Archive by Author

Some Mini Vouches

18 Nov

Recently I’ve read things I haven’t had time to discuss at length.

American Short Fiction is consistently excellent and whenever I get a new issue in the mail, it’s the one thing I read immediately instead of relegating it to an increasingly insurmountable pile of things I need (and mostly want) to read. I can’t stop beating this horse because it’s so rare that entire issues of a magazine are excellent. The Fall 2011 issue is particularly strong. The first story, “Signs,” by Bess Winter, won their Short Short Fiction contest and is about a gorilla with a nipple fetish, an academic researcher, female graduate students, and I don’t want to ruin the story but it’s both intimate and tender and uncomfortable and strange. One of the things ASF does really well is encourage longer short fiction and the longer stories in this issue really spoke to the value of stories that stretch toward 10,000 words. Amanda Goldblatt’s “Crook,” had some of the same quiet strangeness of “Signs,” but also had a really unexpected ending. There’s a woman, nearing middle-age, who works in a mall and lives in a cave. She has a younger, pregnant co-worker. There’s a man, a stranger, who starts sharing her cave without much fanfare or discussion. What makes this story work is how calmly all of the strangeness and loneliness and, at times, sadness, is communicated. It’s never made into a big deal. In this story, this is just the way things go. “Pilgrim Life,” by Taylor Antrim tells the story of a guy in his twenties, just out of college, feeling lost, living in San Francisco. His mother has cancer and his brother wants him to return home to Pensacola, Florida to care for her. The family dynamics are complex, as they are often wont to be. He’s in a relationship with Claire, the kind where she’s just out of a relationship with an older man and he’s the one who loves more. This story handles voice, that of a disaffected young man, so wonderfully. Antrim is not afraid to make this character selfish and kind of obliviously self-absorbed but still sympathetic and to strike that balance is admirable. The freshest breath of air in this issue was Susan Steinberg’s “Signifier,” which has a really unique tone and an unexpected narrative style that you don’t see a lot of. There’s a story but it’s not really told like a story and a lot of the work of making sense of the people involved and who they are is left to the reader. So much is implied but what you do with that implication takes the story into interesting places. I also have a really soft spot for “Paradeability,” by Bret Anthony Johnston about a widower and his young teenage son, who, in the wake of his mother’s death, has passionately pursued a hobby of being a clown, a hobo clown to be exact. The father’s grief is muted but palpable throughout the story but really, the story is about a man trying to be a good father and worrying he is failing and working desperately to understand his “inscrutable” son. Subscribe. It’s worth it.

Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me was a quick, fun read. She has a lot of smart, funny things to say. Like Bossypants, I wasn’t completely satisfied but I don’t regret reading it. Humor is good.

Two recent poetry collections really stood out. Jeffrey Morgan’s Crying Shame is a really solid and cohesive collection. The prose poems (two) “Rescue Excerpts” were particularly compelling because they were witty and evasively disturbing. My favorite line, from the second “Rescue Excerpts”: “When you lose the ability to distinguish between sunburn and rash, you are in real trouble. You are delusional, and those delusions stem from an insatiable loneliness.”  Edward Mullany’s If I Falter at the Gallows is as good as the praise being lavished upon this book indicates. At Big Other, Paula Bomer interviews Mullany and their conversation offers some interesting insights into the book.

I am the last person, probably, to get hip to Joan Didion but Play It As It Lays, has inserted itself into my favorite books ever ever. Now I’m reading her collected essays, Run River, and The Year of Magical Thinking. What an astounding writer. Why did it take me so long to get into Didion?


I Looked For You, I Called Your Name by Laura van den Berg

5 Aug

Normally when a new issue of a literary magazine arrives at my apartment, I add it to my “To Read” stack and get to it eventually. Or not. I saw Laura van den Berg’s name on the back cover of Ploughshares 37.2/3 and opened the magazine right away. This issue is the 40th anniversary issue and it’s full of fancy writers like Alice Hoffman, Maxine Kumin, Nickolas Butler, Gary Soto and others. That’s well and good. The only story I want to talk about is van den Berg’s “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” a beautiful story about a couple on their honeymoon in Patagonia.

From the outset, we know the honeymoon didn’t go well. The story begins, “The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing.” A simple declarative statement sets the tone for the story that follows with writing that is at once plain and provocative.  After an emergency landing on the last leg of their journey, when her husband’s elbow hits the narrator in her face (we later learn her nose is broken), the narrator moves to stand.

“The seatbelt sign is still on,” my husband said, resting a hand on my back.

I leaned forward, away from his touch. These were the kinds of moments that had recently been giving me pause. We’re new at this, I kept telling myself, but there was no denying that I was often confounded by his priorities.

On one level, “I Looked For You, I Called Your Name,” is a story about a new marriage and a woman experiencing doubts. However, there is another layer, one that is elegantly crafted, and reveals how the narrator doesn’t know where or how or if she fits in the world. She both struggles and is at peace with her sense of displacement. She also tries to make sense of what she feels for her husband, wonders if what she feels is love. We follow the couple on their honeymoon and the calamities they encounter. There are few tender moments. Mostly, we see the void between the narrator and the people around her. At times, the story flashes forward. We don’t know if this couple is happy or what their marriage becomes but through subtle clues, we know they are together. That knowledge complicates the story and how we understand the present, the awkwardness of how this couple relates, and what we know about how she feels about herself and her new husband. This complication of a known future creates unexpected depth and elevates the story into something truly memorable.

We know some of why the narrator feels this sense of displacement (I don’t want to spoil it for you), and that added knowledge  makes this woman, no matter how disaffected she seems, easy to empathize with. It explains what might otherwise seem inexplicable.

Late one night the narrator goes to the beach while her husband sleeps. Alone on the sand, she thinks about an emptiness she has always felt.

I opened my mouth and started packing it with fistfuls of damp sand. The grains scratched the roof of my mouth and got wedged between my teeth. Grit ran down the back of my throat. My cheeks ballooned; sand stuck to my gums…. And years later, after Patagonia was far behind us, this was the moment I would remember—because I had acted inexplicably in the middle of the night and I never had to explain myself.

Ultimately, what the narrator seems to be grasping for throughout this story, is to feel that sense of freedom, that ability to be herself, in plain sight, without needing to explain herself. It’s heartbreaking, when you think about it.

The Ploughshares  issue containing Laura’s story is not listed online for purchase yet but it should be soon. Check back at the Ploughshares website. You definitely want to get your hands on this story ASAP. This is the kind of story I will use when I try to explain to my students how to tell stories we know in unknown ways. I would not be surprised to see it in a certain Best anthology. It’s that good.

A Look at American Short Fiction Winter 2010/11 and Spring 2011

27 Jun

One of the magazines I read that is consistently excellent is American Short Fiction. Each issue presents such a fine selection of stories, always beautifully crafted, fresh, relevant.

In the Winter 2010/11 issue, “Four Calling Birds,” by Michael Martone is an exquisite set of four vignettes that deconstruct four different relationships in ways that are not only original but at the language level, these vignettes just blow me away. In the first one, “Veery,” a woman and a man are having phone sex when her daughter comes home from school. She orgasms as she runs to close her bedroom door.

“The next time they talked, she would tell him how intense it was to be moving through the spasm, all inertia, entropic, irresistible, spilling as she spilled toward the door, her momentum carrying herself and the door forward to a slamming slam he could hear clearly.”

The entire piece is filled with these elaborately constructed sentences that pull apart moments in really interesting ways.

Later, the narrator describes, with exacting detail, listening to the woman get dressed to greet her daughter.

“He listened for the zipper and heard it. Then the soft whisper as she rolled a T-shirt onto her arms, followed by that stopped-up, submerged sound as her hair, silk, slid through the abraded collar.”

In another vignette, a man and a woman are having an affair in a hotel but rather than focus on the banalities of such a circumstance, Martone once again turns to language to reveal the most interesting, uncomfortable moments between adulterers . As they engage in their affair, the unnamed couple steals moments from each other to call the spouses they’ve left behind.

“Fucking again, now, through the phone calls, silent, suppressed, turned inward, listening hard to the rasping in the ear, the receiver pressed hard against the head as if each of them, when it is their turn, hangs on to some handle of sanity, anchoring their consciousness while the body below is being dismembered piece by piece. It is a kind of sex toy, the telephone, vibrant but inert, innocuous, a chunk of putt-colored plastic molded to the ear, enzymatic magic, the fulcrum around which they turn, and turning, they both now want to say something, to speak, talk, to change the subject, bend it over something, move the conversation from the ear to the mouth, feeling the coming words come, emit the innocent protestations of longing, of feeling the distance and the night closing in, of missing you so much, of letting loose the shared formula of words…”

Every sentence in “Four Calling Birds,” is word sex–hot, messy word sex that you want to wrap your tongue and mind around.

I also loved Reese Okyong Kwon’s “The Circling Eagles, The Eager Fish,” about a man in a hospital who has been injured, listening to a child die, wryly judging how the parents of that child mourn the inevitable, revealing that he has suffered a loss of his own, but doing so without any pity for himself. The story is sharp and a fine example of what we’re always looking for–new ways of telling old stories. Everything about Kwon’s story is new.

In the Spring 2011 issue, every single story is a damn good read. In “Marie Tells All,” twin sisters go on a show where a fading rock star is looking for love. Yes, this is a story written exactly for someone like me. This story is about the falsity of “reality” television but it is so much more. The twin sisters, Teena and Marie, have a complex relationship, one sister, Marie, having just finished taking care of her dying father before agreeing to appear on the show with her sister who abandoned her father in his time of need. The writing appears effortless and the story plays beautifully against what we know about this kind of reality television without becoming a farce.

“Fancier,” by Michael Fauver tells the story of two theater owners, one married, the other in love with his competition. The story is strange but really gorgeous as we slowly begin to realize that the narrator might share the feelings he seems to rebuff. This is a story where the tension builds slowly and unexpectedly and the ending just breaks your heart as the narrator tries to hold on to something, the man he is losing.

“Then the spotlight, for a moment, illuminates stage center, and I see my hands sweating all over his hands, and I see a shape bulge through his trousers. This close, it seems enormous, but from the seats it would look small. And then the spotlight goes out, this time for good, and we are alone, he and I. An audience would see two men, one of them standing, one of them not, but they wouldn’t see the kneeling man touch the swollen shape. They wouldn’t know what he’s thinking. That the shape makes him feel insignificant.”

Shannon Cain’s “The Steam Room,” is my new favorite short story. This is an ever-changing accolade in my mental library, but I loved the hell out of this story about a mayor’s wife who is caught masturbating in the steam room of the local YMCA as she images Johnny Depp going down on her. There is, of course, an ensuing scandal but the protagonist, Helen, is so calm in the face of the scandal, so resolutely unashamed (as well she should be), that you can’t help but admire her. Toward the end of the story, she is preparing to be interviewed by a reporter who has just slept with her boss. The reporter is in the bathroom, lamenting that she went to Cornell and in that moment, wants nothing more than a shower. Helen offers the young woman a washcloth.

“When the reporter cracked open the door, Helen averted her eyes and slipped the cloth inside. She felt a firm, sisterly squeeze of appreciation on her fingers.”

The entire story is filled with those lovely moments and the ending, with Helen on a golf course with her daughter in a necessary, intimate embrace is one of the more satisfying endings I’ve come across in a short story as of late.

If you subscribe to one literary magazine (other thank PANK, obvi) I urge you to take a chance on American Short Fiction. The magazine will never disappoint you and the past two issues, in particular, really set a standard.

The Love of My Life: A Touchstone

12 Mar

Every time I want to write something emotional and honest and important I re-read the same essay—Cheryl Strayed’s The Love of My Life. This essay was published more than eight years ago but I cannot stop coming back to it. It is a strange thing to connect deeply with the words of a stranger and yet it happens all the time, doesn’t it? We read, we read, we search, we find, we feel. This essay is something like a touchstone for me. That’s kind of strange, I suppose because it’s a very intimate essay about someone else, a stranger’s life, about a set of experiences I have not experienced–she writes of the end of her first marriage, infidelity, but most importantly all consuming grief over the loss of her mother. Still, there is something about this essay—there’s an emotional honesty that got a hold of me the first time I read the essay and has not let go. Tonight, I decided to write something important I have avoided writing for, well, forever and I thought, “How do I do this?” I thought, “How do I do this right?” I don’t yet have the answers to those questions but I did re-read Strayed’s essay because I knew it was a good place to stat.

Who Gives Good Word? Nick Antosca

5 Mar

Nick Antosca writes some of the sexiest, most interesting stories, period.

Exhibit 1 (Metazen)

Exhibit 2 (Spork)

Exhibit 3 (Annalemma)

One Story At a Time: Wherever You Go, There You Are

31 Dec

I love stories about women who are embroiled in complex relationships with ex-lovers because sometimes a relationship is never over no matter who you move on to or why you are moving on in the first place. In “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” the narrator, who’s staying with family in Delaware while escaping a failed relationship, takes her cousin Chrissie, a teenager, to see her ex-boyfriend Brian play a gig in North Carolina. Brian and the narrator are one of those couples who will never be over and the intensity of their connection is palpable throughout the story. As with all of Danielle Evans’s stories, there’s a lot going on in “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” including a tangled family history, a dying grandfather, Chrissie’s rebellious nature as is the wont of girls who are fourteen, and the narrator trying to make sense of her relationship with Brian while dealing with his relationship with his new fiancée.

This story has some of my favorite lines. When the narrator describes Chrissie, she says, “She’s the wrong kind of pretty, the kind that’s soft but not fragile, the kind that inspires the impulse to touch.”  She describes Vegas as a city she has, “always loved for its ability to be at once shameless about its fantasy self and honest about its real one, which is the only reason I’ve ever loved anything.”

Even with all the subplots in this story, the one story that matters most is the story of the relationship between Brian and the narrator, the story of the gravity holding them to one another despite the people and the history in their way. There is so much subtext to everything this couple shares. There are conversations within their conversations as they exchange words on a frequency only the two of them can hear. When the story ends, nothing has been resolved between these two and what interests me most of all is how they are still not over. We don’t know where they are going but we do know where they are.

One Story at a Time: Snakes

20 Dec

One of the strongest connective tissues throughout Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, is that Danielle Evans writes stories about young women making complex decisions before they can appreciate the extent of the consequences. In “Snake,” one of the strongest stories in this collection, a young woman spends the summer with white grandmother while her parents are in Brazil. There were so many complex issues about race, class, and family tackled in this story and so much of it resonated with me like the white mother unable to comb her daughter’s hair and the grandmother uncomfortable with her granddaughter’s blackness. While spending the summer with her grandmother, the narrator, Tara, spends most of her time growing close with her cousin Allison.This is also a story about children abandoned by their parents and how they are shaped by that abandonment. Alliso and Tara created a safe little world for themselves where the grandmother’s cold, sometimes cruel treatment of Tara could not harm them. As is wont to happen to the innocent worlds of children, their friendship is, eventually fractured and then repaired and then fractured again in a more permanent and profound way.

When living with her grandmother becomes unbearable, Tara laments to her cousin that she wants to go home. One of the young women makes one of the critical decisions the young women in Evans’s stories have to make. Tara falls from a tree where they are sitting. Allison confesses to the offense. Tara is injured and her parents rush back from Brazil to be by her side. It is Allison, however, who bears deeper injuries with deeper consequences and it is only at the very end of the story, when both women are adults leading very different lives, that we find out what really happened between the two cousins in that tree, as young girls, alone, and lonely, and wanting more from life than life was willing to give them.

One Story At a Time: Harvest

15 Dec

Whenever I see ads by infertile couples looking to buy the healthy eggs of a young woman, I wonder what that must be like, as a woman, to have your eggs harvested and used by someone else. In “Harvest,” the third story in Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, a group of black girls attending Columbia University watch from the sidelines as their white peers sell their eggs and live lavish lifestyles for college students. These girls are confronted with the frustrating reality that their eggs, their children, are largely unwanted and lacking in value on the proverbial open market. As with most of the stories in this collection, there is a real elegance to how Evans approaches the complicated issue of race and class without overwhelming the story with a social agenda.

One of the highlights for me was the narrator’s voice—a young woman coming of age and still very young in some ways. For example, in describing herself and her friends, she says, “What we wanted was to be a doctor, a lawyer, a spy, and happy.”

There is an interesting tension in this story as the narrator, Angel, and her friends grow apart from Laura Kelso, one of their white friends, a girl who was working class, but by selling her eggs quickly found herself distanced from the girls with whom she could once relate.

I don’t want to give the story away but the ending of “Harvest” is quite powerful and in its way, a bit shocking. As with Crystal in “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” Angel is forced to make difficult choices in difficult circumstances before she can truly understand the consequences. And yet, there’s something in this story, an undercurrent, that gives me the sense Angel understands the consequences of her choices at the end of the story quite perfectly and that possibility, is all the more chilling and that possibility makes this story all the more interesting.

One Story at a Time: Robert E. Lee Is Dead

5 Dec

Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Instead of trying to talk about the collection as a whole, I’m going to take things one story at a time.

“Robert E. Lee Is Dead,” tells the story of two young women in high school, Geena and Crystal in the South, where the demographics where they live are changing, where they are painfully aware of class and what it means to live on the wrong side of town. Geena is popular while Crystal is studious and awkward but with Geena’s influence, Crystal too becomes popular. This story spans their high school career and what it shows is how their lives converge and then diverge and then converge again and finally diverge in an irrevocable way. The ending of this story that shows how weak we all in the face of our ambitions and how easy it is to give in to that weakness when we’re 17 or 18 and having to make difficult decisions, the impact of which we are not yet capable of understanding.

What I really appreciate is how accurately Evans captures the earnest and naked ambition of Crystal who wants to be popular and worldly just as badly as she wants to be at the top of her class. She also draws out the tensions of the relationship between Crystal and Geena who are, in the end, the girl who is going somewhere and the girl who is going to be left behind. Throughout this collection, which is not perfect but which has a surplus of soul, what impressed me most was how Evans told stories that were heartbreaking in really quiet ways. It took me a while after I finished this story to feel the full impact of the ending and what it meant but when I felt it, I felt it hard. This story has stayed with me. It will stay with you too.