Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Still Wild, for all your short fiction needs

This book caught my eye at the library last time, and I decided it would be an excellent book to use to test my credit limit as far as overdue fines go (I owed $6.75 and put $3 on it, and they let me take everything. So far, so good!). It is called Still Wild: Short Fiction of the American West 1950-present and was edited by Larry McMurtry. I knew a couple of the stories: "The Mexican Girl," an excerpt from Kerouac's On the Road, and of course E. Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain." I was familiar with several of the authors, like Louise Erdrich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Raymond Carver. A couple of the others, like Wallace Stegner and Richard Ford, sounded familiar to me, but I was unsure if I'd actually read anything by them.

Many others, though, were unknown to me, and I think that's one of the joys of these types of collections. Some of the unknowns I liked enough to remember their names and look for more (that's how I got into George Saunders). There were about 20 stories in the book, so I won't go through story by story, but just pick out a few noteworthy ones to talk about.

"Brokeback Mountain" is one I could probably forgo discussing. The movie was nominated for every Oscar on the planet, after all. I still haven't seen it, but I knew the story and was pissed that people made it into a joke. I read it again, and it really is a devastating story, beautiful and sad. Proulx always does an excellent job of breathing life into locales that are probably deadly dull and uninspiring to live in. She's always a treat to read, and "Brokeback Mountain" is no exception.

"Good Rockin' Tonight" by William Hauptman was just plain fun. It was about an Elvis impersonator, and the parallels between his life and that of the King, and I dare you not to like a story that has an Elvis impersonator in it!

Like the above, "True Romance" also riffs on tabloid themes and the American subconscious. It features Baby Mama Drama, La Chupacabra and UFO's. It was not as much fun, and more metaphorical, but still a good read.

More straightforward, realistic and gritty were Diana Ossana's "White Line Fever", Richard Ford's "Rock Springs" and Robert Boswell's "Glissando". All three are about (as my mother would say) "how the other half lives." They speak to broken hearts, broken lives, petty crime, cheap sex, lives lived in motel rooms and on the run from the law or from a bad man or from themselves. Each author manages to shy away from both moralizing and romanticizing their main figures. Ossana's heroine is an ordinary, lost girl. The father of Boswell's narrator, we're stunned to learn, is essentially a romantic at heart. Ford's narrator is relatively unsympathetic, even dull, until the last paragraph of his tale, when the meaning of the story falls into place.

"Mahatma Joe" by Rick Bass is a beautiful, dreamlike tale that celebrates peace and stasis and humble achievements. It's got to be a difficult thing to do in an engaging way, but Bass achieves it. I will definitely look for more from him.

I'm not sure why "Cul-de-sacs" by Mark-Jude Poirer was included in this collection. I liked the story a lot: it was very well-done and had a lovely metaphor at its heart (his main character lives with his wife and baby in a model home, in a subdivision that was never completed) but I wouldn't call it particularly Western. True, it was set in Tuscon, but the story would've worked in any suburban setting. Still, it was a good short story, with an excellent juxtaposition of familiar elements and odd details.

"The Pedersen Kid" by William H. Gass closes out the anthology. At over 60 pages, it barely qualifies as "short" fiction. A big WTF????? to this story. I have to confess, I didn't understand it at all. There seemed to be some subtext that I wasn't getting, and part of it seemed like a hallucination, or a dream, or a fantasy. All I could determine that definitely happened in the story is that the Pedersen kid appears frozen mostly to death on the farm where the narrator (also a kid) lives. Living on the farm with the kid are his drunken and abusive father, and a hired hand named Big Hans who doesn't seem much better. The Pedersen kid wakes up with a tall tale of someone coming to his house and threatening his family, and the narrator's family goes to check it out (I think). That marks the midpoint of the story, though. If anyone out there has read it and feels they get it, please comment!!!!

Update 9/2/07: The comments section of this post now contains spoilers for this story.

Overall, I give this one a high recommendation. Like me, I'm sure you'll read some of these stories and just scratch your head, but I do think there's probably something in here for just about everyone. In the introduction, McMurtry notes a shift away from the pulpy "Western" novels of the early to mid-20th century, towards something that demands more of the reader than a quarter and an afternoon. One of these stories will probably stay with you, in some way or another. This anthology is well worth your time. Try it. Maybe it'll get you through the Labor Day Blues.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Getting through The Worst Week

Well, it's here. My very least-favorite time of year. Worse than those crushing, depressing days between New Year's Day and Easter when the snow's turned black and the temperature has dropped and all the TV shows are reruns but no one will venture out and there's nothing to look forward to is this, the psychological final week of summer, culminating in the abysmally depressing Labor Day Weekend, when it seems as though everything's at an end, leaving only a void in its wake.

I hate this week. It conjures up the ghosts of childhood, when this was Back to School time, and your mother dragged you away from the pool and your books and into the mall, the hair salon and all of those other places only adults like. Weather-wise, things begin to turn about now. Around here, it happened last weekend. I knew the second I woke up last Saturday that summer was drawing to a close. From now on, you'd want to keep a sweatshirt in your car, you'd want to dig your sturdy jeans out from under all those flimsy tank tops, and you'd want to make sure there was a second blanket on the bed. For the rest of the week, it hovered around 90% humidity, with the temperatures in the sixties, making it chilly and oppressive at the same time.

And everything will end soon. Amusement parks and other summer businesses will close, and other places (including the one I work at) will switch to reduced fall hours. Eight years ago this week, I had my first kiss with the ex I wrote about last month. Seven years ago this week, he left me. Three years ago, the professor I wrote about (who inspired me to stop wasting my time on bad books) was killed in a car crash around this time of year. September 11th is a date that will live in infamy for many in my own generation. Even without all of that, I'm convinced that no one actually likes Labor Day.

So let me ask you all, what do you do in order to get through this time of year? Personally, I wish I could just go to sleep right now and wake up in two weeks. And believe it or not, I actually had a GOOD weekend this week...imagine if my trip to see the BF had not gone well.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

An afternoon with my friend Anne

I first encountered Anne Lamott in a writing class in college, where my professor had assigned us Bird by Bird, her book on writing. Since then, I've read one of her novels, Blue Shoe and her books on religion: Traveling Mercies,Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith and, just yesterday, the one BF bought me for my birthday, Grace, Eventually.

To me, her books have become as enjoyable for her insights and sense of humor as for the chance just to see what's up with her. It's like hanging out with an old friend: How's your son Sam doing? How's your pastor Veronica? And what have you been doing since we saw each other last? (I'm not going to tell you how Sam and Veronica are doing; you go get caught up yourself!)

I visit a blog that is occasionally about atheism, and I've been struck that many of those who comment on the blog seem to object less to the idea of God than to the things that have been done in his name. Even if you don't take the long view, the increasing right-wing Christian intolerance of the past 15 years is enough to turn any reasonable person off of religion forever. But it's OK. Anne Lamott writes for what seems to be a dying breed, but judging from the success of her books is probably more like a silent majority. She writes for what I call the "real" Christians: people who live their faith instead of just preaching it, who focus on the loving and healing aspects of religion instead of the judging ones, and are more interested in going to heaven rather than merely avoiding hell. She writes for the ones who oppose war and poverty, and who reach out (as she herself has done) to those in prison, to the elderly, to the developmentally disabled, to others in need of help.

She also writes for the Christians who aren't perfect. Anne Lamott herself has a colorful past, and although she's sobered up, she still has a colorful present. You probably won't see this many swear words in most books in religion, for instance, even those that print lists of words you're not supposed to say or even think. She is very real with her readers. She talks about the times she's given in to the most petty emotions humans feel, and times when she's strayed badly from her path, and how faith has helped her through these times.

She's not preachy or judgmental, she's just kind of saying: "This has worked for me, this is how I personally get through the tough times and through daily life, this is how I've found meaning in my life." These books do belong in the "Inspiration" section, in the truest sense of that word. They always inspire me to do something, whether it's become more active in my community, or to find a new outlook on life. Try one, and let me know if they inspire you too.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Bit Player in Her Own Tale

As I promised to do earlier in the week, I finished Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir, just a half-hour ago. (I still think An Innocent Traitor would've been a better title, but whatever). This book is a novel of Lady Jane Grey, the "nine days' queen" who ruled very briefly between Edward VI (son of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour) and Mary I (daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon).

If you're already feeling as though you need a chart to keep all of this shit straight, don't worry. Weir has thoughtfully provided one, along with a map. There are many, many minor players in the story, though, and their relationships to one another and to the main royal line are a little more difficult to keep straight.

The story is a tragic and dramatic tale of ambition, ego and religious intolerance. Jane Grey was the (protestant) niece of Henry VIII, and all ambitions and scheming came to center on her as the young king sickened and lingered near death. The plot required the imprisonment of Mary I (a Catholic) and Elizabeth I (who hadn't really declared a religion), and for Jane's mother to renounce her claim to the throne. Well, it worked for nine days, at any rate. Yet Jane herself remained disinterested in all scheming: all she wanted was to pray and to read. She was but 15 when she came to the throne. She was executed shortly after her 16th birthday, when her father rashly attempted one last power grab in her name, but really on his own behalf.

This is Weir's first attempt at a novel. Most readers will probably recognize her name: she's written ten other books on the Tudor period. I'm interested to read more and to learn where the line between conjecture and fact lies in this novel. The tale of Lady Jane Grey is a riveting one, and is no less riveting for being somewhat poorly told here. Weir breaks the rule drummed into every creative writing student: show, don't tell. We don't see Lady Jane Grey's mother being cruel to her nearly as often as we hear Lady Jane Grey say "My mother is cruel to me." We don't see as many examples of the kindness of Katherine Parr (the last wife of Henry VIII) as we hear how kind she is. Although the story is told in the first person from a variety of points of view (Lady Jane Grey, her nursemaid Mrs. Ellen, her mother Frances Brandon, Katherine Parr, the Duke of Northumberland, etc.), they all sound the same. We have only the blanket pronouncements of others to judge how different they are from one another.

I never did finish my colonial reading thing this summer, but one bit of information I'd already gleaned from it is the fundamental change in values and beliefs going on during that time. The colonial lifestyle represented freedom in the truest sense, freedom from absolute rule by God and by King, and by the wishes of your family. No longer did you have to wait for your father to die to inherit a scrap of land, to go into whatever trade your father chose and your rank dictated, to marry some woman you may have never met before and wouldn't have slept with on a dare just because both of your families deemed it advantageous. You didn't have to worry about being executed for believing that the body and blood of Christ at a mass remained mere wine and bread (as happened to a woman in Innocent Traitor) or even for saying "I think the King may be dying." This book was set during the "before" part of that transformation, and I would've liked to see a real attempt at getting into that mindset. Lady Jane, and most of the rest of the characters, attempted to defy their fates. But there must've been enough compliant people to perpetuate the system. Where are they, in literature or in history? Or did they never exist, do they just look compliant from our long view? Innocent Traitor leaves the reader with these questions, and it will stoke a desire to learn more about this period. Not bad for a not-very-good novel.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

No time for fun, dammit!

If you're wondering why I haven't posted in over a week, it's because I haven't finished anything new. I've done virtually nothing but work, dammit! It sucks. But I'm popping on to share some of the book-related news in my own life:

Dedication sucked. Big surprise, right? I read the first three chapters and decided that it wasn't worth my time. Already, I could tell it would be plagued by the same problems as Citizen Girl: an underdeveloped/unsympathetic main character; failing to strike on the right side of the fine line of getting your readers to laugh with, rather than at, your character's mistakes; a lame plot that is neither believable nor an enjoyable fantasy. So I chucked it.

Currently reading Innocent Traitor, which turned out to actually be a novel, not a non-fiction book someone misplaced. More on this later.

Over the weekend, my BF visited. It was a very quick visit, and we didn't get to spend much quality time, but we did hit Barnes and Noble briefly. He wanted to get some reading for the train (he chose Last of the Mohicans, a surprise to me) but he also got me a book for my birthday, in addition to the nice planner and fancy pen he'd already given me. I had several in my hand, but he chose Grace Eventually by Anne Lamott. I've been wanting to read it for a long time. Maybe one day I'll get to. For now, it's shower time, and maybe some more of Innocent Traitor later. Back with more soon. Until then, good night...and good luck.

Saturday, August 4, 2007


I had two books due on my last library visit, both unread. I returned Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but something told me to keep Little Children by Tom Perrotta. I'm glad I did. I just finished it tonight.

Little Children is a very well-written book. I didn't realize that he was also the author of Election and Joe College. Based on this book, I'll definitely be checking out the others.

The book, which was recently made into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Kate Winslet (choices which I wholeheartedly support after reading the book), is set in a suburban Massachusetts town and documents the long, hot summer in the lives of several people in their early 30s. Sarah is a former women's studies major, former Starbucks employee and ABD who is surprised to find herself the stay-at-home mother of a three-year-old. Her husband, Richard, is much older than she is and is on his second marriage but prefers the company of his favorite webmistress, Slutty Kay, to his wife and daughter. Todd is a stay-at-home dad who is attempting to pass the bar exam on his third try. His secret is that he hasn't studied for months and doesn't want to be a lawyer anymore. His wife, Kathy, is a documentary filmmaker for PBS, but their financial issues, plus Todd's lack of motivation, is creating some serious strain on their marriage. Sarah and Todd meet at the playground, and begin an affair.

Mirroring their stories are that of Larry and Ronald, each a poignant reminder that there is always someone worse off than you. Larry had been a cop until he shot a teenager who was pointing what proved to be a toy gun at him. Now, he's retired due to PTSD stemming from the incident, and his marriage is disintegrating too. The presence of convicted child molester and all-around loser Ronald in the community has given Larry a frightening degree of focus: he devotes most of his time to driving by the house Ronald lives in with his aging mother and honking the horn, passing out fliers warning others about Ronald, spraying graffiti on the house, and leaving the occasional flaming bag of dog shit on the porch. Ronald is deeply depressed, after failing to find a job, being shunned by everyone but his mother, going on a disastrous date with a woman close to his own age, and fighting off his sexual proclivity towards younger children.

The story doesn't exactly end the way you hope, but by giving you a glimpse into each character's psyche, Perrotta manages to transform each one into a sympathetic person, shaped by circumstances larger than themselves. Even caricature supermom Mary Ann, in the final pages of the book, shocks readers by turning into a real person, bewildered at where she wound up, unhappy to be so far away from what she'd always imagined. In the end, that's what the book's all about: not choice, but the lack thereof, the way life makes its own plans and all you can do is bob along. Yet, for all of that, it's not a depressing book. The early pages, in particular, actually made me laugh out loud. I give this one a high recommendation. It's the perfect mix of seriousness and fun, exactly what you want as the weather's still nice but the end of the summer is beginning to close in.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Current library haul, and goodbye to some old friends

It's amazing how many books you can accumulate. My father is a retired history teacher, my mother is a retired English teacher and elementary writing aide, and my sister is working on her PhD in children's lit, so you can imagine the amount of books we have. Tonight, I took two boxes of books that have repeatedly failed to sell at garage sales to our local library. They have a used bookstore, with the proceeds benefiting the library, so I hope they sell there. We have about six more boxes out in the garage, so they'll see us again soon.

I looked around a bit tonight, after finally admitting that I'm not going to read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, at least not right now. I did renew Little Children and picked up the following:

Goodnight Nobody, Michael Knight
Lit Life, Kurt Wenzel
Innocent Traitor, Alison Weir
Dedication, Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

All but Lit Life are new books, so we'll see how many I actually finish before they're due. If past experience with McLaughlin and Kraus holds true, Dedication at least should be an extremely quick read. Goodnight, Nobody isn't very long either, and is all short stories. But I've never been able to stop myself in libraries. Perhaps there's a bit of the feeling that all these books are free, and it's too good to be true, and the whole thing may be gone when I come back so I'd better take advantage. I generally wind up getting as many as I can carry out!

Harry Potter Retrospective

Lately, I've been re-reading all the Harry Potter books. They always make me feel better when I'm feeling shitty. I'm going to write to JK Rowling and tell her that someday. Harry is kind of an inspiring character. He is in many situations where he's forced to do an impossible task with little support, and always manages to keep going. In the fourth book, for instance: he's forced to compete far above his level in the Triwizard tournament, and everyone just wants to see him fail. He's suffered many losses and grew up starved for love, but it never makes him bitter or hateful. And I think I've mentioned before, in those dark days when my ex dumped me and my job ran out of money to pay me and my cat was dying and it just seemed like everything sucked, how I pulled through by reading the scene from the end of Azkaban, with the dementors, over and over again, and actually using a similar method (I mean, without the magic) to fight my own growing depression.

But really, I was also hoping that there would be tidbits scattered throughout the series that could be viewed differently in light of the last book. 1/4 of the way into HP6, I'm disappointed to say that I haven't found many yet. Two so far:

At the beginning of HP5, Harry and Dudley are attacked by dementors. Aunt Petunia astonishes everyone by demonstrating knowledge of dementors, and their position as prison guards at Azkaban. She elaborates that she heard that horrible boy telling her about it years ago. Harry (and the readers) assumed the horrible boy was James. It was actually Snape: when Harry looks into the Pensieve, one of the memories he views is a pre-Hogwarts conversation between Snape and Lily on this topic.

The Vanishing Cabinet, which allows the Death Eaters entry to Hogwarts in HP6, makes a throwaway appearance in HP2: Peeves smashes it at the request of Nearly Headless Nick, to distract Filch's attention from punishing Harry.

Do you have any?