Author Archives: Mary Miller

Lisa Glatt, “Ludlow”

cvr9780743270526_9780743270526_lgDarlene Tate is newly married and newly pregnant, but a psychic has predicted that her fetus will expire at any moment. 

(from The Apple’s Bruise)

Now that I’m twenty-nine I’m becoming a new kind of woman, the kind who gets married to the guy who gets her pregnant, not the kind who keeps the pregnancy a secret and ends one when she discovers her boyfriend is cheating, and ends another when the gray-eyed tourist goes back to his home in Mexico, and ends the third when her boyfriend of nine weeks goes on a fishing trip with his buddies.

I read this story pretty soon after Glatt’s collection was published in 2005. I remember being impressed by these stories, not so much for the writing, but for their content. Glatt writes about women who get abortions and keep secrets from their husbands, women who manipulate others to get what they want. She writes about women who don’t want to be called “good girls,” all of which impressed me terribly at the time because I wasn’t finding stories like them. Coming back to this collection years later, however, leave me a little…what’s the right word? I guess I feel like they rely too heavily on these things. The writing doesn’t quite hold up for me in the same way.

Anyhow, I like this story pretty well. The beginning is especially nice, when Darlene asks her new husband, Jimmy, to make a list of all the things he doesn’t like about her. After some prodding, he does, and then he doesn’t want to stop. Darlene says, “Let me make a list for you,” to which Jimmy replies, “I don’t want a list.”

Worth reading, but there are so many women now writing these stories in much more thought-provoking and interesting ways. Check out some of it here.

Jack Pendarvis, “Lumber Land”

your-bodyDudley Durden, aged 50, and his boss, Lombard Cuff III, go on a stakeout.

(from Your Body Is Changing)

Dud was sitting in his house, thinking about how embarrassing it would be to die there. He imagined some ambulance driver carefully picking his way through the squalor so as not to contract tetanus and saying something like, “Pee-yew! No wonder he died! What a dump!” and so on. Ambulance drivers and others acquainted with death on a daily basis were known to make just such sarcastic quips on supposedly solemn occasions.

I smiled the whole way through this story, a long story, on my couch alone. I kind of know Jack Pendarvis (mostly on Twitter) and he’s funny as shit so I pictured him as Dudley Durden even though he’s clearly not Dudley Durden, who is constantly thinking about The New Yorker and how they must look at some guy from Alabama–’Oh wait, this guy’s from Alabama. No way we’re cutting HIM a break. What does some JERK from Alabama know about MIMES? Only us sophisticated so-called New Yorkers are sophisticated enough to understand MIMES.’ These few instances do not do the story justice, though. In any way. They seem sad taken out of context, really, like I am fucking with the world of Dudley Durden.

Check out Jack’s blog and follow him on Twitter because he will crack you up and you will thank me. Do you have McSweeney’s 20? The real pretty one sitting on your bookshelf? It’s in there.

Adam Wilson, “Soft Thunder”

9aba7bbb6969d19d55b413957ec5dce8Ben and his buddies Roland, Alex, and Sam all sleep with Kendra, but “sleep isn’t the right word.”

(from What’s Important Is Feeling)

The garage door opened to the street. We sat in lawn chairs, studied the drip of spring rain like we were in a diorama looking out. Across the cul-de-sac, lights lit empty rooms. Alex fell asleep, snored. His head hung limply, chin to chest. Sam sipped, surveyed. Roland spat. Some CD hummed: a chortling bass, the low rumble of tom drums. In the distance I heard thunder, way off to the west.

I loved this story, which is the first that appears in Wilson’s collection, What’s Important Is Feeling, out on February 25th from Harper Perennial. The story encompasses a large chunk of time and covers a lot of ground, too much to describe in a few paragraphs, though it centers around these boys and their feelings for a girl named Kendra, a skinny, punk-rock clarinet player from Hungary. (“I’m Hungarian,” she said. “Of course I play the clarinet.”)

Ben’s sister has recently returned from college. Though she’s not central to the story, her scenes have stuck with me since my initial reading weeks ago: “The lights were on when I got home, but only my sister was up. She was in her room with the door closed, the soft strum of girl folk seeping out through the crack. Trish had recently returned from freshman year of college, ten pounds overweight and in a state of psychological distress. She’d woken one morning to her boyfriend’s boning moans from the other side of the room, and an offer from her roommate to loosen up and join the party. Now she spent her days here: eating ice cream, holding forth to my mother on the failings of my gender.” As a girl who also returned home from college fatter and depressed, I can relate to poor Trish holed up in her room.

I’m not crazy about the final three paragraphs, which take us a few years into the future. I guess I’d rather be left guessing, hoping.

Here’s Adam’s website. You can buy an ebook of the story for .99 here. Kirkus says this about the collection: “Bleak First-World angst, delivered with style,” which basically describes my aesthetic exactly.

Theodore Wheeler, “Welcome Home”

getimage.ashxJim Scott returns home from Iraq to find his dog in bad shape and the termite-eaten stump where he left it.

(from Best New American Voices 2009, edited by Mary Gaitskill)

Jim had been safe, perhaps overly cautious, his whole time in Iraq. When on patrol, he ached for his wife, deeply in the pit of his stomach, so that he had only one goal: staying alive long enough to see Andrea again. To feel him pressed against her. Jim wouldn’t have made it out of the desert if it wasn’t for the promise of touching his wife. He believed that.

The writing in “Welcome Home” is nuanced and careful. The characters are well drawn. The dialogue is good. Despite these things, I feel slightly annoyed by this story. Perhaps I’ve just read too many like it.

Wheeler’s bio says nothing about being a veteran (so I assume he isn’t). A part of me thinks that non-veterans shouldn’t bother writing stories like this when there are so many veterans around to do it. What do we need the perspective of a civilian for? Why trust someone who has read and studied and watched footage when I could hear it from someone who’s actually been there? But maybe he has, and, anyhow, this should be beside the point. I guess my main criticism is that it simply feels too much like too many of the other stories I’ve read about men returning home from war. At this point, I need some real surprises.

Read my favorite soldier-returning-home-from-war story here.


Kevin Wilson, “The Horror We Made”

American-Short-Fiction-Cover-Fall-2013-WEB-2A slumber party turns into a horror film.

(from American Short Fiction, Fall 2013)

These girls, and they always thought of themselves collectively, like a dues-paying club, weren’t athletic or exceptionally studious or overly attractive. But they weren’t overweight and they weren’t goth and they weren’t special ed. They did drugs, but always together and never in a place where someone would take advantage of them…They existed in a no man’s land where the kinds of boys they wanted to kiss would forget them instantly and treat them like shit around their own friends, and the kinds of boys who wanted to kiss them were too terrified to ask…

This is the relaunch issue of American Short Fiction, which went on hiatus in 2012. The Fall 2013 issue should be available in bookstores soon, or better yet, subscribe. Their tote bags are also damn cute.

So onto the story. I would like to report that Kevin Wilson knows teenage girls. He knows them well. Does Kevin Wilson have a teenage girl at home? Did he have a lot of sisters, perhaps? He captures this group both individually as well as collectively.

With Lanie’s wealthy parents in Colonial Williamsburg for the weekend, she throws a slumber party with her 25-year-old ne’er-do-well brother in attendance. They decide to make a horror film with Wolfgang manning the camera (he won’t let them use it). Wolfgang becomes slightly more threatening as the night goes on–invading their personal space and filming them between shots for “behind the scenes” footage. The girls spend the next eight hours eating “radioactive nachos” and making knives and blood while snorting Lanie’s mother’s diet pills to keep themselves going. I can’t say enough good things about this story. It feels like a spend the night party I went to at fifteen, only a lot more fun. We mostly just drank our parents’ vodka and replaced it with water; sometimes a few boys would come over and do something stupid, like light themselves on fire. Wilson really makes me miss spend-the-night parties, which, as a whole, were awful and upsetting things.


Alethea Black, “The Only Way Out Is Through”

10292397Fetterman takes his teenage son on a camping trip.

(from I Knew You’d be Lovely)

“Jesus!” said Fetterman, swerving just in time. A deer was standing in the middle of the road. In the backseat, Derek remained unfazed. They rounded a curve and passed a deer warning sign. “Little late now,” Fetterman muttered. He’d always thought deer warning signs had a lot more artistry than other road signs; the deer were rendered in much greater detail than humans. Derek took off his headphones, and Fetterman seized the opportunity to ask him a question. “Do you know why deer graze so close to the road?”

I really like this story, which revolves around this father-and-son pair attempting to bond on a camping trip. Fetterman is in way over his head, has no idea what he’s doing, in terms of camping or how to father his recalcitrant son. I love all of the facts that are woven throughout, like the answer to the above question. Do you know what it is–why deer graze so close to the road? “Because the grass is saltiest there, especially in winter.”

Who knew? Good to know.

“The Only Way Out Is Through” originally appeared in Narrative Magazine. Read it here. I think you have to create an account, but unless something has changed, it’s free.


Dorothy Allison, “River of Names”

booksA woman who can’t forget her past struggles to live in the present.

(from The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories)

We were so many we were without number and, like tadpoles, if there was one less from time to time, who counted? My maternal great-grandmother had eleven daughters, seven sons; my grandmother, six sons, five daughters. Each one made at least six. Some made nine. Six times six, eleven times nine. They went on like multiplication tables.

I haven’t posted in a while, so I woke up this morning thinking I’d read a quick story and write a little something about it. Though this isn’t a particularly long story, it’s one woman’s life haunted by hundreds of others’. I had to pause every few moments to soak up the horror, e.g. “I told her: that one went insane–got her little brother with a tire iron; the three of them slit their arms, not the wrists but the bigger veins up near the elbow; she, now, she strangled the boy she was sleeping with and got sent away; that one drank lye and died laughing soundlessly.” Some of the stories are told in depth and others are recounted like the above, but it’s all pretty wretched stuff. It made me very appreciative of my own family.

I can’t find this story online, but here is some traumatized freshman’s assessment of it for class. It’s kind of wonderful. You should also listen to Dorothy Allison talking about dialogue over at Tin House.

I think I might try to read this collection straight through. Get ready.

Joy Williams, “The Skater”

Screen-Shot-2012-02-13-at-8.39.04-PMAnnie and Tom and Molly are looking at boarding schools. Molly’s sister, Martha, has recently died after choking on a piece of bread.

(from Escapes)

Molly can’t see her parents’ faces. She can’t remember the way they looked when she was little. She can’t remember what she and Martha last argued about. She wants to ask them about Martha. She wants to ask them if they are sending her so far away so that they can imagine Martha is just far away too. But she knows she will never ask such questions. There are secrets now. The dead have their secrets and the living have their secrets with the dead. This is the way it must be.

This paragraph really affected me. It made me think of all of the people I’ve known whose parents have lost children–siblings they never knew, babies born dead or that lived for only a short time. And these living children find out via overheard telephone conversations or when their parents are dying (or think they are dying). Stemming from this first secret, other secrets begin to infect all parts of their lives. They are often saying things like, ‘but don’t say anything because my brother doesn’t know.’ I find these families curious. My siblings and I are big mouths. My parents, too. My mother can be secretive but she’s the type that never had anything much to keep secret.

Anyhow, this is another great story by Williams in an amazing collection. I can’t find it online, but here’s a Bookslut interview with the author.

Alethea Black, “That of Which We Cannot Speak”

10292397Bradley goes to a party full of strangers and makes a connection with a (temporarily) mute woman.

(from I Knew You’d Be Lovely)

Half an hour later, the air was hotter, the music louder, and the room more crowded. The party had become its own throbbing cocoon. Bradly and Samantha still stood in the center of the living room, passing the clipboard back and forth, only now they were also juggling their colossal martinis. At one point a passerby had observed their antics and shouted: “Get a blackboard, you two!”

I’ve read about half of the stories in this collection and this one stands out the most to me–I keep thinking about these characters, wondering about them. The premise is great and the narrator feels fully realized. He doesn’t want to go to this New Year’s Eve party and makes an unexpected connection with a woman, which comes as a total surprise to him.  Here’s an excerpt.

Joy Williams, “Escapes”

Screen-Shot-2012-02-13-at-8.39.04-PMA mother and daughter drive to Portland to see a magician.

(from Escapes)

My mother went to the phone and ordered two tickets, and not many days after that, we were in our car driving to Portland for the matinee performance. I very much liked the word matinee. Matinee, matinee, I said. There was a broad hump on the floor between our seats and it was here where my mother put her little glass, the glass often full, never, it seemed, more than half empty. We chatted together and I thought we must have appeared interesting to others as we passed by in our convertible in winter. My mother spoke about happiness. She told me that happiness that comes out of nowhere, out of nothing, is the very best kind.

This is the title story from Williams’ 1990 collection, which I recently bought at a friend’s recommendation. The books is in perfect condition and I wonder why hardcovers are so much cheaper to buy used.

I loved “Escapes.” Stories told from a child’s perspective are difficult to write well and she pulls this off beautifully–the voice is direct and smart while maintaining all of the wonder and fear of a small child. It was originally published in The Chicago Tribune. Here’s a link, though I’m not sure how to make all of those awful ads go away, or if it’s possible. Probably not.

You should also listen to her read “Why I Write” from her essay collection, Ill Nature. It’s the best ‘why I write’ essay I’ve ever encountered. (The other Tin House podcasts are pretty awesome, too.)