Short Stories

thumbnail_IMG_4133    After listening to Lauren Groff read her short story “Dogs Go Wolf” in the New Yorker about two little girls, ages four and seven, left behind on a deserted island, I thought about why I preferred novels to short stories.  In Groff’s voice, the little girls came alive, their trials of fear and hunger seemed more acute than if I had read about it.  Their misery continues through a half hour – or six pages in the New Yorker – getting more and more horrible, until they eventually fall into a stupor – “two little girls made of air.”  To distract from the horror, Groff inserts a promise of their future – one becoming a lawyer, the other married – before returning to the blazing sun and the little wolves they’ve become.   By the end of the story, they are rescued, but the gap in their lives seems hollow in the short description of the incident on the island that made them whoever they became.   Perhaps Groff will write more in a novel.  I’d like to know more about these brave souls.

Short stories offer a quick glimpse into a moment of the characters’ lives.  Edith Pearlman and Jane Gardam have successfully navigated the difficulty of the short – both offering soundbites worth remembering.  I am looking forward to reading Penelope Lively’s collection in “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.”  When I write, I prefer the short story, as difficult as it may be to condense, to spending years with the characters of a novel – but maybe that will change.

For now, the short story is a quick diversion, and when well-written, has a lot to offer, but I still prefer immersing myself in the novel.  Claire Messud’s two little girls in “The Burning Girl” have me mesmerized right now, and I am glad to have them with me for longer than a short.

Do you have a preference?  short story or novel?

To hear Groff’s story – listen to the podcast here

Reviews of Other Books by Groff:

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Planning for Next Year’s Book Club Discussions

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In Lynn Neary’s article for NPR – Now You’re Talking! The Year’s Best Book Club 154184690Reads – five books made the cut.  Two I’ve read and reviewed:

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

Two are on my library wait list: The Round House by Louise Erdich and NW by Zadie Smith; The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is the last on Neary’s list – one I might skip over.

The local book club has two of my favorites on line for next year:

Caleb’s Crossing
Rules of Civility

What will you be talking about next year?

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

A life of peace and simplicity – the definition of the word “arcadia,” and the world a group of idealists aspires to in Lauren Groff’s new novel – Arcadia. But the simple life is not always easy – no indoor plumbing, living off the land, surrendering individual will for the good of the whole.

Hannah, with a trust fund that sometimes has kept the group from starving, and Abe, an engineer in his former life, try to leave their mercenary world behind to make a better life in a commune in upstate New York with their small son, Bit. When Handy, the leader of the pack, goes off to give concerts with some of the musically talented in the group, Abe organizes those left behind to renovate an old mansion destined to become the communal house.

The story revolves around Bit’s life in four phases, from his naïveté and wonder as a child thriving in a pastoral setting to his teen years, when the struggle to maintain the utopian ideal frays under the strain of too many people with not enough resources. The small band of hippies had grown to 900, and Bit’s father has become an invalid in a wheelchair before the community finally disbands.

Groff fast forwards in the third section to Bit in his thirties, a single father in the real world who teaches photography at a small college. Although he has managed to survive his upbringing, still grounded with some of the ideals his parents wished for him, the fortunes of others from Arcadia vary. Groff neatly inserts updates on the principle characters – Handy with his fourth wife; Abe and Hannah back on the old Arcadia property; Astrid, Handy’s first wife, a pioneer in midwifery. The grown-up children have all forsaken the ideals of their parents, and have traded the essence of Arcadia for more worldly pursuits.

Although Groff leaves the fate of Bit’s wife hanging – she took a walk and never came back – the book could have ended successfully for me at this point. But Groff adds a last grueling section – Bit in his forties, caring for his mother who has unsuccessfully attempted suicide to stop the progress of her debilitating slide into ALS. As Bit’s mother declines, so does the world of 2018 with a pandemic threatening the overall population.

In this last section, Groff manages to revisit the original Arcadia and reexamine its purpose and effect. The dream of Arcadia commands a certain reverence and respect, but the reality of Arcadia could never measure up. The world does not end, but Eden seems to dissolve into dystopia. Throughout, Bit somehow manages to keep the faith.

“{Bit} lets the afternoon sink in. The sweetness of the soil rises to him…The city is still far away, full of good people going home. In this moment that blooms and fades as it passes, he is enough, and all is well with the world.”

The lure of learning more about the circle of vegan liberal-minded groupies who were trying to model a way of life that could save the world kept me reading, and Bit’s sudden entry into a world without those supports was fascinating. But the last section left me feeling cheated; the world survived despite the meat-eating, environment-abusing, disease-ridden population who never embraced Arcadia. What was Groff trying to say?