Friday, September 28, 2012

On "Now is the Time for Us to Be Sweet" by Molly Tolsky (3698 words) ****

Here's a story that managed to truly surprise me. The writing throughout is clean, the voice assured. I'd read this, I thought. I read stuff like this, and it is good. But I hadn't, because I'd never read a story that managed to do that and add a twist I didn't see coming. Literary story, sure, but quiet, not really. We're left wondering just who is the more affected by this relationship, the victim or the victimizer, and which is which. Read the story here at the Collagist.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On “Sugar Bowl” by Dan Winnipeg (5136 words) ***

Winnipeg's "Sugar Bowl" is a family saga. It revolves around two main motifs--a story that the father tells about a knife, and a sugar bowl that sits in the center of the family's dinner table. We watch as the mom and dad's relationship disintegrates but continues on anyway. We watch as the kids go away to college and adulthood. We watch as the kids overcome various social problems--stuttering, obesity, drugs--and as the parents die. Throughout it all, Winnipeg uses the knife and sugar bowl as foils around which to place these different story elements. These elements unify the story and keep us interested. Read it here at 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On "Test of English as a Foreign Language" by Walt Giersbach (2959 words) *****

This is probably one of the most depressing stories I've read in a long while. By depressing, I don't mean something that's cathartic, that somehow manages to give hope. This is a tale that revels in nihilism. And in cultural differences. Shirley Lee is a woman of Chinese descent who lives in the United Sates and who, for want of anything to do, spends Christmas Eve bowling and, by chance, hooking up with a man with military credentials. Much can be said about the American film versus the foreign one, and it is said here, and then it is played out in the fiction itself. Read the tale here at Rose and Thorn.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On "In the Basement" by Stefanie Freele (2014 words) ***

If you want a grueling moment-by-moment account of a bulemic's struggle with one particular meal, than Freele has it for you. I have to admire the way that Freele doesn't hold back here. The information is enough to make the practice seem every bit as gross and disturbing as it is. And on a metaphorical level, the story is about something else a bit beyond just bulimia. It's about the way that we hide our sins, our lives, our selves, from others--hanging out in the basement rather than at a party, keeping our food choices secure from others' sights or our boyfriends from our parents. Read the story here at R.kv.r.y.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On "Where You Lay Your Dreams" by Sterling McKennedy (508 words) ***

McKennedy's flash piece is full of wonderful details that show us the essence of the narrator and the person he's talking to. His comparative "experience" shows in how he feels himself "gracious" to this new divorcee. But what really shines in this piece is how these two divorced people are both at once drawn to their ex-spouses as they are pushed away from them. It's as if the fighting must go on. There is a tension here that one doesn't usually see in stories about divorce, a tension between one's dislike for this person and one's desire to continue with him or her, even if it's just to have someone to punch. Read the story here at Night Train.

On "The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories" by Angela Carter ****

I came to this collection through a book of criticism on werewolves. The critical analyses of these stories seemed to make these tales stand above most other such fantastic pieces in that vein. And now having read the collection, I can certainly say that Carter is a writer whose style makes her one of a kind. I'm most amazed, in this book, by how she so adeptly adapts fairy tales to her own purposes. The tales don't necessarily become modern in place, but they become certainly something different, something literary, than what they are in the homespun versions one gets used to reading.

A large theme tying these stories together is sex and relationships. Psychologists, of course, have long seen connections to sex and death in fairy tales, reading into them vast archetypes that all humans apparently live as. Carter takes that psychological spin, the generality, and respins it into something singular for each of the characters involved--but with the sex more clearly, more overtly part of the tale.

The best story in this collection--by far and away head and shoulders above the others--is the title story. In it, a very young woman goes to live with her new noble husband. Lucky her, marrying a rich man, marrying up--until she discovers he isn't quite what he seems. After the night in which her virginity is taken, the husband gives her keys to every room in the house, but he tells her that one key is not to be used. One can only guess what happens next, when he goes out of town. The woman discovers the grizzly reason her husband has been married so many times. Can she now save herself?

Other tales are more along the lines of reworkings of classic fairy tale plots and characters. In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," a young woman fails to return to visit her beast as promised, who subsequently comes close to dying of a broken heart. In "The Tiger's Bride," a man loses his daughter to a beast in a game of cards; the beast asks only one thing of her once she is in his custody: to strip naked for him. "The Lady of the House of Love" is a tale of a female vampire who catches a young man in her web (or does he catch her?). "The Werewolf" involves a girl who finds out that her grandmother is just such a thing. "The Company of Wolves" involves a whole family of them, and one woman finally settling on a wolf of her own, as she strips herself into his lair. And "Wolf-Alice" involves a girl raised by wolves who goes to live with a werewolf for lack of a more appropriate place of residence.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

On "Ping-pong, 12 Loring Place" by Meagan Cass (1619 words) *****

This one sent chills up my spine. It's a tale about growing up in a divided household. It's a tale about coping. It's a tale about coming to love ping-pong as an escape, as a contest, as a life, as a eulogy. Read the story here at Hobart.

On "Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester ****

I came across mention of this book in a book on world history. It surprised me to learn that the eruption of this volcano back in the early AD disrupted weather patterns and created a famine, that we know this, that this is in the historical record. As it turns out, the historian was perhaps a bit too certain about what happened, at least that was my sense after reading this book.

Winchester isn't as quick to ascribe volcanic eruptions to earlier centuries, though he does talk about them, one around 535 AD and one in 1680. The reason he's less certain is that the historical witness accounts are not entirely reliable, but if other facts in history around the world confirm, perhaps he shouldn't be so conservative. Of course, he's not conservative about the 1883 eruption, because there are plenty of accounts of it, and it is that eruption that is most of the focus of this book.

The eruption occurred at a time when telegraph lines were first making it possible to report news almost instantly, and Winchester talks about how newspapers competed to get to news first. In this case, an English paper managed to beat a German news service to the scoop. Not that it matters to us now, but I'm sure it mattered to the people involved.

Also discussed is the science behind plate tectonics and the history of that theory (drummed up by a "crackpot" generalist and only grudgingly accepted decades later, after his death). Krakatoa, as with all of Indonesia, the set of islands in which it rests, is the result of a hot zone, where two plates converge and the earth's magma comes to the surface, and all of this fairly quickly. The island disappeared completely after the 1883 eruption, but within a few decades, it had reestablished itself above the sea. This too leads to some interesting questions, like how does life come to such an island? Winchester devotes a chapter to this as well, the surprising array of creatures that show up. First, often, are insects--spiders or ants borne on the wind. The plants--again, seeds borne on the wind. How exactly rats get on such an island, I'm not sure, but it's likely the result of stowing away on some human visitor's boat.

It was the biological difference between islands to the west and east of the area that first led to some of the ideas about plate tectonics. The creatures are quite different on either side, showing that the land on either side was one not so close together.

Many died in the 1883 eruption--or really, in its aftermath, the tidal waves that it spawned. Such would have seemed hard to imagine to me a decade ago, but in light of the horrible tidal wave in Asia a few winter's ago and then the one in Japan last year, such events unfortunately no longer seem so impossible. Stories are told in the book of children finding the bones of the dead on beaches thousands of miles away.

The eruption also led to a wave of Islamic unrest in Indonesia. Inspired by the supposed end of the world, some Muslims attempted to overthrow their colonial Danish overseers. Winchester attempts to summarize the tensions between East and West that reverberate to our own day.

But some of the most fascinating parts of the book are the discussions of the weather and how that changed. So much ash ended up in the sky that sunsets were glorious for a year afterward, even as the temperature of the planet dropped by several degrees and crops took a matching hit. We live in a precarious state on this planet.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On "Blubber Boy" by Julie Innis (2101 words) ***

Julie Innis grabbed me from the first sentence--or maybe from the title. The story is about guy working in landscape and about a kid who tortures him--or who he tortures. It's hard to know where this story is going during the first half or so, and that's part of what makes it so good. And then there's this--the main character, someone we can sympathize with, confronted with a situation in which he is uncertain whether to do the right thing or the thing that will benefit him the most (and there's a lot lying on that other thing). I felt my sympathies in this story shifting, which is what gives it its power. Read the story here at JMWW.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

On "Phantom Limbs" by D.J. Thielke (2486 words) ***

Thielke's story grabbed me from the first line. The story--and you learn this in the first line--is about an armless boy. Like the story's main character, Cindy, I found myself wondering various things as well, even though in high school I knew a one-armed boy. He always struck me as incredibly agile given the disadvantage he had. Things I remember about him: He was an incredible artist. He carried his books in that one arm. The arm was large. He was in my typing class--and not as fast as the rest of us (I have no idea how the teacher graded him). (There is also an armless man here where I live who does artwork downtown--a very good drawer, though I wonder how he manages not to go cross-eyed, since he uses his mouth to hold the ink pen.)

Cindy too watches in fascination as the boy does things we consider normal. For him, it is just life--he's been that way since birth. He manages.

But that's where this story takes a different turn, for because Cindy's roommate is dating this person, she is drawn into questioning what makes some faulty people lovable and other whole people, like her good-looking self, not. What indeed? Read the story here at the New Delta Review.