Robert Coover, “Crabapple Tree”

150112_r25994-898The long, twisted history of Dickie-boy and his family, most of whom ended up buried beneath the crabapple tree.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 12, 2005)

This happened here in our town. A friend of mine—we were on the cheerleading team together—married a local farmer, and right away they wanted to have a baby, though the doctor said she shouldn’t. She was a bleeder, he said, and if she started he might not be able to stop it. But she didn’t listen. She went ahead and got pregnant, then bled to death during childbirth and was buried out by the farmhouse, under a crabapple tree. It was very sad. I cried for a week. But the baby survived, a pretty little boy; his dad called him Dickie-boy, but I don’t know if that was his real name.

His dad was a hard worker and a nice guy—I went on a movie date with him once when we were young—but he sometimes drank too much and he was hopeless at ordinary household chores and raising babies. So pretty soon he found another wife, either through a dating service or else he picked her up in one of his bars somewhere, because none of us girls knew her. She was a tough, sexy lady, a hooker, maybe. She made no effort to be one of us or to make us like her. I guess she considered us beneath her. We called her the Vamp. She got around, and it was said that she’d taken half the men in town to bed, my own ex included. They all denied it, like cheating husbands do, but, when the subject came up, little shit-eating grins would appear on their faces and their eyes would glaze over as if they were remembering the wild time they’d had.

This is one stylish, wild, spooky story. There’s the hazy, gossipy rural gothic angle — where every character seems to be uniquely screwed up — and then there are these wtf moments I had to re-read a couple times. Dickie-boy’s demise is so insane I actually laughed out loud. I loved this creepazoid story and I bet you will too. Read it here.

P.S. This has nothing to do with the above. One of my favorite comedy writers, Harris Wittels, died recently. Here’s a funny moment from Parks & Rec to remember him by.

Yannick Murphy, “In a Bear’s Eye”

Better_of_McSweeney's_Vol_2A mother panics as a bear shakes apples from a tree near her son. 

(from The Better of McSweeney’s Vol 2)

“Your boy is a smart boy,” the teacher said. “The death of his father must have come as a shock. But still,” the teacher said, “there is school.”

She looked into the refrigerator to offer the teacher something. There wasn’t much. She hadn’t been to the store in days. She opened the bottom bin and found two lemons. She took them out and put them on the table where they rolled for a moment. The mother got her wooden chopping board and placed the lemons on it and cut each lemon in four. She pushed the chopping board toward the teacher. “Please, have some.”

I like this story a lot. It’s written in a simple way that belies the seriousness of the subject matter. It reminds me of Roddy Doyle’s “New Boy,” which was also published in McSweeney’s, and which I loved.

The ending surprised me in a good way.

I think I would be a better, more successful writer if my name was Yannick Murphy.

 

Rebecca Schiff, “Boxing Experiment A38″

CoverA woman teaches her widowed mother to use the computer. 

(from The American Reader, Vol 2, No 2)

I did a search for “water filters” because I wanted to protect her from the carcinogens of Central New Jersey. When I typed the “w,” “women boxing” appeared as a previous search. He had sought them out. The boxers had enormous breasts. My mother’s breasts were tiny, a few inches of raised skin, nipples the size of pennies. Did he dream of swinging breasts, of humiliation, knock-outs, defeat?

I like Rebecca Schiff’s stories, which I’ve read in various magazines over the years, so I was excited to find this one. The voice is readable, honest, and I always identify with her narrators. As much as I like “Boxing Experiment A38,” I don’t feel like I know as much about the narrator as I want. What does she do when she’s not visiting her widowed mother, helping with dishes and looking at pictures of her deceased father? Who is she then? I want all the details. I wanted it to be messier. But I still love her and would happily read every word she writes. I hope she collects her stories in an actual book very soon. Someone publish them, please?

I’ve never read an issue of The American Reader before. I’m used to magazines like Fence and Tin House, with their shiny covers and brightly colored pictures, but Everett at Square Books told me to buy it. It has the usual poetry and fiction, as well as essays and book reviews, which I like very much, and I’ll be buying it again very soon or subscribing. I should subscribe. It’ll be kind of cool to look like I’m reading a business journal in public.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, ”Inventions”

IRASST Isaac Bashevis Singer, InventionsA Communist leader is visited by a ghost, shaking his faith in the beliefs of the Party.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 26, 2015)

Morris Krakower is clever at conspiracy, but intrigue isn’t necessary here. The press is admitted to the sessions; the police have infiltrated their spies, but Morris needn’t fear arrest. Even if he were arrested, it would be no great tragedy. In prison, he could devote his time to reading. He would smuggle out manuscripts to arouse the masses. A few weeks of prison can only enhance the prestige of a Party worker.

The opening bit tells us this is a story within a story, something an author wrote one sleepless night in the country. This tells us the ghost story is aware of at least some layers of its fictionality; but it also adds to the dim dreaminess of the main action. Are we awake or dreaming when Krakower feels that tug on his blanket? We’re reading a story about a story and yet somehow the paranormal parts are extra spooky. Moreover, this story has a few things to say about political and religious polarization. Hardliner Krakower must force himself to dismiss his vision as a dream or abandon everything he believes in.

Singer is no longer alive; ”Inventions” was written in 1965 and found last year among his papers. It was previously only published in Yiddish. You can read it here.

J. Robert Lennon, “Breadman”

150119_r26013_rd-880A husband waits in line to buy focaccia from his wife’s favorite baking guru, the eccentric and popular Breadman.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 19, 2015)

None of them looked at their phones. I did, because I was by myself, and because I lived most of my life at a distance from the things and people I loved. It was also a quality of mine that I invariably became the terminus of any queue I joined.

This story cracked me the hell up. So many snide little lines. I envision the narrator as a bewildered Louis C.K.-George Costanza hybrid, a troubled and snarky everyman obligated to play along with the Breadman’s ridiculous theater just to pick up some bread for his sick wife. The Breadman, meanwhile, isn’t necessarily a villain — just smug as all hell. He’s an artisanal baking genius and charismatic guru (he’s also maybe 5 percent Soup Nazi); you’d be smug too.

You can read this story, or have it read to you, here, and I say go for it. There’s also a decent interview with the author. If I’m going to read 100 short stories this year, as I tell myself I’m aiming to, I’ll need to start chipping away at the stack of New Yorkers on the coffee table. So much overdue homework.

Robert Aickman, “The Waiting Room”

51BUGUZhYOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A weary traveler waits for his next train in a bitterly cold room and sees people who are not there.

(from The Uncanny Reader)

Against such interventions of fate as this, reflected Edward Pendlebury, there was truly nothing that the wisest and most farsighted could do; and the small derangement of his plans epitomised the larger derangement which was life.

This is the first time I’ve read anything by Robert Aickman, though I’ve been searching for his stuff for awhile (musicians I respect have sung his praises, or made references, at any rate). I’ve seen a couple of his reissued collections on Amazon, but have yet to run across a copy in a used shop; an original cover appeals to me.

Now that I’ve read “The Waiting Room,” I’m more intrigued than blown away. Where I wanted a twist, there was something more rote, and while some parts were inventive or charming, others were less so. I counted three instances of things “waxing” in this story, though there may have been more, and it seemed conspicuous. And some descriptions sprawled as if we too were Pendlebury, helpless but to wait around and bear witness.

Still, I like the way I think this man thinks. I read this one sentence  several times to unpack its meanings, which became less apparent once I finished: “Those seated upon the table were unmistakably of to-day. Though mostly young, they appeared to be old friends, habituated to trusting one another with the truth.” It’s an interesting thing to observe about apparitions, especially ones who exist but do not act in any meaningful way. I read that sentence again and feel like Morel.

Lorrie Moore, “Places to Look for Your Mind”

9780375719165

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.