A stranger asks a woman to carry a package onto an airplane.
(from If a Stranger Approached You)
As was always the case in airports, there was a small crowd of confused people (the elderly, the poor, some foreigners) standing patiently in a line they didn’t need to stand in, and a woman behind a counter who was waving them away one by one as they approached her with their fully sufficient pieces of paper.
This book of stories was published by Sarabande this month and I feel extremely proud of myself for reading something current. I’ve always been a fan of Kasischke’s poetry, but I’ve never read any of her stories (or novels). I admire the way she doesn’t shy away from writing about race or class. She’s fearless, bold.
I liked this story quite a bit. Kasischke is adequately able to convey the narrator’s state of mind and make me believe that she would do this favor for this stranger. I don’t want to tell you any more about the story but luckily you can read it here.
Also, it strikes me that nearly all of the stories I’ve reviewed for this site have been by women. Perhaps this is one reason why women are so grossly underrepresented in literary magazines; it may not have anything to do with overt sexism but the fact that the editors of these publications are men and they prefer to read work by men same as I prefer to read work by women. This doesn’t make it okay or anything, but it’s a valid reason, I think. Anyhow, more on this later…
A young girl gets blamed for a plague on her town.
(from McSweeney’s Quarterly 29)
“And girls,” he says, bending over to examine a line of ants. “Look down here. Closer.” We three crouch, the line of ants weaving between us. They are carting away their dead. One of the ants, unmoving, rests upturned on the back of another, and the other ants follow.
“How come they do that, Daddy?” I ask. “Is it like a funeral?”
“Nobody knows. What do you think?”
“I think maybe they don’t want to leave the other ant behind,” I say. “Maybe he’s important.”
Selma chews on her thumb for a moment, her head cocked. “That ain’t it,” she huffs, spitting out a bit of fingernail. “They’re taking his body home, so’s the rest of them can eat it.”
Daddy stares at her.
I don’t say so, but I was just trying to be pleasant before. Of course they’re going to eat it.
I really liked this story, about a sickness that takes over a town and the towns’ need to blame someone. The voice is clear and engaging, and the dialect, which I tend not to like, works really well. I’m a sucker for a child narrator. I’m also a sucker for plagues and apocalypses.
This story isn’t available online and Hendrix seems to be largely unpublished. Where are you, Laura Hendrix? Find your old copy of McSweeney’s 29. It’s lovely.
The nerds are up to something.
Mom’s messed-up universe started with one bad star: a nine-month marriage to the man who was my father. He brought her to the States, a living knickknack from his military days. Their union, brief as it was, spawned me and all my biological peculiarities. “You’re like Aquaman,” Luc said when I told him the story — “cool.” But Aquaman’s mother was a mermaid, his father a human being. Nothing is human within the man who was my father. He disappeared from her life just hours before I was born. What I imagine, what I’ve even dreamed, is that he is a sinister breed of assassin, with white hair, white skin, and white eyes, invading alien streets, sent to find and fuck my mother and then finish her off. When she is drunk, she talks about my origin, sticking the sick story in my head, panel after panel after panel.
I’m a lapsed comic book fan, so this story about high school geeks burying themselves in Green Lantern hit home. Of course, I never took things as far as these kids do. As a starting point I’ll call this story Unbreakable meets Elephant. Actually, I’ll leave it like that. Everything I try to write about “Superassassin” ends up giving away too much. Read this story here at the Atlantic, where it was originally published in 2000.
A woman can not escape the attention and money of a much older man.
(from portraits of a few of the people I’ve made cry)
She felt that in a way, however, she deserved what she got; if she were allowing herself to call strange men, the circumstances of their meeting would presumably be strange as well. This tendency to court real danger was new, something she would have to monitor closely.
I’ve read some really excellent short stories recently and it has me spoiled. I expect everything I pick up to be amazing. Of course, that’s not fair. “Quality of Life” is a good story but I expected more. I’ve been hearing really positive things about this collection and looked forward to receiving it in the mail. I’ve only read “Quality of Life” so far (which is the first story in the collection and was anthologized in BASS, so presumably it’s one of the collection’s strongest) but I shouldn’t judge yet. I don’t know. I liked it quite a bit. It just doesn’t compare to my recent reads by Holiday Reinhorn or Christie Hodgen or Caitlin Horrocks (scroll down). I feel like I’m discovering all of these brilliant female writers I didn’t know existed and I’m thrilled. And now I expect brilliance from everyone. I want to not waste my time on work that isn’t, well, brilliant. But perhaps today is a day when I just can not be pleased.
I suppose I should tell you a little about it. A woman meets a man named Mr. Fulger, an older man who sees her infrequently but spoils her with hotel rooms and money and fancy dinners. The man, in return, expects to see her whenever he calls and she is unable to have any real kind of relationship with anyone as a result. I have probably told you too much now.
Anyhow, you should read it and see what you think. Sneed has a new novel out and is getting a ton of good press.
A former alcoholic who works at a bank has a very bad day.
(from Big Cats)
Jose put his arms around my waist. “I want to welcome you, David,” he said. “Your probation period is over. It’s over, man. How does it feel to be a full-time hire?”
I looked down at the top of his head. Jose took a step back. His eyes were bright.
He reached out and took one of my hands and clasped it in both of his. My fingers were sticky from the baby aspirin. “Tell me, David,” he said, and then he was back in my arms, so close to me his words were muffled against my shirt front. “How does it feel?”
I’d never heard of Holiday Reinhorn before but I’ve been reading back issues of literary journals from school. I have a key to the office, you see, and nobody–NOBODY–ever reads the journals that are sent from all over the country. So I have begun to take them and sometimes return them and sometimes bring back others in exchange. The other editors should do the same but they don’t. Sometimes I feel like I’m one of the few people who really LOVES to read. I just love it. And I’ve been finding all sorts of great stories, digging them up for this website. Patrick, thankfully, reads current books that other people are actually reading (thank you, Patrick).
So this story is from an old issue of Ploughshares, but you’d be better off buying her book. Some things I learned about Holiday Reinhorn: she is married to Rainn Wilson from The Office; she got her MFA at Iowa; she’s extremely talented but has only published one book, in 2005.
About this story: the voice is incredibly engaging from the first sentence and never falters. It starts with an earthquake and gets more exciting from there without being over-the-top or unrealistic. I love stories about addicts and people losing their shit and this story really goes for it. It’s awesome. Here is an excerpt. Please read it now.
A young woman’s life is all tied up in the history of Reno, Nevada, from the Comstock Lode to Charles Manson.
About once a year someone tracks me down. Occasionally it’s one of Charlie’s fans wanting to stand next to Paul Watkins’s daughter, to rub up against all that’s left, to put a picture up on his red-text-on-black-background website. Far more often, though, it’s someone with a script. Producers, usually legit ones—I Google them: True Lies, The Deer Hunter. They offer to drive down from Lake Tahoe, take me out to dinner. They never want my permission to make their movie or input on who should play me (Winona Ryder); they just want to know how am I.
“How are you?” they say.
“I’m a receptionist,” I say.
“Good,” they say, long and slow, nodding as though my being a receptionist has given them everything they came for.
Claire Vaye Watkins read an excerpt from this story at the Philadelphia Free Library last month and I made sure to buy a copy of Battleborn afterward. The prose in “Ghosts, Cowboys” is swift and dark, and even its history lessons are mysterious, with unspoken things glaring in the shadows between dates and names. And the character of Razor Blade Baby is just awesome, a friendly ghost (Not literally. I think.) and a thin tether to the narrator’s past that doesn’t so much haunt as linger, hoping to hang out, maybe say a few things that need saying. I have no idea whether Claire Vaye Watkins the author has the same connections to Charles Manson as CVW the character, and I won’t be Googling it anytime soon. This is a spooky and affecting piece of work. Loved it.
You can read it here. More on CVW here.
A forty-three-year-old woman takes a vacation from her life after a breakup.
(From This Is Not Your City)
She’d begun the trip staying in youth hostels because they seemed more adventurous, but the lounges were full of people like Tick, drinking Metaxa and strumming guitars and looking askance at her, the middle-aged woman who clearly didn’t belong.
This is another strong story. The narrator is a woman who stayed too long in a going-nowhere relationship, past the point at which she was able to have a child, which she very much wants.
I generally hate stories about women who want babies, but this one is so well written and true to the narrator that I didn’t mind.
I’m really impressed by the way in which Horrocks is able to capture the lives of females of various ages, backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. Each story feels totally whole and completely its own. Did I mention that you should buy this collection? You should. “The Lion Gate” is online. Read it here.
A woman learns to accept her life.
(from This Is Not Your City)
“You need one of those shots?”
“Tetanus? I’m fine,” he said, but there’s no way of knowing with Leo if he meant fine because he’d had one or fine because fine’s what you are when you don’t think too much about yourself, about how you’re really doing and what you really need. We’re both of us fine most of the time.
The above description doesn’t do this story justice: “a woman learns to accept her life.” By the end, she does, maybe. Or she tells herself she does. It’s just hard to write in a single sentence what this story is about. It’s about a sister who only sends postcards and a mother who never much cared; it’s about a lover who works in a slaughterhouse and collects dogs to sell to the USDA for testing. It’s about a woman who lives in a better house than she’s ever lived in before, but still makes six dollars an hour working at Goodwill. Sometimes I’m bothered by well educated, middle class people writing stories about poor people, and it bothered me a little bit–it did–but this story feels authentic, true. And I don’t know how Caitlin Horrocks grew up. Maybe she knows these people better than I assume she does. I doubt it, but maybe.
Anyhow, it’s a very good story and Caitlin Horrocks is a talented writer. This story won a Pushcart. You can read a little bit of it here. And here is the author’s website.
A teenage boy wants to be seen by his mother.
(from Honeymoon and other stories)
In everyday life, she was vague, sometimes absentminded, wandering the house while my father was at work while she was half asleep. In my dreams, I see her standing in an almost dowdy, unrevealing floral dress, an I-Love-Lucy dress, standing just inside the doorway of her bedroom, pausing, with one hand on the dresser, and trying to remember–you could see it in her face–what she had wanted from there.
I love “Red Dress.” The writing is clean and direct, and I put the book down several times to admire it. It’s the kind of story that feels like the writer needed to tell it, like he had felt what this boy had felt, and seen what this boy had seen. It’s the kind of story that makes me want to copy it, steal it. That makes me glad to be a writer.
I was slightly disappointed in the end because I knew it was coming and I’ve seen it done in other stories; it was the one thing I didn’t quite believe. This story is online and you can read it, and you should. You should also, immediately, go pick up Canty’s first collection, A Stranger in this World, which is amazing. It’s one of my top-five collections of all time.
A Wyoming woman whose parents are from Kerala, India moves to Chennai, but finds herself neither American nor Indian enough.
(from American Short Fiction Fall 2009)
In Chennai, paradise could be found on every road. The Jolly Paradise Bakery was on one street, on the next, Paradise Tailors. The New Paradise Hotel was squeezed between a juice shop and a beauty salon. Paradise Biryani was alongside a chicken shop, while two streets over was a Paradise Medicals.
I love stories about Americans in foreign lands, perhaps because it’s my only means of international travel. I’d never be brave enough to move to India myself, or even visit, probably.
This story could have gone badly. It’s a travel story. It’s a fish-out-of-water story, stuck between two cultures. It doesn’t fall victim to cliches or easy answers, though. The voice is clear and honest, and the writing vibrant. The author has a nice website and a book coming out later this year, Cowboys and East Indians. You should pick it up. I’m going to.
“Curating Your Life” isn’t online but check out her website, where you can read the title story from her upcoming collection, which originally appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.