Monday, April 20, 2015

On "Fortune Tellers" by Genanne Walsh (1099 words) ****

My stepson likes to pretend he can predict the future. We'll be headed along an interstate, for example, and there will be a tunnel ahead, and he'll say, "I prophesy that things are going to get dark." Walsh's story, if it can be called such, is a meditation on people who know the future, our future and how they go about knowing it. Despite its simple premise, it has a kind of chilling effect on readers--or at least this reader. Read it for yourself here at Spry.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On "I’ll Take You There" by David Williams (4284 words) ***

This story gets where it gets on voice. Having lived in north Mississippi for nearly three years, I can feel to an extent the people Williams is writing about. Here, Ivy's mom finds God and tries to get Ivy to find the same type of God too. Not gonna happen. Or will it? Read the story here at Fifty-two Stories.

On "The Robe" by Lloyd C. Douglas ***

The fiction best-seller for 1943, Douglas's Christian historical novel recounts the tale of the man who won Jesus's robe at his crucifixion.

What is the significance of such a book being the fiction best-seller at this point in the war? I'll make a few theoretical stabs.

First, it's clear that American at the time were looking heavily to religion. It was the third year in a row that a Christian novel topped the best-seller list. One could possibly point to the war as a reason for such interest in faith, but it might also have been that the United States at the time as a nation was simply more religious. What's interesting to me is that it is not books like The Robe that dominate literature classes when we go back and read American literature of the era. Rather, it tends to be works that fit into modernist or postmodernist theory, books wherein authors are wrestling with supposed meaninglessness, looking for something to replace God, who is dead. But on the best-seller list, God is very much alive.

This suggests a few things. It could suggest that our literary scholars and critics have a distorted view of what makes a work great or important. It could suggest that academia is dominated by atheists with a point to grind into their students. But it could also suggest, as an art history teacher of mine once noted, that the important books aren't those that everyone is reading as much as it is those which are prophetic. By that I mean, the literary works that prefigure the increasing secularization of America are more important because they point to where America was headed; whereas best-selling fiction, such as The Robe failed to point--and thus to continue to have as much significance. Or one could also argue that such prefiguration is a self-fulfilling prophecy: that by focusing on areligious works, scholars point students--and thus the increasingly educated populace--toward secularization themselves.

Whatever one thinks in regard to that, Douglas's tale does seem to parallel the 1942 and 1941 best-sellers in the sense that there is a heavy emphasis in what I might term "soft Christianity." What I mean by that is that the emphasis is on people doing and feeling good rather than on the actual tenets of any particular sect. "Are you a Buddhist or a Hindu but have goodness in your heart? Well, then, that's all that matters. We're all going to heaven in the end anyway." This is religion meant to appeal to the masses, not to any individualized sect.

Douglas also, it seems, is doing his best to educate the populous about the New Testament. So many statements are quoted from the scriptures and so many Biblical characters show up at points that I felt as if the book was like a movie with a large set of cameo appearances. We get short appearances by not only Jesus but Peter, Paul, and Salome. Yes, Salome, the daughter of King Herod who danced in order that John the Baptist's head would be cut off. It seems, at least in the plot of this book, that dancing for the heads of religious adherents is something Salome rather enjoys doing. In other words, the references at times come to seem a little cheesy.

The plot of the story goes something like this. Marcellus is a tribune sent to Galilee just before Christ's crucifixion. There, he is put in charge of the military unit that is to oversee the death penalty. Marcellus wins Christ's robe in a game, but when he sees the man, he is magically struck somehow by Jesus's image. Not long after, when he is challenged to wear the robe, he does--and goes insane. His insanity gets him dismissed, and it is only months later, when he again puts on the robe, that he is cured. He becomes curious to know more about who this Jesus was, so he goes back to Palestine to interview his followers. They are a shy bunch, however, as persecution is already hitting the sect. Eventually, however, Marcellus is let into the inner circle and finally convinced of Christ's divinity. He then sets about changing his life by serving others. This doesn't sit well with certain other Romans, including the new emperor, so by the end of the text, Marcellus is being hunted much as Jesus himself was.

This brings us to one other thing that might have appealed to readers in the early 1940s. Much of the text centers around the tendency of the rich and powerful to take advantage of the downtrodden. Around page 50, there's a long discussion of the Jewish people that seems to somewhat parallel the situation of many of the people in their own countries at the time. The Jewish people were zealous for their faith and for earning independence from Rome, but it is the leaders of the Jews themselves, one of the characters explains, who sells the common people out. Concerned more with maintaining their own power and wealth, these leaders care little for their poor countrymen. This selling-out, no doubt, is what leads little people to fight wars for big people. If we could all just love each other and be kind to each other, many of the Christians state at various points in the book, then the world would have peace.

Friday, April 10, 2015

On "Greyhound" by Meagan Cass (440 words) ***

This story is wound tight. It's about running and about a greyhound and love and how we show it. I'm reminded of how my mother always seemed to be the favorite of the pets we had. As a kid, I was a bit jealous. But moms do seem the best with the animals. Here, running gets played off as a metaphor for not only the dog but for life. Read the story here at Noo Journal.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

On "Jubilee" by Kirstin Valdez Quade (6857 words) ***

There are a lot of race and ethnicity issues in California, where I grew up. This story places those front and center. Andrea is a girl trying to "better" herself, to live among the rich white people for whom her parents work. Her own self-conscious doubt, in addition to whatever prejudices she might have to endure, gets in the way, however. Read the story here at Guernica.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

On "Hot Tub Doomsday" by Megan Martin (239 words) ****

The converse of Martin's "Poetry Pool Party," this is a tale of professors gathered in a hot tub to talk about, well, how nothing really matters. Literature is dead. It's all been said, and said better. This piece wouldn't be so much fun if it weren't in a hot tub. But then, most things are a bit more fun in a hot tub. Read the story here at Wigleaf.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

On "Last First Date" by Kate Folk (194 words) ***

Here's a dark and humorous look at a very bad date. Each word is carefully chosen, since Folk only had two hundred max to work with--and work she did. Read the piece here at Dogzplot.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

On "Fooling" by Rebekah Mathews (2847 words) ***

One of the attributes of the Web--the joys, the hates--is that no one really vanishes. Here, a woman runs into her ex-lover online, and as one is wont to do, she can't stop obsessing about the relationship that once was, even though much of it was not what it seemed. Read the story here at Fringe.

Monday, March 16, 2015

On “Where There’s Smoke” by Kate Folk (1101 words) ***

Folk's story goes places you don't expect. It starts off as a story about pain and about perhaps the chance at love. I won't say where it ends. Baking is important, though. Read the tale here at Neon Magazine.

On "What Solomon Saw and Other Stories" by Mary Dean Cason ****

What was hard for me to believe, after finishing this collection, is that there is no acknowledgments section that lists off places where these stories have previously appeared. I'm guessing that this fact demonstrates how difficult it can be to find homes for longer stories that are well written but not in some way exceptionally strange, unless you already have a pedigree and a name to go with it. Every one of Cason's stories reads like that of someone who has mastered the form, and at least one of them managed, at least for me, to be truly masterful in terms of eliciting actual tears--that is an emotional response in addition to the usual intellectual nod of the head with regard to how well put together the story is.

The stories themselves range across place but seem most often to be set in the American South. They concern characters of various ages and appear to run chronologically in the sense that the first stories are about children and the later stories are about elderly people, such that I thought at first that I was going to be reading a book of coming-of-age stories.

And in a way, that's a bit of a shame, because Cason hits her stride really with the stories in the middle of the collection, the ones involving adults at middle age.

The early stories present characters who are often too innocent to understand what's really going on. In the title story, for instance, Martha finds out that the may have to give up her tree house because a frenemy fell from it and ended up going to the hospital. Of course, what was really going on was some sort of attempted seduction pulled off by her brother, but for various class and religious reasons, no one will acknowledge such. My guess is that the story is the lead one because it's beginning is so utterly captivating and its voice so strong, but the payoff, for me, proved a bit disappointing in the end. The next story also involves a child, in this case one trapped in a restaurant when a jilted husband attempts to shoot his cheating wife. There's a great deal of tension in this story, as there is in many of Cason's, and it's when we hit the next stories that the collections really took off for me.

"Oh, Canada" involves lovers mixed up with the mob, a story which takes the tension of the previous piece and ups the ante many times more. However, as with most of Cason's pieces, the endings usually don't turn to the dark side, as I would have expected. In some cases, there may have been a bigger emotional payoff for me if they had, but perhaps that is just my taste. "Oh, Canada" was nevertheless gripping from start to finish.

A couple of stories involve motherhood--the inability to have children, the desire to have children. One involves a priest who almost gives up his calling for a woman. One involves a man who takes pity on a woman who is crippled by a stroke and thereby cheats on his wife. Each of these stories, though seemingly familiar content, are so well told and so singular in their characterizations that they seem original again.

The story that most got to me, however, was "Avalanche." In it, a woman finds out that her late husband, who died in a skiing accident, left behind a locker of goods that includes a very fancy pair of woman's boots. It doesn't take much detective work for the woman to realize that this tragic events has actually revealed that her doting husband was in fact having an affair. The emotional toll is, of course, devastating--but Cason turns the story around in other ways that eventually lead to a conclusion that is as tear-jerking as it is redeeming. I look forward to reading more of Cason's work. Hopefully, some will show up in magazines and journals so that her readers won't have to wait for her next book.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

On "The Marauders" by Laney Arbelaez (5469 words) ****

Here's a story to get lost in. It begins with a piece of jewelry and the memory of a woman. It follows jewelry through two other relationships, eventually collapsing all of them into one stream-of-consciousness narrative to beware of. I was Arbelaez's lively voice and then by the wonder of her strange technique. Read the story here at Northwind.

Friday, March 6, 2015

On "Zeke’s Dead" by Elizabeth Denton (5671 words) ***

It's interesting to me how a well-written story often launches effortlessly from the first word and propels me forward. Having read several stories that sort of sat on the screen today, doing little, making me want to rush through their contents, it was a joy to find this piece from Elizabeth Denton. I sigh, knowing I've hit someone who can actually write. The story here is one that gets into the minutia of marriage and parenthood. George and Janice are off to see their son play in a rock band. George is concerned. Will Alexander drop classical cello for bass guitar? But there's something else going on here to, a small betrayal that hurts. There are things best kept between couples, secrets, that if we know others know them can hurt significantly. It is part of what makes trust in a relationship very hard. Read the story here at Blackbird.

On "See Here, Private Hargrove," by Marion Hargrove **

One of the favorite books of a friend of mine is about preparing to go to prison. It goes through the details you'll need to take care of before you leave for your time down the river--readying your financial accounts, setting up care of your house and other possessions, and so forth. Then it explains all the mundane details of signing into and living in prison: how to buy things, when you get recreation, and so forth. The first chapter of Hargrove's book led me to believe that the text was going to be much the same thing--only in this case, it was to be for new recruits to the army. It explains how the first few weeks are the toughest, how you'll receive lots of injections, how you'll be living by army law instead of civilian law, and on and on.

Then the first chapter ends and the book becomes something completely different. Hargrove claims to a horrible example of what a private should do when in the army. Don't follow him, he says, and you'll probably do fine. From there, the book becomes a kind of army memoir, told in short chapters that read like slice-of-life newspaper columns (and that probably were at some point: Hargrove was a newspaper man before joining the military and was something of a part-time journalist in the military as well).

Hargrove spends a lot of time in basic training. He's horrible at marching, at loading a gun, at getting up on time, at virtually everything--even picking up his paycheck. He is placed in the kitchen as a cook, which is what he'll be doing when he gets out of training. Hijinks follow.

I'm reminded of a story in a book that I edited, which recounted various "funny" things that military people did to one another while on duty. I suppose funny things happen, but I've always found it hard to believe that people can be such jokers and still do their life-and-death in-the-crossfire kind of work. Hargrove is largely a collection of these practical jokes and of various snide remarks about his lack of military prowess, none of which seems to add up to much.

In the final two chapters, Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, and the tone of the book changes a bit. Suddenly this isn't just a book about military service or training; it's about men who are about to go and fight a war. There's a kind of patriotic send-off. And that, I suppose, is just what one would expect of a book that comes out near the start of World War II.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

On "The Spirits of Shah Alam Camp" by Asghar Wajahat (1642 words) ***

Like many a story from a non-Western perspective, this one is a bit difficult to contemplate in a linear sense. The camp is a place where children live on after their parents and families are killed in war. Spirits return each evening to care for the kids. Are we to take the spirits as some kind of symbol? Here they seem almost real--more real than the kids themselves. Beats me. Check it out for yourself here at Little Magazine.

On "The Song of Bernadette" by Franz Werfel **

What exactly made this the best-selling book of 1942 in the United States? This is the second of three religious fiction best-sellers in three years during the early 1940s, so religion was on people's minds. It was also the first full-fledged year of war for Americans. And this book did have some ties into the war at hand.

There's the story of the author himself. He was Jewish, and he snuck out of Nazi-occupied territory to save himself. Hence, a certain amount of sympathy likely went out to him, just as it went out to Salman Rushdie when his life was threatened. The author had previous had a successful novel in the 1910s, so he was a known quantity. The author is not shy about tying in his own life and the story he tells to the current events in the world in his preface. What's more, at the end of the novel, he makes this claim about the subject of this story: "a considerable portion of mankind was under the demonic sway. The fever of maniacal false doctrines was threatening to plunge the human spirit into bloody madness. In the battle against this, which man must win, not only did Lourdes stand like a very rock, but the life of Bernadette Soubirous retained its prophetic activity within time." I tend to think that the author was contemplating the world around him as Europe was in the grip of war.

As for Bernadette's story, it is a Catholic one and seems a strange story for a non-Catholic to tell. It is a tale about a saint and how she becomes one. The tale takes place in the mid-1800s. Bernadette is from a poor family. She herself is not exactly the brightest teenager. But one day, while she and some friends are walking around and her friends take off ahead, Bernadette receives a vision of a woman. The woman tells Bernadette to come back for fifteen days. So beautiful is she that Bernadette agrees to.

For some reason, others find Bernadette's story intriguing enough that they decide to accompany her. Others find it suspicious; after all, only she can see the woman. She is put through various trials as people try to show up the fact that she is a liar or prevent her or others from returning to see the lady. But all such attempts are thwarted, as miracle after miracle allows Bernadette to return to see the vision and to create a procession for the lady and to build a chapel. Most notable among them: a creek spurts out from the soil where there was none before, and when people bathe in or drink of it, they are often cured of various ailments.

Of course, it is the woman who performs this miracle, not Bernadette, but for whatever reason, people end up sainting the latter, who maintains her child-like innocence throughout, wanting nothing for herself other than to see the lady.

What rather surprises me about the book's popularity is that to me this seems merely like an extended account of the saint's life. There aren't really any surprises here (when Bernadette is threatened, she notes that she must do as the lady says and then does it; when people suspect the lady is the Virgin Mary, she turns out to be the Virgin Mary; when authorities block people from the spring, people come anyway and thwart the authorities; and on and on), and the characters aren't all that deeply drawn. I really didn't get a feel for anyone other than Bernadette, and she was a rather Jesus-like figure who could do little wrong other than be a bit dim-witted at times toward the beginning. Other characters were merely tools to show up Bernadette's righteousness, people whose doubts by the end of the book are shown to be so wrong that they feel guilty and repent for ever doubting a vision only the one girl could see. Compelling reading six decades later it was not.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On "God Meets a Junkie in a Manhattan Holding Cell" by by Evan Retzer (1937 words) ***

Take this for what it is: an insane man claiming to have some kind of infinite connection or an incarnation. In our modern world, I do wonder at times whether an incarnation would even be believed. We tend to have psychological explanations for all these things, and of course, there are plenty of phonies and weirdos out there to make those explanations suitable. Here, "God" gets arrested, is saddened by his "children," and thinks about remaking the world. All in a day's doing. Read the story here at Fawlt.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

On "Cowboys And" by Rumaan Alam (549 words) ****

A strange set of recollections about strangers--at a party with someone who doesn't know you, in a foreign country, in a passing vehicle. Alam here makes poetry of each incident. Is it a story? I don't know, but it's nice writing. Read the piece here at Wigleaf.

On "Zen Driving" by K. T. Berger ***

I first read this book in graduate school and have been rereading it in short spats over the past few months. I read the book as part of my research a paper I wrote about Jayne Anne Phillips's Fast Lanes. In that book of stories, there is a short story in which one of the characters harps on her love of driving. She seems to enter a sort of zen-like state. I'd seen this book in the store for many years, and it came to mind as I read the story. I thought there might be a connection.

For a book on the basics of Zen Buddhism, I suppose this book will do the trick, but it's not really a good place to start, because it tends to simplify things a bit too much (and puts it in too narrow of a field of study), which in turns also means it's unlikely to be much use to someone who has spent much time actually reading about the subject (because it's too basic). Really, the book reads like a very heavily commercialized version of a subject that probably needs a bit more sophistication in terms of discussion.

In short, we can reach a kind of Satori if we learn to live in the present moment and go with the flow of traffic. If we accept whatever situation we're in, then we won't stress--and we'll be better drivers. This advice seems wise, and it was nice to be reminded of it. Less worry, more ease.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

On "La Hija de Chango" by Ivelisse Rodriguez (6096 words) ***

Xaviera wants a boyfriend. Actually, she wants a particular boy. But she's in school, a fancy one at that, and no longer fits in with the neighborhood where she grew up. Torn between two cultures, she wishes for the old one as she gravitates more and more toward the new. In the end, her taste in boys will change too. And what's more important, she learns, is that you can ply any tricks you want, but if a person falls for tricks, they aren't falling for you. Read the story here at Kweli.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On "Ecdysis" by Nicole Cipri (3294 words) ***

I'm reminded of some Paul Bowles stories wherein people transform into animals. Cipri's piece deals with this on a metaphorical level, much like Kafka's "Metamorphosis" does. Here, an abused girl tries to save her cat from a swarm of locusts, but her foster dad is having none of that. Read the story here at Unlikely Story.