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There is a picture of me from when I was a very little girl – right around three years old. I’m wearing a white dress covered with red polka dots, hands on hips, grinning down at the camera from the top step of a porch. It’s the last visual image I have of myself as a fundamentally happy person.

Me, situationally happy to be where I as when this was taken. (In case it wasn't obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress).

In case it wasn’t obvious, this is not the picture of 3 year old me in the polka-dot dress – that’s been lost to the sands of time, otherwise known as my mother’s house.

When I say “happy person”, I don’t mean “happy” in a situational or contextual sense. I have been happy many times in my life and I have many happy memories to go with them.

I was happy the first time I was cast in a play.  I was happy when I completed my MA. I am massively happy anytime something I write gets published. I was happy the day my husband proposed, and happier still the day we got married. I was over the moon the first time I held my daughter.

Sex makes me happy. Good food makes me happy. Wide-ranging, mind-opening conversations make me happy. Letters from faraway friends make me happy. A friend’s success makes me happy, as does a person being in love. I’ve been happy reading a book on a rainy day, and I’ve been happy dancing in the middle of a bar. All of these happy moments were honestly and genuinely happy, but the happiness I felt was contextual. I was happy because something made me happy. The happiness was the result of an external influence, not a state of being.

In fact, all of the happiness(es) I’ve experienced in the decades that followed the picture of me on the porch have been entirely situational. They boosted me up out of my naturally neutral state. It’s not that I was walking around being actively unhappy – it’s just that my resting state is / was fundamentally…not sad, per se, but grave.

I know why this is and the reasons for it are good – so good that I never tried to chip down the barrier between me and the little girl at the top of the porch, which is why I was kind of shocked to realize that, for the first time in decades, I’m happy for no reason. I’m happy because my resting state is happy. I’m happy just because.

This is, to put it bluntly, a literal fucking joy, all the more so because I am, and remain, a depressive. For the first time in my (remembered) life, I feel the light, fizzy, amazing physical effects of being happy, but in a more grounded, internal way than I have ever before. It’s the difference between drinking champagne and dipping your finger into it – when you dip your finger in, you feel the bubbles, but when you drink it, the bubbles are in you. At the moment, I’ve drunk the champagne.

That said, I know from experience that nothing is as stable as change. Just as my baseline shifted from melancholy to this random, self-sustaining joy, it could just as easily move back, and that’s okay. Emotions and emotional states are, by nature, fluid, and trying to hold onto a nebulous positive is as self-defeating as clinging to a negative. So, while I’m not attached (in the Buddhist sense) to this bizarre state of fundamental, non-circumstantial happiness, it is good to know that I’m capable of it – for years I thought I no longer was. That, in its own right, is a happy thing.

It’s lovely to feel that my life is good and complete, and it’s equally lovely to know that whatever happiness comes next might add to a happiness that pre-existed it, rather than act as a bump to an immobile and subdued resting state, which makes me thing that all of this has more to do with balance than anything else.

For a long time, my scales naturally tipped towards *sadness, or neutral at best. At the moment, my scales are level because the happiness I’m feeling creates a counterweight, and, rather than neutral, my resting state is, at the moment, sanguine and content. 

While it doesn’t eradicate the shadows (because those shadows are rooted deep), this happiness is equally internalized so, for the first time, happiness carries an equal weight. I’ve no doubt the scale tip one way and the other, but it’s no longer static, and that’s a strange and happy thing.

*Side Note: On a somewhat serious note, I should explicitly state that what I’m describing isn’t the difference between being depressed or not depressed. Depression isn’t as simple as happy vs. sad, nor is depression synonymous with sadness, as any depressed person can tell you. In fact, I am, at the moment, massively depressed. I just feel the essential happiness fizzing away beneath it, which should be cognitively disturbing but, happily, isn’t.

On Dialogue


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Black and white picture of handwritten dialogue by Malin JamesI posted a story on my other site yesterday that reminded me how much I love writing dialogue. A lot of my stories are fairly minimalistic, with people saying less than they strictly have to. It’s as much about what’s happening in the gaps as it is about what’s being said.

But yesterday’s story was the opposite – nearly all dialogue, driven by a comfortable, natural patter between two sisters. It was an off-the-cuff thing and it felt great. It also reinforced something that I’ve always known about myself as a writer – that my writing is informed by acting in all kinds of subtle ways.

I have no formal training as a writer. I taught myself how to deconstruct and write stories over the course of twenty years, two Master’s Degrees and lots and lots of books – good books, bad books and books I can’t even remember having read. What I do have is extensive acting training and experience working with characters on stage.

Which is why so much of my writing is character driven. There’s always a plot (because without plot, it’s a moment, not a story), but the plots are almost always fueled by a character’s internal drives and motivations, rather than external forces. This will likely change at some point because a person’s writing is almost never fixed. Like aspects of any other creative discipline, a writer’s style and voice tend to evolve over time (so long as the writer lets them).

What I don’t imagine changing is that I will always be primarily interested in the people I’m writing about, (as opposed to concepts etc). Because for me they are people – not little objects I’ve constructed – so it’s natural for me to want get into their heads and dig around. That’s where all the acting comes in handy. I analyzed and interpreted other people’s characters, from Shakespeare to Chekov, for years, so playing with my own characters is like working in a mental playground. And a natural extension of that is writing dialogue.

No one sounds the same. Even two people, raised in the same household, in the same place with all of the same frames of reference sound different because, in the end, no matter how similar they are, they are two different people. Ask any set of twins. But rather than consciously trying to make the two sisters in yesterday’s story sound different, I let their differences play themselves out.

One sister is sexually experienced and up for anything. The other isn’t so sure. So, how would a conversation about a new boyfriend’s fetish go down, especially if it happened over drinks with a hot bartender listening in?

So, you take your two people and you set them down in a context, and then you just let them talk. I know that sounds ridiculous and kind of woo-woo, but I honestly believe that good dialogue comes from being impulsive, open and trusting your gut.

That’s not necessarily the case with all things in narrative. Plot needs conscious attention because it needs to make sense (unless your Thomas Pynchon, whom I can’t stand). Other elements, however, need your conscious attention to get out of the way so your subconscious attention can go to town.

characters have an agenda because your brain has a story to tell, and sometimes you’re only 10% aware of what that story actually is. The characters are the subconscious dynamos that drive whatever that story is, so when you write dialogue without trying to consciously mold it, you’re allowing your brain to tell you the story in the voices of the characters who inhabit it.

Good dialogue isn’t “dialogue” at all. It’s a conversation. All you need is a (really) basic understanding of who’s talking, why and where, and you’re off. Sometimes nothing comes of it, but sometimes something does, and when it does, when your characters surprise you by sounding like people, not like extensions of yourself, you know you’ve written dialogue that works.

I know this sort of approach isn’t right for everyone because every writer is different. I write to find out what I’m trying to say so an instinctive approach to dialogue is natural for me. For writers who work in a more structured fashion, what I just described would probably drive them nuts. The bottom line is that, no matter how you work, dialogue should slip into the reader’s head. You want your reader to hear what’s being said, rather than think, “wow, that’s great dialogue!” Acting is just the influence that helps  me get there.

The Joy of Catharsis


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Black and white photograph of a woman in a white dress lying on train tracks, for The Joy of Catharsis by Malin James

Photograph by Marco Sanges (2011)

I’m kind of an emotional junkie. Whether due to empathy, sensitivity or maladaptation, I tend to feel emotion (both mine and other people’s) really intensely and, every now and then, I like putting myself in the position of feeling something to a nearly painful degree (hello inner sadist).

That said, I prefer the experience to be self-inflicted – breaking my own heart of one thing. Having it broken by someone else is another….unless that someone is a book.

If a book breaks my heart (or makes me giggle until I cry; or scares me so badly that I’m afraid of my own bed), I will love it hard. I will also be really impressed – any author who can effect my cortisol levels is an author I respect.

It’s to do with catharsis. Life requires that I maintain an even emotional keel, which is good but also challenging, especially when you’re a highly-feely-feeler person. My big feely-feelers tend to make a mess out of things if I don’t maintain an objective perspective, so a great deal of my energy goes into being mindful of where I am in a situation and how I feel about it.

Over the years, I’ve found that it’s the best way (for me) to maintain an emotional equilibriumI can feel my feely-feelers without A. making a huge mess of things or B. suppressing them. But it also means that I process through a lot of emotions that don’t get verbally expressed as intensely as I feel them. Enter catharsis – the process of releasing (and thereby getting relief from) strong emotions.

Let’s go back to my inner sadist. She would both love for my heart to get broken so I could do something grand and tragic like throw myself in front of a train. While I would never actually do that (because I seriously want to live), I still crave the emotional catharsis that comes from those heightened emotions. So, rather than becoming one with the A-train, I read Anna Karenina and boom. I’m sobbing in bed as beautiful Anna does what my logical, even-keeled self would never do. And goddamn if it doesn’t feel good.

Dialing it back a bit, the truth is that I don’t care how “good” a book is so long as it makes me feel genuine emotion. Even if it doesn’t reach Russian novel levels of catharsis, I like feeling and that only happens when an author gets under my skin by over-riding my brain.

I can enjoy a book without this happening, just like I can enjoy sex that doesn’t turn my world technicolor. But every now and then, I stumble over a book that digs right in and hurts. And I love it. So, if I want this, why don’t I go straight for books like The Road – books that I know will hurt to read?

Let me compare it to dating. It’s going on OkC vs. randomly meeting someone and hitting it off. There’s nothing wrong with OkC but, for me, the sparks really fly when chemistry smacks you right out of the blue.

So, bringing it back to books, I know that reading Sophie’s Choice will fuck me up. I know exactly how and why. Reading it would be pointless self-torture and catharsis isn’t that. It’s the release of emotions you have inside you, not poking a stick at things that already hurts.

This makes catharsis a really personal, hard-to-predict thing. It has as much to do with what I’m bringing to the table, as it does with the book. In other words, it’s all about my context and how the book plays with it.

I can pick up a book like The Natural Order of Things (which I will eventually read along with A Little Life. Sophie’s Choice can fuck off) expecting a catharsis that doesn’t come, just like you can go on OkC, find a 99% match and find, as soon as you meet them, that the spark isn’t there. Alternatively, I could be reading blithely along and get punched in the face with it. You can’t make catharsis happen any more than you can force sexual chemistry. It either happens or it doesn’t. You’re just along for the ride.

So, cathartic books that I never saw coming….

Affinity by Sarah Waters. Holy god, I felt physically sick. It was glorious. Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons was the same thing. Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, The Rogue Pirate’s Bride (don’t even fucking ask), “The Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker…they all came out swinging from left field. Each one of the wrecked me and, after the emotional high passed, I was left with a level of emotional clarity I hadn’t had before.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m after. I want my foundations rocked – it’s a way of living vicariously through words. That’s why it hurt to leave acting – interpreting a role was an emotional joy. It’s why I write character driven stories. Catharsis is an earthquake that causes a shift and I want to feel (and be responsible for) that movement. I want the pain and intensity of it, along with the happiness and joy.

Catharsis gives me a place to put all of my emotions that have nowhere healthy to go. It gives me perspective on experiences I’ve had and a window into worlds that I will never see, and those are beautiful things. I want to be affected. I want to feel. I want to live more life than I have to live. The joy of literary catharsis is that it allows me to experience emotional intensity (and feel a sliver of its aftermath) without taking the destruction on as my own.

Everything Happens…


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Earth at the Center of It All

Today is the funeral of Alton Sterling, the man who was (senselessly and illegally) killed by Baton Rouge police last week. Yesterday, a man drove a semi-truck full of weapons into an unarmed crowd in Nice, killing at least 80 and probably more. Last month, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.

We all know these aren’t isolated incidents. We know that, as individual tragedies, they represent thousands of under-reported human tragedies. Or, if you want to get really nasty, they highlight the violence that we, as a species, have done to each other for millennia.

And yet, whenever these horrible things happen, someone inevitably says, “everything happens for a reason.” It could be a well-meaning person’s response to a miscarriage or a lay-off or a frightening diagnosis. It could be someone’s way of wrapping their head around police brutality, drone warfare, rape, torture…you get it. It’s a comforting idea, and I almost wish I believed it. But I don’t.

For me – a person who has never had faith of any sort, who has never believed in god, or heaven or a universal meaning of any kind – it’s a lie, and I just can’t trust a lie.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about my own world view here. A lot of humanity believes that everything does happen for a reason, just as a lot of humanity believes in a god. We all engage life in individually determined ways (…which my ultimate point, but I’ll get to that). My atheist / Buddhist worldview works for me, but if you believe that everything happens for a reason that’s cool too. I’m not interested in challenging (or judging) your belief. I’m just expressing why I don’t share it.

Over the course of my life, some bad things have happened. When I was younger, I struggled with why. I clung to the idea that everything happens for a reason because I couldn’t bear for the damage to essentially be for nothing. Then I read an interview Keanu Reeves did after his girlfriend died 18 months after giving birth to their stillborn daughter. You could feel the interviewer trying to figure out how to address the almost embarrassing amount of personal tragedy Reeves had just sustained.

As part of the interview she asked him if he believed that everything happens for a reason. And Reeves, very calmly, said, “No. I believe everything happens.”

Suddenly, my attachment to the idea of a cosmic rationale dropped. Because yes. Everything happens whether it’s justified or not. Because that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about why. It’s about justifying (and giving meaning) to the unbearable things. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “everything happens for a reason”. We don’t actually mean “reason”, as in cause and effect. We mean “reason” as in, “please tell me it’s not for nothing.”

Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend died because she lost control of her car. She did not die so he could become a better Buddhist (or actor, or activist). His response was self-determined. If he became a better [fill in the blank], it’s because he chose to, not because it was meant to be.

Likewise, bad things happened to me because someone decided to do them. Not because it would make me the person that I am. My self-determined response helped make me who I am. It does not give cosmic meaning to, or justify, the events that catalyzed my response.

God does not open a window when he closes a door. There are no windows and there are no doors. In fact, there is no fucking house. There is only what we do with the horrible things that happen. That said, things do happen because something prompts them – ‘reason’ as part of cause and effect, rather ‘reason’ as higher justification. Let’s take Nice.

Nice happened because a man decided to attack an unarmed crowd. It was a random and violent example of one man imposing his will on the lives of innocent people. Those people were acted upon in a terrible, tragic way. They had no control. They are victims of a cause and effect that happened without them ever knowing. Now, in the aftermath, the survivors and family members will respond. Their responses are self-determined reactions to the individual effects of a massive tragedy. Some will find ways to a positive personal outcome. Others won’t.

I know that my emphasis on self-determination rather than on faith in a higher power may read as flimsy to those who believe in determinism. From that point of view, it would be easy to read this and say, “Ah, but Malin, what if your “self-determined” response is just part of the plan? What if the horrible things that happened did so to get you to this pre-determined point?”

Honestly, I can’t answer that because from a belief having point of view, that makes total sense. From my point of view, I respond to things based on an internal calculus that is entirely self-determined. I have no faith to trust, so I trust myself instead. So, if you find comfort in the idea that everything is pre-determined and that there is some kind of plan, do it. Take comfort. Why the hell not. Just don’t ask me to. Because, for me, there is no cosmic reason. We aren’t dominoes laid out in careful patterns. We are individual actors responding to causes and effects in a world full of phenomena that defy justification.

On Reading Sex


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Sepia toned photograph of a nude woman wearing a feathered head dress. For On Reading Sex by Malin James

Photograph by Marc Lagrange. (On a side note, I love this image. It reminds me of The Story of O.)

When I was in my teens, I literally learned about sex by gobbling massive, towering stacks of Harlequin Historicals, the more bodice-rippy the better. In my twenties, I went through a period where i read everything from Henry Miller (filthy sonofabitch) and Anne Rice (kinky, pretty things) to Literotica and CleanSheets.com.

Somewhere between reading erotica and writing it, something changed for me though. I started reading erotica more critically in my twenties because I was getting a Master’s Degree and I was reading everything more critically. I’m kind of a recreational thinker so that’s not the worst thing, except that the habit of reading critically cut the connection between erotica and my sex drive.

Almost as if to compensate, books that were not written as erotica were turning me on in super hot, unexpected ways. Angela Carter, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andahazi’s The Merciful Women, The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson…I’d be reading along and suddenly get slammed with a crazy, elemental need to get off. It wasn’t that the sex was better written, it was just contextually more specific.

Stick with me – I’m going somewhere with this and it has to do with that contextual specificity.

As I got older and more experienced, I understood my sexuality more. By then, I’d had all kinds of sex in all kinds of contexts and, as a result, what turned me on was changing. In other words, what grabbed my brainstem at 15 was doing it at 25. My buttons had gotten way more specific in those intervening 10 years, and that affected the way I read sex.

The point is that everyone’s sexuality is different, so everyone reads sex differently depending on what kind of experiences or curiosities you’re bringing to the table. That’s why there is no one “right” way to write sex, and no “right” way to read it. Sure, there’s bad sex writing, but there also bad sex in real life. That’s just part of the deal, whether you’re reading it or doing it.

The other issue is one of place in life. It’s why the sex you had in your boyfriend’s dorm was the hottest thing possible at 18, but why it might not get you off at 38. We read sex differently at different points in our lives because we experience sex differently at different points in our lives, and our needs and tastes tend to reflect that. The same principle goes for audio and visual porn. It even applies to the movies you are hot, (even if they’re awful…hi, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I heart you).

It’s worth remembering all of this when you judge the value of a genre, (and genre, really). Whether or not you think they have literary value, erotica and romance serve a sexual and emotional purpose that exists beyond the standards of the Man Booker prize. It’s not an issue of the genre’s value, it’s one of the value it has to individual readers at any given time, and that value matters as much as literary merit. For some readers, it matters more.

Small Fiction: Memory Palace


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Photograph of a wealthy abandoned house with broken chair in the foreground, for Memory Palace by Malin James

From Matthias Haker’s Decay series

She looked at the dripping world, dripping water, dripping skies, from clouds to green grass, against the glass and under cars into places she couldn’t see, places filled to the brim with emptiness.

His shoes were empty. And the left side of the bed and the Apple mug from the eighties and his particle physics cup – bought for nostalgic purposes. Not nostalgia. Nostalgic purposes. Because that’s the way he talked.

He liked things that had a purpose, mugs and books, purposeful things like that. Things that held memories but also did something – something more than gather dust like his mother’s porcelain squirrels.

The house full of those things now—mugs, not porcelain squirrels. The squirrels went to a charity shop, along with the decorative geese. But mugs…she had mugs. And empty shoes and half-finished books and the cord to his first cell phone. His beer was in the fridge. His tea was in the sink. She left it as it was to keep his prints on the mug.

She lived in a memory palace – a shrine to their Before. Memories dirtied dishes. They warped the floor and filled her gut. Her cells, her tissue, her teeth and bones were stony with Before. Before is what she was. Because After was in a meadow off a long winding road, under wild green grass and rain.

Book Lust London


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A few weeks ago, I went to London. I love London, among other things because I fucking love London. There are lots of reasons for this, some more personal than others, but high on the list is the fact that London is a book city, so much so that it makes me feel like this:

Animated GIF of Sarah's excited reaction from Sarah and Duck

-Sarah’s excited reaction. From Sarah & Duck.

It’s not that we don’t love books in the States. I was a bookseller for ten years before I became a librarian and I can tell you right now that there are lots and lots of Americans who love their books. We fundraise for libraries and champion literacy like champs. I can’t even walk down the street wearing my Reading Rainbow tee-shirt without someone asking me where I got it. (Here, in case you were wondering). But that’s not quite what I mean.

Picture of a pile of books bought on my most recent trip to London, for Book Lust London post by Malin James

Most of my recent haul.

It’s the difference between a lot of wonderful, book-loving individuals scattered across more 2,600 miles of geography and a country that televises the Man Booker Prize because there are betting pools and it’s serious. It’s the difference between book clubs discussing a summer release and two guys throwing down in a pub over whether you’re a “pretentious, fucking twat” for having read Ulysses or an “ignorant fuck” if you haven’t. (I overheard that debate, and it was awesome – super critical in the most un-bullshit way I’ve ever seen).

But even that can be found in the States (though probably not in a bar). For me, what makes London a book city is that fact that there are bookstores everywhere, from chains to tiny independents, and they are full of books – not sidelines, CD’s, toys, games and books. Just books. I like that you can ask booksellers what they’d recommend and trust that they have an informed opinion. I like that bookshops in London range from hodge-podge collections in stores smaller than my grandmother’s house to polished, muti-floor giants you could spend the whole day in.

Here’s the thing. I come from a city that is famous for its literary heritage thanks to Steinbeck and Burroughs and Kerouac. But bookselling and publishing have changed so much in the States that even a city like San Francisco can’t support more than a handful of scrappy, often struggling independents. And yes, I can order almost anything I want on Amazon and I can download everything else onto my Kindle (though my brain refuses to fully engage digital text). It’s not that I can’t get anything I want because I can. I just can get it in a way that feels real.

I can’t walk a mile and hit a couple of bookshops on my way to somewhere else. I can’t spend ages meandering sections and pulling (way too many) books off the shelves before handing a nice person money so I can take them home with me now. That sort of experience is a luxury like clotted cream and sleeping past 8am. And I’m not sure I’d want to that to change.

I say not sure because if someone told me that I could live in London I’d move. Like, yesterday. But no one is going to give me their flat anytime soon so I like enjoying the specialness of it. Because it is special to me. Books are tactile things – the massively cliched but totally distinct scent of paper and ink is a thing, and so is touching the object you’re going to buy. The real value of brick and mortar bookshops is that they foster a tactile relationship between the book and the person who buys it. And, because I’m a romantic, I want to enjoy that relationship, even if I only get to taste it now and then – especially if only now and then.

Don’t get me wrong. I wish the book business in the States was more boom than bust, that there were more prizes and more interest in shortlists. I wish there were more independents staffed by people who hand-sell titles because they fucking love that book. I wish I could stroll down the street and come home with something random that I can’t wait to read. But I can’t, at least, not living in a suburb of a lovely city that is struggling to hold onto the few bookshops it has left.

That’s one of the reasons I love London so much. I will never get to all of the city’s bookstores let alone all of the shops in the rest of the country, but I love that they’re there, all dreamy and wonderful to think about. Books in London are a treat and I like it that way, even when it means dragging luggage that weighs 9,000 pounds through the tube, and waiting longer than I’d like to be there again.

Gateway Books


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Woman waiting for metro behind a wrought iron gate for Gateway Books by Malin James

Over the Passay Station by Yanidel Street Photography

My daughter was home sick the other day, so I didn’t get much work done. Fevers require snuggling in this house and snuggling isn’t compatible with documents and laptops. Not that I minded – while she snoozed like a sleepy kitten (very well snuggled), I spent most of the day reading, something I love to do but rarely get to indulge in for long stretches.

I pulled Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories off the shelf at random, mostly because I had to get the girl settled so I didn’t have time to mess around choosing. I had tried Life After Life around Christmas because everyone told me I’d love it but, for some reason, I just couldn’t get into it, so I put it down after 100 pages. This is after trying Behind the Scenes at the Museum a few years before with similar results. After two failed Atkinson attempts, I’d pretty much decided that she and I were not meant to be, but I tend to give authors a three book shot. If, after trying three different books, I still don’t want to read them, I figure it’s a miss, no matter how much I should love them. Case Histories was my third and final shot at Kate Atkinson and I’m so glad I didn’t stop after the first two.

Case Histories is a (freaking gorgeous) literary detective novel. I’m still basking in the geeky afterglow so I can’t critically parse out how I feel yet, but suffice it to say that I loved this book. It impressed the hell out of me in pretty much every writerly way. Plus, Atkinson’s use of point of view and voice are amazing. Plus, it made me laugh and almost made me cry (that’s a big deal – I cry all the time at movies, but I’m tougher with books…though The Time Traveler’s Wife made me sob like a baby).

In other words, Case Histories was my gateway into Atkinson – the book that made me click with the author so that I suddenly want to devour everything she’s written, including the books I’d rejected earlier. This sort of thing has happened a lot for me over the years. I couldn’t stand Margaret Atwood until I read The Blind Assassin (oh, my god, so good). Now, she’s one of my favorites. Same thing with Sarah Waters. I tried to read Tipping the Velvet three times before I gave up. Then I read Affinity and couldn’t put it down, so I tried Tipping the Velvet again and binged it in two days.

The gateway thing doesn’t just work with authors either. I’ve had it happen with genre too. Sometimes, the revelatory book is an exception, like my love of Iain Banks’s Use of Weapons defying my general apathy towards science fiction. But in other cases, a gateway book cracks open a whole new world of experiences. I still remember reading a short story by Remittance Girl in my twenties. I’d never liked erotica but I read this by chance, and suddenly got the genre. That story is why I started writing it.

I’m not sure that I have any conclusions to make, outside of the fact that I think gateway reading experiences are kind of fabulous. I’m a really active reader – when a book or an author engages me, they engage me hard. It doesn’t happen all the time, so when it does, when I book opens me up to an author’s back catalog or a whole new genre, it’s exciting. I like being introduced to new things. I like having new obsessions and things to honestly gush about. Adding Kate Atkinson to my list of gushable things was a lovely surprise, and I don’t ever want to be the kind of person to turn lovely surprises down.

The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies


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GalenPikeCoverOn Stories that Undermine Assumptions

Carys Davies’s second collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike, is one of those books that I raced through in one go, and then went back and read more slowly over the course of the week. Granted, this book is short (131 pages) so my all-in-one-go read isn’t that impressive. That said, the fact that it hooked me that hard is.

This collection gave me that weird, awesome, anxious feeling that you sometimes get when there are too many choices on a menu. It’s exciting, and the thing that makes it exciting is really cool and kind of rare – every single story in The Redemption of Galen Pike sets up an expectation and then thoroughly subverts it.

This is a tricky one to keep spoiler-free, so I’m going to focus on just one of the stories and hopefully not spoil too much. “Wicked Fairy” is one of the quieter stories in the collection. While they all defy expectation differently, “The Wicked Fairy” does it with a sort of ironic silliness that carries you through, even though you know how it’s going to end.

We open with the narrator, a guy named Lenny, noticing a girl at a wedding. She’s dark and thin and she’s carrying a pie. Over the course of the next two pages, Davies creates a sort of Atwoodian (I’m totally making that a word) dystopia, wherein this girl with the pie is a silent, unnoticed threat. Except that Lenny notices. He notices but doesn’t say anything, not even when the voice in his head screams “LOOK OUT DON!!! THERE’S A GIRL HERE WITH A PIE!!!!”

When she finally throws the pie, its impact on Don’s face reads like a gunshot, and you’re left with the image of social horror – a horrified crowd and a pie-covered groom and a dazed, empty-handed girl, standing there as if she’s shot him.

I love what Davies does with this. In films, this kind of scene usually unfolds in slow motion and ends in an assassination. So what’s Davies doing when she assigns all of those JFK cues to a jilted girl with a pie? She’s playing two things off each other.

The first is the seriousness of the jilted girl’s feelings. She wants to hurt Don and she’s going to do it…with a lovingly described cream pie. And that pie is the opposite of serious.

In playing those two things off each other, Davies sets up a situational dissonance ie: the is really serious!…but it’s a pie.  The pie itself is the subversion of an expectation – one that involves real violence and tragedy. And yet, the pie is never treated as anything but a very real threat. So, in the world of the story, she might as well have pulled a knife.

So, what’s the point? Here’s how I read it. In subverting the seriosity of a familiar situation, Davies is implying that pie or no pie, the girl’s hurt is a powerful force. The fact that she doesn’t actually hurt him is beside the point. Within the context of the narrative, the social damage she’s caused is equally violent, which makes it a great commentary on the importance people place on big, elaborate weddings, rigid social structures and the power of public humiliation. All that from subverting one assumption – oh, no! She has a gun! with a different, equally threatening (in the story’s context) reality – oh no! She has a pie!

I’ll be honest, I laughed both times I read “The Wicked Fairy” because, for all that geeky analysis, it really is funny. As one of the lightest pieces in the collection, it did a great job of quietly satirizing all sorts of things while giving the reader a bit of a break. Some of the other stories are beautiful, powerful heartbreakers, all of which are so worth reading. In fact, however, you end up reading it, this collection is very much worth reading.

Small Fiction: Cold War


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Black and white historical photograph of a woman standing at the Berlin Wall circa 1962 for Flash Fiction: Cold War by Malin James

Berlin Wall, c. 1962

She was prone to overthinking – thinking formed a wall guarded by a process she pretended to control. She deployed distractions and analysis with Soviet subtlety, creating, over time, a Byzantine web of protections. In the end, one department didn’t know what the other one was doing – left hand fooling the right.

She did this cloak and dagger for years – years and years and a lifetime – until the years ran short and programs were cut and a colder, less stable government dismantled the agency tasked with her sanity.

Facades began to crumble and buildings fell and the wreck of a woman lay piled in the corner of a room. Wrapped in wars that were not hers, she was blinded by things hadn’t known to see, invisible threats she’d felt in her splintered bones. She rocked herself apart in that room, in the end, a mouse in a concrete wall. The wall filled her blood and her back and her soft, soft parts as she fell around herself.