Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On "We Were Champions" by April Wilder (8123 words) ***

Baseball and pigs. Those are two of the central components of this story. Interesting fiction often comes from the juxtaposition of things that seem to have nothing to do with one another--as an author, it's fun to find the connection, and as a reader, how the author finds that connection is fun to read. In this piece, it's an all-girl baseball team and a coach who takes advantage of his squad. It's a pig years later, roasted on a spit, among people who know nothing about roasting such things (just how does one connect the pig to the pole?). It's Sammy Sosa and why we sympathize with him, even though he's a cheater--for that matter, why these girls might sympathize with a coach who's such a rascal. Read the story here at Zoetrope.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

On "Aftercare" by Steven Gillis (4870 words) ***

Paumonok Review doesn't publish anymore, at least online, which is a shame, because the review has a nice archive of good material.

By way of introduction to Steven Gillis's story, I am going to recount an anecdote that seems pertinent. A few years ago, a man at church was talking about a woman that he met while traveling. They hung out together on his journey and afterword exchanged, I guess, a few messages. But then she stopped writing back. He was due to take another trip, but the circumstances of that trip he was leaving somewhat open in order to give leeway for his girlfriend--this woman he'd met and corresponded with. It had been several months since he'd heard from her, but still he held off making plans, often noting how he was doing X, unless his gal wanted to come, then he'd do Y. "Honey," a woman at church finally told him, "that woman isn't interested." To outsiders, it seemed plain to all, but to him the circumstances didn't seem that plain at all. I too wrestle with those sort of things. Talk to a woman on the phone once a week for fifteen minutes who's very nice to you, but does that mean anything? Probably not--or maybe it does. Take of it the meaning you want and spin it accordingly.

Gillis's story trods this same ground--a woman in love with a married man. We know the circumstance, and we know the woman has no hope. But the ability of people to deceive themselves holds forth as supreme, and watching this woman continue to believe despite all is quite sad indeed. Watching her get her revenge is a bit mystifying--perhaps stretching credulity--but somehow appropriate. Read it here at Paumanok.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On "The Average Human Heart" by Martin Law (2777 words) ****

I wish I could remember the seven stories--or themes--that one writer once said were all that actually exist. Every story we tell revolves around these, he said. I'd be prone to agree with him. When you get down to it, there are only so many subjects we cover. So a good story isn't about telling us something we've never heard but in the telling itself.

Law's story is one about grief, as familiar subject as there can be in fiction. And while it's not a story that's going to surprise you in terms of plot, it is one that will affect you. He does this one sentence at a time, one fact at a time. Our narrator has grown adept at counting, at mathematical and statistical information, and one senses in this his only means of dealing with loss. As the list of facts grow, however, our compassion for him can't help but grow as well. Statistics have never had more heart. Read the story here at the Adirondack Review.

On "The House of Mirth" by Edith Wharton *****

In line with William Dean Howells's account of Silas Lapham, Wharton's story tells of a young lady who is ruined by doing right. There is a slight difference, however. Lapham seemed a man of mostly indubitable strength of character with occasional lapses; Lily Bart, of The House of Mirth, is a woman of seemingly weak character who transcends herself through the efforts of a friend and through the ties of love.

Lily Bart has been reared to prize money and to live with and among those who have it. Denied her rightful prize, she has something to trade to obtain what she deserves: good looks. From the start of the book to its end, she sets out to marry a rich man who will make her life as full as it has been promised to be. But in that process, she discovers--sort of--that happiness doesn't consist in the riches one has but in the kind of person one is. I say "sort of" because she seems conflicted about this right up until the very last few pages. Were the story to continue, to be able to continue, one wonders whether Bart would renounce her ideas of happiness in feeling and return to happiness in riches. She seems very closed in by her upbringing and the values that she was reared with.

But I guess that's sort of the point. At one place in the novel, Lily Bart discovers that, raised to be rich, she really has no value as anything but a showpiece. At first, she detests work; later, she comes to see that she can't even do it.

Who Wharton wrote this book for is something I've been wondering. Certainly, the same forces of fate work on Bart to create its miserable end as one might find in many a novel of the period. But Wharton's bitter swipes at the immorality of the upper class would wipe away any sympathy among that set. This leaves the lower classes--or more likely the middle classes, able to have some time to read--as the audience, those able to be swayed by the author's argument that money ain't everything. But isn't it? If money doesn't bring happiness to Lily Bart, it certainly makes life more tolerable, and its lack draws her demise. Sure, she can take a certain comfort in family life, but I'm tempted to see this as a seemingly easy answer meant to squash down the rabble rousers wishing to move forcefully into the higher echelons of American society. Be content, Wharton says. But why?

Or why not? Is not America in part about striving toward being better off? Does not that itself make the American dream a bit of an delusion.

Download the book to read for yourself here or to listen to it here.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On "The Last Irresponsible Act in America" by Rob Lavender (7661 words) ***

One of the things that makes George Saunders so popular is that his writing is so absurd. At his best, he takes something like a caveman amusement park, adds some modern amenities and a concern about a divorce, and makes all these issues seem fresh and new again. Lavender's work here goes to similar extremes, taking a carnival show that's seen better days and trying to find ways to reinvent it for a world where reality television means that a midget swimming with a dolphin is hardly so intriguing anymore (not when you can watch people get fired or marry a millionaire or eat spiders). Throw in some commentary on insurance companies and corporate education, and you've got the makings of a weird tale. Read it here, at Front Porch.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

On "Stranger Things Have Happened" by Alix Ohlin (7100 words) ****

Here's a story by a true professional, each work intact and shining. I fell in love with it from the first sentence and came to like it more with each paragraph. There's a certain predictability in much of the trajectory (you know, the whole coming to life again, discovering one's true self and one's true love), but then again not (some things don't end up quite they way one would expect). Take a woman who is miserable, and give her the opportunity to change all that. Her husband, as it turns out, is miserable too, and surprised to find out they both are bored with one another, together they hatch plans for a divorce. Preparation for the divorce itself becomes something wonderful and exciting. And then, something happens that upsets everything and sends the story in a whole new direction. It's worth finding out what that direction is, here, at Failbetter.

Monday, August 16, 2010

On "No More White Boys" by Jonathan Sapers (5457 words) ***

Sapers's story revolves around that age where girls--and boys--are just discovering each other, that is, discovering each other for real, you know, as sexual beings, or near sexual. And Sapers touches on this time in life magically, revealing three girls who are sensitive about their looks and their families--and their friendship to one another.

Growing up, I was part of a group of three friends also, at least at high school. (Strangely, my school friends were not generally my vacation friends, even though my vacation friends went to the same school.) But Saper notes something I hadn't given that much thought to--how a triumvirate of friends can create certain problems. How, for example, does one argue? Isn't there likely to be jealousy, a feeling that the two are ganging against the one? I think of my own two friends growing up, and there were few arguments that I remember when we were together. When I was with just one of them--the one who liked to argue--we argued a lot; with the other, we were just silly--until we graduated and he got serious, and seriously depressed. But the jealousy, yeah, that exists. There were times when I felt like I was the odd one out, and there were times when my two friends did their best to make me feel that way. But interestingly, I probably stayed in contact with both of those friends after we graduated than either of them stayed in touch with each other. I'm not friends with either anymore. Lives take different courses, and each of ours did--none of us have much in common now, save a history. But I remember once, one of these friends--the one who liked to argue--telling me that being a friend with me was easier than being a friend with the other, mostly because I was more cerebral and thus less demanding of him emotionally, given certain psychological issues he had. These weren't things I knew about at the time, so it's strange now to look back on that group of three with different eyes, to see what other things were working within the dynamic (and what things we remember or don't remember, for he'd forgotten some of the things he and the other friend had done to me, and I'd likely forgotten many things he remember about me and the other friend).

In Saper's story, those dynamics between three rather than two get a certain play as well. One can see the advantage in such a grouping--but also the drawbacks that he writes out for all to see. Read all about it here at Pank.

Friday, August 13, 2010

On "Place de la Revolution" by Kate Brown (425 words) ****

Here, in fewer than five hundred words, you'll get a sense of the lives of these Arab immigrants to France. I'm reminded of a French movie I saw a few years back--the name unfortunately escapes me--that goes into great detail about such lives. There's a tendency to let the constant barrage of media messages about terrorism skew our view of the general lot of the youths, who are just like kids everywhere--trying to get along and making their share of stupid life choices. Here, these youths' discomfort with their surroundings is made plain in every little action, but most especially at the end. Read the story here (originally published in Linnet's Wings).

On "People of the Abyss" by Jack London ****

A few years ago, I read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, her attempt to live on a minimum wage and among minimum-wage workers. I found it a bit forced, its solutions a bit too easy (raise the minimum wage: I've been part of that class, and raising the wage doesn't work if it's followed--as it was--by a raise in all of the prices, which I suppose beats being laid off). Nevertheless, the work highlighted many of the problems that exist among those who aren't well off.

In response to Ehrenreich's book, another writer wrote a book titled Scratch Beginnings, which I haven't yet gotten to but hope to soon. In that book, the author gave up his education and his home and started from scratch, as a un-college-educated vagrant on the street. His purpose was to show that Ehrenreich was wrong, that anyone, if the mind is set properly, can make it--and that he apparently did, at least in the NPR interview I heard.

Between these two extreme camps, one begging for more government help and the other saying that the poor need to help themselves, there's a middle ground. Just what that middle is is difficult to know, since at any given time the left and right argues over the fact the country is pulled too far one way or the other. I tend to have views closer to the Ehrenreich camp, believing that the system is fundamentally flawed and that society needs to be changed as a whole to give poorer people a chance before we can go about blaming the less-well-off for their own plight. I mean, who really wants to be poor? Are people really so lazy that poverty comes upon them solely because of their own indigence? Maybe some, but such a mindset is hard for me to fathom. Rather, I think of people I know who look and look and look for work and cannot find it--or can't find work appropriate for them (sure, it's easy to say a person should just get a job, but if there are children to support and no mate, a night job, a minimum wage job, isn't going to supply the needs).

So enters Jack London, into early 1900s London. Were this written today, he'd be accused of bleeding heart liberalism. And I suppose, given that he had certain socialist leanings, such accusations would be fair. London, like the aforementioned authors, dons the garb of the British poor and goes to live among them on the East End. He stays in poorhouses, sleeps on the streets, works the low-end jobs he can glean, eats at the charity soup kitchens. And he complains, over and over and over. Life is horrible for these people, and how do we expect them to amount to anything when they're struggling just to have enough to eat, when they share a room with ten other people or sleep in beds in shifts. One might point to the drinking that some engage in as part of the problem--London tends to dismiss that as a fair action among such blight (but how, one might ask could one afford a drink and not food or housing?). As such London's agenda and sympathies are clear. But it's hard not to sympathize, for most of the people do not seem to be drunkards but simply people whose luck ran out and who have no way out of the hole, who lost a job to sickness and now have bills to pay but no means to pay them and who then run into the street.

Amusing anecdotes include London's account of going to eat breakfast at the Salvation Army, where he then has to endure a sermon into the afternoon to "earn" his food, even though it's going to keep him from looking for a job; and a story about a boy caught for stealing whose excuse to the judge, when asked why he didn't just ask the woman for some money for food was that he'd have then gotten arrested for begging. Indeed, the latter shows the catch-22 that many of these people are in.

Where are all these nameless people now? Dead and long gone. And so too to our day people come and go, living in states we care not to imagine, all the poverty-stricken masses. Change is needed. But unlike Ehrenreich, London doesn't propose solutions--he simply notes that the whole structure of society needs redoing, and in that, I'd agree, right down to the structure of each of our greedy self-loving/self-preserving human brains. You can download the book here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

On "Victorious" by Claudia Smith (655 words) ***

A child's point of view makes for a disparity in stories that is often engaging--and likely why writing from a youth's perspective is so popular. Basically, you have a built-in means of showing only the surface but hinting at something much greater--you know, of following old Hemingway's trick of only showing the tip of the iceberg. Children are so innocent they often don't realize the real trouble lurking below all those superficial gestures. The problem, though, is that most adults, by the time they're writing such stories, know what's beneath the surface, so reclaiming that childhood perspective can be tough. Smith does a great job here, telling the story of a family of wanderers, parents whose hopes have been dashed repeatedly and children who still think the world is big and beautiful and full of possibility. Read the story here at Frigg.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On "Killing Fish" by Jackie Ernst (4680 words) ****

Here's a story about an adult trying to accomplish something and about kids who see the whole trip as simply an adventure. The story does a great job of with point of view, providing what sounds like an authentic narrative voice. I feel like I was this kid, this goof, who annoyed my father. And although I haven't been a dad, I've been the guy dealing with the little kids my mother babysat, so I can identify there as well. What I can't identify with but what this author does so well is being the child of a divorced parent. Here, all that annoyance isn't just about being a kid--it's about something deeper than that. It's about trying to get your dad's attention, to make him love you, any way that you can, whether that be trying to act like a grownup or spearing fish for a contest. Read the story here at the Hamilton Stone Review.

On "The Octopus" by Frank Norris ***

If I were teaching a class on naturalism, The Octopus would certainly be one of the best assignments I could make. By the end of this novel, Norris has thumped his readers over the head with his overarching philosophical theme. The octopus of the title is the railroad, its tentacles spreading out into every aspect of modern life, having sway, killing and making itself ever more powerful and ever richer.

Enter wheat--you know, the stuff we make bread from. Large landholders in central California intend to make a fortune from it, but bad years have kept them down--and the railroad, which controls the prices they can get for their grain by controlling the cost of delivering it. Rich men fighting richer men, one might sum the story up as, but the rich man are certain underdogs. The richer men control the government--the politicians and the courts and the newspapers that report on those things. The railroads, as it turns out, also control the land, so these landholders aren't owners of much.

It took me some time to get into this book, but eventually it did manage to enthrall. I found myself drawn to the tale of intrigue among the landholders as they tried to wrestles control of their crop from the railroad, not so drawn to the sentimental love stories Norris feels compelled to include. And yet, there's something in these love stories. The men fight, sans ethics, but the women, as many would have touted in Norris's day, soften the men and are the men's voice of conscience.

Where the naturalism comes in is this. Late in the novel, when it's clear just how much Norris seems to hate the railroad--and corporatism--one of his characters goes to visit the railroad's CEO. The CEO, as hated as he is, turns out to be a rather caring person, and his excuse for treating the farmers so badly is that if he doesn't make a profit, he'll go out of business. In other words, the CEO says, "It's not my fault. It's the system." All of the characters fall prey to "the force"--they are powerless before it. Though Norris's sympathies seem to lie with the farmers, I wonder if his farmer characters, placed in the same situation of power would have acted much differently than their railroad counterparts. One thinks not, as is hinted at when Magnus Derrick, the lead farmer, says something to the effect of what will happen when they gain control of the land.

The force that Norris speaks of is bound up in the wheat itself, which grows up each year to be reaped and than dies and is sown again. All men are helpless before death, and yet life goes on, so that death is really an illusion--we're just part of a natural process. We can't fight it. We just have to accept it and live in it and accept the role we've been handed to play. A rather bleak vision, with some truth to it, though in the end, I choose to believe we do have some choices. Even if in the face of death, they might not mean much, we don't have to treat each other as the people in the novel treat one another.

You can download the book here at Project Gutenberg.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

On "Water" by Diane Height (489 words) ***

Here's a story masquerading as one thing (horror) and ending up as something else (romance). Think the Poe's "Pit and the Pendelum." Okay, no, actually, think some kind of love scene from a romance novel. Torture? Love? The parallels are drawn here at Yellow Mama.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On "Pigs on the Levee" by Thomas Lisenbee (6361 words) ***

Lisenbee manages to tell a story from three points of view--never an easy task--by using the third person here. Essentially, the story of three men attempting to save a levee, this piece is full of action that is likely to make readers want to read on. Think short farming action film. Are there such things? Well, if there were, this would be in the running for adaptation. Read the story here at Our Stories.