Thursday, May 31, 2012

On "When I Was a Fish" by xTx (317 words) ****

Want a lawyer to take care of you after a death in the family? xTx describes one way to go about it. The story here is a leap of the imagination, twice over. It's the imagined answer to an unanswered message, and as we get deeper into the possibilities, the imagined becomes more real than the real. The story transitions from one to another, even in the tenses used--from present to imagined future and back to present (in that imagined future). And what of the music of language here--teeth barricading a tongue. Fantastic stuff here at Ramshackle Review.

Monday, May 28, 2012

On "Emote Control" by Anne Swan (2243 words) ***

Swan's story is a kind of sales pitch. In fact, it seems more like a sales pitch than a story, and yet the story creeps in slowly underneath. It's a piece about control--control of our lives, control of our surroundings. In this world of ever-increasing services, of online spying that allows people to know more about us than we even realize about ourselves, the "Emote Control" device the narrator is offering allows us to be completely pleased at the end of our time on earth. What it doesn't offer is the ability to redeem a past wherein we failed to make a difference to someone close to us that we lost. Technology, Swan hints, is only as good as its user. Read the story here at Joyland.

Friday, May 25, 2012

On "A Craigslist Ad for a Mind-blowing Self-Actualization Party" by Margaret Wappler (467 words) ***

Sometimes I miss California, even in all its wonkiness. Sure, we have a share of that here where I live as well, but somehow it seems different in the desert sun. Wappler's ad (I'm not sure one could call it a story) has all the makings of an event I would never attend. But it's an event I would hear about, from acquaintances, these people I work with, this person I sit next to on the train, this party I drop in on with a friend for five minutes. You can read the ad here at Joyland.

On "Building the Dream" by Gwendolyn Wright ***

This text is a history of the American home starting with the simple and plain residences of the Puritans back in colonial times. Although the work is a social history, Wright focuses most of her attention on the architecture and its meaning for people. The book is short on anecdote, making this a good summary but at times surprisingly dull for a work issued by a commercial publishing house.

Each chapters focuses on a unique type of home as it comes into being in the United States, be it the slave quarters, the country cottage, the tenement house, or the apartment.

It was when Wright hit the tenement house that my interest began to pique up a bit, for it is here that I first began to see the beginnings of our current housing situation. And my personal interest grew especially prominent once I hit the period in which government began to take a very active role in American housing, largely during the Depression.

The tenement house was a building created to house many a tenant and that often housed many more than it was supposed to. It's where the poor came to live when then immigrated to the city. I think of such homes as apartment, and yet, in Wright's book, the apartment is actually the tenements diametric opposite. The apartment was for the rich who wanted to live in the city. Although a rich person would have to give up the space allowed in a larger country home, the apartment offered a slew of amenities not available anywhere else: running water, bathroom facilities, and kitchen facilities (the latter usually in the form of a communal kitchen and dining hall). They were more like live-in hotels than today's apartments.

Government begins to take a role in the housing of the population with the coming of the Great Depression (and continued during the 1950s, when returning GIs led to a shortage of housing). The same arguments that continue to our time were present even then. Give needy people too nice a home, and you're interfering with the private sector and making people lazy. Hence, some policymakers attempted to make homes sponsored by the government into places no one would want to live for long. At the same time, some, trying to take advantage of the system, actually did build places that your average nonpoor person would have been jealous of. Where's the balance?

Construction firms and other well to dos began to game the system and got legislation passed that allowed them to build the new housing rather than the government outright. Government money transitioned from building homes for the poor to rebuilding rundown areas of town. Often, only a small portion of these "rundown" areas was actually blighted, but business interests could get the area condemned anyway and build newer, fancier places for the residents. Only, of course, they were the same residents. Lower-class (but not necessarily poor) people who might have had a decent home but were near a blighted area might now find themselves on condemned property and unable to buy a place in the newly refurbished neighborhood.

Also discussed are "community standards" for homes in suburban areas (the way that so many homes look the same or that in-home businesses are banned). And finally, there is a section on the contemporary housing problem. By contemporary, however, I mean the problem of around 1980, when Wright wrote her book.

And that in itself was very interesting. In 1980, of course, the interest rates would have been skyrocketing, as well as home prices, and the average home would have become more and more something an average American couldn't afford. In fact, as the author notes, most "turnover" (at this time at least) is among a very small segment of the population. People aren't buying homes for the first time; rather, the same people (about 15 percent of the population buy 90 percent of the homes) are selling one home and trading up to a new one (or, as it turns out, "down" to an old one in a gentrifying area).

Wright proposes various solutions to the housing problem, where rents and purchase prices are both increasing at an alarming pace. Of course, in 2012, we know what happened. Interest rates came down, and new forms of low-income loans came into being, right about this same time or just a few years before Wright penned her history. Such would lead to further price increases but also to a larger segment of the American population owning a home and being able to afford it--until, of course, the bubble burst, and we get what we have today: a time when homes no longer accrue value as they once did and where many a poor owner has been unable (or unwilling) to pay back the enormous debt, in turn damaging our banks and our financial industry and by extension our everyday businesses.

If there's one lesson that Wright's history poses for us, it's that there's no shortage of greed in the system, going back all the way to the early history of our housing.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On "The Inheritor" by Ann Gelder (4701 words) ****

Gelder's "Inheritor" intrigues from word 1. It's the second person again, and the feeling of conspiracy that Gelder provides for us--we're going to play along with her for a while, participate in this what if scenario. And the scenario? Well, that's intriguing too. What if you're a B-level celebrity and some other B-level celebrity whose recent claim to fame is that he's been able to predict celebrity deaths predicts yours? Yeah, it's a bit of a crazy notion, but how would one react if there's a statistical analysis saying said prognosticator is always right? Time to prep for the end of life? Time to find out just how it's going to happen? Time to laugh off such schenanigans? Or time to get ready for career recovery, since you're now famous enough to have your death predicted? I think the last might be the wisest option. But let's say that's not what you do . . . Read the story here at Slush Pile.

On "Date with Purpose" by Tracy Montgomery ****

This practical guide doesn't focus so much on dating per se but on preparing to date well. Many of the points should be common sense: keeping yourself clean, dressing well (but not being a slave to faddish and expensive fashion), maintaining a budget. Montgomery is proclaiming that good dating has to start with yourself.

For that reason, her earliest chapter focuses on getting to know yourself. She suggests you take a trip to a place you've never been by yourself. There, observe other couples, get to know the locals. In other words, find yourself, and once you know yourself, you'll be better able to find another to complement yourself. Not necessarily bad advice, though this suggests that we have an essential self, which can be problematic. Our self is what we do and who we are--I don't know if we have to go looking for it or that, once looking for it, we can even find it.

The sections on dating, to me, seemed to be based around largely common sense. She doesn't offer any magic here. Find things you like to do and share them with others. That's how you can find who to date. If your activity doesn't lead to lots of repeated contact where a predating relationship can be forged, then you'll have to resort to "devious" means and get a phone number or something of that sort, and get to know the person that way. In getting to know a person we will also hopefully build attraction. She's not a believer in the various gurus who try to claim attraction is all in playing games.

Rather, real attraction--lasting attraction--rests in our character. Personality itself rests in character. If we forge strong character, then we will attract people and keep them, more than someone who forges a superficial personality but who can't keep up the show over a long period.

I like that she focuses on what seems most real in people. She makes the whole process of dating seem much less scary and much easier than it's ever seemed to me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On "Ex" by Glen Pourciau (703 words) ***

Pourciau's finely observed "Ex" revolves around a dating couple who can't get over their respective former spouses. I say "finely observed" because the description of the restaurant that serves as the setting for this date is marvelous. You get the feeling of a place that's packed, that's not intimate in the least (the people have to shout at one another at the tables). And that lack of intimacy works nicely with the hurt that each character feels and the way in which neither character wants to open up. Read the story here at Corium.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On "Big Angel" by Julie Innis (3836 words) ***

Innis's "Big Angel" tauters between worlds--Russian, Latin American, and American. It is a tale of cultures coming up against one another, a tale of genders coming up against one another, and a tale of families coming up against one another. What binds hold us together? What binds tear us apart? The world Innis focuses on is a restaurant, where two brothers provide for other immigrants each day. One brother is attractive, the other is married. Enter the waitresses. Enter the problems. Read the story here at Blip.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

On "The Cardboard Dress" by Ian Bassingthwaighte (3971 words) ****

I have an anthology on modernism in literature that I inherited from a retiring professor many years ago. One of the things I like about that anthology is that it splits modernist writing into three camps: realism, impressionism, and expressionism. In a way, all such labels are simply means of categorizing that have little bearing on the writing itself, but in another way, they're interesting ways to think about the way in which one writes or reads a work. Right now, I'm feeling like I've just finished a marvelous work of impressionism.

The narrator here struggles with his point of view from moment to moment. Does he hate his wife or love her? Does he hate these friends they have or love them? Oh, and does he really want to experiment with group sex or is he only interested in gauging his wife's reaction to the proposition? And what reaction is he expecting? Like many persons whose motivations and feelings regarding dubious encounters change from moment to moment, so too does this narrators. Read the story here at TriQuarterly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

On "Flight" by Katherine D. Stutzman (2629 words) ***

Imagine if the Weekly World News' Bat Boy were real (oh, but he is, some probably are saying). Or imagine that instead of the Garcia Marquez's man with enormous wings landing in a town that cared little for him, that man grew up in the town. These are essentially the premises of Stutzman's story. A young girl grows wings. The town reacts. What, one may ask, is that reaction? Being different--so different--means that the girl is lonely, and this is what the story becomes, a mediation on that loneliness, on that desire to find someone who can appreciate her and the consequences when no one does. You can find it here at the Summerset Review.

On "The Transmigration of Timothy Archer" by Philip K. Dick ***

Philip K. Dick's last novels were much more boldly religious. This, his very last, doesn't even bother with a science fiction plot. And probably, Dick was happy with that, since he himself had originally set out to write literary texts, or so say some of his biographers. Since his science fiction was all that would sell, he stuck to that and worked his themes into the genre. The genre is richer for it, and probably Dick was better off as a sci-fi writer. Talented, yes, as his novel Valis proves, but not terribly interesting much of the time when he was writing straight.

Timothy Archer is first of the final novels--all of them religious in  theme--that I actually found pretty good. It is about a bishop who comes to recognize certain truths about the world around him and who subsequently changes his life. It begins where it ends, with him dying in the wilderness in search of a psychotropic mushroom he believes is what Jesus' disciples were really ingesting when they took the bread and wine.

But really, it's not a novel about Bishop Timothy Archer at all but about his daughter-in-law's search for the meaning of the various lives and deaths around her: the deaths of her husband Jeff Archer (Tim's son) and of her friend Kirsten (Tim's mistress), and also of Tim.

And it's also a novel about knowledge, about spirit versus materialism. Tim Archer, strangely, rejects the teachings of Jesus in favor of believing that they are actually predated by an earlier sect, that Jesus wasn't the son of God but a person trumpeting ideas of this other tribe, the a mushroom is his body and blood that transforms via a druggy high. And yet, at the same time, it is Tim Archer's faith, that the dead, for example, can communicate with the living, that spurs him toward many of his final actions.

Angel is the materialist from start to finish (or maybe not?), as is the schizophrenic Bill (Kirsten's son; except, once again, maybe not?). Characters move between these two states of belief settling perhaps on an idea that most important of all is our compassion toward one another.

Monday, May 7, 2012

On "One-Fourth" by Walter Campbell (3975 words) ***

Here's a take on office romance that is also a satire on big-company office life altogether. In this world, one is as completely exchangeable as one's name, and one's boss is part devil. One sells unhealthy merchandise at any cost. I enjoyed the wit in this piece, even if I'm not much of a fantasy reader. The fantasy, though, makes the story work on a literal level. Read it here at Jersey Devil Press.

Friday, May 4, 2012

On "Free Lunch at the Poseidon" by Erin Gnidziejko-Smith (5195 words) ****

This gem reminds me a bit of the Coen Brothers film *Raising Arizona.* Perhaps, it's the babies. Perhaps, it's the relative stupidity of these characters. Perhaps, it's their trashy lives. Perhaps, it's all three. Although I generally love the Coen Brothers, one of the things I dislike about many of their films are that their characters often are relatively stupid--and that contempt for their characters often seems to come out in the film. Gnidziejko-Smith manages, however, to make us care about this guy and his girlfriend, who are on vacation and, through faults all their own, down on their luck. Stealing has never been so dangerous. Read the story here at TriQuarterly.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

On "Nimrod!" by Cliff Young (3793 words) ***

Jersey Devil Press likes speculative fiction that is experimental or realist in some way. Young's work fits well within that camp. It's a story set at the edge of the end of the world. Things are dying, and Norman is out hunting to find what little is left. What makes the story interesting is that survival--at least not in the common idea of it--is not Norman's main objective. The story is really about Norman's attempt to keep his wife, to impress her, so that she won't leave him. Man, once so sophisticated, returns to his caveman roots, Young implies, and a story is born. Read it here at Jersey Devil Press.

On "The Divine Invasion" by Philip K. Dick *

When I was younger, I was a huge fan of John Steinbeck. It's been a long while since I picked up one of his works, and the last time I did, I couldn't find myself as interested in it as I hoped to be. I think there are likely some books I could read of his and enjoy a lot, but for now, they rest more as great works in my memory.

One of Steinbeck's regularly employed techniques was allegory. It is the use of that technique that probably has me less interested in him now than I once was. Allegories can be good, if used subtly, and Steinbeck's sometimes are.

Dick's Divine Invasion is another allegory, and it is not subtle at all. It is the story of a man living on another planet who is commanded to take up with a woman who is a virgin and who becomes pregnant with a child. The family is commanded to immigrate back to Earth, at much personal peril. While the woman dies in an accident, her offspring survives. This offspring, as we learn, is in fact Yah--God. Add in a prophet named Elisa, and you've got a retelling of the Advent.

The world isn't too kind to Emmanuel, the name given to Yah as a human boy. It wants to kill him, to rid itself of this divine invader--and that mostly in the name of a religion that doesn't understand the true faith. I could go on. The novel is full of discussions about faith and religion and reality, but really, if I'd wanted to read the Bible, I'd have read the Bible and gotten more out of it.