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: Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows”

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

Nathan Englander’s “Free Fruit for Young Widows” is a story that takes in a father-son relationship, an opaque but long-running friendship (of sorts) between two men, the concentration camps of World War II, misplaced loyalties, and how cruelty and wrongness can shape a person throughout life – without ever seeming to take on too much.

The story’s framing structure is that of a father-son relationship, centered on a family-run produce stand. The owner of the stand, Shimmy, gives produce for free to war widows, and to one man, Professor Tendler. Shimmy’s son, Etgar, knows little of Professor Tendler except that one day, during the 1956 Sinai campaign, he shot four Egyptian men who had mistakenly sat down at the wrong table for lunch – the table where his father, Shimmy, sat eating. He knows, too, that Tendler then beat Shimmy to a pulp, so much so that when Shimmy and the four dead Egyptian men were found “it was the consensus that a pummelled Shimmy Gezer looked to be in the worst condition of the bunch.”

What Etgar wants to know, what we spend the story learning, is why Shimmy gives free produce to this man who beat him, to this man who shot four Egyptian men dead though it was not clear they had any intention to do harm to Etgar’s father – or that they even realized he was not one of them. (Soldiers in both the Egyptian and Israeli armies wore identical French-supplied uniforms.) As Etgar ages, Shimmy begins to tell him more of the story, Englander masterfully describing this father-son relationship and the way stories are passed down, developed, made anew. Professor Tendler’s story, after all, does not start with shooting the four Egyptian men, but years and years before, when he hid for days under a pile of dead men at a concentration camp, emerging only when sure that the newly arrived soldiers were American. Englander pushes us to consider how this man was formed; whether he was even meant to emerge from that pile of dead bodies when he did, and how differently his actions can be read based on the degrees of his story known by the listener.

Englander, by the way, has a new collection of stories coming out February 7th, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.

Read “Free Fruit for Young Widows” online

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Story Sunday: Touré’s “A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love”

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 with a couple of confessions, or disclaimers. One, tomorrow I’m flying to America for my first Christmas at home in three years, so anything I write today is going to be pretty high on the stupid scale. Because I’m just! so! excited! I am not big into holidays, and I hadn’t even thought of going home for Christmas until just over a week ago – but now I can’t wait. There are just so many things for me to do and eat (pecan pie! pecan pie!) while I am home.

Second, this is a story I’ve been meaning to post about for a really long time, as evidenced by the fact that I saved the draft of this post (which is not really a draft – it’s, like, one sentence and a link to the story) as “story sunday for 10.23”. Whoops! It’s “A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love” by Touré. I hope that the title immediately calls to you the way it did to me; this is such an offbeat story, featuring the greatest/oddest location for a church you can imagine. Daddy Love is an indelible and dynamic character, the descriptions of his sermons and, uh, “interactions” with church members veering wildly between cringe-inducing, hilarious, and illuminating.

He preached with a dynamism that hypnotized and bewitched, employing rhythm and volume, intensity and repetition, moans, grunts, hollers, hums, and a raw spiritual force beamed down from up on high to give his sermons wings that you could grab ahold of and go with him as he took flight, transcending English, while you nestled inside his truth–strings of words dipped in a magic that let him say crazy things no other preacher could say and pull you into a new awareness that would make you do crazy things, that, if you really knew how to listen, might make your life a little better.

Sorry that I can’t do more credit to this story. In my defense, I’m all hopped up on travel energy and need to go do something useful, like rewatch Breaking Bad and not drink any more coffee.

Read “A Hot Time at the Church of Kentucky Fried Souls and the Spectacular Final Sunday Sermon of the Right Revren Daddy Love” online

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Story Sunday: Kalpana Narayanan’s “Aviator on the Prowl”

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

Kalpana Narayanan’s “Aviator on the Prowl”, the most recent winner of Boston Review‘s Aura Estrada Fiction Contest (Aura Estrada being the subject of Francisco Goldman’s novelish memoir [or memoirish novel], Say Her Name), reveals itself slowly, almost as though the narrator is letting slip details by accident. At open she writes, “That summer I broke it up and down and got a job because I was tired of thinking.” It’s that job, a hellish restaurant gig that sees her being constantly berated by her overweight, twenty-something boss, that gives Narayanan’s narrator some way of defining herself other than the way she doesn’t want to touch, that of the older sister of a boy who hung himself with his karate belt.

The narrator may not want to reveal herself, or her family, in this story, but what she does let go manages to be at once funny and tragic, a family unable to face its tragedy but simultaneously unable to look away. The girl at center – or maybe it’s not really her at the center, it’s her brother – is motionless for the story, but she has plans:

I’d worked three months and didn’t mind it; it was good to be out of the house, and who knew when I’d be back at school. I’d come home only twice in the year after we cremated my brother. Now when I mentioned going back in two weeks my mother stormed off and flopped around her bed. My father tilted his head like a pup then talked about something else.

In this act of seeing the world around her, or of trying to, Narayanan gives us some beautiful descriptions, as when the narrator takes the bus home after work:

I took the bus the ten blocks home because the ground and sky were hot and I liked to watch people ripple over the tar like slow, pole-thin mirages of themselves.

It’s the last couple paragraphs of this story that are absolutely devastating. Narayanan approaches a subject that risks leaving the reader feeling manipulated, but writes it in a way that seems honest and clear rather than a blatant effort to tug at the heart strings. It’s an extraordinary story, the sort that makes you wonder: where are the other stories by this author? why does her bio mention her MFA and nothing else? why isn’t she an active social networker, informing us of her writing progress at every step? For now, though, “Aviator on the Prowl” is a pretty good story to read while we wait for more.

Read “Aviator on the Prowl” online

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Be sure to check out the Story Sunday post from Shivanee at Novel Niche as well. If you’d like to join in and begin posting your own Story Sunday feature, contact me for more info!

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Story Sunday: George Saunders’s “Home”
September 11, 2011, 8:42 pm
Filed under: Story Sundays | Tags: , , , , , , ,

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

Image from Wikipedia

George Saunders’s portrait of a soldier just returned from war in the story “Home” never pushes for catharthis. That’s what makes the story work; it may be an emotionally charged piece, but it’s not an emotionally manipulative one. The narrator of “Home” makes only oblique references to his experiences in the war, and while the reader knows there’s plenty he’s not revealing, these unknowns add something to the story. The narrator’s (sometimes failed) effort to draw a clear border between his time in the war and his time at home is marked from the first line of the story, but again, Saunders never belabors the point.

Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window

That tap on the window, that reference to “the old days”; the narrator isn’t going to succeed in reclaiming his old life and routines, but his faltering attempts to do so are evident from the first. More than that, there’s a sort of deep shame coloring much of the story. The narrator goes into so little detail about his service that the reader can’t come to a real conclusion about what he’s not telling us. He suggests, repeatedly, that he did something wrong in the war, that there is something people want to know about his time there, but that he isn’t going to tell them. When he writes about his interactions with family and old acquaintances, though, it’s hard not to wonder if the narrator is really speaking, too, about the war:

They were both so scared they weren’t talking at all, which made me feel the kind of shame you know you’re not going to cure by saying sorry, and where the only thing to do is: go out, get more shame.

With the narrator surrounded by his disintegrating family and failed relationships, with people making curt acknowledgement of his service before returning to harassing him and his family (for not paying rent, among other things) Saunders gives us a portrait of the returned serviceman that lacks even the slightest touch of nobility. It’s an image we should keep and remember, though: not of the returning hero but of the soldier who screwed up, and who in returning to his inauspicious roots finds little of value awaiting him.

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Story Sunday: Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”

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

Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is a story steeped in the language of grief, although the narrator seems hardly capable of acknowledging that grief, or its accompanying guilt. Not just the guilt of not having done enough for her dying friend, but of not wanting to have done enough for her dying friend.

Hempel perfectly captures the feel of the hospital and the attempt to both accommodate the desires of the patient and normalize the situation, to act out a scene that does not have to happen in a hospital. When the narrator’s friend is hungry, she brings her ice cream and the pair act out a scene familiar to anyone who’s spent a night with a friend, though here it is tinted by what they used to be. Hempel never pushes for catharsis or attempts to point the reader to an appropriate emotion, but when she writes of the “men we used to think we wanted to sleep with” she captures in those few words the feeling of youth and of the loss of that youth, and communicates for just how long these two have been together and to what degree the narrator has failed her friend, in the months that have passed with no visit.

The story had made her hungry, she said—so I took the elevator down six floors to the cafeteria, and brought back all the ice cream she wanted. We lay side by side, adjustable beds cranked up for optimal TV-viewing, littering the sheets with Good Humor wrappers, picking toasted almonds out of the gauze. We were Lucy and Ethel, Mary and Rhoda in extremis. The blinds were closed to keep light off the screen.

We watched a movie starring men we used to think we wanted to sleep with. Hers was a tough cop out to stop mine, a vicious rapist who went after cocktail waitresses.

“This is a good movie,” she said when snipers felled them both.

I missed her already.

I can’t think of a story that more totally captures what is in grief, or what ties friends to one another even when they know themselves to be moving apart.

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