Week 1: "Cataract" by Pam Houston
from: CutBank, No. 50; Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards
Synopsis: Lucy, her boyfriend (Josh), and three of their friends meet up at Cataract Canyon in Colorado to run the river rapids at some of their highest flood levels. They're all experienced boaters, but the rapids are very dangerous at that level, and there's quite a bit of distracting tension between the five friends.
Conclusion: Houston is a solid writer. She presents well-rounded characters connected by a situation and place to which I can't directly relate, but I still understand the characters in a concrete way. Her writing is very real; that's what I liked about the story. And even though Houston shows you what is happening in Lucy's life, she leaves you to draw your own conclusions. Many profound things happen in this short story, not the least of which is Lucy and Thea getting thrown off the boat and almost drowning. Their survival is downplayed by the jovial mood and adrenaline high of the men in the group, and Lucy realizes some things about her chosen path in life. I like that Houston doesn't tell you what Lucy will do next or how these characters will continue their lives from here.
(picture taken from Goodreads)
Week 2: "The Depressed Person" by David Foster Wallace
from: Harper's Magazine; Prize Stories 1999: The O. Henry Awards
Synopsis: The depressed person learns things about how her past has affected her present condition as a fractured individual, and she admits all of her feelings and concerns about herself and everything else to her therapist and her Support System.
Conclusion: Wallace does a really good job with this piece. Basically, this short story is a cyclical reflection of the depressed person's fears of inadequacy for the outside world and sufferings related to her past tousled between two constantly rivaling divorced parents. This story is really effective in communicating the depressed person's reality because of Wallace's writing techniques: detached, third-person language; run-on sentences that last for half of a paragraph; casual observations of others and their personal situations while the prose primarily focuses on the depressed person. The effect is a continuous dialogue that feels like sitting in on a therapy session, and the reader can picture herself there, just listening to this whole story play out.
(picture taken from Goodreads)
Week 3: "Delicate Edible Birds" by Lauren Groff
from: Glimmer Train; The Best American Short Stories: 2010
Synopsis: Four journalists and a photographer are in France covering the Nazi invasion of WWII. Taking pictures and interviewing refugees on the road from Paris to Bordeaux, their Jeep runs out of gas, and they stop at the only occupied place in sight. This turns out to be the home of a Nazi-sympathizing Frenchman who offers to provide them with all of the gas and food they need if he can "sleep" with the female journalist, Bernice. When she refuses, he locks them all in his barn as prisoners for the Germans until, one by one, the men in the group turn on Bernice to take the deal.
Conclusion: Well, I'll definitely be reading more from Groff in the future. She tells this story in sketches of each character with an eye on his past with Bernice: Viktor, the unnattractive and sensitive Russian; Parnell, the handsome, married Brit; Frank, the rough and mostly useless American; and Lucci, the sweet and artistic Italian photographer. Bernice's past has been a rough and promiscuous one, and she relates the trapped situation in which she now finds herself to the indulgent shame of a bird dinner that she once witnessed. This story is a beautiful but harsh question of choices, independence, dignity, sacrifice, and many other things.
Week 4: "The Valetudinarian" by Joshua Ferris
from: The New Yorker; The Best American Short Stories: 2010
Synopsis: Arty Groys decides to stay in Florida (where he recently moved for his retirement) even though his wife just died in a car accident. He grows increasingly more bitter toward his neighbor's dog; concerned about growing old and his health issues; and lonely from his distant children in Ohio and his only, rarely-seen friend, Jimmy Denton.
Conclusion: I really like stories with old characters. Maybe it's because of the opportunity to look back at a wider past of experiences, or maybe it's just because most authors don't pay attention to the older characters as much as the younger ones. It's interesting that a foreign prostitute is the one to finally motivate Arty to live his life, but I can kind of see why she would be: she's seen a lot in her life and has a "Why not try to live life to the fullest?" mentality. At least, that's how she comes across to him. And then his neighbor, Mrs. Zegerman, just wants someone to take care of really. That's going to be a sweet but strange friendship/relationship post-story. This piece was oddly inspiring.