Showing posts from March, 2018

Lauren Groff, “Once” (McSweeney’s 49)

--> Lauren Groff’s “Once” is a tiny story from McSweeney’s 49. Following the theme of this number of McSweeney’s, it is modelled after Grace Paley’s “Wants.” The very title of Groff’s piece, “Once,” echoes Paley’s original title, with a suggestive respelling.
“Once” is short (three pages), but expertly written, with clever metaphors and a rugged first-person voice.
A woman bumps into the mother of her ex-boyfriend at the beach, a beau from years ago that she had met while working at a country club. The narrator says the woman, who is now old and feeble, is her enemy. They exchange a few words, and the mother accuses her of having ruined her son’s love life.

Jess Walter, “Falling Faintly” (McSweeney’s 49)

The story I liked best in McSweeney’s 49 was Jess Walter’s “Falling Faintly,” after James Joyce’s “The Dead”—in the spirit of this number of McSweeney’s. It’s cleverly textured, funny, insightful, tense. It follows parts of Joyce’s “The Dead,” ends like “The Dead” (with a twist), and refers to “The Dead” constantly along the way. The title is, of course, an allusion to the famous final swoon of “The Dead.”
“Falling Faintly” is a story about Michael, a writer in a bad moment in his life (midlife, divorced, self-questioning), who is called to join a TV show as a writer. It’s a big break, and Michael becomes infatuated with a young actress, Jana, to the point of confessing his love for her while quoting “The Dead” and then pelting her window with snowballs later that evening—for which he gets convicted and sentenced to house arrest.
Being trapped inside his expensive, tiny apartment makes him effervesce with longing for Jana, until, slowly, the longing subsides. At the end, he nearly break…

Anthony Marra, “The Tell-Tale Heart” (McSweeney’s 49)

Anthony Marra’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” follows closely Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” all within the spirit of McSweeney’s 49’s cover stories theme.
A man confesses before a judge how he murdered his roommate, Richard. He does it, he says, to prove that he is not insane and thus deny the claim his own defense attorney is making.
He had been spying on his roommate, who had been taking pictures of himself in the bathroom for Tinder. The narrator had become more intrusive each night—and added a kitchen knife behind his back the final night. When he thinks Richard spotted him and took a picture of him, he lunges at Richard, stabs him to death, cleans everything up, and “pried open the living floorboards and entombed him within the dusty cavity” (p. 74).

Emily Raboteau, “The Babysitter” (McSweeney’s 49)

McSweeney’s 49 is devoted to cover stories: remakes of well-known stories by contemporary authors. This has been my favorite volume of McSweeney’s. Some of the authors I liked best I hadn’t read before, so it was a good find on top of a good read, particularly with Jess Walter.

In Emily Raboteau’s “The Babysitter” (after Alice Munro’s “Some Women”), a twelve-year-old, Dana, babysits for a wealthy professor, Eleanor Fagan, who recently lost her husband, shortly after the couple had adopted two small children from Ethiopia. The messiness of the home, and the utter neglect with which Mrs. Fagan lives her life, mark Dana’s time at the Fagan home.
Things become messier when Dennis, the son of Eleanor Fagan’s deceased husband, shows up and brings laughter, drugs, and sex into the house. At the end, jealous that Dennis was having sex with the au pair (Femke), Dana starts a fire that gets blamed on Dennis and leads to Eleanor Fagan relocating.

Kevin A. González, “The Jayuya Uprising” (American Short Fiction, Spring 2018)

Kevin A. González, “The Jayuya Uprising” (American Short Fiction 66 Spring 2018, pp. 81–129)

I couldn’t stop reading the fifty-page novella “The Jayuya Uprising,” by Kevin A. González, published in American Short Fiction 66. (I recently reviewed a masterful flash fiction piece from the same number of ASF.) Back in 2009, I reviewed a story by González: “Lotería.” I liked it and looked forward to reading more of González’s fiction. I hadn’t bumped into any since then, though, until “The Jayuya Uprising.”
The story centers around a Catholic, school-mandated retreat in Jayuya. This is a town perched in the mountainous center of Puerto Rico. The narrator brings out the town’s nationalist credentials constantly, remembering the 1950 insurrection led by Blanca Canales ("the first and only woman to lead an armed revolt against the United States" [p. 83]).
The narrator is Héctor Manual Acosta (the third, since his father and his grandfather bear the same name) (p. 125). His nemesis i…

Claire Robbins, “Arms Out” (American Short Fiction 66)

The Spring 2018 edition of American Short Fiction just came out, and it contains the winner of the American Short(er) Fiction contest, judged by Justin Torres: Claire Robbins’s “Arms Out.”
It’s a terrific and terrorizing story. Read it while you’re sinking your teeth into something sweet, to balance out the effect. Here’s the beginning, which sets the stage and the tone for the entire two-and-a-half dizzying pages of the piece:
“Leah and Abbie go into the woods and pretend to be boys all afternoon. Later, Abbie will go to college for three years before she gets pregnant with her first son, while Leah will get pregnant with a daughter at fifteen. They build a bridge by dragging fallen tree trunks over the stream and then cross, arms out for balance” (p. 73).
Snippets of the future are interwoven into the story of Leah and Abbie: they will find pictures of tied-up naked women in the forest, they will lose their younger sister for two days in a cornfield, their pet rabbit will die of dehyd…

The Best Small Fictions 2016

The Best Small Fictions 2016. Ed. Stuart Dybek, Tara L. Masih. Plano, TX: Queen’s Ferry Press (2016), 148 pp.

I’ll take up the Best Small Fictions series again with comments on my favorite stories from the 2016 anthology.
These are the stories I liked best: — Rosie Forrest, “Bless This Home”: A story about a girl who’s at home while her mother’s tenant lurks nearby. It’s a very quotidian setting, but there’s a lot of tension, jagged edges, suggestive descriptions.

The Best Small Fictions 2015

The Best Small Fictions 2015. Ed. Robert Olen Butler, Tara L. Masih. Plano, TX: Queen’s Ferry Press (2015), 160 pp.

It was refreshing to see this collection of short fiction come out, and I was glad that it was recently taken up by a new press for the 2017 volume. There were some good stories in TheBest Small Fictions 2015, which I’ll mention below. This quote from Robert Olen Butler’s introduction is pretty good:
“About large fictions, which, by their length, must have plenty of story in them, Carlos Fuentes once said, ‘A novel is a pack of lies hounding the truth.’ A small fiction is a lone wolf of a lie, sometimes hounding the truth across a field but oftentimes simply sitting on a hilltop to raise its face to the moon and howl of love or loss, pain or fear, hard-earned wisdom or benighted ignorance. We listen to small fictions like nightsounds from afar. They enter us briefly, in sweetness or sassiness, in hilarity or aching sadness, but they leave us imprinted with freshly experien…

Roxane Gay’s introduction to The Masters Review, Volume VI (2017)


Rachel Engelman, “Confessions of a Lady-In-Waiting” (The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI)

This story is my fourth and final stop on these comments about pieces from The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI (2017). Four powerful stories in a single volume is quite good, much better than your typical “best of” anthology.
Rachel Engelman’s compelling story succeeds by combining the bouncy, noncommittal language of fairy tales with the harsh, bodily, tyrannical world of courts. The narrator is an indomitable character who grew up hunting wild animals in the forests of Italy. She was captured and taken as a curiosity for the queen of France, whose retinue she joined as a lady-in-waiting.
Court life is not the glamourous affair from fairy tales: the ladies-in-waiting have to remove warts and pubic hair and have to smother and kill the babies resulting from the queen’s affairs. They themselves engage in multiple affairs and are often raped by drunken brutes bearing royal titles.

Gabriel Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall” (The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI)

This story is another highlight from The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI (2017). It’s available online, so you may want to take a look before reading all of the plot spoilers that lie ahead.

The story begins with a contradiction: a family is leading a rugged, nearly colonial life in Montana, while being constantly recorded by cameramen who shadow them wherever they go. This life, we soon learn, is staged for a reality show in which three ordinary families are subjected to the living conditions of “genuine Montana pioneers” (p. 2) for six months.
Tom signed up for the show because he wanted to toughen up his son, Ajay. Helen, Tom’s wife and Ajay’s mother, doesn’t seem to be as committed to the show as Tom. Ajay is becoming hardier, it seems to Tom, and has befriended the Dukes, a group of boys that indulges in rough games and seems to Tom to be a good match for Ajay.
The story is set in motion when Ajay walks in with a broken pinky finger. Later, off-camera, Ajay admits to Tom that…

Matthew Sullivan, “Little Men” (The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI)

Another solid story in The Masters Review Anthology, Volume VI (2017), is “Little Men,” by Matthew Sullivan.

Lois is at her son’s baseball practice one day when a little man (“Three, four inches” tall [p. 63]) lands on her sandal. She takes in the little man and keeps him fed and cared after in a tin box or a shoebox for some time, while we witness the harshness of her day-to-day life: her son, Alan, is a criminal in the making, who crushed a fellow player’s mouth with a bat in practice and who enjoys torturing animals and toys. Lois gets visions of him in the future, committing crimes. Her husband, Howard, claims he’s traveling for work while he’s on week-long escapades with prostitutes. She sticks with Howard into old age, and in the dramatic present of the story, forty years after Lois found the little man, we see Howard forgetful and oxygen-dependent, looked after by his wife.
Lois is having serious issues remembering things, so the many flashbacks and memories laced into the stor…

Kasey Thornton, “Out of Our Suffering” (Masters Review Anthology, Vol. VI)