Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Two Booksellers GChat About Short Stories

 Anna:  Hi Seija!

 Seija:  Happy Short Story Month!

"Please, allow me to fetch that for you."
 Anna:  Yay! I'm so excited, I just found out about short story month and it's a perfect time to celebrate because I've been swimming in my love of short stories recently.

 Seija:  Me too!  We just finished Poetry Month, short stories seem like the logical next step.  By September maybe we'll be in Epic Fantasy Series Month.  Not sure if that's a thing...

 Anna:  That does seem like the logical next step. Poetry is language simmered down so succinctly and short stories have that same quality.

 Seija:  Totally.  Short stories have always had a magical, mysterious quality for me.  Like poetry, sometimes I'm in just the right mood for the emotional gut-punch that the best ones deliver.  I was trying to think about when I first discovered short stories, and it was probably middle school or early high school with some classic like "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.  Do you have any memories of when you were first affected by a short story?

 Anna:  Ah, "The Lottery." Definitely a classic. You know, I didn't give much thought or attention to short stories for awhile. I started picking up some anthologies--one in particular I loved, The Art of the Story edited by Daniel Halpern--and I would read stories just to familiarize myself with certain authors' work. It's a great introduction for the non-committal reader. I thought I could just read a story by Margaret Atwood, finish it, then turn the page and dive into an Alice Munro story. But whenever I finished a story, I had to stop and just think for a long time. That's when I understood what you are talking about--the emotional gut-punch power of short story writing. What about you, do you have some early stories that really impacted you?

 Seija:  I loved the short stories of Ray Bradbury, collections like I Sing the Body Electric, when I was a teenager; they have this incredible melancholy mixed with a humor I can only describe as something like Americana Ironic.  I was also really into watching The Twilight Zone, and a lot of Bradbury's stories were adapted into episodes of that show.  Also I looove Margaret Atwood.  Did you ever read that one called "Death by Landscape"?  It's about these two best friends at summer camp, and one day they go on a canoe trip and one of them disappears, and her body is never found.  That story is so beautiful.  I like the disturbing stuff though, not sure if you knew that about me ;)

 Seija:  Also in that Atwood story the two girls have a ceremonial burning of a maxi pad.  That made me feel like I should've gone to camp!

 Anna:  That's great! I haven't read that one. It sounds like there is some eeriness in that story, which is definitely one of the things I like about the form. There is always so much left unexplained. A lot of mystery, a lot to interpret, a lot of negative space, if you will.

 Seija:  Yes!  Negative space is right.  Isn't it great that we both know what that means, even though any "space" we're talking about is purely abstract in our minds?

 Anna:  At least we think we both know what that means. I could be understanding something completely different than you, but calling it the same thing...

Seija:  So I just finished this great new collection called Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee.  It was kind of perfect.  I was able to read about one story a day, and I read them in order, which is unusual for me.  But there were so many sentences and whole paragraphs that hit that literary sweet spot where I just had to sit back and sigh and go "oh yeeeeeah."

 Anna:  WAIT. You read stories out of order? You mean in a collection by one author? OUT OF ORDER?!

 Seija:  oh HELL YES!  I absolutely judge them by their titles and length and pick at random.

 Anna:  Wow. I have a certain reverence for the collection as a whole. I'm really into interpreting the flow and order and how all the stories fit together. It's like an album...there can be an arc to the whole collection.

 Anna:  That being said, I do know that stories should be able to stand on their own.

 Seija:  That's a good point, and there are some collections that have an arc, and characters that reappear and so on.  I think a lot of the way I read short stories has been colored by the fact that I wrote so many of them in college, and analyzed them so deeply.  I know a lot of the time, choosing an order is about flow, but it's different for each author.  And who knows, maybe the author and the editor disagreed on the order.

 Anna:  True true. Maybe you are just inserting your own curatorial touch by picking the order for yourself. So...tell me more about the Rebecca Lee stories...I love a story where the language is so good, you want to underline every other paragraph...were there particular subjects she focused on?

 Seija:  Yes!  She writes really ambiguously moral characters.  There's one story where a girl in college in the 1980s during the Cold War plagiarizes an essay from an old book she finds in the library.  Her professor calls her out on it right away, but she denies it, and then she begins to manipulate him.  It's very unsettling.  Then there's another story about these young architects who are at a retreat at this famous house.  Not much happens in that story, but it's so atmospheric, and it turned out to be my favorite.  All the stories are told from the first person, and I had that weird experience of not knowing in some cases if the perspective was male or female.  It was as though she remembered my own dreams that I had forgotten.

 Anna:  Woah. I recently read Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. First of all, what an amazing title! It's of course a nod to Raymond Carver's “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but it has such a curious and odd twist because he replaced 'Love' with 'Anne Frank.' The titular story was one of my favorites. He loosely followed the form of Carver's story--2 couples in a house getting drunk together and ranting about big heavy topics. But what struck me about Englander's story was that there was a vivid sense of movement—the four characters went to different parts of the house, sat on the floor, stood in a circle, danced around in the backyard and their continuous conversation shifted with these movements. The story is about religion, Jewish identity, history, marriage, trust...

 Seija:  Sounds like he writes good dialogue, which is incredibly hard to do.  Ok, you have to go!  We could keep this going for a while!  Real quick: who are some of your favorite short story maestros?
Anna:  I know, I feel like we just got started!! My favorite short story authors are probably not from any obvious list of great short story writers, buuutttt I loved Junot Diaz' new book This is How You Lose Her. Talk about a collection with an arc and a lot of intertwined themes! Plus, one of the stories Miss Lora recently (and extremely well deservedly) won a British short story prize. Did you even know there was a prize for single short stories? I love the world we live in! Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche wrote an incredible collection called The Thing Around Your Neck, where she was able to convey such a deep sense of emptiness in her characters. I read it a few years ago, but I can still feel the loneliness and confusion those stories evoked in me. I also love to listen to the New Yorker Fiction podcast. There is a Barthelme story read by Salman Rushdie and the whole story is in questions! Amazing. Okay...I could go on and on...Your short story maestros??

 Seija:  Off the top of my head: Algernon Blackwood (the uncanny in nature!) Jerzy Kosinski (not technically short stories but his collection "Steps" will give you ALL THE BEST NIGHTMARES) shout out to Flannery O'Connor; Clive Barker, Lovecraft, even Stephen King gets a nod from me.  I guess I love short stories in the horror genre.  But some of my favorites by these folks are the least scary, go figure.  Ok, thanks for chatting about stories, Anna!  Let's do this again some time!

Anna:  Yes! Thank you! We only just scratched the surface...

Chaos, Remembered

The police in the small town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, worried briefly in 1974 about a man seen prowling in the dark, the red glow of his cigarette floating along the back streets. He would pace for hours, heading nowhere in the starlight that hammers down through the thin air of the mesas. The police were not the only ones to wonder. At the national laboratory some physicists had learned that their newest colleague was experimenting with twenty-six hour days, which meant that his waking schedule would slowly roll in and out of phase with theirs. This bordered on strange, even for the Theoretical Division.

So begins Chaos, by James Gleick, which in 1987 more or less singlehandedly introduced chaos theory to the lay audience. Although this book is astonishing and needs no particular excuse to bear mention, I mention it now for a few reasons: first, when I recently saw a used hardcover in our Used Book New Arrivals, I was flooded with all those wonderful chemicals you've heard about - oxytocin, endorphins (maybe even a stirring in a cannabinoid receptor or two) - and when you feel that good, you want to share it with the world.

"Books are our passion."
Secondly, we've been awash in popular science these days, and many of the authors would do well to read (or re-read) Chaos and review everything it does right. Like Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, Chaos tells a story about science without softening sophisticated concepts to meaningless paste, and finely balances the narrative (the humans, with their behaviors and motivations) with the science (the math, in all its brain-busting glory).

Your standard chaos theorist: "Boy, do I hate being right all the time!"
And think about how much fun society has had with chaos! From Jurassic Park's Dr. Ian Malcom to Homer Simpson's experiments with the Butterfly Effect (nerds will recall in season 6, "Time and Punishment"), chaos theory has given us laughter, tears, and a table overflowing with food for thought.

Before I close, it bears mentioning that James Gleick's latest book, The Information, shows clearly that this man does not shirk from the most imposing topics, and is still keenly observing, chronicling and educating the world 15 years later. That's it. That's all I've got to say on the matter. And if this post seemed to lack a coherent structure, then I thank you, dear readers, for indulging me this - ahem - chaotic aside.

tell all your friends!