There was no theme to this week’s reading, which was nice. Each evening, I was free to choose a story almost at random. This was liberating, but also resulted in some real ups and downs.
I wanted to visit some of the “greats,” so I began with William Maxell’s “What Every Boy Should Know” from All the Days and Nights. Before I read the story, I read the preface, and this quote spoke to me:
“I think it is generally agreed that stories read better one at a time. They need air around them. And they need thinking about, since they tend to have both an explicit and an un-spelled-out meaning.” — William Maxwell, preface to All the Days and Nights
This story is set in 1922. Young Edward struggles with puberty. His parents’ marriage is strained. Edward gets a job as a paperboy. At one point, the paperboys go on strike. Edward has to ask for his job back. He saves his money and buys a new bicycle. When he leaves it in a place where it doesn’t belong, someone runs over the bicycle. The obvious theme is that Edward is learning about life, and what it means to be a man, but I have the feeling there’s a subtext here that perhaps I’ve missed. In any event, I enjoyed the nostalgic look at the past, though I confess I kept picturing characters and scenes from the movie A Christmas Story.
I then chose 2 stories from The Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories. First up was another great: Dorothy Allison. I’d never read Allison, but was familiar with the subject matter of her novel Bastard Out of Carolina. “River of Names” was originally published in Allison’s collection Trash.
The story is brutal. The narrator recites a litany of tragedies, deaths, and violence that has befallen her very large extended family. Rape was a given; suicides, murders and beatings were common. Meanwhile, the narrator pretends to her lover that her family was ‘normal.” She talks of her grandmother who smelled like lavender, when really she smelled of sweat and snuff. The stark honesty of what the narrator tells the reader juxtaposed with what she tells her lover reminds us that we may never truly know another person, and that even if we know stories from their past, we don’t know the experience. I loved Allison’s story and I will read more of her work.
“The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus was my snowstorm reading. This was also taken from The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. and originally appeard in Dubus’ collection Adultery and Other Choices. I’m very glad that I took notes, because just a week later, I barely remember reading this.
It’s the story of Louise, who was always fat. It asks the questions that by now feel somewhat old: Does weight determine happiness? Is attraction purely physical? What happens when a thin bride becomes an overweight wife? The writing was lovely and I loved the voice.
After a dinner conversation with my kids about Anne Boleyn, I decided to revisit Robin Black’s “Divorced, Beheaded, Survived…” from her wonderful collection If I Loved You, I would Tell You This.
Narrator Sarah remembers playing Henry VIII and his wives with her brother Terry and neighborhood friends. We learn that Terry died soon after. Forward to the present. Sarah’s teenage son has just lost his friend in a car accident.
This is a story that feels very real, and not at all overwritten — it’s almost as if a friend was telling you stories from her past. As a mother and a sister, I grasped the pain in the story. I also really love the title — it’s absolutely perfect for the narrative.
Alix Ohlin’s “The Assistants,” is from her collection Signs and Wonders. The story features a group of friends in their 20s who work as assistants. It examines the way that memories of events can loom so large in one person’s mind and yet not be remembered at all by another, and how impending adulthood can change the dynamics of a group. Because Alix Ohlin and I were assistants at the same company (though separated by many years — I don’t know Alix personally), I had a personal connection to this story that perhaps you may not have. But ultimately, this story could the story of any young assistant, and so it should ring true for many.
The next story was a departure. When I was in middle school, I used to buy each issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine at the grocery store in my neighborhood. I happened to see a copy at a newsstand in Boston, so I bought the April 2013 issue, both out of nostalgia and curiosity. I read the first story, “The Jolly Fat Man,” by Cathy Dilts. Sadly, this story left me flat. There wasn’t much of a mystery. The main character was fat but not jolly. At the end, I was disappointed that I’d “spent” my one story of the day on this. Perhaps I’ve outgrown these types of mystery stories, or maybe this one just wasn’t very good.
I ended the week with “A Brush” by John Berger, from PEN/O’Henry Prize Stories 2012. I knew Berger had won the Booker prize, and was an art critic as well as a fiction writer. I suppose I chose this story because it had all of the elements to tell me that it was a good story, and if I didn’t enjoy it, it was me and not the story itself.
A man meets a Cambodian couple on his daily swims at the local pool. He gives the woman a treasured paintbrush. She paints a bird for him in return.
The story was lovely, but odd in style. I was captivated by Berger’s descriptions of the brush itself, of how it felt in the hand and the sense of painting with it. The descriptions of swimming and of the pool and building were visual and sensory. But these descriptive portions were offset wtih sections that were more factual, almost textbook like, about Cambodian history and about art. I decided that I did like this story, and from looking around the web, I may have been one of the few. At the very least, it gave me a lot to think about in terms of what a story should be, and if style is as important (or more important) than the narrative.
So, all in all, an uneven week. Dorothy Allison was the winner for sure, and discovering her work made the disappointments fade away.