Summer of Shorts: Literary Shorts

My emotional brain compels me to make puns about featuring short fiction for a month but my logical brain encourages against bad puns on my blog.  Bad puns anywhere, in fact.

I took time off work this month to take my son to a robotics camp an hour away and I should really be writing, and I am pushing myself on some projects, but reading while knitting/crafting/playing mindless games has great appeal to me, so also happens more than it really should.  So in reading there is progress.  I’m sure I’ve talked before about that being so much easier on the emotions.

I also want to give myself kudos for keeping up writing more this summer, as usually my summer is too busy to feel like I have the brain space to create and move forward with my writing.  I’m trying to do that this summer and so far I have felt that success has been limited.  A lot of anxiety about getting myself back in the groove and not taking the fact that no one I have submitted anything to has gotten back to me in MONTHS to mean anything about pressing on with this…I can’t let that spirit me away from creation.  I won’t be able to come up with new and exciting things without turning on the faucet on a regular basis. It’s been a tad brutal on the feels, really.

Having reading projects for my blog can save my neurotic writerly soul.

For these two books I chose to review more literary and less supernatural/genre/magical realism type of stories.  Feeling that I was sometimes on the edge of grasping the stories was getting tiring.  I wanted a literary break from all the weird magical stuff I can get my readerly self into.

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Runaway, Alice Munro

A collection of short fictions featuring more mundane topics of lifespan issues and relationships, mostly love, all set in Canada.

I have wanted to read Alice Munro forever but for some reason I was concerned it would not be as arresting as it ended up being.  I was wading around for a few weeks in more diverting stories and I wasn’t sure how much magic she could make out of the mundane.  And I mean, like, literary magic:  beautiful writings, astute observations on the world, interesting turnout of plots.  I don’t mean secret powers, fantasy worlds and supernatural happenings that characters take for granted.  I got the audio of the book, even though I have had a hardcover copy for years, as an assist with this if needed.

Runaway, the title story, absolutely reeled me in.  The moody husband and the disappearing goat and the wife who isn’t sure how much more she can take.  I wanted more of Munro’s economical writing for complex human stories after that.  She can be both logical and unexpected at the same time, and I really admire that level of artistry.  I have seen criticism that she is too neat, but first of all I needed some neatness over the way that the stories in the previous post had ended, but I also felt that not everything was all tied up at the end.  One character doesn’t understand an unexpected estrangement, another doesn’t really say why she doesn’t want to marry a particular boy who has taken her into his family.

I liked that Munro mostly wrote about intelligent women that didn’t easily fit in anywhere, ones who were made unpopular by following their passions and being who they were, but who also were capable of falling in love with men.  They tried not to sell out and tried to be who they were.  I can get behind that, even though my own environment was more forgiving/accepting of my weird interests and intense personality.  There were two women, one in the first and one in the last stories that were more conforming in their relationships to men, a little more frivolous and selfish, but they stood out to me against the backdrop of the other intellectual and at times frumpy women.  I ate these stories up and admired them.  Wanting to capture her ability to make unexpected happenings still in logical stories.  I’m reading with a writerly eye here.

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Memory Wall, Anthony Doerr

A collection of stories all with the common thread of memory:  losing memories, keeping them, stringing threads of memories between generations to pull back people we have lost.

My writerly reading craves Anthony Doerr.  After I read All the Light You Cannot See I began immediately collecting his other works, and I have reviewed his other collection of shorts, The Shell Collector, on here.  He never disappoints with his beautiful writing, metaphors with apt and vivid words, his knowledge of natural history and then his juxtaposition of all of it.  The touch of luminosity he adds to the every day stories. His knowledge of different times and lands and people.  I admit I had stalled out after the first story, Memory Wall, which was beautiful and complex, that I read because I want to write like him, but my brain wasn’t going along with it.  I picked it back up as a part of my July of shorts, knowing I could trust that he would caress me with literary words.

I have to say that the last story, Afterworld, blew me away.  I couldn’t get the book away from my face. An epileptic orphan who escapes the Holocaust is dying at the end of her life under the ministrations of an adult grandson.  The epilepsy, and the other girls int he orphanage and the encroaching doom of the camps and then her being saved (sorry not sorry spoiler on that), her survivor’s guilt, all gorgeously layered and slipping between times to put this narrative together.  Just wow.  I can’t say enough and it’s difficult to even describe the magic in this story.  I have always loved his writing and he continues to surprise me.

Interesting that for weeks I was dabbling in distraction and now I wanted the comfort of something literary.  Something that enchanted regular days by seeing them through a writer’s different set of eyes.

Next week is the last week of shorts posts!  Stay tuned!

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Summer of Shorts 2: The Bloody Chamber and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

Week Two in my summer of shorts.  Have I mentioned my deep and abiding love of summer?

I spent this week off, taking my son to a local camp programming robots to ease up the Mom guilt of working year round and my son asking me why I do that, and my honest response of not being able to be home all day every day and be happy.  My middle ground is taking more time off in the summer to be with him and do things with him.  I’m trying to paste together an excellent childhood for him, which would be impossible if I didn’t go to work most of the 18 years that he is with me.

I work with kids and I know that most of the memories they reference when asked what their favorite memories are are the small things.  A time when a parent showed up to something.  Day trips, sports games.  But I still want to do the most I can with the time I have.   Maybe this has amplified with the crazy developmental strides I have seen in my son this year.  Right now he’s cutting his own nails without my asking or prompting him.

But the shorts I am talking about today don’t have much to do with my pervasive mom guilt.  I enjoyed them more than the two books I reviewed in last week’s post, and they had both been long time TBR hangers, which is partly the purpose of dedicating a month of summer reading to short forms.

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The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, Angela Carter

This is a series of re-imagined fairy tales with a decidedly Gothic and romantic/sexual spin on them.  Carter also adds a significant dash of horror in there. I can see how fairy tales are a blank slate of sorts, a skeleton plot on which to project any theme desired, spin it in any sort of way.

I like fairytale retellings, and I love a Gothic feminist spin. The tone was set by the first story, Bluebeard, which unspooled a terrible and beautiful, enchanting Gothic tale. I only listened to this on audio and it would have been helpful to have it in print form, because sometimes I didn’t know if a story had changed into a different story or the same one from another perspective/narrator.  It would have been good to check where one ended and another began in a few instances.  Sometimes the beasts felt like they overlapped.

The narration was haunting, the retelling and the new spins enchanting.  Themes of inequality between the sexes and the precarious way women had to live in those times were pervasive in the narratives.  Lots of blood in many forms:  death, first menses, virginity/sexuality.   Transporting and for how long it’s been waiting for me to devour it, it was worth the long range eyeball.

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What is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Helen Oyeyemi

A collection of tales, some that felt with a tinge of supernatural/magical realism to me (never a bad thing with me unless involving weird sexuality) all having a key involved.  The key isn’t to the same thing every time, and the key is often the entrance to another layer of story rather than the end/resolution to the story.  Keys are mentioned in the blurb but I actually had not read the blurb and I went back to it after about halfway through, maybe not even that far, noticing yet another key while listening to the narration of stories.

I feel vindicated in that other Goodreads reviewers mentioned that these tales are weird, disorienting, and would need a second pass over to collect all the bits.  It is truly a writer whose stories do that much to a reader, turn us upside down and wonder if we had missed something.  They would end abruptly too, and I would go back to my kindle version to be sure the story actually ended and another one had started.  Of course the narrators were different but often I was like wait did that one from before truly resolve enough to be considered done?   Other readers commented that the ends of the stories lacked an umph or a satisfaction for them, too, wondering if they had missed something.

Probably the story that resonated the most with me was Presence.  I don’t know if it is because the main characters are psychologists and one works with children and I could relate more in this aspect. Initially I bristled at the main character being a Psychologist but also on her third marriage and in her own treatment.  It’s not that we don’t need treatment, it just initially made me wonder why she was a little dysfunctional and in a healing profession, until Oyeyemi goes into her past as an adopted child, as well as her husband being an adopted childhood friend, and all the issues that come with that.  But then they test out a method he is using to help grieving people that ends up being haunting, weird, and capitalizing on connections that she had been missing from her life. Like I said, all the stories are a little disorienting and this one was not different, but it was also heartbreaking.

I have seen calls for submissions that want work reminiscent of Oyeyemi, and I don’t know if I have it in me as a writer to extend myself so loosely into the world like she can do. White Is For Witching was lovely but loose as well.  I do my monthly short story with the writing group I love but I haven’t been able to creep out to such dimensions.  I think I need to read more Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link, both of whose works I have sitting on my Kindle.

Summer of shorts continues into next week.  I think I could be taking more risks with my own writing of shorts.  It probably means I need to be writing more.  Isn’t that always the solution?  The hidden answer to everything?

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