Editor's Notebook: First month visits to islands, some happy, in this year of daily short stories

Kirby Neumann-Rea

“Dreams are like short stories we are challenged to recall.”

— Jorge Luis Borges

The quote is one I ran across just days after I had mentioned to my friend Dave Henehan that I was reading a short story a day in 2018. Dave had recommended Borges’ fiction, and the Argentine writer is definitely on my list.

Why a story a day? In 2017, I met my goal of reading a novel a month, and was in the mood for something similar. I have always loved short stories, tried my hand at writing them, even. I do a different year-long regimen annually and knew that with short stories there is no end of material.

Short stories are tight and closely-drawn slices of humor, emotion and drama that, when done right, can be as fulfilling as a novel. A day spent on an interesting island can be as rewarding as a month on a whole continent.

I got started on New Year’s Eve with Jonathan Franzen: “The Republic of Bad Taste” and wended my way through a number of Ray Bradbury tales — starting with the “The Veldt,” a 1950 story that stuck with me ever since I read it at age 15. I did not know then that the story was a chilling cautionary tale of cyper-era dependency that eerily predicts interactive video games, virtual reality, “the Internet of things” and other consuming technologies.

Each day I write down the opening sentence, and record a sentence I find significant.

Or powerful: “George, I wish you’d look at the nursery,” is how “The Veldt” opens. Read it and you will see.

Another case in point: on Jan. 1, Paul Theroux compellingly starts his story with “My father was a suspicious man — and as a widower, wounded, too.”

Interior sentences I liked included Gigi Little’s (“Shanghaied”), “The sun’s gone down past that place where it does any good in the sky, so now everything’s blue-going-to-black.”

One of the funniest lines I’ve ever read was in “Tarquin of Cheapside” by Fitzgerald: “They take off their heads with their helmets.”

The other Bradbury I knew I had to read was “All Summer In A Day,“ his vivid portrayal of rain-bound Venus and the toxic society there.

Other authors range from Ernest Hemingway and Isaac Bashevis Singer to current writers Ariel Dorfman and Margaret Atwood.

I was recently asked how I choose the stories, and that answer is one in flux. Some are re-reads, like the classic Hemingway “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” (perhaps my all-time favorite short story) and others are ones I know of, such as “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, which happened to be published the year I was born, 1958. Serendipity plays a part.

I am choosing writers I’ve never read, including Flannery O’Connor, and hoping to revisit guilty pleasures like Frederick Forsythe as well as soul-lifters such as Willa Cather.

New Yorker magazine has been a trove so far, thanks largely to my friend Tina Castañares, who sends me stories.

When do I find time to read? That ties into another factor I use in choosing stories: they tend to be short short stories, including the Jan. 12 one, “A Very Short Story” by Ernest Hemingway (three pages long).

Some leisurely weekend morning soon I will return to “Big Two Hearted River” by Hemingway, a longer read that I have savored twice before, but not for about 35 years. The story is one of the central reasons I am doing this at all. (I do not fish but, oddly, I love to read about fishing.)

I find 10-15 minutes in the evening, or sometimes over coffee in the morning. “The Edge of the Shoal,” by Cynan Jones, was a gripping survival tale of a man shipwrecked off the west Ireland coast that I read between 2-3 a.m. while volunteering at the Warming Shelter.

Titles have included “The Aliens” by McCullers, “The Off-Shore Pirates” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” by William Trevor, and “Madame Lazarus,” by Maile Meloy (a New Yorker selection).

The recent death of Oregon’s Ursula K. LeGuin inspired me to hit the library and check out one of her books. Why had I never read her before? “Nine Lives,” and “Mazes” are two wondrous pieces of surreal fantasy, and “She Unnames Them” could be an allegory for our society’s welcome new #MeToo consciousness.

James Joyce’s “Dubliners” is a re-read that I am finding both rich and fresh (it was 1978 when I first read it). I am parsing its stories throughout the year, and plan to save the amazing story “The Dead” (it’s about living) for one night shortly before Christmas.

Also on the list for 2018: works by Roald Dahl, my friend the late Irish writer Benedict Kiely (“Letter from Peachtree”), and Isaac Azimov’s “I, Robot.”

Also, Leo Tolstoy’s “God Sees the Truth But Waits” because I think that is the Best Story Title Ever.

Standouts so far this year are modern stories “These Short Dark Days” by Alice McDermott and “Ghosts and Empties” by Lauren Groff (yes, she is quoting Paul Simon’s song “Graceland,” to elegant effect). The quality of modern short story writing is as strong as ever.

But 100 years ago, Willa Cather in “A Wagner Matinee,“ wrote one of the best sentences I have read this year, as she describes an elderly Nebraska farm woman who returns to Boston for the first time since her musical youth and hears a Wagner concert. Her companion observes, “The deluge of sound poured on and on; I never knew what she found in the shining current of it; I never knew how far it bore her, or past what happy islands.”

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