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.

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