2 JULY 2017 | KAREN KAO
Most of us buy our books online. Some of us may have switched entirely to ebooks. A virtual library has a lot going for it: no dusting, no yellowing pages, no silverfish. No need to pop into a bricks-and-mortar bookshop to peruse the stacks. And yet, that kind of book browsing was and is one of my favorite things to do.
Some writing doesn’t exist in the physical world. There are literary journals that exist only online. There are the monthly New Yorker fiction podcasts and author interviews like the ones Halli Casser-Jayne hosts, both only in audio form. Now YouTube book readings embedded inside a review have become a thing, like this one of Shambala Junction by my friend Dipika Mukherjee.
So it is high time to devote a book review to two online literary journals: my electric literature.
the masters review
First up is The Masters Review, an online and print platform for emerging writers based in Portland, Oregon. I know it only in its virtual form. The Masters Review issues a free monthly newsletter packed with submission deadlines, craft essays, book reviews and short fiction.
In all honesty, these things tend to stack up in my in-box. I can’t read until there’s enough space in my head to absorb all the words. Because with short fiction, every word counts.
These magnificent pieces arrived in my in-box between February and June 2017.
Good Creatures, Small Things by Cate Fricke
Whether you’re telling a story or making a film, tradition dictates that you save the climax for the end. Otherwise, how can you keep your audience on the edge of their seats?
Not so, for Cate Fricke. She tells her story in reverse chronological order, starting on Day 15. The opening paragraph is a killer.
There is enough tea left in the can for three more cups. There is the end of a loaf of bread on the shelf, as big as two of Ida’s small fists, and one potato. Six matches. Eleven bullets.
You don’t read to find out what happened. It’s all about the why. Scariest story I’ve read in a long while, online or off.
The Three Little L’s by Tara Laskowski
Short stories are the hardest thing in the world to write. Unless you’re talking about flash fiction, in which case it’s even harder. Laskowski defines flash as a story told in 1000 words or less. She should know. Laskowski is the editor of Smokelong Quarterly, an online journal dedicated to flash fiction.
The term “smoke-long” comes from the Chinese, who noted that reading a piece of flash takes about the same length of time as smoking a cigarette. All the work we publish is precisely that—about a smoke long.
The Three Little L’s is a craft essay on how to write knock-your-socks-off flash fiction. Laskowski opens with an anecdote about her son in the bathtub. He loves the pill-size sponges you soak in water so that they magically expand into a bath toy. That’s her metaphor for the writing process.
when you start to write, sometimes that idea morphs into something else. Sometimes the animal that emerges from the sponge is a zebra, not a fish.
Length. Language. Linger. The three ingredients you need to turn a story that is merely short into something magical.
The Visitor by Lydia Davis
Most literary journals publish a mix of newcomers and household names. Lydia Davis qualifies as the latter. Check out this opening sentence.
Sometime in the early summer, a stranger will come and take up residence in our house.
My second literary journal for this review exists in both print and online form. It comes to us from Amherst, Massachusetts. Its mission is:
To deepen our individual and collective sense of place through bold, engaging literature and art.
Accordingly, everything The Common publishes has an intense relationship to place, real or imagined. Last month, I pulled these three great pieces from my backlog of newsletters.
Boxwood by Katherine Hill.
This is a lovely coming-of-age story. There’s the snarkiness of all teenagers:
Chris would be a good boyfriend if I couldn’t find anybody else.
But, true to The Common form, it’s the setting that makes the difference. The boxwood hedge at the back of Sarah’s yard marks the end of her known world. It separates her home from the college campus where her father teaches. It protects her teenage self from the woman she’s about to become.
Mapping the Belly of the Whale by Rebecca Chace
Woodbourne Prison is both setting and fulcrum in this essay. The author teaches creative writing to inmates as part of the Bard Prison Initiative. It’s her first time. As readers, we feel all her excitement and some of her queasiness as she navigates this unfamiliar territory.
There was always that sign blinking over my head: WHITE FEMALE.
Students come and go, her marriage falters, inmates graduate. For every time, there is a purpose.
The Eunuch, The Columbian & the King by Menachem Kaiser
Writers create characters out of whole cloth. We can do the same with places, countries, entire worlds. All of the action in this story takes place in a single courtyard. We don’t know its size or location. Not a single word of description. Yet the courtyard is unmistakably a concentration camp and all the inhabitants, its prisoners.
Only the narrator is an outsider, a cub reporter from New York whose Yiddish stinks. Yet here he is, pestering these people for their stories.
Itchik said, You came from New York and you didn’t bring a camera?
Some stories don’t need words on a page.