Thursday, June 26, 2008

On "The Rules of Urban Living" by Kara Janeczko (2354 words) ****

A woman, a man, a firefighter. Sex sounds. A burned esophagus. Desire. So many stories are about desire--not too many about esophaguses. This one keeps the desire buried deep within it; the esophagus plays only a minor roll, well, the burned one anyway. If we think of the esophagus as an organ from which sounds come, then there's plenty of it. There are plenty of sounds in this piece. A woman obsesses on the sounds her neighbors make, the sounds she makes, the sounds she and her boyfriend used to make. Mark Richard, in a class I took of his, once described stories as obsessions. They deal in a handful of things, maybe fewer, and work them until they are exhausted. And that's what Janeczko does here. It adds up to a nice treat. Read the story at Anderbo.

On "The Way We Die Now" by Charles Willeford ****

A couple of years ago, I read Willeford's The Pickup, at least in my mind his most popular work--at least the only one I was familiar with, the only one that I'd seen on bookstore shelves, and the one chosen for Modern Library's edition of classic noir novels from the 1950s. It was a story about a drinker, a painter, a love affair. What it had to do with crime, I wasn't too sure. And I didn't enjoy it (not that I need a crime in a story to enjoy it). I likely wouldn't have picked Willeford up again except that a friend of mine recently moved away and was giving away a stack of books. I took a handful, one of them being Willeford's The Way We Die Now--it was free after all. I'm glad that I took it. This definitely is a crime novel--and such a thing at its best. It's the story of bad cops acting badly and criminals who may not be so bad after all. The lines are blurry, and I'm not sure it really matters--it's just good reading. It reminded me a little of what the movie Copland could have been. In that Sylvester Stallone movie, Stallone plays a cop gone wimpy and, thus, bad. Crooks run the town, and Stallone is too scared to do much about it. Unfortunately, the film, in its last act, turns into typical Stallone Rambo-type fodder. The heroics come at a cost--almost. Willeford's novel is never quite as simplistic as that film, so it couldn't make everything come out all right in the end if it wanted to, and it leaves a whole lot more questions unanswered.

Monday, June 23, 2008

On "Fire Hazard" by Mike Young (1224 words) ***

Two people somewhere in a relationship, somewhere deep, where the relationship has worn to the point of irritation, where it has come to the point of love. How much are these two separate? How much are they the same? And how well do we really know that person we're with? These are the questions this story poses and doesn't answer, because the answers, of course, are impossible to present. But unlike most stories with a crash, an accident, I don't get the feeling this is necessarily tragedy. It's just how things are and how they're always going to be. Read the story here.

On "Nickel and Dime" by Gary Soto ***

Not to be confused with Barbara Ehrenreich's book of a very similar name, Gary Soto's book is about a similar subject. But whereas Ehrenreich's book is nonfiction and is about trying to live on minimum wage, Soto's book is about trying to live on no wage. The book is really three interrelated novellas centering on three poor Mexican Americans in Northern California, two of them homeless. One, Roberto, shows up in all three stories. And it is perhaps Roberto that I lose sympathy for the most unfortunately. He's not the brightest individual and in the end he seems to become a clown, and it is the clown part that makes him seem more like a tool for laughter than a human being at times. Of course, perhaps this is part of what Soto is aiming for. In all three stories--and especially in the first two--the men at each story's center start out as individuals and slowly lose their sanity as they're pushed into the streets. What other role do such men have to play but that of the madman? They're homeless. Society treats each man as if their dire straits were their own fault. There's room in Soto's stories not to hold them completely blameless but there's also room to see how few allow themselves to care. (Roberto's own plight reminds me a bit, unfortunately, of one man I used to work with who also ended up homeless. As a former coworker, perhaps I should have taken him in, but the man was also a little strange, a little scary, and I was afraid, if he moved in, he'd never move out--after all, he didn't have to quit his job. Indeed, many of the homeless men's friends in these stories feel the same way, even after taking them in for short periods of time. This is what I mean by "allowing one's self to care"--it's not always that the people don't care, but that they fear the consequences if they show it.) I enjoy Soto's work in part because he invokes the California settings I grew up close to. His A Summer Life does for Fresno what he does for Berkeley and Oakland here, bringing these places to life. Still, for a bit-more-heartfelt portrayal of the urban poor, one might try something like L. Hancock's nonfiction Hands to Work, a heartrending account of three down-and-out women in New York City after welfare reform.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On "Houses" by Merida Gorman (705 words) ***

I don't know what it is about this piece, but I find it mesmerizing. I'm not even sure what it's really about. I mean, on the surface, it's some woman visiting some man in a house out in the country, having some affair. It's some woman obsessing over the house of an actress not so far away, an actress the man tells the woman about. It's some woman that maybe isn't so healthy herself. But we only have seven hundred words, and like many flash pieces, what's not here leaves one a bit befuddled--but fascinated. Read the story here.

On "The Underground Man" by Ross MacDonald ****

About two years ago, I read about fifteen American pulp mystery novels in a row. I hadn't read too many of that genre, just a few of the British classic mystery writers, like Conan Doyle and Christie, and a couple of the better-known Americans, Chandler and Hammett. Some of the more interesting writers on that list of books proved not to be from the bigger names, though they were classic books in their own right, often with classic movies based on them. I came actually to enjoy the genre, which I'd never been big on before. What did I like? It wasn't so much the mystery. It was often the writing (Chandler himself said he was more into the writing than the story, at one point, as I recall reading somewhere)--spare, clipped, precise. And it was also often the attention to the seedy underbelly of society or to particular portions of society one doesn't hear about often (circuses). Most were not mysteries in the classic sense at all--there were no private detectives, just people struggling with murder or kidnapping or trouble. In the case of Ross MacDonald, a writer who was left off that initial list and who I just finished reading a book by for the first time, he does deal in detectives. But like so many of those other writers, he has a knack with the language and with exposing interesting portions of society one doesn't think about--or more precisely, pitting different portions of society against itself: rich people, poor people, hippies, artists, and so on. And he writes about Los Angeles, and about a detective, who like most, is rather lonely--both things I can identify with (not the detective part--the L.A. part and the lonely part). I found this first book quite enthralling. Sadly, he had to wrap it all up, and that's when it started to fall apart for me. Everything came together--and a little too easily. I guess I'm more for the mysteries in which nothing really is solved--like Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

On "Creative Memories" by Brigitte N. McCray (3746 words) ***

This story does a good job of working a celebrity into the plot without really working a celebrity in. The title says much about what the piece is about, working on several levels, the father with Alzheimer's, the son's memories of his past, the scrapbook collectors, the boyfriend's own doubtful past. How much about ourselves do we make up? How much is anything real? In asking such questions, I can't help but be drawn back to Oscar Zeta Acosta's book, which I just finished rereading. Read the story here.

On "The Revolt of the Cockroach People" by Oscar Zeta Acosta *****

I first came across this book while working in a bookstore in Pasadena, California. The Vintage editions of both of Acosta's books feature some pretty cool mural work, so the the book always seemed a little interesting to me, but I never got around to reading it. It sat in our sociology section, under Latino studies. A few years later, while in graduate school, we had to read a chapter in the book in a class on Hispanic American literature. I enjoyed it--enough that when it came time to do the paper for that class, I opted to read the whole book and do my paper on that. The paper was good enough that I was told I should do X and Y and then submit it for publication. I started into the extra research I was prompted to do, but I never did complete it (much of the reading I had already done and couldn't figure out how to incorporate) and never did revise with the intention of submitting the paper for publication. My life took me in other directions, and my interest in scholarly writing was never to the level of wanting to work and rework a piece to satisfy enough constituents that someone would publish the thing. Anyway, in thinking about reworking that paper, I must have read the book again--and I also read Acosta's first book, The Autobiography of the Brown Buffalo. I didn't like it as much, even though it seems to be his more well-known and popular work--I thought that was probably because I wasn't giving it the same level of attention in my reading of it.

This year, over a decade later, I decided to reread both. I finished rereading the first autobiography a few months ago. But again, I wasn't all that intrigued. I wondered if my interest in Acosta had wained or if most of that interest had been created by me in the interest in writing that paper. But the moment I opened the second book, I realized that it really did have to do with the book itself. The first autobiography jumps around in time and seems out of focus to me (even though I realize it's really about a man finding his purpose in life). But this second book, all about the Brown Revolution in California, seems very much to have a setting, a place, a time, and a reason, much like Acosta's alter ego. It's fun reading about the movement, enough that Acosta makes me want to read more about it, makes me want to find out in more detail what happened in the movement--and also to find out which stories he's telling are true and to what extent. (Although this second book is also billed as autobiography, the book has a warning on the copyright page that everything EXCEPT the names used is fictional, an ironic twist on the usual autobiography. But so much of the book would put Acosta in legal jeopardy that he would of course have to deny any reality. The warning also goes quite well with one of the themes in the book, which is about what constitutes truth.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

On "The Third Way" by Tamara Kaye Sellman (1768 words) ***

I'm not particularly keen on politics overtly making their way into fiction, but then again, can politics ever not make their way into fiction? Even their supposed absence (if that is possible) is a political statement of sorts, an argument perhaps for the status quo. And as a novel I recently read shows--that novel being Romano-Lax's The Spanish Bow--sometimes even though one may want to simply write a story or play music or draw a picture, forces around will often conspire to use what one does for its own political ends. Is silence then the only option? But is silence then also a political statement?

These things being on my mind at the time that I read this story, I couldn't help but be drawn to some of the questions that Romano-Lax's book raised. And I didn't even know at the time that I was reading a "political" story, not until I was halfway in. I thought I was reading a disaster story--with a unique twist, the reason the story is compelling: the piece is told backward. But maybe disaster stories and political stories are the same. I fear that too often they are. Our desire for power over others generally spells disaster for someone else somewhere, as it does here. Read the story at

On "The Spanish Bow" by Andromeda Romano-Lax ****

I don't particularly like for people to give me a book when I haven't asked for it or expressed an interest in it, because then I feel obligated to read it, even though I may not have any interest in it. That was certainly the case with this book. But I noticed that it come up on the BookSense list, and I figured that if it's that good, I will have to hang on to it and read it eventually. What I guess seemed off-putting is that it is historical fiction, and I don't read too much of that. The reason is that I'd really generally rather read something written within its time.

But I'm glad that I put off my usual prejudices and dug in, because this book is a treasure in many ways. There's no doubt that it's well written, but it's also philosophical, which is something I haven't seen a lot of in fiction of late--a book that wrestles directly with big questions. The big questions in this book revolve around the relation of art to politics. The book is about a viola player in the early 1900s in Spain. Early on, the musician simply wants to play music, but he finds that difficult to do without being brought into political skirmishes and having to take sides. Later on, he plays politics more than his musician friends do, so his views shift. He even stops playing music because he sees it as an opiate for the masses, much as Marx saw religion. By contrast, a friend of his seemingly lives only for himself and politically seems to take whatever role is needed to forward his career. His answer seems to be to focus on the music alone throughout life--and that in the music itself is whatever political statement you want to make, rather than your actions alongside music.

Although one doesn't necessarily have to play politics very often on a national level, in this country, when doing art or our work, we all--I think--have moments when we're dragged into political skirmishes that we really don't want to be a part of. That is, we just want to do our jobs, work, or whatever. Or go to church. Or learn how to draw. But someone somewhere decides to push a few buttons, make these things into more than they are, and as a result, we can't just do what we want to do. Rather, doing what we want means we have to choose a side, take a stand. No longer is it just a job, but it's a job where we stand for one department against another or for the customer against the boss or for the boss against the customer. The book made me think quite a bit--well, okay, a little bit, since I'm not much on thought these days--about this subject.

The other thing I found interesting in the book was the whole discussion of this early-twentieth-century Spain. I haven't read that much about this period in one European country like this, so it's neat to find out so many things that were going on. The novel is partially based on a couple of real musicians, although they each lived about fifty years earlier, and it's written in the form of an autobiography. Early on I kept wishing that this actually was the autobiography. But I guess it's something that a novel can make me curious enough to actually want to read something nonfiction on the same subject. I've got to give it credit there.

Monday, June 9, 2008

On "Diary of the Living Dead or: Are You There God? It's Me. Also, a Bunch of Zombies" by Jake Swearingen (1758 words) *****

This is "literary fiction" plucked from the corpses of bad horror movies. I suppose I could wax on about deeper meanings and find some kind of significance to everything that is happening, but I'm finished with grad school and so just happy to wallow in its brilliance on a purely superficial level. This is piece is laugh-out-loud funny, and that's reason enough for me to highlight it here. Imagine Sartre in a zombie movie; imagine him writing a diary about it. You get the idea. Now read the story.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

On "The Price of a Haircut" by Brock Clarke (5024 words) ****

Brock Clarke has been tearing up the literary scene for few years now, and a nice thing about his work is that much of it is available online, in case you're too cheap to buy his books. Of course, you'll miss out on some of his best fiction that way ("For Those of Us Who Need Such Things" and "The Fat," for instance). Most of Clarke's fiction centers around men in crises who, generally, fail to measure up--and the men in this story seem to fall right into that line. This story is also one of the first in which I've seen Clarke address larger historical moments, in addition to the social issues that he has sometimes previously addressed. Read the story here.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

On "The Harvest" by Amy Hemphill (1927 words) *****

This classic story, which appears in Hemphill's second collection and first appeared in The Quarterly, is available online for everyone's perusal via Pif. What makes Hemphill's writing so amazing is how much she manages to get out of her sparse use of language. Read a story three times longer, and you'll almost certainly get less than what you'll get here. How does she do it? I'm not quite sure--lots of details help, and unique ones at that, but one feels after reading Hemphill's fiction that another eight thousand words were left in a previous draft somewhere and all for the better. This story revolves around an accident, but really it's about "harvesting," about where writers get their stories. Read it here.

On "Live Cargo" by Paul Toutonghi ***

I read this collection because a review described it as a collection of "cubist" stories. I was curious about the description, and it seems applicable. Each story is broken into fragments, mostly tiny, and the first story is even about Picasso. I used to do quite a bit of the fragmented writing myself about ten years ago. I liked the intellectual exercise of putting a story together. But as I've gotten older, I've become more and more a fan of straight stories. I prefer the heartfelt to the intellectual. Both put together, of course, is best of all. The unfortunate thing about this collection--and with fragmented stories in general--is that it's hard to build up emotional resonance when stories are clipped into such abbreviated sections. Toutonghi achieves his best work when he somehow manages to connect to the reader. This happened, suprisingly, best in some of the stories that had not been previously published. My favorite was "A Letter from the Margins of the Year," about an alcoholic professor trying to woo his wife back using baseball and an injured bird. Other strong stories included the unlikely "The Liars" (at least, I hope such a situation is unlikely) and "The Lives of the Saints" and "A Map of the Air," both about lonely people. I wish the other stories could have stuck with me as much as that favorite one, however.