Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On "You Know" by R. A. Rycraft (1640 words) ***

What I like about this piece is its strong narrative voice. That alone is what kept me reading it through all three pages. The waitress is believable, and what she's fascinated by, therefore, fascinated me--because not every customer one deals with is all that interesting. The ending is quiet, and as with much literary fiction, I'm not sure this all adds up too much, but getting there was fun. Read the story here.

On "The Little Friend" by Donna Tartt ***

Last week, while I was in the midst of reading Donna Tartt's most recent novel, I went to see Gus Van Sant's most recent film, Paranoid Park. The former was perhaps the most powerful piece of filmmaking Van Sant has done to date. Tartt's novel, by contrast, was something of a disappointment to me. Like Van Sant's film, Tartt's novel centers on a kid in over her head, a kid involved with a murder, but the book never comes together quite as well. I'm not sure what it wants to be--comedy, tragedy, young adult book. Nor did I care much for the characters. Perhaps one word that could be used to describe the book is "southern," as it seems quite grotesque in those unfortunate southern ways (I'm reminded of Flannery O'Connor, for example, whose appeal, beyond "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," has never spoken to me). In some ways, Tartt's book is also like a kids' book--or feels like it--a young adult novel. And that is not a good thing, either, for me at least, as part of the reason I disliked reading when younger was because I tried to read young adults books and rarely found them intriguing. (Paranoid Parkinterestingly is based on a YA book, but the film somehow managed to seem quite adult.) As usual, Tartt's writing is good in this most recent venture, but often I felt, as I read, like I could see her pulling the strings. Perhaps part of this feeling is related to the fact that she chose to write in an omniscient voice, something one doesn't see much anymore and which, while gutsy, seems rather fake in this perspectival postmodern literary world. Readers looking for their first Donna Tartt experience might be better venturing into her amazing previous novel, The Secret History. I thought about parts of that book for years afterward.

Monday, May 26, 2008

On "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" by Kate Braverman (6570 words) *****

This story is pretty widely anthologized and for good reason--it's one of Kate Braverman's best. I first came across Braverman while working in a bookstore. Her novel Palm Latitudes was a perennial presence on our sale table; I didn't like the cover and thus wasn't all that intrigued by the book. A short while after that book disappeared from our store, however, Braverman ended up being the teacher of a writing class I took. Then I'd have to buy the paperback at full price, so I could read what it was my teacher was writing. She was a different sort of author than I typically liked at that time--extremely lyrical. And her class was also seemingly difficult.

She taught--in class--with an intensity matched by few others. We'd have to bring in three-page exercises for review, and generally after she was done talking about them in class, we might have a sentence or two left. I wasn't used to that. But her mantra was that if we would learn what not to do, what not to write, we'd be 100 percent better as writers. Basically, it came down to writing what was not expected. I took this as lyricism given her own work and would for awhile adopt a similar voice. It would take many years to learn what she really meant and how to implement it without necessarily using some overly inflated language. And I would have those years, as I would take her class two more times.

As I took her class, I began also to appreciate her own lyrical voice. However, my real appreciation for that voice began with her story collection Squandering the Blue, in which this story is featured. The title story and this story especially managed to situate the lyricism within the simpler language I preferred and into a more quickly graspable conflict and plot. While the former story is one that resonates as very sad, personal, and realistic, the latter story, "Tall Tales," is essentially a tall tale, a story that manages to merge realism and fantasy to create something truly harrowing--a drug addiction, a man addiction, a fall into horror. Read the story here.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On "Mexico" by Andrew Roe (2518 words) ***

This is one of those stories that works largely because the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It starts off promising enough, but by the time I reached the central incident, I was wondering why the story didn't just start there. And then, the language began to fall apart--extra words, dialogue lines that seemed to go on too long, and overwriting that seemed to rob the scene of much of its power. But hold on for those last three paragraphs--the author will whack you with some slam-bang lines that will leave you almost breathless. The story all comes together then. It's not easy to write endings like this. And like many such endings, it slips up on you in a way that all that seeming excess early on can not only be forgiven but seems, actually, necessary for the ending to have such power. Read the story here.

Monday, May 19, 2008

On "L.A. Doll" by Gregory Hahn (3070 words) ****

This story does a great job of playing with techniques that put it very much in line with the setting--Los Angeles. It features a "montage," after all, one that works fairly well. Sure, the story goes for many of the L.A. cliches--the superficiality, the concern with celebrity--but I think that's the point. The narrator has moved to Los Angeles to be a part of this scene. Read the story here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

On "Executing Dexter" by Brian Leung (4628 words) *****

I first became aware of Brian Leung's work in college, in a writing workshop actually, where he was a student the same as I was. Even then, his talent was obvious. We shared two workshops together, spaced a little more than a year apart. In that year, he'd gone from being good to being obviously on his way to something larger than those around us. Next time we came across one another, he was a graduate student at the same college, doing a creative writing option, and he filled in one day for the teacher--and there I was, still an undergrad, on my last semester granted, but feeling small nonetheless. And then he was off to Indiana University for an MFA.

A few years after that, I was at the
Yalobusha Review as an editor, and I was desperate for some decent material. The previous year's editor suggested I solicit work, rather than just wait around for stuff to come to me, and so I wrote to one of my former instructors about people whose work she might send our way. She suggested Brian and passed along an e-mail address. Brian submitted--a good piece about this photographer named René. Unfortunately, in the meantime, I'd ended up with four other good stories. So now I had five good stories, and there was room for six. The problem was that one of those five good stories was over sixty pages long--it was a novella essentially, the length of four stories. So my choice was to accept the novella and two other stories, or take the four shorter stories, reject the novella, and publish two other stories I was only halfway satisfied with. I chose the first option, which meant I had to write Brian and let him know we couldn't publish his piece, though I'd really wanted to. He took it graciously.

The next time I came across Brian's work was in a magazine, a piece called "Six Ways to Jump Off a Bridge," which was published in
Story's very last issue or in the second-to-last issue. I'd been on-and-off long-time subscriber, so finding Brian suddenly in its pages was rather exciting. That story would later end up in Brian's book of short stories, World Famous Love Acts. I'd come across that collection, the winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize, by Sarabande books, because of about five years later.

You see, a short while before that I'd come across Brock Clarke's fiction in an issue of the
Georgia Review, and an interest in his work had sparked me to buy his first book of stories, which had also won the Mary McCarthy Prize--Amazon being the only place that stocked it (none of our local chain booksellers being the type to stock small press titles). Amazon's recommendations, as unimaginatively perceptive as they often are, then proceeded to believe I'd be interested in anything that had won the Mary McCarthy Prize and recommended Brian's book when it came out a year later. Again, surprise. This time, I looked Brian up on the Internet, found out he was now teaching at Cal State Northridge and wrote him a short note to congratulate him. We caught up on what had happened to us over the past decade, and then I bought his book, read it, and was--typically--impressed. Three stories in particular stood out. My favorite was a piece called "Drawings by Andrew Warhol," which Brian told me after I'd read the book, was to be made into a movie. Perhaps, you can catch it on DVD somewhere (I don't think it was going to be feature length, so there's little chance you'll see it in the cinema, unfortunately). But one of my other favorites was "Executing Dexter."

Perhaps the best thing about the
Barcelona Review is the way it makes available online work of some published authors that might slip under the radar otherwise, reprinting stories from collections with the author's permission. And one of those stories that it has republished is "Executing Dexter." The story is about two boys who run pretend baby executions for fun, but their seeming cruelty bespeaks other familial problems they both have at home. Both the ending and the beginning of this story are likely to hit you in the gut. Read it here.

Friday, May 16, 2008

On "Retroactive Special" by Michael Cocchiarale (3511 words) ***

This is a competently written story that pulls you in and along by sheer good writing. The situations seem standard, and the characters, while not terribly unique, don't seem stock--they're everymen that somehow manage to seem real. Like many stories, the plot of this one is circular, ending in a place much like that start, only with changed understanding and circumstances. Read the story here.

On "Seven Reasons Jerome Likes Sizzler" by Tom Lavagnino (1538 words) ****

I know a story is pretty good when I can remember parts of it days later and also remember that I enjoyed reading it. What makes this one memorable, as with many others, is a gimmick--a sort of list answering the point made in the title. But a plot emerges, and by the time the story is done, I'm not quite sure what's going to happen, but it doesn't sound good. Read the story here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

On "What to Do" by Sean Ennis (3111 words) ****

Build a story around a psychic girlfriend and don't be afraid of making statements that will offend someone (Ennis is an equal-opportunity offender), and you have the makings of something compelling. The psychic sees everything coming, but you'll read on anyway. Read it here.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On "Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer" by James L. Swanson *****

I read quite a few academic books--at times, that's part of my job, after all, but I even read them for pleasure. I used to not care much for history because the writing wasn't terribly interesting. As I've gotten older, the quality of the writing in nonfiction works has become, it seems, less important. Don't get me wrong. I have no desire to read poorly written books. However, I no longer expect all authors to be prose stylists like Hemingway or Joyce. Here, however, is a nonfiction book that manages to bring together history and good writing. Okay, no one's going to accuse Swanson of being Joyce either, but he is a good writer, as good as any pop author could be--there are moments in this book where I found myself rushing forward wanting to know what was going to happen next, like any well-plotted mystery novel. And I learned quite a few things I hadn't known before (any history buff probably already knows such things, but to neophytes like me they were new). For example, I didn't know that Lincoln's murder was one of three planned. Booth had originally wanted to kidnap Lincoln and hold him for ransom (i.e., for the surrender of the North); obviously he missed that chance, so the attempted killings (near the war's end) were simply revenge. That same night that Lincoln was shot, a Booth crony attacked the secretary of state and another was sent to kill Vice President Johnson. After Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward were attacked, there was concern for some time that other assassins were lurking intending to do in all the other cabinet officers, so guards were put on their homes and they were urged not to go out (though that didn't stop some from moving about). So it was kind of like 9/11, with Booth and his friends aiming to take out the country's leadership and folks in a panic. The background is fascinating--and the full story is even better.

On "The Au Pair" by Sean Ennis (2380 words) ****

What this story has going for it is a voice. Take one babysitter, thrust her among a bunch of male college students, and let the lust begin. And it's mostly lust, for she's a taken item. Expect to see more about Sean Ennis on this blog. I discovered his writing maybe a year ago, and he's one of the most exciting new writers I've come across on the Web. Read the story here.

On "32 Stories" by Adrian Tomine ***

I don't read a lot of graphic novels--or graphic short stories, in this case--so a listing for a book like this isn't likely become a regular feature on the blog. However, I scored a free copy of this from a friend who was moving away the other day and devoured it in one sitting a couple of days later. Of graphic novelists, I've only really bothered reading Daniel Clownes (whose work I find somewhat disturbing and have a like/hate relationship with) and Tomine to any degree. The latter has always impressed me. He manages somehow, in pictures, to do what a great short story writer does--present you with a moment of a life, get you to feel with/for the person. This collection of very early pieces has its shaggy dogs, but some of the stories--all extremely short--work extremely well. I particularly like the pieces based on Tomine's dreams, which have a certain Twilight Zone feel to them (and are eerily complete), and the pieces based around a lonely young woman who works odd hours and is thus up in the middle of the night when all others are by then in bed. The former are surreal and cool; the latter are realistic and sort of bittersweet. I don't know that I'll ever completely overcome my bias against graphic novels, but if anyone could help me do that, it would be Tomine.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

What the Stars Mean and Why No Story Gets One or Two

The star system is a way of configuring just how much I liked the story. One could translate the stars as Amazon's ranking system would.

* = I hate it
** = I didn't like it
*** = It's okay
**** = I liked it
***** = I loved it
I see no reason to write about stories I don't like--it wastes my time, encourages people to look at stories there's a good chance they'll dislike as well, and unnecessarily might insult some authors. But why, in that case, even include the three-star stories?

Most of the three-star stories here are really what I'd think of as three and a half stars--I didn't feel like I could quite give them four, lest everything on here have four stars. Often, they're the represent the best of a week or two worth of reading--in other words, they're not only better than a lot of one- and two-star stories but also than a lot of other three-star stories. That is, they're really better than okay. They're good.

I'd prefer to think of the three, four, and five star meanings this way--as Yahoo! would rank its music--rather than as Amazon would rank its books:

*** = I liked the story. I enjoyed reading it and encourage others to check it out.
**** = I loved this story. I will likely read it again sometime.

***** = I can't get enough of this story. This is a classic; I am glad I was alive to have read this.

Not too many stories get five stars. So if I stuck with just five and four stars, there'd be no real hierarchy at all.

On "Saturday in the Quality Save in Chorlton" by Chris Killen (568 words) ****

So the new Million Writer Awards list of notable stories is posted at Story South. Last year I read the top ten stories and voted; my second choice, "Urchins, While Swimming," by Catherynne M. Valente, ended up the winner, which was somewhat refreshing--to know that my tastes weren't completely different from those who voted. It's a magnificently lyrical piece. My first choice, however, "13 Halloweens," by Michael K. White didn't even place as one of the runners up. I was going to talk about that piece here--a rundown of various holidays that ends up being a commentary on 9/11 and does it such a way that one doesn't end up feeling like, gag, another one of these 9/11 stories; unfortunately it's no longer available to the public (you now have to subscribe to The Deepening to see the story). So instead, I will recount something I came across when perusing 2007's list of the top 100 (I was glad to see Mark Lafferty's "Song and Dance" among that list). I was struck by a journal called Lamination Colony and decided to check out the nominated story. I wasn't too moved by it (just as last year, of the top ten stories, I only found two I really liked, mentioned above--and about half of them I didn't care for at all). But I also looked at the newest issue and found an interesting piece about a discount department story. Lamination Colony is devoted to "experimental" work, which can mean bad things. Most of what it publishes appear to be pieces devoted to wordplay (and the surreal--its stated publication end). Killen's piece is masterful at the wordplay end of things--a sort of Gertrude Stein repetition of words piled on top of one another to make something beautiful and curious. That's the main thing going for this piece, which means that I think the author was wise to keep it short. The story to me seems to be about juxtaposing the "sexy" sales pitch the store gives to the decidedly unsexy lives of those within it. But the words are sexy too--well, mostly (that is, if you consider wordplay sexy, without being erotic). Read the story here.

Friday, May 9, 2008

On "My Brother Picks Cans" by Mark R. Dursin (3512 words) ***

Okay, so let's talk about story subgenres. You know, like stories about marriages going bad, stories about moms dying, stories about first times. This is a brother story. And I think I'm probably a sucker for such pieces. I'm remembering a story in Marshall Boswell's The Trouble with Girls and another story in Ryan Harty's Tell Me Your Saddest Arizona. Brother stories, and I liked both--in fact, thought that in each case the story was one of the best in the collection. And here's another good brother story. This doesn't quite match the level of Boswell or Harty, but it's well done. Maybe I just wish I had a brother or wish I had a sibling who was closer to me. Or maybe such stories remind me of being young. I don't know. What I do know is how Dursin managed to get me interested in his story before any of the other stories in the latest JMWW. It was a series of declarative sentences, fairly simple. No sparks, no odd phrases that made me think, what's up? Or maybe the opening did make me think, what's up. What's up with picking cans and why is that so important that people would notice? The story goes from there, giving readers a pretty good entry into the life of these two brothers. This isn't a story that's going to knock your socks off or anything, but it is nice, and it sounds, for the most part, "real"-- you know, genuine. And sometimes, that's better than all the pyrotechnics a writer might be able to muster. You can read the story for yourself here.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

On "Juan Tomas and the Pale Yellow Letters" by Shellie Zacharia (2359 words) ***

Pedestal Magazine is back online after some unfortunate incidents with a hacker, and this newest edition features three new short stories. Pedestal is a strange online creature for me. It generally features moderately well-published authors and competent fiction, but I must not quite understand the editors' aesthetic because I often end up wondering, why these particular stories? In other words, they rarely scream to me, "Boy, I'm glad I'm alive to have read that." But then, I guess, how many stories do scream that? Maybe, if I'm lucky, one a month. Anyway, of the three stories featured in this latest version of the journal, my favorite is "Juan Tomas and the Pale Yellow Letters." What do I like about it? First, it has a good beginning, a line that roped me in and made me want to know more about this character. We start with a woman having a breakdown, leaving her fiancé. Second, it does something kind of daring for contemporary fiction--it presents itself almost as a frame story. One doesn't see that often these days anymore, and most often when one does, it's because someone doesn't understand how far the story has come in the past one hundred years. I mean, we're not in the nineteenth century anymore folks. But Zacharia clearly does. The outside layer of the story has as much--or more story--than the inside layer of the story, but the two work off each other in a way that neither could exist independently. I wasn't screaming, "I'm so glad I'm alive to read this" at the end, but I enjoyed my stay in the little world Zacharia dreamed up nevertheless. Read the story here.

Monday, May 5, 2008

On "Little Criminals" by Kurt Rheinheimer ***

Just finished this book of stories today. It's a very competent collection, written by someone who is well published across a spectrum of journals. The stories are all about small towns in the Midwest and South. Most of them, as noted, were competent but they aren't likely going to stay with me for a long time. There were exceptions, glimmers of brilliance, such as the opening story. That story had given me hope that this was going to be an extremely good book--but it was the best story in the collection. That story is about a woman who is jealous of her husband (who probably gives her reason to be). Anyway, they head out one day to visit relatives, taking along the woman's pretty sister and her sister's friend. They go in a beat-up van that breaks down in the middle of nowhere. And well . . . let's just say that the ending was simple but chilling. (Unfortunately, Rheinheimer chooses to revisit these characters in two other stories in the collection that repeat much of the same idea--a trip gone awry--but to less effect.) Rheinheimer's best stories are like the first in terms of combining the simple with the harrowing. He does it again in another story in which a kid kidnaps a bus driver. Another good story involves a man who comes upon an attempted rape in the wilderness but doesn't know what to do lest he himself be killed. The story deals with what's right and wrong in a given situation and seems to suggest that sometimes courage doesn't seem to get a person any further than cowardice other than allowing the person to keep self-respect.

On "Permanent," by Mary Phillips-Sandy (781 words) ***

Here's a horrifying story, one probably more horrifying than many others that try too hard. It's a simple nightmare--one's teeth begin to fall out. What do you do? Unfortunately, as I've noted in reviews about one sad thing about the Internet preference for shorter rather than longer pieces, the story, doomed to stick to its short word count, seems to simply drop off, so we're left wanting more, left feeling like the last two-thirds of the story isn't here. But it's a great beginning, and the fact that I'd be willing to read something three times this long shows it executes what is here well. Read the story here.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

On "In Flight" by Michelle Richmond (494 words) *****

Back in 1999, when Michelle Richmond was a relatively new writer with only a few publications to her credit, a story of hers appeared in a journal called Cutbank, in which a story of mine was also featured. I too was a writer with only a few credits to my name. I'm still that writer, with only one story--and a pretty bad one at that--published since what has been to date my most successful publication and probably one of my most successfully written stories. Richmond, by contrast, has published widely, has gone on to some acclaim (I seem to recall an interview a few years later in Five Points), and has even had a few books published. There are probably some good reasons. Richmond has written some fine stuff. "Satellite," the story that appeared in that issue of Cutbank was probably the best story in that issue (not counting mine, of course--right?). And this short short featured back in 2006 in Vestal Review, one of the best journals for flash fiction, is another great example of good writing. Decent short shorts are fairly easy to come by; a really fine short short is another story. It's hard to take a person's breath away in five hundred words or less (the Vestal Review's limit). Here, Richmond conveys all the hope and angst there is when being a single person on a plane. At least, it conveys some of the desire I sometimes have--I doubt Richmond and I are the only ones that nurse such an imagination. Strangely, for all the times I've ridden alone on a plane, I've only managed to sit beside some really fine looking woman once--but we did strike up a conversation. She had a fiancé, of course. (And with my fairly obscure religious beliefs, I generally don't expect a random conversation with a complete stranger to ever turn into anything anyway--but it's nice to think about.) Read the story here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

On "The Undiscovered Country, Apparently" by Andrew S. Taylor (1284 words) ****

One of the amazing things about Pindeldyboz is that it comes out every two weeks and always manages to have at least a couple of good stories in it. Some other journals come out four times a year and don't manage to have a single decent story in them. I don't know how Pindledyboz does it--perhaps, it has gained a reputation of publishing fine material. It also helps--and hinders--that the publication limits writers to twenty-five hundred words. Helps insofar as that many words, I find, really is about the limit of my online reading tolerance; after that, I'm likely to click away or resort to printing the thing out. Hinders in that sometimes it seems like writers are constrained by what really is a fairly difficult set of parameters. I mean, how many of the great stories really occur in such a space? Pick up nearly any Flannery O'Connor piece, any Raymond Carver piece (outside of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love), any Chekhov piece, and you're dealing with twice that number of words generally. Andrew S. Taylor's story, I think, may be a case in point. I love this piece. He takes an ordinary situation--a drink falling at a party--and turns it into a strange almost science fiction experiment. Tragedy is averted--or perhaps created. But then, given the need to wrap the story up, the piece, to my mind, fizzles out right at the end (or perhaps, arguably, it goes on a couple of paragraphs too long). But the first nine-tenths of this story is absolutely fantastic. Read the story here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

On "Kept" by Kirsten Clodfelter (530 words) ***

The situation is ordinary enough--unfortunately. An older married man--a professor--and a younger woman. The young woman likes the older man, is becoming, one might say, addicted to him. What is nice about this short piece is the quiet way it puts for the woman's longing, particularly in the last paragraph. She wants to see him more, this is obvious, but she knows not to ask too much. Her real desire, however, is shown in what she does in those final lines. It's mutedly sad. Read the story here.