Thursday, May 28, 2009

Honorable Vegetables & A Few Good Stories

My short story, Vegetable Remains, was picked for Honorable Mention (capital H, capital M!) last month in Glimmertrain's Very Short Fiction contest. I started submitting short stories a few months ago, and this small recognition is inspiring, to say the least. In honor of my mention, I'd like to post a few short stories I've read in the past year or so that have stuck with me months after reading them. 

(Disclaimer: This is actually a short list of the New Yorker fiction I've loved this year. Since I've been unable to commit to any books lately-- and the few I have read I've not liked-- I've been slowly leveling a skyscraper of New Yorkers. Except where indicated, that's where the story's from.)

Edwidge Danticat's Ghosts. Danticat is an extraordinary writer. Some might disagree with me, but I think she has the gift of lightness Italo Calvino described in Six Memos for the New Millenium. She writes about horrors I can only imagine, but there's a curious lightness that's hard to describe about her writing-- perhaps it's a lack of insistence on her part, or a cinematic speediness to her plotting, or maybe it's just that she allows tragedy to speak for itself, without layering on a lesser writer's gothic sludge of ego. Either way, she is thoroughly modern and terribly moving. If you haven't read her work, start now-- and tell me if you agree with me about the lightness. 

A.M. Homes's Brother on Sunday. I liked this story. The writing is lovely, surprising, vivid, and occasionally very funny. 

Elizabeth Gilbert's The Famous Torn and Lit Cigarette Trick. This is from the Paris Review's Winter 1996 issue. I have no idea why I was reading a 1996 issue of the Paris Review this year, but I do have an idea of why I loved this story: it's charming and it moves like quicksilver. 

Andrea Lee's Three. It's less a story than a series of portraits of three characters who have recently died. I love how good fiction can surprise us with an attachment to a character-- we spend maybe 1000 words with each of the three characters, and by the time they die, we know them well enough to share the narrator's sense of loss. 

Guillermo Martinez's Vast Hell. Great little story. Short and great. Read it now-- it'll take just a few minutes out of your day. Inspired by the Argentinian proverb "A small town is a vast hell," it reminds me of Milan Kundera and Dubravka Ugresic, among others, who have written about nationalism in small countries. Kundera has repeatedly said, in essence, that a small country is a vast hell. This story exists on several planes. 

That's all for now. Back to work.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Britain's Poet Laureate

I found this New York Times article amusing. England has selected its first female poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who, one hopes, will not be required to write poetry about Prince Harry's Halloween costumes. Although . . . given Duffy's occasionally comic voice, maybe she would write something wonderful on the subject?

Ms. Duffy would seem to agree. When her name was mentioned for the job 10 years ago, she was quoted as saying: “I will not write a poem for Edward and Sophie. No self-respecting poet should have to.”

That was a reference to the marriage of Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, and Sophie Rhys-Jones, which Mr. Motion celebrated in a poem entitled “Epithalamium.” (The poem “has two immediate virtues,” the critic Robert Potts said in The Guardian, “it is very short, and it does not mention the couple.”)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Keats and Yeats Are On Your Side: A Saturday Update

Reading, Writing, Rehearsing:

I've had the Smiths song, Keats and Yeats Are On Your Side, stuck in my head for a week, brought on by reading a wee bit of Keats. Nobody likes Keats, it seems. Everywhere I look critics and academics scorn his fascination with death, his low origins, his obsession with fame. But I find him immensely comforting at times. Maybe I'm a sap. I probably am. But when my brain can't focus on a book, it's nice to read a poem here and there-- particularly one that has a narrative quality, that feels like a tiny story. I have little patience for poems that read like crossword puzzles, especially when I've gone stupid.

I haven't been able to read much in the past month; my grandmother had a series of strokes in late March and passed away a week later, and so there was the week with her at the nursing home and another week at home after she died, trying to get back to work but mostly just walking around in a fog. Then there was a week of family gatherings and the funeral in Spokane, and another five days' visit from my sister and her husband that was the silver lining of the whole affair. And since then, getting caught up on work and sleep and marriage and yoga. And just a little reading.

I was able to stay with her in Eastern Washington the week she died, and her last night many of her grandchildren were in the room with her telling stories and settling in for the long night's vigil. We younguns had reprieved our parents only forty-five minutes earlier when my cousin Johnny shushed us: she was gone. Soon her room was packed with her three children, their spouses, and all of us grandkids-- many of us with our spouses. 

It was hot in there. Nursing homes are already hothouses for the tiny tropical birds we turn into when we're on our way out of the world. But with about twenty people crammed into her room, it was sweltering. She would have loved it. The last time I saw her it was midsummer in Eastern Washington-- normally a very hot, dry time of year in that part of the state, but this visit they were experiencing record highs, so it was around 100 degrees. 

And the heat was turned on in her room.

And she was wearing long underwear and a white long-sleeved turtleneck under her grey velour sweats (Juicy Couture-style!) with an aquamarine flannel vest over the hoodie. Since she wasn't well enough to travel across the mountains for my wedding in May, I brought my wedding dress to her. And when I picked up my train and placed it in her lap so she could admire the stitching and beading on it, the first thing she did was spread it across her lap like another blanket. She kept it there for the entire visit. 

Grandma Iris was my last grandparent. I've done this four times, now-- the travel, the bedside vigil, the goodbye. You enter a different dimension when you sit with a dying person for many days in a row, one that's hard to leave after they die. Which brings me to Keats and Yeats. Or, actually, Keats and Bronte. I have nothing to say about Yeats today, except that his name keeps popping up in that Smiths song in my head:

A dreaded sunny day/So I meet you at the cemetery gates/Keats and Yeats are on Your Side/While Wilde is on mine

So we go inside and gravely read the stones/All those people, all those lives/Where are they now?

No, I've been thinking about Keats and Bronte. Charlotte Bronte, not Emily. I've never read Emily Bronte, even if I did tell people for years that Wuthering Heights was my favorite book. I have no idea why I did that. I've always been an insatiable reader, so I could've named any number of good books as my favorite. But in junior high I really wanted Wuthering Heights to be that book. I just couldn't stand reading it. 

Ah, the mysteries of the mind.

Both of them died young; Keats, in his mid-twenties, while Charlotte Bronte was thirty-eight. They both died of consumption, like everybody in the nineteenth century who didn't die of syphilis. (Although I have read that it's possible Bronte died from dehydration and malnutrition brought on by morning sickness. As if her story wasn't depressing enough, she was pregnant when she died.)

But I haven't been thinking about how they died young. I've been thinking about the fact that they both cared for consumptive family members for years before they themselves died. Keats nursed his mother and a brother, so when he started coughing up blood, he knew exactly what he was in for. Bronte lost nearly all of her siblings in one year, just a few years before her own death. Her novel Villette was written as she mourned her siblings, and the tragic, if stoic, outlook of Villette's Lucy Snowe reflects what I've always assumed to be the state of mind of her creator. 

And the crap ending of that book is excusable only because, after losing so many loved ones in a row, who wouldn't be fatalistic?

I've been thinking about these writers because I found myself utterly braindead for weeks after my grandmother died. I loved my grandmother dearly, adored her as we all did, but I wasn't her primary caregiver for many months, or even years. I was at her bedside for one week. I imagine the exhaustion, the grief, the brainsickness that came on (brainsickness being a state of homesickness for one's brain, I guess) after my grandmother died, and then enlarge it exponentially to relate to the crushing loss these writers experienced over and over again. 

And they wrote right through it. No antidepressants, no therapy, no yoga.

How lucky we are that they did.

My grandmother spent her life making the world beautiful with her music, with her effortless style. She was a tremendous pianist. She played every day of her life from the moment she learned, while raising children, caring for her parents, mourning the loss of a brother, while visiting grandchildren, even after a stroke at seventy left her frail and unable to speak. She played well past her ninetieth birthday, and on, till she was finally too weak at ninety-one. Keats' Endymion reminds me of her:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondance, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o`er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, inspite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. 

John Keats, from Endymion