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.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April 28 - "Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear"

“Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear”
by Joyce Carol Oates
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

A girl stuck caring for her sick mother waits for the handsome pharmacist to drive by her home again, impossibly hoping he’ll take her away from this life she does not desire.

Written as a stream-of-conscious narrative, this story fails to capture my interest. I found the thoughts of the narrator difficult to follow. For a girl with an IQ supposedly in the 160’s, her thoughts are a jumbled mess of incomplete and often awkwardly phrased sentences. I’m not saying anyone’s thoughts are ever completely clear, but when trying to make the writing as accessible as possible, there are other ways to demonstrate a character’s personality and tone that might have been a bit more reader-friendly. There were moments – scenes - that were excellently executed and poignant, but lost in and among the jumbled ramblings of a longing and lonely, and ultimately unlikeable narrator.

Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27 - "The Boy from Lam Kien"

“The Boy from Lam Kien”
by Miranda July
No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

An agoraphobic and a curious young boy engage in a conversation that ends with a tour of the reclusive narrator’s apartment.

Finally a story that once again hints at the quirkiness that hooked me on July in the first place. I won’t gush – there’s much here that doesn’t impress me one way or another – but there are moments when the sentences spark and the imagination ignites, and I find myself drawn to these characters. Six stories to go in this collection. I’m hoping for a strong finish, full of unique characters, outrageous and unbelievable situations – stories that entertain my imagination.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

April 26 - "The Mangler"

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

* * * * (Great) Supernatural

After a horrific accident at an industrial wash facility, suspecting the Hadley-Watson Model-6 Speed Ironer and Folder to be possessed, the local police officer races to exorcise the blood-hungry demon before it kills again.

This story is an excellent example of pacing. The story builds from the first slow and apprehensive paragraph through to the tense, terrifying, and quick final moments. There are no extraneous details or wasted words. Even the quick aside about a killer refrigerator (was this mentioned in ’Salem’s Lot as well?) fits in with the overall flow of the story. I’m sure it’s not unusual with prolific authors writing for decades, but I can tell the time period in which the story was written; it mirrors the tone and style of King’s other works of the same time. It’s an interesting thing to watch – style – as it evolves over time.

As a random note: this is the second story this year with an obscure, possessed machine. First was Brown’s evil Linotype machine, and now the Mangler. I’m sure there is an entire sub-genre of supernatural machine literature I don’t even know exists. Weird.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

April 25 - "You Will Hear the Locust Sing"

“You Will Hear the Locust Sing”
by Joe Hill
20th Century Ghosts (2007)

* * * * (Great) Science Fiction

Francis woke up one morning to find that he had shed his human skin for a more insect existence. Terrified of people’s reaction to his transformation, Francis hides to plan his next move.

When I read the blub for this story on the back of the collection I immediately pictured a B-movie bug terrorizing some small town in the 1950’s. While I wasn’t far off in my imagination, the story ends up being better than that, better than I expected, really. Tales from the monster’s point-of-view are nothing new, and there have been many great ones (i.e. Grendel), so what sets this story above the merely mediocre? The character of Francis, bug boy, is expertly crafted. He’s given the backstory and development that allows us to care about his metamorphosis and eventual rampage. Throw in some mighty fine writing and all the elements of an entertaining read are present.

Friday, April 24, 2009

April 24 - "Silver Nose"

“Silver Nose”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * * (Great) Folktale

A widowed woman reluctantly agrees to send her three daughters to work for an ominous, silver-nosed man. The third, most clever, daughter is obligated to save her more curious, trapped sisters.

This is one of the more normal folktales I’ve come across in this collection. The characters are placed in situations where their poor choices come back to haunt them, and only the most clever of girls can outwit the big bad. The story is predictable in a way that is expected, and thus enjoyable. This is the type of story young children (me) grow up hearing. One interesting observation: in all the ways I’ve heard the devil described, silver-nosed is new. I don’t know – if it was me – a dude comes asking for my daughters, slick as oil, complete with silver nose, I’m going to tell the beast to keep walking.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23 - "Blood"

by Zdravka Evtimova
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

An old woman stumbles into a man’s shop looking for the blood of a mole to help cure her sick son. The storekeeper has no moles, but cannot allow the woman to leave without the blood she so desperately seeks.

Evtimova writes with an over abundance of similes. When used effectively, similes can punch up the imagery of a piece. However, when used too frequently, the attempt becomes apparent and the reader is pulled out of the story, and the image the writer was trying so hard to create fades. And this is sad because there’s a great story hidden behind the technical missteps. The piece reads as though it may have been translated from another language (there is no indication that this is the case), and possibly the awkwardness of the sentences is due in some small degree to an unfamiliarity with the English language. Something just feels a bit off throughout.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

April 22 - "How to Sell the Ponti Bridge"

“How to Sell the Ponti Bridge”
by Neil Gaiman
M Is for Magic (2007)

* * * (Good) Fantasy

A tall, bald man steps up to defend the Ponti Bridge con at the Rouges’ Club after listening to a group of ne'er-do-well artists decry it’s merits.

I’m all for the con. But what keeps me away from fantasy, and often drives me out of this story, are the names I cannot pronounce. I was impressed, as always, with the style of writing displayed by Gaiman, and the con of selling the unsellable bridge was engaging, but I couldn’t get past the fact that this was a tale told on a different world, to other rogues I couldn’t picture because of the trappings in which they were dressed (named). It seems like such a little thing, but it’s often those minor details upon which stories find their fans, or do not.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 21 - "Bob"

by Bentley Little
The Collection (2002)

* * * (Good) Suspense

Brandon is overwhelmed by seven elderly women who mistake him for Bob, a man who can help their friend Libby escape from her abusive husband.

You can get quite a lot of mileage out of a story of mistaken identity. These stories can go in many different directions – most ending poorly for at least one of the involved characters. But, they are, more often than not, fun. This story, and more than a handful of others like it, ends up being a brilliant little kernel of what might be a fascinating longer tale. For example, Dean Koontz takes this very same conceit – a man mistaken for a hitman – and turns it into a novel, The Good Guy (a novel in which I’m already a few chapters deep). It always amazes me how connected things can be. I have to say, though, the idea of seven elderly women barging into my home would almost terrify me to the point of accepting whatever sad story and/or deal they were peddling.

Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20 - "The Little Shepherd"

“The Little Shepherd”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * (Okay) Folktale

A mean little shepherd is cursed to stay small until the day he finds the lovely Bargaglina.

I think I’m going to enjoy detecting patterns and similarities among folktales as I continue to ready more and more. This idea of a character meeting individuals that provide him with the gifts to help him later in his quest has become a recurring trait in these Italian folktales. Only here, they don’t fit as seamlessly into the overall story, or into the action at the moment their purpose becomes clear. Instead, they feel needlessly tossed into the story as a quick cheat to advance the character’s progress. These gifts were earned, and they should have value. Overall, the story feels cobbled together – some individual parts and moments stand out, but together things just blandly, and occasionally erratically, move from point A to point B.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

April 19 - "I Am the Doorway"

Sundays with Uncle Stevie
“I Am the Doorway”
by Stephen King
Night Shift (1979)

* * (Okay) Science Fiction

An astronaut returned from a trip around Venus worries about the mysterious, itchy growths hidden under the bandages covering his hands.

There is a mix of science fiction and horror elements in this story that simply doesn’t add up to anything spectacular. The story seems run-of-the-mill – a recycled mass of 50’s and 60’s, B-class sci fi. Very little of King’s voice is apparent in the prose here. Granted, this is an earlier work, but while reading I found very little of the author I’ve come to enjoy so much.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

April 18 - "Dreams"

by F. Paul Wilson
Aftershock and Others (2009)

* * * * * (Excellent) Horror

The recurring nightmare of being trapped in the monstrous body of a manly beast leads Eva discover a startling truth.

Knowing the truth that the narrator searches for regarding her life gives us, the reader, an understanding that only further adds to the ironic twist of this tale. The idea of living your dreams as if they were the “real” world has always fascinated me. This story does a great job of exploring that very idea while also mixing in the Frankenstein mythos. Everything about this short tale succeeds. The horror here is the possibility that that great lumbering monster could have evolved out of the dream-fulfillment fantasies of an unsuspecting, murdered farm girl.

Friday, April 17, 2009

April 17 - "Soap"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * * * (Great) Suspense

A woman and her husband living on the left side of a house find their soap disappearing day after day. The culprit – the creature – is adept at avoiding detection, while the couple tries everything, including poisons, to stop this thief of soap.

Points for eeriness. You wouldn’t imagine a story about a soap-stealing creature to elicit such – fear. The story has a wonderful dichotomy of humor and horror. It’s a combination that works so well in horror stories, be they movies or prose. What’s different here is that the humor comes out of the playfulness of the prose, not the jokes and antics that usually compose this side of the dynamic. I’m sure this isn’t anything new, but it is the first time I’ve noticed the combination, and I was impressed. This was a frightening surprise wrapped in a pretty package.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

April 16 - "Money Can Do Everything"

“Money Can Do Everything”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A king challenges a prince to prove that money can do everything by forcing the prince to talk to his heavily guarded daughter within three days or suffer beheading.

I’m sure there are those that disagree, but money really can do everything. Is it right and good that anything can be accomplished with the liberal application of money? Probably not, but that’s the world we live in. It was the world of the past. And it will be the world of the future. What’s funny about this story is that even the man with all the money didn’t believe this to be true and had to be saved by his more level-headed nursemaid, a woman I highly doubt had much money of her own. Yet still, she knew how the world worked. I think we all do – money or not.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

April 15 - "The Palmist"

“The Palmist”
by Andrew Lam
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * * (Great) Realistic

An aging palmist gives a free reading to a teenager on the bus whose future catches his attention.

There are some wonderful sentences at work in this story. So many, doing so much, that you feel as though you are right there riding that bus, following that conversation between eager palmist and skeptical teenager. This story’s real power comes in its descriptions of both setting and tone. It’s a hopeful story with an open ending that leaves you both curious and yet still satisfied.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

April 14 - "Tomorrow's Bird"

“Tomorrow’s Bird”
by Ian Frazier
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Fable

A man working for the crows of the world helps to spread their desire to become “Your Only Bird.”

Another only average story – this one with a cute premise: the rebranding and mass marketing of crows as the world’s new, and only, bird. One possible underlying message – evil or darkness (you pick the big bad) is permeating the world – stands, rather obviously, right behind the words on the page. It’s easy to see the author’s point, but it’s all a little too neat. Too pat. There are, however, some nice little details that shine through, such as the descriptions of the crows’ movements and actions (so real and easily pictured), or the insane power grabs (crows owning the Tombstone Frozen Pizza company, and other ventures). It’s a nice balance of the real and the asinine. I actually wish this could be developed into something more – there’s some unexplored potential here.

April 13 - "Body-without-Soul"

by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

Clever Jack is told by the king to rescue his kidnapped daughter from the evil sorcerer, Body-without-Soul. With gifts gained from helping four animals along the way, Jack fights for the princess’s freedom.

There is nothing wrong, or terribly exciting, about this story. It tells a simple tale in a rather straightforward – and predictable – way. The elaborate manner in which Jack must defeat Body-without-Soul is unique. It would have been more interesting if Jack’s defeat of the sorcerer hadn’t been so obvious, but the time constraint – a folktale is typically a short, short story – necessitates this compressed telling. I did find it amusing in the beginning of the tale that Jack’s mom told him he’d be old enough to venture out alone once he was able to kick over the tree in their yard. The image of the young boy dropkicking a tree each morning until it was finally felled was priceless.

[This review was posted to the blog a day late. The story was read on April 13th, but illness and an unexpected nap stole the day away from me.]

Sunday, April 12, 2009

April 12 - "In the Deathroom"

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

* * * * (Great) Suspense

Fletcher is dragged into a deathroom and placed in a chair facing three individuals wishing to have a conversation – interrogation – about the mysterious and rebellious El Condor. His only hope for survival is escape.

A little bit of torture in the deathroom. You see and read so much about torture and its impact becomes something less than horrific. Yes, it is still often cringe-worthy, but no longer so much in idea, but in the various new methods people invent. I enjoyed that King put us in the mind of Fletcher so that we could better experience the thrill of fighting back, of escape. I think it not unusual for people to place themselves in situations such as this (or time in prison, or being shot, or fighting for your life) in an attempt to test the limits of their own courage or fortitude. That we have stories such as this allows us that experience. It is well done and you come away feeling – hoping – you are half as strong as Fletcher. Not all stories have happy endings, but sometimes a little hope isn’t such a bad thing.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

April 11 - "Monster"

by Kelly Link
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

The boys of Bungalow 6 felt compelled to go camping in the woods. Neither threat of rain nor monster could keep them from doing what the bullies of Bungalow 4 had already done. Even James Lorbick, the least popular – and unhappiest – boy in camp, felt the need to brave the night outdoors.

Another excellent story in this wildly inventive – slightly offbeat – collection of short stories for (intelligent and literary) children. Link does a great job of pacing and characterization, all building up to a very enjoyable climax: James Lorbick’s jittery, immensely funny campfire chat with a monster. The story succeeded in bringing back fond – but maybe not entirely accurate – memories of camp. However much (or little) of my own camping experience I do remember, this tale and these campers felt right. The magic came in both the tiny details (the “joy” of cramped and wet and smelly tents) and the supernatural horrors (terrified children fleeting the blood-stained hands of a quick white monster). It’s the type of story you hope to hear while sitting around a campfire – a story chock full of humor, and chills.

Friday, April 10, 2009

April 10 - "Like a Flight of Ducks"

“Like a Flight of Ducks”
by Italo Calvino
Numbers in the Dark (1995)

* * (Okay) Realistic

Natale moves from one side of a war to the other, a simple-minded fool and plaything taken advantage of by each side.

The confusion in Natale’s head likened to a flight of ducks is one of the best similes I’ve come across in a while. If anything, it sounds more refined to picture a flight of ducks when cracked over the head with a stick than to see a chorus of tweeting birds. The problem I had with the story was that I didn’t fully understand it. This could be a combination of a lack of intelligence and a massive headache, but I had no idea what was happening most of the time. Sure, Natale is a simpleton and those around him treat him as a joke, but what’s the point of it all?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

April 9 - "Passport"

by Deb Olin Unferth
Minor Robberies (2007)

* * (Okay) Realistic

A multitude of possibilities flood a woman’s mind when she is asked for her passport.

The story tries a little too hard to be clever with its format. The repeated “or” at the beginning of a seemingly endless collection of sentence fragments, the random – incomplete – story of searching for a forged Mexican passport, the eventual crux of the tale – the passport’s whereabouts in question: it all seems a trifle trite. It is a short, short story that could stand some trimming.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

April 8 - "And Seven!"

“And Seven!”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A lazy woman, challenged with tasks of increasing difficulty by her soon to be husband, is aided by three magical old ladies, each asking only to be invited to the upcoming wedding. When the wedding day arrives, the lazy woman cannot recall the names of her saviors and faces foretold doom on her happy day.

Women are not portrayed very well in these folktales. The hero of this story ends up being rewarded for her gluttony and sloth. I’m curious to see if this depiction of women carries through the collection of Italian folktales assembled here. The neat thing about these stories is that while they may seem predictable, the endings always twist in funny ways – not ways you would expect a story to twist. My favorite part of the story was the scene in the beginning with the mother serving bowl after bowl after bowl of soup to her fat daughter before finally ceasing with seven and a wooden spoon to the indolent daughter's head. It’s just a striking - pun intended - image, and a great way to start the story.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

April 7 - "The Man Who Came Out Only at Night"

“The Man Who Came Out Only at Night”
by Italo Calvino
Italian Folktales (1980)

* * * (Good) Folktale

A cursed man leaves his new wife with a magical diamond ring to circle the word –tortoise by day and man by night – to break the curse and live happily ever after with his bride.

If you give someone power, there is no guarantee they’ll wield it well or wisely. The woman in this story appears to be noble and loving, but as she begins to use the power of her diamond ring, we see her for what she truly is – a…witch. And the townspeople see the same thing. They send the police to arrest her, only to, what, give up and forget when her husband returns? The story would have been more complete if she either was punished for her abuses, or if she hadn’t succumbed to the power of the diamond in the first place. In the end, all sympathy is lost and the woman becomes little more than throwaway character in a happily ever after story.

Monday, April 6, 2009

April 6 - "Homage"

by Nadine Gordimer
New Sudden Fiction (2007)

* * * (Good) Realistic

After assassinating an important state official, a man without a country, lives his life in obscurity, trapped in the city where even his name is buried with that now memorialized important official.

There are moments when this story works, and moments when things are just a bit too obscure, too secretive – moments when we see Gordimer trying too hard to be mysterious. I found it amusing that this hitman would have to find work to justify the money he was paid for this assassination, and that this dilemma could have been worse had he been paid the full amount of the contract upon completion. It is the little moments – the everyday concerns in the not-so-common situations – that make a story seem realistic. When you can string together a handful of these, you might as well be casting spells, spreading magic between the lines. Unfortunately here there was only the one moment. Still, it did make me pause; it made me take notice.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

April 5 - "Night Surf"

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

* * (Okay) Realistic

In the aftermath of the A6 super flu – Captain Trips – a group of friends spend the night on a deserted beach after burning a dying man on the pier.

Wow, that’s bleak. And unfortunately, boring. In what appears to be the seed of the larger – greater – story, The Stand, we are introduced to the idea of the final few survivors of a super flu that decimates the world’s population. Where this story fails to achieve the normal Kingian levels of greatness is in its brevity. We are given just a snapshot of these characters and this situation. I’m more interested in who they are, and how they came together, and where they go from here. Instead, we are offered just a few hours of one night – even the burning of the body is told in only a paragraph or two of flashback. The whole – story? – was simply less than expected. It’s a great idea, only not fully realized (yet).

Saturday, April 4, 2009

April 4 - "The Purple Dress"

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

* * * (Good) Realistic

Maida has saved and planned and dreamed of the purple dress she will wear to the annual Thanksgiving dinner at work. When she selflessly loans the final $4 due on the tailored dress to her rent-starved friend, Madia’s purple dream appears to fade away.

Schmaltzy – and sometimes the right word just pops into your head – but entirely the appropriate tone for the story. Not all stories need be built out of intricate plots, clever coincidences, and slick dialogue. Sometimes, the perfect purple party dress and the kindness of friends and strangers is enough. And in this instance, there is no irony in the twist ending, just good people finding happy endings. A simple Saturday story.

Friday, April 3, 2009

April 3 - "Her Voice in a Bottle"

“Her Voice in a Bottle”
by Tim Pratt
Subterranean: Winter 2009 (2009)

* * * * * (Excellent) Fantasy

Tim Pratt recalls the mysterious Meredith, a weeklong love from college who vanished from sight only to return years later before vanishing once again. She floats in and out of his life in those moments of loneliness, last time leaving a message in a small blue bottle for when Tim needs to call on her again.

It was difficult finding the correct label for this story – fictionalized reality, memoir, or fantasy? I settled on fantasy because of the ephemeral nature of Meredith, and because of Pratt’s short digression about fantasy.
“…and just because I write fantasy doesn’t mean I believe that stuff. I’m a skeptic. Sure, I knock on wood, I have little superstitious rituals, but I know they’re merely magical thinking, that they don’t exert any influence on the world, that at most they exert influence on my mind, which is enough, sometimes.”
There’s a quality here, something slightly off, slightly magical, in Pratt’s recollection of his time with Meredith. There’s even a weird mix of The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, Pratt’s first novel, which I enjoyed, but remember in only broad strokes (as is true of most fiction I read) and Pratt’s own mentioning of a faulty memory, a mind incorrectly (maybe) filling in the past. Everything about this story – there’s even a mention of air hockey – clicked for me tonight in ways I know I won’t be able to articulate, or even remember correctly, come tomorrow. This is a story worth saving, a hopeful story for lonely hearts in troubled times.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

April 2 - "Life with Father"

“Life with Father”
by Bentley Little
The Collection (2002)

- (Bleh) Realistic

Father does not waste. Everything can be reused and recycled, including his two daughters and The Pets.

There are stories that are just not for me. Stories in which characters or situations go beyond what I consider to be in good taste. I don’t run across these very often; I can handle quite a lot – tolerate much. The younger girl’s decision to kill their vampire of a father allows the story its only saving grace. It’s not much – it is but one detail in a story full of horrific events – that allows me to make any connection other than disgust.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

April 1 - "An Indian Ghost in England"

“An Indian Ghost in England”
by Rudyard Kipling
Tales of Horror & Fantasy (2008)

* * * (Good) Supernatural

A weary man on horseback decides to spend the night in a small town not far from his destination. After his meal he turns in to bed only to hear the not-so-distant wail of the ghost said to haunt this very village.

Kipling does a great job, in some fine and rambling sentences, of describing the setting of the story. In fact, aside from a few key actions, this story is essentially a painted picture of rural England in the chill and breeze of February. There is beautiful imagery, but not enough narrative. I’ve come to assume the twist ending, but this ending fell flat. You come expecting a ghost story – the setup and description and atmosphere promise as much – and you walk away with something…less. Grumbling aside, I thought the second paragraph – the one with the abundance of dashes (which I love to use and see) – was a treat. Following the meandering flow of the sentences was its own kind of grammatical adventure.