Although I’ve made good-faith efforts before, I’ve never read more than a few short story collections in a year. Something changed this year: twelve collections and I enjoyed the hell out of them.
Would recommend to anyone:
The Turning by Tim Winton
I haven’t shut up about this book since I finished it, and I don’t plan on stopping. Winton has an earthy, grounded voice that slid into my head so quickly that I would forget that I was reading within a few sentences of picking it up. That is a very rare happening—I can settle into that state of enchantment through big tense plots and believable characters, but it happens only once every few hundred books due to voice alone. I know close to nothing about Australia, so I don’t know if the settings and situations would be as novel for someone who has visited, but I’m not sure it would matter. His transitions are smooth, I never doubted any story or motivation, and the links between stories were delicate and faint. And my god, the writing.
“Time doesn’t click on and on at the stroke. It comes and goes in waves and folds like water; it flutters and sifts like dust, rises, bellows, falls back on itself. When a wave breaks, the water is not moving. The swell has traveled great distances but only the energy is moving, not the water. Perhaps time moves through us and not us through it. Seeing the Joneses out on the street, the only people I recognized from the old days, just confirmed what I’ve thought since Alan Mannering circled me as his own, pointed me out with his jagged paling and left, that the past is in us, and not behind us. Things are never over.”
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Along with Chaon’s Await Your Reply, this book is on everyone’s best of the year list, and for good reason: Tower’s stories are fresh and funny and exciting at the same time that they are touching and painful. The title story and “Leopard” in particular are worth checking out, even if only while standing up in the new books section and trying to decide if you’re the sort of person who reads short stories. I can think of an image from each story that will stick with me—the aquarium, the woodwork, the guy with the beers at the river.
Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories
Most of these are short and barbed. The long ones are barbed too. They all hooked me right in the throat. Hempel’s work is what I wanted Lydia Davis’s to be (not that Davis is bad: her stories just aren’t what I thought they would be based on the reviews I’d read). This hefty book is full of dogs and mental health issues and the importance of language. Killer sentences and perfect endings, with a few bonus connections between stories (even ones pulled from different books) for the observant.
“I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: Put your cards on the table.
This is easier, I think, when your life has been tipped over and poured out. Things matter less; there is the joy of being less polite, and of being less—not more—careful. We can say everything.
Although maybe not. Like in fishing? The lighter the line, the easier it is to get your lure down deep. Having delivered myself of the manly analogy, I see it to be not a failure, but a lie. How can I possibly put an end to this when it feels so good to pull sounds out of my body and show them to you. These sounds—this letter—it is my lipstick, my lingerie, my high heels.
Writing to you fills the days in this place. And sometimes I long for days when nothing happens. ‘Not every clocktick needs a martyr.’”
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
I’d been meaning to read this for literally years, but it was never in the used stack, never in the library when I looked for it. It’s a tiny little book, only took me two distracted days. Linked stories of destruction and blasé mayhem by a single narrator—this man has serious substance issues, a total lack of future goals or plans, and a surprising evil streak. Though it was in keeping with their characters, every time one of the men would do something awful, I was shocked because Johnson had pulled me into sympathizing with them again. I also read Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, which owes something to this collection (while not being overly derivative—I enjoyed both), in January. The ending of Johnson’s first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” takes my breath away.
“It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among the rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”
Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
So good and deserving of all the attention it got. Themes that held across stories: characters in dangerous locales who despite their best efforts are mired in naivety, the near impossibility of affecting larger situations regardless of how hard you try, surrender. A couple of the stories weren’t as flawless as the best of the collection, but the good ones make those couple worth it. Again with the initial story being amazing.
“How does it feel to be free? They were rising, rising, they might never stop—Blair closed his eyes and let his head roll back, surrendering to the awful weightlessness. Like dying, he wanted to tell them, like death, and how grieved and utterly lost you’d feel as everything precious faded out. That ultimate grief which everyone saves for the end, Blair was spending it, burning through all his reserves as the helicopter bore him away.”
Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
I blogged about this one already (though never returned to it because I’m a lazy liar): again, a couple of flawed stories don’t come close to ruining the whole batch. Gaitskill does marvelous things with cold: chilly characters, people frozen into bad patterns, the cooling of relationships. I love the way she writes about sex (especially failed sex) and the tragic incompatibility of characters’ sexual proclivities and what they want in their partners. I also read her Because They Wanted To early in the year but took inadequate notes and remember almost nothing in the wake of the newer collection.
“We were nothing to each other, really. I rarely thought of her, and although she said otherwise, I doubt she thought of me except when she saw me. And yet from time to time, in a little pit with a shimmering curtain, we would discover a room with a false back, and through the trapdoor we would willingly tumble, into a place where we were not a mere addendum to another, more genuine life—a place where we were the life, in this fervid red rectangle or this blue one.”
My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up by Stephen Elliott
Speaking of kink… Only marginally fiction, the most appealing facet of this collection isn’t all the filthy sex (and there is a lot of filthy sex, enough for the book to end up in the Erotica section in some stores), but the harsh honesty about the shortcomings of everyone involved. Broken people breaking each other for the occasional moments of being whole and unbroken together
“I wanted her so badly. I wanted her to adopt me. I could stay in her bed with her and her fiancé who ignored her. I didn’t care. What I really wanted to say was that I loved her and I thought there was a way we could make it work, that there’s a solution to every problem, when of course there isn’t.”
Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
I was ready to dislike this collection because I’m a huge litfic snob with a low tolerance for whimsy and re-imaginings and fairy tales and magical realism. Here’s an even more snobby thing: when something is this good (see also: Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart), I start thinking it’s just that the rest of the genre isn’t well-written enough to make the grade. This is terribly unfair and a character failing on my part, but at least I’m still trying. Right? Hmm.
If I had read individual descriptions of these stories before reading them, I would have guessed that I would hate the very ones I ended up loving. A redo of Cinderella? A man in a hotel beyond the grave? A cousin who can disappear? A ghost in a fucking cello? Pass pass pass pass. And yet.
“I loved you the first time I saw you. Scarecrow, my dear scarecrow, I loved you best of all. Who would have predicted that we would end up here in this hotel? It feels like the beginning of the world. This time, we tell each other, things are going to go exactly as planned. We have avoided the apple in the complimentary fruit basket. When the snake curled around the showerhead spoke to me, I called room service and Miss Ohio, the snake handler, came and took it away. When you are holding me, I don’t feel homesick at all.”
Hit and Miss:
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
My expectation were a bit too high going in here. Quirky stories, but never over the edge into cutesy or kitschy. Okay, maybe once or twice. The final story, “How to Tell Stories to Children,” was a blockbuster. She handles details really well and deals with the sorts of characters who are on the fringes of functionality and are frequently unaware of it—or are using maladaptive coping skills and hanging on as tight as they can given what they have.
“We don’t know anything. We don’t know how to cure a cold or what dogs are thinking. We do terrible things, we make wars, we kill people out of greed. So who are we to say how to love. I wouldn’t force her. I wouldn’t have to. She would want me. We would be in love. What do you know. You don’t know anything. Call me when you’ve cured AIDS, give me a ring then and I’ll listen.”
The Boat by Nam Le
“Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” the first story in the book, is so brilliant that it obliterated the rest of the stories in the collection. They didn’t stand a chance. Other than a few sections of the one set in Tehran and the Vietnamese boat people piece, I was forcing myself through. No comparison at all. That first story is a fucking killer. It gets two quotes:
“If you ask me why I came to Iowa, I would say that Iowa is beautiful in the way that any place is beautiful: if you treat it as the answer to a question you’re asking yourself every day, just by being there.”
“At sixteen I left home. There was a girl, and crystal meth, and the possibility of greater loss than I had imagined possible. She embodied everything prohibited by my father and plainly worthwhile. Of course he was right about her: she taught me hurt—but promise too. We were two animals in the dark, hacking at one another, and never since have I felt that way—that sense of consecration.”
One of the few books I abandoned this year was a short story collection, Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore. I can’t really explain why these stories never caught me (I got to page 85 before it was due and I didn’t check it back out) as they are intricate and polished. Maybe too polished? I didn’t feel anything for the characters, even as I realized the mastery with which Yoon was moving them through their stories. There is also the possibility that I picked it up at the wrong time—readers I generally agree with admired it.
I’m going to try to keep up with the collections in 2010 and have a list of them to get around to. A sampling: Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, Barrett’s Servants of the Map, Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Winton’s two other collections if I can find them, and DFW’s Oblivion, which I stopped myself from finishing early this year so I’d still have it waiting for me. Further recommendations are welcome.