I was thinking about my favorite short stories the other day. More specifically, I was thinking about how nice it would be if I could choose my own personal anthology. You know how they have that series, The Best American Short Stories? And each year, the publisher asks a different author to edit the selections? I wish someone would ask me to do that, only I wouldn't limit my choices by year or nationality.
If it were up to me, I'd publish an anthology that would contain these short stories in this exact order:
by Martin Amis (Einstein's Monsters)
by Stephanie Vaughn (Sweet Talk)
The Nine Billion Names of God
by Arthur C. Clarke (The Collected Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke)
The Laughing Man
by J.D. Salinger (Nine Stories)
by Julie Orringer (How to Breathe Underwater) - Read my review of the collection here.
The Snows of Kilimanjaro
by Ernest Hemingway (The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories)
It's Bad Luck to Die
by Elizabeth McCracken (Here's Your Hat What's Your Hurry)
The Children's Grandmother
by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Winter in the Air: And Other Stories)
This is an Alert
by Thomas Pierce (The New Yorker)
Able Baker Charlie Dog
by Stephanie Vaughn (Sweet Talk)
The Ormolu Clock
by Muriel Spark (All the Stories of Muriel Spark)
Bullet in the Brain
by Tobias Wolff (The Night in Question)
A lot of the short stories on this list I heard on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, but not all of them. Some of them I read in school. Some of them I found in a book. But I think they all changed me a little, and that's what matters.
p.s. The image of the chamber nautilus would be the cover of my anthology. Wouldn't it be good?
What short stories would you include?
Something weird happened when I got sick last week.
I started reading Buzzfeed articles in French.
First it started with an English article about Marie Teller's search for the best chocolate croissant in New York, using the choclatines of her youth in southwestern France as a standard of comparison.
It was a pleasant, easy read, not too obnoxious in the way Buzzfeed articles usually are, so I clicked on Teller's name to see what else she'd written.
Apparently, quite a lot, and most of it in French, as far as I could tell, which makes sense she's the senior editor for Buzzfeed International.
I used to be pretty serious about French in school. I don't know why, I just really enjoyed it. Despite my past ten-plus year foray into science, I would say my brain is actually hardwired for language (hence, the writing, the editing business, etc.). My school offered French at a very, very basic level starting in Pre-K, and each year it ramped up a bit, until we were learning how to conjugate verbs in the 5th grade. I took French for all four years in high school, and was one of the few people in my senior year AP class, which was kind of awesome, because we just sat around a table and did our best to chat in French and read very simple novels, like Bonjour Tristesse, Suivez-La Piste, Le Petit Prince, Le Petit Nicolas et Les Copains, etc.
I even took conversational French and advanced grammar in my freshman year of college, but after that, it was clear that if I wanted to continue studying French, I'd pretty much have to major or minor in it, and I wasn't interested. So that was it for French, and I haven't really used it much except for the odd European trip here and there.
Isn't it funny how that works? You spend a huge chunk of your youth studying something, getting decent at it (comparatively speaking, I was never, ever close to fluent), and then one day the classes just stop.
That's how it was for me with piano too. I'd played since I was five years old, and I played all the way through college, studying pretty intense classical piano with this lady. But once college ended, I didn't have time to keep taking lessons, so I just stopped. Every now and then, I try to sit back down at the piano, and I can still play, but I'm not nearly as good as I used to be. It's kind of sad.
So French was like that. I used to be pretty good, but it's use it or loose it. Or so I thought.
The funny thing is, this stuff comes back if you try it again. I don't know why reading French Buzzfeed articles felt so good while I was sick and struggling to get through my editing jobs, but I wonder if it had anything to do with the fact that it allowed me to give the English side of my brain (obviously, the vast majority of it) a rest.
I love to read, but now that I'm doing it professionally (and doing it last week under physical duress), I honestly haven't been enjoying it as much for fun lately. It's like, I read all day long, and at the end of the day, I just want a break. But I still want to hear a good story - I'm just too tired to read one. The struggle is real. (And books are pretty much my only option here, since we don't have cable internet.)
Or, so I thought. Turns out, I'm just too tired to read more English. So I started reading some of Teller's Buzzfeed articles in French, and they're so simple, that even someone as out of practice as I am can follow along. When I don't know a word, which is often, I just google translate it (but not the whole sentence, that defeats the point). Also, I really like the French comments, which are also fairly easy to read.
Anyway, I just thought that was interesting. The brain - what a mystery. It's like when my grandmother had Alzheimer's. She couldn't remember the name for a coffee mug, but she could still play beautiful improvisational piano. For whatever reason, that part of her brain continued to work. And right now, as I'm coming out of this cold and still busily editing every day, it turns out my French (reading comprehension anyway), still kind of works, and I still enjoy it.
French Reading Level - Buzzfeed
Actually, I have no idea what this blog is about; whatever I fancy, I guess. But the sub-title is "for the word nerds," so I thought it might be fun to do some rapid-fire reviews of two books I recently finished.
The first is the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It's an epistolary novel (written in letters), about a group of British men and women who lived on Guernsey Island while it was occupied by the Nazis in World War II. At first, I was very pulled into the story - which is basically about how this group of friends got through the war within the companionship of a book club. I love a good epistolary novel, and the early letters cheerfully describe a version of postwar Britain that interested me. But after about 40 pages, you can't help but notice that all the letters, written between characters of vastly different backgrounds, sound exactly the same. It made it hard to keep track of people, or care about them. The plot starts off gently enough, the main character decides to travel to Guernsey to write about the occupation and the literary club, but then it turns ludicrous and almost creepy (for people who've read this book - didn't you think it was weird how Juliet essentially co-opted the deceased Elizabeth's life? She gets her house, her place in the community, even her kid!). I could go into the details, but the book really isn't good enough to bother with. Let's just say this: at one point, the main character gets jealous of a concentration camp survivor. wtf.
Interesting idea for a story (I had no idea Guernsey was occupied during the war), but the authors completely lose track of the main plot, so the reader gets a particularly inept ending. Two thumbs way down.
On to better things, I made a rare check off my "Books I Want to Read" list. The Time Machine is my first H.G. Wells book, which is insane considering he is more or less the father of modern science fiction and I'm a massive science fiction fan. I guess I worried the old-fashioned writing would put me off, and to be honest, it almost did. I found the first 30 pages a struggle to push through, and almost gave up, but I'm so glad I didn't. Once I got past the somewhat tedious setup, I was totally hooked. The way the Eloi were nearly as disturbing as the Morlocks was a really interesting touch. I also especially loved the ending with its descriptions of the far, far future, when the earth stops spinning, like the moon, so it always faces in one direction at the dying red sun. What an image!
It was interesting to read these two books one right after the other, because it made me think of a reading hypothesis I don't think I would have thought of otherwise. So here's my theory:
If a book has a really strong opening, that totally hooks you, it's probably going to peter out and disappoint you by the end. But if a book has a slow opening, push through it, because the rest of the book is usually pretty strong.
Master and Commander (one of my first blog-posts!) was definitely that way. It had the slowest opening, but it only got better, until I was having a blast by the end. Same with The Name of the Rose, which was supposedly written with a slow first 100 pages on purpose* to reward the readers who pushed through. And that medieval mystery has a mind-blowing ending.
Meanwhile, Gone Girl, had quite the opening hook, yet it's one of the worst books I've ever read. Just badly written garbage with nothing redeeming about it.
So that's my takeaway. Strong opening - be wary, slow opening - push on.
*According to my high school English teacher, who knows if this is true.
There are two reasons I haven't updated the blog in a bit:
1) I'm coming off the busiest two weeks I've had since I began my editing business. It's been a non-stop race to meet deadlines.
2) My husband caught a deathly cold from someone at work (whom I now loathe), and then passed it on to me.
Folks, I haven't been sick since 2011 (I remember the apartment we were in). It's been so long since I had a cold,* I was starting to think maybe (just maybe), I could go the rest of my life without getting another one.
What's that saying ? After pride comes the fall?
So far, the phases of this cold have mirrored exactly what my poor husband went through last week (my poor, poor husband - I didn't understand at the time!): 2 days sore throat + sneezing and a running nose, then 1 day of feeling ok, just a little sniffly and off, THEN DEATH!
Maybe not literally, but that's what it feels like. Aches and pains all over my body. Fevers and chills. Sleeplessness. Snot factory. And now I've developed a wet, mucousy cough, so basically I feel like I'm drowning.
And the worst part? I still have to work through these symptoms, just like my husband did when he was sick last week, and just like my lady, Hillary.
Because deadlines. Commitments. Meetings.
I used to feel pretty self-righteous about people who went to work sick, but that was back when I was a grad student and work consisted of running experiments in the lab all by myself. I had the luxury of pausing everything, with no real consequences. But when other people depend on you, like your kid, a client, your boss - you just don't have the luxury of saying, "Sorry, can't help you this week. I'm sick."
I miss the old days of being sick, when I'd get to stay home from school and have a glorious day with the house to myself, eating cheddar cheese melted on saltine crackers and watching Sally**, Jenny Jones, and Ricki Lake.
Even as I type this right now, I think on the one hand I should probably use this unusual deadline-free day to catch up on some sleep. But instead my impulse is to write something for maybe that one or two people out there who include my blog in their web-reading rotation. Because I know what it's like to need something to read, and I feel a commitment to give you at least two minutes of escapism. (That's how I feel about blogs anyway - and frankly, it's a dying art. No one just writes a flippant story anymore. It's all about the sell.)
So to summarize:
Am in need of Campbell's healthy request chicken noodle soup, pseudoephedrine, and Sally.
*I credit religious hand washing for this cold-free streak. I mean RELIGIOUS hand washing, both at home and work. I slacked a bit recently, and boom, sick.
**Oh my god, Sally. I could devote an entire blog post to that show. It taught me so much.
For whatever reason, I feel like I've solved a bunch of life problems, big and small, over the last year. Some of this stuff I feel compelled to share, because I know so many other people struggle with the same issues.
So here it is: my quick list of life hacks and solutions:
1) Sulfur soap and sulfur balm really does cure acne, even adult hormonal cystic acne, like the kind I've been dealing with off and on for the last 5-10 years (and prior to that, just your standard teenage acne). I used to be on spironolactone, a drug which also cures hormonal acne really well, but when I turned 29, I decided I wanted to get off it in case I got pregnant (spironolactone works by blocking testosterone receptors, so you really cannot take it if you are thinking about having a kid). Since then, I've tried a few different methods of curing my acne (low glycemic index diet, zero-dairy diet, the eating nothing but salad and meat diet, honey masks, zinc supplements, salicylic acid/benzoyl peroxide combo, etc.) and absolutely none of it worked. Then I tried the sulfur balm, and boom, my acne was gone. Even the red marks from my past acne are fading really rapidly - I've never seen anything like it.
Sure, it dries out my face a bit, but not too bad. And frankly, I don't care. I'd rather have a few flakes here and there than deal with the constant monthly flux of acne.
So as someone who has had acne problems since she was 12, please trust me when I say you should try sulfur soap or sulfur balm. It's cheap, and I think it will work for you, because I was one of those people who thought nothing could cure my acne except serious internal medication - and now I stand corrected. (None of these links are affiliated, by the way.)
2) A great way to avoid getting embarrassingly drunk and then hung over the next day is to alternate your alcoholic beverage with flavored seltzer water. I know, this isn't groundbreaking, but I'm late to the seltzer water game. I never liked the stuff before, but I finally tried those flavored La Croix drinks and found they weren't half-bad. Then I switched to generic flavored seltzer water, and though it's not quite as good as La Croix, it's still pretty refreshing (and about half as expensive). We've been swimming at our friend's pool at his apartment complex a lot this summer, which has been awesome, but it's also meant we've been generally drinking too much. So these past few weekends, I just replaced half the beer we brought with flavored seltzer water. Now I'm drinking a reasonable amount (2-3 beers), and staying hydrated (I realized thirst was the primary reason I was drinking too much). Plus, you still feel like part of the party when you're drinking seltzer water. I think it's something psychological about holding the can.
3) I've gotten back into running again this summer, after a long hiatus since we got our dog. I'm one of those runners who has plantar fasciitis problems (a pain across the sole of the foot, concentrated more so beneath the arch/heel area). It happens when the connective tissue on the bottom of the foot gets damaged and inflamed from overuse (usually from running too much). Several years ago, I had plantar fasciitis so bad that I had to stop running for over a year in order to let it heal (at the time, I was a really serious runner, it was by far my favorite activity, so that year was really hard). I eventually got over it, but it's always been close to coming back. I can feel the pain kind of tugging at the base of my heel sometimes, especially when I've taken a long break from running and then started back up again straight into my former mileage rather than slowly increasing it like you should.
And then I learned a stretch that keeps the plantar fasciitis from developing. Basically it's a wall calf stretch, except you bend your knee a little so you feel the stretch more at the base of your calf. You can see how it's done here. Apparently, tightness along the back of your leg, and particularly your lower calf, pulls the foot's connective tissue (the fascia) too tight, which leaves it prone to micro-tears. The fascia are notoriously hard to stretch, but stretching those leg muscles that are indirectly connected to the bottom of the foot can keep everything flexible, so you won't inadvertently damage the fascia.
Now whenever I'm feeling that familiar tightness along the bottom of my foot, I just stop running for a day and do these lower calf stretches (I believe it's the soleus muscle) and the plantar fasciitis doesn't develop any further. It just disappears. What I don't know is how effective this stretch is if you already have full-blown plantar fasciitis, but it can't hurt to try.
So there you go, three life hacks for acne, over-drinking, and plantar fasciitis. I know I've spent many hours googling for answers to these problems, particularly about my skin and feet issues, and it can be so hard to find accounts of people finding solutions that work for them. Way too much of the internet is one big echo chamber of the same non-helpful information. For example, I don't ever want to hear again how my "bad diet" is the cause of my acne. There's no realistic way I could have "improved" my diet more without developing an eating disorder (seriously, I already eat really well), so I'm tired of hearing that's why I have bad skin. I just don't think it's healthy to eat nothing but vegetables and meat - you'll go crazy and binge on junk, plus, as far as I can tell - it doesn't actually cure acne to eat so restrictively! I've come to the conclusion that bad skin is just genetic, and that there are topical treatments and pharmaceuticals which can get rid of it, but you wouldn't know that based on what you can typically find on the internet.
Therefore here's my account, and I hope it can help you.
Writer, editor, scientist.