I read a lot of short fiction in May. I didn’t finish a lot of books. I dipped in and out of anthologies, collections, magazines, and individual short Kindle titles. I was exhausted, a lot happened this month, and I couldn’t sustain concentration long enough to finish many novels. In fact, I often forgot I was reading something until I opened my Kindle or my iPad and saw what I had been reading last. I’d pick up books with book marks in them, and then set them back down again, unable to remember where I left off. As I said, exhausted and dealing with other things.
I’m slowly recovering and the other things have settled down. My concentration is returning. I’m still on a short story kick, though. We’ll see what June brings.
Here’s the best of the best from May.
Bissinger, Buzz, After Friday Night Lights, iBooks Edition, Open Road Publishing, 2012. I became aware of this short essay after Open Road had a spat with Amazon because, apparently, Open Road didn’t read the terms of distribution through Amazon. It made national news, making Amazon the bad guy, when really, all they did was what they said they would do. Anyway, I read Friday Night Lights and liked it a great deal. I had forgotten that I had seen the movie (which tells you something) and I didn’t like the TV show.
So, when I heard about this, I picked it up. I read a lot on my iPad, but this is the first book I’ve read through the iBookstore. I didn’t like the interface that much. Mostly, though, I felt limited by the lack of a dedicated e-reader. At times, I just want the e-reader, not the entire backlit screen. Still, it was nice to have the option. When the book wasn’t available on Kindle (it is now), I could order it elsewhere just as easily.
It’s a fascinating follow-up piece about the impact such a big nonfiction book had on two of the participants (the writer and one of the subjects of the book—who made no money on that book, and signed a criminally bad contract with Hollywood). The book addresses the issues that used to cross my mind back when I was writing magazine pieces, the ethical concerns, the way that just being a subject of such a piece can sometimes change a life. Worth reading, even if you haven’t read Friday Night Lights.
Brande, Robin, Doggirl, Ryer Publishing, 2011. I love Robin Brande’s YA novels. I’ve recommended them before. When I discovered a whole treasure trove of them that I hadn’t seen before, I ordered them all. I read Doggirl first.
Doggirl is about a socially challenged girl named Riley Case who got bullied badly in her previous school, so badly that her parents moved and put her in an entirely new school district. Riley isn’t just shy, she’s afraid she’ll do something “wrong” again so the bullying will start. She doesn’t know what “wrong” is, only that “normal” kids don’t like her much.
But animals do. Animals and birds and all things not human. She has three dogs who are as damaged as she is, and she’s healed them while they healed her. She spends all of her time training them. So when she sees a sign that says “Dog trainer needed. Must provide dog,” she answers it.
This leads her to the drama department and a fun (if invented [sadly]) competition to write, produce, and perform a play in two weeks. She joins a fascinating crew of drama geeks on an impossible mission. Only it’s more impossible for her, because she’s so terrified of doing something wrong. I was terrified of that, and terrified that her dogs wouldn’t perform properly, and terrified that someone would hurt them all again. In other words, I was involved in this story 100%.
The pay-off is wonderful. I loved this book and recommend it highly. It’s fantastic.
Butcher, Jim, “Something Borrowed,” My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, edited by PN Elrod, St Martins Griffin, 2006. Never ask Harry Dresden to be the best man at your wedding. Yes, he’ll rescue the bride and save the world from disaster, but he will also trash the city while doing so. A good introduction to Dresden, but also a gift to the fans. A fun story, well worth your time.
Caro, Robert A., “The Transition,” The New Yorker, April 2, 2012. I thought I had read everything written on the Kennedy assassination, but it wasn’t until I read this fascinating piece that I realized I hadn’t read anything strictly from Lyndon Baines Johnson’s point of view. I had read some interviews with him, but nothing like this. Caro is Johnson’s biographer. In fact, Caro has given most of the last few decades to meticulously chronicling Johnson’s every movement.
This piece is that meticulously done. It’s detailed and intriguing—what would have happened if Kennedy hadn’t died? It looks like Johnson would have been dumped because of scandals. The scandals disappeared too after the assassination because everyone believed keeping the country together was more important than revealing some of the things Johnson did. Amazing work. I will eventually buy all the pieces of this massive biography (I have one of them), but I won’t get to reading it until I have a work in progress that I need it for. So I’m very glad I read this.
Child, Lee, “Everybody Talks,” Esquire, June/July, 2012. Esquire has returned to fiction, which is a great thing. It’s doing a monthly e-book edition called Fiction For Men, with stories not in the magazine. I haven’t looked at that yet. But to celebrate the new feature, it has included a lot of fiction in the July issue. There’s a Joe Hill & Stephen King novella, but only part one. Part two will appear next month, so I’ll wait until I can finish it. There are some exceedingly short-shorts, and another story by a writer I’ve never heard of, although Esquire assumes I have so it must be somebody who has published a lot.
Then there’s the Child. Which is billed as a Jack Reacher story. The story is relatively short, and it’s in the first person, and by the end of the first paragraph, it’s clear that we’re reading about a female rookie cop. Definitely not Reacher. But he becomes the focus of the story, and frankly, the new point of view is the only way the story would have worked. It’s well done, great writing, great voice, and great new character. I hope Child does something with her. Very well done.
Connolly, John, “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Crime Writers: Ireland and The Mystery Writer,” Down These Green Streets, edited by Declan Burke, Liberties Press, 2011. Irish crime writing happens to be flourishing right now. One of its top practitioners, John Connolly, explores the history of Irish crime fiction with a bit of a personal context. Fascinating stuff, and a nifty analysis of the way that fiction from different parts of the world play off each other.
Dickson, Richard Alan, Atlantis, B.C.E., Gray Cat Publishing, 2012. Remember that workshop I taught in February? Rick’s story, which had a different title at the time, was one of my favorites, and I told you I’d share those favorites when they appeared in print. Rick has a strange and wonderful sense of humor, which shows up here. The story’s from the point of view of a parking attendant on Atlantis way back when, and it goes from here. Read it. You’ll have fun.
DuBois, Brendan, “His Daughter’s Island,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, July, 2012. I love Brendan’s work. I buy anthologies because his name is on the cover; I read his stories first, even when his story is not the first story in the volume (breaking a personal rule of mine—I try to read in order as God and the editor intended).
This story, the lead in the July issue of EQMM, is a perfect revenge story. Brilliant, nasty, and perfect. I’m not going to tell you more because that will ruin the story for you, but ooooh, am I glad I read this one.
Elrod, P.N. “‘All Shook Up,’” My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding, edited by PN Elrod, St Martins Griffin, 2006. Yes, an Elvis story. Or rather, an Elvis impersonator story, although I wasn’t sure at first because of the word “supernatural” in the title of this anthology. Our Elvis impersonator impersonates the Hot Elvis (1968 comeback tour), not the fat Elvis, and he’s a wedding singer. Our protagonist is a caterer who can see other people’s futures in a blinding flash kinda way. She’s looking at the young(ish) couple and seeing disaster, but she’s also having trouble looking away from Fake Elvis. It’s a nice, romantic, fun story, exactly what I needed when I read it.
Evans, Danielle, “Someone Needs To Tell Her Ought To Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go” The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Everything about this story is designed to put the reader off, and yet the story works beautifully. A soldier gets called up, leaving his girlfriend and her young daughter behind. When the soldier returns, the girlfriend has a new boyfriend. But the soldier ends up babysitting the daughter. From that description, you think something will go wrong—and it does—but it does because of loneliness and good-hearted stupidity, not because of normal criminality or sickness. This story will haunt me forever. I mean that as a compliment.
Griffin, Laura, Twisted, Pocket Star Books, 2012. I read a wonderful novella by Griffin last year and recommended it. I’ve been looking for good romantic suspense writers, and I hoped I had found one in Griffin. Then I picked up her first novel in the Tracers series (which this is a part of) and discovered it had several TSTL characters in it. (TSTL is romance lingo for “Too Stupid To Live.”) The entire plot rested on idiocy. I hate reading about stupid people, so I quit.
But I kept looking at this book on the grocery store rack and I wondered if maybe Griffin had learned something since that first book. After all, the novella was written later and it was quite good. So I gave her another chance. This novel concerns a small town detective and an FBI agent who comes to help on a major case. They use the made-up Tracers lab (which is why this is a Tracers novel), but mostly, this is good old romantic suspense about a killer no one sees as a threat and the two people who can best solve this case, while dealing with each other as well.
I’ve been aching for a book like this. I was so happy I found it. Now I’ll work my way backwards through the Tracers books and see if I like them. I hope so. I’ve been missing good romantic suspense.
Groff, Lauren, “Delicate Edible Birds,” The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. I initially looked at this story, got put off by the thick (mostly) uniform paragraphs, and decided not to read it. Why did thick (mostly) uniform paragraphs bother me? It means the writer follows grammar rules and doesn’t know how paragraphs help or hurt a story’s pacing.
But, I did what I always do with short story collections, I gave her the first paragraph, just like I would if I was editing an anthology. And I was hooked.
This story is set as the Germans invade Paris. A group of journalists escape, then get caught by a Nazi-loving French farmer. The journalists are recognizably based on real people if you know the period—Hemingway is here, for example. But the focal point of the story is a woman based on Martha Gellhorn, and the story is about principles. When do you sacrifice yours? At what point do you take a bullet (metaphorically) for the team?
There’s a lovely description of the Gellhorn character toward the beginning: “In her every small movement she was the woman of the future, a type that would swagger and curse, fall headlong, flaming into the hell of war, be as brave and tough as men, take the overflowing diarrhea of nervous frontline troops without grimacing, speak loudly and devastatingly, kick brain matter off her shoes and go unhurriedly on.”
Nice. This part of the story is from a male point of view, and it shows how much men miss about actual women. It’s also true about the visible woman of the future. She arrived in World War 2, disappeared briefly in the 1950s, and reappeared, never to leave, in the 1960s. Well done.
I felt like I was there with this motley crew of writers. Not quite as memorable as the Evans, but one of the best stories I’ve read about this period.
Hill, Joe and King, Stephen, Throttle, Kindle edition, William Morrow, 2012. Originally written for a collection of Richard Matheson homage stories (that I’m stunned I missed), Throttle does exactly what it’s supposed to do: it takes you for a hell of a ride. The story’s based on the Matheson classic, “Duel,” which is one scary short story, made into a scary TV movie by the young Stephen Spielberg. Entire generations got traumatized by that thing.
At first,not realizing the story was initially published in an homage anthology, I thought the comparison to “Duel” a bad thing. One of the scariest parts of “Duel” is the randomness of the trucker’s attack. Nothing is random in Throttle. In fact, all of the explanations are clear right from the start. I thought that meant the story would have no impact.
I was wrong.
Thematically, Throttle is very different from “Duel.” Both deal with a seemingly inexplicable truck attack, but “Duel” is about the anonymity of the road, about being alone in the byways of America. Throttle is about relationships, and how they can influence each waking second.
Powerful story. I hope Hill and King collaborate again. [After I wrote this, I see that they have in the Esquire issue mentioned above.]
Makkai, Rebecca, “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. This is the kind of story I expected when I chose the Russo volume. In fact, it reminds me of Russo. Makkai says in her about-the-story in the back that she wants to write a series of stories about professors “victimized by the literature they teach.” And she’s done that here. This professor teaches “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.” The story is at turns funny and wry and subtly sad. I hope Makkai writes more stories about victimized professors. This was just grand.
Marche, Stephen, “The War Against Youth,” Esquire, April 2012. Everyone needs to read this article—Democrat, Republican, adult, senior, young adult. Everyone. It shows what has happened to the youth of this country economically, how long it’s been going on, and why it matters. It also has no political agenda except to reverse these trends. Read it. Do something, if only that thing is sending an extract to your Congress critter.
Owen, David, “Scars,” The New Yorker, March 19, 2012. Occasionally, when I teach, I give the students an assignment to write fearlessly about their own bodies. Usually they give me a detail by detail description of their hands or their genetics. But what I want from the assignment is something like this essay from David Owen. Owen examines a few of the scars he’s accumulated over the years, focusing on one in particular. The essay isn’t a nostalgia piece nor is it a gruesome recollection of a bad accident. Instead, it’s an examination of one person’s life as reflected in his own skin. So, students current and former, try his subtitle “a life in injuries” as your jumping off point, and see what you end up with. I bet it’ll be good.
Seabrook, John, “The Song Machine,” The New Yorker, March 26, 2012. Seabrook writes about Ester Dean who has become the go-to songwriter for stars like Rhianna. Dean and her team have become the modern Brill Building for stars who don’t write their own material. Seabrook makes this sound like a brand-new bad thing, but he does acknowledge how the same thing happened on Tin Pan Alley and in the Brill Building in the 1960s. There are hitmaking song writers with their finger on the pulse of modern music. Clearly Dean is one of them. Fascinating piece, even with the bias.