Saturday, October 30, 2010

On "Snow, Falling" by Dan Moreau (2455 words) ***

A battle of wills is at the heart of the story, only the protagonist isn't yet aware of it. The premise is fairly simple--a man picking his son up from college after a disappointing year. The son has plans of his own. The man, by contrast, continues to think of his son as a kid, evidenced by small gestures such as patting the son's head. I can't say when my father last patted my head, but it certainly wasn't when I was in college. Read the story here at In Posse Review.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On "How We Made a Difference" by Joseph Bates (2495 words) ***

A friend of mine once dismissed Joyce's Ulysses as simply political writing. I'm not sure if writing about politics in fiction necessarily means that the work doesn't have any literary merit, but I am prone to taking a harsher eye to a text whose political propaganda is obvious on the page.

Bates's story is one that definitely puts politics front and center. I'm writing about it because it made me laugh, because it was, as Henry James describes good literature, "interesting." And is Bates's political agenda all that clear? Sure, it's easy to take swipes at conservatives in a forum such a story, but at the same time, the text is so over the top that one wonders if maybe there isn't also a certain swipe at the other side of the political spectrum as well--if the point isn't, perhaps, that we've lost our way in all the political turmoil with regard to what makes people people and what makes a nation a nation. Nah. Read the story here at Identity Theory and decide for yourself.

On "Spent" by Geoffrey Miller ***

When I initially finished this book, I thought it had turned out different from what I had thought it would be, but in thinking on it some more, I realized I didn't really know what I thought it would be. The work of an evolutionary psychologist, Miller attempts to try to explain common thinking in our consumerist society on evolutionary terms. On the face of it, this is not a work I could find much use in, its basic premise being one that doesn't fit with my worldview. Not being a secular evolutionist, I don't see man's consumerist traits developing from a prehuman state. But on the level of consumerism evolving out of our own human culture, I can certainly follow many of Miller's arguments and can agree with some of his ideas.

Central to Miller's argument is that we spend conspicuously to "signal" to others that we are appropriate material for mating. Miller says his book won't discuss purchasing purely for personal pleasure, as it is outside the focus of his study--but this proves also to be something of a drawback, since ignoring such spending naturally creates a certain bias in any conclusions that are reached. Nevertheless, with regard to signaling, psychological studies, as Miller notes, show that men tend to spend more conspicuously when trying to impress a woman; women, by contrast, tend to give more when trying to impress a man (so much for the stereotype of women being bigger shoppers).

Our spending, in turn, demonstrates what kind of person we are. The middle portion of the book focuses on how spending dovetails into intelligence and five basic personality traits, which Miller essentially sets out as openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability (i.e., less prone to worry), and extraversion. How we spend demonstrates how agreeable we are, how stable, how open, and so on. Compatible suitors notice this and take appropriate action.

My own test showcased me as being +3 open, 2 conscientious, 0 agreeable, 0 stable, and -3 for extraversion (on a scale running +4 to -4). And in here is where many of Miller's personal biases (which he is at least open enough to explain in his two chapters of introduction) come to the fore and where for me personality tests and personality typing, while always interesting, fail to render anything terribly useful. As a morally conservative guy, according to Miller's assessment, I should have come out somewhere in the negative zone of "open," but because Miller attaches certain other characteristics to openness, somehow morality and creativity become connected. Likewise, Miller--an avowed secular liberal--makes snide remarks and reaches rather absurd conclusions about persons based on religious beliefs or political stances. Hence, Democrats are supposedly individualistic and open, while Republicans are not. However, that while one might argue that liberals tend to be more individualistic when it comes to certain moral issues, one cannot claim that they are that way overall; after all, it is Republicans who tend to be for "small government," not Democrats. Such would suggest to me just the opposite of what Miller asserts. While painting liberals as pluses in almost every category of personality, and conservatives as negatives in almost every category, Miller ends up stereotyping vast segments of people and actually showcases his own close-mindedness.

Beyond that, there is the issue of self-assessment on what are subjective categories. Take conscientiousness. I think most people would rate me highly there, but I rate only moderately. Is this because that's where I belong or because of a poor assessment on my part (after all, being a perfectionist, I tend to qualify every answer I give)?

Miller jokes throughout the book. His often self-effacing humor is pleasant, but it takes away from one's ability to know just where he is serious and where he is not. Toward the end of the book, he proposes that every person get personality assessments and post them for others so that the need to display such traits through consumerism would be eliminated. But as noted above, would such personality assessments even be reliable? Who's writing these tests and determining what constitutes "agreeable" or "extraverted"? And Miller himself acknowledges, after several pages proposing this ridiculous plan, that evolution itself would probably make such trait display impractical. After all, women often like bad boys and men often like neurotic women even when they know that such suitors aren't good for them. A written assessment isn't going to stop someone from making a bad choice--because in the end, why we enjoy spending time with someone often isn't rational.

Miller than launches into another possibility for reducing consumerism. Somewhere in here, I missed the part where consumerism was necessarily bad. Perhaps, Miller established that in the introduction, but if so I'd forgotten it, after his long discussion of how we are mostly socially and genetically determined through evolution (Miller is a purveyor of fatalistic naturalism if there ever was one--for me, it is downright depressing to think that humans don't have free will; indeed, I would say we mostly do make choices based in the social milieu from which we derive, but I like to think that we can sometimes make choices that constitute real change and not just a fatalistic fall to predetermined character traits). Of course, Miller does raise points for why limiting consumerism would be beneficial to society--at the very end--after his long discussion of how to limit rid of it, but one wonders why he waits till afterward.

The benefits are something that, indeed, society would find useful. Essentially, Miller tries to attach "true" costs of consumerist impulses to products rather than allowing long-term costs to go hidden. In other words, a cheap house that wastes more energy than a more-expensive one would, in Miller's ideal world actually end up costing more--in the short term as well as in the long. In this way, we would be less prone to build heavily polluting cars, to take up cigarette smoking, to eat fast food--because the short-term expenditures would be pegged to their long-term benefits and costs.

Miller's solution to this is a consumption tax. His most-favored tax seems to be one that varies the tax based on the particular product. Hence, a locally grown organic apple might cost thirty cents, while a agricultural-conglomerate-produced kiwi imported from New Zealand (after taking into account all the energy expended to ship it and the insect repellent and man-made fertilizer used to raise it) might cost three dollars. Sounds great. But who's going to assess what is to be taxed more and what is to be taxed less? And how are we going to collect such a tax? Talk about a governmental nightmare. Is Miller serious? You'd have political parties arguing as much as they do over climate change now arguing over the tax to be levied on every single product on the market, and you'd have corporations lobbying to get lower taxes, claiming a lower environmental threshold than might actually be. And sure, computers these days are amazing, and can scan items with barcodes such that every item could have its own unique tax--that works for big corporations. But what of the small farmer or the small store owner who doesn't run the inventory of a computer or whose computer system dates back ten years? In the end, Miller's ideal society comes off reading like that in Bellamy's national socialist utopia in Looking Backward--simply ridiculous.

But that doesn't mean I don't give Miller credit for proposing big and bold ideas. That he certainly has. And in such ideas, there can sometimes be something useful at the core or on the edges. And hey, I'm up for thinking about personality assessment any time, even if I remain skeptical about its actual value.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

On "And Took Him Down Where He Got the Bends" by Paul Toth (662 words) ***

Here's a quicky for you, two guys on the run. Something bad is happening, something really bad. I'm reminded of a short story published years ago in the Quarterly, which had a similar freneticness (I write that word rather than frenzy, because "frenetic" is really that word I want here, but it's not a noun). In that story, two men are involved in digging a grave they don't want to dig. Also really bad. I'm glad I haven't been one of these twosomes one finds in fiction. Not yet at least. I'll stick to reading about such things here at Necessary Fiction.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

On "Men, Women and Chainsaws" by Joy Wood, "Traveling East" by Kelly Lenox, and "Captions" by Scott Garson *****

There's something mysteriously disturbing about Joy Wood's poem on the connection between cutting things (fear) and joy, between men and women. But it is those connections that we don't see otherwise that poetry is often put to use to make, to make us rethink. Read the poem here at Elimae.

Given the brevity of many a poem (and generally speaking the poems I like most), a single extended metaphor will often do. And that is certainly the case with Kelly Lenox's "Traveling East," which draws some interesting parallels between the sun and a lover. But how what makes this poem work well comes in what it suggests in the last couple of lines. Read the poem here at Summerset Review.

Garson's "Captions" is a exactly what the title states--a collections of captions from photos we can't see. I never thought a set of captions, sans pictures, could be so evocative and personal, but Garson does it. He makes me want to get out the old yearbooks and cut out the pictures and just read the cutlines. Would they be more interesting? A former yearbook caption writer, somehow I doubt it--we agonized over those things, and they were rarely as good as these. Read the captions here at Elimae.

On "Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem ***

Chronic City is a maddening book. Imagine a combination of Jack Kerouac obsession with Thomas Pynchon insanity, and in a sense you have what this book is. I'm not talking the Kerouac of the long journey down a road but the Kerouac down a long journey with his friend Neal Cassidy. So too Letham's narrator (Chase Insteadman) obsesses over a rock critic (and social theorist) named Perkus Tooth. Note the names here, for Letham plays tribute to Pynchon in this manner too, providing us with names that seem more theme and character based than real.

The city in this book is New York, in a long winter that stretches into summer, falling prey to a tiger on the loose (or is it a machine let loose or a giant monstrous animal or . . . ?). There are vases that everyone seems mad to obtain but that no one seems to be able to (who, one wonders, are these millionaires who outbid everyone at the last minute on E-bay?). There is some kind of tragedy happening in outer space, where Chase's astronaut fiancee is stuck and dying of foot cancer.

And there is Chase himself, a has-been child actor who is caught up in all of the drama and who the city seems to hold some interest in, as the poor lover cast adrift back on earth. Only nothing is as it seems, and the chronic sickness that seems to infect Perkus is about to infect Chase himself--or is it a sickness? Paranoia is rife in this text, ala Pynchon. And drugs--can it be any wonder that a hallucinogen is the drug of choice (and liberally abused)?

One thing Letham seems to be pointing to is the way we have ourselves become products of our media. Not only our worldview and our interests but our very own identities are mediated by the media, to the point that it is impossible to tell one from another. Can a vase pull us to a higher level of being or is such a claim merely something foisted on us by Internet news and by fashion? And if it's the latter and we still manage to somehow find a higher essence of being in the object of art, what exactly have we found? Is what we've found genuine? Can anything even be genuine? And does it matter?

The text is one of ideas. But while some passages, such as one in which Chase, Perkus, and their friend Richard have to confront hospital bureaucracy are laugh out loud funny, I found myself more often thinking about the themes or wondering where exactly where this story was going--or whether it was going--than caring so much about the characters. I guess, if one isn't as smitten with Perkus as the narrator, one isn't likely to be as intrigued by the narrator's obsession with him. While the novel is brilliantly written on a sentence-by-sentence level, this lack of personal connection for me made the text a more difficult slog than might have otherwise been expected. And the wild excesses of the plot--something I find in a lot of contemporary fiction now (I'm thinking, for example, of Fiona Maazel's Last Last Chance)--certainly didn't help to ground it in a way that I could identify with even the time or place.

The book was recommended to me by a friend. Or should I say it was pushed at me by a friend? No matter, I dutifully picked it up. And I see the appeal. New York. Intellectual discussions among intellectual misfit friends. But how many outside of the Chronic City really care? A few, I suppose, since the book did moderately well, but I wasn't one of them.

Monday, October 18, 2010

On "Cruise" by Aimee Zaring (5013 words) ****

This story revolves around a secret--a real one, one no one knows but you the reader, and of course the main character of the tale. To be let into such a world is compelling, but it's also difficult. I'm reminded of times when I've been told secrets, pieces of information I wasn't to pass on. I don't like secrets. I don't like, sitting later with other people I know and being asked a direct question about a situation and not being able to answer wholly. If it's a secret, I really don't want to know it. "Cruise," I think, goes into a lot about my feelings why. Our main character has done something in the past she doesn't want anyone to know about, and now she's deadset on keeping it unknown, even at a cost to her sense of self. Read the story here at the Adirondack Review.

Friday, October 15, 2010

On "Genesis" by Madeleine Grant (2646 words) ***

The elements of this story are quite familiar--religion, family, the death of a loved one. On that, this story does not stand out. What pulled me into it, however, was the author's language, which seems competent indeed. The materials that Grant works with make for a specificity that would be shared by few. I reminded of a freshman essay I read years ago. It was about a family Christmas gathering. It was so well done that I felt like I could have walked into that room and opened one of the gifts. "Genesis" has a similar feel. Read it here at Arbutus.

On "Goodbye, Columbus" by Philip Roth ****

I took this book on a recent trip with me because it had been years since I'd read it and because the old edition I have is a pocket paperback. In this age of e-books and trade paperbacks, having a literary pocketbook on one's travels is rather nice. You know, a book one can actually put in one's pocket--or lose without feeling to put out, since it was only 75 cents to begin with.

I first bought the book on another trip, I believe, to New York State, from California. This time, I was going the other way, from the East Coast back to the West, where I hadn't been in nearly a decade. I first bought the book because I was fascinated with Roth's dialogue, as it came to me in another more recent book of his (recent, that is, eighteen years ago). The themes seemed similar--an illicit love affair. I remember being somewhat disappointed, but I've kept the book all these years because it is Roth's one book of stories.

The novella at the heart of this book, this time around, read very well. It was the highlight of the book for me. The dialogue was quite good, of course, but I was even more blown away by some of Roth's turns of phrase and by his ability to show youthful love and lust in all its terrible vanity. It's still not close to being one of my favorites among Roth's oeuvre, but it's a fine short text, an exemplar of the form.

I wish I could say the same of the short stories. Fine, certainly, but some of them seem a bit forced, such as "Epstein," the tale of an older man moved to infidelity by the youths full of lust around him.

All of the stories focus on Jewish culture to some extent. "Defender of the Faith" focuses on Jewish soldiers hiding behind religion to get days off and other perks. "The Conversion of the Jews," oft anthologized, tells the tale of a kid forcing others to admit that God is powerful enough to have done what Judaism denies. "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" tells of school hijinks and friendship and somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts, despite its slight length. Most interesting to me among these pieces, though, is a story called "Eli, the Fanatic." Were I in a class, I would almost certainly write about the idea of the double in this tale, how Eli, a Jewish lawyer called upon to oust some orthodox Jews from the WASP neighborhood where secular Jews mix easily, ends up switching places with one of said orthodox Jews and discovers . . . himself. The one is the same as the other, deep down, Roth seems to be saying, all part of the same whole that is Jewish culture and that cannot be denied. It's a fascinating idea that bears exploration.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On "A Simple Explanation" by Lauren Becker (422 words) ***

I hate meeting people. I love it. The desires both to meet and to crawl into a whole and never talk to a stranger again fight against one another. I know where Becker is coming from, this hopelessness, this feeling of "don't even bother." It happens to me sometimes, when I'm talking to someone who seems fantastic and interesting. I know in the end it won't work--or I talk myself into that position. Why try? Why indeed? Read this little gem of hopelessness here at Storyglossia.

On "Homo Faber" by Max Frisch ****

I first read this novel about thirteen years ago now, soon after I moved to Texas. I remember it as part of that time, as that summer of my first year there. I had picked it up cheap (one dollar) and mostly because it had been adapted into a Sam Shepard movie called Voyager. I've never seen the film, but I'd like to, especially now after my second reading these many years later.

The book starts slowly enough. The narrator is obsessed with facts, with science. He's an engineer. He believes that he--that man--can control things. And we watch as he, this ultimate man of control, loses himself to emotion and commits one of the most base acts one can imagine. Sure, he justifies himself, but to what extent we are to believe him is questionable.

Pulled many years earlier into a love affair that he runs away from, he once again finds himself on the run from love, taking a cruise across the Atlantic for rest, only to be drawn into the grip of his lust. Watching it happen, and the revelations that follow, are fascinating. This is where the book gets really interesting. On the whole, this first part of the book works better than the second, which plays like a rather boring remix album. But luckily for readers, the first part forges the majority of the book.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

On "The Shadowy Third" by Ellen Glasgow (10,215 words) ****

In "The Shadowy Third," one of Glasgow's most popular stories, a young nurse goes to aid a woman who is suffering from a bout of supposed insanity. The nurse finds the woman to be totally within her wits, however, until she discovers that the daughter that she sees coming and going throughout the house is actually a phantom no one other than the woman and the nurse can see. The story continues from there, with the discovery of why the daughter haunts the house and of just how dastardly the people living in the house are. This story somehow manages to make one actually feel for the poor, supposedly delusional woman. Is she insane and paranoid or is there something to all that she believes? The phantom seems more a physical presence in this Glasgow story than in most of her other ghost stories, but the same themes sanity versus insanity, kindness versus unkindness, and the haunting of memory pervade. Read the story here.

On "The Collected Stories of Ellen Glasgow" by Ellen Glasgow ***

This collection of stories, mostly written right around 1920, constitutes the last of the books in my Gilded Age reading list that had consumed my reading for much of this past year. Modernism dawns, and in Glasgow's very first story here, that essence seems apparent. In "Between Two Shores," the dialogue is snappy and witty, much like any movie's repartee, but much like many a nineteenth-century story (any many a movie for that matter), the story itself seems a bit manufactured. A man on the run finds a woman who is lacking her husband; without her knowledge, he decides to pose as that husband, and somehow things work out in the end, with the woman falling for the man and the two wandering off into the happy beyond.

Quite a few of the stories in the collection have similar kinds of contrived popular plot twists (or--this being nineteenth-century fiction, story-ending didactic morals). And yet, there is an artist at work here, one whom it is fascinating to watch paint her picture. "A Point in Morals" is a frame story that poses the question of whether it is better to assist someone to die or to let that person die in pain. "Thinking Makes It So" is a wish-fulfillment piece in which a writer finds a fan who falls in love with her through words rather than through looks.

"The Difference" is one of the few stories that ends on an almost sad note. In it, a woman convinces herself that it is best to let her husband leave her for another woman out of her great love for him only to discover that the other woman is merely a fling--would that the adulteress truly had been worth such love, the woman wishes, for the fact that she isn't merely cheapens her own love for her husband and his love for her. In "The Artless Age," older women discourse on the dating habits of the younger generation, in what is one of the better set of character depictions in the book.

Glasgow's most interesting stories are the ghost stories, however, which resemble in some ways Ambrose Bierce's. Most of them, however, run along a similar plot line. In each, the narrator goes to some new location and watches another person who he or she discovers by the end of the story is a phantom that only one other person (considered insane by others) can see. What makes the stories interesting, however, is that in each the phantom is a stand-in for some kind of memory that only the one person has access to. In "Dare's Gift" it is the Old South that urges a woman to betray her husband and ruin his career, just as all others who have lived in the same mansion have done. In "The Past," a man lives in the memories of a former wife, who appears as a phantom in the house, much to the man's current wife. In "Whispering Leaves," a child is cared for by his dead Mammy. "The Shadowy Third" serves as almost the opposite of "The Past" and "Whispering Leaves" with a phantom reaping revenge rather than serving as some joyous past memory.

The collection includes editorial notes on the magazine publications and subsequent alterations by Glasgow, which are interesting. The editor, however, also feels the need to pass judgment on each story, spelling out how each falls short of perfection, a practice I found a bit irritating.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

On "Orchids" by Lydia Williams (1288 words) ***

I'm not sure why I find this story so subtly sad. There's a woman and her husband--a woman who works hard to become a better person, a husband who barely tries at all. And yet, the husband comes off seeming more capable. The woman, by contrast, keeps slipping into old routines, into, for example, a binge drinking habit. Perhaps what is so sad here is that the lack of moving forward--the story itself is light on plot--seems so akin to my achieving of goals. It seems more like one is given a standard personality and mode of behavior and no matter how hard one tries, the old ways inevitably prevail. We can never become the person we want to become. Is the fight worth it? Are the people who don't even bother better? Happier? Or are they even bigger losers? Not that this story is going to help answer those questions, but you can read it anyway, here at Apple Valley Review.

On "John Barleycorn" by Jack London ***

I was thinking this was a novel but was happy to find out this was actually more a memoir of London's drinking rather than a veiled fictional account of it. I was also surprised to learn that this book is not as much a memoir as propaganda. That latter definition of it makes it interesting on a superficial level but far less interesting as literature. London's point seems first and foremost to secure the vote for women so that they can pass prohibition (something men would never do for themselves). London then goes into an account of his own drinking, how he became drawn to it for social compatibility reasons rather than a desire for drink in and of itself; he doesn't even care for drinking, he says.

But this is where it gets truly interesting. He binges as a kid, on beer. As a hard laborer, he has to drink to be one of the guys--or to get along with some of society's best most-caring men, the bartenders (the only ones who will lend a guy money in times of need), whose generosity then becomes an obligation on the part of the recipient to fraternize in the man's workplace. He learns the rules of drinking, how if one person treats, one must treat back, and so on, till one is stuck with twelve or fifteen drinks inside one's system.

Perhaps I'm a cretin, but I've never followed this rule; perhaps that also is why I feel awkward when others pay for a drink for me. I resent those who urge me to have another just to be with them. I generally only carry enough money on me for a drink or two and so can't get dragged into multiple rounds. I like drinking. But I don't like getting drunk. And I don't care to subscribe to the rules London feels obligated to follow.

The deeper London gets into drinking the more interesting the text becomes, in part because it becomes an increasingly self-justifying work, a work of an alcoholic who believes himself not to be one. Or is he being tongue in cheek? It's hard to tell at times. In one passage, he talks of how horribly easy it is to become attached to regular drinks even as a nonalcoholic like himself (imagine, he says, just how much more difficult such things are for an alcoholic). This would seem obviously a joke. But then he notes how he doesn't drink for three months at a time to justify how he isn't addicted or how he can still function as a writer, still churn out four pages a day, even when drinking. Meanwhile, he goes from having a drink after writing to having one in the middle of it to one at the beginning. He descends more and more into its grip. On that level, as the story of becoming an alcoholic, this is a fascinating and scary work, for even in all my above bravado about my limits of drinking, London makes any drinking seem like a slippery slope, and so it could be. Read it here at Project Gutenberg.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On "Theories of Gravity" by Patrick Haas, "Courting in the Music Store" by John Grey, and "Cheekbones" by Wendy Pratt ****

Of late, when reading poetry, I've been returning more and more to imagery. Certainly imagery is the basis for many poems, but for a while it seemed as if my own poetic impulses had been focusing on the rhythm of the language itself--or on some kind of emotional connection. Here Haas's descriptions are so strong, however, that they have a kind of emotional tie of their own. I'll never think of eyes quite the same again--or of a dress in the wind. Read the poem here at Caffeine Destiny.

John Gray's poem doesn't deal as much with imagery as an idea, but many an interesting poem does just that. This one made me stop and think. Were I funny, well, it likely wouldn't matter. Why do we pick the inanimate object over the silly stranger? Read the poem here at Northville Review.

The body of contemporary poetry is full of free verse constituents, many of which use images to beautiful effect. "Cheekbones," however, is more formalist, using repeat lines and rhyme in a kind of villanelle (I didn't take the time to go find out which exact form the poem is mimicking, if any at all), and it uses the form to full effect. After all the poem is itself about mimicking in terms of ancestry. Nice to see someone working in a form so rarely used today--or used with such skill. Read the poem here at Snakeskin.