The Other Side by E. Thomas Finan

October 27, 2011

This collection was sent to me as a review copy.

E. Thomas Finan tends to look inward and does so in affecting ways. His protagonists have uneasy relationships with the world and, therefore, the stories are unsettling for everyone. He writes achingly realistic fiction that speaks eloquently through the clipped or choked dialogue of its suffering characters. Broken relationships feature prominently, but not exclusively. The broken relationships are often deep in the rearview, though closer to the heart than they initially appear.

Among the stories, there is one that appears almost like a writing exercise. Finan made the courageous (foolhardy?) choice to re-write Hemingway’s most famous short story and include it in this collection. Finan’s is titled: “Dunes Like White Elephants.

Nearly as enigmatic as Hemingway’s, the story approaches its subject obliquely. As in its famous predecessor, the intersection of a pregnancy and a relationship create the understated, but intense, drama. Where Hemingway showed a man pushing a woman to abort her pregnancy, in Finan’s take, the man is pressing for marriage. I actually think Finan pulled this off without creating a disaster which, frankly, is what I expected despite the talent displayed in the earlier stories.

Review copy.

Finan’s female lead is as reluctant as Hemingway’s and Finan’s potential father has the same binary view of the world as did his forebearer: the couple must either abort the pregnancy or marry and raise the child. The relationship in Finan’s work is a new one and, at least partly for that reason, the woman is very uncertain about turning this unplanned pregnancy into a shotgun wedding. The man believes the conclusion is foregone, despite his questioning tone. So many elements are mirrored, this was quite a risky story to publish.

I like what Finan has done to twist Hemingway’s stereotyped roles in interesting ways. He did not simply re-write the story into the modern age or reverse the poles. Rather, he bent and twisted the classic into something new and provacative. Finan certainly does not surpass Hemingway, but he gets points for shocking this reader into a closer analysis of the original. Kudos to Finan for his gutsy decisions.

My favorite story in the collection is “Motley Black.” The narrator, “Jay”, is taking a bus ride across country to escape the geography of his most recent relationship. A wiseass (“My friends call me Foley.”…..“So what should I call you?”) and introvert, Jay tries to avoid a seatmate only to end up with the talkative and otherwise annoying Foley at his side. While Foley snores, Jay broods:

One can always find the loneliness within life. It is always there. Conviviality, conversational relish, the glibness of society – all are signs of the struggle to ignore that loneliness, always lingering at your shoulder like an unwelcome stranger, one that we know too well. Perhaps, for many people, the only thing worse than a stranger is someone we know inside and out; despite all that knowledge, that patina of familiarity, there remains the hollow core of ignorance. What was a friend? Someone to unburden your heart to? Well, what would telling do? I did not need any more of projected narcissism, which constitutes the heart and soul of common friendship.

This dark moodiness is typical of the stories in the collection, though humor peeks* through in places. In “Motley Black”, for instance, Jay’s wit leavens things until the main action hits. The story bends towards absurdity, I thought it had snapped at one point, but finds its way to a satisfying conclusion. You can find an extended excerpt here.

Finan writes with impressive confidence (as his cribbing from a Hemingway story suggests he would). He usually delivers. Even if every story is not seasoned to my taste, Finan achieves what it is he sets out to do. Impressive.

[**Edited 11-4-2011: Not mountain “peaks”, of course.]

The Spot: Stories by David Means

April 12, 2011

David Means is an accomplished, if not particularly well-known, short story writer. I chose to give his most recent collection a try based on its inclusion on the Tournament of Books longlist for 2011. I was disappointed in that the collection was not chosen for the ToB, but was pleased, if not overwhelmed, by the stories it contained.

I was immediately won over by “The Knocking” and its humor.

Upstairs he stops for a moment, just to let the tension build, and then he begins again, softer at first, going east to west and then east again, heading toward the Fifth Avenue side of the building, pausing to get his bearings, to look out at the view, I imagine, before heading west, pausing overhead to taunt me before going back into motion for a few minutes, setting the pace with a pendulous movement, following the delineation of the apartment walls – his the same as mine, his exactly the same – and then there is another pause….

The description of the knocking goes on for a bit longer, but you get the idea, both of the knocking and of the narrator who is describing it. At this early point, there are still the questions of whether the knocker is intent on taunting and of whether the knocking would be annoying to anyone. The questions linger while we learn something of the knocker:

He was the kind of knocker who would learn a fresh technique, a way of landing his heel on the floor, of lifting his toes and letting them rattle a board, and work with a calisthenic efficiency – all bones and sinew – to transmit the sound via the uncarpeted prewar floorboards, woody, resonant oak solid enough to withstand the harder strikes. Above all, he not only took knocking seriously but went beyond that to a realm of pure belief in the idea that by being persistent over the long term and knocking only for the sake of knocking – in other words, blanking me at least temporarily out of his consciousness, and in doing so forgetting the impulse (our brief meeting last year) for starting in the first place – he could take a leap of faith and increase his level of conentration – pure rapture – and, in turn, his ability to sustain the knocking over the long run.

The delusion of a Nabokovian narrator, so exquisite because, possibly, the narrator is not delusional. Means holds the cards close throughout, releasing them expertly for maximum effect. I truly loved this story. The downside of that is that the rest of the collection could not hope to equal this one.

Do not get me wrong, there are other very good stories. “The Blade” is the second and, perhaps, my second favorite in the collection. It begins with a group of homeless men hanging out around a fire, passing a bottle, and telling stories. The stories become stories about knives and Ronnie has one, perhaps the best one. He holds onto it, waiting through silences when the others expect him to tell it.

Another blade-to-the-throat story stood at the ready, the men sensed. They caught a vibe in the static holding pattern the banter had taken, in the way that Ronnie held off on his turn to speak. They were sure he had a blade story!

While dribbling out details, including hints of Ronnie’s relationship with an old man called Hambone, Means fills in back story that Ronnie does not want to share to the other men. What is particularly engaging is how Means tells a story about telling a story in a way that both explains how a good story is told and demonstrates how a good story is told. The importance of including specific details to create credulity. By the end, the reader is as hungry for the story as those down-and-out men around the fire.

The collection freely shares characters from one story to another, intertwining lives and slowly revealing a large mosaic. This is not true of all the stories, but many of them. Sometimes, there is just a glimpse of how the stories connect, but, in that instant, the world Means has created gains a skosh of authenticity. Means works almost exclusively in the short form and his expertise in his craft shows.

For a third sample from this collection, you can try “A River in Egypt” which is about a father whose son may have cystic fibrosis. The father is inept and sometimes ugly, but this enhances his humanity and the emotion of the piece. These three stories to which I have linked provide a fair cross-section of the range and tone of the collection. While The Spot: Stories did not bowl me over with originality, it did impress me with its author’s storytelling ability. I am a little disappointed this work did not make the jump from the ToB longlist to the shortlist. I would have enjoyed reading a judge’s reaction to it.

Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories by Oscar Wilde

November 19, 2010

You get much more than you pay for these stories as they are free from multiple sources for your e-reader. Oscar Wilde’s wit lightens these comically sinister tales. In the title story, for instance, we get such lines as:

Early in life she had discovered the important truth that nothing looks so like innocence as an indiscretion; and by a series of reckless escapades, half of them quite harmless, she had acquired all the privileges of a personality.

The proper basis for marriage is a mutual misunderstanding.

No one cares about distant relatives nowadays. They went out of fashion years ago.

The story itself begins with a dinner party attended by Lord Arthur Savile. The hostess invites a fortune teller as entertainment.

“Oh, I see!” said the Duchess, feeling very much relieved; “he tells fortunes, I suppose?”

“And misfortunes, too,” answered Lady Windemere, “any amount of them. Next year, for instance, I am in great danger, both by land and sea, so I am going to live in a balloon, and draw up my dinner in a basket every evening. It is all written down on my little finger, or on the palm of my hand, I forget which.”

“But surely that is tempting Providence, Gladys.”

“My dear Duchess, surely Providence can resist temptation by this time. I think every one should have their hands told once a month, so as to know what not to do. Of course, one does it all the same, but it is so pleasant to be warned.”

Lord Arthur Savile has his palm read and is told of something dreadful in his future. To tell more is to spoil the many delightful twists along the way, but I will say that this amusing story puts in play issues of rationality, fate, and, an Oscar favorite, the power of secrets. This is the longest of the five stories and, perhaps, the best.

“The Canterville Ghost” is a twist on ghost stories that plays off British stereotypes (good and bad) of Americans. “The Sphinx without a Secret” is a miniature piece examining the seductive power of secrets. And the saccharine “The Model Millionaire” manages to engage despite being so terribly predictable to a 21st century audience.

I found most enjoyable, however, the final story: “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” My enjoyment came not only from Wilde’s barbs and the story’s plot, but from the fact that it seems a clear progenitor of Nabokov’s Pale Fire which is, perhaps, my favorite novel.

Wilde’s story revolves around the theory that the Mr. W.H. to whom Shakespeare’s Sonnets were dedicated was actually a boy actor named Willie Hughes who specialized in playing female actors. The theory is first brought into the circle of characters by Cyril Graham, a firm believer. His attempts to persuade his friend Erskine are initially futile due to a lack of historical evidence. The entire theory hangs on enigmatic lines in the Sonnets, such as puns on “will” and “hews”. When viewed in light of Cyril Graham’s theory:

“things that had seemed obscure, or evil, or exaggerated, became clear and rational, and of high artistic import, illustrating Shakespeare’s conception of the true relations between the art of the actor and the art of the dramatist.”

The fun in this story is reminiscent of Pale Fire, if less involved and less of an artistic achievement. “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.” relies both on Shakespeare’s Sonnets and an actual theory (that of Thomas Tyrwhitt) regarding the identity of the dedicatee of those Sonnets. Nabokov wrote his own 999 word poem and turned his protagonist’s textual interpretations into a complete novel. But Nabokov clearly owes a debt to this work, I think:

“…the surname was, according to him, hidden in the seventh line of the 20th Sonnet, where Mr. W.H. is described as

A man in hew, all Hews in his controwling

“In the original edition of the Sonnets “Hews” is printed with a capital letter and in italics, and this, he claimed, showed clearly that a play on words was intended, his view receiving a good deal of corroboration from those sonnets in which curious puns are made on the words “use” and “usury.” Of course, I was converted at once and Willie Hughes became to me as real a person as Shakespeare. The only objection I made to the theory was that the name of Willie Hughes does not occur in the list of the actors of Shakespeare’s company as it is printed in the first folio. Cyril, however, pointed out that the absence of Willie Hughes’s name from this list really corroborated the theory.”

The comedy of these characters taking this theory so seriously, and taking absence of evidence as definitive proof, is wonderful, as is the traipsing through the Sonnets themselves. The story is interesting and the underlying themes serious, dealing as they do with secrets and mysteries and homo-eroticism (Shakespeare and Willie Hughes), all themes with which Oscar Wilde seems obsessed.

I lack the time and depth of recollection to undergo any deep comparison of Pale Fire and this work; though I think the hall-of-mirrors effect that would result from using textual analysis to prove that these two artistic works are related would be amusing. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe, the comedy of textual analysis was sufficiently obvious in 1950s literary society that Nabokov did not need his inspiration from this work. However, the fact that a few minutes of searching provides no confirmation of my theory tends only, in my mind, to solidify the truth of my conjecture…..

Wilde is, to me, a treasure. I may even have to read some plays as I am running out of his prose. This and a growing appetite for poetry? The debaucheries of literature may overwhelm me yet. But as for whether you should indulge the pleasures of Wilde, I have nothing to say.

It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

February 23, 2010

There is the definite danger that I am more impressed by this collection of short stories than I ought to be. I read this while celebrating my liberation from The Help and, therefore, I may not be able to celebrate the joy of the two events. Even so, this is a well-written collection of short stories.

Over at Tony’s Book World, there was a discussion of Nelson Algren a few days ago. I commented on Simone de Beauvoir who was Algren’s lover and who is one of my favorite authors. Someone, Tony, I think, mentioned he was getting ready to read de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed which is a collection of three stories. The title story of that collection is devastating and brings fully to life the emotional destruction of a woman.

I bring this up because Wells Tower could have named his collection, and at least one of his stories, The Man Destroyed. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned is a great name too. The men who populate most of these nine stories are damaged and broken.

Retreat, possibly my favorite of the stories, dissects a bitter rivalry between two failing brothers. The story opens with this paragraph:

Sometimes, sometimes, after six or so large drinks, it seems like a sane idea to call my little brother on the phone. It takes a lot of solvent to bleach out such dark memories as my ninth birthday party, when Stephen, age six, ran up behind me at the goldfish pond at Umstead Park and shoved me face-first into the murk. The water came up only to my knees, so I did some hog-on-ice staggering before completing the belly flop. My friends laughed until they wept. Our mother put Stephen across her lap and beat his calves red with the hard side of her hairbrush, which, in the eyes of my guests, only confirmed Stephen as a heroic little comedian willing to suffer for his art.

The narrator, Matthew, is a real estate speculator and, after relating several stories which outline his relationship with his brother, calls his brother from atop a mountain in Aroostook County, Maine he “recently bought.” The phone call dialogue makes it clear that the brothers have not much progressed from their childhood skirmishes. Before they are through with the phone call, Matthew has invited Stephen to fly out to Maine and Stephen accepts on Matthew’s dime.

Matthew describes Stephen, the younger brother, in the following terms:

He’s not a churchman, but he’s extremely big on piety and sacrifice and letting you know what fine values he’s got. As far as I can tell, these values consist of little more than eating ramen noodles by the case, getting laid once every fifteen years or so, and arching his back at the sight of people like me — that is, people who have amounted to something and don’t smell heavily of thrift stores.

Matthew, on the other hand, describes himself in terms reminiscent in tone and substance of Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe.

I, on the other hand, have always understood that life is an as-is, no-warranty arrangement, and if you want it to add up to anything, you’d better go at it with fire in your gut.[…]Late at night, when rest won’t come and my breathing shortens with the worry that my ambition might have robbed me of some of life’s traditional rewards (long closeness, offspring, mature plantings), I take an astral tour of the hundreds of properties that have passed through my hands over the years.

The story progresses nicely with numerous surprises along the way. The plot doubles and triples back, never allowing the reader to develop too firm expectations. There is humor, both biting and light, interspersed with the painful to watch sibling squabbles. Tower brings all this together with a pleasantly ambiguous ending. In all, it is a very good story with, to borrow a phrase from a blurb on a former TOB contender, “earned emotion.”

There is a bit of unevenness in the stories, but they were all still interesting enough and sufficiently well-written to be enjoyable. Tower is best when exploring the relationships between men, but even the story about the relationship of two teenage girls feels authentic. From these teenage girls to an adult daughter and her elderly father to a young boy and his stepfather to a man and his ex’s new husband, Tower provides entertaining insights into human interactions with a flair that will be fun to watch as Tower’s writing continues to develop.

This is not a landmark work in the development of the short story, but it is a very solid example of the form. You can do worse, much, much worse, than pick up this nice little package. The stories are not uplifting. You won’t feel good about yourself and humanity after reading them. But, they just might show you something about the world you had not noticed before.

Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories by Italo Calvino

December 19, 2009

Some writers earn my respect. Other writers I merely enjoy. There are writers with whom I become intimate over the course of a long relationship. Some I read and abandon forever. But there are some writers who grab me and promise me a lifetime of reading pleasure and I believe them.

Italo Calvino is that last sort of writer. As soon as I started his collection of short stories, months and months ago, I believed his promises. I still do.

I like reading collections of short stories slowly. Generally, I read no more than a story a day, sometimes only a story a week. This both prolongs the experience, if it is good, and gives me time to digest a story before moving to the next. Of course, at first, I gulped this one. The first stories are so short. Not until the fourth does a story need more than one page, front and back, to finish.

These short shorts are grippingly original. The first section is subtitled “Fables and Stories, 1943-1958” and the stories do read as fables. The very first story is “The Man Who Shouted Teresa“:

I stepped off the pavement, walked backwards a few paces looking up, and, from the middle of the street, broght my hands to my mouth to make a megaphone and shouted towards the top stories of the block: “Teresa!”

My shadow took fright at the moon and huddled between my feet.

Someone walked by. Again I shouted: “Teresa!” The man came up to me and said: “if you don’t shout louder she won’t hear you. Let’s both try. So: count to three, on three we shout together.” And he said: “One, two, three.” And we both yelled, “Tereeeesaaa!”

Before long, there is a large crowd helping the narrator, the man who shouted Teresa. They organize, squabble, and are “beginning to get it right” before someone finally starts asking why they are shouting. The narrator explains he doesn’t even know who lives in the apartment to which they are shouting:

“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “we can call another name, or try somewhere else. It’s no big deal.”

The others were a bit annoyed.

But everyone is too embarrassed to be angry or to simply go away. They decide to call one last time and then leave.

So we did it again. “One two three Teresa!” but it didn’t come out very well. Then people headed off home, some one way, some the other.

I’d already turned into the square, when I thought I heard a voice still calling: “Tee-reee-sa!”

Someone must have stayed on to shout. Someone stubborn.

I found the story hilarious. I was hooked. In the next story, the narrator has a moment when he understands nothing, the next is about a town where everything was forbidden. They are too short to be tedious, too well written to be dismissed. Most of these early works are apolitical.

The stories become slightly less fantastical and more political deeper into the book. At first, their target is primarily the military, such as in “The Lost Regiment” where “[a] regiment in a powerful army was supposed to be parading through the city streets” but gets lost and in “The General in the Library” involving a general sent to examine the books in a library after “a suspicion crpet into the minds of top officials: that books contained opinions hostile to military prestige.” But soon Calvino’s flirtation with communism and socialism become quite evident.

Like Dos Passos, Calvino has a fascination with and compassion for working people. His more political stories are often concerned with issues of class and power. In fact, it was the abuse of power, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, that ended Calvino’s association with communism. Many of his stories lampoon the bureacracies and resulting oppressions that spring up under communism and socialism. In other words, Calvino’s primary concern is with respect for the average human, not with an explicitly political goal. In this way, even his explicitly political stories maintain some vitality, though politics have largely passed them by.

The second half of the book is subtitled “Tales and Dialogues 1968-84”. Some of these stories are sci-fi in nature, such as “World Memory” in which every fact in the world is being fed into a computer. This is not a humorous story, but a suspenseful one with an excellent payoff. “Beheading the Heads” is quite political and, perhaps, reveals the anarchism to which Calvino was exposed as a child in addition to his frustrations with political systems generally.

The preface to the book provides some interesting background. For instance, “The Burning of the Abominable House”, a murder mystery in short form, was written in response to “a somewhat vague request from IBM: how far was it possible to write a story using the computer?” The 1973 story is excellent and reveals Calvino’s logical and mathematical rigor.

Finally, late in the collection, Calvino’s fascination with physics and science comes to the fore. Calvino’s parents were scientists and Calvino himself studied the ideas of Einstein, Heisenberg, and Planck. The final two stories are each inspired by scientific articles. One about black holes and the other about the beginning of the universe. These stories both manage to relate abstruse scientific concepts to intensely personal struggles. “Implosion” is concerned with time and everyone’s inability to truly escape its ravages. Even implosion, the narrator finds, does not provide a sanctuary. “Nothing and Not Much” examines the void and dealing with the void. The story was inspired by a Washington Post article discussing a scientists calculations which “suggest[ed] that the universe was created literally from nothing”. It is a very existential piece.

While Numbers in the Dark and Other Stories is only one short story collection, and not Italo Calvino’s most highly regarded, I am infatuated. I want more. I am going to read a novel next, probably If on a winter’s night a traveler. I highly recommend this collection. I cannot say whether it is the best entry point to Calvino’s work, but it was, for me, a thoroughly seductive introduction.

*To dip before jumping in, you can find links to Italo Calvino stories available on the web and other information about the writer at the Italo Calvino website.

The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

November 1, 2009

Inspired by Kevin From Canada’s coincidental choice of a “spooky” book Halloween week, I decided to finish Oates’s collection of “Tales of Mystery and Suspense” on Halloween. Some of the stories, like the title story, are quite creepy, while others are more psychologically suspenseful.

MuseumOfDrMosesMy favorite book by Joyce Carol Oates is the very dark novella Beasts. My next favorite would be The Gravedigger’s Daugther, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This collection of short stories, however, is a fine introduction to her work if you prefer the short form.

The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense lives up to its subtitle. Oates is excellent at creating suspense. She knows how to slowly turn up the tension, making the reader more and more uneasy, until she lets go the climax often leaving the reader a little breathless. The tales here focus on mystery and suspense rather than the grotesque, though several involve that element as well.

One of the most affecting of the eight stories is “Suicide Watch.” In the story, a twenty-eight year old man, Seth, is being held on suicide watch and is suspected of murdering his two year old son and the boy’s mother. Seth’s father comes to visit, ostensibly for support. The story is less about the missing child and his mother than about father-son dynamics. While the suspense revolves largely around finding out whether Seth has done something to the missing boy and woman, the father’s strained relationship with the son is the most captivating aspect. The father is in no better a position than the reader with respect to knowledge of Seth’s guilt or innocence. In some ways, the father’s position is worse than the reader’s because of his and his son’s shared history and the father’s love of his grandson. Oates does an incredible job of managing the emotional intensity of the situation and pulling the reader along to the final insight.

Oates really shines in dark, psychologically taut scenes. She does emotion, particularly needy, desperate emotion, as well as anyone I have read. Her characters are almost always damaged or involved in highly dysfunctional relationships. She manages to delve into intense emotional situations without allowing the story to crumble into melodrama. This collection nicely highlights some of Oates’ strengths, particularly if you like dark, suspenseful tales.

The closest she comes to horror is in the title story, “The Museum of Dr. Moses”. The story primarily involves an adult woman in her twenties (Ella McIntyre), her mother (Mrs. Virginia Hammacher), and her stepfather (Dr. Moses Hammacher). The story opens with Ella on her way to visit her mother. The mother and daughter have been estranged since her mother helped Ella’s no account brother one too many times.

Virginia had previously escaped from an abusive relationship with Ella’s alcoholic father. During her estrangement from Ella, Virginia remarried. Her husband is the most prominent physician in the rural upstate New York county where Ella grew up and has been since her childhood.

There are early indications that, if nothing else, Dr. Moses (as he is familiarly called) is eccentric. After the County Historical Society provides funds to display some antiques of local significance, “Dr. Moses demanded money from the society to start a museum of his own.” The society obliges with a small grant which only offends Dr. Moses. He breaks off relations with the society, but set up the museum in the old house in the countryside where he lives with Virginia.

Ella arrives at the museum and is greeted at the door by Dr. Moses. He leaves Ella and her mother alone in the parlor to talk:

After Dr. Moses’s initial, courtly greeting of me, whom he referred to as his ‘prodigal stepdaughter,’ he’d retreated upstairs, meaning to be inconspicuous perhaps, but his slow, circling footsteps sounded directly overhead; the high ceiling above creaked; Mother glanced upward, distracted. I was asking her simple, innocuous questions about her wedding, her honeymoon, relatives, Strykersville neighbors and friends, and she answered in monosyllables; I told her about my teaching job, my semidetached brownstone with its small rear garden, my regret that I hadn’t seen her in so long. Some caution prevented me asking of more crucial matters. I sensed that my mother’s mood was fragile….Truly I could not see Mother clearly, even at close range. Ella! Help me. I heard this appeal silently, as Mother squeezed my hands.

I whispered, “Mother? Is anything wrong?” but immediately she pressed her fingers against my lips and shook her head no. Meaning no, there was nothing wrong? Or no, this wasn’t the time to ask?

Oates pulls the reader more and more deeply into the very strange museum of Dr. Moses and his odd relationship with Virginia (who refers to him as Dr. Moses). As with most of the stories in this collection, the ending contains some ambiguity though it resolves this key mystery. The mood is so expertly set and the characters sufficiently vivid that this story is easily one of the most memorable and disconcerting.

In all, this is a very fine collection of stories. The genre suits Oates well and she has managed to produce some original, memorable stories.