Saturday, June 30, 2012

On "The Relapse" by Leslie Jamison (7750 words) ***

This story reminds me a bit of Glatt's novel A Girl Becomes a Comma like That. I suppose it's the abortion and the rather careless life that the main character leads that ties the two works together for me in my head. Here, however, the focus is almost completely on the main character's drinking and on the pregnancy that that leads to, which should be rather obvious given the title. What I like about this piece is how Jamison starts it, with something shocking that makes us want to learn more--like, why would anyone do this to themselves or to someone they know? But that shock isn't the only one that will come. This piece is full of great first lines for a story--because it's got some really interesting family dynamics going on. And like most stories we think of as good, this piece suggests some kind of transformation is under way. Read the story here at L Magazine.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

On "The Rugby Witch" by Benjamin Nugent (2691 words) ***

Benjamin Nugent's "Rugby Witch" is part fantasy and part horror, and in that sense it resembles the best sort of campfire story one hears as a kid. The main character Yuri wants to be better at rugby and at picking up girls, and the key to success lies with a witch that the best senior rugby player knows all about. Really, what he wants is courage, but courage comes at a cost. Right--you already know--not a good idea to get mixed up with a witch. Read the story here at L Magazine, and then set aside a few minutes next time you go camping to regale others with the tale.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

On "Bowling Balzac" by Jules Archer (317 words) ****

This short piece manages to do well what a great flash can do--work a single moment on multiple levels. Here, a woman works out her angst regarding bowling while she works out the same regarding her marriage. Great use of a ring. Read the story here at Blue Fifth Review.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

On "500 Kilometers to Cairo" by David Ewald (3972 words) ***

I've long been a fan of Paul Bowles's fiction, especially his stories. A critical biography I read claimed that Bowles fell out of favor among American readers the longer he stayed in North Africa. The world that he became a part of was one Americans could not understand. But that is precisely what Bowles writes about--that misunderstanding between the Arab world and the Western world.

Enter David Ewald, whose tale covers similar ground. A man visiting Egypt with a woman who is part of the world he is visiting. Although he is teaching English overseas, he is still a tourist. He has money. He has a way "home," to the America he wants to return to, along with the girl. The woman, by contrast, does not want to be in America. How can she not? And why is America so important to him? These are the questions the two strive over, and in the end, it is only after some harrowing experiences--the last caused by his own self--that the American finally begins to understand. Read the story here at Bull.

Monday, June 18, 2012

On "Second Non-place" by Stephen Hastings-King (221 words) ****

I'm not sure quite what to make of this short piece, but I like the writing. Hastings-King splits characters from story here and places them somewhere new--and new and new and new. Read the story here at 52-250.

Friday, June 15, 2012

On "Dinner" by Amelia Gray (576 words) ****

In Amelia Gray's bizarre world, someone isn't served just soup with a hair in it but in fact a full plate of hair. This sets up the embarrassing situation of not knowing what to do with it. Is this some kind of delicacy? How does one eat it? What's more, the issue is that this is a date. I love how this story gets at all the awkwardness that goes along with first dates, first days on the job, and other firsts, where we're striving to make the right impression and find ourselves warring within over what we want and what we want, who we are and who we want to show that we are. Read the story here at Shelf Life Magazine.

On "Amelia Gray's Museum of the Weird" by Amelia Gray ***

I've greatly enjoyed Gray's stories on the Web, as evidenced by the number that I've featured here on the blog. They have a kind of zaniness that makes them incredibly fun to read. At their best, they also manage to comment in a disturbing way on our contemporary world. Stories like "Babies," wherein a woman wakes to find she's birthed a new baby each day, are funny and yet horrifying, a combination that first made me a big fan of Jeffrey Eugenides Virgin Suicides back in the day. So it was with great earnestness that I finally turned to a full collection of hers.

The collection of mostly very short stories reads very quickly. Many of these pieces have been featured online. And many of these pieces read like the tales one would find online. What I mean is that many aren't really tales. They're interesting forays into the absurd, playful things you'd find on sites like McSweeney's Internet Tendencies. And while such makes for fun reading, the collection as a whole for me became weighted a bit too much toward the weird. After a while, I wanted more things to add up.

The best stories in the collection seem to be those freighted toward the start of the collection. Or perhaps, the best stories are those I read when I hadn't become inured to the weirdness. "Babies" is a great lead-in. Another good one, "Unsolved Mystery," surprisingly wasn't published independently before the collection's publication. It involves a detective on the hunt for a serial killer, and the detective's relationship problems and his faith in God. Gray nails the closing on this one and manages to make all these spinning plates relate to one another and work off of one another to say something about spirituality and knowledge.

In the "entertaining but not really a story" category would be such pieces as "Trip Advisory" offering advice on visiting Reagon's boyhood home, and "Code of Operation," a set of rules for a Snake Farm run by an obviously deranged owner.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On "The Meaning of The Hat" by Anne Leigh Parrish (993 words) ***

One comment on a story covered on this blog quite some time ago agonized over the fact that I hadn't revealed the "meaning" of the story (I assume this was a student wanting clarity for some class paper or project). The problem for me would have been that establishing a "meaning" for the story wasn't my aim, nor was it something I felt like I could establish, outside of historical or literary context, nor was it something I really wanted to do. A great story--or work of art--often doesn't have an easily defined meaning; it's mysterious and so is the power that it holds over us. I could, perhaps, provide a list of themes or motifs that work through the piece, but a single "moral"--no.

Parrish's little piece is about that same sort of function in art criticism. Having been trained in how to read a book through college literature courses, the ability to do so now seems much easier and natural than it was when I was younger. And yet, I never got so far with art criticism that I have background enough to be able to say X is so-and-so's postmodernist response to W's modernist concepts of space, etc. I look at a piece of art and think, that's an interesting picture. Maybe, if it moves me, I might try to investigate the picture more deeply. And that's essentially what happens in Parrish's story. A woman brings home a set of paintings and wonders about what they are about. Seems simple, but what Parrish seems to suggest is the the painting is really about the viewer. Our interpretation is necessarily colored by who we ourselves are. A hat is not just a hat. It's what we long for, whatever that uniquely is. Read the story here at Knee-jerk.

On "[Spoiler Alert]" by Laura Eve Engel and Adam Peterson ***

Winner of the Collagist Chapbook Contest, this work, for me, has more in common with prose poetry than with short fiction. Each one-page "tale" is titled "[Spoiler Alert]," and many of the short pieces focus on endings, giving "everything" away.

As tales, the pieces weren't terribly compelling to me, but as collections of brilliantly honed and polished sentences, this--like many a poetry collection--as a grand work. Indeed, sometimes sentences are enough, as seems to be the case in some poetry reviews I've seen, where the reviewer gushes about individual lines (yes, but what does it all mean? and how does it work on me personally, emotionally and intellectually?).

So let me rehearse some great lines. The opener is a kicker, about how "everything is people." Indeed, as the authors prove, everything is. I also particularly liked the second to last piece, about a set of murderers simultaneously taking blame and denying it. The piece on shopping malls is a good one too--"To be lucky," we learn (and have to nod after thinking about it), "means to sleep beside a person so well-suited to yourself that on Valentine's Day you each produce the same bauble purchased the same President's Day Sale at a mall." Lovely thoughts and words.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

On "Three or So Uses of the Crab Apple" by Caren Beilin (1198 words) ****

Beilin's story is like a poem, a set of refrains that repeat with different meanings. It's a structure I have flirted with often in my own writing and rarely ended up using. But I love refrains. I love them because of the way they add levels to our language while reminding us of things past (things perhaps just pages past). And that's what Beilin does here--she reminds us. Memory becomes a weapon here, preventing the conclusion of a story, preventing romance, but creating both as well. Read the story here at Failbetter.

On "The Last Storyteller" by Frank Delaney ****

Delaney's Last Storyteller is an ambitious novel that seeks to connect history, myth, and personal reality, all in the guise of a tale--or series of tales--about recently independent Ireland of the 1950s.

The main storyline focuses on Ben MacCarthy, a government employee whose job is to collect folklore from around the country. The setting is an Ireland being torn apart by violence--the fight over the freeing of Northern Ireland from British control supported by a group of rebels that would become known as the Irish Republican Army and the desire to appease the British supported by an Irish government happy enough to have at least three-quarters of the island out from under the English Commonwealth.

Or is that the story and the time? For in fact, The Last Storyteller includes many stories within it. First there are the various subplots. Ben is obsessed with his wife, Venetia, who left him for an abusive American scoundrel. Meanwhile, his story-gathering career brings him into contact with Jimmy Bermingham, a tough guy and sometime crook who gets Ben involved with the IRA against his will. Extricating himself from the situation becomes a major part of the action of the novel, but the contacts prove useful later in possibly the novel's key event, one that brings Ben to question his life and his moral grounding.

And then, there's John Jacob O'Neill, the traditional storyteller, whose stories and presence lends comfort to Ben--but whose stories also prove to have something of the aura of both history and prophecy about them. They teach, they entertain, and they foretell. And in fact, several of O'Neill's tales appear in the novel's very pages. And it is in this manner that Ben's personal journey becomes something of history and something of myth (for, Delaney seems to be saying, we are all living history, which in turn is bound one day to become legend). History teaches, and it does so largely because we are doomed to repeat it--and as a result, it also tells the future. Each tale in the collection then becomes a message to Ben, about what he should do and/or what he will do.

A storyteller is something quite different from a novelist. The novelist works on the written page, but a storyteller works in front of an audience. Hence, the O'Neill's stories have the feel of Old World fantasy, even as they often involve true elements from Ireland's far-off past. If you like fairy tales, legends, or myths, then these are surely tales you'll enjoy, well told and and full of masterful turns of phrase. (Among the most easily remembered tales for me is  a story O'Neill tells about a king in a land where it always rains.)

Delaney's project has extended beyond the novel, however. Taken with the tales of the storyteller, he has decided to write out various other pieces of Irish lore (and pieces inspired by such writing) in the spirit of O'Neill and to make them available as e-books on his website. They also include introductions that explain the history behind the creation of each tale. Curious readers can find the e-books here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On "Interoffice Romance" by Dan Pinkerton (934 words) ***

Pinkerton's romance is a study in group thought, one person upping the next but everyone sort of doing the same thing. It captures, as a few recent works have, the kind of camaraderie that exists in office cultures--and the lack of camaraderie (secretly, of course). As such, it's a humorous piece, all about Valentine's Day, the awkward holiday that those who take such things seriously get depressed over--or spends lots of money on. Read the story here at Hobart.

On "God's Man" by Lynd Ward ****

The Library of America's release of Lynd Ward's six graphic novels caused me to pick this one up just because I was curious and because what I saw of Ward's work--all woodcuts--was remarkable (a few samples can be found here). God's Man is the first of Ward's picture books (there are no words), and it is a simplistic and moralistic tale. Still, without words, it takes a little extra attention to know exactly what's going on. I think of it as a different kind of reading, akin to reading stream of consciousness--you're not being told everything that happens. You have to intuit from the pictures what the plot is.

But Ward makes it easy enough to do in this tale. The main character is an artist who essentially sells his soul in order to gain success. Along the way he meets a woman who turns out only to be after money. When things go badly, he escapes to life alone in the mountains and finds a good wife, has a child, and then pays for his early folly when the soul comes to be collected.

I won't go into great detail more. That's already been done and better by others. If you want to know more, for example, there's a great article in Slate on the topic, which you can find here.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

On "A World of Flirts" by John Brandon (3495 words) ***

Brandon's character Joyce is a little bit kooky, and that is what makes her so interesting. She's a woman with money to waste, and she wants to waste it--I mean, really wants to waste it. Such seems a bit ridiculous, and yet, the deeper one gets into the story the more we see how her reckless behavior is covering up for something called loneliness, something called grief, and that behavior is enough to get her through, to keep her living.

What I really like about this piece is its dialogue. The kookiness helps to make it interesting, and the kookiness is--as the title suggests--a means of flirting with all around her. Now flirting is an interesting sport. It's an entertainment of sorts, and it's something we can use to gather people to us--or to keep them away. And Joyce seems to be of that ilk, a person who simultaneous wants deeper connections and wants to keep connections from getting deeper lest she get hurt. Nevertheless, one ends up liking her, at least in print. Read the story here at Joyland.