"Flash Fiction International"

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

 Very Short Stories from Around the World

Edited by James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill

Flash Fiction International contains 86 stories in 182 pages, an average of about 2¼ pages per story, and for me, that average feels a little high. This remarkable collection also has a section called “Flash Theory,” from which I will quote Lia Purpura:

Why are miniature things so compelling? …
The miniature is mysterious ….
Miniatures encourage attention ….
Miniatures are intimate ….
Time, in miniature form, like a gas compressed, gets hotter.”

These thoughts help describe the appeal of these extremely short, “sudden” pieces of fiction. They are invariably jolting: they condense character, emotion, confusion, wonder, and disappointment in a few short paragraphs, and as varied as the effects are, one can always say, “Oh! That took me in a strange direction.” As short as they are, it’s impossible to get a feel for where the next piece will pick you up and subsequently drop you off. It happens so fast and so frequently that one becomes more and more impressed, bemused … happy is the only word that’s accurate. I adore the moment of finishing a work of fiction, when all the thoughts provoked by it assemble and mix and reverberate with and against each other. The stories in this lively and lovely collection generate this aesthetic frisson over and over again. They’re very dependable that way; it’s an excess of joy and wonder.

Here’s a quote from Chen Yizhi from the same “Theory” section:

“The flame of complete combustion has a blue tinge. It is a beautiful color; it is a ferocious color. A piece of writing is powerful if its words are “completely combusted.”

This concept of gas heated, compressed, and combusted captures the character of these snippets perfectly. In a few short paragraphs, as I said, characters are introduced, they interact and conclusions, either open-ended, or final and abrupt, or simply ambiguous, are reached, and the point and the pace and the tone vary from page to page, literally. There are pieces here by Sherman Alexie, Naguib Mahfouz, Czesław Miłosz, Franz Kafka, Petronius, Shirani Rajapakse, Ron Carlson, and let’s see, 81 other authors who are unknown to me.

What a tonic! As much as I love and admire full-length fiction, these little marvels have had such a salutary effect on me. I highly recommend them for you, too. Take and enjoy. The doses might be small but they are always bracing!

"Excommunicados" by Charles Haverty

Monday, June 29, 2015

Charles Haverty has become conversant with the intricacies of a strict catechistic Catholic upbringing. And it seems to this lapsed Catholic that there’s only one way to be that familiar, that intimate with that particular mindset: you have to earn it. So one way to experience Excommunicados is as an in-depth review of such an upbringing, a series of war stories of the state of mind and its lasting effects.

And let me say at least near the outset that this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award winner is a highly deserving recipient. The stories plumb the depths of faith and lust, innocence and disillusion, and the ineradicable distances people place between each other. The stories which feature the conflict between one’s devout childhood and everyday adult realities focus on this schism, this disconnect between indoctrination and the world. This dichotomy lives at the center of these tales, generates much of the energy in them, and its principle gives its name to the collection.

There is the 6th-grade boy, agog at the beauty of his friend’s mother, and her irreverent attitude toward the parish pastor. There is the unscrupulous lawyer, who allows his client, who is his wife’s annoying brother, to go to prison wrongfully. A college freshman ends up after a long, harrowing day of driving at his high school buddy’s house, only to face a perplexing comeuppance. There are severe fractures in these stories, but there are also touching glimpses of redemption, unexpected shows of grace, that make these stories worth your while. They are uniformly excellent. I must have said that before about short fiction coming out of the University of Iowa, but I see no way around repeating myself.

Like all excellent short fiction, the events in these pages have a high clarity; motivation is clear and powerful and denouement brings that unsurpassed frisson of work exceedingly well wrought. The twelve entries on offer here show a master at work, and encountering such mastery is just a joy. Very highly recommended.

"Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories" by Edward Hamlin

Sunday, June 21, 2015

In Night in Erg Chebbi and Other Stories, Edward Hamlin demonstrates in nine dazzling selections an uncanny insight into human grief and guilt and expiation. On his way to a very well-deserved Iowa Short Fiction Award for 2015, Mr. Hamlin has produced a series of vivid, highly varied, and completely convincing pieces - they’re stunningly clear in their emotional depth and uniformly excellent in execution.

They range from a tenebrous midnight in the Moroccan desert, to the parched aridity of an isolated town in the western U.S., to the backwoods of fundamentalist cruelty and familial abuse in the Ozarks, to murderous and frozen New York at its worst. The collection leads off with "Indígena", a gratifyingly balanced account of a woman whose father was a fugitive Irish revolutionary and assassin. Her familiarity with weapons and understanding of the true meaning of being on the lam may have saved her from drowning in the raging Amazon River. This memorable story sets the tone for what follows: swift pacing, unexpected plot turns, and reverberant finishes that generate questions as often as they answer them.

The cover story follows, a simply beautiful, clear, and wrenching story about a woman who finally begins to come to terms with crushing guilt, desperately firing an assault rifle in the middle of the Moroccan midnight, naked and screaming. "Light Year" and "One Child Policy" take up the terrible outcomes for two very different American women, a professional photojournalist who is losing her eyesight and an frightened Chinese immigrant trying to make her way in a New York populated with bigoted thugs and a blizzard. The author fills these stories with effective background, as he does with every entry here, with a minimum of language and a maximum of effect.

"The Release" is the most emotionally affecting story among a lot of strong entries. In it a woman tries to balance her interests with those of her recently deceased husband’s ex-wife, and the emotionally handicapped daughter from the first marriage. How she succeeds at this is one of the truly surprising results in this collection full of surprises. In "Not Yet", "Head Shy," and "Clemency," we witness men whose variety of misdemeanors come from their wildly different backgrounds and personalities, but in which death is a constant, but the movement toward redemption is not.

Even in these brief stories, Mr. Hamlin reveals character only gradually, as the disastrous, or unfortunate, or careless, or simply misguided, events and impulses become clear and overtake the action and resolution. I have not been so impressed by a collection of short stories in quite a long time. These are all splendid, each with their multiple attractions, and deserve as wide an audience as we can muster. Without a doubt, take these up!

"The Journey Home" by Olaf Olafsson

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

An Icelandic chef travels from London to Reykjavik in The Journey Home - she travels in a literal sense, and as in quality fiction, her journey takes on a metaphoric dimension as well. Her journeys meaning is revealed to us in the course of her first-person narrative, and along the way the author treats us to some remarkable effects. This is a bewitching book, with its low-key diction and its high-strung, independent heroine. 

Her name is Asdis, and is called Disa for short. In her life she goes her own way, to the chagrin and frustration of her family, her mother in particular. After an expensive course of training in clerical work, she opts for a career in cooking. She falls in love with and agrees to marry a German Jewish man just as World War II is starting, and this too, irks her family. In fact she and her mother become estranged. The present-day part of her story occurs long after these events, however, and although she has spells where she strongly doubts the success of her mission, she pushes on in spite of herself.  

Olaf Olafsson manages this portrait with a very different but highly affecting scheme. Disas telling of her story has the feel of a long, one-sided conversation, drawn out through a single, talk-filled night. She bounces around in time as she weaves her tale, but dont be fooled: none of this ever approaches aimlessness. Mr. Olafsson has a very distinct, very touching story to relate, and he bends his heroine and his style to its ends very surely. I found the whole very effective and very memorable. 

Disa has her dark moments and her author deepens them with perfectly striking imagery and blunt-spoken philosophy. About 80% through the book our narrator avers: 

"You grow up, people say, as if they have attained some higher wisdom, and will even put on a solemn face if they are sufficiently dishonest with themselves, or else mutter the assertion in low tones, avoiding looking in the mirror.
 And a few sentences later:

"Hope is the sister of self-deception and I have learned to avoid those sisters as far as I can. Their smile is fawning and their manner false The truth demands accuracy and concentration which sometimes makes it hard to handle. 

The accuracy and concentration here are undeniable. Mr. Olafsson gives us an unblinkingly honest heroine, one who savages herself when she feels she deserves it you will not always agree that she does deserve it. She can be prickly at times, and a hard partner to live with; this is a complete portrait: intricate, nuanced, realistic. 

I recommend this book highly to the readers who happily lose themselves in intimate psychological dramas. The author approaches his subject in a unique way, and we the readers benefit: Disas emotional journey deserves a wide circulation. Take this up!

"But is it Art?" by Cynthia Freeland

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cynthia Freeland, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Houston, came out with But is it Art? in 2001. It’s an excellent introduction to various theories of art, particularly for an abject layman like me. In it, Professor Freeland expounds on competing and converging beliefs held by critics and philosophers, and she does so in a logical, concise, and accessible way. The book is a slim one, bolstered by References, Further Reading and an Index, like any scholarly book will.

However, as I say, the body of this book contains no stuffy jargon, no obfuscating phrases; its points are painstakingly made, and highly accessible to the average adult reader. Her own preferences and beliefs are no mystery, but she handles the presentation of competing thought processes with commendable fairness and even-handedness.

You will get a very convincing and non-judging assessment of some of the more shocking art which has been presented in the last 25 years. You will encounter deep discussions on such thinkers as John Dewey, Arthur Danto, the anthropologist Richard Anderson, Marshall McLuhan, and Jean Baudrillard, among numerous others.

This book is required in an aesthetics class at a local university. I have taken copious notes from it, but won’t bore you with them. Suffice it to say, I found this brief, direct, and accessible book a commendable starting point in discussing art. The flow of the ideas reach other media besides graphic art, but those media are its main focus.

"A Peculiar Grace" by Jeffrey Lent

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jeffrey Lent’s heroes face challenges out of the run of the mill. Some of these, as in In the Fall and Lost Nation, face an onslaught of outside forces strong enough to bow or break even the strongest protagonist. In A Peculiar Grace, hero Hewitt Pearce’s toughest tests result instead from his own past and his not-always-healthy ways of coping with it. In this book, Mr. Lent has shrunk his canvas down from the sweeping, heroic backdrops he used in Fall and Nation, to the emotional life of one stubborn yet searching man, who trusts his emotions and views of life maybe a little too much. And he succeeds beautifully again, the author does.  This book makes me feel many things; however, surprise at the author’s skill is not one of them.

Vermont blacksmith Hewitt Pearce was lucky enough as a teenager to feel the desperation and euphoria of deep love. When this affair ends unhappily for him, he lets it sink him into an alcohol-soaked despair which he survives only through the last-ditch efforts of his friend Walter. Twenty years later, he’s essentially a hermit with a good blacksmith’s practice, and a tractor for getting to the store. Suddenly twenty-something Jessica crashes onto his property and into his life.  She’s a fugitive from life’s vagaries, somewhat in the mold of Hewitt himself. Their quirky exploration of each other’s boundaries, beliefs, and personality form - and charm - the bulk of the book. This is the “peculiar grace” of the title. Although Hewitt’s life and heart become torqued up again when his onetime great love is widowed, he cannot revert to form - to chase her and/or pine after her - because of the new presence in his life.

I did what I very seldom do after finishing a book. I went back to re-read scenes of especially well-done dialogue, because they are some of the great charms of this charming book. We sink neck-deep into Hewitt’s psyche, and watch him

take his painful steps toward a more balanced emotional outlook. Mr. Lent grants his hero the capacity to give and also gives him the knack of communicating, through a forthright and laconic way - almost a shorthand - that captivates. His writing captures this perfectly. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Peculiar Grace, after the previous heroic entries I mentioned. What I got demonstrates Mr. Lent’s mastery. He remains one of the very best practicing the craft today, as his every book amply proves. Take this up. It’s also one of the few that I definitely plan on rereading, even with my reading time at such a premium. 

"The Empty Throne" by Bernard Cornwell

Friday, April 17, 2015

So. When last we saw Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he was fighting a desperate battle against extremely long odds, even for him. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, fighting for his life, he is savagely wounded in the same instant that he kills his enemy.

And at the outset of The Empty Throne, the eighth entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, Uhtred is indeed gravely wounded, limping as he walks, stalked by agony if he simply turns his body or mounts his horse. Aethelred, the puppet ruler of Mercia, dies from wounds himself relatively early in the story, and the jockeying for lordship over Mercia begins. Uhtred is just as good at royal politics as he is at fighting, and maneuvers the assembled nobles into accepting Lady Aethelflaed as the now-famous Lady of Mercia. I invite you to look up her legacy and exploits.

Mr. Cornwell consistently brings us to the middle of 10th-Century Britain. The sights and conflicts, the smells and superstitions, envelop us as always. And the indomitable Uhtred lives to plot and scheme and bully his way to victory yet again. I confess I more than half expected this to be the final chapter in this riveting saga, but the author concluded once again with a note that unmistakably indicates that at least one more book is coming in the series. And I am betting that two more books will follow The Empty Throne. I know I hope it’s at least that many.

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Friday, April 3, 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro adopts a surprising setting for The Buried Giant: Britain in roughly the sixth century AD, and he conjures a dark and enfeebled mood for the island’s inhabitants, who are held in the thrall of a dragon’s amnesia-inducing spell. In addition to the dragon, there are ogres, evil sprites, and a flock of ghostly harridans to bewitch and bedevil. 

Mr. Ishiguro chooses this milieu to explore two combating ideals: one demands redress of injustice even if it means opening old wounds to do so, and the other seeks to forget the battles and conquests of the past and get on with life. On the large canvas, this means ending a dragon’s spell so that the country as a whole may remember the enormous injustices inflicted on the Saxon immigrant/invaders by the native Britons. And the married couple, Axl and Beatrice, whose story focuses the book, winnow this conflict down to its essentials.  They fret between themselves about what they’ll remember when the amnesia lifts, and what they’ll find at the end of their journey.

The author has a certain position on the issue, and it shows in how he resolves the conflict. He chose his setting very subtly, very shrewdly. By plunging his reader back to a time when King Arthur’s aged nephew Sir Gawain lives and still serves his long-dead king, he strips away anything that might distract from the problem at hand. The legend/lore aspect of his story serves to highlight the universality of the problem at hand. The balance evoked here is a tragic one; the Saxons in the story sing the lament of the vanquished, but we know their eventual success over the Britons does not same them their terrible trial with the Danish vikings centuries later. And I’m convinced this is part of Mr. Ishiguro’s design. I compliment the author both on his treatment of the issues undertaken and the elegance of his construct for doing so.

My qualms arise from some plot features that seem unnecessary - are the river-sprites really needed? The mortal danger Axl and Beatrice find themselves in could certainly have been illustrated without extra creatures. And the children on the mountainside and the poisonous goat? There are several places where I felt befuddlement about it all. And the aspect of nothing-is-as-it-appears felt too insistent at times, and at other times too slowly resolved.

On the whole, Mr. Ishiguro demonstrates his championship versatility - to have written this and The Remains of the Day just boggles the mind. I understand the thrall other readers feel, I do, but this effort falls a little below what I anticipated.

"Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell

Friday, March 27, 2015

Daniel Woodrell’s prose in Winter’s Bone reflects his characters’ thought and speech: it’s pared down to the essentials – so laconic and economical that it almost becomes oblique. This is one of the main charms of this novel – the whittled-down telling of the raw emotion and ever-present tendency to violence of the characters; the stark natural world in winter fury and snow-bound calm; the harsh truth about backwoods mountain folk who are almost all related, and who as often as not, operate on the wrong side of the law.

The meanness and betrayal swirl around a sixteen year-old girl, Ree Dolly, whose father has run from the law again. Not only has he gone on the lam, but has signed over his home – Ree’s home, which she shares with her addled Mom and two younger brothers – as collateral for his bail. Ree must try to find and deliver him into court, but begins to suspect something much more … final has happened to him.

Because of her Dad, Ree’s family and kin are persona non grata around the Ozark woods and hollows where they live. While she herself is blameless, she is still stopped from seeking help in finding her missing miscreant Dad. The way Mr. Woodrell portrays the boundless courage she shows in the face of mortal danger, warrants your reading this book by itself. Ree is a stunning invention – pre-eminent in her neighborhood at sixteen, withstanding threats, teaching her brothers how to shoot as her quest becomes tougher, defying friend and enemy alike to achieve her goal – she’s a stunner, and I honor the author for conceiving her and executing her portrait so cleanly and convincingly.

I also honor Mr. Woodrell for adopting the language of his characters as his own for his narration. It places him and us squarely in the action. And there is action aplenty. This is not a story for the faint-hearted, what with the beating and (behind the scenes) murder and rampant meth production and the drinking and the getting high. This book deals with life-and-death issues in a way that honors the courageous and loyal, and does it in a way that fits its subject matter perfectly.

This novel really sneaked up on me. It’s grand. Check it out.

"Me and Mr. Booker" by Cory Taylor

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Author Cory Taylor takes us on a frank and funny journey in Me and Mr. Booker: this story of a teenaged girl’s - Martha’s - seduction by a man twice her age has dark, precocious humor, but it cautions us about the relationships grown-ups suffer through their entire lives. It’s brutally honest,but also unsupported by strong adult presence, or any kind of responsible guidance for the youngster at her moment of need.

Ms. Taylor aims to amuse, and maybe obliquely to instruct, but this is a sixteen year-old girls’ monologue. We observe adult failings through her very jaundiced eye, and rue the fact that she’s simply following in their footsteps. The sex she enjoys with university lecturer Mr. Booker proves quite the narcotic, but in the end she must give him up when she gets ready to leave her own studies and go to Paris. Her mother sets a very poor example of whom to marry, and her other women friends are a jaded, dissipated lot.  

In short, I found very little to admire or enjoy here. I like the spunky wit of our underage heroine, but its caustic sophistication stands as just another reminder of her corruption. It’s clearly a very painful coming of age for Martha, complete with the sadder-but-wiser end. I can’t recommend this, although Ms. Taylor’s powers are apparent. I’d look forward to her treatment of different subject matter with great interest.

"How Gone We Got" by Dina Guidubaldi

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Throughout How Gone We Got Dina Guidubaldi expounds on young alienated women struggling with life and those around them. Whether its remembering finding a corpse on the Its a Small World ride at Walt Disney World, or dodging the advances of a handsome Latin ambassador, or getting ready to jump to her death in a dystopian future, Ms. Guidubaldis heroines face steep odds, perhaps constantly at the point of insurmountability. In the seventeen servings in this short story collection, the author shows a very impressive range of setting and plot, and takes a look at sadness and desperation from a wide variety of angles. Im rather taken by it.

Ms. Guidubaldi demonstrates her powers very consistently from story to story, but I want to single out a few for special mention. The Love in Your Mouth captures the life a woman and her boyfriend find when they run away to Florida. Its unusually visual for this collection, and the passive, pessimistic view this woman has for her life and her relationship sets the tone for much that follows. The toxicity that runs through these stories takes the form of actual poison from jellyfish in this story. She repeats this watching-my-relationship-disintegrate theme in a couple of other stories, notably The Desert: A Field Guide. Its never ver clear whether the protagonist really values the relationship, or whether she recognizes the inevitability of the breakup and her own powerlessness to stop it.

Ms. Guidubaldi launches these pieces from a place where things are already broken down - the damage has already been done, and feels like it was done a long time ago. In some stories we witness events at their logical, whimpering end, but in others the concluding moment is very dramatically poised - about to happen. Her stories show a very consistent mastery of her form and she combines this with a raw honesty to make a very impressive, worthwhile whole. These stories come from an interesting new voice, one to keep an eye on, certainly.

"Lila" by Marilynne Robinson

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Author Marilynne Robinson concludes her Gilead trilogy with the story of Lila, the plain-spoken onetime drifter and whorehouse worker who marries Reverend John Ames, a chief character in the two prior novels Gilead and Home. Echoes include the characters and themes of the two previous entries, of course, but the author also maintains the same reverent, natural tone that respects and understands all life, whether lived in a state of grace or outside of it.

And grace has everything to do with Lila the novel and Lila the character. The book is among other things a beginner’s catechism. Lila doesn’t know that much of what’s in the Bible, but she has read some things that make perfect sense to her, about rage and voices from on high, but also some other things that need quite a bit of explaining.

She travels with an itinerant group, a loose assemblage that seeks temporary work. She grows up in this hand-to-mouth fashion, having been saved from neglectful parents by a woman named Doll. Lila has drifted outside of society, working as she could, eventually finding herself employed in a whorehouse. However, her potential for grace is always there: she has an inquiring mind, is never as mean as the girls and women around her, has never stolen, nor harmed another. She finds herself in Gilead on a rainy afternoon, letting her clothes drip dry inside a church. She eventually engages Reverend Ames in conversation, and then as a spiritual consultant on certain philosophical questions. She asks him why things work out the way they do, and it’s a question that occupies them both, along with the author and the reader, for the remainder of the book.

Lila plunges into the consciousness of its heroine in a way that bounces around considerably in time, but this journey shows the author’s remarkable skill in using Lila’s consciousness as a way of exploring deep and difficult issues. This is a main purpose here: we accompany Lila in her beginner’s quest to understand her universe. Along the way we have the kindly, beautiful John, her mentor and student and lover, and his highly examined and literate relationship with God. It’s as unique a romance as you will encounter in literature, this marriage of John and Lila. It’s beautiful in itself, carefully paced, and expressed with all the grace and respect Ms. Robinson can summon, which is – all of it, I think. That also is one part of the point: I believe the author definitely wants to leave her readers with the very distinct impression that you can approach life’s vagaries, and the eternal questions, in a spiritual way, and you will be made to feel welcome.

The book in effect introduces the Gilead trilogy, although it is published last. Its events anticipate those of the other two books, and Lila’s new child and her husband and her beliefs lead us up to the beginning of the first book in the trilogy, Gilead.  The tone and consciousness, the effortless - and chapterless - flow forward and backward in time, the masterly yoking of her language to her purpose – Marilynne Robinson is, after all, the finest living American writer – all of these feature in this excellent piece. It somehow achieves a pastoral flavor (the book is dedicated to Iowa) amid all the philosophical grappling and exegesis, Depression subsistence and petty whorehouse meanness. It’s a tribute to our intrepid author’s skill with her subject. I unreservedly and unabashedly recommend all three books. Read them in order for the full reward.

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