Publisher: Tiny Hardcore Press
Guest Reviewed by Lavinia Ludlow
In 2012, Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale, and Amber Sparks released Shut Up/Look Pretty, a collection of short stories and micro fictions about everything from bad break ups, vampires, to classic familial dysfunction. The contrast of narrative voices brought a charming feel to the compilation, and collectively, made for a unique reading experience.
Becker opens with a story called A Simple Explanation, which reads more like a low self-esteemed angst-ridden unhinged teenage girl than a mature woman struggling with her reality—think every single Fiona Apple song. A reoccurring personality who takes (or maybe invites) emotional abuse by the stereotypical emotionally void asshole, pining over the wrong men who ignore and abuse her, and leave her self-hating and loathing because she doesn’t fit a certain mold: “You marvel aloud at your luck in meeting me. I like you and want to warn you, but it’s really your own fault. Don’t envision a history with me. Just take me home tonight and don’t call tomorrow. I will cry and think ‘always’ and ‘never’ and it will feel right to me.” Independent Living was a glimpse into the black hole of an old folks’ home. The well-written piece exposed Becker’s true talents as a writer as she conveyed complex emotions of the dismal environment in mere sentences. Becker’s prose is often fragmented, but she’s mastered the art of expressing the darkest emotions of the human experience, which most choose to bury, drink away, and forget.
__Erin Fitzgerald imaginative stories of hospital stays and unemployment take place in small-town college dorm rooms and doctors’ offices.
Where Did It All Go Wrong is a heartbreaking tale of giving up the daily comforts, quite possibly necessities, in the heart of the economic recession. Fitzgerald hits hard with blatant one-liners, but also conveys a slew of somber emotions, as exhibited in the opening of Fed Up In Phoenix, “You started getting the newspaper right after you got married, because Laurie thought it would be cute for the two of you to read the paper over breakfast. Then both of your shifts changed and you ate together less and it stopped for a while.” A story with such a powerful twist that it sucker punched me in the gut and I walked around for the rest of the day with an inexplicable ping in my side. This Morning Will Be Different is a humorous and engaging story about coming home from a surgery to an empty house after a fresh break up. “I will start taking ibuprofen three times a week, even if nothing hurts that ibuprofen would fix...If I can’t find someone to talk to that early in the morning, I will invent an eccentric friend in an artist’s colony in Taos, where it will be 4am. She will not have been able to sleep, she is so filled with inspiration.” As the collection presses on, Fitzgerald’s prose and content increase in eccentricity, from stories of fraud to inmate snail mail in a “To Lindsay Lohan from Erin,” a one-way dialogue with no other than Lindsay Lohan. Nonetheless, a great collection of short stories.
Kirsty Logan’s novella Local God is about a Scottish rock band and its stereotypical womanizing sociopath of a lead singer, Francis Faskally. Logan’s dynamite writing never wanes, particularly when she’s introducing a character: “Before I met Tibor, I thought I knew what Christians looked like—this was vital information so that I could avoid them. Then I met Tibor, with his shaved head, nose ring, and muscled arms, like a threatening extra from a prison movie. Several local god girls at uni are feverishly, obsessively, frantically in love with Tibor. They are all beautiful and insane. Tibor is not bad-looking and he’s in a band—which is plenty for some girls—but he also has a secret weapon. Tibor is saving himself for marriage.” Logan has the matchless ability to set the scene and draw out her characters so precisely that I feel as if I’m there in the room listening to the dialogue unfold and tensions rise. Though the short story starts off slow and cliché, it morphs into an entertaining, engaging, and fantastical mind fuck. My only gripe is that I can’t read it again with a virgin pair of eyes.
With a dream-like writing style, Michelle Reale uncovers the barbaric and ugly side of suburbia, culture clashes, dysfunctional relationships, and even blind dates in flash-length stories. In Folk, the connection between two people fizzles just as quickly as the 200-word piece reads: “We tried to be fascinated by one another in the car on the way to the folk festival. We’d met over e-mail. He wrote with dashes like Emily Dickinson and I fell for it. He picked me up at a Denny’s on the highway, asked me not to smoke when I slid one from the pack. We had things to say, like the fact that he petrifies citrus fruits on windowsills and has a lime back from the summer of ’87. I told him about my fascination with the two drums of Ireland, the Lambeg and Bodhran and how my loyalties can become easily divided. The air-conditioning was on full blast. My eyes went dry. We ran out of things to say. At the festival we saw each other, but he just looked straight ahead like he didn’t know me after all we shared. On the way home we passed by a ramshackle house with a statue of a big wooden bear, his claws out. On one side was: ‘Welcome.’ On the other side: ‘Go Away.’ I lit my cigarette and didn’t care. ‘Imagine that,’ I laughed. He rolled down the window and looked the other way.” In What Passes For Normal, a young girl watches and listens to her callous mother verbally abuse a child with a mental disability: “‘God gives them strength since they have nothing upstairs to work with!’ She taps her head with a French-tipped fingernail. My mother blows a stream at Belinda. She laughs when the girl sputters. Belinda’s mouth looks like the downward grimace of the tragedy mask of theater. The smoke from my mother’s cigarette drifts forming a corona around Belinda’s head that looks too small for her body.” I had to re-read a few of Reale’s more poignant stories, but the second round was a literary adventure in itself and I was able to gain a better understanding of her vision.
Amber Sparks’ poetic and ethereal stories of life, death, and the gristly transitions in between remind us mortals of our inevitable (and grim) battle with mortality. Sparks fuels her stories with darkly comical details, which become increasingly graphic throughout her collection. She opens with A Great Dark Sleep, one man’s portrayal of living among ghosts and their playground. Haunted by some isolated trauma, the man is unable to let anyone new into his life, and devotes his time and energy to keeping the “ghosts” content. He even bans his daughter from using any technologies such as the internet, TV, and phone under the belief that “the signals would interfere with those the ghosts give off, with the live trails they leave looping through the air.” The Stages of Human Decay is none other than a play-by-play narrative of the human body decomposing: “After only five days it seem impossible she wouldn’t recognize you, but you are not you. You have transmogrified; you are a monster, a shiny, blistered human skin sack stuffed with liquefying tissue, leaking juice and gases from every orifice. You would be embarrassed to be seen in this condition. You were always so tidy and clean.” From cola guzzling vampire hunters to a murdered husband who somehow returns to life and sprouts wings, Sparks’ well-written content draws on the imaginative occult.
At times, navigating through a 300-page collection of intense and heavy material from five of the scene’s powerful and artistic writers was overwhelming; however, the generous sampling allows each contributor to highlight herself as an individual and as an essential voice in Shut Up/Look Pretty’s multifaceted illustration of the human condition. Available for purchase as an e-book at Amazon.
Lavinia Ludlow is a musician, writer, and occasional contortionist. Her debut novel alt.punk can be purchased through major online retailers as well as Casperian Books’ website. Her sophomore novel Single Stroke Seven was signed to Casperian Books and will release in the distant future. In her free time, she is a reviewer at Small Press Reviews, The Nervous Breakdown, American Book Review, and now The Next Best Book Blog.