Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sunday: Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress”
February 5, 2012, 3:04 pm
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Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Let’s start this post as we should start all posts even loosely connected with Margaret Atwood: !!!!Margaret Atwood!!!!!!!!!!! Her recent story, “Stone Mattress” from the December 19th issue of The New Yorker, is such a fantastic and well-plotted piece of fiction. Atwood fits in a bit of social commentary as she explores the backstory of her main character, Verna, but this is more of a fun read than a head-scratcher.

Atwood draws us in immediately, opening with “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” Verna, widowed four times, is on an Arctic cruise. This is the second time she’s taken an Arctic cruise, chosen because such a trip provides so many opportunities for covering up, for making herself look her best, as she looks for a new man:

Thanks to Aquacize and core strength training, she’s still in excellent shape for her age, or indeed for any age, at least when fully clothed and buttressed with carefully fitted underwiring. She wouldn’t want to chance a deck chair in a bikini – superficial puckering has set in, despite her best efforts – which is one reason for selecting the Arctic over, say, the Caribbean. Her face is what it is, and certainly the best that money can buy at this stage: with a little bronzer and pale eyeshadow and mascara and glimmer power and low lighting, she can finesse ten years.

As Verna makes the rounds of the cruise ship’s single male guests, she realizes that one of them is the boy who, back in the ’50s when she was just 14, date raped her and left her pregnant. In Verna’s mind, at least, this event directly led to so many others of her life: the marriages to older men, and the way she aids (doesn’t murder, mind you, not exactly) them to their deaths. Verna’s no stranger to gently helping men off into the good night, as should be obvious, but after realizing the identity of the passenger she must decide what to do about her discovery.

Atwood’s story doesn’t give us any epiphany, or even much insight into Verna’s character. (Charles May wrote a great post comparing his readings of “Stone Mattress” and Alice Munro’s “Leaving Maverly,” though we arrived at different conclusions on the worth of Atwood’s story.) But it is a fun and quick read, a perfect twenty-minute Atwood fix that offers us a woman who has devoted her life to destroying men, and then must face the man who destroyed her.

Read “Stone Mattress” online


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#Longreads: Ian Parker’s “The Story of a Suicide”
February 1, 2012, 2:47 pm
Filed under: Favorite Longreads | Tags: , , , , , ,

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Tyler Clementi’s suicide is one of those news stories that may never quite die, for the ways it brings these elements of bullying, technology, sexual orientation, to the fore. The timing of it, too, was pretty stunning, coming just after the It Gets Better project began. I was, early on, interested in the story because I attended Clementi’s school, Rutgers; but it’s been so long since it’s been at the top of the news that it’s easy to forget it.

Enter Ian Parker’s New Yorker piece “The Story of a Suicide: Two college roommates, a webcam, and a tragedy.” Parker corrects many of the early misconceptions about the case (namely, that Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, broadcast webcam footage of Clementi, and that Clementi’s suicide was a direct result of this and being outed by Ravi) in this remarkably even-handed piece. Going through the web histories and exchanges of both Ravi and Clementi, Parker shows just how many of their exchanges and problems were the result of little more than teenage stupidity and self-absorption. Ravi has long been painted as the bad guy in the situation, the freshman who outed his roommate in the cruelest manner possible; and while Ravi comes across as childish, thoughtless, and self-centered, Parker is explicit in his detailings of how Ravi’s actions fall short of the early news stories.

Parker raises some interesting questions, as well, about just what Ravi is on trial for. Essentially, Ravi’s actions (of viewing webcam footage, for about five seconds, of Clementi with another man; of posting horrifyingly thoughtless tweets; of advertising a “viewing party” of another encounter, which never happened because Clementi unplugged Ravi’s computer) are those of, as Parker puts it, “shiftiness and bad faith.”

If prosecutors had been able to charge Ravi with shiftiness and bad faith—if the criminal law exactly reflected common moral judgments about kindness and reliability—then to convict him would be easy. The long indictment against Ravi can be seen as a kind of regretful commentary about the absence of such statutes. Similarly, the enduring false belief that Ravi was responsible for outing Tyler Clementi, and for putting a sex tape on the Internet, can be seen as a collective effort to balance a terrible event with a terrible cause.

Parker’s piece is a must-read. Ravi by no means comes out of the piece looking good, but the story as a whole benefits from Parker’s well-reasoned and non-judgmental style.

Read Ian Parker’s “The Story of a Suicide”


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Story Sundays: Raymond Carver’s “Beginners”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, add your thoughts in the comments.

When I started reading Raymond Carver’s short stories I was startled to come across similar stories in different collections of his. I say “similar” because they had the same base, but the stories were so different that they inhabited different worlds – maybe characters had the same names (or not), but the way their histories and actions were fleshed out was so different that the stories didn’t always feel like they had the same author.

So this week I’m going off a little different with the stories feature. There’s a story to read, Carver’s “Beginners”, but there’s also a version of the story showing the edits of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish. The story as edited by Lish became “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The New Yorker shows the original draft of the story with Lish’s edits sort of superimposed over it – so it’s not the easiest of reads, but it gives you a sense of how arbitrary some of the changes to the story are (changing characters’ names) and also of how harsh Lish’s edits were. In “Beginners” the characters are talking about love and hate and the sort of middle ground between, with Herb McGinnis telling a story about an old couple who were in a car crash and spent weeks in intensive care, unable to see each other. At last the couple are reunited. This story is the focal point of “Beginners”, the part of the story around which everything else circles and begins to come into focus. Lish cut huge swathes of McGinnis’s story, changing even basic details like the arrangement of the couple’s room(s).

I prefer the first version of the story, “Beginners” as it existed before it saw Lish’s knife. I feel the same way about another of Carver’s stories, “A Small Good Thing”, the one that helped me understand just how unforgiving Lish’s edits were.

When I first read the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love I was enthralled by the style, by the spareness of it. Now, knowing how much of that came from Lish, I’m not sure what I think of it. Lish created something extraordinary in those stories, but I think they should be read, too, as they were before Lish got to them. Whichever version of the stories you prefer, it’s interesting to get this glimpse of the editing process, and of what a powerful editor can do (in ways good and bad) to a writer’s work.

Which version of the story do you prefer?

Read “Beginners”

Read “Beginners” with Lish’s edits

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Story Sundays: Roddy Doyle’s “Ash”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Each Sunday I write about a short story available online. If you read the story, add your thoughts in the comments.

It was just St. Patty’s Day. I am one for making obvious statements and obvious posts, so today I’m saying things like – well, the first sentence of this post – and linking up to Roddy Doyle’s story “Ash”. Why? Because Roddy Doyle is an Irish writer, of course, but also because he writes stunning and always true dialogue and lands in this happy place between literary and commercial fiction, or maybe doesn’t land between them but manages to bring the two together.

“Ash” is about Nick, whose wife Ciara has just told him she’s leaving him. He’s trying to figure things out, like what it means that she comes over at night a couple times, and what to say to their two daughters about their mother’s absence, and seeks advice from his brother.

My only bone with the story (and I mention it only because I hope that one of my younger and hipper readers, not as averse to using cellphones or having friends as I am, will be able to illuminate something for me) comes in the text messages Nick exchanges with his brother. Doyle’s dialogue is always spot-on, but these texts seemed labored and awkward – like, I get that people get lazy when texting, but the letters Nick and Mickey leave out seem utterly random, and there’s more abbreviation than I think anyone actually uses. (Except a 13-year-old girl in New Jersey?) Like, “Hav u foned hr?” Or when his brother texts him with some plans: “Jcksns, snday” which translates to “Jacksons, Sunday.” But why leave out the “u”? When you’re texting, wouldn’t you type “sun” instead of “snday”? And when has “hr” become an abbreviation for “her” rather than “hour”? Do people really shorten three-letter words to become two-letter words? Do people in Ireland abbreviate differently than people in America? Do Irish cell phone companies charge for each and every character, necessitating awkward abbreviations of restaurant names? Is it an age thing? Or do the phones of Roddy Doyle’s characters not have T9, making it both possible and easy (I am trying to imagine a world in which typing “Jcksns” takes less brain power than typing “Jacksons,” really I am) to write messages like Nick and Mickey do?

I didn’t mean to write so much about that. Pretend that the bulk of this post isn’t about T9, go read the story, then tell me if Doyle doesn’t write some great dialogue and some subpar text messages.

Read “Ash”

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