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.