Adventures in Reading

“Center of Gravity” by L. J. Amster

“The railroad yard bull squinted closely at the picture on the card that said I was licensed to box in Illinois.”

Launching the Best American Short Stories of 1965 is L. J. Amster’s short story “Center of Gravity.” At 56-pages, it is one of the longest stories in the collection. I have read “Center of Gravity” three times now and while I can say I have appreciated it I cannot say I really have enjoyed the story. Our narrator is arrested for illegally riding on freight cars, is put into jail though allowed to box, and when he returns to prison is “caged” by the sheriff and his men to be held for what Amster suggests as an indeterminate time to fight when they want him to.

The “rules” that exist within the book’s world are always murky. A barber moonlights as the justice of the peace, the Jewish narrator recently threw a fight, boys are let out of jail to box, the sheriff and his men are drinking, and there’s a stop in at a regularly closed down roadside house. Though I don’t necessarily like comparing short stories and novels, I found “Center of Gravity” to be fairly reminiscent of Nelson Algren’s Never Come Morning or Meridel Le Sueur’s The Girl.

Within these 56-pages there is a great deal happening and Amster appeals to the reader with some beautifully portrayed moments and details: the narrator’s photo looking “as if [he] were wearing a large white flower behind [his] right ear” or the temptation and denial sequence between the turnkey’s bone and a dog, which becomes a central theme of the story.

I suppose part of my disconnection with “Center of Gravity” involves literature and Chicago and literature and boxing: both two areas that have quite tough acts to follow. Amster’s book simply didn’t offer a refreshing or grimy enough appeal. However, I also believe that “Center of Gravity” would be an excellent story to read in a group or for a class and I hesitate to develop any final opinion if only because there is a lot – even much more than I’ve already mentioned – going on in the story. I found it to be a tough one to swallow on my own.

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Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

“Goldfinch was flapping clothesline, a tenement delirious with striving.”

A few posts back I asked how reader’s decided which book to read next. I forgot to add that an excellent way to discover new writers and titles is asking at readings. Earlier in the year I heard two Canadian authors read. One was Steven Hayward author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke (which I still have not read) and the other man I entirely forget (except that a group of us went back to a friend’s house and ate take out sushi). However, both of these authors recommended David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories, and ever since then the collection has been sitting in the forefront of my mind as a must buy.

And I did. Buy it, that is, and it definitely tops my list as a favorite purchase and read of 2007. Bezmozgis story collection follows the life of a family of Jewish Russian immigrants in Toronto, Ontario. To paraphrase from one of my favorite television shows Black Books: I laughed, I cried, it changed my life. The book does follow the same family in chronological order, so especially if you are not a fan of the short story format this is one to try.

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