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We have a few different guest posts for the month and the first up will be from Jodi Paloni (whose story collection I'm currently enjoying):
A Small Town Short: “Incoming Tide” by Elizabeth Strout
Taking a walk down the dirt road where I live, I make a correlation between the short stories I like best and what I like about living in rural northeastern towns. I’m talking about the one post office, one general store, and an ice cream stand in summer type towns. Here’s what those stories do:
Establish a sense of place. While all towns have it, and suburbs, and cities, too–––a feature, and more than one, that distinguish a particular place from some of the others–––not all stories do the job. The ones I like best make use of rugged backdrops, rocks and naked trees, corvids, seabirds, overgrown lanes and rusty vehicles, tides. Weave a dreary atmosphere, a chill, and, as far as I’m concerned, you elevate the narrative.
Now evoke dissonance. It’s crazy hot for late April in Maine, the sun beating down on dampness everywhere. Up here, when it’s hot like this, I feel unsettled. Temperatures say its swimming weather, but there’s scarce green in the woods. Not enough birds. Too quiet. Something’s amiss. It’s reminiscent of slow-burning first act tension in literature.
Throw in the unexpected character. My near neighbor, the guy with the long white hair on the Harley, revved up engine, slows down when passing me, flashes a smile, flicks a friendly wave. He’s called The Outlaw. An American flag is appliqued on the back of his jeans jacket.
Not everything is as it appears. Characters have their wily ways. There’s his conduct. Fifty yards ahead, The Outlaw chucks the bottle he’s drinking from to the ditch and let’s loose a giant hocker. He knows I see him. He’s my nearest neighbor. I drive a fuel-efficient vehicle with a loon stamped on my conservation vanity license plate. He’s marking his territory, starting a conversation. It’s my move, but I’m not biting. I’m considering his backstory, his motivation, the mystery between us. For now, I leave the bottle where he left it, the ending unwritten.
I finish my walk. I try to enjoy the gift of sunshine on a New England seaside town.
Elizabeth Strout’s short story, “Incoming Tide” from her Pulitzer-prize winning short story collection, Olive Kitteridge, opens by creating a sense of place and establishes that place matters. A bay. Shifting rocks. The twang of a cable against a mast. The cry of a gull. A marina.
Kevin, our third person narrator, has been sitting in his car looking out over the water, taking it all in, which is nothing unusual on the coast of Maine, but he’s been parked there awhile. How much time went by, Kevin didn’t know. He’d been away and now he’s back. He was as much a stranger up here now as any tourist might be, and yet gazing back at the sun-sliced bay, he noted how familiar it felt; he had not expected that. What had he expected? Why should it matter? Dissonance. Something is amiss.
For a few pages, you get Kevin’s backstory–––childhood trauma, mental illness, no family. He finds himself lost in a memory about a woman, a waitress at the marina restaurant, who he sees from his car window as she crosses the parking lot carrying a bucket, and preparing to chuck clamshells from a pail over the cliff into the sea. He has fond memories of her from when they were children. A yearning stirred in him that was not sexual but a kind of reaching towards her simplicity of form. His reverie is interrupted when Olive Kitteridge, his ungainly seventh grade schoolteacher from years ago, suddenly appears, raps on his windshield and lets herself into his vehicle. She can do this. It’s a small town, and Kevin’s family’s story, his mother’s tragic end, left a mark, far-reaching.
Plenty of backdrops work well to show characters living on the edge. In this case, Strout has positioned her protagonist on a literal edge–––a parking lot near a cliff, a bay that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. Plenty of stories show how a strange alliance can enter the protagonist’s world. But Olive Kitteridge, the burly buttinsky, is unlike the prosaic small town gossip, or another manifestation, The Outlaw, the cliché, Olive means to get to the heart. She prompts. She’s here, not to meddle, or provoke, but to salvage.
In my way of thinking, these details make a difference. If you have characters on the edge, why not place them on the farthest reach you can find? Employ a busybody as a mover and shaker and make sure she’s got the presence of mind to sit still when the dark stuff starts to rise, the gumption to spring into action when serious shit hits the fan.
As Kevin and Olive, the unlikely pair, observe the vulnerability of the waitress whose personal struggle, from the little we find out, parallels the story enclosed in the parked car, their conversation progresses. Kevin is thrown into discourse on private matters he’d prefer not to discuss, while Olive proves a worthy listener, for she too has survived the tenebrous tangle of mental illness in one of her parents.
In this story, the topic of suicide is the glass bottle thrown to the ditch like a gauntlet. Strout handles it as lightly on the page as I have seen–––a glance at a gun in the back seat, wind blowing at the skirt of the thin figure standing on the precipice of the sea. Before you know it, the story has taken you to the outer lip of a desolate landscape and inside the emotional hollows of three loosely connected people, now dependent on one another for survival. You are indelibly marked.
Jodi Paloni grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and moved north to Vermont, where she lived for twenty-five years. She recently settled on the rocky coast of Maine. Her debut story collection, They Could Live With Themselves (Press 53, 2016), comprises eleven linked stories set in the fictional town of Stark Run, Vermont. She was a runner up in the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction, the Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, and winner of the Short Story America prize for Short Fiction. Her stories appear in a number of literary journals in print and on-line. You can learn more at www.jodipaloni.com and on Twitter @JodiPaloni.
The USPS was kind today, dropping off the copy of Michael Martone's short story collection, Fort Wayne is Seventh On Hitler's List (Indiana University Press, 1993). To be honest, I wasn't sure if I had this collection or not, and had read Enlarged Edition on the publisher's website and ordered it with that in mind.
Reading the preface though, I realize that I'd had the book before, and might still (things are a little cluttery still here when it comes to books, boxes and shelves). I knew that Martone's debut, Alive and Dead in Indiana (which is available in eBook form from Dzanc Books rEprint series) had been cut to a slimmer size by Knopf before it was published. What I didn't know (or remember) is that this collection was essentially that book bulked up with four more stories---what I don't know and am curious about now is if the bulking up replaced whatever Knopf requested removed, or if these were different stories altogether. I'm going to give those stories, specifically, a read during the month!
"Tom was on glory hole duty and Ericka was doing the dog shit, so when Crystal went on break, she went out back by herself and lay in the lettuce bags with one of the pamphlets from the Info Kiosk, a pamphlet for the Akron Zoo, a place with things like tigers and fruit bats and penguins that were sort of like dogs and the deer they sometimes saw, but not like dogs and deer at all."
This is the first line of the short story, "Service Area," by Matthew Kirkpatrick today at The Rumpus. Go back and read that again and tell me there's any way in hell you're not reading the second sentence and beyond.
"Service Area" reminded me of a Matthew Derby story in a way--a lot of recognizable aspects to it, but just different enough in details to be a little beyond offbeat. The service areas in question seem to be those stopping areas with gas stations and food courts on the Ohio Turnpike. The biggest difference in this fine piece of writing is that those that are workers in the service areas reside there, living and working, and have been doing so since birth--the majority, if not all, of the people having been found as babies in dumpsters--a bright, almost magical, light shining the way so they'd be found as quickly as possible.
Those residing/working in the service areas dream about the places they hear of from passers through--mostly Cleveland, Toledo, Gary, though there is a group of teenagers heading to California to 'become stars.' The part that has me already thinking of re-reading the work is the idea of just how similar the world Kirkpatrick has placed his characters is to our current situation--but the slight differences give me all the reason in the world to read this another time or two before this weekend is over. He makes it look effortless it's done so smoothly but I don't think it could have been so and I want to try to unpack what Kirkpatrick has done. It also makes me realize I have at least one, if not two, copies of his FC2 story collection in this house that was (were?) purchased and set in a stack and then found its (their) way to a shelf somewhere. I need to search for it (them?) and get reading more of his work.
Maybe right after I re-read this story a time or two.
Thought we'd start off National Short Story Month with a read of an online journal short story. "Sex Coffee" by Desiree Cooper comes to us from Blood Orange Review. This is a great little flash piece that starts off:
You walk into the coffeehouse and pick a seat beside the thin woman whose beauty is coiled into tight vines of hair. Never seen her here before, you think as you slide into the bench beside her, careful not to get caught looking in her direction.
You take off your coat, power up your laptop, check your cell phone for messages. You coyly lay your trap.
I generally like second person point of view pieces--one thing I've found is that those that have made it into publication are usually written very well. I almost think that a little extra care must have gone into each one to help the story/poem/novel/essay get past whatever hang-ups an editor might have had about the point of view.
I like how, even though this is a pretty short flash, Cooper was able to find something to use as a thread from beginning to end--from the third paragraph:
The skinny, clear-skinned woman looks up, a gazelle at the watering hole.
From later toward the very end of the piece:
She leans so close to your lips, you can smell the savannah in her pores.
It's an example to me of the little things that Cooper does within her stories, both flash and the longer pieces, that elevates her work. Examples like this are easy to spot throughout Cooper's stories. "Sex Coffee" is an excellent flash capturing a certain type of dude just perfectly. While short in length, it doesn't lack any power, not wasting any words or space on the page. A great start to the month and just one more great effort from Desiree Cooper.
Stories and collections and publishers and authors will be discussed here and hopefully at many other sites during the month.
Today's work of the day is the poem, The Point, by C. Dale Young via the fine journal StorySouth.
Young has published four collections of poetry to date (I'm behind on this by one I believe) and has a collection of short stories I'm greatly looking forward to coming from Four Way Books next year. Young is also a doctor and while this doesn't always directly enter his poetry, when it does, it can be very powerful.
His other doctors proclaimed he would die
within a month. He kept on living for years:
the simple fact is that he was barely thirty
is the opening stanza of sixteen such stanzas which are followed by a single line. Here's where I have to offer my standard poetry apology--I've not studied poetry at all, if this is a particular type of poem or if there's a better way to describe these "sections" I do not know.
While one never knows just how autobiographical a piece is, be it poetry or fiction, I think there's an inherent belief by most readers that there's something within the work that comes direct from the author's life. And when the author has the protagonist in her/her work be very similar to themselves, it makes it that much more difficult for the reader to avoid this.
In which case, I imagine the ideas behind this poem must have flooded out of Young, though also much have been pretty crushing to continue working on and refine until he had it just right. While the patient noted "kept on living for years," I think it's pretty obvious from that opening that things aren't going to continue on that way for long.
And while I think doctors must have some sort of mechanism to get through the lost patients--especially those working mainly with patients that suffer life-threatening diseases--I also think there must be patients that have something about them that make these mechanisms seem very inefficient.
So this is it? You're just going to let me die?
Mano, you leave me here to die like this?
But here, you see, the tongue is wiser than
a knife, the word selected not just "brother" but
a word that cut far deeper than English ever could.
The urge to prophecy is deep but not a given.
The italicized section the words of this patient as the doctor has run out of ways to fight his cancer. And these words, this particular word, Mano, has cut the doctor deep. As implied early in the poem, the patient does indeed pass away. Early the morning that this occurs, this conversation returns to the doctor's mind. The patient's sister called later that day to inform that doctor that her brother had passed very early that a.m. This leads to the doctor wondering how he knew and again brought to mind that word Mano.
Whether or not this is a situation Dr. Young has personally gone through, one would assume his years of doctoring, of associating with other doctors, is what has given him the insight to write such a poem, but it's his years of working with words on the page that have allowed him to draw such power into this work. That allowed it to be as concise as it is--that allows the reader to feel the gut punch that the doctor in The Point must feel.
Book Review 2016-006
Hesitation Wounds by Amy Koppelman
2015 by The Overlook Press, 187 pages
(I purchased a copy of this hardcover when it came out late in the fall)
(There are a plot spoiler or two in this review--couldn't really figure out how to keep them out)
Amy Koppelman might be the bravest writer I know. She writes of difficult subjects--specifically various forms of depression--and does not shy away from any aspects of the disease. Her debut, A Mouthful of Air (MacAdam/Cage, 2003) told the story of a new mother suffering from postpartum depression. Her follow-up, I Smile Back (Two Dollar Radio, 2008), followed a married mother as she tried to work through her bi-polar depression through searching for wider ranges of high excitement. In each of these cases, Koppelman chose to allow the reader to feel as close to what it feels like to have either of these forms of depression by digging deeply into their minds. Not simply implying or stating that they were feeling dark, but expressing exactly what they were feeling and how their actions might help or hinder any development toward their improvement.
In Hesitation Wounds, while still dealing with the subject of depression, Koppelman has switched points of view and has as her main character Susanna Seliger, a renowned psychiatrist working with patients suffering from treatment-resistant depression. Koppelman gives us the thoughts from one who helps battle depression for others, and not one battling herself. And while depression, specifically of two individuals, plays a prominent role in this novel, Koppelman has really tackled grief and memory in Hesitation Wounds.
The novel begins with Dr. Seliger in an airport--she's recently received a phone call from an adoption agency suggesting they believe they've found her a daughter. Without much warning the narrative goes into her remembering a patient, Jim, telling her a story. It's something Koppelman does very well in this novel--she changes time frames and what one might refer to as scenes freely and while the time span covers some nearly 30 years, the novel is mainly written in the present tense. However, Koppelman's writing is so crystal clear, it never takes more than a sentence or so for the reader to realize that a switch has been made.
The patient, Jim, is undergoing ETC (electroconvulsive therapy) as what one would have to consider a last ditch effort to battle the voices that have been in and out of his head for years. At this time he's in for his last treatment. He's middle-aged, married, has a couple of dogs, and is a freelance writer. As this afternoon comes to an end, Jim is headed off with his wife and Dr. Seliger runs slightly late to meet Evan for dinner at an Italian restaurant. I don't remember it being clear at the moment of this meal, but it comes out later that the two are in a long-standing relationship but not married. During the meal, right after Susa (her childhood nickname) tells Evan that she loves him, he lets her know that he impregnated a waitress on his last trip out of town. Which leads to their relationship ending and throughout the rest of the novel has Dr. Seliger remembering incidents from this and other relationships.
Getting back to grief and memory--Jim ends up succumbing to the voices and hangs himself. Something about his death really brings to the forefront Susa's memories of her brother Dan, dead now some 28 years. While Dan didn't necessarily commit suicide, Susa's memories have her convinced that he was suffering from depression, was offering her clues, and that her hesitation to act upon them allowed him to not prevent himself from dying in a fire. While he may not have planned out a suicide, from his best friend's (Ray) description of the event, Dan didn't do very much to stop it from happening once he realized what was going on--in fact a little grin crossed his face upon that realization. And Susa has been suffering from his loss ever since.
The novel spends time in the 80's, back before Dan died, times when he and Susa and Ray (and at times 2 or 3 others were mentioned but not strongly) spent time getting high, talking about the two boys going out tagging--this in NYC when it wasn't shiny like it is now. It spends more closer to current time with Evan and Dr. Seliger. There's time not so long after Dan dies that Susa and Ray have a long relationship, moving in together. It also leaps to what would seemingly be the future considering the starting point of the novel, a time where Dr. Seliger has adopted a nearly five year old Cambodian named Mai. Much of it is in the form of Susa talking to her deceased brother, and, in this way, it feels as if she's speaking directly to the reader.
Throughout each different time period (beyond that when Dan is still alive), Susa constantly grieves for Dan. The levels vary, and the things that trigger her grief aren't consistent. What also varies, albeit slightly, is how Susa remembers things. She seems to be letting her memories convince herself that Dan was trying to signal to her that he was suffering, that he was going to do something about it, and that she could have done something to stop from happening what eventually did. Especially after her patient Jim's final actions.
If instead of calling you crazy I said I was willing to go with you, would you have waited for me? Could I have saved you? Could I have?
At one point she even wonders if she continues to think about the past will she be able to keep track of what is memory and what is real.
Koppelman's writing also needs mentioning here. To call it spare is not an overstatement. In the sections that are not dialogue, one imagines that Koppelman must have done a lot of deleting during revisions until she found just the right words, just the right number of syllables, just the right structure:
I can feel the pages of the book against my thumb. A paperback. The edges worn. Dog-eared.
The above is a typical paragraph. No lengthy, descriptive, sentences. Information chopped up and offered piecemeal. Between that and the time jumps but keeping everything in the present tense, the book really flies by. I read it in two sittings and if I didn't have to stop in between I wouldn't have. People frequently tell each other to work through their grief--it will get better. What Koppelman shows through Dr. Seliger is that it might not necessarily really get better, but when you can find other things to keep your thoughts busy, that grief isn't the main focus of your attention. While the topic isn't the brightest, the writing and structure are so fantastic that it's truly a great read.
Reminder--May will be National Short Story Month around the EWN. Here's hoping many others join in as well.
Looking for guest posts--basically anything dealing with short stories--reviews of stories, reviews of collections, looks at authors that are known as short story writers, interviews, etc.
My own plans include:
a) reviewing at least a story a day
b) going through the Dzanc Books published short story collections and noting what I remember about their being selected for publication and something about the stories within
c) looking at story collections by Dzanc authors published by other publishers
And for Twitter folks, I think a simple #NSSM2016 should help everybody find as many posts as possible throughout the month.
Book Review 2016-005
Safe From the Sea by Peter Geye
2010 by Unbridled Books, 244 pages
(While I am sure I received a galley of this from the publisher when it came out, I bought the copy I read from Literati in Ann Arbor)
Somebody out there smarter and better read than I am has probably put together a list of wonderful writers that were brought to the reading public for the first time by the duo of Greg Michalson and Fred Ramey in their various publishing incarnations (William Gay, Steve Yarbrough, Rick Collignon, Masha Hamilton, Andrea Portes, Virginia Pye, Frederick Reuss for starters), and while it took me six years to get to it, I'm very glad that Peter Geye was added to that list. Safe From the Sea is a great read on many levels. There's a great father-son story; there's at least one great husband-wife story within; there's a not quite coming-of-age aspect to it; and smack in the middle there's a page-turning aspect that would make most suspense writers happy. It also is a wonderful representation of Midwest writing.
What Geye has really done though in my mind, is taken a somewhat familiar premise--dad and son not speaking so much for many years, dad let's son know he needs help/is dying, they pretty much work through things before dad dies--yet created a novel in which his readers will find themselves flipping the pages rapidly, caring about the characters--not just those two but the others that sit more on the peripheries--and not find that everything fits together in the end like it was just a well-conceived jigsaw puzzle.
The novel begins with a prologue that I believe actually works. Too often a prologue simply to me seems to be chapter one with no reason to be singled out. However in this work, the prologue occurs many years before the current time. It has one of the main characters, Olaf Torr (the father) working on a ship in the Great Lakes, talking to a co-worker about the fact that his wife has just recently (nine days) had given birth to his son, Noah (the son). In a scant few pages the reader learns quite a bit about Olaf, about his work as an officer on the ship headed for the Soo, on his thoughts ("sad and beautiful") about his missing his wife and child.
The novel proper begins with Olaf calling Noah, who he really hasn't spoken to since attending Noah's wedding to Natalie some six years earlier. He asks Noah for help, which might stun him even more than the fact that the old man has called in the first place. A quick side story develops as Natalie is pretty horrified that Noah is even considering leaving as they've been trying to have a child regularly and she's ovulating. Noah's taking off creates at least two potential issues of tension--he and his father, and the obvious tension with Natalie.
What transpires between Noah and Olaf is extremely well done. There's no big blow up scene between the two of them, there's no big make-up scene. Their conversations begin slightly stilted and develop throughout the novel. Noah realizes just how bad off Olaf is as the two of them fish and work a bit around Olaf's very out of the way home in Misquah, a good hour outside of Duluth, Minnesota. Noah, who owns and works in a vintage map store, takes at the very least a small liking to the physical work necessary around the place--the chopping of wood, the crisp weather, even going to far as to do something he never was considered man enough to do before he left, something he'd only seen his father and grandfather do, bathe in the lake--the water cold enough to shock your body into not breathing upon entry. It's this subtle transformation of Noah that I consider to be a not-quite coming-of-age story.
Throughout the novel, Olaf and Noah treat each other more like men than they do father and son. The father-son dynamic is present, but with Noah needing to do so much to help Olaf, there's just enough of it pulled back to allow Noah to act closer to an equal to his father than as a son. Make no mistake, there is still that presence of a son wanting to please his father, wanting to make him proud, but it's not over the top.
There's something about this man to man aspect their relationship takes that allows some things that occur to make more sense than they otherwise might. A monster component to this story is the fact that the ship Olaf was an officer on in the prologue, the Ragnarøk, sank in Lake Superior. Olaf was one of three survivors. From the moment they were rescued he lived life differently--he drank too much, quit properly communicating with his family, became much more withdrawn. This led to his wife cheating on him with their neighbor, to the kids, Noah and his sister, Solveig, growing up confused to say the least, and shut out from him. While Noah is in Misquah, he asks Olaf about that night--quick aside, the day he arrived in Duluth, he visited a Great Lakes Shipping Museum and had reviewed a section on the wreck of the ship, including a photo of the crew including his father--and where I'm not so sure Olaf would have shared the story were Noah acting the petulant child, his going along with the conversation seemed to fit.
This would be the page-turner aspect of the novel--it's hard to believe that Peter Geye didn't spend some time on freighters in the Great Lakes as a young man. He's either very well read on the topic or listened to a lot of old yarns in bars over the years, but his description of the storm hitting Superior while the Ragnarøk was cutting across, and how the men worked to get through, and the details of the various rooms, and the ice on the deck, and the lifeboats, and beyond is riveting. It's a lengthy section of the novel and it is subtly interspersed with Noah either having recollections, or having realizations about his father--about this event and how it affected the old man. While they've seemingly been doing okay together, hearing this story direct from Olaf is what pushes their relationship to being truly back to solid father-son ground. Especially when it hits a point, after telling of their rescue, when Olaf admits:
“For most of your life I’ve used that night as an excuse. Not because I wanted or needed one but because I had no control over what it did to me. I should have. Hard as it would’ve been, I should have beaten it.”
It's a pretty astonishing admission and it comes across in a simple fashion. And this is what brings me to the Midwestern aspect of Geye's novel. And it's not surprising, Peter Geye was born and raised in Minnesota and resides there now. This novel is not flashy in any way. The language is straightforward, and there's a strong element of work ethic within. It's a trait Midwesterners are rightly proud of--you get up, put in a hard day's work, and go to bed exhausted. There is also that feeling of needing to beat back the elements that try to slow you down--the weather, downturns in the economy, jobs being sent elsewhere, and even things like a huge storm over Lake Superior causing you to be one of three men to survive a shipwreck and fire.
Geye has again taken a pretty standard fiction trope and created within that trope a story that is anything but standard. It is powerful in the emotions it brings forth, especially with the lack of flash invoked. Even the story of the shipwreck works through in a straightforward manner. The shipwreck aspect might keep this from what I would call a quiet novel, but just barely. This is a novel full of events, but they don't feel eventful; they feel more like every day life than again, the idea of a well-conceived jigsaw puzzle. Once again, Greg Michalson and Fred Ramey, this time via Unbridled Books, have given readers their first taste of a wonderful writer in Peter Geye. I look forward to reading much more of his work over the years.
That is, if I'm counting correctly as I go through the tables of content. This wonderful looking trio of titles arrived today:
The Big Book of Exit Strategies by Jamaal May (Alice James Books, 2016)
Forest Primeval by Vievee Francis (Triquarterly Books, 2015)
Play Dead by Francine J. Harris (Alice James Books, 2016)
Just in time to enjoy during National Poetry Month.
One Hundred Sixty-Six new poems to read!
Monday night I went out to the first reading I've been to in a while. Desiree Cooper, whose story collection, Know the Mother, I had just reviewed, was reading. Earlier in the afternoon I also happened to hear her give a great interview on the local NPR station.
As is typical with readings at Literati, the introduction was fantastic--not too long, but not a simple announcement. Desiree had a great reading voice, was plenty loud for those of us who opted to sit in the back, and she had the ability to, without using voices, convey the different characters as she read her work.
The collection has many flash stories--and many of her flash stories are 750 words or less. This allowed her to read more than one or two complete works and not excerpts. She began with the opening story, "Witching Hour," which is a wonderful introduction to her collection.
Cooper then discussed the various types of women in her stories and how they were the focus of the collection. She brought up women that worked and then read"Ceiling," a story about a lawyer asking about maternity leave and hearing the phrase: 'If you wanted to have babies, why did you go to law school." This followed by "Cartoon Blue," a story about a lawyer who actually goes through the beginning of a miscarriage while on the phone with a client. It's a brutal story and maybe even more so having heard it read aloud.
Other works I remember Cooper reading include:
"Princess Lily," about a 14 year old who got pregnant while living in Japan and how she stayed with a Japanese family during the time of her 'condition;'
"Mourning Chair," a story from the point of view of a mother waiting for her daughter to come home (containing the line she knows she'd tell a cop if one came to her door---'She's the one with her heart beating in my pocket;'
She read "Soft Landing," sort of a fantasy story, and she also read "To the Bone," and I'm glad I was there to hear the introduction to this one as it pointed out a very specific element of repetition that I hadn't noticed that really works well.
It was a nice evening as Desiree Cooper lives locally and so the crowd mostly knew her, or her work. She even had a relative show up. She did a Q&A at the end and signed copies of the book and all in all it was a good reminder of why I used to attend a lot more readings than I have lately.
Book Review 2016-004
Know the Mother by Desiree Cooper
2016 by Wayne State University Press, 213 pages
(I requested and received this review copy from WSU Press)
Desiree Cooper's Know the Mother is one of the most singularly focused short story collections I've encountered that wasn't really a novel-in-stories, or a collection of stories about a specific character or entity. Cooper's focus is women, and while she covers a very wide range of women, there's no doubt that, while wildly different in many aspects of life, in a world where racism is at least being discussed rather openly, sexism remains prevalent without discussion, even coming from those that love us most, and it touches them all.
There are 31 stories in this collection and while I see from her biography that Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets, and so one would believe a lover of poetry, I can't help wonder if her having been a columnist for (I'm guessing here as one who used to read her work in Detroit) at least a decade isn't somewhat responsible for her ability to hone in on her subject and not waste a word in the numerous flash fictions within this collection. And much as I really love the two longer stories in the collection, "Reporting for Duty, 1959" and "Night Coming," I really think she shines most brightly in the flashes that are a page or less in length.
The collection begins with "Witching Hour," a half-page effort that asks seven questions including the collection opening:
Why do we wake each night in that spiritless moment between worlds, we mothers and daughters and wives?
The story and seven questions serve as a great introduction to the book as Cooper gets the reader thinking about women and the expectations they put upon themselves, or have had thrust upon themselves, right away. The stories that follow have women of all kinds--those taking care of ailing parents, mothers of young children, wives early in their marriages, young single women, older single women, women in happy marriages, women in unhappy marriages, mothers of boys, girls, heterosexuals, and lesbians. Women struggling to stretch every penny and women living in the nicest neighborhoods. And Cooper seems to inhabit each type of woman perfectly with her words.
The questions asked of these women, the pressures put upon them, from the outside or from within their own selves, should shock, until one really contemplates our world today and the knowledge that this is really still how it is out there. The story "Ceiling" ends:
"If you wanted to have babies," he said, smiling gently, "why did you go to law school?"
Another story, "Cartoon Blue," about a woman working at a law firm includes:
The ladies' bathroom has only two stalls. No one deemed that more than a handful of women would ever work here.
And it's not just women that work that are forced into stressful positions. In perhaps the longest story in the collection, "Reporting for Duty, 1959," Joyce is the African American mother of two, driving cross country with her husband who is an Air Force Sgt. Again, it's 1959 and the older of her two sons pushes the dad into stopping to try to get a room at the Holiday Inn he's been seeing commercials for (big tv's and swimming pools!). Though the sign says Vacancy, it's apparent through the car and lobby windows to Joyce that things aren't going smoothly inside:
Joyce had been watching, too, her hand holding the door handle so tightly that blue veins popped up like Highway 10 on Junior's road map. She bit her lip nervously and turned to the boys.
The things men take for granted aren't always obvious either, from "Origins of Sacrifice""
Jim steered with one hand, driving into the quiet evening, preoccupied with important things. Kate stared jealously at how easy driving was for him--like an extension of breathing. Because she had been put on bed rest--and then had a C-section--Kate hadn't been able to drive for months. She tried to remember that feeling of absolute, one-handed control.
Cooper isn't just succinct with her usage of words, but has strung together many powerful, beautifully written sentences:
Junior stared at his father, at the steadiness of his father's eyes on the road, the patience of hismouth, the stripes on his sleeve, the eagle insignia on his hat.
Beneath me runs a clotted river. The water is red. The walls are cooling-board brown.
But she stared back, her feet planted and steady, the queasiness fading into resolve.
He fled into the night, the falling snow erasing his footsteps.
The women in Know the Mother are strong, even when it might outwardly appear they aren't. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and nobody stops them from doing so--even their own mothers. While this collection might be read more frequently by women, hopefully it will fall into the hands of many men as well.
Keith Lee Morris' new one, Traveler's Rest arrived today, as did Jason Lee Brown's novella, Championship Run, and Philip F. Deaver's long-awaited second story collection, Forty Martyrs.
I absolutely loved Morris' The Dart League King as you can read if you click here and scroll down to number 46, calling it maybe the best book I'd read in 2008, and dug his story collection published after that as well. Very much looking forward to this new one.
Jason Lee Brown, I met in November of 2006 at Devil's Kitchen, a literary conference hosted by Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. Since then I've kept in touch with him and his work and was very excited when he announced the publication of this novella.
I don't remember how long it's been since I first read Philip K. Deaver's Silent Retreats (Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Award winner), but I know I've dipped into it for a story or three (or the whole collection) at least once per year since that original read. I also loved his poetry collection.
Picked up a couple of titles today, one hard copy and one via kindle.
I'm enjoying Peter Geye's Safe From the Sea and know his forthcoming Wintering is headed here and so grabbed a copy of The Lighthouse Road so that I can have it so I'm reading his work in chronological order. If you know nothing about Peter's work, here's all you need to know--Greg Michalson of Unbridled Books brought the first two into the world, and Gary Fisketjon of Knopf is the editor on Wintering. This has been a pretty wonderful combination in the past (Steve Yarbrough for one) and simply put--two editors with FANTASTIC eyes for great writers and wonderful books.
I also picked up Sara Baume's debut novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)--at least the version I bought is 2016 from HMH. This book was originally published in Baume's native Ireland where it was the winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature; winner of the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year; Short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award; Long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award, Reader's Choice; Long-listed for the Warwick Prize for Writing; and Long-listed for the Edinburgh First Book Award---and it has a DOG ON THE COVER. Plus the prologue was fantastic.
Book Review 2016-003
Dispatches From the Drownings by B.J. Hollars
2014 by University of New Mexico Press, 192 pages
(I believe B.J. might have arranged for a review copy--or I might have bought it--do not remember)
"What you're about to read is not a conventional book." I do not believe B.J. Hollars could have started this work more appropriately. I have read this book straight through at least twice since obtaining a copy back in 2014 and frequently pick it up and skim through to read one or two of the incidents. Part Wisconsin Death Trip (that's the obligatory comparison), part Lee Martin's Turning Bones, part season five of The Wire, all wrapped up into a wonderful 100 stories of less than a page apiece.
Hollars, who has previously published two more straightforward non-fiction titles, sub-titled this one, "Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction." In his Author's Note/Introduction, Hollars notes that he tells his students in his nonfiction classes that "most facts--even those offered neutrally--are about 75 percent true and 25 percent false." This bringing to light of the "Fiction of Nonfiction" is pretty fascinating and the whole Author's Note should be used as an essay for other nonfiction classrooms.
It seems it's not very safe to be around the rivers of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Numerous drownings over the years. One thing B.J. Hollars does very, very well is research. It was very apparent from his first two works, and comes through loud and clear here too--though in a different path. Where his previous two works led Hollars to research specific incidents and people and the horror that is lynching, this noticing of drownings led him down a path of researching journalism to a degree. That is, while researching area drownings over the years, Hollars noted the various styles that were taken in the reportage of these incidents. While Hollars is sure that no liberties with the truth were intentionally taken, he noticed words like "supposedly" inserted when discussing either how, or why, the deceased might have been in or near the water in the first place. He noticed that the journalists themselves were never eyewitnesses and so at best, at the very best, the accounts were second hand--counting on both the memories of those that did witness things, and the perfect communication between said witness and the journalist.
What Hollars has done is found numerous drowning incidents from the time period of 1875 through 1922. He's researched the drownings, either from single or multiple written sources, read and re-read the accounts and then re-written them, using his own memory of what stuck out from the original reportings. While still essentially nonfiction, it throws in one more aspect of non-reliability. To me, this would be a fascinating enough experiment in writing and thinking about nonfiction and its complete veracity. However, Hollars wasn't satisfied to stop there.
Instead he adds two more elements--the first is photographs. He's found what can be considered appropriate photos from the collection of Charles Van Schaik (yes, the photographer whose work Michael Lesy used for his seminal Wisconsin Death Trip, hence the "obligatory" comparison). and as his author note notes--"...we must remain cognizant that the photographer still decides what to reveal or withhold." Add to that the fact that Hollars has then cherry-picked the photos he wants to use with specific drowning accounts, for whatever reasons he chooses, and you realize that as the reader, you're being nudged by Hollars' choice in Van Schaik's photographs, as well as Hollars' version of the original reporters account of the incident. 75% true seems to be a best case scenario.
Then the second element--in keeping with his own 75/25 theory, Hollars has manufactured 25 drownings. That is, of the 100 accounts of drownings in this book, only 75 come from Hollars specific research. Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that the 25 that he invented also were affected by his research, they were not taken from specific drownings of the past as the other 75 were. And having read this book straight through twice, and dipped into it more times than I can count, I couldn't even begin to try to suggest to you which 25 are the more manufactured of the 100 manufactured works within these covers. Not one jumps out at me, let alone 25.
It's a fantastically creative work, with what I find to be a tremendous germ of an idea--the Fiction of Nonfiction--truly followed up on by hard work, great creativity, and the fact that B.J. Hollars is one hell of a writer.
"My Black Valiant" and "Lavender Soap" are two of the ten stories in Irene Zabytko's story collection, When Luba Leaves Home (Algonquin Books, 2003). The collection is a linked one set in 1968 in Chicago's Ukrainian neighborhood on Wheat Street. The collection is about Lubochka Vovkovych and her life as a DP (displaced person), her attempts to become more Americanized, and things that slowed that idea down.
"My Black Valiant," the second story in the collection finds Luba (the shortened version of Lubochka), attending Loop University, the all-commuter school in the area. Luba finds herself spending her first year taking classes, eating meals, and hanging out with, her Ukrainian friends. She's also not finding it satisfying. Going into her second year she begins to call herself Linda. She consider changing her last name to Wolf (apparently Vovk means wolf in English), but unless she officially makes the change the University won't let her register with it. But Linda does take hold. To jump start her Americanization, Luba decides to buy a car, and finds a 1967 Black Plymouth Valiant that is owned by another DP, who because he knows her, sells her the car for only $500. Luba/Linda is amazed by how little interest her parents show in the car, even turning her down for a ride on a weekend, claiming they are tired from working all week, and enjoying what appears to be a game show on television instead. The end of the story however, seems to have an incident's importance escape Luba/Linda. It involves her parents and the car, and brings a touch of humor to the story.
"Lavender Soap" falls about 2/3's of the way through the collection and is interesting as it doesn't focus so much on Luba. She's still involved, narrating the story in fact, but it's more about her good friend's (Natalka) mother, Pani Slava. Pani is a tech in the microbiology lab in a hospital where Luba (the name she seems to be going by here) works as well. Pani works the late shift and sometimes Luba waits around, watching Pani do the same thing night after night (dealing with bacteria and slides) so she can give her the occasional ride home. Pani has gone through a mastectomy not so long ago and rapidly goes back and forth between fairly sweet and cranky. What the reader picks up though is beyond still owning that Black Plymouth Valiant, Luba seems to have let the idea of pushing behind her Ukrainian heritage go, at least a little. She's going by Luba, she's hanging out with Natalka. This story is well worth reading if only for the two pages or so where Pani tells the her daughter and Luba a story about lavender soap from her past.
Zabytko, in these two stories, and I assume the other eight in this collection, does a great job of writing from the outsider's perspective. She shows the line walked between family and pulling away and living your own life. The two stories are excellent and I look forward to the rest of the book.
According to the author bio notes, "Money Maker," published in Other Voices 46, was Wendy Duren's first published story. I can only assume she had many finished stories that just didn't find the right homes before this one because the author of "Money Makers" shows a great confidence in her abilities.
She was going to take the money and buy a house.
This begins the story, and the she in question, Mary Ann, is a stripper. What Duren does is dig deep inside Mary Ann's head and a little less deep into the heads of other strippers from The Club. This seems to be a case of a writer wondering--why, and, how, after considering this particular profession. And while Mary Ann is constantly thinking about this house--about furnishing it, about kitchen details, about pool details, Duren also dips into the heads of others that are looking to make their rent, to pay for what they put up their nose or shoot into their veins (often to forget how they made that money in the first place), and others.
Where that original paragraph begins "She," the majority begin with "We," as if the strippers have a collective means for what they do and how they do it. And then there are very specific "Mary Ann" paragraphs that begin as such. As Duren gets deeper into Mary Ann's story than the others, these sometimes feel the most mulled over, but that's not to say that the group paragraphs, or details about other strippers like Phoebe, or Crystal, weren't very solid--just that the Mary Ann sections weren't missing, or using any extra, words.
It's a story that has been rolling around my head all day after finishing it early this a.m. I'll be honest, it's not a profession I've given a lot of thought to in regards to what is going on in their heads as they prepare to do, or do, the job. But Wendy Duren has done such a good job of getting into those heads, that I know I'll find myself wondering for some time to come.
"Red Eye" comes to the reader via Hobart and Kristen Rouisse. It's a short little story, less than half a page in length, but it packs a mean punch.
Seven paragraphs long, and none of these paragraphs longer than six sentences (and only one that long--the others three sentences or less). The first paragraph begins We're, and then the five middle paragraphs begin with some form of you (you, your, you're). That last paragraph does not begin with a pronoun. Even though the sixth paragraph ends with a bit of a hint, I think the last paragraph is meant to be at least a little surprising to most readers. Upon re-read, it probably shouldn't necessarily have been, but it was.
The story this short, I don't see quoting it much. The thing I like is how Rouisse lets the reader see both (we're) characters, but really only through the eyes of one of them. We're allowed knowledge of the one that we know is sick ("You're mildly attractive for an ill man.") via the other character. We learn of the ill man through her repeating things that he said to her ("You say you wanted to adopt a mutt and name her Margo."), descriptions of his actions ("Your fingers fumble with the seatbelt's metal latch."), and her reactions to him (the aforementioned comment regarding his appearance).
It's an interesting way of telling his story--at least his story during this particular red eye flight. The ending will hit hard.
Sub-titled "Oddball Artists, Twisted Writers, Demented Editors, Office Politics, Hamburgers, and a Dead Stripper, this is the first issue of what is deemed a "mostly true 5-issue series about the whacked-out world of comic books."
Ted McKeever is one of my favorite comic book creators. He has a distinct art style that is not designed to create "pretty" characters. They tend to have odd shaped heads, and squared off teeth with spaces between them. In past works where he's had full creative control (Transit, Eddy Current, Plastic Forks to name some earlier efforts) there was sort of a cross between religious concerns and superhero ideas (with the protagonists often not really having super powers). The characters were people who were at their very closest on the fringes of society.
This time around McKeever is writing about a different type of character on the fringe of society--those in the comic book industry. He describes it as "mostly true" and if that's the case, issue one makes a case that being the writer of a comic book owned by somebody else is at the least a very frustrating position. Poodwaddle, the comic writer in Pencilhead, has a meeting with his editor, a man whose face is about 3/4 mouth--which is fitting as he's mostly there to yell and chew through Poodwaddle's thoughts. Poodwaddle is dropping off the pages for the next issue and on his way out he's given a complimentary copy of the last issue--one that in which he finds the editor has added Batman (the Adam Ward television version) like KAZAMs and POWs designed to suck in the superhero audience--even though the title isn't a superhero title. But that's okay because by the time they figure that out, they'll already have purchased the issue.
There are a couple of other stories lurking at the fringe of this issue--another comic editor trying to bring Poodwaddle over to his company and a strange creature following Poodwaddle around--almost looking like something he'd have created in a past work.
I was excited to see something new with McKeever's name on the cover and the issue didn't disappoint--I'm looking forward to issue #2.
Came home to a package on the table this evening--Monica Drake's short story collection, The Folly of Loving Life from Future Tense Press and a lovely "Thanks, Dan!" on the back of the package from (I presume) Kevin Sampsell. This is a lovely book (I opted for the limited edition hardcover that appears well worth the few extra dollars) by a great writer from a great indie publisher that I greatly look forward to digging into (most likely a story or two this evening still).
So, it's the fifth of March and it's my first Work of the Day post after going a near criminal 7 for 29 in February. Let's hope this gets the EWN started back up a little more regular again. I should be using the inspiration of reading Michael Czyzniejewski's story366 every day to get my rear moving better.
Prior to this morning, I'd not heard of Ashley Strosnider, nor New South. I think I narrowly avoided 'strike three' by taking the time to read this wonderful micro-prose 5 or 6 times. "A Few Electric Sounds" hits hard and more than once in its short structure. The story opens, seeming as if it's going to be a simple conversation:
They had talked about dying, the ways they’d prefer it to happen. She wanted to go in her sleep, she told him, to drift off skyward on some cinnamon cloud.
The her and his versions drastically different as he'd hoped for a meteorite to crush him, perhaps while he was out fertilizing his lawn. And more time is spent describing how he'd like to go--in a big and instant manner to finish up the first, and largest of the three paragraphs to this fiction.
Then Strosnider begins the second paragraph slowly:
And it had almost been like that, she thought.
I'm sad to note that it took me until my second time through this work to realize this statement noted the passing of the man in the conversation.
The next two sentences however, beautifully written, hammer home that point:
The supernova that sprouted in the front left corner of his brain, a little sunburst hemorrhage. Infinite like so many light-years it takes for a long-dead star to wink out inside the lens of a telescope.
And the story moves from there, quickly to the end, with another line or two like that above that hit the reader like gut punches. Ashley Strosnider's website has links to some more of her work and you can bet I'll be clicking on those links throughout the day.
One of the two authors most responsible for the Emerging Writers Network (the other was Elwood Reid), Alyson Hagy, won the Lawrence Foundation Prize for the best short story published in the Michigan Quarterly Review during 2015. This was a great story, "Switchback", from the Spring 2015 issue.
Extremely excited to get home today and find a package with a handwritten PGP return address as that could only mean that the amazing Adam Robinson had sent me an Advance Review Copy of Stephen Dixon's forthcoming novella, Beatrice! It's a stellar combination: I love the work of Stephen Dixon; I love novellas; I have loved the vast majority of what I've read that was published by Publishing Genius Press. Adam Robinson has a great eye--makes the books he publishes great objects. Can't wait to dig in.
It begins as many of Dixon's works do--with a succinct sentence of action: "Someone rang his doorbell." More on this title soon.
Book Review 2016-002
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor
2016 via Melville House Books (eBook purchased)
While I own A Highly Unlikely Scenario, I did not read it right away when I picked it up and in all honesty, am not sure where it is right now. When Rachel Cantor starting posting about a second novel forthcoming, I made sure to pick up a copy (ie, ordered the eBook) and set aside time this past week to make sure I read it. If her debut was nearly as good as this one, I should be downstairs digging through boxes for as long as it takes me to find it.
Cantor has written a novel that is both Academic in nature, as well as a quick-paced, interesting story. Academic in that it involves literary translation, explanations of Dante, as well as delving into Judaism, the Bible from a Catholic point of view, as well as external religious texts. In Shira Greene, Cantor has created a very normal person--selfish, loving, hopeful, negative, and just about everything else that a person could be. The novel starts with her as a temporary worker at a prosthetic limb provider. She's mid-30's,living with her childhood (from age 15) friend who is a University professor, and therefore is provided with a large family-sized apartment as he's the stated (though not blood) father or Shira's daughter, Andi.
Shira has been an English grad student when the love of her youthful life inadvertently exposed himself to be deeper in another relationship than Shira had understood him to be. This led to her to be unable to read Dante at all, let alone continue on with her dissertation and translation efforts. She had even published some short fiction but had pretty much set all of that aside to concentrate on trying to temp her way to a full-time position somewhere.
Out of the blue, a very recent Nobel winning poet, Romei, contacts her to tell her he wants her to translate his forthcoming work from Italian to English before it' is even published in Italian. It's a dream-come-true job and as one might expect, as in many such cases, the job really isn't as dream-come-true as she'd like to have hoped.
A very smart move on Cantor's part was to have Romei send his work to Shira in sections. This allows her to read it, and while thinking about it to herself, explain both Romei's work, as well as Dante's work, to the reader. It's done in a manner that allows the reader to learn more and more about Shira, Ahmed (the friend), Andi, Shira's past, as we read on. We get to understand this unconventional family. By breaking the novel into these pieces though, Cantor doesn't have one big Italian work being translated straight through. Instead, we're there as Shira somewhat selfishly delves into the work deep enough to not notice some issues Andi is having, worries that are hitting Ahmed, and we get to see her budding potential romance with part-time Rabbi Benny, who is also the local bookstore owner.
We get to see Shira go from giddy with how this project would jump start her career, to curious about certain things Romei was doing, to worrying that the work was not translatable, to believing Rome was sabotaging her career intentionally for reasons she couldn't understand. The relationship Shira develops with Benny is useful, not only to allow readers to dip into that aspect of Shira's life, but also because as a very well-read part-time Rabbi, Benny is able to help Shira with some of the translation aspects as Romei drops religious references and brings up other texts that Benny is familiar with.
The fact that Shira is working on a big translation can hardly be considered an accident. One of the bigger themes of the work seems to be the idea of misinterpretation and how simple it is to do so and the many ramifications of such. While not coming straight out and ever pointing such an incident out in the "story" portion of the novel, Shira explains numerous times throughout the Romei-heavy sections just what her process would be as she translated his work, and how to do her best to avoid misinterpretation.
The story has many twists throughout, while there might be early worries that Cantor's going to be too academic, or that not having read Dante thoroughly might detract from the reading, neither could be further from the truth. And saying the story is good is cutting Cantor's efforts short--there are at least 3 or 4 solid story lines being merged throughout Good on Paper and she handles the transitions and mixtures deftly.
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So, Work of the Day seems a poor term as I tend not to do one per day, and when I do get to these there are frequently multiple posts in a single 24 hour span. That admitted, I'm probably not going to change the name of this type of post any time soon.
I had the good fortune of having the Dzanc Books table slotted next to the Poets & Writers table at the Voices of the Midwest last weekend. P&W was helmed by Melissa Faliveno. Maybe because she's originally from Wisconsin, she seemed like the right choice. In any case, it allowed for a few good conversations and I found out her preferred method of writing is the essay.
Now, I try to notice when new issues of Diagram are published and, when they are, do my best to read the majority of the work in each issue. That said, I don't always see everything they publish. And I somehow missed the essay, Of a Moth, by the very same Melissa Faliveno, from Issue 12.1 (an all-essay special issue). Which brings me to today's post:
GO READ THIS ESSAY NOW. Don't waste time reading what I have to say about it. It's online. It's free. It's well worth your time.
I can see how this work made it into a journal helmed (yes, twice in one post) by Ander Monson. Faliveno's work reminded me of some of Monson's essays, maybe just less the playing with form.
Faliveno starts off with a great opening line: "For some months now, my apartment has been infested." I don't see a way you read that and don't continue on barring maybe having lived in an apartment that had been infested yourself. She quickly allows her readers the news that the infestation was by moths and notes that moths are "Small, crawling, fluttering things, whose full-grown bodies look strikingly like butterflies, and whose larvae look devastatingly like maggots." It's a great line that leads into future aspects of the essay.
She describes the effort of she and her roommates, upon discovering some larvae in their pantry, putting forth a massive cleaning effort and moving anything edible into glass jars, cookie tins and "... the few remaining Tupperware containers whose warped lids still fit snugly." I loved this line as it brings some universality to the situation--who has ever used Tupperware and cleaned and dried it a few times that won't understand the bit about the few that can close properly?
There are many great one topic essays out there. However, I'm always more impressed by those writers that can take a moment, an incident, or situation, and write about it but allow it to bring another aspect or two of life into the picture. "When the moths first arrived, I had been living on my own for a little over a year, after having lived with a partner--by all accounts a man I eventually would have married--for five." This might not just be about moths one thinks. It delves a bit into solitude with lines from the next three or four paragraphs including:
For the first time in years, I knew solitude. And I wanted nothing more.
It seemed those days, by early fall, that we existed only in one another's peripheries, living under the same roof, ostensibly together, but in reality floating in and out of an empty house, utterly alone.
I realized, floating beneath the surface, that after years of being so intimately connected to one other human being, and after having that connection severed, I no longer had the desire to interact with anyone other than myself.
Faliveno does get back to the moths though: "The moths first arrived in late October, in the form of small, whitish worms that had somehow, impossibly, made their blind and crawling way into one of my roommates' unopened bags of Japanese rice noodles." At this point, Faliveno shifts a bit to the scientific--a trait in essays like this that I personally LOVE--noting "The moths that live in my pantry are called Plodia Interpunctella, or, commonly, Indian Meal Moths." More moth details come flowing shortly after this:
On close inspection though, the tiny fluttering things are nothing short of extraordinary. A fully-grown adult meal moth is approximately eight to ten millimeters in length, with a sixteen to twenty millimeter wingspan. Its forewings are sturdy and brilliant in color, speckled with various shades of brown, bronze, and copper, the lower wings are thing, fragile and light, an almost pale yellow in parts and grey in others, with small, dark lines like veins running along their perimeter. When the wings are open, stretched wide, the intricate pattern on each appears to be perfectly symmetrical.
I picked up the body and held it in the light of the window. I studied his body--his angles, his shape, his design.
When a moth is at rest, one cannot actually see its body. One can only see its wings, which come together upon the moth's back and encase its small frame.
These insects, I realized, these pests, were carefully and beautifully built.
The bit before about the butterfly slips back into play at this point: "Moths and butterflies belong to the order Lepidoptera. Moths make up the majority of this order, with around 200,000 different species--about ten times the number of butterfly species--with the thousands more having yet to be named." Butterflies will sneak in again before the end.
More about the idea of solitude, kind of, though:
Most moths are nocturnal, but those in my house seem, for the most part, to follow a pattern more human. They fly by day and sleep at night; they buzz around my bedroom as long as the lights are on, and fall silent almost as soon as I turn them off. But when I can't sleep at night--as happens often, particularly when I am alone--and I turn on my bedside lamp, the moths wake up with me, and resume their overhead flight for as long as I lie awake in the light.
And what I guess would be the opposite of isolation: "A month or two after the moths first arrived, I started sleeping with someone new." And the two ideas combine a bit--butterflies and lack of isolation--as Faliveno notes that at age 18, upon leaving home, she got a small butterfly tattoo. It's not something she's still fond of, but the new person sleeping in the bed has a tendency to run his fingers along the outline of it "...causing tiny follicles beneath the ink to stand on end, making the wings seem almost to break forth from my skin, I think that maybe the thing I regret no longer exists. That perhaps, instead, there's been a metamorphosis, and the small, winged thing on my hip is no longer a butterfly--that it disappeared for a time into darkness, and emerged again as a moth."
She wraps everything up: "The moths in my house are still around." Faliveno questions whether they'll ever get rid of them. Maybe they'll still be there when she leaves: "Or perhaps they'll stay here in this house and I'll be the one who goes first. Either way, when their constant fluttering about my head has ceased, when the buzz of their flight has gone, I'm sure I'll remember again how much i loved the quiet. But sometimes, mostly on the rare nights when I'm alone, I still hear that old familiar hum of wings beating fast inside the soft yellow lampshade by my bed. On those nights, I'll leave the light on."
I've read this essay about six or seven times in the past week. I enjoy it every time. I discover that I must read it a bit differently each time as one time I might learn a bit more about moths--the next, a bit more about the author's habits. But I simply love the weaving that goes on throughout.