Author Archives: Mary Miller

Antonya Nelson, “Literally”

121203_r22886_p233A day of minor inconveniences reminds a family that no day could ever be as bad as the worst one.

(from The New Yorker)

Bonita’s shoulders heaved. Tears: they did not require translation. How convenient it would be, Richard thought, Bonita’s wiry hair against his neck, her face on his shoulder, how terribly useful if they could simply wed, he minus a wife, she with her problematic ex-husband, and regroup together like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard’s house across town, an arrangement that would be possible if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.

A friend and I recently decided that we would reread Female Trouble together, Nelson’s collection that was published in 2002. She loved it when she read it; I did not. I don’t remember what I didn’t like about it, exactly, but I think it’s something along these lines: the stories often felt like stories to me, like made up people doing made up things. She uses dialogue tags like “sobbed” and “fretted” and “cried” as opposed to the unobtrusive “said” and “asked.” She uses simple language with the occasional odd/obscure word thrown in, taking me out of the story.

Anyhow, this is a long way of saying that I wanted to give her another chance. As I began “Literally,” I was reluctant to like it: it began with a family around a breakfast table; was told in third person; there were all these offensive dialogue tags. But I ended up really digging it (this story is not in Female Trouble, btw). “Literally” is about a father navigating a world without his wife, trying to hold his family together and do the right thing, be a good man. In the end, it’s a really affecting portrait of a day in these people’s lives. I’m looking forward to getting started on Female Trouble soon. Maybe today.

Read it here.

Susan Steinberg, “To Sit, Unmoving”

9781573661294_p0_v1_s260x420A girl and her brother move in with their father after their mother’s death.

(from Hydroplane)

And there was a night my brother and I walked home from the city park. The street was unlit and we were the only ones. A car slowed beside us. We kept on walking. It was Baltimore and we knew how to get home. The car crept along and we walked a bit faster. The window went down. The man said, Get in, and we ran.


And I always wondered, years after the man slowed his car and said, Get in, where we might have gone had we gotten in.

This story really blows my mind. I mean, really blows it. It’s long and the structure isn’t linear. It’s so wonderful that I hope it took her years to write so I won’t want to give up on writing forever.

“To Sit, Unmoving” tells the story of the siblings’ lives in Baltimore as well as their lives in San Juan, where their father owns a factory that makes masks that “filter dirt.” I love Steinberg’s asshole father and this brother who is not retarded but laughs at inappropriate times and can’t tie his shoelaces: “My brother could say the alphabet backward and he could count backward and he could do other things that I couldn’t do. And I wasn’t stupid. So he wasn’t retarded.”

This story was originally published in McSweeney’s 20. It won a National Magazine Award in 2007. You really need to buy this collection and read and read and be jealous and want her to be your bestest friend in the world. Or maybe not, because then I won’t feel so special.

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.


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.


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.

Mario Benedetti, “The Night of the Ugly Ones”

53405Two ugly people hook up.

(from Blood Pact and Other Stories)

Our chance is to climb into the night, the deep of night, total darkness. Do you follow me?


You’ve got to understand–total darkness–where you can’t see me and I can’t see you.

I’ve never read Benedetti before, a Uraguayan poet, journalist, and novelist who was crazy prolific (he died in 2009).

This story is brief and powerful. Here’s the first sentence, which I love: “We are both ugly, and not a common ugly, either.” I didn’t think it needed to be split into two parts, which was odd for a story of this length and scope, but it didn’t really bother me–just stood out.

You should listen to it here. It’ll only take you ten minutes and it’s worth your time.

Steve Almond, “Skull”

89138A guy has a few too many beers and reveals a secret to his friend.

(from The Evil B.B. Chow and other stories)

I remembered now what had always creeped me out about Zach, which is that he had a tendency to say a little too much when he was sloshed. One night, back in high school, he’d mentioned that he was sort of attracted to certain short-haired breeds of dog. “Not enough to do anything,” he assured me. Still, it had pretty much killed the evening.

I like Steve Almond’s stories. They’re easy to read. They’re fun. People are bullshitting; they’re drinking and talking about sex. They’re wondering why they can’t quite make things work, get their shit together. It’s all fun and funny, but there’s always a turn, too, a point at which the drinking/sex-talk/banter turns into a real human story, a search for love and connection. I love this about him.

Read it here.

And be sure to read the comments. Here’s my favorite: This story is just too fucked up for words. Not in the least bit erotic or arousing, just completely fucked up. This criticism is coming from a complete perv. I can handle just about anything as far as erotica is concerned. I can get turned on by a wide veriety [sic] of bizarre sexual practices, but this is beyond the pale.

Ellen Gilchrist, “Victory Over Japan”

1037457A third-grader befriends a boy who was bitten by a squirrel in order to write an article about him for the school paper.

(from Victory Over Japan)

When I was in the third grade I knew a boy who had to have fourteen shots in the stomach as the result of a squirrel bite. Every day at two o’clock they would come to get him. A hush would fall on the room. We would all look down at our desks while he left the room between Mr. Harmon and his mother. Mr. Harmon was the principal. That’s how important Billy Monday’s tragedy was.

This is the title story in the collection, which won the National Book Award in 1984. I found a signed first edition at my parents’ house, which is pretty cool.

I like this story a lot, though I’m not quite sure what it’s about. It centers around the narrator’s obsession with a boy who was bitten by a squirrel, but it’s also about her mother’s maybe-affair with the preacher and her father, who is overseas at war–where she hopes he will stay–and a bunch of pornography found in a basement, among other things. I’m not certain what it all adds up to, though I didn’t feel this way while reading it, only thinking about it after. Anyhow, you can read some of it here.

Lydia Peelle, “The Still Point”

9780061724732A man running from his past joins up with a traveling carnival.

(from Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing: Stories)

Last night, I left the bus late, ended up at the grandstand, where most of the crowd had gathered for a beauty pageant. It was part of some festival going on in conjunction with the fair: the Corn Festival, the Harvest Festival, the Illinois Pride Festival, I don’t know what. The girls, in their elaborate dresses, all looked incredibly earnest and downright scared, as if this was the most important event of their lives. The winner cried as they crowned her, touching her frothy pink dress and piled-up hair.

Life has definitely gone to crap for Cole. He’s lost his family and the home they shared; he sells junk out of old people’s attics; he’s sleeping with a woman who is in a relationship with someone else, a woman he doesn’t like very much, anyhow. Despite these things, the story isn’t a total downer. Peelle describes the world of the carnival with such precision and detail that it comes fully alive. It also seems like she knows what she’s talking about, like maybe her brother spent a summer working as a carnie or something? Or she interviewed some carnies? I don’t know. This story originally appeared in Epoch and was anthologized in Best New American Voices 2009. You can read some of it here. Gillian Welch interviewed her for BOMB here.


Claire Vaye Watkins, “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past”

628x471A young Italian traveler loses his friend in the Nevada desert.

(from Battleborn)

Day seven. At the motel Michele lies staring at the untouched bed across from him. He hasn’t slept in days, not really. When the red-orange glow of sunset permeates the crack between the two heavy panels of curtain covering the west-facing window, he gets out of bed and showers without soap or shampoo, though there are fresh supplies of both on the shelf in the shower, still sealed in their waxy sanitary paper.

I don’t know what it is about the title of the book and the cover design and the name of the author that makes me think BORING. The book has done very well, especially for a story collection, and other people don’t seem to think it looks boring. Anyhow, this is to say that I’ve avoided reading it. And the cover is actually kind of pretty if you look at it up close. There are silver sparkles everywhere.

Okay, so, onto the story. This is a long one and most of it takes place at the Cherry Patch Ranch, which the Italian finds himself at nightly while waiting for his friend to be found. They don’t card him here and he falls in love with a prostitute. These two things don’t go together, but one is the reason he goes, and the other is the reason he keeps going. Anyhow, it’s a very good story. There was never a point at which I wanted to put the book down. I didn’t even refill my coffee. Read some of it here.