Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Best American Short Stories 2013

            My latest blog piece for The Huffington Post argues that fiction humanizes us in unforeseen ways. The genre has been my teacher and trusted companion for several years now. At the same time, it’s not always obvious whether or not a fictional piece is going to be good. How do you know if what you’re reading is worth the trouble? Investing in a lengthy novel is a gamble that some people understandably shy from. My best advice is to start smaller. A short story allows you a little taste; you can spit it out if you don’t like it, or you can drink more if you do. The Best American Short Stories 2013* is my own personal Piña Colada; I could drink a bucket in one sitting, and I certainly won’t need a spit cup. There’s just something very intimate about reading an entire story in one sitting. Of note, Piña Coladas result in intimacy as well.

            The collection is part of a yearly anthology that started in 1986. Other themes in the series include: The Best American Comics, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Sports Writing, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and more. The nonrequired grouping confuses me (is this an attempt to lure angsty, rebellious teens?), but I’ll roll with it. Every year, a guest editor compiles his/her favorite American pieces within each category. The editor roster is impressive, including fan-faves like Dave Eggars, Ray Bradbury, Jennifer Egan, Cheryl Strayed, and less obvious ones like Sufjan Stevens and Beck. Because playing 600 instruments simultaneously isn’t enough for the resume.

            It’s difficult to review this book, because I’d have to review each of the twenty pieces, so instead I’ll focus on the medium itself. Each piece is so meticulously written. There are an infinite number of ways to tell a story…but then again, maybe only one. One that is most effective. One that hits the truth dead on. One that captures the essence of that character most readily. The story is a small window into the life of that character; it’s a glimpse that exposes us to their worries, joys, failures, and triumphs. The pages in this collection rise and fall with the collective breath of those lives.

Elizabeth Strout—the 2013 editor—explains how we join the author in discovering these characters. When we are drawn in, we say, “I want to be in your company, I want to keep going, I like the way you sound” (Strout, xiv). This collection graciously gives us insight into the author’s inspiration for the piece. It includes a section in which the author shares the context behind their writing—where they wanted it to go and where it ended up going.  

            I initially picked up this book because of Junot Díaz’s and George Saunders’ contributions. Díaz’s is very Díaz—in a good way. It throws a lurid lens on a man’s family history, mixed with intermittent Spanish for emphasis. Saunders’ reminds us once again how effortlessly he’s able to adopt a unique and urgent voice. While I love both of their pieces, my favorite takeaway from this collection is Jim Shepard’s The World to Come. It offers a peek into the diary of a woman living on an American farm with her husband in the 1850s. That sounds positively mind-numbing…until he adds a subtle, repressed lesbian spin to spice things up. Every part of this story is carefully crafted-- from the underlying metaphors to the formal speech of the time. It shows us how the unpredictability of the weather can totally transform and potentially destroy a farmer’s life. Those feelings of utter un-control shape the characters’ personalities; they wax and wane between reluctance and willingness to experiment and explore.

            The Best American Short Stories 2013* has proven a gem since I unwittingly purchased it two years ago. Since that time, I’ve repeatedly circled back to it, seeking out the stories that resonated with me. They’re short enough to consume as a bedtime read or on my commute; they’re long enough to teach me something and satisfy my curiosity. The Best American Series editors curate the best of the best, and I believe that the short stories collection is a perfect compromise between quality and longevity for those looking to try their hand at fiction. 5 out of 5 camel humps for this masterpiece!

*Strout, Elizabeth, and Heidi Pitlor, eds. The Best American Short Stories 2013. Boston: Mariner Books, 2013. Print.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Long Goodbye

            I like my detective novels like I like my eggs: hardboiled. If a crime needs solving, it might as well be at the hands of a suave, comically cynical, functional alcoholic. Raymond Chandler’s creation—Philip Marlowe—is a quintessential protagonist of the hardboiled fiction genre. Chandler spent several novels developing Marlowe’s character and imprinting him in the hard-ass hall of fame. You might recognize him from Chandler’s most well known work, The Big Sleep. This review is on The Long Goodbye* instead. We’ll say it’s because *I take the road less traveled*, but really it’s just because this novel was on sale.

            The Long Goodbye is aptly named in that it depicts a drawn out farewell between two unlikely friends. Marlowe meets a troubled but goodhearted man, Terry Lennox. Lennox finds himself in a bind, but Marlowe doesn’t buy the whole story. He’s a skilled private eye who works a case even when his help is unsolicited--making him both a literal and figurative dick. He’s not driven by money; he’s driven by drinking, women, and his own relentless curiosity.

Marlowe is an unrealistic figure, so if that bothers you, you won’t like this novel. He represents very real, raw emotions and characteristics, but to an exaggerated degree. He’s the kind of guy who can drink three double vodka gimlets and then blow a 0 BAC. He’s so self-assured that he says things like, “I don’t make the kind of music you like to hear” to a woman, and she’s predictably wooed (Chandler, 166). Even when he screws up, his stoicism and omniscient attitude makes it look intentional. Marlowe talks back to cops, talks back to gangsters, and spews slick one-liners to any one who gets in his way. So how does this guy not get knifed? Well, he’s Chandler’s baby. Nothing truly bad can happen to the *it* guy, this isn’t Game of Thrones. His indestructibility is partially maddening, partially captivating. Sometimes he does things so obviously in need of consequence that I feel like Chandler takes me for a gump. Alternatively, wielding that kind of power is magnetic. I’d like to be the charming know-it-all, but since I can’t be, I might as well read about someone who is.

Chandler poured his heart and soul into this novel, and it reads as such. He wrote it while his beloved wife was on her deathbed, and his personal struggles with alcoholism, coupled with his insecurities related to his talent, all seep into his characters. Flawed temperaments make for interesting characters, but the plot in The Long Goodbye was less than desirable. I thought that some of the twists and turns were unnecessary—they weren’t intriguing enough to deserve the attention they received. I enjoy Chandler’s choppy writing style; it’s brief and straightforward, but still poetic. He can spin a cliché into noir-gold with deliberate tweaks. But he’s a seminal author of mysteries, so I expected this story to be, I dunno, mysterious? The payoff of the surprises proved disappointingly low.

 Additionally, one of the best things about Chandler’s portfolio is how reliable Marlowe is as a main character. We know he’s going to work a case a certain way, and we like that about him. In The Long Goodbye, Marlowe stayed true to form until three-fourths of the way through, when he engaged in a totally nonsensical and pointless fling. I have no idea why Chandler included this; it wasn’t even a well-written sex scene! Throw me a bone(r) why don’t ya. This wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, but I don’t appreciate useless, confusing scenes—especially when they’re enmeshed in a plot that I’m not particularly down with in the first place. Balance that with Chandler’s impressively sharp style, and you get 2 out of 5 camel humps.

*Chandler, Raymond. The Long Goodbye. New York: First Vintage Crime, 1953. Print.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Fahrenheit 451

            Fahrenheit 451* ignited a fire in 1953, and it’s been blazing ever since. I have a love-hate relationship with this novel. On the one hand, it affirms what I believe about the power of reading; as Bradbury writes, “A book is a loaded gun…who knows who might be the target of a well-read man” (Bradbury, 58). On the other hand, I’m not always crazy about Bradbury’s style.

            Unlike 1984, Fahrenheit 451 shows us a world in which ignorance is willfully chosen and maintained by the people. The government doesn’t forcefully strip the people of their knowledge and autonomy; instead, they simply help preserve what the masses want: pure, unencumbered bliss. Happiness is the ultimate goal, which here entails dumbing of the mind and titillation of the senses. You can’t be cheery 24/7 if you’re philosophizing about your own mortality. Books have the potential to bring about awareness that “all isn’t well in the world” (Bradbury, 104). The people prefer to remain oblivious to anything that could upset them, so learning becomes obsolete.

            I love that Bradbury chooses this route—I feel that it’s more realistic and more terrifying to see people dig their own graves. We know oppressive governments exist, and we see that censorship is alive and well in many countries. It’s easy to be enraged by that—there are people you can point to and parties to blame. In my opinion, a diffuse disregard for knowledge is more worrisome—it’s harder to spot and more difficult to quench.

            Bradbury writes in the McCarthy Era, so his concerns stem from both the political and technological climate of his time. Thus, he comes across as strikingly anti-technology—the citizens of Fahrenheit 451 are glued to the modern day equivalent of a TV. The television “cram[s] them full of noncombustible data”—all facts and no substance (Bradbury, 61). I’m biased towards books, and I think that overall, books are more capable vehicles for knowledge.  It’s easier to turn off your brain and consume via a medium that does all the work for you. But there are crap books just like there are crap TV shows. I get the impression that Bradbury hyperbolizes the downside of technology; I grant his point that television can displace intellect, but I don’t believe that’s always the case.

That’s not my only issue with Bradbury. This work reminds me of Huxley’s Brave New World—both authors have an incredibly groundbreaking idea, but they make mistakes plot-wise. Huxley fails to create remarkable characters and hardly anything interesting happens. Bradbury crafts richly complex characters, but then ramps the narrative up to such a fast pace that he skims over their potential development. The main character—Guy Montag—unquestioningly lives in the status quo one second and then suddenly feels the burn the next. I craved less action and more in depth insight into characters’ history, motives, relationships, etc.

Additionally, dystopian novels are especially vulnerable to a pitfall that’s a personal pet peeve: overly telegraphic dialogue. Dialogue is effective when it advances plot, but it falls flat when characters tell each other what they should presumably already know. For example, I’m suspect of conversations that outline in detail how society and government is structured. When two adults tell each other obvious facts about their own country, I start to think this is a lazy way of showing the reader how their world is organized. It’d be like having one American say to another “Well, you know, we’re currently under the Obama administration and the next election will be in November 2016. Donald Trump is the Republican nominee and that’s caused quite a bit of controversy.” Well, no duh. This isn’t news to the other individual unless they’ve been living under a rock, so you get the unsettled feeling that it’s just for the reader’s benefit, which isn’t realistic.

I don’t mean to hate too hard on Bradbury. He has mastered a good metaphor and his fire motif is lit. Most importantly, he pioneered meaningful discussions on intellectual freedom and how knowledge-seeking behaviors shape us as individuals and citizens of the world. He shows us how the basic desire to learn is linked to the ability to connect and empathize with others, and he illustrates the lifeless horrors that can occur when that desire stagnates. The firemen in the story burn to churn; they keep the wheels rolling on society, but no one’s going anywhere. Bradbury’s work isn’t a straightforward, apocalyptic prediction; rather, he hopes to prevent us from becoming an illiterate people so steeped in mindless media that we don’t see the problem. His work has been a critical reminder to us for over sixty years, but his impressive prescience is counteracted by the aforementioned narrative drawbacks. So, Fahrenheit 451 gets 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. New York: Del Rey Books, 1953. Print.