Fig, by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz

Fig, Sarah Elizabeth Schantz5 of 5 Stars

Bittersweet has never been as beautiful, heartbreaking, and provoking as it is in Sarah Elizabeth Schantz’s coming-of-age tale, Fig.

When Fig realizes Mama is sick, the deep love she bears for her mother becomes her burden as well. She takes on the fierce battle to help Mama reclaim her mind from a disease as constricting as barbed wire, schizophrenia. An insurmountable task for a six-year-old. Over the course of the novel, Fig makes daily sacrifices, ones she fully believes will make Mama whole again, but instead ends up losing herself in the process.

Schantz’s writing style can best be described as evocative, lovely and heartbreaking. She achieves clarity in communicating the raw emotion of her characters in a way that feels unrushed, yet there are no wasted breaths in Fig. Each word, sentence and paragraph reveals the unplumbed depths of the novel’s layers in a way that makes you want to gather the young Fig into your arms and say, “There, there. It’s going to be O.K.,” even though you can see no way out of the despair her family is trapped in.

While the book centers around characters with mental disease, I felt Schantz avoided making an overt, unearned commentary on mental illness, aside from that the people it affects are so much more than their condition. Schizophrenia and OCD manifest in Fig and her mother in good and in bad ways, and both are people that are worthy of compassion. Often, those who struggle with these types of conditions are ignored or broomed into the corners of society – Schantz shows us that these people are our mothers, our daughters, our fathers and sons. We should not relegate them to the edges.

The novel also explores the nuanced relationship between daughter and mother, girl and woman, self and other. It’s a rare debut from an author that bares the soul not only of the characters, but of the reader as well.

If you want to read and remember one book this year, make sure it’s Fig.

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Midwestern Gothic: Issue 14 Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic Summer 2014 Issue 14
The Summer Issue of Midwestern Gothic took shape over the course of the last three months. When I take a step back and think about the process of the journal literally going from nothing more than changing a button on our submissions page to an actual book, it’s actually pretty insane to think about. Per usual, the submissions we got are top notch, and every period we turn away more and more that we genuinely like. A good problem to have, I think.

One of my favorites from this issue was something a little more contemporary, Jessie Ann Foley’s “The Day of New Things.” The story follows a corrupt politician’s daughter around the city after her father is sentenced to 150 years in federal prison. Outside of Illinois, it might seem far-fetched, but I think three of the last four Illinoisan governor’s were incarcerated. Pat Quinn – you need to be on good behavior. Part of what I love about this story is how it looks at how social media and news cycles completely break down and erode layers of privacy, something that is very uncomfortable for a Midwesterner. Even one as young as the main character, Sandy. Still though, she manages to find moments of peace, these beautiful moments of solitude as the world swirls around her. Here’s an excerpt:

“Hey, Twitter Stalker,” she said, brushing her hand against his bare arm. “Trade you some tequila for a cig?”
Kenzie was such a child of the digital age that even her spoken words were like text messages: the tone was impossible to interpret. Michael didn’t seem to even notice that she’d just insulted him. The two girls shuffled into the line behind him and his two friends.

“These are my buddies, Jordan and Aidan,” Michael said, handing Kenzie a cigarette and trying with all his might not to stare at her impressively cleaved chest. “This is Kenzie Hernandez and—uh—sorry, what’s your name?“ He looked at Sandy.

“This is Sandy Boychuck,” Kenzie said, before Sandy could warn her not to reveal her last name. Jordan and Aidan, who wore flat-brimmed hats just like Michael’s, looked up from their phones. One of them, with reddish hair that was almost iridescent in the setting sun, squinted at her.

“Wait, Boychuck like the cop guy?”

Sandy said nothing, but straightened up her shoulders and stared at the boy evenly. It was the hard-assed look of a cop’s daughter, daring him to continue his line of questioning. He didn’t, but his finger trembled over his phone screen. She could see that he was just waiting for her to walk away so that he could tweet it out into the all-seeing world:

Holy shit hanging out with Boychuck’s daughter yes THAT Boychuck #150years

Inside the DizzyVision show was like being at a high school dance, except with better music and more drugs. No one there was old enough to buy a beer in the bar area, but everyone had arrived either already drunk or rolling. A relentless light and fog show intensified the effect of the tequila-Gatorade mixture, and Sandy caught the white of Kenzie’s eye, the flash of Michael’s fake diamond earring, before losing them to the anonymous thumping crowd. The two Brazilian DJs stood in the middle of the stage, crouched over their turntables like monks huddled in prayer. The beats they produced were so deafening that it was hard for Sandy to think or breathe or move. She hadn’t eaten anything since the ham sandwich on her lunch break, and the tequila sloshed in her empty stomach. She stumbled up the stairs, chased by the whoomp of the music and the jagged motion of the lights, and found the women’s bathroom just in time to spray a toilet seat and part of the toilet paper holder with a green jet of puke. Her body purged of the spiked Gatorade, Sandy felt better immediately. She wiped her mouth at the mirror, feigning innocence when a girl in a turquoise wig walked into the bathroom and proclaimed, “Um, someone just effing vommed in here.” Sandy fluffed her hair, folded a stick of gum into her mouth, and walked out of the bathroom and straight into Darry’s chest.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic : Summer 2014 – Issue 14 for the rest of the story and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Midwestern Gothic: Spring 2014 Issue 13: Editor’s Commentary

Midwestern Gothic Spring 2014 Issue 13The Spring Issue of Midwestern Gothic marks the 3rd anniversary of the journal, and it seems like with every new issue I’m continually surprised by the fact that we’re still doing it and that we’re still growing. The number of people interested in fiction and poetry fro the Midwest just continues to expand, and Rob and I couldn’t feel more blessed to have the opportunity to share the amazing work of the people who have been struck by the region as much as we have.

One of my favorites from this issue was Rocco Versacci’s short story, “Not in Kansas Anymore.” About a man driving through America’s heartland from Kansas into Missouri – the piece is a potpourri of Mid-American culture. The random tourist traps, the people completely disconnected from reality, the sense that you’re stepping back in time the further you drive away from civilization. I camped in the Ozarks for a few days last autumn, and this story completely echoes my experience. I’m continually fascinated by these hidden pockets in the Midwest that are off the beaten path. I’m sure if you took these folks and transplanted them somewhere else, everything would seem utterly foreign and strange to them as well. Part of what intrigues me about the unfamiliar is the dissonance that occurs when characters without perspective are made to look in the mirror. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m creeping through a construction zone. A bulldozer, small in the distance, hangs onto the hillside like a beetle on a turd. The road crosses over a highway up ahead. As I make the final crest, a pickup truck with a flashing yellow light appears in front of me. Goddamn it, I think. He’s going to send me all the way back. As we pull up alongside each other, I brace myself. The driver doesn’t even look up. Just drives on by.

Ten miles to Golden City. I imagine shining spires reaching up into a cloudless sky, roads paved with bars of gold, waterfalls and fountains overflowing with shimmering coins. I keep looking up ahead for the glow, but all I see are ripples. The road ahead is becoming a sine curve, undulating up and down as it disappears into the horizon.

I’m in Cooky’s Café in Golden City, a definite contender for Most Ironically-Named Place on this trip. No shining spires, no gold bars, and most definitely no glow.

East of Pennsboro, the sine curve has metastasized into an ECG readout for someone in cardiac arrest. Steep climbs in my lowest gear followed by sharp drops where I hit thirty miles per hour or more and then back uphill again where I’m shifting for all I’m worth. The climbs and drops turn sharply through wooded hills, occasionally leveling off but not for long before I’m climbing or dropping again.

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Ozarks. When I crossed the desert a few weeks ago, I felt small amid sprawling, wide-open landscapes and ageless rock. But there were clear skies and long lines of sight. Perspective. Here, trees shoot up on either side of me and clasp their leafy fingers together to hide the gray sky. The road ahead and behind me bends into hills and curves. I don’t know where I am. Wait, yes I do. I’m Dorothy, crash-landed in Oz.
A memory. Halfway up the stairs of my house, trying to catch my breath. Week three of chemo? Week four? On the stairs, I can see partway into my bedroom. There’s a slice of blue just visible above where my nightstand is. It’s a card from my boys. Marker drawings on construction paper. Inside, a message. Dad you are as strong as a great white shark.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic : Spring 2014 – Issue 13 and for the rest of the story and many others inspired by the Midwest.

Cut by Adam Chushman: a Review

Cut by Adam Cushman4 out of 5 stars

When I first saw the trailer for Adam Cushman’s debut novel, Cut I knew I had to pick up a copy. In case you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first. I’ll wait.

The novel follows a failed actor into the surprisingly brutal world of suburban knife fighting. The sub-culture Cushman develops over the course of the novel echoes some of the themes in Fight Club – people with nothing to lose finally figuring out how to live through violence.

The book is precarious in the best of ways – there are few books able to keep me uneasy and wondering which way things are going to fall for Gabriel, the main character. Whether he’s on the run or gripping the sweaty handle of a knife in someone’s living room, you’re always waiting for the next slice to come and start the bleeding. I’ve never been in a knife fight, but based on the picture Cushman paints, this book is one giant allegory. An adrenaline rush that’s plenty crazy and soaked in blood.

I have no idea of suburban knife fighting actually exists. I imagine it’s not the type of thing you can check into on Foursquare. The thing I enjoyed most about this book is how, in a relatively compressed amount of pages (the book is on the same order as Drive short and direct), Cushman has fabricated an entire subculture with words alone. You can taste the blood, feel your heart race and can’t help but wonder if your neighbor is hiding scars under his dress shirt.

Shop for Cut on Amazon

The New Black from Dark House Press – a Review

The New Black, Dark House Press4 out of 5 stars

The New Black (Dark House Press) is a shot of dark in the light, a strong anthology with razor sharp teeth. Most of the stories look into an abyss (not the Lovecraftian abyss, but the personal fissures and pits of despair we all find ourselves transfixed by on the worst of our days. For lovers of horror, crime, noir and the “dark” genres – you should put this book on your reading list.

Here’s a description of the collection from the publisher: The New Black is a collection of twenty neo-noir stories exemplifying the best authors currently writing in this dark sub-genre. A mixture of horror, crime, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, and the grotesque—all with a literary bent—these stories are the future of genre-bending fiction.

The stories within live up to that description, and like any anthology, some are crazy good, some are solid, and some just weren’t my cup of tea. But even the stories that didn’t resonate with me were still excellently written and I’m sure someone with different tastes would find them enjoyable. The three stories that I liked the best came from Micaela Morrissette, Matt Bell and Lindsay Hunter.

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet, you’ve probably seen those lists titled, “The creepiest things kids have ever said.” Most are too perfectly terrifying to be true, but Micaela Morrissette’s story, “The Familiars,” is one of the items on this list brought to life. It’s unsettling enough to make you not want to go to sleep at night, especially if you have children of your own.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Matt Bell’s fiction (spoiler alert – there’s lot of things we’ve learned) is that he has the market cornered on steadily building uneasy dread and not flinching when it comes to pushing limits. That certainly remains the case in “Dredge,” his story about a drowned girl and her caretaker.

The last story that stood out from this collection was Lindsay Hunter’s “That Baby.” One of the shorter pieces in the anthology, it packs its fire into a small concentrated space that the mother in this story must find a way to escape from. For me, this story exemplifies my own personal definition of neo-noir – a tale that takes a raw emotion that’s common to the human experience, pushes its characters to act out in ways that people often stop themselves from doing, and tells it through the filter of the noir genre.

Shop for The New Black: A Neo-Noir Anthology on Amazon.

“Nobel Worthy” in Jupiter (Kallichore, #44)

"Nobel Worthy" in Jupiter by Jeff Pfaller A short story of mine, “Nobel Worthy,” is in the latest issue of Jupiter, a stellar sci-fi mag based out of the U.K. I’m appearing alongside Sam Kepfield, Nicholas Mark Harding, and Roderick Gladwish, who are all more talented than I, which is always an honor. Here’s a brief snippet:

Ian was never interested in time travel until the night his wife died.

They had been at a fundraiser for Northwestern’s physics department – Stephen Hawking agreed to make an appearance and deliver a few inspirational quips through his voice modulator. (He had a book to push, after all.) Ian and his colleagues were giants on campus in the months following the acceptance from his publicist. They charged $250 a plate and rented out the Aragon Ballroom. Their faculty got a group rate on tuxedos.

But Hawking cancelled without warning the day before. Ian tried to call everyone he knew. Offered to fly in Neil DeGrasse Tyson out of his own pocketbook. But there was no skirting it – there was nobody to take his place. Cancelling wasn’t an option – without the annual benefit the department would flounder. Never mind needing to cover the extra cost of the caterer, the Aragon and the thousand programs they’d printed with Hawking on the cover (all non-refundable). No, failure had been predetermined.

You can order a copy and get international mail, or you can read it right now on Kindle.

Midwestern Gothic Winter 2014 – Issue 12: 2013 Book #39

Midwestern Gothic Issue 12 Winter 2014The Winter Issue of Midwestern Gothic is always a solid way to ring in the new year. Getting the issue out is a little more challenging with the holidays and all the other activities falling around the launch date, but always well worth it. It was great getting back into our usual fiction / poetry groove with this issue, after taking a full four months to read all Ceative nonfiction submissions. And that photo for the cover! As I sit here writing this with the temps at subzero outside, I have a new appreciation, not just for the folks who are stuck outside living or working, but also for wild animals who really have no defense other than the clothes on their backs.

This time around, my favorite in the issue wasn’t humorous or light-hearted, as was the case with the past few issues. Nope, this one was all about losing a baby, and finding a way to move on. The exploration of how a person deals with a devastating loss while the friends and family who support them continue to live their lives was pitch perfect in this story. One one hand, you’ve got a mother who lost a child, and on the other her friend who is about to have one. While understandably tragic for one, how does the one who has the child not be affected similarly by the tragedy? All the joy of sharing the pregnancy with her friend has been sucked out, and my guess is that she’ll never be able to look at her own child without thinking of her friend’s depression. Here’s a short excerpt:

Two months after she put Baby Boy in the ground, Janice received the invitation for Anne’s baby shower. The front cover was a picture of Noah’s ark with all the animals two by two poking their heads through various windows. Some of them stood on the deck. Inside, “It’s a Girl!” was handwritten in Anne’s mother’s cursive above the date, time, and location. In the blank after “RSVP,” Anne’s mother had added, “Just come if you can, dear. We’re all praying for you.”

Janice put the invitation on the refrigerator backwards so that all she saw was the logo of the card company, Biblical Greetings. When her husband Hal came home from work that night, he slammed the refrigerator door taking out two cans of root beer, and the card fluttered to the ground and slid beneath the oven.

Shortly after the funeral, Hal decided to become a Big Brother. He sprang the idea on Janice, and before she’s had time to consider what it meant, Joli, an eleven-year-old boy with a Haitian mother, arrived at their home carrying a baseball glove. Three nights a week, when Joli’s mother worked second shift as a cashier, Hal picked the boy up from school and watched him until her mother came at 8:30 p.m. Hal and Joli would spend the time playing, drink exactly one can of root beer each with whatever dinner Janice made, and even brush their teeth for a full and proper two-minute interval, their grins winking at each other in the wide downstairs bathroom mirror.

At first, Janice liked the idea of the good her husband could do, but as weeks passed, she realized that Hal’s big-brothering was less about Joli and more about filling a Baby-Boy-sized hole and, what’s more, about avoiding Janice’s existence whenever possible. When Joli wasn’t there, Hal ate dinner in front of the television to watch hockey. His family’s genes had killed their son. Sometimes she blamed him for that too, but mostly, she was angry at his distance. He never touched her now. Instead he stayed up late, and when there was no hockey, he watched Toledo’s local high school sports channel or Sports Network News. He watched bowling. He watched poker.

Buy a copy of Midwestern Gothic Issue 12 and for the rest of the story and many others inspired by the Midwest.