Word Riot Fiction Editor Timmy Waldron picks out stories you should put on your reading list this month.
To Build a Fire by Jack London
Where to find it: Google it
Why it’s good: There’s something great in every paragraph.
Londoness: We’ve got Alaska, the Yukon trail, a proper wolf-dog named Bud, man and beast in the elements…on the London scale of Londoness this story goes to eleven.
Writerly things to note: To Build a Fire could be a fine story, even if the main character was warmed with relative ease. But there’s the numbness in his hands, the cold, the snow falling from trees, and the wet clothes. London picks on his character and it makes this a more robust and fulfilling read. As a writer you don’t get points for being a kind and just god to your characters.
Was there anything you didn’t like? Even though this is the house that Jack built, I kind of rolled my eyes when the narration brought us into the dog’s consciousness. However, it isn’t flimsy and the point of view is essential to the story. Plus, his idea how a dog thinks is interesting. It’s not like Catlady’s wish fulfillment of what Peepers’ is thinking.
Did you know? This is the second published version of To Build a Fire. And you know what? The first one, published in 1902, isn’t so great. It has none of the dread or atmosphere that makes its revised doppelganger so captivating. Read them both (the 1908 one fist) and take heart writers, even Jack London needed to work on his chops. Bonus, this story will be 100 years old in August of 2008.
Things you will learn: Much about what it takes to survive. I guarantee that after reading this story you will be able to survive a seventy-five below night on the Yukon trail. I’m going to go ahead and keep believing that until proven wrong. Bear Grills is a pussy.
What kind of read? This story is all about momentum. The events build and build, one misfire begets another. The how could this getting any worse frame work is tense and thrilling. It needs to be taken on in one sitting.
Paired nicely with: Hot Chocolate and a roaring fire. And for God’s sake, keep those matches dry.
The Ambush by Donna Tartt
Where to get it: Tin House, The Guardian, or Google it.
Why it’s good: Tartt tells a taut tale of a trouble toddler named Tim. The Ambush is set in a wonderfully described suburban setting during the Viet-fucking- Nam war. There are wonderful scenes of children at play and well drawn relationships between children and adults. It’s got tension, it’s got drama, it’s got adventure and it’s got pathos.
Writerly things to note: If you’re writing stories about children told from the perspective of an adult narrator than you can take a great deal from The Ambush. Also, the story unfolds nicely, it’s well plotted, and brought together well in the end.
Best line from a character named Tim: “Without an enemy,” Tim said, “it’s not a real war.”
Type of read: Its life during war time and Donna Tartt has a van loaded with weapons, word weapons. The Ambush is a nice piece of fiction and you’ll be happy you’ve read it. Think about war, wonder, what is it good for?
Pairs nicely with: Coffee and Tea
First day of Winter by Breece D’J Pancake
Where to get it: Google it or buy The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
Why it’s good: People will often ask me: “Main Readerman, what’s a short story?” I’ll say, “Read First day of Winter, now that’s a short story!” Pancake is an exceptionally talented writer and this story deals out full helpings of guilt, spitefulness, regret, and beauty.
How does the squirrel hunting scene rank? Good question. If I were to compile a list of the 50 best squirrel hunting scenes in short fiction this would easily breach the top five. It’s too bad Cousin Eddie quit eating squirrels after reading they were high in cholesterol. He would have really enjoyed Thanksgiving in this story.
Writerly things to note: Pancake does a masterful job of linking the barren physical landscape of a farm, in winter, to the sparse emotional inner landscape of his protagonist. You’ll be devastated by things as simple as a hairline fracture in a car engine. I promise.
Did you know? Pancake was posthumously nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He killed himself at the age of 26. Google the author and check out articles on NPR, Wikipedia, or wherever. Pancake is an intresting and tragic figure. His bio is compelling and worth exploring.
Type of Read: Remember that part in A Few Good Men? When Jack Nicholson says something like “Deep down inside of you, in places you don’t want to talk about at parties…something, something, something…truth.” This story lives there, deep down in that place you don’t want to cop to. It has a somber tone and will weigh heavy on your psyche.
Pairs nicely with: Mmm Pancake.
Helping by Robert Stone
Where to get it? In Stone’s collection Bear & His Daughter. Or you can buy a limited edition printing of this long short story for only $200 bucks on Amazon.
Why it’s good: It’s a dark piece of business filled with struggle, conflicted characters, and rage… all in a lovely northeastern setting. The main character, Elliot, is a social worker who’s struggling with sobriety, a troubled marriage, and some lingering issues from his time in Viet-fucking-Nam. The story has some humor and tenderness and is told with honesty (which is such a lonely word).
Writerly things to note: Helping reads like a novel, but in short story form… kind of like how Chunky Soup eats like a meal, but must still be served in a bowl. Novels and short stories, for the most part, have different rules. Helping blurs the line and does it in a satisfying way. Also pay special attention to how Stone uses his supporting characters. They all do their part to further the story and shape our view of Elliot.
Best line said by a social worker holding a shotgun: “Most of the time,” Elliot said, sighting down the barrel, “I’m helpless in the face of human misery. Tonight I’m ready to reach out.” John McClane smirks and says Yippy-Ki-Yay.
Type of Read: This story takes on some weighty issues and asks hard moral questions about responsibility, life, and death. The characters aren’t always likable, but by golly they’re human. The darkness in this story is very appealing, as it the top-shelf writing. There’s a lot going on here, it’s not difficult to read but give it at least two looks…there’s much to connect. Throw on some Darkness on the Edge of Town era Springsteen and keep by the night stand.
Pairs nicely with: A club soda and take it one day at a time.