Saturday, December 29, 2012

On "He Never Loved You" by Dave Newman (4686 words) ****

Newman's tale treads some familiar ground and and some familiar themes. Is it better to love someone too young for you--to go against convention--or settle for someone in order to fit convention? Really, of course, that's not the choice. The choice is to remain single because of convention or to marry because of convention. Newman sides, ultimately, it seems with going with one's heart rather than doing what people expect--or at least Newman's main character does.

Most stories have fairly familiar plots, however, so the real question is what an author does with it to make the tale unique, and it is here that Newman excels. Vanessa is a slightly overweight waitress who is a regular drinker at a bar down the street. She's been in college for twelve years, uncertain what she ultimately wants to become (this year, it's a social worker). Her interest in men is nill. She has a jerk of a stepfather and a loving mom who married not to be alone. And she has a budding interest in one of the men she goes to college with.

What makes the piece so great is the word choice. Take, for example, this detail. When Vanessa meets her love interest, Davey, the first thing she notices about him is his smell: cinnamon. Smell is not the first thing most writers point to. But then, Newman doesn't just stop there. It's not just cinnamon--he specifies the type: not gum but baking. "You smell like a cookie," becomes the pickup line, and as it turns out, a meaningful one.

Read the story here at Jenny Mag.

On "Fear and Trembling" by Soren Kierkegaard ***

It's been a long time since I read any Kant and I've never read Hegel directly, so I come to this book with a certain deficit of necessary background. Still, Kierkegaard is one of the heavies among Danish writers, so I couldn't well skip him, even if his subject matter isn't one normally to my taste. On the whole, for a work of philosophy, this text was fairly approachable.

The introduction provided by C. Stephen Evans and Sylvia Welsh provides some of the necessary background information. In it, they discuss Kant's and Hegel's views of ethics. Both contend, in a way, that the ethical stems from the universal. Kant sees ethics as derived from reason apart from experience. Hegel, however, says that this reason gets embodied in customs, laws, and traditions, and that people don't necessarily a priori have knowledge of what is moral via their reason.

Enter Kierkegaard, who dispenses with both views through a discussion of faith--and in particular through the actions of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac at the behest of God. Faith cannot fall under "normal" rules of ethics, Kierkegaard says, for a number of reasons. First is the fact that the man of faith is not in touch with the universal but with the absolute. Faith skips the universal. What might seem ethical to everyone else, the person of faith doesn't care about--he cares only about what's ethical to God, and as such, he speaks with God directly, via the self. The "glorious" act is performed for one alone, though it makes no sense to everyone else and isn't in their eyes glorious at all.

Kierkegaard also discusses the difference between resignation and faith, and between tragedy and faith. In the case of resignation, one might perform a glorious act knowing that one has no other choice. But the act of faith is not done out of a mere acceptance of a tragic end. It is done with a full belief in the "glorious" end. Hence, the man who accepts his death to save his comrades might be resigned to his fate, but the man, like Abraham, who kills his son knowing that God will take care of the promise he has already afforded him (to give him nations through that son) is a man of faith--a believer in the "absurd."

These are interesting distinctions that I'm not so sure make a heap of difference in the world and that, on some level, I can't help but be a bit uncomfortable with, in a world where men crash planes into buildings and kill thousands of others in the name of their faith. And while a person of faith myself, I understand how mad we might appear to be to others, I can't help but wonder about the ethics of certain actions done in the name of others' faith. Does faith then resign us to a world of continual subjectivity, each person listening to his own version of the absolute no matter the consequences for others? This isn't to say that I think Hegel or Kant are correct either; societal customs can be immoral, and reason is only good if the premise one starts with is correct--and given that we often start with the wrong premise (see societal customs), we often end up with immoral conclusions (witness, for example, the ways in which different times have rendered different verdicts regarding a number of moral issues--it's not that humans progress, for in many cases we regress on one thing as we progress on another).

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On "The Commander Is Oppressed by His Tongues" by Michael Pearce (6299 words) ***

Pearce's tale is in the tradition of fantastic realism, and concerns things that would often concern those who write in that tradition--namely, life under a dictatorship. In the story, a commander collects the tongues of each of his prisoners. If you have a tongue fetish, this is the piece for you. I was slightly grossed out by the idea of a collection of disembodied tongues, but the narrative gains in power as it proceeds. Try as he may to silence his rebels, the dictator is haunted by his collection. Find out how, here at Web Conjunctions.

On "An Introduction to Scandinavian Literature" by Elias Bredsdorff, Brita Mortensen, and Ronald Popperwell **

This fairly short guide, written in 1950, provides a summary of Scandinavian literature from the earliest times to just after World War II. Like most such guides, its brevity is both its strength and its weakness, more the latter than the former. In the effort to be comprehensive, readers are often presented more with a list of names and one sentence commentary than something of substance that really delves into what makes the literature or the times unique, that really tells how that literature had an influence on the society.

On the whole, the earliest sections on the foundations of Danish literature (and Icelandic sagas), the last section on Norway, and the Danish sections in general tend to be the best. I think the first is probably the most interesting because there's so little of it, and so it's easier to summarize. We are given the story of the runes, of Elder Edda (a pre-Christian tale of the gods of the ancient Nordics), and of the family sagas. The last section on Norway proved to be interesting to me mostly because I was still looking for writers from Norway to add to my list of Scandinavian authors to read. And the sections on Danish lit in general seemed best because the author of those sections seemed more often to hit on the right balance of brevity and depth, often quoting important passages (rarely done for the Swedish or Norwegian lit), and more inclined to focus on important individuals.

Unfortunately, too often the book is merely a note on particular authors: so-and-so is an important author of the 1850s, best known for such-and-such. His other such-and-such is highly overrated. And what exactly did I learn from such a passage?

The book focuses primarily on the Danes and the Swedes. Finland is completely ignored; Norway becomes of concern only in the nineteenth century, with its near independence. Iceland, outside of the early sagas, is generally ignored as well. Still, the book did give me a few writers to focus on in the coming months. What I'd have really preferred is a general anthology of Scandinavian literature, but I have been unable to find one.

Friday, December 21, 2012

On "Players, Tawkers, Spawts" by John Domini (3419 words) ***

This one is all in the voice. It's a Hollywood pitch for the sci-fi set, all energy. A guy sets out to make a movie, see, about a sport team that has had an extremely bad run of luck, and then this devil figure shows up and offers them a deal. Sort of Faustian. But the problem is the real-life model . . . You get the gist. Read more here at Web Conjunctions.

Monday, December 17, 2012

On "Beauty Forever" by Barry Graham (1331 words) ****

This one is all in the voice. It's about a kid who isn't all there but used to be. It's about a family gone wrong. What's interesting is how Graham manages to make the story so sad while providing for us this incredibly happy narrator. In fact, the narrator is so happy that in some ways, it's hard to feel so sad about what's happened. There's something to be said for a cheery disposition. Read the story here at Corium.

On "The Scandinavians" by Donald S. Connery *****

The one drawback to this wonderful introduction to post-World War II Scandinavian culture is that it is fifty years old and, thus, in many ways out of date. And yet, my general impressions of Scandinavia before coming to this text would have matched those of mid-1960s Scandinavia as well. Connery terms the basic stereotype of the nations of this area as being involved heavily in sex, socialism, and suicide, and his text goes about both debunking and confirming these general impressions.

After a general introduction to these themes, Connery presents chapters on each of the Scandinavian nations respectively: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, with a short postcript on Iceland. Denmark emerges as a country fun partygoers, Norway as a country of naive outdoorsmen, Sweden as a land of stern and hardy workers, and Finland as a land of quiet depressives. Iceland is the land of the original Vikings (indeed, even the language is more akin to original Danish than contemporary Danish, as if the area is frozen in time). All of these impressions are true, and all of them are false, which is what Connery brings out.

The chapters of each part delve into consistent themes: general cultural impressions, the physical geography, history, contemporary government and economy, famous people, and the arts. By remaining more general, Connery is able to give a better understanding of why each nation did what it did in World War II than someone who focuses on the nitty-gritty details, though he is perhaps a bit hagiographic (uncritical) with regard to each nation. Finland emerges in a particularly sympathetic light, the loser of over twenty wars who has somehow managed to survive despite all that. Indeed, for much of its history it was either part of Sweden or part of Russia, and when not, it has been under threat from its larger neighbors.

The welfare system in each of these countries emerges in a particularly interesting light. Although each nation is generous in how it treats its sick and aged and poor, and although each country has high taxes to enable such, the idea that they are truly socialist falls by the wayside when one considers how much of the private sector is owned by the government--indeed, very little in most cases.

Connery covers in some detail the Danish penal system, which focuses more on rehabilitation than on confinement. He seems won over by the idea that treating such prisoners in a humane way works better than denying them comforts. He makes me think our own American system--so often focused on punishment and "revenge" for wrong deeds--needs quite a bit of reform. But there is a balance, and it strikes me as a bit naive in some ways to think that would work for all peoples confined to prison.

Another startling government feature in most Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, is the "ombudsman." His role is to investigate government wrongdoing. If there is an accusation, a complaint, the ombudsman looks into it and then, if the troubles prove to have foundation, makes recommendations accordingly. The role seems similar to the consumer bureau that the United States has lately attempted to set up to guard against corporate wrongdoing. I get a sense the U.S. version will get bogged down in red tape and corporate buy-offs.

Sweden comes off as a country with strong strictures on drinking as does Finland. Both countries own all the liquor stores (though in the former case, the intent was mostly to make money for the king originally). This allows Sweden, for example, to prevent certain known drunks from purchasing liquor. Bars close by one a.m. Taxes on liquor are exorbitantly high, which keeps it from heavy purchase. And yet, at the same time, attitudes toward sex are comparatively open. In Finland, even in the sixties, out-of-wedlock babies were common as were couples living together; even so, pornography and the like was frowned upon. Women were more often in government and more likely to hold jobs comparable to men. In Sweden, the church was something all Swedes become members of and render income to from birth, unless they actually apply to become nonmembers; most don't bother to deregister, even though few people actually attend services. Such odd juxtapositions are what make Scandinavia unique.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On "The Cure" by Rahul Mehta (1863 words) ***

Mehta's "The Cure" reminds me a little of Imad Rahman's I Dream of Microwaves. That book, a collection of stories about an aspiring actor, is full zany unbelievable things, and Mehta seems to be doing something similar here. The narrator is a neerdowell from a rich family (a family that got rich through hard years of toil). He has some kind of fixation with burning money and, at the suggestion of friends, chooses to attend therapy to find a cure. The burning of money here is a metaphor made literal. Why use money on such conspicuous consumption? What sort of guilt are we harboring or should we harbor when doing so? What, really, is life about? Read the story here at Fifty-two Stories.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

On "Corona Cafe" by Mary Miller (306 words) ****

"I'd left my husband because I was never going to be the person I wanted to become," Miller's narrator states. It's a kind of window into the tale as a whole, the last half of which is a recounting of a date, that whole awkward lustfulness of going out, the desire to be past the dating stage and yet uncertain how to get there or even whether it's worth the bother. The last half begs the question, what is the first half--a beautiful description of the fall--doing in the story? I think it might be tied up in that line I quoted. Fall is a time of turning, but it's also a time of death rather than new beginning. The narrator spends her time paying attention to her outer surroundings, now that she's single, and she finds, really, that there still isn't much to her. And for this, she looks to her date--and her imagination. What do you think? Read the tale here at Corium.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On "Alvord" by Joshua Willey (3879 words) ***

"Alvord" is about traveling, about resting, about going nowhere fast. It reminds me a bit of some of my favorite passages from Huckleberry Finn, those where Huck and Jim are just nestling on their raft along the river. It reminds me too of On the Road, the way we're just carried along with these travelers and the interesting people they meet and the things their reading and the wonder of everything. Read the story here at Up the Staircase.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

On "Romance" by Rachel Nagelberg (451 words) ***

Nagelberg's "Romance" is about stories. What I mean by that is that it's about the way in which our imagination can pull us into places we seem incapable of getting to in real life. Here, we have a tale of a date, the story of the date that is the the story of the date that is in the head. Read the story here at Up the Staircase.

On "A History of Scandinavia" by T. K. Derry **

I came to this book in an effort to get some basic history of Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. It was probably not the best book to start with. It's a primer all right, but it's for someone who already knows European history from the dawn of time to 1976 with some amount of precision. I found the last hundred pages or so much easier to read, but that's because I know my history slightly better from World War II on. I know, for example, who Hitler. But in some earlier chapters, the author has a penchant to drop names and events in, and one is left wonder who dat? what dat? In other words, there are quite a few assumptions about the reader's cultural knowledge, which makes me wonder who exactly the audience for a book such as this is? Someone reviewing Scandinavian history perhaps?

I did learn quite a few facts, however--more than I realized, I came to see, as I ran down some of the book's details in conversation with a friend. One of the most interesting little tidbits was one I can't find now in the book. It had to do with emigration to the United States from Norway in the late 1800s. Nearly 3 percent of the population left for the New World, but the most amazing statistic is the one I can't find--how many young adults left; as I recall, it was some kind of unbelievable share of the population, like one in three (that isn't the number, however--ugh!). I can't begin to imagine so many of my colleagues taking off for a new land.

The history of Scandinavia is a history much like that of the world's. It is a history of war, and in that sense, it is pretty boring. One battle after another after another. It's also disheartening. Why can't we just stop fighting each other? What exactly does all this killing accomplish? Perhaps, that amount of war does come as a bit of surprise, however, because the recent history of Scandinavia is much more benign--these peaceful people who simply enjoy hanging out.

The book starts with tales of where the Scandinavians derived. No one really knows. Some came up from the Black Sea area apparently, but there were also people already a long time in the area. The land itself apparently takes its name from a misspelling/mishearing from a Roman historian, which I found kind of funny.

I was hoping to learn more about the interaction between early Britain and Scandinavia--and that is here--but the density of the text prevented me from really soaking in the information. The Scandinavians moved around the northern part of Europe; they shared royal blood with some of the Brits.

Early Scandinavians, however, didn't have royals in the sense that we think of them today. The royal class was based on worthiness--not so much heredity--which meant that when a king died, there was a kind of struggle to define who would take the leader's place. With time this changed a bit.

We tend to really first think of Scandinavians around the time the Vikings enter the scene. These were a piratical people primarily, so there was not a big push to settle new lands.

It's not entirely by accident that Denmark took the lead in this regard. It's the most fertile of the countries; Sweden has just about 10 percent of its land available for farming, Norway just 3 percent. So the real food producers were in Denmark. Sweden would have to rely on forestry, Norway on fishing. Not until industrialization took hold would Sweden really begin to take the lead (it has incredible mining operations in the north).

Christianity entered the area. The kindgoms, only for a short hundred years or so, were united in the Middle Ages, but mostly they have been distinct through most of history. Denmark settled Norway and held on to that land till the early 1800s, though there was some amount of self-government in Norway. Iceland also was settled by the Danes (the Vikings, really) and remained part of Denmark until World War II. Finland, for much of its history, was part of Sweden.

A war in the nineteenth century switched things up. The result was that Russia took Finland into its own sphere. Sweden ended up with Norway. And Denmark got essentially very little.

Movement toward independence was actually sparked in many ways by prosperity. The better off people were, the more they wanted to separate from the mother nation.

The Scandinavians made the move toward the modern socialist-type states during the Depression years and have continued down this path since. The nations are some of the best educated (large segments of the population began attending universities earlier than in most nations), and some of the egalitarian (women gained the right to vote fairly early; taxation on wealth is fairly high). The nations sat out World War I; being at the edge of Europe, such was easily possible--and neutrality allowed them to make bundles of money selling goods to warring states. World War II would not be so kind. Sweden alone was able to remain neutral. Denmark was invaded by Germany, Norway also (though it had a Allied government in exile). Finland was invaded by Russia and then snuggled up to Germany in order to expel the Russians. Iceland became a staging ground for the Americans. But recovery from the war was quick, despite the great amount of damage done to most of the nations.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On "The Look-alike" by Stephen Langlois (1693 words) ****

Edgar Allan Poe had many a story about dopplegangers, and now Stephen Langlois has one too. And it's a nude. One gets the feeling from the tale that this is a man who largely goes unthinkingly through his life. It is a stale existence, filled with two jobs and too many bills, no friends and a family who has left him. Enter the twin, similarly unthinking but even more like a zombie. The twin can do the man's bidding. Wish fulfillment or something else entirely? Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Friday, November 23, 2012

On "Cold Reading" by Michael Swanwick (2058 words) ***

Swanwick's "Cold Reading" covers the familiar ground of a person waking up to find he's become part of a play. I think Pirandello. I think the film *Audition*. I think actually of a number of other plays that sit out there in the world but that I cannot identify. Perhaps, the idea is less often used that dallied with, subtly, as in movies lie The Player, a film I should rewatch sometime (it's been a good twenty years). What sets Swanwick's play/life apart is the energy he brings to his piece, the enthusiasm. Sure, all the schlock angst is here, but so too is the bravura of performance. Read the story here at Flurb.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On "Begin Chest Compressions" by Roxane Gay (5230 words) ****

Gay's "Compressions" is a gutsy story. It's about relationships--and about how we're not always certain of how good a particular person is for us, even when that person has stuck with us unto death. It's about failure, about what happens to a relationship when something horrible happens and how both parties feel somewhat incapable of dealing with the fallout, and how that in and of itself can draw them together.

Chad is a good guy, but he's no great catch, according to his mom. Sarah is a pretty girl who knows she can probably do better but whose pity for Chad keeps her bound to him. One night, the couple is attacked. Let the compressions begin. Read the story here at Fringe.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On "Childhood" by Lisa Lerner (4918 words) ***

Lerner's "Childhood" is a flight of fancy, which in a sense is something that childhood is filled with. The story involves a single mother attempting to deal with a distraught toddler. In the course of this, she gives in to the child's whims and agrees to purchase for the kid a miniature pony. "Is it possible for her to be a good parent without becoming a child herself?" the mother asks. The answer, apparently, is no. Find out what other fanciful stuff happens here at Swink.

On "Pnin" by Vladimir Nabokov *****

Pnin was my introduction to Nabokov, in an interpretation of fiction class my freshman year of college. I enjoyed the book enough that I would, over the course of the next six years or so, read many more books by him. (Alas, I don't as often read books by the same author now, unless I set out a plan to do so--something that in certain cases, like Nabokov, is a bit of a sad thing.) At the time, I must have been amazed by his command of the English language. It's something that I still am amazed at. Yes, at times his prose can be purple, but mostly, he's a true commander of the perfect adjective, which is unusual. Most strong writers I know really work at the verbs and nouns, but somehow Nabokov was able to make his nouns sing with the odd adjectival addition. I remain jealous.

I remember not picking up on something in this novel that seem utterly obvious now. Perhaps it was my age; perhaps it was the fact that I was coming to this book for a second time and so knew what to look for. That something was the identity of the narrator--or certain details about the narrator's life. For Pnin is an incredible example of the use of the unreliable narrator. This is a man who is a known liar, a man who apparently gets most of his story about Pnin's life from an acquaintance who spends time imitating Pnin for laughs, a man who drives Pnin's future wife to near suicide, a former lover of Pnin's future wife, a man who gets his jollies from belittling others. As such, Pnin, at the heart of the tail, comes off much like a fool--but a pitiful and sad one, one we feel for on not just the level of plot, of discovering Pnin's poor life, but on the level of the telling of that plot. By the end of the book, we detest what the narrator has done to Pnin, not just in action but in the telling.

Made of seven chapters, some of the chapters in this text are brilliant little stories of their own. In fact, I would not say that this is a book heavy on rising conflict--it is more episodic. I much like chapter 6, about Pnin's hosting of a party, just before a terrible knowledge is about to be pushed onto him. But my favorite chapter is almost certain the second. It is the story of Pnin's former wife coming to visit him. Excited by the prospect of seeing her again, he sets about elaborate preparations only to be sacked with a request that seems unfathomably ridiculous. And yet, Pnin, dutiful man that he is, we come to believe, will likely go about fulfilling it.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On "Eirene" by Robert Wexelblatt (8271 words) ***

This tale is strangely mesmerizing. I kept thinking--and I'm sure there's a deliberate connection here (I just haven't read the play in too long a time)--of Ibsen's The Doll House. Only this is a tale about a girl whose father leaves and who is left with her mom and brother and what she does with the doll house she's been given by her dad. But really, that's just the start. This is a story about a play. It's a story about sex. It's a story about literature and philosophy. Wexelblatt throws everything at the reader, and perhaps that's how he keeps the reader reading on with such enthusiasm even on a screen. There's a voice here. And there's education. I said Ibsen, but when I got to the end of the story, I was really thinking more about Kundera, one of those writers whose education runs across the tales he tells, whose story is as much a philosophical query and a literary meditation as any kind of romp. Read the story here at Tryst.

On "Pause and Effect" by M. B. Parkes ***

When I told certain friends and acquaintances that I was reading a book on the history of punctuation, most reacted with a statement along the lines of, "Why?" In other words, the subject seemed utterly dry and dull to them. The lone holdout was a recent doctor of philosophy, whose reaction was more along the lines of, "Tell me more."

I, of course, had been interested in the subject for some time. A popular book on the subject has yet to be published, however, so I had to settle for this--what is a very esoteric book on the topic. In fact, it was so esoteric in looks that I considered not bothering to read it at all. The book isn't aided at all by its design: large pages with a single, very wide column of type. In other words, even by its looks, it is dense and difficult to read.

But I'm glad that I did. Parkes, once I got into reading that first page, isn't a bad writer. The introduction, in fact, was quite fascinating, and the history overall is too. That said, Parkes is one for detail, and it is in those details that the book gets bogged down and boring.

The gist of the history goes something along the lines of this. Once upon a time, written language didn't involve punctuation. Writing was largely for the purpose of setting down thoughts for orators or lectors (professional readers). It was only when reading switched from being a public activity to a silent and private one that punctuation began to take a more consistent hold. I'd read this part before, but I'd been a bit skeptical. Parkes has made me a believer. Perhaps there is something to sharing so many details.

The shift the silent reading coincided with a move toward studying works in monasteries and such. But even before this, lectors and orators were known to mark up their private copies of manuscripts with personal punctuation--all kinds of marks, such as 7 or /--to show where pauses were to take place. One early lector says in a work that when asked to read something unfamiliar he had to turn the opportunity down: he didn't know enough about the work to be able to pause in the right spots.

Punctuation can have a great influence on the meaning of a passage, and so as the shift toward private reading in monasteries occurred, the Church also had an interest in ensuring that manuscripts were marked--punctuated--properly. Hence, some standardization began to sneak in then.

Most of this early punctuation was for the purpose of marking pauses in speaking, in reading aloud. That too would change--but much later.

The true standardizing came about, however, after the invention of the printing press. Now, typesetters were involved, and at times they had only certain marks to work with. Also, not just one copy of a manuscript was being produced by hundreds, so that readers and other printers became used to seeing certain kinds of marks, and subsequent copies then bore those marks also.

The study of grammar became something of interest to medieval scholars. They began naming out the parts of speech, studying how language itself worked. This too would have its effect on punctuation, as some punctuators would shift from simply using marks to denote pauses to using such marks to denote grammatical elements--complete ideas. In fact, there came to be a kind of debate between two schools: those who thought of punctuation largely as a means to denote pauses in speaking and those who thought of punctuation as a means to denote the logic (the complete thoughts) of a passage. It's a debate that to an extent carries into our day. The logic argument would find full force in the work of John Locke, who pushed prescriptive, instead of descriptive, grammar. Language should have rules, he believed, because this aided logic and reason, and so punctuation fell into that same lot.

Other punctuation marks, like quote marks and apostrophes, arose later. In Spain, the Royal Academy actually ruled that interrogative sentences should begin with the upside down question mark for clarity, but most such languages aren't regulated that way. Apostrophes first came into being so show missing vowels. Various marks were used for dialogue (if any were used at all) before quote marks became the norm in English.

And so it goes: the history of the comma, the period, the semicolon. Fascinating, in the big picture, if not so much in the little details.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

On "Alone in a Small, Small World" by Dean Marshall Tuck (928 words) ****

Tuck's piece revolves around one central conundrum: how to not be lonely versus how to be unique. It's an interesting thought, one I hadn't really given much attention to previously. If we really are the only ones who think a certain thought, then how are we identify with others? Conversely, if our thoughts are not unique, in what way can they ever be wholly ours? Back up this central theme up with a few good--and unique--thoughts, and one has the making for a grand thought piece. Read it here at Fringe Magazine.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On "Lucky" by Danila Botha (1906 words) ***

Botha's "Lucky" ventures into typical teen territory and moves beyond it in ways that are disturbing. What's working here is the voice, which focuses on a child who is at war with her parents, a child on the way to becoming an adult but who thinks she already is one. The parents insist that she go to church, that she refrain from drugs and drinking and sex and many other things inappropriate for a fifteen-year-old. When her parents ban her boyfriend, however, real trouble ensues. Perhaps the girl's maturity--or lack thereof--is showcased most in her emotions, or lack thereof. Read the story here at Trailer Park Quarterly.

On "Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom" by William and Ellen Craft ***

The transvesticism in this nineteenth-century slave-escape narrative is what drew me toward reading it. I tend of think of gender reversals as a twentieth-century phenomenon, so I'm often intrigued by such events taking place hundreds of years ago, though I suppose I shouldn't be. Such practices go back to the ancients.

In this tale, two slaves--and man and wife--make their way to the North and freedom by posing as an ill gentleman and his aid. The aid is the husband, and the gentlemen is the wife, whose color is light enough that she can pass for white. Hence, she passes, in this tale, as both a man and as a Caucasian (though, of course, that definition is itself fraught with problems, since she would have been Caucasian in the Caribbean).

The events described in the book would make for a great movie, but the execution of those events as described within the book does not do them much justice. This isn't a nail biter. We know what's going to happen, and there's little in the way of conflict.

This wasn't written, however, primarily to be sensational but rather to evince certain feelings in the reader. The Crafts begin their narrative (though it is William who does most of the writing), not with their own story, but with a summary of the evils of slavery, both in law and in practice. Some of these short anecdotes at the start of the book, I found more interesting than the narrative itself. Craft tells of a German girl taken from her family and sold into slavery (in other words, cases of whites absconded with at a young age and then sold as "blacks"). He also tells of free blacks reintroduced into slavery through fraud (in one case, a family released from slavery by one man's will was subsequently placed under another man's authority when that other man claimed to be a relative with say-so regarding whether the will could be legitimate).

Next comes the Craft narrative itself, which in some ways seems much tamer than the stories that preceded it. However, the tale also makes clear how difficult it was for a black person to make it in the antebellum South or even the North. William has no place to lay his head, while his wife, posing as a white, does quite well. But even so, not having papers to prove their identity, they run into a few snags along the way. And later, in the North, they are often denied places to stay because of their race; they get around this by having Ellen ask for a room, and then, after the deal has been struck, sneaking William in, to landlord's surprise.

The story ends with a long screed on the injustice of the American system and on the irony that in Britain the Crafts are actually able to find more freedom than in the land where the Patriots earlier fought to gain freedom from Britain.

The book is old enough to be in the public domain and can be found here among other places.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

On "Dish at Java Juice: A Ten Act Story" by Sweetman (2052 words) ***

When I was around twenty, taking the train across the United States, stopping off in stations along the way, I would sit myself down by the payphones and listen and take notes. I only got to hear half of the conversation, but that half sometimes was an intriguing window into someone else's life. Even now, sometimes, sitting in a restaurant, it can be fun to overhear a conversation. (Or sometimes, it can be annoying.) Perhaps, this is why I prefer to avoid conversation about personal things in public places, as if people I don't know would care.

"Dish at Java Juice" reads like a collection of ten such overheard conversations. In this case, though, they build on one another, so that we get a feel for these characters and people. (For me, the overhearing I'll do is only among strangers--the idea that a story might reside in the things I don't know, the things not placed in the conversation; I don't really want to know about people I know unless they tell me, so I'd be less inclined to listen to a series of conversations like this, knowledge becoming too thick, imagination less so.) But the story stays intriguing nonetheless. Read it here at This.

On "The Burning House" by Ann Beattie **

I've read a story or two by Beattie in the past, but for someone so prolific and respected, she's one that somehow I never was drawn to read more of--at least not immediately. I would get to her, eventually. And now I have. And unfortunately I still don't find myself drawn to her writing that much. She has a simple style that should make for easy reading, but as I find much of Bobbie Anne Mason's work, so find I Beattie's: I'm just not that interested. The stories are about mundane things mostly, which is fine, but I need either something odd--burningly strange language or, even better, little odd events that somehow sneak into the mundane, that make those stories memorable individually rather than becoming just one big run-in of sameness. I think those little odd moments are what ultimately keeps me enchanted by Raymond Carver.

The best stories in this collection of Beattie's seemed the longer ones, where the characters had time to work into my being in a way, make me take notice of them and their world despite how little was going on. One of these pieces was "Winter: 1978." In it, a couple spend time with a friend while in town to sell some artwork; during the visit, they meet up with family--an ex-wife, and learn a few things about relationships gone awry.

In fact, relationships gone awry seem to be a major theme throughout the collection. In "The Cinderella Waltz," a woman carries on a half-relationship with her ex-husband's new gay lover. Both seem to understand how selfish the ex-husband is, and yet both on some level still want the man. My favorite story in the collection is "Like Glass," a very short piece that works its metaphorical connection to the title very well. But unfortunately, few of the other stories stand out in my mind.

Friday, October 26, 2012

On "Correction" by Heather A. Slomski (1746 words) ****

There's a simplicity to the writing in this story and a kind of predictability. I really enjoy how Slomski simply places one word in front of another and makes it look so simple. We have an art show, a couple having problems, and set of paintings they both admire that feature drawings that include WhiteOut. Much of the story consists of a description of these drawings, but in them we get the heart of what's happening in the relationship itself. Read the story here at Knee-Jerk.

Monday, October 22, 2012

On "Remove Yourself" by Catherine Lacey (1396 words) ***

Some stories require you to warm up to them, while others speak to you from the first lines. This is one of the latter for me. It's a piece about "removal," first a literal and immediate removal, and then a longer-term and deeper removal. We start off with a car, a place where the narrator is being told that she is no longer welcome. But, as she notes, she has nowhere else to go. Our sympathies are with her. What's going to happen to her? And why is this happening to her? And then we learn the answer to the first--and a little to the second--and our sympathies shift a bit. Read the story here at Fifty-Two Stories.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

On "At the End of the Tunnel" by Jeremy Zimmerman (759 words) ***

One reason flash fiction and pulp fiction don't tend to go together is that the latter is plot based, and to work a good plot and not have it be just a summary, you need time to develop the characters and the background. Zimmerman works the fantasy end of the spectrum in this piece, however, by playing the story as a joke. And really, such makes sense, for flash fiction often is the length of a joke--a longer one--and it has a similar form. You have a setup, and then comes your punchline, your moment of shock. Stick around for that moment in this one. Everyone wants to get into heaven, but they're locked out. Now what? Read the story here at 10 Flash.

On "Next of Kin" by Roger Fouts with Stephen Tukel Mills ****

Fouts is a believer. What I mean is that he is a heavy believer in chimpanzee speech--and in a sense, in the personhood of chimpanzees. I've read work by those who have heavy doubts about chimpanzee language also. But, with his enthusiasm and determination, as on evidence here, Fouts is probably more convincing.

Still, I'd prefer the work of someone a bit more skeptical, not a neighsayer but not a yeasayer either. I don't know sign language, so perhaps my watching of films of apes doing such isn't fully informed, but I remain somewhat skeptical. I'm not saying I don't think primates sign or communicate; I'm remain a bit skeptical about what they sign and communicate for and about. After all, they only master often thirty to two hundred signs. They communicate, as all animals do. But discourse isn't exactly on the human level that Fouts often seems to almost put it on in this book.

Fouts complains of scientists and linguists whose preconceived notions render the results they want. They won't accept Fouts's findings no matter what because those findings don't jibe with what they believe, with what they want to find. I understand Fouts's frustration. Breaking the Maya Code is a great example of how such closed-mindedness can harm scholarly endeavors--and it does so regularly. But Fouts also, in becoming so close to the subject of his research, is probably also blinded a bit by his own will. We all are. This is what I mean about having a healthy bit of skepticism.

That said, I truly enjoyed the work, especially as the writer explored aspects of animal language and research I hadn't been aware of before. There's a long section of the space chimps, the primates sent into orbit to test out American ingenuity in the days before human astronauts. I'd never read about them at length. Most interesting: Fouts discusses how the primate brain is more complex than we imagined. One would imagine rote conditioning, and yet one chimp, sent into space, having been taught to do a certain procedure a certain way lest he be electrically zapped, faced a situation that required him to go against directions and previous training, and to actually be zapped while doing so, and he did it, saving the spacecraft. That's probably one of the most amazing stories of animal thought I've ever heard.

Another part I really enjoyed was reading about Fouts's work with autistic children. That's what his original intent in becoming a psychological scholar was: to work with disabled children. Somehow, he got sidetracked and ended up taking care of chimps. But the research in the field hasn't been all for mere curiosity. Language research has helped psychologists get autistic children to talk. It showed that children who find sound too intense can sometimes manage to learn to communicate via another sense, like signs; in turn, this has freed up their linguistic brain, one might say, and eventually led them to talk with their mouths as well.

But as one would expect, the main focus here is the chimps, especially Washoe, the one Fouts has worked with the longest. We learn a lot of Washoe's biography as well as the biographies of other chimps Fouts worked with extensively. A lot of the characters are familiar--the same ones who show up in other books about talking primates.

There's also a lot of active pushing for the end to using chimps for research (yes, coming from this researcher), a lot of pushing for the "human rights" of chimps. Fouts at some point concedes that this is the beginning of a slope. Why stop at chimps? Why not include dogs or rats? But he thinks these are questions and concerns worth addressing, since, as he notes, some claimed certain races and ethnicities were biologically inferior a century ago. Call me biased toward humans, but I do think there's a significant difference. That said, Fouts's call for a kinder treatment of research subjects certainly bears listening to and acting upon.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

On "Excerpts from 'Mr. Deadman'" by Peter Cherches (531 words) ***

Cherches's playful deadman is, of course, a set of vignettes about Death, you know, in the pale man with scythe sort of way--i.e., the grim reaper. The cartoonish figure gets use in horror tales, in literary tales, and in comedy, and it is in this last one that Cherches here focuses. The comic element comes from the locations that Mr. Deadman opts to visit. This isn't Mr. Deadman on the job, after all. This is Mr. Deadman on vacation, literally. What does he like to do when he's not reaping souls? Or really, what does any dead person like to do? But of course, they like to pretend to be alive again. Read the story here at Eclectica.

On "Big Rock Candy Mountain" by Wallace Stegner ****

When Bluebirds Sing from Lemonade Springs, a book of essays that I read of Stegner's, turns out to be a quote from this novel. I love that book of essays. I love Stegner's nonfiction. But I had yet to try my hand at one of his novels. I'd intended to for a long while, but it took over a decade to do so.

What can I say? I think I prefer the nonfiction. I wasn't crazy about this novel, though like many a good book, my interest in grew along with my knowledge of the characters such that I actually did have some concern about what was happening by the book's end. What I figure probably got me a little tired of the book toward the beginning was Stegner's ability to set a scene. That is, he'd set a scene and walk us through it, and often, that scene wasn't that interesting or unique and hardly seemed worth so much detail. I'm thinking, specifically, of the trip by the couple at the center of the story to the carnival: where they ride a Ferris wheel, play games for prizes, and so on--all the things one would expect.

But there are levels of complexity to this book that redeem it in some very great ways. One thing I did enjoy reading about was the relationship between the main couple--how difficult a marriage can be and the sacrifices that are made to sustain it. The woman in the book falls for a man who is very much a man's man--lives on the edge, wants always to be on the go, to move to next big thing--but as she get older, she comes to resent a lot of that adventurous spirit of his, since she just wants to be settled, especially for the kids' sake. There are a lot of fights. She had a chance, when younger, to marry a guy who was very settled and responsible and possibly a better potential husband but he was boring to her; at times, she regrets her decision, but generally, her passion for her (and then much later her duty toward) husband manages to keep her with him or to always make her return (and vice versa, since he leaves and comes back a few times too). Of course, as one passage in the novel makes plain: we often long for what we don't have--another wife at one point talks about how she wishes her husband would move the family about more; she grows tired of living on the same farm year round, year after year.

The novel is, at heart, about this relationship, and about the two sons that come out of that relationship. The man at the center of the story lives not only a dare-devil-like life, he also leads a life that is often full of illegal dealings in the context of his constant search for the "Big Rock Candy Mountain"--easy riches. But nothing is easy, it seems. By the time the latest wealth-making fad comes to his attention, someone else has inevitably claimed exhausted its potential.

The novel is also one of contradictions, for as we stick with the characters through their lives, we begin to see that those who seem the most tough are in fact the weakest, and those who seem the weakest are in fact the toughest. The oldest son cracks up, loses a chance at a promising career, and squanders his life. The youngest son, meanwhile--too dependent on Mom--goes on to a great education. The daredevil husband becomes a drunk; the wife sticks with the husband at his worst and faces death stoically, still showing love for others rather than feeling sorry for herself.

The novel in a way is also about the frontier--or more precisely, about what happens to pioneer men when the frontier no longer exists. The husband wants the big rock candy mountain but he can't handle the fact that it no longer exists, and in a more telling passage, when he seems on the cusp of having it, can't handle it when he might very well have found it. What, after all, does the pioneer man do when he makes the frontier into a safe place called home? If masculinity is defined as "greatness," then it is too much for the men in this novel to bear.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On "Precision" by Andrew Roe (349 words) ****

I'm reminded of an incident when I was in high school. I was on my way back from the bank to which I had walked. I had stopped by the grocery store to get a soda. On the corner, after purchasing the soda, I ran into a girl I had a crush on. She was in a car, and she waved at me. I thought for a long time about the moment, about how if I hadn't stopped off to get the soda, I wouldn't have run into her, how just one small decision like that can make something else happen that wouldn't have. We like to think these things have a reason and a meaning. I certainly wanted to think that then. Now, often, I'm not so sure. It's just strange, the way things happen sometimes. But chance is chance. Anyway, Roe's story is about a similar incident and some similar thoughts, but the conclusion is, well, a bit more mysterious and potentially chilling. Read it here at Blip.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

On "For the First Time, Again" by Meghan Austin (682 words) ***

Just yesterday I read an article in which the author claimed that a college degree was a waste of time. There was some debate on this issue in the comments. What, after all, is college for? One venture capitalist has put forth a prize for people who drop out of college and do something significant--by this I mean start a company and make a certain amount of money.

The claim, so it goes, is that college will never pay off. Given the price of a tuition at many college, that may in fact be true for some students, despite the fact that college graduates do earn substantially more throughout their lives than non-college graduates. Does the extra few thousand dollars each year really pay off, when a debt of one hundred grand has been racked up?

But is college about how much money one is going to make? Is it about one's job opportunities? Or is it about something else, about--dare one say--education, education for life, education in values, education in critical thinking?

Enter into this fray Meghan Austin, whose story is about college education, only here the college education is one in which what is learned is not from the books that are taught in class but from the experiences one gleans while in the class, a class that is, on the face of it, a waste of time. I kept wanting to think the story about a grand psychology experiment. Take the teacher away, and see what the students accomplish, what they end up thinking. But maybe what the glean is deeper than that.

I remember being excited by the learning I got to do as an undergrad. By graduate school, I remember being more jaded. I loved the research that one did as a grad student, but the class time itself no longer seemed as important. What, after all, was there left to be taught except simply platitudes (modernism stemming from the loss of a center; romantics being more individualist than classicists; our ideas are all bound within a cultural framework from which we can't escape) that I had long ago put to memory. Perhaps Austin's class is discovering these sort of things early. Read the story here at Failbetter.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

On "Piano Lessons" by Kimberly Bunker (3759 words) ***

For me, Bunker's story gets its effectiveness from the narration. The focus here is a little girl, a younger sister, which gives the author the opportunity to play the first-person narrator's innocence and earnestness against what is essentially a rather mundane situation and make it all interesting again. Going into the piano lesson, we get a rundown on the girl's fancy shoes and her desire to be a piano teacher. She has high hopes and dreams and a good deal of confidence about herself--or does she? The mild dislike for her older sister turns out to be a kind of envy, and her bravado seemingly an attempt to hide her lack of confidence and skill. And in that sense, the little girl at the heart of this story isn't much different from any of us, at any age. Read the story here at Storychord.

Friday, September 28, 2012

On "Now is the Time for Us to Be Sweet" by Molly Tolsky (3698 words) ****

Here's a story that managed to truly surprise me. The writing throughout is clean, the voice assured. I'd read this, I thought. I read stuff like this, and it is good. But I hadn't, because I'd never read a story that managed to do that and add a twist I didn't see coming. Literary story, sure, but quiet, not really. We're left wondering just who is the more affected by this relationship, the victim or the victimizer, and which is which. Read the story here at the Collagist.

Monday, September 24, 2012

On “Sugar Bowl” by Dan Winnipeg (5136 words) ***

Winnipeg's "Sugar Bowl" is a family saga. It revolves around two main motifs--a story that the father tells about a knife, and a sugar bowl that sits in the center of the family's dinner table. We watch as the mom and dad's relationship disintegrates but continues on anyway. We watch as the kids go away to college and adulthood. We watch as the kids overcome various social problems--stuttering, obesity, drugs--and as the parents die. Throughout it all, Winnipeg uses the knife and sugar bowl as foils around which to place these different story elements. These elements unify the story and keep us interested. Read it here at 10,000 Tons of Black Ink.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

On "Test of English as a Foreign Language" by Walt Giersbach (2959 words) *****

This is probably one of the most depressing stories I've read in a long while. By depressing, I don't mean something that's cathartic, that somehow manages to give hope. This is a tale that revels in nihilism. And in cultural differences. Shirley Lee is a woman of Chinese descent who lives in the United Sates and who, for want of anything to do, spends Christmas Eve bowling and, by chance, hooking up with a man with military credentials. Much can be said about the American film versus the foreign one, and it is said here, and then it is played out in the fiction itself. Read the tale here at Rose and Thorn.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On "In the Basement" by Stefanie Freele (2014 words) ***

If you want a grueling moment-by-moment account of a bulemic's struggle with one particular meal, than Freele has it for you. I have to admire the way that Freele doesn't hold back here. The information is enough to make the practice seem every bit as gross and disturbing as it is. And on a metaphorical level, the story is about something else a bit beyond just bulimia. It's about the way that we hide our sins, our lives, our selves, from others--hanging out in the basement rather than at a party, keeping our food choices secure from others' sights or our boyfriends from our parents. Read the story here at R.kv.r.y.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

On "Where You Lay Your Dreams" by Sterling McKennedy (508 words) ***

McKennedy's flash piece is full of wonderful details that show us the essence of the narrator and the person he's talking to. His comparative "experience" shows in how he feels himself "gracious" to this new divorcee. But what really shines in this piece is how these two divorced people are both at once drawn to their ex-spouses as they are pushed away from them. It's as if the fighting must go on. There is a tension here that one doesn't usually see in stories about divorce, a tension between one's dislike for this person and one's desire to continue with him or her, even if it's just to have someone to punch. Read the story here at Night Train.

On "The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories" by Angela Carter ****

I came to this collection through a book of criticism on werewolves. The critical analyses of these stories seemed to make these tales stand above most other such fantastic pieces in that vein. And now having read the collection, I can certainly say that Carter is a writer whose style makes her one of a kind. I'm most amazed, in this book, by how she so adeptly adapts fairy tales to her own purposes. The tales don't necessarily become modern in place, but they become certainly something different, something literary, than what they are in the homespun versions one gets used to reading.

A large theme tying these stories together is sex and relationships. Psychologists, of course, have long seen connections to sex and death in fairy tales, reading into them vast archetypes that all humans apparently live as. Carter takes that psychological spin, the generality, and respins it into something singular for each of the characters involved--but with the sex more clearly, more overtly part of the tale.

The best story in this collection--by far and away head and shoulders above the others--is the title story. In it, a very young woman goes to live with her new noble husband. Lucky her, marrying a rich man, marrying up--until she discovers he isn't quite what he seems. After the night in which her virginity is taken, the husband gives her keys to every room in the house, but he tells her that one key is not to be used. One can only guess what happens next, when he goes out of town. The woman discovers the grizzly reason her husband has been married so many times. Can she now save herself?

Other tales are more along the lines of reworkings of classic fairy tale plots and characters. In "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon," a young woman fails to return to visit her beast as promised, who subsequently comes close to dying of a broken heart. In "The Tiger's Bride," a man loses his daughter to a beast in a game of cards; the beast asks only one thing of her once she is in his custody: to strip naked for him. "The Lady of the House of Love" is a tale of a female vampire who catches a young man in her web (or does he catch her?). "The Werewolf" involves a girl who finds out that her grandmother is just such a thing. "The Company of Wolves" involves a whole family of them, and one woman finally settling on a wolf of her own, as she strips herself into his lair. And "Wolf-Alice" involves a girl raised by wolves who goes to live with a werewolf for lack of a more appropriate place of residence.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

On "Ping-pong, 12 Loring Place" by Meagan Cass (1619 words) *****

This one sent chills up my spine. It's a tale about growing up in a divided household. It's a tale about coping. It's a tale about coming to love ping-pong as an escape, as a contest, as a life, as a eulogy. Read the story here at Hobart.

On "Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester ****

I came across mention of this book in a book on world history. It surprised me to learn that the eruption of this volcano back in the early AD disrupted weather patterns and created a famine, that we know this, that this is in the historical record. As it turns out, the historian was perhaps a bit too certain about what happened, at least that was my sense after reading this book.

Winchester isn't as quick to ascribe volcanic eruptions to earlier centuries, though he does talk about them, one around 535 AD and one in 1680. The reason he's less certain is that the historical witness accounts are not entirely reliable, but if other facts in history around the world confirm, perhaps he shouldn't be so conservative. Of course, he's not conservative about the 1883 eruption, because there are plenty of accounts of it, and it is that eruption that is most of the focus of this book.

The eruption occurred at a time when telegraph lines were first making it possible to report news almost instantly, and Winchester talks about how newspapers competed to get to news first. In this case, an English paper managed to beat a German news service to the scoop. Not that it matters to us now, but I'm sure it mattered to the people involved.

Also discussed is the science behind plate tectonics and the history of that theory (drummed up by a "crackpot" generalist and only grudgingly accepted decades later, after his death). Krakatoa, as with all of Indonesia, the set of islands in which it rests, is the result of a hot zone, where two plates converge and the earth's magma comes to the surface, and all of this fairly quickly. The island disappeared completely after the 1883 eruption, but within a few decades, it had reestablished itself above the sea. This too leads to some interesting questions, like how does life come to such an island? Winchester devotes a chapter to this as well, the surprising array of creatures that show up. First, often, are insects--spiders or ants borne on the wind. The plants--again, seeds borne on the wind. How exactly rats get on such an island, I'm not sure, but it's likely the result of stowing away on some human visitor's boat.

It was the biological difference between islands to the west and east of the area that first led to some of the ideas about plate tectonics. The creatures are quite different on either side, showing that the land on either side was one not so close together.

Many died in the 1883 eruption--or really, in its aftermath, the tidal waves that it spawned. Such would have seemed hard to imagine to me a decade ago, but in light of the horrible tidal wave in Asia a few winter's ago and then the one in Japan last year, such events unfortunately no longer seem so impossible. Stories are told in the book of children finding the bones of the dead on beaches thousands of miles away.

The eruption also led to a wave of Islamic unrest in Indonesia. Inspired by the supposed end of the world, some Muslims attempted to overthrow their colonial Danish overseers. Winchester attempts to summarize the tensions between East and West that reverberate to our own day.

But some of the most fascinating parts of the book are the discussions of the weather and how that changed. So much ash ended up in the sky that sunsets were glorious for a year afterward, even as the temperature of the planet dropped by several degrees and crops took a matching hit. We live in a precarious state on this planet.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On "Blubber Boy" by Julie Innis (2101 words) ***

Julie Innis grabbed me from the first sentence--or maybe from the title. The story is about guy working in landscape and about a kid who tortures him--or who he tortures. It's hard to know where this story is going during the first half or so, and that's part of what makes it so good. And then there's this--the main character, someone we can sympathize with, confronted with a situation in which he is uncertain whether to do the right thing or the thing that will benefit him the most (and there's a lot lying on that other thing). I felt my sympathies in this story shifting, which is what gives it its power. Read the story here at JMWW.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

On "Phantom Limbs" by D.J. Thielke (2486 words) ***

Thielke's story grabbed me from the first line. The story--and you learn this in the first line--is about an armless boy. Like the story's main character, Cindy, I found myself wondering various things as well, even though in high school I knew a one-armed boy. He always struck me as incredibly agile given the disadvantage he had. Things I remember about him: He was an incredible artist. He carried his books in that one arm. The arm was large. He was in my typing class--and not as fast as the rest of us (I have no idea how the teacher graded him). (There is also an armless man here where I live who does artwork downtown--a very good drawer, though I wonder how he manages not to go cross-eyed, since he uses his mouth to hold the ink pen.)

Cindy too watches in fascination as the boy does things we consider normal. For him, it is just life--he's been that way since birth. He manages.

But that's where this story takes a different turn, for because Cindy's roommate is dating this person, she is drawn into questioning what makes some faulty people lovable and other whole people, like her good-looking self, not. What indeed? Read the story here at the New Delta Review.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On "Happiness You Have to Earn, Not Steal" by Kristy Davis (1759 words) *****

Okay, so this story mixes one narrative line with another to make an obvious statement about both: bedbugs and an old boyfriend. No matter, you can't get rid of them. You obsess about them--how you got them, how they got away. Davis's tale mashes the two up well, but she also has a knack for language that makes this piece more than the sum of its parts. Think dialogue, little lines the narrator remembers, not things we'd find important but this narrator still feels. Think read this story, now, here, at Swink.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

On "After He Stays" by Melanie Yarbrough (378 words) ***

Yarbrough short tale is a summary of a relationship metaphorically transformed into a single first night. Here is a couple whose knowledge of one another is still shaky and but whose liking for one another is enough that there is a kind of comfort they wouldn't otherwise feel. In that, we see things as they might be years down the road, and what the ultimate cost of that might be. Read the story here at Ramshackle Review.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

On "Soup Bean Annie" by Linda Simoni-Wastila (441 words) ***

Simoni-Wastila conjures up a voice here that is fun to delve into. Yes, in a way, we've seen it before, but not in a long time and not quite like this. It reads as singular here. The story is a simple one, a woman waiting on her man to return. But the piece becomes more than the sum of its parts when one gets to the end, where the author hints at what might really being going on, which is more than we wish to imagine. Read the story here at Pure Slush.

Monday, August 20, 2012

On "Pretenders" by Toshiki Kojo (1943 words) ***

Toshiki Kojo's "Pretenders" is about, as you might guess, the genuiness in our identities and our lives. It's about the roles we play. This piece has a kind of Far Eastern feel to it, for it draws, as I see it, from Buddhist traditions. The "real" us is what we are in the moment. We are not separate from our acts. Then there is the label that others put on us and that we put on ourselves. We can be a groper--or we can actually grope. Which is more real? The thing we do or the thing that we are perceived to be or the thing we perceive ourselves to be? In the end, we're all just breaths and bodies, little packets of energy (matter) along the continuum of the same. Read the story here at In Posse Review.

On "Drowning the Dream" by David Carle ****

This short monograph is a brief history of California water usage and a call to conservation. Carle's basic premise is that California's staggering growth was not only made possible by engineering feats that brought water from the northern and mountainous regions of the state to the coastal and southern regions of the state but was in fact a direct result of such actions. "If you build it," one might say, "they will come." If you make the water available, the population will expand accordingly. The key to solving California's perennial water problem, therefore, isn't making more water available but rather limiting the amount of water available so that fewer people will wish to live in the state.

It's a sort of chicken and egg argument: Does increasing population cause water shortages or does increasing water availability cause increases in population? Carle favors the latter. And he supports his point by following the growth advocates who have helped make California the state that it is.

The book begins with an account of the stable Indian populations that lived in the area before the coming of the European explorers and settlers. And then, it tells a tale of widespread boosterism and exploitation, making its main start with the discovery of gold in 1848. Those who came to California weren't coming with families. They weren't coming to settle. They weren't coming with the idea of setting up homesteads and taking care of the land. They were coming to make a quick buck, with the intention of returning to the land from which they came. As a result, American settlement of the state began within a tradition that has been maintained ever since: get as much as you can from the resources, environment be damned. So much sediment washed down streams in the search for gold, Carle notes at one point, that more than eight times the amount of earth was moved than in the making of the Panama Canal. That's a lot of dirt, a lot of erosion.

Amid these fortune seekers were those who set up shop as landowners, including railroads. Rather than a land of small farms, because of the vast tracts granted to railway interests, California become a state of large farming interests, which continues to this very day. Those large farming interests tend to see land as an investment rather than as a part of the natural order of things. If more can be made by selling said land to urban dwellers, then by all means the land should be turned over accordingly. Hence, schemes that involve bringing water to otherwise unsellable, mostly desert land are commonplace. Once there's water, the land has value, both for farmers and ultimate for suburbanites.

Growth is main argument for such water projects. Projections are made about how much water the state will need in X number of years. Water is thus acquired. Carle argues that projections are their own self-fulfillment. Project for fewer, and you'll have less growth. But less growth would also mean less ability to sell off land at higher prices to incoming state residents.

Familiar tales are told--of how Los Angeles bought up Owens Valley water rights to settle the San Fernando Valley and enrich a few choice landowners who pushed most heavily for the need for said water; of how part of a national park was dammed to provide drinking water to San Francisco; of how the Colorado was used to help grow other Southern California communities. Also explained are how residents more recently have turned down big new water projects that would shift more water from north to south (though Jerry Brown recently brought the rejected Peripheral Canal project back to life, so perhaps more water maneuvering is still to come), and how environmental concerns have started to eat into the continuing willingness to exploit California's limited water supplies.

At some points, Carle hypothesizes on the state that could have been--a Los Angeles with a population of half a million, a Bishop (in the Sierra Nevadas, near Owens Lake) with a similarly sized population. He points to Santa Barbara, which until a drought, had refused to join up with the state's water plan--and as a result had maintained a reasonably small town size and avoided ballooning growth. So perhaps, there is something to Carle's argument.

That's not to say that I buy the argument wholesale. Populations do get larger, and whether those people settle in California or elsewhere, those people still have to settle somewhere and affect some area's water supplies. Granted, limited supplies will limit growth--higher prices for water or for electricity will drive people to settle elsewhere (I'm a former Californian myself after all, and high cost of living I didn't return to the state after college); rationing is annoying and also likely to stir some to go to another place. But simply shifting population around doesn't necessarily solve the problem.

Carle proposes, as do many environmentalists, that human population simply needs to stop growing. Again, it's a nice idea, but one whose implementation I worry about. How exactly do we discourage people from having children, when that seems such a basic human function and need? And is that the only solution, or does wiser use of our resources also play a role? Still, I am in agreement that growth should not be our main motivation for all decisions--or rather, that the definition of economic growth (bigger is better, more is better) needs to be changed in such a way that it recognizes quality (healthier ways of living) not just quantity (higher GDP).

Friday, August 17, 2012

On "Fat As a Cat" by Erin Zulkoski (340 words) ***

This short work is a character study in miniature and almost solely in action. It tells of what happens to a couple after all is over through a simple conversation and of why all IS over. I like how Zulkoski manages to tell us so much about these people in so few words. Read the story here at Negative Suck.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On "Hulking Leviathan the Sun" by Brit Naylor (970 words) ***

Don't look for some kind of hulking plot in this one. Naylor's not writing that kind of story. You won't so much wonder where the story is going as wonder where each and every sentence is going. This is a story about youth and about seasons. The themes have been around forever, but it's the language that counts here. This is summer as it once was, as you wanted it to be, as you want it to be again, as it will never be again, as it never really was, as it should be, as it is in our recantations. This, this is summer. Right here, at the Moulin Review.

On "Introduction to Water in California" by David Carle ****

Similar in concept to Water in Texas, this book runs through the basics of the California water system. While I largely preferred the Texas book's organization (though there was at least one clunky chapter that I'd have pulled to the back as an appendix), Carle had a knack with words that the Texas water book's author did not, making the California book in some ways a better read. Its charts are also particularly fascinating, with for example one given over to sizing rivers by how much water is taken from them for each major metropolitan area of the state.

Because California seems to be the epicenter for water issues and because I grew up in the state, I was much more aware of many of the items recounted in this book than I was in the Texas book. This is also, of course, the fourth book on water I've read in a row, so likewise, there's been some redundancy in terms of things I hadn't known until now.

Like most of the water books, this one starts with a general introduction about water itself (its various unique properties) and about the water cycle (how it goes from land to sea to sky). Added to this section in Carle's book is information about how California's landscape is one of extreme wet and extreme dry, depending on the year (and even during the course of the year, since virtually all of the state's precipitation arrives between December and February). Hence, there is no true average, and water planners have to adjust accordingly. This is one reason that in many ways California's is perhaps one of the most human-manipulated water supplies in the country.

How manipulated it is is made plain in the third section of the book, where Carle discusses the state's water distribution system. Subsections are devoted to each delivery system, each aqueduct.

This isn't to say that natural watersheds are ignored. Those are discussed in the second section of the book, with again subsections given over to each hydrologic region. What is made plain is how water comes mostly from the north and the mountains and is transferred to the south and the shore. This obviously has huge environmental impacts, which are picked up on in the fourth and fifth sections of the book, on the challenges the California water system presents.

As in Texas, overdrafting of groundwater is a problem because once again it is largely unregulated. Whoever owns the land above can use the water below. I certainly would want the rights to dig a well on my own property. But this can lead to problems, since groundwater isn't unconnected to surface water, and if one landowner draws out a huge share, then others who use the same aquifer will suffer. One solution in California has been to recharge groundwater with waste water and other reserves, which has some benefits (as well as costs). It was interesting to learn that Glendale, close to my birth home, had its groundwater despoiled, so that unlike Pasadena, where I grew up, it can no longer get part of its water from beneath the ground.

There has been some negative reaction against the reuse of waste water, but as the author notes, residents often aren't aware that "pristine" water from surface sources often is waste water from cities further up in the watershed. In fact, often, treated waste water is cleaner than water coming into a particular area for just this reason. Such pollution has also led to concerns about Giardia, a waterborne parasite that makes some worry about the safety of backcountry water. Indeed, fecal contamination is somewhat widespread, leading some backpackers to pack bottled water. But as the author notes, this concern is a bit overhyped--most tap water, which is treated, is likely to contain a higher concentration of Giardia cysts, and bottled water (often pulled from said streams or from tap water itself) but without the safety testing is likely to be even worse. The better thing to do is to use common sense--when hiking, pull water upstream and away from camps and trails where there is plenty of flow where it's likely to be cleaner.

In the final challenges section, the author also tackles the need for conservation, showing the ways that cities like Los Angeles have managed to cut back on water use even as the population has increased--through reuse and better use. As with virtually every state, almost every good potential dam site has been dammed, so achieving more efficiencies by storing more isn't really an option. Beyond that, such dams create environmental concerns that the state is now paying closer attention to. The filling in (via sediment buildup) and upcoming destruction or renovation of dams offers opportunities for California to reassess some of its water management strategies.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

On "The Hula War" by Paul Silverman (2751 words) ***

This story is full of wonderful turns of phrase and wonderful thoughts on turns of phrases. The author focuses on words that seem, at some level, to make no sense together--the soft and hard combined into one, like "flower headquarters" or "pineapple grenade."

This combination of soft and hard meets also in our characters and in their lives. Christine (the hula girl) and Patrick are couple. The former is soft in her girlish sort of way, the latter a wizened old soldier. Or so it appears. By story's end, it is the sensibilities of Patrick that are shaken and Christine is the resolute force lofting bombs. This is a piece on cultural alienation and cultural adoption, the ways in which we forge identity through our willed connections to the world around us. Read the story here at Moulin Review.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On "Ohio Drive" by Geoffrey Spurgin (323 words) ***

This short piece focuses on a single question, a philosophical one, poised in a book. Place the question now in a different situation and see where it leads. Something tells me that Spurgin doesn't think the answer is as obvious as the protagonists do. Myself, I see the conundrum posed by the question and recognize that sometimes our values aren't always where, perhaps, they should be, just as sometimes we assume one value goes hand in hand with the other. Read the story here at Moulin Review.

On "Water in Texas" by Andrew Samson ****

Fred Powledge's Water said at one point that Texas had one of the best water management plans in the country. After reading Samson's book, I'm not so sure. Many of the same problems that come to the fore in Powledge's work exist in Texas as well, as one might expect, but Texas hasn't exactly been great at managing the resource.

Texas is a strange state, at least I found it so when I lived there, and I'm sure a few other people would say the same. It's sort of southern, sort of midwestern, sort of western--really, it's just Texas. And it's water has the kind of unique dynamic as well. The eastern part of the state is wet; the western part is a desert. (Actually, in that sense, Texas isn't unlike California, with its water in the north and its desert in the south.) Part of that unique dynamic is the result of history and the way in which Texas's water laws came into being. The eastern United States largely has riparian water right laws--anyone on the river has rights to use it; the western United States has water laws based on a Spanish system of prior appropriation (the first to claim/buy the rights to the water owns it, even if someone else happens to come and live right next to it later).

This puts two seeming systems into great conflict. The reality in Texas, however, is less a conflict than I had been led to suppose from Powledge's text. For the most part, in the past few decades, Texas has converted almost wholly to a system of prior appropriation, with only a few minor riparian laws still hanging on.

Where Texas really fails, however, is in its regulation of groundwater. In fact, while lots of laws apply to surface water, pretty much groundwater can be had by whoever owns the land and rights. This poses some problems, since groundwater isn't inexhaustible, and groundwater often affects how much surface water there actually is.

Some other things I learned and hadn't thought much about before in terms of conserving water: (1) Municipality reuse of water actually tends to mean that there will be less water for those downstream. I've always thought of reuse as a good thing, but as the author points out, if you have rights to 100 cubic feet of water and pass 80 percent back into the stream, that leaves 80 cf for the next city, plus whatever else comes into the river in between. Technically, you may have rights to the 100 cubic feet and use all of it, but that 80 still gets spit out from sewage or whatever. Now, if your city decides instead to take that 80 and use it again to water lawns or something, then less gets passed on.

(2) The problem with desalination isn't just the expense. There's also the issue of what to do with the saltier water that's left over. It would be one thing if solids and liquids separated completely, but desalination usually only claims a percentage of the water as fresh. The rest is water that is even more salty or brackish than it was before. And that means pollution wherever it ends up.

So what's the scary part for Texas? Well, it's five-year plans, built around the 2060 plan, seem like a good start, but there are issues. Reuse means more water for some, less for others. Overuse means less water for environmental concerns (such as keeping bays and estuaries with an appropriate mix of salt and fresh water so that organisms that depend on them can thrive). Groundwater is in danger of being overpumped, and much of that water is from the vast but limited Ogallala aquifer, which isn't replenishable in the near term. Samson, in his cool-headed specificity, actually makes water seem like more of a concern than than Powledge in his hysteria.

The book itself is, as the subtitle notes, an introduction. There isn't a lot of narrative here, but there are lots of beautiful pictures and graphs. Most of the book is devoted to laying out river regions and then Gulf Shore bays, but the most interesting material to me came in the later chapters, on law, on planning, on whether there is enough water, on what's in the water, and on what water's worth.

It's the latter that also proves to be an interesting question. We pay little for it, but obviously, the answer is one that inevitably is politically charged. Do we count survival of shrimp in the cost of water? How much is a boater's usage worth? And so on.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On "The Bushmaster" by Josh Green (6192 words) ***

Juan Picasso is a salesman, a lady's man, a wildman. One knows early in this story what is going to happen, for it is what always happens around Juan, yet one remains transfixed, because, after all, Juan is Juan. He's like a seething faraway volcano at night, a rare sloth spotted thirty feet above in a tree, or a colorful snake. He is dangerous, but we watch anyway, for after all, the mystery of how a spider weaves its web is one we want to decipher, especially if we can do so in less than an hour. Take Juan's tour here at Midway Journal.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

On "Decline" by Melanie Browne (2342 words) ****

Browne's tale is about the imagination, the way we can live in the world of celebrity, putting on to them troubles and triumphs we might wish were part of our own world. Things seem bigger on a stage. What I like so much about the story, however, are the set of fan letters that our rock musician receives. They're from one deluded and lonely person (to another, we might say). The letters are fascinating and hilarious, full of things we would probably never write to one another--and full of secrets, obsessions and otherwise. I'm reminded a bit of the letters at the start of Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Those too descend to ridiculous depths. Here, however, they're all from one mind to another. Read the letters and the accompanying story here at Storyglossia.

Monday, July 30, 2012

On "Wife in Reverse" by Stephen Dixon (447 words) ***

I'm reminded of a Massive Attack video, where we watch babies born, grow up, and come to the moment where grown adults meet and fall in love--and then we watch it all in reverse. Dixon's story moves in only the latter direction, and yet it is surprisingly effect, the way that reverse order almost makes sense in a forward manner. In fact, for the first half of this story, one could read the events as forward or backward, but then come the children and one has to rethink things, remember we're headed in reverse. And so it goes, here, at Matchbook.

Friday, July 27, 2012

On "Kids' Choir" by Catherine Lacey (161 words) ***

More of a description of a couple of times juxtaposed against one another than a full-fledged story with a sense of rising action and denoument, Lacey's short piece is admirable for its extremely engaging first sentence and first paragraph and for the letdown that comes with the second paragraph among all of the children. Read the piece here at Matchbook.

On "Water" by Fred Powledge ****

Perhaps the fact that I grew up in Southern California draws me to water issues. In So-Cal, on one level, water is not exactly a given; on another, it almost disastrously (for others) is. We get our water from the mountains, from mountains hundreds and thousands of miles away. It comes down concrete ditches into reservoirs and eventually into our homes. Elsewhere, the water that we have is absent so that we can have. And yet, it's not enough. It's never enough. Somehow, our lawns are green, but there's also a nagging sense of propriety, of not using water to wash down the sidewalk, of limiting the amount one uses on the car, of watering one's plants only on certain days and at certain times. Water concerns are a constant, even if water usage seems somehow out of whack with the reality of the ever-blue sky above (except, of course, for a few weeks in winter, when water comes crashing down in torrents, relieving the soil of its resting places on hillsides, sending it as mud into our homes or into sandbagged streets).

That's one reason, after coming to Georgia, I've been astounded by how many water problems we have here, in a place that gets three times the amount of rain--and all year round at that. How, how, when Californians live on fourteen inches, can Georgians--even smaller in number--not live on forty-eight?

Powledge's book is about this kind of profligacy, our wasting of water resources, our destruction of them, and the coming reckoning. Powledge's book was also written thirty years ago. His sense of almost immediate impending doom, of a crisis that is just over the horizon, seems in some ways laughably over the top. The world has gone on. We did not run out of water in the year 2000. Of course, panic sells books, and that's likely part of the reason for the tone.

But the points within the book still have quite a bit of relevance (especially now that we're in one of the worst droughts in U.S. history). We are drinking up our resources--or rather, not drinking them but spoiling them so that we can't drink them. We are doing this with pollution, with needless public works, and with waste.

Overall, Powledge's point seems to be that we need to recognize that water has rights too. That's right, we should give water its own set of rights. Seems a bit crazy to me. I would prefer to think of it more as we have a set of responsibilities toward water--as we do toward our environment, our neighbors, and other species. (But I've never been a fan of "rights" talk on any level, which I think focuses on the wrong side of the equation. Give me my rights. It's all about what others should do for us. The real focus should be on what we should be doing for others. What are our responsibilities toward each other as human beings?)

Water rights would consist in balancing our need for the resource against the resources own "needs" to be pure, to be unentangled, to be free to exist as a natural agent.

But the real story is in the details, of which Powledge gives plenty. I finally came to understand, for example, why rainwater is superior to irrigation. Water is extremely good at absorbing other materials; it's a solvent. And it's best purification system, from salt to fresh, is the atmosphere. Water coming from the natural desalinization plant that is the hydrological cycle has a perfect balance of acid and alkaline. And it also doesn't contain much in the way of other minerals mixed in. Water coming from rivers, by contrast, and spread over the land, has absorbed the various minerals that river has drifted across. As a result, it has a slightly higher content of salt. Over years, this salt, if spread over the soil consistently, begins to build up in the soil, destroying its ability to sustain plant life. Aw, rain.

The story of our impending water crisis may seem like a bit of hyperbole, but it could happen and has. Powledge talks of how a Native American in the old Southwest actually did just that--used up its water and oversalted the soil to the point that farming ceased and the civilization collapsed. We should take the warning seriously.

In that same region of Cerrillos, New Mexico, in the early 1980s, where water is scarce, a small number of people continue to live. The area has gold. Powledge tells of how mining companies have tried to extrapolate the gold--want to desperately. The problem is that all the easily gotten gold is gone. The financially feasible way to get what's left is to blast surface land apart (i.e., strip mine) and pour water over the land with a special chemical secretion that will leach out the stuff that isn't the gold wanted. Problem? Where does that chemical-laden water go? It goes into the soil, down, down, into the small aquifer that locals depend on for drinking. It's safe say the companies, even though the technology has never been used, and no one actually knows what the chemical would do to the aquifer. Residents fought against the first mining operation for years and won before activities commenced. Then, a second company came, and residents fought again. The end of the story wasn't known in 1980, but one thing was. The company started work before it had permits. Oh, sorry. Oops. It had to pay a small fine. By small, I mean, speeding ticket small.

Such concerns, of chemicals and toxics leaching into our aquifers make up much of Powledge's text.

Also under fire in the book are developers, especially government developers, like the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation, which come under fire in Cadillac Desert as well. To maintain their existence, they have to continually come up with new projects, even ones that aren't feasible or needed, and for that reason, nearly every river has been dammed at numerous points in the United States. Reading stories of projects built over the protests of the communities that will benefit from them, at astronomical costs paid for with tax dollars, for little benefit (other than for the construction firms and agencies for whom the project supplies jobs), certainly makes the reader angry. One project, for example, that will connect the Tennessee River to another, apparently will get little use by shippers and will cost more than the Panama Canal.

Agriculture gets heat also. Industry, initially, gets less scathing. After all, it doesn't actually use up the water it gets most of the time. It returns the water to the environment--but usually in a much-degraded form. And that's where Powledge nails industrial America.

No one comes out looking very good--not government, not industry, not ag. Powledge particularly dislikes the Reagan administration, whose appointees to environmental positions are largely people who see water as something to be exploited. Water flowing all the way to the sea means that we have "wasted" it, failed to put it to use.

One long section of the book is about New York City. It was interesting to learn that some of the best drinking water in the country goes to New York, as most of its tap comes not from local sources but from upstate New York, at springs that are close to pure. But not so much when there's a heavy drought, as there was for a period during Mayor Koch's term in office. Then, the talk was of maybe even perhaps using the Hudson for tap water, even though that water really is polluted. Powledge shows how the community banded together, got serious, and conserved enough water not to have to fall to such desperate measures. And yet, the city, once the drought was over, went back to its wasteful ways. The infrastructure of piping, as Powledge shows, is full of holes, and large amounts of water are simply lost because the city hasn't repaired its plumbing lines and allows residents to wash cars with and play in water from fire hydrants. I'm not sure if post-1980s NYC is quite as wasteful, as I know much changed under Giuliani and Bloomberg.

Still, the crisis reminded me somewhat of our own here in Georgia a few years ago, when we were encouraged not to even flush our toilets at one point. Conservation was the buzzword. And then, a summer later, the rain returned, and most of our lessons, our tightening of resources, simply washed away--until the next drought causes us again to panic and scream for wiser utilization of this precious resource.