Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Intermission



Just a short walk up to the stacks. My memory is still solid as I can easily find the shelves where the BASS live.  They are aligned perfectly.  
Waiting - and waiting - and waiting. 
With the new circulation system there is no longer a need for a due date slip to be place and stamped in the back of the book.  
The 2013 edition of BASS is crisp and clean - the pages snap and crackle as I quickly flip them between my thumb.  And I have this quickening and shortness of breath as I think that perhaps I am the only one that will ever do this.  I pull some of the other volumes down to find one with a due date slip in the back - I need to see when it was last checked out.  
It’s funny that I actually feel a physical hurt thinking that these books will sit here for years and years until someday they are discarded - never to have been read - their authors never heard of again.

Finding Natasha – Madison Smartt Bell





Back in October we made our first trip back to Romania with W. It was a wonderful trip.  Plenty of time with the family and W traveled extremely well.

Going back to Negresti is not just a trip back to a former home, it’s a chance to time travel. 

I knew before the trip that I would have for time traveling with my son, feeling emotions from those old days but with a companion from the future so W and I took every opportunity to get out of the apartment and onto the little streets of Negresti.  
At least twice a day W and I would venture out onto the cold(somewhat cold), still dusty(not as dusty), still dirty(not as dirty) streets of Negresti.  We’d make our way out of the apartment, taking dark the uneven stairs with care and onto the sidewalk outside of the apartment bloc.  
Each time, be it the bright light of the morning, a midday glare - or the dusky evening purple light,  I’d take a quick couple of seconds to assess the surroundings, see who was walking down the sidewalk as a possible portal to the past.  We’d start our walk down the sidewalk and usually turning right towards the “commercial” street.  Heading out onto the street for W was all about reaching the playground.  
He had his priorities, I had mine.  
Heading out onto the street for me was all about returning to 1998 - reaching back.  Things changed in Negresti - but not much.  Infants that were born when I first arrived there were now old enough to be my students if I were to teach there again.  Time failed to stop for me as I wish it had. I walked with W down the streets doing my best to casually stroll and to make myself as visible as possible.
Sounds, smells the light - all were the same.  1998 returned to me often on those walks.  I ran into former students who apologized for their English as I apologized for my Romanian. 
Time travel. 
Nervous laughter and smiles - and then it was over.
We continued down the street. There was a brief tug from the past, a tug towards the bars with their smoke and cheap vodka.  Thinking back to those days, I determined that a good deal of self-examination and discovery took place in those “establishments” brought on by the clarifying effects of the booze.  
Walking the streets in 2013 I realized that there would be no going back.  Those smoky rooms were gone for me now.  
I would need to discover myself elsewhere - but honestly, is my discovery all that important in the role that I now serve as a father? Yes, to some degree I suppose - but perhaps existing in the present with my son is far more important that strolling down the dirty sidewalks and dark smoky rooms of my past.  It’s time to remember the past, not live in it - I must live in the present and the future with my son.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Kind of Simple, Happy Grace - Richard Bausch



A very strange day today - a day when many old memories surfaced and pushed my mood towards the slightly melancholic.  
It started as I was looking at some old vacation locations on Google Earth.  I then ventured into some of my online photo albums and pulled up old shots of my father.  Not really old - maybe 5-7 years ago.  A lifetime ago really.  A time where he knew my name. 
Where we could sit at a table and drink scotch and carry on conversations. In those conversations, some were pretty banal - others deep and meaningful - either way, I seem to remember making connections with him that had never before developed.  
So, now, I am stuck with the connections we made then.  
We can go no further.  
And, I think this is OK.
  
It’s my opinion that as humans we seek to make connections.

Richard Bausch in his contributor’s notes concerning this story writes that - “...I knew I wanted to bring them to some pass that would mean a sort of helpless embrace.” 

I think it’s natural that because of the divorce I sought out deep and meaningful connections with my father - and as I matured and wondered where his mind was during the divorce, I sought to understand him more through our discussions.  
When dad and I sat together and drank, it was our embrace. 

I remembered those embraces today and I’ll remember them tonight as I practice my Thursday night scotch drinking ritual.

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Fireman's Wife - Richard Bausch



My struggles with staying on top of posting here are primarily due to a block. I haven’t isolated it completely – just that it originates with my change in life.  We all work through our blocks.  We fall off our horses and climb back on.  In this case, I do not resent the origins of the change in my life one bit.  It’s just a stage, and as I progress forward, I will be able to pull good parts of my old life into the life I now live.
 
The Fireman’s Wife is the second story in BASS 1990.  The author is Richard Bausch who I’ve read before in BASS 1988 (Police Dreams)  back in the summer of 2012. We’ll have the treat of reading more Bausch in my next entry as he is featured twice in this anthology.

Of his decision to include Bausch twice in this volume editor Richard Ford states: “I’d have felt more balanced by seeming more balanced, but I simply couldn’t believe I was publishing the best stories I found if I ignored these”.

Bausch is also in BASS 1997 – I look forward to reading him several months from now (er…could be years at my rate of reading and writing).

Bausch was born in 1945 and presently he is a professor at Wilkinson College of the Arts & Humanities at Chapman University in Orange, California.  He spent some time in Virginia attending college and later teaching just up north at George Mason. 
Bausch has a great section on his website – where he lays out his Ten Commandments for writers.

They are great and worth re-posting here:

Ten Commandments of Richard Bausch
1. Read: “You must try to know everything that has ever been written that is worth remembering, and you must keep up with what your contemporaries are doing.”
2. Imitate: “While you are doing this reading, you spend time trying to sound like the various authors — just as a painter, learning to paint, sets up his easel in the museum and copies the work of the masters.”
3. “Be regular and ordinary in your habits, like a Petit Bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.” — borrowed from Flaubert
4. Train yourself to be able to work anywhere.
5. Be Patient. “You will write many more failures than successes. Say to yourself, I accept failure as the condition of this life, this work. I freely accept it as my destiny. Then go on and do the work. You never ask yourself anything beyond Did I work today?”
6. Be Willing. “Accepting failure as a part of your destiny, learn to be willing to fail, to take the chances that often lead to failure in the hope that one of them might lead to something good.”
7. Eschew politics. “You are in the business of portraying the personal life, the personal cost of events, so even if history is part of your story, it should only serve as a backdrop.”
8. Do not think, dream.
9. Don’t compare yourself to anyone, and learn to keep from building expectations.
10. Be wary of all general advice.

In an interview with  Jack Smith published in “Writer” - Apr2007 Smith in his introduction writes:

The Virginia Quarterly Review said – “With any luck, Richard Bausch's genius will be recognized now as heir and equal to Carver's."

I feel bad that I didn’t look further into Bausch back in July of 2012.  I’m a huge fan of Carver and have been reading What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which is such a bad-ass collection of tightly written stories.

So if Bausch lines up with Carver – I’m stoked.
Later in the interview Smith goes on to write “Familiar Bausch themes include marital stresses and breakups, the problems of aging, and the complex relations between parents and children. Like his literary kinsmen Carver and Richard Ford, he tends to produce work that is often very dark, ironic and bizarre.” And then “Bausch masterfully zeroes in on the oddities and quirks in people, and the bizarre ways in which human beings clash as they try to conduct their lives the only way they know how.”

And the above pretty much sells it for me on Bausch.

I enjoyed this story.  I enjoyed the depth of characters and as a fan of Carver; I enjoyed the misery in which the characters lived.




Monday, September 16, 2013

River of Toys – Edward Allen


Perhaps it’s just that I've finally reached this decade in the anthology where I find that the year could be coloring my perception of this story.
 
Yes, I think that plays a large part.
 
I read this story twice.  Once several weeks ago – as I had finished BASS 1989, and decided to read the intro to BASS 1990 and doing so, not feeling like writing anything yet – I went ahead and read this story.

I read it again several days ago, and on the second pass I enjoyed it much more.  I really took the time to absorb the words.
There is a passage -below that really makes it a fine story:

"I like to close my eyes and keep walking, see how far I can walk without opening them.  You can feel the night.  The night is a thing.  It’s harmless.  It has a shape.  It hangs over everything I hope to get back to, over my going home from work, over the food I choose to eat, over the books I tell myself I should be reading.  The night is something completely without seriousness.  Stars dance in the sky, whether you can see them or not, even on nights so think with moisture that people who smoke cigarettes can’t light matches. "

Reading this passage, pulls me back to my early adulthood – a place that I feel most of these stories will take me.  As most of the stories and entries on this blog for the 80s dealt with my high schools days and my home life, the 90s will bring my entry into true independence.

The walking into night passage above is very special to me.
There were many times at Norwich where I found myself walking quietly back to my room.  I would have been in an academic building or most likely in the library – making my best efforts at studying and failing miserably at it.
 
The cool night air of a Vermont winter or the warmer spring nights held a special silence that left such an imprint on my memory that I can place myself there today.

I lived in a state of blissful confusion then – (maybe I still am today…) and the night walks back to my room acted as a sort of tunnel between dimensions/worlds/atmospheres. 
And then we flash forward to more night (actually early morning walking – done in the late 90s and thousands of miles away along a dung covered road leading out of Negresti.

I would have risen at 3 in the morning.  
Made a strong coffee.  
Stomach turning and turning – nerves.  
Checking my bag, once, twice and then again.
Slipping out of the dormitory, walking out of the school grounds, the smell of burning trash, burning corn husks, horse manure on the streets.
The crisp moist spring air.
Check my watch once – and then again.
Quicken my step.
Light a smoke.
Pull my hat tighter.
Walk a bit faster.
Look behind me.
Hear a dog bark, a gate close, a rooster crow.
Another joins me towards the train station just 50 feet behind me.
Who do I think I am?
  Where am I going?
    Where am I today?
      Tomorrow?
Next year?


That was then – and it’s still today. Never stop asking.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Best American Short Stories 1990

August 1990 - The beginning.
This collection contains stories published in 1989, read by the series and volume editor in ’89 and 1990 with a publication of the collected stories occurring in November of ‘90.
I’ve thought a lot over the past several months about this volume of stories.   It’s the date stamped across the cover that draws my emotions I think more than the stories within (at least at this point).   
1990 was 23 years ago.
23 years.
I’ll be 65 years old in 23 years.
I find it so hard to digest.  Where have those years gone? It really is incredible.
It is within those 23 years beginning in 1990 that I have lived the best years of my life.
You see, in 1990, the raw materials that eventually became my life today started to gather and construct themselves – slowly being shaped by forces visible and invisible – some only to make themselves known many years later.
That year I stepped out from under the wings of my parents and entered a new world  (and thinking of my own son doing this, breaks my heart).
I found new wings to shelter under and new companions to find comfort in.
I found myself in those early months  of my freedom sitting  alone, in a classroom, at a desk in the library, in my bed, face buried in a pillow, stifling sobs and struggling to mask the tears.  I cried for my past and my future.  Cried for the mistakes I was making and crying for the mistakes I was going to make.
Mistakes became my new friends – for I made many and there was no one to blame but myself.
Mistakes that sit with me today. Mistakes that weigh heavy on my conscience because it is I that created them and must shoulder the burden.
And still 23 years have passed.  23 years to the week that I set out on the path I now find myself on.
Again, I feel a strength, a strength that I can summon so many of these memories simply by holding a book stamped with a date.
And I read what I have written above and I see that what I have used as a point to illustrate these 23 years is the idea of “mistakes”.
But above me talking about all the mistakes I made, I clearly wrote about how the years have been the best ever.  So, how could a described life of mistakes be the best?
Is it that I have seen these mistakes as lessons? Perhaps - I’m still trying to figure that out.


Let’s quickly look at a few selected quotes from the volume editor Richard Ford.
-“A warming chestnut snugged into the heart of many introductions of this very sort protests that a virtual cornucopia of wonderful stories – far too many for one slender volume – made final choices nearly impossible.  This was not precisely my experience in 1989.”  


-“Unarguably, writing short stories – a minor contribution to the saga of mankind- is something most people can’t do very well.  I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s harder than it looks, and wonderful stories do see like little miracles.”  
-“Art’s that way – free.”
-“I only know I’ve made no effort to “stamp’ this volume as my own,  I’ve meant not to set the world straight about the contemporary short story, or show people what they ought to be reading – only what they may like.  The selector or his method isn’t the star here.  It’s not my collection, it’s the writers’.  And although a skeptical reader might say these stories are bluntly predictable given their blunt chooser, their chooser has done his best not only to find stories he can stand up for, but also to put himself out of business with his choices.”  
-“So finally we get to the back of the garage, the nuts and bolts.  There are not a lot of wonderful short stories published in America year to year, and partly in view of that rarity I have sought to publish here only the best I could find, with no attempt to distribute evenly the number of men to women, the number of small magazines to large ones; no attempt to include some percentage of gays or Chicanos or African Americans or Jews.  I have not tried to encourage younger writers nor discourage Southerners, West Coast writers, dyslexics, New Agers, Christians or Viet Vets.  I did not read these manuscripts “blind,” as some of my predecessors have, but I trust myself to honor the basic primacy of the work to its author.”


I read the introduction twice.  Once as an introduction and a second time to pull the above quotes and think a bit about why I decided to include them here.  
I appreciate the Ford puts right out there the fact that there really aren’t a lot of good short stories published each year.  I think that still holds true today.  Ford picks stories that he feels the reader might like – but of course this is through his filter – and I have a little trouble believing his statement that he hasn’t made an effort to stamp this volume as his own – for with that statement and the other that follow, he has done just that. Not reading them blind – that too I believe can only color his selections a bit closer to shades of his favor.    


He read 250 stories for this volume and selected 20 from a nice variety of magazines.  You will also note as I read through this volume that he selected two stories from Richard Bausch and Alice Munro.  It will be nice to read selections from old friends such as Madison Smartt Bell, Elizabeth tallent and Joy Williams.


This is the last volume that Shannon Ravenel will serve as the series editor.  Shannon did a wonderful job as series editor since 1978 and I’m sad to see her go.  She will be replaced by another competent editor - and I look forward to reading selections that are passed to various volume editors.
I’ll always cherish and remain starstruck by this letter she wrote after I asked her about her work with John Gardner.  I’ve attached the letter below.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Finishing The Best American Short Stories 1989.


And with this entry, we leave the 1980s.

Good riddance!

The 80s were a tough time for me.  
As recounted in the entries associated with these stories, the decade was rough.  The early years brought my parent’s divorce.  
My mother’s remarriage, my father’s remarriage, time between the two parents.  Entrance into high school and all the positive and negative associations one can draw from that “developmental” period in life.

I can honestly say that I am happy to leave that decade behind.  In the 90s, my life started over and the days that I wish to remember are countless.

Let’s review my time with the BASS from 1989.

So, I seem to have broken my previous record of sloth and it has taken me:
 7 months and 12 days
 32 weeks
 224 days
 160 weekdays

One story and post every 11.2 days
 13 stories by men and 7 by women
 Four of the 20 from the New Yorker


And there we have it.  224 days ago when I posted about BASS 1989, I I wrote that I had been carrying the book around for weeks.  I did before reading it and I I have after finishing it.  Let’s get on with 1990.