do whatever, our guy opens his doors, lets in a bunch of college kids, college kids that end up drinking too much (it happens), and … well, that’s about all I’ll reveal in terms of plot. Other things happen, a lot of backstory comes into play, and in the end, the story ends (as they tend to do).

As much as what happens in “Those Like Us” and what Lowe’d protagonist doesn’t do, this story should be marked by the atmosphere that its author so carefully paints. Wyeth seems pretty swell, even to this Chicago Yank, a place where friendly people sip beer, watch and talk college football, eat barbecue, and fall in love with the people they grew up with. It’s rainy in this title story because of the hurricane, but other stories seem to pulse green and freshness, crickets and other critters buzzing on every page. Wyeth, like Winesburg, Ohio, or even Knockemstiff, needs to be where it is, these stories existing in this place, this place existing for these stories. Lowe’s also wickedly good at weaving his seemingly simple tales into a larger, broader vision, one that I’m guessing becomes more and more enriched with every story you read.

So, I really like “Those Like Us,” the strong title story from one of two Christopher Lowe story collections (he also has a book of essays). Lowe utilizes place as well as anyone I’ve read—and that’s no overstatement, even considering how much I’ve read—but also made me really like every character I encountered, put me in every story I visited, made me care about these people, want to visit this town. No easy order, but this really good book pulls it off.

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“Virgin” by April Ayers Lawson

Happy New Year, Story366! Wow! It’s been nineteen days since my last post—that’s sounding more twelve-step than I want it to—so it’s probably time I get back to it. 366 straight days of doing something took about two days to break, I found. That first day, New Year’s Day, I was kind of jonesing for an entry, and the next morning, I woke in a start, feeling as if something was wrong, like I hadn’t posted in Story366, that I’d forgotten and went to bed and disaster had ensued. Well, I had, sort of. I felt like writing a post on January 2, but really, I instead took advantage of my long holiday break from teaching to do a lot of work on Moon City Press projects and on my own writing. I actually got a few stories done and submitted and, well, that’s the goal, isn’t it?

Still, I’ve been collecting books left and right like I still am writing about each day, and those piles are only going to grow. So, here I am, just a day into my spring semester, writing a Story366 post.

How’s this going to work, you might be asking (or might not be), as I no longer am pressed to do an entry a day, before midnight, in fear of turning into a pumpkin, or at least a small gourd. I guess the only real difference is that I won’t be putting a date in the title of entries any more, as dates only mattered to the one-a-day-for-a-year aspect of this. For these new entries, if someone wants to know the date, they can look at the date that WordPress puts at the top of the post; otherwise, dates don’t matter. I wondered, too, how things would look in my indices, and really, I think it’ll work the same way: I’ll still index everything by author and press, skipping the month and day, and will of course not list any new entries in that last index, the one that lists 2016 in date order. Otherwise, all new entries will be catalogued with the original 366 because, well, how else would I do it and not make it more complicated than it needs to be?

In any case, onward!

Ironically, instead of doing one of those books that had been left out of the 2016 run, or one of the books an author has sent me, today I’m doing a book that I ran across at Barnes & Noble the other day, April Ayers Lawson‘s Virgin and Other Stories, out from FSG. The fam and I made a sojourn there, just to relax, get out of the house (this was the day after the predicted ice storm), and let our youngest play with the Thomas train set, as he’ll do. I always pick up a book on my way, and the story collection that grabbed me was Virgin. I had not seen Lawson’s work or even heard her name at that point, but hey, that’s (still) what Story366 is about, isn’t it, finding new authors and new books? I took Virgin to the kid’s section (that sounds dirtier than I mean it to) and read the first story, the title story, the long Virgin.

Virgin is about this couple, Jake and Sheila, in their mid-twenties and newly wed. Sheila is the titular virgin of the story, or at least was (am I giving too much away?), a virgin when they started dating, a virgin on their wedding night, and a virgin for some time after. This conflict is at the heart of the story, and it’s a good one, as, yeah, people’s sex lives are interesting, and yeah, it’s unusual for someone in contemporary times to be a virgin on their wedding night (I’m guessing), and extremely rare (I’m certain) for anyone to be a virgin for so long after their honeymoon. Yet, this is the story of the relationship between Jake and Sheila, as Sheila is not open to a sexual relationship with Jake for most of the story. When they first meet, it’s made clear that her purity is going to be a wedding-night gift to her husband (sounds like something my mom used to say to me and my siblings when she gave us her version of “the talk”); on their wedding night, she’s just trepidatious—she even slaps Jake when he tries to touch her in their marital bed, slaps him hard. This is at first written off as her being anxious and scared—heck, he’s in her mid-twenties and hasn’t had sex, so this moment has been built up for a while—but then the real reason she doesn’t want to have sex with Jake, or anyone, is revealed when the couple goes to therapy, info I’ll leave for you to find out on your own.

Eventually, the couple does become intimate, and Jake thinks this is the turning point, perhaps even a change in administration (wow, bad timing for that particular line today …), but no, it’s not like they just got at it like rabbits from then on.  But no, it’s not that easy, and from there, as they say, things start to get really complicated.

To portray this story simply with this sex-or-no-sex conflict would be a mistake, as what’s front and center for me in “Virgin” is how the story is structured, as well as how the story is told. The story is mostly from Jake’s point of view, which I think was an interesting choice, though at times, it feels like there’s more omniscience between the two characters, like it’s been told from their perspective instead of just his. What’s more intriguing, however, is the order in which all of this goes down, what part it plays in the grand scheme. We start with the couple entering a party, hosted by a woman Jake knows from work, and in the first line, Jake is caught staring at the host’s cleavage as she takes his coat. We then see he and Sheila move around the room, but before long, we’re flashing back to the couple meeting, marrying, not having sex, etc., revisiting that party from the first scene every once in a while (and, in fact, ending there). I don’t want to give too much away, but this party, which seems random, offers scenes that change the focus of the story overall—the tale of Sheila and her virginity indeed falls to backstory, just as Lawson presents it. The main conflict of the story, we find out, isn’t about this couple’s lack of physicality, or even why that’s happening, but what happens as a result. So, it’s not a story about late-stage virginity, as it would be easy to assume, but the long-term effects of what a lack of honesty and intimacy can do to two people whose relationship is supposed to be based on honesty and intimacy. Someone could read this story and this it’s kind of inside-out, maybe backward, but I think it’s a really well told tale, one put together unlike any story I can think of.

I liked reading “Virgin” and some of the other stories in Virgin, all tales of sex, infidelity, and discovery, all told with the same style and attention to structure and detail that April Ayers Lawson employs in her title piece. It’s a brand-new collection and I still haven’t heard any buzz about it or have seen a review, so this is cold, but I like it, admire how intricate these stories felt, how well conceived.

Good to be back on the horse again. I hope to get to a couple-few entries a week up from here on out, but hey, who knows—I’m not on the clock any more. And you know what? It feels good.

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December 31: “The Sun, The Moon, the Stars” by Junot Díaz

Happy New Year, Story366! Wow, I can’t believe it’s the last day of 2016! A year ago—as in a regular 365-day year ago, I started this project, cajoling Karen into figuring out WordPress for me, some time around 5 in the evening, and before midnight, I posted on Adam Johnson’s “Nirvana” from Fortune Smiles, the first of 366 straight days of posting on stories, on authors, on collections. When I started, I never really thought about today, and by that, I don’t mean I doubted myself—I just mean I never thought about the last day, pictured the finish line; I’m more of a day-at-a-time person. Right now, I can see the finish line, can make out the texture of the red band stretching across the invisible plane, the band I’ll tear through with my chest. Maybe I should become that picture-the-goal guy more often. I kind of like it.

In any case, as I type this, I’m both excited and sad as I will not be reading and writing about a collection tomorrow for the first time in over a year. It’s not that I couldn’t do one—as noted in past posts, I’m continuing on next year, only not every day—it’s just that we have a huge day with family stuff, some traveling to do, a lot of baking, and a lot of, well, I just need a day off. Plus, if I do one tomorrow, then maybe I’d do one the next day, and before long, the stupid part of my brain will start telling me that I could do it again, do another year, or heck, just do it every day for the rest of my life. This has been great and all, but really, I need to divide and conquer, work on the novel I started at the end of 2015, write some stories, maybe read a novel or two, and get my ass on the treadmill. I could keep this going, but I’m simply not going to. It’s like when Cal Ripken, Jr., just showed up at the ballpark one day and told his manager he didn’t want to play, after nearly twenty years of running out on the field every day. I’m not comparing myself to Ripken, but he said he just wanted it to end to he could do something else, be defined in another way. He could have played that day, played every game until he retired or got injured, but he didn’t. He made the choice, made it happen by his own hand, by his own rules. I’ve had a fantastic run, but really, my rule was, on January 1, to do this for one year. I need to end it before it consumes me, makes me not like it, ends because of something else, like a family emergency or other such medical situation. That would suck.

Yesterday, a friend and former student, David Keaton, posted on FB about kidnapping me today, preventing me from finishing, some kind of How to Eat Fried Worms scenario (so far, I haven’t seen him today). More ridiculous or sad or whatever, I’ve thought a lot about dying since I posted on Kathleen Collins yesterday, started thinking ironically, as in, wouldn’t be ironic if my ticker just threw in the towel, one post left to go? Karen, on our way out today, told me to fasten my seatbelt, just in case, thinking of the blog, thinking of this 366th post-to-be. I’m not out of the woods quite yet, but yeah, to let you know, mortality has been the theme of this New Year’s Eve, me thinking I might die—and yes, I’m thinking that I might die tonight or tomorrow, after I post, this project the only thing keeping me alive. So, if that happens, that would suck, too, though I’d bet Story366 would get some mongo-record hits for a few days.

I wanted to do someone special for the last day of the year, starting things off with Johnson, one of my favorite writers, using his reigning NBA winner to launch the project. I considered many writers for the back half of the bookend and settled on Junot Díaz a long time ago. Like so many other books this year, I’m embarrassed that I’ve not finished This Is How You Lose Her (out from Riverhead) before, but hey, as I’ve said so many times, that’s why I did Story366, to assuage my guilt, to bring closure to so many of those bookmarks sticking out from the middle of so many books. Since Díaz is one of the preeminent authors of our time and one of my favorites—I’ve taught both Drown and Oscar Wao in multiple classes—I reserved the honor for him.

I’d read a lot of the stories from This Is How You Lose Her before, either in The New Yorker or anthologies like Best American Short Stories, having used “Nilda” many times in classes (replacing the long-standing “Fiesta, 1980” as my Díaz du jour), but there were a few that I’d never read. I’ve now finished this book—nice closure for a day of closures—but will write about the lead story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” one I’m pretty sure I’d seen Díaz read from before (on YouTube or something), but never read, never got to the end of.

In any case, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is about, like so much of Díaz’s work, Yunior, a guy who emigrated from Santo Domingo to New Jersey when he was a kid. Most everything I can think of by Díaz involves Yunior and his family, I think, including Oscar Wao, where Yunior is at first a minor character, arriving later in the book, but then turns out to be a larger player, and eventually, is revealed to be the book’s narrator. In any case, I read another Yunior story today, “Invierno,” about the first couple of months he and his family were in Jersey, stuck inside because of the cold, while “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” is about older Yunior, somewhere around the time Oscar Wao takes place (though I have to admit, I couldn’t draw you a timeline). At the outset of this story, Yunior has just gotten back together with Magda, a girl he met in college, the girl who just may be the one. Only Yunior made a mistake, though, as in major fuck-up, having a brief affair with a woman from work, a mistake magnified and confounded by the fact the mistake woman wrote Magda letters outlining every infidelity, in detail. But again, the story starts with Magda and Yunior getting back together—all of this stuff with the other woman and the letters comes out in backstory passages—a reunion that makes Yunior pretty happy.

Really, though, once you sleep with someone from work and then they write letters to your steady about it, is it even possible to come back? Yunior wants that, but of course, Magda’s not in 100 percent. Can she trust Yunior? Is it too late? Everything becomes more complicated when they realize they booked a trip together to Santo Domingo before all of this went down, have the plane tickets and hotels paid for, meaning they either have to go together or will have blown a lot of loot. Yunior sees the trip as a way to start over, while Magda looks at it as big-time pressure to be normal, to be like they used to be, and most pertinently, be together 24-7.

In the Dominican Republic, this scenario set in motion, Yunior finds it even more difficult to obtain Magda’s forgiveness—let alone sex—than when they were back in Jersey. The trip starts with a couple of days at Yunior’s grandmother’s house—not sure what he was thinking there—but then moves on to the most illustrious resort on the island, which brings up all kinds of socioeconomic issues that serve as a backdrop to the story. Magda, in the sun and elegance of this Dominican resort, looks better to Yunior than she ever has, and maybe that’s because he can’t have her or even be close to her, or maybe it’s because she really is better off now that she’s distanced herself from him. In either case, the trip to Santo Domingo does not go as Yunior had hoped, and even though he knows he only has himself to blame, it’s hard for him, at this stage of their relationship, to recognize that.

I won’t go any further into the plot, having revealed enough already, but Yunior runs into other people on the trip, people who play roles, both major and minor. As with all of Díaz’s Yunior stories, there’s also the predominant theme of Dominican masculinity and machismo, questions that come up in all of his work, whether Dominican men are scoundrels because they’re Dominican, and if it’s something they can avoid, or at least outgrow. This is the primary question that Yunior faces, both in the past and present, making the stakes in this story beyond what happens between him and Magda: There’s an existential identity crisis at work here, one Yunior is still working through, at last we checked.

Junot Díaz is one of the great talents the writing world has to offer, and as far as I can tell, he can do no wrong. I feel gratified that I finished This Is How You Lose Her today, the same day I’m finishing this yearlong adventure, fitting for both chapters to close at the same time. I’ve read a lot of great books this year, and this final one can be placed right at the top. I know I’ll read many, many more great books in the future, too. Not sure when I’ll write a post next, or even what New Year’s Eve holds in store, but hey, Story366, stay safe out there, have a great 2017, and I’ll see you on the flipside.

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December 30: “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” by Kathleen Collins

Feeling penultimate, Story366? I sure am. I’d like to intro with the sub-mission of Story366: literary citizenship. The main mission has been, is, and always will be me reading for me. I started this blog to become a better reader, professor, critic, and friend, improving myself, I’ve hoped, with every entry, with every story I read, every point I make. I wanted to get to the books that I’d been collecting for twenty years. As the person in front of the classroom, I wanted to be the person who read a collection first, heard of an author first, had insight—professing. I wanted to be able to discern trends, styles, and themes in short stories and collections, understand what people did, what they do, what the difference is. I wanted to improve my writing by being a more well informed reader. I wanted to be a part of the literary community in a way I’d never been, in a way perhaps nobody else had been, either.

Coming in close second to my own needs is literary citizenship, me giving something to authors for what they’ve given me. Some of the collections I read this year were brand-new releases  from large presses, authors who boasted a team of marketing and public relations people to promote their book, score reviews, make sure the right people read it at the right time. Other writers, from smaller presses, face a DIY approach and could use all the help they could get. Some books were new, other books older, some even forgotten. Many of the authors I’ve written about embraced the entry, shared my post on social media, even put a link to the entry up on their website. Other writers either didn’t respond at all or weren’t on social media—I’m glad I did their books, anyway, as I value them for their writing, not their electronic viability. I’ve made some friends. I’ve confounded a few people, too. Some of these writers, weeks or even months later, said they came across the post and got a hold of me later—those people for some reason seemed especially grateful.

What’s great about this project is that the whole thing will live on as an artifact, that someone’s post might do some student, some writer some good, years down the road, whether it’s writing a paper or trying to figure out a technique. Some entries have only garnered a handful of clicks this year—a couple of them less than five—and I can’t say that it doesn’t break my heart a bit. Perhaps, one day in the future, someone will be writing about those authors, about that collection, and Story366 will become a valuable resource to them. Or maybe not. People will visit the site every day, click on what they want. It’ll be what it is and I’m good with that because I’m proud of what I’ve done here.

For today, I read from Kathleen Collins‘ recently released collection, What Ever Happened to Interracial Love? out from Ecco. A week ago, I had never heard of Collins or this book, but then I saw a couple of people post about it on FB and then heard a story about it on NPR. Sadly, Collins passed away in 1988, this book and her fiction mostly lost to the ages. Like with Lucia Berlin, who I reviewed way back on January 4, Collins had the fortune of having someone remember her work, someone believe in it, want to see it in print years after her death. For Collins, that was A Public Space‘s Brigid Hughes, the Walker Percy to her John Kennedy Toole (sort of). You can read the story of how Hughes came across Collins’ work in this NYT article, but in short, Hughes had seen Collins’ film, Losing Ground (the first film ever written, directed, and produced by an African-American woman, by the way) and contacted her daughter to see if she had any unpublished writing. Many steps later, here we are, this new collection, a whole new generation of readers and writers discovering Collins’ writings.

I read several stories from Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? today, but will write about the title story, which is the longest piece in the book and also one that seems to capture the spirit of Collins’ stories the best. “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about a pair of roommates living in Harlem in 1963, as well as their boyfriends, who also play prominent roles. For the first half of the story, at least, these four characters are referred to not by their names, but by their races, their roles, and general descriptions. One woman is a Harlem community organizer (“white”), while the other (“negro”) has just been released from prison in Georgia. The white community organizer is dating an Umbra poet (“negro”), while her black roommate is dating a freedom rider (“white”), who just got back from getting his jaw broken in prison after being arrested for protesting in the South. These characters, under these monikers, interact with each other, or alone, in New York City at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which presents quite a few plots points and conflicts, as you might imagine. Collins’ story isn’t only about all of these characters’ places in Civil Rights history, however, as each person faces their own unique dilemmas caused by their choices, including how they deal with their families, who don’t always agree with the paths their lives have taken.

As we move through the story, Collins adds to her story’s complexity even more, as the story also becomes about sexual identity. The white girl, who came from money and went to Sarah Lawrence, is well versed in lovemaking, while the black girl from Georgia starts out the story as a virgin, confined by her strict father and her personal fears. Collins challenges us in the passages to move beyond the roles she’s outlined by naming these women by their race. Soon, we discover that the white girl’s name is Charlotte and the black girl’s Cheryl, who date Henry and Alan, respectively. The more we find out about these characters, the more we see them in scenes, interacting, becoming real, the more we lose the sense of trope and move toward fully formed, unique people. In so many ways, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about transition, about growth (which is kind of what all stories are about, right?).

As much as anything, “Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?” is about New York City, the setting in this story and all of Collins’ work as much of a character as any of the people. Collins is careful to describe the streets, the subway stops, the buildings and the sounds and smells, making this place the most fully realized element of the story. Collins makes the city vital, as crucial to these stories as Wyoming is to Annie Proulx or the suburbs are to John Cheever. By the time I finished reading, I wanted one of those spicy Times Square cart sausages real, real bad.

The stories in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? are unlike any stories I’ve read this year, depicting African American women in a commanding light, during a particularly crucial juncture in American history. If it’s anything, it’s a perspective, a witness to the world and its events that we don’t often hear from. I’m glad to have found Kathleen Collins’ work, via the hard work of others, that these stories did not end up lost. Earlier I mentioned literary citizenship, and wow, what an example this is, willing this book into existence. Maybe Collins’ work find new life, stay with us forever.

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December 29: “The Indestructible Man” by William Jablonsky

Wow, Story366! We’re down to the last three posts of the year! Someone just asked me if I was nervous about messing this up, if I was worried that I’d somehow not finish, get this far only to fall short of achieving this yearlong goal of posting every day. In some ways, I have been overly nervous about that, fearing some accident or emergency or arrest to derail me. Certainly, however, I could have done the last several entries ahead of time, scheduled them to appear on their proper days, and that would have been that, goal achieved. That seems like cheating at this point, though, right? I’ve written ahead before—twice for Cub Scout campouts—and it’s not like anyone’s holding me to doing this a certain way. More than that, I’m enjoying the countdown, reading from a book and writing this post every day. To work ahead, to finish this before New Year’s Eve? That seems unfair in some way. I don’t know how, don’t know why, but it just does. So, for two days after today, the last two of 2016,I’ll read, I’ll write, I’ll post before midnight. And then I’ll be done.

Tonight I’m actually doing something that I’ve not done in Springfield in … over a year? I’m going to meet someone for a drink. It’s a former student, one who went away for his MFA two years ago and has been back since summer, though we’re just getting together now to have a drink, talk about his time away, talk about whatever. One thing this Story366 project has done has eliminated a lot of the free time I would normally reserve for such outings. Even on days that I finish my post early in the day, it seems like I should either be spending time with my family, catching up on school work, writing, treadmilling, or getting a head start on tomorrow’s post; some nights, it’s been the best dea to just get caught up on sleep. Way, way in the back of my mind, I think, It would be cool to go sit at a bar, have a drink, have friends, be a real person. Such a pursuit is, at best, the seventh priority on my list, so it’s easy to see why I don’t get out much, or haven’t at all since 2015. Sure, I’ve been in bars, at AWP, after Cub games in Wrigleyville, after a couple of readings here in town. The last time I just made plans with someone to be social, just to have fun? 2015. Needless to say, 2016 being 2016, I could use a drink.

For today’s installment of Story366, I read one final collection by a Bowling Green Creative Writing Program grad, William Jablonsky. Bill came in the year after I graduated, making him the third writer from the fiction class of ’99 to publish a collection and be featured here (Anthony Doerr and Joanna Howard are the other two), a pretty good turnout for any year, given there’s only five people in every class. I got to know Bill pretty well in his years at BG and have kept in touch and followed his career. He married another BG MFA grad and is a professor at Loras College, where I visited once while touring with Elephants. It was a pleasure today to visit with The Indestructible Man, out from Livingston Press, and I’ll focus on the title story for this post.

“The Indestructible Man” is about Bobby Mercer (not the Yankee), a kid in a small town who is kind of a bully. He’s not a particularly bad kid, but he does like to pick on the kids who are smaller than he is or geekier. Before long, that blows up in his face. One kid in particular that he likes to pick on is named Romulus Wayne, a kid with skinny arms and kind of a smart mouth. Bobby picks on him for years, all the way up to eighth grade, when Romulus starts to draw positive attention as the class daredevil. He can, somehow, jump from high structures like roofs and water towers and not sustain any injuries. This draws the attention of Abigail, whom Bobby has been sweet on for a while. One day, upon seeing Romulus perform one of his daring deeds and Abigail applaud, Bobby convinces himself that whatever Romulus can do, he can do better. Dumb idea. He climbs up an eighty-foot-tall structure and leaps off, only to find himself handicapped for life, forced to make his way around in a wheelchair.

After high school, Romulus disappears from town—with Abigail, who remains beyond smitten—and despite his physical condition and heartache, Bobby moves on. He gets a job and finds a girlfriend, the needlessly dedicated Cindy, who dotes on him despite his saltier traits. He’s able to keep going forward until Romulus Wayne, the seemingly indestructible boy from his youth, starts showing up on talk shows and in commercials. Bobby is especially bothered by a series of insurance ads, which depict Romulus in a series of should-have-been-killed-instantly situations, the voiceover doting on how you, the viewer, isn’t indestructible like Romulus Wayne, but even he has blahblahblah insurance. Considering the commercials are a reenactment of Bobby’s life tragedy, it’s easy to see why his hatred for Romulus soon achieves a zenith.

From this point forward, Bobby, convinced he has nothing left to live for, decides to kill Romulus, who is touring mid-sized cities with a daredevil act, one that’s gaining popularity, making his local celebrity skyrocket. Passing through for a show in nearby Rockford (where Jablonsky’s from), Bobby sees his opportunity to enact his revenge on the  guy he blames for all of his troubles—the fact Abigail has married Romulus doesn’t help things, either.

I won’t go any further into the plot of the “The Indestructible Man,” leaving that confrontation between the old foes for you to discover on your own. The story, at forty-one pages, leaves a lot of room for all of this aforedescribed tension to build and for Jablonsky to develop these characters beyond bitter, vengeful villain and local boy done good. Romulus, for example, seems to be wasting his incredible gift on medicine shows and minor celebrity, which doesn’t go unnoticed by Bobby or some of the other locals. Though this is mainly Bobby’s story, Jablonsky also gives himself license to roam point of view, wandering into some of the supporting characters if that’s the best way to get into their heads. Most of all, I like that this is told from Bobby’s perspective, not Romulus’, Jablonsky understanding the lessons of the Superman mythology, that the Man of Steel isn’t nearly as interesting as his more fallible foes and even his lesser cohorts. I’m not sure what a story from Romulus’ POV would be like, but I think Jablonsky made the best fiction choice here, one of the reasons I really like this long entry in his solid collection.

William Jablonsky’s The Indestructible Man is a book that isn’t afraid to cross genre barriers—way before it was chic—to tell imaginative, unique stories, all of them filled with unique characters, engaging conflicts, and memorable passages. Bill’s a talented writer and it was a real luxury to read a few of his stories back to back, to feature him here at Story366.

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December 28: “Graceland” by Claire Vaye Watkins

What’s going on, Story366? Earlier today, I posted the Press Archive for this project, finally finishing it after starting over Thanksgiving weekend, a project I thought I’d knock out in one night, in a couple of hours. Nope. Aside from all the copying and pasting—which has left my left thumb and pointer quite raw—there was a lot of looking up of presses and such, as well as figuring out how the whole thing should look. I think it’s finally right, so if you click that link above (or on the masthead of the site), you can check it out.

I know this is my project and I care about it, as well as tracking it, more than anyone, but I do think it’s interesting to see how things turned out, how many books from each press and how many presses I featured this past year. Some houses with the most books were no-duhs, big presses like Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Knopf, Norton, and Vintage, all well represented as they are all dedicated to publishing great short fiction. I was also not surprised to see so many university presses having long lists, especially those that sponsor contest series like the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, or the Iowa Short Fiction Award. There’s the two presses I’ve conned into publishing my books, Dzanc and Curbside Splendor, which have been generous, as any time I’ve wanted something , I’ve only had to ask and they’ve sent it right along; Karen got her press, ELJ Editions, to do the same. I’ve also discovered a lot of small presses this year, indies like Braddock Avenue Books, Burrow Press, and Subito Press, presses from which I’ve featured multiple books, all of which were fantastic, all of which I’m keeping an eye on from here on out. Then there’s … okay, I can keep doing this until I relist every press here, but that’s dumb, as that’s why I made the index. Check it out.

In short, though, if you like stories, like story collections, there’s a lot of presses doing those. I haven’t covered every press that publishes short stories collections—for various reasons—but I hope to get to more of them, if not all of them, as I go forward.

Above all else, if you run a press and want me to feature your story collections on this project, send them to me! Message me at FB and we’ll work out the details.

Okay, pitch time over. Today, I had the pleasure of reading from Claire Vaye Watkins‘ collection Battleborn, out from Riverhead Books, a much-celebrated collection that I’d not read before. Battleborn earned Watkins all kinds of awards, included the Story Prize, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and got her named a 5 Under 35 Fiction Writer from the National Book Foundation. Where was I when this book came out? Ah! 2012! The year I turned my life upside down and moved across the country and had a kid and started a new job. My life’s black hole, I like to call it, of all things not concerned with those three events. In any case, I’ve read stories by Watkins before and have been aware of her success, and of course, didn’t want to make it through the year without featuring this heralded collection. I got my copy delivered today, in fact, and dove right in, absorbing four stories before other duties called. I’ll be finishing this book for sure, but for this post, I still had to pick just one entry. I really like the opening story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” but that has some historical ties that I’d have to look into, research, so I’m going to write on my next favorite, “Graceland,” which ends the collection, making for some tight bookends.

“Graceland” is about Catie, the story protagonist who narrates in first-person present. She begins the story by noting how she laments the loss of the large, carnivorous mammals, how there used to be giant creatures that roamed the Earth like killer jackrabbits and armadillos that would eat you as soon as you tried to take their picture. Even now, all the big hunters, or anything big, for that matter, are dying off, leaving the grizzly bear as the largest flesh hunter on the planet. Pretty soon, that will be the human, she fears, as the whales need saving and polar bears are drowning as their glaciers melt. A cool intro to the story and this character by Watkins, as, well, she’s kind of right: That does suck. I mean, unless you’re headed to the Walmart and an armadillo picks you off as you rollerblade past his cave.

The rest of the story isn’t really about this fear, although it’s one of the many anxieties that Catie has that comes up here and there. Part of her fear is due to the fact she’s tiny, just over five feet, and has been the subject of short jokes her whole life (which should mean she wants fewer predators, but whatever, its her anxiety). She’s also reeling from the recent suicide of her mother, whose ashes she’s just scattered on a mountain in Vegas. Recovering from her mother’s death is more or less both the theme and the plot of this story, as we follow this quirky young woman as she tries to deal with it, plus everything else that makes up her life.

Watkins builds Catie through a series of facts, revealed through anecdotes and encounters. We know that she has a particular love-hate relationship with the movie Dumbo (which I think is perhaps the saddest movie ever). She spends a lot of time with her sister Gwen (who is even shorter than her, by the way), both in person and through thinking about her. She has a boyfriend, Peter, a marine biologist, who seems to facilitate her eccentricities. And there’s a particular tie to Graceland, the Paul Simon album from the title—this story is not about Elvis’ estate, but more about Simon’s themes from that album, his quest, his own redemption.

I won’t reveal anything else about the plot, because really, there’s not a traditional plot here, not in terms of rising action and climax and all those other Freitagian points. The story builds its tension and momentum by that aforementioned list of character traits and such that Watkins gives to Catie. Sure, there’s an ending that brings it all together, both physically and syntactically, but the real joy of this piece is just seeing where Watkins takes her hero next, what she has her say or do or pontificate on (primarily the latter). I’ll bet that before her mother’s suicide, Catie was a trip, someone worthy of writing a story about because of all her little habits and fears and obsessions. After her mother’s death, though, all of those things became magnified, we have to assume, depicting a woman who maybe isn’t defined by these characteristics any more, but by grief.

I enjoyed all of the stories I read in Battleborn, Clare Vaye Watkins’ debut collection, a book that has garnered more praise and awards than I can possibly improve upon here. I love what Watkins does in these pieces, how she starts each one in an interesting way, seemingly in another story, another place, but brings everything together, makes it all makes sense. That opening story, “Cowboys, Ghosts,” begins with several anecdotes about characters settling out west, starting in the nineteenth century, working its way to the Manson family (and Watkins herself). Nothing in Watkins work is predictable, nothing that I’ve seen done before. What a great book.

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December 27: “The Tsar of Love and Techno” by Anthony Marra

Say hey, Story366! Today has been somewhat of a back-to-it day, as I’d spent the last four days without doing much of anything, save this blog, focusing on holiday prep, the holidays, and finally a day when I didn’t do much at all. Everything started this morning with one of those half-awake, half-asleep states, me dreaming that I was waking up for a couple of hours before I actually did. I knew when I went to sleep that I’d have a full plate today, but didn’t set an alarm, causing my brain to completely fuck with me instead. In today’s scenario, I dreamed that I had indeed woken up, but was doing my work from my bed, reaching over the side to a computer console and making a word find for my class. I’d found a good program online that makes word finds automatically, so all I had to do was type in the words I wanted my students to find. As soon as I finished the word find, I woke up (at least I think I did …). It was 10:48. I hate my brain.

You might be wondering why a college professor is having an anxiety dream about making word finds, but it’s based on the fact that my Intro to Fiction final, one semester, featured a word find on the back page as extra credit. I hid a bunch of authors’ last names in the letter cube and thought it would be a fun way for them to end the semester, pick up a couple of bonus points, make me look clever and cool. Nope. Only a couple of the students even attempted the word find, most of them getting to it, smiling a bit—there was a chortle or two—then turning in their final, ready to start break. I’d spent a couple of hours making that goddamn word find, but the message was clearly received: I cut the word find from the final after that. The only reason I can figure why this all showed up in my dreams last night is because this last semester, I told my students this story—about the word find on the final—and they were all like, Yeah, do that! That would rock! However, I went in the night before to print the final and forgot to include it. The next morning, they were all like, Hey, where’s the word find? I’m rusty on my Jung, but I’m pretty sure that’s why I had a two-hour dream about word finds this morning instead of waking up (again, if I am indeed awake now).

One of the things that made today’s plate full was doing this post, of course, and I knew that I was going to be reading from Anthony Marra‘s The Tsar of Love and Techno, out from Hogarth, the book that, hands down, has been on my to-do stack the longest. I think I picked this book up in February or March. Since, I’ve grabbed it on several occasions, choosing it as the book to read and write about that day. As soon as I’d open the table of contents, though, I’d always shrug and put it back, as The Tsar of Love and Techno features all long-as stories, inclduing a title story at the center that’s seventy-four pages long (with a few title pages thrown in for style). Still, my days are always full, no matter what time of year it is, so when I’m planning my day, it’s rare that I think, “I’ll read a seventy-page story today” when I could instead say, “I’ll read an eleven-page story today.” Yes, I know, I teach creative writing and literature and seventy pages is really nothing—last year I read Adam Johnson’s entire Orphan Master’s Son in one day, in one sitting—but psychologically, Marra’s book and its long stories intimidated me and I started avoiding it.

Determined to include The Tsar of Love and Techno in this first 366, I planned on featuring it this week, and this morning—after my word find nightmares—I tucked that book in my bag and ran off to my office, set on reading that long title story and at least one more piece. I owed it to Marra—who I think has somehow magically known about this avoidance and has felt slighted—and I owed it to myself, plunking twenty-five bones down on this book at the local B&N. In my office, I did all that stuff that had been lingering for the past week, then sat back and opened Marra’s book to “The Tsar of Love and Techno.”

Before I go any further, I should tell you about this collection, which is made up of linked stories, set in Russia over the course of the last century—plus a concluding piece that takes place in the future in outer space—all of them involving a rather obscure Russian painting by an obscure Russian painter named Zakharov. The painting serves as a MacGuffin of sorts, featured as a talking point in some stories, a major plot point in others, passed along from character to character like a chain. The characters all seem to be related, or at least know each other, each character getting their own story, their own time with the painting, sort of Marra’s version of the Stanley Cup.

The book is also organized, at least in the table of contents, like a mix tape, with the first half of the stories constituting “Side 1” and the second half “Side 2,” “The Tsar of Love and Techno” smack-dab in the middle as the “Intermission.” Each story also has a subheading of sorts that lists where the story is taking place and in what year, Marra giving clues to the reader so he doesn’t have to be all didactic and reveal it somehow in each and every story.

“The Tsar of Love and Techno”—subtitled “St. Petersburg, 2010; Kirovsk, 1990s,” features Alexei, a young college student who’s not making much progress on his degree, not sure what he wants to do with his life, sharing an apartment in St. Petersburg with his landlady’s sons, who have set a disco up in the bathroom and won’t let him use it. Alexei is thrilled, then, to get a first-class ticket to Moscow from Galina, a girl from his home town who used to date his brother and is now Russia’s top runway model and movie star, her picture on every billboard in every town in Russia. He has not seen Galina in years and is taken aback by her life in a luxury hotel, where she spends more money in a day than Alexei sees in a year. Galina has called Alexei to Russia for two reasons: 1) to tell him that his brother, Kolya, is dead; and 2) to give him a painting, the painting, the Zakharov. As it turns out, when filming in Chechnya, she used her celebrity to ask around about Kolya and was told he died in a field, the very field that the Zakharov painting depicts. She bought the painting, but now that she’s divorcing Oleg, a nickel magnate, she doesn’t want it counted as an asset and offers it to Alexei as a keepsake, of sorts, of his brother’s death (which is pretty grim, as I know from reading another story how Kolya died in that field). Alexei returns to his hellish life as a man who can’t graduate, who can’t use his own bathroom, who doesn’t have a place in the world.

That gets things in motion in terms of the frontstory, as Alexei decides his to be a complete sham. He robs the disco brothers of all their valuables and buys a plane ticket to Chechnya, where he attempts to find Zakharov and return the painting to him, plus see that field where his brother died.

This is only half of “The Tsar of Love and Techno,” however. Marra goes back and forth, using numbered sections, alternating between the Alexei-painting plot and Alexei and Kolya’s backstory. He traces their lives from the time they were kids in Kirovsk, which is described as the most polluted city in the world, its lake so filled with mercury and other chemicals, half the town’s population dies from cancer by fifty. The first scene with young Alexei and Kolya has them witnessing a mob execution out in the woods—a story, I’m guessing, we get the full picture of in one of the other pieces in this book—and then their lives as the sons of a man who is building a homemade cosmonaut museum, honoring Russia’s space program. The boys grow up, lose their mother, move from school to school, but most of all, this half of the story is the tale of how Kolya, a poor kid from a dirty town, came to date (and almost wed) the country’s most beautiful and glamorous starlet, Galina. I won’t go too far into that, but in short, it’s because she was a kid in that same dirty town, Kolya was a badass and a sweetheart, and, well, future supermodels have to date somebody before they’re famous.

“The Tsar of Love and Techno” features a whole lot more story than this, as I still haven’t revealed what the the mix tape has to do with any of this, how Kolya and Galina got separated, and what our protagonist and narrator, Alexei, has to do with all of it. He’s a peripheral narrator for most of the story, but his impulsive sojourn to the site of Kolya’s death makes him more of a player and less of a narrator (though, of course, he narrates those parts as well). Even though this story is seventy pages long, I don’t want to go any further, as this piece, it’s back-and-forth format, its intensity, its exotic setting, its historical ties, and its vivid characters all made the read far beyond worth it, those seventy pages flying by before I knew it.

I read another story when I was done with “The Tsar of Love and Techno”—”The Prisoner of Caucusus,” Kolya’s story, which falls as the last piece on Side 1—and really want to read the rest of this book, find out what happens to these characters, to this painting, discover how it all ends in outer space in the distant future. The Tsar of Love and Techno, the first work I’ve read by Anthony Marra, is one of my favorite collections from 2016 (meaning, of the ones released this year), though if someone called this novel (or at the very least, a novel in stories), I wouldn’t argue with their nomenclature. Great book. Glad I got off the schneid and finally pulled it down from the shelf.

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December 26: “Big Bad Love” by Mary Miller

How’s it going, Story366? My existence has been exactly what I like it to be today, sleeping in, accomplishing small tasks, reading and writing, eating good food (of the leftover variety), and in general, not having a particular place or time to worry about. The family and I had some nice time together—still a joy to watch the boys enjoy their toys—but we also all had separate, private time to be in our own heads, make the day what we wanted it to be. Days like this are few and far between, so I’m cherishing. Still five hours to go, too. Who knows what else is in store?

Today I read from Mary Miller‘s forthcoming collection, Always Happy Hour, coming this January from Liveright.Publishing. This is the second book I’ve done on Story366 (after A.A. Balaskovits’) that’s not out yet, but I’ve had Miller’s ARC for about a month and have been itching to read it, wanting to fit it in before the end of the year. I’ve known Miller’s work for a long time, having read it in lit journals, having heard her read it live, and having published one of these stories, “He Says I Am a Little Oven,” in Mid-American Review before I left there. The leisurely nature of the day, combined with how much I was enjoying these stories, lead me pretty deep into the collection, and after reading five or six stories, I’ve settled on “Big Bad Love” to write about today.

Side bar: “Big Bad Love” is also the title of a Larry Brown collection and story, one I read over twenty years ago and is very awesome (also made into a movie by Arliss Howard, which is pretty good as well). The real anecdote here is that searching out info on this book led me to one of my first interweb foibles: Imagine it being ’95, the Internet so new, and typing “Big Bad Love” into Netscape Navigator. Now imagine the search results, as computers, unlike me, don’t assume surfers are looking for short story collections. The result was my first “Yikes! Sorry!” in a university computer lab, me trying to cover the screen with my hand as I frantically searched for the back button, only bringing more eyes to what I was doing, to the big, bad love displayed for all to see.

Back to Mary Miller and her “Big Bad Love.” Her story is about this young woman, mid-twenties I’d guess, who is working at a home for abused, neglected, and abandoned kids. We don’t find that out, not right away, as the opening scene of the story is just this narrator—we don’t know who she is yet, or even more importantly, how old she is—hanging out with these kids, who are playing with broken roller skates and bikes. One of the girls, Diamond, wants attention, and when she doesn’t get it, she stands on an ant hill until the ants bite the shit out of her, forcing our narrator to pay attention, give her care. They go insides, slab on some Neosporin, then the narrator then checks on a nursery, where a single baby is inside a crib in a room filled with cribs, crying and soaking wet. She changes the baby, but by this time, Miller has us asking questions, like where exactly we are and who this narrator is. Is she one of the kids? Is this place in some sort of post-apocalypse setting, the shelter so bleak and seemingly lacking in adults?

We eventually figure out that no, the narrator is the adult, but sounds young enough to be one of the other kids, maybe a teenager (oft referred to as “the older kids” in the story). She is also hopeful and helpful in ways some of the other workers, whom we meet one by one, no longer are. Our narrator wants to help Diamond—victim of everything horrible you can think of—and her tone, actions, mannerisms indicate that she, unlike her coworkers and a lot of the kids, hasn’t had her spirit broken, her soul drained from her by everything she’s seen. At least not yet. It’s a neat trick by Miller, making the setting, even the character, a bit vague at first, as that part of what this story is about, just how close this woman is to these kids and their awful situations.

Once the setting becomes clear, the inner workings mapped out for us (in short, the shelter is understaffed, underfunded, and overcrowded), we start to get to know our protagonist more intimately, Miller good at peppering poignant details in when she can. We know she’s the de facto dietician and lunch lady because she has a college degree and her superior—which she’s only met twice—wants her to go to a seminar to learn the minimum amount of protein they can get away with putting into a serving. We know she is married to a very nice guy who reads motorcycle magazines but has never been on a motorcycle. We know she snags a pill or two, mostly Adderall, to keep her going, no one really keeping track. We know she has taken a particular shine to Diamond, whose multiple problems require more attention than the shelter can afford.

Through all of this, our hero still tries to do the right thing because that’s just who she is. Maybe one day she’ll be more jaded, see enough Diamonds come and go, cut herself off emotionally so she doesn’t die. Or maybe she won’t. I won’t reveal anymore of the plot here, as I’m pretty far in already, and you can read for yourself to find out what happens.

The young protagonist in “Big Bad Love” is like a lot of the protagonists in Always Happy Hour, young women who have found a niche in life, but aren’t particularly thrilled with the niche, assuming it to be temporary, trying to figure out what to do instead. “He Says I Am a Little Oven” is about a woman on a cruise with her boyfriend, trying to make that work. “Where All the Beautiful People Go” is about a young woman who hangs around an older couple and their kids just to get a free supply of pills. “Little Bear” is about a young mother, wondering why she had a kid, assuming she’s going to have another. The characters in these stories feel, above all else, very real, characters who have gravitated to situations, not because they necessarily chose them, but because that what their lives dictated. The little details, characters reading magazines that don’t apply to them, a woman’s unnatural fondness for a little boy, are heaped on, selling each of these women as unique, all of them individuals with specific problems, eclectic ways of handling them (or not). I really loved this collection and look forward to finishing it and recommend you pick this up as soon as it comes out. It’s an early frontrunner, in the way-too-soon polls, for one of my favorites for 2017.

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