The Art of the Short Story

I never set out to make 2013 the Year of the Short Story, but my reading choices have gone that way. In the first two months of the year, I’ve read four story collections and have quite a few more on my To-Read list.

It’s not as if this is a new genre for me. I’ve always appreciated great short stories. I would, in fact, argue that a great short story writer possess all the skills of great novelists and then some. After all they have to pack all the character development, story arc, subtext and emotional subtext of a satisfying story into a much more confined space. In short stories there’s no room to let a character “grow on” a reader or to allow them to “warm up” to a situation.

Some writers do this through shock. Aimee Bender and Karen Russell take their characters and stories outside of normal reality, grabbing our attention with women who can spin silk through their fingertips or teenagers with piano-keys for fingers. Others, like Elizabeth Berg, write about characters so completely familiar they could be our neighbors, sisters, or even ourselves.

For me, the key to a successful short story collection is a sense of completeness. Whether it’s one paragraph (420 Characters) or a novella (A Good Man is Hard to Find), I want a beginning, middle and end. I want to feel invested and satisfied, but still wanting a little bit more.

So far this year, I’ve read some hits and misses in this genre.

Vampires in the Lemon GroveVampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

4 stars

Given my absolute love for Aimee Bender, it seems that Karen Russell should be a perfect read-alike. She too throws reality out the window if it gets in the way of her storytelling. She invests her characters with strange powers and physical deformities that defy natural laws. She writes strong women and young people and skewers traditions and politics effortlessly. But, I have to be honest, I came to this collection with a bad taste in my mouth from Swamplandia!, which was decidedly underwhelming for me.

Now I think I might be a convert. This collection started slow for me, with the title story leaving me cold, but it just kept getting better and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I still don’t know how to classify her writing – is this magical realism? modern fantasy? satire? I’m not sure, but I don’t really care. I know that I was entertained and turned inside out and forced to allow my brain to travel down new paths.

These stories span the globe, many different eras and a variety of socio-economic conditions, but at their heart, they all investigate lonely people in search of connections. I think I am now ready to go back and read her first story collection and keep an eye open for whatever she has in store for us next.

 

there once was a wifeThere Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories
By Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
2.5 stars
Dozens of short stories about people (mostly women) whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. There is real honesty here. I had no trouble picturing the world in which these people live. And, in a few places, I was arrested by a moment of brilliance or a character I would have liked to continue reading about. But then the story would end. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling.

I will say that this book was brought more vividly to life by the wonderful discussion it inspired, both on Goodreads and on WordPress, captured perfectly by my book-loving friends Cassie at Books and Bowel Movements and Claire at Word by Word.

this is how you lose herThis is How You Lose Her
By Junot Diaz
4 stars
I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself but I will say this collection is held together both my love and by the primary narrator, Yunior, with whom I have a love/hate relationship. I didn’t like him, but I still really liked the writing.

 
The Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: Stories
By Elizabeth Berg
3.5 stars
Listening to these thirteen stories, read by author Elizabeth Berg, was like having a really clever friend along for car rides. I was often amused, seldom bored and mostly inspired to find someone who gets a certain type of woman so completely. As the subject of the title story suggests, many of these stories are about food and weight issues. Berg wisely intersperses other issues, but when I say she gets a certain type of woman, I mean that she gets those of us for whom food is a daily issue. Judging by her proficiency and popularity, there are a lot of us. I haven’t read all that much Elizabeth Berg, but she certainly seems a pleasant way to pass the time.

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W…W…W…Wednesday

It’s Wednesday. Some say Hump Day. Some say Halloween. I say it’s time to play a little book game. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? Just started Chris Cleave‘s Gold, which has been on my list for some time. Listening to the last disc of Fool by Christopher Moore. It’s his raunchy retelling of King Lear. So funny, so clever, plus the bonus of narration of Euan Morton. A true delight.

What did you recently finish reading? Finally finished The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli. I loved her book The Lotus Eaters but couldn’t quite get in the groove of this one. Some excellent writing, but I never connected to the two main characters. Took me a full week to read. That could have been because I paused to read the excellent short story collection, Astray, by Emma Donoghue. She took tidbits from historical documents about immigrants and castaways and created moving and interesting stories about them. I highly recommend for short story or historical fiction lovers.

What do you think you’ll read next? I’m planning to start the audio version of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. I own the book version but never got to it so I’m hoping the audio will be a good one. Next in hardcover, the completion of my Ann Patchett Project. I finally have a copy of Taft.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Paperback Picks – October

October was a great month for paperback releases. Here are my picks for five not to miss.

A WALK ACROSS THE SUN by Corban Addison

4 stars

Addison took my breath away with this unflinching look at human sex trafficking. Be warned: the tsunami that wipes out Ahlaya and Sita’s entire family and leaves them homeless orphans is not the most tragic thing that happens in this story. In fact, that happens in the first chapter. What follows is a downward spiral of kidnapping, rape, smuggling and terror as these girls are “trafficked” from person to person, country to country. But don’t let any of that scare you away. Corban Addison has also written something beautiful and touching and honest. The inner strength present in these characters is inspiring. Plus, Addison does an admirable job of drawing the truth out without preaching. Addison does not shy away from the graphic or gruesome details of this atrocity, but somehow he never pushes too hard or too far.

“Hope may vanish, but can die not.”

STAY AWAKE by Dan Choan

4 stars

“It is the worst sound Gene can imagine, the sound of a young child dying violently…” Any story collection with this line in its opening paragraph is not for the faint of heart. Dan Chaon‘s characters are dark and twisted. This is not bedtime reading, but I love his writing. Like any short story collection, some are better than others. Each piece is haunting but “I Wake Up” and “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow” stand out as the best. A few stories crossed into a territory too dark for my taste and the final piece was just plain confusing, but overall I find Chaon’s writing brilliant.

“This is one of those things that you can never explain to anyone; that’s what I want to explain – one of those free-association moments with connections that dissolve when you start to try to put them into words.”

SACRE BLEU: A COMEDY D’ART by Christopher Moore

4 stars

Moore is smart-assed hilarious, definitely irreverent, and sometimes brilliant. He reimagines art history in 19th century Paris, mixing together all the masters of the time, and traveling back far enough to throw in Michelangelo as well. The cast of characters is at once familiar (van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet) and unusual (each intimately connected to the next). The plot centers around a murder/suicide, a mysterious color man, the enchanting Juliet and a baker/painter named Lucien. Throw in some politics, magic, curious inventions, cave paintings and whores and you get a mess of book that delighted me just the same. I was completely taken in by Moore’s language and satire. For all the bouts of uproarious laughter, he scratched at deeper truths.

“They are between. Not what they used to be, and not what they have become. In those times, they are nothing. And I am invisible, and I am nothing too. That is the true demimonde, Lucien, and the secret is, it is not always desperate and dark. Sometimes it is just nothing. No burden of potential or regret. There are worse things than being nothing, my friend.”

RUNNING THE RIFT by Naomi Benaron

4 stars

The choice to set a love story amid the genocide in Rwanda does not immediately seem wise, but Naomi Benaron handles this story with such tenderness and sincerity that she succeeds in creating something both beautiful and horrific. Jean Patrick is a young Tutsi man coming of age in a large, loving family. While poor in material wealth, his natural talent and strong determination to become and Olympic runner drive him toward success even in the face of Tutu discrimination.Benaron’s choice of running as an extended metaphor works beautifully as Jean Patrick struggles with ambition, trust and pride. Benaron sets a strong pace and the novel’s start and knows just when to make her surge. Hard to believe she is a first-time author herself.

“Your hope is the most beautiful and the saddest in the world.”

CARRY THE ONE by Carol Anshaw

3 stars

Carol Anshaw creates a brilliant premise for her latest novel.. A group of “friends” leave a wedding, all drunk, stoned or high and kill a 10 year-old girl. Each in his or her way must carry that weight forever. I appreciated the skill with which Anshaw drew the similarities and differences in the other characters’ reactions to the trauma. All of these men and women are seriously screwed up to begin with, so heaping on guilt and sorrow leads to some really bad behavior. She shifts perspective often, giving us a glimpse into each character’s soul. I flew from storyline to storyline always wanting a little bit more and wishing Anshaw could have shown a little more trust in her readers. But still, a worthwhile read.

“Carmen could see the women gathering, clutching the Instamatics, tears already pooling in the corners of their eyes, tourists on an emotional safari, eager to bag a bride.”

Memory Wall – a new review

“What is memory anyway? How can it be such a frail, perishable thing?”

These are the central questions in Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, a novella plus additional short stories. Without trying to provide easy answers or falling back on clichés, Doerr takes the reader deep into the fractured minds of his characters.

I was immediately drawn into the title novella’s premise, set in Cape Town. Alzheimer afflicted Alma has had a medical procedure to allow her memories to be “reaped” and replayed electronically. We get to know her in the present day, plus relive her flashbacks as her servant plays memories back to her. I love the idea that, “What we know is always evolving, always subdividing. Remember anything often enough and you can create a new memory, the memory of remembering.”  What I love even more is that Doerr didn’t just write this as a sci-fi concept. He fills this story with heart-wrenching characters – all in search of history, memory, evidence of life.

Likewise, in the sweet and affecting “The River Nemunas,” we meet a young orphan dropped into rural Lithuania after the death of her parents. She and her cat (aptly named Mishap) try to find a place, a rhythm to this new life. Mostly though, Allison struggles against the weight of memory.

“Thinking about the house sitting there empty back in Kansas starts the Big Sadness swinging in my chest like a pendulum and soon a blue flood is streaming around the edges of my vision. It comes on fast this time and the axe blade is slicing up organs willy-nilly and all of the sudden I’m looking into a very blue bag and someone’s yanking the drawstring closed.”

Doerr’s writing is both beautiful and haunting.  I was impressed by his character development, especially in such short stories. Whether he’s writing an aging Holocaust victim’s childhood in Poland or a Wyoming couple’s struggles with infertility, he finds each person’s true voice. I was swept away time and time again.

“Every hour, Robert thinks, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves. But during that same hour children are moving about, surveying territory that seems to them entirely new. They push back the darkness; they scatter memories behind them like bread crumbs. The world is remade.”

Flannery O’Connor – Master of the Short Story

Portrait of American writer Flannery-O'Connor ...

Portrait of American writer Flannery-O'Connor from 1947. Picture is cropped and edited from bigger picture: Robie with Flannery 1947.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I find it hard to believe, given my love of short stories, that up until last week, I had never read anything by the American master, Flannery O’Connor. This seemed an enormous gap in my reading history. So I decided to close it.

A Good Man is Hard to Find was nothing that I expected. I somehow skipped over the words “apocalyptic,” “Grotesque” and “Misfit” in the cover blurb and expected a collection of clever, well-written love stories.  Instead, O’Connor served up story after story of lowlifes, neglected children, psychopaths and losers. I loved it!

Flannery O’Connor is further proof that America in the 1950s was not all bright colors, mothers in pearls, and sunshine. This intelligent writer was casting her eye on the people who existed in the shadows. She writes about the marginalized, the damaged, the worst in all of us. We meet criminals, drunkards, racists (a lot of racists) and con artists.

Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. – The Artificial Nigger

These stories gripped me from the very beginning. It’s rare to find an author who can look into a character’s soul and not turn away from the terrible things she might find there. Even the victims in her story defy easy categorization. As The River unfolded, I began to understand that O’Connor was not going to flinch, even when her subject was an innocent boy.

Many of her characters are in search of Salvation, but it’s not easy to find or to grasp; hence the book’s title. This kind of storytelling is uncomfortable, but oh so necessary.

And, despite all of her bleak and disturbing subjects, she manages to interject humor throughout the book.

All the people who had lived in Pitman had the good sense to leave it, either by dying or by moving to the city. – A Stroke of Good Fortune.

Lines like this keep the stories from falling too deep into despair. They gave me a moment of relief and something “likeable” to cling to in her characters.

My favorite story, A Late Encounter with the Enemy came toward the end of the book, but I went back and re-read it three times because I was so drawn to its structure and to its main protagonist, General Sash.

Living had got to be such a habit with him that he couldn’t conceive of any other condition.

I could see his sad relationship with his foolhardy niece, Sally Poker Sash, as clearly as if they were my neighbors.  In fact, I recognized bits of myself and others in many of O’Connor’s characters.

After all, we’re not always good, are we?