Monday, July 29, 2013

On "Prison Girls" by Emily Alford (8070 words) ****

The child--or in this case, the young teen--offers a great perspective for stories. That combination of naivete and the hard situations of life is compelling, especially because stories generally focus on moments of change, on moments where that naivete is broken, replaced by some deeper understanding of the world around. Because of this potential, the story about the child is used often--and often not to very good effect.

Alford's tale, however, is not one of those. This is a tale where the child's perspective works perfectly. Madison is a consummate liar, sent to a boarding school by her parents and her psychologist to overcome her bad habit. She also doesn't like anyone--or life in general. She's about to learn some very tough lessons, however, at the instigation of a Ukrainian janitor. Think "Boy Cries Wolf" but with the complexity of a Dickens novel. Read the story here at Trigger.

On "There Is No Year" by Blake Butler ***

This innovative novel is not easily summarized, as unlike most works of fiction--indeed, unlike many works of nonfiction--there is no concrete narrative, no problem that needs to be resolved, no thrust toward climax and resolution. What there are are motifs and words and images, some of them amazing, a joy to read. In fact, it is this, Butler's constant play with language that drove me to read another of his books, despite my only halfway satisfaction. (That I was satisfied only halfway but read all four hundred pages of text in less than a week says something about how engaging the work is, despite my not being able to put a finger on exactly what happened or what the book even is.)

Motifs are a strong part of the book: family, homes, bugs (most especially ants), death, dreams, the letter O, boxes, light, circles, copies, disease--all these play a part. On the surface, the book is about a family--a father, mother, and son--living in a home. Early on, the family discovers a copy family within their own home. The copy home, discovered later by the dad, hints at one of the book's likely themes: the dark underside of all life--our inevitable deterioration and death. While the real home has two stories with stairs leading up to the second floor, the copy home has two stories with stairs leading down to the bottom. The copy home has no windows, just darkness.

At various points in the book, the family tries to sell the home. The son grows sick. The son befriends a girl at school and goes to her home. The dad goes to a job to stare all day at a computer, at the light in a computer, a job that each day grows farther and farther away, as if the boredom of driving can extend not just time but space. The son too stares into a computer, playing a game that has no point or ending--a figure simply walks across a room on a screen until being haphazardly destroyed, only to be resurrected and start again.

The father clears the family's mailbox of creepy crawlies, merely to find them return in greater numbers each time that he opens the slot. The son worries about ants eating his flesh.

Perhaps, if anything, the book's title hints at the overall trajectory of this work: this is a novel written outside of time. There can be no motivating plot that propels readers on because "there is no year." There is just one long dream that leads, inevitably, toward death or light or whatever one will have these things to be over and over.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

On "Somewhere the Desert Hides a Well" by Maria Deira (6846 words) ***

I like genre fiction that has an aura of simply being a regular, realistic story. Maybe it is a regular story with just one thing off, or it's a story that starts off realistic and takes a sudden turn to the weird. Deira's story is of the latter variety. What I like about such stories is that they're easier to identify with. They're still about human beings doing human things, except that this one thing . . . and you know what else? Real life goes on, even as the weird multiplies.

In Deira's story, students returning from an academic bowl somehow end up being discovered passed out in a van in a field. No one knows what happened, but foul play from the team's coach is suspected. It's a tale of mystery straight out of the X-files. Read it here at Giga Noto Saurus.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

On "Covered in Soot" by Lynnet Ngulube (1005 words) ****

What can I say? This piece starts slowly enough, but it manages to shock--twice. The first shock involves an act of violation, random, quick, disgusting, like the male streaker that ran through a class of teen-age girls when I was in high school but more personal, more hurtful. The second is even more powerful. Here, a teen-age girl goes with her father and sisters to meet her grandmother at the train station. She's a teen-ager; she doesn't want to be there, and like many a teen-ager, she's sullen and moody. And she pays. Read the story here at Our Stories.

On "Speak, Memory" by Vladimer Nabokov ***

This is certainly one of the most elegant memoirs I've ever read. In fact, it reads more like an accumulation of discreet remembrances than a sustained narrative, and in that is probably where Nabokov often lost me. When I read reviews of certain contemporary authors, the reviewer will quote certain lines, will talk about the brilliance of a particular phrase or sentence, but the whole is left untouched, as if all readers want are these singular pieces of brilliance. There are a lot of pieces of singular brilliance in Nabokov's memoir.

I particularly liked the book when Nabokov focused in on a particular subject for a while and sustained the discussion such that I could walk along with him for a while. One chapter, for example, focuses on his love--and how he came be it--for collecting butterflies. Another focuses on the various home instructors he and his brother had. One talks of the emigrant Russian literary culture of the 1920s. And one talks of fleeing from one part of Russia to another in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution.

Nabokov's feelings about Lenin are particularly strident. He notes his unease with peoples in the Western world, where liberals tend to hold Lenin up and conservatives tend to talk him down, but for entirely different reasons than Nabokov would. Nabokov comes across as a liberal who unfairly finds himself thrust into the conservative camp because Western liberals don't know the true story of Russian socialism. I couldn't help but sympathize with Nabokov's feelings of being politically misunderstood.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On "A Beijing Feast" by Peter Tieryas Liu (1700 words) ***

I like Pang Nan, the character at the center of this tale. It is, perhaps, a story more centered on him than on the narrator, if it's even a story. Liu's piece reads more like an account of a final interview, but at its heart is the fascinating subject, a filmmaker who is larger than life and who likes it that way. Better to fail disastrously than to wallow in mediocrity. He wants to make a two-hour movie in which nothing happens and then everyone dies, and he does. This is an arthouse guy to the extreme, and while I'd never want to watch one of his movies, hearing him pontificate is interesting indeed. Read the story here at Fox Chase Review.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

On "The Gardener and His Manor" by Hans Christian Andersen (2496 words) ****

Something of a story about politics and popularity, this piece traces the life of a caretaker of a rich couple's garden. The rich couple doesn't know what is in their own garden and tends not to appreciate its contents until someone else praises what the gardener sells out of the garden to kings and diplomats. Andersen no doubt was critiquing a culture that values the foreign over the homegrown merely for the sake of exoticism and "sophistication." Look at home--there's sophistication right there, he's saying. But some folks will never learn. Read the story here.

On "Private Empire" by Steve Coll ****

This exploration of the culture and recent (last twenty-five years) history of Exxon did not turn out to be as interesting to me as Coll's book on the Bin Ladens. I think that may be because the book seemed to sprawl so far and wide like a discrete set of articles rather than like a single narrative or a singular argument. Still, I suppose that's in keeping with Coll's point--that Exxon is wide ranging, sprawling, a world power not unlike any nation-state.

And indeed, Exxon's loyalties, as the book makes clear, are chiefly to itself and its shareholders. At one point, the former CEO even states as much, when asked why Exxon doesn't do more to help out with energy costs and jobs in the United States: our responsibilities are to the shareholders not to any particular nation. And yet, ironically, Exxon, when it needs to be, is an American company, happy to take advantage of tax discounts, U.S. military assistance, and U.S. diplomatic assistance. I can't say multinational companies come off looking very nice in Coll's rendering.

The book begins with an account of the Exxon Valdez spill, an event that would shake Exxon badly and that would lead to a heavy focus on safety, in an attempt to never repeat such an incident. It would also lead--as would many other similar events--to a long set of court cases that Exxon would appeal and appeal and appeal until penalties were rejected or reduced to a negligible amount for the damage done. Most galling of all in this regard would be how Exxon, while agreeing to pay for damages to water supply and property values a leak at a gas station caused--but not any kind of penalty beyond the actual physical damage--would eventually even contest what physical damages it agreed to pay. Another lawsuit from people in Indonesia would sit in courts for such a long time that the people who brought the suit would die before seeing any benefit. If you're a regular person, forget ever getting anything from corporate bigwigs.

Other chapters focus on how Exxon works with powerbrokers in Africa, Indonesia, and Russia. They bring out how difficult it is to show a concern for human rights in nations where the rule of law is often that of the local rebel group, where who's in charge might change from day to day, where pirates range freely.

Why bother drilling for gas in such locations given the risks? Wall Street. Exxon and other oil companies continually have to show that they have replaced or surpassed the number of oil reserves they've used up or lost in a given year. This means looking for oil in bad places, merging with other oil companies, playing shady with the numbers (counting certain technologies Wall Street doesn't count as reserves).

Coll starts with Valdez and ends with the BP Gulf spill of 2010. In between, Exxon merges with Mobil; liquified natural gas comes to be a resource of growing importance; and tar sand oil begins to be profitable. There's a lot here to chew on.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On "The Lakes of Florida" by Charlie Smith (2110 words) ****

It's wonderful to read a writer in utter control of the language, and that's what Smith does here, effortlessly churning out one gem of a phrase after another. The story itself is collage of events. There's a basketball star whose lost his girlfriend and also who has lost his job to drinking. There is a father and son hanging out drinking at a boat house. There is a tall tail about an alligator wrestler. All of them are here, in almost less space than a college paper. Read it here at Fifty-two Stories.

Friday, July 5, 2013

On "The Snake Charmer's Arms and Other Altered States" by Alexandra Isacson (484 word) ***

Not so much a story as a set of musings by belly dancers and the like, Isacson's anecdotes sparkle primarily on the linguistic level. "Touching your hair while dancing is not an invitation," the first dancer advises, "but never touch your body." It's bits like this, dancer musings I'd never have considered that make this piece memorable. Read the story here at the Fox Chase Review.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On "The Banker and the Poet" by Matthew Sharpe (9427 words) ****

Sharpe's tale is a story of contrasts--heart and head, art and money, poverty and wealth. I'm reminded a bit of other buddy stories, opposites who stick together, like the friends in Sideways or the brothers in Adaptation or True West. Rick works in investment. He has a girlfriend and can have virtually any gal he wants. He lives well. He's a winner. Alec is a poet. He sometimes gets the gal but more often doesn't. He lives poorly. He, we might say, is the loser, at least when playing against Rick. And yet, they are friends, with conversations about philosophy that would put most others' conversations somewhere on the level of kindergarten swing-set dares. One other thing: Alec is about to fall in love, with a transsexual prostitute. He is about to ruin his life, what there is of it, and Rick is about to find out just how much he too can love. Read the story here are Failbetter.