Monday, November 23, 2009

Paul Yoon's ONCE THE SHORE, a "Best Book" for 2009

Paul Yoon’s debut collection of stories, Once the Shore, is one of two short story collections to get on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2009. (The other one, which made to the top ten list, is In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. See my blog entries on Feb. 10 and Feb 13, 2009.) Yoon, a Korean American, was born in New York City. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and Wesleyan University. He currently lives in Boston. Two of his stories have been chosen for The Best American Short Stories: 2006 and The Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories: 2009. His book, which came out in April, 2009, was not widely reviewed, but received favorable reviews in some good places: New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe.

I read Once the Shore recently and recommend it to you. All the stories take place on an island, which Yoon names Solla, based on the actual island Cheju, which is sixty miles south of the Korean mainland; approximately forty miles long and twenty miles wide. Yoon has said that although a sense of place is very important to him, when he had finished Once the Shore he realized that he had changed everything about the island—geography, events, history—and that the stories were not about Cheju at all. Yoon has also said that he was most interested in exploring the effect of outside forces invading an isolated environment and changing people’s lives on the island between the military occupation following World War II and its present reincarnation as a visa-free tourist destination.

However, Yoon’s wonderfully lyrical stories are no more about Cheju/Solla Island than Sherwood Anderson’s stories are about Winesburg/Clyde, Ohio, nor are they any more about the social effects of the military occupation of Korea than Turgenev’s stories in Sportsman’s Sketches are about the social suppression of the serfs by the Russian nobility. Stories have to take place somewhere, of course, and they often have to have some sort of recognizable social context. But those requirements may be more necessary corollaries than fictional focus.

If the Irish short-story writer Frank O’Connor were still alive, he would point to Once the Shore as an exemplum of his theory that the short story as a genre most often deals with what he called “a submerged population group,” (not to be confused with the current politically correct “diversity”) and that it most often focuses on human loneliness.

Paul Yoon’s book is not a social document, nor a “story cycle” parading as a socio-realistic “composite novel,” but rather a collection of self-sufficient, independent stories about individual human complexity in the tradition of other great short-story writers such as Turgenev, Chekhov, William Trevor, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, and Alistair Macleod. Mind you, I am not saying Yoon is an equal to that exalted group of short story masters, but he is a sensitive, knowledgeable, and talented student of their tradition.

I am sure Yoon knows these great writers. He mentions MacLeod’s Island as one of his favorite books. And anybody who recognizes what a great short story writer MacLeod is already has my attention. The tradition within which Yoon has expertly placed himself might be called “lyrical realism.” It was pioneered by those two great Russians, Turgenev and Chekhov. When you read a story in this tradition, you begin moving confidently along as if you were living in the real world, made up of concretely detailed objects, inhabited by fully rounded characters who seems like people you might actually know. However, as you read, you begin to experience a sense of an alternate reality that is not made up of “stuff that happens,” but rather made up of words, sentences, rhythms, metaphors, fantasy, fairy tale, formality, tone, meaning, significance. Events in such stories may seem to be events that happen in the world of everyday reality, but at any moment, with a subtle shift, events unfold that can only happen in the world of wish or fear. However, by this time, you have been so gradually captured by the rhythm and tone of the story’s language that you will accept anything.

Take the title story of Yoon’s collection, his first published work, chosen for the 2006 Best American Short Stories. The story takes an actual historical event, the 2001 Ehime Maru incident, in which a Japanese fishery school training vessel was sunk by the U.S. nuclear submarine USS Greeneville, killing nine Japanese fishermen, and shifts it from the coast of Hawaii to the coast of Korea, the locale of his fictional island Solla. Changing the drowned Japanese to Korean, Yoon tells the story of a twenty-six-year old waiter at one of the island’s resort hotels, whose brother is killed in the accident. Against this story of loss, he balances the story of an American woman in her sixties visiting the resort whose husband has only been dead a few months. She tells the waiter how her husband, stationed in the South Pacific during the War, came to the island on a furlough and carved a heart with their initials in a cave on the island. Although she gradually realized that her husband had lied about this, she wants to locate the cave to somehow find the husband who left her to go to war but never really returned the same man.

The young waiter is also seeking some sort of reconciliation; he is figuratively looking for the mythical center of the ocean that his brother had once told him they could find together. When he takes the woman to the caves, he thinks it is possible that this island, his home, is that center of the ocean. After serving her a special communal meal, he takes her into a cave, where with a sharp stone she begins carving on the wall a design that he thinks could be the words of a language “long forgotten.”

Yoon delicately weaves the two disparate stories together, and the finished fabric gives us a completely unified tapestry that reminds us that although we are ultimately alone, there is always the possibility of finding others who share our loneliness—a discovery that, paradoxically, unites us in the great web of human experience.

In Yoon’s stories, it is not merely plot, as-if-real characters, a real place, or a social/historical context that achieves this, but rather the rhythm and tone of a sensitive storyteller using language to create an alternate world that objectifies our deepest wishes and our profoundest fears.

Once the Shore, published by Sarabande Books, is available in paperback. Buy yourself a copy for Christmas. I think you will agree it is a paradigm of the short story as a beautiful form.

Monday, November 16, 2009

First Anniversary of "Reading the Short Story"

Today, November 16, 2009, marks the one-year anniversary of Charles May’s blog “Reading the Short Story.” It was one year ago today that, calling myself a “cheerleader for the short story,” I announced my intention to write a blog in which, on a regular basis, I would post comments about reading and studying the short story, a form that I taught and wrote about for forty years before I retired four years ago from California State University, Long Beach.

In the past year, I have written sixty blog posts for this site, most of them fairly substantial discussions of new short story collections, individual short stories, and other matters of note to those interested in the short story as a form. Although I have not always succeeded, I have tried to focus on significant theoretical and generic issues, using individual collections and stories as examples of those issues.

I do not have a counter for this blog, but noticed this morning that the counter that ticks off those who have visited my user profile turned over to 1,000. I don’t know what this means. I really do not know how many people have visited the blog occasionally or how many read it regularly, although I do have twenty-eight “followers,” whatever that means.

One writes to be read, so I am grateful to those who read this blog regularly and who stumble on it while doing a Google search. I am especially grateful to those who take the time to write comments. I have tried to respond to every comment I have received, and I will continue to do so. I started the blog as a means by which I could engage in dialogue with other short story fans about the form that we love. The one thing I miss most since my retirement is the opportunity to talk “with,” not “to,” others about short fiction. However, as it was in the classroom, if my love of the short story became more a monologue than a dialogue, so be it. If no one responds to my remarks, I will still continue writing them.

I started the blog as a stimulus to myself—something to keep me reading, not aimlessly, but with a purpose—something to keep me writing, not carelessly, but with care. That seems to have worked for me. I feel compelled to write at least one blog entry a week, which means that I must continue reading new short stories, continue keeping up with what others are saying about the short story, and continue thinking about the unique characteristics of the form that make it, in my opinion, more aesthetically and psychologically complex and interesting than the novel.

Because there has been some publicity recently about bloggers receiving rewards for publicizing certain products—so-called “Mom” bloggers who get junkets and goodies—I thought I should state here quite emphatically that I receive no rewards from publishers for my comments about new collections of short stories. I do write occasional reviews for reference works and newspapers, for which I receive a copy of the book—either from the publisher or the publication where the review appears. And yes, I do receive a modest check for the published review. And yes, I do also comment on the book on this blog if it is of theoretical or critical interest. But I always read the stories I write about carefully, and at least twice, and I always try to provide a fair and well-considered evaluation. The only thing I wish to "promote" is getting more people to read and appreciate short stories. Wryly, I might add, no one should worry that anyone will try to "buy" my favor. The short story is just not a commercial commodity worth the seller's trouble.

On a personal note, I have commented occasionally that although I do not often read novels, I do “listen” to them on my daily morning walks with our dog Shannon. Today, the first birthday of this blog, is also the 15th birthday of Shannon. I just finished listening to, of all things, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” a book I had not read in fifty years, a book that came out when I was sixteen and which I thought was the true document of my generation.

When I was in undergraduate school, I wrote a column for my college newspaper in which I paraded as a “Beatnik” kind of guy; it was accompanied by a drawing a friend of mine did of me in a beret, with a pointy goatee, and a set of bongo drums between my knees. There are probably some books we read in our youth that we should never read again. Instead of nodding sagely this time as I listened to Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity pontificate about being beat and hip, I chuckled. Instead of longing to hit the road with my gang, picking up cool chicks and drinking lots of beer, I tsk tsked at the juvenile antics and irresponsibility of Kerouac and Cassidy and the rest.

I grow old . . .I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

In three months, I will be sixty-nine. I trust that in a year from now, as I near seventy, I will still be writing this blog, still reading short stories, still urging others to read them, still writing about them, still listening to novels on my walks with Shannon. It is less a walk than an amble now, taking twice as long to cover half the distance we used to cover. But Shannon still explores the world around her, sniffing for scents that she has somehow missed on her many journeys. I do not get impatient. I understand. I do the same.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Praise for the Short Story in the Wall Street Journal: Will Wonders Never Cease?

“When Brevity is a Virtue,” an article by Alexandra Alter in today’s Wall Street Journal, (Nov. 13, 2009; online at throws a welcome new spotlight on the short story by noting that the form seems poised this fall to get its due with new collections from Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Ha Jin.

Alter rightly points out that when great short stories are praised for having “novelistic” qualities, it is a subtle disparagement, instructing us that the novel is the highest literary achievement.

Alter suggests that changing technology and reading habits are giving the short story a boost, as readers discover the form in online literary journals and download short stories to their ipods and e-readers.

However, the article also reminds us of the prevailing opinion among agents and publishers that short stories do not sell. The fact that Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge has sold 472,000 copies after winning the Pulitzer is, according to these Nay Sayers, an anomaly. And Alice Munro’s winning the 2009 Man Booker International Prize for the body of her work is because, well, “She’s Alice Munro, and by the way, why the hell doesn’t she write a novel?” Reviewers forgive her by claiming that her stories are “novelistic.” Munro’s editor Ann Close is quoted by Alter as saying that the precision and vigor of Munro’s plotting and prose allows her to pack as much into her stories as many novels contain. Pack what stuff?

Munro’s new collection, Too Much Happiness, has been out in Canada and the United Kingdom for the past three months and will be released by Knopf in the U.S. next week. The Los Angeles Times published a review of the book this past Sunday, Nov. 8. All the stories have been published previously, mostly in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and I have read them as they have appeared. On a previous blog, I talked a bit about one of the stories, “On Wenlock Edge.”

I will post a blog on Too Much Happiness in a couple of weeks when I get the book and have had a chance to make sure that Munro has not changed the stories since their original publication in magazines. I will try to make some sense out of the frequent, somewhat disparaging claim that Munro’s stories are like novels, an accusation she knows very well, as evidenced by this wry comment from the story “Fiction” in her new collection:

“A collection of short stories, not a novel. This in itself is a disappointment. It seems to diminish the book’s authority, making the author seem like somebody who is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, rather than safely settled inside.”

None of the short story Nay Sayers can say that Alice Munro is just hanging on to the gates of Literature, not even Oprah, who has said she does not like short stories because she “wants more.” Desiring quantity rather than quality is an Oprah problem that I wish she would not impose on the thousands of her book club members.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Oprah Finally Chooses a Collection of Short Stories for her Book Club

On one of her recent video blogs, Oprah pronounced vigorously (and the thousands of her book club members must have nodded their heads in agreement) “I don’t like short stories. I am not a fan of short stories. They leave me wanting more.”

However, she did finally choose a short story collection, and thousands of her book club members rushed to Amazon and Costco to buy it. As usual with the TV cultural Diva’s book choices, it landed on several bestseller lists and jumped up high on Amazon’s sales list. Today, it was # 31, and there were seventy rave “reviews” of the book from Amazon customers.

The book is Say You’re One of Them, by the Nigerian-born Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan, a collection of two novellas and three short stories, about the horrors of street life and genocide in Africa, as experienced by children. “What Language is That?” is the story of a 6-year-old girl who is forbidden to associate with her “Best Friend” because of “faith differences.” In “Ex-mas Feast,” a Kenyan boy, age 8, tells of his 12-year-old sister’s work as a prostitute to help support her family. In “Luxurious Hearses,” a teenage Muslim boy tries to get out of northern Nigeria on a busload of Christians heading south. In “Fattening for Gabon,” a 10-year-old boy and his sister are sent to live with his uncle, who wants to sell them to human traffickers. “My Parents Bedroom” is told by a 9-year-old girl whose Hutu father kills her Tutsi mother.

Oprah has raved about the book on her show and her video blogs, and, although I have always resented the weight Oprah has in influencing the sales of books, I am happy that she has finally chosen a collection of short stories. I just wish they had been better short stories.

In my opinion, Akpan is a capable writer. He is from a southern Nigerian village, but his parents were educated teachers, and he learned English early and grew up reading Shakespeare and the Brontes. He is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, and his first published story, “An Ex-Mas Feast” appeared in the “Debut Fiction” issue of The New Yorker on June 13 & 20, 2005. He has, what Alan Cheuse called in the Chicago Tribune, a “translucent style,” a straightforward, clear style that does not draw attention to itself as either lyrical or sentimental, but serves as a fairly clear glass through which one witnesses horrors of poverty, ignorance, and intolerance.

The issue Akpan’s stories raise for me is that of “mind vs. heart.” I think Cheuse is right when he says that the stories “nearly render the mind helpless and throw the heart into a hopeless erratic rhythm out of fear, out of pity, out of the shame of being only a few degrees of separation removed from these monstrous modern circumstances.”

I don’t really want my mind rendered helpless when I read, and I distrust fiction that, sans mind, tries to get to my “heart,” a word that I reserve for the mindless pump that a surgeon laid bare a couple of years ago to perform for me a triple bypass. “Heart” is a word that Oprah, on her show and video blogs, uses easily and frequently. She recently said that Akpan’s “Ex-Mas Feast” "opened her heart."

And the seventy or so readers who have posted their comments on proclaim that their hearts also have been opened. If Say You’re One of Them does anything to make people more aware of the horrors of life in much of Africa, because of poverty and murderous intolerance, I applaud the book as a valuable social document. But Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a valuable social document; that does not make it a valuable work of literature.

The most thoughtful review I have read of Akpan’s book is by Charles Taylor in The New York Times. Akpan has said in an interview that the world is not looking at the miseries in Africa. Taylor agrees, but adds, “looking isn’t enough for art.”
I quote below the last paragraph of Taylor’s review:

“For some, the impulse to repel will be seized on as proof of the importance and power of Akpan’s writing. Aesthetic judgments are usually the first casualty when any writer addresses a humanitarian disaster, and it would be silly to deny that sometimes a writer’s moral urgency can render aesthetic judgment beside the point. Still, though it seems self-evident, importance of subject matter does not equal quality of execution. No matter how much Akpan particularizes his characters’ plights—a one-handed Muslim boy trying to hide his identity from a busload of Christians; a 10-year-old and his sister being readied for slavery or worse; a Rwandan girl watching the madness that overcame her country invade her house—they remain little more than stand-ins for the suffering millions. They are not just marked by their suffering; they are nothing more than their suffering, and therefore on some basic level they are faceless. Humanist empathy devoid of the distinctly human is finally not art but merely grim reportage.”

A webcast with Oprah and Uwem Akpan is scheduled for Mon. Nov. 9 at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time. You can find it on Oprah’s website.