Monthly Archives: September 2013

Joy Williams, “The Skater”

Screen-Shot-2012-02-13-at-8.39.04-PMAnnie and Tom and Molly are looking at boarding schools. Molly’s sister, Martha, has recently died after choking on a piece of bread.

(from Escapes)

Molly can’t see her parents’ faces. She can’t remember the way they looked when she was little. She can’t remember what she and Martha last argued about. She wants to ask them about Martha. She wants to ask them if they are sending her so far away so that they can imagine Martha is just far away too. But she knows she will never ask such questions. There are secrets now. The dead have their secrets and the living have their secrets with the dead. This is the way it must be.

This paragraph really affected me. It made me think of all of the people I’ve known whose parents have lost children–siblings they never knew, babies born dead or that lived for only a short time. And these living children find out via overheard telephone conversations or when their parents are dying (or think they are dying). Stemming from this first secret, other secrets begin to infect all parts of their lives. They are often saying things like, ‘but don’t say anything because my brother doesn’t know.’ I find these families curious. My siblings and I are big mouths. My parents, too. My mother can be secretive but she’s the type that never had anything much to keep secret.

Anyhow, this is another great story by Williams in an amazing collection. I can’t find it online, but here’s a Bookslut interview with the author.

Alethea Black, “That of Which We Cannot Speak”

10292397Bradley goes to a party full of strangers and makes a connection with a (temporarily) mute woman.

(from I Knew You’d Be Lovely)

Half an hour later, the air was hotter, the music louder, and the room more crowded. The party had become its own throbbing cocoon. Bradly and Samantha still stood in the center of the living room, passing the clipboard back and forth, only now they were also juggling their colossal martinis. At one point a passerby had observed their antics and shouted: “Get a blackboard, you two!”

I’ve read about half of the stories in this collection and this one stands out the most to me–I keep thinking about these characters, wondering about them. The premise is great and the narrator feels fully realized. He doesn’t want to go to this New Year’s Eve party and makes an unexpected connection with a woman, which comes as a total surprise to him.  Here’s an excerpt.

Joy Williams, “Escapes”

Screen-Shot-2012-02-13-at-8.39.04-PMA mother and daughter drive to Portland to see a magician.

(from Escapes)

My mother went to the phone and ordered two tickets, and not many days after that, we were in our car driving to Portland for the matinee performance. I very much liked the word matinee. Matinee, matinee, I said. There was a broad hump on the floor between our seats and it was here where my mother put her little glass, the glass often full, never, it seemed, more than half empty. We chatted together and I thought we must have appeared interesting to others as we passed by in our convertible in winter. My mother spoke about happiness. She told me that happiness that comes out of nowhere, out of nothing, is the very best kind.

This is the title story from Williams’ 1990 collection, which I recently bought at a friend’s recommendation. The books is in perfect condition and I wonder why hardcovers are so much cheaper to buy used.

I loved “Escapes.” Stories told from a child’s perspective are difficult to write well and she pulls this off beautifully–the voice is direct and smart while maintaining all of the wonder and fear of a small child. It was originally published in The Chicago Tribune. Here’s a link, though I’m not sure how to make all of those awful ads go away, or if it’s possible. Probably not.

You should also listen to her read “Why I Write” from her essay collection, Ill Nature. It’s the best ‘why I write’ essay I’ve ever encountered. (The other Tin House podcasts are pretty awesome, too.)

Antonya Nelson, “Literally”

121203_r22886_p233A day of minor inconveniences reminds a family that no day could ever be as bad as the worst one.

(from The New Yorker)

Bonita’s shoulders heaved. Tears: they did not require translation. How convenient it would be, Richard thought, Bonita’s wiry hair against his neck, her face on his shoulder, how terribly useful if they could simply wed, he minus a wife, she with her problematic ex-husband, and regroup together like a sitcom family in the fortified comfort of Richard’s house across town, an arrangement that would be possible if they could just ignore that troubling enigma of love.

A friend and I recently decided that we would reread Female Trouble together, Nelson’s collection that was published in 2002. She loved it when she read it; I did not. I don’t remember what I didn’t like about it, exactly, but I think it’s something along these lines: the stories often felt like stories to me, like made up people doing made up things. She uses dialogue tags like “sobbed” and “fretted” and “cried” as opposed to the unobtrusive “said” and “asked.” She uses simple language with the occasional odd/obscure word thrown in, taking me out of the story.

Anyhow, this is a long way of saying that I wanted to give her another chance. As I began “Literally,” I was reluctant to like it: it began with a family around a breakfast table; was told in third person; there were all these offensive dialogue tags. But I ended up really digging it (this story is not in Female Trouble, btw). “Literally” is about a father navigating a world without his wife, trying to hold his family together and do the right thing, be a good man. In the end, it’s a really affecting portrait of a day in these people’s lives. I’m looking forward to getting started on Female Trouble soon. Maybe today.

Read it here.

Susan Steinberg, “To Sit, Unmoving”

9781573661294_p0_v1_s260x420A girl and her brother move in with their father after their mother’s death.

(from Hydroplane)

And there was a night my brother and I walked home from the city park. The street was unlit and we were the only ones. A car slowed beside us. We kept on walking. It was Baltimore and we knew how to get home. The car crept along and we walked a bit faster. The window went down. The man said, Get in, and we ran.


And I always wondered, years after the man slowed his car and said, Get in, where we might have gone had we gotten in.

This story really blows my mind. I mean, really blows it. It’s long and the structure isn’t linear. It’s so wonderful that I hope it took her years to write so I won’t want to give up on writing forever.

“To Sit, Unmoving” tells the story of the siblings’ lives in Baltimore as well as their lives in San Juan, where their father owns a factory that makes masks that “filter dirt.” I love Steinberg’s asshole father and this brother who is not retarded but laughs at inappropriate times and can’t tie his shoelaces: “My brother could say the alphabet backward and he could count backward and he could do other things that I couldn’t do. And I wasn’t stupid. So he wasn’t retarded.”

This story was originally published in McSweeney’s 20. It won a National Magazine Award in 2007. You really need to buy this collection and read and read and be jealous and want her to be your bestest friend in the world. Or maybe not, because then I won’t feel so special.