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What We’re Reading: You Have Never Been Here

2016 January 21
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What We're Reading
You Have Never Been HereYou Have Never Been Here by Mary Rickert (Small Beer Press, 2015)

You Have Never Been Here is stupid good. There’s no other way to say it. This collection of short stories is at once uniform and eclectic; the stories share threads—both thematic and aesthetic—that bind them together, but each story is clearly and uniquely its own thing. The book opens with the story of a woman slowly turning into a deer, a story that begs to be metaphorized but actually thrives better without the clunkiness of questions like “But what does her turning into a deer represent?” And this is true for many of the stories in Rickert’s collection: fantasy tales that at once ask the audience to find truth in them and at the same time question the nature of that truth. Reading this stories is an experience, and it’s one everyone should have. And buoying up each story is Rickert’s unbeatable prose. This, from “Journey into the Kingdom:”

I live simply and virginally, never taking breath through a kiss. This is the vow I made, and I have kept it. Yes, some days I am weakened, and tempted to restore my vigor with such an easy solution, but instead I hold the empty cups to my face, I breathe in, I breathe everything, the breath of old men, breath of young, sweet breath, sour breath, breath of lipstick, breath of smoke. It is not, really, a way to live, but this is not, really, a life.

As is typical with short story collections, many of the works in You Have Never Been Here have seen publication before, but there is value in having them all here, together, preceding or following one another. Like pieces of art or antiquity laid along a path in a museum, these stories echo against and with one another powerfully, making the whole so much greater than the sum of its parts, and providing a great argument for reading these tales from Rickert together, in one or two ravenous sittings. Each new story feels less like a stand-alone text and more like a meditation or rumination on one of the nearly universal themes in these stories: grief, loss, death. The movement, for instance, from “Journey Into the Kingdom,” which features coastal landscapes and bittersweet narratives of the sea, to “The Shipbuilder,” which features those same landscapes, is a natural one, and it allows each story to sink deeper.

Each story in this collection is a gem, but at no point are Rickert’s skills on better display than in the novellete “The Mothers of Voorhisville,” which is an epistolary tale told (nearly completely) from the perspective of a group of mothers in a small town who all sleep with the same, hearse-driving stranger and all have the same weird, winged, sharp-toothed babies. Yes, the weird pregnancy story is a typical one, even an overused one, but in Rickert’s hands it becomes a complicated, carefully considered narrative about hanging on to what you don’t understand and losing what you do.

And beyond all that, it’s absolutely hilarious. The stories are often sad and sometimes creepy, but there are bright moments of comedy that caught me totally by surprise. In the same story (“The Mothers of Voorhisville”), one of the mothers is a woman named Tamara, who, despite having a law degree, is a writer of fantasy novels. Rickert, I’m sure, is well aware of the stigmatized and fraught place of genre fiction in the literary world, and she uses Tamara (whose voice, by the way, is the most beautiful and compelling of all the mothers) to poke back at the literary world, noting how she (Tamara) was denied access to a writing group in Voorhisville:

Later, when the stranger showed up for the writers’ workshop at Jan Morris’s house, she could not determine how he’d found out about the elitist group, known to have rejected at least one local writer on the basis of the fact she wrote fantasy.

“The Mothers of Voorhisville,” like a lot of the stories in Rickert’s book, is, on some level, about how we tell stories, how we sort out our own pasts and presents. The new story in the collection, “The Shipbuilder,” features a man named Quark returning to his hometown, one of Rickert’s signature small, coastal towns. It quickly becomes clear that Quark has told himself a story about his life that is at odds with stories others have told about his life, even if no one is wrong. In this way, the stories in You Have Never Been Here interrogate and deconstruct themselves in a way that is a total pleasure to read, especially if you’re someone interested in how the story sausage gets made.

I could go on about each of these stories. The way Rickert plays with form, always experimenting: in “Cold Fires,” she tells stories within the story, embedded narratives that, like a few of these pieces, draw on fairy tales and ricochet off one another. Or in “You Have Never Been Here,” the title story, how she messes with second person in a way that is at once creepy and fascinating. These stories stick with you after the reading, begging you to consider them further, to take another peek inside the book, to dig deeper into the characters and narrative. There’s so much to say about each one, but I’ll leave some of the mystery for you to discover on your own.

What surprisingly wonderful books have you been reading lately?

What We’re Reading: The Boys of My Youth

2015 July 30
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whatwerereading-header0316085251.1.zoomThe Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard (Little, Brown & Company 1998)

Okay, I know. I’m late. Late in getting around to a book that stared me down

from the top shelf for the last year and late to a title that’s been high on my list for much longer. With that confession, I’m here to insist that y

ou add Boys of My Youth to the top of your queue. Hell—just drop what you’re doing and grab this halting collection of non-fiction stories.

Beard sets the tone for The Boys of My Youth with the brutally self-conscious voice of her adolescent self in “In the Current.” Though her role in the story is purely observational, even objectifiable, pre-teen Jo Ann is not simply a witness. In fact, this opening story asks the reader to notice how the mind and the heart of the point of view make a story what it is.

I just stand there, embarrassed to be noticed by a teenager. I hope my shorts aren’t bagging out again. I put one hand in my pocket and slouch sideways a little.

Though she is shorebound in the riverside scene, she is actually in the very current of the story—the tragic action melts behind the caustic discomfort of her experience. The story ends:

I look down. My shorts are bagging out.

Over and over again in this collection, throughout various ages and stages, Beard explores the content of her life with deeply self-aware subjectivity. The result is an answer to a question I’ve been musing over for some time… where is the creativity in non-fiction? It’s not just beautiful syntax and drool-inducing sentences; here especially, Beard delivers memory with hard-hit line drives to deep left field. I’m left chasing the red laces of truth across a turf of careful recall and daring transparency.

Seriously, interwoven within captivating stories about a coyote loping across a desert landscape or two cousins losing themselves ala Thelma in an out-of-the-way 80s dancehall, are lines like these:

The steel guitar comes overtop of it all, climbing and dropping, locating everyone’s sadness and yanking on it.

As readers, what can we do with sentences like these except pause for a moment, and take in what good writing can do to illuminate all the yanking we’ve been through ourselves. The deep, terrible sadness that flounces through these stories as a sun hat on a confident, sun-kissed human, walks with a good-humored partner, poking fun whenever possible. In the most well-known story in the book, “The Fourth State of Matter,” Beard’s dogs assist the emotional development of the speaker, especially in moments like these:

“I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,” I say while putting on my coat. I use my mother’s aggrieved, under appreciated tone. The little brown dog wags her tail, transferring her gaze from me to the table, which is the last place she remembers seeing toast. The collie continues her ghoulish sleep, eyes partially open, teeth exposed, while the Labrador, who understands English, begins howling miserably. She wins the toast sweepstakes and is chewing loudly when I leave, the little dog barking ferociously at her.

These light moments keep the attentive reader afloat. And the reading itself is easy; the pacing matches a the way a curious mind peers into the past. ‘What was that?’ you can almost hear Jo Ann asking as the stories reach well into childhood, deeply into how she became. In so doing, Beard never lets the writing slip away from the work of the storytelling. Actually, her prose catches me off guard again and again. How many times have we read about a lake scene? Seen it plastered as the backdrop to some dewey cliché in the foreground. Somehow, Beard makes it new in “Cousins.”

It is five A.M. A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers, and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish strings loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads. One puts on sunglasses and the other a plaid fishing cap with a wide brim.

The panoramic view here is reminiscent of Steinbeck’s valley landscapes. Beard spares no detail and each simile and metaphor is both economical and fresh. And to think, she’s describing her mother and aunt while she and her cousin are in utero! That’s another thing about these stories, the author’s sense-memories and intuitive memories (such as the lake scene depicting her mother and aunt) complement each other, creating a mirage-like reading experience where reality and imagination trip over each other in a clumsy but affable fox trot.

The Boys of My Youth is my book of the summer. Yet somehow, I know I’ll be referring to these maddeningly affective passages all fall, winter, and spring.

What book has been calling your name lately?



What We’re Reading: Inappropriate Behavior

2014 July 10
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What We're Reading

Inappropriate Behavior

Inappropriate Behavior by Murray Farish (Milkweed Editions, 2014)

Consider all the reality shows available on television today, and it’s not difficult to conclude that viewers love people behaving badly. Now bookish sorts can turn off the tube and still get a dose of deviant deeds in Murray Farish’s new collection of short stories, Inappropriate Behavior. From strikingly realistic portraits of people struggling to maintain their sense of self in difficult circumstances to the fractured worlds of people barely holding on to reality, Inappropriate Behavior offers a range of stories that are just as voyeuristic as any reality TV show.

Farish distills the stresses facing many families today and illustrates them with shocking clarity in the title story. “Inappropriate Behavior” follows what could be considered a typical forty-something couple—George has been unemployed for months, Miranda’s struggling to keep the family afloat with her salary, and their son, Archie, has inappropriate behavior neither the school nor medical community can properly diagnose.

The strongest section of the story is a pages-long string of unrelenting questions mimicking the constant loop that must run through the minds of those who have less money coming in than going out.

Why does an American CEO earn 350 times the salary of the average worker? Because that’s what the market will bear? What are we going to do? If my child’s new school doesn’t notice that his classmates have locked him in a broom closet for three hours, does that constitute neglect? Does nobody know poor Rip Van Winkle? What are the effects of homelessness on children?

You can just hear the voice-over going into commercial: “Will George find a job? Can Miranda hang on to hers? Will the money run out? Will things ever get better? Stay tuned!” “Inappropriate Behavior” could easily be a reality show on the now profoundly misnamed TLC.

In other stories, Farish uses the immediacy of the first-person POV to create the confessional atmosphere so popular on reality TV. “Mayflies” is a particularly poignant story about Ms. Willet, a thirty-seven-year-old woman whose life is filled with heartbreak and shattered dreams. She married her high school boyfriend because she got pregnant and is stuck in the same small-minded small town she grew up in. Her older son shot and killed her younger son before joining the Marines, and her husband is slowly drinking himself to death. She works at a diner with Sandy, a “melodramatic girl who claims to have big dreams,” and Royce, “a twenty-four-year-old child already well past the apex of his powers,” who vaguely reminds her of her husband. Although she distances herself emotionally from everyone now, she still feels protective of Sandy. “I’d like to be able to tell her things. I’d like to tell her to go away, farther than Auburn. Go states away, countries away. Go and don’t come back.”

The story takes place over the course of one night, a summer night in the midst of the annual mayfly spawning season when mayflies fill the air and the surfaces of the town. Ms. Willet is restless, and when she sees Sandy kiss Royce after an apparent date, she uses her car to exact an act of self-redemption and protection for Sandy. She’s caused considerable damage but feels no remorse.

I can think in this moment, but I cannot seem to feel, so I think about what I should feel, and I don’t know. I think I should go get help. I think about the times I let Royce sleep with me. . . . I think about Buck, and how we stayed together all those years even though we only got married because of Ronnie, and then how, years later, here comes little Ford, the boy I wanted, the boy we actually made love to make. I think, Royce is someone’s child too—but she’s dead. I think I know why I did this to him, and I think it’s almost a good enough reason.

I say, “If you don’t die, you’d better by God stay away from that girl.”

But inappropriate behavior isn’t limited to actions. As Farish illustrates in “The Passage,” inaction also qualifies as inappropriate behavior. “The Passage” imagines Joe Bill, a naïve young man, sharing quarters with Lee Harvey Oswald on an ocean voyage in 1959. Joe Bill eventually reads the mysterious journals of his cabin mate and confronts him on the contents. Lee warns him that one day Joe Bill will have to deny knowing him or what was in his journal. After the Kennedy assassination, Joe Bill tells the reporters and investigators what Lee told him to say. But Joe Bill has questions of his own.

And of course, there was the biggest question of all. . . .It’s been with him every day since and will be forever, and it’s the one question he has an answer for: What did you do about it, Joe Bill? And the answer is, nothing.

Farish has a strong debut with Inappropriate Behavior. As with all short story collections, some stories are stronger than others, but even the weaker stories here don’t slow down the momentum. Inappropriate Behavior is an engaging, quick read. It’s summer, folks. Turn off the television, head outside, and sate your own voyeuristic appetite with material that’s just as juicy but much more substantive than the standard reality show fare.

Where do you prefer to get your inappropriate behavior — reality television or books? Does fictionalized inappropriate behavior work better in small doses (short stories) or big doses (novels)?


What We’re Reading: Karate Chop

2014 May 8

What We're Reading

Karate Chop Cover

Karate Chop by Dorthe Nors (Graywolf Press, 2014)

There must be something in that Scandinavian coffee. Perhaps it’s a special dark roast. Because those Scandinavian authors can write some dark stories. The reading masses have already devoured the twisted tales of Stieg Larsson (Sweden), Jo Nesbø (Norway), and Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark). Now, thanks to Graywolf Press, readers can get a satisfying taste of another Danish author. Dorthe Nors’ newly translated short story collection, Karate Chop, offers just as much darkness as her fellow Scandinavians but with a bit more subtlety.

Nors does an amazing amount of writing in such a short space. Only eighty-eight pages long, Karate Chop is full of short stories, each lasting only a few pages each. But what she manages to pack into those pages delivers quite a jolt. It may seem that stories would need more space to develop properly, but Nors quickly and sharply probes her characters and their humanity, leaving the readers to judge their actions or inaction.

Not all stories in Karate Chop are dark. In the four short pages of “The Winter Garden,” Nors perfectly crystallizes a moment everyone faces in their lives—the moment a parent goes from extraordinary to ordinary. A boy goes to live with his father after his mother’s boyfriend and his two daughters move into their house. His father claims the divorce was good for him, and he’s started a hobby of gardening succulents. When his father brings home a woman and starts explaining his garden, the boy notices the woman “looking at the wallpaper in the living room.” When the boy and his father visit the woman’s home, they meet her son, and the boy also meets a stark realization.

He stuck his tongue out at my father when he wasn’t looking. That may seem like a petty thing, but it was only then that I realized that I was the only person who thought my father was someone special. It was only my way of looking at him that stopped him from being just some ordinary guy of no importance. If I didn’t like him he would basically be insignificant, and if he were insignificant, things would look pretty bad for me.

Some stories of Karate Chop also float between reality and the surreal. In stories such as “She Frequented Cemeteries,” readers are left on their own to decide how reliable the narrator is. The woman in this story seems to have finally found love.

What happened wasn’t exactly spectacular. She had met a man. That was all. . . . Her feelings were strong and reciprocated. She sensed it, yet she knew also it would take time before they could be together. He was in mourning for things he’d lost, and his mourning was unhurried.. . .

But there was no way she could explain this to her girlfriends. They demanded evidence. They wanted to know who had died, why he kept crying, and if it really wasn’t just his own fault.

To avoid her friends and the conversations she doesn’t want to have, she walks around cemeteries dreaming of her future.

In the early evening she would pass through the iron gates into Park Cemetery, stroll past the dead painters, the poets, and head for the place where the pink roses were. When she got there she would walk between the graves, and as she went she closed her eyes to the parts of reality the others were keeping a watch on and imagined the man, who could only be with her in spirit, lacing his fingers in hers. They would walk there in various scenarios, sometimes silently, but together. They would be walking there when he said he loved her. Things like that would be said as they walked side by side through the cemeteries in the various stages of their as-yet-uninitiated time together.

Unlike her Scandinavian counterparts, Dorthe Nors offers short, incisive stories that plumb the depths of humanity while offering only glimpses of the darkness that can be found there. Stories such as “The Buddhist,” “Karate Chop,” and “Female Killers” are more in line with the tradition of dark Scandinavian tales. The stories seem to be about ordinary people on the surface, but Nors weaves an undercurrent throughout the stories that leaves readers knowing something is not exactly right with these characters.

Although Karate Chop is Nors’ first English translation, she has five other novels just waiting to be translated for eager audiences. Since you can’t read her novels yet, whet your appetite with Karate Chop. You won’t even need a cup of coffee to keep you awake.

How short can short stories be and still be effective? Can a short story be too short, becoming more of a character study instead of a fully realized story?