Kill Us On the Way Home by Gwen Beatty

Kim told me she was going to take a week to look at the new Stephen King book of short stories she was reading (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, just in case you don’t know), so I thought I should take the next week (this one) to talk about something I’d read recently that I really dug. Gwen Beatty’s new chapbook put out by Passenger Side Books, Kill Us On the Way Home, immediately sprang to mind (and continues the short story theme no less).

I knew I was going to grab this one as soon as I heard it was coming out (and only $5 shipped made it an easy decision to confirm). I’d read a few of Beatty’s pieces before, and certainly wanted to read more. Passenger Side Books also immediately gets a vote of confidence from me. Considering the previous offerings that I’ve read from that micro press (Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise, Murmuration, Infinity’s Jukebox, If There’s Any Truth In a Northbound Train, and Soft), I can trust that I’m going to dig anything new they put out.

That was certainly the case with Kill Us On the Way Home.

Given the nature of the book, I’m not going to quote as heavily as I normally do. Kill Us On the Way Home is a chapbook of six short pieces and quoting heavily would simply give too much away. I can certainly gush about the book though.

Let’s consider “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant.” A young woman meets the pregnant wife of the Mormon ex-boyfriend who had proposed to her not long before. She lies and says she is pregnant too, not telling the wife who she is. Her new boyfriend helps her construct fake pregnancy belly after fake pregnancy belly as she gets closer and closer to the unsuspecting wife.

“It really is wild that we are only two weeks apart from each other,” Lorrie repeated over the next few months. We would laugh over virgin cocktails about the strange parallels between our pregnancies and lives. We would cry to each other about our inattentive partners. She told me everything about Mark. From the way he likes his socks folded, to how he was in bed. She told me everything that I already knew about the man she married. She told me exactly what my life would have been if I had been less like myself.

It’s a strange story, filled with a strange hard to hold for long yearning, and it definitely gets under the skin of the reader. All the stories in Kill Us On the Way Home do. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, though “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant” would definitely be high on my list.

Of course, that list might also include “Seven Things About Hot Dogs.” Perhaps also “Knots.” Maybe “Memorial” too. Well, you get the idea.

Beatty writes words on the page in Kill Us On the Way Home like she’s carving faces into giant logs with a chainsaw. The words are spare, the writing sometimes harsh, but the phrases and people are bent and surprising (“Our Mother was dying and my sister Maxine and I were on a game show that wouldn’t quite save her.” from “Sphinx Moth”), and the emotions evoked can be extreme. These stories are strong, and magical. Kill Us On the Way Home is a must read chapbook from a must read press.

 

Short Stories & Stephen King

As anyone that has read Dave and my blog with any regularity knows, I’m a Stephen King fan. He is kind enough to release a book (most years) right around my birthday. This year it was The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of short stories. He releases one of these every few years. It was a really great collection of short stories, in my opinion. The stories ranged from Twilight Zone twisty (Premium Harmony) to the downright give you chills along your spine (Bad Little Kid) to one connected to his Tower series (Ur). So, really, any of his writing that is your favorite, you will find something in here to make you happy.

But, while reading The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which I had interrupted my reading of 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore for, I started thinking about short stories. And I decided I wanted to write a blog post on short stories for today.

I love short stories. I’ve always loved short stories and on here I have reviewed a few different ones over the last 3 years, including Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Jeremy Morong‘s collection of stories that just came out recently (look Jeremy! Your name is listed with O’Connor’s and Hemingway’s!), and one on Stephen King’s Top Ten, called The Golden Argosy (out of print, so if you find a copy for cheap, grab it, I’ll pay you back!).

People keep saying “Oh no! The short story is dead! Don’t write a short story!”, but while it might not be the premier form of entertainment anymore (at the turn of the century, when Best American Short Stories debuted, many Americans saw short stories as a perfect entertainment), it most certainly has not died. In mainstream publishing, you will see few collections, but I have run across a few over the years that aren’t from authors that are big name like Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King, and are in fact, first book authors. Now, from small press publishers, your ability to get short stories is much higher. In fact, your chances are quite excellent. If you have Dave on your Facebook, do not hesitate to drop him a line for some great small presses to check out or authors he recommends. If you don’t have his Facebook, feel free to leave a comment. One of us will respond with a list 🙂

Authors will say that short stories are often harder to write than a novel. In a short story, you don’t have the ability to digress. You have to keep everything streamlined, you have to be able to get it across in a limited amount of time, and you don’t have a lot of room for character development.

As a reader, I find short stories incredibly satisfying. I especially enjoy anthologies of short stories. Anthologies have a lot of different authors in them, so there are a lot of different genres, tones, styles of writing. And you get to sample all of them. If you don’t like one that you’ve started, you can skip it and you haven’t ruined the reading experience (if you try to skip, say Hugo’s section on argot in Les Miserables, you miss a few details you should probably have). But, it’s also fun reading a single author’s collection of short stories, like Jeremy’s that I mentioned above. You can get a feel for the author, and it’s interesting to see the different ways they use the stories to play with structure, with characters and with tone.

I recently ordered Harper’s when my daughter was selling magazines. My main reason? Each issue they publish has a short story in it.

Now, another thing people that have read this blog know, is that Dave has published two novels previously. In March, he has a third book coming out. This isn’t just a statement out of nowhere. It actually fits into the theme of the rest of this post. The book is titled Not Quite So Stories and as the title suggests is actually a collection of short stories. I’m excited for Dave, as he has actually published quite a few short stories in different literary publications over the years, so to see him able to have an actual entire book of them out makes me almost squee happy. (Note I said almost, not quite). You can pre-order his book on Amazon.

100 Years of The Best American Short Stories is a great collection as well. Every year for the last 100 years, an anthology called “The Best American Short Stories” has been published, in which the editors read hundreds of stories from dozens of sources and pick the ones they feel are best. The 100 Years collection is a story from each year. It’s got a lot of authors you’ve heard of, like Hemingway and O’Connor, but a few of them are ones you haven’t really heard of or haven’t heard of at all, like Tillie Olsen (well, some of you might have heard of her, I had not). A lot of different styles and types of stories are represented in this volume. It gives you a chance to try out an author that you’ve maybe heard about before but never picked up a novel of theirs to see if you might want to read more by them, like Phillip Roth.

The next time you’re looking for something new to read, please give a collection of short stories a try. Start with Jeremy’s, especially if you’re an Omaha native, then move on to others. And in March, get Dave’s.

I currently have I’m a Little Teapot stuck in my head. My daughter is in cleaning her room and in between coming out five million times and asking how much longer she needs to be in there keeps singing it. While not quite as annoying as it was to have “Do you want to build a snowman” stuck in my head last year, it’s pretty irritating. Like sand in your bathing suit.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

 

 

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry is kind of an odd book. It starts out with a guy remembering one of his friends and how he died. Then we flash back to that day and focus on that friend, as well as the two people with him. The guy who starts the book makes some appearance later, but not much. That’s probably an odd way to open discussion of this book, but Under the Volcano is a strange book.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for Walter Kirn.)

Geoffrey Firmin is ‘the Consul.’ Well, that’s what he’s called. He’s actually a drunk. He was a consul at one point, but still pretty much in name only even then. Consuls watch out for the business interests of their country. There wasn’t much of that in the small Mexico town Firmin was posted in, even before the UK severed ties with Mexico and pulled their people back. He was pretty much sent there to get him out of the way. When the UK pulled out, Firmin stayed.

We know from the very start of Under the Volcano that Firmin is going to die. We read to find out how, and in what manner his death occurs.

On this day, Firmin is drunk. He’s pinned between desperately wanting his former wife to return to him and wanting to be left alone to pretty much drink himself into oblivion. She comes back, wanting him to leave Mexico so they can form a life together again. However, he’s still pinned. He’s not going anywhere. His half brother is also there, making a bit of a love triangle.

But, most importantly, as I already mentioned, Firmin is drunk:

… The Consul, an inconceivable anguish of horripilating hangover thunderclapping about his skull, and accompanied by a protective screen of demons gnattering in his ears, became aware that in the horrid event of his being observed by his neighbours it could hardly be supposed he was just sauntering down his garden with some innocent horticultural object in view. Nor even that he was sauntering. The Consul, who had waked a moment or two ago on the porch and remembered everything immediately, was almost running. He was also lurching. In vain he tried to check himself, plunging his hands, with an extraordinary attempt at nonchalance, in which he hoped might appear more than a hint of consular majesty, deeper into the sweat-soaked pockets of his dress trousers. And now, rheumatisms discarded, he really was running… Might he not, then, be reasonably suspected of a more dramatic purpose, of having assumed, for instance, the impatient buskin of a William Blackstone leaving the Puritans to dwell among the Indians, or the desperate mien of his friend Wilson when he so magnificently abandoned the University Expedition to disappear, likewise in a pair of dress trousers, into the jungles of darkest Oceania, never to return? Not very reasonably. For one thing, if he continued much farther in this present direction towards the bottom of his garden any such visioned escape into the unknown must shortly be arrested by what was, for him, an unscalable wire fence. “Do not be so foolish as to imagine you have no object, however. We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable—” He recognized the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. “—condition,” the voice went on severely, “you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.” “I’m not going to drink,” the Consul said, halting suddenly. “Or am I? Not mescal anyway.” “Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.” “I can’t,” he objected—”That’s right, just take one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.” “God,” the Consul said. “Ah. Good. God. Christ.” “Then you can say it doesn’t count.” “It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.” “Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.” “Thanks, I will.” The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. “Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary… Horror,” he added. “—Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?” another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned round. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was much bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. “Perro,” he repeated, as it still stood there—but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour or two ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass—Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label—out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased…

Firmin’s half brother hopes for things. His former wife hopes for things. Firmin has hopes of a kind, but they are disconnected from any actions he really performs in life. What is going to happen is going to happen. That’s just going to be it, tragic as it may be.

The prose in Under the Volcano is a little denser than is my preference, but I can’t fault the effects it pulls off. The images are vivid and the melancholy fatalism is beautifully stirring. Its structure is odd, but it works masterfully. Really, that’s all anybody needs to say.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

So, I know this is late. I’m really sorry. Blame a bad back, The Mighty Johnsons, family stuff and playdates.

I read Their Eyes Were Watching God. Remember me talking about Edwidge Dandicat when I talked about Night by Elie Wiesel? Well, I was so fascinated by her name that I went to her list to see what she had listed. I had already read a couple of them previously for the blog, but this was one I had not read. And I have wanted to read this ever since a friend told me to about a decade ago but I just wasn’t able to get into it at that time and had not come back to it as of yet.

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking and yet, somewhat uplifting, story. It deals with African American communities in the early 20th century. Bits of it oddly reminded me of Grapes of Wrath, even though completely different region (Florida) and different culture (black instead of white). But it’s also about one woman. It addresses so many things about that culture at that time. What it was to be African American at that time, what it was to be a woman at that time, and what it was to be an African American woman at that time. You may wonder why I broke it up like that, but I think some of the things the main character Janie goes through could be “any woman”. Hurston’s writing is evocative.  The way she describes how minds work and how we transition stages is stunning.

“The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

Janie has one marriage at the beginning when she is 17 that her grandmother arranged for her. She talks later to a friend about how her grandmother had been a slave, so to her the ultimate accomplishment was to see her granddaughter being able to “sit all the time”. But, Janie ended up not wanting that. So she left the first husband. Thinking she had found something different, she ran off with a second husband. They were together for over twenty years, but she had to hide herself away from him. He dies. Then comes a chance at redemption.

I liked Janie, a lot. She ended up not being afraid to grab for what she wanted. She acted against all the social mores of her group of people, and she did it time and time again (when I say group of people, I’m talking about the communities she became a part of). And in the end, it’s up to the reader to decide whether that ended up better or worse for her. I like to think better. I like to think that her life and herself were richer for taking those chances and finding the things she did, both outside of herself and about herself.

My only major note is that Hurston writes the entire thing in dialect. Which is fine, I often read stories with a ton of dialect in them. But, I think she could have lightened her usage just slightly. Especially since her narration is -not- in dialect, it created a huge dissonance for me at times.

This is definitely another book I’d put on a highly recommended list.

Have a great rest of your weekend! I’m off to continue in extreme busy mode, while wincing every time I step wrong. But lots of good things too 🙂 Just the way it is.

FYI-on next Thursday, when you see Dave’s post up, I’ll point out now that it’s not only his birthday that day, but mine too. This was just a happy coincidence and not the reason we started the blog (which would be a little silly if you think about it, “Oh we share birthdays!? Let’s start a blog about books!”). It’s nice having someone with the same birthday. It means no matter how much you think no one remembers, there is always one person LOL. So, tell him happy birthday.