Thursday, December 25, 2008

One Manageable Story

Not too long ago, I subscribed to One Story. They put out a tiny publication containing one short story every three weeks. It turns out to be the perfect flow of fiction from publisher to household. For me, anyway. Some lit periodicals arrive and I'm intimidated by the amount of fiction I have to read before the next hunk of fiction arrives. Or there's the New Yorker--only one story each issue, but it comes every week. Pressure. Stress. With One Story, not so much.

I wasn't crazy about the first story that arrived and thought maybe I had tossed my eighteen bucks, but the following issue was a slightly surreal, frenetically written story about hallucinatory water polo (!? among other things) and called "We Bluegills" by Robert Travieso. I loved it and I've loved everything I've received since.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Shakespeare Wrote for Money by Nick Hornby

There's something about Nick Hornby's writing, particularly his columns in The Believer, that is addictively readable. Of course, to some degree, what I'm doing on this site is a cheap, less intelligent, less funny imitation of the Believer column that Hornby has done for the last five or so years. But in both the latest collection, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and the first one, The Polysyllabic Spree, Hornby cast a spell that had me poring through the books over the course of a single day. Granted, they're not very long books, but still, I'm not that kind of reader. I read for an hour, I put the book down and do something relatively productive, I pick it up again later in the day and read for half an hour, etc. With Hornby's books, however, I just can't stop. Last night, I was reading Shakespeare Wrote for Money in bed, put it down and fell asleep, then woke up for a bathroom run a couple of hours later and couldn't keep myself from opening the book and finishing it right then.

I think what makes Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" column so compelling, is the pure pleasure and excitement he gets from books. It's an excitement I share and, I assume, many others share (or why would his column be popular enough to assemble into collections?). His lack of pretension in the column contributes to the excitement. It's something I've tried to do and, I think, failed at. Of course this is made even worse by the fact that I don't have the intellectual prowess to back any sort of pretension up. It's a bit of a double whammy, but I'll keep on trying and maybe one day I'll reach Hornby-like status. Maybe.

Edited to add: The good folks at McSweeney's have pointed out that this is actually Hornby's third book of "Stuff I've Been Reading" columns. I somehow forgot about the second of the bunch, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt. Shame on me.

Edited again to add: Okay, honestly, no one from McSweeney's reads this blog. I was actually lying in bed this morning between snooze hits and I remembered that there was another book. Double shame on me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

City of Thieves by David Benioff

A buddy-story set during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, City of Thieves is the latest novel from David Benioff, author of 25th Hour and When the Nines Roll Over (as well as various screenplays). The story throws together a dashing lothario who's gone AWOL from the Red Army and a half-Jewish seventeen-year old resident of Piter (the characters all refer to Leningrad as Piter).

In classic buddy-story style, the two characters get on each other's nerves as they trundle through the Russian winter on an impossible mission in search of a dozen eggs. Their picaresque adventure takes them from cannibals to the secret police to prison marches as they bond in their attempt to survive. The setup is a bit shopworn, but Benioff does a nice job with it. The characters are likable and believable (though some of their situations stretch the believability factor). Even the elements of the novel that were entirely predictable (it seems quite obvious early on who will not survive the adventure) were still enjoyable because of Benioff's craftiness with a story and readable style.

It's not a great novel that will change your view of literature or the world, but a well-told bit of escapist fiction.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Verificationist by Donald Antrim

I couldn't help thinking, as I struggled through the second half of Donald Antrim's novel, that it would have made an excellent short story. All of the elements of a prize-winning, lit-magazine story were there: the witty, almost ridiculing tone of psychobabble; the extremely self-conscious professional protagonist and his cohorts; the fantastical element of an otherwise realistic setting; the satiric nature of the protagonist's sexual and homoerotic concerns. But even at less than 180 pages, the tale seemed to go on for far too long.

Had Antrim been able to inject more humor into the story, it would have held me, but I kept thinking as I waded through pages of Tom, the narrator's, pseudo-sexual flight around the upper reaches of a pancake house during a departmental outing he has organized, that much of his meanderings are almost funny. That almost, and Antrim's skillful wordplay, would have been enough to carry twenty-five or thirty pages. As a novel, it's landing was long overdue.