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Posts Tagged ‘short stories

Fall into Fall with Dark Fantasy

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Let’s be honest, a roundup of horror and dark fantasy books around Halloween is pretty obvious but such occasions are good opportunities to read books otherwise forgotten or overlooked the rest of the year. There’s a mood in the air during the fall season that lends itself to this sort of reading–the weather is colder, the nights are darker, and, at least in October, the neighborhoods are awash in plastic skeletons and jack o’ lanterns. This year, I’m making an effort to drag some seasonally suitable short story collections off my shelf.

If you’ve been putting off reading masters of the genre, if there are new authors who have caught your eye, or if you have a few neglected scary books currently on your own shelf, be obvious, pick them up, dig them out, and embrace seasonal reading.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter
Recalling a dinner party he and Angela Carter had attended, Salman Rushdie, in his eulogy for Carter, called her “the most brilliant writer in England.” Her writing, known to have a feminist streak, was dark and fantastical. There is no better place where all three are on display than in her short story “The Bloody Chamber,” and the collection in which it appears The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. More than a retelling of fairy tales, they are a complete rewriting, some vaguely recognizable only because of the makeup of the characters.

The title story, based on the French folktale Bluebeard, opens with a young woman, age seventeen, on her wedding day. She is to leave her family house and live in a castle with her new husband, a French Marquis. Their first night together she is entrusted with a ring of keys by her new husband as he is called away on business to New York. The palace is hers to explore–cabinets and safes and all–except for one room, which she is told never to enter. But, as is often the case with stories, both real and imagined, temptation takes hold and the girl finds her way to the west tower and into the forbidden space. Naturally, as one would expect, it was a setup, a trap, and the new bride must face the consequences.

In “The Tiger’s Bride” a young, Russian girl is a mere chip in her father’s gambling habit. After a losing hand she is given over to a beast as part of his winnings. While not a direct interpretation of The Beauty and the Beast, one can see the architecture in place. Meanwhile, the final three stories–”The Werewolf,” “The Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf-Alice”–are reimaginings, often grotesque, and cringe inducing, of Little Red Riding Hood.

Wolves, werewolves, and feral children populate The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. These short gothic tales, with their twists and turns, are subversive, unsentimental, often erotic, and champion women as the masters of their own destinies–the heroine of their own stories. If you’re looking for a classic of the genre, one that stands outside all the others, look no further than Angela Carter.

Opening paragraph of The Bloody Chamber

I remember, how that night, I lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman
Bestselling author Neil Gaiman is not in danger of being forgotten anytime soon. One of the most in-demand fantasy authors writing today, he’s often asked to contribute work to various anthologies and publications. People love his writing–and for good reason. His stories are well-crafted, the language rich, rhythmic, and vivid. Collected in Smoke and Mirrors are 29 short stories and poems, many previously published in magazines and included multi-authored collections.

In his thorough introduction, an annotated guide of what’s to follow, Gaiman begins by defining what stories are:

Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.

Fantasy–and all fiction is fantasy of one kind or another–is a mirror. A distorting mirror, to be sure, and a concealing mirror, set at forty-five degrees to reality, but it’s a mirror nonetheless, which we can use to tell ourselves things we might not otherwise see.

He continues, explaining how each story came about, why he wrote it, and for whom. One was an outgrowth of an idea his agent had mentioned one year when angels were all the rage. “Troll Bridge,” one of my favorites, written for an anthology of fairy tales for adults edited by Ellen Datlow, is about a boy who encounters a troll on a walk and puts off the creatures demands over the years. It.

“Looking for the Girl,” narrated by a man mesmerized over the years by a girl he once saw in a copy of Penthouse, was written for, self-referentially, the magazine mentioned in the story. Another tale, written in 1983 and about haggling with assassins, came about when Gaiman fell asleep to a radio program discussing buying products in bulk.

Smoke and Mirrors features many nuggets of Gaiman greatness. If you’re a fan, chances are you already own this one. But if not, or if it’s hanging around on your shelf like mine was, grab it now, don’t wait, you won’t want to move until it’s finished.

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Written by Gabrielle

October 23, 2012 at 6:52 am

Literary Voyeurism: From Russia with …

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Whenever anyone asks me where I plan to travel next, without skipping a beat I say Russia. I’ve long been fascinated by the country: its ruthless winters, its self-serious cultural history, and its tortured political past. I know my view of Russia is anachronistic, as if there were a switch that flips it from 1880 to 1980 and back again with very little in between or after. I often imagine stepping off the plane and sinking knee-deep into the quicksand of days gone by.

I know the country is no longer the land of revolutionaries conspiring to overthrow the czar and that the fields are no longer littered with peasants, stooped and head-covered, hacking away at wheat with their scythes; I know the political and economic landscape has changed and with it the arts as well.

It’s actually the Russia of today that keeps me from reserving a hotel room and booking a flight. Thoughts of Moscow fill my mind with visions of great wealth discrepancy—nouveau riche on the streets of Moscow, women draped in furs with diamonds hanging off their fingers, and men in Armani suits opening the doors of shiny, black Mercedes for them. Meanwhile, in the parks I can see bums sleeping on benches, surrounded by empty bottles. At least this is the reason I tell myself why I haven’t visited yet but my noble stance falls apart when you consider my daily walk to the subway includes passing numerous homeless people either passed out or crouching in doorways while me and my peers head off to office jobs or the local coffee shop for a day of freelancing. In the end, it’s laziness more than a sensitivity to human suffering that keeps me from leaving the country.

So, how does a lazy, wannabe traveler experience Russia’s present day culture without an airline ticket? Well, if you’re like me, you head to the nearest bookstore and look for a good novel. While it’s hard to argue that reading a book and visiting a country are on equal footing, one can surely soak up a sense of a culture through literary voyeurism.

When many of us think of Russian writers it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov that come to mind; and if we’ve read anything at all it’s Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and for those who scratch surfaces, possibly The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. These selections are only encouraged when perusing the literature section of many bookshops but if you’re someone who has read all the classics they wish to encounter, or if you would rather read contemporary fiction, finding new voices can be frustrating.

Even at the best bookstore, the Russian titles range from those published in the 1800s to those from the Soviet-era. While byzantine governments often make for interesting tales, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and it’s time for our shelves to reflect the change. Much of the absence of modern day Russian writing is in large part due to lack of translations. Modern day works in English are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist.

Lucky for those interested, just this past June, New York-based publishing house Overlook Press announced it was partnering with the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication (also known as Rospechat). Together, they will publish at least 125 classic and contemporary titles in English over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.

The goal of the project, which will include fiction, drama, and poetry, says Overlook publisher, Peter Mayer, “is to transcend the well-respected classics and broaden the awareness of Russian culture by making available for the first time in uniform editions these important works of literature, so many barely known outside Russia.” Which contemporary authors and titles they will publish is yet to be announced.

For those who want to start now, Akashic Books has two collections of contemporary Russian crime writers in their excellent noir series. In 2010 they released Moscow Noir, edited by Petersburg-based literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. This month, the same editors return with St. Petersburg Noir, featuring a new crop of writers to discover.

However manufactured for literary effect the stories may be, both books offer a strong sense of place. Just one example is “Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Moscow Noir):

Here, the river and the open space in front of Kiev station leave a large expanse open to view. Here, you can really see the sky, which is rare in this capital city that squeezes you between enormous stone slabs. The view that spreads out before you here—the Gothic silhouette of the university on a distant bluff to the left, the palisade of mighty pipes on top of the Radisson, the spire of the Hotel Ukraine perpendicular to layers of lilac clouds—is one of those typical and utterly urban landscapes that create the face of a city, which Moscow, monstrous and vague with its eroded individuality, so lacks.

While these two collections are not the strongest in the series, a difficult task if there ever was one, they succeed in bringing much-needed attention to genre writing happening in Russia today.

In their introduction to the Moscow collection, Smirnova and Goumen explain the state of crime fiction in their country: “A noir literary tradition does not yet really exist in Russia in general or Moscow in particular. Why? Possibly due to the censorship of czarist Russia, to say nothing of the Soviet era.”

However, for their St. Petersburg introduction they claim a different legacy:

Petersburg somehow nurtures ironic, satirical, and darkly humorous interpretations of reality. The darker and harsher life gets, the more humorous its interpretations tend to be. Indeed, only at a Petersburg house party could writers argue enthusiastically over the most efficient way to get rid of a corpse … The origins of this rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, its urban landscape, and even the weather, as Petersburg’s climate undoubtedly affects local character. What morbid thoughts can freezing winds from the Baltics bring along? Which emotions swirl inside a person struggling through snowdrifts in the streets? How can one remain positive when the long-awaited northern “summer” offers less than a dozen sunny days?

An annotated travel guide of sorts, these two collections—so obviously tailored to the psyche of their respective city—offer a look into the individualism that exists in this vast country today; and as I had craved, many of the stories struggle with post-Soviet Russia, its identity and inner workings, and the residue left from the previous decades. Regardless of what impact Russian masters might have had on the literary landscape, the country’s noir—and more broadly, the writing coming from this new generation—has a fresh feel, one of promise and commitment to the days ahead.

Anyone interested in bringing contemporary Russian writers to an American audience should support these new and forthcoming publications. If there’s a show of interest from the reading public, there’s a chance we’ll see more from these new voices.

::[Links]::
Find Moscow Noir at your local indie
Find St. Petersburg Noir at your local indie
Learn more about Read Russia
Read a review of Moscow Noir at Bookslut

Forty Stories, a Gift to Readers

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At a time when publishers are concerned about ebook pricing, many believing that going below a certain dollar amount devalues both the book and the author (a theory I am sympathetic to), an intriguing project from a major publisher is taking place. Forty Stories, a labor of love spearheaded by Cal Morgan, publisher and editorial director at HarperCollins, is available today as a free ebook through all major retailers.

In January of 2009, Morgan started an online community for short story writers called Fifty-Two Stories. As the name suggests, each week a new story would be posted for free on the website. For all you trivia junkies, Simon Van Booy’s “The Missing Statues” was first. From 2009 until the first half of 2011 the output was consistent. Then, in August of last year, something happened and only one story was posted that month. Someone would have to be a complete jerk not to forgive Morgan and his crew for the lapse, given that no one involved is paid. (According to an excellent profile on the ebook collection from The Atlantic Wire, Morgan spends his Sundays reading through and selecting from hundreds of submissions that come pouring through the site’s open call for works.)

You’d think the people behind Fifty-Two Stories would pick up where they left off without a word, as if nothing happened, but no, they actually thanked readers for their patience and decided to make good on the stories they “owed”—all forty of them. These stories were first made available a few weeks ago as a downloadable PDF—a rough layout for anyone who’s experienced one on their ereader—but today, the official release date, a fully formatted edition is here.

Included in the collection are innovative up-and-comers—a subset of fiction writers that Cal Morgan has become known for publishing—as well as a few who have made a name for themselves over the years. There are also a handful of unknowns, some of whom will see their work published for the first time.

The book opens with Ben Greenman’s “Ambivalence” and, as would be expected of Greenman’s ever-engaging prose, the first few lines are bound to hook the reader:

When a girl is skinny, and calls you late at night, and you glance at the calendar, and it is four days before you are scheduled to get married, and the girl you are marrying is not the skinny girl but another girl, a girl who has already departed for the city where your wedding is to be held, it is your job, most probably, to hang up the phone. When you do not hang up the phone, you have not done your job. When you invite that skinny girl to your apartment, and then you jump into the shower so that you will be clean, taking special trouble to wash the parts that matter, and then you mess up your hair so that you will look as though you haven’t gone to any special trouble, then you are doing another job entirely.

Another contributor who I was excited to see involved with the book is essayist, editor, and short fiction writer Roxane Gay. “In the Manner of Water or Light” tells the story of a multigenerational family in Haiti as told by a granddaughter far removed from the atrocities her grandmother suffered as a young woman. As Gay is known to do, she makes the reader consider the political and social situations of those beyond the borders of American and European patriarchies.

Other writers in the collection whose names might resonate with readers of this blog are Blake Butler, Adam Wilson, Shane Jones, Jess Walter, and Elizabeth Crane—many of whom are published by HarperCollins. While I dug into the stories written by those known to me, I was equally eager to discover the unfamiliar. Among those I hadn’t yet heard of, two stood out: Lindsay Hunter, with her chilling abduction story “A Girl,” and Alexander Lumans, whose “Eighty-six Ways to Cross One Desert” is comprised solely of odd questions.

In a time, as mentioned in my introduction, when the publishing industry is questioning the future of the printed book and the health of the market as a whole, I couldn’t help but wonder, will people, after reading this collection, go out and buy the work of the authors who are published or will they seek out the next free ebook? Putting aside my financial curiosity, it’s obvious that anyone who cares about books will find this project heartwarming. Forty Stories proves that just because something is free, doesn’t mean it’s cheap. This collection is priceless.

::[Links]::
Fifty-Two Stories website
Forty Stories PDF
Profile in The Atlantic Wire

Contributors interviewed on the Other People podcast with Brad Listi
Roxane Gay
Blake Butler
Adam Wilson
Elizabeth Crane
Scott McClanahan
Jess Walter talks with Ed Champion on The Bat Segundo Show

Written by Gabrielle

July 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

What to Read: NANO Fiction

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Last month, The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), a service organization for independent literary presses and magazines, hosted its annual GIANT Lit Mag Fair at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown Manhattan. For one day hundreds of literary publications cover tables and fill rolling carts throughout the store. For $2 each, regardless of original price and without limit, people can buy journals they normally wouldn’t have easy access to.

Among the titles available are those that are well-known, such as Granta and Conjunctions, as well lesser-known journals and obscure zines. The fair is an excellent place to discover new writing with little monetary risk.

Each year literary fans descend on the bookstore with multiple tote bags and oversized backpacks and often don’t leave until they are full. Others come to meet representatives of the journals who stand around answering questions. Whatever one’s intention for being there, it’s hard to walk away empty handed.

This year, I came across an interesting flash fiction journal caught my eye. NANO Fiction, currently on its 10th issue and in its 10th year, with its glossy cover, stood out from many others. The illustration, a woman standing in a dark forest with three rabbits in her arms, reminded me of the 50s style drawings of pulp comics. In fact, in the middle of the book, there’s a statement from the artist, Michael C. Rodriguez, where he explains that much of his inspiration for the work comes from fashion illustrations of women from the 1940s to the 60s. He goes on to say:

This series of images is composed of romantic narratives with underlying themes of love, isolation, deprivation, and man’s destructive nature. They represent life as a journey full of difficulties that are often hidden by the exterior illusions we choose to share with each other. The work illustrates this perspective by contrasting the mix of beautiful/romantic imagery with destructive undertones.

One could say the same of the stories included in the issue. Taken as a whole, there is a poetic darkness to the issue. From the gruesome description of the butchering of a deer after a hunt to hints of incessuous feelings towards a cousin, these stories are subversive in varied ways. Although the stories maintain their quality from beginning to end, my favorite remains the first, “Her Favorite Color is Light,” a piece that describes a synesthesiac experience.

Nora thinks the air and smell are one. You breathe in sweet or sour, musty or moldy or wet-dog or chicken-broth scented. You breathe out your own smell, and this is how animals know you. She’s five and reads the number one as white as snow, the number two is bluer than a dead man’s lips, the number four as orange-red like the tips of flames. Five is green as grass. Ask her to add two and five, and she’ll say a dead man’s lips and green grass equal a funeral that lasts seven hours.

In addition to the printed product, NANO Fiction’s website offers a weekly feature, a mixture of stories from the print edition, writing prompts, interviews, and reading suggestions. The editors also run an annual flash fiction contest with a $500 prize. Their current call for submissions closes August 31st, with the winner announced in September.

If the latest issue of NANO Fiction is any indication to what the journal is like as a whole, you should set yourself a reminder to look for the next one in the fall.

::[Links]::
CLMP website

Written by Gabrielle

July 10, 2012 at 6:54 am

Brooklyn Gets Gritty in Brooklyn Noir

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The day I bought Brooklyn Noir, I got off the subway in my neighborhood and saw police posters taped along the row of poles. I walked over to get a good look at the crude pencil sketch, to see what the man, rendered, had done. Later, I would look up the full story. The night before, at 10pm, a man in his 30s looking for a fight, got into a brawl with a random 20-year-old on the train. They got off in Brooklyn and continued the senseless fight on the platform. The guy in the sketch wrestled both himself and the stranger onto the tracks but only he made it back up alive. Amidst the horror and confusion, the perpetrator fled the scene.

The weight of this incident transformed me, stuck with me for days — and still comes to mind as I stand safely behind the yellow line. It’s something that makes you think of your own family members, either as victim or survivor. It makes you consider your daily commute. I can’t imagine an adult living in New York who hasn’t worried about the possibility of being shoved onto the tracks by an unstable person, of which there seems to be no shortage. After all, even the sanest person, at the height of rush hour, has at one point or another fantasized about pushing an inconsiderate neighbor (don’t lie, New Yorkers).

Our constant vulnerability makes the Friday night incident so chilling. Randomness. It could’ve happened to any one of us. Stepping into this scene, new book in hand, you almost have to forgive me for asking, “who needs Brooklyn Noir when you have the local news?”

With the gruesome death reverberating in my bones, I tucked the book into my bag and made my way above ground.

However gruesome the news gets, New Yorkers are a resilient bunch. The morning headlines are a constant reminder that we live in a city riddled with violent acts yet there’s a strong sense of pride. Those “I Love NY” shirts are not just for tourists. We carry on — and for most of us, we wouldn’t dream of doing so elsewhere. This attachment is fiercest at the borough level. To Manhattanites, Manhattan is the best; for those in Queens, it’s their corner that shines; same goes for The Bronx and Staten Island. Then there’s Brooklyn, the feistiest of them all — but, of course, I’m biased.

When Brooklyn-based indie publisher Akashic Books launched their city-specific noir series in 2004 it only made sense that they would begin at home.

Edited by Brooklyn-native crime writer Tim McLoughlin, Brooklyn Noir is divided into four parts: Old School, New School, Cops & Robbers, and Backwater Brooklyn. With each story taking place in a different neighborhood, the borough’s diversity is in full view. Pearl Abraham takes readers into the exclusive Hasidic community in Williamsburg — a group who still fights the bike lane that passes through their housing complexes for fear of exposed flesh — while McLoughlin’s “When All This Was Bay Ridge” is a sketch of a once-Irish neighborhood where the original population clings to its roots by way of a local bar.

From the inside looking out: Picture an embassy in a foreign country. A truly foreign country. Not a Western European ally, but a fundamentalist state perennially on the precipice of war. A fill-the-sandbags-and-wait-for-the-airstrike enclave. That was Olsen’s, home to the last of the donkeys, the white dinosaurs of Sunset Park. A jukebox filled with Kristy McColl and the Clancy Brothers, and flyers tacked to the flaking walls advertising step-dancing classes, Gaelic lessons, and the memorial run to raise money for a scholarship in the name of a recently slain cop. Within three blocks of the front door you could attend a cockfight, buy crack, or pick up a streetwalker, but in Olsen’s, it was always 1965

In “New School,” Adam Mansbach takes us to Crown Heights where Abraham Lazarus, a white, weed-slinging Rasta, sets out on a revenge mission against the unknown thug who robbed him of his pounds of drugs that morning.

Tap tap BOOM. Birds ain’t even got their warble on, and my shit’s shaking off the hinges. I don’t even bother with the peephole. It has to be Abraham Lazarus, the Jewish Rasta, playing that dub bassline on my door.

BOOM. I swung it open and Laz barged in like he was expecting to find the answer to life itself inside. A gust of Egyptian Musk oil and Nature’s Blessing dread-balm hit two seconds after he flew by: Laz stayed haloed in that shit like it was some kind of armor. He did a U-turn around my couch, ran his palm across his forehead, wiped the sweat onto his jeans, and came back to the hall.

“I just got fuckin’ robbed, bro.”

The stories in Brooklyn Noir are dark, gritty, and realistic with a “ripped from the headlines” type feel: conversations started in chatrooms taken offline, crooked cops covering their tracks, the revenge of an abused woman. It’s almost odd to call this collection is enjoyable, yet it’s one of those rarities where you think you’ve found your favorite story until you move onto the next. It’s not surprising that Akashic published two more Brooklyn-themed noir collections or that they invited McLoughlin back to edit them.

Whether you’re a born-and-raised Brooklynite, a transplant, or have never stepped foot inside this glorious corner of the world, Brooklyn Noir is an absolute must-read for noir-aficionados and the crime-curious alike.

[Links]
Buy Brooklyn Noir at IndieBound or your local Indie bookstore
Buy Brooklyn Noir 2: The Classics
Buy Brooklyn Noir 3: Nothing But the Truth
Buy Heart of the Old Country by Tim McLoughlin
Check out the entire series at Akashic

Written by Gabrielle

May 22, 2012 at 7:05 am

Dispatches: From the Mouths of Magazine Editors

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Last night at McNally Jackson three magazine editors came out to give the crowd a behind-the-scenes look at the editorial process. Deputy Editors Ellah Allfrey and James Marcus, of Granta and Harper’s Magazine, respectively, were joined by Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker Fiction Editor, for a round table discussion moderated by John Freeman.

John, the Editor of Granta, started the night with a question about the latest Vida results, an organization that tracks female representation in magazines — stories and reviews written by women and books written by women, reviewed. Deborah revealed the generational divide she sees in the submissions to her magazine. Stories from writers age 40 and up come from more men than women while with those from writers under 40 the ratio is close to an even split. James admitted that the results from Harper’s are “rotten” (articles written: 13 female:65 male; book reviews: 10 female:23 male; author’s reviewed: 19 female:53 male). Their fiction split is close to even but because they publish foreign reportage, most of the nonfiction articles come from men. Ellah was happy to report that Granta did very well, with more female contributors than male. Ellah attributes this to their magazine’s tradition of publishing each issue based on a theme.

The group went on to discuss the steady stream of material flowing into the slush pile and how they wade through it — a mixture of interns and editorial staff. John brought up the lack of short story writers in Britain, which Deborah boiled down to the lack of encouragement from the publishing market. If there are less than a handful of places to sell your short story, why write one? Ellah, visiting from England, mentioned that with the rise of innovation of how the stories are consumed, as audio on BBC Radio for example, the situation overseas is improving.

Talk of different ways of experiencing the written word inevitably led to discussion of digital. The New Yorker has a fiction podcast where contemporary authors, featured in the magazine, choose a story from the archive to read aloud. The magazine also have a book blog where twice a month Deborah speaks with the author whose fiction is featured in the current issue. Granta features new writing on their site nearly every day. And while Harper’s is slower getting into the digital game, a conscious choice by the top decision maker, there is talk about a change in policy.

The liveliest part of the evening might easily have been when all four took turns discussing the writers they were enthusiastic about. And, so, this week’s “On the Shelf” segment comes from the experts. Here were their answers.

Deborah named Callan Wink who wrote the short story “Dog Run Moon” for the magazine. You can check out his Q&A with Deborah here. His story is subscription only but from what it sounds like, it’s worth paying for. Looking ahead, she is currently reading Salman Rushdie’s memoir, due out from Random House in 2012.

James chose Clancy Martin who published the book How to Sell with FSG in hardcover and then Picador in paperback. He also mentioned Bonnie Nadzam who came out with the highly acclaimed, award-winning novel Lamb last year.

John’s picks were Louise Erdrich for her short story writing skills and Julie Otsuka, a past contributor to Granta, who wrote Buddha in the Attic. He called the author Ross Raisin a “ferocious stylist” and suggested everyone read him. And finally, he mentioned Richard Ford’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories from 1990 for his comments on short story structure.

Ella highlighted a new Nigerian author Chinelo Okparanta who writes stories about lesbian lovers in Africa and environmental issues that threaten the country.  I believe she’ll be published in the magazine soon.

Patrick Ryan, Granta’s associate editor, when he joined in the discussion to share an adorable slush pile story, mentioned Chris Dennis, a recent contributor to the magazine.

I know my reading list just got longer. What short story collections are you reading? What new short story writers have your attention? Comments are open.

Written by Gabrielle

March 1, 2012 at 6:57 am

The Speed Chronicles, a Drug-Themed Collection

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“You are normal. It’s the speed that made you a freak.” – Jerry Stahl, ‘Bad’

The popularity of “Breaking Bad,” the television show about a chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth, makes Akashic Books’ latest drug-themed collection, The Speed Chronicles, particularly timely. This anthology of fourteen multiple-authored short stories, with points of view spanning the range of possibilities, tackles the different ways in which meth permeates peoples’ lives. From addicts to loved ones to neighbors, The Speed Chronicles is a multifarious reading experience neatly packed into a mere 226 pages.

Series Editor Joseph Mattson felt there was a problem with drug literature, one that he hoped to avoid. In most books, the drugs and drug user are either celebrated or condemned — romanticized and glorified or demonized. Instead, Mattson chose stories that “reflect not only both ends of the dichotomy [speed’s ability to spark ebullience as well as wretchedness] . . ., but, more crucially, the abstractions within and between.”

Jess Walter’s “Wheelbarrow Kings” is a great example of the complexity Mattson was hoping to illustrate. The intensity of the story doesn’t hit you until the end; in the midst of it, you’re sucked into the single-minded focus of two meth addicts with dreams of pawning a television for drug money. We witness this life through the thoughts of one of the men. “I’m hungry as fuck.” the story starts out. The meth addict’s mind we inhabit is on the slow side. Its owner naive, thoughtful of others, and likable. His only goal is to find a way to eat and pay for his drugs.

As he and his friend struggle with moving a giant TV through the streets without a vehicle, they’re harassed by kids on bicycles and accused of theft by an old man standing in his front door. You start to feel sorry for them — and therein lies the surprise. “Wheelbarrow Kings” humanizes the men you see on the streets stripping electronics of their copper, the ones you sneer at, step away from, or ignore. By the time you finish this story it’s too late; you’ll never look at them the same way again.

Tao Lin’s ‘51 Hours” was the first story I read, which set the bar high; his name on the cover was reason alone for buying the book.

Aptly named, the story follows a group of friends — hipsters, for lack of a much better term — around Brooklyn and Manhattan as they take drugs, look for drugs, and talk about drugs. They keep themselves going with Adderall and meth and by grabbing minimal sleep at odd hours. No one gets busted, no one dies of an overdose, no meets a tragic end; instead, it’s a sketch of amateur meth heads teetering on the edge of decline.

Told in an exaggerated style, mimicking the speed of the drugs, what’s most impressive about “51 Hours” is how Lin kept the technique from feeling contrived. There’s the staccato dialogue:

“I used Adderall for the first time the other day,” said Andrew.
“Oh, sweet,” said Jack. “Did you like it?”
“Yeah. I didn’t think it would work.”
“How many milligrams did you use?”
“Forty,” said Andrew.
“Jesus,” said Jack.
“I used twenty and it wasn’t working so I used another twenty.”
“Nice,” said Jack.

And the simple, often grammatically poor, active sentences, mimicking restless ambivalence:

“Jack asked if Daniel wanted to go to the bookstore. Daniel said, ‘Not really,’ but that he would go if Jack wanted. They decided to sit in a cafe called Verb to decide what to do next. They walked there and sat and each ingested ten milligrams of Adderall.”

Tao Lin’s story, in its lack of sensationalism, is utterly convincing.

Jerry Stahl’s, ‘Bad,’ in which an addict unleashes a stream of conscious, is another strong piece. Not the most reliable of narrators, he goes back through his life, recalling nightmarish moments and equally nightmarish people that inevitably come along with a seedy lifestyle: a speedfreak prostitute whose mother gave her Dexedrine as a child, a stint at rehab where the ability to bear restraints is a sign of improvement, and a the dealer’s setup in a motel room where a five-year-old boy cringes at the touch of a grown man wearing a cowboy hat. The clever one-liners and dark, accurate insights give the story poignancy:

“What people who were never addicted don’t understand. You did not do this shit for pleasure. You did it for relief”
“What a good drug does. Is make you believe perfection is what you are going to feel forever”
“Speed never made you smarter. It just let you be what you already were longer.”
“One day you wake up and you’re letting your appetite sign your checks.”
“The first time you go to a laundromat , without speed, you hate that the spinning laundry is boring. . . . It used to explain the universe.”
“Except for everything you knew about her, Penny seemed almost normal.”

Two other stories in the collection worth noting are Sherman Alexie’s ‘War Cry,’ a story set on an Indian reservation and Rose Bunch’s ‘Pissing in Perpetuity’ about an average family living next to a meth addicted single mother.

From William S. Burroughs to Jim Carroll to Irvine Welsh, drug lit has always been a favorite of mine. The subject, whether the author focuses on the drug or the user, lends itself to experimental fiction. The Speed Chronicles, with it’s many voices and styles, is an engrossing read, even if you’ve never touched a drug in your life.

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Buy The Speed Chronicles at IndieBound

Written by Gabrielle

February 14, 2012 at 7:04 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , ,

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