Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28 - "Blue Yodel"

“Blue Yodel”
by Scott Snyder
Voodoo Heart (2006)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

Preston Bristol has been chasing the silver blimp with six white tail fins ever since his girl Claire took off in it one chilly day. Rambling across the country in his Model T, Pres seeks the elusive blimp while thinking back to Niagara Falls and their life leading up to this cross-country quest.

This was another collection I had been anxious to start when I had the time to read its lengthier stories. I couldn’t be more impressed with the story and the writing. The dialogue here firmly grounds this story in the past, the early 1900’s. There’s nothing flashy about this dialogue; it just rings with the truth of the time and the characters and the emotion. It has that rapid-fire give and take pattern of the time that I’ve always enjoyed in those old screwball comedies. And the dialogue is but one part of many that make this story enjoyable. I also found the quest, the romance, and the fishing for barrel riders from the Falls to be so very entertaining. There aren’t many stories in this collection, but even half of them are as good as this tale, then I’m in for a treat.

I had to share this brief passage to give you an idea of the beauty of these sentences:
“The rope felt a part of him, the blimp too, and for a moment when he gazed up at its body, sunlight gleaming off its silver skin, what he saw floating up there was not a blimp at all but an extension of himself, his own heart, swelled to bursting and released from his chest. His heart, swinging him through the sky. He thought about all the places and wonders he’d seen these past months, and felt a strange gratitude toward Claire for taking him all this way.”
I feel a strange gratitude for finding such a great story in what I hope will be a wonderful collection and introduction to a new author.

Why We Read

The true reason remains the inscrutable one - we get pleasure from reading. It is a complex pleasure and a difficult pleasure; it varies from age to age and from book to book. But that pleasure is enough.” - Virginia Woolf

I found this quote in an article that I thought was very interesting. I had high hopes of using this quote as inspiration to write up some kind of explanation for why I read, but time passed and the inspiration faded. I didn't want to lose the quote, and maybe one day, inspiration will strike again.

Friday, February 27, 2009

February 27 - "The Braindead Megaphone"

“The Braindead Megaphone”
by George Saunders
The Braindead Megaphone (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Essay

We no longer live in a world where we can think clearly, think without the interruption of the world around us. This chattering media onslaught has worked to dumb us down, as it loudly spews forth the inane, the obvious, and the stupid. It has succeeded in masking the troubles of the world and decreasing our ability to make intelligent and thoughtful decisions regarding the lives we live and the people we impact.

Now, I’m not normally one that gravitates toward nonfiction, especially essays, but this is some interesting – and engaging – material. The problem is: great writing easily sways me. I’m quick to jump to a way of thinking if it is explained in a way that I find enjoying. Saunders, in this essay, would say that is true of most Americans – that we would be easily pacified by the “dopey communication” that has become the media norm since the sensationalism of the O.J. Simpson trial (the first one) and each major media event afterward. The premise of the essay is that the loudest man is the man heard, even if the loudest man is unintelligent, uninformed, inexperienced, and with an agenda, subtle or not. Our developing reliance on this man has limited our ability to think, reason, and make intelligent choices. There’s a great example of how newscasters present such frivolous and idiotic stories such as malls getting busy at Christmas with such seriousness and solemnity. And we swallow it as news and truth and importance.

The following sentence was what sealed this essay’s strength and impact for me:
“Furthermore, I suspect, it [stupidity dominating reason] subtly degraded our ability to make bold, meaningful sentences, or laugh at stupid, ill-considered ones.”
I see this all the time in the weak sentences passed off as quality work, and it frustrates and saddens me. It is why I appreciate great writing as much as I do.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

February 26 - "The Long Count"

“The Long Count”
by Sam Edwards
Hardcore Hardboiled (2008)

* * (Okay) Crime

Rusty is visited by a cowboy and his thug, has his tooth knocked out, and is told to return what he stole within three days, or else. The problem is, Rusty doesn’t know the cowboy from Adam, and has no clue what – if anything – he might have taken from him.

The premise is sound enough, and Rusty is believable enough as a small-time thief and tough guy, but the ending explodes, literally, out of nowhere and falls flat. There is one great scene at a bar where Rusty unexpectedly runs into the thug and they have a brief but revelatory conversation about their final boxing matches, held on the same night, still remembered all these years later. The scene ends with an impressively painful punch, but their conversation ends up as the highlight of a rather fluff story.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

February 25 - "Troll Bridge"

“Troll Bridge”
by Neil Gaiman
Smoke and Mirrors (1998)

* * * (Good) Fantasy

After wandering down an unfamiliar path in the sun-dappled woods, Jack finds himself face to face with a troll. In an attempt to keep the troll from eating him, Jack promises to return one day, older and wiser and tastier, his life lived more completely.

This story seems familiar. Not like I’ve read it before and forgotten, but more in the sense of a story similar, with the same type of bargain for extended life. It must just be one of those recycled ideas – only here the result doesn’t feel warmed-over or retread. The descriptions of setting and flashes of Jack’s life are what give this tale its strength. However, there are only glimpses of Jack’s life, not enough for me to become invested in Jack’s fate, or his eventual decision. I understand the story; I just don’t care one way or the other about Jack. I was more interested with the growing little town and its developing neighborhoods encroaching and overwhelming the fields and countryside. This was simply an instance of the setting overshadowing the characters and plot.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

February 24 - "Brevity"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * (Okay) Humor

Brevity in writing, according to topic (and Deb Olin Unferth).

I honestly don’t know if this counts as a story; it is much more of a list. I suppose you could argue that some of the topics in themselves, and the simple sentences used to expound upon them, could constitute a story. It does work as a bridge between the last story and the next. And there is humor here. An example of a brief Resolution (story ending): “Oh who cares what will become of them? They will die, that is all.”

It’s a type of humor I appreciate.

Let’s give it a try: Review – I read. I wrote that I liked, or did not.

Monday, February 23, 2009

February 23 - "To Be Honest"

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

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A couple’s conversation changes their relationship when emotions and honesty are dragged to light.

This is a beautiful example of a conversation many people have, a conversation on the page that feels as real and true as one you may recall having or hearing. As much as I enjoy fiction, there is magic to be found in the truth – or in the near-truth of writers with a gift for taking the real and twisting it to suit their imaginary purposes.

I’m still impressed with these beautiful, rambling sentences:
"And now, he says, he’s feeling many things connected to memories and ideas and each thought is a revision of the last thought, each thought is a new emotion requiring honesty and each thought changes him and he can’t explain to me each shift quickly enough before a new shift occurs and so the only way he can be honest is to sit across from me and say, ‘I’ve changed. I’ve changed. I’ve changed. I’ve changed. I’ve changed.' "
I don’t know what I’ll do when I run through these quick and wonderful stories by Unferth. This is easily becoming a favorite collection of mine.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

February 22 - "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“All That You Love Will Be Carried Away”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * (Good) Realistic

Alfie Zimmer is checking into his last motel room. As a traveling salesman he has become accustomed to the ins and outs of motel life, but that is not what weighs on his mind this night. This night is the night Alfie puts a bullet in his brain. First, however, he flips through the notebook he’s been jotting down messages taken from restroom stalls, rest areas, and other public places. It is almost a shame to let the messages go, he thinks.

As a person who has spent more than his fair share of time in rest areas and truck stop restroom stalls, I understand Alfie’s obsession with the graffiti left behind as people pass through the stalls on their way elsewhere. More than a few of the examples shared in this story I’ve seen in places just like King described. This is two weeks in a row that I’ve read a story by King that draws me back to my childhood and travels over the road. It’s a time I don’t think much about anymore, but remember fondly – more fondly than I did then.

But enough about me. The story is entertaining, but not as exciting as most of King’s other tales. You just don’t get to know Alfie as a character as well as you typically do the characters in King’s other works. And I believe it is his characters that make his stories as great as they are.

Had to include the favorite bathroom stall message from my own travels, mentioned in this story as well in a slightly different form: “Here I sit, full of wonder, was that me, or was that thunder?”

Ha. Classic.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

February 21 - "Ava Wrestles the Alligator"

“Ava Wrestles the Alligator”
by Karen Russell
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Ava and her older sister Osceola are left on their own in Swamplandia! until their father, Chief Bigtree, returns. Ava struggles to hold on to her sister who nightly runs wild, possessed by the spirit of her ghost boyfriend, Luscious, while also dealing with loneliness of abandonment.

Now this is a well-crafted story. The sentences have a rhythm and excitement, and the story unfolds nicely. I’m still missing the deeper meaning – maybe – but that doesn’t stop me from the pure enjoyment of wandering through Swamplandia! beside its young watchgirl. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the setting – the swamp, both at night and in the early moments of the dawning day.
“Swamp dawns feel like bearing witness to a quiet apocalypse. Infinity comes lapping over, concentric circles on still water. It’s otherworldly, a river of grass, and a red needle of light on the horizon.”
And there are moments throughout the story when the actions and thoughts of Ava no longer seem like the actions of a fantastical girl living an amusement park life of gators and Bird Men, but instead of a lonely girl, as ordinary and lost as the rest of us.

Friday, February 20, 2009

February 20 - "Real Life"

“Real Life”
by Donald Ray Pollock
Knockemstiff (2008)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

In the restroom of a drive-in movie theater, young Bobby learns how to beat a man while watching his drunk father let loose over an issue of cussing.

This collection is a recent addition, and has turned out, so far, to be well worth the price. The title was what caught my eye, Knockemstiff. It helped to have a blurb from Chuck Palahniuk (Lullaby, Fight Club) on the cover as well. Reading the jacket I learned that the stories were centered on a small town and the real, somewhat crazy, folks living there. I like collections in which the characters cross between stories – especially if the characters are as fascinating and unique as the few I met in this first story. The dialogue, the pain and suffering (struggle is a trait I imagine I’ll see throughout this collection), and the truth of small town life, are what give these characters their personality and depth. There’s one scene with an Oscar Mayer wiener that seems so absurd, so sad and embarrassing, that you can’t help but flinch and feel sympathy in the same moment. It is moments like these – and there are many in this 12-page story – that tell me I’m in for a treat with this collection.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

February 19 - "Deb Olin Unferth"

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

* * * * * (Excellent) Memoir

No one – or very few people – thinks Deb Olin Unferth is a f*ckup.

This hardly counts as a story. It reads more like a list, but it is written with an attention to sentence rhythm and flow. What makes me smile is the repeated and hilarious use of the word, “f*ckup.” I just may be that juvenile, but in the end, the story does carry meaning, has a purpose. When it comes down to it, as hated or loved or ignored or praised as a person may be, when you consider the world, or even the country, state, or city in which you live, other’s thoughts about of you are but a drop in the sea.

[I struggled over the decision to edit this post due to the language. "The Word" in question is a prominent and important part of the story, and I personally have no qualms about its use. However, this is a public blog that could be accessed by anyone, and consideration and compromise is part of public life. In the end, I'm okay with my decision - even thought I felt the need to justify it - and I won't mention it again.]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 18 - "Water Names"

“Water Names”
by Lan Samantha Chang
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Fable

Three young girls take a moment from sisterly squabble to listen to their grandmother regale them with a tale brought forth from memory by the prairie crickets chirping beyond the cramped front porch.

I get the feeling that I’m missing something, like there’s a deeper meaning hidden in the text that I simply don’t see. That bothers me – makes me feel as though I’m not smart enough, not good enough as a reader. I did enjoy the story: the fable the grandmother tells to the young sisters. Ancient Chinese myths and tales have always interested me. They are a bit different from the fairy tales and folklore of America and Western Europe. From out of that uniqueness comes their charm, and my fascination. The promise of greener grass - in this case an undersea prince and marriage into his kingdom – is a common story trope, but it doesn’t feel tired here due to the flow of the sentences, and the set up to the myth sharing. Instead, you become as enraptured in the story, and thus as frustrated with its open ending, as the three sisters sitting at their grandmother’s feet.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

February 17 - "Dog"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A recent immigrant to the United States finds a dog in the middle of the street. Taking the dog home, the man finds his wife unreceptive to yet another dog in the domicile. The dog ends up at the pound, but the man becomes not entirely convinced that is where the dog should be.

The dialogue is what makes this story sing. The immigrants’ speech is written in that stilted way of person first learning English. You read the words and you hear the accent, the foreignness of the tongue.
“Already we got two damn dogs, the wife said. What we need this for?
Need? he said. Who needs? Want.
Already we got, she said. What we want this for?”
My only problem with the story is the abrupt ending. It comes from nowhere, and kills the story dead. The other complaint – and this is purely selfish – is that I wish there was more to this story. I enjoy the man and the dog and the bickering with wife and pound and police. There’s potential here left untapped.

Monday, February 16, 2009

February 16 - “Springtime À La Carte”

“Springtime À La Carte”
by O. Henry
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories (2002)

* * (Okay) Realistic

Sarah works typewriting the bills of fare on cards for the restaurant next door, anxiously awaiting the return of spring and word from the farmer she fell in love with the past summer.

Breaking the fourth wall – a character or the author talking directly to the audience – has been something that has fascinated me ever since my first reading of Wilder’s play, Our Town. Henry breaks through occasionally during this story, but never quite to the effect, or satisfaction, I’ve encountered in other works. He seems to be doing it to offer advice about writing, even though nothing in this particular story would necessitate the inclusion of this information. Instead, it distracts; it appears as filler to an already weak narrative line. Events and revelations appear out of nowhere, and while Henry breaks in to say – “It is bad art, and cripples interest.” – he doesn’t let that stop him, as author, from marching on, dragging us readers questioningly along, unsure of each new and sudden discovery.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

February 15 - "One She Once Was"

“One She Once Was”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

A woman worries about the type of person she will become after quitting smoking.

I’m kind of digging these flash fiction stories by Unferth. They’re not so much stories as…well, flashes, but they are insightful, and there is some great word work being thrown down. I sometimes worry that if I quit my entertainment obsession I might become someone totally different. It’s a weird thing to think about the actions or habits that end up defining us, whether we want – or realize – it occurring.

I am huge fan of longer sentences, and enjoyed the following from this story:
“Or perhaps the act of not smoking one day changed her slightly and then not smoking another day changed her slightly again and each day was like that, small change on top of small change, until slowly she became a person who didn’t mind not dating people she didn’t like, for example, and each day she was a different person, if only slightly, until one day she was this, her current self, a nonsmoker, the person she didn’t want to be, which doesn’t seem so bad now, in fact, seems better.”
It is also impressive to find a single sentence summing up the entire story in a few marvelous lines.

February 15 - "Rest Stop"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Rest Stop”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

John Dykstra is trying to decide which man is driving between Jacksonville and Sarasota – the English professor, Dykstra, or the pseudonymous suspense novelist, Ricky Hardin. A much-needed respite at a rest stop to relieve some urinary pressure brings Dykstra/Hardin face-to-face with Ellen and Lee-Lee, and his question of identity is unexpectedly answered.

Turns out, I’ve read this story before. “Rest Stop,” was first published in Esquire magazine a couple of years ago. I remember being surprised to see a new work by King in the magazine and flipped right to the story. It was great. I do enjoy stories about writers, their process and their lives, and I have even given thought to the merits of pseudonyms. But what really hooked me with this story was the setting: a rest stop. Traveling across the country as much as I have, the rest stop is not an unfamiliar place to me. I’ve had some thoughts about situations just like this – some much worse – and there’s just something about rest stops that brings such thoughts to mind. King does a wonderful job of taking those feelings and exploring them in a way that is both honest to the atmosphere and entertaining to even those without the rest stop familiarity.

[Now, if you’ve been following along, back in the creation of this blogging project, I stated that these stories would be new to me. And as I’ve read this tale before, I’ve a bit of a dilemma. I’ve decided that if this situation occurs, I’ll remedy it with a second story that same day. I’ll still write the review – as I’ve done here – for the story previously read, but I’ll also include an entirely new story and review to stay true to the project.]

Saturday, February 14, 2009

February 14 - "I Kiss a Door"

“I Kiss a Door”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

Hindsight explains Eleanor’s relationship with her handsome father.

It’s a weird thing, to be finding so many of these stories by July not quite as good as the first few of hers I read when I first purchased this book. I don’t know if it’s just a difference in me – my tastes – that has developed over the past two years, or if the collection was front-loaded. I’m actually a bit curious to go back to those first stories and reread them to see if I can still recognize the magic I once saw.

This story is one of the not-so-rare beasts in which we do not have a traditional narrative. This is more a slice of thought, a remembrance. The words flow and the quotationless dialogue is fun, but I’m missing the bigger picture. The narrator does come across well – is written realistically – but defined and interesting characters alone does not a story make.

Friday, February 13, 2009

February 13 - "Dance of the Dead"

“Dance of the Dead”
by Richard Matheson
I Am Legend (1995)

* (Eh) Science Fiction

Peggy learns the danger of new friends as the group of twentysomethings speed toward St. Louis and the loopy’s dance. Her mother’s warnings ringing in her head, Peggy finds more than she anticipated as she observes a loopy twist and jitter firsthand.

The story’s only saving grace is that the characters seem real enough. Not that I particularly care for them, but I believe they could exist only because I’ve met people like them before. They were annoying in real life as well.

I struggled to get a handle on the prose; this was once again a story of stilted, fragmented sentences (see “Witch War”) that simply didn’t work for me. The futuristic slang and obsession with Popeye cartoons did little to keep my attention. Even the supposedly scary scene with the loopy – the dancing lifeless undead – staggering across the stage did little more than make me twitch in disinterest. Written in 1954, this is a story I wish I’d have left buried out there in the world of weak stories.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

February 12 - "Frank Lloyd Wright"

“Frank Llyod Wright”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * (Good) Essay

The life of architectural genius, Frank Lloyd Wright, in about a page and a half.

(And the sad thing is he did more in that page and a half than most people, myself included, could do in two lifetimes.)

This essay was like reading a scribbling 5th grader’s biography of Frank Llyod Wright. But, I think that was the point. At first, not knowing much about Wright, I wasn’t sure – couldn’t believe – that the events told in the tale were true. It was only after a bit of research upon completion of the essay that I found the fantastic to be, well, factual. Multiple wives and axe-murdering servants and fires, flameouts, and fights – this man was the rock star of the architectural world. Unferth almost has to write this story as a 5th grader would – filled with wonder and awe. This stylistic approach gives the story a unique rhythm and flow. The only problem was that at points, the sentences became a bit too confusing in their intentional lack of skill. I do not mind re-reading sentences, but I do so only to enjoy their greatness once again, not because they lack clarity.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

February 11 - "Powder"

by Tobias Wolff
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Father and son run into an unexpected snowfall that threatens to ruin their hopes of returning home in time for Christmas Eve dinner.

Tobias Wolff is another one of those authors I’ve heard great things about, but never read. It’s a unique introduction to his work; I’m curious how this one story compares to the rest of his writing. The writing itself seems a bit spartan. But, sometimes the most straightforward and simple sentences are the ones that fit the story best. There was nothing flashy or stylish in the prose, but there was still story – words working in tandem to explore a slice of the world around us. And anytime a story reminds me of my dad – of the father/son dynamic – I’m hooked. I particularly enjoyed the following few lines spoken by the father:
“…I don’t want you to get the idea this is something just anybody can do. I’m a great driver. That’s not a virtue, okay? It’s just a fact, and one you should be aware of.”
I’ve heard those same lines before.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

February 10 - "The Last Leaf"

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

* * * * (Great) Realistic

Sue tries her best to encourage her roommate, Johnsy, from giving up on life in her battle with pneumonia. Johnsy is convinced her life will end will the last leaf that falls from the ivy vine outside her bedroom window. Neither one is prepared for the eventual outcome.

This tale starts out a little rough, with its descriptions of streets and places and the artists that inhabit them. Once we meet our characters and the action is set in motion, things begin to click. The result is a story both tragic and beautiful. The tragedy and beauty come unexpectedly, but not surprisingly in some contrite or clichéd manner. It is the unknown small act of kindness that gives this story its faultless ending and the extra punch at the end. There is also a great line in the tale that I must share:
“The lonesomest thing in all the world is a soul when it is making ready to go on its mysterious, far journey.”
“Lonesomest” – what a great word.

Monday, February 9, 2009

February 9 - "Witch War"

“Witch War”
by Richard Matheson
I Am Legend (1995)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

Seven girls sitting in a room must stop an advancing force of troops no more than two miles away. Once the order comes through – after securely storing their chewing gum – the girls unleash an attack the likes of which the oncoming soldiers have never before faced.

What a rocky start to a story. The first two sections – the first two pages – were almost unreadable for me. Matheson made the decision to describe the two forces on collision course through some very choppy prose. The stilted sentence fragments became nails driven into my brain, poking my patience nearly beyond its limit. But, when the battle started, and the sentences began to flow, the story picked up and became quite enjoyable. I’m sure that later on when I’m thinking about this story again, I may change my mind about the beginning (I am actually a huge fan of sentences fragments), but for now, it was off-putting, to say the least.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

February 8 - "The Man in the Black Suit"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“The Man in the Black Suit”
by Stephen King
Everything’s Eventual (2002)

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

While fishing where the Castle Rock stream forks, Gary, at nine years old, meets the man – the man in the black suit – who would haunt his dreams all his life, and worry his waking hours in those final days, eighty years later.

The thing I find most fascinating with the work of Stephen King is its interconnectedness. After reading over a dozen different novels and multiple short stories, you begin to recognize certain characters drifting and familiar settings passing as you travel through the many worlds he creates. Oh, and don’t believe for a second that this is a startling new revelation; King’s Dark Tower series addresses this fact in amazing detail. I only bring it up because of one of his novels I’m reading at the moment, Lisey’s Story. There are some scenes in the novel that are set out in the country, on a farm, that this story’s atmosphere touched upon.

And that’s what worked for me with this story. The setting. The time period just before World War I is brilliantly evoked and the descriptions alone allowed me to travel right along side nine year old Greg, as he beat his way to the stream, dropped his line, took his catch, and came face to face with the man in the black suit.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

February 7 - "La Pena"

“La Pena”
by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A couple on vacation in South America takes a pilgrimage to a remote holy site, La Pena, on the top of a distant mountain. Spiritual guides, tiny, tiny men with toys, and a long climb up the mountain lead the couple to what they were seeking.

This story would have to fall into the category of “flash” fiction. Whereas sudden fiction is a story of a few pages, flash fiction is a complete story told within a page or two. It is an amazing thing; that a story – a unique and original idea – can be told in an instant. These are the stories of conversation – the lies we spin or tales we tell when we share with one another.

This entire collection by Unferth is an example of these brief snippets into the lives of characters and situations we might meet each time we decide to spend a moment conversing with friends and strangers. And I, for one, am anxious to get to know Unferth a bit better through these flashes.

Friday, February 6, 2009

February 6 - "The Price"

“The Price”
by Neil Gaiman
Smoke and Mirrors (1998)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

After a particularly brutal night of fighting an unknown enemy, the beaten and bloodied black cat now calling the narrator’s house home, is locked in the basement to recover. Over the four days it takes the cat to recuperate, the narrator’s family encounters a streak of bad luck and disaster. Armed with a pair of night binoculars, the narrator releases the cat, stalking it silently, prepared to discover the source of the cat’s torment and his family’s misfortune.

Anyone who knows me knows I am not the world’s largest lover of animals. The mere fact that an author is able to make me care about one – a cat, even – speaks volumes toward the writing.

I enjoy stories that begin with a hint toward the eventual outcome. Sometimes it’s as simple as an introductory sentence, and sometimes it a bit more vague. The end result, however, is a story that comes together in the end, neatly wrapped, topped with a bow. You can tell that there was a plan all along for each piece of the puzzle.

The only surprise was the lack of any truly developed characters, something usually found in Gaiman’s writing. I never felt the connection to the narrator – or even the cat – that would draw me further into the world of the story.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

February 5 - "Loving the Dead"

“Loving the Dead”
by Ronald F. Currie, Jr.
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * * (Excellent) Realistic

As summer fades to fall, the narrator allows himself to hate once again. This hate is not directed toward the living, but instead, the dead. The narrator hates his grandfather and grandmother for the hardships they endured to raise and love their children, and eventual grandchildren.

This is the type of story that I normally don’t understand. The kind of story where you must read beyond the literal, find meaning in the spaces between the lines. Only, this is a story – a feeling – I recognize, share. Those vague spaces made clear.

What I enjoyed most was how Currie plays around with his commas, listing feelings in staccato bursts – giving the narrator a distinct, memorable voice.
“The flesh of her face has collapsed, and her eyes are huge, black, bottomless.”
“My older brother, six, towheaded, bespectacled, buries his face in my grandfather’s lap.”
“And everyone is frozen there in their limp, feathered seventies hair, their powder blue shirts and butterfly collars, their thick glasses, their horrifying floral prints, their bad skin, their bad teeth, their shared grief and their tiny private miseries, so varied and yet so sickeningly alike – the same mistakes, the same laments – and all of it is captured, frozen, preserved, because someone has actually brought a camera to this place.”
At first the structure appears awkward and unwieldy, but once you catch the rhythm – the beat of the heart, the soul of the speaker – it’s easy to fall in love with the prose.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

February 4 - "The Phonebook Man"

“The Phonebook Man”
by Bentley Little
The Collection (2002)

* * (Okay) Suspense

Nina answers the door early in the morning to find a phonebook salesman peddling on her front step. The smallest kindness – the use of the bathroom – lands Nina a guest she can’t shake loose.

There are some unexplained occurrences - namely what happens when the phonebook man emerges from the bathroom - that ground this story to a halt. They are not explained, and the glaringly “huh?” moments should never be left unaccounted for. The idea of a guest overstaying his welcome is not new, but Little does manage a fine job of constructing fear and suspense that feels true to Nina. However, there were simply too many unanswered questions and puzzling moments for this story to shine for me.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

February 3 - "First Snow"

“First Snow”
by Davy Rothbart
The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas (2005)

* * * (Good) Realistic

A crew of inmates working a roadside cleanup detail finds pleasure in the simple act of ostracizing one of their own. When the first fat flakes of snow begin to fall, and the mood of all is tense, a sudden revelation brings about unexpected acts and consequences.

Predictable. That’s the thought that kept running through my mind as I read the story. It would end in one or two ways, and leave little to surprise. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the story – I did. It’s well written and touches upon universal group dynamics (even never having been in prison, I know that weakness is exploited for pleasure when people are placed in groups) and guilt. It’s these common actions and feelings that give stories their power. Beyond the stellar sentences and clever characters, it is the connections we make that fuel stories, and our enjoyment.

Monthly Summary - January

# of stories read: 32
# of stories read this year: 32

# of 5 star stories: 6
# of 1 (or fewer) star(s) stories: 1

Genres read: supernatural, horror, humor, realistic, science fiction, crime, pulp, suspense, essay, children’s, fantasy, parable, memoir
Most read genre: realistic (9)

Story of the month: “A History of Everything, Including You” by Jenny Hollowell

Monday, February 2, 2009

February 2 - "Lars Farf, Excessively Fearful Father and Husband"

“Lars Farf, Excessively Fearful Father and Husband”
by George Saunders
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)

* * * * * (Excellent) Children’s

After Lars Farf returns home, to find his home, burned to ash, he sets about protecting his family, first from fire and then water, later attacking every possible scenario of disaster or destruction with a system or strategy to quell his ever-expanding fear.

As an obsessive I found this story to be absolutely hilarious – and nearly actually plausible. The joy in the story comes from the snowball effect of worry. One crazy idea builds upon another until the far-fetched has become reality and Lars Farf can justify placing his family in Personal Protection Pods for their own wellbeing. Saunders has always intrigued me as an author; I’ve read positive reviews of his work – purchased some – but not yet explored his talent. That is one of the joys of this project; I can sample those authors I’ve put up on my shelf, yet passed over in favor of the newest, brightest, shiny thing.

I have to include a sentence to show you the absurdity and humor packed into this little gem.
“Also he hired some Snake-Dog-Bear-Wolf Monitors, to make proactive Scouting Missions into the woods around the house, and hired a team of optometrists to constantly check the eyes of the Snake-Dog-Bear-Wolf Monitors, so the Monitors wouldn’t miss anything, and issued an order that not only must all snakes, dogs, bears, and wolves be apprehended, but anything even vaguely resembling a snake, dog, bear, or wolf must be apprehended, including, but not limited to, all snake/dog/bear/wolf-resembling sticks, branches, stones, and/or boulders.”
This is a perfect example of why I enjoy reading – and writing: sentences of such structure and fun, working together to create awe and wonder.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

February 1 - "Harvey's Dream"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“Harvey’s Dream”
by Stephen King
Just After Sunset (2008)

* * * (Good) Realistic

Harvey is surprised to find that his wife Janet did not hear him wake screaming from a nightmare early in morning. As he recounts this terror, Janet becomes all the more apprehensive as aspects of the dream have already begun to unfold around them.

Ah, the dread of dreams – nightmares. In what is essentially the recollection of a dream, King manages to capture the tension and terror that so shook this man, Harvey. It’s been said before, but it’s King’s ability to create complete – and believable – characters, even in a tale of only 10 pages, that adds corporeality to the underlying and intangible horror, supernatural, and/or suspenseful elements of his work. My only problem with this story is that it remains a bit too grounded, not quite reaching the levels of some of his more powerful – and enjoyable – tales.