No Longer Waiting for the Bombs: Rebecca Makkai Discusses her New Book of Short Stories, “Music for Wartime”

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Makkai - white shirt

Rebecca Makkai / Photo: Ryan Fowler

By Kim Steele

In the final story of Rebecca Makkai’s collection “Music for Wartime,” “The Museum of the Dearly Departed,” a young graduate student inherits his grandparents’ apartment when a gas leak kills them along with nearly all of their neighbors. The student busies himself by creating a replica of the building complete with artifacts from the homes of each of the deceased. The art piece works well as a symbol for this book. It is as though each story in this collection exists in one house. They share similar themes and Makkai’s uniquely intelligent and affecting voice. And yet each story—like each replicated apartment—also manages to be full of its own distinguishing details. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “On the Way” by Cyn Vargas

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vargas

Cyn Vargas’ debut short-story collection, “On the Way,” insistently taps familiar themes: abandonment, loneliness, secrets, blossoming womanhood. The fathers are always gone, the secrets are never told, the girls are never friends. The slim volume feels full, perhaps because it holds so many people like Selma, whose mother was kidnapped in Guatemala, or Lloyd, who works listlessly at the DMV, and they are all so poignant in their wanting. Their internal narratives slipstream alongside a world that won’t give them what they want, and if they somehow get it—rare—it’s with a healthy helping of mixed feelings. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories” by Michael Czyzniejewski

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breakup storiesRECOMMENDED

Breakup stories, as a genre, have become as clichéd and overdone as their inverse, love stories. Dear John/Jane letters, lipstick-smudged collars, and clothes piled up and doused with bleach have become the tell-tale signs of love affairs that have run their course. Yet writers with sagacity and wit can sidestep such been-there, done-that tropes and elevate the breakup story to new levels. In Michael Czyzniejewski’s short-fiction collection “I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories,” readers zigzag through the demise of one relationship after another, some of them long-term romances, others missed connections that crash and burn even before they begin.

Tragicomic incidents involving public masturbation, a lethal peanut butter sandwich, apocalyptic plagues, and Meryl Streep’s breasts open gateways into the pathos that calls out for recognition when a relationship, regardless of its depth or duration, hurdles toward dissolution. Czyzniejewski exhibits an enviable knack for black humor, combining the scathingly urbane with the wickedly boorish, all through a lens that shifts kaleidoscopically from naturalism to postmodernism to magic realism and beyond. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Game We Play” by Susan Hope Lanier

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TGWP_coverRECOMMENDED

When dealing with short story collections that aren’t what we like to think of as “novels in stories,” there’s an overriding philosophy that the first and last stories are usually the best two stories of the collection. The stuff in between is usually good, sure, but first and last stories are there to anchor the collection at both ends. The first story entices you to read the collection, while the last should send you off with an overwhelmingly positive opinion so strong you forget any duds that were in the middle. What makes Susan Hope Lanier’s debut collection “The Game We Play” odd then is that I don’t think it’s necessarily arranged this way.

Nevertheless, the biggest knock I can give against Lanier’s debut is that my favorite stories are buried in the middle. Not that the collection’s opener, “How Tommy Soto Breaks Your Heart,” doesn’t manage to entice, combining teenage angst and the aftermath of 9/11 to create a nice little flash piece, but it has a hard time competing with “Sophie Salmon” and “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction.” “Sophie Salmon” is the story I would describe as more or less the collection’s heart: an optimistic, funny and touching love story that’s incited by what is likely the impending doom of its titular character. “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction,” on the other hand, is the most adventurous piece of short fiction that I’ve read in a long time. It’s most easily described as like that part of “Breakfast of Champions” where Kurt Vonnegut decides to drop in on Kilgore Trout, but even as the biggest Vonnegut fan in existence, I have to admit Lanier is better at using language to position the author’s relationship with her creation, mocking the cliché gestures she gives Felicia, “She crosses her arms or falls to the floor, her eyes turning into two watering stop signs.” “Felicia Sassafrass is Fiction” does an exemplary job of capturing the kinks in the creative process; I’m a sucker for stories like that. Read the rest of this entry »

Starting at Endings: Garnett Kilberg Cohen Discusses Her New Story Collection, “Swarm to Glory”

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Photo: Lynn Sloan

Photo: Lynn Sloan

By Christine Sneed

I first became familiar with Columbia College professor Garnett Kilberg Cohen’s stories a couple of years ago when I read one of her two previous collections, “Lost Women, Banished Souls.” Immediately apparent in these stories is Garnett’s light touch and her talent at writing about love in its many complex permutations. When she asked me this past spring if I’d be willing to read an advance copy of her newest story collection and, if I liked it, send her Milwaukee-based publisher, Wise Blood Books, a blurb, I was happy to do so. Many of these new stories balance on the narrow, spiked fence between comedy and tragedy, and love—its protean nature especially—is again a key theme. Garnett and I recently exchanged some thoughts about “Swarm to Glory.” Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “If it is your life” by James Kelman

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RECOMMENDED ifitisyourlife

A few years back, The Guardian attempted to interview the Scottish Booker Prize winner James Kelman about his then-new novel “Kieron Smith, Boy.” The result was essentially an interrogative monologue by the interviewer, interspersed with Kelman’s “monosyllabic replies” and silences that were “long and Pinteresque.” Unfortunate for the interviewer, yes, but also no real surprise given Kelman’s writing, which dwells on the gaps between spoken words and the tangles of thought beneath them. As a character in his brilliant (if bleak) new collection “If it is your life” puts it, “Human beings are near the surface. Just scratch and that is us.”

Kelman’s work is all about this scratching, laying bare the inner lives of men and women in the margins as they have a pint or die alone or watch children build a raft to sail across a lake of detritus in the backcourt of a Glasgow tenement. His stories drop readers into the murky minds of working-class, often nameless, largely Glaswegian narrators who are plagued by intractable troubles that they cannot effectively convey to themselves or others. Read the rest of this entry »

A Writer of Place: Chicago Icon Stuart Dybek Returns With Not One, But Two Books at Once

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sdybekBy Brendan Buck

Stuart Dybek is a Chicago writer, through and through. He grew up on Chicago’s South side in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods in the fifties and sixties, and holds graduate degrees from both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Loyola University. He is the author of two collections of poetry, “Brass Knuckles,” published in 1979, and “Streets in their Own Ink,” from 2004. Dybek is best known for his contributions to the short story form. His collections include the “The Coast of Chicago” from 1990 and “I Sailed With Magellan,” from 2003. These collections and the stories within laid out new rules for the short story. Call it flash fiction, call it micro fiction, call it brevity. Dybek is a master.

When I called Dybek, he was in the middle of rewriting a piece for  Lucky Peach, the themed food and writing quarterly magazine. During our chat we discussed flash fiction, the importance of place in his work, and the two collections he has out this June, “Paper Lantern: Love Stories” and “Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Stories,” both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Can’t and Won’t” by Lydia Davis

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RECOMMENDED CantWont

Before starting “Can’t and Won’t,” I knew Lydia Davis as the translator of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” the first of seven volumes of notoriously dense French modernism. My associating her with such long-windedness is of note because it points out one of the many oddities of Davis as a writer and thinker: she is, to many, best known for her “flash fiction,” stories that are sometimes as brief as a single sentence. Her output is diverse, ranging from startlingly short pieces to epic translations. Her new collection is a bold, brilliant showcase of her sundry talents, its contents a mesmerizing array of largely disconnected stories, letters and translations.

Cumulatively, these heterogeneous storytelling techniques create an atmosphere of disorientation and absurdity, while the shortest pieces, like commas in a long, nonsensical sentence, provide an essential rhythm and structure. They are reminiscent of Tweets or Facebook updates in their brevity and mundanity—qualities for which such writing is often denigrated. By creating tiny stories that stick with you, demand rereading, and appear amid more conventional pieces, however, Davis challenges widely-held beliefs regarding the content, length and purpose of “highbrow” fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Rewriting the Adolescent Narrative: Megan Milks on “Kill Marguerite”

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photo: Megan Milks

Photo: Megan Milks

By Anne Yoder

I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.

Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Bark” by Lorrie Moore

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RECOMMENDED BARK

Lorrie Moore is widely regarded as one of our greatest living American writers, and for good reason. Her short stories are exquisite examples of the form, and her long-awaited collection “Bark” is no exception. The worst thing about it is, at 192 pages, it’s a bit on the short side. All of Moore’s stories move brilliantly between the individual and the universal. One way she does this is by referencing current events, like the day Michael Jackson died, or the night before the Abu Ghraib prison photos broke. LikeA Gate at the Stairs,” which is very much a post-9/11 novel, the characters in “Bark” continue to be worried by the war, both its effects and its non-effects on us. “Debarking” takes place in the GW Bush era. ‘“You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year we gave up our faith and reason; this year we are giving up our democratic voice, our hope,’” says one character. In “Debarking,” Ira, a newly divorced dad, begins dating a woman and also, essentially, her son. Moore skewers indulgent modern parenting (“Oh, we couldn’t leave Bruno here alone. He’s only sixteen.”) and childhood education (Ira’s daughter studies the stock market while finger-knitting). Read the rest of this entry »