Thursday, July 31, 2014

July 31st: William Faulkner
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Missing Justice by Alafair Burke

Wheeee!  Made it to the 31st of July, my Month of Short Stories. And for the last day? That sweet southern nemesis o' mine.

Today's Story: "That Evening Sun Go Down"
Author: William Faulkner
My Rating: A

A-minus? A? Did I round up to try to make up for being so mean to William Faulkner over the years?

I did not enjoy reading William Faulkner when I was a teenager. In high school, I famously hated his "Barn Burning" so much that I stapled it together in my AP English text so that my book would never accidentally fall open to those pages. "A Rose for Emily" didn't quite rub me the wrong way, but "Barn Burning" just eclipsed everything about him for me. Why did I hate it so much? Who knows? I can barely even remember it now, but I generally loved English class, and I hated that story. All through my English major college years, I continued to badmouth Faulkner at every opportunity and I studiously avoided reading his novels, even The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying, which I now feel like everyone but me has read. I haven't even read his two (two!) Pulitzer winners yet. But I will. Once I decided to read all the Pulitzer-winning fiction and sample every Nobel author, I knew I was doubly doomed and would have to dip back into the Mississippi maestro's writing. Someday.

Anyway. It's not like I thought I'd get through a month of short stories without some Faulkner. How could I possibly dream that The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike of all people, wouldn't present me with some Faulkner? And so today, the last day of July, the end of my short-story-a-day project, here we are, with "That Evening Sun Go Down." At least that's what this book calls it. Apparently it's also known as "That Evening Sun." Does it really matter, since the sun is not around much in this story? Darkness is everywhere.

And for those keeping score: we're up to 1931 now, and still authors are freely using the n-word. To be fair to my southern man here, he also uses "Negro", while "n*****" is basically used in dialogue, spoken by white and black people, and it's absolutely part of the point of the story, with Nancy saying she is "just a n--" as she has been taken advantage of by white men and basically violently and horribly dealt with by all the men, white and black, although our narrator's father does try to help, to a certain extent. But Nancy knows her doom is coming.

Sharp dialogue? Vividly rendered setting? Action that incorporates flashbacks while propelling the story forward? Realism? Spooky commentary on humanity? It's all here. How do you not give Faulkner an 'A'?

What, seriously, did I hate so much about "Barn Burning"? Should I go back and read it to find out, or will it put me off of him all over again, when I really need to be checking his novels off of my life things to read list?

Anyway, we now wrap up July, and my Month of Short Stories and Their Authors has come to an end.
Later, we shall have a post-month reflection and examine the results!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

July 30th: John Cheever
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now finished: 
Good Wives aka the second half of Little Women, ugh, by Louisa May Alcott

Almost the end of the month! It can take a lot out of a person to read a short story for each day of the month, excepting the 4th (holiday). It also makes the time pass differently for a month. I recommend such a project to you!

Today's Story:  "Reunion"
Author:  John Cheever
My Rating: B+

I'm hovering, mentally, over the grade of 'B' but for the moment rounding up, giving John Cheever the benefit of my doubt. He's another author that I should have read by now but haven't. Why haven't I? Have you read any Cheever? Have you read this story, "Reunion"?

It comes across as a kind of what's-the-point story. (Am I the only one who thinks there's been a lot of  what's-the-point to be found in this month of short stories? What does this tell us about how often short stories fail to have the thrust of novels or ever, dare I say, the great poems? And yet writers think they are good at them just because they can churn them out.) It does have a point, though, or maybe several. There is stuff in there about fathers and sons, about parents and children, about families and expectations, but you have to work out what's really going on.

Like, it might take you a bit after reading it to start asking yourself whether, in fact, the father has a club up in the sixties. Whether he was drunk, or not welcome in these establishments from previous drunkenness. Whether he's down and out. Whether this is why the mother left him. Whether he tried to see his son again...

Cheever doesn't sum it up for you. He makes you try to figure it out. Good idea on his part.

What I basically know about Cheever is that he explores different facets of humanity, including the dark side in all of us, that kind of thing. I will say this -- in choosing whether to read the next story in my book, The Best American Short Stories of the Century, or one of the stories I have left to read from the list of 14 in the original article that inspired this project, I saw that the next story in the book was by William Faulkner, and it was more than a few pages, and I just couldn't do it. Not today. It's been a long day. Faulkner takes a lot out of me. Mostly my remembrance of reading him (and trying to swear him off) in high school takes a lot out of me. It's late, and I decided to save him for tomorrow and read a short little Cheever story tonight and blog about it really quick.

Cheever might not take as much out of me right away, but he packs enough of a memorable punch in very few paragraphs that I could be affected more deeply than I yet realize by this one.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

July 29th: Katherine Anne Porter
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading grudgingly (long story):  
Good Wives aka Little Women Part Two by Louisa May Alcott

Hey there! It's the first day of my new blog appearance. I had to do it for Blogspot reasons, basically, and it isn't quite what I wanted, so further tweaking must needs occur.

Today's Story: "Theft"
Author: Katherine Anne Porter
My Rating: A

I've read a little Katherine Anne Porter before, and what I mostly remember is being blown away by her writing talent. Intelligence without being pretentious, complexity without being confusing, whimsy without being shallow...she's a fantastic writer, pure and simple. And she surprises you, and writes about interesting things you weren't necessarily expecting.

So in a story like "Theft," though at first you're a little bit caught off guard, the "what's-going-on?" isn't in any way unpleasant nor does it make you want to roll your eyes; it's not unlike the actual drunkenness the main character and her friends are experiencing, I suppose! Reading Katherine Anne Porter is a great way to remind yourself how terrible some other authors really are.

Though light on linear this-then-this-then-this action, there is in fact a linear narrative happening, but the story is perfectly introspective and deep as well. By the end, when an accusation is made, and when it is initially resisted with a bit of righteous indignation, you find yourself just this side of advocating for your main character and wondering if she could have in fact been wrong. This story is a lot like life.

"In this moment she felt that she had been robbed of an enormous number of valuable things, whether material or intangible: things lost or broken by her own fault, things she had forgotten and left in houses when she moved: books borrowed and not returned, journeys she had planned and had not made, words she had waited to hear spoken to her and had not heard, and the words she had meant to answer with bitter alternatives and intolerable substitutes worse than nothing..."
--quoted from "Theft" on page 109 of The Best American Short stories of the Century

The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter  won the Pulitzer in 1966, you know. You could do worse than to get a little Katherine Anne Porter in your life. Or a lot of her.

Monday, July 28, 2014

July 28th: Grace Stone Coates
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading, somewhat grudgingly: 
Good Wives, better know as  "Part II of Little Women"(apparently), by Louisa May Alcott
now listening: To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism by Evgeny Morozov

Four days left to go, still home-stretchin', and I found a Trojan! Well, kind of. An attempted Trojan.

Today's Story: "Wild Plums"
Author: Grace Stone Coates
My Rating:  C+

Grace Stone Coates went to USC! (That, for you uninitiated, is my alma mater, the University of Southern California.) Apparently she didn't get her degree from there, nor from any of the other three colleges she attended, but she did get a teaching certificate (because you could do that in 1900) and taught for a while and then wrote poems and stories and worked for a literary magazine and eventually went a little nuts. She had battled mental illness, but reached a point decades later where she would forget to eat or sometimes wander into the street and stuff. I should mention that I have barely verified any of this--it's just the Wikipedia highlights of Grace Stone Coates, of whom I don't believe I've ever heard a mention before today, but I did bother to click a couple of source links and see most of these facts in a university/library online digital archive that includes her papers, so I think we're good.

Oh, her story?  Right. "Wild Plums." Um, yeah--I guess I found the author's random details a little more compelling. The story was a bit of a bore. Also, it was one of those, "Wait, what's happening here?" I have no idea what is wrong with the Slumps, the family the parents refuse to join in plum-picking. Are they disliked because they are poor? Loud? Non-conformist? Irish? Black? Atheist? It's never really made clear. I had the feeling I was supposed to know, though.

What can I say, 1929? You confuse me. Also, the beginning paragraphs about tasting wild plums and knowing a thing or two about them seem fraught with some risqué innuendo that never quite makes sense, either, but seems to be really about actual plums, despite talking about nether regions and such.

Our narrator seems to be a young girl, maybe a Scout Finch kind of girl, and the big thing that happens to her is that SPOILER ALERT!! she secretly tastes a plum. I think we are deep in the realm of symbolism as this girl has a life awakening about a World Outside of Her Family She's Always Known, but the actual narration and sequence of events/dialogue/thought processes are rather clunky. So between the awkward pacing/feel and the why-on-Earth-don't-we-like-these-people?! confusion, I just don't have a lot of praise for this particular story. Maybe I'll try another one some time, Grace!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

July 27th: Willa Cather
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now finished: 10 Años con Mafalda by Quino
 and Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson
now about to read, maybe: Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott

We're in the home stretch, folks! The home stretch being, in this case, the last five days of my Month of Short Stories, in which I am reading a short story per day and then jabbering about it here on the Lit Supp. In other words, posting more to this blog in a month than I have in the last year. Pathetic! I know! But I never met a reading project I didn't like (and, invent).

Today's Story: "Double Birthday"
Author: Willa Cather
My Rating: B

Not my first Willa Cather, although I believe it's my first time being in Pittsburgh with her. I've previously read her novels My Antonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and the Pulitzer-winning One of Ours. This story was pleasant enough, as stories go, and the characters are good--well-drawn, likable, flawed, sometimes forlorn, sometimes non-conformist--and there's a narrative, if not tons of plot, that leads you along. It's all, well, fine. But not exciting. And you would think I could get far more excited about a bunch of people who are thinking about what one should do with one's life and whether one has lived well if one has not gone down the traditional, prescribed path of marriage-family-home-ownership-pleasing-society. I mean, hello! C'est moi!

"His old schoolfellows went to New York now as often as he had done in his youth; but they went to consult doctors, to put children in school, or to pay the bills of incorrigible sons.
He thought he had had the best of it; he had gone a-Maying while it was May. This solid comfort, this iron-bound security, didn't appeal to him much. These massive houses, after all, held nothing but the heavy domestic routine; all the frictions and jealousies and discontents of family life. Albert felt light and free, going up the hill in this thin overcoat. He believed he had had a more interesting life than most of his friends who owned real estate."
- from "Double Birthday," on p. 91 in The Best American Short Stories of the Century

That would be me. So, I can apparently relate to 55-year-old Albert, celebrating his birthday on the same day as his 80-year-old uncle, both of whom are judged too harshly by the an actual judge, whose daughter the old friend of Albert likes the two birthday boys well enough to ditch some plans with her regular society in order to hang our with them. Also, there is prohibited alcohol (as in , Prohibition-prohibited), kindly provided by the judge and his daughter. Nice! All in all, the story is an okay glimpse into this little world, and offers some decent reflection on being independent and meeting your own standards and no one else's, but it takes a while to get around to this and as it goes along it jumps all over the place. It's the old "Here we are--here's an explanatory flashback--here we are back to now" structure that is acceptable but sometimes just comes across as really expository, like someone was more concerned with sharing an idea that writing fiction.

The judge judges Albert for being "young when he should be old, single when he should be married, and penniless when he should be well-fixed." This judge would obviously have something to say to me, too. But: we find a similarity between the judge and the uncle, both of whom like to have their time to themselves in the libraries in their respective houses, although they read quite different books. So, let's just say I can relate to pretty much every character in this story.

Not bad or anything. Just not mind-blowing.

I did rather enjoy how it started, though:

"Even in American cities, which seem so much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times..."  -- on p.77 in the aforementioned volume, if you care

I like when I read something from 1929 by Willa Cather that is how people would describe the totally Walmartized fast food strip mall nation of today and it reminds me that life has always been like life and people have always been like people, and every time you're about to talk about how unique your generation is, it probably isn't.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

July 26th: Kate Chopin
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson

Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf, and...

Today's Story: "The Story of an Hour"
Author: Kate Chopin

My Rating: A-

I was thinking B+, but this story definitely packs more of a punch than a B+ story, no? It's just so sad. The poor Mallards -- both of them. You're heartbroken at the end, and more for him than for her, with whom you have identified...

I think I've read this before, actually. Another one, just like yesterday's Hemingway story, that I didn't realize I'd already read until I had (re-)plunged in. Guess some of those English classes I took are just lying dormant in my brain somewhere...?

What I do remember reading is Kate Chopin's more famous feminist work, The Awakening, maybe in multiple English classes (although still not assigned as often as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper"). These stories run together a little in my mind, thematically and where they sort of hover, historically.

"The Story of an Hour" just makes me too sad. Why did we have to set up the world so that when we are companioned (whether married, living in sin, or whatever) that we lose our autonomy? I know that's what's at the bottom of Louise Mallard's joy. She even says she loved him, or did she? She did! It doesn't matter! and so on. This wasn't by any means the worst marriage. Yet, she just can't have her whole self, and I know what she means. But we're precluded from saying it somehow. You just find yourself missing the weirdest little things about independence, like "buying the flowers yourself," as Mrs. Dalloway might do.

I really almost gave this a B+ because it's barely a story. But it does pack that punch. That saddening punch.

Friday, July 25, 2014

July 25th: Ernest Hemingway
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: too many to list. various projects in progress. 

A giant of American Literature today. (By the way, for those who don't know me, "American" is not synonymous with "from the United States." But this guy is, still, a giant of American literature. And he had the good sense to live in a few other places besides the U.S., so there's that.)

Today's Story: "The Killers"
Author: Ernest Hemingway
My Rating: B

I tend to like the idea of Hemingway more than I enjoy the actual act of reading his work. Tend to.

I am pretty sure that I read "The Killers" in one of my American Lit classes at USC. I didn't realize it until partway through reading it today. In that class, our Hemingway book was the collected Nick Adams stories, I believe. I forget the exact title. I wish I had all my college syllabuses and notebooks and stuff here with me. Gotta work on that.

If you had asked me thirty minutes ago which Nick Adams stories we read in that class, I'd have had no idea, but now I'm sure this is one of them. Don't ask me what the others were (no idea!) but one had some part about sneaking up some hills at night in the moonlight. After that semester, I went to Cuba for the summer (really!) and read The Old Man and the Sea there. I think. I definitely owned the book there and my journal says I was reading it. I also saw the movie The Old Man and the Sea there. Sometimes I can't remember actually finishing that book, but it was so short, so why wouldn't I have finished it? Later, in my twenties, I read For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Spoiler: thee.) What I remember about that book is that it took a long time to finish. Nonetheless, I miss my twenties. I miss the massive pleasure of a)reading whatever I wanted and no longer reading assigned things b)feeling like I had enough lifetime ahead to read everything on the life to-read list. Those two dovetail during your twenties. Take advantage, twentysomethings!

Back to "The Killers." What's the point?

Waiting. The clock ticks. Still waiting.

Ahhhhh, no point. Got it. Slices of life. Humanity. Consider yourself. What would you do if you were Ole Andreson? What would you have done if you were Nick--would you have been afraid to go warn him? What if you were George? Sam?  OK, OK, it's all very interesting. But I can't quite say I love the story or its non-ending.

Any bets on which year, as I make my way chronologically through The Best American Short Stories of the Century, will be the last with a story using the n-word to describe a black person? We're up to 1927 now, and here was Hemingway using it. (Yes, yes, in dialogue, in the mouth of the diner guy as well as a couple of sleazeballs who walk in. But still.)

I should really get around to reading A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises. For someone who tends to like the idea of Hemingway so much, I haven't really read enough of his stuff. I have, however, visited his home in Cuba and the bars there where he used to hang out and the Old Man's fishing village on the Sea. So I am ahead of some United States-ians in that way.

But I haven't been to Key West! Ahhhh, the trade-offs of life. "It's a hell of a thing," as George a million different Hemingway characters would say.

I respect the hell out of my boy Ernest, but on the pure enjoyment factor this story is B material.

By the way! This is day 25 of July, and I've now read 24 short stories (I granted myself a holiday on the 4th), so I'm on my way to completing a total of 30 for July, my month of short stories. Will I make my goal? Want to put some money on it --for a good cause? Well, this month I also happen to be raising money for my upcoming Habitat for Humanity build in Poznan, Poland. How about a little donation--say, 50 cents per story read and blogged about?
You can click here to visit my Habitat fundraising page or find out more about my trip.

Coming up at the end of the month, we'll take a look back at the authors and stories and do a little ranking and review!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

July 24th: Jean Toomer
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson
and 10 años con Mafalda by Quino
now listening:
To Save Everything Click Here: The Fo
lly of Technological Solutionism 
by Evgeny Morozov

This was a rough one. 

Today's Story: "Blood-Burning Moon"
Author: Jean Toomer
My Rating: C+

Where to begin? It gets the + instead of just a 'C' for being about such a haunting subject, and describing it realistically and painfully, and making you disgusted that you live in this world that behaves that way, and so on. But it really is a C story, in a few different ways. 

Now, author Jean Toomer is an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance and this work has literary merit and all that. But you know what? The writing is just straight up not that good. We are in eager-creative-writing-student territory here. Example: The second paragraph of the story begins, "Louisa sang as she came over the crest of the hill from the white folk's kitchen. Her skin was the color of oak leaves on young trees in the fall. Her breasts, firm and up-pointed like ripe acorns. And her singing had the low murmur of winds in fig trees." 

About the only thing interesting there is "winds," plural, not "the wind." The rest of it is as if the creative writing teacher said to put a character in nature and describe the scene. It's like an imagery exercise, with a nice frat-boy touch. It's also far from the only sentence in the story like this. The title, after all, is "Blood-Burning Moon" and we get lots and lots of talk about the moon, the full moon, the full moon which is an omen, the full moon which is an omen hanging in the sky above the plantation, sorry, former plantation. For god's sake, there is treachery and evil about! Does it have to be so dully written? 

Jean Toomer, the author, whose work I don't think I've ever read before today, apparently "passed for white" sometimes during his life and married a white woman. This background informs (perhaps) "Blood-Burning Moon," in which Louisa likes/is liked by both the white Bob Stone and the black Tom Burwell. Come to find out, Bob Stone is an asshole and has a temper, and Tom Burwell has brute force strength and a slightly more righteous temper.  Think this is going to end well? 

OK, so it's fine, average, whatever, doesn't really do it for me, wish it did more. Here's a serious thing to consider: the use of Black English vernacular in dialogue. Necessary? Improves the story? Lessens the story? Should be written (only?) by African-American authors? Makes the characters more/less sympathetic? Creates the mood? Affects the theme? etc. So many questions. (By the way, this story, published in 1923, frequently uses the "n-word." You have been warned.) Here's a question I do want answered, though: What's up with "gwine"? 

This isn't the first time I've come across "gwine" or "agwine" -- it always has bugged me. I just don't hear it right, I guess. Example from this story: "What y'think he's agwine t'do t' Bob Stone?" 

Everything else I can "hear" as I'm reading it:  "Yassur he sho' is..." and "An' here I is, but that ain't ahelpin' none..." and "Cut him jes like I cut..."  I hear those words, because I've actually heard such speech. I have never in all the regions in which I've lived and traveled heard someone pronounce the word "gwine" or "agwine" in talking about what they will do. Who says this? Where is it pronounced this way? What have I missed? 

Also, Toomer writes the voices of all these southern characters, not just the black characters. For example, white Tom Stone says, "Fight like a man Tom Burwell an' I'll lick y'." Does that mean that Toomer is or is not making literary use of Black English vernacular? Discuss. 

I'll be over here falling asleep while you students work on your compositions about this story. 

(But "agwine"? Seriously?? I just don't get it.) 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 23rd: Ring Lardner
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson
and 10 años con Mafalda by Quino

Ding ding ding ding ding we have a winner. Thank goodness, because some of the past week's stories have just been annoying, really. Like they aren't what they think they are. But this one is great!

Today's Story: "The Golden Honeymoon"
Author: Ring Lardner
My Rating: A

Fabulous, funny, fresh, funny, fabulous. Good job, Ring Lardner. I'm pretty sure this is the first thing I've read by him. (?) I couldn't even place why the name sounded familiar, but now that I've looked up about his baseball writing/columns/Chicago connection it seems familiar but I don't know if I'm telling myself some of it is more familiar than it is because I've been reading about him now. Do you ever do that? I hate when I do that.

Anyway, this story is great. A couple take a trip for their fiftieth anniversary and it just warms the cockles of my heart to consider that the parent characters in a story published in 1922 can be just as parentally out of touch and set in their ways as the parent characters in our lives today. Not that Lardner plays up the generational divide; he doesn't, really, but it's just in the way these parents are so used to doing what they do and certainly won't spend any extra money frivolously (eating at the more expensive diner where the meal costs $1.10 or $1.20 instead of $1.00 is duly noted; the son-in-law pays for the train compartment upgrade and you can just hear him shaking his head at the parents' refusal which was undoubtedly along the lines of not being able to afford such an extravagance, etc.)  We (who is "we"? Gen X? Baby Boomers and Gen X? Everyone alive today?) have a tendency to blame this thrifty stubbornness on "the Depression" and people are forever going on about their grandparents' or whoever's Depression life that shaped their Attitudes Toward Money and stuff, but this story was published years before that happened, so as usual, we tell ourselves our experience is unique but it rarely is, from a historical perspective.

The vernacular in which this story is written is genius. "Well, he come over to set here, and I set facin' the other ways, and we jest talked about this and that..."  It totally sounds like some of my small-town western Mass. relatives. That's not a direct quote; that's just me trying to imitate the character-narrator's speech. Ring Lardner is pitch-perfect -- and funny. By the way, how annoying is it that the husband calls the wife 'Mother'? What is that about? That has always annoyed me so hard, when old couples do that. Twentysomething and thirtysomething couples never do that, but it's always, like, an old farmer couple calling each other "Mother" and "Pa" or "Dad" or whatever. Why? And at what age do they start doing that? Ugh.

So, on "The Golden Honeymoon" good times are had in Florida, sure (not that the couple is going to readily admit this, of course) but also they run into an ex-flame of the wife from years before. Coincidence? Yeah, but hey - narrator did make it clear previously in the story that basically every old person in the country is vacationing in Florida, so it's not too surprising to find them there.

Here's the deal: this story is funny. It's enjoyable, it is sharp and observant, and it is the furthest thing in the world from overwrought.

Ring Lardner!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

July 22nd: Sherwood Anderson
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: too much. it's all just too much.
on the bright side, I feel validated by James Lee Burke

There really are quite a few B-plus stories out there in the world, folks. 

Today's Story: "The Other Woman"
Author: Sherwood Anderson
My Rating: B+

I first read Sherwood Anderson in Los Angeles when we were doing our The Books We Should Have Read in High School book group. We read Wineseburg, Ohio. I'm not entirely sure I thought then (nor think now) that Winesburg, Ohio qualifies as a Book We Should Have Read in High School, but, you know, my fellow book groupies were from the Midwest, so, what can I say? 

Anyway, it was all right. I can't really remember plot/character specifics about it as much as I remember the mood and tone. It seems to fit in with the whole 1910s/1920s literature ilk like the early Pulitzer winners (The Magnificent Ambersons, One of Ours, So Big, etc.)  All Midwestern-y and our-world-is-changing-like. Well, this short story didn't really strike me as that. For one thing ,I couldn't place where we were: the Midwest? New York? A city? A town? It didn't really matter. But let me just say, this story is male, male, male, male, male. 

For any of you who start twitching and having heart palpitations whenever feminism is brought up, let me just say that it's not a bad thing to be male. (For a person, or a story.) You can be a male piece of literature and be acceptable or even brilliant. But it is also acceptable to talk about the fact that a totally male thing has been written. Though I don't remember much about ol' Sherwood from the book group Winesburg encounter, I certainly don't remember him seeming off-putting or limited. But this story? Let's just say it's easy to see why John Updike, as editor of the The Best American Short Stories of the Century, selected it for inclusion in his volume. 

I mean -- gasp, sputter! -- the woman doesn't say anything!  That shows us what we are doing here. This story is male, male, male all the way through, told by one male to another, about the women only as they affect male narrator, and that is IT. 

But this story is also about sex. Specifically, about how young unmarrieds, in a world before sex education (or, one might assume, after sex education, that latter being a world we soon might live in if the Republicans' lobbyists have their way), don't really know what the !@*$%* is about to hit them on their wedding night. Now, I have never really bought this innocent ignorance theory, at least not totally. I think people reasonably talked at least a little about things. And if they were farm kids, and rural, and whatnot, then they understood a thing or two about basic biology from the annual livestock cycles, if nothing else. So, apart from a few VERY sheltered urban kids, who really didn't know at ALL what s/he's getting into upon getting married? But satisfaction is another matter. And Sherwood Anderson all but says this outright in "The Other Woman." You're reading along thinking male, male, male, anecdote, anecdote, anecdote, marriage, marriage, marriage, blah, blah, blah, and then suddenly WHAM! You're like, oh--hey--how to be satisfied in love and life. 

And you then have to give some kudos, I suppose, to Sherwood (I just can't be all formal and call him Anderson; it's hopeless) for having the wherewithal to be like, I'm gonna set this right down in a short story under all the prudes' noses... Is that how it went down? I like to think that's how it went down.

Should I read some more Sherwood Anderson?  Yeah, maybe I should. Have YOU read any Sherwood Anderson? 

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 21: Donald Barthelme
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now finished: Little Women, Part One by Louisa May Alcott
(which, fun fact, was the whole of Little Women when originally published in 1868, but there's a Part Two, published in 1869, which is now always published with the first part as Little Women, and I'm annoyed that I have to read Part Two

Let's just get right to it.

Today's Story: "The School"
Author: Donald Barthelme

My Rating: B

Maybe I'm being unfair. It's more enjoyable than, say, Alice Munro's "Boys and Girls," but it's still very much an "Um--what?" kind of read.

I've not read Mr. Barthelme before. He's on my radar and all, but I just haven't got around to it. I see that he likes to be a little dark, a little wacky, a little surreal. OK, that's all well and good. And god love him for killing a puppy instead of a cat; I've had it up to here with the !@$^&* shit treatment of cats in stories and books. But the end of this story seems like a total 180 from the first two thirds. Why the tone switch? Perhaps because the teacher is trying to explain. But, it just seems to come out of nowhere and make not a lot of sense (how old were these kids, anyway, to be asking for such a demonstration? The previous trees/puppy/fish stuff would lead a reader to believe they are young!)

And yeah, he should be given credit for the profound thoughts about what makes life meaningful. But overall, this is just a jumble. Its main (only?) attraction is that it's weird; it just starts flinging death at you so it can be all edgy and whatnot. Meh.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

July 20th: George Saunders
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now (re)reading: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Thought: Is there anyone who doesn't know that Little Women is by Louisa May Alcott? That title and author seem to me to be more undeniably attached to each other than about any other title/author I can think of.

Today's Story: "Adams"
Author: George Saunders
My Rating: B+ 



So this is fiction that challenges you. Many people hate that, when they are given (let's say, in a college class) fiction that challenges them, or when people (who, let's say, are accused of being literary snobs) enthuse about challenging  fiction. But really, that's what this story does. Because after finishing it (yeah, MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD, so you should probably go read the story right here first if you care, OK, ready? here come the SPOILERS!!!!! Now.) I'm like, okay, so, why the hell was he in the kitchen in the underwear? And I'm as annoyed as my unreliable narrator, still, even though the unreliable narrator has proven himself, well, unreliable. And crazy. And although I'm thinking about how regardless of what happened, he probably shouldn't have broken in, or refused to use lawful methods to solve the problem, or taken all the knives and then all the chemicals and stuff, leaving the Adams family defenseless, I nonetheless want to know why the hell Adams was in the kitchen in the underwear in the first place. And then, only then after a few seconds of being annoyed and maybe wanting to give the story a C for not telling us that, do I realize that maybe the narrator, who is unreliable and delusional, has only perceived this slight that set him off on his psycho rampage, and that Adams really did nothing wrong. And I realize that this story is symbolic and is about, like, Gaza and Israel and Hamas, really. It's about humans and fighting.

But, "I am what I am." What does that mean if he wasn't in fact actually in the kitchen in his underwear? Did anything that happened in this story happen? That's annoying to have to wonder. So, B+.

This is my first George Saunders. Yes, yes, everyone has been jabbering about Tenth of December and I have dutifully added it to my to-read list, but haven't got around to it yet. And yes, yes, he has been writing short stories and winning prizes for, like, years. Great. Well, I haven't been reading those stories. Until today.

I will read more, and look forward to it much more than I'm looking forward to my next Munro! Still feeling yesterday's ugh on that one.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

July 19th: Alice Munro
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now finished: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille
now (re)reading: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Well, hello there, Nobel Prize-winner. Thanks for making me confront the important question of who the !@#$* actually still thinks it's OK to buy a new fur coat?? Bloody hell. I hated reading this story.

Today's Story: "Boys and Girls"
Author: Alice Munro
My Rating: C+

I was repulsed from the early paragraphs in this story because it's about a family living on a fox farm -- as in, farming the fur of the foxes so that assholes can buy that fur in the form of a coat, which is pretty much shitty and terrible and disgusting. The story rambles along with the young girl narrator doing young-child-on-a-farm things, such as helping with chores, preferring to play outside and help dad in the barn/stables/fox pens (gross) than to do "ladylike" things inside with mom. OK, so this is all obviously insidious and the point of the story, apparently, is that this girl and her brother are being relegated early on to their gender roles. There is "evidence" of this gender separation, such as our narrator letting a horse run free when it is being chased by the father and the hired hand so that they can slaughter it and feed it to the foxes; when her "misbehavior" in leaving the gate open (for the eventually doomed horse, who is later caught) is revealed there's a lot of "Oh ho ho, she's just a girl, so she can't go out there being tough and slaughtering things with no emotion like we do, ho ho ho."

Fucking Canadians. Jesus the shit Christ. A fox farm? I hate this story. It was written in the 1960s, so I get it, the whole feminist awakening parts, but my f*****g god do you have to be so praiseworthy of f*****g fox farmers?!?! If there is supposed to be any discomfort in here about the whole slaughtering-animals-for-coats thing, I wasn't picking up on it, Ms. Nobel Prize Winner. Instead, your characters were portrayed as Good Solid People Doing Their Best. Gross. All noble and salt-of-the-earth-like. It definitely comes across as this sort of ode to the complicated feelings below the surface of a family and blah-blah-blah. But the not-wanting-to/not-being-able-to kill things is declared to be a Girl Thing. And if you're a boy or man?  Apparently, you will like to go skin the fur off of foxes with matted bits and clumps of blood and a powerful odor all around you, after feeding the poor tortured animals who have been kept in cages for years as you "raise" them. And killing the horse food for the foxes will be no problem; you won't have any silly "girl" emotions to hold you back. Because killing animals for stupid jackass humans' selfish pleasure?  Is apparently cool like that in the Great White North. Screw that. I can't believe people actually buy fur coats. And screw them just as much for buying fox furs in the 1960s. Basically, electricity and gas heat had been invented, so screw you. But even before that, try not living at the 49th !@#$%^* parallel, how about, if you're cold? Cradles of civilization, where humans built their societies? Warm places. Deserts. You don't deserve fur. You aren't entitled to fur, people. What goes through their pitiful brains?

I'm trying not to just be disgusted by "Boys and Girls," but I might add that in addition to my abject horror, the main other thing I felt while reading this was boredom. It dragged on quite a bit, description-wise--lots of babble about farm stuff, land, dirt, weather, grass, who the hell knows what all. Foxes, definitely, stuck in cages and pacing in anger (wouldn't you?)  And so on.


Oh yeah, and, whoopty-do, this was made into an Oscar-winning (!) live action short! It was totally the 1983 short film winner! I am so excited; don't we all want to watch it and watch a whole bunch of of foxes and horses get slaughtered? Gross.

Yes, yes, I'm eventually going to read more Alice Munro. But ugh.

Friday, July 18, 2014

July 18th: Susan Glaspell
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

Step right up, folks! This here selection is what we call a magnificent short story. Come one, come all, and experience something marvelous. 

Today's Story: "A Jury of Her Peers"
Author: Susan Glaspell
My Rating:  A+

That's right! I said plus. The first one handed out during this, my month of short stories. This is top notch stuff. The scene is so vivid; the characters come alive; the threat is looming; the pieces fall into place (are they quilted or knotted, those pieces?!); the theme is developed; the point is made. And it's all so gripping! And so simple. And yet so not, right? 

I hesitate to give spoilers, to the point that I don't want to describe anything about the plot, but I will say this: these people are out in the boondocks, there has been an incident for which the sheriff and other officials must be called in, and there is a woman who hangs out with the sheriff's wife discovering some pretty important things, and I'll tell you what: the dialogue in this story and the dialogue/action mix are pitch perfect. Do yourself a favor, if you ever want to read a short story a day for the month of July as I am doing, and include this one! 

What about the author, Susan Glaspell? Are we not familiar? (We are not. That's OK.) Well, this story, "A Jury of Her Peers," was published in 1917, but apparently she adapted it from a play she had written a couple of years earlier, called Trifles. And apparently this play is very famous. Well-known enough to be written about and included in anthologies and... why? Why don't I know her as I clearly should?  Today I officially feel so dumb. I do love that she worked it so well as a short story, too. And I totally want to produce and direct the play, like, right now. Furthermore, Susan Glaspell hung out in Provincetown, although she was originally from Iowa, and she won the Pulitzer (!) for Drama in 1931, for the play Alison's House. The Pulitzer, as you may know, is my favorite, so right on, Susan Glaspell!  (Also, Provincetown is awesome, too.) 

In short: more Susan Glaspell, please!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

July 17th: Mary Lerner
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Plum Island by Nelson DeMille

Another day, another story from The Best American Short Stories of the Century ed. by John Updike. Like anyone else who would embark upon reading stories from this volume in order (with the ambition to read, yes, the whole thing), I think part of the fun is seeing the progression of time and culture through the century along with, perhaps, progression of writing style from the so-called "traditional" right on through the so-called "modern" and "post-modern." Those terms and whatever familiarity/bizarreness they evoke aren't as important as the point that it's fun to embark upon projects that let you see the chronological march of things, whether those things are cinematic, like watching all the Best Picture Oscar winners, or historical, like reading a biography of every U.S. president in order to see where we went wrong (a project obviously conceived of and named during the Dubya "administration"), or literary, like this project and, ahem, maybe a few others. (I never met a reading project I couldn't invent for myself! Or, er, uh...something like that.)

Today's Story: "Little Selves"
Author: Mary Lerner

My Rating: A-

We're still in the 1910s, this being only the second story in said Best...Century volume, and so after yesterday's Russian Jewish immigrant man Zelig, we have today's Irish Catholic immigrant woman Margaret O'Brien, who looks back at the end of her life on all the little selves, i.e., past versions of her, that made up her life: herself at age four, herself at age ten, and so on. Because early 1900s = immigration! "That's what made this country great! Then, anyway!" and so on.

Today's immigrant isn't quite as distraught with the New World and her total lifetime achievements as yesterday's seemed to be, but I should probably stop comparing them--now that they have appeared together as the first two stories in this collection, I think they're getting more comparison than they ever did in the first eighty years of their existence. (If they were compared at all!)

Little is known about the author, Mary Lerner. (Research project, anyone?) Was she a die-hard Catholic? Did she miss the old country? Was she unmarried and childless, like Margaret O'Brien, or weary with marriage and children, like the niece? Or are these two selves both aspects of Lerner's self, and are the married and unmarried little selves each intact aspects of every woman's self--although married, the person who she was before she ever knew this guy is still there?

That's the point of "Little Selves." She is sad about dying only because she worries that it means forever the end of these selves that made up her past. Who will remember them now that she's gone? So she sits around endlessly replaying the story of her life in her head, to revisit each of the selves. It's not an orderly procession of ghost-memories, but we go back and forth between past and present, and little supernatural bits of whimsy are evoked when she thinks back to Ireland childhood, namely leprechauns and fairies, although each parent who tells her about them is doing so with a knowing wink-wink, like parents do with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, and like they should be doing when they talk about Jesus, Adam & Eve, etc.

Basically, a solid short story with an interesting point and some decent profound thoughts, if a little heavy on the nature imagery that seems like it's there just to show how well the author can describe nature rather than for any real purpose. (I really hope creative writing classes aren't still encouraging this.)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

July 16th: Benjamin Rosenblatt
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now finished: Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford
and Men Against the Sea (The Bounty Trilogy #2)
by Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Norman Hall

Today's selection is precisely the kind of short story I dislike.

Today's Story: "Zelig"
Author: Benjamin Rosenblatt
My Rating: B -

It just doesn't do it for me. I'm not familiar with Mr. Rosenblatt or his other work, and not particularly inspired to learn more, but let's see what a quick breeze through the interwebs can't rustle, next to nothing. Most of the top results are, in fact, about "Zelig" and specifically in connection with it being the first story in the very volume in which I just read it, The Best American Short Stories of the Century ed. by John Updike. So this is the 1915 piece that kicks off a collection of what I hope is a whole lot better work.

This is how I perceive it: immigrant blah blah New York blah blah poor blah blah family blah blah stoic blah blah --oh! warmhearted surprise!

Because of said warmhearted surprise and the fact that you get a good image of Mr Stoic Russian Jewish Immigrant, I'll give ol' Rosenblatt a B-. But does it have to be so painful to get there? We don't understand his motivations, we don't really understand much of anything that happens, other than life is hard, so let's make it try to suck less for the next generation. Frankly, that's not really a short story plot. I think this one was supposed to make our boy Zelig seem mysterious, but he just seems -- unknowable. Which is different. Also, the whole tough-love thing and the my-ends-justify-my-obnoxious-means thing are annoying.

It's short, though.

All in all: meh. Not so inspiring. This was the best 1915, had to offer?  Really, Updike??

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

July 15th: Anton Chekhov
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford

I must say that my first experience with Chekhov didn't go so well. But I was fifteen years old at the time. What did I know? I've since fallen in love with all things Russian literature. Isn't it high time I revisit ol' Chekhov?

Today's Story: "The Looking Glass"
Author: Anton Chekhov
My Rating: A

This is a short but sweet (or well, you know, bittersweet...emotional...a little worrisome...depressing...take your pick) story about a girl ("young and pretty") who is gazing into her looking-glass while dreaming about getting married. Let's talk about the term "looking glass" for a second. This is one of those things that is absolutely positively one hundred percent not used in USA English (I have no idea about Canada, I realize...Canadians?) but that we are easily able to understand is a mirror. Once we learn it, that is. When we are eight or nine years old and have finished reading Alice in Wonderland and pick up the sequel Through the Looking Glass, we might not know that a looking glass is a mirror and we might at first be unsure of what exactly is happening to Alice and what sort of glass she is falling through, thinking maybe it's a window or something, until we are finally bonked over the head with a sort of "Duh!"  Because, simply put, it's a mirror. So this just gets me feathers all ruffled thinking about how stupid it is to "Americanize" (and or "USA-ize, pending what we hear from Canadians) English-English books. FOR EXAMPLE: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone. Ugh. I like the idea of learning about one another's English usage, with footnotes if necessary, not translating English-English to USA-English, when I read. Who's with me? I know that it can lead to confusion sometimes when you don't have footnotes, but that's OK. It's a learning experience! Anyway, whoever translated the Chekhov obviously used the term "looking glass" and not mirror. And so here we are.

True or False: Chekhov writes a lot about women. I'm totally cool with that, Anton, but I really need to read more of your stuff. It was Three Sisters that did me in, at age fifteen, at theater camp. Had to perform an abridged version of it. Was miserable. Can't even remember the name of the acting coach who directed us in that scene, but I remember actually hiding out in the bathroom one day trying to figure out a way to not return to his classroom and not have to rehearse the scene. With hindsight, I think that whether or not he was a great acting coach of teenagers (especially sheltered and immature ones), I was clearly the pathetic one. I do believe it was Lori and Penny and I playing the three sisters--and I'm not even sure which one I was. I'm thinking maybe Irina. Really, the plot is lost to my memory, everything is lost to my memory except the utter misery I felt the entire several weeks of rehearsing. What's funny about that is that I had to burst into tears in the scene, acting-wise, and you'd think I should have been easily able to do that, what with being miserable and all. Why was I so miserable? I don't know! It was just miserable! Which is just so weird seeing as I have grown very fond of angst, drama, and Russian lit over the years. Did I just not know myself yet? (This is a distinct possibility.) How did the performance go? Well, all three of us were nominated for acting awards, and the director of the entire workshop did initiate a standing ovation for us. (But really, not for me. Probably mostly for Penny; she was actually a good actress.) I think it's just because he adored Chekhov, and Three Sisters was famously his favorite play, which, you know, no pressure! That's probably why our director was so hard on us and why I was so miserable. I swore off Chekhov after that summer.

And now here I am, in a cold and gray and windy Michigan summer (yes, this is what passes for July around here; might as well be in exile in Siberia or something) reading a little more Chekhov. "The Looking-Glass" has a plot that is entirely imagined but that is vividly rendered. It makes sense when you read it. It leaves you with lots of profound questions like "What does it mean to join my life with that of another?"  and "What do we owe our neighbors?" (not to mention our horses) and "Is life at all worth living, since it will inevitably be filled with sad and terrible events?"  That Chekhov, fun guy. Let's all have a beer, no?! Seriously. !@#&*Russians. Love them.

And so, I hereby heartily recommend this great story and I hereby also pledge to reread Chekhov's Three Sisters and try to figure out just exactly what was wrong with my unable-to-appreciate-it-fifteen-year-old-self (perhaps Taylor Swift can weigh in?), and I also apologize to the universe for allowing my personal adolescent misery to prevent me from fully appreciating the beautifully rendered misery of others.

Monday, July 14, 2014

July 14th: Three for the Price of One!
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now reading: Martin Amis: The Biography by Richard Bradford
in memoriam: Nadine Gordimer, my 'G' author

All right, y'all, today it's three-in-one. I accidentally took the weekend off from reading and posting about short stories. What can I say? It was a whirlwind World Cup weekend and we had a little moving and shaking going on, in addition to soccer-watching. Also, although I missed posting on Friday the 11th, I am totally counting my Thursday the 10th Kafka double duty as two stories, so that takes care of Friday also. Now, it's Monday, and we'll have to do a three-story burst to make up for Saturday the 12th, Sunday the 13th, and today.

Today's StoryStories and AuthorS: 
"The Sock" by Lydia Davis
"Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros
"The Gate-Keeper" by François Coppée
My Ratings:  

In honor of today being Bastille Day, I had to read a French author for my third short story. Turns out, author François Coppée was a totally nationalist anti-Dreyfus born-again Catholic who is sometimes seen as politically controversial, so that seems to be about in the right spirit! (ha)  I think his was the best out of these three particular stories, but more on that in a second.

We'll start with the most underwhelming, Lydia Davis. Now, first of all, I know some people find short stories to just not deliver as much as a novel does, and I don't generally agree with them in writing off short stories as a form, but when I read stories like "The Sock" I completely get where they're coming from. To hear the interwebs tell it (not to mention the PEN/Hemingway Award, Whiting Foundation, and Man Booker  International Prize), Davis is a genius who writes short and ultra-short stories that are masterful, precise, powerful, urgent, and revolutionary. Well, I certainly hope that "The Sock" is one of her weaker efforts, because it was none of those things. It's getting a C+ (as opposed to a C- or lower) only because it managed to get a couple of visuals going despite being an extremely inside-my-head character meditation kind of story and because it moved along. It was definitely short. I won't argue with all the people lauding her for her brevity. But on that note, do we really need short stories that are only two sentences, which she has apparently written? (Not this one -- this one's a couple pages.) I mean, come on. That's the literary equivalent of the artist whose "painting" is a blank white canvas. Yeah, everyone is just pissed because they didn't think of it first--so it's arty. But it tells you nothing about the painter's painting talent. Ditto for a "writer" whose "story" is two sentences. What do you actually know about their writing?  Nothing. As for this, "The Sock," her couple-of-pages story about a woman who finds her now-remarried ex-husband's sock (and some other items) in her house, it is missing a few key things that generally are part of a story, such as plot. And beginning-middle-end. "The Sock" is a fragment, and I look with disdain upon the late twentieth century writers (because I do think that's when it started) who think that every fragment can stand by itself as a short story. Just, no.

On to Sandra Cisneros! I've read her before. In fact, I've read The House on Mango Street a few different times; I'm not sure if you could get out of a mid- to late-1990s English class without being asked to read that book at least once -- in the American West, anyway. I also was assigned her collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek, in one of my English classes, and I recently saw that book sitting around in my old bedroom in the house in Phoenix, and I'm terribly afraid I might have blown it off, as I can't remember much -- OK, anything at all -- about its short stories. For example, "Eleven," which I read online today, was apparently in Woman Hollering Creek. Whoops! Not familiar!  Well, now I am. It was a nice little tale, and I immediately wanted to send it to my nine-year-old niece, so it's fun for all ages. Or maybe sadness for all ages. It does have a beginning, middle, and end, though barely; one can argue about substance and depth, certainly, but "Eleven" does show how very little can happen and there can still be a story, unlike in "The Sock" where very little happens and you aren't sure what you're reading -- a letter fragment? a diary entry? a blog entry?  etc.  "Eleven" is just a glimpse at the life of a girl, newly turned eleven, in one brief moment of her school day, and yet you get to know her pretty deeply in that moment, and even her parents, and you get to feel hope (Esperanza!) for her, which is nice. Her life is bittersweet--you know that too, from just this brief glimpse, and she has to face challenges at school, and this day might suck for her right now, but she is learning the most important lesson of all, that she is the sum of all of her years and not just any one day. This is good stuff, if a little light on actual, you know, words and length. I should probably read more Sandra Cisneros than I do. Why have I read The House on Mango Street so many times and so little of her other stuff? (My blowing off of at least some of Woman Hollering Creek notwithstanding.)

And now for a dead white male. (Things were getting just a little too diverse up in here, wouldn't you say?) (Oh my god, that is a joke. Please tell me you get it, on both levels. Please?)  François Coppée was a French guy in the late 19th century. I love me some 19th century French lit, in general, but I also always want to learn more about it and be exposed to more authors, and I've often thought about just going for broke and getting a master's in French literature because I have an idea for a thesis and everything. Anyway, I don't think I've ever read Coppée  before today. He wrote some plays, some poems, some stories, and also some polarizing stuff like an essay on his (re-)conversion to the Catholic church after a near-death illness and some anti-Albert stuff during the Dreyfus affair. (Another thing I should know more about...hence my reading up on Emile Zola lately, so I'm working on it, thank you very much.)  Anyway, this story, "The Gate-Keeper," is about parenting (!) and not just on the part of the mother (!!) and it throws the wit around, like this: "Her Majesty the Queen of Bohemia -- for story-tellers there will always be a kingdom of Bohemia -- is travelling..."  This is more of a "traditional" story (at least a few pages long, characters actually go somewhere and do something and have conversations, there's a point, etc.) I liked it because it has a cool-ass gate-keeper out in the middle-of-nowhere railroad countryside who schools our young queen about how to be good (but not in the way you might initially think he would) and because it is well written with fun turns of phrase and because it has that kind of Pretty Woman-esque "She rescues him right back" sentiment, but in reverse, I suppose. Apparently our boy François Coppée was known for writing about the poor and the humble and such, before he joined the Académie Française and came to be known as a racist-nationalist (not that those last two things are connected). He definitely lobs a few accusations at cheating, lecherous royals and other wayward spouses in this tale. Sadly, Rimbaud apparently didn't like Coppée at all, but you know, it was hard to please Rimbaud.

Vive le conte!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

July 10th: Kafka redux
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

After reading today's short story, I needed something really nice to try to fix my traumatized brain. I read another story, but it was just weird. I looked elsewhere for mental redemption. (And I found it!)

Today's Stories: "In the Penal Colony"/"In der Strafkolonie"
and "A Country Doctor"/"Ein Landarzt"

Author: Franz Kafka
My Rating: a horrified A- and a B+

I can't even talk about "In the Penal Colony." I just can't. Have you read it? If you've read it, then you understand how entirely !@#^&%#&*%(* bats**t f**ked up it is! If you haven't, then, well, um, let me just say it's not for everybody. It's good -- that is to say, well written. I mean, part of me wants to give it an A.  But I just -- yikes.

And so then, after that hurt my brain (and mind you I'm reading these stories two or three times, because the whole point of getting this dual language book was to practice my German, and so I read in English, and then German, and sometimes a little more English here and there to supplement the German...) for fifty pages or whatever of just awful awfulness, I move on to a short little story, "A Country Doctor," and we're back to "What just happened?"  I mean, it's basically a dream. And he does a really good job of evoking what a dream is like, especially the first two or so pages (and the whole story is only a few pages...)  But so then it's just weird.

One should not necessarily subject oneself to so much Kafka in any given week, let alone day. Good thing I had lovely evening plans: Indigo Girls performing with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra! It was beautiful and glorious and stirring and lovely and deeply felt. It was also a total 180 from my daytime reading; apart from the fact that both involve creative people, the concert was about as far from Kafka as I could get. Thank goodness!

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

July 9th: James Joyce
A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors

now finished re-reading: "The Metamorphosis"/"Die Verwandlung" by Franz Kafka
now reading: Sophie's Choice by William Styron

Kafka, Styron, and Joyce...someone might call these guys "writer's writers," if that weren't such a weird way to talk about creative people. (Not that it stops the critics. "She's a real songwriter's songwriter," you sometimes hear. We understand what it means, but it still seems like a phrase to use when you can think of no other words to describe the artist -- truly no other words, so you just use "artist" again.)

Today's Story: "Clay"
Author: James Joyce
My Rating: B

Reading this story, "Clay," puts me in mind of the eternal question I ask myself as a writer (well, one of them): do I want any and all readers to understand my work? Do I care if they don't get it? Does it matter if I refer to things that are clear and obvious now, or known to many people, but that in the future will be confusing, or baffle some folk?

In short, do I want to be one of those annoying pieces in the Norton Anthology where the footnotes take up more of the pages than the actual text? No, I do not. But will I be?  ???  Over time, the things which we find so familiar will be altered beyond recognition. And even now, I know some people have a hard time keeping up with my allusions, although I don't say that in a literary snobby way, just an "I-talk-a-lot-and-throw-in-a-lot-of-random-Clue-and-Designing-Women-references" way.

Then again, even a one-footnote story puts forth this eternal question, because were it not for the footnote in this particular case, and despite the story's title, I wouldn't have known that Maria had stuck her hand into the clay, nor known that choosing the clay is ominous. Is this an Irish thing? A 1915 thing? I have no idea. Never heard of it. Never heard of the Hallowe'en game they're playing, in fact. So maybe I'm just unimpressed because I'm confused, but James gets a deduction and the grade is a B. Not fair? (Who ever said I was a fair grader? It's my freakin' blog, after all.) Well, I hardly think that anyone coming to the defense of James Joyce's writing is going to try, "You're just ignorant; he doesn't make any obscure allusions" for the thrust of their argument.

Oh, James Joyce. Good writer, that boy. Are his short stories deceptively simple? Are his deft turns of phrase like Forster's, with more than meets the elegance-beholding eye? Is he as wise as Tolstoy about the human condition? (OK, no on that one, sorry.) Is he the Dante of his generation? The Da Vinci? The Bono?

In AP English my senior year of high school, we were all set to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We knew this was coming, because as I previously mentioned in my Kafka entry, my sister and several of my classmates' older siblings were two years ahead of us and the English department pretty much kept the biggies of the curriculum the same, at least not altering them in just a couple of years. Now, it wasn't to be our first time around the James Joyce block cul-de-sac, as we had studied "Araby" the year before, but anyway, the novel loomed. And then our teacher, who had taken over AP English that year from our sisters' teacher who departed in the wake of a messy life/divorce incident, discovered that we had not yet read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. She was incredulous. At first she thought one student was saying he alone hadn't read it, like, he had blown it off sophomore year or whatever. No, we explained, to this teacher who had in previous years taught the "average" and remedial English classes and wasn't familiar with us, the accelerated/Advanced Placement crowd who'd gone through our four years of high school together, we didn't read that in sophomore year American Lit. None of us read it. We read The Scarlet Letter  and Moby Dick that year and assorted other things, but no Huckleberry Finn. She immediately scrapped Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and hauled out her set of Huckleberry Finn  classroom copies, which we AP seniors surely eyed with disdain, as they were normally handled by, you know, sophomores. And not even advanced  sophomores. Do I now look back on her decision approvingly? Do I agree with her that any self-respecting English student must study Huckleberry Finn in American Lit?  Yeah, sure. But we hated the very idea of being senior AP English students reading the same book as the average sophomores. What a delicious whirlwind of meta-pretentious thought, no? Joyce should be proud.

Before you can become an artist, you must rid yourself of all the baggage of your "influences." But what games did you play on All Hallows' Eve, James Joyce, that now haunt Maria and me? What twists of fate await us, blindfolded, when we try to reach for our destiny? And when the hell will I ever get around to reading Ulysses?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors
July 8th: E.M. Forster

now reading: Best Short Stories/Die schönsten Erzählungen by Franz Kafka
and Sophie's Choice by William Styron

I always get a little anxious when the Greek mythology influences come around. Is there any other academic subject that 10-,11-, and 12-year-olds master more easily, without even trying, that adults just flat-out forget? I need serious refresher courses. So many 'tween projects...reports...remember when I played Persephone in our dramatization? Now I can barely sort out who's a Greek and which is a Roman god name, half the time. And here come my 10-year-old nephew and 9-year-old niece babbling to me about Perseus and all the rest. Pathetic.

Today's Story: "The Road from Colonus"
Author: E.M. Forster
My Rating: B+

I am a little (but only a little) worried that I graded this too harshly because I'm missing something in the Colonus/Oedipus/ancient mythology symbolism and therefore the story is actually better than I think it is. (Sorry, E.M.!)  So, it seems that what we are more or less grappling with here in this story is the lofty concept of fate, and whether it opposes and/or prevents us from directing our own lives and intervening in the lives of our loved ones. In the mythology, according to my excellent memory  footnote, Oedipus rested on a rock with his daughter at Colonus and then a native told him to hit the road and he refused because this was his destined resting place. Then he died. Whereas here in Forster's "The Road from Colonus," the daughter and the other traveling companions manage to prod Mr. Lucas along, so he doesn't stay at the travelers' resting spot, and SPOILER ALERT!!! SPOILER ALERT! ! ! therefore he doesn't die, according to what is surmised after later reading the newspaper account of tragedy.  END SPOILER ALERT

I see. Mythology allusions, but a different ending (destiny?) What's the lesson here? Mr. Lucas is no Oedipus? What do we think about Mr. Lucas? I mean, it's cool that he and his daughter are pals and go on vacation to Greece and go out riding around. Then again, he does strange things, like hang out in a tree, waiting for the others to arrive at the lunch spot. Or more like not waiting for them, as he rode off ahead of the group and doesn't seem to really care about where/when his straggling companions do their thing. He's perfectly ready to ditch them. Would that have been a good idea? How do we know? Who's to say that his presence in the doomed khan wouldn't have altered everything for the better?

The amount of symbolism is unbelievable. In any given paragraph, I suspect hidden motives for every a tion: the children are playing a game with their fingers; the woman is spinning. These actions are probably indicative of something. As for Mr. Lucas' trip-mates, the dragoman (translator) buys a pig from the villagers.  That's got to be two or three essay questions' worth right there, that pig. Maybe it's just the two beers I had during the World Cup match earlier today, before reading this story, but I can honestly say that right this moment I'm not sure what any of that symbolism means. (I'm in total "Who's this Daisy person?!" more, right there with you, Suzanne Sugarbaker.)

An interesting story, a nicely written story, not a terrible ending or anything, but it brought no epiphany for me, either. Now, E.M. Forster I do like. His command of words, sentences, and ideas is unbelievable. I read A Passage to India  first, and have since loved Aspects of the Novel and Howards End as well. Forster puts things in such a way that the reader can be left stunned, marveling at what language is capable of doing. (He has even received the highest compliment, you will note, of being quoted on my blog--see above!) But I do think "The Road from Colonus," to the extent that it has a point (or multiple points), gets caught up in itself and forgets to just burst forth in story, which is when I think E.M. is at his best.

Monday, July 07, 2014

A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors
July 7th: Virginia Woolf

now finished: F Is for Fugitive by Sue Grafton
now reading: Best Short Stories/Die schönsten Erzählungen by Franz Kafka
and Men Against the Sea by Charles Bernard Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
up next:  a few mystery thrillers and more William Styron

So, today I may be kind of cheating, or at least approaching my July blog project a little differently, because today's story isn't really a short story -- or is it? One is never too sure of these things.

Today's Story: "The Mark on the Wall"
Author: Virginia Woolf
My Rating: A-

It may also be cheating, or simply impossible, to try to explain all of my experience with/feelings about/analysis of Virginia Woolf in one blog entry, so we shan't expect that to happen. But first things first: is "The Mark on the Wall" a short story, and if not, what then should we call a sketch like this by our gal Virginia, or by any other consciousness-streaming author?

I think "The Mark on the Wall" succeeds because it wraps humor, longing, and awareness into one big package of thoughts that carry the reader along on the stream of consciousness. There is no plot and there are hardly any characters, but it's more than just a rumination on life, because the voice is very much a narrator who is doing something, even if that something is mostly thinking. This story makes me think that Virginia Woolf would have been a great blogger. Would she have liked to blog? She might have brought some fretting to the process -- one can imagine, for example, her responding to trolls and getting caught up in some nonsense comment war -- but just in general it seems like something she would have been great at if she had done it. She always found these moments worth musing about, and although she's widely considered to have been temperamentally unfit for all of the poised schmoozing of happy little social butterflies, she still knew people, related stories, and wanted to connect. Bingo! That's pretty much 80% of bloggers, no?

And "The Mark on the Wall" is not just  a flow of thoughts about what the mark on the wall might be, but also a wink-wink reflection on those thoughts:

I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle.I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts. To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes. . . Shakespeare. . . . Well, he will do as well as another. A man who sat himself solidly in an armchair, and looked into the fire, so--"  (The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Third Edition, 1974, p. 2310)

The layers of writer brain and creation in each paragraph of this story (sketch) are remarkable. With commentary on the past, the future, a ton of the present, and the process of the mind figuring things out, it's like a meta-creation, detailing the process of observing something on Earth and reproducing it as art. But it's also a person sitting looking at the mark on the wall above the fireplace -- and too lazy to get up and see what it actually is.

No spoilers here! You'll have to read the story yourself to find out.

Obviously, I do like Virginia Woolf. A lot of people aren't at all prepared for her when they first read her, so they just have no idea what's going on (which is, simply put, a lot) and for those people I guess I recommend starting with Night and Day -- although you'll have to go back and read it again later anyway once you totally get her more. I read Jacob's Room early on in my Woolf-life, and it became one of my top ten novels. I have also read a bunch of other stuff: To the Lighthouse  and Mrs. Dalloway, obviously, and Orlando, and The Voyage Out, Kew Gardens, A Room of One's Own, The Waves (which by the way is phenomenal) plus some of The Common Reader and Three Guineas...and maybe one or two others. I thought I had read Monday or Tuesday but if I did, I didn't remember much about "The Mark on the Wall," which appeared in it -- but as I said (and many others have said), whatever Woolf you read when you were twenty years old, you really need to re-read now anyway.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors Goes On
July 6th: Doris Lessing

now reading: F Is for Fugitive by Sue Grafton, among other things

Today it was time to pluck a Norton* from a crowded shelf and read a short story found therein for my read-a-new-story-every-day-for-the-month-of-July project.
(*this forever reminds me of Paul Gagne and Rosa and the "What's a Norton?" conversation at Cambridgeside Borders....ahhhhh, so good!) 

Today's Story: "To Room Nineteen"
Author: Doris Lessing
My Rating: A

I loved this story. If it is not perfect, it is definitely existentially heartbreaking. I think that for many 21st-century readers it can be difficult to look back at a feminist 1963 text without being patronizing, dismissive, wistful, idealist, or some combination of those. (I mean, look at how many ostensibly bright young things blithely declare that they are "not feminists"--and look at how many journalists continue to ask them that question.) That is rather sad. If you approach "To Room Nineteen" with an open literary mind, you just might hear it speaking some hardcore truth at you.

As Lessing herself says in the opening line, the Rawlings' marriage was a "failure in intelligence." The many levels on which this is true unfold as the story goes on: the intelligent/pragmatic approach to marriage, determined to shrug off any emotional messiness by negating the very possibility of emotional messiness, which is done by letting everything just simply be okay, not acknowledging that there is a wronged party; the failure to use Susan's skills in her chosen profession while she raises small children; the failure to discover the truth about one's partner's activities, whether through direct questioning or sleuthing. But Susan's "practical intelligence" for the sake of her family, household, the whole construction is what ultimately fails the most.

There were a few moments while reading this where my intense connection to what Lessing says filled me with that joy that can only come through reading something wondrously true. First of all, the passage in which Matthew and Susan's marriage is described as "like a snake biting its tail" where you can't figure out about which point to say "For the sake of this is all the rest." (p. 2371 in the Norton Anthology of English Literature Third Edition Volume 2, 1974, if you're interested)  was beautiful:

Children? But children can't be a center of life and a reason for being. They can be a thousand things that are delightful, interesting, satisfying, but they can't be a wellspring to live from. Or they shouldn't be. Matthew and Susan knew that well enough.
Matthew's job? Ridiculous. It was an interesting job, but scarcely a reason for living...
Their love for each other? Well, that was nearest it. If this wasn't a center, what was? (still on p. 2371)
I love this for stating so succinctly something that is so obvious and yet, if you say it aloud today to, you know, parents? Or grandparents? Or the blogosphere? you're likely to get ridden out of the internet on a rail. What? Children aren't your life reason for being? Are you insulting stay-at-home moms? How dare you? etc. etc. Note the distinct lack of anyone ever claiming -- still, fifty years later -- that children are any man's reason for being. Note also how well Doris Lessing puts it. Note further that she then eliminates Matthew's job as a reason-for-being candidate as well. She is searching for something more, for an essence that is deeper than what fabricated ideas of Marriage and Home and Relationship and Earning a Living can tell or give us.

But what I love even more is that this isn't about children at all. Everyone wants to make it about that because, as Simone de Beauvoir reminded us, it's a lot easier to ascribe divine mumbo-jumbo to childbearing and raising than to dishes, cooking, and gardening. But it's not about that. Doris Lessing, through this character Susan Rawlings, explains a need that is so simple and so deeply felt, so fundamental, that it becomes impossible to explain, agonizingly so, because that just makes it worse that no one understands it:

Yes, this was what was wrong with her: she needed, when she was alone, to be really alone, with no one near. She could not endure the knowledge that in ten minutes or in half an hour Mrs. Parkes would call up the stairs: "Mrs. Rawlings, there's no silver polish. Madam, we're out of flour." (p. 2378) 
"Yes!" I practically screamed at the pages in my hand. "Yes, yes, yes! I just want to be alone--and be really alone when I am alone! Why can't I just be alone for a little while! And why is it wrong to want so desperately to be alone?"

Basically, every time I try to explain this to anyone (usually Brian) I fail miserably. And I'm not even sure forcing anyone to read "To Room Nineteen" would help because they would get so caught up in the marriage/children/household aspects of it and that, my friends, is the missing of the whole point. It's not that this Woman/Wife/Mother/Homemaker wants to be alone and therefore we should all be understanding and supportive while admitting that being a mother is the toughest job in the world. It's not any of that at all. It's that this woman (this woman. herself. period.) wants to be alone. But you can't see that, because you are forever defining her as this Woman/Wife/Mother/Homemaker. It's like that internet meme you might have seen that rejects the "She's important because she's someone's mother/sister/daughter/wife" by crossing out everything from the second apostrophe on: "She's important because she's someone's mother/sister/daughter/wife."

How can we not acknowledge here Virginia Woolf, who emblazoned the room-of-one's-own notion onto personal literary consciousness (and every self-respecting writer's psyche, to boot)? And how can we not further acknowledge Virginia Woolf through Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which so marvelously channeled her and also echoes Lessing's "To Room Nineteen" themes, as Cunningham's woman chooses life?

Think about Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and you see that it isn't about children and motherhood. It's about a person. My conversations with Brian about "a room of one's own" invariably end with me lamely trying to explain why it's hard for me to write (full-time freelancing) and work from home when he's at home or when we don't even have our own home and as we circle 'round and 'round trying to hone in on why I can't create I find myself stuttering, "But then I have to think about when we're eating lunch..." or something equally not at all to the point.

Forget about the writing in a room of one's own. Don't people just want to be alone with themselves, ever? Apparently not, as evidenced by the inability to put down the smartphone for five seconds...always seeking something outside this not a rejection of your life?

The character Susan Rawlings questions herself when she thinks the word "bondage." Surely, she reasons, neither she nor her husband can actually feel bound because they still have, sort of, a happy marriage, "lying in each other's arms content." (p.2380)  Obviously, she concludes, there is something wrong with her.
No, her state (whatever it was) was irrelevant, nothing to do with her real good life with her family. She had to accept the fact that after all, she was an irrational person and to live with it. Some people had to live with crippled arms, or stammers, or being deaf. She would have to live knowing she was subject to a state of mind she could not own. (p.2380)
Clearly, at this point I fell irrevocably in love with "To Room Nineteen." I am not alone in the world, I conclude, in feeling as I do... although I don't see myself progressing exactly as Susan Rawlings does, or even nearly. Just understanding her. And maybe doing one or two things the same.

If you can understand what Susan feels about solitude, you can understand me. It has nothing to do with children, or being "trapped" in a marriage, or anything remotely like that. It has to do with questioning everything, and wondering why the world does something to you when you're in a relationship. It has to do with trying to fathom solitude. It has to do with being. Is everyone asking themselves these questions? Is it just women? Writers? Tormented souls?

I can't even say "Where have you been all my life?" to Doris Lessing, because I totally know about her and her unmistakably important place in literature, and feminism, and feminist literature (words that shouldn't rub you any way at all, least of all a wrong way). I've even written about her and The Golden Notebook before. But let's just say that her story "To Room Nineteen" makes me want to rush out and devour everything she's ever written. Joyous literature!

Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors
July 5th: John Updike

now finished (hurrah! finally!): Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands
now reading: a book of poetry, a book of short stories, a novel in French, a novel in English, the non-fiction audio book I'm listening to on my mp3 player on walks and such, and a biography. the usual. 

Happy Independence Day, U.S.A.! I took the holiday off from my July short-story-per-day project. Sorry! I actually took the day off from computer/internet/posting entirely, so it's nothing personal, literature.

Today's Story: "Pygmalion"
Author: John Updike

My Rating: C+ or B-

Am I some kind of John Updike contrarian? Actually at first I was thinking about rating this a B but the more I thought about it the more annoyed I got. There's no there there, as a certain other writer would say. It's really quite a small fragment of an idea and I wouldn't even say it's very fleshed out. I wish it had been a bit longer. This is just a blip. I could have seen our boy Updike doing a bit more with the idea of what men want from women they are married to and/or don't realize they don't want, but then again, there are those who would say Updike is too steeped in his own sexist world view to really examine such issues... who knows.

What I do know is that basically nothing happens in this shorter-than-short story. Short-short stories weird me out a little. I know some people don't care for short stories, preferring novels that fully develop/realize characters and action. I don't feel that way, but I think I do about short-shorts, as compared to normal short stories. This is more like just a thought. A fragment. It's shorter than some blog entries.

And, it doesn't really make sense. Why does Gwen suddenly start imitating people, too? What's the point of this particular little snippet of a marriage? What's the point of this story?

Now, let's think about Updike. First of all, I realize now that I have read a short story of his before, "A &P." Read it in high school, and if you had asked me a few years ago, I would have absolutely remembered the story, but had no clue who the author was. But yup, apparently that's by John Updike. That was certainly a more fleshed-out piece (in more ways than one). Secondly, I first read an Updike novel as the 'U' author in my A-to-Z Literary Blog Project. I chose The Centaur - which definitely breaks the tradition these last few days of my saying "Hey, I've read [insert most famous work here] by this author." I liked his writing enough to select him as one of the privileged thirteen in my A-to-Z Top Half Authors, and the second novel I read was Rabbit, Run.  Even though I didn't advance him to my A-to-Z Blog Project Semi-finals, I know I'm going to end up reading Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest because they won the Pulitzer, which means I need to read Rabbit Redux, the second of the four Rabbit novels, before I read those other two, of course. Rabbit, Run annoyed me (hence my calling myself an Updike contrarian) for many of the same reasons that this "short story" "Pygmalion" did. So, so, so male-centered. You can write a male character, with a male point of view, without having a male-centric worldview (as in, to the exclusion of women). Lots of authors do this (Tolstoy, etc.)  Updike not so much. He's a really, really good writer. He knows his way around a sentence, boy, does he ever! And I completely get what he's doing with Rabbit, and with the fact that Updike wanted to offer some kind of counter to Kerouac and the other Beats' free-spirit drop-out-of-society run-away-from-responsibility mentality, but does it have to come across as so alienating to all of womankind?

What do you think about Updike?  Is he challenging? Is he profound? brilliant? misogynistic? Is his writing good, boring, fascinating, or none of the above?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors continues
July 3rd: Ray Bradbury

now reading: still lots of books
in the home stretch of Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands, though

After Atwood and Kafka, a little Bradbury? That seems about right. And once again, I will say that unless I read some short story at some point in some lit class that has gone completely out of mind, the first time I read Ray Bradbury was his mega-famous work, Fahrenheit 451.

Today's Story: "The Last Night of the World"
Author: Ray Bradbury
My Rating: B -

Ahhh, sorry Ray. Is B-minus a little harsh? This story just didn't really do it for me. But it's not bad -- maybe I should elevate it to a B. Maybe if Ray comes to office hours to whine about his grade like law students do, I will change it.

So, "The Last Night of the World" is a tiny little thought experiment about arguably the biggest thought you could have, and he develops it into a conversation, a glimpse of a setting, two characters' words, a quiet meditation. What's not to like, right? Well, for one thing, how do they know tonight's the night? Why did he have the dream four days ago but she (and all the other women on the block, apparently) have it last night, and yet we know it's tonight the world will end? Why isn't it, say, four nights from now? And don't even get me started on the fact that all the men at the office had the dream first, then the ladies in the neighborhood later, in those neatly divided 1951 social groups. I know I shouldn't fault Mr. Bradbury for that horrible gender division of labor of his time, but does he have to divide his end-of-the-world revelation along the exact same lines?

On the plus side, the story is so short I don't see why you'd even need to read it at lunch, or on a break. You could probably just read it at your desk while you're waiting for something to download.

Yes, I like the lesson of the story: that in contemplating the utterly normal actions of people facing the end of the world, you realize that you are going to face the end of your world one day by dying, and you should live your best life in each moment which means the quiet moments watching your daughters play with blocks ARE the pinnacle of living, etc. I see echoes of this in the sneaks-up-on-you make-something-of-your-life theme in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. At any given moment, you should be doing something you want to be remembered for, and you shouldn't put off doing the Things You Want to Be Remembered For.

Let me say about Bradbury in general that he is nothing if not an inspiration to not put things off. Like I mentioned, I first read him when I read Fahrenheit 451, and of course I liked it; it's meant for people like me, I think. (We like books and raise our eyebrows at society.) I wouldn't say, though, that it sucks you in or envelops you in a War and Peace or Lonesome Dove-y way. Bradbury has a style that I can best describe as methodical. His writing isn't, in my opinion, particularly pulse-pounding or whimsical or propelling; it just goes along with the story, with bigger themes quietly asserting themselves. And in this he is amazingly talented, and dedicated. I mention the latter because I read his book Zen in the Art of Writing and found it quite inspiring; his writing habits are pretty much perfect. He is the master of "Instructions for Writing: Apply ass to seat. Write." In Zen in the Art of Writing, he offers lots of tips and inspirational turns of phrase, but he also tells how he basically just sat down every Monday to start a new story, then revised it on Thursday, sent it out on Friday or whatever, every week, for decades. I mean - hello. We procrastinating writers suck. Ray Bradbury most assuredly did not suck.

However! I also think that that kind of persistence, while it could have been AWESOME for launching your writing career, especially in the early 20th century, and getting your work out there in a billion periodicals, pulp magazines, and the like, can lead to some less-than-meaty stories. Isn't that just a fact? If you write a story every week, you'll have your best story of the year and your 52nd best story of that year.

So, maybe the prolific Bradbury is bound to have some of his lasting, famous stories not resonate as much with some of us as other (of his) lasting, famous stories do. I loved reading what he had to say in Zen in the Art of Writing, but most of his fiction that I've read is less thrilling. (So far -- I'm holding out hope and am nowhere close to wanting to write him off or anything.) It's just like (and oh my god, I know I'm opening this can of worms again, oh boy, here they come slithering out) with most science fiction or, as I like to think of it, sigh-fi, in that I like the ideas and the what-if?s and the symbolism and the social commentary so much more than I tend to like the actual process of reading the fiction material I'm given to read about those things. Which, you might say, brings us back to Atwood and Kafka, both of whom have definitely been categorized as Literary rather than as Science Fiction, although both have grappled with a bizarre what-if? scenario or two. Why the difference? Atwood herself has talked about how "science fiction" shouldn't be a negative label, but then again, you don't see her rushing out to bookstores to insist they move her books into that genre. In the end, Ray Bradbury for me might be sort of like a few other authors with whom I find myself so, so simpatico -- but it's more about them and their take on the world and their have-a-beer-with-me talk than their actual work: Michael Cunningham. Jack Kerouac. Jodi Picoult.

What's the best Ray Bradbury story you've ever read?