Monthly Archives: April 2013

Jamie Quatro, “Here”

9780802120755A man has to find a new way to live after the death of his wife.

(from I Want to Show You More)

Those last days it was his job to squirt dropper after dropper of morphine down her throat. The hospice nurses would turn away when he dosed up the medication, or leave the room–avoiding the conversation he was not permitted to begin.

Neil is taking his four children to the lake cottage for the first time after his wife’s death. The children complain and discuss landmarks and I began to wonder what the story was about. I became much more interested when memories from Neil’s past were filtered in; his memories of his wife are engaging and vivid. Quatro’s writing is solid, clear and easy to read.

This story isn’t online but you can read a review of the collection here. And here’s the soundtrack the author made at largehearted boy.

George Saunders, “Home”

Tenth-of-DecemberA soldier returns from the war to find that things are pretty screwed up at home, too.

(from Tenth of December)

Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window.

“Get in here, you,” Ma said.

Inside were piles of newspapers on the stove and piles of magazines on the stairs and a big wad of hangers sticking out of the broken oven. All of that was as usual. New was: a water stain the shape of a cat head on the wall above the fridge and the old orange rug rolled up halfway.

“Still ain’t no beeping cleaning lady,” Ma said.

How shall I praise George Saunders today? How about this: Stories like “Home” make the contagiousness of their cynicism optional. If you want to, you can read this story from a safe distance, and never let the horribleness of its heightened reality poison your mind. That’s pretty much how it is for the characters, so beaten down are they by the grim violence and carelessness of their existence. It’s funny-sad or just funny, depending on how much you believe these are real people in a real world.

And now a thought exercise: Imagine the novelization of Idiocracy, as written by George Saunders.

Jamie Quatro, “1.7 to Tennessee”

9780802120755An elderly woman attempts to deliver a letter to the post office.

(from I Want to Show You More)

Sometimes she forgot and said she didn’t know where the sweater came from, and when she said this, it was as true as when she told the story about the dead son. She wasn’t always sure if the thing had actually happened or if it was just something she read in a book. When she told the story, she felt she had not even known the boy in the jungle; she told it without emotion, as if describing a scene from a stage play, the boy who stepped onto the booby trap just an actor who was now carrying on another life somewhere.

This story authentically captures the perspective of an eighty-nine-year-old woman who sets out on a walk to the post office. She is carrying an anti-war letter in her pocket and keeps feeling for it to remind herself of her mission. There are some really beautiful moments here, particularly when the woman thinks of her son: “She felt certain that, were she able to kiss his cheek, she would remember how to feel sadness and grief, love and longing.” This sentence makes me happy to be able to feel–how lucky we are to feel. That being said, I was a little underwhelmed with the story as a whole. I felt like something was missing.

This story was originally published in The Antioch Review. If you have library access, you can read it at JSTOR. Otherwise, you can read a small portion of it here.


Laura Kasischke, “Mona”

If-AStranger-Approaches-You_custom-5820fb3c6f972eeb73a7324443c67e1c11777d80-s2A single mother makes a disturbing discovery while snooping in her daughter’s room.

(from If a Stranger Approaches You)

Abigail was a good daughter, an A student, had never been in any trouble…

But Mona also knew how wrong things could go when they went wrong. She’d been a teenager. She’d come dangerously close to the edge of something, herself, at that age.

This is more flash fiction than short story. It’s a brief series of events–a mother snooping, finding something, and confronting her daughter. The story ends with the daughter wailing. I’m still not quite sure what was found. I’m a little underwhelmed by “Mona,” particularly as the first story in a collection. It’s told very simply and there’s no resolution. I want to know what the thing is, at least, and why the daughter is wailing over it. I don’t know. Just a little unsatisfied with this one…

Guy de Maupassant, “The Terror”

365466A man gets married so he doesn’t have to spend his nights alone.

(from The Dark Side: Tales of Terror and the Supernatural)

It began last year, in a very strange manner on a damp autumn evening. When my servant had left the room, after I had dined, I asked myself what I was going to do. I walked up and down my room for some time, feeling tired without any reason for it, unable to work and even without energy to read…

Henry-Rene-Albert-Guy de Maupassant, often credited with being the originator of the commercial literary short story, was born on August 5, 1850 in France. He was super prolific. He attempted to kill himself in 1892 and died in Paris the following year. I include the bit about attempting suicide because writers collect information like this. Why do we love to hear about those that killed themselves? Or maybe it’s just me.

Anyhow, this is the first story by Guy de Maupassant that I have ever read, or remember reading, and it feels very modern. It’s creepy and ghostly but also true-to-life. The writing is lovely. I’m not going to say any more about it because it really is just about a man who cannot be alone. Haven’t you ever felt like this?

You should listen to it here. I love this podcast: Bedtime Stories: Classic Tales for Sleepy Grownups by Parker Leventer. She used to do these terrible voices but someone must have told her to stop, and, thankfully, she did.

Jack London, “To Build a Fire”

To-Build-a-Fire-and-Other-Stories-London-Jack-9780553213355A man and his Husky are traveling the Yukon Trail on a very cold day.

(from To Build a Fire)

As he turned to go on, he spat speculatively. There was a sharp, explosive crackle that startled him. He spat again. And again, in the air, before it could fall to the snow, the spittle crackled. He knew that at fifty below spittle crackled on the snow, but this spittle had crackled in the air. Undoubtedly it was colder than fifty below—how much colder he did not know. But the temperature did not matter. He was bound for the old claim on the left fork of Henderson Creek, where the boys were already.

I’m sure I read Jack London in high school, though I don’t think I would have appreciated this story then. I’m sure I wouldn’t have. There’s a lot of repetition and it builds really slowly. I also don’t like the way he treats his dog, though I understand that the dog wasn’t a pet or a companion to him.

The man, who is nameless, is walking on a trail that hasn’t been traveled in quite some time. He is fairly new to the country and doesn’t heed the advice of the “old-timers.” I can’t say much more than that without giving something away. This site has all 197 Jack London stories online, apparently, which is pretty cool. You can also find “To Start a Fire” at Bedtime Stories: Classic Tales for Sleepy Grownups, which I love.


Kurt Vonnegut, “Jenny”

200px-WhileMortalsSleepA refrigerator salesman and his lovely automaton refrigerator assistant travel around dazzling crowds and selling fridges.

(from While Mortals Sleep)

Jenny was radio-controlled, and those controls were in those trick shoes of George’s — under his toes.

This was an impulse buy. I’ve read pretty much everything in Vonnegut’s bibliography, so I knew I’d pick up While Mortals Sleep eventually, but these posthumous collections give me pause. I’ve found it’s best to go into them knowing that these are often early and lesser works, sillier stuff, sometimes, with lower stakes. “Jenny” fits that mold. It’s got some things to say about how people get attached to non-people, but mostly it’s just a fun little yarn from the, I wanna say, ’60s. Still better than most things in the world.

Claire Vaye Watkins, “The Last Thing We Need”

628x471A man writes letters to the man whose letters and things he found in an abandoned town.

(from Battleborn)

I think there will be lightning tonight; the air has that feel.

Please, write back.

Today was one of those early spring days where everybody dresses light and sits outside and pretends it’s not actually still pretty chilly out. I read this one in Rittenhouse Square. It was unexpectedly heavy at the end. I am too tired to think about why I liked it, but I did. I bet this was inspired, partly, by the one segment I remember from This American Life, although it’s actually pretty different so maybe not. Read ”The Last Thing We Need” here. And here are some pics of Rhyolite, the abandoned Nevada town at the center of this story.