Saturday, February 13, 2010

Book Review: Glimmer Train Stories, Fall 2003, Issue 48

It's hard to "review" an issue of a literary journal because all the stories are so different. So this "review" more constitutes my notes and impressions on this particular issue. I'm a big fan of Glimmer Train in general and have been since I was in high school.

I'm obviously way behind on my Glimmer Train issues. I devoured this one from cover to cover. Still, I found many of the stories lacking. I think it may be because I rather recently read Best New American Voices 2006 and I've decided I usually like more of an experimental, shocking, grab-me-by-my-throat-and-surprise-me style more than a traditional realist style, which most of these stories were. If a story is pure realism, then I at least want something to happen. Many of these stories seemed more like glimpses or scenes than actual stories.

For example, J. Patrice Whetsell's "The Coconut Lady" is about a girl going off to college and remembering how her mother taught her how to cook. It is mostly full of memories of her mother's cooking and what her mother would talk about when it came to food. There is a very small hint of a story--in which it is revealed that the mother's marriage did not work out--that peeps its head out, but then it's back to shaking coconuts, or whatever. I just don't understand the point of a "story" all about food, with no real plot.

I enjoyed "Mother Knows" by Diane Chang, although the plot could have been thicker for me. It's about a woman who finds out that her son, a medical school student, is in the hospital with a concussion after a Frisbee accident that happened during his school's orientation. She reminisces about leaving him in China when she and her husband first came to the U.S. On the way home from visiting her son in the hospital, she gets her very first speeding ticket, ever. Her husband is basically useless, but she still loves him. It was pretty good writing and it kept me interested, and I do understand that stories can show a slice of life instead of needing to have a pat conflict/ climax/ resolution, but, again, if it's overly realistic and nothing much happens and not much of a conclusion is reached, then I feel like I've wasted my time reading it, unless it's very well written or there's something particularly unique about it. Otherwise I feel like I could have just talked to a friend about an event like this; it doesn't stir me the way I think an excellent story should.

Many of these stories were about families, and death, and loss. After awhile they collectively started to seem a bit depressing and repetitive. Barry Lyga's "Trading Worlds" had quite a different format, involving a bunch of different dream sequences, but I didn't really like it. It was about the after-math of 9/11 and how one man was dealing with it in his personal life. I thought it was a rather over-the-top attempt to show that one really can't wrap one's head around something so huge and devastating. Bilal Dardai's "The Empty Bowl" had a very experimental format, to the point that I didn't even understand what it was trying to do.

One of my favorite stories in this issue was Virgil Saurez's "Lalo's Skin," which was about a man remembering a friend his father had had throughout the man's childhood, who was a liar and a thief, but whom his dad nonetheless continued to help. I also enjoyed Doreen Baingana's "Lost in Los Angeles," about a woman who comes to L.A. from East Africa. Both of these stories, as well as Jonathan Wei's "Mr. Lee's Study"--about an old professor close to retiring, which I rather liked as well--could be categorized as realistic slice-of-life vignettes, but the writing in all of them was very good and the "plots"-- or as much of a plot as each one had-- were interesting. I also enjoyed the interview of Carol Roh-Spaulding, although I haven't read anything she's written.

Karen Kovacik's "Madrigals for a Bauhaus Baby"--about a childless woman whose co-worker miscarried-- and Elizabeth Gallu's "At the Garden"--kind of a "day in the life" of a woman and her husband in Germany--were okay, in my opinion. Nancy Zafris's "Prix Fixe"--about a washed-up cook who used to be a chef in Paris--was okay but it felt much longer than it needed to be. I could not get into Christopher Bundy's "Morning Prayers" at all; I was confused about what was happening and where the characters were, and it just felt rather boring to me, so I stopped reading it. Quang Huynh's "Dust Falling in Daylight"--about a bomb that explodes and kills someone--was unremarkable, in my opinion. Jennifer Oh's "January," about a South Korean woman who loses her daughter during their flight from North Korea's attacks, was interesting and I liked it.

It's strange because although I felt disappointed with many of the stories in this issue, and very few made me feel deeply moved, overall I enjoyed reading the issue and I couldn't put it down. Reading Glimmer Train always inspires me to write and to think, and this issue was no exception. So I give it three stars. Of course I would give certain stories more stars than others, but overall it averages out to three.

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