Sunday, February 27, 2011

On "Me and Theodore Are Trapped in the Trunk of the Car with Rags in Our Mouths . . ." by Mary Hamilton (648 words) ***

I'm not sure what's going on with this one, but the language is fun--and stunning. Maybe that's the same thing these days. A woman wants to change her life, go somewhere different. Given that she's at a doctor, it's likely she's a little sick. Likely she's actually a whole lot sick. She's looking for a way out. The way out is language. The way out is the imagination. The way out is to build a bridge. To read. Here. At Smokelong. (A note: The title itself was too long to feature in Blogger, so you'll get the rest of the intriguing title there.)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

On "A Protegee of Jack Hamlin's" by Bret Harte (10,943 words) ****

Jack Hamlin is a little sketchy. He's a gambler. But his heart is in the right place. Such is a common character in Harte's fiction. John Oakhurst is another such character. But while Oakhurst is almost wholly good, donating excess winnings to charity and not taking from losers who can't afford to lose, Hamlin isn't a completely white knight. He's concerned about his reputation (as well as others' reputations). And he likes to do a little sleeping around when it's convenient.

So enter a woman that Jack meets on a boat. She's fallen for an unsavory guy who has abandoned her. Jack is here to save her, which he does--sending her to school, setting her up in the arts. But he's still Jack, and he's a bit scared that this woman's reputation will be ruined, as well as his own. So he leads a double life. And it is that double life that makes this story one of Harte's better ones. Harte, here, focuses on surfaces and on reputations, the way that those often mean more than substance. I'm reminded of contemporary politics, how a few great soundbites often triumph over substantive debate and informed decision making. Read about other such disappoints by reading Harte's old story here.

On "The History of the Medieval World" by Susan Wise Bauer *****

In the second volume of this series, Bauer runs through the history of the world from the time of Constantine to the first Crusade. The unifying theme for much of the book is the use of religion for political ends. In the Arab world, the new religion of Islam becomes a force in building a world-ruling empire. In the European/Roman world, Christianity becomes the means of keeping united a vast empire of differing peoples. In China, the ancient glories of a former empire become the rallying point around which other cultures coalesce and challenge the Chinese empires themselves.

And yet, within these unifying ideas hold within them also the spark for unrest and division. Muslims split over who should succeed Muhammad. Europe splits over whether the Roman bishop should be in charge or whether the new capital of Constantinople is the real center of power, though these are countered as doctrinal differences--whether Christ was existent before his birth, whether idols can be used in worship, whether leavened or unleavened bread is to be used at mass.

The Far Eastern kingdoms come off slightly better in terms of the use of government. There, a man is often promoted to rulership because of his qualifications rather than his familial heritage, and where a particular dynasty falls, it is seen as the natural outcome of a family that has decayed morally and thus has lost the right to rule. But much of this too is a convenience by which one regime posits its superiority and right to rule over another.

I can't sum up 650 pages--and an entire world of history--in one short blog entry, so I won't even try. I'll simply note that Bauer's book seems a great reference resource--easily and enjoyably readable--and that I look forward to the volumes yet to be published.

Monday, February 21, 2011

On "The ABCs of Murder" by Mercedes M. Yardley (2908 words) ***

I like when a story takes an old theme and manages to make something different out of that theme by turning the concept into something concrete, something literal. Yardley's piece does just that, and is particularly compelling toward the beginning as we get a feel for what's actually happening. Grief, murder, ghosts, and memory--they all find a place here at On the Premises.

Friday, February 18, 2011

On "Going Bananas" by Dorothee Lang (743 words) ****

This piece catches you with just the right balance of the real and weird. I'm reminded of Weekly World News, only it's happening, really, except it's not, because this is fiction. A woman goes out, gets chatted up. Ho hum. Except, no, it's not because she's attractive. It's because she has a monkey tail. That's just the start. Read it here at 10,000 Monkeys.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On "Arizona's Lonely" by Rachel Yoder (1693 words) ***

I love how this story works against literature--or with literature--to tell of lust and love. I've never categorized whole groups of people based on what they preferred to write or read, but it's an interesting setup. Lust at the library, or something like that. Or is it just loneliness--the way that we talk of others we might want, the way we hang on to things we don't need. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On "All Our Canoes Are Safely Ashore" by B. J. Hollars (1519 words) ****

Another grand story from B. J. Hollars, this one is full of surprises. The piece works with short paragraphs and minimal presentation. At first, I found that form rather irritating. But the minimism works here because a few paragraphs down something's going to happen that can't be easily explained with a denser tongue. We get externals. Characters struggle to do right in the face of a situation they didn't foresee. And then . . . Hollars does it again, as he brings us to the end, tying these characters together not once but twice, in ways dissimilar and yet, if you believe George Battaile's ideas on sex and death, not dissimilar at all. Read the story here at Corium Magazine.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On "Necklace" by Ravi Mangla (415 words) ****

Here's another story by a master of oddness. It involves teeth, lots of them, strung around a neck. In Mangla's world, such a necklace becomes a vehicle for self-transformation. Displayed, they symbolize power and hold an awkward sway over those around (yet there's an odd juxtaposition here, because teeth--outside of the skull--are essentially powerless). Watching the reactions of the others in the story is the real joy, though--and the weird buglike mating customs that go along with those reactions. A blog entry on the piece notes that the piece is about death--personal and public--and such would certainly work in the context of how death both robs us of power and, through grief, provides a tremendous amount of power over others. Read the story here at Bull.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

On "Orphans of God" by Morgan Smith (6148 words) ***

Morgan's Smith's story isn't the deserted orphan of a writer who's given up. This story is a great example of a piece of good, slick fiction--a plot that grinds its way from start to end, picking up pace as you drive toward the end the way a glacier picks up all the stones in its wake. It's the story of a public defender who wants to win at any cost. It's the story of a man who works the rodeo. The piece rocks between these two plots, reminding us that law isn't too much like riding a bull, and that sometimes you can get the girl but only for the weekend. Read there story here at Wazee Journal.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On "A Study of the Circular Velocity of a Shooting Star" by Morgan von Ancken (2902 words) ****

This piece will keep us interested with its energetic language, an energy the mirrors its subject matter--the shooting star--which comes into our atmosphere like some gift thrown at us from above and, in this case, dips into the water, where there's this mate, this perfect mate, waiting for us, and we share this moment, and it's fantastic because we both know what this moment means having shared it like this, with no one else, but the real kicker is that after all of this, it just keeps going and going and going and going on even after we've read this piece here at Diagram, this piece . . .