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I came across “Pelican Song” by Mary-Beth Hughes within the collection Object Lessons, the recent Paris Review anthology. In the book, it is introduced by Mary Gaitskill who writes, “‘Pelican Song’ is one of the most convincing depictions of the horrors that only the wealthy can inflict upon their own…” I was certainly not surprised that Mary Gaitskill would select a story that involve an extreme account of horrors, but I was very surprised by the story. I read it twice in two days and will soon be buying everything Mary-Beth Hughes has ever written.

“Pelican Song” starts out: “I was the kind of thirty year old who had only recently left adolescence behind.” There is so much packed into that simple sentence. First, the reader learns that the narrator is both immature and self-aware about her immaturity, which paints a very particular character. She’s also witty–we can tell from her voice. But we also learn a bit about the vantage point from which the story is told. The point of view is retrospective; we aren’t in the moment even though the actions of the story are unveiled with immediacy and without much interpretation through the lens of the future. But, it isn’t until the last paragraph of the story that the reader understands the distance between the action and the present; it isn’t until the last paragraph that the story really becomes a story. Read the rest of this entry »

“Dance in America” appears in Lorrie Moore’s collection Birds of America; you can hear it read in a New Yorker podcast by Louise Erdrich, who discusses it afterwards with Deborah Treisman. After loading the podcast onto my iPod, I found myself listening to it again and again, discovering more every time. And then, because listening to literature is okay for commuting but not for serious absorbing, I broke out my worn copy of the book and re-read it in print, too. On page two of the story, there is this:

They ask me why everything I make seems so “feministic.” 

“I think the word is feministical,” I say. I’ve grown tired. I burned my life down for a few good pieces, and now this.

This interaction, recounted by the narrator, hints at both the humor and gravity we’re in for in the pages to come. The narrator is visiting Pennsylvania Dutch Country as a “dancer in the schools.” While in the area, she takes the opportunity to catch up with an old, dear friend, Cal, his wife Simone, and their seven year old son, Eugene, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. The family lives in a former frat house that world-weariness has prevented them from fixing up; the ceiling features the graffiti “wank me with a spoon,” trees grow through the floor boards and, in order to make dinner, they need to empty rainwater from their cooking pots, all of which have migrated into the attic to catch leaks.

The story is contained, essentially, within a few hours. The dancer and Cal walk the dog. She watches a video with Eugene. They eat dinner. And then, they dance to a Kenny Loggins song.

Somehow, woven through this minimal amount of action, there is hilarity, hope and abject heartbreak. The dancer, we learn, was left by a long-term boyfriend who found her selfish (an example of how she’s burned down her life); before leaving, he suggested she rent her place, “perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like [her]self.” Dancing is what she has, all she has. In an early conversation with Cal, though, he says, “It’s not that I’m not for the arts…It’s wonderful to fund the arts…The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.” And how can the dancer blame him, in love as she is with Eugene, who is precocious but not too precious and whose whole life is, as she says, “a race with medical research.”

As with all great short stories, there’s no point trying to convey the power of the ending of “Dance in America”–you’ve got to read the whole story to feel it the way it needs to be felt. I will say that there is a tiny, wrenching forward jump near the end, which highlights in one unsentimental line both the dancer’s failings and the terrible finality of Eugene’s time. And that Kenny Loggins song they all dance to at the end of the story? Of course, it’s “This Is It.”

note: I actually wrote this for something outside of the blog, but it fits in well enough that I decided to reprint it. This story will be of special interest to other SLC grads–catch all the Mt. Vernon / Bronxville stuff!

I’ve had the phrase “money earnin’ Mount Vernon” stuck in my head, like a line from a song, since I read it in the story “Virgins” by Danielle Evans. It is the most obvious example of Ms. Evans’ nearly hum-able language, but it is not the only one. She employs an urban musicality in the telling of her story, even invoking hip-hop to set her scene: three teenage characters lounging poolside, listening to “Me Against the World” the day after Tupac got shot.

The teenagers spit such sharp, sexually-charged dialogue at each other it is hard not to respond aloud. Jasmine—of the recently lost virginity and desperate desire to escape Westchester—catches a whiff of Michael’s banana-scented sunscreen and explodes:

“Sunscreen,” Jasmine said, “is for white people…You smell like food. I don’t know why you wanna smell like food. Maybe that works in Bronxville, but ain’t nobody here gonna lick you cause you smell like bananas.”

I don’t want you to lick me,” Michael said. “I don’t know where your mouth has been. I know you don’t never shut it.”

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This book. calamity

The first copy of Calamity and Other Stories that I picked up was from the library. I was drawn to it because of the sad, lopsided cupcake featured on the cover. I read it because it was a linked short story collection by a young woman–at the time I wasn’t trying to write one of those yet, but the interest was obviously already there–and also because the blurb on the front invoked both Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro.

Reading along, I was enjoying the work but wasn’t blown away until I reached the story “Anniversary.” Read the rest of this entry »

There are three stories I have trouble discussing without choking up, which is rough, because they are three stories I practically evangelize about every chance I get. “Age of Faith” by Alice Munro is one, “Anniversary” by Daphne Kalotay is the second, and “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” by Amy Hempel is the third. The endings of these three stories absolutely slay me. In the case of “In the Cemetery…” I know I am not alone–it is widely anthologized and a friend who recently read it on my recommendation cried a little when she thanked me for the suggestion.

My dad does not understand why a person would want to read a story, or watch a movie, or see a piece of art, that is upsetting. There is enough of that in real life, he says. This is a hard position to argue with, I think. There is too much of that in “real” life! But then how to explain why I go back and read, re-read, re-re-read “In the Cemetery…”?

I’ll try.

First, it is very funny before it is sad. There are details living inside of this story you will never see anywhere else, except, perhaps, everywhere. Amy is the queen of making the specific universal. The friendship between the two women characters is alive in every line. Each sentence works in a hundred different directions, giving us the fullest picture of two lives inside of only eleven pages. Several elements–a fear of flying, a fear of dying, useless trivia, a talking chimp and California earthquakes–are braided together, weaving in and out of each short paragraph, carrying the reader along, until, inevitably, the chain they form comes to an end.

Maybe I read it over and over to figure out how Amy makes me feel so much, and so strongly. I start the story with the intention of dissecting, of analyzing her every move, but then I find myself at the end, swallowing hard, staring blurry-eyed at the page, concluding as I had every time before that there was no method, no trick, no system that could be pulled apart–the story was created by magic.

Amy was my professor a couple of years ago, and in the past month, I’ve run into her three times. Seeing her yesterday made me think of this story again, but also makes me worry a little because Dan suggested she might think I’m stalking her–if you happen to see this post, Amy, I swear, I’m not! I just love this story and New York is a small place sometimes.

Notice, by the way, I didn’t give much away about the actual story here. It is really important that you all go out, read it yourselves and let me know what you think!