Author Archives: Mary Miller

Yannick Murphy, “In a Bear’s Eye”

Better_of_McSweeney's_Vol_2A mother panics as a bear shakes apples from a tree near her son. 

(from The Better of McSweeney’s Vol 2)

“Your boy is a smart boy,” the teacher said. “The death of his father must have come as a shock. But still,” the teacher said, “there is school.”

She looked into the refrigerator to offer the teacher something. There wasn’t much. She hadn’t been to the store in days. She opened the bottom bin and found two lemons. She took them out and put them on the table where they rolled for a moment. The mother got her wooden chopping board and placed the lemons on it and cut each lemon in four. She pushed the chopping board toward the teacher. “Please, have some.”

I like this story a lot. It’s written in a simple way that belies the seriousness of the subject matter. It reminds me of Roddy Doyle’s “New Boy,” which was also published in McSweeney’s, and which I loved.

The ending surprised me in a good way.

I think I would be a better, more successful writer if my name was Yannick Murphy.


Rebecca Schiff, “Boxing Experiment A38″

CoverA woman teaches her widowed mother to use the computer. 

(from The American Reader, Vol 2, No 2)

I did a search for “water filters” because I wanted to protect her from the carcinogens of Central New Jersey. When I typed the “w,” “women boxing” appeared as a previous search. He had sought them out. The boxers had enormous breasts. My mother’s breasts were tiny, a few inches of raised skin, nipples the size of pennies. Did he dream of swinging breasts, of humiliation, knock-outs, defeat?

I like Rebecca Schiff’s stories, which I’ve read in various magazines over the years, so I was excited to find this one. The voice is readable, honest, and I always identify with her narrators. As much as I like “Boxing Experiment A38,” I don’t feel like I know as much about the narrator as I want. What does she do when she’s not visiting her widowed mother, helping with dishes and looking at pictures of her deceased father? Who is she then? I want all the details. I wanted it to be messier. But I still love her and would happily read every word she writes. I hope she collects her stories in an actual book very soon. Someone publish them, please?

I’ve never read an issue of The American Reader before. I’m used to magazines like Fence and Tin House, with their shiny covers and brightly colored pictures, but Everett at Square Books told me to buy it. It has the usual poetry and fiction, as well as essays and book reviews, which I like very much, and I’ll be buying it again very soon or subscribing. I should subscribe. It’ll be kind of cool to look like I’m reading a business journal in public.

Lorrie Moore, “Places to Look for Your Mind”


A young Englishman named John Spee comes to stay with Millie and Holt Keegan in New Jersey. 

(from Like Life)

How disappointing America must seem. To wander the streets of a city that was not yours, a city with its back turned, to be a boy from far away and step ashore here, one’s imagination suddenly so concrete and mistaken, how could that not break your heart?

My first encounter with Lorrie Moore was her collection Birds of America, and I found the stories dry, dull. Even the cover bored me. Looking back on it, I didn’t give it much of a chance, or I wasn’t ready for her yet. In the last few years, however, I’ve read Like Life and Self-Help and have come to realize why she’s so loved, why major presses continue to publish her story collections; she has more than earned her following and successes.

Moore does amazing stuff with POV, switching seamlessly between characters, and isn’t afraid to take risks with narrative (Throughout this story, for example, we get pieces of John Spee’s journal entry, “Crazy People I Have Met in America.”) She writes about such disparate characters–a woman obsessed with garbage, a jobless Englishman, an instructor of Religion at a community college–with ease and compassion.

John Spee’s visit to America doesn’t go well or last long, but you probably already knew that. I couldn’t find this one online, but you can pick up her collected stories or, better yet, buy her most recent collection, Bark.

Amelia Kahaney, “The Temp”

9780547241609_p0_v4_s260x420An office falls in love with their glamorous temp. 

(from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009)

So, Karen, what’s your story, we asked.

It turned out the temp was writing a novel! It was going to be the Filipino version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. She was stuck on a particular chapter, and she was here, she said, to put her novel on the back burner of her mind and fill the front burner with easily accomplished tasks.

Well, we thought, that’s certainly unusual. We had never considered our tasks easy to accomplish. We had always found them virtually impossible to accomplish. But we nodded sagely, like we got it.

This story takes place over the course of one week and is divided into tiny chapters labeled Monday-Friday. It’s told from the perspective of all of the office workers, all of whom are women. With each passing day, the women become more and more obsessed with the temp, who is “slim and tanned–some kind of Asian.”

On Tuesday, the temp does their charts with a computer program and tells the women that they don’t belong there, that they are wasting their lives in a “watery office”: “‘Yes,’ we thought. This is just what we’d always suspected.”

At the end of the week, they don’t want to let Karen go. I won’t give away the ending but it’s good.

Having spent years in a “watery office,” I could relate to this story to an uncomfortable degree. It’s nearly perfect in its focus and scope. “The Temp” isn’t online but here is Amelia Kahaney’s website. Also, this edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading is excellent.

Julie Hayden, “Walking with Charlie”

thelistsofthepastA woman takes her seventeen-month-old nephew for a walk in the park on Halloween. 

(from The Lists of the Past)

…We wave farewell to the moon, to the Park and all its kind and dangerous inhabitants. On the sidewalks outside the Park, the first small pirates and witches and Batmen will already be out begging; next year Charlie will be among them. I wish there were more that I could do for him.

Did I ever care so much for another person that even his clothes were holy to me?

I am thirty years old and I have no child and no attachments. If Robert came to me barefoot across the meadow I would turn my back on him, having mastered the knowledge that you can love someone and not be able to live with him, and that there are no grownups who can tell you what to do.

Upon first read I was slightly underwhelmed by this story. Like many people, I was introduced to Julie Hayden’s work via “Day-Old Baby Rats,” which was chosen by Lorrie Moore for The New Yorker Fiction Podcast (3/19/2010). It is a masterpiece that led to the reprinting of Hayden’s collection.

“Walking with Charlie,” though not as affecting as “Day-Old Baby Rats,” is moving in its own right. It is the story of a thirty-year-old childless woman who takes her nephew for a walk in Central Park on Halloween. It’s filled with wonder, nursery rhymes, and lost love. I wish I had mastered the knowledge that I can love someone and not be able to live with him. I think I’m pretty close to having mastered the knowledge that there are no grownups who can tell me what to do, however, which may be one of the reasons that I can love people I can’t live with, or who can’t live with me.

It is difficult to read this story without thinking of the author. Hayden died in her early 40s, an unmarried and childless alcoholic. The end of her life was horrible. She was diagnosed with cancer but did not follow through with chemotherapy: “She grew overweight, rarely showered, and kept odd hours.”

I wish Hayden had lived to write more books for me to read. I wish she had lived long enough to find someone to love that she could also live with.

Paula Bomer, “Eye Socket Girls”

9781616953096A young woman awaits release from the anorexia-ward of a hospital. 

(from Inside Madeleine)

Here in the ward, we outnumber them. They may walk around with charts and fancy white outfits, but we’re all starving to death. Sure, the IVs fatten us up for awhile, but then we go home. Then we resume life as we know it. Life is a battle of will. And we’re winners.

That’s why people fight us. No one likes to see a young girl win.

“Eye Socket Girls” is the first story in Bomer’s third book, Inside Madeleine, which was released in May by Soho Press. I’m a longtime fan of Bomer’s. She writes so well about women, the expectations of being a woman: “We’re supposed to be nice, well behaved things. Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods. I don’t get my period anymore. I haven’t bled since I was fourteen.” It makes me remember how much it sucked to be a girl: growing breasts earlier than my friends, realizing that I would BLEED every month for the next four decades, the constant worry over getting fat. What a whole bunch of suck. And a lot of it never really goes away. I like my breasts, at least, now. And it can be fun making people uncomfortable with period-talk. So there’s that.

Paula Bomer is unrelenting. She deserves more readers. You should be one of them.

You can read “Eye Socket Girls” here. And here is her website with links to reviews and interviews and such. I’m going to read the next story now.

Alice Munro, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”

69Johanna leaves town with a new dress and some stolen furniture to begin a life in the middle of nowhere with a man who isn’t expecting her. 

(from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2014)

The station agent would have said, without thinking about it, that he knew everybody in town. Which meant that he knew about half of them. And most of those he knew were the core people, the ones who really were ‘in town’ in the sense that they had not arrived yesterday and had no plans to move on.

This story is really long, longer than the average Munro story even, or the average Munro story that I’ve read. It’s also kind of confusing, like most of them, in that perspectives shift a lot and you have to read closely in order to keep up (and sometimes there is pronoun confusion because of this). That being said, it’s good. It’s really, really good.

It appears that the entire collection, of which this is the title story, is online. It was also made into a movie called Hateship Loveship (2013) starring Kristin Wiig. Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t crazy about it.

Anyhow, this story gave me all sorts of emotions. I felt hope and sadness and nervousness and all of these things I don’t often feel while reading, and which Alice Munro achieves because she’s a hell of a writer and she never hurries; she really takes her time. She gives us varying perspectives and stories within stories and stories within those stories and they somehow don’t feel out of place. She makes them all fit. Even the station agent has his say. I have no idea how she does it but it’s a pretty wondrous thing to behold. I won’t tell you how things turn out for Johanna, but I’ll say that you really ought to read it and find out.

Jim Gavin, “The Copy Chief”

69After a decade spent surfing and working at a gas station, Eddie becomes a newspaperman.

(from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2014)

I had a sublet in Mar Vista. My roommate, Brett, was creepy and docile and generally representative of the kind of people who come into your life via Craigslist. I think he was in grad school. He ate incredible amounts of soup and played WWII video games with a silent, frothing passion. Due to my schedule, I rarely saw him, and I was creepy in my own ways. Every night after work I got Del Taco and stayed up late watching TV. I got hooked on The Rockford Files.

I always have such a hard time summarizing these stories. This story isn’t really about Eddie working at a newspaper, or it’s kind of about that, but it’s also about his struggle to live after both of his parents die at a young age; it’s about his friendship with his boss, Gus, who fakes his own death; it’s about living in poverty even after you get a “real” job.” It’s about having a roommate you call “Brett” for six months before you find out his name is actually Brent. I can’t find the quote, but Flannery O’Connor said something along the lines of, ‘if someone asks what your story is about, tell him to read the story,’ which is exactly right. If you can actually tell me what a story is about then I don’t want to read it. I don’t need to read it.

Anyhow, I love the voice and really enjoyed this story. I could spend a lot more time with Eddie. Read some of “The Copy Chief” here and then buy the current issue of Zoetrope.

Joy Williams, “The Little Winter”

Screen-Shot-2012-02-13-at-8.39.04-PMGloria, a thirty-five-year-old woman dying of cancer, goes to visit her friend, Jean, and Jean’s strange daughter, and then sort-of kidnaps the girl.

(from Escapes)

There was something truly terrifying about girls on the verge of puberty, Gloria thought.

There is so much brilliance here, so many lines I would have marked if my copy weren’t hardcover and in such good condition. As I was reading this story, I kept checking to see how many pages I had left, wanting more and more. Anyhow, I loved this story so much until Gloria awakes in the middle of the night and then drives over to Jean’s house and actually takes off with her friend’s daughter, for no reason that I can discern. She doesn’t like this child, thinks she’s odd, and has spent the earlier part of the story wanting to be alone. At this point, the narrative zooms out, not letting us into Gloria’s head where we might see what she’s thinking, where we might get a feel for why she decides to do this and then keep doing it.

I want to rewrite “The Little Winter.” I don’t want Gloria to kidnap the kid or get a dog. I feel like a workshop class got ahold of it and kept asking the author, “But what makes this day different?” I would like to punch them all.

Despite these things, damn can Joy Williams write a sentence.

Kenneth Calhoun, “Primal Scenes”

M-TH60-SKA twelve-year-old boy moves with his family to Guadalajara after his father is caught having an affair with a student; sexy stuff and trouble ensues. 

(from Tin House 60, Summer 2014)

In America we weren’t allowed to roam the streets after the streetlights came on. But in Mexico, we discovered that our parents had relaxed their policies, for reasons we did not understand. There were streetlights in Mexico, too. Julian and I realized, after only a week in the neighborhood, that we could slip out of the apartment after dinner without being questioned or given a return time. We would rejoin the ongoing antics of the kids on the street–setting things alight, hunting rats in the ravine with slingshots.

I’ve never heard of Kenneth Calhoun before, though his bio tells me he has recently published a novel, Black Moon, which I will now have to read. I liked this story a lot. The voice of our twelve-year-old narrator is so certain and charming, and the details about living in Mexico feel very real. I love this: ”The apartment was new and looked very much how a Mexican-themed apartment in California would look. It had extremely hard wooden furniture that was painted bright colors. All the chair backs went up at exactly ninety-degree angles, making for a stiff sit.”

The story is basically about a boy exploring his sexuality at the same time that his philandering father is trying to right past wrongs, and not doing a terribly good job of it. The characters here are all very well drawn with the exception, perhaps, of the narrator’s younger brother Julian, who is presented rather one-dimensionally (“He was three years younger and liked to pretend he was a religious superhero called the Altar Boy.”) Nine-year-olds can be rather one-dimensional, though, and it didn’t bother me much.

Here’s an excerpt from Calhoun’s novel, which sounds really interesting, about a world overtaken by insomnia (I can relate as I’ve been waking up at three am for the past two weeks and can’t seem to break the cycle).

Tin House is damn good. I love their Lost & Found section and always find treasures to add to the list of books I have to read. Pick up the issue. Read Meg Freitag’s poems first and then begin at the beginning.