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.