The 2020 Short-Story Reading Challenge

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Lakey

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Welcome back, Daniel. 25-30 sounds like a great goal for the next three months or so.

:e2coffee:
 

DanielSTJ

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Hey Lakey! :hi:

Yeah, if you have any recommendations be sure to let me know. I'll read any genre of short story, as long as it's good. No exceptions.
 

Chris P

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Daniel, I usually enjoy the annual Pushcart Prize anthologies. The next one should be out soon. I'm also a fan of the Best American Short Stories anthology, and Best American Non-Required Reading, both of which should also be out soon. For something off the beaten track, the annual Caine Prize for African Fiction anthologies are usually good, but can be hard to find (at least in ebook format). This year's shortlist was excellent, but I've not read the whole anthology.
 

DanielSTJ

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Yeah, I've read a bunch of the Best American Short Stories collections- they had it on Hoopla Digital. They're good so OK I'll keep going with those maybe. And I'll check out the others as well. I have a LOT of free time with staying mostly indoors now.

*UPDATED* I have 4 years of the short stories. I generally try to read fast, and need to fit some more into my er...not really busy schedule, so I'll start with that. :D
 
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mrsmig

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I finished the two books I was reading and plunged into the Shirley Jackson anthology Lakey recommended. I'm finding that I've either forgotten the Jackson stories I read, or (more likely) I hadn't read them at all, because most of these stories are new to me.

Incidentally, this round of reading put me over my 50 short stories goal, but I plan to keep going until the end of the year.

48. The Intoxicated. A slightly inebriated man hoping to sober up a bit meets his hosts' teenaged daughter in the family kitchen. I read this story once, then went back and read it a second time. It was intriguing: how bright and intense the girl is, how intimidating the man finds her and how hostile this makes him feel.

49. The Daemon Lover. On the day of her wedding, a not-so-young woman waits for her fiance to arrive; when he doesn't, she goes in search of him. While the woman's humiliation was depressing, I kept wondering if the main character's lover had truly jilted her, or if the whole relationship was a figment of the woman's imagination. The story got under my skin.

50. Like Mother Used to Make. Davie, who has created a warm and comfortable home in which he takes pride, invites his neighbor Marcia to dinner. Jackson's descriptions of the loving care Davie lavishes on his home telegraph that things are going to go wrong, ending in humiliation. (Humiliation seems to be a theme in Jackson's stories.)

51. Trial By Combat. A resident of a boarding house discovers items missing from her room, and suspects the older lady downstairs. I actually wished this story was a bit longer. It's got an unsettling vibe and I felt like the conflict was cut off a bit short.

52. The Villager. A Greenwich Village woman goes to look at some used furniture. A tightly written story about losing your dreams.

53. My Life With R.H. Macy. A clerk's story of her employment in the massive department store. A bit of a departure, as this story is written in first person, with more than a touch of dark humor.

54. The Witch. A small family on a train meets a peculiar man. Another somewhat unnerving story, which left me wondering how lingering the effects of the encounter would be, especially on the little boy who's the main character.

55. The Renegade. A new family in town runs afoul of the locals when their dog kills some chickens. This had echoes of Jackson's best-known story, The Lottery, but it's much more subtle, and I might actually like it better.

56. After You, My Dear Alphonse. When her son brings home a black playmate for lunch, a mother's assumptions and patronizing attempts at kindness make her look foolish.

57. Charles. A little boy's tales about the school's bad boy take a surprising turn. Or at least, they might have been surprising when Jackson wrote the story. I saw the end coming a mile off, but appreciated the dark humor.

58. Afternoon in Linen. A ten year-old girl rebels against societal expectations. As a kid who was often called upon to "perform" by my mother, this one hit home.

59. Flower Garden. A woman who has daydreamed about living in a nearby cottage becomes acquainted with its new residents. This was a long one, and I loved the way Jackson built up the friendship between the characters while just as neatly, showing how the friendship will be undermined.
 
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Lakey

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mrsmig, I am delighted that you are reading and enjoying this collection. It’s an absolute favorite of mine; there’s just so much about it that I love. You’re making me want to read it again, and maybe I will dip in and reread a few favorites. “The Daemon Lover” is unsettling, isn’t it? I absolutely love that ambiguity of not knowing whether the whole thing is in her head or not. I forgot all about “Trial by Combat” — but Jackson is so great with these slightly off-kilter characters who do slightly off-kilter things. “My Life With R.H. Macy” tickles me every time. “Charles” and “Afternoon in Linen” make good companion pieces, don’t you think? About the ways children’s interior lives are so distinct from the lives their caregivers project on them. I might have mentioned this before but the New Yorker fiction podcast has a great episode with Kristen Roupenian talking about “Afternoon in Linen,” and if you like close readings (as I do, obviously) it’s really worth the time.

OMG. I’ll stop because I know I’m gushing and I could literally talk about these stories ALL DAY.

:e2coffee:
 

mrsmig

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I finished the Shirley Jackson collection last week, but hadn't had time to update my progress:

60. Dorothy and My Grandmother and The Sailors. Two girls are warned repeatedly about the dangers when the fleet comes in. An odd story, with a quirky ending (nothing much happens, except...). At first I didn't care for it, but then went back and read it again and liked it better.

61. Colloquy. A woman visits a therapist. Another odd one with a quirky ending, but elegantly written.

62. Elizabeth. A literary agent trapped in a routine and unsatisfying life dreams of making changes. I really liked this one. So much going on in the agent's relationship with her partner, and with a new employee he's hired without consulting her.

63. A Fine Old Firm. A family gets a visit from their son's friend's mother. There is SO much tension beneath the surface during this mundane visit and polite chat. Really masterful.

64. The Dummy. Two women at a supper club are troubled by one of the performers. Creepy.

65. Seven Types of Ambiguity. A nouveau riche couple visit a bookseller. The characters in this are drawn so sharply, even though only one is named - and his casual yet deliberate cruelty is unsettling.

66. Come Dance With Me in Ireland. Two housewives receive a visit from an indigent man selling shoelaces. The women's patronizing attempts at kindness echo the theme of After You, My Dear Alphonse, but with a much more stronger reaction from the person on the receiving end.

67. Of Course. A woman meets members of the new family next door. The ending of this one made me laugh out loud - something I wasn't expecting, given Jackson's often somber prose.

68. Pillar of Salt. A couple visits New York, and the wife becomes increasingly anxious. Another stylishly written story with an undercurrent of fear.

69. Men With Their Big Shoes. A new mother's plans go awry when she's faced with an implacable and inexorable housekeeper. This one made me go brrrrr.

70. The Tooth. A suburban woman goes to New York to see a doctor for her toothache. The line between reality and illusion is blurred, and there's another huge brrrrr at the end.

71. Got A Letter From Jimmy. A man receives a letter, and his wife is eaten up with curiosity about it. A short one with an ending that made me catch my breath.

And finally:

72. The Lottery. Just as good as I remembered. I've seen at least one filmed version of this story, and even performed in a stage version of it when I was a teen, but both lacked the subtlety of the actual story.

Lakey, thank you again for recommending this collection. There's not a clunker in the bunch.
 
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mrsmig

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With the Shirley Jackson collection finished, I've started the 2019 PEN America Best Debut Short Stories collection. So far I'm liking the stories, but I've never run across an anthology where the editors were so intrusive. There's an intro which introduces a little nugget from each story and the editors' opinion about the writing, which bugged me - I'd prefer to come into a story as unknowing as possible. So I skipped the intro, but damned if there isn't an editor's note before each and every story, giving still more opinions and highlights about it. So I'm skipping those, too.

73. Today, You're a Black Revolutionary. A young black woman climbs the state capitol's flagpole to take down its Confederate-themed flag. Interesting story written in second person POV, which normally I don't like but found perfectly suited to this story.
 

Chris P

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mrsmig: I'm pretty sure I read that story. I recall liking it, but I don't remember any details. I'm getting bad with that. I sometimes can't even remember the main characters' names at the end. It really complicates reading well-developed, in-world linked stories. "Wait, was that Matt or Andy who was married to Samantha in the previous book?" only to find out it was Margaret who was married to Jack in that other book.

In other news, The Best American series titles went live today. My bookstore didn't have them on the shelf yet, though.
 

Lakey

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mrsmig, I’m glad you finished The Lottery and enjoyed it. Thanks for summarizing the stories here; it was fun to be reminded of all of them. I feel like “Elizabeth” was an interesting one to read from a writers’ perspective, as Elizabeth’s work is not entirely on the up-and-up when it comes to the writers she represents, and one has a sense of her disappointment with herself for being more of a light scammer than the literary mover-and-shaker she had hoped to be. Also, “The Tooth” is one of my favorites in the collection. There is a moment in it that encapsulates everything I wish I could do in my writing, the moment when the woman looks in the mirror at the faces lined up against the sinks in the ladies’ room, and tries to figure out which face belongs to herself. It’s such a simple statement of an incredibly insightful and chilling idea, with layers upon layers of meaning. I just love it.



As for me: For the last few weeks I fell down a rabbit hole of one particular podcast, and my obsessive listening to it cut into my reading time. I went from being right on or slightly ahead of the pace for my book and story reading goals to ... well, I have to make a conscious push in the last 6 weeks of the year.

So here we go. I’m back in the Story Prize anthology which ChrisP and mrsmig read earlier in the year.

84. "The Zero Meter Diving Team,” Jim Shepard, 2007
Rather an odd story, with so many facts in it that it almost reads more like a long-form article than a story. The facts are about the Chernobyl disaster, how it happened, how it was covered up, and what the aftermath looked like. The story is about a man’s relationship with his brothers and his father. And the combination of the two works very well. One has the sense of the narrator as a competent engineer and a compassionate person, frustrated by the governments’ corner-cutting and propaganda-spinning, trying to do the right thing for people affected by the disaster. And yet that competency and compassion doesn’t quite bridge the gap between himself and the other men in his family; they all seem to remain alien to one another.

85. "Saleema,” Daniyal Mueenuddin, 2009
Oh, ouch. What a sad story with a sucker-punch ending. It’s just a terrible and tragic picture of how goddamned hard life is for the poor, even in a society where there is excess and plenty, accessible only to a select stratum. The story is plainly written and plainly plotted; a young woman is a servant in a rich household in Lahore, where she funds her husband’s drug addiction and sleeps with various men for protection and a sense of connection to something. She then falls in love with an older, higher-status servant in the house, and the two have a very touching and tender relationship which lulls you into making the mistake of imagining there might be happiness to be found even in the squalid servant quarters of this household. Yeah, no.

If you notice I skipped a year in there, it’s Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet on the Brain,” which I did actually read again but decided not to count. I already counted it earlier in the year, and had also counted it last year! It looks like it’s going to be one of those stories that I just come across a couple of times a year... very much a writers’s story, I think.

I’m halfway through the next story in the collection, a rather long Anthony Doerr story, and it’s pretty intense. More later, of course.

85/100 read, 38/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 
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Lakey

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Carrying on with the Story Prize anthology.

86. "Memory Wall,” Anthony Doerr, 2010
I rather like this lengthy story, which uses the conceit of a device for capturing and replaying memories analogous to the Pensieve in the Harry Potter stories. The device extracts memories from a person’s mind and records them on little cartridges, from which other people can replay and experience them, provided they have the right surgical implants. The story uses this device to entwine the life of a rich old white lady (it takes place in Capetown, South Africa) suffering from dementia with that of an itinerant black orphan teenager. The connection that forms between them, though odd and one-sided, is touching in a peculiar way, and inspires the boy to undertake the completion of the woman’s dead husband’s life’s work, which is what allows for the story’s refreshingly happy ending. What I liked about the story is that the woman is not herself a particularly likeable character; she is racist in an old-fashioned Apartheid-inflected way, and rather a snob in other dimensions as well; she’s not particularly charitable toward her husband about his work though his enthusiasm seems pure and endearing. But the presentation of her in her dementia-addled present, combined with the flashes of her past delivered through the memory device, make her a very rounded and sympathetic character. It’s an interesting bit of craft; I said in a few posts earlier this year that I’ve been intrigued by these stories with unlikeable yet sympathetic protagonists, and this is a great example of one.

87. “Snowmen,” Steven Millhauser, 2011
I am not sure whether I liked this story. I’ll have to go back and see what ChrisP and mrsmig had to say about it. In the story, some boys wake up to a prodigious snowfall in their neighborhood, and everyone sets to making snowmen that become increasingly more filigreed and lifelike, in settings that become ever more complex and involved reproductions of buildings and parks, until the weather changes and everything melts and colorful reality is restored from the crystalline facsimiles. The metaphors here, for the process of creation and the art of representation and the transience of beauty, are either far too on-the-nose or so subtle that I missed the point entirely.

88. “Ghosts, Cowboys,” Claire Vaye Watkins, 2012. Oh, wow. I really have to go read Chris and mrsmig’s comments on this one. This is a story about the extended wake left by the Manson family. It extends backwards through the history of the Spahn ranch where the Manson family lived for a while, asking questions about where stories can be said to begin. And it reaches down to the present day, showing how the offspring of the Manson family continue to suffer under the weight of that legacy. But there’s this: Like the Chernobyl story earlier in the book, this one mingles quite a bit of history in, as evidently Claire Watkins’s father really was Manson’s right-hand man during the Spahn period, who later testified against the family. So this author is working out her own psychology in these pages, in a startlingly intimate way. She creates (I believe this part is fictional, but it’s really just a guess) an anonymous baby born at the Spahn ranch of one of the Manson family orgies; now a grown woman, the “Razor Blade Baby” (as the narrator calls her, for gruesome reasons described in the text) is a sort of shadow to the narrator, literally following her around wherever she goes and forming a barrier between herself and normal life in the world. That Razor Blade Baby is a metaphor for the burden Watkins bears due to her parentage is apparent, but personifying that burden is kind of a stroke of genius, as it allows a relationship to form between Watkins and her burden, allows them to interact and talk to one another, for Watkins both to indulge the burden and also, in the end, maybe try to draw some boundaries against it, or assert that at least some part of her identity is separate. Anyway, yeah, wow.

This collection is really killer.

88/100 read, 38/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Tocotin

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Hello everyone. Lakey, that collection you're reading sounds absolutely fascinating.


I read the last two Sologub's stories. One, "Beastly Existence", was a story about a wealthy widower who has a 12 years old son whom he loves dearly. One day the widower has a strange visitor – a sleazy private investigator, who informs him that the boy is in danger, because his uncle, the brother of his dead mother, wants to inherit his money. The father of the boy finds it ridiculous, but he gives in out of curiosity, and agrees to pay the investigator. Things ensue. The story was kind of straightforward and perhaps typical for the era, but I quite enjoyed it thanks to great characterization and observations on culture and society.


The other story I read was an absolute delight, the more because I didn't expect this kind of story from this particular author. *I'm going to spoil it, because I don't think it'll be translated any time soon.* It is an – again – straightforward and short love story about a young girl named Mashenka who loves opera, and during one evening at the theatre notices an unremarkable young man watching her very intently. Mashenka's friends notice him too and start teasing her about him (they name him Lohengrin after the opera they are watching, and it is also the title of the story). Mashenka is angry and irritated. After some time she sees the same man watching her on the street. He approaches her politely and asks for permission to walk with her. She is angry with him still, of course – what does he want from her? He explains that he fell in love with her and would like it if they knew each other better, his name is this and this, he only wants to talk and if she doesn't like him, he promises to go away. Mashenka is a bit flattered – nothing like this has ever happened to her! – and agrees. After a few days of walking together and talking, he asks to be introduced to her family (she lives with her mother and younger brother). They like him a lot and he's permitted to visit Mashenka at her house. There's only one thing – he won't say what his occupation is! Mashenka is a bit taken aback at this; her little brother hopes that his sister's suitor is a leader of bandits and would let him join his band. Mashenka doesn't believe in anything like that, but she finds out that she's in love with Lohengrin, and no matter who he is, no matter what he does, she will always love him. She tells him this. And so he confesses – gasp – he's a bookbinder! He thought she would not want to marry a lowly artisan... I don't know what it was about this story, but I absolutely adored it and I cried at how funny and cute it was.


I also finished the Katherine Mansfield collection (and loved it too). I think it merits a whole post of its own, so I'll write about it next time.
 

mrsmig

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Continuing with the 2019 PEN American debut anthology:

74. The Rickies, by Sarah Curry. A group of young women refuse to be defined by their shared trauma. This was an interesting story, well-told, about friendship and how it changes. It was a hair overlong for my taste, but I still enjoyed it.

75. The Unsent Letters of Blaise and Jacqueline Pascal, by Kelsey Peterson. Blaise and Jacqueline were a renowned brother-sister duo of 17th century France (he a mathematician, she a poet) who became estranged when she became nun. The premise of the story is that they continued to write each other, but never sent the letters. The structure is fascinating (alternating lines from the letters, as the two are conversing), and the prose lyrical. Loved it.

76. The Manga Artist, by Doug Henderson. An American English teacher and his student, a Japanese manga artist, have an affair. I felt this one went on a bit long as well, but its experimental structure was effective: the narrative is presented as a written description of a manga (Japanese comic book) story, panel by panel.

77. Mother and Child, by Laura Freudig. A young woman abused by her own mother is overwhelmed by her husband's expectations of who a mother should be. A solid story with an undercurrent of despair and longing.

78. Without a Big One, by JP Infante. Young Ray Ray deals with the suspicion that his beloved stepfather has been sent to jail. I had some trouble keeping track of the characters in this one, but still, pretty good.

79. Last Days 1, by Tamiko Beyer. Another experimental story, blending poem, prose and essay. It was short, but I still had trouble connecting with it.

80. Good Hope, by Enyeribe Ibegwam. A young Nigerian man goes in search of his estranged uncle. Initially I had difficulty engaging with this one as well, but once the narrator moved from reminiscences of the uncle to actively seeking him out, I got more interested.

81. Tornado Season, by Melinda Manalokas. A 14 year-old struggles with the loss of her mother, her burgeoning desires and her rebellion against the limitations of her life. I really liked this one - punchy prose and a complicated relationship between the main character and her father, set against an incoming storm.
 
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Lakey

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A little more Story Prize anthology.

89. “Tenth of December,” George Saunders, 2013.
It always takes me a little bit to get into the rhythm of a George Saunders story. There tends to be a little stream-of-consciousness that is hard to follow at first. In this story it takes the form of a boy’s daydreams about magical creatures that live in his neighborhood and about a girl in his class; it’s all a bit disorienting at first. But this turns out to be a very lovely and sweet story about a very sick middle-aged man deciding whether it’s time to die, and once I warmed to the structures of it, the story drew me right in.

90. “Something Amazing,” Elizabeth McCracken, 2014.
This is a story about grief, and while bits of it are lovely, overall I found it frustrating. The narrative is rather punctuated with impressionist sections, second-person diversions (in which “you” becomes the grieving mother). It’s a kind of literary writing that makes me feel a little stupid, because I know I should find it beautiful but it really just slides in one ear and out the other. It’s not that it feels overly writerly, though it would if I tried to do it, and maybe it does, I’m not sure. It just doesn’t seem necessary. I really like the narrative here and would rather see it told more plainly, I guess, so I don’t feel like I have to read paragraphs over again just to understand what they are talking about. That’s a matter of style, I suppose.

90/100 read, 38/50 from the last five years.

I think for next year’s thread, I will set my recent-story cutoff to the last ten years. Time goes very quickly for me, and it’s hard to comprehend why I wouldn’t count a 2014 story as a “recent” story. I know literary tastes change and all that, but do they really change so quickly?

:e2coffee:
 

mrsmig

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Finished the PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019 anthology. Overall, I thought this collection was quite good (intrusive editors aside), which is encouraging given that it's an anthology made up solely of works by new authors, with an emphasis on BIPOC writers and characters.

82. Cicadas and the Dead Chairman, by Pingmei Lan. A child growing up in post-Mao China is fascinated by the peculiar old maid who lives nearby. This was a complicated story and I had a bit of trouble with it at first, but eventually was drawn in by the growing relationship between the two.

83. Vain Beasts, by A.B. Young. A rather meta plot intermingling several fairy tale tropes with a classic short story character. I liked the writing, and thought the story had promise, but it just never came together for me.

84. Bad Northern Women, by Erin Singer. I really liked this one, about a group of Native American sisters, their dysfunctional parents and the small, dead-end Canadian town where they live. The writing was dense and chewy (it reminded me of Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine).

I'm off to the beach again (this time for a week - my husband's current fascination is with learning how to surf-fish), so I may have to pick up another short-story collection. I sometimes find it hard to focus on a full-length work when I'm busy with other things, so that might put me over the 100-story mark for the year!

ETA: The 2020 Best American Short Stories anthology was available for Kindle, so I've snapped that up.
 
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Lakey

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I finished off the Story Prize, and finally got to move the needle a bit on my recent stories goal.

91. “Nirvana,” Adam Johnson, 2015.
Well, this is an odd one. In a near-future setting, the narrator and his wife struggle with her rapidly progressing degenerative nerve disease. He comforts himself by conversing with a recently-assassinated president, using technology that he developed, which projects an interactive 3D replica of the late statesman, whose campaign platitudes are hollow but reassuring. She comforts herself by listening to Nirvana on her headphones. The story has some powerful moments, but suffers (in my opinion) from first-person present narration* and its very predictable ending—it is a development that I saw coming almost as soon as the narrator’s conversations with the president were explained, and spent the rest of the story impatiently waiting for it to happen.

* I’m not going to claim I never met a first-person present narration that I liked; I’m sure there are stories in which it works fine, and I’ve probably even read some of them which I can’t think of now because of confirmation bias. But more often than not I find it irritating and unnecessary.


92. “How She Remembers It,” Rick Bass, 2016.
I guess this is a somewhat touching story of a girl’s memory of traveling with her father right before he begins to decline from dementia, but for a long chunk of it, very little happens; it takes a while for the engine to kick in and even when it does, it’s a bit anticlimactic. Also, her father’s impending mental decline isn’t shown, or hinted at through his actions or behavior, but signposted and told via clunky sentences like “She didn’t know then that something was wrong with him, and that he wasn’t going to get better.” I generally hate this kind of “Later, she would....” time jumping in an otherwise close third-person narrative. So the story doesn’t do all that much for me.

93. “The Sign,” Elizabeth Strout, 2017.
Oh, Elizabeth Strout is just wonderful. I have only read Olive Kitteridge and a smattering of other stories, but wow can she evoke a time and place, and animate deep and sympathetic characters within it. One of the things she does extraordinarily well is create sensitive, gentle men and show how the structures (or conventions, or expectations) of twentieth-century American masculinity chafe against their empathy. I say twentieth-century because the characters I am thinking of tend to be older men, as the protagonist in this story, in his early 80s, reckoning with events that took place decades earlier. It’s an absolutely beautiful story, just beautiful, and a hell of a place to end this collection. Strout is one of the few writers whose stories have made me tear up—this is one of them.

93/100 read, 41/50 from the last five years.

And now, I’ll see if I can finish out the year with another modern collection, or with the New Yorker podcast, or just by spelunking through some of the markets I’m looking to submit to, so that I can hit both halves of my goal.

:e2coffee:
 

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I've just finished Fiction River presents Time Travelers with 8 Stories by 8 different authors.

Fiction River anthologies have been a bit hit-and-miss for me in the past. Usually there is one story I absolutely dislike and it colours the whole anthology. Not so with Time Travellers.

September at Wall and Broad
by Kristine Rusch was probably the most interesting. It held a few I ideas that I have not yet seen in time travel stories that certainly was a nice breath of fresh air. Like the first time I've seen anyone explores the idea of having a period right after the discovery of time travel, before rules and time travel agencies get founded, when politicians really fuck up and can't fix their time travel screwups with more time travel.

Some stories deal with the usual going back in time to fix mistakes or prevent tragedies where the time travel is never quite explained. Such as Three Strikes and Christmas, Interrupted. The latter was clearly a romance story, which makes this anthology feel more diverse than simply convoluted timeline adventures stories that you see crop up a lot with time travel. So that was nice.

The Elevator in the Cornfield
by Scot William Carter and Love in Time of Dust and Venom by Sharon Stone pack a decent emotional punch about what time travellers leave behind.


4/5 new anthologies or collections.

Heh, picking anthologies and collections with writers I hadn't read has turned out more of a challenge than I anticipated at the beginning of the year. Maybe because back in March I had several anthologies on my TBR-pile that fit the bill and thought that was enough of a start. I also just noticed I had originally planned to get to 7, but apparently forgot that and changed it to 5 half way the year and aimed for that instead. So that means I'm not going to get 7 before next year.

Will have to review my challenge for next year, I think. But this one certainly pushed me to read a little further out of my comfortzone and I think it definitely benefited me. I'm likely to try something similar next year.
 

Lakey

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Friendly Frog, I’m glad you found the challenge helpful and I look forward to having you back next year. I’ll start the thread when we get closer to the end of the month.

If anyone has thoughts on how to increase participation next year, I’m open to suggestions!

As for me, I don't want all my modern stories to be from the New Yorker, but the Writer's Voice podcast makes it very easy to sneak them in while I'm doing kitchen chores. I'm still hoping to finish out the year with some non-New-Yorker modern stories.

94. “A for Alone,” Curtis Sittenfeld, in The New Yorker, 2020.
I've read a couple of Sittenfeld's stories, and I always enjoy them. (I got curious about her novels because of that, but a friend of mine read Rodham and detested it, so I haven't prioritized her.) This story isn't bad, though I am not crazy about the present tense; it just doesn't add anything, for me. Anyway the story is about a middle-aged artist who attempts to do a political project about the "Billy Graham rule," AKA the "Mike Pence rule," according to which a married man must refuse to spend time alone with a woman other than his wife. The story's arc is entirely predictable, but also satisfying.

95. “Life Without Children,” Roddy Doyle, in The New Yorker, 2020.
I suppose it's a coincidence that both the stories I read this week are about people with grown children facing the pinnacles of middle age, but it's not a coincidence that I liked Sittenfeld's story better, as given a choice between a story by/about a woman and one by/about a man I'll probably prefer the former nineteen times out of twenty! This story has the distinction of being the first I've read that acknowledges the coronavirus pandemic; it's set in England back in the early spring, during a brief window in which the protagonist's native Ireland was in lockdown, but England was not. The character, on a business trip to Newcastle, walks around musing about casting off his life and identity and starting a new one. He makes a gesture toward doing so that feels mildly alarming and extreme in the moment, but turns out to be largely symbolic. It's a perfectly fine story, nothing wrong with it; my preference for the other is entirely a matter of my own admitted biases.

95/100 read, 43/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 

Lakey

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A little bit of sad news from the short-story world: An exciting young writer, Anthony Veasna So, has died. So wrote trenchantly and with humor, drawing on his experiences as a Cambodian American. His short stories caught a lot of attention in the literary world, which is unusual for a debuting writer.

Here is a link to So’s obituary in the New York Times.

Anyway I mention this here because I read a story of his in the New Yorker earlier this year, “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts,” and commented on it way upthread. Here’s a link to read the story if you’d like to. It’s also available in the New Yorker Writer’s Voice podcast, if you’d like to listen to So reading it himself.

Little happy coffee guy doesn’t feel like the right way to end this post.
 
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mrsmig

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Thanks for that link, Lakey, although the news that came along with it is very sad, particularly given that the story is wonderful - especially the wallop of that final line. (Yes, I read it, so it's officially my 85th short story for the year. I'll be looking for more of So's work.)

I started the 2020 BASS anthology.

86. Godmother Tea, by Selena Anderson. I had a hard time with this story of a young woman trying to change her life. Some of it's grounded in reality, and some in fantasy/illusion, but the story seemed to wander, and it just never came together for me.

87. The Apartment, by T.C. Boyle. I enjoyed this tale, set in France, of a man who makes a deal to take over his elderly neighbor's apartment when she dies, certain that it'll be soon. While I felt that the ending was a little predictable, the journey was still entertaining.
 
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Lakey

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mrsmig, I am glad you enjoyed “Three Women of Chuck’s Donuts.” I have found myself thinking of Anthony Veasna So often in the days since I posted the sad news. I’m not sure why it got to me the way it did; maybe because he was so very young, and because I harbor a great deal of awe and envy for a certain kind of literary mind.

Meanwhile, I am doing a little spelunking to finish out my year.


96. “Driving to Ithaca,” Sarah Edwards, in The Southeast Review, 2020.
This story is all right. It is a character-driven tangle of a couple of unresolved threads, a relatively young woman’s breast-cancer scare and her on-again, off-again relationship with her EMT boyfriend, from whom she feels rather emotionally estranged. (She has fixated on needling him to talk to her about the gruesome things he sees at work, which he is not interested in doing.) There’s really excellent dialogue in this story, quirky and still natural. The writing is a little choppy, though; especially in the beginning, I found it a little hard to nail down. Also, the boyfriend’s name changes from Andrew to Michael at the very end, and I’m not sure whether that’s a clumsy error, or something of significance.

97. “Polly, Looking,” Jamie Harrison, in Virginia Quarterly Review, 2020
There were things I really liked about this story about a middle-aged woman who is suffering from cognitive deficits due to a traumatic brain injury. It captures in a really harrowing way the distress and frustration of being sure your mind isn’t working right, and not being taken seriously by pompous, establishment medical professionals. A good friend of mine suffered an injury like this (in a very similar way, hit by a car) shortly before I met her, and she talks frequently about things that are expressed eloquently in this story. But, there are far too many named characters—the children and neighbors and friends and friends’ children of the protagonist, her parents and grandparents, and it’s impossible to keep them all straight when they pop in and out of the narrative. The disappearance of someone (a neighborhood child? a friend’s child?) I am sure carried some symbolic weight, but as I was never certain who she was, it lost some impact.

There’s also an interesting time shift—at first it seems like a lengthy digression into the story of how the protagonists’ parents met, but in fact the story comes to an end in this flashback, never returning to the time frame of the accident. I’m not sure it worked; it felt like a backstory infodump, and it was all I could do to keep from skimming through it because I wanted to get back to what was going on with the protagonist. I was surprised, and not really in a good way, when that didn’t happen.

98. “The Math of Living,” Nishanth Injam, in Virginia Quarterly Review, 2020.
I appreciated where this story is coming from; it is about someone like a lot of people I know, my friends and colleagues, a software engineer working in the US while his parents struggle in poverty or what passes for lower middle class in India. There is a conceit in it that every quantifiable item gets replaced by a variable; the conceit felt a little too cutesy as I was reading it, but on reflection I think it serves to make the story even more detached than its already detached voice does, and provide a sense of interchangeability that underscores what I said earlier—this story describes a lot of people I know, and many, many more besides.

98/100 read, 46/50 from the last five years.

:e2coffee:
 
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mrsmig

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Wow, Lakey - you're nearly there!

Continuing with the BASS 2019 anthology:

88. A Faithful But Melancholy Account of Several Barbarities Lately Committed, by Jason Brown. This is another one I had trouble getting into, possibly because it's from a series of linked short stories. In any case, this tale of a family struggling with their New England heritage and esteemed past just didn't engage me, although the writing is fine.

89. Sibling Rivalry, by Michael Byers. A one-child law is in place, but couples wanting more than one child can buy extra synth children. This story is just a bit long-winded, and I was afraid it would go down Spielberg's soppy A.I. route, but it doesn't, and but the ending left me wanting more. Fascinating "what if" story.

90. The Nanny, by Emma Kline. I didn't know what to make of this story. It defies nearly every storytelling rule: throws you into the middle of the action without a setting, without any information about the characters, etc. Eventually you get enough threads to string the plot together, but I never had an aha! moment where it all became clear, and the droopy main character (who appears to be living under a cloud due to an affair with a movie star) didn't engage me. You can read it for free at the Paris Review website.
 
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Chris P

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Thanks for the report on the BASS installment. My theory is that each volume of this particular series lives or dies based on the editor for that year. After about six or so stories, if I'm not pulled in I won't be. I'm finding this with the BA Science and Nature writing for this year. You and I seem to have similar tastes, so thank you for being my scout.


The Dark Country - Wendell Berry

This is from the "A Place in Time" story collection, which I got on sale for the five or so stories in it I didn't already have. Lost on an after-dark fur hunt with his two dogs, Burley Coulter has the opportunity to reflect on his life and community.

- - - Updated - - -

Thanks for the report on the BASS installment. My theory is that each volume of this particular series lives or dies based on the editor for that year. After about six or so stories, if I'm not pulled in I won't be. I'm finding this with the BA Science and Nature writing for this year. You and I seem to have similar tastes, so thank you for being my scout.


The Dark Country - Wendell Berry

This is from the "A Place in Time" story collection, which I got on sale for the five or so stories in it I didn't already have. Lost on an after-dark fur hunt with his two dogs, Burley Coulter has the opportunity to reflect on his life and community.
 

mrsmig

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Aw, shoot - the 2019 BA Science & Nature anthology was on the Christmas list I gave to my husband. You and I really do have similar tastes, Chris P.
 

Chris P

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Oh, the 2019 BA S&N was quite good. It's the 2020 one I'm finding meh. The 2019 had more biology and nature (especially climate), while the 2020 has a lot more space and tech. Cool and all, but not as much my thing. Given the Michio Kaku is a physicist that's not surprising. 2019 was edited by naturalist Sy Montgomery so that makes sense too.
 

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