Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Short Stories

This entry will be a mixed bag, and some of the reviews may be a bit short as I'm trying to catch up before tomorrow's flight home.

271. Better Lessons by Aaron Polson, the June 6, 2010 entry on Every Day Fiction. As usual, I found myself really enamored of Aaron Polson's ability to tell a full story in under a 1,000 words. I can't seem to manage it. This is one of his less SF/Fantasy entries, although there is a slight touch of the fantastic. It's about a street-rat who teams up with a rather personable Macaque to pick pockets among the tourists, and the relationship between the two has a strong effect on the man's life. Well written.

272. The Young Painters by Nicole Krauss, from the June 28, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. I liked this story, but I can honestly say I did not like the main character. The story is really about where writers get their inspiration, and what happens when you draw (perhaps too closely) from the lives around you. The narrator does this several times, and does not seem at all bothered by how her stories and books might affect those from whose lives she has drawn. She directs her story to someone called "Your Honor," and that adds a level of mystery to her tale: is she recounting this as part of a divorce proceeding? As a witness at a trial? Or is she not really directing her words to a judge at all -- is she just pretending to do so while really addressing us? I'm not sure we'll ever really know, and in this particular case, I'm okay with that.

273. Blue Water Djinn by Tea Obreht, from the August 2, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. I will be shocked if this story doesn't turn up in at least one "Best of" anthology in the coming year. It would be eligible for Best American Short Stories 2011, and honestly I think it would also deserve placement in Best American Mystery Stories 2011. A young boy, the son of a hotel owner, watches as the adults around him try to find out what happened to a French guest at the hotel who has gone missing. Jack is both overlooked and overprotected by the adults in whose care he has been left while his mother is off attending a conference; he is able to get close up to the proceedings as long as he does not get close to the ocean. The connection between boy and missing man is implied early on, and I was happy that the story did not go where I almost immediately thought it was going to. Obreht feeds the tension of the story out on a tight line and lets the tide of the story pull you in. One of my favorites of the year, I think.

274. The Landlord by Wells Tower, from the September 13, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. My first impression of the story was that it's about yet another clueless American middle-class business who doesn't know how to do business. I feel like that's a stock character type these days -- the guy who thinks he knows how to make a million but can't manage to manage his own office. In glancing back over the story, I hit on a few key phrases that made me rethink that assessment. The narrator of this story may seem dense and self-absorbed, but he really does understand how his life has spiraled out of control and how it's his own disconnectedness that has cost him not just his business, but his relationships with his daughter, his tenants, and his workers. It's actually a great first person character study, and I can easily picture my friend Dave making this work as a monologue.

275. The Science of Flight by Yiyun Li, from the August 30, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. This story seems to bookend nicely with Nicole Krauss's. In Krauss's story, the main character steals from real life to create her fictions. In Li's story, the main character creates fictions to mask the real life she's embarrassed to tell people about. Zichen's fictions threaten to over-take her much as Krauss's narrator's stories do. Li really captures that sense of getting caught up in a lie that last for years and becomes the truth.

276. The Pilot by Joshua Ferris from the June 14 & 21, 2010 issue of The New Yorker. The main character of Ferris' story is a self-absorbed writer who second guesses every move he makes socially, who reads too much into every word spoken to him (and every silence as well) and who can't bring himself to finish the pilot script he's been working on. Okay, who let Ferris into my own head? There are some key differences between myself and the main character -- I'm not writing a tv script and I'm not a recovering alcoholic. I also don't live in LA and don't get invited to lavish "end of season wrap parties" where I can awkwardly attempt to shop my wares. Another main character I can't say I liked, but that might largely be because of how much of myself I saw in the character.

277. Captain Midnight At Ultima Thule by Win Scott Eckert, from The Captain Midnight Chronicles (published by Moonstone). If I'm being honest, this was not my favorite Win Eckert story. The story had two strikes against it, one my own fault and one the publisher's. For my part, I admit that I know next to nothing about Captain Midnight; I'm far more familiar with other pulp characters and felt through this story that I didn't really know enough about the character to understand why he does what he does. On the side of the publishers, Win's story seems to be the only one in the book that is marred by proof-reading errors -- odd printer's marks and symbols where there should be normal punctuation; it was a bit too distracting. However, on the positive side the contains Win's usual plethora of literary references that cross-connect and build on Philip Jose Farmer's Wold-Newton concept, and that kind of story is always fun to read. Win always makes me feel like a literary detective, trying to figure out what's a reference to a previous work and what isn't. And of course there's a rock-em, sock-em fight and heaps of sexual tension.

278. Captain Midnight Meets Airboy
by Chuck Dixon, from The Captain Midnight Chronicles The Eckert and Dixon stories are the reasons I bought this book. Dixon's tale of two classic aviators meeting for the first time had great tension and action, and managed to get into Midnight's head a bit. I don't know how much of a departure Dixon's characterization of Captain Midnight may be from the classic pulp version, but his Airboy is of course dead-on. So good to have him back writing a character he made me love twenty years ago, and plenty of good gun-fighting and old-fashioned pulp fisticuffs as well.

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