I've spent the last week trying to catch up with my New Yorker short story reading. How easy it is to fall behind when those magazines arrive in the mailbox every week. With my subscription I get access to the digital issue as well, which works out nicely as I can read them at the gym using my tablet. Prop it against the machine and hands free I can exercise and read at the same time. One better, often the digital edition has accompanying audio. More often than not the author reads her or his work, so I get to also plug in my headphones, block out all the background noise and get lost in a good story. There really is nothing like having a story read aloud. So, a little rundown of some very good and very memorable stories I have read and listened to lately.
Mark Haddon reads his story "The Weir" in the November 16 issue. What a crazy good story. You know how sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. We'll how about a roundabout of that--truth is stranger than fiction, but sometimes things like what happens in Haddon's story do happen in real life and make for good stories, too. A man is out walking his dogs. He's reflecting on his wife, with whom he is now estranged and his son who has been gone for three years without even a peep of contact. Maria's left and he's happy he's been coping so well all things considered. But of course there are rough patches, like today. And then he sees a woman crossing a small bridge and she prepares to jump in. He calls out to her to try and stop her, but backpack on, she goes over the side. It happens in an instant and he knows better, the water rushing past, but when he sees her bob up he dives in after. Through luck or tenacity he manages to fish her out, barely conscious. She's a mess--physically and emotionally and psychologically, but then in his own way, so is he--and she begs him not to take her to the hospital. And so begins a most curious friendship. It's funny how two of the most unlikely people can become friends under the strangest of circumstances. You can read the Q&A with Haddon here.
Julianne Pachico's story "Honey Bunny" in the November 9 issue is about a world I will never know, and that's okay. The story opens in a nightclub with a young woman 'connecting' with a guy and she offers him some 'goodies', which turn out to be drugs. You watch this young woman as she navigates a life that seems very much on the edge. She's a student studying fashion and on the surface you think she must just be a partier who just lives too much on the edge and isn't managing things very well. You only get her perspective, and while she's sort of abhorrent, I couldn't help but feel sorry for her and the mess she's in. Through her memories of growing up in Columbia you see what a wealthy young woman she is and had a life of entitlement in her country and then had to leave it very quickly. You get a glimpse of a young woman, maybe even a child who was manipulated by her family to do things she shouldn't have but probably didn't know any better. Whatever opportunities she might have in a new country are overshadowed by her addictions and you wonder what will become of her. Pachico's Q&A is here.
Another story with ties to South America in the November 2 issue is Ariel Dorfman's "The Gospel According to Garcia". Garcia is the subject of this story, but we never meet him directly. It's not even clear what happened to him. It's not even known exactly where or when the story takes place and whether Garcia left of his own accord or was removed. And if so, why. His ideas and teachings take on a very different hue then, filtered through the things the students think about him. He was a teacher who is now gone and his class has been taken over by a substitute. I love stories like this. You feel you are looking at someone but not exactly at them. More like seeing their reflection in a mirror, or in this case his reflection in the response of his students. In the Q&A Dorfman calls Garcia a "spiritual guide" to his students. It's not really the substitute teacher telling the story, nor really one student, rather a 'collective voice'. The students are matching the two teachers, knowing what Garcia was teaching them and understanding some of the lessons, but . . . He's given them a framework to live by without really reinforcing the structure. I think this is a story with hidden meaning somewhere between the lines.
A very remarkable story by Lesley Nneka Arimah, which left me shaking my head a little with chills running up and down my spine for a number of reasons. "Who Will Greet You at Home" sort of freaked me out at first yet I read it with relish anyway. It felt almost folksy to me, though Arimah (who was born in Nigeria but now lives in Minnesota) said in her Q&A that this is a myth of her own invention. Unlike the other stories, this one was not read by the author, which makes me wonder what her narration would have been like. In this story young women create their own babies--they begin as dolls made out of different materials and then eventually take on life form based on what their 'mothers' fashioned them out of. The materials might make a child one of sadness like, Ogechi, but she wants a child of strength. She works in a salon, whose owner takes payment in the form of joy or happiness taken from the giver. Ogechi's other baby didn't survive and so she creates one out of the discarded strands of hair that she sweeps from the floor. This is not something that should be done, and Ogechi knows of risks, but she does it anyway. The child does grow and become strong, but frighteningly so. I would say this story verges on the macabre, but there is something more to it, a message that is actually quite subtly done behind that horror of the story.
All the stories I read/listened to this week were pretty amazing and quite memorable each in its own way, but if you only have half an hour and could just choose one to read (you can click on any of the links to read them online), let me nudge you to read Lesley Nneka Arimah's story, which I thought was really outstanding. A little freaky but it packs quite a wallop. Unfortunately she has nothing else published at the moment but is working on a collection of stories and a novel. I'll be watching for more of her work.
I didn't get to the current issue's story, which is by Ann Beattie, but I will be listening to it this week and hopefully stay on track for the rest of the year. I haven't been writing about all the stories I've been reading and am not sure I will get around to filling in the gaps with the New Yorker stories, but they remain one of my best weekly reads and I will certainly continue reading on into next year.