Black Glass

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Carry Nation is on the loose again, breaking up discos, smashing topless bars, radicalizing women as she preaches clean living to men more intent on booze and babes. As for Mrs. Gulliver, her patience with her long-voyaging Lemuel is wearing thin: money is short and the kids can't even remember what their dad looks like. And what of Tonto, the ever-faithful companion, turning forty without so much as a birthday phone call from that masked man? In fifteen short fictions, Karen Joy Fowler turns accepted norms ...
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Carry Nation is on the loose again, breaking up discos, smashing topless bars, radicalizing women as she preaches clean living to men more intent on booze and babes. As for Mrs. Gulliver, her patience with her long-voyaging Lemuel is wearing thin: money is short and the kids can't even remember what their dad looks like. And what of Tonto, the ever-faithful companion, turning forty without so much as a birthday phone call from that masked man? In fifteen short fictions, Karen Joy Fowler turns accepted norms inside out and fairy tales upside down, pushing us to reconsider all our unquestioned verities and proving once more that she is among our most subversive writers of fiction. Filled with imaginative virtuosity, replete with wicked insights and cunning conceits, Black Glass delivers everything readers have come to expect of her fiction.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gifted novelist Fowler (Sarah Canary and The Sweetheart Season) delights in the arcane, and, as a result, these 15 clever tales are occasionally puzzling but never dull. In the long title story, temperance activist Carry Nation is resurrected in the 1990s ("We're talking about a very troubled, very big woman," says one shaken barman to reporters) and becomes such a nuisance that the DEA is forced to dispatch her with voodoo. Other plots are only slightly less outrageous in conceit. In "Lieserl," a lovesick madwoman dupes Albert Einstein into believing he has a daughter; in "The Faithful Companion at Forty," Tonto admits to second thoughts about his biggest life choice ("But for every day, for your ordinary life, a mask is only going to make you more obvious. There's an element of exhibitionism in it"). "The Travails" offers a peek at the one-sided correspondence of Mary Gulliver, who wants Lemuel to come home already and help out around the house. The homage to Swift makes sense, for, when Fowler doesn't settle for amusing her readers, she makes a lively satirist. The extraterrestrials who appear in her stories (whether the inscrutably sadistic monsters in "Duplicity" or the members of a seminar studying late-1960s college behavior in "The View From Venus: A Case Study") seem stand-ins for the author herself, who, in elegant and witty prose, cultivates the eye of a curious alien and, along the way, unfolds eccentric plots that keep the pages turning. (Feb.)
Library Journal
This stunning collection of stories by the author of Sarah Canary (LJ 5/1/92) so carefully intertwines the ordinary with the extraordinary that what should seem incredible is fully believable. Though the stories may appear to be about a DEA agent who unwittingly revives the spirit of Carry A. Nation, two women held captive by aliens in the Brazilian rain forest, a magic potion made from a unicorn's horn, or a classroom of Venusians learning about Earthly love, at their core they are about human relationships and all the more startling for their insight from seemingly unrelated points. A few pieces puzzle more than they enlighten, but the reader may be motivated to return to them for a slower reading. Highly recommended.Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Idaho Lib., Moscow
Kirkus Reviews
Fifteen ferociously imaginative and provocative new stories from the author of a previous collection (Artificial Things, not reviewed) and the highly regarded novels Sarah Canary (1991) and The Sweetheart Season (1996). There are three different kinds of stories here: vignettes that elliptically portray women's fantasies of escaping the figurative (and sometimes literal) prisons men build for them; more fully developed tales of girls and women in and out of love with variously disappointing partners; and revisionist comedies (Fowler has been called "an American Angela Carter"), in which the fantastic and magical-realist elements that crop up in her novels are central and crucial. The best of these latter include the title story, where temperance crusader Carry Nation returns to life, to the consternation of a henpecked DEA agent; the moving "Lieserl," in which Albert Einstein learns of the birth of his illegitimate daughter, but excuses his neglect by claiming "experience is a hindrance to the scientist"; and "The Faithful Companion at Forty," a piece distinguished both by wickedly rendered contemporary psychobabble and by Tonto's exasperation over the Lone Ranger's disrespect for him ("You want to bet even Attila the Hun had a party on his fortieth?"). Fowler stumbles with murky stories about impaired father-daughter relationships ("The Elizabeth Complex," "Go Back") and in an overattenuated exploration of young moderns' sexual politics and role-playing ("The View from Venus: a case study"). But she's at her best in a heart-tugging story of a woman war-protestor's separation from the pacifist intellectual who was the love of her youth ("Letters from Home"); the fascinating"Duplicity," about a woman who seeksand unfortunately findsan alternative to her unadventurous lover; and "Game Night at the Fox and Goose," in which an abandoned pregnant woman's encounter with a female who promises her entry into "another universe where the feminist force was just a little stronger" reaches an astonishing climax. Accomplished, risk-taking, exciting new work from one of our most interesting writers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345426536
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/1999
  • Series: Ballantine Reader's Circle Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Joy Fowler
Karen Joy Fowler
An author who traverses genres from sci-fi/fantasy to women's fiction, Karen Joy Fowler explores the mysteries of history, feminism, love, and friendship with her novels, like the reading group favorite The Jane Austen Book Club.


A genre such as science fiction, with its deeply committed fans and otherworldly subject matter, tends to stand apart from the rest of the book world. So when one writer manages to push the boundaries and achieve success with both sci-fi and mainstream fiction readers, it's a feat that signals she's worth paying attention to.

In terms of subject matter, Karen Joy Fowler is all over the map. Her first novel, 1991's Sarah Canary, is the story of the enigmatic title character, set in the Washington Territory in 1873. A Chinese railway worker's attempt to escort Sarah back to the insane asylum he believes she came from turns into more than he bargained for. Fowler weaves race and women's rights into the story, and it could be another historical novel -- except for a detail Fowler talks about in a 2004 interview. "I think for science fiction readers, it's pretty obvious that Sarah Canary is an alien," Fowler says. Yet other readers are dumbfounded by this news, seeing no sign of it. For her part, Fowler refuses to make a declaration either way.

Sarah Canary was followed in 1996 by The Sweetheart Season, a novel about a 1950s women's baseball league that earned comparisons to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon works; and the 2001 novel Sister Noon, which Fowler called "a sort of secret history of San Francisco." For all three novels, critics lauded Fowler for her originality and compelling storytelling as she infused her books with elements of fantasy and well-researched history.

In 2004, Fowler released her first contemporary novel, The Jane Austen Book Club. It dealt with five women and one man reading six of Austen's novels over a six-month period, and earned still more praise for Fowler. The New York Times called the novel shrewd and funny; The Washington Post said, "It's... hard to explain quite why The Jane Austen Book Club is so wonderful. But that it is wonderful will soon be widely recognized, indeed, a truth universally acknowledged." Though Fowler clearly wrote the book with Austen fans in mind – she too loves the English author of classics such as Pride and Prejudice -- knowledge of Austen's works is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.

Readers who want to learn more about Fowler's sci-fi side should also seek out her short story collections. Black Glass (1999) is not a strictly sci-fi affair, but it is probably the most readily available; her Web site offers a useful bibliography of stories she has published in various collections and sci-fi journals, including the Nebula Award-winning "What I Didn't See."

Fowler also continues to be involved with science fiction as a co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, designed to honor "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." The award has spawned two anthologies, which Fowler has taken part in editing.

Whether or not Fowler moves further in the direction of mainstream contemporary fiction, she clearly has the flexibility and skill as a writer to retain fans no matter what. Her "category" as a writer may be fluid, but it doesn't seem to make a difference to readers who discover her unique, absorbing stories and get wrapped up in them.

Good To Know

In our interview, Fowler shared some fun facts about herself with us:

"The first thing I ever wanted to be was a dog breeder. Instead I've had a succession of eccentric pound rescues. My favorite was a Keeshond Shepherd mix, named Tamara Press after the Russian shot-putter. Tamara went through college with me, was there when I married, when I had children. She was like Nana in Peter Pan; we were a team. I'm too permissive to deal with spaniels or hounds, as it turns out. Not that I haven't had them, just that I lose the alpha advantage."

"I have cats, too. But I can't talk about them. They don't like it."

"I'm not afraid of spiders or snakes, at least not the California varieties. But I can't watch scary movies. That is, I can watch them, but I can't sleep after, so mostly I don't. Unless I'm tricked. I mention no names. You know who you are."

"I loved the television show The Night Stalker when it was on. Also The Greatest American Hero. And I Spy. And recently Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except for the final year."

"I do the crossword puzzle in the Nation every week. I don't like other crossword puzzles, only that one. It takes me two days on average."

"I take yoga classes. I eat sushi. I walk the dog. I spend way too much time on email. Mostly I read."

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    1. Hometown:
      Davis, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 7, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      Bloomington, Indiana
    1. Education:
      B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1972; M.A., The University of California, Davis, 1974

Read an Excerpt

It was a Wednesday afternoon in the Senate Bar. Schilling, the proprietor, stood behind the curved counter, stroking the shot glasses with a towel. Every part of the bar was reflected in the mirror wall behind him: the marble and black onyx floor, the oiled cherry-wood counter, the brass bar rail. A chandelier hung in the center of the ceiling. Rows of cut-glass decanters filled the shelves. Schilling ran his towel over their glass stoppers. In the corner, on the big screen, Cher danced and sang a song for the U.S. Navy. Schilling had the sound off.

There were three customers. Two sat together at a table near the door. They were businessmen. One of them smoked. Both of them drank.

Every time either of them picked up his glass and set it down again, he made a new wet ring on the table between them. They were careful to keep the spreadsheet out of the water.

The third customer, a college student, sat at the bar, drinking his way through an unexpected romance with a woman old enough to be his mother. He'd asked Schilling to bring him three drinks at once, three different drinks--a Bloody Mary, a Sex on the Beach, a Velvet Hammer. As a compromise, Schilling had brought him the Bloody Mary and put in a MTV tape, picture only, out of deference to the businessmen and as a matter of personal preference.

A fourth man came into the Senate Bar from the street. A shaft of sunlight sprang into the room when the door opened and vanished when it closed. "Give me a drink," the man said to Schilling.

Schilling glanced at the man briefly as he polished the wood bar with his sleeve. "Get out of here."

"Give me a drink."

The man wasdirty and dressed in several tattered layers, which still left a bare hole the size of a tennis ball above one knee. He was smoking the stubby end of a cigarette. It was not his cigarette; there was lipstick on the filter. He had retrieved this cigarette from the sidewalk outside the bar. "You pay your tab first," said Schilling.

"I don't have any money," said the man. Cher closed her eyes and opened her mouth.

"Where's my Sex on the Beach?" asked the boy.

"You're disturbing my customers," Schilling told the man at the door. "You're stinking up my bar." He reached under the counter for a bottle of gin.

"He gave me my first drink," the man at the door said to the boy at the bar. "I used to be just like you." He took two steps into the room, leaving two gritty footprints on the black onyx. "Finish what you started," he told Schilling.

"Get out," Schilling said.

The boy rolled a quarter down his nose and let it drop, catching it loudly in his empty Bloody Mary glass. "Can I get another drink?" he asked. "Am I going to get another drink?"

A second shaft of sunlight appeared in the room, collided with the mirrored wall. Inside the sunlight, barely visible, Cher danced.

She turned her back. Schilling heard a woman scream, and then the Cher in the mirror broke into five pieces and fell behind the counter. The sunlight disappeared. "Madam," said Schilling, hardly breathing, in shock. A nightmare dressed in black stood at the door of his bar, a nightmare in the shape of an enormous postmenopausal woman. In one hand she held a hatchet. She reached into the bodice of her dress with the other and pulled out a large stone. She wore a bonnet with black ribbons.

"Glory be to God!" shouted the woman. "Peace on Earth! Goodwill to men!" She hit the big screen dead center with the rock. The screen cracked and smoked, made spitting noises, blackened. She took a step, swept the cigarette from the shabby man's mouth with one hand. "Don't poison the air with your filthy gases!" she said. Then she held her hatchet at the vertical. She charged into the bar, clearing the counter. Maraschino cherries and stuffed olives flew. "Madam!" said Schilling. He ducked.

"You purveyor and protector of obscenity!" the woman shouted. "Has your mother ever been to this place?" The boy at the bar slipped from his stool and ran for the rear door. In three steps the woman caught him. She picked him up by the neck of his sweater as if he were a kitten, throwing him to his knees. She knelt over him, singing. "Touch not, taste not, handle not. Drink will make the dark, dark blot." He struggled, and she let him go, calling after him, "Your mother did not raise you for this!" The back door slammed.

The businessmen had taken cover under their table. Schilling remained out of sight. The shabby man was gone. The woman began, methodically, with her hatchet to destroy the bar. She punctured the decorative keg behind the counter and then, apparently disappointed to find it empty, she brought her hatchet down on the counter, severing a spigot from one of the hoses. A fountain of soda exploded into the air. She broke the decanters. Pools of liquor flowed over the marble and onyx floor. The woman's bonnet slipped to the side of her head.
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Table of Contents

black glass 3
contention 51
shimabara 55
the elizabeth complex 66
go back 75
the travails 84
lieserl 96
letters from home 105
duplicity 127
the faithful companion at forty 143
the brew 154
lily red 172
the black fairy's curse 190
the view from venus: a case study 195
game night at the fox and goose 229
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Reading Group Guide

1.         Sundry genres commingle in Fowler's short fictions; identify them. What is the function of each one? How does her approach call into question traditional notions of fiction? Do you regard the blending of genres as distinctly contemporary or time-honored?

2.         One motif of the collected short stories is the seemingly ineluctable misreadings and discord that persist between the sexes. How does Fowler's handling of this theme differ from story to story? What questions or issues surface repeatedly in addressing the topic? Why does this topic lie so close to the heart of most fiction?

3.         Lady Mary Wortley Motagu suggested that satire should "like a polished razor keen, wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen." Which stories in Black Glass read as satires? What about the subject is illuminated or obscured through the satirizing? Does the satire function simply as entertainment or as moral or ethical provocation?

4.         What is lost or gained when Fowler abandons realism?

5.         The narrator of "The Brew" says that "sometimes we can find a smaller world where we can live, inside the bigger world where we cannot." Which characters in Black Glass attempt to create smaller worlds for themselves? What compels the attempt? How do these fictions serve as small worlds for reader as well as author?

6.         Throughout Black Glass we hear from women often marginalized inpopular narratives of history and literature, for example, the spouses of Einstein and Gulliver. What compels such an approach? How do these voices challenge our understanding of events depicted? What does Fowler accomplish by giving voice to the once silent?

7.         Stories such as "The Elizabeth Complex, " "The View from Venus: A Case Study, " and "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" invite us to reconsider views of women proffered and perpetuated by myth and media. What do Fowler's reimaginings of traditional tales accomplish? How, collectively, do her short stories alter our perspective on women in fiction? How does literature compare to other media in shaping our perceptions of gender?

8.         At the close of the title story, Harris's wife describes her work on Carry Nation not as literature. She says, "We're trying to have an impact on the American psyche. Literature may not be the best way to do that anymore." Do you agree? Use Black Glass as evidence for your case.

9.         American pop culture figures in a number of Fowler's stories. How does she use the seemingly trivial to suggest something of import? To what extent is her fiction distinctly American? Which stories transcend time and place? How?

10.         Tonto opens "The Faithful Companion at Forty" by weighing two different theories on history: one acknowledges the individual as responsible for defining and directing change, the other cites the masses as bellwether. Most of Black Glass explores the connection between self and selves: the way we inhabit a world within as well as the one we share with others. Trace this theme throughout the collection. What conclusions can you draw?

11.         In her essay "The Value of Laughter, " Virginia Woolf suggests that "comedy represented the failings of human nature, and that tragedy pictured men as greater than they are. To paint them truly one must, it seems, strike a mean between the two, and the result is something too serious to be comic, too imperfect to be tragic, and this we may call humour." Which of Fowler's stories meet this definition of humor? How? What do they accomplish in the process?

12.         What is the significance of the collection's title? How does it relate to more than the title story?

13.         The narrator of "The View from Venus: A Case Study, " invites her students to question their perception of reality. She asks: "How do others perceive you? How do you perceive others' perceptions of this you. We are now at two removes from the objective reality... and yet for the purposes of relationships this is absolutely the closest to reality anyone can come." How do the stories of Black Glass wrestle with this riddle of perception? What limitations of understanding and expression are acknowledged? Which works depict the perils of excessive subjectivity faced when turning life into narrative?

14.         "Go Back" seems somewhat anomalous among the stories of Black Glass. Why? What, missing or present, separates it from the rest of the tales? What, nonetheless, shows its spirit as consonant with the collection?

15.         The protagonist of "Go Back" receives this advice from he mother: "Sometimes going back is better.... It only looks like you're losing when really it's the only way to win." How does this appreciation of a past explored characterize Black Glass? Which individual stories support or refute the notion? How?

16.         How does the consideration of parenthood and marriage in "The Travails" differ from that in "Lieserl"?

17.         In "The Travails, " Mary insists that her husband admit that he is haunted by the family he seldom sees: "You can never go far enough to escape. We fill your Thoughts in spite of yourself. You mold your Memories about us, as if you had been here all along." This story, like others the collection, explores both the ongoing temptation to flee and the impossibility of true flight. What prevents Fowler's characters from escaping their lives? What is the significance of the obstacles?

18.         We can also look at the above excerpt as a meditation on the extent to which our memories shape our character and direct the course of our life. What light shines through Black Glass onto this matter?

19.         In "Lieserl, " the narrator informs us that "none of this is as simple as it sounds, but one must start somewhere even though such placement inevitably entails the telling of a lie." To what extent do Fowler's stories convey the complexity of the situations they depict? How? Which stories turn to symbolism, parable, or fantasy to express or intimate complexity? Which resonate most? Why?

20.         The narrator of "Lieserl" also observes that "man fumbles about the world, perceiving nothing, understanding nothing. In a whole universe, man has been shut into a small room." How does Black Glass open the door to this small room? What is revealed?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2001

    Some of the best short fiction you'll read

    Karen Joy Fowler writes short fiction that can just knock you out. These short stories range across America, and further out. Her short stories are different from her novels, they're both quick-witted, funny, draw you in, but the stories are more likely to leave you winded and wondering about the world afterward.

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