Why Do I Own So Many Unread Short Story Collections?

I finished a five-star read yesterday, and I was unsure about what to pick up next. I guess I’ve got a small book hangover. Currently I’ve been slowly reading Mavis Gallant’s collection In Transit (inspired by Buried in Print’s Gallant reading project.) She is a marvelous writer but, as often is the case with short stories, I need to take my time and not rush through. I want to give each story its due time to contemplate.

I was looking at my unread shelf at home and noticed a trend. I have a lot of unread short story collections. Eight of them in fact. That may not be a lot for some of you, but it feels like a lot to me, particularly because I’ve had some of them for years. I don’t want to pick another one up until I finish the Gallant book, because I can’t imagine trying to read two short story collections simultaneously. (Do people do this?)

img_5313Why do these books linger on my shelf? Why do I keep buying more?

Okay, I buy them because I buy books, duh, it’s what I do. I think they linger because I have the impression that a short story collection is a commitment. I feel like they take longer to finish than a novel, and they do. But why does this make me hesitate about reading them? It’s the same thing with nonfiction. I hesitate to choose it because I think it will take me longer. WHAT IS THIS OBSESSION WITH FINISHING A BOOK QUICKLY? I know I’m not alone in this, but why are we (mostly fiction readers) this way? Why am I so consumed with more, more, more?

Part of it is that I am always reading about new books coming out, adding more to my TBR list every week. Part of it is working at a library surrounded by books all day, seeing and holding the new books in person. Part of it is participating in the bookish community, seeing people reading all these amazing books at what seems like a breakneck pace and comparing myself.

It’s a wonderful NON-problem to have many more books I want to read than I have time to actually read. How lucky are we to live in a time and place where our access to books is so unfettered and free?

I am going to try and incorporate these short story collections throughout the year and not worry about how long it takes me to finish them. And if I’m not enjoying them I’m going to release them to a new home where hopefully they will land in the right hands. AND I’m also not going to buy any more collections until I get through at least half of the ones I have already.

How about you? Do you have a stack of short stories or nonfiction or something else that you’re just not getting to because it will take “too long?”

Classics Club Spin #22: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Oh my goodness, how do I write about this short story collection? I feel enormous trepidation as I begin this post. This book is just really freakin’ weird. 😃 And dark. And twisted. And brilliant. But I was relieved to finish it, so what does that say?

Ten stories filled with mean people, ignorant people, unwanted visitors, negligent parents, gossips, hypocrites, killers, racists, xenophobes… sounds like a swell way to spend your reading time, right? Yet when I entered into each story (one a day, that’s all I could take) I couldn’t pry my eyeballs from it. The characters, despicable though they might be, were so fully realized and the stories so well constructed that I was hooked.

The collection starts with the title story, and it’s a shocker. A family of four and the grandmother are traveling to a Florida on a road trip, with the grandkids sassing off to their racist, annoying grandmother constantly, until she tricks the whole family into driving down this dirt road so they can see an old abandoned plantation that she “remembered.” (She gets the kids excited about it by craftily telling them that there is a legendary secret panel in a wall in which the family silver was kept.) When a chance accident happens on the deserted road and a band of sketchy dudes comes along on the scene, all hell breaks loose. It’s an eye-opening way to start off, to say the least.

Some of the stories are a bit more sedate but no less compelling. My favorite story was “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,”which features a precocious, mischievous young girl putting up with a weekend visit from her boy-crazy, older second cousins, Susan and Joanne. There’s a traveling fair in town, and two local boys are enlisted to take the girls and get them out of the house for an evening. The title of the story comes from an anecdote that the girls laughingly tell at dinner about part of their Catholic school education.

— if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

When the girls come back from the fair they obliquely tell the child (we don’t learn her name) about something they saw in the “freak tent” that unnerved them.

The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, “I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal, and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over to the women’s side and said the same thing.

The girls explain that the “freak” was both man and woman but the child doesn’t understand what that means. She later has a vision as she goes to sleep that the “freak” was leading a church service and says they are a “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Still later in church she again thinks of the “freak” and how they said that this was how God wanted them to be. It’s a quiet, oddly beautiful story, and I loved how the child could embody a kindness and acceptance towards the “freak” that the rest of the characters couldn’t seem to muster.

I’m glad I read this and glad that the Classics Club Spin landed on this selection. I know it’s a hard sell, but I do think this is worth the read. I have all sorts of questions about what O’Connor was like, why she wrote such dark, religious, tense stories. This is the kind of book I would love to have discussed in a classroom setting because I know that I’m missing some nuances and symbolism along the way. I rated it five stars on Goodreads but it’s not one I can call a favorite, simply because I am confident that I will never be inclined to read it again. If anyone has any biographical knowledge of O’Connor or thoughts about any of these stories, I’d love to hear them!

Format: Library paperback, 252 pages.

See my original Classics Club list here.

Friday Reading Roundup

Another Friday is upon us. Another day closer to Christmas! I hope that you’re not stressed out by holiday plans, shopping, and preparation. What better way to escape the hustle and bustle than to dive into some good books, eh? I’m not yet ready to reveal my Top Ten books of the year (that will be next Friday) or to tally up stats for the reading year (the last Friday!) So today it’s a quick review of what I’ve been reading lately and what’s on my nightstand to pick up next.

Finished lately:

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

I really enjoyed this. Picked it off the NEW BOOKS SHELF at work (win!) Contemporary fiction. Three sisters, raised in England by their immigrant Indian parents, travel to India at the behest of their dying mother’s last wish. She has devised an itinerary for them, in the hopes that they will learn more about India, strengthen their bonds, and scatter her ashes there. There are lots of secrets that the sisters are keeping from one another, and they’ve all got some serious issues of their own that their not dealing with very well. Though I could see how things were going to work out, I didn’t mind it at all. I felt like these characters were well developed and believable, and the setting as they travel to the Golden Temple in Amritsar was superb. I’ll definitely try Jaswal’s first book, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, which was a Reese Witherspoon book club pick. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Currently Reading:

Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore

I’m enjoying the heck out of this! Another off-the-New-Shelf pick. Historical romance. A18h+5O2G3LLately I just want to read fluff. I’m not ashamed to admit it! I think it’s the holidays. I just need something soothing while my mind is pulled in many different directions trying to get stuff done. The premise is classic: 1870’s England, a poor well-read, smart, and beautiful woman (verging on Old Maid at 25), relying on the kindness of her lame cousin for her upkeep – she convinces him to let her take classes at Oxford, which had recently decided to let women take classes off campus. While there she meets other like-minded feminist women and in the course of advocating for changing the women’s property laws, literally runs into the MOST HANDSOME, well-connected, filthy rich Duke. Said Duke of course can’t take his eyes off our heroine either, but definitely disapproves of her ideas and pluck. Very cute stuff follows. Haven’t gotten to the sexy times yet.

Ghosts of Christmas Past edited by Tim Martin

I wanted something Christmas-y, and spooky ghost stories appealed. I found this in a recent BookRiot article (check it out here.) So far it’s uneven, as most short story41V3UJFvzmL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_ collections are. My favorite story so far is by Muriel Spark, called “The Leaf-Sweeper.” Other contributors include Neil Gaiman, E. Nesbit, and Kelly Link.

What’s next?

I’ve got the next one in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, The Ghost Fields, and my last poetry collection for the year, Kevin Young’s Brown. After that, whatever strikes my fancy.

Do you find yourself reading lighter books during the holidays? Are you a fan of Christmas ghost stories?

The Lottery & Other Stories by Shirley Jackson and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Classics Club books #8 and #9)

I read two books in the September and October that qualified for both the R.I.P Challenge and my Classics Club listkilling two birds with one stone. I had read Jane Eyre before but it had been since I was about 14 or 15 years old – long enough that it was almost like new to me. The Shirley Jackson had been on my TBR list for quite a while. I’d read her classic story “The Lottery” in high school as well, and was thoroughly chilled. I didn’t know what to expect from the rest of her stories. I’m happy to say that I enjoyed them and was surprised by both books.

51Uz5FayRhL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_First, impressions of Jane Eyre. It’s a classic, and deservedly so. I chose it for the R.I.P. Challenge because I remembered the Gothic feel and the mysterious person (or supernatural being?) who kept making scary things happen at Thornfield House. Turns out what I most remembered about the novel, the part where Jane is employed by Mr. Rochester at Thornfield, is only about a third of the book! I had somehow totally blocked out her horrible childhood, unwanted and unloved by her horrid aunt, Mrs. Reed, and her terrible experiences at the boarding school she was sent to. I also totally forgot about what happens when she is later forced to leave Thornfield. (I’m trying to be vague because I’m sure there are some who haven’t yet read this.) Therefore, the first and last thirds of the novel felt juuuust a smidge overly long. (St. John! Oh my goodness! What a pill!)

I was terribly impressed, however, with how spunky Jane herself was, right from the get-go. She was no shrinking violet but instead a girl and later a young woman who stood up for herself even when it got her into trouble. I admired that. One early exchange between Jane and her aunt particularly impressed me:

“Don’t talk to me about her, John: I told you not to go near her; she is not worthy of notice; I do not choose that either you or your sisters should associate with her.”

Here, leaning over the banister, I cried out suddenly, and without at all deliberating on my words, –

“They are not fit to associate with me!”

And since I reread this for the R.I.P. Challenge, I thought I would offer a creepy passage from the book:

Good God! What a cry!

The night – its silence – its rest, was rent in twain by a savage, a sharp, a shrilly sound that ran from end to end of Thornfield Hall.

My pulse stopped: my heart stood still; my stretched arm was paralysed. The cry died, and was not renewed. Indeed, whatever being uttered that fearful shriek could not soon repeat it: not the widest-winged condor on the Andes could, twice in succession, send out such a yell from the cloud shrouding his eyrie. The thing delivering such utterance must rest ere it could repeat the effort.

All in all, a very enjoyable, romantic, insightful classic novel that I would recommend to everyone, and a perfect choice for autumn reading.                       ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Shirley Jackson has become one of my favorite authors over the last few years. I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, and The Sundial. I just have the rest of her short stories, one more novel, and her nonfiction still to read. The Lottery and Other Stories was the only story collection published in Jackson’s lifetime (1949.) Many of these stories are not scary or Gothic in feel like some of her longer fiction. But they are unsettling, often depicting people new in town, people in unfamiliar surroundings, people who don’t quite have a firm hold on reality.89723

There were a few stories that also dealt with racism and “otherness” quite overtly. One of these that impressed me was “After You, My Dear Alphonse.” The title refers to a silly phrase that two young boys, Johnny and his friend Boyd, keep saying to one another as a game. Johnny brings Boyd home for lunch after they’ve been playing outside. Right away, as soon as she sees that Boyd is black, Johnny’s mother Mrs. Wilson starts making assumptions. She scolds Johnny for making Boyd carry in a load of wood, but Johnny responds, “Why shouldn’t he carry the wood, Mother? It’s his wood. We got it at his place.” Then when she serves the boys stewed tomatoes, Johnny tells her he doesn’t want any and that Boyd doesn’t eat them either. Instantly Mrs. Wilson says, “Just because you don’t like them, don’t say that about Boyd. Boyd will eat anything.” She goes on to explain that Boyd wants to grow up to be big and strong so he can work hard, presuming that he will have to work in some sort of manual labor. The assumptions keep piling up, and it becomes almost comical how Boyd thwarts Mrs. Wilson’s expectations at every turn.

 “Sure,” Johnny said. “Boyd’s father works in a factory.”

“There, you see?” Mrs. Wilson said. “And he certainly has to be strong to do that – all that lifting and carrying at a factory.”

“Boyd’s father doesn’t have to,” Johnny said.  “He’s a foreman.”

Mrs.Wilson felt defeated. “What does your mother do, Boyd?”

“My mother?” Boyd was surprised. “She takes care of us kids.”

“Oh. She doesn’t work then?”

“Why should she?” Johnny said through a mouthful of eggs. “You don’t work.”

In the end Mrs. Wilson tries to reinstate her percieved cultural dominance by trying to make Boyd take something he doesn’t want and very politely refuses. Johnny and Boyd leave and go back to playing, shaking their heads at the “screwyness” of mothers. I thought this story was a brilliant depiction of the ways in which racism can show up very subtly – Mrs. Wilson is enlightened enough to have Boyd share a lunch table with her son, but she persists in making assumptions about what Boyd’s life and future will be like. Her growing annoyance at being shown her mistakes portrays that she’s not as enlightened as she might like to think. It’s interesting how relevant this story feels – the insidiousness of subtle racism shows up often in modern life.

As with any collection some stories are better than others. But overall this was a very good read with hardly any clunkers. Jackson skewers conventional mid 20th-century American society with insight and wit, making her reader question the nature of both identity and personal agency. Many of her characters are taken out of familiar places and situations and have to deal with the frightening and confusing consequences. I think I expected a certain kind of story when I approached this collection – stories more in the vein of Hill House or Castle. Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find that Jackson’s range extended even wider than I had imagined.                  ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either one of these? If not, do they intrigue you?  

 

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (20 Books of Summer #17)

51QARZbRoHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_My final book completed for 20 Books of Summer was a good one. I’ve been a fan of George Saunders for years, since I read his 2013 short story collection Tenth of December.  His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, completely blew me away. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, had lingered on my Goodreads TBR list since 2014. I’m glad I finally read it – it’s so interesting to see how a favorite writer hones his skills over time.

This 1996 collection is made up of six short stories and one novella. They are a motley, twisted assortment of near-future/slightly dystopian settings in which affable but morally skewed men and women toil away at low-wage menial jobs and screw up over and over again. America is basically a disintegrating theme park, beset by racial strife, class warfare, and environmental degradation, but somehow Saunders injects just enough notes of dark humor and decency to keep the reader from flinging the book away in despair.

My favorite story and one I think ranks with the best stories I’ve read is “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz.” A man grieving the death of his wife Elizabeth, beset by guilt over the fight they had right before she was killed, tries to atone for his sins, both actual and perceived. He owns a franchise of something called “personal interactive holography” – basically a space in which people can pay to experience an intense virtual reality of their choosing. He’s got just a few regular customers who either can’t afford to pay him or pick rather disturbing virtual realities. But his “regular job, penance, albatross” is visiting an old, bed-ridden widow on the bad side of town with one of his headset modules and letting her temporarily experience happiness, both remembered and made-up.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting Elder Aid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo’s Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he’s been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She’s bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. 

One night when he stops back by the store to pick up a module for a school group visit the next day (“Hop Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions”) he walks in on a robbery. After he subdues his attacker he scans his brain with his console and finds out that he’s named Hank, a WWII veteran who saw horrible things at Iwo Jima and never was quite right after. But something goes wrong with the scan, and our narrator realizes that he’s lifting memories from Hank, taking them out of his brain and depositing them in the module. Hank leaves the store carefree now that the horrors of war (and the first twenty years of his life) are gone from his memory. Our narrator has a brainstorm – why not edit Hank’s memories to give the schoolkids an immersive history lesson on what it was like to live in the 1930’s and ’40’s?

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but I’ll just say that this one moved me like no other in the collection. Here I recognized the Saunders I’d already read, who is one of the most compassionate and humane writers living today. He has a knack for making the reader care about some questionable, flawed characters and celebrating what is most central to the human experience – loving and being loved.

If you’ve never read Saunders before I wouldn’t start with this. While each story certainly has his trademark black humor and originality, they weren’t as moving or polished as the stories in Tenth of December. And he has mellowed with age, treating his characters just a bit more gently in the later collection. Some of the violence and language in a few of these stories were a bit hard to stomach. I feel like his later writing is more hopeful somehow, while these stories feel harder and more cynical. Still, it was a very good collection and worth borrowing from the library for “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz” alone. However, I would recommend reading one story at a time and then setting the book down for a day in between so they don’t run together.

So that’s it for another 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’m proud of myself for managing to read and write about 17 books from my list. It’s a new personal record. I may not participate again next year, though – sticking to a set list, even one that I create, starts to rub the wrong way about half-way through. All the others books out there start looking ever so much more appealing. (Mood reader!) But I have loved being in such good company with my fellow 20 Books people, and am grateful to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing the event again.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

As many of you have written before, it can feel daunting to write about a Five-Star Read. The sense of wanting to do a book justice is palpable. Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers, despite having previously read only one of this books (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It’s one of my favorite books ever. I’ve listened to it and read it with my eyes, and I highly recommend both experiences.) I came to love him through listening to his podcast with fellow author Jess Walter – A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment. It’s on (maybe?) permanent hiatus but you can still listen to the episodes wherever you find podcasts. The two authors are good friends and just have a marvelous time together discussing books, basketball, the writing process, and interviewing authors. But I digress.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is a collection of short stories, published in 1993. I managed to space my reading out over nearly a month, just reading one story a day. Previously my short story collection habit was to blow through the collection like a novel, often becoming bored and restless near the end. But reading one story a day was a nice little break from my other reading, and it gave me time to sit with the story and think about it. I’m indebted to Buried in Print for inspiring me to approach short stories differently.

81bZLWAAi0LThese stories have a typically Alexie-like tone, a mixture of sadness and humor, a wry, understated humor. They often contain magical elements, dreams, visions. They are about broken families, life on and off the Spokane Indian Reservation (Alexie uses the term Indian throughout, not Native American.) They are about drunkenness, losing and finding love, powwows, friendships, basketball, quests, stories.

Uncle Moses gave no thought to his passing on most days. Instead, he usually finished his sandwich, held the last bite of bread and meat in his mouth like the last word of a good story.

“Ya-hey,” he called out to the movement of air, the unseen. A summer before, Uncle Moses listened to his nephew, John-John, talking a story. John-John was back from college and told Moses that 99 percent of the matter in the universe is invisible to the human eye. Ever since, Moses made sure to greet what he could not see.     

91AYFwSXGoL._SY679_This was a strong collection, with hardly any clunkers. One of my favorite stories was “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” the bones of which formed the movie Smoke Signals. Alexie wrote the screenplay for it, which I didn’t know back when I saw it in 1998. (I watched it again last week, and it was still good. It’s a bit more comedic than the stories here, but still worth a watch.) Anyway, the gist of the story is that Victor’s father, who had left the family long ago and moved to Phoenix, has died. Victor wants to go get his ashes and a little money his dad left him but doesn’t have the money for the trip. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is another Indian on the reservation who grew up with Victor. They were friends for a time, but as they grew older, Thomas started having visions and his stories started weirding people out. He was a “storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to.”  He offers Victor the money to collect his father’s ashes, but in return wants to accompany him on the trip.

“Victor, I’m sorry about your father,” Thomas said.

“How did you know about it?” Victor asked.

“I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying.”

It’s a quietly beautiful story about Victor learning to see the father who left him in a little bit of a different light, through a story that Thomas tells him. It’s a story about two former friends making peace with one another but not quite becoming friends again.

“Wait,” Thomas yelled suddenly from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”

Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”

“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.

“Just once?”

“Just once.” 

Victor waved him arms to let him know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor has ever wanted from his whole life. So Victor drove his father’s pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterwards.

Alexie’s writing is simple in style but complicated and hefty in substance. I love reading a story where things aren’t tied up neatly in a bow, but instead feel like a mixed bag of emotions. Those kinds of stories ring true, feel like life. I am so glad I finally read this (one of my own books – yay!) I want to read everything Alexie has written and will write in the future. He’s a storyteller worth savoring.

Have you read this, or any other of Alexie’s works? Have you seen the movie Smoke Signals? Talk to me in the comments!