Discovering Lucia Berlin

(Winthrop, Washington–no tie in to text here)

Obviously, I haven’t been here much. I haven’t stopped reading but there have been many, many distractions. Before the short story review, a bit of personal information. I retired in June and am enjoying what feels like summer vacation for the first time in years. I have plenty to do despite being retired. I was “promoted” from reader to Editorial Assistant at the journal I read for (I’m ambivalent about naming it on this blog because I’m over-used to maintaining blogging as a private domain), and have started working on literary translation from French to English. This opens up a whole new world of fun and challenge for me. I also have a book review that will be published this month in a journal. All of this makes me wonder if I need to develop a web site but that is a different story.

Here my short story reviews are a personal exercise and informal so I’m not expecting any level of scholarship. It’s about the journey as the cliche goes.

Short story number 7 is Angel’s Laundromat by Lucia Berlin from A Manual for Cleaning Women. To begin with, what an interesting title for a story collection, right? It seems like book people are enamored of Lucia Berlin so I’m late to the party and there may have been a bit of FOMO in my buying this book when my house is already sagging under the weight of my to-be-read pile but after reading the first story, I’m glad I did.

Angel’s Laundromat is available on-line here so you can read it legally and free from the publisher. At less than 5-1/2 pages it is a quick read and maybe should be read more than once. It is a slice of life that takes place in a laundromat although I ponder the significance of the angel in the title. I’m amazed at what Berlin achieves in so few pages. Realistic characters that you believe in. Sensory detail that lingers. Humor and tragedy.

Here’s one of those details: “we sat next to each other in connected yellow plastic chairs, like at airports. They skidded in the ripped linoleum and the sound hurt your teeth.” The laundromat walls are papered with 12 Step slogans and a sign with an ironic misspelling of the word “dye.” “YOU CAN DIE HERE ANYTIME.” In a few short pages, there is one death and other ones that are hinted at. The reader wonders who might be the angel–the owner who provides sobriety advice on the side? The old Apache man who disappears at the end? Mrs. Armitage who dies between weekly loads of wash?

I love Berlin’s description of hands including the narrator’s. Here is one line: “I could see children and men and gardens in my hands.” It made me look at my own hands and wonder what tales they tell. It made me sit down and start writing down those stories.

I admit I don’t entirely understand the ending. Perhaps as with many poems, I don’t really need to understand it. It’s a great story anyhow. Brilliant perhaps.


A Quick Trip to Scotland

I wish I could say, I’ve just been to Scotland but this is a metaphorical trip involving some fond memories and a Scottish short story. The picture here is of a grassy green harbor on the Scottish island of Islay (pronounced Eye-La, not Is-Lay) which we were lucky enough to visit for a few days in 2016. My son and I took a walk across the hilly pasture among the sheep from this harbor to the next one. It was a bit of a scramble but the views were great.

I’d love to return to Scotland when the pandemic allows (in the summer, though) and have fond memories of walking around Edinburgh and Glasgow, two lovely, historic cities and of touring the countryside. I’d go back to Islay in a flash for the gorgeous scenery and wonderful beaches. My husband would go back for the distilleries.

All of this has little to do with my latest short stories except that I bought the anthology The Oxford Book of Scottish Short Stories edited by Douglas Dunn, out of nostalgia for the place. It cost me used 2.99 pounds. Like many books I’ve picked up with good intentions, I only just pulled it off my shelves to read.

The lovely cover image is by artist Craigie Aitchison and is a detail of a painting of the Isle of Arran.

Short story #6 is “Violets and Strawberries in the Snow” by Shena Mackay. Mackay has written 9 novels and a number of short story collections and “Violets” is a story that makes me want to read more of her work. The plot is straightforward. An alcoholic spends Christmas on a psychiatric ward and reflects about “his own countdown to Christmas.” Douglas is not a good man but he is observant and thoughtful. He is often touched by kindness, of nurses and aides in the hospital, of one patient to another and of his own daughters who visit him bearing gifts. The daughters make Douglas think of a fairy tale in which a step-daughter is sent to deliver out of season strawberries and violets to her wicked step-mother. The task is a pointless cruelty.

At the story’s end, Douglas stands and thinks of his daughters:

He stood in the alien kitchen that smelled of industrial detergent and fat and old washing-up cloths, seeing in memory his children smiling and waving at the door, their resolute backs as they walked to the car concealing their wounds under their coats, forgiving and brave, and carrying his own weak and dissolute genes in their young and beautiful bodies. Violets and strawberries in the snow.

Such a beautiful ending to a moving story. I definitely recommend this story and will likely look for more by the author. Unfortunately, I cannot find a copy of it online so to read it one would have to buy the Scottish anthology or the author’s collection Dreams of Dead Womens Handbags where it was originally published. The Czech fairy tale is available in many places online including here. I hadn’t thought of writing a review of a fairy tale but they are short stories, after all, and perhaps this will be my 7th review.

“The Boat” by Alistair MacLeod

Short story #5

This is a story that I very much enjoyed which says as much about me as it does about the work itself. I find I have an affinity for Canadian literature. In part, this is due to my many fond memories of traveling in Canada, largely the Canadian west. Canada to me has always felt more wild and raw than the United States, as if it is a generation or two younger. I remember my childhood adventures, staying at remote wilderness lodges, finding arrowheads, lodging by a working gold mine, checking into a hotel because the campground we had planned to stay at warned to “Beware of grizzly bears.” I remember the kindness of a family who invited us in to their house to watch the news with them as Nixon resigned. Yes, I’m that old.

Alistair MacLeod writes of eastern Canada, where I’ve never been, but it has the same wilderness feel, the same sense of immigrants pioneering a difficult land. As an aside, the movie Maria Chapdelaine (2021) scratches the same itch and is recommended. “The Boat” is available on JSTOR for those who are interested and willing to set up an account. It takes place in Nova Scotia and is written from the viewpoint of a son who assists his father in running his fishing boat. It is a hard life and both the narrator and his parents have given much to support this way of life.

I loved the characters, the narration, the sense of place in this tale. The language is beautiful, the people come to life, I feel an urge to, book a ticket to Cape Breton and breathe the sea air, walk on wild beaches. MacLeod was a slow and careful writer. This is from his Wikipedia page:

Fellow Cape Breton writer Frank Macdonald described MacLeod as a perfectionist. “He wouldn’t set a story free,” Macdonald said, “until he was convinced that it was ready.” He added that MacLeod never rewrote a story. “He wrote a sentence, and then waited, then wrote another sentence.”[24] During a CBC Radio interview in 2011, MacLeod spoke about how he shaped his work. He explained that halfway through a story, he would write the final sentence. “I think of that as the last thing I’m going to say to the reader,” he said. “I write it down and it serves as a lighthouse on the rest of my journey through the story.”[25]

As a person who writes/is learning to write, I find this process fascinating and an approach that would never work for me, an obsession with craft that meant that MacLeod created some remarkable literature but very little of it. MacCleod died in 2014 after writing only around 20 short stories and one novel that some consider one of the best Canadian novels.

Judging from my reading of contemporary short stories (“The Boat was written in 1968), modern readers expect something more complex, mysterious, non-linear, perhaps. A reviewer in the Guardian says: “Several of MacLeod’s stories have a quality of emotional genre-painting, and display a willingness to let the complexities of character die into stereotype.” I feel an urge to defend my taste in literature but it’s better to leave that to the individual reader.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

For short story #4, I’ve selected Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” from an anthology I have at home. As an aside, I found a number of other short story collections on my shelves while looking for this particular book. This speaks to my long-standing belief that I ought to read more stories as well as my lack of will to do so.

Hemingway is almost as famous for his stories as he is for his novels and his fascinating life. In the preface to the collection I own, The First Forty-Nine Stories, Hemingway lists “Snows” as among his personal favorites. Prior to reading this, I had selected another one which I didn’t particular admire so I am going with my second pick. First, I want to quote Hemingway from his preface.

“In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”

There is something here that makes me want to write my own stories, fiction or otherwise.

In “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”, Hemingway also refers to the writing process through the thoughts of his protagonist, a man, Harry, who is dying of gangrene from an accident while on safari in Africa. The story begins with a brief mention of a snow leopard which dies on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, a reference that feels a bit obscure although the story circles back to the mountain at the end (which I will not reveal).

While Harry waits for rescue or death, he speaks with his girlfriend as she tends to him. Harry is not particularly likeable. He’s cruel to his lover, cynical about life in general, and waits for his own death which he imagines he sees coming for him. Between the present-day scenes in Africa he remembers his past in vivid scenes from Constantinople, Paris and Germany, and regrets the stories he hadn’t yet written.

I especially enjoyed Harry’s thoughts about his writing. Here is one longer passage:

“He had never written any of that because, at first, he never wanted to hurt anyone and then it seemed as though there was enough to write without it. . . . He had seen the world change; not just the events; although he had seen many of them and had watched the people, but he had seen the subtler change and he could remember how the people were at different times. He had been in it and he had watched it and it was his duty to write of it; but now he never would.”

One can’t help but imagine that these are thoughts Hemingway had about his own writing and one wonders how much of “Snows” is semi-autobiographical. Not the gangrenous injury, but the relationships, some of the flashbacks and the writerly sentiments. I know reams have been written about Hemingway, his life and his writing and I don’t intend here to launch into a scholarly analysis. I simply want to leave it that in a few pages, Hemingway has managed to create a feeling of connection, not just to Harry and his lover but also to the writer himself and a world beyond the borders of my own experience. My goal in buying this collection had been to learn more from a master stylist and I will definitely read more.

Above and Below by Lauren Groff

This is short story #3. I’ve read a number of others but somehow the will to review them evaded me. “Above and Below” is the 9th story in the collection Florida by Lauren Groff. I have very much enjoyed Groff’s novels and look forward to reading Matrix her latest novel but have been slow to read her short stories. As always, I find it hard to persevere through a story collection as I lose momentum at the end of each individual tale. “Above and Below” was first published in the New Yorker and can be read here if you can get past the firewall.

“Above and Below” is the story of a young graduate student who loses everything in a short period of time–her boyfriend, scholarship and housing. At first she sleeps in her car and reads Middlemarch. Later, she loses both book and car, briefly shelters with a homeless family in their tent and finally in a squat house. As with some of the other stories in the collection, I can imagine Groff taking her own story (graduate student) and adding an alternative plot to that life. I suspect I’m right on this point because in an interview in the New Yorker about another story “Ghosts and Empties,” Groff acknowledges the story could be an essay but for some “big lies.”

The story is full of detail about the freedoms and indignities of the homeless life and, like most of her other stories, includes vivid details of her region of Florida. I half expected the main character to get attacked by an alligator but in the end she muddles through.

I’m puzzled by the ending which jumps forward in time and connects her homeless experiences with her childbirth. It almost seems like this is a modern trope of short stories and essays too, ending with final twist that intentionally refuses to tidy things up.

Read Groff’s stories and books. They’re great.

Another Short Story–“The Ghost Birds”

I guess I’m on a roll. Story #2 of as many as I get to–the goal is 100, but chances are I’ll get distracted before I get there. As I posted yesterday, I want to see if I can develop more of an affinity for the short story form. I intend to be fairly random in my selection of stories-I have a number of story collections floating around the house, a subscription to the New Yorker, and access to an infinite number of open access stories on the internet. I hope to dive into flash fiction as well, especially when my time or attention span feel limited.

Story 2 is “The Ghost Birds” by Karen Russell from the New Yorker magazine. It’s probably behind a firewall but there’s not much I can do about that. I haven’t read Russell’s novels but discovered that I own Swamplandia so I will be putting that on the top of my TBR pile.

“The Ghost Birds” is a post-apocalyptic tale set in the late 21st century. Portland is a wasteland, much of the western US has burned and birds are extinct. All of them. The narrator, Jasper, is obsessed with paranormal bird-watching. He and some like-minded people track and monitor the ghosts of birds which they believe still inhabit the earth, migrating and singing as if they were still alive. Jasper is divorced, in part due to his hobby/obsession and has a teenaged daughter. In the story, Jasper takes his daughter, Starling, to view migrating ghost swifts, a dangerous and illegal enterprise her mother does not know about.

The premise of the story is interesting and mindful of the dangers we deal with today with climate change and its consequences and the human-related loss of animal species. Like the previous story I reviewed, the writer does a brilliant job of world building in a very few pages. It’s a novel in a chapter. The writer moves adeptly between the surreal (ghost birds) and the mundane (a father trying to connect with a teenager).

There are some wonderful lines. Here are a few about parenting a young child. “To be a kid requires difficult detective work. You have to piece together the entire universe from scratch. I tried to remember this when Starling turned three and her questions evolved from ‘Who that!?’and ‘When snack?’ to that developmental rocket booster ‘Why?’ No adult is ever more than three ‘why’s’ away from the abyss.” I find this both true and charming.

In a later paragraph, the narrator explains his fascination with paranormal bird-watching: “Who could watch a murmuration of ghost starlings iridesce across the city skyline without wanting to know where the birds are going and why?” How beautiful is that? It’s enough to make me want to set myself up with an electromagnetic field detector and go bird watching.

The story ends with more questions than answers. Perhaps that’s one of my complaints about short stories, that they have to end so soon, forcing a mysterious ending or a brutal one.

Is this story great? I don’t know. I’m still not an accomplished reader to tell the good from the amazing although one can assume that the New Yorker does a pretty good job of this. Was it worth reading? Absolutely, if only for the lingering image of an iridescent murmuration of ghost starlings.

Short Stories

Are we heading in the right direction?

Well, I’m back. I’m not sure why or if the why even matters. Over the past few years, my relationship with social media, including blogging, has changed. I’ve decided I don’t need to be consistent, market myself, have a brand. Instead, why not simply indulge my interests, reading, writing and photography? If someone wants to read, fine. If not, I can write for my own pleasure.

During the pandemic, I started taking on-line classes, generally through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. They have been well taught and interesting and I have improved my writing and gained a cohort of writers I keep in touch with. This fall term I decided to take a break from creative writing classes and instead focus on a bit of creative reading. I selected a short story class because I’m weak in that area. I rarely find an affinity for the short story form. Perhaps I gravitate to novels because of the lengthy immersion, the relationship with the plot and characters that lasts for a few hundred pages. I find I put down a short story with a feeling of incompleteness. Is that all? I ask myself. My current class isn’t necessarily changing this but I have read some wonderful stories by Malamud, Toni Morrison, Paley and others.

I thought to challenge myself–100 short stories–a mix of contemporary and classic, an immersion to see if something sparks or if I will forever be a short story luddite.

Story #1. “Impulse” by Conrad Aiken

The book this story came from was itself a bit of an impulse purchase. In class we read “The Fat Girl” by Andre Dubus, first published in 1977. Our reading came from an anthology, American Short Story Masterpieces, and I looked up the book and decided to buy it. Two weeks later my used copy arrived, a rather battered paperback that did not contain the story in question. No wonder! After double-checking I realized that I had actually bought Short Story Masterpieces, a 1962 edition, not American Short Story Masterpieces. Perhaps I should have paid more attention.

“Impulse” was published in 1950 and it feels both dated and timely. It is the story of a man, Michael Lowes, married with two children, who is struggling with debt. Michael’s not particularly likeable. His internal voice seems whiny, self-absorbed, deeply uninsightful. Fate is always against him, he thinks, regarding his bills, his need to move to escape them, his lack of close friends. Michael attends a night of bridge with his not-friends-but-acquaintances, deceiving his wife by pretending it is a surprise event, and the men get to talking about their ugly impulses, the ones they don’t act on because they would be socially unacceptable or get them into trouble. Impulses like petty theft or groping a woman they don’t know. On his way home, after too many drinks, Michael decides to act on one such impulse.

I won’t give away the ending, but instead reflect on what makes this story a “masterpiece,” at least to the anthologists Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine. I’d say strong insights into character-in this case not how a good man goes astray but how a mediocre man can slip over a certain line with so little ado. The plotting is tight. It feels as though an entire novel is compressed into a few pages. In fact, I could easily see the story becoming a novel-a typical mid-twentieth century novel of the downfall of a middle-aged, middle class white man. The story ages well-enough. Spend a few hours watching the news or on Twitter and you’ll find hundreds of Michael Lowes, declaiming their victimhood, when they’ve brought it on themselves.

Last checked out 53 years ago.

Have I walked away loving short stories more? Not yet. Ask me 100 stories later.

As always, all pictures are my own unless stated otherwise.

Sunday in the Park with Covid

I just got back from taking a walk in the park at a 6 foot remove from two of my closest friends. We are all wearing face masks now; mine is home-made, fresh off the sewing machine. I am proud of this small accomplishment and hope to make a some for family and so we all have a spare. If I find the drive, I will make a few more for these same friends.
The park is lively with people flying kites, dog walkers and a couple of children, but not many. People are keeping their distance and many, maybe half, are wearing masks, far more than a week ago.
Another friend told me today that he thinks he has Covid and I’m scared. I want this thing to stay far from me and those I care for even though I know it won’t.

Four weeks ago I was traveling in Spain.  Word of Covid in China and Italy was worrisome but the shadow hadn’t quite touched  Malaga. There were crowds all over town and street performances in honor of Carnaval. So many people there, packed side by side, laughing and clapping together.  Now I look back and wonder at a world that seems distant but hopefully not lost. The physical and emotional space I’ve traveled between March 1st, Malaga and April 5th, Chicago seems insurmountable at present.  I hope there is a return from here to that world.

The singers in this picture can be watched on YouTube, if you’d like a taste of Carnaval.
My wellness prompt for today is look at a picture of someone or something you love or of a time or place that made you happy.

Self-care for challenging days

Hello, it has been a while. Life has a way of creating distractions. Currently we are in the midst of a pandemic of the COVID-19 virus and like much of the world I have been subject to a stay-at-home order active here in my state of Illinois. I am proud of my governor for taking action even though I strain against the confinement. We all have had our losses and mine are minimal compared to people in so many parts of the world.
I am not returning to this site merely to complain or to appreciate my privilege. On Monday, I signed up for a writing class (online of course), and now I am responding to daily writing prompts. I could post my writing but for now, I will begin by posting the theme I have chosen for my daily writings. For each day, I write according to the prompt and then chose a self-care prompt based on the writing.
I am two days behind in posting which is all right since no one will read this, but if you do, understand, my goal is to find small things that can help us better tolerate the fear, isolation and stress of our current situation.
So here goes, self-care prompt day #1 in honor of spring.

Watch a bird for 5 minutes



Chelan afternoon
Still working on a run of earthly delights in homage to Ross Gay’s Book of Delights which has now been returned to the library. Today I am delighting in clouds while vacationing with family on Lake Chelan in eastern Washington. Perhaps because it is in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains which are delightful in themselves, the clouds here are wonderful. There are lenticular ones, streaky ones, wispy ones that are all set off wonderfully against a bright blue sky or turn streaks of red, purple and other bruise colors during sunsets over the mountains. There seems to be a constant variety and it is quite a contrast to the sometimes louring skies over Seattle which is only a couple of hundred miles west of here. Chelan can be blazing hot in the summer but right now is in the comfortable 70’s, cooler at night.

Chelan sunset
I couldn’t resist looking up cloud names just now. While flying in to Seattle the other day, I spotted a line of anvil shaped clouds and remembered vaguely they were associated with storms. Anvil clouds are scientifically known as cumulonimbus incus and is connected with thunderstorms. The clouds I saw towered over the thinner cloud cover underneath them and just had to be up to no good.

Anvil clouds

The wispy ones are cirrus, not to be confused as I was, with cirrhus which is apparently a band and is closer to cirrhosis which is a liver disease.
Anyhow, if there is an opportunity spend some time this summer cloud gazing. With some 16 hours of daylight here in Chelan, there is plenty of time for me to do so tonight. Here’s hoping for another red sunset.