“All the Names for God” by Anjali Sachdeva

And a good Monday to you, too, Story366! Nice to be back and reading and writing again after a weekend on the road. No camping or vacation this time, and with the Cubs in San Diego, my trip the past few days was comprised of selling beer at two concerts at Wrigley: Jimmy Buffet on Friday and The Pretenders/Journey/Def Leppard on Saturday. I haven’t worked a concert since Roger Waters did The Wall in the Friendly Confines six or seven years ago, but my brother and nephew (also beer vendors) talked me into it, pointing out how much more concert-goers drink than (even) baseball fans. I had a pretty good weekend in terms of sales—better for the three acts on Saturday than for the stoned, margarita-wanted Parrotheads on Saturday—but I also genuinely enjoyed the concerts. After spending most of my high school and college years going to any show I could, I’ve fallen off the scene since adulthood and especially since kids. Karen and I saw Bob Dylan at the basketball stadium on the MSU campus some years back, and we also saw Elvis Costello one night and Neutral Milk Hotel another at the really nice venue in downtown Springfield. That was 2013. It was nice to get back to a live show, even if I had to run around on hot, humid Chicago nights selling beer to do it.

And even if I’m not necessarily a fan of these particular acts. I do adore the Pretenders, who absolutely rocked. Chrissie Hynde’s voice has really aged well (though her jet-black hair is now white), as she’s never been a screamer or a falsetto; it’s not like she’s Robert Plant up there trying to hide the fact that some notes just aren’t hittable anymore. Otherwise, I’ve been indifferent, or maybe a non-fan, to the other three acts. I was never into Journey, though they put on a great show, doing what they do, playing their many recognizable hits . I have to admit, “Don’t Stop Believin’” is a pretty great rock song, how it moves in stages, builds in intensity, and then delivers a great, singalong chorus. I guess I bought Hysteria by Def Leppard when I was in high school—we all did—and banged my head to their mostly alike-sounding songs until I discovered REM, the Pixies, and other, better bands soon after. (Note, when Hysteria came out, they played three shows at the World Music Theater outside Chicago one weekend and that following Monday, I’d guess that three-fifths of my high school wore a Def Leppard T-shirt to school.) Boz Scaggs opened for Buffett, and while I like to consider myself knowledgeable about rock music, I couldn’t name a song before the concert but now realize he sings a couple of rock radio semi-staples, “Lido Shuffle” and “Lowdown.”

I’ve certainly never been a Parrothead, considering Buffett to be a relic from the generation before mine. I never got into that identity, the Hawaiian shirts, the longing for the sea, a bunch of old dudes thinking they’re some sort of pirates, steering their own vessels through drunkenness and failed marriages. Still, seeing him play for a couple of hours and immersing myself in the crowd, I have to admit, it was fun. I only knew two songs, “Margaritaville” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” and Buffett has a couple of others songs that sound almost exactly like those two, with different lyrics. But it was fun. People—beautiful, tan, affluent-looking people—were having a good time, smoking the shit out of pot, sporting leis and shark hats, and dancing in the aisles. I’m not converted or anything, but considering the general mopeyness and outright violence of the punk rock and alternative music I listen to, dancing and having fun (and probably getting laid soon after) suddenly seemed like a positive alternative to my moshpitting and shoegazing. I’ve been to a lot of shows, but how many can I say that I actually had fun at? That I left smiling? Not too many.

This morning I read a few stories from Anjali Sachdeva’s brand-new collection, All the Names They Used for God, out this summer from Spiegel & Grau. From three stories, I confidently proclaim this: Sachdeva is eclectic as all hell, as one story was about this blind poet, a buddy of Galileo, who is pushed into writing an epic poem by a couple of angels. Another, “Anything You Might Want”—which, okay, I read because it sounds like a Journey song—is about a young, rich Montana woman who runs away from home with one of the workers from her father’s mine, setting out on a series of adventures and life lessons. Two stories, set centuries and oceans apart, with characters who couldn’t be more different. Sachdeva nailed them both, though, as I enjoyed each of them quite a bit.

And then there’s the focus of today’s post, the almost-titular “All the Names for God,” which I read first. Before I start in on my usual plot rundown, I want to get out that this story moved me, as a person and a writer, and is one of the most powerful, clever, and interestingly rendered stories I’ve read in a while. It’s a story I will certainly be using in my classes, a story I need for my students to read, because of what happens, but also because how Sachdeva pulls it off, the feats she performs within.

“All the Names for God” is about Promise, a woman whose friend, Abike, kicks the story off by asking if she wants to go on a trip to visit their (respective) parents. Promise runs the idea through her head in the first couple of paragraphs, and in that short expanse, we find out that Promise hasn’t seen her family in eight years because she and Abike were the victims of a kidnapping when they were teens. Sachdeva puts it all out there, making me want to read on, find out the circumstances of the kidnapping, yes, but also why it’s taken Promise so long to get home, to see her family, when it seems like Abike’s question is so casual. I was hooked right away, to say the least, a neat convention that Sachdeva uses slyly and confidently.

The story proceeds in two timelines, the women going to see their families in the frontstory, the tale of the kidnapping in the back. In the present, Abike and Promise sojourn to their hometown, which Promise hasn’t been to since being taken (though Abike has, several times). When they get there, Promise suggests the two spend a night on the town before visiting their folks. Again: Why hadn’t she run home to her family? Why hadn’t she done this at first opportunity? What’s going on? Sachdeva even addresses these questions later in the story, via a short breaking of the fourth wall, and again, keeps us reading to find this out.

(By the way, I got a real sense of Camus here, Promise wanting to disco instead of going home, kind of like The Stranger going for a dip despite Mother died today.)

The women do indeed hit a local club that night, but not before getting a free luxury hotel room, apparently by willing it to happen, by assuaging the clerk to do it. Later, the ladies need some money and simply walk up to a man by the pool and ask him for it, watching as he reaches into his wallet and hands them his billfold. At this point, it seems as if something’s up, that these women have a certain power over others, that they’re able to influence people in ways that don’t quite make sense.

Back in the backstory, we hear the horrible tale that maybe we’re all expecting to hear. Promise and Abike and all the girls in their school are violently removed, their teacher shot in the face, and carted off to a camp (yes, like the Chibok girls in Nigeria). There, the girls are programmed to pray, to obey, to be well behaved, conservative Muslims, under the threat of death—any girl who falls out of line is literally beaten to death in front of the others. Several weeks in, government soldiers come to rescue the girls, but the kidnappers, using the girls as human shields, kill all the soldiers. They then move camp, but not before making their detainees pile and burn the dead. On the way out, the surviving girls are paired with their abductors and married, followed by being raped, over and over again, into even deeper submission. Like I said, it’s the horror story we all knew was coming, but Sachdeva is able to depict it with empathy, compassion, and intensity, all of which she projects on to us as we read.

After a night on the town in the present story, Promise and Abike head to their respective parents’ houses. Promise hasn’t been since the abduction, and we finally find out why: She’s ashamed of the things she’s done—because of both threat and programming—but she’s been ashamed nonetheless, keeping her from looking her family in their eyes. She has a nice visit for a couple of days—of course, the reunion scenes are touching and well done—but after that, Promise gathers up Abike and heads back to from where they came, promising her parents to soon return.

Remember, at this point we don’t know how the backstory ends, how Promise and Abike were able to get away, to get to the point where they could go to clubs and visit their parents. Not to mention the whole mind control thing. I won’t reveal anything further here, as it’s all cool and weird and surprising, an ending that makes this story truly great. You’ll need to read it for yourself, and I highly recommend that you do. What a fucking story. What a great writer.

So, big thumbs up for All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva. These stories appeared in a lot of lit mags, but I hadn’t read anything by her before I saw people buzzing it, recommending it, over on social media. Anyone who told me to get this was right, as Sachdeva’s imagination and ability have led to quite the fantastic debut. I predict this will end up being one of the best books of 2018, on a lot of those year-end lists. It’ll be on mine. I’d mark it now.

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“The Last Island” by William Wall

Good day to you, Story366! Coming at you on another beautiful but hot day in Southwest Missouri.

I have been enjoying the freedom of the house to myself this week—this whole month, in fact. My kids are in summer school and the Karen is at work at the paper, and since my class this summer is online, I have from about nine until three every day to do what I want. This hasn’t actually happened all that often, as Karen used to work from home for the most part, and the kids, well, the kids seemed like they were always here, even when they weren’t. Months would go by sometimes without this type of solitude, Karen’s weekly trip to church on Sundays with the boys the only time I could ever rally count on. This month, though, I have a home base.

I’m not sure why I’m bringing this up, or why it’s important I have time alone in my house. I often retreat to my campus office for this alone time, and really always have, when I was in Bowling Green and now here in Springfield, as that’s how I get work done, with quiet isolation, as few distractions as I could manage. And today, after a couple of hours of piddling around the house, doing chores and finding excuses to lie down on the couch, I got dressed and went to my office again. I needed to check my mail and water my plants, sure, but I’ve gotten used to working at my office. So I went there, leaving the aloneness. I have a big desk and my office computer has twice the screen that the laptap has that I use at home. I can open up a few windows at once, listen to all my music there (on that computer’s iTunes), and stretch out. So, even with time to be alone, in my own abode, I found myself wondering off.

I think there’s some nostalgia involved in all of this home alone time, going back to my time as a pre-teen and young teenager, my parents starting to trust me at home, left alone without supervision. As a coddled and overprotected kid, I remember that step being important for me, how I relished it, looked forward to it. Not that I had anything particular planned, but it was another rung up the maturity ladder. My parents could go to church or play bingo or go shopping and they could trust that I wouldn’t hurt myself, burn the house down, or let evil strangers through the door. They gave me a key. I was growing up, and as the accidental youngest of seven kids, that meant a lot. Sure, one time I watched the turn the corner down the street, ran to a pack of firecrackers I had stashed, then blew them off behind the garage. And before long, the masturbation started, so then …. Overall, though, I came to associate being alone, in my house, with being an adult. Maybe that’s why I’ve been feeling so important this past week, like some sort of king: I’ve been having some programmed response to feeling like an adult, to feel like I matter. The funny thing is I have some leftover fireworks from the Fourth. And regarding masturbation, ….

For today’s entry, I read from William Wall‘s latest collection of fiction, The Islands: Six Fictions, winner of a Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. Wall is the author of a bunch of previous books, including novels and poetry and short story collections, though I don’t think I’ve read anything by him before today. I’m always a fan of what the Heinz competition has to offer, so I was happy to receive and jump into this latest of their efforts.

I read a few of the stories from The Islands, skipping over the novella-sized opener, “Grace’s Story,” as I just don’t usually read anything that long for Story366. I moved ahead to a couple of short pieces in the middle before settling into the somewhat longer end story, “The Last Island,” which seemed like the closest thing to a title story, at least from glancing at the table of contents. Soon, I found out this plan might have been a mistake, as most of the six stories in the book are interconnected, using the same characters and following a pretty consistent timeline. I didn’t find that out until I was done with “The Last Island” when I realized this story’s protagonist was named Grace, as in “Grace’s Story.” But hey, I read what I read and I think I read the overall story’s ending: No going backwards now.

Because these stories are related and because I’m writing on the final chapter, I’ll probably give more about the book away than I usually would, but again, it is what it is. “The Last Island” is indeed Grace’s story, a grown-up version of the girl in the previous stories, a psychologist who is visiting her father for his seventieth birthday. The titular island is an island off the northwest coast of Ireland, the edge of Europe, Wall proclaims, the latest island the father has taken refuge upon. Grace arrives and her father meets her at the ferry, and from the get-go, there’s a tension in the air, as if these people don’t get along. Or maybe like they’re not daughter and father. But Grace settles into the guest room of his house and from there we wait to see what’s up.

The story is cut into seven chapters, and in the second chapter, we discover that Grace has a sister, Jeannie, and a mother, Jane, who is dead now but spent time in a mental facility after the girls’ younger sister, Emily, died tragically (really, the only way children can die). After their parents divorced, Grace ended up with Jane and Jeannie with the dad, meaning that Grace saw Jane fall apart after Emily’s death, watched her dwindle until she had to be committed. This chapter catches us up on the dynamics of the family, and really, I’m guessing, on the book as a whole, so it’s a handy chapter. We now know that, in short, this family has a lot of baggage.

From there, more family members and other guests start arriving for the birthday celebration, which is going to include, we find out, the shooting of a documentary about Grace’s dad, a famous writer. Jeannie arrives next, and then Bill, Grace’s estranged husband, who is leading the film crew. Grace and Bill don’t seem to get along very well—Bill can’t keep it in his pants, we’re told (just like Jane, we’re also told)—and sure enough, Grace uses this island getaway as an opportunity to serve Bill with divorce papers. Bill, who is already staying on the island with a young assistant, isn’t all that upset, but the two manage to toss vicious barbs at each other regardless.

The story, and the book, I guess, culminates in a climactic dinner sequence on the dad’s birthday, everyone in the same room at the same time (including the dad’s new wife, an Italian bombshell [think Jay and Gloria from Modern Family]), everyone finally getting a chance to air grievances that have festered for about 125 pages of short fiction. “The Last Island”—a title that appears to be more than a subtle metaphor—is a story about people coming together, not so they can come together, but so they can address old wounds, strike new ones, and drink a lot of wine.

The story, and this collection, are more than these people and their tragic circumstances, however. Wall is a true master of the image, of the sentence, and putting one into the other. His striking descriptions of the island, of all the settings of his stories, is truly remarkable. As is his style, a sprawling, free sort of narration that follows Grace in and around her head, lavishly detailing her hopes and fears, stopping sparsely for quick lines of (unquotation-marked) dialogue. Wall seems as much of a poet as he is a fiction writer, his words placing me on his islands, with his characters, at a level so few writers can muster.

William Wall’s The Islands is a nice find in Story366, reminding me why I still do this blog: So I can find new writers, read more books, and learn something from people who write differently than I do. Wall checks all three boxes today, a fine way to spend my day alone, on my own island.

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“My Father’s Tattoo” by Veronica Montes

Greetings to you on a beautiful day, Story366! It’s a Tuesday in Springfield, Missouri, and I’m so glad to be writing this today. I posted on Doug Ramspeck’s collection on Friday on my way out of town, as the family and I headed off to Mark Twain State Park for a few days and a couple of nights of camping. We’d been wanting to go to Hannibal and see the Mark Twain sites—we’re writers living in Missouri, after all—and we’ve also wanted to give family camping a try. I’ve been to the woods with the oldest a dozen times now, all for Scouts, and we’ve had the little one tag along a couple of times, too. This past weekend was the first time we’ve done non-Scout camping, as well as the first time we’ve included the Karen on the fun. We were pretty sure it would work out fine, and lo and behold, it did. Karen’s need for coffee in the morning was a bit of a problem, and my insistence on keeping the camp organized and clean in a Scoutlike way made me kind of annoying, I’m sure. But all was well overall, as we saw some nature—I had a conversation with a raccoon in our camp when everyone else was asleep—and we also saw all the Mark Twain stuff, like his boyhood home in Hannibal, his museum, and the cabin where he was born—that’s inside the welcome center/gift shop at the state park. Here’s me at his front door, trying to get some of that Twain mojo to rub off on my arm:

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Now I’m home, I’m trying my best to read and write like a fiend, summer slipping away. I guess I’m getting that sort of done—I really need to be writing fiction—as I read from Veronica Montes‘ new story collection, Benedicta Takes Wing (Philippine American Literary House, 2018), and just had to get this post in. I read the first hunk of stories from this book while sitting by the fire at our camp, right before my aforementioned conversation with that raccoon (after which, I promptly went to bed, as the critter requested I go into the tent so he and his buddies could tear through our garbage). All warm and smokey, enjoyed those stories and read another today, the story I’m posting on, “My Father’s Tattoo.”

“My Father’s Tattoo” is told from the point of  view of a woman who is recollecting a story from her past, or more pointedly, her parents’ past. She tells the tale of her father, Ricky, who at nineteen falls in love with a beautiful young woman named Rosario, and in drunken longing, has her name tattooed on his biceps, embellished with squigglies (at no extra charge) by the Chinatown artist. To Ricky’s dismay, he sees Rosario riding around town the next day with another man. Heartbroken, Ricky spends the next couple of years telling anyone who asks that his mother’s name was Rosario, both sad and embarrassed over his boner.

Two years after the tattoo, Ricky meets Isabel, the narrator’s mother, and the two hit if off, going on a few dates before heading to the beach. There Isabel spies the Rosario tattoo for the first time. Isabel is not only jealous, but is furious, and almost ends their courtship. Ricky saves their relationship by agreeing to never appear before her without a shirt and to always make love with the lights out. That’s a tall order, to never show your wife your arm, which means Ricky must have really loved Isabel. Before long, the couple marries and the narrator is born. For a while, the little family seems pretty happy. Ricky and his brother Alex, “Tito Alex,” have a tailor shop together and do well enough, and for years, the tattoo doesn’t come up, both parents keeping up their sides of the bargain: Ricky doesn’t expose it and Isabel doesn’t bring it up.

One day, when our narrator is nine, Ricky is walking from the bedroom to the bathroom, his shirt off, and he runs into Isabel, exposing her to his Rosario tattoo. This incites all kinds of bad juju. Isabel, pregnant with the narrator’s sibling, cries and screams until her eyes are red and puffy, cursing the day she met Ricky, the day Ricky met Rosario, and the fact that Ricky ever had to be nineteen to begin with. She is so heartbroken and angry, she leaves Ricky and the narrator, forcing our hero to care for herself and her regretful but loving father.

I won’t go any further into the plot of “My Father’s Tattoo,” just to leave you something to discover. I like this story a lot, how it’s told from the daughter’s point of view, this peripheral character who tells the story through the eyes of a sad and hopeful child (though it’s not clear how old the narrator is whilst narrating). I like that perspective, the earnestness and affinity that style of narration offers the story. I also like this piece as an extension of Montes’ worlds. Up to this point in the book, the stories had all been told from the vantage point of young Filipino women, women who seemed to be living in the shadows of more beautiful, glamorous women, usually a sister or a cousin. The first three stories of the collection feature narrators like this, including the title piece, “Benedicta Takes Wing.” I liked all those stories and the perspective they assumed, protagonists thinking they didn’t belong, that they weren’t wanted because there was someone prettier standing next to them. In some cases, this proved true, while in others, it (tragically) did not. Perhaps this is a theme that Montes carries throughout her book, but I’m hoping, as I read onward, that these young women gain confidence, play different, more frontwards roles.

I’ve corresponded with Veronica Montes a bit online, as she has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, both as a talented writer and as a reliable interviewer. I was happy to see this debut collection surface, following up her contributions to Angelica’s Daughters, a dugtungan. (What’s a dugtungan? According to Montes’ website, a dugtungan is “… a genre of Tagalog novel popular early in the 20th century, in which each writer creates a chapter and hands it off to the next, who writes another chapter without direction.”) So, neat. It’s a good thing that this book exists, that Montes’ stories about young Filipino women are out there for us to enjoy. And I did.

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“The Owl That Carries Us Away” by Doug Ramspeck

Hello again, Story366! Back at you again on this Friday. Yesterday I posted a pic of all the books I recently received by requesting review copies, adding to my pile of must-reads. Later in the day I received a shipment of books I ordered from the Google, another nice stack:

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I’m getting back to a 2016-level pile of books to read and write about, which suits me just fine. Today’s entry is the seventeenth I’ve written this year, matching my 2017 total. Don’t know if I’ll ever get to my bucket-list goal of covering every short story collection—there has to be hundreds out there I haven’t read—but I’m enjoying my to-do list, one at a time.

Today is July 6, which is after the Fourth of July, that time every summer when I start feeling mortal, feeling that my long summer isn’t quite as neverending as it felt a month ago. I know I have six weeks left and can accomplish a whole lot in six weeks, but just as the days are getting shorter now instead of longer, I feel like the summer is slipping away in a similar fashion. It’s about this time I start to evaluate what I’ve done, check back on that mental list I make after I turn in my spring grades and start making plans to conquer the world. So far, I’ve done a nice job on Story366, one of my main goals this summer, and I’ve spent lots of quality time with the family. I’ve also sold beer at nine Cub games (I need to get in twenty to get rehired next year), and I’ve invested a lot of time with my son on Scouting (including a whole week at camp).

What I haven’t done is write a story a day (I used to do that when I was younger … and didn’t have kids or a house to take care of), nor have I made super-great progress on my novel-in-progress (i.e., none). Sure, I’ve done a little writing, but that’s about the best I can say: a little.

I’ve got a full slate of family fun planned this weekend—more on that when I get back—but the plan is, right now, for me to kick it into high gear starting Monday. Lots of writing, as in I should plan on ODing on writing, so much writing that I’ll have to change the ribbon in my laptop. Must write stories. Must make progress on novel. Must not squander three months away from teaching.

Isn’t it fun, this pressure we hoist upon ourselves?

For today’s post, I read from Doug Ramspeck‘s brand-new collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away, his debut book of fiction, just out from BkMk as its latest winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize. I’ve been familiar with Ramspeck for a while now—he has six previous collections of poetry—and am happy to see his fiction collected here. Ramspeck includes a lot of stories in his book, twenty-nine, as he writes a lot of shorts (and is damn good at it), but also includes his fair share of regularly long stories (though nothing over a dozen pages or so). I read a good smattering of the selections, long and short, and have—per usual—settled on the title piece for my entry, the volume-starting “The Owl That Carries Us Away.”

“The Owl That Carries Us Away” is about a kid, simply called “the boy” throughout the story, who is pretty messed up. Aside from the normal trials of being a kid, his messed-upness can be traced to his father’s recent botched suicide, Dad firing a gun into his head, leaving himself maimed, physically and mentally, instead of dead. Dad lies around a lot and mumbles incoherently, and can’t really get around without help. The boy is sad and his mother is sad, but they move on with life, though the dad is still bleeding inside his head, meaning more surgery and further loss of his faculties. It’s a shitty situation, which would explain why our protagonist, let alone anyone, falls on the fucked-up side of the normal scale.

While the boy’s mother cries a lot, the boy finds solace in an opossum skull he dug up from the river bank behind his house. The boy cleans the skull, examines it, touches it, and eventually, sleeps with it, running his fingertips along all the parts. He even sleeps with it on his chest like a teddy bear. Obsessed with the skull, the boy finds a shovel and searches and searches the riverbank for the rest of the opossum, digging and digging for the rest of his treasure.

On top of the problems with his dad, the boy is bullied on his bus by Biggs, a bigger kid who likes to punch him in the arm and tease him about his father (the failed suicide was news, of course). To make the situation even more of a nightmare, the boy’s mother has arranged for a play date between the boys with Biggs’ mother, who apparently uses bullying initiate chumhood. Surprisingly, the two get along for a while, Biggs bringing his BB gun to the boy’s house, the two of them soon out in the woods and shooting at small critters (mercilessly killing a bird … with extreme prejudice). The two become allies, though uneasy ones.

The story really goes awry when the boy entrusts Biggs with his secret, that he keeps the opossum skull in his closet. The boy brings it out of hiding, strokes it, stares at it, etc., and Biggs asks to take it home, borrow it from the boy for a while. Despite the boy’s adamant protests, the will-imposing Biggs walks out of the boy’s house with his prize possession.

Ramspeck takes his readers on a few more twists to the end of “The Owl That Carries Us Away,” details I won’t reveal here. There is also the titular owl, which I haven’t brought up yet, and all I’ll say is that the owl serves almost the exact same function as the large animals in Jess Arndt’s “Large Animals,” which I covered yesterday. All in all, “The Owl That Carries Us Away” is a tragic story, the story of a kid dealing with a tragedy, becoming a tragedy in his own right. I mean, this is textbook on how serial killers are born, right? Playing with animal skulls, killing small animals, etc.? It’s a well written, touching, shocking, and memorable story, one I gobbled up.

The book The Owl That Carried Us Away is full of stories like its title story, normal, once-happy people working their way through tragedies, dealing with massive adversity in bizarrely creative ways. It seems like every story features a secondary character dying or recently dead, those left behind serving as protagonists, catalysts of Ramspeck’s imagination; here, the author finds new reasons for someone to grieve, new ways for them to cope. “Ocho Rios” is about a guy whose wife dies from a brain hemorrhage on their honeymoon (like Private Benjamin!). “Crow Death” is about a kid whose mother has also suddenly died. “Folklore” is another story about a kid whose father has botched a suicide attempt. A father’s son goes to jail for killing his girlfriend in “The World We Know.” Ramspeck likes to write—in long, descriptive, dialogue-less paragraphs—about people who have been dealt a major blow, who have to overcome something really awful, then grieve in really interesting ways, be it loving an opossum skull or reliving a robbery through a Degas painting or imagining your father as a bear. I love those long paragraphs, how Ramspeck wanders through his characters’ thoughts, letting them roam, letting them work things out (or try to). Ramspeck is a damn fine writer and we’re lucky to have this first books of stories, to have all these offbeat, tragic tales in one place.

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“Large Animals” by Jess Arndt

Hey there, Story366! It’s been a week since I posted, after three straight days of posting. Firstly, I’ve been out of town—a few days in Chicago for family-visiting and beer vending. Sad to admit this, but for a tiny bit there, I wondered if I was going to make it back. It was hot in Chicago this past weekend, in the hundreds Friday and Saturday, heat that’s intensified whilst carrying heavy things up and down stairs for three straight hours. For a good part of Friday, I didn’t quite feel right, not in the body and not in the brain, and at the end there, I started to think maybe I was putting together the symptoms for a stroke, or at the very least, heat stroke (never having had either, this is based on nothing). Before anything serious went down, both my legs intervened on my behalf, cramping up at once, making me hobble up the stairs and check out in the top of the seventh inning. I then took a very long walk to my brother’s car, where I pledged my eternal love to his AC (I offered quite the dowery). Before I knew it, I was okay again. Better prep for Saturday and Sunday (more sleep, more water, something to eat) made me okay both days, but yeah, for a second there, I wondered if I should be making peace with my gods (or maybe just take a break).

The fam and I spent the morning of the Fourth at the Marshfield city parade and the evening at the Webster County Fair, both of which we did so we could spend the day with the Karen, who was shooting both events for her gig at the paper. We’ve not exactly embraced the parade scene here in Springfield, or in general since we’ve had kids, so it felt dutiful to plop the boys down on a curb in this tiny town so they could complain about the heat and gather candy from politicians and Shriners. All of this came to pass. We then had a fun time at the Fair at night, the boys riding armbands’ full of rides until we lured them to the car with fireworks—after a long day, we had no desire to stick around the grounds for the city display, fighting for a spot on the lawn and then sitting through traffic out of town. So, for the first time—ever—I purchased fireworks at one of the many, many tents stationed roadside here in Missouri. Unlike most kids, I’ve never been a huge fireworks guy, something instilled in me by my overly paranoid and protective mother (who tells the story of at least three people she once knew who lost parts of their hands in such a fashion). Hey, to get out of a late-night bottleneck in this little town? I was willing to try something new. Fireworks, I found, aren’t all that expensive (though we showed up around nine p.m. on the Fourth—might have been deal time) and we set off some fountains and smoke bombs and other explosives on our back patio. All our fingers are intact and the Fourth has been properly honored.

Also, before I left for Chicago, I spent a night sending out queries for review copies of collections—one of the perks of doing this blog so regularly—so I returned to a whole bunch of packages in my mailbox. The initial haul:

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Not bad. I look forward to diving into all of these, and soon. Yay!

I’ve had the focus of today’s post, Large Animals by Jess Arndt (Catapult, 2017), with me for the past week, hopeful I’d get to it, squeeze out a post, but like so many trips out of town, that didn’t happen. Now that I’m back to my somewhat normal summer routine today, I was able to sit down and read some of Arndt’s stories. Large Animals was the last of the books I picked up at AWP this year, so I’ve not only had this one with me for a week, but it’s been looking at me for the better part of four months.

The wait, a few stories in, was certainly worth it, too, as Arndt presents one of the more original voices I’ve come across in a while. In describing her stories, a lot of adjectives come to mind, but the one I’ll start with is “understated,” as Arndt’s type of narration isn’t the kind that’s overly revelatory. Arndt is a writer who, more than mostly every writer I’ve read, pays heed to the show-don’t-tell advice that we writers get (and give). Her stories happen and end without much in the way of summary or clarification as to what any of it means. Not that most good (or published) writers do, but there’s a feeling in Arndt’s work that she’s particularly letting her scenes, her images, and the choices by her protagonists speak for themselves.

Part of all this has to do with Arndt’s style—I think she withholds any type of explanation as part of who she is as a writer—but I also think it’s because her characters couldn’t explain their choices if they had to. The characters in Arndt’s stories seem a bit lost, and on top of that, there’s no indication that they’re particularly in search of direction. As Arndt’s stories happen, her characters simply do.

For example, “Moon Colonies,” the book’s opener, is about a trio of seemingly homeless youths venturing upon a night on the Atlantic City strip. The protagonist of that story happens upon a sizable payout, one that’s going to change the lives of the whole gang. Sooner rather than later, that payout finds its way into a slot machine and everyone’s back to square one. We don’t know exactly what any of the characters’ stories are, why they’re in their situation or why they make their choices, but the story’s not about that. It’s more about the interactions between the characters, the dynamic of the situation, and the unpredictable twists that lead them, more or less, back where they’ve started.

The title story, “Large Animals,” which ends the book, features perhaps the most lost of all the characters, an unnamed person who’s living in the Mojave Desert, trying to get work done (what that work is, we don’t know, but it involves a computer), but is constantly distracted by the surroundings, or lack thereof. The story opens with an admission of troubling dreams, how our hero is dreaming of large animals—bears, wolves, rhinos—converging during sleep. Most dominant of all these creatures is a giant walrus, which seems to both disgust and tantalize our protagonist, a vision of horror, sloth, and inexplicable sexual attraction all at the same time.

From there, we see the protagonist work through a variety of daily routines, which includes a lot of drinking, a lot of blacking out, eating at the local Mexican restaurant, and spending time at the Eagles Lodge, which serves as the community’s library. There’s a neighbor named Gary, who always drops by with an invite to Taco Wednesday, and Tamara, the tall, chain-smoking waitress from the Mexican restaurant. Our protagonist spends a lot of time just passing time, and because of the six packs and the walrus dreams, isn’t quite sure, at times, what’s real and what’s not—a recurring bit has our hero wake to a kitchen sink full of dishes even though there’s been no cooking or eating to explain them.

You’ve probably noticed that I’ve avoided using a gender-specific pronoun in describing the protagonist in “Large Animals,” and that’s because the story more than hints at some gender identity issues. At one point, our hero makes reference to his (in this case?) balls, and there’s some lingering divorce papers on the table from someone named CeCe (I know—women can marry women, but I was looking for clues …). Then Tamara comes by for some beers and when it seems like things might get intimate, Tamara asks our hero what it’s like to be a lesbian, making reference to a non-existent Adam’s apple. And this isn’t the first time in the book when gender identity and its questioning has reared itself, as each of the other stories I read—”Moon Colonies” and “Shadow of an Ape”—make at least passing references to the same. In a book that’s apparently filled with characters uncertain of where they’re going or who they are, gender identity (and sexual identify) fits in well thematically; maybe, though, it’s the other way around: the book is all about gender identity and the stories are just metaphors for that theme. Not sure, but if ambiguity’s a theme, then it’s certainly working on all cylinders.

I won’t tell you anything else about “Large Animals,” as I’ll let what I’ve said serve by itself. What I should make clear, however, is that I like what Arndt does with this story, with all her stories I’ve read, how she’s able to connect her readers to her characters’ aimlessness, to their anonymity. Part of me wants to liken Arndt’s style to a variation of stream of consciousness, where the reader has to follow a narrator’s scattered thoughts; I won’t go so far as that, as Arndt’s stories certainly aren’t that interior. Arndt’s style gave me that same feeling, however, like reading Joyce or Faulkner, that I was along for a ride, part of the whole process, part of the world unfolding. I was on board with this approach from the start, enjoying what Arndt’s characters experienced as they did, catching on—mostly from context—as each new adventure unfolded. I like Jess Arndt’s book for challenging me as a reader and a critic, for showing me, yet again, what stories can be.

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“The Foot” by Ryan Habermeyer

Happy Thursday to you, Story366! The heat has returned to Southwest Missouri, along with a lot of other places, so I’m happy to be traveling later today, in the AC, as opposed to splitting timbers or tarring a roof or something like that. I will soon be en route to Chicago, where I’ll catch a few games at Wrigley, slinging suds up and down the aisles and making up for my the eight hours on my ass in the AC. I’ve only vended beer at six games so far this year and none in over a month, so I’m pretty eager to see what else they’ve done to Wrigley Field and the surrounding neighborhood—there’d been quite a few changes over the winter—as I’m half-expecting a new skyscraper in left field or a racetrack around the park, something of that order. Not that I’m into racing—of any kind—but I am amused by the thought, people or horses or dragsters circling the stadium during the game, some spectacle to add to the carnival atmosphere. Maybe they could have peacocks race iguanas, something interesting like that. More than likely, another fancy bar with overpriced burgers and craft beers will have shown up instead, as if these people need to drink $13 Blue Moons outside the park when they could be pre-gaming inside instead, buying a $10.50 312 from me.

Speaking of my vending gig, the world went ahead and did it: The Surpreme Court made the world even shittier yesterday by sticking it to unions—we beer vendors are unionized (it’s Chicago, so of course we are). This on top of the fact that one of the nine—the sensible right guy—has announced his retirement, meaning someone like Jeff Sessions or Voldemort will be nominated promptly. When I said on Tuesday that I didn’t think I’d be writing about politics for a third entry in a row, I honestly thought these knobs would take a day off from the awful and I could talk more about the weather, but like so many times this past couple of years, I was proven incorrect. So, there you go.

For today’s entry, I read from Ryan Habermeyer‘s 2018 collection The Science of Lost Futures, winner of the BOA Short Fiction Prize from BOA, and it’s a book I’m somewhat familiar with. A couple of years ago, this book was a finalist in the Moon City Short Fiction Award, so I’d read at least a part of it, though if memory serves me correctly, Habermeyer pulled the book before we finished the judging, as he’d won this BOA award. We couldn’t be happier for him, as we took an extremely awesome book (I think that was the Michelle Ross-There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You year) and Habermeyer ended up on a really awesome, reputable press in BOA. Everybody wins (or at least Ross and Habermeyer, anyway).

Not sure if I’ve ever made this pronouncement before, but this may be the book that I had the hardest time in picking the story to write about. I read four of the stories in The Science of Lost Futures and I loved all of them, firstly, but all of them are also quite unique, completely different stories in style and theme from one another. The first story I read is the opener, “A Cosmonaut’s Guide to Microgravitic Reproduction,” about this regular Joe who signs up for the Cosmonaut program, goes through rigorous training, only to find that he’s being shot into space with a woman to test for the sexual positions that are most reproductive in zero gravity. Habermeyer has fun with this, as the dude’s log reads like a zero-G Kama Sutra, the whole thing absurd, yet the author makes it strangely moving. The third story in the book, “Visitation,” is about this guy whose wife’s womb falls out, then just kind of hangs around, sort of like if a hot water bottle was a houseguest. I flipped ahead a bit to get to “Indulgences,” in which the protagonist works at a doll factory, in quality control, where every fifty seconds or so, he’s got to strip naked on the assembly line and let the dolls—who have all kind of sensitivities and abilities—stare at him. He doesn’t know why he has to be naked or what comes of it, but nearly six hundred times a day, a piece of robotic plastic gets to eye his junk. And then there’s just a bunch of stories I want to read based on their titles alone, pieces like “Frustrations of a Coyote” and “A Genealogical Approach to My Father’s Ass.” I mean, what’re those about? I’m going to find out.

Still, I had to pick one, so I picked “The Foot,” the second story in the collection, one that I think is just perfect. In this story, there’s an unnamed, and for the most part, undescribed village, and one day, a giant foot washes ashore. The foot is as big as the town’s biggest water tower, and because it’s been in the sea for God knows how long, it’s covered in seaweed and barnacles and is pale and bloated like, well, a whole person would be if they washed up on a seashore. The story, told (mostly) in first plural, ventures on describing what happens afterward, and like any good communal narrator story, it reveals the reaction of the entire town, what some people think about this, what others think about that. There’s all kinds of theories about where the foot came from and what it means, and eventually, someone wonders where the rest of the person is that this foot belongs to; my favorite line is when one woman tells the crowd to call her when the cock washes up. There’s a lot of humor in this story, some of it tongue in cheek, the rest of it unnecessary to hide in that manner. This is a funny story, because of course it is: A giant foot has washed up on a beach.

Habermeyer takes us through the town’s stages of reaction, from shock and awe, to curious, to weird, to a whole bunch else. Scientists eventually show up and do all sorts of tests, while at the same time, the people of the town clean and care for the giant foot. Children eventually use it as a playground; teenagers use it as a makeout point. The foot becomes part of the town, an odd fixture like a sinkhole or tire fire, becoming as much a part of the community as anything. One particularly touching passage involves the possible identification of the foot, someone remembering an old folk tale about an orphaned girl named Ada who disappeared, who once said something about feet before she vanished. It’s a passage that comes out of nowhere, writing that gives real depth to this story, proving it’s not quite as light as I’ve perhaps made it out to be.

I won’t go any further into what happens next, but even at this point, I’m sure a lot of you might recognize this somewhat, as it’s strikingly familiar to Gabriel García Màrquez’s classic “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” which is one of my favorite stories of all time. In that story, a giant man—maybe like a dozen feet tall—washes up on the shores of this tiny Columbian village and before long, the villagers are cleaning him, dressing him, calling him Esteban, and well, you can read that story, too. I’m pretty sure someone with Habermeyer’s pedigree (all kinds of degrees and publications) has read this story and had García Màrquez’s tale in mind when he wrote it. Habermeyer’s story is not a rewriting, I don’t think, but it’s certainly homage, and a fine one at that, worthy of being named alongside that perfect piece of literature.

I could have written about any of the stories I read in The Science of Lost Futures, as all of the stores were not only a lot of fun, but they worked, as they say, on a lot of levels. Ryan Habermeyer instills depth within his protagonists, surprises just when you think you’ve figured his stories out, and wit that you really can’t learn. This is one of my favorite collections I’ve read this year, but also for this entire project, each piece speaking to me as a reader and a writer. What a talent, what a collection.

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“Kiss Me Someone” by Karen Shepard

Happy Tuesday, Story366! It’s a beautiful day here in Missouri after some torrential (and frightening) thunderstorms last night, storms that have rendered everything green and lush. What I really should be doing right now is mowing the lawn, before it rains again and it becomes unmanageable, but it’s hot and I just wanted to sit on the couch and read. Nothing wrong with that, right? Neighbors, sooner or later, might argue, but hey, maybe I’ll mow the lawn when I’m done with this post. Stranger things have happened.

Building on what I said yesterday about the parent-child separations at the border, our right-heavy Supreme Court upheld the president’s border restrictions, policies that I’d more or less forgot about in recent months with, you know, all the other bad shit going on. Today’s reminder is a stiff and depressing one, however, as now we are, without any form of resolve, legally telling very specific people they can’t come to our country, based not on their needs, the content of their character, or their abilities, but based on where they’re from. My guess is the Supreme Court has a rigid schedule and doesn’t really hear cases and vote on them at the president’s whim—not even in this administration—but the timing for this decision is convenient, as it gives liberals and other decent folk something else to focus on, helping us to forget how all those kids were locked up, separated from their parents, and it took a lot for the powers that be to realize their fuck-up and starting reversing course. Now our attention is on this other thing—which is a giant-sized shitstorm all its own—and maybe not the lonely kids in cages? Again, I don’t think the Supreme Court timed this just to help spin the news, but it’s awfully damn convenient.

By the way, whatever happened to distracting people from bad things with really good things, like newscasts about waterskiing squirrels on the day a bunch of people are murdered? Why are we being distracted from an awful thing by perhaps an equally awful thing? That’s where America is right now, I guess: Piling one horrible act upon the last.

I regress, though, as this is two days in a row of posting and two days in a row of uncharacteristic political commentary. I have this blog and I felt it was time to say something, have it on record that I’ve not been blind or immune to the upside-down nature of the world. Still, I never thought yesterday that I’d be back at it today. Just like today, I don’t think there’s any chance I’ll be on this crusade tomorrow, whether I do a Story366 post or not. Then again, let’s see what the news brings. If the National Guard for some reason shoots all the bunny rabbits in America or the House votes to outlaw afros or something, maybe I’ll be back at it.

Perhaps I jumped on another collection today because I needed my own distraction from the world, and as an avid reader, what better way to do that than with stories? Today I grabbed Karen Shepard‘s 2017 collection, Kiss Me Someone, out from Tin House Books, as my route of escape. This is one of the pile of collections the Karen got me for Christmas last year and it’s been waiting patiently on the Story366 stack for me to call. It’s number finally came up and I enjoyed a few of Shepard’s fine stories, the first I’ve ever read by this author, and enjoyed them very much. I knew a lot of them appeared in Tin House—I always check the Acknowledgments page first—and that Shepard is married to Jim Shepard, another great story writer and Story366 subject. Otherwise, I had no idea what to expect, but did suspect some kissing.

Shepard certainly delivers on the kissing, and a lot more, in these tales. The three stories I read, “Popular Girls,” “Magic With Animals,” and “Kiss Me Someone,” all had some kissing featured prominently in their telling, but then again, a lot of stories do. All three also happen to feature a similar theme, that of their female protagonists working through rather important life decisions, and perhaps not making the best of choices. In “Popular Girls,” we get a communal narrator, a group of 80s New York socialite teens in a whirlwind of sex and drugs and generally bad behavior, written montage-style, to the tune of Rick Moody’s oft-anthologized “Boys.” “Magic for Animals,” which I admit I chose solely for the intriguing title, features Kayla, who’s wondering if she should leave her magician/animal trainer boyfriend, escaping to an old friend’s house, an old friend who is suffering from dementia. The stories couldn’t feel any more different, one a general sketch of a type of woman at a particular time, in a particular place, the other a more traditional story (though half is told from the maternal figure’s husband), one in which its hero doesn’t have the luxury of wealth or youth to explain away bad choices. Yet, in each, the women have found themselves in a predicament, wish they could regress to simpler times, but have to face the music nonetheless.

The same cold be said of Natalie, the protagonist of “Kiss Me Someone,” a woman who finds herself at crucial time in her life, a midlife crisis, I suppose, the kind where she wonders how she got where she is and suddenly isn’t so sure she likes it. The story opens with Natalie ruminating about conversations she once had with Lloyd, her husband of thirty-five years. One conversation was about what would be deal-breakers would be on a first date: all kinds of right-wing behavior (neither Natalie nor Lloyd would date John Roberts today, we’ll assume). A later conversation, from early in their marriage, on what could possibly break up their perfect union: infidelity, abuse, etc., the no-brainers that break up most couples, huge violations of trust that no self-respecting person puts up with.

Thirty-five years in, Natalie is wondering why those young lovers never thought of the little things, only considered big-ticket items. Lloyd, from the obtuse angle, has lived up to his end of the bargain: He’s been a loving, faithful husband whose work as a banker has provided a comfortable life for Natalie and their twin daughters, a big house, college paid for, all without Natalie ever having to work a day. Yet, fifty-something Natalie regrets—if that’s the word for it—that back when they made those deal-breaker proclamations, she didn’t have the foresight to picture the more subtle offenses, like how Lloyd doesn’t always talk to her when they’re alone, or how he says he misses her, even when she’s right next to him; I’m guessing they haven’t had sex in years. Lloyd’s no abuser or philanderer, but he’s not all that attentive, either, and that’s what Natalie craves: attention. Lloyd isn’t a fan of this, especially not when Natalie points it out, and this altercation leads him do something pretty messed up: he breaks his toothbrush in half and then does the same to Natalie’s and the girls’, hiding the broken pieces in Natalie’s purse for her to find later. Natalie says she forgives him, but this isn’t what she’d pictured all those years ago.

Natalie’s thoughts get drawn into action after a couple of choice encounters. One is with Susan, a recently divorced friend who has just gotten large fake boobs, boobs she shows to Natalie in a restaurant bathroom stall, boobs she persuades Natalie to fondle. Susan can’t stop talking about how her new boyfriend can’t keep his hands off of her, which, I guess, gets Natalie thinking, not really about getting fake boobs of her own, but about what it would take to really get Lloyd’s attention, to make him react in any way. Enter the second choice encounter, Cullen, Natalie’s handsome ex-boyfriend who looks like he might be wearing the exact same pair of tight black jeans he wore when they dated, some forty years before. Cullen looks good, and even though Natalie runs into him when she’s out with Lloyd, she can’t hide that she’s thinking of what might have been these last few decades.

This is where the really bad choices come in, the ones that Natalie will have to deal with, in the story and its denouement. First, she calls Cullen, which can, of course, lead to nothing but no-good. Next, she sleeps with Cullen, in his crappy apartment, in the crappy complex of which he’s the manager. Then here’s where the story really gets interesting: After the rather lackluster tryst, Natalie asks Cullen if she’ll come home with her, for dinner with Lloyd and the girls, which is, of course, the most bat-shit crazy choice of all.

I won’t tell you what happens next, as you’ll have to read the story to find out, but Shepard doesn’t disappoint, making “Kiss Me Someone” a tremendously entertaining, if not somewhat uncomfortable (as in the British The Office), story. I like what Shepard does in this piece, how she didn’t fail to surprise me at any turn, how she focuses on her protagonist, on the choices she makes, on how those choices affect the plot and outcome of the story: What I like to call Story 101. This is tied to the theme I referred to earlier, characters getting themselves in situations and then making choices that will either make things better or make things worse. To me, this is how stories are put together, what I try to do in my work, what I teach my students. Karen Shepard seems to be pretty darn good at it, which is why today I enjoyed reading from Kiss Me Someone so much.

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“Every Single Bone in My Brain” by Aaron Tillman

It’s Monday, Story366, and I wish you good will. I don’t have much to report in the way of exciting life events, as me and the fam had a pretty chill weekend, which is just what we needed. This is especially true as we’ll be traveling a lot in the coming weekends—someone’s going somewhere for the next month or so—which kind of makes time go by and the summer drift away. Of course, we’re going to have fun on those trips, lots of great experiences. At the same time, I long for when the Karen announces: “I don’t think we have anything this weekend” as much as, if not more than, large-scale adventures.

As I don’t have anything fun or exciting, I’m going to take an opportunity to go on record here about how the world’s functioning—which I normally don’t do here on Story366—but this shit has reached new heights. As much as I’ve said that this weekend has been relaxing, that doesn’t mean that the current state of things—namely the border situation and the kids separated from the parents—hasn’t been devastating. Devastating for these families, of course, as they’re the ones who are going through this and very well might not ever recover. If you pay attention to the world at all, you know the scenario; if you’re at all intelligent, you know that these people and their lives are pawns in a large political game, a very bad man using them to get what he wants, to win a battle. It’s tragic. In fact, even with everything that’s happened in the last couple of years, all the horrible and embarrassing and depressing events, separating these refugee kids from their parents, moving them to different, secret locations, and in some cases, losing track of who’s where and who’s who, is the absolutely worst thing I can imagine. In terms of acts perpetrated by our beloved country, the US of A, anyway. I don’t use this blog as a platform very often, but I also don’t want my playful demeanor and attention to these fine story collections imply that I don’t give a crap about the world, our country, or these poor kids, kids who are suffering because of my government. It sucks. My family and I are heartbroken. We chill, yeah but it hurts. It’s on my mind and it’s affecting me. Just so I’m clear: I’m with Robert DeNiro.

Shifting gears (quite dramatically), now let’s talk about the awesomeness that is Aaron Tillman‘s 2017 collection Every Single Bone in My Brain, an Alleyway Book (an imprint of Braddock Avenue Books). I picked this collection up at AWP this past spring and have finally made my way through the stack. I can say without hesitation that boy, it was worth this wait. I’d not read Tillman’s work before venturing inside his book today, and now I know I’ve been missing out. Tillman has a gift for longer (or regular-sized) stories, of which I’ve read a couple, and an equal talent for shorts, which he’s won quite a few awards for, including a couple of entries in The Best Small Fictions anthology. Tillman’s got the skills and I’m glad to finally be in the know.

I read a couple of the longer stories, including the beautifully sad “The Great Salt Lake Desert,” about a kid who takes a cross-country journey with an older woman, hoping to find himself. I also enjoyed the title story, “Every Single Bone in My Brain,” which I’ll write about today. To note, though, all of the shorts in the book, particularly “One Rib Short,” are super-great. But today, I’m writing about “Every Single Bone in My Brain,” which I absolutely love.

“Every Single Bone in My Brain” is about this unnamed protagonist who firmly believes he has a minor superpower, the power to shock and kill people who touch him. We find out how he got this power, or why he believes he has it, in a lengthy intro, given in the form of a monologue where the character sets out to tell us exactly how this happens; it’s all very metafictional, and at one point, the character even acknowledges that he’s talking to a reader, mentioning the breaking of the fourth wall. Anyway, he tells the entire story like that, starting with this origin story (fit for any super-powered being), how he almost died as an infant and had to be shocked back to life by defibrillation. Because of this, he believes he carries an electric charge, not one he can use to fly or throw lightning bolts, but one that, in certain situations, can shock the life out of people. In fact, he believes he shock both his parents—his dad when he was an infant, in the bathtub, his mom when he was in college, when she grabbed his arm—killing them by inducing cardiac arrest. He carries this burden with him, like so many heroes do, living the next ten years virtually alone, fearful he’ll inadvertently kill again.

We also get a lot about our hero’s job, at which he updates reference software for library search engines, but also takes calls from desperate undergrads unable to find sources (often because they wait until the last minute to write their papers). Whenever he gets a call, his computer panks like a raindrop and he goes running, walking the students through the system, while in his head, mocking them for their insufferable incompetence. We find out that our hero is alone, believes a strange narrative about himself, has this library job that he performs from home, and is kind of a pompous ass. So far, so good—I was hooked.

After this long origin story—nearly half the page count—Tillman moves on to the inciting incident: The call from WW. To WW, WW is what she uses as her sign-in to the library system, but to our protagonist, WW is short for Water Woman, the name he’s given to the mate he’s convinced he’ll eventually find, the complement to his Electric Man persona. WW just needs helps with her creative writing research (which even Tillman acknowledges to be absurd), and before we know it, the two are talking about non-research topics. This leads to a bevy of personal revelations, and eventually, a live meeting. Turns out WW is named Willow and she genuinely seems interested in our isolated hero.

As the two make plans to meet, Willow confirms that she’s heard of our guy—with some help from the hero himself—that he’s famous for killing his mom on campus, how she dropped him off for an exam and died right there, at the curb; from there, our hero never returned to campus, finishing his degree from home and becoming the subject of a very inspirational graduation speech. From Willow’s dialogue, we find out that our hero has an immunity deficiency (possibly due to burns from the defibrillator?) and he wears a cumbersome suit, one that completely covers his body (Willow asks if he’s a bubble boy). We readers can infer that his malady could be a genuine susceptibility to germs, but he possibly could be susceptible to a variety of mental shortcomings, including germophobia. Suddenly, twenty pages of story, of monologue, come into question, as Willow, this outsider, is giving us a different picture of our guy: He’s at the least unreliable, but at the most, he’s really messed up (and very unreliable). Tillman’s been playing us a bit, but plays his cards at the exact right time to make his story really great, for the reveal to have its deepest impact.

Willow and our guy eventually meet up and a bunch of other stuff happens, none of which I’ll go into here, as I don’t want to spoil any more of the twists. I’ll point out, though, that when our guy was helping Willow write her creative assignment for her writing class, one of his suggestions is a “village of imaginary friends,” where a woman creates all the friends around her as she doesn’t have any, a solipsist’s wet dream. Am I saying that Willow doesn’t exist and this OCD guy living all alone made up their interactions, that none of the story happened? Of course not. But Tillman is sly enough to at least imply it, which makes us think about this story all the more, offers us even more possibilities, more interpretations.

“Every Single Bone in My Brain” is a complex story, but one that I enjoyed from the first page all the way until the last (it’s thirty pages, so that’s good). I like the cocky, tragic voice of the protagonist as he tells his story, his vulnerabilities peeking through the cracks in his thick, person-proof gloves. I like how Tillman uses Willow as both a puppet and puppeteer. And I like how despite all the crazy theories I could concoct regarding this story, it also works as straightforward, that’s what’s on the page—as opposed to what’s in-between the lines—works just as well as a story as anything I can imagine.

That’s what I think Tillman’s strength is, presenting complex narratives—even in his shorts—that read simply and easily (I just watch the finale of Westworld late last night and can’t say the same about that story). This is Tillman’s power, to present these complicated but beautiful worlds in a way that we become engrossed and entangled, but never lost. I was captivated by the stories in Every Single Bone in My Brain and am so glad to share my discovery: Check it out.

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“The Merry Spinster” by Mallory Ortberg

A good Wednesday to you, Story366! Coming at you on a rainy and overcast humpday. It’s been in the mid-90s for going on two weeks here in Springfield, but the heat finally broke a bit today with a torrential downpour, one that’s kept today’s proceedings rather cool. I’ve been especially lazy to turn down the AC (which is working just fine, in case you’ve been keeping track and are wondering), and that, combined with the fact I had to run out into the rain to shut the car windows, means I’m actually writing this entry cold and shivering. Add to the fact that me and the oldest went for a hike this morning, so my wet shirt is now particularly stinky. I could change shirts and make it warmer, surely, but Story366 calls. I have no time for such frivolities.

I’m enjoying the fact that I’ve done three of these posts in the last week, as that means I’ve been reading a lot more than I had been at the end of the spring semester, or really, during the semester. I know that when I’m reading stories, I have the urge to write stories, and in the past week, I’ve actually done some writing. Not sure why that is, but it’s always been true. My most inspired moments? When I’m at other writers’ readings, sitting in an audience, hearing their intro, their work, seeing all the people hang on their every words, seeing the reaction at the end. It’s a blissful feeling when art has been shared and everyone approves. At the end of these events, I always have a million ideas and a ton of energy to write, to create. More often than not, I instead go off to celebrate with the readers, often by imbibing alcohol, drowning out that inspiration. Or sometimes, the drive home will do me in. In short, other writers’ stories make me want to write. I should read more.

That’s as true for Story366 entries as much as any other reading, though I’ve certainly trained myself to start writing these entries as soon as I get done reading the stories. I’m wondering now if I shouldn’t read from a book, write a bit of my own work, then write the entry. Certainly, I’d lose some of my trains of thought, forget some of the things I was going to say. Or not. I guess I’ll have to try it out and see. Maybe next time.

I certainly feel good about stories after reading from today’s book, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg, a Holt Paperback out this year from Henry Holt and Company. I actually started this book a couple of weeks ago at Scout camp, but then lost track of where I put it, though it turns out it was just in the bottom of my backpack, where I’d left it. I remember starting the first story at a picnic table, Scouts running to and fro, but enjoying the opening story, “The Daughter Cells,” or at least what of it I got to read before I was called off to duty. That story was a retelling of “The Little Mermaid,” from what I could tell, and reading further into it, and the collection, I see that Ortberg’s collection is one of retold fairy tales. From the book’s subtitle, you can probably guess that they go more in the direction of the Brothers Grimm than Hans Christian Andersen, and especially Disney movie adaptations (which I’m sadly most familiar with of the three). The third-ever Story366 entry, on Jean Thompson’s The Witch back in 2016, came to mind as I read (hey, I never did read and cover that Michael Cunningham collection that came out around the same time …), though Ortberg does different things with her stories, has a different tone.

I did read one story, “The Thankless Child,” to which I couldn’t match a particular tale, though there’s an awful lot of salt involved (a Google search implies that it’s maybe”The Salt Prince,” or maybe “The Salt Princess,” which is based on King Lear), but then I moved on to the title story, in the middle of the book, “The Merry Spinster,” which I thought for sure was going to be a retelling of Cinderella, as there was a rich mom, two beautiful sisters, and one less-than-beautiful sister, whom they teasingly call “Lil’ Beauty”—she’s rather plain, making her name the ironic kind. Anyway, this nickname should have told me I was really reading a new “Beauty and the Beast” and not “Cinderella.” As I slowly started to realize this, I also realized that I didn’t really know the story of the beauty and her beast, at least not how Belle got caught up in that castle with the beast, why she couldn’t leave until she fell in love with him and broke his spell. Another trip to Google filled me, so I think I’m ready now to write a decent post.

Just like in the original tale, in “The Merry Spinster,” there’s a beast guy in a castle, though in this story he’s called both Mr. Beale and the Beast. Much like in the original, Beauty’s mother (it’s her father in the other versions) wanders upon the Beast’s castle, seeking shelter, and while she’s there, steals a rose to give to Beauty (who likes roses). The beast captures her and tells her she’s his prisoner, pretty much for forever. This comes to that and Beauty has offered herself up instead, to save her mother. The Beast accepts and Beauty moves in, pretty much like the other versions of the story

After this, we expect, of course, for the Beast to want Beauty to fall in love with her, because that will break his curse and he won’t be the Beast anymore, perhaps just Mr. Beale again. Ortberg’s tale diverges from the expected course a bit here, as for one, the Beast is just called the Beast, but we’re never given any description of him as some snarling, hairy monster. Next, there are no servants in the castle, meaning no singing candlesticks or clocks, no Angela Landsbury entertaining us with song. Beauty is just at the castle, alone with the Beast. And he lurks. He attends dinner in the dining room with Beauty every night, but never partakes. Instead, he watches her and he proposes to her. Beauty always declines his advances and often the Beast sends her to bed without supper, which she eats when he leaves. Certainly, this Beast is not aware of the workplace harassment cases that are being brought against a lot of celebrities these days—he could exchange sob stories with with Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose.

I won’t go any further into plot details, just to not give anything away. As you might guess, things don’t go the way of the Disney version, not with Ortberg’s subtitle, Tales of Everyday Horror. Note, though, this could mean a lot of things, and if you’re trying to guess, pay attention to the “everyday” part, as that plays as much into these stories’ endings as the “horror” aspect.

A few of notes about the book: Ortberg’s narrators—third-person omniscient all-seers—have an interesting voice, one that’s coy and playful, one that likes to twist words around and even come off as ornery; one passage begins, “Some time passed, and nothing happened ….” At times, there’s even a metafictional feel to the book, and somewhere, in one of the stories, the narrator refers to him/herself as “I” and is a bit of an active character. This voice/tone/approach makes Ortberg’s book pretty fresh and fun to read, giving it an attitude.

Speaking of him/herself, Ortberg also uses gender pronouns interchangeably in the book, a Paul referred to as a she, a Sylvia as a he. One of the stories, “The Frog’s Princess,” is about the youngest daughter in the family, the titular princess, but is referred to by masculine pronouns throughout. Not sure if Ortberg is commenting on the universality of her tales or if she’s just writing progressively, or both, but I found it interesting. (Note: After writing this post, when looking up Ortberg to link to her name [Google again!], I found out that Ortberg transitioned to Daniel Mallory Ortberg during the writing of this book: My apologies for being so ham-handed with this.)

Lastly, the book isn’t only divided by individually titled stories, but are numbered as chapters as well, one, two, three, etc. I don’t see any relationship between the stories, except thematically, and as far as I can tell, the characters don’t all come together in the end to make this a novel-in-stories, no Shrek-like ending with Smashmouth blasting, I’m afraid to report. Anyway, I’m not sure why the stories are numbered.

Most of all, though, I just enjoyed reading the stories in The Merry Spinster. Like with any project of this nature—I always like Fractured Fairy Tales when I was a kid—it’s fun to identify what story you’re reading a retelling of, then seeing how the author takes it in other directions. That was particularly true with my reading of Mallory Ortberg’s tales, as she never failed to surprise me, to satisfy my urge for something new, creative, and shocking. This is a great collection, some of the best flat-out fun I’ve had with a book.

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“You or a Loved One” by Gabriel Houck

Happy Monday, Story366! It’s nice to start off the week with some reading and blogging, as that’s the great advantage of summer. Hard to believe I’ve been done with that spring semester for a month now. Part of me is tempted to look back and evaluate what I’ve accomplished in the past month, but part of me knows, from experience, that there’s not a whole lot of good to come from that. I’m pretty sure most academic-types have grand plans for summer as they turn their spring grades in, plan to write seventeen novels and a bunch of stories, lose twenty-five pounds, and get their house in to having-company-shape, all by the end of May. It never really works out like that, not for for mere mortals like me, anyway, so I look at the small victories. Writing this post, for example, is more than a small victory, as I love doing these, but I don’t necessarily have to. I could be doing anything else right now, including sleeping or watching television. I’m not, though. And that’s a victory. After this, I probably will nap. And I might work on a story. But no matter what, I’ve done this. So, I salute you, summer, for both giving me the time to do great things and making me feel awful about it when I don’t.

I had a tremendous Father’s Day weekend to boot, as the boys (via Karen) got me and everyone a family pass to the Wonders of Wildlife, this giant new aquarium right here in Springfield, Missouri, part of the enormous Bass Pro complex and headquarters just a couple of miles from our house. We chose to visit on Saturday, even though we knew it would be crowded, but we were excited to see what was up (they’ve been building this attraction since before we moved here six years ago). Like with my story reviews here on this blog, I don’t want to give much away, but I will say that the aquarium lives up to the hype: Me and the fam had a great time, and tomorrow after school, I’m taking the boys back for another trip. Springfield doesn’t have a lot to offer out-of-towners in terms of attractions, but this jumps to the top of the list: I can legitimately say that it’s worth traveling here to visit this place. Happy Father’s Day, indeed.

Back to the blog, though. Today I read the first few stories from Gabriel Houck‘s new collection, You or a Loved One, just out from Orison Books as the winner of their 2017 Orison Fiction Prize. I hadn’t read anything from this press before, but I have read a few of Houck’s stories. One piece I read was in Mid-American Review a bit ago (I still get that mag!) and another (though this one not in the book) was in Moon City Review 2015. Obviously, I’ve liked what I’d seen, but it was nice to sit down with a whole collection, read a few in a row, see what Houck really does.

I liked all three of the stories I read in this book, including the title story (which is first), “The Dot Matrix,” about a kid stealing crappy porn printouts back in the nineties, and “Hero’s Theater,” the MAR piece, about a guy who has to play Spider-man at a kid’s birthday party. I liked all the stories a great deal, so I’m defaulting to the title story, as I usually do, as that’s what I’m doing.

“You or a Loved One” is about Belle, a crisis center phone operator who is, more or less, skimming along the surface of her life. She is forty years old and has moved across the country, away from her eighty-something-year-old parents, just to avoid them, be alone. She feels comfortable lying about her situation, insisting she’s been dating a wonderful man and has all kinds of gallery shows for her paintings, what she went to school for. She hasn’t painted in years, and her current boyfriend, twenty-five-year old Nick, has unique designs on what constitutes monogamy. She posits that she could still have a happy, nuclear life, complete with normal relationship and kids, but also admits that this window is closing, that it “… feels like a shuttered part of a shuttered house from which I’ve long since moved away.” So, Belle isn’t particularly happy, and knows she can do better, but isn’t the type of person who does.

The one human contact that she’s still fully invested in is her younger brother, Kip, a grown man with Aspergers (though they didn’t know that until he was grown), who calls Belle regularly, whom Belle even calls back. Belle still keeps herself isolated enough, though, as she never answers her phone, just listens to Kip’s messages on Voicemail, then returns his calls when she knows he won’t answer, so he can experience her second-hand as well. And this is who Belle is: A buffer between her and anyone she can get close to: The physical distance between her and her parents, the voicemail deal with Kip, the age difference with Nick, and the phone relationship with her clients at work. Belle won’t let anyone close to her, not physically or emotionally, which is some pretty great characterizing by Houck.

All this is happening with the crisis center in the backdrop, where Belle genuinely excels. Her boss, Raymond, calls her in, about halfway through the story, to tell her that she’s doing a great job (calls are monitored for quality assurance, don’t you know). He wants to promote her to the rank of Diamond associate, even though a counselor is supposed to be with the company two years before reaching that rank and Belle isn’t near that time. What this means is, Belle is going to move from simple, non-emergency cases like the woman who hears a dog barking in her house (her dog has long since died) to serious emergencies people at the edge of death, callers in dire situations with only one person to turn to, using their personal crisis call-in device (like the kind we see on TV: “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”). All of a sudden, Belle’s finds herself in a much higher level of human contact, and dependency, than she’s comfortable with.

And that’s as much rundown as I’ll give on “You or a Loved One,” as any more would give away the super-special twists and details that make this story such a delight. Houck has a knack, it appears, for depicting marginally odd protagonists, seemingly normal people with just enough quirk to make them interesting, to make them story-worthy. Belle in today’s selection is probably like a lot of Americans, someone who just wants to do her thing and otherwise be left alone, only it doesn’t work that way, not when people love you, want to interact with you out of genuine human compulsion. The teenaged kid in “The Dot Matrix” only wants to fit in, have the same pinup printout that every other kid in his grade has, even if it means giving up the safety of his D&D game for a bit. And the Spider-man actor in “Hero’s Theater” just wants to play Spider-man, at the Celebration Station, but is bitter he has to go to someone else’s house, play it by their rules. Gabriel Houck’s protagonists, from what I can tell, just want their vision of the universe to be the norm, to keep doing their thing, keep coasting from one day to the next as they bask in the intricacies of life they have grown to enjoy. Conflict arises when everyone else prevents them from doing so, leading to some pretty great fiction. It also makes You or a Loved One an impressive debut collection, one I recommend.

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