Monthly Archives: June 2005

Claudia Smith, "The House I Left Behind"

All the things that go on in the house she grew up in.

(from the web)

It’s not so much a story as a colelctions of ponderings and images. Some of them are grim and stimulating (oh those poor rats) some are nostalgic. It’s pretty sharp that way. I didn’t care a whole lot for the skipping style, the way the narrator wordy overexplained things, and some of the moodiness was a little heavy-handed. Just a matter of taste, that. This is a short one, and in that way it seems to accomplish a lot of senses-piquing in short order. Nicely done.
Claudia Smith herself sent me the link to this story, and I thank her very much. Here‘s the author’s site. Here‘s a direct link to the story.

Nancy Reisman, “Tea”

The short, unhappy affair of Lillian and Abe.

(from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2005)

Set in 1929, the days of chocolates and tea and social no-no’s, this story mixes the quaint and antiquated with some pretty ribald passages. At times, I must admit, I found it a little boring. But there were also smart and intriguing little moments. I mostly enjoyed the gradual changes Lillian goes through, turning her dreams of cocks and such into ones of a fantasy home and domestic bliss.

Roddy Doyle, "Home To Harlem"

A black Irish college students goes to New York City under the auspices of studying a link between Irish literature and the Harlem Renaissance, but really he’s looking for his grandfather.

(from McSweeney’s, #16)

There’s something distinctly cinematic about this story. It’s not just the way scenes are spliced together in a way that momentarily confuses and then pleases your internal compass. It’s also the simplicity of the story’s grander gestures. Like when Declan goes to Ellis Island. It’s overt in its intentions. It’s honest about its desired influence on the reader. It’s also, to a small degree, corny in its sentimentality and unashamed about it. It has a neat little halyard knot at the end. (And yes, I just Googled “types of knots” to come up with halyard. We should always be learning.)
I also want to say that this character was so subtly and warmly revealed. Nice.
Couldn’t sleep, so I read. Oh man I have so much work to do tomorrow, too. Now this story has woken me up. So much better than that horrorble story Roddy Doyle had in the Enchanted Chamber.

Now all that’s left in McSweeney’s issue 16 is the Ann Beattie novella (which isn’t a short story so what do I do?) and the comb (which, have you seen my hair?). I kinda want to be the first person ever to read a whole issue of McSweeney’s. That’s my patented brand of optimism mixed with cyncism, topped with a growing need for a time machine. Oh man, the things I’d do with a time machine.

Hannah Pittard, "There Is No Real Name For Where We Live"

Things get a little more fucked up in a fucked up little trailer park when a dog turns up dead and hanging from the big tree in the center.

(from McSweeney’s, #16)

Excellent story. There was an unwavering sense of hopelessness and dread that made me feel so bad for the characters, or most of them. You sort of buy into their implied worldview, that there’s no escaping the perfect circle of their nameless trailer park. What a mood. Felt good to be in such an ugly place.
Here’s a moment:
I can tell Tessa isn’t the same girl anymore, the way you can tell the last car in a funeral procession from the first of the cars that aren’t.
Moonie calls an official meeting after the police finally leave, like we’re some high-school club.
No, I’m not going to make Hannah Pittard fight Hannah Tinti.

Cynthia G. Mason, “Surprise, AZ”

Bernardo Atxaga, "Pirpo and Chamberlán, Murderers"

Two guys in the time of the Spanish Civil War plot an elaborate murder/robbery.

(from The Paris Review, issue 173)

The running gag, if you can call it a gag, is that these guys believe they have carte blanch but it’s sorta tragic that they don’t know the phrase “carte blanche.” All they know is they are in charge of their own destinies during a nearly free and slightly lawless time. They are seemingly unhindered by morals and obstacles, and their brutal crimes are equated to a peculiar circus. A short and enjoyable read, with a fun, freaky outlook and a solid, satisfying end.
The mood wasn’t the same, but it still made me think of “Smith and Jones” by The Silver Jews, a song about two doomed partners in crime. “Are you honest when no one’s looking?” it asks immediately, before telling their tale: “They walk the alleys in duct tape shoes. They see the things they need through the windows of a hatchback. The alleys are the footnotes of the avenues.”
Work has been, and will be for the foreseeable future, very busy. My reading suffered this week. Let’s all hang in there.

In other news, the latest Book Quarterly in the Philadelphia City Paper, under the careful, clever leadership of my boss/pal Lori Hill, is awesome. It’s all about independent bookstores. Gotta start here with the intro. Here‘s a story on shops adapting within today’s Amazonian Borders. Here‘s the amazingly exhaustive rundown of indie bookstores in Philly. Here‘s an article on the amazing Russakoffs. This BQ kicks so much ass. (Because the web site hates its own content, these links will expire when the next paper comes out. I’ll try to remember to fix the links when the time is right.)

Michael Parker, "The Golden Era of Heartbreak"

After losing the love of his life, a man’s downward spiral puts him in touch with some bad people.

(from The O. Henry Prize Stories, 2005)

An excellent story, prone to tangents, laced with humor and unpredictable. Moody. Awesome. This story had a little bit of the loneliness of The Silver Jews and the too-far-gone-to-care attitude of The Hold Steady.
Here, I’ll type the opening paragraph for you:
After she left, the town where we lived grew flat as an envelope. Sound carried: the song of a truck driver showering five miles east. Nothing could block his dirge. Long-distance misery leaking across the fields while he scrubbed away the road grime. He, too, had come home to a to drawer cleared of underwear.
(I tried to find you that paragraph, so I wouldn’t have to type it, by Googling the phrase “truck driver showering. Two hits. Looks like I’m the third. Yay.)

I bought this collection at The Book Trader. Used, of course. The inside cover contains the following list:
Call P.S. (?)
Collect taxes info.
(for Friday)
Sympathy Card B. Day Card for Joy
Wedding Card
—need to Always
deal Always
w/ S.L.’s Always
+ Transcripts!

There was also a recipt inside saying the book had been purchased for $15.98 from City Lights Books (a “literary meeting place since 1953″ in San Francisco). I bought it used for $8.50 or so. Sucker. Kidding. Thanks for passing it along. Good luck with the S.L.’s.

Quang Bao, "Mother"

Mother hires a maid and waits for Father to come home.

(from Ploughshares, Spring, 2005)

This story is told from the perspective of an American boy living on a military base during the last days of the Vietnam War. Beyond that, heck, I just don’t know enough about the history to match the details in “Mother.” Regardless, this is a neat, sharp little series of moments and anecdotes from what must have been a tumultuous and exciting period this boy’s life. Good, short. I read it twice in a row to make sure I got it all and because it’s that short.

Pia Z. Ehrhardt, "Driveway"

A young mother sings “I-ee-I-ee-I, I think I’ll have an affair” just like her own mom did.

(from McSweeney’s, #16)

Some stories are poundcake and some, like this one (despite its relative shortcakeness) are layered. In that sense this is everything a short story should be, with every word and phrase counting, carefully chosen. Tight, smart, occasionally ambiguous is a sneaky way. There’s this moment that knowing what really happened is obscured, and you wonder about it and then you wonder if it matters, or what the ending means in light of the two possibilities.
(And yeah, some stories are bundt cake.)
(And, okay, sorry, that I-ee-I thing is from an old song by The Low Road.)

Now you’re probably wondering: Who would win in a battle between Pia Z. Ehrhardt and Poppy Z. Brite? Hmm. Far as I know, I’ve only read one story by each — Brite’s was “The Devil of Delery Street,” from McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Secrets. Link to my write-up here. — but here goes.

Actual Reading:
Pia: A cool, thoughtprovoking family-ish drama.
Poppy: A cool, scary, Catholic horror story.
Advantage: Pia

Pia: Links to cool places, frequent updates.
Poppy: Lots of things to click on, looks like a band page.
Advantage: Poppy

Links to I Read A Short Story Today:
Pia: None.
Poppy: None.
Advantage: Not me.

Pia: New Orleans.
Poppy: New Orleans.
Advantage: None. What were the odds of that?

Pia: A lab named Eddie.
Poppy: A one-eyed dog (make and model unknown).
Advantage: Poppy (especially if the dog wears an eye patch).

Imagined Friends:
Pia: Eggers.
Poppy: Lestat.
Advantage: Pia.

Google hits:
Pia: 835
Poppy: 85,ooo
Advantage: Poppy.

And the winner is: Pia Z. Ehrhardt. It was a tight race (and hardly a fair fight, since the Enchanted Chambers book had a lot of writers working within genre-riffic boundaries), but in the end Pia slashed a swift little Z into Poppy (who promptly wrote a story in the blood).

Kevin Moffett, "The Medicine Man"

A guy with undisclosed issues is feeling low so he wants to trade his long underwear with a man he frequently mistakes for a medicine man.

(from McSweeney’s, #16)

Well, because this is a sweet, very distinct character, one who instantly inspires curiosity and sympathy, I’m willing to forgive the fact that this is yet another story wherein idiosyncracies are simply lined up in a way that screams of forced quirkiness cache. Does that make sense? There’s this wave rushing through the ether right now and I can neither define it nor much longer appreciate it, but it’s making me want to hate things like Amelie and Garden State and Neal Pollack and The Royal Tenenbaums and that Jonathan Safran Foer book I never read. Anyway, why am I bringing this up, whatever it is, right now? Sorry. I have already forgiven this story, remember? In the morning I will wonder what the heck I was talking about. But it’s 1:41 a.m., the Phillies are heading into the 13th inning, and I am rambling.
Okay. This story has some really pretty, memorable moments (especially at the end) that elevate the whole thing. If the main character didn’t have a sister of childbearing age, I would have mistaken him for an old man. I think that’s part of the magic, that he narrates his own story and therefore never defines himself or his condition. Nice.
I saw Kevin Moffett read at Molly’s recently, and I thought he was reading from his novel, but maybe it was from this, because parts seemed a little familar.

I bought some books which contain no short stories today, from Hakim’s Bookstore in West Philly.