Aug 28, 2008

Short Stories and Super Commenters Award

This week I completed the Short Story Reading Challenge by reading short stories by Kij Johnson, Holly Black and Jhumpa Lahiri. And let me start by telling you about what turned out to be one of the best stories I've read all year, and an immediate addition to my list of favourite short stories: "The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change" by Kij Johnson. This story is a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and even without having read the other nominees, I can honestly say I hope it wins.

What is "The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change" about, you ask?

Well, the change in the title refers to a moment in time, previous to the story's beginning, when domestic animals gained the ability to speak. It turns out that humans don't deal with this very well, even the ones who always thought they'd love to know what their pets were thinking.

As much as we love domestic animals, as kind as we are to them, we know that our relationship with them is marked by a lack of balance. We have power over them. We can control and determine their lives. And not everyone will abuse this power, but everyone can abuse it, and some people will. So if dogs and cats and cows and so on could speak, perhaps we wouldn't always like to hear what they'd have to say. The story is about this unbalance, but also about love, shame, guilt, cruelty, storytelling, fear, kindness, resourcefulness, and about the things we never admit to ourselves.

The story's protagonist, Linna, likes to spend time with the stray dogs that gather at North Park. There, she talks with them and listens to their stories. With language comes storytelling, of course, and the North Park dogs tell stories about a trickster they refer to as One Dog. As the Change alters their lives and the way they interact with humans more and more, the stories they tell also gradually change.

"The evolution of trickster stories among the dogs of North Park after the Change" is beautifully written, emotionally powerful and very very gripping. See for yourself. A few favourite passages:
(Sometimes we think we want to know what our dogs think. We don't, not really. Someone who watches us with unclouded eyes and sees who we really are is more frightening than a man with a gun. We can fight or flee or avoid the man, but the truth sticks like pine sap. After the Change, some dog owners feel a cold place in the pit of their stomachs when they meet their pets' eyes. Sooner or later, they ask their dogs to find new homes, or they forget to latch the gate, or they force the dogs out with curses and the ends of brooms. Or the dogs leave, unable to bear the look in their masters' eyes.

(We like our slaves mute. We like to imagine they love us, and they do. But they are also with us because freedom and security war in each of us, and sometimes security wins out. They do love us. But.)

(Some people keep their dogs, even after the Change. Some people have the strength to love, no matter what. But many of us only learn the limits of our love when they have been breached. Some people keep their dogs; many do not.

(The dogs who stay seem to tell no stories.)
"Going Ironside" by Holly Black is a short tale set in the same world as her Tithe/Valiant/Ironside series. I honestly can't think of much to say about it, for some reason. Perhaps because it's so brief, and because it feels a bit like a brief glimpse into a world that's introduced elsewhere. Which it is. But I enjoyed it, and I was reminded that I really need to get around to reading her books. I like the story's urgency and barely suppressed despair. I like the fact that it's dark. I've heard from many people that her Faerie books are very dark, so that's hardly surprising. I really look forward to reading them one of these days.

Finally, I also really really enjoyed Jhumpa Lahiri's "Hell-Heaven". This is one of the stories in her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth, which is another book I really must read. I think I enjoyed this story as much as my favourites on Interpreter of Maladies, and that's a lot.

The narrator of "Hell-Heaven" is Usha, the daughter of a Bengali family living in New England. She tells of how she and her parents meet and befriend Pranab Kaku, another Bengali immigrant who becomes like an uncle or older brother to her. Her mother and Pranab Kaku become very close, and help each other adjust to life in a new country by reminiscing together about life in Calcutta:
They had in common all the things she and my father did not: a love of music, film, leftist politics, poetry. They were from the same neighborhood in North Calcutta, their family homes within walking distance, the fa├žades familiar to them once the exact locations were described. They knew the same shops, the same bus and tram routes, the same holes-in-the-wall for the best jelabis and moghlai parathas.
Usha's mother's feelings for Pranab Kaku don't take long to develop into far more than friendship. The result is a bittersweet story about marriage, immigration, adolescence, heartbreak and the ability to move on. Like all Jhumpa Lahiri stories, "Hell-Heaven" is moving, memorable, perceptive and detailed.

Jeane at Dog Ear Diary was kind enough to give me the Super Commenter Award. This award made me particularly happy, as I love comments - both getting them and leaving them. Don't we all? Still, I'm probably not alone in sometimes wondering if the comments I leave are too long, too short, too bland, too cheerful, not cheerful enough, irrelevant, annoying, etc., so it's really nice to feel appreciated.

I honestly appreciate each and every comment I get on this blog. And I mean every one: I've been lucky so far, because even though I get the occasional anonymous comment, none of them were ever unpleasant or rude. I really can't thank those of you who take the time to comment here enough.

There are many people I'd like to pass this on to, but I'm supposed to pick seven, so here it goes: Thank you Rhinoa, Debi, Trish, Chris, Melody, Ken and Carl for your supportive, insightful and just plain awesome comments.


  1. Congrats on finishing your challenge! I bookmarked the link to the Johnson short story and will try to read that one. Sounds good and I'm still behind on my short story challenge reads so this might be a good one to add.

    And, also congrats on your award. Very well deserved :)

  2. Congrats on completing the challenge, Nymeth! I've only read one book for this challenge. *grinning sheepishly*

    Thank you so much for passing the award to me! I really appreciate your every comment (as well as everyone) on my blog; all of them means a lot to me. :)

  3. I can't tell you how much that award means coming from you Nymeth! And I can think of NO ONE more deserving of it than you!

    I'm excited to read the Kij Johnson story! (I've got it printing out as I type.) Though I have to admit, I am a bit worried about how it will leave me feeling, as the whole point about the lack of imbalance in our relationships with our much-loved friends is so true. It's not going to leave me feeling like we shouldn't have pets at all, is it? Because that would break my heart.

  4. You're welcome, you're welcome! Are those short stories only available online, or can I read them in print? I really want to read the Johnson one but reading too much off the computer screen hurts my eyes...

  5. Thank you Nymeth--this award in particular means a lot--especially coming from you who has so many people commenting on her blog. :)

  6. Sweet award! :)

    I just wanted to also say thanks for the link to the Holly Black short story online. I just finished Ironside and didn't know about it.

  7. Congrats on finishing the challenge! It's always feels so good to actually complete something doesn't it?? Sounds like you read some good ones. Especially the one about the animals.

    I read Tithe by Holly Black. It wasn't at all what I expected but I did enjoy it. I still haven't picked up the rest of the books though.

  8. This sounds very interesting. I like the idea of the insight into the minds of animals..I really enjoyed "The Last Family in England" by Matt Haig for that same reason. What would you do if your cats suddenly started talking...!

    Glad you enjoyed this challenge. I'm being pretty slow with this challenge, considering they are short stories...but I'll get there!

  9. I think we bloggers appreciate comments however short or long they are. It's just nice to know someone is reading our work and cares enough to let us know! :-)

    Congratulations on the award and the completion of the challenge!


  10. Iliana: Thanks! I hope you enjoy the story :)

    Melody: The fact that I picked individual stories rather than books made it easier to finish. But don't worry, you still have time! And you're very welcome :)

    Debi: Aww, thank you :) I can't wait to see what you think of the story! And don't worry, even though it's a sad story it won't leave you feeling that way. There's a bit at the end that perfectly explains what the story made me feel (and it's not a spoiler, since it's one of those narrator asides): "(When we first fashioned animals to suit our needs, we treated them as if they were stories and we the authors, and we clung desperately to an imagined copyright that would permit us to change them, sell them, even delete them. But some stories cannot be controlled. A wise author or dog owner listens, and learns, and says at last, "I never knew that.")"
    It will make you feel like listening and learning, which I know you already do.

    Jeane: The story's available in a book I really want to read, actually: The Windling/Datlow "The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales" anthology.

    Trish: You're welcome! You really really deserve it.

    Janicu, you're welcome! I hope you enjoy the story.

    Stephanie: It does :) And I remember your review of Tithe..I really need to pick it up sometime.

    Mariel: I hadn't heard of The Last Family in England, but if it involves talking cats I'm sold!

    Lezlie: Thank you :) And yes, it truly is.

  11. Congrates on completing the challenge. *sheepishly cringing at my own failure*

    Congrates too on the award. It's definitely well deserved, because it really takes effort to comment on people's blog consistently. So often, it's easier to just lurk. Thank you for not being a lurker, but choosing to be an active blog-reader.

  12. Thank you so much - you've made my day!
    I just love Kij Johnson's stories and you've put a spotlight on my absolute favorite (and on the idea that, hopefully, has made me a better pet owner).
    "We like our slaves mute. We like to imagine they love us, and they do. But they are also with us because freedom and security war in each of us, and sometimes security wins out. They do love us. But."

  13. You ARE a super commenter! And so are all the people you awarded.

  14. Thank you Nymeth :) Like I said on my blog, that's the most meaningful award I've gotten. And you're getting it right back! I feel like I'm repeating the same comment that I left Debi, but all this is always makes me so happy just to see your name in the comments of my blog. It's amazing how much of a great community this has become.

  15. Dark Orpheus: It does take some effort, but it's something I've come to enjoy. And thank you too :)

    Ken: I'm glad to hear it :) Have you read Kij Johnson's novel Fudoki? It's been on my wishlist for years, and after reading this story and discovering just how amazing her writing is, I really can't wait to get my hands on it!

    Dewey: Aw, thank you!

    Chris: I'm glad to have made you smile at this difficult time. You're right, t is an amazing community :) On a side note, I really hope things go as well as possible for you and for everyone in the area. Stay safe!

  16. Yay for finishing the challenge. I really want to read the Ellen Datlow/Terri Windling Coyote anthology as well. The first tale definitely sounds interesting and I am sorry you didn't get so much from the Holly Black one. Can you let me know where you found it?

    Thanks for the commenting award :)

  17. You'll love Fudoki, grab it and read it as soon as you get a chance!

  18. Rhinoa: I found it at the Endicott Studio website - clicking the title will take you there. They have quite an archive of short fiction there.

    Ken: I will!


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.