Archive for the 'Short story' Category

Tom Robbins ‘Lite’ fails to quench readerly thirsts

Years ago, while in university, I used to enjoy the sly, self-reflexive playfulness of Tom Robbins’s early books. In fact, somewhere between Aldous Huxley and Stephen King I went through a Tom Robbins phase. So it was with a certain sense of nostalgia and curiosity that I picked up his most recent book, B is for Beer.

B is for BeerI wish I could report Robbins and I hit it off again like old chums, but one of us has changed. Billed as an adult book for children and a children’s book for adults, B is for Beer is a slim, sappy little tale I can’t imagine appealing to either group. The story, whose kindly narrator is always talking down to the reader, transports Gracie, our six-year-old heroine, to the mystical reaches beyond “the seam,” a sort of parallel otherworld. There she learns all about, what else? Beer. Her guide is none other than the Beer Fairy.

Perhaps it doesn’t look so bad sketched out like that, but the result manages to be so boring and predictable I felt like I missed the transcendent intoxication part and went straight to the hangover.

Much of the text, for example, is devoted to Wikipedia-type information on the origins of beer and methods for brewing it. And although you might expect a stylist like Robbins could overcome those shortcomings with some prose pyrotechnics, such is not the case.

Many of the figurative devices are either incomprehensible, juvenile, or both:

“The week passed as slowly as a snowman’s gas.”

“…if good looks were two flakes of snow, she could provide nesting grounds for half the earth’s penguins.”

“…her bright and bouncy little life seemed to lie scattered in pieces, like a disco ball after an earthquake.”

And then there are the preachy little asides like this one:

“Some brewers will leave particular beers unfiltered, however, so they can continue to age in the bottle. Children such as you, Gracie, are best left unfiltered while you age, although some parents and institutions, regrettably, do attempt to filter the young souls in their charge.”

And many, many puns and other wordplay:

“…(for a time she believed yeast to be the opposite direction of west)…

Oh Tom. Stop. You’re killing me.

If all that isn’t enough to leave a bad aftertaste consider the cover price: $24.99 for what is essentially a hard-covered short story. (I wisely borrowed from the library.) However many bottles of beer those $25 bucks might buy, I promise you they’ll bring more amusement than this little belch of a book.

Bottoms up.

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Time-traveling with Harlan Ellison

When you return to a writer you loved in your youth, it is also in some sense to return to the person you once were. If you’re lucky, the cringe factor will be slight in both cases.

I’ve had the opportunity to do a little literary time-traveling with the recent release of the bio-doc Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is an entertaining look at the life and world of science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Has there ever lived a more pugnacious, irascible writer? ‘Prickly’ would be another apt word. (The film’s trailer is embedded below — you’ll get a pretty good sense of the type of guy he is in two-and-a-half minutes.)

It’s been said that if we’re really lucky, not only do the books from which we will most benefit find their way into our hands, they’ll do so at exactly the most opportune moments of our lives. I’ve always thought Ellison had pretty good timing that way. I was a geeky, outsider adolescent in the 1970s when I first stumbled on his work and I was immediately transfixed by that voice: clear, angry, fearless, smart — and with a conscience.

Here was another apparent outsider who felt the same way about many of the things I did. I nibbled at his short fiction but positively devoured his essays and other non-fiction, such as his scathing indictments of ’60s and ’70s television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. I can remember buying his short story anthologies just so I could read his introductions; now and then I’d finish one of the stories, too, but more often than not I’d put them away until the next impassioned diatribe came along.

After watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth I thought I’d dip back into his work and see how it’s held up. Tellingly, despite the many culls my book collection has undergone over the years (seven boxes punted before the last move), I’ve never quite managed to let go of the handful of Ellison books I own. These now have faded, creased covers, missing dust jackets and some with a shaky name inscribed by a 14- or 15-year-old mini me.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the short story collection Approaching Oblivion, which encapsulates both Ellison’s tone and worldview. He refers to a letter he received from a James Chambers, who has described the four Kent State university students who were killed when the National Guard opened fire at a demonstration as “communist-led revolutionaries, hooligans and anarchists.”

Now that scares the piss out of me.

That is approaching oblivion. It is reaping the whirlwind of half a decade of Nixon/Agnew brainwashing and paranoia. It is a perfectly apocryphal example of the reconditeness to which The Common Man in our time clings with such suicidal ferocity. I won’t go into my little dance about the loathesomeness of The Common Man, nor even flay again the body of stupidity to which “commonness” speaks. I’ll merely point out that the Ellison who believed in the revolutionary Movement of the young and the frustrated and the angry in the Sixties, is not the Ellison of the Seventies who has seen students sink back into a charming Fifties apathy (with a simultaneous totemization of the banalities and mannerisms of those McCarthy Witch-Hunt Fifties), who has listened long and hard to the Chambers letter and hears in it a tone wholly in tune with the voice of the turtle heard in the land, who — when the defenses are down in the tiny hours after The Late Late Show — laments for all the martyrs who packed it in, in the name of “change,” only to turn around a mere five years later and see the status returned to quo.

I still find that compelling, but maybe not quite as much as I once did. Can any indignation burn as hot or self-righteously as adolescent indignation? And the angry writer, angry Jew schtick in Dreams With Sharp Teeth strikes me at times as simply wearisome. OK — everyone in the world has their heads up their butts except him. Whatever.

The short stories in Approaching Oblivion are uneven. (Yes, all these years later I’ve managed to read all 11.) Despite the strange and bleak futures they depict, they serve as strong indicators of the age in which they were written. Many carry the burdensome freight of a really important MESSAGE. Some show signs of quaintness, a susceptibility to which science fiction, as it ages, seems particularly prone. For example, in “Hindsight: 480 Seconds,” one man is left alone on earth to record for posterity the death of the earth when an asteroid hits. And what does he record his thoughts on? “Memory cassettes.” I guess at least they weren’t “Memory Eight-tracks.”

In “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” a successful man travels back in time to visit the persecuted boy he once was. Like re-reading Ellison, the experience is tinged with various parts excitement, nostalgia and sadness. You really can’t go back again. Sometimes it’s the memories of things that are best savoured, and not the thing itself.

But I’m still not getting rid of his books.

Baby, it’s c-c-c-c-cold outside!

winter.jpgWe’ve been enduring a prolonged cold snap here in the heart of the bleak Canadian winter, complete with frozen water pipes and killing wind chills.

Things break down or just get sluggish in these conditions, including cars, snowblowers and bloggers. Lassitude creeps in; maybe it’s brought on by having to wear long underwear much of the time, or twice daily blow-drying the ice out of a pipe in the basement. We scurry from house to bus to work, heads bent earthward to escape the searing cold. Where has the horizon gone? Is it still there?

Then there’s been news of an absolutely stupefying sort. Two little girls, ages 3 and 15 months, froze to death on a Saskatchewan native reserve earlier this week; details are still emerging, but it appears to be a case of neglectful parenting.

The heart breaks; the blood runs cold. Man versus nature, man versus man, or man versus self?

It’s gotten me thinking about quite a few things, but among them, winter. And I mean the good old-fashioned it’s-so-cold-it-hurts-to-breathe Prairie winter.

There is some great cold weather writing out there, which surely begins with Jack London and “To Build a Fire.” For many of us this is an early reading favourite straight out of grade school. Here is a description of the story’s main character:

The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.

Oh dear. You can see what’s coming next, can’t you? Still, after all these years, a gripping read…

Another personal favourite is The Last Place on Earth by Roland Huntford, which aside from being great adventure/biography, is also a terrific book on leadership. It’s about the race for the South Pole between Britain’s Robert Scott and Norway’s Roald Amundsen. Here’s a passage about Scott’s attempted return from the pole after finding Amundsen had already beaten him there.

The five men were crammed into a tent made for four. It was an eerie experience to live cheek by jowl with one of the number losing his reason. They could not know if Evans would turn violent, but most of the time he seemed sunk in a stupor, scarcely conscious of what was happening around him. In any case, they were all tired, hungry, weak and sluggish with cold and malnutrition. Nobody — least of all Wilson, the doctor — had any desire to face mental derangement at close quarters, when they could not bear to look too deeply into their own minds.

Maybe we’re all nursing a mild stir-crazy depression in conditions like these. I’m sure it probably taxes us more than we care to admit.

I’m going to keep looking for a few more passages about the cold, but now that it’s warmed up to minus 20 celsius, my interest is waning. Maybe you can help me fill out the list. The pipes, the pipes are calling….

Stay warm. Hug somebody. Don’t put your tongue on a lamppost.

It was a dark and stormy writing book

Writers and aspiring writers know the first sentence is where they should deploy their freshest bait, their best pickup lines and, when all else fails, their most irrefutable strong-arm tactics.

20789862_b9c013396b.jpgWhether it’s seduction, fishing, or just grabbing them by the lapels, first sentences succeed when they lead readers to the second sentence. This holds true for novels, short stories, newspaper articles, letters, news releases, magazine features, essays, works of non-fiction, backs of cereal boxes and ransom notes.

OK. Maybe you’d read the entire ransom note regardless of the quality of its first sentence. Assuming it’s to do with someone you care about. But everything else needs to be compelling enough to draw you in.

Which is why I find most of the examples that follow a little disappointing. They are the first sentences in books about the craft of fiction writing — some by reasonably well-known authors, others not so well-known at all.

Have a look at these five and see which inspire you to run out and read their writing books or, better still, their works of fiction.

You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want to write, so let’s write.

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.

I have listened to smart, well-educated people talk in circles, obsessively, even angrily, on the subject of the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

The sound of the language is where it all begins and what it all comes back to.

To teach creative writing, or to be taught it, is a paradox.

Hmm….some of these sound like tough-sledding, don’t they? It’s unfortunate because they are all quite respectable writers with valuable insights to share. Is it too much to want them to communicate a little passion for something they’ve devoted their lives to?

Shouldn’t their first sentences be lit fuses?

Feel free to share your own examples — good, bad or tough-sledding.

Amuse bouche*: Lorrie Moore

Here is a strong opening from a short story by Lorrie Moore called “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

self-help.jpg11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is just a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.

‘Oh well,’ said Bob, getting up off the floor. ‘Now I’m just a thing of her kittenish past.’

That’s the way with Bob. He’ll say to the cat, ‘You be a good girl now, honey,’ and then just shrug, go back downstairs to his apartment, play jagged creepy jazz, drink wine, stare out at the wintry scalp of the mountain.

There are a couple of things conspiring here to quicken a reader’s interest:

  • A dated, diary-like entry, but with a curious use of the second-person perspective, which comes with all those imperatives — “Understand…,” “Recall….”
  • Strong imagery, such as “Guttural as a German chanteuse,” “familiar and furry as mold…,” “wintry scalp of the mountain”
  • And some well-observed details about cats: “a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend.”

The first sentence also begs the question — Why does the narrator need help, anyway? The diary device promises privileged, inside information and narrows the gap between writer and reader. At the same time, the unique prism of the second-person perspective filters the speaker’s voice into a weird and compelling light.

I haven’t read anything else by Moore, but after reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I plan to.   

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia