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Thursday, October 15, 2015

Karate Chop and How Dead Frogs Are Like Chocolate Truffles

But she had known many men like that. Many men like those reptiles in the zoo that could puff up their faces with fanciful color and raise themselves up onto thin toes and rattle.
I learned how to read in kindergarten, I guess. I don't remember much from those times other than there was another kid in my class who already knew how to read. He was a smug little monster with his own little reading corner where he could while away his time snuggled up with a good tome about teddy bears or whatever while we were stuck sounding out "ball." He got into cocaine later, I hear. But he turned it around and is the president of the United States now. No joke. Teach your kids to read, parents.

Anyway. I thought I was pretty hot stuff with my new reading ability. I was reading everything. Years later, in elementary school, my fifth grade teacher would give us each a certificate with one of our good traits on it that our teacher had observed about us. Mine said "voracious reader." This was kind of funny because I didn't know what "voracious" meant. The next year, a new year, a 6th grade year where I was on top of the pecking order, and I got a certificate from that teacher. What did it say? "Voracious reader." Apparently there's a book somewhere full of generic things you can say about students you barely know because their faces are obscured by Dragonlance books.

I was allowed in those two years of school to read in the middle of class, because when the teacher would ask me a question about what we'd been learning, I'd be able to answer him. I'm not saying this to brag. I'm saying it so that you think I'm awesome and smart. It's possible that I don't know what "brag" means, either.

I didn't learn how to really read until college, though. I started out as an English major. A creative writing major, actually, because even back then I didn't want to have a job. As is probably apparent if you read my blog, I didn't make it very far. Being a creative writing major teaches you two things: how to read a short story, and how to hate writing.

I changed majors a few years in because of three things: I didn't think that four years was enough to earn a bachelor's degree, I realized that there wasn't an actual job waiting at the other end that I could, like, interview for and get, and I'd started to despise every word that I typed onto a computer screen. It took years to get back into the habit of writing for fun, and if we're being honest I'm never very far from the self-hatred I felt then when I tried to put my thoughts into writing.

Does it annoy you when I post on Facebook and Instagram that I wrote another blog? Believe me, the loathing I feel for myself for it burns with an ardor exponential hotter than even your self-righteous rage over the breaking of one of the now-infinite social media rules. The alternative that nobody will read what I wrote after I spent so much work on it is somehow even worse, though. So there you go.

I never stopped loving short stories. You know those Lindt truffles? Well. I adore them. They're little, and there isn't very much to them, so you have to spend some time with one. If you manage to sneak one onto the conveyor belt in the grocery store while your wife isn't looking and furtively unwrap it later, you savor it. There's a lot of flavor packed into that little sphere, and you're going to wring every last bit out of it.


In the picture, you see that usually when you bite one of these in half you get a hollow side and a full side. The hollow side is your first read-through of a short story. You get the overall flavor, you get a feel for where it's going, but when you're done you want more. That's when you tackle the full half. It's similar in size but you work on it for longer. This time it's full of the softer chocolate inside.  Breaking it into little bites, you spread out the experience. Also you get a little sugar high and giggle too much.

This is how smarty pants English majors read a short story. Because it's small, you can spend more time on it. You dissect every word and spread them out on a table like that poor frog that gets dissected in high school TV shows but not in your real high school where all you dissected was that worm one time. With its guts all spread out, you can ask yourself questions about your short story/metaphorical ex-frog. Why was this word here? Why use this image? What does this rubbery slimy bit even do?

I don't eat a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup like this, by the way. Those I devour guiltily from my children's Halloween stash in the middle of the night after a good long Sega Genesis bender. With a Reese's, the overall product tastes good, but broken into its components makes my mouth feel dry and my soul deflate like a hot air balloon on its way to choke some birds.

Wait. How did we go from chocolate to dead frogs and back again?

Anyway, some short stories don't hold up to scrutiny. The ones collected in Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors, do. To continue the mixed metaphor, they are delicious though smelling lightly of formaldehyde.

Short story collections are cool because I don't have to really tell you more about them than send you a link to one that you can read free on the internet. Here's one:
The Heron.

Nors's stories are packed. Each word meaningful. Propers go to Martin Aitkin, too, for translating it from the original Danish. This is her first book published in the U.S., and I hope we see her previous novels translated as well.

Some of the stories are creepy, some are weird, some are relatively benign. There are undercurrents of deep unpleasantness along with some genuinely funny observations. Short stories are great because they allow authors to experiment. You don't have to stay with a writing style for long, so you can mess around. Nors messes around a lot, and of the 15 stories in the book, there are no two that are alike.

You know why else they're good? They're short. I just finished Jane Eyre which took me roughly 17 years and just started A Brief History of Seven Killings which is 700-something pages of some very, very small text. A guy's got to read a slim volume or two to keep a blog going, that and lots of chocolate.