The 2020 Short-Story Reading Challenge

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Chris P

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Lakey, the first story I posted on this year was in third, but I thought should have been in first. I'm not schooled enough in craft to pinpoint why, but it really strikes me when it's off like that.
 

Lakey

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Lakey, the first story I posted on this year was in third, but I thought should have been in first. I'm not schooled enough in craft to pinpoint why, but it really strikes me when it's off like that.

Isn’t it interesting, when you just have this feeling that the POV isn’t working? One can’t always articulate precisely why.

I had a long drive this evening and listened to a couple more of the noir stories:

10. “An Early Specimen,” Elizabeth McCracken, in Cutting Edge (2020)
The plot of this weird, moody story doesn’t really get going until about 3/4 of the way through, but I actually liked it best before that happened. It was an interesting character study with some marvelously arresting and clever imagery. Once other characters are introduced and things start happening, the mystery of trying to figure out what’s going on gets in the way of what was so fun about it.

11. “OBF, Inc,” Bernice L. McFadden, in Cutting Edge (2020)
Life at the intersection of peak American capitalism and racism — as one of the characters says, “This is America—we monetize everything.” I wish the story had done more with the protagonist’s conflict; one moment he’s shown storming out of the office that has made him a terribly offensive offer, but we know how badly he needs the money and the job; in the next scene, he’s accepted the offer, done the job, and is embarrassed by it, but that is all. I wanted more of his conflict after he accepts the offer—what is it like for him to do the job? The story doesn’t get there.

11/100 read, 9/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Chris P

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24. "Naked and vulnerable, the rest is circumstance," by Sylvia Chan

I'm not sure this one is even fiction; after several pages of reading like fiction, it suddenly starts sounding like memoir. I'm still not sure, even at the end. This is actually quite a cool trick she played on us the reader. Well done! Sylvia Lin and her best friend and protector Evan Isaiah both live in a foster group home. Their lives take divergent courses from there, Sylvia getting an education (she reads three languages before she's 10, and reads them to Evan Isaiah) before getting a teaching job then being injured in a car accident while Evan Isaiah runs into legal trouble. Together they maintain their bond until the inevitable end.
 

Lakey

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Last week’s assignment for class:

12. “Bettering Myself,” Otessa Moshfegh, in Paris Review (2013)
We were assigned this for a unit on “voice” and it’s a great story to illustrate that, much subtler in its use of voice than the writer I always hold up as an example of very strong voice, Grace Paley. The best thing about this story, I think, is how much the narrator does not say; she confesses quite a few terrible behaviors, and sort of flickers in and out of self-awareness about just how terrible those behaviors are. She’s a pathetic character, and much of the discussion in my class was about whether people have sympathy for her or just think she’s irredeemably awful. She’s also subtly unreliable, which to me is the most exciting aspect of the story. For instance, early on she casually mentions that “when she’s drunk” she telephones her ex-husband and complains to him about her life. Through the story we learn that she’s drunk a great deal of the time, and toward the end her ex-husband asks her to stop calling—suggesting that her calls to him are much more disruptive and/or frequent than she let on in the beginning. What a masterful story.

And then back to the JCO anthology.

13. “Firetown,” Aimee Bender, in Cutting Edge (2020)
This story is up front about its antecedents—playing with the hard-boiled LA private dick trope, it invokes Raymond Chandler explicitly with its first-person, sardonic style. Only now LA is on fire. And I think (though I’m not certain) that the detective is a woman (remember, lesbian until proven otherwise; at any rate, the narrator is bisexual, regardless of her self-identification). It’s certainly more fun to imagine a Marlowesque detective who is a woman, and I don’t think the story gives you reason not to. Anyway, the mystery itself turns out to be more of an existential crisis than a mystery, which is a little odd, but it also playing with the trope in its own way; if it had just been a standard private-eye-solves-the-case sort of deal, the story would have been merely imitative of the trope, rather than trying to extend it in some way.

14. “Thief,” Steph Cha, in Cutting Edge (2020)
Another story set in LA, this time in Korea Town. This is a somber story about a bereaved mother trying to confront the people she believes are responsible for her son’s death. The ending is a little puzzling to me; it admits several interpretations, I suppose. If someone else reads it, I’d love to discuss it.

I’m 2/3 of the way through this anthology and I have to say it’s mostly really good.

14/100 read, 11/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Lakey

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Another assignment for class.

15. “Of Poets, Galleries, New York Passages,” Kathleen Collins
Not sure of the year of this one; it’s a few decades old though. The lesson this week is dialogue, and this indeed is a story that is nearly entirely dialogue, three artists talking to one another about each other and about a fourth friend who is not present. I’m not crazy about the story. I found it a little boring, though on second reading I did find some interesting parallels between the way the characters speak and how they behave physically. I just wish that craft had been spent on a more interesting scene.

15/100 read, 11/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 
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Chris P

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25. "The Lake and the Onion," by David Drury

I'm not sure what I just read, but it was a wondefully purple and lyrical story of the origin of the universe and its cycles of creation and destruction told as a love story between a lake and an onion the lake sees getting smashed against a tree by two boys. That's the closest I can come to describing it.
 

Cindyt

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I've never been one to read short stories, but after having written a buttload of shortish essays for my memoir blog, I've decided to try my hand at writing short stories. The best way to learn is reading them, of course. I'm going to read at least one per week and that may pick up.

ETA - Edgar Allan Poe collection it is.
 
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Chris P

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26. "Walk with me," by Wendell Berry


Another long one in the Wendell Berry collection. When hard-living Thacker "Nightlife" Hample is denied an opportunity to give the sermon at a tent revival, he snaps into a fugue state, wanders to Tol Proudfoot's blacksmith shop, picks up Tol's old shotgun, and wanders away. Convinced Nightlife is going to shoot somone or himself, Tol follows at a safe distance. The group following grows as the day wears on and turns into night. In the end, it's a cute and interesting retelling of the lost sheep parable, with a twist.
 

Lakey

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Folks, another short-story deal today: The Audible daily deal is a science fiction short-story collection with N.K. Jemisin, Andy Weir, Blake Crouch, and others for $2.95. Here’s a link to the book. (I’m not sure whether you need to be an Audible member to get the daily-deal price.) I don’t read a ton of science fiction myself but this sounds fun at the price — I’ll probably pick it up.

I’ll be back a little later today with some more story-reading to report on.

:e2coffee:
 

Lakey

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This weeks assignment for class is a superb story. Please go read it! I've included a link.

16. “It Looks Like This,” Caitlin Horrocks, in Blackbird (2006)
I just love this story. It's written in the form of a hybrid school essay / letter from a girl to her teacher, and the story it unfolds is so poignant and moving I actually got choked up. The voice is delightful and everything about it is just wonderful, the girl's tenderness, and loneliness, and eagerness to please, and moments of hungry connection with other people. Just beautiful, really. I would give my eye teeth to write stories like this.

And back to the JCO anthology.

17. “Imapala,” S.A. Solomon, in Cutting Edge (2020)
This story is okay. I guess you could say it's part polemic, part revenge fantasy, capturing the psychological damage done to young women by their persistent devaluation under patriarchy. The trouble is, it's too much polemic, even for me -- I mean, this is one of my favorite subjects, and even from my front-row seat in the choir I found this story too preachy. At its heart is a girl who, understandably, has learned to distrust and feel threatened by patronizing male attention. There's no way to know whether the man in the story actually means her harm, and the story captures quite well the escalation of her fear in spite of this. But the story goes out of its way to connect the dots, to explain her response to the interaction with the man, so that it is not only clear why he trips her fight-or-flight instincts, but it's made explicitly clear why. It's a mistake in several ways -- cogent analyses of the psychological impact of structural patriarchy don't work all that well in the girl's POV, and they're also just too preachy and get in the way of the story.

17/100 read, 12/50 from the last five years.

I've never been one to read short stories, but after having written a buttload of shortish essays for my memoir blog, I've decided to try my hand at writing short stories. The best way to learn is reading them, of course. I'm going to read at least one per week and that may pick up.

ETA - Edgar Allan Poe collection it is.

Cindy, I wanted to mention -- I read an Edgar Allan Poe collection early last year and wrote about the stories in last year's thread. If you're not a short-story reader, you should be warned: Poe is credited with innovations like the modern detective story and the unreliable narrator, and while he may be deserving of that credit, I (and I am not alone in this) find his storycraft a little bit lacking. Some of his stories are technical disasters -- paced all wrong, told in the wrong POV, constructed in a way that saps tension and conflict. His ideas are amazing but his execution isn't always at the same level. So if you find his stories not all that great, don't let it put you off learning more about short stories!

:e2coffee:
 
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Chris P

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Cindy, I wanted to mention -- I read an Edgar Allan Poe collection early last year and wrote about the stories in last year's thread. If you're not a short-story reader, you should be warned: Poe is credited with innovations like the modern detective story and the unreliable narrator, and while he may be deserving of that credit, I (and I am not alone in this) find his storycraft a little bit lacking. Some of his stories are technical disasters -- paced all wrong, told in the wrong POV, constructed in a way that saps tension and conflict. His ideas are amazing but his execution isn't always at the same level. So if you find his stories not all that great, don't let it put you off learning more about short stories!

:e2coffee:

Not to dogpile on poor Edgar, but I second this not only for Poe but for all classic short stories. For anyone wanting to get into shorts, or especially to learn how to write shorts, going to the classics is the total wrong way to go. As timeless as "Tell Tale Heart," Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Mark Twain's "Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," O Henry's "Gift of the Magi" or (my favorite of his) "Ransom of Red Chief" are, styles have changed as have the techniques and tastes of the audience. Nobody would study modern filmmaking based on "Gone with the Wind" or "Citizen Kane," except as an academic exercise in the origin of certain techniques. One of my favorite classic films is "The Best Years of Our Lives," about the culture shock of WWII vets coming home. Wonderful, heartfelt film that wouldn't do well in theaters today. Same with writing; we've moved on from certain styles.

There are dozens of yearly anthologies available for anyone wanting to keep up to date. I personally get the Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-Required Reading, the Pushcart Prize, and Caine Prize anthologies every year. Not every story is a winner, of course, but they were good enough to get published once then included in anthologies, so you can get an idea of what is getting published nowadays.
 

Chris P

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27. "A half-pint of Old Darling," by Wendell Berry

Minnie Proudfoot couldn't be happier. It's 1920, and not only are women allowed to vote, but Prohibition has gone into effect--about time for both, Minnie figures. Her husband Tol and her hitch up the horse and venture into town to shop. On the way back, Minnie comes across the half-pint bottle of Old Darling whiskey Tol has purchased for veterinary reasons: a few drops on the tongue of a weak newborn lamb usually restores vigor and ensures the newborn makes it through its first cold night. Minnie says nothing of the discovery, and at first wants to dash the bottle against the stones by the road, but doesn't want to be wasteful. "Let's see what all this fuss is about, anyway. . ." she figures. And finds out.


28. "The lost bet," by Wendell Berry

Tol Proudfoot, able stockman but country as the day is long, finds himself the object of city slicker ridicule on a visit to Louisville. But a few turns of phrase and the tables are turned, Tol marching out victorious.
 
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Chris P

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29. "It looks like this," by Caitlin Horrocks

Wow, Lakey, what a great story! Thanks for linking to it. I can't turn off my social justice/sociology streak. I see so, so much Americana in that story; an unspoken Americana of the rural poor and situationally challenged that is as much a part of the American narrative as the white picket fences, 2 kids and two cars in the suburbs. The depth of character--she's not just a high school drop out taking care of her sick mom, she's also a talented quilter and doing what she can to make sense of all the stimulus the world throws at her. She's aware of the stuckness, and desperate for a way out but looking at 30 years of helping her mother to the toilet. Yeah, this story touched me.


I've started a new anthology, the 2020 Pushcart Prize: The Best of the Small Presses. This is one I get most years, and includes fiction, essays, poetry, and creative non-fiction. It's not as quirky or edgy as Best American Non-Required Reading can be, but it's also more consistently good.


30. "The arms of Saturday night," by Cally Fiedorek

The best party in the history of her Jersey town, complete with Adam Donovan, the hottest guy in the school and who is moving away--this will be her last chance to hook up with him--is happening the same night as her uncle Murray's wake. This story is not as shallow as it sounds; we're sometimes complicit in a conspiracy to fall into particular roles that we don't need to play.


31. "The history of sound," by Ben Shattuck

A historical within a historical. In the early 1970s, aging Lionel receives a box of old cylinder recordings he made with the man he never got over, David, as they traveled the backwoods of Maine recording folk songs in 1919. At once beautifully written and heart wrenching. I linked to it. Occasionally, a story will leave me in a daze for a bit afterward. This is one of them.


32. "Erl King," by Julia Elliott

The female college freshman narrator gets pulled into the world of the Wild Professor, who turns out to be a shape-shifting Pan type creature. The writing in this story is as strong as any out there, I just got bored with paranormal stories many years ago and nothing's re-awakened my interest yet.


33. "Fat swim," by Emma Copley Eisenberg

Overweight and fighting the dual specters of body image awareness and burgeoning sexuality, pre-teen Alice sees a group of large adult women headed toward the neighborhood swimming pool. Here might be the acceptance she is looking for.
 
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Lakey

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ChrisP, I’m delighted that you enjoyed “It Looks Like This.” It’s a really special story that I think will stick with me for a long time.

And now, the last reading assignment for what has been a really fun and challenging class.

18. “Hiranyagarbha,” Kevin Jared Hosein, in Lightspeed (2016)
This is quite a good story. (The title is a link, if you want to read it.) Interesting use of dialect and voice, if you like examples of that sort of thing. A young man in Trinidad discovers a mysterious and deadly spring that seems to be turning everything it touches into gold. He interacts with the boorish crew of an American sensationalist TV show who come to exploit the story.

18/100 read, 13/50 from the last five years.

I’m falling further behind the pace. Like everyone else, my routine is in a shambles right now. I hope you’re all safe and doing okay.

:e2coffee:
 

ajaye

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Just popping in to say wow, I thought I'd take a quick peek at 'It Looks Like This' and it swallowed me up. So glad I noticed you guys talking about it. Reckon it will stick with me for a while, too.
 

Friendly Frog

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I've been thinking of joining this challege. Seems now is as good a time as any.

My own goal for 2020 is to read 7 anthologies or collections of short stories from writers I have not yet read before.

Currently reading The Taste of Different Dimensions by Alan Dean Foster, a collection of 15 fantasy short stories. It's turned out to be a really interesting combination. Some stories are a little more like fairy tales, others are urban fantasy, some humourous ones and a couple are deeply creepy, and well into horror territory.
 

Chris P

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34. "Hi Ho Cherry-O," by Becky Hagenston

Bizarre futuristic story where a grad student is researching twentieth century children's games, only to have Wendell, her robot research assistant, begin making self-degrading demands "tie me up and lock me in the closet for an hour" before executing research requests.


35. "The Almadraba," by Maia Jenkins

Two friends rent a vacation house on the California coast for a week of sun and beach. One has lies she never speaks, the other has lies she never lets remain silent.
 

Woollybear

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I've read 2 from the best american short stories, 2014, and really enjoyed the first, a McSweeney's story: Charity. Lovely. Filling. Arc-y.

Sort of enjoyed another, from Subtropics: After the Flood, but only after skimming to the end which was so unexpected I had to go back and find the story in the story.
 

Chris P

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I've read 2 from the best american short stories, 2014, and really enjoyed the first, a McSweeney's story: Charity. Lovely. Filling. Arc-y.

Sort of enjoyed another, from Subtropics: After the Flood, but only after skimming to the end which was so unexpected I had to go back and find the story in the story.

The guest editor on those BASS anthologies makes all the difference. I recall the years Jennifer Egan and Roxanne Gay editing were particularly strong. Ann Patchett, too.


Continuing on with 2020 Pushcart Prize:

36. "General: Unskilled," by Ryan Eric Dull

Mikey works the gig economy on Taskr delivering items, getting groceries, and basically anything anyone wants done. He receives a delicate, antique porcelain dog figurine that needs to be delivered later in the day. Mikey balances different jobs, including walking a highly qualified by sheepish interviewee through a mock job interview, while protecting the item.


37. "The Entertainer," by Whitney Collins

White-collar working class teen Rachel is sent to the Caribbean for two weeks to keep company of Davenport and Devlin, two amazingly vapid rich girls who never eat, getting all their calories from booze, joints and menthol cigarettes.


38. "Scandalous women in history," by Malerie Willens

Kim, rechristened as Kendra as far as the customers need to know, learns from Dane, the best of the best in make-up sales. Soon, she receives a mysterious note that could be from an admirer, or . . . someone. Sadly, this story didn't seem to go anywhere for me.


39. "The Last Voyage of the Alice B. Toklas," by Jason Brown

in 1981, John's family--uncle, grandfather, grandmother--befriend a frustrated writer visiting their Maine island. They figure the writer might be interested in their wood-burning stove, which used to belong to none other than John Updike himself. This story provides an interesting take on the unreliable narrator technique.
 
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Chris P

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40. "Braindrain," by C Pam Zhang

Very short and nicely done flash piece, an allegory about immigration.


41. "Festival," by Mary Miller

Slice of life of the narrator and her husband at a local muci and art festival.
 
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Lakey

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This crisis is really messing with my reading habits. The details are boring, but the upshot is that I'm reading less than I was back in the before-days. I need to figure out how to work it back in.

Just popping in to say wow, I thought I'd take a quick peek at 'It Looks Like This' and it swallowed me up. So glad I noticed you guys talking about it. Reckon it will stick with me for a while, too.

Excellent! I'm really glad. What a story!

I've been thinking of joining this challege. Seems now is as good a time as any.

Welcome! I'm glad to have you here.

I've been thinking about tweaking the title of this thread to make it less about a "challenge" and more about "let's read and talk about short stories." Do you think that would make a difference in participation? Maybe not.

Meanwhile, I finally got back to the Joyce-Carol-Oates-edited collection of noir stories, which I'm almost through now.

19. “Mothers, We Dream,” Cassandra Khaw, in Cutting Edge (2020)
Eh, I didn't like this one much. It has a vague Norse-ish setting; hard to tell if it's meant to be historical with magical realism, or fantasy. That might not matter much in the end, but it mattered as I read the story because I kept thinking, huh? where are we? when are we? I felt badly ungrounded. The story itself was needlessly violent, and its attempts at evocative or poetic description didn't work for me. It all felt a little forced. The upshot is about a man who has married some kind of mythical harpy-like ocean creature who needs him to sabotage sailing ships to provide meat for her ... colleagues, maybe? co-harpies? Like I said, too much unclarity in the setting for me to know for sure.

19/100 read, 14/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Chris P

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Lakey, feel free to change the title as you see fit. However, I don't think the word "challenge" is putting people off, and I don't think the "Talk about the [genre] you're reading" threads get any more traffic than this one. But, it's worth a try. Have some fun with it! Things just seem to have been slower since our month or so offline, and covid has everyone in a strange mood. You'd think everyone at home all day would increase traffic, but humans are funny critters.


More from 2020 Pushcart Prize:

42. "Hao," by Ye Chun

In 1966, a newly single mother maintains her ties to history and her identity amid the repression of the Cultural Revolution by teaching her daughter Chinese characters.


43. "The important transport," by Diane Williams

Another flash piece. I'm not completely sure what's going on, but it seems to be about divorce or relationships ending.


44. "Pattycakes," by Claire Davis

Rodeo clown Glenn takes Louis, a young and inexperienced bullrider, under his wing as Louis enters the ring for the first time on the back of the bull Pattycakes. This was well done, in the Southwest starkness of the genre.
 
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Chris P

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One more Wendell Berry short before starting the next novel read.

45. "Down in the valley where the green grass grows," by Wendell Berry

Big Ellis decides it's time to get serious about finding a wife, and Annie May Cordles will do just fine. She just needs a reason to be impressed with Big. Big decides showing off his ability to handle a team of spirited mules will do the trick, and his buddy Burley Coulter figures he'll help out old Big by showing Annie May just how spirited they can be. Riding past her house, Burley picks up a stone and aims it right where the mule "will feel it most. . ."
 
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Friendly Frog

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I just finished Side Quests: a Viridian Gate Worlds Anthology. The anthology's main idea is that Earth is once again in the path of an asteroid of dino-killer proportions. As humanity faces extinction, some people receive a one-way ticket that will transport them into an online RPG game called Viridian Gate. They may survive the impact, unlike the rest of humanity, but they can never leave the digital game-world again and are subject to the game's rules. 6 stories by six authors.

I liked the idea a lot and the stories were diverse and interesting enough on their own. My favorite was 'The Funeral Parlor' by Raymond Johnson where the main character is... a spider, that can level up and gets to ponder whether it will sink XP in venom attacks or night vision at it crawls through a dungeon. It was wild but worked really well.

2/7 anthologies or collections

Welcome! I'm glad to have you here.
Thank you. :)

I've been thinking about tweaking the title of this thread to make it less about a "challenge" and more about "let's read and talk about short stories." Do you think that would make a difference in participation? Maybe not.
I don't know whether it will make much difference in participation, my gut says not really. But I personally quite like the challenge aspect to push me a little out of my comfort zone.
 

Chris P

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Welcome, friendly frog!

46. "Thicker than liquor," by Wendell Berry

A bit grittier than Berry's usual Port William fare, young lawyer Wheeler Cattlet gets a call from a Louisville hotel: his uncle Leonidas (or "Peach") has drunk himself into a stupor and large hotel bill. Notorious for his drinking since Wheeler was young, Uncle Peach's situation is not surprising. After a visit to a back alley bootlegger and paying up the bill, Wheeler ushers Uncle Peach through nausea and DTs on the train home.


47. "Almost to the Fair," bg Wendell Berry

Getting on in years, Tol Proudfoot and his wife Minnie buy their first car, a 1929 Model A. The world opens up to them, including the State Fair neither have ever been to. Tbey want to go, but are afraid of driving on the highway, so they ask the most experienced driver they know to drive them: their neighbor's son Elton. Thing is, Elton's 12. . .


48. "Burley Coulter's fortunate fall," by Wendell Berry

Rambling, multi-generational story rotating through several main characters leading up to an anecdote about painting a barn roof.
 
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