Tag Archives: Short Story Collection

On Lorrie Moore’s “Bark”

27 Jan

I used to enjoy short fiction a lot. I respect those who can write it, and I respect those who read it with any kind of frequency, because the form lends itself to a kind of sadomasochism that I just don’t see in other formats: each short story carries in it all the gravity and pain of a novel but in a shorter space. It’s like fitting all the punches of a twelve-round boxing match into three rounds. I feel winded and bruised after reading the eight dour short stories in Lorrie Moore’s most recent collection Bark, and I may need more than ice to soothe my battered soul. (I’m thinking a nice fluffy young adult novel, or maybe a Dr. Seuss book.)

If anything, Moore is consistent. The stories in Bark tell tales of departures: spouses leaving spouses, people dying and leaving behind unimaginable voids in their surviving friends, more spouses leaving spouses. Moore seems to return again and again to the concept of loss, and sometimes to the deathly frightening idea of loss, which can be worse than the real deal. Before you go thinking Moore is just a butt-load of bitterness and depression (that’s only half the butt-load), it’s worth noting that she writes about all this loss with a self-deprecating wit that strongly reminds of Nora Ephron. Each of these stories could be Nora Ephron short films, you know, just without the happy endings.

Protective exterior (Photo credit: "zoomyboy.com")

Fact: The outer bark of a tree is called the rhytidome. Fact: The main ingredient in aspirin, salicylic acid, comes from poplar and willow bark. Fact: The word “bark” in connection to trees predates other uses and comes from the Old Norse word brokr, which probably referred to birch trees. (Photo credit: “zoomyboy.com”)

In the first story “Debarking,” a recently divorced father navigates the new-found bitterness of single life with the backdrop of the first Gulf War. A friend sets Ira up with another divorcee, a pediatrician who is alarmingly intimate with her teenage son. Ira fights for a place in his girlfriend’s life and mourns the loss of something that was never his to begin with. The following story title “Juniper Tree” tells a the story of a woman’s lost battle with cancer and the friends who seem to be haunted by her spirit who remains attached to her house and erratically tended garden.

By the fourth story, “Foes,” Moore’s humorous side comes out. A liberal older writer attends a fundraising event in Washington and is seated next to a young, Republican investor. The context is brimming with potential humor, but Moore is subtle; she uses little inside jokes, like writing in the passive voice to “obscure blame.” I imagine Moore writing these stories and chortling to herself with little jarring shakes of her belly. The longest story of the book is her best. “Wings” follows a middle-aged woman as she sets aside her dreams of “making it” as a musician. Instead, she befriends an elderly–and absurdly wealthy–widower, and her life seems to take on new potential. As the elderly man becomes physically and emotionally dependent on her, our narrator’s motives become hazier. The final short stories of the collection, especially the last story “Thank You for Having Me,” are more poignant and lighthearted, so at least I wasn’t left with the bitter taste of loss and separation in my mouth.

"Quote" (Photo credit: "FoundryParkInn")

In “Paper Losses,” a couple on the verge of divorce goes on one last vacation. “As each one lost its heat she could no longer feel it even there on her back, and then its removal was like a discovery that it had been there all along: how strange to forget and feel it only then, at the end ….” (Photo credit: “FoundryParkInn”)

Moore delivers humor in each of her stories with a light touch–sometimes too light. Oftentimes her dark humor is obscured by themes that are repetitive and blunt as a hammer, and even in an eight-story collection, repetitive hammers can make a short book feel like a tome. I know many readers will feel bogged down by the end of Bark, especially if they (like I) tried to read it in a single sitting. I’m not sure what Lorrie Moore has been doing since the publication of her last short story collection, but I’m going to venture a guess and say she broke up and/or divorced a bunch of people. It just seems to me that these days mainstream books tell stories of new love, and literary books tell of love’s death, and Bark is a really, really literary book.

“You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.”

Read It: Do you like short stories? Specifically in collections? If the answer is, “Why, yes. Yes I do,” then read Lorrie Moore’s Bark. As one of the leading American short fiction writers of our time, Moore is worth picking up. A word of advice for this, and any, collection, don’t read it in one sitting. After finishing a story, set the book down before beginning the next one. These stories shouldn’t be read like chapters in a novel.

Don’t Read It: Steer clear if you just battled your way through a messy divorce or breakup, because Bark might pitch you over the edge. Despite the occasional quips and black comedy, this collection isn’t a happy one. You might try something on the lighter side or maybe try hitting up the nearest bar instead, both of which will probably be more uplifting than several of the stories here.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s shorty story Silver Water would be a great place to start after reading Bark. Bloom’s ability to use humor to punctuate rather than diffuse an intense story is one of the skills of hers, and of Moore’s, that I love. Also make sure to check out any films written and/or directed by Nora Ephron for witty dialogue and similar content to Bark‘s.

Lorrie Moore is a heralded voice of American short fiction. (Photo credit: Zane Williams)

Lorrie Moore is a heralded voice of American short fiction. (Photo credit: Zane Williams)

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On Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”

22 May
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) is Sherman Alexie's breakthrough novel and was nominated for the PEN-Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) is Sherman Alexie’s breakthrough novel and was nominated for the PEN-Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction.

When Sherman Alexie walks onto a stage, his presence is commanding. I mean, I saw him speak at the Seattle Public Library about six years ago, and he kicked three teenagers out of the auditorium because they were being disrespectful, and they left, hanging their shaggy heads in shame. The man carries authority as naturally and easily as he carries a book in his hands. He is also wildly funny, performative, and lyrical. Most of all, Sherman Alexie is a storyteller–a master storyteller, at that, as he demonstrates in his 1993 collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

Each of the short stories of TLRaTFiH follows recurring characters in the Spokane Reservation as they negotiate the trials of life in the Spokane Reservation. Each are half song, half myth as these characters relive the histories of their ancestors and rewalk the pain of generations of persecution. Victor, just a young boy at the beginning of the series, begins the book with “Every Little Hurricane,” a story of the incessant turmoil of his household and his community on the reservation.

“I was conceived during one of those drunken nights, half of me formed by my father’s whiskey sperm, the other half formed by my mother’s vodka egg. I was born a goofy reservation mixed drink, and my father needed me just as much as he needed every other kind of drink”

In subsequent stories, Victor struggles with romanticizing pre-invasion Indian culture, when stealing horses and hallucinating by campfires was a lifestyle, when Ghost Dancers and visions roamed a lush Earth, when “ordinary gods” shared the land with theirs brothers and sisters. Instead, reality is drinking Diet Pepsi by the lake for endless hours, watching the reservation’s one broken traffic light, gossiping about the next high school basketball star, making jokes of desperate predicaments.

“Books and beer are the best and worst defense.”

In 1998, the indie film Smoke Signals was released. Based on Alexie's short story collection, Smoke Signals featured Victor and Thomas's adventures in an all-Native American production.

In 1998, the indie film Smoke Signals was released. Based on Alexie’s TLRaTFiH, Smoke Signals featured Victor and Thomas’s adventures in an all-Native American production.

Constantly present is the deep, collective sadness in the Spokane Reservation. Even through the laughter and the shenanigans and the debauched parties and the cross-country road trips, there remains a thick cloud of pain over a long-suffering community. In “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” a man must defend himself before the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the crime of his ancestry. It’s a story of self-persecution after decades of persecution at the hands of white invaders, and it leads to tragedy for Thomas.

Sherman Alexie’s prose is like the landscape of Eastern Washington: the issues he tackles are stark and seemingly simple–father issues, wounded pride, outgrowing one’s dreams–accented with moments stunning, desolate beauty. At moments, the language of the story elevates above and beyond simple storytelling, and moves with a cadence and lyricism more like poetry or spoken word. When I heard Alexie read that day at the Seattle Public Library, it was like hearing the beat of a song. It was like hearing a song so beautiful I wanted to cry and a song so sad I needed to laugh.

I grew up in Eastern Oregon, which is pretty much the same as Eastern Washington. This image feels like home, and that may be part of the reason Alexie resonates with me.

I grew up in Eastern Oregon, which is pretty much the same as Eastern Washington. This image feels like home, and that may be part of the reason Alexie resonates with me.

Read it if … you enjoy short stories or nontraditional narratives. Each short story has ties to the next, sometimes sharing characters and most times sharing settings. The stories are brief, curated in digestible chunks, but it’s just as easy to sit down and read the whole book in one go.

Don’t read it if … you don’t want to feel feelings. Some stories are deeply tragic and will force you to pause and reflect on concepts like loss, self-loathing, a history of bitterness. I’m not even white and I felt white guilt. Alexie doesn’t pull any punches, even though he punches in beautiful, lyrical way. (Not sorry about the mixed metaphor.)

This book is like … Pinckney Benedict’s The Wrecking Yard, which also resonates with Alexie’s structure of intertwining short stories and myth-based plots. Of course, we shouldn’t speak of Native American Literature without paying homage to Leslie Marmon Silko and her beautiful novel Ceremony. The complimentary pain and the love of being Native American, especially at a time when the U.S. is at war, that drives the protagonist in Ceremony also drives Alexie’s cast of characters. For younger readers or a more humorous look into life on the Spokane Reservation, read Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which was also beautifully illustrated by Ellen Forney.

Sherman Alexie is the man. He won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the National Book Award for YA, he makes movies, and he writes hilarious articles for The Stranger. You can't get much cooler than that.

Sherman Alexie is the man. He won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the National Book Award for YA, he makes movies, and he writes hilarious articles for The Stranger. You can’t get much cooler than that.

On Alice Munro’s “The View from Castle Rock”

19 Oct
The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro, Nobel Prize winner of 2013.

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro, Nobel Prize winner of 2013.

Alice Munro has been a long-standing favorite of mine, ever since I read Friend of My Youth and finally understood the beauty of the short story form. Now that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature (applause here), it’s high time I read a book of hers from my shelf. The View from Castle Rock is half short story collection, half historical record. It’s Munro’s exploration into her own past, beginning with William Laidlaw, a superstitious Scot whose descendents would eventually cross the Atlantic and settle in various parts of Canada. Here, Munro proves she is the master of the short story and of the short story collection. Each piece, though separate, is written with the others in mind and is meticulously curated within the book to tell the overarching tale of her quietly heroic family.

Here's Old Town and there's Castle Rock, and I've been there and I just want to brag about that for a second.

Here’s Old Town and there’s Castle Rock, and I’ve been there and I just want to brag about that for a second.

The first story “No Advantages” is an historical preface. William Laidlaw, or Will O’Phaup, and his progeny are painted as legends and troublemakers, men in a modernizing world, and the myth of their lives set the tone for the whole book. I think we can safely take it for granted that many of these characters and events are historically accurate(ish) and are, in fact, the author’s ancestors. They are seen to have lived difficult lives, in comparison with contemporary luxuries (such as indoor jobs and not being beaten with a belt on a regular basis), and always in the forefront of their minds was the idea of America. As it turns out, their “America” was the harsh bush of Canada. In subsequent stories, the Laidlaws establish homesteads in Ontario, returning us to Munro’s familiar territory, and we read about courtships, marriages, deaths, and fox farming.

“How do you kill a trapped fox? You don’t want to shoot him, because the wound left in the pelt and the blood smell spoiling the trap.

“You stun him with the blow of a long, strong stick, and then you put your foot on his heart.” -137, from “Working for a Living”

Munro’s skill shines through in moments like this–moments where another writer might go overboard with gratuitous detail or on the other hand shield from the sensitive eyes of their readers. Munro treats episodes of small terrors with the respect and fascination of an historian, and with the grace of a master writer. Which she is. Even writing this now, even having read many of her books, I’m having trouble pin-pointing the quality Munro possesses that makes all her work so readable and so utterly awe-inspiring. It feels like magic, but I know it’s just her writerly prowess. She’s a badass, through and through.

Within each story, Munro seems to stray back and forth through time, almost aimlessly, and yet somehow ends with a story so touching one must take breaks just to remember how to breath. The collection as a whole, though, plods steadily onward through its lineage of storytellers. It’s the development of a Nobel Prize winner, starting with Will O’Phaup and ending with Alice Munro we know, love, and admire. And envy. Don’t forget envy.

I imagined the first half of the book to basically look like this, except with way more plaid and way less smiling.

I imagined the first half of the book to basically look like this, except with way more plaid and way less smiling.