Monthly Archives: March 2005

Hallgrímur Helgason, "America"

Aldabjörg doesn’t want to go to America with her dimwit brothers. How many children must she promise to bear in order to stay in Iceland?

(from McSweeney‘s Number 15)

A strange, short story. Reads almost like a scene from Northern Exposure, the way real live people are portrayed as absurd, one-dimensional almost-people, just for the purposes of being weird or living out a joke. But you believe it a little because you see where they’re coming from. Good fun.

Amy Hempel, “Beach House”

Listening in on the summer renters next door.

(from The Dog of The Marriage)

This is a very short story. Three pages short. But it gets great mileage. I’m at a loss to go into great detail. It took me something like ten minutes to read this and I’ll gladly lend the book to whoever wants it. For a half hour. I’ll need this back at some point.

Patrick Ryan, "So Much for Artemis"

Dad’s plan to rejuvenate the lawn by dumping sand on it cuts back on the amount of time Frankie gets to spend with Jennifer.

(from One Story, issue number 53)

On one level, this is the story of a boy learning that his siblings are right about dad; he’s kind of a loser. I mean, you feel bad for him. Maybe he’s a good guy on a bad streak. You want grass to start popping up from the sand, but it won’t happen. The hits just keep on coming. This is also a story of a kid learning about disease and independence, and those parts are expertly arranged through the filter of a kid’s limited understanding. A memorable and fun read.
There’s an interview with Patrick Ryan here. It should be noted that once in a while at work I receive mail addressed to Patrick Ryan, because people can’t remember my name and they figure, hey, close enough. I figured I’d give you a link to Mr. Ryan’s site, to direct some of my formidable web traffic his way. Least I can do since I’ve been rifling through his mail the last few years. Couldn’t find a homepage, mostly because there seem to be a lot of Patrick Ryans out there. Or maybe there’s only one, and the rest are typos.

Roald Dahl, "The Way Up to Heaven"

Something’s gotta give in this passive aggressive rich couple’s relationship.

(from The Best of Roald Dahl)

Did you know that Roald Dahl, author of BFG and James and the Giant Peach and The Witches and so on, was also the author of several made-for-adults stories and books? I did, because I wrote a report on him in eighth grade and looked up all the books I’d never seen in the children’s section of the Collingswood Public Library. I didn’t think those books were too interesting back then, but maybe it’s time I did some catching up. If I liked his kid stuff so much when I was a kid, maybe I’ll like his grown-up stuff now that I’m a grown up.
I certainly liked this story. The pace was very familiar, building you up with the appearance of normalcy before dropping something twisted on your head. Of course, there’s plenty to laugh at in the normalcy bits, too. I look forward to opening this book again soon.

Suzy Spraker, "Dead In Places"

A college student and her older employer from the candle store talk about love on a winter’s afternoon.

(from Fiction, vol. 19, Number 1)

A funny, sad little story of an unlikely fling between a woman who is still clinging to her optimistic notions of love and life, and a man who, like the rest of us presumably, has been drained of all that enthusiasm. If you look at this story a certain way, you could presume soulness negativity is something men introduced and perpetuated. But it’s kind of a small sample size to make that kind of conclusion. A thoughtful story disguised as a lazy post-coital afternoon for a round hole and a square peg.
Here‘s another story by Suzy Spraker.

Russell Banks, "Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story"

A handsome man takes up with a homely woman.

(from The Angel on the Roof)

The perspective shifts from first person to third and back because, the narrator explains, a sense of distance may help him understand the events he’s recounting. It’s something of a meta/experimental method, but it comes off like an eccentric storyteller’s attempt to get to the bottom of his own motives. It’s not a jarring sea change when it happens. There’s a casual tone to what might otherwise come off as pretentious. Here’s an excerpt:

Here is the scene. You can put it in the present, even though it took place ten years ago,
because nothing that matters to the story depends on when it took place,
and you can put it in Concord, New Hampshire, even though that is indeed
where it took place, because it doesn’t matter where it took place,
so it might as well be Concord, New Hampshire,
a place I happen to know well and can therefore describe
with sufficient detail to make the story believable.

Read the whole story here.

It’s the official web site of Lisa Glatt, author of A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, a novel I have seen often, but not read (because, you know, it’s a novel). Elsewhere on her site she suggests, as if to a class, and she does teach:
Read Russell Banks’ short story ‘Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story’ and begin your own piece about an unlikely pair. Notice how Banks’ builds tension in the story, patiently, scene by scene. Try that. Don’t just ‘introduce’ your characters but have them meet up again, either at the same place or elsewhere. Notice how this alone moves your story or poem forward.”
Made me miss the classroom setting, and the writing excercises I shoulda have spent more time on. Cue nostalgic Pavement song. “Shady Lane,” maybe.

This story came recommended by reader Edan Lepucki, who suggested many other stories I’ll get to at some point. I think that’s the end of Recommendation Week. A day early, but I haven’t come across any of the other story suggested to me, and I have some recent purchases burning holes in my backpack. Read that sentence and begin your own convoluted metaphor.

Dean Paschal, "Moriya"

A boy becomes enthralled by a mechanical girl.

(from The Best American Short Stories 2003)

On one level you’ve got this mechanical-minded kid and what seems to be the strangest most complicated machine he’s ever come across. On another, fairly overt, English majory level, you’ve got a robot girl who’s a metaphor for actual women. Level A works pretty well as an independent dimension, some kinda freaky, mysterious sci-fi plane of existence. Level B, while not too cunning a literary invention, makes the story a big, creepy psychodrama. The curious writing style — no quotations marks, a hovering, omniscient narrator, events hinted at before they happen — adds to the tension and heightens the experience. A fun, spooky, sometimes uncomfortable, occasionally gross, often surprising read.

This story was recommended by reader Dan Wickett, of Michigan.

I bought The Best American Short Stories 2003 today at Borders, along with McSweeney’s Number 15 (which is old) and Fiction Vol. 19, Number 1. I first looked for used copies of BASS 2003 at Book Trader (nope), Big Jar (closed, mysteriously) and Robin’s (not that I saw). I was at Robin’s to watch the winners of City Paper‘s fiction contest winners read their works, including David J. Snyder’s whose story I read on March 17.
When I got home, I found I’d received my next issue of One Story. Yesterday I went to a new bookstore on Fourth Street called Junco and Grouse. Nice place. Small. Blugrass on the radio. I bought a collection called The Moderns, edited by LeRoi Jones (featuring Kerouac, Eastlake, Burroughs) and The Best of Roald Dahl, because it’s time I read his adult stuff.
Currently, I own enough unread stories to extend this blog into the world of tomorrow, and beyond. Years, maybe. Gotta stop buying.

Richard Russo, "The Whore’s Child"

An old nun attends a college creative writing course and workshops her memoirs.

(from Harper’s Magazine, February, 1998)

A sharp, bitter story within a warmer, sharper one. This is an excellent, fast-paced read that sets its scenes with modest detail and multi-dimensional characters. The language isn’t beautiful, and the subject matter is unromanticized. That said, the tone is inviting and the ending is satisfying. There are also some telling peeks into the short story workshopping process I enjoyed quite a bit.
I found the story here, but I don’t recommend you follow the link. This version was speckled with typos that, surely, the copy editors at Harper’s corrected before it went to press. Given that all the typos would slip through spellcheck (“car” instead of “ear,” “bit” instead of “but”), one would guess somebody actually re-typed this story. But, why? Who would take the trouble to bootleg a short story? Makes the reading experience a bit cumbersome, but an uplifting thought.

This story came recommended by reader Rebecca Tolley-Stokes. Thank you, Rebecca!

Haruki Murakami, "Ice Man"

A woman falls in love with an ice man.

(from The New Yorker, Feb. 10, 2003)

This story, it occurs to me, is a lot like life, in that it is a tale told by an idiot. But seriously, what the hell? This one was so silly and overdone, I couldn’t help but think the author, generally an excellent writer from what I’ve seen, was just messing around. Stream-of-consciousness noodling on Murakami’s part. An experiment he never should have handed in. A wandering non-story with some pretty moments.
Everything about this ice man turned out to be a metaphor for more ice. The white patches in his hair? Like pockets of unmelted snow. His cheekbones? Like frozen stone. His fingers? frosted at the tips. Also, he sat as quiet as the winter scene outside the window and his stare was like a pointy icicle. So? Like? He’s? Some kinda an ice man?
Too bad he couldn’t crap out a snowcone. Make yourself useful, ice man.
Something about the tone reminded me of this classic story from one of my all-time favorite websites,

The link from which I printed “Ice Man” no longer seems to be working. But do some Googling and you’ll find the cached version.

Day Three of Recommendation Week. This one came endorsed by reader Stephen Schenkenberg, who told me “Ice Man” was extraordinary. That it was.

Charles D’Ambrosio, "Up North"

Daly joins his girlfriend and her family in their wintry hunting cabin.

(from The New Yorker, Feb. 14, 2005)

This story was very good at making me uncomfortable. Not squirmy, just apprehensive. The hunting, the suspicions of a rapist in the midst, the infidelity, etc. Off-putting.
And aha, you say, this story has accomplished something! It has instilled in the reader an intense response. Success. No, that’s not it. Simply evoking a reaction from me is not so hard. Slap me, hit me in the shin with a vacuum cleaner, sneak cheese into my scrambled eggs. I’ll react.
“Up North” inspired discomfort, but the sharp descriptions of people and settings made me turn the pages for more punishment. It also helps that he lets the reader deal with the freaky bits without analyzing them too much. It’s not mind-blowing, but it’s a good read. You will find it here.

It’s the second day of Recommendation Week. This story’s value was hinted at in a letter from reader Leigh Newman. Yes, the very same Leigh Newman whose story I read March 1, 2005. Awesome.