Thursday, December 31, 2009

On "Your Vasectomy Journal" by Timothy Gager (833 words) ***

I'm not at the point in life where a vasectomy is something I'm looking for, but this short piece has an interesting structure and is an interesting comment on how such a surgery might go and on how the relationship around it might also go. Its conclusion is one I think some men can identify with--this idea that in a sense the surgery is immasculating and something to be feared. Read the story here at Twelve Stories.

Monday, December 28, 2009

On "The Yellow House" by Nathan Oates (1780 words) ****

Something about a house--or a gas station or a laundry room or the corner bus stop. There are those places to which one's eyes are drawn. This is the obsession of the narrator in this short piece, a single house. Why? Perhaps it's a dream--something we want--or a yearning for a past--something we had. But what about when that dream or yearning turns into something we'd never really imagine? What then? What do we do with our eyes? Read for the turn in events here at Hot Metal Bridge.

Friday, December 25, 2009

On "The Bull's Eye" by Inderjeet Mani (6050 words) ***

Exotic settings and peoples tend to make for a certain amount of automatic interest in a story, or so I'm told. Sometimes, such things will pull me in also, but I think I'm probably more at home right here in the United States (save my love for the fiction of Paul Bowles). Mani's story is one of those exotic ones, but I'm writing about it not because of the locale but because of the sentiment. It's the story of a man who works hard throughout most of his life and who, when he gets toward the end, comes to understand--at least for him--that life is about much less than what he thought. Like the bull that is at the story's center, the protagonist lives the the moment, the dance. Read the story here at Drunken Boat (you'll have to look for Mani's name and click through).

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

On "Deep Moves" by William Highsmith (1330 words) ****

Highsmith has apparently written a number of technical manuals and journal articles, and it shows here, in this brief piece about an astronaut on a deep-space mission in an antiquated and slow-moving vehicle that only goes one-fifth of the speed of light. The absurdity of communication in such a situation is highlighted in a series of faux e-mails. And yet, one feels a little bit for the poor lady stuck out there, just waiting to hear from someone, anyone. Read the story here at Abyss and Apex.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

On "Police Operation" by H. Beam Piper (12,438 words) ***

Something is loose and killing farm animals, slashing them to pieces. The folks around the valley are after it. And one man has more at stake than all the others. He knows what the thing is. What is supernatural? Are people who claim to see UFOs seeing something from another planet? Are they seeing something we make right here on Earth? This story has its own answer, and it's no X-Files conspiracy. Read the story here at Project Gutenberg, or listen to it here (part 1), here (part 2), and here (part 3), at Project Gutenberg Audio.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Duvall Street" by David McGrath (6866 words) ****

I'm not a big fan of stories about writers--or writing. I have this bias against writing that is, in part, about the craft of itself. I guess I figure such subjects are too much like self-reflection and too inclined toward being about something that affects a much smaller portion of the general population than of writers themselves--that is, that there are more writers in fiction than there are in any general group of people. Are these biases justified? Probably not. (Where I live, certainly more people seem to be musicians or artists than writers, but there are plenty of the latter as well--and plenty of others who take on the name, or the idea of being a writer, but who don't actually write. I myself try to avoid the term altogether when talking of what I do--beyond, say, a hobby. I don't want to be mistaken for taking such a thing so seriously, even if--given the amount of time I devote to it--maybe I do.)

McGrath's story, however, managed to get past those self-inflicted boundaries, managed to hook me and keep me reading. I love how this writer is perennially writing in his head and in various notes, perennially editing himself. I love that he takes himself so seriously--and yet, like so many, probably isn't anything more than some person who writes an interesting tale once in a while but never anything that will garner some wide-level appeal. I love that his stories mimic whose own life in all its ugliness. Simply put, I love this story. Maybe you will to. Read it here at Paumanok Review.

On "Birds of America" by Lorrie Moore ***

The three strongest stories in this collection came at its start and its end, which I suppose is the way one wants to set up any given collection: get people interested and leave them wanting more. In between, I'm astounded by the writing itself but often left wondering, shortly thereafter, what the story was about. In other words, many of the stories ran in together for me, much as they do in, say, a Bobbie Anne Mason collection. But the opening story, "Willing," about a washed-up actress back in her hometown dating a mechanic, "lowering" herself, is a great opening indeed. And in the second to last story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," Moore manages to convey all the angst that parents of a cancer baby must feel in a manner that is almost exhaltant even in its grief. Passages, there, shine like the best of Joan Didion. Finally, in the last story, "Terrific Mother," readers are treated to watching a woman who accidentally kills a baby (how can one even imagine what something so horrifying would feel like?) come slowly back to her life, which, I suppose, is a motif that runs through many of the stories here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

On "Naked Lunch" by Savannah-Louise (575 words) ***

Titular focuses on titles--titles that have already been used and are now used again, for a new piece. The new works themselves don't necessarily have anything to do with the originally titled works, except that they share the title and its somehow works. It's an interesting experiment and an interesting way to try to write a piece (titles are usually the last thing I slap on a story, after I know what the story is about--rarely do I know that at the start).

One of the better pieces at Titular right now is this short bit by Savannah-Louise, a story about a girl having lunch with, I think, herself--her ideal self, that self that is attractive and loved, that self that she emulates but never quite reaches. Read the story here at Titular.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On "Mandible" by Donna D. Vitucci (4422 words) ****

Lord of the Flies is about children left to their own devices. Sure, it's about a lot of other things also, but what I'm focusing on at the moment is that lost innocence--the way that children can quickly become adults, and not so nice adults at that. "Mandible" is a story covering some similar ground, but in a way that is more personal, less "social." Our narrator just wants to protect his sister--or love his sister--or both. Left to watch over a family when their mother rushes from one bum dude to another, the narrator's mind takes a sorry and scary turn for the worst. Read the story here at Front Porch.

Monday, December 7, 2009

On "Endless Cup" by Emily Ross (3850 words) ***

Ever been in love with love, with the idea of person? So much romantic love starts out this way, in this ideal, this crush, we have on someone we create in our own head. We have a handful of interactions with the person, and each one betokens some kind of meaningful zeitgeist that is going to transform our life--if only we can get that person into our life. Meanwhile, Ricky or Bonnie or Pat stand by, right there, before us, waiting for us to get over this silly thing. But we'll never see Ricky or Bonnie or Pat as worth our time--not when Mr. or Ms. Ideal is around. Ross's piece focuses on exactly this kind of ordinary conundrum but in a way that we can't help but feel a bit for its protagonist, whose visions are belittled by her coworker and friend, a person who perhaps sees love in more practical (read, financially beneficial) ways but also in ways much less romantic. Read the story here at Menda City Review.

On "American Green" by Stephen Germac ***

I had wanted to read American Green by Ted Steinberg, but the library didn't have it. That book apparently does for lawn care what Fast Food Nation did for fast food. Instead, I found this American Green, by Stephen Germac, which turned out to be an interesting subject all its own--enough that I opted to check it out.

Germac's book is no light reading. This is academic writing as its dense and difficult best. By that I mean that, while not easy reading, it is by no means impenetrable, and the rewards of wading through the prose are worth it.

Germac's text is essentially a Marxist critique of public and national parks. His basic thesis is that capitalism creates inevitably excess production. This is the cause of our economic downturns every nine years or so. In the 1870s, there was a railroad bubble, just as in the 1990s there was a tech bubble and in the 2000s a real estate bubble. To use up this excess capital, the state turns to financing public parks. Parks produce nothing, yet they use a tremendous amount of the surplus production. In turn, they also put the unemployed laboring class to work and, thus, help to offset labor unrest and keep the peace, as well as keep the social strata in its familiar order of rich, middle class, and poor.

The irony of the creation of said parks is that while they are "public"--accessible to all, thus appearing to elide class difference--and put the laboring classes to work, Germac notes, such parks actually reinforce class structures. They do this because they are generally built at the expense of the lower classes for the primary benefit of the upper classes. How so? Germac uses New York's Central Park, Yosemite, and Yellowstone as his key examples.

In Central Park, Germac notes, how the park itself required the resettling of a predominantly black neighborhood. This neighborhood, in a passage from the New York Times that Germac quotes, was, in the eyes of the contemporary higher classes, mostly a shanty town in need of destruction. Germac notes that the neighborhood was actually one of the most stable of the black neighborhoods in New York. Here, what little the poor have is taken for the sake of handing over property to the "public." This "public" is essentially one consisting of the higher classes, because those who are able to enjoy the park are those who have one of the following: (1) money to transport to the park; (2) money to afford the higher-cost real estate next to the park; and/or (3) jobs that are flexible enough to allow for trips to the park during daylight hours. Such benefits preclude those who are removed to districts much farther away in order to make the public park possible.

A similar thing happens in Yellowstone, where native people are booted off their land in order to create a public park available for all American citizens. Here, land surveyors note both that the land is inhabited only by a few barbarians and also that the land is uninhabited. Barbarians--Natives who lack political power--in other words, equals no one. The public that can afford to visit the park are those able to afford the railway ticket costs, which again precludes most of those in the lower class.

It's an unsettling reading of the American park system. And it's engaging theoretically. On a practical level, I'm left a bit startled, however. The author alludes to environmentalists' dislike of his work and gives a little rational for why they should not be troubled by it (after all, few environmentalists would accede to booting Native peoples off land in order to "preserve" the land for a blessed "public," if they knew in fact that was at the heart of what was happening). But this, for me, doesn't resolve the question as to how one preserves natural spaces--it would, in fact, seem to suggest such preservation is inherently ill-conceived.

I'm reminded of a Supreme Court case from a few years ago wherein a town declared eminent domain over some private property in order to hand that property over to another private owner for redevelopment. Many among my friends were dismayed and shocked. And yet the case, while troubling, is not so easily black and white. If a state has the right to condemn private property in order to build a road or a stadium or an airport--something that is supposedly in the public interest--how is one to determine what is public interest and what is private? Often the two work with each other to achieve something that neither on its own would be able to do. Many "public" roads become private toll roads. A dilapidated downtown might best be condemned, in the public interest, so that it can be put to use again, for private interest. But what is dilapidated? And what is to happen to those who own land, and make a livelihood, in this supposedly bad part of town? Is the creation of capital inherently bad? Is it, by contrast, inherently good? I would propose neither, and it seems to me that when it comes to public interest there is a vast gray area.

In this sense, I wonder if the economic system set up on the biblical Old Testament might not be on to something. There, every seven years, all debts are forgiven and agricultural production ceases for the course of twelve months. If we extended that to industrial production, would that not give opportunity to use up the excess production that capitalism inevitably creates and thus avoid economic bubbles? In that system also, land is redistributed every fifty years, meaning that no one is left without property in perpetuity in the name of a public or private interest. Perhaps, in that system, equitable distribution of wealth would actually to a degree be possible.

Friday, December 4, 2009

On "The New Thieves" by Thaisa Frank (384 words) ****

Looking to make your marriage a little more than it was? Are you tired of the mundane and everyday, of plain-vanilla sex? Frank has some advice for you, what works and doesn't work, the experiments that go into reinvigorating one's love life with the one you've chosen. It's all about fantasy, of course, but the right one. Read the story here at Oxford Magazine.

On "The Crisis of American Foreign Policy" by G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith ****

This book of three essays and an introduction looks at the meaning of Wilsonianism in the twenty-first century--that is, namely in light of the war in Iraq. My interest in this book came about from a review I read about a year ago. Then, George W. Bush was still in power, and it still felt a little relevant. Reading the introduction (which relates the three essays) and the first essay (mostly on the history of Wilson's foreign policy and his attempts to build the League of Nations and his goals in doing so), I wondered to an extent just how relevant the book still was. So much of those sections seemed focused on the decisions of the Bush administration and on whether those qualify as Wilsonianism that it hardly seemed to apply to decision-making today.

Enter Thomas J. Knock's essay, wherein he ties two traditions together--Woodrow Wilson's conceptions of foreign policy (founding what Knock calls neoliberalism) and neoconservatism. Knock argues that they are more or less two sides of the same coin, with a goal of democratizing the world and thus providing for world peace (since mature democracies supposedly don't go to war against one another). The key difference is in focus--multilateralism versus unilateralism. In one, the United States does this in consort with other countries; in the other, the United States goes it alone. Yet, Knock argues, these aren't as different as they appear. Both have at heart protecting American interests abroad. In one America acts for the good of the world, which in turn helps America; in the other, America gets the world to act the way America wants for the good of America.

Anne-Marie Slaughter goes on, in the last essay, to rebut each of Knock's arguments, reconfiguring Wilsonianism as a set of policies that respects self-determination of peoples and that would never act unilaterally to achieve desired ends. At her essay's end, she looks to Europe as the exemplar of Wilson's dream, a set of nations who have voluntarily ceded some sovereignty in order to set united goals and thus to sustain peace. It is to this, she says, the United States should aim in its own actions with the world, integrating more with such a system.

It is a persuasive argument, insofar as Knock's own essay ends with a lament, one that seemed wholly appropriate given the first two essays in the book and the foundation for much of the neoconservative argument (and the neoliberal for that matter). That argument rests in the assumption that the United States is the most powerful nation on the planet--militarily and economically. In the face of two wars, a financial crisis largely brought upon the world by the nation's profligate personal spending, and further profligate national spending necessary to recover from--or postpone--the looming disaster caused by the first two, however, claims of American power as supreme in the world seem hollow. How the nation continues in light of these problems would seem to demand the country no longer look to itself as the savior--or ruler--of the world but as one of the company of nations.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On "My Gift to Her" by Lauren Becker (196 words) ***

This short, short piece starts with a curse and ends with a curse. In between, we get a glimpse into the life of a bitter woman. She's bitter for a good reason. But she'll do what she is supposed to do for the family--for a while. Read the story here at Dogzplot.

On "Darkness at Noon" by Arthur Koestler ****

I'd known of Koestler's book initially only because it was a constant on the shelf at a bookstore at which I worked. A few years after that, it came up in the top ten of a list of the top one hundred novels ever written, as recommended by critics and professors. I barely knew the work, and most people I've mentioned the book to in the past couple of weeks haven't either. Yet it had some significance apparently to those of an older generation--and for good reason.

Koestler's book is a novel of ideas, which is not something I've read much of lately. By that, I mean that it is a book more concerned with its themes and ideas than with its story; it is more philosophical treatise than plot-driven narrative (though there is a plot); the thoughts themselves remain interesting enough to drive the book forward. The book is broken into a series of three confessions, each one of which explores concepts of right and wrong, power and progress, ethics on a political stage. The story is a veiled description of life in Stalinist Russia, of men who led the Bolshevik Revolution yet died years later accused of being traitors to the party--in fact, not only being accused by confessing to such.

Koestler explores why men who would put their lives on the line for a cause would confess (rather absurdly) to betraying it? The answer is essentially that the ends justifies the means and that loyalty to the party and its purposes comes before even one's own life. If the party needs you to confess to crimes you haven't committed in order to further the revolutionary cause and concede power to it, then you do it.

It's a rather scary totalitarianism, one that affects not only one's actions but one's very thoughts and one's very conceptions of history. And it seems, unfortunately, not all that far apart from realities even today. I'm reminded of the troubles in Iran, where old guard revolutionaries are now being rounded up by the current leaders and made to confess their crimes against the regime, even as the regime seems to be betraying some of the principles on which it was founded. I'm reminded of certain experiences growing up, wherein even suggesting that X or Y may not be the proper way to accomplish something would have been seen as rebellion (akin to questioning the Party, in Koestler's book and thus breaking apart unity), leading one to remain silent in the face of wrongdoing by superiors. I'm reminded, sadly, even in some ways of the U.S. fight against terrorism, especially in the former administration, where citizens have been told, in a sense, that the ends justifies the means, as the government ignores certain rules set out in the nation's constitution. Koestler's book serves as a warning against such thinking. Those who live by it are likely to end up its victim. Rather, we should, as Koestler writes, quoting the Bible, let our Yea be Yea, our No, No--aim to be decent (righteous in all acts), rather than clever (duplicitous to serve a moral end).