Monday, June 30, 2014

Books I Read This Month - June 2014

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murkami

More Haruki Murakami, of course, because he is easily one of my favorite authors. This book is one of his earlier works, and it's less supernatural and surreal than his later books. It's more straightforward and clear in its writing style, but it still has Murakami's quirky sense of humor and introspectiveness. In this book, a young man who's a bit dull (again, classic Murakami) takes on a task that's a bit more than he can handle: literally a wild sheep chase. A man contacts him in search of a sheep with a star on its back that, according to legend, enters people's souls to make them immortal (but leaves them and makes them mortal again if it deems them unworthy). There's a creepy man who dresses up as a sheep, there's another creepy guy who hates his son for no reason but who claims that the sheep was once inside of him, and there's a girl with beautiful ears. Weird and wacky and unexpectedly insightful (or not unexpectedly, if you know Murakami's works at all). This book certainly has not hanged my overwhelmingly positive opinion of Haruki Murakami.

Bad Teeth by Dustin Long

If you like literary allusions (and I do), you'll definitely like this. It's very layer-y, more than a cake or an onion or other cliches, and follows a college-age man who's looking for a mysterious Thai author. He goes from Brooklyn to Berkeley to Bloomington to another town that starts with a B that has slipped my mind in search of any information he can find on this man. Several characters he meets are also tormented writers, and the relationships he makes with them reveal a lot about modern literary culture. I'd recommend this book for people like me (well, I mean, I did read this and enjoy it) who are well-read, and mostly young writers. It's a fun read, if you just read it along the surface like any other novel, but if you follow closely to the metaphorical language and what the characters are saying about their states of being, you'll discover some interesting analyses of the self and what "self-consciousness" means.

Drood by Dan Simmons

Told in the style of Charles Dickens, this epicly long and winding novel details (in a fictionalized manner) the last five or so years of Dickens's life, after the Staplehurst accident that killed several people and left Dickens mentally scarred. The book is told in a Watson-like fashion from the first-person perspective of Dickens's author friend Wilkie Collins. The layers of the narrative are extremely satisfying to read and uncover, especially with the voice of the story, which is immensely Victorian. It's Gothic, creepy, and very suspenseful; even at over 700 plus pages, I found myself whipping through it, wanting to know what happens in the next chapter (although, obviously, Dickens is dead by the end of the book). The book asks some fascinating questions not only of Dickens's life and motivations but also of the afterlife, the supernatural, and the divide between good and evil (as so many excellent books tend to do). The character of Dickens is, well, very like Dickens. Author Dan Simmons did a fantastic job making him act and sound like the image of Dickens we have today, only as a more full person revealed through the narrative. I will definitely be reading more by this author, and soon.

For the Time Being by Annie Dillard

I'm not entirely sure I've read anything by Annie Dillard before, but I have to say that this book is one of the most thought-provoking and deep books I have ever read. It covers a range of seemingly unconnected topics (China, Israel, clouds, birth defects, sand, and more), but she is somehow able to connect them through an analysis of how they reflect what God is like, while constantly asking of the universe if there is a God, what our world says about the nature of God, and how miraculous and uniquely awesome our world is, with or without God. It can sometimes be boring to read about a random topic and strange facts in some of the sections, but overall, this book is extremely fascinating and made me think deeply more than any other book has. If you venture into this one, be prepared to skip over some dull, boring parts but to find yourself thinking about the universe in a new way at the end of it.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Beach (A Summer of Flash Fiction #5)

I went to beach today. Though I'd seen in the paper that it was going to rain later in the afternoon, it was hot out mid-day. I put on my swimsuit, grabbed a beach towel, and packed a book in my bag, a novel. All my friends were busy, so I went alone, figuring it would be a good time to catch up on some reading. I'd not had much time available for it recently, though I usually carved out a few hours a week for it, generally.

I walked to the beach. I live only a block away, across a highway. It was a five minute walk, a nice way to start a day at the beach. 

When I arrived, there were several dozen people and groups scattered across the sand, and some in the water, which had still been freezing cold a few weeks before, the ice from our malicious winter only melting a month or so ago. The people in the water were shivering, hugging their arms with their hands, though most of the children were shrieking and playing, splashing each other as if their skin was numb to the cold. The sand, in contrast, burned my feet. It had been roasting all morning in the torch-hot sun.

I laid my towel on the sand, the wind blowing it into a twist once or twice before I got it settled. I removed my shirt and shorts, so I was wearing only my swimsuit, and laid on the towel on my stomach. I'm not normally concerned about my appearance, especially something so arbitrary as the color of my skin, but I hadn't had a boyfriend in a while, so I supposed it couldn't hurt to get a slight tan and to look nice for the summer. 

I opened my book and read a few pages, listening to the chatter of the other beach-goers' conversation humming in the background. The story was serene and assuming, though a bit dull. In it, a boring, nihilistic young man was admiring his girlfriend's ears. 

The breeze continued to increase its power, foreshadowing the rain. A few grains of sand blew across my towel and the pages of my book, and then the body of a small, dead spider bounced by. I watched it, noticing how it tumbled and how its legs were folded up like a lotus, or like the fingers of a relaxed hand resting on a table. I imagined what it would be like to be that dead spider, drifting across the beach, or what it would be like if human corpses were light enough to be tossed by a wind and to traverse this land of which were are so sorrowfully a part. But no; human bodies are heavy with blood and bone and fat and earth, too weighted down to blow with a breeze like that. Instead, we bury ourselves six feet under the ground and call that home.

I felt a drop of water on my back and at first assumed it was a child running by and splashing me with her wet hair or swimsuit. But then I heard a man tell a young boy, presumably his son, that it had begun to rain and that they should pack up. Several children began to squeal with either delight or fear, running from the water, or to it, and announcing the rain. Parents and twenty-somethings rolled up their towels and put them in their bags, shuffling into their flip-flops and heading up the beach to their cars. I thought it was funny that everyone was becoming hysterical at the few drops of rain that had fallen. But I, too, stood and put on my shorts and shirt. I didn't much care about getting wet, but I didn't want to ruin my book. I picked up my towel and left the beach. I was starting to get hungry, anyway.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Grief, Noise, and Dishes (A Summer of Flash Fiction #4)

A swift-flying crow swooped across the dull gray sky, passing over the old elm. I followed it with my eyes as it crossed the area of sky above the miniature wooden bridge that arched over the little creek. A false, fairy-tale like scene for a masquerading, lonesome park. A late September breeze rustled my hair, my forest green sweater preventing a shiver from coming over me. I continued to trail the crow with my eyes until it passed in front of a tall young man with a golden retriever. He was thin and brunette, his bulky gray sweatshirt rolled up to his elbows despite the chill in the air. His dog roamed free, no need for a leash, but it remained close, either out of loyalty to its master or out of fear of what lay beyond its master’s sight.

I released the crow from my gaze, my eyes landing on the young man. He was beautiful. Thin and tall, brunette curls, this was all I could discern from the distance, but I still could see that he was beautiful. The golden dog leaped over the dry grass away from him, but the young man did not follow; he merely stood, watching. I traced the curls on the back of the young man’s head, sweet brown curls that fluttered in the biting breeze.

I stepped forward, the crunch of the first fallen leaf resounding from under my shoe.

“Lovely day, isn’t it?” I said to the young man, and he turned to face me.

“Bit chilly,” he answered.

I shrugged. I glanced up at the sky, the clouds obscuring the blue, only the filtered light of the sun dimly showing through.

I pointed at the golden retriever galloping farther and farther away.

“What’s your dog’s name?”

“Verne. After Jules Verne.”

“Oh really? Is he your favorite writer?”

“One of my favorites.”

“I adore Virginia Woolf.”

An odd glance from the young man. A judging smirk.

“And Flannery O’Connor.”

The look from the young man caused me to pause and assess my thoughts before voicing them. Up close, the young man was even more beautiful than he was from far away. His eyes were blue, and freckles dotted his cheeks.

“Aren’t you going to ask mine?” he inquired. His expression was vindictive.

“Yours?”

“My name.”

“Oh, yes. What’s your name?”

“Adam.”

“Hello Adam. I’m Jordan.”

Verne paused for a moment to sniff something on the ground, then continued to hop about, lost in his own world. Adam watched Verne, and I watched Adam, basking in his mysterious, enveloping aura.

“So Jordan. Do you have any siblings?”

“No. I’m an only child.”

“Are you self-righteous?”

“What? No.” I was slightly taken aback. A twinge of anxiety was beginning to creep up on me, but Adam’s expression remained quite the same.

“Self-righteous? Self-absorbed? All only children are self-absorbed.”

I thought it over for a moment, giving him the benefit of the doubt—despite his awkward stance, his left foot cocked out slightly in front of his right, he seemed to know what he was talking about. One dark eyebrow was lifted, not inquisitively so much as judgingly. “No. I don’t think I am,” I assured him.

“I have a sister,” he said, though I hadn’t asked him the question in return.

“That’s nice. Sometimes I wish I had a sister.”

“I used to have a brother too. He blew his brains out last month.”

I flinched.

“Because his girlfriend broke up with him.” Raising my eyebrows, I hesitated, unsure what to say. Adam did not seem to be in need of condolences. In fact, he appeared to enjoy having the tragedy in his life.

“You’re so frank,” I said.

Adam smirked, still looking at Verne. “Frank is my middle name.” I let out a short laugh, and Adam’s smug grin remained, though there seemed to be a punchline hovering in the air, to a joke of which I was unaware.

I waited until the echo of my laughter had faded. “Is it really?”

Finally a real laugh from the young man, coupled with a slow nod. “Yeah it is. And it was my nickname at school.”

“Wow.”

“We cremated him. My brother.” The sudden shift in emotional content of conversation left me speechless, but it did not appear to bother Adam in the least.

“Oh?”

“We have him in an urn, sitting on a shelf.”

I hesitated again. Adam was beginning to make me wary, but there was something about him that kept me from walking away. “I’ve never seen an urn before,” I found myself saying.

“Would you like to see my brother’s?”

“Ok.”

Adam put a finger and thumb in his mouth and whistled loudly. “Verne!”

The dog came running toward his master, ears flapping joyfully and naively at the sides of his head. Conveniently Adam lived only a block away, having brought Verne to the park because it was so close and dog were allowed. We walked in silence, my wariness increasing.

“My mother’s locked herself in her room,” Adam said when we walked in the front door of his house. The screen door clicked closed behind us. I glanced around the living room we had just entered. The walls were blank; no photos were hanging in celebration of family and love like there were in my parent’s home. Only a stark, dark brown wooden crucifix, merely a foot long, adorned the far wall of the living room.

“Where’s your dad?”

“Oh, he beat it years ago.”

I followed Adam and Verne into the kitchen where a young woman with cropped blonde hair was doing dishes, washing them by hand though there was a dishwasher that appeared perfectly usable embedded in the counter beside her.

“Hey Lillian.”

She turned and faced us. Her smug expression was identical to her brother’s. “Brought home another stray, have we?” she sneered.

I glanced down at Verne to see a light blue collar around his furry yellow neck.

“Uh, I’m not a stray,” I said shyly.

With unexpected force, Lillian slammed the glass plate she had been drying onto the counter. It didn’t break, but the noise caused me to jump. Lillian’s face flushed as she glared at Adam.

She exploded into a stream of angry words. “Why can’t you be more like Douglas? Why do you have to be so strange? I can’t take care of you while I’m still taking care of mom. Douglas could take care of himself. Why can’t you?”

Adam remained calm. “I don’t need you, Lillian. I can fend for myself. I’m doing just fine without mom.”

“Yeah because you have me!”

“Cooking and cleaning isn’t ‘having’ you.”

Her eyes not leaving Adam’s, her body still except her arm, like a robot with only one function, Lillian reached over, picked up the plate from the counter, and slammed it on the floor with incredible force. It shattered.

I jumped back. “I should, uh, go now,” I said, the nervousness evident in my voice.

The sound of a slamming door exploded from upstairs. I jolted once again, but Adam still did not flinch.

“See Adam. You’ve upset mom.” Lillian pointed toward the stairs.

“No, Douglas upset mom.”

Lillian whipped around, returning to her chore. I glanced over at the staircase with my eyes, realized that simply slamming a door did not mean she would come down to see what all the fuss was about, and then I moved my gaze to Adam.

“I’d better go,” I said.

“Ok. Goodbye.”

I turned swiftly on my heels and sped across the living room and out the front door, into the chilly autumn breeze. A crow swooped by again, silently grieving the loss of the flighty geese and the hibernating bears, the friends it’d never had.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

English Garden (A Summer of Flash Fiction #3)

We only eat at cafes across from flower shops, admiring the attractive men selecting roses for anniversaries or Valentine’s. We sit in wicker chairs, drink tea, and read books, listening in on the cell phone conversations of people walking by. We collect their snippets, phrases, and words and puzzle them together, a tapestry of what love and life are like. We construct fantasies of futures with husbands and careers—esteem and influence and donations to the poor—and polite but joyous children who believe in God, not because we’ve taught them to but because they’ve figured it out for themselves. We snicker at salacious halves of sentences we hear from people who pass by our table, and we burst out cackling—people giving us the evil eye, or the ‘those-girls-are-crazy’ eye—when an inside joke silently passes between us. We sip our tea with pinky up, spine straight, heels crossed, pretending we are classy ladies, mocking their accents and their snooty upturned noses while simultaneously wishing our snaggly hair would cooperate like theirs does, wishing our tights were smooth, not snagged, our shoes not scuffed. Wouldn’t it be nice to have an English garden in which to sit and bask, beneath umbrellaed tables so as not to burn our skin?

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Convergence of the Ghosts (A Summer of Flash Fiction #2)

Sarah stepped forward and looked down into the gaping hole in the porch. The wood planks were splintered and jutted out in places, creating a two-foot circle. Through the hole Sarah saw the dirt. A yellow plastic thing poked out of the ground, a toy truck, perhaps. It must be Adam’s, Sarah thought, or else it was Jack’s from thirty years ago, buried and fossilizing in the dirt beneath the aged porch.

Sarah grimaced. Where was Jack, that adventure-minded, ratty brother of hers, now? Beijing? Shanghai? A rice patty somewhere out in the rural farmlands; in love with some beautiful Chinese girl who brewed him tea and kissed him on the cheek? He wasn’t here, anyway, that’s all Sarah needed to know.

Sarah stared down into the hole. The hole stared back. This hole had killed her mother. The mother had slid open the glass back door and dragged her bulky oxygen tank outside to watch her only grandchild spin around on the tire swing, his faded jeans streaked with dirt, and when she’d lifted the oxygen mask to say something to him as she stepped forward and hit a loose board, her foot had gone through the wood with an almighty crack, and her last words before she smacked her head on the wooden railing were “Sarah, Goddammit!” and now she was lying in a coma living out her last days in silence, offering no explanation for what those words meant.

Sarah bent her knees and reached down to pull the yellow toy from the dirt. It resisted, the heavy dirt wanting to keep the toy in the ground, and clinging to it still after Sarah brushed it off. It was indeed a truck, with a big claw on the front used to haul sand in a sandbox. Scribbled in a black permanent marker on the side was ‘JACK.’ Her little brother’s truck, thirty years old, still buried in the dirt beneath the porch after all this time. He’d buried his truck, he’d buried his sister and his nephew and his mother, and now he was God-knows-where probably having the time of his life.

Sarah shook the toy truck to loosen the dirt and the bugs that had crawled over the black tires and had nestled into the claw. She turned and reentered the house, seeing Adam still sitting on the living room floor picking at the beige carpet with his dirty fingers, his superman figure retired and tossed aside next to him, bored of having a boy pretend to make him fly.

“Hey Adam, look what I found,” Sarah said. Jack wasn’t going to play with it anymore; she might as well make use of it.

Adam looked up and saw what Sarah held in her hands. “Cool! A bulldozer!” he said, jumping up from the floor and running over to his mother. She handed him the toy, and he ran immediately out the back door, hastily dodging the hole and heading straight for the sandbox. Sarah watched him out the window as he pushed the truck around and hauled sand from one end of the sandbox to the other.

She watched him for about five minutes, and then she smelled something burning. She sniffed the air to be sure her nose wasn’t playing tricks on her. Realizing that indeed it was the scent of crisping smoke, she spun on her heels and bolted into the kitchen.

“Adam, Goddammit!” she said, grabbing an oven mitt, opening the oven, and pulling out the tray of blackened fish sticks. She tossed the tray onto the stove with a clang, the heat emanating through the ratty mitt. She flicked off the oven and stood there in the kitchen, watching the grease from the fish sticks sizzle on the tray.

It took a minute before it registered in her mind what she’d said in that moment of frustration. But they had been Adam’s fish sticks, anyway. It wasn’t like she was going to eat them, that plasticy child’s finger food.

The doorbell rang, and Sarah released a sigh. She went through the living room and opened the door. There stood her Aunt Polly, her mother’s sister. Her eyes were downcast, her hands folded over her belly.

“Your mama’s passed,” she said sullenly.

Sarah ushered her inside.

“What’s that smell?” Aunt Polly asked.

“It was Adam’s lunch, but it burned,” Sarah said. “Fish sticks.”

“Oh.” Aunt Polly sat on the couch. Sarah remembered sitting on the couch with her mother and her brother, watching TV in the evenings after dinner. Aunt Polly cleared her throat. Sarah could tell she had been crying. “Your mama, she wasn’t as bad a person as she seemed, you know.”

Sarah didn’t answer. She continued to stand there, looking down at Adam’s superman figure.

“When our mother passed, your mama was so angry at herself. She hadn’t talked to her in three months because she’d been mad at her for something or other. She wanted to get away from her. She didn’t want to be like her, but I could see. I could tell already that she was treating you and your brother just the same way our mama treated us.”

Sarah shifted her feet anxiously.

Aunt Polly looked at Sarah, but Sarah continued to stare at the floor. “I bet your brother Jack is going to come home any time now.”

“Maybe just for the funeral, but then he’ll go back to China again,” Sarah said. “And I don’t blame him.”

“Maybe.” Aunt Polly snorted out a little laugh, glancing out the back window, which could be seen from the living room couch. “Your boy Adam,” she said. “He looks just like grandpa. And just like his uncle.”

Sarah turned around and looked out the window too, wishing she would not see that long-lost family face plastered on the face of her son, and she saw Adam still playing with Jack’s truck, his jeans and cheeks now streaked with dirt, as if he were beginning to bury himself.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Pocket Watch (A Summer of Flash Fiction #1)

Clutched in his clammy palm, the perfect circle of a smooth, gold pocket watch went tick tick tick tick while the meaty, red thing in his chest sat still and stagnant, tired and finished. The little girl leaned down and placed a hand on his mud-smudged cheek, her fingers getting a taste of what it was to touch an American man, to touch him by choice. His skin was cool and pocked and white against her fingertips, which lingered on his cheek before she dragged them to his chin to unclip his helmet and remove it from his head. She slid it off and his head went smack on the hard ground, which made her flinch, but he did not seem to care. His hair was yellow, and she ran her fingers through it to see if it felt any different than hers, jet black and silky and sweaty, but when she felt that his was sweaty too, and filled with the same lice that crawled through hers, she withdrew her hand and narrowed her eyes, analyzing the man’s face, his eyes blank and blue, so different from hers, which were black as night.

A boom exploded in the distance, and she fell to her knees in surprise and fear, collapsing on top of the man, but he did not clutch her, did not hold her close like her father used to do when they heard those terrible noises, but the man just lay there, indifferent to the little girl on top of him. Her head was on his chest, which was silent and hard, his body encased in that green and brown splotched uniform, and she quickly struggled to her feet, her cheeks reddening before she realized completely that there was no one there to see. She turned her head toward the sound, which echoed through the forest, and through the cracks of sky between the trees she could see the smoke, thick and gray, expanding and encroaching on the blazing yellow sun.

The tick tick ticking reached her little ears, a strong, even rhythm resounding through her head as the sound of the explosion began to fade. She knelt by his side to get closer, and when she saw that the source of the sound was the thing in his hand, she pried his fingers open to reveal the pocket watch, the most circular object she had ever seen in her life. It was smooth as she ran her fingers over it, removing the coat of dirt to expose its shining golden varnish, so mesmerizing and beautiful her eyes widened in awe. There was a tiny curvy "1942" etched in the metal, and she remembered suddenly that her father had once told her he had been born in 1942.

The little girl glanced to the right then to the left then over her shoulder, and when she saw that there was no one there, she tightened her grip on the watch and hopped to her feet and began to run through the woods toward the big rotting tree. It was the familiar landmark that would lead her back to her mother, but when she reached it, her heart pounding in her chest, going thum thum thum thum, she paused and looked up at the sky, which slowly grew darker and darker with smog and ash and night.

Spinning on her heels, she turned and scampered back to where the American man lay, and she knelt once again next to him, placing her free hand over his face, her thumb and forefinger gently touching the silky skin beneath his yellow eyebrows. Then she looked at his face, quiet and still as if he were asleep. She leaned down, placing her ear on her chest, remembering the silence she had heard when she had fallen on top of him, and she closed her eyes and listened. There was no movement; he was absolutely still, but she could hear the tick tick of the pocket watch, and for a moment she let herself believe that it was the sound of his heart, pumping just like hers did, thum thum thum, in her chest.