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 I won't go into it here, because the story was unpublished.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.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

On "The Titans of Camp Four" by Brian Trent (5474 words) ***

A lot of science fiction is primarily about ideas. All else one finds in literary fiction--characters, setting, plot--is placed below the general concept on the degree of importance. That's certainly the case here. Trent's idea, however, is so intriguing and so well put down that one can't help but read on and on.

A few years ago I saw an animated short film that was drawn as if the Victorians had discovered--or rather written about--space travel. Imagine, if you would, what "new" technology would have looked like to a Victorian, and imagine a Victorian pushing the limits of knowledge to project a future. Naturally, it seems likely a writer would put steam engines in space, and that's what this cartoon did.

Trent does a similar thing here. The story is based around the plot device of having a man go to work on the moon to find out what a particular "secret camp" is doing--and whether it even exists. But the alternative history behind the story is what intrigues here. He's got Grecians flying planes, Romans inventing trains, the inventions being forgotten with the centuries (and not widely adopted at the time for political reasons). Find out more about the camp here at Atomjack Magazine.