Sunday, May 30, 2010

On "How I Started Going To Meetings" by Matt Bell (942 words) ****

Okay, so you're on a bus or something, and you happen to spot a letter--just sitting there. Or maybe you've checked out a library book, and there's a letter inside. Or whatever. It's one of those "Found" things that Found magazine does such interesting stuff with. This is a story written like one of those letters. I feel somewhat dirty reading it, poking into the intimate details of these people's lives. I don't know the full story, but I know enough to want to know more. That's how this story reads to me, and I love it. It's fiction. It's meant to be read. I don't have to feel guilty. And neither do you. Read it here at Necessary Fiction.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On "Bonded for the Future" by Stephen Chan (6104 words) ***

Take James Bond. Okay, now make him an old man (not too old--maybe around Sean Connery's age now--still fit but retired). Now put Bond in a movie where he is retired. Put him in a movie where he begins to think about the consequences of shooting the bad guys. I mean, Dr. No has a family too--and friends. And one days those friends are going to come looking for you, and you've killed an awful lot of people, Mr. Bond. That's this story. One man, one spy, running from his self, his past, running. Trying to deal. I think I'd take this take over a regular Bond movie almost any day. Read the story here at Nthposition.

On "Looking Backward" by Edward Bellamy ***

Bellamy's Looking Backward is a futurist novel. Written in 1888, it aims to tell what the future will be like in 2000. Or so that was what I thought I would be reading from passages I'd read in other works, which focused on a few technological gains. One of those gains was a canopy that rolls across streets in the rain so that people no longer need umbrellas. Another was a type of music box, not unlike a radio.

But Bellamy's book is not terribly focused on technology. Rather, it is focused on institutions and social change. Written at a time when industrialization had resulted in vast amounts of inequitable wealth, Bellamy aims to tell of a time when all humans will be equal, to show how nineteenth-century culture fails to value people, and is thus un-Christian.

Bellamy's solution to this dilemma may sound somewhat familiar. Today, we might call much of what he is proposing communism--or, perhaps more accurately, national socialism. The basic idea is that industry works best (most efficiently) when it is larger, and the larger it is, the better. Hence, rather than have, say, three car manufacturers, let the government own and control the one car manufacturer. In this way, competition is removed and all can work toward making the best product at the best price at the exact number needed. Sounds great. Planned economies, in theory, should be much better than our mess of capitalism.

Take away money, as Bellamy does, and replace it with a credit card (in his nineteenth-century ideas, this seems more like a punch card with items on it), wherein everyone is limited to purchasing a certain number of goods. Each person gets the same amount on the card, no matter the amount of labor expended. In this way, no one has too much or too little. But why work hard if one will make the same either way? In Bellamy's world, one works for glory--for the good of the common man. There is honor in this, and that is its own reward.

Beyond that, everyone has the job he or she wants and, thus, enjoys. To avoid having an excess of, say, literature professors and a derth of, say, coalminers, work is divvied up so that those with the more desirable careers have to work more hours, while those with less desirable careers work fewer hours. Hence, a coalminer might only have to work four hours a week, while a professor works sixty; some professors might be tempted, therefore, to become coalminers so as to have free time. An interesting theory--but in practice, impossible. More hours can only be granted if there is more work; a shortage of workers would in fact guarantee an excess of work and necessitate more hours not fewer.

But this is fantasy, after all, which is unfortunately where well-working planned economies tend to dwell. Much as I would love to see Bellamy's type of world come to be, people do not have the character to create such a society, and the structure society--contrary to what Bellamy hypothesizes--does not wholly create a people's character, given that people themselves make up the society.

Nevertheless, as a study in late nineteenth-century criticism, Bellamy's book is very interesting--especially given that it was a best-seller in its day. Happily, it's available online here at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On "Dates and Avocados" by Bruce Pratt (434 words) ****

Got to love this guy's approach to the pickup. Talk philosophy. Talk religion. Talk deep. And don't give it a rest. Stun the woman into belief--or at least into total incomprehension. Talk and talk and talk. And then, practice what you preach. Read the story here at Staccato Fiction.

Friday, May 21, 2010

On "Icewater" by William Walsh (3483 words) ***

Here's a sort of old-fashioned story. Nicely wrought prose with well-wrought characters. Walsh uses names that play on words the way that Thomas Pyncheon or Joseph Heller do. In his portrayal, Dirty Tungsten and her mother, Vida, come across like the love-struck daughter and concerned matriarch that they are. Moper Fax, the object of that love, is an oddity (sort of vegetarian, intent on making sure his future wife can make ice water properly)--but a lovable one. You can read more about them here at Wheelhouse.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On "On the Walpole Road" by Mary Wilkins Freeman (4225 words) ***

In a reverse of Wilkins's story "A Lover of Flowers," a woman marries a man she doesn't like. The marriage is one of appearance, and at first break, when the man does, the woman runs off with the man she really loved. But here too, all is not as it seems, for the man who is good for her is not the one she wants. Read the story here.

On "A Lover of Flowers" by Mary Wilkins Freeman (4505 words) ***

In this old story, an older bachelor takes up with a girl because he likes her. The girl doesn't like him, but the mother is intent of the marriage happening and soon sets things in motion. The girl, unable to break with her mom, gets the suitor to cancel out by saying he can't afford marriage. He becomes, as such, the butt of jokes from thereon. This story deals with themes of true love, of sacrifice, and of appearance. The real love in this story is not as all looks to the town. Read the story here.

On "A Humble Romance and Other Stories" by Mary Wilkins Freeman ***

If there is a true difference between "local color" and "naturalism/realism" of the late nineteenth century, for me, Freeman's work would be prime example of the reason. "Local color," I suppose, is one way that some have dismissed such work as not as important as the other literature happening at the time. And Freeman's work often doesn't have the aura of importance. Like other writers of the time--including the realists--she often focused on humdrum lives of regular people in very specific locales. In her use of dialogue and in her often slight plots, she fits right in with the realists. Where she doesn't, however, is in the contrived nature of many of her fictions, which usually end on a last-minute happy note, giving them the feel of slick commercial fiction rather than dark or darkly comic philosophy.

The final story, "A Conquest of Humility," in this collection is a prime example of a typical Freeman story in this collection. In most are lonely people who somehow find a happy resolution. In this story, a woman betrothed to a young man is thrown over for another woman. A year goes by, and then the man is thrown over by the woman, and he returns to the original. Obviously, the first woman is a little less interested than before. However, in Freeman's usual style, a final few paragraphs bring the story full circle, and the couple marries. For more of Freeman's stories from this collection, you can check them out here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On "Contention" by Jenny Pritchett (490 words) ***

This short short recounts a typical evening, typical at least in terms of how so many evenings seem to be in many households. I too remember the stack of papers to grade, the dread and drudgery of it (or of freelance work stretching before me after a full day at the office). And then there's this lack of desire to eat what's available in the house, and a lack of money to buy much else. Typical. We want out, out. That's Pritchett's short piece. Read it here at Fiction Attic.

On "The Jew of Tarsus" by Hugh J. Schonfield **

This biography of the Apostle Paul provides some really useful background material on the times in which Paul lived. I learned much about some of the happenings in the Roman and Jewish worlds in the first century of the common era. Of particular note here is Schonfield's own Jewish background, which helps as he provides some interesting side points to various things that Paul says (many, for example, seem to be echoes of Jewish prayers). Schonfield makes a strong case for Paul's teachings being so controversial among the Jews because of his work being mistaken for that of Zealots. The Zealots were Jews who, like todays Islamic Jihad movement, used militaristic and terroristic means to achieve their ends. Paul (as were all early Christians), Schonfield contends, was mistaken for such because of his tie to Messianic beliefs, which the Zealots shared. But whereas the Zealots were trying to bring about the coming of the Messiah, the Christians largely only looked for the (second) coming of Messiah. The distinction to outsiders was not necessarily apparent. Mainstream Jews looking to keep peace with Rome had no desire to have such Zealots making trouble for them.

But while Schonfield's points are well taken in this regard--if not at times a bit of a stretch, but one that is arguable--he seems to throw in some other claims that go far beyond what the primary sources say. Paul, Schonfield proclaims, thought he himself was the Messiah, and that was his reason for persecuting Christians. The claim seems utterly ridiculous, and the only real evidence seems to be Schonfield's psychoanalysis of Paul. At times also, Schonfield makes dubious claims that exactly contradict the dubious claims made in another biography of Paul that I read, again without resource to the primary documents. Having read several books now make claims that go way beyond what evidence is presented, I'm left wondering if academic biblical scholarship can be trusted at all.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On "Marionettes" by David Erlewine (855 words) ****

Erlewine's tale starts in media res, where great stories often start. Only once we begin to understand what's going on is the actual situation actually discussed--and that not in detail. We don't need the details. The more interesting thing here is the means of talking, the way this story, or message, is being written and what it suggests about the narrator and all of those still around the narrator. Something's missing from their lives--something very important. Second-person narrator used to great effect here. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On "The Last Great Clown Hunt" by Chris Furst (3964 words) ***

Furst works this story by juxtaposing two ideas--the slaughter of the last Indians on the Great Plains with the often large dislike of clowns. Why people dislike clowns, I've never been sure. As a child, I did not find them scary, as some do; rather, I enjoyed clowns, as many children do. As an adult, I do not take great pleasure in clowns, but I don't wish them any ill will. And like many things that have no substantial appeal to me in and of themselves, I am attracted to things involving clowns for the kitsch value. A few years ago, a cartoonist here in town sketched an image of very scary clowns swooping out of the sky and beating up little kids--I thought it quite a funny commentary on some people's irrational dislike of clowns. I don't find the slaughter of the Native peoples all that funny, however, so this story is at a bit of a disadvantage; as clowns are hunted down, I couldn't help but think about the inhumane treatment of fellow humans. But in the end, I chose to feature this story because it's a great example of what can be done when combining two ideas, and the ending manages to pull off the humor (enough to make me chuckle) that one would expect from a very good clown. Read the story here at Weird Tales, a journal that's a little out of the ordinary from my usual less-fantastic tastes but which does fantasy very well as far as I can tell.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On "I Was There for the Team" by Kim Chinquee (305 words) ****

The track meet was mandatory at my school. It was a small school, and I suppose the idea was that few of us would have participated had the meet not been mandatory (at least until my senior year, when the participation in the meet was attached to a "beach party" on another day and suddenly people actually wanted to attend). I was, like the narrator in this story, no good at any of it. I ran the mile, since at least I could feel like I accomplished something, as opposed to coming in dead last in a 100k or something and feeling incredibly stupid. In fact, running the mile also offered one the ability to place sometimes, since so few others wanted to run it. Last, but third or fourth--not too bad. Here, Chinquee gets the feel of a good long run to those of us who aren't professionals, the way we're reading to hit the dirt--with our faces, not our feet. Scroll down to the bottom and read the piece here at the Collagist (while you're at it, why not read the other shorts ones too?).

On "The Rise of Silas Lapham" by William Dean Howells *****

I'd only read one thing by Howells before, a short story in an American literature survey class. He seems one of those minor folks touched on in literature courses and then shunted off to the side (unless one decides to specialize in his period). Important in his time as a critic, the editor of the Atlantic, Howells was no slouch of a writer, and I'm so glad to have picked up this, his most famous novel.

The Rise of Silas Lapham is at once a comedy of errors, a comedy of manners, and a tragedy created by pride as much as by right action and by the dark forces over which humans have no control. The tale is primarily that of Silas Lapham, one of the new rich of the Industrial Revolution, a man with an inferiority complex he hides in bragging and in good deeds, a man with an overactive conscience. He is the father of two daughters, one pretty, the other intelligent. Of these, high society takes note in the form of a gentleman who comes acalling. Rich meet formerly poor; a love triangle of sorts comes into being; and there is much misunderstanding. This is the source of the comedy, toward the end a bit overwrought but mostly well done. The tragedy comes from Lapham's own braggadocio, his feeling of invincibility, which allows him to be careless, as well as through his generosity and guilt for his riches. Placed finally in a situation that asks Lapham to stick to his ideals or to compromise in an attempt to save himself, Lapham has to make a choice that will affect his whole family.

I felt incredibly close to Lapham in many places, not because I'm rich, but because like Silas, I can be made to feel guilty for doing what is right because of the wrongs it will do to others--not that doing wrong would solve things other than to wrong a different set of others. And Lapham's own daughters have similar crises of conscience--having to choose what's right for one's self even though it hurts another (even if no true wrong is involved). The moral struggles of these characters were very enjoyable to see worked out on the page, especially as Howells seems to have more trust in people's personal morality than I generally have been willing to harbor, at least in narrative, where more often my own characters give in to their base instincts, even if they force themselves to believe they do so for a higher cause. I suspect as much of myself, I guess. You can read Howell's novel here at Project Gutenberg.

Monday, May 3, 2010

On "Batman and Robin" by Kyle Hemmings (1029 words) ***

This is not a pleasant story. In fact, this is a story that I dislike the contents of a lot. It's a story about child exploitation, about taking advantage of someone's need for a friend, about abuse passed from generation to generation. But that's also what makes this story so powerful and so sad. The need becomes perversion, the perversion becomes someone else's need. Read the story here at Noo Journal.