RHC 2017: Beneath the Surface of Things by Kevin Wallis

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book published by a micropress.

I put this task off for a long time, until I was basically down to a couple of comic books, three poems, and a really long Mario Vargas Llosa book that I’m still not sure I’m going to finish by the end of the year. I’m ashamed of the reason. It’s not that I think micropresses don’t publish incredible work. They do. Frequently. But I have an unfair bias toward them involving me being afraid of assuming more risk in my reading selections. Bluntly, I didn’t want to read something awful.

I know, I know. This is a terrible attitude that’s hurting markets willing to take risks that more commercial enterprises can’t or won’t, and that’s hurting me by limiting my reading pile. I’m working on myself. Bear with me.

I’m happy to report that I did not read something awful. I read Kevin Wallis’ collection of short stories, Beneath the Surface of Things, which was not awful. I somehow missed in the book’s description that these were straight-up horror short stories, and as such it made a wonderful warm up exercise for my upcoming course on writing horror fiction through the University of Colorado.

I particularly enjoyed the first story in the collection, which had some legitimately freaky imagery involving a dead jogger and an unexpectedly upbeat ending. There was also a Lovecrafty story involving geocaching gone terribly wrong that I thought was quite a bit of fun, as well as a very sweet Civil War ghost story that opens with a severed foot in a stocking (seriously, it’s a sweet story), and a spooky possession/haunted house tale. There’s a theme of failure to protect loved ones running throughout the book. It’s not the cheap chauvinistic “protect the women and children” trope that horror so often uses as such a cheap crutch, either. It includes brothers, best friends, and other loved ones all over the spectrum of human relationships. So points awarded there.

I did wish that the author hadn’t mentioned in his author notes which stories had been rejected, which stories he wasn’t confident in, etc. It’s so easy to influence a reader’s opinion. The same story can be eye-rollingly bad when it’s freshly yanked out of the slush pile and mind-bendingly amazing when it’s nicely formatted and headlining a major journal. There’s no reason in letting a reader in on the writer’s uncertainty about a piece, because it colors the perception of a story that the reader might have liked the best otherwise.

More generally, I feel weird about author commentary on short stories. Sometimes it’s nice background information, but sometimes it’s deeply unnecessary and uncomfortably narcissistic. If it’s important to the author that I know something, it needs to be in the text itself. The commentary in this book wasn’t overly navel-gazely or anything, but there were a few where it felt like Wallis was shooting himself in the foot for no good reason.

So yeah. I’d like to get a little more comfortable with small presses and micropresses, because I know there’s a ton of interesting stuff happening there that I’d like to explore. This book was a solid start.

RHC 2017:My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci

Read Harder Challenge 2017

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2017 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration theme.

I attended a Montessori school through first grade. One of the most hotly contested activity stations involved tracing and coloring enormous maps, and I have strong sense memories of sitting on the brown carpet, laboriously outlining Paraguay. Unfortunately, my sense of world geography remained strongly rooted in those memories, which were made in the mid-1980s before the U.S.S.R.  and Yugoslavia dissolved.

I recently started trying to be a less terrible American and one who generally knows where things are in the world (Seterra is the site I used – it’s fun, if humbling), and I was shocked to find myself in better shape with the Middle East and Africa than I was with Eastern Europe. I remember reading Zlata’s Diary in fifth or sixth grade and being profoundly shaken by the thought that a fellow child diarist of the waning twentieth century could be in a war zone. That horrifying realization that universe could randomly drop someone into a violent conflict like that stayed with me, but unfortunately the details of the Bosnian War or the larger sociopolitical landscape of the Balkans did not.

I’m an adult and I’m embarrassed by how much googling I had to do to piece together the context of this Finnish novel, though I am glad to have been prodded into nailing down very, very broad strokes. My Cat Yugoslavia consists of two narrative strands. One is told from the perspective of Emine, a young Albanian woman in Kosovo, and follows her from the abrupt end of her childhood through her marriage to a difficult, borderline abusive husband to her family’s emigration to Finland, where they find a less than warm welcome as Balkan refugees.