Friday, July 31, 2009

"Tasting the Fruit" by Kate Blakinger (413 words) *****

Try this one on for size. In less than five hundred words, a friend's jealousy will drive him to commit acts of utmost cruelty. I'm floored by how quick it happens and how well it's recounted. Suffice to say, with friends like these . . . Yeah, you know. Read the story here at Flashquake.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On "What Happens When The Mipods Leave Their Milieu" by Elizabeth Crane (4644 words) ***

I've been a fan of Elizabeth Crane's fiction since soon after her first book came out. Her first two books carried a very distinctive style consisting in long sentences in which she raved or complained or maybe just listed things but really just processed her--or rather her narrator's--thoughts so that you had the feeling you were listening in not just to thoughts but to some person's mildly insane musings, perhaps told to you over coffee, or read on the Web somewhere, like this, only not this particular site specifically because I'm not insane--I promise--even if someone says otherwise, someone who obviously doesn't know me. . . . Anyway, this story doesn't do that. It's a departure, in that sense, from what I'm used to from her. But it's also a pleasure. Crane has rarely been as funny. And what makes the humor even better here is that her observations seem, in some ways, quite trenchant. Meet the Mipods, a couple whose simplicity is taken for--surely--something much more than that. Read the story here at Five Chapters.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

On "Pussies" by Paula Bomer (4126 words) *****

One of the things I enjoyed most about teaching freshman composition, for the few years that I did it, as a graduate student, was that I got work with eighteen-year-olds, folks just beginning life as an adult, life on their own. There was so much hope, so much vibrancy there, so much expectation. Even by twenty-four I had become a bit jaded, and other students, the upper-division students in literature classes, were also. They've been at this a few years, know what it is to live away from mom and dad.

I remember my own days, that summer after graduating from high school, the way that I thought maybe, given all the great work I'd done in school, the world would open up for me. Just give it a little time--a month or two--and people would see how much I could do for them. Good jobs were likely to walk right into me. Now, I know that I don't much matter to people who don't know me, that I'm one of seven billion people--and seven billion people is a lot of people. At eighteen, seven billion--that doesn't seem to register. I don't know why. Somehow, we think we're different. Not one of the billions who go through life anonymously, vanishing with only a handful of people caring.

Bomer captures those kind of young moments in this piece, that awkwardness of youth, that worshipping of cooler friends, that thinking, conversely, that somehow people will eventually come to know us and will love us, given time--you know, a month or two. Read the story here at Night Train.

On "The Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula LeGuin ****

I've been wondering why science fiction and fantasy are usually housed together as genres. The answer should have been obvious, but it only dawned on me while reading this book. LeGuin's Left Hand is, I suppose, technically science fiction. It involves spacecraft and alien beings. But its setting is a fantastic world, no less real than Tolkien's Middle Earth. If anything involving fantastic worlds is fantasy, then half of science fiction is also fantasy. (Where I find the combination strange is when one is dealing with a world based on Arthurian-type legend, as Tolkien's world is. There is nothing sci fi about it.)

Of the books on this fantasy and legend list, Le Guin's so far ranks as my favorite. It didn't start out that way. The many strange place names, the inhospitable prose, the emphasis on treaties and other dull government tasks were all quite off putting. But somewhere about the time that Mr. Ai, our alien envoy, is dismissed from the government representatives of Karhide, the book gets very interesting. Mr. Ai ends up taking his desire for open trade to a rival country, Orgoreyn, and eventually finds himself in a bit of trouble--and having to depend on Estraven, a Karhider for whom there is little trust. In the process, one learns of this strange world, where it is always winter and where sex occurs only once a month when the otherwise neutered people go into heat. And one gets a captivating adventure story with a good deal of heart, as Mr. Ai flees for his life.

What of mankind? What of dualism? What of friendship? What of courage? Of gender? Of history and how it's written? Of legend and of how it comes to be? All such issues get played out amid what is actually a rather simple story.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

On "Are You Somebody?" by Andrew Roe (1238 words) ***

I don't know that I've read a story about a gold digger before, though the notion is one I have seen many times in film--and in the tabloids. This is gold digging with a twist, however, gold digging in the sad confines of the former celebrity. These kind of lives do fascinate, perhaps more, in some ways, than the lives of current celebrities. I love those whatever happened to stories. I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's that such a person is like someone dropping out of the sky and becoming again just like one of us nobodies. Do I see new money-making schemes afoot? Get your own former celebrity--just buy this pamphlet that shows you how. Or just read the story here at Juked.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

On "Coyote" by Werner A. Low (3172 words) ***

Okay, so the main thing I kept thinking while I read this (save, the part about how scarecrows generally don't work, so this must be something pretty special)--the main thing I kept thinking was this: This guy must be pretty desperate for some sort of life. I mean, imagine obsessing over winning some ridiculous office prize and then obsessing over how the reason for that prize is put into effect. The absurdity makes the story pretty funny--but it also makes the main character into someone rather pitiful, which in the end, I suppose, is the point. If only a prize could solve all our problems. Read the story here at Terrain.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On "Boy, a Cat, a Lifeboat" by Claudia Smith (641 words) ****

The Web site A Boy, a Cat, a Lifeboat is devoted to one concept--stories involving these three things, a play on Yan Martel's novel The Life of Pi, for which Martel was accused of stealing the idea. The Web site rightly shows that ideas aren't things one can protect, that one concept can be taken any number of directions. Each of the stories on the site are interesting in their own way, but among them, Smith's is my favorite. It conveys loss so strongly in just a bit over six hundred words. Sure, tigers are involved, as is a boy. The lifeboat is metaphorical--and a strong metaphor at that. At the start, the boy's mother thinks of herself as a lifeboat, but by the end she's looking for one. Read the story here at A Boy, a Cat, a Lifeboat.

On "Something Wicked This Way Comes" by Ray Bradbury ***

It has been probably close to two decades since I last read Ray Bradbury--and since I first read him. That work was Farenheit 451, which I recall thinking was fine, but not enough to inspire me to rush out and read the rest of his work. "Something Wicked" provided a slightly more complex reaction--but one that in the end is essentially the same. Bradbury's obsession with books is evident early on, with a major character working as a janitor in a library and two boys who enjoy scouring the stacks.

But the book turns mean quick, with the arrival of a fair of freaks. Watch out for the weirdos--they might just be trying to get your soul. Seems kind of fifties--you know, "strange people means strange things." Watch out for folks who are different. And the people who do the best watching--why, of course, twelve-year-old boys. I found the whole thing rather unbelievable, and given that this is a fantasy novel, some level of belief needs to be obtained if I'm to enjoy the thing. Beyond that, parts of these early passages seemed deliberately preaching as well as deliberately lyrical (lyricism is great; forced lyricism not so much).

But then what happened? Somewhere in here the janitor (one of the boy's father) gets involved, and I started to actually feel like this world perhaps made sense. And the action picked up, and there were moments of suspense. And then? And then came the crazy ending, the solution, the means of chasing the demons away. I won't bother telling folks who haven't read it what it is, but my feelings were jolted back to my initial ones. In the end, I didn't really much care.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On "Coulrophobia" by Cody Walker (344 words) ***

Some people hate clowns. Some people dread them. Me, I find them amusing in a theoretical kind of way. What I mean is that, say, you mention that there is a clown at the mall. Ooo, I would say, and want to go see the clown. Then, we'd actually go. I'd see the clown, and I'd be disappointed. The clown, in reality, would fill me with apathy, although the clown in theory would be particularly interesting. More interesting to me is the person who plays the clown, the person who actually puts on the clown makeup. What's the deal with that? I wonder. Why would anyone set out to be a clown? I mean, a made-up clown, not a comedian. Walker's story (or prose poem or whatever you want to call it) takes clowns a step further. He puts them into an underground society of has beens and drunkards. The effect is at once engaging and--to those who find clowns strangely scary (you know who you are, you, who watched too many psycho killer movies growing up)--horrifying, and also sort of funny, which is sort of the point of a clown. Read the story here at Tarpaulin Sky.

Friday, July 10, 2009

On "The Beat of Sorrow" by Brett Rosenblatt (1901 words) ***

In one of the best moments in Rosenblatt's story, the narrator recounts how the life of the drummer is one of numbers, of counting. The passage is beautiful, and this concern--with time, with counting, with the beat of the heart--is what the story focuses on. Rosenblatt uses the drumming motif throughout the story to tell a sadder, deeper story of a relationship heading south. Read the story here at Susurrus.

On "The Year's Best Fantasy Stories 11" edited by Arthur W. Saha ***

I don't read too many online fantasy or science fiction stories. Genre fiction isn't generally a big love of mine, and on the whole, I've not found online genre writing to be that good (as opposed to literary writing, of which there is a fine good lot of good stuff). This may be due to the fact that I'm not a fan of the genre of fantasy to begin with--or so I'm learning. If all stories were as good as the "best," however, I'd probably give them more of my attention. Every story in this collection was competent, and some were excellent.

What makes the stories typically more generic, however, and what in some ways is what I find disappointing about most genre fiction is that each story wrapped up fairly well and succinctly. There were a lot of loose ends. One need only look at one of my favorite stories in the collection, "The Storm," by David Morrell. Ostensibly, a story about a storm that literally follows on man around, this was a piece about as fascinating as T. C. Boyle's story "Blood Rain." Watching the character discover what was happening and and all the trouble that this situation brought to those around him was fascinating. Then the story gave us an explanation--a curse placed on the man. I was with the story until the curse, but the latter seemed such a letdown--an easy out for an intolerable but intriguing situation. (The very end, a bit of a twist, at least makes up for some of my disappointment.)

Other favorites included "Unmistakably the Finest," by Scott Bradfield, the story of a woman who discovers success in the form of a preacher she follows--and the resulting trouble that eventually ensues. If one notices a trend here, with me, it's that, for me, the best fantasy is that which seems to be part of our world and twists it around a bit, rather than something that is set in a world of dragons and knights. Realism--and fantastic realism--has always been more to my taste.

An exception to this would be Jane Yolen's "The Foxwife," the tale of a man who discovers he is married to a literal fox. The way in which this story is told reminded me of many of the strange tales I read on the Japanese reading list that I undertook last year. Bizarre enough that I wasn't sure what I was to make of it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

On "Rod and Gun Club" by Marcelle Heath (655 words) ****

Try this for a tight story. Heath makes every word count. I had to read the piece twice to a clear sense of what's going on, but it's short enough and beautiful enough that it was well worth it. I'm going to read it again. And again. She's got the ambiance of a country club/beach club down. Little details like the jump that the dessert cart takes on the bunched-up section of carpet make this story what it is. Add to that some kind of intrigue, some kind of danger, and you're in for quite the read. Read it here at Pindeldyboz.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

On "Raimundo" by Dan Moreau (2388 words) ***

Echoes of Gary Soto's Nickel and Dime here. This is a story about an Hispanic migrant who's settled down in a home in San Antonio and who dreams of a woman in his past. The neighborhood he lives in is one where even the cops litter and where calls to 911 are about as effective as take-out orders to that restaurant that went out of business fifteen years ago would be. And the woman he likes seems just as unobtainable. This is a story of dreams unfulfilled--of dreams impossible to fill. Read it here at Segue.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On "Seamus, Then" by J. M. Patrick (644 words) ***

I'm not sure this piece qualifies as a story in terms of the conventions of rising conflict, climax, and resolution, but I like the way the author pulls the story of a life into a single moment at the blackboard, how the present and future mix here. What makes the mix of future tense with the present tense interesting is how the letters that Seamus writes are used as a kind of analysis of his future--and of the narrator's future. We're left wondering, is this the actual future or is it the narrator's imagined future. In the end, though, I suppose it doesn't matter. Read the story here at Contrary Magazine.

On "The Once and Future King" by T. H. White ***

The third book in a row for me involving Arthurian legend, this one is the most recent and the most unified, and in that modern sense it's the best. Malory obviously left behind a lot of source material, because it gets mined time and again by people like White. Here, Malory's story is boiled down essentially to that of Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, and Merlin, in that order of importance. It works much better than Malory's kitchen sink--no long accounts of jousts and tournament (White explicitly mentions that he is avoiding those because they'd be of little interest to contemporary readers). And the entire section on Tristam is gone, relegated to mere mentions here and there (unfortunately, in White's version, Tristam is not so noble as he is in Malory). Also, unfortunate, is the way that the courtly love of the various knights becomes full-on sexual intrigue. There was something grand about Tristam's story when he was a knight who was wronged by King Mark, rather than the other way around.

What's interesting also is how White uses Arthur to comment on contemporary times--his contemporary times, namely, with the rise of Hitler. The Great War is discussed in terms of Arthur's war to end all wars--and yet which fails to do just that. There is discussion of how borders seem to make the world the sad place it is (we know they aren't real, but we fight over them anyway). Part of how White does this is to have Merlin live backwards, and thus, he knows even what is happening in our day, given his long life (how Merlin knows these things when confined to a cave--not the underside of a stone, as in Malory--I'm uncertain, but I suppose he must get out at some point). And part of how he does this is by having Arthur train with Merlin by becoming various animals. This first section of the book, largely not featured in Malory, features Arthur and Merlin front and center. I found it also perhaps the most boring section, which is a shame really, because it was the one section whose plot wasn't mostly borrowed. So it goes. White's book is good mostly because of how it is able to update Malory and give him the unity of form modern readers expect.