Wednesday, May 11, 2011

It's Short Story Month: A Give-Away

My very first short stories were usually about a woman performing some domestic task and agonizing internally, invisibly. I was in love with Tillie Olsen’s “As I Stand Here Ironing,” and Bret Lott’s Jewel, particularly a scene where the protag is drying a dish and watching her children play through the window.

I wanted to do what they were doing, to sculpt such beautiful, powerful interior monologue that little else was needed.

Ever notice how your writing evolves with your choices in reading? Or vice-versa?

A few years of trying to be Bret Lott, and I found another, drastically different writer to emulate: Aimee Bender. Here, this wild woman of surrealism and the wonderfully bizarre. She did for fire-handed girls and fathers with soccer-ball sized holes in their stomachs what Lott and Olsen did for heavy-hearted mothers: she told their stories. Everywhere, in domestic fiction, deeply committed to reality, or in fantasy and surrealism, deeply committed to exposing a kind of reality beyond this present, seen reality, the aim is always, always, the story. Tell the story. Make it real.

“My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.” So begins the first story, “The Rememberer” in Bender’s second collection, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. “Drunken Mimi” begins, “There was an imp that went to high school with stilts on so that no one would know he was an imp. Of course he never wore shorts.” And, the last sentence of the entire collection killed me. (You must read this book!)

Ultimately, I gathered courage from both Lott and Bender. Courage to fully imagine what was before me: the woman at her kitchen sink, the girl setting free her lover, devolved into a salamander.

And now, I’ve discovered another fiction writer whose work both emboldens me and humbles me. It’s the best thing for an aspiring fiction writer: work that challenges, that makes you see again the possibilities—what fiction can do!—and yet also chastises: if you’re going to do this, do it all the way. Fully imagine.

That work is Stacey Levine’s The Girl with the Brown Fur. In this short story collection, humanity is shown at its bleakest, most yearning, its most bizarre. Every character is an outsider; every character’s humanity is shown in its quest for comfort. For companionship. Reassurance.

Again, as with Lott’s pining mother, as with Bender’s mourning lover, the genius is in the rendering of human want. “Milk Boy” begins: “Everyone called him ‘Milk Boy’ because he was just like milk: thin, rushing everywhere, tinged with blue; he poured himself all around because he needed to; he was nervous and jiggled all day just like a happy little clown, as a matter of fact, he was a clown, laughing all his life, compromising himself, jerking upon the office floor.” And sometimes, non-human want: “Imagine being a bean,” Levine’s story, “The Bean” begins: “a pale supplicant, rimy dot, a belly-wrinkled pip, lying enervated on the kitchen chair, trying too hard all the time.”

Levine’s book is a must-read for writers. It is precise and bizarre in the most beautiful, frightening ways. It edifies the writerly soul.

So, I’m giving one away. It’s short story month and it’s spring: let’s just go crazy. I’ll give all three books away: Lott’s “How to Get Home,” Bender’s “Girl in the Flammable Skirt,” and Levine’s “The Girl with Brown Fur.”

Thank you, blog readers. Beautiful writers. Thank you for reading and for commenting and for, some of you, the extraordinary and heart-felt emails you send my way. Comment below. Please. Tell me your favorite short story or how you're feeling today or anything else you want to share. I'll put your name in the hat. Me and each of my kids will draw a name. Oh, happy May! Long live short story collections!

16 comments:

Susan Woodring said...

And now, having just posted this, I feel compelled to list a few of my other favorite collections: Miracle Boy by Pinkney Benedict, Believers by Charles Baxter, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates, The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro, Mendocino by Ann Packer, Bulletproof Girl by Quinn Dalton, Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus, In the Devil's Territory by Kyle Minor, Come to Me by Amy Bloom,and, I'm reading a great collection now, Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus. Oh, someone make me stop...

Susan Woodring said...

Just realized I misspelled Pinckney...

And, I'm sure I'm leaving off a lot of really great collections...I'll keep thinking and posting all day...maybe for the rest of my life...

katrina said...

That one sounds great, Susan. I'm going to check it out.

I love story collections, but as sometimes happens, I'm out of sync with everyone else and am now reading novels. That said, I'm looking forward to getting back to short stories.

Clifford Garstang said...

Those are some great collections, Susan. I love stories--writing and reading them--I'm currently reading Ed Falco's Burning Man . . .

Tommy said...

I have all of the give-away collections... I go to Lott when I want a ten page story that I know will use a traditional story arc to give me the impact I expect from a story. I love to pick out a story from multiple collections, so I don't relate to the collection themselves much, but I love Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Richard Bausch, Charles Baxter, Rock Springs by Richard Ford, and The Theory of Light and Matter by Andrew Porter. Knuckleheads by Jeff Kass was quite good too...

Susan Woodring said...

Tommy!! I can't believe I forgot Raymond Carver!!!!

Mary Akers said...

I do love me some short stories! Olive Kitteridge was amazing. Loved Burning Man by Ed Falco. Normal People Don't Live Like This by Dylan Landis blew me away. And Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr did some amazing things with short stories.

Charlene said...

If I don't win The Girl with Brown Fur, I'll buy it! Grace Paley was my Tillie Olsen. I love Pinkney Benedicts latest collection. Chris Adrian's short story collection was a fav.

Pamela Erens said...

cool! You've named some of my favorite collections. I'll have to add some others: Jesus's Son by Denis Johnson; Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg; You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett... oh, there are so many.

Lisa Kline said...

I am reading Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad right now. I have always loved her writing. It's marketed as a novel, but to me it's actually a collection of closely linked stories that move backward in time, each story from the point of view of a new character and illuminating the history of another character already introduced. I also second Mary Aker's comment about Olive Kitteridge. Those stories were like jewels. - Lisa Kline

apparentbook said...

Oooh....I hope that I can find some of these in my local library. I really like the concept of beautifully bizarre and surreal; like Roald Dahl. Thanks for sharing!

sherylmonks said...

The collections I go back to again and again and again are Given Ground by Ann Pancake, The Balm of Gilead Tree by Robert Morgan, Wicked Women by Faye Weldon, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore, Miracle Boy by Pinckney Benedict. Lately, I'm reading Collected Stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down by William Gay, Her Kind of Want by Jennifer Davis and re-reading The Big Ear by Robin Hemley. Too many to list!

Suzanne Kamata said...

It's impossible to name a favorite, but to name a few that I love..."Bestiary" by Julio Cortazar, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," by Lorrie Moore, "The Spaceships Have Landed" by Alice Munro, "Christmas in Phuket" by Mary Akers, "Gypsies in the House of Pain" by Hollis Seamon.

David Abrams said...

I'd love a chance at winning those three collections, Susan--all new authors to me (though I have many of Lott's other books sitting unread on my shelves).

I'm a little wary of trying to list favorite short stories or authors because I know I'll get in trouble with what I leave off (far too many to list here anyway). Let me simply list the short story collections I've read this year (all of them tremendous and highly-recommended):

Quiet Americans by Erika Dreifus
Volt by Alan Heathcock
The Architect of Flowers by William Lychack
Daddy's by Lindsay Hunter
This is Butte. You Have Ten Minutes. by Craig Lancaster
Cold June by Francine Witte

Lisa Kline said...

Hi Susan -
I posted a comment a few days ago and it got erased and I thought I'd try again. This posting business somehow is more challenging for me than for others, haha! I mentioned Jennifer Egan's new book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is marketed as a novel but is really linked stories. Also thought Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge was masterful.

Susan Woodring said...

Yes, Lisa, I think a few were erased!! Blogger was down for a day or so I think??? Anyway, I'm so sorry and I'm glad you posted again.

I know Pamela Erens's comment was also erased, but I can't remember if anyone else's were wiped out???

So, I'll add Pamela and also Erika Dreifus who tried to post but had trouble with it, and whoever else comments (or re-comments--again, I'm so sorry!!) between now and tom. evening and then, my kids and I will draw three names and get the books sent out ASAP.

Thank you to my commenters!! THe best part of this is that I get to hear about some collections I didn't know about!!