Notes on Best American Short Stories of the Century

I cleared 50 old books off my shelves last week, including this one, which I was really just keeping because of these notes I’d made.

Digitization is the declutterer’s best friend.

The most important thing is the mark next to each title. It’s the classic, simple teacher cheat: a check minus means I didn’t like it, a check plus means I loved it, a mere check means it was average.

It’s hard to read my scribbled reaction to each story, but that’s OK–it was hard to read them in the actual book, as well.

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Sherlock Holmes Meets Cthulhu

Sherlock_holmes_vs_cthulhuSo Neil Gaiman, the great author of dark fantasy, apparently wrote a short story about Sherlock Holmes meeting Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s giant ancient alien monster.

Last week I had a few minutes between classes on different campuses, so I swung by the library. The start of a school year always puts me in the mood for easy genre fiction, and right now I’m hankering for Lovecraft. Browsing the shelves I saw a recent anthology, an homage to the master.

Picked it up, flipped through it, found this one.

It was just as excellent as any Gaiman fan might hope.

I was extra delighted to find my own name in it, in a reference to “Huston, the acid-bath man,” some sort of thoroughly homicidal type, it seems.

It’s available in a few places online, most attractively here.  Highly recommended.

“Primary Education of the Camiroi”

XTRTRRSTRB1988One of my favorite science fiction stories is R.A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi.”  I remember reading it in the Issac Asimov-edited anthology Extraterrestrials at the old Charleston Heights library in the late 1980’s.  I loved how weird and silly it was–I’d never read anything quite like it.

Reading it again now on Google Books, I see it as a pretty biting satire of an American education system that even by the late 60’s, when the story was first published, was already showing cracks.  I especially loved the schema for the alien curriculum near the end, which I’ve copied below.  In fact, I think this story helped influence young me in my decision to become a teacher.

I really think we should consider some of the “modest proposals” in this story.  I would have loved having a class in “laser religion” as a high school freshmen.

My grade for this story now, nearly 30 years after first reading it?

A+

Lafferty 1 Lafferty 2 Lafferty 3 Lafferty 4 Lafferty 5

The Best American Short Stories of the Century

In 2003 I read The Best American Short Stories of the Century, a best-of anthology culled from decades of previous best-of anthologies.  When reading collections of various works, I track my responses to each by putting some notes on the table of contents.  Besides written comments, I rank things with the classic, lazy teacher method of check /check-plus /check-minus, where the check is average, and the plus or minus pretty well explain themselves. 

Here are my notes from this book.  I see now how repetitive and banal many of my “reviews” were; I hope that if I read it again today, a lot of my notes would read differently.  However, I think my overall opinions would still be positive. 

Out of the 56 stories, I gave 7 check-minuses, 20 checks, 25 check-plusses, and even 4 unprecedented check-plus-plusses

1915. Benjamin Rosenblatt, Zelig—Nothing more than a history lesson, and a poor one at that. √-

1916. Mary Lerner, Little Selves— Useful and pretty, but rigid.  Irish.  √

1917. Susan Gladspell, A Jury of Her Peers— As bad as Kate Chopin.  √ –

1920. Sherwood Anderson, The Other Woman— A bland cliché.  √- [unfortunate, as I loved Winesburg, Ohio.] Continue reading

A Latter-day Odyssey

Last summer, the LDS Church sponsored a short story contest; entries were supposed to be about pioneers and had to be under, I think, 500 words.  I had an idea and quickly threw together the draft below.  However, I never revised it properly, and the deadline passed.  I forgot about it entirely until tonight, as I’ve been sorting through old documents on my hard drive. 

This is more of a rough outline than a story.  Obviously, I wanted to draw a parallel between pioneers trekking across the desert and Odysseus struggling back home after war.  I also had to throw in a reference to Joyce’s take on the epic.  I count eight good references to The Odyssey, just in a few short paragraphs–not too shabby. 

Actually, I think the idea has some merit, and the analogy is pretty clever.  Sadly, even if I fleshed it out, the story itself would have huge problems in reconciling the analogy with historical accuracy, as is probably evident from the snippet I drew up.  And the writing’s pretty clunky, even for me.  Still, it’s cute enough to post here.  Enjoy!

I even called the protagonist “Ulysses Mann.”  Geez, John Bunyan’s symbols are more subtle than mine…

**********

16 June 1848

May the most holy Spirit of the Lord our God be with me as I endeavor to chronicle my journeys, both spiritual and temporal, and preserve in the memories of all posterity those choice events that have brought me nearer to my fellow kindred saints, brethren, and our Father.

He set down the pen, not reviewing the opening words of this new journal so much as reflecting on all that they implied. Ulysses Mann had emigrated west with a company of saints after having consecrated ten years to the service of the Church—two missions, constructing the Nauvoo temple, and other assignments from the Apostles that had kept him exhausted and in danger but, worst of all, away from his wife and son.

When he had returned to Nauvoo from a mission to Canada he found that his family had already left for the Salt Lake Valley with one of the first companies, their finances growing smaller in his absence and their best opportunity to safely travel being as soon as they could possibly go. The long-expected reunion was delayed. The sealing of his family in the temple just four years before had kept him strong during the hardships of his work, and it sustained him through the journey across the land to join his people and his family in their new home.

His travels across the dust-dark desert had been arduous, trying him and testing him, but he found that his exodus prepared him to be a better man upon his settling back home. With his company of handcarts and walkers, he had faced numerous temptations: other travelers who invited him to abandon his journey and stay with them in their hedonistic frontier settlements, the loose women there who made it far too clear that they noticed he was without his wife and would welcome his adulterous companionship, and the outright savages who attacked their group in the night, assailing them with violence and terror.

But he had made it back to his wife and son, who was now a young man in his own right, and they were ready to settle in and enjoy the rest of their lives together in this harsh new land, made a pleasant paradise by their blessed coming together.

The Lord had other plans, though. In mortality, it seemed, there would be no permanent respite from trial and trouble. The prophet had called him to take his family and establish a settlement, to aid other travelers and to defend the territory from any who would seek to take the land they’d tilled and wrestled out from under them. No such interlopers would be tolerated.

Ulysses had already staked out an area for the buildings and had designated it Fort New Ithaca. He had presented his plans to his wife and she had heartily assented to support him in their calling together, saying again and again, yes.

Story Time, Part III

On another page of this blog, I’ve just posted another of my old stories, “Seducing the Muse.”  In fact, this was the first story I wrote after college, and while I still get a kick out of it, it’s undeniably amateurish.  Oh well.  I think the other two stories I’ve put up here–a mystery about understanding religion in the age of terrorism called “In the Shadow of Death,” and a dramatic little bit of catharsis about raising children after divorce called “Gordon Raises the Kid“–are better, but this one is still worth a read. 

I wrote it wanting to blend two romances, a love for a woman and a love for the written word.  It works well enough, but Joyce Carol Oates–or even Nicholas Sparks–I’m not.  I’ve sent it to several publishers, but to no avail.  Zoetrope sent me a note calling it a “good story,” but not for them.  Another magazine wrote on their rejection slip that it was “cute,” but too long.  At least I got some feedback.  Alas, I’ve never been very good at marketing.  These stories will probably reach more sympathetic eyes here than they would anywhere else willing to print them, anyway. 

Enjoy!

Story Time, Part II

A few years ago, I wanted to try my hand at writing a mystery story about moral courage in the age of terrorism.  I had a plot in mind, and wanted to throw in a lot of diverse religious trivia to give it an intriguing, ecumenical feel.  I’ve always liked the result, though I found that there are surprisingly few mystery story markets out there, and none wanted what I had written.

It’s a little longish at nearly 6000 words, but well worth it.  The last story I gave its own page to was much shorter, and if you haven’t read these yet, I do hope you like both.  The two I’ve put up here–“Gordon Raises The Kid” and now “In The Shadow Of Death”–each have their own page on this blog, labelled on the tabs just under the banner heading .  See them up there?  Enjoy!

“Required New Yorker Short Story Format”

I just got a rejection slip for this story in the mail today (the second rejection for this particular manuscript), but rather than send it out yet again, I’ll share it here.

I got the idea for this piece last Autumn when I read the quote used below to introduce it.  As I drafted the story, I intended it to be a rollicking, silly but of fun.  Looking back on it a bit later, it’s much more serious than I first thought…but still makes a good point.

 

“Required New Yorker Short Story Format”

 

“In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course; the holy grail of the young fiction writer)…. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open…” –Stephen King, The Best American Short Stories 2007

 

“Dialogue that, without context, is intended to create an in media res effect, but only confuses the reader, though precocious readers are used to this and look forward to the background being fleshed out at some later point in the narrative, giving introductory sentence an appropriate air of contemplative gravitas.”

“Terse interrogative?”

Bombastic reply!”

Deceptively meandering description of the weather this time of year (and its implied resonant mood), and several nearby slice-of-life scenes, each more triumphantly obscure than the one before.

Allusions to John Stuart Mill, Too Much Coffee Man, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Superfluous obscenity.

Bleak interaction between protagonist and colorful minor character. Random childhood memory. Under-punctuated transitions between several paragraphs of sparse prose juxtaposing minute observations of contemporary urban life with a condensed panorama of life’s essential absurdity.

Abortive burst of action; interior monologue meditates on frustration of even simple attempts to connect meaningfully with one’s ostensible community. Casual mention of socially deviant behavior and a scene concerning exotic food.

[insert dramatic line break here]

 

Character foil accosts protagonist and proceeds to launch a verbal fusillade rife with multi-syllabic sesquipedalianisms unlikely to actually be employed by someone who has just been established, via a dismal wardrobe metaphor, to be a suburban zombie. Stale middle-class existence tangentially judged and ironically criticized.

“Breezy dismissal of foil’s argument by means of muttering colloquial slang, possibly ‘whatever’ or even ‘OMG’,” said protagonist, with whom readers are meant to increasingly identify their own neuroses.

Fragment approximates postmodern stream-of-consciousness glimpse into protagonist’s soul. A word whose prefix creates a double-“o” is punctuated with an umlaut.

Onewordparagraph.

A series of narrative sketches advances plot to philosophical extremes, noticeably including the words “surreal,” “remonstrate,” and “ebulliently recondite.”

Auspicious reference to childhood memory from paragraph six. Sudden conclusion sans closure leaves reader successfully denying an emerging sense of self-imposed psychic constipation, and satisfied with a comfortable emptiness. Reader shivers upon turning page, looking for cartoons.

Story Time!

Introducing a new page (seen on the menu above, next to “Home” and “About”), wherein our beleaguered hero, abashed at his dearth of success in publishing fiction, valiantly posts his stories on the Internet for free…

Story the First: a semi-autobiographical bit of catharsis…