2010: The Year of the Short Story (for me anyway)

Chris Power from The Guardian has a great post, A Quick Look at 2010 in Short Stories, up right now. Some of the titles I’ve read, started to read, or now want to read (especially, the Best European Fiction 2010) and it got me to thinking about my own short story explorations over the past year.

Basically, I read a ton of short stories this year. And they have been really great to me, these stories.

I’ve always enjoyed short stories but, for the most part, I’m a novel reader.  In the past I’ve complained that I don’t get lost in a short story or a collection of short stories in the same way I do a novel (as evidenced by my Why doesn’t Kelly Link write a novel lament) but I think I’m going to have to admit it now…

I was like, so totally wrong.

I love short stories. And looking back over the year, I’ve definitely gotten lost in more than a few.

Here are some of those few…

In an effort to go back and re-read (or, I’ll admit it, read for the first time)  all the short story collections and/or authors I should have paid more attention to in college I made some obvious choices.  First of which, was Flannery O’Connor’s, A Good Man is Hard to Find. I vaguely remembered a few of the stories from this collection so it was good to re-read it.

<SIDENOTE>
It’s always odd when you’re halfway through a story and suddenly an image or line strikes you and you think to yourself, “Hey, this is that one story about the girl without a leg! I’ve read this before!” But the way you remember the story is so much different from the way it actually is. It’s like you only remember a ghost of the story–the faintest outline or impression of it. I dunno, I’ll talk more on this later because it’s always such an odd sensation for me. It’s almost like finding some lost piece of yourself or noticing a scar or a mole on your arm that you’d overlooked for years. It’s eerie somehow. I always wonder how I could have forgotten such a thing. Or how I could have remembered it in such a odd, distorted way.
</SIDENOTE>

The story from this collection that sticks with me the most is The River. It’s so sad. And so simple. And the simplicity of it almost makes it more sad. I dunno, I should probably think on this more but suffice it to say, it’s a lovely story.

After O’Connor, I moved on to Joyce Carol Oates’ Marriages and Infidelities–a conglomerate of stories that’s mostly about, you guessed  it, relationships that are struggling or failing in one way or another. (Or are they? Mwhahaha.)

Here is a picture of me reading it while in Tahoe for my dad’s 60th birthday:

Reading in Tahoe

How come I always look upset when I'm reading? Hmm...I don't smile enough when I read.

I hadn’t read much Oates before this but she’s a favorite of a friend of mine and I picked up the collection while the two of us were doing a tour of bookshops together. Some of Oates’ prose is really beautiful and the stories in this collection are all so different—some of them have a traditional narrative style and others are more experimental for instance—but they’re all strong in different ways. There are a lot of distraught parents, odd children (think Pearl from The Scarlet Letter only more creepy), disturbed people, lost people, people who were upset by things they can’t name or perhaps just don’t want to name. It’s very good stuff. And it was a good introduction to Oates for me. (If you want to read some selections check out my old post.)

Next, I grabbed some old “Best ofs”–The Best American Short Stories 2004 and 2006 which are fun if you’re in the mood.  I really loved a few of the stories from 2006.

Grandmother’s Nose by Robert Coover:

She had only just begun to think about the world around her. Until this summer, she and the world had been much the same thing, a sweet seamless blur of life in life

A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro:

Years will pass before she will reappear in his mind. But when she does he will find that she is a source of happiness, available to him till the day he dies… Such foolish thoughts as a man may have in secret.

Tattoizm by Kevin Moffett:

One day she wakes up  thinking: I am becoming what I wasn’t. It seems terribly ominous in the haze of sleep, but really it doesn’t make much sense. Or does it make sense, but it’s too obvious to think about.

Dominion by Mark Slouka:

How could the moment come when he would no longer be conscious of the world? He understood death. He’d written about it, seen more than his fair share of it. And yet, when it came right down to it, he didn’t understand it at all. How could you be alive, and then not? How could the great doors close forever, sweeping over the sky, the trees…

Ooooooh. They’re so good. I’d forgotten about some of these.

2004 is great too. I think my favorite story from that year is still Some Other Better Otto by Deborah Eisenberg. I studied it as a senior in college and it’s stuck with me ever since.

But yes, because of Some Other Better Otto, the next collection I read was Eisenberg’s , Twilight of the Superheroes, which is pretty short but pretty great too.

Because it speaks to the same thing and I can’t resist such a perfect juxtaposition, here’s another quote about contemplating death from, Revenge of the Dinosaurs, to go with Slouka’s passage above:

It’s Lulu Nana, I said, loudly. Nana surveyed me, then Eileen. Neither Bill nor I had inherited those famous blue eyes that can put holes right through you, though our father had, exactly, and so had our brother, Peter. Where does all that beauty go when someone finishes with it? if something exists how can it stop existing, I mused aloud to Jeff recently. Things take their course, Jeff said (kind of irritably, frankly). Well, what does that mean, really—things take their course? Jeff always used to be (his word) charmed that I wasn’t a (his word) sucker for received (his phrase) structures of logic. Anyhow, if something exists, it exists, is what I think, but when Nana turned back to the TV she did actually look just like any sweet old lady, all shrunk into her little blanket. I bent and kissed her cheek.

After Twilight of the Superheroes it wasn’t a hard transition into Men and Cartoons by Johnathan Lethem. (They are both relatively short collections and both feature superhero stories.) The first thing I ever read by Lethem was This Shape We’re In, which is this short title published by McSweeney’s about a man traveling through the human body, looking for the ever-allusive “eye.” After reading that, I always expect that surrealist-type prose to be Lethem’s style but none of his other writing feels quite the same to me. Which is fine, I like his other writing as well, but I keep expecting him to be a certain way and he’s not. Does this ever happen to anyone else?

Anyways, Men and Cartoons was another short but fun collection. I probably liked The Vision best. It’s a sad tale about a boy who used to dress up like a superhero and a man confronting him about it as an adult. Also, The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted by a Knock on the Door was awesome. Some stories don’t change your life but are just plain fun to read. Sometimes I think that’s just as important.

Okay, moving on…

A friend recommended Aimee Bender so next up were the collections Willful Creatures and The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Both were great and I’m now a big fan of hers. I’ve always enjoyed weirdness in literature. There is probably a “smarter” way to say that, weirdness, and a better way to talk about Aimee Bender’s writing but I’m going to go with weirdness, because that’s what it is to me. Girls with arms of fire and ice, a child with an anvil for a head, a woman who takes care of baby potatoes–these stories are weird. But they are also wonderful and beautiful and sad. And those are the stories I love best of all. So yes, Aimee Bender got to me.

I plan to read more of her but I can’t bring myself to read her new novel, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. (The whole feelings in food thing is a bit played out for me.) I love the phrase, “a particular sadness,” though.  A lot of things have a particular sadness for me.

The Particular Sadness of Grocery Shopping
The Particular Sadness of Having Drunk All the Alcohol in the House
The Particular Sadness of Sleeping with Gloves On
The Particular Sadness of Working Late on a Friday

But enough of all that. Next up….

KELLY LINK!!!

Yay! I loooooooooooooove her. Kelly Link may be the best thing to happen to me all year. And if that sounds sad to you, then I feel sorry for you because it means you’ve never experienced the particular joy (not sadness but joy) of finding an author that is so perfectly in tune with everything you love about books and reading, that you just devour everything he or she writes and love it all.

Oh man, Kelly Link is just great. She is like the mashed potatoes of authors for me right now. (If you don’t know what I mean by this, we should hang out more.)

I’ve ranted about her before (read the post here) so I won’t go off too much, but if you decide to read anything I’ve talked about in this massive post, read Magic for Beginners, Stranger Things Happen, and/or Pretty Monsters because they are all great and Kelly Link is a total badass.

So now we’re to journals and anthologies… Woo hoo!

My friend Victoria gave me a subscription to Zoetrope: All Story for my birthday this year and I absolutely love it and have to mention it. I liked every single story in Volume 14 and it was there that I discovered Téa Obreht through her story The Space Elephant. I think it’s probably one of my favorite stories of the year.

Now there’s a thought, where do space elephants come from? Maybe there are plains dotted with herds of them, rising like cathedrals into the sky. Think about it. Think about their yawning life spans, their big rubbery hearts, their rickety-ladder legs. And if an elephant never forgets, consider the memory of a space elephant: how the world, from their height, straightens into points that are sharp, and always far away. Imagine how, once they’re spent and shadowed and gone, their bones come up in earthquakes and floods—long bones, bones like shards of glass. How many snails would it take to feed them all?

Ooooh, so beautiful. I want to go re-read it now. I have yet to read her novel but it’s on my  list too.

Obreht was also in the The New Yorker 20 Under 40 list that was a fun one this year. (I ended up picking up the book, which is nice to have around.) I have to say, I really liked Johnathan Safron Foer’s, Here We Aren’t So Quickly. It was simple and sad and yet fun to read because it was different and so well done. The Erlking by Sarah Sun-Lien Bynum was particularly haunting (now I keep saying particularly before everything…Note to self: stop that) though I couldn’t say why without going off about it for far too long.

So we’re getting to the end of things (and by things I mean, this year and this post) now, so it’s time to answer my most favorite of all questions…

What are you reading NOW?

The answer is lots of things.

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, is by my bed, waiting for me as I write this. It’s an awesome collection of modern takes on fairy tales from an impressive collection of authors–including a lot of people I’ve talked about in here. Aimee Bender, Sarah Sun-Lien Bynum, Micheal Cunningham, Joyce Carol Oates, Kelly Link, Johnothon Keats, and John Updike just to name a few. The stories are all amazing so far and it’s really fun to read. I’d never read much Kevin Brockmeier or Neil LaBute before but both of them had great takes on Rumpelstilskin that made me want to look them up and read more. Shelly Jackson’s story The Swan Brothers is really beautiful and probably my favorite story so far, though it’s really hard to choose one. I highly recommend the entire collection. It’s been my gift book all season because I think there’s something in it for everyone.

My other obsession this year (other than Kelly Link) has been Joe Meno. I haven’t written about him in here yet but I need to because he’s great and I looooooooooooooooove him (not just love but loooooooooooooove) too.

I’ve been making my way through all his novels and just picked up Demons in the Spring, his short story collection the other week. It is so amazingly good. It’s another one of those books where the stories are just so fun to read and I’m breezing right through it. The stories are all so different and creative. There’s one about a teacher who falls in love with his model United Nations club, another about an office affair, a bank robbery that goes wrong, a minature elephant that can sense death. Some are “weird” and some are more traditional but they’re all wonderful. Here’s a quick taste from A Romance.

What Mr. Albee most desires is for the Model UN, the entire group of them, all eleven, even the scoundrel Quinn, to be there waiting, when he gets home each dreary night, and there again when he awakes in the morning, all of them politely debating one another with their resplendent voices, their hearts—which have not yet been broken by anything more serious than an unrequited crush or an unfair grade—quietly aglow with everything.

I dunno, it’s one of those books that makes me wish I was a better writer. I want to tell stories like this. I want to write like that.

Oh, and the book itself is also amazingly beautiful. Every story is accompanied by illustrations from different artists. I bought the paperback at Bookshop Santa Cruz, but then I went and found the hardback edition the other day at Logos and started drooling. I might have to buy the hardback then give my paperback away as a gift because it’s so gorgeous. Here are some samples:

I also just picked up If I Loved You I Would Tell You This by Robin Black. I’ve only read the title story so far but it was really powerful. I’m looking forward to diving into it more.

My McSweeney’s head came in the mail as well. Ha, what can I say about this? It’s awesome.

I  mean, how could you not love that? And it’s so fun to pick through–all of the stories and selections are printed as different sized books and pamphlets and  things like that, so it’s supposed to feel like you’re sifting through someone else’s head. Ha, and it really does feel that way. I had to cancel my subscription for a while because I was broke (which is stupid really, because I know I’ll just go buy the issues I missed later) and I’m so happy to have it back. Talk about gorgeous books.  My bedroom would look so much sadder if it didn’t have my favorite McSweeney’s on display everywhere.

So I know this sounds dorky (as opposed to the rest of this post  ha ha ha) but what an exciting time it is to be a reader! It’s been a great reading year for me. I found not one but two amazing new authors (new to me authors), acquired a new journal subscription, read stories from out of a head, and I feel like I’m just beginning to tap into the fairy tale tradition and the authors from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me. I kind of feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of everything though.

Ha, but doesn’t reading always feel this way? You finish one book and then it’s on to the next one. You read one short story collection and it introduces you to 20 new authors and 20 new collections and before you know it you’re caught up in this great big reading chain of awesomeness where one great book follows the next and one great story runs into another.

Sigh… I love it when that happens.

There is simply too much to read in the world. But then, there’s too much of everything in the world. And duh, I kind of like it that way.

Have a great New Year! And keep reading!

Only heroes and girl detectives go to the underworld on purpose.

I just finished Kelly Link’s collection, Stranger Things Happen this morning and oh man, it was so good. I think I’m beginning to really love her. Well, I do love her. Now I’m just at the stage of love where I’m a tad obsessive. I want to spend all my time with her. I want to know more. I want to know everything…

Then I want to go home and think about it. Let it sink in. I want to be at work, writing emails and elevator speeches, with her words still swimming in my head. I want to drive home watching the rows of things growing next to the rows of cars driving, with the tone and the impressions and the pictures and worlds her words created still hovering above me somewhere in my head or even out in the world.  I want to read it all! I want to know it all! I want my love to grow into something real, lasting, and meaningful, and dare I say it (oh yes, I dare, I always dare) beautiful!

I know, it’s totally creepy right. Well, Kelly Link can be creepy too so hopefully it works out.

But yes…

I read her newest collection Pretty Monsters, last month and finished it wanting more. (See the rant above.) I’m happy to say Stranger Things Happen (which is her first published collection) was great too. But it was so great I still want more.

Ha, so I just went and bought her other collection, Magic for Beginners and also, Trampoline,which is an anthology she edited with stories from a variety of fantasy writers. I’m very excited for their arrival. I have to say, I’ve never been a huge fantasy/sci fi/young adult fan but I’ve been flocking to these types of stories lately.

Kelly Link writes in a kind of a young adult/playful style with these wonderful lines like…

He yanked the lid up as fast and hard as he could, the way you would rip off a bandage if you suspected there were baby spiders hatching under it.

Any moment now I would realize I was really a robot. Or God.

There was nothing of light or enlightenment about Bethany’s hair. It knew nothing of hope, but it had desires and ambitions. It’s best not to speak of those ambitions.  As for the tattoo, it wanted to be left alone. And to be allowed to eat people, just every once in a while.

Which I think are completely delightful and make for fun reading.

But then there’s also this sadness just under the surface of things. Or maybe not sadness but simply realness and because of the tone everything seems to have more weight to me. There’s just this great tension.

It reminds me of an article/post I read a while back on the Millions, In Praise of Precocious Narrators, about books with young genius (or at least overly smart) narrators.

It talks about the young boys in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, and the girls in The History of Love and Special Topics in Calamity Physics. And I realized that a lot of these books and characters are some of my recent favorites.

One line that stood out to me was this…

And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.

I dunno, maybe it’s more poignant when simple language is used to describe complex things. Or when a childlike narrator or even just a childlike tone is trying to describe something experienced by adults. It is heartbreaking that these kids are asked to face such serious things. It’s heartbreaking when adults are asked to as well.

Maybe I’m just attracted to these types of stories because I still feel like a child in so many ways and their confusions and intentions, their interactions with and responses to the world are so close to my own.  We’ve all had those moments where we felt childlike in some way, and were forced to grow up and face some sort of reality before we wanted to.

But I’m also kind of immature. And really, I just like reading about girl detectives, aliens, ghosts, fairy tales, and silly things like boys who bury their poetry, girls who have maps on their feet, and men who cannot speak. These are fun stories to read. They’re entertaining and their plots are interesting and creative.

But they’re really not that silly. They’re rather serious actually.

I like stories that are fun and playful and that have a little magic. I like comedy. I like poetry. I like adventure. But I absolutely love it when that magic also speaks to a larger truth or life experience. When the magic, the fun, the adventure, or the poetry–the beauty and sadness–are the things that allow me to access a piece of the world I didn’t fully grasp before. I mean, come on…I love that shit! Everyone loves that shit. Don’t you just love that?

So yes, Kelly Link’s stories have been doing that for me recently. I highly recommend them. I know this concept of literature being both entertaining and enlightening is not a new one, but it’s always nice when you come across it being done well.

I only wish she had a novel because the way I experience a novel is so much different than a short story. I love my short stories, they are beautiful and compact and perfect in their own ways. But it’s different. It’s hard for me to dive too deeply into a short story. I just don’t lose myself in them the same way as I would with a novel. I get to the know the characters well and I identify with them but they don’t feel like my best friends, they don’t feel like a part of me.

Of course, Kelly Link may be proving me wrong. I did just call them, “my” short stories so they must have become a part of me somehow. And, who knows, maybe Link’s methods wouldn’t work as well in a larger form. I guess I’d just like to see her try. I wouldn’t mind losing myself in one of her novels.

Either way, you should read her.

Here are some of my favorite passages…

Your destination is North. The map that you are using is a mirror. You are always pulling the bits out of your bare feet, the pieces of the map that broke off and fell on the ground as the Snow Queen flew overhead in her sleigh. Where you are, where you are coming from , it is impossible to read on a map made of paper. If it were that easy then everyone would be a traveler. You have heard of other travellers whose maps are breadcrumbs, whose maps are stories, whose maps are the four winds, whose maps are yellow bricks laid one after the other. You read your map with your feet, and behind you somewhere there must be another traveller whose map is the bloody footprints that you are leaving behind you.

Think of the underworld as the back of your closet, behind all those racks of clothes that you don’t wear anymore. Things are always getting pushed back there and forgotten about. The underworld is full of things that you’ve forgotten about. Some of them, if only you could remember, you might want to take back. Trips to the underworld are always very nostalgic. It’s darker in there. The seasons don’t match. Mostly people end up there by accident, or else because in the end there was nowhere else to go. Only heroes and girl detectives go to the underworld on purpose.

“What’s in a name, hmm? After a while names are just souvenirs. Places you’ve been. Let me introduce you to some of my friends.” He waved towards the approaching crowd. “Mrs. Gomorrah over there, Mr. Belly of the Whale, Ms. Titanic, Little Miss Through the Looking-Glass, Mr. and Mrs. Really Bad Marriage, Mr. Over the Falls in a Wooden Barrel.” …The bearded man was practically gnashing his teeth, smiling ferociously. “I have seen snow and I have been hungry, and I have seen nothing in my travels that is so bad as not living.” I propose a toast, Mr. Todd.” They both raised their glasses. “To travel,” one said. “To life,” said the other.

This is one thing about Louise. She doesn’t like to sleep alone. She says that her bed is too big. Theres’ too much space. She needs someone to roll up against, or she just rolls around all night. Some mornings she wakes up on the floor. Mostly she wakes up with other people.

“Look,” the fortune-teller says. “You’ll have a good life. You don’t want all the details, do you? Go home, make wedding plans, get married. You should probably get married inside. I think it might rain. I’m not good at weather. You’ll be happy, I promise. I’m good at the happy stuff. It’s what I see best. You want to know about snoring, or breast cancer, or mortgages, go see the woman next door who reads tea leaves.”