Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher

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The rest of her life: looming, open-mouthed. She was heading straight for it on autopilot but couldn’t recall having chosen or engineered it.

This is an incredibly engaging debut collection of stories, which I devoured! My only complaint is it ended too soon, I wanted more. The writing is beautiful, it brings light to dark thoughts, it speaks of the intelligent minds of women and their choices. The happy pink cover betrays the depth of the female characters within perfectly, just like the world does. I do love the cover though, it’s simplicity, it reminds me of doodles in a journal. There is a line in the very first story, Like That Sickness and Health, that shocked my insides, there are mothers like this (some can’t help themselves really and others are a whole other nightmare) “…her mother, for some reason, making problems in the few places in her life where there weren’t problems already-“, I know there are women out there who feel that like a boulder in their stomach. Mothers can make things so much harder sometimes. Sickness as a study, what afflicts one afflicts in some ways all. Ashley Wurzbacher absolutely pins the female psyche in place for perfect study from the start. This has become one of my favorite short stories collection, and I can’t wait to see what this author rustles up in the future. There is something rich about pain for women, these college girls in particular, how they use it or ignore it and soldier on- this is one of the best short stories I ever read. Pain as expression, a language for what we can’t or won’t say. As  Mia works on her dissertation, “A Qualitative Study of the Effects of Factitious Disorders on the Social Lives of College-Attending Females”, she learns more about herself in the midst of these needy, suffering girls and their ‘exaggerated symptoms’.

What does happiness look like? Ambition? Love? Women make choices, sometimes just to feel moments, not to erase what already is. Not everything has to build and intensify, though often they do grow out of our control, these desires. In Happy Like That, Elaine tries to understand her dead friend’s secret affair. How she misses Lillian’s raw honesty, her ‘ease’ that Elaine longed to ‘soak up’. A friendship of opposites, the sort that pulls at you to judge the world less harshly.

I was absolutely charmed by Like This American Moon, “the foreign girl is coming”, it smacks of expectations and the ridiculous assumptions so many make about foreigners, more so when you’re stagnant and haven’t seen anything of the world. Take heart! Those of us who have been abroad and visited by family from other countries know full well over there, wherever there may be, hilarity over how they imagine Americans are can ensue too. Americans aren’t the only ones making outlandish assumptions, though we do make an art form of it. How does author Ashley Wurzbacher manage to tickle me with her characters humor and at the same time knock me senseless with sorrow? Some people never go anywhere, not because they are lost in a swamp of ignorance but because they are forced into a limited existence, so often born into it. You can love a way of life, even while you are dying inside. I think twelve year old Jean has a lot figured out before her time, and largely due to the disappointment adults dish out to her, I warmed to her fast.

I can’t crow loudly enough to do this collection justice, it’s not just for the women, though it is about them. Is it the world breaking us, or are we the ones doing the breaking of our own spirit? It depends on circumstance. To be young again and desperate to understand just who you are now, who you are going to be, to feel the rush of first moments like love as if it’s bound to cleave you in two, how do we figure out anything? When do we? How do we get to a point where we fizzle out, or lack ambition? When do we get scared of all the dangerous things that can happen, like Robin in The Problem With You Is That? Why must women so often be the villain, forced into taking a stance to keep others safe? This isn’t a collection about what women are supposed to be, marching together in perfect harmony cocksure about life and their place in it, oh no- these are women who haven’t figured things out, or young girls hungry for identity or sick with expectations and wanting to curl up in the comfort of illness. Women who are just trying to keep people safe, or life together, or figure out what direction the wind is going to blow them next time. Age isn’t the identifier of wisdom, a young girl can be shrewd in the assessment of where she stands socially in the world. She can understand her damaged father more than her mother, who long ago left. Women are wise creatures, but we are a bit faulty sometimes and maybe it’s because the world demands so much of us. Hell yes, read this collection! I have a new favorite author!

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press

 

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Even That Wildest Hope: Short Story Collection by Seyward Goodhand

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Because her pleasure looks so small, I suspect Agvagvat of thriving on minutiae.

The stories in this novel are intriguing, sometimes peculiar particularly when you enter the realm of the galatrax, So I Can Win, the Galatrax must die. A beloved, woodland creature with a gamey taste just going about living the life of  ‘fuzzy innocents’ until… How many stories can set off your gag reflex and sympathy at the same time? It is What Bothers a Woman of the World, The Fur Trader’s Daughter  and Hansel, Gretel and Katie that had me riveted. The stories do flirt with the fairy-tale realm but if you pick it clean you feel the hum of reality within’ the lines. Wax girls, “if she’s bad I can melt her back down into wax”, are we all at some point being molded, others trying to form our personalities so we don’t spoil or turn? “Don’t stare, what kind of daughter are you? Pervert.” This story caused a revolt inside of me, is it generational, the type of girl you’re meant to be, what kind of daughter are you, indeed? It turns brutal, as dark and grim as any genuine fairy-tale. There is a line, “My father erupted off the couch” and the violence of it, what writing!

What Bothers a Woman of the World is painful, another creature following a narrator around but just what is this creature that ‘nothing sticks to.’ Life causes the mutilation, hope survives still somewhere hard inside of a woman, this is by far the best story in the collection. We’re half alive in there somewhere, lying in wait for a time when being pleasing isn’t instinctual. Mother, batten down the hatches of your eternal hope, get on with life, want not.

Hansel, Gretel and Katie, is a bitterness, a raging hunger and someone must provide reluctant nourishment, if not love. This is what it means to try and remain human, this tale is a little confection with a bite at the center. Maybe the best we are, even though it could be the worst, sometimes has to be enough. I wasn’t engaged in every story, but the ones that burrowed in, didn’t let go. I think Seyward Goodhand can whip up a hell of a story and I have my fingers crossed that a full blown novel will hit the shelves one day. Some of the stories flirt with horror, because what is uglier than what is put upon us or the shame we carry? There are always ghosts of our actions waiting in the night, sometimes people, sometimes just thoughts. Yes read it.

Publication Date: September 16, 2019

Invisible Publishing

 

 

Once Removed: Stories by Colette Sartor

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But it was exhilarating to be fearful, to feel something other than an endless cycle of impatience, hope, grief, rage.

Once Removed is a collection filled with moments in our lives that threaten to spill over, overwhelmed with quiet suffering, desperate need to clutch at what is falling away. Sometimes the ugly, means things we think get exposed here, but full of raw honesty. In Bandit, Hannah finds it easier to form an intimacy with a young boarder named Rune than face the desperate hope and need on her husband’s face after a stunning loss. Sometimes it’s easier to reach for strangers when what needs to be faced is a pain like swallowing glass, our shared tragedies pushing us apart. How do we just ‘move on’, there is no timeline to healing.

In Daredevil, Grace is a sad mother trying to build a new life coming out of the storm of a broken home, fractured family. Her yearning to bond with her son, wounded and fragile is upended all the more by a sickly little girl named Noreen, whom she teaches along with her son in Sunday school. “Forgive me, Grace prayed sometimes after receiving Communion, forgive me for being thankful she’s not mine.”  All Grace wants is to lift she and her son out of this pit, this pain of ‘a family in ruins’, a shame she can’t repair the landscape of her own home but she tries, lord knows she tries. Why is her eight year old son always trying to get away from her? Why is he accepting dares, doing things that are always to his own detriment, turning away from her boundless love for him? Why can’t she protect him?

These are families with insurmountable distances between them, favorites who have jumped ship and left the least admired child behind to keep parents afloat, as in Jump. The pain of comparison that is born within families, the terror of one day creating your own family, always armed to defend oneself because no one else ever has your back. Could you, dare you attempt motherhood? Carrying the dead-horse of your own childhood, fearful you just don’t have it in you to be any good at parenting. Marney juggles the viciousness of jealousy, betrayal and need for her family to be intact, but her needs are never considered. How do you chose one over another, seems her mother certainly always chose her brother Winston first. Winston who has gone away, who holds his grudge tight. Marney’s love life isn’t any easier, as she butts heads with her boyfriend’s mother, relationships feel like a continuation of one’s own family saga. How is it some escape the madhouse and others are entrapped by it?

The stories are connected and when I got to Once Removed, it was a gut punch. How did we get here, something I think a lot of us ask about the awful moments we encounter in our lives? We try to be better people than we are, wedging ourselves into stories that were playing out before we stepped in, because everyone is anchored somewhere we are an uninvited, unwelcome guest. The push of wanting to heal what life breaks, the ache and sacrifice of parenting, the strange little families we must make in lieu of tragedy. Once Removed was a lump in my throat, being afraid when challenged, longing for things that seem forever outside the boundaries of your current reality, the cruelty of fate. Too, the silence we hold just to keep our family intact, the unsaid always a bigger fissure than what we explain.

What a collection! Families, how do we survive them? How do we survive without them? Hope that feels like disease, hope demands so much of us. Mothers and daughters, the push and pull of resentment and love, loyalties and how we divide them, the ache of it. Colette Sartor is an author to watch, she writes beautifully about the intricacies of relationships, imperfect situations and everything that follows the impact of tragedies. Yes, read this collection.

Publication Date: September 15, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

 

Stories I Can’t Show My Mother by Ann Tinkham

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Beau kissed like a pro from what I could tell- the feeling of Goldilocks sinking into just the right bed.

The stories in this collection sway between erotic encounters and disasters. When Mr Right never quite arrives, and Lilly hungers for her own child she figures out a better way to get a Direct Deposit. Needles as a form of spiritual release in Needle Man Sticks Bat Girl, a love desirous of punctures. This feels more like voodoo, who knew it could be so erotic? Some characters are burned out by sexual fantasy, one more word to describe reproductive organs and they’ll just die! A writer trapped creating erotica for reader’s to indulge themselves in wants to break free of all things throbbing for something more serious to create in The Sweetness of Salt.

In Static Breakdown, Misty uses her body as a means to an end, and no one can help the man who falls in love with her. It’s just a role like any other, he’s just a client, and if his life implodes, who cares? Some men need an audience for their ‘roles’, trying on images and personalities. In Fourth Step Tango, an overdue apology forgives nothing. This story is cringe worthy, the things a young woman tolerates. Not all the stories are about tearing up the sheets, a few find the characters confronting situations that force them to understand themselves better or how to ask for what they want in a world that would rather defile them.

Brief encounters of uninhibited release, shucking off the past, these stories are at times provocative and always engaging. It is a unique collection of women making their way in the world, trying to keep their mind and body connected, learning how to be unapologetic and present to their own desires and needs.

Available Now  Published March 2019

Napili Press

I Am Heathcliff: Stories Inspired by Wuthering Heights Curated by Kate Mosse

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Maria thinks how habituated she now is to interpretation, how experienced at watching a face. (from Terminus by Louise Doughty)

I was in love with Emily Brontë’s book Wuthering Heights when I was in junior high school, mooning about Heathcliff, naturally I had to read this collection of stories inspired by Brontë’s only published novel. Some of the stories had me deeply engaged, especially Terminus. There is something brutal when you lose yourself, when Maria looks at a young woman and thinks “We are each other’s inverse”, it’s such a loud thought, raw. How Maria was once untouched, free of this misery, this cruel love. The heightened state of the abused, the sea that can soothe and destroy (much like love), “The sea is me. Or I am the sea.” Wuthering Heights was quite the story of abusive love itself, one where there was no escape from the affection you should run from.

Thicker Than Blood by Erin Kelly is perfect for the age we live in making me wonder with a sinking sensation just how many people will relate to it. Heath’s unhealthy addiction with Cath, sorting  not just through her social media but those in her circle for his fix, while hapless Izzy may as well be filler space until he is with his Cath. Though really, he is always with Cath in time virtually, a lovesick lunatic pinging himself for any news, any photo of her while his devoted Izzy just looks on with longing, put down your phone, please see me? The phone a portal that allows him to never be away from his obsession? What sort of sick, one-sided love is that? The disgust he feels toward Izzy is a live wire, Izzy ‘mouth breathing down his neck”, how dare she want his time, love? This is a modern retelling of Wuthering Heights and it spirals into darkness, obsession that goes into the rotted soil.

How Things Disappear is a gut punch. A young woman is just a ‘sturdy shell, and only the things inside shimmered to nothingness.’ I would think there have been times, if you’re lucky it’s a short stretch, where you feel yourself spilling out, dissolving, dissipating ‘the world took so much of her without permission’, who hasn’t felt that very thing? We are so often ill prepared for what life is going to throw our way, how do we contain the core essence of what it means to be? How do we maintain our soul, and not become just another walking zombie? I think that I felt a bit of Catherine here, doomed to disappear, Heathcliff’s love is the world that took from her. Just something I was thinking.

In Heathcliff Is Not My Name we are in Heathcliff’s mind, “they called you dark-skinned gypsy, dirty Lascar, vagabond, devil. You’ll give them dark, dirt, devil.” This is what made him, this is what led to black nights, the seed of hatred, the birth of poisonous love. Never ‘molleycoddled’ in his entire life not one lick of tenderness, hating those who live in their carefree, happy little worlds like precious pets. He is the dog that gets kicked, if not put down, I think this story was my favorite.

Kit by Juno Dawson didn’t fit but it certainly exposes the ways we humiliate ourselves, build up these ridiculous stories to feed our desires, how we become something other than we are, creating a fictional version, thinking we can push our way into the object of our affections world. It’s a shallow story, and the desperation is painful so it got a reaction out of me. You can’t force it, you just can’t.

The majority of the collection moved me in some way, took me back to the unhealthy, doomed love in Wuthering Heights! If you’re a fan, there are a few stories in here that work magic.

Out Now

HarperCollins

The Borough Press

Maggie Brown & Others: Stories by Peter Orner

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Amazing what our bodies are designed to take.

Amazing what our hearts and souls are designed to take too. This is a hell of a collection of connected stories by Peter Orner. I was blown away by all of the characters because they resembled reality too much, the pain of being alive, our insecurities, our curiosity about family members closest to us, our assumptions about others that diminish them as people. There are stories about the fire of youth and the desires that flow beneath our skin, how hungry our hormones make us, how did we survive all that want? Later in life, the ache of it all, the self-pity. You can’t feel too sorry for the characters because when you do, you are snapped back into reality by lines such as this “He’d grown up poor, he said. That’s novel? The mass of humanity lives a world away from a hot bath.” I am always hungry for short stories that throw the reader right into a town, a house, a family, any situation where I can immediately understand the score because the writing is saturated with insight and emotions, the atmosphere rich, going between light and heavy. This line “He’d written, he told her, about flower children because they made him laugh. Spent my life trying to get clean and these kids can’t get dirty enough.”  That is gold, it sums up so much with a few choices words. Writing at its best. Truly, I was hooked.

My heart could break, my breath catch with a line describing our narrator’s mother, about her hands while she played the piano because he humanized her so tenderly in The Case against Bobbie. We dance through time, through our own hearts, first memories, beginnings, endings and all the decisions we face each day simply because we exist. How we live with what remains when death decides to court us. Wealth to poverty, love to the absence of it, youth to old age, and the curiousness of the parts we all play in between. Why do some images stick while some are diluted or fade away entirely? How strange to be a human being, what imperfect creatures we are.

Yes, yes add this collection to the top of your TBR list! These short stories swallowed me as much as a full length novel.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

This Wicked Tongue: Stories by Elise Levine

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I’d walk a few steps and the haze would lift, as if I’d squeezed my last tears and could get on with things.

I had to settle myself in a quiet place, undisturbed to dig into these stories. The first tale in the collection Money’s Honey had me riveted because of the language, the emotional impact. “Fat girl, some call me. Hey there, fat slut. Like I’m there just to get a load of them.” In the span of a few pages, she will figure out just what she has to do, while going through the memory of who she has left behind, of the many hands that have touched her, can she abandon her wild ways and go home again, and maybe what she carries will make it all worthwhile? The stories are more about what is going on inside each character’s mind because the wicked internal language we have is what drives our own wicked worlds. Whether a narrator is ministering the dying as a divinity school candidate while failing to comfort the living or a cop searching for their unhappy wife in a cave, as his claustrophobia increases, suffocating as much as marriage the writing pulls us in. Are we okay? We’re not okay.

In The Association we’re inside young Martin’s head and privy to his observations about his uptight mother and the failings, ‘lapses’ he collects about his father. A bright kid who ‘needs to get out of his big head’ according to his dad, living between his newly divorced parents, mother wanting too much from his 11-year-old self and finding his new voice, one that upsets the balance, but so what- he is enjoying this snide self. Sometimes when I read from a child’s perspective that is spot on about the adults, I remember what it was like to feel forced to be the audience to adult antics, and how good anger felt when you let loose.

Levine’s stories include one based in c. AD 1372, language of the past, a journey through grief, the one sealed off in the cell for those seeking counsel, a spiritual practice long gone, “our words a poor magic mashed to this world.” 

Difficult relationships, disheveled selves, past, present, shifting timelines- an engaging lyrical collection.

Publication Date: June 25, 2019

Biblioasis