[Reading Room] No More Than A Bubble by Jamel Brinkley

The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.

The opening

“It was back in those days. Claudius Van Clyde and I stood on the edge of the dancing crowd, each of us already three bottles into one brand of magic brew, blasted by the music throbbing from the speakers. But we weren’t listening to the songs. I’d been speaking into the open shell of his ears since we’ve gotten to the party, shouting a bunch of mopey stuff about my father. Sometime around the witching hour, he stopped his perfunctory nodding and pointed towards the staircase of the house. “Check out these biddies,” he said. Past the heads of the dancers and would-be seducers I too saw the two girls he meant.”

So what do we know from these opening lines?

Continue reading “[Reading Room] No More Than A Bubble by Jamel Brinkley”

[Reading Room] The Great Interruption by Wendell Berry

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This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

This story’s full title is The Great Interruption: The Story of A Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased To Be Told (1935-1978). It’s a great example of the benefits of writing a lot, and never trying to sound like anyone else.

The Opening

The style of this short story was a challenge, for me. Its long, complex sentences, so unlike most of what I read these days, slowed me down. In fact, I had to read a page or so, out loud, to get myself into the rhythm of the narrator’s voice.

Even the title was confusing—until I untangled it, when it became intriguing.

It read like Mark Twain, like Charles Dickens: of a time and place that is not mine.

But I knew straight away it was going to be worth it. Here’s how it starts.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Great Interruption by Wendell Berry”

[Reading Room] Natural Light by Kathleen Alcott

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This story was featured in The Best American Short Stories 2019, edited by Anthony Doerr

This story was dense and literary with a slow-build to a quiet conclusion. It was not to my usual taste at all. I didn’t much care for the protagonist. It had several elements that usually make me roll my eyes. And yet when I got to the end of this story, I immediately wanted to read it again. 

The language slowed me down, but not in a way that annoyed me. The exact meaning was often opaque, but through repetition, the author showed me how to read it and understand it. It was an odd experience, and I really liked it.

The Opening

I won’t tell you what my mother was doing in the photograph—or rather, what was being done to her—just that when I saw it for the first time, in a museum crowded with tourists, she’d been dead for five years.

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

Well. Isn’t that intriguing? We don’t know anything about the characters before this opening line, but all of a sudden we know quite a lot. 

  • We have the voice of the narrator, clear in our heads. 
  • We know their mother has been dead for a while.
  • We know the mother had some kind of secret life.

In a story that keeps coming back to questions of truth and trust, this is a great opening on that level alone.

But this opening also creates suspense and tension, and raises questions to keep us from flicking on to the next story in the collection, or pulling out our phones and browsing social media.

  • Why didn’t the narrator know about this picture?
  • What was the mother doing (or having done to her)? (We will find out, if we read the story carefully)
  • Why is this unknown picture hanging in a museum.
  • What kind of relationship did the protagonist have with her mother (and how will it mirror or differ from our own)?

Was it enough to keep me reading? Absolutely!

Before the end of the first page the author mentions email, to ground us in a time and place (here and now), and we know what kind of work the protagonist does (“when an acquaintance or the administrator at the college where I teach saw my eyes on my phone…”) so we can make some assumptions about her and where she fits in her society. 

I’m grounded in the story and intrigued enough to turn the page.

The Plot Thickens

The story begins with to the protagonist’s relationship with her mother, and explores that for a while, before broadening out and reviewing her relationships with other significant people in her life (mostly her husband and her father), as well as the events leading up to and surrounding her discovery of her mother’s picture in the museum. 

This discovery is what I call the fulcrum of the story, the moment around which everything in this character’s life revolves (for the duration of the story, at least). It allows us to explore her past and present, and speculate on her future, but none of this would have happened without the discovery of the picture. 

The early parts of the story also explore her relationship with the world—and her recurring thoughts about how she might leave it.

The author also begins to seed the story with the narrator’s thoughts on suicide, in a really interesting way. It’s undramatic. The potential methods simply pop up, the way they might in her mind, triggered by something she’s telling us about. At first I didn’t know what these sentences mean but, with repetition, I began to understand what she was really saying.

The End

The story keeps circling back the to the question of the photograph of her mother. 

When the writer doesn’t get the answers she needs from other sources, she goes to the one person who might be able to help: her father. It’s already been established that her parents weren’t big on transparency, so of course, her father’s first reaction is one of obfuscation.

But, suddenly, there is a moment when her father acts uncharacteristically. The reader can feel something coming: 

  • Will it be a moment of honesty? 
  • Will it have an impact on our narrator and the trajectory of her life? 
  • Will it be life-changing?

The author doesn’t, in my opinion, tie this up in a bow for us, but she does give us more than enough information for us to reach our own conclusions. 

It’s a very satisfying ending.

Writer’s Notes

The prose is dense and literary, in a way that often annoys me, but in this story it manages not to. Perhaps it’s because the author intersperses dense, literary rumination with straightforward, stark lines.

Look at how different the first sentence is from the second.

It is true that there were parts of me that must have been difficult to live with, namely an obsessive thought pattern concerning various ways I might bring about my own death, but also clear that I rose to the occasion of this malady with rosy dedication, running miles every day and recording the hedonistic pleasures of which I believed spoke to my commitment to life. Could a person who roasted three different kinds of apples for an autumn soup, really be capable of suicide?

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

I came to see that the dense, convoluted language was a necessary part of the story, with all it’s tricky examination of truth and trust. Can we really trust a narrator who says that her husband:

…began not to trust me on issues I saw as unrelated: what a neighbor had said about a vine that grew up our shared fence, a letter from the electric company that I claimed to have left on his desk.”

Kathleen Alcott, Natural Light

That “claimed” makes me question everything she’s just said, too.

On Training The Reader

Novelists often say they approach the middle of each new novel with dread because, although they’ve written novels before, they’ve never written this novel before, and every book teaches you how to write it.

I suspect that short stories, being the weird and varied form that hey are, have a similar opportunity. But in this case, you get to teach the reader how to read the story. 

Short story readers enjoy this challenge, this puzzle. After all, unless you pick up a short story collection that promises to be a collection of Sherlock Holmes parodies, the reader never really knows what they’re getting. Even a collection of ‘mystery stories’ or ‘science fiction stories’ can contain everything from a story composed entirely of tweets, to a traditional narrative story, to a story told in reverse; the tones and subject-matters will be all over the place, along with the style of telling.

In this story, Kathleen Alcott trains us to understand what’s going on when her paragraph suddenly end with a location, an object and a person who needs to be warned what they are about to encounter. It’s subtle. She doesn’t explain it. But the repetition invites the reader to puzzle out the connections. 

(It’s not a happy topic or one I recommend writing about, but it was very well done, in this story!)

She also trains us to start looking for examples of truth and mistrust, so that when the moment approaches that her father is going to tell her something true, we can feel it coming, in the way his behavior changes. 

Discussion

Are you using things like ‘email’ and the reactions of other people in the narrator’s life, to ground the reader in the story in the first few lines?

What elements are you worried your reader might miss? How might you train them to see what you want them to see?

Leave a comment!

The Reading Room is a series of posts where I review short stories with a writers’ eye.

[Reading Room] Theories of the Point of View… by Jennifer Wortman

This story is a great example of a short story that doesn’t follow a narrative structure but succeeds anyway.

Its full title is Theories of the Point of View Shifts In AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”

The Opening

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Theories of the Point of View… by Jennifer Wortman”

[Reading Room] Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammet

Short review: I can’t believe I’ve never read anything by Dashiell Hammett before. I must be crazy. This was awesome. Totally got its hooks into me and stayed with me long after I read it.

Nightmare Town is the title story in this collection by the Noir master. Having mostly watched movies adapted from Raymond Chandler stories, and pastiches of Noir by others, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I was, however, preparing for a reading at a Noir night, and thought I ought to do some research before I wrote a story to fit the theme.

Wow.

The Story

Continue reading “[Reading Room] Nightmare Town by Dashiell Hammet”

[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer

I keep a spreadsheet of short stories I’ve read.  I make a note of titles, authors, where I found the story and a short comment about the story, to make these posts easier.

My notes, on reading this story, simply say: “Wow”.

A List of Forty-Nine Lies is a pretty intriguing title, and the story delivers immediately.

My name is not Levi. I am not afraid. The machines that hover in swarms over the streets cannot read the thoughts inside my head.

I am not running from them. I have nothing to hide.

Continue reading “[Reading Room] A List of Forty Seven Lies by Steven Fischer”

[Reading Room] The Death Ship by Richard Matheson

It’s tough to read Matheson’s stories now because his are the quintessential Twilight Zone type story (they were turned into several of the best TZ episodes) and have been ripped off, parodied and lovingly copied so many times that they feel cliched.

But concentrating on that takes away from the exquisite, concise, clear writing, characterization and big ideas of the original material. He really is a tremendously good writer.

His stories contain big ideas, thoughtfully dealt with in crisp prose that I could read until the end of time.

The Death Ship

This story was adapted into an early Twilight Zone episode. It comes from the early days of space exploration, when ideas were big and facts in short supply. Some of the assumptions in the story are suspect by today’s scientific standards, but that was never what these early sci-fi stories were about. (You know, unless they were written by Arthur C. Clarke, who also had a hand in inventing Radar, so he’s a bit of a special case.)

In this story three men in a space ship survey new planets, looking for new homes for the humans from the chronically overcrowded Earth. When they go down to investigate a particular planet, things start to get weird.

From that point on, the story is a purely about human nature and drama, with the space-faring backdrop becoming fairly unimportant.

That’s one of the things I find irresistible about science fiction. The writers hook you with the setting, with the gadgets and the ‘what ifs’, but then all the best stories end up being about the human condition.

They do what art is supposed to do: make life look a little bit strange, so that we can reassess our own position towards it. No matter which side of the political shouting match you’re on, it seems like that’s something our civilization could us at the moment, don’t you think?

What setting or story type could you use to reel in a reader who needs to see part of their own life with fresh eyes?

Read the story in The Time Traveler’s Almanac

[Reading Room] The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman

Normally, my Reading Room posts are about a short story I’ve read, and what I learned from it.

Occasionally, however, a book comes along that I really think you should know about. This week, it’s The Business of Being A Writer by Jane Friedman.

Jane has been around the business of writing and publishing for a while now and really knows her stuff.

Here’s the start of the review I posted to Amazon:

I read a lot of self-help and inspirational books, and writing advice (heck, I write some). Most of it is the “Woohoo! You can do this!” type necessary to psyching yourself up to do the difficult business of wrangling words and sharing them.

This book is not one of those books.

This book is your older, wiser, best friend who loves you, and sits you down to say,

“Girl, I believe you can do it if you want to–you know I do. But first, let me show you what ‘it’ really looks like… Continue reading “[Reading Room] The Business of Being a Writer by Jane Friedman”

[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim

From A Taste of Honey – Stories by Jabari Asim, Broadway Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-767679-1978-4

I knew a man who only read non-fiction because he “didn’t see the point” of fiction. Would it surprise you to know that this man was one of the least empathetic I never knew?

I firmly believe that fiction is more powerful than non-fiction, as a way to help us understand each other’s truths. So I used Black History Month as an excuse to seek out short fiction by writers of color. I  picked up this collection at my local library, and the first story in the collection has already confirmed my belief.

Opening Lines

“I’d Rather Go Blind” is the story of a moment in a pre-teen boy’s life during the ‘hot and forbidding’ summer of ’67.  In fact, that’s the opening line, Continue reading “[Reading Room] I’d Rather Go Blind by Jabari Asim”

[Reading Room] The Breathtaking Power of Dracula – Rolli

Read it online here

This is a flash piece I stumbled across on Twitter.

It was an interesting format: a screenshot/image of a formatted short story, attached to a tweet.

And it’s really odd. Delightfully odd. It’s the kind of thing that makes me go: Yes! See this? THIS is why I love short stories.

Normally I try to provide some Lessons For Writers with this little reviews, but today I think I’m just going to say: go and read this. It’ll take you a minute.

I particularly like the way he promises one thing, delivers something else, but doesn’t forget his promise.

Sometimes writing (and reading) are just…fun.

What do you think of the story? Leave a comment