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?
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.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Letter Writer – M.T. Sharif

We've made it to the final story in this collection.

 I won’t waste time here reviewing the anthology – that’ll be the next post.
I had trouble finding information about the author – he has published more than once, and this seems to be the story that has brought him the most attention.

Concerning this story –

Another little jewel tucked into the end.  Glad it ended up here as it will leave a pleasant taste in my head concerning this collection.
Perhaps it’s the demonizing of the country that has caused the attraction, the curiosity.  Have we also demonized the culture – the people?  I think we have.

Personally, the attention we have paid to the Iranians since the revolution in ’79 (I was 7 and remember the hostage crisis) has caused me to become more curious of the people.  I would hope (but I’m afraid that I am wrong) that most Americans understand that it’s not the people of these countries that harbor ill-will towards us, but it is the governments ( those in power) – and yes, there are people that act of behalf of their government and do terrible things, but they don’t represent the majority thought of the common man.  It’s easy to shout insults across a wall or an ocean, but when you stand in front of someone, attitudes and some of the boldness tends to shrink away and civility thankfully creeps in.

So – this story contains a bit of truth, possibly more than just a bit of truth in what seems to be an unbelievable situation that a common man is subjected to.
Alas, there always seems to be a bit of fact in fiction.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Boy on the Train – Arthur Robinson

I spent a decent amount of time looking for additional works and a short biography of this author and came up empty.  Even tapped into the Literature Resource Center…no dice.

The Contributor’s Notes state that Robinson worked at several newspapers (not sure if he was a reporter…could have been a pressman) and he did mention that when he submitted the story to The New Yorker he was retired and that this was his first published story.

 I enjoyed the story – nice winding piece about how we end up becoming our parents (or father).

I have my own anxieties about raising W that I've shared here but this story doesn't have the pull for me to share more or delve deeper into my feelings right now.  I know for sure there will be plenty of time for venting in the future.  

Strays – Mark Richard

It seems that as this collection winds down, some real gems are surfacing.  
Such a powerful little story – “Strays”.   It’s so tightly written, each word, each sentence laid out perfectly.

Finishing it, I turned to the Contributor’s notes and found this little surprise.

Richard writes:

“I was lucky.  I had not written a word in weeks.  Months.  I had taken an attic room on the beach in Virginia Beach.  It was summer.  I would lay out and these words were in my brain:  At night, stray dogs come up underneath our house to lick our leaking pipes.  Over  and over.  I knew everything in I needed was in that sentence but I would not sit down in front of the machine.”

So to think that Mark was in that attic on the beach less than 20 miles from where I sit now,  gives me a weird cosmic connection to the story – and to the author.  I know it’s silly but I have a tendency to draw obscure connections.

I discovered a wonderful little interview with Richard by Bold Type – but unfortunately I couldn't find a date associated with it.  No matter.  I found some great little quotes to share. – I like the way this guy thinks!

With contemporary fiction, there's just so much of it that it's hard to sift through it all. I don't think people spend enough time reading the old stuff. There are so many contemporary novels that I read, and I think, so and so did this earlier and better. It's also the hallmark of a lazy writer to know all your classics so you can rob and steal and not have to waste your time trying to reinvent the wheel.

Q: You have an extensive work history, what are some of the more interesting jobs you've held?

A: In that, for me as a young person, in lieu of being in a war or something, it was physically and mentally demanding and pushed me to my limits so I could see what I was made out of. I think knowing your limitations is good, and I don't think there are a lot of opportunities for young people to have defining experiences, things that really push you to the edge of your abilities. For me, it was that coupled with the fact that I had been an invalid most of my adolescence. I was eager to overachieve, to push myself, and see what the limits of my new physical self was. I did a lot of different things that served their own purposes. All of them were great places to get material for stories. I didn't know it at the time; I thought I was misspending my youth, that I had wasted my college education and that I was a loser, all of which may be true.

 I pulled these two selections from the interview so that I may offer a little relational comment.  Part of the reason why I am engaged in this BASS project is so that I can be exposed to some of the greatest authors of the last 40 or so years.
I’ll put this out there right now – and this is the first time that it has been written here (and we've been here since 2008).  
I’d like to write someday.  
I’d like to write a fine little short story, send it out, receive the rejection letters, revise the story, pout, get angry, send it out again to a different set of magazines that might publish it, get more rejection letters and then repeat this dance over and over until one day, one of these little magazines decides to actually publish my little story.  
That’s what I’d like to do.  And I am spending all this time with these great authors in the hope that their technique, style and general badassness will rub off on me and give me my own technique, style and badassness.

So – there, now that’s out there.  Deep breath.

The second selection I pulled, if you've read some of my other posts, you’d know that there were several periods in my life where I had defining experiences and they did indeed push me to my limits and I hope that one day I can pull from those experiences and place them on paper ( bold above).

So, I was very happy to meet Mr. Mark Richard.  
He’s pushing me.  
I like that.  
I can feel it, it’s almost time.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What Men Love For - Dale Ray Phillips

And now we land here.  A story I really enjoyed.  Again, I can’t place my finger on it – and I’ve given it the requisite amount of thought – as to why this story appeals to me.  Perhaps it is the mother – suffering from mental illness.

Perhaps it is the son – the bridge between the mother and father – working to keep the family together.

Perhaps it is the relationship between the father and the son.
Yes, I think that’s it.

I often think about how W and I will grow older together and I wonder about our father/son relationship.  I am so excited to spend time with him – time that my father never spent with me.
The image that Phillips paints of the father and son riding a motorcycle at night and winding down a road, and leaning hard and fast into a curve…

I want that for W and I in the future.

I want him behind me holding on for dear life, trusting me, learning what it is to be a man.
It’s going to be wonderful and I simply can’t wait.

Concerning Dale Ray Phillips –

He writes in the contributors’ notes:

“My theory of writing is a simple one: write to make the hair on the back of a reader’s neck stand up.  This can be accomplished with either plot or revelation.  I am one of those writers who should probably write and not talk about his work.”

Because I am so fond of this story and appreciated the style of writing, I thought to discover a little more about Phillips.  It’s true, it appears that there isn’t much of him out there talking but I did find a wonderful interview with him conducted back in 2002 and published in 2003.

I decided to pull a few passages from it to highlight here because I believe they are important.
The interview was conducted by George Hovis and Timothy Williams as their shared several pitchers of beer at a restaurant.

“I think anyone who wants to be a writer should read at least one story a day. When I was young, in the summers I was working in a cotton mill, as a dyeweigher, right? Haw River, North Carolina, third shift. I'd come home. There was a library in Burlington. And it had Best American Short Stories and O. Henries. And for some reason, I thought, well, shit, what year to start with? 1955 was when I was born, so I thought, I can't be responsible for anything before my birth, okay?
So I climbed up on the roof and took a lounge chair up there. And some gin. And I'd lay up there. I was into suntanning. Look what it did to me. I'd lay up there and drink and read until I got sleepy.”

I decided to include this passage for the obvious reasons – but there is a secondary reason too.  After graduating from Norwich I lived with my father, step-mother and ½ sister in New Jersey.  I was welcomed into their house with open arms and for the first 6 months of living with them I was basically getting used to the real world again.  This was the summer of 1994.  A good portion of that time was spent reading classic Russian literature in the backyard under the hot sun drinking either beer or scotch.  Alcohol mixed with 90 degree temps leads to a pretty quick buzz and only a few pages being read. But those were some of the best books I ever read. Phillips sat on a roof – I sat in the back yard.

Learn to be your best critic. Don't be in love with every sentence you write. At one point, you have to sit down and read it as if your worst enemy wrote it. Go easy on metafiction. An experimental story is about the writer and the way it has been twisted. A traditional story moves me. When you read something really good, what happens to the back of your neck? It's a mammalian response. Your hair stands up. That's what you want to happen in the reader 

Look at those last few sentences – the man sticks to his technique. Props!

Meneseteung - Alice Munro

This is my fifth encounter with Munro included in the BASS anthology.  

You can find my previous encounters here:

I've been pretty brief with my writings on Munro and I will continue here.  I did find a bit more enjoyment in this story but I still cannot find true pleasure in reading her.  I still have 14 more encounters with her up to the BASS of 2012, and would suspect that she will be included in future editions of the book.  Perhaps over the next several years I will learn to appreciate her.
On a side note: I absolutely love the new picture I found of her.

The Management of Grief – Bharati Mukherjee

I gave a decent amount of thought as to what I could write about this short.

I initially thought that I could write about how I have made it to middle age without ever having to grieve and as I started typing, I realized that there was a trigger for grief and I could still be experiencing some sort of grief at the loss of my father due to the divorce.
I've written about my anger towards him and how I am still wrestling with forgiving him.  Now, as he is in his final stage of life, the grieving process over losing him will be one that is stretched out over years as he slowly fades away.  My management of this grief is strange and I wonder if I am actually managing it in a healthy way.  I talk to M about it, I talk with my brother –in-law and sister about it, I write about it in my little book I am now putting it out there (here).  
Is what I am feeling even grief though?  
Maybe it’s not.  
I just don’t know.  I do know that almost a day doesn't go by where thoughts of him in one form or another don’t cross my mind. Sometimes they are good thoughts but mostly they are thoughts of anger.  Just plain being upset with him and what he did all those years ago.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Displacement – David Wong Louie

In the contributors notes Louie writes that this story is about his own displacement.  I really enjoy what he has to say about the development of this story, his memory of its creation and evolution.

“With my other stories I can easily remember how each part evolved in the writing but the particulars of this story’s origins escape memory.  I cannot call back the clear-headed instant Mrs. Chow first walked across my imagination, nor the image or detail from which she bloomed.  I don’t remember a single crisis in the writing of the story, though I’m certain I suffered, as always, through many.  I suspect this haziness of memory isn't a matter of forgetting at all, but has everything to do with having known the story, in some deep way, even before I wrote a single word of it.  When the characters were new and strangers to me, when the story’s events were still surprising, they were at the same time familiar.  Nothing stands out about the story’s writing because this familiarity won’t allow it – in my memory the story wasn't revealed in steps, by a process, but was a piece that simply arrived, something had.  The Chows’ story is about refugees, people off balance, whose dislocation is not just spatial but cultural psychic, and emotional; it is, as I understand things, the undefined, unarticulated unease I have known my whole life – my own displacement.”

I don’t think many of us can make it through our lives without feeling a little out of place.  I’m one of the fortunate ones.  White male in America.  Yeah – not too tough sometimes.

I've written enough about my displacement – which was of my own choosing – and in the end was wonderful.  It altered my life. I need to find ways to displace myself more often.  Displace my mind.
I have found creativity and discovery in some of my displacements and I feel at some times that I am not displaced enough.  
I push myself into a physical displacement on the mornings that I run and in those mornings, I find something…something…something – not quite sure what it is yet – but it’s good.

Perhaps what I feel physically is a little bit of that unarticulated unease Louie writes about.  I know that it’s possible to displace my mind – I just gotta figure that out. 

Aunt Moon’s Young Man – Linda Hogan

Linda Hogan is quite the author and a strong voice for her people.  I am happy when I read a story in these anthologies written by a Native American.  The Native American voice is one of our nation’s that is often not heard enough…if at all. 
I went through a phase where I was fascinated with Native Americans.  It lasted several months – and I believe I lost interest because I simply couldn’t find, or wasn’t dedicated enough to the pursuit of this particular facet of knowledge to search for more information.  It was during (one of) my exploratory phases of life – and I’m sure something else replaced it
From the age of 5 through maybe 15 or 16, there was a family that lived a few houses down from our house with a mother/wife that interested me.
She was strange – a good strange. 
She seemed like a free thinker, like to have a good time and was genuinely a nice old woman (old to me but younger than I am now as I write, when I first met her).  She would sit on her front porch with her husband in the evenings and he would drink and smoke until he was blotto - I’m not sure if she drank – but if I were to guess, I would say yes. 
Their house was dirty and had a funny smell to it (you know how kids REALLY pick up on these things).  They had too many dogs and a few cats also several older children – in college or high school. 
With all of those barriers to acceptance by a young boy, the place was still inviting and the mother/wife is what made it so. 
Once the children moved out of the house, the husband and wife moved to the mountains of Virginia.  It’s where they belonged. The husband died shortly after their move and she occupied that cabin on the side of the mountain alone
We visited her once when I was in junior high school.  It was late int eh summer or early autumn.  The evenings were cool and the mornings crisp.  Plenty of leaves were on the ground but there were still ample brown leaves to provide cool shade in the warmer afternoons.   We picked wild grapes with her and made grape jelly.  I found a sturdy stick and fashioned it into a perfect walking stick.  I removed all the bark with a huge Rambo knife and dyed it a dark brown with boiled nuts.  We slept in her cabin in a loft that was heated with a wood burning stove – and dried out our sinuses.

She and her smelly house, her cabin in the mountains all were brought back to me by Aunt Moon’s Young Man.

Just another memory dislodged from the recesses of my mind by a good story.