Thursday, June 27, 2013

On "Whoa, Hey" by Julie Odell (887 words) ***

This story delves into a situation that may not be all that uncommon--the return of, or reference to, an item from one's past from someone in the past. How are we to interpret such signals? I think about this quite often, as do many other people, as searches of just about any dating forum shows. A woman you meet in a chat room online seems friendly and interested and ends a pleasant follow-up e-mail with "Take care." Over the course of the next week, you hear nothing more to your reply--was the line a generic closing with response to follow much later or a subtle kiss-off? A man you work with and who you've had a crush on for a while offers you a ride home one day, knowing you always take the bus. Is he just being considerate, or is he subtly signaling an interest? Wouldn't it be easier if we just asked? Wouldn't it be easier if we could ask? In this story, the object of concern is a necklace, a gesture, from an ex. What is the ex trying to say? Find out by reading the story here at New World Writing.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On "This Fable Is Intended for You" by Hans Christian Andersen (274 words) ****

A fairly modern fable! I guess I like this one because it fits so many situations so well, and it was, at the moment that I first read it, so seemingly linked to my situation, as wavered between interest in two girls. Waver too long, and you lose both. Not that I blame the dog in the story; he's just trying to figure out where the food is really going to be. Read the tale here.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On "Three Songs" by Mark Walters (1178 words) ****

So in reading the first section of this story, I thought immediately of two things. I thought of a Dresden Dolls music video in which a CD is sent to different people; the video is for the song "Sing," and people sing to the song on the CD that is sent to them. I also thought of the power struggle for Byzantium in the time preceding Justinian's rise to power. I was reminded of that because essentially, Byzantium experienced a civil war based around two sports teams. Fans of one team beat up on the others. Here, a man sends a song out and gets wildy different reactions, reactions that create a schism in the community that eventually lead to its downfall. In fact, all three of the songs in this short piece rest in the idea that a piece of art can make so much of an impact that it can make or break a community. I'd like to think so, though I don't really believe that is the case with most art these days. Read the story here at the Collagist.

On "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned" by Wells Tower ****

This book was the rage two or three years ago. Not being in an MFA program, however, I was out of the loop. I heard about it from a couple of people who were in an MFA program. I was at the beach. They had the book. I read it--or part of it, two stories. Good stuff. But I didn't run out immediately and buy it or read it. Now I have read it.

What can be said? Tower has a way with words--and with characters. He also writes in a way that is in some respects maddening. By that I mean that I found the work here Faulkneresque. And by that I mean not that Tower writes in cryptic garbled-up stream-of-consciousness that demands you've read everything else Tower has written before you know who in the world these people are the narrator keeps referring to. No, I mean that I'd get to the end of the story and think, That's it? That's really the ending? In other words, many of the stories didn't seem to have definitive ends. They just drew to a close. But you know, in a way that was refreshing. Everything ventured, nothing learned.

That's not the case with two stories in the collection, one of which is my favorite and one of which probably could be used as a frame to interpret all the other pieces in the collection. My favorite was "Down through the Valley," a tale in which a man goes to visit his daughter over at his ex-wife's place; the ex-wife left him for another man, and now she needs her ex-husband to take care of their daughter and this new man for a short while. Sounds like a normal, messed-up family story. And then it gets real messed up. They go to a bar and grill. The new man, Barry, gets involved in someone else's fight, and before the tale's over, the narrator's entire life is headed in a completely new and desperate direction, one he hardly seems responsible for.

The other story is the title story. I had been told it was one of the weaker stories in the collection, and I think I would generally concur. It involves Norsemen going to pillage a town. Having just read a huge chunk of Icelandic sagas this past year, the information here seems not atypical. There's a lot of murder and carnage. What's different is that Tower puts a contemporary sensibility on it, which means we get the gory descriptions. In the end, however, the main characters come to think a bit more deeply about their way of life, the pain that they cause to others. They meet a family they tore apart a few years earlier. And yet, that doesn't stop one of the men from kidnapping the one (now one-armed) daughter that the farmer has left for himself. In the concluding remarks, the narrator acknowledges, now a provider for his own family, his fear of pillagers coming to his own village and destroying his own family. Indeed, I think of it as one of the fears I've long held with regard to having a wife and children. Just how well could I provide, and could I really offer any protection? It seems we're more often victims to whatever a perpetrator wishes to put over on us.

The other stories all have intriguing plot points and characters to dig into. "The Brown Coast" involves a man who, after his father's death, has messed up his life--losing his job and his wife--and who is now trying to rebuild, starting slowly with an aquarium he puts into his new home. "Retreat" involves two brothers who haven't, historically, gotten along so well; now adults, the older brother invites the younger to a cabin he's purchased, and the two go hunting together, while the older tries to convince the younger that the cabin land is a good investment. In "Executors of Important Energies" the narrator's stepmom wrangles a way to reunite son and father; unfortunately, the father's mind isn't all there, and it seems more likely that the stepmom is simply dumping Dad on son. In "Leopard" a kid plays hookey from school but still has to deal with the stepdad he can't stand. In "Door in Your Eye" an eighty-two-year-old dad takes up living with his daughter and succumbs to the temptation to visit the hooker who lives across the street. In "Wild America" (perhaps my second favorite in the collection) a teen-aged girl competes with her cousin for affection; each of them want a boy, it seems, only to keep the other one from having him. And each finds herself doing dangerous things with older men in order to garner attention, things she knows she'll likely regret but can't let anyone else know. "On the Show" involves traveling fair workers and customers in an ensemble story.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

On "The Swineherd" by Hans Christian Andersen (1574 words) ****

Andersen has a few fairy tales that work against romantic traditions, but they say quite a bit about relationships--if you've of a cynical sort. In this tale, a prince sends a beautiful princess his greatest gifts, which she spurns. He then takes on the guise of a lowly swineherd and, in exchange for a few baubles, seduces her. Alas, when her virtue is taken, the prince spurns her, because she's sell herself out to such a lowly person for a few gifts. What are we to take from this? That women are materialistic? That men use women and cast them aside? There seems some kind of lesson in the tale about materialism, but it also seems to suggest something about way that we set up standards for others that we ourselves don't really live by. Is the seducer much better than the seduced? Read the tale here and think about it for one's self.

On "The Sea Is My Brother" by Jack Kerouac ***

I heard parts of this early Kerouac novel read in a documentary about the author some twenty years ago when I first became a Kerouac fan and read nearly everything by him that I could get my hands on. I was saddened that this was not available to me or to a wide audience generally. Well, no more. Someone has decided to publish it. Other reviews I've read for this have said it is interesting only because it is Kerouac--a piece of juvenilia that precedes even Town and the City--and would not stand up as a great work on its own; Kerouac himself would have acknowledged so, for he never sought publication for it.

I think, however, that's it actually a passable work of fiction, and it has a lot of the same things going for it that Kerouac's greater works do. I even prefer it to some of Kerouac's late work. Yes, there are faults (the speaking tags are sometimes comical, as if pulled from a thesaurus just to avoid the word "said"). But Kerouac also carries the kind of contagious enthusiasm for life and ideas that makes On the Road and some of those early and midcareer books so compellingly readable. I want to know more about this life Kerouac writes of; I want to be on this adventure with him.

The adventure is one that involves a merchant marine vessel. Wesley is a sailor on leave, one who spends his entire paycheck on a few days of boozing and partying and who is down to his last few pennies. He befriends a gal at a bar, meets up with her friends, and spends the night. One of these friends he meets is Bill Palmer, a teacher at Columbia University. The two go out carousing the next day, and Bill, taken in by Wesley's charm, decides that he wants a life at sea also. He arranges to leave his teaching position, and the two go off to the harbor to sign up for the next merchant vessel going out and to get Bill's passport in order. Wesley blows off a date with the gal he met the night before, a maddeningly typical move by one of those maddeningly popular guys. Various political and philosophical discussions are engaged in at bars as they wait to ship off. And then, Bill gets on the ship--Wesley momentarily disappears to deal with a former flame--and then away they go.

This plot summary perhaps shows why Kerouac's work is so difficult to adapt to screen; the pleasure is in the joy of life more than in finding out the next plot twist.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

On "The Only" by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk (4233 words) ****

Lynne is a hotel maid with something of a love for other people's lives--or more specifically, for what they leave behind. She's also one to love the men who get left behind, men like Benny, who has a wrap sheet and a reputation that should warn Lynne to stay away. But as with the hotel guests whose lives she peaks into and sometimes steals from, Lynne is about to go burrowing right along--and straight into trouble (and more trouble and more). Read the story here at the Superstition Review.

On "True Colors" by Michelle D. Argyle **

This collection of stories, poems, and general prose sparkles at times with language I wish I were capable of. At other times, lines and material seems fairly pat (stock situations we expect: sick moms, broken couples). Still other material seems the result of writing exercises that don't, for me, quite pan out. Still, the book in general serves as a good introduction to Argyle's work.

My favorite piece in the work is a story called "The Threshold," which recounts how one man sets out to steal his friend's girlfriend. The metaphors in this story are very obvious, but they're masterfully done.

The entire collection is available at Michelle D. Argyle's site here.

Friday, June 7, 2013

On "Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage" by Seanan McGuire (4440 words) ***

When I was in junior high, my class read a book in which a boy found a secret passage to another world. I don't remember the name of that book, but I remember finding the work absolutely fascinating. Such fantasy doesn't appeal much to me now, but McGuire's tale is one that hints at why. There is a kind of sadness that comes with it. Read the story here at Fantasy Magazine.

On "The Worst Journey in the World" by Apsley Cherry-Garrard ***

This personal account of Robert Falcon Scott's trip to the South Pole includes a full rendering of the journey, including the years in Antarctica spent preparing for what would eventually prove to be a disastrous (and in some ways futile trip). Cherry-Garrard quotes extensively from the diaries of those involved in the expedition, including his own, so in a sense, one gets a more well-rounded version of the events than one would get from simply reading Scott's journal or the diary of one of the others involved.

That said, this is not a book I'd have picked up on my own (it was recommended reading from a friend), and I doubt I'd have stuck with it if I were so utterly stubborn in that regard. As with so many books, the early portions are slow going, and the most interesting passages for me were those that had to do with the Scott's eventual end.

That's not to say that there aren't interesting sections along the way. Discussions of the entertainment among the various expeditioners was interesting, as was in particular a trip to visit the birthing grounds of the emperor penguin in quest of an egg. That trip would prove to be a dangerous one also, and as Cherry-Garrard humorously explains it, the egg would hardly be appreciated by the scientists back in Britain. (I felt a bit sad for the penguins, who work so hard to guard those eggs for a season.)

There are accounts of diet and accounts of animals brought with them (ponies, dogs, mules). In one exciting passage, the men find themselves stranded on a piece of ice that has broken free from the mainland, along with their horses. They jump ocean to get back to land, but some of the horses remain stranded, and against Scott's advice, they go to rescue them. Unfortunately, not all the horses make it, falling into the ocean rather than crossing the divide (even as one horse is desperately tugged from the water--I can only imagine what that would have been like).

The temperature seems unfathomable throughout. It seems disastrous in one moment when temperatures actually go above freezing, resulting in much melting and difficulty sledding.

But the most engaging passages are devoted to Scott's last journey, must of that quoted from his diary. Cherry-Garrard knows a hero, and he does not hold back on the hagiography. And here, somehow, it kind of works. Perhaps, part of what makes it work is the tragic element of the whole trip, for Scott was beaten to the pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen by about a month. Certainly, Scott's group did a lot of scientific work that Amundsen didn't do, but still, to not even be "first" and to lose one's life for it, that is truly sad. And it's probably also why Scott is remembered more than Amundsen.

The book can be downloaded in a number of formats here.

Monday, June 3, 2013

On "Gasoline Caroline" by Zana Previti (2657 words) ****

I'm not sure if Gasoline Caroline is real--by that I mean the character, not the story. And that's what makes this piece of fantasy work so well. This is "not a story about grief," the narrator tells us. Don't believe her. It's about trying to live again--by performing self-destructive acts. Our character doesn't so much recover as descend further into the madness that has assaulted her, but it's a love song nevertheless. Read the story here at Tinge.