Thursday, December 31, 2009

On "Your Vasectomy Journal" by Timothy Gager (833 words) ***

I'm not at the point in life where a vasectomy is something I'm looking for, but this short piece has an interesting structure and is an interesting comment on how such a surgery might go and on how the relationship around it might also go. Its conclusion is one I think some men can identify with--this idea that in a sense the surgery is immasculating and something to be feared. Read the story here at Twelve Stories.

Monday, December 28, 2009

On "The Yellow House" by Nathan Oates (1780 words) ****

Something about a house--or a gas station or a laundry room or the corner bus stop. There are those places to which one's eyes are drawn. This is the obsession of the narrator in this short piece, a single house. Why? Perhaps it's a dream--something we want--or a yearning for a past--something we had. But what about when that dream or yearning turns into something we'd never really imagine? What then? What do we do with our eyes? Read for the turn in events here at Hot Metal Bridge.

Friday, December 25, 2009

On "The Bull's Eye" by Inderjeet Mani (6050 words) ***

Exotic settings and peoples tend to make for a certain amount of automatic interest in a story, or so I'm told. Sometimes, such things will pull me in also, but I think I'm probably more at home right here in the United States (save my love for the fiction of Paul Bowles). Mani's story is one of those exotic ones, but I'm writing about it not because of the locale but because of the sentiment. It's the story of a man who works hard throughout most of his life and who, when he gets toward the end, comes to understand--at least for him--that life is about much less than what he thought. Like the bull that is at the story's center, the protagonist lives the the moment, the dance. Read the story here at Drunken Boat (you'll have to look for Mani's name and click through).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On "Deep Moves" by William Highsmith (1330 words) ****

Highsmith has apparently written a number of technical manuals and journal articles, and it shows here, in this brief piece about an astronaut on a deep-space mission in an antiquated and slow-moving vehicle that only goes one-fifth of the speed of light. The absurdity of communication in such a situation is highlighted in a series of faux e-mails. And yet, one feels a little bit for the poor lady stuck out there, just waiting to hear from someone, anyone. Read the story here at Abyss and Apex.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On "Police Operation" by H. Beam Piper (12,438 words) ***

Something is loose and killing farm animals, slashing them to pieces. The folks around the valley are after it. And one man has more at stake than all the others. He knows what the thing is. What is supernatural? Are people who claim to see UFOs seeing something from another planet? Are they seeing something we make right here on Earth? This story has its own answer, and it's no X-Files conspiracy. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg, or listen to it here (part 1), here (part 2), and here (part 3), at Project Gutenberg Audio.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Duvall Street" by David McGrath (6866 words) ****

I'm not a big fan of stories about writers--or writing. I have this bias against writing that is, in part, about the craft of itself. I guess I figure such subjects are too much like self-reflection and too inclined toward being about something that affects a much smaller portion of the general population than of writers themselves--that is, that there are more writers in fiction than there are in any general group of people. Are these biases justified? Probably not. (Where I live, certainly more people seem to be musicians or artists than writers, but there are plenty of the latter as well--and plenty of others who take on the name, or the idea of being a writer, but who don't actually write. I myself try to avoid the term altogether when talking of what I do--beyond, say, a hobby. I don't want to be mistaken for taking such a thing so seriously, even if--given the amount of time I devote to it--maybe I do.)

McGrath's story, however, managed to get past those self-inflicted boundaries, managed to hook me and keep me reading. I love how this writer is perennially writing in his head and in various notes, perennially editing himself. I love that he takes himself so seriously--and yet, like so many, probably isn't anything more than some person who writes an interesting tale once in a while but never anything that will garner some wide-level appeal. I love that his stories mimic whose own life in all its ugliness. Simply put, I love this story. Maybe you will to. Read it here at Paumanok Review.

On "Birds of America" by Lorrie Moore ***

The three strongest stories in this collection came at its start and its end, which I suppose is the way one wants to set up any given collection: get people interested and leave them wanting more. In between, I'm astounded by the writing itself but often left wondering, shortly thereafter, what the story was about. In other words, many of the stories ran in together for me, much as they do in, say, a Bobbie Anne Mason collection. But the opening story, "Willing," about a washed-up actress back in her hometown dating a mechanic, "lowering" herself, is a great opening indeed. And in the second to last story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," Moore manages to convey all the angst that parents of a cancer baby must feel in a manner that is almost exhaltant even in its grief. Passages, there, shine like the best of Joan Didion. Finally, in the last story, "Terrific Mother," readers are treated to watching a woman who accidentally kills a baby (how can one even imagine what something so horrifying would feel like?) come slowly back to her life, which, I suppose, is a motif that runs through many of the stories here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On "Naked Lunch" by Savannah-Louise (575 words) ***

Titular focuses on titles--titles that have already been used and are now used again, for a new piece. The new works themselves don't necessarily have anything to do with the originally titled works, except that they share the title and its somehow works. It's an interesting experiment and an interesting way to try to write a piece (titles are usually the last thing I slap on a story, after I know what the story is about--rarely do I know that at the start).

One of the better pieces at Titular right now is this short bit by Savannah-Louise, a story about a girl having lunch with, I think, herself--her ideal self, that self that is attractive and loved, that self that she emulates but never quite reaches. Read the story here at Titular.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On "Mandible" by Donna D. Vitucci (4422 words) ****

Lord of the Flies is about children left to their own devices. Sure, it's about a lot of other things also, but what I'm focusing on at the moment is that lost innocence--the way that children can quickly become adults, and not so nice adults at that. "Mandible" is a story covering some similar ground, but in a way that is more personal, less "social." Our narrator just wants to protect his sister--or love his sister--or both. Left to watch over a family when their mother rushes from one bum dude to another, the narrator's mind takes a sorry and scary turn for the worst. Read the story here at Front Porch.

Monday, December 7, 2009

On "Endless Cup" by Emily Ross (3850 words) ***

Ever been in love with love, with the idea of person? So much romantic love starts out this way, in this ideal, this crush, we have on someone we create in our own head. We have a handful of interactions with the person, and each one betokens some kind of meaningful zeitgeist that is going to transform our life--if only we can get that person into our life. Meanwhile, Ricky or Bonnie or Pat stand by, right there, before us, waiting for us to get over this silly thing. But we'll never see Ricky or Bonnie or Pat as worth our time--not when Mr. or Ms. Ideal is around. Ross's piece focuses on exactly this kind of ordinary conundrum but in a way that we can't help but feel a bit for its protagonist, whose visions are belittled by her coworker and friend, a person who perhaps sees love in more practical (read, financially beneficial) ways but also in ways much less romantic. Read the story here at Menda City Review.

On "American Green" by Stephen Germac ***

I had wanted to read American Green by Ted Steinberg, but the library didn't have it. That book apparently does for lawn care what Fast Food Nation did for fast food. Instead, I found this American Green, by Stephen Germac, which turned out to be an interesting subject all its own--enough that I opted to check it out.

Germac's book is no light reading. This is academic writing as its dense and difficult best. By that I mean that, while not easy reading, it is by no means impenetrable, and the rewards of wading through the prose are worth it.

Germac's text is essentially a Marxist critique of public and national parks. His basic thesis is that capitalism creates inevitably excess production. This is the cause of our economic downturns every nine years or so. In the 1870s, there was a railroad bubble, just as in the 1990s there was a tech bubble and in the 2000s a real estate bubble. To use up this excess capital, the state turns to financing public parks. Parks produce nothing, yet they use a tremendous amount of the surplus production. In turn, they also put the unemployed laboring class to work and, thus, help to offset labor unrest and keep the peace, as well as keep the social strata in its familiar order of rich, middle class, and poor.

The irony of the creation of said parks is that while they are "public"--accessible to all, thus appearing to elide class difference--and put the laboring classes to work, Germac notes, such parks actually reinforce class structures. They do this because they are generally built at the expense of the lower classes for the primary benefit of the upper classes. How so? Germac uses New York's Central Park, Yosemite, and Yellowstone as his key examples.

In Central Park, Germac notes, how the park itself required the resettling of a predominantly black neighborhood. This neighborhood, in a passage from the New York Times that Germac quotes, was, in the eyes of the contemporary higher classes, mostly a shanty town in need of destruction. Germac notes that the neighborhood was actually one of the most stable of the black neighborhoods in New York. Here, what little the poor have is taken for the sake of handing over property to the "public." This "public" is essentially one consisting of the higher classes, because those who are able to enjoy the park are those who have one of the following: (1) money to transport to the park; (2) money to afford the higher-cost real estate next to the park; and/or (3) jobs that are flexible enough to allow for trips to the park during daylight hours. Such benefits preclude those who are removed to districts much farther away in order to make the public park possible.

A similar thing happens in Yellowstone, where native people are booted off their land in order to create a public park available for all American citizens. Here, land surveyors note both that the land is inhabited only by a few barbarians and also that the land is uninhabited. Barbarians--Natives who lack political power--in other words, equals no one. The public that can afford to visit the park are those able to afford the railway ticket costs, which again precludes most of those in the lower class.

It's an unsettling reading of the American park system. And it's engaging theoretically. On a practical level, I'm left a bit startled, however. The author alludes to environmentalists' dislike of his work and gives a little rational for why they should not be troubled by it (after all, few environmentalists would accede to booting Native peoples off land in order to "preserve" the land for a blessed "public," if they knew in fact that was at the heart of what was happening). But this, for me, doesn't resolve the question as to how one preserves natural spaces--it would, in fact, seem to suggest such preservation is inherently ill-conceived.

I'm reminded of a Supreme Court case from a few years ago wherein a town declared eminent domain over some private property in order to hand that property over to another private owner for redevelopment. Many among my friends were dismayed and shocked. And yet the case, while troubling, is not so easily black and white. If a state has the right to condemn private property in order to build a road or a stadium or an airport--something that is supposedly in the public interest--how is one to determine what is public interest and what is private? Often the two work with each other to achieve something that neither on its own would be able to do. Many "public" roads become private toll roads. A dilapidated downtown might best be condemned, in the public interest, so that it can be put to use again, for private interest. But what is dilapidated? And what is to happen to those who own land, and make a livelihood, in this supposedly bad part of town? Is the creation of capital inherently bad? Is it, by contrast, inherently good? I would propose neither, and it seems to me that when it comes to public interest there is a vast gray area.

In this sense, I wonder if the economic system set up on the biblical Old Testament might not be on to something. There, every seven years, all debts are forgiven and agricultural production ceases for the course of twelve months. If we extended that to industrial production, would that not give opportunity to use up the excess production that capitalism inevitably creates and thus avoid economic bubbles? In that system also, land is redistributed every fifty years, meaning that no one is left without property in perpetuity in the name of a public or private interest. Perhaps, in that system, equitable distribution of wealth would actually to a degree be possible.

Friday, December 4, 2009

On "The New Thieves" by Thaisa Frank (384 words) ****

Looking to make your marriage a little more than it was? Are you tired of the mundane and everyday, of plain-vanilla sex? Frank has some advice for you, what works and doesn't work, the experiments that go into reinvigorating one's love life with the one you've chosen. It's all about fantasy, of course, but the right one. Read the story here at Oxford Magazine.

On "The Crisis of American Foreign Policy" by G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith ****

This book of three essays and an introduction looks at the meaning of Wilsonianism in the twenty-first century--that is, namely in light of the war in Iraq. My interest in this book came about from a review I read about a year ago. Then, George W. Bush was still in power, and it still felt a little relevant. Reading the introduction (which relates the three essays) and the first essay (mostly on the history of Wilson's foreign policy and his attempts to build the League of Nations and his goals in doing so), I wondered to an extent just how relevant the book still was. So much of those sections seemed focused on the decisions of the Bush administration and on whether those qualify as Wilsonianism that it hardly seemed to apply to decision-making today.

Enter Thomas J. Knock's essay, wherein he ties two traditions together--Woodrow Wilson's conceptions of foreign policy (founding what Knock calls neoliberalism) and neoconservatism. Knock argues that they are more or less two sides of the same coin, with a goal of democratizing the world and thus providing for world peace (since mature democracies supposedly don't go to war against one another). The key difference is in focus--multilateralism versus unilateralism. In one, the United States does this in consort with other countries; in the other, the United States goes it alone. Yet, Knock argues, these aren't as different as they appear. Both have at heart protecting American interests abroad. In one America acts for the good of the world, which in turn helps America; in the other, America gets the world to act the way America wants for the good of America.

Anne-Marie Slaughter goes on, in the last essay, to rebut each of Knock's arguments, reconfiguring Wilsonianism as a set of policies that respects self-determination of peoples and that would never act unilaterally to achieve desired ends. At her essay's end, she looks to Europe as the exemplar of Wilson's dream, a set of nations who have voluntarily ceded some sovereignty in order to set united goals and thus to sustain peace. It is to this, she says, the United States should aim in its own actions with the world, integrating more with such a system.

It is a persuasive argument, insofar as Knock's own essay ends with a lament, one that seemed wholly appropriate given the first two essays in the book and the foundation for much of the neoconservative argument (and the neoliberal for that matter). That argument rests in the assumption that the United States is the most powerful nation on the planet--militarily and economically. In the face of two wars, a financial crisis largely brought upon the world by the nation's profligate personal spending, and further profligate national spending necessary to recover from--or postpone--the looming disaster caused by the first two, however, claims of American power as supreme in the world seem hollow. How the nation continues in light of these problems would seem to demand the country no longer look to itself as the savior--or ruler--of the world but as one of the company of nations.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On "My Gift to Her" by Lauren Becker (196 words) ***

This short, short piece starts with a curse and ends with a curse. In between, we get a glimpse into the life of a bitter woman. She's bitter for a good reason. But she'll do what she is supposed to do for the family--for a while. Read the story here at Dogzplot.

On "Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler ****

I'd known of Koestler's book initially only because it was a constant on the shelf at a bookstore at which I worked. A few years after that, it came up in the top ten of a list of the top one hundred novels ever written, as recommended by critics and professors. I barely knew the work, and most people I've mentioned the book to in the past couple of weeks haven't either. Yet it had some significance apparently to those of an older generation--and for good reason.

Koestler's book is a novel of ideas, which is not something I've read much of lately. By that, I mean that it is a book more concerned with its themes and ideas than with its story; it is more philosophical treatise than plot-driven narrative (though there is a plot); the thoughts themselves remain interesting enough to drive the book forward. The book is broken into a series of three confessions, each one of which explores concepts of right and wrong, power and progress, ethics on a political stage. The story is a veiled description of life in Stalinist Russia, of men who led the Bolshevik Revolution yet died years later accused of being traitors to the party--in fact, not only being accused by confessing to such.

Koestler explores why men who would put their lives on the line for a cause would confess (rather absurdly) to betraying it? The answer is essentially that the ends justifies the means and that loyalty to the party and its purposes comes before even one's own life. If the party needs you to confess to crimes you haven't committed in order to further the revolutionary cause and concede power to it, then you do it.

It's a rather scary totalitarianism, one that affects not only one's actions but one's very thoughts and one's very conceptions of history. And it seems, unfortunately, not all that far apart from realities even today. I'm reminded of the troubles in Iran, where old guard revolutionaries are now being rounded up by the current leaders and made to confess their crimes against the regime, even as the regime seems to be betraying some of the principles on which it was founded. I'm reminded of certain experiences growing up, wherein even suggesting that X or Y may not be the proper way to accomplish something would have been seen as rebellion (akin to questioning the Party, in Koestler's book and thus breaking apart unity), leading one to remain silent in the face of wrongdoing by superiors. I'm reminded, sadly, even in some ways of the U.S. fight against terrorism, especially in the former administration, where citizens have been told, in a sense, that the ends justifies the means, as the government ignores certain rules set out in the nation's constitution. Koestler's book serves as a warning against such thinking. Those who live by it are likely to end up its victim. Rather, we should, as Koestler writes, quoting the Bible, let our Yea be Yea, our No, No--aim to be decent (righteous in all acts), rather than clever (duplicitous to serve a moral end).

Saturday, November 28, 2009

On "The Unreliable Memoirist" by Keith Lord (4705 words) ****

A few years ago, there was quite a rage over A Million Little Pieces, the James Frey memoir that proved to be in part made-up. But what memoir isn't? I remember reading a guide to memoir writing in a class that I took in autobiographical writing of early America. That book explicitly told writers to embellish, to add details that they couldn't possibly remember. But perhaps there are levels of embellishment that are allowed and levels that are not. Perhaps you can add what clothes you were wearing on the day you saw the Space Shuttle explode but cannot decide that you were a heroin addict instead of only an occasional heroin user. Where does one draw the line? And what are the consequences of drawing the line in the wrong place?

This is what Keith Lord's story is in part about. It's also about a not entirely sympathetic protagonist who becomes less sympathetic the more that we learn about his memoir and its inaccuracies. But it's art, isn't it? Just like a movie is an adaptation that changes facts, a book changes facts as well. How do you tell a good story if you don't at least set it up well? Lord does quite a job setting it up here, at Our Stories.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On "The Day You Were Sad" by Jennifer Levin (771 words) ***

I remember walking into a Japanese bookstore in New York once. Everything was in Japanese. I don't know the language, don't even know the symbols that are used in the written tongue. I knew then what it is like to be illiterate--completely illiterate. I mean, if go to a European country, I can at least parse out the alphabet, recognize a few cognates. But here, I was clueless. The writing around me might as well have been abstract art.

A few years ago, I was having drinks with a friend when the sister of his wife (now ex-wife) came by and started talking. After she left, he said something to the effect of, "Couldn't you tell that she was crying?" No, I couldn't. Something horrible had happened to her and I was as blank about it as I'd been about the language in that bookstore.

I've never been one to read signs very well--that is, body signals, heart signals, people signals. I'm an illiterate when it comes to that, though I think I have gotten a little better with age. But only a little. Here's a story about just that sort of thing. All the signals are there, so many signals one says, Um, how could you have missed that? But miss it the narrator did. And thinking about its meaning for her life and for the life of the person who she missed is what this piece is all about. Read it here at Twelve Stories.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On "Goldenboy" by Sarah Black" (625 words) ****

Here's a coming-of-age story that's surprisingly as innocent as the narrator's age. I think coming of age, and I think some kind of traumatic experience (as in John Updike's "A&P") or some kind of "big" experience, like losing one's virginity. Here, Black chooses to focus, however, on simply a walk through a city with a friend. The new experiences aren't terribly "big," but they're big in the eyes of our little narrator. The descriptions are beautiful, full, and part of what makes this short short so utterly beyond its minimalist number of words. Read the story here at Flashquake.

On "Last Last Chance" by Fiona Maazel **

The movie 2012 hit the theaters last weekend. It's about the end of the world. Great filmmaking? Hardly, I've been told. One could care hardly less for the end of the world than in this movie--but oh boy, the special effects.

By chance, I happened to be reading a book about the possible end of the world at the same time as that movie arrived. And bleak this book is. This is no Oprah pick of the month. People die. People do not get better--or they get better, but why bother, since they're going to die anyway?

About fifteen years ago, I read a book by Dave Bowman called Let the Dog Drive. I was attracted to it by the book's beginning and its snappy copy. I finished it, feeling I'd read a bit too much (weirdness). I had the same feeling with Maazel's debut novel. We get a story about a superplague that panics the nation. We get it from the point of view of the family of the unassuming creator of the superplague, which by the way is a family made up of drug addicts. A family of drug addicts? A nation dealing with a plague? A family dealing with a patriarch blamed for releasing the plague into the public? Any one of these could have been the subject of a book. Put them together, and for me, it seemed a bit over the top. Most of the time. And almost unrelentingly bleak, despite the narrator's apparent recovery from addiction.

Maazel, however, is a talented writer. Line upon line, sentence upon sentence, shines. Those first several pages will hook you. And there are other places where this novel becomes hard to put down as well. I found particularly interesting the first portion of part 2, wherein our narrator Lucy, a lifelong drug addict, goes to rehab with her mother, another long-term drug addict. While there, the feared superplague finally begins a full-force charge across the United States, and it's coming right for the areas surrounding this desert rehab oasis. The rehab center goes into lockdown. Now it's the folks in rehab versus the world. Keep all at bay, not just so that we can recover but so that we can avoid the plague. It's the most engaging section of the novel, one that could be a book of its own. Or a movie. 2013 anyone?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On "Distractus Refractus Ontologicus: The Dissemination of Michael Martone" by Josh Maday (2138 words) ***

If you like heady experiments--especially with a bit of verve in the writing--this piece is just the sort for you. Can I say I know exactly what's going on at all points, no? Clearly, the author has read his share of philosophy (and Michael Martone) and is relishing putting some of it to use, what with the numbers and all. I, by contrast, tend to push aside things that are too theoretical. But Maday here isn't just doing theory--he's having fun, and forcing you to have a little bit of it. Who is this "thing" we call Michael Martone? Who are you? What's your name? When you dress in the morning, do you think, this is me--I am putting on me? And what of the other six thousand versions of you, the other six thousand people who are signified by the same exact nomenclature? Think deeply on these subjects as you read the story here at Lamination Colony.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On “Punch-Drunk Love” by William Walsh (867 words) ****

Titular is a really interesting journal in that it asks writers to take another’s title (from a book, movie, or TV show) and write something brand new with the same title. The results are always fun, though the concept, while leading to some interesting pieces, haven’t really spoken to me as short stories. (And in trying to do one myself, I can see why. I don’t start off with titles--that’s the last thing I assign--so switching it up is difficult and, for me, has yet to bear any fruit with which I’m satisfied.) This piece here, however, by William Walsh is one of the most successful of the items up at Titular that I’ve seen. Essentially a dialogue between two brothers, according to Walsh, one a hermit and one vagrant, it manages to get inside the head of these people and create something heartfelt, sincere, and singular. (In fact, I think one could read the story as that of a single man--the brothers have some commonality.) Each line is a piece of poetry. Each line is could be the start of its own story. These are interesting men, though not necessarily men I’d want to know. Read the story here at Titular.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On "Suspension" by B. J. Hollars (3921 words) ***

Hollars can tell some whoppers, but sometimes he tells quiet stories also. This is the second story I've read of his that features a father-son relationship at its center. This one is particularly charming in that the difficulties, the problems, are so subtle. We watch parents having marriage problems through the eyes of an admiring kid. We don't see lots of battles, lots of big fights. What we see instead are two parents who still, in some way, love each other but whose priorities are different. And we see a kid get along with them both, love them both, remember them both fondly. We also learn a lot of about monster trucks (rallies for which I've never actually been to). Read the story here at Memorious. Then go buy some monster truck tickets for your loved ones.

On "Scar Vegas" by Tom Paine ****

Tom Paine first came to my attention over a decade ago when his story "General Markman's Last Stand" appeared in Story. It was one of my favorites to have read in that magazine over the course of two or three years of subscribing. However, somehow, I failed to ever get around to reading his book. A few years ago, I spotted it in the library and was reminded. And now, finally, I have read it. The "General" didn't impress quite as much as it did a decade ago, but in part that's probably because I knew where it was going; in part, it was likely because my tastes have changed. The story--still good--seemed a bit too wacky and out there to floor me so much now.

In fact, the selling point for Paine's collection of stories is perhaps also a drawback. This collection is all over the place. It's hard to know how Paine does it. We're with Caribbeans in one piece, Arabs another, and Romanians in yet another. His work reminds me a bit of the all the energy and craziness that sometimes goes into the work of some of the postmodernists like Barth and Coover--and much of the same the excess. Paine adopts the slangy voice of drugged-up anarchists in "The Spoon Children," a story worth reading for that voice alone; becomes a hipster in "Scar Vegas"; and takes on the absurdist drama of totalitarianism ala Kundera in Ceausescu's Cat. He tells war stories ("The Battle of Khafji") and work/spiritual (spirit) stories ("The Hotel on Monkey Forest"). Each of these is interesting in its own right.

But my favorite in the collection is at this point the opening story, "Will You Say Something, Monsier Eliot?" It starts slow, but like many a slow-going story, it builds to a grand crescendo. The story of a shipwrecked boater picked up by Haitian refugees, the work becomes something terrifying and sad in one ungraceful swoop. Never trust an American.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On "The Basketball Captain's Wife" by B. J. Hollars (1261 words) ****

This is a tough story, a disturbing story (and a very tight one as well, coming in at just over 1000 words but with back story only hinted at that demands rereading). I remember writing at some point about a story involving a man with Asperger's syndrome published at Summerset Review, and I wonder here if the narrator of this story suffers from the same complex but without being aware of it. Or maybe not. Because it's also a strange story in which the cruel behavior of the narrator becomes not just something tied in to an inability to catch others' emotions but rather an ability to catch others' emotions precisely and exploit them for cruel ends. Or maybe not even cruel ends--just self-justifying ends. Maybe even ends to help assuage grief in some twisted sense. In the end, that is part of what makes this story mysterious. Anyway, the one thing I do know, after reading the story, is Wheeler is a place I'd rather not visit. Find out why by reading the story here at Diagram. (Warning: This story involves adult language and situations.)

On "Paul, the Jewish Theologian" by Brad H. Young ****

Young's book serves as a useful corrective to readers of Paul the Apostle's epistles of the New Testament. Young's basic premise is that Paul called himself a Pharisee, so readers should take Paul at his word. Paul was a devout Jew, writing for a largely Gentile audience. As a devout Jew he would never have dismissed the Torah as so much flotsam (as many christians assume); rather, he would have honored it. Young shows how Paul does so, tracing many of his concepts to other Jewish writers near the same time of Paul's writing. Eternal punishment, Young claims, is discussed more in Paul's work than in the Old Testament, showing that Paul did not introduce a God more kindly than the one in Jewish teaching; Young also shows how ideas about grace and God's mercy run throughout Jewish teaching, and how Judaism is not, at its core, a salvation-by-works religion. Early Christianity--and Paul's teachings by extension--rest within that Jewish foundation, something that Christians are apt to forget, influenced as they have been by early antisemitic writers like Marcion.

Young's points are well taken. My one quibble with the book would be that at times I think Young makes his point too stridently. Yes, Paul was a Pharisee, and there were other Pharisees who were followers of Christ. But Young seems to make it appear as if all persecution of early Christians arose from other sects like Sadducees or from proselytes to the Jewish religion, when scripture is clear that Pharisees were numbered among those who persecuted the new sect. After all, Paul the Pharisee was one of the greatest persecutors of the church before he became one of its strongest proponents. But this is a minor quibble, one perhaps caused more by my impression of the overall thrust of the book than by Young's actual words, when taken in the context of Young's overall thesis.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On "Mud Love" and "The Singing Fish: Revisited" by Peter Markus (399 words; 312 words) ***

Double Room publishes prose poems and flash fiction. I'm not sure that there's a clear, well-accepted difference between the two. For me, I think of prose poetry as being simply interesting writing--interesting prose. It's poetry, however, in that it captures a moment or an idea, rather than following the rules of the short story. There is no rising action, no climax, no resolution. I don't focus much on prose poems, and that's one reason I don't check Double Room that often, since the works there tend toward that rather than what I think of as flash fiction. As a result, I've probably missed some interesting experiments in prose such as Peter Markus's work. In this case, Markus has present the story of--or poem about--brothers living next to a muddy river. There are three parts, though I like the last two parts best and thus feature them here. The brothers, to me, seem an analogy to something bigger--the mud too--the brotherhood of humanity, the dust to which we return; all this strung together in some elegant words. Read Markus's work here and here at Double Room.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On "You Wake Up And The Virgin Mary Statue On Your Dresser Is Crying Blood" by J. R. Angelella (934 words) ****

Here's a writing exercise gone amuck, which is of course what makes this short piece so interesting. Rather than taking the exercise and running with it--once--Angelella takes it and runs with it once, twice, thrice, four times . . . And each time, it's fascinating and crazy interesting. Somehow, each little piece manages to have a certain feel of completion on its own. Would I like it had he developed one story, made into one long whole? Quite possibly. It's an interesting first line. And certainly, that might have led to a deeper emotional connection, but I don't know if the longer story would have been as much fun. This is like a video game you haven't yet discovered all the clues in yet. New things pop up with each new beginning. Read the story here at Word Riot.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On "Cab Ride" by David Moss (3007 words) ***

Sometimes, a premise is so good it's hard not to write a decent story based on it. I remember once, in a creative writing class, being given just such an assignment. That is, the teacher supplied the premise, and we wrote the story. But virtually anyone writing a story based on that premise, I'd venture to guess, wrote a decent one.

What is a good premise? That's a great question, I'm realizing. I mean, there are plenty of stories that are told over and over again--the story of the washed-up sports player trying to recover his past glory; the story of a relationship breaking up; the story of someone's relative dying. But these don't necessarily make great stories. For one, the story ideas are so common that it's hard to recreate them as something new. For two, the ending is too predictable. The washed-up sports player either will or won't succeed. The relationship will break up--and the person will feel bad about it or maybe will come to feel better about it. A good premise doesn't offer just one or two endings. A good premise promises to take us in any number of directions, promises unpredictability.

"Cab Ride" is a story that works basically on this principle--the great premise. I could see this premise used in something much longer, a novel, a movie. In fact, in a way, it has--I'm thinking of North by Northwest. A man is kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. What happens? Will he discover who he's supposed to be? Who is that person? Will he get away? Will he get killed? Will he get turned over to the authorities for a ransom even though he isn't who he's supposed to be? Lots of possibilities here. Read the direction in which Moss takes the premise here at Thug Lit.

On "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner ****

A few years ago, while the region where I live in the southeastern United States was dying of famine (for a short time we were discouraged even from flushing toilets) and the northeast United States was set under flood waters, my father suggested to me in a phone conversation that the United States had made a mistake in not investing more in an infrastructure that could move water around from where it is in excess to where it is needed. At the time, I thought it a curious idea but one that likely would not work the way that we would expect or desire--and one a bit surprising from a religious person like my father (espousing a scientific engineering solution to a problem that is, at bottom, spiritual and natural). But after reading Reisner's book, I see from where my father's thinking was arising. I should have known. He lives in California, the state in which I grew up. And in California, indeed, in all of the West, moving water around from where it is abundant to where it is not is common practice, one for which I often felt guilty and which I was hoping to escape when I moved South, where water is supposed to be abundant (but is not because of the South's own very wasteful practices).

Reisner's book has been on my reading list for decades. It came highly recommended from a coworker of mine back in my retail bookstore working days. A California native, he was not a fan of Los Angeles and did his best to stir up antipathy toward its water practices. But Reisner's book isn't just about Los Angeles or California--it's about the whole of the West. It's a warning about how the prosperity of the American West is built on sand--or rather on water imported to sit over that sand. In the short run, a great civilization is built; in the long run, the sand, Reisner notes, will prevail. Civilizations built on irrigation have a limited lifespan. Eventually, dams silt up, salt deposits overcome the fields where water is deposited, reservoirs fill, fields become useless, and all returns to the desert from which it came.

Reisner's book is about more than that, however. It's also about bureaucracy, about the way government programs become self-perpetuating even after they've served out their primary useful purpose, the way that individual powerbrokers in Congress serve their constituents first before ideology. A liberal Democrat might support environmental causes in word, but if a multimillion dollar water project looks like it will help his or her district, environmental concerns become a secondary issue. A conservative Republican might hate big spending government in word, but if a multimillion dollar water project looks like it will help his or her district, suddenly big spending doesn't look so bad. A "if you vote for my project, I'll vote for yours" keeps big (and often bad) projects passing through the legislature. As a result, farmland that is too dry to be productive naturally gets close to free water and becomes superprofitable, while farmland that is naturally better suited to a given crop goes fallow because it doesn't get the same water subsidies.

The whole history of American water rights is enough to sadden anyone about the prospects of the United States ever again achieving a balanced budget, let alone passing health care legislation that makes sense or financial oversight regulation that will do what it's intended to do. Reisner exits on a positive note, explaining how attitudes toward dam building (a major focus of his book) changed in the early 1990s and offering hope that this bodes well for the country taking a more reasonable approach to water rights. Somehow, pessimist that I am, I think that reason likely won but a short respite. While cities out West may be taking a more responsible approach to water usage (though Reisner notes that it's agriculture that uses the most water), down here in Georgia, during the most recent drought, I heard word of the need for more dams--rather than the need for more restrained water usage or the creation of landscapes more befitting the natural terrain.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

On "Construction Zone," by Harvey Sutlive (2692 words) ****

What a wonderful anecdote on married life and kids and the desire to have them. Sutlive does well in this story what is very easy to do badly--he tells the story from two perspectives, the husband's and the wife's. Part of how he does this so smoothly is by using a third-person narrative, but it's easy to see where the perspectives shift. And watching those perspectives shift is fascinating. These are characters wrestling with life-changing events, but as in life those life-changing events are put into the everyday. They're as likely to worry about who's going to drive as about what a new child would mean for them. In fact, in some ways, they'd rather dwell on the former than think about the latter--it's too hard to think about. Read the story here at Off Course.

Monday, October 26, 2009

On "My Untimely Death, Number Five" by Adam Peterson (406 words) ***

Apparently part of a series, the number five death is fun piece of nonsense with philosophical underpinnings--think Borges. So, here goes, you have a choice about how to die. Which do you take? Choose carefully, and then wait . . . and wait . . . and wait . . . Read the story here at La Petite Zine.

Friday, October 23, 2009

On "Code" by David Crouse (7325 words) ****

Before And Then We Came to the End, there was "Code," David Crouse's short story with similar zaniness and a similar situation--layoffs at an office. It's one of the funniest stories I've ever read. But it's interesting to look back over the story after reading Ferris's novel. That novel builds itself in a corporate "we" speak. In Crouse's work, it's every man and woman for him- or herself, and if there were an operative pronoun it would seem more likely to be ominous and unidentifiable "they." A "list is going around." "They" are laying people off. But just what is the job that people are going to lose? What exactly do these people in the office do? Come to the end, there is no sentimental riff on the times "we" used to have. Crouse is darker, as is typical. All that is left for his characters is insanity. Read the story here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

On "Snow" by Mark Leidner (2560 words) ***

There are moments in this story I am jealous of, little thoughts this author is able to stick in print that I wish I'd have thought of myself. Much of the piece centers on dreams and nightmares, on the mind, on thought itself. And what, with an opening about a house made of nothing, it would figure. Read the story here at Diagram.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

On "Happy Ending Sundae" by Ravi Mangla (217 words) ****

Another Mangla special. I'm not sure this one qualifies in terms of being a true short story--is there a plot? Is there a conflict? A crisis? A rising action? A resolution? And then, again, metaphorically, I think this is. This story is about brain surgery, about making it through something for the first time, trying to do that right thing. And it's beautiful. Read it here at Dogzplot.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On "A Friendly Game" by Stephen D. Rogers (2135 words) ***

There are a certain number of clichés about private detectives in fiction. One of them is that they work alone and, as such, are also notorious loners, men (or possibly women) who live on the margins of society, not really part of mainstream culture and not really part of the underworld. Rogers works with that cliché in this story, but what is different here is that this isn't a straight-up mystery. In fact, the only real mystery seems to be why he's chosen to write about this incident at all--until you get about two-thirds of the way in. It's just a regular day for our lonely detective, save that someone invites him to a ballgame. That's right--someone is actually friendly to him. Be suspicious. Be very suspicious. Read the story here at Thrilling Detective.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

On "The Thespian" by Bruce J. Friedman (7124 words) ****

One of my favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald books is The Pat Hobby Stories, a collection of stories about a washed-up hack of a screenwriter. From what I've read by critics, these stories are not considered to be Fitzgerald at his best. And certainly the stories pale in comparison to his great works. But they're fun, and put together, they create a real feel for a particular character and time. Friedman's story "The Thespian" seems reminiscent of the Fitzgerald pieces--a story of a burnt-out screenwriter given a shot at a film that turns out to be much less than things he would like--and much less than his gloriful past. For whatever reason, I'm quite often drawn to stories of people on the way down. Perhaps that's because even when we're succeeding, there's always a feeling that what we're doing isn't grand enough. Maybe it's just the movies that do it to us, the way they make everything seem more important and beautiful than our real and largely insignificant lives. Read the story here at Pif.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

On "I Love to Dance at Weddings" by Alix Ohlin (3634 words) ***

Why do some people run through marriages like blenders and why do others hang on to marriages like, well, blenders, blender they let sit in the corner and gather dust? Not that the protagonists' marriage is like the latter in this piece, but I sense an aura of something not quite right but not quite unright either. These are two people who function, who get along, but who are also a bit annoyed at one another--or more specifically annoyed at a situations that are out of their control: the inability to find a job, the inability to keep mom from marrying (again) or to keep from participating in the ceremony. And then there are the lovebirds, and the woman who flits from husband to husband like a hummingbird exploring flowers. A study in contrasts. You can read it here at CrossConnect.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On "A Random Migration" by Brian Allen Carr (5210 words) ****

This story really engaged me, right from its first line, and that's a nice feeling to have with something that is so long, especially when one is reading a story on the Internet, where the proclivity is to let one's mind wander and to wander eventually away from the story. Why does this one stick so well? That first line, telling about a death, opens up a story of its own, makes us curious. And really, to oversimplify, the story just adds one line after another like that, telling us more about that death, about the one who died.

As with some things we learn about in life, things we may not be so connected with anymore, the narrator--and thus the reader--here learns about the death in only segments. The facts of the incident are contradictory, until we get up close with them.

Or is what makes this piece so intriguing in the details? There's a moment where the narrator is on the phone with his mom, and she starts to berate him for smoking. "I'm not smoking," he says. "I can hear you breathe," she says. That last line seems so much like something someone who really knows someone would say.

Or is it in the rather sad background story? The friends who have stopped being friends, the search for a past that is no longer there, for a future to which one belongs? I suppose it's probably all these things. Maybe you can glean some other ideas by reading the story, here, at Front Porch.

Friday, October 2, 2009

On "Stick" by S. Craig Renfroe Jr. (2964 words) ***

Of the five stories I've read at 3 a.m. this week (the magazine, not the time--I'm asleep at that time usually), this is certainly the most bizarre, and as such my favorite. Certainly, it's so far-fetched that I have a hard time buying much of what happens, but I give the story credit for taking chances, for doing something interesting. Emergency rooms seem great fodder for potential stories, and I can't help but wonder if Renfroe has visited a few or dated a nurse himself. Read the story here at 3 a.m. (If you're a bit paranoid about your feet, you might want to skip it for health reasons.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On "Brothers" by Nick Ostdick (2143 words) ****

I never had a brother--younger or older. I did have a sister, an Irish twin (i.e., about one year younger), but I was never the kind of older brother, that I know of, that seems to be the center of much fiction, never the guy dispensing advice or beating on the sibling. My sister and I had our fights, sure, and but I don't recall beating her. And I don't recall dispensing advice. Maybe it was the difference in gender, maybe the lack of difference in our ages, or maybe it's just the faulty memory of an older sibling who thinks he didn't do the things an older sibling does when he actually did.

The brother thing came to me when I was in Britain visiting a friend. We went to see some British movie--I don't recall the title, though I think it involved the name Beckham. It was about two brothers and a dad living in Wales. The younger brother took ballet lessons. The older brother, much older, worked in the coal mine with dad. In bed at night, the brothers argued, fought. Just like in real life my friend said, my friend who'd had a two-years-older brother.

This story reminds me a bit of that film--though I think I like this story better. Here's why: This story takes the form of brotherly advice, a format that works well for it. And then it takes that advice up a notch, giving the reader a sense of all the older brother hopes for his younger sibling by providing not just advice but alternate futures. This isn't just about the sibling we realize, about forcing someone into one's whim, but about the older brother himself, about all of his failings, all of his wishes and dreams and hopes, and all of the things he'll never have. Read the story here at Verb Sap.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

On "Seven Hands Played" by Cora C. Pyles (500 words) ***

I'm reminded of Jayne Anne Phillips's flash fiction or prose poems or whatever they were, the ones published in Sweethearts and then again as vignettes separating the large stories in Black Tickets. What these bursts of prose stand for, one isn't always certain, other than that they are really well-rendered pieces of prose. Cora C. Pyle's "Seven Hands Played" is a piece in such a tradition. The tale of a single night, of girls gone to visit boys in a far-out place, of something about to happen. Read it here at Kaleidowhirl.

On "Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal" by Joel Salatin ***

Here's an eye-opening book about our nation's food system, written by a small-time farmer. I'd known a little about some of the problems with food production in our country, but Salatin provides an in-depth perspective from the point of view of the small farm community. Why have all our family farms disappeared? Could it be that regulation has made anything except large, corporate farms nearly impossible to manage at a profit? Could it be that corporations collude with government officials when new regulations are enacted? Could it be that government policies often have the exact opposite effect than what's intended?

Take, for example, the practice of zoning. To zone land as agriculture often means that (1) one can't process meat on one's own site (beyond that, what can be processed often involves so much government-mandated equipment that a small farmer couldn't possible do it legally); (2) one can't open a store on one's own site to sell the products from one's farm; and (3) one can't charge tourists for the pleasure of visiting one's farm. There are subtleties in each of these sets of laws. Salatin, for example, can process chicken but not beef, but only his own chicken. Salatin can sell food at the farm but only his own farm's food--and nothing that has been "processed" (forget those cookies). But there are good reasons for zoning--most of those stemming to corporate culture. I mean, who really wants to live by a huge chicken processing plant?

Salatin's point is that he's not a corporation and thus shouldn't be subject to the same sets of laws. There's a libretarian streak in Salatin's writings, a desire to do away with government as much as possible. I understand Salatin's points, and too a large extent I would tend to agree. Many regulations are nonsense. However, I'm not one for removing regulations in general. There's a balance here. Regulations that don't work should be rewritten (but often aren't because they advantage certain power players). And regulations in general need to be slated for the kind of farm one is running. Small producers shouldn't have to follow the same rules as large ones. Given the scale of production some of the health issues involved just aren't the same. But removing regulations in general doesn't seem a wise move to me. After all, laws are written to protect people, to offer guidance, and if such things don't exist, you end up with the kind of muddle our financial system is now in. Scale matters. If you have to stare your customer in the eye after selling him or her bad beef, you may not be so likely to do so, as compared to a big company to whom each customer is just a number. But at the same time, many of the banks that have failed in this most recent crisis are small ones. Had there been more guidance--albeit guidance scaled appropriately--perhaps troubles at all levels would have been averted.

Has Salatin changed my eating habits? Many of those had already changed after reading Fast Food Nation. Salatin simply added to my knowledge base. Were only good food more widely available.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

On "Finders Keepers" by Ravi Mangla (347 words) ****

I've become a fan of Mangla's work largely through a social networking site I read on from time to time. Mangla's been one of those whose work has been consistently interesting--and consistently good. In this little piece Mangla turns the old safecracking story on its head and gives us something, in fact, literary. Read it here at Pindeldyboz.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

On "Heart Mechanics" by Molly Jones (840 words) ***

I'm not sure what this strange little piece is. There's no rising conflict, no climax, no real resolution. But there is an idea, and an odd one at that. The idea was enough to sustain my interest, enough for me to go back and reread this, try to figure out what exactly is going on. Why a mother would do this to her child, I'm not sure. Having a wind-up heart, though, certainly sounds like a recipe for trouble--or maybe salvation. Read the story here at Thieves' Jargon.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

On "Tuning Pegs" by Sterling McKennedy (2708 words) ****

This is a quiet one, one of those slices of life--and here, it is slices, because we're getting more than a single incident. What makes this particular story special, however, is in the details. There are two moments in this story where I had to stop and think, awed by an observation at once very true and very unthought (at least by me) before. One involves an incident at the DMV (or rather a series of thoughts there), the other simply a description of some police drama. I wonder if I'll ever be able to watch police dramas again without thinking about what McKennedy has to say about them. Oh, and the story--about a newly divorced woman with two kids trying to find her way, settling now for a job she thinks will need nowhere (and which probably will)--that's a fine piece of work as well. Read it here at Night Train.

Monday, September 14, 2009

On "If Wishes Were Porsches" by Jay McInerney (5171 words) ***

I first read McInerney on my high school senior trip. I bought Bright Lights, Big City at Crown Books in San Diego. The book had been mentioned by my English teacher in conjunction with the Lost Generation, with Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (an amazing work I just finished rereading this past winter--twenty-some years after my previous reading, twenty-some years to forget just how amazing). So I wanted to read this new Lost Generation. McInerney was the first; I would read Bret Easton Ellis the next fall. Ellis I did not care for, except in the way he captured a certain milieu; McInerney I cared for a lot. I finished Bright Lights, Big City by the weekend after I returned from the trip and immediately started it again. I must have read it three times that summer. It was good. It was very good.

I went on to read Ransom, a book I also loved. And then Story of My Life (brand new, in hardcover), which proved disappointing. On the anniversary of my first reading of Bright Lights, Big City, I read it again and was again enthused. Other reading interfered then, and I didn't touch Bright Lights again for a long time. I did, however, somewhere in here get around Brightness Falls and was again disappointed. I began to think either McInerney had fallen in form, or I had been young and enthusiastic over writing that age was proving to be less than stellar.

About two years ago, I finally got around to rereading McInerney. I started with Bright Lights, Big City, and you know what? It was still great. I found the last half a bit contrived, but it still had heart and great, great writing. Ransom, unfortunately, proved not to live up to my memories of it--I had loved the portrayal of that strange world of Japan, but now it seemed like a very contrived novel. And then I read Model Behavior. The latter proved that McInerney was not a fluke. He was back in form for that novella, back in the world of Bright Lights.

Here is a story written by a master chronicler of the New York scene. Sure, I don't know how it is that McInerney's male protagonist always seems to have a model or future celebrity fall for him--and then leave him once the woman becomes famous. Sure, I wonder sometimes how people in such financial straits manage to lead such rich social lives (especially among the seemingly well-to-do). Maybe it's all my own lack of social skills that causes me to doubt these things. But for sheer force of New York City, for its moments of craziness one is unlikely to find elsewhere (the old man's story in the bath house here made me laugh out loud), for the energy of language and turns of phrase, McInerney is a wonderful and enjoyable writer to soak in. Read the story here at Five Chapters.

On "Ghost Soldiers" by Hampton Sides *****

I remember how manipulated I felt by two Spielberg films on World War II--Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan. And I had at points similar feelings here. But it's inevitable. In war stories, in these places at the edge of our own humanity, where we treat one another like bugs we don't like crawling around our apartment, one can't help but cry--and cry again when somehow our state of being human is restored.

Ostensibly the story of the Bataan Death March, Ghost Soldiers follows two tracks. One is the story of U.S. Rangers' raid on a POW camp where many of those Bataan marchers who survived ended up. The other is the story of the POWs themselves. The one is "heroic." The other is incredibly sad. One would make a great movie. The other could be made into some kind of existential novel of great nihilism. In the end, of course, the stories meet. And one rushes onward to get to that ending, to see whether this impossible mission can be carried off and if so how well. Sides has done his research well, but he's done an even better job of molding all of it into a compelling, emotional book.

Friday, September 11, 2009

On "Virgins" by Claudia Smith (2060 words) ***

"I wasted it"--the words sting. And in a sense, they're the heart of this piece. Two girls who can share everything about each other. It's that portion of life when you're discovering for the first time, as adults. It's that portion of life when a good friend to share it with is the most wonderful thing in the world. Claudia Smith captures it well. Read the story here at Juked.

On "The Salton Sea" by George Kennan ***

This basic primer on the creation of the Salton Sea was written in 1917. It divulges the geological history of the area, explains the creation of the land and water companies that would bring farming to the Imperial Valley and ultimately also the Colorado River itself, and the efforts of engineers to prevent the rerouted Colorado River from overwhelming the valley. Much of the book is written, as many books of the time seem to be, in a hagiographic tone about the greatness of man's exploits--and in this case especially one man's exploits, H. G. Harriman. Harriman was the man in charge of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which took charge of the California Land Company when it failed financially. The Southern Pacific, in turn, ended up responsible for paying the three million dollars it took to reroute the Colorado. Yet, according the author, Harriman received not one word of thanks from the government--and not one penny of help. In part, this book seems a propaganda tool for government relief of big corporations, but it also makes some salient points regarding who should pay when ecological disaster strikes. Who Kennan, the author, was might be a further useful route to understanding the deeper motivation behind the book.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On "Push or Pull" by Lauren Becker (276 words) ****

It's hard to come up with something that has any power in five hundred words, let alone less than three hundred. Becker manages to pull it off here, the story of a desperate woman, one apparently of many. I don't get guys like this. Sometimes, though, I wish I were one of them. And then again, not. Something in me prefers being rejected to rejecting. Read the story here at the top of the page (among many others) at Dogzplot.

On "Greetings from the Salton Sea" by Kim Stringfellow ***

It's rare to see pollution and devastation photographed so beautifully. This is a gorgeous picture book that halfway tempts me to walk right back out there to the Imperial Valley and see these things for myself. (I have driven through the Imperial Valley. One does not want to walk through this place. It is awful. It is desolate. It is flat and white and barren. It is like passing over very large parking lot of white cement--in every direction, clear to the horizon.) But wow, I've never seen this place look more fantastic.

Stringfellow's introductory essay situates the photographs that she's made of the Salton Sea, which rest in this valley. The largest inland body of water in the state of California, created by an engineering accident and maintained through agricultural runoff, this eco-catastrophe has become the major home for many migrating birds. Or had. In the past decade, as Stringfellow demonstrates, the increasingly salty and toxic sea, has increasingly killed off its fishy inhabitants--and its birds along with them. Perhaps we need to save this accident--but how?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

On "Things You Can Do With a Can of Campbell’s Soup," by Brock Adams (747 words) ***

Perhaps this is more an essay than a short story, or maybe it's just a list. But if it's an essay, it also hints at a kind of plot, a subtext, a life--all the things the a can of soup can be to us, all the meanings it can gather, throughout the course of our days. Recently, during the first week of the significant downturn in the stock market this past fall, one of the few stocks that actually rose that week was Campbell's Soup. Hearkening back to the Depression, one commentator said, Campbell's Soup gives us comfort. And that's what Adams suggests here, if in a perhaps ultimately sad and sordid way. Read the story here at Barrelhouse.

On "Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout *****

I came to this book reluctantly. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but other books have won that prestigious award and still managed not to totally inthrall me. Sure, it's a short story cycle, a genre I love. Sure, it was recommended to me--not by one person but by three. But it was about a crabby old lady. It didn't sound like my kind of text. Neither, said one of the recommenders, did it sound like my kind of text to me. So I read it, and boy am I glad I did. This is one of the most enjoyable collections of stories I've read, one of the best new discoveries to come before me in the past few years.

Ostensibly a cycle of stories about Olive Kitteridge--the crabby old lady noted above--this collection somehow managed to make me care or at least enjoy getting to know this woman. Granted, I would never want to know her in real life. She's overbearing, selfish, mean. She's also, at times, caring--but the bad seems to outweigh the good, much as such does in many of Flannery O'Connor's characters (a writer whose stories, somehow, I've by and large never managed to come to love). Also, in the level of detail with which Strout writes, I'm reminded of Alice Munro, and yet again I am a big fan of these stories about Olive, whereas for all her skill I usually find Munro's work a tad boring.

Two things pull me to this collection. First, the stories are often hilarious--or at least moments in the stories are, just as those moments are so incredibly unpredictable. Second, the stories--the best ones at least--leave me shuddering at the end. To be sure, some stories I merely shrugged at, but probably half of them gave my heart a little pitter pat when I got to the end.

Take the first two stories, "Pharmacy" and "Incoming Tide." The first is a quiet story about Olive's husband Henry's female coworker. This isn't one of those stories that made me say Wo! at the end, but what I liked about it was how through the various subtle details, we got a vision of Olive, on the sidelines, as the jealous wife. Sure, it was Henry's story, but the little nuances that were Olive's made this a piece to admire. Next, we see Olive through the eyes of a man who is readying to commit suicide. Here, Olive comes across simultaneously as a tedious bully and as a wonderfully caring person. It's not that Olive tries to talk the man into living. The man never opens up about what he is on the verge of doing. It's that she is so a part of her own world that she never even seems to notice the emotional stress that the man is in. But she does notice someone else, and it is Olive's concern for this someone else who in the end saves this other man's life.

Strout is at her best, though, when we get into Olive's head. And Olive, when we're in her head, is even less sympathetic in most cases than when we see her from outside. In the hilarious "A Little Burst" we watch Olive because some jealous of her new daughter-in-law's relationship with her son that she commits an act--and commits to acting in a way--that is sure to undermine her son's marriage. One is shocked. In "A Different Road," Olive forces her husband to drop her off at an emergency room so that she can take a pee and ends up somehow in the middle of stickup, during which she and her husband--at gunpoint--get into one of the funniest arguments I've ever heard. The results are, to be sure, disastrous.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On "DMV" by Ashley Farmer (416 words) ****

Back to an old theme--the idea of a story as an obsession. This one works with hands. Actually, this one works with a lot of things, a lot of images. It's the story of a woman going through a degree of stress, a canceled relationship of sorts. And it's tight. I love the image of the melted plastic on the dashboard. Love the way this piece comes to its bitter end. It's so calm, I didn't even realize what had happened at first--and when I did, I shivered. Read the story here at Elimae.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

On "A Sigh Is Just a Sigh" by Sean Lovelace (1050 words) ***

Here's an interesting short piece, a musing on film and sleeping and doors and dreams. I'm really not sure what to think of it, but sections of it sing, lines from it shine. Bogart on your futon? Asking him if he wants Pop Tarts? Really interesting. But really, this is just an excuse to mention another Sean Lovelace piece, in the Sonora Review (not online), about nachos, " Someone Emailed Me Last Night and Asked if I Would Write About Nachos"--one of the best pieces of writing I've read this year. Read Lovelace's story about Casablanca here at Wigleaf, then go out and get yourself a copy of the Sonora Review.

On "Let's Talk about Love" by Carl Wilson ****

A short while back, when I was reading all those fantasy books, I admit there was a part of me that, when confronted with people in public who would ask me what book was in my hand, what book I was reading, was a little embarrassed. It's not a genre I usually read, and there is--as one person said, a "nerdiness" about it ("Getting your nerd on," I see, the person actually said). I'm fine with being a nerd, but a nerd who reads fantasy is not the nerd I am.

Similarly, while in Florida, I was driving a few friends to a pizza place, and I had in my CD player, a mixed CD that for whatever reason at that moment was focused on Phil Collins and Liz Phair. I like both. The former, though, is considered by many to be cheesy eighties music, the latter, after her first album, often considered to be too commercial. There are lots of other songs on that CD, but these were the two artists that ended up on play. I felt a bit shy. Really, I wanted to say, my tastes aren't always so mainstream. I like some out of the way stuff too.

Wilson has a similar moment in his 33 1/3 book, whose subtitle, A Journey to the End of Taste pretty much sums up what the book is about. In it, he tries to figure out what taste is and why some people can like an artist he detests so much, like Celine Dion. In an attempt to come to that understanding, he plays the album over and over in his apartment, an apartment that does not hide very well what sounds emanate from inside. And strangely, he feels incredibly embarrassed, more so than say if people were listening to him have sex. What is this thing that causes us to be embarrassed by certain things we might read or listen to? What is this thing called "taste"?

I like Wilson's book because it's about something I haven't given much thought to since a twenty-something in grad school. There, I had to confront other grad students who were arguing that the sole reason a given book is considered literature (say, The Great Gatsby) and another given book (say, Myers's Twilight) is not is politics. In my twenties, I couldn't abide by such reasoning. The greats were great; the not so greats were not--there were aesthetic reasons. One supposedly can read Gatsby on many more levels than Twilight. And maybe one can--or maybe one can't. But does that make something better aesthetically? (The particular example is drawn from a more-recent conversation with a high school senior who considers Twilight the greatest book of American literature, and Gatsby merely boring. She'll be an English major at college this year--I'm curious to know if her tastes remain the same. Judith Krantz was the actual college example.)

These are the questions Wilson confronts. In that process, he discusses theories of taste by men like Hume and Kant (arbiters, in their judgment, should be those with a great deal of background in a subject, who have in short good discernment). And he discusses a more recent and more interesting (and much more arguable) one by Bourdieu--namely that taste is a class thing. We show our particular class by disparaging the "tastes" of a lower class. Hence, we end up with high and low culture. But Wilson, I think correctly, says that that sort of argument isn't wholly satisfying. There's more to life then class. Still, our tastes are, in part, forged in an attempt to fit in with a particular cultural subset. We judge Gatsby better because we want to be part of the kind of group that would choose Gatsby over Twilight. Or the White Stripes over Celine Dion.

In the end, however, Wilson comes to appreciate Dion. He may still not find her to be "his" music, but he can appreciate her for the kind of music she does. And what he suggests is that critics should not so much "judge" a work as enter into a dialogic conversation about it, about taste--and more explicitly about the personal experiences that would cause us to like one thing or dislike another--as in, "I like this, but you don't. Why for me and why not for you?" In this way, we better understand one another.

To be sure, the book has a large theoretical component, but it is readable. And it's also fun. Wilson doesn't just talk about taste but about Dion's career, where she came from and where she's gone. And he summarizes hilarious studies such as that of Komar and Melamid's study of art, coming up with a "most wanted" painting based on a generic quiz about what type of art people like most and a "most unwanted" painting on the same; the same study is later applied to music. He uses wonderful anecdotes to illustrate points, such as Dion's own statements on Larry King regarding letting the Katrina looters "touch those things." A wonderful read.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On "Show and Tell" by David Crouse (5740 words) *****

One of my favorites, though not my actual favorite, from stories from Crouse's second collection is this gem about a cleptomaniac kid. Okay, maybe he's not a clepto full time, but he's a clepto at least when it comes to this one friend, this friend who isn't going to be cool enough to be a friend come the school year. But in these long and dull summer days, when all you have is a brother who likes to beat you up for a companion, better to go to that misfit's house and steal his stuff. Read the story here.