Friday, November 21, 2014

On "Mix Tape" by Elisha Wagman (ca. 7300 words) ***

When I was in high school, at dances, I would tell the gal I was dancing with what a particular song reminded me of--even at that time, even when the songs were current. This one reminds me of Star Search, because that's where I first heard it. Wagman's music and memory connection is a bit more meaningful than my own. The story is a collection of memories attached to songs, but what makes it such a heartfelt read is knowing exactly why these songs are being chosen for this mix tape. Jasmine is a girl dying of a disease, who knows she's dying, and whose final act--or close to final--is creating a mix tape for the single mother she's leaving behind. Read the story here on page 30 of Fiction Fix.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On "Dante and the Lobster" by Samuel Beckett (4325 words) ***

I've only read a couple of plays by Samuel Beckett. It is said that of his dramas, the real joy is in watching the performance. Unfortunately, the portion of one performance of Waiting for Godot that I saw took a more somber view of the play, and the whole was rendered incredibly tiresome. Indeed, such could easily be the case with much of Beckett's work, for so much of it is about the tiresomeness of existence, the struggle to find meaning in a life that wanders by us. Here a man goes out to buy lobster for a meal. In the course he has a bit of toast, discoursing for a long while in his mind on the proper way to have bread of the warmed sort. It's stream of consciousness in Beckett's own fashion (it seems that such practitioners each have their own style, be they Joyce, Faulkner, or other). Still, I have read elsewhere that this short piece is a good introduction to Beckett's prose, and if so, it's worth a read if one is curious. Read the story here at Evergreen Review.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On "Kingdom of the Jellyfish" by Thomas Andrew Green (878 words) ***

Many a short is essentially an extended metaphor, and that's what Green does wonderfully here. The tale is about one family that comes to live with another, about how it imposes itself for a brief time and then disappears as if it had never been. It's about how we all do that, all us living beings, even the jellyfish. Read the story here at Apple Valley Review.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

On "Medicine Show" by Charles Ramsay McCrory (1749 words) ***

In McCrory's world, pharmaceutical salesperson's are as likely to use their products as candy bar kids are to eat there. Neither person on this trip is exactly enthused by the work laid out for them, but sometimes the benefits are in the product itself. I love McCrory's use of language here. I could have read more. Read the piece here at Eunoia Review.

On "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell ****

My wife was the impetus behind my finally reading this one. So many women I know refer to this as one of their favorites, and so many women have talked delightedly about Georgia (though they've never been to the state) because of this book. I'm left wondering with regard to the latter, why? I don't think Georgia comes off looking all that grand, nor the South as a whole.

Mitchell's text, though, is a rich one, allegorically and historically, and it features a set of very well-drawn characters and some beautiful writing. I felt like I got a good sense of the nature of southern living before, during, and after the Civil War. Mind you, it's a white southern point of view. Yankees in general are portrayed as opportunists, and blacks, though frequently present, fall into rather simplistic stereotypes: the loyal servant who won't leave even if no longer a slave, the lazy human being who won't work or learn anything except when forced to as a slave, the corrupt pervert. Mitchell presents most of the book from her main character Scarlett O'Hara's point of view, and that's a good thing, because the few times she does venture into trying to speak for the former slave, it comes across to me as patronizing.

The point of view of the Yankees, by contrast, is complicated by the point of view of the various southern characters and how their own assumptions about Yankees are to some extent called into the question. Leading into the war, the assumption is that the Yankees are cowards who won't fight and who will easily back down if forced to fight. The short war that's expected proves to be much less than short, and the trials that hit the region hit hard. And while Yankees are hated, some of the soldiers, the southern women find out, prove to be rather gentlemanly (and some not).

But then, that's part of what Mitchell does throughout this book, chiefly through a character who herself is not knowingly drawn completely into the southern mystique. Southern culture is built on a set of artifices that the war itself tears down but that the community continues to try to live by. These artifices have to do with proper gender roles, which Mitchell (via the war) calls into question, and class roles. The war pushes all these things to the side. High-class women take to the fields or take on jobs to survive (though what jobs exactly are allowable still remains something of an issue). Men raised to be effete plantation owners find they have no role in the South once the plantations are done away. And yet, the community is one of constant hypocrisy. A woman might be criticized for performing certain kinds of work to save her family, but the family will take the money made from the work to continue to live by its noble pretensions.

The headstrong Scarlett is a woman who doesn't exactly follow those pretensions. She's mostly interested in getting men to fall for her. But one man, Ashley Wilkes, won't--or does but won't allow himself to object to his family's desire that he marry someone else. This sets up the plot of the entire book, for Scarlett longs for him throughout, and she lets that longing guide and eventually destroy her life (as well as the lives of others), as she marries someone else out of revenge and ignores men who truly love her, never recognizing that she and Ashley have little in common.

And in this is what I see as the book's ultimate allegory. Ashley represents a kind of noble, southern gentleman who goes along wholly with society expectations and who, because of it, is himself destroyed. Yet Scarlett sees only an ideal throughout, just as people continue to see an ideal South that exists only in the past. There's no going back, but she learns too late that that ideal no longer exists, if it ever existed at all. One might hope that she has learned her lesson by the end (tomorrow is, after all, another day, as the famous line from the book states a few times), but I get the feeling that she has merely transferred ideals onto another man. She constantly seeks after a past that she can't have. So it goes with the South and the postwar southerners, who long for a time that is no longer.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

On "My Mother’s Boyfriends" by Liz Wyckoff (867 words) ***

I'm reminded a bit of the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. In it, a man goes back to visit is a set of ex-girlfriends to find the mother of his son. Here, a mom takes a daughter on a tour of her old beaus, showing up how unimpressive they are, hoping to convey a somewhat different lesson, one the daughter finds she couldn't not keep if she tried. Read the story here at Annalemma.

Monday, October 27, 2014

On "Jennifer Aniston Comes to Stay Awhile" by Jared Yates Sexton (3051 words) *****

I saw Jared read this story in Atlanta and was totally mesmerized. Too often, during a reading, I find myself moving to other thoughts, drifting in an out. But Jared's performance, along with the story itself, kept me focused. Here, Aniston comes to stay at the narrator's house. She stands in for the angst we feel about our own love lives, the idea that we will never be loved, never find it, countered by the idea that by settling on just one person we might be missing out on the real one we belong with. Read the story here at Punchnels.

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.