Lorrie Moore, “Places to Look for Your Mind”

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A young Englishman named John Spee comes to stay with Millie and Holt Keegan in New Jersey. 

(from Like Life)

How disappointing America must seem. To wander the streets of a city that was not yours, a city with its back turned, to be a boy from far away and step ashore here, one’s imagination suddenly so concrete and mistaken, how could that not break your heart?

My first encounter with Lorrie Moore was her collection Birds of America, and I found the stories dry, dull. Even the cover bored me. Looking back on it, I didn’t give it much of a chance, or I wasn’t ready for her yet. In the last few years, however, I’ve read Like Life and Self-Help and have come to realize why she’s so loved, why major presses continue to publish her story collections; she has more than earned her following and successes.

Moore does amazing stuff with POV, switching seamlessly between characters, and isn’t afraid to take risks with narrative (Throughout this story, for example, we get pieces of John Spee’s journal entry, “Crazy People I Have Met in America.”) She writes about such disparate characters–a woman obsessed with garbage, a jobless Englishman, an instructor of Religion at a community college–with ease and compassion.

John Spee’s visit to America doesn’t go well or last long, but you probably already knew that. I couldn’t find this one online, but you can pick up her collected stories or, better yet, buy her most recent collection, Bark.

Amelia Gray, “Thoughts While Strolling”

collegeport_clappWeird little observations about birds, roads, ribbons and people in a small Texas town.

(from Museum of the Weird)

A language is born: the manner in which the black silk ribbon is tied determines the personality of the girl who ties it. A half-hitch means she is searching for a kind gentleman to walk her to the market. A sheep-shank means she is a scurrilous woman who wishes to entrap a gentleman with kind words. A figure-of-eight means the time has come for sober discussions regarding the future. The children steal a black silk ribbon and tie it round a frog.

This collection of odd snippets is meant to be read as bits from a column in a small Texas newspaper. I doubt these are the real thoughts and columns of the “Harry Austin Clapp” alluded to in the italicized preface to this story (they read like Gray), but it’s worth noting that he was indeed a real person and columnist. The preface — faithfully lifted from this 1937 obit — features a phrase I like for its ability to summarize a hardship while deflecting morbid curiosity: “following an illness of several months.” Google says it’s not an uncommon phrase in certain types of obituaries. Read “Thoughts While Strolling” here.

Amelia Gray, “Death of a Beast”

Museum-of-the-WeirdA woman watches a squirrel die and reads about a girl who ate her own hair.

(from Museum of the Weird)

The squirrel was no longer shaking, June noticed.  Its tiny paw still hovered over its breast but the beast simply stared in through the window.  June understood dramatics, having recently worked at a dinner theatre, but the performance was a little too compelling.  The spirit and knowledge in the eyes was gone, and the squirrel was dead.

Just a funny little convergence of sick, funny things. The drama queen squirrel conking out with its hand on its chest. The story about the girl with Rapunzel Syndrome, eating her own hair until surgeons had to remove a ten-pound-hairball from her stomach so she should eat. And then the end which is a bit ominous, but mostly goofy. Why knows why anybody does anything, I guess. I know I’ve read this story before, but I couldn’t find it anywhere on the site. Read “Death of a Beast” here, if you please.

I read some more Amelia Gray:

“The Darkness” — An armadillo tries to pick up an angry penguin at a bar. — Ray pecked at his highball glass in anger. “Well,” he said, “imagine that, except fifteen times worse. That’s what the darkness was like.” — It’s a kooky little thing, more like a riddle than a joke. You can read it here.

“The Cottage Cheese Diet” — I dunno. Somebody eats cottage cheese and his/her mind wanders. Sometimes the short ones really bug me. Read here.

Joy Williams, “Georges & Susan”

51gxyPklz+LG., who is dead and obsessed with Susan Sontag, makes a pilgrimage to her childhood home in the desert.

(from Tin House, vol. 16, number 2)

She hated the desert but no matter, the desert had her in her formative years. The desert is irreducible and strange and it is not merry, it is never merry. Not even the baby roadrunners and javelinas know how to play. It is work work work. Hopeless living work. G. pictures her as a little girl — he carries a snapshot of her in his mind — a little girl ferociously unhappy and intense, kicking rocks in the desert.

Actually, I’m not sure G. is dead. We’re told flat-out that he is, but we’re also told soon after he farts that dead people don’t fart, so. There’s a lot I’m not sure of after reading this story. Actually, I read it twice, to try to make sense of G.’s dim, ghostly existence. It’s possible many of the answers I seek could be learned by consulting a Susan Sontag scholar; this story’s strangenesses could very well be references. I saw her speak once, but read very little of her work, and have only a faint understanding and admiration for who she was. As usual, hamfisted Googling has produced only strange hints at a clearer picture.

Hey: Nice to see javelinas making a cameo.

Amelia Gray, “A Javelina Story”

Collared_peccary02_-_melbourne_zooA clerical error puts a small pack of javelinas in charge of a hostage negotiation.

(from Museum of the Weird) 

The domestic hostage situation had been underway for three and a half hours, and the pack of wild animals heading up the negotiation project was making little progress.

A javelina, is a cute, furry little pig, apparently. The fact that these “skunk pigs” are doing police work, however poorly, could be a joke about cops being pigs. Very on-the-nose, once you know what a javelina is — though that just doesn’t seem like Gray’s style. I was hoping the piggies would be able to resolve their appointed task, once the gunman started interpreting their animal behavior as smart gamesmanship. But that’s crazy. Pretty much everybody in the world of “A Javelina Story” is crazy. This is, I’m betting, about as goofy as Gray gets. Still grim, though. Couldn’t find the story online, but I like what The Collagist had to say.

I also read “Dinner,” about a woman who’s served a plate of hair on a first date. It’s gross and strange. I read it twice. I think we’re talking about social obligation or maybe sexual obligation. Hard to say, really. Might only be about a plate of hair. It’s a funny one, and it stuck with me.

Amelia Gray, “Waste”

Museum-of-the-WeirdA guy who picks up medical waste for a living is invited to a special meal by his neighbor on the other side of the duplex.

(from Museum of the Weird)

“Pig to pork,” Olive said. “When does the change happen? At death, it’s a dead pig. At the market, it’s a pork product. But when does the grand transformation take place? After the animal’s last breath? When it’s wrapped and packed?”

“It would be horrible to be wrapped and packed.”

Olive shrugged. “Some might think so. The pig might think so, if it wasn’t well on its way to becoming pork. But it’s lucky, in a way. Not everything gets to transform.” Her collarbone ducked in and out of the neck of her hospital gown as she talked.

Roger returned his sandwich to its plate. “I’m going to have the rest of this at work tomorrow,” he said.

She unlocked her side of the connecting door for him. “Think about it,” she said. “The pig gets to become pork. The rest of us simply go from live body to dead body.”

I read Amelia Gray’s novel Threats last year and was totally pulled in by its persistent despair and prevailing grossness. It was just so beautifully horrible. Maybe better than anybody else I’ve read, Gray knows how to set sad, people-shaped meatbags stumbling through modern life, barely seen, never understood.

“Waste” is exhibit B. Trashman Roger trudges through his grim, stinking daily routine and pins his hope for sweetness on Olive, who seems to like him while also barely acknowledging the things he says and does. This story takes some pretty unexpected turns, which I won’t spoil here. But I’ll say this. The only thing less reliable than an unreliable narrator or the person in whose you never thinking you never have any insight as all. Olive, you are something else. (Here’s an opening excerpt, for whatever that’s worth.)

threats_headerThis is a library book so I’ll probably try to fly through it. I also read the opening story, “Babies,” a two-pager about a woman starts giving birth every night in her sleep. It was like some sick male nightmare about a sick female fantasy. Or something like that. I think it was a horror story. Read it here and tell me different.

And now I just read “Unsolved Mystery.” A detective is trying to track down a serial killer who removes a rib from his homeless victims, and wonder whether calling the unsub “God” is disrespectful. Or too respectful. This is another short one, and I wish it went longer because this seems like the kind of detective story I could get into. Fast-paced, gruesome, intriguing. Too fast-paced, I guess.

[I’m supposed to read 71 more stories this year, as per my personal goal.]

Elizabeth McCracken, “Thunderstruck”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After 12-year-old Helen is caught sneaking out of the house, her parents suddenly decide to move the family to Paris for five weeks.

(from Thunderstruck)

She never really got her bearings in the city, no matter how she studied the map. Paris on paper always looked like a box of peanut brittle that had been dropped onto the ground, the Seine the unraveled ribbon that held it together.

“What’s your favorite thing in Paris?” Wes asked.

“My Family,” she answered. That was the truth.

Well this is the end of Thunderstruck, and it’s a heartbreaker. I guess I should have expected that of the title track. It’s long and sad, fast-paced and full of surprises. I’m not gonna spoil the biggest, saddest surprise but it’s the one that’s gonna stick with me. I’ve seen all kinds of “scariest stories” lists recently, and I’m sure I’ll be referring to them soon, but I think I stumbled into the right kind of story to read on Halloween. What happened to Helen is my nightmare, either happening to me or to somebody I know.

Amelia Kahaney, “The Temp”

9780547241609_p0_v4_s260x420An office falls in love with their glamorous temp. 

(from The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009)

So, Karen, what’s your story, we asked.

It turned out the temp was writing a novel! It was going to be the Filipino version of One Hundred Years of Solitude. She was stuck on a particular chapter, and she was here, she said, to put her novel on the back burner of her mind and fill the front burner with easily accomplished tasks.

Well, we thought, that’s certainly unusual. We had never considered our tasks easy to accomplish. We had always found them virtually impossible to accomplish. But we nodded sagely, like we got it.

This story takes place over the course of one week and is divided into tiny chapters labeled Monday-Friday. It’s told from the perspective of all of the office workers, all of whom are women. With each passing day, the women become more and more obsessed with the temp, who is “slim and tanned–some kind of Asian.”

On Tuesday, the temp does their charts with a computer program and tells the women that they don’t belong there, that they are wasting their lives in a “watery office”: “‘Yes,’ we thought. This is just what we’d always suspected.”

At the end of the week, they don’t want to let Karen go. I won’t give away the ending but it’s good.

Having spent years in a “watery office,” I could relate to this story to an uncomfortable degree. It’s nearly perfect in its focus and scope. “The Temp” isn’t online but here is Amelia Kahaney’s website. Also, this edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading is excellent.

Rajesh Parameswaran, “The Infamous Bengal Ming”

500x500_1864193_fileA tiger realizes he loves the zookeeper, but isn’t quite sure how to show it.

(from I Am An Executioner)

I stretched and smacked my mouth and licked my lips, tasting the familiar odours of the day. Already, I somehow sensed that this morning would be different from all the other mornings of my life. On the far side of the wall hippos mucked and splashed, and off in the distance the monkeys and the birds who had been up since pre-dawn darkness started their morning chorus in earnest, their caws and kee-kees and caroo-caroo-caroos echoing out over the breadth of our little kingdom. These were the same sounds I heard morning after morning, but this morning it was all more beautiful than ever; yes, this morning was different. It took me a little while to puzzle out the reason, but once I did, it was unmistakable.

I was in love.

If you like unreliable narrators you will love unreliable tiger narrators. Such a heightened state of being. Like so many lovesick fools, poor Ming doesn’t know what he’s doing or how doomed he is. But of course you’re rooting for him. This story’s a blast

I found “The Infamous Bengal Ming” on Flavorwire, in a piece on the “50 of the Scariest Short Stories of All Time.” I would say this one is more darkly funny than straight-up scary, but that’s beside the point. I’m sure I’ll be returning to this listicle for more suggestions. Listen to this story here.

 

Elizabeth McCracken, “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Karen Blackbird goes missing, leaving behind a son, a father and a town. The manager of a grocery store never met her but can’t let go.

(from Thunderstruck)

The Hi-Lo was a run-down, bare-bones concern with more fruit flies than customers. Anyone with a car went to the Purity Supreme a mile away. The Hi-Lo was where kids got sent by parents on orders to buy cartons of milk. If there was change, they fed the coins into the gumball and prize machines at the front of the store, the heaviest machinery they’d ever operated by themselves. Broke, they fiddled with the big, cold silver keys that worked the machines and hopefully lifted the metal doors over the chutes. They stole things: candy, the terrible toys in the terrible toy section, the school-supply kits with pygmy plastic rulers and pug–nosed scissors. They drank coffee milk in the parking lot, sitting on the concrete blocks at the ends of spaces.

Good writers should know that when they do things to their characters they are doing them to their readers at the same time. Heartbreak leaps of the page and down our throats. Losses are beamed across the short distance, and lodged like chalky mints. It’s the transitive property of well enunciated emotion. This is classified as a good hurt.