Wednesday, December 30, 2009

"I Return," by Mark Brazaitis

The beginning of the third paragraph reads, “So I was dead.” Usually, I’d stop reading at this point. However, the opening paragraphs of the story offered a challenge I was willing to go along with: “…if I died young…I would return to earth as a ghost to look after my wife and children.” There is a wonderful balance in the writing here between fantasy and the real world, and so in the best of the tradition we are lead to believe in the possibilities. What this protagonist realizes about himself, along with humor, disappointment, and compassion, is surprising with a bit of grace tossed in. For an entertaining fantasy and strong story imagery that lingers after reading, click here for Cimarron Review.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"All There Was To Say," by Peter Syverson

Sometimes the truth of life is too hard to bear and admit, and we tell ourselves variations that protect us from the hardness of experience. Some might accuse us of falling into the trap of lies. But for a brief moment, the variations allow us to move on in life and may provide some motivation for writing fiction. The protagonist in this story at one point compares himself to the ex-lover of his girl friend and concludes, “All of that truth we all think about but never admit to. It is better that way.” While focusing on the actions of his girlfriend of one month, he indirectly reveals who he is. I love the use of the detail of the half-peeled orange, like torn flesh, which is at the core of this story. What’s intriguing is what the reader is left with; the need to re-read the story and see if this guy is who he appears to be. If you like delicious ambivalence turn here to Our Stories.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

If you like a well-written ghost story, The Little Stranger might be your cup o’ tea. All the familiar elements are in play here: the ruined mansion, hints of hereditary insanity, emotional extremes, ghost/demons/poltergeists, imagination versus fantasy. The genre is woven into the setting of England in the late 1940’s just after the war. So we have a relatively recent historical period with modern sensibilities but with characters who can’t quite accept the rapid changes in society. The real charm of the novel rests with Waters’ portrayal of the once magnificent mansion, Hundreds Hall, as metaphorical evidence of the psychologically deteriorating lives of its owners. I could have done with fewer ghost sightings and rumblings but in spite of that I enjoyed this view of England from the historical and social slant. If you take the first sip, I’ll bet you’ll swallow the whole cup.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

"Look At This For Me," by Catherine Uroff

At one point in my life I had read that a right-angled slant in writing meant that one was spineless and desired social acceptance while a slant to the left indicated an independent thinker and someone who shunned social pressure. Needless to say, I wanted to forged an image of myself that I was afraid did not exist. This story takes an imaginative angle on handwriting analysis. I like the way the story unfolds a set of seemingly random details that are in fact tightly woven to reveal the protagonist. There’s a satisfactory balance here between inner and outer story, and the ending pays off well. Read it here in Foundling Review.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Master by Colm Toibin

I grew up in Newport and Portsmouth, Rhode Island, places where Henry James lived and walked a century earlier during the Civil War. It puts my native place in a larger context. Perhaps I have a particular affinity for James’ work that I wouldn’t have without this proximity in common. Toibin’s novel is a wonderful mixture of James the boy and man; James the writer and artist. I never felt that Toibin tried to craft a message that this is the definitive portrait of James. The writing maintains a just distance from the protagonist that allows the reader to make inferences about the man and his work. Certainly, there are moments when direct parallels are drawn between characters in his life and characters in his novels. His relationship with his siblings, his cousin Minnie Temple, and his jealousy of Oscar Wilde find a way in his writing. But Toibin does not do this in a way that reduces James’ fiction to merely elaborated real life experiences. In fact, Toibin’s novel offers a close focus on a very complex boy and sensitive man; one who surmised that women enjoyed his company more than men, one whose compassion for infected and sick Civil War soldiers aroused within him a sense of guilt and the disparity between them as he was soon to enter Harvard University to pursue law. This novel is a deeply imagined work that flows with ease and yet hints at James’ restrained prose. The emotional nuance that James translated so well in his art is turned on the man himself, the angles and turns of the prism through which he experienced life. I am familiar with Toibin’s short stories, not his novels. I recall a more muscular approach to writing found in his stories than found in this novel, which clearly speaks to the range of Toibin’s art. Revisit the world of Henry James with Colm Toibin.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Son Salutation," by Brittany Fonte

This is a surprising piece in the way that the narrator’s life is revealed through her yoga practice. At first reading, I perceived a risk in writing this piece because yoga is so pervasive and open for criticism of a sarcastic nature, and thus discourage potential readers. But the story draws in the reader and takes the reader on a much riskier journey than yoga. I don’t want to say too much because there is a kind of surprise or twist in the story that is for the reader to experience first hand. The line: “There are rules in yoga class, as in life,” resonates with both the inner and outer story here. Take the risk and read the story here in Wrong Tree Review.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Office at Night," by Pamela Painter

Pamela Painter has turned to another painter, Edward Hopper, for narrative inspiration. The well-known illustration from which she takes her story’s title, conveniently thumb-nailed on the site, serves as the source of imagination for her story world. Hopper’s super realist style coupled with Painter’s equally masterful locus of details enriches the reader’s visual experience layered with the verbal. Hopper’s painting seems so long ago and yet we are curious still about the people and how they connect. Painter takes us along with her: “What word, in 1940, would have been used to describe those rounded globes beneath the stretch, from rounded hip to hip, of her blue dress?” Think of this story as a virtual visit to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where this painting resides. Read it here in Smokelong Quarterly.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

"Atlantic Retreat," by Stephen Busby

This is a mythic story. After Joseph Campbell there was a flourish of these and many failed to offer more than the old tales. But here I find the veiled references to the River Styx, the ferry transports, the coins, and the marshy bog deepen the character’s plunge toward testing and self-evaluation. Also, as part of my enjoyment of the story, I have weathered a storm on the Atlantic island of Ocracoke during the off-tourist season in November, and this character’s experience rings with truth. Enduring one of his challenges, lyricism buoys his spirit and moves the story with rhythm: “I’m slipping more on the steep rubble-ground but won’t stop now—what are you equipped for—what are you going to do—I go on hauling myself upwards: this is what I do, there is only this, as I slip and slide and grip onto rocks and pull and pant to go on climbing; … .” To feel the existential experience of grief and loneliness that straddle realism and mythology turn here in R.KV.R.Y.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"Two Years," by Tim Johnston

The back-story here centers on a child kidnapping, a context that taps into contemporary fears in this country, and the mountain setting suggests the West. This is a dark tale whose gift is the portrait of a character experiencing loss and feeling powerless against an indifferent landscape. The style evokes harsh realism reminiscent of a Cormac McCarthy story. Here’s an example of the lyrical tone and the prevailing motif of ‘watching’: “He checked again with the road, and again looked out over the gorge . . . all the way down the pass like this, looking, looking, until at last he reached the small resort town that lay in the narrow mountain valley like a tongue in the mouth of a wolf.” The novelistic scope succeeds through scenes that are exquisitely chosen to develop the reader’s empathy for the main character. Read it here in Narrative Magazine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Summit," by Ravi Mangla

Here’s an unusual way to meet in a bookstore if you’re not afraid of heights. Mangla leaves this reader feeling almost giddy and airborne, wishing only the best for this couple and what they give to each other. Read it here in Pank.

Friday, November 13, 2009

At the Jim Bridger, by Ron Carlson

This is my first reading of a collection of stories by Carlson. He brings the reader right into the room with clean details and an invitation to listen to the characters. In the first story, “Towel Season,” Carlson renders with compassion a mathematician who wanders through the maze of suburban families and pool parties while at the same time noodling his latest equations in his mind: “The chasm between his pencil figurings and the figures of the real world was that, a chasm, and there was no bridge.” But the way he finds himself to a bridge is surprising and satisfying to the reader. In fact, most of these stories find us looking deep into the lives of regular people who when they are cast into a moment of disorientation must find a way out. None of these stories are predictable in their characters or endings and their precise realism lulls us into safe territory where this writer mines the riches of life.

Friday, November 6, 2009

"The Night That Gail Left Early," Jeff Clinkenbeard

In this age of smart phones, we are instantly and almost continuously in communication with one another. Except for that moment in the hot zone when you hear the person on the other end whine, ‘oh, I think I’m losing you.’ And you know the rest. But in this story there is another twist to the unreliable cell phone connection, the mobility it affords you and the freedom to roam where you please, undetected. Read it here at Anderbo.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"What I Know," by Kathleen Thomas

Through portraiture, this very short story opens up a range of questions and feelings. I like the use of particulars and the strong images they evoke: “I know she hated that job, the blue smock she ironed each morning and then wore for long hours each shift stocking shelves, checking out customers.” There’s a melancholy tone given just right in the voice of a child looking back. The writing straddles the language of poetry and the narrative of short story. Read it here in Apple Valley Review.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Saint Vera," by Barry Jay Kaplan

An unusual use of language and omniscient viewpoint taps into the reader’s familiarity with stories of those who survived the horrors of World War II. Beauty and death, the power of story and how it is passed on to others, are all at the center. And then the drama of the story shifts to the first person narrator’s impressions of an older woman, once beautiful as evidenced by photographs of her. Appreciating her art in pictures and her life story, the narrator is deeply touched by her present circumstances and physical appearance. The end of the story leaves us with this narrator in shock and speaks to the mystery and power of art. Read it here in Prick of the Spindle.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"The Accident," by Allan Reeder

This is a story written around the mysteries of memory. The writing is energetic, dense, and addresses the reader directly with deft phrasing that the writer effortlessly uses to cross present, past and future time. Entertaining as well as poignantly truthful, this story captures a series of events in the life a girl and later young woman. For a fast paced story that does not go limp in the middle go here to memorious.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Our Children Would Not Kill Us," by Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

You might relate to the frustration of a writer waiting out that period of acceptance or rejection. For diversion, this character decides to immerse herself in her son’s ice hockey game. Who as a parent has not felt the following when their kid’s team scores: “The crowd swooned with pride, with joy, with communal familial love. Our children would not kill us, our children would make us better.” The significance of her manuscript pales in comparison to the almost religious fervor felt over the game, the power of the ice-making machine, and the guy who drives it. The believable moments of sustained humor are worth the read here at joyland.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"To Be Happy," by Sean Lovelace

What is happiness? It’s an old question pursued from many angels but without a neat and tidy form. Can a fresh harvest of apples make you happy? Perhaps we don’t allow ourselves enough leverage in acting out what truly makes us happy. Perhaps there is an alchemist in all of us transforming what we have at hand into something lost, gone, or intangible. Read some attempts to harvest happiness here in juked. You might surprise yourself and give one or two a try.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"See You Later, Can I Have Some Please?" by David Erlewine

It’s not easy to write a voice with convincing hatred and bitterness. Grief over his mother’s death does not interfere with this character’s appetite for cheeseburgers and beer. We listen but we’re skeptical. We doubt the validity of the details of his mother’s rape. What holds our attention is the shape of the narrative. The voice compels us to complete the picture of this inimitable and uncomfortable character. For a Halloween treat of disturbing psychology get your fill here at thieves jargon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Train Time," by Aaron Burch

The story begins, "I took the train because it might be fun." And, the story ends, "It was dark out and we were between stops, in the middle of nowhere. I jumped off, started walking." Between these two points the reader glides over the rails with the protagonist whose rich mind traverses his past, his future, and the what-ifs of his life. I loved the moment when he feigns sleep to observe a woman who sits next to him during the night. Nothing is resolved, just a chance to go along for the ride here in featherproof books. If you want a storybook, pocket sized, to carry along just follow the nifty print and fold instructions on the website.

"Foreigner in a Straight Land," by J. Adams Oaks

Recently, my computer landed behind the Genius Bar for repairs. Serendipitously, I came across a terrific site, which posts daily stories for your phone. I scrolled through this coming-of-age story and was enamored with the voice of the protagonist, gullible-sounding and full of integrity. He's an American student studying in Madrid who knows that he is gay but lacks the confidence to come out in his native land. He asks such questions as 'how will I know' and eventually he finds the real test and answer, and you will be cheering him along. It's a wonderful piece and appears in expanded form as J. Adams Oaks' recent novel, Why I Fight. Check out not here but on your smart phone and curl up with a good read in the palm of your hand.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Black Holes," by Nina Schuyler

A wonderful vignette that captures a moment of tension for a physicist that the reader intuits is fundamental to his life. And I suspect this is not uncommon for those whose minds are enraptured with the esoteric world of particle physics. But in this story, the dilemma unfolds with rich language that opens up the reader’s empathy for him. He thinks a possible solution to his problem might involve “magnetic separation.” Later, he recalls an earlier time with his wife when her eyes “caught his … a magnetic force not flowing clockwise or counter clockwise, but straight at him.” Read it here in Big Ugly Review. For an added treat, you can also hear the writer tell the story.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

"Three Cigarette Stories," by Pia Erhardt

The common object of a cigarette provides a nice way of tying together these three stories. The first story explores peaks and valleys of mother daughter tenderness and wounds. In the second story, a mother’s wounds inflicted by her children have little hope for healing: “When did she lose the voice they trusted? The one that said I know how to care for you.” The final story has a haunting inner story involving a 16-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother. She and her stepfather grieve in their awkward ways, but watching private moments of a stranger, a woman, live on her computer monitor, captivates the girl. This vivid trio suggests a parallel in visual art; walking by a triptych of individual panels that come together in a larger panorama. Read the triple feature here at Fictionaut.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

"Piercings," by Dean Marshall Tuck

The opening line of this story spins out a character who’s lonely but still has a sense of humor. He wants to spark a relationship with the girl in the front office who takes the rent checks. Her smile catches him off guard but it’s her facial piercings that illuminate more about him than her. At first pass, the story portrays this shy guy who imagines himself beginning to score with her. But the story provides a fuller picture when we see his family through his eyes, a family most readers would describe as predictably conservative. It’s the full story that surfaces after the first read and blooms in the reader’s mind of a character more familiar with feelings of shame than emotional connection. Read it here in Night Train.

Monday, September 28, 2009

"Unsealing the Tomb," by John Michael Cummings

Some of the most compelling stories engage our empathy for a character who must either break from family or suffer integrity. The urgency of this story is made richer with a deep sense of place and history, the South and fears surrounding racism. To get your reading quota of delight and surprise offered by this wonderful writer, click here and be transported to Stickman Review.

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Date Blind," by Hal Ackerman

When you’re middle aged and lonely, one of the ways to connect with someone is through the personal ads. They take all forms, some more sophisticated matchmakers than others, but they continue to exist because they serve a need. I like the way this story unfolds the character. He does more thinking than living. Maybe you know someone like that. The language is clever, at times funny, and sad. The title fits the story like a glove. Read it here at Storyglossia.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Winter Husband," by Jean Thompson

It’s winter where the snow and ice linger for months. I know the feelling. I’ve lived there and spent many a day on my backside because the sidewalks are perpetually covered in ice. Jerry’s crumbling marriage is captured in the image of “sparrows energetically going at a space of exposed dirt.” He tries to move beyond an affair that both his wife and kids know about, he offers to get groceries for his wife who’d rather build a dollhouse than leave her house, and he attempts to engage with his teenage son while shoveling driveway snow. In Jean Thompson fashion, the reader experiences a range of deeply felt emotions from despair, contempt, sadness, love and fulfillment. The story moves effortlessly between past and present, and the ending offers a moment of grace for this despondent character. For a glimpse at middle America, read it here in Five Chapters.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"Bridges," by Jennifer Andrews

Who’s to say what forces carry us through life’s confusions, how we are buffeted against brutality; how some are carried over and how some fall down? It’s a fascinating question that fuels many stories. In this creative non-fiction piece, bridges work to capture moments of change, transitions from point A to point B, from entry to exit. It is quite effective the way this writer suspends time on one bridge crossing during a battle with her troubled sister. In this moment, past and future are telescoped by the narrator’s urgent observation: “Five minutes and she couldn’t wait.” Read it here in Pank.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

"Banyan," by Molly Giles

A ménage a trois is offered up with unexpected ambiguity and unresolved feelings. It’s a story about complex emotions, which in life may scare us and cause us to turn the other way. Mothers may find themselves in embarrassing situations with their teenage daughters whose perceptions may play very differently. Men may act in ways they do not see as sexually suggestive. Teenagers may find themselves longing to grow up but find themselves clinging to stuffed animals for comfort. On a trip to Hawaii, in hopes of rekindling her love relationship, this protagonist finds herself feeling trapped with her family. One beguiling image involves snorkeling and following a woman in a black one-piece suit in the shallow waters inhabited by fish and coral. Read it here in Cimarron Review.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Last Call" by Richard Larsen

This story begins with a reference to Bristol Palin's campaign appearance on television and unravels this narrator’s obsession with being caught between two places, like being stuck with fear on a bridge. What this narrator has to say about identity and love is astounding, especially young love and passion and confusion. In the best of stories, we look for tension along the lines of what is and what if, love and hate. What is at work here is a remarkable tension between the narrator’s gender, the honesty of love and existential identity, together with the structural device of the broken paragraph. The physical structure enhances the emotional truth of this story, masterful evidence of how a story can be organic. Read it here in Eclectica.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"The Visitor," by Daniel Alarcon

Maybe after recently reading about a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, I am sensitive about tales of survival and natural disaster. This one especially caught me by the unfolding tenderness of the father’s voice. After a landslide, he and three children survive on a crest of a cemetery where the newborn has been buried. The mother had stayed in the village and dies there under the mud. Aid packages drop from parachutes. A stranger arrives with news of the death tallies from various regions. The specific location is not mentioned. The facts of the story pale in contrast to the unfolding details of emotion, memory and sadness. The father at times seems without bearings and time alone seems timeless. This is what he recalls asking his children. “Sometimes I asked, ‘Do you remember where we used to live?’ and their blank stares told me they hadn’t understood my question. I envied them and their youthful amnesia. Under the sweep of mountain sky, I felt alone.” Such elements of time and memory shimmer throughout this story. Read it here at Big Ugly Review.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I read a lot of fiction and I often chastise myself for not reading more non-fiction. Recently I decided to pick up a copy of Dave Eggers’ book that documents one family who survived Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans 2005. Eggers references Washington’s fear of terrorists possibly overcoming the city in the aftermath of the hurricane. But what surprisingly comes out of this story is less about social profiling of Islamic terrorists, and a whole lot about ‘the enemy is us.’ Abdulrahaman Zeitoun was born in Syria, a Muslim and a U.S. citizen, a well-respected contractor, and a rental property owner in New Orleans with a family. His journey of heroism to stay in the city during the hurricane in order to oversee his property and to help those left behind, people as well as animals, is counterbalanced by the absurd, mindless, heartless bureaucrats we usually associate with monolithic governments. Zeitoun’s wife Kathy and children leave the city. Sections of the book alternate her perspective with Zeitoun’s and deepen our empathy with the personal tragedy that this family experiences. Always keeping the reader immersed in the urgency of the hurricane and its aftermath, Eggers’ writing straddles the larger history of the Zeitoun family, across time and countries. It is a fascinating piece of writing. And it is journalism at its best, a cautionary tale about our democracy committed to protecting the rights of citizens, which in fact turns out to be a government more in tune with incarcerating prisoners than helping decent citizens trapped in the flood of New Orleans without food, water, medical help, and decent shelter. Thanks to the Zeitoun family’s survival, Zeitoun’s passion for building and generosity, and Dave Eggers’ journalism, we have a clear picture of how our government can fail its people. The strength of one large family can overcome adversity but not without a lot of pain and indignity. If one message of this book is clear it is that it is incumbent on all citizens to be vigilant and hold those in authority to be accountable.

"Touch Me," by Ronder Thomas Young

I like the way this story spools out the threads of a young man’s life. It’s all here in about 4,000 words; family, friends, brother-sister relationship, sexual exploits, death and marriage. There’s a chronology here that underlies the structure but the surface level of story closely resembles the way we experience our lives. The writing illuminates fluidity of past, present and future. Through the masterly use of dialogue, we are invited into a story that defies the factual march of time. Enjoy the story here at storySouth.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Senseless Acts," by Ethel Rohan

Loneliness coupled with imagination can motivate what may seem like odd behavior but speaks truth to our inner ear. Fear of being seen for who we are can paralyze an attempt to connect with others. Or, we may feel unnoticed. We may find ourselves walking toward another person wearing the same sweater we are which was once hanging in the J Crew catalog. One of the age-old existential dilemmas is that it takes someone else to ‘see’ us, to validate our existence. But rarely do we commit acts to connect and be connected is such a meaningful way. Try this brief sad story on for size. The language leaves the reader pondering the meaning of senseless acts. Read it here in kill author.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"Renters," by David Manning

It’s not easy capturing the compassionate observant voice of the child one used to be. But in Manning's story, the narrator does just that with perfect pitch and lyricism. It’s a story about foreclosure and might ring true with some of today’s readers. The details are exact, the narrative distance between boy and man is in balance, and what comes together by story’s end is the knitting of experience with insight tinged with irony. I like this particular image: “… the roof, which I remember was dun-colored with speckles of mica in the shingles that glittered like polished dimes when the sun was high.” Enjoy the read here at Anderbo.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Bearings," by Margo McCall

The title for this story is just right. Landscape and setting work to highlight character. “Bearings” in any marriage can mean two different things to partners drawn to each other. Joe and Maricella come from very different backgrounds. She is drawn to Joe, a man very unlike her ‘saintly’ father, and is intent on a domestic life. Joe admits to being afraid of fatherhood and finds his soul by leaving and exploring the back roads, mountains, and desert landscape doted with juniper. This story lends credibility to the old truism of opposites attract. Can they be part of the same living structure, roots and branches? Read it here at Wazee.

Friday, August 21, 2009

"First to Go," by Constance Squires

This November 9 will be the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had been in Berlin before and after the fall. Americans, including myself, have complicated myths about Germans and Nazis. This story taps into our mutual and complex history and values. The culture of Nazis and punk rockers delivered by Constance Squires is captured with graphic plot and characters. It is a good read begging for more. In fact, this reader wonders if there might be a novel in the making given the sweep of character history alluded to in the story. The topic is timely, readers will be prompted to ask questions regarding social ethics, and the story is available here at Identity Theory.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Playground Story," by Kevin Spaide

This narrator delivers a great sense of menace from the beginning, “I get vertigo if I stray near the window.” He doesn’t speak the native language where he lives which heightens his fear of speaking with others in the presence of his toddler son. A girl wearing “outer-space insectoid quality” sunglasses blocks his son from the playground slide. There are many funny moments that lighten this narrator’s frustrations. By the end, a tender moment with his wife lifts this story to the uniquely complex tangle of life. Read it here in FRIGG.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Washed Away," by Michael Croley

Last December 2008, the news was filled with a story from Kingston, Tennessee when a dike burst from a holding pond of a coal fired power plant. The result was a devastating release of 3 million cubic yards of coal ash containing arsenic and lead. In this story a similar devastation of land and life occurs with the added fuel of a young marriage entering the territory of relationship erosion. What I like about the young wife, a Korean woman straddling two cultures as well as her relationship with her husband and his parents, is the insecurity and regrets she expresses. She has a prescient awareness of the discord ahead of her. There are many wonderful lines in this story that suggest the emotional toxicity this couple is treading, for example, “In the distance the sludge was moving with the creeks. Two ingredients not meant to make anything.” Read the story here in Narrative Magazine and look for the novel in progress After the Sun Fell from which this story is taken.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Swanbit," by Teresa Svoboda

From the opening line, I was pulled into the mystery delivered by the rhythm of the language: “Solely and thus sorely did he row off the disk of the sun that the lake reflected and into the dark of the piling-held dock where many-legged water- and not just water life lived, where he lived, when he could.” It’s a wonderful, terrible tale. We’ve all heard of the power of swans, their bulk, their hissing, and the many myths they give rise to. Once while living in Holland where the canals were populated by graceful white and black swans, I was cautioned to keep my distance and to be wary of their merciless beaks and wings. For a tale with beauty and horror, you’ll find this more than a satisfactory yarn. Read it here in failbetter.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"The Conquistadors of Los Angeles" by Kim Ponders

Deep emotion is just that. It’s there and it won’t go away no matter how long ago. In this story by Kim Ponders about a woman’s longing after a lost love affair, beautiful language and imagery evoke the true work of emotion. The voice is mesmerizing because it seamlessly straddles the practical, and the longing; the professional woman on travel with colleagues, and feeling the immediacy of her former lover. After all these years, she admits what she wants: “I wanted him only the way he was before he’d fled to Los Angeles, in that particular way he had of clinging to me and pushing me back, with all of us suspended inside the possibility of what would come next.” There is a dark compulsive nature to this voice that recalls a similar one in Lydia Davis’ novel, The End of the Story. Both are masters of language. Keying in just under 4,000 words, read Ponders’ short story here in the Mississippi Review.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"Zeal," by Stefanie Freele

At some point in early motherhood, the urge to refrain from “no” gives way to deep feelings that seek quick resolve through physical force. Today most mothers refrain from spanking their children and find more socially acceptable forms of reprimand. In this scene between mother and young child, the writer explores creative interactions involving love, tenderness, violence and pain. The continuum is not exclusive to mother and child. Read it here in Night Train and enjoy the magnification of the story that comes at the end.

Monday, August 3, 2009

“Sea Change” and “Blood” by Paul Silverman

Two shorts, two hypochondriacs; one story by the sea, and the other references a landfill. Silverman has a knack for pulling together character and vivid setting. In “Sea Change,” the writer weaves a wonderful tale of Buddhist monks, the inevitable power of the sea, and a woman who must endure her husband’s hypochondria. In “Blood,” it’s funny to see how this hypochondriac cannot accept a generous gift of a hot shave, and gives it to the landfill watchman whose fur face returns by midnight. Two power packed stories are delivered with rhythm, imagery, and conflict all less than 1,400 words. A definite bang for your reader buck at Eclectica here.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

"What You've Done For Me" by John S. Walker

This prize winning story is about disillusion and loneliness. An ex-navy man with a history narrates his story and listens with compassion to his sister-in-law suffering in marriage to his brother also discharged from the navy. He reflects on his own inevitable failure in marriage. This story within a story frame moves quickly and with feeling. It is a timeless story told in the stark vein of realism sharing mastery with Raymond Carver and Richard Yates. You can read it here at Carve Magazine.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"The Enemy" by Tessa Hadley

Many readers (younger than me) would probably not recognize in today's hot button topic, socialism, echoes of the same from the late 60's and early 70's. Hadley's story is told from a contemporary perspective showing her characters' connections and misconnections against a backstory of student revolutionaries. One of her memorable statements reads: "Your ethical life was a shallow bowl brimming impossibly; however dedicatedly you carried it about with you there were bound to be spills, or you found out that the dedication wasn't needed, or that you had brought it to the wrong place." For those who have gone through changes not according to plan, this is one story you will want to read, here at The Barcelona Review.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"we" by c. vance

Not often would I find stories written in lower case appealing. But this interior story from a collective 'we' point of view seems just right. The language is full of images that work and a voice that is focused. This line works double duty and well: "we planned mother's wake the morning she didn't." Read the story at Barrelhouse here.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Watchers," by Scott Cheshire

Where I grew up in New England, I was mesmerized by the ocean rocks and the stonewalls of blue slate that marked the boundaries of "good neighbors." In this story, rocks are elevated to the mystical plain of the desert, the playa. Watchers turn out to register the movement of rocks across Death Valley. Strong dialogue reveals depths in what is not said by the characters. Crisp description bridges the now and ancient, the physical and the mystical. Enjoy the story at Agni Online here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Who Was the President Then?" by Derek Alger

Ever wonder how some people are so good at trivia in bars? Here's an amusing tightly written story about how this guy came to appreciate history and learned the chronology of U.S. presidents. Easy going, congenial voice makes this story a pleasure to read. Read it here at pif magazine.

"The Promise of Honey" by Sheryl Glubok

It is so shocking to read about female suicide bombers in the Middle East. Somehow the act and gender are difficult for me to correlate. But after reading Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, I had a better appreciation of the conflicts facing women in Iran. The credibility of Glubok's story for me rests on the details and how the writer taps into my contemporary Western awareness of the desperation, particularly among women, in turbulent Islamic countries such as Palestine. Read it here at Night Train.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Spike Lee Did the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s iconic movie about racial tension in America, Brooklyn in particular, is enjoying its 20th anniversary this year. Atlanta’s Fox Theatre of Gone With the Wind movie debut fame, held a showing of Lee’s film on July 12 with Spike on the stage afterwards taking questions. The producer as well showed up along with Radio Raheem, and Joie Lee. I’d seen the movie once before. But Lee’s art today is stronger than ever. The complexities of racism, smoldering hatred shared by groups of people, the compassion that survives, and most importantly, the need for brave action in the face of relentless injustice come together in pastiche of moments that build to a breaking point. When Mookie throws the trash can I was with him (but sitting comfortably in my theatre seat) and conflicted at the same time knowing that violence is not the solution. Direct quotes from M.L.King, Jr. and Malcolm X at the end of the movie lend a thoughtful perspective on violence and peace as posited by Lee’s story. It’s a brilliant movie because of the artistic vision (e.g., performances Rose Perez, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Danny Aiello; the beautiful camera angles that guide the viewer’s eye; Lee’s character who shows vulnerability and strength). But most of all, I was moved by Lee as director; his vision and art that does not shy from complexities surrounding racism. It is a testament to this movie’s timely message that we have yet to face these issues of racism today even with an African American elected to president. Rent the movie, watch it, watch it again.

Moore and Moore

The Atlanta Botanical Gardens is currently featuring 20 sculptures by Henri Moore. A bit of an uncanny convergence these past two days for me; two Moores, one literary, the other visual artist. Through their art they excel in offering the reader/viewer a new look at people and surroundings. Upon reflection the Moore sculptures to a great extent resemble the stone sculptures of Zimbabwe, in the way they both take larger than life forms from the human body and frequently depict mother and child through such abstractions of inside/outside, protection and covering. As for Lorrie Moore, well the themes are not so different, only she uses words instead of stone or metal.

Lorrie Moore

My first introduction to Moore’s work was her collection Birds in America. I was an instant follower and read Self-Help (the wonderfully hip shorts are so dense you need to pause a week to let them linger before reading the next one) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital. I couldn’t get enough of her smart voice and perceptions. Then the books seemed to stop coming and I followed her in occasional stories in The New Yorker. Her latest story “Childcare” in The New Yorker issue July 6&13, 2009 does not disappoint. She has a wonderful ear for her young coed’s self-conscious voice, “I liked children—I did!—or, rather, I like them O.K.” What she does so brilliantly with compassion amidst the witty observations is deliver the character’s depth of feelings to the reader. Moore’s next book, a novel, A Gate at the Stairs, will be available this September.

Melody in Writing

Lyn Ahrens in Glimmer Train Bulletin #30 offers a brief description of her writing life in librettos, fiction and essay. What she has to say about melody and the sound of language is valid for writers of musical theatre as well as writers of prose. I’ve often envied the musical folks who seem so easily to capture felt emotion with musical instruments and the voice. When they’re good, and I hear their work years later, the music still recalls words and feelings with the slightest effort on my part. There is magic and hard work in their art and they have much to offer the fiction writer in guidelines for avoiding the tone-deaf text.

Short Stories Add Up to a Novel

Elizabeth Strout’s connected story collection Olive Kitteridge centers around a Maine coastal town of characters, some of them not likeable, as sometimes is Olive. Many are caught in moments that contain the contradictions and complexities of their lives. Her characters find themselves receptive to fleeting compassion uncommonly found in lives of barely perceived connections. The cycle of these small awakenings takes its cue from a life lived over the course of many years. We read her fiction as our own lives often remain on the back burner of perception and emotion. But a Strout story from this collection can offer deft meaning where otherwise we might continue to live in the dark. Reading about Olive might enrich your life. Here's some information about the book

Why Write?

Maybe to deal with loneliness, fear of abandonment. Jodi Picault, in today’s New York Times Magazine of June 21, 2009 writes fiction that often centers around the violence to children and the effect on parents who today feel inevitably over protective. Picault admits to writing as a way to assuage her feel of her family being assaulted by unknown and unpredictable forces. As ridiculous as this logic may be, and she admits to being aware of it, nevertheless, she writes from this place of power in writing staving off fear, harm and devastation. For that is the power of writing, to write with urgency and the need to connect with basic human emotion, as illogical as that may sound. Connect, only connect per E.M. Forster.


I was not a fan of Oprah but I am now. In her recent issue, July 2009, there are interviews of Jim Shepard, Toni Morrison and Michael Cunningham. Recently, in my writers group, we were discussing the role of loneliness in stories. We talked about how in real life we want to run from anything that whispers our imminent death. It’s the tangibles in life that we attend to and we delight in their distractions from the dark side. But Cunningham takes this notion to a greater level of clarity in the interview mentioned above. “We need, as readers, to feel matched at the very least in our knowledge of human life, and we know from experience how hard it can be simply to live, in the flesh, on the earth. Anyone who doesn’t know that probably doesn’t need to read novels at all.” I love his phrase “to feel matched.” Readers are looking for connections with writers who bring vivid life-like stories to our awareness about living, and we find rewards in writers who do not back down from the tough emotional issues of our lives. Toni Morrison addresses happy endings in novels and says they are not enough. What matters is that characters figure out something of significance to them. I’m hooked on this slick as Oprah carries a woman’s magazine into the 21 century.

Openings in Stories

I recently attended a writing workshop led by Tom Jenks, editor and co-founder of Narrative Magazine. He offered some guidelines for writers including the following: “The beginning of a story must posit the initial events from which everything must follow.” Jenks relies heavily on the notions of fiction found in Aristotle’s Poetics. You can go to the website and get Jenks’ advise to writers. In the rewriting of a current story I am working on, I am writing and rewriting that initial event to contain the tactile, the emotions, the metaphorical underpinnings of the story. In a nutshell, it isn’t easy.

Creative Writing: Can it be taught?

Without belaboring a tired topic, I want to note the thorough article by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, June 8&15, 2009 issue. His historical overview of creative writing programs in the U.S. offers insights about their value and relationship to culture and the state of contemporary creative writing. The most insightful article on the topic to date.

A B Connection

Anderson and Bender. Two writers nearly a century apart write from similar sensibilities. Both writers connect with expressionism. Take two stories, "Loneliness," from Sherwood Andersons's Winesburg, Ohio and "Loser" from Aimee Bender's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Bender employs more humor but both rely on surprise and the uncanny gesture. In Anderson, the man-boy Enoch is caught in his fear of losing himself, and his inability to let others see/hear him. In Bender, the young male protagonist finds himself with the ability to connect to people through tangile, sensual details, but as a naked man lying in bad, he cannot find the center of his soul. Their writings touch deeply the subconscious feelings and experiences we often submerge.