Sunday, December 28, 2008

On "Trauma Plate" by Adam Johnson (5624 words) ****

I don't stay at Motel 6. It's nothing personal. I actually think Motel 6 is a great chain if you're looking to save some dollars. I wish, in fact, that I could stay at Motel 6. I don't stay there, though. I don't stay there because of my mom. I don't stay there because my mom once heard of dangers that lurk at Motel 6's. Someone got robbed or stabbed or beaten, and it was at a Motel 6, and now Motel 6 is banned from my life. It is banned because my mom hounded me until I promised never to stay at a Motel 6 again. So I don't stay at Motel 6's. In the literal letter-of-the-law words of the promise, I could stay at Jo Bob's Country Motel with Color TV for twenty dollars a night, but no Motel 6.

Adam Johnson's story "Trauma Plate" is about a similar kind of irrationalism, the way media and marketers feed on our fear. And fear, fear is a great way to sell things, for if the easiest things to sell are things we need, rather than just desire, than we will do anything to have such things, will spend on money there before we'll by that new pair of Adidas shoes. In Johnson's story, that fear is one of being shot, one that makes people wear Kevlar and other body armor as an everyday accessory. And why not? We'd certainly be safer with it on (though why not just aim for the head if everyone has his or her heart covered?). (Would I too fall into such fear? I sometimes wonder. I can walk a street at night with not too much fear, but were I ever mugged, would my attitude change? Would I insist on driving to destinations at night rather than walking? Would I start carrying maize? One doesn't know until the unfortunate happens to one's self.)

But of course, Johnson's story is about more than literal body armor. It's about the figurative armor we wear around our hearts, the things we do to protect our emotions and ourselves, and what removing such armor suggests about love. Read the story here at the Barcelona Review.

On "Emporium" by Adam Johnson ***

Story collections are often inconsistent, and for me, that's how Johnson's collection read. Some stories shine, while others I had a hard time following or being interested in. All of them are ambitious, in their way. Try telling an alternative story of Canadian space exploration. Not an easy idea to pull off, but Johnson attempts it. Some of the stories try to do something grand, something unheard of--some end up just being weird, while others bring something new to the concept of the short story.

Unifying motifs of Johnson's collection include guns and technology. The technology bit is particularly interesting insofar as Johnson, at points, ends up telling what are essentially science fiction stories in the guise of literary fiction. And that is good. I find that science fiction is often too hung up on its ideas to bother with real characters and real places; in Johnson's work, by contrast, the characters and the settings are front and center, and whatever odd technological items that might be part of the world of his fiction are just that--little items in the background that his characters take for granted the same way we take our flat screen televisions for granted.

For me, the most successful stories are those that manage to keep the narratives personal, to keep the weirdness from overwhelming the rest of the work. "Teen Sniper"--the story of young police snipers who take the lives of supposed criminals but who seem still to immature to really understand their own hearts--provides an interesting start to the book. "The Eighth Sea"--the story of a nineteen-year-old kid assigned to a drunk driving class having an affair with one of his twice-his-age classmates--provides emotional punch to the end of the book. "Trauma Plate" (available online and discussed here) is another fine story. My favorite piece, though, is "Your Own Backyard," the tale of a man struggling to raise a son but who finds, as the story progresses, that the harder he tries, the further away his son seems to be moving. The story ends with a wonderful metaphor that mirrors the entire thrust of the story.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On "Go Fish" by Mary Miller (2256 words) ***

Longing and desire. It's the foundation of many a story, including this one. One girl's going straight--or trying to. The lives her friends lead seem fairly empty--given to meaningless sex and drugs. The problem is that the life she's trying to lead doesn't, at this point, seem all that much more meaningful. And as with all the girls, there's this one guy . . . Read the story here.

On "The History of Time" by Leofranc Holford-Strevens **

It's easy to take today's date for granted, or yesterday's, or tomorrow's, but as Holford-Strevens's very short introduction shows, for much of time--indeed, for many other parts of the world--the date, or even the time of day, can vary quite substantially, depending on which calendar you use and accept.

Calendars have come to seem less certain for me in the past few years in part because of a lack of consensus regarding which one to use within the very small faith to which I belong. We use the Jewish calendar, but which one? While most of the Jewish world follows a calendar put into writing by Hillel centuries ago, others rejected that calendar, preferring instead other systems. Does the Passover always have to fall after the vernal equinox? Does the Day of Atonement always have to fall either on the weekly Sabbath or at least one day away from it? Does the festival of the Eighth Day always have to fall at least one day away from the Sabbath also? All these are things set up in the intercalated calendar used by most, but not by all--and practices have varied with time and place.

Such controversies are no less evident in the mainstream Christian world, where the date of Easter has varied also with the calendar one chooses to use, and Holford-Strevens in fact provides an entire chapter on the varying customs of reckoning this holiday throughout time and place.

Or what of societies whose years are calculated by these different calendars, where our years start in different places? Or, worse, where there is no such thing as BC and AD? No doubt, historians have their work cut out for them when the dating of years is given in such broad terms as "three generations ago" (as it was in some ancient Greek histories), but similarly confusing, no doubt, is trying to reconcile dates of events in nations who remained on the Julian calendar long after the Gregorian calendar had come into vogue (one's June 19 may be another's June 8).

On the level of spurring thinking about what we take as so commonplace, Holford-Strevens's book does a great job. As for the writing itself, I found it a bit too technical for an introduction for a general reader, and I wonder, with it clocking in at under 150 very-small pages, how useful it would be as a reference to someone more technically inclined. For my liking, a book on the clock by Jo Ellen Barnett, Time's Pendulum, would have been more along the lines of the kind of introduction to timekeeping in general that I was hoping for.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On "The Cost of Doing Business" by Michael Penncavage (3264 words) ***

What I admire about good pulp stories is the strong, forceful writing, the clipped sentences, the cadence, the action verbs. Good pulp writing also tells a compelling story, and this one does just that, with a memorable character to boot. I'm not too keen on this sheriff, and I don't think too many other people would be either, but he's fascinating to watch in action. Like many a pulp story, at the end, I'm left wanting more. Sometimes, that can be a good thing. Read the story here at Thuglit.

On "The War against Parents" by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West ***

This book explores, in statistics and anecdotes, the troubles that parents have in today's America. Such problems, the authors argue, are in part created by our own government, by corporate culture, and by media. Their points are well taken. Government has, instead of providing tax benefits to parents, taken more and more of such benefits away (e.g., deductions for children are much lower, adjusted for inflation, than they were in the 1950s). Corporations have awarded multimillion dollar bonuses to CEOs, while cutting back pay for regular employees. The media has ceased to provide educational programming and tends to make fun of parents rather than give them credit for their hard work.

There's a certain nostalgia for better times--that is, the 1950s--that kind of bothers me about this book. Although the tax code was, from what I've read, quite a bit more redistributive then, there was also, I would argue, more tax money to go around--the United States was the sole power after World War II who didn't have to substantially rebuild. That in turn allowed the country to spend in ways that the nation could likely not spend now. CEOs do take home an unfair amount of income, but their bonuses are a drop in the bucket compared to overall company expenses. And certainly today's sitcoms do make fun of parents, but some sitcoms also show parents at their best; popular entertainment in the 1950s had its share of scummy people too (just think: pulp fiction). At the same time, the authors credit certain advances since the 1950s, such as women having more opportunities in the workplace, without--in my view--really exploring how those opportunities have also contributed to some of the problems parents now have. If good parenting means sacrifice, then sacrifice often also includes one's career--it is certainly so now, but it was so in the 1950s as well.

That said, West and Hewlett do a great job of stirring the ire of common folk like me. I can't help but get angry when I read of how conservatives, who on one hand talk family friendly and on the other remove media educational-programming requirements under the theory that the "market will take care of that." I can't help but get angry at CEOs who get a bonus at the same time their company lays off tens of thousands of employees. I can't help but be angry when liberal media lambasts men for trying to do a better job of being men--that is, of being true men, whose main priority is their family. The authors of this book show many of our nation's hypocrisies, on both the left and the right, and though the authors' own views skew to left, they do enough critiquing of that left to keep the overall picture of the problems parents currently have fairly well balanced.

And the authors make a number of common sense proposals I'd love to see our government take up. Some of these could be done at virtually no cost--a day off for voting, for example. Some are very practical--longer school days, for example. And some are grand wishes--almost all the parents in the surveys the authors reference support various tax deductions at the same time they support greater government services; the authors only rarely talk about where the extra income would come from to pay for these simultaneous tax cuts and increases in spending.

At the least this book is a great call to action. At the most, it provides a blueprint, a starting place, toward creating a nation that takes better care of its children. I hope some politicians out there have read it and will take it to heart.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On "Whatever's Left of Normal" by Don Evans (3791 words) ***

Two Christmases, two stories, each one wrapped around the other to provide meaning and context. Parallel stories are a much-used technique, and this piece uses the technique to full effect. To understand that effect, I ponder what Don Evans's piece would be with only one of the stories. If one stuck with only the war story, certainly there'd still be quite a bit at stake--we're talking a life here, a quandary between saving one's self, following the rules, or saving another (or possibly simply losing both one's self and the other). It would be a compelling story, but it probably wouldn't have as much heart, wouldn't seem as real. It's the other story, the reminiscence, that grounds the war story here, that makes it something we can all feel, that pushes the story of lives at stake into our everyday life. And yet, that story by itself would not seem like much. It is only when the stakes are raised--at war--that suddenly a story about a bat becomes fraught with meaning. You can think about the technique for yourself by reading the story here at Narrative (Story Quarterly) (log-in required--but it's free!).

Sunday, December 7, 2008

On "Naming the Giraffe" by Lynn Watson (304 words) ***

Something seems missing in this story. There's a tension, a set of events, that underlies everything after the first paragraph, but the cause of that tension is a mystery that is only hinted at as one reads further. First we learn that . . . but I won't go into the details and ruin the story for you. Each revelation is a bit like discovering a maggot in your food, each one bigger than the next. This is flash fiction that succeeds at doing what flash fiction does best--evading the story, making us curious, making us want to read and know more, and never giving it to us. Read the story here at Pindeldyboz.

On "Author Unknown" by Don Foster ****

I've long been skeptical of using textual analysis to attribute text to a given author. The results, I would say, are always bound to be inconclusive--at most, one can say that authorship is "probable," unless the author him- or herself comes forward an admits being the writer (and even then, sometimes, there are questions). Foster's book almost makes of me a believer in the technique. In case after case, his conclusions apparently bear out. Sort of.

The first case study, on Foster's first foray into this field, is on a poem called "A Funeral Elegy," which Foster attributed to Shakespeare. He raises a lot of good reasons for why one should believe such. He also recounts the academic politics that keep his observations from being wholly accepted (the account of which--all the egos and one upmanship--reminds me so much of why I didn't want to stick around to earn a doctorate over a decade ago; arguments like "This can't be Shakespeare because it's not brilliant enough" hardly seem logical to me, but coming from big names seem to be acceptable). But Foster too may have been a victim of his own desire to assign the poem to an important writer. He sets out to "find the author," though in his mind the author very well might be Shakespeare. Wanting it to be so, he argues it is such. Years later, apparently, after this book was written, another author comes forward and proves, perhaps a bit more conclusively, that the author was more likely one John Ford. I give Foster credit for, after reviewing the evidence, apparently changing his own views--truth, for him, it seems, is more important than his own reputation. But the case goes to my anxiousness about textual analysis and attribution--unless Shakespeare or Ford can come forward and say who is the author, we really cannot know. We can only surmise, only say it's probable.

In the second case Foster follows, the one that would bring him to popular knowledge, the author does just that. Foster shows that Joe Klein is the likely author of the novel Primary Colors, the fictionalized account of a presidential campaign eerily similar to Bill Clinton's own. Klein denied, of course, for a full year, before finally saying, Yeah, twas me. What was interesting in this chapter was to hear Foster's own angst expounded, the way in which Klein's denial in effect hurt Foster's own standing in academe.

The rest of book is also a great read, covering four more literary mysteries, in which Foster holds out his own conclusions until far into a given chapter, making readers read on and on, turning pages as if they were reading some sort of potboiler. STOP reading here if you don't want spoilers!

Foster covers the case of the Unabomber (for which defense lawyers tried to hire him--he eventually did some work for the prosecutors). He covers the Talking Points mentioned in the Starr Report, finding the likely author to be both Lewinsky and various lawyers (the chapter mostly just reminded me of the disgust I felt in the 1990s at the behavior of President Clinton and at the Republican Congress and Starr himself who seemed bent on looking for anything, anything at all, that would allow them to impeach Clinton, that they strayed far, oh so far, from the original special prosecution mandate). He covers Wanda the bag lady, whose letters some attributed to Thomas Pynchon (the real author, Foster contends, was an mostly unsuccessful Beat poet who tragically killed his wife and himself at about the same time Pynchon moved from California). His final chapter looks for the author of "Twas the Night before Christmas" and makes a convincing case that Clement Clarke Moore more or less stole the attribution from a Dutch doggerel poet named Henry Livingston.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On "Robbers" by Tao Lin (789 words) ***

Here's another absurd story by Tao Lin in which the normally horrifying becomes simply hilarious. If only real life burglaries could be this funny or this much fun. I'm reminded of a recent break-in at a friend of mines, all the inconvenience of it, beyond just the awkward feeling of being violated. That was not funny. And yet, put it in a story, distance one's self from it, and there's plenty of place for humor. In her case, the thief, as here, was caught in the act. It became a kind of neighborhood social event, people all hanging out in the front yards, as the police staked out the house, waiting for the thief to surrender. Lemonade, a few baked cookies, some gossip--a good time had by all, except the terrified thief, of course, who tried to hide in the duct system, as if the police surrounding the house were simply going to go away. Read a slightly different story here at Bear Parade.

On "Love among the Chickens" by P. G. Wodehouse ***

Save one story, I haven't read P. G. Wodehouse since high school, and then I only managed to read one book. I remember then being disappointed that I hadn't discovered him earlier. You see, in high school, we had to read four thousand pages a year outside of class to earn an A in English. Senior year was British literature, and our teacher demanded we read only Brits. So I was stuck reading the Victorians--that is, mostly a lot of stuff I didn't particularly care for. In the last quarter of the year, I discovered Evelyn Waugh and P. G. Wodehouse. By then, however, my reading list was coming to an end. Had I known of them at the start of the year, I have a feeling that a good chunk of senior year would have been spent reading their works. I also figure I'd have ended up doing the senior paper on one of them; instead, I settled on Thomas Hardy, the Victorian I could stomach the most.

Why I never made it back to Waugh or Wodehouse, I'm not sure. It's not for lack of reading. And it's not for lack of wanting to read more. I've just been distracted by others, I suppose.

But now, coming to Wodehouse twenty years later, he doesn't seem as fresh or funny, at least not in this particular book. The story of a man who is cajoled into working on a chicken farm with his friend and who in turn falls in love with a local woman seems a bit stock in terms of the characters and even some of the plot twists. Is it me, this book, or Wodehouse that is the reason for my relative disappointment? That I won't know unless I read another. Of course, that might be another twenty years.

The text itself I actually listened to, on my walk home each night, now that it's dark as I leave work. And the audio available online for free is, in fact, quite good. One thing I can say for Wodehouse is that his work, as light and modern as it is, is sure a lot more enjoyable to listen to than one of those verbose Victorians, even if a bit stock. Read the novel here. Listen to it here.

Monday, December 1, 2008

On "Mosey Is As Mosey Goes" by Jeanne Marie Beaumont, "Lover Who Never Was," by Penelope Shuttle, and "Occurrence on Washburn Avenue" by Regan Huff **

I'm taking a break from the online stories to highlight three really great poems, scattered at different locations across the Net. Each one is quite different but speaks to me in some way. The reason I don't feature more poetry is probably that, for me, it seems to come down to such a personal taste. And yet, with these three, I can't help myself.

Beaumont's poem is a work of technical vibrato, working the alliteration and the occasional rhyme to full effect in simply declaring a definition. I love how this poem becomes the definition itself in its very sound, slowly wandering toward its point. Read the poem here at Pool Poetry.

Shuttle's poem is one that works on a more personal level, speaking to that ideal that rests within each of us. In that she is able to capture that, to write about it, I love it. (It reminds me, actually, of a joke that used to go around a former workplace. A few coworkers of mine--or maybe it was just one coworker--used to talk of starting a virtual boyfriend service. He'd leave messages, send flowers, make dates, but he's always fail to show up. I suppose the idea was to give people who wanted to be dating someone--but not someone real, not someone with faults and eccentricities--a chance to have that special someone, and the ability to more easily turn down those unwanted dates.) Read it here at Poetry Bay.

Huff's poem is more of a narrative, but a short one, a very short one. It does what a good narrative poem can do but what a short story technically can't (though that doesn't stop many from calling such things stories, even if they're really just vignettes). That is, it explores a single moment, a moment of wonder. It doesn't present a conflict to resolve--it merely lets us bask in that single instant. I love the repetition in the last line, the way it shows off the glorious repetition in the moment itself. Read the poem here at the Beloit Poetry Journal.

On "The Bin Ladens" by Steve Coll *****

The story of the Bin Ladens it turns out is the story of modern Saudi Arabia, of the rise of that nation in the early 1900s to our present day. I much enjoyed especially the early portions of the kingdom's and the family's history. Muhammed Bin Laden, the family's patriarch, was not even a Saudi but an orphan from Yemen who knew how to work and did it well, first establishing himself with American companies and then starting his own company. As a company owner, he was a man who, when he or his company lacked the skills needed to do a job, took the job anyway--and found ways to contract out the job to people who did know how. And he was a man blessed with the good fortune of having the favor of the Saudi royal family, for it was through his work on construction projects for them that he would make his billions.

He would also have fifty-four children. As a fairly devout Muslim, who would help to refurbish the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, he could and would take four wives, as allowed in Islamic tradition. (What strikes me as interesting in this is that the men often take not just four wives in a lifetime but four wives at a time. Divorce seems fairly common, so that, where in the United States, we have serial monogamy because of rampant divorce, among some circles in the Islamic world you have essentially serial polygamy.)

Those children would be bequeathed a huge fortune when Mohammed died in a place crash. Mohammed's oldest son Salem would then take the reigns of the family and the family businesses. Salem, as the book shows, was a natural salesman--and, as many salesmen are, a kind of party animal with a tremendous sense of humor. Salem's own recklessness would lead to another tragedy in a plane twenty years later.

Under Bakr, Salem's half-brother, the family businesses would move toward being more professional, more corporate--or so, that was my impression from the book. At this point, the book becomes a bit drier as a result, though still quite fascinating. For this is also the time when Osama begins to create problems for the Saudis and for his own family. And perhaps one of the most interesting themes throughout the whole book is the way in which this one family straddles the Muslim and Western worlds, how some are very devout, conservative Muslims, some Muslims in seeming name only, and most Muslims somewhere in the middle, each of them donning different personalities as necessary in and out of Saudi Arabia.

And finally there are the Bin Ladens themselves, the awkwardness that one black sheep family member can create for all the others, the loyalty to one another, the devotion to the royal family and to Islam itself. This is as full and textured a portrait one could expect in six hundred pages, and so far the best of the four historical books I've read that have come out of our obsession with September 11, save perhaps the 9/11 Commission Report, itself an amazing work.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

On "Doors Closing" by Amy Anderson (2751 words) ****

Snoopers. How many have you been the victim of? How many have you victimized? Why do we have such curiosity about others who we know or live with? Is it a secret crush? A desire to be like someone else? Or is it a wish to be with a given person? Do you wonder where you fit in someone else's life? Do you imagine yourself in his or her thoughts? What are those thoughts? Maybe it's best you don't know. Maybe it's best you just keep imagining. Maybe it's best you don't even meet. These are all the things Anderson's story delves into, with its lump of inevitable sorrow in the end, a sadness I feel like I've shared a few times myself. Read the story here at Failbetter.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

On "At the Core" by Evan Lavender-Smith (2056 words) ***

Despite my love of John Steinbeck in my younger years, I am not a fan of allegory. Still, it's a valid form of structuring a story and giving it depth, and when I see it done well, I have to respect that. Lavender-Smith's piece is such an allegory. What's interesting about the piece, however, isn't just the obvious set of metaphors that go along with the stories events but the way in which the narrator focuses on one subject--what he buries in the backyard over the course of his childhood. Read the story here at Memorious.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

On "The Rattle" by Al Dixon (465 words) ****

A writing teacher of mine once noted that it is often the absence of knowing something that gives a story its power. Tell us what is in that bag everyone wants--or wants to get rid--and a story might just lose some of its bang, its malice, its sense of impending dread. Movies, especially thrillers and horror movies, are often built around this. I think of The Blair Witch Trial, for instance, which gained most of its thrills by failing to show viewers much of anything. Sometimes a few screams in the dark are worth more than all the blood and gore a director can throw at someone. And sometimes, a rattle that makes a man cry years later hints at something we probably are happier not knowing about. Read the story here at Failbetter.

On "The Perfect Scent" by Chandler Burr ****

I have probably worn cologne less than a handful of times in my life. I have no real interest in perfume. And yet, I was drawn to this book precisely because of my lack of interest in the subject. Perfume is something I so rarely think about that the idea that whole lives revolve around this intrigued me (just as say, a book about hair care products probably would, or laundry detergent). Burr, who covers the perfume industry for the New York Times (again, another surprise--that someone on a newspaper staff actually has as his sole job to cover scents), goes into a single year in the industry, and really into the making of two particular perfumes. One is a high-end fashion perfume, Un Jardin sur le Nil, and the other is a celebrity endorsed commercial perfume, Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely. What emerges is a story of an industry whose production components bear similarities to the industry I'm more familiar with, books--that same banter back and forth between marketing and the people who do the production of the product, that same time versus cost concern, that same set of people behind a product that one never hears about or knows about, those same kinds of fads that persist for a half a decade and then seem hopelessly in bad taste (in the sixties, dirty/sweaty/animal smells were in, smells one would, as Burr notes, get kicked out of restaurants for today; by the eighties, clean became hip), those same consistent best-sellers that never seem to die (Chanel No. 5). And then there are the people the book portrays, with two central figures in particular: Parker, who comes across as a very likable person; and Ellena, the perfumer at the high-end Hermès, who seems the consummately conscientious artist.

But most fascinating of all is Burr's--and every character in the book's--attention to smell. Despite the fact that smell is supposedly the strongest sense in terms of spurring memories, I have never spent so much time thinking about it. I can't say I even notice most smells, unless they're the stench of something rotting on the bus, something that makes me want to move away. Here, Burr introduces a bevy of them, describing them in ways that often aren't smells at all, at least, not in the manner that I'd think of them--smells with colors, with weights, with stories. And then there are the perfumes themselves, modeled after animals or detergent or sweat or car exhaust or fruit or flowers or cement after rain. I was so inspired at one point, I went to my medicine cabinet and pulled out the four bottles of cologne I've collected over the years--gifts I never wear--and stuck each one to my nose. Indeed, some of them do have characteristics that vaguely resemble something else. One of my scents is definitely citrus; another is vaguely like motor oil. The other two, however, as one not versed in the signification of smell, I could not really discern as anything other than simply perfume--a particular kind of alcohol. But I'm tempted, now, to walk into the mall and play among the spray bottles, testing what it is the perfumer has attempted to do. I feel like a whole other world has opened to me.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

On "Richie" by Tao Lin (1717 words) ***

What sticks in my head about this piece that I'd come back to write about it sometime later? It's probably the typically ludicrous world that Tao Lin sticks us in. Here, a family is taken hostage by some particularly inept kidnappers, who also happen to be studying for exams. Do you know how much you're worth? Do you know how much you're worth for one week? one day? one hour? a minute? Read the story here at Bear Parade.

On "The Hitler Salute" by Tilman Allert ***

The subtitle of this book is On the Meaning of a Gesture, and indeed, that's what this is--a rending, a tearing apart, an analysis of a single gesture--the greeting of Germans during Hitler's Nazi regime. I can't say I was terribly into the discussion of psychology that the author put me through, but what was fascinating was reading about the gesture itself--how it came to be and how Germans were forced to use it. Imagine a political party taking office, creating a way of saying hello (in Hitler's case, it was "Heil Hitler"), and then enforcing it. Worse, imagine that you don't approve of the gesture, but not going along with it could result in losing a job, in losing one's friends, in even losing one's life. This was life for many Germans during the regime.

The book's most interesting section discussed the heil gesture in relationship to religion, the military, and the family. In the latter case, it's a bit hard to know how exactly the gesture was used in informal family life. In the case of the military, officers managed to avoid using it among military men until 1944, when they finally gave in as a show of loyalty after men in the military had attempted to assassinate Hitler. Until then, it was understood that the gesture was simply too much for the military. Among church people, the gesture was mostly given into--though a few resisted, in one case losing his life, in one case fleeing the country. Or try this for size--ways to get out of the gesture. One way, used by a particular professor, was to carry so many books that he couldn't "heil" when entering the classroom.

In the closing section, the book discusses how some embraced it, while others embraced it only in practice (keeping a kind of ironic distance even while doing it to please others). Both, the author says, lead to moral problems. But most Germans did give in, whether superficially, half-heartedly, or wholly. Being the kind of person who doesn't like to create trouble, I suspect that I would fall into one of the first two camps. And in that sense, according to the author, I would still be complicit in the people's sins. Alas, I am glad I do not live in such a society, where I can show off my general cowardliness with such aplomb.

Friday, November 7, 2008

On "Dizzy" by Jurgen Fauth (394 words) ***

One's future in a deck of cards, one's luck, one's destiny. Fauth does a good job here of making the old idea fresh by making it literal. I won't say too much more, lest this blog entry grow longer than the story itself. Read the story here at Vestal Review.

On "The World without Us" by Alan Weisman ****

The start of a great nonfiction book, it seems, is often simply a hook. It might not be all that original once you get into the book, or it might not present any new information, but as long it has the hook, there's a good chance people will pick it up to examine. Weisman's text has the hook. But it also has loads of information that I wasn't familiar with, even if much of the general thrust of the book is familiar (e.g., how our species has ruined the earth). What I like so much about this text is how Weisman shows both what won't last and what will. It's the latter that he starts off with, running down just how quickly a common house becomes dirt again or even the NYC subway, which sits underneath the city's sewers and is maintained by constant pumping; were we not there anymore, NYC's sewers would become tunnels of water within days. And then it's on to the story of degradation, all the things we'll leave behind that are not going to go away for thousands--even millions of years. It makes me feel guilty for using plastic, though its ubiquity makes me wonder how I could avoid it. Plastic, Weisman brings out, actually can biodegrade--into smaller pieces of plastic. In other words, it just sticks around to much things up, getting smaller and smaller until even little organisms can eat it and force it out as, well, plastic. Hope we aren't poisoning anything--but we probably are. The book ends on a familiar note, discussing the supposed problem with overpopulation. This last item seems a bit timeworn, given Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and many other books have have been through the same territory with fewer people. I don't think getting rid of people is the answer (nor would it mean a better world, as I think nations where population is shrinking would demonstrate). Learning to live within our means and in harmony with nature might help. But even here, I've often wondered if there is a way we wouldn't muck things up. We're like an invasive species--we kill off what's around us, affect whatever is there, and there's no getting around that. Hopefully, we can preserve enough of what's around that the kids will have something to grow up into.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

On "Specify the Learners" by Brock Clarke (about 5200 words) *****

Imagine repeating sixth grade as an adult. All right, I guess Adam Sandler has already imagined that for you. So has Brock Clarke. I didn't see the Sandler film, but Clarke's story has its own hysterical antics, especially once love strikes and complications ensue. Read the story here.

On "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu ***

Short, concise, and practical, this little treatise proved much more interesting than I thought it might actually be. I've wanted to take a closer look at it for a long time, and being stuck in a car for hours for several days allowed me to take a listen. Tzu is a master of the metaphor, and much of his advice on war seems, well, like common sense. While listening, I often thought about how Tzu's principles might apply to other things and about which of his principles might not apply today. Interestingly, Tzu argues that a good general doesn't always follow the ruler--he does what is best for the nation. I could see this leading to some problems (coups) but also saving from others (bad decisions based on politics rather than what makes sense on the ground). You can read the text here, or listen to the book here.

Monday, November 3, 2008

On "Blue Morning Dark" by Brock Adams (1255 words) ****

A great way to write something interesting, but also a very difficult way in terms of making the piece ultimately work, is to turn some saying into something literal. I say one is bound to create something interesting because such stories make us rethink our use of the term, how it arose, what we do with it. But such a story is difficult because so often it fails to become anything more than a curiosity. The characters become submerged to the idea, and the all-important ending simply drops off--"Yo, I'm done with this, where to now? Guess I'll go eat me some spaghetti." Adams's story isn't one to drop off. It gets more interesting as the literal becomes even more literal, and even more unexpected. And then, just when you think it might end up trying to reach too far, it pulls back with a zinger. Read the story here at Café Irreal.

On "America: A Guide to Democracy Inaction" (audio) ***

This was perhaps the most engaging book I listened to while I was on the road, which is good, since it is also the only one I paid for. I much enjoyed how the producers of The Daily Show translated their hilarious "textbook" into an audio format. The presentation--the little dings and audio clues--made the parody seem ultrarealistic. So useful, and yet so highly useless in terms of actual content, which skews toward the highly inaccurate, as one might imagine. While I was away, in a hotel, with a television, I actually caught several episodes of The Daily Show for the first time and loved it. Something, unfortunately, seemed lacking in the audio book that seems present on the show, for the book only made me chuckle a few times--I rarely laughed out loud the way I do at the show. Perhaps it is that the show is more timely. Perhaps it has to do with the live audience. But whatever it was, in that sense, America was not quite as entertaining.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

On "X" by J. T. Ellison (1360 words) ***

Demolition Magazine does pulp fiction. Most of the writing is good, in that pulp sort of way--short and chipped. My problem with pulp literature, however, is that so often such stories leave me cold (I never get a sense of the characters themselves beyond a sketchy outline, punchy words, and a tough-guy/gal plot). This piece didn't stand out to me at first--the writing suggests a typical obsessive weirdo--but as it moves toward its conclusion, my discomfort grew and exploded big time at the end. I'm glad I kept reading to that final paragraph. Maybe you will be too. Read the story here.

On "China and the Chinese" by Herbert Allen Giles ***

I was expecting--hoping for--a history of China up to 1902, when this book was published. In that, I was disappointed. This is not a history in the least but rather an exploration of Chinese culture, at least as it existed up to 1902, in the form of six lectures on distinct topics. Some of the lectures themselves are very good and very interesting. I particularly enjoyed Giles's first lecture, on the subject of the Chinese language. In that one, Giles discusses how Chinese is monosyllabic and how one manages to convey complex ideas with only a single syllable. I tend to like these theoretical discussions of other languages--more than I like actually learning to speak another language. Another interesting lecture compares the Chinese to the Greeks and hypothesizes on where these similarities arose. (I find it interesting that some Bible scholars assign the Greeks to being descendants of Japheth, while others assign the Asian people. Could it in fact be both?) You can read the text here, or listen to the audio here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

On "Extinction" by B. J. Hollars (2385 words) ***

If the Hollars story featured earlier on this blog (here) was fantastic realism, this one falls more precisely into the realism camp. That earlier story, with its odd subject matter, caught my attention much more quickly, but this story still managed to keep me reading.

"Extinction" is, in part, a story about stereotypes. They aren't the stereotypes we usually think of, when looking at a national or human level--racial, gender, or otherwise. These stereotypes are more personal than that. These are stereotypes that two characters have built up about each other--a dad who fails to acknowledge that his son has grown up, and a son who can't see his father for the new man he is. This is also a story about change, two men dealing with grief, one the loss of a mother, the other the loss of a wife. And most important, this a story about desperation, about a dad trying to hang on--to life, to people, to anyone really, but most especially to his son. Stirring doesn't publish fiction very often, it seems, so the stories are rather special when they do. Read the piece here at Stirring.

On "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde **

So I just returned from a road trip, which means that most of the reading I've been doing in the last couple of weeks is via good old books on tape or CD. Most of what I "read" (or, rather, listened to) in the car was via the public domain archive Project Gutenberg. Wilde's book, one I've been intending to get around to for over a decade, was the first. What can I say? I was disappointed. Is it fair for me to be disappointed by it? I'm not sure.

I'm recalling seeing The Godfather for the first time, another slight disappointment, and I'm wondering if this might not be a similar case. What happened with The Godfather was that I'd seen so many interesting bits and pieces and heard so many things about it that I expected much. But The Godfather is such a iconic movie that films thereafter have often copied its various techniques and plot points. Seeing it for the first time, I felt like it was full of cliches. Such was also the case with The Picture of Dorian Gray. I'd never read it, but I'd heard the whole story before, many, many times, and now, finally reading the original, it lacked much oomph. Beyond that, Victorian dialogue, with its paragraphs of discussion, seems so unrealistic, even bad, to my modern ear that at times it was hard to put up with Mr. Wilde, even if the reader himself did a rather remarkable job of making his voice seem lively and clear. You can download the text here, and the audio book here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On "Shots" by Kim Chinquee (761 words) ***

Previously, I wrote about "Shot Girls" by Kim Chinquee (here). Here's another story with a variation on the same theme. Although I typically end up enjoying one story much more than another, I like it when authors write two versions of a story and share them both. It's simply interesting to watch the way in which a mind can go in different directions with the same idea--the meaning a given piece will take on and the emotions that piece will elicit. It's also interesting insofar as usually one piece is much longer than the other, more full bodied, less stream lined. Some authors, of course, only write a very few stories, over and over and over--Poe was one of those. Perhaps, all authors do that to an extent, but most are more subtle than presenting the same "buried alive" theme/plot device (one of Poe's favorites) again and again. Another author I enjoy who has written stories that closely parallel one another is Brock Clarke. Unfortunately, the two pairs of stories of his that I see as parallel are no longer available online. You can read Chinquee's "Shots" here at Willow Springs.

(Note: In an e-mail exchange with Kim herself, sometime after I read the story, I discovered that "Shots" and "Shot Girls" were written four years apart. So this was indeed a case of an author returning to fertile ground to explore the same setting and some of the same themes again, rather than a story taking two directions and both being written and published.)

On "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust ***

I like the modernists, usually, but sometimes they can be a bit much. Proust's book is French modernism at its height, and it reminds me much of Virginia Woolf in its focus on thought. Add to that an interest in memory and love, and one has the essence of the first volume of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The first two hundred pages recount a child's life and his interest in his own mother (hello, Freud), culminating with the beginning of his interest in Gilberte, Swann's daughter. The second section I thought the strongest and the most interesting--"Swann's Love." Here, we get the story of Swann, falling for one Odette. At first, lady's man that he is, he has little strong interest. She's not his type. She makes a play for him, and he spends time with her accordingly, but without much intensity. During the course of the section, however, Swann's interest grows, even as Odette's seeming interest falls. This interest finds form in jealousy (Odette, Swann learns only later, has been something of a gentleman's woman herself). Watching the transformation take place is interesting, if a bit mind-numbing in a Woolf sort of way.

Friday, October 24, 2008

On "The Ghosts We Love" by Brock Clarke (9318 words) *****

A common subject in Brock Clarke's stories is men who have failed to live up to life's potential. Often, this revolves around marriages gone bad, in part because of these failures. In this story, from Clarke's second collection, Carrying the Torch, we see the theme carried across a family. Here, the setting of a lake house is used to full effect, presenting us with eras of the family and its gradual deterioration. Read the story here at Virginia Quarterly Reivew. Or listen to Clarke read it here at Lit-Cast.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On "Mr. Inspirational" by Kirk Pynchon (920 words) ***

"Mr. Inspirational" is what I'll call here a "talking story." What I mean is that it's a story you'd hear someone tell rather than write. Such stories are first-person narratives by and large, and they sound real, and personal--and genuine. One of the difficulties, sometimes, with fiction is that, well, it reads like fiction. We write in ways we would never tell a story. When was the last time, after all, in a conversation, that your friend Francis said something like, "Joe sat down at the bar; Sam, the bartender, was a surly sort who'd just lost two hundred dollars on a horse, and he wasn't in the mood for guff; 'What'll it be?" he asked Joe, swaddling a stack of newly washed glasses in a towel like a baby"? There's a certain faux quality to fiction. When written like "Mr. Inspirational," however, that faux quality is pushed down and what emerges is something you might hear around the water cooler at work or at a bar or at church--or at a funeral. Thus, the piece seems more immediate. I never did varsity sports, but this guy seems to have. Read the story here at A Cautionary Tale.

Friday, October 10, 2008

On "Junkyard Dog" by Michael J. Cunningham (8818 words) ****

Cunningham's "Junkyard Dog" falls into that genre of stories about diary writing--or stories that are a diary. I think of Evan S. Connell's novel The Diary of a Rapist and of Rick Moody's short story "The Preliminary Notes" (this latter not exactly a diary, but something akin to it). Both are about who in writing about themselves and their relationships discover something unsavory about themselves--as do the readers. Cunningham takes a similar track, but what makes this story an interesting variation on the genre is that our main character to an extent knows that he's a jerk. And his change at the end--indeed, the change wrought in every single character--suggests that perhaps nothing has changed at all. It seems, unfortunately, so much like many a life. Read the story here at the Summerset Review.

Monday, October 6, 2008

On "Second Favorite Girl in Brooklyn" by Kendra Grant Malone (5708 words) ***

There seems to me to be a trend in short stories these days where narrators use short declarative sentences and talk mostly about banal day-to-day things. One would think such stories would be incredibly boring, but somehow they're often very interesting--and quite sad. The stripped-down language speaks for characters who lack much to live for, whose words are as stripped as their lives. Examples of this include the earlier reviewed "Eat When You Feel Sad" by Zachary German on Bear Parade and much of Tao Lin's often hilarious and absurd work. Here is yet another example of the form. I love how Malone repeats one key phrase regarding her friends, how that in turn reflects on the narrator's relationships in general with other people. And the title--the second favorite girl. Always second. Of course, I'd take second over third or fourth or fifth--but when it comes to romance, whether it's second or third or fourth doesn't really matter--it's still not the "one," still not special enough. Oh boy. I'm going to go cry now and try not to think about all those rejections. Why don't you read the story while I'm gone? You'll find it here at Bearcreekfeed.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

On "Eat When You Feel Sad" by Zachary German (5688 words) ***

This story is made of simple, declarative sentences. It is choppy. Early writing instructors would be horrified. You need sentence variety, they would say. I would comply. Zachary German does not. In that is part of this story's strength. Young adults struggle with tedium. Life moves forward. Life stays the same. People party. People stop partying. People ride bikes. People stop riding bikes. They go to another party. They eat some grapes. They go to sleep. They type on the computer. Somehow, if you're like me, you'll be sucked into the tedium and read the thing all the way to the end, fascinated. Read the story here at Bear Parade.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On "All Roads Are One" by Deena Fisher (1088 words) ***

Is this is a story? Of that I'm not quite certain, if we're going to talk about the formalities of form--conflict, rising action, climax, resolution. I'm not sure what the conflict or the resolution would be, although I suppose if I gave it some deep thought, I could come up with one. But I've never been one to insist that a story must follow the conventions so long as it is interesting. Perhaps, such pieces are not stories but just extended pieces of poetic prose. Into that category, "All Roads Are One" certainly fits. And therein is how a good piece of writing can, without necessarily presenting a rising action or conflict in the plot, still supply a rise and a climax in voice, in the words used, in the energy a piece sends out. When the author begins to simply list experiences near the end, the quick sentences and short paragraphs make me want to shout, make me want say, Go on, go on. And then, we move back into something longer, restful, and it's like we've come through something as readers, a storm of words, and now we're just looking at the damage left. Read the piece here at Farrago's Wainscot.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

On "Should" by Tao Lin (1824 words) ****

What I like about this piece isn't perhaps that it offers any sort of clarity. In fact, it works way from clarity as much as possible, jumbling moments together, returning to them, redefining them, trying to figure out what they mean. Did this guy just get broken up with? Or is he seeing this girl? Are they compatible or not? The story works with the same sort of obsessiveness with which we work through such thoughts. And like most such thoughts, they lead us nowhere, at least until babies are involved. Read the story here at Bear Parade.

On "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" by Haruki Murakami *****

I wasn't that impressed by Murakami's previous collection, After the Quake, and while I remember enjoying The Elephant Vanishes, I don't recall finding any particular story especially amazing. There, it was more a matter of the collection's overall weirdness and wackiness, something unique Murakami's vision, which was largely new to me at the time (though I'd read a couple of his novels previously). This latest story collection seems more like the work of a master, though some of the stories, in the Japanese, date back to before The Elephant Vanishes. Why Murakami would have left out a story as magnificent as "New York Mining Disaster" I'm not sure. That story, my favorite in the collection and surely one of the best stories I've ever read, tells the tale of a young man who for one difficult year loses a lot of his friends to death. But it's really about death itself and about the way we commune with the dead, and the way in which death makes little sense to those of us who are still alive. Other highlights of the collection include four of the last five stories, the last five apparently being Murakami's most recent output. Murakami claims these are weird tales, though he admits that just about any of his stories would fit that claim; I found them (at least four of them) to be, in fact, refreshingly restrained--weird, but more subtly so. One is about chance happenings; another, "Hanalei Bay," is a story of grief that becomes a rather traditional story of another type--but, for me, rather unexpectedly; one is a story of love with the "weird" story embedded in its center. I won't say that every story in the collection spoke to me--some just seem strange with not much more too them--but on the whole, this is a fantastic new set of stories, one I'm glad to have added to my personal library.

Monday, September 22, 2008

On "Taking You Fast" by Ann K. Ryles (4716 words) ***

I have yet to find a bad story in Stirring. But then again, Stirring so rarely publishes fiction that I get the feeling it's extremely selective. Here's a piece that is very finely written, full of the things one so often sees in fiction--adultery and child abuse. In Ryles's hands, however, they don't come off as pat. They come off as engaging. Part of this has to do with the second person. I have friends who simply reject any story written in the second person. I think this a big mistake. Granted, perhaps I'm a bit too prone to like stories in the second person. Blame that on all the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a kid. But take this story and put it in the first person. It would seem to work fine (I'd say no worse or better than it does in the second person)--until the ending. Part of what's going on here is that "you" are in the present, remembering all these moments leading to this moment at the end. The first person, at the end, in the present tense, I would argue, would seem entirely contrived. You couldn't tell this story this way--you couldn't use the present tense. You couldn't leave us at the start of a trip into the unknown. You'd already be there, telling this story. You'd know. Read the story here.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

On "Dirt" by Kyla Carter (5180 words) ****

What is a life you carry in a trailer? What of a life you carry in a plastic Kroger's bag? I think poor. I think homeless. But try something else instead. Think also lonely. But here, the lonely, the poor, the homeless, aren't who they seem. And there's a whole lot more hurt to go around. Read the story here at Mid-American Review.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

On "Instead of What We Could Have Said" by Vincent Reusch (1185 words) ****

Tragedy lurks behind this piece by Vincent Reusch. I like it when there's a bit of mystery, a certain unknown, to a story--enough that you can sort of figure out what's going on, what happened, but not so much that you know all. I suppose, back when I had to write papers for classes, such stories could drive me crazy unless I knew I "knew" what was going on, but for casual reading, such pieces are grand. They make me read them again, and again. You can read the story--again and again--here at Contrary.

On "Diary of a Mad Old Man" by Junichiro Tanizaki ****

This is the second book by Tanizaki that I've read involving older people who take crazy chances with their health for the sake of eros. In this case, the mad old man might be called--in fact, is called at some points in the book--a dirty old man. He's pretty dispicable and in some ways pretty pitiful, the way he lets his lust drag him around, even at his age. I suppose this is a way of saying that at least in one way he's still a young man, but it's also a way of saying he hasn't exactly matured much in his seventy-seven years. But there's also a little heart here too, for it is his crush on his daughter-in-law that gives him something to look forward to in what has otherwise become a fairly drab existence of acupuncture, medicine, and traction. Tanizaki has made old age seem quite undesirable.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On "An Ugly Man" by Ana Marcela Fuentes (427 words) ****

Dump one guy and take up with another. That's what Fuentes says she's going to do at the start of this little gem--and all in under five hundred words. I didn't know if she could pull it off and was dubious about the prospects, especially as I neared the story's end, but does it she does, and with aplomb. Read the story here at Vestal Review.

On "The Key" by Junichiro Tanizaki *****

I first read this book in 1994, for the one meeting I attended of a world literature book club before moving from California. Rereading it fourteen years later was every bit as enjoyable. In The Key one has the makings of the quintessential Japanese novel, at least according to another author, who told me that the Japanese are just plain strange--cherry blossoms and weird, kinky stuff we don't want to admit to thinking about. Tanizaki's book is about a husband and wife who keep diaries of their sexual exploits. The diaries are secret--in theory at least--but in reality they are meant for the consumption of each other. Here you have this older middle-aged couple who, because of their secret writings, are just as much in lust with each other as one would expect of twenty-something newly marrieds. And in that sense, I adore this book.

Where it gets strange, however, is in the husband's goding his wife into an affair and his wife's reaction. One could say, be careful what you wish for. I'm thinking of the Inman diaries in particular, where Arthur Inman encouraged a close friendship between his wife and his doctor and was then enraged when he found out years later that the two were carrying on an affair--this despite the fact that Inman himself had had numerous affairs and at least in part encouraged his wife to go out with the doctor in an effort to further his untoward relationships. In Tanizaki's book, however, whatever jealousy exists merely seems to be more fodder for lust. But the consequences are still dire, just not in the manner that they turned out for Inman.

Monday, September 8, 2008

On "Family Five and Dime" by P. J. Woodside (2407 words) ****

Some of the best parts of the movie The Good Girl occur in the five and dime that Jennifer Aniston's character works in. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of the horrid and desperately depressing store, but those scenes remind me a bit of the location of this story. I think of some cheap ripoff of Pic N'Save, some place where only the poorest people in the community go, on the wrong side of town, where shopping ceased in 1962. Put a couple of employees in the mix, and you have the makings for a story of lives that have petered out. Like Aniston's character, one of them seems bound to try something different--if only she can, if only she is allowed. Unlike The Good Girl, however, this story is set down South, where community standards come into play. It isn't just the hopelessness of the character's surroundings but the will of the community that characters don't try to do anything to change their situation, don't do anything that might upset anyone. Will the narrator conform? Read the story here at StorySouth.

On "Lizard" by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Ann Sherif ***

The strange thing about these stories is that they are both incredibly digestible and interesting, while simultaneously unmemorable. I say this because just minutes after finishing the collection, I remember only two of the six stories--one of those being the first, one being the last. The first: a man walks onto a train and a homeless man sits down next to him, turns into a beautiful woman, asks probing questions about the man's marriage, then turns back into a homeless man. Yeah, well, it's Japanese--we have to expect a little weirdness. The last story, perhaps, might actually stick with me. It's about girl who experiments heavily with all kinds of sex when she is young, which now, as she is getting married, is coming back to haunt her. In stories in between we get a story of a girl who curses a person who has attempted to kill her parents and who thereby brings about that person's death, and her lover, whose own parents died in a tragic accident when he was young; a couple who has dinner in a closed-down diner; a woman who actually marries the married man she was having an affair with, with its resulting questions about fidelity after the marriage; and a girl who leaves the religious commune in which she grew up. If there's a general theme working here, it likely revolves around love and whether we can ever really know whether we have. Yoshimoto's answer seems to be yes. Perhaps, that's the reason the stories don't stick with me as much--there's not a lot of emotional payback.

Friday, September 5, 2008

On "Border-Line Nostalgic" by Kelsey Rakes (205 words) ****

Perhaps one of the best and worst things about flash fiction is the way that it often ignores the conventional rules of short story form--that is, of plot, the whole idea of rising tension, climax, and resolution. Often, flash fiction is simply a reminiscence, a memory, stated in some nice words. In other words, it's a prose poem--not technically, a story, though many might call it such. At the same time, being shackled to story plots can be rather dreadful too. One can write a perfectly crafted story and have it be infinitely less interesting than a long piece of writing that technically hasn't followed the "rules" about what a short story is supposed to do. With regard to flash fiction, however, I think too often that writers just write--I'm more interested, generally, in those short short fiction pieces that manage to convey a plot trajectory in such a short space (and be well written) than in those that manage to be merely well written. And then there are pieces that make me not even care. After all, isn't part of what a great piece of writing does, be it story or poem or essay, make us feel?

Rakes's piece is such a work. I haven't spent any time examining whether it's technically a story or just a great piece of writing, and I don't care. It's magical, and that's what matters more. It evokes a sense of the past (and the present) and is sad, sad, sad. Read the story here at Right Hand Pointing.

On "New Japanese Voices" edited by Helen Mitsios ***

I first came across this collection when working at a bookstore many years ago. The book came out at that time, and I was very curious about it, but I never got around to reading it--or at least more than one story in it. Now, it's fifteen years later, and the "new" in New Japanese Voices doesn't seem so new anymore. Some of these authors have gone on to quite a bit of fame in English translations; others, I haven't seen anything more of. The works featured in the book are the following:

"A Callow Fellow of Jewish Descent" by Masahiko Shimada
"On Meeting My 100 Percent Women One Fine April Morning" by Haruki Murakami
"Swallowtails" by Shiina Makoto
"God Is Nowhere; God Is Now Here" by Itoh Seikoh
"X-Rated Blanket" by Eimi Yamada
"Yu-Hee" by Yang Ji Lee
"On a Moonless Night" by Sei Takekawa
"Living in a Maze" by Kyoji Kobayashi
"The Imitation of Leibniz" by Genichiro Takahashi
"The Unsinkable Molly Brown" by Tamio Kageyama
"Wine" by Mariko Hayashi
"Kitchen" by Banana Yoshimoto

On the whole, the book presents an interesting smorgasbord of fiction writers in Japan in the late eighties and early nineties. But I can't say that the stories on the whole really hooked me. Standing out the most was probably Murakami's, but that story, which has never seemed that impressive to me before, perhaps stood out here because I've read it two or three times before. Other stories I can remember, now, days after reading them, include Shimada's piece, about a Japanese man who befriends a Jewish man in France (only in the end, we're told the man isn't what he seems, which in turns causes us to rethink the whole story).

I really enjoyed Kobayashi's "Living in a Maze," which recounted the story of a man whose nightmares become his everyday life. Such is an old story form, but the dream here was interesting enough that I was drawn in. The man's date becomes a cow, and then so too do the rest of the people, just as in the movie Jacob's Ladder, all the people become lizards. Cows don't seem nearly as creepy or interesting as giant lizards, and yet the manner in which Kobayshi describes all these events--so realistically--makes the ludicrous and silly seem both horrifying and funny.

Kageyama's "Unsinkable Molly Brown" is about a woman who is so fat that when she takes scuba lessons the instructor's have to take various measures to stop her from floating. Hayashi's "Wine" is about a woman who accidentally buys a very expensive bottle of wine and then can't figure out what to do with it (after all, it's too expensive to drink, and it's too expensive to give as a gift for any but the most special person or special occasion). Takekawa's "On a Moonless Night" is about a woman being eaten by insects--told in a "shocking" manner but, for me, makes it seem over the top. Yamada's "X-Rated Blanket" is more like a prose poem--about a woman's lover (i.e., he is her blanket). "Swallowtails" was about a kid with problems at school who grows butterflies as a hobby at home and probably comes closest to the kind of quieter stories one might expect from an American MFA student or from the master Kawabata.

Monday, September 1, 2008

On "Superhero" by Reese Kwon (3909 words) ****

Why is it that college so often means breaking with all the traditions and rules that one lived by while growing up? Perhaps, the answer is rather obvious. Students, out on their own for the first time, feel free finally to experiment, to be themselves, to take on a new systems of belief that don't simply fit into that which their parents have. And yet, there are complications in that. A student may become Cassandra, as the protagonist of this story becomes, but can she truly get away from her parents' authority? Or rather, does the new self continue to hide in one's old self? Perhaps, the true step in becoming an adult is learning how to be one's self even when with one's parents. Or perhaps it's learning to negotiate between selves. Or perhaps there never is any growing up, never is any becoming an adult. The fact is I'm nearing forty, and I still have difficulty negotiating that space between them and me. But while the world, I think, in some ways becomes no more easier to figure out as one ages, the anxiousness one feels at the start of that journey on one's own is perhaps at its most in the late teens and early twenties, in this college-going time. Kwon's story captures the hope and dispiritedness of those years very well. Read it here at Narrative. (Log-in required--but it's free!)

On "The Woman in the Dunes" by Kobo Abe ****

I don't know exactly what to think about this book. Centered around a sandpit into which the main character is drawn, the story seems a metaphor for any number of things. Is the sandpit death? life? marriage and family? duty to society? American aid to Japan? The one blatant comparison is to a spiderweb or to a pit into which one bug draws another bug as prey. In this sense, the man at the story's center is the bug drawn into the pit of the woman--and of the society for which she works. As such, perhaps the broader comparison most applicable is to that of societal constraints and family obligation. But Abe also seems to hint that the trap is life itself. Consigned to dig in the sand each day just to keep the trap from caving in, the man perennially wonders why the woman doesn't have any will to escape--or any desire to let him escape. This is life, she seems to say--what more do you wish for? A lot more, the man thinks, but in the end, is there anything more? Or are we all consigned to sandpits from which there is no digging out, pits that are decaying and that will eventually bury us?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On "The Object of Desire" by Gary Pedler (10676 words) ****

Here's a story without a lot of pretensions, well executed, and complex. It has what, unfortunately, is missing from so many stories on the Web, mostly because of the medium's incessant demand that authors be concise. However, with such brevity, it's impossible to flesh out stories as nuanced as this one. Take Alan, a homosexual adolescent who is wrestling with his feelings--and who is also, in so many ways, a typical adolescent in his smart-aleck remarks to others, for example. Or his parents, who just want to help but don't exactly know how--and then fear that what help they've forced Alan into taking isn't quick enough or effective. Or Dr. Kirst, who assesses Alan's problems for us at the end of the story--or does he? Are these Alan's problems or the projections of others onto Alan or a combination of both? This is a story that looks at some tough personal issues and doesn't flinch, doesn't simplify, doesn't politicize, and doesn't preach. This is a story that just shows the way things are, that offers, to what extent it can, a little understanding. Read the story here at Prick of the Spindle.

On "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories" by Yasunari Kawabata ***

Kawabata's "palm-of-the-hand" stories are all short, all what we would now call flash fiction or short shorts. Few go longer than five pages. Many are only a couple of pages. Flash fiction is hard to do memorably. And that's partly what I feel after having finished this book--that I don't remember much of it. Few of the stories had staying power with me. What Kawabata seems to be doing is presenting simple moments of enlightenment, the same thing Japanese do in haiku or tanka verse, only now in the form of short shorts. We get by and large everyday experiences blown up to some small transcendent thought. On their own, the stories are fantastic, but as a whole they begin to blend in to one another.

I think of another short story craftsman--and especially of his collection of really sharpened bits, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love--Raymond Carver. Even in Carver's oeuvre there are many stories that, while good alone, don't stand out within a whole collection. But there are also ones that do. I think the difference is that Carver's commonplace is often strange. I can say, that's the one about the couple pouring Teachers over one in the motel room. That's the one about the couple buying a living room set in the front yard.

I don't feel like I can do that so easily with Kawabata, given that the commonplace really is commonplace. Right now, because these stories are fresh in my head (having read them today as opposed to yesterday), I can say, That's the one about the blue jay that fell from the tree and the girl saves it. Or that's the one about the kid making paper boats and wanting them to fight, and a crippled woman who had a fiancé who appears to have backed out of the wedding. That's the one about the man who drew pictures of flying horses with a girl when he was young--she never went on to marry, but he did--and now, in his old age, suddenly knowing loneliness, he's having visions of flying horses and a girl on them, a girl in black, an old woman. That last story, I remember, I think, because it managed to be chilling by its end. The first two I remember in part because this is the second time I've read them.

And that leads me to another point. Perhaps, in reading the collection through only once I have missed something. The fact is that those stories I had read before stuck out more. It's possible that were I to read this book again, I might just feel quite differently about it, might find it not just pleasant but incredible.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

On "For the Dogs" by Katie Flynn (3084 words) ****

Maybe it was the pool party, but this one hooked me in and didn't let go. I say this with some surprise because I didn't find the story to be heavily plotted, and it wasn't the kind of story where I was reading as fast as I could to get to the end. Perhaps, the hook was in the characters--or perhaps in the situation as it involved these characters. Tricia returns to her childhood home to find things are not as they used to be--not that they have been that way for a long time. Her father has remarried, and a houseguest has moved into Tricia's old room. Amid all this, Tricia tries to find something to hang on to, tries desperately to see if there might still be a place for her in her father's life. Maybe there always has been--or maybe there never was. This story is poignant and sad. Read it here at the Big Ugly Review.

On "My Beatles" by Makoto Satoh ***

This is the second of two plays I read tonight. Written in the 1960s, it maintains much of the absurdity that contemporary drama is often known for. I think of playwrights like Sam Shepard and Samuel Becket. I like the former, and the latter has his moments. Satoh's play has its moments too and on the whole seems quite entertaining. I think I'd enjoy seeing this staged. It's a play within a play, and sometimes a play within a play within a play. It involves actors practicing a play; it involves an audience breaking in and insisting on watching the practice. And it involves an audience actually taking part in the play, forcing it to its conclusion. And did I mention that that audience is the Beatles? Yes, that's right, the Fab Four. You couldn't have a better audience than that.

On "Don't Call It Christmas" by Ryan Harty (11398 words) *****

Simply put, this is one of the best contemporary stories I have read. I came across Harty's work in a review. I was curious enough that I did a search for him online and found this. This in turn caused me to go buy his collection. There are some other very fine stories in that collection (Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona)--most especially "What Can I Tell You about My Brother"--but none of them, for me, match up to this first encounter I had with Harty's work. Sad, like so many of the stories in this collection, and full of heart. And better yet, they're all set out West, in Arizona--reminding me of the open spaces and the desert of my childhood that I sometimes miss. In this piece, a man takes in a homeless girl and slowly falls for her. Only bad things can happen, right? Read the story here at the Missouri Review.

On "Chushingura: The Forty-Seven Samurai" adapted by Nakamura Matagoro II and James R. Brandon **

I finally, this weekend, after several weekends of either heavy freelance work or heavy socializing (out-of-town visitors; great concerts), have a chance to read a couple of Japanese plays I've had my eye on but which appear in a book much too large for me to simply take with me, in my backpack, to work so that I could read them on the bus or during lunch. Alas, I did take a walk this evening and have a girl in a car who I made eye contact with or who made eye contact with me gesture for me to come over and talk. Shy self that I am, I merely waved. Maybe I could have had a date. Instead, I rushed home to finish what I'd planned--to read these two Japanese plays. My date, this evening was with Chushingura and with Makoto Satoh. One could do worse, I suppose.

The version of Chushingura that I read was adapted for the stage in 1979. The play itself is a traditional one that has been adapted for stage over the course of the last two and a half centuries. Modern versions shorten it for modern audiences (the full play can take fourteen hours). The story is that of a famous series of incidents that occurred in Japan between 1701 and 1703. One nobleman slightly injures another (in the play, it is because the other is making passes at the first nobleman's wife); as a result, the first nobleman is ordered to kill himself by the shogun. The nobleman's samurai/retainers feel obliged to revenge their master's death and so plot to kill the other nobleman. The samurai, in avenging their master's death, do something noble but also break the law. The result is that they too are ordered to kill themselves. In Japan, at this time, ritual suicide is an honorable death--as compared to simply being killed by one's enemies. This adaptation covers only up to the point where the forty-seven samurai get their revenge. Chushingura is a kabuki play, and I can see why none of the other anthologies of Japanese literature contained kabuki within them. It is does not translate very well to our traditions. I credit the adaptors with bringing something to the stage that would allow people to watch the play more easily. But for me, sword fighting and martial arts theater is a hard sell, and Chushingura, unfortunately, never made it past that for me (unlike, say, a film like Hero, which ends up seeming like so much more).