Friday, February 28, 2014

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver
Read: 1 to 2 January 2012   
5 / 5 stars 

One of the great things about New Year's is that a night of uncommon revelry means that I have no excuse not to spend an entire day all curled up with a book and a nest of blankets. And, oh boy oh boy, did I ever stumble upon a winner of a short-story collection with this one.

Among the myriad joys to be found in these decidedly bleak little snapshots--and I place this above the unparalleled use of understatement, which is a thing that usually tickles me hardest about masterfully written prose--is the way Carver's writing style meshes so perfectly with his subject matter. The two complement each other in a way that is just awe-inspiring and humbling. It helps pack so much unspoken worth in every word that I can't believe writing teachers everywhere don't use Carver as the ideal to which all hopeful wordslingers must aspire. Unless that's to avoid intimidating the hell out of a swarm of already notoriously insecure personalities.

I don't usually like it when collections adhere to a theme but even that is executed perfectly here. The theme of love, of all its flavors and stages and disguises and warped bastardizations, and its terse representation in each piece (even the more lighthearted and less hopeless offerings) made each tale feel so densely populated with the gamut of genuinely evocative and empathetic human emotions. Carver made me care about every single character even if I wasn't supposed to. It had the bonus of making these stories feel like they could be playing out next door. The believability and raw honesty so expertly woven throughout every word in this regrettably small collection just made every little moment so palpable in a way few writers can ever hope to manage.

Is this what all of Carver's stuff is like? If so, it's not unreasonable to say that I will be revisiting his writing soon. I have at least one why-didn't-I-read-this-guy-sooner moment every year and.... uh, it looks like this year's instance couldn't wait to say its hullos.

It's been a while since I posted some food p0rn

Yeah, that's right: Here's a burger that includes apples and brie among its mouthgasming toppings.
(The Pop Shop, Collingswood, NJ)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Flash Fiction Funny

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. While I had intended to ask the editor for a review copy, I had yet to find out how easy it is to do such a thing and finally just bought a copy rather than risk embarrassing myself.)

Flash Fiction Funny, edited by Tom Hazuka
Read: 15 to 16 February 2014    
3.5 / 5 stars 

In the past few months, I've been reading more contemporary and many more small-press books than I previously had, which has delivered the unintended bonus of sampling genres and writers I would have never approached before, attached as I am to the classics both canonical and present-day. While there is much to discover still, such a change in my literary diet has already proved to be an excellent experience, and testing the long-established boundaries of my bookish tastes is something I should have forced myself to do years ago.

When a friend brought Flash Fiction Funny to my attention, I pounced on the chance to acquaint myself with a genre I know very little about: I've read exactly one collection of flash fiction once before, and this was to be my first encounter with its deliberately humorous breed delivered by dozens of different voices. With each story ranging in length from a single paragraph to no more than three pages, Flash Fiction Funny runs the gamut of humor while proving that brevity is, indeed, the soul of wit if a writer knows how to achieve maximum hilarity with a minimalist's word count.

With 82 approaches to humor on display, there is most assuredly something for everyone in this collection; if a particular flash-fiction piece doesn't tickle your fancy, it's over in... well, a flash before something entirely different takes the stage. Ranging from the absurd to the darkly comical, to the mundane daily occurrences framed humorously to proof that tragedy is just comedy that tests your resolve to find the punch line, to the refreshingly uninhibited invitations to just laugh out loud over a story's elements, narration, situation or characters, this collection most definitely traverses the broad terrain of humor's territory.

Aside from the overtly forced cohesion inherent in a collection that's based on a specific mood and structure, it's not always easy to tease out a sense of unification in an anthology that encourages its panoply of writers to offer up their very different takes on both a style and a theme; however, Flash Fiction Funny's showcase of talent quickly proves itself to be a celebration of how there's always something to laugh at in any given scenario as long as you're looking at it from the right vantage point, as well as being a wonderful reminder that humor can be presented in a nigh inexhaustible number of ways.

While most offerings herein are straight-up slices of life, some are framed differently enough to keep the flow of funny varied: there are extended double entendres (like "On Collecting Porcelain Weiner Dogs," which is only ostensibly about collectible dachshunds), too-spot-on satirical renderings of the outlandish writing prompts familiar to anyone who's taken a creative-writing class ("Thirteen Writing Prompts"), a disappointed mother's will ("Mother's Last Wishes"), one-sided dialogues that need no second party because we've all been through the grimly absurd motions at one point or another ("Interview"), the failures of our prehistoric ancestors in their early attempts at domesticating wolves presented as an academic paper ("Primitive Man Tames the Wolf"), debased demigods ranging from a weary superhero ("This City") and fairy-tale princes who clearly are not living all that happily ever after after all ("Just Outside the Closet"), and fictionalized encounters with famous literary figures ("Sunflowers of Evil" and "Poets at the Boardinghouse," which were two of my favorite pieces). Despite what may sound like jabs at either the audience or the narrator, the humor here serves to highlight the fact that life's little annoyances are the common ground we all share, that even our teachers, parents, friends and idols are all powerless against the ravages of time, are subject to all the failings of the flesh, and fall victim to the ongoing frustrations that indefatigably dapple ordinary life; we can't control what happens but we can control how we react, so why not just suss out the salvageable chuckles and move on?

To me, the most successful stories here were the ones that stuck most closely to that unspoken but implied philosophy by either refashioning the staggeringly ordinary mundanities of everyday life into something practically biblical--like "Egypt," the book's first piece, which transforms the old-as-time battle of wills between a teenage son and his oh-so-unfairly immovable father into something ripped from the Old Testament, insect infestations, bodily ailments, frogs and all--or offered up ironic commentary on easy targets, like "How to Waste Two Hours of Life," which tells of a father/daughter bonding experience where Dad is subjected to his daughter's favorite brain-rotting reality-television show and is angrily compelled to keep watching this drivel that he alternately loathes and can't tear his eyes from. What makes these stories stand out is that they're social commentaries without lobbing criticisms or resting on tired cliches: Parents and children will never see eye-to-eye when their points of view are so wildly incompatible; people will always be simultaneously disgusted by and drawn to pop culture. These societal mainstays will always be happening and each new ridiculous performance will bond each new player to the legions before and after who have gone and will go through these same motions.

The hilarity comes from the earnest immediacy we impart to these spectacles, a futile farce we won't see until someone else grants us the privilege of the observer's role: It is not the outcomes of these moments that matter but what we take away from them. Learning from these moments--and, more importantly, being able to laugh at them--is one of life's most important lessons. Life is too serious to take seriously, so have some fun at its expense whenever you can. Just don't presume to be above the cosmic absurdity.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

How to Fake a Moon Landing

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. This book was a Christmas gift and was probably not even intended as review fodder.)

How to Fake a Moon Landing: Exposing the Myths of Science Denial, Darryl Cunningham
7 to 9
February 2014   
3.75 / 5 stars 

Before even reaching the table of contents, writer/illustrator Darryl Cunningham summarizes the spirit of How to Fake a Moon Landing with a quote from author Michael Specter: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion; however, everyone is not entitled to their own facts." Unfortunately, ours is a world where buzzwords, emotions, money and opinion are wont to warp the integrity of cold, hard facts; fortunately, in a world where "edutainment" is a thing that proves a staggering number of people need to be tricked into learning by being entertained with knowledge, we have folks like Cunningham who present scientific proof in a digestible, accessible graphic-novel format.

Cunningham takes on a smattering of hot-button issues--including the likes of evolution, climate change, and the titular inspiration of long perpetuated moon-landing hoaxes--and sets out to dismantle the fiction surrounding them by elucidating their facts. As Cunningham presents it, most misconceptions arise from both a limited grasp on the truth of a matter and a stubborn assumption that taking the way a thing looks at face value trumps understanding what it is. He attempts to foster a better appreciation of grounded-in-reality facts by offering up several examples of them, simply and helpfully aided by his illustrations. For example, to those who hinge their arguments supporting a lunar-landing hoax upon the "fact" that the American flag on the moon's surface is unarguably waving despite the lack of atmosphere to move it, Cunningham explains that a combination of the flag's construction (a pole running along its top to keep it extended), technical malfunction (trouble getting a horizontal rod to extend all the way) and mere aesthetics (astronauts liking how the unintentional ripple effect looks) created the illusion of what seems to be a fluttering flag from a wholly stationary one; this explanation occupies a mere seven frames between two pages but effectively distinguishes fallacy from reality.

The book continues in the vein of addressing an appearance-gleaned or generally long-help misconception and offering up its fact- or science-based clarification piggy-backed on the graphic-novel format for maximum clarity. The bonus of Cunningham's drawings (which are often diagrams, examples or plays on words--like the influx of ducks he uses to emphasize his point of the mystically entrenched chiropractic's quackery) helps minimize the need for what could become a lengthy, jargon-filled lecture and keeps the focus on the sort of plainly unintimidating enlightenment that staves off any viable accusation of pomposity in his presentation. It's imperative that Cunningham not lose his audience: In the chapters about homeopathy, chiropractic, fracking, vaccination and climate change, it is clearest that Cunningham wants everyone to realize that there are actual, fatal dangers that come with listening to those who refuse to listen to rational thought, and he has no hope of counteracting such dangerous modes of fact-denying thought if he loses his readers' attention in a sea of off-putting inaccessibility.

I couldn't help but feel, however, that the major objective to address as many currently controversial issues as possible made How to Fake a Moon Landing read more like a survey of timely matters than an in-depth debunking of widely disseminated untruths; taking on specific topics demands, for me, a focused battle plan rather than an overview. For those who are coming to this book and experiencing its topics at a more-than-superficial level for the first time, it's a great primer on some of the more prickly, needlessly divisive topics of our time; however, I wish it had been a little more fleshed out.

The upshot to this, though, is one of the book's two biggest successes, which is the need it instills in a curious reader to go forth and learn more about the topics broached in its pages, both to broaden one's breadth of understanding and to nullify in one's own mind the non-scientific, emotionally driven falsities that distract from the truth of each matter. I get the feeling that one of Cunningham's primary aims, along with educating anyone who picks up his book, is to champion the benefits of critical thinking and gaining enough of a knowledgeable basis of comprehension to arrive at a fact-based perspective that allows one to become a vessel of truth for those who could use a little gentle nudging toward a less fiction-based reality.

The book's final chapter, which explores science denial in general, is its other most effective success, as the focused range necessary to devising the best way to tackle a broad topic in a few pages is what this book's design is best suited to. It opens with the oh-so-subtly encapsulating illustration of an ostrich with its head buried in the ground before shedding some light on why science denial is running rampant in society, tossing out brutally honest truths like "The human mind is notable for its ability to cling to its beliefs long past the point where any evidence exists to support those beliefs." Reaching beyond the main topics of the book, it introduces the example of Big Tobacco's pioneering efforts in the '50s to sully the good name of scientific research to discredit the link between smoking and its health risks, and how such efforts have been adopted by other corporations since then to similarly tarnish the validity of the scientific method and its results, such as the oil and gas industries' efforts to downplay and even foster doubt in climate change. It goes on to put some of the blame on the mainstream media, as good journalism presents balanced facts without editorializing but good science, unlike opinion-reliant political ideologies, has only one proven truth.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

By Blood We Live

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The publisher graciously provided me with a galley copy of this novel.)

By Blood We Live, Glen Duncan
17 January to 2 February 2014 
4 / 5 stars

I can't say I was delighted when I found out that Glen Duncan, one of my long-time favorite living writers, had a werewolf novel in the works, let alone a whole trilogy of 'em; I can say, however, that when The Last Werewolf came out a few years ago, it won me over in a matter of pages, as tackling the ever- (and, for me, maddeningly) popular paranormal-beastie fad did nothing to diminish the elements of Duncan's writing that have kept me a loyally, fanatically enrapt reader of his works for more than a decade. Because, really, I read Duncan for the achingly gorgeous writing, and he does have an exemplary track record of wringing poignantly universal truths of the human condition from otherwordly characters, as he proved with earlier works like I, Lucifer and Death of an Ordinary Man.

By Blood We Live, the most recent installment in Duncan's werewolf saga, doesn't pick up exactly where the series' second book, Talulla Rising left off. The werewolf pack comprising Talulla, her three-year-old twins, her lover Walker, and a few of their were-pals is hunkered down in its newest temporary haven and waiting for their monthly transformation but to get to their story, one must first encounter the 20,000-year-old vampire Remshi, who just awoke from an unplanned two-year hibernation of sorts after running into Talulla and swearing that she is the reincarnation of his long-ago werewolf lover. To complicate the already hairy issues that arise from eating people and the existential crises such gory imperatives tend to bring, the usual self-righteously obsessed group of monster-hunters (the Vatican-based Militi Christi has supplanted the now-defunct World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena as The Enemy) is determined to take down all the paranormal monsters (and publicly bring Talulla to the light of God, whom she makes no secret of believing dead) as the human world has slowly begun to accept that it's sharing living space with supernatural apex predators who feed on them, which thoroughly mucks up the vampires' and werewolves' secrecy, plans and whatever degrees of normalcy their respective curses allow them.

What makes a genre that isn't easy (again, for me) to take seriously actually work for this novel and its two predecessors is that Duncan uses supernatural characters to expose otherwise wholly human impulses, fears, motives, and struggles to reconcile reality's ugliness with the individual's impossible wants. Myriad Big Issues--life, death, love, fate, religion--get ample air time as they're examined from all angles by all kinds of beasties. Rather than sticking with a primary point of view like the preceding two books did, By Blood We Live is a story told by its vampires and werewolves alike, allowing the fantastic elements to serve the story rather than the other way around. We get to see their shared sympathetic understanding of each other as well as how each curse affects the afflicted differently through a host of variables ranging from lifespan to mental state to current preoccupations. While this method of storytelling does betray that all of Duncan's characters are prone to similar bouts of matter-of-fact pontificating, it's hard to justify complaining about narrators' common predilection for high-minded observation and ten-dollar words: If nothing else, it turns a currently over-sexed genre into something much more intellectually and emotionally compelling.

The demonstratively reiterated humanity of monsters and monstrosity of humans is an effective somersault of expectations. The werewolves and vampires alike in Duncan's lore feel the lives they've taken swimming through their blood, allowing the until-recently unsympathetically rendered beasts to feel a morally ambiguous mix of secondhand human memories they can only enjoy vicariously, a conflicted dominance over their food source and jealousy of its comparatively uncomplicated existence, and an understanding acceptance of why their prey is eager to rid the world of the unnatural threat it fears. The supernatural cast are but slaves to the biological need for regular slaughter and each have to make their peace with it in order to go on living; the so-called army of God out to destroy Talullah, Remshi and their kin are doing so without the twinges of conscience their supposedly monstrous counterparts suffer. It's a subtle enough shift to underscore the point without beating the reader over the head with it while putting basic human turmoil on a grander stage for better observation.

Of all the recurring elements waltzing through this novel, the echos of Robert Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" was both the most unexpected and the most satisfying, especially as someone (once again, like me) who is just over the moon for Stephen King's Dark Tower series based on the same poem. It is so geekily gratifying as when literary worlds collide, and whispers of Roland's quest resurfacing in the narrative with an increasing frequency as Duncan's story hurdled forward made for recent memory's best surprise comminglings of two unrelated written works. Like Roland, who's the last of his people in both his indigenous poem and King's seven-volume series, Talullah and Remshi know a thing or two about seemingly meaningless, circuitous quests and an unfathomable life span that spreads far beyond the finite days of their natural peers.

The novel ends with confirmation that the war between the non-human factions and mortals is just beginning, and modern times make living under the low-visibility an immortal being needs to avoid becoming an obvious target a more difficult task than it was in the less tech- and surveillance-besotted past. By Blood We Live does both its readers and characters the compliments of an unresolved ending, as a book cannot wax eloquent about the cruelties of the world continuing to forge ahead in the face of death without doing so itself, as it would cheapen the elements of messy truth within to wrap them up with a convenient but wholly unrealistic tidiness. The world Duncan has created for his characters bears a striking resemblance to our real one in that it spins on the axis of life trudging onward well after individual stories end.