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Friday, April 10, 2015

How to Make Cheese, I Guess

I'm having a hard time coming up with the preamble for today's entry. I've very nearly exhausted my backlog of books to write about, and my current reading pace is just not cutting it. Also, I seem to have run out of stories to tell of my being awkward and young. The stories of my being awkward and old are still a little too fresh to be funny.

Awful stories are like cheese, I believe. Only good after they've aged properly in the dry cellar of perspective. I'm not going to just walk up and drop a wet blob of fresh mozzarella on your proverbial plate and say "eat up, eat this fresh unripened cheese for it is all I have to offer you. This, just, wet cheese that I made. I have tap water, too." Well maybe I am, but not today, my friends. Not today. Today I will compose ridiculous metaphors out of the citric acid of language, the unpasteurized milk of imagination, and the rennet of pure, late-night hubris.

Instead I'll just say that I read The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher some time back. It's a book of short stories by one Hilary Mantel. I've heard she's quite the novelist and these stories seem to suggest that I would be well served to read much more of her writing. There's a lot of variety here. The titular tale is one of a bored woman and a hitman building a friendship as he waits at her window for Margaret Thatcher to appear. That was a fun one.

There's one about a woman who works in a clinic and speculates about the strange dating lives of her coworkers, when in reality they are all hanging on to a much more sinister secret.

One story tells the tale of a young girl watching her older sister waste away due to anorexia. She teases her, like a sister would, annoyed by the disease that is destroying their family.

You know. Fun stuff.

Mantel's writing is spare and clever. Her jokes hit when she wants them to, and the sad stuff is doled out without heavy-handed emotional manipulation. Which makes it hit hard, too.

There's a very interesting discussion to be had about the modern short story. These days (and by these days I must be talking about at least the last 50 years), the literary short story has to be a meandering character portrait. Gone, say some writers and lit professors, are the days of the compact story with the beginning, middle, and end. Gone are the strange forays into fantasy and science fiction. The pulpy detective story. Now a short story, if it is to be read in an English class, must be obtuse and worthy of dissecting not for its merits, but for that oh-so-important message between the lines.

Picture instead a pleasant afternoon in Windsor, an afternoon ripe for the offing of a political opponent.

Through warm afternoons the lawns baked unattended, and cats curled snoozing in the crumbling topsoil of stone urns. In autumn, leaf-heaps composted themselves on sunken patios, and were shoveled up by irritated owners of basement flats. The winter rains soaked the shrubberies, with no one there to see.
Read the full story here

This might be why I was nervous going into this one. Fear not, though. Here you'll find the supernatural among the mundane. What I'm talking about is some straight up Twilight Zone stuff.

There's a pretty astonishing breadth to what Mantel takes on here. She's a good storyteller and I look forward to reading much more. Also the stories are short so it makes for a good bedtime book.

I also read B.J. Novak's One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, but since I'm having a hard time reading fast enough to keep up with the schedule I have committed to on this self-imposed prison of my own design I'll write about that in a whole nother post.