Saturday, May 31, 2008

David Malouf: Every Move You Make

I have reviewed this wonderful compilation of short stories by Malouf on my blog at 51 Stories. Rather than copying it completely here, why not read it there? It was not actually part of my challenge but I came across David Malouf as part of the Neustadt Challenge, so I have added him. Seachanges

Friday, May 30, 2008

Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?

He lay in the back seat of the SUV and tried to sleep. Rain pounded on the roof, wind-whipped rain rendered the glass opaque and everything beyond these windows a matter of conjecture. The vodka slept on his chest like a stuffed bear from childhood. It hadn't worked anyway, it might as well have been tap water. Things would not leave him alone, old unheeded voices plagued his ears. Brightly colored images tumbled through his mind. An enormous, stained-glass serpent had shattered inside him and was moving around blindly reassembling itself. ... For here's what happened, or what happened on the surface, here's what imprinted itself on the very ether and went everywhere at once, the news the summer wind whispered in The Jeepster's sleeping ear.

William Gay's short story Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You? begins like a story of revenge but ends with thoughts on how everyone grieves differently, regardless of who you are and what you have done with your life. Full of colorful adjectives that help bring the story to life, the reader feels various levels of emotion for the main character Leonard (The Jeepster) as he deals with his past and present demons. His former girlfriend Aimee arrives to ask a favor. She has made her choices in life as well and now fears for her life. After a tragic turn of events, Leonard is now running wild while trying to deal with what to do next.

I have to keep moving. I never felt like this. I never knew you could feel like this. I can't be still. It's like I can't stand it in my own skin.

Themes of drugs, suicide, murder, and grief are the basis of this short story. Reader beware that the story is somewhat graphic and contains strong language; however, I felt that these details were relevant to the story. Past history and choices play a strong role in the way each theme is revealed. Also, colors and glass are used often for imagery which compliments the rich detail and descriptions used in the telling of the story.

I would kill him if he was worth it but he ain't. A son of a bitch like this just goes through life tearin up stuff, and somebody else has always got to sweep up the glass. He don't know what it is to hurt, he might as well be blind and deaf. He don't feel things the way the rest of us does.

A well written short story, Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You? shows that everyone feels things... in their own way.

"Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?" by William Gay (from Tin House)from The Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King with Heidi Pitlor

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Free Radicals, by Alice Munro - Wendy's Review

She hadn't had time to wonder about his being late. He'd died bent over the sidewalk sign that stood in front of the hardware store offering a discount on lawnmowers. -From Free Radicals-

When Nita's 81 year old husband Rich drops dead outside the hardware story, Nita grieves and wonders how she could have outlived him given her terminal diagnosis of cancer. Then an intruder arrives - and Nita's view of life and death changes.

Alice Munro has crafted a short story about grief and moving forward after the death of a loved one. She also explores the creativeness of the human mind, especially when confronted with our own demise. Carefully constructed (although at times feeling a bit contrived), Free Radicals leaves some questions unanswered. I read this story on line at the New Yorker for 21st Fiction Yahoo Group. Not everyone in the group came away from it with the same interpretation of events. This is one thing I enjoy about a well-written short story - the loose ends, the questions that perhaps have several different answers. Free Radicals is a story which appears simple on its face, but has many levels of meaning below the surface.


The Kiss, by Anton Chekhov - Wendy's Review

The most ill at east of them all was Ryabovitch - a little officer in spectacles, with sloping shoulders, and whiskers like a lynx's. While some of his comrades assumed a serious expression, while others wore forced smiles, his face, his lynx-like whiskers, and spectacles seemed to say: I am the shyest, most modest, and most undistinguished officer in the whole brigade!" -From The Kiss-

I read this masterful short story of Chekov's for The Russian Lit Yahoo group, and found it accessible and enjoyable.

Ryabovitch and his officers are billeted in a small town and find themselves invited to tea at a General's home. They go reluctantly, feeling perhaps they have been invited out of obligation and nothing more.
In a house in which two sisters and their children, brothers, and neighbours were gathered together, probably on account of some family festivities, or event, how could the presence of nineteen unknown officers possibly be welcome? -From The Kiss-

But once at the gathering, they begin to enjoy themselves - talking to the ladies, drinking and dancing. All, that is, but Ryabovitch - a shy, naive man who feels uncomfortable in the presence of women. When he leaves the main room and wanders into a darkened library, however, Ryabovitch is astonished when a woman rushes up to him and kisses him on the cheek. Obviously having mistaken him for a secret paramour, the woman leaves without a word - and Ryabovitch is left to wonder who she is as the darkness of the room has prevented him from recognizing her identity.

Chekhov takes this singular event and weaves a story of obsession, expectation and disappointment. Although written in the early part of the twentieth century, The Kiss feels like a modern story of intrigue and romance. Chekhov's skill at creating character and dialogue resonates with the reader.

I read this story as part of a collection from The Essential Tales of Chekhov, edited by Richard Ford - and plan to read the rest of Chekhov's short works before the year is out. I can highly recommend The Kiss to readers - it is a simple story, but one that delights.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Some recent additions to the shelves

Some recent excellent short story collections added to the shelves (stacks/boxes/piles) around the EWN abode include:

Noy Holland's What begins with bird (FC2, 2005), Daniel Grandbois' Unlucky Lucky Days (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2008), Molly McNett's one dog happy (University of Iowa Press, 2008) which is this year's John Simmons Short Fiction Award winner, Jeffery Renard Allen's Holding Pattern (Graywolf Press, 2008), and Nicholas Montemarano's if the sky falls (LSU Press, 2005).

I've had the chance to read at least one story from each and am anxious to follow up and read more and more from each of the titles as the single stories were excellent.

All seem well worth your own time if you are searching for a collection to read soon!

(Much of this was cross-posted at my own blog)

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories by Robin McKinley


"Five heroines -- five tales of enchantment. . .

Lily. A woman with powers to heal, but no power of speech. Then she meets a mage -- a man who can hear the words she forms only in her mind. Will he help her find her voice?

Ruen. A princess whose uncle leaves her deep in a cave to die at the hands of the stagman. But when she meets the stagman at last, Ruen discovers fate has a few surprises in store for her.

Erana. As a baby, she was taken by a witch in return for the healing herbs her father stole from the witch's garden. Raised alongside the witch's troll son, Erana learns that love comes in many forms.

Coral. A beautiful young newcomer who caches the eye of an older widowed farmer. He can't believe his good fortune when Coral consents to be his wife. But then the doubts set in -- what is it that draws Coral to Buttercup Hill?

Annabelle. When her family moves the summer before her junior year of high school, Annabelle spends all her time in the attic of her new house -- until she finds the knot in the grain which leads her on a magical mission." -- from the back cover

My thoughts:

I liked these stories of fantasy and discovery. I especially liked the stories of Lily and her search for her voice and Erana who learns where her true home is.

Date read: 4/20/2008
Rating: 3*/5 = good
(SS) Yearly count: 3/5

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Two successful reads!

I'm finally posting about my first two reads for this challenge. I finished both of these during April, but have not had time to write about them until now.

Strange Pilgrims : Stories, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was the first thing I read for this challenge. Actually, I've been reading it for a couple of months - a story here, a story there. I had not been aware of this collection, until I saw it on another person's list for the challenge. I have read some of Garcia Marquez's work and really enjoyed it, so I thought it might be a good thing to delve into for the challenge.

What a great collection of stories! The overall theme is that of South Americans visiting Europe, and how they are strangers there, even though connected by heritage. The edition I read was translated by Edith Grossman, and I can only think that she really knows her stuff, since the writing was beautiful, lyrical, and sad, and made me wish I could meet Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to see if he is as wonderful in person.

I really can't choose a favorite story, but here is one of my very favorite passages in the book, from the first paragraph of the story "Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane":

"She was beautiful and lithe, with soft skin the color of bread and eyes like green almonds, and she had straight black hair that reached to her shoulders, and an aura of antiquity that could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean. She was dressed with subtle taste: a lynx jacket, a raw silk blouse with very delicate flowers, natural linen trousers, and shoes with a narrow stripe the color of bougainvillea. 'This is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,' I thought when I saw her pass by with the stealthy stride of a lioness while I waited in the check in line at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris for the plane to New York. She was a supernatural apparition who existed only for a moment and disappeared into the crowd in the terminal."

It only gets better from there. I am so glad I found this collection, and can see myself reading the stories again and again.

"Why I Live at the P.O.," from The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. I chose this story because I read it in college, and it is one of my favorite short stories ever. First of all, the title is a great one, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, doesn't it just make you want to read the story??

The narrator tells the story of how things start to head south when her sister Stella-Rondo comes home to stay, leaving her husband and bringing a child who she claims is adopted. The family dynamic changes, as Mama, Papa-Daddy (the grandfather), and Uncle Rondo make a fuss over Stella-Rondo and her daughter, to the point where whatever the narrator says or does is seen as critical of her sister. In the end, she decides that the only way she will get peace and quiet is to move out of the family home to the post office, where she is the postmistress for the small town.

The dialogue is really funny, and Welty makes the narrator someone you understand, and root for against the family and their accusations. I enjoyed this story as much this time around as the first time I read it.

Boyko's Blackouts

Blackouts / Craig Boyko
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, c2008.

This is the author's first story collection, and I have been looking forward to it, as I've read many of his stories in various literary journals over the last few years. This collection of 11 stories was worth waiting for; all of the stories are good, but a few have that ineffable spark of originality found in a great writer. Highlights for me include OZY, a wonderful story which has just won this year's Journey Prize, a richly deserved reward for this tale of a young boy's summer obsession with a video game. It is absolutely amazing how Boyko can take the quest for the highest score in a game called Ballistic Obliteration and turn it into a meditation on childhood, on self realization, on excellence. It's a stunning story. Here's an excerpt:

Every message is a message to the future. The feverish, grandiloquent billet doux stashed with trembling hand in the coat pocket of the girl you're in love with; the casual note to your wife jotted in haste and posted to the fridge before you leave in the morning; the drunken, desultory jeremiad left on your ex's answering machine -- they will be read or listened to, if they are read or listened to at all, by people of the future. Even the thought scribbled carelessly in the margin of whatever novel you're reading is a variety of time travel. Every mark we make, every trace we leave is a broadcast sent out into forever. We think of our footsteps as receding behind us, but really they are beacons sent out before us.
The last two stories in the book, Black Ink & Past Lives, are also extraordinary. Their quiet searching of memory and of sorrow really affected me, and I found myself copying out some of the lines from these ones as well.

Boyko is from Saskatchewan, and that fact, along with his last name, makes me suspect that there is some Ukrainian in his background. One of the stories in this collection, Nadeshda Pavlovna, is almost certainly set in Ukraine during the Holodomor, or Stalin-induced Great Famine. (and just one picky point -- in many reviews as well as the publisher's own website they state that this story takes place in "Stalinist Russia". No, it does not. It takes place in Stalinist Ukraine, through all circumstantial evidence.) Nearly every Ukrainian writer I know is compelled to face up to this event in some way, and here is Boyko's take. It's a brief tale of an official who is moved by the power of art (represented by gramophone recordings) to question his blind allegiance to a corrupt power regime and his ability to make others suffer. I found it very interesting, especially as it came on the heels of another collection of short stories I've just finished, in the Language Lanterns series. Titled A Hunger Most Cruel: The Human Face of the 1932-1933 Terror-Famine in Soviet Ukraine, it presented literature from Ukraine by 3 authors writing only twenty or thirty years after the events. It was horrifying and yet necessary to read. Boyko's story uses some of the same elements but in a more 'literary' way.

A few of the stories I've seen celebrated in other reviews, such as Assistance (about a man who clones himself in order to escape his miserable life) or The Problem of Pleasure (a young jealous computer geek surreptiously videos his girlfriend in the bedroom), were just okay for me. I mean, they were well constructed, interesting and unique, but didn't speak to me the same way the others did; perhaps because they felt a little cerebral, like a successful exercise rather than an emotionally driven story. Many reviewers have stated that he takes on any voice he pleases in these eleven stories; while I agree that the stories differ in narration and setting (wartime London, a vague futuristic world, small Canadian town, ocean liner), I don't think that they are all equally successful. It is obvious that he CAN do nearly anything, but I'm not convinced each story is being told in his true voice. Still, he is very talented and I will certainly be watching out for more of his work. One difficulty I had was with the title. It confused me a little, as there wasn't a story by that name in the collection, and I couldn't really see the direct tie-in between all the stories. However, here are a few explanations:

(from the Toronto Star) In several stories, the word "blackout" has a literal connection. Two tales take place during the London Blitz in World War II, when Nazi bombers were targeting the city and residents covered their windows with blackout curtains to avoid any leakage of light. But Boyko extends the implications of the term to fascinating psychological territory...In two stories, the protagonists (one an empiricist out to debunk a parapsychologist's ESP experiments, the other a dogmatic Marxist despite his privileged upbringing) are so certain of their worldviews that, in effect, they're wearing blinders – which are, of course, a form of blackout.

(from What's on Winnipeg) Each of the 11 stories shines light upon those moments -- blackouts, perhaps -- when we realize how difficult it is to accept ourselves.
And from the author himself:

I started out with the rough theme, basically the title, then started brainstorming around that. … Originally, I think I thought that the way to make a book seem more like a cohesive piece would be to write a collection of interconnected short stories. These aren't quite interconnected – but they are, at least, along theme; they have some of the same ideas. If nothing else,” he laughs, “the word ‘black' appears more than in the average book.”

So overall, I'd rate this collection not a blackout, but a knockout. Well worth reading, and if you read literary journals you will probably have the pleasure of reading more of his work before the next book comes to fruition -- because it is evident that this author will be publishing more and more.

**cross-posted at The Indextrious Reader**

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Landscape With Flatiron, by Haruki Murakami - Wendy's Review

afterthequake.jpg “Anyhow, let’s wait till the fire burns out,” Miyake said. “We built it, so we ought to keep it company to the end. Once it goes out, and it turns pitch-dark, then we can die.” -From Landscape with Flatiron-

This short story, part of a group of stories entitled After The Quake, occurs over the course of one night with three friends sitting around a bonfire. Miyake is an older man with an obsession in building the perfect bonfire. He befriends Junko, a young woman who lives with her boyfriend Keisuke and is estranged from her family. Whenever Miyake is going to light a bonfire, he calls Junko to come down and watch it burn; and the two of them have an unusual connection. Junko’s boyfriend, Keisuke, is a musician who lives in the here and now and has difficulty understanding Miyake and Junko’s relationship.

“The trouble is, I don’t have a damn thing to do with anything fifty thousand years ago - or fifty thousand years from now, either. Nothing. Zip. What’s important is now. Who knows when the world is going to end? Who can think about the future? The only thing that matters is whether I can get my stomach full right now and get it up right now. Right?” -From Landscape With Flatiron-

Much of the story revolves around a philosophical discussion between Miyake and Junko. It is important to understand that Murakami wrote this story shortly after the Kobe earthquake; and the themes of death, an uncertain future and the larger meaning of life resonate throughout the prose. I have heard many interesting things about Haruki Murakami’s literary works - but until I picked up this short story on line at Ploughshares, I had not read anything by this writer. Murakami’s prose is full of symbolism and beautiful imagery. Initially the story’s meaning completely eluded me…but I read this for the 21st Fiction Yahoo group and discussing it with the group gave me insights I had missed on my own. My appreciation for the story grew as we discussed the various parts of it.

This is a writer who I am curious to read again. I would recommend this short story with some reservations - for many readers, it may be a frustration in trying to tease out the symbols and understand the underlying messages (which I admit I am still working through). But this is an excellent short story for group discussion, and the writing itself is worth the effort.


Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

I didn't read this collection specifically for this challenge, but it's so awesome that I had to cross-post my review here. :)

I just finished reading J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, and that man could write! Each story evokes a post WWII world where everyone smoked, parents weren't terribly concerned about what their children were doing every minute of every day, people wore their racism on their sleeves, and some of the soldiers who came home weren't quite right anymore. The first story, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is probably the most famous; I was planning on writing why I loved it so, but it turns out that Mariel decided to do that today as well! So I'll talk about some of my other favourites. My absolute favourite, even over "Bananafish," was "For Esme-With Love and Squalor." In it, an American GI training in Dover wanders around the town one day and meets thirteen-year-old Esme. Esme is rather what I imagine Anne Shirley would be like if she had been born to a titled British family. She loves big words, and the way Salinger captures her voice is simply magical. The GI is in a cafe when Esme, her little brother, and her nurse come in. Obviously, Esme comes over to talk:
The next thing I knew, the young lady was standing, with enviable poise, beside my table. She was wearing a tartan dress-a Campbell tartan, I believe. It seemed to me to be a wonderful dress for a very young girl to be wearing on a rainy, rainy day. "I thought Americans despied tea," she said.
It wasn't the observation of a smart aleck but that of a truth-lover or a statistics-lover. I replied that some of us never drank anything but tea. I asked her if she'd care to join me.
"Thank you," she said. "Perhaps for just one fraction of a moment."
The narrator himself was really neat too: he's a writer and a reader, and I think we'd all identify with his priorities:
By three in the afternoon, I'd packed all my belongings into my barrack bag, including a canvas gas-mask container full of books I'd brought over from the Other Side. (The gas mask itself I'd slipped through a porthole of the Mauretania some weeks earlier, fully aware that if the enemy ever did use gas I'd never get the damn thing on in time).
They have a wonderful conversation, and when Esme learns that the narrator is a short story writer, she asks him to write a story for her that's full of squalor ("I'd be extremely flattered if you'd write a story exclusively for me some time. I'm an avid writer.") The second half of the story is the narrator's short story for Esme, but it's still based on the narrator's experiences. I don't want to give away anymore (but I promise it doesn't have an abrupt, depressing ending like some of Salinger's other stories), but it's one of my favourite short stories ever (I really long for a whole novel about Esme). And you can read the whole thing here. Go do it.

Have you read it? Now do you understand my passion? Ok, so we'll go on to a couple of my other favourites. "Down at the Dinghy" focuses on an afternoon at a beach house. It begins with two women talking, but the focus quickly shifts to a young mother:
The swinging door opened from the dining room and Boo Boo Tannenbaum, the lady of the house, came into the kitchen. She was a small, almost hipless girl of twenty-five with styleless, colorless, brittle hair pushed back behind her ears, which were very large. She was dressed in knee-length jeans, a black turtleneck pullover, and socks and loafers. Her joke of a name aside, her general unprettiness aside, she was-in terms of permanently memorable, immoderately perceptive, small-area faces-a stunning and final girl.
I love how Salinger describes his characters. The heart of the story is a conversation between Boo Boo and her four-year-old son, who has an odd habit of trying to run away. He's just done it again, and he refuses to come out of the familys dinghy, so Boo Boo tries to find out why. Unlike most of Salinger's mothers, she's just wonderful, and I loved watching her interact with her son. In looking up a link to the full story (you can read it here), I learned this is part of Salinger's Glass series. I really need to read Franny and Zooey, even if Boo Boo doesn't play a big part.

This is becoming a long post, and those were my two favourites, so I think I'll leave it at that. I'd highly recommend this collection to everyone: Salinger perfectly captures children and teenagers (I think I understand now why Catcher in the Rye is so popular) and the psychological devestation of war. The stories are quite varied, dealing with everything from a little boy who is something of a guru and believes in reincarnation ("Teddy") to a husband at his wit's end about his wife's roving eye ("Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes") to a teenager convinced by his years in Paris that he is the Next Big Thing in art ("De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period"). They're all united in their powerful endings (a very important feature for me in a short story) and distinct voices.

A New Kind of Gravity

The doorbell chimes at seven in the morning and I don't even need to check the monitors to know what's out there: a husband on the front stoop, fidgeting with his clothes, trying not to eyeball the camera. ... Some of them look like the bottom of the barrel, some look like accountants. But when they walk past you, you get the same feeling, like a smell they give off, like something hot and rotten has been packed inside them, crammed down into a space too small to hold it in.

Charlie, the narrator in the short story A New Kind of Gravity by Andrew Foster Altschul, is one of the armed security officers at Skyer House, a safe house for women and children. He takes his job of security very seriously and wishes he could do more for the residents. He also feels a special need to execute his job because of an old fiancee who was abused by her ex-boyfriend. Charlie's heart breaks every time a husband comes to pick up his wife and kids from the shelter. He knows they will return, often with marks showing that things had never really changed.

But cheap ironies abound at Skyer House and Mattie won't permit you to underestimate the women. "It's mutually assured destruction --- just like the bombs," she once told me. ... You can't stop people from f***ing up their own lives, Mattie said. You can't even really stop them from f***ing up someone else's, if that's what they want to do. All you can do is give them choices, offer them some scaled-down version of freedom, then stand back and cover your ears when they still decide to push the button.

Charlie shares a special friendship with one little girl named Camila. He is allowed to pat her on the head when she passes by to get on her school bus and he helps her with her math homework when she visits his office. On two separate occasions Charlie has a confrontation of sorts with Camila's mother Mariana. Both meetings leave him feeling very uncomfortable about the choices that are being made by Mariana for herself and her daughter. Then one morning Camila's father arrives at Skyer House to pick up his wife and daughter.

A heart-breaking story, A New Kind of Gravity evokes many different feelings while reading it. It is a brief glimpse into Charlie's life and job, but it left me wanting to know a few more details to fill in some gaps about what he does and why. I believe there is more to his character than I grasped. I appreciated reading a male voice as the narrator rather than the story being told by a resident or a counselor. I felt it gave the story a different perspective.

Overall, it was a good short story.

"A New Kind of Gravity" by Andrew Foster Altschul from The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 edited by Laura Furman