Instructions for a Funeral: Stories by David Means

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The problem is, my son sees the man I am now and not the men I was before I became the man I am not.

I have conflicted feelings about this collection of stories. The best of it for me is in Fatherhood, The Problematic Father, “…the fact that my father was highly problematic at times came in part from that fact that he was dealing with me.” Have any truer words ever been spoken? We also don’t see all the versions of our fathers, who they were before they became simply, Dad. I think sometimes in reading we expect men to express the way they feel about their children and fatherhood in the same way mothers do and fault them for their genuine thoughts. How do you explain how it feels being a man, particularly a father, one who can “bear up under certain responsibilities”, about the limitations.

In Farewell, My Brother there is a line about a man named Frankie, ‘he’s one of those who came lumbering out of the vapor, his sway and his sea-dog talk marking him as an anomaly.’ What a gorgeous way to paint the picture for readers, David Means can certainly give life to his characters. His is a keen eye into decline, ruin. I feel a deep sense of detachment moving through so many of the characters, that hopeless feeling of pointlessness. There is suffering, sure, anyone alive suffers but even meeting the pulsing source, the cause which so much of the time is the life we’re living, doesn’t change much for us. Life can feel like a mystery illness sometimes.

Carver and Cobain… “his mind is impenetrable, untraceable step by step through those last moments”, which makes me think, in many ways, our minds are always like that, because we never can really express our pain, nor our joy whether we’re an award-winning author or ill-fated grunge star, can we? For Cobain it’s the end… the end… the end, isn’t it? Chronic pain, addiction only those living inside of it can understand the compulsion to obliterate it all. Is there a moment of regret at the very end, shocked awake when it’s too late?

It’s not that the writing is too intelligent for most readers, and there are depths to explore, but not all stories flowed, and I hate saying that because there is serious storytelling in here. In Rockland, the senseless ache, the realization that no amount of ‘humiliation’ will necessarily be a cure. You want to fuel that hope for your loved one, but it’s dying, a brother is trapped in a loop of his own addiction, and how do you find joy in the possibility of ‘flight’ as a means to an end to all that suffering. Some of us will never find our path, are fated to be lost in ourselves be it addiction or mental illness, even worse a combination of the two.  For all the upbeat talk, the centers, the group homes, the medications and therapies, promises of salvation, for the moments light seems to return to our loved ones, outside in the real world the limitations of reality are waiting for our beloved to break themselves against all over again. The writing is astute but some readers may find the delivery difficult to follow.

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

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The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories by Franz Kafka, Alexander Starritt (Translator )

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The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.

I don’t know that I would agree these are the best, most essential stories by Kafka but I wasn’t disappointed. This line in Homecoming jumped out at me, it’s such a short ‘nothing’ but poignant with something, “The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.” A young man returns home, unwelcome, “I’ve come back”, to his father’s farm, a house with bricks that lie cold against each other as if ‘occupied with it’s own affairs’. It gave me the feeling of being a living ghost, unwanted, a stranger now all the same, and aren’t we all ghosts in a sense when we first return to our old haunts, homes? To family who wants to see nothing but the back of us?

A Report for an Academy is about assimilating as a means of survival and escape from captivity. There are several different suggestions of what the story is about and what Kafka’s inspiration was, it’s worth looking up. Kafka is always saying far more than what is at surface a story about an ape mimicking the human world, conforming to rise above the caged existence, captivity. In a sense he is thumbing his nose at humanity, isn’t he?

The Silence of the Sirens is Kafka’s version of Ulysses. Here Odysseus finds the Sirens silence is as dangerous as their singing. A weapon far more deadly, so much for wax stuffed ears. The saddest story for me in the collection is The Verdict, it begins with businessman Georg composing a letter to his friend who left for Russia and is now stagnating, should he tell his friend of his engagement? His mother is dead, he’s moved in with his father, putting all his hard work in the family business, one wonders ‘did mother keep the peace once?’ Is this meant to be a silly piece, or a disturbing tale between a young son unable to escape his father’s shadow and a weak old man unable to accept his time has passed, jealous of his son’s future, youth? It’s so bizarre, why does George’s father question if his Russian friend isn’t an invention of his own mind, a lie? Why is he so disappointed by his son? Why does Georg obey his father’s verdict as if he is helpless against the tyranny of the old man, as if a child cowering under thunderous anger? Georg’s father emasculates him as only a cruel parent can. Autobiographical. It is well-known Kafka’s father was abusive, that Kafka wrote a letter to his father, that was actually a published book that changes the way you read The Verdict. You want to understand Kafka a bit more, read Letter To His Father by Franz published in 1952. Now I’ve gone and made myself sad! Kafka’s writing always fascinates me because of the many interpretations, so much left to the imagination, all the things left unsaid that the reader is meant to figure out. Is it real or horror or fantasy? It is never what it seems and exactly what it seems.

Paperback available now

Kindle Edition publication: March 5, 2019

Pushkin Press

Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer

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Certainly there is a history of the incident, going back before my time: injuries, a childhood illness, ostracism, mental disorder, loneliness, screams. A history of chance.

These stories are raw and I devoured them. They are about bleeding out, deprivation, forbidden attraction, hiding from the world, the meaning of freedom, and all the things we think and don’t say or feel and keep in the shadows. Humans are beasts, we’re fragile creatures and mean ones too. We destroy others, we destroy ourselves. We’re full of longing and disgust for our longings too. I think the most moving excerpt for me is from the story Jury, but I am only going to give a line or two from it, “They were so helpless. They cut themselves, starved themselves, got themselves killed.” Women, girls, because our reality is that dangerous, that threatening in the world we all share. He is just a father, sitting on a jury thinking he can understand a fellow juror because he notices something about her, as if labeling a thing means it is easily repaired. The line about his grown daughter too, loaded with meaning, for me anyway. “This was a girl with everything. And yet she never smiled.”  Jury resonated with me, its brutal and strangely quiet at the same time. It is all the things that don’t need to be said to understand even the relationship between father and daughter. He just doesn’t really get it, he is frustrated by the helplessness women deal with and yet, angry at the ways we fail to acknowledge the danger.

All of the stories have meaning, purpose. In Rainbow Baby a mother’s grief is a specter, a bother like a living nightmare, decay in the brain. The hatred and betrayal of an old friend in Viral is so poisonous and sad, an ugly violence that isn’t far-fetched. It is born from envy, it is ‘animal hate’ of someone who ‘hasn’t known pain’. How broken our narrator of the story, and we the readers watching the transgression and knowing the horrible end, nothing you can do to stop it. Too, the manipulation at times young girls are so good at, with boys who can’t think more than “five minutes ahead”. What I think is fantastic about these characters is that they are incredibly developed for such short stories. With that line, a boy who “can’t think five minutes ahead”, it makes him such a solid mess, easily led. I can see him eager as a puppy.  I feel his naive stupidity as much as I felt the father’s anger and fears in Jury. If someone is suffering in a story, they can explain it to themselves, excusing it, erasing anything others would find seedy or even criminal, when in The Brother, the youngest takes what isn’t his, violates a girl. All because he longs to connect, to have what his brother has. Just like all the people on the outside, scratching to be let in!

As a reader I measure my responses as a human being, how is it I can be horrified and yet also feel sorry for the monster lurking in others. It’s so much easier to divide ourselves in categories, well I am nothing like that, there is nothing so primitive within my soul. Of course there is… the older you get the more you are tested by time, tragedy, experiences, the more things lash against you. It’s hard being your better self, your most human self. These are stories about feelings you should force to withdraw before you make a mistake you can’t take back. They are tales of sometimes allowing your dark side to run wild, or your emotions take over. It is being hungry with need, and my God desire and need can get ugly. Some offer themselves up as sacrifice to those who would soil them, I felt that in The Lover. Other’s close themselves away from the rest of us in The Shut-In, afraid of the world when they may be more monster than the threats they cower from. The ending of that story gutted me, it is such a small act but how I howled inside much like the unmasked.

The stories all stayed with me, and moved me in wonderfully strange and terrible ways. Yes, read it! From these stories alone I decided to start following the author.

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

 

Aerialists Stories by Mark Mayer

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I loved my mom, but sometimes I would pester her to tears. It was easy to make her sad, but she only wailed like that after she thought I was asleep. 

In this haunting collection of circus themed misfits the reader is surrounded by stories that are at once amusingly lighthearted and yet can turn painfully absorbing with deeply flawed characters coping with life’s pitfalls. My favorite is Strongwoman, where an eleven-year-old deals with coming of age while his parents split apart, his mother breaking under the weight of her sadness until along comes Klara, a ‘tremendous woman’ all muscle and brawn, to breathe life back into their home and his mother’s heart. One of the most beautiful moments in the story for me is his explanation about overhearing he was an accident. Just a small paragraph and yet it beat on the walls of my heart. Junior came to life for me, and writing believable children in short stories especially isn’t easy but Mayer has created a kid I could pick out of my own childhood.

In Aerialists two brothers discuss their time enlisted, one brother back home, his deployment finished until he hits the water for a different job but swearing he suffers from PTSD, another about to follow in his footsteps and join up while saying goodbye to his girlfriend, working for a pilot who is slowly going blind. In The Evasive Magnolio a lonesome peach farmer says goodbye to the elephant Maggy, wondering what sort of funeral could commemorate the beloved beast, left behind on unworthy land? Mayer’s writing is beautifully descriptive whether it’s about the eyes of a girl in one story ” Trinia’s eyes are green with little sunflowers” or an elephant’s ear in another, “ear like a sheet of moon.” As he dissects the gentle beast for burial he is a lonely man in a ghost town. Left with only dust from a storm, Maggy remains his only family, and he is the only person left to give her a funeral. Maple has a connection with Sasha, her special needs friend whom she bonds with through imagined conversations in her mind in the story Twin. When Maples dad gets the blues, she finds comfort with Sasha. Both grow up, but not in the same direction.

A maniacal clown  (realtor) knows what the truly wealthy want, as he channels his own murderous intent in The Clown, plotting their deaths as he shows them around. A boy tries to understand his distracted mother and later her absence in April Thief, while writing a story and sharing a dog with his pal. He hopes he can he wrap his mind around why he likes his dad more, not quite understanding the adult atmosphere. The stories are strange, but there is much to discern if you’re paying attention. An original collection by a writer who likely has so much more up his sleeve in the future.

Publication Date: February 19, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing

 

Hardly Children: Stories by Laura Adamczyk

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How strange when strangers tried to step inside of you, I thought. Like when men in rags announced themselves to a train car, telling everyone about their lives, their current states of disrepair and what they wanted, needed, God Bless, from everyone, which somehow included you, and you kept your head down, reading the same sentence again and again, never quite taking hold of it, and the harder your tried, the more the men’s voices got in your ear, the more like they were speaking only to you.

These stories are intense and unsettling. Children stretching into the eerie, harshly brutal light of adulthood as the sisters in Girls deal with their father leaving, and their mother now the head of the house. Their Saturdays spent exploring the series of rooms upstairs of their great-grandmother’s big rambling house while their mother worked, as if entering a strange world unsupervised, where their imaginations could run free. But one day, a door to the room they never entered is cracked and there they come across a very real adult. When the man says their names ‘like a little song’, it feels like an omen. Is the memory real? In Too Much A Child, an old man tells of the era when children were disappearing, just being taking if someone had a mind to take.  It is happening again, what is the logic, are ‘bad’ children being weeded out of the good? So begins the marching, but our narrator doesn’t really want to become one with many, despite the injustice. It hints at the ways we are immune to horror, being past a certain age (in the story) but could as easily translate as being a different sex, or out of the time period so safe from history or simply one’s ethnicity if you boil it down. We can be the ones who are safe and look away or we can see.

A man named Adam becomes a part of an art installation where he is suspended by hooks, but the hooks of truth sink into him when his father divulges the long-held secret of his origins. Will he ever ‘come down’ and own this new version of his life? Is it easier for Adam, or any of us, to just remain floating in the before? Must we confront the after? Do things really ever have to change? Much like the furniture in the installation, nothing fits the same after it’s been rearranged.

My favorite, the one that horrified me the most is Danny Girl. It is the whisper of the dangers that always lurk for young girls that made this one stand out. The dreadful ending shook me. Being a young girl can feel so dumb when you don’t know what you should. Being a girl is always full of threats. Girls come to terrible ends, sometimes at their own hands too, sometimes by accident.

Children and adults may be one in the same as in this collection full of characters who have slipped between the cracks, existing in a place where they’ve yet to embrace the world of adults, but do we ever? People abandon responsibilities or reconfigure their futures, break up their family, or start a new one. Whether its sisters needing each other when life just keeps going wrong, and using pieces of hair to start messages to begin meaningful conversations, or a woman dating a nice virginal boy who isn’t enough for her appetite,  every story engages the reader. The writing is clever, painting feelings with sentences “my laughter comes up like seltzer” and “we released each other, our faces smeared with time and truth.”  I feel like I need to read a novel by Laura Adamczyk, she visits the places in her writing where my mind often meanders. A solid collection! Can’t wait for a novel!

Publication Date: November 20, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

FSG Originals

On My Aunt’s Shallow Grave White Roses Have Already Bloomed by Maria Mitsora

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At times I wish I could get to the beginning of my story. But the begining is lost in darkness even more than the end.

Maria Mitsora’s writing is beautiful, translated from Greek to English by Jacob Moe. I always wonder about translations, how much of the author’s work can suffer or shine is dependant on the translator. It is an interesting collection, strange at times, heartbreaking, stories blooming where they please. Some of the stories are broody, which is exactly why I enjoyed them so much, full of dreams which are as disjointed as our troubling thoughts. In Versions of Persephone, the character Axan ‘is on time for her rendezvous with the explosion.’Aren’t we all, of course in her case it is a physical explosion, she is in the underworld, trapped by pain. Her father, king of it all, the criminal warlord.

In Brown Dog in November, Nino needs to refrain from barking, as he mourns the loss of his Eleni. Eleni, the one woman who transfixed him, the one whose traces he still hunts for. What violence haunts him, as divorce from his love eviscerates him still? Who is the young fresh girl, another Eleni? It’s disturbing, the way he loves, if he loves at all. Eleni who wanted him to ‘walk in the sun’, Eleni who could calm the wild dogs. She, who turned her back on him.

Memories flash and dim, time rushes and stops. How much do we know of the storm inside our loved ones? In Stormy Verbs (my favorite), Verbia wants her beloved to feel the force of a river but it is the painful memories of the place that make that force dangerous, an abyss of pain. It is this place that created in Verbia what he fells for, her ‘fragile but unbreakable balance.’ A gut-wrenching story of regret and shame, short yet powerful.

Sipping the ‘distant froth’ of childhood and memory, the stories in this collection can be biting and bitter, lost characters looking for escape or return to themselves and each other. Stories we all read differently, feel uniquely. Dreamy at times, people as distant as a fading thought, struggling against the mundane and soon we all reach The End of the Show much like the wasp, sprayed with poison to oblivion and yet with the capability to fly away in spite of it all, a surprise to whatever mean eye is watching, waiting for us to die.  I got lost in the writing, a collection that engaged me.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Yale University Press

 

Evening in Paradise: More Stories by Lucia Berlin

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Missed moments. One word, one gesture, can change your entire life, can break everything or make it whole.

I have been wanting to read A Manual for Cleaning Women for a long time, having read glowing reviews so when I saw this one up for grabs I tucked in and wasn’t disappointed. Reading that many stories were based on her real life made them all the more satisfying. I was tickled by Tiny on the roof in the story Noel. Texas.1956. Spending her time overhearing her family, not quite feeling the Christmas spirit for her relatives, the very ones she did her best to escape, I couldn’t help but picture it all in my head. Then the generous toy delivery by airplane that goes all wrong and all I can think is, “life, isn’t that just the way things always are?”

Drug addiction that is both haunting and common in love, family haunts much of the collection. Laughing that two women give a man both the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ years of their lives, coming together in misery and yet somehow stronger women, wiser women for it all. How can a man who is a complete addict be the sort that all those who follow cannot measure up to? Life is mystery! One husband’s drug habit that takes a shocking violent turn for the wife who has no choice but to take care of things, cover something up and yet the next day is just another ordinary collection of days to come. Somehow these stories are both terribly sad, shocking and funny. It echoes many lives, there is one story where a little boy goes missing and it reminded me of something my own son did when he was with my mother and aunt. It doesn’t always work when authors play with the ‘truth’ of their own lives, creating fiction out of fact, but in the end everything we knew, experienced, are just stories with a million perspectives. If you think about it, no one ever tells them same story anyway, and that makes us all fascinating in what we chose to remember. That makes some people uncomfortable, the fluidity of truth but it’s necessary for fiction, I think.

I love reading stories about youth too, as we grow older we forget the bonds we shared with others. How fierce we were about loyalty and friendship. ‘When we got off the bus at the plaza, Hope repeated that she’d kill me if I ever spoke to Sammy again.                       “Never. Want blood?” We were always cutting our wrists and sealing promises.’ It could be the 1940s, the 1970s… human nature doesn’t change that much really. People fall in and out of love, grow and weed out friendships, raise children beautifully and terribly and the world spins on…

In each person there are many lives all full of beginnings and endings, tracks jumped when marriages dissipate or children are born. I loved The Adobe House With A Tin Roof because of the characters, nothing wild has to happen, it’s a quiet story but the plants, all the plants and her rowdy neighbor whom Maya both hates and adores (even if she doesn’t know it) made me feel I was there. One that stayed with me, Our Brother’s Keeper not just for the death of Sarah but more due to the flaw that so many women (especially those old enough to know better) chose to forgive because we sometimes want so badly for everything to just be okay. When it’s good, it’s good, right? Shouldn’t that be enough? Well, no… We may get bitter with age, because of what life does to us but deep down there is still that longing of a young girl’s heart.

I can’t compare her prior work, her audience was small while she was alive and has since grown after her death. Lucia Berlin was born in November of 1936 in Juneau, Alaska and died in 2005. Evening in Paradise is a follow-up collection of her remaining stories, and I genuinely enjoyed them all. Maybe my pleasure is in part my being a fellow November baby, always a little dark humored, easily finding things to laugh about even in the roughest of life’s moments, I can relate. Fitting that the stories will be released in November.

Publication Date:  November 6, 2018

Farrar, Straus and Giroux