When I resolved to read one short story per day in 2013, I didn’t realize how quickly it would become part of my day. Just a week in and I feel a nagging pull until I’ve read a story. It’s not as annoying as it sounds, but I do seem to feel a sense of calm once I’ve finished reading.
The stories this week come from a variety of sources, and were chosen pretty much on a whim.
“Victory Lap” by George Saunders, from The Tenth of December
Wow. I really loved the way Saunders built the story through the voices running through the heads of two teenagers. The story starts off funny and delightful, then takes a very dark turn. This is exactly how I like my fiction.
Michael talks about The Tenth of December in this week’s episode of BOTNS, and there has been much press coverage, including a New York Times Sunday Magazine feature titled “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” That’s a pretty gutsy statement to make on January 3rd, and it shows just how great this story collection is. This is a collection to own in hardcover.
“Rocky Gap” by Patricia Henley, from Other Heartbreaks
I was sent this collection by the publisher, Engine Books, and it has been on my to-read pile for months, never quite rising to the top. This 2013 resolution has been a great way for me to rediscover these books that I’ve wanted to read. I pulled out every story collection I could find in my house and put them on one bookcase. Maybe I’ll take a photo next week.
“Rocky Gap” is what I think of as a “traditional” short story, one that you might find in The New Yorker or other literary magazine. In this story, June and her partner Tanya are at a family reunion. It’s the first reunion since June’s sister, Peggy, died. It’s a large, extended and blended family. June has regrets, mourns the loss of Peggy, struggles with her relationship. This is the kind of story that people who don’t care for short stories reference: “nothing happens,” they’ll say. For me, the beauty in”Rocky Gap” comes not from events and plot twists, but from the way the author draws a portrait of her characters so that we recognize them as pe0ple that we already know.
“Love” by William Maxwell. Read by Tony Earley on The New Yorker fiction podcast (free) – link to story
I learned only recently that The New Yorker offers a monthly podcast where authors select and read one story and then discuss the story with the podcast host. Since I have never (gasp!) read William Maxwell, this was the first episode I chose.
The story is about a young boy’s love for a popular teacher. When I was finished, I wasn’t quite sure that I felt that I had “read” the story. Having it read aloud by a man with a southern flavor to his voice fit with the story, but I do wonder if I would have read it differently in print.
I very much enjoyed the discussion about the story on the podcast; it felt like listening in on a lit class. But it also brought up other questions for me: the podcast host talked about how some of the moments in the story mirrored certain happenings in the author’s life. While this adds import and meaning to the story, most readers won’t have the knowledge of the back story. How important is that to the success of a story? These are things that this podcast has made me ponder as I go forward with my reading this year.
“Snake Frenzy” by Joyce Carol Oates, published in The Coffin Factory, Issue 3
I’ve tried to like Joyce Carol Oates over the years, but I’ve never quite succeeded. While I admire her writing chops and the darkness of her subject matter, her style has not appealed to me. However, she is so prolific, that I always wonder if there is some work of hers that I would enjoy. So when I saw “Snake Frenzy” in the magazine I picked up, I chose that as my story of the day.
The story is set in 1906 in a girls’ seminary music class. A girl in the class sees snakes descend from the ornamental molding in the music hall, and the hysteria spreads throughout the class and the seminary.
My first impression: commas. Way, way, way too many commas, and it drove me crazy, taking me out of the story. So then I thought, maybe the commas represent the snakes. That makes sense to me and feels clever.
After I had finished the story, I saw that this story is an excerpt from Oates’ forthcoming novel, The Accursed (March 3013). So now I’m thinking about excerpts as short story, vs. short stories written to stand alone. Would I have enjoyed this more as part of a novel? More to ponder.
“Paramour” by Jennifer Haigh, in The Best American Short Stories 2012
I chose this selection from Best American because I had heard the author read from the story at an event, and it had intrigued me. A woman attends a tribute to a former professor, with whom she’d had a not-quite affair. The revelation that comes at the end is subtle, and I spent the moments after I’d finished the story thinking about alternate lives of the characters.
“The Other Elder” by Beth Revis, from After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia
If you know me at all, you won’t find it surprising that I would be drawn to this anthology, which my teen daughter received for Christmas. I was curious about Young Adult short stories. Several of the more popular YA authors are including original shorts in “deluxe” editions of their novels, or otherwise making the shorts available through the ebook format. I’m hopeful that this will be an alternate way for teens to approach short fiction (beyond the traditional short stories they are still reading in high school English classes).
I selected “The Other Elder” because I had heard good things about Beth Revis’ novel Across the Universe. The story was just OK for me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until I read some of the Goodreads reviews. One reviewer described this story as “The Giver on a generation ship.” Yep. As a short story, this works, but if you’ve read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, it feels derivative.
“The Summer People” by Kelly Link, in Tin House Vol. 13, #1
When her father leaves her to find absolution for his sins, teenage Fran is left as caretaker to the summer people. At first this means one thing, and then as the story progresses, comes to mean something else.
I loved this story. It is magical and fantastic, and yet Link’s portrayal of the real rings very true. I’ve never quite read a description of what it’s like to have the flu and be under the influence of Nyquil, but it’s a feeling that I know well. Link nailed it. I can’t wait to read more from her.