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.