After Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut declared that his career as a novelist was over, but in recent years Seven Stories Press has collected the scattered writing he has done since his retirement into small books. A new, and perhaps more substantial, collection called A Man without a Country comes out in September. Seven Stories describes it thusly: “Based on short essays and speeches composed over the last five years and plentifully illustrated with artwork by the author throughout, A Man Without a Country gives us Vonnegut both speaking out with indignation and writing tenderly to his fellow Americans, sometimes joking, at other times hopeless, always searching.”
The tireless Dan Wickett (creator of the Emerging Writers Network) has teamed with Steve Gillis (founder of 826 Michigan and author of Walter Falls) to creat Dzanc Books:Dzanc Books is a 501(c)3 organization set up to operate exclusively for charitable, literary, and educational purposes. Our mission at Dzanc is 3-pronged: To assist literary journals in reaching the largest reader base possible; to develop educational programs within the schools in the areas of reading and writing; and, beginning in 2007, to publish two excellent works of literary fiction per year.Sounds like an exciting and much needed venture.
Not too many David Mitchell blurbs out there, and some of them are quite brief – cropped for maximum impact by editors, I suspect. Note as well the extremely British use of the term “wrong-footed.”For Strangers by Taichi Yamada: “Highly recommended. A cerebral and haunting ghost story, which completely wrong-footed me.”For The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore: “combines smartness and wisdom”For Book of Voices: “A treasures box”For Silence by Shusaku Endo: “One of the finest historical novels written by anyone, anywhere… Flawless”For Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam: “It depicts an extraordinary panorama of life within a Muslim community… Thoughtful, revealing, lushly written and painful, this timely book deserves the widest audience.”See also: Jonathan Safran Foer: The Collected Blurbs
It started with Nick Adams.
I discovered Nick while reading through the collected stories of Ernest Hemingway a while back, and it is his voice, more than any others in the Hemingway corpus, that sticks with me years later. Nick Adams is in many ways Hemingway’s alter ego. Like Hemingway, Nick grew up in a rural part of the Midwest that still felt like (that still was, perhaps) Indian territory. Like Hemingway, Nick had a doctor for a father. Like Hemingway, Nick’s father commits suicide when Nick is a boy – this is the subject, by the way, of one of Hemingway’s most arresting Nick Adams stories, “Fathers and Sons”. As Nick grows up, and the stories progress and begin to slightly contradict one another (these are distinct stories, after all, and were never meant to be a coherent novel) his life grows murkier.
The Nick Adams stories, though published as a complete volume in 1972 – years after Hemingway killed himself in a manner similar to his own father – were never meant, I think, to be read in one sitting. The Nick Adams stories were written over a period of decades – during, not coincidentally, Hemingway’s most productive and most fruitful period – and they are each one of them distinct, many of them gems. They can be read together, that is certain. But part of the beauty of these stories is how well they stand on their own, each one highlighting a facet of Nick’s character, a specific moment in time. A day, as it were, in the life.
Don’t get me wrong. It is a pleasure to piece these stories together, to chronologize them and evaluate them – and the character of Nick Adams – fully. But the real pleasure of these stories, for me, is in realizing that while they do not exist in solitude, they can and do stand alone as complete works of art.
Nick Adams hooked me on the episodic short story. By which I mean, as it should by now be obvious, the tale of an individual told over several loosely related episodes. Finishing a story – a good, well-written story – about a character both well developed and personally intriguing, and knowing that another story about that very same character is out there somewhere, has become, for me, one of the best feelings in the world.
One of the finest modern practitioners of the episodic short story was the late Leonard Michaels. Though Michaels is most well known for his 1981 novella of male angst, The Men’s Club, in my opinion his greatest achievement came near the end of his life, when he started chronicling the fictional life of a mathematician named Nachman. Nachman, a professor at Berkeley (where Michaels himself taught) is a lonely, trusting man who understands the most complex equations but cannot begin to comprehend the subtleties of human interaction.
Michaels, along with his character Nachman, pulls you in from the very first sentence of the very first story, and never lets go. Here is that first sentence, of the eponymously titled story, “Nachman”: “In 1982, Raphael Nachman, visiting lecturer in mathematics at the university in Cracow, declined the tour of Auschwitz, where his grandparents had died, and asked instead to visit the ghetto where they had lived.”
There may be a better first sentence to a short story in existence, but I don’t know what it is.
The Nachman stories, like those of Nick Adams, stand well (stand very well indeed) on their own. Pieced together, though, they really are something of a masterpiece. The seven Nachman stories Michaels completed before his untimely death can be found at the end of Leonard Michael’s Collected Stories. They are well worth the price of the book.
In my opinion, the most promising episodic short story sequence currently being published is being written by Nathaniel Bellows. Bellows is the author of On This Day – a beautiful, painfully moving novel of a pair of siblings who lose both parents in the same year – as well as a magnificent poetry collection, Why Speak. While I am a great fan of all of Bellows’ writing, it is his Nan stories that really blew me away.
Bellows has a strong New England sensibility. With his vivid evocations of cold Maine winters and lonely, ice-strewn landscape, the poet he most consistently reminds me of (in content if not in form) is Robert Frost. Wisps of Emersonian self-reliance – as well as, perhaps, tacit acknowledgments of self-reliance’s limits – also carry through his work. In his Nan stories, Bellows takes that lonely New England self-reliance and brings it to New York in the character of Nan, a magnificently drawn Columbia University undergrad who comes from a sheltered, broken (in ways that I won’t ruin for you here) lower-middle class Maine family.
Nan, like Bellows, comes from upstate New England. Also like Bellows, Nan comes to Columbia to study literature and to become a writer (Bellows received his MFA from Columbia). Nan, like Michaels’ Nachman, has a fundamentally good although somewhat naïve personality. In these stories, she faces a world, often complex and underhanded, that she does not (at first, at least) really understand. The beautiful imagery of the stories, as well as the slow-paced, heart-piercing development of Nan’s character, make these stories not simply delights but, I would argue, necessary reading.
The three Nan stories that have so far been published – here is a link to the first one, published in the excellent literary magazine Post Road – are uniformly fantastic. According to Bellows’ website, there are at least four more Nan stories awaiting publication. I am sure I am not the only one who eagerly awaits piecing the rest of the puzzle of Nan’s life together.
In August, Emre mentioned In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot by Graham Roumieu, a very funny book – written in Bigfoot’s own voice and filled with illustrations that somehow straddle grotesque and amusing. Now Roumieu has brought Bigfoot back for another book, Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir, so Bigfoot fans can get their long-awaited Bigfoot books. These are certainly my most favorite Sasquatch-themed books. For more, visit Roumieu’s Web site.
A literary storm has been brewing here in Canada in recent weeks over the publication of the Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories. (Maybe “literary storm” is pushing it – but there are at least three people weighing in on it). Here’s what seems to have happened: Novelist Jane Urquhart, who was asked to edit the anthology, has put more than a few noses out of joint not just over who was or wasn’t included, but over what she feels constitutes a “short story.”Now, any anthology is inevitably going to leave something out, displease some and enrage a few others, but Urquhart, who by her own admission isn’t an expert of short fiction, chose to include excerpts from memoirs, and, apparently, at least one chapter from a novel, all for the sake of pushing the boundaries of the definition of a “short story”. Which to my mind would be like taking Act 2 of a three-act play and putting it in the same context as distinctly one-act plays. The length isn’t the entire issue, in my mind. A sense of completeness is. A chapter or an excerpt from a novel may indeed have stand-alone properties, but by its very nature as part of a bigger thing, it is incomplete on its own. A finely-crafted short story, however, is complete. And a piece of a memoir? Despite recent memoir/fiction crossovers, a memoir is still a different animal than short story.Why Penguin, in its attempt to publish a definitive collection, didn’t place this editorial task in the hands of a short fiction connoisseur, or, better yet, a panel of connoisseurs who could at least bounce ideas off of each other, is a mystery to me. But, if nothing else, this little tempest has gotten Canadian readers engaged (a few of them fuming, and another leaping to Urquhart’s defense). And with the fairly high-profile press given to the backlash, the omitted authors are getting at least some attention. Shame it had to be on the heels of exclusion from a major anthology.
It’s not just July, it’s the “Harry Potter month” to end all Harry Potter months. With book 7 coming out on the 21st, the frenzy will be ramping up over the next couple of weeks.Amazon has been doing its best to stoke the flames (recall the Harry-est Town in America promotion). A new press release from the online bookseller is breathless even by the form’s loose standards. “Harry Potter Mania Reaches All-Time High on Amazon.com” it proclaims, and I imagine millions of foaming clickers rampaging through Amazon’s digital halls and tearing the place to pieces. Alas, by “mania” Amazon means pre-orders, which at last count are approaching 1.6 million, eclipsing the record total set by book 6. Amazon continues to incite the madness, however, with its new offer of a $5 “promotional certificate to spend in August” for customers who pre-order the new book. Go crazy, Harry Potter fans.