Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Fiction by Chris Drangle and Ha Jin, and an essay on DNA editing by Michael Specter

Soleil was on her way to meet Warren for their first date when she ran out of gas.  The engine shuddered on its last fumes, and she looked down the highway at a long stretch of nothing.  She was alone on the road, save for one pair of headlights drawing closer in the rearview.  She put her hazards on, hoping to coast as long as possible, but the vehicle behind her, a black SUV, raced up to her bumper and stayed there.  High beams filled her mirrors.  She braked and pulled halfway onto the shoulder, and still it loomed close.  Teenage girl, no gas, highway at dusk--she felt her vulnerability like a chill in the air.  But as she rolled to a stop, the SUV swerved and accelerated, finally passing her with a snarl of engine rev.  She didn't want to look but did; two men in the cabin stared back, lit red by the instrument panel.  The driver had a dark beard.
--From "Optimistic People," a short story by Chris Drangle, One Story, Issue 224 (December 31, 2016).

When my roommate moved out, I was worried that Mrs. Chen might increase the rent.  I had been paying three hundred dollars a month for half a room.  If my landlady demanded more, I would have to look for another place.  I liked this colonial house.  In front of it stood an immense weeping cherry tree that attracted birds and gave a bucolic impression, though it was already early summer and the blossoming season had passed.  The house was close to downtown Flushing, and you could hear the buzz of traffic on Main Street.  It was also near where I worked, convenient for everything.  Mrs. Chen took up the first floor; my room was upstairs, where three young women also lived.  My former roommate, an apprentice to a carpenter, had left because the three female tenants were prostitutes and often received clients in the house.  To be honest, I didn't feel comfortable about that either, but I had grown used to the women, and especially liked Huong, a twiggy Vietnamese in her early twenties whose parents had migrated to Cholon from China three decades ago, when Saigon fell and the real estate market there became affordable.  Also, I had just arrived in New York and at times found it miserable to be alone.
--From "The House Behind a Weeping Cherry," a short story by Ha Jin, from his collection A Good Fall (Vintage International, 2009), 195-219.  This story originally appeared in The New Yorker (April 7, 2008) and was later included in The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009, edited by Laura Furman (Anchor Books, 2009).

Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Woods Hole, bound for Nantucket Island.  Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease.  He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed.  
--From "Rewriting the Code of Life," an essay about DNA editing by Michael Specter, The New Yorker (January 2, 2017), pp. 34-43.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An essay by Dianne Belfrey and a story collection by Yelizaveta P. Renfro

He pulled off the tarp to reveal a beautiful wooden sailboat.  I said he must be a sailor, and he replied that, no, he'd never been on a boat before he'd made this one, adding that he'd found a book at a stoop sale which had instructions for how to build a model boat, and thought that it would be fun to try to build a full-sized boat using it as a guide.  I didn't especially care about boats, or about sailing, but I did like stories such as this one.  When I asked him whether it worked, he laughed and looked down and said that he supposed it did, as he'd sailed it on the Hudson.  I blame everything on the boat.  If it hadn't been there, none of the rest would have happened.  I wouldn't have left my husband and run away with the man--I'll call him William--who had built it.  
--From "Adrift," a piece of personal history by Dianne Belfrey, The New Yorker (November 7, 2016), pp. 20-26.  (The story appeared online with the title "Fire and Water: A Brooklyn Love Story.")

(If his life were a video game, he would be a frantic middle-aged gnome, driving a bus with reckless speed, picking up and dropping off passengers, avoiding parked cars, slamming the brakes, punching the gas, rushing home to stop the evil blonde vixen from killing his trees, knocking her on the head with an oversized rubber mallet, hustling back to the bus to stay on schedule, then scrambling home to get the baby out of the crib, to feed the sad brunette who sits in front of a computer with gibberish thought bubbles over her head. . . .)
--From A Catalogue of Everything in the World: Nebraska Stories, a collection by Yelizaveta P. Renfro (Black Lawrence Press, 2010), winner of the St. Lawrence Book Award.  This segment is from the short story "Tree Roots" (pp. 36-49), which first appeared in Blue Mesa Review (Fall 2009).

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Spring 2017 issue of the Apple Valley Review

The Spring 2017 issue of the Apple Valley Review features short fiction by Siamak Vossoughi and Tom Gresham; an essay by Stephanie Paterson; poetry by Amorak Huey, Karen Schubert, Danielle Hanson, Kim Jacobs-Beck, José Angel Araguz, Mark Luebbers, Katherine Gekker, Joseph Chaney, and Sandra Kohler; and a cover photograph from India by Jorge Royan.  

The Apple Valley Review is a semiannual online literary journal.  The current issue, previous issues, subscription information, and complete submission guidelines are available at www.applevalleyreview.com

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

We Live in Water by Jess Walter

Jess Walter's 2013 short story collection, We Live in Water, was published by Harper Perennial.  I'm going to single out two stories from this collection:

I suppose I've hated Portland since I took a pop there.  It was a shame, too, because it was the perfect Portland scam.  A guy in my building was a volunteer recruiter for Greenpeace, and one day when he left his car unlocked I stole his pamphlets and sign-up logs.  I couldn't use that shit in Seattle so I drove to Union Station in Portland, picked out two lost kids who looked like they could be college students, and put them out downtown.   
--From "Helpless Little Things," pp. 69-81 (first published in Playboy, Vol. 56, No. 2, February 2009).

Wade's lawyers said they could get him transferred back to Seattle for community service, but he didn't want some old client seeing him cleaning pigeon shit in Pioneer Square.  His kids wanted nothing to do with him.  And until the divorce was finalized, he didn't even know which house to go to.
        No, he said, he'd just do his community service in Spokane.  
--From "The Wolf and the Wild," pp. 133-146 (first published in McSweeney's, Issue 41).

These two stories stood out to me, but the collection is really strong as a whole.  My other favorites were "Don't Eat Cat" (pp. 85-105), "Wheelbarrow Kings" (pp. 147-161), and the third of a set of three linked stories, "The Brakes" (127-131).  The last piece here, which appeared in The Best of McSweeney's and inspired me to read more of Jess Walter's work, was "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington" (163-177).

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Three poems by Lynne Knight, a novel by Samanta Schweblin, and a short story collection by Ha Jin

We broke things.  Glasses, a lead crystal vase, 
the ceramic chicken painted à la portuguaise.  

It was the longest, hardest winter in a decade.
Snow against the windows, sealing us inside.
--From "Survival," a poem by Lynne Knight, published in Poetry Daily on November 10, 2016, from her collection The Persistence of Longing (Terrapin Books, 2016).  

I loved hearing the guy on the local station
in the small town where I lived for twenty years: 
Here in the foothills of the Adirondacks.
I was trying to become a poet, and I thought
everything I heard could become a poem
if I could figure out how to make use of it, 
the way frontierswomen made use of berries . . . 
--From "The Twenty-Year Workshop," a poem by Lynne Knight, Rattle, Number 50 (Winter 2015).  

I was thinking No.  No, oh no.  Not one more thing.
I was thinking my mother, who sat rigid
in the passenger seat crying, How terrible!
as if we had hit a child not your front bumper, 
would drive me mad, and then there would be 
two of us mad, mother and daughter . . . 
--From "To the Young Man Who Cried Out 'What Were You Thinking?' When I Backed Into His Car," a poem by Lynne Knight, Rattle, Number 32 (Winter 2009).  

It's dark and I can't see.  The sheets are rough, they bunch up under my body.  I can't move, but I'm talking.
          It's the worms.  You have to be patient and wait.  And while we wait, we have to find the exact moment when the worms come into being.
--From Fever Dream, a brief novel by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell (Riverhead Books, 2017).

The moment Hong Chen entered the narrow lane leading to Lilian's house, a bloody rooster landed before her, jumping about and scattering its feathers.  Four little boys ran over with knives and a hatchet in their hands.  "Kill, kill him!" one boy cried, but none of them dared approach the rooster, whose throat was cut half through.
--From "Taking a Husband," a short story by Ha Jin, from his often brutal collection Under the Red Flag (Zoland Books/Steerforth Press, 1999), pp. 132-153.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Best of McSweeney's

These pieces are all from The Best of McSweeney's, a collection edited by Dave Eggers and Jordan Bass and published by McSweeney's in 2013.  (There is also a deluxe box set edition available here.)

I live in St. Paul, Minnesota.  A nice place where God tries to ice-murder all inhabitants every year.
--Letter from John Moe, pp. 14-15.

I used to think only poor people set fires.  Two reasons for this: (1) I'd never known anyone whose house had burned down, and (2) when I worked for the Social Security Administration, "It burned up in a fire" was a common response to my request for documents.
--Letter from Mary Miller, pp. 15-16.

Five years ago, I played an angry gay teenager in a small coming-of-age film.  
--Letter from Colleen Werthmann, pp. 20-21.  

He is nine.  The other boys and girls have been like this, together, since they were four.  But he is new. 
--From "New Boy," fiction by Roddy Doyle, pp. 39-57.

1. The population of Spokane, Washington, is 203,268.  It is the 104th biggest city in the United States.
2. Even before the recession, in 2008, 36,000 people in Spokane lived below the poverty line--a little more than 18 percent of the population.  That's about the same as it was in Washington, DC, at the time.  The poverty rate was 12.5 percent in Seattle.
--From "Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington," fiction by Jess Walter, pp. 59-67.

My wife, the doctor, is not well.  In the end she could be dead.  It started suddenly, on a country weekend, a movie with friends, a pizza, and then pain.
--From "Do Not Disturb," fiction by A.M. Homes, pp. 89-111.

We drove there through a ferocious snowstorm, swaddled in old blankets and sleeping bags, because his car heater had gone out years before...  I huddled up next to him and adjusted the radio stations as they faded in and out of range...
--From "We'll Sleep in My Old Room," a comic by Chris Ware, pp. 128-131.

The trouble happened because I was bored.  At the time, I was twenty-eight days sober.  I was spending my nights playing Internet backgammon.  I should have been going to AA meetings, but I wasn't.  . . .  When I wasn't burning out my eyes on the computer, I was lying in bed, reading.  I was going through the third Raymond Chandler phase of my adulthood.  Read all his books in 1988, then 1999, and now 2007.  Some people re-read Proust or Thomas Mann and improve themselves.  Not me.
--From "Bored to Death," fiction by Jonathan Ames, pp. 361-386 (and his note on the story, pp. 359-360).

Bucks returned to Kenya in short order.  He met a barmaid who became pregnant and left with him for Uganda, where they were soon estranged.  For a while afterward he moved between that country and Kenya, once again attracting scrutiny for exporting protected snakes: his new specialties were Bitis worthingtoni and Bitis parviocula, highland adders from Kenya and Ethiopia.  On New Year's Eve 2005, Bucks was arrested and thrown into a Kenyan jail.  The official charge was something about illegal frogs in one of his terrariums, but Kenya now had a long list of grievances against him, as did Uganda and Ethiopia.  
--From "Benjamin Bucks," nonfiction by Jennie Erin Smith, pp. 457-475.

I first met the Polack when she worked at Fort Worth Gold.  This was before I learned the jewelry business myself and joined [my brother] Baron.  I was only a customer when I met her, buying a stainless-steel Cartier for an institutional client of mine.  It was almost Christmas, and the sales floor stood ten deep with buyers.  It was the fat time.
--From "How to Sell," fiction by Clancy Martin, pp. 543-558.

Mama taught me better.  She could give me a glare that brought me to my knees when she heard me talk about anyone without respect--especially Mabiordit.  It was Mabiordit who had sheltered us when we came to Juba looking for Jal e Jal and ended up stranded, with nothing in Mama's purse but twenty pounds and a battered Nokia mobile that could receive calls but not make them.  
--From "The Bastard," fiction by Nyuol Lueth Tong, pp. 589-602.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Two poems, short fiction, and a novel

When the men arrived, finally, to haul the big table away, 
I ran my hand down the battered length of it, as if along
the flank of some exhausted workhorse, overcome
by a sudden rush of absurd remorse.
--From "Esposito & Son," a poem by Anna Scotti, The New Yorker (November 28, 2016), p. 38.

Before leaving, he explained his plan to the maid and the cook.  Buenos Aires is falling apart; I'm going to the ranch, he said.  They talked for hours, sitting at the kitchen table.  The cook had been to the ranch as often as Pereda, who had always said that the country was no place for a man like him, a cultivated family man, who wanted to make sure that his children got a good education.  His mental images of the ranch had blurred and faded, leaving only a house with a hole in the middle, an enormous, threatening tree, and a barn flickering with shadows that might have been rats.  Nevertheless, that night, as he drank tea in the kitchen, he told his employees that he had hardly any money left to pay them (it was all frozen in the bank--in other words, as good as lost) and the only solution he had come up with was to take them to the country, where at least they wouldn't be short of food, or so he hoped.  
--From "The Insufferable Gaucho," a short story by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews, published in The New Yorker (October 1, 2007) and in the short story collection The Insufferable Gaucho (New Directions, 2010), pp. 9-41.

In 1954 he began to train with the Ama, Japanese women diving in the tradition of their mothers and grandmothers and great-great-grandmothers, "sea women" seeking fish and pearls in the depths of the Pacific.  
--From "Sine of the Sea" (parts I-IV), fiction by Clare Boerigter, First Class Literary Magazine, November 28-December 2016.  A link at the bottom of the page will lead to the next segment.

I had been driving for less than an hour when I began to feel ill.  The burning in my side came back, but at first I decided not to give it any importance.  I became worried only when I realized that I no longer had the strength to hold onto the steering wheel.  In the space of a few minutes my head became heavy, the headlights grew dimmer; soon I even forgot that I was driving.  I had the impression, rather, of being at the sea, in the middle of the day.  
--From The Lost Daughter, a novel by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2008).

It it what it is; heart packed in cotton balls and stored
for winter, or like clothes that no longer fit but still might.  
--From "Ouroboros," a poem by Sonya Vatomsky, first published in Menacing Hedge (Spring 2015) and reprinted in her chapbook My Heart in Aspic (Porkbelly Press, 2015).