Thursday, September 30, 2010

On "How to Become a Regular" by Courtney Kelsch (604 words) ***

The story as advice column--it's a gimmick used often enough that it's familiar but not so often that it isn't unique each time one sees it. Such stories have a way of standing out, perhaps because the genre is difficult to manage in a way that tells a story. Kelsch's piece here manages to convey a kind of sadness on the part of its narrator--not "you" but "we"--the tired-out waitresses at a diner who wish simply for some other existence. I know the feeling, and the good thing is that most of the time, other lives do come. Most of the time. Read the story here at the Angler.

Monday, September 27, 2010

On "The Trials" by Jedediah Berry (897 words) ****

Here's a story that's work on all cylinders. Berry takes an obsessiveness with the Salem witch trials, two twins, and model airplanes, and bullying and puts them all together, stacking them one on top of the other on top of the other, circling back to each until the job is complete. Trials become a kind of motif working throughout the piece, until that final line, when . . . I'm not saying. Go read it here at Fictionaut.

Friday, September 24, 2010

On "Different Turns" by Derek Alger (1073 words) ***

Here's a rather simply piece, revolving around, well, "different turns," as the title says. What of a life we could have had? What of a life we could have had if we'd had more information? I feel like this quite often, as I get older. If I'd only known . . . But one learns with time, learns what things mean, how to interpret certain body language and certain words. And it seems that one just keeps learning. Only in hindsight does what we "should have done" become clear. Read one such story here at Pif.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

On "Between Here and Here" by Amy Bloom (5725 words) ****

All right, here's one of those grody, sentimental stories about taking care of a dying parent--only it's not grody or sentimental, and that's why it's great. The story's opening sets its town: "I had always planned to kill my father." This is a dad who is mostly unsympathetic. He's a jerk--making fun of his own kids, tossing his wife's cooking on the floor. When he's left alone late in life, he doesn't seem much to care--his wife dead, his children not wanting to spend time with him. But somehow, we learn to love the guy, even as the children do, as we see him age to a point of vulnerability. Unlike most stories where the senile grow ugly, this man's senility reveals a new gentler person, one we're sad to see fading so quickly. Read the story here at Narrative Magazine.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

On "Inflation" by Jeremy Griffin (4223 words) ***

Here's a story put together with a fetish and a few standard life themes (people dying, love). It's the fetish that makes this piece stand out, gives those themes a rather odd concreteness. Think inflation. Balloons. Growth. Cancer. Self-help. Read the story here at Hot Metal Bridge.

On "Martin Eden" by Jack London ****

Growing up, I read London's tales of dogs and wolves and of one seafaring man. I did not like London. I was told I read the wrong things. One of the books I needed to read, I was advised, was Martin Eden. Indeed, this book seems more intriguing than the animal stories that inspired no interest in me.

That said, I had a kind of love-hate relationship with this book and with Eden himself. Perhaps, that's what London intends, or perhaps London is Eden, which is also easy to read into the novel. I would prefer to think the former, to think that this is some kind of psychological study of a flawed character, more impressionist than realist.

The book starts with a silly love affair. In fact, perhaps, writing a love affair that doesn't seem silly is impossible to write. Perhaps, the cynical part of me will only accept love combusting. Watching Eden fall for this woman was rather agonizing.

But the text gets interesting from there. Eden is anything but a flat character. Rather, he is one of the most transformative characters I've ever read in fiction. He is constantly discovering new things about the world and about himself. In an effort to win this woman he loves, he educates himself, reads constantly. And he begins to write. He becomes a writer. He decides that this is how he will make his living. And he doesn't give up.

It's a good thing I didn't read this book when I was twenty. I'd have likely fallen for Eden's idealism, have believed that if you just worked hard enough you could be anything you wished--even a famous writer. Eden becomes, in his self-education, a man of incredible hubris. And in this also is one of the things that rather disturbs me about the book, because he never loses that hubris, never discovers that he isn't the great man he comes to think of himself as. Rather, he becomes disenchanted with the world, with all people around him--something not unbelievable, given that his education essentially divides him from others. Or does it? He thinks it does, but to think that, he also has to think himself better than all others.

The ending is somewhat disappointing as well, but I won't go into it here. However, the center of the book, as Eden discovers himself is fascinating. And even that love affair becomes fascinating. His girlfriend wants him to get a job. All his associates want that as well, want him to give up his dream, think he's being silly to pursue it so devotedly. They don't have faith in him. In the end, Eden thinks that this means that they don't love him. And maybe he's correct. Maybe, as long as one is successful, one wants to be your friend, but if one lives as a pauper and does as one wants, then one is a sponge and not someone people want to be around. Does this mean love is unreal or superficial? Maybe. But love is also--and this Eden never accepts--based, on some level, in circumstance, in action. Refuse to work, live poorly, why would a woman want a man like that? A man of riches, well, in the end, he can at least provide--as would have been nearly essential at the time London was writing. It's nice to think love conquers all, but reality is something else: it's cold, and love doesn't beat long when one partner refuses to supply for the needs of the other. In the end, Eden, nineteen at the start of the book, seems no more than his twenty-one years at its end, despite how much he's learned. You can read the novel here at Project Gutenberg.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On "A New Tattoo" by Tina Barry (275 words) ****

This short piece does what so many great short stories do. It makes you a bit confused, just as the narrator is, with one's emotions. Are we to rejoice at the return of this mother with the new tattoo or be angry? We're, of course, a little of both. In this short scene, we get a sense of this father's conundrum. Read the story here at the Boston Literary Magazine.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

On "In The Middle Of Nowhere With Company" by Ruth Nestvold (4733 words) ***

Put a story on unfamiliar ground and add some strange metaphor made literal, and you have the makings of something quite unique. Nestvold's story here, about the birds of sorrow, chases those birds around the Alaskan frontier until they disappear. It's a story of grief and of recovery in a literalized form. Read it here at Abyss and Apex.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

On "The Emperor Of Ice Cream" by Kevin Canty (8700 words) ****

I've been wanting to feature a Kevin Canty story since I started this blog. At one time, a great flash piece of his was featured on the Cutbank Web site, but in a transition to a new site, the old story disappeared, and so too did the chance to feature Canty--until now. I managed to find one that the folks at Five Chapters have posted, and it's a good one.

What makes Canty's work so memorable to me? He has a knack for fancy language when he wants to, but most often he works with rather stripped-down lingo, and this is a story that features mostly the latter. But straightforward narrative can be powerful when the story is good and the characters well drawn, and such is the case here. Lander nearly killed his brother, Tim, in a near-drunken car accident early in the summer and did manage to kill another driver. End of summer comes, and Lander has the chance to reunite with his brother--shrunken but now sort of well--and the rest of his estranged family. Tim is ready to return to their partying ways; not so much Lander (nor are Lander's parents keen on such), except that, you see, there's a girl involved, and that makes all the difference. Perhaps it's not the best idea to pursue this lady, but . . . Read the story here at Five Chapters.

Monday, September 6, 2010

On "The Whale Hunter" by Steinur Bell (4502 words) ***

This story starts off slow, telling us about, well, puffins--and puffin hunters. It could be some article in National Geographic. But I think that's kind of the point. Our narrator learns these things, and then he puts them into being, makes a story of them, pushes that story as far as it can go, waits to see how people will react. I do the same myself, sometimes--not lying--but rather doing something a little bit strange, waiting to see when someone will finally call me out--or if they will. It's an exercise in amusement, amusement for the one doing the performing, who is really in fact the audience studying the audience that is performing. But here our narrator takes it to yet another level. Not only does he tell this crazy story, he lives a life of pushing himself to the limits of propriety, seeing when the curtain will be dropped. Thing is, he waits. And waits. And waits. How much farther can he go? Read the story here at Agni.

Friday, September 3, 2010

On "Oops" by Kate Hill Cantrill (502 words) ****

Some stories are meant to be read aloud, because they're so beautifully written. Cantrill does just that in this short short called "Oops," a story that works its magic by repeating phrases and words in a slightly different order, slowly raising the tension as we come to see how obsessed the narrator is with a particular unpleasant incident of which she is the cause. Read the story here at Del Sol Review.

On "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair ***

My original post became corrupted, and unfortunately I've only been able to salvage the last half of it.

This book surprised me in part because it was much more a critique of capitalism than an expose on the meat industry. To be sure, the latter forges a good chunk of the novel, but it's not the novel's core. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, given Sinclair's own political leanings.

The story is one of an immigrant named Jurgis. It starts with familiar social realism and with troubles caused by society. But halfway through, another surprising thing is that it becomes a kind of adventure story. Jurgis becomes a crook. He becomes a politician. He becomes rich. He becomes poor again. This is supposed to be a critique of the system, but mostly he seems able to do these things because he gives up caring about anyone other than himself. I suppose that that is Sinclair's point--that capitalism is a system that rewards the selfish and that does so haphazardly or sort of haphazardly in a survival of the fittest sort of way. Only by banding together can common men survive.

Sounds great. But the elements of my doubt creeps in in those moments when Jurgis seems to be doing so materially well. If he reaps so many rewards by being selfish, why--except he fall--should he bother to help other men? What's more, many of the troubles in the book comes from Jurgis's own shortcomings. Had Sinclair stuck to Packingtown's abuse and Jurgis been less active in bringing his downfall had Jurgis remained wholly a victim all the time there might be more case of the Socialist cause. It would also be a less interesting novel.

I'm made to wonder why men so given to exploiting each other, so given to using others to gain power and prestige, would suddenly become wholesome individuals in the face of socialism. And this, going back to my twenties, was the problem I had with my coworker's abiding faith in the Revolution. No fan of capitalism myself, socialism, because of our own human nature, doesn't seem a viable alternative. What's needed is a turn in the human heart--one like what the socialists hope for. You can read this novel online here at Project Gutenberg.