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.