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Monday, November 24, 2014

Best American Short Stories 2013: Your Pick

Wandering Art
For this final blog post, you get to comment on one of the stories in Best American Short Stories 2013, which is of course like a journal itself, a curated archive of individual works published in 2012. Did you find a contemporary writer to love? Hate? My only request is that your story choice not be one of the writers we have already discussed in class. Please find something to say about the craft, authorial intention, structure, or form of one of these pieces, and winks to you if you relate it to your newly considered relationship to "wandering."

12 comments:

  1. My favorite story was “A Voice in the Night” by Steven Millhauser. I tried to read the first page of each of the remaining stories, and while there were many I got through the first page for, this story was the one where I didn’t realize how much I had read until I was well past the first page. The form of the story was really interesting. It was broken into three stories: one of Samuel, one of the author as a boy and one of the author as an old man. Each strand was numbered, but the story continued in a 1-2-3 pattern for its entirety. I’m pretty rusty on my Old Testament, so it took some Googling after I read the first section to figure out that it was an interpretation or a retelling of a bible story. It was fascinating to see how Millhauser linked the story of Samuel to his story as a young boy and his current story. I’ve never seen a story quite like this where it spans across three time periods. The use of the Bible story was also unfamiliar to me. I’ve read stories where the author is very present and becomes a character, but it was new for me to see an author using their memories in a story. It felt almost like I was reading an essay the way the author incorporated his past and reflected on it, while adding his version of the Samuel story to connect it to how the story affected his life. As someone who enjoys writing fiction and nonfiction, this is a form I think I would like to experiment with, blur the lines a little between the genres.
    I thought a lot about our theme of wandering as I read this story because the entire story was wandering. The way Millhauser wandered across time felt extremely wandery (don’t know if that’s a word but it is now) to me. Even though it was clear what time period each section was set in, the connections across time gave the story a flow of constant wandering band forth over the years. It certainly kept my attention. Also, the blend of the fiction and the nonfiction together between the author’s version of the bible story, his reflections on whether it was real or not and two of the characters being versions of the author made me feel like I was wandering as well. At some points, Millhauser brushed over a series of memories really quickly in a rapid fire way leaving the reader to figure out where we were in time and space. This really made me feel like I was wandering because the memories just melted together in way that it made sense, but yet I wasn’t grounded in any one place. “A Voice in the Night” was written in a way where I felt like Millhauser opened the door to his brain and let the reader wander and stumble around, trying to find the answers that he himself was searching for. Leaving us lying awake at night listening for, wondering about that voice in the night.

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  2. Out of the other stories that we weren’t specifically assigned in Best American Short Stories 2013, the story “Nemecia” by Kirstin Valdez Quade was my favorite. For some reason, that story just grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let me go. Maybe it was because it was about relationship between family members, which I am usually pretty interested in and can relate to. Even though Maria (the narrator) and Nemecia are cousins, they live, love, and fight like sisters do.
    I especially liked that while the story spans years, decades even – the opening paragraph sets the date at 1929, when Maria is six and Nemecia is 13, then about two-thirds of the way through the story we jump to when Maria is 15 and Nemecia is 22, and finally we end sometime after 1981, a total span of over 50 years (and since the story is in past tense, Maria is telling us all this sometime even later) – even through all this time, you hardly notice it. It doesn’t feel really choppy and jumpy. I think Quade accomplished that because Maria’s relationship with Nemecia never changes at its most basic level, despite the differences that come with growing up, gaining knowledge, and moving apart from each other. Maria still both loves and is angry with/jealous of her cousin throughout the entire story.
    I also really liked the opening paragraph. At first glance, it may seem like it has no real purpose in the story other than pointing out some basic details, like names, ages, and dates that could have been introduced elsewhere. But there is actually a lot going on, and that one paragraph is a pretty good picture of the cousins’ relationship. Nemecia looks beautiful in the fancy clothes her mother has sent her, while the younger Maria looks like an unhappy boy next to her. It is clear that Maria both admires and is jealous of her cousin. Yet it is subtly shown that Nemecia’s life is far from perfect, even if Maria can’t see it – Nemecia is forced to walk on her toes to prevent her fancy high heels from sinking into the ground. It’s like a metaphor for the fact that even though Nemacia seems like an ordinary, even somewhat spoiled girl to Maria, she is hiding from the fact that she witnessed her mother beaten and grandfather killed by her father.
    I think there is a bit of wandering going on in this story, especially in the fact that we are wandering in Maria’s past, even if the story follows a pretty straightforward timeline – not a lot of jumping back and forth. There are still time jumps, but they are all forward in years. Anyway, I like the fact that Quade can wander among several different episodes in Maria’s life that could be unrelated, but she manages to pull them all together seamlessly. I’d like to try writing like that.

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  3. I had a similar experience to Amanda’s with the short story, “The Third Dumpster” by Gish Jen. I too read the first page of the remaining stories, and it was this one to which I returned to hours later. What drew me in, besides the mystery of what “it” is in the first sentence, were the parents, who dismiss assisted living because they cannot tolerate all-Western food for every meal. With my mind on revising my work for the final portfolio, I took specific note of the techniques that Jen uses in his story. Obviously, the characterization of the parents struck me. Goodwin (the narrator) is actually, I would argue, the most undeveloped character in the piece. Even Morehouse, Goodwin’s brother, is more detailed. While I personally spend most of my effort in creating fleshed-out narrators, I appreciated how this story concerned family dynamics through the rebuilding of this house. Stylistically, I really enjoyed the lack of quotation marks. Although at times the dialogue could feel contrived, I did like his approach to the scenes. Jen created a very causal tone in the piece. One of my favorite parts of the story came on the bottom of page 87, where Goodwin reflects about the workers: “Of course, the workers were illegal, as Goodwin well knew. He knew too that Morehouse knew Goodwin to be against the use of illegals, and that Morehouse knew Goodwin knew Morehouse knew that. There was probably no point in even taking him aside. Still, Goodwin took him aside.” The he-knew-that-he-knew-that-he-knew is a cliché, but one well used. I also love the humor in the piece, especially at the end when Morehouse says, “If they ask whether Dad needs a translator, tell them to fuck off,” and then, of course, the assisting nurse immediately asks that very question. The juxtaposition of the brother’s responses is revealing. The story, admittedly, is not my favorite in the book. At times the author tells too much and there are parts where I wanted the characters to be more developed. That said, I learned a lot from this story. With the increasing trend in fiction toward shorter pieces, I definitely appreciate how tight the story is, as well as the author’s stylistic choices. I also really like how Jen comments on racism (with the illegal workers, with the parents, with the ex-wife Jeanine) without being too in-you-face about it. He approaches the situation with humor and a story lens, rather than preaching at the reader. There is a hidden tension in the family and plot that makes me want to reread this piece, a response I always want to evoke in my own writing.

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  4. The story that I have chosen to write about is “Philanthropy” by Suzanne Rivecca. What originally pulled me into this story on the first page is not what I ended up most admiring about it. To be honest, this story first piqued my interest because it had the words novelist and library in the first sentence. For the rest of the first page, I continued to read because of the humor. I loved the terrible line from “novelist” Yvonne Borneo’s The Illegitimate Prince’s Child, and the way that Cora imagines Yvonne “scattering gold pieces to hookers as she was borne down Mission Street on a litter.” But what held me for the rest of the piece was a combination of the incredibly beautiful language and the vivid, heartbreaking nature of the piece. The descriptive passages in the piece contain unexpected but entirely fitting comparisons. Rivecca describes Yvonne’s voice as “butterfat-rich but filmy” and says that her scarf is as “soft as a runaway’s peach fuzz.” The descriptions are almost jarringly specific, and it isn’t until later in the story that I realized why they have to be that way or that they are perfectly suited to the narrative’s content. Through specific, descriptive details, Rivecca paints a heartbreaking picture of gritty, real lives. Somewhere between Cora detailing how she had to add instructions such as “NO SHOWING GENITALIA” to the rules of conduct and the appearance of DJ, I came to wholly believe in this place and in these characters. About half-way through the piece it occurred to me that Rivecca must have been writing about a place with which she is intimately familiar, and after reading her bio in the back of the book, I know that this is in fact the case. Rivecca “works at an organization that serves the homeless” and part of the genesis for this story was her disillusionment with the sort of institution of philanthropy. This is an excellent testament for writing what you know, as the story is so vivid and real due to her insight. This story is also a testament to purposeful wandering. At first the story just seems to be about a woman trying to get some much needed money from a rich novelist, but the story’s wandering shows that it’s about so much more than that. It takes purposeful digressions about things like Cora’s cat Melly and these digressions inevitable have an important role in the narrative although they can seem to be lacking purpose at first. Eventually, the story dives into Cora’s own background as a “homeless junkie underage prostitute” and becomes even more real. The story and the characters have so many layers. No one is one-dimensional. At first it seems like it will be easy to hate Yvonne, but as the story progresses even this becomes impossible, and the final image cements this. The two women, “someone else’s mother and someone else’s child,” reach out for each other because of what they have lost, and even though they can’t understand each other fully there’s still something pulling them together. It’s so beautiful and poetic and fitting and entirely earned – as is the rest of this moving story.

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  5. I'm not entirely sure what it was that pulled me into "The Chair" by David Means. There was something about that first line, that "I went through the paternal motions" that drew me in and made me want to read the rest. There are a lot of father son stories out there, but for some reason, they always interest me (most likely for personal reasons that don't particularly matter in this case). It was the way it was written that made me stay, though. There was this pacing, this sort of internal flow of what it meant to be a father, this back and forth between the past and the present and the future with no real clear breaks in between. It was interesting, it was confusing, and it was honestly something I don't think I've seen before.

    I think I thought. I don't know why, but after I put the book down and thought about the story, that's all I could think about. I think I thought, I'm thinking I thought. I'm still not entirely sure what it brought to the story, but it brought something profound for me, it did something that I can't put my finger on but absolutely love, and that's something I look for more than anything in stories. I'd never seen that before, it was something new and fresh and it dragged me right in. The first time, it was strange and potent. When it began to repeat, it gave the story a rhythm, and I was more than willing to follow it all the way through.

    And ultimately, the story delivered. I could feel this father's emotions. I could understand what he was thinking, being pulled between wanting to be a good father, a guiding father, wanting to see the rewards and familial love for what they are, and wanting it easier. Wanting to be the one getting stuck in New York, staying longer hours, progressing and advancing. It's something I think a lot of parents struggle with, something I've seen in my own family. If it hadn't been told like it was, though, with this weird switching back and forth, this almost dream-like containment, I don't think I would have cared nearly as much as I did. I think I thought. For some reason, it's the stories I don't completely understand that I find myself loving, and this is one of them.

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  6. I think the story I like most was 'Magic Man' by Shelia Kohler, but in a strange way. It's a story that made an impact on me, one that truly brought out an emotional reaction and that's something I can appreciate. The content is disturbing certainly, and I desperately wished that I could do something form the main character, or one of them at least, because it's the kind of story where the reader realizes something that the characters don't and the story is better for it. I could feel the abject horror dawning as I realizes what was happening and I love that a story can make me cringe and feel truly unsettled. It's like watching a horror movie in a way, where the fear and disgust are part of what make it enjoyable.

    What I enjoyed most about the piece, aside from the tone, is the voice. There are two narrators, though it's told in a third person perspective. Rather than have either the mother or the daughter narrating, the author will reveal the thoughts of whoever is the narrator of the current scene to give the reader some insight in to how they think. Both characters have very in-depth and realistic feels to them. The mother, despite being a bit harried and slightly irresponsible, feels like a parent and a grown woman, though it's the daughter's narration that sells it. She's intelligent certainly, and more mature than her age suggests in many ways, but there is always an undertone of childish innocence that reminds the reader that she is a child and that she's not quite perfect. The author even includes the fact that the daughter knows she isn't perfect and feels uncomfortable being called S.P. all the time, since it's implied to mean 'Simply Perfect' for the first part of the story. That's another interesting detail. No one has a name. The mother is 'the mother', the daughter is 'S.P.' and the man is 'Magic Man' but nothing else. The only named characters are the two younger siblings that only appear briefly and sporadically. It's a curious way of writing, but it works for this piece.

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  7. One of the stories that moved me in this anthology was “The Tunnel, or The News From Spain” by Joan Wickersham. It’s an old story, an unmarried woman taking care of her ailing, increasingly needy mother, but Wickersham brings to it so much that is new…from the incredible keenness of her observation of this relationship, to the form she presents the story in. The story takes place over years, and sometimes goes into summary, but the author carefully keeps the story in scene, using one scene to represent many similar ones, or else cutting blocks of summary down to one or two lines that say it all. She presents an affair as a sort of montage, listing all the things Rebecca “got” from the relationship, then expanding each into a tiny scene: Bed, underwear, German chocolate eggs, jealousy. There’s reflection and explanation in this story—I tend to prefer stories that have next to none—but it is earned through this attention to scene, and as I mentioned earlier, Wickersham doesn’t put in any reflective lines that aren’t completely original, or completely necessary. Wickersham “wanders” in and out of Rebecca’s point of view—it seems like the story is in third person limited, and it is, until it isn’t. I was surprised by the line “She has of course broken up with Peter, who, she thinks, barely seemed to notice. In fact, it’s Rebecca who failed to notice. She is so far gone, so deeply drunk on love, that she doesn’t doesn’t notice how surprised and hurt he is…” Looking back, there are other instances of this, but they read so fluidly that they didn’t snap me out of the story. I think this piece is a great example of how to pull off a long time span in a short story, and my takeaway is how well the reflection works to bring the story together.

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  8. One of my favorite stories in this collection was “Philanthropy” by Suzanne Rivecca. I read most of this book over the summer, just before class, and this is one of the pieces that I actually remembered and still thought about from time to time, and you know you wrote a good story if you can make a busy college student, even a writing student, think about your story even several months after reading it.
    There are several reasons why I like this story. I think that the structure is very clean and organized, with clear sectioning that marks the passage of time, whether it be forward or backward in time. Even with the one flashback scene, most of the story runs smoothly in a linear timeline. This is a particularly remarkable example of that kind of structure because the author took her time. Often when I’m writing a story like this, I find myself needing to rush to get all of the details on the page, and it ends up choppy and disjointed. But this story flows smoothly, and all of the things we need to know are revealed to us at precisely the right moments in subtle ways. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on in my own stories, how and when to reveal information so that it feels natural.
    I don’t know what the author’s intention was, but at first it seemed to be a story about an issue: the number of girls who run away from home, become drug addicts, and now need help. But as you go deeper into the story, it’s more about parents and children, particularly parents and daughters and specifically these kinds of daughters, and it adds a whole other level to the story. That’s also something I would love to work on—writing a story that talks about an issue that’s important to me and also writing an actual story, with characters that the reader can empathize with. I think this semester I’ve been wandering in trying to find the kind of story that I like to write and that I’m good at writing. I don’t think I’ve found it yet, but I could definitely see myself taking up a story like this.
    The final thing I want to say about “Philanthropy” is the voice of the narrator. I love how it’s down-to-earth and doesn’t get so metaphorical, but then phrases like “There were all perpetually cowed by their own brutality, quivering and defeated by the measure they were forced to enact” or “The sound of breaking glass seemed gratuitously destructive, nihilistic.” And I also love all of the details in this piece, from the sign of rules, Cora’s cat, to the change that Cora had stuffed in her pockets when she left home. I sometimes think that all my stories have are the details that I managed to put into it, so it’s nice to see other writers do it so masterfully.

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  9. My favorite story would be "Horned Man" by Karl Greenfeld. I couldn’t say exactly what made it so interesting to me. Maybe it was the strange setting it starts with. Up in the crawlspace. With the main character Bob spying on his daughter throw a crack in the wall while he was there supposed to be re-wiring the old house. I just need to know what was up with is guy. Why are you spying on you dater? Why is it call the Horned Man? Are you a bad person? I just like how it pulled me in and kept me guessing. The mystery of the little clay horned man in the attic gave it almost a kind of horror story feel to it. I found myself waiting for something awful to happen to the family in their new house. I liked how that tension was handled. It was in away an almost indirect one. No one knows that Bob has been spying on his daughter and even he himself is trying to convince himself that he is not. Its creepy and strange but very well done.

    What also pulled me to the story was the it handled giving information to us. Within the first paragraph we get a lot of information about how Bob came to be in the crawlspace of his grandmother's old house but it is really only the bare bones of the facets. It billed on the things in touches on in the first paragraph in a way that reminds me a lot about wondering. It isn’t that it is some train of thought of Bobs that we follow but the story weaves itself around details that build and interchange with one another. There is the stuff about the little clay horned man and then about spying on his daughter and how he lost his job and how he had to kick out his tenants to take the house. All of these parts are elaborated on and Greenfeld moves though the details like he is wondering though Bobs life. I felt like even though we were progressing forward throw time and I know that it still was like we were coming back and forth trow the story by way of Greenfeld’s details.

    Something about the ending too was really wonderful to me. I have trouble with endings I never know how exactly I should end it. I think Greenfeld does an amazing job with his ending. It was keeping with the creepy feel the story had and it left you thinking that he really did get cursed by the horned man. He was unable to tear his eyes away from his daughter's room and it left me feeling suspicious and creeped out and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I really denied the way he was able to end it and I would love to have such impacting endings in my own stories.

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  10. "He had pointed out the mah-jong. The karaoke. The six-handed pinochle. The senior tai qi. The lobby was full of plants, fake and alive," (85). This image, taken from Gish Jen's "The Third Dumpster," was the first of many that I felt evoked that deeper sense of meaning beyond that the family was Chinese-American. And even that is working in itself on the level of classifying this family and the things they observe in a nursing home that are specific to them and that another person would never pick out those same things to observe. But to go along with the deeper meaning, you can see right away how much the brothers want for their parents to feel secure and 'at home' as much as they can since they don't feel they can take care of them anymore. But these images especially, the senior tai qi, seeing the old people practice an ancient Chinese martial art as a way of exercise shows the collage of cultures and how seeing this from a different perspective--someone who is actually connected to this kind of tradition, as opposed to an Americanized perspective of someone doing this just for the sake of exercise. It goes beyond that and captures just how much the Chinese culture has an influence in our society and really realizing that.

    But to go further, to speak to what Alyssa mentioned about the dialogue not being quotationed (new word), I feel that it better weaves what they are saying into the story than if it were more separated. It has this effect where it closes everything into this small space, much like the house/dumpster, and forces all of these reactions to take place there. It also works to merge feelings with the words they speak directly, and it makes it feel that you as the reader are able to get into the minds of Morehouse and Goodwin at the same time. Their voices are mixed as thoughts, and it really made this story more closely knit together and added to the brevity, but not lacking the power of dialogue. "And that's not even the end of the asbestos, said Morehouse. Asbestos? cried Goodwin. You can't be surprised there's asbestos, said Morehouse. And indeed, Goodwin was not surprised, when he thought about it. How, though, could Morehouse have asked Jose and Ovidio to remove it? Their lungs! Goodwin objected," (88). This back and forth banter finds fluidity in the way the Jen writes in this way, makes it seem more natural, off the cuff, and stream of conciousness that just says it all in each line what kind of person they are, how they feel, what they think, and so on.

    It also has this feel of being a parable of sorts. The characters names even depict a sense of meaning--Morehouse, who wants, well, more house to himself, more house for his parents than they can get in a nursing home, or something like that. And Goodwin, who is trying to do this the right way to make his parents happy, and the non-legal trials he goes through to reach that end, what he's willing to sacrifice of his own morals for them. And I think it is strong in that way, particularly in that scene with the asbestos, when it's Goodwin that has to dispose of the asbestos and seeing that "bit of white smoke rise from the dumpster as he drove away," (89). We really get to see into his character, even though he may be underdeveloped in some ways, in his moral side, the important part of this, remember, is what's most on display here. A sense of morals is what is important in Chinese culture and that is how these two have been raised, and to see them act like they do shows the duality of their influences--Morehouse taking the more easy way out, do things cheap and not so much caring about morals, whereas Goodwin has more of a sense of self and what he's doing, and he's trying to keep that impression from his parents as much as he can to live up to their expectations. So with these characters, these two brothers, we get those two different perspectives in one story, we get to see what makes them tick with the more moralistic approach that Jen takes.

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  11. The story I found myself gravitating towards was “Horned Man” by Karl Taro Greenfeld. I think what drew me in about the story had to be the strangeness of it. It had echoes of Saunders (which is probably why I liked it so much) in its strangeness involving the horned sculptures left in the attic, and the moving Pizza box that gave me the creeps. I also really loved how the ending left me wondering if there really was some sort of ‘curse’ that the Wagonsellers had put on him, or if it was in his character to be still sneaking into the attic to watch his daughter sleep.
    One of my favorite things about the story—and it’s a very minor thing in the whole of the story—had to be the dialogue between the father and the daughter, for example on page 73: “Really? REALLY? That school, just a hundred miles away from my old school, will be so completely and totally different, in terms of people, personalities, demographics, THE WHOLE ECOSYSTEM, that my whole entire life will be MAGICALLY transformed?” I love the way he uses capital letters to emphasize words, and it feels so much like frustrated teenager that it had me going ‘Yes! I love it!’ while reading. In general, the conversational tone of the language drew me in, and if I was going to steal anything from Greenfeld it would have to be the way he does dialogue and the conversational inner-thoughts feeling of the language. I think Greenfeld does an excellent job of being conversational and strange while also keeping us quite grounded.
    Lastly, I was impressed at how Greenfeld managed to slip in current events and a bit of political discussion on the whole issue with the mortgage scandals of a few years ago without it feeling overbearing and super opinionated, and is another thing I’d replicate if I ever wanted to write a story dealing with current or recent issues.

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  12. One of the stories that I liked specifically because it made me think about family and relationships was The Provincials by Daniel Alarcòn. It’s the story of a young man, Nelson, who works in a copy shop, who is called home to Mexico with his father to make the final arrangements for his recently deceased great-uncle. During this time, he and his father heavily reflect on the difference between Nelson’s success in life and his brother’s. His brother is in business in America with an Arab man, and is presented as financially successful. While there visiting friends, Nelson mixes truths and falsehoods about himself to impress his father’s friends. He really is planning on moving to San Francisco after he gets his visa, but he takes on his brother’s career, because nothing he has done musters enough interest.
    There are two sections in the story that I find utterly interesting. The first is the split in the story where a good middle chunk is in scene. It makes the reader focus on the actual words that the characters are saying and general actions and expressions, but less on small details about setting, space, and specific details pertaining to the characters actions or expressions. Since many of the characters are drunk, I think that this creates an opposite effect. Everything I know about being drunk from movies and stories makes me believe that the characters would be less likely to pay attention to the words being said in their drunken stupor, and more likely to focus on people’s movements and actions. I think this opposition forces the reader to interpret a lot about the characters and what they are doing and how they are behaving while they talk, which allows each individual reader to set the scene a little differently.
    This is connected to my second interesting section, the scene with Joselito’s carriage in the beginning of the work. Nelson, who is interested in screen writing, imagines the encounter between the two men as an act, just like the scene at the bar is physically presented to the reader. There are so many acts in the story, as Nelson also puts on a show for his companions by pretending to have his brother’s career and success. This forces me to think about the nature of any interactions I've ever had. Is every interaction simply an act? How do I determine my own actions? How much do I consider what I expect others’ reactions to be when I decide to simply cross my legs or fix my hair? In a sense, we all feel like we’re on the Truman Show. Our lives are the most important to us, and we fixate on how we influence everything around us, because our actions are the only ones we can fully evaluate and control. Is this why Alarcòn, and by default, Nelson, thought of life’s moments in scenes and acts?

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