Baader-Meinhof – a heavily minimalist story from Don Delillo about a girl who meets a guy at a museum while they both look at a series of paintings based on the titular theme. There is some discussion between the two, though not really about the topic at hand, and eventually the girl invites the guy to her apartment. After a spell she worries that the guy might rape her and she locks herself in the bathroom, while the guy (it would seem) masturbates all over her apartment, then leaves after apologizing. This one is pretty weird even for Delillo, certainly an uncomfortable read and one of the harder ones to understand in the collection.
The Barn at the End of Our Term – And we finally get to our first Karen Russell story. This is from the collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” which was a highly acclaimed book from 2013, and the only collection of hers (the two of them) to be on audio format. What I love most about Russell is her story titles, most of them are very strange making the reader wonder what they could possibly be about, and then to top it off, they are usually direct representations of the stories they title. This story is about a barn that houses 12 horses that happen to be reincarnated American presidents. The main character of the story is Grover Cleveland. This story is both cute and beautiful and well worth the read, as are 5 of the 8 stories from the collection.
Battleground – This Stephen King story almost didn’t make it into the anthology, it is the first story (alphabetically) from “Stories from: Night Shift” which I realized at the last minute was missing from the audio anthology (See the “Stories A” post for more details). In this story, an assassin finds a package of toy soldiers that when opened turn out to be real (though miniature) and begin a process of attacking the assassin. Another hit from King.
Bedfellows – One of the cleverest stories from the annuls of Harry Turtledove. The two main characters of this very short story (~10 minutes long) are named O. and W. and they are two men who have fallen in love and are getting married. By context clues it is very clear that the two men in question are Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush. It’s an uncomfortable story to say the least, but one of the funnier ones too, well worth the read.
The Beggar and the Diamond – this strange, very short story, comes almost as an afterthought to Stephen King’s “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” (which I would personally categorize as my favorite of Stephen King’s 5 story collections), it literally comes along after the end notes of the collection, and is a retelling of an Indian parable. It’s not one of my favorites because it’s a little too spiritual for my tastes, and teaches a type of morality lesson that I have difficulty accepting. On the plus side it’s not very long, at 7 minutes it is just barely the minimum length of a short story (anything shorter is considered “Flash Fiction”).
The Best Girlfriend You Never Had – this is the first story in the anthology to be from the Best American Short Stories of the Century audio book. Written by Pam Huston, it tells the story of a young woman who has recently come out of an abusive relationship. It gives good insight into the psychological reasons why women continue to stay in such relationships. The story is somewhat on the long side (max short story length) but there is a lot involved, drawing connections to what the girl’s life was like as a child and how her parents influenced her downwardly spiraling life. It’s not the best story in the collection by any means, but it is pretty good. Published in 1999 this is actually the last story within both the audio and paper collection. There are 22 stories in the audio collection while the paper collection contains a full 55 stories
Beverly Home – this story serves as the end point of the Denis Johnson’s novella-disguised-as-a-story-collection “Jesus’ Son.” The unnamed narrator tells his story of working at a nursing home, while he also obsesses over and spies on a Mennonite couple. Unlike the rest of the stories in the collection, all which deal heavily in drug addiction and poor quality of life, this story is actually warm and revolves around the ideas of hope and recovery. It’s a good way to end such a collection or novella. The story, this particular story anyways (we’ll get to the other ones eventually) stands on its own fairly well, it would seem as though you don’t need to read the other stories to appreciate this one, however because of the common themes running through the collection it will make you appreciate this story more if you have read it at the end of the original collection.
Birthmates – at one point this was my favorite short story of them all, I read it again for the seventh time last summer, along with the others from the “Best American Short Stories of the Century” audio collection and I thought it came in slightly behind “I Want to Live” having read it yet again I’m not so sure, maybe it has reclaimed the top spot. The story is about an Asian businessman who has a booth at a convention for a dying part of the computer industry, it’s not quite clear as to what exactly this part is however, and it doesn’t matter. The man remembers back to his ex-wife and their failed attempts at having children (something I personally cannot relate to, which makes the story that much more profound). What I like so much about this story is just how carefully the words are chosen. You can tell when reading it that Gish Jen must have spent hours methodically pouring over word choice and sentence structure, every line in the story has at least two meanings if not more, and I could happily go on for dozens of pages analyzing this story down to every excruciating detail. I’ve read a lot of stories in my life, and it is rare to come across anything quite like this. I’ve wanted to read other Jen stories but she is somewhat obscure, and I have yet to come across her one collection of stories called: “Who’s Irish.”
The Blue Hotel – I heard about this story on an episode of Jeopardy, the clue was something like “Before he authored ‘Red Badge of Courage’ he wrote ‘The Blue Hotel’ which is considered one of the best short stories ever.” Well, it’s rare that Jeopardy is wrong, but in this case they were, very much. The story at about 70 minutes long and is about two thirds longer then it needs to be, and even if it only consisted of the third that would make it work, it would still be mediocre at best. The story is about a Swede who is staying at the Blue Hotel, somewhere in the south, he gets into a card game with the hotel owner’s son, the son cheats, the Swede calls him out on it, they fight, the Swede wins, the Swede goes to another saloon where he brags about winning his fight, and somehow picks a fight with a gambler who kills him. There you just read the whole story in 66 words, do yourself a favor and avoid the proper text. I’ll have more to say when I get to Robert Pen Warren’s story in the “Stories C” post. Spoiler alert – it won’t be good.
The Bogeyman – another King story from the “Stories from: Night Shift” collection. This is an example of a frame story, i.e. one narrative used to set up another narrative. The story takes place inside a Psychiatrists office, the main character is telling the psychiatrist about how his three children were all killed by… the bogeyman. The main character is not a sympathetic one despite having lost three children who he claims to have loved, he freely drops a hard “N” several times in his narration. The story has a nice horror story twist at the end that you don’t (quite) see coming.
The Bulgarian Poetess – this is an Updike story that focuses on one of his common short story characters Henry Bech. I find it interesting that both Updike and Hemmingway (will get to his stuff eventually) both had a specific reoccurring short story character, the former being Bech of course, and the later being Nick Adams. I’d like to come up with my own short story character at some point, the only thing stopping me is a name (names are one of my biggest weaknesses), I had a friend in high school named Adam Dickenson, and I really liked that name, but it’s too connected with the real world. Anyways, this story is about Bech as he travels abroad for some reason, meeting writers in communist countries, then returning to America and becoming disheartened by the people blindly taking advantage of liberties they don’t even realize they have. The story is a little dated, not one of Updike’s best, but not one of his worst either. This particular stories comes from the “John Updike Audio Collection” though it can also be found in “The Music School,” “The Early Stories” “Bech: A Book” and “The Complete Henry Bech” and it was originally published (like so many of his other stories) in The New Yorker.