Monthly Archives: September 2014

Elizabeth McCracken, “Some Terpsichore”

newspaper3Miss Porth looks back on her career as a singer who sounded like a singing saw.

(from Thunderstruck)

Maybe I loved Gabe already. What’s love at first sight but a bucket through over you that smoothers out all of your previous self-loathing, so that you can see yourself slick and matted down and audacious? At least, I believed for the first time I was capable of being loved.

Or maybe I just loved the saw.

Yeah, I keep unleashing McCracken. Can you blame me? She’s my favorite right now. Also this book is due back to the library eventually. “Some Terpsichore” is, perhaps, even more idiosyncratic than anything else I’ve read by this author, with funny little sentences and phrases dropped in that only sort of jibe with the tale being told. Or maybe I’m tired. Judging by “Some Terpsichore,” McCracken knows her music and knows her Philly, by the way. Or fakes it expertly. Damn I want to hear this music. Damn I want to own a mint copy of Miss Porth Sings!

Word This Story Taught Me:

  • Terpsichore (n) the Greek Muse of dancing and choral song.

Joyce Carol Oates, “Fossil-Figures”

Stories-UKTwins — one an alpha male “demon brother,” the other small and sickly — grow apart but remain linked.

(from Stories)

At a fever pitch childhood passed for the demon brother who was first in all things. At a glacial pace childhood passed for the smaller brother who trailed behind his twin in all things. The demon brother was joyous to behold, pure infant fire, radiant thrumming energy, every molecule of his being quivering with life, appetite, me me me. The smaller brother was often sick, lungs filled with fluids, a tiny valve in his heart fluttered, soft bones of his curving spine, soft bones of his bowed legs, anemia, weak appetite, and the skull subtly misshapen from the forceps delivery, his cries were breathy, bleating, nearly inaudible me? me? For the demon brother was first in all things.

Edgar “Eddie” Waldman is the demon brother, though we don’t see him doing demonic things, necessarily. He’s a bully, and is especially violent toward his sad little brother, whom he made small in the womb and tortured while they were growing up. Eddie’s a lifelong asshole, no doubt about it, but I kept waiting for him to exhibit some subhuman or superhuman traits, something that would warrant our narrator declaring him the demon brother outright. In fact, there’s an epilogue which hints (and perhaps I’m just jumping to conclusions) that some aspects of this story are based on a newspaper clipping. A simple story, ornately told. You can read it here on this weird site that maybe should not exist.

154-treehouseofhorrorviiLots of people have read and commented on this story, mostly when Stories came out in 2010:

David Hebblethwaite gave it three and a half stars, and wrote: “Oates’s prose is dense, with long paragraphs and repeated phrases, which has the effect of putting distance between the reader and events — there’s no forgetting that this a story being told.” I agree with David. I give his last name five stars.

Sophia of Page Plucker wrote “This is not a nice story, but it is extremely well-written and really made me think.” Sophia is right. The not-niceness of this story is unrelenting.

Mario Guslandi of SFSite calls this story a “a masterpiece of subtlety and a wonderful parable of life’s conflicting aspects as represented by the opposite destinies of two very different twins.” I think I agree.

Betsy of Books by Betsy says “Joyce Carol Oates could have shortened ‘Fossil Figures,’ by half.” It didn’t drag on for me, though my reading was interrupted by my train reaching its destination.



Elizabeth McCracken, “Property”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A widower rents out a family’s former home in Maine and finds it dirty and disappointing.

(from Thunderstruck)

The house wasn’t a Victorian, as he’d for some reason assumed, but an ordinary wood-framed house painted toothpaste blue. Amazing, how death made petty disappointments into operatic insults.

Some stories are stories, like the ones in the Neil Gaiman story collection Stories I just started. Others are more like… extended realizations. Plot-wise, they’re a little thin, because the point is really that a character finally understands something well enough to cast it in a warmer, brighter light. This is one of those stories, sort of. A guy moves into a place, time rushes by, he moves out. We the readers are made to focus on the beginning and the end. That’s where the important moments are. Maybe I categorize these realization stories like this because their descriptions, like the one I wrote at the top, make it sound so boring when, in fact, what we’re dealing with is a piece of writing that has a lot to offer that has nothing to do with what strictly, you know, happens. “Property” is absorbing and enlightening in the way it describes relationships and grief and anger. Also, it was written by Elizabeth McCracken, and she’s the bee’s kneecaps. I could read her write a phone book.


Roddy Doyle, “Blood”

StoriesA man suddenly finds himself craving raw meat, the fresher the better.

(from Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio)

Nevertheless, he wanted to drink blood.


The badly was recent, and dreadful. The itch, the urge, the leaking tongue—it was absolutely dreadful.

He wasn’t sure when it had started. He was, though—he knew when he’d become aware.

-How d’you want your steak?


His wife had laughed. But he’d been telling her the truth. He wanted the slab of meat she was holding over the pan, raw and now—fuck the pan, it wasn’t needed. He could feel muscles holding him back, and other muscles fighting for him—neck muscles, jaw muscles.

Then he woke.

But he was awake already, still standing in the kitchen, looking at the steak, and looking forward to it.

The idea behind this pulpy collection is “pageturners” — compelling stories that get their hooks into you and push you to keep reading. It may surprise you how often “respectable” fiction eschews that element, taking for granted that a reader who starts will always stick it out to the end. So far so good: “Blood” is a compelling little horror yarn, an artful, cockeyed addition to the vampire (and werewolf, kind of) genre, though hardly a neat fit. Most importantly, it’s fun. I’d been wandering the Strand looking for something fun, a collection to help push me toward my 100-story goal [88 to go]. I think I found it. You can read this story — and most of Stories, I think — here. And you can listen to somebody reading the story aloud, here.

Elizabeth McCracken, “Something Amazing”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A grieving mother is haunted and irritated by the ghost of her daughter. Meanwhile, the Mackers boys are in danger.

(from Thunderstruck & Other Stories)

The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body’s a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed: your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn’t a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job.

Who wants to, anyhow?

Best keep in the dark and nurse the damp. Cover the mirrors, keep the radio switched off. Avoid the newspaper, the television, the whole outdoors, anywhere little girls congregate, though the world is manufacturing them hand over fist, though there are now, it seems, more little girls living in the world than any other variety of human being. Or middle-aged men whose pants don’t fit, or infant boys, or young women with wide, sympathetic, fretful foreheads. Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours. Sneeze. Itch. Gasp for breath. Seal the windows. Replace the sheets, then the mattresses. Pry the mercury from your teeth. Buy appliances to scrub the air.

Even so, the smell of the detergent from the sheets will fall into your nose. The chili your nice son cooks will visit you in the bedroom. The sweat from his clothes when he runs home from high school, the fog of his big yawping shoes, the awful smell of batteries loaded into a remote control, car exhaust, the plastic bristles on your toothbrush, the salt-air smell of baking soda once you give up toothpaste. Make your house as safe and airtight as possible. Filter the air, boil the water: the rashes stay, the wheezing gets worse.

What you are allergic to can walk through walls.

Is that too long an excerpt? Don’t care. I love the way Elizabeth McCracken writes. If I could link to this story for you, I would. I took the book out of the Philadelphia Free Library, so you might have to wait until I return it. This story is a strange one, as I expect they all are. It concerns an obstinate ghost named Missy Goodby who wears ectoplasmic dungarees and haunts her mother like an allergy. Her mom, Joyce, is going nuts. And there’s the two brothers, Santos the older, mean one and Mackers the young, impressionable one. They’re weird, and everybody in this story’s weird. All the sentences are tight and mysterious. You don’t know what’s going to happen next. Love it.

Thomas McGuane, “Motherlode”

140908_r25408-887Ray forces cow insemination guru David to drive him to Morsel’s place at gunpoint. Even after he finds out the gun is fake, David sticks around.

(from The New Yorker, Sept. 8, 2014)

Two of the ranchers had finished eating and, Stetsons on the back of their heads, chairs tilted, they picked their teeth with the corners of their menus. As David put his wallet in his pocket and headed for the door, he realized he was being followed. He didn’t turn until he was halfway across the parking lot. When he did, the gun was in his stomach and his new friend was smiling at him. “Name’s Ray. Where’s your outfit?”

My Uncle Bob recommended I check out this story, and that was a good call. I enjoyed this strange, sometimes funny rural crime story. Do I completely understand what’s going on here? No I do not. I’m thinking I’m not supposed to have this whole thing figured out. I scoured the pages and listened to the audio version, to see if I’d missed clues that made the ending make more sense. I found only the stuff I liked when I read it the first time: blood, weirdness and intrigue, the kind of thing the Coen Brothers are good at. You can read the story here or listen to it here, where it’s read by the author, apparently, and not John Goodman, as it sounds to me.


Words This Story Taught Me:

  • chignon (n) a popular type of hairstyle generally achieved by pinning the hair into a knot at the nape of the neck or at the back of the head
  • marcelled (v) styled with deep regular waves 

Karin Tidbeck, “Jagannath”

Jagannath-Karin-Tidbeck-PortadaTough times for the little creatures who live inside Mother.

(from Jagannath)

“What is Mother?” Papa would say. “She took us up when our world failed. She is our protection and our home. We are her helpers and beloved children.” Papa help up a finger, peering at them with eyes almost lost in the wrinkles of his face. “We make sure Her machinery runs smoothy. Without us, she cannot live. We only live if Mother lives.”

It’s hard to say whether we’re dealing with passengers on a sort of bio-technological ship, or an anthropomorphized interpretation of something more recognizably earthly, like parasites living inside a host. I’m leaning toward option one, since the description on the back of the book says this story’s about “a biological ark in the far future.” Yeah, I guess that settles that. The point is, maybe, that the systems at work here are not so alien that we don’t recognize the insectish parts, or the host-parasite bits. Mother isn’t a man-made ship like Mother from Alien, but she’s still a ship. This is the title track, so it makes sense that “Jagganath” is the most daring and alluring story in this collection. Real grim, self-contained sci-fi.



Primo Levi, “The Fugitive”

9780393064681_custom-91d401ecc86e59b281202d6e8c8a88ba207821f3-s6-c30A man writes a poem he thinks is nearly perfect. If only it would sit still.

(from A Tranquil Star)

To Pasquale, too, if had happened only a few times, and the awareness of having a poem in his mind, ready to be caught in flight and fixed on a page like a butterfly, had always been accompanied by a curious sensation, by an aura like that which precedes epileptic fits: each time, he had heard a faint whistle in his ears, and a ticklish shiver ran through him from head to foot.

This story gave me a kind of writerly agita, an itchy feeling that I should be writing instead of reading at that moment. There’s a certain dread I think everybody has, that an idea which pops into our head seemingly from nowhere will disappear before we can memorize it or put good it to good use.

I couldn’t find this story online for ya. I do recommend this collection. Most of the stories are quick, idiosyncratic and vaguely informed by science if not sci-fi. By the way: I think I learned “agita” from my late Aunt Angie, who used to Italianicize my name to Pasquale.

John Steinbeck, “Saint Katy the Virgin”

newst-katy-1wpAn evil pig raised by cruel man is converted to Christianity.

(from McSweeney’s 45)

When you think of the low, nasty kind of laughter it was, you’ll see what a bad man this Roark was, and you’ll not be surprised that he didn’t pay his tithes and got himself talked about for excommunication. You see Roark didn’t have the proper kind of a face for a laugh to come out of. It was a dark, tight face, and when he laughed it looked as though Roark’s leg had just been torn off and his face was getting ready to scream about it. In addition he called people fools which is unkind and unwise even if they are. Nobody knew what made Roark so bad except that he had been a traveler and seen bad things about the world. You see the atmosphere the bad pig, Katy grew up in, and maybe it’s no wonder.

What the hell did I just read? This did not at all remind me of the John Steinbeck whose Grapes of Wrath bored me and Of Mice and Men puzzled me in grade school. I don’t remember those books being funny, or much fun. Those well meaning teachers would have done better to start with this story, ’cause there’s no way I wouldn’t have enjoyed this (parodic? satiric?) story of a vicious pig converted and anthropomorphized by the two priests she chased into tree as a last ditch attempt to save their lives. Insane. This story is insane.

This is from McSweeney’s Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven issue, in which old genre fiction collected by Alfred Hitchcock and Ray Bradbury are reprinted, along with some recent, likeminded works. “Saint Katy the Virgin,” of course, is an example of the pig-finds-religion genre. Other examples are forthcoming. Most bad pigs stay bad. Learn more about the story, and see where I found that amazing book jacket art, here. I could not find a place to read “Saint Katy” online, which is pretty remarkable for a story first published in 1936.

Juan Pablo Villalobos, “América”

9781938073854_custom-d451a4446e029f235d8be2a90293af423e92dcb9-s99-c85Mexican police have some murders and accidental deaths to clean up.

(from McSweeney’s 46)

The candidate is talking to the chief, but the chief in turn has a boss. The structure is limitless, police hierarchy is like the Himalayas. The candidate communicates with the chief, and not with the chief’s boss, because the chief is the only person in the police force in whom he has complete confidence. The chief and the candidate were at primary school together. Of course, if the candidate wins the election, the chief will become the chief of chiefs.

Maybe I’m just not used to the way crime stories work, but I had read this one twice to make sure I had a handle on what was going on. Some people are murdered. Some are killed accidentally. There are old guns and interesting pens (most of which are describe as being what they are “nothing more”). There’s a really dirty part, and some political machinations I’m pretty much in the dark on. And there’s a bit of soccer. A goalie scoring a header is about as rare as a litblog embedding a soccer video. I believe this is the goal mentioned in the story:

This is from a semi-recent McSweeney’s issue collecting “crime stories from Latin America” that’s been sitting on my desk for a little while. I’m intrigued. I liked this story. It surprised me on every page. Sorry, couldn’t find a link. Here’s more on Juan Pablo Villalobos.