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"

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
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 clich├ęd, 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"

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
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
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"

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.