A woman hides from her husband in a fish tank and another absently bakes sponges inside her tarts. Appliances drop from the sky, men grapple with chainsaws, women struggle with hormonal violence, and abandoned boys beg on doorsteps. Enter into the territory of broken people and the folks that love them. Sensitive and unruly, sincere and absurd, Stefanie Freele’s Feeding Strays is a collection of fifty short stories, both slipstream and modern, about children, family, relationships, and oysters.
I am so happy to find a writer saying things that only she could say. Stefanie Freele’s stories are full of surprising details, some sweet and strange, some sharp and close to the bone. She writes about women and men and babies. She writes about the things he carries (in his briefcase), the things she swallows, the way this baby floats in the air and the way that one makes a break for it. Lemon zest, unexpected dehumidifiers, pewy diapers, the salsa that speaks to us, frozen wildlife, too much to mention. Most of these honest and innovative stories are also very short. Freele knows how to make every note count when she names that tune—just this much and not a word more. Open this book and discover that sometimes a man in a banana suit really is just . . . well, you’ll have to find out for yourself.
—Ray Vukcevich, author of Meet Me in the Moon Room
Feeding Strays is wonderful, full of strange, original invention. Never a cliche, seldom anything even resembling a wasted word, full of surprises, and in all ways gratifying. Motherhood didn’t seem to get in Ms. Freele’s hair or her computer in the slightest, except perhaps to reinforce what was lurking in the bottom of her mind, waiting to be let loose.
—David Wagoner, author of A Map of the Night
As its title suggests, Feeding Strays is a deeply compassionate collection. Stefanie Freele has a knack for capturing stray moments in her characters’ lives—moments most writers would overlook—and charging them with a strange and wondrous grace. These stories will unsettle you, inspire you, and make you feel part of the greater human family.
—Gayle Brandeis, author of The Book Of Dead Birds, Fruitflesh and Self Storage
These expert, graceful mini-portraits of the life-jostled, the uncallused, and all the others who struggle with familyhood, are moving, sensitive, funny, and true. Stefanie Freele is a writer with a grip on the human spirit.
—Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
How I love the stories of Stefanie Freele for their endless surprises, their lemon-tart humor, their beautiful-ugly characters. I’m not always certain how she accomplishes her magic—her stories as quick as a shell game—but I am certain that you will set down this book as I did, with a hurt heart and a curious smile.
—Benjamin Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk
About the Author
Stefanie Freele was born and raised in Wisconsin and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. Recent and forthcoming work can be found in Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, Night Train, Literary Mama, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Pedestal Magazine, Dogplotz, and Hobart. She holds an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts: Whidbey Writers Workshop. After serving as the 2008 Writer In Residence for SmokeLong Quarterly, she joined their editorial staff. Stefanie is also the Fiction Editor for the Los Angeles Review.
From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat
"A tart fun-to-read collection of loopy short stories by the author recently selected to be the Healdsburg Literary Laureate."
From FlashFiction.net: Tuesday Focus: Freele's Feeding Strays Delivers on Its Promise, Story After Wonderful Story
by Randall Brown, November 10, 2009
I've just finished reading Stefanie Freele's Feeding Strays for the second time, and I've got hundreds of things to talk about, but what's on my mind now is this: her beginnings astound me. Check some of these out:
"The seven year-old asks me, 'Could you please lay down your baby, so I can dissect him? I say, 'No, he's been dissected twice today. He's tired of it . . .' "
from "the seven year-old"
"The priest can no longer look into his maid's eyes."
from "priests and balloons"
"She names her new dog Molecule after the neighbor, a biotech engineer, names his dog Molecule."
from "breathing oysters"
"Because her husband doesn't come home until 3 a.m., she shoots him with pepper spray."
from "double undie night"
"We tell her not to date a man in a banana suit."
The (amazing) Terri Brown-Davidson taught me so much about beginnings, especially in the poetry class I took from her. Beginnings, she said, have the following qualities:
They begin, typically, in media res. A sense of mystery, but not of obscurity: enough “there” there to enable us to see what's happening, but we know more is to be divulged about character, circumstance, situation. A high level of conflict (as “close to the conclusion” as possible). They're dynamic, not static, with characters in motion, the situation in motion, the language of the circumstances charged. They're so vivid that they immerse us with almost a sense of shock in “the reality of the poetic dream.”
Of all the advice I've heard regarding beginnings, the above suggestions are the ones that have stuck, and of all the images I have encountered of beginnings, Athena is the one I remained enamored with, the goddess who "leaped from Zeus's head, fully grown and armed—with a shout, 'and pealed to the broad sky her clarion cry of war.'
So bursts Freele's stories into birth and our consciousness, out of the middle of things, with a shout, already in conflict, already in confrontation with our expectations and the ho-hum of the everyday. They arrive fully-formed, and what I mean by "fully-formed" is that sense that the story is already there, that there will not be the drawn-out wait for things to happen. Every single story works this way, and every single story delivers upon the promise of that beginning, not only to engage our interests and emotions, but to be something other than merely "odd." Again, I think that might need further explanation.
In some stories, surely not Stefanie's, the entire story revolves around the "oddness"—and the encounter with the unfamiliar (for writer, reader, & POV character) disappoints because it never leads to anything that matters to me. Stefanie's stories matter. I love that about them. And it is what I think you will love about them, too.
From The Pedestal Magazine (Issue 55)
Review by J. K. Andrew
It is only fair to state up front that I am a relative newcomer to micro-fiction, slipstream fiction, and other flash fiction incarnations. So, in preparing to review Feeding Strays by Stefanie Freele, which includes numerous examples of this genre, I did a little research, and googling yielded an article by Camille Renshaw titled "The Essentials of Micro-Fiction." It was appropriately succinct. Briefly, some of her essentials were: "Length and form obviously matter. [Use] soul-stirring language. [Powerful] imagery. Make it tight: Use a minimum of words. Play against expectations."
I would assert these are elements of all good writing. But really fine writing requires more of its author. And, as you must have guessed, more from the reader. As a reader, if you are not ready to engage with a text, probably multiple times, you should not read Stefanie Freele’s Feeding Strays. You cannot suck the juice from her delicious stories unless you are willing to spend some time with them. Savor them.
What the stories share is a sensibility that recognizes and celebrates the synchronicity of the ridiculous and the likelihood of the unimagined. Some stories, such as "James Brown Is Alive and Doing Laundry in South Lake," give readers a sense of encountering what they secretly feel but would never make public. Freele is masterful at crafting first sentences such as:
Stu is driving to South Lake Tahoe, to take his post-partum-strained woman to the snow, to take his nine-week-old infant through a storm, to take his neglected dog on a five hour car ride, and to take himself into his woman’s good graces.
Really, how could you not keep reading? One of my own requirements for successful short stories is the presence of conflict. Does this first sentence have conflict or what? Setting, yep. Characterization, yep. And history—back-story just waiting to explode. Given from a close third person, it’s Stu’s story. Stu’s woman, child, and dog are not named. Later in the same paragraph they are all identified as "The Family." A thing. An organization or institution comprised of, but somehow separate from, its component parts. Freele imposes white space and dingbat insertions to indicate point of view shifts. The woman now identified as Megan indulges in unvoiced meditations and preoccupations—swollen feet, the baby and dog—that are spot on. Next, the baby whom we learn is Phillip, has likes and desires that are what would be expected. Beebop, the dog, is given equal narrative time with baby Phillip. There is no superfluous language in this story.
"Stu is afraid to talk because his woman might cry again," begins the next paragraph, focused on Stu. "Megan is trying not to cry" starts the following section. Bits of character and action are separated again by space and some ambiguous graphic, but joined by content and context. No one so far in this story gets what he or she wants. No one gets anyone else. Until. Stu stops for a red light and Megan spots a dark man with black hair in a leather jacket. He wiggles thick eyebrows up and down and squints in the snow as he smokes a cigarette.
You guessed, it’s James Brown. Suddenly, the characters are connected. In response to Megan’s observation—the first spoken words—Phillip pauses, the dog wags her tail, and Stu sees what Megan has seen. He notes that his woman is correct: "there stands a guy who looks just like a happy James Brown." The man who looks like James Brown looks at The Family. The dog’s tail smacks the car seat, the baby croons, and Stu says, "Right on. Right on." You must read it for yourself, but the last sentence of this short story is as effective as the first and completes the transformation of the characters. Megan says to look, and they do. They come out of their own thoughts and concerns and focus on the dark man. Is he James Brown? Almost certainly not. But Megan is using "her happy voice," and the others must instantly choose before the light changes. Go with it, agree to participate in the delight of finding James Brown in South Tahoe "alive and doing laundry." Or choose to ignore or mock Megan’s comment. By agreeing to see what Megan sees and embrace a bit of improbable whimsy, the characters have constructed a moment of understanding and harmony.
Family relationships dominate this volume, but as with actual families much is left unresolved, and some stories leave the reader with a sense of undefined menace or unease. This is the case in the short-short "Fish Fishy" which begins, "She is in the fish tank hiding from her husband." The woman’s husband sees her anyway and reminds her that the fish tank is only twenty gallons and she will not fit. No matter. Slipstream writing like this often exhibits surreal elements that require the reader to suspend disbelief and ponder the juxtaposition of concise language with over-the-top imagery. Such efforts are meant to unsettle the reader. They are also designed to encourage multiple readings.
Feeding Strays also contains a few stories, "The Seven Year-Old" is one example, so short, so unburdened by plot, that all that supports them is acute observation, precise language, and paragraphs broken by white space and dingbats. "Kalispell" left me perplexed after several readings. Here it is in its entirety:
There are nights, such as this one, this thirty degree, dark, but a full moon, where chimneys smoke, dogs bark down-river, and the stallion with his purple mane paces. He puffs and snorts, trots a bit past my window. A flash of an eye, a flish of a coat is all I catch through the finger-printed glass. I could ride him in the moonlight. I could stay here by the fire. Well, okay. Turning to Google once again, I learned that Kalispell is located in, and the county seat of, Flathead County, Montana. Although I find the name pretty and vaguely mysterious, I couldn’t say this information about the title shed any light on the story. Most of the pieces in Feeding Strays surprised me with imaginative leaps and fresh takes on topics such as breast feeding, ocean cruises, suicide, baking, and other human struggles. Some stories will haunt me. A few just make me blink and say, "Whatever." Perhaps that is what they are designed to do, to offer glimpses into the lives of other people, other dynamics, as if seen once and quickly from a passing car. Glimpses that fade quickly, leaving the viewer ready to be given other glimpses, ready to see—against all expectations—James Brown smoking outside the laundromat.
From Guilt-Free Reading by Bookcase at Petaluma360.com (April 12, 2010)
Feeding Strays by Stefanie Freele (Lost Horse Press, 2009)
Every reader has guilty pleasures. Mine include the Spenser novels by the late Robert Parker. They’re predictable. Like guilty pleasures should be. Spenser is always cool, always nails the bad guy and always has the love of a good woman. Authors of perennial sequels are careful not to stray too far from the formula their readers have come to expect. They have guilty pleasures too.
After reading the first short story in Feeding Strays, I temporarily relinquished my desire for predictability and steeled myself for the unexpected. Freele’s stories reminded me of why I love to read. It’s not just escape; it’s freedom. It wasn’t only the story lines and characters that kept me in a state of suspended expectation, it was the fearless tightrope-walking language. In “The Space Between Two Sentences,” a woman’s clairvoyant power to read people may heighten the tension in each new encounter or merely reveal the mundane outlines of people’s lives.
“This one eats Spam and calls his mother every other night. That one drove a VW Bug in college when he was free, but his new wife doesn’t want to know about his past, just wants him to keep the SUV clean and the checks coming in. One lady buys clothes at Goodwill, but pretends they’re from Macy’s, another hires younger men for massages and kids herself that they really enjoy her company. Our stories are for our own pleasure, to laugh, to pass the time, to make the job more interesting.”
Freele weaves together the ordinary and extraordinary to create new planes of existence where the secret lives of characters can be expressed without the usual fears and worries that keep us bound to the expected. In each of these beautifully crafted fifty four short stories, Freele manages to do something new, and invites us to read with new eyes.
She may have ruined me for Spenser, but I doubt that we could ever entirely escape our need for familiar routines. In a chaotic world, they’re addictively reassuring. (Have you ever noticed that people will gravitate to the same seat in a house, a church or a waiting room?) We want to claim our space in the world. Our favorite stories are another place for us to inhabit. We return to the same one over and over, even if it comes in different wrapping paper, to reassure ourselves that we still have a chair in the game. When stories come along that are unfamiliar – that defy our ability to force them into the mold we have made of our lives – they work a different sort of magic in us. It’s a conversation with a stranger who is becoming a friend with each new word we speak to one another.
Like moments of unexpected grace that sometimes reach into our lives, Feeding Strays is guilt free reading.
THE HARDEST WORKERS
The men who labor harder than anyone else don’t say hello. Instead, they have a singular greeting, “Why ain’t ya workin?” Ain’t no ‘g’ in workin’. Instead of saying, piss off, they defend themselves. I was sharpenin a saw, grindin’ my blade, gassin’ my truck. I’m headin’ out. Just gettin’ in.
They take days off only for pain: migraines, sinus, injury. They scoff. They tolerate extreme measures of aching and when they do collapse it is because the human body must fail at some point. It is fallible, unlike their work ethic.
The hardest workers sweat chainsaw oil and fuel. Everlasting black rims the tips of their fingers. Knuckles bulge and fingers angle. Don’t remember which one broke when. Scars are dirt-lined. Shirts dotted with battery acid holes are handed down from father to son. Boots are the premier purchase and coveted when new. All hats bear the perspiration line.
Some chew and spit toward that brown dripping coffee cup no one peers into.
When they rest, they sleep on the unwashed pillow, the rolled out army sleeping bag, the sagging single, against the oak, under the crane truck, by the brush pile, near the logs, away from the D7, but not too far from the egg sandwich they forgot to eat but will on the way home.
That rock in the boot waits till quittin’ time. Dented tin hats pose on top of wet wool socks and soaked boots. Hot white feet ease into romeos for the ride home.
They blow wood chips from their nose and spit grease. They wipe splinters from the corners of their eyes. They peel bark from their forehead and find tree stumps in their socks. From their underwear pours sawdust.
On the way home they stay awake by talking about who has the biggest big toe. It is the end of the day when the body drags itself to bed. It does not itch. Poison oak affects only the weak.