August 7th, 2008



The title of my entry today has been shamelessly stolen from a book called (what else?) YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS. Edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, it’s published by Harper Perennial, and is subtitled CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN WRITERS INTRODUCE STORIES THAT HELD THEM IN AWE.

 You probably already have a pretty good idea of what the work offers, but Donna Seaman’s BOOKLIST review will give you the details:

 Writers are passionate readers because literature is an ongoing dialogue. And you can learn a lot about writers by knowing what they love to read. Editors Hansen and Shepard decided to ask some of their favorite American writers to identify stories that fell into their you’ve-got-to-read-this category. The end result is an anthology of terrific tales introduced by essays that open windows onto the creative process of 35 top fiction writers. Each story is introduced by the writer who was inspired, intimidated, or moved to extreme emotion on reading it. Here’s some examples: John Irving chose “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens; Mary Gordon selected “The Dead” by James Joyce; Oscar Hijuelos acknowledged his debt to Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Aleph”; Lorrie Moore was stunned by John Updike’s “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car”; Joyce Carol Oates picked Kafka’s unforgettable “In the Penal Colony”; and Louise Erdrich couldn’t get over Robert Stone’s “Helping.” This is almost a two-for-one deal for story-lovers: a glimpse into the reading minds of one set of popular and talented authors, together with a selection of outstanding stories by their mentors and peers.

 All of us who write–and, I dare say, all of us who really read–have had that book or that story or that poem that has sent us out into the madding crowd, grabbing people by the arm, not suggesting, not urging, not recommending, but dictatorially telling ‘em, “You’ve got to read this”–and then adding the essential “because …”

 Of course, your “You’ve got to read this” guidelines can and will change as you change; that’s how it works. As somebody (Lionel Trilling? W. H. Auden? Harold Bloom? Wayne Allen Sallee?) said, “Real books read us,” and US is a dynamic and malleable beast as we live and grow and grow older and grow old. Maybe once you were that 13 kid waving CATCHER IN THE RYE and yelling, “You’ve got to read this because this Salinger guy HAD TO BE living in my house and in my head to know my real true feelings so well … ” Chances are, you’re not that same kid today and CATCHER doesn’t catch you in QUITE the same way. I’ve had two different nephews tell me that STAR WARS was the best book ever written–in fact, all the STAR WARS books were the best books ever written because all the STAR WARS movies were the best movies ever movied, but these fine lads, having aged a tad, are no longer certain that the Skywalker and Co. saga belongs on the same shelf with WAR AND PEACE.

 All the above is by way of wordier than usual prologue, so that now I can say to you: You’ve got to read this.

 My criteria: I’m doing a shout-out only about stuff I’ve recently read–say, in the past year. I’m bringing to your attention a writer whose work can be found relatively easily, and yet a writer who’s not a brand name like Grisham or Patterson or Drano or Ajax. I’m pointing out to you–no, I’m telling you–YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS.

 It’s a story called “Wickedness.”

 It breaks most of the rules of short story writing. Indeed, it might be called “experimental writing,” but unlike much of that oeuvre, this is an experiment which deserves to leave the laboratory because it succeeds. It does not have a single main character, as a proper story (ahem) ought. Instead, it gives us a series of characters and each is as main as the other.

 Nor does “Wickedness” have anything like a traditional “A leads to B, B leads to C” PLOT. Instead, we have a series of vignettes presenting the characters who are caught up in a sudden Nebraska blizzard in 1888. Some of them live, some live but are damaged, some die. (Vonnegut might add here, “And so it goes …”)

 But in its presentation of that blizzard, the story does something to me I’ve never previously experienced in a short work of fiction: It makes me feel the intensity of the cold, the dead white quiet in the center of the winds, the smallness that is our human lot when hit by–apologies for the cliché—a “Force of Nature.” (yes, I’ve had a similar feeling when reading Dan Simmons’s masterful novel THE TERROR, but a short story has intensity that a novel, a lengthy novel, cannot provide.)

 In previous UNPLUGGED columns I’ve quoted Cyril Connolly’s “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice.” I’ll be reading “Wickedness” again, more than twice, pondering the title, feeling that blizzard, and observing moments in lives rendered in words with the memorability of an Impressionist master painter giving us scenes of the ordinary–and unforgettable.

 Oh, I see I’ve forgotten to mention the author of “Wickedness”; why, it’s none other than … Ron Hansen, YOU’VE GOT TO READ THIS! co-editor (with Jim Shepard, also a dynamite fictionist).

 I’ve been reading Ron Hansen’s books for years and using them in my classes at Columbia College Chicago. He’s a writer of tremendous range, giving us THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD and HITLER’S NIECE — and a modern comedy of manners / errors novel called ISN’T IT ROMANTIC?: AN ENTERTAINMENT. Other books include ATTICUS and MARIETTE IN ECSTASY and the nonfiction A STAY AGAINST CONFUSION: ESSAYS ON FAITH AND FICTION, which proves that “religious writing” does not have to be on the level of “God has a Son on the Honor Roll in Heaven” / bumper sticker theology. His writing has never disappointed me …

 –But “Wickedness” astounds me.

 You can find the story in Hansen’s collection NEBRASKA from The Atlantic Monthly Press.

 It’s my “You’ve got to read this!” for this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

 And to my fellow UNPLUGGED STORYTELLERS and all the readers of this blog, I’m asking:

 What’s yours?


PS. Apologies for the early post, but I’m moving around and about some these days–and have to tack stuff onto the bulletin board when I can at a time “close” to when I’m supposed to …


  1. August 7th, 2008 at 21:03 | #1

    There have been a great many stories that I’ve loved and enjoyed sharing and a great many authors I want people to read – as well as a great many authors I have yet to discover.

    However, the one story that profoundly hit me were four issues of a comic called Daredevil collected into a graphic novel titled Daredevil: Wake Up. It was scripted by Brian Michael Bendis and painted (not illustrated but painted) by David Mack.

    The story is about a reporter, Ben Urich, who against his editors wishes can’t stop investigating the disappearance of a third-rate super villain – Leap Frog — and the plight of the villain’s withdrawn catatonic? autistic? son who draws pictures of Daredevil that seem to suggest he killed the boy’s father. Although his presence is felt throughout the book, Daredevil doesn’t actually appear until the end of the story.

    Ben Urich’s dogged determinism to help this strange boy locked away inside of himself despite the possibility of losing his job, touch me at a time when I was trying to deny that my own son was autistic.

    I cried through the last half of the comic and then I went downstairs and hugged my son until he finally rested his head on my shoulder – as close to a hug-back as it got. That story turned me around and helped make me the best possible father to that boy that I can be. . . .

    And I still tear up when I flip through its pages.

  2. August 7th, 2008 at 22:17 | #2

    Hey, Mort. By now everybody must know that every time you mention my name in print I have to send you three dollars, one of my Dick Briefer Frankenstein comics from the 50s, and a hand drawn stick figure of Jerry Lee Lewis. Still and all, thanks. My answer to your question: “Torch Song” by John Cheever. Read it in college, got reamed by Prof. Stronks for suggesting the lady was a succubus (because *gasp* they weren’t real!), and have gone so far as to blow up the pages to 8 1/2 x11 and velo bind the story all by its lonesome on my shelf.

  3. Robert Jones
    August 8th, 2008 at 05:38 | #3

    As you point out in your fine piece, Mort, our guidelines can and will change; but I can recall keeping a copy of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in my car. If I was stopped for a few minutes at a railroad crossing, I could grab the book and quickly open it to any page and find something touching to read. The author, Harper Lee, had clear visions of thought processes in both adult’s and children’s minds. A splendid example of the latter nested in a description of a vacant area that served neighborhood kids as a makeshift baseball field. It bordered the yard of a house where a scary character named Boo Radley lived. Ms. Lee captured the thoughts and fears of the little baseball players perfectly while describing natural objects that defined the boundaries of “fair ball” and “four ball” territories. She wrote that any ball that went into the Radley yard was a “LOST BALL – NO QUESTIONS ASKED.”


  4. Robert Jones
    August 8th, 2008 at 06:52 | #4

    In re the above: OOPS!
    FOUL ball rather than FOUR ball.

  5. August 8th, 2008 at 07:56 | #5

    So many stories and novels have made my psychic hair rise. Joyce’s “The Dead” and McCammon’s Boy’s Life are two.

    Do movies count? Check out BLACK ROBE, about a 17th century Jesuit missionary in Canada. It explores the clash of cultures when Christians meet Indians. Guess who wins?

    Hey, Mort, ‘YOU’VE GOT TO SEE THIS!”

  6. August 8th, 2008 at 08:35 | #6

    all right. those few who know me pretty well should know that I am no suck-up. My friends are my friends for a variety of reasons and I don’t tell them stuff just to make them feel good. They should feel good just because we’re friends. How’s that for no modesty.

    So, I can say without question, the story you’ve got to read is “Altenmoor, Where the Dogs Dance,” by Mort Castle. This is a story about growing old, and the relationship we have with our parents and our grandparents. It’s a story with more emotion packed in a bunch of words that doesn’t have one monster or one murder or any violence at all. It’s a story I cannot read without at leas a tear or two trickling down my cheek. Or, to put it in more simple terms, it’s a story that if I could write it, I’d retire, happy that I finally had achieved perfect grace as a writer. It’s that story we finish and say, “God damn, why didn’t I write that?” but you know that it’s Mort’s story and only he could put the right words to paper. So read it. It’s that good.

    And, since I never obey the rules, if you want to search for a second story that might be a little more difficult to find but is well worth the effort, read “These Doth the Lord Hate,” by Manly Wade Wellman, published originally in Weird Tales under the pen-name Gans T. Fields. It’s another emotional powerhouse of a story and one I have never been able to read aloud because I choke up at the ending. If you want to know why Wellman was so good, read this. It’s only two pages long, but in my eyes, it’s unforgetable.

    that’s it. all truth, no lies. Bob w.

  7. Joel Arnold
    August 8th, 2008 at 08:45 | #7

    There’s a chapter from Richard Brautigan’s TROUT FISHING IN AMERICA called the “Kool-Aid Wino” that I can read over and over again, and still get that sense of kid-like wonder and innocence portrayed in that piece.


  8. Matthew Novak
    August 8th, 2008 at 11:30 | #8

    “Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates. Hands down.

  9. Kirk
    August 8th, 2008 at 15:31 | #9

    Two stories immediately come to mind for me — the first was one I read when I was 13, sitting in the library of the military boarding school I was in: “The Star” by Arthur Clarke. In the middle of reading it, I lay the book down and refocused on the world around me and thought, I’d love to write something even half as good as this. Some years later, I leafed through a copy of Omni Magazine on the bookshelf and came upon “The Power and the Passion” by Pat Cadigan. This was in the early years of the vampire story saturation. For me, Pat’s tale rewrote what a vampire tale could be and do to a reader. No posing, no pretense, no angst. Just cut-throat STORY. Nothing else has ever matched that.

  10. Mort
    August 9th, 2008 at 12:59 | #10

    Appreciate all the responses and, of course and for obvious reasons, I have appreciative appreciation for Bob Weinberg’s response.

    Heard from Ron Hansen that he is working on a new story collection.

    Like this “You’ve got to read this!” idea; might do it once a year on SU.

    Thanks, folks.


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