Thursday, August 28, 2014

On "Taking" by Alix Ohlin (6:14 minutes) ****

Ohlin turns a childhood game into a metaphor for a much more serious and disturbing life event. The childhood game involves taking an object from a room and seeing if the sister knows what the object is. The narrator is not so good at the game, but some things can be taken that affect one forever thereafter. Listen to the story here at the Drum.

On "Ghosts" by Paul Auster ***

The second book of Auster's New York Trilogy, this one is more of a philosophical journey than anything else, something to be enjoyed on an intellectual level but not much else. It explores similar themes as the first book in the trilogy, but fails to quite live up to the first. Had I read it first, perhaps my opinion would be slightly different, but somehow I doubt it.

In Ghosts every major character is named after a color. Blue is a detective who has been hired by White to follow Black. Brown is his idol, and it is to Brown that Blue appeals, only to find the advice disappointing, if not completely absent.

Black, Blue finds, does little more than write. Following him is boring. Blue sits and observes and writes about Black, who sits and writes and observes also. Blue becomes paranoid as the story goes on, wondering if perhaps White and Black are in cahoots. Has White actually hired Black and Blue? Blue begins to make stuff up about Black, in part because it's more interesting, but also to see what kind of reaction he'll get from White. Will White know? Do White and Black speak to one another?

As time goes on, Blue finds himself less and less interested in writing about Black and, indeed, writing at all. The writer is a detective of sorts, but that work is less than exciting at times.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

On "A Story from the Sand Dunes" by Hans Christian Andersen (13,455 words) ***

One tragedy after another comes in this story by Andersen, which largely avoids the elements of fairy tale. It regards a young child of nobility whose ship is torn apart before he can remember and who ends up growing up in a small fishing village, adopted by parents who lost their child in another tragedy. The boy is God's miraculous replacement (never mind that all the other shipgoers died). The boy grows to be a man and makes good friends with one particular other young male in the village. They fall for the same girl. The boy saves up to buy a house, and the gal agrees to marry the boy because she knows she'll be better off with him, even though she actually loves the boy's friend. The boy chooses to hand over his house to his friend, as well as the girl, and leaves the village to travel the world. Only . . . there's a murder, and the boy ends up in prison. And then later, he ends up in another town, where he meets a lovely woman, who again is taken away from him by the sea. In addition, his mind is taken too. And so this dreadfully depressing story comes to an end . . . almost. Andersen was apparently very religious, and the hope of eternal life often ends up playing a role in his stories, and it's no exception with this tale. Read the full story here.

On "City of Glass" by Paul Auster *****

This is possibly the best novel I've read this year, certainly the best in a long time. The first of a trilogy, I look forward to the next two parts of it. Auster's book was written in the mid-1980s. It's hard for me to believe that it is about thirty years old and that it took that long for me to get to. Novels like this were works written in the 1950s back in the mid-1980s, and they were classics of a sort. It's hard to believe this would now be essentially a classic, in that sense, tested by time.

The novel is about a writer--a writer on many different levels. Daniel Quinn is a the main character. He writes detective novels under the name William Wilson (the name of a baseball player for the Mets, and the name, I believe, of a character in a Poe story about a man with multiple identities). Wilson in turn writes about the detective Max Work (maximum work of literature?). Quinn receives an anonymous call. The caller is asking for Paul Auster, a private detective.

After a couple of calls, Quinn decides to pose as Auster. The woman on the line is looking for help protecting a man Peter Stillman from his father of the same name. The father experimented on Stillman at a young age, similar to experiments keeping young children in a room without language to see what would happen. The abuse did no good for the son, and the father, who was imprisoned for his evil doings, is fresh out of jail. The son needs protection.

Quinn's job is to offer said protection. He embarks on following Stillman Sr. around. Stillman has a double, and Quinn has to choose which one is real. Stillman walks his days away in patterns that suggest letters that suggest words. What does it all mean?

Quinn eventually finds the real Paul Auster, who is a writer, not a detective. The two sort of collude for a bit, but not well and not for long. And Quinn in turn finds his musings growing progressively shorter and more meaningless, as Stillman's whereabouts get harder to trace.

Language is a major theme of this book, as is identity. Even the body seems a major element of it--nudity is stressed quite a bit early on. It's as if the body is all that is real, as if language is a slippery attempt to define the meaning of who we are, to give those bodies identity.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On "Mirabeau, the Truant" by Andrew Brininstool (4687 words) ****

Mirabeau is a peeping tom. He is also a boy on the cusp of being a teenager, a boy with a father suffering from depression, a boy with certain problems adjusting to the world around him--or understanding it. His best friend is Tug, a home-schooled fatty who is also a bully. The world around them is coming apart--the sky is literally falling, remnants of the space shuttle. But in the midst of this, there are small moments of beauty that make life worth living. Read the story here at Better.

On "The Elephants Teach" by D. G. Myers ***

In The Elephants Teach D. G. Myers traces the origin of the teaching of creative writing in the university, and in the process he tells the history of the teaching of English in the university. For the last several years, I've felt as if my studying English was ill advised; I'd have done something more useful had I studied, for example, one of the sciences. But young, I was idealistic and decided to study something I love: writing and reading. Nowadays, I tend to think I could have done such without a degree; I could have studied some other field and had something to write about. The problem . . . When I look back on it, I realize that I never enjoyed studying the sciences, and so I'd have likely consigned myself to misery trying to do so. And in total, my life hasn't worked out badly; I just often wish I felt more like I had a "real" skill.

Myers's book merely confirmed a lot of what I've come to feel--that English degrees, and especially writing degrees, are essentially self-reproducing. English students study English to teach other students to teach English. And creative writers study writing to teach others how to teach others how to write.

Myers starts his work off with a discussion of philology, which predated the modern English program. Philologists studied language the way a linguist does, focusing mostly on grammar and on etymology. Where did this word come from and how should one use it? Writers, as with today, could rarely make a living writing, so they often had other professions, and only rarely did one choose philology--or the teaching of a foreign language.

It was in the late 1800s that English departments began to take shape. Philology fell from favor as the idea of composition took hold. Composition--teaching others to write--started out to be, according to Myers, actually much more like creative writing. The idea was to be creative--and teachers often didn't care what one composed be it an essay, a story, or a poem. Many classes were forged around the idea of daily compositions--journals. Part of the impetus for teaching writing, however, was also for people to learn an appreciation for reading--not so much to become a professional writer.

But as composition became more popular and was added as a requirement to many school's prerequisites, so too did composition come under fire, just as it does today. What exactly should composition teach? Creativity? Critical thinking? Rhetorical argument? Literary appreciation? Business-oriented writing for specific disciplines? As composition moved more closely into the line of rhetoric, creativity began again to be placed on the back burner.

Writers, however, began to enter the academy more and more as a means to support themselves. (Myers examines the founding of various writing colonies, which is also a rather fascinating discussion.) And that's when New Criticism came to the fore. The idea was that writers would read texts closely, examine them, see how the text worked internally, rather than looking to its linguistics or its historical origins. Criticism was, thus, a part of teaching writers to write and readers to read. (The elephants teach refers to the idea that a zoologist study not just the animal from the outside but that the zoologist actually become the animal--he or she lives the life of the elephant to understand how it is constructed. So it is that a writer lives the writing life, reads like a writer, to understand how a piece of writing is forged.)

But eventually criticism and creative writing split off. And thus we now how several segmentations in an English department--linguists, rhetoricians, critics, and creative writers. Though the process started in the 1920s, much of the influx of writers to the academy happened after World War II, with the advent of the GI bill and the upswing in the number of degrees being granted. These people needed something to do, and the federal government was happy to pump more money into the system. Creative writing was a cheap program for a university to start (most such universities were not a state's flagship institution but an outlier, looking for a program to include among its specialties). And so it is. An excess of English professors and of money led to more creative writing programs being established, which led more such programs and more and more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On "Month to Month" by Sean Gibbon (2647 words) ***

Not so much a tale as a collection of voices, desperate ones. The narrator is a former drinker trying to stay sober--a biker. Archie is too--and a painter. Tyler--a former contractor. All of them had potential. All of them are older and seemingly going nowhere, settled, except perhaps Archie. He's still working at it, and maybe that's what makes for an artist. Read the story here at Agni.

Friday, August 8, 2014

On "Clod Hans" by Hans Christian Anderson (about 1300 words) ***


I've read that many of Anderson's tales are fairly political. Unfortunately, not knowing the context of his writing very well, most of this is lost to me (and to most of today's readers). In some cases, however, the points are pretty over the top and thus hard to miss. "Clod Hans" is one of the more entertaining (and humorous) stories in that vein. It's a tale of three brothers who compete to marry a princess, two smart, and one incredibly stupid. Guess which one wins? And this is how we get our leaders! Read the tale here.

On “Marriage, a History” by Stephanie Coontz ****

Coontz discusses the history of marriage from prehistoric times to the present. I was expecting her to denote that marriage moved from being an affair based on familial decisions, extended families, and convenience rather than true love to one based on a “love” system, and that is exactly what Coontz establishes. However, in that story, Coontz sees an institution that has never been wholly stable and a change in marriage in our modern day that would inevitably lead to its currently changing definition.

The introduction recounts how Coontz came to her topic and was surprised by the history she found--more surprised than she expected to be, though she'd known that the 1950s ideal was a temporal thing. In that introduction Coontz covers various types of marriage as they have existed through history, including agreed-on relations between the same sex, polygamous and polyganous marriages, and even one society that has no marriage concept at all. Marriage, as Coontz brings out, has been throughout history a way of organizing human society. The society without a marriage system was very interesting to read of. Children are raised by this entire African community.

Marriage among the rich and powerful was generally a way to increase one's power and riches. And even among those who were not so well off usually used marriage as a way to aid the community as a whole. Many a marriage was created to gain land, whether it be to merge two countries or two fields.

Much of this changed once the Church entered the picture. As the Church extended its power, familial concerns with regard to treaties were no longer as important as getting the approval of the Church for various things--like marriage itself, or divorce. Interestingly the Church's stance toward divorce and remarriage was not always what it is today. However, as the stance toward divorce became stronger, it became more important for kings to have Church approval to rid themselves of unwanted wives using the Church's ability to declare such marriages annulled. That was needed, not for love, but to ensure heirs--women who could bear sons.

Once the Reformation, happened, that ushered in a time when the Church no longer had say in when and whom people married. It also ushered in the Age of Reason in due time, and with that the foundation for marriage based in love, since society less and less devolved around extended familial relations.

Marrying for love thus started its beginnings in the Renaissance and found full form in the Victorian era. But that era saw husbands as protectors for a frail and frigid but moral sex; women hated sex, but men too needed to avoid it as much as possible. (This was different from the previous era/generation, when women were seen as temptresses, to prone to sexual desire and pulling men away from things that really matter.) As the twentieth century came into being, women came to be seen as more sexual, and men lost the protective aura.

Women increasingly entered the workforce and married older--through World War II. Then the 1950s came, and men came home, taking the women's jobs and taking advantage of GI bill to further their education. In this time, marriage moved to a younger age, divorce actually decreased, and the nuclear family came to be the norm, with men as the breadwinners. This “long decade” lasted only fifteen years, and then marriage continued to develop on its way.

For the issue with love as the basis of marriage means that when love is no longer there or you happen to love someone untraditional, then the extension, by reason, of what should constitute acceptable marriage is no longer based on community standards but on individual desire. And that is why divorce became more common, and why now gay marriage is finding its place into our culture. It also means that other changes to marriage are likely to come.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On "Ib and Little Christina" by Hans Christian Andersen (4436 words) ***

Anderson must have suffered from some kind of lost childhood love, because this theme seems to present itself in story after story of his. Here's one of the better ones. Ib and Christina are young friends. The fortuneteller provides to them a hint of their future, but it proves to be deceptively accurate. Christina grows up, moves away, and marries up. Ib struggles on as a poor man. But fortunes turn quickly, and all is not what it seems. Somehow, I'm to believe that Ib should be satisfied with a replica of Christina. Read the story here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

On "Great, Wondrous" by Marie-Helene Bertino (9761 words) ****

In this story from Bertino's collection, students at a Christian college perform a set of superheroic acts. One of them has the ability to make things disappear. The other has the ability to move things via thought. Put the two talents together, and walla, magic will happen. The talents will only get used for good, we promise. But in the end, sorrow will result, the cost of miracles. Read the story here at Five Chapters.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On "Under the Willow Tree" by Hans Christian Andersen (6106 words) ***

This is one of the few Andersen stories I've that feels like a story rather than a fairy tale. The plot is a familiar one. Two kids grow up together, and one of them is in love with the other, but the other thinks of the childhood friend like a brother. They go their separate ways, one off to riches and fame, the other to a life as a regular Joe. The tale does not end well. What makes the story intriguing, however, is the mileage that Andersen gets out of two gingerbread cookies that are shared with the friends as kids and the mileage he gets out of the weather and the European foliage, all of which ride along with the familiar plot. Read the story here.

On “Shutting out the Sun” by Michael Zielenziger *****

One of the best texts on Japanese culture that I've read, this book initially seemed like it would be a disappointment. Zielenziger starts off his book writing about the hikikomori, and since that discussion takes up the first several chapters, I initially thought I'd ended up reading a book on some uniquely Japanese psychological problem. The hikikimori are adults who live at home with their parents, usually holed up in their room. Unable to take the pressure of integrating socially, they choose to wile away there time alone. The psychological problem sounded to me not dissimilar to autism or Asperger's syndrome, but in fact the problem is uniquely Japanese, as such people integrate normally into foreign societies. Usually, a bullying experience or something similar is the cause for the decision to withdraw from society; the hikikomori, Zielenziger claims, are often people who are too individualistic to fit in in Japan's very conformist society.

Zielenziger's discussion moves then to a more general discussion of Japan, a society, he claims, is essentially a hikikomori nation--a country that historically withdraws from other nations in the world. Here's where the book gets interesting: Zielenziger hypothesizes on why the Japanese are the kind of people they are and on why Japan, which had so much promise economically in the 1980s, fell into economic disarray in the 1990s and has not wholly recovered.

Zielenziger then goes into a history and culture of Japanese business. Japan's economy and politics is routed in the feudal culture that predates the modern world. Even though the United States transformed Japan in terms of its economic system, opening it up to the world, it did not transform the Japanese spirit. Hence, even though Japan became capitalist, the country transferred its warrior culture to the economic world: trade essentially remained one way (few imports, many exports), and businesses became the new extended families that one conformed to and that took care of the people.

Because Japan lacks a moral compass outside of societal conformity, Zielenziger hints, the Japanese often lack a sense of greater purpose or individuality. As such, capitalism becomes the end all and be all even more than it does in Western countries. A chapter is given over to fads and materialism in Japan, and how that is often the means by which Japanese gain a sense of “self,” which is not a sense of self at all but of cliques or groups.

It's at this point that Zielenziger gets into some of his most interesting discussions, comparing Korean culture to that of Japan's. Korea doesn't have quite the same tendency to cut itself off, and it thus doesn't have hikikomori. As a nation invaded multiple times by neighbors, Korea's independence is relatively short lived. It too has gotten rich in the capitalist realm, but unlike Japan it has managed to recover from the 1990s doldrums. This is because it has opened its economy to foreign investors. (Japan, meanwhile, closes itself off, maintaining corrupt or zombi firms, and slowly driving itself into debt. It was a nation of savers, but its debt has grown in the last few decades. That said, statistically, on the Web, it is still as far as I can tell a creditor nation, unlike, say, the United States, to which Zielenziger often compares Japan--I don't see the American system as all that great; then again, Zielenziger later notes how our two nations contribute to our mutual problems, since Japan allows us to drive up our debt by buying it.)

Zielenziger then goes into a very interesting study of why this might be so, and he comes to the conclusion that it is because Korea adopted Christianity (or at least one-third of Korea did). This has created a more Western sense of self that no longer looks entirely to the group for personal action and decision making. Zielenziger isn't trying to claim the Christianity is the boon of the world or anything like that--he's Jewish--but he is saying that Western ideas do lend themselves more to globalization and to the flexibility necessary to transform a culture when economic turmoil and other problems arise.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

On "The Shadow" by Hans Christian Andersen (4726 words) ***

This tale has more of a feel of Poe in its absurdity. It's about a man whose shadow decides to live on its own and whose shadow eventually overshadows the man, so that the two swap places. There are obvious metaphors here to the way that one's position in society can switch around as well, but it's a fun ride, at least until its rather disappointing and predictable end. Read the story here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

On "It Was Written in Blue" by Emmanuel Iduma (3048 words) ****

So much fiction is written about small moments, little tawdry things. It takes a story like Iduma's to shock us back into knowing that the world is writ large, that the issues, for many, are those of life and death. Obinna had an affair with his brother's love; they haven't spoken in four years. He's changed. Can he be forgiven? Stick these events amid Christian versus Muslim, and the whole idea of forgiveness becomes something much larger than that of one family, unless one is talking about the family of man. Read the story here at Sentinel Nigeria.

On "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" by David L. Holmes *****

I came to this book after becoming familiar with Holmes's volume on the faiths of the postwar presidents. In this volume, Holmes discusses the religious beliefs of the first five presidents of the United States, as well as a set of others responsible for the foundation of our nation. He also gives background to the state of religion in the United States and the colonies during the Revolutionary period. In all, he aims to be debunk myths that have sprung up around the founding fathers with regard to their religious beliefs, enough to anger both evangelicals and some atheists. Proving exactly what the first five presidents believed, however, is perhaps more difficult than might be initially supposed. This is because we are limited by what these men left behind in their writings and by what others say about them, and these things do not necessarily speak to what went on in these men's minds.

Holmes makes the claim that the first five presidents of the United States were Deists. This claim is easily proven in the case of a man like Thomas Jefferson, whose views on religion and Christianity and fairly well known and represented in the writings that he left behind. Such a claim is a bit more difficult in the case of someone like George Washington, whose views and actions in some ways contradict such an interpretation, or someone like James Monroe, who was simply silent on religious matters.

Holmes begins by discussing the religious culture of the times. Most Americans were religious, and most were protestants of some sort. Anglicanism actually had a much larger hold on the country than I had realized, and Catholicism, which one tends to learn in school was well-founded in Maryland, actually had little hold (the leaders of Maryland were Catholic, but the people were Anglican). Unorthodox views were heavily present in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, where there tended to be greater freedom of religion. Deism was popular among the educated classes and supplanted the teachings of denominations at many of the denominationally sponsored universities during this time. Hence, the nation's leaders were often Deistic in their persuasion--or at least heavily influence by such ideas (the latter is much easier to prove than the former).

Next, Holmes moves on to the individual men. There seems little doubt that Franklin and Jefferson were Deists, though both men saw the Bible as a source of great wisdom and believe in a power that had forged the universe. Washington, however, was a churchgoer who encouraged others to go to church. Holmes sees Deistic tendencies in Washington because the man rarely talked of Jesus (he used, rather, terms Deists would more often use to talk of God, such as Grand Architect) or of personal salvation, and there is some evidence that he did not take communion. His attendance at church, furthermore, was sporadic (though his lack of attendance usually occurred when he was living in the country, far from available churches). I came away feeling like Washington could have as likely been a lukewarm Christian as a Deist. What is clear, though, is as Holmes points out, Washington's myth was rewritten by later generations to make him into a more religiously Orthodox man than he actually was.

John Adams and his wife were Unitarians. For Holmes, these seem more or less to equate with Deist. Holmes splits Deists into two camps: Christian Deists and non-Christian. As such, Adams falls into the former camp, save that Unitarians aren't technically Christians, if we are to follow the line of thinking that Christians must belief in the Trinity and other orthodox beliefs (Unitarians rejected the Trinity among other beliefs). As a Unitarian, Adams believed essentially in Arianism, the idea that Christ was a created being rather than coeternal with God from the beginning. However, unlike Jefferson, Adams believed in miracles and other various aspects of scripture. Still, Adams has as much trouble with the ideas of overly religious people as he did with overly Deistic people, such as Thomas Payne.

Madison's beliefs are a bit more difficult to fathom out, but his heavy association with Deists suggests that he leaned toward this set of beliefs, at least during the years in which he was on the political stage. Later in life, he apparently returned more toward orthodox Christianity. Monroe's silence, for Holmes, is an argument for Deistic beliefs, something I find a bit hard to buy as an argument (just because someone doesn't talk religion doesn't mean the person is fill-in-the-blank of what you want him to be). Also pointing to Monroe's possible Deist impulses was his membership in the Freemasons, an organization among with Deism was popular.

While the men may have been Deists, most of their wives, save for a few notables, fell more into the orthodox Christian camp. Holmes speculates on reasons that men made up most of the Deistic movement, while women stayed more closely aligned with churches. Holmes then turns to men who were very clearly Christian in outlook who helped forge the country: Samuel Adams and John Jay among them. He spells out how to "spot" a Deist versus a Christian. And then he closes with a chapter on our contemporary presidents. What is clear is that in the early Republic, while presidents tended to go to church (even if nonbelieving), they were not as outspoken about religion compared with the general population as our contemporary presidents are (who often espouse quite staunchly Christian beliefs in order to appeal to the electorate).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On "What Happened in the Library" by Nancy Stohlman (885 words) ***

Years ago, the television show Trying Times explored the idea of a person being hired to party for a person who doesn't have time to party (with Steven Wright as the partier extraordinaire). Stohlman takes a similar tact in her story about the library. You know all those books on your shelves you intend to get around to reading one day? Yeah, hire a reader for yourself. The results don't turn out quite as expected. (A companion story explores living in a museum.) I like Stohlman's attachment to the zany. Read the story here at Connotation Press.

On “The Collaboration” by Ben Urwand *****

I preface Urwand's book by saying that there are some things I dislike about being human—and most especially being an adult. One of those things is ethical dilemmas, or more precisely the dilemma of choosing whether to follow one's own ethical standards or to follow the money or the boss. One might idealistically say that one should always follow one's ethical standards, but what if what one does for a living often brings you into conflict with those ethics, or brings to sets of ethical beliefs into conflict. It's easy to say one would never work at making missiles, but what of making guns, which have practical uses as well as illicit ones? This type of conundrum comes up often in artistic fields. You work as a producer of a music album, and you might disagree with the contents of a particular song. Do you allow the artist to have his or her say? Do you refuse and thus force the artist to compromise or possibly lose out on the artist's work completely? As an artist, do you cut the illicit song to sell the album or do you give up on the contract and the possible career to stay true to your art?

In the case of 1930s American movie studios, the CEOs chose wholly to remain wedded to the dollar and to making films, compromised films, rather than risk losing a chunk of their audience and the accompanying profit margin. And for that, Urwand provides a very damning portrait, a portrait that seems to show what is wrong with corporate America in general, that in the case of caring about people versus caring about money, the latter always wins. (But of course the issue isn't always as easy as that. Had studios condemned the actions of a particular nation, they'd have lost not only money and access to markets--those working for them would have lost jobs. At what point do you stop collaborating and start attacking? Where exactly is that border? Sometimes, it's hard to say.)

The issue at the heart of Urwand's book, the “collaboration” that takes place, is between Hollywood and Nazi Germany. “Collaboration,” may be something of a strong word. Hollywood didn't set out to make movies for the Nazis. However, it did compromise with the films it did make to appease Germany. At first, Urwand's case seems a bit weak. Even today, films are edited for particular foreign audiences. But as he pushes his case and moves us forward in history, the choices the heads of the studios make seem more and more dubious.

In the lead-up to World War II, Germany passed a law that studios that made movies that were anti-German could not only see those films banned but all their films. Germany would also squeeze others to avoid distributing the movie (and as it took territory would extend bans to the new lands). This resulted in Hollywood studios not only censoring scenes from movies but eventually abandoning some projects wholesale.

Most disturbing is the way that Jews were essentially written out of Hollywood films, even though the majority of the executives were Jewish. Nazis didn't want and wouldn't allow positive portrayals of Jews on screen; eventually, the Nazis didn't even want Jews working on movies that were to be released in Germany. So for a decade (and longer than that), the Jew disappeared from cinema.

Urwand spends time talking about which films were popular with the Nazis, which weren't, and which were not made because of them. Interesting passages discuss films that particular people took up trying to get made that never came into production because not only did the studios refuse to make them, but people in the industry refused to finance them or be involved with them. Even some Jewish organizations stepped in to keep such films from being made, so afraid were they that portraits of Jews might alienate others and contribute to anti-semitism.

A really interesting passage comes at the end, and it is this perhaps wherein Urwand's point seems the most damaging. After World War II and the defeat of the Germans, major studio executives took a tour of Germany. Their desire was that Germany no longer be allowed to make its own movies (they even urged Congress to ban film stock in Germany)--there were propaganda excuses for this, but essentially the real reason seems to have boiled down to having a captive audience to sell American movies to. Millions of Jews died in the war, and little was ever done for them by the industry; the only concern, it seems, was making money.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On "Mouth" by David Ryan (3139 words) ****

Ryan's "Mouth" hits on past, present, and future in a way that I haven't quite seen before. The story begins with a wedding of sorts, one brother visiting the other. And then, quickly, it becomes a story about an accident, the way that one comes upon such emergencies in real life, without warning. And it becomes about bodies and mouths and shame and hope and desire and dreams and fear. Read the tale here at Failbetter.

On "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan *****

Labeled a novel, this is essentially a short story cycle. Each chapter picks up on a minor character from one of the previous chapters and tells a tale from that point of view. The episodes are not in chronological order. As such, I had at times difficulty remembering who a particular character was or where I'd come across the character before.

I'm a fan of short story cycles. I feel like they give me something I love--short stories--with a bonus--short stories that build on one another. What I'm not a fan of is publishers' attempts to rewrite such collections as something they aren't: novels. Or "novels in stories." I mean, come on. Is the American audience so averse to short stories that we have to label collections of them in a way that hides just what is being read? And does such labeling really pay off? Someone looking for a novel is going to be dissatisfied, and someone looking for stories might well pass the book up.

The stories here center around music and publicity. Most of the tales mention a woman named Sasha or a man named Bennie. Bennie is a record agent. Sasha is his assistant. We catch them--through other characters or themselves--at various times in their lives. So the book begins with Sasha on her analyst's couch, discussing why she likes to steal and how that makes her actually feel. She is also discussing Internet dating--and most particularly a date with a man named Alex, who discovers her table of stolen goods. I'd completely forgotten Alex by the time I got to the end of the book, which closes with a tale about Alex himself, working as a publicity agent for Bennie, who by now has been fired by the label he started and is having to start "fresh" with an old friend with whom he played in a band as a teen, a friend whom he once dismissed when that friend was more or less homeless and Bennie at the top of his game.

In between, we get tales of Bennie's band, of Bennie's mentor (an older record executive with a penchant for picking up barely legal girls, marrying them, siring by them, and discarding them a few years later), of offspring of that mentor on safari, of the brother of Bennie's wife come home from jail and rediscovering his love for promoting causes, of the woman--an actress--who put that brother in jail for kidnapping and attempted rape, of a publicist who hires that actress to give a dictator a softer appearance to the public, of Sasha's uncle going to search for the twenty-something her in Europe (where she has gotten into drugs, thievery, and the sex trade), and of Sasha's children's obsession with the pauses in songs.

The tales themselves seem to be on some level about the passage of time and how we can never hold on to the things we once were, though we obsess about them, that wonderful, joyous, beautiful, painful past: our youth.