Tag Archives: short stories

War Dances

“So you want to borrow a blanket from us?” the man asked.
“Because you thought Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around?”

War Dances by Sherman Alexie, New Yorker August 10-17, 2009

Despite his feigned outrage, the man in the hospital waiting room does have blankets, “a room full of Pendleton blankets,” and so the narrator’s father, feet amputated because of diabetes, is afforded a small comfort.

This story is all about small comforts, small moments, fathers, blankets, songs, “vodka straight up or with a nostalgia chaser,” fingers in brains, bound together by that unmistakable Sherman Alexie voice.

The New Yorkerest picked the “Travels in Siberia” essay, also quite good, but damned if I don’t get sucked in by Sherman Alexie every time.

The Daughters of the Moon

In this world where every object was thrown away at the slightest sign of breakage or aging, at the first dent or stain, and replaced with a new and perfect substitute, there was just one false note, one shadow: the moon. It wandered through the sky naked, corroded, and gray, more and more alien to the world down here, a hangover from a way of being that was now outdated.

The Beloved insists that I get rid of the stack of New Yorkers crowding the corner of the bedroom, and so I shall, so I shall. The New Yorker is a guilt-inducing publication, richly stuffed with complex and compelling articles that I never seem to find time to consume before the next one arrives. I always manage to get to the back-page comics, and flip through for the rest of the comics and book reviews, but too often I save articles and stories for a later that never arrives.

I finally got to the February 23, 2009, New Yorker (some of which I had read already), and read the Italo Calvino story, Daughters of the Moon, at last. And what a story it is! Calvino riffs on an observation about the battered state of the moon to craft a fable of a decaying moon, its legion of Diana protectresses, and a Thanksgiving Day Parade gone strange.

The article on Ian McEwan’s use of contemporary psychological research, Daniel Zalewski’s “The Background Hum,” is compelling, too, and was called out as the best article of the issue by The New Yorkerest, but I stand by Calvino and his moon maidens.

a year in reading, 2009

I didn’t do a lot of new-release reading this year: the budget didn’t allow for splurging on books, and the library hold queue for the season’s hot titles was often quite long. But the world of good books is timeless, and there’s no reason that an annual “best of” list should be confined to an arbitrary calendar year. Here are five books I read and loved in 2009.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

The best book I read this year was also the last one I read (indeed, it carried over a few days into the new year). Every Man Dies Alone was originally published in Germany in 1947, but only appeared in a U.S. edition, from Melville House Press, this year. It tells the story of a working-class Berlin couple who quietly risk their lives to resist the Third Reich by dropping anti-Nazi postcards around the city. It’s a grim and gritty book, full of brutal and nasty characters, but it’s also a story of great courage and decency, and highlights a chapter of World War II–life within the Nazi regime itself–about which precious little is told in the West.

Stoner by John Williams

Like Every Man Dies Alone, Stoner is a novel of resistance, decency, and dignity, but in a much quieter setting. It tells the story of a farm boy who becomes an English professor at a midwestern university; inspired by the love of language, he struggles with love, politics, and family, apparently accomplishing little of value to the world but much of value to the life of the mind.

The Music of Failure by Bill Holm

The Music of FailureWe lost Bill Holm, essayist, poet, and Prairie philosopher, in February, precisely at the time that we needed his particular perspective the most. His first collection of essays, The Music of Failure, sets the theme for much of his work; it approaches the American Dream from the experiences of Icelandic immigrants on the Minnesota prairie who have apparently failed in so many ways–they die poor, unsung, and forgotten–but turns the Dream on its head in celebrating their quiet strength. There’s a rootedness to Holm’s work, a there-ness and place-ness, that is a powerful antidote to blind ambition; if more people were strong and quiet failures, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

Four Stories by Sigrid Undset

These stories, published in Norwegian at the turn of the 20th century, are like a cool drink of water: graceful, clear, and spare. The subject matter is reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen, but is handled with a wit, tenderness, and generosity that is uniquely Undset’s.

The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno

The Great PerhapsJoe Meno deftly blends satire, fantasy, and realism in this story of clouds, squids, and an unraveling family; this was one of the most inventive novels I’ve read in a long time, peopled with believable, flawed, and compelling characters.

In the Year of Long Division

We looked out from indoors. Nose to glass, we looked, fogging, we looked, through the damp of our exhalations, downstairs, upstairs, piggyback–we saw scenes through see-through curtains, a shadow boxing with a shade, something bubbled, tubside–every which we could find to look, we did; one and the other, and once–or was it twice?–both, in a wash, shriveled and skin-shedding, soaked in looks of bathroom-window-frosted boy. Rings ringed the tub. We left smudges in our wake of who knew what.

In the Year of Long Division, Dawn Raffel

The stories in In the Year of Long Division show the ultimate end of the minimalist impulse: prose becomes poetry, external description subordinated to an internal dialogue, scenes sketched so lightly they become feathery suggestion. It is perhaps no surprise that Raffel calls out her thanks to Gordon Lish at the beginning of her acknowledgements: this is the short story shorn of traditional plot and character as was only hinted at in Raymond Carver’s work.

At its best, this style of storytelling is hypnotic and incantatory. Raffel uses the tools most associated with poetry: repetition, meter, and close attention to the feel as well as the meaning of words mark stories like “In the Year of Long Division,” “We Were Our Age,” and “Somewhere Near Sea Level.” Short sentences and phrases pile up into long, complex structures, and the reader is carried along on the flow of rhythm. The most memorable stories in the collection are told from a child or young adult’s viewpoint, and the elusive style closely matches the misprisions and confusions of adolescence: the central consciousness doesn’t quite understand what’s going on, and we share in that uncertainty.

Other stories, though, are less well-served by the style. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite make sense of “The Seer” or “City of Portage,” even after several readings; there wasn’t enough structure on which to hang the striking images and language to support a narrative sense. “The Trick” and “Table Talk” feel like Carver stories stripped of setting, and lose emotional impact for their lack of concreteness.

This collection is best read the way you would a collection of poetry: slowly, carefully, with long pauses between stories. The experience is rewarding and disorienting, in the way the best poetry can be, and is also demanding like poetry: Raffel’s stories are not for the distracted reader. Her voice is distinctive, though, and her use of language wonderfully disturbing; expect to be haunted by her rhythms and repetitions long after you turn the last page.

Troll’s Eye View

And what, one might wonder, was the slight, pernicious habit that blemished my otherwise purely beneficent character?

To be brief, I kill and eat human babies.

‘Skin by Michael Cadnum, from Troll’s Eye View

Troll’s Eye View is a collection of stories revisiting well-known fairy tales–Rumpelstiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Molly and the Giants–often from the villain’s point of view. It’s a mixed bag of stories: some are slightly skewed re-tellings, some are realistic stories informed by the themes and structures of fairy tales, and some are new tales that add meat to the well-gnawed bones. Some of the stories work well, others don’t quite gel, but in the main, this is a solid little collection.

Most of the contributors are from the world of young adult fantasy, and the collection is aimed at that audience: though often dark, the stories are not too dark, and certainly not as disturbing as Angela Carter’s tales. Ellen Datlow, the editor, has enlisted a few well-known authors, too. Peter Beagle contributes a Jack and the Beanstalk tale that sounds like the giant’s wife as imagined by Raymond Carver, and Kelly Link provides an affecting contemporary Cinderella populated only by step-siblings who are not quite evil and not quite good. The Beagle and Link stories are what will attract adult readers to this anthology, but there are actually better stories than theirs in the collection.

By far the most successful story is Catherynne Valente’s “A Delicate Architecture,” which nudges as close to Angela Carter’s grim fairy tale world as it can. It’s not a re-telling but a brand new fairy story, with a twist at the end in which the tale’s victim is revealed to be the villain of a classic tale. It will be hard to revisit that old story without feeling a touch of sympathy for its evil presence.

Demons in the Spring

But the hotel had to be real. It had to be. If there was a hotel made of real ice, a hotel of ice that did not melt, where people could visit and sleep, and then if they could rebuild it, every year, if every year it could be rebuilt, well, then there could be a possibility for anything, a reason to believe that right now was not the end of everything.

“Winter in the World-Famous Ice Hotel,” from Demons in the Spring by Joe Meno

Joe Meno’s Demons in the Spring is filled with wonders: a woman with a city growing inside her chest, an aquarium in decline, a world plunged into darkness by an absent moon, palaces made of ice. There’s a touch of the absurd, and the surreal, with a melancholy haze over many of the stories, but the overall tone is of playfulness and amazement. It is informed by the logic of dreams, even in the more realistic stories; surrender to the dreams, and you’ll be swept into a world spinning just a little out of phase with our own.

Demons in the Spring in addition to being a wonderful collection of words is also a beautiful object in itself. In this age of harsh text on electronic devices, McSweeney’s puts out amazing books to be treasured as physical delights. Each story is illustrated by a different artist, ranging from realistic renderings of sea creatures to Chagall-like collages of color and shape. The pages in the book are rich and heavy, and even the end papers delight. Keep your sensory-deprivation-tank Kindle, I say, and give me more books that make reading into a multi-sensory immersion.

Driving the Heart

“When in doubt,” I tell him, “always drive on. Just remember that one thing, all right? All right?”
Driving the Heart, Jason Brown

The thirteen stories in Jason Brown’s Driving the Heart are about driving on, regardless of obstacles and, to a great extent, without a focus on the ultimate destination. These are largely grim tales, full of brain tumors, car wrecks, and lives wasted by booze and drugs, but they are not hopeless tales; they are peopled with characters who drive on, even while others around them are coming to a stop.

The two showcase pieces–the title story and “The Coroner’s Report”–are about imparting the lesson of driving on. Both are narrated by men whose jobs leave little room for sentiment: one drives human organs to hospitals, the other is a coroner in Portland, Maine. And both narrators have great wells of sentiment, regret, and nostalgia beneath their clinical, hard-shelled demeanors. They connect the painful, matter-of-fact events of their jobs to tragedies in their pasts, and use these shifting connections to weave tenuous webs of meaning. Though they are ostensibly passing knowledge to junior colleagues, they are busy making internal sense of their own lies.

Like Brown’s latest collection, Why the Devil Chose New England for His Work, “Driving the Heart” is set mostly in Maine. But unlike his later stories, revolving around a rural Kennebec River town, these have an urban setting, largely in and around Portland. As such, the stories have a grittier feel, and touch on the problems of cities: homelessness, murder, and public drunkenness turn up frequently. The Eastern Prom, Fore Street, and the Cumberland County Detox are as much characters in these stories as the people. Brown’s Portland is a demimonde of dead-end lies, untouched by the tourist board’s romantic patina. The picturesque wharf district smells of dead fish and diesel fuel, with desperate but intent struggles in the shadows of the lovely pine trees.

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