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.