Monday, August 3, 2015

On "The Vector" by Jay Hosking (7100 words) ***

I love the strange world of this tale, a world that we never fully come to understand. The setting reminded me a bit of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, not so much the Kaufmanesque idea of being trapped in one's head but the bizarre world that seems possibly only in fiction. Here the narrator is a man with an attitude, a bad one, who can't hold down a job until the day he meets a mysterious woman who hires him to interview for jobs in whatever manner he chooses. The tale gets stranger from there. Read it here at Little Fiction.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On "Snap" by Shawn Syms (5065 words) ***

Jake is a social worker whose life is slowly coming apart. He councils sex offenders, and the work is more than he can take, especially once a violent and intimidating offender joins the group. Syms's tale is slow to build, but the tension is impressive once one reaches the end. Read the story here at Little Fiction.

Friday, July 24, 2015

On "Seven Stars around the Moon" by Bud Smith (1502 words) ***

There's a conspiracy involving food in this short piece. Sometimes I just like the energy of a piece--this is such a story. Sarah has been dumped by her boyfriend, a poet of some renown, and goes to eat Chinese food for consolation. She gets much more than expected. Read the story here at Literary Orphans.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

On "Serenity Prayers for Long-Distance Swimmers" by Catherine Carberry (2736 words) ***

Carberry's piece excels in language. It's a story about a girl's swim team, and unlike most contemporary stories, it focuses on the entire team rather than just one girl. Within that team, arguably, two girls stand out--held in contrast to one another, Neha and Cassie, one a leader and one a kind of jealous sort-a follower, one a bit more daring and one not so much. And in the end, one who chases the other. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On "I Don’t Want to Hear Your Story" by Robin Bullard (1746 words) ***

This one is a kind of guilty pleasure, reminiscent of a television show I never saw but figured had to be some kind of set of perverse oddities, Taxi Cab Confessions. Perhaps, it's merely the fact that this story occurs in a taxi cab. But it's a story where the characters are what make it intriguing--a rude passenger, a rude driver. Things are likely to escalate. Read it here at Literary Orphans.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

On "Vincent" by Glenn Erick Miller (510 words) ***

Sometimes family is hard to acknowledge or to want to. I remember once, after my sister was caught shoplifting, how embarrass I felt to be related to her. I think and hope I would be a bit more supportive now, even if the action were something I found disturbing to me personally. Anyway, Miller walks this difficult line in this story about a brother named Vincent. Read it here at Literary Juice.

On "Forever Amber" by Kathleen Winsor *****

I'm not sure where 1945's fiction best seller fits in terms of World War II. It seems, in the context of the war, to be escapist fare. And certainly, the reasons for its best-sellerdom probably had most to do with its seeming depravity. The book is stock full of allusions to sex, abortion, prostitution, and crime--all of it set in Restoration England. (The war ending midyear, people's attention may have already begun turning elsewhere.) But what a great portrayal of a historical age it is.

The main character is Amber, a woman who goes from innocent virgin and depraved and corrupt madam. Watching her moral descent is fascinating--and sad. The reason for the descent is, one might say, in part an sort-of unrequited love, in the form of Bruce Carlton. Or it might also be her love of nobility and the upper class, who are anything but noble in their actions. It is the lack of nobility that makes Carlton want to flee England and the king's court, to which Amber aspires and clings.

At the start, Amber is a country girl who would not ever sleep with anyone but her one true love. She meets Carlton, who takes her along to London as an adventure. There, she becomes with child by him (the beginning of her corruption), though she refuse an offer for sex with his best friend, who will go on to become one of Amber's best friends. Carlton leaves to go privateering but also leaves her a generous sum of money to take care of the child. Naive as she is, she falls into the clutches of a greedy woman who gets her to marry her son and who then abscond with all her cash, leaving her in debt.

This takes her to the debtor's prison. Here, she is granted favor with a scoundrel who breaks out of prison with her and then uses her for his own purposes to run various scams. She breaks free from him by running off with a man named Michael who has been hired to teach her how to speak other dialects of English so as to help with the scams. In turn, Michael's dad finds the two of them living together and forces Michael to return home, much to Amber's relief.

In the meantime, Amber has taken up acting. Another actress takes a fancy to a particular gentleman named Rex Morgan, and Amber decides to get this man for herself and does. Though she refuses to marry him (and give up her freedom), having been burned by a bad marriage once, she agrees to become a kept woman. She will sleep with no one else, and he will support her in the lifestyle she desires. During this time, the king sees her and sends for her to sleep with him, which she does, not telling Morgan. It is only because of the king's main mistress, the jealous Barbara Palmer, that Amber is not summoned again. (Our morally pure girl by now has slept with at least six men, and from there, one loses count, for many other interludes are hinted at from here on.)

Carlton returns, and lovestruck Amber gets him to run away with her, giving Rex a silly excuse for her absence, an excuse that doesn't hold up to reason and that gets Rex to challenge Carlton to a duel. Rex refuses anything but to murder Carlton or to be killed, and as a result, his life is ended--and so too Amber's life of ease and perhaps the best chance she has of a good marriage to a man who really does love her. For Carlton will never marry her, as he notes, because she is not noble.

Amber than aspires to become what Carlton says he wants. She gives up acting and marries another man, much older, in order to inherit his fortune at his death, much to his children's disapproval. Carlton visits, and the black plague hits, and they almost die, but they nurse each other back to health. Still, he won't marry her.

She marries yet another man, poor this time, but of noble blood, in order to gain a title. This marriage is an absolute disaster, and Winsor's skill allows you to sympathize with Amber even as one realizes just what a horrible woman she has become. Because the man is a vicious husband who uses Amber's money for his own purposes but cares nothing for her and controls her every move, she opts to cheat on him with his son. (But wait, if he weren't controlling her every move, she'd be going to London and cheating on him with people at court, so . . .) Her husband then conspires to kill her but kills only his son. Now she has what she wants: a title and no husband.

She moves back to London and takes her place at court. She becomes the king's mistress, to an extent displacing Barbara Palmer. Carlton returns for a visit, but this time he's married, as he said he would be--and he's taken up residence in the American colonies. Amber does all she can to curry Carlton's love and favor, dressing scantily, summoning him to meetings alone, and so forth, and Carlton falls for it in terms of sleeping with her regularly, but he is committed to marriage to his wife.

In a final fit of anger, Amber tells Carlton's wife of their affair, but she only ends up distancing herself from the man she loves more than would ever seem possible to repair. Still, even at the end of the novel, she continues to chase him, even if it means going to the colonies. She has become a sad, disreputable woman, one worried constantly about her looks and age, for they are what she has lived by and she knows that her days are numbered.

In this book, among Europeans, only the Puritans displaced from power seem to have much in the way of morals, but they also come off as stodgy and greedy in their own way. It is the Americas that beckon, the world from which Carlton draws his wife, that seem to offer some sort of honesty and reward for hard work rather the depravity of inherited leisure.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

On "(pro) ANA" by Jamy Bond (972 words) ***

Here's one person's take on an eating disorder and self-improvement. It's a great example of a story that shows rather than tells. Read it here at Wigleaf.

Monday, June 29, 2015

On "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" by Mar Preston (4818 words) ***

Here's a story about an exercise in futility. Luke Mouradian is a frustrated thirtysomething with no luck with women who happens upon a great one in China. Preston does a good job of observing cultural differences between the United States and this stranger across the sea. And of course, no love is lost. Read the story here at Kings River Life.

On "The Beard That Was Evil" by Stephen Collins ****

This graphic novel is essentially a commentary on the moral and cultural boundaries of society, putting into practice theories of sociologists such as Emile Durkheim. The tale involves a man who lives in a perfectly ordered world who one day, involuntarily, begins to grow a beard. The beard grows to epic proportions, slowly taking over and destroying the town around the man and transforming the town in the process.

Even after the beard event is over, the town feels its effects. Where once the beard was evil, it becomes a thing of legend, and people feel less bound to their "perfect" ways. There is a degree of disorder that previously did not exist. And the beard itself is marketed, capitalized upon. Fear of it begins to dissipate.

The curious thing about the way in which society defines "here" and "there," "us" and "them," is that the boundary between mayhem and order shifts, and arguably, while such boundaries are artificial, they also help define our society and keep it ordered. Too much mayhem and society falls apart and ceases to exist. Too little and the society is oppressive. As Durkheim brings out, though, it is those who are disorderly, those on the edge of order, who in many ways define the society even as they disrupt it and transform it. It's an interesting tension that seems unavoidable--and perhaps a little scary, a little bit like "there" and "them" because where "there" ultimately takes us is to the ocean and oblivion--and as the book brings out: the unknown.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On "Hot Springs" by Andy Plattner (6077 words) ***

Many writers have a setting or group of people they focus on for a while, but few remain entirely in that world for the duration of their career. Plattner is an exception: almost every story that he writes is about the world of horse racing. As such, he knows his milieu extremely well, with some stories more exceptional than others. But nonetheless, the settings and characters always shine. In this tale, a man tries to reclaim some money he lost to an ex-girlfriend. Read the story here at New World Writing.

On "A House Made of Stars" by Tawnysha Greene ****

Tawnysha Greene's been publishing little pieces of this novel in various journals for the last few years; amazingly, most seemed self-contained, enough that I hadn't realized they were part of a larger work. Now, they're all gathered in this, her debut novel--and what a novel it is.

I'm reminded a bit of Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina. This book covers some of the same ground in terms of presenting a poor "white trash" girlhood, but I liked this book a whole lot more than I remember liking that one. I think there's a certain innocence that Greene captures that Allison, for me, did not and perhaps wasn't trying to.

The main character grows up in a family in which deafness runs. As such, each member of the family knows sign language. But that deafness extends to more than just literalness; it extends to a kind of will to not hear, as the mother continues to try to maintain her relationship with her abusive and free-spending husband, the father to her three children.

Each chapter is a small snapshot, usually not more than a few pages. Father enters, takes the family off to an amusement, spends all the cash on hand, gets angry, beats up the kids, leaves--or forces the family to flee to somewhere safer for a while. It's a repeating pattern.

Often, the family (with or without dad) rooms with members of the extended family--the dad's sister, the mom's mom. And in these spaces, the narrator finds solace and joy, a short respite from the violence and threat of it. Just as the narrator finds solace in the night sky, where stories can happen and where a house can be built of light.

The story becomes something of a chase toward the end, with the narrator leaving clues as to where she can be found, and I found myself growing more and more arrested and wanting to read on.

Greene's book is one of great intensity. The book can be purchased here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On "Probate" by Joyce Carol Oates (12,628 words) ***

As I began this story, I was reminded of how some writers are just so good. Oates is one of those. I don't think this one of her best stories, but from the first word, it somehow managed to set a tone and grip me till the very end. The writing is absolutely assured. In this very strange piece, a widow discovers that the husband who has just died is not who she thought he was--and then, well, the story becomes some weird nightmare scape. Read the tale here at Fifty-two Stories.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

On "Effigies of Ourselves" by Ursula Villarreal-Moura (187 words) ***

Currently in my first official serious relationship (and having experienced a few unofficial ones), I am learning how the pacing between men and women often differs and can cause numerous problems with regard to desire. Villarreal-Moura's short take is essentially about this. And really, even as timing seems to be so much to what makes a relationship happy or frustrating at a given moment, it has to do with having a relationship in and of itself. I sometimes think about that. I'd be with someone else right now had I gone for a girl who I failed to pursue three years ago, because other things were going on in my life. But had I gone for her, I'd have never met certain other women along the way to my current girlfriend. Read the story here at Dogzplot.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On "Out of Time" by David W. Landrum (2157 words) ***

Landrum's story revolves around the cult of celebrity and the way that it can be used to reap revenge--or not. Sometimes, we fail to be direct about how we feel because we fear hurting someone else or being hurt ourselves. Sometimes we just don't know how to say something. And sometimes we fail to be direct for simply legal reasons. Read the tale here at Intellectual Refuge.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

On "Survivors" by Michael Gutierrez (1129 words) ****

Gutierrez depicts a marriage here from its courtship to its nearly literal end of days--simple turns of phrase that show off how similar situations morph as we grow old. The husband is something of a survivalist, the wife someone who would prefer to believe that the world in which everything is a fine romance. The language of survival, however, takes over the plot as not only the world but the marriage becomes increasingly difficult to endure without some heavy equipment. Beneath it all, however, there's still beauty. Read the story here at Untoward.

On "I Never Left Home" by Bob Hope ***

Publishers Weekly's best-selling work of nonfiction for 1944 was this comic account of the comedian Bob Hope's visits to military units in Europe and Africa. Light reading, it reminded me somewhat of the best-seller from two years earlier about being a private in the army. In this case, however, the comedy is coming from someone who has been sent to entertain the troops, as Hope would do throughout his life.

The book is written in a way similar to the novels Jay Cronley and Carrier Fisher. This is a hard way to write, and I have immense respect for it. What I mean is that Hope essentially delivers the text as a series of jokes. Each paragraph is a setup that ends with a punch line. Sometimes, we might get a slightly longer setup, but it's rarely more than a page. The focus here is humor.

This wore thin for me, however, with respect to Bob Hope's book. This was for a few reasons. One is that after about age twelve, I was never much of a fan of the man's work. I remember watching his specials as a kid, being fascinated by them, because, well, it was television, but as I got older, I usually preferred to go play with a friend to sitting in front of the TV when Bob was on. His jokes often just didn't seem that funny; they seemed canned. And that is the case here. Another is that many of the jokes don't age that well. Often, they revolve around popular culture of the era. Seventy years later, they no longer have as much zing. That focus on popular culture also seems many times very insular. It's often funny when Hope jokes about himself. The self-deprecating humor is fine. But when he takes jabs at Bing Crosby and other friends, the jokes seem to expect us to care as much about his Hollywood friends and world as he does. Seventy years later, we don't.

As a propaganda piece, Hope's work certainly fits well. He often makes remarks about how great our military is or how much our nation's young men our sacrificing for us. In fact, his self-deprecating humor often revolves around his inferiority to such servants of the state.

Another major issue with the setup-punchline manner of writing, at least in this case, is that it's often hard to tell what is a joke and what actually happened. Hope was so intent on telling jokes that I found myself lost as to where on his tour and in the world Hope was or why it mattered.

That's not to say that there were some very engaging passages or some funny moments. I loved, for example, one anecdote/story/joke about his grandfather and him dancing. Hope's grandfather saw that Hope was getting tired and told him, "You're quite a bit older than you used to be. Take and break and I'll finish up for you."

And there's also a very touching passage about joke telling itself--perhaps, the most touching in the book. Hope talks about "toppers." That's a joke that you tell on top of someone else's, a sort of one-ups-man-ship. He talks about visiting hospitals and how he couldn't top a guy in a hospital bed. If you tell a joke there, and the guy has a better one-liner back, you let it go. I mean, how do you top a man who had got wounded serving your country, especially if he makes a joke about his own ailment?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

On "Pique Assiette" by Ann Hillesland (3024 words) ***

Hillesland's story grips with sad little moments. A sister visits her grandmother and sister. The latter is taking care of the grandmother--but not in an entirely appropriate manner, or so the narrator things, until she has to spend an afternoon with the grandmother herself. "Do whatever you want," the care-taking sister says, "like you always do," in response to an offer to help. One hears the resentment in a single line, and it stings. Read the story here at Stirring.

Monday, May 25, 2015

On "Rabbit Hole" by Kelly Rede (4215 words) ***

Rede uses the familiar story of Alice in Wonderland, mixes in a bit of the Wizard of Oz and fairy lore, and creates something wholly unique. Dorothy is stuck in a story, which is a marvelous place, but like all good things, stories too must come to an end. Read it here at Four Star Stories.

On "Strange Fruit" by Lillian Smith ****

A surprising choice for Publishers Weekly's number one best-seller of 1944, Smith's book is a work of high modernism with an emphasis on racial disorder in the at-that-time recent South. The first three years of the war featured best-selling Christian fiction that was arguably much more accessible and certainly much less prone to likely creating controversy. Smith's book focuses on a love affair between a black woman and a white man and the fallout created by it. The novel is told from various perspectives and is often in stream-of-consciousness.

The Andersons are highly educated southern blacks from the town of Maxwell--more educated, in fact, than many of the white folks around them. Though educated, the narrator notes, the Andersons do not buck the southern system--they're "good" blacks. The novel seems to show something different than that. One of the siblings, Bess, certainly falls in line with the expectations thrust on her by society, but her brother Ed has left the South because of his hate of the town and the South's racist views and laws. Nonnie, another sister, doesn't really follow the conventions of the society and doesn't seem to much care how that might ostracize her.

It is Nonnie that takes up with a white man named Tracy. Tracy has returned from the army after World War I and doesn't have much in the way of ambition. He comes from a upper-crust family in the town, and it is expected that he will marry a certain white gal he has taken out for some time. Tracy, throughout, fights with himself whether to follow convention or follow his heart. But the answer seems self-evident: there is no possibility that he could ever be with Nonnie. At best, he could refuse the upcoming marriage and taking on a farm (or some other job), but he proves less than able to stand up against expectations.

Complicating things is the fact that Nonnie is pregnant with Tracy's child (the rest of this paragraph is full of spoilers). As this discovery makes its rounds among some of the townspeople, the reactions vary, though they are generally negative. The pregnancy leads eventually to Tracy's murder and to a black man--a childhood friend of Tracy's--being lynched, though the man had little to do with the murder.

Religion comes in for quite a critique here, as it is in many ways the ministers who urge Tracy to "do the right thing" and to avoid black town and to marry the right woman. Right and wrong are defined culturally rather than on some higher moral plain.

How this ended up the best-selling novel of 1944, I have no idea. Perhaps, the prospect of interracial sex was enough of a controversial subject to propel the book to the top of the charts. Certainly, the novel doesn't have much bearing on World War II, other than the fact that there is a mild critique of race relations insofar as African Americans served in the military, defending the country, and came home to a racist society that treated them as subhuman--a critique that would continue during World War II and that would eventually lead to the civil rights movement.

No matter, it is nice to see something comparatively complex sold so well.