Posts Tagged ‘Short Story Collection’

These days there are so many options with which to occupy one’s leisure time—what with the speed and ease of internet access, the availability of hundreds upon hundreds of TV channels, and the realistic graphics of video games—digital distractions, among others, make sitting still and reading more difficult now than ever before.

John Jodzio’s stories, however, could be the cure for the reader with ADHD. Often they’re only a few pages in length, and they never fail to hook the reader from line one:

“There are some things you should not do in the rich town up the mountain from yours and one of those is sticking your dick in their mail slots or dog doors…”

So begins the title story of Jodzio’s debut collection, If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home. After the death of their little league coach, two brothers redirect their anger and grief toward the residents of the neighboring town, whose little league team had recently defeated theirs for the sixteenth time in a row. They exact their revenge by urinating on and through the front doors of their enemies’ houses, until one day, when they’re caught in the act, they find that the people in this wealthy part of town have much greater concerns than winning little league baseball games.

What begins as almost a quirky anecdote quickly develops into a layered story that delves into themes of social class, family dynamic, and mental health. Which turns out to be Jodzio’s biggest strength as a writer: having the ability to blend humor with heart. He uses humor to undercut subject matter that could easily be overdramatized in the hands of a lesser writer, the same way his characters often try to distract themselves and others from more pressing issues.

In “The Egg,” a young man named Scott shows his need for attention and discipline by acting unruly. In response to this behavior, his father avoids confronting his son by going on “business trips” and stepping on a footswitch that makes his office phone ring any time Scott tries to talk to him. When things get especially bad, his father redirects his anger at his employees by firing them.

The married couple in “Shoo-Shoo,” discovers they won’t be able to have children and leave the issue alone, in terms of talking about it with each other. Instead, the wife takes her anger out on their downstairs neighbors who like to play music loudly and whom the cops refuse to quiet.

Two stories where Jodzio really shines with the theme of refusing to accept reality are “Homecoming”—where a young woman accompanies her mother on a weekend trip, centered around a college football game, and looks down on her mom for being promiscuous, not fully realizing the consequences of her own affair with a married man—and “The Deadsitter”—the story of a 13 year-old boy who has had it with his job, dressing up as and pretending to be Vincent, her neighbor’s dead son, so she can believe he’s still alive.

Jodzio pushes the bounds of reality and the fantastical in his work because his characters, often times, are either out of touch with or refuse to accept their own realities. They’d rather answer the phone, knowing full well it’s a prank and not word on the whereabouts of a lost dog or a prospective job offer, because their delusions have created a sense of false hope.

These stories are quick—there are 21 of them within 171 pages—and take little time to read. As bizarre and funny as they are on the surface, they always seem to knock you over with that little something that seems to be missing in a lot of contemporary short fiction: substance. Which means you can fly through them for entertainment, and revisit each one to absorb their depth and complexity. I can say, without a doubt, that you will not have a chance to get bored reading this collection.

Replacement Press
March 15, 2010
$12.95

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Photo by Tiffany Bolk

From the Writer’s website:

John Jodzio is a winner of the Loft-McKnight Fellowship. His stories have appeared in One Story, Opium, The Florida Review and Rake Magazine and a number of other places, both print and online. He’s won a Minnesota Magazine fiction prize and both the Opium 500 Word Memoir competition and Opium Fiction Prize.  His short story collection “If You Lived Here, You’d Already Be Home” was recently published by Replacement Press.

To read Jodzio’s most recent published story, “There Was No Yoko,” click here.

If you’re wondering whether or not Brad Watson’s collection, Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, has extraterrestrials in it, the answer is yes.

Kind of.

The encounter doesn’t occur until the end of the collection, in the title story.  Here, an unexpected pregnancy forces a teenage couple to secretly marry and rent an attic apartment in the sketchy part of town.  One night, after his new wife, Olivia, has expressed her displeasure with the way things worked out, the narrator awakes to find an old couple in the apartment.  They identify themselves as aliens and ask if they can have the child once it is born.

Now, the apartment is located near a mental institution and the narrator, who has been drinking and suffering from heat exhaustion, rationalizes that he has seen this couple wandering its grounds.  In an attempt to get them to leave, he agrees to make them the child’s godparents.  This sets off a string of events where that lead to the couple’s eventual happiness.

Until the narrator wakes up in a hospital bed, greeted by a nurse and doctor that remind him of the aliens from his apartment.

Though the awakening is a surprise—a shock, really—it’s not a surprise ending.  A twist like this runs the risk of abandoning a reader, but Watson avoids that pitfall for a variety of reasons.  First, the story clocks in at over seventy pages and by the time this scene takes places, about two-thirds of the way through, he’s already put in the leg work of creating a character worth caring about.  As a reader, you have to finish the story to know find out what happens (and what happened to get to this point).

Second, Watson’s dreamlike descriptions and compelling details—a patient of the institution hunts imaginary lions, and then the young couple comes face-to-face with one—setup the possibility for absurd and unlikely occurrences.  Plus, it’s not the first time Watson has his readers suspending their disbelief.

The young girl, impregnated by either her father or one of her brothers, seems to materialize in her neighbor’s yard after a tornado rips through Alabama in “Water Dog God.”  In that story, Watson blends matter-of-fact delivery with passages of lyrical mysticism that create tension through tone and language, in addition to its content.

“Understand, we are in a wooded ravine, a green, jungly gash in the earth, surrounded by natural walls.  This land between the old mines and a town, it’s wooden canyons cut by creeks that wind around and feed a chain of quiet little lakes on down to ours, where the water deepens, darkens, and pours over the spillway onto the slated shoals.  From there it rounds a bend down toward the swamps, seeps back into the underground river.  The cicadas spool up so loud you think there’s a torn seam in the air through which their shrieking slipped from another world.”

The main way the twist in the title story works is because of what takes place after the awakening.  While the narrator imagined a happy life for Olivia and him, she (who slept, dreamt, and woke simultaneously with him) envisioned a life with the narrator, illustrating the primary theme that binds these stories together: alienation.  The contrasting dreams illustrate the incongruity between the couple’s subconscious ideas of happiness.  Their parents act immediately, forcing the teens to get the marriage annulled.  Olivia is sent away, and the two become so estranged it’s like they never met.

Alienation and estrangement come in many forms in these stories.  Often the narrators and focal characters aren’t given names.  In the title story, we aren’t given the narrator’s name until the last few pages, which creates a sense of distance between reader and character, one of the ways Watson blends form and content throughout this book.  In the opening piece, “Vacuum,” three boys terrorize their mother to the point where she threatens to walk out on them.  The boys are only identified by their birth order, not by name, because their names aren’t important.

This is a story about a housewife who has to raise her children singlehandedly, while her husband is constantly away on business.  The story touches on issues such as race, gender, and how men can act like little boys, but it sets the tone for the rest of the book with the way it stresses how important a father figure can be.  These boys are so disconnected from their father that Watson doesn’t give them personal identities.

Same goes for the story “Terrible Argument.”  Here a married couple, identified only by the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ (even the dog remains nameless), verbally and physically attack each other so often it’s a wonder why they’re even together.  The man fears loneliness over misery, which causes him to take drastic measures when she threatens to leave him.

Watson excels in showcasing expansive rifts between characters by having them talk around their problems or avoid direct acknowledgement of them altogether.  In “Carl’s Outside,” a married couple side step their marital problems in an attempt to solve more immediate and fixable ones.  Their son, Carl, has been acting out in school, and Ben, the father, thinks his behavior is related to their family troubles.  Instead of taking to Carl about it, Ben tries to teach his son how to ride a bike.

Loomis, the father in “Visitation,” finds it even more difficult to talk to his son, years after he separated from his wife.  On one of his regular visits to see the boy, he worries that he’s no longer capable of protecting his son.  When verbally reassuring the boy doesn’t work, Loomis drinks and seeks the help of a palm reader.

Theme connects the various styles of story, from traditional to experimental.  “Ordinary Monsters,” which consists of six vignettes, provides readers with snapshots of people (and animals) coming to terms with who (or what) they really, but they avoid direct communication about the important issues.  Alone, it’s a quirky little story, but it seems more significant when included among the rest of the collection.  Which can be said of the whole book.  These stories stand on their own nicely, but as a whole they play off each other and the connected themes in the same way songs on a concept album work better when listened to in succession rather than hearing them individually on the radio.

W.W. Norton
March 22, 2010
$23.95

The title of Alex Taylor’s debut collection, The Name of the Nearest River, refers to a young man’s desire to copulate with his friend’s sister until she screams.  He doesn’t admit this desire to himself, however, until he and this friend are searching the Gasping River for a used car salesman, thought to be dead, who swindled and humiliated the sister.  They hope to find the car salesman before search and rescue teams so they can avenge the sister’s honor.  When they find the salesman’s body, their reaction is puzzling, yet it makes sense to who they are as people.

Set in Kentucky, these stories follow the lives of the lower class—people who have little money and live according to their own unwritten laws.  The characters in these stories are a product of circumstance and their environment.  In some cases, the places they live offer little and the people are forced to create excitement or even distraction, such as teens who glue themselves to a police scanner, driving to the sites where action takes places so they can gawk.

Or the elderly woman, a caretaker for the working class men in her life, who just wants to get out of the house where her husband’s on his deathbed.  When she takes it upon herself to get out, she becomes lost, unfamiliar with the land around her, as well as her own boys.  A neighbor comes to her rescue, offering her a lift on his four-wheeler, and she oversteps her bounds while riding her streak of newly found adventure.  But these characters are also motivated by loss, or in some cases, the fear of loss.  They seek vengeance from those who have wronged them or their loved ones because they’re “quick to anger and slow to forget.”

“The Evening Part of Daylight” starts with a punch.  Literally.  Lustus punches his bride-to-be, Loreesa, on their wedding day after she pokes fun of the boutonniere he made from a flower he grew.  Violence is his immediate and irrational reaction.  The wedding guests—preoccupied at the time of the punch, trying to catch a tagged catfish for cash—hear of what happened and immediately respond with the threat of more violence.  Lustus can’t help feeling “a kind of misty loneliness” when he stands before a mass of people wanting his blood and carrying with them “a feeling of moss and old ways.”

One of Taylor’s many strong suits lies in his ability to characterize.  He shows his readers distinctions in social class when his characters aren’t completely aware of them.  A 12-year-old boy named Luke has never known what life is like above the poverty line in the story “The Coal Thief.”  In order to heat their home during the winter months, his family must steal from the coal train.  His father died years ago after falling off a moving car, so now he must accompany his Uncle Ransom on the expeditions.

When a sheriff for the Paducha line stops them, Luke observes the man, thinking “it strange there were men like this in the world who dressed everyday in tailored suits and fresh slacks.  He doesn’t immediately understand who this man is, but he’s aware of his power over Ransom based on appearance: “as if stitched sleeves and raggedy jackets were no match for ironed-smooth trousers.”  But the story doesn’t end with the boy and uncle getting caught and arrested.  Ransom leads them through the woods, intentionally getting them lost even though he’s convinced the sheriff there’s a shortcut back to where they need to go.  What follows is a prime display of people’s capabilities when pit against the elements and survival is at stake.

While these stories do seem grim, its characters filled with despair, longing, and feelings of hopelessness, they don’t leave the reader feeling depressed.  Taylor incorporates humor into his stories, the kind that’s fitting of his characters: dark and crude.  “Winter in the Blood” begins with a man discovering three of his cows have been shot, while he and his daughter are on their way to bring a sheet cake to his terminally ill sister.  The culprits return, demand to be taken to the sister’s house and after they’ve made known their intentions of killing the family, Vela, the sister, cracks cynical jokes, already having accepted her fate long before this day.

What’s surprising—and this isn’t exclusive to this story—is how the focal character, Atherton, empathizes with the men who mean to kill him for no valid reason, other than they woke up, got the idea, and decided to stick to it.

Atherton wondered what it was that made a man go crazy, if it was things down in the pit of him or if the outer world, this cold rushing wintry life, was enough to do it, deadlines and mortgages and marriages gone bad, broken bootlaces and thumbs mashed while mending fence—if that was all it took to drive a man sourbrained, then he figured himself to be near as crazy as Harry.  And that made him feel okay, somehow.  His insides warmed.  A lightness rose in his head.  Unweariment, Vela called it, and he felt it spread through him.  Lovely.

There’s not always a rational explanation for why people do the things they do in these stories, which can be said about real life.  But these characters have an unspoken understanding with those who oppose them, and their tales almost have the feel of parables that put into question the way they think and the choices they make.  Told in the gritty, lyrical prose style of great writers from the south, The Name of the Nearest River marks a new chapter for southern gothic stories, one that deserves merit because, as you’ll see once you crack open the book, it has earned the full attention of its readers.

Sarabande Books
April 1, 2010
$15.95

Alex Taylor’s debut collection of short stories, The Name of the Nearest River, is published by Sarabande Books. From the Publisher:

Alex Taylor lives in Rosine, Kentucky. He has worked as a day laborer on tobacco farms, as a car detailer at a used automotive lot, as a sorghum peddler, at various fast food chains, as a tender of suburban lawns, and at a cigarette lighter factory. He holds an MFA from The University of Mississippi and now teaches at Western Kentucky University. His work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly, American Short Fiction, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere.

There’s a moment in Laura van den Berg’s story, “Still Life with Poppies,” where the main character, Juliana, checks her voicemail only to hear, “the faint static of breath, a low sound that deepened and shifted like wind.”  Is it tension that grips Juliana, or is it terror?  Sure the message could be a wrong number, but she won’t let her mind stop considering the possibilities.

What if it’s Frederick, an eleven-year-old student of hers who continues to draw gruesome pictures of his father being maimed?  Has he found her number?  Does he know where she is?

Or could it be Cole, the ex-boyfriend who brought her to Paris and vanished when his obsession with the social climate—riots and assaults on police, following the accidental death of two teens—caused him to shut down?  Is he trying to reach out to her?

Meanwhile, Juliana is en route to the beach with Leon, a street performer and possible love interest, hoping for a day off from her scattered worries.

This fragment of a scene encompasses what each story in van den Berg’s first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, accomplishes: emotionally compelling narrative, richly layered, told with precise and lyrical prose.

The characters in these stories have an unwillingness or inability to let go of their obsessions, stemming from a variety of reasons that include loss, sickness, death, and chaos.  Their need to search for answers almost becomes more important than discovering the truth about what they’re searching for.  They remain so adamant in their convictions that the people in their lives stop disregarding them, either in an attempt to avoid conflict or because they start believing their hype.

In the opening story, “Where We Must Be,” an out-of-work actress takes a job at a Big Foot-themed park.  Lumbering around and dressed as a sasquatch, Jean provides clients the illusion that Big Foot exists, lunging out at them from behind the bushes, allowing them to take her picture in costume or shoot her with paint balls.  She provides to people what they want to hold onto and believe in.  She acts as a facilitator of hope to the park’s clients, as well as the people in her personal life.

Which appears to be a common theme throughout this book: characters wrestling with science and logic in the face of the mythical, the unexplainable.  Two of van den Berg’s stories involve search efforts for underwater creatures.  “Inverness,” follows a young botanist on her journey to find a rare flower, while a team of scientists pursues the Loch Ness Monster in hopes of disproving its existence.  The narrator yearns to feel “the exhilaration, the sense of purpose,” that finding the flower should bring, fearing that the discovery may not live up to the expectation.  Meanwhile, she connects with a local who’s assisting the scientists because he believes in Nessie.

As is the case for so many of these stories, the characters search for what isn’t there.  They are explorers of the mind in addition to the natural world, and not finding what it is they’re searching for is enough to sustain their belief that it exists.  So long as it’s not proven a hoax.

Diane’s boyfriend in “Up High in the Air” is so focused on finding a rare water snake in Lake Michigan that he completely shuts out everyone in his life.  Her mother’s mind is slipping after the drowning death of her father, and Diane has been continuing an affair with Dean, one of her summer school students.  Stress mounts from the demands and needs of others until she can’t quite comprehend what it is she wants for herself.  In a way, she becomes psychologically numb and gets to the point where all bodies of water become “places to get lost in.”

Water, in this collection, symbolizes hope, loss, and the need to search for and explain the unknown, yet it appears on the surface in many of these stories.  This isn’t to say that van den Berg’s use of these details is heavy-handed or forced.  Water is a necessary image that not only works as a symbol; it also binds the individual stories into a well-crafted, thematically linked collection.

The title story follows Celia, a recent high school graduate, as she accompanies her mother, a biologist, to Madagascar.  As in the stories that precedes this one, there’s a loss that has occurred in some form.  In this case Celia’s father has left her mother, who now insists that she be referred to by her first name, June, in an attempt to recapture her youth.  Swimming is Celia’s escape.  She employs the help of a local, Daud, who’s assisting June in her research on the impact lemurs have on rainforest trees, to become a stronger swimmer.  When June’s theories contradict Daud’s, he leaves and explains to Celia about her mother’s stubbornness that “knowing and believing are two different things.”

It’s no accident that the characters in these stories are researchers, scientists, and teachers.  When the subject matter pertains to the mythical or the undiscovered, these are the types of people who’s beliefs beg to be tested and challenged.  It makes for a stimulating read, which is what art in literary form hopes to accomplish.  Where van den Berg continues to shine is through another technique that acts as vital, connective tissue: motherhood as a subtext for the more immediate, surface-level conflicts.

None of the female main characters in this collection have children, yet most play a motherly role to the males in their lives.  This is the case in “Up High in the Air,” where Diane essentially has taken on the emotional weight of a mother when dealing with her boyfriend and Dean, who holds her, “without desire, comforting me the way I imagined he might comfort his own mother.”  Her mother’s reversion to childlike tendencies also illustrates the mother-daughter role reversal, taxing Diane’s psyche.

“Goodbye My Loveds” brings this theme closer to the forefront of the narrative.  Shelby, a young woman in her twenties, must take care of her adolescent brother, Denver, following the untimely deaths of their parents.  But motherhood still isn’t the story’s focus.  Everyone in “Goodbye…” was or is on a quest for answers or an understanding in an attempt to reconcile the past.  The parents were field researchers, bitten by the same snake in the Amazon while trying to discover new species of primates.  Denver wants to be an explorer like his parents and becomes obsessed with a seemingly bottomless pothole outside Shelby’s apartment.  Jordan, a customer at the bookstore where Shelby works, refuses to drop his search for a 1st edition of Moby Dick.  Shelby, haunted by the letter detailing her parents’ passing, wants to know who Calvin is—the name her mother screamed before she died.

Laura van den Berg shows with this collection that she has the ability to captivate.  She places her readers directly in the action, providing the kind of insight from her characters that, at times, will make you question their motives but ultimately will ask for your empathy.  The debate isn’t over if you will reread this collection; you’ll only ponder how many times you’ll revisit these stories.

Dzanc Books
October 1, 2009
$16.95

Photo by Miriam Berkley

From the author’s website:

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the 2009 Julia Peterkin Award, and the 2009-2010 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College. Formerly an assistant editor at Ploughshares, Laura is currently a fiction editor at West Branch and the assistant editor of Memorious, an online journal of new verse and fiction. She has taught writing at Emerson College, Grub Street, and in PEN/New England’s Freedom to Write Program. Her fiction has or will soon appear inOne Story, Boston Review, Epoch, The Literary Review, American Short Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses, among other publications. The winner of the Dzanc Prize, Laura’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published by Dzanc Books in October 2009 and was a Holiday Pick for the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” Program. She is currently at work on new stories and a novel.

Click here to read van den Berg’s devastating and beautifully written story, “Up High in the Air.”