Monthly Archives: December 2004

Daphne Kalotay, "Serenade"

A slouching piano teacher inspires a kind of sexual tension among underused suburban mothers.

(from Calamity and Other Short Stories, which will be released by Doubleday on Jan. 18)

I’m of two minds on this one. Why? Well, I’ll admit this is petty, and probably just a phase: Stories of childhood as told by adults years later are a little… easy? Narrators get to comment with dry humor how they didn’t understand this baudy thing or that simple mature matter. The whimsy and cleverness of this device are lost on me, perhaps because I’ve never lost my ability to get into the mind of somebody who doesn’t quite get it. I can be ignorant at the drop of a pop top. It’s a gift.

That said, this story has some casually unique but believable moments and some

nice phrases that stick with you. Ones you wished you’re written. Pretty high compliment, if you ask me. Want an example?

He bore the slouch of someone perpetually waiting for a tow truck.

So much for the theory that hip-hop has cornered the market on the modern metaphor.

T.C. Boyle, "Stones in My Passway, Hellhound on My Trail"

Scenes from the brief, mostly unhappy life of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson.

(another one from Ann Charters’ The Story and the Writer: An introduction to short fiction — on loan from the Lori HIll Library)

Using chronological leaps and evocative sensual details, this story lets you piece together what made this mysterious guitar legend tick (and what made him stop ticking). Some of it reads like a history lesson, other parts come off like bar-room storytelling. Seems appropriate, given the unique clash of unreliable anecdotes and academic scrutiny Johnson’s life has inspired over the years.

The story is actually listed under the name “T. Coraghessan Boyle,” but the author, it seems, saw fit to shorten it somewhere along the way. Me too. I did it for brevity, given the impressive length of the story’s title. I wonder what Mr. Boyle‘s reasons were.

It’s a fact: This Short Story Project got restarted almost exclusively because I tried and failed, for the third time, to read Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began. It’s a great book — smartly, earnestly written and, obviously, historically invaluable — but I just don’t know how to read books anymore.

Susan Sontag, "The Way We Live Now"

A young man’s illness sends shockwaves of concern and conjecture through his circle of friends.

(from Ann Charters’ The Story and the Writer: An introduction to short fiction — on loan from the Lori HIll Library)

An amazing story, not just for its honest, insightful, sometimes witty portrayal of people dealing with crisis — but also for its unique and mesmerizing style. It’s written in sort of curvilinear tangents, propelling the story in the confusing, untrustworthy way that gossip conveys information. Hard to explain it any better than that without spending the next hour trying to transcribe one of these enormous sentences. Just know that not a single quotation mark appears in a story that is almost entirely dialogue.

(Know also that the copy I read was in a college sophomore’s English anthology, so sentences and phrases were occasionally underlined or offset by parentheses. Made the whole thing look a little like algebra. Which was a good thing. Reducing serpentine sentences to little graspable worms was an effective tool. Not that the author was shooting for clarity.)

It’s a fact: Since it was first published in the Nov. 24, 1986, issue of The New Yorker, “The Way We Live Now” has been praised as one of the first American stories about AIDS, although it never names the disease outright.

Susan Sontag died Tuesday at the age of 71. By all accounts she was an exceptional person. She wrote extensively on the subject of photography, but had no desire to own a camera. She battled cancer and won, at least for a long while. She wrote stories, novels, essays. I saw her speak once; I remember the way she ran her fingers through her silver streak before launching into a complicated theory on oh, let’s say,the inherent superiority of the image over the written word. I didn’t understand.

Anecdotes abound concerning the way she put the hammer down whenever, whereever, however she saw fit. This is from her obit:

“Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” she wrote in The New Yorker [Nov. 24, 2001].”In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.”

Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s that you have the morally neutral courage to say it.

And I’ll give her the last word, since she surely would have demanded it. She once said:

“There is only so much revealing one can do. For every self-revelation, there has to be a self-concealment. A life-long commitment to writing involves a balancing of these incompatible needs. But I do think that the model of writing as self-expression is much too crude. If I thought that what I’m doing when I write is expressing myself, I’d junk my typewriter. It wouldn’t be liveable-with. Writing is a much more complicated activity than that.”

Louise Erdrich, "Disaster Stamps Of Pluto"

An amateur historian (and retired doctor) pieces together the extent to which she is tangled up in the bloody, peculiar history of her tiny North Dakota town.

(from The New Yorker, Dec. 13, 2004)

I love neatly arranged, atypically told stories like this, where some tiny details lay dormant while others turn out to be clues. I should like to read some more by this author.

Guess what? I found a place you can read the story online. It’s right here. I found it by Googling the unlikely name of a bit character, Murdo Harp.

Tim O’Brien, "What Went Wrong"

David lost his leg (and a little bit of his sanity) back in ‘Nam. Marla is a nurse who doesn’t care about much. Anybody else smell a doomed marriage? Let’s get these loveable lovebirds together.

(from The O. Henry Prize Stories, 2003)

Not a bad story. Nicely cinematic moments. But. Ok. Listen.

No, you don’t need to like the characters to like the story, but you do need to believe in them. Cliché is a funny thing. Once you’ve heard about a true thing enough times you recognize it as an archetype. Then you start disbelieving in it when you come across it again. Why? Maybe because it’s funny how banal it is. Maybe it’s because you’ve lost sight of its original kernel of truth. Two key elements — David’s hallucinations/flashbacks and the concept of the cold, civil marriage — are are so familiar that I didn’t care much.

Know what cracked me up a little bit? In the back of these best-of-the-year short story compilations (and other kinds) there’s often a place for the author to discuss/explain/give the background on his/her story. O’Brien’s opens all huffy with “Stories must speak for themselves,” but then goes on for like a half page begrudgingly commenting and explaining and on and on and yawn. Better still, he ends with this: “What went wrong, perhaps, is that these two unhappy souls were born human.”

This guy, am I right, people?

Amanda Eyre Ward, "Should I Be Scared?"

A woman contemplates motherhood and the purchase of Cipro.

(from Pindeldyboz #3)

This story captures a little bit of those crazy, post-9/11 days of paranoia and misinformation, but on a confused, personal level (the way most of us experienced them). It’s also got one of those ‘no you dittin’ endings, but I’m not sure if I’m saying that to the character or the author.

Curiously, the story features the phrase “War On Terrorism” when the more common, presidentially-mandated “War On Terror” would have been pretty effective. Wow, is that nitpicky.

I had never heard of Amanda Eyre Ward. I believe I would like to read more. I found this apparent homepage. On her “About Amanda” page, she says:

“Maybe, for a writer, one life isn’t enough. Each story I write is a shadow life,

running like a river beside my own. In my fiction, I commit murder,

live in a strange house filled with items that don’t belong to me, board the

midnight bus to New Orleans.

Sometimes it is my waking life that seems like a dream.”

I’m guessing her friends say ‘no you dittin’ to her sometimes.

I’m going to try to read a new short story every day.

And I will log them all on this page.

I will try not to read the same author twice, but I’m making no promises. I love some authors (like Alice Munro) and cannot be expected to forsake them because of some project — especially when i make the rules. More rules: Some stories will be really short, because I just want to get one read. Some stories will be ones I have read before, possibly while in school.

This will be my second attempt at such an endeavor. My first attempt lasted a couple months. Then some big work projects and a change of apartments finally got the best of me. (My favorite, as I recall, was the one by Wells Tower.) Here is the catalogue of those days:


Pam Houston

The Best Girlfriend You Never Had


Aimee Bender

Call My Name


George Saunders

Sea Oak


Ben Greenman

Ill in ‘99


Wells Tower

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned


Dave Eggers

Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly


Kate Braverman

Histories of the Undead


Nick Hornby

Otherwise Pandemonium


Heidi Julavits

Marry the One Who Gets There First


Jhumpa Lahiri

When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine


John Cheever

The Swimmer


Robert Boswell

Living To Be A Hundred


Mark Richard



James Joyce

The Dead


Rachel Seiffert

Francis John Jones, 1924-


Joanna Scott

X Number of Possibilities


A.S. Byatt

The Thing In The Forest


Sherman Alexie

Ghost Dance


Lydia Davis

The Old Dictionary


Ernest Hemingway

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber


Zadie Smith

The Girl With Bangs


A.M. Homes

Do Not Disturb


Edith Pearlman

The Story


Robyn Joy Leff

Burn Your Maps


Haruki Murakami



Jonathan Lethem

K Is For Fake


Robert Lennon



Amy Bloom

Silver Water


Joyce Carol Oates

Is Laughter Contagious?


William Gay

The Paperhanger


Shelia Heti

The Princess and the Plumber


Jim Shepard

Mars Attacks


Lorrie Moore

Community Life


Julian Barnes

The Things You Know


J.D. Sallinger

For Esmé — With Love And Squalor


Gabe Hudson

The Size Of My Heart


Annick Smith

It’s come to this


Tobias Wolff



Edgar Allen Poe

The Tell-Tale Heart


Guy de Maupassant

The Jewels


Anton Chekhov



Henry James

The Tree of Knowledge


Denis Johnson



David Foster Wallace

Forever Overhead


Alice Adams

The Last Lovely City


D.H. Lawrence

The Rocking-Horse Winner


Sherwood Williams



Stephen Vincent Benét

The Devil and Daniel Webster


Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Ambitious Guest


O. Henry

The Furnished Room


Joseph Conrad



Frank O’Connor



Shirley Jackson

The Lottery


Bruce Holland Rogers

The Dead Boy At Your Window


Mark Twain

Edward Mills and George Benton: A Tale


Varlam Shalamov

In The Night


Heinrich Von Kleist

The Beggarwoman of Locarno


Yukio Mishima

Swaddling Clothes


Gabriel García Marquez

Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers


Giovanni Verga

The Wolf


Heinrich Böll

The Laugher


I.L. Peretz

If Not Higher


Mikhail Zoschenko

The Bathhouse


Dan Pope



Raymond Carver

Why Don’t You Dance?


A.E. Van Vogt

Ship of Darkness


Lydia Peele



Guy Vanderhaeghe

Live Large


Steve Delahoyde

Spacious and Empty


Joy Williams

Honored Guest


Luigi Pirandello

The Soft Touch of Grass


J. Glenn Peterson



Alice Munro



Paul Auster

The Brooklyn Follies


Steve Featherstone

The Garden of Eden



And that was that, then.