Sometimes you go a while without reading a story that takes your breath away, and it’s only when you come upon one again that you realize how long it’s been. Alix Ohlin’s “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student” (included in the 2005 Best American Short Stories anthology, and originally published in Swink) is such a story for me, and I needed it. It’s from her collection Babylon & Other Stories; she is also the author of a novel, The Missing Person. Some other stories from the collection are on-line, and a couple I read are not as strong. But in the library I read another very good one, “Land of the Midnight Sun,” and that’s enough to convince me to order the book from Powell’s and check out the whole thing.
“Simple Exercises…” gets away with the kind of thing I’m trying, as a writer, to get away from. (More later on the dilemma of the ‘quiet’ short story.) It’s an extremely quiet story that charts a small movement in its two main characters. The story’s achievement is that when that movement comes it’s startling. The smallest distance traveled can feel huge in the right hands. It’s also a very musical story, appropriate given its topic, piano lessons. Ohlin introduces a certain motif early on and when she reprises it later it takes your breath away. Or it did mine. I read and write for those moments, so thank you, Alix Ohlin (pronounced o-lean).
A final note: The music blog Largehearted Boy runs an occasional Book Note feature in which authors are asked to come up with a playlist for their latest work. Read Ohlin’s Babylon playlist HERE.