Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Short stories, and Kafka

I've been reading a lot of short stories these past few weeks--the new Ploughshares (with a  fantastic essay by Maine author Sarah Braunstein) as well as the new Glimmer Train. I love short stories because the time commitment is often small but the emotional payoff is usually really big. And, what really gets me is that often I read a story and I don't like it--sometimes I even hate it--but then, the characters hang around in my head, or the ending--that perplexing, convoluted ending!--keeps coming back to me. And the more I puzzle it out, the more I start to like it and even, in some cases, to emulate it in my own writing. Which raises the question--do we have to like a story for it to be good? Isn't the job of writing to raise questions, challenge ideas, make the reader (and maybe the writer) a little uncomfortable? In truth, I think sometimes my intial dislike is really discomfort and I have to give myself time and space to think about the why and maybe turn it around a little.

Speaking of things not liked on first glance, this afternoon on the way home I heard a story on NPR about Kafka. The story was about his papers, and who "owns" them, and what should be done with them. But it made me think about reading The Trial for AP English. Not only reading it, but my friend and I had to team teach it. The first time I picked up that slim little volume, I thought easy. And then. So, not so easy. But that book changed everything for me. What do you mean you don't have to give a character a full name? Obscurity? Disorder? The feeling of the book being put together out of orderI remember sitting at my dining room table and crying as I was trying to piece the thing out. But then, once I had it, once I understood it, it was like I'd found something no one else knew about. And I knew that was how I wanted to write (I'm still working on exactly how to do that). And then, when I learned Kafka had wanted all his papers burned upon his death, I felt a spark of something else--maybe, as writers, we don't even have to know we're good.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Oh, boy. I do love it when someone (my dear Librarian friend Kathleen) puts a book in my hands and says "I think you'll love this." Even better when I do. Antarctica is a collection of stories by Irish author Claire Keegan. It isn't new, but I'd never heard of Keegan before. I'm so glad I have now!

These stories are not for the faint of heart. When suggested by Kathleen, she likened it to Kissing in Manhattan, a very dark and strange collection of stories which I loved, but I've found few other people who feel the same. In Antarctica, I especially loved the first and title story but there are other gems in this collection that kept me awake at night, made me scribble ideas on pieces of paper while I drove (I know, but I was careful and I'm afraid I'll forget!), and made me gasp. Some of the stories made me pause, and turn things over in my mind, and consider if I liked them or not---but then, is it necessary to like a story for it to be good? If the characters stay with you (and stay they will), isn't that a sign of a really good story? Even more wondrous for me was that some of the stories were not new (although the argument can me made that there are no new stories). For example, the beautiful sister with the long hair coming home, ungrateful and unwelcomed by her less attractive, harder-working sister--I won't spoil the end, but I saw it coming a mile away. And I feel like I shouldn't like a story that doesn't surprise me...but, then, Keegan writes in a way that is uniquely captivating and that ugly sister has really lingered in my head.

The only bad thing I will say about this collection is that some of the dialogue, especially for the stories set here in the United States, felt a little forced, a little contrived. Like me trying to do an Irish accent. But maybe I was looking for that, I can't say for sure. All I know is that I'm going to be requesting Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields and keeping my eyes out for anything else by her.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Lieutenant

Even though I only skimmed it for my Saturday book club, I was reminded of how fabulous Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant was (I read it fully a few months ago). Grenville, also the author of the similarly-set The Secret River, is extraordinary at placing us in newly-settled Australia. Slowly, but with the sense of a timely unfolding, no rushing, this story takes the reader into the life of Astronomer Daniel Rooke. Rooke is initially hoping to find Haley's Comet but instead he finds a link to humanity--his own and others'--through language. Grenville does a masterful job of underplaying tension so that it builds and builds. She doesn't over-sentimentalize the brutality of the soldiers, or Rooke's friendships, and Rooke's courage is not of a super-hero variety, nor are the others completely one-dimensional. The book is quiet, and the protagonist is quiet, but if you take the time, you will not be sorry. Everyone in the book club loved it, and I think that's a first.

In addition to the two above-mentioned books, Grenville is also the author of The Idea of Perfection, which I also really enjoyed but which, if you read without knowing the author, you would never suspect it had been written by the same. The Idea of Perfection is filled with quirky characters doing odd-ball things, and really running amok through the story. It's a completely different subject matter, not historical at all, and not really something you'd want to give as a Father's Day gift. My mother hated it. I loved it...but then, I really like strange people doing strange things.

I know some people like an author to stick to one genre--they want a story to be what they expect it to be. But I like to see an author with range. It keeps things interesting, as far as I'm concerned.