Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On "One or Two Afternoons" by Lincoln Michel (1211 words) *****

I've long thought about writing a story in two parts, both of which involve the exact same dialogue but in utterly different contexts. I've never gotten around to that tale, and I'm not sure that I have at this point the two correct settings for such a piece. But I do like the idea of two pieces commenting on one another in a kind of parallel track. Although involving different sets of dialogue, Michel's piece is a cool tale of contrasts and of deceptions. What's more to a point in this tale is what isn't here, all the details left out. Violence between ex-lovers gets pit-for-pat treatment here, but on parallel tracks. Read the story here at the Collagist.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On "What You Know" by Jennifer Pashley (1161 words) ****

Here's a hard one about growing up too soon. Pashley's narrator talks about adult things while the things the others around her talk about are "cool" kid things. The effect is one of harsh contradistinction. I'd have been one of the kids showing off how to make stick figures with Popsicle sticks. I'm not unhappy to have missed out on a harsh upbringing, though there are times I feel like I've been stuck in that more innocent world with no nice way to stay in unless I remain alone. The next step is scary, but isn't that the point? Read Pashley's piece here at Memorious.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On "All She Wanted" by Beth Newcomer (2930 words) ***

Newcomer's story revolves around the love life of one Maizie, who discovers, over the course of her life more and more about the man she really wants--which is not one who checks off every item on her list and who has, simply, one special quality. Read the story here at Diverse Voices.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On "Stalagmites" by Christine Hennessey (2676 words) ****

A cave takes on metaphoric undertones in this tale of a marriage on the brink of ending. A child tries desperately to keep her parents together on this final vacation together, where for a brief moment there is a bit of hope. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

On "The Miracle Boy" by Patrick Irelan (3810 words) ***

The story begins with a kid walking on water, and as one might expect, such an action brings with it a fair amount of notice from the community around and a certain amount of exploitation by the family involved. Irelan's tale takes a rather snide look at the media and at what we consider special. Just what is a miracle? Can't something we consider "ordinary" be just as much of one? Read the tale here at Defenestration.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

On "My Name Is Dave and I Am Dead" by Matt Demers (1515 words) ***

What if you could attend your own funeral? What if you could continue on with life, more or less as usual, after you were dead? These are the questions that Demers poses in this unusual piece of fiction. The narrator comes to some interesting--and perhaps not too hopeful--realizations. Read the story here at Defenestration.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On "Other Woods" by Nichole Lefebvre (1266 words) ****

A tiny bit of childhood is recounted here, how the warnings of adults take on the height of terror. The kids are not to go into the woods. There are gangs in them. They go anyway, but one of them goes farther than any of them have ever gone before. What will become of her is anyone's guess. Read the story here at the L Magazine.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On "Chicken Grethe's Family" by Hans Christian Andersen (4987 words) ***

In this story, Andersen adapts a tale by the Scandinavian writer/playwright Ludvig Holberg, someone unfortunately not on my reading list this time around but whose influence on Danish literature was obviously significant, since both Kierkegaard and Andersen mention him in their works. The story is essentially that of a spoiled girl who upon growing up ditches two marriages to respectable men in favor of a childhood friend of the lower class. Why? The public will never know, and neither exactly will we. Riches only mean so much, of course, and life means a whole lot more. Andersen adds another layer to the tale, having Holberg visit the woman to get the story, and then wrapping the whole thing inside a frame story about a women who now lives in the girl's childhood home. And this being Andersen, of course, nature, in the form of birds, has to have a bit of a say in what's happening as well. Read the tale here.

On "Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell ***

It's been decades since I read a work of George Orwell's, and I think that I probably did not appreciate just how fine a wordsmith he was when I last read him, as a teenager. Back then, within about one year, I read 1984, Animal Farm, and Coming Up for Air, caring only for the first and rather surprised I didn't much like the second. That was back in the mid-1980s.

Down and Out has been on my list for a while, perhaps since reading Jack London's People of the Abyss or Ehrlich's Nickel and Dimed. I'd say this work is probably on par with London's classic, and it covers much the same territory. There's one difference, however. Orwell, at least as the work is narrated, isn't going out and living among the poor for some journalistic cause. He is poor--he's a down-and-out writer. Unable to find enough work, he finds himself scraping by in a Paris apartment. He takes up working poor jobs, as he can find them. This means working in a restaurant as a dishwasher for seventeen hours a day, seven days a week.

During this time, he falls in with a Russian guy who supposedly can get him a good restaurant job. But the Russian is out on his luck too, having sustained a work injury that keeps people from wanting to hire him as a waiter. They get a coup when a friend of the Russian decides to open a restaurant himself--only, the problem is that the restaurant takes much longer to open than planned. Months pass. They go to work in a hotel restaurant. When the newer restaurant finally does open, Orwell finds that this promised new job is actually worse than the hotel he was working at (seven days on, instead of six). Eventually, wiped out, he writes to a friend back in London about a job and is promised one.

When he shows up in London, however, he finds his friend is gone and the promised job delayed accordingly. With little to his name, he is forced again to do as he can to get by. This time, there aren't any other jobs in the offing, however, so he spends time on the street and in various shelters. Along the way, Orwell offers advice on the best type of shelters, who the poor really are, and how to pawn clothes. He also compares poverty in Paris to that in London; the latter nation does a better job of forcing the poor off the street, which isn't to say that that is actually the better system, as it essentially means their more persecuted. I rather enjoyed the Paris section a bit more, for what can be said about homelessness as Orwell describes it is that there's a certain redundancy to it. At least, with a job or the prospect of better possibilities to come, there was something to cheer for.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On "The Mating Behavior of Great Tits" by Joshua Malbin (12:13 minutes) ****

I'm not generally a fan of animal stories--that is, for stories told from the point of view of animals--but Malbin does something fascinating here in terms of really getting into the heads of birds as if they have the same kind of emotions that humans do. Much of what happens is that a bird comes to have peace with the way in which life goes from year to year, the cycle of life. I imagine that this is also the way in which we too come to have a certain piece with the elements of living and dying, with how those we know come and go, all the bits of heartache that come with it and the way that our lives go on. Listen here at the Drum.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

On "The Porter's Son" by Hans Christian Andersen (7058 words) ***


In terms of class mobility, Scandinavian countries are, from my understanding, much more equitable than my own native America (which even pales now compared to Britain apparently). It's kind of a sad state. However, to what degree class mobility has to do with merely finances and to what degree it has to do with social strata is another matter. Growing up in the United States, I do find it strange that one would dismiss marriage candidates based solely on the fact that they aren't nobility. And yet, when I think a bit more deeply about it, we aren't immune to such distinctions. Just the other day, someone described a family as "redneck," though the person they were talking of supposedly transcended the family status. Maybe we are still more inclined to judge on individual merit.



Anyway, "The Porter's Son" is about such distinctions--two children that grow up together, one as a janitor's son, the other as the daughter of a general who employs the janitor. Despite the fact that the janitor's son goes on to serve in the king's cabinet and is rich and talented to boot, nothing seems to be able to win him approval for the daughter's hand. He is, in the end, not of noble class. One gets the feeling, from many of Andersen's tales, that Andersen did not approve of such distinctions. Read the tale here.

On "The Mississippi Chinese" by James W. Loewen ***

Years ago, when I was doing grad school in Mississippi, I went to visit my office mate during the summer, whose home of origin was on the Delta (Cleveland, Mississippi to be exact). It was a fun two-day visit, though mostly because it was spent with him rather than because I liked the locale at all. There was a lot of poverty--mixed among quite a few well-to-do places. Restaurants were largely fast food. There was little to do, even though there was a college in town (where my friend's father taught). But there was the Mississippi River, which I got to go visit and walk into (what muck!). And there was the Delta itself, that long, flat expanse. Eating out at Burger King or something like it, we saw a young, pretty Chinese woman visiting the restaurant as well. And that's when my friend mentioned the Delta Chinese. It was nothing more than that, a mention ("you never heard of the Delta Chinese?"), but it sparked an interest.

Loewen's book is about these Chinese. I was somewhat disappointed, toward the beginning, as I was hoping for a history, whereas Loewen's study is more of an sociological one, though history takes a part to be sure. And having been written in the early 1970s, the study is dated, as Loewen himself admits it's going to be (changes in civil rights were changing the findings drastically). And yet, I left the book feeling anxious, angry, sad, and intrigued, for the book is really about racism as it existed then, which caused me to reflect on how racism continues into the present--and the part I play in it.

As for how Chinese ended up migrating to the Delta, that is in itself an interesting story. There were never a lot of them, but relative to other areas, the number was significant enough that they are a known factor. In post-Civil War Mississippi, planters needed to find a way to replace their slave labor. Most continued to use black laborers, taking them on a sharecroppers, who they thoroughly exploited. But because some former slaves weren't too keen on staying within the system, some landowners began bringing in Chinese, who had been working in New Orleans, on the river, or for the railroad. They promised great riches--and delivered to them the same as they delivered to their black counterparts--that is, very little.

The Chinese were generally men, there to make money to send home to China. And rather than be exploited as sharecroppers, they often set about becoming merchants--grocery store owners, to be exact. They would set up small grocery stores in black neighborhoods, and sell to the locals. In this way, they began to become wealthy. (Why blacks couldn't do the same themselves is something Loewent discusses. For the Chinese had an advantage: not being truly local, they didn't have a community that expected them to support them when times got tough; hence, a Chinese merchant could more easily cut off bad debtors than a man who might have to cut off a cousin or niece or friend and who would suffer social consequences as a result.)

The wealth, in turn, transformed the Chinese. Once placed at the black end of the spectrum in Mississippi's biracial society, they began to move into the white end. Indeed, Mississippi's segregated world had a hard time figuring out where to put them at times. Some cities were able to have separate Chinese schools, but most insisted Chinese children go to negro schools; one Chinese family even sued to attempt to get their children into a white school. In time, however, Chinese made the leap--and became almost white.

As Loewen was writing, however, much of this was breaking down, as schools were integrating and society industrializing. African Americans were moving out of the Delta to find city work. Those who stayed were often more well to do and thus had access to transportation to be able to visit larger supermarkets. Thus, Chinese groceries were beginning to disappear--and the Chinese were beginning to migrate out of the South as well.

Loewen spends much time talking about the racial system of Jim Crow Mississippi. He shows how racism can pervade even one's feelings about one's self or one's own race: blacks sometimes kept each other down based on a system that valued whiteness even in the black community (pride, for example, in shopping at a white-owned store rather than a black-owned one). He shows how the blame for racism and prejudice didn't rest solely with lower-class whites, unlike what many social theorists and what many higher-class whites would claim. While violence might pour out from lower-class whites toward blacks, often the two groups had more to do with one another--were more integrated--than higher-class whites were with either. In fact, it was more often, as Loewen shows, these higher-class whites who would vote on school boards and so forth to keep blacks or Chinese out of their schools--but then blame it on lower-class whites not allowing it. That's not to say that lower-class whites escape blame. People in Mississippi at the time were in castes of a sort, and generally people wanted to move out of their caste or maintain the higher caste they were in--and thus racist maneuvers were undertaken to maintain power, prestige, or status quo. It was these chapters that were hard, at times, not to be angered by--the way people treat one another. And they often left me thinking about how far we've really come, which is probably not far at all. There may no longer be Jim Crow laws, but on some level, voluntary segregation still exists (how often, really, after all, does my social circle involve people of other races?), and by extension, even our rhetoric regarding poverty programs in this country could still be tied to highly coded racism (as the rhetoric revolving around race, even in the 1960s, was often coded in terms of wealth or education). The problem is, of course, that while some people are poor because they really are lazy (as some would claim), others are there by circumstance (as others would claim), just as some are rich because of how hard they have worked to earn what they have (as some would claim), while others have simply inherited it (as others would claim). We can't generalize social policy, and yet because social policy is aimed not at the individual but at society as a whole, we have no choice but to do so, and thus the class (and race) prejudice that results. We all continue to suffer for it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On "Deer Hunting" by Olyn Ozbick (2 pages) ***

This short tale revolves around the subject in the title. Three men, two of them escaping wives, waiting for the weekend to end. They can't keep track of where each of them are, let alone where the deer might be. I read this despite it being on Flash Paper, of which I am no fan. You can read it too, on page 24, of Crack the Spine's fifty-first issue.

On "The Locked Room" by Paul Auster ****

The last book of the New York Trilogy, The Locked Room is also perhaps the most traditional. Told from the point of a first-person narrator and essentially recounting a man's interactions with a strange childhood friend, the novel at first seems to have little in common with its two predecessors.

The narrator receives a call one day from a woman who has married his childhood friend Fanshawe. Fanshawe has disappeared, but he's left instructions to his wife that his friend should take over his literary estate. Fanshawe was a writer, though he never published. The narrator is to review the work, consider its worth, and then either destroy it or find a publisher. Like most who come in contact with Fanshawe, the narrator is a huge fan, and he is happily taken by the three novels, three plays, and book of poetry that Fanshawe has left behind--and so too is a publishing friend. (The narrator is a writer too, but one of the journalistic stamp, unable ever to break into the literary world.)

Meanwhile, the narrator falls in love with Sophie, Fanshawe's wife, and since Fanshawe had disappeared, he begins courting her. Until . . . He receives a letter from Fanshawe. The letter denotes that Fanshawe is alive, that he has made a decision to leave the world behind, and that he has given himself seven more years to life. He enourages the narrator to go forward with taking care of Sophie and his son.

The narrator is troubled by the letter but goes forward anyway. His troubles begin to overwhelm him, however, and he decides to revenge Fanshawe, to find him and kill him--or at least expose him. Meanwhile, others are claiming the narrator is Fanshawe, and to quell those rumors, the narrator agrees to write a biography of his friend, which is really just a means for him to find said friend.

Here's where the book begins to dovetail into the other two books of the trilogy. Names from the other book show up. There is a private detective named Quinn (from the first book); there is a man named Peter Stillman (also from the first book); there is a red notebook. (It turns out the narrator is the author of the first two novels of the trilogy.) There is an obsession with symbol, language, and meaning, and there is one particularly intriguing scene toward the book's end when the narrator finally confronts Fanshawe. It isn't Fanshawe, though (or is it?). It's a man who the narrator decides is Fanshawe, as if the decision, the application of meaning, is what matters--more than any meaning in and of itself. To decide a man is Fanshawe and act accordingly is what matters. So too with language and literature. We have a heap of words that we put the meanings to and that we go about in faith as if those meanings mattered.

Then, finally, of course, there's the locked room--the place we're not allowed to enter. But I won't get into that, because I can't. The novel won't let me. You'll just have to read and discover its contents for yourself.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On "Taking" by Alix Ohlin (6:14 minutes) ****

Ohlin turns a childhood game into a metaphor for a much more serious and disturbing life event. The childhood game involves taking an object from a room and seeing if the sister knows what the object is. The narrator is not so good at the game, but some things can be taken that affect one forever thereafter. Listen to the story here at the Drum.

On "Ghosts" by Paul Auster ***

The second book of Auster's New York Trilogy, this one is more of a philosophical journey than anything else, something to be enjoyed on an intellectual level but not much else. It explores similar themes as the first book in the trilogy, but fails to quite live up to the first. Had I read it first, perhaps my opinion would be slightly different, but somehow I doubt it.

In Ghosts every major character is named after a color. Blue is a detective who has been hired by White to follow Black. Brown is his idol, and it is to Brown that Blue appeals, only to find the advice disappointing, if not completely absent.

Black, Blue finds, does little more than write. Following him is boring. Blue sits and observes and writes about Black, who sits and writes and observes also. Blue becomes paranoid as the story goes on, wondering if perhaps White and Black are in cahoots. Has White actually hired Black and Blue? Blue begins to make stuff up about Black, in part because it's more interesting, but also to see what kind of reaction he'll get from White. Will White know? Do White and Black speak to one another?

As time goes on, Blue finds himself less and less interested in writing about Black and, indeed, writing at all. The writer is a detective of sorts, but that work is less than exciting at times.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

On "A Story from the Sand Dunes" by Hans Christian Andersen (13,455 words) ***

One tragedy after another comes in this story by Andersen, which largely avoids the elements of fairy tale. It regards a young child of nobility whose ship is torn apart before he can remember and who ends up growing up in a small fishing village, adopted by parents who lost their child in another tragedy. The boy is God's miraculous replacement (never mind that all the other shipgoers died). The boy grows to be a man and makes good friends with one particular other young male in the village. They fall for the same girl. The boy saves up to buy a house, and the gal agrees to marry the boy because she knows she'll be better off with him, even though she actually loves the boy's friend. The boy chooses to hand over his house to his friend, as well as the girl, and leaves the village to travel the world. Only . . . there's a murder, and the boy ends up in prison. And then later, he ends up in another town, where he meets a lovely woman, who again is taken away from him by the sea. In addition, his mind is taken too. And so this dreadfully depressing story comes to an end . . . almost. Andersen was apparently very religious, and the hope of eternal life often ends up playing a role in his stories, and it's no exception with this tale. Read the full story here.

On "City of Glass" by Paul Auster *****

This is possibly the best novel I've read this year, certainly the best in a long time. The first of a trilogy, I look forward to the next two parts of it. Auster's book was written in the mid-1980s. It's hard for me to believe that it is about thirty years old and that it took that long for me to get to. Novels like this were works written in the 1950s back in the mid-1980s, and they were classics of a sort. It's hard to believe this would now be essentially a classic, in that sense, tested by time.

The novel is about a writer--a writer on many different levels. Daniel Quinn is a the main character. He writes detective novels under the name William Wilson (the name of a baseball player for the Mets, and the name, I believe, of a character in a Poe story about a man with multiple identities). Wilson in turn writes about the detective Max Work (maximum work of literature?). Quinn receives an anonymous call. The caller is asking for Paul Auster, a private detective.

After a couple of calls, Quinn decides to pose as Auster. The woman on the line is looking for help protecting a man Peter Stillman from his father of the same name. The father experimented on Stillman at a young age, similar to experiments keeping young children in a room without language to see what would happen. The abuse did no good for the son, and the father, who was imprisoned for his evil doings, is fresh out of jail. The son needs protection.

Quinn's job is to offer said protection. He embarks on following Stillman Sr. around. Stillman has a double, and Quinn has to choose which one is real. Stillman walks his days away in patterns that suggest letters that suggest words. What does it all mean?

Quinn eventually finds the real Paul Auster, who is a writer, not a detective. The two sort of collude for a bit, but not well and not for long. And Quinn in turn finds his musings growing progressively shorter and more meaningless, as Stillman's whereabouts get harder to trace.

Language is a major theme of this book, as is identity. Even the body seems a major element of it--nudity is stressed quite a bit early on. It's as if the body is all that is real, as if language is a slippery attempt to define the meaning of who we are, to give those bodies identity.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On "Mirabeau, the Truant" by Andrew Brininstool (4687 words) ****

Mirabeau is a peeping tom. He is also a boy on the cusp of being a teenager, a boy with a father suffering from depression, a boy with certain problems adjusting to the world around him--or understanding it. His best friend is Tug, a home-schooled fatty who is also a bully. The world around them is coming apart--the sky is literally falling, remnants of the space shuttle. But in the midst of this, there are small moments of beauty that make life worth living. Read the story here at Better.

On "The Elephants Teach" by D. G. Myers ***

In The Elephants Teach D. G. Myers traces the origin of the teaching of creative writing in the university, and in the process he tells the history of the teaching of English in the university. For the last several years, I've felt as if my studying English was ill advised; I'd have done something more useful had I studied, for example, one of the sciences. But young, I was idealistic and decided to study something I love: writing and reading. Nowadays, I tend to think I could have done such without a degree; I could have studied some other field and had something to write about. The problem . . . When I look back on it, I realize that I never enjoyed studying the sciences, and so I'd have likely consigned myself to misery trying to do so. And in total, my life hasn't worked out badly; I just often wish I felt more like I had a "real" skill.

Myers's book merely confirmed a lot of what I've come to feel--that English degrees, and especially writing degrees, are essentially self-reproducing. English students study English to teach other students to teach English. And creative writers study writing to teach others how to teach others how to write.

Myers starts his work off with a discussion of philology, which predated the modern English program. Philologists studied language the way a linguist does, focusing mostly on grammar and on etymology. Where did this word come from and how should one use it? Writers, as with today, could rarely make a living writing, so they often had other professions, and only rarely did one choose philology--or the teaching of a foreign language.

It was in the late 1800s that English departments began to take shape. Philology fell from favor as the idea of composition took hold. Composition--teaching others to write--started out to be, according to Myers, actually much more like creative writing. The idea was to be creative--and teachers often didn't care what one composed be it an essay, a story, or a poem. Many classes were forged around the idea of daily compositions--journals. Part of the impetus for teaching writing, however, was also for people to learn an appreciation for reading--not so much to become a professional writer.

But as composition became more popular and was added as a requirement to many school's prerequisites, so too did composition come under fire, just as it does today. What exactly should composition teach? Creativity? Critical thinking? Rhetorical argument? Literary appreciation? Business-oriented writing for specific disciplines? As composition moved more closely into the line of rhetoric, creativity began again to be placed on the back burner.

Writers, however, began to enter the academy more and more as a means to support themselves. (Myers examines the founding of various writing colonies, which is also a rather fascinating discussion.) And that's when New Criticism came to the fore. The idea was that writers would read texts closely, examine them, see how the text worked internally, rather than looking to its linguistics or its historical origins. Criticism was, thus, a part of teaching writers to write and readers to read. (The elephants teach refers to the idea that a zoologist study not just the animal from the outside but that the zoologist actually become the animal--he or she lives the life of the elephant to understand how it is constructed. So it is that a writer lives the writing life, reads like a writer, to understand how a piece of writing is forged.)

But eventually criticism and creative writing split off. And thus we now how several segmentations in an English department--linguists, rhetoricians, critics, and creative writers. Though the process started in the 1920s, much of the influx of writers to the academy happened after World War II, with the advent of the GI bill and the upswing in the number of degrees being granted. These people needed something to do, and the federal government was happy to pump more money into the system. Creative writing was a cheap program for a university to start (most such universities were not a state's flagship institution but an outlier, looking for a program to include among its specialties). And so it is. An excess of English professors and of money led to more creative writing programs being established, which led more such programs and more and more.