Impossible Naked Life: Stories by Luke Rolfes

The need for connection and human contact is strong, my wife said, and it has caught both of them, like kittens by the scruff of their necks.

For such short stories, several made me emotional, particularly Palestine Boy. What wall is greater than the one he, and his extended family (so far from where he lives), face? There are smart, funny tales beginning with the very first, as Leonard (a hermit crab), meets his gruesome end. Sometimes silly but often grounded, the tales are of pain, struggle, failure, need.

Characters are visitors in the lives of their lovers, there are happy little birds flying around death, and lonely strangers connecting on a train. A tornado threatens as a couple and their child cower, wailing for different reasons. This is a collection about ordinary people, those who might cheer for a T-Rex instead of humans, couples who see their love die in a beautiful neighborhood surrounded by beautiful people, and kids who are diving to the bottom of a ball pit where there may or may not be a dead girl. People confront realities that are nothing new, but to the person going through it, can feel life altering, even if it’s ‘a tired story’. Red Line moved me, it’s beautiful that in a city where you think you are invisible you are seen, saved.

Sometimes you need flash fiction to pull you through your longer days. I am hoping Luke Rolfes writes a novel.

Published March 8, 2022

Kallisto gai Press

Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), Members’ Titles

How Strange A Season by Megan Mayhew Bergman

“A lady is the last thing I want for her to be!” her mother yelled back. “What good did it do for me?”

This collection of stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman is about what we drag around, our broken love lives, our damaged families, our history. It’s about needful hearts, negotiations between partners, the deepest lows and highest of highs. The struggle with self-worth, feeling like an imposter in one’s own life and building walls or terrariums to control the only things one can. More importantly there are stories of mistakes and lost chances.

In Workhorse, a divorcée makes large scale plant installations after buying a boutique floral business from the money her mother left her. Stuck dealing with her father, who is planning his return home to Sardinia and has always steamrolled his family with his large personality and needs, she wants space, to make her own choices, to live a creative life. He feels she just wants him gone. Disappointed by her ex and his addiction, things get more challenging, not less. In Wife Days, Farrah grows up watching her mother and grandmother butt heads about how her mother is raising her. Structure versus a non-traditional, bohemian life, when all she wants is to be underwater, cutting a path swimming. Even if she knows she is an invasive species in the river. In adulthood, she is married to a ‘fresh, very controlled person’ living the privileged life in a McMansion. Is she happy? What happened during her messy years? Other stories are about having control, the upper hand, as in one tale a woman uses her mother’s Earth House to help people release rage by crushing things. She also ponders the cycles of leaving and staying. My favorite story was Inheritance where the main character, Hayes, inherits her grandmother’s glass house in California, perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Having admired her grandmother, Paulina’s, courage to shuck expectations and make her own terms of existence (leaving Hayes’s mother behind in the process) she only now begins to see that she may not have known her at all. Is the future a comfort, where everything remains unknown, or does dwelling in the past, with all its familiar devils, make for a more content world?

There are stories about the ecosystem like in A Taste For Lionfish and the destruction they cause but also human failure as the character signs up to fill time after the end of a relationship. There is an orchard in Peaches where a woman sacrifices her own future happiness for family who may not give a damn about salvation. Kin that feel like a lost cause, it’s so bad her mother even thinks her own son could be the strangler. Land called Stillwood where misfortune seems to shadow the people like a curse, it is a former plantation and all that implies. Here love feels more like entrapment. Pregnancy begets marriage, a child is born and depression follows. The wife/mother ends up in a sanatorium while her husband finds a small measure of happiness with the wet nurse (who has her own baby to attend to), finally feels like Stillwood is rightfully his, until she returns. The little girl, Skip, grows up wild in spirit like her mother and conflicted about who her loyalty should be with. She has, essentially, two mothers. It is a life of betrayal, loss, and self-lies. Stillwood feels like an evil place, the wet nurse always felt it too and the river, the river holds secrets. This story is the longest and reads like a novel, rich in characters. People who fear they are living under punishment for the things their ancestors have done yet unable or unwilling to free themselves. The final story is about a hag, cousin of Eve. A being who calls the winds to howl for her suffering.

It’s a good read, an intelligent exploration on love, what we owe it. Make no mistake, it’s about how love is measured, particularly in women. How uneven all variety of partnerships are. Why does affection seem to rely on what others are getting out of you? Here, people are affirming their love and loyalty, burying their happiness for others, often settling, or rebelling against tradition and often suffering for it. They bear the weight of the past, usually in the form of bloodlines and family demands. It sometimes did feel like the author is serving up revenge and punishment for the sins of the past, a history that descendants didn’t have a hand in yet seem doomed for. Still, it was engaging and smart.

Publication Date: March 29, 2022


Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century: Stories by Kim Fu

The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked around the edges.

Kim Fu’s collection of stories takes turns of freakish oddity and yet is often an emotional touch. Tales of ordinary people dealing with abnormal situations, one in particular involving a bug infestation (which made my skin crawl) not as unlikely as we imagine. Moments that make people question things that are happening, all their peculiar patterns. Tales of loss and the intense grief that follows, memories and moments you can’t get back. Accidents, denial. The telling isn’t overly fantastical magical realism, but just on the edge of eerie, believable.

In the first tale the character wants to be with their deceased mother in a simulation, hungering for a small ordinary encounter, only to be disappointed by limitations. In the second, Liddy First To Fly, girls who are growing apart bond with the secret of their friend’s winged legs. Is she meant to fly away or can she be normal again? A woman chases “nourishing” sleep in Sandman, welcoming a monster to fill every hollow within. Twenty Hours is brutal, as a married couple adds excitement to their life with a special printer. It’s also a macabre play on how we hurt those we love and ourselves. How with each transgression we get closer to the ugliest side of ourselves. There was a catch in my throat when Connie, the wife, wakes up in the printer tray and her spouse thinks about the questions she isn’t asking. Despite the brutal endings they put each other through, again and again, there is tenderness. It also is about the great void that still exists between partners, places within’ the other we can never go. Our desire to return to one another at war with our need to be separate. It’s my favorite story. The Doll is creepy, yet it begins as a sad tragedy, one of those ‘thank god it didn’t happen to us, but it could have’ that neighbors are left to stew over. The neighborhood children are forced to confront the mean whims of fate and yet there is something exciting too about the house, daring each other to enter it, being scared. But can a doll be haunted? There is a touch of erotica in Scissors (an apt title), as women take to the stage for a show in a cabaret style theater. Dominance and surrender, the thrill of not knowing what will happen, the electric threat of danger, the ‘flinch’ of the audience. A question of trust.

Every tale is original, a reluctant bride and a sea monster, the loss of taste and how one woman finds a way to experience the sensation bodily… more than anything the tales are about how people cope after their lives have been upended by strange twists and turns. Loneliness, longing, grief, fear, love- quite an interesting collection.

Publication Date: February 1, 2022

Tin House

You Never Get It Back by Cara Blue Adams

I have given everything at the wrong time, to the wrong people, she thinks.

This collection of connected stories is a journey into Kate’s life, as she finds place and meaning whether in the lush countryside, mountains, city or the desert. In college, Kate is the ‘disadvantaged’ friend juggling her course load for a career as a research scientist. Just moving towards a future different from the life her mother lives, wishing to be something else, as so many young women do. The past, through pivotal moments in her life, feels far away but it never is. She spends much of her early years waiting for life to happen, and when she makes choices about leaving, she wonders what staying would have meant, could have changed, particularly in love relationships. How do we get from one place to another, so far away from where we began? Her sister Agnes and mother seem to live in their own world, one she can’t help but judge- having grown up without much money after her parents’ divorce, Kate can only worry the trouble she imagines her sister’s future will be based on the choices she makes. Choices that are similar to their own mother’s, a college drop out, married young, divorced, struggling to pay bills and raise her daughters.

Each story provides glimpses into her life and the places she lives, deserts, countryside lend just as much feeling as the people who move through her. The two stories that moved me most were Charity and Seeing Clear. Although much of the stories focus on relationships with men she has loved or failed to love enough, it is the revelations about her mother and father that made me understand Kate and her troubled sister Agnes more. In Charity, I got the feeling they are the children of the black sheep in her mother’s family. There is also the resentment of not having enough, the expectations of family who don’t seem to understand your struggles, or is it simply her mother has decided to think a certain way and that’s that? Yes, the burn of class division is often felt most within one’s own family. In Seeing Clear, the reader understands even more the weight of Kate’s sadness, what made her strive for college as a means of lifting her out of unhappiness. Those two stories, for me, were the heaviest. Her fears of marriage and many choices make sense. How she worries about her sister and thinks she knows best, maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t.

It’s a story of coming into oneself, because we are always coming of age, with every experience, trying to understand our lives, all the choices and each other. Of course there are struggles, so much goes awry, it is easy to mess up even when we’re trying to be good. This is quiet novel but, for me at least, easy to relate to and engaging.

Publication Date: December 15, 2021

University of Iowa Press

Five Tuesdays in Winter: Stories by Lily King

Soon Paula would begin complaining that he didn’t understand her, didn’t appreciate her, didn’t love her enough, when in fact he loved her so much his heart often felt shredded by it. But people always wanted words for all that roiled inside you.

Lily King’s story collection she has created characters who sort through complicated emotions, feelings that roil and sometimes settle so deep they just can’t be expressed easily to others. People are left behind, children live in the remains of broken marriages, social class divisions shadow moments, but too there is the thrill of teens on the verge of young adulthood. Sometimes kids are dealing with situations too heavy for the young, wanting to be rid of their parents while longing to fold themselves into their love at the same time.

In the first story, Creature, teenager Carol is hired as a live in babysitter for the wealthy Pike family. Living in the enormous mansion she plays at independence from her parents fighting, tries to forget the small apartment she and her mother live in and can loosen her worries over the problems of her father. With the romantic novel Jane Eyre occupying space in her mind, and making her own money, she’s ripe for “trying things out”. When Hugh arrives, order is disrupted and things get exciting. How much of a grown up education can she handle?

Five Winters in Tuesday a single father, bookseller Mitchell finds more life inside his books than in other people. His daughter Paula longs for him to be more involved, kinder with their customers but it is Kate, his employee, that brings more life into the store. Paula finds a friend in her, a woman who can help her with things no girl wants to turn to their father for, she fills the void her absent mother left in her wake. Can Mitchell change, should he?

When in Dordogne it is the summer of 1986 and a boy distant from his much older parents forms a close bond with the two young men hired to care for him while his parents head to France to help his father ‘get better’ from what ails him. Through the antics of Ed and Grant, their teasing and joy, he falls in love with a brotherhood he has never had. If only they could stay forever.

North Sea Oda takes her daughter Hanne to an island on the North Sea but it is costing her money she doesn’t really have after her husband Fritz’s death. Neither of them wanted the vacation, and yet here they are, miserable. If only they could stop pushing each other away and grieve over Hanne’s father, tend to their deep loss. Hanne isn’t willing to share her joys with her mother, the two drifting apart. Oda is stunned by the circumstances her husband left them in, helpless to change anything. Will they comfort one another? Other stories follow, each as engaging as the last. People aching through the vanishings of loved ones, turns and splits of fate, reeking with disasters love causes, be it with a partner or family. Stories about Motherhood and how it dominates every crevice of your life, the struggling desire to create while consumed by caring for others. The story that touched me the most, left a lump of feeling in my throat, was Waiting for Charlie. An aging grandfather visits his granddaughter at the hospital bedside after a terrible accident, one that has left her body in ruins. They are now, in a sense, alike- unfairly. It’s such a short story but it ripped my heart out. Lily King writes about the storms of our emotions, so often impossible to understand and find direction when you’re in the midst of it. Well done.

Published November 9, 2021

Grove Atlantic

What Isn’t Remembered: Stories by Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry

The sounds of their shovels and pickaxes shook the dumb earth and my mother’s shoulders.

This is a gorgeous collection, some stories sink in your gut and claw their way up to your heart, forcing you to attend to sorrow. Her sentences shook my shoulders, highlighting moving passages, grieving for lost innocence and the death of hope. I had a strange moment when I thought ‘wait, this book isn’t out yet, why do I remember this story’- only to realize I had read it in a collection of authors and had loved it, even though the deep sadness was a shock to the system. I also just finished Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry’s forthcoming novel The Orchard (coming March 2022), just as engaging as her short story collection. The characters are fleshy to the point they could be sitting next to you in a bar, reminiscing with others who have emigrated from Russia about their homeland, trying to define the lives they are now living. Stuck in between places and identities, neither whole in one country or the other forced to confront not just assimilation into a new culture but resentment by family left behind for being ‘too American’. There are still others in their homeland, burying a son, brother- discovering that no matter how voracious one’s appetite for life, how hard they fight for themselves, there is cruelty lurking, ready to snuff out the fiery of us all. Yet, even the dead have their mysteries, ‘little’ surprises, they leave behind- a breath of life for a grieving mother who couldn’t get close enough to her son in life.

It’s a push and pull for better a better existence, but often it’s acceptance that you are nothing but a fossil already, trapped by the choices others have made or worse, by those that govern your country. Countries where ‘suffering overrules pleasures’ which is gold for literary classics (especially Russian) but hell on the actual living citizens. It is learning that even friendship has its deceptions, not all secrets can be told, and the dead don’t talk- all the little slips, the alarming truths you failed to act upon will travel with you forever. That when you could have been salvation for your dearest friend you instead became worse than the enemy and landed far more brutal blows than the abuser. Not everyone gets out alive, gets to grow up and realize their dreams. What about those that do? Well, they aren’t always fully living in the present, marked as they are by shame and guilt unable to comprehend their own stories nor the losses. There are many aches of betrayal, but when it’s between friends, our sounding boards, champions, those who often sustain us, it too is a death. The structure of a life can change with one act, even messy mistakes.

Roots pulling us back or being severed, the passage of time on body and mind, the struggles of acculturation, the horror and beauty of putting the dead to rest and returning, always returning to the people and land we left behind. The language of our ancestors, their merciless past, is one that must never be forgotten. How hard it is to embrace our father/mother’s sorrows, how impossible to ignore. Perestroika is mentioned in this author’s work, a generation grew up during the political movement, and I understand more about it now that I’ve read her writing therefore, the tale Heroes of Our Time really brings home the generational differences of suffering. The desires aren’t really much different, though the burdens cannot be measured, everyone wants to cling to life, to find some joy and pleasure to the very end. It’s a charming tale, the entire collection is not all misery, some of the telling is bittersweet. I adore this line, while a young man is on the hunt to fulfill the last wish of sorts for his dying grandfather, he says “I felt sorry for him, for the ridiculousness of his desire, and the stupidity of my own actions.” It tickled me, his idea that an old persons’ desires are ridiculous- ah the blindness of youth.

Of course, every story was glorious to me, because Kristina Gorcheva-Newberry’s sentences truly are lyrical and swept me away into the lives that are the heart of the collection. “The novels are living things, Girl insists” in Simple Song #9 and it’s true of this book too. Sometimes we find a writer that just flows perfectly with what moves us. I don’t know if it’s the influences over my life (my father and grandparents emigrated from Hungary) having felt, though American born, split between cultures but I know for a fact that there is displacement when you start a life elsewhere. That you are always living with pieces of yourself scattered, that you cannot replace your history no matter where you land. Your children will carry it in their blood, that thing that sets you apart. It’s about culture and displacement but so much more. Courage, fragility, loyalty, perception, fight, surrender… what a writer! I can’t even express how much the stories made my heart ache, how much I loved the people, even those who seem bitter or lost. They are all walking contradictions, most people are. Neither completely good/bad, just stumbling like we all do in the fog of life. Yes, read this author!

Published September 1, 2021

University of Nebraska Press

Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: Stories by Hilma Wolitzer, Foreword by Elizabeth Strout

But there was no one to protect me from my own bad decisions, no one to lead me from the back seats of cars.

Old stories don’t really exist, not when it comes to human relationships, responsibilities, the load we carry simply by being alive. The space we inhabit whether we’ve abandoned someone or are a fixture in the landscape of their lives has a heartbeat, a life of its very own. Some things never change, some aches are timeless, universal. We can go mad in a supermarket or feel empathy for someone who does, so many of us have been there, or will be. What makes Hilma Wolitzer a ‘masterful writer’ is her eye for all our little lives, pulsing into the universe with banal thoughts- we all have them. No one escapes the stress of not being good enough, of having to keep your head up and keep on moving despite the burdens of our responsibilities. We all have longings we cast out into the world, even a child who has grown up fatherless and envies all those other selfish girls who get to sit next to real fathers at the movies. Life is unfair, we all know it! Yet, there is strength and heart in the home with her mother and grandmother’s support, holding up her universe. There are variations of family, then as now.

Like the witness to the supermarket madness, sometimes we just can’t do anything but fill our role as spectator. “Of course, I’m too sophisticated in things psychological (isn’t everyone today?) to think that one goes mad at a moment’s notice. There are insipid beginnings to a nervous breakdown.” It’s the collection of failures, pressures, disappointments, wounds, that make one lose heart or mind. Written in the past (60’s-70’s and currently as well), how often were women and their little ‘episodes’ minimized, leaving them to feel ridiculous? I’m fine, everything is swell, don’t mind the tears! If there are great mysteries to solve, in being a human, no one has done it yet. Each life is large to the person living it out.

Here the theme is domestic life, plans that stretch into a million tomorrows, pregnancy, partnership, and like giving birth how we have to learn to ‘just breathe’ through it all. Where do our dreams go, some so small we can keep them in our pocket? How do we protect our marriage from threats, interlopers? How do we measure happiness, what does it look like when you have children and not a moment of solitude to ponder it? Isn’t it good to know we are all restless, how else would we find the energy to show up every single day? Too, we drag our childhoods behind us, people growing up and learning to ‘get used to the ironies of life’. Learning not just how to love, but to accept love and likely screwing things up.

We all are tormented by the ‘minds mutterings’, hearts will be broken and mend, no one we love is a blank slate anymore than we ourselves are. Through insomnia, outside threats (even sex maniacs on the loose), ex-wives, an evil virus, death, grief, rotten childhoods and the bodies we occupy- these are stories most anyone can relate to. Maybe our lives aren’t all great fodder for Hollywood movies, but it’s ours with all its mess and glory. Nothing spectacular has to happen, the reward is in connecting. It truly is, in the end, all the little things that make up a life. How we betray our hearts and each other, what we do with our pain, how we can still be happy despite knowing the worst. Time allows for so much forgiveness, and maybe time itself is the nourishment so many marriages require. The final story is a last breath, and tender. Yes, read it- this an intelligent collection.

Publication Date: August 31, 2021

Bloomsbury USA

Big Bad: Stories by Whitney Collins

They’re like worms on a summer sidewalk, child. They don’t stand a chance in the heat of this world.

I have a new favorite author and whether Whitney Collins writes another short story collection or a full novel, I’m first in line to buy it. The attitudes, thoughts, and emotional states of the characters rush at you with full force from the very first story. In The Nest, Frankie is confronted with the cruelty of life when she is introduced to her newborn brothers at the hospital. It is when her father leaves her with his blind mother at the nursing home that she discovers how refreshing adult honesty can be. About to turn seven, she’s thinking about sins, and the impossibility of keeping herself out of hell. Family relationships are strained and all the adults appear to be broken. Frankie knows some people just don’t stand a chance.

Sunday– Paul Lemon tells the story of he how lost his son, his arms and why he married Pauline, ‘a marathon mouth’. Big Bad-Helen gives birth to different versions of herself- too thin, too quiet, always busy, tough, weak, young, middle aged, and so old people question the soundness of her mind. Helen who tries to please, Helen who has had enough of the world, all the Helen’s on their way to something else. Drawers– Lawrence is a widower lost without his wife Anne, haunted by the horrible things in the world. Now that Anne is no longer alive, a glimpse of who he was before another death changed him, is trying to remind him. His life, in her care, has always been orderly but now as he travels to attend his grandson’s circumcision he hits a horse on the road. He can’t control his endless, wretched thoughts.

In The Entertainer, Rachel accompanies two spoiled girls and their family to the beach for two weeks. Her mother sees this as a window into a lucky life, a chance to make the right acquaintances. It’s the perfect life study on how the better half behaves, a chance to try a different life on for size and learn how to mold herself in their form. Rachel forgets who she is meant to be, and learns it’s all about doing ‘whatever it takes’. Daddy-O is impossible to tie down, coming and going with the seasons. Mabel’s mother is irritated that her ex-husband is always so “inexcusably happy” while Mabel wishes for a far more reserved father. Now that she’s in her sophomore year of high school he is just embarrassing but does he have something worth teaching her?

The Pupil– Mikey is a fatherless boy since his dad’s death, but his Uncle Drake has come to be the male influence in his life that his mother thinks he needs. To Mikey’s way of thinking, all his mother’s brother does is plop his butt down on his dead father’s recliner and simmer with anger. He wants to make him tough, see that he ‘grows a pair’. Maybe this isn’t the sort of manhood he wants to learn but what does a fake eye have to do with anything? Stone Fruit introduces readers to Marta and Dean at a couple’s retreat, Marta’s mind on his cold, stony love and wondering if she’ll ever locate his warmth. Three Couches– Spencer craves emptiness as his lover when he decides to leave his family. Who needs the never-ending circus family creates?

Lonelyhearts– Lenora houses a collection of hearts, twitchy and veined, attending to them with tenderness, while her own is ‘muscular with longing’. Then she meets Ready. Good Guys– Leonard has come from Illinois to live at the cooperative dorm at his college and soon becomes an easy target for Teddy to tease. Before long, his unique hobby makes him interesting, rather than just someone to break. But how much of a good guy is Teddy capable of being, uncomfortable in the warm glow of Leonard’s friendship? The Horse Lamp– Jarrod is on a call to fix a satellite, but the customer is a girl who seems both brave and dumb, and doesn’t actually have a satellite. What, then, is she about to propose he do for her? Last is Bjorn, a story about a girl named Bianca and a cyst on her forehead that becomes her mother’s obsession and later, a story that grows and grows. How can she resist poking and prodding her mother’s fears?

I love this collection and all the characters that populate it. It’s filled with people who are sometimes mean and rotten without reason they can find, clever and brave, or bursting to escape their life. There is darkness in the corners of some minds, even when they try their best to be better. Some are calamities while others cause them. There is also a little bit of magical realism within. The writing was great and the subjects fascinating though they mostly live in ordinary worlds. Worms on a summer sidewalk… what a line! Can’t wait for the next book!

Publication Date: March 16, 2021

Sarabande Books

Father Guards the Sheep: Stories by Sari Rosenblatt

But does anyone listen to her father? Does anyone say, Dad, you’re a learned man, I want to cash in on your wisdom.

In this collection, a young girl feels like ‘filler’ to her athletic brother as she takes the first steps into her future, working at her father’s retail store “Schmurr’s”. In Miss McCook, a college grad works as a fifth grade school teacher, successor to a woman on maternity leave and feels inept coping with loud-mouthed students who love laughing at her. She moves into an apartment that her over protective father is sure makes her an ‘eligible young victim’, a place that gives her many sleepless nights. A research assistant loses her job and moves in with her boyfriend, new to the relationship things are moving too fast, she torments herself wondering about his ex and trying to ease his dog Rose into her own new house.

My personal favorite, The New Frontier, is about a little boy ( Joel) left long ago by his first mother, in the care of his single father and loved by his father’s second wife Mim, but that too has crumbled. As he struggles to understand the intricacies of their relationship, and how his father could invest such passion in his job lecturing about rubber and have none left to spare for the women in his life, he discovers that he has a knack for impressing audiences himself. Like father like son? Is he also just like the man Mim would “wash right out of her hair?”

Sweethearts: President PTA oddball makes an enemy of the top mom but that’s the least of her problems when her hubby runs into an old friend. Maybe candy is a sweet enemy to some, but for her it is patient and kind. The title story Father Guards the Sheep is about disbelief and reinvention when a woman misleads others to secure a job on the Arson Squad.

The last story takes us back to Schmurr’s store and the aging, filterless father whose anger is strongest, mind clearest when he is on the attack towards his own children and wife. It’s mean at one angle, funny at another but in new light it’s surrender to things for what they are As In Life.

The characters are well written but some of the stories left me empty. What worked is the inability some of the characters suffer in trying to understand themselves, like the father in The New Frontier. There is defeat, acceptance, fear, anger and hope. All in all the stories were engaging if I didn’t always understand the ending. I adored little Joel, I think he could have a book all his own.

Publication Date: October 2, 2020

University of Iowa Press

How To Walk On Water: And Other Stories by Rachel Swearingen

She was like the wild mint in the garden I couldn’t eradicate. It kept coming up, sucking the nourishment from everything I planted.

The characters Rachel Swearingen has brought to life in these stories often bring trouble on themselves, but they can’t help it. Like Lynette in The Only Thing Missing Was The Howling Of Wolves, who coerces her brother into a spot of serious trouble. It’s just like when they were kids, and if it’s an abduction this time, she has a good reason even if she is as ‘crazy as they come’. Harlan has to stand with her through her wild scheme, it’s a loyalty thing.

Notes On A Shadowy Man is a warning of what happens when you aren’t paying attention. When you’re playing at mystery and intrigue, things can slip from your control. Vera’s an au pair with her mind is stuck on film noir, so much so that in her foolishness of being funny and secretive she makes a big mistake involving the baby whose safety and well being she is responsible for.

It rent my heart to read Boys on a Veranda. A retired psychiatrist with a supervoid where his heart should be watches from the window of his brownstone a younger woman across the way. Filled with grief, it is one small pleasure he allows himself, witnessing her strange eating habit. He has decided his fate, but she will stay with him long after he travels abroad. His grief swallows the reader, his life turned as flavorless as paper and about as appetizing.

Mitz’s Theory of Everything is another story that made a captive audience of me. When Mitz vanishes, much of the blame can be laid at Ona’s feet and her self-serving choices. It is a friendship built on looking the other way when she should seek help and allowing rot to seep in. Ona channels her turbulence through art, but what about Mitz and her chaos? Is this friendship, or a collusion of ruin? Will we ever know?

When Nolan’s mother once told his father, “there are worse things”, she is speaking from experience in the title story, How To Walk On Water. Nolan’s life is going nowhere, when he moves back in with his mother something about his own failings has him lashing out at her. He can’t get his mother’s attack and rape that happened when he was a baby out of his mind, there are far too many questions swirling in the darkness. His father said ‘you always liked to pick scabs’ but is this a scab he should leave be?

Several of the stories weren’t as engaging, but the ones above worked their magic on me. Certainly the things that happen are peculiar, and there is something enchanting about the weirdness of others. Not all short stories can create characters that feel like real people, these did. I think she is an author to follow and I hope she writes a novel because I think she has a firm grip on the fragility of our emotions.

Publication Date: October 1, 2020

New American Press