Monday, June 29, 2015

On "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" by Mar Preston (4818 words) ***

Here's a story about an exercise in futility. Luke Mouradian is a frustrated thirtysomething with no luck with women who happens upon a great one in China. Preston does a good job of observing cultural differences between the United States and this stranger across the sea. And of course, no love is lost. Read the story here at Kings River Life.

On "The Beard That Was Evil" by Stephen Collins ****

This graphic novel is essentially a commentary on the moral and cultural boundaries of society, putting into practice theories of sociologists such as Emile Durkheim. The tale involves a man who lives in a perfectly ordered world who one day, involuntarily, begins to grow a beard. The beard grows to epic proportions, slowly taking over and destroying the town around the man and transforming the town in the process.

Even after the beard event is over, the town feels its effects. Where once the beard was evil, it becomes a thing of legend, and people feel less bound to their "perfect" ways. There is a degree of disorder that previously did not exist. And the beard itself is marketed, capitalized upon. Fear of it begins to dissipate.

The curious thing about the way in which society defines "here" and "there," "us" and "them," is that the boundary between mayhem and order shifts, and arguably, while such boundaries are artificial, they also help define our society and keep it ordered. Too much mayhem and society falls apart and ceases to exist. Too little and the society is oppressive. As Durkheim brings out, though, it is those who are disorderly, those on the edge of order, who in many ways define the society even as they disrupt it and transform it. It's an interesting tension that seems unavoidable--and perhaps a little scary, a little bit like "there" and "them" because where "there" ultimately takes us is to the ocean and oblivion--and as the book brings out: the unknown.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On "Hot Springs" by Andy Plattner (6077 words) ***

Many writers have a setting or group of people they focus on for a while, but few remain entirely in that world for the duration of their career. Plattner is an exception: almost every story that he writes is about the world of horse racing. As such, he knows his milieu extremely well, with some stories more exceptional than others. But nonetheless, the settings and characters always shine. In this tale, a man tries to reclaim some money he lost to an ex-girlfriend. Read the story here at New World Writing.

On "A House Made of Stars" by Tawnysha Greene ****

Tawnysha Greene's been publishing little pieces of this novel in various journals for the last few years; amazingly, most seemed self-contained, enough that I hadn't realized they were part of a larger work. Now, they're all gathered in this, her debut novel--and what a novel it is.

I'm reminded a bit of Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina. This book covers some of the same ground in terms of presenting a poor "white trash" girlhood, but I liked this book a whole lot more than I remember liking that one. I think there's a certain innocence that Greene captures that Allison, for me, did not and perhaps wasn't trying to.

The main character grows up in a family in which deafness runs. As such, each member of the family knows sign language. But that deafness extends to more than just literalness; it extends to a kind of will to not hear, as the mother continues to try to maintain her relationship with her abusive and free-spending husband, the father to her three children.

Each chapter is a small snapshot, usually not more than a few pages. Father enters, takes the family off to an amusement, spends all the cash on hand, gets angry, beats up the kids, leaves--or forces the family to flee to somewhere safer for a while. It's a repeating pattern.

Often, the family (with or without dad) rooms with members of the extended family--the dad's sister, the mom's mom. And in these spaces, the narrator finds solace and joy, a short respite from the violence and threat of it. Just as the narrator finds solace in the night sky, where stories can happen and where a house can be built of light.

The story becomes something of a chase toward the end, with the narrator leaving clues as to where she can be found, and I found myself growing more and more arrested and wanting to read on.

Greene's book is one of great intensity. The book can be purchased here.

Friday, June 19, 2015

On "Probate" by Joyce Carol Oates (12,628 words) ***

As I began this story, I was reminded of how some writers are just so good. Oates is one of those. I don't think this one of her best stories, but from the first word, it somehow managed to set a tone and grip me till the very end. The writing is absolutely assured. In this very strange piece, a widow discovers that the husband who has just died is not who she thought he was--and then, well, the story becomes some weird nightmare scape. Read the tale here at Fifty-two Stories.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

On "Effigies of Ourselves" by Ursula Villarreal-Moura (187 words) ***

Currently in my first official serious relationship (and having experienced a few unofficial ones), I am learning how the pacing between men and women often differs and can cause numerous problems with regard to desire. Villarreal-Moura's short take is essentially about this. And really, even as timing seems to be so much to what makes a relationship happy or frustrating at a given moment, it has to do with having a relationship in and of itself. I sometimes think about that. I'd be with someone else right now had I gone for a girl who I failed to pursue three years ago, because other things were going on in my life. But had I gone for her, I'd have never met certain other women along the way to my current girlfriend. Read the story here at Dogzplot.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

On "Out of Time" by David W. Landrum (2157 words) ***

Landrum's story revolves around the cult of celebrity and the way that it can be used to reap revenge--or not. Sometimes, we fail to be direct about how we feel because we fear hurting someone else or being hurt ourselves. Sometimes we just don't know how to say something. And sometimes we fail to be direct for simply legal reasons. Read the tale here at Intellectual Refuge.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

On "Survivors" by Michael Gutierrez (1129 words) ****

Gutierrez depicts a marriage here from its courtship to its nearly literal end of days--simple turns of phrase that show off how similar situations morph as we grow old. The husband is something of a survivalist, the wife someone who would prefer to believe that the world in which everything is a fine romance. The language of survival, however, takes over the plot as not only the world but the marriage becomes increasingly difficult to endure without some heavy equipment. Beneath it all, however, there's still beauty. Read the story here at Untoward.

On "I Never Left Home" by Bob Hope ***

Publishers Weekly's best-selling work of nonfiction for 1944 was this comic account of the comedian Bob Hope's visits to military units in Europe and Africa. Light reading, it reminded me somewhat of the best-seller from two years earlier about being a private in the army. In this case, however, the comedy is coming from someone who has been sent to entertain the troops, as Hope would do throughout his life.

The book is written in a way similar to the novels Jay Cronley and Carrier Fisher. This is a hard way to write, and I have immense respect for it. What I mean is that Hope essentially delivers the text as a series of jokes. Each paragraph is a setup that ends with a punch line. Sometimes, we might get a slightly longer setup, but it's rarely more than a page. The focus here is humor.

This wore thin for me, however, with respect to Bob Hope's book. This was for a few reasons. One is that after about age twelve, I was never much of a fan of the man's work. I remember watching his specials as a kid, being fascinated by them, because, well, it was television, but as I got older, I usually preferred to go play with a friend to sitting in front of the TV when Bob was on. His jokes often just didn't seem that funny; they seemed canned. And that is the case here. Another is that many of the jokes don't age that well. Often, they revolve around popular culture of the era. Seventy years later, they no longer have as much zing. That focus on popular culture also seems many times very insular. It's often funny when Hope jokes about himself. The self-deprecating humor is fine. But when he takes jabs at Bing Crosby and other friends, the jokes seem to expect us to care as much about his Hollywood friends and world as he does. Seventy years later, we don't.

As a propaganda piece, Hope's work certainly fits well. He often makes remarks about how great our military is or how much our nation's young men our sacrificing for us. In fact, his self-deprecating humor often revolves around his inferiority to such servants of the state.

Another major issue with the setup-punchline manner of writing, at least in this case, is that it's often hard to tell what is a joke and what actually happened. Hope was so intent on telling jokes that I found myself lost as to where on his tour and in the world Hope was or why it mattered.

That's not to say that there were some very engaging passages or some funny moments. I loved, for example, one anecdote/story/joke about his grandfather and him dancing. Hope's grandfather saw that Hope was getting tired and told him, "You're quite a bit older than you used to be. Take and break and I'll finish up for you."

And there's also a very touching passage about joke telling itself--perhaps, the most touching in the book. Hope talks about "toppers." That's a joke that you tell on top of someone else's, a sort of one-ups-man-ship. He talks about visiting hospitals and how he couldn't top a guy in a hospital bed. If you tell a joke there, and the guy has a better one-liner back, you let it go. I mean, how do you top a man who had got wounded serving your country, especially if he makes a joke about his own ailment?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

On "Pique Assiette" by Ann Hillesland (3024 words) ***

Hillesland's story grips with sad little moments. A sister visits her grandmother and sister. The latter is taking care of the grandmother--but not in an entirely appropriate manner, or so the narrator things, until she has to spend an afternoon with the grandmother herself. "Do whatever you want," the care-taking sister says, "like you always do," in response to an offer to help. One hears the resentment in a single line, and it stings. Read the story here at Stirring.

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.