Monthly Archives: June 2009

E.V. Slate, "Purple Bamboo Park"

The maid and the family go to a park.

(from Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009)

This was a slow build, and there were moments early on where I was sure this was going to be dull, annoying, innocuous. This picked up pretty soon and the end was not just fun and action-packed, but beautifully written. This blog has more and better things to say about this story, and a Ha Jin piece also in the collection.

Geoffrey Becker, "This Is Not a Bar"

A guy and his girlfriend go to his guitar teacher’s gig at a bar, where they meet another student.

(from The Cincinnati Review, Summer 2009)

Except it’s not actually a bar. It’s a fake bar, for show, that for some reason, or no reason, has hired a jazz trio. And none of the characters are curious about the fake bar. They marvel at how realistic it looks but, when left alone, don’t get up and fiddle with the taps and bottles. They don’t get a straight answer as to why in hell there’s a fake bar and they don’t pursue it. Oh, of course. Fake bar. Can you get us something from the real bar and bring it on over? How many times will I accidentally sit down at a fake bar? Fake bar fake bar fake bar.
This story was funny, and unsettlingly non-linear. Because the narrator is so wordy and over-explanatory, I assumed things would unfold in some sensible arc. Instead, it surprised me by going free form. It worked and it didn’t work in the same way that jazz does and doesn’t: Either your audience approves your out-there daring or they drink up and leave because you’re just honking out random notes and calling it art. Sometimes a little of both. Eye of the beholder, etc. I liked the story.

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, "The Nursery"

A boy accidentally kills a teammate during wrestling practice and, kicked out of school, goes to work with his mom in the nursery.

(from The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009)

This one had lots of what I love about short stories, and a lot of what I know people hate. First, the hate. Even though it’s short, “The Nursery” is arduously slow and deliberate. It is quiet. Despite its intense subject matter, it builds to a whimper, a decisive but passive anticlimax. All true, but I didn’t mind all that. Except the slowness, I guess. I like it when an author immerses the reader in a specific subculture, for lack of a better word. Fisherman stories that teach you how to fish. Time travel stories that lay some theoretical metaphysics on you. This was a story about growing plants and flowers in greenhouses, and it dropped some knowledge on me. Doesn’t hurt that I am currently growing my own mint and such in a pot out back. The point is, I was sold on the nursery life, believed in its virtues, believed Lunstrum knew all she needed to know.
Here‘s Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum’s homepage.That’s where I got that photo. I’m gonna be reading a lot from this collection, and I don’t wanna use the jacket 20 times. Plus she’s cute.

Graham Joyce, "An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen"

A British soldier in the Gulf steps on a landmine.

(from The Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories 2009)

I’m in the turret with the gunner. Phosphorescent flashes keep popping from miles up ahead, and they’re followed by what I want to call a flutter; it’s like your eye goes aquiver for a moment. And there’s a smell in the air, nothing like the usual reek of burning and high-ex. I don’t like it. When it comes to combat I don’t much like anything I haven’t seen or smelled before.

Crazy story. Really seemed like this was going to be a serious, firmly rooted-in-reality kinda story. Horrors of war and such. Turns out it’s kinda serious, but insane. Fun and horrifying. The narrator turns out to be an expertly non-reliable kind of guy. Great story to start off the collection.
This was originally published in The Paris Review. They have an excerpt here.

I’ve never been very successful at maintaining a short-story-a-day pace. And things are about to get a whole lot worse, as I am taking part in Infinite Summer. That’s where you read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest over the summer. A bunch of people are doing it, I gather. The book is huge. I’m enjoying it so far, but I’ve never been very successful at reading whole novels. Had some good experiences lately, though. So. We’ll see.

Right now I’ve got three songs in my head:
1) “Indian Summer” by Beat Happening, the unofficial theme song for the project, I say.
2) “David Foster Wallace” by Tsunami. Brilliant Mistake still rocks my world.
3) “Out on the Wing” by Superchunk. No DFW-ish reason, it’s just stuck in there. Although, hmm, it is about flying, just like the Tsunami song.
So yeah, a bunch of old school indie hits. No apologies. Infinite Jest is from 1997. And it is infinite.

C.C. MacApp, "And All the Earth a Grave"

An overstock of coffins triggers a national trend.

(from 33 Science Fiction Stories)

There’s nothing wrong with dying — it just hasn’t ever had the proper sales pitch!

Everybody wants a coffin now. It’s advertising. This is sort of satire, but mostly just a quirky little fable. You can listen to this story here.

John Cory, "Egocentric Orbit"

Early astronauts become unhinged by their journeys around the Earth.

(from 33 Science Fiction Stories)

Because they realize they’re the center of the universe. Funny little story. Kinda skipping around this big and harmless sci-fi Kindle e-book. Read it here.

G.C. Edmondson, "Blessed Are the Meek"

Earthlings encounter a civilization of laidback aliens.

(from 33 Science Fiction Stories)

But there’s a twist at the end, kind of… Say what? This story’s from 1955? That explains some things. What kind of a crackpot sci-fi collection did I buy on the Kindle for like $.99 or whatever? You can read it here, somehow.

Peter Baily, "Accidental Death"

Human astronauts meet some outer space jerks.

(from 33 Science Fiction Stories)

Scientific investigations into this have been inconclusive, but everyone knows that some people are lucky and others aren’t. All we’ve got are hints and glimmers, the fumbling touch of a rudimentary talent.

The Changs are these deviously cruel pranksters who look like cats. They make beer and telescopes. They learn English in Their stunts, it turns out, is not merely a cute little side pursuit. As the doomed astronaut says in his final recording, don’t trust them. A funny, weird little diversion of a story. I read it on the loaner Kindle.

Téa Obreht, "The Tiger’s Wife"

A tiger escapes from the zoo in WWII Poland (I think).

(from The New Yorker, June 8 & 15, 2009)

The perspective changes every so often, starting with the tiger who’s been domesticated by captivity but still driven, somewhat by instincts. After that, we’re inside the heads of people (not as cool) who live in the small village where the tiger takes up residence as a rural legend/nuisance/scourge. Kind of an awesome story from start to finish. If there’s a tiger genre, I want in.

Chimimnda Ngozi Adichie, "The Thing Around Your Neck"

You win the visa lottery and leave Lagos for America.

(from The Thing Around Your Neck)

You ended up in Connecticut, in another little town, because it was the last stop of the bus you got on. You walked into the restaurant nearby and said you would work for two dollars less than the other waitresses. The owner, Juan, had inky black hair and smiled to show a bright yellow tooth. He said he had never had a Nigerian employee but all immigrants worked hard. He knew, he’d been there. He’d pay you a dollar less, but under the table, he didn’t like all the taxes they were making him pay.

This one was awesome. It’s the gripping second person story of Akunna, a young woman moving from Nigeria to New England, dealing with all kinds of well-meaning ignoramuses, most notably her trust fund boyfriend whose open-mindedness annoys her from the get-go. Yeah, it’s a little preachy, but the heroine is just so three-dimensional, so fleshed out by each phrase and action, you buy it all. I love the way we experience her annoyance, and sympathize, even though she’s often unable to put her grievances into words.
Read it here.