Monthly Archives: February 2013

Caitlin Horrocks, “Zolaria”

TINYCThe summer after their fifth grade year, two unpopular girls create their own world. 

(from This is Not Your City)

It is July and we are a miraculous age. We have been sprung from our backyards, from the neighborhood park, from the invisible borders that rationed all our other summers. We are old enough to have earned a larger country, and young enough to make it larger still.

I got this story collection last night at a swap in which everyone brought a book they hate, it seemed like, or at least something they would never go looking for. It was kind of sad, but I get it. It’s hard to give away your favorite books. I had helped my friend carefully select This Is Not Your City (so I cheated a little bit). I should probably give it back to her once I’m finished.

Anyhow, I liked this story a lot. It’s so much more than two misfits who create their own world. It’s also the story of cruelty and death, as well as the narrator’s later life (marriage and children). It spans decades. I have no idea how Horrocks manages to fit all of this into one twelve-page story and make it coherent, but she does. I’m really impressed by the writing, the honesty. You should read it. You can do that here.


Joe Donnelly and Harry Shannon, “Fifty Minutes”

BAMM-2012A new patient pulls a gun on his new shrink and accuses him of murder.

(from Best American Mystery Stories 2012)

An aluminum taste floods Dr. Bell’s mouth. Trauma patients have told him this is what true fear tastes like, but until now he’d never taken them literally. Sure, every shrink has stories about unhinged patients. A client in the middle of a manic episode once threatened to scratch out Dr. Bell’s eyes with her car keys if he didn’t introduce her to her soul mate, Johnny Depp, but nothing has prepared him for this.

It was pretty obvious a twist was coming, because otherwise this wouldn’t be a mystery or a story, must less a contender for “best.” And there was really only one way to twist that would be worthwhile. So, yeah, while this story was well-written and deliciously simple — like a single-set sketch, or a one-act play — it was short on surprise. Mystery readers, mystery writers: I just don’t think I understand you.

Read the story here. 


George Saunders, “Puppy”

41ugrGr1YpL._SS500_A messed-up middle class family drives out to buy a puppy from a messed-up poor family.

(from Tenth of December)

Well, in this family laughter was encouraged! Last night, when Josh had goosed her with his GameBoy, she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up, rolling around on the floor with Goochie, and Josh had said, such nostalgia in his voice, “Mom, remember when Goochie was a puppy?” Which was when Abbie had burst into tears, because, being only five, she had no memory of Goochie as a puppy.

Modern families are easy targets for sniper satirists like Saunders: The monstrous sons, the needy daughters, the moms barely holding it together, the aloof/worthless dads. But it’s not the whos, it’s the whats, that makes this story memorable, like the weird bread-baking video game, the allusions to pet euthanasia, and the thing with the kid and the tree near the end which I won’t spoil. Keeping this story short and swift was a good call, though I could picture Alice Munro getting 36 pages out of the same idea and kicking as with it via rural gothic drama. But she’s not a sniper. She’s a little more hand-to-hand.

Read this story here.

Aimee LaBrie, “A Good Thing”

60A woman’s life is changed by her new job as an organ transplant coordinator.

(from Zoetrope Vol. 16, No. 1)

Words and phrases we’re taught not to use when dealing with the donor family: harvest, excision, cadaver, organ procurement, dead as a doornail.

Words we do use: saving the lives of others, donation, transplant, every form of to give. We talk about the patient in the past tense—What would she have wanted?—even as the blip of the heart monitor persists in the background.

This is the prizewinning story from the 2011 Zoetrope Short Fiction Contest, and it’s good. I’ve never read a story about organ donation before, and LaBrie seems to know what she’s talking about. The structure also works really well. We get to see the way the narrator’s home life is affected by her job, how it changes her.

This story is online and it’s worth a read. Also, I like her blog.

David Schickler, “Kissing in Manhattan”

26064A woman meets a rich man who buys her fancy dresses, takes her to fancy dinners, and then cuts the dresses off of her and makes her stare at herself in the mirror.

(from Kissing in Manhattan)

Rally touched her cheek, tested its softness. She was worried by Patrick’s grin.

“What?” she asked.

“It’s working,” said Patrick.

This story reminded me of American Psycho, which was published ten years before this collection came out. It’s probably just that the guy is named Patrick. And we don’t know what he’s up to. And at one point he pulls out a knife. A friend sent me this collection along with Lunar Park for Valentine’s Day. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking so much about Ellis…

Anyhow, I liked this story. It kept me guessing and the author writes a pretty believable female narrator. I thought it ended a bit early and unexpectedly, though, and the narrator did seem naive for a thirty-one-year-old NYC travel writer. Also, what beautiful woman wears pigtails and overalls to a New York City nightclub? That’s just odd.

I’ve only read one story in this collection so far, so I don’t want to judge just yet, but this blogger calls these stories “anti-feminist fables.”

Jean Thompson, “Applause, Applause”

imagesTwo college buddies reunite after a decade.

(from Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules, edited by David Sedaris)

Ten years of letters, of extravagant alcoholic phone calls. The continual measure they took of each other. Their vanished precocity, reluctantly cast aside at age twenty-five or so. Ten years which established Ted’s increasingly self-conscious, increasingly offhand reports of publications, recognitions.

I really liked this story, written early in Thompson’s career and published in her first collection of short stories, The Gasoline Warsas well as this anthology edited by David Sedaris. Sedaris was an early supporter of Thompson’s work. In an interview, she says, “…I kept hearing from friends all around the country–’I went to a David Sedaris appearance and he was reading from your book.’ He has been more than generous to me and to other writers, and that is a heartening thing to see.”

This story is about two men who had the same dream when they were young, and one of them continues to pursue it while the other one doesn’t. Some people don’t like stories about writers, but I do, especially when they’re done as well as this one (although I’m obviously tired of the aging professor who seduces/is seduced by the impressionable and beautiful twenty-two-year-old). I respect a writer who can speak so directly about what we do every day instead of turning her characters into painters or photographers, when she knows almost nothing about painting or photography. I’m not necessarily talking about Thomspon here, just speaking in general. The most successful writers I know don’t seem to be doing a whole lot else besides reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing. They aren’t also chefs and potters and musicians, etc., etc., etc.

Sara Powers, “Dating a Dead Girl”

15A man falls for a woman after her death.

(from Zoetrope Vol. 5, No. 1)

It seemed natural as rain for a second, when Meredith said it, that the girl he’d been feeling guilty about had died, as if it happened only to make him feel like more of a heel.

I really enjoyed this story. It was surprising and entertaining and full of strange characters and the possibility of sex. I admire the way Powers wove two seemingly separate stories together. One story is about a man who’s trying to buy a house when all he can afford is a shotgun shack in a bad neighborhood, and the other is about a man who is relentlessly pursued by the family of a dead woman he hadn’t liked much in life. There were a few ugly sentences here and there, and I got tired of Powers describing the sparseness of the narrator’s hair (three times in one story?), but I’m trying not hold it against her. At least not too much. You can read it here. Oh! And it’s also set in Austin. I love reading stuff set in my city.

David Foster Wallace, “The Depressed Person”

0001A depressed person’s therapist dies.

(from Harper’s Magazine, January, 1998)

The therapist–who was substantially older than the depressed person but still younger than the depressed person’s mother, and who resembled that mother in almost no respects–sometimes annoyed the depressed person with her habit of from time to time glancing very quickly at the large bronze sunburst-design clock on the wall behind the recliner in which the depressed person customarily sat, glancing so quickly and almost furtively at the clock that what bothered the depressed person more and more over time was not the act itself but the therapist’s apparent effort to hide or disguise it.

Someone recommended this story to me on Facebook and attached a link, so I decided to give it a shot. I haven’t read that much Wallace, and mostly haven’t liked what I’ve read (you’re gasping, right?), though I love one story of his, which he published while he was still in college: “The Planet Trillaphon As It Stands In Relation To THE BAD THING.” This site will take you to a pdf of it.

So, anyhow, “The Depressed Person.” I wanted to like it. It seems like the kind of thing I should like, as it’s about a sad aging single woman (I swear I’m not even seeking these stories out anymore; they’re just falling into my lap). I liked moments, like the one above, but found it difficult to connect with this point of view. The depressed woman is never named and, though we know certain things about her, even intimate, revealing things, I don’t ever feel like I knew what she was thinking or feeling, or who she was. In the end, it all felt pretty story-like to me, and I saw the writer above everything. I’m having trouble with the link, but if you Google Wallace “The Depressed Person,” it’s the first thing that comes up. Sorry.

Fun fact: according to Rolling Stone, this story is based on Elizabeth Wurtzel (Prozac Nation).

N.M. Kelby, “The Pink Suit”

largeA secret history of the outfit Jackie Kennedy wore that day in Dallas.

(from VQR, Winter 2013)

There was that odd thing where he seemed to tilt to one side as if to whisper something to her, as lovers often do. Her head turned, the perfect hat still in place, and she, out of instinct, leaned in as if for a kiss.

His face softened.

It took a moment for her to understand.

It was then that something—gray, dark—tumbled down the back of the limo and she followed after it. Held it in her hands as if it were a broken wing.

The first bit is the history homework, a quick, straightforward explanation of the publicly known facts: why she wore the pink suit that day, why she didn’t take it off after it was spotted with blood, how it mysteriously turned up in the National Archives. The rest of N.M. Kelby’s story concerns the secret egos and bureaucracies of the fashion industry, with fabric gathering, dressmaking, fitting, dealing with Chanel’s fickle genius. It gets a little tough to follow sometimes, but “The Pink Suit” is weirdly fun and unpredictable, just not entirely satisfying when it comes to the central mystery. A complaint applicable to all JFK conspiracies.

Read it here. More on N.M. Kelby here. Virginia Quarterly Review, by the way, is one of the best in the biz. Photos, fiction, creative non-fiction — they do so many things right.

Alice Munro, “Meneseteung”

1988_01_11_p139After the death of her family, a poetess lives alone in the house her father built. 

(from The New Yorker, January 11, 1988)

One thing she has noticed about married women, and that is how many of them have to go about creating their husbands. They have to start ascribing preferences, opinions, dictatorial ways. Oh yes, they say, my husband is very particular. He won’t touch turnips. He won’t eat fried meat. (Or he will only eat fried meat.) He likes me to wear blue (brown) all the time.

Okay, so I clearly enjoy stories about sad single women… Like most Munro stories, this one began slowly for me. It felt like schoolwork (and it is, actually, assigned by one of my professors). After a few pages, however, I became completely engrossed in the world that was being constructed and couldn’t imagine not finishing it. The story is about a woman named Almeda Joynt Roth, a poet who lives alone in the house built by her father in the “wilds of Canada West.” She has outlived her brother and sister, as well as her mother and father. She never marries, considered too eccentric and damaged from seeing all that death. She spends her time writing poems about her family–visiting their graves, teaching her siblings to make snow angels–as well as poems about plants and trees. One day, a widower named Jarvis Poulter arrives in town, and there is hope that Almeda might live happily ever after, though I assume I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that this doesn’t happen. “Meneseteung” is a great story. I think it’s been anthologized a good bit, and rightly so. I only wish Munro didn’t feel so much like assigned reading at the beginning. It makes me hesitant to invest. She’s worth it, though.

If you subscribe to the New Yorker, you can read it online for free. I think I should do this. I think you probably should, too, if only for the archives.