Monday, November 25, 2013

Quick Update

Hello! The dust is settling and I'm gearing up to bring you more book reviews and salty opinions, but please allow me this quick plug:
I had my first full-length story picked up by Pilgrimage magazine and I am ecstatic! If you're interested, you can get a copy here!
I also had a flash fiction piece picked up at the same time (makes the two rapid-fire rejections I received sting just a tiny bit less): The Show Must Go On.
I keep threatening on twitter to talk about 90210 (the 90's masterpiece, not the aughts nightmare), but in truth I've been really into Melrose Place (guess I finally hit the age bracket) and reading A Song of Fire and Ice (or is it Ice and Fire? Who effing knows... everyone just calls it Game of Thrones).
'Til next time!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: Tenth of December

A reader can always count on George Saunders for a surrealist twist, deceptively simple language and searching characters. Too often, authors who incorporate elements of sci-fi and fantasy into their stories face derision and a dismissive hand wave, "The stories are good, but--" Saunders avoids the naysayers by crafting stories about real people. Sure, perhaps we don't yet string up girls from third world countries for our own amusement, but the family in that story express desires every reader has felt at one time or another. Yes, the stories are offbeat, the people are often strange, but every story has heart. Saunders masters merging the two in Tenth of December.

In the aforementioned story The Semplica Girl Diaries, a husband begins a journal to memorialize his life. He loves the idea that by writing simply one page per day, he will have 365 pages of information to leave for his future readers. He frequently addresses his future readers, though he doesn't say who he imagines these futures might be or why they might be interested in his journal. Like many people, he wants to leave behind a legacy and strives to be the best and provide the best for his family and never seems to measure up. A stroke of luck allows him to buy a set of coveted Semplica Girls, young women from third world countries who undergo surgery to have wire strung through their heads so they can hang from a rack in their new owner's yard. On its face, this story could have become simply a story about ownership, slavery, greed- but Saunders avoids proselytizing to simply show an everyman's desire and the consequences for his own family.

Saunders is adept at quick switches between the points of view of characters, even when every character imagines the scene very differently, in fact when the scene occurs only within their imagination with glimpses at the truth. The opening story, Victory Lap showcases this talent. The story opens on a vivid imagined scene with a female character, switching to the boy next door who feels constrained by rules and faces immobility when faced with a situation that would require him to break those rules. Unlike many of Saunders stories, this one has real peril, a plot line that could have been easily exploited to veer into the sentimental or garish, but instead he stays so close to the characters, the reader hardly has time to think about the danger at hand, staying with the characters as they consider actions and consequences.

The most moving story is the title piece, Tenth of December. The two main characters switch point of view, with the young boy weaving an imaginary situation and the older man's addled brain handing him facts and memories in a non-linear fashion. While there is some danger in the story, Saunders again avoids resting on the easy plot line to engage the reader with the minds of these characters, and also leaving in the air who to root for and what the reader should want. The complicated emotional pitch keeps the story with the reader long after the book has been closed.

While the stories are wonderful, they are also (some of them) quite old. Puppy (a wonderful, heartrending story) is five years old, while Sticks came out in the mid-nineties. One wonders why there was so much hype surrounding this collection when it seems as though it's simply a collection of stories previously anthologized elsewhere. Someone new to Saunders' work would appreciate this, but fans can't help to feel a bit disappointed to not discover anything brand new in the collection. That said, it's certainly a collection that can be enjoyed multiple times.

Monday, February 25, 2013

A horse is a horse?

Perhaps you've heard the news recently that horse meat has been masquerading as beef all over Europe. Americans took notice when it came out that IKEA's sainted Swedish Meatballs also contained meat from Mr. Ed's ancestors. Well, actually, it turns out the affected meatballs are in Europe, so maybe Red Rum's ancestors. Either way, people thought they were buying cow and instead they got horse and they are pissed.
Why?
It seems that pre-packaged, processed foods have been most affected. Have any of the people complaining ever taken a gander at the ingredients list on a frozen lasagna? Horse meat would probably be one of the few decipherable items listed. Consumers buy processed foods for convenience, not taste, and certainly not for nutritional value. Sure, those who grew up eating the best that Stouffer's had to offer often think of it as comfort food and enjoy eating it. But it's all those happy memories of mom rushing home from work and tossing a tray of dinner-food in the oven that leads to enjoyment. The flavors in those boxes are entirely manufactured, mostly salt, and the meat is probably so full of fillers it barely qualifies as flesh. Certainly a little pony is preferable to pink slime.
Aside from the question of quality in affected products, so what if the meat in that burger comes from a cow or a horse? It's still the ground up remains of an animal. The meat hierarchy drops off dramatically after fish. Veal remains controversial despite being simply a younger cow, but the big four reign supreme (in the American supermarket at least). In fact, a visitor to the meat counter at any major chain store would be hard pressed to find a bit of venison, rabbit, or squirrel. Cows, pigs and chickens grow purely with consumption in mind, true. They eat hormones and live short, brutal lives in enclosures designed to limit movement and encourage fattening. Horses typically run or work, which would seem to lead to perhaps stringier muscles. An old soft horse, a brood mare out to pasture, couldn't be that different from a cow. Certainly it's close enough to fool people in Europe and the UK routinely. Consumers ingested horse meat without seeming to notice any difference in taste. It seems silly to get so bent out of shape because the meat of one animal turned out to be the meat of another. Barring cannibalism, all meat is fundamentally the same.
Vegetarians point at stories like this and proselytize their lifestyle, saying they don't have to worry about things like this happening to their food. While that's true, the more important considerations pertain to the origin of food, and the choices made when deciding which meat to eat. Everyone should be aware of what they eat. Omnivores should ask themselves why they draw lines between species. If they are willing to eat one, another should be just as good.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Shameful

Dear Sarah Vowell,

First of all, Sarah... big fan. Huge. I saw you speak in Cambridge at the release of Unfamiliar Fishes, and Assassination Vacation changed my life (or my travel plans, anyway). I am currently reading The Partly Cloudy Patriot. I realize it's one of your older collections, mostly by the essays focused on the 2000 election and the fallout of same. It's difficult to relive those dark days, but your humor provides the right amount of levity so I don't succumb to PTSD.

It's one of those essays that moved me to write. Dear Dead Congressman is a touching essay written to a congressman from your youth. I loved reading your story of developing your sense of civic pride. I too remember the thrill of my first election, the realization that elections happen every year and furthermore! The importance of those local elections. I had learned about the electoral college in high school and while I wished desperately that I could vote for Clinton in '92, I harbored no illusion that my single vote in a vast national sea would turn the tide (of course, he didn't need my help anyway). In the local elections though, that's where making it to the poll really counted. No year was this more clearly evidenced than in the off-cycle election in February, 1998 in Maine for the repeal of legislation banning gay discrimination. Really, let that marinate a minute. A special, single-issue vote was pushed through for the most bitter time of year in Maine with the single goal of taking rights away from people. It sounds ridiculous, which is why none of my friends voted. None. Even though every single person I knew or talked to casually was completely against this issue, it passed. Because people didn't vote. (Does it go without saying that I did?) As far as defining moments in a young girl's life goes, that one is a doozy. Up until then, I had voted out of duty. I got a thrill when I marked the ballot and proudly wore my sticker, but I voted because I knew I was supposed to. After February 10, 1998, I voted because I had to. I had seen what could happen if a citizen became lax.

And so things went until I moved to Boston two years ago. When I reached the end of your essay, the feelings of shame and embarrassment came flooding over me because you see, Sarah Vowell, I am about to tell you the most humiliating thing about me, something I don't think I've ever admitted out loud to anyone, choosing to instead change the subject or feign deafness... Sarah... I did not vote in my first election after moving to Massachusetts. But listen! At the very end of your essay, you ask, "what's easier than filling out a card with your address on it four weeks before the election?" This is in response to Nader's platform for election day voter registration. This is where the bloom came a little off the rose, Ms. Vowell, because you see, I am from a state that, while known to make egregious errors in judgment when it comes to human rights, allows its citizens to register to vote on election day. The very first time I voted, I signed up at the polls. Whenever I moved (which, as a young person, was often), all I had to do was show up at my new polling place and BAM! Registered and voted. This system made so much sense to me that I presumed it was the same nation-wide. I know I should have checked beforehand, and I'm not trying to make excuses for my lapse in civic duty (well, I guess I sort of am). I'm just saying that allowing people to register at the polls makes sense. First of all, voter turnout in this country is abysmal. Does anyone really believe that someone will try to vote twice? That kind of behavior is for budding democracies, not lazy old democracies like ours. Secondly, is it hard to complete a card four weeks before election? No, of course not. But how many people move districts in that window? How many are new to their states (ahem) and maybe have a lot going on (*cough*graduateschool*cough) in those fleeting few weeks? Sometimes it's all one can do to remember to carve out an hour on the first Tuesday in November, why should a potential voter be penalized for having a busy life?

The whole first election day that I couldn't vote, I walked around my new city under a cloud. I felt perhaps even more deeply shamed to be walking around Boston, a city steeped in history, where a person can hardly walk a block without stumbling upon a plaque commemorating brave souls who lost their lives to the revolution, the revolution freeing our country from the shackles of the monarchy, the revolution that culminated in the right to vote! (Let's ignore for a moment how long certain people had to wait to enjoy the same right, that's another letter for another time.) I felt like it was written across my forehead: Traitor! My facebook feed was full of people showing off their "I Voted!" stickers and arguing about issues. I felt left out. I felt unAmerican. If only Massachusetts allowed same day registration, I could have been spared.

Why should it be difficult to vote? I like what you say about suffrage, and that voting should cost something, be it time or gas or patience. But creating hoops to jump through makes voting seem an awful lot like a privilege, not a right. How many more people might be flexing their civic muscles if it were harder not to vote? What's the harm in making the process as simple as possible?

Thanks for listening and really, I love your work.
With love from your biggest fan,
Marlena

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Review: May We Be Forgiven

Fans of A.M. Homes expect crazy situations and 180 degree plot turns. Her stories and novels are populated with pedophiles, gay parents, parents who casually use drugs and commit arson. Despite these odd casts of characters, at heart her protagonists are suburbanites, the people next door who you wave to each morning on your way to work, scarcely wondering why they are still unshaven in their robes. The passing reference to Cheever in May We Be Forgiven elicits delight that yes, that's the answer to the nagging question: who do these men remind you of?
May We Be Forgiven takes place over a year, following Harold Silver's complete disintegration of his life and his clumsy rebuilding. So much insanity occurs in the first fifty pages of this novel, it's impossible to imagine what could be left of the story to tell. That's Homes' talent though. Silver's struggles to regain a sense of normal while cultivating a life that, for him, is decidedly anything but, eclipse murder and mayhem. Silver is confused, he constantly muses about what is right, along the way picking up a ragtag team of misfits and orphans. He befriends a woman in a supermarket and ends up ingratiating himself in her life. He meets a woman online for casual encounters and finds himself at dinner with her family, husband included. His brother is in a mental health facility, then an experimental prison, and despite his brother's cruelty toward him, Harold visits him and sends him gifts. He's not perfect (see the reference to adultery above), but he strives to be a good man.
The novel progresses at breakneck speed. Homes accomplishes this through the use of short passages and lack of chapters. Without those large breaks, there isn't any natural stopping point for the reader, and the text gives the impression of an absurdly long short story. The increased pace heightens the reader's sense of urgency throughout the narrative. Even during passages when Harold conducts Nixon research (his passion and vocation), the tight writing insures that even history-phobes will read along without complaint.

Written acrobatics aside, these are characters not soon forgotten. Remove the incredible situations and plot lines and the characters alone carry the story. Combining the two is what makes this a distinct A. M. Homes work, and what makes it a must-read.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Great Things about the City

I've been living in a city for awhile now (shut up, Big Apple, Boston counts), and most of the time I just long to return to my home state. There are days when I am so beaten down that I even wish I could return to my homeTOWN which, let me paint a picture: I lived in a tiny town where people had rural routes for addresses. We had a gas station (Cumby's), a post office, and a Dairy Queen (my first job and the source of endless fodder for stories). We also, at times, had a used bookstore, a carpet store, and a couple of junk stores (none so majestic as Dot's Good Deals). But I'm turning over a leaf for the big one-three. Here's to positivity! And there really are some wonderful things about living in a city.
1. It's pretty! Sure, you have to look beyond the sidewalks coated with gum and spit globs, past the stink of urine on every street, even past that crazy lady outside the train station with what appears to be cockroaches in her hair. Look past all that! In those rare moments when I'm at work after dark, way up on the 32nd floor (well, 31st, there isn't a 13th floor), those twinkly lights take my breath away. And even without the cloak of darkness hiding the dreck, you never know when you'll turn a corner and see an amazing piece of architecture, or a bright work of art, or even (honestly!) that first beautiful flower of the spring. You just have to look for it. Is it as breathtaking as the ocean off the coast of Maine? Not even close. But it'll do, for now.
2. There's always someone to talk to. You know how it is... you move to a new city, you don't know anyone... you make a few friends eventually but still most days it's just you and the Internet and the overwhelming urge for nachos that get you out of the house. Right? C'mon! I know I'm not alone! Anyway. I have had many and varied conversations with absolute strangers. Most are simple and short, just enough to give the old vocal chords a workout. But some stick with me, and I'm so glad I was just out and about, with some free time for a talk. There was an old lady who told me not to worry, I'd find true love (how did she know???); the man who had recently been given a trailer but waxed nostalgic about the good times he had living on the street; the old lady who critiqued my purchases in the checkout line and then told me her secret to long life (what can I say? I have a way with the elderly). I admit to often wearing blinders, disappearing into my iPod and avoiding eye contact with those people shilling for charities on the corners. But it's nice to know that when I'm craving a little human contact, it's there.
3. Food. Okay so, this is a double-edged sword. Of course it's impossible to walk an entire block without hitting a Starbucks AND a Dunkin' Donuts, but add to that myriad bagel shops, burrito joints, cupcake emporiums, indie coffee shops, ethic cuisine.... And therein lies the answer to how I managed to pack on more than thirty pounds in the first year I lived here. In a city, you can find absolutely any kind of food you want, and probably they deliver. But of course it can be a con too, if you can't remind yourself that the cupcakes will be there tomorrow.
Really.
Step away.
4. Public Transportation. Yeah, so I live by The MBTA Ruined My Life (SO TRUE), but I also haven't owned a car in over two years and don't miss it except when I go home. Yes, public transport takes more planning and more time, but shit! I can get wherever I need to go (even to nature!). And when the train won't suffice (say... after last call when the train has stopped running), there are abundant cabs. Anyone who's ever had to nurse a jalopy to health every couple months and always sweats annual inspection appreciates (fairly) reliable rides to and from work. Done.
5. Boredom be damned! People always say this, but it's true! You can always find something to do! Of course I'm a student so I have more free options (so... many... museums!), but on a lovely January (!) day recently I just hit the street. There are street performers everywhere (just this evening I heard a couple of beatboxers downtown), free tours of historical and/or significant landmarks, people watching opportunities... and if you're not a cheap bastard, there are always plays and shows and movies and musicians and on and on. Actually, this makes it a little frustrating that my Internet dates have all been so bland.

I don't know what my own future holds, if I'll find a job back home or here in Beantown or maybe even in the Big Apple (!), but until I can afford to have a little cottage on the shore (I'm picturing a Maine island... Vinalhaven? Monhegan?), I can get by in the city. At least I won't be bored.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: The Gypsy's Curse

Harry Crews is known for unusual characters, graphic violence and poor depictions of women, all of which appear in spades in The Gypsy's Curse. Also like the rest of Crews' work, the novel has heart. The characters are so grotesque as to be near caricature, but Crews avoids this by making them equally sympathetic, even when they're being mean.
The protagonist, Marvin Molar, has severely deformed legs and is a deaf/mute. Abandoned at a gym by his family when he is a toddler, he spends his life devoted to body building and gymnastics, earning his living performing balancing acts for events. Despite what could be viewed as major deficiencies, Marvin takes care of himself, second in command to the owner of the gym, Al Molarski. Two former boxers round out the ragtag team, both having suffered some brain damage in the ring. Marvin also has a girlfriend, Hester, who knows sign language owing to her deaf parents.
With a cast of characters like that it would be hard to write a book that wasn't interesting, but instead of simply rubbernecking and trying to shock, the core of the story is Marvin's feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. Written as a first person narrative, we are privy to Marvin's thoughts. He often refers to himself as "amazing" and "beautiful," but his insecurity in his relationship with Hester and his frequent thoughts about his parents belie those assertions. Marvin knows his strength, and concentrates on his body and skills rather than looking inside and confronting his fears. His life has been fine lived in this way until Hester decides she wants more.
When Hester ingratiates herself into the gym and becomes friendly with the rest of Marvin's team, Marvin is forced to confront the humanity in the people he has been sharing with since boyhood, and to consider the lives of people other than himself. He also begins to see Hester's parents in a different light, which gives him a chilling understanding of Hester. As most women in Harry Crews' novels are portrayed, Hester is manipulative and ruthless. Most of Marvin's insecurity in the relationship stems from Hester's great beauty and physique. Her ex-boyfriend appears in the book as well as an ordinary jackass, but Hester uses him to ratchet up the tension in the gym and in Marvin's mind.
In typical Crews fashion, violence features heavily in the narrative. Both in instances in the past (Al Molar used to perform acts of strength, which ended when a car accidentally ran over his head), and in the present. Crews uses violence to illustrate the difficult lives of the hopeless, the helpless, the freak. In The Gypsy's Curse, characters use or are subjected to violence largely because they have so much rage inside, they don't know how else to express themselves. At other times, as in the case of the boxers, one only knows how to follow orders and the other, after years of head trauma, repeats an endless loop of coaching. The two put into the ring together create one of the most dramatic scenes in the novel.
As situations continue to build to a head, the ending reaches a pitch where anything but an extreme act would be unexpected. It does seem at times that Crews is unable to write an ending that doesn't include graphic violence, but to be fair, the worlds he creates are not in any way the world in which most readers live. People exist in the world who see no other option besides murder and mayhem, and these are the people Crews has decided to illuminate. He gives reasons for the actions, which is more than we usually get in real life. Having finished this novel, the sadness of Crews' passing returns. A champion of the misfit, there is no one else quite like him.