Friday, January 01, 2010

Favorite short stories of 2009

I didn't read quite as many stories this year as I did last year, but I still managed to read a little over five hundred. Here were my top ten favorites.

"Love," Stephen O'Connor (Electric Literature) My favorite story of the year. EL only started publishing this year (on multiple platforms, no less) and really hit the ground running. O'Connor also had another marvelous story in the New Yorker this year ("Ziggurat"). But this one was the real find. The story's protagonist retreats to a cabin in the woods to work on her dissertation. While there she begins to question her boyfriend's fidelity and, increasingly, her own sanity as she begins to be stalked by an old man who may or may not be a figment of her imagination. I've read few purely literary stories that manage such a high level of tension throughout the way this one does, building and building until an abrupt and puzzling ending that seems like a cop out when you first read it, but reveals its utter perfection on subsequent readings.

"Vast Hell," Guillermo Martinez (New Yorker) The high number of New Yorker stories on this list isn't necessarily an indicator that the magazine had a good year so much as a wildly uneven one. Still, there were some good entries. This one was my favorite, beginning as a murder mystery and then becoming something a lot deeper and more sinister.

"Goodbye," Andrew Wingfield (Antioch Review) This moving story is part of a yet-to-be-published novel-in-stories about life in a transitional neighborhood in a Washington, D.C. suburb. I'm looking very forward to reading more of Wingfield's work.

"None of the Above," Suzanne Rivecca (American Short Fiction) I'm not sure why, but this year I really gravitated towards literary stories that were plotted like thrillers. This one concerns a teacher who becomes alarmed when one of her young students shows up to school with bizarre marks and bruises on his arms. What makes this story great isn't the fact that, when confronted, the student claims that the wounds are from his pet tiger cub. What makes it great is that it turns out he's telling the truth.

"In the Sunset," Lucy Ferriss (Missouri Review) Another "mystery", but one that doesn't seem altogether mysterious at first. A mother moves in with her daughter and becomes convinced that she's leaving home late at night to cheat on her absent husband. What's particularly remarkable here is how utterly unappealing Ferriss manages to make San Francisco look.

"Dog Heaven," Tom Grimes (Narrative) Fine, funny work from one of my former workshop teachers.

"Victory Lap," George Saunders (New Yorker) Both of Saunders' New Yorker stories this year (the other was "Al Roosten") were outstanding, but what pushed this one over the top for me was how Saunders managed to make three different voices (a boy, a girl, and a kidnapper) so distinct from one another, and yet so identifiably "Saunders-esque". Brought back fond memories of "The Falls", one of Saunders' early masterpieces, which also featured multiple perspectives.

"A Tiny Feast," Chris Adrian (New Yorker) In his spare time, Adrian is a physician and a divinity student. His professions inform this fantastical piece, wherein a pair of fairies kidnap a human child only to have that child succumb to leukemia. A devastating story about how we comprehend grief, and how the feelings it provokes are confusing to everyone, not just these creatures.

"Idols," Tim Gautreaux (New Yorker) I have been reading this Louisiana writer for a long time, and he's been writing great fiction for even longer. So it was gratifying to see him recognized in the pages of the New Yorker this past year.

"Scouting for the Reaper," Jacob M. Appel (Virginia Quarterly Review) Another great physician-writer. This story is narrated by a young girl who accompanies her father, who designs tombstones, on one of his sales calls, which happens to take place at the home of an old flame now dying of cancer. While I have no idea if there's an actual connection between the two, Appel's story reminded me a great deal of Alice Munro's classic story "Walker Brothers Cowboy", with one notable exception: instead of the father rejecting the love of the child's mother, as in Munro's story, he reaffirms it here.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

How much would you pay for a story?

I've had an iPhone for about six months, and have had my Kindle for iPhone app about as long. I love reading with this app. So when I saw the news about the Atlantic Monthly offering Kindle-only downloads, I was very excited...until I saw the price.

Although they publish a fiction issue once a year, the Atlantic hasn't regularly published short fiction since 2005 (Sidebar: the last story the magazine ever published in the "old" format, Michael Lohre's "Bullheads", is one of my all-time favorite stories, an absolute masterpiece about growing old, sacrifice, and dying with dignity. The full-text is here . Highly, highly recommended.). Ostensibly, the magazine's new Kindle offerings--the editors hope to post two new stories a month--are meant to fill this gap.

My main gripe with the move is the asking price: each story will cost $3.99. I don't care how good the individual stories may be--$3.99 is too much to pay for one piece, considering I could download David Foster Wallace's doorstopper Infinite Jest for $9.99, the standard price for most Kindle titles, or this month's entire issue of Electric Literature (with 5 stories) for $4.95. While the editors claim that the Kindle offers the magazine an opportunity to publish novella-length fiction that won't fit in print, charging almost as much as it would cost readers to purchase a newstand issue seems puzzling, if not downright thoughtless.

My suggestion? Knock down the price a little, Atlantic editors. Perhaps to $1.59, which is how much it would cost me to download a story from Holly Goddard Jones' outstanding Girl Trouble directly from Amazon. I'd read many of the stories that appear in Jones' collection when they first appeared in literary journals (and, much later and much deservedly, in prize anthologies like New Stories from the South) and I was grateful that Amazon offered me the opportunity to download the stories I hadn't read one at a time. In fact, this "iTunes for short fiction" model is one I'd love to see e-book publishers and vendors pursue. While I've read entire novels on my Kindle for iPhone, the format seems particularly ideal for stories, which can be read in more manageable bursts. Whether something like this will become more widespread is anyone's guess (and I don't doubt for a minute that I occupy what amounts to a niche-of-a-niche market), but I don't think it's too much to ask that e-readers get their money's worth.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

On Abraham Verghese and Facebook

I was fortunate enough to meet Abraham Verghese during the last year of my creative writing MFA at Texas State. Verghese gave two readings, one an excerpt from his excellent memoir The Tennis Partner, the other a selection from the novel he was in the process of completing, which turned out to be the recently-released Cutting for Stone. Verghese was what several of the MFA faculty referred to, in great admiration, as a "writer's writer," but I think what fascinated many of the creative writing students was Verghese's background as a doctor. At the time, Verghese was the director of the Center for Medical Ethics at the University of Texas Medical Branch in San Antonio, TX, and many of my peers--who were struggling to teach two sections of freshman composition a semester while endlessly revising our master's theses--were fascinated that Verghese could so successfully balance his writing with his duties as an educator and a practicing physician. His answer referred to a concept he called "pockets of time," which really boiled down to was setting out what you needed to do and then doing it. It was impossible to come away from those encounters with him and not feel inspired.

Late last week, I learned (via KevinMD) that Verghese--and his employer Stanford University--is using Facebook to hold online "open office hours," soliciting student questions and providing (as always) thoughtful, detailed answers. But what really struck me was the fact that users were actively participating in the process, writing lengthy questions about a wide variety of medical topics, continuing the conversation. This enterprise got me thinking about how academic libraries are using (or at least, attempting to use) Facebook and other social networking sites to reach out to their students. It's one thing to have a presence, but as many librarians know, it's quite another to have your target users actively engaged with that presence. Frankly, those academic libraries that do have Facebook pages are lucky if we can persuade our students to "friend" or "fan" us. In all likelihood, that's about the extent of our users' involvement.

Are Abraham Verghese's students impressed that he's on Facebook? Possibly. But it's also possible that they're grateful for the forum he's providing them. That's an important distinction, because I think that academic librarians tend to advocate for a social networking presence in order to impress their students, not to satisfy some crying need. I'm not saying that a crying need doesn't exist, nor that we should give up on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or any other popular social network as a means of marketing and advocating our services. But making our students grateful to have us there, as opposed to just being impressed, will take a concerted effort by librarians to reach people in the real world, as Dr. Verghese has done so successfully, not just in the digital one.

That's what we need to do. Why can't we just do it?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Relaunch

As I promised in my last blog for the ACRL conference, I am reconceptualizing, rebranding, and relaunching this blog. I had abandoned it for a variety of reasons: lack of audience, lack of interest, not enough time in the day or gas left in the tank to blog anything worthwhile. But I've since seen the possible benefits of using my blog as a gateway to scholarly publication--something I'm very interested in, and have already achieved, just not in the field of librarianship--as well as a means of "getting my name out there."

At this point I should at least offer some sort of manifesto or blanket statement about the type of content you're going to see on here. But I'd prefer to just let this blog find its own niche. So expect some fits and starts, some link dumps, and more than a few tangents while I stumble around blindly. Chances are that I will manage to touch on the following topics:

-Academic librarianship
-Medical/health sciences librarianship
-Information literacy
-Bibliographic instruction
-Medical humanities
-Medical school
-Social networking media
-Literary fiction
-Writing, revising, and publication (and its more common counterpart, rejection)
-Balacing work and writing

Those last three might seem somewhat incongruous. I hold an MFA and an MLS; I am a librarian and a writer. Hence the retitling of this blog, which was formerly (A nod to both my extremely Southern given name and the opening line of Bobbie Ann Mason's classic short story "Shiloh"). But "B8527" is my last name in LC classification, and I can think of no better way to indicate my interest in, and passion for, libraries and literature.

So thanks for reading. You'll be hearing from me again shortly!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Like You Care: Favorite Short Stories of 2008

I’m proud to say that I read more than 800 short stories this year. Here are my favorites that were published within the last twelve months:

“Bill and Arlene” by Ehud Havazelet (Tin House)Revisits the same characters in Raymond Carver’s famous story “Neighbors,” a story that contains, in my opinion, one of the most shocking moments in modern short fiction. The climax of Havazelet’s story actually tops that moment.

“Tom & Jerry” by Christie Hodgen (Ploughshares)
Hodgen published two stories this year that featured Tom & Jerry as a running motif. This one, about an incredibly at-risk pregnancy, ends with one of her trademark punch-to-the-gut final paragraphs.

“Man Oh Man, It’s Manna Man” by George Singleton (Virginia Quarterly Review)
A hero for our times, this story’s title character uses mind control to make a venal, homophobic televangelist blow him through the TV screen.

“The Thirteenth Egg” by Scott Snyder (Virginia Quarterly Review)
A WWII veteran who survived the Bikini Atoll nuke tests finds himself literally glowing.

“Fetch” by Allan Gurganus (Tin House)
This white-knuckle beloved-family-dog-in-peril story appeared in the same issue of Tin House that Havazelet’s story did.

“The Dinner Party” by Joshua Farris (The New Yorker)
A story that spends this much time making fun of the movie Kung Fu Panda shouldn’t be this devastating.

“The Contents of This Shoe Box Are of Greater Worth Than Your Life” by Sean Casey (Massachusetts Review)
A jaw-droppingly scatological story about depositing bowel movements in the titular container. Oh, and did I mention that the aforementioned b.m.’s belong to Dick Cheney?

“Shakesteer’s” by James Wyatt (Cimarron Review)
Wyatt studied creative writing at the University of Missouri, and he has created the finest (and probably only) story ever based on this Columbia, Mo. institution.

“Retrospective” by Holly Goddard Jones (Kenyon Review)
This story’s signature moment is a vivid rape sequence that captures not only the terrifying nature of the encounter, but also the sickening awkwardness.

“The Last Days of Heath Ledger” by Lisa Taddeo (Esquire)
Contains the very best description of the way Jack Nicholson sits I’ve ever heard or read.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Like You Care: My Favorite Albums of six words or less

A yearly tradition…now with editing!

1. Beach House, Devotion—Gather round our warm drum machine.

2. Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours—The new New Order? Mirrorball descends.

3. White Denim, pretty much every song I downloaded by them—Fuzz bass, fuzz bass, fuzz bass.

4. Okkervil River, The Stand-Ins—Sheff: “Wrote my own 33 1/3 book!”

5. Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes—A Sigur Ros for the Confederacy.

6. The Walkmen, You and Me—Wedding band, heard from another room.

7. Girl Talk, Feed the Animals—Will the samples clear? Lawyer up!

8. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago—A winter well-spent. Nice beard!

9. Vampire Weekend, Vampire Weekend—Introducing the Wes Anderson House Band.

10. Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer—Prog-rock as primal scream therapy.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The new canon

The Catcher in the Rye belongs to that legion of books I've started but never finished. I believe I read the first 50 or so pages about 5 years ago, then put it back on the shelf. I didn't dislike it, but was worried about the novel's indelible prose style infecting my own writing. (At that time in my development, I preferred to allow far more banal influences infect my writing). I've had a similar response to the fiction of Raymond Carver, which I can only now approach with some objectivity.

Most people, I take it, read Catcher in high school. This article, written by someone who has actually read Salinger's novel in its entirety, says that practice should come to an end, and recommends other texts (some of which, like Freaks and Geeks, aren't even texts) more "relatable" to today's adolescence. While I can't attest to Catcher's relatability to 21st-century high school students (though I suspect that the author of this article might have severely midjudged it), I was glad to see the inclusion of Jeff Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides on her "revised syllabus." That novel has a great deal to recommend. Not only does Eugenides nail the pressures and trauma faced by both teenag boys and girls, the novel is also (in spite of its portentous title) wryly and consistently hilarious. A copy of the book was among the first gifts I ever bought for my future wife, and we still smirk knowingly when one of us utters the line "Squeezebox all right!"

The book was, obviously, the subject of a dead-perfect film adaptation by Sofia Coppola (and, in my mind, remains the best film she's ever done). Coppola did a remarkable job staying true to her source material, a trait that I don't necessarily look for, much less demand, from effective page-to-screen transitions. In fact, there's a remarkable scene from the DVD extras--which unfortunately I've been unable to locate on YouTube--where Coppola has Eugenides read aloud the passage where Trip Fontaine drops Lux Lisbon off after a disappointingly chaste date. The footage then cuts to the actual clip of the scene from the movie, and, as we listen to the voiceover of Eugenides reading the passage, we see that the scene as Coppola has filmed it has been perfectly timed to coincide with what is occurring in the text, producing the effect of both reading and watching the story at the same time. Trust me, it's a miracle of multimedia.

I would search harder for the clip but YouTube is apparently broken at the moment.