Thursday, July 29, 2010

On "Ball Lightning" by Karen Heuler (2045 words) ***

What is the nature of loneliness and how does one know when another feels it? Heuler in this story seems to suggest that only in growing old and experiencing the same sensations do we really know what others feel. Well, at least that's what I took from it. On the surface, this is a story of a man transformed by lightning--you know, those bolts from the sky that can hit you, maim you, and change your life. Read the story here at Oxford Magazine.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On "The Other Gandhi" by Tania James (6338 words) ****

A few years ago now, a local bar put on an Indian independence day party. It seemed a rather kitschy thing to do, down South here, where there were all of maybe six Indians in the entire town. Put on some Bollywood movies, serve some Kingfisher beer, and play some sitar music. A strange thing, though, happened: there were actually quite a few Indian people at the party. Who knew? Nothing like an independence day party to bring people out.

"The Other Gandhi" is a story that also deals in genuineness versus kitsch, although on a much deeper level. The main character has an interest in a young woman, who is a huge fan of Gandhi. The main character manages to get a part in a movie as Gandhi. Fireworks commence. But who really knows Gandhi? Is playing him to know him? Is being a fan to know him? Is being able to imitate him to know him? Or is it more important to get at his soul? Does it matter? Can anyone even tell the difference? Can you? Read and figure out for yourself here at Guernica.

Friday, July 23, 2010

On "The Wife of a King" by Jack London (5718 words) ***

The most touching of The Son of the Wolf stories to me is this tale about an Indian woman whose husband runs off to find a white gal. As a cycle of stories, Son of the Wolf seems to run chronologically in terms of the history of the Yukon. In early stories, men are just happy to have a wife, even if it's a woman they steal from the Indians. But in the later stories, as is made plain here, white women begin to settle on the frozen frontier. No longer is just any woman good enough. Indian women are declasse. And if you're a man with any social status, you're going to have yourself a woman from the balmy lower forty-eight--even if that means deserting the woman you stole many years ago.

Here, the wife doesn't take her man's appearance lightly, however, and with the help of a few locals, she takes on a set of My Fair Lady-like lessons on how to be more cultured, more "white." She learns, in short, how to dance like a white person. It's hard to see the "superior" white culture as being quite so superior when it's men are so willing to throw off duty and love for a little bit of status. And in that comes the bit of irony in the story: this woman, striving so hard to become white, who seems in many ways far superior than the kind of people she's striving to become. London's stories provide some rather difficult readings on race; sometimes he seems downright racist, but at other times he seems to undercut his point, and this story seems mostly to be one that does the latter. Read the story here.

On "The Son of the Wolf" by Jack London **

This collection of linked stories tells of settlers, mushers, and gold seekers in the Yukon. As with many of the writers of the time, London uses dialogue dialects to full effect here, though unlike Charles Chesnutt, who mimics black and lower-class dialects, London mimics Irish and, more often, Indian dialects. Think, "Me go to store," as in the old movie portrayals, and you've about got it. A lot of the stories focus on why the white man is so great and come off pretty much as racist, though at times it's hard to know how serious London is, as the story itself doesn't always support the narrative point of view. The title story is a case in point, the tale of a white man who decides to marry the prettiest woman in a tribe and who puts all the Indians who try to fight him down; the introduction to this collection, however, makes some tangent points regarding the white man's faith in himself--and how at some level it deconstructs itself.

"An Odyssey of the North" retells the ancient Greek tale in a rather ironic sense. An Indian prince displaced by white men and separated from his espoused lady sets off on a journey into foreign lands. Years later, he returns, a richer man, and sets about to get his lady back. But she has married a white man, and his eventual killing of his competitor and reuniting with his one-time wife proves fruitless. She loves another. Last of their respective tribes, they cannot come together to save them. She has no desire to return to tribal life, and neither, the Indian man realizes, does he. It's a sad and interesting take on Native American life in the face of European aggression.

Still, I don't think this collection on the whole--London's first--has aged well. The fact that I can't recall most of the stories says something about how little I was drawn to them.

The version of the book that I read, published by Oxford, however, contains also a selection of other tales by London involving the same area. These on the whole seem much more accomplished and interesting. Many of them are tragic . The last tale, for instance, recounts the story of an old man who decides to go look for gold in far north frontier. It's a story about confidence, about faith, and about perseverance. It's also a bit tongue in cheek, an all around adventure tale.

Read The Son of the Wolf collection here.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

On "A String of Things Leading to a Piece of Fried Fish" by Mark Brown (33 minutes) ****

A friend of mine chose an MFA program in part because Mark Brown was teaching there. I didn't know Mark Brown's work. By chance, a year or so later, I was looking for some audio fiction to take with me on a road trip and came across this. Hearing Brown read, my friend's liking made a lot of sense. This story has semblance to the work of Mark Richard and to other writers of the southern lyrical stamp. And it is good.

Essentially, it's a story about a man who has bottomed out. He's lost his job, his wife, and now he's splayed out on a road on a bike that no longer works awaiting the arrival of a log truck to run him over. The log truck accident will be an improvement. Or will it? Even the low down may not be the lowest down. And in recognizing this, there is hope. Listen to the story here at Lit-cast, or download it here from the same place. (Warning: This particular story of Brown's has a plethora of four-letter words.)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

On "Red Wine and Pizza" by Christy Effinger (298 words) ***

Effinger's story works off of disparate jealousies and desires. At less that three hundred words, she still manages to squeeze in four--no, five--different sets of observations and wants. This dinner party doesn't sound like much fun, but it sure is interesting inside the heads of the various guests. Read the story here at Word Riot.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

On "Breaking News" by Eric Hawthorn (1483 words) ****

Sometimes a story comes along that does something I haven't seen in print before. I love that when that happens, and the older I get and the more well read, the less often that does. In "Breaking News," the author chooses to slow down the narrative so that we watch everything in slow motion, only like some weird video (I'm thinking about a Radiohead video at the moment, and also a U-2 video), everything else continues in real time. This is totally cool. Read it here at Battered Suitcase.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

On "Even If You Were Here" by Angi Becker Stevens (3508 words) ****

This is one of those stories with a great first line, a line that builds on itself and just keeps building until there are a lot of great lines and eventually a great story. I think of Rick Moody's "The Boy's Enter," for example; I don't think of Katherine Dunn's Truck (great first line, great first few pages, followed by a disappointing dull narrative, at least that's how I remember it from two decades ago). Stevens's story is particularly nice because it seems to capture the adolescent perspective so well: a girl without a father, without an older brother, trying to figure things (i.e., life) out for herself and discovering, in a sense, slowly, the trouble with love. Read the story here at the Collagist.

On "The Marrow of Tradition" by Charles Chesnutt ***

This book made me angry. Revenge is not a feeling I usually get to "enjoy," but Chesnutt's book seems gauged to do just that, stir up feelings of animosity. It's essentially a text about the wrongs done to African Americans in one southern town, which serves as an microcosm for the South itself, during the latter days of Reconstruction, just years before the right to vote would be take from former slaves via state constitutions and laws.

In this small town, a white man marries a black woman in secret and leaves a tiny bit of his fortune to his colored daughter. His white daughter from a previous marriage gets most of the estate. But that's not good enough for her aunt, who arranges to steal the will and cast the black wife and her daughter out of home. The secret lives on with only the aunt.

Meanwhile, a set of newspaper men in town are tired of Republican blacks taking the political positions, tired of blacks getting "uppity," so they decide to take back the town for themselves. Even though the state constitution will change in two years, that's not soon enough. These men set out to create a riot that will displace the black leaders. In the course of the novel one after another black man will be taken advantage of, killed, belittled, pushed aside. When rage arises at the end, one can't help but feel with the oppressed people.

Written in the early 1900s, I have to wonder to whom Chesnutt was writing. This clearly wasn't a book that would have been popular in the South.

You can read the novel here at Project Gutenberg.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On "One of These Things Is Not Like the Other" by Stephanie Johnson (480 words) ***

Here's a story of loss and the manner in which it can affect seemingly disconnected people. I've never experienced something quite akin to this, but I have experienced the loss of a friend who was still alive, and that--that breakup--can be in some ways more haunting than a death. You think on failures, on what-ifs, on how maybe something you'd done differently might have salvaged what was there. People who have children abducted and then never know the final result; spouses who lose spouses to the MIA list in war--these is the themes of this story. Read it here at Wigleaf.

Monday, July 5, 2010

On "A River So Long" by Lynn Watson (250 words) ***

Beautiful writing here, and some kind of strange idea. This is a short short that does well what short shorts often do best--convey some sort of mystery in a moment. It's that mystery that makes this more than the sum of its parts. A woman and man spend the night in a hotel room, and later that night, the woman looks out on the Mississippi River, and some kind of transformational experience ensues. The river has power, as does the story, though in both cases, one isn't sure exactly why. Read the story here at 971 Menu.

Friday, July 2, 2010

On "The Suicide Note My Dad Forgot to Leave Me" by David Erlewine (165 words) ***

I read this mostly because of the title. But it's a really good piece beyond that. Thing is, while reading the details that are presented in the list that is this story, I was taken with the oddities and humor. Where the piece gets it's power, though, is in the title. These random thoughts collected as they are are interesting--string them up to this title, and they become very sad. Read the story here at 971 Menu.

On "Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser *****

There are moments toward the end of Sister Carrie that reminded me of a work toward the beginning of my list of American writings between 1870 and 1920, and those moments help illuminate why Dreiser's book was hushed away while Horatio Alger's books were popular. Alger writes of a shoe-shine boy who works his way from rags to riches. Dreiser writes of a man on the way down. The former works hard for a living; the later, at some points, tries to but remains too depressed to move forward and too hard pressed by the forces around him to even manage to make a decent living. Meanwhile, a woman who has shown almost no substantial morality gets rich on her looks.

But although Dreiser's book may be a commentary of sorts on the saccharine view of some of the popular literature of its day, it's even more a commentary on American society and American values--as they were then, and as they continue to be to our day. Dreiser's work is nothing less than an attack on consumerism, capitalism, and the American dream. Each of the three main characters in some way values money and riches. That's is their soul. That is their occupation. That is the only motivation.

Carrie, the book's main character, is a case in point. She moves to the big city for some adventure and for a little spending money. She ends up in the dull home of her sister and her brother-in-law, hard-working lower-class Americans. If this were Alger's work, this family would be moving on up--and quickly. But this is Dreiser, and their life is a drudgery, and so too promises to be Carrie's life.

Carrie, however, is swept up with the glamor of the big city. She wants in--but not on some servant level. She wants to be as well off and well dressed (grooming is important in this book) as the rich people she sees wandering down the street. She wants to go to the fine restaurants, to the plays. She wants to be entertained. She wants.

So do the other characters. This is America, and what's more natural than a little lust to make things work properly. Drouet, an up-and-coming salesman and a lady's man takes Carrie in. She gets paid well for becoming essentially his mistress. She gets clothes. She gets to go to the theater. She doesn't have to work. Drouet knows to say just enough to string her along, promising marriage, some day, if he can ever manage to be faithful and ever manage to make the next big sale.

Enter Hurstwood, a man of even greater wealth and seemingly more depth. Carrie falls hard for him. He falls hard for her. The problem: He's married, only Carrie doesn't know it. But in the end, what does marriage matter when lust is involved? Hurstwood determines to have her at all costs--destruction of his marriage, double-crossing his friend Drouet, whatever.

In the end, the two of them get exactly what they want--only it's not what they envisioned. Happiness, says Dreiser, is something one finds only in one's dreams.

In keeping with what was the rising modernist period, Dreiser places "art" as a counterpiece to this lust. Toward the end, Carrie, with all she has ever desired but incredibly unfulfilled, begins to realize that there is more to life than material things. Somehow, art can fill our craving. Call it what you will, the modernists were an optimistic sort. If God is dead, art, which can do nothing for us save offer some happy distraction for our brain or, more rarely, some insight into bettering the human condition (but certainly not escaping death or meaninglessness), is certainly an empty shell of a replacement.

Dreiser's writing is dry. Toward the the start, I found myself dreading the read. He provides lots of details about the city of Chicago in his day, many not pertinent to the narrative. He goes off on philosophical tangents (the story is told omnisciently, something few authors would try now and even fewer could get away with). But for all that, the novel picks up, and by the end, I found it hard to put it down for need of doing something else. This one is well worth sticking out the early passages.

You can download the book here at Project Gutenberg.