The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich

Mike’s review

The plot isn’t the plot and the actual plot would be 100% spoiler. But…Woman comes home to find boyfriend dead, attacked by dogs. Her three rescue dogs covered in blood, she locks herself in bathroom and calls cops on her dogs. In death, more is revealed about the man. He isn’t entirely who he said he is. Every lie reveals more about the tangled life/death of her fiancé.

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I would absolutely put my dog down rather than leaving her in solitary confinement forever.

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The instant placement into scenes is jarring and takes time to figure out where I am, who I’m with (still not sure who Katie is), but I like that it wastes no words. May like it more because I’m being overly verbose in my own writing now. Brevity must be impossible in a collaboration (this was written by two people–Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment–A.J. Rich being their together-pseudonym).

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Hard to allow a reader to see the twist coming and still have the reader say “Fuck you” when it happens.”

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Basically read in a single plane ride, which is one of the most perfect ways to read a book.

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Kind-of spoiler alert for after the next line break.

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Like the day after I read this I fucked a person who said she was going to tell her other lover about it for his pleasure and I freaked the fuck out after just reading about Billie’s power play/trip over Bennett. So, what are the ethics of that? Can you involve Person C verbally in Person B and A’s sex life without Person C’s consent? Is that a form of sexual assault? Why is it that the only time I’ve ever asked a real question in these things, it’s hidden behind a spoiler warning where possibly no one will read it? For the record, I will absolutely let you tell your boyfriend I fucked you.

The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Mike’s review

I may have mentioned that I’m bad about putting these up in a timely fashion once or twice. This is a good example of why it’s important. Here’s what I remember of the plot: the Earth slows its rotation and continues to slow. Days and nights get longer, tides are fucked, that sort of thing. I believe the book follows a teenage girl while this is happening, how the slowing affects her and her family’s life. And that’s all I got. I’m pretty sure I liked it.

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Jacket is sure to mention, “the normal disasters of everyday life,” like the slowing (mind-boggling that it isn’t capitalized the Great Depression or The Fall) is a background for life, but it’s written the other way around, with life in the background. This is a good thing.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson-any input on the physics of this?

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Feel like a stronger delineation between clock night and world night could be helpful. Like using the words clock and real instead of darkday and brightnight.

Your Real Life in Fiction: Hometown & Family

(on “So Boring I Need Drugs,” a story from Mike Bahl’s Scenic Utah)

“Talk a little bit about how your own high school experience may have informed this piece.”

Like anyone else, I hated growing up. It doesn’t really matter if you grow up in a small town or a city, it’s pretty much the worst while you’re in the thick of it. As I look back, I realize I didn’t have it so bad. Somehow the Dodgeville area is a bit of a hippie mecca for Wisconsin. I don’t know why exactly. I’m going to blame Frank Lloyd Wright.

Yeah, I had hard-headed traditionalist teachers, but I also had people who were half a step away from going to live on the streets of San Francisco purely for the adventure of it.

There are farms and bars and abject poverty and weather-ruined buildings (see a WC Tank film for all of this), but there is also great wealth and yoga and farmer’s markets and wind farms. I don’t know. The whole area is weird. But so is everywhere.

If I had grown up in an actual city, I would be fucking dead by now. But it was hard enough to find weed in Dodgeville, let alone meth or coke or heroin. I have no doubt that if I’d grown up with easier access to any of these, I wouldn’t have made it past “growing up.”

I have plans to better express my feelings about the whole area later.

“Is the annoying brother based on a real sibling?”

My brother was no more annoying than anyone’s brother. Here’s something strange: we almost never talk to each other. I don’t know if I’ve ever called him. Maybe a couple of texts or e-mails. I haven’t lived near him for almost ten years at this point. I completely abandoned him when I moved away and I think this really hurt him and made his life harder than it should have been. I went to Wisconsin a couple of months ago and it was like I’d never gone. I always say that he and I are basically the same person and people think I’m joking, but it’s true. We think almost exactly alike. His coworkers, upon hearing that I was coming to visit, said, “Cool, are you guys close?” His response: “Yes. No. Yes. It’s weird. We don’t talk or anything, but yes, absolutely.” We talked about family stuff while I was there and completely agree about things that people in my life think are outlandish. I know that is vague, but I probably shouldn’t rat him out right here. That seems shitty.

I’m rarely happy where I am and when I daydream about moving back to Wisconsin, living with my brother is somewhere near the beginning of that daydream.

“Do you think kids do drugs because they’re bored in general? These kids?”

I did drugs because I was fucking empty inside. But some kids do them because they’re bored. It seems silly, but it’s probably the healthiest reason to do drugs. Boredom passes; vacancy doesn’t. You can kill time. I tried to kill myself (this isn’t strictly true, but close enough to the truth and too good of a soundbite to not include).

To refresh yourself on this series on craft tied to the book Scenic Utah, start here.

Screen reading vs. Paper reading

The other day I was at the beach with the fam and an old girl walked by our sprawl. She saw my mate & I lying in the sand, both of us with a thick hardcover.  “Good for you. I like to see people reading actual books. No one reads books anymore,” she spoke with a thumbs-up gesture. I made one back.

It was only by chance I had a hardback. I do not bring electronics to sandy beaches. Most of my reading I do online via laptop, or on my Kindle e-reader. Or an iPad. Or an iPhone.

Odd how in the past, artists and photographers fetishized the woman in repose, reading. The image suggested rest, or a lovely respite from the world. Nowadays it’s become  a social faux pas, though, to be seen reading in public, especially on a smartphone, a ubiquitous instrument of alienation.

Anything that gets people reading is fine by me. I take my words in any format possible, including audio. In its extreme, when people shame us for screen staring, they are threatened by information gathering on a certain level, which is an anti-knowledge stance. What people are really mad about is attention being diverted from the present moment, which may or may not mean it’s isolating the hater from the gadget user.

Yes, it’s annoying when your mate checks his text ding right in the middle of a sentence. Yes, the urge to check email every five minutes is a chronic disease for even the non-clinical OCD person. But sometimes people are merely looking things up to supplement a discussion point. Does snapping a pic take you out of the moment, or further solidify it by documenting it? The argument can be made that people are reading more and being more creative than ever before thanks to these gadgets.

Once humans can easily get computer implants to gather info from our own “throbbing brains” and the use of such devices is biologically seamless, it will present a new level of discomfort for luddites, so that people who are out there, reading, can be left alone again.

 

 

 

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Mike’s review

I know the last one of these I put up was a disappointed in Lahiri one and I feel like I need to put this one up now to conclude the previous thoughts.

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I don’t remember this much telling in other Lahiri books (specifically The Namesake and Interpreter Of Maladies). I remember vivid descriptions that brought page to life.

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Detachment throughout. Narrator is rarely the true protagonist in a story. Which is intellectually interesting, but makes for a distance between reader and story that feels void of emotion.

Otherness super prevalent in final story by using “you” pronoun. Distressing to be this “you.” Rich, finicky, pain in the ass. Strange to be forced to combine my actual life experiences with this “you” as filtered through “I,” the actual narrator of the story.

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I feel like “Unaccustomed Earth” isn’t the best title for this, but instead should make reference to a search for self or otherness in the title.

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I can’t finish this. Halfway through “Hema and Kaushik” and I give up. A third chapter that switches narrative perspectives and there’s no emotion here for me to feel. Kaushik’s outburst at his step-sisters seems kinda insane and forced and I can’t keep going. Rich white people problems but the characters are Indian.

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Went to GoodReads to see if maybe I misunderstood. First great review: I’m not sure if the reviewer actually read this book, talking about tsunamis and shifting landscape of earth, which aren’t in this book.

Here, Ian summarizes my thoughts better than I can, “Unaccustoed Earth zeroes in on the least interesting dimension of [Lahiri’s] usual subjects: the interior monologues of full assimilated, second-generation Indian-Americans who are ungratefully dissatisfied with their lives of privilege. Her formally melancholic [emphasis mine] insight and pungent descriptions [again, mine] have given way to stale, distant whiffs of unpleasantness that lack gravitas and empathy.”

So, is he also a white male? Are our perspectives skewed because of who we are? Probably. But I don’t aim for this blog to be a cultural criticism because I’m not smart enough to pull that off. I’m only here to talk about my perspective. And with these last couple books, one of the author’s I gushed over has managed to totally turn me off. And that’s sad and I don’t know if that’s because I’m more closed-off than before or if I wouldn’t have liked these books when I was 22, either. But I don’t like them now. I’d love to hear you explain why you like them if you do, though.

Using Symbols in Stories: Arson and Fast Food

(On “Slow Roast,” a story from Mike Bahl’s Scenic Utah)

“What is the slow roast referred to in the title? Is this a reference to global warming, Vonnegutesque in that it’s extremist near future, ecological disaster, drought being the necessary component to foreshadow the story’s final fireball moment?”

I don’t know how old you are, so I don’t know if this will be the same for you, but I remember this drought, exactly like this. I distinctly remember a drought while I was in elementary school. It’s possible this was only actually a heat wave, but this is what I remember. I remember the arid desert in Wisconsin. I remember thinking we were all going to die because God would not bless us with rain (sometimes I push this recovering Catholic theme a little far, but at this time, I was still probably fairly devout as God had not yet abandoned me to the abyss of loneliness). I remember the apocalypse. Now that I live in California, in an actual, legitimately scary drought, I know that I was insane as a child. It’s actually, on a day to day basis, not scary at all. It’s not even noticeable. Which is what’s actually so scary about it. This lack of concrete data in front of your face at all times is what allows my neighbor to (literally) wash the gutter in front of my house with a huge stream of water, which would be crazy even in non-drought conditions.

Yeah, the drought is symbolic and foreshadows the conclusion (especially with all the bullshit flowery asshole metaphors I use throughout this one), but it’s also practical. A cigarette butt can’t start a fire in normal Nebraska conditions.

“His drunk dad feels happy his son got a fast food job. The son has a cig and then burns the house down. Ever worked at a fast food place?”

Yup. It was no worse than anything else, really. Other than the half-priced meals and my fat tits. I was employee of the year once and that shit was the primary feature of my resume forever. It was a Hardee’s, literally two lots away from home, while I was in high school. This short travel distance set me up for unrealistic expectations in terms of future job-related travel. I now have to drive half an hour (usually) to work and it is absolutely the worst. I think about veering into a retaining wall or off an overpass every single day because I hate driving this much. I swear it’s not self-loathing. Probably.

“Ambiguous ending. Should we expect he was offered grief counseling due to his father going up in smoke or that he was prosecuted for arson?”

I’ve literally never considered after.

This story sat inside me forever. The youthful obsession with the drought. And then when I started smoking, this clicked into a constant “what if?” situation. I’d say I had the skeleton of this in my head for three years before I managed to set one word to paper. This skeleton never had an after. It always ended right where it did. The fire happened. There was no coping, no after effects, just destruction. I suppose I was a little more nihilistic when I was in my early twenties than I am now. Even now, when forced to consider after-effects, I can come up with nothing. I have no idea what happens next. I guess you get to decide. A nihilist would just go on with his life like nothing ever happened.

“What about video games makes him a passive viewer of the scene where the house goes up?”

“[L]ike a kid playing a video game” isn’t meant to be the reason for his passivity. His passivity is more just who he is. “[L]ike a kid playing a video game” is where the narrator becomes a self-aware, conscious adult. It’s a subtle change within the text and there are only two sentences afterwards, but that was my intention. Throughout most of the story the narrator is telling the story in the past, but with the eyes of a child. There is no historical perspective/hindsight included. But suddenly he is “like a kid,” when a few sentences before he was most definitely actually a kid. It’s a coming of age in a trial by fire story (I couldn’t resist the pun; I’m sorry).

Mike wrote about the book’s evolution and publishing process here.

Scenic Utah is available for purchase here.

The Note: Writing Around Themes

On The Note (a story in Mike Bahl’s Scenic Utah)

“Would you agree that this short short is about drunk driving and road rage, without using those words in the text exactly? Do you often write “around” themes?”

MB: I considered writing, “I’m going to answer this as directly as possible,” and then writing around using the word yes, but that seems like too much work for a joke that isn’t funny, so I’ll just say yes instead. I live my life “around” themes. People who talk directly about things are scary and weird and did not grow up Catholic in the Midwest.

That said, I think it’s a stretch to say the story is “about” drunk driving and road rage. Certainly they’re a part of it, but I’d say it’s more “about” not saying what you mean/passive aggressiveness (which, I suppose is why it kinda seems like it’s not about anything).

“Is the length meant to reflect the title, in that it’s note-length? Coincidence?”

I titled it after I wrote it, so I can’t call it a coincidence, but this correlation was not my primary consideration.

“Strangers leaving mean notes for each other. makes me think of trolling on the web, leaving anonymous notes on peoples posts, etc. What is your thought about people owning up to their rudeness?”

FIRST

I can’t remember if I actually got this note or not. I’ve certainly been the recipient of these notes at some point and have considered leaving them, but never have because it’s kinda dumb. There was one to the effect of: “If you want to park in front of MY house [on the street] then you had damn well better park farther away [than a foot] from my [very wide and easily negotiable] driveway.” I don’t know. If nothing happened, then why leave the note? What’s it matter?

The Internet is stupid. I’m as secluded on here as I am in real life so I’ve never really gotten into it with anyone so I don’t know how to actually answer this question. I want to say, who gives a shit, but I also recognize that my sensitivity would perhaps respond differently in an actual situation.

“Is his reading the note an atonement for his bad park job? Does he feel like he deserved it?”

Catholics must not talk about their sins except behind a veil. They must be punished for their sins.

“Where is ‘out here’? This is like city vs. country mouse too, then?”

I thought city vs. country was the main conflict in this story, but, like always, it’s man vs. self.

To refresh yourself on this series on craft tied to the book Scenic Utah, start here.