At Books on the Nightstand, we’re dubbing 2013 “The Year of the Short Story.” In celebration, I’m reading one story a day, for the entire year. To read previous blog posts about Project Short Story, click the tab at the top of the page.
The Story Prize is an annual literary award designed to honor the short story. Publishers submit story collections for consideration, and the judges narrow the list down to three finalists. This year’s finalists were recently announced, and I decided that all of my reading this week would come from the 2012 shortlist. I was tempted to cheat a little bit: the winner of last year’s Story Prize was Steven Millhauser, and I thought that I could justify reading one more story from my newest favorite author. However, I resisted the tempation–only to break from my plan later in the week in a different manner. You’ll find out more below.
But first, The Story Prize finalists. I decided to alternate stories from each collection in order to keep the authors’ individual stories as distinct as possible. While the prize is certainly about the collection as a whole, my focus this year is, for the most part, on the individual story. For that reason, I also decided at the outset that this week was not going to be about which collection should win the prize; rather, it was a way to simply narrow down the vast array of short stories I have on my bookshelves into some kind of meaningful theme. For simplicity’s sake, I will recap the stories here by collection.
A note: I’m not sure why I felt compelled to begin with the first story in each collection when my goal was to consider discrete stories. I know that authors and their editors often spend much time considering the order that stories appear in a book, but I don’t know for certain that the first story is meant to act as an introduction of sorts to the reader. This is something I’d like to talk to a few writers and editors about. If you have thoughts on this, pelase feel free to weigh in with a comment.
“The Bees” – This was the first story in the book. Gene, in his mid-thirties, is living in Cleveland with his wife and five year old son Frankie. Frankie has been waking up in the middle of the night, screaming. It’s frightening for Gene and his wife, but the doctor cannot find anything wrong. The lack of sleep is taking its toll on Gene, and he starts to behave in odd ways. He thinks a lot about his earlier life, a life kept secret from his wife but shared in detail with us, the reader. This story took a very, very dark turn, and I found the ending satisfyingly disturbing (or is it disturbingly satisfying?).
“Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted” – Brandon is 25, works in a grocery store, and lives in the house where he grew up. Two years prior, Brandon’s parents committed suicide, and Brandon has been tasked with fixing the house up to be sold. Instead, Brandon slowly retreats into one room of the house, sleeping on the pull-out couch, surrounded by his video games.
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins – Here’s an author that I will be following from here on. She is one of the National Book Foundations “5 under 35″ and this is her first book.
The first story is “Ghosts, Cowboys.” In this story, Watkins has a way of compressing an amazing amount of history into short sections. I came away from this story feeling that I had read an entire novel in just a few pages. It was deep, it was satisfying, and it had me thinking about the story long after I had finished. It also sent me to Google to find out what was real and what was not. I don’t want to say much about the plot of the story because I don’t want it to overpower the fact that this is a gorgeous and powerful piece of writing.
“The Last Thing We Need” – A story told in letters. Thomas Grey happens upon what looks like the remnants of a car accident outside of a ghost town. He finds two prescription bottles, some beer, soda, a packet of letters and some photographs. Thomas writes a letter to the address found on the prescription bottles. After no response, he sends another letter, and then another, each time telling stories of his life. I’m not sure if I’ve read an epistolary short story before, but I like the technique.
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz - I’m one of the few people who have never read Diaz, and though I saw much praise for this collection, I never read any of those reviews or talked to anyone about the book. So I was surprised to find, part way through the first story, that the narrator of the stories in this collection was named Yunior. I knew that Yunior, a young Dominican man from New Jersey, featured prominently in Diaz’s previous two books, Drown (a story collection) and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. So I recognize that I’m beginning this collection at a disadvantage: I don’t know Yunior, don’t know the details of his background, his relationships, his struggles. In addition, Diaz writes a very natural dialogue, which for Yunior is often interspersed with words in Spanish. I don’t know Spanish, and while I could guess the general meaning from the context around the words, I’m sure I missed some of the nuance. I’m told that I should listen to Diaz read one of his stories aloud. I will try to track one down.
In “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars,” Yunior struggles to keep his relationship with Magda, despite his having cheated on her. He takes her on vacation to Santo Domingo. She hates it. He tries to make her happy. He can’t. There are some wonderful sentences in this story, including the line from which the title comes.
“Nilda” – Yunior tells of the summer that Nilda, a gorgeous 15 year old girl, went out with his brother Rafa. Yunior was half in love with Nilda, who was wild and mostly lived on the streets. Diaz has a great way of setting some of Yunior’s background into the story; for instance, talking about what Yunior is reading shows that Yunior is not completely following the expected patterns of his poor neighborhood.
So that’s six stories. The seventh story, which I discovered just this week, is not part of The Story Prize contenders. It will be February’s Project Short Story read-along and deserves its own post, so more about that in the next few days.
Let me know what you’re reading, and if you’ve been enjoying short stories this year. I can’t seem to get enough.