Thursday, October 4, 2012

Fall Fiction Recommendations

Even though I had to read a goodly number of books when I was in school, it wasn't until after I graduated that the books started piling up on the floor by my bed. I've been, somehow, unleashed to read. I thought I'd share some thoughts on the short story collections that I've read recently, or am reading now, or am rereading.

Rock Springs by Richard Ford (Grove Press, 1987). The first story, also the title of the book, packs a plot punch that stunned me. If ever a work could show you how to write a short story that moves along well, "Rock Springs" is it. It begins with a character fleeing, which is interesting enough, but no, the car he's in is stolen. Without revealing the entire plot, I'll just say I was constantly surprised and interested in what would happen next as the sequence of events layered upon itself. This road trip story winds up in a thoughtful way. "Great Falls" is an emotionally resonant, fresh story of a boy trying to get his parents' attention and love and the downfall of the family, which begins, "This is not a happy story. I warn you." "Sweethearts" also layers its surprises, including the odd relationship of ex-lovers. The dialogue throughout is snappy. The characters are flawed and they accept themselves and others. 

The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) by Bruno Schulz, translated from Polish by Celina Wieniewska, foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer (originally published in 1934, translation in 1968, this edition 2008). I've written previously about this book and its stories here and here, but I keep rereading "Spring," and I keep thinking about "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," "Birds," and "Father's Last Escape." The stories are strange, fantastical, and dreamlike, the style highly appropriate to the theme of the father's going crazy. I like reading these before falling asleep for their colorful impact on my own dreams.

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories (New Directions Paperbook) by Delmore Schwartz, preface by Lou Reed, introduction by James Atlas, afterword by Irving Howe (originally published in 1948, this edition 2012). The title story was what prompted me to buy the collection; I'd read it for a class and reread it several times since. A beautifully structured piece in which the narrator reflects on his life and his parents' marriage, as told through a film or hallucination, but of course it is a dream. I'm still reading, but the stories so far have very light plots and contain idle characters who tell stories to try to understand life. The author may be winking self-consciously in "The World Is a Wedding" on page 40: 
Edmund Kish recognized the weakness of the plays, the fact that Rudyard used character and incident merely as springboards for excursions which were lyrical and philosophical, so that the essential impression was dream-like, abstract, and didactic. But he liked the plays for just that reason…

Amsterdam Stories (New York Review Books Classics) by Nescio (Jan Hendrik Frederik Grönloh), introduction by Joseph O'Neill, translated by Damion Searls (originally published in Dutch in 1933; English edition 2012). The stories are mostly about the same group of young men who roam and discuss and cogitate on life, similar to, yet not the same as Delmore Schwartz's characters. The landscape, the light, and the sky are extremely important in Nescio's stories. The stories have "Amsterdam" in the title because the city is as much a character as the guys who wander through it. I love the language of these descriptions. In "Young Titans" he included the "ring of dikes around the city" and "the buttercups" and "inquisitive cows." "The Freeloader" is my favorite of the collection: the ultimate outrageous story of a guy who usurps his friends' resources, but is so charming no one has the heart to turn him away.

At the Mouth of the River of Bees: Stories by Kij Johnson (2012, stories originally published in magazines 1989-2011). These stories are wildly different from each other. Although the collection as a whole feels uneven, the brilliant stories are so outstanding I can ignore the ones that don't grab me. The first two, "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss," and "Fox Magic" pulled me right in. "The Bitey Cat," looked freshly at a frustrated, unruly child and an independent cat. "My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire—Exposition on the Flaws in My Wife's Character—The Nature of the Bird—The Possible Causes—Her Final Disposition" was light and amused me. And I was floored by the emotional impact and original storytelling in the final piece, "The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change." (Can you tell she has an affinity for fantasy and animals?)

Bleak House (Bantam Classics) by Charles Dickens (1852-1853) with introductory excerpts from Vladimir Nabokov's Cornell Lectures on Literature. Although now regarded as a novel, Bleak House was published serially and read as an enormous collection of interconnected short stories with an overarching theme and plot. It is ostensibly about a lawsuit that has gone on for generations and the people it affects, but at the heart is the life story of Esther Summerson, an orphan, and all of the people she meets. The book is packed with characters who are thankfully delineated by a tall hat, a strange laugh, a speech tic, physical quality, or other such thing so that it is easier to tell them apart. The plot gets cooking about halfway into the roughly 900 pages of the book, but the colorful descriptions and wonderful use of language keep the reader hanging in there. Nabokov's intro is fascinating to read as you can't help but compare what he is saying about Dickens to his own work as well.

Each of these collections has its strengths—and I'm grabbing randomly at one for each—Ford's plot lines, Dickens' characters, Nescio's descriptions, Schulz's imagery, philosophical ideas of Schwartz, and Johnson's startling originality. It is fascinating and inspiring to see this variation in works that are all successful. 

I can see the carpet now. Time to find more books and bury it again. An easy task…


JAQUINTA said...

I like Dickens' characters too. At the moment I am reading 'Our Mutual Friend'.
I am reading it in short bursts whilst travelling by bus.

Lynn said...

What a wonderful pile!
"The Street of Crocodiles" was recently added to me to-read list. Time to finally seek it out.