What I’ve Been Reading – January 2008

There’s a pattern in the books I’ve read this month. It doesn’t take a lot to see it: Short stories, Dave Eggers, repeat.

Books Purchased:

Fun Home – Alison Bechdel

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union – Michael Chabon

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

Divided Kingdom – Rupert Thomson

The Better of McSweeney’s, Volume One – Dave Eggers (editor)

The Little Blue Book of Advertising – Steve Lance/Jeff Woll

Books Read:

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 – Dave Eggers (editor)

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #25 – Dave Eggers (editor)

The Better of McSweeney’s, Volume One – Dave Eggers (editor)

Fun Home – Alison Bechdel

Let’s just say I was reclaiming the short story this month. I said to myself, “Hey, I’ve got a handful of short story collections, and I haven’t really latched on the medium in a while, so why not?”

55 short stories later, I’m a little burned out.

No. I don’t hate the short story. I don’t wish it any harm. I’m still as much a fan as I used to be – in fact, it seems I go on some long-winded rave about the concise slice-of-life nature of the genre at least once a year in this column, and I refuse to put you through that this time.

It’s just that, well, I’ve had enough. For a month or so, that is. It’s like having a job you really enjoy, but becoming more and more used to the intricacies of the position and the mundane tasks and, eventually, you slowly begin to remember that, yes, what you’re doing is work. You have to stop what you’re doing, stand back and renew your feelings for it. You go on break, you take a day off, and you return remembering why it is you love what you do.

Now, the Dave Eggers thing – that wasn’t on purpose. It’s just that I tend to find myself with a pile of McSweeney’s branded merchandise every quarter or so – what with the Quarterly Concern appearing out of nowhere and my penchant for purchasing collections of short stories that always seem to have some odd connection with Dave Eggers or 826 Valencia or any of his other millions of really cool, nearly pretentious projects.

Here’s how it played out: With a Christmas gift card burning a hole in my pocket, I set out to Barnes and Noble after the New Year to find some new books to throw on the stack. I landed on the Best American Nonrequired Reading series because I’d always wanted to read one of them. That’s easy enough, right? The 2007 edition happened to have a transcript of Conan O’Brien’s Stuyvesant High School Commencement Speech. That sounded hilarious. So it was a pretty easy decision.

Fun HomeThe book also included an excerpt from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Now, I’d wanted to read Bechdel’s graphic novel (a detailed and revealing look into her own childhood and the suicide of her closeted-gay father) since hearing a million or so book bloggers giving it the kind of accolades usually reserved for, say, a 6000-page Thomas Pynchon novel (more on him, later). So I ordered it online, because, naturally, Barnes and Noble didn’t have it. In fact, I searched for six different books. None of them were in stock. Lame.

(Fun Home was intricate and raw and absolutely fantastic. But this is about the 55 short stories, so I’ll just say, “Go read it, please.”)

At the same time, I ordered a handful of other books online: Murakami, Chabon’s new novel, former LBC choice Divided Kingdom and the Better of McSweeney’s – a collection of the best stories from the first ten issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, from a time far before I was a regular subscriber.

McSweeney's Quarterly Concern #25Speaking of subscriptions, McSweeney’s #25 was already sitting on my bookshelf. So with three Eggers-edited books in hand, I made a vow to plow through all of the stories and get them out of the way. To catch up. To clean my plate in anticipation of the next McSweeney’s drop shipment.

Here’s how I feel about short stories – especially the McSweeney’s brand. I hate to have them sit. The Quarterly Concern is as close to a literary magazine as I get, and I don’t want them to start stacking up on me. They’re perfect in that respect – I have three months to get through them, they’re almost always worthwhile and they’re already paid for and delivered to my door. If I was receiving New Yorker every week, I’d be so backlogged on fiction that I’d have to quit my job. I’m a completist. I can’t move onto a new issue of a magazine until I’m positive I’ve finished everything I want in the previous issue. It’s maddening to Kerrie, I’m sure.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 was interesting, but not at all what I imagined. I saw Conan O’Brien and assumed this would be a fun romp through a handful of stories that really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Articles from The Onion. Stories about, I don’t know – poop or something. The introduction – by indie darling Sufjan Stevens – and the first story – Jonathan Ames’s recount of meeting high school goths at a low-publicity music festival – seemed to back it up. It was funny and irrelevant, and I was looking forward to a few days of thoughtless humor.

And then – BAM! All of a sudden we’re talking about Darfur and Iraq and Ideas that are Changing the World and Thomas Pynchon and other things that are frightfully necessary reading. I mean, these are things you’re supposed to care about – why are they in my gentle book of non-essential things?

The amazing thing about this book is that it is selected by a bunch of high school students from the San Francisco area. Kids. And these kids wanted me to think about Darfur and Iraq? Do they even know who Thomas Pynchon even is?

These kids picked Bechdel’s comic. They picked Joshua Clark’s harrowing account of survival during the first few hours of rising water after Katrina – a story about a group of survivors both scavenging and dodging close calls. They picked Lee Klein’s defense of Barry Bonds as a big, fat-headed opportunist who had no choice in doing steroids. They are already smarter than I am. It made me feel both awed and inadequate.

Of course, they also picked Conan O’Brien’s commencement speech, which is really as hilarious as it sounds. Whew. They’re kids after all.

The highlights of the non-required reading were in the non-fiction selections. With the two McSweeney’s books it was the opposite. I’ll admit that, aside from Chloe Hooper’s “A Death in Custody” (a revisit to a previous McSweeney’s entry about an Australian aborigine killed in one of Queenland’s prisons), I didn’t even read any of the non-fiction stories. It was all fiction for me, thanks.

The Better of McSweeney'sThere was a lot to like in the McSweeney’s books, especially The Better of McSweeney’s. Kevin Brockmeier gives us a short story about a giant ceiling that descends upon the earth. Glen David Gould writes about a murdering circus elephant. Judy Budnitz muses upon a mother who is afraid of going to the doctor and her two daughters who end up taking her there – and ultimately covering for her. And A. M. Homes shows us that some people are really as unlikable as they seem.

The most amazing story I read this month, though, was from Dan Chaon called “The Bees.” In the story, a man’s long forgotten past slowly creeps back to the surface – a former girlfriend, a forgotten child. In the present, the man’s married again with another child, living out a sort of utopia after a hard life of alcoholism and mistakes. Except for one thing: the past comes back to haunt him.

Wow. Find this story and read it. “Amazing” doesn’t do it justice – it’s haunting, indeed. When I finished the story, I couldn’t go on. I was stunned. Numb. Startled by how good it was, unwilling to forge ahead and soil the memory of what has become one of my favorite short stories of all time. It’s horrific – a twist that causes you to both recoil and smile, a perfect ending to an engaging story.

I wish I would have ended there. I’m not sure if the rest of the stories paled in comparison or if I just hit the wall. I was going, going, going and then, just like that, I found myself skimming and skipping and flipping forward to see how many pages I had left.

The problem with short stories is that you rarely get any time to establish yourself in the characters’ world. You get the slice-of-life, but you don’t get the full experience, like watching a movie trailer or hearing a 30 second iTunes clip. Don’t get me wrong – they’re fun and easy and I could read them all day long. But not all day long for 30 days in a row.

When it came down to it, I had reached my quota. I longed for something more substantial. And that’s what I’ll give myself. Novels. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude renewed my spirit, gave me hope in terms of loving a wonderfully written novel, and the re-energized nature of my reading has prepared me to take on Chabon, Murakami, Marisha Pessl; clever fiction, great stories, fleshed out characters.

Clever longfiction, you could say. Fiction that evolves and moves in and makes itself at home.

And to think – it only took a month away from it to realize what I was missing.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 7th, 2008