A year and a half ago, my uncle Chuck died unexpectedly. My family wanted me to have his books because I was a reader like he had been, and I was also a writer. And I wanted the books, especially his Library of America books, which looked so lovely and uniform and canonical. More importantly, I wanted to continue the conversation we’d been having since I’d learned to read—the “what are you reading,” conversation—because we were both always reading something. We were insatiable. We understood this about each other. There were so many things I would miss about him, but I knew I would miss this conversation the most.
There were about two hundred Library of America books, and my family wanted me to take them all. My home is small. The bookshelves are in my small living room. My inheritance of books was a mixture of boon and responsibility and onslaught. I found a spot for another bookshelf behind the couch. I went through the Library of America books and chose the ones I thought I was most likely to read, all fiction. I stored the other half (George Washington’s diaries and the like) in my mom’s attic. She rarely offers attic space, but she knew I couldn’t stand the alternative just then.
Are you a writer looking for a situation with built-in irony and ample opportunities for subtext? Have you considered a melancholy birthday scene? I’ve collected a few merciless examples for consideration.
Moore dives into the irony of the sad celebration in the first paragraph of the story, from her most recent collection, Bark.
“Mania. For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son. There was so little they were actually allowed to bring: almost everything could be transformed into a weapon and so most items had to be left at the front desk, and then, if requested, brought in later by a big blond aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.”
The story is more about a flagging relationship than it is about her son, who is in an uneasy state of equilibrium when the story begins. The protagonist’s sort-of boyfriend, Pete, who retreated when her son grew ill, accompanies her on the visit. Pete is the only named character in the story. The son, in the grip of his illness, eschews subtext in conversation, asking Pete questions his mother never asks: “So where have you been?” and “Do you miss us?” However, the son believes that nearly everything, including the “soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone” his mother eventually settles on as a birthday gift, contains subtext meant only for him. She knows he’ll become obsessed with the messages he finds in it. Everything has wounding possibilities.
After years of dodging PTO meetings and volunteer opportunities, I became involved in a school overcrowding issue in my town because I didn’t want my children’s class sizes to become enormous. The problem seemed simple at first, but soon enough I was attending school committee meetings, spending hours writing emails, and holding forth at a four-year-old’s birthday party about educational inequity.
As I sank deeper into the quicksand of civic involvement, wondering if this were one of the times I’d said yes when I should have said no, I remembered a passage from my favorite short story. I pulled the book off the shelf, as I’ve done so many times before. “Wants,” the classic Grace Paley story, is three pages long, and it contains the entirety of the narrator’s life.
The narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library. She returns two books she’s had for eighteen years, pays the fine, and checks out the books again. Her ex-husband rehashes their marriage, brags about the sailboat he’s got money down on, and says, “But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.” Left to consider this “narrow remark,” the narrator sits on the library steps and lists the things she wants.
I read twenty books this year. I wish I could say I’d read more. There have been years when I read a book a week. Or at least one year: 1999, when I graduated from college and worked at the Harvard Book Store. I had time and easy access to an incredible variety of books and a lot of smart people to discuss them with. It would have been uncool of me not to read a book a week. I’m planning to read more books next year. Instead of naming a number, which suits my goal-oriented, analytical style, my reading goal for 2015 is to always have a book going. No lulls. I’m happier when I’m in the middle of a book, and I learn something about writing from every one I read.
The great news is that I read some fantastic books this year, books that have really stuck with me. I started the year off right with Battleborn, a short story collection by Claire Vaye Watkins. I found it arresting from the first paragraph of the first story, “Ghost, Cowboys”: “The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.” The narrator of the story is named Claire, and she tells some of the story of her family’s past (her father ran with Charles Manson). She plays with the line between fiction and memoir. Much of the collection is set in or around Reno, and its history and desert setting figure prominently. Most of the stories are modern, but there’s a terrific novella about the gold rush nestled in the middle. Her language is impeccable, as is her storytelling. I love story collections but rarely experience them as page turners, usually putting them down for a while in between each story. I couldn’t put this one down.
When I can’t remember what a story is, I return to “Wants,” by Grace Paley. A woman returns two books to the library eighteen years late, pays her fine, checks out the same books because it’s been so long since she’s read them, and then runs into her ex-husband. “Hello, my life,” she says to him. The story is three pages long, and Paley makes it contain the entirety of her narrator’s life.