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.

On "The Nine" by Jeffrey Toobin *****

I ran through this book on the Supreme Court in four days, which means that I was either utterly without anything to do or absolutely fascinated. Luckily, it was the latter. It's one of the few books in the recent past that I hated to put down and took up again as soon as I could whenever I could.

What makes Toobin's account of the Supreme Court so fascinating? That, on reflection, is somewhat hard to say. After all, I was familiar with many of the events that the book recounts. I think it was that Toobin brought to the story some insight that perhaps one doesn't get from the basic news. He brings us into contact with the people themselves, with what makes them tick, and with who they are. Each justice comes off, in some manner, pretty well, though some come off much better than others, particularly those on the left.

That Toobin sympathizes with those on the left seems evident from the book's early pages, when he talks about the Court being separated by a single vote, about the Federalist movement, and about Roe v. Wade. But the "single vote" discussion is also his way to frame the narrative. A single vote changes the court from liberal to conservative, and in Toobin's estimation the court has changed to be exactly that.

What strikes me, however, as the bigger tragedy in all of this is the final conclusion that Toobin reaches--that in the end, all court decisions are about ideology, that they are--in the end--political (something seen quite well in the 2000 election). And it's true. But the sad part about the 5-4 votes that now seem to dominate the judiciary isn't so much that those 5-4 votes are now favoring the conservative side rather than the liberal (with Anthony Kennedy's vote the only one that occasionally swings to the other side). It's that those are 5-4 votes at all and that those so much reflect our own political culture these days. There isn't much space for people in the middle anymore. In a television news commentary culture dominated by Keith Obermans and Glen Becks, politics has become the domain of ideological purists, and so too has the Court. We don't talk to one another anymore to come to a reasoned middle ground. We yell over one another and hope that our yell is the strongest. For the moment, the conservatives, when it comes to the Court, at least according to Toobin, have the upper hand.

Monday, August 24, 2009

On "Where Our Wives Are" by Greg Oaks (3177) ***

Here's a deceptively interesting story. I say deceptive because it's not one that at first hooked me in, but by about a third of the way through it, the story took hold. For me, what was working was the theme, this way that Oaks keeps circling back to crime. If stories are obsessions, crime is this story's obsession--all the horrible things this one man has had to endure. And then comes the end, all those crimes take on a whole other meaning. What are our lives when our loved ones are gone? Who do we trust? How can we? Read the story here at Switchback.

Friday, August 21, 2009

On "I Met Loss the Other Day" by Cara Blue Adams (916 words) ****

Personification is a poetic technique that goes back at least to the days of scripture. I don't think it's a very easy technique to pull off in our ironic age. I'm more prone to laugh at the specter of a balding man in a black cape with a scythe than I am to feel terror. Death, in its real form, seems so much scarier than this cartoon character. But some artists are able to pull the technique off. In the case of Death, I think of the Coen Brothers recent film No Country for Old Men, the way that that guy with a bad haircut becomes a walking embodiment of our dread. Adams uses the technique to masterful effect in this story in response to loss. Perhaps the most magical section of all is the end, where a shift in point of view stabs us for maximum emotional dis-ease. But I won't go deeper than that in my discussion yet I ruin it. Read the piece here at the Kenyon Review.

On "First Love and Other Sorrows" by Harold Brodkey *****

I first read this collection some twenty years ago. I hadn't returned to it since, but it stayed on my shelf--and there is a reason. It is good. It is very good. Brodkey's second collection, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, didn't impress me as much--repeating characters, stories that seemed to repeat themes and details--it got boring (save for the most amazing sex story I've ever read, "Innocence," a forty-something-page description of a guy trying to give his lover her first ever orgasm). Then I started reading his novel The Runaway Soul and recognized so much from the second collection that I gave up. But his first book has kept a place in my heart all this time, and I've been meaning to reread it for several years now.

And now I have. What a pleasure it was to return to. I recognize many of the things he does in the second collection, but here--perhaps because the collection is shorter--they don't grow so irritating, so redundant. The first half of First Love revolves around narrators who are adolescent (teen and young adult) boys. Here, I'm probably the most entertained. We get the story of a boy seducing a girl, while his older sister works on seducing a husband. We get a boy babysitter who, as he looks back on that time as an adult, recognizes that he isn't living up to what he could be living up to during those youthful moments. We get a boy in college who falls for a young woman and watch as the two characters, in all their clumsy youthfulness, move from love sickness to simply being sick of one another (and back again). The second half of the collection, while less entertaining on the whole, revolves around a girl named Laura, as she moves through the early stages of marriage--dating, marrying, having a child, becoming an adult (sort of).

What makes Brodkey's stories so grand to me, besides his command of the English language, is that they seem have such keen psychological insights into their characters. We watch these people, in all their confidence and lack of it, swagger from moment to moment, between varying emotions and thoughts not very dissimilar to our own. And yet, Brodkey does this so well that the emotions and thoughts seem fresh, seem singular. Only this character would think this at this particular moment. Such heavy attention to thought, taken to extremes, as it is in some of the stories in his second collection and in Runaway Soul, where he's got eight-year-old kids thinking such complex things about the world around them one wonders how they ever managed to grow up, it can seem ridiculous, but here, in this lovely first collection, every bit of writing seems to work just fine.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Goliath" by Neil Gaiman (3901 words) ****

Written as a kind promotional piece for the movie The Matrix, Gaiman's "Goliath" stands well on its own--and it's one of the better stories in his collection Fragile Things. So, say, you were stuck in a time loop--déjà vu--only it wasn't a time loop. Turns out, your brain is connected to a machine, and it's malfunctioning a bit, and in the "real" world, there's a war going on, and you're just in training for that. Or at least, I think that's what's going on. Otherwise, I'm not really sure why the computer-generated world is needed, except it sure is a lot more interesting, which is kind of the twist here. We start off thinking the fantasy world the more spectacular and end up wanting to be back in that other place--you know, taking care of wife and kids, selling computer parts. Read the story here.

On "Fragile Things" by Neil Gaiman ***

Neil Gaiman has been haunting me for years. A reading copy of one of his books was given to me years ago when I worked at a bookstore (a coworker read the thing and bragged about how good it was--the subject matter didn't appeal to me, however). Another coworker was a huge fan of the Sandman series. Still other friends through time have told me how good that series is--not being a graphic novel aficionado, I've avoided it. But now his writing is winning awards too--most recently one of the kids' book awards given out each year. He was calling me. I was determined, thus, to have his name on my list of fantasy reading. At least then I could say I knew what the hoopla was about.

That I placed him on the list was a good thing. Gaiman is a very good writer. His talent is evident throughout Fragile Things. But as I've suspected all along, his particular choice of subjects isn't what naturally appeals to me. I take, as a case in point, a story called "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire." Great title. The story is one in which a writer wishing to be successful keeps being told that he should give up literature and write fantasy. In this case, though, the "fantasy" world is one very much like our own, with people eating breakfast and arguing over mundanities like who gets which part of the newspaper or who makes breakfast. The "real" world is one with knights and sword fights and strange creatures. I found myself pulled toward the "fantasy" world (i.e., the real/literary world)--more of this, I wanted to say, but Gaiman gives us mostly a world of the fantastic, a world that most of the time is less interesting to me. Beyond that, the collection as a whole seems like a hodge-podge of things that didn't fit elsewhere. In a sense, it's a great way, probably, to get a feel for Gaiman's whole arsenal, but it also feels like a bit of a jumble.

My favorite piece in the collection is one called "Bitter Grounds," the story of a man who is "dead," metaphorically at least (he's been dumped by a woman he loves), who runs into a stranger in New Orleans and eventually finds the stranger missing--and also the stranger's academic paper on zombies (zombie coffee girls, to be more specific) to be presented at an anthropology conference later that week. The man takes it upon himself to assume the stranger's identity and to present the paper himself. The momentary change of personality does him well, but only for a time, only until the conference draws to its end and he's back to being love starved. Nice story, notably with only a little fantasy.

Other favorites include "The Facts of the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch," a story about a crazy circus that comes to town and that somehow Miss Finch ends up a part of, never to return. "Instructions" and "Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot" offer interesting pieces of writing, though I'm not sure how much they qualify as stories. "The Monarch of the Glen" is the final novella and works pretty well, especially in its set up: an American comes to a remote part of Scotland and is offered a job too good to be true--over one thousand dollars for a single weekend of work as a security guard. Lots appears to be ominous, and those fears build for forty pages, and then somewhat disappointingly, the ominous elements come true--I say disappointingly because again there is a turn toward fantasy that doesn't seem in keeping with the rest of the tale. Were this more my genre, I'm sure I'd have been wholly satisfied. "Goliath," a Matrix-like of alternate worlds, is also a good one.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

On "Hook" by Claudia Smith (2307 words) ***

Mention the word "Hook," and I think of that poem by Margaret Atwood, the way she twists that word from something sexy to something dreadful and harrowing. This story does a similar thing. You start out thinking you're reading about some girl picking up a guy, then maybe a girl picking up a guy for someone else, then . . . It just gets worse--it just gets creepy. But it hooks you, makes you read on, until you come to the dreadful, unexpectedly quiet end. Read it here at Storyglossia.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Every Earth Is Fit for Burial" by Cyn Kitchen (7659 words) *****

This one caught my attention straight out with its clear voice, its southern Evangelistic feel. What's nice about this piece, however, is that it doesn't--to me--belittle its subject matter. Religious folks are easy to make fun of, and while I'm one of them, I'm often uncomfortable talking about my own faith because of the kind of ludicrous behavior that some spiritual folks engage in. But that's part of faith, isn't it? For some--and certainly for these folks.

But where I really see faith is in our narrator, a faith in her mother and her mother's religion, and in her father, her faulty crippled dad, who despite all his shortcomings proves to be as kind a soul as most all the others in this story. Kudos to the Million Writers Award judges for picking this one out of the pack to include in its top-ten short list (it got my vote for best of the year). Read it here at Menda City Review.

On "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer *****

I've intended to read Krakauer for a long time, but other things have always gotten in the way or I've simply forgotten about his work. A coworker of mine, however, recently insisted I read his work and was so insistent that she brought me the book. Not wanting to take my current library book reading to the beach, I opted to take Krakauer instead. So while I read about this Chris McCandless starving to death as he attempted to commune with nature, I communed with a different and much cushier sort of nature. And yet, despite the odd juxtaposition of landscapes and situations, I could strangely identify.

When younger, I too had a desire to take off on wild trips. I too had a desire to prove that I could "make it on my own." I too wanted just to bum around the country, taking odd jobs as I could. Perhaps this passion is in all young people--or all young men. But few of us dare do such things--I never did. And then, I think, many of us outgrow them. What do I mean by that? McCandless's desire to go it alone struck me as a kind of immaturity one goes through in the twenties. By the time one hits thirty, one knows there is no such thing--we are social creatures. We exist in culture and by culture. Even when "independent," we are dependent--on each other, if not at least on God. But I admire McCandless for doing what I couldn't and wouldn't have done.

The story itself that Krakauer reads is very engaging. The guy is a craftsman in terms of setting up a good plot. Start somewhere toward the end, and then begin again, somewhere near the start. Tell us only what we need to know when we need to know it. Keep us reading. That he did, for me--and I guess for many others given his robust sales.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

On "Oh Girl" by Corey Zeller (940 words) ***

Remember when you last told your friend about this time that the two of you did something? Yeah, you remember. Happens all the time, right? That wistfulness for bygone days. I remember when I got out of high school and started beginning every sentence with "I remember . . ." and every question with "You remember . . . ?" I loved high school, this despite all the stress that high school inevitably bears down on a kid, and for the first several years afterward, really, until I left California, I missed it. Now, now, I don't remember it. Or if I do, it doesn't seem nearly so grand as it did then, in those few years right after, when the life that follows seems so utterly disappointing, utterly lacking in the fulfillment of all those hopes one has when younger.

Corey Zeller's "Oh Girl" is a story about remembering, a story about telling your friend about what you remember--or asking your friend about it. Only there's a sadness here, because, as with all such sentimental memories, something is missing, something that means that remembrance will never be something you'll have again. Though my life has never been as risky as this story's narrator's, I, too, am one of the lucky ones who has gone on to be able to ask, "Remember?" and to know that for some, the answer is no because they're no longer there to answer. Read the story here at Word Riot.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

On "Chowbang" by Pete Pazmino (2855 words) *****

This story made me laugh--out loud. That doesn't happen so much when I'm reading, not as much as I think it should. But that's not the only reason this story is such a keeper. It also channels a voice, a character, in ways that few stories do. I came away feeling like I knew this girl--this sort of female machismo hiding a little bit of vulnerability that she won't show us for a second. Read the story here at JMWW. (A warning to those who might want to stay clear of such things: this story contains adult themes and language, more so than most of the stories I've profiled.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

On "Modeling" by Sarah Scoles (3506 words) ***

If stories are often built out of motifs, this one is built out of mathematics. There's something nice about applying something as seemingly nonliterary as math to fiction. Not that it's not done or that one couldn't, for example, try to apply mathematics to a given Chekhov story, but math in fiction, frankly, is not usually on the surface, not something folks in the humanities put front and center. Perhaps it's our own discomfort with the subject, the way that some English majors do all they can to avoid math. Myself, I often wonder if maybe that's what I should have done instead--I was usually better at math than vocabulary. But the upper echelons of the subject might have scared me off eventually, even though it's there that the more interesting elements of math come into practice, the philosophy and theory. And it is this theoretical component that the author, an astrophysics major, begins to explore in this story, along with psychology and the whole world of fate. Read the story here at Diagram.

On "Night Watch" by Terry Pratchett ****

This book poses the question of what would happen if you were transported back in time so that your old self could teach your young self a few things about the world. Or at least, it starts off asking that question, and then it focuses more on space-time continuum and how to fix things in terms of the plot. But I like the question. And while I wasn't too keen on Pratchett's style early on, it grew on me, and then the plot kicked in, and about half way through he had me hooked. In the end, the book should leave readers with a lot of questions about fate, as time traveling books usually do, but Pratchett doesn't get into that too much--it seems more about government and politics than about questions of physics and metaphysics.