Tuesday, May 31, 2011

On "The Game" by Michael Boylan (2729 words) ***

It's a friendly game of football between friends. Enter the stranger. The stranger has this strange effect on all of them, this commanding presence. He doesn't play the way the friends usually play, and he won't let them play that way either. Soon, he's changed the rules, and the friends are doing whatever Henry says, and they're all terrified of one another. Boylan's story seems like something a little unrealistic and impossible, but he makes you believe that perhaps it could happen. And of course, it does. There's the obvious metaphor here to societies at large, the way that dictators control whole nations, getting people to hate one another and to fear the man at the top. Just one charismatic leader and . . . Read the story here at 580 Split.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

On "The Side Bar" by Jean Ryan (4242 words) ***

Stopping in Dodge City on my way across the country when I was twenty, a lifetime resident of Southern California, I was struck by the fact that out here, out in the middle of the country, there weren't a thousand people trying to break into film. I was eating at Dairy Queen (for lack of any restaurants in that time and place that weren't fast food), being served by people who weren't aspiring actors. It's one of the reasons that living outside Hollywood is more relaxing. You don't have to try to be something else. You're not in a constant struggle to try to be something bigger than life--and you don't feel like you're settling for something less if you don't take part in that struggle. Ryan recounts a woman who likes her small town of White Horse, Nevada, for similar reasons. Not so many choices. You have one restaurant, one grocery, one hardware store. And if you walk into any of these places, the chances are good you know who you'll see.

In the case of Ryan's narrator, who you'll see as a bartender are the town's troubled, sad, lonely, and aging. I'm sure that bartenders everywhere see plenty of these sort of people. Living where I do, in a college town, where drinking establishments are more numerous than hot dog buns in a football stadium, I'm a regular at the bars. Here, the bars seem like happy places, and I guess, on a superficial level the bar where Ryan works is also. People come to socialize. But what type of people? As here, many of them are there only because there is nowhere better for them to go. They are troubled. They are sad. They are lonely. They are getting old. But for a few hours, at the bar, they have friends, comrades, people to drink with, and they're happy, and all does not seem so wrong with the world.

Landscape is big in this story, though, and the surrounding desert plays its very important part, swallowing up everyone and everything that sits inside it--including the occasional bar patron. Read all about it here at Summerset Review.

On "Animal Talk" by Tim Friend ****

Tim Friend asks us to think about language as the animals speak it rather than as we speak it. When we do that, the possibility that the animals actually talk to one another seems like a given, and language no longer seems simply like the domain of human beings. Of course, this language takes different forms: dances, smells, songs, barks, howls, clicks, beeps, and a whole lot of other things I've forgotten to list here. In essence, though, animal language, Friend says, comes down to four things, which are shared with us humans: sex, real estate, who's boss, and what's for dinner. Whether one is convinced of Friend's point or not, Animal Talk is a fascinating book on biology and communication in other species.

Each chapter is arranged around a theme that Friend delves into in greater depth using a range of particular creatures to demonstrate the particular kind of communication that he wishes to demonstrate. One chapter focuses on the metal abilities of animals, one on their emotions; others focus on the aforementioned sex, real estate, and leadership. Still others focus on song and dance. Still, the book, while easy to follow, is pings between so many interesting facts that it's hard to summarize.

Cool anecdotes that come to mind include the following: In one experiment with birds in which they were given hooks and sticks to obtain food, the birds found the hooks easiest to work with and so ditched the sticks. However, a dominant bird stole the hook from a less powerful bird, leaving this other bird to have to use sticks. The surprising part? This other bird not only used the stick--it fashioned the stick into a hook by twisting it against a cage of some sort. Friend's point? That animals are capable of some creative thinking.

A newspaper reported that a raven called for a long while in the sky before a woman noticed the raven in her backyard. She also noted then that the raven was looking into the bush, and when she saw what was in the bush, she knew why--it was a wildcat. Luckily, her husband was in close range so that she could call for help. The raven had tried to warn her, she realized. Well, not quite, Friend notes. More likely, the raven had actually brought the wildcat to feast on the woman. The calls had likely been to get the cats attention and to draw it near. Friend's point? Animals can communicate across species and can work together to achieve ends. (In this case, the bird would have been the lucky diner on what was left after the wildcat's meal.)

Other interesting facts revolve around sound and song. The best time for singing, as it turns out, if one is a bird wanting one's mating call to carry far is at dusk and dawn. That's when the sound waves in the air travel farthest due to something to do with the way the atmosphere works--and that's why you hear birds chittering so much at those times, all of them on their own frequency so that they can tune out the frequency of other species and hear only the calls that are to them. But birds aren't the only one's who sing. Whales and other sea creatures do too, but while some terrestrial songs might travel sixty miles, whale songs, buried in sound-conducive water, can travel a thousand or more.

Songs aren't the only way that creatures attract or call for mates, however. Some birds jump in place to attract mates. And some, like the bower bird, build elaborate nests (akin to baskets) and wait for the mate to inspect it. If the nest passes the mate's discerning eye, the bird will get laid.

Friend closes with discussions of talk among sea creatures. It seems that dolphins have unique names (in the form of whistles), just as you and I do, whether that be John or Jacob and Suzie. Dolphins, Friend says, are the only known creatures outside of humans who do this in nature. (That animals know one another uniquely--or are capable of giving names--I think is well established among creatures in captivity, as the bonobos and apes and chimpanzees who learn English show in various experiments, and even, to an extent, as our own pets show when they choose out favorite people or favorite other animal buddies.) What other things dolphins are saying to one another we don't know, since we can only get the broad strokes of what certain things mean. This type of whistle is aggressive, this type is submissive, etc. It could be, Friend implies, that such creatures are saying much more to one another than we realize and likely ever will, since we can't vocalize in their tongue (I wouldn't go so far as to say that Friend is saying they're having talks about the meaning of life, but he does seem to imply these talks might be more than "gimme gimme").

There is also the interesting tale of Hoover, the talking seal. Hoover's mother died when it was a baby, so it was raised in a human household--and as a result, rather than learning seal songs, it learned English. Granted, the English it learned was rudimentary--three sentences to the effect of things like "hiya there" and "what's going on?"--but certainly on a par with parrots. In fact, harbor seals have vocal tracts similar to our own and thus should be able to mimic our speech with a fair amount of ease. Hoover eventually was placed in a marine park, where he tried to mate with other seals. Not knowing how to sing, however, he tried to pick up women with lines like, you got it, "Hiya there!" (He eventually succeeded, and at least one of his descendents speaks "English" also.)

Ultimately, anecdotes like this last one tie in to what seems to be Friend's ultimate point, which is that Chomsky and others who believe language is unique to human beings and represents an evolutionary jump are wrong. Friend sees human language as on a continuum that could have easily developed out of the kinds of languages that other animals speak. It is only our anthropomorphism that causes us to think we are so utterly unique that we must have developed special brains to go along with speech somewhere along the way. For me, however, the book mostly a joy of discovery into the ways that each creature was uniquely created with its own way of communicating.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On "The Etiquette of Adultery" by Tara Laskowski (1140 words) ****

Written like portions of a how-to manual, the creatively wrought piece tells a story of longing. It's about a woman with a lover she can't bring to social functions and whose celebrations she can't share.

The other day I was on the phone with an acquaintance of mine, and she was bemoaning the fact that I didn't celebrate the major holidays. That makes it hard to date, she noted. I had to agree. Times past, I've known many a nice woman, but our core customs and values were not the same, and so a relationship beyond friendship wasn't really in the offing, even if we spent lots of time together, even if we claimed to love each other on some level.

Reading this story, I see that the situation of the adulteress is in some ways similar. Hooked to this man, she feels a desire for family, for shared times, for things she cannot have, and yet she spends hours with him, days, parts of her life. He's there for her, and he's not. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

On "The Genius Meetings" by Elizabeth Crane (3255 words) ***

This story is about exactly what it's title proclaims, a series of meetings among geniuses. These geniuses discuss "great" things, as geniuses are wont to do, but when it comes to personal lives the lot of them are a mess. The geniuses are all men. There's a degree of chutzpah that goes along with genius or that goes along with claiming genius that requires that one strike out in one's own direction whether brilliant or scathingly stupid (and if one is a genius, one is lucky enough to have happened upon the brilliant). But this in turn leads to an inability to interact with others--after all, why listen to council when you are the smartest of the group? Why indeed? Perhaps because respect for others--and others' views--is the only thing that leads to happy relations with others. These geniuses, able to share with one another, remain unable to share with those of the lower strain, and thus unable to share with humanity.

Crane's story reminds me a little of people I've worked with in the past who were quick to point out their IQ scores (I've never even taken a legitimate IQ test--where does one do such and why?) or their Menda Society membership. I've always been a bit skeptical of said people. After all, if they're so smart, why are they working with me? And why a need to report their score? Anyway, geniuses can be a bit annoying, but they make for an interesting story, which you can read here at Guernica.

On "Thinking in Pictures" by Temple Grandin ****

Temple Grandin doesn't think in words--she thinks in pictures. She's what is called a high-functioning autistic person. This "disability" is also a great gift. While Grandin grapples with a way of thinking that differs from most of our own, she also is the beneficiary of a way of thinking that allows her to achieve things that few of us can. And that's what this book is about: how Temple thinks, and by extension, how autistic people in general think--and feel and live.

The book is split up into various thematic chapters, including sections on the language, the senses, emotion, romance, medication, animals, genius, and spirituality. On language, Grandin describes her brain as being like a video recorder. She puts things together through a prodigious stockpile of images. Rather than thinking in generalities and moving to specifics, she thinks in specifics and moves to generalities. Say "dog," for example, and she'll think of the first dog she met when she was three years old, and then the dog that lived next door that used to bark at her, and so on. This can create issues, as the stockpile of memories grow, because one has to parse through a lot of images. (Then again, some of us who think in words are at a loss for them at times ourselves.)

She also discusses a common feature that autistic people share, which is hypersensitivity. Sounds, tastes, smells can all make autistic people feel as if they are under attack, because that humming that our electric shaver makes can sound like standing under a jet airplane to one who is autistic. Or the shaving that we do might feel like a gentle tickle to us, while it's as if the skin is being torn off to one who is autistic. These kind of hypersenses mean that effort must be taken to dull the features of our world, either through medication or through such things as softer clothing.

On the emotional level, Grandin seems to point to fear as being the one that overwhelms many like her the most. This is in part what makes it difficult for autistic people to leave structured regimens. Given a rigid way of thinking, they often work best with a plan. By rigid, I mean that many lack the ability to generalize about events to be able to make clear decisions. An autistic person might be taught to look both ways before crossing the street in front of his or her house, but the person won't necessarily equate that lesson to looking before crossing any street.

This hypersensitivity and devotion to structure, however, can also mean that autistic people can concentrate in a much deeper fashion than others, can, one might say, obsess over something. This in turns allows them to do things that most can't, such as, in Grandin's case, to see things as the cattle that she works with see things. Throughout the book, in fact, Grandin compares some things she feels autistic people have in common with animals, and this in turns leads to an interesting discussion on thought, for if what is termed nonthinking in animals is all autistic people are capable of (and some not even capable of that), then how do we claim such humans think at all? What exactly is thought in such a case?

Other things autistic people might be able to do include memorizing phone books (taking a picture in the brain of each page) or visualizing riding on a beam of light (such as Einstein did to craft his theory of relativity). In this sense, an educational system that insists that people be well rounded is a disservice to autistic people, who might be immensely talented in a narrow field of study and incapable of much in other fields. Einstein, who Grandin says may have had a mild form of autism, for example, would never have been allowed to become the genius he is considered to be if he had had to deal with today's educational system. Unable to get through certain classes at college, he worked as a patent office and then dispensed his theory to a science journal in his spare time. Such journals wouldn't be open to "amateurs" today.

The more Grandin discusses autism in the book, however, the more it seems like certain tendencies of autistic people are tendencies in each of us. And in that there is a danger. Early in the text, Grandin shows how difficult it is to diagnose the problem early on, but that, in turn, I think, can also lend to overdiagnosis, a fad of sorts, just as hyperactive disorder has become a diagnosis that a lot of fairly normal kids--that is, energetic kids--have been subjected to. Still, as a study in the phenomenon by one who lives in it each day, Grandin's book is a great read.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On "Finis" by Jack London (6835 words) ****

I wouldn't have expected something this brutal to have been written so early in the twentieth century, and not from the likes of Jack London. Most of the time, London's characters cling to life desperately if that's what's called for. Most of the time, if a London character is a rogue, there's something redeeming about him, something rather fun. He may be a crook, but he's good hearted, and the other people in the story know it. Not so here. In "Finis" a man sets out, like some twisted Cormac McCarthy character, to kill a party of travelers, any travelers, that happen down the road in front of him. It's them or him, he figures, and if it's death we're talking about, it might as well be them. This is a story of survival, not just against the brute forces of nature but against the brute forces of man's earnest desire to save the self at any cost. Read the story here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

On "Nur's Ark" by Rebecca Stonehill (2990 words) ***

Writing a compelling and sad story about war seems like it would be easy--except for this: one would have to live through one or very carefully imagine one. Neither is easy. Hence, one ends up with war stories that seem impersonal and generic, stories we would expect of a war. Stonehill's short piece manages to portray a family caught in the midst of a war and to do so in a personal way. She does it by focusing on a child's wish to visit the zoo and a family's with to protect the child from the world around. Read the story here at Monday Night.

On "Silent Reading and the Birth of the Narrator" by Elspeth Jajdelska **

Manguelo's A History of Reading claimed that silent reading became common in the tenth century. It was an off-the-cuff remark, not very heavily explored, and I suspect he pulled that information from another text. Jajdelska, by contrast, says the switch happened around 1700. But that's is not to say that the two actually disagree. Indeed, silent reading may have been downright strange before the tenth century, but it may not have become more common than reading aloud until the end of the seventeenth. There was, one might say, a tipping point that took centuries to complete. We could, for example, make the same case for reading electronically versus reading in print; there is a revolution taking place, one that began decades ago, that has sped up with the growing use of e-readers, and that may one day become the more common form for reading booklength works. What will that mean for reading, for writing, for the way we conceive of the word?

Jajdelska is exploring a similar theme at a time when printing--and access to printed books--was becoming more commonplace, moving from the domain of the few and educated to the common person. Before the 1700s, most readers had access to very few books. A family might own a handful--or just one, namely, the Bible. As books became more common, more people read privately. Whereas before, people read in groups. Someone read a text at a gathering, to you, to the friends beside you. Now, you can read it to yourself.

Along with this comes a tendency to no longer memorize texts. If one has only a single book and that book is to be presented orally to an audience, then one is likely over time to learn the book by heart as one recites it. This means that things like punctuation aren't as important, since it's the reader who will help the listener know exactly what the author was saying. Likewise, with more access to books, children learn to read in different ways than previously--and also read books specifically geared toward them. The first children's books begin to be published about this time. And the idea of reading for leisure, rather than for moral improvement, also begins to gain ground.

What does all this entail for readers and for the people who write for them? It means that reading moves from being a public act to being a private one, and it means that the reader is no longer a speaker but a hearer. In line with that, texts begin to change shape as well.

Jajdelska sees this different shape, in part, taking place in the punctuation that is used in texts. Jajdelska uses writings from two specific authors to make most of the book's points. This allows for close readings of texts, though, as with all literary criticism, it opens the work up to the potential of arguing something that might apply only to these authors and not to others. (Indeed, the choice of a professional--Addison--and an amateur could set up a discussion also of simply good versus bad writing.) This problem is obfuscated a little by sundry discussions of other writers in brief.

With punctuation, the essential difference is that end punctuation (periods) begins to take greater use than simply commas. The idea is that readers as speakers don't want to pause too long lest someone jump in and interrupt, whereas if one is reading on the page (listening), then one need not worry about long pauses. In fact, such signalling helps a silent reader to "hear" what a speaker would do.

Other discussions involve differences in letter writing (the idea that one writes to an individual, intimately, versus the idea that one writes for the public, as seen in differences of, say, greetings one uses) and in diary keeping (a move toward private diaries meant for no one else versus diaries intended for moral guidance to others; a move from diaries that observe the self to diaries that explore it).

Finally, Jajdelska closes with a discussion of time and place and form of narration before and after the move to silent reading. Some of the arguments I found hard to follow or not wholly convincing--rapid switches in time and/or place supposedly are conducive to reader as speaker but not as hearer--but some of the examples are also telling. One, in particular, that I found really interesting was from an expository book of advice in which the narrator leaves off providing advice to upper-class women to make an aside to those women's maids, as if the two might be in the same room listening: in this case, certainly this is reading not intended for a single audience member (just you and me) but for a crowd.

On the whole, the book provides some interesting ideas to think about, especially as the novel began to take more of the literary center. And I can't help but think about what our current shift in technology may mean for writing in this century.

Friday, May 13, 2011

On "Star Babies" by Elizabeth Crane (4164 words) ****

I've never read a story like this. Elizabeth Crane has taken her usual elongated and random-sounding sentences and added to them an element of complete absurdity that runs throughout the work. Imagine a nation in which the normal is to be famous. No longer do people strive to become famous. Everyone is famous. And everyone hates it. Well, not everyone, but a large portion of the population, which strives to become not famous. These are people like those who drive into nature to get out of the city, who give up all the wonderful pleasures of society to commune with nature. Only, when you're famous, this is impossible. People follow. You make nature hip. There is mass interest in whatever you do, and everyone is the mass. There are vague elements of truth in this piece. I can't help but think on how the Internet has changed the way that we view ourselves and each other, how in a way we're all part of the media now, even if we don't want to be. You may not be on Facebook or Flicker, but you still might get tagged. You are known, whether you wish to be or not. Read the story here at Coachella Review.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

On "Mourner's Passage" by Matt Zepelin (5349 words) ***

T. C. Boyle has a story about a Russian bride who comes to live with a man. It's one of his best (I believe it's his story "Without a Hero"). Other than that, I've not read too many stories about mail-order brides, and I don't remember any from the point of view of the bride. (I say remember, and think that it's likely that a mail-order bride or two is part of Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club, but I remember very little of that book unfortunately.) Zepelin tells the story from both points of view, providing us with an understanding as to why either person would choose this kind of relationship and how deep bonds can be built. Told backwards, the piece starts with the bond and lets you watch, in a sense, as that bond is forged. Read the story here at Wazee Journal.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

On "All in a Name" by Garrett Socol (818 words) ***

I like this one for its narrative voice, which is light and airy and yet also precise. The voice fits with what is a light story, something to make you smile. You wouldn't think that coming from a story about suicide, but I guess that's what makes this one unique. That, and the biblical names. Read the story here at Kill Author.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On "Friend of the Sick" by Nic Brown (3501 words) ***

Nic Brown's story tells a story about the sick in a different way. It's not an overly sentimental piece about how great this sick person is or was, how much we'll miss the person. It's about how, although this is our best friend, we continue on, concerned, but also somewhat hoping for the death--and for almost entirely selfish reasons. But our narrator isn't some misanthrope. She's just a regular person like you and me, with a set of emotions that are confused and all over the place, and life goes on, and the sick get sicker and sicker. Read all about it here at Slush Pile.

On "A History of Reading" by Alberto Manguel ***

Published in 1996, Manguel's book, I take it, probably fell toward the beginning of a span of time in history writing when cultural histories were hip. We got books on the history of dust, on the history of salt, on the history of cooking, and other such topics that, in a sense, in their vastness, don't really lend themselves to a concise narrative. And that lack of ability to confine the book to a singular narrative haunts Manguel's attempt here. But it's also why he calls it A History rather than The History.

Rather than following a strictly chronological sequence, Manguel divides his history into themes. Thus, we get chapters on censorship, on reading aloud, on the character of the nerd, on the shape of the book, on places of reading (indoor/outdoor), on writers as readers, on translators as readers, on silent versus oral reading, on the reading brain. As such, the book reads more like a set of discrete essays related to the main subject at hand than as a history, which also makes the book difficult to summarize, for what remains with me is not a story but a mood and a list of random facts. Did you know, for example, that reading aloud was the norm until the tenth century? He shares an anecdote of Saint Augustine's surprise as seeing Saint Ambrose read silently. (Another writer disputes this date, placing the silent reading era as beginning near the end of the seventeenth century. That book, I will be reading next.)

There are wonderful anecdotes and photos. We learn of slaves forbidden to read, lest they turn into rebels. We learn of books considered by the government as terrorist acts (in Argentina in the 1970s). We read of how much a translation can affect the text we receive in our native tongue--how much a translation is really one particular kind of reading. We learn of how readers "make" the text they read. We get the by-now-familiar-to-me discussion of the brain and language, the brain and books. We see pictures like the one of a library after the bombing of London, the ceiling missing, the windows blown out, the people still walking among the stacks, examining the undamaged books on their shelves.

And there is history here. Manguel offers a brief rendition of the supposed start of reading (in receipts for bills of sale), in the advantages that reading offered (the messenger no longer having to be present), in the disadvantages that worried philosophers (in the way in which memories would become lazy), and in the introduction of punctuation (especially for the purpose of allowing silent readers). But if straightforward history is what you're looking for, this may not be the best book to peruse.

It's almost as if Manguel gave up on a single narrative line because he doesn't believe there can be. In his final chapter, he offers us a hypothetical book called The History of Reading. He outlines the book's chapters and closes by denoting that the end of the book is blank because it can never be finished. One might even say that it can't really even be started. In that, Manguel expresses something that seems Borgesian in tone, and Jorge Luis Borges's influence seems to be all over this book, for Manguel, we learn early on, was the blind Borges's reader at a younger age.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

On "The Affair at Coulter's Notch" by Ambrose Bierce (3275 words) ****

This Civil War story of Ambrose Bierce's once again revolves around the concept of exposing the lack of glory in war, in favor of its utter depravity. A soldier is placed in charge of decimating a particular stronghold along the line. He does so but without due deference--i.e., enthusiasm--to his superiors. Much is made of this, and his actions seem near traitorous in some ways until . . . Let's just say that Bierce is working at making the theme of how wars tear families--for that's what nations are--apart into something physical. Read the story here.