Monthly Archives: March 2013

George Saunders, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”

B00005YWIR.01.LZZZZZZZA middle class family struggles to keep up with the affluent neighbors. Also, their indentured lawn people get away.

(from Tenth of December)

Just reread that last entry and should clarify.

Am not tired of work. It is a privilege to work. I do not hate the rich. I aspire to be rich myself. And when we finally do get our own bridge, trout, tree house, SGs, etc., at least will know we really earned them, unlike, say, the Torrinis, who, I feel, must have family money.

Last night, after party, found Eva sad in her room. Asked why. She said no reason. But in sketch pad: crayon pic of row of sad SGs. Could tell were meant to be sad, due to frowns went down off faces like Fu Manchus and tears were dropping in arcs, flowers springing up where tears hit ground.

Note to self: Talk to her, explain that it does not hurt, they are not sad but actually happy, given what their prior conditions were like: they chose, are glad, etc.

At first I mistook this for a story about basic middle class-envy and suburban ennui, etc., but I shoulda known better. Parts were a Desaparecidos song made flesh, parts were way stranger and sci-fi-ish. This might be the longest piece in the collection. You can read it here.

Christie Hodgen, “Elegy for Elwood LePoer (1971-1992)”

ASF-44-2A poor, sad-sack loser inadvertently changes the life of a neighborhood girl.

(from American Short Fiction Summer 2009)

There wasn’t much chance for you (or Malinda, or my mother, or Bill, who killed himself a few years after your death) to turn out much differently than you did, the pathetic, the pitiable, the poor. In order to turn out any differently, one had to leave that place. One was, for a time, glad to do it–one was free–free!–one felt oneself weightless. And yet something about being poor stayed with a person and managed to trouble that new person’s life, no matter how far away she traveled.

I picked up some back issues of American Short Fiction at AWP in Boston. I picked up nine back issues, to be exact, and they were heavy but worth it. I’ve never heard of this author before, who has several books out (three, I think). Anyhow, this story, which is long, nearly novella length, really blew me away. It’s so, so good. It’s a story about Elwood LePoer, “dumb as a stick, a sock, a bag of rocks,” and yet he changed the course of the narrator’s life for the better. He did it unwittingly, same as he died, but he did it nevertheless. You can read some of it here.

In other news, American Short Fiction has announced its relaunch, which I’m really excited about. You can expect a new issue out this spring/summer.


George Saunders, “Exhortation”

Tenth-of-DecemberA boss’s memo encouraging everybody to keep doing the unspecified dirty work they’re there to do.

(from Tenth of December)

Am I saying whistle while you work? Maybe I am. Let us consider lifting a heavy dead carcass such as a whale.

A sinister, little story about unspoken horror and moral consequences that can be (barely) hidden by office bureaucracy. We never find out what’s going on, and that’s excellent.

The Rumpus did a roundtable-ish book club discussion of the book and this story in particular, and included Saunders. Absolutely worth the read.

George Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead”

Tenth-of-DecemberConvicts are guinea pigs for some intense mood-altering drugs.

(from Tenth of December)

Afterward, our protestations of love poured forth simultaneously, linguistically complex and metaphorically rich: I daresay we had become poets. We were allowed to lie there, limbs intermingled, for nearly an hour.  It was bliss. It was perfection. It was that impossible thing: happiness that does not wilt to reveal the thin shoots of some new desire rising from within it.

So far, the best story in the collection, and that’s saying something. This is Saunders in his wheelhouse, a lab that relentlessly observes/experiments on human subjects being not so different from a theme park/living exhibit/re-enactor type scenarios. The subjects are at the whims of some diabolical pharmaceuticals. Vivistif is for boners. Verbaluce ups your eleoquence. Darkenfloxx fills you with despair. The subjects aren’t just chemically induced into sex, they fall in love, at least until the drip stops. And that’s not even the craziest stuff that happens.

  • New Yorker subscribers can read it here.
  • You can read it in English and Chinese here, for some reason.
  • Moose And Gripes wrote about this story in 2010.


Maureen F. McHugh, “The Naturalist”

Maureen McHughAfter the ApocalypseA convict sentenced to life in the Cleveland zombie preserve takes a scientific interest in the undead.

(from After the Apocalypse)

She went from standing there to loping towards them. That was one of the things about zombies. They didn’t lean. They didn’t anticipate. One minute they were standing there, the next minute they were running towards you. They didn’t lead with their eyes or their chins. They were never surprised. They just were. As inexorable as rain. She didn’t look as she ran, even though she was running through debris and rubble, placing her feet and sometimes barely leaping.

McHugh’s zombies have some interesting nuances. For instance: It seems like you don’t really ever kill them, you just cut them down to little pieces and pile junk on them. Also they move in weird ways, and sometimes just stand still for hours until some unseen factor causes them to wander away. It’s precisely these behavioral peculiarities that fascinate loner exile Cahill, and inspire him to perform some experiments in the bombed-out urban wilderness of the zombie preserve. Things get pretty dark from there.

I suppose “The Naturalist” coulda used a tough-love editor to trim it down a bit, but that doesn’t really matter. This is a twisted horror story, super tense and memorable in weird ways despite how thinly the genre’s been spread. I’m looking forward to checking out some more stuff from this collection, which I purchased on a whim one day (sucker as I am, for apocalypse stories). Looks like you can read this story here.

William Maxwell, “Love”

41ABsJUmW9L._SS500_A pretty fifth-grade teacher dies of tuberculosis and her students mourn her loss.

(from Nothing But You: Love Stories From The New Yorker)

We meant to have her for our teacher forever. We intended to pass right up through the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades and on to high school taking her with us. But that isn’t what happened.

This story is so simple, so straight-forward that I couldn’t quite see its allure. I thought it was well written, but there wasn’t a whole lot more than what was happening on the surface: a pretty teacher dies and the children are sad. We don’t get to see how it affects them, what it means for them. Perhaps the first person plural kept me from attaching to the narrator sufficiently. Or perhaps I just found this simple tale unsatisfying, and wonder why The New Yorker found it worthy of publication.

It’s really short. You can listen to Tony Earley read it here.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper”

booksA woman put on bed rest for anxiety loses her mind.

(from The Yellow Wall-Paper)

It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw–not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.

But there is something else about that paper–the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.

It creeps all over the house.

Originally published in 1892, this story has been anthologized a lot. I hadn’t read it until yesterday, though (or if I read it before I don’t recall). It feels very modern and is written in a style that’s accessible to modern readers. It’s really compelling, and gets stranger and stranger as the narrator becomes unhinged.

You can read it here. You can watch the movie version here. I listened to it on iTunes at Bedtime Stories: Classic Tales for Sleepy Grownups (January 9, 2013), which I highly recommend–I really like the woman’s voice. She also reads an essay by Gilman, which discusses why the story was written. Apparently, the most common treatment for depression and anxiety used to be complete bed rest, which drove people completely mad.


Steven Millhauser, “Miracle Polish”

111114_r21489_p233A guy buys some kickass mirror cleaner and likes the way it improves his, and his gf’s, reflection. So he starts putting mirrors up all over the place.

(from Best American Short Stories 2012)

The product was called Miracle Polish. It cleaned mirrors with one easy flick of the wrist. He seemed surprised, even suspicious, when I said I’d take one, as if he had wandered the earth for years with the same case filled to bursting with unsold bottles. I tried not to imagine what would drive a man to go from house to house in a neighborhood like this one, with porches and old maples and kids playing basketball in driveways, a neighborhood where Girl Scouts sold you cookies and the woman across the street asked you to contribute to the leukemia drive, but no strangers with broken-down shoes and desperate eyes came tramping from door to door lugging heavy cases full of brown bottles called Miracle Polish.

Steven Millhauser is some kind of genius. This story coulda been written a hundred years ago, and it’ll probably still work a hundred years from now. It’s just a simple, smart, straight-forward story. You should read it. And you can. By the way, Fail Better wrote a lot more about this story. You should go there, too.

(Recommended musical accompaniment: Scott Churchman.)