Short Stories All the Time

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... a few of my thoughts about 900, mostly contemporary, short stories.
Showing posts with label New Yorker. Show all posts
Showing posts with label New Yorker. Show all posts

09 July, 2017

Karen Russell, "The Prospectors"

The story is told in first person POV and takes place during the Great Depression in the United States.   Two girls, one from a wealthy family, and one from a poor family whose father killed himself, run away from Clara's family who own a resort hotel in Florida. The girls make it to Oregon and to support themselves they steal from wealthy people at extravagant parties.

Eventually, they believe they are going to the opening of a grand resort Evergreen Lodge at which they read the president might be in attendance
. However, they take the wrong ski lift and arrive at a different place and decide that the 26 young men who worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps are actually dead having been buried alive in an avalanche.

The writing style remains realistic even as the story becomes fantastic, but never really seems to be a dream or nightmare. However, perhaps since the girls often go hungry for days, it's hallucinatory.

"The Prospectors" was first published in The New Yorker  and then included in the 2016 edition of The Best American Short Stories.  The story is about two dozen pages.

"This period of American history held a special appeal for Clara's father, Mr. Finisterre, a bony-faced Portuguese immigrant to southwestern Florida who had wrung his modest fortune out of the sea-damp wallets of tourists. My own father had killed himself outside the dog track in the spring of 1931, and I'd been fortunate to find a job as a maid at the Hotel Finisterre."

18 June, 2017

Ben Marcus, "Cold Little Bird"

"Cold Little Bird" by Ben Marcus was first published in The New Yorker in the October 19, 2015 issue. Then included in the 2016 edition of Best American Short Stories. 

It's a fabulous story, and scary. Scary because I'm worried what might come of the family. Jonah, ten years old, decided, all of a sudden, it seemed, to speak as little as possible to his parents and he requested that they not hug him or touch him anymore. He phrased it that he didn't love them. He'd also asked that they not call him by ridiculous nicknames and even threatened, albeit calmly, that he'd hate to have to speak to the counselor at school about them touching him when he'd expressed that they not. We don't see, in the story, how the future turns out for Jonah, his six-year old brother, Lester, or his parents, Martin and Rachel. The father, especially, doesn't acknowledge Jonah's feelings.

"I keep asking, but you don't listen."

"I listen."

"You don't. Because you keep doing it. So does Mom. You want to treat me like a stuffed animal, and I don't want to be treated like that."

"No, I don't, buddy."

Rachel attempts to understand and give Jonah some space, but the father, Martin, sees it as a competition, "But how do you follow such a strong, definitive opening move?"

The story is told from Martin's POV and is divided into fourteen sections, simple past tense.

Some of my favorite lines:

"Obviously, Jonah had dressed his brother, emptied the boy's backpack of yesterday's crap art from the first-grade praise farm he attended, and readied it for a new day."

"Now it just seemed efficient, and the animal greed no longer appeared. Minus the wet spot at the end, and the minor glow one occasionally felt, their sex wasn't so different from riding the subway."

28 May, 2017

Alice Munro, "Amundsen"

This first person point of view story tells of Vivien Hyde's experience as a teacher at tuberculosis sanitarium. Dr. Fox tells her he plans to marry her and then he doesn't. He's bossy, domineering and misogynistic. "He was evidently the sort of person who posed questions that were traps for you to fall into." "I did as he told me..." All the while, Vivien hoped that she "might turn out to be a woman with a man." The story takes place during WWII between Toronto and Huntsville. There's traveling by train in this story as there was in "To Reach Japan."

"Amundsen" was first published in The New Yorker  and then included in Munro's collection, Dear Life. 

12 May, 2017

Carson McCullers, "The Jockey"

The story is a glimpse into the anger and frustration a jockey feels at the serious and career ending injury of one of his friends. We see the jockey intrude on the dinner of the trainer, the bookie, and a rich man eating a fancy dinner as though nothing bad had happened to one of the jockeys who makes all of their careers possible. "'Libertines,' he said, and his voice was thin and broken. He rolled the word around in his mouth, as though it had flavor and a substance that gratified him. 'You libertines,' he said again, and turned and walked with his rigid swagger out of the dining room."

What I like most about the story is the tight, close look at a few minutes. The character of the jockey and his friendship and his pain are revealed without being explicitly stated. We also see the callous nature of the three men who can't be bothered or torn away from their decadent dining and drinking.

"The Jockey" is only five pages long. Simple past tense, no backstory. Omniscient POV that remains focused on the scene at hand. Or, I might call it third person limited shifting. The story was published in 1941 in The New Yorker. 

11 May, 2017

Carson McCullers, "Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland"

The story takes place early in WWII, somewhere in the United States, Ryder College. It's told from a limited 3rd person POV. Mr. Brooks has hired a female composer from Europe, originally from Finland. She arrives with her three young boys and a servant. She does a great job teaching but Mr. Brooks realizes that the woman is a pathological liar. He assumed some of her eccentricities arose from her trying to get her family out of Europe. Then he decides that she can live two lives via her lies. "If she passed the evening bent over a table in the library and later declared that she had spent that time playing cards, it was as though she had managed to do both those things. Through the lies, she lived vicariously. The lie doubled the little of her existence that was left over from work and augmented the little rag end of her personal life." Isn't this probably one of the survival tactics of people in wartime.

"Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland" was first published in The New Yorker December 20, 1941. And, then it was included in McCullers' collection, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. I really like this story. It's of its time, WWII, European and American, and it shows a talented and creative woman surviving in her own way. One can never really understand how or why a person copes with life the way they do, especially in war time. The story zooms in and looks askance at Madame Zilensky through someone else's eyes. It doesn't get bogged down with backstory or extra commentary.

06 May, 2017

Louise Erdrich, "The Flower"

Design by Gray 318
In the early nineteenth-century, Mink, an Ojibwe, is killed by her husband leaving her eleven-year old daughter trapped with Mackinnon and his seventeen-year old clerk, Wolfred Roberts. The girl and Wolfred eventually poison the rapist Mackinnon and run away even as his purple swollen head rolls along the countryside chasing them. The girl ends up in a mission school but at least it's "Much too far for a head to roll."

"The Flower" is told in a shifting third-person point of view. It's told some fifty years afterwards. "...Wolfred drifted down into the body that he would not leave again until he had completed half a century of bone-breaking work." "The Flower" was first published in The New Yorker, June 29, 2015, and then was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, 2016.

18 March, 2017

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Apollo"

The story is told some twenty years later from the viewpoint, first person, of Okenwa. He visits his elderly parents on a regular basis and on one of the trips he learned that Raphael was an armed robber. Then the story launches into the history of Raphael, their housekeeper, and Okenwa's lie. The lie has haunted him into adulthood.

The story takes place in Enugu, Nigeria. The story has a nice sense of place and builds the relationship between Raphael and Okenwa and their mutual love for Bruce Lee and so when the betrayal occurs, it's a blow and it's clear why it's haunted him all the ensuing years.

The theme is about how things we've said or things we should've said but didn't can change a person's life and can haunt a person with guilt. Words do matter, especially when one person has more power than the other. The portrayal of aging is treated with respect and kindness, yet honestly.

"Apollo" was first published in The New Yorker, April 13, 2015, and then included in the Best American Short Stories, 2016. Link to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's website.

25 February, 2017

Deborah Eisenberg, "The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor"

The story begins with Francie being chastised by her roommate, Jessica, about Francie's leaving her sock on the floor. We see immediately that although Francie is smart and quick-witted, we also see that she is vulnerable. "She pulled her blanket up and turned to the window, her eyes stinging."

The story is divided into eight sections or scenes. Francie is a scholarship student at a ritzy "snooty" boarding school. Her mother had finally explained to Francie that her father had been run over by a bus. After her mother's death, Francie finds out that this was not true. Her mother had had the knack of creating stories about her and her daughter's life. Without necessarily lying, Francie's mother, left people with impressions.

One of the themes of the story, for me, is that the person who writes history makes up "things that had happened." The idea that history is always in the making is touched upon several times in the story. "Just think--things that you did went on and on, turning into situations, for example."

"Outside this building you lived as though nothing were happening to you that you didn't know about."

"'Anything can happen at any moment,' Jessica kept exclaiming. 'Anything can just happen.'"

Another theme could be made for the idea that while one thing is happening in our singular life, something else is happening to another person. "And yet her mother would have been dead while she herself had been asleep, dreaming." Something so simple and obvious but not remembered most of the time.

Also, life can change on a dime, so to speak, "All those hours during which her life (along with her mother) had gone from one thing to being another..."

On the bus ride to her father's home, Francie encounters Iris who has quite a story herself from which she has never emotionally recovered. I'm assuming the blimp accident refers to the July 4, 1993 incident in Manhattan with the Pizza Hut airship crashing into an apartment building on West 53rd Street. "The Girl Who Left Her Sock on the Floor" was first published in December 1994 in The New Yorker.

11 January, 2017

Alice Munro, "White Dump"

"White Dump" was first published in The New Yorker in 1986. It's divided into about fifteen sections with some being in present tense and some in past tense. Denise, her stepmother, Magda, and her father, Laurence are at the family's vacation home which has been remodeled. It's a family saga that covers many years, from 1969 to maybe 1986-ish. On the one hand, it's about a married woman who was never really happy and had many love affairs and divorced. But, actually it's more about, not the affairs themselves, or her family, two children, husband, and mother-in-law, but about how she was going through life just performing what was expected, marking expectations off her list and moving on to the next item, expectation. "Here she sat and saw her day as hurdles got through." And, "Not much to her credit to go through her life thinking, Well, good, now that's over, that's over. What was she looking forward to, what bonus was she hoping to get, when this, and this, and this, was over?" So, for me, maybe the theme is expectations and how waiting for them and trying to fulfill others' expectations cannot lead to anything good.

28 December, 2016

Carol Bly, "The Last of the Gold Star Mothers"

Sept 24, 1979 cover
Published in 1979 in The New Yorker, "The Last of the Gold Star Mothers," shows a small town in northern Minnesota and its cast of characters, regular people trying to get on with their lives. Mary Gravling is a divorced mother and her former mother-in-law is a Gold Star Mother with a cad for a son, Cordell. Emmitt is the son Lorraine Gravling lost in the war. Mary has been seeing a therapist after she began considering suicide; however, she's decided that she wants to see what the future holds. "'It is something yet to do, something we're supposed to be doing in the future!'" And, she continued, "'So I think it is something we have to keep an eye out for--what we're supposed to do, why to stay alive.'"

One of the my favorite sections of the story, "Anyone who used the visiting psychotherapeutic services offered once a week by Lutheran Social Services was crazy or nervous. If they had a decent job, they had nerves; if they were on welfare, they were crazy. Mary Gravling was just nerves, they guessed."

I found a copy of Backbone: Short Stories by Carol Bly at a used bookstore. It was published in 1985 by Milkweed Editions. "The Last of the Gold Star Mothers" is the first story in the book.

03 November, 2016

Roberto Bolaño, "Last Evenings on Earth"

The story takes place in 1975 in Acapulco. B and his father have driven from Mexico City for a short vacation. B is interested in reading his book of Surrealist poetry and his father is interested in getting laid. Early in the story we realize that there is some sort of a rift or problem that is possibly going to be addressed. " if steeling himself for a fight." However, the story ends with B deciding, "This is the last time we're traveling together," and "And then the fight begins."

They drive a 1970 Ford Mustang, stopping once for some iguana at a roadside cafe. They finally find a hotel that is acceptable to the father. We learn that B and his father are from Chile and that B had returned once and ran into some trouble during the coup. I believe that is autobiographical. There is drinking, whoring, gambling, swimming, eating, but most of it takes place with one or the other of the men. They each watch or see the other from afar but do not interact or if they are together, they don't speak much. Several times we witness the son or the father looking or gazing at the other, usually unseen and bewildered. "When he puts them back on he notices his father watching him from the kitchen." Another time, "...although when B notices him, his father steps back, recoiling as if bitten by a snake, lifts his hand in a shy wave, and disappears behind the curtains."

The mood between the father and son is heavy with an underlying tension. It feels to me as though B needs to admit to his father that he is gay, "They start talking ... About women. Subjects that don't interest B, or at least not at the moment," or perhaps he needs to tell him more of what happened in Santiago. "I almost got killed." and "There are things you can tell people and things you just can't, thinks B disconsolately. From this moment on he knows the disaster is approaching." Although the two men are on a trip together, there are few sentences spoken between them and they are mostly superficial, "The café serves iguana. Shall we try it?" At the same time, the tension is not always overt but it's always present. "For a moment B and his father stand there, without speaking."

Throughout the story, B thinks about the Surrealist poet he's reading, Gui Rosey, and his disappearance during World War II while waiting to obtain a visa to the United States. With the sustained interest in this particular poet and what B decides must have been a suicide, he fears the same will happen to him, death or loss of sense of self?

Bolaño layers and weaves the themes of a father/son relationship, a trip for vacation, military coup, World War II, Surrealist poets, death, suicide all in an extremely realistic fashion. It's a wonderful story and worthy of many readings.

"Last Evenings on Earth" was published posthumously by The New Yorker in the Dec. 26, 2005-Jan. 2, 2006 issue. My copy, Last Evenings on Earth, is the 2006 translated by Chris Andrews version published by New Directions Books.

17 September, 2016

Thomas McGuane, "Cowboy"

Shane, or the name he's going by now, tells of his time, after prison, working for the brother and the sister. It's a rough life calving and roping and breaking horses. The three manage to make a go of it. "The old sumbitch and I got along good." Shane lives in the LeisureLife mobile home until the sister dies and then he moves in with the brother. The brother gets a dog, Tony. "Finally, Tony got old and died."And, then the brother's health goes down hill, "Then the state got wind of his condition and took him to town." Shane continues on just as we all must do even as people die around us. "There's always an opening for a cowboy, even a old sumbitch like me, if he can halfway make a hand." The theme of the story is that as long as we can be useful and there's gumption left to work, life goes on. Shane has become the "sumbitch" that the brother used to be as when one dies, someone fills in. Life goes on in the larger scheme.

"Cowboy" is included in McGuane's collection, Gallatin Canyon. "Cowboy" was first published in The New Yorker. I decided to pull my copy off of the shelf after reading Short Story Magic Tricks blog entry.

28 August, 2016

Maile Meloy, "Madame Lazarus"

René Auberjonois read "Madame Lazarus" on Selected Shorts. It was a delightful reading. I had quite a good time following along with the printed copy from The New Yorker. An elderly divorced man lives with a younger, good looking man, James, who brings a dog home, "I knew he was trying to keep me occupied, and it is a ridiculous thing, to have a dog." It seems that James is not going to be much of a companion anymore with all of his traveling and the age difference and so maybe the dog is a replacement companion. The narrator balks at having a dog, but eventually comes to love and take great care of Cordelia, the little terrier named by James "for an English novel," maybe Brideshead Revisited?

We learn how the narrator dealt with his homosexuality when he was a young boy. World War II intervenes, his marriage and children, divorce, the death of his first love, a young boy who dies of tuberculosis. All of the narrator's backstory is seamlessly woven through the story of the life and death of Cordelia, who the vet called Madame Lazarus because she had come back to life, risen from the dead. The narrator begs Desi, the housekeeper, not to leave; he's facing his own mortality.

"Madame Lazarus" was published in The New Yorker magazine, June 23, 2014.

25 July, 2016

Eudora Welty, "The Bride of the Innisfallen"

Published November 24, 1951 in The New Yorker, "The Bride of the Innisfallen,"tells the story of a young bride "leaving London without her husband's knowledge" and boards a train to Fishguard and will then board a boat for Cork, Ireland while the reader sees and hears the lively Irish discussions and goings on, and a Welsh gentleman as well. It is not until nearly the end of the story that we realize what the theme is. For me, it's in this paragraph.

"Love with the joy being drawn out of it like anything else that aches--that was loneliness; not this. I was nearly destroyed, she thought, and again was threatened with a light head, a rush of laughter, as when the Welshman had come so far with them and then let off.

If she could never tell her husband her secret, perhaps she would never tell it at all. You must never betray pure joy--the kind you were born and began with--either by hiding it or by parading it in front of people's eyes; they didn't want to be shown it."

12 July, 2016

Denis Johnson, "Emergency"

The short story first appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 1991. It has since become a classic. It's told in first-person point of view, from Fuckhead's viewpoint. It's divided into about eleven sections and moves at a fast pace and sort of all over the place. The narrator and his work-buddy, Georgie, are drugged up on all sorts of stolen pills for the duration of the story. The story begins in a hospital; Georgie tries to mop up all the blood; the narrator tries to pass the time and takes
as many drugs as he finds on Georgie.

For me, the story is about the Vietnam war--it takes place in 1973--and how war is composed of elements that are both chaotic and orderly. "The sky is blue and the dead are coming back." Both life and death; a lot of the story deals with seeing and not being able to see. "Around 3:30 a.m. a guy with a knife in his eye came in, led by Georgie."

Everyday life as a battle, something to avoid and get through. The two main characters don't care that they work in a hospital and are responsible for the well-being of patients when they take whatever pills they can steal. At the end of the story, the Lord's prayer plays over the intercom.

Horrible events occur all the time, but at some point, we pretend it's over yet there are ramifications. "That world! These days it's all been erased and they've rolled it up like a scroll and put it away somewhere."

The story contains dozens of intense images and are thrown at the reader one after another in, on the first read, rapid fire, but on subsequent readings, the many images and statements build to create a whole comment on modern life. Just like good short stories, it cannot be summarized.

"Emergency" was published in Johnson's collection, Jesus' Son and then included in the anthology, Vintage Book of American Short Stories, 1994. It's also included in Alice LaPlante's The Making of a Story, 2007.

28 June, 2016

Raymond Carver, "Boxes"

This first-person POV story shows a grown man whose father died a few years earlier and his mother is not happy anywhere, with anything, or anybody. An incessant complainer who lays guilt trips on her son. The old woman has packed her boxes and had them stacked around her house for six months. She moves every few months, sometimes even every month. "Sometimes she'd move out of an apartment house, move to another one a few blocks away, and then, a month later, move back to the place she'd left, only to a different floor or a different side of the building." Jill, the new woman in the narrator's life, tells the narrator that his mother is a "clinger."

My favorite part of the story is that Carver is able to take this annoying woman, extremely annoying woman, and very minutely explain what she does, over and over, but the story does not get stale and repetitive as her behavior does. Is the story about the son or the mother? I think it is about the mother but told by the son and only told by her actions and a few things she says but the son never explains her, he just shows her. We do learn about the son in the way that he deals or doesn't deal with his mother. In the end, he almost takes on the behavior of his dead father.

"Boxes" was first published in The New Yorker in February, 1986.

17 March, 2016

Stephen King, "Premium Harmony"

This first-person, limited, point of view short story tells of a short trip to the Quick-Pik store to buy a purple ball for Tallie, the niece of Mary and Ray with Biznezz, the Jack Russell dog, in the back seat of the car. Well, this is a trip, after which, nothing is the same for Ray.

Mary and Ray have been married for ten years and it has been rocky. They'd tried to have kids and when that didn't happen, Ray bought Mary a dog that she often called 'baby'. "Now they argue quite a lot." King, the author, has some great descriptions in the first paragraph comparing their arguments to a dog race. In fact, for me, the theme is captured in this, "You go past the same scenery time after time, but you don't see it." Just as too often happens, we see, think, believe, etc. the same thing again and again, missing out on the bigger or better reality. In the car, before Mary goes inside to buy the ball, they have some mean spirited back and forth exchanges. She gets onto him about his smoking and he makes fun of her weight. They obviously have house and money problems. The momentary relief from Mary's bickering is going to be hard on Ray tomorrow. I believe he'll even miss it and finally realize that he'd been taking his wife for granted.

Favorite Lines:
"Everybody said she was good-looking, even his mother, who didn't like her otherwise."

"He knows she thinks he parked close to the building on purpose, to make her sidle, and maybe he did."

"Ray smokes all the way to the hospital with the windows shut and the air-conditioning on."

"Premium Harmony" was published in The New Yorker in November 2009.

Link to full text of story, "Premium Harmony," at The New Yorker.

21 February, 2016

Maile Meloy, "Red From Green"

The story's title refers to a woman who has been exposed to toxins and can no longer differentiate what the red and green traffic lights mean. "Another had stopped driving, because she didn't always know whether a red light meant stop or go." The river trip is meant to entertain a new client of her uncle's and he serves as the catalyst that convinces Sam to go away to boarding school. She momentarily questions whether or not her father knew what he was doing when he left her alone with Layton.

Fifteen-year old Sam has gone river rafting with her father for as long as she can remember. Her mother died in a traffic accident when she was only four. She and her father have decided that she'll finish her high school education at a boarding school. Her father, a judge, is not a good judge when it comes to raising a teenaged daughter. Not that he doesn't try, he's just kind of at a loss and seems to know that somehow he is lacking in that area.

Sam meets Layton, a client of her uncle's, and her sexuality is burgeoning and while Layton starts to cross the line, he retreats and Sam goes on to boarding school and then we see her new friends and roommates exploring their sexuality and boundaries.

Another great story in the collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. "Red From Green" was first published in The New Yorker. Link to a review of the collection at the NYT.

18 February, 2016

Maile Meloy, "Travis, B"

Touching story of two working-class people brought together, almost, in an unexpected manner. This third-person limited point of view story takes place in Montana in January. Chet Moran had polio as a child and has been on survival mode developing somewhat of a philosophical and analytical mindset. He understands animals and broke horses when he was fourteen. She, Beth, never knew her father and somehow managed to make it through law school but ends up with a job where she does "all the crap no one else wants to do." The author does an exceptional job of straddling the fence where a person who is working hard to better her situation still has empathy and kindness towards someone who maybe isn't going to make it to her social position. We also see how Beth might not even make it to that so-called higher social standing.

"Travis, B" is in the current issue of Zoetrope: All-Story as the classic reprint as it is one of three stories that the filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt, has made into a film, Certain Women which will premiere in 2016, this year, at the Sundance Film Festival. The short story was first published in The New Yorker and then included in Meloy's collection, Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It.

22 September, 2015

Jensen Beach, "The Apartment"

Louise and Martin have been married over thirty-five years and have a thirty-four year old son, Jonas, who also still lives in Stockholm. On her way to meet Jonas for lunch, Louise notices the new name on the apartment in which an old woman had died. The name on the just purchased apartment is the same last name as Louise's lover from thirty-five years earlier. Seeing this name from her past, she begins remembering details of the time she'd been afraid, temporarily, that Jonas had been that other man's child.

After lunch, she drinks two bottles of wine and some scotch and then decides, that the new young woman who just moved in to the apartment in which the previous owner had died, is the daughter of her former lover. Skillfully handled, we see Louise drink to the point that she is unafraid to approach the new neighbor and proceeds to tell Sara, the new neighbor, that she could be her mother. "'You could be my daughter,' Louise said." When Louise saw her son off to work and that he blended into the crowd, she'd felt comforted but when she met the new neighbor, she thought, "She was beautiful, as far from the middle as Louise's son was near it."

Louise in her late fifties to early sixties had been unfaithful to her husband and feared that the child she was carrying was her lover's child. Guilt, alcoholism, destiny and infidelity are woven into a story that shows a middle-aged woman succumb to her guilt and hatred of her husband of many years. She was pregnant, about to give birth, when she learned that her husband, Martin, had no compunction about leaving a small child, the neighbor's child, alone in an apartment because he was tired and didn't feel like babysitting. Louise made excuses for his working long hours and not being at home. She also has a convoluted idea that imagining the worse will keep it from happening.

This paragraph brings Louise's life to clear view. "Sara smiled, and in the smile Louise, even drunk, located judgment. This was how Jonas looked at her; Martin, too. The same sad eyes, the narrow, thin-lipped smile. They pitied her, thought she was ridiculous, incapable, unwell. She hated them all. 'A woman died here, she said.'" And, we could say that Louise died as well. She's been dying for a long time and instead of trying to understand her, Louise's family pities her. How dare she be weak and human!

The story is subtle and needs to be read more than once to capture the nuances of behavior and emotions not only of Louise stuffing down her emotions with alcohol but also that of Martin and Jonas. “The Apartment” is a well-written story illuminating the heavy price a person pays for long-term guilt and the detriment of a loveless, hate-filled marriage.

 It's written in a close third-person point of view and past tense. It takes place in Stockholm. It was published in the August 31, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.