Monthly Archives: August 2013

Elizabeth Ellen, “As Gracefully As I Knew How”

fast_machineTaking a late night drive across town to jill off in the new apartment.

(from Fast Machine)

It was late evening in March in Michigan and the sky wasn’t so much dark as devoid of light and I had to go at the lock with the key a few times before I finally felt it slip into the groove and turn.

Every once on a while I remember I have this book and that I love it and that I haven’t yet torn through all 100(?) of its stories. Most of them are like this one: Short, sharp little thinkers with crisp images and foggy periphery. Which is not to say I put this story down wondering much about the things I wasn’t told. It’s just a night, part of a night, in the life of a horny, sober woman on a mission. Never learned her name. This was brief moment of intimacy, a voyeuristic literary tryst. Damn I still love this book.

Recommended musical accompaniment: Osie Johnson, “If I’d Been on My Way”

Rebecca Lee, “World Party”

bobcatThe profs convene to discuss the recent on-campus protests, their peer in the center of the students movement.

(from Bobcat and Other Stories)

“Let me put it this way,” he said. “I will be happy if they stop, but I can’t help but be proud of them.

Most of my experience reading this anthology — and I’m closer to the end than the beginning — has left me lacking useful things to say. The stories have been brilliant, and surprising, and sharp, and I can’t seem to find much to tell readers about it except that this collection is one hundred percent worth their time.

Still is. But this time I’m way less wowed by the story at hand, and so I’m at a loss for other reasons. “World Party” wasn’t the tightly wound and wired fiction I’ve come to expect from Lee. Sentences, scenes, things just felt a little off. I dunno. It’s a little too MFA and not enough effin’ A.


Rebecca Lee, “Min”

history_80_004Sarah’s tasked with choosing a bride for Min. Summer jobs are usually the weirdest.

(from Bobcat and Other Stories)

“Don’t you believe in desire?”

“Of course. My grandparents went the length of China with everything they owned on their backs on the basis of nothing but desire. But I can’t imagine them looking to create desire in their relationship. Their lives were saturated with desire; they were looking to carefully, intelligently slake it. You see?”

This story was unpredictable, and full of gorgeous moments, but it felt a touch incomplete. Or left me wanting more. Hm. I think I’ll refer you to an expert for further analysis:

Among the best is “Min,” which is the name of a man of Chinese heritage who brings a female American friend to Hong Kong, where his father is a powerful government official (the year is 1989). The American is charged with finding a wife for Min, even though she would readily volunteer for that role herself.

And in a story full of exotic beauty, nothing is lovelier than the notes Min’s grandmother made when trying to marry off Min’s father in similar fashion. The grandmother chose a woman who would have been unacceptable for racial and economic reasons. But her notes say: “Has no wealth, but carries purple light. Seems like a cloud about to burst. Sleeps lightly, fond of gods.”

—Janet Maslin, New York Times

Robert Bingham, “I’m Talking about Another House”

9780385488679Max and Amanda go to Chicago for a wedding during a heat wave.

(from Pure Slaughter Value)

He had time yet, and so he walked down Michigan Avenue until he ran into the hotel his great-uncle had built. Max crunched a Tic-Tac and walked into the lobby of the Drake Hotel. His grandfather had never gotten along with his only brother, the mastermind behind the Drake. Max’s branch of the family had trouble with the Chicago branch. They rarely visited anymore. For Max, the Drake was a source of bitterness. In the bar he’d once had a disgusting fight about money with his father. Never mind, the hotel had been sold to a chain and none of the proceeds had spread laterally to his father, not that his father would have given Max a cent if it had.

This is the first story in Bingham’s collection, Pure Slaughter Value, which was published in 1997. Bingham also wrote a novel, but he overdosed a few months before it was published. Most people probably recognize his name from the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, which “awards $25,000 to the most exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work represents distinguished literary achievement.”

Anyhow, I love Bingham because he was the founding editor (or one of the founding editors?) of Open City magazine, which is now defunct, which makes me extremely unhappy. They’re still publishing books, though.

Onto the story: I didn’t love it. It ended too abruptly for me. It seems like he stopped just as things were getting going. There was also a whole lot of talk about the heat wave and people dying and I didn’t see what it was doing on a story-level. I like the voice here very much, though. It’s very Jay McInerney/Bret Easton Ellis. I couldn’t find a link to the story online, but here’s some guy’s take on it.


Rebecca Lee, “Slatland”

Bobcat_too_close_for_cb3121521-84f4-42d2-9837-ad25df34f0810000_20120501173937_640_480Margit meets with the eccentric Professor Pine twice in her life.

(from Bobcat and Other Stories)

He seemed to think of engagement as an alternative to marriage rather than leading up to it.

This was a strange one, but I’m glad I stuck with it. Pine is a child psychologist, and young Margit is sent to him during an extended bout with depression over her parents splitting up. Even though she would not, at the time, have been able to say she knew that. Anyway, Pine cures her in one session with his nigh-magical idea of inducing a kind of out-of-body experience, imagining yourself hovering over the scene of your problems. Thirty years later, Margit meets up with Pine again, this time to have his translate letters she’s sure will prove her Romanian fiance is cheating on her. None of that really explains why this story was so strange. I’m stalling. I give up. I read this story late last night. It’s late at another night right now. I give up. I’m sorry. I’m a little sorry.

Susan Steinberg, “Isla”

9781573661065_p0_v1_s260x420A girl goes out to dinner with her father and learns some life lessons.

(from The End of Free Love)

15. There are things your old pop knows.

16. Never gamble.

17. Never smoke.

18. Sometimes we cheat.

This story is is told in 134 directives and questions from a father to a daughter. They begin harmless and get progressively less so. The father hates non-Jews, New Yorkers, things that are German-made, poor people, the girl’s mother.

I love this story and I love Susan Steinberg. Read it here.


Elizabeth Strout, “Snow Blind”

vqr-spring-coverAnnie remembers a blissful childhood in the woods with her family. Coming home as an adult she sees things differently.

(from VQR, Spring 2013)

He was a closed book of a man, he inhabited himself with economy, but his family understood he loathed dishonesty in any form. He did have surprising and sudden moments of liveliness.

Well, duh, Annie sees things differently because she’s changed — she’s older and worldlier, etc. — but also because lots of other stuff has changed, too. The road’s paved. Her father’s demented and gay. And so on. “You can never go home again” is a tired old phrase, but its meaning is still fair game for examination. This story isn’t a revelation, but it is a wise and pretty little heartbreaker. Hard not to fall for it.

I can’t find “Snow Blind” online, but I recommend you pick up VQR as a matter of general habit. In the meantime, here’s a song that doesn’t fit the mood of this post at all.

Rebecca Lee, “The Banks of the Vistula”

rebleeBobcatA college freshman faces a tough call: Will she admit to her sin of plagiarism or double down?

(from Bobcat and Other Stories)

“You seem fully immersed in a study of oppression. Any reason for this?”

“Well, I do live in the world.”

“Yes, that’s right. And you say here — a shocking line — that a language must sometimes be repressed, and replaced, for the larger good. You believe this?”


“You think that the Eastern-bloc countries should be forced to speak, as you say here, the mother tongue?”

Some parts of the paper I had just copied down verbatim, without really understanding, and now I was stuck with them. Now they were my opinions. “Yes,” I said.

“You know I am from that region.”

“Is that right?”

“From Poland.”

“Whereabouts in Poland?” I asked conversationally.

“I was born on the edge of it, in the dark forest land along its northeastern border, before the Soviet Union took it over completely, burning our towns. As children we were forced to speak Russian, even in our homes, even when we said good-night to our mothers as we fell asleep.”

This was turning into a little piece of bad luck.

Okay, the title track was good, but now I’m starting to see why this collection is getting such sweet airplay. “The Banks of the Vistula” is marvelous. It’s fierce and pushy. Unpredictable, yet constantly tempting you to guess. It encourages distaste for the moral absolutist and endears you to those who’ve bent their ethics in order to survive. It kinda sorta makes you hate good people and respect bad ones.

This ran in The Atlantic in 1997, apparently. You can read it here. 


Barb Johnson, “St. Luis of Palmyra”

9780061732270-150x234Luis wants to win the sixth-grade science fair and pass catechism.

(from More of This World or Maybe Another)

Junior’s scratching his nuts, following Luis with his eyes. His head jerks on its neck like a sprinkler that can only turn a little at a time. What a moron. He probably couldn’t make a science project or pass catechism, either one. Luis tries to picture Junior in a suit and tie or hooking up a radio at the science fair. What a joke.

This story did not please me. It felt too much like a story. It felt made up. I was also confused by this sixth grader who was getting confirmed at age twelve. I was confirmed when I was sixteen and I did not get slapped afterward, as the priest said Luis would (does this happen anywhere, ever?) There’s also the fact that Luis is regularly having to give Junior, his mother’s boyfriend, blowjobs. This act is treated very casually and doesn’t seem to bother Luis, or it bothers him about as much as Junior always having control over the TV remote. I don’t know. I know he’s a poor kid who is limited by his circumstances, but it felt like the writer treated him like an idiot. Like he wouldn’t know that giving blowjobs was a big deal or like he’d really believe he could escape his life by putting his pilled-out mother in an abandoned car and driving her to California because God would make him a man post-confirmation. I’m going to try a few more stories in this collection, though. This is the last one in the book, and maybe I would have liked it more if I’d read it straight through.

Read some of it here.

Rebecca Lee, “Bobcat”

rebleeBobcatAnd now, the dinner party of our discontent.

(from Bobcat and Other Stories)

“Meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat, meat,” she said, many more times than seemed amusing or rational. At first I had thought she was just being kind of cute, or silly. Maybe just suddenly exuberant? She spent essentially all day every day with her baby, so maybe she was only breaking free a little bit amidst the adults, without really remembering how, but then as the “meats” continued, her voice revealed a little bit of harshness or even madness in those short syllables. So she knew about Ray and Lakshmi? A part of her knew, and it was making the rest of her crazy, was my diagnosis. She was going to lose her mind if she said one more meat

Maybe the “fateful dinner party” isn’t really a trope. Maybe it’s something I pretend is a trope to tease a friend about her affinity for certain kinds of art-house films, wherein grievances are aired and secrets are revealed around a carefully planned meal of some import. And, my, how decorum crumbles and well-I-nevers fly about the room, despite the fancy candle holders and well-dressed guests.

But whatever. The fateful dinner party in “Bobcat” is hardly well-planned, and most of the decorum crumbling has either already happened in the unseen prologue or is reserved for mere mentioning in the rushed, epiloguing end. Instead, we get the tension of this guest knowing about that guest’s affair. How the wife doesn’t know. How the one author’s story of a bobcat tearing her arm off is suspicious, because aren’t bobcats like little and cute? The tension is delicious. It’s the point here. And it’s spooled up in refreshing, exhilarating prose. Just some really wonderful sentences.

So who cares about the fateful dinner thing? Or the sigh-bore-gasmatazz-tic thing where we’re made to read about writers. (New York writers, you guys!) Because that’s my baggage. This story’s better than all that. And I don’t feeling like feeling cynical after reading something this right-fucking-on.

Read it here.