Allegra Goodman’s short story “La Vita Nuova”

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My 47th story this year was another good one from my anthology, The Best American Short Stories of 2011, edited by Geraldine Brooks. This story takes its name from a 13th century work of Dante Alighieri. The English translation, which you might’ve been able to guess, is “The New Life.” It centers around a year in the life of Amanda, an art teacher at a school near Harvard University. We learn in the very first sentence that her fiancée has left her. The story deals with her reactions to this “traumatic event.”

(below: *from Wikipedia* a famous painting of “Dante encountering Beatrice”)

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One of her first acts is to bring her unused antique wedding dress to school and allow her class to use it as a canvas for sort of an ad hoc art project. This attracts the negative attention of school administrators who do not renew her employment at the end of the school year. She then spends the summer as a nanny/tutor for one of her former students, and establishes a unique bond with him.

I found her character to be quite interesting and sympathetic. Another part of her healing occurs when she begins to paint those Russian-type dolls (you know, the ones that are nested one inside the other until you are finally down to a little tiny doll), representing, from small to large, the growth of herself and other people she knows. I also liked that, as we would infer from the story’s title, it’s a tale of change. Amanda’s life has undergone an upheaval, and what follows will surely be a new life, with new people and maybe a new city being part of it. Certainly almost all of us have those key moments in life where we undergo a sea change – one so marked that we could almost have one of those Dorothy moments: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.” Some are likely more aware of these moments when looking back in time, but the ones who navigate them best are the ones who are aware they are taking place. Ones like Amanda.

Have you heard of – or read anything by – this author? Do you subscribe to or read the New Yorker (edition in which “La Vita Nuova” was published is pictured below)? It’s been a relatively recent addition to my reading regimen…

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“The Dungeon Master” by Sam Lipsyte – another of 2011’s “Best American Short Stories”

For the second week in a row, the luck of the draw has led me to read a short story from my anthology “The Best American Short Stories of 2011.” I drew the nine of diamonds. Diamonds are my suit for new to me authors in my annual short story reading project, Deal Me In. This is the ninth story I’ve read from this anthology, and the fourth of those to which I’d give my highest recommendation.

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The Dungeon Master – as you might guess form the title – is a story that provides a quick look into the demimonde of RPG’ers (role-playing gamers). As Lipsyte notes in the contirubtor’s comments section of the anthology, the story took about twenty years to germinate before fully blossoming, putting its genesis back around 1990, before these types of games were fully benefitting from Computer enhancements. I.e., the dungeon master rolls dice (doubtlessly many-sided) to determine characters’ fate in this story.

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The story’s narrator is a 14-year old boy, who we only know by his character name (Valium) in the game, and who is one of a small band of social misfits that regularly gather at The Dungeon Master’s house (or rather, his dad’s house) to play the RPG. Most readers will recognize this small group from their own school days, whether from being part of a similar one themselves, or just knowing “that kind of kid” from their own experience. There are, I’m sure, social pockets of friends like this everywhere even today, though the games they play have certainly evolved. And how surprised should we be that social outcasts, frequently picked on, would flee to another world, – even an imagined one of their own creation – as often as possible?

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There is ample humor interspaced with the narrative too. Even the first sentence: “The Dungeon Master had detention,” contributes. Among the place names in their game world are things like “Mount Total Woe” and and inn named “The Jaundiced Chimera.” The dungeon master of this story is a harsher one than others who play the game would tolerate, but his small group seem to be willing to face the consequences of the strict worlds of his creation. He seems to be trying to teach them how better to handle the world: “…as the Dungeon Master hopes to teach us, the world is not a decent place to live.”

Although I personally never got caught up in the Dungeon and Dragons craze, I did enjoy this story, and I was surprised to see that it can apparently be read online at The New Yorker: It was originally published in the October 4, 2010 issue.

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It’s even fairly short. You should give it a read.

Are you familiar with the role-playing gamer’s world? I’ve always been fascinated by those who get caught up in it. I even live in the city where the annual, HUGE “GenCon” convention is held, uniting all kinds of “gamers” from all over the country and world. Many even roam the downtown area IN COSTUME during this extended weekend. Always a fun time of year to people watch… 🙂

(below: anyone see the 1982 TV-movie adaptation of Rona Jaffe’s novel, “Mazes and Monsters?” It capitalized on the nascent Dungeons and Dragons craze at the time and focused on the obssessive nature of some of the game’s players that became a stereotype.  In the still from the movie below, can you identify that actor in the upper left? 🙂 It was actually pretty decent for a tv movie; worth a watch if you can find it.)

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Caitlin Horrocks’ short story “The Sleep”

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The Sleep by Caitlin Horrocks

To arm myself for my annual short story reading project (Deal Me In) in 2013, I couldn’t resist adding a couple new anthologies to my collection, which now numbers about two dozen. (And I just this moment realized that this could be thought of as a collection of collections – a neat idea? 🙂 ) Anyway, one of the new additions was the annually published “The Best American Short Stories of 20__” which has proved to be a good source indeed. It should be, based on the title, right?

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A couple things that I like about the collection are that (1) it introduces me to some new (to me) contemporary authors, particularly women authors, and (2) there is a great section in the back of the book that shares “Contributors’ Notes” by all of the authors about their particular stories in the book. Though many readers would just as soon NOT know the genesis of literary works, I am the opposite and am always curious as to the “how did he/she come up with THAT idea” questions. This collection satisfies that curiosity. Indeed, as I recall, it was a quick review of this section that helped me select which stories from the book to add to my 52 stories to read for 2013.

Author Caitlin Horrocks begins her notes with, “I am a good and dedicated sleeper. It’s a state I look forward to and find very difficult to let go of in the mornings, especially dark winter ones,” thus immediately establishing a common ground with this reader and probably the vast majority of others as well. She goes on to relate how reading an article about “historical sleep patterns, including alleged winter hibernation” intrigued her enough to lead her to write the short story, “The Sleep.”

The story is written in the first person plural by a representative of the Town of “Bounty.” The precise geographic location of the town is not given, though it is clearly in the upper Midwest (Minnesota? North Dakota?) where the winters are harsh and dark. One resident, Al Rasmussen, has survived a personal tragedy and announces to his fellow townsfolk that he intends to hibernate during January and February. He is provisioned with “crackers, tinned soup…, vitamin C, and canned juice” and has designed and built a DIY heater that “runs on grease.” The neighbors are skeptical and voice objections, all of which Al has already considered. He even says, “Don’t try to convince me anything worthwhile happens in this town during January and February,” and from the way Horrocks describes the town, he is probably right about this.

That’s the other side of the story. This is a dying town. The High School has been closed, and the kids rolled into another one nearby. Many of the main street’s stores are closed, forced out of business by the big box stores – not in town but in easy driving distance. The children of the town learn in school, via modern technology, of the outside world and have taught the adults that “none of us was special.” Given this environment, hibernation doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at all, does it?

Al’s experiment actually goes really well: “What was it like? How did it feel?” his neighbors ask. “I had these long dreams,” he said. “Unfolding over days. I dreamed I was in Eden, but it was mine. My farm. I picked apples every day.” Others in the town began to “feel like suckers” for not hibernating themselves. The second winter, others try it, also with beneficial results.

Some are opposed to the idea of The Sleep. Primary among these is the town librarian, Mrs. Drausmann. She tries to lobby for her fellow citizens remaining in “the real world” saying how she has books and people can use the library’s computers and get their music and movies.” A sleeper brutally squelches this argument: “If you’re dreaming, you have your own movies.” Later in the story, we see Mrs. Drausmann again, who stays awaKe with her books because “she had her own kind of dreams.”

As additional years pass, more and more citizens begin participating in “The Sleep,” so many that the town’s economy is affected. Where will this lead? Surely the town must have a threshold of participating citizens in the winter months below which it cannot function? And they are not totally isolated from the outside world, (e.g., a local food chain’s corporate lackeys visit the town to see “why winter quarter sales are down 90%”)

The final paragraph sums up the “new” version of the town of Bounty pretty well, I think:

“Now we are the people of Bounty, the farmers of dust and cold, the harvesters of dreams. After the lumber, after the mines, after the railroad, after the interstate, after the crops, after the cows, after the jobs. We’re better neighbors in warm beds than we ever were awake. The Suckers of the last century, but not of this one.”

Food for thought, eh?

This story was originally published in The Atlantic for Kindle and may also be found in the anthology mentioned above.

The author’s website is here http://www.caitlinhorrocks.com/

Finally, I found an interesting interview of the author online at:
Interview: http://southeastreview.org/2012/10/caitlin-horrocks-1.html

(below: Yes, I admit I’ve often felt envious of bears…)

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