Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sundays: Katie Williams’s “Bone Hinge”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Katie Williams’s “Bone Hinge” gives us, early, the image of the piece of bone that connects Sylvie to her sister Hattie: a “bit of bone and skin that joined Hattie and me at the base of our spines.” With Hattie pulling Sylvie along to meet her boyfriend behind a dye vat at their father’s company, it’s easy to expect some level of farce to come from all this. Sylvie is forced to “take quick tripping steps” to keep pace with her sister, who is always the one walking forwards, and when Hattie meets her boyfriend Matthew there are awkward and unintended touches, Sylvie there as an unwilling witness and participant in the couple’s romance.

Williams’s story is really, though, about the relationship between the two sisters, as it plays out through Hattie’s relationship with Matthew. Hattie and Matthew are hoping to elope, and to do so they have to find a match for Sylvie; the suggestion that Sylvie be a forced member of their marriage, with no husband of her own, would be enough to put an end to the whole relationship.

There are elements in this story that feel weakly presented. When describing their early life, Sylvie writes of a town that believes itself touched, in some mystical way, by the birth of these conjoined twins. “The night of our birth, a thunderstorm had cracked a tree in the courtyard of the new church, setting the building afire until it was no more than a charred sliver of steeple and smoking pews.” For years, the sisters would wake up to a yard full of dead crows, or even flocks of live crows, sent to fly at their heads. This image of the crows is briefly touched upon and reads as a half-completed gesture towards another side of this story. As easily as Sylvie might dismiss the idea that her birth was an event of some mystical importance, there are suggestions that she views her relationship with her sister as having some meaning beyond the physical.

The more fully explored side of this story is the relationship between Hattie and Sylvie, formed in such large part by the secret place that joins them, where the “skin of our backs descends into a V, like a bird’s wing does to its body – a bone hinge covered in smooth skin, our spines locked together at the base.” Sylvie allows Hattie to lead as they walk, preferring to see the world after its passed by her sister; here, there is the first hint of how divided Sylvie feels them to be, her sense that Hattie got the good and she the evil.

Sylvie doesn’t want to be pulled into her sister’s relationship with Matthew; nor does she have much interest in a relationship Hattie and Matthew have dreamed up for her and Matthew’s brother, Toby. To see how she reacts to her sister’s desire to elope, and to see her growing understanding of the ways sisters can be divided even when they are, physically, so close, is an almost painful thing; almost as much as Sylvie’s realization that the place where she and her sister are joined may not have as much meaning as she has assigned to it.

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Story Sundays: Etgar Keret’s “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

A while back I read a critique of flash fiction that singled out Etgar Keret as one writer who actually does flash well. As a fan of flash fiction I was a bit averse to the central idea of the article (that a lot of people think they can write flash fiction because it’s short, and that the internets publishes a lot of flash fiction that is truly terrible [ok, I can kind of agree with that]), but sold on reading Keret. I am a busy girl, though, and also lazy, so it took me a few months to get around to it. And, holy crap guys, I wish I had read something by him earlier! His story “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail” is so good that I believe it makes up for the months without any Story Sunday posts.

What is so great about this story (and I am going to try and skip over summary – it’s short enough that you can read the story in only twice the time it would take me to tell you about it) is that Keret fits entire lives into this short piece. There’s not a word wasted, and in following two friends as they eat a meal, talk money, and visit a brothel, Keret captures the course of their friendship, the defining elements of their personalities, their marital problems, and their divergent hopes for the future. Unlike so many pieces of flash fiction, “Grab the Cuckoo by the Tail” doesn’t take one scene and milk it for whatever small revelation can be found; it takes these moments from one day and spools out, in either direction, all of the lives that we see in this moment.

The story’s title references something the narrator’s friend, Uzi, keeps saying about the stock market – he is planning to put money into a NASDAQ option, the QQQQ (or “cuckoo,” as Uzi calls it), and is insistent that they have to grab on to the QQQQ and hold on as it lifts them up. But Keret is so exacting in this story, and what makes this such a great piece of flash fiction is how everything, right down to the title, matters and can matter in more than one way. At story’s end, there’s the sense that the title references not just Uzi’s wordplay, but the way these two men are, in so many ways, holding on to each other in the expectation that they will lift one another up.

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Story Sunday: Salman Rushdie’s “In the South”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Maybe it’s just the books I read, but there seems to be a dearth of fiction dealing with the end of life; stories of childhood and coming of age appear to be, on the whole, more marketable and desirable to readers. It’s always a surprise and a pleasure to come across a story or novel that considers the end of life as closely as many books consider the beginnings. In his story “In the South”, Salman Rushdie writes of his near-death characters with a surprising compassion, and provides even their thirty-minute walk to cash their pension checks (a walk that would take a younger man five minutes) a certain dignity.

Junior and Senior are men who are “like characters in an ancient tale, trapped in fateful coincidences, unable to escape the consequences of chance.” They find themselves living side by side, each morning emerging to their balconies at the same moment, conducting their lives with such a close (if spiteful) proximity that Senior’s relatives at one point suggest knocking down the walls between their apartments. These are men aware of how close they are to the end of life, and Rushdie offers their histories in concise paragraphs. The men are, near story’s end, described as shadows of one another, but any affection they feel for one another takes time to emerge, as they are opposite in almost every detail of their beliefs and pasts.

Senior, for instance, feels trapped by the number of relatives he has (204, though many are no longer living – he isn’t sure of the numbers) and the ways they interfere with his life.

When he said that he was ready to die, which was often, their faces took on hurt expressions and their bodies sagged or stiffened, depending on their nature, and they spoke to him reassuringly, encouragingly, and, of course, in injured tones, of the value of a life so full of love. But love had begun to annoy him, like everything else. His was a family of mosquitoes, he thought, a buzzing swarm, and love was their itchy bite. “If only there were a coil one could light to keep one’s relations away,” he told Junior. “If only there were a net around one’s cot that kept them out.”

Junior, unlike Senior, hasn’t built what most would consider a desirable social circle. Even he recognizes that in most respects he has been a mediocre man, a man who has watched life move past him.

In all significant particulars, he had failed to be a participant in the parade of life. He had not married. The great events of eight decades had managed to occur without any effort on his part to help them along. He had stood by and watched as an empire fell and a nation rose, and avoided expressing an opinion on the matter. He had been a man at a desk.

“In the South” at first seems a humorous look at life coming closer to death, with Junior and Senior acting the part of a bickering married couple. Rushdie builds off this, though, so that their light remarks about death gain a new heft at story’s end. Rushdie gives us a story that is about life and death and the passing from one to the next, but more than that it’s the story of a great friendship and its inevitable conclusion.

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Story Sunday: Jesmyn Ward’s “Cattle Haul”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

It’s easier driving through the country, especially when you doing a cattle haul. Two lanes on one side and two lanes on the other. Switch lanes and pass. At night, like now, the signs sharp and clear. The trees like waves at the side of the road, all black and blue, coming in and going back out like a tide. Ain’t no lights to distract me, to crowd up around me. Just taillights, red lights, like ants, leading me in a line westward.

Jesmyn Ward’s “Cattle Haul” is one of those stories that punches you in the gut*, making its point swiftly and exactly. Just under the surface of Ward’s story, which follows a long-haul trucker as he drives a load of cattle across Texas, is a sort of mingled desperation and despair: the way the narrator fell into his profession and aspires to get out, though his red-neck boss knows he will continue taking every job offered; his relationship with his alcoholic father, who slips him dimebags of crystal when he leaves for the road; his relationship with Tanisha, presumably his girlfriend but whom he hasn’t seen for a month; and, the layer through which these other anxieties find their expression, his fear that the cattle he is hauling are dying and that he won’t receive full payment for the delivery.

This is, simply, such a good story that I’m not sure what to say about it. It’s one I’ll be rereading in a few days; it’s also sold me on Ward’s novels, which I’ll be checking out soon. (As in later today.) Her Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award. If you’re debating reading that novel, this story should convince you (as it has convinced me) that you should Drop Everything (including all other books you’re currently reading) And Read.

* I have to steal the terminology of Ben from Dead End Follies here. Can’t help it.

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Story Sunday: Matt Getty’s “Keeping Susie Whole”
February 26, 2012, 7:27 pm
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Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Matt Getty’s “Keeping Susie Whole” is such a gorgeous and strange read. At first the central image of this story, that of a girl literally coming apart when she’s upset, seems little more than a clever conceit. As the story continues, though, it becomes far more, a meditation on what it is to be a parent, to want something for a child, and to watch that child fail to meet unexpressed expectations and in time find her way to some private understanding of her self.

Really, what is there to say about the story? It opens with an image that seems, again, a play, but Getty never stops developing Susie, her relationship with her parents, and the ways she comes apart.

Susie was two when parts of her body started falling off. At first it was minor—fingertips, earlobes, the pinky toe on her left foot. Sheila and I would find them lying around the house, discarded, collected in small piles like forgotten toys, bits of cereal she’d spilled from the high chair.

What I like so much about this story is the very honest way Getty’s characters shift in their attitudes and reactions towards Susie coming apart, and the ways that even those comings apart change over time. Susie, Susie’s husband, and her mother and father, shift between accepting and promoting her gift, and wanting to keep it something hidden within the confines of their home, or tamped down altogether. And the early images of the narrator and his wife trying to fit Susie back together are simply remarkable.

Often, Sheila had to pin her shoulders as I struggled to snap her legs back into her hips. Other times she sat on Susie’s feet as I pieced her face back together, eyebrows furrowing angrily as soon as I pressed them down, lips curling into a frown as soon as I pinched them back over the edges of her mouth, tongue thrashing about as soon as I’d anchored it back into her throat, giving voice to screams that made the hairs on my forearms stand up.

“Mine!” she shouted. “My face. No! No want face. Leave me alone. My face!”

A clever and moving story.

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Story Sunday: Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Ever since that 2004 Ashton Kutcher film, the idea of the butterfly effect has seemed to me a lame and overdone tool for lazy sci-fi writers. If there is anyone capable of redeeming the concept (and it doesn’t hurt that he was writing long before “the butterfly effect” took on this air of, what to call it, lameitude) it is Ray Bradbury, and he does just that in “A Sound of Thunder.”

Simple premise: Time Safari, Inc. offers its clients the opportunity to travel to any year in the past and shoot an animal of their choosing. In order to avoid needlessly disrupting the past world, the company has built floating platforms, and does recon before safaris in order to find an animal that is within minutes of its natural death. In “A Sound of Thunder” Eckels, an experienced hunter, joins two other customers, and the safari leader and his assistant, on a hunt for a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The safari leaders stress the importance of staying on the path, of shooting only the animal that has been marked for this expedition. Their warnings, though, seem as much concerned with the future of their business as with anything else:

“We don’t want to change the Future. We don’t belong here in the Past. The government doesn’t like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species.”

Bradbury is a little heavy-handed at times. When he opens the story with a discussion of the recent presidential election, you feel reasonably sure that this is going to come back up at story’s end, as it does. But he deals with the concept of the butterfly effect elegantly, and his description of the dinosaur, of Eckels’s hesitation, of the way the entire shooting expedition is over almost before it began, is enthralling. See the Tyrannosaurus Rex:

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. It closed its mouth in a death grin. It ran, its pelvic bones crushing aside trees and bushes, its taloned feet clawing damp earth, leaving prints six inches deep wherever it settled its weight.

It ran with a gliding ballet step, far too poised and balanced for its ten tons. It moved into a sunlit area warily, its beautifully reptilian hands feeling the air.

A great, fun story. Read it!

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Story Sunday: Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress”
February 5, 2012, 3:04 pm
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Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Let’s start this post as we should start all posts even loosely connected with Margaret Atwood: !!!!Margaret Atwood!!!!!!!!!!! Her recent story, “Stone Mattress” from the December 19th issue of The New Yorker, is such a fantastic and well-plotted piece of fiction. Atwood fits in a bit of social commentary as she explores the backstory of her main character, Verna, but this is more of a fun read than a head-scratcher.

Atwood draws us in immediately, opening with “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” Verna, widowed four times, is on an Arctic cruise. This is the second time she’s taken an Arctic cruise, chosen because such a trip provides so many opportunities for covering up, for making herself look her best, as she looks for a new man:

Thanks to Aquacize and core strength training, she’s still in excellent shape for her age, or indeed for any age, at least when fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring. She wouldn’t want to chance a deck chair in a bikini – superficial puckering has set in, despite her best efforts – which is one reason for selecting the Arctic over, say, the Caribbean. Her face is what it is, and certainly the best that money can buy at this stage: with a little bronzer and pale eyeshadow and mascara and glimmer power and low lighting, she can finesse ten years.

As Verna makes the rounds of the cruise ship’s single male guests, she realizes that one of them is the boy who, back in the ’50s when she was just 14, date raped her and left her pregnant. In Verna’s mind, at least, this event directly led to so many others of her life: the marriages to older men, and the way she aids (doesn’t murder, mind you, not exactly) them to their deaths. Verna’s no stranger to gently helping men off into the good night, as should be obvious, but after realizing the identity of the passenger she must decide what to do about her discovery.

Atwood’s story doesn’t give us any epiphany, or even much insight into Verna’s character. (Charles May wrote a great post comparing his readings of “Stone Mattress” and Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverly,” though we arrived at different conclusions on the worth of Atwood’s story.) But it is a fun and quick read, a perfect twenty-minute Atwood fix that offers us a woman who has devoted her life to destroying men, and then must face the man who destroyed her.

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