Monthly Archives: May 2013

Cate Kennedy, “What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved”

1590487A woman sends her lover out on a quick errand and she’s hit by a taxi.

(from Dark Roots)

Every day I go to get off at the wrong floor. I keep forgetting. She’s in rehab now. They’ve given her six weeks in here, to assess progress, testing all the reflexes and how hard her hands can squeeze. After that, well, we’ll have to see, they say. They mean moving her to a permanent residential facility. Those are the actual words they use; they are good at jargon, of course; that is their job.

I liked this story a lot (I say this frequently, don’t I? I need a new way to start these posts). But I did. The premise, though simple, is one I haven’t seen much in short fiction, and I was immediately drawn to the ease and simplicity of the prose. The love that the narrator has for Beth feels very real. I feel like I can see and hear and touch these people. I’m being sentimental now. Perhaps it’s too early to write this post. I’m eager to read the rest of Dark Roots, which I got in the mail yesterday.

The author has a new book out, Like a House on Fire. Here’s an interview with her. Maybe they have more awards in Australia, but it seems she wins a whole lot of prizes. Like, a whole lot. Maybe we should all move there.

Steven Millhauser, “In The Reign of Harad IV”

2006_04_10_p323A master of miniatures devotes himself to ever-smaller pursuits.

(from The New Yorker, April 10, 2006)

Despite the absence of visible evidence, he was certain of its formal perfection, of the elegant precision of its parts—never had he taken so much care.

A neat little story. This guy just keeps carving tinier creations — each improbably intricate and detailed — and eventually dedicates himself to making things even he cannot see. It’s not an emperor’s new clothes kind of deal; in fact, there isn’t a lesson here, as far as I can tell. Just an engrossing and brief of artistry and obsession. I think the fact that the title is pulled from from the first sentence is telling in that regard. This story is what it appears to be. You can read it here.

My office as work is a mess, so I’ve decided to try to chip away at the pile of old New Yorkers I have lying around.


George Saunders, “My Chivalric Fiasco”

Tenth-of-DecemberSexual assault at a medieval theme park leads to promotions for the victim and the witness.

(from Tenth of December)

Once again it was TorchLightNight.

Around nine I went out to pee. Back in the woods was the big tank that sourced our fake river, plus a pile of old armor.

Don Murray flew past me, looking frazzled. Then I heard a sob. Near the armor pile I found Martha from Scullery, peasant skirt up around her waist.

Martha: That guy is my boss. Oh my God oh my God.

I knew Don Murray was her boss because Don Murray was also my boss. All of a sudden she recognized me.

Ted, don’t tell, she said. Please. It’s no big deal. Nate can’t know. It would kill him.

From a sort of aerial view, this is old-school Saunders, the creepy/insane theme park populated buy douchey bosses and disgruntled, droney reenactors. But “My Chivalric Fiasco” is both darker and more ridiculous than I remember those old stories being. On the one hand there’s the grim horror of the one character being raped by her boss, and taking on shame because of it. On the other, there’s this drug, KnightLyfe, that somehow turns a relative dullard into an Arthurian orator, complete with suddenly capitalized Letters and ren faire phrasing, a la “But then there Occur’d a fateful Event.” So. Real world? Cartoon world? Does it matter? Surely it’s closer to the former than the latter, but mostly it’s up in the air. Saunders is a master at assembling the skeleton of a scene and letting the reader decide how serious things are, and how upset we want to get about everything.

I couldn’t find this story online in its entirety. Get the book, read it and upset yourself.

Edward Eremugo Luka, “Escape”

quarterly43_sudan_cover_FINALA man must flee his village before the faceless ones come for him.

(from There Is A Country: New Fiction from the New Nation of South Sudan)

The half moon was sinking slowly behind the dark rain clouds. The dreamy shadows melted into the dark corners around the compound like a blanket had been spread over them earlier. In one corner of the compound, four tiny lights were shining. They moved. Black cats.
I stood at the door to my hut. The night was still early, but the town had already gone to sleep. There was no public electricity and the few privately owned diesel generators in the neighbourhood had gone silent. It was very quiet. The children who had been singing in the compound next door had retreated to their homes. The night had come. I knew they would come for me one day. And when they do that night, I would be ready for them. “They” and “them” have no faces, but I had a fair idea who they were.
Juba 1991. It was a bad time for the citizens of the besieged town. The civil war had come to Juba for the first time. The town had been shelled several times. Citizens could hear the rumblings of heavy guns and fighting outside town. Casualties were being brought in as the army were witnessing heavy loses in battles. They had become jittery. And nobody knew the casualties on the rebel side.

This anthology came with the latest McSweeney’s, and it’s a damn cool idea. It’s not often you get to read the work of authors from a fledgling nation just now building its identity, and this first story from the collection is a strong one. Where What is the What — a book I cannot recommend enough — put the marauding muralhaleen (I think I have that right) in concrete terms, this swiftly moving story keeps the reader very much in the dark. All we know is that they’re fast, brutal and nocturnal predators. Frightening stuff.

(You can read this story here, but it’s pretty ugly compared to the anthology.)


Hannah Brooks-Motl, “The River”

homeA prepubescent girl surprises herself with her actions.

(from Ninth Letter Spring/Summer 2013)

In your memories of childhood, aren’t you mute, and isn’t this odd? I can never remember what I said, or to whom, or in what tone. One remembers the things done to one, the accusations, threats, perhaps the presents given, or some tickle of praise–but never, really, one’s response.

I liked this story a lot. It’s categorized as fiction, though it reads much more like nonfiction, particularly in certain instances (like the above passage). The story is about a young girl who is taken by her sister to her sister’s boyfriend’s house, where much older people sit around kissing, drinking, and watching TV. The girl ends up doing something inexplicable to herself and the others, which I won’t give away here.

I like the prose in “The River” very much. It’s smart and a bit challenging in places, yet totally readable. I’m really interested in stories about childhood, whether the narrator is looking back on her childhood or experiencing it in real time, and this story is able to capture so much of that TV-and-babysitter era.

I’m a big fan of Ninth Letter. Each issue has a unique and interesting design; it’s a literary magazine as well as an art project. The art never gets in the way of literature, though. I think you should subscribe.

Heather Sellers, “It’s Water, It’s Not Going to Kill You”

998401687038After her husband threatens to leave, a woman drives the family car into the Atlantic Ocean.

(from Georgia Under Water)

When the breakers hit, the car nosed up, then down. Angling down, it lost ground–that is, from our point of view. It came back toward shore–a good two waves’ worth. Everything seemed about to be okay; the car easing back to the beach, the windows rolled down. She could get out. I knew she wouldn’t leave her purse.

“She won’t leave her purse,” said Sid.

This story is told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl. It begins, “In the good days, my family lived in a condo, on the twenty-third floor of Pleasure Towers in Ormond Beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.” Over the course of the story, we see the family–a boy, a girl, and their parents–fall apart. Or they were always falling apart but the narrator has just now realized it. Things have just now hit the point at which they can no longer be ignored, when mothers drive their cars into the ocean, when children hang from balconies and ask for sips of their father’s drinks. Everything is wet and hot and sweating profusely and Sellers captures this feeling of disintegration so well.

This collection was published in 2001 and I’m not totally sure it’s still in print, but it’s excellent. The last story in the collection, “Fla. Boys,” is one of my favorite stories of all time.

Kevin Brockmeier, “The Year of Silence”

9780618788774After silence overtakes a city, the people begin to miss noise.

(from Best American Short Stories 2008)

That the city’s whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual, of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught eavesdropping on one another.

This story is divided into twenty-five parts, which suited it well. I wanted to give it a chance even though it’s not my kind of story–I’m so literal that I couldn’t quite get over how the logistics of this silence worked. One other problem with stories like this: they all seem rather predictable. I mean, after the people embrace silence, what is there for them to do but crave noise again?

That being said, I liked it okay, and wanted to finish it once I was a few pages in. I think I’ve pretty much ruined it for you but you can read it here, anyhow.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, “Spontaneous Reflex”

sovietsciencefiction1962A robot programmed to learn and experiment breaks out of storage and his handlers have to scramble to contain him.

(from Soviet Science Fiction, 1962, translated by Violet L. Dutt)

Urm was bored.

Actually only man and a few animals are capable of boredom as a reaction to a monotonous situation or inner dissatisfaction with oneself, when one loses interest in life. To be bored, there must be something that gets bored — a delicate, perfectly organized nervous system. One has to know how to think or, at any rate, to suffer. Urm had no nervous system in the ordinary sense of the word, and he could not think, still less suffer. He could only perceive, remember and act. And yet he was bored.

Alternately wickedly interesting and desert-dry, this funny little story didn’t really go anywhere, plot-wise. I have a totally unsubstantiated notion that the dull, protocol-is-best, vaguely jingoistic conclusion is a symptom of this story’s Soviet origin, but I could be wrong. In any case, “Spontaneous Reflex” will be memorable for its odd pace and a few brilliant little scenes — like Urm trying to use his 15 built-in sense organs to make sense of a mirror. Urm stands for Universal Robot Machine, although a character blurts out Uliana-Robert-Mama at one point and I’m not sure why (maybe it’s an odd translation of the acronym in the Russian phonetic alphabet).

Did some Googling, but I couldn’t find the version I read anywhere online. Instead, check out this very different translation, wherein Urm is Utm. According to Wikipedia, the Strugatsky brothers wrote together for some 30-plus years, and wrote far more novels and stories together than solo.

I picked up this sharp, pocket-size collection at Port Richmond Books here in Philadelphia the other day. Five bucks, a bit musty and just enough wear to tell me it had been read before. It is, by the way, an amazing and amazingly cluttered bookstore built in an old movie theater. Recommended.


Lawrence Osborne, “Volcano”

25_LeapA divorcee ditches dream control camp to wander around a resort at the edge of a volcano.

(from Best American Short Stories 2012)

Growing older had proved a formidable calamity.

I’ve been thinking about volcanos recently, probably after listening to this edition of The Straight Dope. Among other things, the podcast/article pointed out that bubbling open-faced volcanos — a la Joe Vs. The Volcano — do not exist in the natural world. Which means this hilarious bit by Kyle Kinane about how to barbecue via volcano is kinda moot. But it’s still a very funny take on insomniacal brain rampages, which this story is concerned with as well.

In Lawrence Osborne’s story, the volcano is just a glowing, restless thing in the distance, probably a metaphor for something or other (aging, sexual unrest, inescapable everyday life, whatevs). Martha never puts the metaphor into words, but she can’t take her eye off the volcano, and it draws her to it in one of those literary ways you just have to put up with. We’re privy to her agonies over where she is in life, and how much she dreams and thinks about “phalli,” but when she decides to rent a Vespa and take a mini-vacation from her vacation, her though process is suddenly smoky. Why does she do it? Because she does. Which is, yeah, the way dreams tend to work: We become observers to our own actions.

Of course, one of the many things this story concerns itself with is dream control. Martha takes a drug that a self-styled Hawaiian dream guru says makes it easier for people to control and remember their dreams. And while Martha escapes this new agey adventure early on, it doesn’t leave her thoughts. So, are we supposed to think her trip to the volcano resort was just another dream? I don’t think so, but there’s room for doubt. This is a strange and beautifully written story. Unpredictable, too.

Hit it.

Karen Russell, “Reeling for the Empire”

vampireslemoncroppedSilk-spinning mothgirl slaves look to change their situation.

(from Vampires in the Lemon Grove)

The Agent boasts that he has made us the most productive machines in the empire.

Obviously this is a work of delicate and remarkable literary fiction — with some savvy things to say about exploited mill workers in developing economies — but it’s also a fun and freaky piece of sci-fi. In fact, I’ve just started this collection, but so far Karen Russell’s two-for-two when it comes to stories with supernatural/hypernatural characters. So cool. Along those lines, I decided to crop the book jacket so you could get a good look at that freaky looking bat. It’s weird, right?

I couldn’t find this story online; buy the book and read this interview.