Archives : May 2011
I’m sorry that I failed you this month. I promised four reviews of short story collections in May, but I’ve only written one. Of course, the one review I wrote was of Alan Heathcock’s Volt, a stunning collection; if you only read one book of short stories this month, this should be that book. I also wrote a guest post for Matt Bell’s blog on Caitlin Horrocks’s short story “Life Among the Terranauts,” and I reminded my readers about another amazing, but overlooked, short story writer, Tina May Hall. Still, I promised four reviews and I only delivered one. I could tell you about the virus that buried my computer in gay porn and the absolutely insane week I had at BEA, but really, those would just be excuses. The fact is I love you and you deserve more than this. So, for all the scatterbrained, procrastinators and general f*ck ups out there, I officially declare June Short Story Catch-Up Month. If you’re on Twitter, use the hashtag #ssm2011redux. Expect to see reviews of Robin Black’s If I Loved You I Would Tell You This and Jim Shepard’s You Think That’s Bad, plus some bonus material.
My first year at BookExpo America was both exhilarating and exhausting. I met Lev Grossman, Luis Alberto Urrea, Alice Hoffman and Colson Whitehead, among others, and had a great time visiting with publishers like Europa Editions, Graywolf, and Other Press. I also snagged some amazing advance reading copies of books, many of which I’ll be undoubtedly reviewing here in the upcoming months. As a teaser, here’s a peak at twelve of my favorites. Some are already generating a lot of buzz, and others I had never heard of before BEA, but regardless, I have an exciting summer of reading ahead of me.
1. Alma Katsu, The Taker (Simon & Schuster, Sept. 2011): Part historical fiction, part love story, part supernatural tale. A murder suspect turns up at a hospital in rural Maine with a disturbing affliction — immortality.
2. Alexander Maksik, You Deserve Nothing (Europa Editions, Sept. 2011): This is the debut title from Europa’s new Tonga imprint, which is being guest edited by Alice Sebold. Set at an international high school in Paris, it is the story of a charismatic young teacher who “succumbs to a temptation that will change the course of his life.”
3. Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (Doubleday, Sept. 2011): A love affair between dueling magicians set at a circus that is open only at night. This is the most talked about debut novel of the fall season, and the film rights have already been acquired.
4. Steve Sem-Sandberg, The Emperor of Lies (FSG, Sept. 2011): The winner of Sweden’s most important literary prize, this book chronicles the four and a half year rule of Mordechai Chaim Runkowski, the man appointed by the Nazis to preside over the second largest Jewish ghetto of World War II in the Polish city of Lodz.
5. Tom Perrotta, The Leftovers (St. Martin’s, Sept. 2011): By the bestselling author of Little Children, this book had one of the longest lines at BEA. The premise is the long-heralded arrival of the Rapture comes and the disappearance of millions. The novel focuses on these left behind as they cope with this irrevocable change in the world in different ways.
6. Anonymous, The Mistress Contract (Unbridled Books, Oct. 2011): The book caught my eye because it it came packaged in a plain brown paper bag that says, “Maybe you should read this ARC before you sell the book to your neighbors.” Inside the bag was a slim volume which purports to be the recorded conversations of a woman and her wealthy lover. In 1981, the couple entered into a contract whereby, in exchange for a separate home and financial support, she agreed to provide “all sexual acts as requested, with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers.” (In case you were wondering, this is a work of nonfiction.)
7. Alice Hoffman, The Dovekeepers (Scribner, Oct. 2011): Historical fiction set in ancient Israel — the intersecting lives of “four complex and fiercely independent women” during the Roman siege of the Jews at Masada.
8. Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (Other Press, Oct. 2011): This is the English translation of a bestselling novel published in Argentina [six] years ago and on which the Academy Award winning film of the same name is based. Set in Buenos Aires during the military dictatorship in the 1970s, it is the story of a detective obsessed with a decades-old rape case.
9. Colson Whitehead, Zone One (Doubelday, Oct. 2011): Colson Whitehead is hilarious on Twitter, so I can only imagine what he’ll do with post-apocalyptic satirical zombie fare.
10. Luis Alberto Urrea, Queen of America (Little, Brown & Co., Dec. 2011): The sequel to the bestselling The Hummingbird’s Daughter, this book follows healer and Indian warrior queen, Teresita Urrea, on her journey through early twentieth century America.
11. Naomi Benaron, Running the Rift (Algonquin, Jan. 2012): Winner of the Bellweather Prize (awarded biannually to a work of literary fiction that addresses social justice issues), this book follows a young Tutsi boy, an Olympic medal hopeful in track, as he grapples with the violence and war that plagues his home, Rwanda.
12. Melissa Pritchard, The Odditorium (Bellevue, Jan. 2012): “[E]ight genre-bending tales” — a haunted Victorian hospital during World War II, the childhood playground of Edgar Allen Poe, the story of Robert leRoy Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not — by an award-winning author whose two previous short story collections were New York Times Notable Books.
Philip Roth has won the 2011 Man Booker International Prize, which is presented every two years to a living author who publishes in English or whose work is widely available in translation into English. Not everyone was happy about the decision. Man Booker International Prize judge Carmen Callil, a writer and founder of publishing house Virago, resigned in protest. She told the Guardian, “He goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It’s as though he’s sitting on your face and you can’t breathe.” Callil was also disappointed that the prize was not awarded to a writer in translation.
Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction for A Visit from the Good Squad, which I have raved about previously on this blog. Egan stirred up some controversy when, in an interview directly after winning the prize, she said of the Harvard student who a few years ago plagarized from other books for use in her debut novel, that she had “plagarized very derivative, banal stuff.” This was taken by some to be an insult against chick-lit authors like Megan McCafferty, whose novels were some of the works stolen by the Harvard student. Egan has since apologized and if the literary world wasn’t already past it, I’m sure the Philip Roth controversy will put the nail in that coffin. Egan did tell Ron Hogan, writer and blogger at Beatrice.com, that she believes “there’s an interesting conversation to be had about genre and gender and literary culture.” I hope she’ll say more about that.
Adan Levin won the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award for his 1,000-page novel, The Instructions. The award is given each year to a writer 35 years or younger for a novel or book of short stories. Although I still have not had a chance to read it, The Instructions was the reason I joined The Rumpus book club. Here’s a synopsis of the book from McSweeneys: “Beginning with a chance encounter with the beautiful Eliza June Watermark and ending, four days and 900 pages later, with the Events of November 17, this is the story of Gurion Maccabee, age ten: a lover, a fighter, a scholar, and a truly spectacular talker. Expelled from three Jewish day-schools for acts of violence and messianic tendencies, Gurion ends up in the Cage, a special lockdown program for the most hopeless cases of Aptakisic Junior High. Separated from his scholarly followers, Gurion becomes a leader of a very different sort, with righteous aims building to a revolution of troubling intensity.”
Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver (translated by Thomas Teal) took home the Best Translated Book Award in the fiction category. According to Three Percent, a website dedicated to international literature, “Jeff Waxman of the BTBA fiction committee describes Jansson’s most recent English-language publication as ‘a slender and modern novel about the relationship of two women in a small Scandinavian fishing community: one is cold, practical, and brutally honest; the other is an older, infantile children’s book illustrator. As the story unfolds in Jansson’s simple, understated prose, Katri Kling strives to provide a home and perhaps a livelihood for her younger brother; Anna Aemelin wants only to live life with her eyes closed, insulated by her money and her art. This panel found itself engrossed as their relationship grew tense and aggressive and their fields of battle expanded from Aemelin’s household finances to Katri’s brother and her pet dog. Subtle, engaging and disquieting, The True Deceiver is a masterful study in opposition and confrontation.’”
James Hynes won The Believer book award for his novel, Next. The editors of The Believer said of the book: “Kevin is a flaneur of the mind, though less a gentleman of leisure than the possible victim of twenty-first-century trans-industry obsolescence putting his internal affairs in order before the biggest party of his life. An often witty eulogy for sex, youth, Sigourney Weaver’s Alien-era biceps, and American notions of financial and physical security, Next is a work of intense nostalgia that never fails to comment upon the present as well as—in its final pages of split-second daring, and optimism, and heartbreak—the future.”
The waters of the Mississippi are rising, swallowing up homes and livelihoods, as I am reading Alan Heathcock’s stunning short story collection, Volt. And I’m reminded again of why I think stories can save the world. Let me explain:
Volt’s stories are set in the fictional town of Krafton, a place with a small town / Anywhere, USA feel to it. This is a town where the local bar, church and jail are the centers of the community. People support each other (when they’re not too busy judging each other). They work hard and pray harder, but mostly what they do is suffer. The townsfolk are plagued with unhappiness and beset by tragedy — they have returned from war broken men, drugs and alcoholism have laid waste to their families, and natural disasters and random accidents seem to lurk around every corner. God, it seems, has forsaken the town of Krafton.
In an interview in Bookslut, Heathcock said of his decision to set the stories in a fictional town:
Where is Krafton to me? It started off as based off the small town of Lynnville, Indiana, where my mother grew up. But I found it too limiting to stick to the rules and temperament of a real place, so I began to add touches from many different place, Chicago included. Now Krafton doesn’t represent a place so much as a people, a worldview. I’m keeping the place slippery simply because I’m not interested in making a statement about place. If I said that these stories were in Illinois or Texas or North Carolina people would immediately reduce them down to what they know about those places, would adhere whatever right or wrong ideas they had about that region. In a way, my work is more expansive because I never say where we are, allowing the reader to settle in and only worry about the complexities of the people and their stories.
There is a biblical feel to these stories, not only in their bedrock themes of love and loss and forgiveness and retribution, but also in the rhythm of the prose. Take this, for instance, from the opening story, “The Staying Freight,” about a man who literally goes wild with grief after accidentally running over his young son with the tractor:
Winslow hurled stones at the little tree. Wrung its trunk as if it were a throat. He flailed and throttled the sapling to the ground. Winslow hugged its limbs and tried to weep, but was, at last, dry of tears. Under a pale moon, Winslow knew he no longer belonged to the world of men and would forever roam the woods as a lost son of the civil.
One of Heathcock’s greatest talents is for finding that core of humanity in all of his characters, even those we meet at their worst. In “Smoke,” a father forces his teenage son to help him burn the body of a man he killed in an incident of road rage. Despite the brutality of the situation in which he has involved his son, the father also struggles to leave behind some wisdom:
“You know why I believe there’s a God?”
“I feel a powerful tenderness for Mr. Augusto. Don’t make no sense otherwise. A man what come after me. A man I don’t know from Adam. Yet I still feel very sorry for him. If you wronged someone and you still want to do good by them, I believe that tenderness is God up in you. I feel more tenderness for Mr. Nory Augusto than any man alive. I believe God is full up in me.”
Then the father tells his son, “I’m about as bad as they come.” Even when his son protests, “Mr. Augusto would’ve killed you,” he is resolute: “Then he’d be the bad man.”
There are several recurring characters in the collection — the eloquent Pastor Hanby, and Jorgen, the screwed up but tender veteran — but the most compelling is the middle-aged sheriff, Helen Farraley. Helen used to work in the grocery store and was nominated to the law enforcement position as a joke. Nevertheless, she takes her job very seriously. We meet her in “Peacekeeper,” navigating the flood waters that have devastated Krafton and reflecting on her search for the missing teenager, Jocey Dempsey. Heathcock shows himself to be a master of pacing in this story, which is told in a series of vignettes that move back and forward through time, all leading to the savage truth of what has happened to Jocey and the methods Helen chooses to keep the peace in her town:
Law’s on killing, even God’s demands, didn’t allow for peace. Not always. There’d still be pain; missing that child would break her parents’ hearts. But what Helen knew, what she’d seen in those woods, would be too much for them, for everybody.
Heathcock is a master of the last paragraph, those final words designed to make you swoon and bring you to tears all in one fell swoop. The most stunning ending comes in the final story of the collection, “Volt”:
Helen was by no means devout, but she knew the Bible, knew the story of God drowning the wicked world. As a breeze misted in through the window, she hugged herself in her thin sheet and pondered what she’ll do if this rain keeps on and the people cry their end, the sun choked, the power towers submerged, and God’s thunderous voice pierces the gray dome, charging a volt into that sacred truth behind her eyes. Will she think herself crazy? Cower and weep? Or will she rise from her damp mattress, hold stiff her trembling chin, and be the one?
It is fitting that these last, beautiful words are devoted to Helen Farraley, the true heroine of these stories. Which brings me back to why I think books like Volt can save the world.
Watching the dams break along the Mississippi and the water slowly covering the land like a carpet unfurling, it’s hard to imagine the faces of the people who’ve been affected. But as I am watching, I think of Helen looking out at the muddy waters, mourning all the death and destruction: “So much water, so much washed over, but perhaps when they started anew everything could be better, everything forgiven.” I think of Helen and my heart expands a little more. That’s what the best kind of stories can do. That’s what Volt does.
Back when I first started this blog, I was absolutely drooling over Tina May Hall’s story collection, The Physics of Imaginary Objects. I was in love with Hall’s style — lyrical and evocative, but tinged with darkness and foreboding. I wanted to everyone to fall in love with this book just as I had.
At The Rumpus, I wrote about my experience reading The Physics of Imaginary Objects:
One minute I am awash in the dreamy romance and lyricism of the text. The next my teeth are clenched and my fists are in balls as I anticipate the arrival of a shadowy presence — a wolf, a witch, a man with an ax. Images pass in and out of my consciousness like waves. A dead squirrel in the wall, “a tang in the air, sweet-sour, like menstrual blood, like the hair under his arms where I liked to bury my nose.” A red-hooded girl walking alone through the forest, “as clean as a river stone underneath, fresh-shaven, flossed, exfoliated and moisturized.” A wife sitting on the porch thinking about tagging cicadas, “recalling the way these somnolent insects sip tree sap and wait out the dark, the way they sing themselves from the ground.”
Tina was also gracious enough to answer a few of my questions on this blog.
Back then, I couldn’t figure out why more people weren’t talking about how great she was.
Now that I’ve been blogging for awhile and made some friends on Twitter, I am re-posting this during Short Story Month in hopes that you, too, will discover Tina May Hall and love her as much as I do.
One of the series I planned for this blog was a Short Story Spotlight in which each month I write about an exceptional story available to read for free on the web. I started with Tiphanie Yanique’s amazing “How to Escape from a Leper Colony,” winner of the 2006 Boston Review fiction prize and included in her short story collection of the same name. But, as often happens, the series never quite got off the ground. Now is my chance to redeem myself.
May is Short Story Month and celebrations are afoot. Author Matt Bell will be blogging about a story from a recent literary magazine each day this month. The Emerging Writers Network and Fiction Writers Review also have series planned. I, too, shall throw my hat into the ring.
During each week in May, I’ll post a review of an recent short story collection. I’ll kick it off with a review of Alan Heathcock’s stunning collection, Volt, later this week. From time to time, I’ll also post about some of my favorite individual short stories. So stay tuned!