After her husband threatens to leave, a woman drives the family car into the Atlantic Ocean.
(from Georgia Under Water)
When the breakers hit, the car nosed up, then down. Angling down, it lost ground–that is, from our point of view. It came back toward shore–a good two waves’ worth. Everything seemed about to be okay; the car easing back to the beach, the windows rolled down. She could get out. I knew she wouldn’t leave her purse.
“She won’t leave her purse,” said Sid.
This story is told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl. It begins, “In the good days, my family lived in a condo, on the twenty-third floor of Pleasure Towers in Ormond Beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.” Over the course of the story, we see the family–a boy, a girl, and their parents–fall apart. Or they were always falling apart but the narrator has just now realized it. Things have just now hit the point at which they can no longer be ignored, when mothers drive their cars into the ocean, when children hang from balconies and ask for sips of their father’s drinks. Everything is wet and hot and sweating profusely and Sellers captures this feeling of disintegration so well.
This collection was published in 2001 and I’m not totally sure it’s still in print, but it’s excellent. The last story in the collection, “Fla. Boys,” is one of my favorite stories of all time.
After silence overtakes a city, the people begin to miss noise.
(from Best American Short Stories 2008)
That the city’s whole immense carousel of sound should stop at one and the same moment was unusual, of course, but not exactly inexplicable. We had witnessed the same phenomenon on a lesser scale at various cocktail parties and interoffice minglers over the years, when the pauses in the conversations overlapped to produce an air pocket of total silence, making us all feel as if we’d been caught eavesdropping on one another.
This story is divided into twenty-five parts, which suited it well. I wanted to give it a chance even though it’s not my kind of story–I’m so literal that I couldn’t quite get over how the logistics of this silence worked. One other problem with stories like this: they all seem rather predictable. I mean, after the people embrace silence, what is there for them to do but crave noise again?
That being said, I liked it okay, and wanted to finish it once I was a few pages in. I think I’ve pretty much ruined it for you but you can read it here, anyhow.
A robot programmed to learn and experiment breaks out of storage and his handlers have to scramble to contain him.
(from Soviet Science Fiction, 1962, translated by Violet L. Dutt)
Urm was bored.
Actually only man and a few animals are capable of boredom as a reaction to a monotonous situation or inner dissatisfaction with oneself, when one loses interest in life. To be bored, there must be something that gets bored — a delicate, perfectly organized nervous system. One has to know how to think or, at any rate, to suffer. Urm had no nervous system in the ordinary sense of the word, and he could not think, still less suffer. He could only perceive, remember and act. And yet he was bored.
Alternately wickedly interesting and desert-dry, this funny little story didn’t really go anywhere, plot-wise. I have a totally unsubstantiated notion that the dull, protocol-is-best, vaguely jingoistic conclusion is a symptom of this story’s Soviet origin, but I could be wrong. In any case, “Spontaneous Reflex” will be memorable for its odd pace and a few brilliant little scenes — like Urm trying to use his 15 built-in sense organs to make sense of a mirror. Urm stands for Universal Robot Machine, although a character blurts out Uliana-Robert-Mama at one point and I’m not sure why (maybe it’s an odd translation of the acronym in the Russian phonetic alphabet).
Did some Googling, but I couldn’t find the version I read anywhere online. Instead, check out this very different translation, wherein Urm is Utm. According to Wikipedia, the Strugatsky brothers wrote together for some 30-plus years, and wrote far more novels and stories together than solo.
I picked up this sharp, pocket-size collection at Port Richmond Books here in Philadelphia the other day. Five bucks, a bit musty and just enough wear to tell me it had been read before. It is, by the way, an amazing and amazingly cluttered bookstore built in an old movie theater. Recommended.
A divorcee ditches dream control camp to wander around a resort at the edge of a volcano.
(from Best American Short Stories 2012)
Growing older had proved a formidable calamity.
I’ve been thinking about volcanos recently, probably after listening to this edition of The Straight Dope. Among other things, the podcast/article pointed out that bubbling open-faced volcanos — a la Joe Vs. The Volcano — do not exist in the natural world. Which means this hilarious bit by Kyle Kinane about how to barbecue via volcano is kinda moot. But it’s still a very funny take on insomniacal brain rampages, which this story is concerned with as well.
In Lawrence Osborne’s story, the volcano is just a glowing, restless thing in the distance, probably a metaphor for something or other (aging, sexual unrest, inescapable everyday life, whatevs). Martha never puts the metaphor into words, but she can’t take her eye off the volcano, and it draws her to it in one of those literary ways you just have to put up with. We’re privy to her agonies over where she is in life, and how much she dreams and thinks about “phalli,” but when she decides to rent a Vespa and take a mini-vacation from her vacation, her though process is suddenly smoky. Why does she do it? Because she does. Which is, yeah, the way dreams tend to work: We become observers to our own actions.
Of course, one of the many things this story concerns itself with is dream control. Martha takes a drug that a self-styled Hawaiian dream guru says makes it easier for people to control and remember their dreams. And while Martha escapes this new agey adventure early on, it doesn’t leave her thoughts. So, are we supposed to think her trip to the volcano resort was just another dream? I don’t think so, but there’s room for doubt. This is a strange and beautifully written story. Unpredictable, too.
Silk-spinning mothgirl slaves look to change their situation.
(from Vampires in the Lemon Grove)
The Agent boasts that he has made us the most productive machines in the empire.
Obviously this is a work of delicate and remarkable literary fiction — with some savvy things to say about exploited mill workers in developing economies — but it’s also a fun and freaky piece of sci-fi. In fact, I’ve just started this collection, but so far Karen Russell’s two-for-two when it comes to stories with supernatural/hypernatural characters. So cool. Along those lines, I decided to crop the book jacket so you could get a good look at that freaky looking bat. It’s weird, right?
I couldn’t find this story online; buy the book and read this interview.
A man gets into a car accident on his way to work.
(from Do Not Deny Me)
I wondered if the woman who hit me was At Fault, in the way these things are reckoned, hitting from behind being one of the criteria of Fault. I knew she had been worried about the looming possibilities, including my own injuries. If I had been damaged, or even inconvenienced, if I was some unpleasant and litigious type–and I very well might be, I couldn’t yet say–there could be a lot of trouble.
Jean Thompson is amazing. This is a pretty short short story, maybe 2,500 or 3,000 words, and yet Thompson is able to perfectly capture the after-effects of a traumatic event. The man loses the ability to speak, forgets who he is. And then we see him come back to himself. In this brief story, we feel we know him, his life, even though so little has been told to us.
Today on my way to the post office, I saw a young man riding his scooter. He abruptly changed lanes and I thought something along the lines of, ‘He is being very careless.’ About three minutes later, the car in front of him stopped suddenly and the man didn’t have time to brake. He slid onto the pavement, hitting his head. He was able to walk away but he was stunned and possibly badly injured. I don’t know. Anyhow, this story feels appropriate for today. You can read some of it here.
A boy has an isolated, impoverished childhood in St. Louis.
(from First Love and Other Sorrows)
So I was thirteen and Edward was seven and he wanted me to love him, but he was not old enough or strong enough to help me. He could not make his parents share their wealth and comfort with me, or force them to give me a place in their home. He was like most of the people I knew–eager and needful of my love; for I was quite remarkable and made incredible games, which were better than movies or than the heart could hope for. I was a dream come true.
“The State of Grace” is unremittingly bleak. Everything is overlooked, second-hand, not nearly enough. It is something I’ve gotten called out for in fiction workshops. Life isn’t so bad, they say. There is laughter and happiness in spite of the bleakness. This story rejects that idea. It’s about a young, highly intelligent boy who has no support network at home or school. The majority of it centers around the narrator’s relationship with the much-better-off child he babysits for, Edward. Perhaps I like “The State of Grace” so much, in large part, because of Richard Ford’s smooth, Southern voice.
This is my introduction to Brodkey, and was written when the author was 24 years old. It was his first published story. There are so many lovely sentences that made me pause and think, that made me wish I had written them. You should listen to it ASAP.
Eternity is a long time stay in one place sucking lemons and pretending everything’s benissimo.
(from Vampires in the Lemon Grove)
I study her neck as she says this, her head rolling with the natural expressiveness of a girl. She checks to see if I am watching her collarbone, and I let her see that I am. I feel like a threat again.
These aren’t the emo glitter-suckers of Twilight or the gnarly, ravenous virals of The Passage. The vampires in this lemon grove are kinda old-school: worldly but trapped everywhere they go, civilized but driven by embarrassingly brutish apetites, imortal and unhappy. There are some twists, of course — Clyde and Magreb abate their thirst by sinking their fangs into lemons — and Russell’s uniquely suave and thoughtful prose takes the myth into interesting philosophical places. I’d almost forgotten how confident and lovely her sentences are, how comfortable they are in their own skin. I know what I mean.
You can read the story here.
A college professor’s world is upset when a famous man enrolls in her class.
(from portraits of a few of the people I’ve made cry)
She is sweating and nervous and giddily irritated. Seeing Alex Rice for the first time, she feels her face redden. He smiles at her and nods, and though she has trouble believing it, he seems a little nervous too, or else dazed.
I really liked this story. It reminded me of the time James Franco visited the University of Texas when he was premiering his movie, Sal. During the Q & A, a girl stood up and asked if he might come to UT, which was a little embarrassing. Franco was pretty lovely, though, and I liked Sal, which got bad reviews, but I’m off topic. The story feels incredibly real, and the narrator’s vulnerability is palpable. The reader can put herself in the narrator’s shoes, imagining this man in the front row with all of his wealth and good looks, his bodyguard waiting outside. Teaching is hard enough without having to deal with beautiful famous people trying to be regular people.
This story inhabits a fully-functioning world. I think I just might be a big fan of Sneed, after all. “Alex Rice Inc.” isn’t online, but here’s an interview with the author.
A 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.