Flash Friday Review: “Delusions of Grandeur” by Laura Todd Carns, published in CHEAP POP

A story about a precocious child, now an adult, with the ability to connect with living things in a unique way. Is it only our imagination that lessens as we grow older? A child will believe anything. Or rather, anything is possible to a child. The weight of the world hasn’t yet snuffed out their keen connections to the living world. “It seemed impossible, the more she grew and learned, that one small person could be any kind of bulwark against the careless cruelty of the world.” What a heartbreaking moment of realization. Or is it a tale of success? Even alone, she can do so much.

I’m not sure if what I’m writing here is as much a review or more so a reaction to Laura Todd Carns’s story “Illusions of Grandeur,” which is a meditation on the way we interact with the world—how we might make it better; how we might use our gifts to enhance other living creatures. But there’s an underlying sadness to it all—that we can’t save everything, everyone. And in some cases that means ourselves.

Perhaps the conditions that stretch our capacity for belief or believing (in something) more than anything is our… mortality? Or maybe just our current situation. I don’t know. Look death in the eye and, for a person who wants to live, they’ll believe almost anything. We need only point to religion to prove death’s power over us and what we might believe, however preposterous it might be. Still, there’s a connection here that takes place—a story about a person who still believes that belief itself is a worthy notion. “But she thinks, perhaps, that she can believe, for one moment, in her own grubby-kneed girlness.” It’s like the more philosophical version of Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” In this case, “If you believe, then…”

Or maybe not. Maybe belief is simply the final goodbye.

Read Laura Todd Carns’s thought-provoking and heart-wrenching story here.

Flash Friday Review: “And This Is How It Ended” by Yasmina Din Madden, published in Fractured Lit

If Shannon Ravenel is correct and a good story’s ending will kiss the story’s beginning, then the end of this flash piece, by Yasmina Din Madden, told in reverse, would most certainly be a chilly goodbye peck on the cheek.

But kissing and story structure aside, there’s so much to admire in what Madden can do in so few words. We don’t need the blow-by-blow details, but one line will do it: “I surprised David with small gifts while I cheated on him with a fellow teacher…” That’s the one and only time we hear of it, but why go any further? There’s no need when economy (of words) is a prized possession.

Weed killer is apparently another prized possession. I’ve always thought weeds are simply misunderstood flowers or uncommercialized edibles, i.e. the gorgeous dandelion, but there are weeds of the noxious variety that do “choke out other plants.” These are the weeds that need attention pronto otherwise they might rot an entirely good garden plot full of lush, nutrient soil that could grow the tastiest of tomatoes. I, like Madden, live in Iowa, and there’s nothing quite like an Iowa grown tomato—something about the rich soil coupled with the intense July heat and humidity. I couldn’t choose a more favored and flavorful fruit to occupy any garden space, however big or small, in the Hawkeye State. Hell, we need at least one thing to brag about (we’ll see about the basketball team this weekend – let’s hope they don’t pull an Iowa State last time they played a #15 seed).

As we move forward (or is it backward?) in the story, we see the couple in question (David and the narrator) initially meet in a garden. This happens over a year prior to the first paragraph of the story. The couple shares time and space and eventually their relationship blossoms. But we quickly learn that what’s true of the tomato—that regardless of how “misshapen,” they’ll maintain flavor and “juiciness” and a resistance to “pests and disease”—unfortunately cannot be said for the most noxious of weeds; that a dandelion might live and flower and die back within a week, but the most invasive, as David well knows, needs to be cast out at the first hint of existence. Otherwise, inevitable ruin. David says it to the narrator in simple terms: “…a weed is a weed.”

Check out Yasmina’s story here.

Yasmina Din Madden is a Vietnamese American writer who lives in Iowa. She has published fiction and nonfiction in The Idaho ReviewPANKNecessary FictionCleaverHobartCarve, and other journals. Her stories have been finalists for The Iowa Review Award in Fiction and The Masters Review Anthology: 10 Best Stories by Emerging Authors. Her flash fiction has been shortlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions and Pulp Lit’s Hummingbird Flash Prize.

Flash Friday Review: “All the Wrong Questions” by DJ Hills, published in Wigleaf

A story about someone who is trying to keep hold of a fraying rope as she dangles off the side of a building/bridge/cliff. Or more directly, “I do not feel at peace.” This short, declarative—and very effective—line guides this flash piece from beginning to end. “I wanted so desperately to be popular.”

What is it like for someone’s life to spiral out of control or get launched—maybe literally, maybe figuratively—off a cliff. The fraying rope pales to the bus (with kids) which she acknowledges in the first paragraph: “Why did I drive the bus off the cliff?” Again, with kids in it (she did have an “abortion…in the early years of… marriage” which would support the metaphorical bus flying off the cliff, with kids). The bus was pulled out of the ocean. The narrator is now falling in love with the man who saved her.

Does it matter if any of it actually happened? No. Because we know what’s real: a failing relationship, loss at every turn, unmet needs/desires, and a general sense of unhappiness, despite a moderate effort: “I threw house party after house party trying to make friends. Where are they now?” Remember, she wanted to be popular?

When the narrator refers to being “dead” is it dead-dead? Or is it dead-to-the-world dead? I’m going to choose the latter here, because the one glimmer of any hope in this very powerful piece is when asked by the kids if it’s worth wishing on stars, even while dead, the narrator says, “Yes. Always. Let’s wish on one right now.”

Check out the story here.

DJ Hills is a queer writer and theater artist from the Appalachian Mountains, currently living in Baltimore. They have work in or coming from Appalachian Review, Cold Mountain Review, SmokeLong Quarterly and others.

Flash Friday Review: “Symbology” by Betsy M. Narvaez, published in The Brooklyn Rail

Many years ago in a short story workshop, one of the teachers, while discussing dreams in stories, said something to the effect of: “Share a dream, lose a reader.” Meaning, dreams, like in real life, are never as interesting to anyone else other than the dreamer herself. No one gives a shit about your extended slumber-time adventures with your third-grade pen pal on a balance beam overlooking some strange and muddy river.

But take a look at “Symbology” by Betsy M. Narvaez which opens with the line: “My mother began sharing her nightmares with me the same year I unfurled and grew taller than anyone had anticipated…”

So maybe nightmares are more compelling than dreams. Maybe when the nightmares and dreams are connected to the transition between childhood and adulthood, the meaning is more pronounced, more urgent. I’d say Betsy M. Narvaez proves that dreams/nightmares are indeed compelling, and I would argue further that her use of these dream/nightmares proves to hold deft insights into the characters of the story.

“Symbology” is a flash fiction piece where each stanza or section acts as a stepping stone toward the final realization which brings one of the mother’s nightmares (almost) to realization. The nightmare involves a hospital, her death. And I don’t think it’s a spoiler to announce that the mother doesn’t die. That would be too spot on and meaningless to the story. Instead, what we get are these tender moments that unfurl. The narrator, after what she’s heard about the nature and importance of dreams, by the end of this story, wants to share with her mother something “that might convince her that dreams hold messages richer than warnings.” That life is more about life and less about death. And since the certainty of that notion should render us free in some way (yes, we all die), we need not preoccupy ourselves with something so predictable, but instead bask in the gorgeous unpredictability of being alive.

Check out Betsy M. Narvaez’s story here.

Betsy M. Narváez is an Ecuadorian-American writer and translator. A native New Yorker, she was born and raised in the Bronx and now resides in Washington Heights. She earned an MFA from Rutgers Newark and a B.A. in English and American studies from Wesleyan University. 

Review of Mary Miller’s story “Another City” published in Southwest Review

Caroline, the protagonist in Mary Miller’s story “Another City,” is so affectingly forthright it’s difficult not to be entranced by her roaming thoughts paired with brutal directness. This is a character who attracts a crowd while telling stories at happy hour because of the speed with which her mind races and the comedic timing of her insights: “I wait for [my boyfriend] to say more but he doesn’t. He is a great pauser… [his pauses] can go on so long I nearly have a panic attack every time he pulls into a Wendy’s.” This conversation occurs while finding out the reason for her boyfriend’s tardiness. It’s because one of his “cute” students got bumped by a car. By “cute” he meant “She’s a good student.” Still, Caroline presses him on the relational dynamic.

              “Are you attracted to her?”

              “No, Caroline. I’m not attracted to nineteen-year-old girls.” And then he asks what I want for dinner. Do I need him to pick anything up? What do I want to watch on TV later? There are so many arbitrary questions that he would like me to answer, but I’m still thinking about the girl who cracked her pelvis and if he wants to fuck her.”

But Caroline is capable of more than humor. Her insights are just as moving as her one-liners. Referring to her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, with whom she has a complicated relationship, she says, “I want to call her over to the bed and smell the chlorine on her skin, brush the tangles out of her hair. I’d be so careful, so careful.”

And what would humor and insight be without existential proclamations: “To be alive is a goddamn miracle.” Caroline knows what’s up.

And this is essentially what the story is about. A celebration of being alive in the wake of a divorce and a general sense of unease and unhappiness, along with conflicted notions of how to handle her boyfriend’s daughter, which is really the heart of this story, all contained within, I’d guess, 2500 words. And in that timeframe, we understand the strained relationship the narrator has with her boyfriend, a relationship that has lost all the luster of those early days of any “in love” relationship, and the boyfriend’s daughter who Caroline wants a relationship with, but she’s just not sure what kind: quasi-parent or friend.

I’m probably not the best person to be discussing anything Mary Miller writes with any amount of objectivity. I’ve been enamored by her work since the great discovery of Big World, her debut story collection published by SF/LD Books (Hobart’s publishing arm), however many years ago. Her work then and now is marked by what Hemingway discussed as men and women working at love. And yet her stories are about so much more.

For instance, early in “Another City,” Caroline see-saws between wanting to scold her boyfriend’s daughter, Hailey, for her carelessness (leaving a cast iron skillet on open flames for so long it “glows bright red… about to burst into a fireball”), and the tenderness mentioned above—about wanting to spend time with her. Maybe hangout in her room to listen to records and “watch how fast she can text.” We know there’s an underlying envy and interest in the girl by all the wonderful observations. That she’s “breezily confident” and “beautiful.” That she can get away with “sloppiness” and for Caroline, that’s what “galls [her] the most.”

But what really “galls” her the most, or perhaps what is simply a sad resignation, is that Caroline is stuck with a boyfriend whose featured strengths are his pauses (remember, he’s “a great pauser”) and how he gets “so messed up” on whiskey that “he can hardly speak.” Oh, the charms of relationships! Meanwhile, Hailey is in love with a girl who lives in another state, and exhibits all the signs of experiencing that naïve love: long FaceTime conversations that enable temporary amnesia thus causing her to neglect basic responsibilities such as turning off a stove.

And maybe I was wrong before. Maybe this is actually what the story is about: how it’s unrealistic for us to stay in that “in love” giddy space forever—the butterflies, etc. But for a passionate, sensitive romantic like Caroline, there will always be a part of her that clings to those people who are still blind to what their relationship will inevitably become—that being “in love” can’t last forever. Yes, “to be alive is a goddamn miracle.” But maybe the real miracle is that some relationships last. Some relationships work. And work well. Maybe the real miracle is the existance of some alchemy that binds people together past the butterfly stage. Not only binds them together, but maybe even sustains them. That, truly, might be the real “goddamn miracle.”

Check out Mary Miller’s fantastic story here.

Mary Miller is the author of two novels, Biloxi and The Last Days of California, as well as two story collections, Always Happy Hour and Big World. Her work has appeared in The Paris ReviewPushcart Prize XLIV: Best of Small Presses 2020 EditionThe Best of McSweeney’s QuarterlyAmerican Short Fiction, and others. She is a former Grisham writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi (2014-15) and Michener Fellow at the University of Texas.