Later last year, I was invited to participate in a conversation between a number of readers who enjoy short fiction: Steven W. Beattie, Alessandra Ferreri, Andrew Wilmot, Chad Pelley and Steph VanderMeulen.
The conversation appears here, if you’d like to check it out, but what you won’t see at Found Press is the mad erruption of scribbling that erupted in my notebook. As with any good bookish discussion, I ended up with many additions to my TBR.
That’s the old-fashioned part – my scribbling and the print books that I’ve gathered since – but the fact remains that this conversation unfolded in the ether and is responsible for three new e-books in my fancy-schmancy new app now.
So I’m including it in this series of posts, because I hope conversations like this will become a new habit for me in the reading year ahead too. (The other posts in my series appear here, here, here and here.)
So what was added to my TBR? And what have I been reading since?
First, Steven W. Beattie pointed out Harold Brodkey’s Stories in an Almost Classical Mode.
There’s an author whose works I’ve heard mentioned before, but I’ve never picked up a collection. Fast forward to an inter-library-loan.
I read through the first paragraphs of the stories in the collection (which was bulky and impressive looking, dog-eared and well-loved), waiting for one to snag me.
I stopped at “Hofstedt and Jean – and Others” because this opening sentence caught my attention:
“This is what happened when one forty-five-year-old professor (of English) slipped into an affair with a twenty-year-old student. Whom he did not quite manage to love. I will try to make it edifying.”
From ‘edifying’, I was intrigued. As readers, should we expect stories to be edifying? Do we want to be morally improved by what we read?
Not only ‘edifying’, but ‘abeyance’, ‘irruption’, ‘pseudoscientifically’, ‘scrofula’, ‘grandiloquent’, ‘querulous’, ‘prosody’, ‘intertwinings’, ‘prefigure': Harold Brodkey’s stories – if this one is true to form – might not edify readers’ morals but vocabularies for certain.
His characters quarrel, don’t fight, and they are hostile, not angry: this is the kind of prose that slows readers down, forces them to travel back and forth on the page, rereading and considering, weighing and evaluating.
And, yet, I find a playful note there, too. “We met at Harvard,Ett and I, he a prodigy of fifteen, I a less prodigious prodigy of sixteen, we were drawn to each other with an almost audible thud, rosy-cheeked freshmen, dazzlingly new-brained and younger than everyone.”
A less prodigious prodigy? It’s like this: “I am not competently competitive….” And, this: “The trees around me were in new leaf, shyly pointilist, but I hardly noticed.”
But, like the character observed, there is an edge to the story. It is not all fun and games, not all levity and entertainment.
“I’m older now and I see people as complex things, held in and mysterious, streaked with virtues and ridiculous with vices; I see them perched on tie, each on a breaking branch the buds of which are sticky, new always ready to unfold into green moments.”
It is not all edifying, but thought-provoking, yes.
“I am completely unattracted by her, but Ett is looking at her. I see him looking at her in such a way that it is as if someone is underlining a passage in a book.”
The Brodkey was a fresh read for me, but then I turned to a favourite which I share with Steven W. Beattie: Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” (There were other recommendations in the conversation, but I’m only mentioning those which redirected my reading plans.)
Alessandra Ferreri took me back to an old favourite as well: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”.
(This I read in print too, in my grade-13 English textbook which, it turns out, has some stellar stories in it. I think I’ll add this to my TBR as well. Oh, how one books lead to another and another and….)
The Book Stylist also directed me to a new collection: Andrew Sullivan’s All We Want is Everything, the story “Pumpkinheads” in particular.
It’s not surprising why this story is often talked about. It strikes me as falling somewhere between Alice Munro’s “Carried Away” (for the accident scene) and something by Tony Burgess (Ravenna Gets, perhaps)
I wasn’t expecting to be so consumed by the tale.
Originally, I opened the file (this book lives in my e-reader app, so it fits perfectly with this week’s themed posts) mostly to experiment with the navigation and the notation features.
But I didn’t make a single note on my first pass: I couldn’t stop reading.
In fact, I had put a pot on the stove to boil water for a single cup of tea and promptly forgot all about it.
(Fortunately this did not result in a kitchen disaster, nor would it have held the proverbial candle to the events in this story’s kitchen in any case.)
Andrew Wilmot recommended Robert Shearman’s Remember Why You Fear Me which was new-to-me.
He and I have some shared favourites for the past reading year (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Craig Davidson’s Cataract City), and had dramatically different experiences with some other books (I admired Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Lynn Coady’s Hellgoing and Lisa Moore’s Caught: he did not).
Turns out that we agree on Robert Shearman.
Admittedly, it took some doing for me to pick up the book.
I watch a lot of horror films and read some scary stuff, but I can be a wimp about it even so, and the cover of this ChiZine publication really got under my skin.
More than once, I picked up the book and hauled it off to read, only to bury it beneath the other books I’d selected, so that I didn’t have to see the bony gloss of the image (which doesn’t look quite as creepy on-screen, I hasten to add).
But, then, a bright sunny January afternoon: one of those days when it hurts to be outdoors, so stark is the glare of winter. And, so, it was perfect to undertake the Robert Shearman collection.
And right from the start with “Mortal Coil”, I understood the appeal.
Was it Richard Matheson who wrote the story that was made into an episode of “The Twilight Zone”, about the couple who is offered the box with the red button, a button which, when pressed, would see all their hopes and dreamed fulfilled? I loved that episode, and I watched the videotaped copy that I had until it was nearly worn through.
I fell into this story in the same way. “The world had subtly changed, but for Harry it all looked pretty much the same.”
A world out of joint, slightly, is a great setting for a story, because the reader can choose their positioning. Readers of “Mortal Coil” are likely to sympathize with Harry, however. He is damaged and an outsider, but he is resourceful and entertaining.
“Harry would never have thought he was an especially special person. Even in his moments of hubris or overweening arrogance – which, for him, were few and far between – he’d have been hard pushed to have described himself was anything better than distinctly average.”
The language is not remarkable, but the style is remarkably inviting. And although the theme is serious, there are some laugh-out-loud moments. (Although, yes, that comes down to taste.)
“Because we only go around once, and I’m letting it slip by, I should be climbing mountains and exploring deserts and scuba diving and sleeping with people who’d do it with the lights on. That’ll be the present to myself.”
The second story, “George Clooney’s Moustache” is stylistically so different from the first story that it seems safe to assume that if I enjoyed both equally, that the rest of the collection will appeal too.
“He said it was very good, but that some of the grammar needed a little work, that it wasn’t always easy to read, and I asked about my handwriting, and he said that was good, and about my spelling, and he said that was good too, it was just the grammar, I could do with a few more full stops. So I’m going to do that. When I remember. I’ll try.”
Toward the end, there is an actual fragment of a note which appears, but the story is not so much an arc of a narrative as an immersion; readers are compelled to continue in this oh-so-present-tense-ness, pulled beneath the surface of the story as it unfolds: dark and wince-worthy.
Chad Pelley‘s recommendation of the Journey Prize anthologies was a natural as it was already on my reading list.
But he sent me scurrying for Jessica Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy and Christine Miscione’s “Skin, Just” (from Auxilliary Skins).
I’ve enjoyed Jessica Grant’s Come Thou Tortoise (she made me sniffle and chuckle) but I’d never read her short stories. (But, oh my, if you’re looking for a sweet and smart novel: do add this one to your TBR list.)
Making Light of Tragedy is a treat. So much so that I will be discussing it at length in future.
For now, though, Christine Miscione’s “Skin, Just” is so, so good that I want to type out the entire story right here, so that you can see how good it is too.
(I actually started to type out some of the passages, but it was too, too much.)
What makes the story stand out is the sense of universal and specific which intertwine, which pull readers close and then give them a resounding smack with the unexpected.
Not all of the stories impacted me with the same intensity, but I found the collection as a whole compelling. And because the stories are short (and sometimes punchy, too) I found it very hard to stick with my one-story-at-a-time rule.
(I compromised by reading two in a day, until the duedate conspired against me and the collection could not be renewed. Perhaps another reader who read this discussion was prompted to preview the collection through the Toronto library system as well. I’ll be watching for a copy of this one for my shelves, so I can peruse at leisure.)
“Sometimes the improbable is plunged from a toilet bowl.”
Steph VanderMeulen raved about Daniel Woodrell’s The Outlaw Album, particularly “The Echo of Neighbourly Bones” and “Night Stand”.
Having picked up this collection some months ago, and having decided that it was well-done but too sharp for my reading mood at that time, I was eager to revisit.
(It, too, now lives in my e-reading app. I can do it. I can do it.)
“Bones” reminds me a little of “Pumkinheads” in its immediacy and talk of damaged human digits and limbs.
Also with its reverence for the unexpected. “Pumkinheads” has an undercurrent of queer-calm to it, so that the reader is only a variation of surprised at the turn of events.
But the unexpected element of “Bones” circles the reader’s involvement in the tale and a surprising slant on understanding as the story unfolds.
If this had been the story I started with, the last time I picked up this collection, I might have read on. (It is the first story, but I don’t always begin at the beginning.)
“Night Stand”, too, is visceral and disturbing.
There is a beauty to the prose. “The sky was rumbling, stuffed with dark clouds, but only a thin sheen fell, raising oil slicks on the streets, shining the grass.”
But it makes your nose scrunch up too: that sheen, that slick, that putrifying shine. And, then: worse.
“A popping sound came from inside the man’s ribs, and Pelham expected to be sliced in return now, maybe shot, but hte man missed somehow, so close but he missed, and Pelham whipped in another stab and there came that plonk sound of striking a knothole hammering a nail, and the blade hung up in the ribs.”
I’m glad I revisited the collection; I might even re-read, just to see if I can unravel this storytelling.
Thanks to each of you – and to Found Press – for adding to my TBR list. A true pleasure.
What reading recommendations have you been following lately?