best of ENGL 165, and some news

This spring I got to teach a literature course called Short Fiction (ENGL 165), and I loved it. As I said the other day, I’ve also had the chance to work with my friends’ 8th grade daughter: we read one story a week and talk about it on Friday afternoons, as a supplemental to her schooling-from-home. She’s followed along with my college students (freshmen through seniors), and kept up just fine. This was all wonderful: I got to talk about stories I love. (For this class, I made an effort to choose stories from authors of all identities; and I was also careful to only teach stories I like.)

That said, I had some favorites, some stories I can’t get enough of, that are deep and layered and complex enough to bear 10 and 15 readings and hours of discussion, that I can’t stop talking about, that I love to read aloud… and I thought I’d share that shorter list here. (Linked where available.) I have a top three:

And some honorable mentions:

What a privilege, to assign extraordinary literature and to talk about it. And I’ve had some lovely feedback from the students. In fact, maybe it’s time to share this news: I’ve landed the Irene McKinney Fellowship for a second year, and will be teaching again this fall. I’m honored and thrilled. Maybe I’ll get to teach Short Fiction again, or maybe it will be a different lit class… and I’ll have more stories to explore. Lucky, lucky me.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

Dark stories about the disregarded misfits of the world force readers to look at “the in-between of things” and see beauty there, too.


Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan; The Chronology of Water) evokes a wide range of strong and subtle emotions with Verge: Stories, a collection dealing with “the spaces between things.” These stories are shocking, stark, pulsing; their power lies in their realism, even when the tone turns dreamy and approaches magical realism. Yuknavitch’s clear voice, with its unflinching demand that her readers recognize pain as well as beauty, is as precise and distinctive as ever.

“Verge” as a noun means an edge or border; as a verb, to approach (something) closely; be close or similar to. Here, Yuknavitch pushes readers to approach closely the uncomfortable edge of many subjects they may be accustomed to avoiding. Addicts, sex workers, traumatized children and adults, queer people, immigrants and other misfits are centered in narratives that some people might like to look away from, but shouldn’t, and in Yuknavitch’s compelling and often oddly lyric telling, readers can’t. She writes about the bright points in a dark world, and while the stories in Verge indeed lean decidedly toward the dark, those memorable points of light define them.

The earthshaking opening story, “The Pull,” features a swimmer whose “shoulders ache from not swimming” in wartime, one of two sisters “twinning themselves alive.” It feels as if set in a world far from the average everyday–until the final, heart-dropping line. Verge most frequently features female characters, but some male, including a couple of tender stories starring gay men. There are traumas–violent, sexual, emotional–and revenge, as well as quiet recoveries and acts of grace and mercy.

Other stories deal with children employed as black-market organ runners; men working at a fish processing plant in Seattle; a man seeking recovery both physical and psychological in an eye-opening cross-country drive. In “Shooting,” a woman’s want feels “like a mouth salivating… like the weight of an arm. Like the next sentence.” In “Street Walker,” a woman makes a telling slip in confusing one word for another. In “The Eleventh Commandment,” a strange girl protects an awkward, bullied boy using the power of story. In “Cosmos,” a janitor at a planetarium collects the detritus left behind by teenagers, building his own model world, until he finds himself perhaps overinvolved in his own work. In the longest story, “Cusp,” a young woman wishing to connect with her brother reaches out to the men in a newly constructed prison. In “Second Language,” “those bought-and-sold Eastern European girls are learning [something] besides English: They are learning to gut themselves open so that others will run.”

Disturbing and essential, these stories emphasize the forgotten, the pushed aside, the marginalized. Yuknavitch’s storytelling is urgent, raw and inspired, and if Verge is a love letter to those on the edge, it is equally important for all of us.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 elevated tunnels made from cans and paper.

Short Fiction

I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the reading I’ll be doing this semester, for an other-than-usual reason: I am teaching the undergraduate lit course Short Fiction (ENGL 165) to a mix of freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors, and I’m very excited about it. My students will read something like 50 stories this semester, and we’ll discuss elements of fiction (like plot, setting, character, point of view, style, and theme) in context of those stories. I cannot imagine that I’ll be writing about each one for you all here! (Although I suppose it’s possible that I’ll be moved to write about a few standouts. And some are already covered, of course.) But I thought at least you might appreciate a list of what stories I have in mind.

I’m using an anthology as a textbook: The Story and Its Writer, which also includes pretty good text on those elements of fiction, and supplementary materials such as analyses and author commentaries. I’ll also use Jon Corcoran’s The Rope Swing – we’ll discuss how it functions as a whole as well as in each individual story. And there will be a few “extra” stories that I’ll scan for my students. So, the list – in no particular order for now.

  • “I Stand Here Ironing,” Tillie Olsen
  • “Crazy They Call Me,” Zadie Smith
  • “A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett
  • “Sonny’s Blues,” James Baldwin
  • “Interpreter of Maladies,” Jhumpa Lahiri
  • “Desiree’s Baby,” Kate Chopin
  • “Samuel,” Grace Paley
  • “The House on Mango Street,” Sandra Cisneros
  • “The Blood Bay,” Annie Proulx
  • “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • “Everyday Use,” Alice Walker
  • “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” Richard Wright
  • “Yellow Woman,” Leslie Marmon Silko
  • “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid
  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin
  • “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy,” Saïd Sayrafiezadeh
  • “Harrison Bergeron,” Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket,” Yasunari Kawabata
  • “Journey to the Seed,” Alejo Carpentier
  • “Prisoner on the Hell Planet: A Case History,” Art Spiegelman
  • “The Shawl,” Cynthia Ozick
  • “A Continuity of Parks,” Julio Cortázar
  • “Looking for a Rain-God,” Bessie Head
  • “Cathedral,” Raymond Carver
  • excerpt from Persepolis: “The Veil,” Marjane Satrapi
  • “The Moths,” Helena María Viramontes
  • “Dimensions,” Alice Munro
  • “Brownies,” ZZ Packer
  • excerpt from Palestine: “Refugeeland,” Joe Sacco
  • “Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye,” Luisa Valenzuela
  • “The Colonel,” Carolyn Forché
  • “The Fellowship,” Alison Bechdel
  • “The Swimmer,” John Cheever
  • “Barbie-Q,” Sandra Cisneros
  • excerpt from Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa
  • “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien
  • “Appalachian Swan Song,” Jonathan Corcoran, from The Rope Swing (RS)
  • “The Rope Swing” (RS)
  • “Pauly’s Girl” (RS)
  • “Through the Still Hours” (RS)
  • “Felicitations” (RS)
  • “Corporeal” (RS)
  • “Hank the King” (RS)
  • “Excavation” (RS)
  • “Brooklyn, 4 a.m.” (RS)
  • “A Touch” (RS)
  • “Pea Madness,” Amy Leach, from Things That Are
  • “Four Boston Basketball Stories,” Brian Doyle, from The Mighty Currawongs
  • “The Pull,” Lidia Yuknavitch, from Verge
  • Any Other,” Jac Jemc
  • The Little Mermaid,” (Daniel) Mallory Ortberg
  • Who Will Greet You At Home,” Lesley Nneka Arimah

This list includes writers of various ethnicities and national backgrounds, gay and trans writers, Westerners and non-Westerners, graphic stories, recent and historic ones. It is probably a few stories too long – definitely subject to some change, but not much. I meet my students in just a few days, and I want us to more or less have a plan.

What do you think? A class you’d be interested in??

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I was motivated to read A Visit From the Goon Squad because someone suggested it might be a good choice for the Short Fiction class I’m teaching next semester. Billed as a novel (and not particularly short at a little over 300 pages), it can however be read as a collection of linked stories, which is an interesting structure to consider.

Each chapter of this novel is told from a different point of view, so that we recognize again characters introduced glancingly several chapters earlier, and are given a different stage of the story from their eyes. There are never two perspectives given on the same events, but rather, as the character of focus shifts, so does the timeline. So we first see through the eyes of Sasha, who used to work as assistant to Bennie Salazar, founder of Sow’s Ear Records. Several chapters later, we will get Bennie’s view of the world, when Sasha is still his assistant. Later still, we ride along with Rhea, a teenaged girl whose friend group includes fellow teenager and budding musician Bennie.

These POVs are sometimes first-person but more frequently a close third person. Bennie and Sasha feel like the poles around which this story turns, although I think it could be argued in a couple of different configurations; that’s the beauty and mystery of this format, where the central character shifts. Sometimes we’re reintroduced to someone we met in a very different time of life and several chapters ago, so that we (or at least I) have to pause and think about who they hell they are. It’s disorienting, but in a pleasing way. I’m very interested in how it all works.

This shifting center is certainly the most unusual and intriguing facet of this book, I think – although it’s also the one I came looking for, so your mileage may vary. The content subject matter was interesting for me, too. The music industry is both stylish and sort of icky and corrupt; Bennie’s evolution from young punk rocker to record executive gives us plenty to think about. Couples hook up and split up, and often we see these things out of order, so that perhaps we are not as taken in by the romance as we might have been. Because of the ever-shifting character focus, it can be a little hard to connect with one character as deeply as might be satisfying – at least, that’s the experience we expect from novels, I think. I feel more like I’m peeking in here and there, as voyeur, and less like I’m getting to know someone. Amazon reviewers spoke of an intellectual rather than an emotional connection, and range from “aimless and meandering” to “best read in twenty years,” so there you go. Opinions. This book also won a Pulitzer, so it’s certainly working for some.

I am intrigued by the challenge of this format. It took me maybe two chapters before I was really hooked in, and then I didn’t want to stop reading. But what I feel is less I-love-this-book and more fascination with what is different about it.

I can’t miss mentioning the chapter that is told entirely in Powerpoint slides: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” by Alison Blake, Sasha’s teenage daughter. The title refers to, yes, pauses in classic rock songs – a topic that Alison’s brother Lincoln is obsessed with. Alison is trying to explain and characterize her whole family, with maximum exasperation for her mother, a certain sympathy for her father, and a special soft spot for her brother. There is an insinuation that he is on the autism spectrum; rock and roll pauses are his way of trying to communicate. It’s a good example of the strangeness and sweetness of the whole novel. For a little of that flavor, you can watch a video of the Powerpoint here (sound on, please).

“Time is a goon,” says one aging rocker, and perhaps that’s what this novel is most about: time. I tell my students not to ignore titles, that they can give us hints as to how to read a text. This one’s a bit circuitous and opaque; you have to read well into the book to find that brief mention of time as a goon. But that’s another job a title can perform: it can tell us where to pay attention. By page 127, our ears are perked for this explanation of the title. It returns at page 332, so that just these two mentions drive the title home for the attentive reader, which now serves as a key to the whole. Time. And where does time matter more than in a 3-minute song that hopes to make millions, or change lives? Where more than in the cruel entertainment industry, where last year’s star is this year’s wash-up?

I am on the fence about teaching this book next semester, but it sure would make an adventure, wouldn’t it?

A Visit From the Goon Squad is a smart, subtle, fascinating exploration of the ways in which stories work and the ways in which music affects us. I do recommend it.


Rating: 7 seconds.

residency readings

Again! I know! I’m graduated; but I’m still back. This summer I’m honored to be serving as residency assistant for the usual residency period. This gets me in to all the seminars, so I’m doing all the reading as usual. Also as usual, you can view seminar descriptions here. Note that not all seminars assign readings at all; there may be others there you find interesting even though they’re not mentioned here.

Also note that this post is written as if residency is in the future, even though it’s past by the time this publishes – such is my review backlog these days!

I thought I’d just cover what are, for me, the highlights.

Savannah Sipple, who will teach on “Right to Discover: Conventions in Queer Writing in Appalachia and Beyond,” assigned three online pieces: “To Suffer or To Disappear,” “Who Cares What Straight People Think?,” and this essay by Carter Sickels. I appreciated hearing from Sickels again (he has also served as guest faculty at Wesleyan, but before my time), and his story was moving. The other two pieces both address the great success of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, which I have not read but which I know is much loved by my Shelf editor Dave, who is a serious reader and writer, and a gay man; these perspectives are complicating and therefore interesting. I’m certainly interested to hear from Sipple on this topic.

For Jon Corcoran’s seminar on “The Analytical Hybrid: Using Notes, Texts, and Poetry to Push Your Narrative Toward a Deeper Truth,” I read excerpts from Rachel Hadas’s Strange Relation, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. I felt warmly toward Didion, pleased to recognize something I appreciated at the time. But the Hadas memoir and Goldman novel were the real winners here: I have added both of these books to my hopeful-someday list. I was sorry when each excerpt ended.

Devon McNamara’s assigned reading for “Utterly Present,” her cross-genre generative session, included an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being, which I was not particularly happy to see again (mercifully it was short). But it also included a short story called “Foster” by Claire Keegan which blew me away. Read this one immediately: here. Of the two assigned poems there was also one standout: “The Same City” by Terrance Hayes. Whew.

Cynthia McCloud is graduating this residency, and for her graduate seminar, “Ordering Your Private World: Discovering the Structure That Fits Your Project,” she began with a couple of chapters assigned from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4. I need to thank Jeremy Jones again for that recommendation; the whole book was outstanding, and I’ve so enjoyed rereading these pages (but my favorite essay in the book, one of my favorite essays of all time, is still “Frame of Reference“). It was a real treat to see both “Progression” and “Structure” again. Thanks, Cynthia! She also asked us to read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which will come in its own review on Wednesday: in a nutshell, I was moved by this minimalist (and for good reasons) memoir. Finally, Cynthia had us listen to a podcast: “The Murder Ballad of Spade Cooley” from Cocaine and Rhinestones (found here). I like dark and gritty crime stories and I like country music, so I liked this podcast – that is, aside from the goriest of details. (I thought the warnings about how bad it was were slightly exaggerated. Only slightly.) She recommended reading Fun Home, but I don’t have a copy of that with me, and decided not to bother with the reread (though it’s a very good book). I’m very interested in the topic of Cynthia’s seminar, and pleased with all her readings, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Richard Schmitt always assigns enjoyable readings. This time he’s teaching “Stereotypes: An Aspect of Characterization,” which sounds like ‘stereotypes but in a good way’ in his description. Okay. Here he’s assigned a series of short stories and novel excerpts (one of which he totally assigned us to read very recently – okay, it was two years ago, summer 2017 – don’t ask how long I just spent tracking down that fact in my hard drive). It was a good packet, but some pieces stood out more than others. “Sunday in the Park” by Bel Kaufman was memorable, even accounting for the fact that it’s the repeat from ’17. Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is sort of a favorite of mine. The rest each had some sparkle, and I can see why they were included.

And finally, best for last (this is the order they came in!), Jessie’s seminar: “Valley of Dry Bones: Bringing Non-Narrative Prose to Life.” For one thing, I think this is a topic I’m going to love. For another, she assigned two of my all-time favorite books: a chapter from Amy Leach’s Things That Are, and the entirety of Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. Swoon. Finally, she gave us a short piece by Robert Vivian called “Hearing Trains” that was lovely but, for this reader, probably overshadowed by the other two stars.

I’m so very much looking forward to this residency. For a change, I have extra mental space: no deadlines pressing down (except for the odd book review!), no workshop to attend or prep for, no pressure to “do” school at all – but rather the privilege of attending seminars as I desire. And there is some richness here. I am lucky, lucky.

shorts by Cather; Sandor; Wheeler; Irving; Chesnutt; Maren; and Bourne of National Geographic (and links followed, etc.)

Whew, a long one today – sorry, folks, but I’ve been reading.

Because I’m not busy enough (ha) I’ve been reading a few short prose pieces here and there. Some of the following come from the Library of America’s Story of the Week (an email you can sign up for for free, if you have tons of free time or are a glutton like me). One I found languishing in a file on my computer. The internet, and friends’ referrals, account for the rest.


Willa Cather’s “A Death in the Desert” was a Story of the Week, viewable here. I found it a moving story, but much more so with the context included, about Cather’s devotion to a composer who died young. As the Library of America points out, the fact that this story was published in three versions, each subsequently edited and shortened, makes it an excellent opportunity to study editing for length (if you were to go find all three). There’s something Victorian in the manners and fainting emotions in the story that is less compelling and relateable for me personally, though. I’m glad to have learned a bit more about Cather, but it’s not my favorite thing I’ve read this month.


Marjorie Sandor’s “Rhapsody in Green,” however, blows my mind. (This was the one found on my hard drive. Originally published by The Georgia Review and viewable here, if you sign up for a free account.) It is a very brief lyric essay about, yes, the color green. Sandor evokes so much via this color, and her search for an unachievable shade: color, we might think, is a visual element, but she uses touch, smell, and taste as well. On its face about this color she can’t find, this essay is also a glancing view of the narrator’s life story, at least in a few relationships and geographical locations. There are four references (in less than three pages) to a time “I fell in love when I shouldn’t have.” It is a brave and risky move to so emphasize an event that she never explains further. As we writing students say, this one would have been destroyed in workshop. But I love it, this level of tantalization, and her bold implication that no, we don’t need to know any more about it than that. There are also two references to “a/my friend who puts up with such eccentricities.” I love this epithet, this characterization, and in both cases – this, and the “fell in love when I shouldn’t have” – I appreciate the use of an intentional echo to good effect. Also, nothing I’ve said here begins to get at the loveliness, the lyricism and sensual intimacy, of Sandor’s writing. Do go check this one out.


Disclosure: Dave Wheeler is my editor at Shelf Awareness, and a friend.

I have done a poor job of keeping up with Dave’s work, and recently returned to see what I’d missed, particularly in his essays, which impress me so. I am gradually catching up now – you can see his published essays here (and more in other links on that page). And I love a lot of what Dave writes: I appreciate the short, dreamy, feeling quality of “Science for Boys”, and the inquiring mind exposed in “Death and Its Museum”. But I think my favorite essays of those I’ve read so far deal with art, and how Dave takes it in. “Two Men Kissing” and “Some Holy Ghost” each offers so much, and I’ve forwarded them to many friends.

Today, I am very pleased by “A Moment Spins on the Axis of You: The Fourth Dimension of Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Infinity Mirrors'”. Here Dave encounters Kasuma’s installation, in particular, and the grand scale of its claimed subject. But even more than the named artwork, he considers what it means to wait – for art, for anything – and what contribution waiting, or time, or the audience experience, may offer. I appreciate his voice: he speaks with authority about his own experiences, but with a humbleness as regards the world of art criticism; he can be playful even as we feel he is serious. And of course I recognize myself when he writes, “As a lifelong reader, I have cultivated a sharp sense of when I can quit a book without worrying that I have missed something of importance. As a wide-eyed novice to visual arts, I am less assured.” I think I feel something like the same thing when I try to see my own reactions to visual art: I don’t even know what I don’t know.

Perhaps recognizing myself in Dave is part of recognizing Dave, someone I know personally and enjoy talking to, however infrequently we get around to it. And maybe that enjoyment is inextricable from my appreciating his writing. Maybe you want to help me test this: go check out Dave’s work and let me know what you think.

Good, right?


Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, another Story of the Week, was engaging enough in its descriptive power; I was interested in getting a better grasp on one of those legends that’s in our collective consciousness whether we’ve read it or not (I don’t believe I had). The misogyny in the treatment of Dame Van Winkle, and the cursory treatment of all the women in the story (none of whom, if memory serves, had names), rankled. I’m not sorry I took the time, but it wasn’t a highlight, or anything.


Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Bouquet”, on the other hand, was both lovely and harrowing. (I went ahead and followed this link to a Wiley Cash article in Salon, where he argues for Chesnutt as genius, and I don’t disagree.) If you want to feel gutted by our national heritage where race is concerned – well, none of us does, but I feel it’s important we don’t look away, either – give this short story a try. It has a surface on which it can act as a sweetly sad and simple tale, but its depths are significant.


Disclosure: Mesha Maren regularly serves as guest faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan College in my alma mater MFA program. I consider her a friend.

I was deeply impressed with Mesha’s recent essay in Oxford American, titled “West Virginia in Transition”. She moved away as a young, closeted, queer woman, and upon moving back, she investigates the experiences of her counterparts: queer youth growing up twenty years later in her own hometown. She muses on the ways in which their lives are different and the ways in which they’re similar. It’s a story that’s important to me, because both queer communities and Appalachian ones are much on my mind. I’m glad topics like this are getting bandwidth. But also, as anyone who knows Mesha’s work will expect, it’s a gorgeously written story. “The way these ridges and hollows both cradle and cleave.” Beautifully done, and highly recommended.


Finally, my father sent me a link to this story from National Geographic: “Clotilda, ‘last American slave ship,’ discovered in Alabama.” Joel K. Bourne, Jr. brings us up to date on the recent confirmation that Clotilda has been identified where she was burned and scuttled in the Mississippi Delta after a voyage spurred by a wealthy white man’s bet that he could import slaves from Africa more than 50 years after such imports became illegal. In 1860, 109 men, women, and children survived the voyage into Mobile and were then sold into slavery. Part of what’s unique about this group of abducted Africans is that late date: Clotilda’s survivors lived long enough in some cases to be interviewed on film. They founded Africatown on the edge of Mobile, and their some of descendants live there today. When I passed through Mobile this spring, I missed Africatown. But, unknowing, I stayed in Meaher State Park, which is named after a wealthy white family, including the man who made the bet.

I found this article, accompanied by pictures and video, moving. I think it’s an important story to read and consider today. I also followed several links, like this one offering a list of destinations to visit for African American history and culture. I found a few of these on my travels this year; I’ve added to rest to my itinerary.


There is always something to keep our minds busy. I just feel lucky to have the time to follow these leads. What have you read lately?

LeVar Burton Reads

A new podcast, kids: new to me, although coming up on two years old now. I live in a van now (as you may recall), and although my drive time varies from day to day and week to week, I am always looking out for new listening material. (I am also totally loaded up with audiobooks, podcasts, and music; I guess I’m looking for new listening material like I’m looking for new books to read. Sigh.)

LeVar Burton Reads was an obvious choice, at least for those of us who grew up with Reading Rainbow – which, with over twenty years on the air, many of us did. This is the voice and performance we love applied to short fiction for adults, hand-picked by the man and storyteller himself.

I’ve only just begun, with six episodes under my belt. So far, I’d especially recommend Daisy Johnson’s “The Lighthouse Keeper” – that’s Daisy Johnson of Everything Under, and recognizably so.

Also so far, there is perhaps an emphasis on sci fi and fantasy, but he promises an assortment to come, and I believe him. Do come with me… Just take a look, it’s in a book

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