Friday, May 03, 2013

Labor Day: An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my short story "Labor Day":

The chaos before him, the swinging limbs and the splashing water, along with the din of children’s screams, had dissolved into a warm bright haze. The lowering sun and the drink in his hand had turned the whole pool scene into a washed out blur. Labor Day at the neighborhood pool and by all means he should hate it. Forced cordiality, child wrangling, his soft pale paunch hanging slightly over his shorts. He sat some distance from it all. The kids were lost in the throng. He had only to raise a glass to the familiar faces with forgotten first names. And in his semi-reclined position, he would look better. At least it would look like none of it mattered to him. 

His wife was the master at this. Molly knew all the right things to say. She remembered their names, their interests, and could engage them in the sort of light and polite conversation that was safe on an afternoon such as this. Molly had opted to stay home. Laundry and housecleaning. Fair enough. He’d have rather sat in the privacy of his den, the solitude of his garden, but he could do it.

Their children, Mark and Mae, were not of an age where they could be put on their bikes and sent to the pool by themselves. Still, they didn’t require much when they were there. Especially if they had friends to play with.

He’d taken advantage of two adult swims, while the kids huddled under towels, to swim the length of the pool a few times, awakening muscles rarely stirred, and then turned to float on his back. With his ears submerged, the whole world became the sky above him. He floated and heard nothing.

Friday, April 26, 2013

She Knew: An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my short story "She Knew":

When she got the call, she knew. When he didn’t show when he said he would, she knew. He was dead. There was no doubt.

The call came early the next morning while her roommates were still asleep. Kelly was up, taking advantage of the rare quiet in the house, sitting in the kitchen with her coffee. The kitchen was at the south end of the narrow rental house, the sun coming in through parted curtains over the sink. She was struggling through the assigned Henry James when the chirp of her phone made her jump. 

On the phone, Kirk’s friend was full of sympathy for her, but Kelly didn’t cry. How could she be sad for him? Kirk had crashed his motorcycle on the Boulder Turnpike on his way to see her. A truck changed lanes without seeing him. Arrangements were being made for a funeral. 

She would have to go, she knew. Standing in the morning kitchen, twenty-year-old linoleum beneath her toes, she knew she would go to the funeral. She would have to look sad. Wear black. Be sullen. She was his girlfriend. Even though she was going to break up with him. It was really why she’d invited him up to Boulder, despite midterms next week. It was time to end it. Her bad-boy phase was coming to an end. At least that would explain the difference between Kirk and Gavin.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Shoot the Freak: An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my short story "Shoot the Freak":

Alistair balanced himself on the wide boards of the boardwalk and looked first to his right, then to his left. He was amazed by the number of people that were milling about. Coney Island on a sunny October day with temps in the seventies. He’d been told the whole amusement apparatus would be shuttered for the season, so he couldn’t see what would draw so many. It was then that Alistair looked at the ocean.

The low, fall sun reflected off the water and he had to squint to see the mirage. It looked less like water than a misty apparition, surging and heaving off into the sky without horizon. Only once, as a child, had he ever seen the ocean, the Pacific on a trip to San Francisco to visit relatives and to be reluctantly towed through every conceivable tourist attraction, including the elevator ride in Coit Tower and the haunting bars and steel doors of Alcatraz. His only experience with the sea was aboard the rain-soaked deck of a pitching and jumping vessel, clutching a chipped metal rail while keeping his eyes on his feet to avoid the nausea coming on.

The sight of the Atlantic here made him feel, instead, calm. Especially calm after the whirlwind of the past few months. Especially after the events of the day before and the long night that followed.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Skylane: An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my short story "Skylane":

When the plane’s engine stopped sputtering and finally gave out, Lou felt it begin to fall. Even a week later, she could still feel her stomach rise, see the water rushing up towards them, knowing that they were going to crash.

Lou and her husband, Jerry, had survived. Their Cessna Skylane had splashed down not far from shore. They had been able to make it to the sandy beach, shaken and bruised, before help arrived. One piece of broken wing floating on the lightly stirring ocean.

In their condo, four stories above the beach, she looked out past Jerry sitting in his chair at the same calm gulf. Jerry had a bandage high on his bald head. He was reading through an old pair of glasses.

“When are we going to fly again?” It wasn’t the first time since the crash that she’d asked the question.

He looked at her standing in the kitchen, her graying hair full of curlers, waved a fat hand at her and went back to his reading.

“Get back on the horse, you know?”

“You know where the plane is, Mom?” He didn’t look up at her.


“Not exactly in flying condition, is she? Sitting under the water now.”

Friday, April 05, 2013

Save the Tiger: An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my short story "Save the Tiger":

It was around eleven in the morning when he realized his shoes didn’t match. Standing in the breakroom, having poured his cup full of rancid, tepid, but necessary coffee, Matt paused, leaned against the counter to take a sip. And there were his shoes. The right, hard-soled, the toes brought together in a sort of point, the leather shined. The left, still black, but the leather and soles soft, the stitching rough and casual. He really should have noticed. Noticed when he put them on in the dark, when he walked to the car, and through the hours seated at his desk.

He blamed the girls. One of them, either Amy at five, or the older, Naomi at seven, had been playing in the closet and moved his shoes around. Yet there they were, the two shoes paired up, where he would have left the normal pair the previous night.

Still, he smiled. Not at the thought of one mischievously mismatching the shoes. Not at his own foolishness, absentmindedness that would have let him go through the whole morning in shoes that didn’t match. He smiled at the thought of his girls. All else could go wrong in the world, but it would all be okay in the company of Naomi and Amy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Fault: An excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my short story "Fault":

He was probably twelve or thirteen, the same as his son now, when he’d walked into the kitchen to see, spread across the Sunday paper, the pieces of his father’s pistol. Each part laying there as if placed delicately, awaiting cleaning. The black metal was innocent, innocuous. Taken individually one could hardly see the violence in each. Together, though, they were a threat. A threat cared for. A loving task to fill an afternoon. And yet he’d been as nervous as he’d ever been in the vicinity of that gun.

It was only later that Matt realized that he could have stolen one of those pieces, one dull piece, chucked over the back fence and been rid of that threat.

And now, thirty years later, it was as if it was his fault that the gun that pointed at him even existed. That some stranger was threatening him with it. If it fired, if before him there was a tiny explosion that propelled the bullet in his direction, it would be his fault. It would be because he had fled from the kitchen without acting.

It would be one of many reasons. It would be because he had believed that owning this river resort was a good idea. Because he thought he’d spend his evenings near campfires, his days floating the river. His wife could mind the store where they sold bait and sunscreen and gossip. His son would grow up exposed to a variety of people.

And that it wasn’t exactly like that was his fault.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

When the Writing Isn't Easy

Sometimes sitting down to write isn't terribly easy. There is always this balance between letting the mind wander freely, to discover as you progress, and having a thorough plan so you don't just end up wandering pointlessly. This morning, that's where I am. I know the overall course, but I don't want to frame it all out too completely. Yet, I'm afraid to put my pen to the paper without knowing exactly where it is I'm heading. 

I shouldn't worry. I know that. It is a first draft. I will spend a lot of time chopping it up and reshaping it. So, no need to worry about it now. I've read so many novels, though, that seem to go through these periods of wandering. Chapters that seem to serve very little purpose except to stall until the action can advance.

I also am easily hooked on what I've written. Reshaping, reordering, and adding are easy. Stripping away the unnecessary is more difficult. I always look and find hints of what is to come. Elements of the character that seem critical to the reader. How can I cut what is so fundamental?

I need to be harder on my own writing. I need to be willing to be heartless. Also, I must remember that all first drafts are shit. It is always more important to forge on.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Latest Bunch of Short Stories

The demands on a person can be many. From travelling for work to engaging with the children, finding time for other activities (like blogging) can seem practically impossible. That said, the past year has been pretty productive.

Since finishing the last draft of my latest novel manuscript, Another Blade of Grass, and setting it aside before query agents, I returned to short fiction. After spending two years working on a single work, it was a relief to turn to things with entirely different elements. The requirements of short fiction are fewer than the novel. It is easier to try different things, attempt different effects. And I wanted to purge myself of some of the ideas that had been floating around for some time.

I think the change was well worth the effort. I churned out six short stories that are already making the submission-rejection circuit. At least it feels like it's going full circle.

So, over the next few weeks, I'll present excerpts of each of the new stories. Just the first couple of paragraphs to give you a feeling for the direction of the new work. Any feedback you care to give will be appreciated.

Since this bout of short fiction, I've returned to the longer form, spurred on by an idea my wife provided. The notion stirred in my head for a few days, the story ever expanding, and I knew that I'd better get writing.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Book Review: I Curse the River of Time

I Curse the River of Time - Per Peterson

The pace of Per Peterson's I Curse the River of Time is incredibly misleading. The story of immature grown man facing the coming death of his mother is told in three different time frames. The novel slips easily between each and it doesn't feel necessarily important which one the reader might be in.

I say that the pace is misleading because it forever feels as if nothing is happening. The story is told with such a vague melancholy, the words and phrasing soft and slippery, such that you find that you've read many pages without noticing and without anything significant happening.

The book comes off slight, but the mood of it is so pure, so specific that the impression left is significant. This should not imply that the novel is shallow. Indeed, as should any book that is at its core about death, it gets deep.  On the subject Peterson writes, "the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realize that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone forever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember."

While I Curse the River of Time is much different from Out Stealing Horses, it is well worth the easy read.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: A Good Man Is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories - Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor ranks among my favorite authors and rereading her collection of short stories A Good Man is Hard to Find was a great pleasure. O'Connor manages to be both profound and shocking with every story. Some of the turns the stories take seem almost cliche now because of how often they are cited and reused. Still, it remains a requirement to study the craft and skill in these stories.

I do not see O'Connor, though, as a Christian writer. Much is made over the moments of grace in her stories. I understand it, but I think they are as common as the epiphanies in Joyce's stories. Each story has a moment where things turn, where a character has an opportunity to change, to react, to accept. These moments of realization and their aftermath are usually what make a story resonate with a reader. We wonder, maybe only subconsciously, if we would have reacted the same. Would we, as the grandmother in the title story, sought some sort of redemption from the man we know is going to kill us? Would we have the same prejudices as Hulga in "Good Country People" that allow her to fall victim to the bible salesman? What persists for the reader are the wrong choices, the opportunities missed. Each character is complicit in his or her fate.

I don't see this as Christian. I might, instead, argue that its existential, It is through one's actions that he or she exists. The decisions these characters make make them who they are and lead them to their fate.

You should know I love these stories. And if you care a lick about the craft of fiction, your copy should be as well worn as mine.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

There is a long list of books weighing on my conscience. That list of books that I should have read by now. And after the enjoyment I got out Jane Eyre, I thought Pride and Prejudice should be the next to cross off that list. And, though I'm happy to have removed another from that long list, the experience was far from pleasurable.

Pride and Prejudice is the superficial tale of Lizzie Bennet's quest to be married to the abominable Mr. Darcy. She resists, she is willful, but Jane Austen shows us that this was a mistake of prejudice. She was mistaken in her judgement and should, therefore, accept her suitor.

There are a slew of other marriages in the book, some more appropriate and fortuitous than others. But have no doubt, Pride and Prejudice is centered around the marriage plot. Sure, there is critique of the "condescension" of the upper classes, as there is of the pride there is in all of us that allows us to form unfounded judgments of others. Subject matter aside, there is nothing to make this book enjoyable.

The writing itself is dull and without any discernible style. Where Austen does exhibit skill is in characterization. She draws her characters distinctively, even if much of that distinctiveness comes from the prejudicial perspective of other characters.  Lizzie's father is a distinctive, though secondary character. He is used to deliver some of the novel's best critiques, all with a point of view belonging to the character.

Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.... To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.

I cannot see what has forced Pride and Prejudice to persist on these lists of classic novels. I'd have been happy to skip it. But I can at least take pleasure in the bold line that crosses out the title.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

20 Essential Albums: The Winners and the Runners-Up

My life has been changed by many, many great albums. Some have found a special place because of the memories associated with them, the particular time in my life they became important. Others are just so musically brilliant and honest that they deserve as much attention as as they can get. To recap, here's the full list of my 20 essential albums, plus more that nearly made the cut.

The Winners
The Head on the Door - The Cure
Shabooh Shoobah - INXS
The Nymphs - The Nymphs
OK Computer - Radiohead
Bakesale - Sebadoh
Goat - The Jesus Lizard
Rubber Soul - The Beatles
In the Flat Field - Bauhaus
Daydream Nation - Sonic Youth
Bone Machine - Tom Waits
Bleach - Nirvana
Rid of Me - PJ Harvey
Either/Or- Elliott Smith
First and Last and Always - The Sisters of Mercy
Way to Blue - Nick Drake
Surfer Rosa/Come on Pilgrim - The Pixies
The Smiths - The Smiths
The Vortex Flower - Space Team Electra
Love - The Cult
Nothing's Shocking - Jane's Addiction

The Runners-Up
There are many albums that probably deserved to be on this list.  Here are some of them:
13 Songs - Fugazi
Are You Experienced? - The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Check Your Head - Beastie Boys
Closer - Joy Division
Darklands - The Jesus and Mary Chain
Disintegration - The Cure
The Doors - The Doors
Dry - PJ Harvey
Elastica - Elastica
Express - Love and Rockets
Facelift - Alice in Chains
Gish - Smashing Pumpkins
Goo - Sonic Youth
Hee-Haw - The Birthday Party
I Think I’m Gonna Be Sick - Dandelion
Junk Culture - Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me - The Cure
ListenLike Thieves - INXS
Low-Life - New Order
Louder than Love - Soundgarden
The Man Who Sold the World - David Bowie
Nocturne - Siouxsie and the Banshees
Purple Rain - Prince and the Revolution
Rain Dogs - Tom Waits
Reckoning - REM
Revolver - The Beatles
Some Great Reward - Depeche Mode
Unknown Pleasures - Joy Division
Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground
Violent Femmes - Violent Femmes
XO - Elliott Smith

Friday, June 01, 2012

20 Essential Albums: Nothing's Shocking

Jane’s Addiction’s second album Nothing's Shocking may have been released in 1988, but it didn’t come to my attention until sometime in 1990.  The flamboyance of singer Perry Ferrell and of the guitar playing of Dave Navarro was perfect for the times. I played the record frequently for several years, each of the songs encouraging the brashness required to rebel against conformity, an enticement to live life outside the standards.

Of course, anything this good is somewhat diminished when everyone seems to like it. But it doesn’t stop songs like “Mountain Song” from being phenomenal.  Like most good alt-rock, the bass plays a central role, the guitar rolls and slides over the top, and the vocals sound like a full-throated provocation. And we can’t ignore the ever-present “Jane Says”. An acoustic stand-alone, the song sounded like something different, like life in another town, where people are more laid-back, and there’s no such thing as convention.

Jane’s followed this up with Ritual de lo Habitual, another great album with perfect singles and even better epics, like the masterpiece “Three Days.” For me, Nothing's Shocking  lasts; it was the one that carried me through three or more residences and in and out and back into the same relationship in the early 1990’s.  A great album today, it will still take me back to those days when the weather’s hot and I want to have a few choice words with the rest of society.

Friday, May 25, 2012

20 Essential Albums: Love

The cover of The Cult’s second album Love struck me as purposefully sinister, satanic maybe, when I first saw it in the mall record store.  And then my best friend brought the record home.  The music was sinister, but in a good way.  The bass throbs and the guitars play in the high frequencies only.  It was heavy metal for the goth set.

The singles from the album, released in 1985, were in frequent rotation at the underage dance clubs we used to go to.  The fortune cookie smell of the fog pumped into the room, the lights flashing, dancing with your eyes half-closed.  Listen to “The Rain” and you’ll know what I mean.  Close your eyes and you can see the strobe lights flashing.

But the record isn’t just good for those sorts of memories.  It still stands up as a classic.  Though “She Sells Sanctuary” is overplayed now on retro radio. The combination of straight-ahead rock elements with darkness of gothic rock was one I would continue to search for in new music. The Cult moved to just straight-ahead rock with their next release, Electric in 1986.  It was a great record if you were also a fan of AC-DC, but it was all downhill for The Cult after this.

Friday, May 18, 2012

20 Essential Albums: The Vortex Flower

I had the benefit of knowing the members of Space Team Electra and maybe that makes me a little bias. I knew them when they went by the name Dive, hung out with them, played shows with them.  I probably still would have liked them even if their music hadn’t been this good.  But it was awe-inspiring. To put it mildly.

The Vortex Flower came out in 1998, long after I’d seen them the first time, after they’d dropped some of the songs I’d liked best live.  But the album was no let down.  From the first strums of “Shadow” as the drums come in, Space Team Electra proves to be force.  The songs transcend and sore, dripping and dreamy, loud and pounding.

Of course, Space Team Electra would not be the same without the voice of Myshel Prasad. Listen closely to “Luminous Crush.” From the first line, “I’ve seen an angel lose his wings in flight before,” she sings softly, gently, as if it is only the two of you in the room.  But by the time the chorus comes on, she’s loud.  She has something important to declare when she sings “I tried to give my heart and soul and mind away / but you don’t understand a single word I say.”  Whomever she is singing to should really regret that.

I would take another twenty albums that sound like The Vortex Flower. Space Team Electra did put out another full-length, The Intergalactic Torch Song, but it would hard for anything else they would do to sound like this.  I’d been happy to listen, though.

Friday, May 11, 2012

20 Essential Albums: The Smiths

The Smiths’ singer Morrissey gets tagged as mopey, but the music here on the their first album, the self-titled The Smiths (1984) is not that depressing. Okay, there are lines like “slap me on the patio/I’ll take it now”, or “I need advice / nobody ever looks at me twice”. This album was the reflection of all the agony associated with an adolescent’s anxiety over girls and the general disinterest of the world.  Best played on a cold winter’s day, while sad about something.

While “How Soon Is Now?”, from the Smiths’ second album Meat Is Murder, became the big Smiths hit, it was a one off.  This album, with its arpeggiated guitar chords, was more typical. It was really was Morrissey, and his lyrics, that made this album.  The stories in the words inspired me to sit down and sort out the words to all of the songs. Somewhere in my closet a notebook is hiding that has them all scrawled out in blue ink.

The stand out track here has always been for me “Hand In Glove.”  Musically, the song is upbeat. No descending bass lines, no echoey guitars or vocals sung through murky depths.  Yet, sing along and you won’t really be uplifted. Morrissey sings, “And if the people stare, then the people stare / oh, I really don’t know and I really don’t care,” and “For the good life is out there somewhere / so stay on my arm you little charmer / but I know my luck too well / and I’ll probably never see you again.” Good stuff. Don’t let your mom listen too closely.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Book Review: Goodbye, Columbus

Goodbye, Columbus - Philip Roth

First, I should admit that I didn't know that Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus is a book of stories.  It was disappointing to realize this after being so drawn into the characters and narrative of the title story.  Thankfully this story, of a young Newark man's  involvement with a wealthier girl from Short Hills, makes up nearly half of the book's pages.

The book is more about Jewish-ness than any of Roth's novels I've read previously. Even Portnoy's Complaint, centered around a Jewish boy's upbringing, is more about coming of age that it is about being Jewish.  I am not Jewish, but this lack of connection with the text does not leave me feeling disconnected from the stories.  Roth has an ability to draw me in, to get me involved, that overcomes an unfamiliarity with any of the subject matter.

It is easy to think of any of the masters like Roth as stodgy. The enduring success seems like a product of conventional storytelling. Roth, though, always surprises. And does it well. The title story is conventional, the close third person and subject matter all standard. Other stories, though, venture further afield. Other characters are less standard stock, and Roth takes us there with them.

While Goodbye, Columbus will not be one of my favorites, or even one of my favorites Roth books, it has only further convinced me of his abilities.

Friday, May 04, 2012

20 Essential Albums: Surfer Rosa/Come on Pilgrim

Before “Where Is My Mind?” appeared in Fight Club and commercials and covers, The Pixies’ double-album CD Surfer Rosa/Come on Pilgrim was a fantastic record. Maybe it’s because I didn’t go to college straight out of high school, but the term “college rock” has never meant much to me.  But is a term that inevitably arises when discussing the Pixies.

The album came out of the many that were dumped on me by friends that worked at Denver’s Wax Trax record store. Surfer Rosa, originally released in 1998, was paired with the EP Come on Pilgrim, and released on CD in 1992.  For me, the album was the soundtrack to a hot summer spent in a dusty garden-level apartment. Not college.

For all the depth and darkness in my favorite music, this record is remarkable carefree. Fun, even. There’s no reason to doubt why “Where Is My Mind?” has become a popular song, but the album to me was more characterized by songs like “Cactus” and “Vamos.” Everything about the album is little quirky, including the lyrics with lines like “If we get bored we’ll move to California,” and “Run outside with your dress all wet and send it to me.”

The Pixies have some good songs on some other albums, but none are as good as those here.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Book Review: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It - Maile Meloy

One of the New York Times Book Review Best Books of 2009, Maile Meloy's collection of short stories Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, is so full of adultery that one might think it belongs to a different generation.  It would be easy to believe that each of these stories was written in the 1970s. Broken families, naked adults in hot tubs, it's all here.

Subject matter aside, these are good stories, adequate in the story telling, creative in their invention, the variety of situations. Where they fail for me is in the amount of exposition.  So much here requires or is given explanation, separating the reader from the story, from our own discovery, that I wanted to take a pen to the book and strike whole paragraphs.

It may very well be that I am sensitive to this issue, conscious to try and avoid the same thing in my own writing. It may be as well that I favor the stripped-down storytelling of Raymond Carver. I am willing to forgive a lot in a novel, but in a short story I don't expect to be removed from the action to be offered an explanation of something that could be made apparent within the story itself.

Friday, April 27, 2012

20 Essential Albums: Way to Blue

It is generally a good idea to ignore an artist’s biography when considering the art itself.  But the sadness in the songs of Nick Drake is only made stronger, more profound, when we learn of the difficulties Drake had in the world. Difficulties that would lead him to take his own life. The songs on the compilation Way to Blue, released in 1994, give off the sense of someone not fit for living in the outside world, but someone still trying to express himself in it.

The songs here come from three albums recorded in the early 70s, obvious with the overuse of strings on some of the songs. Without Nick Drake there would be no ElliottSmith, no Iron and Wine, no Bon Iver. Sure there’s the typical acoustic, singer-songwriter sense from the era, but the breathy vocals, the reflection, set the way for some of the alternative singer-songwriters of today.

Nick Drake was barely known outside of England when he was alive, but with this release he earned a lot of attention in the US.  “Pink Moon” appeared in VW commercials, other songs appeared on movie soundtracks, “Northern Sky” was my wedding song. But look to a song like “Black-Eyed Dog” to get a sense that goes deeper than the popular settings around the more familiar songs.  Drake’s voice is strained, the guitar sounds like the empty room in which it is played, as he sings “growing old and I wanna go home / growing old and I don’t wanna know.”