Saturday, May 31, 2008

Ink Pot/Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie/Susan Lago/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Beverly Jackson

During its publishing run, from 2002 t0 2006, Literary Potpourri, later known as Ink Pot, featured short stories, flash fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, graphic arts, interviews, newsletter, and contests. Writers the likes of Randall Brown, Terri Brown-Davidson, Myfanwy Collins, Ron Currie, Pia Z. Ehrhardt, Roy Kesey, Roger Morris, Bob Thurber, and Joan Wilking appeared in its pages. Beverly Jackson published "Half of a Yellow Sun" in the second issue. Sometime later, Zoetrope: All-Story published the story, and it went on to win an O. Henry Prize in 2003.

Nominated Short Story: "Half of a Yellow Sun" - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review: by Susan Lago

In “Half of a Yellow Sun,” Nigerian-born Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounts the story of Biafra’s secession from Nigeria in the late 1960s. Told from the perspective of a young Igbo woman from a well-to-do family, the story is more than a history lesson— rather; it is a wrenching personal account of survival during wartime.

The story opens with a triumphant rally in Freedom Square in the university town of Nsukka. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with her fiancé Nnamdi, the narrator recalls the recent massacres of the Igbo while celebrating Biafra’s ascension as an independent nation. Soon Nnamdi leaves to join the Biafran army and the narrator and her family are forced to flee their stately home, finally settling in a hovel surrounded by other refugees. Over the next few months, she and her family scavenge for food and try to keep their hope alive despite defecting Biafran soldiers and the ever-increasing ranks of starving refugees. In the meantime, she and her beloved brother, thirteen-year-old Obi, teach the children of the refugee camp, regaling them with tales of Biafra’s triumph over colonialism along with lessons in History and Mathematics. When Obi becomes seriously ill and the refugee camp is bombed, the narrator can no longer refuse to acknowledge that the war – and the dream of an independent Biafra – is lost.

In the same vein as her compatriot, Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart), Adichie writes of the divide and conquer legacy of Nigeria’s colonial past. Although the narrator is proud of her Igbo heritage, she is not above using her privileged upbringing to push herself to the head of the line at the relief agency to beg food for her family: “I spoke British-accented English, to show how educated I was, to distinguish me from the common villagers…” This postcolonial legacy of self-delusion and subordination allow her equal measures of pride at Nnamdi in his uniform looking like “an Igbo warrior leading his hamlet in battle (but only a fair battle), shouting and charging with his fire-warmed machete, returning with the most heads lolling on sticks” and her home with its “marble staircase and airy verandahs.” At the same time she has an awareness of how she has “created [her] own truths and inhabited them.” Listening to both Nigerian and Biafran radio reports, she tries to discern the reality of what is happening when both sides claim they are winning the war. This dichotomy of propaganda versus truth exists simultaneously at the national level and on a very personal one as well.

Adichie uses Igbo sayings – such as “the maker of the lion does not let the lion eat grass” – to divide each section as well as to build tension. The Igbo words such as “gmelina” “anara,” “imakwa” that are interspersed throughout the text help bring the reader into a world that is largely unknown to most Americans aside from televised images of children with bloated bellies and fly-speckled eyes. Through the lens of history, Adichie wrings irony from a statement like “Ah, Biafra will save Africa!” Yet, her skillful use of detail and imagery makes for a story that could have been little more than a sweeping account, into an intimate look at a young woman’s very human experience. When the narrator and Nnamdi make love on his brief army furlough, she wishes “in a twisted way that the war would never end so that it would have this quality, this quality of nutmeg, tart and lasting.” Describing her hometown, she contends that “The air in Enugu smelled of rain and fresh grass and hope and new anthills.” In a less skillful writer’s hands, the ugliness of the war-torn landscape would have overshadowed the beauty that is to be found in the familiar, the loved.

In reading this story, I wondered uncomfortably – guiltily – if my sympathy for the main character arises as much from her loss of such Western luxuries as her mother’s “manicured nails” and her father’s Peugeot, as for the starving children and homeless refugees. In Adichie’s description of the new Biafran’s confidence that “It would take us only a week to crush Nigeria,” I am reminded of a more recent national hubris. And this is what the best of literature does – causes us to question what we know to be true, see what we have taken for granted, and understand our global community in a new way.

Reviewer's Bio:

Susan Lago is a freelance writer and marketing consultant and has Master of Arts degree in English (concentration in writing) from William Paterson University. Her work has appeared in Verbsap, Writer’s Post Literary Journal, UnlikelyStories, and Scriveners Pen Literary Journal. Susan lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008 Pishko/Julie Ann Shapiro/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Rick Rofihe was launched in the summer of 2005 and publishes short stories, poems, and non-fiction. In 2006, received the storySouth's "Best New Online Magazine or Journal" award. A quote from the storySouth editor: “This new journal features a top-notch editorial crew and started 2005 out with a bang. The journal should achieve even greater heights in the years to come.”

Rick Rofihe has published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Swink, and in many other publications as well. A recipient of the Whiting Writer's Award, he currently teaches at the Gotham Writer's Workshop.

Nominated Short Story: "NIGHT" - Jessica Pishko

Review: by Julie Ann Shapiro

"NIGHT" is an eloquent snap shot of Claire who is on a double date with her best friend post high school. Their destination is somewhere between adulthood and the road to finding oneself, but is lost in moments of drunkenness, yet found again, in the often uninhibited state of intoxication. Claire’s hopelessness with her boyfriend is so authentic. She longs to be cared for like her Dad when he picked her up from drunken high school parties and played Mozart on the way home in silence without judgment. In this almost sacred dome she felt love in its purest form so different than what she feels with Carlos who calls her fat and wants sex. She gives in to him, to the bottle, anything to not feel the heartache and sadness of missing her Dad. And all the while there is her best friend, Kim who is doing her best to care, telling her there are guys that think she’s hot, better guys than Carlos. But Claire has such a low opinion of herself. She wallows in her self pity and sadness trying to be numb, pretending to not care.

The story ends with the couples in their respective beds. There's a sex scene for Claire as unsatisfying as it always is with Carlos drunk and passed out. You know it’s not the end, that there are going to be dozens of nights like this for Claire before she has the guts to rescue herself.

Reviewer's Bio:

Julie Ann Shapiro is a freelance writer, novelist, short story author and Pushcart Nominee. She is flash fiction editor of the new print magazine, Conclave Journal. Julie's novel, Jen-Zen and the One Shoe Diaries is published by Synerge Books. Published short stories and essays have appeared in the San Diego Union Tribune, North County Times, Los Angeles Journal, Pindeldyboz, Sacred Waters/Fire: (Adams Media 2005), storySouth, Word Riot, Opium Magazine, Insolent Rudder, Cezzane’s Carrots, Mad Hatters Review, Ghoti Magazine, Spoiled Ink, Void, Elimae, Footsteps to Oxford, Salome, Skive, The 2nd Hand, Millennium Shift, Mega Era Magazine, Science Fiction and Fantasy World, Green Tricycle, Long Story Short, Storyglossia, Static Movement, Bewildering Times, Somewhat, Uber, Moon Dance, The Quarterly Staple, Journal of Modern Post, Rumble, Long Story Short, Cellar Door Magazine (Spring and Summer Issues 2005), Edifice Wrecked, Espresso Fiction, Flash Fiction – Coffee Cup Series Issue I & II, Red, Neon, Steel Moon Publishing, Every Day Fiction , ISM Quarterly and other magazines.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Storyglossia/Michael J. Davis/Xujun Eberlein/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Steven J. McDermott

Richard Rorty wrote that: "What novels do for us is to let us know how people quite unlike ourselves think of themselves, how they contrive to put actions that appall us in a good light, how they give their lives meaning." I began Storyglossia in 2002 with the belief that stories matter more than novels in that regard. A novel may take you deeper into a particular perspective than a story will, but if you read an equivalent number of story pages, all by different writers, your perspective on life is certain to be enlarged more than it would have been from reading a single novel.

After 28 issues of publishing just short stories, I'm more confident than ever that stories matter, that whatever their form, style, content, that whatever voice they speak with, they embody this life we live and provide, if not always meaning, at least a challenge to make meaning out of chaos or make chaos out of meaning.

I've selected "The Man in Africa" by Michael J. Davis, a story I previously nominated for the Pushcart Prize and which was recently named a notable story for the 2007 Million Writers Award. What draws me to this story is the way it so deliciously reveals--via the tropes of surveillance and voyeurism--the chaos and paranoia pervading our culture. The affective power of the story is achieved with accretion; building up as the character/narrator descends into instability.

Nominated Short Story: "The Man in Africa" - Michael J. Davis

Review: by Xujun Eberlein

The story opens with a long blue paragraph. “Blue because I wanted love and money but got a blue plastic boat cover…” The intensity of the sad color is a little overwhelming; you wonder, naturally, what the story is about – is it another middle class love/marriage crisis? And you might begin to toy with the idea of putting it down. Almost right there the powerful hue flows into a lyrical current and fun dialog. Before long, you'd realize how colorful the character of the narrator is and you'd fall in love with the writing while finding every second-guessing you had on the story arc is wrong.

Will, a high school teacher – in a suburb of San Diego, not Africa – is forced to take a leave of absence, after an incident with a student who is a member of the football team. But you won't know that for a while.

For the time being, you are going to have fun hearing a 22-year-old solider on CNN talk about "basically, seriously, that god is a dirty bomb"; a balding French woman who didn't believe the moon landing had happened and, "It was all just simulation"; and Will's Buddhist golf caddy telling him "it is not the ball that traverses the distance, rather, it is only yourself." You ride on the fun and get lost in it temporarily, that is, until the incident is revealed in retrospect.

But neither the incident itself, nor the forced leave, is what's at stake. You read on and see school on permanent orange alert and signs of kids at war, all the time feeling something alarmingly familiar, something you have experienced that may or may not have occurred in a school environment.

Still you are not sure what the story is about, and before you form a theory you are tangled up with the internet porn and the instant messages and a candlelit prayer-in and the singing "We Shall Overcome."

Now you begin to realize that the narrator is having a number of interpretations of reality that counterplay whimsy and plausibility, and you are drawn into this web of interpretations.

At this point you already know that Will, before browbeating his student, was dumped by his ex-fiancé Lori. You don’t get to meet Lori. You do get to meet her answering machine, and the possibility that Will is not completely comfortable with reality emerges, foreshadowing the coded dialogue Will is going to have with Susan.

Susan is a fellow teacher – and an odd character – from Will’s school who at first appears to be a totally paranoid personality. When Will plays along with her, you get angry with him for not having more empathy, while at the same time are delighted by the apparent delight he is taking in her fantasies. The social commentary that underlies their conversations is quite funny. Susan first calls while Will is flipping between watching pornography and CNN. When they meet the conversation goes:

"I think I'm being watched."

"That's okay." I said, "A lot of people are into that."

Now you can see pretty clearly another layer that is under the surface story. Still you are drawn in by the two characters' coded game. As they continue to meet, Will and Susan develop an odd relationship based on what appears to be meaningless intrigue.

During all of this Will wanders down a road in which he embraces big-brother and accepts paranoid delusions as just another way to think about day to day life. Eventually, as Susan turns the tables (and I won’t spoil the story by saying how), you realize you have been duped. Unlike being tricked in real life, or by a cheap dues ex machina, you'll quite enjoy the feeling.

Another odd character, Sid, appears only at the beginning and the end. Sid is both charming and a little repugnant. And you won't know the reason of his existence until the very end of the story.

Closing the screen, you try to figure out what has made you fall in love with the story. You can't forget Will, who is both compelling in his rendering of detail and at the same time unreliable. The unreliability is, after all, clear from the beginning. You realize that, every detailed observation from Will, however irrelevant it might seem at the time you read it, contributes to the layered psychological plot. During the narration you have found yourself jumping back and forth between complete confidence and utter disbelief. That back and forth keeps the story lively, and the ending, though not literally funny, makes you laugh at the absurdity of politics, everyday reality, and yourself.

Reviewer's Bio:

Xujun Eberlein grew up in Chongqing, China, and moved to the United States in the summer of 1988. After receiving a Ph.D. from MIT in the spring of 1995, and winning an award for her dissertation, she joined a small but ambitious high tech company. On Thanksgiving 2003, she gave up tech for writing. She has since won many literary awards. Her stories and personal essays have been published in the United States, Canada, England, Kenya, and Hong Kong, in magazines such as AGNI, Walrus, PRISM International, StoryQuarterly, Stand and Kwani. Her debut story collection Apologies Forthcoming won the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award and is published in May 2008. More information about the book can be found on Xujun also hosts the literary and cultural blog Inside-out China.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Eclectica/D. E. Fredd/Katrina Denza/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Tom Dooley

Eclectica was founded in October, 1996, with the goal of providing a sterling quality literary magazine on the World Wide Web. The vision was that of a publication not bound by formula or genre, that harnessed technology to further the reading experience rather than for the sake of flashy gimmickry, and that was dynamic and interesting enough content-wise to keep readers coming back for more. Twelve years later, quality is still the sole criterion in our editorial process. If it is outstanding writing, then we want to share it with our ever growing, global readership. We pride ourselves on being one of the longest-running and most consistent literary ezines on the web.

I want to be hooked into reading and then rewarded for the time I spent doing so. When I'm plowing through a hundred or more short stories at a time, it's easy for me to get into a very fickle mindset-not unlike the kind of mindset I imagine the average web surfer might have. If something lacks originality or polish, I'm going to pick up on that within the first paragraph or two. This doesn't mean a story has to have a particular kind of opening paragraph. I'm just looking for assurances that my time isn't going to be wasted if I read further. If I read all the way to the end of the story, I'm then looking for the reward. Ideally, the end of the story-the sum total of it-will have an impact: knock the air out of me, make me laugh, something. Often it's the "something" that I really appreciate: an impact I wasn't expecting, and maybe haven't encountered before.

I could go on and on about why I love this story so much, but I guess the main reason I nominated it was because I wanted to see what someone else might say about it. If pressed, I would say that I love the contrast between joyful inventiveness and inconceivable sadness. I would also say I love the vividly drawn characters and the humanity-spanning canvass upon which they are drawn. I love the first sentence and the last, which are brilliant little bookends. I love that, like all great stories, this one is utterly steeped in its particular time and place, and as a result, emerges as timeless and universal. Go, Steiner!

Nominated Short Story: "Steiner Requests That His Hole Be Dug in Poland" - D. E. Fredd

Review: by Katrina Denza

In the famous Bidpai fable, two good friends, tortoise and scorpion, venture out on a journey together. When they come to a river, the scorpion asks for a ride on the tortoise’s back. The tortoise tells him he would be happy to oblige but he’s worried his friend will sting him. No, no, the scorpion assures him, to do so would surely drown the both of them. So the tortoise agrees but halfway over, the tortoise feels the hot pain of a sting on his back. The tortoise asks his friend why he went back on his promise and the scorpion tells him, I’m truly sorry, but it is my nature. One of my dear friends reminded me of this fable shortly after I read D.E. Fredd’s “Steiner Requests His Hole Be Dug in Poland.” We were at a park with our children and as she was telling the story, it struck me that the same could be said of Fredd’s characters, that each is bound and burdened by his nature.

We enter Fredd’s story through the voice of its wry, slightly paternal narrator who refers to Poland as “The giant, blundering cow lolling about her pasture mindless of the fact that progress is barking at her heels.” The time is April, 1939. Four German soldiers are ambushed just over the Polish border and shot dead. Steiner, a violinist, is also caught wandering around in the woods, looking for his lost lover—or so he claims. And Polish interrogator, Belinski, has no choice but to take Steiner in for “questioning”—or so he claims. For it would seem Belinski does have a choice, but is powerless against the destructive force that is blowing through Europe.

Fredd parses his narrative artfully. The structure of the piece allows the reader to see the situation, the capture and questioning of Steiner, against the larger picture: Europe just before Hitler invades Poland. He mixes in scenes of Steiner’s interrogation with ruminations on holes, with Steiner’s life as a musician-husband-lover, with Belinski’s polite sense of duty. And every now and then he draws the camera back so that we may be privy to the larger trouble man is in.

The titles of the segments are as thoughtful as the prose that follows: “It Is a Very Pleasant Day So Far. The Sky Is Filled with Bundled Cloudlings, Which Edge Down to Extra-Hear Steiner Being Questioned,” or, “The Author Interrupts the Narrative to Insert Some Extraneous Material relating to Holes in Various Countries and the Role, if any, Ascribed to Each.”

The situation is grim, the tension is high, the narrative authority is unquestionable, but what really makes this story an incredible read is the language. Fredd’s details are not only economical, they’re imaginative and serve to further enhance the mood of the story as in this description of Belinski: “From a medium distance one might think Belinski handsome, but his eyes, as one closes the gap, are set too close together, and his chin angles into his neck too quickly. This causes him to breathe through the mouth. He has developed the habit of muttering. It’s as if his brain were incapable of thinking inside itself.” Or as in this passage: “Hauptmann, the soldier, lies in the forest under a foot of earth. A worm is slowly burrowing its way through his leather boot. Hauptman is unmoved by the matter. His dedication to life has ended. In a way it’s a relief, as dedication for a German is always so much more burdensome than for another.” Hauptman’s worm brings to mind Hitler’s unrelenting madness burrowing its way through Europe.

In a time when people are called to consider the definition of torture and its usefulness versus its harmfulness this story spells it out quite nicely: “Yet torture often yields nothing more than a bastard version of the truth.”

One of the ironies in Fredd’s tale, if we are to believe Belinski’s motives are duty-bound, is that the act of defense compels the interrogator to engage in the very violence he is fighting against. Such an irony reveals the fact that we are all tangled in the roots of our nature, as are the characters in this affecting, brilliantly written short story.

Reviewer's Bio:

Originally from Vermont, Katrina Denza lives in North Carolina with her family. Her stories can be found in issues of New Delta Review; The Emrys Journal; The MacGuffin; The Jabberwock Review; REAL; The Emerson Review; Passages North; Storyglossia; wigleaf; elimae; SmokeLong Quarterly; and Cranky, among others, and in upcoming issues of REAL and Confrontation. A four time Pushcart nominee, she’s served as guest editor and submissions editor for SmokeLong Quarterly and guest editor for Storyglossia.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this short story.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

FRiGG/Daphne Buter/Bonnie ZoBell/Flash Fiction Review

Nominating Editor: Ellen Parker

FRiGG is a quarterly online-only journal that features short stories (flashes and longer stories), poetry, and occasionally creative nonfiction. Sometimes we showcase photographers. Online since spring 2003, FRiGG is an odd little venture; the stuff in it tends to be dark, idiosyncratic, sometimes profane, often funny, revelatory, maybe a teeny bit sick. All the stuff in it is smart. People are initially struck by the stunning artwork throughout FRiGG. Most of this artwork is done by Al Faraone, a high school teacher, husband, and father who lives in rural Virginia where he doesn’t even have cable Internet! (He has dial-up.) He creates artwork in Photoshop, so it’s all digital art—meaning it doesn’t exist on paper or canvas; it’s just pixels. FRiGG is just pixels and HTML code, which is a lovely concept, really, and we don’t archive the issues in their entirety—we archive only the stories and poems individually—so once an issue is no longer live a lot of the material is gone ... although all it remains forever somewhere in cyberspace, if you’re clever enough to find it. Google has it cached. Perhaps this is not comforting.

On second thought, it’s not true that FRiGG is just pixels and HTML code. What it is, mostly, is people’s words. It’s stuff people have written that they want you to read. These people are talking to you. The artwork serves as a lure to get you to read these people’s words.

This story by Daphne Buter appeared in FRiGG in spring 2004, along with four others by Ms. Buter (and you should read the others, too, because they're all short and they go well as a group). Daphne Buter is a fiction writer who has published books in her native Dutch language, but she didn’t start writing in English until recent years. These stories are among her first attempts to write stories directly in English—her previous stories had been translated from Dutch into English—and when I first saw them, I flipped my lid. She speaks to us with a voice and a point of view that are singular. Her diction is often startling. The fact that English is her second language only enhances the power and poignancy of her stories because she says things in a way that native English speakers would never have thought of.

Nominated Flash Fiction:Don’t Buy Me This Crap, Will You?” - Daphne Buter

Review: by Bonnie ZoBell

The no-bullshit narrator of Daphne Buter’s wonderful flash, “Don’t Buy Me This Crap, Will You?” lets it be known right away that she ain’t fitting into any status quo if it means acting like the humans she observes, especially her neighbors. And by the time she finishes giving us the rundown of their phony shenanigans, we’ve been completely won over by this candid yet endearing narrator.

The beauty of Buter’s writing is in how subtly she encourages the reader to fall into the mind of this unnamed young woman. The language is so fluid and nuanced in exploring her flawed neighbors that before we know it she’s got us laughing at ourselves. We ARE those people she sees out her window, though we’d prefer to identify with this quirky narrator who sees through it all.

Nothing is as it should be in Buter’s narrator’s offbeat world. This young woman awakens the birds in the morning, rather than their waking her. Her cat is named A Dog. The angel in her world is happiest refusing to speak to people and threatening to kick them to death. That would be because the only angel in her life is a neighbor, Angel, who is “so colourless and dull, he should be buried right away.”

What she sees is much more real than what most of us see, certainly more real than what her neighbors do, and yet who knows what’s real, especially after spying on these the people whose property abuts hers? Buter’s protagonist is natural and nuanced; her character guileless and unaware she’s revealing so much. She’s an annoyed young woman looking out her window, but with so much charm it’s easy to see why the work of Daphne Buter, who lives in Amsterdam and writes in both Dutch and English, is so highly regarded.

Every last one of the neighbors in her story loves to garden, and plants the exact same two flowers until our protagonist becomes nauseous at the sight of one more bed of gardenias and chrysanthemums. First one neighbor, then soon all the rest, build nature in their backyards—fake pools lowered into the ground with fake birds—and somebody’s idea of a joke, Dwarves whose red penises recycle water.

Is it any wonder that even the “Angel” overseeing the narrator’s life is willing to kill live cats to protect his precious goldfish and phony yard, discourage live herons from flying down and ruining his phony one that stands on one leg next to the penis-wielding dwarves?

Buter’s potent narrator is yelled at for her live cat attacking Angel’s fake heron, who cost a lot of money, and who is there to protect his yard from the real heron, who was in fact the one who stole the live goldfish. This is told from the unsophisticated voice of our heroine, who doesn’t need to leave her home to see the irony with which we homo sapiens have agreed to live.

Kudos to Buter for allowing her colorful character full rein in exploring this comic but telling world view. The writing is seamless, the dialogue rapid and precise, and the reader is never once taken out of the fictive dream. Kudos to FRiGG for its uncanny eye in continuing to find these subtle gems.

Reviewer's Bio:

Bonnie ZoBell has received an NEA for her fiction and a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award for a story that was later read on NPR. She also won the Capricorn Novel Award and an Honorable Mention for the James Jones Novel Contest. One of her stories was included in American Fiction: The Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, edited by Joyce Carol Oates. ZoBell’s work has appeared in such print magazines as The Bellingham Review, The Greensboro Review, Art & Understanding: America's AIDS Magazine, Cosmopolitan Magazine, and The Cimarron Review, and in online magazines like Insolent Rudder, Pequin, SmokeLong Quarterly, FRiGG, and Hobart. She has held residencies at Yaddo, MacDowell, VCCA, and other colonies. She received an MFA from Columbia on fellowship and has been teaching at a community college in San Diego for some years. Some of her current work:

“Storks” in Insolent Rudder.

“Slaves” in Hobart (web).

“People Scream” in Static Movement.

Thanks for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this flash fiction.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Smokelong Quarterly/S.H. Gall/Kirsten Menger-Anderson/Flash Fiction Review

Nominating Editor: Dave Clapper

SmokeLong Quarterly is dedicated to bringing the best flash fiction to the web on a quarterly basis, whether written by widely published authors, or those new to the craft. The term "smoke-long" comes from the Chinese, who noted that reading a piece of flash takes about the same length of time as smoking a cigarette. All the work we publish is precisely that―about a smoke long.

Being asked to pick my all-time favorite story from SmokeLong is a little bit like being asked to pick my favorite son. So I went with a sentimental favorite that I don't think has gotten a lot of attention previously. I wanted to go back to Issue One, when I was a little more wide-eyed about what running a lit mag meant. And there's lots of great content in there, but I remember well when this story came in and our reaction to it, how blown away we were by the sheer... well, gall of it. Seems appropriate that's the author's name, no? Whatever became of S.H. Gall anyway? I just googled the name and found only this story. From his bio, I see that he was in Word Riot, so I went and found that, and see that he also has published as Seth Gall. Googled that, too, and found only the Word Riot piece. Oh, where have you gone, Seth Gall?

Nominated Flash Fiction: "Gerontophile: An Imposition" - S.H. Gall

Reviewed: by Kirsten Menger-Anderson

I'm always impressed by writers, such as S.H. Gall, who choose the flash fiction form and then write a piece that reads more like poetry than fiction. "Gerontophile: An Imposition" tells the story of a moment on a half-full city bus, and each time I read the piece, I see that moment in a slightly different way. As I read, I feel like I'm listening into a conversation, trying to imagine the storyteller and his circumstance from the clues woven into the narrative. I'm curious, and want to turn around to see the person speaking, but I never do because that mystery is nice.

I don't have to imagine the other character in the tale, an older man, who is well described with memorable phrases such as "His lips, resembling in their sucked red pallor an anus"and "Hair, lakewater gray, and chopped short" and "His shirt, striped, fuzzy, is of fabric like velour and wreaks havoc with sunlight." He sits across the aisle from the narrator, whose attraction to the man becomes apparent in the story's descriptive language before the narrator wonders, "Would he kiss me?"

What happens next changes each time I read the story. Sometimes, I believe that the narrator does indeed rise from his seat to take a place next to his fellow passenger. Sometimes I believe that he kisses the man, and that the man does indeed follow the narrator off the bus and into his home where they kiss and fuck. Other times, I think that the narrator only imagines the events described. "Nothing has happened," he keeps saying. "Nothing has happened."

"Gentrontophile: An Imposition" captures the quick excitement of physical attraction and the suspended moment of vulnerability that follows admitted desire and response. Whether the interaction is fantasy or fact matters little. I'm glad that I'm given the space to imagine the moment myself.

Reviewer's Bio:

Kirsten Menger-Anderson's first book of fiction, Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain, is forthcoming from Algonquin this Fall (2008). She lives in San Francisco with her husband, daughter, cat, and guinea pig. For more information about her book or her background, please see her website.

Thank you for visiting Five Star Literary Stories and reading about this flash fiction.

Monday, May 12, 2008

elimae/Norman Lock/Kay Sexton/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Cooper Renner

elimae began in 1996, edited and designed by Deron Bauman. When Bauman handed the reins over to me at the end of 2004, it had already had almost a decade to establish itself among writers and readers interested in what usually gets called, for better or worse, experimental or avant-garde fiction and poetry. A great deal of the fiction at elimae is flash fiction, not necessarily because I prefer it per se but perhaps because the focus of flash fiction helps writers to work at a higher level of quality. Certainly I'm far more likely to see a first-rate flash of 230 words than a longer story of 2300 words. Longer works have a tendency to become more explicative than experiential, more ruminant than direct. Explicative, ruminant stories can be powerful, in the hands of a truly gifted and hard-working writer, but more often the tendency is toward a more traditional and even conventional approach in a longer work. elimae prefers writers to work against conventional thought, not in a deliberately anarchic or iconoclastic sense, but rather in the old Modernist sense of making it new. elimae also publishes a fair amount of comic work, a mode which often opens a writer's mind to the less conventional since so much of comedy depends upon surprise. There is no money involved in the production of elimae at all. I receive no salary, the writers receive no payment, and there is no ad revenue. I don't, therefore, have to be concerned about commercial appeal. This allows me to focus on work that appeals to me, whose care with the word draws me in, rather than work that might pay bills. Even in this imperfect world, the writers' abilities may attract readers who want art as much as psychology, verbal dexterity as much as truth, whatever that truth may be. If there is an axis whose poles are Dada and Brave New World, elimae aims to lie as near the center of that axis as it can.

"Out of the Land of the Snow Men," purportedly by George Belden, but actually by Norman Lock, may not be a "typical" elimae story, if there is such a thing, but it represents the devotion to the written word that elimae strives, at its best, to embody. While the story teems with content--polar explorers, personal animosity, death at the "hands" of nature--that content is not sociological in the sense that so much of contemporary American fiction is. It is not designed to help us understand the daily lives of our fellows, or the times in which we live, or the ways in which individual men and women find meaning in their lives. It is, in my view at least, art for art's sake--it creates its own world and moves ably within it. It aims, like all of Lock's work, to use words the way gifted painters use brushes. Lock's strength is to draw the reader in with his verbal ability, no matter what his content may be. His readers don't turn to his books and stories because of his content, but rather because they know that works will always be written with a linguistic power out of the reach of all but a few writers.

Nominated Short Story: "Out of the Land of the Snow Men" - Norman Lock

Review: by Kay Sexton

The nature of this story is carried in the third line on the page, before you even get to the narrative. "Out of the Land of the Snow Men" (by) George Belden (but) Prepared for publication by Norman Lock is a hint that the reader is about to make a journey without a guaranteed destination, or even any recognisable landmarks, but it doesn’t become evident that this is a complete jeu d’esprit, until the final paragraph, when the reader is told that not only did George Belden live out his days in an insane asylum, but he never visited the Antarctic, and the journal from which this extract is purportedly taken was found at the asylum by Norman Lock who was convalescing there. Of course this is fiction, but the fiction extends beyond the narrative into the construction around the narrative: this collection of supposedly real people with apparently verifiable histories. The layers contained within the fiction ask us to question our own understanding, not just of the story, but of the nature of storytelling itself.

Belden’s journal purports to tell of travelling to Antarctica to build a memorial for those who died during Scott’s epic journey to the Pole, but the writer of the final biographical paragraph tells us Belden never got to the Antarctic. His record of the journey is therefore not just false, but - because he wrote it while insane - doubly false: it is not ‘right’ (factually) and it is not ‘right’ (mentally). His assistant to publication, Lock, is/has been mentally ill too; he found Belden’s journal at the same asylum while there as a patient, so his involvement in the tale is also suspicious because his factual/mental balance is as dubious as that of Belden.

What makes this complex layering of doubt admirable is the deftness with which Lock handles his material, and the way that he forces the reader to question their own understanding of a range of ‘facts’ without ever hammering us over the head with the surreal and experimental nature of the narrative. In fact, we are two-thirds of the way through that narrative before our first doubts are confirmed – this is not a true history. The arrival of a trolley car in the snow of Antarctica, forces us to accept that the stream of consciousness we have been sharing is false.

Until this point we’ve inhabited the head of a man afraid but also persuasive, a coward who is still determined to rescue Scott if he can, an artist who sees everything in Antarctica – a natural white void, in terms of the most complex and ‘civilised’ artefacts of the modern world - fabric, ceramic, precious metal, sculpture. Now the reader must make a decision, before reaching the end of the story; the introduction of a surreal element makes us adjust our perspective on the narrative – do we trust the narrator, and if so, how far? This device means the reader inhabits the story, somewhat uneasily, and is forced to shift their perception, taking an active part in the process of ‘constructing’ the tale.

The language used throughout the story is light – almost jolly in tone (on a second reading it’s easy to declare this is the manic phase of a manic/depressive cycle, but on a first reading it’s just elegant, joyous prose, demonstrating another way that the reader alters their relationship to the story) and works precisely to keep the reader unsettled and yet engaged by the nature of the story. On this level Lock makes the story playful and describes the scenes of death and abandonment with an eye for beauty (Belden’s eye) that leaves the reader uncertain again: is this really tragedy? On another level, this ability to transmute the horror of freezing to death into a kind of wilful immortality forces another question – how much of what we think we know is shaped by the words that frame it?

"Out of the Land of Snow Men" is a perfect example of what the short story can do that the novel cannot – it challenges the reader on many levels, without ever becoming heavy or polemic, and the seduction of the story leaves the reader uneasily complicit in a fictional reshaping of a historic tragedy into something close to humor.

Reviewer's Bio:

In the five years she has been writing, Kay Sexton’s fiction has been chosen for over twenty anthologies. In 2006 she completed ‘Green Thought in an Urban Shade’, a words and pictures exhibition with Irish painter Fion Gunn that explored parks and green space in four cities around the world. ‘Green Thought’ was shown at two London galleries, Dublin’s National Botanic Gardens and the Tsinghua University, Beijing. Recent magazine publications include Ambit, Frogmore Papers, Lichen ( Canada ), and Mindprints ( USA ). So far, in 2008, she was commissioned to write a short story broadcast on national radio in March, has been a finalist in the Willesden Herald fiction contest judged by Zadie Smith, and won the Fort William Festival Contest. Her novel, Gatekeeper, is currently with an agent and she is working on a second novel about pornography and rivers in 1920s Hampshire.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Harpur Palate/Sarah Domet/Louis E. Catron/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Holly Wendt

Established in 2000 as a semiannual literary magazine, Harpur Palate publishes works of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry that demonstrate attention to craft, structure, language, and the story well told. Harpur Palate is produced by graduate students in English at Binghamton University and named after the University's Harpur College of Arts and Sciences and for its distinctive taste in literary fare.

We chose this piece because Domet explores and explodes the concept of the romance novel while simultaneously weaving a significant and engaging narrative into the story's metafictional bones. Her narrator's voice is selectively revealing, but charming; the reader is drawn in first by the form and its wry twist of humor, and then held by the very honest and human context of the narrator's broken marriage.

Nominated Short Story: "To Write a Romance" - Sarah Domet

Review: by Louis E. Catron

When life turns as sour as month-old milk, we can rant like King Lear on the heath; we can sit motionless like the static tramps who wait for Godot; we can follow Job’s wife’s advice to “curse God and die”; we can accept the politician’s glib advice to “move bravely forward”; or to give ourselves a perfect world—or at least a better world—and an escape from a dung heap of reality, we can use the restorative escapism of our imagination. For Sarah Domet’s protagonist, deserted by her husband, Carl, who took their infant with him—her child she did not love—the latter is the palliative device of choice. Like Anais Nin, Ms. Domet seems to believe that “dreams are necessary to life.”

Imagination is central here. Ms. Domet nicely prompts us to participate in her story, “To Write a Romance,” by stimulating our imaginations. Cleverly, she creates not one but two appeals to the imagination. First, we of course relate to her protagonist (I’ll return to this in a moment.) who is herself on a flight of fancy, and that empathically encourages us to join her imaginative journey. Secondly, we must imagine the basic situation and, more importantly, the reasons for it. Yes, Ms. Domet gives us vital clues, but she respects the reader’s intelligence and therefore doesn’t resort to flashing neon lights to direct our attention to them.

She neatly frames her story with advice to writers for writing a romance. She starts by using a quotation: Visualize your hero. Think about real men you know or have seen whose characteristics you can blend to model him. She continues to use similar quotations for transitions through her story, rather like Beethoven’s thematic chords. (Although she doesn’t cite her source, the quotations seem to be from an “eHow” website about “How to Develop a Romance Hero.”) For the reader, these instructions are vital clues. Some readers may hear echoes of Joan Wilder, the romance novelist in the 1984 film, Romancing the Stone.

Interestingly, despite the advice to think about real men, Sandy, the imaginary hero in this story, remains thin and undeveloped, more of an object to serve the protagonist than a real man. Are we to conclude that fantasy creations lack human dimensions?

That initial quotation starting the story immediately alerts us that we’re leaving reality. To ensure that the reader is on board for the journey, Domet wisely gives another clue in the first paragraph as her character’s imagination works to establish the perfect setting for her romantic hero’s appearance. He sees me in a bar, drinking a martini, dirty. Or rather, a museum. It is a museum, and I am pondering a Pollock piece. Canceling the bar and substituting museum and a Pollock painting shows us her fantasy needs a certain elevation, a class, which to me gives her imagination another nice dimension, a freedom to create what she needs. (I suspect the character has never actually seen a Pollock, and if she saw one she would probably agree with one Pollock critic who said the artist’s drip paintings were mere wallpaper.)

There’s much to admire in Ms. Domet’s writing. In one passage I especially like, Ms. Domet’s character defines her past self, a victim of stodgily proper and boring routine. I packed my lunch every day, usually a salad, sometimes a sandwich—sometimes a small salad and half sandwich. I wore my seatbelt always, even when parked. I never ran yellow lights. I went to bed by 10:30. The seatbelt reference is especially clever and I rather wish she had made it the last sentence, on the premise that such passages are best when they build.

Clever, too, are sentences like this: I’m a woman with needs, a heroine in search of a hero, a ying looking for some yang. Here she deftly puts the punch at the end.

There’s a neat writer’s skill, too, in parallelisms such as these two sentences by Carl about his new love.

"I love her,” he said. And I knew he did.

I’m sorry,” he said. And I believed he was.

Or a final example of Ms. Domet’s writing ability, speaking about Sandy: And when he leans in to kiss me, I think about many things: the warmth of his lips, the way his tongue lifts mine as though helping it out of my mouth. I think about kisses in general, so odd the way humankind is attracted to tongues and spit and orifices. “Spit” is marvelously out of place in that paean to a kiss.

It’s clear that the male character—Sandy—is a fantasy creation. More subtle is the protagonist’s attempt to change herself from reality to a fantasy she wishes to create. Is she successful? When she’s with Sandy, she says, And I couldn’t be happier. Really. That last one-word sentence compels our attention. Is she trying to convince herself? Can she?

We recognize what she wants when she defines what she experiences with Sandy: for the first time I think that maybe love can be easy, two dimensional, uncomplicated—like a children’s puzzle where the pieces are dramatically large, shaped and colored in obvious ways so it’s easy to make connections. It’s a pleasant thought. That she uses a children’s puzzle rather puts the idea in perspective.

To create an alternative fantasy universe, we need exorcise the demons of reality. Domet’s character says, But this story isn’t. . .about Carl, her husband who left her for another woman, taking their infant whom she did not love. Later she says, I don’t wish to talk about Carl. Yet Carl re-enters the story repeatedly like the tolling of a funeral bell. Are we to conclude that fantasies simply can’t overcome grim reality? Or that with more development and time the fantasy will grow in strength and Carl will evaporate like a wisp of cloud?

The story ends with the characters going to the museum’s miniature antique rooms, two fantasy characters entering a doll’s house where they will bed and. . .and what? Is fantasy sex fulfilling?

One small problem I have with Ms. Domet’s story probably is simply a matter of personal style. She never gives her character a name. I’m one who believes that such specifics give readers something solid to cling to. Without a name, for me it is more difficult to empathize fully with the protagonist. A name, I think, is a vital part of character definition. After all, isn’t a “Billy Bob” a different human than a “Biff,” a “Lindsay” unlike an “Abigail”?

A second problem I perceive is a bit more difficult to explain. I start by quoting three passages:

such is not the case with this Sandy, not the case with our hero.

I am the heroine of the story—the hero’s heroine, Sandy’s heroine. I’ve always wanted to be a heroine,

His voice feels like a hundred pin pricks in my back. His voice is acupuncture.

Repetition is, I think, a fragile tool best used carefully or it will shatter of its own weight. For illustration, consider Tennessee Williams, surely a master of repetition for poetic effect. For but one example, in his iconic A Streetcar Named Desire, speaking to her sister Stella of the loss of the run down plantation Belle Reve, Blanche says, I, I, I took the blows in my face and body. All of those deaths! Her speech would be pallid as yesterday’s dishwater with but one “I.” Blanche continues, The long parade to the graveyard! Father, mother! Margaret, that dreadful way! So big with it, it couldn’t be put in a coffin! But had to be burned like rubbish! You just come home in time for the funerals, Stella. And funerals are pretty compared to deaths. Funerals are quiet, but deaths–not always. The repetitions of “funeral” and “death” and comparable images add impact. Yet this master faltered in his A Period of Adjustment. I shuddered every time a character said, “We’re just going through a period of adjustment.” And that was just in Act One.

The moral here? Repetition can be poetic. Or off-putting.

For me, Ms. Domet’s story would be stronger with judicious editing of repetition.

Those two problems—if, indeed, they are problems—don’t diminish the overall power of this story about a hunger to find a remedy for loneliness, a plaintive need to repair a shattered life.

Ms. Domet’s story takes us on a journey of hope. She wisely leaves it up to the reader to decide if the journey is successful for her protagonist. Indeed, one of the strengths we see here is the writer’s faith in the reader to read intelligently and—surely—imaginatively.

Google has little information on the author, but based on the strengths of this story, my guess is that we’ll be seeing more of Sarah Domet’s writing.

Reviewer's Bio:

Louis E. Catron has been a stock car racer, an actor, a newspaper reporter, a circus barker, a playwright, a pilot, a theatrical director, a sailboat racer, a college professor (the College of William and Mary). Along the way he’s won significant awards for directing, playwriting, and teaching. Many of his students have become well-known actors, screenwriters, and television writers, and over two dozen have written successful books. He’s author of a number of books, articles, and plays; one of his plays has been performed several thousand times in every state in America and a number of times in Canada. With a deep sense of returning home, he recently renewed a childhood dream of writing fiction and he’s currently seeking publication of a completed novel and a collection of short stories.

1. Go here (an Amazon site) to read a Louis E. Catron short story, "The Good Stuff."

2. Or here to read another short story, "Fat Busters, Inc."

3. Or here for yet another story, "Aunt Rose Lee and the Battle of the Roses."

Personal website.

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Monday, May 5, 2008

Vestal Review/Robert Olen Butler/Jim Tomlinson/Flash Fiction Review

Nominating Editor: Mark Budman

Vestal Review is a semi-annual perfect-bound print magazine with the Web presence, devoted to what we consider an underrepresented type of fiction: flash (or short-short) stories. A good flash, replete with a cohesive plot, rich language and enticing imagery, is perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write. A good flash is so condensed that it borderlines poetry. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of its read, but for a long time after.

Vestal Review is an eclectic magazine, open to all genres except children's stories and hard science fiction. It includes four live flash stories per quarterly Web issue, plus a teaser for three or four more that will be available only in the semi-annual print edition. Vestal Review has been published continuously since March 2000.

We are blessed with a deluge of submissions and therefore are very selective.

Our contributors include Steve Almond, Katharine Weber, Mike Resnick, Aimee Bender, Sam Lipsyte, Kirk Nesset, Judith Cofer, Bruce Boston, Robert Boswell, Bruce Holland Rogers, Michelle Richmond, Liz Rosenberg and Pamela Painter.

We are an official Pushcart-nominating press. Our stories have been reprinted in the Mammoth Book of Minuscule Fiction, Flash Writing, E2Ink anthologies and have been printed in the WW Norton Anthology Flash Fiction Forward.

Vestal Review was featured on NPR in 2004, and is a recipient of the Broome Council of the Arts grant. We pay professional rates of 3 - 10 cents a word plus a contributor's copy.

I chose this previously unpublished story because it combines an unusual format and rich language. "Intercourse" blends together two profound human acts: love and dying, killing two stones with one bird.

Nominated Flash Fiction: "Intercourse" - Robert Olen Butler

Review: by Jim Tomlinson

I’ve been a fan of Robert Olen Butler’s fiction since first reading his collection, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, several years ago. I was taken with his ability to fully inhabit his Vietnamese-American characters and make each one specific, unique and so very real. I enrolled in Butler’s 2003 workshop at Indiana University Writers Conference, studying for a week with him there, hearing him read from his work. Anyone who has attended a Butler reading will not be surprised to learn that his father was an actor and theater professor and that Butler in college was a theater major and playwright. His work is all about the characters, and his greatest skill is how thoroughly, how convincingly he suffuses himself into characters, how he inhabits them.

So I come to reviewing this fiction from an admittedly biased perspective. I’ve admired Butler’s fiction for years. I appreciate how helpful the man and his teachings have been in my writing career. I read each new Butler story expecting great things.

If the short-short from Vestal Review is representative, Intercourse will be one of Butler’s best books. While not yet released, online sources indicate that it will present brief, first-person narratives of the first sexual encounters of famous couples from history, including Adam & Eve, Bonnie & Clyde, Pocahontas & John Smith, Richard Milhous Nixon & Pat Nixon, Walt Whitman & Oscar Wilde, Elvis Presley & Holly Singleton, Princess Diana & Prince Charles, Bill Clinton & Hillary Rodham, and Santa Claus and Ingebirgitta (an elf). With so many fields on which Butler can loose his imagination and wit, it should be a most entertaining book.

The "Intercourse" episode in Vestal Review—Atilla the Hun and twelfth wife, Ildico, in the year 453—is written in the language of consciousness, two streams not fashioned into neat sentences, yet coherent enough and fully comprehensible to the reader. Atilla’s consciousness is intruded upon at the beginning of intercourse by a rupturing artery and, in his dying moments, he has a vision of Pope Leo accompanied by Christ, who, through an ultimate “turning of the cheek” gesture, triumphs. With great skill, Butler’s relates this scene entirely through the perceptions of a character who neither knows nor has a basis for belief for much of what he experiences. And yet the reader understands. How? By interpreting the reactions of Atilla’s horse, which “knows to mutter and rear,” through Atilla’s beginning to tremble at the approach of the unarmed Christ, and his sudden certainty that, in cutting the offered throat, he would be lost.

Meanwhile, his bride’s experience of their intercourse is much different. (I suspect that this will be true in many Intercourse stories.) Ildico accepts the brutality of the ceremonial wedding rituals and still hopes to fulfill her role as wife. When she feels Atilla’s sudden weakening, she interprets this according to her own desires, that this be a moment of new gentleness. She wants to find a tender side to her new husband, and lives in that illusion for the moment. Again, we, as readers, know more than the character. Atilla is not tender, just dying.

In all the wisdom and humor of Butler’s stories, an irony often comes shining through—how very little his characters (and, by extension, people) know or truly share with their “shared” experiences, even those as supposedly intimate as intercourse.

At his Indiana workshop, Bob Butler cautioned that fiction is, above all, a thing of art. “We are not meant to understand a work of art,” he said, “but to thrum to it.” He called analysis of literature “a secondary and artificial concern.” So I’ll simply urge you, if you haven’t already done so, to read his intercourse story in Vestal Review. Read and thrum to it.

Reviewer's Bio:

Jim Tomlinson’s debut short story collection, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, won the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Five Points, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, New Stories from the South, 2008 and elsewhere. He received a 2008 NEA Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, Sewanee Writers Conference and Wesleyan Writers Conference. This winter he will be visiting writer at Eastern Kentucky University’s new brief-residency MFA program. An engineer by training, Jim lives and writes in rural Kentucky.

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Saturday, May 3, 2008

HOBART/Andrew Bomback/Donald Capone/Flash Fiction Review

Nominating Editor: Aaron Burch

HOBART is a literary journal that started online, grew into print, and now has a presence in both, each of which has grown (largely independent of the other) over the last six or seven years in fits and spurts. At some point we adopted the some-have-said too-self-deprecating subtitle: "another literary journal" because, really, there is a good number of us (lit journals) and we are all largely trying to do the same thing, I think. Also, we (Hobart) are generally self-deprecating. I'm never very good at describing or explaining the journal but readers and reviewers usually say things like "humorous but engaging" and "literary but not stuffy" and I like both of those. I think I/we tend to lean toward stories that are entertaining and interesting as readers first, and everything else comes after that.

At some point in the last couple of years, Claudia Smith, Savannah Schroll-Guz, and Jensen Whelan took over the reigns of the website as Web Editors (along with Matthew Simmons as Interviews Editor and Sean Carman as Photo Editor, though Ryan Molloy has recently taken over for him and other changes are in the process) and the website has become much better because of them.

I thought I would start with something from the most recent issue of Hobart because, well, because it is most recent. But also because that means I got to choose something from our annual baseball issue, which is our only real "special issue" every year and one of my favorites, and has become the one web issue that I still edit after having handed just about everything else over to the web editors.

I could have easily chosen any of the stories from the baseball issue, but I thought I'd highlight Bomback's because I think it is a great example of what I so often love in a story. Actually, a year or two ago, Kelly Spitzer did a round of people spotlighting stories from around the web and I chose a story from Agni online and said about it: "The story reads a little like a humor piece... and, like the best humor pieces, a story unfolds through the pieces and the whole adds up to more than a sum of its pieces." I think that last bit is one of my favorite cliches to say about stories but, of course, true, and the same quote could be used for Bomback's story. It is written like a letter to a newspaper and is about baseball but also ends up painting a pretty great picture of this guy writing the letter, his relationship to baseball and his wife and there are some great both humorous and real moments.

Nominated Flash Fiction: "I've Got Dreams to Remember" - Andrew Bomback

Review: by Donald Capone

A baseball fan has plenty of dreams—especially in April. Both dreams of what can be, and memories of past glory. Set up effectively as a letter to the editor of a baseball magazine, "I've Got Dreams to Remember" by Andrew Bomback reveals as much about the hopes of the Mets fan who pens the letter (he calls himself "A Believer"), as it does about how intricately baseball itself is woven into the man's life (and in fact, the life of any die-hard fan). As a die-hard fan myself (Yankees), I can relate to this.

Historic baseball moments are markers in our lives, both good and bad. "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" in baseball terms may be, "Where were you when the ball rolled through Buckner's legs?" Another marker, for me, is the time Mike Mussina took a perfect game two outs into the ninth inning on the night of my friend's wedding. So Bomback's fan is wanting more than wins and losses, more than first place versus second place in the magazine's preview issue. What he wants are more markers to define this upcoming year of his life.

The fan begins his letter in a straightforward manner, with the man arguing against the magazine's choice of the Phillies over the Mets for the NL East championship. His points are valid; after all the Mets finish the season at home, while the Phils face a brutal West Coast swing. He then follows this with his own predictions for the 2008 season, the kind that stray away from the baseball diamond and have him as a player—a player in the game that is his life. He begins to reveal more and more details about himself: His past and current relationship with his wife, with an ex-girlfriend, and even an imagined conversation with the roommate of the ex-girlfriend at the ex's upcoming wedding; then finally with his hopes and plans for the future, both on the field and off.

Eventually, he envisions himself in October, the Mets as World Champions, his relationship with his wife now solid, maybe even with a baby on the way, to be born during the following baseball season:

"I'll put on a coat and take a walk around my quiet suburban block...I'll end up back on my front lawn, which will probably be frozen, and I'll look at my house, and I'll stare at my dark bedroom, where my wife will already be asleep, and I'll be happy. The Mets will have won. And the next morning I'll tell her all about the victory. I'll tell her that I love her. I'll suggest maybe we should try getting pregnant now."

This is the ultimate happiness for him, the prediction he really wants to come true. The letter ends with an enthusiastic "Ya gotta believe!," Tug McGraw's rally cry of the 1973 New York Mets. In baseball, as in life, you got to believe, otherwise, what's the point?

Reviewer's Bio:

Donald Capone’s stories have appeared in Edgar Literary Magazine, Word Riot, Weekly Reader's READ magazine, and Thieves Jargon, as well as the anthologies See You Next Tuesday, Skive Quarterly 6, and Rebellion: New Voices of Fiction, which he also edited, and which was a finalist in the 2006 USA Book News awards. His comic novel, Into the Sunset, is available on Amazon and other places.

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Night Train/Merry Speece/Clifford Garstang/Short Story Review

Nominating Editor: Rusty Barnes

Night Train (ISSN 1540-5494) is an online journal and print annual that debuted in the fall of 2002. Our web site includes the full text of print issues I-VI in PDF, and from Issue VII on, will publish full issues online on a quarterly basis. During our tenure as a traditional print journal, we received acclaim from sources as diverse as,,, Literary Magazine Review, the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, the New York Times, The Writer, National Public Radio, the Million Writers Award, the Pushcart prize, and many other local and national outlets, on matters relating to our innovative Rail Stop Sponsorship program as well as our published fiction.

Night Train has published many stories over the last six years or so, and all of them have made their marks on me as publisher and editor, but I retain a special fondness for Merry Speece's 'Stone Dog,' because it embodies what I'd like to see as an editor: beautiful and poetic language, and a captivating variant on an old theme. From the first paragraph, "John Clair you do this thing you do this thing you do this thing. Turn over stones and find something alive, pink, and suddenly writhing." The careful attention to rhythm, the headlong repetition, the sudden torque of the period in just the right place--it's just lovely. Then, in the next sentence, the commas slowing the pace, and the apt placement of the often-overused 'suddenly.' She had me by the throat and kept me poised, and this story lurks in my mind even now, five years later, as I read through stories and decide why or why not to publish them. How close do they come to choking off my breath? That's the question we ought to be asking, and like writers fail often in what they write, so too do editors fail in what they accept. Probably 98% of the time. It's a harsh business. Doesn't mean every other story I've published is bad--far from it--it's just that sometimes what we find and publish propels itself forward by main force and lodges in the brain permanently, and I continue to edit because I love to feel that rush. It's not sex; it's not heroin, but buddy it's good when you find it.

Nominated Short Story: "Stone Dog" - by Merry Speece

Review: by Clifford Garstang

Once you let this story (“Stone Dog” by Merry Speece) teach you to read its challenging syntax, the language is exhilarating. Words are dropped, as they are in true consciousness and speech, and the narrator’s thoughts are jumbled, jumping from his menial factory work to his past as a soldier in Vietnam to his family’s history to the new girl who’s caught his attention.

John Clair is a Vietnam veteran who has come back to the dying river town of Pomeroy, Ohio. Laid off from the salt works, he’s now in the plastics factory like everyone else, and is in danger of becoming hardened and stuck, like everyone else. Except that he writes. What he writes isn’t clear, but he has a connection to nature and the past that suggest poetry, a notion that the similarity of his name to the poet John Clare reinforces. He meets Willow Rae, a college girl who he thinks is slumming in Pomeroy and the factory. They share an interest in books and the past and Indian artifacts. He is excited to show her the stone dog he found when he was eleven, just as he was excited at the time to show it to his mother. And so he falls for her, except . . . despite her own humble background she wants to change him, wants to see him reach his potential instead of being stuck in a dead town. He’s offended, and in the end must choose between her and the land to which he is tied.

It is the language that the reader notices first. “Factory women on the line bighearted on Friday night and out of breath from running downhill a long time fling open the door at the bar at the edge of that stringtown, Pomeroy (Excelsior Salt, its picture of a hog).” It follows the stream of John Clair’s consciousness and reflects how he thinks of the town and the people in it. And it’s the language with which he speaks to himself: “Six months since I lost me a good job at Excelsior Salt going down, John Clair, into the brine.” While it can be difficult to decipher at first, the reader learns to follow the rhythms. It may even take a few readings to get it, which most stories don’t earn, but this one rewards the effort.

Then there is the character of John Clair. A veteran of Vietnam, he’s grateful to be alive because he wasn’t sure he’d make it home. In fact he is more attracted to Willow Rae because of the image that came to him when he was lying wounded in a rice paddy in Vietnam. He pictured a poor child picking strawberries, a girl he’d seen when he was younger, and that image pulled him through. In a way, the flesh and blood Willow Rae is what gives him hope in this hopeless town. More than that, though, he’s generally sensitive. The women who work in the factory, including his cousin, are hard-edged and unappealing. But Willow Rae is different. He notices her scent, her eyes, her skin. Especially her eyes.

Another notable feature is the obscure (to me) historical references. John Clair is descended from Arthur St. Clair, the first governor of the Northwest Territories. But there are other real figures from history mentioned here, including frontiersman Simon Kenton, white settler Marmaduke Van Swearingen who became Blue Jacket, a chief among the Shawnee. John Clair himself is tied to that history, as to the land, by the stone dog he found as a boy. It’s why he came back to Pomeroy after the war. It’s why he bristles at the thought of leaving. He and Willow Rae explore an Indian mound together, and that shared interest in the past is the first sign that they are a pair. “Nothin prettier than a matched pair,” John Clair remembers his grandfather telling him, and that’s what John and Willow Rae seem to be. (I confess that a few of the references to local places, named without explanation, disrupted the flow of the story as I puzzled over whether I needed to know what the reference was in order understand the story. This is a minor complaint.)

In the end this is a story about a man who feels very real to me. He knows what he wants and what’s important to him, and he reacts with emotion (anger and confrontation first, then withdrawal) when these things are threatened. His own reaction causes him to reassess his goals and make a choice. And this, along with the inventive use of language, is what makes “Stone Dog” such a strong, memorable story.

Reviewer's Bio:

Clifford Garstang’s story collection, In an Uncharted Country, will be published by Press 53 in September 2009.

He grew up in the Midwest and received a BA from Northwestern University. After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea, he earned an MA in English and a JD, both from Indiana University, and practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago and Los Angeles with one of the largest U.S. law firms. Subsequently, he earned an MPA in International Development from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and worked for Harvard Law School as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where his work concentrated on China, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Garstang received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2003 and has attended the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences. He is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and formerly served as the Fiction Assistant for Shenandoah: The Washington & Lee University Review.

Garstang’s work has appeared in Shenandoah, Whitefish Review, Cream City Review, and elsewhere.

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