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2010 Stories 61 - 66 and Essays 29 - 31

STORIES, all from The Best American Short Stories 2009

61. A Man Like Him by Yiyun Li.  I swear I have read this story before, but can't find it tagged anywhere in this journal. It was published in The New Yorker sometime in 2008.  Li seems to enjoy bringing very different characters together in uncomfortable situations; if she has a literary "tic," I would say that is it: each story I've read by her ultimately boils down to two people who don't really know each other coming together for at least a moment. In this story, it is a retired art teacher and a man accused in the Chinese press by his daughter of adultery.  At first, the retired art teacher seems like nothing more than a bored busybody; by the end of the story I felt like I understood his motivation for seeking out the other man, even if I didn't totally agree with it and still didn't find the art teacher at all relatable.

62. The Briefcase by Rebecca Makkai.  An interesting piece that ruminates on Identity. I'm sure, given time, I could compare it to works like "Martin Guerre," where one man successfully and completely replaces another man without anyone being the wiser.  The setting of the story intrigues me: the country and era are not ever specified -- it could be taking place in Cold War Communist Russia, or it could be taking place in the near future in a more dystopian world. "Revolutionaries" are rounded up, including the main character whose only crime is allowing a group of dissidents to eat in his restaurant.  His life intersects, fatefully, with a professor and a briefcase, and both of their lives change.

63. Magic Words by Jill McCorkle.  If there is one overall style that Alice Sebold, the editor of this year's Best American Short Stories, seems to have favored, it is short stories with multiple points of view. Quite a few of these stories bounce through a number of characters' perspectives, including this one.  All of the characters have secrets; those secret, whether the characters know it or not, intersect on a suburban night within a several block radius.  This story feels "complete."  I don't think I need to know more about these characters' lives than I do at the end of the story, and I feel I can almost imagine where they go from here.

64. One Dog Year by Kevin Moffett.  This one also seems to veer through multiple pov's, although the central focus is John D. Rockefeller, late in life and waiting for a daredevil airshow over the beach near his Florida retirement home.  The author occasionally swerves into the POV of Rockefeller's valet, some kids on the beach, the doctor attending Rockefeller, and even the daredevil pilot.  It has almost has a "stream of consciousness" feel to it.  Somehow, the story didn't really work for me -- I don't think it was the swerving POVs so much as the subject itself.  While others might feel connected to John D's thoughts and flights of fancy, I found myself distinctly not interested.

65. Modulation by Richard Powers. Another multiple-POV story.  This one is set in what is surely the near-future, if not right now.  There is talk of "64-bit music" and festivals celebrating mash-ups of the soundtracks of various console video games from the 80s, as well as ethnomusicology, raging heavy metal, and the technology that makes sharing all of that possible these days.  There is a tune that gets stuck in people's heads that they cannot shake (an "earworm," one character calls it) and a potential computer virus.  I can't reveal if they're connected without giving the end of the story away. I think this might have been one of my favorite stories of the collection.

66. Them Old Cowboy Songs by Annie Proulx.  I first read and commented on this story back in August of 2008. At the time I said "be warned, this one takes some dark and distressing turns."  Upon rereading ... that is still very true.  Even having a vague memory of where the story was going to go, I still felt the heaviness of the story unfolding.  In that earlier review, I also said the story was about a teenage couple attempting to start their own homestead in the late 1800s in Wyoming, and how they leave a community behind to do it.  I was more aware this time of that community and how it's own fortunes mirrored the young couple's despite being essentially disconnected.  Great story.

ESSAYS, all from The Best American Essays 2009

29. The Mansion: A Subprime Parable by Michael Lewis.  Lewis makes several serious points about how the recession came about, and is definitely on the side of those who agree it all started with good old American citizen greed and how credit enables us to live beyond our means.  He couches his criticism in a witty and ultimately funny story about renting The Mansion, a large house in New Orleans, and how living there affects his family.

30. Madre de Dios by Barry Lopez.  The essay starts out as a rumination on Lopez's developing spirituality, and how he first grew into, then grew away from, Catholicism.  It morphs, somewhere along the way, into a rumination on when and how Lopez has felt the presence of Mary, Mother of God, in his life distinctly on two separate occasions.  The first occasion is described in intense detail and is very engrossing. The second (chronologically first) experience feels tacked on, not because I don't believe it happened but because the author gives it a few paragraphs and then the essay ends rather abruptly.  The essay felt more like a book outline, with the most intense and formative experience of Lopez's life saved for the end.  In a book, that would work. In the essay, it feels like Lopez is doing himself a disservice.

31. Faint Music by James Marcus.  Marcus discusses his history of fainting, and tries to come up with various psychological as well as physical reasons why it happens.  He imagines himself as a case study of Freud, he brings his family history into it, and he discusses various medical diagnoses.  An interesting piece.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 9th, 2011 05:23 pm (UTC)
This blog is bookmarked! I really love the stuff you have put here.

Apr. 12th, 2011 05:38 am (UTC)
Thank you! I need to get back to posting regularly -- my short story reading has slowed down while I've been plowing through various novels. Please feel free to contribute, it's an open community!
Apr. 14th, 2011 06:23 pm (UTC)
You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with your blog.

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )


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