Karen Russell, “The Bad Graft”

140609_r25122-320Angie and Andy visit Joshua Tree and something sinister gets into her blood.

(from The New Yorker, June 9, 2014)

The trip was a kind of honeymoon. The boy and girl were eloping. They weren’t married, however, and had already agreed that they never would be—they weren’t that kind of couple. The boy, Andy, was a reader; he said that they were seafarers, wanderers. “Ever unfixed,” a line from Melville, was scraped in red ink across the veins of his arm. The girl, Angie, was three years sober and still struggling to find her mooring on dry land. On their first date they had decided to run away together.

Andy bought a stupidly huge knife; Angie had a tiny magenta flashlight suspended on a gold chain, which she wore around her throat. He was twenty-two, she had just turned twenty-six. Kids were for later, maybe. They could still see the children they had been: their own Popsicle-red smiles haunting them. Still, they’d wanted to celebrate a beginning. And the Mojave was a good place to launch into exile together; already they felt their past lives in Pennsylvania dissolving into rumor, sucked up by the hot sun of California and the perfectly blue solvent of the sky.

Read the story before I spoil you.

Karen Russell remains one of my all-time favorites. It’s not just her sentences, though they are so, so pretty. (And it’s not that she let me interview her twice in two weeks when my digital recorder failed me a few years back.) It’s the way she surprises me all the time by sneaking hints of horror and sci-fi into what otherwise might be called high and mighty literary fiction.

“Hints” seems like the wrong word for a story about a malicious, sentient toxin entering the bloodstream through the pricking of a finger and corrupting its new human host/biological cul de sac. But, really, though the toxin appears to exist, and I feel like Scully just saying this, but what do we actually know about it? What evidence do we have?

Did it change Angie’s behavior? I dunno, man. She was probably pretty moody/flaky long before she got to Joshua Tree.

Yeah, but murder? Far as I know, she hasn’t murdered anyone. Sorry, Mulder.

And sorry, Andy. You just might need to die for me to believe this is an X-File. But I want to believe. When I read The Ruins I was rooting for the vines.

122 days left in 2014. 97 more stories for me to read. And that’s not even counting what Mary “All Killer/No Filler” Miller is up to.

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Justin Taylor, “Carol Alone”

9780062310156A widow sees an alligator outside her Florida retirement community.

(from Fling)

The night I left Gerald’s body at the hospital I came home and cut my braid off, coiled the limp thing up like a length of rope, stuck it in a jewelry box, and shut the lid. Now I’m one more short-haired widow after whom nobody whispers.

I hope I never come across some lit class assignment on this story because I don’t want its metaphors splayed out in double-space to shrivel from overexposure. This is what it is: a well-written story about a woman in a sad place in her life in a sad place on the map who sees an alligator. Well, that makes it sound like an oil painting would have done the trick, but no. There’s a plot and scenes and depth. Good stuff. Carol, you woulda gotten along pretty well with Betty White’s Lake Placid character.

I couldn’t find this story online. My search method included googling the phrases “we don’t stay long at the cemetery” and “a gator crawled out of the lake today.” They got one hit and no hits, respectively.

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George Saunders, “A Two-Minute Note to the Future”

IMAG0724A present day office worker writes to his future counterpart.

(from a Chipotle bag)

Note to future generations: Still have “bosses”? Bosses still intrusive? Still have “offices”? Future offices = high-tech?

I don’t eat much Chipotle, but when I do, it’s nice to get some George Saunders with it. Actually, my burrito was supposed to come with a smaller bag (featuring a piece by Judd Apatow) but I asked for a free upgrade. About the story: It’s decent. It’s short, of course. I like how the present day human speaks like a caveman. Kristyna Baczynski’s accompanying illos are very cool. The burrito was the usual: 50 percent food, 50 percent regret.

So.

There are 125 days left in 2014. I kinda promised myself I’d read/write about 100 stories here this year, to mark I Read A Short Story Today’s 10th birthday. You know, because numbers. But I haven’t read any this year, as far as I can remember. It’s this damn Bolaño kick I’ve been on. His novels aren’t just thick, they’re dense, and thorough. His prose, translated into in English, is pretty in a brutalist way, and I find myself re-reading passage at the same time I marvel at their frustrating pace. Those dead women in 2666 nearly almost me. And I’m still reading The Savage Detectives — Kindle says I’m 84 percent done; so far, no detectives — and a couple other books of varying seriousness. But 125 stories in 100 days. I can do that right? It’s not Kilimanjaro. It’s just reading. If make the time, I’ll succeed. Lunch breaks and stuff. Okay.

Oh, it’s after midnight. 124 days.

 

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Alice Munro, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”

69Johanna leaves town with a new dress and some stolen furniture to begin a life in the middle of nowhere with a man who isn’t expecting her. 

(from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2014)

The station agent would have said, without thinking about it, that he knew everybody in town. Which meant that he knew about half of them. And most of those he knew were the core people, the ones who really were ‘in town’ in the sense that they had not arrived yesterday and had no plans to move on.

This story is really long, longer than the average Munro story even, or the average Munro story that I’ve read. It’s also kind of confusing, like most of them, in that perspectives shift a lot and you have to read closely in order to keep up (and sometimes there is pronoun confusion because of this). That being said, it’s good. It’s really, really good.

It appears that the entire collection, of which this is the title story, is online. It was also made into a movie called Hateship Loveship (2013) starring Kristin Wiig. Rotten Tomatoes wasn’t crazy about it.

Anyhow, this story gave me all sorts of emotions. I felt hope and sadness and nervousness and all of these things I don’t often feel while reading, and which Alice Munro achieves because she’s a hell of a writer and she never hurries; she really takes her time. She gives us varying perspectives and stories within stories and stories within those stories and they somehow don’t feel out of place. She makes them all fit. Even the station agent has his say. I have no idea how she does it but it’s a pretty wondrous thing to behold. I won’t tell you how things turn out for Johanna, but I’ll say that you really ought to read it and find out.

Jim Gavin, “The Copy Chief”

69After a decade spent surfing and working at a gas station, Eddie becomes a newspaperman.

(from Zoetrope: All-Story, Summer 2014)

I had a sublet in Mar Vista. My roommate, Brett, was creepy and docile and generally representative of the kind of people who come into your life via Craigslist. I think he was in grad school. He ate incredible amounts of soup and played WWII video games with a silent, frothing passion. Due to my schedule, I rarely saw him, and I was creepy in my own ways. Every night after work I got Del Taco and stayed up late watching TV. I got hooked on The Rockford Files.

I always have such a hard time summarizing these stories. This story isn’t really about Eddie working at a newspaper, or it’s kind of about that, but it’s also about his struggle to live after both of his parents die at a young age; it’s about his friendship with his boss, Gus, who fakes his own death; it’s about living in poverty even after you get a “real” job.” It’s about having a roommate you call “Brett” for six months before you find out his name is actually Brent. I can’t find the quote, but Flannery O’Connor said something along the lines of, ‘if someone asks what your story is about, tell him to read the story,’ which is exactly right. If you can actually tell me what a story is about then I don’t want to read it. I don’t need to read it.

Anyhow, I love the voice and really enjoyed this story. I could spend a lot more time with Eddie. Read some of “The Copy Chief” here and then buy the current issue of Zoetrope.

Joy Williams, “The Little Winter”

Screen-Shot-2012-02-13-at-8.39.04-PMGloria, a thirty-five-year-old woman dying of cancer, goes to visit her friend, Jean, and Jean’s strange daughter, and then sort-of kidnaps the girl.

(from Escapes)

There was something truly terrifying about girls on the verge of puberty, Gloria thought.

There is so much brilliance here, so many lines I would have marked if my copy weren’t hardcover and in such good condition. As I was reading this story, I kept checking to see how many pages I had left, wanting more and more. Anyhow, I loved this story so much until Gloria awakes in the middle of the night and then drives over to Jean’s house and actually takes off with her friend’s daughter, for no reason that I can discern. She doesn’t like this child, thinks she’s odd, and has spent the earlier part of the story wanting to be alone. At this point, the narrative zooms out, not letting us into Gloria’s head where we might see what she’s thinking, where we might get a feel for why she decides to do this and then keep doing it.

I want to rewrite “The Little Winter.” I don’t want Gloria to kidnap the kid or get a dog. I feel like a workshop class got ahold of it and kept asking the author, “But what makes this day different?” I would like to punch them all.

Despite these things, damn can Joy Williams write a sentence.

Kenneth Calhoun, “Primal Scenes”

M-TH60-SKA twelve-year-old boy moves with his family to Guadalajara after his father is caught having an affair with a student; sexy stuff and trouble ensues. 

(from Tin House 60, Summer 2014)

In America we weren’t allowed to roam the streets after the streetlights came on. But in Mexico, we discovered that our parents had relaxed their policies, for reasons we did not understand. There were streetlights in Mexico, too. Julian and I realized, after only a week in the neighborhood, that we could slip out of the apartment after dinner without being questioned or given a return time. We would rejoin the ongoing antics of the kids on the street–setting things alight, hunting rats in the ravine with slingshots.

I’ve never heard of Kenneth Calhoun before, though his bio tells me he has recently published a novel, Black Moon, which I will now have to read. I liked this story a lot. The voice of our twelve-year-old narrator is so certain and charming, and the details about living in Mexico feel very real. I love this: ”The apartment was new and looked very much how a Mexican-themed apartment in California would look. It had extremely hard wooden furniture that was painted bright colors. All the chair backs went up at exactly ninety-degree angles, making for a stiff sit.”

The story is basically about a boy exploring his sexuality at the same time that his philandering father is trying to right past wrongs, and not doing a terribly good job of it. The characters here are all very well drawn with the exception, perhaps, of the narrator’s younger brother Julian, who is presented rather one-dimensionally (“He was three years younger and liked to pretend he was a religious superhero called the Altar Boy.”) Nine-year-olds can be rather one-dimensional, though, and it didn’t bother me much.

Here’s an excerpt from Calhoun’s novel, which sounds really interesting, about a world overtaken by insomnia (I can relate as I’ve been waking up at three am for the past two weeks and can’t seem to break the cycle).

Tin House is damn good. I love their Lost & Found section and always find treasures to add to the list of books I have to read. Pick up the issue. Read Meg Freitag’s poems first and then begin at the beginning.

Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus”

CV1_TNY_06_23_14Booth.inddA man takes care of his little old dog while remembering past relationships.

(from The New Yorker, June 23, 2014)

I considered the dog, a blond female no bigger than a cat. She had long hair like whiskers over her eyes, so she seemed always to be raising her eyebrows. She sat down, as if she knew that would help her case. James is English and wanted to call her Cordelia, not for “Lear” but for an English novel. It was not the name I would have chosen, but it was not worth the argument. He did a ringmaster act with some toys—a knot of cloth, a ball, a round bed—to show me how good this would be. I had long associated terriers with the barking arts, but this one did not bark. She sniffed at the toys and the bed, waiting for my decision.

That description at the top is so stupid. But I’m tired. I only read this story to help me fall asleep, but it was too compelling for that, and I’m only writing this post now because that is what one does when one finishes reading a story. This is a sad little thing, with only a few sparks to make you feel something other than gorgeous hopelessness. Good for a reader. Bad for a sleeper.

Mavis Gallant, “When We Were Nearly Young”

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.03.59 AMAging youths scrape by in Madrid, waiting.

(from The New Yorker, Oct. 15, 1960)

I saw inside my eyelids at night the nine of clubs, which is an excellent card, and the ten of hearts, which is better, morally speaking, since it implies gain through effort.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.17.40 AMThe four young people around whom this story barely revolves — our passing-through narrator and three vaguely hopeless Spaniards — are not so much friends as similarly afflicted commiserators. The live near each other. They scrape up crappy meals together. They entertain each others’ delusions. The New Yorker‘s accompanying summary calls them “accidental friends,” united by poverty and the idea that money would soon be sent to rescue them. At the risk of sounding like Ben Rand, I did find myself wondering why these four felt so resigned to their poor prospects. “The Spaniards’ characteristic trait was a certain passiveness,” says the summary. Who wrote that, I wonder? Doesn’t matter. This story captures a specific kind of devoted twenty-something lethargy better than anything else I’ve ever read. I was nearly young once.

A friend had been trying to turn me onto Mavis Gallant but, after immersing myself in the moody suffering of Bolaño, I found no attraction to characters apparently concerned with affluent worry. Turns out I was digging in the wrong spot. Soon this story was printed for me and, finally, I believe I get it. Thank you for the recommendation, Pilar.

Roald Dahl, “The Sound Machine”

mcsweeneys-45A scientist named Klausner invents a machine that lets you hear sounds usually outside the range of human hearing.

(from McSweeney’s 45)

A flower probably didn’t feel pain. It felt something else which we didn’t know about — something called toin or spurl or plinuckment, or anything you like.

Things this hilarious, strange little story brought to mind:

1. A book Art Bell would occasionally pretend he bought into called The Secret Life of Plants. It was written by researchers who hooked plants up to polygraphs and found them to be somehow sentient. The plants were fearful of being cut and such. Needless to say, most scientists have a problem with the methodology, findings, etc. (P.S. There was a film version; Stevie Wonder did the soundtrack.)

2. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story called “Confido,” about a guy who invents a machine that tells you what you want to hear.

3. But moreso, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Thanasphere,” in which the first astronaut to leave Earth finds out space is the full of the disembodied souls of the dead, who keep talking to him over the radio.

Stevie+Wonder+-+Journey+Through+The+Secret+Life+Of+Plants+-+DOUBLE+LP-2854634. That line from The Simpsons: “I’m a level five vegan. I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow.” Klausner, after hearing flowers shriek upon being nipped by shears, theorizes that he’d never enjoy bread again if he used his machine while a wheat field was being harvested. Happily, he figures that apples are probably okay, since they fall off the tree naturally.

5. How there’s probably so much more Roald Dahl out there I haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve read all the kid stuff, but not nearly enough of his even-darker “Switch Bitch” adult material. I read “The Sound Machine” — first printed in the New Yorker in 1949 — in the Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven McSweeney’s compilation issue, but you can find it a bunch of places (like here). Several filmmakers have made adaptations of it, by the way.

miamisoundmachinediscopiano1980-510x506-7869296. How brilliant inventors in certain kinds of stories are always fatally or near-fatally eccentric. This dude’s “sound machine” (respect to Gloria Estefan) would be a huuuge deal. Total game-changer. Once humanity finds out that broccoli whimpers and trees scream, it’s gonna have a lot to think about. But Klausner’s such a pale, awkward spaz, he can barely express himself to his neighbors or the doctor he tries to demonstrate the machine to. Today’s productive geeks and nerds seem better able to express themselves.

7. The way Dahl builds tension. As soon as we hear what the machine is supposed to do, well, we knows it’s going to work. So, dammit, let’s turn the thing on! But no, first we gotta read about Klausner lugging the thing up the stairs, and trying to open the door without putting it down. Purposefully, slyly maddening. Sometimes you want to punch an author because the writing’s that good.