Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ongoing source for lit fic fix

Book: The Best American Short Stories 2004

Author: various (editors: Lorrie Moore and Katrina Kenison

Published: Houghton Mifflin (2004)

Pages: 429

The Best American Short Stories series is an annual dose of nicely-written lit fic angst sprinkled with the occasional weirdo and mythical creature plunked into modern society. 2004's edition is no exception. 

Does that make it sound like all the volumes in the series? Well, it kind of is. Does that make it sound boring? Sure, it SOUNDS boring if you put it like that, but the stories are all of the amusing variety. And that is the key to lit fic: take a basic premise and find a (non-gimmicky) way to make it unusual enough to become interesting. Reading the Best American series does the hard work for the you and the me, dear reader, by having its guest and series editors read about a billion short stories over the course of the given year and picking out the best and presenting them in these nifty softbacks with minimal art. 

Standouts in this volume include:

  • a homeless Native American trying to raise money to buy back his grandmother's ceremonial clothes only to not realize how he automatically pisses away each dollar he gets when he does get money; first-person narrative is revealing in a way the character doesn't notice even though he's doing the talking
  • a teacher who gets her students to write their own evaluations; the unexpected reactions from the parents jar nicely with the teacher's idealism
  • little girls trying to win a Biblical Halloween costume contest by going as Salome and John the Baptist; I love how it's conveyed that the girls know enough that they're doing something wrong but not enough to know why they should be ashamed
Great series, good vintage. Bookshelf beside by 2007-2009 collection (to grow soon! I have money and a Barnes and Noble!)

Monday, October 15, 2012


Book: Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl

Author: Stacey O’Brien

Published: 2008 (Free Press)

Pages: 224


The actual story is more in-depth than this. This lady took in an injured baby barn owl and raised it and they become best friends for fifteen years. I’m so glad the author’s a biologist who jokes about owl shit and frets about getting enough live mice to kill for the owl and reluctantly records the owl’s mating screeches while the owl makes it with her arm. For science!

Her science knowledge makes a squishy adorable animal story more authentic and enthusiastic with facts and not sentiment. Although there’s plenty of both, the loving bits are much more believable when she’s so unflinching about how much hard work this is.

There are a few human details that she skims over—when she starts talking about her career and how she got into biology, she’s got a random paragraph about how she and her sister were famous child actors who were also a family singing group, which—what? When? How did this happen with such normal-sounding parents? How did that segue into biology and owl love and, later, ultimately a career in UNIVAC computers?

She presents just enough despair over her dating life to hint at loneliness that is both helped and hurt by her owl, but there’s not enough details to know why she was so in love with this one dude that it put her in a deep depression when it didn’t work out or why it didn’t work out with this other guy who seemed to mesh really well with her owl life.

I imagine that’s just to keep the focus on the owl and to keep the book from becoming the author’s autobiography. She’s got a refreshing straightforward style that doesn’t allow for human nuance but does really well to endear the owl and his growing personality to the reader through a biological understanding that goes into the whole essence of sharing a life with a loved one.

Also, did you know that owls aren’t water birds? They don’t generally go near it because they get all the moisture they need from the mice they swallow whole, and their flying feathers don’t dry as fast or as well as other birds. This owl didn’t know that. He loved playing in the water, and how she eventually managed to blow-dry him is a highlight of face-meltingly cute pet rearing.

Did I mention there are pictures, you guys? THERE ARE AND THEY ARE AWESOME. Sadly, I must return this book to the library. 

Adventurous nesting dolls

Book: Cloud Atlas

Author: David Mitchell

Published: 2004 (Random House)

Pages: 509

This is like five novels dissected and nested into each other in a narrative structure that sounds so gimmicky it should get its own reality show.

But it works! So well! And it’s all David Mitchell’s fault!

A missionary’s Pacific diary gets into the library of a famous decaying composer whose scheming protégé writes letters to a scientist who helps an investigative journalist dig into a radioactive conspiracy whose story becomes a novel manuscript sent to a failing vanity press whose owner…something something, connection I forgot to a cloned servant whose life of awakening and rebellion in a futuristic China is recorded and preserved into the rebuilding of a post-apocalyptic society. And back again.

Each section has a completely unique voice that fits seamlessly into its time period, narrator temperament, and angle of adventure. (There’s always adventure.) This is David Mitchell’s strength—like, he must lift character voice weights five or six times a week because his words absolutely disappear into pitch-perfect dialect and internal monologues of whoever he’s writing for.

The interrupted style of narrative also helps keep the strong verbal ticks of each section from overwhelming the stories here, except in the middle. That one, the post-apocalyptic society trying to rebuild its connections with the rest of the world, is uninterrupted (cascading to the back ends of the others) and also leans the heaviest on self-developed slang.

But it’s so worth it. Each of the narratives touch on the one behind them in natural ways that emphasize the connectivity of time instead of winking and nudging the reader. Each one deals with revolutions and revelations and sends out branches and roots to reach out to each other and sketch out a very rough map of a giant chunk of human history.

The A.V. Club podcast says the movie doesn’t use this structure but is instead like a giant montage sequence, which I now have to see to decide if that’s a genius or terrible way of adapting this. Read the book for sure, though. (In fact, read David Mitchell in general. His Black Swan Green shows yet more of his range through a painful, pitch-perfect year in the life of a British schoolboy during the late 1980s.) Bookshelf! 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What makes a character so annoying?

Book: Kissing Games of the World

Author: Sandi Kahn Shelton

Published: 2008 (Shaye Areheart Books)

Pages: 383

Y’all, I’ve been sitting on this review for like a week trying to come up with a better reason for hating this book than “The characters are really annoying.” But since I’m not going for a grad degree in Comparative Literature here…well, the characters are really annoying. There. I said it. Now let’s dissect.

The main guy is quippy to show how hilariously out of whacky touch he is while trying to reunite with his young son, the main lady is okay except when indulging in hippie artist stereotypes or trying to be anything remotely sexual, their limp half-assed attempts at hating each other so the sex is hotter have no motivations until afterward when the author shoehorns ‘em in, and all the tertiary characters exist solely to have truth-telling talks and witty one-liners that spell out the protagonists’ motivations for them with all the originality of form found in a PowerPoint presentation.

Seriously, the story about a guy who lets his estranged dad take care of his son while the guy goes corporate after his wife dies, and the lady artist who lives with the dad and helps raise his son with her own while being a strictly platonic yet emotionally vital housemate could’ve done all the heavy lifting itself. Not everything has to have a romantic side to it, y’all, and this could have been such an excellent example of that.

Instead, we get hi-larious cranky-kids-be-travelin’ highjinks coupled with slutty yoga instructor sister advice that seriously changes every damn time she says something.

I don’t even know. It’s not good, so I’m going to put it in the donate pile. (Beware Goodwill in two or three months when I’m done weeding the shit out of my current pile. It’s going to be all my annoyed posts concentrated into one plastic bag black hole of sucky literature at 50 cents a pop.) Don’t pick it up, though, unless you want to hunt for motivations. I’m done.