Monthly Archives: January 2010

Aimee Bender, "Americca"

A family keeps discovering extra things around the house.

(from Tin House #40)

Not sure if there was something larger or overarching but I loved what this story did on the surface. This might be a ghost story, but who ever heard of a ghost that gave gifts? And usually, the gifts are just nice, innocuous gifts, unsettling because they appear out of thin air, but not intimidating on their own. It’s like, thanks for the free soup, gifty ghost!
Read the story here.

E.O. Wilson, "Trailhead"

What happens to the colony when the queen dies.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 25, 2010)

At first, there was no overt sign that her long life was ending: no fever, no spasms, no farewells. She simply sat on the floor of the royal chamber and died. As in life, her body was prone and immobile, her legs and antennae relaxed. Her stillness alone failed to give warning to her daughters that a catastrophe had occurred for all of them.

Even though this is a story about ant, and it seems to get into ant psychology, assigning motives and such, I can’t help but think this would work as a piece of creative non-fiction. My assumption is that at the heart of this spectacular little epic (one almost entirely lacking when it comes to individual characters) is pure science based on hardcore entomology. (The secret life of insects is a fascinating topic, and one I tried to put onto paper myself once.) And I’m right, the author is an actual biologist and a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning writer. That is a double threat.
You should read this story, so here.

Ben Fountain, "Impasse Tempete"

An American man visits his mostly blind Haitian friend for what might well be the last time.

(from Ecotone Vol. 4, issues 1 and 2)

He’d lived in Port-au-Prince his whole life, and when I first knew him he liked to mock the Macoutes and their country ways, their bumbling attempts at urban cool. “Macoute guy, he dance like this,” Pierre would say, stomping and lurching around like a man trying to fling a crab off his foot. “But you born in Port-au-Prince, you from the city, you dance like this,” and now he’d ease into a fluid shuffle and glide that made you thankful for your eyes. But that was years ago, and now he never left his house except to see the doctor. One of his legs was always numb, and the high blood pressure often made him dizzy, and with his cataracts he felt lost on the streets.

“I can see far,” he told me, “I can see the mountains, but I can’t see your face. Your face just look all dusty to me.”

It’s just an odd bit of coincidence that I happened to pick up this story to read now, when all of our minds are on Haiti. (Interesting also, that I’ve stumbled onto another story about somebody who can’t see faces. Anyway.) The footage and the stories coming out of the small island nation following the devastating earthquake are unbelievable. Heartbreaking.
This story aims for a similar humane nerve. It’s smart and swift, with many stones left unturned. Ben Fountain’s signature move, I’d say, is to lead his readers to the blank places, the possibly unimportant omitted details, and allow them to make assumptions. “Impasse Tempete” is also a vivid picture of the difficult conditions that existed in Haiti long before the earthquake.
Read it here.

Aimee Bender, "Faces"

A mom suddenly discovers her son can’t tell people apart. Or tell one person from a group.

(from The Paris Review 191)

On an unusual day during my childhood, my mother showed up at school and asked me questions about myself. I was twelve or so then, and generally I found my own way home: bus, walk, bike, hitchhike. I hardly recognized her car, waiting there by the flagpole with all the other mothercars until she honked and beckoned me inside.

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” I said at the window.

“Get in, William,” she said, pushing open the door. “How was school?”

“Why are you picking me up?”

“Get in,” she said, pushing the door open more.

I had, right then, a fast stab of fear in my stomach, like maybe she would kidnap me. Except for the fact that she had birthed me. It was confusing.

I guess what we’ve got here is one of those Oliver Sachs/The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat quirky cognitive situations. A funny, probably real disease. Bender handles the revealing gently, with lots of dialogue, not always plot-advancing. Which makes the whole thing funnier and more baffling. Read the first bit of it here.

Ian McEwan, "The Use of Poetry"

A guy studies Milton to impress a girl.

(from The New Yorker, Dec. 7, 2009)

Well, that’s not really all it was about. This was really the story of Michael Beard’s life, from the days his mom entered him in chubby baby contest to her deathbed confession to having had affairs to his university days wooing Maisie Farmer. Kind of a magic trick here: It was short and quickly paced, but because unimportant details were weighted pretty much that same as turning points in the characters’ lives, it had a thorough, pondering quality. And no respect for the usual rules about chronological storytelling.
Read it here. I’m still making my way through this stack of New Yorkers.

Uwem Akpan, "Baptizing the Gun"

A priest meets a stranger in Lagos.

(from The New Yorker, Jan. 4, 2010)

Oh boy did that just happen? All that suspense, the nerve wracking, the political intrigue, the chaos, the traffic jams, the horrific images, the tight sentences — it all leads to a ridiculously simple twist. (In fact, I recall using a similarly lame turnabout in story I wrote in a high school.) But, okay, so there’s a too-neat moralistic a-ha at the end. Fine. It’s still worth reading.
Read it here.