Connie Willis, “At the Rialto”

9780345540652Whose idea was it to hold this quantum physics conference at a Hollywood hotel?

(from The Best of Connie Willis)

Seriousness of mind was a prerequisite for understanding Newtonian physics. I am not convinced it is not a handicap in understanding quantum theory. Excerpt from Dr. Gedanken’s keynote address to the 1989 International Congress of Quantum Physicists Annual Meeting, Hollywood

I got to Hollywood around one-thirty and started trying to check into the Rialto.

“Sorry, we don’t have any rooms,” the girl behind the desk said. “We’re all booked up with some science thing.”

“I’m with the science thing,” I said. “Dr. Ruth Baringer. I reserved a double.”

“There are a bunch of Republicans here, too, and a tour group from Finland. They told me when I started work here that they got all these movie people, but the only one I’ve seen so far was that guy who played the friend of that other guy in that one movie. You’re not a movie person, are you?”

“No,” I said. “I’m with the science thing. Dr. Ruth Baringer.”

“My name’s Tiffany” she said. “I’m not actually a hotel clerk at all. I’m just working here to pay for my transcendental posture lessons. I’m really a model-slash-actress.”

This was a fun one, although I found the tone shifts a bit annoying, and it show its age a little. At times I found myself trying to wrap my head around quick snippets of quantum Newtonian theoretical concepts. And then, just a moment later, I’m enduring some rather broad, over-the-top wacky comedy about how everybody in Weirdowood is so befuddlingly, adorably, somehow harmlessly weird. I’m not sure why I resisted at first. Best way to enjoy this ridiculous story is to just relax and play along. Seriousness of mind indeed. Read it here.

tumblr_kx8svwbe5l1qa2rjoo1_1280

Elizabeth McCracken, “Hungry”

summer-of-76-wrapA grandmother finds out her sick son will be taken off life support while she’s watching his daughter.

(from Thunderstruck)

The grandmother was a bright, cellophane-wrapped hard candy of a person: sweet, but not necessarily what a child wanted. She knew it, to. That sad bicentennial summer, her son in the hospital recovering from surgery, she and her granddaughter look for comfort all over Des Moines: at the country club, the dinner club, the miniature-golf-course snack bar, the popcorn stand at the shopping mall, the tea room at Younkers, every buffet, every branch of Bishop’s Cafeteria. What the girl liked best: to choose your own food, not just chocolate cream pie, but a particular, considered wedge. To stand before the tall, toqued brunch chef, who minted Belgian waffle after Belgian waffle and rendered them unto you. The world of heat lamped fried chicken and tall glasses of cubed Jell-O and dinner rolls with pats of butter so refrigerated you had to warm them in the palm of your hand before they’d spread.

Read that. It aches with sweet, vaguely ugly nostalgia. This story is a heartbreaker. Even the really funny stuff — “it was so hot you could hear the mayonnaise go bad” — is almost unbearably sad. This is the story of a grandmother racked with guilt but also trying to defend herself from the judgment of hindsight. Sylvia’s son, like her husband, has a weight problem. Her daughter does not, but feels scarred by how she was raised to think about food. (That’s one item on a long laundry list of grievances she reads to her mom one day.) And Sylvia’s granddaughter, visiting for the summer around the bicentennial, seems to have gained a lot of weight under her grandmother’s generous watch.

[79 to go in 2014]

Elizabeth McCracken, “The House of the Two Three Legged Dogs”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A couple who likes to collect animals is being evicted from their giant French house by their son.

(from Thunderstruck)

In the December rain the buildings around the town square were the color of dirty fingernails. Still, the French had tried to jolly things up a bit. Decorations hung from streetlamps, though at midday you couldn’t tell what lit bulbs would reveal at night: A curried prawn? A goiter? People had dangled toddler-size nylon Father Christmases out their windows, each with a shoulder-borne sack of presents. There were dozens of Father Christmases, and they hung slack, sodden, like snagged kites. They looked lynched.

Tony drove the old Escort around the covered market a second time. He and Izzy and the kids had lived outside Bazaillac for eleven years. At the start, people in town called them Les Anglais, because they were the only ones. Now the whole valley was overrun with English. You could fly into Bergerac for three quid on Ryanair, flash the mere cover of your EU passport to the on-duty Frenchman, and strike out. You could buy an old presbytery or millhouse for next to nothing, turn the outbuildings into gites and rent them for the summer, and then sit back and live the good life — or so they thought. They renovated or half renovated the properties and then lost heart, complained about how many other English were in the area: you couldn’t go into a market without being assaulted by the terrible voices of your countrymen. Tony had heard that Slovenia and Macedonia were the new places to go. He wished Slovenia and Macedonia luck.

hereLooking back on this story after hours of contemplation and sleep, I can see that McCracken’s really laying the patheticness on pretty thick here: the titular three-legged dogs and other stray animals, the old parents who have barely a euro to their names, the excess of alcohol, the obese friend who lives in his truck, etc. But this only added up in a general sort of way while I reading it, and I didn’t once think I was being manipulated by unfortunate (or unlikely) forces. The story is what it is: beautiful. Especially the room full of budgies. But also the sad spectacle of this giant, withering house and the people within, also withering giants, in a way. Even Sid’s magnificent belly, which McCracken lingers on with awe, is afforded some semblance of respect. Read it here.

 

pic from budgiesareawesome.com

pic from budgiesareawesome.com

Words This Story Taught Me:

  • presbytery (n) the residence, or former residence, of one or more priests or ministers of religion
  • gîte (n) a holiday home which is available for rent; gîtes are usually fully furnished and equipped for self-catering
  • pineau (n) a regional French aperitif, made in the départements of Charente, Charente-Maritime and, to a much lesser extent, Dordogne in western France. It is a fortified wine (mistelle or vin de liqueur), made from a blend of lightly fermented grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie

Sam Lipsyte, “The Worm in Philly”

2592412_origA junkie decides he’s going to write a children’s book and goes looking for a publisher.

(from The Paris Review)

Classic American story: I was out of money and people I could ask for money. Then I got what the Greeks, or even the Greek Americans, call a eureka moment.

I would write a book for children about the great middleweight Marvelous Marvin Hagler. My father had been a sportswriter before he started forgetting things, like the fact he had been a sportswriter, so the idea did not seem crazy. Probably it’s like when your father is president. You think: if that fuck could do it.

Why Marvelous Marvin Hagler? He was one of the best of his time, my time, really, the time I was a boy. His marvels meant something to me. Why for children? Children were people you could reach. You could really reach out and reach them. Plus, low word count. That meant I’d get the money faster. I was experimenting with unemployment. I was no longer experimenting with drugs. I was more in what you’d call an implementation phase.

I love the way this story takes it for granted that I’m interested enough to figure out what’s going on, that it doesn’t stop to explain every little thing. It just keeps chugging along fast, to keep up with its wandering narrator and his wandering thoughts. This is what I’d hoped I find when I tried to read a Philip K. Dick novel (the name of which escapes me). Maybe I’m talking out of my ass here, but I think drug culture, in the hands of a good writer, can have a dystopian quality, the feeling that there’s this harsh system out there built for everybody but you, pushing you into the margins. This story’s beautiful, with a healthy respect for its tragicomically flawed subjects. Read it here.

Connie Willis, “A Letter from the Clearys”

9780345540652A girl living with her family deep in the woods finds a long lost letter.

(from The Best of Connie Willis)

My hands are a real mess. This winter I’ve gotten about a hundred burns on the back of my hands from that stupid wood stove of ours. One spot, just above my wrist, I keep burning over and over so it never has a chance to heal. The stove isn’t big enough and when I try to jam a log in that’s too long the same spot hits the inside of the stove every time. My stupid brother David won’t saw them off to the right length. I’ve asked him and asked him to please cut them shorter, but he doesn’t pay any attention to me.

I asked Mom if she would please tell him not to saw the logs so long, but she didn’t. She never criticizes David. As far as she’s concerned he can’t do anything wrong just because he’s twenty-three and was married.

Yeah, that’s the stuff. I love a story that offers a ground-level view of a worldwide incident. In this case, civilization seems to have been brought down by nuclear war. “A Letter from the Clearys” was first published in 1983, when nuclear annihilation was a more popular nightmare. This story reminded me of Peter Heller’s 2012 novel The Dog Stars, Which I read earlier this year. It also offered a rural and solitary view of post-civilization survivors (if I recall correctly, disease was the killer in that one). I bet you both will hold up for a long time; Willis and Heller are tapping into a thrilling/terrifying question we’ve all probably asked ourselves: If society went to hell, could we go back to living like pioneers?

Music purists turn up their noses at greatest hits compilations, but this thick, cheap collection was hard to resist (even though I was looking for a Willis novel at the time). Each story here comes with a postscript; in this one the author talks about the mountain town that inspired this story and offers advice for struggling writers facing rejection letters.

Elizabeth McCracken, “Juliet”

julietThe lady all the librarians found interesting is murdered. Which is also interesting.

(from Thunderstruck)

We called the bunny that lived in the children’s room Kaspar, as in Kaspar Hauser, but the children who came to torment and visit it thought we meant the friendly ghost.

Nobody saw the murder coming, which is how murder works. I certainly didn’t see it coming. I thought this would be a lower-stakes story for some reason, though starting with the library’s trapped and frightened pet rabbit should’ve been a clue. This might be my favorite story in Thunderstruck so far. It’s probably the least neat and the most paranoid, which might be part of it. I like what the L.A. Times wrote about it:

In “Juliet,” a group of small-town librarians commune in mourning over the shocking murder of one of their patrons, whom they’ve nicknamed Juliet. They comb through checked-out library books and try to piece together evidence through library gossip: “She knew someone was after her… [She] had once asked for a book that would tell her how to keep people out of her house.” The librarians insert themselves into Juliet’s death, claiming a sense of ownership over her. They want to be a part of the story. They want their feeling of loss to make sense.

I’m sure we’re all getting tired of me just posting every so often about about how Elizabeth McCracken is awesome, but what can I do? She is. And, even with the extension, this book’s due back to a real-life library soon, so I’m going to keep marching through it.

Lavie Tidhar, “Selfies”

full_selfiesA young woman who takes a lot of selfies leaves behind clues to her terrible fate.

(from Tor.com)

In one of the last pictures I am running. I am running down the street and it is dark, the street lamps are dim and the light oozes down sickly and yellow. I can feel my heart almost bursting in my chest, the taste of something sour and unpleasant in my mouth. I’m running as fast as I can. I have to get away.

The moon is a sickle moon. Its cheek is pockmarked with acne scars. It looks down on me; it hangs overhead like a malformed knife. They’re running behind me and they’re gaining. They’re not even running hard. They spread out around me, they match their pace to mine, easily, without effort. They whisper my name: Ellie, Ellie.

Suckered by the title and that killer illustration (by Greg Ruth), I printed out this fun little horror story to read on my lunch break yesterday. Not too shabby. “Selfie” is fast-paced and creepy, and classic in a Stephen King sort of way (though I’m sure he’d have done it in triple the word count). Basically, it’s exactly what I want from Tor. Read it here.

Elizabeth McCracken, “Some Terpsichore”

newspaper3Miss Porth looks back on her career as a singer who sounded like a singing saw.

(from Thunderstruck)

Maybe I loved Gabe already. What’s love at first sight but a bucket through over you that smoothers out all of your previous self-loathing, so that you can see yourself slick and matted down and audacious? At least, I believed for the first time I was capable of being loved.

Or maybe I just loved the saw.

Yeah, I keep unleashing McCracken. Can you blame me? She’s my favorite right now. Also this book is due back to the library eventually. “Some Terpsichore” is, perhaps, even more idiosyncratic than anything else I’ve read by this author, with funny little sentences and phrases dropped in that only sort of jibe with the tale being told. Or maybe I’m tired. Judging by “Some Terpsichore,” McCracken knows her music and knows her Philly, by the way. Or fakes it expertly. Damn I want to hear this music. Damn I want to own a mint copy of Miss Porth Sings!

Word This Story Taught Me:

  • Terpsichore (n) the Greek Muse of dancing and choral song.

Joyce Carol Oates, “Fossil-Figures”

Stories-UKTwins — one an alpha male “demon brother,” the other small and sickly — grow apart but remain linked.

(from Stories)

At a fever pitch childhood passed for the demon brother who was first in all things. At a glacial pace childhood passed for the smaller brother who trailed behind his twin in all things. The demon brother was joyous to behold, pure infant fire, radiant thrumming energy, every molecule of his being quivering with life, appetite, me me me. The smaller brother was often sick, lungs filled with fluids, a tiny valve in his heart fluttered, soft bones of his curving spine, soft bones of his bowed legs, anemia, weak appetite, and the skull subtly misshapen from the forceps delivery, his cries were breathy, bleating, nearly inaudible me? me? For the demon brother was first in all things.

Edgar “Eddie” Waldman is the demon brother, though we don’t see him doing demonic things, necessarily. He’s a bully, and is especially violent toward his sad little brother, whom he made small in the womb and tortured while they were growing up. Eddie’s a lifelong asshole, no doubt about it, but I kept waiting for him to exhibit some subhuman or superhuman traits, something that would warrant our narrator declaring him the demon brother outright. In fact, there’s an epilogue which hints (and perhaps I’m just jumping to conclusions) that some aspects of this story are based on a newspaper clipping. A simple story, ornately told. You can read it here on this weird site that maybe should not exist.

154-treehouseofhorrorviiLots of people have read and commented on this story, mostly when Stories came out in 2010:

David Hebblethwaite gave it three and a half stars, and wrote: “Oates’s prose is dense, with long paragraphs and repeated phrases, which has the effect of putting distance between the reader and events — there’s no forgetting that this a story being told.” I agree with David. I give his last name five stars.

Sophia of Page Plucker wrote “This is not a nice story, but it is extremely well-written and really made me think.” Sophia is right. The not-niceness of this story is unrelenting.

Mario Guslandi of SFSite calls this story a “a masterpiece of subtlety and a wonderful parable of life’s conflicting aspects as represented by the opposite destinies of two very different twins.” I think I agree.

Betsy of Books by Betsy says “Joyce Carol Oates could have shortened ‘Fossil Figures,’ by half.” It didn’t drag on for me, though my reading was interrupted by my train reaching its destination.

 

 

Elizabeth McCracken, “Property”

51vAWyA+csL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_A widower rents out a family’s former home in Maine and finds it dirty and disappointing.

(from Thunderstruck)

The house wasn’t a Victorian, as he’d for some reason assumed, but an ordinary wood-framed house painted toothpaste blue. Amazing, how death made petty disappointments into operatic insults.

Some stories are stories, like the ones in the Neil Gaiman story collection Stories I just started. Others are more like… extended realizations. Plot-wise, they’re a little thin, because the point is really that a character finally understands something well enough to cast it in a warmer, brighter light. This is one of those stories, sort of. A guy moves into a place, time rushes by, he moves out. We the readers are made to focus on the beginning and the end. That’s where the important moments are. Maybe I categorize these realization stories like this because their descriptions, like the one I wrote at the top, make it sound so boring when, in fact, what we’re dealing with is a piece of writing that has a lot to offer that has nothing to do with what strictly, you know, happens. “Property” is absorbing and enlightening in the way it describes relationships and grief and anger. Also, it was written by Elizabeth McCracken, and she’s the bee’s kneecaps. I could read her write a phone book.