Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Introduction

While I struggled through BASS 1978, I came across a story, that in my mind, was the finest that I had read up to that point in the anthology. It was entitled “The Conventional Wisdom” by Stanley Elkin. I gave it my normal treatment in a review...meandering sentences, dodging the actual pint of the story, and attempting to relate to the message the author was trying to impart through his writing.

I Scored it 10 out of 10.

As I stated, it was a story that would stay with me forever.

I know that I will come across others that rate as high and will probably surpass it in my rankings.

Stanley Elkin is the guest editor for BASS 1980. I feel that I have done ample research on him as an author through readings of interviews in such publications as “The Paris Review”, and listening to a couple of his interviews on “Wired for Books”, which is the Don Swaim radio interview show.

I also ran across references to meetings that JCO had with Elkin in her Journal.

The problem with doing so much research on him was that I started to construct a character Elkin and determine the types of stories he was going to select before even reading the introduction.

I suppose the best message that I received from Elkin in his introduction, was that he flatly stated that he chose the stories based on his taste. That the stories may or may not have been the “Best” but they were the “Best” according to his taste.

Well- that’s about as honest as you can get I suppose. I wouldn’t think that any of the guest editors would base their selections on much more.

I think that Elkin was fortunate enough though to come along early in the “guest editor” position and was able to get by in the introduction with almost stating the obvious. I’m not going to fault him for that in the least. It needs to be said and the reader needs to keep this in mind.

I think I also need to put something right out here before I continue writing about the introduction and the BASS of 1980.

I am intimidated by this particular collection. I have a strange feeling about the combination assembled.


That’s all I need to say about that.

I just wanted to get that out there. I hope that this feeling doesn’t shade my feelings about the individual writers or their works.

How could it not though?

There was a word that Elkin uses in his introduction and sometimes all it takes is a word for the mind to start churning.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about transcending my mind, my consciousness, my reality. I have been looking at my behavior – everything from my dreams, my inner dialogue, my conversations with M, my selected podcast subscriptions, my running and finally, how in interpret what I am reading.

I’ll address my running first because I feel that this action is what is taking me to a “different level” of consciousness.

Simply put:

When I run, I ascend to a different level of consciousness. I know that there are all sorts of chemicals being released into my body triggered by my brain to manage what I am physically putting it through.

I run without headphones because I feel that this allows me to focus deeper on everything that I am going through. The sounds, smells, temperatures, changes in perception, etc.

An interesting thing happens though while I run. I do not “zone out”. I am hyper aware of my surroundings. At the same time, I am deep into my mind. I am solving problems, creating and discovering, and on my longest runs, this is where the most interesting things happen. I am almost guaranteed that I will hit the “High” caused by running. What I do with that “High” is what counts.

I feel that my entire outlook on life, my life, our life, has changed since I have taken on the long miles. I feel that it adds to my reading life as well.

So, as I have taken the “long miles” route in this introduction, I hope that the tastes of Elkin allow me to transcend my mind and help me along my journey.

Monday, October 26, 2009


The Emerald / Donald Barthelme
Long Calls / Frederick Busch
The One-Star Jew / David Evanier
The Remission / Mavis Gallant
Speck's Idea / Mavis Gallant
The Old Folks / William H. Gass
In Case of Survival / T. Gertler
The Faithful / Elizabeth Hardwick
The First Clean Fact / Larry Heinemann
Into the Wind / Robert Henderson
Lemon Tree / Curt Johnson
Friends / Grace Paley
Home / James Robison
Mama Tuddi Done Over / Leon Rooke
At the Anarchists' Convention / John Sayles
The Safe Deposit / Isaac Bashevis Singer
Dr. Cahn's Visit / Richard Stern
The Rags of Time / Barry Targan
The Old Forest / Peter Taylor
Gesturing / John Updike
Markowitz and the Gypsies / Norman Waksler
Hog's Heart / Gordon Weaver

Because I am a Geek

I have created a spreadsheet that you can access in Google Documents through the link below.

BASS author count 1978-2008

Column “A’ has the title of the story. Column “B” has the name of the author with the year of publication in BASS . I have sorted the author names alphabetically in order to count the number of times the authors have appeared in the anthology (just the years in my collection).

Friday, October 23, 2009

My life and these books

One of the exercises I am undertaking in this journal is the utilization of the stories to take me back in time to where I was in my life when the story was written.

It’s another connection exercise I can make.

Taking time to reflect and have some healthy dwelling on the past in an effort to recognize where I am today and the person I have become as a result of my past experiences.

The 80’s will see me pass through the 3rd - 12th grades.

The 90’s will see me in college, working at a liquor store, a restaurant and a gourmet food manufacturing warehouse. Travel to Russia and Peace Corps service in Romania.

The 2000’s will see me returning to America with a wife, finding work at a newspaper as a researcher, maintaining our happy life as a couple and looking forward to making some additions.

The 10’s which are only a couple of months away...who knows?

So, as I read along, I’ll touch on these dates and align them with my life.

Navel gazing?

Sure but it helps me.

1980 was an interesting year.

I touched on, in a previous post, the situation with my family. During this time in my life, I was a participant in the American destruction of the nuclear family. It was a collective action taken by heads of households across the country. The divorce fad was hot in the early 80’s.

In 1980, I was straddling the 2nd and 3rd grades. I attended Granby for 2nd grade and Stuart for 3rd.

I am pretty confident in making the statement that the divorce took place during this year and my Dad was living in Philadelphia sometime during this year.

As it should, my mind did a wonderful job at erasing the painful memories while leaving enough to burn a bit.

There are cases where a buried memory will return, usually though reading a passage in a story, and for a moment in time, I’ll be transported back to those hazy days.

1980 was the year that my mother, sister and I spent alone. It was just the three of us in that house. Tough times for my mother I’m sure. It got better later though.

My heart hurts thinking about those days. When I remember back to those times...that particular year, the image that seems to appear more than any other would be that of the three of us around the dining room table eating soup and sandwiches. The lights were dim due to low wattage bulbs, and it felt cold in the house. It was so quiet. I think, reflecting on that sense of stillness and quiet, is one of the reasons why I become uncomfortable at dining tables when no one speaks.

My mother obviously had a hard time with the divorce and remarried rather quickly.

So, 1980 was a year that could easily pass from my memory and I don’t think I would miss it. I’m sure in the upcoming volume; there will be times to reflect, once again, on this particular year.

The Best American Short Stories anthology 1980

The BASS of 1980 arrived just after my birthday this year in a large box from Better World Books. (Hello Marketing Guy!)

BWB did a wonderful job of allowing me to complete my collection and I couldn’t speak higher of the service they provide. All these books deserve a home rather than ending up in a landfill or shredded and recycled.

Honestly, I have no clue what happens to the tons of books that are discarded yearly and not taken into care by companies like BWB.

I think I paid some thing like $3.00 for this volume, and I must say, it looks to be well worth the few bucks it cost.

The book is in great condition. It was a former library book complete with the plastic dustcover.

The plastic revealed that the book must have had a cup/mug/can of liquid placed upon it at one time due to the tell-tale liquid ghost ring the offending receptacle left behind.

If I were to guess, the container was a mug and the liquid was coffee...sweetened either with sugar or a flavored cream. Coffee without additives doesn’t usually leave a sticky brown ring. I’ll rule out a can of soda because of the size of the ring. I’ll also rule out hot chocolate because the shade of the ring was too dark.

Tea?...nope, again because the ring was just too dense and dark for even a black tea.

I removed the plastic and found the paper cover to be in wonderful shape.

Picture above.

The pages of the book are crisp, and the spine is still strong and hasn’t been cracked or broken.

Circulation history of the book.

I’m afraid that at least a portion of this book’s history will remain a mystery. I suspect that the original “date due” card was replaced in the 90’s by a Brodart “Sticky Note” type of date due card.

The earliest stamped date on this card reads Dec. 7, ’94 and the most recent stamp reads Dec. 12, 1998.

The most recent stamp certainly doesn’t reflect the last time this book was checked out. There is, above the circulation record pocket, a circulation barcode sticker with the sharpie marker obscuring the vertical stripes preventing any further lending.

The bullet hole that finished off the life of this book at the Somers Public Library.

Well, lucky for me, and I could only surmise, that it was some progressive thinking librarian, that decided to contact the good folks at Better World Books and allow them to take this bound collection of stories off their hands.

Let’s remain on the progressive librarian(s) at Somers Public library for a moment. As with the previous two volumes I have written about, I conducted some research on the former home of this book.

Poking around the net and landing on the homepage of the library yielded some surprises.

My earlier thought that the librarians at the Somers library might have a nice forward thinking mindset by their donation to BWB was confirmed by what I found on their homepage.

Right on the main page are links to Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. Man, way to get out into the community!

Great job! And in providing those links, they extended their community 335.36 miles (as the crow flies).

Now, I know that most librarians are pretty progressive but I find it interesting that out of the five Southside cites that make up Hampton Roads, there is only one city library system that has a presence on any social networks.

Norfolk – Nope –Booooo!!!!

Portsmouth Nope – Boooo!

Virginia Beach- Twitter and Facebook links take me to the city social network pages – Booooo!!!

Suffolk –Nope – Boooo!

And finally, Chesapeake – The library system in Chesapeake has 5 Myspace pages for branch libraries. –Good job!!

Sorry for that little tangent, but I have found that online social networks are pretty valuable, and I find it hard to understand how libraries, especially in the largest metro area of Virginia, could fall behind in this area.

Back to Somers Public. I took a look at their Flickr page. Good looking pictures. Nice folks, active community. When I accessed their twitter page it had been updated a mere 15 minutes prior to my visit! Their Facebook page was also pretty current with a post only 6 minutes prior to my visit.

I became a fan of their page and sent along a couple of photos of their old book. Their page has well over 100 fans and there seems to be a nice back-and-forth with participants in their social network.

Wrapping this post up, I think that the continued life of this book looks good. It will be with me a majority of my waking hours over the next couple of months.

It will ride in my backpack to and from work daily and I will find time to read it early mornings, during lunch and late into the evening.

I will, if necessary, take it with me on weekend trips to the mall where it will keep me company as my wife shops. (not a big fan of the shopping)

The book will do what it does best and that is to provide me with instructors. Stories that have been assembled and will give me insight to my life and the world while in my opinion, it will do this collectively better than any classroom instruction could.

You see, I am in the self reflection-education stage of my life. You have, I’m sure, noticed this but I thought it worth mention once again.

So, without more rambling sentences – let’s get reading BASS 1980.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Best American Short Stories 1979 - Completed

The Last Page

I need to pat myself on the back. I’m showing some progress. It only took me 71 days to complete the BASS of 1979. That is a HUGE improvement over 1978 which took me 438 days (1 year 2 months 12 days).

At this rate, there is a chance that I could finish my quest sooner than anticipated. I need to be realistic though. Work, life and the fact that I am just generally not in the mood to read sometimes will hinder my progress.

We’ll see though. I just need to keep pushing forward.

A little review of the volume as a whole.

I think I came into this collection expecting the stories to reflect JCO’s writing. This was an obvious mistake that I realized I should have recognized earlier.

I did enjoy the collection. I have this feeling that I am a dated reader though. My tastes seem to lie in the present...or for stories that have been written within the last 19 years. I often refer to this period of time as my “awakening”. I entered college in 1990, and I became aware of literature. I became aware of it as something that I could enjoy engaging in – time spent with a book- rather than something that was being forced upon me. I also feel that the environment I was in may have forced me into retreating into worlds that contemporary literature provided. My mind was expanded during my years at Norwich, and after graduation, there was a brief period where I once again found solace within pages. I then took a break of several years and it wasn’t really until the “Sundays at the Laundromat” did I fall back in love with reading and more specifically with the short story.

I felt it necessary to include the brief rundown above to qualify in some way my feelings towards writing today versus the reading I am engaged in now. Is the stuff from the 70’s stale? I think there is some of that. I think that the scores I have applied to the stories reflect those that I feel are a bit more advanced than the others which seem to exist in their time.

There is an evolution is writing. I can see it. I can read it. I have never understood the labels that have been given to them, and I don’t know if they would even apply to the period that I am reading.

But once again, this is my page and my opinions. My readings, my thoughts, my lessons being learned.

I enjoyed this volume much more than the previous. I think that the speed in which I finished (not really that fast) indicates such.

So, finally I’ll say goodbye to the 70’s. Stepping into the 80’s and all the years and changes that happened in my life are sure to find spaces on these pages.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Something that Happened – Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips Born July 1952

With this selection, I feel that JCO has offered the reader a glimpse into the future of American literature. Phillips had not reached her 30th birthday on publication of her short in BASS. Quite an honor.

The subject matter she touches on in her story, on refection, is a perfect slice of American society at the end of the 70’s. Divorce, generational gaps, feminism, health and mental issues, relationships between siblings and relationships between parents and their children...both appropriate and what is perceived by a character as inappropriate.

I reflected back once again to the late 1970s and my position in this world during that time. Once again, I think my family was lucky in some senses considering what some other families could have been going through behind the doors of their households. Sure we had divorce, but really, that was the worst thing that happened. There could have been a whole house of horrors that could have visited us.

Phillips is still writing – good books. Books that make lists – good lists. She teaches as well. And, she has found herself writing interesting pieces for interesting times, pieces that cause readers to question her motivation and direction...but, that is the duty of an artist and a writer. Isn’t it? I’m happy to have run into her so early in this journey, and I suspect that I will find her once again down the road in my reading.

Score – 8 out of 10.

The New Music – Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme - April 7, 1931 – July 23, 1989

Pwthvwtzzzz....that is my attempt at placing into words/letters the sound that came out of my mouth after reading “The New Music”.

That was a rough one.

Admittedly, I entered into this story knowing a bit about Barthelme from what JCO wrote about him in a recent writing for a collection, on what and who influences writers. She spoke of her relationship professionally and socially. In short, I felt that she held him in pretty high regard. She also addresses him quite a bit in her Journal.

Perhaps I haven’t indulged in enough “experimental” writing.

I suppose I am too accustomed to a certain “type” of story that runs in these anthologies.

I think I expected more from JCO – I can’t hold anything against Barthelme, she chose the story.

Was this his best writing from that year or was there some pressure to include him?

I don’t know – I just feel let down by the selection. Bummer.

5 out of 10.

Home is the Hero – Bernard Malamud

Bernard Malamud- April 26, 1914 – March 18, 1986.

I wrote in my last entry about losing interest early in the particular reading and not giving the story the chance that it deserved...cheating myself out of a lesson. I’m afraid I did the same with this story, but I was able to pull through at the end, and see the gem that was hidden within this boulder.

First about Malamud. As part of this project, I do a bit of research on the authors. I look for a photo to include with the entry, a nice quote by the author concerning life, or more specifically, the writing life, and from time to time, I’ll find an author that has an online presence and I’ll write to them and let them know that there is still a reader out there reading their work.

For some reason, I had heard of Malamud. Not sure where. Perhaps it was from “The Natural” or on of the literary prizes he won. In any case, it was nice to learn about him. I discovered that he was a slow writer. Eight novels and many, many shorts.

He taught at a university and was restricted to teaching lower courses because he had not finished his Ph.D. Due to this, he was able to devote time to his writing which in turn allowed him to develop into on of the greatest American authors.

Flannery O’Connor had this to say about him : “I have discovered a short-story writer who is better than any of them, including myself”. Nice I suppose but a bit haughty...then again, it is O’Connor.

And then a couple of quotes I enjoyed.

"I write a book or a short story three times. Once to understand her, the second time to improve her prose, and a third to compel her to say what it still must say."

"Life is a tragedy full of joy."

So, on to the story and its lesson.

A mistake I made before I started this story was to look to see where I was in the volume, and if I was going to be able to finish it by the end of the weekend. I assured myself that I could, and set out reading the story. Initially found the story dull, and made another mistake of flipping ahead to see how many more pages I had left in the story. I discovered that there were quite a few more pages and this took the wind right out of my sails. I would struggle on 2 or 3 more occasions to finish the story, but once I did finish, I discovered that what I had just read was indeed one of the best stories in the collection.

Perhaps I needed to take the story in parts. Break it up. Read it in different settings. I’ll have to remember this.

The lesson.

Once again, I feel that this story has opened a door to my life and reminded me that the behavior I cast upon my loved ones may not be the finest I have to offer.

I need patience. I need to see that what those close to me are actually doing done out of love. I am so fortunate to have a life and a family that dwell in a sphere of caring and compassion for each other. Especially my wife.

It was painful to read of the actions that the main character put his wife through and eventually himself through. I suppose it was so because they were actions that I could see myself projecting (minus the infidelity part).

Once again, a story comes through at the right time in life and instructs.

I can easily see myself Xeroxing these someday for someone and giving them out as lessons in life. – Why not?

For now though, I’ll use them to instruct me – in love, and care and selflessness.

Score 9 out of 10.