alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions


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The History of the World, by Veronica Chambers

This story is in the collection It’s All Love; Black Writers on Soul Mates, Family & Friends.

The ‘love’ angle is that it roughly parallels three Black couples: 2 in New York & 1 in Chicago. The main character is Panamanian and lives in Brooklyn; she speaks Spanish, dates a gypsy cab driver, and works as a nanny for the dissatisfied Evelyn Cooper, wife and mother-of-two, who lives on Park Avenue, “in a stadium-sized apartment with the same marble floors and well-appointed furniture you might find in a bank or an old-money hotel.” The nanny parts reminded me of this interesting NYT article about the politics of Black women nannying for wealthy Black families.

That’s 2 sets of couples. The 3rd couple? From Chicago? When they appeared I thought, hmm, I wonder if that’s supposed to…nah. But sure enough, they live in an “itsy-bitsy house in the suburbs”, and “his wife actually thinks Ann Taylor is a big-name designer.” Then there’s a speech at a political convention and the man starts appearing on TV. Then he announces his bid for the presidency.

As you might imagine, the presidential aspirations of this modest Chicago couple are the bend in the story around which all the characters must flow, exposing their ideas about friendship, love, class, gold-digging, the Peace Corps (“Please, travel in college hardly counts”), and mushroom risotto.

This was my first encounter with a pair of fictional Obamas, but I’ve got a feeling it’s not the last.

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A Nomad of the Night, by Rupert Holmes

Edgar Allan Poe, 1848, Library of Congress

Edgar Allan Poe, 1848, Library of Congress

This is the story that caused me to add On A Raven’s Wing to my already overburdened bookshelf. I read a Rupert Holmes novel once before. It was Swing. It had a CD bound into the back cover, with music the author had composed and which was supposed to contain clues to the mystery. This automatically made me think it must be a bad book. (One song was called ‘Beef Lo Mein’; this made it 1% better.)

I was interested in the setting – murder at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition- and went bravely ahead. Pretty good mystery. So….”A Nomad in the Night.”

Set in 1969, young filmmaker Andris Riga bangs on the door of his hero, schlock horror impresario Canaan Twill, armed with the eighty-one minutes of badly-dubbed grainy footage that is his NYU master’s thesis, A Nomad in the Night, a film that he ‘privately referred to as a Catcher in the Rye in which Holden Caulfield is searching for truth while also drinking other people’s blood.’ This may be the best sentence in the story. That’s kind of genius.

Other sentences aren’t so blessed. The first paragraph contains the following clause: “The long-limbed chestnut-maned graduate student…”. Whoa, nelly.  It doesn’t matter to the story what the guy looks like. It’s graceless, and it’s not even necessary.

The neat angle is that young Riga has been a quick study of how other filmmakers have ridden Poe’s coattails to decent box office by splashing his presence on their posters and advertising, no matter how tenuous the connection to the actual film. Before visiting Twill, a Poe fan and collector of Poe-abilia, Riga invents a heretofore undiscovered Poe story entitled ‘A Nomand of the Night’, and adds Poe’s name to the opening titles.

Twill listens to Riga’s spiel, and when Riga produces a torn corner of the supposed ‘Nomad’, Twill not only believes Riga’s faux-Poe story, he believes him a little too well, with — what did you expect?–Poe-ish consequences.

I didn’t like the very end, the final shiver. I thought it was a cheap shot. I don’t want to give anything away, but I think in a lot of ways, my offense is summed up in this article about Battlestar Galactica. To be fair, no one claims Holmes’s story is feminist, but my complaint is still the same. Maybe even a little of this. Oh. Did I give it away? 😦 Bad me.


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What do these 3 books have in common?

common

For starters, they all have covers that I am embarrassed that anyone would see me walking around with. Maybe not the Raven so much, but that loopy red yarn ‘love’ that echoes the nauseating ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ and the wholesome mother (in nurturing Earth Tones) embracing her cretinous kid (also in a The-Kids-At-School-May-Spit-At-Me-But-At-Least-My-Mommy-Loves-Me palette of contemporary greige).

But what they really have in common is a great big FAIL that only I can see. At home I have this bookshelf. Okay, maybe two bookshelves. And that pile on top of the recycling. At my library, you can check books out indefinitely, so I’ve had some of these books 2 or 3 years. I promised myself that I would start reading them, and I’ve been pretty good about it. But I also promised myself that I would not, would NOT, check out a single other book from the Lenient Library until I had read and returned every last one. Guess where these 3 books came from?

These are (probably) not good books. I would never pay money for these books. But I was meeting someone at the library today and was 10 minutes early. So I maybe just kind of sort of wandered to have a look at the ‘New Arrivals’ section, and half a sentence browsed here and a page turned there and why not take them home. It’s hard to have shopper’s remorse about things that are free.  I console myself that 2 of them are short story collections, so I can read one story from each, feel virtuous (hello Try Something New mini-challenge), and return them with a clear conscience.


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Fat, by Raymond Carver

I read this story because Robb insisted. He thinks Carver is good. I think Carver has the sheen of cool around him so much that he’s gone a little greasy. The last time we had this discussion about 6 months ago, I dragged out one of my undergrad anthologies and started reading the one about the blind man (‘Cathedral’). I didn’t finish it. But now I’m all resolved, what with mini-challenges and all. I got specific. I said, What story? And he said, Fat.

I got ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” out of the library on Saturday morning, and finished my current novel Saturday afternoon, which meant I didn’t have any more excuses. I was thinking maybe I would read it over Sunday morning pancakes or something, and I cracked the cover to see exactly how much I was in for, and….six pages. That didn’t seem so bad. Even I can handle that.

So now I’ve got Reason #1 to read short stories. It’s called ‘Fast-Track To a Sense of Accomplishment & Triumph.’ In no time at all, I had finished what I set out to do. And you know what, Robb? You were right. I did like this one.

Since the story was so short I hesitate to do a normal summary. What could I say without giving it all away? A list instead, I think:

–There is a waitress.
–There is a fat man.
–The fat man would like the Special, but we may have a dish of vanilla ice cream as well. With just a drop of chocolate syrup, if you please.

The story is so compact that anything else I could say would either be wrong, or give something away. It is so tight, and so seemingly matter-of-fact that certain lines ring and ring with significance. The bit I liked best of all, was the last 3 lines, mostly because I wouldn’t have thought to put them there. Because I didn’t expect to find them there. The story had already closed, and those 3 lines opened. Suggested a whole different story had taken place before I joined the story on the page.

I was so reconciled by this point, that I even read the next story in the collection, ‘Neighbors.’ It was seriously weirder. And I kept wondering what would happen to the Kitty.


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The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue – Manuel Muñoz

This is the first book of stories in my personal short story challenge. I have long suspected that the brain-parts that allow one to *enjoy* a short story rather than just appreciate it at a slightly perplexed distance are deeply missing from my literary make-up. It’s very possible that I will read what is someone out there’s favoritest story in the whole word and dismiss it with a mild “eh” and a shrug of the shoulders. If that should happen, remember –before you throw soft fruit–that I’m the one who’s missing out on things.

That said…(deep breath)

munozI read about half of the stories in The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue. The characters live in a shop-worn California town. They’re Mexican-American. They didn’t spark recognition in me – that’s not my home–but I was comfortable with them, content to rub along with them for a few episodes. But allá–now that was something I recognized.

Allá (‘over there’) is an elegant shorthand for a whole way of not-belonging, of outgrowing your home and your family and your place in the world. Allá is what the father calls where his son lives in Tell Him About Brother John. Allá means: that place I don’t understand, that place I don’t see why you had to go, that place of strangers, that place where I would mean nothing, that place I am so afraid of I’m not going to call by its name.

Everybody who grows up in a small town and goes away to college, has spent time in allá. Anybody who has blue-collar parents and grows up to get a desk job, knows allá. Anybody who falls in love with a boyfriend, when their parents were expecting a girlfriend, is a permanent exile to allá.

In the title story, the one I liked best, Emilio works the 3rd shift at the paper mill. A pallet of copy paper falls on top of him and crushes his legs. After the accident, his father takes care of him — wiping him, turning him, lifting him, dragging him. Emilio has no allá. It’s more of an ‘in here’ than an ‘over there’. But to his father, he is just as inexplicable and just as disappointing as the son who goes across the country to mingle among white Americans in a faceless city, to waste an education writing stories that don’t make any money, to live and love with other men.

Emilio doesn’t in any way choose his fate, but he ends up just as estranged from his father, his family, his community, his own life. He agrees to go to the curandera because his father believes. Because his father wants Emilio to be better more than Emilio wants it. Because he owes his father. He knows the boxes didn’t fall on him because of the evil eye–and yet, and yet.

Does the trip to the witch woman help? The answer is actually in another one of the stories.


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Try Something New – Short Stories

A few days ago, I realized I needed to get over this silly thing about not reading short stories…especially now that I’ve been writing them for the last 3 years. I feel like one of those people who shows up in every workshop, who ‘wants to be a writer’ but hasn’t read a book since ‘Flowers in the Attic’ in the 7th grade.

I read plenty of canonical short stories in undergrad, and even plenty that I remember with fondness or appreciation. Stories like “A&P” by John Updike, or “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner, or Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” – okay, I didn’t like that one, but I remember it.

After college, I voluntarily read the entire book of Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and, in the throes of a reader-crush, a book of Haruki Murakami’s short stories while I waited for his next novel to be translated. Both experiences were pretty positive, but hmm, that would be about 10 years ago.

Since then, I tried Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, because she very unhelpfully hasn’t written a novel yet and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I kind of liked the one about the zombies and the convenience store, but mostly I kind of just didn’t get it, and I only read a few of the stories.

But, there’s always room for improvement, so I’m going to give it another try. In fact, I already have. I read a story last week (review to come), and now I have signed up for the Try Something New mini-challenge.