This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books
Book: Museum of the Weird
Author: Amelia Gray
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, flash fiction, bizarro, gently weird
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because the stories, if not technically classified as bizarro, are bizarro nonetheless. And when they aren’t bizarro, they are gently weird. Sometimes outright weird.
Availability: Published by The University of Alabama Press in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I have a favorable disposition toward women named Amelia. I knew a girl in high school named Amelia Beebe and she was one of the most interesting people in high school, but whitebread suburban high school experiences being what they are, I don’t think she and others realized it. I also have a favorable disposition toward those who love cats and the first entry I saw on Gray’s blog was a discussion of losing a kitty to feline leukemia. We lost a kitty to the dread disease and my heart bled for her, reading that entry.
Lest you think I am going to give this book a favorable review because of my various favorable dispositions, please note that I did not know about the cats before I started writing this review, and already had my opinion about the book pretty well formed. Of course I knew her name is Amelia before I began discussing the book, but since I can find it in myself to detest writers with my own name, her name played into my decision calculus hardly at all.
It is her writing that ensured a rave review. Fanciful, strange, unsettling, oddly sweet, vaguely sickening, amusingly awkward, Gray has a writing style that ensured I went back and reread a couple of stories immediately after finishing the book, just because they were that good.
There isn’t a bad story in this collection, and my innate hypergraphia is taking a nap at the moment, so I will just focus on the best of the bunch.
Let’s begin with “Waste.” This was one of those stories that, as I read it, made me feel like I was going a little insane. It’s a strange piece that I found compelling despite the fact that I find eating pig horrifying. Perhaps I liked the story because Gray’s characters explore the whole, “when does it stop being pig and become pork.” A man who works collecting medical waste from doctors’ offices shares odd culinary experiences with his neighbor, a woman with lovely collarbones who works as a line cook in a vegetarian restaurant. Olive is an exotic foodie, creating culinary experiences out of the strangest meats, making a sickening but sweet sacrifice that Roger may not wholly appreciate but at least his experiences with medical waste gave him the stomach to cope. As a woman who loves to cook, is meat-shy, and given to feeling deep disgust for any body process that would require a medical waste pick-up, it was unusual how much I enjoyed this story. Sometimes I enjoy having my disgust pinged, I guess.
Food horror actually played a significant role in this collection. In “Dinner” a woman finds herself with the unenviable task of eating a plate of hair in order to ensure her relationship continues smoothly, even though no one particularly knows why the plate of hair is on the table or even why it is important. A short, short story, this read more like the retelling of an unsettling dream than a story, a dream I have not had myself yet understood.
This dream-like element to storytelling continues in “A Javelina Story” wherein a hostage negotiator finds himself paired with five javelinas at a hostage scene wherein boy scouts are tied to chairs. The pigs just want to eat, the hostage-taker misinterprets their actions and everyone learns an odd lesson.
Many of the stories are flash fiction, so short that you don’t really process the punch until you feel the bruise on your psyche. Take “Unsolved Mystery.” Very short piece about the investigation into a serial killer with a bonesaw. These are the last two lines:
What I don’t say is, God’s a clever bastard and I do respect him. He’s everywhere.
“Thoughts While Strolling” does what it says on the tin. This story spoke directly to my particular sense of humor.
Jim Hale better train his dog.
That dog runs the perimeter of Hale’s yard, treading the ground until he makes a ditch. Dog says, “Hey, come over here.” When you do, that damn dog gives you a recipe for lemon bars which omits egg yolks and disappoints you sincerely.
Later in the story:
Turn them over and tickle them, the young boys say to the girls. After much conversing and screeching, one brave girl picks up a slick frog, green as a fig. She flips it over so delicately in her small palm that the boys stop their shoving and feel strange for watching. The girl extends one slender finger and runs it slowly up and down the frog’s exposed belly. When the frog urinates on her, she looks at the boys with loathing. She will later go on to swallow two goldfish alive.
“Diary of the Blockage” made me nervous because I can all too easily see this story happening to me. After a particularly upsetting incident involving a large iron pill, Mr Oddbooks can tell you that I will likely die from a foreign matter lodged, “it seems, between my esophagus and windpipe.” The narrator of the story tries to get the substance to come up but cannot. And much like me, she finds it hard to seek help for her problem:
I did not call the doctor. I went so far as to find my insurance card, but I could not imagine the remember Miss Mosely, well she has had a thing lodged in her throat all within range of anyone with half a mind to be within earshot of the the office window. I feel very sincerely that bodily functions have their place, but why would the toiletries and makeup and personal privacy industries all be such multimillion dollar successes if the place for those bodily functions was in public? To say otherwise is to disrespect culture.
This story was really on the mark for me, a neurotic who is determined to stay well enough that I never need to avail myself of a bedpan, though I did once vomit on one of my cats because I was slow moving due to leg surgery and had stomach flu. I sense this story may be a pregnancy nightmare, too, for the lump in the throat later takes on a life of its own, in a way. All I know is that it was very important to the paranoid part of me that now takes my evening pills in far smaller clumps.
The best story was “The Darkness.” A penguin and an armadillo meet at a bar. The penguin has Fought the Darkness and can speak of little else, and the armadillo has spread vegetable oil on her shell in an attempt to look pretty and shiny.
“You are a penguin and I am an armadillo,” the armadillo said. “My name is Betsy.”
“That’s a beautiful name,” murmured the penguin, who was more interested in the condensation on his glass. “I fought the darkness.”
“You did not.”
The penguin swiveled his head to look at Betsy. He had very beady eyes.
“What’s your name?” she said.
“Ray,” said the penguin,
“That’s a nice name.”
The penguin explains what he means by The Darkness and Betsy really wants to stay on track with flirting, changing the subject, but Ray demands his due.
“I suppose you think I’m some sort of lesser penguin, just because I fought the fucking darkness and tasted my own blood, because I haven’t protected a stupid fucking egg.”
Betsy felt tears welling up. Don’t cry, she said to herself. It would be really stupid to cry at this moment.
“I honor your fight. I did not mean to disrespect you.”
Ray sank back. “It’s no disrespect,” he said. “I’m just a penguin in a bar, drinking my gin out of a fucking highball glass for some reason.”
“I was wondering why they did that,” the armadillo said.
“Doesn’t make any goddamn sense,” said the penguin.
And it really doesn’t make any sense but the story is delightful nonetheless, encapsulating all that is so banal about so much of human interaction in these unlikely beasts as they attempt and perhaps succeed just a little at making some sort of connection. I read this one aloud to Mr. Oddbooks one night, unconsciously slipping into the redneck accent of my youth that I repress as second nature.
This collection was just too wonderful for me. A letter from a woman to her apartment complex complaining about the year’s Christmas decoration contest. One story told the strange tale of a man married to a paring knife and another married to a bag of fish. A man takes up residence in his suitcase, much to the dismay of his girlfriend. Vultures come and loom over an entire town. Bizarre, magical, strange, nauseating stories, all crafted from a mind so focused on my own nightmares and uneasy dreams that I felt myself becoming paranoid at times. Luckily, Gray is such a talented storyteller that her gift was greater than my nervousness and I highly recommend this book to all who find themselves wondering what would happen if one was able to splice Garrison Keillor, Bradley Sands and Raymond Carver into one writing force.