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.