I began this year with a grand and ambitious plan: I was going to review short fiction.
After all, I read a metric fuckton of short fiction. I subscribe to all kinds of magazines. They avalanche through my door with satisfying regularity. A visitor to my bathroom has a good shot at the latest Zzyzva or a couple of New Yorkers, maybe last month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction. Hell, even Apex is back in print these days. So why not?
Well, the answer is time. Holy hell, does it take a lot of time to review short fiction. Even if I had all that time, I realized I’d have to review honestly, if I was gonna review everybody. That’s dicey, as I’m a frequent submitter to a lot of these magazines, and I have no wish to put anyone down while I try to become as cool as them. If you want really thorough short fiction reviews, your best bet is someone like Charles Payseur, over at Quick Sip Reviews. He is more dedicated to this work than anyone I know.
So here’s the compromise: every month, I’m going to write a little bit about the best things I read that you can read, too. I’m going to call this the Antler Review. (I have a Thing about antlers. That is a story for another day.) These are the things that got tangled up in me in January of 2018.
First, Rebecca Campbell’s “An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or, Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita.” This was published in Shimmer, a publication that is so full of bang for your buck that bookstores ought to keep it behind the beaded curtain. This story is wonderfully dreamlike, edging into the domain of creation myths while reminding everyone that the woman who gave birth to rabbits was a real person. It is impossible to write about birthing or the bodies of people who give birth without it becoming political, and this story is no exception. However, Campbell keeps the tale out of the well-trod territory that stories about lives that never began and deaths in the service of life and makes something very old indeed feel new again. This story was a clot that doesn’t pass easy. You have to push.
Next, “A Head in a Box, or, Implications of Consciousness after Decapitation,” by Lori Selke was published in Nightmare and caught my eye for a number of reasons. I’m a big fan of the outspoken gynecologist Dr. Jen Gunter, who rose to notoriety mainly on the strength of her argument that Gwyneth Paltrow’s gold-plated cow patty of a lifestyle brand (Goop) peddles pseudoscience and may endanger one’s health if believed too heartily. With the pitchfork of reason readily in hand, I was in the perfect position to enjoy Selke’s tale of a thin, blonde actress who revolutionizes what it means to have a body by… not having one. This piece poked such elaborate, thoughtful fun of the lengths people will go to in order to pretend that we are not bags of meat that leak shit and other fluids constantly, that I found it equally disturbing and delightful. That’s my favorite cocktail, and Nightmare serves it up on the regular. If you’re not subscribed there, you can still read some stories for free. But you’ll be less tipsy than I.
I try to never miss anything Charlie Jane Anders writes, so this next one was no surprise to me. “The Minnesota Diet” is part of an ongoing series “commissioned and edited jointly by Future Tense (Slate) and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination. Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and CSI about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a new theme.” I am pretty excited to see what else comes out of this series. Anders, as usual, writes a starvation tale that feels so lived-in that days later I saw a video of a friend dissolving edible packing peanuts in warm water and wondered how long I was going to have to wait before she ate them. I wasn’t sure where “The Minnesota Diet” was going, until we arrived there all at once. And we were so, so hungry.
One of my favorite genres doesn’t really have a name, but let’s call it “women talking frankly about sex.” In that vein, I adored Deesha Philyaw’s “Forecast for Sex by 50 When You Are a 46-Year-Old Black Woman.” If you read McSweeney’s as religiously as I do, you know this is not their typical kind of thing. I am usually rewarded for reading their site with a snort and my own voice, dimly muttering ‘that’s clever’ before I click away. Instead, this series of forecasts had me crowing with laughter, nodding hard with solidarity, and wondering how Philyaw came up with something as fabulous as the phrase “flurries of ghosts of dick past.” Send this one to your mother. She’ll understand.
Speaking of women talking frankly about sex, I really dug this piece on the sexual roots of the barre workout by Danielle Friedman for The Cut. I know a lot of people who go to the gym, their trainer, their physical therapist, wanting desperately to say that they’d like to do some exercises specifically designed to help them fuck better. I took one barre class in San Francisco and found that it’s exactly what Friedman said: people in really good shape trying for that extra edge. I wonder how much more I would have liked it if the class leader had been more frank about it origins, or if I was maybe not the only person there who had ever been asked when I was due.
And on the subject of babies: Heather Abel’s stunning essay on attachment parenting and the demonization of female desire for The Paris Review is as captivating as having a light-sleeping toddler conked out on your lap. Abel finds a way to say some things that a lot of us have thought, but have no way to say. For example: “write like you have a dick” left me blinking at the screen for a long time. I have never, ever said that out loud or written it down. But it’s in me. Oh yes.
The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander is a sledgehammer disguised as a novella. It’s about elephants and radium girls and it’s amazing how just 100 pages can break every rib in your cage and nuke your heart. Get it.
Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire is the latest in her series of Wayward Children books. These stories follow kids who go on portal adventures (say, head off to Narnia or Neverland or Oz) and have to figure out how to cope with real life when they get back home. Seanan McGuire is the only person on earth who can make you cry with just a handful of candy corn. Don’t forget to thank her.
Finally, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race is a deeply important work, especially if you think of yourself as a non-racist or an anti-racist white person. I am learning, through the work of people like Oluo, to sit with my own discomfort around race and seek out the ways in which I benefit from an inherently unjust system. The book is tightly argued and kindly phrased. I cannot recommend it enough.
Join me next month for more good stuff!