Monthly Archives: June 2005

June Boldridge Stallings, "The Day the Gypsies Came"

Did the gypsies come to town to steal food or children?

(from Life in a Country Store)

This is a neat, unassuming story of country life during a darker age. It’s probably a stereotype, although gypsy-specific racism isn’t something you hear much of, in Philly 2005 anyway, so it’s hard to say: The gypsy family is poor and hungry, and everybody’s too bigoted to hire them, so they come rolling in with their jangly wagon to read a fortune, pick a pocket and raid a garden.
The narrator is sympathetic with everybody — the children who are taught to fear the gypsies, the gypsies who are not looking to get rich so much as get by, the blacksmith who is entranced, almost cartoonishly so, by the fortune teller and loses his life savings. Of course, much of this — the character’s thinking, the narrator’s outlook — is politically incorrect, absurdly, but not out of malice.
The telling is conversational, like a story being told over smores, and the action unfolds in a natural way, with humor and asides and quickly dispelled suspense. A fine read.

Life In a Country Store is a self-published collection of fiction (old wives’ tales) and memories by a retired florist in her 70s. Here‘s a an article on “June Boldridge Stallings.”

Here’s an excerpt from the forward:
It is my story as I lived it in the village in Stevensburg, Virginia. My purpose in sharing it is to relate what life was like in a simpler time, when folks HAD to live with their neighbors. The world was not as open as it is today. In an earlier time folks needed to depend on one another, their families and their neighbors for entertainment, friendship and survival.

I bought this book at the Old Sperryville Bookshop and Coffee House (44 Main St., Sperryville, VA, 540-987-8444), a beautiful new/used book store in an old converted church. Here‘s a picture. I can’t find a web site. I imagine you can mail order this and other works by June Boldridge Stallings from them if you call.

Karen Russell, "Haunting Olivia"

Two boys go searching for their missing sister, but all they see are fish ghosts.

(from The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2005)

This was dreamy and marvelously inventive and yeah yeah yeah. It’s set up as a sort of children’s story, a twisted almost-fairy tale, a nigh Roald Dahl grotesque adventure where you didn’t feel like you were in the same world with its chracters. I dug its supernatural moments and its half-nihilistic attitude, if that what it is when you feel like there’s no rhyme or reason to behavior, science, life, death, worldview, whatever.
I also liked the saracasm and idiosyncracies the boys exhibited in their speech and actions and thinking. It was deeper than the water.
At time, parts of it screamed for a little streamlining, the gentle strokes of the editor’s scalpel to cut out redundancies and awkward parts. I don’t think it would have hurt.
Here‘s a link to the story.

Damien Jurado, “Lottery,” as heard on WPRB via Brian Howard’s No Culture Icons show.

Adam Levin, "Considering the Bittersweet End of Susan Falls"

Susan has trouble dealing with the loss of her legs and her crush on a classmate.

(from McSweeney’s, #16)

This story was great. Made me smile on every other page, and really empathetic in the interims. I giggled like a freak on the bus today, with my iPod blaring Superchunk and me all squished next to my fellow riders. I laughed out loud at the neatly inventive and completely sound (far as I know) mathematical equations Susan has for the things she thinks about, from quantifying Adam’s legacy to determining the utility of snow pants on accentuating or deflecting attention from the ass.
Maybe I should have hated this story, what with the finale foretold by the title and all the meta moments. But damn. There’s no fighting this story.
As soon as I finished reading, the bus took a turn I didn’t expect, so I had to pull the cord and disembark in a hurry, else i woulda pushed up the aisle fishing for high fives while “Song for Marion Brown” blared for me alone and a funny, sad little story made me find the poetry in the bad.

You know what song.

Nathaniel Minton, "Viva Mesopotamia"

A boy witnesses the bizarre burial practices of the local communards.

(from McSweeney’s, issue 16)

As much as this story was colored with rich, sensuous detail, it was also seasoned with mystery and shadow. Though I bought what was happening, I found myself wondering exactly where it was happening. What country? Under what conditions, what govenment, were these communards (people who live on a commune, as poor Takehashi tells us) allowed to live and practice their strange rituals and way of life. Anyway, it’s not like confusion dogged the action or hampered the story. Just made me curious is all.

Zolof the Rock and Roll Destroyer, “I Owe You”

Peter Rock, "Lights"

A lost carnival mechanic meets up with a couple guys working on a housing development in the New Mexico desert.

(from One Story)

With a beautiful setting and semi-strange characters, this story had the potential for all kinds of plot directions and surprise endings, in the story and in the story within the story. Instead it was merely weird. It set up a sense of dread and the potential for something drastic, but nothing happened. But, you know, to hell with judging a story on what it wasn’t. I think I was craving a twist is all.
The story, as it was, was neat, indiosyncratic in an uncasual way that led me to believe every little moment had a purpose, even when it clearly didn’t. The deliberately molassesian unraveling (and one glaring typo) did put a damper on things, but hey.

Here‘s a Q&A with Peter Rock about this “Lights,” because it’s a One Story story.

Tullycraft, “Secretly Minnesotan”

Denis Johnson, "Lucky"

Precious moments with soldiers on a military base in The Phillippines in the ’60s.

(from McSweeney’s, issue 16)

A nicely written half-story. That’s not a dig, just a description. “Lucky” has no interest in telling a tale. It’s about setting up tension, getting into the heads of its characters for vignettes about the hell war would be if they were in a war. Those vignettes are pretty sharp.

Stiffed, “Ain’t Got Enough”

Brian Evenson, "Mudder Tongue"

A single father and teacher loses control of the language.

(from McSweeney’s, issue 16)

You know from the first page what kind of story this would be: The kind where a guy has a problem that just gets worse and there’s nothing anybody can do for him and that’s just all. In this one, the guy tries to say some words but different words come out. Eventually it affects his work, his homelife, his peace of mind. And it’s just a symptom of something worse.
That the man’s apparent brain malady is sometimes played for comedy, or maybe that’s just how it reads when a guy says “gravy” when he wants to say “fishing.” Some conditions are just silly. Of course, we the readers of the world are aware that the author invented this disease as a means to afflict his character and, by extension, us. Still, not a bad read.

Here‘s an interview with Brian Evenson. It’s all nerdspeak and theory.

Sarah Dougher, “My Kingdom”

Jennifer Levin, "Stand Wherever You Want"

Greta moves to a small mountain town and falls in love with an asshole in the midst of a drought.

(from The Iowa Review, vol. 35, #1)

Listen, you. I’m about to spoil the ending of this story, so don’t continue on this page if there’s any hope at all that you can read “Stand Wherever You Want” at some point. It’s worth reading.
Not a great story, but an interesting one with memorable moments and characters. The thing is, I really, really, for real really hate it when characters buy into symbolism the way an author can. If like two people get a divorce after their grandfather clocks stops ticking, or fall back in love when their long lost dog returns home, I’ll buy it because hey, I don’t want to real about chaotic gritty real life every day. There’s plenty of room for literary devices. But geez, when Jonathan, during the long-awaited rainstorm, announces that his relationship with Greta is over because it was raining, well, please. Don’t make me barf. Even Northern Exposure never made that leap.
Of course, that’s more a matter of my taste than this author’s skill. I mostly found this to be an enjoyable and maybe even fun read.

Shrift, “Yes I Love You”

Robert Coover, "Heart Suit"

All the courtiers are suspects when the King of Hearts’ tarts go missing.

(from McSweeney’s Issue 16)

The McSweeney’s people are into, among other things, presentation. So it was only a matter of time that a story written on shuffled playing cards would end up in one of their issues (time being infinite, all things being not only possible but probable).
Here’s how it works: The story is divided into 15 fairly equal parts, each of which is printed on its own oversized playing card in the heart suit. The backs of the cards are not identical, which is fine since you’d need more cards to actually play something other than the world’s most pretentious game of War, and those other cards would also likely contain bits of stories, so like, stop playing and start reading. The Texas Hold ‘Em phase has passed.
There’s a set start (a title card) and a set end (the Joker). The 13 other cards are to be shuffled before each reading so that the experience changes each time. These middle cards are written to be untethered by chronology, and don’t step on each other in terms of unfolding the plot. The story’s central mystery — who stole the tarts — was solved early for me, but this was not actually a mystery story, but a funny, ribald, amoral fable. Here’s the order in which I read them: Title Card, 9, 7, 8, 10, King, 3, 4, Ace, 2, 6, Jack, Queen, 5, Joker. (Looks like I should have mixed them up better, but, hey, you try shuffling a 5″ x 7″ deck.)
Clever? Sure. Gimmicky? Hmm. Yeah, but is that a bad thing? I really felt like this was a story set free by unusual presentation, not hampered by smug uniqueness. Will I re-read it? Not soon, but yes.

Scout Niblett, “Good To Me”

?, "A Country Like No Other"

Journalist Daniel and photographer Tim are in over their heads covering a West African conflict.

(from The Secret Society of the Demolition Writers)

A very scary, very real-seeming story of war in a strange place. Of course, the title might be a kind of joke because as screwed up as war is through the eyes of the worried Daniel, it’s possible this is just how war is. So this may be a country like any other. The matter-of-fact plotting puts the attention on the action, not the phrasing. You wonder what will happen. You worry.
This was sharp, smart story and an excellent high note for the Demolition book to go out on.
Having read all thirteen stories, I am now supposed to take stab at saying who wrote what. But the thing is, I couldn’t even guess. Because, it’s like, who knows enough about Ben Cheever’s life or the particulars of Alice Sebold’s style or who Chris Offutt is? Add to that the declaration in the editor/author Marc Parent’s intro that the authors were out to trick the readers, to cover their own tracks or mimic the writing of another author in the Society, and the task is, to me, impossible. I stopped Googling place names and interesting phrases long ago.
The only mystery I really want to solve is: Which story did Rosie O’Donnell write? None of these struck me as the handiwork of someone utterly unskilled in written storytelling. Few wowed me, either, it should be noted. Okay, so, I think Rosie wrote “Sweet,” the strange story of Earl the wandering homeless man. I’m not sure why I think this. My guess is exactly as good as yours. Tie score!

The White Stripes, “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet)”