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.