Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta – Kate Braverman


I need help from the author to jump-start my thoughts.
From her contributor’s notes:

“Tall Tales is about the legacy of Vietnam, which continues to infect the American conscience, often in unexpected configurations. It’s about tarnished consciousness and some unspeakably sordid pulse at the core of the American Dream. On one level, it’s about the irresistible lure of evil, its strange sheen. It’s about relationships between men and women and some overwhelming darkness that may be intrinsic to this planet itself. It was here before us and it will remain when we are gone. It has something to do with sexual obsession and the glamour of danger and the fragility of ordinary life. It’s about power and survival in a landscape where the boundaries between dream and reality have dissolved, probably to a rock-and-roll beat.”

Thank god Kate wrote the above.

Just when I thought I would be able to get back into writing here, I encounter this challenge.

As I sit here and write this, I re-read it over and over attempting to relate.

Is there anything in the story that I can really draw a line to a point in my life?

The male/female relationship?
-No…I don’t see it there.

-The sexual obsession, glamour of danger and fragility of ordinary life?

Partially.

I recognize the fragility of ordinary life – I’ve come to the very edge of absolute heartbreak – but through an incredible series of practiced medical hands – I was spared that awful experience.

Power and survival?

-Sure, I see it daily in my line of work.

I think though that at my age – perhaps it’s the irresistible lure of evil. 

It may be silly but I think that we can all apply evil to different “things” in our lives. The obvious – drugs, infidelity…you know the rest. But I think the “evil” that lures me and that is the most dangerous to me is complacency in my life.

Sometimes I feel that I’m treading water – and that can be dangerous and evil not just for me but for those who rely on my support.

Does that “evil” have an attraction, a lure?

Sure it does. It’s the easy way out of life.


I struggle against the complacency and Lenny (from the story) keeps showing up along the paths of my life. He and I share great stories – and I follow him more times than I should. 

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Love is Not a Pie - Amy Bloom



This is the first appearance of Amy Bloom in the BASS anthology. We’ll catch up with her again in 1992 and 2000.

I really enjoyed this story. It’s one of those that takes you someplace comfortable – not necessarily through the story itself – the characters or plot – but Amy paints a few scenes that are very familiar to me and by doing so creates a special relationship between the created “environment” and me.
I’ll warn you now – this post is not at all about the story – or Amy – so if you’d like to hit that X and make this all disappear…DO IT NOW.

I believe that I am part of a fortunate group of people that grew up being able to spend summers away from home along or next to a body of water.
In this story, a majority of the action takes place during summer vacations at a cabin next to a lake.
I spent many weeks of my summer with my father, sister on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River in Maryland. Here’s a Bing maps picture of it.

From what I recall, we made our first trip there in the summer of 1982.

It was a warm extra-dark damp evening and we went to the island for a graduation party thrown by a student of my father’s. The hosts of the party owned the island and the wife of the couple was the new holder of a master’s degree in art therapy.

A flat bottom rowboat piloted by the daughter in the family came to pick us up on the mainland. My dad was pretty excited – ready to get his drink on.

It was already dark and right around the time for us to get to bed once we made it to the other side and prepared our bunks. I remember falling asleep and waking up a short time later pretty disoriented and asking for my father. Apparently, he had gone over to a liquor store on the mainland to buy some booze.

I remember crying and being consoled by strangers. Eventually, he returned and we hugged it out and I calmed down.

The cabin was built around 1901 as a hunting and fishing lodge. It survived floods and hurricanes. There was another bunkhouse on the island but it washed away after the Conowingo Dam opened its floodgates during hurricane Camille
.
The cabin was furnished with old sofas, weird easy chairs and makeshift bunks. It was damp, moldy and musty. If you had to pee during the night, you could go off the side porch – or walk around the exterior porch to the bathroom. For a 10-year-old kid – it was spooky and you were better off risking a burst bladder than walking out there with the snakes and other wildlife that would surely kill you.
The insects were roared at night and the birds made sure you woke with the sun.


That visit in 1982 was the first of many – spanning through my school years, through college, after college, my return from Europe and later enjoyed – for a period of time - by my new wife.  
The mornings were cool under the shade of the tall trees but by noon, the mid-Atlantic humidity settled in and relief could be found in the river. The river was freshwater and had plenty of bass, catfish and sunfish to be caught.

Extended stays during summer vacations found us spending up to 2 weeks on the island with my father leaving my sister and me alone there when he had to drive up to Philadelphia to teach a class.
She and I would fight over control of the cassette player as I’d be tortured by WHAM! and the New Kids on the Block only to gain revenge with The Cure and The Doors.

I learned to snorkel and spearfish there and my sister learned how to swim.

We both learned how to shoot a .22 and then moved up to an M-1, .45, 9mm and an AR-15.

We would visit auctions in nearby towns and my father would buy box-lots of toys that we’d take back to the island spending hours throwing lead downrange at teddy bears and Hot Wheels.

We’d watch old “Leave it to Beaver” and “Gilligan’s Island” episodes on a tiny black and white TV. We learned how to appreciate the humor of late Night with David Letterman as we fought off sleep.
The original crew of the host family was soon joined by my step mother and then a half-sister.

The years passed.

I turned 21 in Russia and upon returning back to the States, on my first weekend back we headed to the island.

Dad offered to buy me my first bottle of booze for my birthday and even though I had been drinking up at school for a year and just pickled my liver in Russia – I really didn’t know what to buy…a bottle of George Dickel was cracked open and a few shots were chased down with a couple of Coors Light…that I remember saying tasted like flowers.

A few years passed.

My sister married and her husband and later children were able to join us on the island.

Then I left that refuge again for what seemed to be too long.

A couple years passed.

I received pictures of good times on the island during my time away and I couldn’t wait to take M there when we returned home. 
 
We introduced M to the finer points of drinking on the river as well as the atmosphere that made conversations easier about the difficulties life that we all seem to encounter.

A beer cooler filled with ice, Stroh’s beer, Diet Coke for Dad, Woodchuck Cider for Sis and snacks would be rounded out by the prized possession of the trip – a bottle of Rebel Yell Bourbon. We’d stash it down at the bottom of the cooler and usually crack into it about an hour after floating. Time then progressed at a crawl. We’d bake on the hot river rocks passing the bottle around, drinking the Stroh’s like water and barely keeping our heads above the water. The tube trip from the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam down to the island could take anywhere from three to six hours.





Summers from 2000 through 2007 were spent on the island with the whole clan but tensions began to surface in relationships as time started to beat the old cabin and island down.

Problems with providing electricity to the island (we had to run wires across the river) became more frequent and this, of course, prohibited us from pumping water to the cabin to flush the toilet, run the refrigerators and wash dishes --- health issues.

The humid air started to get into the wood and areas of the porch could no longer support a person walking around to the bathroom in the middle of the night (bad times).

And finally, my father started to show early signs of Alzheimer’s which caused quite a bit of concern as he would set off on early morning walks (as was a ritual in the past) but not return for hours causing us to send out search parties.

And then Nor’easters hit the mid-Atlantic. Along with Super-Storms. And Hurricanes.

And the clan got smaller as old age claimed a good friend.

And then the Alzheimer’s set in HARD.

And the trips to that special place stopped.

And now all I have are pictures and…

Memories stirred by special stories found in these anthologies.


This is why I love these short stories and authors like Amy Bloom. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Disappeared - Charles Baxter




This is my fifth encounter with Charles Baxter and we will meet up with him another three times - unless of course a story appears in another volume after 2016.

Year           Story Publication
1982
Harmony Of The World
Charles Baxter
The Michigan Quarterly Review
1986
Gryphon
Charles Baxter
Epoch
1987
How I Found My Brother
Charles Baxter
Indiana Review
1989
Fenstad's Mother
Charles Baxter
The Atlantic
1991
The Disappeared
Charles Baxter
Michigan Quarterly Review
2010
The Cousins
Charles Baxter
Tin House
2013
Bravery
Charles Baxter
Tin House
2014
Charity
Charles Baxter
McSweeney's

I enjoyed The Disappeared as much as I enjoyed the other selections in previous BASS collections.


Another author that has the skill that pulls me through their story.


We meet people in our lives that completely shake us from our reality.  Perhaps as we grow older we develop “defenses” against these people and their “eccentric” attractions. Anders (the main character) may have these defenses but they are useless in America - he isn’t equipped to fight off Lauren’s eccentricities outside of his native environment. He falls and fails. He’s human though.


I was in the 9th grade when I encountered my first  “Lauren”.


I was taking a math class that was made up of students from all four high school grades. My “Lauren” was a senior. She was also one of those artist types. She didn’t dress like the others., act like the others and I could sense this and it intrigued me.


I was out of my environment I suppose - I was drowning in the floodwaters of algebra and this drowning sensation shifted my atmosphere.


I tried flirting with her the best that I knew and she clearly saw what I was trying to do and played along with my silliness.


She was sweet to me but was careful not to pull me in too far.


I appreciate that.


Flash forward to 2014 - through the powers of the mighty Facebook friend suggestion algorithms, my “Lauren” reappears almost 30 years after I first met her.


She left her Facebook albums open - and there she is.


Amazingly, she still looks the same - perhaps my 14-year-old mind cemented that 19-year-old woman and I am unconsciously overlaying her high school appearance 28 years later. Could that happen?


She is a successful artist - has worked for several large studios in California as a set artist.


She attends Burningman...should that surprise me?  And there she is topless at Burningman (how did that pass the Facebook censors?)  - should that surprise me?


Charles Baxter dedicates this story to Alvin Greenberg. Baxter was a friend and former student of Greenberg's. Both Charles Baxter and Alvin Greenberg were in BASS 1982 - I’m sure they got a kick outta that!  


I wrote about Greenberg and his story - The Power of Language is Such That Even a Single Word Taken Truly to Heart Can Change Everything - that was included in the 1982 BASS.

That was in 2010. I started off that entry stating that he was alive and still writing.

I can’t remember why I wrote that.

Alvin Greenberg died in October of 2015.

Time marches on.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Legend of Pig Eye - Rick Bass



This is my second meeting with Rick Bass. The last time I read him was in 2012 and as I recall, I really enjoyed the story - as I enjoyed this one.

Looking through the BASS database, I’ll have 4 more meetings with him in the coming years and I look forward to reading his stories .

This is a tight, clean story.  

Sitting back thinking about a period in my life where I was angry, just as the main character, trying to “hold onto a thing you loved, and letting go of other things to do it” and realizing that as I grow older I find myself doing this with greater frequency. The things I “let go of” though do not carry the weight that they once did and I see my priorities shifting and I become lighter in a sense.

Rick treats us with a lengthy Contributor’s Note that really gives us some great details surrounding the development of this story.

Rick writes about the selling of this story eventually to be published in The Paris Review but before landing there, Rick gives some pretty obvious clues that it was first accepted by Playboy with an offer of $2,500 for publication rights. Rick tells the story of a meeting with a Madame A. at this glossy magazine to discuss the story, a meeting  which goes horribly bad, with the outcome being obviously no publication rights of the story and no payment.

I can only conclude that this Madame A. is Alice K. Turner - who was the fiction editor at Playboy from 1980-2000. 

One wonders if the story would have been included in the BASS if it had landed in the pages of Playboy rather than the Paris Review. Looking through my database, Playboy has had 13 authors that they published included in BASS and the Paris Review has had 30. I don’t know if these numbers answer my question.

-But-

After Rick’s meeting with Turner at Playboy he walks to the office of The Paris Review, has a very interesting meeting with George Plimpton which almost includes Rick getting punched in the nose by Plimpton. Rick discusses the story with Plimpton and tells him of his meeting with Turner. Following the meeting, there must have been a renewed drive in Bass to really shape his story - not that he wouldn’t have after another meeting with an editor - but perhaps the energy from the meeting with Plimpton lit a spark.

Bass writes further in his notes that he and his editor at Norton, Carol Houck Smith, worked through a dozen drafts or more with only one original paragraph remaining  - the last one. The revisions were done with anger as the driving force - it worked and Plimpton published the story, Katrina pulls it from the couple of thousand she reads passes it along to Adams who recognizes its beauty and selects it as one of the 20 to be included in this volume. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

New Volumes Added to the Collection

Before we jump into 1991 I think it’s important to note the addition of some new volumes to my collection added after a generous donation was made by a reader.






Thank you!

The Best Short Stories of 1917 - O’Brien
The Best Short Stories of 1917 - O’Brien
The Best American Short Stories - 1943 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1944 - Foley
Fifty Best American Short Stories 1915 - 1965 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1969 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1970 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1971 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1972 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1973 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1974 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1975 - Foley
The Best American Short Stories - 1977 - Foley

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Best American Short Stories - 1991 - Introduction - Katrina Kenison and Alice Adams

Katrina Kenison

Alice Adams




I like to start these introductions to the new collection with a look back at where I was when the guest editor was making their selection of stories – it grounds me a bit to the world as it was then and I make efforts when reading and writing about the stories to place myself in those years.
I think it’s important to first draw attention to the fact that the BASS 1991 brings aboard Katrina Kenison as the series editor. Shannon Ravenel steps aside after plowing through thousands of short stories for 13 volumes of BASS – 1978 through 1990.
I don’t know what sort of say Shannon had in the selection of guest editors but I can say that there are several standouts over the past 13 collections and the stories that she passed down to the guest editors have left lasting marks.
Favorites:
And of those 4, I struggle with which collection I enjoyed the most. The two guest editors that taught me the most, that pushed me to seek out more about their writers and them – the editors – would be Gardner and Carver. And I feel terrible saying that Oates and Updike weren’t my favorite as they too educated me beyond expectation (hey, they get the third and 4th spot!).
Carver just picked some wonderful stories – and what a writer he is. And Gardner…man…he was crazy and I like that.
Looking back at the attention I gave to these four favorites, I wonder if I could do the same with Kenison and Adams. I mean I honestly know nothing about either of them.
Alice first appeared in The BASS in 1976 so I missed her by a couple of years as this project started with the 1978 collection. She reappears again after this guest editor spot in ’92 and ’96. I’ll touch on her introduction in a moment but first I should explore Katrina.
One thing I find is that the deeper I dig into the background of a majority of these writers, the more I like them. Katrina has a wonderful website and one that she writes on quite frequently. The philosophy that now centers her in her life is one that I can respect and aspire to. I struggle with being more mindful and attentive to my “everyday” but it’s tough in the industry I’m in where my mind is often pulled in several directions. I feel that I do a good job at leaving work at work but it’s tough to slow down my mind at home. For my future and the memories my sons are creating, I need to slow down - I might have a limited time to do this so there is pressure to implement this practice.   Katrina has quite the engaging audience and she does a wonderful job interacting with her readers through the comments below her posts. Katrina has a beautiful soul and the decision to make her series editor of BASS was a wise one.
I would imagine that she was a pleasure to work with as a guest editor and I look forward to reading the guest editor’s comments about the stories that katrina passes down to them.
I was interested in how Katrina worked through her time as an editor and for a few interview where she touches on this. I’ve pulled those portions and attached them below. Full interviews can be found in the links at the end of each excerpt.

From her own website -
For sixteen years I had what was arguably the best job in the world. It certainly was the best job for me. As a first-time mother of an infant, I wanted nothing more than to be at home with my new baby. At the same time, I’d loved my career as a literary editor and I still had to earn a living. By some miraculous stroke of luck and grace, the universe afforded me the chance to do both.
A week after my baby was born, I got word that I’d been chosen to be the new series editor of The Best American Short Stories, an annual anthology beloved by readers and writers alike. Three months later, I hired some help, bought my first desktop computer, set up a system to keep track of everything (magazines logged into FileMakerPro, the stories themselves written up by hand on file cards), and got down to work. It was amazing — I was getting paid to read.
I dressed for my new job in stretchy old black leggings and sweatshirts spotted with baby drool. I had no set hours and three deadlines a year. The magazines arrived by the box load and the babysitter came for a few hours every morning. While she was there, and while my son slept, and in every other spare moment of the day, I read short stories.
Sixteen years flew by. During that time, two little babies grew up into teenagers and sixteen volumes got published and I read thousands and thousands of stories. I had the joy of “discovering” such new voices as Amy Bloom, Junot Diaz, Akhil Sharma, Edith Pearlman, and Nathan Englander, and helping to introduce them to wider audiences. Meanwhile, I also had the privilege of working closely with some of our most accomplished writers — chatting about what made certain stories work and others miss the mark with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Kingsolver, E. L. Doctorow and many others. Co-editing with John Updike The Best American Short Stories of the Century allowed me not only the happy, prodigious task of reading every story ever published in the series since its inception in 1915, but also the privilege of engaging in an intensive, congenial, two-year correspondence with one of my lifelong literary heroes. http://www.katrinakenison.com/2016/09/08/14639/

From a NYT An interview by Bill Goldstein, Books Editor of The New York Times on the Web, August 10, 1999.
"I have to confess I had always been a novel reader. And I don't think I took short stories all that seriously when I began, which is a terrible thing for an editor of short stories to confess. But I had just become a mother . . . and there was something about the form that really attracted me in my new life, because I didn't have a lot of time ever to sit down and read at a stretch . . . And the more I read, the more I came to appreciate the flexibility of the form and the strength and how challenging it is for writers."  http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/08/15/specials/kenison.html

And finally from the Maiseymak interview:
I had a great job I loved, editing The Best American Short Stories series, which I did for 16 years, all through my sons’ growing up years. It was part-time and flexible and a way for me to have a steady income and a professional identity while still making motherhood my top priority.
I was incredibly lucky and I knew it.
And then, out of the blue, I lost that job, during a time of reorganizing and budget cutting at the publishers. It was devastating. But I don’t think I would have written these books if I hadn’t suddenly found myself out of work. http://maisymak.com/2013/03/fascinating-person-1-interview-with.html

Let’s take a quick look at Katrina’s first forward as the series editor.
She starts off by asking the question “What is the secret of a good short story?”
  • mentions that she read nearly 2,000 stories and that she didn’t find the answer yet but suspects that in the years ahead that each good story would provide a unique answer.
Of the 2,000 stories, she gave Alice 120 and Alice selected 20 for inclusion.
Katrina notes that the stories she selected do all have something in common and the is that they all “give voice to our universal quest for connection.”
later -
“In the afterglow of a good short story, consciousness is heightened - we see more clearly, gain fresh perspective, seek to live more clearly, gain fresh perspective, seek to live more thoughtfully and independently.”
And this passage nails it for me.
This is one of  - if not the drive behind this project and what I missed these past couple of years when I fell off the rails of reading these stories.
I’m happy that Katrina wrote this so that I can have it in front of me once again - to drive me, push me through this project - this education.

As mentioned towards the top of this post I missed the first story by Adams that appeared in BASS.
Let’s get to know her a little just through her introduction to this edition.
Katrina then notes her place as the fourth series editor with Edward O’Brien being the first followed by Martha Foley, then Shannon who Katrina attributes the success that the series has achieved today. Katrina then mentions that since 1978, “a different writer or critic has served each year as guest editor of the anthology, thereby ensuring its continued diversity.”
Which brings us to Alice Adams.
As far as introductions go, I don’t think the introduction written by Adams stands out from an intro in previous editions read.
Her first sentence is pleasant enough.
“I am deeply enamored of short stories.”
Within the first page of the intro she states that she really didn’t have trouble picking out the good stories - they made “their presence felt very strongly,” and that she felt that there should have been “more first-rate stories from which to choose.”
A few sentences later she offers up what she believes to be a clue - and it’s one that I have touched on a few times in these posts.
“...as I looked over the list of magazines from which I made my selection, I felt that at least one clue was offered. Six stories are from The New Yorker, one of the most visible and highest-paying magazines on the market (and one that continues to treat writers with great respect…”
I’ve pointed out before the domination of stories from  The New Yorker.
I’ll now provide a list of magazines and the number of stories selected from each one.
The New Yorker - 6
The Southern Review -2
Fiction -1
Special Report - Fiction - 1
The Paris Review - 1
The Michigan Quarterly Review - 1
Room of One’s Own - 1
Story -1
Southwest Review - 1
Antaeus -1
Boulevard -1
Shenandoah -1
ZYZZYVA -1
North American Review -1
As you can see, the only magazine coming close to The New Yorker is The Southern Review with two stories selected. I’m not sure if Fiction and Special Report - Fiction are the same publication but if so, then they tie with The Southern Review with two stories.
Noting this disparity (if it could be called that), Adams then asks about the demise of the short story in magazines that once published them - for instance women’s magazines.
Adams writes further on the short story, their writers and the publications in which they are published. She drops a few big names of the craft and then writes of being inspired by certain authors - and stories that motivate her to write a story of her own.
Finally, as I mentioned alllll the way at the top of this post, I like to remember back to the year that the guest editor was making their selections and reflect on where I was in this world.
1991 was dominated by my second year at Norwich. I had a bit more freedom as a Sophomore. I was corporal cadre which meant I was involved with the instruction of the new freshmen - this pretty much lined me up to be a member of the cadre my Junior year.
I enjoyed my second year at Norwich. I roomed with my best friend, had a good set of guys on the floor and had a great college year. As a student, I wasn’t a good one. I struggled in a couple of my classes and allowed my social life to interfere with academics. This year was probably the year that laid the foundation for the poorly constructed academic record I built.
And with that, Let’s get to reading BASS 1991!