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Stefanie Freele

Stefanie Freele recently won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She is the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review, and her first collection, Feeding Strays, was published by Lost Horse Press.


“With a poet's ear and a scientist's eye, Stefanie Freele recasts suburban ennui as existential terror, domestic drudgery as harrowing suspense. These stories are terrific — they are small in scope but their implications are enormous.”

– J. Robert Lennon

“If you like your darkness with a splash of humor, Stefanie Freele’s Surrounded by Water is the book for you. This smart mix of long and short-short stories is wonderfully crafted and filled with an array of uniquely flawed characters. Freele is a great storyteller.”

– Sherrie Flick



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Surrounded By Water

A Better Kind of Flood


I’m a firm believer in karma, which means keeping up with the daily transactions of goodwill that proper karma maintenance dictates. So when I received a free copy of Stefanie Freele’s short fiction collection Surrounded by Water in the mail from publisher Press 53, my prize from a contest I’d won, I knew I was supposed to do something with it. You know, new item marked “pending” on the karma ledger. I just didn’t know what that thing would be. Place it in a time capsule, to be found in a near-future devoid of physical books? Or pass it on to someone, perhaps a teenage girl who needed to know that there are other Stefanie’s writing besides Meyer?

I wasn’t a total stranger to Freele’s writing — I’d read the title story in Glimmer Train, and I knew she was Fiction Editor at The Los Angeles Review, so my expectations were already tending toward the high side. But I procrastinated. It may have been last Thanksgiving break when I finally sat down and read this gift of a book and decided that I’d write a review. And since I don’t know her personally, I couldn’t think of a better way to thank Stefanie Freele for several hours of literary enjoyment. Further, if a review could help a few more readers find this book, then so much the better. Pending ledger item closed out.

So, the review. Facts first: forty-one stories of assorted lengths, from micro to full-length short story. Many are prior-published, whether in respected print journals like Glimmer Train (twice!) or Mid-American Review, or online in such fine venues as Pank, Mudluscious, elimae and Night Train. She switches up point-of-view. She can bring the humor (“Feisty Rojo”) and the pathos (“Scantily Clad Submissive Women”) equally well. She wanders from domestic realism (“Kicky Feet”) to absurdism (“Cessation”) to straight-up literary goodness (“Us Hungarians” and “While Surrounded by Water”). She’s a master at that great magician’s trick of storytelling: hooking our interest with a wild notion we think the story will follow, then proceeding to slowly reveal the story beneath the story (“The Father of Modern Chemistry”).Topically, she’s all over the map, but there is a nucleus of flash fiction pieces that together explore the darker underbelly of motherhood, the honest feelings of the sleep-deprived, the lonely-coping, the last-frayed-nerve kind of confessions that a straining woman might only tell her closest friend. Best of all, though, is how Freele wields her words, at the sentence level. “In the Basement”, for instance, delivers a gritty and discomforting portrayal of a young bulimic woman:

You lock the door and assume the hated position. Left hand holds the stomach and right hand is for purging. Your pointer finger is cut up from rubbing on your teeth, it stands aside, healing. Middle finger for this one. At the sight of the toilet, you begin to cry and retch. How did I end up here again? It started ages ago on a quest for gorgeousness, for thinness. Tears blur the pieces of donut and caramel corn. The peanut butter squares catch as expected, too bad, they taste so good, so forbidden. As you choke on a hunk of peanut butter, the tears drain and you press against your stomach to help the vomit flow. Gagging, then a big chunk comes up, of course smaller than it felt in your throat. The roughness of it scratches the esophagus. Whisper and beg to stop. Please let it all come out, I’ll never do it again.

A mere ten pages later, Freele’s lyrical prose is simply mesmerizing in “Blown”:

In that smile, the look takes her beyond the driveway, bringing Jelly into the storm and across the hills to the red-orange paths of fall, toward the rain-slick madrones and the dry streams beginning to fill and spill. That’s occasionally how I see you. She’s listening to the crunch of a hesitating deer, to the dipdip of the quickening rain, to the first mushrooms erupting through the soil like moles coming up for fresh air.

While I enjoyed most everything she accomplished in this book, I was initially troubled by Freele’s tendency toward unresolved endings. Weeks ago I started to write a mixed review, maybe 70/30 favorable, but after stewing on her collection while simultaneously struggling to write an ending for one of my own stories, I stopped. I realized that the breakdown in interpretation was mine. My own predilection towards definitive endings (often my downfall, it seems) was clouding my judgment and tainting my reading of Freele’s prose. I was shortchanging this flood of hers; oblivious to the less-visible positives. After all, didn’t the ancient Egyptians used to welcome floods, because they replenished much-needed nutrients in the soil of the Nile Valley?

So I started over from the beginning, by deleting what I’d written and re-reading her book cover to cover, and that is when I finally felt I might understand her intent. Stefanie Freele, I’ve decided, above all else, is a writer that respects her readers — respects us too much to do all the cooking for us. She’d rather buy the ingredients and leave them in the fridge for us to find, and wonder what we’ll do with them. I believe many of her stories are open-ended because there’s more out there, just off the page-edges of her stories, and it’s our job to seek that out. That level of restraint — it’s something I need to learn from her.

For those who care about such things, there doesn’t seem to be an organizing framework to this collection, but I’ve decided I don’t care about that either. In the end, it makes sense. This mix of forms and lengths, voices and points of view, realism and surrealism, closed ends and open. It’s a surrounding by words, some placid, some roiling.  The mistake I’d made at first was to think I could comprehend an inundation like this from high ground, with dry boots. It has to be experienced up close, face to face with the bloated carcasses of the ill-fated, with luckier others clinging to scrap wood and life, and everywhere the silt-rich currents promising rejuvenation. A benevolent kind of flood — and like the Egyptians of old, we should welcome it.

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