Things I have tried having opinions about

  • Things I’ve read multiple news articles on, and therefore consider myself vaguely informed about: Like most things, this is a mixture of fun and anxiety. More so these days, when there’s so much news and so much bad news.
  • Entertainment I’ve consumed: This is fun when I think I’m learning something useful about storytelling and art. It’s less fun when I disagree with other people’s opinions and get bogged down thinking about stupid details. The nice thing about having a blog is that you can just bitch at the blog and feel vaguely accomplished.
  • Entertainment I’ve never consumed, e.g., TV series I’ve never watched: I swear I’m not kidding. For some reason, several years ago, I thought it might be relaxing to skim the TV forums, read other people’s thoughtful and impassioned arguments over some random show’s storylines/characters/romances/fictional moral quandaries/offensiveness/quality of writing and direction/spoilers/promotional trailers, and mentally sift out the most defensible positions for myself. There is a certain show, which I refuse to name, of which I have watched maybe sixty seconds total and about which I still hold ridiculously strong opinions* that I obtained, magpie fashion, from total strangers. In retrospect, this was an inadvisable method of relaxation.
  • Word choice in translations of languages I don’t read, write, speak, or comprehend: I even have a tag for this.

*The storyline with the baby? Gratuitous, sexist, formulaic, pandering. Don’t get me started.


Notes on a description

“This is from Chapter Two, Part 4, of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. The protagonist, immigrant professor Timofey Pnin, has just had all his teeth pulled:

A warm flow of pain was gradually replacing the ice and wood of the anaesthetic in his thawing, still half-dead, abominably martyred mouth. After that, during a few days he was in mourning for an intimate part of himself. It surprised him to realize how fond he had been of his teeth. His tongue, a fat sleek seal, used to flop and slide so happily among the familiar rocks, checking the contours of a battered but still secure kingdom, plunging from cave to cove, climbing this jag, nuzzling that notch, finding a shred of sweet seaweed in the same old cleft; but now not a landmark remained, and all there existed was a great dark wound, a terra incognita of gums which dread and disgust forbade one to investigate. And when the plates were thrust in, it was like a poor fossil skull being fitted with the grinning jaws of a perfect stranger.

“[…] Nabokov, as he often does, takes big risks with figurative language in his description. He’s likening sensations to objects when he talks about the ‘ice and wood of the anesthetic.’ It works because these objects so rightly represent the way the anesthetic makes the mouth feel—frozen (you can’t properly control the muscles of the mouth and tongue and lips the way you can’t when you’ve been sucking ice, and you can feel things but only dully, also in a way that recalls the post-ice-sucking sensation) and wooden (dull, heavy, strangely solid in a manner that becomes more apparent when contrasted against the ‘warm flow of pain’ that replaces it, which is rightly given liquid and thawing qualities.)”

—Kyle Minor, in this essay

I sort of want to quote the whole piece.

Short story: “Her Old Home”

“Her Old Home,” by Can Xue, as translated from Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018

About 12 pages, which comes to about 6,348 words

I didn’t get the ending. What is Zhou Yizhen’s state of mind now? It seems she’s trying to forget her rather exhilarating and exhausting emotional journey. This simple place from her past seems to have overwhelmed her. And maybe she prefers to cut herself off from her past relationships than to live with the confusion they cause her. I’m not sure.

The magical, dreamlike, somehow simultaneously mundane quality of everything that happens reminds me of “A Village After Dark.” None of it is impossible, but most of it is marvelously implausible.

Flash fiction story: “Absolution”

“Absolution,” by Aaron Emmel

Appeared in Every Day Fiction, January 15th, 2019

1,004 words, but I’ll round down

I’m impressed with this. I wasn’t totally clear on how the air attack worked, especially on the first read, but I got the general idea: he believed he had to kill some to save the rest.

Who hasn’t replayed a conversation in their head to make it come out better, or rehearsed one ahead of time? I think the actual conversation went as badly as it did because the protagonist was too consumed by guilt to explain himself properly. On some level he wanted the other man to hate him, to attack him.

Semicolon watch: Two. One of them makes the sentence flow nicely; the other is after a dialogue tag and doesn’t feel right or correct to me.

Short story: “Mona Sparrow”

“Mona Sparrow,” by Lauren Green

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018

A little over 12 pages; 12 pages would be about 6,348 words

Ah, the capricious loves and hates of children (or rather, young teenagers). The way bullying can turn vicious for no apparent reason, and choose a different victim as though at random. What looks like kindness emerges in the main character’s behavior—more than once—but don’t trust it for a second.

I suppose this is a good example of magic realism. The magical elements come gradually, one by one.

Semicolon watch: Noticed a few casual ones, connecting short independent clauses.

Flash fiction story: “This Is What I Know”

“This Is What I Know,” by Haley Biermann

Appeared in Every Day Fiction on January 14th, 2019

796 words

Great voice. I thought the various fantasy versions of “Charles” were cute.

Short story: “The Gifts of War”

“The Gifts of War,” by Margaret Drabble

Appeared in Winter’s Tales 16 in 1970; collected in A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories; also in the anthology Into the Widening World: International Coming-of-Age Stories, edited by John Loughery

About 16 pages in my library’s copy of A Day in the Life; ? words

A story of accidental cruelty that has stuck with me for years. Now that I think about it, the plot sort of reminds me George Saunders’ “Puppy,” but this story is quieter and the heartbreak happens onstage, from an outsider’s point of view. The clash between different social classes is similar too. As in “Puppy,” the point of view stays close to one character and then switches to another about halfway through, at a section break. This story is way more successful at differentiating the two voices.

If there’s a social message/satire intended here, I don’t get it. The title and epigraph seem out of place to me. I see it as loss-of-innocence story, with the college kids’ naive politics being nothing more of a foil for the unhappy woman’s jadedness and involuted life. Joyce Carol Oates actually described this as “an antiwar story” in the New Yorker, so consider me entirely out of the loop on this one.

I first read this in the coming-of-age anthology mentioned above, and I’m still not sure which character is supposed to be coming of age.

Flash fiction story: “Complicity”

“Complicity,” by Claire Bourke

Appeared in Every Day Fiction, January 9th, 2019

963 words

I really like the way the story holds back on the reveal till near the end, and how the reveal gives this line new resonance: “I had no boundaries, I was everything.”

Early on, I was confused about whether Robert was the husband, because they were mentioned right alongside each other. I kept that in mind to some extent as I continued reading. My slight confusion seems appropriate, and the interruption in my experience of the story worked for me, despite perhaps breaking the flow of what John Gardner calls “the fictional dream.” (The author says in the comments that this was intentional.)

I like the husband’s sneering use of the marketing term “messaging.”

Novelette: “Waiting for Kizer”

“Waiting for Kizer,” by Joyce Carol Oates

Appeared in Conjunctions:71, A Cabinet of Curiosity, Fall 2018

25 pages in the magazine, which makes approximately 13,225 words

Very odd. The canoe accident must be the point of divergence between the three men, in which case (Maynard) must be going by his middle name. But the oddity starts before (Matt) and (Matthew) even meet, when Smith has two very similar but not identical interactions with the hostess. It would seem as though he’d had a bout of amnesia—a stroke perhaps—except that the hostess would have to have suffered simultaneously from the same affliction. There’s another switch when the joke is told twice, and another when the first two men meet (Maynard) twice. So two breaks with realism: doppelgängers from drastically different timelines (each branching off from the canoe) and jumps across very subtly different timelines (between some of the numbered sections).

The effect is not what I would call dreamlike—it’s too matter of fact, too “realistic,” despite the Oatesian narration that occasionally, in small ways, flirts with stream of consciousness: some very short paragraphs and some eccentric mental leaps. If I were reading this in a science fiction magazine under another byline, I would expect at least a hint of an explanation, perhaps an accident with a dimension-hopping machine.

More oddity: There’s a hint that (Matt)’s son is either a suicide bomber or a victim of a bomb threat prank. And then (Matthew) implies that he knows something about (Matt)’s son that’s painful to (Matt) and his wife—is that a third break from realism? And (Matt) doesn’t seem quite sure whether his wife had a miscarriage early in their marriage, which is a pretty wild thing to forget, and then he recalls her accusing him of “coercing her into having children” after painting quite the opposite portrait—another break?

All in all, a satisfyingly mystifying puzzle. But is it more than that? I fear I’m selling it short. Is it also a psychological portrait of Smith, expressed as the meeting of his potential other selves? There are also allusions to Godot and “The Metamorphosis” (I feel a little pretentious just pointing them out). They seem to exist just to hint at the absurd and the uncanny.

I notice the first two men both have watches as well as cell phones. I wonder if that’s typical of men their age.

Whoa I did not know this

“[I]t’s a well-known fact of academia that the more prestigious your institution, the lower their academic standards. At my MFA we had no papers or grades. My good friends who’re paying twenty thousand a year to do the Vermont College of the Fine Arts children’s literature MFA have to do so much work!”

—Rahul Kanakia (x)