Thursday, February 4, 2016

On "The Old Economy Husband" by Lesley Dormen (5648 words) *****

"The Old Economy Husband" is the first story in Lesley Dormen's linked collection, and it is the really highlight of the work. It is a love story, a love story about finding love later in life, in middle age, after all the bad decisions earlier in that dating life. And like so many stories in the collection, nothing much really happens, but the whole thing reads like a poem, a song, a hymn, to passion--and it is wonderful. Read the story here at the Atlantic.

On "The Best Place to Be" by Lesley Dormen ****

I came to this collection sight unseen, and I am happy to have read it. The first couple of stories were especially exquisite, managing to do the usual contemporary story thing not so much with original flair as with sheer skill. Those early stories left me feeling as if I were reading the work of a master whose talent was so genuine, so impressive, that there really is a reason some people go on to find publishing success and others, while good writers, do not. Dormen's every word and phrase was fun to follow, and at the end of the story, chills ran through my body on what seemed a very simple turn of phrase. It's something I don't quite understand, the mystery of that chill, how some people can illicit such a thing at the end of a story that hasn't really gone anywhere in terms of action-filled plot. And Dormen's does over and over, though not quite with every story in the collection.

All the stories revolve around a singular character, a woman who remained single deep into her life and whose eventual marriage to a seemingly wonderful man is generally happy, though tinged with a certain amount of annoyance the longer it continues. The woman is a newspaper columnist and reporter, initially dispensing advice to single women but later just being the go-to on various subjects. She is the product of a single mother, whose three marriages each had the problems--the second man a seeming molester, the third a rich man who enables the mother's egregious spending (a habit her daughter emulates). The first is a man who has virtually now relationship with the woman and her brother until they are adults, which, in one story, is made to appear as if it were mostly the mother's fault. During the course of the stories, the mother dies, and the woman deals with her grief. In all, this is a portrait of a family as seen through the daughter's eyes.

The first story in the collection is my favorite, but I'll write of that one separately. The second story and the last story are my favorites next to that. The second story revolves around the narrator's life as an older single, one who has made bad choices in dating and who now feels as if she has put herself in a position from which she can never return--single forever. The last story in the collection is, in essence, about aging, though in all the stories, the woman appears to be around fifty or just thereafter. In this story, though, she is somewhat less taken with her husband and yet also happy for the security his presence affords her. The cause of this deep thought about her marriage is a newspaper article she agrees to write about marriage researchers.

"Curvy" recounts Alex and his sister going to meet Irv, their biological father, and his wife. Alex resents Irv for leaving them; the sister, a bit older, seems more understanding and even has mixed feelings about him versus her mother. "The Secret of Drawing" focuses on the narrator's start at college and on her mother's second divorce and on her taking up with a third man and on the feelings the narrator has for the man she calls dad (that second husband). "Gladiators" focuses on the siblings fighting one another over inheritance matters after their mother's death, and "General Strike" focuses on a Thanksgiving trip to Italy with her brother, his wife, and the narrator's husband. Here, one gets the feeling that the marriage is no longer so hot for the woman, but she is able to find some solace in reestablishing a relationship with her brother that reminds her of being young again.

It is really the first story that sets the stage for all of the others, by denoting how there are times in life when we are truly happy and how those times are transitory. It is a happiness contrasted immediately with that second story, which seems much less hopeful but which chronologically precedes the events in the first story. Later, those first story events are in the past, and sadness slowly seems to be reaching in again. Transitory, indeed.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

"The Gingerbread House" by Robert Coover (3171 words) ***

Many of Coover's stories in Pricksongs and Descants revolve around fairy tales--or their retelling. Often details change or Coover offers several varying versions or he opts to make a vaguely sexual component obvious. Such is the case with this refashioning of Hansel and Gretel, which can be read here.

On "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by Jane Jacobs *****

Jacobs opens her book with a discussion of a neighborhood in north Boston (in the 1950s/1960s, when she was writing). The area is a slum--only, it isn't a slum. The streets are vibrant and the place has lower crime than many other neighborhoods in Boston. Why then does it still have a reputation as a slum among city planners? She closes her book with a description of a beach area in New York. The beach isn't that great looking, but it does feature clay soil that dries and leaves odd looking "sculpture" one can take home as a souvenir. The beach is next to a park that features grass fields and playgrounds. In the name of improving the area, the city removes the beach, puts in a seawall, and extends the grassy area. What little character the park had is now gone; it's like most other parks. These are the problems, Jacobs notes, with city planning. They are based on theories about cities that are rooted in philosophical ideas that have nothing to do with what actually makes cities work. Jacobs is about to rewrite what city planners should be focusing on.

The theories the Jacobs takes down are those of the Garden City and the Radiant City by Lewis Mumford and Le Corbusier. One felt that cities needed lots of green space and to be less dense; the other created an ideal city that existed as lone skyscrapers amid vast parks. Jacobs says that this overidealization of nature kills cities. Parks have a purpose, but parks for parks sake in the midst of cities are city killers.

Jacobs lays out four basic tenets that successful cities or parts of cities follow: (1) an area must serve more than one purpose; (2) blocks must be short; (3) buildings must vary in age; and (4) the population must be sufficiently dense. Taken together, these are the things that can ensure a successful city, a successful city park, a successful neighborhood, and so on.

The reason an area must serve more than one purpose is so that people come and go through the area throughout the day and night. If all the action is at morning and evening rush hour and at noon, the area will otherwise be dead. This action time is not enough to serve many types of businesses, and those it can serve will close up shop at the other times.

Short blocks are important to allow for ease of access and flow. They simultaneously cut down on traffic and increase the use of any given street.

Buildings need to have a variety of ages--and looks--to further diversity of tenants. Older buildings will generally have cheaper rents and thus tenants of that sort who can afford them. If all the buildings in an area are the same age, they all fall apart at the same time. And only the types of businesses and people who can afford a new buildings will be in the area, and eventually only those who can afford old stuff will be in the area. So those shoe repair, wig shops, and dance studios that can't afford high rents won't come to the new-fangled portion of town, and only some high-priced restaurants will sit along the street. As the neighborhood declines, the restaurants will leave, and if any businesses at all do move in, they are likely to be of only one sort (e.g., thrift stores).

Density is important because without it, crowds can't fill the streets and make businesses want to open up or stay open.

Jacobs also covers specific examples of various city structures. She notes how sidewalks are best when they are used frequently and at all times of the day. Her four tenets are the means by which one gets crowded sidewalks. Sidewalks that are in use reduce crime and thus blight, because where there are people, thieves and their ilk are less likely to operate. With neighborhood interaction and personal investment in that neighborhood, children are less likely to act up and are also safe from danger. The same tenets can be applied to parks. They need to be in places where they are used by different kinds of people throughout the day and where there are enough people to fill them. Like sidewalks, this is what makes them safe--and popular.

She also covers material on how parts of a town have a natural inclination to become less diverse with time--and thus less successful as a neighborhood. As a neighborhood becomes more popular, poorer residents and businesses have to move out, and slowly all those wig shops and dance studies are replaced by restaurants and offices. Too many of the latter, and the mix of people and the times of day that are spent in the place becomes more segregated. Nights fall off (or days, if the neighborhood moves in another direction), and soon that popular neighborhood is not so popular anymore. Maintaining the mix of ages of buildings is one way to fight this, as is the city offering financial benefits to certain types of businesses for staying. The point is to keep the area diversified. (On the contrary, cities often tend to do the opposite--putting all the government buildings or art institutions in one sector--which kills the neighborhood via a lack of variety.)

She also covers something she calls "border vacuums." This is where a large piece of infrastructure gets in the way of the neighborhood, essentially killing off things as one nears the point. These could be large parks, railroads, highways, long blocks, stadiums, waterfronts--anything that is big and long and doesn't offer much in the way frequent and all-day foot usage. Instead of placing yet more parkland in such areas (as cities often do), Jacobs says, things that encourage frequent usage should be zoned or placed in these spots.

She covers how to get rid of slums, which seems a particularly difficult problem to solve. For her, it's a matter of encouraging people to feel a sense of community--to stick around in the neighborhood so that they have something at stake in it. Of course, if it's a slum, folks naturally want to move out, so that's the problem. But a typical solution--obliterating the slum and starting from scratch only exacerbates problems. The slum dwellers are moved wholesale to a new area. Any sort of businesses that did manage to get a foot into the slum are closed up. All buildings are of the same age in the new area. And no one feels all that connected to it. Getting rid of a slum is a slow process.

One of the problems with such areas is financing them. Folks can't get credit to build new structures, enhance old ones, or start businesses because of the bad reputation of the area. Jacobs sees various solutions--government guaranteed loans, local loans, neighborhood organizing. In one case in Chicago, a neighborhood banded together to threaten to withdraw what savings they did have from a given bank if credit was not extended. The banding together did the trick.

Finally, Jacobs also covers the problem of cars on city streets. Remove them from the streets, and no one will venture to a given area because it is too hard to access. Put enough streets and parking in to allow for the cars, and the city becomes too spread out and lacks the density necessary to make it thrive. She proposes a counterintuitive solution: making the cars go away through attrition. That is, make them less convenient to use and people will stop using them. One can encourage the right kind of vehicles on certain streets by doing things such as adjusting lights so that constant traffic stops make a given street inconvenient for through motorists but are perfect for frequently stopping buses and maybe for delivery trucks. Provide fewer parking spots to encourage use of public transportation or taxis.

To what extent are Jacobs's ideas real to me? Walking on a street with more people around certainly does feel safer most of the time. But I also think of some areas in the town where I live that would be considered slums. I would not feel safe walking them at night, even though there are lots of folk around. Businesses--what few there are in such areas--are often closed at night or have bars on the windows. How such crowded areas can also feel unsafe I am unsure. Still, by and large, areas that follow her four tenets do seem to be more to my liking, as would be the case of the city centers of all of the cities where I've lived. Downtown Los Angeles was dead at night when I was a kid (primarily office buildings), but my hometown of Pasadena refurbished many of its older buildings on the west side of town and the diverse set of uses that were put down there, along with the number of apartments placed close by, and the short blocks have all made it a very busy and exciting part of town.

Monday, January 18, 2016

On "At the End of the Mechanical Age" by Donald Barthelme (2725 words) ****

This tale is everyone's tale at the end of the world. Our loved ones die, and we fill them in with others. We cling to each other, and we play our roles--in marriage and divorce. This particular story concerns the not-so-heavy "love" affair between Mrs. Davis and the narrator. Read the story here.

On "Party out of Bounds" by Rodger Lyle Brown ****

This tale of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Athens, Georgia, covers the advent of the music scene in the town, specifically as it relates to the New Wave period of Rock and Roll. Indeed, to this day, when I mention Athens, Georgia, to someone as a place where I live, many will recognize it as the home of two bands: the B-52's and R.E.M. (This is becoming less so as I get older, and the younger generation has no idea who said top 40 bands from the 1980s and 1990s are.) Even though many other bands have come out of the town now, outside of a few who follow indie bands or who happen to like a cult band, most folks outside of town seem not to have heard of said other bands, even ones that have hit the top 100.

But the B-52's and R.E.M. were a definitely unique force in their time. I grew up in California, and by the late 1980s, both bands had made their mark on the top 40, and I knew in each case the place where they had derived. I was not anything close to a connoisseur of counterculture music at that time, so that says something. And in the 1990s, during my grad school days, R.E.M. dominated MTV's playlist. As such, many memories are tangled up with the two bands. One that has particular fondness for me was at a wedding around 1990. A friend of mine from high school got married. The happy couple left, but the reception party, which involved a dance, continued. A local cover band played, and they were fantastic, and one of the songs they covered was "Roam," which was charting at that time. I remember the evening as a lovely hearken back to high school at a time when hearkening back to high school was important to me; I was on my own--my parents freshly having moved away for a job--going to college and working and not feeling as if I really fit in anywhere, the way I had in high school.

The book itself is a memory prod. I came to Athens in my thirties, a good couple of decades after the events recounted in this book. By that time, Athens already had a reputation for rock music. And I became a person who was sort of into the scene, who lived on its edges. I had many acquaintances among people who played in many of the current bands. I went to a few of the parties (though I usually avoided the afterparties, which happened after a bar closed and would stretch in to sunrise). I enjoyed my time in the scene and sort of miss it, though fewer and fewer people I'd see out were my age or even ten years below my age. (As a friend of mine says: The parties are still around--among those who are of the older set--but they are more private now and not as often.) At the same time, I never felt completely at home in it either. I am not a musician and had no desire to be one; I am very conservative religiously and morally, which meant that drugs and sex were not the part of the party culture that I mixed with, which in turn meant that I stayed away from some of the stuff going on.

So anyway, the book covers much of this as it was just getting started. Before these two bands--and the other bands who happened to be around at that time that did not find as large of a following, including Pylon, Love Tractor, and Oh-OK--Athens had been home, apparently, of mostly just country and blues bands, as one would expect of southern towns. One reads of the foundation of the music club, the 40 Watt. One reads of how R.E.M. and the B-52's came to be and of how the town became so hip that others began to come just to be part of the hipness (newspapers writing of it; Matthew Sweet, apparently, showing up for a few months to play until he himself hit it big and moved on, never intending to stay, just wanting the attention connected to Athens).

The stories of the parties--and there are a lot--get to be rather tedious by the middle of the book. And certainly, for me, R.E.M.'s founding was not as interesting, as it seemed more typical of many a band in town--this one just happened to become big stuff. But the early-going portions of the book are exciting. One can't help but feel the excitement as the B-52's become a thing. Formed, it seems, more or less as a lark, they were fun, fun, fun--and definitely the kind of band one would want at a party. Their odd style shook up the times, not just the town. But in a way, though they put Athens on the map for rock music, the predated that whole scene, so much so that they had to move to New York to find places (outside of private parties) to play.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

On “A Room With Many Small Beds” by Kathy Fish (877 words) ****

Kathy Fish tends to focus on the small. She’s one of those elegant crafters of flash fiction, so I was curious what she would do with this slightly longer piece—ten moments placed side by side and merged into a bit of a story. Here, a girl spends time with the father’s girlfriend, with all the attendant mixed feelings over the loss of her mother. Read the story here in ThreadCount.

On “Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys” by Dave Barry ***

Once upon a time I was a huge Dave Barry fan. This time was when I was about sixteen to about age twenty. I was introduced to him by my high school English teacher or by my high school journalism teacher (they were the same person), most likely in journalism. The teacher read an essay about grammar to us, and I was bowled over. I had to read more. And that I did, eventually.

I bought several of Barry's how-to books (Claw Your Way to the Top came first, a book on business) and his first book of columns, Bad Habits. And I laughed a lot. By age twenty, however, when I read a book of his on home improvement, the love affair was ending. His second book of columns did not seem so funny, and his book on U.S. history only moderately redeemed his more recent work for me. And now, over twenty years have passed since I last picked up one of his works.

This book I got for free from the Little Library in our neighborhood. I figured I'd give Barry a try again. It looked entertaining and funny, and it proved a great book for the light reading needed while on family vacation, since much of that vacation was spent corralling little boys at a water park and did not lend itself to deep reading on the philosophical underpinnings of why humans gather themselves into urban civilizations. Having not read reading quite so light in a long while, I now know how and why some people can manage to get through books so quickly: large print and easy to read equals short time.

The book itself, however, was something of a disappointment. Barry is a humorist. This means that his main objective is to tell jokes. There wasn't a lot to glean here other than laughs. And as I've gotten older, making me laugh has gotten relatively tougher to do. Far Side cartoons, which in my late teens were hilarious, now stir mostly a nod from me. Barry likewise might occasionally make me smile, but only one hard laugh was generated in its two hundred plus pages.

The book is about guys, as opposed to men. Here, Barry is onto something, which he does a good job of laying out in his first chapter. Guys go with the flow. They do not generally accomplish important things with their lives. They do stupid stuff. They avoid work as possible. They are not particularly moral or immoral. They are, essentially, like grown-up kids.

What follows are a number of chapters full of cliches about male behavior, some of them gleaned from personal life, some from news stories, and a number of them common ideas that have lingered in the air for generations. All's well and fine, I suppose, to make fun of males--Barry after all is one--but at some level it becomes a bit tedious and insulting. A guy's idea of housework is . . . A guy's concept of a relationship is . . . And so on. To some extent, I wonder how many of such insights are even true. My wife, indeed, is pickier about cleaning bathrooms than I am, and I have to admit that from my second apartment on as a single man, I largely avoided decorating and eschewed furniture as much as possible, though not for the reasons that Barry might pose. I did not find such stuff necessary and didn't want it weighing me down, as opposed to simply not thinking about it (I had, in fact, made an effort with my first apartment and decided I would not do so again until I owned a place and was certain to stay put). And as for relationships, I can attest to being slow to commit, but again, it was not because I never even thought about them with girls I may have gone out with, and I can say the same of many of my male friends.

About the only set of criticisms that rang true for me were those on home improvement and the feelings of inadequacy I feel as compared to “men.” I am one of those guys who wants desperately to fix up the house but who often feels overwhelmed by a set of skills I never learned or was taught and who does feel somewhat less manly because of that lack.

But of course, Barry isn't looking to tell the truth or to make great insights. He's trying to make us laugh. However, it might just be that with more life experience, I find myself less likely to laugh a stereotypes and more likely to laugh at things that do provide true insights. After all, if laughter is at least in part a reaction to surprise and discomfort, it takes some revelation of truth, perhaps previously unknown, to elicit it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On "The Brother" by Robert Coover (13:36 minutes) *****

My favorite section from Coover's "Seven Exemplary Fictions" involves a retelling of the story of Noah's flood. In this case, a brother has been hired to help Noah build the boat. He works on it until it is done, thinking Noah mostly just a crazy man. Noah gives no real explanation for his actions, so when the brother finds that it is beginning to rain and that everything is disappearing under water, there's a rather grim pity we feel for him.

I could not help but think of the biblical story itself. Noah is regarded as a prophet in the scriptures, so my understanding is that his boat building was accompanied by warnings to those around and by preaching. The real tragedy in Coover's tale is that the brother is clueless--that there is no warning about what is about to happen. But then I think of how we are today surrounded by "prophets" who name an end date for the world that comes and goes. I have to think that one some level, people in Noah's day would have had a similar issue. Was Noah merely one of many predicting the world's end? Which person do we listen to, or should we just ignor them all? Is a proliferation of warnings, many of them false, any better than no warning at all? We live in a sad and pitiable world.

You can listen to Coover himself read the story here.

On "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" by Mario Vargas Llosa *****

Vargas Llosa, along with Manuel Puig, is one of those South American authors I've long intended to get around to reading (like for more than two decades long). It finally happened, and I'm glad to have finally gotten around to this book, as it was an immense pleasure. As with Puig, Vargas Llosa seems to be writing from a different tradition than many of the fantastic realists, but there is a touch of fantasy in this work, if only in the alternate chapters.

What are alternate chapters? Vargas Llosa's book is divided essentially into two parts. Odd chapters focus on the main story; even chapters focus on short stories. The main story involves an eighteen-year-old man in law school who has a job as a radio newsman in Lima, Peru. This young man falls in love with his Bolivian aunt Julia, who is in her early thirties and newly divorced. (The two are unrelated by blood, the aunt being the sister to the wife of the young man's uncle by blood.) As might be imagined, this creates a scandal. The book recounts how the two fall for one another and how they attempt to keep the relationship secret.

But it also recounts the life of another radio employee, who works for a different radio station with the same owners. This other radio station focuses not on news but on entertainment, notably soap operas. The Pedro Camacho, the scriptwriter, is the brain behind these operas. Earlier, the station had depended on imported Cuban scripts, but the Bolivian Camacho is an artist and a perfectionist whose devotion to his craft creates an equal devotion among radio listeners. Audiences grow huge.

It is summaries of the scripts for the stories that Camacho's writes that forge the alternative chapters. These stories are on their own very interesting, and I wish I could find one on the Net to share, but alas, it eluded me. The best stories come toward the front of the book. The very first focuses on a man in love with a woman, but the woman has opted to marry another man, one not really befitting her station--because, as it turns out, she has gotten pregnant by her brother, with whom she is in love. These seems appropriate for soap operas, but it's told with a high literary voice that appeals to someone like me. And true to form, the story ends, not with a conclusion, but with a series of questions about what will happen next. Later chapters focus on a seeming alien arrested by a police officer who has qualms about actually shooting the innocent creature, despite orders; and the rape and attempted murder of the owners of a hotel by one of its boarders. As the stories continue, they became less interesting to me, especially as I got more involved in the main story. But they also devolve naturally, as Vargas Llosa explains in the main text. Character names begin to be repeated between stories (even though they are not the same character) or changed midstory. And then, eventually, all the characters are killed off. Pedro Camacho works himself so hard that he has a meltdown.

Meanwhile, the narrator and his aunt are found out and ordered to stop. Instead, the narrator seeks out a means to get married, which is difficult, given that he is technically a minor under Peruvian law. The tale becomes a love story, as the two try to stay together against overwhelming odds.

And for what? The family is concerned because Aunt Julia is a divorcee and so much older. The narrator is so young and not finished with school. He's condemning himself to a life of hardship. I can understand the family's concern.

But the fortunes of people are not always what they seem likely to become. Camacho goes insane and loses all. The narrator, living for love, seems to come out all right in the end. So too does another radio employee who is largely considered an oaf, while another such employee struggles on along a similar path that he's always been on. Life is a soap opera.

Monday, December 7, 2015

On "The Balloon" by Donald Barthelme (1767 words) ****

One of many of Barthelme's stories available on the Web, this one is about a balloon that engulfs a city and the reactions of various people to it. Or so it seems. It's really about art and how people react to it and why it gets written in the first place, for these external presentations are often simply, as Barthelme puts it, "spontaneous autobiographic disclore[s]." Read the story here.

On "Sixty Stories" by Donald Barthelme ***

Once, a long time ago, I was tasked to write up a bio and summary of criticism on Frederick and Steven Barthelme. I wrote up one on Donald, having been initially given the wrong name. A couple of years after that, I read Donald Barthelme's Snow White. It was absurd and fun and funny. I read it in the Fort Worth Central Library, in one sitting, as I had no means to check out books from that library, living literally a few hundred yards out of town. It's been nearly twenty years. Now I'm finally back to Barthelme. Why? He kept coming up in discussions about experimental fiction. And he showed up as the author of a story taught alongside a story by another author I know. I figured it was time to try Barthelme's short pieces.

Overall, I found the collection fun and intriguing, by as I find with that genius Faulkner's novels, it didn't feel like much of anything added up. These are stories that often just drop off, without any kind of epiphany. Barthelme, I'm sure, was eschewing that element of the form, an element that in its ubiquity almost seems trite. And yet, I find a story without some kind of gravitas ending to be, well, an anecdote. It doesn't tend to stick with me, no matter how clever or absurd the premise and execution.

My favorite stories of this collection generally managed to do something that thing that was clever or absurd, and they were often funny in a smile sort of way. Others were hard to stick to. Among the one that were hardest to stick with, for me, were those that consisted wholly of dialogues. Not only was it difficult sometimes to follow the conversations (often with non sequiturs) but the conversations often didn't seem to go much of anywhere. Now, if I managed to become engaged in the topic of the conversation, and sometimes I did, the dialogue could be quite funny in the smile sort of way. A masterpiece of this form was "The Farewell," which consisted of two people talking about getting into an exclusive institution--only it's not so exclusive as it once was. We see a good deal of awkward and mean competition between two "friends."

My favorite piece in the collection by far was one drawn from what I believe to be one of Barthelme's novels. It was called "A Manual for Sons." It is essentially a summation of fatherhood--what "father" means. I don't know exactly what it is that Barthelme does here that makes the piece so intriguing. It's simply an definition essay on fathers, but the way that he goes about setting out that definition, with its specificity and, many times, ridiculous appeals to history or anecdote fascinates like poetry.

Characteristic of the collection is the very first story, "Margins," which is about two men discussing character and handwriting analysis. If handwriting shows who we are, why bother reforming ourselves--instead, reform our handwriting. The story is an exploration on inner versus outer, surface versus depth--the margins. How can or does one reflect the other? And yet, Barthelme seems to provide no real answer--there's just a lot of talk. And one is left nodding the head, saying, Interesting. Maybe even beautiful. But so what?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

On "Doppelganger" by Mark Crimmins (247 words) ***

Here's a fun one about the person who looks like you. Such has happened to me quite often--dentists claiming I walk by their office every day around noon, roommates angry at me because they wave hello to me on campus and I don't wave back, and so on. Well, here's one thing that could happen, here, at Pif.

(After today, Short Story Reader will become irregular in presentation, rather than every three days or four days or five days, as I have been gradually slowing down. I'll still try to update folks on my reading and present great stories, but life has gotten hectic in the past two years such that I no longer have the time to devote to blogging as regularly as I once did. Look for entries about once every week or two or three. Thanks to all those who have been regular readers through the +7.5 years.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On "For The Wheels to Nullify" by Brent Rydin (422 words) ***

Here, storm is juxtaposed with relationships of various sorts. But the line that sticks out most is the one about how a storm chaser, which the narrator is, isn't brave--he's just some jerk hanging out on the outskirts where it's safe. So it is with the nonrelationship. Read the story here at Whiskey Paper.

On “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” by Manuel Puig ****

What can I say of this book for which I hold such conflicting feelings? It has taken me decades to getting around to reading Manuel Puig. Time gets away, and there are so many things to read. I was intending to read Kiss of the Spider Woman, but the book was unavailable, and in a sense, I was relieved, because I actually wanted to try something else of Puig’s. And so I tried this, his first novel.

Puig is a post-boom writer, as some Latin American literature scholars call those writing after Cortazar and Borges had hit their zenith. And his is a very different text to the magic realism that seems to hold so many Latin American authors imprisoned. I love magic realism, but it’s interesting to read someone who isn’t focused on that. Puig’s novel isn’t even in the objective realist tradition that some other Latin Americans I’ve read fall into. Rather, he seems to fall in line more with William Faulkner, James Joyce, and that ilk. And in that sense, I wish I’d had the time and the ability to concentrate on Puig’s text that I felt it demanded.

The book is written in various styles, but the bulk of it is written in stream of consciousness. Other styles include dialogue (sometimes only half of the conversation is provided to the readers), letters, reports, and diaries. The diaries are the easiest to follow, but they come late in the book. The sections are presented over the course of about fifteen years and involve different narrators. The result is that the book is rather hard to follow.

Was there a plot? Not much of one. Rather, we’re introduced to a village, a rural town, called Vallejos, and we learn about the people who populate it. With so many people and such indirect means of presentation, however, gleaning what’s going on is a task. In essence, it’s like we’re one of those people listening to half a conversation and getting sections of gossip but never the whole story. Only with great concentration will we glean what’s really going on.

Or not. Because of course much of what is going on is in the imagination or in the guise of falsehoods and rumor. So reality is twisted per whatever point of view you are getting the story from.

Vaguely, we learn the story of Mita and Berto and their son Toto. Toto loves movies. Berto looks like a movie star. Toto grows up to become (at least insofar as he becomes a teenager) a rather intelligent young man, a nerd of sorts. His cousin Hector lives with the family, and Hector is a brute, as are many of the young men who populate the novel, whose main goal seems to be to beat others up and to add as many girls to their list of conquests as possible.

With a title focused on a famous actress, the book obviously flaunts its connection to film--or rather characters’ obsession with the movies. An “essay” that appears in the book, which is about a film one of the characters has seen, appears to be almost entirely a summary of the film. Characters discuss movies, actresses (wholesome women versus bad women in film), and how to make it with a gal in the dark. Film’s role in lending the lives of these people meaning is everywhere.

The writing throughout the book is stellar. I’d be tempted to read another work of Puig’s, but I might just need to reread this work first--give it the due attention it deserves. I suspect I might need to do that for any other book of his.

Monday, November 16, 2015

On "The Punch Line" by Jared Yates Sexton (2596 words) *****

Ostensibly a story about drugs, this piece makes the subject new again by putting it in a dentist's office and selectively dropping out details. Sexton hits the right tune here, doing, as one fiction writer once noted to me, well by not mentioning certain things better left unsaid. Sometimes the eggregious seems more eggregious when we don't have it described for us--and sometimes we don't really want to know. Read the story here at Juked.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth (about 9,100 words) *****

The best work from Barth's collection of the same name is a metafictional masterpiece. Barth essentially tells a story of a kid named Ambrose going to a funhouse, but in the process he also tells readers how he's writing the story or failing to. What we have is an instruction manual of sorts. "Character is built this way," Barth tells us, and then goes on to show us within the story. The result is something comic and instructive. Bring techniques to the fore, Barth still manages to keep the story compelling--perhaps because it is the way in which the writer himself begins to become lost in the "funhouse" as his character does. The parallel is sharply drawn--and amusingly. Read the story here.

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth ***

Years ago I read The Last Voyage of Somebody Sailor, which I enjoyed enough that I kept a copy of it in my personal library (despite whatever mediocre reviews it may have gotten). But it has taken me nearly two decades now to get to Barth's classic collection of stories. Unfortunately, the collection proved as a whole to be underwhelming.

Here's what I liked about Somebody Sailor, as I recall: Barth's musings on middle-class life. There was, of course, a whole other plot involving Sinbad that becomes mixed in with the work, and while somewhat interesting, it was less compelling to me than the realist fiction of everyday life.

Something similar happened with this book for me. I was drawn most to the stories about Ambrose and his family. One explained how Ambrose got his name. One involved Ambrose being locked out of his brother Peter and Peter's friends' "club," in which the older kids discover a few things about sex. And the last involved Ambrose going to an amusement park. Each had some metafictional musings, as does the collection as a whole, but they remained subjugated to the purposes of the story as a whole. Such is not as much the case with the other stories, and as a result, my interest often waned before getting far into them.

Here's a rundown of some of the devices included: there's a story ("Night-Sea Journey") of a life that is essentially the tale of a sperm crossing crossing to its egg (or so I read from a secondary source--the tale could be easily read as one of a person swimming for life). There's a story telling the story of itself ("Autobiography"), which proves hardly as interesting as the conceit sounds. Other stories recount, in varying form, Greek legends--one discovering how to write as story, one exploring stories within stories (the techniques of "Menelaiad" is fascinating, as we get to a point where there are seven quotes within quotes, but the story itself hardly kept my attention).

The one exception to these other stories that really intrigued me was "Life-Story," which told of a writer trying to write the story that we readers are currently reading. All the conflict and crisis occurs right in there, as we witness the write dissatisfied with his work trying desperately to bring a decent story into being.

Friday, November 6, 2015

On "Cocktail Hour" by Kate Braverman (6379 words) ****

Bernie Roth returns from finding out that he is no longer needed at the company he works at and once owned to find that his wife is leaving him, and neither his son nor his daughter are the people he thought they were. In fact, this whole story revolves around the ways in which things are often not what they seem--we are all actors playing our parts. I'm reminded a bit of the stories other men have told me who have lost wives to divorce, often without any real warning. They didn't fight, they say, but the woman one day said that she is not who she was pretending to be all these years. How much do we give up of ourselves to please others? And what are the consequences when we stop? You can read the story at her website here.

On "Lithium for Medea" by Kate Braverman ****

I remember Braverman saying, from classes I took from her years ago, that she felt this first novel a bit overwritten--if still a lovely offspring (as firsts generally do bear a certain fondness in our hearts). I could see, perhaps, some overwriting, but really, this work seemed a very well-wrought piece. If the overwriting is anywhere, it is not on a sentence level but on that of plot: the poor protagonist has a dying father, an estranged mother with an estranged grandmother, an ex-husband who "leaves" her for Star Trek and other intellectual pursuits, a current lover who deals the narrator drugs and spends his time with other women, and so on. There is not much that is not wrong with this woman's life. But dysfunctional families and people are often the heart of novels, and there was, at bottom, it seemed to me, a kind of loving that came through between the protagonist and her parents, even if on the surface much seems wrong.

I'm also a bit taken aback by what I was writing at the time, which seems in many ways not unlike this first novel of Braverman's--a tale of family troubles with a dying mom (instead of dad). I feel as if I was probably conjuring Braverman while in her class, though I had not read this book. And I can see also how Braverman's ideas about writing come through in this work. You write good sentences and then you string a plot in afterward--you write the air, and then put a net on it. That seemed true hear. There was lots of air, lots of little chunks of things, that somehow got wrapped into this plot. Such makes for a work in which plot is not a centerpiece. We're not dying to know whether dad will live so much as to know what the next turn of phrase will be. That's why one reads Braverman--for the poetry.

And here, the language, of course, is lovely, as Braverman's language usually is. She makes metaphors seem so effortless and natural. But also what I was struck by with this text is how she uses the short sentence. The sentences are much shorter than I would expect, than I remember, for something so full of poetic language. It's as if she mixes her Hemingway with her Nabokov, and it is wonderful.