Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules

This anthology is a collection of short stories hand picked by David Sedaris. I had read several of these authors before, but none of the stories and was impressed with the selection. Most of the stories fall into the funny or dark categories, and sometimes both. It’s really hard for me to pick a standout story. I remember loving Richard Yates’ writing style (still keep meaning to pick up Revolutionary Road). Flipping through, though, I am reminded how many of the pieces affected me. I also loved Tobias Wolff’s powerful “Bullet in the Brain” and Charles Baxter’s “Gryphon”. This is a great introduction to some amazing authors.


dewitthenry said...

Readers of Wolff and Yates will enjoy this:

Novelist and short story writer Andrea Barrett has guest-edited the fall fiction issue of Ploughshares--12 sensational stories that will be the talk of readers: “news that stays news” (Ezra Pound’s definition of literature).

Some highlights:

Christopher Tilghman’s first person narrator in “Change of Address” is wise, sorrowing, and humorous as he looks back on his boyhood love for the young Hungarian nanny in his motherless house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was a teacher, and their life was one of formal, patrician privilege. The nanny vanished when the narrator was in college, leading him to search for reasons, a search that leads to his growing historical, social, and moral awareness. She has returned to Austria to get her parents out of Hungary following on the revolution. His older brother, Teddy, has long since left the house for an independent life in New York, but when the narrator tracks him down, Teddy crudely explains that he left because he was having sex with the nanny, and that their father had been jealous: “me screwing the girl my father wants to marry.” The narrator protests, “She didn’t stay in that house waiting for you to marry her, you sorry piece of shit, she stayed for me,” but he is somehow released by hearing this and that very night meets “the girl who will be his first wife” and loses his virginity. Tilghman ends with a fade out many years later, as the narrator relates outcomes: the nanny lives in Austria. Her husband is retired. She has grandchildren. The narrator can now imagine how marginal that time in America when “three males blindly vied for her favor” must seem to her. This elegantly told story stands alongside Tilghman’s earlier Ploughshares classic, “In A Father’s House.”

In “Republican,” Bret Antony Johnston returns to the setting and material of his highly praised first collection, Corpus Christi: Stories. Johnston’s hallmark is the combination of technical virtuosity with heart. An absent mother and grieving father drive this story of sixteen year old Jay’s coming of age. The father runs a pawn shop, where, despite their working class status, he has acquired a Fleetwood Cadillac on default, and Elvis Presley’s guitar, possessions that will figure in the story like Chekov’s famous gun over the fireplace. By story’s end, Jay has won the cook’s step-daughter, Melinda, having met her in the Texmex restaurant where they all worked, the cook is playing the guitar, and Melinda is wildly driving them in the Cadillac. Even more astonishing than this confluence, however, is the convertible roof, which Jay’s father had slashed in anger when Jay’s mother left, which Jay has neglected to repair, and which Jay’s father has repaired in secret. As the rain begins, Melinda raises the roof, and Jay recognizes his father’s “coded, sheltering lessons of sorrow.”

In “And We Will Be Here,” Paul Yoon writes from a female point of view that is tied to a remote Korean island, Cheju, during World War II and then during the Korean War. The details of setting and period never feel forced, and the fiction is luminous, involving us so deeply in the subjective longing of the orphaned Japanese woman, Miya, that we share her visions of Junpei, a fellow orphan with whom she had grown up, and who has left, only to reappear now in the hospital where she serves. He is a wounded soldier in coma, with bandaged eyes, she believes; but then the mother of the solider comes and Miya is forced to recognize that she has been delusional. The supervising doctor has warned her that she needs medication. After she is forced away from the patient, she sees a blind boy who has appeared and cast marbles with her a few nights before. Whether he too is a delusion or a magical fact, she slips away and leaves with him on his bicycle: “I pedal. You tell me where we’re going.”

In “When Stars Begin to Fall,” Jill Gilbreth writes of snake handling as a form of religious evangelism, and of a young man’s coming of age as a handler even though his parents have died of poison, and the law has forbidden this aspect of the religion. Her story is impressive both on the level of cultural fact and on the level of fiction, fully rendering the dramatic, personal instance of the characters and situation, and progressing to its climax with the relentless logic of a Greek tragedy.

Joan Silber’s “Allegiance” concerns an intellectual, apolitical husband whose wife (originally his high school crush), having converted to Islam, remains close to her previous husband’s family in Thailand, and is detained by the FBI under the Homeland Security Act because of her frequent emails to them. The injustice of this provokes the husband to defiance He has spent his life reading “prison memoirs, prison poems, letters from prison…I hadn’t ever thought that history was going to come find me of all people…the world at my doorstep.” They protest together. Nevertheless when she sends an article about them to Thailand, he is alarmed at first, but then figures that she has the right. “Look what love had done to me,” he reflects; “but it was too small an idea for where I was.”

Alix Ohlin’s “The Only Child,” renders the shock of a narrator, Sophie, returning home from college and being told that she is not an only child, that she has an older brother who was given up for adoption as a baby; he has just gotten back in touch and his name is Philip. When he flies from New York and meets them in Los Angeles, Sophie is rattled that he looks just like her. The story’s formal surprise is to drop out of this reunion scene with a digression more extreme than most in Alice Munro, leaping forward ten years in Sophie’s life to her first marriage and an affair that resulted in her divorce. Then returning to the present, Philip invites Sophie to visit with his wife Fiona, which she does, witnessing the marital tensions between Fiona and a self-centered Philip; but when she also learns that Fiona is pregnant, she realizes that it is Fiona’s insistence that has brought the family together. The digressions into later time suggest that because of Fiona’s example, Sophie comes to understand her parents’ marriage, where her father was the caretaker, and her own marriages, where she has missed this kind of love.

Other stories by Karen E Bender, Ellen Litman, Margaret McMullan, Peter Orner, Karen Shapard, and Sarah Stone, each have their own particular treasures and surprises. As Barrett says in her introduction: “I like it when moments of transformation, utterly strange, utterly essential, find their way into fiction….I chose stories in which precise language restores what we otherwise, out of habit, fail to notice. Those that capture the mystery of metamorphosis; those in which characters are transformed.” We haven’t read much fiction like this before, and once we do, we never forget it.

Order your subscription or single copies today on our website, www.pshares.org .

SUBMISSIONS. Our reading period has begun for issues to be guest edited by B.H. Fairchild (poetry and fiction to be published next spring) and by James Alan McPherson (all fiction to be published next summer). Please note our staffing changes as well: DeWitt Henry is Interim Director/Editor-in-Chief; Robert Arnold is Managing Director; John Skoyles is Poetry Editor, and Margot Livesey is Fiction Editor.

DEPARTURES. With the production of this issue, Don Lee and David Daniel ended their longtime tenure—nineteen and fifteen years respectively at Ploughshares. Don Lee is now teaching creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, and David Daniel is the director of undergraduate creative writing at Farleigh Dickinson University, where he is also poetry editor for The Literary Review.

Shuttsie said...

We got spammed!!