Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Convict – James Lee Burke

It’s tough sometime to do the right thing. Burke illustrates that point beautifully in this short and Carver sticks to his words from his introduction:

... I lean towards realistic, “life-like” characters – that is to say, people – in realistically detailed situations.”

“I deliberately tried to pick stories that rendered, in a more or less straightforward manner, what it’s like out there. I wanted the stories I selected to throw some light on what it is that makes us and keeps us, often against great odds, recognizably human.”

Back in 2002, M and I were placed in a situation where we, as a couple, had to make a decision…the right decision and in doing so; we assume we caused a family to flee the country.

As I sit here and write this, it seems so long ago. I can clearly picture our old apartment, the smells, the light and the tension of that day.

I worked hard after returning to America to help M adjust to life in the States. I thought that she would enjoy meeting others from Romania. I encouraged her to seek out Romanians in the area and to set up meetings with them where she could…well… discuss life.

I didn’t fully realize that M was doing a fine job adjusting to life here, and that meeting other Romanians was probably the last thing she wanted to do. That was her old life. She was fully committed to embracing America…and doing it her way, and that way did not include involving others from her old homeland.

Sometime in mid- 2001 we met a couple of Romanian families. One family lived in our city and the other in the city across the water. The husbands of both families were in the Navy. Both families came to the States in the late 1990s. Soon after arrival, they joined the Navy as a way to – make money – to support their families, to have children and to have healthcare and housing for their wives and children.

Think long and hard back to the late 1990s. Life was VERY different then. The world was relatively peaceful. Life in the Navy wasn’t too taxing. Sure, you may be stationed aboard a ship – but it’s the Navy…what did you expect?

September of 2001 pretty much changed all that.

Our new Romanian friends shared all the worries that most of us had after the attacks.

The husband in one of the families was due to get out of the Navy in a few months. He had no intention of re-enlisting. He saw what was on the horizon and knew that his life would be severely altered if he remained in the service.

Now the other husband had a bit more time to serve. He also had a 1 year old American born daughter and a wife who during her husband’s previous routine 3 month deployment was pretty much housebound due to fear and depression. M and I assisted her in her shopping and errand running while her husband was gone. We even included her in some of our larger family celebrations.

The War in Afghanistan begins and this husband’s ship receives no orders to deploy. The family breathes a sigh of relief. The months in 2002 march along and we see that things start to get interesting in Iraq. I think it was pretty clear to everyone that we would soon be involved in a conflict in that country as well.

We meet the family one weekend evening and the husband and wife are looking pretty washed out. They sit in our apartment…on our futon/sofa and begin to tell us of a plan that they are hatching.

Quickly, it seems obvious to M and I that they are desperate. The husband has received orders that his ship is to deploy for an unspecified amount of time in several days. We can sense that there has been much tension in their house.

Our “friends” ask M and I to be accomplices in a plan to keep the husband from having to leave.

They were going to lie to the Navy and hide.

M and I are asked to hide and shelter the wife and daughter while the husband tells his superiors that his wife has run away and left him alone to care for his “sick” daughter.

Husband hoped that the Navy would see that there was no one to take care of the child and that the husband would have to remain in the States.

When we were presented with this plan, I think I was the first to pipe up and shoot them down…pretty much without hesitation.

My answer to them was followed with several minutes of them pleading and even a few tears from the wife.

We explained our reasons further…(as if we really needed to) and our meeting ended shortly thereafter.

As they were leaving, we asked what they were going to do. The husband couldn’t give us an answer but he said that there was no way he was going to deploy.

The following weekend, M and I drove into their neighborhood for a little drive-by of their apartment.

I suppose we weren’t too shocked to see that the window shades to their apartment were wide open, and that the apartment was bare. Absolutely empty. Just days after our last meeting.

We never found out what happened to that family. We could only assume that they ran to Romania. I’m sure that the husband’s name appears on some sort of watch-list as a deserter. Their baby…well, she was an American citizen. Perhaps she is now a Romanian citizen.

M and I did the right thing. We had to protect our future. It was tough to face that family, in an obvious state of need and panic and tell them that we could not help them.

So, Carver in picking this story by Burke in fact did offer the reader a true picture of what life is like. Burke had his convict…and I suppose we saw three sitting on our futon one evening back in 2002.

Janus – Ann Beattie

I’d say over the past couple of years, I have done a pretty decent job of realizing that there are certain things in this world that I can live without.

I have desires for material objects and I have spent decent money acquiring those objects – and after those objects come into my possession - I realize that, the chase was better than the catch.

More often than not, those objects I chased after were books, and most recently, the books that would allow me to round out my collection of “The Best American Short Stories”.

I felt the books out in the world calling to me, begging me to add them to my collection.

When I started this reading project, the holes in my collection were large. I scoured ebay, Better World Books, Amazon and Thrift Books. I found volumes in every corner of the country. I waited patiently each paycheck to pull a little out to purchase the next volume on my target list.

I knew at some point that I would reach an end point to my collection…and when I did, when the last volume arrived in the mail, it stung.

My collection was beautiful yes…but it was complete.

Or was it?

There were years before 1978 that the BASS was published (under a different editor)…and those years began calling to me just as the books for my project did.

I work hard at not looking for these books.

They are out there, waiting to be purchased.

But as Beattie tells us – we can’t always have what we desire.

Knowing me – I’ll get those books – someday.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Gryphon – Charles Baxter

“She was right,” I yelled. “She was always right! She told the truth!” Other kids were whooping. “You were just scared, that’s all!”

Just a great little story. With the bump of Barthelme out of the way, if this story is any indication of future selections from Carver, I’ll be very pleased with this collection.

Having a son, and thinking about his future, and placing him as a character in this story, I wondered if his little mind would turn and process experiences in his life as the boys in this story do.

As my son and I take our nightly walk up one side of the street and down the other, I find myself telling him my hopes and fears for his future. My son rides in a little front carrier strapped to my chest. His head is at the level where I can whisper and he can hear me quite clearly.

I wonder if my father ever did the same.

Most of the time, I know - rather than wonder -and I am confident that my father did not whisper into my ear as I do with my son.

My father was too busy whispering into his own ear.

I tell my son that I want to be the Miss Ferenczi of this story and that I want to tell him of Gryphons and meat eating plants.

I want to tell him of things that he won’t be taught in school. I want him to question math and science and everything that he is told…and to discover truths on his own.

Does 2+2=5?

I want him to seek out resources that will challenge conventional thought. To read and listen to books and people who do not look at the world through the eyes of …us all.

I want him to find the joy and fall in love with the written word.

I want him to step through he looking glass and not be afraid of what exists there…I want him to be comfortable there.

On our nightly walks, as the days grow longer and it stays lighter longer, and the birds chip louder and the light pulls back the shadows, I can see my son’s eyes catching and focusing on new objects of interest to him.

Trees beginning to develop leaves – nature he has never seen before. White Pear trees, pink blooming Cherry trees, white and pink Dogwoods, bright red Japanese Maples, red, white purple and yellow tulips, florescent green grass and fresh yellows on the bushes. I can see his eyes accepting these images and his mind attempting to digest these new forms.

I want to give him a life, and to teach him ways to be able to discover the world each day anew.

And so, with this story, Baxter has given me a real gift. He emphasized the importance of my future…and my son’s future. And in doing so, drew me even closer to him.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Basil from Her Garden - Donald Barthelme


Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled when Carver mentioned that he included a story by Barthelme in this collection. And dang…to make it even worse, he leads with him (I know…he did the fair thing and listed the stories alphabetically by their author…Gardner didn’t!)

I don’t know, I just haven’t been able to get into Barthelme.

Perhaps his writing is just above me. Which, if so, I’m fine with that.

Or am I?

I tell myself that I will let him exist up there, above me, and I’ll remain firmly rooted in my present location.

But, I can’t help, when standing in the shower…thinking about this story…wondering what he and his story is saying to me and wondering what I should write about it…thinking that perhaps I am not capable of “getting the message”.

I try to assuage my anxiety by reading reviews of his stories especially enjoying reviews that are critical of his writing.

But I see his writing as puzzle, a code…and, because of my nature, I need to figure his shit out!

So, morning after morning over this past week, having already read other stories in this collection, I stand in the shower obsessing over Barthelme and “Basil from Her Garden”.

Perhaps, as I have done with a few other stories, I think I need to lay this one aside and let it stew even LONGER and knowing that I’ll run into Barthelme again, this particular story will regain some life and its secrets may then become clear.

But…I know that is unlikely to happen.

I must crack this code.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Introduction - Raymond Carver

May 25, 1938 – August 2, 1988

So I’ve carried around BASS 1986 for several weeks now and read the introduction a few times, even highlighting the important passages and finally, read several interviews with Carver and listened to two podcasts of interviews with Carver (Don Swaim’s wired for books).

Finally, I am now ready to introduce The Best American Short Stories 1986, edited by Raymond Carver.

I mentioned in a previous post that I was looking forward to this collection just as about as much as the collection assembled by John Gardner. My intro on Gardner here and closing piece here.

I was greeted in the introduction by more than one passage that I feel needs to be highlighted and brought forth below. I believe the passages will give us a clear idea to what Carver was thinking as he chose the stories for this volume.

Additionally, I do not think that I need to go into the specifics of Carver’s life, his early career, his education, his failures, successes, his writing style and finally, his death. I am more interested in focusing on Carver’s thoughts concerning the short story and the writing of short stories…so, let’s go.

Carver opens with a pretty generic couple of sentences including his assurance that the short story landscape in America is solid (And honestly, it was quite strong in the mid 1980s).

“The next best thing to writing your own short story is to read someone else’s short story. And when you read and reread, as I did , 120 of them back to back in a fairly short span of time (January 25 to February 25), you come away able to draw a few conclusions. The most obvious is that clearly there are a great many stories being written these days, and generally, the quality is good – in some cases even exceptional.”

Later, he discusses the reason why stories from the New Yorker are well represented in the collection. In his wired for books interview he pretty much states the same as he wrote below.

“Stories from the New Yorker predominated, and that is as it should be. The New Yorker not only publishes good stories – on occasion wonderful stories – but, by virtue of the fact that they publish every week, fifty-two weeks a year, they bring out more fiction than any other magazine in the country.”

If you take a look at the spreadsheet I created that is linked off this page (along the right sidebar), you can simply scroll through the sheet and see that the New Yorker has dominated the selections over the years.

Addressing his specific story selections:

“…under someone else’s editorship, this would be a different book with an entirely different feel and composition to it. But this is only as it should be. For no editor puts together a collection such as this without bringing to it his or her own biases and notions of what makes a good story a good story.”

And later -

“There were other biases at work. I lean towards realistic, “life-like” characters – that is to say, people – in realistically detailed situations.”

Further –

“I deliberately tried to pick stories that rendered, in a more or less straightforward manner, what it’s like out there. I wanted the stories I selected to throw some light on what it is that makes us and keeps us, often against great odds, recognizably human.”

I love that above paragraph.

“Short stories, like houses – or cars, for that matter – should be built to last. They should also be pleasing, if not beautiful, to look at, and for everything inside them should work.

“…looking back, I see it’s turned out that many, if not the majority, of my selections fell on younger, lesser known writers.”

Leading into the below:

“What do these writers have in common so far as the stories in this anthology are concerned?

For one thing they are, each of them, concerned with writing accurately, that is to say, thoughtfully and carefully about recognizable men and women and children going about the sometimes ordinary business of living, which is, as we all know, not always about an easy matter. And they are writing, in most cases, not just about living and getting by, but about going on, sometimes against the odds, sometimes even prevailing against the odds. They are writing, in short, about things that count. What counts? Love, death, dreams, ambition, growing up, coming to terms with your own and other people’s limitations. Dramas every one, and dramas played out against a larger canvas than might be apparent at first glance.”

---I can’t help but think that the passage above by Carver was directly shaped by his relationship both personally and as a student of John Gardner.

“One of the things I feel strongly about is that while short stories often tell us things we don’t know anything about – and this is good, of course – they should also, and maybe more importantly, tell us what everybody knows but what nobody is talking about. At least not publicly. Except for the short story writers.”

And with the above statement, I think Carver sums up exactly why I am so in love with the short story. It’s so right on.

And then finally, the last page of his intro - I feel it’s necessary to present in its entirety. -Note: purposely not italicized for purposes of ease of reading.

“Writers write, and they write, and they go on writing, in some cases long after wisdom and even common sense have told them to quit. There are always plenty of reasons – good, compelling reasons, too – for quitting, or for not writing very much or very seriously. (Writing is trouble, make no mistake, but for everyone involved, and who needs trouble?) But once in a great while lightning strikes, and occasionally, it strikes early in the writer’s life. Sometimes it comes later, after years of work. And sometimes, most often, of course, it never happens at all. Strangely it seems, it may hit people whose work you can’t abide, an event that, when it occurs, causes you to feel there’s no justice whatsoever in the world. (There isn’t more often than not) it may hit the man or woman who is or was your friend, the one who drank too much, or not at all, who went off with someone’s wife, or husband, or sister, after a party you attended together. The young writer who sat in the back of the class and never had anything to say about anything. The dunce, you thought. The writer who couldn’t, not in one’s wildest imaginings, make anyone’s list of top ten possibilities. It happens sometimes. The dark horse. It happens, lightening, or it doesn’t happen.(naturally, it’s more fun when it does happen.) but it will never, never happen to those who don’t work hard at it and who don’t consider the act of writing as very nearly the most important thing in their lives, right up there next to breath, and food, and shelter, and love, and God.

I hope people will read these stories for pleasure and amusement, for solace, courage – for whatever reasons people turn to literature – and will find in them something that will not just show us how we live now (though a writer could do worse than set his sights on this goal), but something else as well: a sense of union maybe, an aesthetic feeling of correctness, nothing less, really, than beauty given form and made visible in the incomparable way only short stories can do. I hope readers will find themselves interested and maybe even moved from time to time by what they find herein. Because if short story writing, along with the reading of short stories, doesn’t have to do with any of these matters, then what is it we are all doing, what is it we are about, pray tell? And why are we gathered here?"

-Raymond Carver

-And there he lays out the wonderful frustrations of those of us afflicted with this wonderful disease.

Here’s a little from a 1983 Wired for Books interview.

Carver enrolled at Chico State college in CA, and that happened to coincide with the arrival of John Gardner there as a professor of creative writing. This was Gardner’s 2nd teaching gig. His previous post had been at Oberlin College where he taught for one year.

Carver states that the meeting and class changed his life.

“I had always dreamed that I’d wanted to be a writer”. (Funny way of phrasing it.)

-Asked by Don Swaim to name some of the authors that Carver had his students read, Carver rattled off the following list.

Frank O’Conner, Kafka, Flannery O’Conner, John Gardner, Beattie, Chekhov, Tolstoy, John Cheever, Nabakov, Hemmingway, Schott and Joy Williams.

Further concerning Gardner, Carver mentions that after his time at Chico State, he and Gardner didn’t meet again until 18 years later. Their relationship quickly developed into a strong friendship. Swaim asked Carver if he thought that Gardner had a drinking problem, and Carver replied that he couldn’t speak of it…I suppose indicating that he really wasn’t comfortable passing judgment on Gardner.

In a 1986 interview, again with Don Swaim, John Gardner is discussed again and this time in relation to Gardner’s selection of stories for the BASS anthology.

Swaim makes the statement that Gardner admittedly refused to include any short stories from the New Yorker and that you (Carver) have done the opposite, in fact the New Yorker dominates the collection.

-Carver tells Swaim that Gardner for one reason or another had a bit of a bias against the New Yorker and that he (Gardner) had been turned down more than a couple of times by the magazine. Gardner didn’t care for the New York literary establishment or for the New York Times Book Review.

So there you have it.

I think I’ve said enough here now about Carver and I think that the introduction speaks for itself and my excitement towards what this collection holds.

Lets get started.

The Best American Short Stories 1986

And the Contents

Basil from Her Garden - Donald Barthelme

Gryphon - Charles Baxter

Janus - Ann Beattie

The Convict - James Lee Burke

Star Food - Ethan Canin

Gossip - Frank Conroy

Communist - Richard Ford

Bad Company - Tess Gallagher

Today Will Be a Quiet Day - Amy Hempel

Doe Season - David Michael Kaplan

Three Thousand Dollars - David Lipsky

Sportsmen - Thomas McGuane

All My Relations -Christopher McIlroy

Monsieur Les Deux Chapeaux - Alice Munro

Skin Angels - Jessica Neely

Invisible Life - Kent Nelson

Telling - Grace Paley

Lawns - Mona Simpson

Health - Joy Williams

The Rich Brother - Tobias Wolff