“You Are Here” by Aaron Burch in Night Train

This is a good one from Night Train called, “You Are Here,” by Aaron Burch.  What’s it about?  I’ll let the first few lines give you a clue:

“Creeping, ducking, peeking-Maria’s birthmark had seemed to always be in motion: coming up out of shirts, under chin and ear, across her face. Seth loved that mark, loved watching it dance across Maria until, overwhelmed, he began fearing it was all he loved. Later, Seth could never fully recall why he’d left her. He spilled a bottle of Merlot on his leg to recreate, to commemorate, and it dried the color of salmon, freshly grilled.”

“The Battle of Fallow Field” by James Terry on failbetter.com

This is a clever, and sometimes funny, story by James Terry on failbetter.com (named after a Samuel Beckett quote). It’s called “The Battle of Fallow Field.” It’s about two corporals from the Revolutionary War who, upon their deaths, find themselves transported to a strange limbo: a shopping mall parking lot. Here they discover the joys of a 19-piece bucket of fried chicken and debate the best way to eat it:

Do you not agree, argued Corporal Wilson, that these Pieces of Chicken are not all Equal?

I do.

You do or you do not agree?

I agree that they are not all Equal.

You agree then that of the 19 Pieces of a full Bucket-8 Drumsticks, 6 Breasts, 5 Wings-you agree that the Wings are good, the Drumsticks better, the Breasts best?

In Essence, yes.

Then listen to me, Corporal, said Corporal Wilson. This is no trifling Matter. There are only three Categories of Chicken Pieces to choose from, corresponding precisely with the Number of Times you & I wish to eat in a Day’s Time. Three Chicken Parts, three Meals. The Matter then, if we can agree to eat only one Piece each at each Meal, and if we can agree that a different Type of Piece-Wing, Drumstick, Breast-will be eaten at each Meal, the Matter then is a simple one: which Part of the Chicken do we eat at which Meal?

This story has shades of Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece Waiting for Godot. It also reminds me a little of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon with its pseudo-use of 18th Century vernacular and how it gently satirizes the Age of Reason.

Joshua Ferris in The New Yorker

Joshua Ferris, author of last year’s Then We Came To The End, has a new short story in the current issue of the New Yorker titled, “The Dinner Party.” I’ve read a couple of Ferris’ shorts after reading the novel and he’s legit.  His stories on the surface seem unremarkable – the prose delivered with a breezy casual air – but they pack an unexpected emotional whollop that emerges as the story progresses.

“The Dinner Party” has particularly fresh dialog:

He returned to the kitchen. “When they come in,” he said, “let’s make them do a shot, both of them.”

“A shot?”

“Of tequila.”

“Her, too?”

“Both of them.”

“To sort of . . . fortify the baby.”

“We’ll force them somehow,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”

“Better hurry,” she said.

“All this talk of folic acid and prenatal vitamins. Give me a break. Do they think Attila the Hun got his daily dose of folic acid when he was in the womb? Napoleon?” She was going back and forth across the kitchen while he kept his drink close. “I could go on.”

“George Washington,” she said, “a Founding Father.”

“See? I could go on. Moses.”

The arc of this story is somewhat unique, in that it slowly builds upon itself, and then rises sharply during the last paragraph, culminating in a climatic final phrase.

(Photo:  The Brooklyn Paper / Daniel Krieger)

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“Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken” by Matt Bell

In honor of Alex Trebek’s birthday:  “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken,” may have the know-it-all host’s name in the title, but it really doesn’t have anything to do with him.  Matt Bell won the 2008 “Million Writers Award,” sponsored by storySouth, with this story, orginally published in Storyglossia.  It’s about loneliness, faith, hypocrisy, fried chicken, love, and young adult angst:

“When I watch “Jeopardy,” I don’t keep score, but I do pay a lot of attention to how the contestants play, specifically to how they hold their signaling devices. Some contestants clamp onto them, their knuckles white until they know an answer, when they’ll suddenly press their plungers rapidly, even though once is enough to signal that they’d like to answer. Other people hold them loosely, leisurely, their faces as emotionless as their grip. These are often the people who do the best, their nonchalance slowly unnerving the other contestants. There’s something about their pretending not to care that appeals to me. I’ll never be on “Jeopardy,” but that doesn’t mean I can’t emulate their technique in other areas of my life.”

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“Conspiracy of Males” by Evan James Roskos

“Conspiracy of Males” by Evan James Roskos is from Granta Online’s excellent New Voices series. To me this reads like a well-executed experimental sketch than a fully considered story, due mostly to Roskos’ use of the first person plural. The most recent, and most notable, use of the first person plural is Joshua Ferris’ And Then We Came To The End. But unlike Ferris, who used it to evoke a commiserative mood, Roskos uses it to underscore a sense of menace and paranoia:

“We hated your fat little face. We called you elephant. We called you Jupiter. We called you fat-ass. You asshole. Cocksucker. Dickhead. Shithead. Faggot. We beat you up in fifth grade, eight knees to your temple. You got detention because you were fatter than us. The principal, also the civics teacher, said we were too smart to start a fight with a big kid. How fair, how fair.”

A little unsettling, isn’t it? Definitely worth reading.

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“Cardiology” by Ryan Boudinot

Five Chapters is a unique literary website that publishes a new piece of original fiction each week, in five parts, one for each day of the week. They’ve published an impressive list of contemporary authors and artists such as: Nick Hornby, Chip Kidd, Rhett Miller (from the Old 97s), Aimee Bender, Nam Le, and many others. And despite it’s claustrophobic design, it promises to be an entertaining daily read. (Fortunately, each story comes with a “print story” link that provides a more reader-friendly page.)

This story, in particular, caught my eye: “Cardiology” by Ryan Boudinot. It’s a wonderfully inventive story about an entire town that shares the same heart. Ryan Boudinot is an exuberantly entertaining read, to say the least. Here’s what I mean:

“Years ago there was a town not far from here where nobody had their own heart. They shared one gigantic heart located in a former water purification plant near the center of town. When enlivened by physical activity, the heart beat more rapidly, sending its blood to the neighborhoods, rattling silverware on restaurant tables, shaking portraits off walls, tickling bare feet on cobblestones with its vibrations.”

The visual picture I have in my head of this town is something akin to one of Hayao Miyazaki’s (Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle) creations, a world full of magic and strangeness, but still very mundane and familiar.

In “Cardiology,” Boudinot plays with a variety of archetypical themes: urban versus rural, the individual versus the collective, one’s sense of home, people’s dependence on technology, and the restraints of tradition. It’s a highly thought-provoking piece.

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“Thirteen Hundred Rats” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

T.C. Boyle has a new story in this month’s The New Yorker. It’s called, “Thirteen Hundred Rats,” and, as the title implies, Boyle, once again, contemplates a situation where mankind is overwhelmed by nature. From the introduction, here’s a description of the story’s unfortunate protagonist:

“By my calculation, Gerard Loomis was in his mid-fifties when Marietta was taken from him, but at the ceremony in the chapel he looked so scorched and stricken that people mistook him for a man ten or twenty years older. He sat collapsed in the front pew, his clothes mismatched and his limbs splayed in the extremity of his grief, looking as if he’d been dropped there from a great height, like a bird stripped of its feathers in some aerial catastrophe.”

This story reminds me of my last apartment. The guy who lived there before me bred snakes. He had more than fifty of them, some apparently worth tens of thousands of dollars, living in a one-bedroom flat. He slept in the living room and in the bedroom he’d constructed an elaborate system of shelves and lights to house his prized snakes. For food, he raised rats in the hallway closet. The apartment carried the faint cedar-shaving odor of a pet store for a long time after I moved in and I was deathly afraid using the toilet in the dark. I remember getting a nasty lung infection that lasted for a couple of weeks and my mother calling me, certain that I’d contracted the hantavirus from rat feces decaying in the apartment’s dust. This story is like one of my nightmares from that time.

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