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Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories

Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories is divided into three sections exploring the trials and triumphs of a particular season in women’s lives: maidenhood, motherhood, and matronhood. Although the collection is organized in this way, Katie Cortese’s stories offer a landscape of women whose struggles vary widely. Some women deal with issues of sex and rape; others live in poverty or affluence; some are married, others are single; some are childless, others are mothers. Furthermore, the short-short stories in the collection slide between realistic and fantastic, reflecting Cortese’s ability to craft strong characters and plots regardless of genre.

Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories is divided into three sections exploring the trials and triumphs of a particular season in women’s lives: maidenhood, motherhood, and matronhood. Although the collection is organized in this way, Katie Cortese’s stories offer a landscape of women whose struggles vary widely. Some women deal with issues of sex and rape; others live in poverty or affluence; some are married, others are single; some are childless, others are mothers. Furthermore, the short-short stories in the collection slide between realistic and fantastic, reflecting Cortese’s ability to craft strong characters and plots regardless of genre.

Another one of the strengths throughout the collection is the quick summaries of events that bring the reader to present action in a story. In the opening short-short, “The Junior Superheroes Club of Tallahassee, Florida,” the first four sentences reveal the reasons behind the club, including a tragic death:

We formed the club after Geraldine Marshall drowned in the pool on John Knox. It was high time. If Frog Boy was in business two weeks ago, when Geraldine tried a triple-flip and knocked her head against the board, she might still be here today. We don’t give him a hard time, Arthur Bip, a.k.a. Frog Boy, because his power is swimming the length of the pool underwater, and not telling the future.

Another strength of Cortese’s collection is how she uses precise dialogue, setting, and action to subtly reveal tension. For example, in “Best Laid Plans” the protagonist Lynn has been sent to stay with her cousin, Jasmine, following her brother’s unexpected death.

“You look the same as the last time I saw you,” Jasmine said, peering down at Lynn from the height of her day bed, working her fingers in the lace fringe of her white comforter. Lynn drew her knees under her chin. City sounds leaked through the window frames, tires shushing over wet streets. “I’m an inch taller.”

The fantastic stories in the collection sometimes appear realistic at first, with opening lines such as “I knew I lost the baby when my jeans zipped up again” in “Hide and Seek.” However, a few paragraphs later, the story strides forward into magical realism:

“It must be around here somewhere,” I said. There was nothing in the sink or the shower. In the toilet, a floating cigarette stub proved Norm hadn’t quit the way he’d claimed. Mimi, hungry for breakfast, nipped at my ankles with teeth genetically predisposed for killing rats.

The baby wasn’t in the pants I’d worn yesterday, the ones with the spandex insert. It was strange to bend easily and look under the bed without banging into my own knees.

This particular short-short is reminiscent of Elizabeth Graver’s story “The Mourning Door” and other stories in the collection read similarly to Russell Edson’s absurdist writing. However, Cortese’s voice and style are clearly her own, making her a leader of contemporary magical realism.

The titular and final story, “Girl Power,” serves a kind of timeline for the many changes in women’s lives. Told in the choral voice of “we,” the story moves from the days of playing with Barbie dolls, to college experimentation, to motherhood. “Girl Power” ends with a thought-provoking, honest reflection that echoes the desires of many characters throughout the collection:

There’s nothing wrong with our lives, except we keep catching ourselves this way, hands pruning in the sink with the dishes, a dog barking away, staring out at our velvet lawns, wondering if it’s too late, really too late, to become at least one of the marvelous things we used to dream of becoming.

This collection brims with heartbreaking and triumphant women. The characters exist only in two thousand words or fewer, yet in facing the struggles of being women in a contemporary age, they resonated with me as deeply as characters from novels. Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories is an impressive collection, deserving to be read, re-read, and shared.

 

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