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Vanessa Blakeslee

Vanessa Blakeslee 's writing has appeared in The Southern Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, PANK, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. She has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation.

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''No one writes this good the first time out, do they?"

– John Dufresne

''Train Shots announces an outstanding new voice. Vanessa Blakeslee's stories traverse a trilling range of landscapes and voices, but no matter where her characters find themselves, their struggles with lost love and loneliness are authentic and engrossing and will not soon be forgotten.''

– Laura van den Berg

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Train Shots: Stories

To Feel What Only Humans Feel

04/08/14

As life gets busier and busier, I find myself reading a fair amount of short fiction lately. Story collections offer perfect mini-reads to occupy my mind in airports, doctor’s office waiting rooms, and in between periods during a hockey game. Accordingly, I enjoy short fiction published in Cimarron Review and The Southern Review, as well as story collections by Alice Munro and other storytelling masters.

Most recently, I read an advanced copy of Train Shots, collection of eleven stories by Vanessa Blakeslee, an emerging short story writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals. While not a themed story collection per se, the tales in Train Shots collectively show how people deal with whatever life throws their way.

Shorter stories in the collection offer readers an opportunity to eavesdrop on young adults working minimum wage jobs or sharing quarters with “quirky” (crazy) spouses or roommates. “Clock In” brilliantly captures the rhythmic patter of a server at a Mexican restaurant training a newbie to use the computer-driven ordering system, replete with snarky digressions about the managers and staff. Same with a married couple bickering in “Ask Jesus.”  In “The Sponge Driver,” a sponge diver tries to persuade his girlfriend to (ironically) try a contraceptive sponge (described as a “miniature inflatable raft”) as an alternative to condoms, with hilarious complications.

Yet another story, “Princess of Pop," explores a young entertainer’s suicide attempt with insight and—at times--wit. The setting is the hotel where Janis Joplin OD’d and died. A dancer-turned-pop-diva contemplates her sense of self and self-worth (or lack thereof) and decides to off herself by mixing Xanax and Ambien with Fruit Loops and milk. The “Princess of Pop” survives, but her tale evokes Norma Jean/Marilyn Monroe and other ordinary-people-turned-celebrity who feel like strangers in their own skin, at odds with attention and acclaim.

Other pieces in the collection probe torment and angst prompted by disquieting events in the lives of  adults at or approaching midlife: An expatriate’s disillusionment with life in Costa Rica after her rescue dogs are stolen (“Welcome, Lost Dogs”). A divorced woman facing life (or death) dealing with an emotionally disturbed teenage son (“Barbecue Rabbit”). A young woman is torn between loyalty to her fiancé and looking out for herself when he is busted for securities fraud as the couple vacations in New Orleans (“Don’t Forget the Beignets”). A cancer survivor keeps his excised lung at home in a bucket as a gimmick to help him quit smoking once and for all (“The Lung”). And last, the stunned emptiness a train engineer feels after his freight train fatally hits a suicidal young woman (“Train Shots”, the title story).

As I read each of their stories, I couldn’t help wonder, What would I do? If indeed literature shows us what it means to be human -- to feel what only humans feel -- then this story collection is masterfully revealing. Peppered with wry and witty zingers, the dialogue and narrative of each story show humor and irony in even the darkest circumstances. Combined, the stories in Train Shots leave you wanting to read more from this talented emerging author.

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