Monday, July 30, 2012

On "Wife in Reverse" by Stephen Dixon (447 words) ***

I'm reminded of a Massive Attack video, where we watch babies born, grow up, and come to the moment where grown adults meet and fall in love--and then we watch it all in reverse. Dixon's story moves in only the latter direction, and yet it is surprisingly effect, the way that reverse order almost makes sense in a forward manner. In fact, for the first half of this story, one could read the events as forward or backward, but then come the children and one has to rethink things, remember we're headed in reverse. And so it goes, here, at Matchbook.

Friday, July 27, 2012

On "Kids' Choir" by Catherine Lacey (161 words) ***

More of a description of a couple of times juxtaposed against one another than a full-fledged story with a sense of rising action and denoument, Lacey's short piece is admirable for its extremely engaging first sentence and first paragraph and for the letdown that comes with the second paragraph among all of the children. Read the piece here at Matchbook.

On "Water" by Fred Powledge ****

Perhaps the fact that I grew up in Southern California draws me to water issues. In So-Cal, on one level, water is not exactly a given; on another, it almost disastrously (for others) is. We get our water from the mountains, from mountains hundreds and thousands of miles away. It comes down concrete ditches into reservoirs and eventually into our homes. Elsewhere, the water that we have is absent so that we can have. And yet, it's not enough. It's never enough. Somehow, our lawns are green, but there's also a nagging sense of propriety, of not using water to wash down the sidewalk, of limiting the amount one uses on the car, of watering one's plants only on certain days and at certain times. Water concerns are a constant, even if water usage seems somehow out of whack with the reality of the ever-blue sky above (except, of course, for a few weeks in winter, when water comes crashing down in torrents, relieving the soil of its resting places on hillsides, sending it as mud into our homes or into sandbagged streets).

That's one reason, after coming to Georgia, I've been astounded by how many water problems we have here, in a place that gets three times the amount of rain--and all year round at that. How, how, when Californians live on fourteen inches, can Georgians--even smaller in number--not live on forty-eight?

Powledge's book is about this kind of profligacy, our wasting of water resources, our destruction of them, and the coming reckoning. Powledge's book was also written thirty years ago. His sense of almost immediate impending doom, of a crisis that is just over the horizon, seems in some ways laughably over the top. The world has gone on. We did not run out of water in the year 2000. Of course, panic sells books, and that's likely part of the reason for the tone.

But the points within the book still have quite a bit of relevance (especially now that we're in one of the worst droughts in U.S. history). We are drinking up our resources--or rather, not drinking them but spoiling them so that we can't drink them. We are doing this with pollution, with needless public works, and with waste.

Overall, Powledge's point seems to be that we need to recognize that water has rights too. That's right, we should give water its own set of rights. Seems a bit crazy to me. I would prefer to think of it more as we have a set of responsibilities toward water--as we do toward our environment, our neighbors, and other species. (But I've never been a fan of "rights" talk on any level, which I think focuses on the wrong side of the equation. Give me my rights. It's all about what others should do for us. The real focus should be on what we should be doing for others. What are our responsibilities toward each other as human beings?)

Water rights would consist in balancing our need for the resource against the resources own "needs" to be pure, to be unentangled, to be free to exist as a natural agent.

But the real story is in the details, of which Powledge gives plenty. I finally came to understand, for example, why rainwater is superior to irrigation. Water is extremely good at absorbing other materials; it's a solvent. And it's best purification system, from salt to fresh, is the atmosphere. Water coming from the natural desalinization plant that is the hydrological cycle has a perfect balance of acid and alkaline. And it also doesn't contain much in the way of other minerals mixed in. Water coming from rivers, by contrast, and spread over the land, has absorbed the various minerals that river has drifted across. As a result, it has a slightly higher content of salt. Over years, this salt, if spread over the soil consistently, begins to build up in the soil, destroying its ability to sustain plant life. Aw, rain.

The story of our impending water crisis may seem like a bit of hyperbole, but it could happen and has. Powledge talks of how a Native American in the old Southwest actually did just that--used up its water and oversalted the soil to the point that farming ceased and the civilization collapsed. We should take the warning seriously.

In that same region of Cerrillos, New Mexico, in the early 1980s, where water is scarce, a small number of people continue to live. The area has gold. Powledge tells of how mining companies have tried to extrapolate the gold--want to desperately. The problem is that all the easily gotten gold is gone. The financially feasible way to get what's left is to blast surface land apart (i.e., strip mine) and pour water over the land with a special chemical secretion that will leach out the stuff that isn't the gold wanted. Problem? Where does that chemical-laden water go? It goes into the soil, down, down, into the small aquifer that locals depend on for drinking. It's safe say the companies, even though the technology has never been used, and no one actually knows what the chemical would do to the aquifer. Residents fought against the first mining operation for years and won before activities commenced. Then, a second company came, and residents fought again. The end of the story wasn't known in 1980, but one thing was. The company started work before it had permits. Oh, sorry. Oops. It had to pay a small fine. By small, I mean, speeding ticket small.

Such concerns, of chemicals and toxics leaching into our aquifers make up much of Powledge's text.

Also under fire in the book are developers, especially government developers, like the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, which come under fire in Cadillac Desert as well. To maintain their existence, they have to continually come up with new projects, even ones that aren't feasible or needed, and for that reason, nearly every river has been dammed at numerous points in the United States. Reading stories of projects built over the protests of the communities that will benefit from them, at astronomical costs paid for with tax dollars, for little benefit (other than for the construction firms and agencies for whom the project supplies jobs), certainly makes the reader angry. One project, for example, that will connect the Tennessee River to another, apparently will get little use by shippers and will cost more than the Panama Canal.

Agriculture gets heat also. Industry, initially, gets less scathing. After all, it doesn't actually use up the water it gets most of the time. It returns the water to the environment--but usually in a much-degraded form. And that's where Powledge nails industrial America.

No one comes out looking very good--not government, not industry, not ag. Powledge particularly dislikes the Reagan administration, whose appointees to environmental positions are largely people who see water as something to be exploited. Water flowing all the way to the sea means that we have "wasted" it, failed to put it to use.

One long section of the book is about New York City. It was interesting to learn that some of the best drinking water in the country goes to New York, as most of its tap comes not from local sources but from upstate New York, at springs that are close to pure. But not so much when there's a heavy drought, as there was for a period during Mayor Koch's term in office. Then, the talk was of maybe even perhaps using the Hudson for tap water, even though that water really is polluted. Powledge shows how the community banded together, got serious, and conserved enough water not to have to fall to such desperate measures. And yet, the city, once the drought was over, went back to its wasteful ways. The infrastructure of piping, as Powledge shows, is full of holes, and large amounts of water are simply lost because the city hasn't repaired its plumbing lines and allows residents to wash cars with and play in water from fire hydrants. I'm not sure if post-1980s NYC is quite as wasteful, as I know much changed under Giuliani and Bloomberg.

Still, the crisis reminded me somewhat of our own here in Georgia a few years ago, when we were encouraged not to even flush our toilets at one point. Conservation was the buzzword. And then, a summer later, the rain returned, and most of our lessons, our tightening of resources, simply washed away--until the next drought causes us again to panic and scream for wiser utilization of this precious resource.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

On "The Second Summer of the Recession" by Melanie Datz (2554 words) ****

I've been one of the blessed ones so far; some of my friends have not. I work for a living still--no food cards, no paltry unemployment check. Datz's story is about one of the not-so-lucky, about a set of them. I've been the unemployed before, though never for as long as noted here, and the experience is not just stressful but in some ways surreal, for it is when one is poor that the expenses often go up rather than down. You're counting every penny, and not sure if more will arrive. Datz gets the feeling down perfectly. And in the midst of it, she provides a bit of grace. Read the story here at Knee-Jerk.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

On "Ricky's Index Fingers" by Blake Butler (586 words) ***

In Blake Butler's hands a coming-of-age story becomes a horror story, a stream-of-consciousness experiment, and a reason to obsess about the glories of language experimentation. Our character meets himself meets a photo meets a woman. Read the story here at Matchbook.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On "We Do What We Can Do" by Christi Krug (1234 words) ***

This story is a window into the life of a kid without boundaries, a kid who chooses to escape from the humdrum life of someone else's choosing--in part, because she can; in part, because she must. She a kid growing up too soon, with a mom who isn't very present. For this kid, adulthood means escape. The childhood narrative point of view is what makes the tale wondrous. Read the story here at Colored Chalk.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

On "Kiss Off" by Richard Thomas (1387 words) ****

Essentially a suicide note written in stages, this story ends in a perfectly grand spot that catches the emotions of the moment and the physical desperation. Each stage is a move toward death both in the act of the suicide and in the motivation toward that suicide. This story, like its title, bears in grief and anger hard. This story wants to be read here at Emprise Review.

On "The Land of Little Rain" by Mary Austin ***

This is a book referenced constantly on California literature and history lists. It's Austin's account of California's high desert, the land just over the lip of the Sierra Nevadas, where snow comes down in winter but where the land experiences just a glimmer of rain a few months out of the year. Really, that slight bit of rain is typical of California, with its wet winter and dry rest of the year. But in the high desert, just over the mountains, the rain effect is magnified by the fact that rain tends to fall more on the forward side of mountains than the backward side.

The references one reads of Austin's book inevitably do so in the context of the "rape of the Owens Valley," Los Angeles's purchase of the water belonging to the region and its long aqueduct that spirits much of the valley's water down to another: the San Fernando. As a result, a region with towns like Bishop, which should be--in some people's view--a large cities, is instead a collection of tiny struggling habitations (albeit, beautiful--I've been to Bishop).

Austin's book recounts this land before it was taken over. And it's full of elegant and beautiful prose. This is nature writing at its finest--and at its most typical--which for me is both the book's greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I can pleasure in sentences, but there isn't a lot of sustained momentum here, no plot or strong point of argument. As a result, I found my mind wandering, back to the California that is my birthplace and wanting, in some ways, to visit the locales that are the subjects of Ansel Adams's accompanying photographs (in the version I read).

I can't recount much, because that lack of development kept me from feeling connected. There are chapters on a celebration in a town of Mexican heritage, on how a town like Jimville got its name, on the grazing of mountain goats. And there are plenty of discussions about water, which remains a constant concern in California and which is the subject of the next few books I am planning to read.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

On "Love in Fish Sauce" by Ed Gutierrez (4883 words) ***

This story by Gutierrez is about cultural misunderstanding, as most prominently shown in the oral language that we use--but also in the language of ourselves, of our bodies, of our minds. I'm reminded a little of a case from my own life, where I went to visit a gal whose apathy toward me led me to believe that she wasn't interested. Go forward ten years, and I find out her conduct toward me was shaped by her perception that I was not interested. And so it goes. What we say or do can mean so much to us, can lead us to think one thing but lead someone else to think another. Gutierrez drops into this place and explores it with a great deal of ambiguity. Read the story here at Marco Polo Quarterly.

On "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" by Kurt Vonnegut ****

It's been over a decade since I read a Vonnegut book. After reading this novel, I wonder why. I know not all his works come to this level, but he has a wonderful voice that I didn't realize I missed as much as I did. This was a fun read. I'd been told it would be, by an acquaintance, twenty years ago--it was his favorite Vonnegut. Well, I finally got to it. It isn't my favorite, but it would currently rank third of the six I've read. I will probably read significantly more sometime in the coming years.

Rosewater is the name of the family at center of this book--or really, the name of the family who owns the estate at the center of this book, for the book is about money. More specifically, it's about one man's attempt to bilk the family out of its long-time riches. But the focus isn't really on the man at the center of this attempt. He stands in the background as the Rosewaters do their thing.

There are three: Senator Rosewater, Fred Rosewater, and Eliot Rosewater. The senator is your successful politician with an inherited fortune. Fred is the distant relative who has lost out on his "rightful" inheritance and who makes his day-to-day living selling life insurance, his big contribution to the human race. Eliot is a drunk with a big, giant heart, who runs a foundation that essentially gives away the Rosewater fortune, as it can afford to. Eliot is, so the lawyer trying to get ahold of the family fortune claims, insane. And it is the attempt to prove this insanity that makes up the plot of the work. Of course, the seeming insanity is that Eliot has a heart.

Or does he? He has riches and a willingness to listen to people's troubles, but he's also not intimately connected to those he helps. A heart? Maybe. But one gets the sense that he's lost all hope, and he's using his fortune to give to others who have also lost all hope--not enough that they will have hope, but rather just enough so that, like medics that serve of M&Ms as medication to Vietnam soldiers on their deathbeds, they have just a little sweetness to go with all the bitterness that is life.

Monday, July 9, 2012

On "Hoarding" by Michelle Latiolais (3758 words) ***

The writing in this story is immaculate from the first line through to the end. It's also a story with a kind of slow burn. What I mean is that it's a story where the pain of the protagonist is felt in the progression of sentences, as one is added onto another. The protagonist struggles to find her place in this new world, sans husband, sans young friends. She tries parties and how to guides. She tries just listening and watching the things around. But no matter, she is bound to the world that is left to her, and it is sad. Read the story here at the Collagist.

Friday, July 6, 2012

On "from (Complete) Shorter Stories" by Richard Kostelanetz (232 words) ***

More a collection of nanobites than a single story, Kostelanetz's "Shorter Stories" are one-sentence introductions to ideas for stories--but what a set of ideas. These are like little bits of wit that make you laugh and then think. In that sense, they really are more like short stories, because a story is bound within the sentence--map out how we get to this sentence and one would have a story for each. And the sentences are interesting--enough that you might want to check them out here, at the Marco Polo Quarterly.

On "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" by Cory Doctorow ***

I'd never heard of Cory Doctorow until a few months ago when I was on a site called IWriteLike, where my own writing was compared to Doctorow's. That inspired me to dig this author out and find out a bit more about him. Doctorow, in fact, has a large web presence, but in a world as wide as the web, it's easy not to notice a lot of things. In part, this presence is notable because he's a big supporter of creative commons licensing and has released his own work this way: free to share.

I suppose one could say that Doctorow is a science fiction writer, and certainly this novel fits within that genre. But he's got a certain style as well that makes not only for easy reading but also joy. The writing reminded me a bit of many other contemporaries who focus a lot of popular culture in their literature; Douglas Coupland or Bret Easton Ellis, sans the violence, comes to mind.

Even more, though, this novel reminded me of the movie The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Like most science fiction, the themes and ideas loom large here, larger even than the characters, and like Eternal Sunshine, the book turns the tables on the bliss we usually imagine would accompany such things as eternal life or being able to wipe our minds free of bad memories.

In Down and Out, death has been cured. Bodies are cloned, and brains are stored and backed up like computer drives. This means that every few years, whenever your body crashes, someone else can simply restore your brain to one of the new bodies awaiting you. In a place where people live eternally in young bodies for thousands of years, time is spent not only getting innumerable degrees but also in accumulating popularity and good will (called "Whuffies") from others. More good will means ability to do more in the world, more choices, more luxury.

For the central character, it means spending time at Disney World, enjoying the rides and doing the occasional stint at the Haunted Mansion. It also means living in an eternal past, one that he worries about leaving upon his next reload. For somewhere along the way, he's fallen offline, so he's bound to lose his memories from the past year, when his last backup was done. This means losing the memory of his best friend, Dan, who has decided that eternal life is not worth the bother.

And in that rests one of the major themes of the book. Without our memories, what exactly makes life worth living? If we are the sum total of our experiences, and our experiences can be wiped away, then what are we?

Oh, there's a plot here all right, one that builds well, as one would imagine in a science fiction text. Someone is out to change Disney World, to update it, to, in essence, destroy many of the narrator's memories of a place. And it is this, this quest to keep the past always alive, that motivates our protagonist. But strangely, it is his unwillingness to let go of the present, to relinquish the recent past to return to an even older one, that leads to the book's denouement. Many versions of the book, including audio, are downloadable online here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

On "Egg Toss, 1989" by Meagan Cass (590 words) ****

If flash is an exploration of a moment, then Cass has done her work well. This is the story of a few seconds, a few all-too-short seconds, remembered in hind sight and with longing. Like the egg that is tossed, the peaceful happy moment, at a birthyday party, is fragile and prone to breaking. Read the story here at Smokelong.

On "The Collected Stores of Lydia Davis" by Lydia Davis ***

I hadn't heard of Lydia Davis until reading a significant amount of flash fiction online. I now understand why so many online purveyors of flash fiction care so much for Davis's work, for most of the "stories" in this collection would qualify as some form of flash, all seven-hundred-plus pages.

I place "stories" in quotes because, at least for me, many of these one- and two-page pieces aren't stories at all. In fact, Davis often writes single sentence stories, stories in six words, and so on. Again, are these stories? They seem to me more like, at their best, interesting thoughts. Maybe I've grown more conservative and traditional in what I expect from my fiction reading or from something labeled a story, for I found myself often annoyed by pieces such as "Index Entry." Where was the rising and falling action, the climax and resolution? Maybe, if instead of labeling these as stories and instead calling this a collection of thoughts, I'd have been less displeased by such pieces.

And yet, the shortness of the pieces has advantages. It was fun to be able to pick up the book at almost any moment and get a quick, complete thought or read. I found that aspect helped me to become almost compulsive in my reading of the book. Just one more, I'd say, even thought I might have other things to do.

And some of the "thoughts" were definitely interesting (I think of "Head, Heart," for example, which almost manages to be a story). Today, such thoughts would be Tweets, and a good Tweeter is someone I will occasionally follow, turning up on their page, as I sometimes take a look at Amelia Gray's just for the sure pleasure of her absurd and humorous ideas.

Still, for me, the best Davis pieces were generally those that extended some ways, into the more usual length of a story. It seems to me that if you want people to care about characters or situations, you have to provide enough context to allow that to occur. I know that that does not always involve a large number of words. I think of Robert Hayden's masterful poem "Those Winter Sundays," which manages to send chills down my spine in just a handful of stanzas. But the general rule is that the more time I take getting to know a set of characters, the more I will care and the more likely I'll ultimately connect to the piece.

A couple of my favorite pieces come right at the start of this collection. Perhaps, that is also a sign of my energy at the start of a book like this, before stories begin to run together, when a voice is fresh and exciting. In "Story," Davis writes about a woman who is uncertain of her lover's devotion, about a woman who is simultaneously writing a story on the subject, about a woman who cannot possibly ever know the truth about the situation, just as we as readers cannot. "The Fears of Mrs. Orlando" is a tale of paranoia that ends just as it seems to be getting going.

Other stories--as many of them do here--work well as experiments in form. I particularly liked "Jury Duty" (a series of answers to questions, the questions not provided) and "Mrs. D and Her Maids" (a collection of tidbits about the coming and going maids of Mrs. D, whose judgments ultimately seem to say more about Mrs. D than about the maids themselves).

I also like some of the "studies" that Davis engages in. Whether these are stories, I suppose, would depend on how well one can graph out the beginning, middle, and end, but as fictional pseudoreports on subcultures they are fascinating. "Helen and Vi" compares the lives of two elderly women, how they lived so long and what they do to remain so healthy. "We Miss You" is "A Study of Get-Well Letters from a Class of Fourth-Graders" that manages to become an incredibly interesting character study of multiple personalities.

Davis is an exciting author to read, and this book certainly hands one a abundance of papers to experience. I suspect that she's best taken, like her work, in small doses, and that had I read the collection in short sittings over years I'd have been more enamored of it than by reading it straight through.