Week of 11/16
I’ll Be With You Shortly Edition
There are actually quite a few perfect pop songs. We could each name our favorites. I think of Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen’s "Because the Night" or Kanye West’s "Hold My Liquor". These are songs that contain a fully realized and a complete story in three to five minutes. I think of Ray Charles singing Don Gibson’s "I Can’t Stop Loving You". When he gets to the line "They say that time/mends a broken heart/but time has stood still/since we’ve been apart", I suddenly understand everything I need to know about his heartache.
Short stories are like that. A single line can break the story open and suddenly it is so ripe it doesn’t need to be longer, it’s done what it needs to do. It tells you everything and it doesn’t waste a moment doing it. Short stories are as finely tuned as the perfect pop song; they don’t need a word more and might collapse at a word less. Here are a few of my current short story greatest hits.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis’ stories are predicated on the ways our secret minds work, our weird superstitious beliefs, our skewed ideas of cause and effect, that sometimes help us negotiate the world and sometimes make it impossible. They’re terse, idiosyncratic, and often funny. Here’s one, in its entirety:
The Dog Hair
The dog is gone. We miss him. When the doorbell rings, no one barks. When we come home late, there is no one waiting for us. We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes. We pick them up. We should throw them away. But they are all we have left of him. We don’t throw them away. We have a wild hope---if only we collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.
Jonathan Franzen reads and talks about Lydia Davis.
Cries For Help, Various by Padgett Powell
Remember when you were a kid and you’d overhear jokes the grown-ups told and you’d laugh to yourself as if you understood. You know, you were cool. Only you didn’t understand. Not quite. Sometimes, days later, you’d get it. You’d understand the joke, you’d laugh, honestly this time, and that laughter was mixed with something---what?---you’d feel like you knew a little more about the world, you were a little more grownup, a little more savvy.
Padgett Powell’s short stories are like that. They’re in a language all their own, involve cowboys and lowlifes and truckers, and often, as I finished one, I’d think---what?---but they wouldn’t leave me alone, my mind would worry them like a nicked bone then suddenly, days later: Oooohhhh, and a smile.
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Quade’s stories have a definite sense of place, both physical and economic. Her characters spring from the dusty mesas of New Mexico, the trailer parks and four-room houses. They take buses across endless, flat highways and vacation in abandoned churches with dry swimming pools. These stories have a tinge of Flannery O’Connor, with their threats of sin and promises of redemption, but they’re drier, more arid, and more serious. There’s none of the twisted humor and sardonic voice; it’s replaced by a vivid sense of place and a fully lived-in grasp of character.
Here’s what The Times said.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
The language of Lucia Berlin’s stories pop and crackle like cheap fireworks, filling the air with their scent: the standing water and cheap fabric softener of a laundromat, stale bourbon and musty floors. Her words are always surprising me, but not in a showy, literary way, more in the way of a person you meet in passing who offers something terse and profound, like a gift. They leave me with a glow, a scotch-on-the-front-porch-on-a-fall-night sort of contented glow.
More on Lucia Berlin.
Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo
Of all the short story writers listed above, Silvina Ocampo is the most difficult to give you a sense of. Born in Buenos Aires in 1903, she began writing short stories in the 1930’s and was later championed by Jorge Luis Borges. Her stories have the subtle surreal flavor of Borges but where Borges is grounded in the imagination, these stories are intimately rooted in the world, only a world that constantly shifts beneath our feet. Often Ocampo stories observe dispassionately the passions of their subjects, tilting their heads here and there to attempt a different perspective. There is humor here, for the human condition, and a certain winking acceptance of our eccentricities. But there’s also an amazing grace in the writing and a sublime clarity. Ocampo had no interest in the overly descriptive or the obvious, her stories are sharp and dangerous.
“In 1979 her forty-two-year body of work was denied Argentina’s National Prize for Literature. ‘Demasiado Crueles’ (far too cruel) was the verdict of that year’s panel.” If these stories are cruel it’s not because they are brutal or violent, but because they contain not a shred of romanticism.
Here’s a review from The Guardian.
Daniel De Visé, Andy and Don
Wednesday, November 2nd, 6pm
A lively, revealing biography of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts, celebrating the powerful real-life friendship behind one of America’s most iconic television programs.
Robert Demaree, The Poet and the World of the Small Press
Saturday, November 14, 10am
Kathleen Clay Edwards Branch Library
1420 Price Park Rd, Greensboro
Demaree will discuss the process of preparing your work for publication for magazine or chapbook consideration, addressing topics such as searching for markets, rules for submission, and preparing your book or chapbook.
Charlie Lovett, The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge
Thursday, December 3, 5pm
A delightful sequel to Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol by the bestselling author of First Impressions and The Bookman’s Tale.
Here’s a short animation made from a single sentence in Lydia Davis’ The Cows
Please send any announcements of writerly or bookish events in the Triad area or beyond to: email@example.com
Steve Mitchell’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC.