Sunday, December 22, 2013

#bestreads2013 - Favorite Short Stories and Essays Edition

In compiling my list for #bestreads2013, I came up with five short stories and essays that didn’t feel right to put beside all the novels on my list. My list of most affecting books will still go live on the 28th. Yet they absolutely deserve at least a paragraph praise. So for this Sunday I’m going to rant just a little bit at you about the essays that confronted me like no other, the fiction that opened my mind, and that one story that actually took my breath away. That doesn’t happen often enough.

And in all of it, I won’t ramble about how great Richard Matheson’s “Duel” is, even though I re-read it for the twentieth time this year and still find it hilariously paranoia-inducing.

So, five short pieces presented with hierarchy:

Roger Zelazny’s “Divine Madness”
A very short story, only perhaps 2,500 words, about a man living his life backwards. It’s not traditional time travel, as why he’s experiencing everything backwards is never explained or exploited; he can’t take advantage or change anything, either. Instead he hurtles across weeks of absurd reverse-time humor and his own bad decisions, culminating in a last line that actually left me breathless. Its payoff is simultaneously hopeful, clever and wrenchingly sad in a manner I refuse to spoil. Do yourself the favor of spending a few minutes reading this. It’s in several collections.

Kelly Link’s “Magic for Beginners”
The most poignant fiction bout fandom I’ve ever read. Another short story available in multiple collections (at least in Magic for Beginners and Pretty Monsters), it’s about a teenaged nerd in a small cluster of friends who all love a fictional TV show called The Library. They watch it at all hours, cosplay it, hypothesize how the heroes live, love, and could escape certain death, all while avoiding the unknowable complexities of their own lives. It’s much easier to figure out why the Librarian is played by a different actor in each episode than to discern the many and painful mixed signals about whether his parents are getting divorced, or why he’s been written into his father’s novel only to meet an awful fate. Here escapism is both positive and negative, getting kids to know each other and perhaps fall in love while also giving them other things to discuss so they can avoid admitting, acting or exploring it. It takes someone like Link to make this all work.

David Foster Wallace’s “McCain's Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope”
My first exposure to Wallace and I was already enamored. Here is a long-form piece of journalism during McCain’s first real run at the presidency in 2000, when he lost the nomination to George W. Bush. It’s incredibly chewy journalism as it refuses to settle on one idea of McCain: he was a war hero who refused to leave his fellow captives, but also a screw-up and horn-dog; he took big money as he pursued legislation to shut big money out of politics; he was candid and self-effacing in ways that only built up his prestige. The easy way out is to call him a liar or fraud, but there are too many cases where he was actually honest. Wallace’s conclusion is antithetical to where bipartisan politics have gone: that McCain was shades of everything we saw, not wholly any one of them, both a role model seeking national change and a scoundrel who’d use a little kid’s grief for his own political gain.

Tressie McMillan Cottom’s “The Logic of Stupid Poor People”
I can’t say I agreed with all of it, or even liked it, but it’s the finest essay of its kind I’ve read. We live in a culture where you are at every disadvantage if you cannot blend in with people who have much more than you. Cottom baldly tackles some of the reasons why someone behind on the rent and with no dinner would spend everything on a luxury item. On first reading, I resisted the essay to the point where I literally dug my heels into my carpet. The tone, and the notion that these might all be defensible decisions, put me against what is an exercise in releasing harmful judgment for empathy. It’s a valuable confrontation. Cottom’s blog is right here

Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”
Mesmerizing prose that reads perhaps too much like fiction. Her rolling opening about notions of California would never have clued me into the murder case she was about to profile, and the way she captured circumstantial evidence never let me anticipate that the murder was a real life contrivance fit for CSI.

There are two key successes in the piece. The first is that Didion so rapidly captures the feeling of one side, until it must be right, only to then upturn it with evidence and another perspective.

The other success is language remixing cultural observation like this: "The graft took incurious ways.  This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew.  This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.  This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life's promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers' school."


  1. Thank you. So very much. There are some you have featured here which I can see I am going to have to track down - Magic for Beginners as a start, and Joan Didion (though I often have difficulties with her). In fact, as I go back and think again, the siren call to these pieces is really only muted (but not absent) in the Roger Zelazny piece. Terminal greed.

  2. (I think your form ate my comment)

    I am way late to reply to this, but I read "Magic for Beginners" back in 2005 or so, when it was nominated for a Hugo. It is really an amazing story, isn't it? My only regret is that it was up against Connie Willis' "The Inside Job" for best novella, so it basically had no chance of winning. (I loved "The Inside Job," too, for the record. I just thought "Magic for Beginners" was so much more clever, and I get annoyed thinking that there may be people who checked Willis' story just because her name was on it).


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