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.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On "A Negative Number" by Rochelle Germond (1282 words) ****

Here's a clever story about obsession, in this case about weight and food. The goodness here is in the telling, which isn't much unlike the title. Read it here at Coachella Review.

On “Human Smoke” by Nicholson Baker *****

There are so many ways to approach this book that I’m not sure where to begin. Maddening, discouraging, intriguing--Baker’s book is a history of World War II, a collection of historical vignettes, and a careful selection of facts such that the war is viewed in ways that Americans are not used to seeing it in.

On one level, and this is really, I think, Baker’s main task, it is a history of passivism in the face of war. In this sense, it is a unique take on the Good War, since our usual view is on that of the supposed heroes. Here, the heroes are those who refused to go to war in the first place, and those who pushed for negotiation and compromise come off looking much more intelligent and kind than those who put up defenses and forced military action. As such, Britain’s prime minister Chamberlain, who famously signed away parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler seems somehow more heroic than Winston Churchill, who stood up to Hitler. And indeed, placed in chronological order, with a focus on avoiding war, Chamberlain does seem the more reasonable character. Churchill comes off perhaps worse than Hitler himself in Baker’s text--belligerent, petty, desirous of killing as many civilians (particularly Germans) as possible. As Baker brings out, it was Churchill who started the aerial bombing of Germany before Germany started bombing England. (That said, Germany's earlier bombing of Poland is virtually ignored. An interesting side note: bombing campaigns, thought to lower civilian morale, appear to have done just the opposite--the more people were bombed, the more citizens wanted revenge and thus for their own armies to bomb the other nation. Bombing of others actually "raised" morale. Vengeance begets more vengeance.)

Likewise here also, Roosevelt comes off as someone not quite so wonderful either. While milder than Churchill, Baker shows that Roosevelt wanted the war and was doing very much what he could to stir up the embers of hate with Germany and Japan: supplying war materials to Britain and Russia, building up a larger and larger peacetime army as 1941 neared, placing ships in Hawaii to keep them closer to Japan, exploring the possibility of bombing Japanese cities (even though the United States was not at war with Japan yet) from China and elsewhere, cutting off gasoline and other necessities to the Japanese. Several times, Roosevelt is noted as saying that he can’t fire the first shot (due to election pledges) but that he can try to force the other’s hand.

I suspect Germany and Russia come off in a slightly lighter light than usual because the main sources of material were in the English language (especially the New York Times). Russia’s treatment seems scant, given how many died there and how it treated its own people in addition to the Germans. Germany, because of its treatment of the Jewish people, obviously still looks like a horrible belligerent. And yet, over and over, the idea of moving Jews out of Germany (rather than killing them) is posited, but no one wants them (save for the Dominican Republic, looking to whiten its population)--not England, not the United States. Britain does its best to keep more Jews from moving to Israel, and Madagascar is proposed as a good locale, save that the British blockade keeps many a ship from getting out of European waters.

And while Baker’s point, that if everyone refused to fight, there would not be--could not be--a war, is clear, the kind of short shift that some of the causes of Britain’s belligerence get seems a bit unfair. Yes, history is written by the victors, and so we rarely see some of the causes of German and Japanese irritation in such detail as we see here, but the fact that Hitler repeatedly broke promises (to take over only part of Czechoslovakia, to not attack Russia, etc.), rather undermined the repeated efforts, once the war started, toward various peace accords, for peace in part depends on trust.

Still, one comes away from the whole with a sick feeling, knowing the utter devastation and the number of lives taken, many in utterly cruel forms, in the name of various national honors, of money, of politics. There is, one could posit, never enough reason to kill another human being.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

On "Dinner Conversation" by Christian Aguiar (233 words) ***

This is one of those stories where you only see the top of the iceberg until the end, one of those stories with the fighting couple, and the mystery. So much depends on what we don't know until the end. You can read it here at Boston Literary Magazine.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On "The Uninvited" by Kristine Ong Muslim (411 words) ***

Muslim's four-hundred-word descent into madness and revenge might demand a second or third reading--it did so from me. But it's compelling enough that you might well be up for such. Let's just say that this is a horror story I wouldn't want to be part of--and it's something I'd generally avoid seeing on film. Read the piece here at Flywheel.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On "The Second Four" by Mel Bosworth (237 words) ***

Bosworth's tale combines elements of a popular joke beginning with the not-so-familiar experience of being witness to something shameful and not knowing what to do about, not even being able to talk about it. It's this odd juxtaposition that makes the piece captivating. Read it here at Flywheel.

On "The Second World War" by John Keegan ****

I'm starting of a list of best sellers of the World War II era with several books of history about the war, before I launch into the actual best sellers. The idea is to look at how a "total war" might impact the kinds of books that sell and that people read during it. It seems to me like here in the United States, during my life, even when we are at war, the entertainment industry goes along as always and whatever war we're fighting is almost just background. Could the same be said of World War II, one of the most all-out wars that this nation has fought, where every resource, it seemed, was devoted to victory in Europe and Japan?

Keegan's book is a useful and largely traditionalist account of and introduction to World War II (he tends to discount revisionists who might claim that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened or that Truman wanted so badly to test the nuclear bomb that he ignored any possibility that the Japanese might surrender before it was dropped, etc., and discounting such claims seems a wise thing to do in a book that aims to tell a basic but thorough history).

Keegan starts by discussing the causes of the war, going back to the days before the first world war, showing how industrialization, conscription, and even democracy changed the way in which war was waged. Healthier people meant there were more young men to fight--and to die--as population in Europe exploded. Industrialization meant that the means and capacity to make weapons was greatly enhanced (indeed, many weapons, prior to the atomic bomb, were thought to be the weapon that would, in a sense, end war-making ability of nations, since there seemed no good defense against it, be it a gun or a tank--but each time, defensive weapons and strategies have been found, and war has continued, with even more bloody results). More-productive economies meant there was more surplus to spend on war and on weapons. Conscription meant that populations could demand a greater voice in governance; and, to reverse the idea, the vote meant that populations shared the blame for government war-making decisions and took part in them, and the general idea of the equality of men meant that armies too became equalizing forces (no longer was the army the realm of nobles alone). Indeed, the mechanization of war also replaced the strong man as the greatest fighter with the smart man as the greatest--the one who could come up with the best new weapons systems.

What also emerges from the book is the incredible toll that the war took on various nations, particularly Russia, Poland, Germany, and Japan. The reasons for the war are also explored. Hitler, it seems, was in large part out for revenge, which seems a terrible way to run a nation. He was also after greater resources (one reason to invade the USSR). Japan, too, was after resources. There, the Japanese felt hamstrung by the United States because of its various economic policies, which aimed to aid China and which punished Japan for its takeover of Chinese land and other parts of the Asian Pacific. It was the removal of the United States from this sphere that was Japan's goal--and the economic profits it would reap.

In both the cases of Japan and the Germany, it seems to me as if the steps toward war were ill thought out, seeing as they had far fewer resources on which to draw. Hitler thought Britain could be worn down to side with him; he thought the USSR could be crippled by his swift action. Japan thought the United States could be pushed off as well. But the USSR and the United States both had resources far beyond the Axis powers. The USSR moved its factories out of Germany's way and thus continued to build tanks and bombs even after Germany had marched nearly to Moscow. The United States, although having a paltry navy at the start of the war that was fairly well damaged at Pearl Harbor, had great capacity to catch up quickly.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had points where the war could have taken a turn for the significantly worse, but I tend to think that such would have merely prolonged the war rather than shifted the winning side. One great fortuitous happening for the United States happened at Midway Island. Had Japan successfully managed to sink the U.S. fleet there, the United States would have had significant difficult mounting a counterattack, as its foothold in the Pacific would have been compromised. Likewise, had Hitler not insisted on holding on to Stalingrad so long, the German army might not have taken on so many losses in Russia. But really, it seems to me that had Germany not attacked Russia and had Japan not attacked the United States, Britain would have fallen (indeed, Britain likely would have fallen had the United States not entered the war), and the world would be much different today.

Interesting chapters in this book deal with strategic dilemmas of individual leaders. What also emerges is a view of each leader, three of whom were very invested in military matters. Roosevelt, by contrast, let his military men do most of the work and make most of the decisions--and even seemed to have a kind of distaste for war (an irony, since Hitler thought Roosevelt the reason the United States had gone to war--that is, that the people themselves had little stomach for it).

In the end, Keegan denotes that the war's terrible consequences may have discouraged large-scale war from ever happening again. I tend to think that is highly optimistic.

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.