Short Stories All the Time

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

06 June, 2017

Smith Henderson, "Treasure State"

Daniel, 15, and his older brother, John, embark on a road trip supposedly to Montana, the Treasure State. They’re escaping their abusive father who is being released from prison, plans to go home, and has advanced cancer.

The themes, for me, include loneliness, “John felt terrifically alone,” and fairness, “people don’t get what they deserve, everything oh every last thing is given out at random.” Daniel has had to suffer the punishments that John thought he deserved instead. And dread, “But John did not sleep, such was his dread.” While rage and suppressed anger and sadness are evident, the story reaches deeper than just the expected themes. I think that’s one of the strengths of the story. John is surprisingly mature and because of his good nature, his little brother might end up okay. John realizes at the end of the story that while he’s sad, lonely, and angry, “there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to do but see him off,” and he doesn’t kill his father as he’d planned. John had also felt guilt or anger that he hadn’t saved him and his brother but that a random stop by the police was what saved them. “It was pure luck that the old man had been caught red-handed and went down. Though it galled John that a broken tail-light saved them.”

The trajectory of their traveling is circular ending up finally back home. The physical traveling echoes the repetition of abuse, same thing again and again. To make money, the two young men, rob houses of people while they attend funerals. There is a night that John is trapped underneath the bed of a woman mourning her children. John gets the sleep he needed and vicariously experiences the mourning. The story is very well structured and wrapped neatly into a thematic narrative without anything superfluous. And, even includes suspense. It's damn good.

“Treasure State” was first published in Tin House. Then it was included in the The Best American Short Stories, 2016.

16 April, 2017

Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore"

Originally published in Tin House and then included in the 2016 issue of The Best American Short Stories, "Wonders of the Shore" is divided into five sections, each beginning with a "free adaptation" from books by female naturalists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Celia Thaxter in Her Garden, 1892,
by Childe Hassam
Daphne Bannister and Henrietta Atkins travel to the Isles of Shoals where Daphne is called upon to entertain and educate guests at Celia Thaxter's hotel. Celia Thaxter, 1835-1894, was a poet and writer and gardener on the largest island in the group, Appledore Island. She hosted many creative guests, "Among her well-known friends were Whittier, Sarah Orne Jewett, and the painters William Morris Hunt and Childe Hassam. Nathaniel Hawthorne visited her island cottage."

The story takes place during a three-week working vacation for Daphne and Henrietta on Appledore Island. While Henrietta entertains herself after a bit of a tif with Daphne, Henrietta has a fling with a house guest artist painter, Sebby Quint. The last chapter acts as an epilogue.

There's some drama interspersed throughout the story. A farmer, Mason, wanted to marry Henrietta but she lied and said he broke it off with her when she in fact dumped him. There was some gossip about Henrietta and her friend, Daphne, around Keuka Lake, with questions of their sexual relationship.

What I like most about the story is the way Andrea Barrett weaves historical people and natural science into a dramatic set of scenes illustrating that human beings are social animals that can be watched and analyzed just as the micro-organisms at the edge of the ocean. "...full of fascination for one who has learned to read them."

It takes a gifted writer to successfully open a story with a forenote and then a fairly long paragraph describing the design of a book.

18 December, 2016

Liz Ziemska, "The Mushroom Queen"

"What she wants now, more than anything, is a placeholder, someone to keep her life intact while she goes on a little reconnaissance trip." Well, she gets her wish and trades places with a mushroom, a fungus, the Mushroom Queen, and obtains the ability to travel the earth underground. The Mushroom Queen takes the original woman's place being careful not to encounter neighbors whose names she won't know. One of the themes, for me, is "The small dog knows there's nothing more dangerous in the world than desire." The husband, after 9.3 years of marriage, welcomes the doppelgänger, and doesn't even know his original wife is gone. He's happy that she, the new woman, the Mushroom Queen, doesn't talk much and is much more respondent to his desires. "He knows and he does not miss her [original woman] at all." The Mushroom Queen poisons the yard so that the original woman cannot come back. Original woman has been moving across the continent from the Hudson River Valley to southern California but was not able to emerge from the jade plant in her original garden, "She's never coming back, his [the dog's] beloved mistress; he'll never see her again. No one misses her but him."

The story is told in a realistic style and in 3rd person point of view, and present tense. The point of view is either an omniscient one or, really, more of a shifting in each section, some from the small brown dog's viewpoint. Interspersed are facts about mushrooms. It's quite a wonderful story and so much could have gone wrong with such a premise, but it works. Another theme, more obvious, is that often after someone wishes to leave home, they wish to return.

"The Mushroom Queen" was first published in Tin House and then included in the 2017 Pushcart Prize XLI: Best of the Small Presses. In the contributors notes to the Pushcart volume, Ziemska "describes herself as 'a writer of slightly strange fiction.'" Kudos to her, well done.

21 December, 2014

Robert Anthony Siegel, "The Right Imaginary Person"

First person story about Benjamin, an American, living in Japan and dating Sumiko. Interspersed are bits of backstory about Benjamin and his dying sister, Daisy, and his parents who have not come to terms with her death. The themes, for me, are isolation, expectations and love. Benjamin has self-isolated himself, albeit unsuccessfully, from painful family memories. Sumiko, likewise, has isolated herself from her parents who have very particularly expectations of her. However, we only know this from her. She may be exaggerating even as she says, "'Resistance is futile in a country like this, because the thing you reject isn't just out there, it's in here.' She tapped her head. 'Obedience is encoded in us through two thousand years of inbreeding.'"

Also part of the story is writing about writing, science fiction and correspondence. Sumiko writes science fiction but throws away all of her notebooks after she gets a job as a kindergarten teacher.

Benjamin writes letters to his parents that he never mails. Sumiko gives him the idea to write the letters as though by an imaginary person. Benjamin tries to write a letter as though from one of his professors but he is unable because as soon as he tries to write about his sister, the words disappear. All in all, the best word I can think of to describe the story is tender.

Favorite Lines:
"'Are you saying that you are genetically unable to stop yourself from becoming a kindergarten teacher?'"

"I walked beside them with a mixture of anxiety and hunger, waiting for a chance to use one of the phrases from my flash cards, waiting for the chance to be loved."

"We would pass the joint between us, a little star traveling from her hand to mine and back, and the house would seem to float beneath our weight like a ship on the water, traveling with the current, faster and faster into the darkness."

"The Right Imaginary Person" was first published in Tin House and then included in the 2014 issue of The O'Henry Prize Stories.

Robert Anthony Siegel's web page

30 July, 2014

Amy Hempel, "A Full-Service Shelter"

A first-person POV story that begins every paragraph with either "they knew me" or "they knew us" which gives the story a musical rhythm and where "they" are the dogs. The narrator is a female who volunteers in an dog shelter in Spanish Harlem. She is an extremely caring animal lover. Character development is built via how "they know" her and her co-workers. Also throughout the story we learn about the dogs and their shenanigans as well as their needs and behaviors by what the volunteers are willing to do that is above and beyond what most kennel workers agree to do.

The story could work as positive propaganda for increased funding for dog kennels and animal shelters. It is a love story for dogs who are in need and have been mis-treated. While the listing format of the story states unequivocally how the full-service shelters operate, at the same time, I wonder, maybe too much space is allowed for a reader to remain non-empathetic, if that was their inclination entering the story. I'm not sure I believe that but I wonder. Or, maybe the "listing" of facts sways people who didn't have an opinion beforehand. Forgive my ramblings.

However, the narrator says that while she favors large breeds she is afraid of Presa Canarios. This breed had killed a friend of hers "in a tony apartment house" in San Francisco. An actual killing did occur in San Francisco in 2001 of a well-known athlete, Diane Whipple.

The epigraph is from a famous story written in the list format as well. Hempel was inspired by a line in the story, "In the Fifties," in which Leonard Michaels lists events in which he was involved that delineated the 1950s for him.

"They knew us as the ones who put pigs' ears on their pillows, like a chocolate in a good hotel."

"They knew us as the ones who put our fingers in mouths to retrieve a watch, a cell phone, a red bicycle reflector that a dog sucked on like a lozenge."

"Although some of the sweetest dogs were the ones rated 'moderate,' which was puzzling until we realized that behavior testing was done when a stray was brought in by police or a dog surrendered by his owner, when they were most scared."

"They knew me as the one who saw through the windowed panel in a closed ward door a dog lift first one front paw and then the other, offering a paw to shake though there was no one there, doing a trick he had once been taught and praised for, a dog not yet damaged but desperate."

Wikipedia page for Amy Hempel
Paris Review, interview with Hempel

25 January, 2014

Charles Baxter, "Bravery"

To me, "Bravery" is a retelling of some Bible stories and characters. Elijah likened to Jesus in his caring  kindness for people. The girl in the Alta Plaza Park compares to Susanna and Daniel, Elijah, rescuing her, Susan. The old Czech woman prophesies the birth of Jesus, Raphael. In my mind, a Jesus figure begetting another Jesus figure.

The opening scene of the girls teasing and taunting the boys standing on the corner is well-written with a truthful ring. Near the end Susan taunts her husband about the way he is feeding the baby, Raphael, i.e. their angel. After he returns home from rescuing a girl in the park, Susan washes him, i.e. washes his feet.

Susan has made it through this day and a voice from nowhere asks her, "What will you do with another day?" That is how the story ends. Susan might figure out how to allow Elijah "his generosity and its possible consequences," or "They would postpone the argument about feedings until tomorrow, or next week."

"Bravery" was first published in Tin House and subsequently selected for inclusion in the 2013 Best American Short Stories.

The story is about 15 pages long, 3rd person POV and past tense. The setting begins in Palo Alto, California, moves to Czech Republic then circles back to California. San Francisco.

02 June, 2012

Alice Munro, "Dolly"

If Alice Munro had not decided to be a writer she could have been a psychologist. She understands people so that her stories effortlessly expose our tiniest foibles with precision. "Dolly" is in the current, Volume 13, Number 4, issue of Tin House. An elderly couple, she 71, he 83, have been discussing their planned deaths and decide that further discussions can wait until the wife is 75! Then a woman selling make-up appears and sets into motion what one would expect of a much younger and insecure couple. Perfect.

Get a copy of Tin House soon! The essay, "Cooking with Friends" is a fun read as is "Notes on the Merritt Parkway Novel." And, I can't wait to read the Jess Row story. Gosh, what a treasure of an issue. Amy Hempl as well.

"I paid for some lotion that would restore my youth and she promised to drop it off next time she was around."

"A snatching at enjoyment in whatever situation. Now that she had her cigarette, she appreciated everything."

"It had been the off-season, cheaper--they were reduced to taking afternoon sinners, and I had been one of them."

Tin House

18 March, 2012

Rebecca Makkai, "Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart"

Drew tells his story twenty-five years after the fact. We learn right away in the first line of the story that Drew--we do not know his name yet--is asked why he risked his career for Peter Torrelli who was movie-star handsome and gay as was Drew.  The story is written in first-person POV and past tense. We learn that Peter and Drew were high school buddies and that they shared the same phobia of automatically changing places with some random person and then they liked imagining their escape from the situation. It's an interesting set of issues Makkai conjures for Peter and Drew's burgeoning homosexuality and the ramifications of the boys' coming to terms with it and / or their ignoring it.

The story has references to other art forms, paintings and other short stories, which I always enjoy. Peter is one actor of several who are to read stories, one of which is by Stuart Dybek, written about works in the Art Institute of Chicago. Drew hires Peter hoping to help his friend but alas no such luck. Peter accidentally runs his hand across a painting in the museum which sounds the alarm and halts the live on-air story reading.

I'm not sure what the theme is other than change is inevitable and not always pleasant. Some people rise and some don't. We've all known people who we expected to excel and were surprised when something went awry, maybe even just one thing, and then his or her life seemed to tumble downhill. The story deals with homosexuality, anxiety, illness, maybe AIDS, happiness and expectations. Also are changes about cities and businesses; the last paragraph is about change larger than ourselves.

"Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart" was first published in Tin House and subsequently selected for Best American Short Stories, 2011.

Makkai's web site
interview with Makkai in Shenandoah
Tin House web site

23 January, 2012

Jennifer Egan, "Out of Body"

Egan uses a 2nd person POV with some shifts in "Out of Body." The point of view works well with the suicide subject matter and Rob's separations. Several times in the story he watches himself perform and react as though outside himself. Rob tells his own story in the second-person but it reads like a close first-person point of view.

"Out of Body" was first published in the journal, Tin House, issue number 43. Rob Spillman does not mention "Out of Body" in his introduction to that issue, Games People Play. However, Robert Freeman Jr. does play the most deadly of games, suicide. He's angry with his father (we never know why) and he's angry with himself and angry with Sasha. Despite the fact that she saved his life, he's fallen in love with her and never acted on it or realized it until she chose Drew.

Sasha was playing games of her own when she asked Rob to be her fake boyfriend because her father was having her followed by a private investigator. We never learn if this is true. In fact, there are a lot of backstory questions that are never answered but they do not need to be. I appreciate, in fact, how well the story stays in place with the characters at hand. Egan gives a believable account of the so-called out of body experience.

The first time I read the story, I was a little put off by the 2nd person POV but the next time I read it, I enjoyed it very much. I think it well deserves to be included in The Best American Short Stories collection for 2011.

Tin House, issue 43
Egan's web site

02 October, 2011

Dylan Landis, "Jazz"

Rainey, thirteen, grapples with her burgeoning sexuality and her power to seduce boys as well as grown men. While she's anxious for something, "she still wants to go too far but she is not sure how far is far," illustrates just how vulnerable

and young she is. She tries to convince herself that she is not being raped but she is being raped by her father's friend, Richard, and fellow professional musician. They are by the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park where the water is controlled but Rainey is not in control. In the back story, Rainey is in a rushing stream, uncontrollable, and she's in control, sort of.

Today, in pop psychology we would say that because Rainey's mother has moved to Boulder to join a cult, Rainey feels abandoned and is acting out. This is probably part of it.

The story weaves music, specifically jazz, school, adolescence, Greek mythology (Oedipus Rex in which Rainey plays Jocasta) seamlessly to give a glimpse into Rainey's life and her immature attempts to deal with oblivious parents (although the father evidently warned the mother about Rainey's behavior) and youthful yearnings.

Even the name of Rainey's bra, Miss Debutante, reminds us of her youthfulness and her "debut" into the adult world of sexuality and power. Rainey's debut is not what we wish for any young woman.

"Jazz" first appeared in Tin House in 2003 and subsequently included in the collection, Normal People Don't Live Like This.


"She thinks how this is one more interesting thing a man can be reduced to."

"Andy Sakellarios, who might or might not be her boyfriend, has smooth hands."

"She wants to set fires and she wants to control how they burn." I think this sentence might be the theme of the story. We want control and power but once power is unleashed our control is gone and the forces of other people are in play.

"She loves that he is a grownup and yet he seems to have no choice."

17 October, 2010

Charles Baxter, "The Winner"

This story, "The Winner," by Charles Baxter pits a working class free lance journalist against a super wealthy developer and inventor who lives in a very secluded place with his wife and mistress. Krumholtz, the journalist, questions wealth and societal standards. The part of the story I enjoyed the most was the drive deep into the forest when Krumholtz was lost. The vegetation and the circling hawk lent to the sense of isolation. Krumholtz takes an interesting turn in order to elicit a response from these overly wealthy, self-obsessed people.

This story is published in Vol. 12, No. 1 issue of Tin House.


Charles Baxter's website
Tin House

16 October, 2010

Benjamin Percy, "The Locksmith"

"The Locksmith" is written in present tense, third-person POV and is about 8,000 words. Brian, a locksmith and Iraq veteran, learned the locksmithing trade from his father. We meet Brian as he traps beaver for "a sewing project." For an instant I thought of Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the Lambs film. And, indeed, later we find out exactly what kind of sewing project it is. Brian is called away from his beaver traps early in the story to unlock a house of a woman who had gone out jogging and locked herself out; well, actually her "idiot" husband locked her out and she calls Brian. Some suspense is built and was anxious to find out what Brian is going to do with the key he cut for himself of Karen's lock but savored the descriptions of Brian's life in the military and the environment of this rural setting which are beautifully written and interesting. The ending is the kind I like in a short story. The reader has to decide for herself exactly what the protagonist decides to do. So, I was well satisfied until I read the bio in the back of the journal and found out that this is a novel excerpt. Ugh. Tell me up front please. Now, I feel like that is not necessarily the ending for a story but just a stopping place for a novel excerpt.

Tin House
Percy's website about The Wilding
review of The Wilding by

13 October, 2010

Ron Rash, "The Ascent"

Ron Rash's, "The Ascent," short story was first published in Tin House and subsequently in Best American Short Stories, 2010. Jared, a fifth grader, whose parents are drug abusers, finds in the Smoky Mountains a crashed airplane with two dead passengers inside. On the hike, in the snow, up the mountain, Jared's imagination has him escorting Lyndee Starnes while protecting her and showing her the different animals tracks. Jared takes the diamond ring off of the dead woman's hand then his father finds it and sells it to buy more drugs. Jared returns to the site for the man's Rolex.

This is a heartbreaking story of a young boy who wants to rescue those he loves even as he realizes the futility of his efforts.

My test for the magnificence of a story is whether or not I can read another story right away. With this one, I could not. I had to savor it.


interview with Rash
Ron Rash wins Frank O’Connor Short Story Award

03 September, 2010

Amy McDaniel, "Portrait of a Cheese Mongress" and Rob Spillman, "Editor's Note"

Vol. 12, No. 1
This essay published in the current, Volume 12, No. 1, issue of Tin House is a fun read about a high-end cheese shop and continues the theme, Class in America. McDaniel, from a an affluent background, takes a job as a food laborer after earning her MFA.

Rob Spillman's "Editor's Note" reminds us that the United States is not a classless society and I particularly like his assessment that we can be "further divided into two classes: those who go to war and those who don't."

Also enjoyed the interview by Heather Hartley with Luc Sante. He talks about class in the United States. He touches on the ludicrous so-called Tea Party and the idea that most Americans somehow call themselves middle-class, even the poor. And, he touches on the bizarre feature of the screaming right-wing working class people who want all of the tax breaks for the rich. And, he doesn't think the time is quite right for civil disobedience because the "left" wing has somehow been pushed into defending the government and "The antics of the Tea Party people are getting far more attention than anything the left could hope to manage nowadays."

Link to Tin House

14 February, 2010

Jeff Snowbarger, "Bitter Fruit"

Read Jeff Snowbarger's short story, "Bitter Fruit," published in Volume 11 Number 2 of Tin House. A young man, Caleb, college dropout, disappoints his father, goes to work for alcoholic cranberry grower, Ely, who commits suicide. Strong visuals, detailed odors, landscapes, and settings fill this short story at about 8,500 words. This story begins with the "resolution" and in reverse reveals how that so-called resolution came to be. "Bitter Fruit" is divided into 9 distinct sections or scenes alternating between Caleb and Ely's situation and Caleb and his father's relationship. Snowbarger is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

12 February, 2010

Eudora Welty, "Why I Live at the P.O." and Karen Shepard, "There Be Monsters"

Listened to a 1953 recording of Eudora Welty reading her short story, "Why I Live at the PO." I was surprised that she read it so quickly almost without pausing at the commas.

Read short story, "There Be Monsters," by Karen Shepard published in Volume 11 Number 2 edition of Tin House. It is written in 3rd person shifting POV, present tense. It explores Natalie (who appears depressed) and Lloyd's disintegrating marriage. Bringing an ex-boyfriend into their home, Natalie remembers learning how to "flying lead changes" with a horse. Natalie decides that she needs to teach her daughters how to "throw their weight," "change their lead." The theme I think is best captured in one of Shepard's sentences concerning the high school girl who committed suicide, "...the girl had tried to keep her sadness from the person she cared about most. She'd tried and failed."