A Few More Short Stories I Read in September

Three more short stories…

I’ve already posted this month about a couple of short stories that I read for my annual project, those being “Reunion” by Maya Angelou and “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut by” J.D. Salinger. My habitual short story schedule is to pick and read one each Saturday morning. There were five Saturdays in September, so what were my other three stories? I’m glad you asked…

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First, I read Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother.” Originally published as part of her collection “Bluebeard’s Egg and other Stories,” this was probably my favorite of the three. It reminded me a lot of Marilynne Robinson’s novel, “Gilead,” which I have also read recently. The narrator recalls stories told to her by her mother, and admits that, as a child, she hadn’t yet realized “that she (her mother) never put in the long stretches of uneventful time that must have made up much of her life: the stories were just the punctuation.” I loved that. Aren’t we all, armed with our own stories, just like that as well? I found Atwood’s writing beautiful, and her attempts to explain the difficulty of writing about a past age ring so true. She says, “It is possible to reconstruct the facts of this world – the furniture, the clothing, the ornaments on the mantelpiece, the jugs and basins and even the chamber pots in the bedrooms, but not the emotions, not with the same exactness. So much that is now known and felt must be excluded.” I found this story in my anthology “The World of Fiction” edited by David Madden. A great collection of close to one hundred stories.

(below: Margaret Atwood)

Second, I read a Flannery O’Connor story titled, “Parker’s Back.” What could this story title mean? Some sort of ‘prodigal son returns’ theme I assumed, with Parker being the star. Well, knowing O’Connor I should have know it would be a dark tale, and it was, though not as “bad” as others of hers that I’ve read. We meet O.E. Parker in the midst of a domestic squabble with his wife. I liked the opening sentence: “Parker’s wife was sitting on the front porch floor, snapping beans.” I’ve done that! Several times in my youth while visiting grandparents, a batch of green beans straight from the garden would be distributed amongst a few of us to begin preparing them by breaking them into ‘bite size’ units. A great memory and one that made me feel at home in this story immediately. Of course, that was the only part of the world spun by O’Connor in this story that was comfortable.

(below: Flannery O’Connor)

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The title of the story comes from the fact that Parker is covered in tattoos, but only on his front, his back remains untouched. Self-centered at his core, he has no interest in tattoos on his body that HE can’t see. He came by his obsession by seeing, when a child, a tattooed mad at a carnival whose varied tattoos created a beautifully artistic “arabesque” wrapping his body. Parker’s tattoos are less artful: “Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched.”

Flashbacks tell us the story of how he met his strictly religious wife (she thinks of his tattoos as “Vanity of vanities”) and at the end of the story he finally decides to get a tattoo to cover his back. A tattoo that could not help but please his wife, he thinks. If you’ve read much Flannery O’Connor, you know this won’t turn out well… I found this story in another anthology, The Norton Anthology. One benefit of this anthology is that each story is followed by a handful of ‘discussion questions.’ The one’s following this story weren’t the greatest though, but one did touch on the handling of chronology in the story – how do the glimpses back into the prior lives of the characters add to the story, etc.

The third, which I just finished, from my “Short Story Masterpieces” anthology, was John Cheever’s “Torch Song.” A famous title, and one that I’d certainly heard of, but I had remained ignorant of the work of Cheever (with whom I share the same initials and – I just learned today – birthday) until I read his great short story, “The Swimmer” earlier this year. I really liked this story for the most part, but it turned dark in – I thought – an unpleasant way toward the end. It follows the lives of two friends, Jack and Joan, two New York residents who came there from the same home town in Ohio. I understand the term “torch song” to refer to a love song that laments an unrequited or lost love and perhaps this is indeed the meaning in this story. Jack and Joan were never lovers, yet they crossed paths often in their lives and, as a reader, even though they always seemed married or involved with someone else when they met, I kept thinking, “C’mon, Jack, you should find a way to get together with this girl.” In fact, I was a little reminded by their relationship of the characters Jake and Brett from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, for whom I had a similar feeling. I was disappointed with the direction that “Torch Song” took, however, and though I found Cheever’s writing to be great (as it was in “The Swimmer”) I didn’t like this story as much as the other two.

(John Cheever)

So, that about wraps up my short story reading in September; only twelve more for me to “deal” with this year now. What short fiction did you consume this month? I’d love to know…

(I participate in The Short Story Initiative hosted by Nancy at Simple Clockwork. If you are a regular – or even occasional – reader of short stories, please check out her site and share with the rest of us what you’ve read.)

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(Pictured below: three of my many short story anthologies; they were already somewhat battered when I bought them second-hand, but some of their condition is due to my frequent use as well…)

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8 Comments

  1. Dale said,

    September 29, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Margaret Atwood’s story sounds great. I’ve never read anything by her or by Cheever. I read O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find” a while ago, but plan on reading that whole collection sometime in the near future. I’m in the middle of Slaughterhouse-Five now and there are parts of it I don’t remember. It wasn’t that long ago that we read it. I’m also in the middle of War and Peace – I like it, but I’ll probably be in the middle of it for a long time! For October, I might come up with some ghost stories for old time’s sake.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 1, 2012 at 11:57 pm

      Hi Dale,

      I’m CERTAIN you’d like that Atwood story.

      Your current reading is much more ambitious than men. I never have had the courage to start War and Peace (although I did finally buy a copy last year)

      I plan to do mostly ghost story/horror story reading this month. I read H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” today. Chilling.

      -Jay

      Like

  2. Nancy said,

    September 30, 2012 at 2:20 am

    I adore the books! I don’t care much for the cover. I mean, sure they are battered and it would have been a little nice if they weren’t “that” battered when you bought them second hand, but look at the beautiful stories you’ve shared here–what a treasure!

    I’m interested in O’Connor’s story and her interpretation of body tattoos. A lot of friends have been hinting at me to get one. And I would look at them….blankly…and then change the subject. And oh, I had this funny experience with O’Connor. I first thought she was Irish (because to me, she looks like one); thank God Mel corrected me .

    I recently bought Atwood’s Wilderness Tips, another short story collection to add to my “tower” of short story collections. Have you read her The Handmaid’s Tale? It has been lying on my night table for ages because I’m a little afraid of it but I couldn’t point out what. Maybe the reviews…I don’t know. But I really look forward to her short stories for the Short Story Initiative.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 1, 2012 at 11:54 pm

      Hahaha! Why would you change the subject?! 🙂 I kind of like tattoos – just on OTHER people, though.

      I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale yet (it’s on my list), but you’re one of many who ask me that.

      Flannery O’Connor is a master of the short story. Her subject matter and plot lines are sometimes hard to “like” though.

      I guess O’Connor’s about as Irish as… O. Henry. 🙂

      Like

  3. Nancy said,

    September 30, 2012 at 2:23 am

    By the way, since I’m making my round up post for The Short Story Initiative for September, I took the liberty to post the link of this post over at September’s Mr. Linky, so the rest can come over and interact with you. I hope you don’t mind.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 1, 2012 at 11:49 pm

      Hi Nancy,
      Thanks for setting up those links, and no, I don’t mind. 🙂
      jay

      Like

  4. Alex said,

    October 1, 2012 at 6:36 am

    Great post and all that, but what I really want to discuss is snapping beans 🙂 Does anyone still does it anymore? I also did it while visiting my grandparents and they were probably some of the most relaxing moments of my life. Didn’t I read somewhere that most kids today have no idea where peas/beans come from? *ends good-old-days comment*

    Like

    • Jay said,

      October 1, 2012 at 11:48 pm

      Hi Alex (my fellow bean-snapping book blogger),

      Your comment made me chuckle 🙂 I heard my cell phone’s alert that I had a message (or a WordPress update) while I was driving to work early this morning. Usually, at that time of day, it would be a work-related message. What a pleasant surprise it wasn’t!

      I don’t know if people are still snapping beans or not, but I hope that tradition is carrying on. I think, as a little kid, that may have been my first realization of “agriculture” – straight off the bean poles in the garden down by the creek to the kitchen, to the snapping crew, to the pot, to our plates, to our stomachs. All in just a few hours. Pleasant memories.

      -Jay

      Like


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