Monthly Archives: September 2008

Daniyal Mueenuddin, "A Spoiled Man"

A sad old man’s life gets a little happier and a little sadder at the end. (from The New Yorker, Sept. 15, 2008)

In the Kalapani bazaar, he ate at his usual teahouse, day-old bread soaked in milk, prescribed by a quack homeopath against a fistula that had tormented him for many years. The waiter brought the sopping bread and, when the crowd subsided, came over to have a few words about the flow of tourists up to Murree, more each year, this season begun so early. Lonely as he was, Rezak relied upon his welcome in the teahouse, his connection with it. When the older chickens at the poultry sheds where he worked were culled, Rezak would bring down one of the healthier birds, asking the teahouse to cook it, as a holiday from his bread diet. He shared with whoever was there, insistent, forcing his friend the waiter to eat.

“There, look, I’ve taken some,” the waiter would say, pulling off a wing. Even he, hardened by a diet of stale leftovers from the kitchen, was dubious about eating this time-expired bird.

“No, you have to really eat.” Once, Rezak even became angry about it, leaving abruptly, the chicken still on the table.

It’s only fitting that story this obsessed with senseless cruelty and hardship would include a torture scene. It’s a good way for the character to experience what the reader is going through, put us on the same level, in a way. Poor Rezak. I really liked the old nut. It’s a shame that we had to go through such hardships together.
You too can subject yourself to this excellent story; here.

Joshua Ferris, "The Dinner Party"

A husband and wife prepare to have friends over for dinner.

(from The New Yorker, Aug. 11/18, 2008)

On occasion, the two women went to lunch and she came home offended by some pettiness. And he would say, “Why do this to yourself?” He wanted to keep her from being hurt. He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband. But after a few months the rift would inevitably heal and the friendship return to good standing. He couldn’t blame her. They went back a long way and you get only so many old friends.

This was a real thinker. Hard to really discuss it without spoilerizing everything. But. I had to read it twice, the second time like a sleuth or a lawyer building a case, to see things the way they might actually be. “The Dinner Party” gave me a “The Swimmer” vibe; the feeling that the whole sad story was lurking underneath. Also, the dialog between the husband and wife as they prepare food and discuss the friends he seems to like only a little less than she does, is so sharp. Loved it.
Read it here.

Ben Fountain, "Near Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera"

An aspiring ornithologist is held captive by guerrillas in Colombia.

(from Brief Encounters with Che Guevara)

“Yes,” the rebel answered, “ecology is important to the revolution. As a scholar”—he gave a faint, possibly ironic smile—“you can appreciate this,” and he made a little speech about the environment, how the firmeza revolucionaria had banned the multinational logging and mining “mafias” from all liberated zones.

No this isn’t the story with Che Guevara in it. I assume that’s the title story. This story is the reason there are birds on the book jacket, and it makes me wonder why one story was chosen as the title and the other to inspire the illustration on the cover. I really dug the unpredictable nature of this story. It felt dangerous, bizarre and wild. I worried about John “Joan” Blair even when his presence in the story seems merely to be the ridiculous nerdy American suddenly stranded in a violent foreign place.
Read it here.

Nathan Englander, "Poor Little Egg-Boy Hatched in a Shul"

An egg-boy is born. He betrays his sister pretty much right away.

(from McSweeney’s #28)

This is a funny, silly little story. It’s a fable with a vague moral whose real-world applications are a little hard to nail down. I think that’s how it’ll be with each of the nifty little books in this McSweeney’s collection. That’s fine with me. Hooray for quick reads and illustrations. And yes, there is something kind of “easy” about writing stories like this but maybe more modern fabulists should take the hint. There’s no need to overwrite a children’s story.

Alice Munro, "Face"

A guy born with a large birthmark on his face reflects on his life.

(from The New Yorker, Sept. 8, 2008)

“It makes the white of that eye look so lovely and clear” was one of the idiotic but pardonable things my mother would say, in the hope of helping me to admire myself. And an odd thing happened. Sheltered as I was, I almost believed her.

I’ve read my fair share of Alice Munro, I’d say, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a story quite like this, though I’m having trouble deciding what’s so different about it. It’s got that insistent nostalgia, the reassuring narration, the sentences you grasp right away but want to read again simply to marvel at their impeccable design. But there’s something else here, a rambling organic arrangement of its primary plot points, maybe? I know this is one of the shortest Munro stories I’ve come across, or it seemed that way, as I waltzed through it in one sitting. Anyway, enough armchair bioliterary dissection. This story was beautiful, like breathtakingly so in that classic, comfortable Munro way, where characters are confronted with their own inner and outer uglinesses, and you understand their dilemma and you root for them. I want this narrator to come across his childhood friend and high-five and say bygones and catch up of drinks. I want something good to happen between these two good people.
Read it here. This marks the beginning of my
New Yorker subscription. Let’s see if I can keep up.

Dani Shapiro, "The Six Poisons"

Estranged stepsisters from New York reunite unexpectedly on a yoga retreat in India.

(from One Story, #69)

Emma is on her third chaturanga dandasana of the morning, hovering in push-up position an inch off the floor, when Guruji and Sanjiv enter the shala.

From that first sentence I knew this story was gonna be a little problem. It’s not all those unfamiliar yoga words, I can either pick up the meaning, or the jist, from context, or look them up. It’s the matter-of-fact pride of them. Either this story or its characters were going to be annoying about yoga. Both possibilities proved true, with the characters being far more ridiculous, and I can live with that. These rich, pretentious, presumably white Americans coveting their boutique Eastern hobby aren’t played for comedy, not exactly, but they’re laid out there shamelessly for the reader to judge as she/he sees fit. I choose to laugh a little, but only because these are characters. Real people, of course, are welcome believe whatever they like without me mocking them. Which is not to say I felt only scorn for these characters. Emma and Rebecca were real enough, with real complications and weaknesses and I felt for them. Particularly Emma, the accidentally more lucky and more privileged of the two who was made to feel like the bad guy in important matters thanks to circumstance. In that, Dani Shapiro has created a couple excellent characters. So I couldn’t stay annoyed for long.
Here‘s the HTML of a PDF of a chaturanga of the story.
Here‘s the One Story interview with Shapiro that I don’t think I’m going to read, because this story’s been in my head for days already and enough is enough.