Short Saturday: Brodkey, Munro, and Kundera

In Short Saturday I will journal my journey to find 5-star quality short stories, whose virtual trophy right now is only held by Truman Capote for A Christmas Memory. Unlike my book reviews, I will talk more about my thoughts and what I learn, why I choose the story and how I come upon it. Unlike books, I’m willing to take more risk for shorts, because they are.. well.. short, so I won’t waste too much time if I don’t like them. Expect to see a lot of trash and hopefully, some gems. As it is now, I am not a fan of short stories. Dare I say, yet? But hey, like people say, it’s all about the journey, not destination.

My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead The great thing about shorts is that I can taste a bunch of writers in bite size portion and see if I’d like to read more of them. A couple of months ago I browsed the library to find this great sounding anthology edited by Jeffrey Eugenides (my favorite author!) titled My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekov to Munro. There are many big names inside, a lot that I’m interested to read.

There’s introduction by Eugenides at the beginning, which after you read, you’d quickly realize that this won’t be a collection of sappy love stories. It’s more of a twisted-complicated one, which is exactly my cup of tea!

“Please keep in mind: my subject here isn’t love. My subject is the love story.

When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims–these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

We value love not because it’s stronger than death but because it’s weaker. Say what you want about love: death will finish it. You will not go on loving in the grave, not in any physical way that will at all resemble love as we know it on earth. The perishable nature of love is what gives love its profound importance in our lives. If it were endless, if it were on tap, love wouldn’t hit us the way it does.

~ Jeffrey Eugenides, Introduction

As I mentioned earlier, I vowed not to bog down myself with obsessive-compulsiveness to read everything in a collection of short stories and let the randomness takes me. The first story that I chose was one that Eugenides mentioned in his introduction, about a Harvard’s senior attempt to bring his girlfriend to her first orgasm by means of act of cunnilingus. Really, the plot line sounded ridiculous, so I caved. Also, the writer, Harold Brodkey, is the only author in the book that has two short stories. Everyone else only gets one space!

Innocence by Harold Brodkey

Unfortunately, Innocence contains the longest non-sexy sex scene I have ever read (and probably ever will). Like I said, the plot sounded ridiculous. Almost the entire story is set in bed, with the guy performs the act, thinking about other stuff during. It was sooo tiring and looong. I think I was just as frustrated as him seeing that the girlfriend doesn’t JUST come! After pages and pages of futile effort, I started to skim read. I just wanted it to end. My head was going to explode. Just come you b*tch!, I was screaming in my head.

Finally she does, they both cry, and the story ends.

Not the greatest start-up I’m telling you.

Thinking that I shouldn’t take too big of a risk for the next short, I chose the one by Alice Munro. I heard so much about her and I just learned that she ONLY writes short stories. Amazing how you can be so famous only writing short stories. She must be really good.

The Bear Came Over the Mountain by Alice Munro

Eva mentioned in her review that it’s like Munro’s version of The Notebook. Exactly what I thought! At first. Further on, not so much. The story is about an old married couple. Fiona starts to show symptoms of Alzheimer disease, so she’s moved to a facility home, away from Grant, her husband. As time passes, Fiona starts to forget about Grant. She makes friends with another guy in the nursing home, who she gets more attached to than her own husband, which annoys Grant. We get to learn from Grant’s reminiscence of their past that he has not always been faithful, though not because they were unhappy (So why? I have no idea).

I have to admit, story about very old people doesn’t entice me most of the time. This one has enough depth and was quite skilfully written that it kept my attention the whole way through. I couldn’t much guess where it was going too, which was a plus. Odd thing is, I could never figure out the meaning of the title. There’s NO bear.

The story first appeared in The New Yorker (link to full story) on 27 December 1999. Made into a movie titled Away From Her (2006), nominated for 2 Oscars (Best Actress and Best Screenplay). Would love to see that one.

The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera

I have wanted to read Kundera’s books for the longest time. Alas, I have not. Good thing his short story is featured in the anthology, and it was good according to claire and Eva. The story is originally included in Kundera’s collection Laughable Loves.

The Hitchhiking Game looks at a young couple who’s going on a road trip. When they stop for gas, the girlfriend wanders ahead. When the guy picks her up, they pretend that the girl is a hitchhiker and they don’t know each other. The girl becomes more brazen, unlike her usual shy self, because that’s what she imagines a hitchhiker to be. The guy starts to treat her with less respect, because he sees her like other wild-natured women whom he doesn’t like. They get more and more mixed up in the game until it gets difficult to tell what’s real and what’s not.

Excellent premise and Kundera delivered! I’m happy to find that his writing is not hard to read, so I look forward to reading his books!

And the journey continues…

(I actually read the three stories in 2009, so you’ll find them on Books and Shorts Read in 2009)

Let me know if you’ve posted any thoughts on the stories, because I couldn’t find any apart from the ones linked above!

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

MiddlesexI was utterly mesmerized. I was so sad when the book has ended because I thought I would never find a book like this ever again — which was how I felt when I finished my top 2 books. So this book officially has crept onto my top 3 books ever (in no order).

Middlesex is an epic tale of multi-generational family originated from Greece who later on migrated to America. It spans from 1920s Greece to Detroit in the mid to late 20th century to contemporary Berlin. The omniscient narrator — possibly the most lovable most interesting in fiction novels — is Callie, a girl, who later grows into Cal, a man, as a result of incestuous marriage of her grandparents.

Though weaved with history and cultural information, the story couldn’t be more intimate. Jeffrey Eugenides has a way to make even the most minor character matters, as if you know their deepest secrets while nobody else does and you feel so much for them. He definitely has become one of my favorite authors. His writing is exceptionally good. I was surprised of how so so well written it was. The imagery was vivid, cinematic. At a few points I felt like I was watching a movie (often ala Persepolis).

Middlesex is a story of immigrants, family, and coming-of-age of an intersex person. The main character who has a double role as the omniscient narrator was a new technique to me. Often the narrator has to keep some distance from the main storyline. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything like it. Cal tells us the intimate details of his grandparents’ secrets, his parents’ inner thoughts, and even her own birth:

“As sperm meets egg, I feel a jolt. There’s a loud sound, a sonic boom as my world cracks. I feel myself shift, already losing bits of my prenatal omniscience, tumbling toward the blank slate of personhood. … Again the sperm rams my capsule; and I realize I can’t put it off any longer. The lease on my terrific little apartment is finally up and I’m being evicted. So I raise one fist (male-typically) and begin to beat on the walls of my eggshell until it cracks. Then, slipperly as a yolk, I dive headfirst into the world.” ~ p211

The omniscient point of view is written perfectly. I have no idea how that could work, but it just does. The novel is funny, heartbreaking, unique, alive with pulses and blood running in its vein.Jeffrey Eugenides

“Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in “sadness”, “joy”, or “regret”. Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic traincar constructions like, say, “the happiness that attends disaster.” Or: “the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.” I’d like to show how “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” connects with “the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.” I’d like to have a word for “the sadness inspired by failing restaurants” as well as for “the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.” I’ve never had the right word to describe my life, and now that I’ve entered my story, I need them more than ever.” ~ p217

I can’t imagine anyone not liking the book. It’s an absolute masterpiece, in originality and writing. Admittedly it is quite long, but it’s definitely a journey worth taking.

5 stars
2002, 529 pp

Watch the ABC First Tuesday Book Club on Middlesex episode (August 2009, 8 mins 27 secs)
Why Cal’s brother is nicknamed Chapter Eleven

First line
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Last line
I lost track after a while, happy to be home, weeping for my father, and thinking about what was next.

Memorable Quotes

“No one to love: no love. No love: no babies. No babies: no one to love.” ~ p35

“We Greeks get married in circles, to impress upon ourselves the essential matrimonial facts: that to be happy you have to find variety in repetition; that to go forward you have to come back where you began.” ~ p68

“Pregnancy humbles the husbands. After an initial rush of male pride, they quickly recognized the minor role that nature had assigned them in the drama of reproduction, and quietly withdrew into a baffled reserve, catalysts to an explosion they couldn’t explain.” ~ p109

“… the tiniest bit of truth made credible the greatest lies.” ~ p418

2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction
New York Times Editors’ Choice – Best Book of 2002
Nominated for 2003 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction

Also reviewed by

Save Ophelia | Farm Lane Books Blog | Caribousmom | Books for Breakfast | Trish’s Reading Nook | Incurable Logophilia | Stephanie’s Written World | Shelf Love | Books and other Stuff | Devourer of Books | Reading Matters | Rat’s Reading | My Random Acts of Reading | Lesley’s Book Nook | I’m Booking It | reading comes from writing | The Book Brothel | Bold. Blue. Adventure. | books i done read | So Many Precious Books, So Little Time | And here’s how it happened | Arukiyomi

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