Monthly Archives: October 2006

Margaret Atwood, "The Boys at the Lab"

With her mom infirmed and fading, trips down memory lane are a way to hold on.

(from Zoetrope All-Story, Fall 2006)

Some very satisfying prose and neat ideas in this story. There were times when I suspected some sort of Cold Case-type twist, but I was underestimating Atwood’s skill for conjuring action out of the everyday. Looks like this story was based, at least in part, on the author’s actual childhood experience living in a remote part of Quebec at her dad’s insect research lab. Read about that here. Of course, this might have been a memoir piece, not a short story, given Zoetrope‘s sudden foray into dishonest truthtelling.

Ha Jin, "A Composer And His Parakeets"

She’s off shooting a movie; he’s left to mind the bird.

(from Zoetrope All-Story, Fall 2006)

The bird, Bori, is an enigmatic and captivating little thing, part symbiotic partner, part guardian angel. He understands more than most birds, is more loyal, knows which people need to be pooped on. It’s a charming story with Bori on your shoulder. For the sort of cuckolded boyfriend left behind, Bori is a harbinger every moment of inspiration (and perhaps every instance of writer’s block). Cool stuff.
The issue was designed by Chip Kidd, using the photos of cut-up books by Thomas M. Allen. It’s the best looking ZAS yet. Check out what this story looked like. That said, the sudden inclusion of nonfiction stories in the issue was fine except they were unmarked. This bugged a power-fiction-reader like myself.

Paul Yoon, "Once the Shore"

An older woman comes to a Korean resort to look for the love note her lover craved into a cave wall 30 years ago.

(from Best American Short Stories 2006)

On this particular evening the woman told the waiter about her husband’s hair: parted always to his right and combed finely so that each strand shone like amber from the shower he took prior to meeting her for their evening walks. “There was a time,” the woman said, “when he bathed for me and me alone.” She knew his hair—its length, smell, and color—long before she knew the rest of him. Before he left for the Pacific. Before his return and their marriage and their years together. When she opened the door it was what she noticed first. And in the heat of the remaining sun, she swore you could see a curtain of mist rising from the peak of his thin head.

So she’s got that interesting story. And she befriends the young waiter Jim who just lost his brother who was in a fishing boat that was struck by an American submarine surfacing from underneath. That’s interesting, too. But this is art, not action, so those lines are not pursued. They’re brushed aside so the story can focus on internal conflict, exploring the way these people deal with loss. It beautifully done. Am I lowbrow for wanting to know whether that cave carving still exists, or ever existed?
Excerpt and Q&A with Paul Yoon at One Story.

Belle & Sebastian, “Is It Wicked Not To Care?”

Tobias Wolff, "Awaiting Orders"

Sergeant Morse meets with the family of a soldier who shipped out without telling them.

(from Best American Short Stories 2006)

Morse didn’t know Billy Hart well, but he’d had his eye on him. Hart was from the mountains near Asheville and liked to play the hick for the cover it gave him. He was always running a hustle, Hart, engaged elsewhere when there was work to be done but on hand to fleece the new guys at poker or sell rides to town in his Mustang convertible. He was said to be dealing but hadn’t got caught at it. Thought everyone else was dumb—you could see him thinking it, that little smile. He would trip himself up someday, but he’d do fine for now. Plenty of easy pickings over there for the likes of Billy Hart.

This is sort of a subtle thing. Pretty much all the conflict occurs within the brain of its main character, which makes sense: As gay man in the military, he’s used to repressing parts of himself. His thoughtful, contemplative subconcious is an interesting place to be. Read the story here.

Okay, let’s talk about BASS. I’m a big fan of this series because reading good stories is way better than reading bad ones and, from my experience, the Best Americans know how to pick ‘em. Now, I’ve been doing this site for a while, so, in theory, I had a chance to read all of the stories in this anthology when they were first published. Looks like I’ve read five of the 20 reprinted here. Let’s see, there was:
Donna Tartt, “The Ambush” (Jan. 24, 2006): Liked it except for the ending.
Patrick Ryan, “So Much for Artemis” (March 28, 2005): Thought it was “fun.”
Yiyun Li, “After a Life” (Sept. 5, 2005): Liked it.
Nathan Englander, “How We Avenged the Blums” (July 11, 2005): Liked it a lot.
David Bezmozgis, “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave” (Sept. 6, 2006): Thought it was mostly sharp.

Lore Segal, “Other People’s Deaths”

How to act around Ilka now that Jimmy’s dead?

(from The New Yorker, Oct. 2, 2006)

Maybe I shoulda read the short author bio first. Then I woulda known this is part of a collection of interconnected stories. Then I might not have felt like the cavalcade of names, some ridiculous, was so jarring. Of course the story was intended to stand on its own. So, yeah, it was jarring in the beginning, being introduced to the Ayes and Zees, the Cohns and Stones. And they weren’t distinct enough to keep track of. But anyway, I followed along okay, and the story was a quick, fast-paced read and inspired thinking, so props.

John Domini, "Assassins Project: Storyboards to Date"

Let’s make a really decent action thriller movie.

(from The Literary Review, Spring 2006)

What we have so far is, we begin with the down-to-earth, the romance angle, a girl who’s about to give up on finding a decent guy, she figures it’ll never get anywhere, the games never end. Begin where anyone can make the connection, that’s the whole first board, just another girl sick of the same-old, all the more of a drag because she knows what she’s got to offer, she’s old enough to know but she’s still good-looking, sure, hot when she wants to be, and she’s had a life, boyfriends, maybe girlfriends, maybe put a little edge on her, plus she’s got degrees on the wall and they say she’s some kind of doer of science, and she’s got a lab, that’s important. We could go as old as thirty-five.

Funny and familiar, this story is told from the perspective of some studio exec trying to describe his current movie project, about a pair of star-crossed assassins. There’s intrigue, and silliness and a poison condom in the mix. At its heart this could be called a story about art-by-committee and striving for the most pleasant and clever instead of actual greatness. Who are you trying to please, and how, with your art. That said, this is more literally witty and jaded little satire. Good stuff.
Read the beginning here.
This is John Domini’s web site.

Corinna Vallianatos, "A Civilizing Effect"

Her new boyfriend’s an accomplished somnambulist.

(A Public Space 02, Summer 2006)

Hanging up the phone, she was struck by how odd it was to invite her own daughter to dinner. Rhis person with whom she used to spend every waking minute — waking and sleeping — now accepted or rejected her overtures casually, without a hint of how unnatural a no could seem.

Not sure what this story was going for, exactly. It was interesting enough, and interestingly told, with juicy, complicated themes, but its overall goals escaped me. It had some memorable sentences and ideas, though. (It also had some less thoughtful sentences that pulled me out of the story.) The boyfriend who sleepwalks and sleeptalks like he’s awake should very well have felt like a plot device, but I bought him as flesh and blood. I”m all over the map on this one.