Thursday, June 30, 2011

On "The Most Girl Part of You" by Amy Hempel (3185 words) *****

Here's another story from the master, one who only puts out a couple of stories a year it seems. I'm reminded a bit of a tale about Paul Bowles versus his wife Jane Bowles. Paul wrote quickly, edited quickly, churned stuff out. He wrote some fabulous stuff; he also wrote some pretty lame stuff. Jane agonized over every word, but her one novel--Two Serious Ladies--is a masterpiece in every way, rivaling the best that Paul ever came up with.

If Hemphill is part of the latter camp, I could believe it, but I can also believe that such agony gives us lines like "May I challenge you to a dance?" Fantastic.

Here, in this story from her collection At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, a young gal with a close guy friend (one might even say she has a crush, the way she claims everything about Jack is "big") watches as her friend tries to come to terms with the death, the suicide, of his sick mother. Life for Jack seems to be going on about the same as usual, but it's not usual, and we know it and so does she, down deep. The two continue to hang out, but Jack is hurting--and hiding it. And yet, the story is one of a Phoenix, one about what rises from the ashes. Read the story here at the Collagist.

Monday, June 27, 2011

On "The Scar" by Cathy Barber, "From Don't Leave Me Scarlett Johansson" by Thomas Patrick Levy, and "Half-hearted Apology" by Nicole Koroch

I find Barber's "Scar" to be a powerful poem in part because of what it hints at. Like many a good short story, it leads us down a path of history and drops us off just before things are about to turn, or at least may turn. That we don't know--but that we suspect--the final ending is the scary part. Read the poem here at Marco Polo.

Levy's poems are musings from a lover--or a fan--and they're spectacularly poetical, full of odd turns of phrase and metaphor, unexpected dabblings in linguistic dexterity. Levy asks Johansson not to leave him, but my question is, is she listening? Because if she isn't, she needs to be. Read the prose poem here at Diagram.

Koroch's apology pulled me in just with its title, and the poem is pretty much what the title says. As you can imagine, it's kind of funny--and kind of sad. I hope to avoid building friendships like this one. Read the poem here at Ramshackle Review.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On "If Poems Were Children" by Margaret Sullivan, "Unfinished Letter to Death" by Connie Voisine, and "A Conversation about Momentum" by Cami Park

Sullivan's very short poem is a simple metaphor carried to its logical conclusion, and as such, it is gorgeous. I've sometimes wished for less of a desire to write if only to have more time for other things in life. And yet, the opposite--the inability to write, EVER--is probably a more discouraging prospect. Read the poem here at Failbetter.

Voisine's piece falls into the "unfinished" category of writing, but what makes it so ingenious, coy, original, and darkly funny is that it does not just remain unfinished in one piece. It is a collection of unfinished phrases, begging to to be filled in, just as a life cut short often is. Read the poem here at Pool Poetry.

Park's short poem discusses exactly what the title says--all the ways in which most things move toward another thing, whether we wish it to or not. The interesting part here is in what Park chooses to discuss. Read it here at Ward Six.

On "The Werewolf" by Basil Copper ***

Written in the 1970s, this basic introduction to all things werewolf--or at least, the history of the werewolf in legend, fact, and art--seems best to me in its second section, on fact. Werewolves--and vampires and elves and fairies and trolls and all things horrific and fantastic--have not held much interest for me, except in theory. And Copper's book seems to have confirmed that. The legends regarding the werewolf are moderately interesting, while the books and movies about the werewolf sound dreadful (as in dreadfully bad).

I would likely have been drawn a bit more to those other portions of the book, however, if Copper had spent more time analyzing and hypothesizing one what our fascination with the werewolf actually means. Instead, he tends mostly to focus on plot summaries of the best novels and stories and on giving his opinion with regard to how good or bad the works are. Given my lack of interest in the plots, I didn't find these sections terribly compelling.

The section on fact, however, was interesting precisely because Copper did spend some time hypothesizing, drawing parallels between legend and real life. In this section, various theories are espoused with regard to how people in the Middle Ages, for example, could have burned so many werewolves in the various witch hunts that occurred.

One theory is that the legend may have some roots in an obscure disease, a type of pophyria that makes people allergic to the sun. Such people break out into lesions in the light. Their teeth take on a yellowish hue, the urine is red, and for obvious reasons they prefer to come out at night, after sundown. Given their tortured appearance and their preference for the dark, such people might have been seen as witches.

Other diseases, of course, can be psychological, involving people who only think they are wolves--but who then act accordingly.

Copper also delves into stories regarding people raised by wolves. Such people--and there have been something like a hundred over the past few centuries--take on wolfish habits and are incable of learning to speak (going back to theories of language acquisition). Instead, they often walk on all fours and communicate in grunts. Discovered among the wolves, they have long matted hair, long nails, and sharpened teeth. The stories of such people really make one wonder about the extent to which we as humans are different from animals. If raised as a wolf, we are nothing but one, at base, is there any difference? I tend to think we have a spirit of sorts that allows for reason, a gift not inherent (at least not to the same extent) in animals, but what of these people raised among the animals?

But the most fascinating anecdote in the book, for me, is a long account of a man-eating wolf that held Lozere, France, in trepidation for several years beginning around 1764. Over the course of the next two years, the wolf would kill sixty people and injure many more. The wolf liked to prey most of women and children left alone, but it did a few times try to attack groups of children and even a group of men, learning quickly that such attempts were unwise. Villagers got together to hunt the wolf down without success. Louis XV got involved, sending in soldiers at various points, to no avail, and offering a bounty. The man who would eventually kill the beast, a local, would unfortunately not be able to claim the bounty, as the animal would be too greatly decomposed by the time it reached Paris to stand as evidence of his triumph. This, to me, seemed the most horrifying of the stories Copper recounted, something on the level of Jaws or a tale of a serial killer. Now this would make interesting literature or film!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On "Bedsheets and Typewriter Keys" by Karissa Morton, "New York Postcard Sonnet #85" by Philip Dacey, and "Vocation" by Sandra Beasley ****

Morton's poem is full of metaphor, the main one of which is in the title itself. To think of the body as a typewriter, quite lovely really. Type your words on me. Be nice. Read here at Writers' Bloc.

A sonnet I particularly like is one that gives short TV Guide-like synopses of Shakespeare plays. Dacey's is one that captures overheard parts of conversations, lines that are intriguing passages into possible stories all by themselves. Oh, to find sonnet material as interesting as this. Read it here at Serving House Journal.

Sandra Beasley's "Vocation" explores the subject of what people do for a living, reworking the tired phrases that we have come to associate with work to create something new and exciting and, well, funny. And if Freud is right, we laugh because somehow an uncomfortable truth is revealed. Her other poem, "Story" starts with an interesting quote and takes off from there. Read the poems here at Swink.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

On "The Kiss" by Priscilla A. Kipp (531 words) ***

I've had plenty of opportunities to feel neglected. Someone new comes into a friend's life, and suddenly you don't hear from him or her for a while (it's particularly unnerving when it's a person you had some romantic interest in who didn't feel the same way--"I sure liked being friends with her but now I can't even be that"). Not being a parent, I've never had the opportunity to feel neglected by my own offspring. I imagine in a way that it's even worse. I mean, after all those sacrifices and a whole chunk of one's life spent together, and now the kid is an adult with people of his or her own that he or she loves. But there's also something joyous in it also, seeing your son or daughter become his or her own person. This is the ground that this bittersweet (mostly sort of sad) story covers. A woman, at the airport, meeting her son, along with the girlfriend, who her son seems more excited to see. Read the story here at Night Train.

On "Breaking the Maya Code" by Michael Coe **

This book would have come much earlier on the psycholinguists list if I'd been able to get a copy. It's been on constant loan from the library since I started the list. It forges a rather odd ending to the list, for the material is really about deciphering an ancient script, a language, something that would have fit in more with the history of reading sections of the list.

The language that is being deciphered is ancient Maya. Coe's book is an account of how it happened and why it took so long. As an entertaining read, it was a bit on the slow and name-dropping side for me; as history, it focuses mostly on the academicians involved and not so much on the history that is gleaned after the code is cracked. I was thinking the book might be like Richard Rhodes's "Making of the Atom Bomb," but I didn't find myself as invested in the discoveries that were awaiting the archaeologists, linguists, and art historians who finally put the pieces together as I was in the physicists who somehow managed to break apart an atom for the first time.

Coe starts off well enough with his first chapter, which explains some of the basics about different writing systems and about language systems, much of which was covered in other books on my list. Still, this was the most interesting part of the book to me. Maya, it was assumed, was ideographic. That is, each symbol stood for a word--much as some think of Chinese or of Egyptian hieroglyphics. But Coe points out that, while such languages may have started as ideographic on some level, they are really logographic. Logographic languages, if I understand correctly, work with symbols for combining ideas, along with some phonetic and syllabic symbols. Purely syllabic languages have a symbol for each morpheme, and phonetic languages have symbols for each phoneme.

At one point, ancient Egyptian was thought to be ideographic as well, but in fact a scholar named Champollion was able to prove in the nineteenth century that the symbols in the writing actually had a function similar to those in Chinese. Hence, for example, an "eye" symbol wasn't necessarily an eye, but perhaps the sound "eye" or the syllable "ide" or the concept of "high" (I'm making these up--if only to note the point). Mayan, it turns out, works on a similar principle. But whereas Champollion took two years to crack the code, Mayan scholars would take over one hundred. Why?

Champollion had better resources: he had the Rosetta stone and some careful preserved artifacts to review. Mayan scholars didn't.

But in fact, they did. One writer from the early Spanish conquest had written out the Mayan syllabary. Scholars, however, assumed he couldn't possibly have been telling things as they actually were. And here, I suppose, is the interesting part of Coe's story--the crux of the tragedy. Mayan wasn't decoded, it turns out, not because materials weren't present but, first, because of preconceptual prejudices and, second, because of academic egos.

An ancient non-Western "barbarian" culture couldn't possibly have had real writing, some great thinkers assumed. Others thought Native Americans prone to mystical thought--not likely to actually bother writing down events around them. Further, the signs themselves--folks assumed--must be ideographic. And so it goes, working with such assumptions, those trying to decipher were blinded by their own preconceptions.

But even worse, they were blinded by each other. One scholar in particular comes off quite badly. So important was it to be right about his own interpretations that when the true answers--that the script in fact had phonetic and syllabic components mixed into it--were exposed he mocked them. And by reputation, his use of mockery transferred to virtually all others in the field. And such competition, Coe points out, continues up to the writing of his book, wherein archaeologists, angry at dollars being given to linguists, downplay the need to "read" what the inscriptions actually say. Each academic is so concerned with his or her own field and reputation that the work of others is run down, and progress on the subject of the Maya is stunted.

Coe's, then, is a book about closed-minded thinking and academic ego, something that unfortunately is all too familiar many in university settings, as well as to many in the political arena. Truth doesn't matter as much as being "right"--even if one is wrong.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On "They Rolled On" by Pete Pazmino (356 words) ***

Here's a piece that's like a poem. Great prose is often made of repeated phrases or words, and that's the technique Pete Pazmino uses here to describe an evening among young people, students, in a car. I was never a cruiser, and yet a story like this reminds me of youth--perhaps because in the act of driving and watching we feel like there's a world out there waiting for us, full of all kinds of opportunity. Certainly, that's how I felt when younger. Then you get to be twenty-one and get comfortable with bars and all the opportunity seems to be a myth. But it's nice while it lasts. Read the story here at Monkey Bicycle.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On "The Big Hoo-Ha" by Maren Michel (6519 words) ****

Maren Michel's story carried me through to its wallop of an ending. Here is a tale of people aged together so much so that they understand one another's odd grievances and don't much care--or at least Bill doesn't seem to care. Certainly, one gets the feeling that his wife is a bit bossy and a whole lot neurotic, but there's a charm here that Bill sees as few others probably do. Given his chance for freedom, he looks back like Lot's wife. Read the story here at Adirondack Review.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

On "Bounce" by Jeanie Chung (2127 words) ***

The same folks who make basketballs make baseballs: Spalding. That's just something that hit me as I read this story. Imagine, making balls for a living. Some company out there specializes in balls.

A ball is important, however, as Chung points out in this story. It's what boys--and girls--think about. For me, it was never the basketball--too big, too meaty--but the baseball, which fit so perfectly into one's hand; or the tennis ball, only slightly smaller and with so much bounce; or the golf ball, a miniature one could admire for its form. But it's easy to see where the love of the basketball would arise. On television, players perform tricks. You can do these yourself. You can practice yourself. You can practice almost anywhere.

I played basketball in a church league for a couple of years. It was nothing I had wanted to do, but it was the difference between the kids having only one team on which the bench never played and two teams on which most people got to be starters. I did it for the team, you might say. I wasn't good, and I didn't dream of being a star. I was never good at any sport, and basketball, with its emphasis on speed and height, made me even less interested.

But Chung's story is about a kid with natural form. And in that, the story is embued with a kind of energy and enthusiasm for what playing the game can be like, especially in the way that Chung forges her sentences--short and choppy phrases--the pick, the pass--punctuated by the occasional smooth and long clause that breaks away like a player on the court. Read the story here at Stymie.

Monday, June 6, 2011

On "Cyclicismus" by Kevin O'Cuinn (403 words) ***

There's something kind of chilling about this funny little story. That's a pun, sort of. We're talking folks without a home here, migrants, probably runaways. We're also talking a story with some beautiful language--and a beautiful man (or at least a man beautifully written about, who can't cross his legs). So much description here is working. That's why you need to go here, to Spork, and read it.

On "How to Speak Dog" by Stanley Coren ****

So do animals speak languages? When you ask people who are animal lovers, the answer seems to be yes. Coren makes the case that dogs have a language in this book. Now, it's not like a human language. He calls it a simple language (akin to a very small child's), as much dependent on gesture and body language as on sound. He makes this case because animals manage to communicate meaningful things to each other, because they can talk about things not in the current setting (e.g., calling the pack together), because they have a rudimentary grammar (a growl followed by a bark may have a different meaning than a bark followed by a growl, and certain gestures never accompany certain kinds of sounds). Granted, you're not going to get a dog to talk about philosophy, but then, Coren says, you won't get most people to talk about that either: more than two-thirds of what we say has to do with social interaction, which is what a dog's speech is confined to.

But these are the conclusions of Coren's book. Most of the book is not devoted to arguing these points but rather to delineating for us humans just what dogs are saying when they put a hand on our knee or bark at a cat. And in this Coren has some absolutely fascinating subject matter. Individual chapters go into the meaning of different sounds, scents, and of various sets of gestures--with the tail, the ears, the eyes, the face, and the body. Much of dog speech has to do with establishing who's boss and who is going to follow, and as Coren points out, is primarily about heading off a fight rather than getting involved in one. Hence, if a dog looks away, it is taking a subordinate role as opposed to one who continues to stare.

This has implications for how we as humans deal with dogs as well. Coren has some cool anecdotes, the most memorable to me being one in which a dog would continually come and sit on the couch next to a woman when her husband was gone. The dog would put his heavy head on the woman's lap along with a paw. He seemed to want constant affection, but he was heavy and hot and tiresome. She'd move over to make room for him, but he'd move again to be on her. Coren pointed out that in fact the dog was not looking for affection. It was claiming that it was the boss, demonstrating that it ruled the house when the woman's husband was gone. In another case of misunderstanding, a dog would continually wet the floor when a man came home, though it didn't wet the floor otherwise. Obviously, the dog was being disrespectful and hateful--or so it might seem. In fact, in dog language, it was trying to show its submissiveness to the man, as in I'm so like a little puppy around you that I can't even control my bowels, so don't beat me up.

An interesting discussion regards the gesture of pointing, which dogs do differently than humans. Dogs tend to look at the pointer when we use our hands rather than at the thing that is being pointed at. In dog speak, the way to point is with one's body, by turning one's head, just as a dog would point with other dogs. Coren believes this has, in part, to do with dogs less satisfactory eyesight.

Later chapters explore some tidbits on dogs and scent (they have something like four to five times the number of scent receptors that humans do, which explains why they can distinguish scents so much better than we can, making up for shortages in sight), on differing dialects among dogs, of dogs and cats, and of attempts to teach dogs human language. The dogs and cats section shows how cats in fact have their own gestural language that, in many ways, differs from dogs. Hence, this can lead to conflict, especially when the dog or cat has not grown up in a mixed home. Take, for example, rolling over to expose the belly. In a dog, this is a move showing submission; in a cat, this is an attack pose.

The chapter on dogs learning human language focuses mostly on apes, since that's where most research has actually been done. Primates, as the author points out, hold a lot more promise in this regard because of their greater dexterity with regard to hands. However, in the 1960s, Elisabeth Mann Borgese did try to train her dog Arli to use a keyboard to type out requests and demands, starting first with words and then moving to individual letters. Eventually, he learned to count to four and to type the words dog, cat, arlie, bird, ball, and bone. But was it really language? There is a humorous passage regarding submission of his poetry to a literary journal, which compared his work to e e cummings and encouraged Arli to continue in his pursuits.

Friday, June 3, 2011

On "Love of Life" by Jack London (8219 words) ****

In a story that rivals "To Build a Fire" in subject matter but which stretches on much longer, London recounts the possible last days of a man injured in a fall in the snow. A burden now that he has a swollen ankle, his companion deserts him, and we get the benefits of the adventure story to follow--where to find food, how to make shoes from blankets and clothing, how to fend off hungry wolves waiting for you to die. The story is exquisite in detail, and one can't help but cheer the man on to the very end and hope, somehow, that he makes it back. Stories of extreme conditions would seem like easy pickings for great reading, but it's easy to overdo the hysteria. What I think makes this London story work is that he focuses so much on the external, and that external then begins to stand for the internal state of the man. It's a great read, reminiscent of films like Touching the Void, another great winter survivalist tale. Read the story here.