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2010 Stories 46 - 52 and Essays 19 - 21

Another couple of batches -- I've been meaning to get to some of these for a few days, and other posts got in the way (plus some laziness).


46. War by Jack London, The Library of America Story of the Week for February 25, 2010.
47. A Respectable Woman by Kate Chopin, The Library of America Story of the Week for March 4, 2010.
I know, without a doubt, that I read both of these stories in college. Surely for Dr. Malcolm Marsden's American Lit classes. Although I didn't remember the details, both stories had a familiar feel to them.  The London story, I'm sorry to say, is one of his more predictable.  It's about a Confederate army scout who is doing his best to do his job and not get killed by scouts for the Union army.  He makes two mistakes in the story that lead to the inevitable conclusion, but it's a conclusion you can see coming almost from the start of the story.  The Chopin story is also a bit predictable, but there's a stronger immediacy about the story -- a very respectable society woman wants time alone with her husband and gets saddled with her husband's diffident and distance friend for a visit; you know she's going to contemplate doing something that would go against her respectable nature, but the ending is an interesting twist on what you're sure is going to happen.

48. Water Child by Edwidge Danticat, originally published in The New Yorker in September of 2000, read by Junot Diaz on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast on December 15, 2009.  I am SO far behind on listening to these podcasts, but I love the sometimes odd and sometimes perfectly sensible pairings of authors.  Junot Diaz, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, chose to read a story by Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian immigrant.  And the story is about one immigrant's life in America.  The main character is not a pleasant person, and not someone who lets anyone into her interior world.  Danticat does a marvelous of dropping hints as to what is going on in the main character's mind without ever having the character tell us -- while the story is from her POV, it is definitely not anything near her own interior monologue.  A very interesting way to tell the story of how the main character reconciles her single, private life in America with the community nature of family life at home in Haiti.

49. Yurt by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, from The Best American Short Stories 2009.  I read this back in 2008, and described it thus: This one is, I think, about becoming part of a community (in this case, a group of middle school teachers) and how emotionally incestuous some small communities can be, especially when someone decides to leave the community and is replaced by someone of a different temperament.  That description still stands, but what really struck me this time was just how distanced the main character is from her supposed friends -- she thinks she knows what's going on in her supposed best friend's head, but doesn't know even what's going on in her own.  I'm more impressed by the story now than I was when I first read it.

50. Rubiaux Rising by Steve De Jarnatt from The Best American Short Stories 2009.  This is one of the few stories I have read that deals with Hurricane Katrina, even though the hurricane itself goes unnamed in the story (the main character, Rubaiux, only learns the name of the hurricane at some time after the story ends).  It's a story about reaching rock-bottom and recovering -- the author's great achievement is that while the main character is a metaphor for battered and damaged New Orleans, he never feels like a metaphor -- he feels like a real, damaged, battered person who can't seem to catch an even break.  And even after the events of the story, you're pretty sure his life is not going to get much better post-Katrina, because you know what the reality of life in NoLa was like after the hurricane.

51. Beyond The Pale by Joseph Epstein from The Best American Short Stories 2009.  This is one of those stories I feel like I've read before even though I know there's no way I could have (it was originally published in 2008 in Commentary magazine, which I have never read an issue of, and the end-book credits do not indicate it was published anyplace else I might have read it).  The main character is a young Jewish man who learned to read and speak Yiddish from his grandfather as a teen.  As an adult, he has a chance encounter with a great, but unrecognized in the West, Yiddish author who is at the end of his life ... and with that author's second wife and later widow.  While the story is wordy and slow to build, I think what the author leaves out (details of the main character's married home life) are almost as telling as what he leaves in.  The main character is a man torn between home and work and what he'd like to do.

52. A Shadow Table by Alice Fulton from The Best American Short Stories 2009.  If I hadn't ready the author's note at the end that said this story was part of 10 linked stories that form a full novel, I would not have known it. The story does not feel like it is part of a larger whole -- everything you need to know about the main characters is right there in the text.  Narrated by the main character, Charlotte, we see the events of her first meeting with her boyfriend's very tony Connecticut family during Prohibition.  The story is very much about eating disorders, although that's not what they called them in those days -- but it's also about emotional disorders and how we process loss (whether the loss of a sibling, a love, or alcohol).


19. Some Strange Experience: The Reminiscence of a Ghost-Seer, Being the Result of a Chat on the Kitchen-Stairs, by Lafcadio Hearn, the Library of America Story of the Week for February 19, 2010.  I have never read any of Lafcadio Hearn's reporting.  Apparently he was a big deal and the LoA has issued a volume of his work.  In this piece, he strikes me as a bit of a Great Lakes area Damyon Runyon, attempting to bring some of the characters of Cincinnati to life the way Runyon did.  We all know Runyon's reportage included stories about characters he melded together from a composite of real folks -- and one wonders if that's not what Hearn did here, but to lesser effect because the "ghost seer" he interviews here is fairly bland and unmemorable, as are her stories.

20. (En)trance by Chris Arthur from The Best American Essays 2009.  Arthur's repetition of the phrase "If I was the kind of writer I always thought I'd be" throughout this piece eventually does make a point although it almost comes too late.  It takes a while to see what the essay is really about, which in the end is part of its charm.  It seems like a reminiscence of the house his mother grew up in, at which he played as a child -- a wistful rememberance, such as it is, of an Irish childhood now gone (in fact, he talks at one point about seeing in two times at once -- the estate as it was, all open fields and orchards, and the planned cookie-cutter community it is now); it's only towards the end that Arthur's "if I were a different kind of writer" manta dovetails with the reminiscence to make the point: the difference between fiction and essay is in the details and the neat conclusion.  Which is funny, because I thought the essay had a wonderfully neat conclusion worthy of any good short story. So perhaps essay and fiction are not so different after all.

21. Portrait of A Masked Man by John Berger from The Best American Essays 2009.  I've said in previous posts I am not the most politically informed person in the world, so I will not pretend to be familiar with the political unrest in Mexico described by Berger in his essay that is mostly about him sketching a portrait of a ski-masked subcommandante of the Zapatistas but also is about what he's noticed about the change in Mexico's social structure and its relationship with the US.  Not my favorite essay so far, but it did have a few lyrical touches.


A Story A Day Keeps Boredom Away

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