One of the most delightful things about the explosion of cyberspace is the way it has brought together like-mind people into new communities that could never have formed in a pre-networked age. One such community is the Coffeehouse Percolator, which is affiliated with the Coffeehouse for Writers. It is a pleasant conundrum that the community has now returned to the technology of an earlier age, the codex, with a collection of short stories, Brewed Awakenings: An Anthology of Short Stories, Essays and Poems.
Its authors are primarily American; some have stayed not far from their place of birth, but many have travelled the world – short biographies are included. Yet I was struck by how American the stories seem. With the exception of a science-fiction strand by Steve Pulley, the focus is very domestic, and set in appliance-filled, wealthy (on a world scale) homes that to me, as an Australo-Briton, seem both familiar and oddly alien.
Writers are often told to “write what they know”, but I was struck that the stories I enjoyed the most were those in which the writers had allowed their imagination to run free. Pulley’s “Alien Notion”, which has Tyrone Chuzzlewit-Smythe, lieutenant colonel of the Royal Takingtonian Interplanetary Navy, landing in the cabbage patch of a dim but amiable wealthy small-town widow is the best story in the book. I was reading it on the 3.30pm London-Edinburgh express, surrounded by the refugees from an Asda convention (they still had their nametags on, that’s how I knew), all tapping away at their Blackberries; their reaction to my laughter only made me laugh all the louder.
Talking animals and talking household appliances are key to two of the other top stories. Jeannie Mobley’s “The Ninth Life”, in which a writer desperately seeks the cat who told her a story that became a bestseller, has a delightful fairytale feel; it would make a great children’s story, one that adults would enjoy reading too. “Maytag Calling”, by Mary K Williams, with a light, humorous touch, turns a talking washing machine (no I don’t mean one with a computer chip) into a philosophical reflection on consumer excess.
There is perhaps a cultural bias in my reading of some, for many of the “true-life confession”-style stories have to my taste an unpleasantly sticky saccharine sweetness also seen in the most Hollywood of Hollywood movies – happy endings that don’t bear any real relation to what came before. Sometimes they set up an interesting scenario, as in Mobley’s “A Literary Rose”, which has a librarian fearing she’s being stalked, then finding that it is her charges being loved. Had the story stopped there, it would have been fine, but do respectable librarians really take home long-term homeless women on a whim? No.
As you’d expect from such a collection the quality varies widely; in general, the fictional is stronger than the non-fiction. The reflective essay, it is clear, is a highly challenging form.
If you’re a writer, this might be a particularly interesting collection to acquire; there are lessons here, of both what to do and what not to do. And for the reader, there is an enjoyment of making your own judgements about a range of stories that haven’t been smoothed into the sometimes dull, restrictive framework that publishers tend to assemble.
The book isn’t currently available on Amazon, but can be found on Lulu.com.
Editor’s note: One of the contributors, Mary K Williams, is also a Blogcritic.