making order

IMG_1962In Mary Gaitskill‘s story collection, Don’t Cry, is a story entitled, “Mirror Ball.” It’s one of my four favorites in the collection and is described on the book jacket as an “urban fairy tale” in which “a young man steals a girl’s soul during a one-night stand.”

I don’t generally like stories that involve the surreal, but from the first page,  the language of this story is so alluring that I was able to keep an open mind.

“…the anonymous little haunts where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness,…”

The words just kept twirling me on down the river of the story…

“It was a cold fall night with a feeling of secret pockets and moving shadows.”

…until I was caught in the current.

“Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand.”

My favorite passage of all is so full of concrete images that it almost seems to move this way and then that:

IMG_1964“In daily life, his emotions were chaos. He let himself become a vessel for them, letting feeling roar through him, pulling him around like a kite, boiling him like water in a kettle, dissolving him in a whirl of elements. Except that normally he could go into his studio and make order. He could make songs that were satisfying containers, for the kite, for the kettle, the whirl of elements–he could put each in its place. The things he was feeling now did not fit into the songs he was used to making.”

What a fantastic paragraph. It contains so many images and ideas. Every time I read it, I want to read it over again. Except that for all the rich images, the idea I keep coming bacIMG_2488k to is using containers to make order.

Growing up, when I would approach the front door with my arms full of eleven different things, my mother would always be right there with a tote bag. “Here,” she would say. “Put everything in here.”

Containers keep us from spilling out all over the place. They make order out of disorder. Here, the character poured his emotions into songs. Matisse used paintings. I empty myself into words on a page. I’m also reminded of this passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”

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summer reading II: story collections

IMG_0951With the intention of reading a story a night, a reader asked yesterday about story collections. I love that idea. No brand new collections to suggest, I’m afraid, but here are three great oldies:

Women & Fiction, edited by Susan Cahill, published in 1975. “Short stories by and about women.” Doris Lessing’s “To Room 19,” Jean Stubbs’ “Cousin Lewis,” Virginia Woolf’s “The New Dress,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” Carson McCuller’s “Wunderkind”….Try to avoid the very pink 2002 Signet Classic edition.

You’ve Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, published in 1994. “Contemporary American writers introduce stories that held them in awe.” There’s a great story in here by Paul Bowles, “A Distant Episode,” chosen by John L’Heureux. Also, Annie Dillard chooses a James Agee story. Bobbie Ann Mason chooses a Tim O’Brien story. Lorrie Moore chooses a John Updike story….This is a good, solid book.

The Story Behind the Story, edited by Peter Turchi and Andrea Barrett, published in 2004. “26 stories by contemporary writers and how they work.” I was fascinated by Stephen Dobyns’ explanation of how he wrote his story, “Part of the Story.” He was inspired by Raymond Carver’s method. “…the first sentence had come into his mind and he just followed it.” Also, stories by Margot Livesey, Charles Baxter, Andrea Barrett, Robert Boswell….

Others worth mentioning:

  1. Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike
  2. Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie

Then there’s The New Yorker and One Story.

As far as the initial question, I assumed anthologies, but here are two new single author collections:IMG_0978

  1. My Father’s Tears by John Updike, out today and reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.
  2. Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson, out June 9th. Loved her collection, Who Do You Love. Also reviewed in WSJ book review mentioned yesterday.

Of the single author collections I’ve read in the last couple of years, I would recommend:

  1. Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
  2. Last Night by James Salter
  3. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  4. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

So many good stories, apparently I could go on and on…

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why we go back

IMG_2013One of the comments on the last post has me thinking about when, during the process of reading a book, I will go back to reread.

Because I have so many books waiting to be read, I only stop to reread small patches–sentences or paragraphs. And I read with a pencil so I can underline them. So I won’t lose them. I’ll use a pen if I don’t have a pencil, but I prefer a pencil because if I make a mistake in the underlining or if my line is too crooked, I can erase and try again. I realize this is a little neurotic. Nevertheless, it’s true. I also used to have this thing that if I started underlining in blue ink, then I had to use blue ink throughout the book. Black ink, black ink. Thank goodness–no longer.


Cadoozles are my favorite pencils-5 inches long, the perfect size

With examples from Mary Gaitskill’s story collection, Don’t Cry, here are some of the reasons I will stop the forward motion of reading to go back and reread (other than the negative reason that I don’t understand the sentence or paragraph):

  1. the language is beautiful: “the anonymous little haunts  where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness”
  2. I’ve thought or felt the same thing before: “Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand.”
  3. the author has put into words something I hadn’t even realized I thought or felt but that I recognize: “It was a cold fall night with a feeling of secret pockets and moving shadows.”
  4. the author has put into words something I’ve never thought about before: “Each scene covers and is covered and shows through the others, fractured, shifting, and shaded, like bits of color in a kaleidoscope.”
  5. the author has written about something in an entirely new way: “…even as I feel the anger, love rises up to enclose it. Inside love, anger still secretly burns–but it is a tiny flame. I can hold it like I once held my daughter in my body, a world within a world.”
  6. humor: “Teresa saw the false fingernails, now standing out from Dolores’s hands like evil thoughts.”
  7. I want to know how he or she did it–made the transition, allowed for the leap in my mind, brought me to this place.

I know I’ve left out many reasons that, now that I’m paying attention to this aspect of reading, I will realize in the next days.

Why do you go back to reread?

–and do you write in your books? (any ink issues?)

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