Last Wednesday on my day off from work I had a bookishly lazy day, and it was bliss. Although I spent a chunk of my afternoon reading short stories as planned, I mostly did what I enjoy so much when it comes to reading--dipped into a variety of books on my night table. I do a lot of "grazing" when it comes to reading. If I am really caught up in a story I am more than happy to dedicate all my reading time to it alone, but otherwise I like to let my mood dictate what I reach for. I might read a chapter here, or fifty pages there, or just a few somewhere else. I know it might sound odd, but it's more productive than you might think, and most importantly it works for me. I really like variety, and I had plenty of it last week. It's rare that I get to spend almost an entire day lazily reading (without an ounce of guilt I might add), and I really think I need to do it more often.
I'll save talking about the novels I've been reading for another day, but I wanted to share a little about the stories I picked up (and in some cases set aside). I didn't get to all of them, but I hadn't expected to. Had it not been for the late hour, and the necessity of work the next day I could have happily kept reading all night (though those days are pretty much over for me as I'm afraid I can't stay up much past 11:00, no matter how hard I try).
I started with Randall Jarrell's Book of Stories. Michael Dirda calls his preface "brilliant" and I suspect it is, but I must admit that a lot of what he said sort of floated over my head. Jarrell was a poet as well as a literary critic, but there was something sort of abstract about his writing. He jumps right into his subject and I think there is an assumption that the reader of this collection is a savvy short story reader, which I sort of thought I was (or have the makings for one anyway), but I think his writing was a little more sophisticated than I was prepared for. And it was a hot day, and I had been book grazing, and feeling lazy and not so prepared to work at what I was reading. You know how there is an imaginary line between a 'plain old good story' and 'serious fiction' (at least I always have this imaginary line in my own head), well, Jarrell is firmly on the side of serious fiction and he more or less admits that. And I feel like I shouldn't admit to having been on the other side looking in, but there you have it.
I'm not going to be defeated, however. I am going to buy the book and make it my own little project. In the end I decided the short stories are classics of the genre (the first story is by Franz Kafka by the way), and really need to be approached in a more studious manner than the lackadaisical one I seemed to be having on the Fourth. However, just to give you a little taste of what I was reading . . .
"A story is a chain of events. Since the stories that we know are told by men, the events of the story happen to human or anthropomorphic beings--gods, beasts, and devils; and are related in such a way that the story seems to begin at once place and end at a very different place, without any interruption in its progress. The poet or storyteller, so to speak, writes numbers on a blackboard, draws a line under them, and adds them into their true but unsuspected sum. Stories, because of their nature or--it is to say the same thing--ours, are always capable of generalization: a story about a dog Kashtanka is true for all values of dogs and men."
It looks like a really great collection of stories in any case, and one I will be happy to add to my collection. But I decided I wanted something a little different, more concrete and easier to engage with.
So I picked up This New & Poisonous Air by Adam McOmber, which I had already started reading and was enjoying. McOmber has been compared with Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jorge Luis Borges, and it's the element of the fantastical or gothic that appeals to me in his work. I've so far read only the first three stories and am not in any hurry to read the collection. I think stories work better when consumed slowly and are left to seep in, rather than rushed through. The first couple of stories in the collection have historical settings--the Versailles of Louis XIV where an engineer builds a very curious mechanical garden, and 18th and 19th century Paris and London and the beginnings of Madame
Tussuad's Waxworks. The story I read last week had a contemporary setting, in particular a theater that seems living and breathing and unwilling to give up the sacrifices it plucks from the audience.
I was hoping very much to get to one or two stories in Mavis Gallant's Varieties of Exile, but I ran out of time. I did read the introduction, which was written by Russell Banks (am looking forward to reading Gallant's diary excerpts that appeared in last week's New Yorker). I've noted (and am keeping it in mind) what was mentioned by Banks:
"In an afterword that appears in her collection Paris Stories, Gallant says, 'Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the Book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait'."
You know how sometimes you pick up a book, like it so much then decide you need to read everything by that particular author? Well, that's what's happened to me when it comes to Alice Munro. She's not a new to me author. I've dipped into her stories in the past and read her novel The Lives of Girls and Women. I pulled Open Secrets from my shelves randomly to add to my pile and now I plan on (like the McOmber) seeing the collection through to the end. Buried in Print is tackling Alice Munro's works and I might just have to join her when she picks up The Moons of Jupiter to read later this summer. I'm just two stories into the collection and what strikes me right off is that, and pardon my comparison, when you read one of Munro's stories you feel like you've had a complete and satisfying meal and not just eaten a snack--if you know what I mean. Her first story, "Carried Away" is about a woman who begins a romance with a soldier who is fighting in the First World War via letters, but whose expectations and reality are entirely different things. Despite Mavis Gallant's advise I had to quickly move on to "A Real Life" about an unconventional woman who decides to marry/or maybe she's pushed into it, in order to have a real life.
I started reading Eudora Welty's Moon Lake but by then I had run out of steam, so it sits on the top of the pile waiting to be finished! I really do love short stories and wonder if there is a book about them--sort of like E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel. I don't like to try and make reading harder than it's meant to be, but I do like getting as much out of it as I can.