Sunday, May 31, 2009

On "Treatment" by Barbara DeCesare (314 words) ***

In the film Stranger Than Fiction, poor Will Ferrell discovers that his life is being made into a movie--and it's a tragedy. In my own life, as a kid, I used to pretend my doings were all being captured on television, as in that Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show. I'd go to the bathroom, and the TV station would go to commercials. I know longer think that way, knowing my life is about as exciting as watching a snail eat a leaf (or whatever a snail eats). But that my concept of life on film is not unique is evidenced by the many movies that take such an idea as their subject. And stories too. In this story by Barbara DeCesare, however, the protagonist is not the main character (or is, depending on how one reads the story), which is itself an interesting twist on the theme. Not even the main character of one's own life. These days, in the midst of all the turmoil, with forces we have little to do with crumbling our lives around us, it seems apropos. Read the story here at Tarpaulin Sky.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

On "A Close Call" by Ashley S. Kaufman (2643 words) ***

What happened? I suppose that's the question virtually all stories told in the past tense pose. Many a story does it by juxtaposing the present with a discontinuous past. How did the characters get from point A to point B? Kaufman's "Close Call" works within these parameters. We know something is wrong, but we're not quite clear. Midway in, we get the full story--that past incident. And then, the story does something a little out of the ordinary. It changes the past, gives us another version. The characters' sanity comes into play, and that is as it should be given the situation. Read the story here at Susurrus.

Monday, May 25, 2009

On "& (sixty-nine)" by J. A. Tyler (223 words) ****

Here's a story I love almost completely because of the language, the way the words rustle across my lips as I read. It's short. It's more a poem than a story. But what a wonderful, beautiful little piece, all about writing a story. This story. Read it here at Keyhole Magazine.

Friday, May 22, 2009

On "Customer of Size" by Mary Jones (2169 words) ***

Here's how I'd expect a story about an overweight customer who is put through the indignity of having to "try out" a seat to find out whether he'll have to purchase two (something tells me an airline would be better off just placing a weight limit on the ticket itself at the time of purchase so as to make the problem less personal): I expect anger. I expect shouting and lost tempers and fights. But that's the beauty of this piece. We don't get the expected. Instead, we have a man who knows he's gotten too large and who takes all of the sad indignity in stride--and who in the process manages to teach others a few lessons in humility. Read the story here at Carve Magazine.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On "Shoes, Falling" by Melanie Haney (4525 words) ***

If I were to write of binaries here, of opposing principles, yes and no, the lack of any other choices, I'd say something like, "There are two types of people in this world: those who trust, those who don't; those who use lawyers, those who rely on the kindness of others." Reading this, I couldn't help but identify with the mother, with the truster, the one who is hesitant to sue. The story seems to come down on the side of trust as well. But what's interesting is that, while I'm heartened that everything comes out well in the story, and while my own proclivity would be to do just what the mom does, theoretically it seems like the more cynical daughters more often win out. I mean, when you've got neighbors turning against neighbors in places like Iraq and Georgia (the country, that is), people killing or looting others they once ate dinner with, how can one not be? Why do things work sometimes, and why not others? I would like to think that it's just that we're not kind enough to one another. But it takes two to be kind. And knowing whether that's going to be is the hard part. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On "Girls Who Love Horses" by Amanda Goldblatt (3926 words) ****

I am persuaded to love this piece because of the beauty of the writing. The tale of a journalist sent to write a wedding announcement (don't families write their own?) is in itself not the most interesting fodder, but the images Goldblatt invokes, the reworkings of old lines, and the metaphors make this tale seem fresh. Case in point: There's a paragraph where the narrator talks about her ex-husband and his paintings. The paragraph ends with a standard cliché and then it broaches one more line, making readers take stalk of the cliché and it's actual meaning, rethink what's been said. Read the linguistic play here at Diagram.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

On "Tsunami" by Larry Lefkowitz (1974 words) ***

So here's a story that's as breezy and matter of fact as much of its subject matter. I'd like to think of it as a story that replies, not so much to another story, as another idea, another piece of writing. Indeed, the other work--Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance--makes up much of what is happening here. Each action is rendered in response to that work, and even the silent and unseen ending. Read the story here at Cha.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

On "For Those about to Rock, We Salute You" by Sacha A. Howells (3850 words) ****

At the tail end of my previous job, when all of us working for the company were being laid off due to a merger, all of us having to reapply for our jobs in this new company, in new places, where we would have to move if we wanted to stay employed, the assistant to the managing editor applied for and got quite a few possible positions. Her cubicle was right outside my office, so I got to know what was going on in her life quite well. Her husband had told her he was willing to move. But when those positions were hers, suddenly his tune changed. He was a member of a rock band. It was going to be something, he was sure. He couldn't just leave. They were newlyweds--I got to see all the angst and trouble such new couples often have played out in front of me.

The narrator of this story isn't unlike that husband, isn't--I dare say--unlike so many of us, ever hopeful, ever dreamy. What I like about this piece is the desperation. It's a desperation that comes out in the anxiousness around this main character. It's a party that has ended, a youth that is going down. But our main character refuses to acknowledge it. He's going to be something. He's going to be something. Is it pitiful? Is it heroic? Most likely we'd think of him as the former, were we to meet him in real life, but in other ways there is a certain heroicism to him as well--or perhaps childishness. Is a dream given up part of becoming an adult or a lack of perseverance. No matter, one thing this character definitely is is funny. Read the story here at Menda City Revew.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

On "The Ledger Angel" by Bruce Holland Rogers (434 words) ***

Some stories simply explore really interesting ideas. Many of Jorge Luis Borges's stories are like this. We learn, for example, that there is a library full of every book that could ever be written but that the problem is that because it contains every combinations of symbols that could ever be, most of it is nonsense. What are we to make of such a library? Could it ever be of much use? How is the library our understanding of our own world? Rogers's "The Ledger Angel" works along the same principle. Should there be such a creature, we have little hope. This is karma times multitudes. Read the story here at Café Irreal. Then pass it on and on and on and on.

Monday, May 4, 2009

On "Johnny Cash Beset by Darkness" by John Marshall Daniel (3918 words) ***

You know a story is doing something right when only half the page will load. What I mean is that my computer failed to download the entire story the first several times I tried to read it. Why does that mean something with the story is working? Because I read the first half and was desperate to read the end. Glad I got there, eventually.

Circus stories are rather fascinating--to me at least. I'm not sure why. I mean, offer me the opportunity to go to a circus, and I doubt you'd see me pulling out my wallet. Maybe it's just the thrill of returning to childhood that makes me like such stories, the thrill of returning to a time when circuses were interesting. Or maybe it's the freak nature of the business and the constant road life that intrigues, and finding out the lives behind the circus is my way of being in a circus myself, albeit vicariously. I think it is probably this latter prospect. The open road no longer holds that same fascination as it did when I was twenty, but down deep, maybe, it still does--you just have to dress it up as circus fiction.

"Trip across the country, man?" "Nah." "How about in a clown suit?" "Hmmm . . . Okay--I'm there."

Read the story here at StorySouth.

On "The Lord of the Rings" by J. R. R. Tolkien ***

If you're one of the three (or forty or two) people who's been following this blog for a year, you've seen a sudden dearth of book discussions. That's because the tome I was reading was The Lord of the Rings. I opted not to talk about each volume separately since Tolkien himself thought of it as a single novel. Spare judgment to the end, I thought. The Lord of the Rings is the first of ten books on a reading list of fantasy and legend, a genre I haven't read much of. Unfortunately, this wasn't the best start. I didn't care much for the movie version of Fellowship of the Ring and never bothered with the rest. The books were better--less violent--but still not something I can say I've fallen in love with.

About four years ago, I read Tolkien's The Hobbit. Although it wasn't my "type" of book, I admired his skill and craft. He had a way with telling a story, ending those chapters in the perfect spot to make you want to read on and speed through it. Not so much here, where chapters often ended in dead space. Dialogue was often atrocious, and the descriptions often seemed simply like filler. The plot was fairly predictable.

So why three stars? Because despite all that Tolkien does manage to do something very unique. He creates a complete world, full of its own history and legend, its own calendars and peoples. Few worlds have been so richly imagined and so wrought in such fine detail. Moments in this book shine--like when the hobbits return to their homes or when Sam and Frodo get stuck in a spider's lair. Had the entire work spoken to me as much, I'd have likely been able to rank it up there with The Hobbit as one of those works that entertains through and through, even if it doesn't speak to me personally.

Friday, May 1, 2009

On "In the Air a Shining Heart" by Lydia Copeland (1204 words) ****

Sometimes writers get on a rant. They string together sentences and images in pursuit of an object, a word, an emotion, a thing. I think of the first half of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground. Admittedly, I'm not a big Dostoevsky fan; I tend not to go for maximalism, not to go for those huge books that throw everything into them including the author's grandmother's underwear and the shiny snowglobe the cat knocked off the dresser at age three. But for those fifty or one hundred pages in that first half of Underground, Dostoevsky proves entirely interesting. He's a man with an attitude, and as a reader, you're certain to know it.

The few short pieces I've read of Copeland's each draw me toward them in their own way. Copeland's a writer of great skill and style, able to evoke a moment or scene with just a few chosen words and to do it so well that you think, for a moment, wait, you stole that from my memory (and then wait, that isn't one of my memories!). But here, Copeland's tops even herself. This is a piece that makes me want to go out and write something, that makes me want to scream its words out in public, on a stage, in a concert. Like a really good song, it makes me want to live. Read the story here at Night Train.