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.