Sunday, August 02, 2009

Selected Shorts

I am currently in love with podcasting. My brother gave me an iPod Touch for my birthday. I already have an iPod, and a blackberry, and I am not a phone game player application person, so I was trying to figure out if I should exchange it or what. ? Then my brother and sister in law came to town and asked me if I read the inscription. What inscription? I thought, since I hadn't opened it yet. I was a little scared (not of the inscription, but opening it, since it's such a nice gift). Well, on the back, it's inscribed "Happy Birthday, Brad, Love, Mark". My brother has not really given me very many gifts, and certainly nothing inscribed, so I knew I had to keep it and figure out what to do with it. I had already put my toe in the podcasting waters with the beloved This American Life, and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, but that was all. This, though, was my opening. I figured I could use my other ipod for music, and this one for podcasting. Brilliant! In short order I downloaded French & Spanish lessons; some geeky show where an ancient scientists tells you about how science works (more than you ever needed to know); Story Corps, which makes me tear up in 3 minutes pretty much every time; and Selected Shorts. (To be honest, I had actually been to an afternoon of short story reading at Symphony Space, which this is a recording of, once a great while ago. Like 1996. Last century, even. And, philistine-like, I remember dozing on and off. It was a Sunday afternoon. It happens.)

So I thought I'd give it another try. And I'm loving it. Aside from the Edith Wharton episode, which rekindled my somnolence of yore (so sue me--Wharton's challenging to track while you're driving through LA), I've been loving the stories and the performances. I am thankful for the pairing of Amy Bender and Etgar Keret, two writers with whom I was unfamiliar and now want to read more and more of.

Two I had to write about, since they were so wonderful. Yesterday my boss had her annual beach party in Malibu, so I got to listen to two entire programs, each uninterrupted. The first was Joanna Gleason reading "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," by Karen Russell from the Paws and Claws episode, and the second Robert Sean Leonard reading "Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses," by Luis Alberto Urrea in the Memories That Define Us episode.

"St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," by Karen Russell, sounds like a mad lib of a story, the outcome of the game we used to play where you'd put together a fake song medley by abutting common words--fly me to the moon river, etc. I even thought, when the story was described, that it would just be a humorous take on a girl's school, spoofing the idea of taking girls raised by Wolves and putting them in a Catholic girls setting. It was funny at times, and helped by Joanna Gleason's expert delivery. But it was also painful, aching, thrilling, and touching. The story concerns a world in which werewolves live in the woods, giving birth to human children, as the condition skips a generation. The girls, pre-adolescent, are taken from their parents, at the parents' behest, to be educated and taught to be human. Russell brilliantly charts the girls' learning of new language, walking upright, interacting with others and the painful process that the girls go through in developing from feral to human, through the eyes of Claudette (name given by the nuns), an 11 or 12 year old she-wolf. Although it's tempting to make the parallel to what any child goes through in learning to live in a larger society (and Russell cleverly spoofs this with excerpts from an imaginary guide/catechism for the wolf girl), this story feels so specific to the world she's created. With what could have been a gimmick, Russell creates an entire world--where to fail as human means being unable to live in either world. It's just a beautiful story. I was struck again and again by the imagination, clarity, humor, and emotion--over and over I was laughing and then immediately brought through to deep feeling and compassion. The first dance that the girls must endure, to meet with boys who used to be their brothers, is hilarious, painful, sad. I loved, love this story.

"Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses," by Luis Alberto Urrea is a completely different affair. A study of grief, in which a man goes back to the South Dakota reservation to bury his young wife, Joanie Her Many Horses, who drank and possibly killed herself in a car crash, this story is spare, with prose that matches the solemnity of its subjects and the geography. The action of the story is the man remembering how he met his wife, and in the process tells us about the racial tension of the culture they both came from--he's white and she's native--and how much he loved her. I'm from Nebraska and New Mexico, and have spent some time in South Dakota. The prose of this story matches the geography; the ways of relating, what's said and what's not said, places the story even further into where it's set. I think I'm describing it clumsily, but the prose is a perfect evocation of place. Not only of place, but the people there, and how they deal with love and grief. At it's climax, this story is an acknowledgment that whatever backgrounds people have, love and grief are deeply felt, and transcend any human boundaries. I don't think that's a lesson that this story at all purports to put forth, but it's one that's deeply felt within it. It's heart-wrenching. His descriptions of the land, his ache for it, is gorgeous. And the way he lets his characters feel what they feel as they feel it, coming to it as they do, is expert. Just beautiful.

I love good writing. It's so hard to do, but when you read it, or hear it, it's breathtaking, beautiful and fragile, like watching a string of spun honey. These two stories, matched with their tellers, did that for me.

So, run right out and read them. Or, better yet, download the podcasts, get into your car, and take a long drive.

Or, if you're worried about fossil fuels, download them and go sit by a river, or your favorite spot in nature, and listen.

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