In my ongoing battle to get better at this writing thing, I'm reading the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (7th ed) one day at a time. Posting reviews on this thread and folks, I'm gonna be honest. If you made it into Norton you don't need me to sugar coat it.
We'll take as a given that the writing is first rate, so the review is about why does the world need this story? Where does it leave me? What's the jiz as Franzen might say if he were in this little workshop with me - and thank god he's not.
Day 1: Lee K. Abbott, One of Star Wars, One of Doom. A school mass shooting from a teacher's world weary lens, then death. I think I had this teacher, but I had much better ones too. Human worth seems taboo in the modern short story. I don't need Chicken Soup but man.
Day 2: Sherwood Anderson, I Want to Know Why. Distractingly heavy use of N-word. I do love stories with horsies, and the boy's journey and growth are engrossing. Anachronistic in an uneasy way. Anderson wrote many stories. Why, in 2006, this one?
Day 3: @MargaretAtwood, Death by Landscape. Of all the authors I read, Atwood is transcendent. Her delicacy and resonance, the persistent humanity of her characters, the light touch that stings. We are in the presence of genius.
Day 4: James Baldwin, Sonny's Blues. Caught me from the first words. Here I'm not impatient or annoyed, but carried along effortlessly with the power of music and brotherly love. The jazz scene is exquisite. Baldwin restores my faith in the form.
Day 5: @BambaraCade, Gorilla, My Love. The language is hard but the rhythm is good. It wants to be read aloud, by the author. A little girl, in peril but loved, in a place that doesn't love her. An America I recognize.
Day 6: Andrea Barrett, The Littoral Zone. The moment where a marriage dissolves and the long running out of the aftermath. Makes visible what's so hard to understand - how we do the things we do to those we love, and the inevitability of regret.
Day 7: Donald Barthelme, Me and Miss Mandible. A reflection on dissatisfied lives and the impossibility of starting over. Feels strangely dated, a Mad Men quality, part fantasy, part insanity.
Day 8: Richard Bausch, Byron the Lyron. Maybe it's because I know the author but feels very personal, like Bausch asking to be appreciated for quiet dutifulness that passes unnoticed. Hi, welcome to women's lives. There are no trophies.
Day 9: Charles Baxter, The Disappeared. A Swede ventures out of his downtown Detroit hotel to wander on foot with predictable results. Baxter is American but there's a sense of foreignness - the eroticism and voodoo of the inner city.
Day 10: Ann Beattie, Snow. Some stories stay with you forever. Some stories you forget so fast you have to glance back to write your daily Twitter review. This one feels like a throwaway writing workshop sketch. At least it's short.
Day 11: Madison Smartt Bell, Witness. One of those unusual short stories with a definite plot. Abuser gets out of prison and immediately kills his victims while lawyer tries to interest judge in a restraining order. Set in the South but feels like any time, anywhere.
Day 12: Gina Berriault, Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am? I'm a sucker for stories about librarians. This one is about a lost soul and the librarian who lets him empty his pockets, ask questions, wander in and out (but not sleep in the library), until the wanderer quietly dies.
Day 13: Ambrose Bierce, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. It's difficult to work up a lot of emotion over a Confederate planter who tries to sabotage a bridge and gets strung up by Union troops, even if he has an exciting death throes fantasy of miraculous escape.
Day 14: Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. "The sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light." Words I've remembered since high school, whose perfection hurt me and made me want to write.
Day 15: Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote. Pseudo literary criticism of a fictional writer who devotes his life to recreating Don Quixote. I'm not always sure what's going on in a Borges story, but I'm always having fun.
Day 16: Ray Bradbury, The Veldt. A futuristic household in which technology responds to our deepest desires - and the children's VR lions eventually eat the parents. Highly satisfying (burp).
Day 17: Frederick Busch, Bread. A brother and sister clean out their deceased parents' house. Stories like this feel like the need to make meaning out of an exhausting obligation that we fear has none. I've done it. I get it. Not sure there's a story in it. This one doesn't land.
Day 18: Ethan Canin, The Year of Getting to Know Us. Another story about the loss of a parent, as if it's the defining thing in life that makes us look forward and backward with fresh eyes, the center of the story for the first time, no longer owned by another narrative.
Day 19: Truman Capote, Miriam. A kind of ghost story. A widow living a set routine interrupted by a mysterious child who becomes increasingly disturbing and in the end will not leave. Whatever's meant to capture me here doesn't.
Day 20: Raymond Carver, The Student's Wife. The wife as plodding, unimaginative, greedy drag on the beleaguered, Rilke-reading husband. This is what we need? I'm tired, just weary of it, like breathing smog every day. #stopit
Day 21: Raymond Carver, Cathedral. A blind widower visits an old friend whose husband isn't keen but winds up describing a cathedral for him late at night. A novel sensory experience. But in a book with limited pages, why so much Carver?
Day 22: RV Cassill, The Rationing of Love. By one of the editors, about a father who won't buy him a cup of coffee before he goes away to war and all the years later when he finally gets his damn coffee. The things people remember and obsess about, good lord.
Day 23: Willa Cather, A Wagner Matinee. Another story that made me want to write. The distance between what we come from - the stark farmyard in Nebraska, the chickens pecking around the door - and the grandeur of the concert hall like a forbidden country.
Day 24: Willa Cather, Paul's Case. Another character who can't bear the banality of the life he's born to, steals to have a moment of transcendence, and kills himself when it's over. Cather had serious issues and I AM HERE FOR ALL OF IT. Wish I'd been around to know her.
Day 25: John Cheever, The Enormous Radio. A couple acquires a new radio that broadcasts the sad secret lives of their neighbors and destroys their perfectly average equilibrium. Are we all this precariously balanced? I want more - fighting back, reemerging scarred and fierce.
Day 26: John Cheever, The Death of Justina. The tremendous complications created by municipal zoning laws on the occasion of a family burial. The mortification of modern employment. A birth, death, taxes kind of story.
Day 27: Anton Chekhov, Gusev. A sailor dies at sea and descends into the deep to become one with the universal. A little cosmic for me and I think it'd get shredded in the average writers workshop but, ya know, Chekhov.
Day 28: Anton Chekhov, Anna on the Neck. So many stories about marriage as a moderately unpleasant social contract, tolerated for lack of options. At least in this one, the young lady bartered miserably to save the family gets her own back in the end.
Day 29: Anton Chekhov, The Lady With the Dog. A seaside affair that the lovers convince themselves is beautiful destiny. Chekhov seems to specialize in drawing out the human, universal details of banal stories we've heard a hundred times.
Day 30: Kate Chopin, The Story of an Hour. A woman trapped in a stifling marriage rejoices privately at news of her husband's death, only to have him walk in an hour later - at which she drops dead. I suspect the husband.
Day 31: Mark Twain, The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Worth the price of admission just for the title. Nobody does folksy and cheesy better. Also I'm in favor of short stories that are actually short.
Day 32: The Invalid's Story. Spoiler alert: a box of guns and a box of Limburger cheese on a train are mistaken for a rapidly decomposing corpse. Hijinks ensue. Again, shortness is a virtue.
Day 33: Julio Cortázar, A Continuity of Parks. A very short story that turns on itself like a snake eating its tale, so that by the last line the fictional reader is in peril from the story and I wonder if I should lock the door. Tasty.
Day 34: Julio Cortázar, Letter to a Young Lady in Paris. This story about spontaneously appearing rabbits taking over and destroying a borrowed apartment feels strangely timely, viral devastation for our quarantined times.
Day 35: Stephen Crane, The Open Boat. A captain, correspondent, cook, and oiler shipwrecked in a lifeboat, paddling endlessly toward land in heavy seas. "None of them knew the color of the sky." Damn! I call that a story.
Day 36: Stephen Crane, The Blue Hotel. Arriving in a rough frontier town during a blizzard, a paranoid Swede puts a self-fulfilling prophecy in motion. A quarantine parable for those who like drama a little too much.
Day 37: Edwidge Danticat, A Wall of Fire Rising. A family of three struggles to survive in a tiny Haitian shack, nursing impossible dreams of transcendence and flight that inevitably lead to devastation. Perhaps the Norton Anthology of Downers is not the best reading choice now.
Day 38: Isak Dinesen, Sorrow-Acre. The origin of a legend of suffering and redemption that will pass out of living memory to become myth. So dark, so Danish, and modern in the outrage of the next generation over the cruelty of the past.
Day 39: Susan Dodd, Public Appearances. The walled-in reality of the political wife, the expectations, restrictions, and secret torments, by the wife of US Sen. Christopher Dodd. The unsurprising insight that those who sit at the grand banquet find it less than satisfying.
Day 40: Andre Dubus, The Intruder. A kid who has a casual relationship with reality, left alone with his older sister at the family home in the woods, shoots an intruder who may or may not be the sister's boyfriend. Possibly to do with gun safety?
Day 41: Stuart Dybek, We Didn't. The extended tale of how "we didn't" have sex that summer, with a dead pregnant woman washing up on the beach in the middle to spice things up, because otherwise is this even a short story?
Day 42: Stanley Elkin, I Look Out for Ed Wolfe. I seriously don't know what to make of some of these. A man without family or connections loses his job, liquidates everything he owns and slowly dissipates. What makes a man? What is a life worth? What's the point? I give up.
Day 43: Ralph Ellison, King of the Bingo Game. A young black man gets to spin the wheel in a game of chance and won't stop spinning, because it's the only chance he'll ever get. Eventually police show up to bash his head in. The more things change....
Day 44: Louise Erdrich, Matchimanito. Only Erdrich the Great could write a plague story set in Ojibwe country 150 years ago and make it spooky, touching, and compelling in a future still decades away. #respect
Day 45: William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily. Faulkner's Miss Havisham, alone in her decaying grand house with a decaying suitor in an upstairs bedroom, paying no taxes while neighbors complain about the smell. Liberal use of the n-word. It's the Old South all right.
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