Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Reading: The Shitty Summer Update

  • Arthur Bradford's Dogwalker
  • J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories
  • Owen King's We're All in This Together
  • Lee Child's Tripwire!
  • William Faulkner's Light in August
  • Raymond Chandler's The High Window
  • John D. MacDonald's Bright Orange for the Shroud

I'm pretty sure two or three books are missing from that list. In any case, I know for sure that it reflects no more than half or so of my actual reading. You'll see that at the top of the list are three short story collections. This is because I was on a short story jag early in the summer. Bradford is one of the McSweeney's bunch, which shouldn't be held against him, if you hold that against people. (I don't.) The collection is very enjoyable. The story "Mollusks" has been added to that small Pantheon of Stories That Really Do It for Me. Salinger was a re-read for me. I chugged through Nine Stories way too fast the first time for a graduate seminar on New Yorker fiction. I was blown away this time, and I have to add the story "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut" to the aforementioned pantheon. Gives me chills that story does.

Owen King is one of Stephen King's sons. I liked this collection a lot. The other son of King, Joe Hill, writes contemporary fantasy/horror. Owen King is married to Kelly Braffet, who writes, from what I can gather, literary thrillers. And of course Tabitha King, mother of Owen and Joe, is also a writer. I love the idea of this sort of carny clan of writers. Which is really unfair to everyone's writing, but what do you do? Anyway, I think O.K.'s writing is good. I read one Joe Hill story, a ghost story, the name of which escapes me, that appeared in a Best Fantasy and Horror. If anything, it was artier than Owen King's stories. So, good on 'em.

But so the short story jag. I've mentioned before that reading short stories leads me not to finish books. I don't know. Without the propulsion of a unifying narrative or, barring that, a short book, I tend to get waylaid by the next shiny object when I'm reading stories. So I don't finish the books. For instance, I also read about a third of The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. I'll finish it some day. I've read a number of O'Connor stories over the years. This time I was struck by how damn funny she is. Also, I want to steal the chase as an organizing principle for a story. I mean to say, I want to write a chase story. O'Connor does this a lot.

Hmmm. I caught up on my New Yorkers, which involved reading a lot of fiction. (I've subsequently fallen woefully behind again.) Dear New Yorker: I'm really tired of stories in translation by dead people. I'm not a bigot. I've read and enjoyed a lot of fiction by dead people who happened not to write in English. But when I read a contemporary American magazine that publishes fiction, well do I have to spell out the kind of fiction I'd like to read? By the way, for the purposes of this argument, John Updike is dead. Very, very dead. Also, for the love of all that is holy, will you please, please, please stop passing off novel excerpts as if they were short stories. Gad.

I subscribed to the nifty serial chapbook/journal One Story. Each issue contains -- wait for it -- one short story. They publish an issue every month or so.

Finally (best as I can remember), I read about half of Best American Short Stories: 2005 edited by Michael Chabon. I'll finish this some day. The stories are good. Some spin my rotor; some don't. But Chabon's essay alone is worth the price of admission. Americans, I think, are prey to the evil of willful, almost prideful, anti-intellectual ignorance and its equally evil twin, monstrously insecure pretentiousness. Americans who read books are especially likely to be gobbled up by one monster or the other. Chabon -- perhaps self-servingly, I don't know -- is leading the good fight to restore some balance to fiction reading appetites. He does this by arguing for entertainment as fiction's greatest virtue, while insisting on good taste and quality. You should read the introduction. Really.

Wait, not finally. I read some more pop/mystery books. There is not actually an exclamation point in the title of that Lee Child book. That is my sole editorial comment. At some point, I've publicly bitched about MacDonald's arrogant hero, Travis McGee. He still seems arrogant, patronizing, and condescending to me, but for some reason I wasn't bothered. I liked the milieu, the ride, the writing. The High Window is probably my least favorite of the Raymond Chandler books I've read, but I still liked it. Some of the best snappy dialog anywhere. That Philip Marlowe has quite a mouth on him.

The Faulkner goes in with the ones I really like. Interesting to read one of these books and recognize retrospectively its influence on books you read before it. This is the kind of Faulkner you see all over Cormac McCarthy. O'Connor too, I think. Anyway, this one has a good dose of humor mingled with some of the most gothic scenes in all Southern gothic writing. (I guess that's why I think O'Connor.) Joe Christmas is just one of those touchstone characters in literature, like Heathcliff or Miss Havisham or Uriah Heap.

While I was reading Light in August, I had an interesting conversation with my grad school buddies Casey and Mike (VCU Mike -- so many grad school Mikes!) about how I seem to like the wrong Faulkner. The Sound and the Fury and Absolom, Absolom are frequently counted among the great Faulkner novels, but I prefer As I Lay Dying (my favorite), The Wild Palms, Sanctuary. Funnier, more pot-boiler stuff, I guess. (Mike told me to read Intruder in the Dust. Duly noted.) I'm sort of this way about the short stories too. I like the lit anthology stories "A Rose for Emily" and "Barn Burning" and so on. My favorite, though, one that I'd actually put into the Pantheon of Stories That Really Do It for Me, is a quick little story called "Dry September," about a barber who tries to stop a lynching. But I guess I'm in step wtih everyone on Light, as it's counted up there with Sound and Absolom.

Hmm. If I were a real blogger I would try to assemble my Pantheon of Stories That Really Do It for Me.

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