Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On "Look Me in the Eye" by Suzanne Nielsen (506 words) ***

There's a scene in Full Metal Jacket where a character who has gone from a full screw-up to a clean-cut, amazing solider flips. Things seem fine, and then suddenly he's using his gun in ways you don't want to see repeated. Nielsen's story does a similar thing, focusing on such a moment, and drawing us into its full absurdity and ultimately sadness. Read it here at Battered Suitcase.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

On "Rebellion" by Thomas McConnell (1096 words) ***

This short story hints at the horror that can sometimes subsume McConnell's fiction. In it, a mother--in the midst of a civil war--works to gather what she can to save her family. We're not quite sure what she's working for until a good chunk of the way into the story, and then things just go downhill from there. Read the story here at Cortland Review.

On "A Picture Book of Hell and Other Landscapes" by Thomas McConnell **

McConnel's Picture Book is a set of stories in three parts. The first group of stories focuses largely on the past--and on how it affects our present. Notable within this section is the title story "A Picture Book of Hell." The tale is one about a man who comes back from fighting in the Great War. Like the characters in various contemporary movies who return from fighting in Vietnam or Iraq, the soldier come home has difficulty adjusting again to civilian life--the horrors he's seen are too great deal with and too great to express. In this mix is the soldier's niece, who is curious to know about the war and who frequently questions her knowing uncle. None of this bares much fruition, however, as the uncle descends into madness. The stories in this section demonstrate McConnell's great command of the language, as do many of those in the last section.

The last section of the book seems the most random, though a good number of them circle around the theme of death. In readers watch as a homeless man nears his death and as another man takes his spot, as a man goes to visit a prostitute, as a body of men fights a fire, as people attend wakes and funerals (two stories), and as men ride in a bus and discuss what death and life mean. This section seems, in some respects, to be the most philosophical, with some stories feeling almost plotless, most focused on ideas.

The middle section of the book is the one I enjoyed most. Here McConnell's characters come to life and the stories seem full fledged. The language, while not as wrought as in the other two sections, seems more in keeping with the relatively simply first-person narrators. This section, called "Diptych" consists of just two stories, about two friends, one from each friend's point of view. One is a sensitive thinker nicknamed Aquinas, who lives alone in the woods in the first story and whose primary habit is reading. He falls for girls hard and with little success. Brock, his friend, is his opposite. Fresh from the army, Brock is action not thought, not reading. He carries girls away like free mints offered at the end of a visit to a restaurant--they're great to enjoy but never does one hold any particular unique hold over him. And he has a drinking problem, one that threatens often to get him into trouble. In the first story, Brock, after sending a letter noting that he's out of the army, comes to visit Aquinas, and the two go out to have drinks and to find some girls, who they take into the woods to make out with. Typical of Brock, when bored, he's up and out. Aquinas expects never to see him again. In the second story, Brock receives a letter from Aquinas, only the circumstances have changed much. Aquinas, sunk into a deep depression, has killed himself, and not it's Brock's turn to consider what it means when a friend leaves. I could have read eight more stories about these characters, so well did McConnell draw them--these are the two stories I'll remember from the collection.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On "What You Say, What Is Done to You" by Roxane Gay (304 words) ***

What's to be made of a reputation? We do one silly thing--or say one silly thing--and, especially in grade school, that becomes us. I remember, once, talking about space, and some kids misunderstood me and thought what I'd said stupid, and thereafter for a short while I was called "Space." The reputation--and the nickname--didn't hold. But it does for others.

Gay's story is about the reputations that do hold. One is an accident. The other something much more sinister. But what really happened? It doesn't much matter. Read the story here at LitNImage.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On "A Little Peace" by Jack Swenson (361 words) ****

Swenson's little piece pulls the whole world in. Start with a couple, a relationship that isn't exactly going uphill, all the attendant fights. Now, bring into that the big spill of the wars raging outside. I think of the storm raging outside in one of Raymond Carver's stories, mirroring the trouble inside. Here, Swenson switches it around to full effect. Read it here at Staccato.

On "Alone in America" by Louise Bernikow ***

Bernikow's exploration of loneliness in the United States is a difficult one to summarize, in large part because it isn't a prescriptive set of solutions nor a theoretical explanation of causes. Rather, it's a collection of anecdotes, a kind of anthropological study of different communities where loneliness exists: among single men, among single women, among the married, among youths, among the old, among people without jobs, among people with jobs. Each, Bernikow shows, has various means--mostly unsatisfying--of dealing with this loneliness: drugs, visits to bars, drinking, working even harder, delving into family life more.

Bernikow suggests that loneliness is something that we don't like to talk about, that there is a stigma to it, a fear that talking about it, that taking in one who is lonely, will perhaps draws us further into that world of loneliness ourselves. I'm not sure I buy this. Perhaps, my own loneliness tends to provide me with a certain amout of sympathy for such folk--as long as they don't become too smothering in the desire for a companion. Perhaps that's what Bernikow is talking of, but I'm not really sure.

Bernikow's last chapter does seem to offer some possibilities of solutions. At times, she implies the nuclear family isn't enough--too much is expected from such a small group, especially in light of economic turmoil. Rather, "communities" seem to solve this problem, whether it be a group of retired musicians who forge a community orchestra or gay men who make a town mostly their own. But here too there seem to be potential problems. A community is only good insofar as one feels part of it. The prospect of AIDS, just beginning to get notice at the time of Bernikow's writing, had potentially ushered some hushed worries into the community that did not allow those who were victims to share themselves. The disconnectedness a straight couple might feel that might cause them to split was replaced with a smothering a gay couple might feel that might cause them to split.

Loneliness seems something inherent in the human experience, because we are all in separate bodies, all in separate minds. It waxes and wains. A weekend spent with old friends makes us feel part of a unit; months spent with them makes us feel like we're not really understood, like we want to be out with others who might understand better. Bernikow's book, written in the 1980s, doesn't take up the issues of online communities--that odd juxtaposition of belonging and separateness that comes when one stares across a group with common interests or problems or values separated by cables and screens. Nevertheless, as an exploration of a problem Bernikow's book poses the issue in full.

Friday, December 17, 2010

On "Ghost Story" by John Sweet (240 words) ***

What is a ghost? Is it this thing we call memory, this thing we call the past? Is it feelings we get, standing at a bedroom door? Is it something we can't quite put our senses to? Is it something that haunts? Is it all of these things? Is it a story, just like this, here, at Staccato?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On "Dependents" by Sean Ennis (3036 words) *****

This isn't a story that zings plot. It's a story that rather sneaks up on a reader, a collection of observations. The situation is rather unextraordinary. New parents go to a party across the street. There, we meet some interesting people, including a man who is AWOL.

I have a story also about AWOL soldiers and patriotic holiday weekends, something based on a real life incident in my early twenties. It's one of my favorites, but now that I've read Ennis's version of such a tale, my own slow-burn of a story seems ridiculously long and unexceptional (its forty-plus-page length is likely one thing that will keep it from ever finding a home in a journal). His piece is one-third the size and full of zingers and observations that punch a person between the eyes (i.e., in the head, in the brain); his piece makes you sit up and pay attention. The narrator realizes that women who have given birth have a swagger men cannot match without surviving some kind of aerial crash. The writing is beautiful. And by the end, you realize that this is a story parents struggling to understand their new child, struggling to stay the course and not go AWOL, struggling to believe they're up for all that is to come, and somehow you realize that this is every parents' story. Read it here at Fifty-Two Stories.

On "The Last Chicken in America" by Ellen Litman ***

"A Novel in Stories," the collection's title page says. I guess that depends on one's definition of the novel. More and more, it seems like the description denoted on this title page is an excuse to try to sell something as a novel rather than a collection, because the former will sell and the latter won't. For me, a novel develops plot wise. It may not even necessarily develop chronologically, but it will develop in some way. I didn't get that feeling from Litman's book.

What her book certainly is is a short story cycle, a set of stories all set around the same community, much like Joyce's Dublin. Litman's community is a place called Squirrel Hill, a Russian immigrant community, and each story is about such people. I admit, whether this is a novel or a story cylce doesn't much matter to me; I'm actually more a fan of the latter than the former, so adding the novel appelation does more a disservice for me than sell it. Litman's collection does what great short story cycles do--it shows us a community from different angles and perspectives, letting us learn all about these people and this place.

The difficulty I had with these stories is that they--and many of the characters--ran together for me. Too much of the same voice, I couldn't keep one Russian name separate from another, one character apart from another.

But save that, I did enjoy the collection, more even than I thought necessarily thought I would. I was moved to read it largely by other reviews (good reviews), but I was almost desiring not to given that the subject matter didn't sound compelling. Overall, I'm glad I picked it up. I'm just having a hard time saying exactly what I just completed.

The most moving story for me in this collection is the second to last, "About Kamyshinskiy." It recounts love stories, three of them, simultaneously--how love bursts on to the scene, and how it simply bursts. This is one of those stories whose power sneaks up on you--or at least it was for me. The way that Litman structures it, we become as curious about Kamyshinskiy as his neighbors, even if we are not as shocked by his budding love, since we know of it from the start. What we are shocked by is something else, something Litman holds back from us until it's almost too late, and it is what makes the story so sad, so compelling, so terrible (and I mean that in the most gloriously tragic way).

Other stories in the collection recount tales of a teen girl taking up with a young man her parents like but who she doesn't like and who proves to be something less than his parents think he is; a couple who takes English classes together and who keep in contact with a senile woman they met on the journey to America; a young girl who babysits for a rich woman who doesn't seem to need a babysitter (except to keep her from being lonely, given that her rich husband has little interest in her); a girl who sleeps around a lot; a pair of dancers who come to stay with a couple; a girl learning to drive; and a woman who returns home to Squirrel Hill for a wedding.

A couple of the more intriguing stories involve contrasts between past and present. In one, a man flirts with having an affair with a fellow Russian immigrant in his office. Of note here is how he thinking constantly of a former girlfriend, of how these relationships become his means to return to the Russia--and the girl--he left. The other story is of a girl who excels in Russian club as long as she is willing to be absolutely devoted to Russia. Her teacher is a man with very strong views on this subject, very strong views on Russia itself, unable to move on to a life in America. How much does an immigrant keep of the old home, and how much does the immigrant become part of America? This seems to be one of the main questions Litman is exploring. In the aforementioned wedding story, for example, the girl, Masha, who shows up in several of the stories, wrestles with this question intensely, having fled her Russian immigrant home only to find her new almost wholly American life possibly lacking. Though she lives as if becoming American is more important, she spends her time studying Russian. Subconsciously, she seems drawn to the old world. In the end, she seems unsatisfied with either world--and wants both.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

On "On-Ramp" by John Bruce (355 words) ***

What can we say of on-ramps? They are places where people come together--or rather cars. They are places of stress, as we come together, because there's always the chance of an accident, of that coming together creating a crash. Bruce's story is about a different kind of coming together, a boy and a girl. Or is it? Read the story here at Staccato.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

On "Publish Me" by Eric Blanchard, "Classified #10" by Benjamin C. Krause, and "My Turn" by Erin Murphy ****

"Publish Me" is another poem resting on a single metaphor used quite adroitly--in this case, a sexual being. Nice, funny thoughts, this one puts into play. Read the poem here at Oak Bend Review.

Years ago, a teacher of mine had us write wanted ads. It was an interesting exercise, but few of ours were as interesting as hers. We were, by nature, much closer to beginners. Mine, I'm sure was overwrought, attempting for something big. And yet, simple is often better. Krause's "Classified #10" does just that--keeps to the basics and suggests something profound and wonderful and sad. Read the poem here at Boston Literary Magazine.

Erin Murphy's "My Turn" spins off another poem--her turn at doing Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gently," and a fantastic turn it is. I don't know if I'll ever savor candy without thinking of this poem from here on. Read it here, also at Boston Literary Magazine.

On "Climate Confusion" by Roy W. Spencer ****

Not so many years ago, I went to see An Inconvenient Truth. I was very much taken in by it. But I also wanted to read the other side of the story. I wanted to read that in part because some people I know are true no-sayers when it comes to global warming. They pointed to certain "facts" that go unreported. Well, I didn't find those particular facts here in Spencer's book, but he is a global warming skeptic.

And I feel as if I'm very much taken in by his arguments as I was Al Gore's. I rather suspected this would happen. Not being a climate expert, I don't have the brain tools necessary to know whose claims are necessarily specious. There's much to like about Spencer's book, however, and a little that I find frustrating as well.

Where I find Spencer the most convincing is in his arguments about how science can be wrong. In other words, Spencer talks about what science is and is not and about what it can and can't do. He points out, for example, how paleontology cannot present completely convincing scientific facts. I have been skeptical of much of what some claim paleontology shows in the past with regard to evolution, and there's no reason I should be any less skeptical with regarding to climate, though I have been. It's just that the climate paleontologists make so much more sense. However, unlike true science, findings in paleontology can't be tested. We can look, analyze, and interpret, but we can't run tests to see if that's how things really happened.

Without the knowledge supposedly gained from paleontology, we are dependent then solely on weather records, which only go back 150 years. That's not enough time to be able to tell much about whether the current uptick in temperature has to do with carbon or whether it has to do with simply natural forces. There was, for example, an uptick in temperature in the 1930s, before carbon was an issue (although, I believe Al Gore's, would have shown that to be a much smaller uptick). We also can't say for certain that it's carbon that is making the earth get hotter, given that climate systems are so complex. We simply don't know to what extent climatological forces can make up for the excess carbon in the air.

What we do know is this: Earth is getting hotter. We are burning a lot of carbon fuel. All else is conjecture, including the connection between them. Valid points.

Spencer then gets into economic theory, justifying mostly conservative trickle-down economic policies. The rich may be getting richer, he notes, but that's not necessarily bad. Sure, they might have a larger percentage of the pie, but the pie itself is larger, so the poor are better off too. He points to Bush's tax cuts for the great growth in the mid-2000s.

His points make some sense in this regard. However, I doubt, in light of the great bursting of the economic bubble that happened shortly after this book's publication, that many of the economic policies put in place by conservatives are really as beneficial as the author seems to think (huge deficits, a lack of regulation leading to financial meltdown, the gouging of the poor by the rich in the form of deceptive mortgages). There is balance that is necessary. Certainly, too much taxation at the top prevents funding for new technologies, but too little, I would say, results in unstable societies in which the chances for those at the bottom to move to the top becomes more and more difficult, which in turn also prevents innovation--and also creates so many of the economic problems that persist now.

If you get a sense I have some problems with the arguments of the book, you're right, and it's to those I move now. Spencer equates freedom with democracy, as Bush did, which again is nonsensical (democracy is not freedom to those in the minority, unless the minority willingly give their consent to the majority's decisions and/or there are built-in systems to protect minority views, which is often not the case).

Spencer remains skeptical about virtually any environmental policy that has been enacted. Chloro-fluorocarbons--might have had something to do with ozone depletion (so the fact that those were banned and the ozone layer has begun to recover is a bad thing because it hurt the economy?). The banning of DDT is the cause of continuing malaria outbreaks in Africa. And on and on. All things in balance, as I note, and Spencer may have some good points here with regard to some of our overdoing of environmental laws--or he may himself be a bit out of whack. It's hard to say, since I don't know the science behind all these decisions. Still, ridding ourselves of a bird-killing, thalidomide-baby producing chemical doesn't seem like a necessarily bad thing--would continuing problems in those regards have been worth it to stop malaria. One has to weight costs and benefits.

And this is, in the end, Spencer's point. For him, it doesn't make economic sense to curb carbon proliferation when the science is still fuzzy on the matter. Good point. Unless of course he's wrong, in which case, Ooops. But what if he's right? Is it so much to ask us to give up a little bit of our wealth to try to prevent something bad from possibly happening?

But another point he makes is that it isn't a little bit, and in this he has a very valid point. Hybrid cars and fluorescent lightbulbs aren't going to get us to levels of atmospheric carbon that will actually rid ourselves of the problem. What would do so would be so drastic that we don't have the stomach for it. In this regard, he's right. And when one notes that back in the 1960s, scientists were concerned about a global ice age and a population time bomb, neither of which turned out to be remotely correct, there is a danger in becoming too alarmed by something that may be just as inaccurate of a set of predictions.

There are other options, he points out, but they will take time. Technologies such as wind, solar, clean coal, and nuclear can become effective at curbing atmospheric carbon proliferation--but only if we devote economic resources toward that rather than toward drastic cuts to energy usage. Point taken.

Where I'd differ a bit with him is that I do think taxation (not so much cap and trade) could be an effective means to force this technological gain earlier. Rather than making it harder to make such gains, taxing fossil fuels higher would likely curb their usage and make these other technologies more attractive--the taxes could even be fed into R&D for such energies.

Points of disagreement or agreement aside, Spencer's book is a good thought piece about how we can better harness energy usage on our planet.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

On "Mary’s Twenty" by Steele Campbell (4076 words) ***

I can't say I've read many westerns. The Oxbow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark is the only thing that comes to mind, and that I read largely on the recommendation of Wallace Stegner, based on an essay he wrote in When Bluebirds Sing from Lemonade Springs. That novel, however, was good, so it's a shame I haven't come back more aggressively to the genre. Perhaps it's that western movies don't appeal to me, and so by extension the stories don't seem like they'd hold much more interest. Yet there's something about the Old West that translates better in writing than in film for me. I tend not to like costume dramas--some leap of imagination that asks me to accept camera usage before the existence of cameras won't come to me. Written out, there's no such problem.

Steele Campbell's story is a simple one that could be told in the Old South as easily as it could be in the West. In fact, I see elements of the poor folk of Erskine Caldwell here. It's a story about a family gone out to work a farm for a day and about how a girl ends up in a miserable marriage and what that means both to her father and to herself. File this one under stories of lazy bums, after you read it here at Rope and Wire.

On "Women with Men" by Richard Ford ****

Richard Ford excels in the long story. This work gives us three novellas about women and men. In "The Womanizer" a man stuck in Paris after his wife returns to the States becomes infatuated with a French woman, and though "nothing happens," finds himself obsessing over the "relationship" as his marriage goes through some hard times--obsessing to the extent that he is ready to start a whole new family life with this woman he barely knows who lives halfway across the world. In "Jealous," a young man readies to take a train with his aunt to go see his estranged, to leave Montana for the more active environment of Seattle--but in the process he learns things about his aunt, his father, himself, and about death and Native Americans and drinking, and just about everything. In the final piece, "Occidentals," the most-interesting tale of the three, a man, estranged from his wife, goes, with a temporary lover, to Paris to arrange for the publication of a translation of his new novel.

When I first read Ford's Rock Springs some twenty years ago, I remember being blown away first and foremost by his endings--lines that would somehow bring everything into focus and send chills down my spine. It's easy to come up with last line that sound like Ford, but it's not so easy to make them as powerful as Ford does. I really don't know how he does it, but that mystery is what makes Ford's work so special. It's also why I've probably never been as drawn to his longer works. That chilling effect seems most powerful when the piece is read in a single sitting, and unfortunately, given the length of these novellas, I was not able to get my Ford fix as I have from much of his work in the past. Enjoyable reading, yes, but his collections A Multitude of Sins and the aforementioned Rock Springs remain my favorites.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

On "The Copy Family" by Blake Butler (2311 words) ****

Here is a story about not just one doppleganger but three. Beyond that, I'm not exactly sure what it's trying to say, but it sure is interesting. I'll take a stab at deeper ideas anyway: The tale starts with one family meeting its copy. Exact in each way, the "real" family pushes the copy family out of its home. Here we have a concern with authenticity. What makes something authentic? And how and why is the authentic preferred to the inauthentic, even when they are exact duplicates of one another? We don't like to consider ourselves just like others in society. We like to think ourselves unique, and so our actions dictate the killing off of our duplicates, setting ourselves off. Except . . . Sometimes duplicates are better--or just as good. Despite ourselves, we settle on our copies, just as our children often grab the lion's heart of love from their parents (spouse for spouse, person for self). Anyway, that's one reading. Maybe you can find another here at Fifty-two Stories. (Word is, Butler has a new novel coming out this spring--I look forward to it.)

On "Scorch Atlas" by Blake Butler ***

Butler is a poet of sorts. Each of these stories makes up part of what is a short story cycle or a novel in stories. But each also is a collection of images and lines that stand up on their own demand attention. Such makes for a very dense reading experience, requiring attention to every sentence. There is also the appreciation to be forged for the various word choices--the smell of the "sum" of a dump, for example ("Seabed"). This is what I like about the collection.

Two stories stood out for me. "Seabed" is about a survivor and a girl he picks up on his journey across a wasteland that used to be home. "Tour of the Drowned Neighborhood" is just that, and it's brilliant. It is easy to see in it a kind of homage New Orleans in Katrina. But it is not that. It is a tale of a town drowned in destruction and kept that way--from the point of view of one of the destroyed. It is a literal tour of the neighborhood under water.

The subject of these stories hints at the subject of the larger collection, which is exactly what the title of the book suggests--an atlas of a place after destruction. And in that was where the work grew tiresome to me. So much darkness and not much light until the expected end. As I did when I read another collection of stories set around the theme of death, I found myself growing weary. Were it not that Butler is such a strong writer on the sentence level I would have likely grown weary enough to put it down. Thankfully, Butler wows in each line, and that was enough to keep me reading.

One caveat: Featherproof Books has done a bang-up job on the design of this work. Each page, like each sentence, is a work of art. The design complements the book every bit.

Monday, November 29, 2010

On "The Regatta" by B. J. Hollars (635 words) ***

When I first came across B. J. Hollars's work, I found it rather fantastical--well, most of the time. Occasionally, he ventured into straight-out realism. But the works I enjoyed most were those that had strange connections to this world.

Most recently, Hollars's work has seemed to move toward the gothic--or at least what I think of as gothic. We have stories of people doing disturbing things told in hyped-up and beautiful prose. This short recent piece is emblematic of that. Ostensibly the story of a boy in some kind of race out on the water, it's power is drawn from the odd use of language--paddles like crossbones--and by a rather chilling metaphor made real toward its end. Read the story here at Dogzplot.

Friday, November 26, 2010

On "Premium Harmony" by Stephen King (3726 words) ***

I went looking to see if one could find a Stephen King story on the Web and came up with this piece from the New Yorker. Other than the just-completed book of King novellas, it's the only King I've read. The tale is common enough, a husband and wife arguing, their better selves left back in the dating days. She's overweight now; he's still smoking. They get on each other's nerves. Something happens to make the husband realize what he's lost--both in being married and in the possibility of being single again. There's not much new here in terms of language or innovative plotting, but what really works is King's attention to some of the little details. I especially like how, after the husband enters the discount store to be with his wife, the teens start taking photos with their cell phones. Overcome with discomfort, the workers pass out free drinks--and then it's back to work. One man's hugely tragic encounter is a momentary curiosity, just a small part of everyone else's day--and in a sense, by story's end, we get the feel that it's almost the same for the man, as he lights up a smoke. In this corporatized world of passing Internet fancies, King seems to be saying, nothing is forever--or even, now, fifteen minutes. Read the story here at the New Yorker.

On "Different Seasons" by Stephen King ****

It's taken me forty years to get around to reading Stephen King. I don't have much of a taste for horror novels--at least I don't think I do (though the occasional uncanny/gothic tale of Borges or Poe has some appeal)--and that is one thing that has kept me away. There is also King's reputation as a popular author, and I guess I'm a bit of a snob, because I rarely give such novelists much of a try. But there is a reason they are popular, and that is often because they are good. When King won the O'Henry Award some fifteen years ago (for a story I never did get around to reading), I realized that I would have to actually give him a try, that I would have to take him off the list of people I might one day theoretically read but probably won't ever find time for to the list of people I would actually read. I'm glad I finally did, even if it took my fifteen years to get to him.

The book that has always held the most appeal to me in his body of work is Different Seasons, largely because the four novellas within it are the basis for two well-respected movies (and one not so well respected)--none of which I've seen--and because the work showcases King outside of the horror genre. I enjoyed three of these pieces greatly; the other--well, let's just say that if I had read only it, I probably would never be willing to return to King again.

The book opens with "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption." It's a simple enough tale about a jail break. King himself says he's not much of a stylist (although I think he could be and sometimes is), but the rather pedestrian prose works very well here, given that he's writing from the point of view of a convicted convict who has spent virtually his whole adult life behind bars. The plot itself is interesting--what jail breaks aren't?--if a bit expected (what prison narrative wouldn't include a jail break?). But what really shines here is the long--forging more than half the story--account of prison life. I felt myself really attached to King's characters, especially Andy Dufresne. There comes a moment in the story when readers realize that Dufresne will be in jail for life, no matter whatever amount of innocence he may wield, and it's incredibly heartbreaking. Any writer who can make me feel that passionately about his characters has proved his worth to me. It's not easy, and it's a rare treat.

"The Body," the third story here, is the source for the movie Stand by Me. Like "Shawshank," it focuses on some plot elements that are wholly expected. It's about four boys at the end of summer, going out to look for a dead kid's body--just for the fun of it (and maybe a little fame). We get all the nostalgic things we'd expect from a story about youngsters--skinny dipping, various fights. But that's part of the story's charm, the way that King brings the essence of childhood summers back. And then he does some things that are different. The four kids each have serious problems, to be expected, but we see two of them, the narrator and his friend Chris, as standouts, kids who are ultimately going to try to break past their bleak surroundings. (In this sense, I was reminded of *Good Will Hunting.*) But King doesn't just hand us some happy ending. There are a lot of disappointments that crop up, and although the story does a lot we expect, it turns a lot of those expectations around to things we don't expect and that are ultimately sad.

"The Breathing Method," the last story, has a gothic charm. It's about a club, a storytelling club, in a mysterious house that has rooms upon rooms upon rooms where people can get lost and books that don't show up in any library catalog. But that's just the setting, which acts as a frame for a well-done story about a woman who gets pregnant out of wedlock in a time when such a thing held a degree of shame greater than it does now. It's a strange piece, ultimately, not unlike some of Poe's mystery work, but it also introduces us to some very well-drawn characters. More a long short story than a novella, I would definitely have taken notice of this piece had it been in a collection of other works closer to its length.

The longest work in this book, forging the second novella, is "Apt Pupil." It's unfortunate that it takes up so much of the book as a whole, for it's the least fun. Managing not to put it down was a chore. The story involves a kid with a fascination for Nazi lore who discovers a real-life Nazi living in his neighborhood. This could be a story about two people coming to know each other more deeply as people--and in a way it is--but it seems more intent on being a story about disgusting its readers. I couldn't have cared less about the kid or his new friend. The kid is mean and weird and evil. The Nazi, perhaps a victim of circumstance, turns out to be mean and weird and evil as well. Much is said in the text about how normal people can fall to such low levels, but everything about the plot itself suggests that these are not normal people, that those among us who relish in maiming others are different from us. And in that sense, the novella seems a failure to me. We never identify with the characters, so the more debased they become does not lend credence to the idea that they are normal, even as the logic of the story (which is shaky in its first half) starts to make more sense. The characters descend into insanity, but we're never convinced they were sane to start. Add the this piece's clunky prose into the mix, and the tale is a tough one to slog through.

Still, the other three tales here proved to me that I need to give King some more attention, pull out some of his other books, and start reading. The guy is a master of plots and characterization.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

On "DMR" by Daniel Trask (21 pages) ***

Perhaps it's my unfamiliarity with the institution, but this work is oddly entrancing. It's not so much a story in terms of conflict and climax but simply an introduction to a place and a people. Jonathan, fresh from college, is interviewing in house at a home for the mentally challenged. I don't think I'd be very comfortable at such a place, and Jonathan's own discomfort registers subtly as he attempts to figure out what is proper and what is not in this new situation. But then, it becomes fairly obvious, the longer we hang around, that the other workers aren't that comfortable either--in fact, Jonathan may be a natural. Read the story here at Publishing Genius.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

On "Where I’m Emailing From" by David Erlewine (634 words) *****

David Erlewine's fiction often centers on neurotic narrators, and that's why it's often so fascinating. Here we get the tale of a passive aggressive husband, an apology that's really, well, not quite what one would expect. Read the story here at the Emprise Review.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

On "The First Colony Inn" by Jamie Iredell (1340 words) ***

Iredell's short piece sounds like the story an old man might tell you by firelight or in a truck stop over coffee--or in an inn that you wander into one night, the only guest in the lobby, one of eight empty rooms. And that's why I'm taken by this piece, because it's voice seems so genuine, so real. The story itself, like many a told story, is interesting, though nothing I'd go rushing through like an action novel. It's a story to listen to, a curiosity to fill the time, a historical anecdote you might one day want to share yourself. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On "Publisher" by Corey Mesler (13,702 words) *****

Here's a story that in its youthful enthusiasm for literature and life and the female sex reminds me a little of John Fante. Reading it is a pleasure. But it's a story too of disappointment and of reading and the love of it. Our narrator is a man who wants a job in publishing. Locked out, however, he takes a job at a bookstore. And then, one day, he gets a break. He manages to get a job at . . . a vanity publisher.

But what vanity publishers are to writers they also prove in a way to be to editors. There are prices to be paid. What happens when you get your hands on a good book, one that deserves publication better than what you can offer? How far will you go for literature? And will in the end it matter?

I'm reminded of some of the unpublished work of friends and former classmates that I keep in files at home. Sometimes, I return to visit their stories. Sometimes, over the years, the writing has tarnished; what I thought so good twenty years ago, I now recognize wasn't. But other times, on rereading, I sit back rather amazed--and saddened--that the story never saw the light of day, and the writer gave up. Finding publication for good material (and then actually marketing that publication so that it finds an audience) is hard work, but it also involves a bit of luck. But maybe, in the end, even if only one reader appreciates a given piece, the author has still managed to convey something to do something special. Read the story here at the Workplace Anthology or here at Eclectica.

On "Scratch Beginnings" by Adam Shepard ****

Intrigued by an NPR interview a year or two ago, I placed this book on my list as something I had to read. I've read quite a few books about poverty in the past few years; I'm not sure what has drawn me to the subject. Perhaps, it has been the economic downturn; perhaps, I have a lingering interest in the welfare reform law that passed under Clinton.

This is the third book about someone choosing to live among the poor that I've read. The first was Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, to which Shepard's book is at least partly a rebuttal. The second was Jack London's People of the Abyss. Shepard's work was different from both of those, chiefly because he had a plan, a goal. He wasn't going to just live like the poor and among them. He was going to work his way out of poverty. His was also different in that he didn't give you the feeling that he had a back-up (sure, he could have gone scraping back to his parents, but he didn't--as London did--have a rented room he could go back to when tired or needing to write out some notes). This was his life for close to a year.

Shepard starts out moving to a new town where he knows no one. All he has is a sleeping bag, twenty-five dollars, and the clothes on his back. He shows up in town late at night, after the homeless shelters are closed. Not much of a plan, considering; a few years ago, trying to help out a homeless guy here in town, I came to understand that shelters close pretty early in the evening--you better be lined up there well before sundown much of the year if you want a spot. Lucky for Shepard, a police officer finds him on the street and forces him inside. Not all shelters are so forgiving.

The shelter is where he lives for the next six to eight weeks. The shelter is where he looks for a job. In the midst of this, he works quite a few day-labor jobs and usually makes less than minimum wage for his time (after taxes and "fees" from employers). But without rent to pay, he is able to put away money. He also manages finally to get a regular position as a mover. He manages to do so by giving the potential employer a lecture on how hard he works, by playing cocky. It's not something that would come natural to me, and though I suspect maybe it would help get a few dates, I doubt I'd ever be gutsy enough to use it in either situation. As one who himself occasionally has to hire, I have come to be pretty unmoved by such speeches: I usually have so many people vying for a position that how hard they say they work is hardly enough of a motivating factor for me to hire. If I have only one position, I can't hire a person--and certainly not an extra person--just because he or she gives an impressive speech.

Watching Shepard move from the homeless shelter into a rented room and then into a shared duplex, watching him buy a car, watching him save money--it's impressive. It makes me a bit sad and frustrated that I don't manage to save as much money as he manages to do on a much smaller salary; by no means am I a free spender, so why I don't manage to save more, I'm not sure (though lately, it's been economic troubles of others that have been my downfall--and an inability to downgrade my own lifestyle--which has only made me more anxious about my own state [it's much easier to start out at a lower standard of living than to downgrade back to it]).

What Shepard has reminded me is of how important it is to set goals. It's the goal setting and the drive to achieve that goal that leads in many ways to Shepard's success. There is not a lot of stumbling around feeling sorry for himself or feeling angry that no one has handed him a better life. He's going to make the better life for himself. And he does.

On the whole, Shepard's book, to me, seems a keen rebuttal to Ehrenreich's book, which I found too simplistic in its proposed solutions and a bit ridiculous in some of its complaints. A higher "living" minimum wage (I know this from experience, having been one of those employees who got to experience a raise in minimum wage and thus a raise in my wage) is not really the full solution that some want it to be (higher wages means higher prices, which often puts people at the minimum back where they started). Not having time to make a real meal between multiple job is a problem, but with prebaked bread and with peanut butter and the like, one can make do without resorting to eating out, and being so tired one doesn't feel like cooking is just part of working two jobs. Likewise, having to compete against other employees for management jobs with higher wages is simply how things work. Shepard's solutions, in his closing, seem a bit more practical, which are largely about giving people more opportunities.

But of course, they aren't and never could be a complete solution. There's a certain amount of luck involved with any move away from poverty. The thing that gets me a bit about the book is the way that Shepard's project--and all these projects really--and some of his writing seem a bit condescending. We who are better off descend among those who aren't and show what's wrong with the poor or with the system created to help the poor. If Ehrenreich or London, we live by our higher expectations and get angry that, when living in these poorer conditions, we no longer are able to sustain those qualities of life. If Shepard, we think more positively about our personal ability to surmount the obstacles to a better life amid our surroundings, but we talk of how even though a person isn't special he or she can still make a difference. I cringed when he handed such a note to a bus driver. Who's to say the bus driver isn't special? Some have jobs that come with more fame or power or prestige, but that doesn't make the people who hold them any more special. In the end, we're all just people.

I'm also a little curious as to how Shepard's project would work now, amid the more dire economic conditions, when a lot of those days jobs--often in construction--he worked early on no longer exist. Could one still wander out of a homeless shelter to a day-labor employer virtually every day of the week? Is the system that worked so well for Shepard now broken? Shepard himself sees some of the troubles in trying to extend his experience to all: Guatemalans have fewer opportunities in their own poorer country than we do in our rich one; parents with two children to support or an old man with chronic back problems can't be as flexible about working and living conditions and saving as a young single guy. But Shepard's point is also well taken--that attitude, planning, and drive can make a whole lot of difference no matter what the situation. Maintaining that attitude and drive, for many beaten down by circumstance, however, can be an issue. And when those good traits aren't taught early on or aren't maintained amid overwhelming trouble, circumstances then often become a self-fulfilling spiral.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On "We Will Take What We Can Get" by Matthew Salleses (38 pages) ***

While having to move my curser around so much to read is a pain, one of the things I do like about Publishing Genius's online chapbooks is the feel of reading a real text. There's something rather pleasant about it, something that makes me feel like I'm not reading some e-mailed manuscript that's been transcribed into HTML. Design does make a difference.

Salleses's story itself, though, is a foray into experiment the way that blogs can sometimes be--a recounting of an injury, and the overcoming of an injury, that the narrator perpetrates on another. The events of the story aren't too out of this world. They're, in fact, rather mundane. But we see love in this, and life. And we learn that astrologers aren't always accurate--or are only half accurate. Read the story here at Publishing Genius.

On "A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That" by Lisa Glatt ****

I read a review of this book about five years ago. I liked the title. I was attracted. But still, I've put the book off for years. I think it was the subject matter that turned me off--mother and daughter, woman dying of cancer. Topic wise, it seemed too much like too many other books. It seemed too much like "women's fiction"--as in, something a guy would be bored working his way through.

But my list has grown shorter over the past few years, and Glatt's book kept staring at me from the list. I was going to get it off the list, I decided. I was going to chance it. It helped that I recently saw it on a list of suggested reading at a literary magazine.

There are reasons it is suggested reading. Sure, it is a book about a mom dying of cancer, about her devoted daughter, but it much more than that. Glatt makes the story fresh. She does this in several ways. First, she's a marvelous writer in and of itself. Second, she structures her book in sets of periods and from several points of views. Our main protagonist is Rachel Spark, a woman who deals with the oncoming death of her mother by engaging in largely empty sexual escapades. In fact, if there is anything that each of the protagonists has in this collection (except perhaps Rachel's student Ella, whose husband takes up the slack), it is their attitude toward sex. Each of the girls who also take a turn at being the focus of given sections spend time in empty sexual liaisons. There is a lot of sex in this novel, casual, dangerous, and destructive--and there are abortions, a lot of them. In that way, the book was very unsettling to me; I don't like to think of people being so careless, but I know that that is more common than perhaps I like to think. Georgia, a teen with seeming self-esteem problems and a less-than-satisfactory relationship with her parents, looks for "love" with every boy she meets. Angela, Rachel's friend, seems as prone to casual romance as Rachel herself.

In the end, both Georgia and Rachel seem to be moving toward some kind of acknowledgment of where their lives have been and where they need to go. Each seems to come to something of an understanding of the proper place for men in their lives. Or maybe not. They are runners--running away from trouble by running to men, and even if they might be on a way toward a better understanding of the proper role of men in their lives, they don't show much sign at the end that they aren't still running.

Monday, November 8, 2010

On "Endings" by Sean Lovelace (473 words) ***

Why bother writing the story when the endings of each story are as fun as these are? Lovelace has a wicked sense of humor that makes for compelling writing despite the lack of plot or character. Read the ends of each piece here at Flashquake.

On "Hitler's Private Library" by Timothy W. Ryback ****

I have never read a book-length biography of Adolph Hitler, so in a way, this book constitutes one of the most interesting ways to become more intimately acquainted with a person and his life. Ryback delves into the books contained within Hitler's library--those collected mostly at the Library of Congress and at Brown University. (Many were absconded with, taken as souvenirs by invading troops, at the end of World War II, so no full library exists.) He reads the books and the various dedications and marginalia within them. Although impossible to know for certain which books Hitler read or which marginalia is definitely that of the German leaders, Ryback appears to do a convincing job of figuring much of Hitler's actual reading out.

This is not a heavily thesis driven book, but if there were to be one, it would likely revolve around Walter Benjamin's writing on personal libraries. Indeed, Ryback uses Benjamin's ideas a lot, applying them over and over to Hitler's stash of books. Benjamin notes that you can tell much about a man by the books in that library at the time of his death; he also notes that most people read only about 10 percent of the books in their library (I am an exception in that regard, having read virtually all of mine, save for anthological words--the result of about five years without access to a public library that forced me to exhaust my own collection). So it is not just what we read but what we consume and keep that says something about us.

Ryback follows Hitler's reading pretty much in chronological order with his life, exploring how the one infected the other. If you ever have the idea that books don't matter (as I sometimes feel like), Ryback will convince you otherwise. Hitler's worldview in many ways was established in them--or not. For we learn that Hitler, who was a voracious reader, chose to read books in the following manner: start with the index and table of contents, read the conclusion, and then garner from the index and contents any passages that might be of use to you, that by reading you can write to your brain for future presentation to others. Inevitably, this kind of reading lends itself to one that mostly confirms one's own points of view, since one is only looking for the select passages that fit with that preappointed scope. (And yet, in our increasingly widespread choice of media, that is essentially how many of us are coming to view our world: if liberal, we pick MSNBC, if conservative, Fox. If we choose to, we can read accordingly also, confirming what we already know, failing to challenge our deepest beliefs.)

Ironies run throughout the book--as they did in Hitler's life. One of his favorite books as a young man was a travel guide to Berlin, written by a Jewish man (who would flee Germany under Hitler's Reich). Hitler's family itself apparently was one tolerant of various ethnicities. Hitler himself, or so Ryback reads him, was early on uncomfortable with certain anti-Semitic remarks certain peoples would make. His conversion, however, would come as he became more and more heavily influenced by the National Socialist movement and by the thinker and mentor Dietrich Eckart.

Another irony is pointed to in the title of the preface, "The Man Who Burned Books," for it is obvious that Hitler himself greatly respected reading. It is also, however, obvious that he lacked formal education. His reading was haphazard in a range of subjects. A compelling speaker, he was aware of his educational deficiencies, and the chapter discussing how he sidelined the one other great leader in the rising Nazi political party, whose intellectual chops more than matched his own, is rather disturbing in a Star Wars "dark side" of the Force kind of way. Essentially, he gave the party a choice--either allow him to be in charge (and thus able kick his rival out of the movement) or he would forge his own movement, splitting the party in half and essentially decimating any chance for meaningful power gains. A scan for information on Otto Dickel, this rival, on the Internet shows how pervasively his influence was removed, for there is very little information about him save his published treatise and his removal from the party.

A very intriguing chapter concerns Hitler's religious influences and how those almost played out in a manner that could have changed history. Hitler grew up Catholic and still held to certain mystical ideas about the faith. A German bishop, recognizing this, wrote a book with the express intent of dividing the Nazi leadership and almost succeeded. The book essentially aimed to join Catholicism with Fascism. (Jews, the book offered, were not problematic because of race but became of religion. Alas, had the bishop had his way, the Holocaust would have turned into one based primarily in religion rather than in ethnicity--in other words, another Inquisition.) Certain mystical anti-Christian fascist leaders were against the book's ideas; other fascist leaders more concerned only with power saw its value. Hitler wavered between the two camps, but eventually fell in with the former. The bishop's book was not given a seal of approval by Hitler, and the church--earlier indifferent to the bishop's plans--even ended up reprimanding the bishop for trying to join it with a materialistic cause.

Other chapters concern Hitler's war strategies (pulled from various books) and his bickering with his generals over matters of command, his own set of writings (Mein Kampf, followed by a book on political strategy, followed by an autobiography manuscript about World War I that was destroyed, followed by a manuscript merging national concerns, politics, and autobiography that was abandoned), and his philosophical inspirations.

In all, Hitler comes across in Ryback's text as an insecure man who moves decidedly more and more toward paranoia, a human being who gradually loses his grip on reality. Watching Hilter's development (in both his life and in his thinking) through his reading is a fascinating exercise well worth the undertaking, for it becomes a warning to us all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

On "The Cardboard Ship" by Chris Tarry (1479 words) *****

Chris Tarry's "Cardboard Ship" is one of the best rendered descriptions of said object I've ever read. Of course, I'd never actually read any such description before. The cardboard ship is exactly that--a space ship made of cardboard and lots of crayola. And it works! Step into the world of a child. You'll be wanting a ship of your own. You'll be thinking, let me take out my box of sixty-four and some typing paper. Let me get out the Scotch tape and the glue. I'm taking off for the planets. At least, you'll be thinking that until you get to the story's somewhat tragic end. Beware: Some people never come back. Read the story here at Paradigm.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On "Lockwood's Lawn" by Mary Gaitskill (3223 words) ***

This as-yet-uncollected story by Mary Gaitskill tells the tale of two generations. In that sense, it's a familiar one--parents with differing values from their children. Often such stories end with a certain amount of understanding. I'm reminded of Jayne Anne Phillips's "Home," which while not exactly ending in a place that scales the two generations together in terms of values does come part of that distance in terms of feeling. Gaitskill leaves us no such loveliness. Mr. Lockwood doesn't understand his daughters. He finds his own values don't seem to match those of the world anymore but continues to live by them anyway, and while he tries to reach out to his daughters, he seems more to have given in and given up. Louise, the last one left at home, sits depressed in her room--possibly having been broken up with, possibly just feeling low self-esteem. Either way, the dad here (as well as the mom) seems to be able to find no response that will work to bring her back from her misery. Like the boys who bother Mr. Lockwood by stumbling across his lawn, Lockwood seems to view the men in his daughters' lives as crooks of the sexual sort--crooks who the daughters seem not to mind stumbling over them. Unable to let go of his children, Lockwood seems paralyzed in a past that doesn't exist. Read the story here at Blip.

On "Don't Cry" by Mary Gaitskill ***

Mary Gaitskill's most recent collection treads much of the same ground as her two earlier collections but also opens up a few new pathways. Readers familiar with her work know that she often delves into discomforting situations. The collection Bad Behavior does this more--and arguably better--than either of the succeeding collections: prostitutes meeting customers in real life long after having given up the business, women forced into awkward sexual situations by their employers, sadomasochistic lovers. Each collection for me, however, has become unfortunately less interesting.

Don't Cry's strongest stories come at the start and at the close of the collection. The leadoff, "College Town, 1980," my favorite here, seems vintage Gaitskill. I'd have difficulty describing exactly what happens, for it's one of those stories in which characters you find interesting do very little. These are people going nowhere fast, struggling just to keep themselves together. The focus in one girl, Delores, who's living with her brother and his girlfriend and one other roommate, taking a few classes, and trying to keep herself from falling deeper into insanity. Our encounter with her is breathtaking. "Don't Cry," the title story, ends the collection. Here, we focus on two women going to adopt a child in Ethiopia--a much tamer story than many of Gaitskill's other pieces in earlier collections, and one that shows a writer at her full maturity. This is paired with the story before it, "Description," when we learn of one incident that is shared between the two pieces. "Description" has power of its own, especially at its end, though it also felt a bit forced to me toward the early going (it's one of those stories about creative writing workshops, which tends to get an automatic groan from me).

Other pieces focus on a one-night stand turned into an obsession (written a bit too abstractly for my tastes); lesbian lovers remeeting after the passage of many years; an old woman who finds solace in helping a little boy by talking to him, under the impression that his own mother doesn't care about him; a Iraq War vet who touches a woman on a train and gets kicked off (told from multiple points of view, it's one of Gaitskill's most ambitious but arguably one of her less successful); and a woman who meets an old virgin (clearly not a story written from the point of view of an old virgin).

"The Agonized Face" offers a particularly interesting set of observations. It's set at a book fair, and the narrator is a reporter sent there to cover it. The narrator is particularly fascinated by a feminist writer who writes sexually explicit stories. Much in this piece, one could dangerously see as Gaitskill's own description of her philosophy of writing. I say dangerously because this is fiction, and she is working through characters, none of whom may actually speak for her. Finally "Folk Song" is a story that seems more like an essay, first published at Nerve and available here, about serial killers and serial sex and turtles. I've probably made it sound more interesting than it is; it is, in fact, my least favorite.

Yet despite my hesitancies regarding the collection as a whole, Gaitskill's writing shines in the small moments. Sentence after sentence in some these stories glows with small phrases that are as hard and beautiful as diamonds. Such writing is hard to come by, and for that, she's still got me looking forward to picking up her next collection.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

On "Snow, Falling" by Dan Moreau (2455 words) ***

A battle of wills is at the heart of the story, only the protagonist isn't yet aware of it. The premise is fairly simple--a man picking his son up from college after a disappointing year. The son has plans of his own. The man, by contrast, continues to think of his son as a kid, evidenced by small gestures such as patting the son's head. I can't say when my father last patted my head, but it certainly wasn't when I was in college. Read the story here at In Posse Review.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On "How We Made a Difference" by Joseph Bates (2495 words) ***

A friend of mine once dismissed Joyce's Ulysses as simply political writing. I'm not sure if writing about politics in fiction necessarily means that the work doesn't have any literary merit, but I am prone to taking a harsher eye to a text whose political propaganda is obvious on the page.

Bates's story is one that definitely puts politics front and center. I'm writing about it because it made me laugh, because it was, as Henry James describes good literature, "interesting." And is Bates's political agenda all that clear? Sure, it's easy to take swipes at conservatives in a forum such a story, but at the same time, the text is so over the top that one wonders if maybe there isn't also a certain swipe at the other side of the political spectrum as well--if the point isn't, perhaps, that we've lost our way in all the political turmoil with regard to what makes people people and what makes a nation a nation. Nah. Read the story here at Identity Theory and decide for yourself.

On "Spent" by Geoffrey Miller ***

When I initially finished this book, I thought it had turned out different from what I had thought it would be, but in thinking on it some more, I realized I didn't really know what I thought it would be. The work of an evolutionary psychologist, Miller attempts to try to explain common thinking in our consumerist society on evolutionary terms. On the face of it, this is not a work I could find much use in, its basic premise being one that doesn't fit with my worldview. Not being a secular evolutionist, I don't see man's consumerist traits developing from a prehuman state. But on the level of consumerism evolving out of our own human culture, I can certainly follow many of Miller's arguments and can agree with some of his ideas.

Central to Miller's argument is that we spend conspicuously to "signal" to others that we are appropriate material for mating. Miller says his book won't discuss purchasing purely for personal pleasure, as it is outside the focus of his study--but this proves also to be something of a drawback, since ignoring such spending naturally creates a certain bias in any conclusions that are reached. Nevertheless, with regard to signaling, psychological studies, as Miller notes, show that men tend to spend more conspicuously when trying to impress a woman; women, by contrast, tend to give more when trying to impress a man (so much for the stereotype of women being bigger shoppers).

Our spending, in turn, demonstrates what kind of person we are. The middle portion of the book focuses on how spending dovetails into intelligence and five basic personality traits, which Miller essentially sets out as openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability (i.e., less prone to worry), and extraversion. How we spend demonstrates how agreeable we are, how stable, how open, and so on. Compatible suitors notice this and take appropriate action.

My own test showcased me as being +3 open, 2 conscientious, 0 agreeable, 0 stable, and -3 for extraversion (on a scale running +4 to -4). And in here is where many of Miller's personal biases (which he is at least open enough to explain in his two chapters of introduction) come to the fore and where for me personality tests and personality typing, while always interesting, fail to render anything terribly useful. As a morally conservative guy, according to Miller's assessment, I should have come out somewhere in the negative zone of "open," but because Miller attaches certain other characteristics to openness, somehow morality and creativity become connected. Likewise, Miller--an avowed secular liberal--makes snide remarks and reaches rather absurd conclusions about persons based on religious beliefs or political stances. Hence, Democrats are supposedly individualistic and open, while Republicans are not. However, that while one might argue that liberals tend to be more individualistic when it comes to certain moral issues, one cannot claim that they are that way overall; after all, it is Republicans who tend to be for "small government," not Democrats. Such would suggest to me just the opposite of what Miller asserts. While painting liberals as pluses in almost every category of personality, and conservatives as negatives in almost every category, Miller ends up stereotyping vast segments of people and actually showcases his own close-mindedness.

Beyond that, there is the issue of self-assessment on what are subjective categories. Take conscientiousness. I think most people would rate me highly there, but I rate only moderately. Is this because that's where I belong or because of a poor assessment on my part (after all, being a perfectionist, I tend to qualify every answer I give)?

Miller jokes throughout the book. His often self-effacing humor is pleasant, but it takes away from one's ability to know just where he is serious and where he is not. Toward the end of the book, he proposes that every person get personality assessments and post them for others so that the need to display such traits through consumerism would be eliminated. But as noted above, would such personality assessments even be reliable? Who's writing these tests and determining what constitutes "agreeable" or "extraverted"? And Miller himself acknowledges, after several pages proposing this ridiculous plan, that evolution itself would probably make such trait display impractical. After all, women often like bad boys and men often like neurotic women even when they know that such suitors aren't good for them. A written assessment isn't going to stop someone from making a bad choice--because in the end, why we enjoy spending time with someone often isn't rational.

Miller than launches into another possibility for reducing consumerism. Somewhere in here, I missed the part where consumerism was necessarily bad. Perhaps, Miller established that in the introduction, but if so I'd forgotten it, after his long discussion of how we are mostly socially and genetically determined through evolution (Miller is a purveyor of fatalistic naturalism if there ever was one--for me, it is downright depressing to think that humans don't have free will; indeed, I would say we mostly do make choices based in the social milieu from which we derive, but I like to think that we can sometimes make choices that constitute real change and not just a fatalistic fall to predetermined character traits). Of course, Miller does raise points for why limiting consumerism would be beneficial to society--at the very end--after his long discussion of how to limit rid of it, but one wonders why he waits till afterward.

The benefits are something that, indeed, society would find useful. Essentially, Miller tries to attach "true" costs of consumerist impulses to products rather than allowing long-term costs to go hidden. In other words, a cheap house that wastes more energy than a more-expensive one would, in Miller's ideal world actually end up costing more--in the short term as well as in the long. In this way, we would be less prone to build heavily polluting cars, to take up cigarette smoking, to eat fast food--because the short-term expenditures would be pegged to their long-term benefits and costs.

Miller's solution to this is a consumption tax. His most-favored tax seems to be one that varies the tax based on the particular product. Hence, a locally grown organic apple might cost thirty cents, while a agricultural-conglomerate-produced kiwi imported from New Zealand (after taking into account all the energy expended to ship it and the insect repellent and man-made fertilizer used to raise it) might cost three dollars. Sounds great. But who's going to assess what is to be taxed more and what is to be taxed less? And how are we going to collect such a tax? Talk about a governmental nightmare. Is Miller serious? You'd have political parties arguing as much as they do over climate change now arguing over the tax to be levied on every single product on the market, and you'd have corporations lobbying to get lower taxes, claiming a lower environmental threshold than might actually be. And sure, computers these days are amazing, and can scan items with barcodes such that every item could have its own unique tax--that works for big corporations. But what of the small farmer or the small store owner who doesn't run the inventory of a computer or whose computer system dates back ten years? In the end, Miller's ideal society comes off reading like that in Bellamy's national socialist utopia in Looking Backward--simply ridiculous.

But that doesn't mean I don't give Miller credit for proposing big and bold ideas. That he certainly has. And in such ideas, there can sometimes be something useful at the core or on the edges. And hey, I'm up for thinking about personality assessment any time, even if I remain skeptical about its actual value.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On "And Took Him Down Where He Got the Bends" by Paul Toth (662 words) ***

Here's a quicky for you, two guys on the run. Something bad is happening, something really bad. I'm reminded of a short story published years ago in the Quarterly, which had a similar freneticness (I write that word rather than frenzy, because "frenetic" is really that word I want here, but it's not a noun). In that story, two men are involved in digging a grave they don't want to dig. Also really bad. I'm glad I haven't been one of these twosomes one finds in fiction. Not yet at least. I'll stick to reading about such things here at Necessary Fiction.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On "Men, Women and Chainsaws" by Joy Wood, "Traveling East" by Kelly Lenox, and "Captions" by Scott Garson *****

There's something mysteriously disturbing about Joy Wood's poem on the connection between cutting things (fear) and joy, between men and women. But it is those connections that we don't see otherwise that poetry is often put to use to make, to make us rethink. Read the poem here at Elimae.

Given the brevity of many a poem (and generally speaking the poems I like most), a single extended metaphor will often do. And that is certainly the case with Kelly Lenox's "Traveling East," which draws some interesting parallels between the sun and a lover. But how what makes this poem work well comes in what it suggests in the last couple of lines. Read the poem here at Summerset Review.

Garson's "Captions" is a exactly what the title states--a collections of captions from photos we can't see. I never thought a set of captions, sans pictures, could be so evocative and personal, but Garson does it. He makes me want to get out the old yearbooks and cut out the pictures and just read the cutlines. Would they be more interesting? A former yearbook caption writer, somehow I doubt it--we agonized over those things, and they were rarely as good as these. Read the captions here at Elimae.

On "Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem ***

Chronic City is a maddening book. Imagine a combination of Jack Kerouac obsession with Thomas Pynchon insanity, and in a sense you have what this book is. I'm not talking the Kerouac of the long journey down a road but the Kerouac down a long journey with his friend Neal Cassidy. So too Letham's narrator (Chase Insteadman) obsesses over a rock critic (and social theorist) named Perkus Tooth. Note the names here, for Letham plays tribute to Pynchon in this manner too, providing us with names that seem more theme and character based than real.

The city in this book is New York, in a long winter that stretches into summer, falling prey to a tiger on the loose (or is it a machine let loose or a giant monstrous animal or . . . ?). There are vases that everyone seems mad to obtain but that no one seems to be able to (who, one wonders, are these millionaires who outbid everyone at the last minute on E-bay?). There is some kind of tragedy happening in outer space, where Chase's astronaut fiancee is stuck and dying of foot cancer.

And there is Chase himself, a has-been child actor who is caught up in all of the drama and who the city seems to hold some interest in, as the poor lover cast adrift back on earth. Only nothing is as it seems, and the chronic sickness that seems to infect Perkus is about to infect Chase himself--or is it a sickness? Paranoia is rife in this text, ala Pynchon. And drugs--can it be any wonder that a hallucinogen is the drug of choice (and liberally abused)?

One thing Letham seems to be pointing to is the way we have ourselves become products of our media. Not only our worldview and our interests but our very own identities are mediated by the media, to the point that it is impossible to tell one from another. Can a vase pull us to a higher level of being or is such a claim merely something foisted on us by Internet news and by fashion? And if it's the latter and we still manage to somehow find a higher essence of being in the object of art, what exactly have we found? Is what we've found genuine? Can anything even be genuine? And does it matter?

The text is one of ideas. But while some passages, such as one in which Chase, Perkus, and their friend Richard have to confront hospital bureaucracy are laugh out loud funny, I found myself more often thinking about the themes or wondering where exactly where this story was going--or whether it was going--than caring so much about the characters. I guess, if one isn't as smitten with Perkus as the narrator, one isn't likely to be as intrigued by the narrator's obsession with him. While the novel is brilliantly written on a sentence-by-sentence level, this lack of personal connection for me made the text a more difficult slog than might have otherwise been expected. And the wild excesses of the plot--something I find in a lot of contemporary fiction now (I'm thinking, for example, of Fiona Maazel's Last Last Chance)--certainly didn't help to ground it in a way that I could identify with even the time or place.

The book was recommended to me by a friend. Or should I say it was pushed at me by a friend? No matter, I dutifully picked it up. And I see the appeal. New York. Intellectual discussions among intellectual misfit friends. But how many outside of the Chronic City really care? A few, I suppose, since the book did moderately well, but I wasn't one of them.

Monday, October 18, 2010

On "Cruise" by Aimee Zaring (5013 words) ****

This story revolves around a secret--a real one, one no one knows but you the reader, and of course the main character of the tale. To be let into such a world is compelling, but it's also difficult. I'm reminded of times when I've been told secrets, pieces of information I wasn't to pass on. I don't like secrets. I don't like, sitting later with other people I know and being asked a direct question about a situation and not being able to answer wholly. If it's a secret, I really don't want to know it. "Cruise," I think, goes into a lot about my feelings why. Our main character has done something in the past she doesn't want anyone to know about, and now she's deadset on keeping it unknown, even at a cost to her sense of self. Read the story here at the Adirondack Review.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On "Genesis" by Madeleine Grant (2646 words) ***

The elements of this story are quite familiar--religion, family, the death of a loved one. On that, this story does not stand out. What pulled me into it, however, was the author's language, which seems competent indeed. The materials that Grant works with make for a specificity that would be shared by few. I reminded of a freshman essay I read years ago. It was about a family Christmas gathering. It was so well done that I felt like I could have walked into that room and opened one of the gifts. "Genesis" has a similar feel. Read it here at Arbutus.

On "Goodbye, Columbus" by Philip Roth ****

I took this book on a recent trip with me because it had been years since I'd read it and because the old edition I have is a pocket paperback. In this age of e-books and trade paperbacks, having a literary pocketbook on one's travels is rather nice. You know, a book one can actually put in one's pocket--or lose without feeling to put out, since it was only 75 cents to begin with.

I first bought the book on another trip, I believe, to New York State, from California. This time, I was going the other way, from the East Coast back to the West, where I hadn't been in nearly a decade. I first bought the book because I was fascinated with Roth's dialogue, as it came to me in another more recent book of his (recent, that is, eighteen years ago). The themes seemed similar--an illicit love affair. I remember being somewhat disappointed, but I've kept the book all these years because it is Roth's one book of stories.

The novella at the heart of this book, this time around, read very well. It was the highlight of the book for me. The dialogue was quite good, of course, but I was even more blown away by some of Roth's turns of phrase and by his ability to show youthful love and lust in all its terrible vanity. It's still not close to being one of my favorites among Roth's oeuvre, but it's a fine short text, an exemplar of the form.

I wish I could say the same of the short stories. Fine, certainly, but some of them seem a bit forced, such as "Epstein," the tale of an older man moved to infidelity by the youths full of lust around him.

All of the stories focus on Jewish culture to some extent. "Defender of the Faith" focuses on Jewish soldiers hiding behind religion to get days off and other perks. "The Conversion of the Jews," oft anthologized, tells the tale of a kid forcing others to admit that God is powerful enough to have done what Judaism denies. "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" tells of school hijinks and friendship and somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts, despite its slight length. Most interesting to me among these pieces, though, is a story called "Eli, the Fanatic." Were I in a class, I would almost certainly write about the idea of the double in this tale, how Eli, a Jewish lawyer called upon to oust some orthodox Jews from the WASP neighborhood where secular Jews mix easily, ends up switching places with one of said orthodox Jews and discovers . . . himself. The one is the same as the other, deep down, Roth seems to be saying, all part of the same whole that is Jewish culture and that cannot be denied. It's a fascinating idea that bears exploration.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On "A Simple Explanation" by Lauren Becker (422 words) ***

I hate meeting people. I love it. The desires both to meet and to crawl into a whole and never talk to a stranger again fight against one another. I know where Becker is coming from, this hopelessness, this feeling of "don't even bother." It happens to me sometimes, when I'm talking to someone who seems fantastic and interesting. I know in the end it won't work--or I talk myself into that position. Why try? Why indeed? Read this little gem of hopelessness here at Storyglossia.

On "Homo Faber" by Max Frisch ****

I first read this novel about thirteen years ago now, soon after I moved to Texas. I remember it as part of that time, as that summer of my first year there. I had picked it up cheap (one dollar) and mostly because it had been adapted into a Sam Shepard movie called Voyager. I've never seen the film, but I'd like to, especially now after my second reading these many years later.

The book starts slowly enough. The narrator is obsessed with facts, with science. He's an engineer. He believes that he--that man--can control things. And we watch as he, this ultimate man of control, loses himself to emotion and commits one of the most base acts one can imagine. Sure, he justifies himself, but to what extent we are to believe him is questionable.

Pulled many years earlier into a love affair that he runs away from, he once again finds himself on the run from love, taking a cruise across the Atlantic for rest, only to be drawn into the grip of his lust. Watching it happen, and the revelations that follow, are fascinating. This is where the book gets really interesting. On the whole, this first part of the book works better than the second, which plays like a rather boring remix album. But luckily for readers, the first part forges the majority of the book.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

On "The Shadowy Third" by Ellen Glasgow (10,215 words) ****

In "The Shadowy Third," one of Glasgow's most popular stories, a young nurse goes to aid a woman who is suffering from a bout of supposed insanity. The nurse finds the woman to be totally within her wits, however, until she discovers that the daughter that she sees coming and going throughout the house is actually a phantom no one other than the woman and the nurse can see. The story continues from there, with the discovery of why the daughter haunts the house and of just how dastardly the people living in the house are. This story somehow manages to make one actually feel for the poor, supposedly delusional woman. Is she insane and paranoid or is there something to all that she believes? The phantom seems more a physical presence in this Glasgow story than in most of her other ghost stories, but the same themes sanity versus insanity, kindness versus unkindness, and the haunting of memory pervade. Read the story here.