Friday, May 29, 2015

Short story roundup: week four

no photo this week and only the briefest of comments to wrap up the inaugural observation of Short Story Month.

"Freeze Dried Groom" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Returning to Margaret Atwood's collection in order to finish it. This story had a Steven King horror quality to it as well as an ambiguous ending the kind of which leads the reader to imagine only the darkest possible solution. Spoiler ahead: A salvage collector who distresses junk and passes it off as antiques buys several storage lockers of abandoned goods. Cleaning them out, he discovers a wedding dress, cake, etc. And, in the corner of the locker, he finds the groom. Freeze-dried.

"I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Sequel to Robber Bride. The characters wonder if their friend, Zenia, has returned to haunt them.

"This Is Not a Love Song" by Brendan Mathews in Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2013
I bought this issue with a travel theme and stories about the Faroe Islands and beekeeping several summers ago, but had never looked at it. It has been in a stack sitter on my coffee table. This story was chosen at random. The title is also a title to a song by PIL.

"The Dead Hand Loves You," by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress

"Ava Wrestles the Alligator" by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
More Karen Russell. Happily!

"ZZ's Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

"Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Friday, May 22, 2015

Short story roundup: week three

"Redeployment" by Phil Klay in Redeployment
This National Book Award, New York Times bestselling collection examines he modern soldier's experience. These stories, which I read at friend Merrill's recommendation, were gutwrenching and heartbreaking. The subtext seemed to follow that they can never really go home again. I purchased this book even though I had vowed not to buy any books for this challenge, but I'm glad I did because I know I'll want to finish reading it.

"Love and Honor and Pity and Pride" by Nam Le in The Boat
I bought The Boat a long time ago--maybe six years ago--and was happy to get to this shelf sitter. When this debut collection was initially published, it was to great acclaim. Most stories center around the immigrant experience, particularly that of Southeast Asians. The first story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride," which is a reference to Faulkner, is gorgeous. It features a Vietnamese-born graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop who, facing writer's block, co-opts his father's story for his semester final. What follows is a meditation on father-son relationships and guilt and responsibility.

"The Pilot" by Joshua Ferris in 20 Under 40
I returned to 20 Under 40 to read Joshua Ferris' "The Pilot." I had read and loved And Then We Came to the End, which I read coincidentally right after my 2008 layoff. It was dark and funny. I also read his sophomore effort, The Unnamed, which I did not love. It was a short novel about a man with a disorder in which he couldn't stop walking. It was sad but mostly confusing. Since I feel Ferris has a lot of potential, and since I loved the first novel more than I disliked the second, I turned to a piece of short fiction. "The Pilot" follows an alcoholic screenwriter as he tries to finish writing his TV pilot. His networking escapades and attempts to stay sober are farcical but not always funny. The story left me feeling a little meh.

"Another" by Dave Eggers in How We Are Hungry
My friend Caryl and I saw Dave Eggers read from What Is the What at the Pen Pals series sponsored by the Hennepin County Libraries. I thought this novel about the Lost Boys of the Sudan was pretty genius. Eggers is a little bit of a hottie and wickedly talented and sort of knocked my socks off that day at Pen Pals. I bought a copy of his story collection, How We Are Hungry, because I wanted to read more. Most of the stories in this collection are short in length, and so I dived in with the first, "Another." This is the story of a divorcee who visits Egypt and takes a horseback tour of the Pyramids. His discomfort in the saddle becomes more physically punishing as the tour progresses and the pyramids reveal empty chambers, yet he requires another and another. Could masochism be a theme? Or perhaps the tour is an allegory for a search for self.

"The Lesson" by Kelly Link in Get in Trouble
Back to Kelly Link in the hope of finishing this collection. I enjoyed "The Lesson," the story of a gay couple that is expecting their first child (by surrogate). They take one last fling a trip to private island wedding of friends. Their trip is cut short by the early arrival of the baby, a preemie whose survival is questionable. Freaky folklore and a groom with a mysterious reputation create gorgeous tension throughout.

"The Nimrod Flipout" by Etgar Keret in Nimrod Flipout
I bought The Nimrod Flipout on impulse at Micawber's Books when shopping for the boys' Christmas book stacks--you know: one for them, one for me. It has one of the best jackets ever. The book jacket touted Keret, an Israeli writer, as a genius, and finally I had a chance to see for myself. The title story, "The Nimrod Flipout," is about three buddies whose friend, Nimrod, commits suicide after a psychological break. Almost as a curse, the three buddies have periodic, alternating flip outs. It was strange, and I had a hard time making a connection to the writing.

"Lusus Naturae" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Lusus naturae means "a freak of nature," and so it is that the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's same-titled story has a genetic condition that renders her frightening to others. The girl's family stages her funeral and confines the girl to their home so they won't have to deal with prying neighbors. But the girl grows bored at home and often sneaks out until she's spotted by townfolk. This story was wily and had a lovely whiff of folklore. Atwood wrote it at Michael Chabon's invitation for his anthology, McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Short story roundup: week two

This week, this stack is short, but three stories were found in the Atwood and another was on my ipad, which is at the bottom of the pile. I found Neil Gaiman's latest book at the library as a "lucky day book" and so only had it for a week.

"Origin Story" by Kelly Link in Get in Trouble
I have long been curious about Kelly Link. And although her reputation preceded her, I can't say I join the choir. Her style can best be described as surreal--melting clocks, floating/hovering characters, and so on--which I thought I'd really like. And, I did like some of collection's stories, prior to this challenge, such as "The Summer People" and "Valley of the Girls," which were fantastical and weird but enjoyable. Mostly, I didn't get "Origin Story," but fortunately Scarlett Thomas in the New York Times Book Review admitted she struggled with this story, too. I recall the main character, Bunnatine, and her superhero boyfriend, as well as references to mutants and the Wizard of Oz. But that is all.

"The Lady with the Dog" by Anton Chekhov in the public domain
When I mentioned to my reading circle that I was doing a short story challenge, my friend Susan suggested reading Chekhov. It occurred to me that I had never knowingly read Chekhov. A quick internet search lead to tons of stories, many of which had links to public domain versions. Snap! "The Lady with the Dog" was a top-searched story, and so it was my entry to Chekhov. It is the story of a adulterous affair conducted by a businessman and a housewife, each of whom were vacationing in Yalta. The story starts with the couple's first encounter and culminates in an ambiguous ending. It was very satisfying in its brevity (most of the contemporary stories I am reading clock in at 30-50 pages = not short). And, I also felt that this was the sort of classic story from which I can see current writers borrowing themes. I will read more Chekhov and entertain recommendations.

"All Aunt Hagar's Children" by Edward P. Jones in All Aunt Hagar's Children
Edward P. Jones is another author who has long been on my radar, and I was not disappointed. The collection focuses on African Americans in Washington D.C. (where Jones was raised and lives) and feature journey as a theme--journeys planned and unplanned, taken and failed. I read the title story, in which the protagonist is asked by his aunt to solve the murder of her son. The story has a decidedly noir tone and is, even though considered one of the weaker stories in the collection, complex and interesting with an unpredictable ending. I will absolutely read more Edward P. Jones.

"Orange" by Neil Gaiman in Trigger Warning
Trigger Warning--images or ideas that could be upsetting--was another recommendation from Susan on the reading circle. Gaiman offers a collection of short fictions and "disturbances," some of which were commissioned by anthologists and others of which were never published and thus were given an opportunity to be reworked. I dipped into many enticing stories where Gaiman takes liberties with characters and form. In the introduction, Gaiman also offers a backstory for each story to help you decide to read it. There is a story that was meant to accompany a David  Bowie/Iman photo shoot, called "The Return of the Thin White Duke," another is a Dr. Who story, a Sherlock Holmes story, one that was written for This American Life...a real hodgepodge. "Orange" is told from the point of view of a girl whose sister disappears. The story's form takes shape through an questionnaire where the reader does not see the questions, but has no difficulty filling in the blank.

"Alphinland", "Revenant", and "Dark Lady" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
These three stories form the Dark Lady cycle in Atwood's fall 2014 collection, Stone Mattress. Each is linked by characters--a group of artists who are married to or have been married to Gavin, a poet. They explore themes of youth, art, fame/success, and aging. And, they are brilliant. So is the author.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Short story roundup: week one

For the first week of Short Story Month, all of the books I picked up came from my shelves, except for The Other Language, which I had just checked out from the library. In fact, all of these books came from one room of my house. It's hard to know where to start, especially since I'm not obligated to read from cover to cover. So do I always want to read the first story? No, I do not. For some, I chose the title story, for others I picked a story at random, and for a few I chose the first story, just to keep things interesting and random-ish. Some stories I loved. Some stories left me lukewarm. All the stories made me want to read more from the collection, especially if the collection was by one author. I wanted to see more of what that author could do with the form.

"Scandamerican Domestic" by Christopher Merkner (Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic)
I bought Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic at the American Swedish Institute gift shop earlier this year, and it has been patiently waiting on top of an urgent book pile near my reading chair. What made the volume "pickupable" was the comparison to a Midwestern Shirley Jackson, but I found Merkner's style to be more surreal, like Kelly Link. The title story is positioned #5 in the book. It was an odd, impressionistic, dreamlike story about a father who takes his children, whom he often refers to as friends, to Europe. Not much happens, and I felt like I was reading a story that was out of context, even though the stories are not linked. I may need to read the stories that led up to "Scandamerican Domestic," as well as one or two beyond and possibly the last story to get a better sense of what the collection and Merkner are all about.

"The Other Language," by Francesca Marciano in The Other Language
Awhile ago I read a blurb or review for The Other Language and requested a copy at the library. Its availability was fortunate so I included the title story in my short story challenge. Quotes from Jhumpa Lahiri, Julia Glass, and Gary Shteyngart suggest that Marciano's stories are character driven and set in wonderful places that transport the reader, which sounded like my kind of storytelling. This coming of age featured an Italian girl whose family visits a Greek island to recover from the accidental death of their mother. Emma observes the comings/goings of the Milanese, Greek, and British vacationers who also congregate here, thus establishing a budding interior life. Emma's family returns to the island the following summer, and Emma experiences first love. Throughout, the island is vivid, touching on all the senses until the reader feels as if they are on the beach or in the cafe.

"Someday All This Will Be Yours," by John Jodzio in Twin Cities Noir
Mr. Bibliotonic picked up Twin Cities Noir at a bookstore recently. It is one of over fifty titles in Akashic Books' Noir series, which, travelers take note, covers the globe. In full disclosure, I have a number of personal connections to this book and the story I chose. The editors, Julie and Steve, are friends and members of my book group, which has read John Jodzio's story collection, If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Already, and Jodzio came to our book group meeting so we could talk flatteringly about it with him. Mostly, I was drawn to the local nature of these stories, which the table of contents identifies by neighborhood. Jodzio's story, a true short story at eight pages, was set in Minneapolis' warehouse district and featured a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde who set out to scam a local bar's speed dating participants. This very place-oriented story had an economy of language that was sharp and satisfying, and it offered an unexpected ending. I will read more Jodzio as well as more titles from this collection.

"The Young Painters," by Nicole Krauss in 20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker
All of the authors in this collection are appealing to me--Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nell Freudenberger, Joshua Ferris, ZZ Packer, and more--and so it was difficult to chose just one. "The Young Painters" was chosen somewhat at random, by letting the book's pages fall open. I'd read two of Krauss's novels and happily set about reading her short fiction about a young novelist who wrote a book about a painting owned by an acquaintance that she met at a dinner party. The story is smart and full of allusions, and uses an interesting point of view that will keep the reader wondering. I was pleased to see these stories archived online and kept accessible for the time being.

"Winter Dreams," by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Patricia Hampl guest edited this collection, which was published during my time at the MN Historical Society Press/Borealis Books, although I never did crack the spine then. "Winter Dreams" was chosen at random, but promised rich descriptions of St. Paul's Summit Avenue. This story is considered part of the "Gatsby-cluster" stories because it focused on some of the themes--upward mobility, class relations, and ambitions--that Fitzgerald would expand upon in The Great Gatsby. In this story, Dexter Green, a caddy at the Black Bear Country Club courted Judy Jones, a spunky and unpredictable young lady who was bored with the trappings of upper class life in St. Paul. I was pleasantly surprised by Fitzgerald's sense of humor, which I didn't remember from reading The Gatsby. I will read more from this collection, which includes "Berenice Bobs Her Hair."

"Betty Garcia," by John Reimringer in Fiction on a Stick
Another anthology of Minnesota writers that I picked up on an impulse a few years ago. I was familiar with fewer of these authors so it was easy to pick a story at random. "Betty Garcia" offers the promise of a Fitzgerald story of upward mobility, but other side of the tracks--blue collar to middle class. Set in the 1980s in my neck of St. Paul, with scenes set on Summit Avenue and the monument at River Road and Summit, this story is a straightforward character sketch of the protagonist Jack and his girlfriend Betty Garcia.

"St. Lucy's Home for Girls," by Karen Russell in St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
I have been looking forward to reading Karen Russell for awhile--for at least 7 years because that is how long it has been since I purchased this book. And, I loved, loved, loved "St. Lucy's." It was clever, funny, dark--everything I want my fiction to be. Claudette and her pack-sisters have arrived at St. Lucy's Home for Girls to begin their five-stage transformation from wolves to humans. Werewolves + Catholicism and a liberal dose of allegory. I loved Russell's imagination and her textured style. She met all the expectations set by the mountains of critical acclaim. I cannot wait to read the rest of this collection.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Short Story Month

May is, apparently, Short Story Month. According to the sponsor,, we are in the second golden age of the short story. This is exciting news to me because I love short stories! From an impressionable reading age, I dug short stories. "Tale of the Magi" caught my attention when I was 14, and "The Veldt" knocked my socks off in Honors American Studies my junior year of high school.

Unfortunately, I don't take many opportunities to read stories, mostly because I have this weird hangup about reading a book from cover-to-cover rather than just dipping in when the mood or need arises. On a complete whim, I have decided to read a story a day in May. I don't have a plan. My only hope is to read widely within the genre--shelf-sitters, recommendations from friends and reviews, single author volumes, anthologies, emerging writers, classic authors, new-to-me authors, favorite authors, and re-reads.

In addition to my shelves, the following websites have links to stories, free and not:

Akashic Books (free 750-word stories)
Library of America's "Story of the Week"
NPR's celebration of National Short Story Month (with list of suggested authors and collections)
Vintage has a story in ebook format for each day of the month (for purchase)
Graywolf Press authors talk about short stories (with links to purchasing stories)

And, there is always fiction in The New Yorker.