Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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

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

Sunday, November 27, 2011

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

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

On "Vox" by Nicholson Baker ****

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

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

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

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

Now, can we talk about something else?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

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

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

Saturday, November 12, 2011

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 6, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

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

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