Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Bologoye – Mikhail Iossel

                                            Mikhail Iossel c/o the author

I was very surprised to find the very active twitter account of Mikhail Iossel. 

I’m not surprised that he has one; I’m surprised that I actually made it to his story in the BASS while he is still alive! This, of course, is a critique of my lack of reading and writing.

It was nice to read Bologoye – to reach this story at about the half-way point in the anthology. It pulled me in and I think it’s going to propel me through to the end of the book.

Reading this story was like visiting an old friend.

My interest/casual study of Russia/The Soviet Union began back in the early 1980s. I can say that my interest came about with the addition to my family of a step-father who was very interested in American foreign policy towards the Soviets. He was a rabid news consumer – we always had cable news on in the house and we even received the morning and afternoon newspapers. During breakfast, before school, he would provide commentary on the latest news out of DC and Moscow. I was well aware of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the death of Brezhnev and the weirdness that encompassed the Andropov and Chernenko years. Gorbachev came along in ’85 and by ’86 I was in high school and my obsession with US/USSR relations was pretty well developed and growing. I sought out books, music and photos…the local university library even subscribed to Pravda (I can neither confirm nor deny several missing Pravda issues from 1989).

In 1990-early ’91 I focused on surviving my freshman year at Norwich. I did work in the library where their Russian collection was quite large given the summer Russian School program they hosted.

In the fall of ’91, I began my formal study of the language/culture and politics – changing my major and selecting courses that focused on my interest.

This was a great time to really focus in on the country because, by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

I continued my studies and in the summer of ’93, as you may have read here before, I made a trip over to Russia. The early ‘90s in Russia was quite interesting.

In the years after my formal schooling, I still studied the country, (the first AOL news story I clicked on after we got a dial-up modem and the software disc at my father's was one of Yeltsin).

Of course, in the late 90’s I made it back over to that part of the world – Romania, and during my time there, I felt the ghosts of old influences that the Kremlin had on the country.

Now, today, as I read this story, I am taken back to those days. I can taste the shared warm beer, the shared bottles of wine drunk between the moving train cars (we drank ours on a train from Moscow to Volgograd). The endless shots of vodka - I can recall the smells of the Soviet apartment blocs – with their massive stairwells and the eyes of neighbors always watching. I can recall the feeling knowing that I was followed, that someone “inspected” my room from time-to-time.

I appreciate stories like this to transport me back to those days – stories by a writer that weaves the words to create scenes that transport you, the reader, having been there years before – right back there again.

This has happened so many times with the short stories in this anthology – their inclusion is justified by their power.  

Monday, March 18, 2019

Houdini - Siri Hustvedt

This is our second encounter with the writer Siri Hustvedt, first coming across her in BASS 1990, with the short story Mr. Morning.

This story comes along in my life during a period of time when I find myself fascinated by the human mind.

I suppose the intense interest recently (within the last couple of years) came about after the death of my father from early onset Alzheimer’s. To zero-in on a specific interest in the human mind, I would have to say that it would be the decline of a once healthy mind.

Through my college years I was interested in developing thought through various philosophies (mostly eastern) and then the transformative power that an individual has over their mind if they make conscious efforts to change behaviors  - I am still fascinated by this as I wrestle with various aspects of self- discipline. 

We take our brain health for granted.  

I don’t think we respect what our mind does for us on a daily basis, what it is capable of, and how we can take advantage of its power. We don’t seem to pay attention to it until something goes wrong – and that’s unfortunate- because sometimes it’s too late.

Is there a way to stack the genetic deck of cards you’ve been dealt (in terms of brain health)?

The main character of this story finds herself hospitalized due to severe migraines.

-Here’s where I start to draw lines again from the work of fiction to events in my life. It’s where I start to feel that the story is more than a story, it’s a long teachable moment, a forced retreat, a meditation.

It was 28 years ago this month, (March 1991) that my father visited me for a weekend up at Norwich. He was in Montreal for a conference, rented a car and drove down to see me. He rented a hotel for us in Burlington and we spent a cold, cloudy weekend together. This was a very special time for me as being a freshman up at Norwich, meant that I was basically confined to campus and to be sprung for the weekend was something very special.
I remember Saturday afternoon, we headed out to lunch, we were going to grab a couple of slices of pizza. We were in the pizza shop and he quickly turns to me with his palm pressed against his eye saying that he needed to get back to the hotel room as he was suffering from a pretty intense headache. He darted out of the restaurant, I got the pizza slices and headed back to the room shortly after. I get back to the room and he is on the floor with the lights out. He said that he just finished throwing up and his head was pounding – asked me to leave the lights off.

I don’t remember anything after that.

What I do know now, is that he was 45 years old when this happened. I am now 46. From what I recall, he also mentioned that the migraines that he had started to suffer were something new and were starting to come more frequently. 

There has been studies recently, linking those that have a history of suffering from migraines to the development of cognitive impairment – and I have to wonder, in my father’s case, were these migraines an early signal?

I do know that he didn’t change his lifestyle in response to them. He continued to work insane hours without sleep, he didn’t exercise and his diet had plenty of room for improvement…and his massive consumption of caffeinated diet soft-drinks was maintained.

So what did this story give me? It transported me back in time…I feel that once again, the universe is sending me a not-so-subtle hint.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Reading waaay ahead here but I thought it was important to draw attention to this review of the BASS 2018 that appeared in the L.A. Review of Books.

Beautifully written by reviewer Rosa Boshier in her closing paragraph:

“In uncertain times, fiction can give us the strength to imagine alternatives. More than political writing, Best American Short Stories 2018 feels like protest writing, by way of being alive. By looking inward to produce and create, refusing to be blown to pieces by the magnitude of everyday news. The potential for social change can take place in individual and collective care — an act of radiating out instead of withering within. By continuing to tell the world — and each other — our stories.”

And this is quite relatable –
“In a world in which the news is farce, can fiction writers be the real truth-seekers?”

And I love how Rosa highlights this sentence from the introduction written by Roxane Gay: “I am not avoiding reality when I read fiction; I am strengthening my ability to cope with reality.”

That line hits home with this project. The times that the stories contained in these collections have helped me are countless.

Anyway…back to the past!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

The Body Shop - Elizabeth Graver

Time is ticking away.

As of this writing, Elizabeth Graver is a professor at Boston College. When ‘The Body Shop” appeared in BASS 1991 with the first publication of the story appearing in ​The Southern Review​, 1990 Spring Issue, ​she was all of 26 years old.

When did the embryo of this story begin to develop in Graver’s mind? She gives some hints as to how she finds inspiration for her stories in the contributor's notes at the end of the volume. I love her scrapbook method - mostly because she pulls some of her ideas from newspapers.

These stories are time machines.

We know that these short stories are written, rolled up stuffed into their bottles and thrown into the ocean and for a short period of time, for most of them was up on many shores.

But then, some of the bottles are pulled into the current of time and drift for years finally washing up on shores years or decades after they were first set afloat.

I have to think that this thought passes through the minds of authors as they write, submit and earn publication. Perhaps it drives them forward to write more - knowing that their words will be consumed by someone...someday.

I have found that I focus a great deal on time when I reflect on these stories. Perhaps it is because I find myself growing older. The forward march of time is something that we haven’t yet found a way to slow.

As I stood in the shower this morning, thinking about this project, and thinking about how I do more thinking about this project than writing on it, my thoughts about it drifted towards its future and those who would consume it after I threw it in the ocean.
A little game that W. has started playing these past few weeks as various family birthdays approach goes a little like this.

W: “Daddy...how old are you again?

Me: “(I give him my age)”

W: “How many years until I am that old?” Me: “Let’s do the math”

 W: “Wow...that’s a long time!’

Me: Yup...sure is”

W: “How old will you be when I am (my age now)?”

Me: “Let’s do the math.”

W: “What!!! No way...that’s so old! - But it’s a long time away.”

Me: “It sure is”

And then I swallow hard, clear my throat and hope he remembers this little game when he’s “old”.

After having sons, I think a lot more about my behavior and how they see me behave. Of course, I strive to set a good example but I recognize that I sometimes fail.

I am fully aware that there will be a time where I might fail my sons in character no matter how hard I try, they will disagree or discover the “truth” about a previously held perception.

I know the teen years will be challenging for all of us. That’s life.

What I think most parents hope for though is that their children will be there for them in their last years.

I want them there to steady my walk, to correct my memory...or to excuse my failing memory.

I want them there to make the difficult decisions about my life or M’s life when we are no longer able to do so.

He and his brother will be there when I and his mother are no longer here.

They too, as Graver’s character does, will someday look back on their life and consider it, just as I do, too frequently these days.

So as we plays his little age game, he has no idea of the responsibility that we are placing on them.
-unfairly -
We cannot expect them to blindly fulfill these duties.

We can only hope to raise them to know the right thing to do.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Separation – Mary Gordon

This is my first encounter with Mary Gordon. Separation was first published in Ant├Žus sometime in 1990. We will encounter Mary again as her stories are featured in BASS 1993, 1996 and 2007.

There have been a couple of stories that I’ve read in these anthologies that have caused me to get that “lump in the throat”. I can’t recall them immediately, but we can add this story to the list.

This story is a great example of how a person’s life situation at the time they read a story impacts them.

My reaction to this story today, I doubt would have been the same 4 years ago and surely, different 9 years ago.

And if I read this story 10 years from now or even 20 – perhaps the passage of time would have softened the emotions that this story stirred.

The memories of my first son’s first day of school are all too fresh. The memories of my second son’s first day of school exist even stronger.

Two very different experiences with two very different boys and two very different parents.
I think a lot about our sons moving through the various milestones in their lives.

I know that the feelings we had on that first day of school will come back time and again – and in some cases may even be stronger.

----For the past few nights, the boys have found their way into our bed. This is nothing new. It usually starts with a stormy or windy night that scares them and one will wake the other and I’ll discover a knee in my rib at 3:45 in the morning.

M and I wake and complain about them and scold them for leaving their beds but I think she and I both know that we don’t really mind it.

We know that their time with us is limited. Our time with them could be limited.

All we have is each other and if some comfort comes by to them… and we are just a bit uncomfortable, it isn’t much of a sacrifice in my book.

My oldest son is approaching the age that I was when my father left us. I remember things from that age. I think that his memories at that age will be far better than my memories at that age.   

The Custodian – Deborah Eisenberg

The Custodian first appeared in The New Yorker in the May 12th 1990 edition. We’ll encounter another story by Eisenberg in the 2004 BASS first published in The Yale Review.

I enjoyed this story. It came in on the long side – again, I’m worried about my attention span – as so many of us are these days – and I need to get that under control. I’m sure if I look back on some of my previous readings, the story probably fits into the “normal” length category.

This story does what a short story is supposed to do and I can see why it was first chosen for publication in The New Yorker and then selected by Adams for inclusion in this BASS edition.

I think that there might be a surprising number of men and women out there (and in particular – in The New Yorker reader category) that can directly relate to the characters in this story. Either of the teenage girls, the wife of the young college professor or finally, the college professor. They can read the story laying down their own experiences next to their relatable character and feel comfort or a bit of uneasiness.

For me, I couldn’t relate to any of the characters but the story gave me the chance to be transported to this “world” and that’s another duty of a good short story.

It pulled me out of my day-to-day for ½ an hour.

I can’t recall exactly when I read this story over the past 3 months but I did need to skim over it for a few minutes to remember it before writing here.

It looks like I haven’t posted since December.

I know that I made the decision to revisit this page as I sat watching TV with the boys this morning.

Some stupid commercial came on and it caused me to think about my authentic self.

I fell that this space allows me to be in a “real” state – vs. where I have been for maybe the past 5 years.

I have changed so much over the past 10 years of reading and writing about these stories.

I want to exist more here.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Another Short Day in La Luz – Harriet Doerr

This was a very nice story to welcome me back to this collection of shorts. The struggle to read these stories continues.


This is our second encounter with Doerr. We first met her back in 2013 when I read and briefly wrote about Edie: A Life.
It looks like we’ll run into her writing again when her story appeared in the Best American Short Stories 2003.

This story appeared in the December 24,, 1990, edition of The New Yorker. Quickly flipping through the pages of that issue, nothing really stands out to draw any sort of reflection on those times. Typical adverts for cars, booze, books, and travel. Nothing newsworthy stands out. 
In December 1990, I was home from Norwich – my first time back since leaving for school in the summer. I was a shell-shocked, shaved head, boy.

To the story. Reading this, there is a portion of the story where the main character reflects back to a tender moment between her and her husband who died three years ago.
I wonder sometimes what position I will be in (hopefully) many years from now. Will I be missed or will I do the missing? I wonder how M will reflect back on our times together.

At this stage of our lives, our days are taken up with raising the boys.

She wakes up in the mornings, tired, and finishes off making their lunches and breakfasts that I have already started preparing. She dresses them and runs them off to school as I head out the door to the paper. She has a few hours alone before the youngest returns home and lunch prep begins. An hour or so for cuddles and a light nap on the couch after lunch and it’s off to pick up big brother. Returning home, dinner prep begins and homework completion struggles rise. I return home and there is dinner followed by the bedtime routine which usually involves repeated visits from the boys back downstairs until we have to threaten them with “time out” around 9:00 on school nights. By this time, I’m wiped out and dozing in my chair hoping to get into bed by 10 so that I can wake at 5:25 and get a 10K in. 
So with this simplified overview of our daily lives, I have to wonder – if I died tomorrow, would there be tender moments that she would reflect back on? So much of the last many years have been taken up with just the day-to-day mundane tasks of living life.

This journal/blog space reflects that too and I point that out quite often. Of course, my fear is that when the time comes for us to have time together, with the boys grown and out of the house, we won’t know each other anymore. I only have this fear generated by my own insecurities.

And this is where this little short story brought me today.