This week’s reading:
20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill
The Zombie Survival Guide, Max Brooks
The Best American Mystery Stories, ed. Carl Hiaasen
The Best American Short Stories, ed. Stephen King
Failing at Fairness, Myra and David Sadker
Missing Kissinger, Etgar Keret
Lots of short stories this week, which was about where my attention span was at. I’ve given four lectures and two interviews over the past two weeks, plus researched and wrote a paper about improvisation and creativity in the last three days, so my brain is a little fried. Fortunately good reading helps everything, and this was definitely a good reading week!
Take Joe Hill, for example. I never, and I mean never, buy books in hardcover - but I read just one of his stories online and had to pick his new collection up immediately, hardcover be damned. His stories are technically horror, I guess, but what I really like about them is how rooted they are in the ordinary and mundane. A dead girl appears in a movie theater, sure, but the story’s really about the compromises people make, and how we can end up looking back to find a life we never expected to live.
While a couple of the stories were weaker than the others (I particularly found “The Widow’s Breakfast” to be a bit bland), the collection as a whole was very strong - which is sadly more than I could say about either of the “Best American” collections I read this week. Both had enough excellent stories in them to keep me happy, but I was really disappointed that both fell into the trap of literary inwardness - particularly in view of King’s introduction, claiming that he looked for stories that don’t have that air of “written for my other short-story writers” stuffiness about it.
The only story chosen to appear in both volumes was an incoherent rant from the point of view of “the Jeepster” designed to show off the author’s writing skills rather than engage the reader’s imagination. Bah! And the offerings from some of my favorite authors (Jim Shepard, anyone?) were weak in similar ways. For example, I expected “Sans Farine,” a story told from the point of view of Charles Sanson, executioner during the French Revolution, to be revelatory, but I found it a series of disconnected events that revealed little about the character of the executioner or anyone else.
But, bitching aside, lots of good stories in these two volumes. “Findings & Impressions,” “The Boy in Zaquitos,” “Gleason,” and “Rodney Valen’s Second Life” are all worth the price of admission, just to give a few examples. You should just be prepared to skip the stories that seem immediately off-putting; they generally are, and I didn’t find them to reward a closer reading.
Keret and Brooks, fortunately, delivered exactly what I expected. I think I’ve written about Keret before, but I’ll say again that he is delightfully strange. He imagines something bizarre and then takes it seriously for the rest of the story, like an anteater family or an airplane that never lands. Finding out where these strange ideas go is a wonderful journey! Oddly, it’s the same thing that Brooks does by taking the “zombie plague” idea with complete seriousness. The Guide isn’t nearly as good as World War Z, but it’s a fine addition to the zombie literature, even if it’s written as a survival guide.
Finally, Failing at Fairness probably deserves its own post, as I’m having a hard time summing up how I feel about it. I’ll just say that I recognized, in painful and very personal ways, the micro-inequities that the authors discuss as a normal part of the educational process. I need to do some thinking about what particularly got to me and why, but I’ll tell you one thing I noticed in my own life because of it. I’m taking this absolutely delightful course on creativity, which has ten people in it - two men and eight women. There are three people who speak up in class and who get 90% of the professor’s attention. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out who those three are.