Sunday, August 9, 2009

August 9 - "L.T.'s Theory of Pets"

Sunday’s with Uncle Stevie
“L.T.’s Theory of Pets”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * (Good) Realistic

L.T. shares the story of how his marriage to Lulubelle ended and of how the pets they bought each other as anniversary gifts became attached to the wrong person.

King wrote in his introduction to this story how it was his favorite of the collection, but I just don’t see it. Maybe it has to do with my lack of an emotional connection to the concept of pets. Actually, in reading why he believes this story has a great impact on the reader – the whole notion of people forging lasting connections with their pets – I’m sure that’s the reason it doesn’t do as much for me. In fact, without that emotional connection, I don’t feel there is much to this story. It is well written and enjoyable enough on a superficial level. It’s just one of those times where a story can’t please everyone (me).

August 8 - "The Lost Regiment"

“The Lost Regiment”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * * (Great) Fable

An army regiment becomes uneasy and eventually lost while parading through a city.

There is a lot of beautiful imagery in this story of a lost regiment on parade. Calvino does a brilliant job describing the regiment’s unease as they begin marching through the town. He does this by describing how one soldier’s tentative steps are picked up by another and then another until the whole regiment is cautiously tiptoeing through the streets. Later when the villagers attempt to lead the regiment back to their base by way of climbing over the roofs of the buildings I could easily picture this parade gone awry, and it is a truly marvelous thing to behold. This being a fable I know there is deeper meaning here, but I’m happy with just the images now. Maybe upon rereading or further reflection I’ll take something more away from the story, but for now I’m content.

[This story was read on August 8. The review was not posted until later due to falling asleep in the Chair of Unexpected Sleep.]

Friday, August 7, 2009

August 7 - "King Crin"

“King Crin”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

After catching King Crin in his true form, the third baker’s daughter must wear through seven pairs of iron shoes, mantles, and hats to win back Crin. While doing so the daughter collects three prizes that help her in her quest to find Crin.

Three baker’s daughters, three houses visited, three rewards for surviving each night, three nights to convince Crin of her love – notice a pattern here? And the importance of wearing through seven pairs of iron shoes, iron mantles, and iron hats? And the meaning of the passage at the end?:
They put on the dog and high did they soar,
They saw me not, I stood behind the door.
Huh? What does this have to do with anything in the story?

Some of these tales make little sense, and jump from one illogical scenario to another (a pig son killing baker’s daughters until he finds the one who wipes mud from his body to surviving the nights at the cottages of Wind, Lightning, and Thunder to being rewarded with a chestnut, walnut, and hazelnut), but are quite engaging in some unexplainable way. They somewhat succeed by the fact that they are outrageous.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

August 6 - "Duel"

“Duel”
by by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * * * (Great) Suspense

When Mann passes a truck only to find it come roaring past him moments later he realizes that he may be driving for his very life.

Matheson did a wonderful job creating suspense in this story of road rage. Nearly every sentence builds on the last, heightening the suspense, pulling you along for the crazy ride. I’ve actually been in a similar situation with an RV. Granted, the RV wasn’t trying to kill me (or maybe it was?), but we were racing each other down the road, cutting each other off – basically just pissing each other off, completely on purpose. At the time I was lost in the battle, but looking back – it was stupid. But it was fun.

August 5 - "In Reference to Your Recent Communications"

“In Reference to Your Recent Communications”
by Tessa Brown
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Humor

Jessica responds, in detail, to the couple of messages Randolph left on her answering machine breaking up with her.

What can I say? I am a sucker for footnotes. I really enjoyed how Brown took the couple of phone messages left for Jessica and had her breaking down each communication into its individual components, adding her thoughts and beliefs – as accurate or obsessive – to the message, all in an attempt to convince Randolph of the error of his ways. In fact, I bounced back and forth in my sympathy, at once for Jessica and her broken heart, and then for Randolph, because at times it appears that Jessica might be a tad too committed to her part in this relationship. All told, this story was quite hilarious and it’s been a rare thing to come across humor in these stories I’ve read so far this year.

[This story was read on August 5. The review was not posted until later due to laziness on my part.]

August 4 - "Following the Notes"

“Following the Notes”
by Pia Z. Ehrhardt
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A father and daughter find a small measure of connectedness and attachment through the music he shares with her.

I think the author was attempting to infuse this story with more meaning than it could hold. I guess, by the end of the story, I felt Ehrhardt was a little heavy handed with the imagery of the father and daughter sitting together at the piano as music gave them peace. In honesty, none of the characters were all that sympathetic. I felt about as involved as the mother who simply decides to leave the pair at the kitchen table in favor of watching TV alone in her room. There was potential here for much more, and I really did enjoy the beginning of the story with the dead car battery and switching of tee shirts (dude, a Ninja Turtles tee is always a great addition to a story).

[This story was read on August 4. The review was not posted until later due to laziness on my part.]

August 3 - "The Distributor"

“The Distributor”
by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * * * * (Excellent) Suspense

Theodore Gordon moves into a new neighborhood and proceeds to pit neighbor against neighbor until the entire street erupts in chaos.

I feel as though I know this story from somewhere…I just can’t place it. I did, however, enjoy it tremendously. I think it’s fascinating that one man can prey on the fears and feelings of others to the point in which, with a simple nudge, neighbors attack each other. It shouldn’t be so easy to convince people of the worst, but with the negativity and pessimism we’ve developed as a culture, it really isn’t such a surprise that Gordon’s plan works so well. Now, I just wish I could remember where I’ve heard this story from before.

[This story was read on August 3. The review was not posted until later due to laziness on my part.]

August 2 - "Strawberry Spring"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Strawberry Spring”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * (Good) Horror

Hidden in the fog, a killer haunts the campus of the New Sharon Teacher’s College during the strawberry spring of 1968.

King does a better job with the setting and the mood of the story here than he does with developing the characters. Which is unusual. That’s not to say that he foregoes setting and mood in his greater works – in fact they are a large part of many of his stories – but they are usually combined with interesting, realistic characters. Here the narrator does little more than recollect fragments of that time when Springheel Jack stalked the campus, killing coeds in the fog. The twist at the end of the story is of little surprise, and by the end, it doesn’t appear to be much more than your average slasher/horror story.

[This story was read on August 2. The review was not posted until later due to laziness on my part.]

August 1 - "The Wine Doctor"

“The Wine Doctor”
by Frederick Adolf Paola
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Dottore Cotrolao had always been skeptical of the wine doctor, Ezio Delli Castelli, and his practice of prescribing wines to cure ails, but was even more surprised when Castelli sought his help with a medical concern.

I thought this was a wonderful, if not predictable, tale of the respect competitors often have of each other’s success. The “real” doctor and the man playing at doctor were both sufficiently realized as characters to the point where you felt as though you understood each character’s point of view. It’s so much easier to become invested in a story when you understand – and empathize – with the characters and their motivations. Also, it’s nice to read a story every once in awhile in which people act with class.

[This story was read on August 1. The review was not posted until later due to laziness on my part.]

July 31 - "The Canary Prince"

“The Canary Prince”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * * (Great) Folktale

A witch grants a prince the ability to turn into a canary so that he can reach the princess he loves.

I enjoyed this story more than some of the other folktales because of its uniqueness – an ability to forego some of the more formulaic elements of these Italian folktales – and its more logical narrative. While this story still had its moments of illogical incidents and suddenly appearing characters, the entire tale wasn’t populated by such occurrences. I also enjoyed the fact that it was a riff on the Rapunzel story – or maybe the Rapunzel story was the one doing the riffing. It’s always fascinating to see a different take on a familiar story.

[This story was read on July 31. The review was not posted until later due to laziness on my part.]

Thursday, July 30, 2009

July 30 - "The Container"

“The Container”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Believing a gas leak in her apartment to be the cause of her ongoing headaches, a woman calls the gas department only to find a mysterious container left behind when the workers leave.

My favorite part of the story is the mysterious container left behind by the workers. It sort of just shows up and looks all threatening with its blue liquid and plunger on top. The gas company refuses to claim the object and the closest safe disposal site is states away, so what does the woman do? She pushes the plunger and the story ends. While the act – and container – seem to have little the do with the rest of the story, it’s a strong image to end a story on. Sometimes a great visual goes a long, long way to making a huge impact.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

July 29 - "Mantage"

“Mantage”
by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * * * (Great) Fable

A writer wished that the time spent struggling and waiting for success could be condensed as it is in movie montage. When life begins to fly by, the writer questions whether his wish came true, or if life truly speeds by as quickly as it appears.

Time does speed by. Days slip and weeks fall away. Soon months are gone, seasons change, and years pass by. And yet I know when a week does drag on the first thing I wish is for it to speed up, forgetting somehow that that time is gone forever. It’s a sad story to recognize that you lose everything you love in time – to time. I like how Matheson leaves the interpretation up to the reader: did the man’s wish come true, or did life simply pass it does? It’s hinted that the wish may have come true, but I tend to think life is just life.

And why, “mantage?” It’s spelled “montage.” Unless it is supposed to be a man’s life done in a montage?

July 28 - "The Test"

“The Test”
by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

As an elderly man, Tom must pass The Test every five years in order to keep on living. His body failing him, Tom makes a difficult decision while on his way to The Test.

It is scary how some extrapolations of future public policy seem far-fetched, but not necessarily impossible. It would be tough enough knowing the punishment for failing the test is death, but knowing you couldn’t possibly pass the test would make the appointment a difficult one to keep. The story spent too much time at the beginning showing the test in detail, and could have been better served by leaving some of this up to the reader’s imagination. Overall, it’s a great, thought-provoking idea that provides a nice mix of thinking entertainment.

(This story was read July 28th, but the review was not posted until a day later due to a bout of unexpected sleep.)

Monday, July 27, 2009

July 27 - "The Island"

“The Island”
by Peter Watts
The New Space Opera 2 (2009)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

A work crew in space building travel gates across the universe comes in contact with an intelligent super-entity that directs them to build their new gate in a different location.

I hate when stories make me feel dumb. It’s the science here that seems beyond me. And I’m frustrated with the fact that it may not even be “real” science, but rather something fictional and thus not supposed to make sense in a real way. Still, once I finally keyed into the idea of the story, it was entertaining. It took me some time – over halfway through before I started to understand what was happening – but eventually things made enough sense that I could see the story. I may have not taken away what the author intended with the tale, but I got spaceships and drama and challenging questions: good science fiction.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

July 26 - "Trucks"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Trucks”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

A small group of people find themselves trapped inside a truck stop surrounded by an increasing number of murderous trucks.

This is the kind of story that would have really excited me – creatively and in my imagination – when I was a kid and spent my summers traveling by semi across the country, staying many nights in truck stops, constantly surrounded by vehicles such as these monstrous trucks. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it now; it did bring back memories, and I could very vividly picture all of the little details right down to the smells and sounds. It actually reminded me of King’s very similar story, The Mist, which I recently rewatched on DVD. In fact, this story of stranded survivors surrounded by overwhelming odds could almost be viewed as a sort of inspiration for the later story.

July 25 - "The Hiding of Black Bill"

“The Hiding of Black Bill”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * * (Good) Western

Percival Saint Clair takes a job herding sheep at a remote ranch where discussion of the train robber Black Bill prepares him for the arrival of sheriffs in search of the rogue.

The one problem I have with some of Henry’s stories comes from, I’m sure, the style of writing at the time, but also from his insistence on having his characters telling stories inside of the story without very clearly delineating the dialogue. This character said that this other character said this about that – it all becomes muddled after awhile. Here it became especially difficult when the character of Black Bill, pretending to be another character, was telling stories about himself. Paying careful attention I was able to follow the story and it was good, but it took a lot of work for very little payoff.

July 24 - "A Retrieved Reformation"

“A Retrieved Reformation”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Master safecracker Jim Valentine unexpectedly finds happiness in the legit life of a shoe salesman until his past catches up with him when a small child becomes trapped in a time-sealed bank vault.

This was the most Hollywood of stories by Henry I’ve read. The story played out like most movie or television stories today, with a thoroughly predictable and easy to follow flow. There was just the slightest level of Disney suspense, and a happy ending. It’s the type of story that offers no surprises, only comfort and ease of reading. It’s a well-developed formula now, but I’m curious as to how commonplace a story like this might have been back when it was originally written. I would guess it still felt rather light on importance, but was enjoyable for what it was: hopeful. Hope in a better life, in a happy ending.

July 23 - "The Clarion Call"

“The Clarion Call”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * * (Good) Realistic

Cornered by Detective Barney Woods after murdering a millionaire, Johnny Kernan counts on the detective’s reluctance to arrest a man he’s indebted to. Woods turns Kernan’s arrogance into a way to capture the man with some help from the local newspaper.

The need to brag, or show off, will bring you crashing down every time. I knew that the overly principled policeman would eventually find a way to capture his murderer, but it seemed a protracted way of basically writing and I.O.U. on a napkin and handing it to the man to erase the debt. The story was okay, but once you realized what was bound to happen, Kernan’s repetitive bragging became a bore.

July 22 - "A Chaparral Prince"

“A Chaparral Prince”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * * * (Great) Fable

Lena, a child of eleven, toils at the Quarrymen’s Hotel while dreaming of a prince out of Grimm’s tales to rescue and return her to her loving mother.

Okay, I don’t understand the title here. The word chaparral has something to do with a dense growth of shrubs or small trees. I thought Lena’s prince was the band of mail thieves that rescued her from the hotel? The robber band do tie the mailman whose load contained Lena’s letter to a tree, and it is his cart they slip the child in to carry her home, but what does that have to do with a “chaparral prince”? Anyway, I did enjoy the story mostly for the personal wish I had at the moment of reading for a rescuer to come and save me from my punishing ride across Iowa (RAGBRAI). Granted, my wish was for a rich princess to swoop in with a helicopter to carry me away from the ride, but it’s the same basic idea.

July 21 - "To Do"

“To Do”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman becomes obsessed with creating lists of things to do.

As a man who enjoys making To Do lists, I can see the appeal and understand the obsession that can develop in creating such lists. I don’t know that I’ve ever taken the process to the extreme of making lists of lists, but I can remember some lists with subchores under others. And what help are they, really? Funny thing, though, while reading the story I was thinking of how helpful it would be to make a couple of lists right then. The story is a nice slice of real life, relatable to many, I’m sure.

July 20 - "Transients in Arcadia"

“Transients in Arcadia”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * * (Good) Realistic

Harold Farrington and Madame Beaumont meet at a secluded hotel in Aracadia where they develop a friendship when they reveal their true identities.

I’ve thought about how “storybook” it would be to meet someone while on vacation with whom I developed such a strong connection that we would get together again after leaving that place. I think a lot of people go somewhere else, like on vacation, thinking that they will finally be able to be their “true” self and find someone that would notice that “better” version and fall in love with them. The two characters in this story take that idea to the other extreme – are pretending to be people they aren’t in real life. In that they find a connection through a similar deceit they become a bit too clichéd, but it’s still a good story with a happy ending.

July 19 - "The Man Who Loved Flowers"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Man Who Loved Flowers”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * (Good) Horror

A young man with a secret peacefully walks the streets of New York City before purchasing a bundle of flowers and setting off in search of his girl, Norma.

Sometimes all it takes is a single small moment, a clue hidden into the narrative so that the twist ending doesn’t come out of nowhere, to spoil a story. I’m not saying that I enjoyed the story less by recognizing this story beat, but the tale did become predictable from that point forward. But I was a bit disappointed here because the story started off so differently that any other King story I’d read. It was a story about a man in love and things were grand and I didn’t know where it was going to lead me. Once I knew there was a hammer killer on the loose, it was apparent who he was and what he was going to do and how the story would end. It was a fine story with an apt ending, but my excitement vanished long before that point.

July 18 - "Shoofly"

“Shoofly”
by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

An irritating fly sends Pressman into a rage as he destroys his office attempting to kill the elusive insect.

Oh, it’s the little things that can become so frustrating. Matheson does a fantastic job of showing how someone can become obsessed by a distraction and take that distraction to an unhealthy extreme. It is both funny and sad because I’ve been in so many similar situations. It’s an interesting story because with each new attempt to kill the fly you know the man is going to fail – there are still more words in the story – but you become part of the action and eventually begin to hope the same hopes and feel the excitement of each new attempt to kill the beast. And I love the name Pressman gave his first weapon, the “Prospectus of Doom,” a client’s rolled prospectus. It just sounds so legal and threatening.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Brief Interruption

I am riding RAGBRAI this week and will be away from computers, so there will not be regular posts of short story reviews. Rest assured, I'll still be reading a story a day and writing the reviews by hand. I'll post them when I have the chance, possibly a few Tuesday night, or a week's worth next weekend.

Friday, July 17, 2009

July 17 - "Crack and Crook"

“Crack and Crook”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * (Okay) Folktale

Two master thieves, Crack and Crook, join together to rob the king. In an attempt to catch the thieves the king asked his prisoner, another thief, Snare, for advice.

How many daughters does a king have ready to be married at his whim? It seems as though all it takes to find yourself married to a princess is to solve a problem, overcome some (3) challenges, or simply just show up. I wish there would have been a more detailed account of the heist; I’m a sucker for a good heist story. That is the problem with the entire tale, we are told what happened, not shown what happened. It makes the story read quickly, but is not very entertaining.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

July 16 - "Other People"

“Other People”
by Neil Gaiman
Fragile Things (2006)

* * * * * (Excellent) Fantasy

A man meets a demon in a long, gray room for an eternity of torture.

For a story as short and depressing as this one, I enjoyed it immensely. For its simplicity and impact. It is amazing to read that the story was written so quickly – on an airplane flight – and could be so complete. I particularly enjoy stories like this: one that takes a character full-circle. Sure, a character arc is great for change and growth, but only goes so far. Moving all the way back to the beginning gives a story a sense of…destiny. Perhaps I’m not explaining it well enough. Regardless, I enjoyed this story quite a bit.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

July 15 - "Seven Pieces of Severance"

“Seven Pieces of Severance”
by Robert Olen Butler
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * (Okay) Fantasy

Seven different accounts of the moments just after decapitation.

These flashes of fiction are interesting, but ultimately not engaging. The conceit here is that the mind is still conscious after decapitation for 60 to 90 seconds, giving a person about 160 to 240 words flowing through his or her mind before death. I get that these thoughts wouldn’t necessarily be coherent, or tell a story, but the rambling mess of words, while at times bordering the poetic, does very little for me. I think I’d be more excited if there was a profanity-laced tirade, or some humor, but these are the opposite of that. What truly saddens me: I have an entire book of these stories (Severance), from which these 7 were excerpted, that I’m now not looking forward to reading. Maybe in small doses?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

July 14 - "The Twelve Oxen"

“The Twelve Oxen”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A girl living with her twelve brothers is continually confronted by the evil actions of witches living in the forest around them.

Folktales have to be some of the most formulaic stories told. The “rule of threes,” gifts with consequences, and royalty and witches populate these tales to no end. Yet even with the formula, there can be surprises in these tales. Twists you don’t expect – some simply too unbelievable to imagine. I guess that’s what makes them fun. These aren’t the most exciting tales, but they are rarely boring.

Monday, July 13, 2009

July 13 - "Essential Things"

“Essential Things”
by Jorge Luis Arzola
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

- (Bleh) Realistic

A man recalls the time he and two friends ran away from their village to sail across the sea to freedom.

I’m trying very hard to think of a single thing I enjoyed in this story. Honestly, there is nothing. The story is no more than a collection of incoherent memories – which may or not be true – that does nothing more than bore me. An essential thing this story is not.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

July 12 - "N."

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“N.”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

Dr. Bonsaint works with patient, N., to help him overcome the obsessive compulsions that keep him from sleep and health. Only the doctor comes to find that these compulsions stem from a fear – as impossible as it sounds – that might be real.

And suddenly my obsessive compulsion to double check that the garage door is down doesn’t seem so strange. At least I don’t count things – worry about bad numbers – or place things to the extent that N. does in an attempt to keep the evil at bay. The story does include the “Pandora effect” that many horror stories suffer from – that curiosity that always leads to disaster. Here it fits the story – the curiosity created for the characters is overwhelming – and the results, while tragic, make the story enjoyable, and a little scary. There’s even a Dark Tower reference: the field of the story is a thinny, and we all know there is little good inside one of those.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

July 11 - "McHenry's Gift"

“McHenry’s Gift”
by Mike MacLean
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

Dillon Leary receives a mysterious package while hiding out after killing his former mentor, now rival, McHenry.

It’s a staple of noir stories – and stories in general – that the past, and the people who lived then, existed in a better state than that of the present. In these types of stories it’s that healthy level of respect that often saves a character. In this case, it provides us the twist ending to the tale. Once you meet McHenry, with his telltale fedora, it’s obvious what is in the package that arrives at Dillon’s door. The meaning of the hat, however, is a surprise, and it gives the story its perfect ending.

Friday, July 10, 2009

July 10 - "Ma, a Memoir"

“Ma, a Memoir”
by Lynn Freed
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A daughter deals with her mother’s faltering mind while her father is in the hospital with cancer.

It’s a sad story. It’s made all the more sadder by the fact that there is probably very little fiction involved in a story such as this. People die and people struggle to remember. Getting to the point in life where 60 years of happiness can become so confused…

I did enjoy the imagery at the beginning of the story:
He’d got away. Only as far as the hospital, but still she’d been left behind. Once, she would have got into her Fiat and revved and revved and gone off in a puff of blue smoke to find him, to catch him out in the arms of another woman, perhaps. Sixty years of marriage had only heated the furious war between them.
Even at war you get the feeling there was love there.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

July 9 - "Wind in a City"

“Wind in a City”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * (Good) Fable

A man who enjoys the wind meets a friend, Ada Ida, on the street and walks her home, sharing tales and making observations.

This is another of those stories I’m convinced has a deeper meaning I can’t uncover. It’s like a puzzle with one missing piece; the overall idea is there, but incomplete in some small meaningful way. As always, Calvino does a fantastic job of creating a feeling of whimsy and otherworldliness in his descriptions. The world seems as real as the world inside a dream. A feeling such as this can overshadow – and forgive – any confusion or lack of clarity.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

July 8 - "So Far from Anything"

“So Far from Anything”
by Benjamin Percy
Esquire, October 2007

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Taking his eyes from the road for a second results in the narrator hitting and killing a man with his truck. The man contemplates the consequences of this momentary lapse of attention.

This story is an excellent example of writing in the second person point-of-view. The prose is vividly clear and descriptive, and it is easy to mistake these sentences for thoughts that could run through your own mind. I liked how each part of the story added a new layer to the overall tale. The simile that ends the story is fantastic, taking the seemingly unconnected fishing trip and hooking it nicely into the main action of the story. Everything about the story is well executed.

I was suspicious of the formatting – the story told line by line at the bottom of each page of the magazine – but the page breaks worked to add a poetic lyricism to the piece. I doubt this approach would work for just any story, but here it succeeded, presenting it in a memorable, likeable manner.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

July 7 - "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"

“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”
by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

Arthur Wilson is not a fan of flying. Already ill at ease with the flight, Wilson is shocked to see a man out on the wing, sabotaging the engines. His attempts to warn the crew of the plane fall on deaf ears, and thus he decides to take matters into his own hands.

It is funny how certain things stay with you. A movie that came out when I was three – though I didn’t see it until a few years later – has a segment based on the story I read today, twenty plus years later, and I was vividly able to recall the tale almost scene for scene. Now I’m not saying that the movie segment followed the story exactly – it’s been years since I’ve seen it – but the main beats of the story were there in my mind. In fact, it was almost as though I’d been there – on the plane – and this story was just a reminder of that moment in my life. Memory is a weird thing. Regardless, if an idea sticks with you as much as this one has, then there must be little wrong with it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

July 6 - "Utriusque Cosmi"

“Utriusque Cosmi”
by Robert Charles Wilson
The New Space Opera 2 (2009)

* * * * * (Excellent) Science Fiction

In the planet’s final moments, Carlotta decides to shed her earthly body to become one with the Fleet, an interconnected intelligence spread across the universe. In her travels as part of the Fleet, Carlotta is given to opportunity to visit her past and remembers the night before the world ended.

The problem with (some) science fiction is that ambitious ideas can often become incomprehensible. That is not the case here, even though there are moments in the story that left me scratching my head in confusion. Wilson does a tremendous job balancing the world he created with the world we understand. I particularly enjoyed the time travel aspect to the story, cutting flashes of the past into the tale of how Carlotta arrived to the point in the future she narrates from. There were the occasional missteps in the prose – a clunky sentence or two – but overall, this was a fascinating introduction to a new collection of stories by some of “the most beloved names in science fiction.”

Sunday, July 5, 2009

July 5 - "Popsy"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Popsy”
by Stephen King
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

In an attempt to earn the money to cover a gambling debt, Briggs Sheridan kidnaps the wrong child with monstrous consequences.

There’s not much to this story. On one hand, the story suffers from a lack of propelling action – it deals mainly with Sheridan’s character and his addiction to cards and gambling – but on the other hand, if the story were any longer the “fruit” of the story would spoil. Sometimes an idea only supports so many words. The twist ending comes as less of a surprise than simply a fun way to end a story. This is only a serviceable example of King’s work.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

July 4 - "How to Tell Stories to Children"

“How to Tell Stories to Children”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

As part of an unusual family dynamic, Deb acts as mother to the daughter of friends and experiences all of the complications of raising a child.

As one of the more “story-shaped” stories in the collection, this tale was easier to follow, and thus easier to enjoy. The strange family dynamic gave the story its hook and kept me interested throughout the story and up to its foreseeable end. For as interesting as the story could have been, things stayed relatively normal – and I know I’ve complained in the past about the strangeness of July’s tale, but that balance between the two is a fine line, easily crossed in either direction, both resulting in stories less than excellent.
---
This story finishes the collection No One Belongs Here More Than You. Looking back, I’m less than impressed with the collection as a whole. The stand out story was, “The Swim Team,” a story not read as part of this year’s story-a-day project.

Friday, July 3, 2009

July 3 - "A Kidnapping Story"

“A Kidnapping Story”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

A woman thinks of the different outcomes that would result from her actions in a case of being kidnapped.

Talk about confusion. I had to go back and read parts of this story multiple times to figure out what Unferth was trying to say. In an attempt to be cute? the sentences instead became awkward and unclear. I thought the notion of running through the same kidnapping scenario with multiple results was a lot like the great Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books I loved as a kid – without the choice, mind you. Overall, if the sentences had clearer, the story would have been an entertaining, quick little read.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

July 2 - "Birthmark"

“Birthmark”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

After removing a birthmark from her face, a woman is given the opportunity to see how her husband would react to the mark that was once the exception to her beauty, a mark he had never seen.

I really enjoyed the introductory conversation in this story about the level of pain the woman would feel during the birthmark’s removal. The comparisons, from childbirth to having your jaw reset to having your foot run over by a car, were great and cringe-worthy touchstones. And for the most part this entire story was understandable and enjoyable, not something I could say about most of the other stories in this collection. What a difference a touch of narrative can have on a story.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

July 1 - "Mon Plaisir"

“Mon Plaisir”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

A woman decides to start her life anew after a new, short haircut. Each small change leads to a larger change, but in the end her life isn’t all that different.

What saved this story (and isn’t that a terrible way to look at a story – “what saved the story”) was the scene near the end of the tale in which the woman and her husband were extras in the background of a movie scene. The dinner they shared in acted silence held the very thing – love – missing from their time together in the real world. It was a strongly written scene that played great on the page, complete with the breaks, and the reintroduction to sad reality, provided with each “cut” yelled from the director. But, a few quirky details and one strong scene do not a pleasurable story make.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 30 - "The Moves"

“The Moves”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

Before dying a father teaches his daughter the finger moves to pleasure another woman.

Um, yeah. I don’t honestly know what to say about this page and a half story. If there weren’t the few interestingly worded sentences, I’d have nothing to say about this story. It doesn’t even make sense to me, especially the end about one day passing on these skills to a future daughter. Huh?

Monday, June 29, 2009

June 29 - "Ten True Things"

“Ten True Things”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

Dana decides to join a beginner’s sewing class to meet the wife of her boss, a woman she feels a connection with through their phone calls and the lies she’s forced to tell.

The moments are few and far between in which I found enjoyment in this story. I did understand and appreciate the notion that one lie necessitates another and another to the point where one revealed truth actually reveals all hidden truths. And Sue, with her complete lack of understanding in the sewing class – doing the opposite of any given direction – led to some humorous moments, but overall, the story and I simply didn’t connect.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

June 28 - "Everything's Eventual"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Everything’s Eventual”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

Dinky Earnshaw has the ability to compose messages that compel people to kill themselves. This ability does not go unnoticed and soon Dinky is working for the Trans Corporation, sending emails and the occasional letter out into the world. Eventually Dinky begins to question his role in these deaths.

Ah, the introduction to a character I came across in the Dark Tower series. I’ve always been a huge fan for the interconnectedness of stories – probably why I enjoy comics, book series, and television as much as I do. Add to this the supernatural ability to kill people through letters and email (not in itself a unique ability – many other stories have done the same, or something similar), and the story is a winner. In fact, most of the story is just Dinky explaining how he lives, day to day, week after week. You wouldn’t think that to be a fascinating read, but King makes it all seem so real and engaging. Dinky becomes a character you are curious to follow, and with his eventual appearance at the end of the Dark Tower series, you get that chance to see how things worked out for him.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

June 27 - "The Flints of Memory Lane"

“The Flints of Memory Lane”
by Neil Gaiman
Fragile Things (2006)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

The narrator recalls the moment he met the ghost of a gypsy woman one night when he was 15 and on his way to a friend’s home.

I’m intrigued with the idea of preferring to share only “story-shaped” tales. These would be stories with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Everything explained and neatly in place. I tend to prefer this type of tale, myself. That’s not to say I don’t occasionally mind when a story is just a rambling mess of amazing sentences. I’m sucker for interesting sentences, such as this:
“She was not my girlfriend (my girlfriend lived in Croydon, where I went to school, a gray-eyed blonde of unimaginable beauty who was, as she often complained to me, puzzled, never able to figure out why she was going out with me), but she was a friend, and she lived about a ten-minute walk away from me, beyond the fields, in the older part of town.”
But, the more “story-shaped” a tale, the more enjoyment I find, even if the tale is short, simple, and true thing with questions left unanswered and possibly not all that entertaining in the retelling to begin with.

Friday, June 26, 2009

June 26 - "Abraham's Boys"

“Abraham’s Boys”
by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Horror

After caught snooping in their father’s study, Max and Rudy are taken to the basement to practice the skills their father feels must be passed to his children.

Hill does a great job of introducing us to these characters before adding the extra layer of vampires and legacy. Add to this the fact the story doesn’t involve any actual vampires and calls into question the sanity of the boys’ father – what if there never were any vampires? – the tale is tremendously engaging and entertaining. This is a great story of fathers and sons, of brothers, and how a little horror – real or imagined or feared – can bring things crashing down.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

June 25 - "Pompeii"

“Pompeii”
by Leslie Pietrzyk
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Two lovers wake in the morning, embraced together and motionless as if entombed under the ash of Pompeii.

A beautifully written and conceived moment before time marches on and a couple must separate. The characters were a bit clichéd, with the woman being more romantic than the realistic man. What makes it work is that in the end, even though the man didn’t have as grand as notions as the woman, he was the one who realized that their time was over, begging for just one day, one hour, one minute more. It’s a heartwarming tale with just a hint of sadness; it’s a love story.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

June 24 - "Julie in the Funhouse"

“Julie in the Funhouse”
by Jincy Willett
Jenny & the Jaws of Life (1987)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

The narrator recalls his strange life growing up with his recently murdered sister. As close as the two were growing up, they had grown apart with age and become less happy because of it.

This is another of those books that has been on my shelf for years, unread, and after just one story I can’t imagine why I hadn’t cracked it open sooner. Willet does a great job of taking the unusual and making it seem, not normal, but at least real. I’m sure there are kids raised today by parents less involved than those of this tale, but it is interesting to see the effect the upbringing had on this brother and sister. I guess what really draws me into the story are the misfit characters (see yesterday), especially Julie and her fascination with the All Too True – the tragic, ironic tales of death that foreshadow the conclusion of this story.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

June 23 - "The Museum of Whatnot"

“The Museum of Whatnot”
by Kevin Wilson
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth (2009)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Janey works in the Museum of Whatnot, keeping her life free from clutter and attachments until a doctor with a fascination for the spoon collection shakes her from her lonely, Spartan life.

Whimsical, romantic, and just strange enough to completely capture your attention. After finishing this story, posted as part of Harper Perennial’s story-a-week project, I find myself desiring Wilson’s collection of short stories. If all the other stories in the collection are only half as creative, half as entertaining, then I’m still in for an awesome reading adventure. I have a tremendous fondness for misfit characters – of which Janey is a prime example – and their unique jobs, interests, and lives. I particularly enjoyed some of the ordinary – yet strange – items stocked in the Museum of Whatnot, from the baby teeth in mason jars that start the story to the garbage bag full of rubber bands that wrap the tale up. Strange as it all was, it worked and was wonderful.

Monday, June 22, 2009

June 22 - "Happy Fish, Plus Coin"

“Happy Fish, Plus Coin”
by Scott Snyder
Voodoo Heart (2006)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

A man on the run from his wealthy family befriends an indestructible man and learns how to give up the fear and loneliness that kept him hiding from life.

A sure sign that writing has style is when you don’t even notice the words on the page. I’m not saying that I don’t recognize the cleverly crafted sentences and powerful images – I’m saying that it all works in such a way that I’m so completely lost in the world Snyder has created that I don’t notice the words, instead I experience the story. From L.J.’s conversations with Gay at the Happy Fish, Plus Coin and under the overpass to L.J’s job at the Home Wrecker, I was zipping along through the story, wondering what the imaginary Nancy would do next, listening to Gay’s discourse on the connection between the color green and longevity, and hoping alongside L.J. for the destruction of the indestructible inflatable house. How could a person not be enamored with passages such as this?:
“They had detectives out looking for me, detectives with real means, but in Florida at that time, for a short wonderful period not too long ago, it was easy to find employment without identification of any shape or sort. It seemed you could open a police station with just a few phony papers to tack on the wall. You could become whoever you wanted; that was Florida right then. I had a book of over fifteen thousand baby names, and I changed mine whenever I felt like it.”
Like the mysteriously named Happy Fish, Plus Coin restaurant and bar, the magic of the story is understood, even if at first it seemed a bit strange.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

June 21 - "Battleground"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Battleground”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

Mr. Renshaw goes to war in his apartment against a box full of tiny toy soldiers flying helicopters, driving jeeps, and armed for battle with bazookas, rocker launchers, and more.

This was my favorite adaptation in the TNT mini-series, Nightmares & Dreamscapes. This dialogue-free hour of television starring William Hurt was a load of fun and quite entertaining. I hoped the story would be as good, and it was. A person would think that fighting off a small army of tiny toy soldiers would be no big deal, but much like the debate about the deadliness of slow-moving zombies, give an opponent enough time – no matter how outclassed – and they will win the battle. And who wouldn’t be entertained with the images of little green army dudes taking it to a giant?!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

June 20 - "The Parrot"

“The Parrot”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A merchant purchases a parrot to tell tales to his daughter, keeping her inside their home and out of the reach of a king who wants to marry her.

I enjoyed the tales-within-the-tale the parrot told the daughter more than I cared for the main story. Each adventure the parrot sent the maiden of his tales on became more and more enjoyable, folktales themselves. And I don’t know if it was the result of the translation, or if the tale really went this way, but beating the wizards to death with crowbars was hilarious. Never did I expect to find in an ancient Italian folktale how to properly dispose of wizards. Harry Potter beware, all I need is a crowbar.

Friday, June 19, 2009

June 19 - "There, There"

“There, There”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A couple argues the merits of being here versus there.

Unfeth definitely has a way of articulating arguments to the point that they are something wonderful to behold. Part of what makes the arguments – the prose – so enjoyable is the back-and-forth play between characters. These are the kind of arguments we wish we could have – something lyrical and witty and not at all the fumbling speech of upset people.
“He is he and she is she and she can’t be him to know his there. And besides, he’s talking to her in a tone she hasn’t heard before so there’s even more to here and there and her and him than just space between them.”
Such a great use of he and she and him and her and here and there. There’s magic in the vagueness.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

June 18 - "Feeling Good, Feeling Fine"

“Feeling Good, Feeling Fine”
by George Garrett
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

A boy and his uncle enjoy playing baseball before returning home to the news that will take his sometimes trouble uncle away from the family.

A very sweet, yet tragic tale of growing up. The descriptions of the boy and uncle playing baseball in the field are fantastic. The fact that the boy is out there reluctantly, yet still feels such pleasure in the compliments he is given for a sport he likes the least, is what gives the story its impact. It’s the little things we do for others that end up making us feel the most. Excellent “fiction” indeed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

June 17 - "The Replacement"

“The Replacement”
by Duane Swierczynski
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Noir

A man is sentenced to the Replacement Program after killing a young woman while driving drunk. In the Replacement Program the man must compensate for the loss of life by living the life he stole.

It’s such a crazy and fascinating idea, taking the death penalty and flipping it to a life sentence. It’s the kind of idea that only works as a story – nobody would make the effort the narrator makes at filling in for this lost life (and no right family would suffer the killer as replacement). Swierczynski is a master at taking an impossible idea and turning it into a fast-paced, enjoyable tale. And that final scene in which the resentful brother can take this intrusion no longer and ends up destroying the family is hilarious in its tragedy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

June 16 - "Sunbird"

“Sunbird”
by Neil Gaiman
M Is for Magic (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Fantasy

The five aging members of the Epicurean Club head to Egypt in search of the fabled Sunbird after deciding they’ve sampled every delicacy known to them.

Even though we as readers know– and to some extent so do the four other members of the Epicurean Club – that Zebediah T. Crawcrustle is leading the group to its final meal, Gaiman has given us such an interesting quest, that we can’t not follow along. (Granted, without our lives on the line, it is easier for us to follow.) I found the characters to be so uniquely Gaiman-esque – which is a great thing, indeed – that I could easily picture them in my mind, worrying and wondering and salivating at the adventure they’d embarked upon. I do so enjoy a story in which I feel as thought I’m right there with the characters. Everything worked perfectly in this final story in collection.

Monday, June 15, 2009

June 15 - "Making Love in 2003"

“Making Love in 2003”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A young woman searching for the dark shape she loved when she was a child takes a job as a special-needs assistant and finds a boy named Steve who she believes to be the dark shape in human form.

There’s something frustrating with these stories by Miranda July. The writing is often very strong – unique and engaging – and the stories are quite original. But, I often find myself struggling to understand beyond this shiny outer layer. This particular story uses some controversial content (teenagers and rape) to essentially tell a tale of loneliness. For as much as I didn’t comprehend, though, the prose acted as a saving grace and (I think) I enjoyed the story.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

June 14 - "Gray Matter"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Gray Matter”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * * (Great) Horror

A group of old duffers leave the comfort of the local bar during a winter storm to take a case of beer to Richie Grenadine. Richie’s son, Timmy, had come to the bar for the beer, scared to return to a father that had transformed into something gray and monstrous.

I love the scary stories. The kind of stories that give you actual chills. The chance that a bad can of beer could turn a person into a dead cat-eating, gelatinous monster is enough to keep a person from drinking. King does a great job building the tension so that when the group finally reaches their destination, characters and reader are afraid to walk down that dark, smelly – eerie – hallway. And there’s even an Easter egg of a side tale about a man encountering a giant spider in the sewers.

June 14 - "'Tis the Season to be Jelly"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“’Tis the Season to Be Jelly”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* (Eh) Science Fiction

Luke is eager to propose to Annie Lou, despite the fact that everything in the world – including Luke and Annie Lou – is falling apart.

I don’t know what to make of this story. The thing is a confusing mess. An attempt at some messed up dialect has left the dialogue – most of the story – nearly unreadable. Sure, you can suss things out, but that’s no way to enjoy a story. And other than things falling apart, I can’t say much. I’m not even sure the characters are human. This is just not a story for me.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

June 13 - "Shock Wave"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Shock Wave”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * (Okay) Supernatural

Mr. Moffat is convinced that there is something wrong with the old church organ. Moffat and his cousin Wendall listen with increasing fear as the organ behaves unnaturally during church service.

There really must be a sub-genre of possessed machines. That being the case, this story doesn’t quite measure up. The slowly building tension is so slow that when the organ does begin tearing the church down, you have little interest in the destruction other than its signal to the end of the tale. I did find it fascinating to learn a little more about those massive church organs; they are a lot more involved and complex than I’d ever imagined.

Friday, June 12, 2009

June 12 - "The Creeping Terror"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“The Creeping Terror”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

Scientists prove that the city of Los Angeles is alive, and spreading outward across the country. As this creeping terror covers the land the people exposed begin to act differently, sometimes dangerously.

Formatted to appear as a true scientific article – complete with footnotes – the story comes to us in bits and pieces. With as crazy an idea as we have here, the format works to frame the craziness inside a border of authenticity we understand, we almost believe. And then again, you could look at the whole story as a metaphor, and not as science fiction, and be satisfied on a different level. I particularly enjoyed the image of the lone citrus tree popping up among the cornfields of the Midwest, and the famer’s wife’s sudden desire to “drive in to Hollywood.” Sometimes an image just fits the story so perfectly and memorably.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

June 11 - "Mute"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Mute”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

A mysterious German arrives in town looking for the young mute boy who survived the house fire that killed his parents.

The story seemed overly long for what little detail it paid to the point of the piece. The idea of raising a child to communicate telepathically is interesting enough that it might be able to sustain a story of 40 pages length; however, this story only hints at the idea for 30+ pages, cramming the “good stuff” into only few measly pages. This seems to be the pattern of the past few days: cool concept, mediocre execution.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

June 10 - "Clothes Make the Man"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Clothes Make the Man”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * (Okay) Supernatural

A drunken man corners a guest at a party and tells him the tragic tale of his brother’s losing battle with his wardrobe.

There were moments when the story rose above silliness. In fact, in those brief moments the tale had some real potential for terror. In the end it was the drunken rambling that put me out of the story. Every moment away from Charlie and his increasingly finicky wardrobe was excruciating. Even the quote unquote surprise reveal at the end was wasted because of its proximity to the toxic narrator. So much potential here, squandered.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

June 9 - "Pattern for Survival"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“Pattern for Survival”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Fable

The manuscript for a new story by Richard Allen Shaggley moves from author’s hand to reader’s enjoyment along a connected chain of increasing appreciation.

I hate the feeling of not quite knowing the point of a story. Even after two reads – I did go back and reread the story – I’m still left scratching my head. Did the manuscript of the story actually exist, or were each of the characters in contact with the manuscript simply different aspects of Richard Allen Shaggley? Even the characters in his manuscript appear to be aspects of himself (Ras and his beautiful priestess of Shahglee - from his name, Richard Allen Shaggley). But in between the confused thoughts, I found myself enjoying the story – even if I had no clue what it all meant.

Monday, June 8, 2009

June 8 - "No Such Thing as a Vampire"

A Week of Richard Matheson
“No Such Thing as a Vampire”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

A mysterious attacker collects blood from Madame Gheria’s neck every night. Her husband finally calls on the younger Dr. Vares in an attempt to solve the problem once and for all.

Oh, such a delicious twist ending. It’s a rare beast of an ending that sneaks up and surprises me. While the ending does come as a bit of a surprise – it was not set up from the start of the story – it works well with the story, so can be forgiven its abruptness. In fact, the title of the story serves its purpose well. It challenges you to at first believe its veracity, and then question it, leaving you primed and ready for the perfect ending. A nice little tweaking of conventions.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

June 7 - "Morality"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Morality”
by Stephen King
Esquire, July 2009

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A dying man presents Nora the opportunity to make $200,000 for committing an act of sin.

There is a great build up to the eventual act. King does a masterful job of surrounding the event in tension-building mystery. We know how the story should end – will end – and with a title of “Morality,” how else could it end? But it is like watching cars crash or accidents as we pass by, we’re fascinated by the destruction. This one act, designed to fulfill the dreams of a money-challenged couple, ends up driving the two apart. My only complaint is that Nora, while fully realized as a character, does not appear as original as King’s characters so often do.

[And I had to include the cover to this issue of Esquire promoting the story. Wow.]

Saturday, June 6, 2009

June 6 - "Love Far from Home"

“Love Far from Home”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

A man travels from village to village searching for the place and girl of his dreams.

This is a story about the grass being greener on the other side. No matter where you are, someplace else – the next village over – seems different, better. You travel there and it’s everything you dreamed you were missing until it becomes familiar and the idea of a better village grows in your mind. The same can be said of women, jobs, and dreams in general.

I also made connections with how the narrator lives his life, ignoring the world around him:
“Then there were the grown-ups, whose job it was to deal with things, real things. All I had to do was discover new symbols, new meaning. I’ve stayed that way my whole life, I still live in a castle of meaning, not things, and I still depend on the others, the “grown-ups”, the ones who handle things.”
And focusing on the imaginary:
“When I see a machine I look at it as if it were a magic castle, I imagine tiny men turning amongst the cogs.”
And by far the coolest name for woman I’ve come across – Mariamirella.

Friday, June 5, 2009

June 5 - "Burning Ring of Fire"

“Burning Ring of Fire”
by Hana K. Lee
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

After a woman finds her lover, J, dead, drowned in the tub, she takes her revenge on the men responsible.

Revenge tales are fun. The good ones aren’t clean tales. They are brutal, vindictive beasts. But, they make good entertainment. Never learning much about the narrator, the story leaves the reader wishing for the next chapter in her life. Tough and determined, this is a woman with adventures still unwritten. Sometimes an unstoppable force of vengeance trailing devastation in her wake is just the thing for a Friday night.

June 4 - "The Holiday Man"

“The Holiday Man”
by Richard Matheson
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1994)

* * (Okay) Fantasy

David dreads going to work, especially on holidays, when the death toll is higher and feels somehow more wrong.

The story is supposed to be slightly mysterious and ominous, but ends up just being a bit too oblique. In an attempt to never explicitly state David’s job – some lie about a job in advertising – Matheson leaves the reader with too many questions. There’s also an overly long scene that begins the story that has little link to the purpose of the tale. What took a quarter of the story could have been done in a paragraph or two, leaving room for more detail about David’s mysterious job.

[This story was read June 4th but the Chair of Unexpected Sleep claimed yet another victim, and this review was posted a day late.]

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

June 3 - "Dynamite Hole"

“Dynamite Hole”
by Donald Ray Pollock
Knockemstiff (2008)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A man living wild in the country comes across the two Mackey siblings doing things siblings should not do, and cannot resist the urge to interrupt the young children. As he later recalls the events of the day, he also remembers the days after he left home in an attempt to dodge the WWII draft.

I’m interested in how all the stories in this collection are going to tie together in the end. Here we are given a glimpse at a possible mystery – the disappearance of the Mackey siblings – that may rear its head again in a later story. I’m not sure if this is the case, but I hope it will be.

The wild man living in the country never became more than a boiler plate character for me in this story. He was slow, brutal, and damaged, which – to be honest – is nothing original for this stock story character. I did enjoy the prose, though. Very colorful language, unique expressions and descriptions.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

June 2 - "Like Riding a Moped"

“Like Riding a Moped”
by Jordan Harper
Sex, Thugs, and Rock & Roll (2009)

* * * * (Great) Crime

The narrator – a large woman – understands that Benny is using her simply to rob the jewelry store in which she works. The attention and hope he provides convince her to help, but she takes steps just in case.

Heist stories have always interested me. While this tale is not strictly focused on the heist, but rather more on the character of the narrator, it retains the feel – the building tension (will the robbery be a success?) – of a caper story. I think Harper does a great job putting us in the mind of a character with such image and esteem problems. We feel as though we can relate to her situation, her life. Those connections are what give the story its powerfully satisfying ending.

June 1 - "A Sleep Not Unlike Death"

“A Sleep Not Unlike Death”
by Sean Chercover
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

Gravedigger Peace is reminded of a time – a life – before his existence as a gravedigger. When that reminder shows up in his graveyard it awakens the killer inside he long believed dead.

Gravedigger Peace is a fascinating character. The back-story provided in this short tale does nothing but whet the appetite for further adventures with this character. (And as luck would have it, Gravedigger appears as a sidekick in Chercover’s novel, Big City, Bad Blood.) That’s the problem with some short stories: they are simply too short. The characters practically beg to be explored further, in more detail.

[This story was read June 1st, but the Chair of Unexpected Sleep claimed yet another victim, and this review was posted a day late.]

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Story Count as of May 31, 2009

The project – a new short story read and reviewed a day – is still going strong (unlike other ambitious plans). As of today, the Escape Pirate has read 160 new short stories. There have been a few – 6 – instances where the story was read, but the review was not posted until the following day (in each instance the Pirate fell asleep in the Chair of Unexpected Sleep and did not wake until after the midnight deadline had passed).

Still, I’m happy to have made it as far as I have. Five months down, seven to go. And worry not; I’m in no fear of running out of material – new stories. The shelves are still well stocked, and I’m as anxious as ever to continue reading the stories gathered in these collections.

May 31 - "The Night Flier"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Night Flier”
by Stephen King
Nightmares & Dreamscapes (1993)

* * * * (Great) Horror

Tabloid report Richard Dees follows the story of a serial killer preying on the people that run small airports along the East coast. His nose for the “blood and guts” story leads him to an encounter with the Night Flier he will never forget.

This is the type of horror story I enjoy. It’s the building tension and suspense – the mystery – that draw me into stories. I don’t mind the carnage –the blood and guts – but only if they fit the story, if they are the right element for the moment. As "The Night Flier" progresses, each section gives you another piece to the puzzle, with the past and present coming together at the end. There’s a spectacular bit of plane-crashing action before Dees finally meets up with the Night Flier. It’s a confrontation King excels at writing, leaving both the character and the reader in awe of the monster King has gleefully created.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

May 30 - "Doctor Jack-o'-Lantern"

“Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern”
by Richard Yates
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates (2001)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Miss Price, a fourth grade teacher, is eager to help her new student, Vincent Sabella, fit in with the class. Each well-intentioned effort only makes the situation worse for Vincent.

These will not be easy stories. It’s not that they are difficult to understand or read – the writing is sharp and clear and accessible – but rather they are painful and sad and ultimately, honest. These are stories of small dreams – often unrealized – with devastating, hope-crushing consequences. A young boy wants to fit in, is provided the opportunity to do so, but then tries too hard and fails. A well-meaning teacher wants to help, but her pity only makes the situation worse. This is the stuff of life, and it’s not neat, and it’s not nice. It’s true.

There’s also a great introduction to this collection by Richard Russo. It provides a nice primer to the themes explored in this collection – and in all of Yates’s work. More than that, it makes you want to read on, eager to enjoy the work to come.

Friday, May 29, 2009

May 29 - "The Prince Who Married a Frog"

“The Prince Who Married a Frog”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * (Okay) Folktale

The king’s three sons test their three brides to see which couple will inherit the kingdom. The youngest son and his frog bride perform the best with each of the king’s challenges.

The cursed frog fairy tale is nothing new. This tale is unique in that the frog is female instead of male. There is a bit of a copout in that the transformation from frog into beautiful princess occurs off the page, without any strong reason. It occurs because the princess found love, even in her frog form; only nowhere in the story does the young prince ever admit such feelings. In fact, he always makes a point of replying that he is the “love who loves you not.” The pieces are all there, only they don’t fit together quite right, and the story feels incomplete.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

May 28 - "Twice"

“Twice”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

Everything, from her marriage dissolving to returning movies to bouncing checks, was happening twice. It was the single events that gave her pause, caused her to question the future.

The idea behind the story failed to capture my interest. It’s a clever idea – events happening in pairs – and allows for some sentence play – repetition and balance – but in the end, the cleverness wears thin and the play becomes overly showy and distracting. It is a nice experiment that simply fizzled out quickly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

May 27 - "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”

“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”
by Neil Gaiman
Fragile Things (2006)

* * * * (Great) Fantasy

A young man struggles to write literature until a raven convinces him to write what he enjoys, as fantastic and escapist - and unexpected - as it may be.

The great twist in this story – and I will spoil it here – is that we come to find the young man’s escapist, fantasy world is our own. The idea is hinted at early on in the tale, and becomes clearer as the story progresses. In fact, the beginning of the story feels slightly off until the all the pieces start to come together, and then when it all makes sense, the beginning becomes that much more interesting. I particularly enjoyed the Poe-ish story within the story. It’s a fun kind of suspense you don’t find in horror stories today. And what a title! Long and convoluted and ominous.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

May 26 - "The Contests at Cowlick"

“The Contests at Cowlick”
by Richard Kennedy
Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, A Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out (2005)

* * * * (Great) Children’s

Wally, the lone resident of Cowlick, with the courage and willingness to stand up to Hogbone and his ornery gang of fifteen, plans three contests in an attempt to save the town from the dastardly fiends.

This would be an amazingly fun story to read-aloud. So much so that I found myself reading parts (most, to be honest) out loud to an empty living room. The dialogue is a joy to experience. The story was nicely constructed and flowed well from beginning to end. My only complaint is that the story was a tad predictable. The contests could have been slightly more original. Still, overall, it was a fun story to read. And who doesn’t enjoy a fun story.

Monday, May 25, 2009

May 25 - "Double Down"

“Double Down”
by Jason Starr
Sex, Thugs, and Rock & Roll (2009)

* * * (Okay) Noir

Jimmy takes a PI job to see if a woman is cheating on her husband. Needing money to fund his gambling habit, he decides to get paid from both ends, which leads to unexpected consequences.

The tough-guy talk is there, and it’s good. It’s accurate. Only, nothing happens. Jimmy is a degenerate gambler at the start of the story and is still a degenerate gambler at the end. Now, I wasn’t expecting huge life changes to occur in a few pages, but nothing - no change at all – that’s boring. Even his luck doesn’t change. Starts out a loser, ends a loser. At least he talks tough, using those swears like a pro.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

May 24 - "Graduation Afternoon"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Graduation Afternoon”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Janice contemplates the end of her relationship with Bruce – Buddy – at his graduation party, the backdrop for an unexpected nuclear attack on New York City.

Lacking any horror, except for the true horror – a conceivable horror these days – of a nuclear attack, the story is still a great study in character. Janice is believable as a graduating high school student. She’s hopeful, realistic, and honest. She knows what’s best for her, even if it includes the loss of her rich boyfriend – no real loss she understands. And then the unthinkable happens – the bomb – and you feel so terribly bad for this girl you know was on her way toward a happy and successful life. The shock of the bomb hits the reader nearly as hard as it does the character, a sign the author has done justice to his creation.

May 23 - "The November Game"

“The November Game”
by F. Paul Wilson
Aftershock and Others (2009)

* * * * (Great) Horror

Mich continues work on his escape from prison, all the while becoming increasingly distressed by the pieces of his dead daughter the guards keep slipping into his meals.

Who hasn’t participated in that Halloween activity of passing around “body parts” in the dark that gave rise to Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The October Game”? Apparently the story had such in impact on a young Wilson that he felt the need – to our enjoyment – to continue the tale. The quick building of tension, and the too-obviously apparent monster in the hole, make the story feel a little rushed and predictable. However, the horror remained. And in horror stories, the hardest part is retaining that feeling of dread, of terror. It is what makes the story work and gives it its bite.

[The story was read on May 23rd, but the review was late in being posted. I knew I should have posted the review before settling down in the Chair of Unintended Sleep.]

Friday, May 22, 2009

May 22 - "Jack Jaw and the Arab's Ape"

“Jack Jaw and the Arab’s Ape”
by Ryan Oakley
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Pulp

Jack Jaw uses the ape he buys from the Arab to compete in underground fights for money.

I’ve always said: all any good story needs is a monkey ripping a man’s arms clean off – blood spurting – swinging those bastard limbs over its head. (Okay, I’ve never said such a thing, but after reading this story and digging the ultra-violence, I don’t think it’s such a bad idea.) For all the fun elements of the story, from the strung-out killer monkey to the funny names (Jack Jaw, the Arab, and Mr. Skippy), the story does have its faults. The writing is unclear in spots, and some of the sentences lack style. This can be forgiven when the story is as entertaining as this one.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

May 21 - "Ax"

“Ax”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

The scene of a man and woman meeting a man carrying an ax could be interpreted many different ways.

This story is another example of Olin Unferth concocting sentences of such length and complexity that they either succeed wildly or fail spectacularly. The plot of the story – if there even is one – is rendered moot. As a fan of such experimental sentence I am less concerned with the plot – or lack thereof – but with only half of the sentences exploding off the page, the overall story needs work.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May 20 - "My Lawrence"

“My Lawrence”
by Claudia Smith
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

Mary Alice and her android, Lawrence, decide to move to the country.

Androids creep me out. So, I’m biased, and any story containing androids will inherently put me on edge. As sentimental – and it is sentimental – as this story is, my own prejudice tints every page with a shadow – a fear – I know wasn’t intended. It just goes to show how different readers will come to enjoy a story – or not – based in large part to factors no writer has any control over.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

May 19 - "Relations"

“Relations”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

The narrator’s determined aunt tracks down the family’s long-lost relations. The entire clan meets in a restaurant in an attempt to get to know one another.

There are moments when the story is just strange enough to give it charm. I particularly enjoyed the beginning – the grandmother’s, and later grandfather’s, insistence about being an orphan, much to the aunt’s chagrin – and the ending – the conversation about the merits of purchasing only 2 gallons of gas at a time. Meeting the lost relations was nothing special; I’m used to huge family gatherings. I will give Olin Unferth credit for accurately describing how large families act, react, and gather.

Monday, May 18, 2009

May 18 - "The Three Castles"

“The Three Castles”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * (Okay) Folktale

A would-be thief takes a job from the king shepherding sheep. He kills a three-headed snake while protecting the flock and finds keys to three magical kingdoms hidden inside its heads. Using the gifts of the kingdoms, he wins the princess’s hand in marriage.

This story is like a bad mash-up of multiple ideas. The boy’s exploration of thieving is briefly explored at the beginning of the story and then completely forgotten as the story moves along into its magical kingdoms of crystal, silver, and gold. The disjointed tale has potential, but you never feel as though either story is fully realized. Each one could have been its own fascinating story, but smashed together neither lives up to its potential.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

May 17 - "The Boogeyman"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Boogeyman”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * * * (Great) Horror

Lester Billings discusses his guilt over the death of his three young children with a shrink. He didn’t kill the children – not exactly – he just didn’t protect them from the Boogeyman.

Speaking as a person who still jumps at sounds and bumps in the night, a story written about the Boogeyman terrorizing a family hits me where I still feel some fear. King does a great job of justifying, in character, why Lester would continue to leave his children alone in the dark, easy prey for the Boogeyman even he is convinced exists. After the first child’s death, you as reader wonder why he doesn’t learn and protect the other children. His upbringing – and then fear – are offered as explanation, not excuses, and they fit the character and thus end the questions we readers were asking. My only complaint is the ending. The story could have gone a few different ways, but took the easy route: the Scooby Doo ending. A monster in a mask is weak.

May 16 - "Juanita"

“Juanita”
by Tim Wohlforth
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

Juanita wakes to find her abusive husband dead on the living room floor. Not knowing who killed her husband, Juanita decides to get rid of the body before people start asking questions.

Wohlforth does an excellent job setting the scene in this story. We can feel the oppressive heat, the crunch of the gravel yard, and the isolation of this home out in the desert. The best stories are those you can feel yourself inside. None of the characters are all that likeable – typical of noir – and yet they seem believable. They may not be people you would spend time with in the real world, but they make for fascinating company on the page. And the prose, it’s as noir as it comes in its hyphenated descriptions:
“Don’t they have some medal to honor the hero who kills the worst wife-beating, two-timing, double-crossing, porno-pimping, white-trash, desert rat there ever was?”
[This story was read on May 16, but the review was posted late because I once again fell asleep before typing it. I blame the movies I try to watch at night.]

Friday, May 15, 2009

May 15 - "En Transito"

“En Transito”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

- (Bleh) Realistic

There are hidden things in the space between the things we know.

I have no idea what to think. The story spends so much time being oblique that in the end nothing occurred, nothing became clear. It’s essentially a mess of words coughed up onto a page. Confusion sums it up.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

May 14 - "A Flourish of Strumpets"

“A Flourish of Strumpets”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * * (Great) Noir

Representatives from the Exchange, offering a unique and venerable service to the community, hound a happily married couple.

My favorite parts of this simple story are the brief descriptions of the different attractive women knocking on the Gussett’s door.
  • a black-root blonde, slit-skirted and sweatered to within an inch of her breathing life
  • a perky brunette with a blouse front slashed to forever
  • a raven-haired, limp-lidded vamp
  • a redhead sheathed in a green knit dress that hugged all that was voluminous and there was much of that
All these noir-ish descriptions of dangerous dames in drop-dead outfits. Couldn’t help but enjoy the writing. And how about this, a great use of the word, gelatinous:
His gaze rooted on the jutting opulence of Margie as she waggled along the aisle, then came to a gelatinous rest on a leather-topped bar stool.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

May 13 - "Another One"

“Another One”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman struggles with the decision to break up with her wheelchair-bound boyfriend due to his extended and complex family.

While there are parts of this story lost in the complexity of the prose, the sentences themselves are a joy to read.

Sentences like:
“She took care of him, like she had when he was in the womb, or at least barely out, or at least how she would have, had she kept him, the way she put on this socks for him, the way she emptied his bag of pee.”
or:
“Two others lived there too, an uncle and some sort of brother, half or step or imaginary, the girlfriend never sorted it out and she never saw either one, just slight evidences of their existence, a pair of sunglasses or a motorcycle magazine that some mother or other said was one or the other’s.”
There’s just something about the rhythm – the words – that makes me stop, smile, and reread the sentences. Here, I couldn’t care less about plot or theme or intent; I’m reading for the joy of reading.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

May 12 - "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”
by Neil Gaiman
M Is for Magic (2007)

* * * (Good) Science Fiction

A couple of teenage boys in search of a party find a house filled with girls not quite like they expected to find.

Much like the poem the narrator cannot remember, this story is a mystery to me. The prose is pleasant and the story moves from beginning through to end, but I cannot explain what it all means. What I can do is relate to the narrator’s dilemma – talking to girls at parties. Gaiman does great job describing that unease – the hesitation to speak to strangers of the opposite sex. In fact, the foreignness of the girls’ discussions could almost work in a more realistic story in which two strangers meet, talk, and learn they couldn’t be two more different people.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned the spot illustrations by Teddy Kristiansen that accompany each story in this collection. They are amazing. I’ve been a fan of Kristiansen since his work on Vertigo’s House of Secrets. They are just “weird” enough to fit the stories in this collection perfectly.

Monday, May 11, 2009

May 11 - "The Snake"

“The Snake”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A young girl is given three gifts after befriending a snake only to have her jealous sisters attack and maim her. Years later the use of her gifts allows the young girl to come face to face with her wicked sisters.

I was waiting for this one. The dark folktale with the eye-gouging and the chopping off of hands. As brutal as moments were in this tale, it still followed form: gifts of three, wrongs righted, and a happy ending. With 100+ folktales to go in this collection, it will be the tales that break from the form – offer something new, something different – that truly capture my attention. I say bring them on.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

May 10 - "The Things They Left Behind"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Things They Left Behind”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Supernatural

After avoiding death during the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Scott Staley is haunted by memories brought to the surface by a collection mysterious objects that appear in his apartment.

King’s propensity to include pop culture references throughout his writing is blatantly apparent in this story. Almost to the point of distraction. What saves the story is the delicate mix of the supernatural and the realistic. The story retains all of those elements that make Stephen King the writer he is – the character digressions, the hiding horror, those pop culture influences, etc. – while also tackling a serious event in American history. It also helps that the story deals with issues of memory and guilt – topics and themes I enjoy exploring in my reading. Serious King is just as good as Scary King.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

May 9 - "Dying Room Only"

“Dying Room Only”
by Richard Matheson
Button, Button: Uncanny Stories (2008)

* * * (Good) Suspense

A husband and wife stop at a diner before crossing an empty desert. The woman returns from the washroom to find her husband has disappeared, and the last couple of people to see him are anything but helpful.

I expected something more gruesome from the ending. The building suspense over the missing husband’s whereabouts led me to believe something terrible – or more terrible – had happened to him. I suppose in the 56 years since the story was first published, things and thoughts have grown darker, happy endings harder to come by. The story was entertaining in the way that some episodes of old television shows have nifty ideas hidden behind the hooky trappings of the past.

Friday, May 8, 2009

May 8 - "The Present of Concern"

“The Present of Concern”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman goes to visit her newly engaged friend and must fight the urge to steal something of importance from her apparently ungrateful and newly capitalistic friend.

It is not unnatural – right? – to feel malicious toward those happier than you, towards those ungrateful for what they have. Unferth does a terrific job exploring this relationship between people’s differing, opposite situations. I can picture the spice rack in question. I feel both the desire to fill the tiny glass bottles and to tear the rack from the wall. In just a couple of pages we don’t get to know much about the characters in the story, but we do understand how they feel, and to capture feelings is a much more difficult task for a writer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

May 7 - "The Little Girl Sold with the Pears"

“The Little Girl Sold with the Pears”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

After being found, hidden away in a basket of pears, a clever young girl quickly rises through the servant ranks only to be forced to complete an impossible quest to steal the witches’ treasure.

Like so many of these Italian folktales, the protagonist is given gifts – usually three – that help him or her overcome the obstacles of the story. The predictability and formulaic nature of the folktales are, I’m sure, a part of the appeal of the form (I see it; I do), but that leaves the success of the story to the details, often small, sometimes lacking. And it’s here in the details that this story succeeds in only being average. The baby hidden in the pear basket is cute, but other than a nice title, it does little to elevate the story above the rote formula of the folktale.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

May 6 - "Bad"

“Bad”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* (Eh) Realistic

A woman questions whether her actions inside a tent at a party were bad.

I’ll be honest; I had no clue what was happening in this story. Its elliptical nature threw me for a loop and I was left wondering what exactly I read. Even if a reader is not focused – and tonight I was not focused in the least – the story should be clear enough that a person understands at least the basic plot or point. This was simply bad.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5 - "Single Percent"

“Single Percent”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman attempts to classify her single status in the years after breaking up with her last true love.

I enjoy that Unferth takes these strange thoughts and explores them in her stories. This story makes you stop and question how single you may be now, or at any given time in your past. When you apply the logic she presents it makes for a neat – or depressing – activity. When a story gets you to stop and think about your life, that’s something special, even if the results of such thinking are less than impressive.

Monday, May 4, 2009

May 4 - "We Ate the Children Last"

“We Ate the Children Last”
by Yann Martel
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * (Great) Science Fiction

A new treatment for inoperable digestive tract cancer involving the use of pigs’ organs proves successful. The only side effect is an unusual and voracious appetite.

This story pleasantly reminds me of Swift’s A Modest Proposal. While not as cleverly satirical as Proposal, it is a brief and enlightening piece of speculative science fiction. I particularly enjoy the seriousness in which the story is handled. Every detail sounds true and possible. When presenting such innovative ideas with such horrific consequences, the more believable the results, the more thought-provoking the tale. And to do all this in just a few short pages: impressive.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

May 3 - "The Little Sisters of Eluria"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Little Sisters of Eluria”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * * * (Excellent) Pulp

After an unfortunate encounter with a gang of green folk – slow mutants – Roland, the Gunslinger, is nursed back to health by the sinister Little Sisters of Eluria.

A missing chapter from the Dark Tower saga, this not-so-brief adventure takes place before Roland catches Walter, the man in black, of the first novel, The Gunslinger. King does an excellent job setting the scene as Roland first enters Eluria, the eeriness of it all creates such a sense of dread you can’t help but wonder – and hope for – the evil hiding in the silence and shadows. The time Roland spends in the care of the Little Sisters is also a delightfully tension-filled collection of pages. There’s a reason King is a master of suspense, his craft is exceptional. My only complaint with the story is that the language of the series, the narrator’s manner of speech (Do ya ken it?), seems absent. This could be due to the fact that King wrote this tale before finishing the final books, where the language of Roland’s time in Hambry and the Calla seemed to more deeply permeate the narrator’s voice.

May 2 - "Footnote"

“Footnote”
by Romulus Linney
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

The trio of Voltaire, his mistress, and her new, younger lover discuss the implications of new baby.

This short story takes all the deceit, lies, and entanglements – the stuff of soapy romantic stories – and, by treating it nonchalantly – civilized – encapsulates the essence of these types of tales in just a few short pages. And it’s not at all unentertaining, either. It just goes to show that if you choose your words wisely, you can tell the most complex of stories in the simplest of ways. How much of this tale is based in truth, I do not know. It is fascinating, though.

[This review was posted to the blog a day late. The story was read on May 2nd, but an unexpected nap during The Terminator stole the night from me.]

Friday, May 1, 2009

May 1 - "One Thousand Dollars"

“One Thousand Dollars”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * * (Good) Realistic

Young Gillian ponders how best to spend his inheritance, the troubling sum of one thousand dollars, neither enough nor little to truly matter.

You read any of Henry and you come to expect the twist ending. In fact, you expect – you even try to predict it. And it’s fun. You feel as though you win if you can correctly guess how the story will end. Some might be put off by this type of game – clearly not me – but it keeps you reading, on edge, guessing what will happen next. There’s also an appeal to reading stories so set in their era that you can’t help but chuckling. Money ages poorly in stories.

April 30 - "The Count's Beard"

“The Count’s Beard”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

Micillina the Witch plagued a small town at the top of a steep hill until Masino, the prodigal son of the town, returned to tackle the problem.

A bit of mystery – a detective story hidden beneath a folktale. The mystery was nothing intricate or clever – it was predictably and easily solved by Masino upon his return to the village – but it gave the folktale an added element of, well, mystery that was unique. I also enjoyed the poetic proclamations made by the townspeople. It amazes me how translators can work their magic maintaining the rhymes and integrity of the original prose. The story still stumbles near the end, when conflicts are too quickly resolved, too neatly wrapped.

[This review was posted to the blog a day late. The story was read on April 30th, but an unexpected nap stole the night from me.]

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April 29 - "Give Them the Bag"

“Give Them the Bag”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Two sisters on vacation bicker like sisters do until they night leave a movie theater and are mugged at knifepoint.

There is a definite rhythm and flow to the sentences in this short tale. The arguing and fighting and general “sisterliness” presented in the story is wonderfully captured in some amazing sentences.
It [a movie] was an adventure, or sci-fi feature, or men with guns, done in digits, digitized, with a neatly typed sentence below explaining to everybody in one language as the people on the screen explained, or tried to, in another. The two sisters sat in front of the giant screen. They didn’t argue or see each other but it wasn’t quite the moment of sisterliness the sisters had hoped for.
The only problem is that the story stretches a bit thin, is a little too long. Even wonderful sentences cannot mask the few unnecessary bits that push the story just past its welcome. The old maxim “a little goes a long way” is apt.