Thursday, December 31, 2015

On “A Room With Many Small Beds” by Kathy Fish (877 words) ****

Kathy Fish tends to focus on the small. She’s one of those elegant crafters of flash fiction, so I was curious what she would do with this slightly longer piece—ten moments placed side by side and merged into a bit of a story. Here, a girl spends time with the father’s girlfriend, with all the attendant mixed feelings over the loss of her mother. Read the story here in ThreadCount.

On “Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys” by Dave Barry ***

Once upon a time I was a huge Dave Barry fan. This time was when I was about sixteen to about age twenty. I was introduced to him by my high school English teacher or by my high school journalism teacher (they were the same person), most likely in journalism. The teacher read an essay about grammar to us, and I was bowled over. I had to read more. And that I did, eventually.

I bought several of Barry's how-to books (Claw Your Way to the Top came first, a book on business) and his first book of columns, Bad Habits. And I laughed a lot. By age twenty, however, when I read a book of his on home improvement, the love affair was ending. His second book of columns did not seem so funny, and his book on U.S. history only moderately redeemed his more recent work for me. And now, over twenty years have passed since I last picked up one of his works.

This book I got for free from the Little Library in our neighborhood. I figured I'd give Barry a try again. It looked entertaining and funny, and it proved a great book for the light reading needed while on family vacation, since much of that vacation was spent corralling little boys at a water park and did not lend itself to deep reading on the philosophical underpinnings of why humans gather themselves into urban civilizations. Having not read reading quite so light in a long while, I now know how and why some people can manage to get through books so quickly: large print and easy to read equals short time.

The book itself, however, was something of a disappointment. Barry is a humorist. This means that his main objective is to tell jokes. There wasn't a lot to glean here other than laughs. And as I've gotten older, making me laugh has gotten relatively tougher to do. Far Side cartoons, which in my late teens were hilarious, now stir mostly a nod from me. Barry likewise might occasionally make me smile, but only one hard laugh was generated in its two hundred plus pages.

The book is about guys, as opposed to men. Here, Barry is onto something, which he does a good job of laying out in his first chapter. Guys go with the flow. They do not generally accomplish important things with their lives. They do stupid stuff. They avoid work as possible. They are not particularly moral or immoral. They are, essentially, like grown-up kids.

What follows are a number of chapters full of cliches about male behavior, some of them gleaned from personal life, some from news stories, and a number of them common ideas that have lingered in the air for generations. All's well and fine, I suppose, to make fun of males--Barry after all is one--but at some level it becomes a bit tedious and insulting. A guy's idea of housework is . . . A guy's concept of a relationship is . . . And so on. To some extent, I wonder how many of such insights are even true. My wife, indeed, is pickier about cleaning bathrooms than I am, and I have to admit that from my second apartment on as a single man, I largely avoided decorating and eschewed furniture as much as possible, though not for the reasons that Barry might pose. I did not find such stuff necessary and didn't want it weighing me down, as opposed to simply not thinking about it (I had, in fact, made an effort with my first apartment and decided I would not do so again until I owned a place and was certain to stay put). And as for relationships, I can attest to being slow to commit, but again, it was not because I never even thought about them with girls I may have gone out with, and I can say the same of many of my male friends.

About the only set of criticisms that rang true for me were those on home improvement and the feelings of inadequacy I feel as compared to “men.” I am one of those guys who wants desperately to fix up the house but who often feels overwhelmed by a set of skills I never learned or was taught and who does feel somewhat less manly because of that lack.

But of course, Barry isn't looking to tell the truth or to make great insights. He's trying to make us laugh. However, it might just be that with more life experience, I find myself less likely to laugh a stereotypes and more likely to laugh at things that do provide true insights. After all, if laughter is at least in part a reaction to surprise and discomfort, it takes some revelation of truth, perhaps previously unknown, to elicit it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On "The Brother" by Robert Coover (13:36 minutes) *****

My favorite section from Coover's "Seven Exemplary Fictions" involves a retelling of the story of Noah's flood. In this case, a brother has been hired to help Noah build the boat. He works on it until it is done, thinking Noah mostly just a crazy man. Noah gives no real explanation for his actions, so when the brother finds that it is beginning to rain and that everything is disappearing under water, there's a rather grim pity we feel for him.

I could not help but think of the biblical story itself. Noah is regarded as a prophet in the scriptures, so my understanding is that his boat building was accompanied by warnings to those around and by preaching. The real tragedy in Coover's tale is that the brother is clueless--that there is no warning about what is about to happen. But then I think of how we are today surrounded by "prophets" who name an end date for the world that comes and goes. I have to think that one some level, people in Noah's day would have had a similar issue. Was Noah merely one of many predicting the world's end? Which person do we listen to, or should we just ignor them all? Is a proliferation of warnings, many of them false, any better than no warning at all? We live in a sad and pitiable world.

You can listen to Coover himself read the story here.

On "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter" by Mario Vargas Llosa *****

Vargas Llosa, along with Manuel Puig, is one of those South American authors I've long intended to get around to reading (like for more than two decades long). It finally happened, and I'm glad to have finally gotten around to this book, as it was an immense pleasure. As with Puig, Vargas Llosa seems to be writing from a different tradition than many of the fantastic realists, but there is a touch of fantasy in this work, if only in the alternate chapters.

What are alternate chapters? Vargas Llosa's book is divided essentially into two parts. Odd chapters focus on the main story; even chapters focus on short stories. The main story involves an eighteen-year-old man in law school who has a job as a radio newsman in Lima, Peru. This young man falls in love with his Bolivian aunt Julia, who is in her early thirties and newly divorced. (The two are unrelated by blood, the aunt being the sister to the wife of the young man's uncle by blood.) As might be imagined, this creates a scandal. The book recounts how the two fall for one another and how they attempt to keep the relationship secret.

But it also recounts the life of another radio employee, who works for a different radio station with the same owners. This other radio station focuses not on news but on entertainment, notably soap operas. The Pedro Camacho, the scriptwriter, is the brain behind these operas. Earlier, the station had depended on imported Cuban scripts, but the Bolivian Camacho is an artist and a perfectionist whose devotion to his craft creates an equal devotion among radio listeners. Audiences grow huge.

It is summaries of the scripts for the stories that Camacho's writes that forge the alternative chapters. These stories are on their own very interesting, and I wish I could find one on the Net to share, but alas, it eluded me. The best stories come toward the front of the book. The very first focuses on a man in love with a woman, but the woman has opted to marry another man, one not really befitting her station--because, as it turns out, she has gotten pregnant by her brother, with whom she is in love. These seems appropriate for soap operas, but it's told with a high literary voice that appeals to someone like me. And true to form, the story ends, not with a conclusion, but with a series of questions about what will happen next. Later chapters focus on a seeming alien arrested by a police officer who has qualms about actually shooting the innocent creature, despite orders; and the rape and attempted murder of the owners of a hotel by one of its boarders. As the stories continue, they became less interesting to me, especially as I got more involved in the main story. But they also devolve naturally, as Vargas Llosa explains in the main text. Character names begin to be repeated between stories (even though they are not the same character) or changed midstory. And then, eventually, all the characters are killed off. Pedro Camacho works himself so hard that he has a meltdown.

Meanwhile, the narrator and his aunt are found out and ordered to stop. Instead, the narrator seeks out a means to get married, which is difficult, given that he is technically a minor under Peruvian law. The tale becomes a love story, as the two try to stay together against overwhelming odds.

And for what? The family is concerned because Aunt Julia is a divorcee and so much older. The narrator is so young and not finished with school. He's condemning himself to a life of hardship. I can understand the family's concern.

But the fortunes of people are not always what they seem likely to become. Camacho goes insane and loses all. The narrator, living for love, seems to come out all right in the end. So too does another radio employee who is largely considered an oaf, while another such employee struggles on along a similar path that he's always been on. Life is a soap opera.

Monday, December 7, 2015

On "The Balloon" by Donald Barthelme (1767 words) ****

One of many of Barthelme's stories available on the Web, this one is about a balloon that engulfs a city and the reactions of various people to it. Or so it seems. It's really about art and how people react to it and why it gets written in the first place, for these external presentations are often simply, as Barthelme puts it, "spontaneous autobiographic disclore[s]." Read the story here.

On "Sixty Stories" by Donald Barthelme ***

Once, a long time ago, I was tasked to write up a bio and summary of criticism on Frederick and Steven Barthelme. I wrote up one on Donald, having been initially given the wrong name. A couple of years after that, I read Donald Barthelme's Snow White. It was absurd and fun and funny. I read it in the Fort Worth Central Library, in one sitting, as I had no means to check out books from that library, living literally a few hundred yards out of town. It's been nearly twenty years. Now I'm finally back to Barthelme. Why? He kept coming up in discussions about experimental fiction. And he showed up as the author of a story taught alongside a story by another author I know. I figured it was time to try Barthelme's short pieces.

Overall, I found the collection fun and intriguing, by as I find with that genius Faulkner's novels, it didn't feel like much of anything added up. These are stories that often just drop off, without any kind of epiphany. Barthelme, I'm sure, was eschewing that element of the form, an element that in its ubiquity almost seems trite. And yet, I find a story without some kind of gravitas ending to be, well, an anecdote. It doesn't tend to stick with me, no matter how clever or absurd the premise and execution.

My favorite stories of this collection generally managed to do something that thing that was clever or absurd, and they were often funny in a smile sort of way. Others were hard to stick to. Among the one that were hardest to stick with, for me, were those that consisted wholly of dialogues. Not only was it difficult sometimes to follow the conversations (often with non sequiturs) but the conversations often didn't seem to go much of anywhere. Now, if I managed to become engaged in the topic of the conversation, and sometimes I did, the dialogue could be quite funny in the smile sort of way. A masterpiece of this form was "The Farewell," which consisted of two people talking about getting into an exclusive institution--only it's not so exclusive as it once was. We see a good deal of awkward and mean competition between two "friends."

My favorite piece in the collection by far was one drawn from what I believe to be one of Barthelme's novels. It was called "A Manual for Sons." It is essentially a summation of fatherhood--what "father" means. I don't know exactly what it is that Barthelme does here that makes the piece so intriguing. It's simply an definition essay on fathers, but the way that he goes about setting out that definition, with its specificity and, many times, ridiculous appeals to history or anecdote fascinates like poetry.

Characteristic of the collection is the very first story, "Margins," which is about two men discussing character and handwriting analysis. If handwriting shows who we are, why bother reforming ourselves--instead, reform our handwriting. The story is an exploration on inner versus outer, surface versus depth--the margins. How can or does one reflect the other? And yet, Barthelme seems to provide no real answer--there's just a lot of talk. And one is left nodding the head, saying, Interesting. Maybe even beautiful. But so what?

Thursday, November 26, 2015

On "Doppelganger" by Mark Crimmins (247 words) ***

Here's a fun one about the person who looks like you. Such has happened to me quite often--dentists claiming I walk by their office every day around noon, roommates angry at me because they wave hello to me on campus and I don't wave back, and so on. Well, here's one thing that could happen, here, at Pif.

(After today, Short Story Reader will become irregular in presentation, rather than every three days or four days or five days, as I have been gradually slowing down. I'll still try to update folks on my reading and present great stories, but life has gotten hectic in the past two years such that I no longer have the time to devote to blogging as regularly as I once did. Look for entries about once every week or two or three. Thanks to all those who have been regular readers through the +7.5 years.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

On "For The Wheels to Nullify" by Brent Rydin (422 words) ***

Here, storm is juxtaposed with relationships of various sorts. But the line that sticks out most is the one about how a storm chaser, which the narrator is, isn't brave--he's just some jerk hanging out on the outskirts where it's safe. So it is with the nonrelationship. Read the story here at Whiskey Paper.

On “Betrayed by Rita Hayworth” by Manuel Puig ****

What can I say of this book for which I hold such conflicting feelings? It has taken me decades to getting around to reading Manuel Puig. Time gets away, and there are so many things to read. I was intending to read Kiss of the Spider Woman, but the book was unavailable, and in a sense, I was relieved, because I actually wanted to try something else of Puig’s. And so I tried this, his first novel.

Puig is a post-boom writer, as some Latin American literature scholars call those writing after Cortazar and Borges had hit their zenith. And his is a very different text to the magic realism that seems to hold so many Latin American authors imprisoned. I love magic realism, but it’s interesting to read someone who isn’t focused on that. Puig’s novel isn’t even in the objective realist tradition that some other Latin Americans I’ve read fall into. Rather, he seems to fall in line more with William Faulkner, James Joyce, and that ilk. And in that sense, I wish I’d had the time and the ability to concentrate on Puig’s text that I felt it demanded.

The book is written in various styles, but the bulk of it is written in stream of consciousness. Other styles include dialogue (sometimes only half of the conversation is provided to the readers), letters, reports, and diaries. The diaries are the easiest to follow, but they come late in the book. The sections are presented over the course of about fifteen years and involve different narrators. The result is that the book is rather hard to follow.

Was there a plot? Not much of one. Rather, we’re introduced to a village, a rural town, called Vallejos, and we learn about the people who populate it. With so many people and such indirect means of presentation, however, gleaning what’s going on is a task. In essence, it’s like we’re one of those people listening to half a conversation and getting sections of gossip but never the whole story. Only with great concentration will we glean what’s really going on.

Or not. Because of course much of what is going on is in the imagination or in the guise of falsehoods and rumor. So reality is twisted per whatever point of view you are getting the story from.

Vaguely, we learn the story of Mita and Berto and their son Toto. Toto loves movies. Berto looks like a movie star. Toto grows up to become (at least insofar as he becomes a teenager) a rather intelligent young man, a nerd of sorts. His cousin Hector lives with the family, and Hector is a brute, as are many of the young men who populate the novel, whose main goal seems to be to beat others up and to add as many girls to their list of conquests as possible.

With a title focused on a famous actress, the book obviously flaunts its connection to film--or rather characters’ obsession with the movies. An “essay” that appears in the book, which is about a film one of the characters has seen, appears to be almost entirely a summary of the film. Characters discuss movies, actresses (wholesome women versus bad women in film), and how to make it with a gal in the dark. Film’s role in lending the lives of these people meaning is everywhere.

The writing throughout the book is stellar. I’d be tempted to read another work of Puig’s, but I might just need to reread this work first--give it the due attention it deserves. I suspect I might need to do that for any other book of his.

Monday, November 16, 2015

On "The Punch Line" by Jared Yates Sexton (2596 words) *****

Ostensibly a story about drugs, this piece makes the subject new again by putting it in a dentist's office and selectively dropping out details. Sexton hits the right tune here, doing, as one fiction writer once noted to me, well by not mentioning certain things better left unsaid. Sometimes the eggregious seems more eggregious when we don't have it described for us--and sometimes we don't really want to know. Read the story here at Juked.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth (about 9,100 words) *****

The best work from Barth's collection of the same name is a metafictional masterpiece. Barth essentially tells a story of a kid named Ambrose going to a funhouse, but in the process he also tells readers how he's writing the story or failing to. What we have is an instruction manual of sorts. "Character is built this way," Barth tells us, and then goes on to show us within the story. The result is something comic and instructive. Bring techniques to the fore, Barth still manages to keep the story compelling--perhaps because it is the way in which the writer himself begins to become lost in the "funhouse" as his character does. The parallel is sharply drawn--and amusingly. Read the story here.

On "Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth ***

Years ago I read The Last Voyage of Somebody Sailor, which I enjoyed enough that I kept a copy of it in my personal library (despite whatever mediocre reviews it may have gotten). But it has taken me nearly two decades now to get to Barth's classic collection of stories. Unfortunately, the collection proved as a whole to be underwhelming.

Here's what I liked about Somebody Sailor, as I recall: Barth's musings on middle-class life. There was, of course, a whole other plot involving Sinbad that becomes mixed in with the work, and while somewhat interesting, it was less compelling to me than the realist fiction of everyday life.

Something similar happened with this book for me. I was drawn most to the stories about Ambrose and his family. One explained how Ambrose got his name. One involved Ambrose being locked out of his brother Peter and Peter's friends' "club," in which the older kids discover a few things about sex. And the last involved Ambrose going to an amusement park. Each had some metafictional musings, as does the collection as a whole, but they remained subjugated to the purposes of the story as a whole. Such is not as much the case with the other stories, and as a result, my interest often waned before getting far into them.

Here's a rundown of some of the devices included: there's a story ("Night-Sea Journey") of a life that is essentially the tale of a sperm crossing crossing to its egg (or so I read from a secondary source--the tale could be easily read as one of a person swimming for life). There's a story telling the story of itself ("Autobiography"), which proves hardly as interesting as the conceit sounds. Other stories recount, in varying form, Greek legends--one discovering how to write as story, one exploring stories within stories (the techniques of "Menelaiad" is fascinating, as we get to a point where there are seven quotes within quotes, but the story itself hardly kept my attention).

The one exception to these other stories that really intrigued me was "Life-Story," which told of a writer trying to write the story that we readers are currently reading. All the conflict and crisis occurs right in there, as we witness the write dissatisfied with his work trying desperately to bring a decent story into being.

Friday, November 6, 2015

On "Cocktail Hour" by Kate Braverman (6379 words) ****

Bernie Roth returns from finding out that he is no longer needed at the company he works at and once owned to find that his wife is leaving him, and neither his son nor his daughter are the people he thought they were. In fact, this whole story revolves around the ways in which things are often not what they seem--we are all actors playing our parts. I'm reminded a bit of the stories other men have told me who have lost wives to divorce, often without any real warning. They didn't fight, they say, but the woman one day said that she is not who she was pretending to be all these years. How much do we give up of ourselves to please others? And what are the consequences when we stop? You can read the story at her website here.

On "Lithium for Medea" by Kate Braverman ****

I remember Braverman saying, from classes I took from her years ago, that she felt this first novel a bit overwritten--if still a lovely offspring (as firsts generally do bear a certain fondness in our hearts). I could see, perhaps, some overwriting, but really, this work seemed a very well-wrought piece. If the overwriting is anywhere, it is not on a sentence level but on that of plot: the poor protagonist has a dying father, an estranged mother with an estranged grandmother, an ex-husband who "leaves" her for Star Trek and other intellectual pursuits, a current lover who deals the narrator drugs and spends his time with other women, and so on. There is not much that is not wrong with this woman's life. But dysfunctional families and people are often the heart of novels, and there was, at bottom, it seemed to me, a kind of loving that came through between the protagonist and her parents, even if on the surface much seems wrong.

I'm also a bit taken aback by what I was writing at the time, which seems in many ways not unlike this first novel of Braverman's--a tale of family troubles with a dying mom (instead of dad). I feel as if I was probably conjuring Braverman while in her class, though I had not read this book. And I can see also how Braverman's ideas about writing come through in this work. You write good sentences and then you string a plot in afterward--you write the air, and then put a net on it. That seemed true hear. There was lots of air, lots of little chunks of things, that somehow got wrapped into this plot. Such makes for a work in which plot is not a centerpiece. We're not dying to know whether dad will live so much as to know what the next turn of phrase will be. That's why one reads Braverman--for the poetry.

And here, the language, of course, is lovely, as Braverman's language usually is. She makes metaphors seem so effortless and natural. But also what I was struck by with this text is how she uses the short sentence. The sentences are much shorter than I would expect, than I remember, for something so full of poetic language. It's as if she mixes her Hemingway with her Nabokov, and it is wonderful.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

On "Just Fine" by Bill Roorbach (1333 words) ***

This story has a great hook in its first line. And that's often enough to keep me reading on. "Jeremy Kellog came home with a railroad spike protruding from his head." What follows is an absurd commentary on parents and children and the inability for the two to understand one another. Read the story here at SixPenny.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On "Labyrinth" by Amelia Gray (2026 words) ****

It's been a while since I featured an Amelia Gray story. Sometimes I check out her tweets, which are almost always amusing (one critic even claims they're better than her stories). And she's come quite a ways since I first came across her work online: two short story collections, then a novel from a major publisher, then another novel. And now this: a story in the New Yorker, the cream of the cream. Congratulations! This one features Gray's typical fascination with the absurd, though it's set in a mundane location, one that when we think about it, really is rather absurd: a corn maze. Only this one isn't just a maze--it's a labyrinth, full of the threat of evil just around the bend (again, another typical element in Gray's stories, as if extraordinary trouble lies within the ordinary). Are you hero enough to follow it through? Jim is. Try it here at the New Yorker.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

On "The Babysitter" by Robert Coover *****

This story, which I read my freshman year of college, blew me away then and still does to this day. I didn't read it for a class. I read it because it was in my textbook for a class, and I read the first line and couldn't stop. I've read other Robert Coover, and none of it compares. This is his climax.

Just a short time after that first read, the story would be adapted into a movie, which I eventually watched and was a shade disappointed in. It's not really a story that lends itself to being adapted. It has no straight through-line in terms of plot, and at the time I first read it, my goal was to try to fit all the disparate pieces together. But of course, Coover isn't intending this. This story is everyone's idea of a babysitter--and so she is sexy, mean, a threat, a nice girl, and much more all at the same time. As we read, plots come into being, some disappearing, others merging into others. It's a world of alternate worlds. If you haven't read this masterpiece, you can find it online here.

On "Pricksongs and Descants" by Robert Coover ***

I am surprised that I did not read this much earlier than I have. I discovered Coover near the beginning of college, and I was a big fan of "The Babysitter," but I barely gave the collection from which it is drawn a look. Instead, about ten years later, I read his novel John's Wife. The reason for this was threefold. One was that a coworker of mine explained to me the premise of his novel about baseball, which got me intrigued. Second, I had no access to a library at that time, so to meet my usual reading load, I was dependent on what I could find cheap in remainder bins or used. And John's Wife happened to be one of them. And then there was this: John's Wife began in a very interesting manner.

Unfortunately that novel got lost in its strangeness, becoming so inordinately weird that I lost interest about two-thirds of the way through (though I did finish it). I didn't return to Coover again.

Until now. And I wish I could say that I was mistaken in failing to read Coover for all these years. I can see how his work might have appealed slightly more in my early twenties, but I could also see myself not being that much more moved. That isn't to say I was not interested in his techniques--and in fact I still find those fascinating. Long before I had a computer or before the Internet was a widely used public utility, Coover was talking about the use of hypertext in fiction. I thought the ideas intriguing, but I didn't quite know how they would work or what they meant, not having the technology to refer to. The article, for those interested, is available here at the New York Times.

However, this Coover book is, as it is probably meant to be, deliberately alienating in many places, and I was left as if I were watching a showman, but in doing so, the showman fails to be a showman because I continue to see him as such throughout.

The stories in this collection are very much self-conscious. They are, many of them, a rerendering of fairy tales. They consider the process of storytelling itself, how we come to create narratives and what that means. They are also very male-centric stories, focusing often on sex and the female form. But the book is called Pricksongs, so what should be expected? Perhaps, Coover is intimating the sexual desire and story go hand in hand. Given how much best-selling fiction is romance or erotica, that's probably true.

The book opens with a prologue that makes the tie-in to fairy tales explicit. From there, the collection moves to a story called "The Magic Poker," which might qualify as my second-most favorite of the book (perhaps, "The Elevator" could also take the position). Coover is explicit here in saying the story is a story, telling us that he is the author and that he is about to introduce a character or that he regrets introducing a character because he seems to have little to do with the story, and so on. Vaguely, it involves two sisters who find a magic poker--one attracted to it, one repulsed; one who turns it into a prince and one who does not. The poker stands in for the frog the way you might expect the male anatomy to stand in for the prince here.

"Seven Exemplary Tales" features a prologue of its own and seven very short stories--some of them again, retellings of famous other stories. "The Elevator" discusses a man who plots revenge for constantly being accused of flatulence, when in fact another man is the one responsible. As with "The Babysitter" it ends up including several plotlines of possibility--sex with the woman who runs the elevator, revenge, the elevator dropping everyone to their deaths, being let off on the wrong floor or at a floor from which there is no return, and so on. "Quenby and Ola, Swede and Carl" recounts the tale of a family who lives in a touristy fishing area and the man who comes to fish with them, told as per usual with Coover, out of order and with seeming conflicts in terms of what actually happens. "A Pedestrian Accident" focuses on a man who is hit by a truck but is told as a kind of farce.

Another theme of this Coover book is performance. "Romance of the Thin Man and Fat Lady" recounts circus performers, for instance. And the final story in the collection involves a magician, acting as a kind of epilogue for the collection, one in which the magician can perform some great feats but in which he will inevitably disappoint, as indeed, the collection as a whole seems to do.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

On "Dead Reckoning" by Vincent Scarpa (5861 words) ***

Bereft of family and job, Frank is looking for something to console him, for some kind of meaning to interrupt his life again. Frank is a firefighter who has the fire turn against him, whose way of life has become his means of death. And it is only in consoling others--saving others--again that he has any chance to live. The question is how he'll do that. Read the story here at Swarm Lit.

Monday, October 12, 2015

On "On the Way to the Killing Spree the Shooter Stops for Pizza" by Tom McAllister (2401 words) ***

McAllister imagines what goes on in the head of a mass murderer before the actual incident. As he notes, no one really knows or can figure it out. And in this world, even McAllister's sinister young man isn't all that deep thinking. Depressed, bored, full of feelings that things don't mean much, he opts to become one of the slayers before becoming one of the slayed. Read the story here at Sundog.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

On "Poetry Pool Party" by Megan Martin (50 words) ***

More a humorous thought than a story, Martin here contemplates an invite to the titular event. Somehow, methinks said party would be more intriguing than she lets on. Not long ago, just weeks before my wedding, I went to do a reading, the first in a decade. I had attended readings, but I hadn't done one myself in a long while. It was a great deal of fun, and at least one of the writers (not me) read something that was truly entertaining and rather mindblowingly good. Afterward, a slate of us all went out for drinks--and for talking literature. Ah, the people there--mostly idealistic twentysomethings--it was nice to think literature important again and that we all were destined to have a part in it. That's what I imagine a poetry pool party would look like. Read the story here at Wigleaf.

Friday, October 2, 2015

On "Like Sand, or Lanterns" by Brent Rydin (3176 words) ***

Essentially a tale of two men going to scatter the ashes of a dead man, Rydin's piece stands out for its raw use of language. I love the description of the sky as sand. The dialogue has some zingers as well. Read it here at Pithead Chapel.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On "Kind of like You" by Tania Moore (4642 words) ***

Here's a painful story I know too much about and quite well identify with. Archie has a hard time working up the courage to ask girls out, wondering often what each action might mean. In this tale, he finds himself with a crush on a woman in his building, who unbelievably to him takes an interest in him. Originally published in Opium, you can still read the story here.

On "Blood and Guts in High School" by Kathy Acker ***

I've read about Acker for years, mentioned generally in relation to things like post-postmodernism (alongside Bret Easton Ellis), which I'm not sure is a thing that really exists. And so I've finally given her a spin--and certainly what's she's written is different from most things of I've read before. It's a collage of sorts, a mix of styles and speakers and ideas and pictures and words, all put together in one text.

I was reminded of two other things while reading this book. I was reminded of some photocopied literary journals that I would come across in Los Angeles when I was in my early twenties and idealistic. These journals generally aimed to be shocking in some way, dropping swear words vicariously and including pornographic drawings and generally being anticapitalist, antiwar, antisociety. The purveyors of these magazines were somehow going to change the world. I wanted to change the world too but not in such an anarchistic way. This book looked like one of those journals. I would immediately not have liked it as a young man--mostly because it was too lewd in a coarse obvious way.

The other thing the book reminded me of was a David Lynch movie, something akin to Mulholland Drive or Inland Empire. The movie makes sense at the beginning and is interesting because it's so strange, but as the film continues, it becomes stranger and stranger and more and more impossible to follow. Eventually, we don't know what's going on--and we're left with just bits and pieces we were introduced to early on that show up from time to time that we can sort of wrap around our minds around to give the piece structure.

And that's what happens here in Acker's book. We're introduced straight off to Janey, a ten-year-old who is in a sexual relationship with her father/boyfriend. Acker, of course, is looking to shock right from the start. But as I read, I saw the relationship as in some ways not really literal, as I saw the book as not being literal. Acker walks in the realm of dream and desire, as Lynch does. Sure, we have an incestuous/pedophilic relationship at the center of the piece, but what Acker is doing is making psychological theory literal. The book then at the start is about how women, in relationships, are seeking their fathers, at least as some psychologists might theorize. A boyfriend is simply an image of the father who raised the woman. Read that way, the early sections are theoretically interesting (is what we look for in a relationship inevitably a mirror image of a parent?), especially as Janey's boyfriend breaks up with her to pursue another woman who is sexier and who allows him more freedom. This could be any relationship. (I particularly enjoyed a paragraph that was repeated multiple times as a refrain throughout certain pages as the relationship comes to an end--a set of incidents being played over and over, the way we tend to obsess over breakups, looking for meaning.)

As the novel continues, however, we begin to lose sight of Janey at times. And we descend more and more often into the realm of dream--Acker even provides us with some sketches of dreamscapes. Janey leaves her father to go to school in New York, where she works, falls in with a group called the Scorpions, has lots of sex, and eventually loses all her acquaintances in an auto accident.

Janey is kidnapped by a couple of men who intend to turn her into a prostitute/sex slave. She is kept in a room by a Persian man. She writes poetry, a book. She gets cancer, and the Persian man leaves her. She ends up walking around Tunisia with Genet, but not having a passport, she can't go back to the United States. And then she dies. And then she goes into some kind of Egyptian otherworld, where of course sex and death meet, because they often do in literature. Meanwhile, Acker gives us asides on President Carter, The Scarlet Letter, and other famous works, people, and ideas, often without really identifying how these necessarily fit in with the narrative or who the particular speaker is.

It's nice to read something that is not a straightforward narrative from time to time, and I enjoyed some of the writing just for its sheer inventiveness. But in many ways, I did not feel invested in the book--just wanting to get through it. Had I slowed down, I'm sure I'd have picked up on more themes, and were I to trace some of the motifs, I'm sure I could make more of what's here, but given the lack of investment I generally felt, the book does not lend itself to me wanting to reread it, which is what would be required to dig those ideas out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

On "The Opposition Party" by Rick Stinson (4942 words) ***

Exoticism can lend a certain automatic interest to a story. Pilvax specializes in Hungarian writing--writing about or by or from Hungary. Here, a music professor gets caught up in a violent political situation due to his interest in learning more about the culture. Read it here at Pilvax.

On "Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi" by George H. Devol *

I'm not sure now where I read about this book--whether it was suggested to me on Good Reads or whether I came across it in some other work--but it was not nearly as interesting as I thought it might be. Devol's work is not an autobiography in a standard sense. Had it been, I might well have liked it. Instead, it is a collection of anecdotes about his life, more or less put down in the order in which he recalls them. There is no chronology, no narrative development. And many of the anecdotes are so similar in form that they become hard to distinguish from one another: Devol walks onto a boat (or a train), meets up with his partner, and plays cards with a group of suckers who don't know that Devol and the partner are in cahoots. Devol is a gambler, he says, but he doesn't seem to gamble much at all--he seems more often simply to be a cheater and a conman. Lose a few rounds to your friend, get everyone else thinking you're no good at the game, and then whallop them with a huge take at the end. And be sure to mark your cards.

The more I read, the more I despised this man, who thinks himself generous when he hands back enough money for some poor sucker to get home on, having taken him for all else he was worth. Sorry you won't get to buy that ranch you were looking forward to moving to or go duck hunting with that new gun you purchased or travel around the United States, having come here from Europe. Sure, one can argue that the people who agree to gamble with Devol are responsible for choosing to do so in the first place and thinking that they could cheat Devol out of his own cash, but sometimes, in reading, I found my heart renching for all that such men sometimes lost.

Devol also spends a good time writing about his ability to fight--and especially to head butt. I'd thought the latter was something kids gave up by second grade. Devol claims to have a hard head that can take down anyone--but one he's used so frequently that is covered in abrasions.

And yet, the irony is that come Civil War time, Devol spends just a short period in the military, and coming to see the danger in war, runs off to return to gambling--and most especially to despoiling the soldiers who happen to come through New Orleans during and after the war. I can, I suppose, give Devol credit for showing his own dishonor and pure selfishness when it comes to national service.

Whatever I may think of Devol and his profession, Devol seems to think highly of it and of himself. He claims that gamblers are more honest folks than most of society, accepting their losses, when they happen, unlike some who try to recoup their "fairly" squandered money. Gambling, as Devol points out at the end, is something only human beings do, and as such, it shows off human intelligence.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

On "Occupational Hazard" by Hassan Riaz (5424 words) ***

More a reminiscence than a well-plotted story, Riaz here recounts the life of a cook and his run-ins with various women. The story focuses most specifically on three women who in some way or another are related to the restaurants where he works--and all of whom eventually almost kill the narrator. And yet, like a dangerous job, the narrator keeps coming back--he needs women like he needs a job. Read the story here at Penduline.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

On "The Mad Butcher of Plainfield’s Chariot of Death" by Adam Howe (3518 words) ***

Gibbons is looking for some easy cash. He's a carnie purveyor short on his luck. His luck changes, or so he thinks, when he gets his inheritance at just about the same time a grave-digging psycho's possessions go on sale. People love to look at this kind of dark stuff, Gibbons reasons. He's about to make a killing off other people's horror. Things don't always turn out so well when we try this sort of thing. Read the story here at Nightmare Magazine.

Monday, September 7, 2015

On "Would You Mind Not Talking to Me?" by Robert Cormack (1730 words) ***

Out of work and drinking--or just at work and drinking--it makes little difference. Our lives are full of terror: fear of the people around us, whether potential bosses or the women and men next to us at the bar, or the circumstances we find ourselves in: down to our last dime or starting a new job. Cormack mines this arena with intriguing dialogue. Read the story here at Northwind.

On "The Invention of Morel and Other Stories" by Adolfo Bioy Casares ****

I'm not sure how this book ended up on a list of titles I wanted to read. I must have read somewhere that Casares was a friend and collaborator with Jorge Luis Borges. That alone probably would have been enough to ellicit some interest. As such, Casares is in the same Argentinean fantastic realist tradition. He's a writer like Borges--the same pseudointellectualism behind many of the stories, the same tricks of storytelling--but more long winded. Whereas Borges's stories rarely clock in longer than about ten pages, Casares's pieces clock in around thirty, and The Invention of Morel itself is a novella.

If I were writing a paper on this book, I would focus on the use of time in the collection, particularly in reference to space, eternity, and reality. Many of the stories, indeed, seem to focus on the manner in which time is an illusion. We can collapse time through memory and various tricks of the mind. These tricks can thus establish a kind of eternity, an alternate reality. They can bring the "past" into the present or make the present disappear into some other universe.

The novella The Invention of Morel certainly focuses on this. The invention that Morel is responsible for is some kind of machine that allows people to continue living. It "steals" life and replays it on a continuous loop. But these people are not really people once their souls are stolen. They are shadows of another world that we can see and walk among but that we cannot really interact with. The story itself is not focused as much on the invention, however, as on the narrator's discovery of it. The narrator, for adventure and exploration, goes to an island from which no one has escaped alive. Conceivably he too gets pulled in by Morel's invention, although somehow he manages to pass a missive off to others that becomes the scholarly description of the place. Much of the story focuses on his fascination with one particular woman--one of the illusions--with whom he wishes to forge a relationship.

The novella was not particularly to my taste. I actually much preferred Casares's shorter pieces. My favorite of those pieces was the story "In Memory of Pauline," which details a man's lifelong friendship with a gal and his disappointment as a jilted lover (spoilers follow). It is his expectation that they will marry, but instead, one night, he introduces her to a friend, and this friend and she fall for each other, and that's that. In despair, the narrator goes overseas for a couple of years. When he returns, Pauline is waiting for him. She apologizes for running off with the other man and slips into the narrator's bed. The next day, the narrator goes in search of Pauline and of the story of what's happened during the two years that he's been gone. He finds out that Pauline is in fact dead, that her lover killed her. So this becomes a ghost story. Not so fast. As the narrator puts the facts together, he discovers certain details that cannot have been true. There's a gift that he gave Pauline that shows up in the apartment in a place where it should not be; they make love to the sound of rain but there is no rain on the ground when he goes outside afterward; his image in the mirror is shady; she speaks more like the narrator's friend than the way the narrator remembered her speaking. What he discovers is that Pauline didn't just die but that her lover, now in prison, killed her, jealous of the narrator. It is the narrator's projected jealousy that has visited him. Pauline never loved the narrator, he realizes, and their consummation upon his return was merely an illusion of the jealous man's mind. This is where, of course the mind takes over, changing our conception of time and reality.

I liked the rest of the stories to different degrees, though not nearly as much. "The Future Kings" is about a spy novelist who becomes a spy when he goes to visit some old friends who are believed to be involved in some kind of plot; they turn out to be people who can speak telepathically to seals. "The Idol" involves an antique dealer who gets hold of a wood sculpture with a dog's head that seems to have supernatural powers (to make one fall in love with the owner's daughter, to kill one in one's sleep, etc.). "The Celestial Plot" involves the crossing of parallel worlds, where a pilot lands in a universe where none of his friends know him, while another pilot lands in a universe where he is flying a different plane than the one he took off in, and so on. The paragraph ending of this story summarizes many of the book's themes quite well. It talks of "old notions" of planetary and spherical worlds versus "bundles of parallel spaces and times." "The Other Labryinth" is a story that unfolds slowly and that I found difficult to get through, but the last ten pages upend the entire piece, and what one thought one was reading turns out to be something entirely other. In the story, a man is obsessed with a manuscript that may or may not be a fraud. We think we know that the fraud was put upon the man by his rival, but the true author of the fraud turns out to be someone quite different. And in "The Perjury of Snow," a poetry critic recounts the murder of a famous poet; as with the previous story and several others in the collection, our perception of the tale is changed significantly at the end, when the interpretation offered of the story of the murder is upended so that another murderer is revealed. And as in those others stories, time plays a key role here, as one man cuts his family off from the rest of the world in order to impose an eternity on his loved ones so that his daughter won't die. It is when that outside world impinges on that man's house, that time reestablishes its power over the family's life.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

On "Mazes" by Lisa Martens (6331 words) ***

An exploration of real life mazes is what this story is about. In the center of the story, the narrator draws a maze that looks like a brain--three ways in. The goal is to get out the other side, but most often you end up circling around to the place you've come from. Indeed, the story itself works that way. It's a story about domestic abuse, an overprotective--even obsessive--boyfriend and other unpleasant characters. Read it here at Northwind Magazine.

Friday, August 28, 2015

On "Skull" by Steve Almond ***

One of the stories from Almond's collection, The Evil B. B. Chow, this one involves a drawn-out conversation about a man's weird sex life with his woman, who happens to be missing an eye. It's the kind of story I would expect in Nerve, which often tends to focus on strange sex, if only because a story that focuses merely on sex is generally really going to be a story about a relationship. Read the story here.

On "The Evil B. B. Chow and Other Stories" by Steve Almond ***

I've been coming across Steve Almond's stories in various literary journals for about a decade now and seen his name on various blurbs. The stories were always quality but never particularly stand-out works. I could probably say the same for the collection as a whole, though in this case, a few individual stories do stand out. I'd expected the collection would all revolve around a theme--probably romance--but in the end, the chosen stories seemed more random, like a best of what Almond's published.

Among the standouts are the title story, which involves a woman who works for a glossy woman's magazine who dates a seemingly mundane man who at first proves to be surprisingly sexy and sympathetic then becomes something quite the opposite, a man who strings women through similar arcs and drops in relationships with the same old excuses and lines.

Going along with that same theme is "Appropriate Sex," which involves a female student who tries to seduce her creative writing teacher and the despised student whom the teacher falls back on to help him avoid the girl.

"A Happy Dream" is about a blind date in which the lies people tell one another prove to be just that--and that's okay, because it's fun to dream.

"The Problem of Human Consumption" involves a man and his daughter recovering from--or perhaps, more appropriately, dealing with--grief over the lost wife/mother.

"Wired for Life" might well be called "Wired for Love." It's about a woman who finds herself oddly drawn to her computer repairman as the sex life with her own significant other seems largely unsatisfying to nonexistent.

"Summer, as in Love" seems like a long prose poem, a hymn if you will, to a short relationship, that is beautiful precisely because of the writing itself.

Another strong story, and perhaps my favorite in the book, is "Larsen's Novel," which is in the end about relationships but which seems, for most of it, to be about the awkward situation that is created when one is ask to read a friend's manuscript. What is the proper etiquette when someone has worked on something so long? Do you tell the truth about how bad it is, how wasted the work has been, or do you lie? And do you even read it? And if so, how do you manage to read it, when it is extremely bad and extremely long?

Other stories, though, seem far from this theme. "Soul Molecule" involves a family of alien abductees in conversation with an old (and somewhat skeptical) friend. Of note here is the way the Almond keeps the tale fairly mundane, given the point of view, which adds to the uncertainty about the reality.

"I Am as I Am" is about a boy who hits another with a baseball bat in a game after school, killing the kid and the change that that brings to the kid's life.

"Lincoln, Arisen," one the the weakest stories in the book is a historical retelling/imagining of a friendship/relationship between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Another weak story involves a conversation about a part of Michael Jackson's body.

Overall, though, the book is a good introduction the Almond's oeuvre and makes me curious to see what else I might have missed over the last few years that has not been collected.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

On "Walled" by Lucy Taylor (4618 words) ***

I was reminded of Edgar Allan Poe's fiction while reading this. The tale takes place in an insane asylum and involves a cat. These two dark forces seem like Poe's territory. Plush is the woman walled up in the asylum--or is it something else? Read the story here at Nightmare Magazine.

On "Day of the Locust" by Nathanael West *****

One of the best Hollywood novels of all time, reads a few of the reviews of this classic book. I'd call the book Hollywood gothic, and of West's body of work, it probably is my favorite, despite my liking for the aesthetic experiments in his other famous work Miss Lonelyhearts. This one feels like more of a narrative, and the characters are a bit more fully realized and drawn out.

West's main character is an aspiring artist named Tod Hacket (get it, a hack) who has come to Hollywood to do backdrops and other art needed for the studios. In his spare time, he thinks about drawing the dead--that is, a Los Angeles that is on fire and burning, because Hollywood, as the narrator puts it, is where people go to die.

Death here could mean any number of things. It could mean the death of morality--a kind of moral vacuum that people enter into when going into the movies. It could mean death of meaning (religion, art). It could mean a death of a the soul.

Death, in fact, pervades the book. Tod is in love with Faye Greener (the name suggesting life of a sort, I suppose--or at least "life" in comparison to others). But a lot of other men are into Faye as well (in this respect, she reminded me of Brett in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises but of a lower class and less intelligent sort). She won't have the men--or at least not Tod. He's not rich or successful, so he can't advance her career--she's an aspiring actress. Despite this, Tod befriends her father Henry so as to spend more time around her. Tod's a rather sad aspiring beau.

Henry is an old Vaudeville hand who is literally dying.

Among Faye's other suitors are Homer Simpson, an older man who has some money from before he moved to Hollywood and who agrees to take care of Faye after her father's death (in an arrangement wholly benefiting Faye not unlike Tod's); Earle, a fake cowboy whose dates with Faye Tod pays for; a dwarf; and a Mexican.

A scene I remember from earlier readings is one involving a cock fight. Simpson's property is used for the contest, even though he disapproves, since it is Faye's friends who insist on it. The fight is gruesome, as one chicken takes care of another--and here there seems a parallel to the bullfight in The Sun Also Rises. In fact, one could almost look at the novel as being a kind of parody of Hemingway's work, since what is high brow there is now reduced to low brow. Instead of army veterans and drunks we have fake army soldiers and drunks, just as instead of regal bullfights we have cheap cockfights.

At the end of the novel, we get a kind of living fulfillment of Tod's imagined painting as a mob devolves into violence.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On “All the Pretty Colors” by John A. McColley (4962 words) ***

Here's a science fiction tale that thinks deep on the senses and on medicine. Alicia Talvert is looking for a cure to a disease that is wiping out humans after alien beings visit Earth and bring something unexpected to it. Here, a parasite proves to be a new way of understanding the universe. Read the story here at Crossed Genres.

On "Miss Lonelyhearts" by Nathanael West *****

Two decades plus makes quite a difference to a reading experience. I read this work a few times back when I was an undergraduate and probably once after that, but certainly well over a decade ago. I was blown away by it as an undergrad, not as much now as an older man.

In between, though, there's not just been life experience but other reading, most specifically other reading of Nathanael West. Not only did I read his Day of the Locust (more than once) but also his two minor novels, and in that regard, I couldn't help on this read to notice the similarities between Lonelyhearts and his first novel, which was written for a small audience and mostly centers around dream life and Freudian psychology. This time around, Lonelyhearts seemed to have the same obsession, though on a more sophisticated and more interesting level. Still, that took some of the joy of it away from me.

Miss Lonelyhearts is an advice columnist who is tired of dealing with the heartache in the world. Written more as a set of short anecdotes than a full-fledged plotted novel, it focuses on healing that heartache--or the inability to do it, through religion or through art. This made for easy papers on modernism as an undergrad, but now I find myself wanting more. So the center won't hold? So what? What are we to do with this knowledge?

The last time I read Miss Lonelyhearts, I remember having come to prefer The Day of the Locust. We'll see if that holds true this time. Still, I mark these books as five stars for the joy I got from them at a younger age; they hold a good place in my heart.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On "The Cellar Door" by Duncan Whitmire (319 words) ***

Not that long stories can't be surreal or otherworldly, but it does seem that flash fiction is often the best avenue for these odd kinds of tales. I'm reminded a bit of Kafka's short stories. Sure, "The Metamorphosis" and "The Hunger Artist" gather lots of attention, but most of his shorter work was in the form of strange little parables. Whitmire's "Cellar Door" is a curious tale in that realm, taking off on the concept of a cellar door--and a room that holds remarkable mystery. Read it here at Nailed.

On "Sex, Lies, and Cruising" by Cathryn Chapman **

After recently reading a couple of indie titles that surprised me with their quality, I decided again to try another such title. As a piece of chick lit, this one was obviously not aimed at me in terms of being its primary audience, and my ultimate interest in it suffered as a result.

Ellie is a Brit chick who goes to work on a cruise ship following her boyfriend's breakup with her. She figures some time focusing on fun, on dating around, and on her photography career is what she needs. The ship is an ideal spot for such. She sees great sites. There are lots of available men, and no one is interested in anything too serious.

The problem is that Ellie actually is interested in something serious, as much as she tells herself she isn't. So when each guy she gets involved with seems interested primarily in casual sex--despite his protestations to the contrary--she is ultimately disappointed. Complicating things is a woman named Maria, whose ex Ellie sleeps with during her early days on board. Maria, as it turns out, isn't nice to anyone, however. And like most, she's out for a good time mostly, though she'd gladly settle in with one rich guy. Much of the plot ends up revolving around Maria revenging herself on others and them revenging themselves on her. She's malicious, but she's smoking hot, I suppose, because men keep falling for her--and regretting it.

Ellie is pulled into all kinds of quick-sex relationships and is frequently surprised and disgusted at herself and her actions. She reminded me a bit of a woman I went out with occasionally twenty or so years ago, who would often fall for almost any guy that took a "liking" to her.

I say "almost" because even Ellie has standards, which is perhaps what made for the most intriguing part of this book to me: what women want. She didn't like George, a kind fat guy who tried to make conversation with her one night at a dance club. She didn't like some other guy on the beach who talked endlessly about himself, though she pretended to like him to get another guy jealous and to eventually land him.

Who did she like? Confident friendly men who were "not like the other guys," who were nice, and who treated Ellie as if she were really what they wanted, as if she were special and sexy. And they were curious about her, her life, and her ambitions. Each started off as a friend who quickly ramped up to lover status when some other guy seemed played out.

I was never very good at dating. I lacked confidence, and I probably didn't do a good enough job making the woman feel as if she was really wanted by me sexually or that she was terribly special. Part of this was for religious reasons--my aims weren't primarily sexual but marital (not that the two need be exclusive, but I tried hard to keep the first pushed down until the latter was clearly in sight, which generally became never). (The want always seemed hard to play, as well, because if you want too much, almost any given person will run away: we want what we can't have, as the old adage goes.) The "special" part was also not something I was good at, and still, now that I'm married, I find difficult to make happen, perhaps because I'm not one to throw out compliments lightly--mostly because of men like those Ellie keeps falling for. Words are cheap; actions speak so much more of what we feel. But we need both, as Ellie's experience shows.

At the heart of each of the seeming strongly sexual characters in this book (save perhaps for the predatory men Ellie falls for) is a vulnerability each is hiding. Almost no one is as confident as they seem; they are playing a role, trying to fulfill some nitch that their parents expect of them by attracting the right kind of partner or, if not able to do that, at least more of them. That is perhaps the hardest part of love, that until we are willing to be vulnerable and hurt, we likely won't find it, and some, willing to expose that vulnerability, end up being hurt over and over and over and over.

Interested readers can sample and purchase Chapman's book here.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

On "Street Parenting" by Meredith Alling (643 words) ***

The other day I was at church, standing with every single person there, the only one there who was not married or a parent. It was an odd feeling, especially as these men talked about their kids. I know nothing about that, though it's not for not wanting to know. In a few weeks, I'll have kids, someone else's. I'll sort of know about having kids, but not really, because as a stepparent, there's a part of my parenting experience that will never be real, having entered midframe, the genes belonging to other men. Sometimes, it's hard as a single person to know how to answer someone--or even as a new stepparent to answer one's fiancee--when an issue arises with a child. We aren't in the know, don't have experiences to compare. In a sense, we're children ourselves, never grown up, and it's a bit humbling. Anyway, this short tale is about just that. Read it here at Nailed Magazine.

On "Brave Men" by Ernie Pyle ****

The nonfiction best-seller from 1945, the last book on my list of World War II-era best-sellers, is not a book I can easily summarize. Pyle's name seems familiar to me, so his reputation as a war journalist probably must pervade popular culture at some level to this day, even though I doubt many people not of the era truly know who he was or what he did (as did not I). Essentially a narrative of Pyle's embedded war correspondence with the U.S. military, this book is a great summary of the day-to-day troubles of those who fought in World War II.

Pyle starts off in Italy, where the U.S. Navy is getting ready to launch its offensive. (He refers many times to the African offensive, which he recounted, apparently, in a previous book.) The army comes across some light resistance as it moves into Sicily, but readers get the sense that most Italians were happy to have the Americans move in. Not so much in Northern Italy, however, where the Germans have a stronger hand. Pyle's account of a beachhead that stays a beachhead throughout his time there is wrenching. Shots are fired constantly at the troops who have managed to carve out a location at the edge of the land. Nowhere is truly safe, even for journalists, who might have buildings destroyed around them.

From there, Pyle moves to Britain, where he interviews people in the back lines, support personnel, and most especially Air Force men, who fly multiple missions each day. The Air Force, as it turns out, leads a fairly regular life, with regular shifts and homes of a sort and leave time, even in the course of war. The reason? They are not on the front lines. They fly into those front lines daily and return. It seems almost strange to read the account, that a man's job could be so mundane and yet kill so many. (That's not to say that there weren't casualties and danger, but even that is largely not present when the men are not flying, which is when Pyle was with them.)

From there Pyle proceeds to France. He was on of the first correspondents to come over in the Normandy invasion (a day later or so). His account is truly harrowing and sad. I was reminded of the beginning of the film Saving Private Ryan: so many were simply shot up when disembarking and dead lay strewn all over the beach.

But in time, Pyle rolls into Paris with the troops and enjoys having once again a bed in a hotel room and other luxuries. In fact, these are luxuries not afforded to the soldiers, who move on very soon thereafter. Few American soldiers, in fact, fought in Paris, according to Pyle's account. It was the French who liberated that city. The Americans, after fighting so hard, didn't really get to enjoy the victory. There was still more war to fight.

In the midst of this account are some wonderful details. Pyle has a tendency to list off the name and address of each man he meets, which seems a bit odd to my modern ear. And like Bob Hope, he engages in the occasional joke about army life. There are also army jobs I'd never even given much thought of, which are interesting. There's a book waiting to be written about an army grave officer: a man who follows after the troops documenting the soldiers who have died (I assume by collecting dog tags and such off bodies). What a grim job.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On "The Vector" by Jay Hosking (7100 words) ***

I love the strange world of this tale, a world that we never fully come to understand. The setting reminded me a bit of a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, not so much the Kaufmanesque idea of being trapped in one's head but the bizarre world that seems possibly only in fiction. Here the narrator is a man with an attitude, a bad one, who can't hold down a job until the day he meets a mysterious woman who hires him to interview for jobs in whatever manner he chooses. The tale gets stranger from there. Read it here at Little Fiction.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

On "Snap" by Shawn Syms (5065 words) ***

Jake is a social worker whose life is slowly coming apart. He councils sex offenders, and the work is more than he can take, especially once a violent and intimidating offender joins the group. Syms's tale is slow to build, but the tension is impressive once one reaches the end. Read the story here at Little Fiction.

Friday, July 24, 2015

On "Seven Stars around the Moon" by Bud Smith (1502 words) ***

There's a conspiracy involving food in this short piece. Sometimes I just like the energy of a piece--this is such a story. Sarah has been dumped by her boyfriend, a poet of some renown, and goes to eat Chinese food for consolation. She gets much more than expected. Read the story here at Literary Orphans.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

On "Serenity Prayers for Long-Distance Swimmers" by Catherine Carberry (2736 words) ***

Carberry's piece excels in language. It's a story about a girl's swim team, and unlike most contemporary stories, it focuses on the entire team rather than just one girl. Within that team, arguably, two girls stand out--held in contrast to one another, Neha and Cassie, one a leader and one a kind of jealous sort-a follower, one a bit more daring and one not so much. And in the end, one who chases the other. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On "I Don’t Want to Hear Your Story" by Robin Bullard (1746 words) ***

This one is a kind of guilty pleasure, reminiscent of a television show I never saw but figured had to be some kind of set of perverse oddities, Taxi Cab Confessions. Perhaps, it's merely the fact that this story occurs in a taxi cab. But it's a story where the characters are what make it intriguing--a rude passenger, a rude driver. Things are likely to escalate. Read it here at Literary Orphans.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

On "Vincent" by Glenn Erick Miller (510 words) ***

Sometimes family is hard to acknowledge or to want to. I remember once, after my sister was caught shoplifting, how embarrass I felt to be related to her. I think and hope I would be a bit more supportive now, even if the action were something I found disturbing to me personally. Anyway, Miller walks this difficult line in this story about a brother named Vincent. Read it here at Literary Juice.

On "Forever Amber" by Kathleen Winsor *****

I'm not sure where 1945's fiction best seller fits in terms of World War II. It seems, in the context of the war, to be escapist fare. And certainly, the reasons for its best-sellerdom probably had most to do with its seeming depravity. The book is stock full of allusions to sex, abortion, prostitution, and crime--all of it set in Restoration England. (The war ending midyear, people's attention may have already begun turning elsewhere.) But what a great portrayal of a historical age it is.

The main character is Amber, a woman who goes from innocent virgin and depraved and corrupt madam. Watching her moral descent is fascinating--and sad. The reason for the descent is, one might say, in part an sort-of unrequited love, in the form of Bruce Carlton. Or it might also be her love of nobility and the upper class, who are anything but noble in their actions. It is the lack of nobility that makes Carlton want to flee England and the king's court, to which Amber aspires and clings.

At the start, Amber is a country girl who would not ever sleep with anyone but her one true love. She meets Carlton, who takes her along to London as an adventure. There, she becomes with child by him (the beginning of her corruption), though she refuse an offer for sex with his best friend, who will go on to become one of Amber's best friends. Carlton leaves to go privateering but also leaves her a generous sum of money to take care of the child. Naive as she is, she falls into the clutches of a greedy woman who gets her to marry her son and who then abscond with all her cash, leaving her in debt.

This takes her to the debtor's prison. Here, she is granted favor with a scoundrel who breaks out of prison with her and then uses her for his own purposes to run various scams. She breaks free from him by running off with a man named Michael who has been hired to teach her how to speak other dialects of English so as to help with the scams. In turn, Michael's dad finds the two of them living together and forces Michael to return home, much to Amber's relief.

In the meantime, Amber has taken up acting. Another actress takes a fancy to a particular gentleman named Rex Morgan, and Amber decides to get this man for herself and does. Though she refuses to marry him (and give up her freedom), having been burned by a bad marriage once, she agrees to become a kept woman. She will sleep with no one else, and he will support her in the lifestyle she desires. During this time, the king sees her and sends for her to sleep with him, which she does, not telling Morgan. It is only because of the king's main mistress, the jealous Barbara Palmer, that Amber is not summoned again. (Our morally pure girl by now has slept with at least six men, and from there, one loses count, for many other interludes are hinted at from here on.)

Carlton returns, and lovestruck Amber gets him to run away with her, giving Rex a silly excuse for her absence, an excuse that doesn't hold up to reason and that gets Rex to challenge Carlton to a duel. Rex refuses anything but to murder Carlton or to be killed, and as a result, his life is ended--and so too Amber's life of ease and perhaps the best chance she has of a good marriage to a man who really does love her. For Carlton will never marry her, as he notes, because she is not noble.

Amber than aspires to become what Carlton says he wants. She gives up acting and marries another man, much older, in order to inherit his fortune at his death, much to his children's disapproval. Carlton visits, and the black plague hits, and they almost die, but they nurse each other back to health. Still, he won't marry her.

She marries yet another man, poor this time, but of noble blood, in order to gain a title. This marriage is an absolute disaster, and Winsor's skill allows you to sympathize with Amber even as one realizes just what a horrible woman she has become. Because the man is a vicious husband who uses Amber's money for his own purposes but cares nothing for her and controls her every move, she opts to cheat on him with his son. (But wait, if he weren't controlling her every move, she'd be going to London and cheating on him with people at court, so . . .) Her husband then conspires to kill her but kills only his son. Now she has what she wants: a title and no husband.

She moves back to London and takes her place at court. She becomes the king's mistress, to an extent displacing Barbara Palmer. Carlton returns for a visit, but this time he's married, as he said he would be--and he's taken up residence in the American colonies. Amber does all she can to curry Carlton's love and favor, dressing scantily, summoning him to meetings alone, and so forth, and Carlton falls for it in terms of sleeping with her regularly, but he is committed to marriage to his wife.

In a final fit of anger, Amber tells Carlton's wife of their affair, but she only ends up distancing herself from the man she loves more than would ever seem possible to repair. Still, even at the end of the novel, she continues to chase him, even if it means going to the colonies. She has become a sad, disreputable woman, one worried constantly about her looks and age, for they are what she has lived by and she knows that her days are numbered.

In this book, among Europeans, only the Puritans displaced from power seem to have much in the way of morals, but they also come off as stodgy and greedy in their own way. It is the Americas that beckon, the world from which Carlton draws his wife, that seem to offer some sort of honesty and reward for hard work rather the depravity of inherited leisure.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

On "(pro) ANA" by Jamy Bond (972 words) ***

Here's one person's take on an eating disorder and self-improvement. It's a great example of a story that shows rather than tells. Read it here at Wigleaf.

Monday, June 29, 2015

On "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" by Mar Preston (4818 words) ***

Here's a story about an exercise in futility. Luke Mouradian is a frustrated thirtysomething with no luck with women who happens upon a great one in China. Preston does a good job of observing cultural differences between the United States and this stranger across the sea. And of course, no love is lost. Read the story here at Kings River Life.

On "The Beard That Was Evil" by Stephen Collins ****

This graphic novel is essentially a commentary on the moral and cultural boundaries of society, putting into practice theories of sociologists such as Emile Durkheim. The tale involves a man who lives in a perfectly ordered world who one day, involuntarily, begins to grow a beard. The beard grows to epic proportions, slowly taking over and destroying the town around the man and transforming the town in the process.

Even after the beard event is over, the town feels its effects. Where once the beard was evil, it becomes a thing of legend, and people feel less bound to their "perfect" ways. There is a degree of disorder that previously did not exist. And the beard itself is marketed, capitalized upon. Fear of it begins to dissipate.

The curious thing about the way in which society defines "here" and "there," "us" and "them," is that the boundary between mayhem and order shifts, and arguably, while such boundaries are artificial, they also help define our society and keep it ordered. Too much mayhem and society falls apart and ceases to exist. Too little and the society is oppressive. As Durkheim brings out, though, it is those who are disorderly, those on the edge of order, who in many ways define the society even as they disrupt it and transform it. It's an interesting tension that seems unavoidable--and perhaps a little scary, a little bit like "there" and "them" because where "there" ultimately takes us is to the ocean and oblivion--and as the book brings out: the unknown.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On "Hot Springs" by Andy Plattner (6077 words) ***

Many writers have a setting or group of people they focus on for a while, but few remain entirely in that world for the duration of their career. Plattner is an exception: almost every story that he writes is about the world of horse racing. As such, he knows his milieu extremely well, with some stories more exceptional than others. But nonetheless, the settings and characters always shine. In this tale, a man tries to reclaim some money he lost to an ex-girlfriend. Read the story here at New World Writing.

On "A House Made of Stars" by Tawnysha Greene ****

Tawnysha Greene's been publishing little pieces of this novel in various journals for the last few years; amazingly, most seemed self-contained, enough that I hadn't realized they were part of a larger work. Now, they're all gathered in this, her debut novel--and what a novel it is.

I'm reminded a bit of Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina. This book covers some of the same ground in terms of presenting a poor "white trash" girlhood, but I liked this book a whole lot more than I remember liking that one. I think there's a certain innocence that Greene captures that Allison, for me, did not and perhaps wasn't trying to.

The main character grows up in a family in which deafness runs. As such, each member of the family knows sign language. But that deafness extends to more than just literalness; it extends to a kind of will to not hear, as the mother continues to try to maintain her relationship with her abusive and free-spending husband, the father to her three children.

Each chapter is a small snapshot, usually not more than a few pages. Father enters, takes the family off to an amusement, spends all the cash on hand, gets angry, beats up the kids, leaves--or forces the family to flee to somewhere safer for a while. It's a repeating pattern.

Often, the family (with or without dad) rooms with members of the extended family--the dad's sister, the mom's mom. And in these spaces, the narrator finds solace and joy, a short respite from the violence and threat of it. Just as the narrator finds solace in the night sky, where stories can happen and where a house can be built of light.

The story becomes something of a chase toward the end, with the narrator leaving clues as to where she can be found, and I found myself growing more and more arrested and wanting to read on.

Greene's book is one of great intensity. The book can be purchased here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On "Probate" by Joyce Carol Oates (12,628 words) ***

As I began this story, I was reminded of how some writers are just so good. Oates is one of those. I don't think this one of her best stories, but from the first word, it somehow managed to set a tone and grip me till the very end. The writing is absolutely assured. In this very strange piece, a widow discovers that the husband who has just died is not who she thought he was--and then, well, the story becomes some weird nightmare scape. Read the tale here at Fifty-two Stories.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

On "Effigies of Ourselves" by Ursula Villarreal-Moura (187 words) ***

Currently in my first official serious relationship (and having experienced a few unofficial ones), I am learning how the pacing between men and women often differs and can cause numerous problems with regard to desire. Villarreal-Moura's short take is essentially about this. And really, even as timing seems to be so much to what makes a relationship happy or frustrating at a given moment, it has to do with having a relationship in and of itself. I sometimes think about that. I'd be with someone else right now had I gone for a girl who I failed to pursue three years ago, because other things were going on in my life. But had I gone for her, I'd have never met certain other women along the way to my current girlfriend. Read the story here at Dogzplot.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On "Out of Time" by David W. Landrum (2157 words) ***

Landrum's story revolves around the cult of celebrity and the way that it can be used to reap revenge--or not. Sometimes, we fail to be direct about how we feel because we fear hurting someone else or being hurt ourselves. Sometimes we just don't know how to say something. And sometimes we fail to be direct for simply legal reasons. Read the tale here at Intellectual Refuge.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

On "Survivors" by Michael Gutierrez (1129 words) ****

Gutierrez depicts a marriage here from its courtship to its nearly literal end of days--simple turns of phrase that show off how similar situations morph as we grow old. The husband is something of a survivalist, the wife someone who would prefer to believe that the world in which everything is a fine romance. The language of survival, however, takes over the plot as not only the world but the marriage becomes increasingly difficult to endure without some heavy equipment. Beneath it all, however, there's still beauty. Read the story here at Untoward.

On "I Never Left Home" by Bob Hope ***

Publishers Weekly's best-selling work of nonfiction for 1944 was this comic account of the comedian Bob Hope's visits to military units in Europe and Africa. Light reading, it reminded me somewhat of the best-seller from two years earlier about being a private in the army. In this case, however, the comedy is coming from someone who has been sent to entertain the troops, as Hope would do throughout his life.

The book is written in a way similar to the novels Jay Cronley and Carrier Fisher. This is a hard way to write, and I have immense respect for it. What I mean is that Hope essentially delivers the text as a series of jokes. Each paragraph is a setup that ends with a punch line. Sometimes, we might get a slightly longer setup, but it's rarely more than a page. The focus here is humor.

This wore thin for me, however, with respect to Bob Hope's book. This was for a few reasons. One is that after about age twelve, I was never much of a fan of the man's work. I remember watching his specials as a kid, being fascinated by them, because, well, it was television, but as I got older, I usually preferred to go play with a friend to sitting in front of the TV when Bob was on. His jokes often just didn't seem that funny; they seemed canned. And that is the case here. Another is that many of the jokes don't age that well. Often, they revolve around popular culture of the era. Seventy years later, they no longer have as much zing. That focus on popular culture also seems many times very insular. It's often funny when Hope jokes about himself. The self-deprecating humor is fine. But when he takes jabs at Bing Crosby and other friends, the jokes seem to expect us to care as much about his Hollywood friends and world as he does. Seventy years later, we don't.

As a propaganda piece, Hope's work certainly fits well. He often makes remarks about how great our military is or how much our nation's young men our sacrificing for us. In fact, his self-deprecating humor often revolves around his inferiority to such servants of the state.

Another major issue with the setup-punchline manner of writing, at least in this case, is that it's often hard to tell what is a joke and what actually happened. Hope was so intent on telling jokes that I found myself lost as to where on his tour and in the world Hope was or why it mattered.

That's not to say that there were some very engaging passages or some funny moments. I loved, for example, one anecdote/story/joke about his grandfather and him dancing. Hope's grandfather saw that Hope was getting tired and told him, "You're quite a bit older than you used to be. Take and break and I'll finish up for you."

And there's also a very touching passage about joke telling itself--perhaps, the most touching in the book. Hope talks about "toppers." That's a joke that you tell on top of someone else's, a sort of one-ups-man-ship. He talks about visiting hospitals and how he couldn't top a guy in a hospital bed. If you tell a joke there, and the guy has a better one-liner back, you let it go. I mean, how do you top a man who had got wounded serving your country, especially if he makes a joke about his own ailment?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

On "Pique Assiette" by Ann Hillesland (3024 words) ***

Hillesland's story grips with sad little moments. A sister visits her grandmother and sister. The latter is taking care of the grandmother--but not in an entirely appropriate manner, or so the narrator things, until she has to spend an afternoon with the grandmother herself. "Do whatever you want," the care-taking sister says, "like you always do," in response to an offer to help. One hears the resentment in a single line, and it stings. Read the story here at Stirring.

Monday, May 25, 2015

On "Rabbit Hole" by Kelly Rede (4215 words) ***

Rede uses the familiar story of Alice in Wonderland, mixes in a bit of the Wizard of Oz and fairy lore, and creates something wholly unique. Dorothy is stuck in a story, which is a marvelous place, but like all good things, stories too must come to an end. Read it here at Four Star Stories.

On "Strange Fruit" by Lillian Smith ****

A surprising choice for Publishers Weekly's number one best-seller of 1944, Smith's book is a work of high modernism with an emphasis on racial disorder in the at-that-time recent South. The first three years of the war featured best-selling Christian fiction that was arguably much more accessible and certainly much less prone to likely creating controversy. Smith's book focuses on a love affair between a black woman and a white man and the fallout created by it. The novel is told from various perspectives and is often in stream-of-consciousness.

The Andersons are highly educated southern blacks from the town of Maxwell--more educated, in fact, than many of the white folks around them. Though educated, the narrator notes, the Andersons do not buck the southern system--they're "good" blacks. The novel seems to show something different than that. One of the siblings, Bess, certainly falls in line with the expectations thrust on her by society, but her brother Ed has left the South because of his hate of the town and the South's racist views and laws. Nonnie, another sister, doesn't really follow the conventions of the society and doesn't seem to much care how that might ostracize her.

It is Nonnie that takes up with a white man named Tracy. Tracy has returned from the army after World War I and doesn't have much in the way of ambition. He comes from a upper-crust family in the town, and it is expected that he will marry a certain white gal he has taken out for some time. Tracy, throughout, fights with himself whether to follow convention or follow his heart. But the answer seems self-evident: there is no possibility that he could ever be with Nonnie. At best, he could refuse the upcoming marriage and taking on a farm (or some other job), but he proves less than able to stand up against expectations.

Complicating things is the fact that Nonnie is pregnant with Tracy's child (the rest of this paragraph is full of spoilers). As this discovery makes its rounds among some of the townspeople, the reactions vary, though they are generally negative. The pregnancy leads eventually to Tracy's murder and to a black man--a childhood friend of Tracy's--being lynched, though the man had little to do with the murder.

Religion comes in for quite a critique here, as it is in many ways the ministers who urge Tracy to "do the right thing" and to avoid black town and to marry the right woman. Right and wrong are defined culturally rather than on some higher moral plain.

How this ended up the best-selling novel of 1944, I have no idea. Perhaps, the prospect of interracial sex was enough of a controversial subject to propel the book to the top of the charts. Certainly, the novel doesn't have much bearing on World War II, other than the fact that there is a mild critique of race relations insofar as African Americans served in the military, defending the country, and came home to a racist society that treated them as subhuman--a critique that would continue during World War II and that would eventually lead to the civil rights movement.

No matter, it is nice to see something comparatively complex sold so well.