Sunday, March 29, 2009

On "The Geometry of Closets" by Marko Fong (2014 words) ***

This story doesn't quite break my heart, but it does provide an interesting glimpse into lives of three supposed misfits. It's a love triangle of a different sort, where the best friend is left to figure out--or simply let be--what appears to be happening, where the best friend is slowly being pushed away by an emerging couple. Or is that just my reading? I've never been to brilliant at figuring out the obvious either, though like the narrator, I often suspect. (I take as an example a time when the sister-in-law of a friend of mine joined a few friends and I at a bar. I kept talking on as if things were just like usual, but brother-in-law suddenly had to leave. One of my friends noted, then, couldn't you see she was crying? Alas, no, I hadn't noticed, so caught up in whatever world I was in. An emotional emergency arises, and I just keep blathering on. I don't know exactly what Asperger's is, but sometimes I feel like I have it. Or maybe I'm just a guy.) Read the story here at Summerset Review.

On "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller *****

I come back to this novel after close to twenty years. I've been meaning to reread it for several years now and finally, finally got around to it. It's interesting to read a book so fondly remember after so many years gone by. I am astounded by how amazing The Sun Also Rises was after twenty years, how similar my reaction to Dharma Bums seemed to the first read, and how different Catch-22 seemed on this read. I remember Catch-22 as an amazing book, in part because of its ability to elicit an emotional reaction on so many of its pages. I remember, as perhaps the best example of that, a chapter in which I was laughing at its start and crying at its end. The particular chapter was one in which a fighter pilot comes down too low to a beach where folks are hanging out and ends up cutting a man in half. This time around, I couldn't find the funny part of the chapter; the funny part seemed buried back in the previous chapter. But then, as a whole, I found the book not as humorous as last time. I remember laughing out loud on page after page. This time, I may have laughed out loud twice. Sure, I could intellectually understand there were moments of humor, but now the whole book seems all the sadder, including much of the dark and absurd humor. Is it twenty years of experience? Or is it that the comedic techniques no longer seem fresh and surprising with twenty years more experience? I wonder, given my recent enthusiasm for Ferris's Then We Came to the End, if my reaction to that book would be similar twenty years from now. Hard to say. Whether one laughs or not, however, Heller's classic is still that, a book I treasure with fond memories and still love even in its darker aged luster.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On "Animal Control" by Jon Pineda (3291 words) ***

Here's a piece that does a good job of using its title to full effect. I like how "animal control" reflects not just on the narrator's job but on all the various passions that are running away in this story and all the people trying to catch them and put them back into a box. Pineda's story isn't going to warm your heart--and I don't think it's intended to. Read the story here at Blackbird.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

On "Company" by Claudia Smith (310 words) ****

A good piece of flash fiction packs so much into its words that you're left wondering exactly what happened, exactly how it made you laugh or jump or cry. This piece's wallop occurs in the last line, hinting at something deeper than you might imagine this story is at first directed toward, something that made me tingle a little bit in a bad way--good stuff. Read the story here at the Cortland Review.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

On "My Father's Fear" by Merle Drown (409 words) ***

Here's a short short that does what good short shorts do. It manages to tell a story, to reveal a change, that happens in a very short moment. And it whallops with the final line. Think about this story as something longer--throw in some extra memories, a few odd characters. It wouldn't work as well, or at least, it wouldn't work as the same story. I think that's when you know an author has managed to pull off the often-difficult short short. Read the story here at JMWW.

Friday, March 13, 2009

On "Still Life with Dog" by Misty Urban (9750 words) ***

Sometimes telling a story is like juggling, although I don't juggle, so maybe I'm completely wrong about this. Maybe I should say a story is like juggling ideas and tasks and themes--but especially ideas, and thing. The trick is to bring them all together, and in a good story, this often happens all at once, some climactic scene near the end in which the dog meets the ice cream meets the concept of loneliness and that black hawk helicopter that keeps showing up in the boy's dream--you know, the whole 12 Monkeys thing. And that's what happens here, only this time it's men--several men, and a single woman. Not the making for a good time. Read the story here at Blackbird.

On "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac *****

I first read Dharma Bums when I was about twenty. It was the first Jack Kerouac book I ever read. Well, read halfway through. I was working at a bookstore at the time, and we sold our single copy when I was in the middle of it. The book was out of stock for the next year or so. So I ended up completing On the Road before completing Dharma Bums. (I guess Kerouac didn't have as big a following then as he does now, because a number of his books were out of print at the time. Young guy that I was, I hadn't known about him until hearing his name in a 10,000 Maniacs song and then, months later, coming across a book by an author of the same name in the bookstore where I was working. I thought him a travel writer before I actually picked him up.)

I remember really liking Dharma Bums at first but being somewhat underwhelmed after coming back to it a year or so later, like I had high expectations by then that it couldn't possibly meet. Or maybe it's just not as good in the second half, because that was my feeling this time as well. After Ray Smith leaves Japhy Ryder to go back east the first time, the story loses momentum. The first eighty pages or so have that same kind of enthusiasm that On the Road does, where Kerouac basically says, I'm going to write about five times I met my friend and what we did. There's not a heavy plot, but his enthusiasm for all that's being done carries readers through. Same thing here in Dharma Bums for the first half--Ray is just as excited about Japhy as the narrator of On the Road was about Dean Moriarty.

What happens in the second half? Maybe what happens is that the philosophy--the dharma, all the Buddhist trappings--become more and more pronounced and finally overwhelm. And yet, even as I found myself not as excited about the second half, I did enjoy these ideas being tossed around, this enthusiasm for a way of life, for giving up on all the worldly goods and getting back to simple things. All the parties that Kerouac describes, hanging out talking about philosophy, reminded me of myself at that age and how much fun I had doing similar sorts of things (though the parties I was at were never as wild). I used to dream of picking up odd jobs any old place and living "on the road" too. Now, such a thing sounds simply stressful. Of course, even though it had appeal when I was younger, I always figured it too dangerous and too stressful to really do. But now, it seems that way even more so. Still, in the midst of all our nation's current financial troubles, it's good to remember that we can still hike into the forest, still drink a little water, still get back to basics--that those stocks really don't mean anything (except that it will be a lot harder to pay for food and rent once retired if they stay low).

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

On "Applied Algebra" by Harbeer Sandhu (916 words) ****

To what extent this qualifies as a story, I'm not sure. But certainly, Sandhu conveys a life, a situation--a series of situations--in unique terms that add up to more than just their singular parts (in this case, 1 + 1 does not equal 2). I would have never thought I'd enjoy reading math problems quite so much. And the story has me thinking about the way in which our lives really are in every single decision we make, as those economics professors like to spout, about economic choices. On just what do we put our priorities? How much money could I have earned had I copyedited a page of someone's textbook rather than read this story? Was it worth it. As Sarah Palin would put it, you betcha. Read the story here at Switchback.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

On "Where's the Beauty, Jimmy?" by Holly Wilson (824 words) ***

Think sexy. Think art. Think trying to do both together. Think being obsessed with the latter. Think really not being obsessed with either. Think, Is this really the best way to think about this? Think about being original. Think about food. Think about children. Let your thoughts take you where they will. Act on them--act on each one of them, as they arise. Always act. Think funny story. Think I need to read a funny story while I think these things. Think that. Think I will read this story here and now, while I think these things and be sexy. Read. Here. Narrative. (Log-in required, but it's free!)

On "Proust and the Squid" by Maryanne Wolf ***

This engaging read is about reading the brain. The book is split into three parts. The first covers the history of reading and discusses human creation of pictographs and then the alphabet. The second part covers how children learn to read. And the third part covers dyslexia and various reading dysfunctions.

The history section was probably the most fascinating to me. The author discusses how reading is an unnatural (i.e., nongenetic) activity and thus how it changed the actual structure of how minds work. Different language systems, it turns out, use different parts of the brain. An example of how this is evidenced is the case of a man who had a stroke leaving one side of his body was paralyzed. He lost the ability to read Chinese (which uses both sides of the brains), but he retained the ability to read English (which uses only one).

As for reading being unnature, the book goes into how the brain has to adapt--learning to connect visual portions to linguistic portions of the brain. (I suppose it would be akin to learning braille, and having to connect touch to linguistics.) Some folks can't do it, which is how you end up with some learning disabilities. There are many reasons for this, but sometimes parts of the brain simply don't work in some folks. The author goes into some interesting stories about stroke victims, like the one above or another about a man who had a stroke and then had trouble reading afterward even though he could still see and speak (the synapses connecting the two portions of the brain that do each of those had been severed).

My only complaints come with the third section, which I found at times much harder to follow. The author, being an expert on reading disabilities, became a bit technical here. Sometimes, when you're really within your field, it's hard to pull back and write down to people. Still, this book, even in its more difficult passages, was easier reading than the neuroscience textbook I've been reading for RB&D, though both books are fascinating. I should have been a brain surgeon, except I'd have had to have studied all that other biology, which I typically am bored by.

Friday, March 6, 2009

On "Kopy Kats" by David Crouse (5400 words) *****

Thanks to an anonymous reader's tip, I now know that David Crouse has a Web site of his own, where he updates fans on readings he's doing and shares information on his books. He's also posted a few of his stories--some of his very best. My favorite of all of his stories (though "The Forbidden Kingdom" would likely rival this one for that spot) is "Kopy Kats," a story whose ending is one of the most unexplainably chilling finishes to a story that I have ever read. I say "unexplainably" because it isn't an ending that would, on the surface, seem to mean much. This isn't some gory shoot-em-up. It's just a question, but a question that gets under one's skin, especially after reading about a character so easily mistaken for others, about characters who seem so nakedly oblivious to the world around them. Are we all that way? Read the story here at Crouse's site.

Monday, March 2, 2009

On "This Is Your Accident" by Elizabeth Farren (2806 words) ***

"This Is Your Accident" might as well be "This Is Your Mistake." Everything in this story revolves around mistakes--a woman who dates a jerk, a woman who comes to visit her friend (invited mainly to get that friend's mind off the jerk), a jerk who insists on having everything his way, a liar (or perhaps two or three liars), and a night on the town that turns into a mess. This is a pile-up of accidents, of bad vibes, and of trouble. In the end, perhaps, revenge is reaped. What do I like? The unapologizing characters, especially the Italian. These are people you don't want to know. Read the story here at Prick of the Spindle.