#FridayReads: Amelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird

Amelia Gray's Museum of the WeirdAmelia Gray’s Museum of the Weird begins with the unsettling tale “Babies” and builds layers of unsettling, odd, off-kilter, and slanted meaning from there. The stories work incredibly well on individual levels and together as a whole.

“Babies” is about a woman who keeps having a baby—and then more than one baby—every night. The woman is not particularly disturbed by this. Gray leaves us with the knowledge that the woman has another, and another, and another baby.

It’s not a particularly satisfying ending, in that it leaves open the question of “what happens next?” but therein lies a large part of Gray’s power. The moments and images she chooses to end her stories lend themselves to the general feeling of unsettlement almost more than the bizarre events themselves.

“Waste,” the second story in the collection, builds on the strangeness of the first by featuring a woman who works at a vegan restaurant but spends her evenings cooking and eating meat. Including human tongues. She then tries to eat her own toes as a stew. The man who is romantically interested in her tries to take her to a hospital, but she insists on making the stew first. Gray leaves us with the woman insisting, so again, we don’t know what happens, and we feel keenly uncomfortable.

That feeling of discomfiture always leads me to ask why, and I love digging into a text and then my own feelings, even if I can’t come up with a good answer. A story that makes me think beyond the ending is almost always a good story (though sometimes I do think long and hard about why a story is a bad story, but that’s never the case in this collection).

Later stories like “Diary of the Blockage” (link is to a pdf of Caketrain issue 5, in which that story appears) and “Vultures” maintain this thread, but also highlight Gray’s skill with sharp, odd details and bizarre obsessions. In the first, a woman maintains a fourteen-day diary of a mass of…something…that gets stuck in her throat.

On day nine, she notes, “I am very interested in necks, and how their owners handle them. People mostly ignore their own necks, except for very nervous girls who hold them while they talk as if they are trying to keep their vocal chords from exploding and splattering across the other person” (101).

The woman’s comment reveals her growing obsession with her own neck and the blockage it contains, as well as her fears about what might happen.

In “Vultures,” an ominous story about a town that’s been overrun with the carrion birds, a woman who works at a daycare fixates inappropriately on them. In the daycare, “We fingerpainted vultures and made vulture sculptures with popsicle sticks. We drew plans in crayon detailing how to safely trap and release vultures. Robert drew his baby brother as bait. After show-and-tell, I told a story about vultures.” (127)

These stories explore strange desires and the nature of obsession. They challenge us to ask, “What would I do in that totally bizarre situation?” and “Why is that obsession any stranger than my own obsessions?” And they do so in an intelligent, measured way that makes it well worth the read.

Posted in #fridayreads, fiction | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Nature blog: Heaven at dawn

This post originally appeared on April 2, 2012 on Nature Writing.

During my nature writing class at Chatham University’s MFA program, I had to keep a weekly nature blog. Each of us picked a place and spent thirty minutes in that place each week, and then wrote a blog post about it. I’ve just bought a house and moved away from this place, so I thought reposting these entries would be a good way to celebrate the time I’ve spent there. I’ll tag each one “natureblog2012.”

Eastern redbud blooming

Some kind of pink blooming tree visible through the tangle.

I woke up before the sun, hoping to see it crest over the rows of houses in my neighborhood and wash my yard in red or golden or pink light. Instead, a gray morning greeted me, and all I could see of the sun was a gradual lightening of the sky. Not even a robin or sparrow sang, and I wondered if birds also suffered from cases of the Mondays.

Then, just after seven, all the birds on the hillside seemed to explode into song at once for a few minutes before falling quiet again. A robin kept up his song, and a few other birds chimed intermittently. As I was writing this, the cardinal pair  hopped on top of the wood pile, pecking around together  presumably looking for food. They peeped at each other like my grandparents used to do. The male ate some of the Eastern redbush seeds, then flew away.

The stinging nettle has started coming up at the base of the woodpile. Nettles are apparently good in soup, and I’ve been meaning to try it, but I’ll admit I’m a bit apprehensive about eating something that can raise huge welts on my skin. Supposedly if you pre-boil them, the stingers come out. The tree of heaven sapling grove looks like a tiny palm tree grove, with its developing leaves starting to spread out.

White hyacinth

Another hyacinth from the abandoned yard.

Every spring, I get the itch to garden. And I do garden, albeit in various pots spread across my porch and patio (they seem to multiply every year). I haven’t done much this year, just groomed my potted perennials that started coming up much earlier than usual: a hosta, a bleeding heart, tulips, daffodils, and then a blackberry bush. The mint from last year that I never bothered to compost has come back with a vengeance, and I’m glad its in a pot so it can’t take over anything (but I’m also glad it came back, because it’s delicious in yogurt).

I’ve also got a hemlock sapling and some kind of tree/shrub that I liberated from the empty yard next door (its pot had disintegrated, leaving its roots exposed, and it would have died if I hadn’t re-potted it). My nebby neighbor, the one who thought I was some kind of hooligan, suggested I also take the daffodils from the empty yard before a developer buys the house. I think I’ll leave them. How many daffodils does one person need?

Imaginary Map of My Yard

As a renter with a reasonable landlord who so far doesn’t seem to care what we do as long as it isn’t destructive and as long as our check arrives on time, I could probably work out a deal to clear the hillside and turn part of it into a garden. It’s something I’ve thought about doing for the past several years. But now, as I watch the chickadees chase each other across the back of the yard, I wonder if I still want to.

I can still see the skeleton of a garden here, and I don’t need the whole hillside. Just enough for a small raised bed, and some room for my dogs to sniff around and do their business. If we had our own set of stairs leading up here, I could install a bird feeder, too, and we’d all win.

Posted in nature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

David Comfort’s publishing guide is not so comforting

David Comfort’s The Insider’s Guide to Publishing is depressing, although I believe he was aiming for darkly humorous. Unfortunately, I found the humor to be more annoying than funny.

I will save you the trouble of reading it by distilling the information here:

  1. Publication is unlikely, especially paid publication.
  2. Your book will probably flop, and your agent will drop you, and you will never write again.
  3. Writers are miserable, crazy alcoholics who die penniless (and occasionally get into fights with each other over who’s best or just because they are miserable and penniless).
  4. Publishing is an incestuous industry and it really does matter who you know—or don’t. So if you don’t know anyone, you’re pretty much screwed.
  5. The 1920s were THE high point of literature, and things have gone downhill from there. No one reads anymore. No one writes good books anymore. Etc.
  6. Self-publishing is a thing! It’s great for the companies who are running the self-pub companies, because they are making their millions off the hard-earned dollars of writers and the writers’ friends and family. And if you self-pub, you will lose respect. Or something.

Reading this book made me feel crazy, like why am I even writing? Everything is hopeless.

But the more I thought about it, the more I disagreed with what Comfort is saying. Not the historic facts (and really, the book is mostly a compilation of depressing historic facts), but the doom and gloom attitude he seems to take.

I reject this attitude. There are good publishers out there publishing good books. We have more diversity in literature than we ever have (I probably don’t have to tell you Comfort mostly writes about Dead White Guys like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Poe, Pound, etc., with the very occasional nod to lady writers).

The landscape is changing, true, and change can be hard, but according to the Pew Research Center, 76% of Americans read at least one book in 2013. Print books brought in more than 20 billion dollars in revenue in 2012.

Clearly, people are still reading. So I’m going to keep writing.

Posted in nonfiction, writing | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment