Is there anything more promising than a new book? Not necessarily a brand-new book: while there is a certain excitement in the first bending of the still-flat paperback cover to a gentle curve, or the ruffling of perfect edges before they wear in different ways depending on whether you’re a top or bottom turner, a dog-earer, or a spine- cracker, there’s also a kind of delight in handling a book some unknown person has read before it landed in your hands, in discovering what kind of physical reading they did, to what page the book naturally falls open, where they underlined or circled or dog-eared or spilled coffee or even sneezed or bled – wow, this is getting far more disgusting than I’d intended. That’s where the best new book, whether it’s brand-new and pristine or has spent the past forty years in someone’s basement, takes you: someplace you didn’t expect.
I first started reading and blogging the three major American prize collections about a year and a half ago, in an effort to write better by studying “good” writing. These aren’t really the “best” stories published in any given year, of course – I’ve seen others in contributing publications that I prefer, and some of my favorite stories ever never get off the Internet. But it’s a place to start, to see what makes editors salivate. There’s an effort to include different types of story-telling; there’s usually a non-narrative selection, something from the spec-fic category, and settings that go beyond familiar times and places. It’s been a good way to pick up on “oh, that’s what they mean by surprising-yet-inevitable” or “the person/tense adds an element of [something] to this story” or “wow, that exposition was handled really smoothly” and to consider why the writer used third person instead of first, or what was added by changing up the usual structure. And it’s a great way, though not a foolproof one, to find writers for additional reading.
On a ridiculously shallow note, this year’s PEN/O.Henry cover makes me happy. I’ve been suffering from the lime-green of BASS 2011, and the orange of the Pushcart 2012, for so long (my two least-favorite colors on the spectrum), this cherry-red, though I wouldn’t normally list it as my preference for a book cover, comes as a relief. It’s silly, really, but I fell in love with Tin House because the first issue had a strong smell I greatly enjoyed (subsequent issues have the same notes, but far less intense; my overall enjoyment of Tin House has proportionally declined, to the point where I will probably let my subscription expire; I might swap in Harpers, based on the recent blog posts I’ve seen coming from I Just Read About That; I wonder how Harper’s smells? Though I’ll use a library copy so I might not want to find out), a smell of something I can’t identify – printer’s ink, most likely. Book pheromones (powerful stuff) – a flattering dress, a nice cover: All’s fair in love and reading.
I did my now-traditional reading of the Table of Contents, Introduction and Contributor Notes over my now-traditional cheeseburger-and-fries at my favorite local pub with the waitress who knows me and my order though I go in there less than once a month.
The TOC whetted my appetite. Plenty of standard-bearers: Wendell Berry, Alice Munro. A few stories I’ve already enjoyed and am delighted to see here: “Naima” by Hisham Matar, “The Hare’s Mask” by Mark Slouka. A couple I’m not so happy to see: “Phantoms” by Steven Millhauser (that makes it a trifecta – Pushcart, BASS, and P/O, what am I missing, someone, please explain it to me?), and Jim Shephard’s “Boys Town” (which, as I said in my comments on the collection You Think That’s Bad, “annoyed me terribly…It’s ironic that a measure of how well Shepard did his job is that I hated it” so I have to acknowledge it isn’t a bad story, just a story that makes me feel bad). A few familiar faces I’m happy to see again, and eager to read more of: Keith Ridgeway, Anthony Doerr, Karl Taro Greenfeld (I discovered his fiction through “Partisans” in One Story), Miroslav Penkov (I’ve wanted to read his East of the West collection since encountering “A Picture With Yuki” in, again, my beloved One Story, and here’s the title story); a few writers I’ve had on my list for a while but haven’t yet read (Yiyun Li, Ann Packer), and several who are brand-new to me.
Laura Furman’s Introduction muses on the origin of a story, then skitters through a capsulization of each story, showcasing its highlights. She’s very good at this. Of course, I’m gullible to begin with, but I wanted to read each story right there and then, even the ones I already knew I didn’t particularly like. I showed restraint; after all, I was already gorging on a thousand-calorie lunch, I had to balance it out with some kind of discipline.
I love the PEN/O.Henry and BASS contributor notes, it’s why these two collections remain among my favorites; the Pushcart notes merely list brief bios, no story commentary. And while the comments mean a lot more after having read the corresponding story, who wouldn’t respond to a note like, “I hope the story is most itself when read out loud. The hair of “the reader” still a little damp from the water of the swimming pool” (John Berger, “A Brush,” which fellow blogger Aaron Riccio has already told me is one of his least favorite stories ever – now there’s a challenge). I have no idea if the note has anything to do with the story (I suspect not from Laura Furman’s introductory comments) but I’m champing at the bit now. The authors care about a great many things – industrialization, anomie, ecology – and notice so much in small things – the smile of a father when his daughter comes into view – and this all makes it into these stories.
I can’t wait to get started.