1. Most of the stories in Amber Sparks’ collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, contain elements of fantasy. This surprised me, because the only other story of hers that I’ve read was straight-up realistic fiction. In fact, pretty much everything I read is straight-up realistic fiction. In the case of Amber Sparks, I humbly make an exception.
2. Sparks does a good job of mixing fantasy and realistic details in the same stories, so they seem to take place in some dream-like space where everything is fucked up and beautiful.
3. One story has a hero who goes on a quest with wizards and swordplay, but during his downtime he smokes cigarettes and daydreams about sports cars. In another story, Peter Pan’s Lost Boys play videogames. And there’s a story about a grim reaper character who wears button-down shirts and chinos.
4. In the Death story, I like how he’s made to seem like an old guy who’s tired of his job, just some loser shuffling around in his bathrobe. And I like how all the humans are unimpressed with him, or by being dead. They call him “The Hall Monitor.” They think the afterlife is “lame.” They are irritated because there are no books.
5. A blurb on the back of the book calls these stories “fables,” but they are not actually talking-animal stories with easily identifiable morals. More often, they are portraits of people in great pain.
6. There is a story about a girl whose boyfriend dies. The story includes these sentences: “… pain is not you, but it is yours, and you cannot return it ever. … it will be with you like an old war wound or scarred-over burn, even when you’ve forgotten what it means or where it came from or who drilled it into your skin, when the first nerve ache began.”
7. There’s a story about Paul Bunyan, and how he’s so big that he accidentally kills people. And he’s gotten old and has arthritis in his wrists and a cramping back. And Babe the Blue Ox has died, so Paul Bunyan is lonely, and he’s been a lumberjack all his life but at last knows the time has come to retire.
8. An aging Third World dictator stays up late at night drinking whiskey and watching Westerns on DVD. Americans sometimes come to visit, but they won’t drink whiskey with him. “The dictator understands that American men no longer have any balls, like when they used to herd cattle and hang men from trees. Now they drink like little girls, with tiny sips, nervousness written all over their milky faces.”
9. Robert Gorham Davis wrote that a story must ask–and answer–a single question: “What is it like to be that kind of person going through that kind of experience?” I think every story in Spark’s collection fits this bill. Every one except “All the Imaginary People are Better at Life.” That one’s just crazy.
10. Just kidding. It’s actually a really cool story. It’s about a girl who cracks up and destroys her relationship with her boyfriend. She speaks to imaginary friends via “space wires.” She tells her imaginary friends her fantasies about running away to Maine and living off of lobsters, but her imaginary friends think she’s crazy. Her imaginary friends are sensible. They offer practical advice.
11. Something else I like about the story is how her boyfriend is consumed with normal boyfriend-type preoccupations, like telling her he loves her and wondering if she’s cheating on him. But she spends all her time talking to imaginary people and ditching work and having inappropriate conversations with strangers and obsessively circling things in newspapers.
12. All these stories have good names, like “You Will be the Living Equation,” and “Most of Them Would Follow Wandering Fires,” and “The Woman Across the Water Wore the Shape of Love,” and “The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Creatures.”
13. In “Study for a New Fictional Science,” Sparks name-checks all kinds of pop-fantasy magical substances, like Adamantium from Wolverine and Truesilver from World of Warcraft and Phoenix Down from Final Fantasy.
14. The cover of the paperback feels rubbery. It has some weird surface coating. The cover feels very tactile, like it could be used for erasing pencil. I like touching it. I want to rub this book all over my body, but, if possible, in a non-creepy way.
15. Instead of being plain white, the pages are screened with gray. Sometimes the screen is very light and hard to notice, and other pages are screened somewhat darker. I find myself constantly stopping to pay attention to the color of the page and ask myself if it’s lighter or darker than the page before. I think John Gardner would say this interrupts the “fictional dream.”
16. A ghost-mother materializes every night to breastfeed her living baby.
17. An angry sister demands that her younger sibling explain why she sleeps with so many men. The younger sister says, “I’m allowing them to become gods.”
18. A man falls in love with a ghostly woman who appears, sometimes, across a lake. He wonders if she is another Circe trying to ensnare him. He thinks, “I would become a boar for her. I think I would bear anything to see her close and real and rare.”
19. Some of the stories have an epic tone, like the narrator is very old and wise, like the voice you hear inside your head while reading is the voice of God. Or Morgan Freeman.
20. Feral children live in the woods. They are raised by wolves, bears and goats. They “learn to tear open carcasses with tiny baby teeth, to snatch small fish with pudgy hands,” until humans find the children and tame them.
21. There is a story within a story about a sea monster that could have killed everyone in a city with his poison breath, but he doesn’t want to. He just lives in the sea and eats fish. The people of the city worship him.
22. It seems like for Amber Sparks to have written these stories, she must have been exposed to violent horror movies at too young an age, but also maybe she used to be way, way into My Little Pony.
23. There is a story about wives turning into animals. It is a good story. If I was a girl, and in college, it would be my favorite story. I would think about it while smoking clove cigarettes outside my dorm, and I would consider getting a pixie cut and a girlfriend, and how we would sit in a dark room together listening to Sarah McLachlan. This would happen in 1998.
24. Sparks uses myths and fairy tales like a sculptor creating art from found objects. She harvests the bones of dead stories to make something new and revelatory.
25. I guess it was a month ago that I finished reading the book, so I’m at that crucial time when most of what I read is fading out of memory, leaving only the stuff that matters. Here’s something I remember: There’s a story about a couple that huddles in their apartment as a psychopath beats a woman to death in the laundry room. The girl in the apartment feels guilty for not doing anything to help. “She starts to cry. How will we live like people now, she says. How will we. It’s not a question, even though it sounds like one.”