Saturday, July 30, 2011

On "There Are No Right or Wrong Answers" by Christine Fadden (1602 words) *****

Fadden's story about questions and answers starts out like an essay. In fact, it could be an essay--or a letter--to you. It's one of those pieces addressed to the reader, or rather to a reader. We're just the person perching over the true audience's shoulder; we're just the voyeur (unless our name happens to be Matt, and we're in college and live with our mom, and we like older women). Fadden's piece is a flight of fantasy, started with those Internet quizzes that are supposed to tell us things we don't know about ourselves and our futures and following through. Just how accurate is the quiz? Does it matter? There are no right or wrong answers. Read the story here at Knee-jerk.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On "Backslide" by Meghan Austin (578 words) ***

So Austin tells love stories. We've been here before. This one is about all those conversations we have with other people about their breakups, about the people they keep going back to . . . or hearkening back to, how a relationship is so much better in our memory. Read this one over here at Wigleaf if just for the fun of listening in to all the sordid tales. Go on. I know you want to.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

On "Matters of Breeding" by Douglas Light (1500 words) *****

Let's talk about crime. Let's talk about crime in fiction. Most of the time, crime is the focus. After all, crime is interesting. It's illegal. People get in trouble. There are high stakes. But that's what we expect. All of that is present in Light's "Matters of Breeding," but the bigger focus here is a marriage that is falling apart--oh, and the narrator's intense interest in trivia. It's the trivia, the banal, impersonal trivia, that makes this narrator seem like such a real and personal. Read the story here at Failbetter.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On "Pittsburgh" by Meghan Austin (1331 words) ***

What is love? This is one of the issues that Meghan Austin grapples with in Pittsburgh, the story of napper who lives with another napper, a dreamer of dreams that mirror those of the lover. People are crabby. People are upset. People are not very nice. But you love them. Maybe they love you. Maybe. Depends . . . on . . . what . . . they . . . do. Maybe. Read the story here at Failbetter.

On "Babylon and Other Stories" by Alix Ohlin ****

Most story collections, outside of omnibus collections by well-established authors, consist of eight to ten pieces, unless the pieces are almost entirely flash fiction. But Ohlin's first collection features a robust seventeen, and not a one of them feels like filler. This is a voice that is assured and confident. At the end of each story, I felt like she'd done something so well that she'd make it look easy. And in that is perhaps also a problem--it would be easy to discount Ohlin's stories because they do seem to fall so effortlessly onto the page. I assume they don't.

Another issue is that it's hard to pick highlights from a collection that is uniformly good--uniformly very, very, very good. Babylon and Other Stories, at least for me, doesn't have any incredible stand-outs the way that Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son does. In that collection, I found myself so awed by "Emergency" and "Car Crash While Hitchhiking" that the other stories paled in comparison, and I didn't realize just how amazing the rest of that collection was until I read some of those stories outside of the collection's context, on their own, among other people's stories. No longer washed out by stories that are absolute classics, the other pieces could show their bright shine of their own. I feel like in Ohlin's collection, we have seventeen of those brightly shining pieces, all shining uniformly, but not a one bloated star in its last hurrah before death.

Nevertheless, I will try to hit some highlights. As is typical of story collections, the first story itself is memorable. Called "The King of Kohlrabi," it is about a teenager whose father leaves the family for another woman one summer; left to support themselves, the daughter takes a job only to find her mom becoming attached to her new boss. "Babylon," the title story, considers a man who falls in love with a woman who turns out to have more problems than initially appears (I'm being deliberately vague so as not to ruin it for those who might want to read the wonderful story). "The Tennis Partner," one I just read today and why it probably sits so well in my head, regards a teen in love with a girl who is above his league and a father whose attempts to win the girl's father at tennis are miserably ineffectual.

Other stories consider a kid who takes up piano lesson to escape troubles at home even though his family can't afford a piano for him to practice on ("Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student"), a girl who pretends to be French when she becomes a freshman in college ("You Are Here"), a couple who rents a house from a landlord that won't stay away ("Wonders Never Cease"), a story with a very effective use of flash forward at its end ("Meeting Uncle Bob"), and a copyeditor who writes a novel for an author ("Ghostwriting"). Also in the collection is "I Love to Dance at Weddings," available also online and which I reviewed here. In fact, it was reading two of Ohlin's stories online that drew me to her first collection; I will likely at some point follow it up with her other collection and possibly her novel. She is that good.

What unifies this collection beyond the simple fact that the stories are all of quality was at first hard for me to say. This isn't some cycle with an easily stereographed theme or unifying device, and yet, I do think that the collection does have a kind of unity. The title of the title story is a big clue here (backed up with the ending of the final story in the collection). It seems that each of these pieces regards people who are dealing with a situation that is confusing--such as the name "Babylon" suggests--confusing to the extent that they are overwhelmed and often are drawn toward violence and more often toward their own imagination as a means of coping.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On "Break Up" by Douglas Light (1842 words) *****

Susan Minot's story "Lust" consists of a list of a series of incidents and men (much like Kidder's "Beds," discussed here on this blog). It's a technique that is deceptively difficult to pull off. I think the reason is that it's hard to formulate a plot in this manner, and in the end, no matter how interesting the list is, we as readers want it to add up to something.

Light's "Break Up" is another such story--a piece about all the women that this narrator has broken up with. Or, as we read longer, who have broken up with him. What makes "Break Up" work, I think, is that there is an agenda. This guy is talking to someone, trying to make something work out this time. We care. We're interested. We want to know if he will succeed. Something tells me not.

Credit the newly founded Pugilist Press, which is reprinting Light's novels, with bringing this author to my attention. I think I'll be reading more of his stuff. Read this story here at Failbetter.

On "Bad Boys and Dream Girls" by Tom Anstead ***

With all the news lately of self-published e-books, I thought I'd download a few to read. Anstead's is the first I've gotten around to reading. In part, that was because it was the best looking. The design on the thing appears more professional than many of the other self-published works, even if there are a few oddities and typos. The other thing is that Anstead was completely unknown to me, not someone whose work I'm familiar with from other online publications or by reputation (in other words, this wasn't a book formerly released by a publisher). I was going into this cold, to see just whether something like this might actually be decent or good.

And, on the whole, I found the book engaging. There were places I was tempted to put it down, but as the work moved forward, I actually began to want to complete it, to find out what happened next, which was not exactly what I predicted. Anstead's text is a good, light read.

What made me want to put it down at points? It was the narrator, the main character, a college student whose main interest in life is scoring girls and getting drunk. This is not the kind of guy I like spending even a few minutes with at a bar, let alone nearly 250 pages. (I'm reminded of a couple of drunk guys who I took a shuttle with to the airport a few years ago, how everything seemed so funny to them and how to me they just seemed like idiots. The airport is unfortunately ninety minutes away.) So this is our narrator. There's lots of vomiting in this book, in addition to the drinking. And it's all told with gusto. This guy truly enjoys his loser lifestyle. As for studying, he finds it boring. Classes are a waste of his time. He has no interest in learning anything. Spend a few hours with him, and you'll find . . . well, he's no deeper than what he appears to be. Life is party.

What made me keep at it? Herein is the catch. Anstead has got himself a decent plot, and the novel itself starts off well enough--we don't realize just how sophomoric the narrator is until a few pages in, and by then, the plot has kicked in.

But more than that, Anstead also has created a text that spells out in the form of an example what various dating advice books say about catching members of the opposite sex. And in this way, it was fascinating.

The narrator has women dancing all around him. He's an alpha male, even though he's got nothing up in the head. His best friend is a nerd (I'm not sure why the two of them would be friends--what they'd see in one another--but we'll skip over that), a beta who couldn't get a woman if he were the last man on the planet and the only way the woman could continue to live was by reproducing (I realize that situation is preposterous, but work with me).

Why are the women flocking to this guy who rejoices over a C+ rather than his typical F (and how did he even make it to his second year of college)? Why does no one seem to notice Jack, the guy who has his stuff together? The difference, the novel shows, is confidence. The narrator believes he's hot stuff, and he acts it, and the girls swarm, and the more of them that swarm, the more of a commodity he is. Jack, sans confidence, is not a commodity, even with all his good traits.

Meanwhile, which women are attractive? They're the ones who play hard to get as well. The narrator likes a woman best, it seems, the more she's out of his league, and so does Jack. But the narrator, because he mostly doesn't care about anyone other than himself (I wouldn't say it's exactly an act either), often manages to score these women, while Jack, who pines for the gal of his dreams, seems as if he never will.

Is this how relationships really work? I guess on some level, it's true--especially for the hooking-up crowd. We often want what others want, and we want what we can't have, even when these make no sense intellectually. Anselm does a great job of showing why. The book is available for download here.

Friday, July 15, 2011

On "Puppet's Prognosis" by Schuyler Dickson (1881 words) ***

I've long wondered a bit of analysts--psychologists, really. I've had a few friends that visited such professionals regularly. But I've wondered when is therapy over? The thinking on this varies. I've read that really all people need is someone--anyone--to talk with, and that's what analysts allow for. I've read that a person only needs analysis as long as he or she thinks analysis is needed (this from books on Eastern philosophy). And then there's the idea that analysis somehow cures something--but what exactly?

Dickson's story is about a man who doesn't quite know how to let go of his analyst. This itself creates the amusing central motif--a grown man visiting a child psychologist, asking to talk with the puppet assistant. You can read the nondiagnosis here at Bartleby Snopes.

On "The Real Pleasure in Life" (the novel) by Al Dixon ****

This unpublished book is the work of my friend Al Dixon. I have read two of his previous books before, both of them collections of stories, one of which shares the name of this novel. Both collections include a few stories that astound me. This is the first time I've read a full unpublished novel by any of my friends. And it was a good one to start with, one that will be hard to beat.

And yet, I find myself not fully able to process the work--not yet at least. I think it may take a year or so to settle out before I am more certain what I think of it. The issue is this: the characters in the novel bear a resemblance to many people I know (including me), and the places discussed are locations right around the town where I live. So on one level, I enjoyed reading the book just to see who showed up and how Al would characterize the people inside. Since I am a person who knows the much of the material from which the author is drawing, the settings and characters seem incredibly lifelike, incredibly well drawn. But I wonder if I would think the same as a person unfamiliar with the people and places--that is, unfortunately, a question I won't ever be able to answer. (It's also strange to read of one's self: some things, I was like, "I wouldn't do that," but then I had to remind myself this was fiction; and the egocentric part of me kept waiting for me to show up again.)

What the novel definitely has going for it is enthusiasm. It reminded me quite a bit of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. This is not to say that the book is about a road trip--hardly. It's more that the text has a zest for life that Kerouac's second book also has, and it has that kind of feel of letting you hang out with friends without being too obsessed about plot (though there definitely is more of a plot here than in Kerouac's book). I kept thinking, as I read, about how if I were twenty again and Al was a total stranger, I might very well be all over this book, wanting to do as the characters in this book do, to come and meet these people and hang out in this town. And maybe, just maybe, that might be true of other readers. We'll see, if the work ever sees publication (getting agented can be tough, especially when a work is more character driven than plot driven).

The text concerns a guy who one day finds a card in his home from a coffee shop where he has never been. For some reason, he feels drawn to the place and to finding out how the card got into his possession, so when his significant other takes off for a painting exhibit, the character decides to spend the weekend driving to the town in question to find the purveyor of the card. Problem is that his car breaks down when he gets to town, and suddenly he's stranded in this strange and friendly place--and drawn to it as well, so drawn, in fact, that a job has already been arranged for him at the coffee shop whose card he has and some people seem even to already know him, but no one will tell him why or from where.

You can read excerpts and learn more about the book here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

On "Visitations" by Tina May Hall (3472 words) *****

My favorite story from Tina May Hall's award-winning collection is this one, available at the Collagist. In it, a woman discovers a dead squirrel stuck in her wall; her boyfriend, meanwhile, leaves for a trip. What follows is an attempt to rid the house of the squirrel, whose decomposition is stinking up the house. Or really, what follows is the discovery of a secret and the putting away of a few others. The squirrel becomes a metaphor for many of the events in the story itself--and a fitting introduction to a collection titled The Physics of Imaginary Objects, for it is about the implications for our lives of these objects we can only imagine. Read the story here at the Collagist.

On "The Physics of Imaginary Objects" by Tina May Hall ***

Tina May Hall is an amazing wordsmith, of that this collection leaves no doubts. Each sentence is a gem--so much so that I often felt I was reading poetry rather than fiction. And that may be one of the reasons I felt something missing some of the time--that attention to plot.

But on a sheer sentence level, I loved much of what is here. Take, for example, the second story in the collection, "Erratum: Insert 'R' for Transgressors." The story is built around a few key lines that are repeated over and over with minor variations. It is beautiful to listen to in one's head, and I'm sure beautiful to hear read aloud, and it leads to a kind of climax as a good poem often does--but for me, it did not seem an epiphany in the sense that one would often glean from a story. It was more like we climb this mountain of words with the author and then, at the end, stare down at the beautiful valley below.

The stories are mostly very short, in keeping with their generally poetic nature. Some of them sparkle with neat ideas. I thought the pieces on a woman who stores a finger she has cut off in a jar, on a woman who falls in love with a television meteorologist, and on a town with a huge sinkhole in its center to be entertaining on this level.

My favorite pieces, however, probably fall into much more traditional fare. The lead story, "Visitations," is magnificent, as is the novella that ends the collection, "All the Day's Sad Stories," which appeared earlier as a Caketrain chapbook. That latter story recounts a tale of a young couple trying to get pregnant and of a set of mysterious written X's that keep showing up around their property. It is a mystery of an unusual sort, and it is also a story that relishes in declarative sentences. This style, maintained throughout the collection, works well for Hall, reminding me, with her penchant for the poetic both of Blake Butler and of Kate Braverman.

A word also on the design--I love the small trim size and the choice of typeface for this collection. I felt like I was reading a short handbook on the subject denoted in the title of the collection.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

On "Baby's Breath" by Jason Kapcala (7370 words) ***

The film Out of Sight, a seemingly commercial vehicle for George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, starts, as I recall, with a scene of Clooney throwing his tie on the ground as he leaves an office building. It seems to have little to do with what comes after, except . . . an hour or so later, we see that scene again, and the meaning becomes clear. We were watching the future, and we didn't even know it. Such is the genius of Steven Soderberg.

Jason Kapcala's story uses a similar technique. That moment, in prose, takes on the aura of a memory, something vaguely familiar, and it works well here, because the story is about a summer job right after high school, before heading off to college. For me, this time in my life was one of great hope and longing, and of endless disappointment. The narrator here, working at a nursery (for plants, not babies!), goes through some of the same emotions, largely caused by one coworker. All the characters in this piece seem spot on. A good read is to be had, here, at Summerset Review.

On "Time's Arrow" by Martin Amis ****

I read about this book a few months ago and thought, I need to read that. It is, admittedly, built largely around a gimmick, and it was the gimmick that appealed to me. But Amis makes the gimmick work. The gimmick is this: the novel is told in reverse. By reverse, I do not mean that we get scenes in reverse order, as in the film Momento. Rather, take the story "Benjamin Button" but place the whole thing into reverse order rather than just the title character. Everyone is getting younger. History is going backward.

Amis describes actions moving in reverse. Dialogue is given, line by line, in reverse. "You're welcome," she said, extending her hands. "Thank you," he said, giving her the box. She put the box in a bag. "This is for you," she said. "No, really, I didn't do anything," he told her. Apparently she took his modesty literally, for she rescinded her offering.

Amis makes the dialogue and the descriptions work, describing them as if going forward even as they move backward. Somehow, even though the conversations are in reverse, they end up making a kind of odd sense, and the actions take on that odd kind of sense as well. In fact, Amis makes it work so well that after reading, I'd inevitably find my mind working in reverse. In a story by another writer I read soon after, in which a character was pregnant, I kept expecting her to become less and less pregnant--no, no, I had to keep reminding myself, that's now how things work: she becomes more pregnant.

What Amis is doing is tracking a man's life as it works backward toward horror and toward innocence. By working back, he gives a whole other perspective to life and to regret. Seizing the day is made all the more impressive when things work away from a breakup toward a romance's start. A character shows up abruptly and disappears gradually, becoming colder with time. As a doctor, the main character mainly helps people get sicker, except when he doesn't, when--in the story's central story-ending events--he helps people rise up from the dead. In this manner, the story becomes one of redemption, taking back evil acts from the past, making evil good.

It's an effective and moving strategy in Amis's adept hands. I loved this book. Alas, because we start at the end and move to the start, it's sole disadvantage was that I knew all that was coming. It was, in essence, predictable. But then again, it may have been predictable in part because of the writer who first brought it to my attention and who mentioned exactly what happens. In that sense, I'm slightly uncertain as to whether the lack of surprise was inherent in the manner of telling or in the manner by which I came to know the story.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

On "The Temple" by H. P. Lovecraft (5388 words) *****

This is the first time I've every read Lovecraft. Now I know why Paul Bowles and other fans find him so appealing. This story at least is a mix of fantasy and madness, which makes it all the more entertaining and hard to pin down.

On a long cruise in the Atlantic, a seaman finds refuge on the deck of a submarine--only to be drowned. Or so that's the theory. In his possession is a magnificent piece of ivory that one of the crewmen takes possession of. Over the coming weeks, the crew goes mad, claiming it's a curse of the ivory piece. Our narrator, however, always a cool and rational one dismisses all warnings, recognizing these cautions as just what they are--mutterings of a crew too long at sea, too long alone, separated from others. Or are they? With such an ultrarational narrator, Lovecraft plays on this border with madness for full effect. Read the story here at Innsmouth Free Press.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

On "Pool" by Corey Campbell (2702 words) ***

There's something haunting about Corey Campbell's "Pool." It's one of those stories in which not much seems to be happening but which also seems somehow to stick one's skin, sliding over you like water, so that it's not so easy to get off. The piece centers on a young woman named Darla who is fairly new in a relationship with Jon, a man who is good enough for now but who she has no intentions of sticking with. Trevor and Mandy are friends, married, and even younger than Darla. There's an obvious metaphor here regarding "taking the plunge." Darla doesn't want to swim, doesn't want to go in the pool, but it appears that she lives her entire life that way--never willing to totally commit or to dare. Until . . . Read the story here at Anderbo.

On "The Essential Guide to Werewolf Literature" by Brian J. Frost ***

Figuring I'd follow up Basil Copper's history of werewolves with a literary history of them, I picked up Frost's tome. Frost's book, written nearly three decades later, adds the seventies, eighties, and nineties to the mix of literary works under discussion. Still, it wasn't quite what I was hoping for.

It's exhaustive, to be sure. There may be a few works he fails to mention, but this is essentially plus two hundred pages of titles and plot summaries. Call it an annotated bibliography in text form, and that's essentially what you'd have. That's not necessarily bad, and Frost is better, I think, at plot summaries than Copper. He knows where to stop, not to get so full into the plot that your eyes glaze over, unlike Copper who at times rehearses every tiny details. In this sense, the writing seems more lively in Frost's book.

But what I guess I was wanting, and will still have to find somewhere else if I return to the werewolf theme (which is unlikely in the near future), is more analysis. Why are some people interested in these creatures, and what does that say about humanity? Not much of that is here.

The closest Frost gets to that is in the opening chapter, which discusses where the myth comes from. He rehearses some of the same details as in the more interesting sections of Copper's book, but in a more abbreviated and scholarly tone, which in the case of this more historical material makes it less interesting than Copper's text. We learn that the werewolf has some antecedents among the ancients and that werewolves were a fear among people in the Middle Ages, who assumed they were witches (the idea that a werewolf had fur on the underside of human skin is repeated--unfortunate for those who were tested, for the innocent were dead, and the guilty, well, no one seemed to ever have fur under the skin). And we learn a bit about true werewolves, or rather, ideas of werewolves in contemporary time: people who think they are wolves, psychological problems, eaters of flesh, and so on.

Next, Frost turns his attention to studies of werewolves, where some other useful information might been gleaned and where, if I were motivated to review the chapter more closely, I might find the literary and cultural analysis I was wishing for. Then follow chapters on novels and stories over the various periods, especially from the Victorian era on, and he finally closes with a chapter on anthologies of werewolf stories. If you can't get enough werewolf reading, Frost's would be a good place to start. You'll probably find enough to last a lifetime or at least a decade.