Monthly Archives: February 2005

Daniel Handler, "Delmonico"

Could a smart bartender help a rich bastard figure out what happened to his wife? Would she?

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Secrets)

A smart, neat story. A mystery! I sorta solved it before the final pages, but there were still twists and bits of beauty to make it worthwhile to the very end. The matter-of-fact language and tightly drawn characters make you, the reader, feel like you are in careful hands. Indeed, as it should be in any good mystery!, the author has it all under control. Well played, Mr. Snicket.

Roddy Doyle, "The Child"

A man is haunted by a reappearing phantom child.

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories)

Is it a real child, or a ghost, or is the man just crazy? He’s crazy. This story starts out like an Edger Allen Poe descent into madness thing and then gets sort of dull and repetitive.
And the end. I like introvert goth types. Good people. Dreamers. But I don’t want to read their unilayered do-I-scare-you mindfuck short stories. This story made me sleepy and distractable. Just 14 pages long and it took me two days to finish it.

Laura Distelheim, "On Leaving Normal Behind"

Everybody thinks its psychosomatic when the young woman begins to complain of stomach pain and lose weight.

(from The Iowa Review, Volume 34, Number 3)

A heart-breaking and poetically told story. The narrator’s constant pain, coupled with the condescension all the supposed experts, makes her an excellent protagonist. Some of the language — “a charcoal sky bruised with November” — is wonderfully harsh and memorable.
But. See. There is a crazy, bullshitty final paragraph, one offset by white space and the common practice of placing three stars in the middle to indicate a cosmic shift. Whatever. Don’t let it get you down, this story is mostly excellent, if utterly un-uplifting.

* * *

I’ve been at this Short Story Project for a little while now, and it’s time I started identifying some of the usual suspects I’ve encountered in my adventures. I mean no harm by this.

“On Leaving Normal Behind” is an Illness Story. One can recognize this genre by the following characters: doctors who are wrong, patients who are misunderstood, loved ones who are helpless and friends who have no idea what to say or do for the sick person. One can also expect scenes of despair, flashes false hope, desire to turn back time and moments where the sick person encounters somebody who has it a little bit worse. There will also be a fellow patient in a nearby room who moans, wails, or otherwise refuses to go gently in to that good night. It’s just like real life, mind you.

Julie Orringer, "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones"

Esty and Rebecca try to reconcile their newfound interest in sex with their strict faith.

(from The Best American Nonrequired Reading, 2004)

The intricate beliefs and system of rules by which Esty’s Orthodox family try to live are appropriately enthralling and befuddling for the young people in this story. This goes double for this lapsed Catholic reader. More to the point, the scary and occasionally humorous struggle with sin experienced by these characters is universal.
This story is sharp and engrossing. Careful attention is paid to the senses, which makes for a slowly-paced but heightened read. And the parts where Rebecca talks to her sick mother on the phone are expertly awkward.

Couldn’t find a homepage for this author, but look, how weird, you can open Julie Orringer’s “virtual notebooks.” That page promises a sneak peek into the writing and rewriting process of an author who swears that multiple drafts can eventually lead to a good story.

Thank you for reading my virtual notebook.

Roy Kesey, "Instituto"

A mysterious company makes improvements on Stanley’s least important imperfections.

(from The Iowa Review, Volume 34, Number 3)

An interesting and possibly pointless story. Definitely a worthwhile read, but its ultimate goals escape me.

Arthur Miller, "The Performance"

A small-time tapdancer is called to perform for Hitler.

(from The New Yorker, April 22, 2002)

The narrator is a man who remembers being told a story in a drug store 50 years ago. Sometimes, this feels like a magazine article, albeit an atypical one. Something about the layers of anecdotes and comments (be it when the events occurred, when they were told, when they were later recalled) gives this an aura of whimsy and truth. As the story-within-the-story gets older, it loses warmth and becomes black and white. “The Performance” basks in the un-pessimistic confusion of those primitive, pre-WWII times, when tapdancing was entertaining and Nazi Germany wasn’t completely understood. A crazy, humane story about crazy, inhumane times.

Arthur Miller, best known as a playwright, died today. To my knowledge, this is the first work of his I’ve ever read.
Edward Albee said this in an AP story: “About a year ago, Arthur Miller paid me a great compliment. He said that my plays were necessary. I will go one step further and say that Arthur’s plays are essential. Arthur and I marched together several times to protest repressive governments. His work teaches us a lot about how to fight evil.”

I believe this rings true of “The Performance.” It’s the story of a silly man who suddenly stares evil in the face, and, at least in hindsight, realizes the evil was a human being. That Nazi Germany, with its sickeningly clean streets and practiced phrenology, was made of people misled by themselves and others. They weren’t monsters. They were people. Evil is people.

Read the story here.

Heidi Julavits, "The Miniaturist"

A dangerous drive on a snowy mountain path strands two sisters in a strange cabin.

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories)

Partly this feels like a parody of those spooky, teen horror, Christopher Pike stories and novels I never really read. Lots of silly symbols and horror tricks, all written in an over-explaining and uncomplex style. Partly this isn’t a parody at all. The suspense and spookiness made me put it down in the wee hours of the evening, lest they become the wee hours of the bed.
It’s a little funny, and definitely scary at times. So, it’s a success on both counts.

Jason Roberts, "7C"

An astronomer loosens his grip on reality when a mysterious scar appears on the side of his face.

(from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories)

What a crazy-ass story. A catchy mix of science, science fiction and good ol’ fashion psycho drama (not just, you know, psychodrama). This story has that moment you see in horror films where the protagonist sort of figures out the rules of the game (“Why is this happening?!” “It’s the anniversary of this horrible thing what happened!”/”We trampled on its sacred lair or perhaps burial ground.”/”‘Tis our hubris!”), but it’s flavored with deep, beautiful helplessness. A unique and screwed up story.

According to an italicized preface, this story “is the winner of the first August Van Zorn Prize for the Weird Short Story.” I am glad such a prize exists.

Learn more about the author here, and check out the thing John Steinbeck said once.

John Cheever, "The Enormous Radio"

A married couple’s new radio tunes into the private lives of everybody else in their building.

(from Vintage Cheever, on loan from the Lori Hill Library)

I like the ’50s-’60s-ish sci-fi vibe of this story, with its post-war ideals and cool B-movie plot device. The end, while it’s a bit melodramatic, drives home the otherwise understated theme of the growing distances between people as society becomes more modern. Other peoples’ problems become entertainment, and, for Irene, it’s the only thing she can do, as she is trapped in the apartment all day. Neat, smartypants stuff.

They had some cocktails and went in to dinner to the ‘Anvil Chorus’ form Il Trovatore.”

Anybody else think it’s weird when you find a typo in a book? I understand typos; I make so many every day. I’m quiet good at it. Typos on blogs? Of course. In newspapers? Used to it. But books? That typo will sit on the shelf until you and the book return to the soil. How did it happen? It wasn’t in the original, which means, what, that somebody had to type in this story? Like by hand? I appreciate the effort. I been there. It has humanized the process.

Peter Vaeth, "The Amazing Choir"

Father promises a fun surprise! But if it’s not a circus, what are they waiting in the mud and rain to see?

(from Pindeldyboz, issue 4)

I’ll tell you what they are waiting to see. A not so amazing choir. Yawn. A few paragraphs in, I no longer cared about this story. I wished to be free of its simplified characters. I longed to sprint from its trudging pace. Yet I kept reading. Why? Well, for one thing, I read short stories. It’s what I do, here. Also, I knew there weren’t too many pages to go. Lastly, for whatever it’s worth, I really wanted to know what the stupid surprise was. Short of a fucking ninja rhinoceros, I knew it wouldn’t bail out the preceding pages. But, I figured there was no way it would be a choir, because, like, it’s the title. But yep. There’s the choir and, here’s a spoiler: All the father-son teams are gathered there to throw fruit at the singers.

“The Amazing Choir” is
The Lottery” as presented by Nerf.

Hey, look at this. The same author once did a poem about clowns. Peter Vaeth and I are very, very different people.