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2009 Stories 26 - 36

The rest of the anthology, now that I'm off the phone.  Again, behind cuts.

26. The Worst You Ever Feel by Rebecca Makkai.  Another one that skirts the edges of genre:  is the main character, a young boy, really gifted with the ability to connect with the dead, or is it all in his over-active and overly empathic imagination?  The author lets you decide.  Most of the action takes place as the boy watches a violin recital in his living room, given by a renowned Eastern European who had taught the boy's father in the old country.  The boy's father escaped before atrocities against the Jews started; the teacher was not so lucky.  The story is built around what the boy thinks as he's listening to the music.  It reaches a slightly cloying but still satisfying ending.
27. The Wizard of West Orange by Steven Millhauser.  I've read several of Millhauser's stories in magazines; he's another author I want to seek out an anthology of.  This was another re-read for me as well, from early last year.  I loved the story then, and I loved it this time around.  Narrated in journal entries (some detailed, some not even in complete sentences) by a librarian working at Thomas Edison's West Orange facility, it asks the question:  if the phonograph approximated the sense of hearing, and the kinetoscope approximated the sense of sight, what would Edison have come up with to approximate the sense of touch?  A bit of a disturbing story in one sense, and a bit uplifting in another.
28. Nawabdin Electrician by Daniyal Mueenuddin.  Even Rushdie admits this one might stretch the definition of the anthology's title, as Mueenuddin's stories have been published in American magazines but he apparently only lived in the US for a short time before returning to Pakistan.  Still, I remember this story from early in 2008.  It's a tight story about a borderline-conman (he doesn't really intend to hurt anyone, but he does play all the angles with his bosses and is constantly trying new schemes to make extra money to support his large family) and his encounter with a real theif.  The final scene is brutal.
29. Childs Play by Alice Munro.  This is another piece I would consider something of a "memory play."  The narrator is speaking from later in her adult life, but keeps flashing back to meetings with two different girls: the daughter of her upstairs neighbor, who was developmentally behind for her age, and a girl at summer camp whom everyone mistook for the narrator's twin.  The details of these childhood encounters are parceled out between scenes of the adult narrator having lost track of the "twin" and then reconnected, sort of, years later.  Another dark story.  Rushdie obviously likes this kind of tale.  It's a good thing I do too.
30.  Buying Lenin by Miroslav Penkov.  I think this is supposed to be a bit of a comedic piece, although its a dark comedy at best.  The narrator, like the author, is a young Russian who comes to the States for college.  His hardline Communist grandfather back in the old country bemoans his only grandson becoming a Capitalist -- until he discovers someone on Ebay is selling the remains of Vladimir Lenin.  It's not quite a comedy of errors, and there is a sad undercurrent of distance between grandfather and grandson.
31. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell.  I read two of Russell's stories last year.  One was in Best American Short Stories 2007, and the other was this story.  Both are intriguing, and probably the most traditionally "genre" of the gathering in this volume.  But even here, there are twists.  Russell takes all of the "facts" about vampires and tosses them effectively out the window (although it takes her protagonist over a hundred years to figure out he doesn't have to live like the characters in the movies).  Vampires still have a hunger, and for the vamps in this story what soothes that ache, at least for a while, are the lemons in one grove in Italy.  This is also a story about relationships and expectations.  Russell apparently has an anthology out later in 2009, and I can't wait to get it.
32.  Puppy by George Sanders.  Add this to the "bottom three" for me.  There was something awkwardly disjointed about this story, and the style got in the way of the substance.  Ultimately, it's about an encounter between two very different mothers and a rumination on the whether there is a best way to raise children.  The titular puppy is really just a macguffin to bring these two together and allow soccer mom to judge poverty mom.  Didn't really work for me.
33. Quality of Life by Christine Sneed.  Another piece that started out with an interesting concept:  when exactly does one realize one has become a "kept woman" and how does one deal with that realization.  Sadly, about halfway through the story I was feeling bored and wanted the main character to either make a freakin' decision already, or quit whining about it.  This one didn't really appeal to me.
34. Missionaries by Bradford Tice.  I had completely forgotten reading this story early in 2008, but within the first page I started to recall.  It's about two young Mormon Missionaries with very different styles, and begs the question: why is it the most vocally committed religious types are the ones who skirt the edges and often fall from grace, while the quietly committed ones get no recognition despite being steadfast their entire lives?  Bombastic personalities fill the pews, so to speak.
35. Straightaway by Mark Wisniewski.  Another of the "mainstream" stories in the volume.  Three barely-scraping-by former high school basketball team-mates do hauling work on the side.  They get a call to remove one drum from the basement of a house near Poughkeepsie NY, and while the money offered convinces them to do it they also begin to feel like they're doing something illegal.  The narrator's jumbled thoughts are influenced by his buddies -- what was in that drum, anyway?  That is never answered; the drum is the catalyst for the narrator to analyze their lives and where they are headed.
36. Bible by Tobias Wolff.  No secret that Wolff is one of my all-time favorite authors.  Also no secret that when I read this story early in 2008, I was a bit disappointed.  The story is an encounter between a teacher and a disgruntled parent; one is white middle-class while the other is an immigrant who is working below his ability (he was a doctor in his country).  There's surprisingly little tension and the last section feels almost unnecessary.  The titular Bible plays a small, almost unnecessary, role in the overall story and is there more for symbolism (devoutly religious Muslim brandishing a young girl's first communion bible) than anything else.
I mistyped in the earlier entry.  The series editor for Best American Short Stories has been Heidi Pitlor for a few years now.  Pitlor replaced Katrina Kennison.


A Story A Day Keeps Boredom Away

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