Monthly Archives: April 2005

Lisa Glatt, "The Study of Lightning Injury"

Mack can’t get over the time Cooper confessed being in love with his wife and then they were both struck by lightning.

(from The Apple’s Bruise)

An interesting story about coping, or trauma, things like that. The description above might make this sound like some sort of farce, but the story’s rooted pretty much in the real, or a realistic version of the real. And, like real life, there’s no solution, or conclusion, and it made me a little disappointed. But that’s not fair and I know it.
The story also freaked me out a little because it contained brief plot elements, or hints at elements, that figure into something I wrote a couple years ago but only showed a couple people.

David Eggers, "Where Were We"

Two guys set out on a worldwide trip to give away money.

(from The New Yorker, Aug. 12, 2002)

Pretty early on I found the plot familiar. I sensed that I’d read or heard about it, that Eggers himself read a bit of something like it aloud at the TLA a couple years ago. A light horror, like a damp breeze, wafted over me. I wasn’t reading a short story, but an excerpt from a novel. Though it doesn’t label it at such anywhere within the pages of this old New Yorker I found sitting in a milkcrate on my bedroom floor — an issue I first took an interest in because of an enormous article on They Might Be Giants — “Where Were We” is either an excerpt, or a detail, or an encapsulation, or whatever, of Eggers’ by now well-known novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity.
This was a good short story. There was a conscious decision, it seems, to swerve away from the maudlin, to duck parabolic, to evade any semblance of a moral. Will and Hand are on a mission but besides that are neither defined nor empowered by purpose. Whew. The last thing we need in a story about a couple of white guys traveling around giving money to the browner peoples of the earth is some holy depth. A crash-course journey like this will be plenty life-changing without getting all heavy-handed about particular life lessons. These guys are, not idiots, but they’re not great thinkers or doers. They’re regulars, as least as I see them. They are peripheral henchmen mourning the loss of Jack, the actual protagonist in their life. This story is earnest and fun, good attributes for an adventure story.
I didn’t find the actual story online anywhere. Here‘s a Q&A with Eggers about it.

Ludmila Ulitskaya, "The Orlov-Sokolovs"

The rise and fall of the perfect couple.

(from The New Yorker, April 18, 2005)

It’s the ’60s in Russia, and a hot ex-gymnast hooks up with a hot ex-boxer. They are alike in so many ways, from their family situations to their worldviews to their goals. And both are — in their own minds and in that of the parabolic narrator who dissects them with warm, scientific language — defined more by their actions than their thoughts. From the beginning, they are set aside from the real world, fated to be together, but it’s only romantic in one sense.
I wish to insert for you, some pretty passages. Here’s the first couple lines:

At first glance, they didn’t make much of an impression.
Both seemed rather small, they weren’t particularly striking,
and they were so taken with each other that they had no
time for the rest of the world. A second glance, however,
told you that they were kingpins, and after that it was
impossible to recall the impression they had made at first.

Here’s another I like:

They didn’t know how lucky they were. They had everything
they could wish for—powerful athletic bodies, quick
reactions, rigorous brains, and the self-confidence of
winners who have never suffered so much as a scratch.
They had retired from their sports just as they were
approaching their limits, one step ahead of inevitable defeat.

Read the whole thing

This story took me places and made me care about characters who are always a little chilly, but always kinda sorta endearing. Why’d their love fall apart, besides the fact that that happens all the time? Who can say? Who? Maybe it’s for the best. Happens all the time. Maybe Jack and Brenda met up, got married, and settled down in the country. Maybe Diane and Eddie share a loft together in the city. None forgot their first loves, or the songs that were sung about them, but life doesn’t stay lyrical for long. Ooh yeah life goes on. Bottle of red bottle of white. They’ll need a crane.

Helen Simpson, "Millennium Blues"

Good old fin de siecle paranoia laid bare and played for fear and comedy. I mean, there’s a character named Cassandra — why won’t anybody heed her ambiguous predictions of doom?

(from Getting A Life)

Boy when you lay it allout like that, how the hell did we survive Y2K? Besides being a sharp and clever sorta-story, “Millenium Blues” was a nostalgia trip. You may figure the current trend of American paranoia began with 9/11, but if you think about it, it was the turn of the century that first had us stockpiling canned beets and backing up our files.
“There will be a tidal wave of computer crashes. It’ll be the El Niño of I.T.”
Good stuff.

Robert McCarthy, "In Gavin Slough"

Two old friends reunite when one drives his car off the road and onto the muddy, disgusting property of the other.

(from Zoetrope All-Story, Spring 2005)

What this story mostly has going for it is setting. The murky, muddy, mosquito-riffic slough is described in great detail and furious persistence. We know it to be frequented by runaway dogs, enormous fish and numerous other slimy things all of which are lined up to make one thing clear: You do not want to ever go there. Yet Ed Brain lives there, thanks to unhappy accidents and dipping standards. A lot of the language, even when it’s feverishly working to inspire disgust, is quite beautiful:
“…Higgy’s gulps were like coins in a wishing well.”
“…a foam that released an odor of things dying and being born.”
“On these nights Ed Brain breathed the dank rot of Gavin Slough and tasted the tang on the air between his corrugated iron walls and felt only one thing with any clarity: that he had fallen headlong into the deepest, darkest ditch he could ever have imagined.”
Overall: The plot was okay, the dialogue wasn’t bad, the pace was too slow at times. Mostly clever, sickeningly sensual. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Here‘s where you can read the beginning of the story.

Dana Johnson, "Hot Pepper"

Talking back to mean ol’ Uncle Smiley will only get you thrown out the house, and it won’t stop the jump rope for too long.

(from Break Any Woman Down)

Cleverly told and charming in its observations, this story feels like one of those remember-the-time bits of nostalgia the way a child likes to tell them. Short on facts, heavy on description and scattershot in detail. A good read. Not an uplifting adventure, but most short stories aren’t. I can read that Steve Almond story everyday. A web site like that has even less appeal.

* * *

I didn’t read a short story yesterday because my poor laptop — homebase for I Read A Short Story Today, battle-scarred, trackpad-busted, broken-speakered, shift key-missing, memory-tapped, warranty-expired, battery-soft, debt-causing, sometimes-crashing, heavy-as-hell, dissected, rebuilt, bulky, dirty, scratched up and worn down outlet for everything I’ve wanted to write in the last three years — finally gave up the ghost. Or became a zombie. Whatever you call it when the screen conks out.
I’m thinking of selling t-shirts, an idea I always liked, to make some money to buy a replacement. Green. Pale green? This on the front: I read a short story today. No dot com. Nothing on the back. Just words. If I could keep the price around $10 or $12, would anybody buy one? I need a plan.

Steve Almond, "Geek Player, Love Slayer"

She’s so confused she’s falling for the hot, fratty tech guy.

(from My Life In Heavy Metal)

Amazing. Just. Amazing. Yesterday I read some pretentious, needy Burroughs bullshit so thick and empty I actually considered giving up reading for awhile. I mean, this whole story-a-day thing was just a whim anyway, right? Then this story. The writing was truthful and cinematic, the pace was somehow contemplative and swift, and the world looked sorta sensible for a second there. Not because Almond gives a damn about creating a linear, organized, understandable reality, but because he told a kind of truth about people. Does that make sense? It spoke to me.
Let’s talk about chick lit just for a second. I don’t believe I’ve ever read any — are there chick lit short stories? — but from what I gather, this story qualifies. The smart, witty female narrator admits human weakness while maintaining friendships, working a cool job, making shrewd social commentary and looking almost-hopelessly for love. I know Steve Almond is a man and all.
I’ve read some Almond before. I was inclined to pick up this book again because I I’ve been checking out the Jonathan Safran Foer Literary Review Snowball Fight for a week or so now, and I thought Almond’s explanation of his negative review (look how weird that snowball fight has gotten) was decisive without disregarding Foer’s dignity or reducing him, and I was reminded of how much I enjoy the humanity with which Almond treats his characters. And suddenly, after Burroughs left me frustrated and speechless, I was in the mood for something not so much kind as real. You can read that Almond piece here.
Boy did I ramble. But. I feel no obligation to make sense on my own web site.

Shalom Auslander, "Heimish Knows All"

The dog is disgusted by young Shlomo’s newfound interest in pleasuring himself.

(from Beware of God)

Although Auslander’s still kinda smug and stand-uppy, he uses repetition less like a crutch and more like a comforting literary device in this one. Also, he’s just tons funnier and more humane toward his characters. Still, I never felt like I was reading anything more than a book of silly stories and quips, informed by some rather interesting vignettes of Jewish perspective. Perhaps the tiny-ness of the book (4×6 inches, I think) lends itself to my disregarding this as a humorous trifle.

But I also read:
“Holocaust Tips For Kids”
Not really a short story in the conventionally accepted way, but quite effective at stirring up emotion. It’s a scary, heartwarming, scary again series of facts written down by a kid worried about being ready for a new holocaust, should one happen. You think, aw poor kid, he’s too young to know better. But seeds of uncertainty are planted throughout thanks to encyclopedia/trivia-style passages as to who didn’t help and who didn’t believe there was a problem during the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism throughout the years. Makes you think of the current state of affairs in this country, where huge groups of people are actually opposed to the separation of church and state. Maybe we are still so stupid, as a civilization, that something this horrible can happen again. Does that make sense? So, this was not a plot-driven character-driven story, but it was by far the most effective Auslander piece I’ve come across so far. When he turns it on (and turns off the schtick), he can be pretty impressive.