Friday, December 30, 2011

On "Something More Interesting" by Tara Laskowski (2435 words) ****

Heidi is out to make some changes in her life. What is interesting to me about this is that we get to see her make those changes. She's suffered a breakup with a boyfriend, who has offered her various reasons. It seems we'd more likely, in a story, get the things leading up to the breakup. Or we'd get a story about someone coming to terms with the breakup. Instead, Laskowski sets up her character with a self-improvement regimen, of sorts. Heidi's life is changing, but what that means we don't really know. Read the story here at Corium.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On "Cursed" by Adolfo Caceres Romero, translated by Kathy S. Leonard (735 words) ***

One of the three or four short stories that Edgar Allan Poe wrote over and over--for Poe, as I learned when reading a whole stack of his work, was rather redundant in his themes and plots--was that of the person waking after having been buried. Poe thought of this as the ultimate scary story, the nightmare, to wake and find oneself in the grave. Indeed, the concept is scary, though--I don't believe--not so common as Poe makes out. Romero's tale works this theme to full effect. What happens when the dead rise but no one believes it? Read the story here at Cerise Press.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On "When the Evening Reaches Here" by Jessica Harwell (3599 words) ****

This one is a brutal story about alcohol, about alcoholics, about love, of a sort--or inertia. What is it that keeps us in relationships gone bad, even when other opportunities arise? Is it a concern for the other person? Is it the safety of what we know? Is it that we can't break away from memories of better times, that splitting might suggest such times weren't real? Is it that what we want is not always what is good for us? This is one sad piece, one that hints at a life that isn't going to change anytime soon for the better. In a sense, Harwell's story is mystifying in that regard, how it keeps one satiated, even as it proffers no elements of transformation--and few prospect. Read the story for yourself here at Identity Theory.

On "The Way of Zen" by Alan Watts ****

Alan Watts remains one of my favorite writers on the subject of Eastern religions. This book is one of the basics, going into the history of Zen and then some of its practices. I first read it back in graduate school while working on my thesis, and over the course of the past year, I have been rereading it. Having read it in such small chunks, however, I didn't get as much out of it as perhaps I did in the past. But then, Watts's writing is often best meditated on in small chunks--it isn't always easy to follow as a whole (though it is not difficult reading).

Although this may be a basic text, my favorite of his that I've read is probably still Psychotherapy East and West. There, Watts compares Western and Eastern thinking most clearly to me, as he discusses how principles of psychology are in some ways related to Eastern thought (and in some ways not). It's a text I think I will return to soon if I decide to reread more Watts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On "His Virginia Mammy" by Charles W. Chesnutt (6821 words) ***

In this tale from Reconstruction days, a white man falls in love with a pretty woman who doesn't know her ancestry. Like Moses, she's been pulled from a river and raised by adopted parents, these, Germans with a particular status that, though lost, doesn't make the white man fret. In fact, nothing does--or would--he's so in love with the gal. But the girl is concerned that her real parentage might not come from decent stalk, and so she refuses to marry, until one day she meets an old black woman who is able to tell her all about her wonderful parents and the ship on which the daughter was rescued from. What's rather heartbreaking about this story is the willed ignorance that all three of these major protagonists allow to stand in for truth. A mother knows her daughter is better off not as a daughter. A suitor and his love know this too. And so do we. While one may blanch at the idea of living a lie, it's hard not to see it as the best situation in an unjust world. Read the story here.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

On "He Tells Her a Story" by James Fleming (4000 words) ****

So Fleming borrows a style from Stephen Dixon, whose work is often fascinating but also often grating. He likes to go off on digressions, but not in the sense that one might go off in digressions of thought but rather digressions of dialogue. Dixon's Interstate is one of the more successful works of this nature.

Here, Fleming does something that I have tried to do--and failed at doing. He tells a story about the struggle with telling a story. In Fleming's hands, this is actually a fun and humorous piece. One story starts, but it's not good enough or the listener has already heard it or the listener doesn't want that kind of story, and there's this constant back and forth about what a story really is and how one manages to to tell one. In a sense, we're watching a story get written as we're listening to this story. So there's a story within a story about telling a story, only is that story within a story really a story? That's open to question. What is a story? Read the story here at Failbetter. (A word of caution in case this isn't your kind of thing: this story contains a lot of talk about sex.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On "Don't Mess" by Jeff Kass (3798 words) ***

There is something that makes me a little queasy about Bull--the online magazine, that is. Bull is a magazine of fiction for men. The writing, I find, intriguing. I guess it's full of testosterone, or something, whatever men push out on a page that's inside them. What makes me queasy is the idea that I feel like I'm not man enough to write anything like these stories. Most of the men's fiction seems focused on, um, well, women. And that's natural, no? Most of the guys are tough ones--maybe that's where I get a bit squeamish. But I guess I have no real reason to be, since my own work has appeared on its pages.

In this story by Jeff Kass, the Bull's tough guy is a wrestler, one that can defeat just about anyone he comes across. Or so he says. Problem: Somewhere along the line someone thought it a good idea to introduce cheerleaders into wrestling, and now our men are fighting it out not just to be top dog but to be top dog for the ladies. In a magazine of men's fiction, which seems focused so often on women, it's fair to predict that wrestlers' actions are likely to remain the same. Read the story here at Bull.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On "Shoes for Rent" by Lynne Potts (2273 words) ***

Here's a strange story with a narrator who is almost there. We'll learn more about the narrator by the end of the story, but the narrator remains elusive in many ways. Things don't quite add up. And neither do we know or learn the whole story that the narrator tells, though it seems more complete than even the narrator's own. Unique here is the voice, which seems to go from one strange random detail to another, as if the story were haphazard rather then plotted--but that's just part of the various deceptions. Read the story here at Guernica.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On "Undressing Bullie" by Scott Lininger (492 words) ***

This little piece works off the element of surprise. Take a newspaper ad and watch what happens when things don't quite go as planned. No wonder folks are suspect of the "Internet" when it comes to love. Read the story here at the now defunct Battered Suitcase.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On "Clues to Murple" by Kirk Curnutt (6303 words) ****

Where do I begin with this piece about self-indulgence and contemporary culture? Curnutt's tale is so fraught with relevant commentary that it's hard to put what matters into words without just sending you to the story. Murple is a writer who is obsessed with himself, with his fame, with the number of hits he gets on Amazon, on Facebook, on GoodReads, and so on. It's not as if writers have never cared about reviews and reviewers, but in the Web age, the reviews are instant. Merge this obsession with the will to do anything to make a name for yourself, and you get what Curnutt creates in this story. It's also quite funny. On the run from the police, Murple can't help but check his Web presence, even as it provides clues to his whereabouts. Watching him try, for one last time, to get famous shows just how pitiful the guy is. He desperately needs a self-esteem burst. Why don't you help him out by reading the story about him here at the now defunct Flatman Crooked?

On "Quartet in Autumn" by Barbara Pym ****

This book came to me by way of a friend who insisted I read Barbara Pym. "Isn't that a bit too staid, English, and old-fashioned for me?" I asked. You'll love her my friend said. I promised I'd get around to her--as in, years from now. Hours later, he produced a book. "I knew you wouldn't read her unless I made it impossible for you to avoid her," he said, handing me a copy he'd purchased just for me. And that was the book I just finished reading.

Staid, old-fashioned, proper, English? Yes, all of these things could describe this novel by Pym. But also accomplished, in the best sense of the word. The novel tells the tale of four coworkers, all of them single, all of them on the verge of retirement. Their jobs are on the chopping block, but rather than fire them, the company has decided to keep them on until they retire, then get rid of the jobs. In the course of the book, two of the workers do retire, and we watch as these four older people deal with the attendant loneliness. The office, on some level, is most of what they have, and without that, without each other, there's little to fill the days.

The novel itself is told in intervening sections from varying points of view. Letty is a heavy-set woman who never married and whose plans to go live in the country with a friend upon retirement fall apart when the friend decides to marry instead. Marcia, a homeowner, is dealing with a mastectomy. Norman, like Letty, simply rents a room in a house; at lunch, he tours the library or the British Museum. Edwin fills his nights with church activities and the occasional drink. All of them are desperate on some level for companionship, except arguably Edwin, but all of them are unwilling to admit it. And so they dither away their days, wondering really what there will be to do after their jobs end and their days are wholly their own.

But Quartet in Autumn is not in the end a novel of despair. Amid this, Pym finds a way to suggest that the characters find new meaning to their lives, even as those lives hit their near close. What that meaning is, however, she doesn't give much clue to.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" by Ambrose Bierce (3247 words) ***

Ambrose Bierce, storyteller of more than a century ago, dabbled very often in stories about ghosts. Of those not involving soldiers, this is one of the better ones. The plot is a familiar one--recycled in various Bierce stories. It starts with a duel, a bet of sorts--to stay in a haunted house--and ends up a tragic joke. As people regularly faint from surprise in Restoration dramas, so people regularly die of fear in Bierce stories. Read the story here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On "Puzzles" by Gail Taylor (4692 words) ***

Taylor's story catches with the first line, and it manages to keep readers compelled--at least, this reader--with its attention to detail, for it is in the details that this story is told. It could be simply a story about grief, but with the deep descriptions of a man who is only half there, we get a feeling for the whole, and that's what makes this story so real and fanciful at the same moment, in other words, so good. Read it here at Menda City Review.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

On "Trinkets" by Eric Bosse (235 words) ****

A story of mine was recently rejected for being too predictable. You knew, the moment the story starts, where it's going. It's something, of course, that I am considering about the story and its opening, though my intentions with it were really to write something that wasn't so much unpredictable as intensely disturbing in a matter-of-fact way. I think of that story when I think of Bosse's short piece here. It isn't disturbing, but it is surprising--in the best possible way. It takes you somewhere you don't think it's moving toward. There's something to learn about craft from this piece. Read it here at Corium.

On "Vox" by Nicholson Baker ****

Each of Nicholson Baker's books are a kind of experiment--a novel about a man riding the escalator up to work after lunch, a book about Baker's love of Updike's writings written entirely from his memory of Updike writings, and so on. Vox made the best-seller list when it came out, and in a way, that's not surprising given its topic: phone sex.

I didn't read it immediately, but about five years later, during a period when I had no access to a library, I came across it in a used bookstore for cheap, and it being Baker, I opted to read it. I must have liked it enough, because it stayed on my shelf afterward. Likely, I was probably impressed by the way in which Baker could structure an entire book around a single telephone conversation--just dialogue, these two people talking (about sex) for over one hundred pages. I'm still impressed by the technique; it's certain an original way to go about rendering a piece of erotica.

Perhaps I've grown a bit more conservative with age. Or perhaps my own unfulfilled desire is a bit too much to deal with. Either way, I did find the topic--and the relentless turn back in conversation to what gets us off--to be bit difficult to take this time around. I was kind of like, Look, I'd rather be hanging out with the girl I'm aiming to have as my girlfriend (or is she already my girlfriend? That's something I need to establish--yet another reason I'd rather have been with her), then reading this. I'd rather be moving toward something real than concentrating on this piece of fiction.

But fiction seems enough for these characters themselves. They "get off" in the imagination, as one would have to over a phone call. Hot stories are made up, or they're pulled from "real" life, and shared, and it is in that space between the words, in what those words do inside our heads, that we find ourselves being pulled along with the characters toward climax.

Now, can we talk about something else?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

On "A Tough Tussle" by Ambrose Bierce (3117 words) ***

Bierce likes to tell ghost stories, and this one from his Soldiers and Civilians collection is one of the better ones. A soldier gets holed up with a dead man for the night. Carnage ensues. But how are we to read what happened? Read the story here and decide for yourself. Cue creepy music.

On "Trouble with Girls" by Marshall Boswell *****

I suppose one could call this book lad lit. It was well received among the indie bookstore crowd. It's a collection of linked stories, in chronological order--some publishers might have even tried to call it a novel, which I think would disappoint those looking for a sustained narrative. The book is also one of my favorite reads of the past decade.

The story that first brought Boswell to my attention was published in the Yalobusha Review some eight years before the book saw light. By then Boswell had already won a context with Playboy magazine, and I couldn't help but wonder why he was submitting to the little magazine I was serving as an editor of at the time. We accepted the story in a heartbeat. That story, "Bloody Knuckles," however, seems quite unlike most of the stories in this collection. It has a kind of lyricism that Boswell's other stories only hint at. And it, along with the first story, "Ready Position," makes up the set of only two pieces that have nothing to do with "girls," the title of the collection. I suppose this makes sense--they are stories about boys.

By story three, the main character, Parker, is in high school and has discovered girls--and girls become the subject of the last eight stories. Parker is clueless and innocent and hopelessly optimistic, and it's a treat to watch him marshall his way from relationship to relationship, whether it's with a gal at a Christian camp, a too-hip-for-him punkster, or a gal who is about to be committed (literally).

The two best stories--or I should say, the two most memorable--from my first read of this book several years ago now are the two that appeared in Playboy. "Stir Crazy" is the tale of a couple of strippers who live next door, and Parker's eventual dating and dropping of one of them, with attendant bad results. "Venus/Mars" regards Parker's beautiful wingman (or rather, wingwoman) for a week and the help she lends him scoring with others--but with eventual revelations that threaten to destroy all that Parker has gained.

I also, on this read, particularly liked a story called "Between Things," which was first published in the Missouri Review. Here, Boswell, in places, returns to the kind of lyric voice he holds in "Bloody Knuckles," but in addition there's a kind of maturity of storyline and plot, complete with perhaps the best epiphany in the book, as Parker discovers something about both himself and the woman he's been sort of dating, sort of not.

Monday, November 21, 2011

On "Sundays" by Tawnysha Greene (211 words) ****

What a wonderful little short piece this is. My mom always used curlers, so it was a different sort of experience when I went to visit aunt and cousins, who were devotees of the curling iron and the hairspray. Greene captures such morning rituals perfectly here. But she does something even more interesting with the closing of the eyes. This story does what a good flash often does, bringing disparate things together. Read it here at Wigleaf.

Friday, November 18, 2011

On "Levels of the Game" by Townsend Walker (1562 words) ***

So you want to read about something on the edge, something that pushes the limits. Think, for example, about Cronenberg's film Crash, all those people seeking traffic accidents for arousal. Okay, let's add some kids. Let's make it kids seeking traffic accidents for new highs. And let's add a kind of MADD do-gooder social reason. That's essentially the piece Walker puts together here, and if what is noted above sounds fascinating, then the story itself is bound to be even more so. Read it here (originally appeared in Dispatch Litareview).

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On "What You've Done For Me" by John S. Walker (4185 words) ***

This story is about things that are slowly running out of control. Each of the major characters can see events coming toward them, trouble that will be part of their lives. And yet, there's a certain helplessness in the face of that trouble. Struggle as they might against fate, they're doomed to fulfill it. Strange how one can get all of this out of a single bar conversation, a man's brother and that man's wife, two marriages running out of steam, two men that want back out in the world, only one that will make it. Read the story here at Carve magazine.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On "Road Hunting" by Lindsay Purves (3344 words) ****

A story works according to elements. In each piece, the elements are generally unique. An author choose a few items--a gun, a bottle, loneliness, and a beach--and then works them around each other, over and over, until the final flourish.

In "Road Hunting," Purves does just that. We have two characters, Daniel and Juliana--young and hopeful. We have a shared activity--the hunt for roadkill. And then we watch as those two characters dance around each other, hunting one another. Daniel is a guy with a reputation for being a bit of a manipulator, but he has plans, plans that will take him away from the town where he grew up and off to better places. Juliana isn't much different. She's a bit snooty, apparently, because she too has plans--to use her stronger education and better financial situation to go elsewhere. They hang together for the summer because they're friends, because they just need to be there for one another. They aren't in love. Or are they? Or are they even friends? Read the story here at Anderbo.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On "Hit-and-Run" by Douglas Light (5156 words) *****

As I noted in my write-up of Light's first collection, some of his most powerful stories build on small details, using them for multiple effect. In this story, for example, accidents become a motif that forge both the main event of the story and the aura in which the story resides. A man is hit by a car on a walk home after museum show opening. But such is not the first scar he will bear. His face is scarred by something else entirely, something that draws a woman toward him, but the story behind the scar is multivaried, the truth something we will never know. Just as we can't know the real essence of a person involved in an accident whose name shows up in a newspaper, no matter how many people are interviewed, we can't know what really resides behind the features of a person's face. The stories go on forever. You can read the story here at Night Train.

On "Girls in Trouble" by Douglas Light *****

I'm not a fan of Grace Paley, but I am a fan of this, a Grace Paley Prize winner. I've become familiar a bit with Light's work through stories of his that have been published online, most particularly those that found a home at Failbetter. Both of those stories are featured here in this book, and especially in the case of the second, "Breaking Up," I was reminded by just how phenomenal Light's writing can be. It's essentially a recounting of various breakups amid yet another attempt to find a girlfriend--hilarious, clever, fun.

That's not to say that all of Light's stories are light. Many of them are far from such. "Orphans" ventures into the dark territory of a girl sexually abused by an uncle who may or may not have actually been related to her and who now is storming back into her life in the form of an inheritance she has been handed.

"Zebra" is one of my favorite of the darker stories in Light's first story collection. The tale recounts the life of a girl adopted by a family of another race. The word "Zebra" itself takes on so many meanings here that Light's story is one that would lend itself fairly easily to teaching. There's, of course, the idea of black and white mixed (and yet contrasted) on one creature as it is mixed in this one family. The reason, as Light notes, for this feature on a "Zebra," is that when the animals are together, it is not easy for them to be preyed upon; predators can't pick out any single one from the pack because of the coloration. But when one is alone, the pickings are, of course, easy to the extreme. And in this family, struggling to stay together, one gets the sense that their survival as individuals depends on their finding some way to continue to exist as a group. Or one could read it as the opposite, that the girl here, pulled from the community in which she has been raised, is now on the verge of some kind of greater danger among kin who are not her kin.

Some of Light's most powerful stories build on small details, using them for multiple effect. In "Orient," for example, Light recounts the tale of a woman who dates a man who has a fascination with an ancient map that places the Orient in the center of the world. It is, as the man states, the reason that part of the world has its name--the center orients us to all the other things in the world. The point hits hard as the story moves forward, with the girl, who is already lost, working harder and harder to find where she belongs. "Separate" is about another lost person, this one a man whose divorce has set him adrift in New York City and who realizes that he never knew love.

"Three Days. A Month. More." is a tale that made quite a few fans when it first appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review. It's a story much like the others in that it involves women adrift, this time a thirteen- and eleven-year-old whose mother has disappeared and who now live alone in an apartment with a boyfriend of sorts who the two curious girls compete for.

"Animals" is a fragmentary piece that works extremely well in the composite. It's essentially a set of sensational stories involving violence. Each piece on its own is interesting, but what's fantastic is how Light manages eventually to weave them all together.

Light's stories go down easy. On the whole, I found the longer ones more to my taste, but that's not to say that the longer ones are long. None of the stories go more than twenty pages, and most stick to around ten. The stories are fun to read, and as a writer, I found them fun to watch see being put together one word and sentence at a time. Light makes it look easy.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On "1966" by Janice Shapiro (3941 words) ****

What I love about Shapiro's story is the elaborate description it gives of a time and place. This is Los Angeles in 1966. These are kids, with a summer to obsess over baseball or murder. And this is a summer for a grumpy teenager, who is about to take a step in the open--told from the point of view of children. It's a story about longing and about slowly have one's perspective change. Dad is no longer a hunk; he's simply not bad looking. The babysitter doesn't like you. And on and on. Read the whole bevy of discoveries here at Fifty-two Stories.

On "Two Serious Ladies" by Jane Bowles *****

I first read this novel about eight years ago, in conjunction with a list of reading I was doing on the Arab world and Paul Bowles. I figured, Why not read Paul's wife. And so this novel and her short stories got tacked on to the end of that list. The novel has nothing to do with the Arab world, of course, but it was a great discovery for me (sadly the short stories didn't seem anywhere near the same level). Paul's method apparently involved writing quickly then rewriting one draft more. Jane, by contrast, apparently labored over each sentence, sometimes managing only one in a day. And that method shows in this work of hers, for each sentence is a gem.

*Two Serious Ladies* is, actually, hilarious. The story--but it's not really a novel set around a plot--ostensibly involves two parallel narratives about two women. One woman is Miss Christina Goering; the other is Mrs. Copperfield. The two meet up in two places in the novel, once near the beginning (at a party) and at the end (at a restaurant). In between, Mrs. Copperfield goes to Panama with her husband and finds a new sense of herself--or loses herself in yet another person. For if at the start of the book she is Mr. Copperfield's wife, at the end she is a woman obsessed with a Panamanian prostitute named Pacifica. Mrs. Goering, by contrast, moves from a house she has inherited into a new home on an island and then deserts the people who have come to live with her to spend her days back on the mainland pursuing various men--and some kind of religious experience.

There are parallels between the two women. Both are consumed by obsessions with others. Mrs. Copperfield has her Pacifica; Miss Goering has her Miss Gamelon (and then her Andy and her Ben, not to mention Mr. Arnold's father, or even Mr. Arnold himself). Both move to new places and then return, of a sorts, to the world from which they have come--but in a transformed state. Both are searchers who never stop searching, who think that they are getting closer to what it is they are looking for but who seem incapable, in the end, of finding it.

But the essence of this book--what makes it so memorable--is not in this vague idea of a plot. The narrative wouldn't be substantial enough to hold most people's interest. What is fascinating here is the language itself--those sentences. There are zingers everywhere, some of them laugh out loud funny. One of my favorites is a statement one character makes to another at a party in describing one of her friends: "She's not like you at all. She's very intelligent." Or there's this description, early on, of Miss Goering, as a child: "Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being."

And the book does have some ties in to themes that her husband Paul would so often return to in his own fiction, for in Jane's work, Panama stands in for that Arab world that Paul so often wrote about. And as in Paul's world, where American ignorance of foreign social customs results in grave danger, in Jane's world the same sort of ignorance creates danger as well; however, in Paul's work, the result is usually tragic, whereas in Jane's the result is comic--to an extent. For underneath all the comedy, there rests in this book a kind of vague hopelessness, not so much that we as humans will never understand each other because of differences in upbringing but that we'll never understand each other because of our own strict adherence to our own worlds, our own minds, our own imaginations.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

On "There Are Things I Need You to Know" by Roxanne Gay (673 words) ***

Want to listen to someone talk about what they like most about a boyfriend? Want to listen to what that person doesn't like, what scares that person, how that boyfriend makes that person feel? Gay's short piece revolves around this intimate details, and what makes it so arresting is the very fact that they do seem so intimate and real. Read the story here at Foundling Review.

Monday, October 31, 2011

On "Nowhere" by Walter Cummins (4349 words) ***

In "Nowhere," a woman bound to a man she has little interest in does the unthinkable. She leaves him, on a kind of dare, and takes up with a random guy on a train. The man, some old guy, proves a fascinating character, and the woman's own wonder becomes our own. The story is about wandering, about wanderers, about those who choose to do so because they can and those who have no choice and must do so. Locked up in the isolation that is our bodies, we scan for homes we can rest in, even if only temporal. Read about this particular voyage here at Serving House Journal.

Friday, October 28, 2011

On "Angie Gets a Job" by Linda Boroff (3175 words) ****

A friend of mine--six years old--thinks she has the world figured out. Anytime things don't go her way, she cries. Such a tactic works for a child, in part because the adults just don't want to deal with listening to bawling for hours on end. It's tempting to give in.

In a way, Boroff's story is about such a person who has grown up. Angie bawls her way through life, and it gets her what she wants. Sort of. Actually, it gets her a job, but it's not a good job; in fact, it's a rather unsavory one. How is one ever to get ahead in this life? Better start bawling again. Read the story here at Workplace Anthology.

On "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" by Raymond Carver *****

I haven't read this collection in years, but it still speaks to me. I think my favorite collection is still What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, but this one still stands out nicely. I remember loving the title story for one. On this read-through, it was still fairly powerful, the way that Carver adds up all the simple details until we get to that final moment in which there is a kind of recovery. But I wasn't as well moved by the opening of the story, which didn't seem to justify the particular conversation that creates all of the story's angst. In fact, many of the stories toward the end of the collection didn't speak to me as much.

But at the start of the collection, Carver is on fire, and it's several of these that are classics. In "Neighbors," a couple assigned to check next door while the neighbors are away begin to lead a kind of fantasy life in the other's home, suggesting some great lack in their own lives. In "They're Not Your Husband," a man works to make something of his wife (that is, make her look good to other men), in a way that is both creepy and somehow touching. In "What's in Alaska?" friends share weed and talk about imminent plans to move away from one another--like many of Carver's stories, nothing much seems to be happening, but we remain glued to the story somehow because he conveys a power in the most mundane of moments. In "Night School" a man living with his parents tries to pick up a couple of women but finds his child-like living arrangement to be too difficult to get past.

"Put Yourself in My Shoes" recounts another party, this one, one in which a couple confronts another about damage to a rental home. In "Jerry and Molly and Sam," Al decides to get rid of the family dog but finds it more difficult than he'd have ever expected, just like so many things in life. In "What Is It?" a couple desperate for cash settles on selling a car--and perhaps a wife in the process.

It's the sheer fact that there are so many great stories here that I have a hard time remembering all of them. Some, over the years have stuck with me, not as much because I once read them here but because I read them, separately, in some other anthology, when compared with other stories, they stood out like diamonds.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

On "Killed at Resaca" by Ambrose Bierce (2380 words) ***

If a bit heavy handed, Bierce's story is nonetheless effective at putting a bullet to the idea of the glories of war, honor, and courage. He does it by placing within a soldier all the great virtues of a warrior, and then exposes how the man came about gathering those virtues, amid all that such virtues achieve for him. Don't expect any great speeches about what a valorous man he was. Read the story here.

On "The Butcher Boy" by Patrick McCabe *****

This is one of the first books I completed after I finished my undergraduate degree. It's been over fifteen years since then. I was blown away by the book in my twenties. On occasion, I've returned to these magnificent books of younger years and still found them excellent; on other occasions, I've found the work no longer seemed to speak to me as much. McCabe's novel falls into the first category.

Ostensibly the story of a psychotic killer told in a Joycean monologue, this work struck me as more tragic (and pitiful) on this read than humorous (a feeling that I remember having on the first read, in addition to the tragic feeling). McCabe presents us with a boy who can't grow up and whose horrid family life at home leads him to envy another family and to live out his jealousy by terrorizing them.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

On "The Woman We Imagine" Andrew R. Touhy (964 words) ***

I'm reminded of a Cortazar story with this one, in which a man who goes with his family to look at a painting each day over the course of the piece ends up looking at his own family in the painting--in other words, slowly merges with the painting at which he stares. Touhy's description has something of that magical realism feel. In this piece, a woman seems very much to look like a bird, and our narrators, we come to see, aren't far off. Imagination meets the real world here at the Collagist.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On "The Man with the Nose in His Living Room" by Zin Kenter (643 words) ****

Kenter's work has a strange, dreamlike quality. In one of her other stories, wings drawn on a page take to life and fly away, for example. In this story, three destitute people hear that a bakery they enjoyed as children has closed, and so they head off to steal the bakery's emblem, a giant nose. Kenter brings in much material that seems unrelated to the subject at hand, and at first I felt like, um, what's all this other stuff doing in here. But I think that by the end she pulls it off. Why? Because this story isn't just about the nose but about the old adage about how smell is our most powerful sense when it comes to eliciting memories. And indeed, the end of this story is a doozy, bringing us back a memory that showcases just how sad these people's lives are, sad in a way that is absurd at the same time. Read the story here at Frigg.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

On "Seasonable" by Forrest Roth (714 words) ***

We get old, but our brains don't. My mom once said she still felt twenty-two, except the body. Here an old man falls for a younger woman, a much younger woman. He sings anew. Really, he's just another teen boy, wrinkled. Are we men really so sad? Read the story here at Writers' Bloc.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

On "No Mess Allowed" by Maria Kusnetsova (7750 words) ***

I knew where this story was going to go about 10 percent of the way in, but that seemed okay. What drew me to the story was the narrator. Kusnetsova does something that isn't easy here. She tells the story from the point of view of a middle schooler, but also from the point of view of someone much older looking back on that time in life. The second point of view, however, is mostly in the background, so we mostly feel as if we are in this twelve/thirteen-year-old's head.

The story is about friendships, the way that they fall away from us as we age. I'm reminded of something an acquaintance of mine once said, how friends were only made to last a few years. I've been blessed with a few that have lasted decades, but on the whole, that observation is correct. As we age, our interests change and our priorities as well. Beyond that, circumstances change. Friends from work, for example, aren't so much friends anymore once work isn't held in common, except in a few rare cases. We move on. And yet, we also grieve, and that's what this story is about. Read it here at Summerset Review.

Monday, October 10, 2011

On "Fleshy Things," by Stefanie Freele (310 words) ****

I don't know what it is about reptiles, but they often come up when we get into matters of longing of the sexual variety. Maybe it's the idea that reptiles are this throwback to a supposedly early evolved species, a creature whose bones go back to a time well before any of us mammals. And yet, here we are, full-fledged mammalian creatures, and the same impulse to reproduce is strong within us, so strong that it can pull us toward things that aren't good for us. Here, we're talking a snake handler and a gal, and one of them is going to handle the other. Read the story here at Fried Chicken and Coffee.

Friday, October 7, 2011

On "Chickamauga" by Ambrose Bierce (2530 words) ***

This short piece of Bierce's resounds mainly for its masterful description. It's a horrifying world that Bierce puts together. It's a story about a child playing in the woods who comes across a body of retreating, almost dead soldiers. The descriptions are what make this piece so utterly gruesome--and the child's incomprehension--but hang around for the ending, which brings helplessness to a whole new level. Read the story here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

On "Baby" by Larry Fondation (239 words) ***

Let's watch a relationship sputter out of control. Or rather, let's watch it peter out. There's this couple. Bad things happen. They get in touch now and then. Maybe it'll work out. Wait and see. Or just read it, quickly, here at Dark Sky Magazine.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

On "The Other Me" by Kim Bond (555 words) ****

Doppelgangers are a common feature of Edgar Allan Poe and Jorge Luis Borges, but not as much in the works of most other people. There's probably some good reasons for that, as in they probably often don't make for good stories (if you've read a lot of Poe's lesser work, you probably recognize this). Bond works off this old motif to write a piece about self-recognition, younger versus older, in traffic. It's simple, but it's rather effective, and it's a whole lot of fun. Read it here at Foliate Oak.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

On "The Right Eye of the Commander" by Bret Harte (2968 words) ***

This old story by Bret Harte has a certain magic-realist feel to it. Perhaps it's the Spanish names. Perhaps it's the trinket seller who is also a magician of sorts. The commander, having lost his right eye, lives on in a California fort during Spanish times. The visit of a stranger proves useful in that the commander is left with a new eye, one that, while he can't see with, seems to be able to see into others. Read the story here.

On "Lust" by Susan Minot *****

I've now read this book at least three times in the past twenty years and assorted stories from it many times more. Minot's writing is spare, reminiscent of the What We Talk about When Talk about Love Carver and that ilk from the 1980s. Such spare writing is easy to read, but it is not necessarily easy to write if the work is to have much power. At times, Minot strains too hard at her endings, but when her stories work, they have real force.

The most memorable story continues to be the title story. It is unlike any other in the collection, and only a few tales I've come across use a similar form. The reason is probably that such a form is not easy to pull off. It's essentially a list, a set of discreet paragraphs, about different boyfriends that builds to a crescendo without any kind of overt plot. We get the sense of someone desperate for love or desperate for something, someone struggling to find her way past lust and sex toward something more substantive. It's a story that works well for the collections opener, since all the short, spare tales that follow essentially work off the same theme.

My favorites in the collection, beyond "Lust," include "Blow." This is a tale about a man who has just been broken up with and who is high on drugs, trying to deal--or it's a story about someone else, a woman friend, high on the drug of love and not realizing how much that too can distort everything you do and feel. Another one of the best is "The Break-Up," which revolves around a visit from another man who has just lost his girlfriend. In this case, he decides there, visiting a couple, that he will pursue the girlfriend again--but we get a sense that the couple he visits is also on the downslide. "The Feather in the Toque" revolves around a woman dating a man who has had lots of other women and how that makes her feel, to know she's just one of his temporary stays. The motif comes up in several other tales in the collection as well, as in "A Thrilling Life."

The very spareness of these tales, mixed with the similarity in theme across them, does cause them to begin to blur together. It is one of the unfortunate things about the collection, for a get a sense that, alone, many of these stories would shine much more brightly.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

On "Respectful Beatings for Very Good Help" by G. K. Wuori (5220 words) ***

Much is in the details. In G. K. Wuori's short story, two women, newly arrived to the United States, struggle to make sense of the world around them--this American world, this American work world. Expectations regarding what is acceptable and what is not clash. But growing trouble eventually becomes too large even for those used to different standards of behavior. Action must be taken. Enter an insane old man, whose command of riches allows for such problems to be solved.

But I said that much is in the details. Part of the charm of this piece comes from its mastery of the English language--or lack thereof. Our narrator has mastered the language but not yet many of its nuances and turns of phrase, and as a result, the occasional odd phrasing hits just the right note. Read the story here at the Workplace Anthology or here at the Barcelona Review.

On "Orientation" by Daniel Orozco *****

This is one of the best new books of short stories I've read in a long while. I say "best" even though I've read some really good book collections lately. The difference here, however, was that Orozco pretty much doesn't miss with any single one of the stories. Certainly, as with all collections, some stories are better than others, but there was only one story in here where I felt like, Yes, that was okay. The rest, on some level each time, wowed.

The longest story--"Somoza's Dream"--is the one I was the least interested in. It reads like a Garcia Marquez historical piece (think The General in His Labyrinth). Certainly, it's an accomplished story, but it didn't stand out to me in the way that Orozco's other tales do.

My favorite was "I Run Every Day," the tale of a middle-aged virgin who is befriended by a slightly overweight coworker. What happens as a result is shocking and bleak, and yet somehow I found myself feeling for a person with whom generally one would feel no pity. This is also one of the straightest--that is, most traditional--stories in the collection and one of the few in first person.

Many of Orozco's stories work around gimmicks or experiments, but he pulls each one of them off. The title story--the way in which I became familiar with the collection--was read on NPR; it's a story of advice, an introduction to an office environment, every bit as cold as some office environments can be and yet every bit as bureaucratic and personal-privacy sinister as they often can be as well.

"Hunger Tales" is just that--four snapshots related to food--that somehow end up feeling like a complete story, even though none of the four stories have anything in common with one another other than the theme of food. The tale reminded me a bit of the triptychs Madison Smartt Bell pulls off in his collection Zero dB. I found these tales more interesting than Bell's triptychs, however.

"Officers Weep" tells a tale of a duo of police officers' day in the form of a police report. As it unfolds, the information becomes more and more personal. This isn't, for the most part, a Hollywood duo's day--this is mundane police work, breaking up loud parties and rescuing cats (though as the story goes on a subplot does emerge that promises potential serious trouble).

"Only Connect" tells the story of a drug shooting from three different points of view. "Temporary Stories" revolves around one temp's various temporary jobs, forging another kind of triptych story. Orozco finishes the collection with "Shakers," which isn't a story in a conventional sense--it's more of a description of California and of a quake in California, but what a description! The writing reminded me of how Kate Braverman can be sometimes in her work, going off on some subject, not necessarily plotting anything out for us but leaving us so breath-taken by the words and phrases and sentences being used that the language itself becomes a kind of storyline with climax.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

On "Liability" by S. P. Tenhoff (5597 words) ****

Stephen Dixon's Interstate is a novel that takes a heartrending event and obsesses over it--over and over and over. Tenhoff's short story does something similar. It's not repetitive in the way that Dixon's book is, and it doesn't go on nearly as long, and in a way that's better. For while Dixon's Interstate is a fascinating exercise, it is a difficult book to actually finish. Tenhoff's story is not.

"Liability" also does some other things nicely as well. The decisions in weekly chess matches are paired against the decisions made while driving (a single point can send a given match to its inevitable close ten moves down). The main character's worry over his own son is matched against the worry over the boy that his car hits. His drinking becomes a matter of concern--or doesn't.

What Tenhoff manages particularly well here, however, is getting into the mind of a man who has done something accidental but horribly life changing. The writing is listless to start, then it increasingly focuses on issues of liability and of guilt. Who is at fault? Could it very well be the man's fault? Add in small details about insurance bureaucracy and you have the makings of something that seems almost real Read the story here at Swink.

On "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving (7282 words) *****

It's surprising how well this old tale holds up. When I was a kid, I once saw the first half of a movie about old Rip--basically, up until the point where he fell asleep. I was really disappointed to have to miss the last half--being just a kid, my parents had to haul me to the store with them that Sunday.

I don't think I actually read the tale until I was in college, as part of one of my American literature classes, and I hadn't read it since. Irving does some neat things with the faux historicity of it, including notes and affirmations by locals regarding authenticity. And the tale itself is, in part, one about a miserable marriage that Van Winkle works his way out of by disappearing for a couple of decades. Also of note is the way that the very nature of the surroundings in which Van Winkle lives changes over the course of that time, as if to point to the glories of the new country.

I reread the story largely because it was sent to me by Scout Books, which offers a set of short stories in small single volumes. Each one is illustrated, this one by Bwana Spoons. A size no larger than a wallet, the small books would make for nice small and cheap gifts--the kind of thing one might hand out at a function where all are to receive a small souvenir or that one might include as part of a package of larger gifts. The illustrations are cool, though there aren't very many (only about three to five in each volume that I have seen), and the print is tiny, but at less than five dollars apiece, they're seem great for a mass purchase and giveaway. Read the story here, then check out the Scout Books version here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

On "Cheap" by James Armstrong (1122 words) ***

How much are we worth? To our family, we are worth everything, if it comes to a health-care expense. How dare an insurance company tell us no more? We sell our house and our car, spend out our retirement, anything, to keep this person alive. Or . . .

We get scared. We avoid the family all together. Let's nip this in the bud. Let's do things on the cheap.

This story mines that border between friendship and intimacy. Up front, we pay twenty dollars for an evening, put the person on layover. And then, either we never come back or we cash out our bank balance. Read it here at Stirring.

On "The Complete History of New Mexico" by Kevin McIlvoy **

Much of what gets published in journals comes down to there being some sort of gimmick. The gimmick gets people's attention, and if you're not a known, respected writer already, sometimes attention is what you need to get people to actually read what it is you've written. Different is good. Different is interesting. Sometimes different is as strong or stronger than traditional. And sometimes, traditional is enough.

McIlvoy's Complete History reads like a set of gimmicks, one after another after another. The stories contained in this collection include chain letters, wills, monologues, stories based on lyrics, and--the title story--drafts of student essays. It is the drafts of the student paper on the complete history of New Mexico that make for the most-entertaining reading in the collection. They are funny and absurd, though I'm not sure how the various drafts improve on one another such that the student's grade gets higher each time he tries. And there's a poignant backstory trying to work its way out of all the reflection on prostitutes and mules and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and reversible jackets. Somewhere down here, a kid's friend dies. But it's swallowed up in pseudohistory that seems to wander farther afield from any semblance of reality with each draft. Parts of these three stories made me laugh (if one can call them stories--rather than just grade-school reports so bad that they're good).

The rest of the collection didn't speak much to me. Some of the stories include repeating characters. McIlvoy tells a tale of a white trash family destroying their house (or really one member of the family doing so), one of whom shows up in a later story--a rant about piano moving. He tells a tale of a family who owns a giant rhino that it paints and whose mother is dying and doesn't get to see the rhino, and so lives to hear what stories the family will tell about it--some of whom show up in a later story about a wedding.

The most moving tale to me ("Permission") involved three bar employees and a magician who wants to be hired on for entertainment. Late hours, at or after closing time, he performs tricks for the three bar workers. There's something mysterious here, some essence that is hard to explain. The three of them all want the tricks done on them, want to be the subject of the magician's main attention, just as, on some level, the three of them are also involved in some kind of contest for each other's attention. It's a pitiful situation, the narrator tells us, and in some hard-to-define way, the pity comes through to the reader.

Friday, September 16, 2011

On "Tennessee's Partner" by Bret Harte (3622 words) ***

I'm highlighting this 140-year-old story mostly for its beautiful language and its humorous turn of phrase. That the writing has been around so long and still seems fresh is quite an achievement. Tennessee partner is a man who quite literally lives for his friend. When that friend gets into trouble, the partner is there. But what's really cool are Harte's observations about the community and about the jury rigged up to try Tennessee. One gets a sense that Harte doesn't particularly take much liking to the American, or at least American western, legal system: "they were ready to listen to any defense, which they were already satisfied was insufficient." The tale is full of such bracing observations like these. Read more of them here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On "Rise" by L. Annette Binder (1186 words) ****

Here's one to send chills through you. The story is in the elision, and I am, for one, thankful that elision is there. Who wants to see the grisliness that occurs? This piece is more harrowing for what we don't see, and for the remains that come back to the surface. Read the story here at Swink.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On "All the Imaginary People Are Better at Life" by Amber Sparks (3830 words) *****

Here's a piece about a gal running away--from herself, from the people she knows, from her sanity. It's gorgeously written--and funny. Sparks knows how to turn a phrase into ending that doesn't belong with the beginning. We learn, for example, that some people aren't very good at being alive (not quite her words, but the gist of them). And in a sense, this is about that--and about the imaginary world such people resort to. Read the story here at Corium.

On "Dream of the Wolf" by Scott Bradfield ****

I fell in love with Scott Bradfield's novel The History of Luminous Motion when I was around age 20. It was a book on a sales rack with a cool cover, and inside the first paragraphs were, well, luminous. The power of the writing simply continued straight through.

Fast forward ten years, when I finally reread that wonderful book. I was no longer as impressed or into it. Certain books speak to us more at certain times of our lives than others. Some say different things. Some continue to amaze me (On the Road, Great Gatsby), which is probably a reason they're considered classics. Others, for whatever reason, fade with age, fade because the thing inside that titillated no longer carries with it the same power, be it a particular life imagined or a beautiful mess of words or a technique previously unfamiliar.

Anyway, here it is twenty years later, and I'm finally getting around to reading Bradfield's book a stories, a book I'd contemplated reading many times back when I was twenty and in love with Luminous Motion. What can I say? It's Scott Bradfield--he's a craftsman of the sentence. This book is full of beautiful lines. As for the stories themselves, they're cool; they're interesting; and sometimes they don't seem wholly there, as if Bradfield decided simply to stop writing at a certain page.

Each of the stories revolves in some way around dreams, which may be part of the reason the stories end as they do, abruptly, at seemingly nonsensical moments, the way our own dreams often do. The title story, a fantastically interesting tale, revolves around a man who dreams of being a wolf and whose dreamlife begins to take on a reality more intense than his mundane waking life. But that's just the beginning. It gets weird (or perhaps, I should say weirder).

"The Darling" is another disturbing and interesting piece, the tale of a serial husband killer. "Unmistakably the Finest" is a finely wrought piece, one of the few that ends with a kind of emotional heartstopper, about a girl whose father leaves the family to take up with another woman, about the job that girl takes that summer to support herself and her mom, and about her mom's new dating life and her mom's drinking. "Ghost Guessed" deals with a man's double--someone akin to the double in Fight Club, bold and careless where the man is not. "Greetings from Earth" recounts a woman's outer-body experiences. "The Other Man" focuses on similar themes to these two--a man's obsession with his wife's imaginary lover. In "Dazzle" we follow a dog's life; in "White Lamp" an old woman's and her philandering son. "The Wind Box" recounts a man's experiences with a Scientology-like society. Each of these stories has a gimmick of sorts that makes them interesting, and each is spellbinding in its own way, even when they don't feel as if they completely add up.

The last story, "The Secret Life of Houses," is possibly the best in the collection. In it, a young girl takes care of her ailing mom in the hospital and returns to her house each night to act the part of a grown woman. We're warned early in the story that Aunt Fergie will show up when the mom is dying and will steal everything that the mom has worked to give to her daughter as an inheritance, and so when Fergie does show up, midway through the story, a kind of dreaded horror takes over more harrowing than if we were reading about, well, werewolves or something of that nature. The story compels one's reading, even as one doesn't want to see the seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On "Heller" by Julie Innis (5219 words) ***

Teachers marrying students, students dating teachers. These are the things of tabloids. But change that story to the boyfriend of the teacher, and leave the student out of it. Have the boyfriend become jealous of the student(s). It's not tabloid material, but it's quite creepy in its own right, reading about a boyfriend who stalks his girlfriend's students. The boyfriend in this story is someone we might imagine as such, bored, out of work, with too much to do--why not think about what the girlfriend does during the day? Why not suspect the worst? Why not one up her? Read the story here at Battered Suitcase.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

On "North of Center" by Mimi Vaquer (571 words) ***

Here's a quick one that stuns by being frightful at the same time that it is so innocent. Staying over at a friend's house could be weird, especially for the first time. Each family has its own set of rituals. Some families I felt like I blended in with better than others. Some were extremely formal and had all kinds of strange rules; others seemed more friendly, seemed, in fact, so cool that you almost wished at times that this was your own family. Vaquer's story recounts another sleepover--one that's not like either of the two types above. Read the story here at Pif.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On "Tiny, Smiling Daddy" by Mary Gaitskill (5436 words) ****

Mirroring certain themes in Mary Gaitskill's other stories, "Tiny, Smiling Daddy," the lead tale in her second collection, Because They Wanted To, starts off with real promise. A man receives a phone call from a friend. His daughter is in a magazine called Self. So begins the father's reflections on this woman he hardly knows anymore and on his own fatherhood, for the article is in fact about him. What makes the story so powerful is the clash of lifestyles, values, and generations. Here are parents who try to "raise their daughter right" but who nonetheless end up with a lesbian. Their rejection of her, their slow halfway acceptance, it's all right here in Gaitskill's piece. And that tiny, smiling daddy--let's just say there's a parent in each one of us we're supposed to get in touch with. Get it? Yeah, neither does the narrator. But we get glimpses of an answer in the relationship we see recounted between the father and the father's own dad. Read the story here or listen to Gaitskill read part of it here.

On "Saturday Night" by Susan Orlean ****

Orlean's "Saturday Night" is an homage to this one special night of the week--really, it's a book of discrete essays, with Saturday night as the universal core to each. Each chapter focuses on Saturday night as it is lived by a certain kind of person: Saturday night for dancers, for band members, for partygoers, for barhoppers, for eaters, and for people who have to work. I was reminded a little of the documentary television show *Insomnia* (I think it ran on Comedy Central but maybe it was on E!), where a man spends the twelve nondaylight hours in a given city, seeing what folks are doing round the clock.

We all know Saturday night, and I suppose that knowing is what pulled me to the book. I wasn't sure that Orlean was going to provide anything new to me, but in fact she managed to do that. Each chapter proves to have some gems within them, little facts or ideas that I hadn't thought about before. Of particular interest, for example, was a chapter on Pritikin diet centers. I'd heard of Pritikin, but I didn't realize the group had centers, where people go to live and to diet. Saturday night there, one can imagine, takes on a different vibe. There is no overeating, no exciting set of meals, unless you're one of those who takes a Saturday night pass. So instead, people gather round their nonfat, nonglam meal and talk about . . . great food they used to enjoy.

Another interesting chapter was that on hosting dinner parties in New York City. This, in fact, Orlean notes, is a rarity for a Saturday night among the well-to-do. Weekends for those of the upperclass New York society are to be spent "away"--at your beach house or some other locale. It is the fact that you can host your parties during the week because you don't have to work that shows you are worthy of being part of this noble society. Wouldn't want to imitate us regular working folk after all. But sometimes, royalty or some celebrity is in town for just a day, and you have no choice to but hold a Saturday night soirée. Oh, the shamefulness of it.

Or get this: We think of Saturday night as the least-watched night for television (or at least I do), but it has in times past sometimes been the most watched. Orlean explores the cult of TV watching on this night and the early history of SNL, which when it first aired was at a time when nothing else was really on and which in those early years became such a sensation that parties would even stop in order to tune in.

She also goes cruising in a small midwestern town, hangs with a group of Air Force folks charged with taking care of the nation's missiles, rides a college bus system that takes drunken girls to and from town, sits with a babysitter, pals with a lounge band, and attends a few quincenera and polka parties. This is Saturday night, all around the country.

Monday, August 29, 2011

On "Intolerable Impositions" by Rae Bryant (752 words) ***

Years ago I read a great story that fit itself around a single metaphor. I won't go into it here, because the story was unpublished. But Bryant's story works the same technique with a different metaphor. A relationship, even a one-night stand, leaves its mark on those who take part in it. And such is the case in this story. Rather than being tied down, sometimes its best just to saw off a part of yourself so that you can continue on alone. See exactly what I mean here at Bartleby Snopes.

Friday, August 26, 2011

On "Aesthetic Discipline" by Carolyn Cooke (3255 words) ****

Here's a story that shows why Cooke is a professional author. Words charm here, and thoughts as well, all essentially to tell us no more than a remembrance or set of them. And yet, I found myself enthralled, hanging on each description. It's as Cooke's narrator herself says, the depth is the surface--in other words, we glide on the words alone, and that is enough. I won't even bother pondering some philosophic deeper purpose. Who needs it? Just enjoy, here, at Fifty-Two Stories.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On "Coinkydink" by Chris Kassel (7968 words) ***

Maybe it's all the references to physics, but Kassel's story has the feel and energy of the work of Thomas Pynchon. Imagine that one day you discovered that all of your phone numbers were encrypted in logorhythms? Look up the solution to a mathematical problem, and there's your first phone number; the second solution is your second phone number, and so on. Your name is also the name of someone else's father and of the owner of a Spackling Company--or at least the name advertised as the owner. Such is what happens to Big Mike, the namesake at the center of this narrative who finds himself drawn into such discoveries and suddenly feeling a little bit crazy. But it's all physics, I promise. Read the story here at the Angler.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

On "God's Lost in the Suburbs" by Kristin Kearns (4777 words) ***

In Kearns's world insignificance and significance switch places, much the way that the word dog is a palindrome for God. Bruce and Maggie have just moved to the suburbs, along with their dog, who has now gone missing. But these aren't just any suburbs. This is a gated community, where everything is ordered, where rules keep it looking pristine, and where strangers need not bother visiting. What have we lost in our communities when we shelter ourselves off this way? What have we lost in our world when we fail to call out to a greatness beyond? Our attempts to shelter ourselves off, Kearns seems to imply, leave us in longing. Read the story here at Failbetter.

On "Girls in the Grass" by Melanie Rae Thon ***

I came across Thon's writing years ago in literary journals and loved it, but I'd never gotten around to actually reading a collection of her until now. Here, in this set of stories, many of Thon's talents are on display, and some of the stories have a kind of sneaky power that left me wondering, "How'd she do that?" Perhaps, my long anticipation is what led me to be slightly disappointed with the collection as a whole--all the stories are competent, but only a few really stood out to me.

One of the best, as is typical of collections, is the very first. It's a simple piece, recounting a sleepover among girls who are just about to enter those years when boys means something to them. They wander around town, score a few drinks, find some boys and try to discover what all the fuss is about.

In "The Spanish Boy," Pauline is having man trouble. She's tired of her relationship with Nick, and the guys at her lousy job at a restaurant treat her with a disrespect reserved usually for women of low morals. Low morals also forge the basis for the story "Iona Moon," about a girl who gives sex out to her hot boyfriend, thinking she has love. And perhaps, in a way, she does, as we discover in another story, "Snake River," later in the collection. In fact, several of the stories here link with one another. I suspect that the sisters in "Sisters" are related somehow to the boyfriend, "Jay," in the previous two mentioned stories. "Sisters" is a fine story itself--one that seemed vaguely familiar and thus may have been one I'd read in a journal. It's about a "good" sister and a very "bad" sister and how they learn to cope with one another. Will they both be brought down by the bad sister's drug habits and profligate ways, or can the good sister somehow saver her? Or is it really about saving anyone at all?

Another set of linked stories involves a family who has just moved to Arizona from Montana: "Chances of Survival" and "Lizards." Of the two, I found "Lizards" the more compelling and moving. In it, a boy finally begins to enjoy school because of the gift of a great teacher, only to have her taken away for reasons unclear to him.

Random stories include "Small Crimes," about a college professor trying to seduce a student of his (not a very likeable character) and the sneakily powerful "Repentance." The latter story recounts the life of a child who has to grow old before her time because her grandmother requires her assistance, but sometimes, we aren't capable of growing old early, and the consequences can be devastating.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On "Bodies" by Matthew Vollmer (4172 words) *****

I'm thinking of a review for a movie called The Vanishing. The reviewer said the movie told you everything you wanted to know and yet somehow still remained interesting--and haunting. Vollmer's piece is kind of like that. We get all the details in pieces, sure, rather than up front, but it's still seems like more than a story should tell us. And it stays interesting. And really, we don't even want to know those details, in the end, just like the narrator of this story doesn't.

This is a tale about a drunkard, a man with death wish or a revenge wish. It's also a story of trying to start over. The narrator, from the first, is one of a kind. Fantastic lines drop like candy from burst pinata in this thing, each paragraph a feast. One of my favorite passages comes when the narrator goes on a date with a woman he meets, whose clothing he describes as "alive and trashy in a way that commanded attention but caused people to ask: did that just happen?" And to make sure we know what he thinks, he adds, "I placed my hand on her lower back, to let everyone know whose side I was on."

Oh, and the place they go? It's this strange tourist spot where muscle has been pulled off bodies so that you can see inside, which is a fitting metaphor for what is going on in the story itself. Take a peek here at r.kv.r.y.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On "The Athlete" by Ed Falco (5420 words) *****

A few years ago, I read a book of Ed Falco's stories, published by a small press. It was probably about the time it began to dawn on me how many good writers there are out there, and how many are consigned to the oblivion of an audience of a few thousand, if they are lucky to find even that.

"The Athlete" is a piece of sure writing from someone who writes like a master of the form. It's about a man, El, who finds a woman who promises to change his life--or to rechange it--for he was once a married man, with two kids. Having lost out on that, for reasons not fully explicated, and on a basketball career because he was too small, he can now make something of himself. The story seems peaceful enough, until we hit its center, when something goes horribly wrong, and El is faced with a challenge that tests both his manhood and his newfound love.

Perhaps what I like most about this piece, however, is the dialogue--it's so simple and yet so true. "It's cold," one person states at a point in the story. It's a toss-off line that means nothing, that states the obvious, and yet it is exactly what someone would say in the situation, the way that we toss these obvious statements out just to have something to fill the air between us with. Read the story here at R.kv.r.y.

On "The New Covenant: Does It Abolish God's Law?" ***

This free book explores in great detail an subject that over a decade ago tore the church organization I used to attend with apart. No Christian or Jew really doubts that God has a law. That is clearly established in the Bible. The question is what that law consists in. Many Christians probably don't give much thought to it. They do whatever their church does. If the church says it's wrong to dance or drink, they don't dance or drink. Wrong to watch movies, they don't watch movies. Okay to smoke, then they might well smoke. In other words, they do whatever anyone else of their faith does.

But there are Christians out there who debate what the scriptures actually say with regard to what the law is, who don't just follow the traditions of those around them or the authority of the pope or some other religious guru. These Christians either believe that the law consists of the things commanded in the Old Testament and renewed in the new or they believe that those Old Testament laws were done away with and replaced by a new law, the law of Christ. In such a case, the new law usually consists in loving each other as defined by the ten commandments minus the fourth one. The new law does not include things like clean and unclean meats. And given the right context (depending on how conservative one is as a Christian), it might not include sex outside of marriage or going to war.

This book attempts to show how the first position--that the law consists of the things in the Old Testament and that it is still binding on Christians today, only magnified in Christ. This book does not claim that animal sacrifice and other priestly laws are still in order; rather, those have been fulfilled in Christ, but the rest of the law, pertaining to one's personal morality, still is in place for Christians. The book goes into extensive discussions of how this could be, and then it discusses the views of the New Testament personages themselves--Paul, the apostles, and Jesus Christ.

I found the text to be well written and well researched but fairly technical. It was not what I would term easy reading. If I would like an answer to a particular point of view or scripture, it would be a good book to turn to; if I want a thorough discussion of this topic, again, it would be a great place to go. If I want a fun, breezy, or exciting read, well, that it's probably not. The text is available here.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

On "The Quality of Life" by Christine Sneed (about 4200 words) *****

Here's a story that being at the start of Sneed's fine collection made me understand just why good but not great stories have trouble getting attention. How does one rival a piece like this? The story has a slow-motion punch, each word piling on the next so easily, so simply, that it's hard to see that any tricks whatsoever are being pulled here, and yet we stay captivated, because the situation is captivating. Like the rich man in this story, Sneed weaves a web we can't escape, even if we want to. Here, a young woman is given everything she wants--a great job, great pay, a man, friends, and yet, there's something missing. Call this a critique of materialism, a study in what makes for happiness, or whatever you will, but the one thing I'll call it is great writing. And you can read it here.

On "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry" by Christine Sneed ****

Sneed's book of stories, like many a collection (in fact, on some level, perhaps all) revolves around people at the edge of relationships. Several of the stories have specifically to do with the relationship between the famous--the celebrity--and the not famous. Interestingly, in each of these encounters, the not famous are starstruck, awed into idiocy by the possibility that they might touch something that stretches beyond their small, known world. It's a theme that I occasionally touch on myself in my writing, though I do it a bit differently, with a kind of cynicism that Sneed, I don't think, throws at her readers (I think, in part, my cynicism for such characters comes from having grown up in Los Angeles: I tend not to think of celebrities as anything more than regular people, albeit generally like pretty women who would rather not be disturbed by me unless they are the ones to start the conversation). Sneed, by contrast, isn't laughing at the silliness of such behavior; rather, she gets down and mourns with them that their own lives aren't spent in Hollywood or on some stage in New York.

The title story, for example, involves a woman the granddaughter of a famous (now dead) painter and her relationship to his work, to her own nonfamous work (unwilling to take advantage of her grandfather's connections to get in with the right people), and to a man she is seeing whose interest at times seems almost more in her grandfather than in her.

A couple of stories involve connections to Hollywood. In "You're So Different" a screenwriter returns for a class reunion to great honors in her small town. She's had five films made, and everyone thinks she's beyond whatever she can offer them, most especially a couple who invite her over for lunch the next day, the day she is to depart. The story is, in part, about envy for lives not lived and about the desire just to touch someone who has lived them. Similar to this, but from the opposite point of view, is "Alex Rice Inc." about a actor who decides to return to college for a degree and the teacher who has him in one of her classes. Here, I was reminded of a coworker of mine who had the pleasure of taking classes with James Franco a couple of years ago--everyone in class agog at him because he's been on screen. How do you not play favorites? How do you refrain from dreaming he'll fall for you?

In "A Million Dollars," my second favorite story in this collection, Sneed conjures the voice of an incredibly insecure woman who hides those insecurities in bravo speech. It's the voice that makes the piece so special. As for the story, again, there is a tie to fame, this in the form of a man who offers the narrator the possibility of becoming a model.

"Twelve + Twelve" is a lovely piece about an older man falling in love with the friend of his dead daughter. "By the Way" involves a younger man falling for a much older woman, whose fame in the dancing world has been eclipsed somewhat by age. "Interview with the Second Wife" contains a woman's reflections on an interview she one submitted to regarding the famous writer boyfriend she lived with for ten years. And "For Once in Your Life" involves a woman who returns to small-town life after living abroad with her now-ex-husband and how she finds herself drawn into the town's circle of busybody women (can't say women come off looking very nice here--it's one story that makes me feel like I'm lucky to be a guy).

The finest story in the collection is the first, but I'll live that discussion for another review.

Monday, August 8, 2011

On "The Fireman" by Peter DeMarco (2924 words) ***

Someone you grew up with dies. He was a friend, and then he wasn't. But somehow you feel a tie to him. Your life, like most people's, doesn't go according to plan. Actually, you never had a plan. You've drifted for thirty years, reacting first to your parents deaths and then to memories that haunt you. Your uncle. Your best friend. What happened means more to you, it seems, than to anyone else involved. Your friend was your hero--and your friend, until . . . You can read about it here at Sunsets and Silencers.

Friday, August 5, 2011

On "The East Elevator" by Nicholas Rinaldi (5720 words) *****

This story is a haunting. I'm reminded for some reason of the end of a movie called The Vanishing. It's got a similar kind of eerie feel in places, and yet, this story is a whole lot more subtle than that movie, for we don't necessarily know where it will go.

The story is about an elevator. As a kid, I loved elevators. I think that's because they were like amusement park rides to me. I liked escalators too. But since elevators were rarer, I preferred those, looking forward to the trips to the local Bullock's department store to use that elevator, the only one I bothered to ride with any frequency, since most others were off limits to us kids.

By age twenty, the elevator had lost its appeal. Perhaps it's that I lived in an apartment building with one, and it was not a thing I enjoyed. Sure, using the elevator to move furniture is (somewhat) easier than pulling furniture up and down stairs, but there's the waiting for it, the noise of it, the people inside it, the boxed-in quality of it.

On weekends, at my current office building, one isn't supposed to ride the elevator, because if it breaks, you'll likely be there for two or three days. In a previous job, a two-hour stay in the elevator is exactly what happened to some coworkers of mine. The elevator is a trap.

This story is about elevators as well--good ones and bad--and elevators as traps. It's about a woman named Lily who finds herself boxed inside and how that changes her life once she gets out. This aren't large changes, but they're there, and we get a sense that the elevator isn't just about moving us up and down a building but also forward, into futures we don't necessarily want to know about. See what's inside the box here at Summerset Review.

On "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl ****

I tried to read Jane Austen in high school, the book Sense and Sensibility. I got about fifty pages into it and had to give up. A few years ago, having read a passage from Pride and Prejudice in another book and loving it, I decided to try Austen again. And again, after the brief opening passage expurgated in the other book, her world seemed dry and dull to me. I labored on this time, however, until the midway point and then, like some kind of metal clamp, she got hold of me and wouldn't let me go. I was reading the second half every chance I got. It took 150 pages, but the long setup was well worth the last 150 pages.

I felt similarly about Pessl's five-hundred-page tome. For the first two hundred pages, I was somewhat bored; then for the next one hundred, I was at least interested in the characters if not exactly being drawn forward by the plot. Around about page 300, however, the story takes off, and it's a crazy ride till close to the end. Could she have cut the first three hundred pages? Somehow, I think not, because it is that long setup that gives us a little to feel for when the gal with all the gold starts to put her chips down for us.

I could make a lot of comparisons to other books for Pessl's text. Beyond Austen in its pace, it reminded me in ways of Nabokov, though as a poor imitation of that master, in its erudition. It reminded me of Pynchon in its interest in secret societies, in paranoia, and in the inability to provide us with a concrete ground for our feet to walk over. And it reminded me most of Donna Tartt's The Secret History, with its central concern around a particular set of friends and a crime, though with Tartt's great novel, I found myself arrested by the narrative from the start.

The text of Pessl's story is one of narrator Blue van Meer, a child of exceptional brains (whose smarts, I found, especially at first, to be cloying and annoying). Van Meer is the type to drop mention of specific books--even to cite them--at any remote suggestion that they might have some kind of relation to the narrative (e.g., Salinger, Catcher in the Rye). Many of these citations seemed dropped in for no real good reason (see example above).

Van Meer's father moves around the country a lot, a permanent adjunct teacher, but he decides to stick to one place for Blue's senior year. Soon after her entry into an elite private school, she is befriended by a group of five other kids, a clique called the Bluebloods. Early on, they seem actually not very interested in her, despite their invite: it is a teacher, Hannah, who has weekly get-togethers with the Bluebloods, who insists that Blue be allowed to enter this elite social circle.

And what a circle it is--not. Were the five teens incredibly smart or witty or out to save the world or something, perhaps my interest might have been stoked. But it was because they were, in fact, so unexceptional that my interest took such a long time to build. These are run-of-the-mill high school students, interested in being cool, in drinking, in partying, not terribly brainy--pretty unimaginative and dull. Why, I kept wondering, would Blue become so smitten with them, even if it is an elite club of sorts?

But with time, as we get to know these kids, they stop seeming to be such brainless twits, and we begin to care for them as, in a way, Blue does--and Hannah. And then, the real plot kicks in, and it is here, in the last half of the book that I was left spellbound, wondering how Pessl has managed to pull off such a complex and compelling storyline. Basically, at the book's center, the group goes hiking with their teacher Hannah, and something goes terribly wrong. The rest of the book tries to unravel what has happened, and nothing is as it seems. Or at least, it may not be--we can't really know the world in which we live, the text seems to be saying. (In the end, do we even know the brainless Bluebloods? Why their connection to Hannah? Is there some link even Blue hasn't managed to find?)

I forgot to mention one other book I was reminded of--Barthelme's Snow White. In that text, Barthelme presents readers with a questionaire about the novel itself, and Pessl does the same thing here. It's a fun way to end the book, fitting, I guess, for a character like Blue, but as I find with many a novel, I was left laboring through the last thirty or so pages, once things began to wrap up, feeling like I should have been done already.