I believed in ghosts as a kid. Since then, I’ve wondered why I wasn’t ever fascinated by the lore of other supernatural creatures. I think it’s in large part because ghosts—unlike angels, demons, vampires, or werewolves—didn’t seem to have such a strict set of rules governing their existence. In my understanding, ghosts could pretty much show up wherever they wanted, for any reason, and all manner of mysteries could be attributed to “ghost activity.”
Living a childhood where ghosts were real meant that any suspicious noise, weird animal behavior, or missing object could not only be explained but also imbued with significance. A door closing on its own didn’t happen because open windows in the house caused a difference in air pressure that made the door move. No, an angry ghost slammed that door because it was once a girl like me and she had died. But how? And what did she want now? And why was she angry?
In other words, I liked ghost stories because they at once solved and created a mystery.
I loved Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson’s story “Birthright” when I read it on Revolver earlier this month for the same reason. Clocking in under 700 words, “Birthright” is about a girl, never named, who resembles her dead grandmother. The story reads like a myth in its straightforward, naked aim to account for the girl’s likeness to her father’s mother, mixing modern pragmatism with fancy. The girl, referred to as an “Old Soul,” is visited by the ghost of her dead grandmother at night, both in dreams and reality, a distinction that doesn’t seem to matter because, as the narrator points out: “It is always late and dark and dreamlike.”
The older I get, the more I notice that my handwriting resembles my mother’s. Her cursive is so even, consistent, and precise that her letters and grocery lists look like they’ve been typed up on the computer and printed out. My handwriting isn’t like that—it’s sloppy and irregular—but when I get going, when I write only in cursive and not a mix of half-print, I see that my “r”s curve like hers and the loops on my “y”s look just like hers do.
I thought about what I inherited from my mom as I took notes during my second read of Debbie Urbanski’s story “Not Like What You Said,” which will appear in the upcoming Fall/Winter 2014 issue of Alaska Quarterly Review. Urbanski’s story follows Joan, a middle-aged mother whose adult daughter Emma has gone missing. Joan hires a PI to track down Emma two years after Joan last saw her daughter in person, and several months after Emma’s last correspondence. After the PI’s evidence reveals that Emma became involved with a cult, Joan flies across the country to find out what happened to her oldest troubled daughter, and to answer the question she’s posed to herself: Is your child’s happiness real if you can never be a part of it?
In a quick summary of the story, Joan reads as an active, ambitious character. In actuality, she isn’t. She’s still married to her abusive husband Max. She doesn’t speak up or say what’s actually on her mind, instead delivering short lectures in her head to other characters when she’s alone, and even these addresses are opaque and vague in their platitude-like quality. After Emma and her husband Caul leave a visit with Joan and Max early, Joan wants to tell Caul, “Love begets love,” and Emma, “You are a person of great strength,” rather than saying what we wish she would: “Caul, don’t treat my daughter like shit”; “Emma, you can endure your marriage but you don’t have to.” Even in her head, Joan is unassertive, her language aiming to soothe rather than inform or demand, and we come to understand that her role in her family has been to keep the peace.
Are you in the market for some top-notch summer reading, ideally from an exciting new author? Does your optimized, fast-lane lifestyle leave you no time to read full-length book reviews? If so, dear reader, rejoice: you are the target audience of the following bite-sized reviews, all of debut novels released this past month.
California by Edan Lepucki
As a recipient of the widely-coveted Colbert Bump (as well as the lesser known but no less meaningful Sherman Alexie Bump), there’s a good chance that Edan Lepucki’s debut novel has already crossed your radar. The book has become a rallying point in the very public and very portentous war between Amazon and Hachette: Colbert and Alexie asked their audience to purchase the novel from a non-Amazon retailer (Powell’s), in protest of Amazon’s hardline approach to e-book pricing, and the books’ sales have shot through the roof as a result.
All celebrity endorsements and corporate power plays aside, Lepucki has penned a novel more than capable of standing on its own merits. California follows married couple Cal and Frida, as they attempt to navigate the book’s brilliantly realized (and all too plausible) post-apocalyptic world. Tension and darkness build throughout—and this creeping intensity, when combined with Lepucki’s crisp, unembellished prose, makes the novel a genuine page-turner. Regardless of your opinions on the Amazon/Hachette conflict, California is worthy of your attention.
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Stories written in the first person are supposed to be more intimate and allow us greater access to the emotions and thoughts of the narrator than second or third person. But what about the characters who aren’t eager or able to articulate their feelings? What happens when we give them the mic and ask for a story?
The first-person narrator of Shelly Oria’s story “My Wife, in Converse” in issue 209 of The Paris Review seems to be just this character—she’s reticent and she doesn’t always use her words to get how she feels. Divided into eighteen numbered sections, “My Wife, in Converse” is about a curtain maker whose wife is in the process of leaving her. The story opens in a cooking class. The couple decides to take this course together (or more accurately, the narrator’s wife decides and she chooses to come too), but the narrator, an incompetent cook, gets booted out early and takes the suggestion of the instructor to enroll in a poetry class instead. Through the following weeks, the narrator watches as her relationship with her wife deteriorates.
The first person narrator of “My Wife, in Converse” is a solid lady. I like her. That’s not always very important, but Oria gets at me with this character. I feel a lot of tender-hearted sympathy in her direction, which occasionally manifested as a desire to hulk out at the other characters on her behalf. I was a little surprised too, since in real life pretty much all I want to do is talk about feelings, and our narrator does not want to do that.
The narrator takes what other characters say too literally, which has the peculiar effect of making her seem both earnest and insincere at the same time. The scenes set in poetry class are especially effective in illustrating her inability or unwillingness to understand the non-literal language that makes up much human conversation, and hats off to Oria for putting her character in the environment most likely to exacerbate her flaws.
I think most of us who have ever had customer-facing jobs can say: dear god, it’s exhausting. Human beings, while resourceful and tenacious, are made of meat and therefore susceptible to all manner of physical and mental abuse. There’s only so much we can handle. After long enough, having the same conversation with a customer or reciting the same bit of information is enough to turn us all into unbalanced, weary, rage-filled monsters. Which is exactly what seems to have happened to the park ranger narrator of Steven T. Gibbon’s story “An Animal Under the Ground” published in Issue 4 of Armchair/Shotgun.
“An Animal Under the Ground” is written as a set of pre-tour guidelines for a Pink Fairy Armadillo safari, delivered by our nameless narrator, a cantankerous and seasoned park-ranger-turned-tour-guide. (I know, you guys. Here I am, loving another story that adopts an unusual form. Nobody is surprised!) The tour guide rattles off a list of dos and don’ts, complete with exaggerated stories (some of which are supposed to register as jokes to the customers), and inappropriate references to coworkers and past tours.
Gibbon establishes what’s going on right away, and lets us know that we’re dealing with an impatient, bored narrator. The story begins, “There are six crucial facts that you have to understand before you can enter the Pink Fairy Armadillo Safari. We have a nice small group, so let’s try and get through this quickly.” These first two sentences have a rote, knowing quality—our narrator has repeated himself. A lot. Mentioning the “nice small group” also makes the reader aware that there have been plenty of other groups, not nice, not small, that have heard the same speech before.
There’s a lot to love about Katie Coyle‘s story “Fear Itself,” published in the most recent issue of One Story. To start, Coyle is so spot-on in her depiction of teenage girls that about a page in, I took out my phone and snapped a quick picture of a line I’d underlined. I sent it to one of my best friends growing up with a text that read: “This is us in grade school.” (We drew comics and came up with lewd stories about our teachers—we had fun.)
“Fear Itself” begins during a high school field trip to a presidential wax museum. Kara, Ruthie, and Olive are best friends who Coyle brilliantly describes as being “cursed with a sense of moral superiority correlating directly to their social inferiority.” After catching the girls mid-argument, their teacher splits them up and Kara wanders the exhibits alone. To her (and the reader’s) surprise, she discovers that one of the wax figures—Franklin Delano Roosevelt—has not only become animate, but he hits on Kara, calling her “honey” and telling her she has “such a filthy mouth on such a pretty little girl.” Kara tells her friends after she leaves, and the girls spend the next week at school talking about this new relationship before Kara eventually sneaks back to the museum to visit him again. But wax FDR is an abusive asshole—he belittles Kara, stalks her, and behaves like an all-around creep until Olive and Ruthie later step in to defend her.
I can’t tell you the last time I prayed. At least, not in the way that the narrator does in Caitlin Horrocks‘ recent story, “Prayer for the moth, but also for the spider,” in issue 21 of Memorious. I spent twelve years in Catholic school, so I can recite a mean Nicene Creed when I go to Christmas mass with my mom and younger brother, but now that feels less like praying and more like a ritual that only serves to connect me to my childhood. (How many hours did I spend as a kid fidgeting in Guardian Angel’s church as I waited for mass to be over? So many.)
“Prayer for the moth, but also the spider” is, as the title suggests, told in the form of a prayer, as our nameless narrator spends an evening watching a moth caught in a spider’s web. The narrator and a companion congratulate themselves for ignoring their phones, opting instead to sit quietly and watch what’s happening outside the window.
The prayer reads as if it’s being uttered by someone who hasn’t felt moved to pray in quite some time. The story opens, “O someone come save this moth outside our window” rather than “O God,” suggesting perhaps that the narrator’s first impulse is not to reach out to a higher power, but to a tangible body, another human instead. Not until the third paragraph do we get a mention of the Lord, as if the narrator needs to warm up before bringing God into the mix, and even then, the tone eventually grows a little resentful.
I don’t often love stories told from the perspective of kids. I think it’s difficult to write a child that feels believable—or interesting, to be honest. For me, stories with a child or teenage narrator too often devolve into the overly cute. The narrator is too precious. The character’s simple, bald observations aspire to be profound, but instead read as false and contrived. Also, no offense to the kids of the world, but I can only read about your flute lessons, your angst-filled first crushes, and your trips on the school bus for so long before I get a little bored. (Call me a curmudgeon, you guys! Maybe I am.)
So when I picked up Issue 25.2 of Sycamore Review, I was happy to find that I immediately loved Angie Kim’s story “Buried Voice,” about two fourteen-year-old twins trying to cure their younger brother’s autism by reversing a curse.
The story begins as the first-person narrator, Mia, and her twin brother John traipse around a graveyard with an antique stethoscope, trying to commune with the ghost of their dead grandmother. Mia, a smart eye-rolling teenager, isn’t really buying John’s plan—to find the voice of their four-year-old, autistic brother Eugene. Years earlier on another trip to the graveyard when their mother was pregnant with Eugene, John speared a grave and their grandmother believed that Eh-ghee Pah-gweh-jah, a tiny devil that harms unborn babies, placed a curse on her grandchild. Eugene was born and diagnosed with autism, and the twins both believe they are responsible.
I knew I was into Benjamin Reed’s story “Come to Bratislava!” in Big Fiction when the main character, a forty-three year old man named Edgar, makes an observation about the phrase “You are my rock.”
I’ve never liked this way of articulating someone’s importance and essentiality—hearing it uttered usually prompts an eye roll from me. The phrase is shorthand, and that I understand, but I find it irritating anyway. Still, I wasn’t ever able to put my finger on what about it I found grating.
And now I don’t need to because Reed has done it for me. In an early scene in the story, Edgar visits Naama, the employee he’s hired to help him run his rare-book store and the woman he likes: “‘You’re my rock,’ he’d say [to Naama], hoping she’d know he wasn’t joking, hoping also that she wouldn’t force him to elaborate. He could only imagine that she wanted more than to be someone’s heavy, reliable stone.”
Reed nails it—of course we all want to be more than a sure thing, an object used by another person to feel calm and grounded. Who wants to spend too much time around someone who reduces other people—especially those they claim to need—down to an object? (On my first read-through I jotted down in the margin, “YES. This makes me absolutely love this story.” Hey—you all know how I am with my margin notes.)
I’ve recently become friends with a new handful of people, and out of this group, one woman in particular. Then, over the last weekend, I got to see some old friends from grad school, and in talking about our lives and the new people we’ve met since we graduated, I got around to explaining what I like about this new female friend—she’s opinionated, loud, full of feelings, unabashed. I always know where I stand with her. She’s got attitude.
In short, I like me some sass. In my fellow humans, but also in stories, which is probably why I was so into Dinah Cox’s “Three Small Town Stories” published in the most recent issue of Salt Hill. This omniscient narrator has opinions! Lay ‘em on me, narrator. I’m ready to go.
The story is in three vignettes: the first, an account of the robbery of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, damaged by a tornado the year prior; the second, a shared afternoon between two high school sweethearts; and the third, a brief history of a man who killed himself.