Monday, June 30, 2014

My First Time: Scott Sparling

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Scott Sparling.  His novel Wire to Wire was published by Tin House Books in 2011 and received a 2012 Michigan Notable Book Award.  Wire to Wire is a story of train hopping, glue sniffing, drug dealing, and love, set in Northern Michigan in the late 1970s.  Regular readers of The Quivering Pen will remember I counted Wire to Wire as among the best books I read in 2012; if you didn't take my advice then, you should do so now: BUY THE BOOK.  Scott's work has been supported by the Seattle Arts Commission and the Oregon Arts Commission.  He lives outside Portland, Oregon near Sucker Lake and writes in a treehouse.  Scott is also a contributor to The Night, and the Rain, and the River, an anthology of twenty-two short stories by Oregon writers, published by Forest Avenue Press.  Lidia Yuknavitch, author of Dora: A Headcase, said: "I love this book like I love the ocean.  The Night, and the Rain, and the River gets under your skin and travels your body from the first page."  And Natalie Serber, author of Shout Her Lovely Name, praised the anthology by saying: "Sweet cheating boyfriends, hopeful drunk drivers, angry little sisters, inept sincere fathers, even a lonely goose, all are portrayed with exuberant complexity in their quests for love.  These stories offer up bright light in our often overcast skies."

My First Everything

Last week was my first time kidnapping a goose.  It wasn’t easy, but I got the poop-covered thing into the BMW my boss drives—my boss Barb who thinks I should lose a few pounds, wear some blush, and get out there where I can meet a man.

Later, after my girlfriend/lover went to bed, I crushed up a bunch of mini-thin diet pills and shot them into my foot.  First time for that, also.  It burned like battery acid going in, but hit like a train.  Soon I understood the jittery buzz of flies and felt beauty open up in my chest.

A few other firsts from the very same day: Wandering around the abandoned back lot of a movie studio, I met a handsome guy with no job, plenty of money, and muscles like G.I. Joe.  He built me a boat and promised never to leave.  Shortly after that, I got stuck with my Dad up at Shaw’s place trying to pull stumps with a logging chain.  Never done that before, and it was hard on the truck, but as Dad said, “It ain’t revved until the rods are thrown.”

When that was over, I walked among the stumps of my mother’s neuron forest, looking at the clearcutting that Alzheimer’s has done.  A dog war broke out.  I tried to remember the names of my hands.  I couldn’t help but think about Tommy, who moves through my life in 4/4 time.

At the end of this long day of firsts, I sat at The Dublin and some stranger came in, leaving the door open to the night, and the rain, and the river—which happens to be the title of a new anthology of short stories from Forest Avenue Press.

And yes, I did all these things for the first time as a reader, not as a real-life participant.  But the experiences felt as dazzling, vivid, and original as real life.  They’re in my head now, holding their own beside my so-called “real” memories.  (So-called because some of my “real” memories aren’t actually true, or at least are in dispute, according to my wife, my friends, and certain photographic evidence.  Same is true with you, I bet.)

Bottom line: Who’s to say what’s true?  What matters is what feels real.  So yes, I kidnapped a goose.

And did all those other things too.  That’s the beauty of an anthology.  A novel is a house you build out in the boonies.  Sure, there are plenty of questionable characters wandering about—glue sniffers, train hoppers, and hallucinating loners, in my case—but these folks are there with your permission and on their own recognizance.

An anthology is more like an apartment on a crowded city block.  You don’t know who you’re going to meet, but everybody’s got a story.  The woman down the hall has pink toenails and a voice that’s soft like a pillow.  Across the hall, a family gets up early to spread the ashes of a departed mother.  On the other side of your place, the blinds rattle as lovers deal with loyalty and infidelity via dreams and movies.

Hang out in this building for a while and you realize several things.  For example, that a lot of stuff has been broken, and also, that you are probably not going to get your damage deposit back.  Which doesn’t matter because you really don’t want to leave.

The writers whose stories I’ve referenced, quoted, and stolen from here are Margaret Malone (goose) Tammy Lynne Stoner (mini-thins), Dylan Lee (movie lot), Steve Denniston (stump), Kathleen Lane (neuron forest), Ellen Davidson Levine (dog war), Domi Shoemaker (hands), Sage Cohen (Tommy), Joanna Rose (The Dublin), Jackie Shannon Hollis (pink toenails), Gregg Kleiner (ashes), and Jennifer Williams (lovers).  They are joined in this anthology by Gail Bartley, Matthew Robinson, Lois Rosen, Victoria Blake, Cindy Williams Gutiérrez, Trevor Dodge, Alisha Churbe, Jan Baross, Christi Krug, and me in a collection brilliantly edited by Liz Prato.

Not only did The Night, and the Rain, and the River give me a chance, as a reader, to do all these amazing things I never dreamed of doing, it’s also my first time hanging out with such a diverse, and talented, and cool group of writers.  That’s a real treat.

Best of all, I hear there’s an apartment vacant, and the side door’s always propped open.  Come on in.  We’ve got stories to tell.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Darkness Sticks to Everything by Tom Hennen

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

          One night I saw
          A cottonwood throwing itself
          At a sky full of lightning.
          In the morning
          Leaves were everywhere.

"Landscape in Pictures"
from Darkness Sticks to Everything by Tom Hennen

Saturday, June 28, 2014

An Autobiography in 21 Pieces

1.  Winter is my favorite season.  Deep drifts of snow, runny noses, the Sanskrit of small animals’ tracks across the crust of a snowbank, crackling flames in a fireplace, marshmallows bobbing in cocoa.  And, of course, hibernating with a long, dusty novel.  I am winter at the core of my being.  This was solidified back in the 80s when my mother was going through a Color Me Beautiful phase and we determined, through a professional analysis, that I was a Winter palette.  Wardrobe was re-arranged accordingly.

2.  My first failed novel was called Mrs. Winter and the Pool of Teeth, a thinly-disguised rip-off of Agatha Christie’s Miss Jane Marple.  In my book, amateur sleuth Mrs. Winter investigates a suspicious death at a Hollywood mansion where a legendary film actor died after falling into a swimming pool stocked with piranha.  I was 13 when I attempted to write this novel.  I wrote two chapters and abandoned it.  At the time, I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever do in my life.  I might have been right about that.

3.  In my eighteenth summer, while hiking in Grand Teton National Park, I slipped into a stream and went over a waterfall.  In those 2.5 seconds of air time between the top of the falls and the rocks below, I believed I was dead.

4.  I grew up a preacher’s kid, so I had weekly doses of heaven and hell, death and eternal life.  Though my father’s sermons were no doubt interesting, I remember sitting in the pew, a hymnal open on my lap, filling in all the close-looped letters—d, b, a, o, p, q, e, g—with a small pencil.  When I finished with the letters, I started in on the musical notes.

5.  The first music I ever purchased with my own money was Captain and Tennille’s debut album, Love Will Keep Us Together.  Play any song of theirs today (besides the execrable “Muskrat Love”) and my nose will start to sting from foolish, nostalgic tears.

6.  You can know all you need to know about me by the music artists I have loved—truly, madly, deeply—during particular eras of my life:
     Jr. High/High School: The Captain and Tennille, Barry Manilow, Wild Cherry, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Cars, Nazareth, and the soundtracks to Star Wars, Grease, and Somewhere in Time.
     College: Emmylou Harris, Lou Ann Barton, Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt, Rickie Lee Jones, The Beatles, Billy Joel, The Alan Parsons Project, Willie Nelson.
     1983-2008: Electric Light Orchestra, Maxi Priest, Sinead O’Connor, The Who, John Prine, Alanis Morrisette, 10,000 Maniacs, Sheryl Crow.
     Today: Mumford and Son, Cowboy Mouth, The Airborne Toxic Event, Patty Griffin, Sia, M83, Lorde.

7.  When I was four years old, I wanted to become a writer.  When I was six, I thought I’d be an astronaut someday.  Between the ages of ten and fourteen, after reading books by James Herriot, I made plans to become a veterinarian.  At fifteen, I returned to the original idea of becoming a published writer.  At fifteen-and-a-half, I switched careers and became an actor.

Stuck in the middle: The Little Foxes, 1982
8.  I started acting in community theater in 1976 when I was cast in the Jackson Hole Fine Arts Guild's production of The Music Man (Chorus/River City Kid) and continued to lay the groundwork for a Hollywood career with roles in Hello, Dolly! (Waiter #3), A Christmas Carol (Dick Wilkins), Inherit the Wind (Tom Davenport), That Championship Season (Tom Daley), The Little Foxes (Leo Hubbard), Chekhov’s The Bear (Grigory Stepanovitch Smirnov), Brigadoon (Angus MacGuffie) and The Rivals (Captain Jack Absolute).  When I enrolled at The University of Wyoming in 1981, I picked Theatre as my major.  I thought I was God’s gift to acting.  “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

9.  In the fall of 1982, my best friend Randy and I drove from Laramie to Denver to an open cattle-call audition for Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Outsiders.  I wore a white T-shirt (silkscreened with James Dean’s head), blue jeans, and a leather jacket I’d borrowed from a fellow Theatre student.  Uncharacteristically, I’d slicked back my hair with gel.  I was Ponyboy through and through to the core.  I don’t remember my 90 seconds in the dim room in front of the casting directors, but though I imagine I thought I was pretty good, I’m sure I was pretty awful.  I never got a call-back.   When the film opened a year later, starring Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon and Diane Lane, I cried.  They were all so good and I had no business dreaming about joining them on the big screen.

10.  From 1979-1995—starting with A Little Romance and ending with Judge Dredd—I had a mad crush on Diane Lane.  A mad, mad, mad crush.  This crush was diminished, by necessity, once I got married.  Before that, however, I used to fantasize “accidental” meetings between the two of us: she pulls up in a car while I’m pumping gas, she and I are in the same line at the grocery store, she’s in town visiting her mother’s cousin who just happens to be the mother of my best friend.  That sort of foolishness.

11.  In my seventh summer, while riding my bike at furious speeds through an alley in Kittanning, Pennsylvania, I narrowly avoided being hit by a car when I burst out onto the cross-street.  I slammed on my brakes, the teenage driver slammed on his brakes, and I slid sideways in the gravel, coming to rest unharmed between the car’s front and back wheels.  To cover my embarrassment, I yelled at the kid still sitting behind the wheel, pale and shaking, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?!”  I got up, brushed the pebbles out of my knees, and pedaled my now-wobbly bike home.

12.  Over the course of my 51 years, I’ve broken two bones in my body: my clavicle and my humerus.  However, a single organ—my heart—has been broken three times.  None of those has been at the hands of the woman who has been my wife for nearly 31 years.  The opposite, in fact.  We spent the first seven years mending each other’s heart from all the past relationships we survived.

13.  You can read about one of my broken-heart experiences on pages 197-201 of my novel Fobbit.  Pages 197-201 contain some of the most autobiographical fiction I’ve ever written.

14.  For a month during my eighteenth year of life, I thought I was in love with a married woman.  She’d been flirting with me and coming to my dorm room for extended (non-sexual) visits.  Her name was Cindy and, in looks, she reminded me of Sally Struthers (the All in the Family-era Sally Struthers, not the Feed the Children-era Sally Struthers).  Cindy flirted with me and I reciprocated.  I started to imagine myself as someone for whom a woman would ditch her marriage.  Cindy’s husband was a hockey player.  When I started to have nightmares of this man showing up at my dorm and beating me to death with a hockey stick, I stopped this foolishness.  I was not yet ready to die for the love of a woman.

15.  I am now ready to die for the woman I truly love, my wife.  I will step in front of the bullet, push her from the path of a speeding car, and stare down the sprinting grizzly bear if it means she will live another day.

16.  In truth, neither of us wants to die in place of the other.  Over the course of many discussions these past 31 years, we’ve agreed that, given the option, we will die together.  We will both remain in the car plunging over the 400-foot cliff, we will lock ourselves into our cabin as the ship goes down, we will politely ask the man pointing the gun to please kill us both at the same time.  Neither can bear the thought of living without the other.

17.  Though I fell in love with the girl who’d become my wife when I saw her for the first time singing in the choir loft at my father’s church, I think the moment our love really, truly solidified was on our honeymoon in Oregon when a seagull flew overhead and shat in her hair.

18.  When I was in my late 20s, I took up cross-stitching, joining my wife in the hobby.  We were already acting like the old married couple we’d later become.  After I got off work at the Army base and we had dinner and the kids were upstairs in their rooms playing with Legos or Star Wars action figures or Polly Pocket dolls or whatever it was they played with at the time, my wife and I each found a seat in our small living room, lamplight spilling across us and onto our stitcheries.  Some nights, it was so quiet, you could hear the poke of needle, the pull of thread and the snick of scissors.  Among other things, I embroidered a wedding sampler for my wife, a baby blanket for my daughter and a 5x7 landscape showing a church in the middle of a snowfield beneath a purple night sky.  I took unnatural, foolish pride in being a soldier who was an avid cross-stitcher.  On the nights when I pulled guard duty at our company headquarters, I made a big show about unpacking out my hoops, fabric, needle and thread box.  I didn’t care what my fellow soldiers thought.  I wanted to be different and I wanted them to notice.

19.  When I was 17, I wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a horror movie.  It was called Just a Scream Away and it was all about—spoiler alert!—a high school janitor who goes around killing the popular cheerleaders.  According to my high school French teacher who watched a rough cut of it one afternoon in her classroom, it was “the scariest movie ever made.”  Looking back, I think that either a) my French teacher was being patronizingly kind, or b) she had nerves as fragile as rice paper.

20.  While taking a class in ornithology at the University of Oregon, I ran over a killdeer nest with a tractor-mower.  My wife and I were managing a boat-and-trailer storage yard outside of Eugene and it was my responsibility to maintain the grassy strips between the storage sheds.  I was out one day, pulling the mower attachment behind a John Deere, when I felt a bump and a shriek.  I braked and looked behind me to see a mother killdeer trying to draw me in another direction using a “broken-wing ruse.”  I stopped the mower, climbed down from the tractor, and went back to investigate.  The ground was littered with feathers--small, downy feathers that drifted across the blood-smeared grass like snow.  I left the tractor where it was and walked back to the house on trembling legs, a bird screaming at me the whole way.  Though I soon recovered, at that one moment, I remember feeling like I should die for what I’d done.

"All I want for Christmas is a long and happy life.
Is that too much to ask?"
21.  In the winter of my eighteenth month of life, my mother took me out into the backyard of my father’s parsonage in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania to let me play in the snow while she hung laundry out to dry.  I was bundled in thick layers of a snowsuit and toddled around the yard, heading in the direction of my father’s church next door.  My mother took her eyes off me, concentrating on sheets and clothespins.  The next time she saw me, I was inching my way along the ledge above a stairwell that led to the church basement.  The stairwell was 10 feet deep, a set of concrete steps leading down to a door below.  My mother’s widening eyes saw everything in slow motion.  I had my back to the stairwell as I walked along the 7-inch-wide ledge.  I stopped.  My mother started to scream my name, but knew it was too late.  She saw the next three seconds play out in a slow-motion movie.  I decided to sit down.  But I sat down on air.  I was sucked out of my mother’s sight.  Her scream cut the cold air, fluttered the sheets hanging on the line; she was certain I was dead.  I lay at the bottom of the stairwell, gasping to regain the breath knocked out of me.  When I opened my eyes, I saw snowflakes coming my way, cascading through the air.  I thought they were tiny angels garbed in white robes sent with a message for me: “Not yet, not yet.”

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Freebie: Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke

Congratulations to Tammy Zambo and Kevin McKinnon, winners of last week's Friday Freebie: Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia.

This week's book giveaway is Wayfaring Stranger, the new novel by James Lee Burke.  This is not one of the bestselling Montana mystery writer's Dave Robicheaux books, but it does continue the legacy of his other characters: the Hollands.  And it includes an appearance by Bonnie and Clyde!  Wayfaring Stranger is a big stand-alone novel that covers a fascinating chunk of twentieth-century American history...and I, for one, can't wait to start reading it.  Booklist calls it "an ambitious, deeply satisfying historical thriller."  One lucky reader will have the chance to meet this Wayfaring Stranger when they win the beautiful new hardcover I'm offering up in this contest.  Here are some more details on the plot from the publisher's jacket copy:
From "America's best novelist" (The Denver Post) comes a sprawling thriller drenched with atmosphere and intrigue that takes a young boy from a chance encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to the trenches of World War II and the oil fields along the Texas-Louisiana coast. It is 1934 and the Depression is bearing down when sixteen-year-old Weldon Avery Holland happens upon infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after one of their notorious armed robberies. A confrontation with the outlaws ends as Weldon puts a bullet through the rear window of Clyde's stolen automobile. Ten years later, Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland and his sergeant, Hershel Pine, escape certain death in the Battle of the Bulge and encounter a beautiful young woman named Rosita Lowenstein hiding in a deserted extermination camp. Eventually, Weldon and Rosita fall in love and marry and, with Hershel, return to Texas to seek their fortunes. There, they enter the domain of jackals known as the oil business. They meet Roy Wiseheart--a former Marine aviator haunted with guilt for deserting his squadron leader over the South Pacific--and Roy's wife Clara, a vicious anti-Semite who is determined to make Weldon and Rosita's life a nightmare. It will be the frontier justice upheld by Weldon's grandfather, Texas lawman Hackberry Holland, and the legendary antics of Bonnie and Clyde that shape Weldon's plans for saving his family from the evil forces that lurk in peacetime America and threaten to destroy them all.

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of Wayfaring Stranger, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 4.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Front Porch Books: June 2014 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith (Harper):  After reading the Jacket Copy for Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel, I'm a little surprised a mere 256 pages could contain a story as big as this seems to be.  Not that an epic tale can't be told in a slim volume, but just look at all the lively characters and action in The Story of Land and Sea:
Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, this incandescent debut novel follows three generations of family--fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love. Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father's stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her. Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father's wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.
If these Opening Lines are any indication, there is some good storytelling waiting for me in the pages ahead:
      On days in August when sea storms bite into the North Carolina coast, he drags a tick mattress into the hall and tells his daughter stories, true and false, about her mother. The wooden shutters clatter, and Tabitha folds blankets around them to build a softness for the storm. He always tells of their courting days, of her mother’s shyness. She looked like a straight tall pine from a distance, only when he got close could he see her trembling.
      “Was she scared?”
      “Happy,” John says. “We were both happy.”

The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Books):  Kelly Barnhill's fairy tale (the first four words are "Once upon a time") is tinted with tones of Disney elements: enchanted kingdoms, meek heroes finding inner strength, the everlasting bonds of friendship, etc.  That's why it's a little surprising to see the death of a major character on page 2 of this novel for young readers.  Then again, I have to remind myself, even Bambi's mother died and Old Yeller had to be put down.  In The Witch's Boy, Ned and his identical twin Tam secretly build a raft and, once they feel the vessel is seaworthy, slide into the Great River, hoping to make it to the sea.  The raft is a failure, both boys tumble into the river's current, and their agonized father dives in, knowing he can save only one of his children.  People call from the shore: "If you can only save one, make sure you save the right one."  That's quite a moral dilemma to present to young readers right off the bat, isn't it?  But I think it helps us sympathize all the more with Ned, the one who was saved, the one the villagers say was the wrong one.  In just three pages, Barnhill has already set the hook and grabbed my attention.  But wait, it gets even better.  Ned's mother, it turns out, is a witch, "the keeper of a small store of magic--one so ancient and so powerful that everyone knew it would kill a man if he touched it--but it did her no good.  Her magic could only be used in the service of others."  All the spells in the world cannot revive Sister Witch's drowned son.  So far, I haven't even gotten past the first six pages of the book in this description.  There's plenty more enchantment ahead of us.  Here's the Jacket Copy to cast a spell over you:
When Ned and his identical twin brother tumble from their raft into a raging, bewitched river, only Ned survives. Villagers are convinced the wrong boy lived. Sure enough, Ned grows up weak and slow, and stays as much as possible within the safe boundaries of his family s cottage and yard. But when a Bandit King comes to steal the magic that Ned's mother, a witch, is meant to protect, it's Ned who safeguards the magic and summons the strength to protect his family and community. In the meantime, in another kingdom across the forest that borders Ned's village lives Aine, the resourceful and pragmatic daughter of the Bandit King. She is haunted by her mother's last words to her: The wrong boy will save your life and you will save his. But when Aine and Ned's paths cross, can they trust each other long enough to make their way through the treacherous woods and stop the war about to boil over? With a deft hand, acclaimed author Kelly Barnhill takes classic fairy tale elements--speaking stones, a friendly wolf, and a spoiled young king--and weaves them into a richly detailed narrative that explores good and evil, love and hate, magic, and the power of friendship.
For more about the book and Kelly Barnhill's writing routine, you should check out this Q&A at her Algonquin page.  She talks about balancing motherhood and writing, cats vs. dogs, and what she thought was the most difficult scene in The Witch's Boy to write: "As a mom, one of the great fears and horrors that any of us feel is the very thought that something bad might happen to our children.  (Pause for a moment as mothers everywhere nod and go knock on some wood.)  Writing about Sister Witch’s grief is quite possibly the hardest bit of writing I ever did.  And in fact, when I wrote the initial draft of that scene while sitting in a coffee shop near my house, I burst out sobbing in the middle of everything and everyone.  People thought that maybe I had received bad news via email. 'No,' I had to tell them.  I just made something up and it made me ever so sad.'  And then they looked at me like I was nuts."

A History of the Future by James Howard Kunstler (Grove/Atlantic): The arrival of this latest addition to James Howard Kunstler's post-apocalyptic "World Made By Hand" series reminds me that time is running out for me to get started reading these books (World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron are the other two).  After all, the world could collapse any minute--as it does in these novels: "In the not-distant future...The electricity has flickered out.  The automobile age is over.  The computers are all down for good.  Two great cities have been destroyed.  Epidemics have ravaged the population."  Then again, such a scenario like that might leave me more time to read intriguing books like candlelight, of course.  Here's the Jacket Copy for A History of the Future:
Following the catastrophes of the twenty-first century—the pandemics, the environmental disaster, the end of oil, the ensuing chaos—people are doing whatever they can to get by and pursuing a simpler and sometimes happier existence. In little Union Grove in upstate New York, the townspeople are preparing for Christmas. Without the consumerist shopping frenzy that dogged the holidays of the previous age, the season has become a time to focus on family and loved ones. It is a stormy Christmas Eve when Robert Earle’s son Daniel arrives back from his two years of sojourning throughout what is left of the United States. He collapses from exhaustion and illness, but as he recovers tells the story of the break-up of the nation into three uneasy independent regions and his journey into the dark heart of the New Foxfire Republic centered in Tennessee and led by the female evangelical despot, Loving Morrow. In the background, Union Grove has been shocked by the Christmas Eve double murder by a young mother, in the throes of illness, of her husband and infant son. Town magistrate Stephen Bullock is in a hanging mood.
Blurbworthiness: "Kunstler skewers everything from kitsch to greed, prejudice, bloodshed, and brainwashing in this wily, funny, rip-roaring, and profoundly provocative page-turner, leaving no doubt that the prescriptive yet devilishly satiric World Made By Hand series will continue."  (Booklist)

Crystal Eaters by Shane Jones (Two Dollar Radio):  Here's another novel with a fantastic, dazzling premise at its heart.  I'll let the Jacket Copy explain this new book from the author of the equally-trippy Light Boxes:
Remy is a young girl who lives in a town that believes in crystal count: that you are born with one-hundred crystals inside and throughout your life, through accidents and illness, your count is depleted until you reach zero. As a city encroaches daily on the village, threatening their antiquated life, and the Earth grows warmer, Remy sets out to accomplish something no one else has: to increase her sick mother's crystal count. An allegory, fable, touching family saga, and poetic sci-fi adventure, Shane Jones underlines his reputation as an inspired and unique visionary.
Blurbworthiness: "Crystal Eaters is full of sentences that jump at you like a pop-up book, painting a world that is at some times painfully real, and at others an exercise in vivid hallucinations.  Jones is pushing genres here, not unlike George Saunders or Karen Russell.  Crystal Eaters grabs your face and pushes it up against a fantastic, sprawling, impressionistic painting of death and family."  (The Rumpus)  The book literally counts down, with the first chapter numbered 40 (on page 183), the next one 39 (on page 180), and so on, reminding us of Remy's deadline.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      It feels good to believe in one hundred.
      They walk through the village wondering how many they have left. Their land is homes and shacks lining seven dirt roads. Everything is hit with sun. Tin roofs glare. Wooden structures glow. The city appeared at the horizon like a mountain range decades ago but it's close now--dangerously close and growing closer by the day--and believing in one hundred is a distraction. A long road connects the village to the crystal mine. A man named Z. mumbles his number and walks by the home of Remy.

Dear Nobody: The True Diary of Mary Rose, edited by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil (Sourcebooks):  Fans of Go Ask Alice and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, take notice: there's a new, fiery voice in town.  Dear Nobody is the purportedly "true diary" of a Pennsylvania teenager who drank too much, fought with her mother, struggled to make friends in a new school, and generally had the kind of life most of us had (and continued to have) during our adolescent years--with one exception: Mary Rose died when she was 17.  Co-editors Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil (authors of Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) stumbled across Mary Rose's "powerful and raw" journals about five years ago and knew they had something special when they started reading some of the entries.  As McCain explains in the book's introduction:
      Though the Internet existed in the mid-nineties, it was not yet accessible to everyone. Most high school kids still wrote by longhand, passed notes on paper, and called their friends on a landline. Parents couldn’t track you via social media. If you were walking alone, at night in the rain, along a desolate highway, you probably didn’t have a cell phone to call for a ride home.
      But most importantly in this case, you didn’t chronicle your life in 140 characters or less. You wrote about your life in notebooks, described it in long letters to friends that you stamped and mailed, and took photographs that you got developed at the drugstore. You could probably count the numbers of friends you had on two hands. There was still a thing called privacy, and it was still possible to keep secrets about yourself. Your thoughts had room to develop. You had time to contemplate. You could describe, at length, what the water felt like when you went skinny-dipping that night. And you didn’t have to worry that naked pictures would pop up on Facebook the next day.
      And yet the experiences and struggles that Mary Rose had are not different from the ones teenagers face today: loneliness, insecurity, depression, physical, emotional and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol problems, bullying, break-ups, and divorce.
      Every word of this remarkable tale is true, though all of the names, except for Mary Rose’s, have been changed to protect her anonymity. A friend of hers shared these journals with us after being asked, “What’s the best thing that you have read lately?” Once we had the opportunity to read them ourselves we were completely captivated. Through this book represents only a sample of the 600 pages of her work, we didn’t change a word.
I haven't read all of Dear Nobody yet, but I've gone through enough of the entries to get a feel for Mary Rose's funny, profane, urgent and ultimately sad voice.  Though Go Ask Alice eventually turned out to be fiction, if what McCain and McNeil claim is true, then this is truly a case of a bright voice snuffed out all too soon.  Blurbworthiness: "Mary Rose’s enormous pain and the ways she attempts to swallow it are evident in every profane, rage-filled entry; while her anguish is near-constant, it’s spiked with moments of biting humor, elation, and hope.  It’s a rare, no-holds-barred documentation of an American teenager’s life, written for no audience but herself."  (Publishers Weekly)

High as the Horses' Bridles by Scott Cheshire (Henry Holt):  If your Father's Day reading pile leans more toward The Road than it does Sh*t My Dad Says, then Scott Cheshire's debut novel might be right up your troubled, dysfunctional alley.  It's a big, sweeping novel Philipp Meyer (The Son) calls "nothing less than Dostoyevskian."  Check out the Jacket Copy:
It’s 1980 at a crowded amphitheater in Queens, New York and a nervous Josiah Laudermilk, age 12, is about to step to the stage while thousands of believers wait to hear him, the boy preaching prodigy, pour forth. Suddenly, as if a switch had been flipped, Josiah’s nerves shake away and his words come rushing out, his whole body fills to the brim with the certainty of a strange apocalyptic vision. But is it true prophecy or just a young believer’s imagination running wild? Decades later when Josiah (now Josie) is grown and has long since left the church, he returns to Queens to care for his father who, day by day, is losing his grip on reality. Barreling through the old neighborhood, memories of the past—of his childhood friend Issy, of his first love, of the mother he has yet to properly mourn—overwhelm him at every turn. When he arrives at his family’s old house, he’s completely unprepared for what he finds. How far back must one man journey to heal a broken bond between father and son? In rhapsodic language steeped in the oral tradition of American evangelism, Scott Cheshire brings us under his spell. Remarkable in scale—moving from 1980 Queens, to sunny present-day California, to a tent revival in nineteenth century rural Kentucky—and shot-through with the power and danger of belief and the love that binds generations, High as the Horses’ Bridles is a bold, heartbreaking debut from a big new American voice.
Cheshire's language is indeed bold and rhapsodic right from the Opening Lines:
      They sit.
      Below a painted ceiling looming high overhead, they sit and they wait. The ceiling yawns, stretching like one vast wing warming oh so many eggs.
      See the stars, the affixed points of light, the glowing striated mists of silvery cloud. See the night clouds lolling, drifting above their heads across an expanse of blue plaster sky. Like vapors released, dust climbs blue-gray and upward like prayers.
      Now, see the ceiling stretch outward and above the seated people, this for all of one hundred feet, over and above the lettered rows A through Z, double-A and onward—on and above, across the grand room of ceramic, marble, and wood. Heels click and rubber soles pat, the sounds bouncing off here, and there, up through open space like swimmers ascending for air. And above every head, the sky stretches on toward brassy balcony railings, sloping down from the armpit arch of the ceiling’s rounded center. Steeping downward, over the balcony railing—not even one foot resting there—then, just as you’d expect, the tiered seating rises even higher. Their heads are closer to the ceiling up there, with hair well combed and slicked.
Then, a few paragraphs later, we meet Josiah:
Backstage, behind the hanging curtain, the boy is clearly nervous. Hungry and nervous. He can’t keep still. He’s done nothing like this before, and certainly not here. Worse, he needs to go to the restroom. Feet shuffling in place, had way too much orange juice, he tries to sneak a look toward the front rows where he saw his parents seated earlier this morning. They always sit up front at church, something Dad practically can’t not do. Up front, as close as they can, Dad on the aisle, Mom beside. A pale vessel. Dad has even asked people to move before, said he can’t concentrate sitting anywhere else. Sometimes lately he’s been sitting, and then standing again, and then sitting. Standing. Like he can’t help himself, trying to get his place relative to the stage just right. There they are: Mom with her long red curls, and Dad wearing a stern face, looking like he’s in charge. But who’s in charge anymore?
Who's in charge?  Why, Cheshire is, of course.  This is writing from a steady hand, strong as a preacher's voice.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Great Big Roundup of 2014 Short Story Collections: The "Bigger Boat" Addendum

I knew it would happen.  I knew as soon as I clicked the "Publish" button on the previous blog post, The Great Big Roundup of 2014 Short Story Collections, more noteworthy books would start coming out of the woodwork.  Apparently, the woodwork is a pretty big place.

In the time it takes a penitent tear to fall, I'd collected so many "you-should-have-included"s that, to quote the late great Roy Scheider, I knew I was gonna need a bigger boat.  Rather than tacking this list onto the other blog post, I felt it was only fair to build a whole new boat blog post.

My thanks to Jeffrey Gleaves, Larry Dark, Loran Smith, Jessica M., Comma Press and other Tweeps and Facefriends for bringing these other titles to my attention.

Lovely, Dark, Deep by Joyce Carol Oates
Joyce Carol Oates can scare the skin right off me, in ways more subtle and deeply macabre than what I get from Stephen King (who I also love, but in a different way).  As I wrote in my review of The Museum of Dr. Moses, her stories are "sneaky little things.  The horror comes in on cat's paws, barely noticeable."  I would expect nothing less from JCO's new collection, which comes out in September.  Here's a little more about Lovely, Dark, Deep from the publisher:
In “Mastiff,” a woman and a man are joined in an erotic bond forged out of terror and gratitude. “Sex with Camel” explores how a sixteen-year-old boy realizes the depth of his love for his grandmother—and how vulnerable those feelings make him. Fearful that that her husband is “disappearing” from their life, a woman becomes obsessed with keeping him in her sight in “The Disappearing.” “A Book of Martyrs” reveals how the end of a pregnancy brings with it the end of a relationship. And in the title story, the elderly Robert Frost is visited by an interviewer, an unsettling young woman, who seems to know a good deal more about his life than she should.
"Lovely, Dark, Deep" (the story) drew criticism when it was published in Harper's, with friends and relatives of Frost's calling Oates' portrayal of the poet "preposterous and distasteful."  Well, sure, maybe it's not flattering, but can anything in fiction really be called "preposterous"?  Check out these Sample Lines from that story:
Here was the first surprise: the great man was much heavier, his body much more solid, than I’d anticipated. You would not have called him fat, but his torso sagged against his shirt like a great udder, and his thighs in summer trousers were fleshy, like those of a middle-aged woman. The sensitive-young-poet face of the photos (at least, the photos I’d affixed to my bedroom wall) had coarsened and thickened; deep lines now bracketed the eyes, as if the seventy-seven-year-old poet had too often scowled or squinted. The snowy-white hair so often captured in photographs, like ectoplasm lifting from the poet’s head, was thinner than any photograph had suggested, and not so snowy white, in fact disheveled, as if the poet had only just risen, dazed, from sleep.

Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
The author of the nicely old-fashioned novel Jim the Boy returns with a collection of stories and a novella.  I expect the fiction will be sweet, sentimental and lovely.  Here's how the publisher describes the collection:
Two decades after his debut collection Here We Are in Paradise heralded Tony Earley as one of the most accomplished writers of his generation, the rueful, bittersweet, and riotous stories of Mr. Tall reestablish him as a mythmaker and tale spinner of the first rank. These stories introduce us not only to ordinary people seeking to live extraordinary lives, but also to the skunk ape (a southern variant of Bigfoot), the ghost of Jesse James, and a bone-tired Jack the Giant Killer. Whether it's Appalachia, Nashville, the Carolina Coast, or a make-believe land of talking dogs, each world Earley creates is indelible.

This is Not an Accident by April Wilder
I'm a well-known First Line junkie, and man oh man, April Wilder certainly provides the smack in her debut collection.  Exhibit A, your honor:
      A few days after Stephanie called and told me Bob had shot himself in the foot, then in the gut, Sammy Sosa got caught corking his bat.  (from "We Were Champions")
      Jack circled the block looking for Ann's junker Saab and tonguing his lower left canine, which was loose and clicked in his gum like a light switch.  (from "The Butcher Shop")
And then there's this terrific opening to the title story of the collection:
      Each week the driver who’d made the least amount of progress took home the Decelerator Award. The thing itself was an actual gas pedal removed from the instructor’s late-model Tacoma, a pedal she believed to be not only faulty but the true cause of her multiple citations for unnecessary acceleration. “As it happened,” she told the class, “Toyota recalled these pedals for that very reason, among others.”
      Kat raised her hand. “Among other reasons or among other pedals?”
      Everyone laughed, though Kat wasn’t sure why. She wondered, too, why an accelerator was being used to denote deceleration, but the one question was enough to let everyone know she was awake.
      The instructor backed up, half-sitting on the lip of the desk and crossing her short sturdy legs. She was an all-business blonde who worked for a bail bondsman and claimed to be related to Houdini (a fact the class wise guy, Roger, had pounced on: “Yeah? I’ll bet he coulda got himself out of those acceleration tickets”).
Here's what the publisher says we'll find in the rest of these pages:
In the title story, a cartoonist tries to cause a car accident to know what a car accident feels like. In the novella You're That Guy, a house sitter hides among poets in Salt Lake City after his canine charge dies tragically. In "Three Men," a wife helps her soon-to-be ex-husband pick a tie, but neither can find the words to stop a seemingly evitable divorce. In "It's a Long Dang Life," a grandma’s boyfriend holds a backyard barbecue under siege—with the kids as his pint-sized guards. Wilder's characters are all, at first glance, a bit off. But by the end of the collection, Wilder's world begins to feel all too familiar, describing not so much what is "dark" in modern American life, but what we step over every day on our way to work. In the tradition of Wells Tower and Jim Shepard, This Is Not an Accident signals a bold new voice and delivers the kind of insanely incisive moments only a master of the human condition can conjure.

The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim
This one I'm particularly embarrassed to have left off the original list.  Not only is The Corpse Exhibition on my radar, it's high on my To-Be-Read list.  Blasim's stories show the Iraq War from the Iraqi perspective (which was also addressed in some of Katey Schultz's Flashes of War).  In my reading schedule, I'd meant to pair The Corpse Exhibition with Phil Klay's Redeployment (the war seen through American soldiers' eyes), but then I got distracted by other obligations.  In a sign of commitment, I'm marking my calendar with a red pen right now to make a date with this Corpse.  "Blasim has a sense of humor.  He must have learned his jokes from the Grim Reaper."  That's William T. Vollmann's assessment, and one that seems to hold true given the snips and sips I've taken from the collection so far. This is Blasim's first publication in the U.S. and it combines stories from his previous collections, The Iraqi Christ and The Madman of Freedom Square--both of which were published in Great Britain by Comma Press.  Here are some Sample Lines from "The Iraqi Christ," a story which packs a surprising punch in a very small space:
Daniel was always chewing gum. The soldiers had baptized him Chewgum Christ. I often imagined that Daniel's chewing was like an energy source, recharging the battery that powered the screen in his brain. His life's dream was to work in the radar unit. He had completed high school and volunteered to join the air force, but his application was rejected, maybe because his father had been a prominent communist in the seventies. He loved radar the way other men love women or soccer. He collected pictures of radar systems and talked about signals and frequencies as though he was talking about a romp in the hay with some girlfriend.
I'm going to have to succumb and obey the Los Angeles Times when it says in its review: "Blasim's agonized wrestling with the act of writing about human suffering should be required reading for anyone putting pen to paper in the wake of this war.  The Corpse Exhibition masterfully demonstrates that gritty realism is not the only response to war's unreal reality, and war is just as real for those who don't sign up to fight."  Blasim's previous short story collection The Iraqi Christ recently won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, making him the first Arabic writer to win the prize; it's also the first time a short story collection has been victorious in the competition's 24-year history.

Marine Park by Mark Chiusano
In this collection, Mark Chiusano zooms in via a literary Mapquest to a particular neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Marine Park, which includes a fertile salt marsh, provides an equally fertile setting for these stories, which "delve into family, boyhood, sports, drugs, love, and all the weird quirks of growing up in a tight-knit community on the edge of the city."  The characters in Marine Park include, as Publishers Weekly describes them, "a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project in 'Shatter the Trees and Blow Them Away'; an ex-high school basketball star turned gun-toting drug dealer in 'Ed Monahan’s Game'; and the brothers Jamison and Lorris Favero, whom we follow from adolescence in the early 2000s to adulthood in the present, in eight of the stories."  It sounds like a fascinating line-up.  Here are some words of praise from Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy: “One of the most subtle, tender, emotionally powerful books that I’ve read in a long time.  Set mostly in Brooklyn, but its subject is the whole of America.  If you’ve never been to Marine Park before, by the end of this collection you’ll feel like you’d lived there your whole life.  This is a stunning debut.”

The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter
There are characters, and then there are characters.  Just look at the parade of people you'll find in this collection of short stories by Kathleen Winter (author of the prize-winning novel Annabel):
Meet Xavier Boland, the untouchable cross-dresser, whose walk is loose and carefree as an old Broadway tune. Meet barmy Ms. Penrice, clambering up a beechnut tree at the age of seventy-six. Meet a Zamboni mechanic turned funeral porteur, Madame Poirer's lapdog (and its chastity belt), a congregation of hard-singing, sex-crazed Pentecostals, and more. With The Freedom in American Songs, Kathleen Winter brings her quirky sensuality, lyrically rendered settings, and off-key humor to bear on a new short story collection about modern loneliness, small-town gay teenagers, catastrophic love, gut-wrenching laughter in the absolute wrong places, and the holiness of ordinary life.

Every Kiss a War by Leesa Cross-Smith
Leesa Cross-Smith's collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award and the Iowa Short Fiction Award, and comes highly recommended by writers like Roxane Gay:
Leesa Cross-Smith is a consummate storyteller who uses her formidable talents to tell the oft-overlooked stories of people living in that great swath of place between the left and right coasts. She offers thrilling turns of phrase like, “His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read,” or “let your smeary mouth be his question mark.” Where she is most stunning is in the endings of each of the 27 stories in Every Kiss a War, creating crisp, evocative moments that will linger long after you’ve read this book’s very last word.
and Kathy Fish:
Read the stories Leesa Cross-Smith has made for us here and remember the cheap beer & the old songs & fireworks & cowboys & ‘ice clinky frontier whiskey’ & kisses that feel like tiny wars. Remember these things as if they happened to you because they did. Her writing is exquisite and fearless, exposed and bleeding onto the page. Every story without exception is smart, gentle, heartbreaking, and most importantly, real.
and Chad Simpson:
Leesa Cross-Smith is a sorceress. Out of pop songs and humid Kentucky nights, out of big belt buckles and back-road drives, Cross-Smith conjures stories filled with sentences that dazzle and characters who yearn with their whole broken hearts. Every Kiss a War is a remarkable debut collection by a writer whose words I’d follow down any starlit gravel road.
Those endorsements alone (along with the description of a mouth tasting like Russian novels) is enough to propel me into the pages.

Funny Once by Antonya Nelson
I've been a fan of Antonya Nelson's fiction ever since she visited the University of Alaska-Fairbanks when I was an grad student there.  After hearing her read one of her stories, I went out and bought In the Land of Men.  Reader, I ate it up like it was a bowl of fresh-baked Cheez-Its.  And now I'm chagrined to see she has a new collection of stories out on the streets and it completely swam below my radar.  That mistake has been corrected and I hope to sit down soon with new A. N. stories (along with, yes, a bowl of Cheez-Its).  In the meantime, here's a taste of what's in store for us, courtesy of Jenny Shank's excellent review in the Dallas Morning News:
      “If you took all the lessons of others, you might never do anything,” Antonya Nelson writes in her seventh short-story collection, Funny Once.
      The characters in Nelson’s fiction have never been concerned with learning from other people’s mistakes, let alone their own. It’s not as if they aren’t trying to improve—the collection’s title comes from a story about a character named Phoebe, who gives up drinking after her husband accidentally sets her hair on fire during a shared bender.
      At a party, Phoebe holds on to her tenuous sobriety, her shaved head hidden with a scarf, while listening to a drunken person tell a joke, repeating the punch line several times. “Phoebe made a mental note, in case she went back to drinking: It’s only funny once.”
      Still, as hard as these characters try, it’s difficult for them not to fall back into old patterns. Nelson’s characters lie their way through AA meetings, philander, fall in love with the married and divorce extravagantly, some as many as three times, while retaining their bonds with the children they met along the way. Despite the upheaval, Nelson’s characters make excellent, caring parents and grandparents, both biological and surrogate.
Click here to read the rest of Jenny's review.

The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier
The cover for Susan Hope Lanier's The Game We Play shows a ballroom dancing trophy against a flowered wallpaper dominated by the overlay of the title in pink.  This cover fairly screams "Read Me!"  Okay, okay, you don't have to twist my arm more than once.  Take a look at some of the book's contents:
Ten riveting, emotionally complex stories examining the decisions we make when our choices are few and courage is costly. Topics include a young couple facing disease and commitment with the same sharp fear, a teenager stealing from his girlfriend's mother's purse to help pay for her abortion, and a father making a split-second decision that puts his child's life at risk.
Here's some nice Blurbworthiness from Joe Meno (Hairstyles of the Damned) about this Chicago writer: "Susan Hope Lanier's collection of brilliant short stories, The Game We Play, is a triumph.  Detailing distinct human relationships, moments of connection, and modern crises, these stories--all effortlessly rendered, all deeply felt--evoke the best of Raymond Carver and Lorrie Moore.  An outstanding debut that should reaffirm our shared belief in the absolute necessity and imaginative possibility of the short story."

After the People Lights Have Gone Off  by Stephen Graham Jones
The term "people lights" has a sinister connotation, as if our houses are being watched by animals or aliens.  I would expect this kind of creepy unease from Stephen Graham Jones, author of fourteen books of horror, fantasy, science fiction and dark realism.  He's published more than 125 stories in places like Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, and Asimov's.  Be prepared for darkness once you open these pages....but remember to keep your people light on.  Here's how the publisher describes the collection:
This collection of fifteen stories taps into the horrors and fears of the supernatural as well as the everyday. Included are two original stories, several rarities and out of print narratives, as well as a few "best of the year" inclusions. Stephen Graham Jones is a master storyteller. What does happen after the people lights have gone off?
Blurbworthiness: "After The People Lights Have Gone Off shows that Jones knows the horror genre.  It has stories that you would expect from Jones, stories about werewolves, aliens and other horror tropes.  Though, these aren’t tropes as you would imagine them, Jones takes what we know of the monsters we were scared of as kids and gives us reason to be afraid now.  Horror is where lots of the tropes are born, sure, and perhaps it should be that way.  Hearing those stories so much is the reason we check the backseat of the car for killers.  But Jones re-imagines them, breathes new life into them, makes them roam the world again so we read them for a new time with the door locked and a gun by our side." (from a review at Revolt Daily)

By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente
Here's a new release from one of my favorite small-press publishers, Dzanc Books, I somehow overlooked in the earlier crush of collections I posted here at the blog.  And the fact that at least one of the stories is set in my old stomping grounds of Alaska....well, I can't believe I missed this one.  I will now do the Penance of 1,000 Paper Cuts.  Here's Dzanc's description of the contents:  "From ghosts to pink dolphins to a fight club of young women who practice beneath the Alaskan aurora borealis, By Light We Knew Our Names examines the beauty and heartbreak of the world we live in.  Across thirteen stories, this collection explores the thin border between magic and grief."  You can find links to some of Anne Valente's stories at this page on her website.  Blurbworthiness: "In these wonderful stories, Anne Valente shows again and again her talent for extracting the obsessions and anxieties and wonder of childhood, then extrapolating them across the whole of a life: Here feelings manifest as objects, relationships exist as gifts physically given, and every page contains a thrilling combination of sadness and joy, humor and loss, science and mystery and magic.  By Light We Knew Our Names is a striking debut, reminiscent of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, but with a bright promise all its own."  (Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods)

Young Woman in a Garden by Delia Sherman
Ghosts, fairies, and a merman wait for you behind that beautiful cover of novelist Delia Sherman's first book of short stories.  Young Woman in a Garden comes to us from the good folks (led by Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link) at Small Beer Press; one of their previous short story collections, At the Mouth of the River of Bees by Kij Johnson, is still perched high in my To-Be-Read stack.  In Sherman's Garden, the fantastic and the fabulous enchant the 300 pages.  Here's a brief synopsis from the publisher:
In her vivid and sly, gentle and wise, long-anticipated first collection, Delia Sherman takes seemingly insignificant moments in the lives of artists or sailors--the light out a window, the two strokes it takes to turn a small boat--and finds the ghosts haunting them, the magic surrounding them. Here are the lives that make up larger histories, here are tricksters and gardeners, faeries and musicians, all glittering and sparkling, finding beauty and hope and always unexpected, a touch of wild magic.
A sampling of the story titles: “The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor,” “Walpurgis Afternoon,” “The Fairy Cony-Catcher,” “Nanny Peters and the Feathery Bride,” “The Maid on the Shore” and “The Fiddler of Bayou Teche.”

Devil's Tub by Edward Hoagland
I'll admit "short fiction" is not the first thing that springs to mind when I think of Edward Hoagland, an author I know primarily as a first-rate nature writer (John Updike called him "the best essayist of my generation").  But Hoagland is the kind of author who can grace any form of writing with beautiful and vibrant language.  From the opening of "Cowboys," first published in 1960 in The Noble Savage (a literary magazine started by Saul Bellow), come these Sample Lines:
      Zino'd been the gator wrestler since he'd left the Army last spring. Lemkuel's Hollywood was a pretty good carny. Offered lots of attractions but nothing too big for the trucks or expensive to use. Easy to move; played it cool. The hard part for the wrestler was hopping on him and off because if you know about gators you know they can't open their mouth once you're holding it closed--nor the same as the muscles which shut it. That was when the gator's being calm was important. There's a powerful tail also, but this one forgot about his and, as it worked out, only had teeth to eat. Lemkuel told Zino to take some kind of spurs to him to jazzen up the show. Zino told Lemkuel to hire a freak.
      Zino wrestled with the gator, and Spike, his friend, took care of the hyenas, controlled their jitters and made them laugh at the right times. The third guy who was with them, the paratrooper, took care of the carnival's elephant, gave the towners rides. He did a lot else and so did Spike and so did Zino, but the point is they thought they were tops for handling animals, Frank Buck, Tarzan, and the cat's meow.
This story, about carnies tussling with some rodeo riders in eastern Oregon, is even more interesting when you know that Hoagland spent two summers working for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus in the 1950s.

Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway
Here's another collection with war-related fiction which I'm sorry to have overlooked (he says as he cautiously, carefully places another book on top of the TBR stack, which is now dangerously swaying--a light breeze could bring it all crashing down on my head; so if you don't hear from me again, you'll know what happened....).  Elegy on Kinderklavier is a current Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, so those of you near a B&N should have no trouble getting your hands on a copy.  For the rest of you, please consider ordering it through the Iconoclast Books link above.  Here's more about the book from the publisher:
The stories in Elegy on Kinderklavier explore the profound loss and intricate effects of war on lives that have been suddenly misaligned. A diplomat navigates a hostile political climate and an arranged marriage in an Israeli settlement on a newly discovered planet; a small town in Kansas shuns the army recruiter who signed up its boys as troops are deployed to Iraq, falling in helicopters and on grenades; a family dissolves around mental illness and a child's body overtaken by cancer. The moment a soldier steps on an explosive device is painfully reproduced, nanosecond by nanosecond. Arna Bontemps Hemenway's stories feel pulled out of time and place, and the suffering of his characters seem at once otherworldly and stunningly familiar. Elegy on Kinderklavier is a disquieting exploration of what it is to lose and be lost.
I can't wait to lose myself in Hemenway's fiction.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy
I first heard about Black Vodka at The Huffington Post where I was seduced by this description of some of the book's stories:
      Like David Lynch, Levy is a master of many mediums. Her writing career began with theatre--she's written a handful of plays that were produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company--which is evident in her ability to craft immersive scenes. She's also a novelist and poet. Black Vodka is her first collection of short stories, and with it she seems to have found the form that best showcases her psychologically poignant observations. Levy's stories are very short--10 are packed into about 120 pages--but each manages to quickly construct its own specific mood. Atmospheric writing tends to shirk the importance of fully realized characters, but Levy manages to create those, too.
      The first and titular story, "Black Vodka," follows a man with kyphosis--the overcurvature of the upper back--on a date with an anthropologist, whose interest in him may or may not be strictly clinical. What begins as a brazen diary entry about the toils of misfit-dom ("people sink their eyes into my hump for six seconds longer than protocol should allow") morphs slowly, almost imperceptibly, into a broader, relatable commentary on our desire for acceptance, and the anxiety that comes with "the promise of love." Levy's humor comes in the form of quotidian absurdities, mentioned in passing: the pear liqueur ordered by the couple "strangely, does not taste of pear."
      The story ends with the protagonist's heartbeat going "berserk," setting the pace for the remainder of the collection. Levy's terse sentences build into high-pitch scenes. In "Shining a Light," protagonist Alice has landed in a foreign country, and "she knows before it is completely certain that her bag will not appear." The ensuing vacation is dreamlike, funny and bizarre, as Alice dances and swims her way across Prague, all while wearing the same blue dress. Again, Levy humorously fuses the absurd and the commonplace: "The composer tells her his name is Alex but that she can call him Mr. Composer if she likes. And then he doesn't say a word for the entire journey."
Click here to read the rest of Huffington Post's recommendation.

Starting Over by Elizabeth Spencer
I'll close this list with a mention of the latest book from 92-year-old Elizabeth Spencer which came out at the beginning of this year.  Here's how Slate began its review of Starting Over:
      We last heard from Elizabeth Spencer more than a decade ago. In 1998 she published a memoir, Landscapes of the Heart, followed in 2001 by a “greatest hits” roundup of her novellas and short stories, The Southern Woman, which was followed by a quiet 12 years. One could be forgiven the thought that after a long and illustrious career Spencer, as Alice Munro has hinted and Philip Roth has declared, had decided to put her feet up and recline a little on her laurels.
      But Spencer is back with a new collection, Starting Over. The title takes its cue from the book’s many characters trying to find new homes, recover from life’s fumbles. Some might muse that Spencer herself is starting over, once more back to the typewriter, but there is nothing of rebirth here. She is, as she ever was, one of America’s best short story writers, with her invention and craft undimmed.
Click here to read the rest of the review. Here's a bit more about some of the stories from the publisher's synopsis: "In 'Sightings,' a troubled daughter suddenly returns to the home of the father she accidentally blinded during her parents' bitter separation; in 'Blackie,' the reappearance of a son from a divorcee's first marriage triggers a harrowing confrontation with her new family; while in 'The Wedding Visitor,' a cousin travels home only to find himself entwined in the events leading up to a family wedding."

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the annual The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Story anthologies.  The O. Henry is the only one I have on hand at the moment, so I can't tell you much about the other two collections (though I've no doubt they'll live up to the standards of previous years).  This year's guest jurors for the O. Henry Prize Stories are Tash Aw, James Lasdun and Joan Silber; they select their favorites from among the 20 stories chosen by series editor Laura Furman.  This year, their favorites were "The Gun" by Mark Haddon, "The Inheritors" by Kristen Iskandrian and "Opa-Locka" by Laura van den Berg, from which I take these Sample Lines about two private-eye sisters on a stakeout on a hot roof in Florida:
I opened the red cooler we brought on stakeouts and fished out an ice cube. I ran it along the back of Julia's neck and over her cheeks. She sighed in a way that sounded grateful. I kept moving the ice over her skin until it turned into a tiny translucent shard and melted into my fingertips, until it was just my hand on the nape of her neck.
In her introduction to the book, Furman writes, "The art of the short story is in good hands this year.  As readers, we ask nothing more of the twenty writers than that they tell us another story, please."

I'll second that.