Friday, December 30, 2011

On "Something More Interesting" by Tara Laskowski (2435 words) ****

Heidi is out to make some changes in her life. What is interesting to me about this is that we get to see her make those changes. She's suffered a breakup with a boyfriend, who has offered her various reasons. It seems we'd more likely, in a story, get the things leading up to the breakup. Or we'd get a story about someone coming to terms with the breakup. Instead, Laskowski sets up her character with a self-improvement regimen, of sorts. Heidi's life is changing, but what that means we don't really know. Read the story here at Corium.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On "Cursed" by Adolfo Caceres Romero, translated by Kathy S. Leonard (735 words) ***

One of the three or four short stories that Edgar Allan Poe wrote over and over--for Poe, as I learned when reading a whole stack of his work, was rather redundant in his themes and plots--was that of the person waking after having been buried. Poe thought of this as the ultimate scary story, the nightmare, to wake and find oneself in the grave. Indeed, the concept is scary, though--I don't believe--not so common as Poe makes out. Romero's tale works this theme to full effect. What happens when the dead rise but no one believes it? Read the story here at Cerise Press.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On "When the Evening Reaches Here" by Jessica Harwell (3599 words) ****

This one is a brutal story about alcohol, about alcoholics, about love, of a sort--or inertia. What is it that keeps us in relationships gone bad, even when other opportunities arise? Is it a concern for the other person? Is it the safety of what we know? Is it that we can't break away from memories of better times, that splitting might suggest such times weren't real? Is it that what we want is not always what is good for us? This is one sad piece, one that hints at a life that isn't going to change anytime soon for the better. In a sense, Harwell's story is mystifying in that regard, how it keeps one satiated, even as it proffers no elements of transformation--and few prospect. Read the story for yourself here at Identity Theory.

On "The Way of Zen" by Alan Watts ****

Alan Watts remains one of my favorite writers on the subject of Eastern religions. This book is one of the basics, going into the history of Zen and then some of its practices. I first read it back in graduate school while working on my thesis, and over the course of the past year, I have been rereading it. Having read it in such small chunks, however, I didn't get as much out of it as perhaps I did in the past. But then, Watts's writing is often best meditated on in small chunks--it isn't always easy to follow as a whole (though it is not difficult reading).

Although this may be a basic text, my favorite of his that I've read is probably still Psychotherapy East and West. There, Watts compares Western and Eastern thinking most clearly to me, as he discusses how principles of psychology are in some ways related to Eastern thought (and in some ways not). It's a text I think I will return to soon if I decide to reread more Watts.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

On "His Virginia Mammy" by Charles W. Chesnutt (6821 words) ***

In this tale from Reconstruction days, a white man falls in love with a pretty woman who doesn't know her ancestry. Like Moses, she's been pulled from a river and raised by adopted parents, these, Germans with a particular status that, though lost, doesn't make the white man fret. In fact, nothing does--or would--he's so in love with the gal. But the girl is concerned that her real parentage might not come from decent stalk, and so she refuses to marry, until one day she meets an old black woman who is able to tell her all about her wonderful parents and the ship on which the daughter was rescued from. What's rather heartbreaking about this story is the willed ignorance that all three of these major protagonists allow to stand in for truth. A mother knows her daughter is better off not as a daughter. A suitor and his love know this too. And so do we. While one may blanch at the idea of living a lie, it's hard not to see it as the best situation in an unjust world. Read the story here.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

On "He Tells Her a Story" by James Fleming (4000 words) ****

So Fleming borrows a style from Stephen Dixon, whose work is often fascinating but also often grating. He likes to go off on digressions, but not in the sense that one might go off in digressions of thought but rather digressions of dialogue. Dixon's Interstate is one of the more successful works of this nature.

Here, Fleming does something that I have tried to do--and failed at doing. He tells a story about the struggle with telling a story. In Fleming's hands, this is actually a fun and humorous piece. One story starts, but it's not good enough or the listener has already heard it or the listener doesn't want that kind of story, and there's this constant back and forth about what a story really is and how one manages to to tell one. In a sense, we're watching a story get written as we're listening to this story. So there's a story within a story about telling a story, only is that story within a story really a story? That's open to question. What is a story? Read the story here at Failbetter. (A word of caution in case this isn't your kind of thing: this story contains a lot of talk about sex.)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

On "Don't Mess" by Jeff Kass (3798 words) ***

There is something that makes me a little queasy about Bull--the online magazine, that is. Bull is a magazine of fiction for men. The writing, I find, intriguing. I guess it's full of testosterone, or something, whatever men push out on a page that's inside them. What makes me queasy is the idea that I feel like I'm not man enough to write anything like these stories. Most of the men's fiction seems focused on, um, well, women. And that's natural, no? Most of the guys are tough ones--maybe that's where I get a bit squeamish. But I guess I have no real reason to be, since my own work has appeared on its pages.

In this story by Jeff Kass, the Bull's tough guy is a wrestler, one that can defeat just about anyone he comes across. Or so he says. Problem: Somewhere along the line someone thought it a good idea to introduce cheerleaders into wrestling, and now our men are fighting it out not just to be top dog but to be top dog for the ladies. In a magazine of men's fiction, which seems focused so often on women, it's fair to predict that wrestlers' actions are likely to remain the same. Read the story here at Bull.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On "Shoes for Rent" by Lynne Potts (2273 words) ***

Here's a strange story with a narrator who is almost there. We'll learn more about the narrator by the end of the story, but the narrator remains elusive in many ways. Things don't quite add up. And neither do we know or learn the whole story that the narrator tells, though it seems more complete than even the narrator's own. Unique here is the voice, which seems to go from one strange random detail to another, as if the story were haphazard rather then plotted--but that's just part of the various deceptions. Read the story here at Guernica.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On "Undressing Bullie" by Scott Lininger (492 words) ***

This little piece works off the element of surprise. Take a newspaper ad and watch what happens when things don't quite go as planned. No wonder folks are suspect of the "Internet" when it comes to love. Read the story here at the now defunct Battered Suitcase.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

On "Clues to Murple" by Kirk Curnutt (6303 words) ****

Where do I begin with this piece about self-indulgence and contemporary culture? Curnutt's tale is so fraught with relevant commentary that it's hard to put what matters into words without just sending you to the story. Murple is a writer who is obsessed with himself, with his fame, with the number of hits he gets on Amazon, on Facebook, on GoodReads, and so on. It's not as if writers have never cared about reviews and reviewers, but in the Web age, the reviews are instant. Merge this obsession with the will to do anything to make a name for yourself, and you get what Curnutt creates in this story. It's also quite funny. On the run from the police, Murple can't help but check his Web presence, even as it provides clues to his whereabouts. Watching him try, for one last time, to get famous shows just how pitiful the guy is. He desperately needs a self-esteem burst. Why don't you help him out by reading the story about him here at the now defunct Flatman Crooked?

On "Quartet in Autumn" by Barbara Pym ****

This book came to me by way of a friend who insisted I read Barbara Pym. "Isn't that a bit too staid, English, and old-fashioned for me?" I asked. You'll love her my friend said. I promised I'd get around to her--as in, years from now. Hours later, he produced a book. "I knew you wouldn't read her unless I made it impossible for you to avoid her," he said, handing me a copy he'd purchased just for me. And that was the book I just finished reading.

Staid, old-fashioned, proper, English? Yes, all of these things could describe this novel by Pym. But also accomplished, in the best sense of the word. The novel tells the tale of four coworkers, all of them single, all of them on the verge of retirement. Their jobs are on the chopping block, but rather than fire them, the company has decided to keep them on until they retire, then get rid of the jobs. In the course of the book, two of the workers do retire, and we watch as these four older people deal with the attendant loneliness. The office, on some level, is most of what they have, and without that, without each other, there's little to fill the days.

The novel itself is told in intervening sections from varying points of view. Letty is a heavy-set woman who never married and whose plans to go live in the country with a friend upon retirement fall apart when the friend decides to marry instead. Marcia, a homeowner, is dealing with a mastectomy. Norman, like Letty, simply rents a room in a house; at lunch, he tours the library or the British Museum. Edwin fills his nights with church activities and the occasional drink. All of them are desperate on some level for companionship, except arguably Edwin, but all of them are unwilling to admit it. And so they dither away their days, wondering really what there will be to do after their jobs end and their days are wholly their own.

But Quartet in Autumn is not in the end a novel of despair. Amid this, Pym finds a way to suggest that the characters find new meaning to their lives, even as those lives hit their near close. What that meaning is, however, she doesn't give much clue to.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On "The Middle Toe of the Right Foot" by Ambrose Bierce (3247 words) ***

Ambrose Bierce, storyteller of more than a century ago, dabbled very often in stories about ghosts. Of those not involving soldiers, this is one of the better ones. The plot is a familiar one--recycled in various Bierce stories. It starts with a duel, a bet of sorts--to stay in a haunted house--and ends up a tragic joke. As people regularly faint from surprise in Restoration dramas, so people regularly die of fear in Bierce stories. Read the story here.