Monday, March 19, 2012

The Best American Short Stories 1987 Completed!

A few things about this volume.

Overall, I enjoyed the selections Beattie placed in this volume. I think if I had read them closer together as a larger bunch, I may have appreciated the flow of one story to the next as she intended the reader to experience. Beattie decided to present the stories in an order outside of the normal alphabetical by author which should be appreciated because she took the time to think outside of the individual stories and more towards the whole volume. I enjoyed the selected author’s notes at the end of the volume which shed some light into the sparks that ignited their stories or gave us a glimpse into their style of developing their composition.

There were 13 male authors and 7 female authors.

5 stories from The New Yorker – 3 from Esquire and two from The Atlantic. The remaining stories were drawn from known/established literary journals.

A little breakdown of my reading.

I began this volume on the date of the introduction post November 7, 2011 which was

4 months 12 days
19 weeks
133 days
95 weekdays
.36 years

Another record breaking time span for a single volume. Although I don’t think it’s the longest, (pretty sure 1978 was the longest), but it’s right up there.

I’m finishing the volume with this post – today March 19, 2012.

That works out to (including the introduction – 20 stories +1) a post and story every 6.33 days.

Let’s move on.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien

Here it is, the last story of this edition. I wonder if Beattie had a reason for the placement of her stories. I’ll have to re-read her intro. It’s been months since I’ve read it and perhaps she mentioned a reason.

The Things They Carried. Was it as good as “they” all say?

Yes it was.

Three years ago, a co-worker was shuffling through stacks of books that publishing houses sent to be reviewed. She created yet another stack of teetering bound pages and muttered something under her breath about a profile and having to read “it” again to reacquaint herself with “it”.

I decided to bite and engage her in conversation – “What?!” she exclaimed – “You’ve never read The Things They Carried?”


Admittedly, I had heard of it…but c’mon, another Vietnam novel?

Back in2009 I was chomping at the bit for novels coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Vietnam was just so – 1975.

In Feb. of 2010, I made a mass purchase of BASS volumes.

Here’s a shot of the group along with their contents. The volumes fall outside of my reading list for this project (1978 – current year) but I figured that since I had started the collection and reached an endpoint in one direction…I might as well go in the opposite direction.

The 1977 edition contained Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien from Ploughshares Spr ’76 and since I was still feeling the guilty sting of not having read The Things They Carried, I thought I’d dip my toe in.

As I remember, I enjoyed the story. I didn’t dwell on it nor did I consider it as I do these stories.

When I came to Carried the other evening, I felt the memory of Cacciato tapping at my brain. The writing style was familiar and I fell into the rhythm rather easily.

I can understand the draw of this story for so many from my parent’s generation, and I can see why so many courses may have taught with this story, and traffic to this post over time will bear out if it’s still being taught (I mentioned the tile and author enough to have the Google-bot index it).

But what does this story do for me?

We all carry things through our days. Some of us are in Iraq, Afghanistan…Vietnam or maybe we are in New York, Des Moines or Oakland.

We carry our friends, family and memories on smart phones, in notebooks and in the deep pockets of our minds.

We read a story or email, hear a song or a smell is carried in on a breeze and a memory of a person or a time long past comes flooding back.

O’Brien wrote his story and educated me as to what a grunt carried on his person while humping through ‘Nam.

Now, in 2012, I can see what “Anna-Bee” from San-Fran carries in her messenger bag to campus each day.

In this time we live in of over sharing, there is a Flickr group pool with over 22,000 members and over 14,000 photos of what people allegedly carry with them on a regular basis.

and then, to make a little link to this story, there’s even the below Flickr pool with over 3,000 members and just as many photos.

The Items We Carry - and according to the group administrator, these photos will be of “the essentials we need to function daily at a basic level.”

Milk – Ron Carlson

As often as I can, I take W out for walks. Walking with him is something special for me and something that I started with him at a very young age. The weather is starting to warm up and this allows for pleasant times for walking after work together – I believe W was only a couple weeks old on our first walk. M has the exact date down for sure in her calendar. The warm climate here in VA allowed me to take him out well into November of his first year, and then there was a brief pause during the cooler winter months. I would carry him in one of those European front carriers, first with him facing my chest, snuggled up keeping warm, and then, as he grew older, facing away from me – .

W is old enough to walk now. Most of our walks last well over 30 minutes but we manage only to cover a few blocks. He’s into picking up and throwing rocks and sticks. He’ll walk about 10 feet, find a rock or stick, and attempt to carry it along with the others he has already gathered drop a couple rocks in the process of picked up a new rock, leave them, find others carry them for a while and this is repeated numerous times through the entire walk.

I stay very close to W as he walks- too much crap for him to pick up besides the rocks and sticks. Sometimes, I’ll test him to see how far he will walk on his own away from me before feeling uncomfortable and running back–.

Last week, we were finishing up a walk and W had a large stone in each hand. The weather was cool, and the sun was down behind the buildings and it was moving from cool to cold. I could see that his hands were red due to the temperature and the intense grip he had on the rocks.

I knew that it would eventually happen, so when it did, perhaps I wasn’t as surprised as even I thought I should be.

His foot caught on a raised portion of the sidewalk and he fell forward. He only had about 14 or 15 inches to fall, but instinctually, his hands went down in front of him to brace for impact. Unfortunately, he didn’t release his grip on the rocks, and his knuckles went right into the concrete sidewalk. The tight red skin didn’t fare well against the concrete.

I lifted him as his face turned scarlet and the silent cry sequence began.

A quick once over of his face assured me that he hadn’t kissed-the-crete, but as I brushed him off, blood from his knuckles appeared in the palms of my hand.

It was the first time he bled on me.

I was too concerned with comforting him and holding him close to think about the few specks of blood on my hand. That blood didn’t mean as much then as it does as I write this.

It would have been around 1979.

Spring. There was still a morning chill.

I could hear his steps in the hallway, the old hardwood floors creaking. His figure would appear in the door and a smile would come to his face as he saw that I was awake – the sun already shining through my window.

“Hey Bud”

“You ready?”

I would spring out of bed as fast as my 7 year old body could move. Dress as fast as I could and run as fast as my legs could carry me down the stairs to find him waiting for me.

We’d set out on our Saturday morning walk.

Just the two of us. No mom, no sister. Just a dad and son.

We’d talk. About what, I can’t remember.

I was so happy walking next to him, holding his hand, leaning over the seawall to pick up floating tennis balls from the black oily cold river water.


Today, I know that he knew that the walks were going to end.

In a few weeks, there would be no more Saturday walks.

No more early morning creaking floors.

No more morning chills.

No more hand to hold.

Just me awakened by the sunlight, looking at my door into an empty hall.

I never want my son to look into that empty hall.

And yes dad, I will always hold this pain against you.

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud: A Story – Daniel Stern

I still dream – problem is I don’t remember them as I once did. My mind is doing a fine job sorting itself out without using space to allow recording to happen and having me remember.

M dreams quite often, and when she does, she’ll tell me about them. She skips filling me in on the sexual dreams –she has them – we all do (right?) and as expected, she has mother dreams all leading back to anxiety, and she has dreams of her parents – which weigh heavily on her mind because of her distance from them and the guilt associated with that distance.

I wonder what I dream of.

Lady of Spain – Robert Taylor Jr.

One of the myriad of worries that causes a few sleepless moments is the thought of mental illness striking down on a loved one. I have this vision of a dark cloud descending down on them and their whole mental being is altered from what was the person I loved into a being that is completely unrecognizable. I leave for work in the morning and come home to a stranger occupying my wife’s mind.

I would be fortunate to see it hit them like that because I feel that if it were to happen, it seems that the pattern it follows is that it will sneak up slowly and I will miss early signs – either through the blindness of my unconditional love or because as that time can hide mounting trouble.

My failure to recognize it in them…but what if it hits me, and I don’t see it? Can one see it alone or does it have to be pointed out to them?

It took some time before my father accepted what we were telling him concerning his failing memory.

He did what I will probably do. Deny it, fight it – until…there it is, right in your face.

Yes, I am becoming more concerned about what lies ahead for me and what could be my descent into lost memories.

I suppose that it’s good to create the memories while I can remember them. I can enjoy them while I have that ability. To share with M and W in a few years when I can say: “Hey man…when you were 16 months old do you know what you did?” When and if the disease hits me, perhaps I won’t notice that there was a certain memory I once had about something. It’ll just be wiped clean. No fragmentary parts of a scene distorted and jumbled. If I can’t remember the memory then it’ll be like it never happened…right?

The Other Miller – Tobias Wolff

I’ve written here several times about my struggles in identifying whether or not I consider myself a writer – will ever consider myself a writer or if I will ever even write – at least something more than what I push out here.

I picked up a great little book from work (Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon) that has given me some great tips for improving this space as well as possibly helping me decide on the whole “writer” thing above.

In addition to the many purposes that this project is serving, one that I didn’t readily pick up upon until reading Kleon is that I believe that this space provides a nice platform to study my favorite authors. If one were to analyze post length on an author or a particular story, you would see that Gardner, Oates, Updike, Carver and Wolff all receive much more attention than others. If I were to narrow that list even further, I’d say that Oates, Gardner and Updike are my top three.

A writer that I have included in my top five that I intend to apply my microscope to is Tobias Wolff. There are a couple collections of his shorts that look well worth purchasing.

My attraction to him? Not sure yet. Just one of those writers I really enjoy. I enjoy listening to him talk as well. I suppose I can say that about all five of my favorite authors. Carver’s smoke battered throat, Updike’s excess spittle slipping through the small spaces in his teeth, Oates’ sing-songy sentences and Gardner…well, his voice surprised me – it was nasally and higher pitched than I imagined.

Perhaps I am reaching out to Wolff through some of our shared education. Military school during developmental years leaves a lasting impression that colors and enormous parts of your life years after leaving it.

So – The Other Miller.

A decent little story. I don’t know if I’d call the ending contrived but…yeah, it wasn’t hard to see it coming.

There is a scene towards the end of the story where Miller is waiting for two other soldiers as they have their fortune told by a gypsy. It’s a period where Miller has the chance to think back on his life – specific points and how they solidify his view of the future – his future. It’s a space where he is alone and with his thoughts. He is moving forward in time in silence – something that is lacking in this world.

Quiet thinking. Doing nothing. I need to do more of that. My head is too full of noise; I always feel the need to have something being fed into it. Simple quiet pondering is missing.

So, in a way nothing is what is missing.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How I Found My Brother - Charles Baxter

This is my third encounter with Baxter. First was in March of 2010 with “Harmony of the World”, then in April of 2011, with “Gryphon”.

This story didn’t really hit me as the other two did. I’m fine with that; I can’t expect to enjoy every single story.

This story is one of those that allowed me to venture into the “what if” of my life. Specifically, what if I had another sibling out there in the world.

If the brother or sister ever made contact with me, how would I feel? What would I do?

On first thought, from this chair, I think that upon discovering this new sibling, I’d be pretty pissed. I doubt that it’d matter if the parent of this sibling was my mother or father, I’d be equally upset with both of them.

Then, I think that some of the anger might be tempered with discovering what this sibling was like. It wouldn’t be fair to be upset with them. They were born…they didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Which brings me to my next set of thoughts stirred by thinking about this story.

Choice, fault, patience, pace and priority.

It’s funny where these stories can lead you. Honestly, I was a bit worried a few posts ago about running out of commentary or thoughts after reading. I think I was just out of practice.

Work has been keeping me pretty busy lately and I feel that I haven’t been firing on all cylinders 100% of the time.

There has been a cloud in my head…a fog that I’ve had trouble seeing though – not hazy enough to cause too much concern but noticeable enough that I can remark on it. Noticeable enough that I feel conscious actions could be taken to clear it away.

I believe I need to create a bit of a better pace in my life…slow down a bit, have more patience with myself and family, assign priorities in both my work and home life, choose what is really important and finally, stop looking for fault in others and myself.

And the first step of that is to be aware of my consciousness throughout my waking hours. I need to be in the moment. Not in the past, not consumed by the future. I need to settle down with the time that I am living in at that instant.

Easier said than done.

The awareness of this lack of awareness is a step in the right direction and I believe that it will allow me to work on the five points outlined above.