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?