I recently read two books that gently removed my brain, fiddled with it as softly as a piranha eating breakfast, and put it back in all reconfigured, chewed upon, and terrible. The first was At the Mouth of the River of Bees, by Kij Johnson. The other was Catherynne Valente’s The Melancholy of Mechagirl. Both short story collections, both heart-eaters.
Before this year, I wasn’t sure what I thought of short stories. I knew I couldn’t write them, and wasn’t sure I liked reading them. I certainly hadn’t read many of them. But because my attempts at making them always churned out glittery, half-masticated beasts with broken legs, I knew it was time to get better. This meant reading, because as a writer, reading is possibly the second most important thing to do (the first involves going outside and letting life punch you in the gut—again and again and again).
So I went to Clarkesworld. I read some E. Lily Yu (who I love, and please, Ms. Yu, won’t you finish your novel so I can eat it?) and then listened to some more E. Lily Yu, while I was working on this piece (which explains why the elk in the drawing looks a little tragic). But as much as I inhaled those pieces, short stories still weren’t utterly my thing. So I decided to trick my self. I got a couple collections, which are like novels-in-disguise (because when you sardine a bunch of stories between two bread-like covers, you get something that looks pretty much like a book). I began with Wonders of the Invisible World, because this review said it wasn’t going to be “like consuming a box of crackers.” And it was right! The stories in this book are not crackers. Or at least, they aren’t saltines. They’re more like pita chips–far more delicious, but still missing something (hummus, obviously).
The next collection I read was At the Mouth of the River of Bees. It contains The Man who Bridged the Mist, which won the 2012 Hugo Award for best novella. Whatever your thoughts on the Hugos, this probably means it may have been pretty good. At the moment, I don’t feel like commenting on the Hugos (just don’t want to dive into that particular bag of slugs just this moment), but the story is most definitely good, and most definitely deserving.
What happened after Bees was an accident. I never meant to buy Catherynne Valente’s The Melancholy of Mechagirl–though I desperately wanted to (after all, it in contains my favorite poem ever in print form). But then I was writing this paper about myth and story and hearts and robots–and suddenly, this book became very necessary. So I bought it, because I had a reasonable excuse (wanting something so badly I found a way to trick myself–again–into getting it).
At this point, you might want to know more about the piranhas and brain-eating I mentioned earlier. It’s this: because of these two books, I love short stories so hard right now. I’m learning so much about form, and what a short story can be, sometimes I can hear my brain clanking around in my skull it’s still so shock-frozen (the piranhas obviously have ice-picks for teeth).
Now for the funny thing: I just sold my first story, to Shimmer–a story I wrote months before reading these books. So, while I’m not so confident I feel could free climb El Capitan, I’m feeling a bit better about my ability to write short pieces. I have a number of new stories with sharper edges, that do stranger things with stronger grins, and soon they’ll be sent out–and if I’m lucky, find homes.
The piranhas ate my brains, but they left a few scraps, a few loose teeth, and right now, I think I can feel it all regenerating.