Monthly Archives: May 2009

Truman Capote, "One Christmas"

A kid leaves his Alabama house to spend Christmas with his dad in New Orleans.

(from The Complete Stories of Truman Capote)

I don’t know much about Capote. Seeing the movie was enough to trick my mind’s ear into reading this story in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s gentle screech. I was lent this book (thanks LZ!) a long time ago but swiftly lost track of it during a move (sorry LZ!). So, it’s possible I was supposed to read “Christmas Memory” — I remembered only that the story recommended to me had something to do with Christmas or holidays reindeer. I have a feeling it wasn’t “One Christmas,” though I did find it to be a charming little nostalgia trip about a spoiled-ish Depression era kid from a broken home learning a little bit about manipulation and compassion. Fine story. Didn’t blow me away.
I’m not sure why this exists, but hey it’s related. Looks like they made a movie out of this story, somehow.

Craig Raine, "Love Affair With Secondaries"

Piotr, married to Basia, gets caught having an affair with Agnieszka.

(from The New Yorker, June 1, 2009)

One day he expected to read a poem about his eyebrows. Or a poem with his phone number or his address in the title: “Ul. Sienkiewicza 35 m.5.” Especially since his apartment was often the easiest place for the lovers to meet—as they were going to meet on this rainy day in June.

Quirky little midlife crisis sex story. I enjoyed the over-the-top soap operaticness of it, like some “ribald” indie film where you know how things are going to go and then they go there and you smile because hey, we’re all having a good time. As serious as it should be to get caught committing adultery, here the crime felt more like a move in a big, dramatic, silly game. That stakes were low. Fine by me.
I read a Craig Raine story once before. I liked this one better. Read “Love Affair With Secondaries” here. That photo is by far the smuttiest moment in the history of this web site, but if it’s classy enough for the New Yorker, I suppose it meets my decency standards.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Cell One"

Her big brother Nnamabia goes to prison.

(from The Thing Around Your Neck)

“How much did they give you for my gold?” our mother asked him. And when he told her she placed both hands on her head and cried, “Oh! Oh! Chi m egbuo m! My God has killed me!” I wanted to slap her. My father asked Nnamabia to write a report: how he had pawned the jewelry, what he had spent the money on, with whom he had spent it. I didn’t think that Nnamabia would tell the truth, and I don’t think that my father thought he would, but he liked reports, my professor father, he liked to have things written down and nicely documented.

This falls into a category of short story I rarely enjoy: Horrible Foreign Prison Stories. They drag the reader through the ringer and beat it into your head that things are so corrupt and cruel. I enjoyed this one, though, since the horribleness was only revealed at an angle, told from the perspective of the imprisoned boy’s younger sister. The narration was endearing. There was some hope. Do I need a short story to coddle me, to keep me from the harsh truth of things. Sure, sometimes.
Read this story here.

Kelly Link, "Pretty Monsters"

Cabell saves Clementine’s life, leading to a lifelong crush. Lee and friends put Czigany and Parci through an Ordeal.

(from Pretty Monsters)

This story was exciting. An adventure story. So much damn fun. It’s got (at least) two major storylines barely connected to each other. Lots of distinct and likable characters, too. Underneath it all, and even when things get meta, there’s this feeling that Link gets it. She’s part of the modern existence and so are her characters.

Ben Stroud, "Eraser"

His stepfather wants him to toughen up. They go fishing a lot.

(from One Story, #119)

I go sit behind the steering wheel and look at the screen mounted there. It shows how deep the lake is below the boat, and the size of any fish passing below. I wonder if it would show a dead body, if there’s a picture programmed in it for that. See, son, a dad’ll say, tapping on the screen, that’s a child. We only need the small net.

When the kid’s not making snide remarks about the polluted man-made lake they go fishing on or his cruel stepfather, he’s carefully erasing numbers out of his math textbook. This was a fun one. Very sarcastic, very humorous. This Stroud guy gets good mileage out of shorter sentences, and breaks up the text with logical but unexplained chapter breaks.
One Story has an interview with Stroud here.

Ben Greenman, "Life Begins in Benighted Nonexistence and Hey! It Goes From There"

A French Army captain writes to his daughter.

(from Correspondences)

Among the purposes for this letter: to set the record straight on the surprisingly accurate hollowed-out bullet, which he invented (or co-invented with that noble drunken womanizer Delvigne). I read this story, thought about it awhile and re-read it. It’s short and oddly heavy, like every piece in this collection I’ve read so far. Or maybe every letter written in italics on thick card stock comes haunted by a somber undertow, regardless of the content. Because there’s a lot of humor here, too.
Ben Greenman’s doing a reading at 7 p.m. at Brickbat Books here in Philly tomorrow. I’m going.

Steven Millhauser, "The Invasion from Outer Space"

The aliens are here, and they’re kinda eh.

(from The New Yorker, Feb. 9 & 16, 2009)

From the beginning we were prepared, we knew just what to do, for hadn’t we seen it all a hundred times?—the good people of the town going about their business, the suddenly interrupted TV programs, the faces in the crowd looking up, the little girl pointing in the air, the mouths opening, the dog yapping, the traffic stopped, the shopping bag falling to the sidewalk, and there, in the sky, coming closer . . . And so, when it finally happened, because it was bound to happen, we all knew it was only a matter of time, we felt, in the midst of our curiosity and terror, a certain calm, the calm of familiarity, we knew what was expected of us, at such a moment.

This is a quick one about a small town getting bombarded by single-cell aliens that look like yellow dust and multiply rapidly. The townspeople (the only real characters) are bummed because instead of a benevolent invasion (or even an exciting malevolent one) they’ve just got this dust. I mean, it’ll probably turn out to be a bad thing, but it’s gonna be slow and dull.
Read it here. Recommended accompanying track: Brian Dewan, “The Creatures.”
I’m trying to work my way through a stack of accumulated New Yorkers.
They multiply rapidly. Tom Scharpling is right: A New Yorker subscription is homework.

Robert Boswell, "Almost Not Beautiful"

Two sisters reunite and visit their mutual ex.

(from The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards)

Opening sentences get a lot of attention, rightfully, but the power of an effective next line should not be overlooked. Here’s the first line:

After lunch that day, Lisa’s sister drank too much.

That’s cool. Not particularly aggressive, but intriguing enough to keep reading. Which brings us to line two (and line three):

“Saying I drink like a fish doesn’t make sense,” she argued. “It’s like saying I read like a word.”

Ha. Good story, too. More on Robert Boswell here.

Craig Raine, "Julia and Byron"

A woman with cancer takes an experimental treatment.

(from The New Yorker, March 30, 2009)

And then she dies and the husband reads her diary and realizes he was a jerk to her. After reading this I was torn between “what the hell” and “whatever.” I’m not sure why this story did what it did but I’m sure I don’t care that much. I read it. It was fine. Good night.
Read it here.