Monday, June 29, 2009

Short Story Project Update

Last week, I finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. The final three stories are linked, alternately focusing on Hema and Kaushik, a girl and a boy who are thrown together as children when Kaushik's family returns to the U.S. and stay with Hema's family for a while. Although they are not friends and their parents do not remain close friends, thier short time together leaves a lasting impression on them both. In the final story, their reunion and subsequent coupling is not unexpected, but Hema's ultimate decision about their relationship, while probably not the desired ending for many readers, is completely fitting with her character. I really enjoyed these three stories. With this book, Lahiri has further cemented her place in my list of authors I love, authors whose books I will buy as soon as they are released.

Other short stories that I have read since my last post:
  • The opening story in J. D. Salinger's Nine Stories: "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." This story concerns Seymour Glass, a World War II combat veteran, who is not coping very well with the return to civilian life. He is probably suffering from a post-traumatic stress disorder, but I don't think it was being called that in the late 40s/early 50s.
  • Another story from Nine Stories, "For Esme--with Love and Squalor." I think this story has appeared in many anthologies. I recognize the title, but I don't think I ever read it. It is another post-World War II story. I found it funny and sad. In this story, Clay relives a meeting he had in England during the war with a young girl and her brother and the lasting impression that the meeting had on him.
  • On a much lighter note, "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" by James Thurber. Have you ever read any Thurber? I think I have only read two of his stories before this one, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and "The Catbird Seat"--both read a very long time ago, but if I remember correctly they are silly on the surface, but the silliness reveals a deeper, more serious problem lurking under the surface. Well, "The Macbeth Murder Mystery" is just silly to me. Still, I wish I had used it when I taught Macbeth all those years.
  • Another silly story, "Carry on Jeeves" by PG Wodehouse. A very funny story that I found in book at a bed and breakfast that Valerie and I stayed in on our recent trip to the Hill Country (I need to blog about our trip soon too). I had never read any Wodehouse but have intended to for a while.
  • Two short stories Alice Munro, but I'm saving them for another post.
  • Another by Salinger's Nine Stories, "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut." This story is about two former college roommates who get together for lunch and end up spending the afternoon getting drunk while catching up and reminiscing. I'm not sure what I think about this story. I just read it this morning and haven't had time to fully process my thoughts. Maybe I will post more thoughts about it later.
Okay, that's enough for now. I need to do something else for a while today. Later.

Monday, June 15, 2009

My Short Story Theory

From the first sentence, a good short story makes you feel like something important is about to happen. By its very nature, you know that the climax will occur relatively quickly, but you still enjoy the path to the climax. I've noticed this week that I tend to approach the reading of short stories like I approach the reading of mystery novels. I find myself mentally predicting where the story is headed. Of course, it's easy to predict the trite turns that a story about human relationships might take, but the best short stories do not go to those trite places or they go there in an unexpected way.

Most of the time, Lahiri, like a great writer should, takes the story someplace else. When she does take the story to an expected place, she focuses the story in such a way that the climax isn't merely the expected outcome but some other aspect of that outcome. For example, in "Nobody's Business," Sang, a young Bengali American woman, is being duped by her Egyptian boyfriend. To me it was apparent from the beginning of the story that Farouk was hiding something and most likely being unfaithful to her. He wouldn't let her spend the night with him, wouldn't spend the night with her, and didn't introduce her to his family. Sang's housemate Paul discover's Farouk's secret, but he keeps it from Sang for a while. In the end the story is more about how and why Paul discovers, keeps, and finally reveals the secret than it is about Sang and Farouk's relationship.

The previous story, "Only Goodness," is a story about family relationships, but this one focuses on the siblings in a family, Sudha and her younger brother Rahul. While this story is about a Bengali American family, I would label this a universal family story. I think that anyone with at least one sibling could find something to connect with in this story. For example, when Sudha thinks of the stories of her birth and early childhood in London, she thinks of them "like an episode out of a Greek myth or the Bible." I can think of a number of my family's stories that might, to us, be thought of on the same level. Those are the best family stories.

Despite having been raised essentially the same, Sudha and Rahul end up in very different places. Sudha is a successful academic while Rahul, the smarter of the two siblings, is a floundering alcoholic. Rahul is kicked out of college and living at home with his parents. He has no car and only a part-time job. During a visit home, Sudha becomes "aware of a horrible imbalance between them. She felt accused, simply because her life wasn't broken in the same way." I sometimes feel really bad when I talk to my younger sister, who is constantly having money problems. I know her problems are not my fault and not my responsibility, but I still feel bad that I can't make her life better, can't solve her problems.

(FYI - I typed up most of this post a couple of days ago. Then I added the following paragraphs tonight.)

I think this story can be summed up in one simple sentence from the story: "Life went on." Of course, we know that it must, but, like Sudha, we still feel guilty when we realize that we are moving on. We can sit still; our lives must be lived. Sudha can't wait on her brother to get his shit together before she takes the next step in her life. And no one would really expect her to.

I'm really enjoying this book of stories. The final three stories are related to one another. I took a break from Lahiri today to read "Goldrush Girl," a short story by Jeanette Winterson. You can read the story online here. I'm still trying to decide what I think about it. Maybe I'll post something about it later.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Short Story Project Continues

Today, I will read my fourth short story, another one from Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. Concentrating on short stories in this way has reminded me of Poe's rules for the short story that I used to teach my Junior English students.

From what I recall, Poe said that a short story should
  • be able to be read in one sitting.
  • create a unified effect - every sentence should contribute to the effect.
  • complete in itself.
I'm sure there's more but I'm too lazy to try to find any old teaching notes that I might have saved. It seems like there was a specialized vocabulary word that I taught my students with these rules, but I can't remember it.

I'm sure that lots of great short stories break Poe's rules, but I have been thinking about them as I read the first three stories in Lahiri's book, pondering what the one effect might be of each story. However, I haven't been so focused on the effect that I'm not enjoying the whole of the stories.

The second story "Hell-Heaven," like the first story, focuses on generational differences. This time, though, the focus is on a daughter's changing views of her mother and her mother's feelings for a male family friend. I really like how Lahiri doesn't create the cliched love triangle; she doesn't take the easy way out of the story. Although the traditional Indian rules of behavior haunt this story, much like they do many of Lahiri's stories, I don't feel like it constrains the characters in an artificial way. (I really should write something about each story as soon as I finish reading. If I did, I think I would have more interesting things to say.)

The third story "Choice of Accommodations" concerns a marital differences rather than generational. Amit and Megan have been married long enough to have two young daughters. Amit is a former doctor-to-be turned medical journal editor, and Megan is in the last year of her residency. The story takes place on a weekend trip to the wedding of one of Amit's old friends. The daughter of the headmaster of the prep school he attended, a woman that he has always been in love with but never really pursued. They have been friends for a long time now. The night of the wedding, which takes place at the prep school, Amit does a lot of thinking about his past and his present.

Thinking about this project has made me think about short stories that I have read through the years and chosen to teach because I enjoyed them so much. Here are some of my favorite short stories:
  • Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"
  • Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour"
  • Katherine Anne Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall"
  • Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
  • Alice Walker's "Everyday Use"
  • James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues" - I read this story several years ago now, and since then I am often reminded that it made me want to read one of Baldwin's novels, which I have yet to do. I wonder which one I should read. If you read one, please make a recommendation.
  • William Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily"
  • John Updike's "The A & P"
That's all I can think of for now. It's time to read now. Later.

Monday, June 08, 2009

The Short Story Project Begins

To review, my Summer of Short Stories involves reading one story each weekday of my summer vacation, a total of 45 short stories. I'm not sure what form my blog posts about the stories will take or how faithful I will be at posting about them, but I'm going to attempt to post each day soon after I read the story for that day.

I decided to begin with Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth. The first story is the title story. It is a lovely story about the way family members, especially fathers and daughters, understand and misunderstand one another. When I read Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, I was completely drawn into each of the stories from the first word to the last, and "Unaccustomed Earth" was no different. Lahiri is able to make me feel much for her characters even though I will only know them for a short while. Ruma and her father share more than they will ever realize. It's quite poignant how Lahiri captures the way they misunderstand one another on the surface yet come to understand each other on a deeper level in the end. (I'm not sure that I'm making sense here, but if you read the story, maybe you will see what I mean.) They each want to protect the other from the one thing that humans can't be protected from, life as it happens: "He wanted to shield her from the deterioration that inevitably took place in the course of a marriage, and from the conclusion he sometimes feared was true: that the entire enterprise of having a family, of putting children on this earth as gratifying as it sometimes felt, was flawed from he start." Although we know that life lessons are learned best through experience, we still want to protect those that we love from having to learn the hard lessons through their own experience.

I enjoyed this story so much that I immediately wanted to read the next story, but I resisted the temptation. I have other books to read today. I want to finish Unwind and make some good progress with Shadow Country, which I must be finished with by July 12--it's 875 pages; I've not read 200 pages yet. Plus I do have some errands to run and things to do around the apartment.


Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Summer of Short Stories

I know that I will read several novels this summer, both adult and young adult ones. Still, for a couple of weeks, I've been thinking that I need a plan for the summer, a plan for reading and/or writing something everyday. I have considered walking to the park every morning and doing some writing, like maybe planning to write one poem a day, and I might still try to do that on some days. But tonight, while I was doing my five-mile walk, I had the idea that I could read one short story per week day, and I could only read them from books that I or Valerie already own but I haven't read.

Here are the short story books that we own that I have not read:
We also own several short story anthologies and some literature anthologies that include some short stories. I will have plenty to read. My plan is to get up every morning and read a story before I do anything else that day. I have nine weeks of summer vacation, which equals enough days for 45 short stories. I will try to post/tweet about each of the stories, but I'm not making any promises that I will stick to that part of the plan or to the plan itself. It will be fun to try though.