Monday, October 5, 2015

Pop-Up Microfiction: That'll Learn 'Em

I hope you enjoy this little pop-up piece of microfiction. It's an embedded PDF that can be clicked to enlarge of download. (I promise it's clean; I don't have the slightest idea how to embed nastiness into files! It took me about two hours just to figure out how to get this in a post.)

©2015 by Amy Sisson. Free to share with correct attribution. Read more!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Houston Ballet Fall Repertory

Last night we saw Houston Ballet's Fall Repertory program, and if you'll forgive me for gushing, I believe that may be the most perfect evening of dance I've ever seen. I've said for a while that I actually prefer the mixed rep nights more than the full-length ballets, but normally there's at least one of the pieces that I didn't quite like as much as the others. Not so this time; they were all incredible.

The performance began with Stanton Welch's "Tapestry", which was set to Violin Concerto No. 5 by Mozart. We saw this piece when it premiered in 2012, and I was happy to see it again. There are three main movements (although I'm not sure I'm technically using the term correctly here), and perhaps it has to do with my food-centric short story reading in September, but I thought of each movement as a food course. This probably won't make much sense to anyone but me, but the first part made me think of blood orange creamsicle mimosas, the second of sweet and tart green apples, and the third of butternut squash and russet apples. Hmmm, remembering how I thought of last season's Romeo & Juliet costumes as raspberry sherbet, I'm beginning to think I have some weird music-color-food synesthesia....

But back to "Tapestry" itself ... I've often thought that Stanton Welch hears music and sees its movement, which he then teaches to the dancers. Not one possible movement for those notes, but the specific movement that was intended when the melody was created. There was only one moment when it felt a tiny bit too literal for me, which was when female dancers timed jumps into the males' arms and froze in place. It seemed almost jarring, and took me out of the moment. On the other hand, I don't know what another solution would be, since the music does stop that suddenly.

In any case, I felt that the rest of the piece was pretty much perfect. There was one part in particular, when principles Connor Walsh and Ian Cassidy lightly tossed Karina Gonzalez between them and it was so light and airy she seemed like a handkerchief fluttering from one to the other. I mean, it looked effortless. There was also a part that beautifully showcased three exciting male dancers: Aaron Robison, Oliver Halkowich, and Harper Watters. Last but not least, violin soloist Denise Tarrant was amazing, and received a tremendous round of applause.

The second piece was Christopher Bruce's "Ghost Dances", which premiered in Bristol, England, in 1981 and in Houston in 1988. The program describes the opening scene, in which "three skeletal figures with matted hair await the next consignment of the Dead." The piece begins in silence (something I struggle with, because then I notice the audience's every last cough and shift in their seats) with these three figures on a sort of rocky shore. Then, a group of men and women arrive in various types of dress. I hadn't read the program description before seeing it, but it was easy enough to interpret that these people were dead. To me, they seemed to be puppets, or animated corpses trying to hang on to life, not knowing that it has already been taken from them.

This ballet also had a post-apocalyptic feel to me -- rather than seeing these people as just a handful who happened to have died recently, I felt as though the whole world had died. Very specifically, I got a kind of Avatar-meets-Mad-Max-zombies vibe, and I was also reminded of a very intense young adult book I read a few years ago, The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith. It was about a boy who kept transitioning between the real world and a cannibalistic, post-apocalyptic version in which he finds the counterparts of many of his real-life friends. Of course, there's no relation between the ballet and this book, not even remotely, but I mention it because it shows that we all bring our own powerful associations to any art form that we experience. Just as no two people read the same book, no two people see the same ballet.

At the risk of gushing again, I also have to say that any time James Gotesky is on stage, I can't take my eyes off of him. I also loved the recorded Chilean folk music by Inti-Illimani, and will definitely seek out some of their work.

The third piece was a world premiere: "Reveal", choreographed by former Houston Ballet dancer Garrett Smith. This ballet had some of the most dramatic, effective lighting I've ever seen in a ballet. It was set to music by Phillip Glass, and primarily showcased a female dancer and her reverse-negative mirror image. In the program, the choreographer says "As dancers, you're always constantly training and trying and sculpting your body, constantly looking in that mirror all day to the point of obsessing with this love-hate relationship of ballet. In Reveal I wanted to try to let go of that and just embrace and accept what you have been given in life."

It's hard to describe this ballet more specifically than that, as it was fairly abstract, but it was absolutely haunting. I also loved its genderbending qualities, and thought that the music made it seem as though the stakes were life and death.

There are two more performances of this mixed rep production: tonight (Saturday October 3) and tomorrow afternoon (Sunday October 4).

[All photos property of Houston Ballet. Top: Connor Walsh, Karina Gonzalez, and Ian Casady in Tapestry. Middle: cast of Ghost Dances. Bottom: Karina Gonzalez in Reveal.]

Edited to add: A friend of mine named Cole Mikeska, who also sees all of Houston Ballet and Houston Grand Opera's performances, had something to say about "Ghost Dances" that I found intriguing. He said that he thought the "dances between the group marching in and out were flashbacks to their individual lives and what they remember. As a few fell out, that was the point that they realized they were dead." He also said about "Reveal" that he would describe it as "the ego becoming aware of the id via the mind of David Lynch."

This is what I mean every time I say I support the arts, and write fiction myself, because I want to be "part of the conversation." Every time we see a piece of art and talk to others about it, we get to see something new in it through their eyes as well.

My friend's blog, "The World According to Cole", is here. Check it out for interesting reviews, including "30-second movie reviews," and commentary on social issues.

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Thursday, October 1, 2015

Short Fiction - September 2015

By coincidence, most of my favorite stories for September are grouped around two things: food and flash fiction, including one story that encompasses both the theme and the format. I should note, however, that I'm leaving some of this month's favorites off this list -- but only because I plan to discuss them separately later this month in a post recommending some wonderful Halloween-themed fiction that I've found recently.

I should also note that some of these are non-genre. As always, my reading is at least 90% genre, but I do like mainstream and literary short stories also.

Finally, although I normally list my favorite stories alphabetically by the author's last name, this month I feel compelled to group the stories a bit differently. (I'm one of those people with a slightly abnormal desire to categorize things. Yes, I separate my M&Ms by colors before eating them.)


"I Was Really Very Hungry" by M.F.K. Fisher, read by Christina Pickles

I think I picked up this audiobook anthology through a bargain website a few years ago for next to nothing; before then, I had no idea that this fairly extensive collection of "Selected Shorts" audiobooks, "as heard on public radio nationwide," existed. This volume, titled Food Fictions, contains six stories, and the first selection, M.F.K. Fisher's "I Was Really Very Hungry" is truly centered on food.

Narrated by the aptly named Christina Pickles and recorded (as they all are) in front of a live audience, this story is about a traveler who stops for lunch at a small restaurant in France. She intends to order a light meal and is unsure what to expect in terms of quality from this unassuming little place, but she is quickly cowed by the polite but authoritative waitress and ends up trying -- and finishing -- all sorts of dishes that turn out to be sublime.

There's really not much story here; it's all in the telling, and I can't imagine reading this piece in print as opposed to listening to it, because it's the tone in the dialogue that makes it so delightful. Ms. Pickles does such a wonderful job with the waitress's French accent and almost fevered proclamations that Madam will be very pleased, because she is about to taste something unlike anything she's ever tasted before. The live audience laughs out loud throughout the story, as did I.

The liner notes indicate that this particular story originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1982. This audiobook, and others in the series, is available at online retailers or direct from the publisher.

"Enough" by Alice McDermott

This story comes from the same audio anthology, after first appearing in The New Yorker in 2000. Read by Fionnula Flanagan, "Enough" tells the simple story of an Irish Catholic woman, starting from when she is a girl to when she is an old woman. When she's young, she looks forward to the Sunday dinners at which her family has ice cream for dessert (but oh, how she dreads the Sundays they have stewed fruit instead!). I don't think I've ever come across ice cream described so sensually before. As she grows up, she seems to experience sex the same way, but once she's a widow, it's ice cream again; she sneaks it from her children's freezers when she's babysitting her grandchildren.

I'm doing a terrible job pinning down what made this story so good. I'm naturally drawn to this kind of generational fiction for some reason, finding comfort in the cycle of children growing up and having children of their own, which is odd considering that I never had a desire to have children myself. In any case, the depiction of the woman's full life, the narrative's humor, and the loving detail with which the ice cream is described all came together to create something I really enjoyed.


"Found Day" by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks

For me, this was a perfect piece of flash fiction. On the holiday "Found Day," people have the day off so they can look for, and find, the one thing they've lost in the past year that they've been missing the most. It's such a simple idea, but so original and charming. Don't you just wish we had a day like that? Even if that were the only magic in the world, what a lovely bit of magic it would be.

And the best part is that the story doesn't waste the idea -- I've read many stories that take an amazing concept and just squander it. But "Found Day" makes the best possible use of its central idea, giving us a meaningful, emotionally satisfying story in under 800 words.

Published in Daily Science Fiction here.

"Regarding your Position as our Third Year Teacher" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Yet another wonderful piece of flash. This is a humorous piece about a teacher who maybe should have thought it through before she took that teaching job at a far-distant space colony....

Read this if you want something fun to brighten your day. It was originally published in Daily Science Fiction here, but I read it at QuarterReads, which I encourage people to check out. It's a site with hundreds of stories under 2,000 words. You can browse a short opening section, and decide if you want to drop a virtual "quarter" in the slot to finish the story. The author gets 22 cents of that quarter, which is a much higher percentage than many other venues. You can even tip the author an extra quarter or two if you really like the story.

"Grass Girl" by Caroline M. Yoachim

In "Grass Girl", a girl made of bamboo envies the girls who are made out of driftwood, and tries to emulate them. The story's theme of self-acceptance is a common one, but the author has found a lovely new way to express something both familiar and important. Caroline has become my favorite flash fiction author (she writes great longer stories too), and as you can see by the pattern here, Daily Science Fiction publishes a lot of terrific stuff. Read here.


"Bread of Life" by Beth Cato

By complete coincidence, this piece of flash fiction, which is a "Natures Futures" story, is also very much about food. It's about bread and memories, and it works in an interesting concept about alien motivations. It's astonishing how inventive this is for such a short piece. Read here.

[Illustration by Jacey]

(I should also mention that although Caroline Yoachim's "Grass Girl" is not about food, it so happens that Caroline does have a food-themed series of flash fiction, the "Tasting Menu" series. My favorite of these is "A Million Oysters for Chiyoko". You can find all Tasting Menu stories, each of which stands alone, here.)


"The Springwood Shelter for Genetically Modified Animals" by Verity Lane

This last story is neither about flash nor about food, but it is my favorite of all the stories I read in September. This appears in the September 2015 issue of Crossed Genres, which has the year 2065 as its theme. In this short story, a young woman named Mel, who hopes to "graduate" from the Matherson Children’s Home and get a real job in lieu of being sent to a labor farm, begins a temporary assignment at the Springwood Shelter for Genetically Modified Animals. Mel realizes that Anita, the citizen assigned to oversee her, is uncomfortable, but as they begin their rounds feeding the animals (okay, so there is food in the story!), the two begin to form a connection.

There's much more to the plot, and some lovely details that I don't want to mention so that readers can discover them for themselves. Suffice it to say that this story had everything I like: an inventive (if somewhat scary) future, well-developed characters, and real heart. Also animals, so bonus!

The story is just under 6,000 words but reads very quickly. And I was particularly impressed when I visited the author's blog after reading the story, only to find out this was her first fiction sale. Highly recommended. (Link)

Other stories read in September 2015:

(alphabetical by author)

- "Rediscovering Happiness" by Jessica Marie Baumgartner (2015)
- "At Apocalypse's Edge" by Rebecca Birch (2015)
- "The Circle of Life" by Aline Carriere (2015)\
- "Indigestion" by Anton Chekhov, read by Bradley Whitford (original English language publication 1996; audio CD reprint 2007)
- "Witness for the Prosecution" by Agatha Christie, read by Christopher Lee (original publication 1925; audio CD reprint 2004)
- "Second Lives" by Danika Dinsmore (year unknown)
- "Stacey and Promo Sail the Seven Seas" by Graham Downs (year unknown)
- "Pidgin" by Katrina S. Forest (2015)
- "The Scream" by Nancy Fulda (2010)
- "Kids in the Mall" by Mel Glenn (2000)
- "The Late Mrs. Buttons" by Sally Hamilton (2015)
- "Better than 1000 Monkeys with Typewriters" by K.R. Horton (2015)
- "Confessions of a Superhero" by Joel Hunt (2015)
- "Weight of the World" by José Pablo Iriarte (2015)
- "Flight Feathers" by Kerry Kullen (2015)
- "The Wedding Gig" by John League (2015)
- "Ginny & The Ouroboros" by Stephanie Lorée (2015)
- "FemCloud Inc." by Mary E. Lowd (2015)
- "Weremoose" by Mary E. Lowd (year unknown)
- "To Express How Much" by Mary Ann McGuigan (2000)
- "Closet" by Melissa Mead (2015)
- "Ink Night" by Devin Miller (2015)
- "From the Other Side of the Rubicon" by Sean Mulroy (2015)
- "Beacon" by K.S. O'Neill (2015)
- "Just a Little More" by V.S. Pritchett (original publication 1978; audio CD reprint 2007)
- "Strong as Stone" by Effie Seiberg (2013)
- "To Be Carved (Upon the Author’s Tombstone in the Event of His Untimely Demise)" by David Steffen (2015)
- "The Book" by Shelley Stoehr (2000)
- "An Immense Darkness" by Eric James Stone (2015)
- "Tell Me Who You Hang Out With and I'll Tell You What You Are" by Eleanora E. Tate (2000)
- "Tell Us You Were Here" by Anne Valente (2015)
- "We Clever Jacks" by Greg van Eekhout, read by Marshal Latham (original publication 2007; podcast reprint 2012)
- "Pocosin" by Ursula Vernon (2015)
- "Note from the Future" by Ray Vukcevich (2009)

List of the sources from which these stories came:

(alphabetical by anthology title, magazine title, website name, etc.)

- Analog, March 2015
- Apex, January 2015
- Crossed Genres, September 2015
- Daily Science Fiction, various dates
- Every Day Fiction, various dates
- Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, February 2015
- Flash Fiction Online, December 2009; September 2015
- Lost & Found (anthology), edited by M. Jerry Weiss and Helen S. Weiss, 2000
-, December 2010
- One Story, April 2015
- One Teen Story, August 2015
- Perihelion, September 2015
- Podcastle, October 2012
- QuarterReads
- Selected Shorts: Food Fictions (audio CD anthology, 2007)
- Strange Afterlives (anthology), edited by A. Lee Martinez, 2015
- Urban Fantasy Magazine, March 2015
- Veux Magazine, October 2013
- Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories (audio CD collection, 2004)

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

SF Signal's Mind Meld

Today I'm a part of SF Signal's weekly "Mind Meld" topic, which is "The Translated Books We Love and Why We Love Them." My pick comes from the list of "Books that blow me away" at left. Read about it and other writers' favorite translated works here.

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