Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: The Black House

The Black House
by Patricia Highsmith

Finally, a break from the constant murderin’. Oh sure, people still die, but The Black House features fewer sudden blows to the head. Most of the time, the characters act with good intentions, only to have their situation spin out of control. After the unpleasantness of Slowly, Slowly in the Wind, I welcomed the change. Reserving judgement for the as-yet unread Mermaids on the Golf Course, this is so far my favorite of the short story collections.

Genuine suspense fills the plots, like in “When in Rome,” where a woman decides to payback her inattentive husband by having him kidnaped by an admirer. “The Kite” talks about a boy who deals with his sister’s death by making a gigantic kite in her honor, and what happens when he runs into interference. In “I Despise Your Life” (possibly a winner for interest-piquing titles), a young man tries to impress his father with his new bohemian lifestyle.

The title story, in a way, is an old-fashioned haunted house tale, even if the haunting has nothing to do with ghosts:

“There is something funny about the house,” Ed Sanders said dreamily, perched on a bar stool. “It looks haunted — you know? The way that roof and the chimney tilts at the top, as if it’s about to fall down on somebody.” Ed saw his wife approaching, and was sorry. He was having a good time taking about the black house. It was like being in another world, like being a boy again, twelve years old perhaps, and not a thirty-nine-year-old man with a growing paunch, knowing all about life, and more than enough.
— “The Black House

Very nearly was that my favorite out of the eleven stories, but “Blow It” edged out in the lead. In that, a man tries to make the decision between two women he’s been dating, each perfect in their own way, when suddenly he has an offer to buy an equally perfect house just outside of New York City. Sounds simple enough, but the way Highsmith let his inner monologue unfold was just as suspenseful as “The Black House.” And perhaps since this story was a little closer to my literary neck of the woods — love and self-sabotage — I grew more attached.

If I had to pick a weak point in the book, I’d give it to “The Terrors of Basket-Weaving,” though perhaps it wins for most amusing title. Still, it’s blessedly short, and soon you’re on to the much better “Under a Dark Angel’s Eye.” Unlike the previous collections I’ve reviewed, The Black House is likely the one that’s most appealing to a wider audience — entirely compelling and complex, in an easy bite-size form.

Book # 10/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, but this book was published on its own in 1981.

Photo by Tyson Habein

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

Slowly, Slowly in the Wind
by Patricia Highsmith

Here we watch the unpleasant passage of time, the mounting madness of people who perhaps did not have much sense to begin with. I wish I could tell you that these people were relatable, or even just somewhat sympathetic, but most of them aren’t. With the exception of about three or four out of the twelve stories, no one is likeable or all that compelling. Still, I plodded on, curious about the next title, wondering where it would rate against the others. For the first time in this collected volume, I started to find myself skimming.

Within this book, Patricia Highsmith’s prejudices become more apparent. She takes a disparaging attitude towards other races, dogs and to some degree, children. At first I wanted to take it as just another form of satire, but after getting farther into those stories, I didn’t feel any sense of humor behind the writing. She’s once again pointing out the various horrible ways people can act towards one another, but rarely did I feel that the reader was invited to find them silly.

All of the characters act out of apprehension, and they are often unable to cope with change. When a man’s daughter runs off with a disliked neighbor’s son, he kills the neighbor and makes him a scarecrow. After a man is mugged for the third time in his Brooklyn neighborhood, he stabs the black teenager the next day, thinking that it’s payback for other crimes committed by “welfare people.” Another man hates that no one notices his petty thievery at the local wax museum, so it escalates to murder of three of their employees, followed by an “artful” arrangement of their bodies on a set piece. The psychopathic characters aren’t even interesting ones.

Still, there are a couple of bright spots. The more effective stories come when Highsmith either uses a non-human entity as the source for fear, such as in “The Pond,” where vines take on a life of their own. In “Please Don’t Shoot the Trees,” set in a non-specified future where everyone has a personal helicopter, the area trees have started forming mysterious white blisters that shoot toxic substances, seemingly on purpose. My first thought was that maybe The Happening would have had better reviews if it had taken that approach — Nature that Nukes YOU! Well, it’s a thought, anyway.

Probably the best story out of the twelve is “A Curious Suicide,” in which a doctor decides to take revenge on the man who stole away the woman he loved. Yes, it’s murder again, but maybe it just reminded me of the Ripley novels, since it’s set in France and Switzerland, and it involves plotting around housekeeping and job schedules. For once, the person committing the crime couldn’t mount a decent insanity defense.

Overall, I would not recommend this book on its own. Shoved in among four others, I suppose it was an okay way to make some progress in the back catalogue, but like the title suggests, time slowed to an unfortunate pace.

Book # 9/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, but this book was published on its own in 1979.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Little Tales of Misogyny

Little Tales of Misogyny
by Patricia Highsmith

Now there’s an attention-grabbing title. Patricia Highsmith presents seventeen different stories that circle around the label satire, but never quite claim it. Whatever her intent, she likely manages to irritate the super-feminists, happy-ending enthusiasts, and sticklers for traditional story arc.

A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box — her left hand.
— “The Hand”

I can’t claim any of those labels either. As in, don’t treat me like I’m incapable because I’m a girl, but I will go ahead and let you change that tire if you’re offering. As in, endings suit the style of the story not the will of the reader, or the most frustrating of critique groups. Those who write have heard it before: “It’s just I, like, just don’t get it? Like, I don’t know people like this.”

There’s a fine line between riling others with smugness and just being a good-natured pain in the ass. It’s the difference between, say, Dr. House at his best and at his worst. I decided to take Highsmith’s stories more as a poke at convention rather than any serious superiority. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but one can’t control the reactions of their readers, nor should they really try. Most of the time, I found myself laughing a bit at the some of the ridiculous, abrupt endings to the stories.

The morning of her departure on the world tour, Diana stood on the sill of her attic window, raised her arms to the rising sun, and stepped out, convinced that she could fly or at least float. She fell onto a round, white-painted iron table and the red bricks of the patio. Thus poor Diana met her earthly end.
— “The Evangelist”

Highsmith takes her spare writing style to an extreme here, presenting every character in a very matter of fact way. Even the descriptions are more like an inventory list. Here are the people, here is the situation, these are their things. In a way, that’s what makes the semi-satire work. Even though she became more cynical as she got older, I don’t buy the argument that she wrote these stories to be hateful towards women specifically, but rather that they’re her usual display of the awful ways people can behave. She doesn’t endorse it, but she’s not criticizing either. It is what it is. Your discomfort is your problem.

Much like The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder, it’s not a collection of stories for every reader, but it’s an interesting jaunt into unusual territory. I wouldn’t have wanted the book to go on much longer than it did, but in my journey through Highsmith’s work outside of her Ripley series, it was a title I could not resist.

Book # 8/52
Read as part of a 700+ page collection of stories, though this book was published on its own in 1974.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Selected Short Stories of Patricia Highsmith: The Animal-Lover's Book of Beastly Murder

The Animal-Lover’s Book of Beastly Murder
by Patricia Highsmith

Angry hamsters! A carnivorous ferret! Vengeful chickens! Come one, come all, come find yourself strangely amused by all the different reasons why an animal might be driven to kill. Or perhaps they did not intend to kill the person involved, but now that it’s done, what’s the harm? Yes, this book just may be the anti-Marley & Me.

Patricia Highsmith’s not known for her great love of the human race, so it makes sense that she’d spend an entire short story collection thinking of ways animals could vanquish with these pesky people who just get in the way. I mean, really, how is cat supposed to react when her owner’s sleazy boyfriend tries to toss her off the side of the yacht? Or what about the pig who just wants to eat some of the damn truffles it is sent out to find? Come on, cut a mammal a break, man.

While reading, I felt compelled to note aloud what particular species was currently doing all the murderin’. “Hey, honey,” I’d say to my husband as he tried to fall asleep. “I just finished a story called ‘Eddie and the Monkey Robberies.’”

“Mmmurph,” he’d say, and roll over. Fine, guess you don’t need to hear about the irritable camel either.

Oddly enough, the story “Notes from a Respectable Cockroach” doesn’t contain any murder, unless you count the squishing of other cockroaches. Using the dive Hotel Earle as inspiration (if you can call it that), a cockroach simply tells his tale and takes a sudden opportunity to improve his living situation. You’d think that a story about a cockroach wouldn’t be interesting, and yet, it is.

The people who die tend to be cruel, having wronged the animal or another person in some way. They are all varying degrees of horrible, and the animals often come across as indifferent. You don’t exactly root for them, just go along for the ride. Not every story is written from an animal’s point of view, though when written from a human’s point of view, the character is often only a few steps removed from the perceived villain.

Like a lot of Highsmith’s work, this book isn’t for everybody. Saying that I enjoyed reading it does not seem like quite the right word, but it provided good examples of the atypical short story done well. Though I read them as part of a 700+ page collection from 2001, the book was originally published on its own in 1975.

Book # 7/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking
by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Small book, big ideas and questions to ponder: What drives us to do what we love? What gives us the confidence to keep going and what keeps us from starting at all? First printed in 1993, one might expect some of the concepts raised in this book to be slightly out of date, but in the two and a half hours it took me to finish it, I never once felt like I was reading a sixteen-year-old observation, nor did I feel any of it crossed the line into preachy self-help nonsense.

“Artmaking grants access to worlds that may be dangerous, sacred, forbidden, or all of the above. It grants access to worlds you may otherwise never fully engage. It may in fact be the engagement — not the art — that you seek.”

Where a person is in their artistic life will determine what they get out of this book, I think. Writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, photographers — it’s not really aimed at one particular field. Originally, my photographer husband purchased it and found it to be a useful reminder that “tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite for succeeding.”

In other words, do what you do, see what happens. Some artists will succeed before you (that 9-year-old prodigy), some will never be appreciated until they are long gone (F. Scott Fitzgerald), but the personal satisfaction one derives from their art should not be wrapped up in the fear of approval.

“The real question about acceptance is not whether your work will be viewed as art, but whether it will be viewed as your art.”

It’s hard not think of people like Bob Dylan or Lady Gaga while reading, or really anyone else who doesn’t fit an expected mold. They’re the sort who seem to come from their own planet, their own universe, and maybe initially, it’s hard to see what the big deal is. It might be hard to see the art in the performance. The thing is, whether you “get it” or not is not going to change them. You like it or you don’t, but they’ll just keep on being who they are. It does take a fearlessness to be able to do that. Certainly not everyone can all of the time. If all art is autobiographical, it takes bravery to expose yourself to the potential criticism of others.

Reading this made me think more of music than books, despite wanting to be in the business of writing them. For me, they are so intertwined with one another. Maybe I’m constantly trying to put the feelings I get from music into a language I speak — the story behind the music, the process of creating something out of the echos in your mind. Even if I’m not writing about musicians, the characters are all passionate about something that isn’t going to pay the bills. Or perhaps they once felt that way, and now they wonder how to find that spark again. Either way, I like writing about the process — how the inside affects the outside.

Years ago, when I was in middle and high school, I used to be much more fearless about my work. Hell, I’d hand a friend a very first-draft section of a story, written during history class. (History class was a very productive time for me.) “Read what I did today,” I’d say, not at all nervous by the reception. I wrote short stories, poems, made strange birthday and Christmas cards, all without revision. “Oh, just excuse the typos,” I said, presenting someone with a binder full of papers. It wasn’t that I’d convinced myself I was some genius. I certainly felt capable, above-average, but it was more that I trusted my friends to get what I meant, despite the imperfections. And the thing was, they did. They enjoyed what I wrote, asked when I’d have more for them to read, and I used up a lot of printer ink.

The confidence began to erode, I think, once I got out of practice. I didn’t write as often, had a handful of personal issues going on, and I found myself dropping out of college feeling like I was nowhere near the right headspace to write much of anything. I started and stopped a few projects, but it took a long time, a bit more than four years, before anything started to stick again.

Though I’m not the type to make serious New Year’s Resolutions, last year, I bothered. “I’m going to be more brave,” I said. What that meant, I didn’t know. I didn’t want to be too specific, thinking that leaving it open-ended would leave the greatest chance for success. And I think I have succeeded. My husband and I started an online monthly arts magazine, where I have a music column talking about whatever I want. I finished a third draft of a novel, let some people read it, then wrote a fourth and final (for now) draft, and let people read that one. I took on this Cannonball Read challenge, I wrote another 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. I decided to be more present. By staying in practice, by doing exactly what I want to do, not only have I enjoyed the positive response, but I’m just happy to have my brain working again. I can do this, you know?

“We tell the stories we have to tell, stories of the things that draw us in — and why should any of us have more than a handful of those? The only work really worth doing — the only work you can do convincingly — is the work that focuses on the things you care about. To not focus on those issues is to deny the constants in your life.”

And that’s it, really. I don’t need to have a million and one ideas if I just write from a place of honesty. If I feel strongly about something, it will come through. People who would never go fly-fishing still liked A River Runs Through It. Americans who don’t know a damn thing about soccer enjoyed Fever Pitch. The best kinds of books, the best songs — the best anything, really — takes the personal and makes it feel universal. We recognize that these stories aren’t about the techniques, the actions, but the emotions behind them.

We’re all proud, we’re all apprehensive. We suffer from fits of loneliness, and we’re all in love with something. One mistake informs the next success. If this book accomplishes anything, it’s a great reminder that being true to yourself doesn’t have to be a cliche. Whatever our definition of success is, we make the decisions.

Book # 6/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on RiVerSpeAK on Decemeber 22, 2009

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

Citizen Vince
by Jess Walter

“The people are funny... they live in this perfect place, but it’s all they know, so they all assume it’s gotta be better somewhere else.”

Even if I did not live near the same city as Jess Walter, even if I’d never heard of this book, the two pages of blurbs alone would have compelled me to pick it up. Two of my favorite writers, Nick Hornby and Sarah Vowell, sing its praises, but perhaps the Washington Post Book World sums up the novel best: “You just have to read it.”

After you read this review, get thee to your preferred bookseller and drop the fifteen bucks. I mean it. Then buy one for a friend. You know you were stuck on a present for them anyway. Why not make it a fantastic story full of humor, heartbreak, and redemption?

Shuffled off to Spokane, Washington, as part of the Witness Protection Program, Vince Camden spends his mornings working at a donut shop and his nights selling stolen credit cards to his poker buddies. It’s 1980 — just days before the presidential election, and Vince can’t quite shake the not-so-paranoid feeling that someone from his old life is after him.

Even from the perspective of an outsider, Walter writes with great affection for his home city, but does not shy away from pointing out Spokane’s quirks. As someone who lives in the area, the ways in which the city still has not changed made me laugh:

“In this town, five guys drive to a tavern in five cars, have a beer, then get in their five cars and drive three blocks to the next tavern. It’s not just wasteful. It’s uncivilized.”

And while we may not still have a zoo (unless you count the Cat Tales sanctuary north of town), I couldn’t agree more with the line, “Our lousy zoo is emblematic of a city and a region afraid to succeed.” Swap out the zoo with any of the following — bus system, light rail, North-South freeway, year-round farmer’s market — and that about describes the glacial pace Spokane has at times when it comes to public improvement. Yes, the past five years have had leaps forward in food, culture and the occasional bike lane painted, but the hesitancy lingers.

Still, this is not a novel about Spokane’s progress, and the political portions are merely a subplot. At its core, Citizen Vince is a story about a man trying to find his place in a new life, wondering what remains of himself after all that has changed. Walter’s writing is some of the best out there, filled with the sort of passages that make me feel like a hack, but also wanting to get to work.

“Jesus, it’d be nice if there were someplace to dump all those things that you’ve felt and seen, like taking the film out of a camera. That’s why people write books and stories, no doubt, to leave some impression behind, to share a sense of the beauty and pain.”

I’m not the type to well up over the books I read, but damn — That’s it. We write to leave our fingerprints on the world and to pay tribute to all that came before. Like Vince, we’re searching for answers, community, and maybe, a dash of immortality.

Book # 5/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

See also my review of the recent Jess Walter/Sherman Alexie reading at Auntie's Bookstore, over at SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Excerpt from the currently untitled NaNo '09

Lee had the night off, and along with Roshaunda, we were going out. A band called Werebears had a gig inside an abandoned storefront, and they’d rented the space out for the night. A friend’s birthday party or something. Roshaunda probably knew, and we’d heard that one of the breweries and the Dry Fly guys were manning the bar. Though I did not know the band’s music outside of the blurbs I’d read, I needed a good time. The cold weather had gnawed at my edges with more persistence than usual, and I didn’t need another person telling me to find a sense of humor. I needed to soak in all the good feelings I could get before I had spend Christmas in Malibu.

When I stepped onto my front porch, Lee and Roshaunda had just parked the truck in the space across the street. They didn’t live together, but lived in the same building and seem to alternate who spent the night at the other’s place. Friends learned long ago not to question the logic or financial smartness behind their setup. I just figured Lee preferred having an escape route, even if it was one only an apartment floor away. And anyway, it wasn’t my business.

After hellos and the obligatory admiring of Roshaunda’s rather mod red and white dress, we drove back into downtown so as not to make her walk far. “Don’t you look dashing this evening,” she said and put one manicured nail to my shirt. She’d dusted some gold flecked powder over her dark cheekbones. “All Mr. Rock n Roll and dangerous with your long black hair.”

My hair barely hits my collar. “Dashing, that’s me.”

“Baby, you make him uneasy when you say stuff like that,” Lee said. “Compliments give him, like, hives.”

“Shut up, Lee.” I laughed. “Thank you, Roshaunda. Tell your friends.”

At ten minutes to nine, we arrived to a full venue. Somewhat predictably, the show didn’t appear to be anywhere close to starting, but a DJ had the crowd enjoying the wait, playing a mashup of “Electric Avenue” and “A Town Called Malice.” The bass rattled the windows up front and Lee paused outside the door for a cigarette.

Roshaunda made a face. “Ugh, baby, I told you to get your fix before we left so you could brush your teeth. I don’t want to smell that breath all night.”

Lee shrugged. “Sorry. Go on and get a drink.”

“Shit, I’m going to have to be drunk, aren’t I?” She looked at me. “You keepin’ him company?”

I nodded, and she gave us an exasperated sigh before going inside. Lee apologized to me again. “You shouldn’t be breathing this stuff in, Dom. Go get a drink too.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

“Nah, if you end up with a third round that’s lung cancer, I don’t want you knocking down my door.”

“If I end up with a third round, Lee, they’re going to have to put me out of my misery.”

“Don’t say shit like that.”

“Sorry. I’m trying to be more upbeat tonight, but it’s not happening yet.” I looked around at the other smokers, all exiled to the outdoors. Some smoked with gloves on, others removed just the one, while others had the red, dry hands of those who never bothered with gloves at all. A group of people waited to cross the street just behind them, and one man with dark hair wore a familiar grey wool coat. An old flutter rose from the back of my brain and I swallowed.

“Coupla vodka sodas and we’ll have you sorted right out,” Lee said through an exhale.

“Right,” I watched the man approach and squinted his face into focus. My glasses need replacing.

“I know she hates it, and I’m trying to quit, but if I don’t have this now, I’m just going to be thinking about it all night and I don’t want to get all moody and shit.”

“You don’t have to justify it to me,” I said. The man walked closer and loosened his scarf with one long finger. I lost track of what Lee said next and wondered what my hair looked like. Before I talked myself out of it, I called out, “Michael, hey.”

His eyes shifted our direction, also squinting before brightening with recognition — Thank God. “Dominic! Wow, it’s been forever,” he said and held out an arm. We shared an awkward hug and he smelled fantastic. “How are you?”

My heart just fell out of my chest and landed on the sidewalk here, Michael, but I’m great. Really. “Oh, I’m good, good. Just, uh, you know, been writing and stuff. Trying to keep warm.”

He smiled. “Well, you won’t do it out here.”

“Ah, you may have a point there,” I said. Lee cleared his throat. “Oh, this is my friend Lee. His girlfriend knows whoever’s birthday it is.”

I know, I know, way to make sure to mention the girlfriend.

Lee held out his hand and they shook. “I’m his friendly neighborhood bartender,” he said.

“Michael and I went to college together,” I said. “We were in the dorms the first two years.”

Lee’s eyebrows raised my direction for a moment before he nodded at Michael. “Ah. The old bunk mate. That’s cool.”

Ten years since I’d last seen him, and he still looked great. Older, of course, though better off than me. He had the kind of blue eyes that made people forget what they were saying mid-sentence, and it took the first few months of school to keep my thoughts in order. Now, skills rusty, I had to put in much more effort. “Dominic was the tidy one,” he said to Lee.

“I believe it,” Lee said. He pressed out his cigarette against the brick wall. “I’ll let you two catch up. Roshaunda’s going to be pissed if I don’t get inside soon.”

Lee can tell when I’m all stupid with desire. “What are you doing in town?” I said.

“My grandmother died about a month ago, so I’m helping my sister sort out her house and stuff.”

“I’m so sorry. Were you close?"

He frowned. “Oh, I don’t know. She still recognized me at the end, so I must have made an impression.”

“Still, that’s rough.” I pressed my hands into my jacket pockets.

“Harder on my sister, really. She was taking care of her. I just want to help her out, and she’s got two kids now, so.”

I tried to remember his sister’s name, but couldn’t. Something with an S? I’d only met her once when she came down to Pullman with some friends for a basketball game. “How long are you staying?”

“Through Christmas, I guess. See how long it takes. The woman accumulated a lot of junk over ninety-two years, and we’ve got an auction place in the Valley handling the art and some other stuff in storage.” He sighed and smiled again. “I’m sorry, here we are out on a Saturday night and I’m Debbie Downer.”

That made me laugh. “Well hell, you’re in good company. Not two seconds before you walked up, Lee was giving me a hard time.” I glanced through the window, where I could see the two of them sitting near the end of the makeshift bar. Roshaunda was drinking a martini. “Are you still living in... San Francisco, was it?”

He nodded. “I am.”

“Must be, uh, warm?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said. “Veronica and I busted up about a year after, but I had a job and, you know...”

“May as well make something of it.”

“That’s right.” He stared at me, and his arm started to extend again before he drew it back and cleared his throat. “You look good, by the way. I heard about you getting sick again, but I never found out if you’d recovered. So... it’s good to see you.”

Hearing that pleased me to an embarrassing degree. “Got my hair back, can’t complain.”

“Still. I should have called or something.”

“You’re all right. I was looked after. You had your own shit going on.” The weird thing about having some sort of personal misfortune is how often you end up consoling the people you tell, rather than other way around.

“Well, thanks. I did, I guess.” He tilted his head towards the door. “Should we stop freezing out here and go get a drink?”

One of those brave/masochistic moments. I poked at this a little before putting it up, and may continue to do so. NaNoWriMo novels: A giant hunk of marble that isn't anywhere close to art. Or even nice countertops.