Tag Archives: short stories

Eudora Welty: Casting a Stark and Beautiful Light on the South

One nice offshoot of The Help and its new movie version, is all the attention that Eudora Welty is (rightfully) getting, ten years after her death. Welty’s incisive and beautiful ability to expose the South in all its beauty and horrors led the way for me — and for many of Northerners — to understand the culture of the South of the mid-twentieth century.

W. Ralph Eubanks, author and director and director of publishing at the Library of Congress, recently spoke on NPR about Welty, and The Help. He talked about one of Welty’s most haunting stories, titled, “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” I’d read the story before but what I had not known was that Welty wrote “Where is the Voice Coming From?” in the same year in which The Help is set; in fact, Welty wrote the story — a harrowing account of the stalking and murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers — upon learning of Evers’ murder, on the very day it occurred.

As she writes in the introduction to The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, “Whoever the murderer is, I know him: not his identity, but his coming about, in this time and place.” And Welty, in just two pages, sets out with clarity and force the time and place that allowed such an event to take place, bringing the murderer into our own horrified consciousness.

Welty accomplished in her short stories what is so very difficult, and she did it cleanly, succinctly, beautifully: she made her world of Jackson, Mississippi, the world of her reader; she made it familiar and disturbing and undeniable. When I read the stories of Eudora Welty, I am observer but also participant; and through that participation, I understand so much, even the very ugly aspects of humanity — our shared humanity — that I would rather deny.

Two years ago (almost to the day) on this blog I reviewed Eudora Welty’s A Curtain of Green, a collection of short stories. I wrote then, “Reading Welty’s stories is like going back in time to a different world, back to a Deep South of stupefying heat and small towns, a time of inequality, injustice, inbreeding, and intense pathos. Welty came from that world, she sprang out of it to turn back and see it with an eviscerating eye and write about it with an incredible (if at times extreme) talent. With her stories she drags us back to that bizarre place and makes us see its charms, its horrors, and its unique place in our American culture.”

Reading “Where is the Voice Coming From?” takes us back to when and where a good man could be murdered for the good he was trying to do. By allowing us to understand why, Welty ensures we will never forget the hatred or the answering indignation of those times — and empowers us to show that same indignation, today. With Welty’s words to move us, complacency doesn’t stand a chance.

While Mortals Sleep: So Much That Kurt Vonnegut Left Behind For Us

The recently released While Mortals Sleep, a collection of unpublished short stories by the late and great Kurt Vonnegut, provides marvelous insight into his development as a writer and his convictions as a human being. Following his own rules for writing short stories, set out in the video above, Vonnegut crafts works that don’t waste a minute of our time: every minute is savored, every sentence is necessary, and every character is worthy of our attention, if not our admiration. In allowing us to see the depths of possibility within each of his key characters, Vonnegut makes us understand the unlimited potential within ourselves for both being both good and bad. Vonnegut reminds us to guard against behaving badly (greedily, selfishly, vindictively) and to revere – and exercise – our potential for good.

In his introduction to the collection, Dave Eggers describes the stories as “mousetrap” stories, stories that lead us by the nose to a neat ending, complete with a twist and a moral. But we are led willingly and happily, for the twist is always a good one and the moral is always one worth remembering: money can’t buy happiness, people should be judged by their interior character and not their appearances, and anyone can change for the better, in any situation.

We learned much from Vonnegut when he was alive (see the recent wonderful blog posting from the A.V. Club, “15 Things Kurt Vonnegut Said Better Than Anyone Else Ever Has Or Will” ) and he has left behind for us so much to enjoy, to remember, and to discover all over again. We are the lucky ones, to be lured into his enduring mousetraps laced with enticing fun, goodness, and hopefulness.

If you’ve never read Vonnegut, these stories are a fine place to start; they were, after all, his start in the literary world, written when he was just starting out. But make sure to follow up with Slaughterhouse Five, Armageddon in Retrospect, and Cat’s Cradle. If you are a Vonnegut fan, these stories will provide satsify cravings for something new, and if you are not a fan, these stories might just turn you into one.

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Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Enchanted and Beguiled

The Woman With the Bouquet, a collection of short stories by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, enchanted and perplexed me.  From what century did this charming writer emerge?  His gothically-romantic but also penetratingly realistic depictions  remind me of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl (whose names are also reminiscent of Schmitt) wherein a human scene of huge impact is played out against an even larger background of grandiose nature.  And so the characters of Schmitt’s stories — a love-sick author, an angry wife, an unsure woman, a  grouchy professor —  play out  their own scenes of love, desire, jealousy, and despair against the larger background of rich atmosphere.  From the deserted (and later, overrun) beaches of Ostend to the wild countryside of the Ardeche to the railroad station in Zurich to a hospital ward for the critically injured, Schmitt places his characters. As powerful as the backgrounds are, the human scenes are big enough to capture and hold attention, as the players deal passionately with life and find reasons both irrational and irrefutably sane, for doing what they do, wanting what they want, and dreaming what they dream.

Schmitt is so comfortable at using both realism and a touch of authorial control through coincidences and hyperbolic situations that I felt as if I were reading the true heir of Dickens or Maupassant, and I loved every minute of it.  As heavy with portent and intent as his stories are, Schmitt is also very, very funny, especially in his observations:  “Like many single people who have no sexual life, he worried a great deal about his health.”  Speaking of sex, his first story contains guidelines for a very lively evening, ingeniously created as a menu taken from classic mythology, geometrical shapes, geography and landmarks, fruits and vegetables, and folktales.

The way Schmitt begins his stories is forceful, for example:  “In a few minutes, if everything went well, she would kill her husband” and  “At the train station in Zurich, on platform number three, there is a woman who has been waiting, every day for fifteen years, with a bouquet in her hand.”  And he completes his tales with endings that bring both pleasure and satisfaction, even when utterly unbelievable.  Read these stories for pleasure and they will be sure to linger long after the book is finished, lovely memories of romance and excitement, dreams and visions, rolling luxuriously around in your brain.

The Woman with the Bouquet was translated by Alison Anderson.

Nothing Right

I’ve been reading Antonya Nelson’s stories for years.  Her characters have grown over time, changing from concerned, confused, and hungry young women and men, free to pursue their desires yet restrained by lack of money or confidence, into middle-agers no longer quite so free, as they are bound now by commitments and responsibilities, yet with a bit more money and confidence.  What hasn’t changed is that these middle-agers are still concerned, still confused, and still very, very hungry.  Hungry for what?  For love, passion, meaning, connection, and escape.  We’ve all experienced such hungers and Nelson captures and encapsulates the moments of fomenting need, flowing release, and the deflating day-after bite of reality.  Her characters are unique but universal; her landscapes are specific and particular, and yet familiar.  In Nothing Right, her latest collection, published in 2009, Nelson once again creates vibrant but normal worlds dominated by folks searching for just a little bit more;  more meaning, more hope, and, now that middle age is upon them, more control over the quickening spiral towards old age and oblivion.  They all want something they’ve done to mean something before it is just too late for anything to mean anything at all.

Not that all of Nelson’s characters are middle-aged.  She portrays all stages of growth from children through old age with familiarity, and acuity, catching just what it is that defines those stages of life: in childhood, the recognition of oneself as both an individual, holding a unique, unexplored identity, and as part of a family, ensconced within that defined identity (financial, social, political, and even defined by things like how the house is kept clean or not; how and what kind of food is prepared; and what is expected of the children), straight through to the unfortunate circumstances that unfortunately define old age: senility, widowhood, physical frailty, loss of economic status, loss of beauty.
What always leaves me breathless with admiration is how Nelson describes landscape and background and uses the ordinary and unseen elements that surround us to illustrate the entirety of our lives. In a story from Nothing Right, Nelson writes a wonderful scene in which she narrates the different stages undergone in a day by a kitchen table — and in that progression of events across a table captures the whole world of family life.  “The round wooden table in the center held the newspaper and pancakes early in the day, syrup a condition of its surface”; the surface of the table is then cleared away, and the progression made to “midmorning snacks” and then on the day goes, to “lunch detritus, everything microwaved, served on a potholder”; then the “children’s projects, sparkling glitter stuck in the syrup”; then bills and mail and an atlas and “nail polish remover and cotton balls”; then “drinks and adult snacks for cocktail hour — salmon mousse, Brie and slivered almonds, mushroom stuffed with pesto”; then the children’s dinner and a following period of relative quiet when “the dishwasher reigned”; then “the green felt cloth” over the table for bridge and drinks; later “the peanuts and poker chips and whiskey”; and finally, at three in the morning when the grown-up insomniac sisters arrive at the table, they clear the wreckage of the night before and make room for “teacups, novels, hidden expensive chocolate.”  The whole sequence, of which I have only reproduced the most inadequate of impression, is some of the best writing I have seen; it is so evocative of the universal myths and realities of family life, and full and teeming with an individual family history that is laid out in clues both plain and hidden.  The clues of life are found in what crosses across a table in the course of one day.

Nelson is also great at describing daily and ordinary moments in all the meanings, physical and mental, that such moments have for us.  We may not be able to articulate what that first glass of wine does for us, but Nelson certainly can:  “Hannah still drank wine, but only one glass a day.  It was difficult to drink only one glass, maybe more difficult than not drinking at all.  That initial infusion of alcohol prepared its drinker to let loose the reins.  And though Hannah had always loved best the first drink — the sensation of ease with which it filled her, largesse, affection, gratitude — she had never been good at stopping while she was ahead.  She likened this one drink to the hour it accompanied, when the air was oaky, just before dark, the benign warm light in which everyone looked lovely and life did not seem a useless and redundant pursuit.”

The Book of Right and Wrong, by Matt Debenham

The stories in Matt Debenham’s debut collection, The Book of Right and Wrong, are quietly and beautifully brilliant.  Debenham presents luminescent briefings of specific turning points in lives.  Both the lives and the turning points are so real and so engaging that my own life felt transformed — illuminated — by the changes wrought in the lives of the characters.  The changes occur in turn-on-a-dime moments when a startling realization is made — the message left behind on a blue piece of note paper, the reason for an invite to a party, the tugging down of a pair of jeans — and a new path is followed, leading to a conclusion of the story that is both surprising and completely believable, whether it be revenge, reversal, or  acceptance.

Debenham is fluid and fluent with details of dialogue, internal thoughts and observations, and background; he creates fiction that reads like the most honest and searing of memoirs.  What makes his writing — and his stories — so good is how each memoir-esque tale is told from a different point of view: child, man, woman; recovering alcoholic, ex-con, bullied victim.  Each voice is authentic, unique, and compelling; each character is exposed and communicative, telling a story that is both personal and universal.  I cared about every character created by Debenhan; I wanted to protect them and spare their hearts another blow. Through Debenham’s writing, I gradually came to understand just how many blows a human heart can take.

There are a series of stories about the LaPine family in The Book of Right and Wrong.  Their incomplete and riveting history left  me hoping for a novel-length exploration of this foursome, the philandering father, suffering mother, rebellious daughter, and geek son.  In the final story, Kate the Destroyer, the mother finally takes steps to protect her son:  “Kate has always known she’d kill for her children, but how often we overlook maiming.”  Overlooked no more: I rooted for Kate all the way, even as I felt the pain of the maimed bully.  The bully himself is a recurring character in the LaPine stories and has his own background of dual personas, abusive father, hidden desires, and the too-heavy weight of expectations imposed upon him by looks and abilities.  As mean as this bully can be, in Debenham’s stories the bad guys always have a history well-worth understanding and the good guys have reserves of badness that are just waiting to break out (witness the maiming).

The stories in The Book of Right and Wrong are all right, without one wrong note or jarring action or unsatisfying conclusion.  The stories are absolute gems of truth about the fragility and the resilience of the human heart, in all its ages and incarnations.

Glowing Observations of Moments in Life

Tara Masih’s debut collection of short stories, Where the Dog Star Never Glows, displays her great talent at observation and description, as well as her bravery in tackling places and periods outside of her own experience. She moves her stories with confidence and faith through locales as different as a beach village in Puerto Rico, a haunted mining town in Montana, the suburbs of Long Island, a Texas border community, and small town New England.  Her characters are interesting and true to life, familiar in their uncertainties and fears and in their hopes for what life holds ahead of them. Many of the stories could serve as good jumping off points for longer pieces (novels) about the characters and how they grow and change through conflicts and resolution.

Masih has a good eye for detail and a nice, easy sense of character.  She is perhaps too eager to set up conflicts  that are neither organic nor integral to the places and characters she is so good at creating, and she is apt to make grand conclusions to finish off her story telling.  She must trust more in power of the small details in life — and in her writing — to speak volumes without the need for underscoring or exclamation. She is at her best in recording and understanding place, such as the play of light and sound in our surroundings, and characters, especially the reactions, both emotionally and physically, that occur between lovers, friends, family, and strangers.  Following her characters patiently through longer pieces and allowing natural conflicts to arise and resolve would bring a satisfying depth to her writing, such as is found in the final story in the collection, the lovely and moving “Delight.”

I look forward to reading more from Masih and would love to read a novel from her, a work that would give her the space, time, and patience to allow her characters to breathe, stretch, live and grow under her watchful guidance and gifted pen.