Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Summer Vacation: suggested readings for a fictional escape

The setting: a small, wind-beaten cottage off the Oregon coast.  "Cottage" implies, perhaps, too much coziness.  It's small and drafty and was once painted white but the wind and salt have stripped much of the paint off the side facing the coast.  Eggs and bacon fry in a beaten skillet alongside a whistling kettle on the old gas stove.  The drizzle appears to have settled in to stay.  After breakfast, you'll read for a while in the once-gold easy chair that sits next to the small wood stove that taking the chill off of the cloudy and cold summer morning.  Amongst the pile of novels you've brought are a few story collections, and you decide to start with a few quick stories from those.  The cliffs here at the edge of the world calls for a little grittiness and realistic depictions of human weakness, but the weather calls for a little humor--where else can one find sunshine in such a place?

George Saunders "Sea Oak"
If you're offended by bad language and coarse behavior, this is not the story for you; however, the story is one of the funniest satires of contemporary America I've read.  The main character works at a restaurant called "Cockpit" that appears to be a male version of Hooters to support his deadbeat welfare mom sisters and his minimum wage earning and unfailingly optimistic aunt.  When his aunt dies early in the story, things appear to turn for the worse...until she comes back and the characters are forced to re-evaluate what exactly could be worse than their unflinchingly American lives.

Louise Erdrich "Sister Godzilla"
There is simply no finer writer in America today than Louise Erdrich.  As always, she creates a vivid world in a small space.  Here, one girl confronts her own insecurities after being caught making fun of the nun who teaches her.  As she struggles to please the teacher she feels she may have hurt, she reveals a deep sympathy towards the nun that suggests her fears of having hurt are, at their core, fears of being hurt.  The characters are fiercely strong and so clearly drawn that Erdrich doesn't seem to be creating a world but reporting one.

Robert Olen Butler "Jealous Husband Returns in the Form of a Parrot"
This story, like the other stories collected in Tabloid Dreams, takes its title from tabloids, but tabloid writing ends there.  Butler imagines a full back story into the protagonist, a parrot, who has been purchased by the wife he had in his last life and now must watch her move on.  Butler manages a nice balance between humor and sympathy as we watch the man/parrot struggle with issues of power and control when both his physical power and his spoken language are all but taken from him.

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