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.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On "Eugenia Will Come Back To You Someday" by Kaj Tanaka (2424 words) ****

I'm reminded of a Japanese film called *Afterlife* in which people are sent, after death, to a place to live out their most cherished memory in eternity. It's a very strange film, but it raises a lot of interesting questions about life in general. Tanaka's piece is also about such a place. The afterlife is this strange limbo in which everything we do is meaningless (much as, when you get down to how much remains of any one thing we do here on earth, real life is). Here, a couple of people start a program to help people integrate into their afterlives. This couple is in love, but as the narrator comes to recognize, the afterlife is just one big long wish for what we longed for in real life. Read the story here at Knee-Jerk.

On "Berlin Diary" by William L. Shirer *****

I would have never thought a diary could be so engrossing. Diaries are generally private thoughts written for one's own self. Perhaps, if one is very interested in the person, the diary might prove of interest, but I would figure to be bored reading about a lot of stuff I don't care about amid the things I do. Of course, that's why there are editors, and it's likely Shirer's diary also was edited for mass consumption.

Still, the diary, as it is, focuses on Shirer's life as a CBS radio correspondent in the leadup to World War II. There is personal stuff: Shirer's being laid off, his interview with Edward R. Murrow, his being taken on as a correspondent, his concern for his wife, his wife's pregnancy and the birth of his child. But there is also a good amount of history here as well, told from the point of view of an American overseas as the events are happening. And that, I think, is the most intriguing aspect of the diary. It makes history fresh. Shirer doesn't know what's coming, and we again almost feel as if we don't either--although historically we do. Hence, as Hitler makes one demand after another, we wonder how far he can go, and when he goes to war, we wonder how successful he will be and how long it will take. We read in a sort of real time, which means events happen incredibly slowly and incredibly fast. Twenty pages will pass on negotiations, and then, wham, there's invasion and confusion, and then that invasion lingers on and fades--it's happened.

What came into focus, in reading this, is how much the Allied side seemed to want to avoid war. No doubt--and Shirer makes this plain throughout--Shirer has a bias for the Allied side. At times, I felt like I was reading Allied propaganda. (He goes so far as to complain not just about Nazi authoritarianism but even about the supposed ugliness of German women.) Still, over and over Hitler would make a demand or break a treaty, and the Allies would say, Okay, this time. Part of France first, then Austria (Hitler annexed it before the pleibescite was complete), then part of Czechoslovakia, then all of it, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and finally Poland. That's when France and Britain finally said that's enough. Meanwhile, Hitler makes a stunning pact with Russia (stunning, because just days before, the Nazis were spewing out their typical anticommunist rhetoric--which came to a stop overnight after the pact with Stalin) to share the Polish spoils. Then there's a seemingly long spell (though it was only months) as Hitler makes plans to invade France, going through Holland (which puts up little fight) and Belgium (which puts up a lot). France, Shirer notes, when touring the country, put up little fight at all, if judging by the lack of rubble in the cities and that state of the fields.

Germany gets bombed with some frequency, but Shirer has to broadcast using a special mic so that the bombing won't be heard, and he's not allowed to mention it. (Meanwhile, the blitz starts on Britain also.) There is much complaint of censorship, how the Germans won't allow him to talk about what is going on oftentimes, even when it's in their own newspapers. (Ironically, after leaving Germany, censors in Portugal stop a broadcast, not wanting to interfere with their neutrality. And though you would think the Allies above such things from Shirer's language, the United States too had its censorship, failing by and large to report on the extent of German U-boat activity, lest the public be too frightened.)

Shirer generally sees the German public as one that has been pushed into accepting Hitler and his crew. There is not a lot of genuine enthusiasm for him, but one does what one must to survive. And yet, he also at times sees the Germans as naively believing the propaganda given to them by the German government and supporting the Nazi cause as a result. He seems surprised to find true believers at times. The lives of Berliners are interrupted by nighttime raids but mostly by lack of sleep (the noise and flight to shelters) rather than destruction wrought by bombing (which remained minimal at this early stage of the war).

Amid this, we get some hilarious or odd stories about the news business. One that I can't locate now (it's fairly early on in the book, before the war begins) involves a meeting with a Nazi official in his office. The official denotes that he is out, but Shirer storms the office, and a conversation ensues that would make for a great comedy sketch.

Also of interest is Shirer's discussion of the German best-seller list in 1939 (October 29). Fiction included Gone with the Wind; A. J. Cronin's Citadel (Cronin was tops on the best-seller list in America a couple years later); and Beyond Sing the Woods, by Trygve Gulbranssen--all foreign authors on the Allied side. The nonfiction, however, tended to be much more German in point of view and focus: The Coloured Front (a study on the black-white race "problem"); Look Up the Subject of England (a propaganda book on the country); Der totale Krieg (Ludendorff's book on Total War); Fifty Years of Germany, by Sven Hedin, a friend of Hitler's; and So This Is Poland by von Oertzen. Also popular were anti-Soviet books. So it seems that books about the nations at war were what was selling well in the nonfiction department, but fiction was perhaps, for Germans, more escapist faire.

Friday, January 30, 2015

On "When the Rains Came" by Jonathan Papernick (412 words) ***

Papernick's short piece gave me a short Job moment, wherein I wondered, Why does disaster strike? Here, townspeople wonder exactly that, exactly what they've done wrong in God's sight to cause such a thing. Is there always such a direct corollary? Well, maybe, as the absurdist turn of events suggests. Read the story here at Failbetter.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

On "Waiting for the Americans" by Debra Di Blasi (5390 words) ***

After finishing graduate school, I returned to California and to my old university. Everyone seemed so much younger than I remembered. It was a commuter school, older students--but still, they were young. A few years after a job of mine in Fort Worth ended, I came back to visit. Most of the buildings downtown were still there, but of course, my company was gone, moved out, and so were so many of the people I'd known. Without my old company downtown, the place seemed, well, somehow incomplete. The trip itself proved a bit less than satisfying, the old haunts not so grand. Di Blasi's story is about the same kind of thing, a return to a past, an attempt to recapture those fondly remembered moments--and not so fondly (for me living in Forth Worth was not my favorite time in life either, but I still find a certain joy in thinking about that tough time). And it's about how we can't recapture that past. Here, it's a French man, come to see a place he'd ventured with his former wife--and a place where some American friends promise to return to visit him. He'll wait a long time. Read the story here at the Center for Fiction.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On "Flicker" by Kim Chinquee (246 words) ***

This little doozy is about a kind of creepy obsession. It's one that we can have sometimes, in work situations--or be the victim of--as taking advantage of the context is just too easy and too hard not to indulge. Here it's a building super. Read the story here at Center for Fiction.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On "Three Parables from Fun Camp" by Gabe Durham (979 words) ***

I don't generally blog about excerpts from novels, but these three parables sort of stand on their own and together and were so marvelously fun, I couldn't help it. Durham here places a Jesus figure at summer camp. And I'm not talking about a religious kid; I'm talking about a kid who speaks with authority and changes the camp around him. Read the parables here at the Good Men Project.

On "The Keys of the Kingdom" by A. J. Cronin ***

The best-selling work of fiction in 1941, according to Publishers Weekly, was this religious text. I'm taking a bit of liberty in calling the work "religious," however, for the main character (with whom the author's sympathies seem to lie) is one who espouses a kind of echumenicalism.

The subject of the work is one Francis Chisholm, a British Catholic priest, who at the start of the novel is being forcefully retired for having various oddities. There also appears to have perhaps been something that happened in the past that might, in fact, be the reason for his dismissal. This is the frame into which we are placed when the story takes an abrupt turn back to his childhood and recounts Chisholm's life and what brought him to this point.

As it turns out, Chisholm is an orphan, having lost his parents at an early age. Taken in by a family who puts him to personal use (making money off him), Chisholm is abused child--until his Aunt Polly and Uncle Ned rescue him. He's also one who loves a girl named Nora, but having a religious bent, he is torn between love and his Catholic faith. His uncle sends him packing to a Catholic school, as the family hopes he'll become a priest. At school, he's a bit of an oddball, once taking a four-day walk without permission, all the way to a prostitute's house. The belief is that he's gone to see the woman, when in fact he simply spends the night at her abode, having nowhere to sleep, and nearly succeeds in converting her. On his return to his hometown, he finds Nora has had a child out of wedlock and is about to be married to a less-than-pleasant companion, who is mostly after her for her family's business. Nora commits suicide before the wedding can take place, and this renders Chisholm's decision about his life's course final: he will take the priesthood.

In Britain, at the various parishes at which he serves, he does not get along very well with his fellow clergymen, who often seem more interested in accumulating power for themselves than in actually helping people. Chisholm starts a youth club (that includes dancing, which another priest finds akin to sex out of marriage) in one place in which he assists; in another, Chisholm exposes a supposed miracle (a girl who lives without eating) as a fraud, and meanwhile finds a true miracle (a dying cripple who is given back his life and mobility), to the consternation of the priests who hoped to put their parish on the map of important places.

For these things, Chisholm is sent packing--to China. Here, he won't have other priests to bother. On arriving, he finds his mission is much less than promised--the buildings have been torn down and the many followers turn out to be two people who are only lying around because the previous priest paid them. Francis sets about creating a clinic to help the sick and an orphanage. He builds a new church from scratch, on land he'd hoped to purchase but is given for free, when the landowner sees that Chisholm isn't going to try to convert him--that is, that Chisholm's acts of kindness are genuine.

In time, Chisholm finds another mission, established long ago, up in the mountains, and he befriends the local believers there, helping them to become more standard in their practices. He gains a few sisters who come to assist him with his work. Disliking him at first, the sisters come to view him favorably, when they see how sincere he is, even if his views are not mainstream.

One of these particular views is that there are many roads to heaven. Hence, Francis doesn't feel a need to convert people to Catholicism as he is supposed to. When a Methodist mission sets up in the same town, he befriends the missionary couple rather than try to intimidate them into leaving.

At some point along the way, a civil war erupts in his area of China, and two warlords battle over the land on which Chisholm's mission rests. Chisholm helps the wounded from both camps, and he shelters men who don't want to fight. For this, he is threatened--if he continues to do such things, his mission will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in Europe, World War I has erupted, and the church is going to bat for one side or the other. Even in his own parish, Chisholm sees the disagreement split his three sister assistants, as they are from warring nations. If the church would just tell people not to fight, he thinks, we could have peace. It is wrong for Christians to fight one another.

And yet, after the threat to his mission, Chisholm finds himself the instigator of a military action. He gets a friend to help bomb a great gun. Thirty men are killed in the process, but the gun is destroyed and the mission is saved.

When Black Plague erupts, Chisholm enlists the help of an atheist doctor. And when Francis's old friend Anselm arrives to inspect his charge's mission, Anselm criticizes it for its wayward state (the mission is in bad repair because of a recent weather incident). Anselm stands in for the old church authorities that Francis often had run-ins with--he is pompous and egocentric, concerned with furthering his own church career.

At the end of Chisholm's stay in China, he is taken captive along with the Methodist missionaries, by the warlord who lost the civil war and who is now mostly just a renegade who kidnaps people for ransome. No money is forthcoming, however, and the missionaries have to flee for their lives. One dies, and Francis himself is severely injured, which brings him back to England.

There, his oddities once again become chatter for his fellow church folk, and he is asked to retire. But generally, Francis always turns the other cheek, and as a result, his enemies feel compelled to forgive him.

This brings me to the question of why this particular book might have had special appeal to Americans at a time when troubles were heating up around the globe. The United States would not enter World War II until the end of the year, but it was already a major supplier of arms to the Allies. And while the United States suffered few attacks on its shores and thus arguably never felt the sting of total war, its economy eventually would be engaged in a kind of total war that would effect social change (feminist, racial) during and after the conflict.

Cronin's book, it seems, points to a way of peace--one of treating one's brother with love no matter how one is treated and of showing great tolerance. These may well have been the wishes of Americans on the eve of war, that such actions could keep the nation out of the conflict. But as the section on the civil war in China shows, conflict, it seems, is inevitable when parties make you part of it. Another thing to note: this is one, I believe, of three novels that hit the top of the best-seller list during World War II that had to do with religion; that too is a fact of interest to me that I hope to explore as I read more of these books.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

On "Viewing Medusa" by Mary Akers (5328 words) ***

I like a story that incorporates elements of research. It's obvious here that Akers is herself a huge fan of jellyfish or spent quite a bit of time reading about them. The tale involves people at a Dominican resort--scientists and locals--and how the mix of the two cultures can lead to tragedy. Josie may be a jellyfish of a sort, but she's also a scientist in her cold and uncaring manner. Read the story here at the Good Men Project.

Monday, January 5, 2015

On "The Glass Blower's Bones" by Fei Wu (2450 words) ***

Years ago I assigned a Yukio Mishima story to a introduction to literature class I was teaching. They were not impressed. The tale "made no sense." Our western minds want to read things linearly; but tales from the East are often cyclical or, well, simply strange. Fei Wu's tale is about people living in a city of glass, one that eventually shatters. It's also about the glassmaker himself, how he keeps a woman under glass as his own. Despite its strangeness, one gets the sense that this is a tale about a man whose treatment of his wife eventually catches up to him--yep, it's a relatively ordinary world underneath. But thing is, when viewed from generations later, the glassblower--indeed, the one-time city--is the stuff of legend. Legends die hard. Read the tale here at Far Enough East.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On "The Things I Did and Did" by Mel Bosworth (511 words) ***

Bosworth captures the odd and unlikable world of the bus. A couple is traveling across country; so is another couple. One is a couple in the "romantic" sense; one is simply two kids. They spend the trip staring at one another awkwardly, trying to sneak in time for music, bathroom, sex. Read the story here at Bull.

Friday, December 26, 2014

On "Seven Points for Love" by Alexander Luft (4569 words) ****

"Seven Points for Love" uses the motif of a game of Scrabble to rehearse the events of a marriage and eventual divorce. Indeed, dating may be a game, but so is life. The point scoring comes at the end. Read the piece here at Coachella Review.

On "Total War and Social Change" edited by Arthur Marwick ***

I wanted to read a book that went into theories of total war as part of the preparation for reading best-sellers from the World War II era, and this is the one that I ended up choosing--rather haphazardly. As such, it was not perhaps as theoretical as I was hoping. Marwick uses his edited collection to try to prove points that he's made in other books of his own: that total war doesn't change social structures but rather speeds up or intensifies changes in social structures that are already in process. For the most part, each of the essays help to support Marwick's point in some manner.

None of the essays focus on the United States, the focus of my reading list, but then arguably the United States did not engage in total war, at least if one is to consider the destruction rendered on the society at home. But I tend to think of total war not only in those terms but in terms that involve the community's entirety of resources. In that sense, the image that has often been presented to me of World War II in the United States is that the country was entirely mobilized, even if actual fighting on its shores was close to nill--whole industries were still turned over to the war effort. In this book, the focus is rather World War I France, Britain, and Germany and World War II USSR, Germany, France, and Britain.

The very first essay in this book, however, ironically, seems mostly to try to debunk Marwick's general thesis. There, the author argues that contrary to popular belief, World War I did not greatly change women's roles in France; if anything, it re-emphasized women's domestic roles, and any work pushed on women outside the home was a temporal abnormality of the war. (If any changes came about, he notes, it was simply in morality, as women, free to move about, became less prone to stay faithful to their husbands and families.)

Alistair Reid, writing of World War I Britain, does quite the opposite, restating essentially in his thesis what Marwick has denoted as the social consequence of total war--that World War I sped up social changes in Britain that were already in the process of becoming. That said, he too sees little permanent change to women's roles in the workforce. Rather, he states that the war increased the power of the lower classes and helped to equalize wages. However, in a seeming contrast to his overall point, the Great Depression following the war reversed all these gains.

The article on Germany in World War I shows how heavy industry became much more important at the cost of small business owners. In addition, farmers became better off because of food shortages. Changes in economic structure (including the loss of farming income following the war) contributed to the rise of the Nazis.

For the USSR, World War II helped to solidify Stalin's and the communists' grip on power while failing to transform the society in real terms. In other words, the USSR became more totalitarian. (Interestingly, there was an increase in the number of party members but the politically powerful members remained those who had come to age during the revolutionary times rather than later.)

In perhaps the most interesting essay to me, Mark Roseman shows how the Nazis in World War II Germany did their utmost to keep the civilian population from feeling the effects of war--and largely succeeded until fairly late in the war. This was in large respect because the Nazis did not feel that they had a sufficient grip on power to ask for greater sacrifice from the German people. (It kind of reminded me of how the United States fought its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--borrowing the money rather than raising taxes and generally paying little comparative attention to these events in the popular culture. Our lives go on as normal.) Many of the social changes wrought by the Nazis--namely the weakening of class identities--actually lived into and set up the democratic government that was to follow (and in fact many of the powerbrokers were former Weimar Republic and Nazi officials).

World War II in France ultimately merely accentuated changes already taking place, placing the state more centrally in individuals' lives (even if different factions during the war, because of France's defeat, might well have torn it apart). And for British women, World War II did not significantly change their roles at home, but what it did do was lead more older married women into the workforce permanently as part-time lower-paid workers.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

On "How to Talk to Children About Death" by Andrew Roe (1060 words) ***

The title pretty much says everything here. Roe explores the difficulties of explaining what death is and what happens after it to someone just coming onto the scene in terms of life. I remember, as a four- or five-year-old, one time in the bathroom telling my mom I didn't want to die. I obviously was thinking about it too. It scared me. Now, older, I think I'm more scared about how I die and what I leave behind--not that I still don't want to die. Read the story here at Fwriction.

On “The Civilian in War” edited by Jeremy Noakes ***

This edited collection discusses the civilian during World War II in eight countries--Britain, Germany, the USSR, the United States, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and France. As is typical of collections by different writers, the quality and scope is a bit uneven, and the whole doesn’t quite hang together. Still, there’s a lot to think about here.

In the introduction to the volume, the editor discusses some key differences between World Wars I and II. The former reaped havoc on some nations, sparking revolution (most notably in the USSR), while strangely, the latter in fact seemed mostly to inspire national unity. Why the difference? The editor makes a point that it had to do with morale, and each nation, conscious of problems created in the First World War did its utmost to keep the morale of the citizenry high. And strangely, though the Second World War involved more civilian casualties (it was, in fact, even more of a “total war”), citizens didn’t by and large react against their governments. Rather, they worked for their governments.

This focus on morale is sustained throughout the earlier essays in the collection and then seems to fall away as one proceeds through the book. Britain, the first nation covered, kept morale high through fuller employment, increased wages, maintaining food supply, providing entertainment, and keeping hope alive. The same could be said for the United States to a large extent, though its experience was markedly different, since its citizens bore so little of the war’s violence directly. That essay instead focuses on how, despite this, the war changed social circumstances in America, leading to the changes in civil rights and women’s rights that would rock the country in the years after the war.

Germany’s citizenry felt the war very directly. There, the government maintained conditions that were relatively good for Germans but poor for most others. Basing its laws on the idea that the Germans were the supreme race, all other ethnic groups suffered from poorer working conditions and smaller rations, in descending order depending on how inferior a given race was. Labor shortages throughout the war meant that Germany was constantly have to import or enslave foreignors.

Views of Russian citizenry are somewhat hard to come by, but in general the USSR too suffered from various shortages of food and material, as it lost land to the Germans and as the government attempted to take more from its farmers, whose yields actually decreased during the conflict (especially as men were drafted into the army). Regulations regarding the church and other pre-Soviet national traditions were relaxed in part to help instill more desire to fight for the nation (whereas before the communist regime would have put the kabash on such things). Stalin was elevated to heroic status and consolidated power via the war.

Japan’s citizenry was largely kept in the dark about the war by the state media. While young men were trained from school age in a national militaristic agenda and people were told that all was well abroad, the common person felt the effects of the war through various shortages and eventually bombing.

Italy’s position is unique in that its citizens ended up split between the Allies and the Axis. Having never really united as a country, it sort of fell apart into regions and civil war. In this sense, Italy’s experience of World War II would seem to me to be more like many national experiences of World War I.

The Netherlands fell quickly and early, surprised to be attacked, having stayed out of the First World War as neutral and intending to do so throughout the Second. As one of Hitler’s “superior” races, the Dutch were treated better than many other conquered nations--but as shortages began to manifest themselves later in the war, the Dutch suffered first, since resources were held for German needs. Many Dutch, drafted into the German labor pool, opted to go into hiding or find other ways to avoid laboring for Germany. They turned out not to be so compliant as Hitler had expected.

The Poles were the exact opposite on Hitler’s scale of ethnicities, and Hitler essentially desired to wipe them off the map. In addition, Polish citizens experienced three different types of war--as part of a formally adopted portion of Germany, as a remnant of Poland controlled by Germany, and as a formally adopted part of the USSR. In all cases, though to differing extents, the Poles had to maintain their culture in secret, as they found their language and so on banned.

The article on France was a strange fit for this book, as it focused mostly on women during war--and the fact that women were encouraged to do their part for the war domestically but not much in terms of taking an active military role.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On "So Then Pam Wakes Up and Bobby's in the Shower, Acting Like Nothing Happened" by Emily Koon (442 words) ***

One has to like this story if only for the title. I love how it spools out to a story of its own, one that one recognizes once one's into the narrative itself if one is of a certain age. The tale here is one of laziness and expectation and desire, the way that we can fall into a rut and how that can wear away at the people around us. I'm reminded a bit of Raymond Carver's work, only here the scale is even much smaller--but similar characters. You can read the story here at Fwriction.