Saturday, November 28, 2009

On "The Unreliable Memoirist" by Keith Lord (4705 words) ****

A few years ago, there was quite a rage over A Million Little Pieces, the James Frey memoir that proved to be in part made-up. But what memoir isn't? I remember reading a guide to memoir writing in a class that I took in autobiographical writing of early America. That book explicitly told writers to embellish, to add details that they couldn't possibly remember. But perhaps there are levels of embellishment that are allowed and levels that are not. Perhaps you can add what clothes you were wearing on the day you saw the Space Shuttle explode but cannot decide that you were a heroin addict instead of only an occasional heroin user. Where does one draw the line? And what are the consequences of drawing the line in the wrong place?

This is what Keith Lord's story is in part about. It's also about a not entirely sympathetic protagonist who becomes less sympathetic the more that we learn about his memoir and its inaccuracies. But it's art, isn't it? Just like a movie is an adaptation that changes facts, a book changes facts as well. How do you tell a good story if you don't at least set it up well? Lord does quite a job setting it up here, at Our Stories.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On "The Day You Were Sad" by Jennifer Levin (771 words) ***

I remember walking into a Japanese bookstore in New York once. Everything was in Japanese. I don't know the language, don't even know the symbols that are used in the written tongue. I knew then what it is like to be illiterate--completely illiterate. I mean, if go to a European country, I can at least parse out the alphabet, recognize a few cognates. But here, I was clueless. The writing around me might as well have been abstract art.

A few years ago, I was having drinks with a friend when the sister of his wife (now ex-wife) came by and started talking. After she left, he said something to the effect of, "Couldn't you tell that she was crying?" No, I couldn't. Something horrible had happened to her and I was as blank about it as I'd been about the language in that bookstore.

I've never been one to read signs very well--that is, body signals, heart signals, people signals. I'm an illiterate when it comes to that, though I think I have gotten a little better with age. But only a little. Here's a story about just that sort of thing. All the signals are there, so many signals one says, Um, how could you have missed that? But miss it the narrator did. And thinking about its meaning for her life and for the life of the person who she missed is what this piece is all about. Read it here at Twelve Stories.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

On "Goldenboy" by Sarah Black" (625 words) ****

Here's a coming-of-age story that's surprisingly as innocent as the narrator's age. I think coming of age, and I think some kind of traumatic experience (as in John Updike's "A&P") or some kind of "big" experience, like losing one's virginity. Here, Black chooses to focus, however, on simply a walk through a city with a friend. The new experiences aren't terribly "big," but they're big in the eyes of our little narrator. The descriptions are beautiful, full, and part of what makes this short short so utterly beyond its minimalist number of words. Read the story here at Flashquake.

On "Last Last Chance" by Fiona Maazel **

The movie 2012 hit the theaters last weekend. It's about the end of the world. Great filmmaking? Hardly, I've been told. One could care hardly less for the end of the world than in this movie--but oh boy, the special effects.

By chance, I happened to be reading a book about the possible end of the world at the same time as that movie arrived. And bleak this book is. This is no Oprah pick of the month. People die. People do not get better--or they get better, but why bother, since they're going to die anyway?

About fifteen years ago, I read a book by Dave Bowman called Let the Dog Drive. I was attracted to it by the book's beginning and its snappy copy. I finished it, feeling I'd read a bit too much (weirdness). I had the same feeling with Maazel's debut novel. We get a story about a superplague that panics the nation. We get it from the point of view of the family of the unassuming creator of the superplague, which by the way is a family made up of drug addicts. A family of drug addicts? A nation dealing with a plague? A family dealing with a patriarch blamed for releasing the plague into the public? Any one of these could have been the subject of a book. Put them together, and for me, it seemed a bit over the top. Most of the time. And almost unrelentingly bleak, despite the narrator's apparent recovery from addiction.

Maazel, however, is a talented writer. Line upon line, sentence upon sentence, shines. Those first several pages will hook you. And there are other places where this novel becomes hard to put down as well. I found particularly interesting the first portion of part 2, wherein our narrator Lucy, a lifelong drug addict, goes to rehab with her mother, another long-term drug addict. While there, the feared superplague finally begins a full-force charge across the United States, and it's coming right for the areas surrounding this desert rehab oasis. The rehab center goes into lockdown. Now it's the folks in rehab versus the world. Keep all at bay, not just so that we can recover but so that we can avoid the plague. It's the most engaging section of the novel, one that could be a book of its own. Or a movie. 2013 anyone?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On "Distractus Refractus Ontologicus: The Dissemination of Michael Martone" by Josh Maday (2138 words) ***

If you like heady experiments--especially with a bit of verve in the writing--this piece is just the sort for you. Can I say I know exactly what's going on at all points, no? Clearly, the author has read his share of philosophy (and Michael Martone) and is relishing putting some of it to use, what with the numbers and all. I, by contrast, tend to push aside things that are too theoretical. But Maday here isn't just doing theory--he's having fun, and forcing you to have a little bit of it. Who is this "thing" we call Michael Martone? Who are you? What's your name? When you dress in the morning, do you think, this is me--I am putting on me? And what of the other six thousand versions of you, the other six thousand people who are signified by the same exact nomenclature? Think deeply on these subjects as you read the story here at Lamination Colony.

Monday, November 16, 2009

On “Punch-Drunk Love” by William Walsh (867 words) ****

Titular is a really interesting journal in that it asks writers to take another’s title (from a book, movie, or TV show) and write something brand new with the same title. The results are always fun, though the concept, while leading to some interesting pieces, haven’t really spoken to me as short stories. (And in trying to do one myself, I can see why. I don’t start off with titles--that’s the last thing I assign--so switching it up is difficult and, for me, has yet to bear any fruit with which I’m satisfied.) This piece here, however, by William Walsh is one of the most successful of the items up at Titular that I’ve seen. Essentially a dialogue between two brothers, according to Walsh, one a hermit and one vagrant, it manages to get inside the head of these people and create something heartfelt, sincere, and singular. (In fact, I think one could read the story as that of a single man--the brothers have some commonality.) Each line is a piece of poetry. Each line is could be the start of its own story. These are interesting men, though not necessarily men I’d want to know. Read the story here at Titular.

Friday, November 13, 2009

On "Suspension" by B. J. Hollars (3921 words) ***

Hollars can tell some whoppers, but sometimes he tells quiet stories also. This is the second story I've read of his that features a father-son relationship at its center. This one is particularly charming in that the difficulties, the problems, are so subtle. We watch parents having marriage problems through the eyes of an admiring kid. We don't see lots of battles, lots of big fights. What we see instead are two parents who still, in some way, love each other but whose priorities are different. And we see a kid get along with them both, love them both, remember them both fondly. We also learn a lot of about monster trucks (rallies for which I've never actually been to). Read the story here at Memorious. Then go buy some monster truck tickets for your loved ones.

On "Scar Vegas" by Tom Paine ****

Tom Paine first came to my attention over a decade ago when his story "General Markman's Last Stand" appeared in Story. It was one of my favorites to have read in that magazine over the course of two or three years of subscribing. However, somehow, I failed to ever get around to reading his book. A few years ago, I spotted it in the library and was reminded. And now, finally, I have read it. The "General" didn't impress quite as much as it did a decade ago, but in part that's probably because I knew where it was going; in part, it was likely because my tastes have changed. The story--still good--seemed a bit too wacky and out there to floor me so much now.

In fact, the selling point for Paine's collection of stories is perhaps also a drawback. This collection is all over the place. It's hard to know how Paine does it. We're with Caribbeans in one piece, Arabs another, and Romanians in yet another. His work reminds me a bit of the all the energy and craziness that sometimes goes into the work of some of the postmodernists like Barth and Coover--and much of the same the excess. Paine adopts the slangy voice of drugged-up anarchists in "The Spoon Children," a story worth reading for that voice alone; becomes a hipster in "Scar Vegas"; and takes on the absurdist drama of totalitarianism ala Kundera in Ceausescu's Cat. He tells war stories ("The Battle of Khafji") and work/spiritual (spirit) stories ("The Hotel on Monkey Forest"). Each of these is interesting in its own right.

But my favorite in the collection is at this point the opening story, "Will You Say Something, Monsier Eliot?" It starts slow, but like many a slow-going story, it builds to a grand crescendo. The story of a shipwrecked boater picked up by Haitian refugees, the work becomes something terrifying and sad in one ungraceful swoop. Never trust an American.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On "The Basketball Captain's Wife" by B. J. Hollars (1261 words) ****

This is a tough story, a disturbing story (and a very tight one as well, coming in at just over 1000 words but with back story only hinted at that demands rereading). I remember writing at some point about a story involving a man with Asperger's syndrome published at Summerset Review, and I wonder here if the narrator of this story suffers from the same complex but without being aware of it. Or maybe not. Because it's also a strange story in which the cruel behavior of the narrator becomes not just something tied in to an inability to catch others' emotions but rather an ability to catch others' emotions precisely and exploit them for cruel ends. Or maybe not even cruel ends--just self-justifying ends. Maybe even ends to help assuage grief in some twisted sense. In the end, that is part of what makes this story mysterious. Anyway, the one thing I do know, after reading the story, is Wheeler is a place I'd rather not visit. Find out why by reading the story here at Diagram. (Warning: This story involves adult language and situations.)

On "Paul, the Jewish Theologian" by Brad H. Young ****

Young's book serves as a useful corrective to readers of Paul the Apostle's epistles of the New Testament. Young's basic premise is that Paul called himself a Pharisee, so readers should take Paul at his word. Paul was a devout Jew, writing for a largely Gentile audience. As a devout Jew he would never have dismissed the Torah as so much flotsam (as many christians assume); rather, he would have honored it. Young shows how Paul does so, tracing many of his concepts to other Jewish writers near the same time of Paul's writing. Eternal punishment, Young claims, is discussed more in Paul's work than in the Old Testament, showing that Paul did not introduce a God more kindly than the one in Jewish teaching; Young also shows how ideas about grace and God's mercy run throughout Jewish teaching, and how Judaism is not, at its core, a salvation-by-works religion. Early Christianity--and Paul's teachings by extension--rest within that Jewish foundation, something that Christians are apt to forget, influenced as they have been by early antisemitic writers like Marcion.

Young's points are well taken. My one quibble with the book would be that at times I think Young makes his point too stridently. Yes, Paul was a Pharisee, and there were other Pharisees who were followers of Christ. But Young seems to make it appear as if all persecution of early Christians arose from other sects like Sadducees or from proselytes to the Jewish religion, when scripture is clear that Pharisees were numbered among those who persecuted the new sect. After all, Paul the Pharisee was one of the greatest persecutors of the church before he became one of its strongest proponents. But this is a minor quibble, one perhaps caused more by my impression of the overall thrust of the book than by Young's actual words, when taken in the context of Young's overall thesis.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

On "Mud Love" and "The Singing Fish: Revisited" by Peter Markus (399 words; 312 words) ***

Double Room publishes prose poems and flash fiction. I'm not sure that there's a clear, well-accepted difference between the two. For me, I think of prose poetry as being simply interesting writing--interesting prose. It's poetry, however, in that it captures a moment or an idea, rather than following the rules of the short story. There is no rising action, no climax, no resolution. I don't focus much on prose poems, and that's one reason I don't check Double Room that often, since the works there tend toward that rather than what I think of as flash fiction. As a result, I've probably missed some interesting experiments in prose such as Peter Markus's work. In this case, Markus has present the story of--or poem about--brothers living next to a muddy river. There are three parts, though I like the last two parts best and thus feature them here. The brothers, to me, seem an analogy to something bigger--the mud too--the brotherhood of humanity, the dust to which we return; all this strung together in some elegant words. Read Markus's work here and here at Double Room.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On "You Wake Up And The Virgin Mary Statue On Your Dresser Is Crying Blood" by J. R. Angelella (934 words) ****

Here's a writing exercise gone amuck, which is of course what makes this short piece so interesting. Rather than taking the exercise and running with it--once--Angelella takes it and runs with it once, twice, thrice, four times . . . And each time, it's fascinating and crazy interesting. Somehow, each little piece manages to have a certain feel of completion on its own. Would I like it had he developed one story, made into one long whole? Quite possibly. It's an interesting first line. And certainly, that might have led to a deeper emotional connection, but I don't know if the longer story would have been as much fun. This is like a video game you haven't yet discovered all the clues in yet. New things pop up with each new beginning. Read the story here at Word Riot.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

On "Cab Ride" by David Moss (3007 words) ***

Sometimes, a premise is so good it's hard not to write a decent story based on it. I remember once, in a creative writing class, being given just such an assignment. That is, the teacher supplied the premise, and we wrote the story. But virtually anyone writing a story based on that premise, I'd venture to guess, wrote a decent one.

What is a good premise? That's a great question, I'm realizing. I mean, there are plenty of stories that are told over and over again--the story of the washed-up sports player trying to recover his past glory; the story of a relationship breaking up; the story of someone's relative dying. But these don't necessarily make great stories. For one, the story ideas are so common that it's hard to recreate them as something new. For two, the ending is too predictable. The washed-up sports player either will or won't succeed. The relationship will break up--and the person will feel bad about it or maybe will come to feel better about it. A good premise doesn't offer just one or two endings. A good premise promises to take us in any number of directions, promises unpredictability.

"Cab Ride" is a story that works basically on this principle--the great premise. I could see this premise used in something much longer, a novel, a movie. In fact, in a way, it has--I'm thinking of North by Northwest. A man is kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. What happens? Will he discover who he's supposed to be? Who is that person? Will he get away? Will he get killed? Will he get turned over to the authorities for a ransom even though he isn't who he's supposed to be? Lots of possibilities here. Read the direction in which Moss takes the premise here at Thug Lit.

On "Cadillac Desert" by Marc Reisner ****

A few years ago, while the region where I live in the southeastern United States was dying of famine (for a short time we were discouraged even from flushing toilets) and the northeast United States was set under flood waters, my father suggested to me in a phone conversation that the United States had made a mistake in not investing more in an infrastructure that could move water around from where it is in excess to where it is needed. At the time, I thought it a curious idea but one that likely would not work the way that we would expect or desire--and one a bit surprising from a religious person like my father (espousing a scientific engineering solution to a problem that is, at bottom, spiritual and natural). But after reading Reisner's book, I see from where my father's thinking was arising. I should have known. He lives in California, the state in which I grew up. And in California, indeed, in all of the West, moving water around from where it is abundant to where it is not is common practice, one for which I often felt guilty and which I was hoping to escape when I moved South, where water is supposed to be abundant (but is not because of the South's own very wasteful practices).

Reisner's book has been on my reading list for decades. It came highly recommended from a coworker of mine back in my retail bookstore working days. A California native, he was not a fan of Los Angeles and did his best to stir up antipathy toward its water practices. But Reisner's book isn't just about Los Angeles or California--it's about the whole of the West. It's a warning about how the prosperity of the American West is built on sand--or rather on water imported to sit over that sand. In the short run, a great civilization is built; in the long run, the sand, Reisner notes, will prevail. Civilizations built on irrigation have a limited lifespan. Eventually, dams silt up, salt deposits overcome the fields where water is deposited, reservoirs fill, fields become useless, and all returns to the desert from which it came.

Reisner's book is about more than that, however. It's also about bureaucracy, about the way government programs become self-perpetuating even after they've served out their primary useful purpose, the way that individual powerbrokers in Congress serve their constituents first before ideology. A liberal Democrat might support environmental causes in word, but if a multimillion dollar water project looks like it will help his or her district, environmental concerns become a secondary issue. A conservative Republican might hate big spending government in word, but if a multimillion dollar water project looks like it will help his or her district, suddenly big spending doesn't look so bad. A "if you vote for my project, I'll vote for yours" keeps big (and often bad) projects passing through the legislature. As a result, farmland that is too dry to be productive naturally gets close to free water and becomes superprofitable, while farmland that is naturally better suited to a given crop goes fallow because it doesn't get the same water subsidies.

The whole history of American water rights is enough to sadden anyone about the prospects of the United States ever again achieving a balanced budget, let alone passing health care legislation that makes sense or financial oversight regulation that will do what it's intended to do. Reisner exits on a positive note, explaining how attitudes toward dam building (a major focus of his book) changed in the early 1990s and offering hope that this bodes well for the country taking a more reasonable approach to water rights. Somehow, pessimist that I am, I think that reason likely won but a short respite. While cities out West may be taking a more responsible approach to water usage (though Reisner notes that it's agriculture that uses the most water), down here in Georgia, during the most recent drought, I heard word of the need for more dams--rather than the need for more restrained water usage or the creation of landscapes more befitting the natural terrain.