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  • Writer's pictureGrailing Press

Grailing, No. 10


The Horse Killer, Part 5 in a serialized novella of the West by Joe Kilgore

She Pressured Herself, existential poetry by Chime Lama

A Man in a Scarf, a new poem by Chime Lama

More Can But, some tragicomic ironies from Paul Hostovsky

150 Novels..., a Literary List curated by Poet-in-Residence Ben Niles

The Horse Killer, Part 5

Joe Kilgore

“Flies are born to be eaten by spiders

and man to be devoured by sorrow.”

-- Voltaire

Chapter 8

Time was not on Raven’s side. He guessed Jorgenson was almost a full day ahead of him. If, as he suspected, the Swede had switched from wagon to horseback, he’d be traveling faster than he had been. Of course, if his wife was still with him, that might slow things some, but Raven knew he’d have to do everything he could to cut the distance between him and his prey. He remembered the storekeeper had told the settler that Presidio would be the best place to sell his wagon. It would be the best place to sell stolen horses too. Then, if those ill-gotten gains were used to buy train tickets, or to head into Mexico, the man might actually get away—get away with cruelty unlike any Raven had seen before—cruelty that might continue somewhere beyond the reach of his jurisdiction.

Red was ridden hard. Raven would take him into a gallop for a mile, sometimes two. The sorrel’s hooves tore the earth as his shoulders rolled and his chest heaved, and his strong back carried them ever closer to Presidio. Raven would slow him to a canter, then to a walk just long enough for the horse to catch his breath and retain his strength. Then Red would be off again at full gallop bending to his rider’s orders for no other reason than Raven wanted it. No moral indignation spurred the horse forward. He knew nothing more than what was demanded of him, and that was enough. The man astride his back would point the way and determine the speed. Raven would lead and Red would follow. Obedience may have once been learned behavior, now it was instinctual. He would run until he dropped if that was needed. Compliance with Raven’s commands was what he lived for. It was the reason he drew breath. The concept of not responding would never form in his brain. He was one with the man on his back—the engine of his master’s will.

They made Presidio by mid-afternoon. On foot, and leading his exhausted servant by his reins, Raven stopped a man on the street and got directions to the livery stable. There he asked the stable boy to take care of his horse’s needs, and he asked if a big farmer had recently been there to board or sell horses.

“There was a fellow come in last night,” the lad said. “Sold a horse to my boss, who owns this place. Looked like a farmer. Sold the horse, saddle, bridal, everything.

“Just the one horse?” Raven asked.

“Yep. Just one.”

“Is the horse here?”

“Down at that end stall on the right. The brown gelding.”

Raven walked over to see it. He stopped at the front of the stall and rubbed the muzzle and neck of the horse. Then he looked at its rump. The JS brand was clearly visible. One of John Spencer’s. Raven went back to the boy.

“Which way is the train station from here?”

The young man told him and Raven said, “Take care of my horse right away. I may need to come back and get him in a hurry. And tell your boss not to do anything with that horse he bought last night. He was stolen and will need to be returned.”

“Stolen? Really? Any chance my boss will get his money back?”

Raven didn’t answer. He was already on his way to the train station.

It was a wooden building, much like a barn in appearance. On the side nearest the track, the roof’s overhang provided waiting passengers shelter from the rain, which almost never came, and the sun, which was a constant. Raven approached it cautiously; scanning the surrounding area for anyone who might fit the meager descriptions he had of the settlers. A younger couple, the Sheriff in Alpine had said, hearty folk. The storekeeper in Marfa had recalled a big man. But no one fitting that description was outside the station. Raven would have to go in the front and out the back to see where passengers waited. He took the stone steps one at a time, opened the door and closed it behind him.

A long counter ran almost the width of the room. On its right side, a bench was against the wall. One well-dressed older man sat there reading a newspaper. He had the look of a banker, or lawyer, or some other professional type, Raven thought. There was a black man and woman with two small children sitting on a bench closer to the back wall. They were obviously not who he was looking for. As the rest of the room appeared unoccupied, he was about to walk out to the platform when the station agent came through the back door and stepped behind the counter. Raven approached him.

“What time is the train due?” Raven asked.

“Should be here in about fifteen minutes. Need to purchase a ticket?”

“Are any other passengers waiting, other than the ones on that bench over there?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I’m a Texas Ranger, and I need to know.”

“Oh…a Ranger, huh…well okay then. Yes, there is one more passenger waiting on the bench outside. Out back there, on the platform.”

“Man or woman?”


“She come in here by herself?”

“Well, no…I don’t think so.”

“What do you mean you don’t think so?”

“I can only tell you what I was told. You see I just come on duty this morning. The night man…the agent on the graveyard shift…he told me about her when I came in.”

“What did he tell you?”

“Said they went ahead and purchased her ticket last night. She’s booked all the way from here to Fort Worth, then on to St. Louis, Chicago, all the way to Minneapolis, Minnesota.”

“You said they purchased her ticket.”

“Night man said there was a man with her when they came in. Claimed to be her husband. Said he made all the arrangements.”

“What kind of arrangements?”

“Well, the tickets and all. The agent said the man indicated she wouldn’t be a problem. He said as long as railroad employees tell her which train to get on…you know, show her where to go and all. He said she’d be fine. Our people can do that. Our conductors and station personnel are real good at helping people. Plus, the man said her folks would be waiting to pick her up at the end of her travels.”

“Why does she need help?” Raved asked.

“Well…I guess there’s something wrong with her, you know. Maybe something with her head. Just does what you tell her to do, or goes where you tell her to go. But that’s it. Never says a word. Agent said she sat here all night and never uttered one sound. She’s just waiting to get on the train. Course, we’ll have to show her where to go, I guess.”

“She’s outside?”

“Yes sir. Right out back. Waiting on the bench.”

“I’m going to see her. Don’t leave. I’ll be back with more questions.”

“Okay, sir. Alright. Always want to help any Ranger. That’s for sure.”

Raven went out to the platform. He saw the woman on the bench but continued to look around to make sure they were alone. Even though she was sitting down, he could tell she was a sturdy woman. Not fat or heavy, but taller than most. She was wearing a bonnet, but strands of blonde hair stuck out beneath it and ran down one side of her face. Her eyebrows were the color of her hair and she wore no makeup. She might have been pretty once, but life on the frontier hardens every countenance, particularly women’s. Her blue eyes didn’t seem to be focused on anything in particular. They just stared off into the distance. He noticed that her head never turned his way as he walked over, took off his hat, and sat down beside her.

Close now, Raven could see a small silver chain that encircled her neck. Clasped to it was a square of paper. On it was written: Karen Jorgenson, 21 Hastings Road, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thank you for helping me.

“Mrs. Jorgenson, My name is Raven Comstock. Can you tell me where your husband is?”

No response. Not even to turn and look at him. It was as if he wasn’t there.

Raven looked closely to see if she had suffered any physical damage. There were no marks on her face. Her hands, which were the only parts of her skin uncovered by the long sleeve dress she wore, were unscarred.

“Mrs. Jorgenson, I need to find your husband. May I look in your bag?”


Raven slipped the straps from her shoulder. She gave no resistance as he took the carpetbag and looked inside. There was only a nightshirt, and beneath it fifty dollars in cash. Partial proceeds from the sale of the stolen horses, Raven assumed. Money that rightfully belonged to the livery stable owner, but he couldn’t bring himself to take it from her. What had this woman been through, Raven wondered.

“Please, Mrs. Jorgenson, can you tell me anything at all about where I might find your husband? What about the horses, Mrs. Jorgenson. The white horses. Why were they killed? Please, Mrs. Jorgenson, can you tell me anything at all about your husband and the white horses.”

She never turned her head or reached for her bag. He had to put the bag’s straps back on her shoulder. Raven concluded he wasn’t going to get anything from her. Nothing he said seemed to effect her in any way. And the more time he spent with her, the more distance her husband was likely putting between them. He said, “Goodbye Mrs. Jorgenson. Have a safe trip.” Then he rose, put his hat on and went back inside.

“I have to find that woman’s husband. Where does this night man live that you told me about?”

“He has a room at the hotel just up the street. Course he’ll probably be asleep now.”

“I’ll wake him up,” Raven said as he turned to leave.

“Ranger! What about the woman? Should we put her on the train? Keep her here? We don’t really have any facilities for her.”

“You believe your people will see her through to her final destination?”

“Oh yes. They’ll see she gets where she’s going.”

“Then let her go. Maybe there’s a better life for her up north. It can’t be any worse than the one she found here.”

Chapter 9

A half hour after leaving the train station, Raven was back astride Red and heading south. He had gone to the hotel, made the clerk give him the room number, rousted the night manager, and gotten all the information the man had to give. It was enough. Finally he had a physical description. Like everyone else had said, the manager confirmed he was a big man—well over six feet tall and more than two hundred pounds. When Raven pressed him for more details, he learned that Jorgenson had unkempt red hair, a bushy beard, and a big scar than ran from the brim of his hat down the side of his face. It may have started somewhere higher on his head, the manager added, but he said he couldn’t be sure because the man never took his hat off. It was a gray hat and he wore a sandy colored coat with some kind of green flannel shirt under it. His britches were buckskin, and though Raven didn’t ask, the manager volunteered that he appeared to be a man one would not want to anger.

Raven asked the night manager if he had any idea where the man might be headed. He did. He said the man had asked him if there was some place other than Presidio where work might be found. The manager told him a few men go down to Terlingua to work in the silver mines. It was some sixty miles south if he followed the river. That made sense, Raven thought. Terlingua was isolated and avoided by much of civilization. It was a hard town full of even harder men who worked in the mines during the day and drank in the cantinas at night. Just the sort of place where a man on the run could get away from his past and get lost among the faceless and forgotten.

Jorgenson had a half-day head start, Raven figured. But he wouldn’t necessarily be pushing himself. He didn’t know there was someone on his trail. If his horse was decent, he could average nearly twenty miles a day. That would put him in Terlingua in three days. If Raven pressed hard, he believed he could overtake him. He reasoned that a confrontation on open ground would be preferable to shanghaiing him amid a passel of miscreants and drunks.

In Raven’s mind now, the die was cast. He would find Jorgenson, and one way or another, he would make sure the Swede never hurt any horse or any human again.

The stable boy barely had time to feed, water, and rub Red down before Raven returned, re-saddled him, and headed south. With food in his belly and water to renew him, the horse was rejuvenated. He put his heart, lungs, muscles, and everything he had into responding to Raven’s lead. Before either knew it, the town had faded from view behind them.

By the time the long shadows of the late afternoon began to align with the twilight of evening, both horse and rider were tired. They had covered over ten miles, and they planned to cover more. Raven knew that Red only needed a couple of hours’ sleep every twenty-four hours, so that’s all he took for himself. This way they would make up ground as their quarry likely spent sunset to sunup beneath his bedroll with saddle for pillow. They might not catch him by day’s end tomorrow, but if they could maintain their pace, by the morning of the third day they might be on him.

Day two was another oven, heated by the sun’s indifference. The shirt on Raven’s back was soaked by mid morning and stayed that way throughout the day. Red lathered and foamed round the saddle’s rigging and cinches. He huffed mightily and chugged forward each time Raven bid him advance. The stops for water were becoming less frequent and shorter in duration. Scat was found here and there but it wasn’t as fresh as Raven would have liked. He knew they needed to keep the pressure on.

Darkness fell and Red almost joined it. He was done running for the time being, Raven knew. He dismounted and patted the horse on the neck as its huge chest swelled in and out while he jerked his head up and down to take in more air. Then Raven took the reins and continued walking Red forward. They would neither sleep, nor stop that night. The distance between them and Jorgenson was decreasing. If they were lucky, he would be in sight tomorrow.

The rising sun plays tricks. Shadows and shapes become things far flung in the imagination. The first rays of light on a yucca in the distance is a campfire that’s not really there. A boulder beneath the branches of a drooping juniper is a squatting man in the mind’s eye only. That’s why Raven was less than positive about what his eyes seemed to be telling him. They had walked through the night with Raven mounting now and then to doze in the saddle. Then he’d step down and walk for awhile, so as not to submit too completely to his body begging for rest. That’s what he was doing when first light began to illuminate the horizon, and he thought he saw something in the distance. But was it one of the desert’s wiles? He spoke to Red, whose head was low to the ground as he nibbled on grass. “Morning has come, boy, and maybe a reckoning.”

The land undulated in front of him. A rolling sea of green scrub, brown dirt, and soft swells stretched to a line of buttes in the distance. About two hundred yards from where Raven stood holding Red’s reins, a lone rider was atop a hill. Raven reached in his saddlebag and pulled out a wooden spyglass he had won from a ship’s captain in a poker game. It had proven as valuable to the peace officer on land as it had to the mariner at sea. Raven extended the glass and looked. The rider was positioned such that his profile seemed to be watching something beyond the next rise. Something Raven was unable to see. But he could readily determine the gray hat, red beard, and brown coat on the big man. The Ranger had no doubt it was Jorgenson.

“We’ll start slow, he said, putting the spyglass away and his foot in the stirrup as he swung his leg over Red’s back, “but when I give you the word, we go.” They moved out in an easy canter. Raven reached up and reflexively began to wipe sleep from his eyes. He forgot he hadn’t really slept. He forgot how tired he was and how his body ached from almost two days of solid riding. He focused only on the figure of the man on horseback as he nudged Red into a trot.

Jorgenson sat his horse with both hands on the saddle horn. He was mesmerized. In front of him, less than a hundred yards away, half a dozen wild mustangs fed on what grass they could find. He watched them and somehow envied their freedom. They roamed wherever they wanted. They did whatever pleased them. They seemed happy together, and eager to follow the white stallion that was apparently their leader. Then the wind changed, and they caught his scent. Or something spooked them. He wasn’t sure. He watched as the stallion’s head darted from side to side, it’s nostrils flaring, eyes widening, legs and hooves moving back and forth rapidly. They were about to bolt, and now he could see the reason why. Dismounting, he pulled his shotgun from the saddle scabbard and pointed it toward the cause of the mustangs fear.

Red was in full gallop now, bending to his master’s will and bearing down on the rider ahead of him. Raven looked to his left and saw the mustangs beginning to bolt, they must have caught Jorgenson’s scent. He immediately noticed the white horse among them. Then his heart almost stopped as he saw Jorgenson dismounting and drawing a long gun from his saddle. Raven steeled hjimself. He jerked on the reins as hard as he could and pulled Red to a halt, the bit ripping into the horse’s mouth as his hooves chewed dirt in front of him. Raven pulled out his Sharps and was off Red’s back in an instant. He dropped to one knee and raised the rifle to his shoulder. The shot was ninety yards. Raven knew he couldn’t afford to wait or miss. He squeezed the trigger and the rifle cracked. Jorgenson went down, his weapon falling from his hands. No time for anything else, Raven said to himself. No time.

Suddenly Red’s eyes grew wide. He began to back up and neigh anxiously. His ears flicked back and forth and he broke into a sweat and defecated. Raven stood to quiet him but the horse was having none of it. “Red,” he said, “come here, boy. Take it easy. Easy, boy.” But Red wouldn’t calm. He reared up on his hind legs, shook his head again as his eyes grew wider than Raven had ever seen them. Then he bolted. Passing Raven, he tore over the swell separating the Ranger from Jorgenson. “Red, where are you going? Red. Come back here!”

The scream was terrifying—a piercing cry that cut through the air and chilled Raven to his core. He knew it was Red. Then came the snorting, the squealing, the rabid sound of blood lust and gluttony. Raven ran as fast as he could to the top of the hill, then over and down it. His Sharps was in one hand while he pulled his Colt as he scrambled down the hill and began firing into the band of wild hogs that had downed Red. When his Colt was empty he raised his rifle and starting picking them off one by one. The earth erupted into a crescendo of screams as fur, heads, snouts, and tusks exploded under Raven’s onslaught. High-pitched squeals echoed on the wind as the last of the scavengers scattered and ran pell-mell from the carnage.

Raven didn’t look to see if Red was still breathing. He couldn’t stand the thought of the animal having to withstand even one more second of pain. He raised the rifle, aimed carefully despite the salty liquid that filled his eyes, and fired one last shot.

Editors Note: This is Part 5 of a six-part serialization of The Horse Killer. New parts will appear sequentially in future issues of Grailing. Check back for new installments.

Joe Kilgore is an award-winning writer of novels, novellas, screenplays, and short stories. His work has appeared in magazines, creative journals, anthologies, and online literary publications. Prior to developing his own work for page and screen, Joe created television, radio, newspaper, and magazine advertising for an international advertising agency. He lives and writes in Austin, Texas. You can learn more about Joe and his work at his website:


She pressured herself

by Chime Lama

She could scarcely offer it to the Gods before devouring it, repenting as she swallowed. Thank you for this opportunity. I still hate my face. No, I mean I fear my daughter will blame me as I blame my mother. Yes, I did subscribe to updates and event announcements. It’s in the eyes of equestrians when they’re riding. One fall could spell disaster. Your neighbor’s kids and my neighbor’s kids have never met—yet. My mouth gapes open like a stone fountain filled with water, saliva, and sunlight. Why do I hear footsteps above me when no one else is home? Picture squirrels wearing loafers in the rafters. A rare beauty. Collect all the rare beauties and charge people to see them.


A man in a scarf

by Chime Lama

A man in a scarf walking a slow but persistent pace though an underground tunnel flickering lights passes by you and utters with detachment, “To some, sex is like a dark gray stone along the rocky shoreline of a New England coast. To others, sex is like a red-faced baboon whose grabbed your face with its angry adamant hands as it stares you straight in the eyes and hollers.” The man advances past you who are caught there, as if in a trance, as you watch his back disappear down the darkening distance.

Chime Lama (འཆི་མེད་ཆོས་སྒྲོན།) is a Tibetan American writer, translator and multi-genre artist based in New York. She holds an MA in Divinity from the University of Chicago and an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College. She serves as the Poetry Editor of Yeshe: A Journal of Tibetan Literature, Arts and Humanities. Her work has been featured in the Brooklyn Rail, Exposition Review, The Margins, Street Cake, Volume Poetry and Cadernos de Literatura em Tradução, n. 24 (Notebooks of Literature in Translation), among others. Her poetry collection, Sphinxlike, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She teaches Creative Writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).


More Can But

by Paul Hostovsky

The Massachusetts Commission for the Blind got the Braille wrong on their new logo. They’d been looking for something visually appealing and appropriate to their mission that could appear on the sign outside their door and on their brochures and letterheads and email signatures. So they assigned the job of finding a logo to the communications director, and the communications director went out and hired a graphic designer, and the graphic designer came up with an image to represent the good work the Commission was doing for the blind community in Massachusetts: the acronym MCB artfully emblazoned in both print and Braille (the Braille represented by a handful of black dots above the print letters), lined up in a way that was perfectly symmetrical and pleasing to the eye. The only problem was, since the graphic designer didn’t know Braille, he did a little research on the internet (“A little learning is a dangerous thing”) and learned the way to indicate a capital letter in Braille is by inserting a dot six before the letter. Unfortunately, the website he consulted didn’t mention the fact that when it comes to double caps, as in the case of acronyms, like MCB, those are indicated with two dot sixes before the initial letter, and no subsequent dot sixes. OK, you’re thinking, no big deal, just a few misplaced dots. But the thing is, the way they have it now with the initial caps, it doesn’t say “MCB” in Braille; it says “More Can But.” Because in contracted Braille, M is the contraction for “More”, C is the contraction for “Can,” and B is the contraction for “But.” More Can But. And after the mistake was discovered they didn’t change it. “Because,” said the communications director, who was sighted and didn’t know Braille either, “the way it is now is more pleasing to the eye. But pleasing the eyes of the sighted at the expense of blind people has a long and shameful history. Sighted people have been telling blind people for centuries what is and isn’t pleasing to the eye, exhorting them, for example, to cover their eyes with sunglasses because “blind eyes are unbecoming.” Of course, some blind people choose to wear sunglasses just to keep the glare out, but many wear them because at some point in time they have been told by a sighted person that their eyes should be covered, so that sighted people don’t have to look at them. And then there are the so-called stimming behaviors that some congenitally blind people will exhibit, like shaking their heads from side to side or rocking back and forth, as well as other repetitive body movements that help get the energy out that can’t get out through their eyes. Many blind children and adults have been rebuked by sighted family members and teachers for rocking or swaying or flailing because it is “unseemly.” Unpleasing to the eye. But pleasing the eyes of the sighted is not what teaching and serving and loving blind people should be about. And it was I, a lowly sign language interpreter who happened to know Braille and who happened to work for the Commission for the Deaf just down the hall from the Commission for the Blind, who brought the More Can But problem to the attention of the communications director. “Well, you know,” he said, “it would be rather expensive to go back now and fix it. And anyway, since it’s a visual logo, it’s really more for sighted people than blind people. Sighted people won’t know the difference. They’ll see the dots, they’ll think it’s Braille. Which it is.” “But what the Braille says,” I said, “is essentially what you’re saying, and what the Commission for the Blind, by extension, is also saying: We could fix it. But. We won’t. We could do more. But. We won’t. More Can But.” And I told him that what he was saying–arguing the Braille is really for the sighted–would be like the Commission for the Deaf grabbing any warm body off the street and saying, ‘Get up there on that stage next to the speaker and wave your hands around so it will look like sign language--there aren’t any deaf people in the audience, so it’s really just for the hearing people to see that we provide interpreters.’ But the communications director said no, he didn’t see it that way. And though they did finally, recently–and only after word went round among the blind, Braille-reading employees at the Commission for the Blind that the sighted communications director had gotten the Braille wrong on their logo–quietly fix the Braille on the logo on their front door, brochures, email signatures, and homepage of their website. But. And this is the kicker. But. They still haven’t fixed it on some of their forms. For example, the Payment Voucher Form, which I–lowly sign language interpreter that I am and will forever remain–have to fill out each month when I bill them for the interpreting work I do with their DeafBlind clients. And so each time I fill out that form, there it is, still staring me in the face: More Can But. And how perfect is that.

Paul Hostovsky makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and Braille instructor. His writing has won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net Awards, and has been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Writer's Almanac, and Best American Poetry. Website:


150 Novels to Read in a Lifetime is a list of great novels selected by Ben Niles, the Grailing Press 2023-2024 Poet-in-Residence. It is an unranked list that includes works by 150 different writers, so any given author will have only one novel included on the list. Ben is fully aware that his selections (or more probably, his omissions) may incur the literary ire of Dear Readers everywhere, but it’s a burden he is willing to bear. Finally, the 150 novels also fall evenly (fifty novels each) across three time-spans: up to 1935, 1936 to 1979, and 1980 to the present. See Ben’s introduction to the list and explanation of the selection criteria here.

Group 7—


Samuel Beckett . 1951

There are few novels in which you are carried along by such a singular voice as that of

Molloy. Early on, in quintessential nebulous yet incisive fashion, he muses: “And once

again I am I will not say alone, no, that’s not like me, but, how shall I say, I don’t know,

restored to myself, no, I never left myself, free, yes, I don’t know what that means but

it’s the word I mean to use, free to do what, to do nothing, to know, but what, the laws of

the mind perhaps, of my mind.” It’s a risky claim to know the laws of Molloy’s mind (even

for Molloy himself), and the novel turns some thoroughly Modernist tricks of ambiguous

plot, convoluted timeline, and indefinite reality one moment yet stark realism the next.

Beckett wrote Molloy in French, then translated his own work into English; even the act

of translation was artfully inexact, as the English version is often regarded as more re-

creation than rigid representation of the French original. And if you like all that, Molloy is

followed by Malone Dies and The Unnamable, forming the mordant, dark, yet

engrossing “Beckett Trilogy.” What are you waiting for—Godot?

The Color Purple

Alice Walker . 1982

Winning for her epistolary masterpiece The Color Purple, Alice Walker became the first

black woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and the novel won the National

Book Award as well. Set in Georgia in the early 1900s, the tale is conveyed first through

young Celie’s letters to God, and later through letters between Celie and her sister

Nettie. The two women had been separated as girls, but their uplifting bonds to each

other span continents and outlast much tragedy throughout the twenty-year timespan of

the novel. In fact, Walker’s explicit treatment of violence, harsh language,

homosexuality, sexual abuse, and rape led to controversy over the book, but in her

preface to the novel Walker herself laments readers letting those elements get in the

way of what she says is “the book’s intent: to explore the difficult path of someone who

starts out in life already a spiritual captive, but who, through her own courage and the

help of others, breaks free.” Purple may be the color of bruises that bloom on the skin,

but it’s also the color of flowers that bloom in nature, and likewise The Color Purple is a

story vivified by pain and beauty.

The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen . 2001

We’ve all been there—or if you haven’t, A) count your blessings, and B) read The

Corrections out of sheer anthropological curiosity tinged with maybe just a little envy at

missing out on the drama—but anyway for the sake of argument, we’ve all been there:

the Family Holiday Dinner. Conversations that veer from small talk to big issues

startlingly quickly, itchy sweaters, sibling dustups, that grandparental cheek-squeeze

and smooch with a distinctly Chardonnay after-vapor. I feel for that kid on the cover of

Franzen’s 21 st -century realist grand oeuvre, sitting at the Siberian end corner of the

table, accosted by steamed carrots and glistening discs of sliced cranberry relish,

eyeing the Platonic ideal of a turkey on its platter, wondering how long this whole

Norman Rockwell charade can go on. But hey: who doesn’t love the Family Holiday

Dinner?! Midwestern housewife Enid Lambert sure does, or at least she convinces

herself (and her three grown children) that “one last Christmas” back home as a family

is the cure for the imminent downer of her husband Albert’s decline into dementia. As

American as apple pie and economic downturns (hence the title), The Corrections is a

great feast of a novel.

If on a winter’s night a traveler

Italo Calvino . 1979

Listen: I love this book. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading If on a winter’s

night a traveler, I envy you. I admit again—but proudly!—that I’m a sucker for

metafiction, interlacing plotlines, and novels where the presence of the author is

playfully or cleverly evident not only in what is written but also in the meticulously

arranged structure of the narrative. The sections of Calvino’s unparalleled

postmodernist novel alternate between chapters addressed to “you,” the reader, which

function as both frame-narrative and through-line for the other interspersed chapters, all

of which are openings of different books found by “you”—of varying styles and genres

but nonetheless connected to the second-person chapters—as “you” (you?) proceed(s)

through an increasingly bookish caper of a plot. Reader/character and writer/character

delightfully conspire, and as the unnamed narrator remarks: “I am called ‘I’ and this is

the only thing you know about me, but this alone is reason enough for you to invest a

part of yourself in the stranger ‘I.’ …still by the very act of writing ‘I’ the author feels

driven to put into this ‘I’ a bit of himself.” Immerse yourself in this wonderful book and


The Awakening

Kate Chopin . 1899

Kate Chopin’s heroine Edna Pontellier could trace her lineage back to the likes of

Emma Bovary and Isabel Archer, but that shouldn’t diminish her status as a

pioneering—if somewhat obscure—paragon of 19 th -century feminist literature, standing

boldly on the threshold of modernism and modern morality. As Nancy A. Walker

insightfully relays in her prefatory context to the novel, “Kate Chopin was heir to three

successive traditions in women’s fiction: the domestic sentimentalists who were popular

when she was a young girl; the post-Civil War local color writers…; and the ‘New

Women’ writers… who envisioned dramatic new possibilities for women’s lives. The

Awakening draws upon all three traditions, creating a synthesis of their themes and

modes of expression.” Although severe critical objections to Edna’s free sexuality and

supposed immorality relegated The Awakening to literary obscurity after it was

published, the story is nevertheless one of strength, individuality, and Edna’s subtle but

assertive transition of character in fin de siècle New Orleans. And as Chopin’s narrator

cautions: “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled,

chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!

How many souls perish in its tumult!”

[cover photo: @tobias_bjorkli]


Grailing No. 10

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