Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Dog Stories – Francine Prose

“Dog Stories” comes partly out of my continuing interest in the way people tell their stories – in this case, stories about dogs. … People never talk about nothing, not even when they seem to. There are always secret and interesting reasons for the stories they decide to tell and for the moments at which they choose to tell them.” – Francine Prose

I don’t find myself in the position much to be on the receiving end of a good dog story. Most stories that come my way are through work, and I can’t really call those “stories”.

I suppose a reason that I’m not on the receiving end is that I’m rarely in social situations that allow others to tell me stories. I don’t have a large social circle and most stories that come my way are told to me by my children.

The advice that Prose gives above though can be used with those stories because my kids are great at choosing the times to tell me their stories.

Through this BASS reading exercise, I have found a great spark to tell some of my stories. The story randomly finds its way to me across time and provides the spark to ignite the process of thought. Sometimes this process can last days, weeks or months. Sometimes I can relate to a story immediately.

What is unfortunate though is that I find myself falling into the habit of not reading and in turn, not telling my stories.

Monday, September 16, 2019

American, Abroad – Joyce Carol Oates

Sitting on this book again. 

Work and life continue to get in the way. How many times can I use that excuse? I can’t keep using those as excuses. 

I can’t wait to write the wrap-up of this volume to see how long it took me to finish this volume. 

It’s going to be redic.

I finished reading this story over a month ago and I’m finally getting around to writing about it.

When I read that JCO is included in a BASS volume I’m pretty excited to plow through the stories to reach and read it. This story was featured towards the end of the volume and I was similarily excited to read it…but unfortunately, it did not deliver what I expected.

Thinking of my expectations, and all the changes that I have experienced in my life over the lifespan of this project I wonder if my expectations have morphed as well.

Perhaps the “feelings” of expectations the correct atmosphere to be enveloped in before during and after this story because there is quite a bit of “expectation” in this story.

The expectation of physical violence, the expectation of a meeting – or a friendship…

Expectations are a very dangerous thing. 

Set them too high and you’ll find disappointment. Set them too low and perhaps, resentment, anger jealousy.

So…lesson from JCO – check your expectations.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Willing – Lorrie Moore

What I recognize and appreciate about Moore’s writing is that I find it very accessible. 

In a story that Moore calls a “stray” on her steps, she does a wonderful job of pulling me in and capturing my interest in a character that I normally wouldn’t find an attraction to.

I think that many can relate to this character as at some point in our life we have felt that we were once “something”, or “could have been something” but as our life moved forward things just didn’t pan out the way that they should’ve. Perhaps those instances are just phases which land us in uncomfortable situations – (not necessarily a Days Inn), but sometimes these things can sink you for awhile.

The story felt very early ‘90s...perhaps that aided in the appeal for me. 

Moore was in her early 30s when she wrote this story – a bit outside of the Generation X label but perhaps this gave her the skills to translate some of those all too familiar clich├ęs used to describe the generation about to get tagged with this label.
But, as a story in a collection, wedged between other shorts, I didn’t feel “full” at the end of the story. 

I was given a taste, a few bites – but a few more would have filled me up and left me completely satisfied.

Moore is a short story powerhouse as we will discover.

This is the second appearance by Moore in The BASS, with her first being in 1990 –  with You’re Ugly Too. 

Moore appears 5 more times in The BASS – 1992, 1993, 1998, 1999 and 2013 with all the stories but one appearing in The New Yorker (outlier is The Paris Review).

Moore was the guest editor of The Best American Short Stories 2004 and in 2015, and she served as the guest editor for a centennial anthology from the series, 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories.

Willing was published in the New Yorker in the May 14, 1990 issue. 

I was still in high school – about a month away from graduation - about to enter into a strange new world.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Viva La Tropicana – Leonard Michaels

 (January 2, 1933 - May 10, 2003)

What a fun story.

Michaels wrote in the Contributor’s Notes, that this story wrote itself.

You can feel it even before you read that. 

This story is written with such authenticity but contains such fantastical imagery in almost a double negative of reality that you have to believe that most of it is…not fiction.

Make sense?

This is the type of story that pulled me back into this anthology – at least for awhile – and I could be so fortunate that the rest of the stories in this volume measure up to its brilliance. 

I see that Moore, Munro, Oats, Prose and my favorite, Updike remain – so perhaps there is hope. 

I hang my hopes that my ability to write again can be ignited by these five authors.

You see, I have found myself saying to myself many times over the past year that “I struggle with original thoughts.”
I believe that I have them but I have a very difficult time voicing them. 

“How could this be?” you may ask as you read my original thoughts.

The struggle is real.

Take this project for example. It’s 2019. 

When I started this project and laid out a rough schedule of how many stories I needed to read each week from the 1978 edition to the latest edition of the anthology, it seemed very “doable”. 

I figured that out roughly 4,000 days ago – yup, almost 11 years ago. 

So now it’s 2019 and I’ve only covered 1978-1991.

A rough calculation of stories from 1991 – 2019 lands me at around 570 stories. 


That number hurts. 

Is it out of reach? 


So why did I circle back around to writing about this project and the mountain I must climb to catch-up (Do I even need to catch –up)?

Perhaps this story reassured me that anything is possible. That even the most fantastic, off the wall, schemes can work – if you have the drive and will.

I suppose time is a factor too – which plays in this story - and I do have time. 

Time is one of the most valuable commodities in my life right now. I have found that I was wasting portions of it on meaningless tasks/pursuits. 

Evaluating this project, I see the value in investing my time in reading these stories. 

So, with that, I thank you Leonard Michaels and Viva La Best American Short Stories!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Glossolalia – David Jauss

I’ve written about this several times before – so much so that I am starting to tire of it -  encountering a story at a certain time, a perfect time in my life.

I doubt that this story would have had the same impact on me 10 years ago as it did today. I was living such a different life just 10 years ago.

I might have read this story, thought about it and somehow related to it through the lens of my relationship with my father.
Now, I read the story and lay it across the relationship I have with my sons.

As with many of these short stories, the icing on the cake is applied on the final page. I absolutely love this ending from David Jauss.
That night, though, unable to sleep, I got up and went into my son’s room. Standing there in the wan glow of his night light, I listened to him breathe for awhile, then quietly took down the railing we’d put on his bed to keep him from rolling off and hurting himself. I sat on the edge of his bed and began to stroke his soft, reddish blond hair. At first he didn’t wake, but his forehead wrinkled and he mumbled a little dream sound.
                I am not a religious man. I believe, as my father must have, the day he asked me to save him, that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption. And that night, when my son woke, frightened by the dark figure leaning over him, and started to cry, I picked him up and rocked him in my arms, comforting him as I would after a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” I told him over and over, until the words sounded as incomprehensible to me as they must have to him, “it’s only a dream. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”

Perhaps I am lucky that I, in this day and age, am able to spend so much time with my children. Sure, I have a 9-5 but I am there in the mornings and I am there to put them to bed – every single night. Is this unusual? For some reason, I feel that it is. And I often feel fortunate to be able to have this time with them.

My sons sleep together. It’s nice but I realize that it won’t last long. The oldest will soon want to be in his own bed (which is right above his brother’s – yes they have a bunk bed but both sleep on the bottom).

I am able to check on them before I lay down at night and their innocence, while they lay there together asleep, is almost too much for me to handle.

They live in a worry-free world filled with love and laughter.
We work hard to provide that to them. I have found myself standing in their room silently assuring them that everything will be all right – of course, it’s more me reassuring myself that it’ll be OK.

Yes, it’ll all be OK.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Bologoye – Mikhail Iossel

                                            Mikhail Iossel c/o the author

I was very surprised to find the very active twitter account of Mikhail Iossel. 

I’m not surprised that he has one; I’m surprised that I actually made it to his story in the BASS while he is still alive! This, of course, is a critique of my lack of reading and writing.

It was nice to read Bologoye – to reach this story at about the half-way point in the anthology. It pulled me in and I think it’s going to propel me through to the end of the book.

Reading this story was like visiting an old friend.

My interest/casual study of Russia/The Soviet Union began back in the early 1980s. I can say that my interest came about with the addition to my family of a step-father who was very interested in American foreign policy towards the Soviets. He was a rabid news consumer – we always had cable news on in the house and we even received the morning and afternoon newspapers. During breakfast, before school, he would provide commentary on the latest news out of DC and Moscow. I was well aware of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the death of Brezhnev and the weirdness that encompassed the Andropov and Chernenko years. Gorbachev came along in ’85 and by ’86 I was in high school and my obsession with US/USSR relations was pretty well developed and growing. I sought out books, music and photos…the local university library even subscribed to Pravda (I can neither confirm nor deny several missing Pravda issues from 1989).

In 1990-early ’91 I focused on surviving my freshman year at Norwich. I did work in the library where their Russian collection was quite large given the summer Russian School program they hosted.

In the fall of ’91, I began my formal study of the language/culture and politics – changing my major and selecting courses that focused on my interest.

This was a great time to really focus in on the country because, by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was no more.

I continued my studies and in the summer of ’93, as you may have read here before, I made a trip over to Russia. The early ‘90s in Russia was quite interesting.

In the years after my formal schooling, I still studied the country, (the first AOL news story I clicked on after we got a dial-up modem and the software disc at my father's was one of Yeltsin).

Of course, in the late 90’s I made it back over to that part of the world – Romania, and during my time there, I felt the ghosts of old influences that the Kremlin had on the country.

Now, today, as I read this story, I am taken back to those days. I can taste the shared warm beer, the shared bottles of wine drunk between the moving train cars (we drank ours on a train from Moscow to Volgograd). The endless shots of vodka - I can recall the smells of the Soviet apartment blocs – with their massive stairwells and the eyes of neighbors always watching. I can recall the feeling knowing that I was followed, that someone “inspected” my room from time-to-time.

I appreciate stories like this to transport me back to those days – stories by a writer that weaves the words to create scenes that transport you, the reader, having been there years before – right back there again.

This has happened so many times with the short stories in this anthology – their inclusion is justified by their power.  

Monday, March 18, 2019

Houdini - Siri Hustvedt

This is our second encounter with the writer Siri Hustvedt, first coming across her in BASS 1990, with the short story Mr. Morning.

This story comes along in my life during a period of time when I find myself fascinated by the human mind.

I suppose the intense interest recently (within the last couple of years) came about after the death of my father from early onset Alzheimer’s. To zero-in on a specific interest in the human mind, I would have to say that it would be the decline of a once healthy mind.

Through my college years I was interested in developing thought through various philosophies (mostly eastern) and then the transformative power that an individual has over their mind if they make conscious efforts to change behaviors  - I am still fascinated by this as I wrestle with various aspects of self- discipline. 

We take our brain health for granted.  

I don’t think we respect what our mind does for us on a daily basis, what it is capable of, and how we can take advantage of its power. We don’t seem to pay attention to it until something goes wrong – and that’s unfortunate- because sometimes it’s too late.

Is there a way to stack the genetic deck of cards you’ve been dealt (in terms of brain health)?

The main character of this story finds herself hospitalized due to severe migraines.

-Here’s where I start to draw lines again from the work of fiction to events in my life. It’s where I start to feel that the story is more than a story, it’s a long teachable moment, a forced retreat, a meditation.

It was 28 years ago this month, (March 1991) that my father visited me for a weekend up at Norwich. He was in Montreal for a conference, rented a car and drove down to see me. He rented a hotel for us in Burlington and we spent a cold, cloudy weekend together. This was a very special time for me as being a freshman up at Norwich, meant that I was basically confined to campus and to be sprung for the weekend was something very special.
I remember Saturday afternoon, we headed out to lunch, we were going to grab a couple of slices of pizza. We were in the pizza shop and he quickly turns to me with his palm pressed against his eye saying that he needed to get back to the hotel room as he was suffering from a pretty intense headache. He darted out of the restaurant, I got the pizza slices and headed back to the room shortly after. I get back to the room and he is on the floor with the lights out. He said that he just finished throwing up and his head was pounding – asked me to leave the lights off.

I don’t remember anything after that.

What I do know now, is that he was 45 years old when this happened. I am now 46. From what I recall, he also mentioned that the migraines that he had started to suffer were something new and were starting to come more frequently. 

There has been studies recently, linking those that have a history of suffering from migraines to the development of cognitive impairment – and I have to wonder, in my father’s case, were these migraines an early signal?

I do know that he didn’t change his lifestyle in response to them. He continued to work insane hours without sleep, he didn’t exercise and his diet had plenty of room for improvement…and his massive consumption of caffeinated diet soft-drinks was maintained.

So what did this story give me? It transported me back in time…I feel that once again, the universe is sending me a not-so-subtle hint.