Saturday, January 30, 2010

On "Be Your Own Boss," by Larry O. Dean, "Saturday Night Fever" by Sherman Alexie, and "We Shoplifted" by Samantha Arlotta ****

Taking a break from the stories today to highlight three poems I really like. The first, I suppose, would strike a chord with those newly laid out of work who have the opportunity to work for themselves (of course, we never really work for ourselves, since even contractors have clients). In a few deft words, Dean sums up the greatness and drawbacks of self-employment. Read the poem here at Keyhole.

Alexie's poem, on a completely different subject, uses its last line to put forth an idea I'd not heard before, but it has a ring of truth, sparks my mind working, looking at other immigrant fiction. Alexie's on to something here, in just a few words, he states what a literary critic might take three hundred pages to prove. Sometimes, just a thought is enough to make a poem. Read it here at Mudlark.

Arlotta's poem makes memory visceral in a most physical sense. It's a narrative poem, with clear characters, who manage to do some irresponsible things together, things at least one of them remembers with fondness. At least sort of. That memory thing is tricky. Read the poem here at Keyhole.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On "The Formula" by John Olson (1828 words) ***

Another story of a cat, a boy, and a life from the blog of the same name, this one on the longer side. I think the length, in this case, helps. While there are a lot of great things about the wide variety of publications available on the Web--the fact that people are reading during their lunch breaks again, the fact that new writers have a way to be easily and widely accessible--one of the unfortunate effects has been, from what I can tell, more and more of an emphasis on short Web-centered reading. Folks no longer have the patience for more than a paragraph or two. I find myself, when reading online, to often feel the same, wanting to rush through a long piece in a way I wouldn't feel rushed were I reading it in print. So when authors finally get a chance to take a deep breath and dig in, it's often rewarding to those readers willing to hang on.

Olson makes of the three items a mantra and sticks them into the thoughts of a what I take to be a middle-aged man struggling to get some kind of comfort out of life. To that extent, the mantra is his calming influence, even as it hints at the anxiousness within his soul. Read the story here at A Boy, a Cat, A Lifeboat.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

On "Pretend I Am There" by Blake Butler (35 pages) ****

I don't know exactly who Butler is drawing from, but similarities to disparate sources seem numerous, all put here in one single work that is totally newfangled. There's dreamlike oddity. There's sadness. There's absurdity. I'm reminded of Tao Lin. I'm reminded of the movie About Schmidt. Our narrator adopts a dog, a sick one, and tries to get rid of it. Our narrator keeps up a one-sided dialogue with a random person on e-mail. Our narrator sits, terrified of the plane he's riding in. Each section is short and to the point. Each section is beautiful in its own way. Did you know that today you are the oldest you have ever been? Of course, but I'd never really thought of it that way--until Butler's narrator brought it to my attention. Learn more obvious facts here at Publishing Genius.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

On "What Love Is Really About" by Sonya Friedman (3440 words) ***

This is a love story that relishes in love. This isn't something one sees a lot of. I'm reminded of a movie with Richard Dreyfus where he is at a racetrack, and he wins on his bet--and wins and wins. Where's the conflict one might ask? If this person lives on easy street, gets things right. But in the Dreyfus film, I'm guessing the reason folks stayed enthralled was because they were certain that at some point Dreyfus would lose, and they wanted to see what happened when he did.

The love in this story isn't so simple. Sure, the man and woman love and continue to love, but what one also sees is the cost. This isn't a case where circumstances make love seem easy, but they keep on regardless. Why read on? Perhaps because, as in the film A Beautiful Mind (not true, apparently, to the real-life story), we are fascinated by how people can stick together in such trials. Read the story here at TPQ Online.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On "Send Me Work" by Katherine Karlin (5636 words) ****

A good story puts all the elements together--character, language, setting, plot. But plots--new ones at least--are hard to come by. Sometimes, a story might be an old one, but it becomes fresh because of its singularity in regard to the first three. And that's the case here. Harriet and Izzy, the subjects of this story, come across as people we know quite a bit about by the end--and as people we sort of like. We also get to hang around New York, and we get to listen in on great lines like "The sky was a slate-colored ribbon over the avenue" and "I am big. The pictures got small." There are more, I promise. Read the story here at In Posse Review.

On "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote *****

What's there to say of a book that one first read nearly fifteen years ago and just completed a second pass through and found pretty much just as compelling? That I haven't seen any of the recent movies--though my interest in those is now at a fever point--was probably a help insofar as I'd forgotten many of the plot details. Still, the narrative itself is one so full of feeling that it gets beyond mere plot and becomes quite a sorrowful tale. Capote has the knack of making one feel for both the victims and the perpetrators (or at least one of the perpetrators), as well as for all the families connected with either one, so that in the end one is moved not so much to call for justice or to espouse righteous indignation against the evildoers but a rather a sadness for what bad doings like these do to all of the people involved on every side. A scene at the book's very end is particularly demonstrative of this point, where we meet up again with one of the victims' best friends visiting the grave of the family killed many years later. She recounts something she and her friend were planning to do after high school, and the recounting can't help but make one tear up.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On "Chemistry" by Lauren Becker (1859 words) ***

Here's a familiar story about a woman who masks her loneliness in a multitude of ways: anonymous sex, an obsession with studying, an imaginary friend. What makes this story a little different, though, is the degree of honesty with which the narrator tells this story. It's not terribly pleasant. Read the story here at Word Riot.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On " Of Love: A Testimony" by John Cheever (7109 words) *****

About the same time that I first read The Stories of John Cheever, I read also his uncollected stories, a collection that came out about that time. Most of the stories were gathered from Cheever's early years, when he was trying to write in the manner of social realists. The stories weren't very good or interesting--passable, sure, but not marked by the kind of humor and pathos that his later work, set amid the suburbs of the Northeast, would achieve. Why this story didn't make it into that collection--or if it did, why I don't remember--I can't make sense of. I also don't know what Cheever left it out of his own selection. It's magnificent.

It's an old motif--the love triangle. Morgan is a young man newly arrived in the city (Boston, I believe), and through his friend Sears he meets a woman named Julia. Julia was once Sears's girlfriend, but now she is Morgan's, except Sears keeps hanging around. Someone's heart is going to get broken--and it might be yours. Read the story here at Five Chapters.

On "The Stories of John Cheever" by John Cheever *****

I first read this book about ten years ago. In those days, I'd often go to the Hulen Mall in Fort Worth, Texas, to read. Recently, sans computer, I realize why. There's an unbearable loneliness as a single person that a computer--or a television (which is one reason I've refused to have one)--fills in. Back in the Texas days, without a computer, I had no ability to correspond online and certainly very little ability to meet anyone in real life (I've always been relatively shy), so reading in public was my attempt to do something I love while perhaps opening myself up to the possibility of social interaction.
The only people I ever seemed to meet, however, were vagrants who wanted money. And such is the one memory I have attached to the first reading of Cheever's stories. A man from Germany who had come to Texas to visit Kenneth Copeland and now was sans money or place to stay sat down next to me. He needed a place to sleep. Could he pray for me? Yada, yada. I was in the middle of, I believe, "The Day the Pig Fell into the Well." And I was a bit annoyed, but being the kind of person I am, I agreed to help the man. In the end, I took him to a Motel 6; a few months later, the same guy asked me for money again--and I figured I'd likely been duped, as is so often the case with such beggars.

The unfortunate thing, however, was not being able to read "The Day the Pig Fell into the Well" in one sitting, as the story demands. It's one of Cheever's best--a story told from multiple points of view about a single incident years ago, full of sadness in the form of sentimentality, but in the best possible way.
Another story that stuck out on this read was "The Hartleys," the story of an unhappy couple everyone likes who at the end of the piece brutally loses their daughter. Favorite stories from the previous reading included "The Enormous Radio," "Torch Song," and "The Wrysons." The first still stood out on this reading; the latter two not as much. At the same time, "The Swimmer," a favorite of so many other people I know, read much better to me this time around than the first time. All of this shows in part why the collection remains one of my favorites. Thick and full of Cheever's wit, the book is sure to surprise and fascinate in new ways on each read.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

On "How to Leave" by Kerri Quinn (2810 words) ****

Good fiction is supposed to be about the details, the specifics. What's nice about this piece is that it does just the opposite--it remains vague. It's the vagueness here that makes the story so effective. Sure, there are details--don't get me wrong. But the story is vague insofar as we don't really get a keen sense of why the narrator feels the way that she does, just as we often don't have a keen sense of why we feel the way we do. We open cans of dog food for the pet. We walk in snow without a jacket. We circle random ads for things we might like to buy in the classifieds and then never follow up. We do these little things. But what do they all mean or add up to? Who knows? Read the story here at the Apple Valley Review.

On "The Stranger" by Albert Camus *****

I first read Camus' The Stranger on a Sunday evening in one sitting during my second year of collection. It's a short book--and such a thing is thus easily done. But at that time, a single sitting for a whole book struck me as rather incredible. This was likely because it was only a short while before that I had given up television, and always before, reading had had to fit in between television shows, among other things--and thus could only be an hour at most.

I've intended to reread The Stranger for years in the same manner. My computer recently malfunctioned, and sans Internet, I have had time to spare. I sat, as I did that last time, and read Camus.

It's a great reading, at least in Matthew Ward's translation, with a simple prose as dead sounding as the narrator himself. Meursault goes through life sans emotion because he has come to understand that "nothing matters" in the face of the death that we all face, especially if, as he believes, there is no God. A trial for murder, however, slowly brings Meursault back to life and to an understanding of his own recently deceased mother. In the end, The Stranger is a kind of seize-the-day novel for the modern age. Whether I saw that at age twenty, I don't know.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

On "Kalispell" by Aaron Hellem (1160 words) ***

The nicest moments in this story comes after the first section, when the narrator goes over to a friend's house for a meal. The recount of the visit reminds me much of times when I've gone over to similar places, where families reside in seeming contentment. I, too, can't help but think, this is something I could never have, something that I'm glad just to be playing a part in as a guest for a few hours on a single day. Read the story here at Menda City Review.

On "Paul between Damascus and Antioch" by Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer **

This book attempts to identify the Apostle Paul's actions during a period largely undicussed in scripture--from his conversion to his first missionary trip. As such, it provides some key insights into places where Paul was--Arabia, Tarsus, Antioch--through its discussion of historical and geographical context. I'd have wished for more of such. Unfortunately, the authors spend much of the book conjecturing on what exactly what Paul was doing. Some conjecture is, I suppose, unavoidable, given the scant records, but the text seems full of it. I also think the authors read too much into Galatians 2, claiming a clear break between Paul and Peter for something that could also be seen as merely a corrective (if a break were the case, I highly doubt Peter would have even considered Paul's letters worthy reading and thus would have warned against them rather than state that they contained things hard to understand). The book is also quite clearly not for general readers like me but for a scholarly audience. Almost half of it is notes, and phrases in Greek without translation are common. The general thrust of the argument, that it was during the unknown period that Paul came to the understanding he shares in his letter that follow, however, is one that the authors do a good job of proving.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

On "Remember Guernica" by Kate Gale (2495 words) ****

I was lamenting the other day the lack of a real rule book when it comes to relationships, the fact that you can't really tell what's going on until it's too late, till everything has fallen apart or somehow you're involved with this person you never intended to be involved with and it's no good. If only life were a book--or a play or a movie--if you knew where the drama was, where it was going to end, or end up. These are essentially the obsessions of the kid at the heart of "Remember Guernica." But perhaps not all experiences are worth the art that comes out of them. Read the story here at Pif.