Archive for short stories

Books on sale for $1.99 for e-readers!

My grandmother used to love a good deal and was upset when coffee prices rose to fifty cents a cup, but I think even she would approve of a book on sale for only $1.99.

Both my titles are available for all e-readers this month for that low, low price each, so grab your copies, peace out to Grandma, and settle in for some short story love.

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An exercise for close reading

I’ve written before about these two articles by Tim Parks on reading, but as I’m preparing to teach them again this week, I’ve added an exercise where we’re applying his questions to a story we’re reading. The story is “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks about a beautiful man who dates an ugly woman. (You can buy the issue of The Missouri Review in which it originally appeared here.)

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My guess is students are going to have some negative reactions to this in that the main character is so fixated on his own beauty and her ugliness to the point it’s of the utmost importance, but the question then is, is Banks endorsing this viewpoint or is this just the qualities/concepts he’s working in? Whenever I teach something I want to remind students that exploring one side of an issue doesn’t mean you endorse it. This can apply to so many things–racism, sexism, feminism, and so on.

So in relation to this story, I’m asking students to discuss these questions from Parks in relation to the Banks opening:

  • What are the qualities/concepts that matter most to the author in the opening of this story?
  • How are the characters positioned in relation to these qualities or concepts?
  • What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? What is the consequent debate arising from this atmosphere?
  • How is the writer trying to draw you into the mental world of his characters through his writing? Through his conversation with you?
  • Is the world authentic? How so?

After this, we’ll do a writing exercise where students write an opening that considers these questions from the reader and how they want them answered. We’ll see how it goes!

First readings of the semester

This semester, we’re starting out with George Saunders because I can’t think of a better introduction to anything than that.

George Saunders

We’re reading “Speaking of Style” by Debra Spark from her book Curious Attractions where she talks about style really being about your vision of the world. I’m pairing it with “Sea Oak” by George Saunders (a story so funny [and tragic] I tried reading it aloud to my husband but was laughing so hard I could only get through the first scene) as well as “The Tenth of December” from the book by the same name. These stories are clearly written by the same author, but have very different outlooks on the world. In class we’ll read highlights of this interview with Saunders from The New Yorker. Here’s a excerpt:

“Getting through that and finding yourself at the other end of the tunnel—it opens up a certain space in the artistic mind, I think. Living through those twenty-five years and then making a fictive world that had only pitfalls and misfortune would feel false. And/or incomplete. If you think of a work of fiction as a kind of scale model of the world, then the positive valences—where things turn out better than you thought they would—ought to be in there somewhere, too. Something like that.

“So in this book—although there’s still a lot of cruelty and darkness and all of that—I found my eye being drawn to the moments when things don’t go totally down the shitter, and asking, well, how does that happen? I started to feel that, at certain points in some of the stories, the most interesting aesthetic motion—the plot twist, if you will—was the one that swerved away from what I might call the habitually catastrophic.”

Ah, George Saunders. I read your work and have to practice my Jealousy Abatement Breathing.

It goes to 11

Ever since we moved to semesters, I’ve struggled to figure out just how to teach my Advanced Fiction Workshop. It’s a big class–twenty-five, which is way over the number of students recommended by AWP–and to even get through that many workshops takes most of the time. I’ve decided this semester, in order to get through two stories each, I’m going to shorten the amount of discussion time to twenty-five minutes each story so we can do three a day. In order for me to do three a day, I am only doing bullet point responses instead of writing full letters to the students. Something had to give, and this way we’ll have about six full weeks to discuss issues of craft, essays on craft, literary citizenship, and published stories, discussions I think are very valuable. Plus, I’ve discovered Powerpoint and memes so these discussions will be very well organized and colorful.

I also decided to only allow stories for workshops and not excerpts of longer works. The two main reasons are so 1) I can see a full narrative arc from the student and they are required to write beginnings, middles, and ends (beginnings being the easiest. If I could just write beginnings for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy [but very incomplete] writer) and 2) I feel unless we’re all working on novels and gearing discussions, readings, and workshops toward that structure, the novel excerpts end up with a watered-down workshop that’s not as effective. I’m expecting some push-back about this decision.

I’m starting my eleventh year teaching at Wright State this fall, and my first as a promoted professor. I marvel sometimes that I was lucky enough to end up in this profession, and marvel too, that after ten years, I’m still overhauling my syllabus nearly every time.

Review: Karin Lin-Greenberg’s Faulty Predictions

My latest book review is up at Heavy Feather Review. Faulty Predictions won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and is definitely worth a read!

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What I’m reading: “Malaria” by Michael Byers

“When I was in college in Eugene I had a girlfriend named Nora Vardon. We had fallen together sort of accidentally, I talked to her first at a vending machine where we ere both buying coffee, and things progressed in the usual slow ways, we went out one cold night to look at the blurry stars, and that led to some kissing, and from there we started the customary excavation of our families, revealing, not quite competitively, how crazy they both were, she with a raft of depressives and schizophrenics and me with a bunch of drunks, mainly the men on my father’s side. She had an open, genial, feline face, with big cheeks and dark eyes, and a big, soft body that was round in parts and that was covered for three months out of the year, with the big textured bruises left by lacrosse balls. She was very pretty, really, and I counted myself lucky to be around her. I was skinny and out of necessity got cheap haircuts, so I wasn’t much to look at, and I tended to be secretive, I suppose you could put it that way, although I had nothing to be secretive about, being only twenty and unadventurous.”

Reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2013 

Anne Valente came to town

Anne Valente came to Wright State for a reading this past Wednesday, and by god, she was as charming as her fiction. I love it when I like writers as much as I like their writing. She was gracious with her time, attentive to students and their questions, and read with authority and grace.

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She lives in Cincinnati and I hope we keep in touch. What a treat to keep meeting such awesome local authors.

Huge thanks to Jane Blakelock for the wonderful pics!

 

Review in GHLL

A big thanks to Adam Brooke Davis for the review of It’s Not Going to Kill You, and Other Stories in Green Hills Literary Lantern. He writes, “There are numerous worthy currents in the class stream of the distinctively American short story. One of them, the best in my view, is the modest rumination, carried out through close observation, in unpretentious prose, of worthwhile people in ordinary circumstances. Flanagan fishes in that stream; she has he eye and intuition to plop her float easily and naturally where things are moving in the depths.”

You can read the full review here.

Short Story Month recap

I hope you all found some great short stories to read in May! In addition to what those I wrote about here, I have a few more to mention:

The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus is one of my favorite stories of all time. It chronicles Louise’s struggle with her weight through childhood, college, marriage, and motherhood, and Dubus perfectly captures how all-consuming the obsessions of weight and body can be. The tagline for this story could be “Inside every unhappy fat girl is an equally unhappy skinny girl.”

Barb Johnson’s title story More of This World or Maybe Another captures the crazy excitement of being attracted to someone for the first time, and the heart-thumping hope you have as a teenager that something new is about to happen right now. Or now. Or maybe now.

Charles Baxter has long been my go-to for favorite stories. “The Cousins,” originally published in Tin House and reprinted in Best American, showcases what I consider one of his greatest talents: complete honesty from a character who is willing to let us see the worst, even when the worst, given the stretches of humanity, isn’t all that terrible. Not that that lessens the blow. “I haven’t always behaved well when people open their hearts to me.”

I found “The Land of Motionless Childhood” by Joseph O’Malley in the most recent issue of Colorado Review, one of my favorite literary journals. It asks some big questions: is hope just for children? What about laughter? Happiness? One of my favorite moments is when the main character, Kenny, realizes his friend is dating a girl who’s a dud. “Kenny had seen couples who seemed wholly mismatched before, but usually it was the woman who was the open, funny, and vivacious one, and the man who was the dry, humorless drudge.” I laughed when I read that. I know those couples! And he’s right, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it in the reverse. I love when a story perfectly captures something I’ve long thought but haven’t realized.

“Tandolfo the Great” by Richard Bausch was originally written for the anthology The Wedding Cake in the Middle of the Road, where all the authors need to include exactly that. Add to that an unhappy clown with a drinking problem and a five-year-old’s birthday party and you’ve got classic Bausch pathos and humor.

Lambing Season” by Molly Gloss is another sci-fi story recommended by my good friend, Dennis Loranger. I will read whatever this guy tells me. It’s a beautiful story about solitude, perseverance, the connections between humans and animals, and aliens.

I finished up the month with “Projection” by Michael Nye from his collection Strategies Against Extinction. “Projection” totally captures what it’s like to be in college and trapped back in your small hometown for the summer, something I knew a thing or two about back in the day. I never blew up the water tower, but Jesus, did I want to.

I’m already looking forward to next May! In the meantime, any recommendations?

 

 

 

Short story month update

I’ve been reading some great stories this month in celebration of Short Story Month! (And is it wrong that I want to gloat we get a longer month than poetry?) Here’s what I’ve read so far:

Holly Goddard Jones‘s “Life Expectancy” from her collection Girl Trouble. The main character has a sick daughter, a pregnant girlfriend/student, an unhappy wife, and a dead dog, but is stubbornly convinced none of these things are his fault. When he kisses his student the first time he thinks, “He did it because she looked like she needed it. He did it because he knew he could get away with it.” That about sums up Theo. Goddard Jones does a great job creating an unsympathetic character the reader can get behind. I’m looking forward to the rest of the stories in this collection!

“Amber at the Window in Hurricane Season” by Justin Taylor, from Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever (a great title!). Favorite passage: There’s always a new worst.”

Lydia Peelle‘s “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing,” is a beautiful story about a depressed woman who falls for a herpetologist and learns life lessons from a salamander. Sometimes what we need is to turn off our brains and remember we are part of nature. “Trust the body, not the mind, he says, smiling. The body loves itself.”

“Bears Discover Fire” by Terry Bisson. You can read the story here. It’s pretty true to the title, bears really do discover fire, but the heart of the story is a man coming to terms with his mother’s decline. I’m a sucker for stories with animals, especially when they’re doing something as cool as hanging around campfires in the road medians, and the way this is handled, as kind of ho-hum, is brilliant.

“Nothing Right” by Antonya Nelson, from Nothing Right. In this story a fractured family holds a premature baby as collateral damage, acting out their own aggressions against each other with little sense of repercussions. If you haven’t read her work, this is a great introduction!

“Bear Hogan Walks the Sky” by Brady Allen in Back Roads & Frontal Lobes. This story is weird, and that’s a good thing. It’s an end of the world/end of the road story that contemplates what it means to be good or bad, and how similar these things can look when shit hits the fan. Brady and I teach together at Wright State and have a lot of chats about fiction writing, and he’s someone I admire for being as disciplined as he is with his writing.

“The Chair” by David Means, in Best American Short Stories 2013. It’s about parenting, and maybe it’s because I have a child the same age as the child in the story, and maybe it’s because I’m also struggling with how to effectively discipline said child, but this one really struck a chord. I don’t think I’ve read anything by Means before, which is crazy since he’s got four highly acclaimed story collections and seems to be kind of a big deal. He’s now on the list.