Friday, February 26, 2010

On "Titleist" by Peggy Price (883 words) ***

As with most things appearing in Elimae, this short piece concentrates on getting every word right, every image precise. I'm not quite sure what lurks behind this story (an adult woman returned home, spending days on the golf course with dad, looking for missing balls--these details hint to me some kind of misfortune in the woman's life, something she's looking for, trying to get over), but I admire the writing and the attention to detail. Simply gorgeous. Read the story here at Elimae.

On "The Ferment of Realism" by Warner Berthoff **

Ostensibly a history of American literature from 1884 to 1919, part of a series of books on the history of American literature published in the mid-1960s, this book shows its age. I was expecting a nuanced discussion of realism--its philosophical portents and how that works into the literature of the period. To that, one gets a few discussions on how writers aimed to pick up the regional feelings and dialects rather than looking to self-consciously literary language. But most of this volume focuses on what book critics such as Berthoff do and don't like. In other words, the book is like an extended review of many books and authors, none of whom come off wholly without some dirt on them save Henry James, who seemingly can do no wrong. In the sense that we mostly get a aesthetic appraisal, the book seems of its time period. I doubt most literary criticism today would focus so wholly on aesthetics. Sure, book reviewers might, but scholars tend instead to focus in philosophy and in the dynamics of how and why particular works appear the way they do. Hence, today's scholars may as easily write about what a video repair manual says about our society as what Shakespeare's continuing (or lack thereof) popularity means. Sometimes, this can get tiring. So I guess I should be happy to read a book so willing to take a stand on what is "good" or not. But expecting something else, it came as a disappointment. And not knowing wholly what Berthoff's singular aesthetic for evaluation is (I guess I need to read more James--only most of his material bores me), I'm left a little startled as to why one thing is good and not another. Instead, we get vague notions about something being more moral or imaginative than something else in one case, less true or universal in another, and so on. One of the most interesting sections for me was on authors who I knew less about--a chapter devoted to the nonfiction of the period. Berthoff's discussion also shines fairly well in the half a chapter devoted to poetry, in part because he does less evaluation of the quality of the verse (though there's still quite a bit on that, of course) and more evaluation on just how that verse was different from what came before and how it fit into realism. But as far as showing me more about underlying ideas for realism or even making me excited to go out and read any given author or work, I felt like I actually got more from the two nonfiction books on the Gilded Age I just completed who only dealt with literature in short half-chapter sections or in passing anecdotes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On "For Lack of White Robes" by Wade Hartel (3548 words) ***

Lust and religion--it's something juxtaposed a lot, probably quite a few stories involving religion. I think of a Rick Bass story about a Mormon girl dating a non-Mormon guy. I think even more of John Fante's Catholic protagonists, so full of bluster about the women around them, so full of guilt every time something goes wrong. Hartel's story doesn't involve much of Fante's Catholic guilt, but like the Bass story to which I refer (collected in Bass's The Watch), it does use religion as a context in which to talk about how people come together. In this case, it's Catholics on a mission, and our narrator has a particular interest in one young woman. Will he get her? You know how these kind of stories go, but you don't know how this one ends. Read the piece here at Eclectica.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On "Beds" by Cheryl Diane Kidder (2217 words) *****

This short piece reminds me of Susan Minot's "Lust." Like that story, this one is built around a series of boyfriends and acquaintances with whom the narrator shares a bed. And like that story, the narrator manages to connect all the disparate times via an ending that packs a tremendous punch. How authors manage to do this, I'm never quite sure. These are stories that, for me, I stand mystified by. Read the story here at In Posse Review.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On "Small Town Seventeen--An American Triptych" by Ann Garvin (768 words)***

Madison Smartt Bell's Zero dB and Other Stories has at least two of these--stories split into thirds. In his collection, as I recall, the tryptichs are more images that work off of one another than pieces that one can make sense of in terms of plot. Garvin's short short has that feeling as well--simple moments from this one girl's life, as she prepares to go off to college and what that means regarding men (good and bad). Read it through a second time, and the plot emerges, the fact that this is all one night, that the first tryptich is about . . . But why tell you all this when you can read it for yourself here at the Del Sol Review.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On "To Be Happy" by Sean Lovelace (535 words) *****

Here's a short piece with wise advice . . . or not. Lovelace has a handle on the language to admire. He's also got a sense of zany originality. In this piece, he puts those two talents together with a little bit of suggestiveness, a little undertone of angst, and provides something that is much more than what at first seems to pop to the surface. Why do we throw things? Does it make us happier? Do we like to think on the past? Is happiness really even the point? Read the story here at Juked.

On "Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870-1900" by Julie Husband and Jim O'Loughlin ***

Like Age of Excess this primer on the history of the last half of the nineteenth century attempts to give readers a feel for the general way of life during the period. While occasionally dropped into major historical events, this book focuses almost exclusively on daily life--and entirely on daily life among the urban classes rather than the rural. It also seemed to me quite a bit more readable. The authors seemed better able to boil life down to truisms than did Ray Ginger in Age of Excess. In part this may be because they were quite clear about delineating lines between various classes. What might be true for one class in the period was not necessarily true of another.

Still, both books work quite well in tandem. Some events not covered in Age of Excess are covered here; some events not covered here were covered in Age of Excess. A case in point would involve the discussions of popular culture. Age of Excess discusses touring play companies, worker issues among them, consolidation, and the eventual foundation for the system of live drama that exists today (too bad I don't better remember that discussion so I could go into detail here). Husband and O'Loughlin never mention the worker issues among touring companies. Instead, they devote their discussion of theater to the foundation of vaudeville, something not covered in Ray's book. Ray focuses on labor issues. Husband and O'Loughlin focus on cultural ones--the mix of "high" and "low" performances, the move toward fancier venues for performances and higher ticket prices, the accompanying drop in "low" art from the theater, and the creation of vaudeville (where entrance was cheap and performances repeated as many as twelve times a day) that once again allows that kind of mixing.

Another item covered here is the professionalization of sports, which was something I've read little about. Baseball starts as a community activity, with true "clubs" where men go to play on their leisure hours. Eventually, some entrepreneurs started selling tickets for entrance to watch. In time, better players forged traveling teams that would go to play teams of locals. Twenty years later, those teams forge a league, and professional baseball leagues are born.

The writing throughout is wonderfully clear. My one reservation with the text in the manner in which the authors chose to weave in primary materials. Boxes separate quotes illustrating points. As such, they disrupt an ongoing and interesting narrative. Often such quotes could simply have been integrated into the text proper; in other cases, they're hardly needed. But this is a quibble in an otherwise good basic reader about the era, one that seems to me more interesting than did a companion volume on the 1920s and 1930s in Greenwood Press's Daily Life series that I read a couple of years ago.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On "Lady Glory and the Knave of Spades" by Nicole Kornher-Stace (3813 words) ***

Much genre fiction focuses on form and story more than the language that the writer uses to create that story. That's a likely reason I didn't give much attention to genre writing for many years. So much of a good story is how it's conveyed. So I really I like when a science fiction writer makes me listen to words again, the lilt of the tongue. Not to say the Kornher-Stace's story is science fiction--it's just good fiction with a postapocalyptic world as its setting. And that setting is made that much more interesting by the way in which it is conveyed. Would I have found this story interesting if the author had simply told this straight out? Hey, there's this girl I know . . . I don't think so. Read the story here at Farrago's Wainscot and see if you aren't also entranced.

On "Rabbi Paul" by Bruce Chilton *

This "intellectual biography" attempts to place Paul in the context of the thinking of his day and of the education that Paul would have received. Unlike Paul between Damascus and Antioch, this one is written squarely for a mass audience. The writing is clear and easy, quite beautiful really. The author relies heavily on Pauline scholarship and on dominant Protestant views of the theology, and in that is, for me, the book's downfall. Where Chilton sees Paul as at virtual war with Peter and James over preaching to Gentiles, I see no such thing. Where Chilton sees Paul as a virtual antinomionist, ridding the world of the law, putting faith in Jesus alone at Christianity's core, I see Paul as very much a lawkeeper and one who admonishes others to keep the law (Paul's claim was not that Christ replaced the law but that he replaced the punishment one earns for disobedience to the law).

What's more, in taking the typical scholarly line of dismissing large chunks of Paul's writing as being by others and Acts as being an often inaccurate listing of the events that occurred in the early church, the author has little to draw on in terms of creating a narrative beyond his own conjecture. Giving reasons why such primary writings aren't realiable and providing reasonable conjecture as to what really occurred, however, might be acceptable if the author actually posed his writing as conjecture--that is, used the conditional mood (Paul may have done). Instead, his own conjecture is stated as fact. A particularly interesting passage, in this regard, involves Acts' claim that Paul returned after a missionary journey through Asia Minor to go through Asia Minor again. The author dismisses this as impossible and says that Paul was really in Tarsus at this time and that only Barnabus went on the return journey. Neither Paul nor Acts speaks of this trip to Tarsus, the author states, which leaves me wondering how--if no primary source recounts this trip--the author can proclaim so assuredly what Paul was actually doing. Ferreting out what is the author's own conjecture is enough if one knows the primary materials, but it makes one question what is really fact and what is conjecture where one doesn't know the primary materials. Thus the book becomes a dangerously untrustworthy text. Fine reading, but much of it may be fiction--it's just hard to tell where.

Monday, February 8, 2010

On " Another Story About Me and Some Guy" by Kathy Fish (276 words) *****

There aren't too many writers who do flash fiction well as well as Kathy Fish when she's on her game. This story has a kind of desperation to it that's put forth in a haphazard, go-with-the-flow kind of way. And that's what makes it work so well. A woman takes off with a total stranger, but only after he runs some errands. Where are they going? Um, well, read the story here, at Night Train.

On "The Age of Excess" by Ray Ginger ***

This history of the United States from 1877 to 1914 provides a good background to the period and seemed a good start to my reading on the Gilded Age. The author presents material related to business, politics, and culture. That said, the writing itself seems a bit textbookish--that is to say, it doesn't quite leap off the page that the writing in a comparative book about the 1920s that I read a couple of years ago did. Why that's the case I'm not sure. I remember that other tome as being full of really great anecdotes, but Ginger isn't exactly sparing in anecdotes either. The end of each chapter is given over to short two-page biographies of people of the era, some minor some major. But perhaps that's just it: two pages summarizing a person's life, rather than a short explanation of some oddity in one day of that person's life.

In fact, I found myself most interested in the passages where Ginger provides short synopses of major books of the era and relates those to the historical and cultural milieu. It seems he does that very well. Passages on the politics sometimes became mind numbing in detail. Analysis of the culture in general, while interesting, sometimes seemed contradictory. In some places, he contends--or perhaps more accurately quotes people who contend--that the era was one of the hardest for the poor and laboring classes, or even for people in general. With eighty-four-hour work weeks and frequent economic collapses that would certainly seem to be the case. And as Americans moved into cities, life also grew harder because they moved around more and no longer had as many ties to community.

Or was it harder? Elsewhere, Ginger seems to contend the opposite. A move to the cities, for example, allowed people to accrue more wealth then they ever could have before. Standards of living rose. Because the population was expanding at such a rapid clip, an immigrant could easily walk into a new town and, through hard labor, leave a decade later a rich man. (As Ginger also brings out, however, something like 40 percent of immigrants found life in the United States too tough and actually returned home.)

What's plain is that history is complex, and one can read both narratives into any given period. But as a result of this kind of shoring of bets, in some ways, I feel like I didn't get the best handle on the era. Part of me would have enjoyed a simple thesis and set of evidence.

One thing that Ginger does convey quite effectively, however, is just how much corporations and big money began, during this era, to have their effect on our economy and our political system. I started this book around the time that the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the unconstitutionality of campaign finance limits, essentially turning the country's elections over to the highest bidder (not that, in a way, it really matters--moneyed interests find a way to get around any laws made anyway, so perhaps letting them spend as much as they like directly, with their name on any candidate or cause they sponsor, is ironically better). Especially in the early portion of the book, I was struck by the parallelisms to the nation's political system more than one hundred years ago, wherein the government generally took the side of big business, wherein antitrust laws meant to curb the abuses of big businesses were often turned around to fight unions and working people and to aid in the very abuses they were meant to curb, and wherein common people--many of whom felt powerless anyway--often sold their votes for a few useful dollars. Some things don't change.

Friday, February 5, 2010

On "The Trials" by Jedediah Berry (897 words) ****

Here's a story that working on all cylinders. Berry takes an obsessiveness with the Salem witch trials, two twins, model airplanes, and bullying and puts them all together, stacking them one on top of the other, circling back to each until the job is complete. Trials become a kind of motif working throughout the piece, until that final line when . . . I'm not saying. Go read it here at Fictionaut.

On "The Manual of Detection" by Jedediah Berry *****

Having read a story of Berry's online, I was drawn to read more about him and found that he had this novel. The description sounded like something I'd enjoy--and indeed, it was. Berry's Manual of Detection is unlike any mystery I've read, and also like so many other books and stories that I have read. The novel has been compared with the works of Jorge Luis Borges and Ray Bradbury, as well as Terry Gilliam. One can see the influence of all here--the interest in dreams, the strange and sinister carnival come to town, the obsession with bureacracy gone silly.

But Berry's book was, for me, fun in ways that Bradbury's carnival was not. It evokes that same sort of gothic feel that Bradbury's fantasy does, but by turning the readers to the world of dreams and adding a mind-numbing focus on red tape, the story becomes fantastically absurd and a bit funny.

Essentially Berry's book is about a clerk in a detective agency, one larger than perhaps any such agency on this planet unless it's government affiliated. As such, there are regulations guarding what the clerk can and can't do, what information he has access to, and whom he can speak with. One day, Unwin, the clerk, is promoted to detective, much to both his surprise and horror. He loves his job, and he has no desire to move on. And thus begins the mystery. He's off to find out how he got promoted and by whome, but that's no so easy in the dimly lit halls of an agency so large that no one department seems to know what another does nor have any interest in it.

Dreams become a big part of this book, for in the course of Unwin's work, he discovers a larger mystery that in many ways part of the world of dreams and that can only be solved and fixed there. Hence, we find the connection to Borges, though without quite so much of Borges's philosophically learned tone acting as an erudite barrier between the reader and the author--and the very possibility of reading the truth (or do we reach the truth?). Like much of Borges's work, however, Berry's book does lack a certain passion that at times one longs for. Unwin is a curiously devoted clerk, with no seeming life outside of the office (though perhaps that changes by the end, but not in a way wholly convincing or wholly transforming). Still, by novel's end, I did find myself sad to leave its world and its various characters, and that is always a good sign when it comes to a novel.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On "Rapture" by Gayle Brandeis (500 words) ***

A lot of people are going to die forever if we believe many of any one of the world's religions. Brandeis takes this terrifying idea, puts it into the mind of a kid, and makes us laugh--or at least she made me laugh. And this isn't necessarily something that's humorous. My own childhood was full of angst about just such things--the end of the world, and somehow I'm in the wrong place. I remember, in fact, as a kid being told that the world would end in ten years--that put me at about nineteen. That was absolutely terrifying to me. Why? Because the timing was the absolute worst. The church in which I was raised taught that children were under the protection of the parents; adults by contrast were on their own. Age nineteen meant that I was just outside that "parental protection" window--but also so young that I likely wouldn't have gotten baptized yet (our church didn't baptize children either). Just my luck, for the world to end while I'm in limbo land. Now, I recognize how much that kind of thinking was nonsense--I still keep the faith, but I know that self-concern is the least important thing of all and also that God is merciful. But I don't feel like I heard a lot of that as a kid. Or thought about it. Ponder Brandeis's narrator's experience here at Vestal Review.