Monday, January 31, 2011

On "They" by O. Lindsey (1460 words) ***

This is one of those stories that makes me glad not to be a boy again. On the whole, my childhood was fine, great fun, but the necessity to prove yourself a "man," to fit in, and to do things you didn't want to do in order supposedly prove these things were never fun. Nor was the alternative--being the wimp for refusing to do what bullies who are all bluster wish you to do--much better. But this kid is no wimp, not in that way. He's out to prove himself, but he's not going to feel much better. This story is all pain. Read it here at You Must Be This Tall to Ride.

On "The History of the Ancient World" by Susan Wise Bauer *****

In this first of a planned multivolume series, Bauer tells the history of the world from the "earliest accounts" to ascension of Constantine. She does this all in about eight hundred pages. Centuries pass in twenty pages or less. And when placed in that kind of abbreviated form, the history of mankind becomes a sad one indeed--full of wars and attempts to gain power (and the various accoutrements that come with it), in which--in scope of all time--nothing much lasts for long.

Despite its scope and brevity, the book is fascinating. Bauer keeps the text from becoming a mere list of this ruler succeeded that ruler by choosing her details carefully and by spicing the narrative with moments of humor. The footnotes--items one might be tempted to skip in many a book--are not only often fascinating but hilarious. She knows that the general reader is often not going to really care that much about the official names of the Roman emperors, but she footnotes them anyway, showing how their ludicrously long nature would make her own narrative unreadable. In the text, she draws parallels to contemporary culture or across cultures to make a point--David and Solomon get compared respectively to a Pentecostal preacher and to a megachurch pastor, for example. Looks also for comparisons to Star Trek plots.

The history also doesn't limit itself to the western world. Bauer focuses on any area where sufficient history has been written down to present a narrative. Hence, China gets full scope here, as does, to a lesser extent, India. Unfortunately, without adequate written sources, the Americas and Africa (outside of Egypt) get little play here. But that is as it should be. Bauer has made a choice to focus mostly on cultures with written histories--one reason that the West and China get so much play. Archeology plays second fiddle, as it must, given that we are left to guess what a given artifact means when nothing written is there to back up our understanding.

I won't begin to summarize what is already a book of summary. The material inside the book is put together so well, however, that the whole series would seem to me to be a good one for reference in personal libraries. This is especially true because the book is full of useful maps--sometimes I even wished for more--and timelines, tying events around the world together, so that readers can know that the Han dynasty in China, for example, is falling apart about the same time that the Roman empire is beginning its decline.

Friday, January 28, 2011

On "Oregon Convinces Straight Men" by Kelly Magee (265 words) ****

Here's a prose poem. I'm not a huge fan of the form generally--I'm tied to convention: poems break into lines, prose doesn't. Flash has a plot or explores a moment. I don't know that this does any of those. But like a poem--indeed, as a poem--this piece is built on metaphor. It's about a stripper. No, it's about the landscape. Doesn't matter. The language here is beautiful, the two ideas wonderfully tied together. Read the piece here at Diagram.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On "The Ghost of Frederick Oppenheim" by Brian Baer (2366 words) ***

This story is full of parallels. A narrator who lacks much "pride" in himself works in a museum that lacks much pride in itself--forgotten artworks, a staff free to make things up about the art and artists as it cares to; a narrator who has lost interest in his own painting or in finding a real job--and whose girlfriend has lost interest in him. The parallels act as sort of guide that do well for setting up the ending and the piece's ambiguity. If this man inserts himself into a forgotten world, is he announcing himself or wiping himself out? Read the story here at the Northville Review.

On "The Other Side" by E. Thomas Finan ***

E. Thomas Finan's debut collection of short stories is a work whose title is aptly given. Six of the seven stories very clearly revolve around people at transitional points in their lives, as they move from "one side" to the "other." In a sense, most short stories work this way, providing us with a glimpse into a life that is undergoing some kind of transformation at the time when the chrysalis is about to break open, but in Finan's work, that moment seems to be almost at the forefront.

The strongest story in this collection is the first, "Lucy di Sartoria." It is about art--and about character. We look at a painting and we see, what? We see lines and shadows, oil on a canvas. Perhaps, we see a set of awards. We use the painting to prop up our own self. But what's underneath, we don't face. It's just a picture. And so it is with the people in our lives, the ones we collect as a means to show how wonderful we are to others. Lucy, a model, her husband, Drew, a painter, are, through a loss of interest in the worlds in which they are successful about to find out what exists under the paint--they're about to discover their true selves. It's an interesting piece in that most stories about infidelity lean toward a different set of conclusions, whereas here the troubles in the marriage seem a harbinger to some kind of grander concept of just what partnership means.

The second story (and arguably the second most successful), "Motley Black," is a curious one. The narrator is very well drawn--and fairly unlikable, at least to start. He's a pretentious bore, a young guy who wears black and looks out on a world in misery, though seemingly inexperienced at it for the most part. The tale takes place on a bus (that such a man would ride a bus can only be believed in that he is also a kind of bohemian, living off a small fortune that he has to be very careful with). All he wants to do is read. All the people beside him want to do is talk. (I have the same quandary on transportation, since I have a desire to do both--and I find myself both annoyed and thrilled when I fall into conversation with the passenger beside me.) In the course of the tale, while the narrator continues with the same "hate the world/all is misery" tone, we see him slowly take to a particular passenger. It's a subtle transformation insofar as the narrator doesn't really, outwardly seem to transform at all.

The title story--"The Other Side"--and "Billy Stevens Is 28" would likely come next in my list of favorite pieces. "The Other Side" focuses on a woman whose headaches seem to be leading her toward insanity, as she comes to believe that the house in which she is living is haunted, or as she discovers, something else may be going on entirely. "Billy Stevens Is 28" is a tale of a man, ten years out of high school, discovering that his life doesn't seem to be going anywhere. It is an easy and enjoyable read though utterly predictable in terms of the way that the kind of seize the day notions are revealed.

"The Tie That Binds" is an ensemble story--no central character, unless you count a building or an organization as the center, which indeed is what the story revolves around. Here, the move to the other side is one of a church building from its function as a church to its function as a museum. The few remaining parishioners, all moving toward the close of their lives, prepare the church for its transformation, even as they likely are making the same kind of transformations in their personal lives.

The two shorter pieces, "Dunes like White Elephants" and "An Aria of Windows," I found to be less successful. The former is an obvious play off of Hemingway's famous story (in which "Hills" replaces "Dunes" in the title) and reads like a successful writing exercise but didn't, for me, offer much in the way of new insights into the original story or its themes. "An Aria" is about a man who obsesses over a wrong number message he receives on the phone--an idea with great potential but also an idea that would be difficult to pull off in a believable way. I had a hard time understanding how or why the narrator had become so obsessed with the call, except on some kind of teleological level, which was not enough for me.

Finan's prose is generally easy, trending toward the philosophical. He is obviously interested in big ideas. At its most successful, the collection transforms these big ideas into something concrete--sometimes, poking fun at its own obsession, as in "Motley Black." That the first story, "Lucy," especially appears not to have found a home in some kind of journal, previous to publication in the book, is surprising. Finan is a writer who we probably will see more from and whose work is likely to become better with time; this first effort already shows what he is capable of, and it is exciting to see. You can read passages from Finan's book here.

The book is the first one published by Fieldnor Press, a new independent publisher. The design of the book is very nice--easy to read and professional in feel. I am particularly enamored by the choice of font on the interior and by the use of color--or rather nonuse--on the cover. Black-and-white has never before been so visually arresting. I thank the press for giving me the opportunity to read Finan's work.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On "Inside Job" by Jeff Vande Zande (1062 words) ***

This short story rocks out with a nice, clean, minimalist style. Or maybe "rock out" isn't the best verb--after all, there isn't a lot of excess here. This is a story about stripping everything down, making everything new again. A kid returns from rehab, goes to work. We watch. And then, things switch around at the end in a way you don't see coming. Read it here at Necessary Fiction.

On "The Incredible History of God's True Church" by Ivor C. Fletcher ****

Fletcher's narrative is an alternative account of the history of Christianity. Instead of following the usual line of believers from the point of view of Catholicism and all of the various groups that descend from it, Fletcher posits that the church that Christ founded is actually a small group whose history is found in the footnotes of those major historical books--if at all. Catholic theology, he would say, derived largely from a combination of pagan influences and the faith that Christ taught. Meanwhile, most of the "pure" believers in Christ ended up going underground.

These believers tend to have certain ideas that mainstream Christianity would find heretical: nonbelief in the trinity, a belief in keeping the seventh day sabbath, and often a belief in celebrating the feast days as kept mostly by the Jewish people, as well as beliefs in immersive water baptism (not that common, apparently, during the Middle Ages). Among his claims are that it's conceivable, even probable, that Christ's apostles (including Paul) went to places like Britain, founding churches there centuries before the nation would be "Christianized" by Roman authorities. He follows the storyline back into alpine areas of Europe during the Middle Ages, where such heretics sometimes managed to escape notice by the Catholic Church (and sometimes, at pain of death, did not). And he follows the storyline as such thinkers make their way to the United States--and especially to the colony of Rhode Island. Fletcher, being British, has a lot more on the history of the British church than I'd read before; reading this makes me want to go back to an online text I'd read on the history of the twelve apostles and where they may have actually gone, which was also fascinating.

I enjoy reading history that doesn't take the mainline view for granted. Of course, the problem with almost any history text that does this--and with many a history text that goes into times and places about which we know little--is that the author has to rely somewhat on mythology and legend or on sources written by people whose agenda may not have been to tell the truth. And, given that Fletcher has his own agenda, there is the risk that "perhaps" clauses become "if" clauses, which then become the foundation for wild assertions that get farther and farther away from what likely happened. This happened often, for example, in several of the books--by other authors--I read last year regarding Paul, wherein the primary source even, at points, began to take a backseat to the writer's own ideas about who Paul was and what he actually did. I'm a bit more sympathetic with Fletcher, however, since my own views dovetail more closely with his--and since I am also one to view established history with a grain of skepticism. I do like a certain amount of conjecture in history writing--as long as it's not taken to the point that it begins to contradict the primary sources that have come down to us.

Unfortunately, this raises one of the big issues extent in Fletcher's text. While it is footnoted and does have a bibliography, the bibliography does not include publication information, making it difficult to track down the page numbers to which he's referring (which edition of the work is he citing?). Fortunately, in the online world, many of these sources are old enough that they are in the public domain and could likely be searched electronically for the given quote. Just as Fletcher's own book can be, since it's available for download or online reading here.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On "My Sweet Warrior" by David Erlewine (517 words) ****

I was never one of the tough guys. In fact, I remember being locked out of school-yard football games by friends worried I'd get hurt. I guess the fact that people actually looked out for me was good, rather than taking opportunity to beat me up. I learned to be gracious via my parents. I went to a private school where beatings weren't so common. I value all those things.

And yet, what if I had been shown how to stand up for myself better? What would I have come to? What would my childhood have been like? Perhaps it would have been like that of the kid in this story. If so, I don't think I missed out on much. This is one deluded, wrong-headed parent, but one who clearly loves his kid all the same, and in that is the stories sad humor. Read it here at Word Riot.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

On "Wants What It Wants" by Bram Shay (978 words) ***

I featured this short piece by Bram Shay largely for its description of a bar. Setting is everything here--a place where women come to scout each other out, and more pitifully men come to simply watch. Different from the way one might expect a setting to be so effective, Shay doesn't do it so much in the description of the place (though that is there), but in the description of the kind of people who are in this place and the things going on. Truly, the narrators' are observers. Read the story here at SFWP.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On "Shallow Grave" by Julie Innis (1993 words) ****

Innis's story begins right where you want your short stories to start--at a moment too weird not to be further explained. Imagine a body found in your back yard--a fresh body. What would you do? How would you react? What's nice here is that Innis tells this sad story in quiet terms. The Sunday paper quality of the back story becomes the everyday for the couple who own the house. And we get a view of the couple that says much about who they are, people not so much able to talk to one another any more, and who don't even know exactly how to talk to one another about what just happened to them. Read the story here at the Northville Review.

On "Squandering the Blue" by Kate Braverman *****

Braverman's first collection of stories explores the lives of women overcoming drug and alcohol addictions (or giving into them). It explores colors--especially blue. And it explores language, as Braverman's work always does. Of the three books I've read of Braverman's, this one remains my favorite, in part because of the unity of theme, in part because when she hits her stride, the stories sting.

Sure, there are places where Braverman seems almost to get carried away with language, overwrought sections that probably could have been toned back. Her own obsessions are on display in reference to the turn of the millennium, which she mentions in poetic zeal numerous times. And some dialogue is incredibly pretentious, though in ways that make for interesting reading (a woman, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, in "Desert Blues," references theories of poetry and philosophy, and her friend knows exactly what she's talking about--clearly, this is a kind of obsession that afflicts both of these women).

However, the turns of phrase are largely extraordinary. A writer can easily put down lines that simply tell us what someone did or the fact that someone said something, but with Braverman, each line is like an emerald hacked from the center of a poem and then sanded for display, and we're not just talking ten pages of this--we're talking a couple of hundred pages. That's some dense prose, and some beautiful prose. One of my favorite sections of writing comes at the end of a story called "Falling in October," which becomes largely a rant on history that will make one want to sing--or to write something similar.

The best stories in the collection, however, manage to balance the need for story with Braverman's linguistic strengths. There are reasons that "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" gets anthologized so often. It has a narrative line, a consistent extended metaphor (that is easy to teach), and a whole lot of energy. The title story of the collection has also long been a favorite of mine, a tale about a girl growing up with an alcoholic mother. But of particular note this time around was a story called "Temporary Light." In it, a woman who has recently overcome an addiction problem suffers from the fallout of her previous life--and it is heartbreaking. She's lost everything, even as she has finally found the strength to start over.

Family also plays a large role in the collection. The affecting "Naming Names" explores the world of a kid growing up in an apartment, where other kids with sick or missing dads live and where residence means embarrassment at a high-class school. "Over the Hill" and "Points of Decision" reflect on a woman's attempts to break away from a abusive and manipulative husband. The families here are not healthy, but the people inside the stories are, by and large, survivors.

Monday, January 10, 2011

On "I Am Going to Cook a Quiche in My Easy-Bake Oven And You Are Going to Like It" by Roxane Gay (557 words) *****

This short piece is deceptive and fun. It works that deception by providing us a list of details that lead us in one direction while also leading us in another--and that's also what makes the piece fun, and funny. This is also a story told in the future tense, which is something one doesn't see often (in fact, I don't think I'd ever seen it until I wrote such a story myself a few years ago). Here, that future tense is effective because it is also a mood: "will" is "willing," a set of commands. And that adds to the humor as well--these commands, merged with the aura of romance. The childlike and the romantic, the dictatorial and the loving, all blended into one in one fantastic little spiced pie you can read here at McSweeney's Internet Tendency.

Friday, January 7, 2011

On "13 Halloweens" by Michael K. White (4674 words) *****

So one of my favorite online stories is back online and available. Credit the folks at Blue Print Review for reposting it. The story is essentially a recounting of anecdotes--thirteen of them--about Halloweens past. The writing is good and helps keep one engaged, but the stories at first seem simply to be an inventive list. Like many a good story built in this way, however, White has a doozy of an ending in store for you, where all those anecdotes are brought together, and suddenly the whole thing coheres. Read the story here at Blue Print Review.

On "Bare-Faced Messiah" by Russell Miller *****

This biography of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction writer, the author of Dianetics, and the found of the Church of Scientology is an absolutely fascinating read, as fascinating as Hubbard himself was. I've never had a desire to read Hubbard's writings, and I still don't. But growing up, I'd have had hard time not being aware of him. Commercials for Dianetics ran on the television. Bridge Publications, the publishing unit responsible for printing many of Hubbard's books, used to send me information on his book when I worked as a book buyer, and they called me at home, inviting me to lectures. I was young. I knew Hubbard was important somehow, but I didn't know how, and I wasn't at all drawn to attend any sort of lecture or party associated with him. Then there are the bookstores, which one can still find in some big cities, especially in Southern California, where I grew up. And there are the celebrities that are Scientologists.

So why read a book on L. Ron Hubbard? A few years ago, reading Mike Davis's City of Quartz, I became fascinated by an anecdote Davis shared about a personality very important in my hometown of Pasadena that involved Hubbard. At that point, I was like, I need to read that book. The problem: It was out of print. Thankfully, someone opted to make it available online, which is how I've finally been able to read it.

Miller's text essentially compares one man (the legend) with another (the "real"). The legend is of Hubbard's own creation--having grown up among Indians, touring Asia as a teen, the first casualty of World War II and a lone survivor from the attack on Pearl Harbor, a rocket scientist, a nuclear arms expert, and a man of many lives before that, going back trillions of years. Yet the made-up Hubbard, so far-fetched as he is, is actually, to me less interesting than the person that Miller presents us. There are no Indians; the travels in Asia as a teen are brief and not full of heroics; the World War II service is spotty (and actually quite funny).

Hubbard, in Miller's account, is a man with an active imagination who increasingly lives in that fantasy world--and gets others to live in it with him. In World War II, he does desk work. Given a chance finally to oversee a ship, he finds submarines off the coast of Oregon and has the crew fire off all of the ship's depth charges, while other ships in the area see nothing. He writes pulp fiction, and then comes up with the idea of writing a philosophical treatise regarding how to find peace. Somehow, this work, Dianetics, ends up on the best-seller list, and a man who was always in hoc before is richer than one could ever imagine. The "auditing" that Dianetics introduces, becomes a 1950s, and not satisfied with that, Hubbard transforms it into the religion that would become scientology. And then he gets even more bizarre. Fighting persecution, he flees to Britain, then to the ocean--that's right, the ocean. He and his followers buy boats and live on ocean liners for years. Finally, he settles in California, where he "disappears." Higher-ups in the church he founds fight for power.

But Hubbard is more than a person with an incredibly varied life. He is a personality to be reckoned with, at least as Miller draws him. He is a storyteller--and a liar. He is a conman that people love, and a man who cares for no one but himself (marrying one woman while still married to another; getting one wife in trouble and then letting her take the wrap by going to prison; "stealing" a man's mistress--as well as the man's personal fortune). And finally, he is a man whose fantasy life eventually becomes his real life, such that he can no longer distinguish between the con he is perpetrating and the reality that is his own being.

One comes away wondering how anyone could follow such a man in a religion. And yet, Miller is not writing from the official Hubbard script, and that is the difference. A spiritualism that might do wonders for a person can make such a person a believer, and then, under that spell, the person comes to see things as Hubbard and his followers see them, and all others who write against the religion are the deluded ones rather than those who live within its sway. As an outsider, I find Miller's account fascinating, but I know also what it is like to be on the inside of a group that outsiders misread and that too makes this a story with a certain hold over me. Maybe it'll hold you too. You can read it, online, here or download it as a pdf here.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

On "This Is Me American Style" by Maria Deira (1598 words) ****

Deira calls up a Mexican man here--one who wants, on some level, not to be Mexican, not to be the person he is, wants not to be working in an office, not to be lonely. I'm reminded a little of Oscar Zeta Acosta here if Acosta hadn't decided to become part of the brown revolution, if instead he'd climbed into himself and tried to be Anglo and failed to succeeded. This man wars against himself, which makes his battle against others all the more hopeless. Read the story here at Word Riot.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

On "8 Stories I'll Never Tell" by Ashley Cowger (804 words) ***

Cowger's "story," if it is to be called that, is really more a meditation on what is relevant as a story (in that sense, of course, Cowger's story, in breaking the rules of storytelling--no substantial plot--breaks them twice: choosing subjects that supposedly don't amount to worth of storytelling). I'm not sure that I agree with Cowger's analysis, that there are no stories here, but I understand the thinking. Do characters have to change? Most people don't, and much of my own fiction revolves around such people. Such stories, though, can be boring. People at least have to have an opportunity, I suppose--and turn that opportunity down--and many I know would say it has to the "last" opportunity, so that the story has resonance. That's tricky, though, telling a story without change, or even without a long-standing last chance for change, but in a way that it isn't boring. But then, I don't know that Cowger is saying that such stories aren't for telling--her very introduction of the subject suggests that there should be no limits on what constitutes the subject of a story. Hers is a compelling piece, no matter. Read the full explanation here at the Pedestal Magazine.