While I’ve really enjoyed my time at WordPress, it was time for a change. To all my WordPress peeps, I’ll still be following along and cheering. Thanks for being an awesome community!
The definition of a “beach read” is debated in reading circles. The commonly accepted version is that a “beach read” is traditionally a plot-driven book that requires little thought and can be completed in a beach sitting. I fall into the camp where a beach read is something that you read while on the beach regardless of genre or complexity. As much as I respect the John Grisham et al. empire, I’m not that invested in it. Entertaining books can bend genres and provoke thought, and that’s where Erika Johansen’s The Invasion of the Tearling comes in.
Her old appearance had been genuine, and had gained her nothing. But her new appearance was worse, hollow and false, and anything that she gained by it would carry that falsity like a disease.”
The 365 Short Story Challenge has fostered some realizations about how I relate to stories and the short story form. After one month I already feel as if I’ve lived in a vast number of worlds. The practicality of the challenge has also hit home for me. Here are some of my observations:
Well written short stories are easy to find. Most are even free and there’s usually something for everyone. Those who prefer realism will enjoy Electric Literature and Tin House Magazine (their blog has excellent fiction and nonfiction pieces as well). Those more into more speculative stories might enjoy Clarkesworld Magazine, Apex Magazine, Tor.com, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. These magazines are worth supporting with readership and subscriptions.
Reading one story a day is ideal, but not always realistic. I tried so hard to read one story per day. So hard. And then life happened and that plan went out of the window. I ended up reading several short stories on days where I had some reading time to fit them in and meet the quota. The nice thing about only doing one story per day was being able to luxuriate in the story and spend time thinking about it afterward. There was no rush to engage with the next character or the next world. The ones I read separately tended to resonate more in the long run.
Reading to meet a quota can suck the fun out of reading. Suddenly something you enjoy becomes a task to sludge through. So I often saved my bulk short story reading for times when I could take a break between stories. I ended up catching up on my quota by fitting in a story on a break here, or a story on a break there. I’d say to myself: instead of checking Facebook, why don’t you read a story? Sitting down and reading through a collection all at once can be defeating, unless that collection is meant to be interconnected like Oliver Kitteridge or A Visit from the Goon Squad.
The really great stories stick with you regardless of when or how you read them. Short stories are thriving online (see above) and it makes sense because they’re little contained capsules of story to enjoy in between all the other things that modern life demands. With attention divided, well crafted stories can slide into the breaks in our lives. I’m still elated and gutted by several of the stories I read last month and I’m looking forward to more experiences like that this month. The increase in demand and readership means better stories available to readers.
In essence, sometimes the short game is the way to go.
May is short story month! In its honor, one of my fellow librarians is doing a book display at our branch on short stories after reading 365 short stories last year. 365 short stories. A story a day. It’s a beautifully simple challenge, and one that I intend to start in May despite the craziness that the month promises.
My coworker’s reasoning behind this effort made me reconsider how others think about short stories, that is, if they think of them at all. She told me that as an undergrad English Lit major, she read short stories that typified a genre or illustrated an important movement or point in literature. Example: Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” However, many of her professors focused on novels and there wasn’t time to look at the breadth and depth of short stories in literature.
She decided to explore the form on her own now that she’s graduated. Immersing herself in the short story form amazed her, because she never realized the concise complexity and pithy wonder that is the short story when it’s done well, especially in modern fiction. “There’s a whole world in such a little space,” she said. I was all, “This is why we’re work friends.”
Short stories were part of the necessary course of things in our graduate program, and I’ve grown to love reading and writing them in that way most people love their highly exasperating younger sibling. She’s right about their capacity to carry so much in such a small space, which is why we used them so often to study and practice the craft of fiction writing. Writing in a short form is an art, and one that can help shape and inform the long form or serve as a form of release from the long form.
Many of our patrons read novels or novels in a series, and she wants to change things for them up by curating a display of story collections for them to check out and try. As soon as she told me this, I placed holds on my favorite collections to contribute. We’re trying to inspire people to move past only reading the same old stories in the same old anthologies. Yes, they’re classics, but there’s more out there.
Right now I’m reading Kelly Link’s newest collection, Get in Trouble. All of the stories have plunged me in the strange worlds that Link does so well, but they also have made me feel for the characters and the weird situations they face. See “Secret Identity” about a teenaged girl goes to meet the adult man she met in an MMORPG even though she lied about her identity to hide her age and “Valley of the Girls” about a young man born into a wealthy family facing a very different sort of identity crisis. In fact, when reading her next story, I won’t start it until I know I can sit down and read it to its close. Otherwise I’ll feel incomplete and dissatisfied until I finish it.
The best fiction I’ve read has made me feel something I can’t turn away from: complicit, sad, hopeful, giddy. To do that in the span of less than 8,000 words is a small miracle. Kelly Link and so many others have done it well and continue to produce a multitude of fascinating worlds, but condensed into short form. Literature is alive and kicking in all its forms.
So challenge accepted: I will read 365 stories by next May.
*Granted, I am using an excerpt here, but the assertion that speculative fiction is about the future feels too general. More specifically, fiction uses the future to enable us to talk about the present.
Contrary to what the Bachelor/Bachelorette television franchise and the entire spirit-decimating Hollywood Industrial Complex would have you believe, romantic love is not a competitive sport.” — Sugar
We don’t dig or not dig people based on a comparison chart of body measurements and intellectual achievements and personality quirks. We dig them because we do.”
I have irrational positive feelings for Sophie Baker. It’s like witnessing a trick I can’t figure out.” -Stanley Crawford in Magic in the Moonlight
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.” Ursula LeGuin’s 2014 National Book Awards speech
The face of evil, as we’ve seen in the last year, often looks different than we might expect. In narratives villains are easy to spot, especially in many children’s films (although this is changing, especially when considering films like Frozen — but that’s a post for another time). In an effort to prove that most things can come back to Harry Potter, the information Rowling provided this past Halloween about Dolores Umbridge, notorious High Inquisitor of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (HPOP) becomes extremely relevant. Consider the comparison between her and another of Rowling’s baddies, Voldemort.
Let it be known that from here on, there be spoilers for the series and HPOP in particular.
For readers of the series, HPOP sticks out as the turning point for the heroic trio because of Harry’s teenaged angst and the story’s emboldened darkness. Lord Voldemort has returned and his menace is clear. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Rowling describes Voldemort as “whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes and a nose that was flat as a snake’s with slits for nostrils.” Evil, amiright?
And yet HPOP detours from Voldemort’s obvious evil, and chooses to focus on the corruption at the Ministry of Magic, which crystalizes when Harry is called to answer for using magic in self defense. At the hearing, Umbridge is described as having her face in shadow until she leans forward and she looked “like a large, pale toad…. even the little black velvet bow perched on top of her short curly hair put him in mind of a large fly she was about to catch on a long sticky tongue.” The description carries forward in addition to her voice being “girlish” and often wearing a “fluffy pink cardigan.”
Here is someone unlikable, perhaps, but essentially harmless. Look at the clothes she wears and the affectations like her giant bows! However, her true capacity for evil is revealed slowly when she comes to Hogwarts. She insists that students read and regurgitate knowledge without practical experience or critical thought. Her approach to education is old-fashioned and out-of-touch, especially to the students, who she punishes for their free expression. She is a master of control, and she enforces her brand of order with a sweet smile.
Take, for example, the chilling scene in Umbridge’s office when Harry comes for detention in the film adaption of HPOP. At this juncture in the story, Harry has spoken out about Voldemort’s return and his claim contradicts the Ministry’s message that Umbridge insists on. No really, watch it. I’ll wait.
Umbridge’s pursuit of power and inflexible ideals creates a corrupt leader disguised thinly by cute affectations. When Harry and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army as a resistance movement against Umbridge’s unyielding regime, the audience cheers. The student population is punished and beaten, but they organize in secret to fight back against the blind and prohibitive authority.
Stephen King once described Umbridge as a villain on par with Hannibal Lector, and it’s because she is civilized to the point of madness. Rowling says it best, “Her desire to control, to punish, and to inflict pain, all in the name of law and order, are, I think, every bit as reprehensible as Lord Voldemort’s unvarnished espousal of evil.” It’s also more common. Evil doesn’t always follow the stereotype, in fact, it’s almost always the opposite of that stereotype.
The concept of evil resonates in our culture is of the obvious, the kind that appear in testimonies that claim a boy had the face of a demon for example. That Voldemort kind of evil, however fictional, appeals to our imagination. It’s defined clearly and easy to spot. Western society approves of fighting that evil openly.
What is harder to face and to resist is the Umbridge type of evil, the belief in the one-sided testimony itself. The sort of evil that insists it knows best while smiling sweetly as it strips away at humanity or freedom. This is the kind that insists on law and order to the point of absolute control. What makes HPOP such an important book in the series is that Harry and his friends question and confront this control, and in doing so rewrite their shared reality. It’s that sort of heroism that too often goes overlooked.