Monthly Archives: August 2005

George Saunders, "CommComm"

It’s his job to put a good spin on terrible things, but things are getting out of hand.

(from The New Yorker, Aug. 1, 2005)

What’s going on down there I don’t watch anymore: Mom’s on the landing in her pajamas, calling Dad’s name, a little testy. Then she takes a bullet in the neck, her hands fly up, she rolls the rest of the way down, my poor round Ma. Dad comes up from the basement in his gimpy comic trot, concerned, takes a bullet in the chest, drops to his knees, takes one in the head, and that’s that.
Then they do it again, over and over, all night long.

Yeah, so I’m reading a lot of George Saunders these days. It’s an awkward comfort zone, a satisfying place to be. Saunders’ fiction has this heartless, modernity about it, a keen, crazy understanding of the cruel world we live in. Like satire, but little in the way of hope or helpfulness. Well, this story has some hope to it, but Saunders’ intentions are debatable. I don’t want to say much about this story. It’s an entertaining and funny and psychotic. I think you should read it. Go here.
I also, over the last few days, read The Brief And Frightening Reign of Phil, which is an even crazier, more out-there George Saunders novella. I’m planning on writing it up for the paper, so I’ll stay mum on it until the time is right. But obviously, I’m geeked out on George Saunders.

Lullaby for the Working Class, “Show Me How The Robots Dance”

Ethan Canin, "Star Food"

What’s Dade thinking about up there on the roof when he should be stocking shelves?

(from Emperor of the Air)

I liked this story. Its world is pretty insular, limited to a few characters, one location and pretty much one quiet, slow tone. And it’s pretty from the revolving lighted star above the grocery store to the image of the sky disected neatly into stormy and pleasant. There’s a wonderful feeling of gentle movement. Still waters. But there’s also this overarching sense of possibility, of more world seen only in the distance from Dade’s rooftop vantage point. This story was right on.
Look at this, a couple links on how to discuss “Star Food” with students. Case you ever find yourself in that situation. Wish I could find a link to the actual story, but you could, once in a while, actually buy a book, a not previously read one. I’ve never done it, but I know people who have. Saints walk among us.

Neutral Milk Hotel, “Gardenhead/Leave Me Alone”

Roy Kesey, "Asunción"

A man takes in his wounded would-be mugger.

(from McSweeney’s #15)

This story was told from the perspective of a guy with the same hazy, tricksy feel of an unreliable narrator (I Read A Short Story Today hearts such things), but there’s a kinda of twist on it here. He’s maybe more just stupid, or arranged with a different set of priorities than your average square. He’s reliable in that everything he says and describes seems matter-of-fact and beyond doubt. But he’s got that old time delusion.
So. This is a funny story. Unpredictable, but not in a pull-the-rug way. You know it’s gonna be askew early on. Sharply written and satisfied, this is the kind of eloquent joke you here at readings. Makes people smile easygoing. Vanilla Stolis and cokes and charming ribaldry all around.

Paul Di Filippo, "The Emperor of Gondwanaland"

As work gets more grueling, Mutt takes up an interest in the micronation of Gondwanaland.

(From The Emperor of Gondwanaland and Other Stories)

Things you might like to know:
Gondwanaland is what some call the way-pre-historic supercontinent which split up to form Africa, Antarctica, South America and more. Look at this, the cameras were rolling when the earth broke ground.
Micronations, according to Google, are “entities that resemble independent states, but for the most part exist only on paper, on the Internet, or in the minds of their creators.”
Which is what our boy Mutt is all mixed up in. Buncha webdorks makin’ shit up. Or are they? If you had to guess, would you figure Gondwanaland ends up being a real enough place or not? I don’t know why I’m asking questions, this isn’t that kind of blog. And I won’t just flat out tell you.The writing’s a bit clunkified and obvious, but the author’s diligence and fertile-ish imagination carry the day.
The latest issue of Cabinet magazine has a whole bunch of stuff on micronations. See? they even have a thing on SeaLand, a very real micronation which I would totally invade if I could save up enough money to rent a boat. Who’s with me? No one? Cowards.

Optigonally Yours, covering Human League’s “Empire State Human”

R.K. Narayan, "All Avoidable Talk"

The stars have warned Sastri to keep his head down.

(from Under the Banyan Tree)

He was told to avoid all quarrels that day. The stars were out to trouble him, and even the mildest of his remarks likely to offend and lead to a quarrel. The planets were set against him and this terrified him beyond all description.

Tight in tone and description, this very short story, like its protagonist, is economical with its words. It’s a simple plot, driven by action and archetypal conflict (which is totally a thing), reminiscent of Guy de Maupassant’s stuff (there’s even a jeweller). And like that French author, Narayan ends up with a story of a worker and boss (called “master”) and jewels and decorum which give the whole thing the feel of a parable. Fairly wonderful.

Toni Braxton, “Unbreak My Heart”
Pavement, “Stereo”

Richard Burgin, "Vacation"

A travel agent with issues has a lost weekend.

(from Ontario Review, #62)

A strange one. Mostly in a good way. Even more than Alice Munro and George Saunders, I Read A Short Story Today loves an unreliable narrator. Like sitting in the front basket of a crazy person’s bicycle. So this guy — I don’t want to give away his personal demons, but he has them, unbenownst to him, really — doesn’t know how to deal. He smokes up, drinks, does dirty things. What will he do next? Who knows? Hang on tight.
It’s not like this story didn’t have its flaws (some clunkiness, some bricks when pebbles would do), but it gets points for daring and adventure and dirtyness. It also gets points because it’s set in Philadelphia and doesn’t screw it up. Although, is 8th and Market the hooker district? It could be. I don’t know.
Round here, people are talking about how outsiders view Philadelphia. Because condos are the new kudzu and rich-ish white people are, supposedly, moving in to take advantage of this city’s cheapness and ridiculous tax abatement. (Shh, nobody tell them about the wage tax.) Or maybe they’re all Peter Forsberg fans. Or maybe, yeah, it’s because of that article in the New York Times this weekend, “Philadelphia Story: The Next Borough.” After reading, I wrote this.

Nothing Painted Blue, “Up w/ Upland”

Peter Orner, "Last Car over the Sagamore Bridge"

A dad worries.

(from Harvard Review, #28)

Sometimes we call things short stories because that makes more sense than calling them poems. This one, this three-page stream-of-consciousness rumination on the fragility of life and inevitability of harm, certainly exists within the vast grey expanse between lyric and prose. But there’s no denying its close proximity to the latter shore. It’s got characters and something like a plot and whole sentences and, yeah. I read a short story today, no question. But it feels different, coming across this kind of repetitive, experimental, structureless work. Refreshing but also scary. Thankfully, we the readers are in good hands, watched and cared for by a sane scientist. This is important. I don’t like being screwed with unless there’s some reason behind it. I don’t need some freshman pothead trying to blow my mind with the presumptuously freaky. Life’s too short.

The Mountain Goats, “Jam-eater’s Blues”

Paula Bomer, "She Was Everything To Him"

Now that they finally had a kid, he feels unwanted.

(from Fiction Vol. 19, #1)

I haven’t been posting with much regularity recently. At first it was just work, then it was a bit of difficulty getting back into the swing.
Sometimes I choose a story, settle in and, ugh, it sucks. Too pretentious, clichéd, clumsy, annoying, dull. So I stop. I may then try another one. Or I might be turned off. Indeed a bad reading experience can ruin a perfectly good night. Make me want to clean my apartment.
Now, “She was Everything To Him” must have had something going for it because I read it, the whole thing. And it did: Interesting characters, interesting situations. It was sort of unabashed in its way.
Usually, I like to focus on the positive. But not tonight. The lightning is a harsh strobe on Philadelphia right now. The thunder is steady crunch and this story was so clunky and awkward and not believable that I was glad it was over when it was. Here are some things I have to say, enumerated. They may seem harsh, but the author certainly seems to have had enough success in her writing career to take a little unsolicited criticism from a reader. I do feel a little bad about it.
1. Typos can be intolerable. You must know your “your” from your “you’re” if you’re going to be writing things down for people to read. And don’t go hey look at this link, you have made a typo! Yeah. This is a blog. Typos are the pickle on the blog platter.
2. I wish everybody who sets his/her fiction in New York City would move. It can be done well, but. It’s boring. It’s snobby. It adds nothing. Hell’s Kitchen. Park Slope. Been to those places. Read this story. Nonplussed.
3. Here’s a sentence I disliked: “No, it was before that, when they first started to try for a baby, because she’d had two miscarriages before the conception of Frank.”
4. Wah.

Here’s where you might gasp and say wait, this isn’t that kind of blog, and I say did you really gasp that’s so sweet, and also yeah, it’s not that kind of blog, not a journal, but please allow this lapse.
I’m not sleeping, not much. Maybe enough, though, as I am not falling apart. Three, four hours a night, that’s about it. Please remember this: Lack of sleep is not a contest. One is not to brag about such things.
The other night, in lieu of sleep, I watched, again, Jurassic Park 2, The Lost World. That’s the one where the T. Rex, all doped up from some kind of adrenaline shot, goes nuts and runs around San Diego. He shoulders a bus into a video store and eats a dog. My friend Brian went to San Diego recently, but his experience was quite different. Here’s a link to his site about biking.
When I’m not re-watching things I’ve watched too much already — thanks to my pal MJ’s extended lending of DVDs, I can now recite key speeches from News Radio seasons 1 & 2 (“Freedom of speech is my bread and butter but I’m also a big fan of a little thing called decency, the meat in the broadcasting sandwich”) — I’ve been finishing up an actual book. Reading a whole book. And it’s done. So where are we?
Possible outcomes of having read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers
1. Whew. I read a book. And while, as somebody pointed out when I was a mere 22 pages from the finish line, it is not actually a novel, I still feel like I may be the kind of person who can read a novel, again, one day. So one effect is: I think I can read books again, assuming they are as thoughtful and engaging and fun as this one, or close, or not without their charms in other ways.
1.7 I have, in my lifetime, read many books. Why’d I ever stop?
2. I may want to read You Shall Know Our Velocity, also by Dave Eggers, sometime soon. I mean, it’s probably good. And it’s actual fiction, so that’s the next possible baby step. I bought it at the same time, on my pioneer outing to Bookhaven.
3. Or I could read that new George Saunders novella, because he too is an author who rules so hardcore.
3.2 No, Alice Munro has never written a novel or I’d be all up in that.
CORRECTION: Um, yes, Alice Munro has written a novel; Paula Bomer was kinda enough to drop me a line and disabuse me.
4. I wish to give somebody the nickname “Staggering Genius” because I crack myself up. Right now I’m leaning toward my friend Jesse, whom you may already know as the Bloody Knee Jerk (link here). Always room for more nicknames.
5. I could lend the book to somebody, as long as that person takes good care of it.
6. I could, in an unspoken retort, attempt defend the entire McSweeney’s aesthetic. You know the one I mean: This short story collection comes with a comb, that one is a box of individual stories, this novel has pages with holes where words were removed, here’s a couple pages of the letter e. You can call it too cute if you like. But I’ll think of this book’s second forward, the one upside down inside the back cover which says “Not everything that is truthful must fall within well-known formal parameters. The goal is to have fun and push forward, no?”

Katherine Taylor, "Crying and Smoking"

Tough times for good friends.

(from Southwest Review, vol. 89, #4)

“That was the January everyone in New York was faking cheerfulness.”
Set in the winter after 9/11, but never referencing it outright, this sharp, cozy story isn’t paranoid or cynical or deadpan philosophical like some other stories set in that time period. That would be easier than this humane approach, which is all about small gestures, and day-to-day worries. The two friends at the center are not exactly me, and not much like my friends, but I can tell you their dialogue and thought processes and priorities are dead on. They are wanting but not whining, smart but maybe unchallenged, prizes currently unappreciated. They are my age, my peers, my peeps. We are underused.

This story, indeed the entire issue of Southwest Review, was sent to me by Katherine Taylor herself, and I am very appreciative. This story made my night. You know nothing makes I Read A Short Story Today happier than a recommendation. Love ‘em. Even though I sometimes I have a lot of trouble tracking them down.

If you want to know, I didn’t do much posting recently because a cover story at work was waging war against me. You can find it here. (Link expires far too soon.)

Helen Morrissey Rizzuto, "The River Woman"

After watching her mom kill the man who attacked her, Civette is placed in the care of an old Chinese healer/kaleidoscope maker and stops talking.

(from Ontario Review, Spring Summer 2005)

Sorry, just didn’t buy it. I mean the scary, horrible parts were appropriately effective, but it’s easy to scare and horrify me. I think I might’ve mentioned that before.
“The River Woman” is cliched a little bit in its moments and language, and a lot in its worldview. Whenever bad things happened, or supposedly sublime moments sprung awkwardly about, I said of course. This was like a made-for-TV arthouse flick, full of recognizeable parts and people and thinking. A good editor, even a shrewd copy editor, could have helped hide the strings a bit more, made it a little easier to get lost in it.