Monday, May 25, 2015

On "Rabbit Hole" by Kelly Rede (4215 words) ***

Rede uses the familiar story of Alice in Wonderland, mixes in a bit of the Wizard of Oz and fairy lore, and creates something wholly unique. Dorothy is stuck in a story, which is a marvelous place, but like all good things, stories too must come to an end. Read it here at Four Star Stories.

On "Strange Fruit" by Lillian Smith ****

A surprising choice for Publishers Weekly's number one best-seller of 1944, Smith's book is a work of high modernism with an emphasis on racial disorder in the at-that-time recent South. The first three years of the war featured best-selling Christian fiction that was arguably much more accessible and certainly much less prone to likely creating controversy. Smith's book focuses on a love affair between a black woman and a white man and the fallout created by it. The novel is told from various perspectives and is often in stream-of-consciousness.

The Andersons are highly educated southern blacks from the town of Maxwell--more educated, in fact, than many of the white folks around them. Though educated, the narrator notes, the Andersons do not buck the southern system--they're "good" blacks. The novel seems to show something different than that. One of the siblings, Bess, certainly falls in line with the expectations thrust on her by society, but her brother Ed has left the South because of his hate of the town and the South's racist views and laws. Nonnie, another sister, doesn't really follow the conventions of the society and doesn't seem to much care how that might ostracize her.

It is Nonnie that takes up with a white man named Tracy. Tracy has returned from the army after World War I and doesn't have much in the way of ambition. He comes from a upper-crust family in the town, and it is expected that he will marry a certain white gal he has taken out for some time. Tracy, throughout, fights with himself whether to follow convention or follow his heart. But the answer seems self-evident: there is no possibility that he could ever be with Nonnie. At best, he could refuse the upcoming marriage and taking on a farm (or some other job), but he proves less than able to stand up against expectations.

Complicating things is the fact that Nonnie is pregnant with Tracy's child (the rest of this paragraph is full of spoilers). As this discovery makes its rounds among some of the townspeople, the reactions vary, though they are generally negative. The pregnancy leads eventually to Tracy's murder and to a black man--a childhood friend of Tracy's--being lynched, though the man had little to do with the murder.

Religion comes in for quite a critique here, as it is in many ways the ministers who urge Tracy to "do the right thing" and to avoid black town and to marry the right woman. Right and wrong are defined culturally rather than on some higher moral plain.

How this ended up the best-selling novel of 1944, I have no idea. Perhaps, the prospect of interracial sex was enough of a controversial subject to propel the book to the top of the charts. Certainly, the novel doesn't have much bearing on World War II, other than the fact that there is a mild critique of race relations insofar as African Americans served in the military, defending the country, and came home to a racist society that treated them as subhuman--a critique that would continue during World War II and that would eventually lead to the civil rights movement.

No matter, it is nice to see something comparatively complex sold so well.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On "Lake Michigan" by Paula Bomer (7785 words) ***

I'm reminded of a story by Brock Clarke about a family reunion/vacation at a lake cabin that goes terribly awry. Bomer's tale covers similar ground, but with less humor and a quieter sense of grief. We grow old, and our lives are not as we would wish them, and the past is never as good as we remember it. Maddy is an advertising executive in New York City. Her sister is a housewife in Los Angeles; her parents are aging--her father battling chronic depression--in hometown Indiana. They opt for a reunion at a lake house, one last hurrah for dad. Unfortunately, the home is smaller than remembered and less beautiful; the family time together proves to be less glorious than remembered as well, each person quickly getting on one another's nerves. One senses a certain jealousy among all of the family members for how their lives have turned out, a certain stubborn clinging to the superiority of their decisions, be they family or career. Read the story here are Better.

Friday, May 15, 2015

On "The Relative Weight of Angels" by Avril Breckenridge Barron (5940 words) ***

Here's a story about death in various forms--the death of pets, the death of siblings, the death of children. Here's a story about what it means to be one of the ones left behind, one of the ones who's going to be left behind again and again and again, because, after all, you're the youngest. How do we survive this mess? Everyone has their own coping mechanism. Read a few of them here at Carve Zine.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

On "Walang Hiya, Brother" by Melissa R. Sipin (7474 words) ***

Kweli publishes a lot of interesting stories insofar as they come from very differing points of view and culture. Here's a tale about arranged marriage, but it's more about the guy who's being arranged than the woman. He's being "sold" essentially for money, someone who needs citizenship papers. It's a fascinating look at a Filipino community. Read the story here at Kweli.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On "Who Are You Supposed to Be?" by Elise Burke (4342 words) ****

It's nice to read something by a writer who seems sure of herself and her material. Here, a young adult woman kavetches over what to wear to a Halloween party and how to act at it as well. She's newly single, after breaking up with a five-year boyfriend, and she's also a bit sentimental for a sister she barely knew. It's not that there's a lot going on here in the story itself but that Laura comes to us fully formed. This could be any party and any girl, but it also is completely just this one girl. Part of a collection of "party" stories, I expect to read more. You can read this story here at Swarm.

On "Under Cover" by John Roy Carlson **

Publishers Weekly's best-selling nonfiction book of 1943 is a work of its era. I can see how it sold so well back then and also why it does not live on as some sort of classic now. Imagine, if you will, a book about Islamic terrorist in the United States, a book that names names, tells of white-bred American citizens who are plotting with Muslims to place the country under Sharia law and of a few politicians who are out to help them. Very juicy . . . except this book is about American Nazis in the lead up to and during World War II. And most of those Americans are no longer famous, if they ever were. Hence, not so juicy now.

Carlson's name is a pseudonym for a man who uses an assumed name when investigating these various right-wing groups. The man himself is an Armenian who came over to the United States as a youngster, having suffered, with his parents, the prejudice of peoples in the Old World. One Christmas in New York, a couple of men assassinate the bishop of their Armenian church. These men claim ties to a right-wing group. And thus Carlson's mission is born: to penetrate such groups and find out how they are working in the United States.

What follows are accounts of Carlson, posing as an Italian American, visiting various right-wing organizations and becoming, at times, a pseudo-member. He starts low, helping to sell right-wing newspapers (but mostly destroying them and claiming he sold them) and attending meetings of various right-wing groups. Eventually, he starts his own paper, which he distributes only to people who are already of a right-wing persuasion. This gives him credibility that he's able, from then on, to use a door to various "American First" or "America for America" groups.

Many of these groups are anti-Semitic. Many believe in using democracy to spread their doctrines and then ending democracy once they come to power. Many take Germany's side in the war or are antiwar. Many probably are dangerous. Carlson goes to cities all over America to get the scoop: New York (including black Harlem, where there are African American Nazi sympathizers), Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Boston. Carlson tracks down various politicians who given an ear to some of the people in these groups. And Carlson gives out addresses and phone numbers too!

And yet, I couldn't help but feel that some of the people mixed up in these groups were, besides those who were clearly racists or national socialists and those who were crackpots at best, probably simply antiwar. Carlson writes frequently of those who are appeasers or defeatists, those who don't want to fight this war, slotting them in with outright traitors. And in that, it seems, there can be a danger, as there has been at other times of war. I'm reminded of a conservative talk show host who once asked, "How can you be a Democrat and call yourself an American?" Or of another such host who said that Congress's lone nay voter with regard to handing George Bush vast power after 9/11 should be kicked out. When did our country become a one-party state? Isn't that what exists under dictatorships?

Carlson claims to have wanted to investigate Communists as well but to have been unable to get past the screeners. His main problem, as he notes, is not with opposing parties (he likes middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans) but with the right and left extremes. In that regard, he's probably like most of us Americans.

Some interesting figures did pop up in the book. Senators Gerald Nye and Benjamin Wheeler seem like intriguing figures to read more about, given their ties to some of these organizations. Likewise, a priest named Father Coughlin who hosted an anti-Roosevelt (pro-Nazi?) radio show, until he was kicked off the air in the middle of the war, is a very interesting figure that I'll probably want to read a book about at some point in the future.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

On "Glass" by Lillian Fishman (1950 words) ***

What goes into the decisions we make when we are young, and will we regret them when we are a few years older? These are two things Fishman's tale of a woman who sells her eggs are about, but she's coy about providing answers. The thing is that we don't know, often, whether we will regret or even what we are regretting. The choices we make are those that make sense in the moment. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

On "Algae You In My Dreams" by Rachel Khong (2343 words) ***

In Khong's tale a woman dreams the future. The dreams aren't terribly eccentric; they're actually much like real life, and that's why they can come true. Unfortunately, most of the dreams aren't good ones and few of them give clues with regard to what really matters: whether your marriage will survive, whether your kid will grow out of her disability, and on and on. Read the story here at Joyland.

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.