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3 From BoG: Short Story and Essay Collections
'The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories' by Carson McCullers, 'My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments' by Tyler C. Gore and 'The Dark Dark: Stories' by Samantha Hunt—Review #202
We launched the ‘3 From BoG’ feature in 2021 ‘to allow greater variety and flexibility with genres and authors, and to make room for more books.’ Our aim was to run it quarterly, and each installment would provide three quick-hit reviews aligned to a theme, but my slow reading pace has turned it into a biennial! When I realized it had been two years since I first did one of these, I was like:
At long last, here is the second instance of ‘3 From BoG,’ the roundup of collections I promised. Two are works of fiction, and one is a set of personal essays. Let us know in the comments if you like this format and want to see it more often, and feel free to suggest a theme. So far, I’ve penciled in a second collection roundup as well as one featuring novellas. Their timing, though, remains uncertain.
‘The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories’ by Carson McCullers
‘The café has long since been closed, but it is still remembered.’
I was killing time in a Clinton Hill bar called The Great Georgiana in August waiting for the afterparty of Jen Doll’s book reading to start. I was looking at my phone, flipping through the recent listings of an Etsy bookseller I’m obsessed with called Womb House Books when I saw this crazy cover. I had not read anything by Carson McCullers and had never heard of this collection, but after seeing that artwork combined with that title, I had to get it. The titular story is the standout. Miss Amelia lives alone in the rural South and sells food and homemade liquor out of her house. One day, a tiny hunchbacked man comes to town claiming he’s her cousin. (I take it that these two characters are who’s supposed to be represented by the cover art.) Miss Amelia takes him in, and he inspires her to open a café. Things go well until her ne’er-do-well ex-husband gets out of prison and drifts into town. He and Miss Amelia square up for an actual fistfight, and that’s where I’ll stop so not to spoil the outcome. In some of the other stories: A girl struggles to learn the piano and to deal with the pressures of being a child prodigy; a jockey has a drinking problem; and, a journalist returns from abroad for his father’s funeral and visits his ex-wife’s new family for dinner. These stories are fine and well written, but they didn’t stick with me as much as the one about Miss Amelia. The book is worth reading for that story alone.
How it begins:
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all other places in the world. The nearest train stop is Society City, and the Greyhound and White Bus Lines use the Forks Falls Road which is three miles away. The winters here are short and raw, the summers white with glare and fiery hot.
If you walk along the main street on an August afternoon there is nothing whatsoever to do. The largest building, in the very center of the town, is boarded up completely and leans so far to the right that it seems bound to collapse at any minute. The house is very old. There is about it a curious, cracked look that is very puzzling until you suddenly realize that at one time, and long ago, the right side of the front porch had been painted, and part of the wall—but the painting was left unfinished and one portion of the house is darker and dingier than the other. The building looks completely deserted. Nevertheless, on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams—sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief. The face lingers at the window for an hour or so, then the shutters are closed once more, and as likely as not there will not be another soul to be seen along the main street. These august afternoons—when your shift is finished there is absolutely nothing to do; you might as well walk down to the Forks Falls Road and listen to the chain gang.
‘The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories’ by Carson McCullers was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1951, and by Bantam Books in 1977. 152 pages. A Mariner Books edition from 2005 is available at BookShop.org for $12.08.
‘My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments’ by Tyler C. Gore
‘Once an object has visited our home for a little while, it seems to her cruel to send it back out into the streets.’
Donna and I met Tyler last summer in the backyard of Café Fés, a Moroccan restaurant in our neighborhood. He was showing his dinner guests some books that I recognized were from Sagging Meniscus Press (I’m a fan). Small world, I thought, so Donna and I stopped at his table on our way out to say hello and to praise the press. That led to an invitation to the launch party for this book, his debut essay collection. ‘These aren’t journalistic pieces,’ he writes in the introduction. ‘They are akin to the kind of stories a friend might tell you over a pint. A grain of salt, a pinch of hyperbole.’ The opening story, also called ‘My Life of Crime,’ which I enjoyed hearing read aloud at the party, recounts the author’s youthful crime wave of pranks and practical jokes. Some involved pizzas, others eggs. Other stories feature a gritty New York City in bygone days, a trip to jury duty, an encounter on a nude beach and a whopping 200-page essay about his appendix-removal surgery. The essay that sticks with me is ‘Stuff,’ a tragic family story about hoarding. In it, he recounts his family’s penchant for collecting things and its struggle to throw things away, so much so that it might have contributed to his father’s death. It’s sobering and sad, and I think about it a lot. Donna and I also collect things and struggle to declutter, but we’re working on it. (For example, I’m deaccessioning my comic-book collection, and our war on dust is unrelenting.) There were moments I enjoyed, like references to the Sidewalk Café (RIP) and the anecdote about Marilyn Monroe’s appendix-removal surgery. Others I empathized with, like his caring for a sick cat (our cat, Lola, is unwell). But the author’s self-described ‘cranky subjectivity’ in many of the essays didn’t always work for me. Still, if I understand this book and all the apologies in the acknowledgements correctly, it’s an act of confession for a ‘life of crime.’ I look forward to what he writes next.
How it begins:
‘No one likes a practical joker,’ my mother had often warned me—but, hey, my mother was out shopping. We lived in suburban New Jersey. It was a dreary day, rainy and cold like that day in the beginning of The Cat in the Hat, and there was nothing to do. None of my friends were home. So I picked up the phone and ordered a pizza for my neighbor across the street.
I waked to the front window where I could peer at my neighbor’s house from behind the curtains. But there is no instant gratification with this sort of prank, and patience has never been one of my virtues. So, after about five minutes, I got up and ordered another pizza from a different shop. Then—either to kill time or to satisfy some vague sense of proportion—I called a third pizzeria. This time, under the assumed name of Andre Breton, I ordered two pies, one with sausage and one with mushrooms and green peppers.
Then I went back to wait at the window.
‘My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments’ by Tyler C. Gore was published by Sagging Meniscus Press in 2022. 273 pages. $21.95 at Bookshop.org.
‘The Dark Dark: Stories’ by Samantha Hunt
‘There is a deer in my bedroom, one besides me, and I am terrified, more terrified than I would be by all the guns in the world.’
I have a clear memory of finding this book a few years ago on the $1 cart at Housing Works in SoHo, but it has a Strand price sticker on the back so who knows where I actually got it. I bought it because I enjoyed Hunt’s novel ‘The Seas,’ and at first I thought this was another novel because the word ‘Stories’ on the cover is easy to miss. I read it in 2021 and wrote some notes thinking the collections edition of ‘3 From BoG’ would not take two more years to complete. Here’s the gist of what I wrote: It’s mostly fine. A cheating wife transforms into a deer. A dog is revived from the dead by lonely people having sex near it. A woman on the run from her past refuses to leave her home in a hurricane. And an FBI agent invents a life-like female robot to blow up a Unabomber type. Despite the interesting premises, however, none of the stories stuck with me. By the time I got to the last one, which revisits the characters of the first, I had a hard time remembering who they were. So while the writing is good and the stories strange, which I normally like, overall I didn’t feel it.
How it begins:
In a coffee shop on Dead Elm Street, Norma arranges chicken bones on her plate, making an arrow that points to her stomach, where the chicken now resides. She once saw a picture of a hen in a science book. The hen had been split open down the breast, unzipped like a parka. Inside was a chain of eggs, rubbery as tapioca, small getting smaller until they almost disappeared. Nothing like the basket of fried chicken Norma has just finished eating, but sickening all the same.
The waitress says, ‘If it’s all the same to you I’ll—’
‘It’s never all the same.’ Norma’s thinking of the eggs. ‘It changes a tiny bit every time.’
But the waitress keeps talking. ‘—just close out your check, ’cause we’re switching shifts.’
‘The Dark Dark: Stories’ by Samantha Hunt was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2017. 241 pages. $14.88 at Bookshop.org.
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Before you go:
ICYMI: Review #201
Read this: Romancelandia is wild.
Read this, too: Who’s excited for the film version of ‘Eileen’? Me!
Do this: I’m also very excited for Taylor & Co., a new bookstore opening a few blocks from our apartment. Be sure to support your local independent bookstores, my friends!
Thanks for reading, and thanks especially to Donna for editing this newsletter!
Until next time,