Saturday, December 28, 2013

On "Cotton" by Lydia Copeland Gwyn (266 words) *****

Copeland's so magnificent sometimes. Like another piece of hers I highlighted a few years ago, this one sings with the night (of a new love, cast against an old). I don't know that it's a story so much of a remembrance, a brilliant moment, or set of moments, impressed into the page--or the screen, since you can read it here at New World Writing.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On "Had You Been a Believer, You'd Have Known You Were Headed for Hell" by Jessi Lee Gaylord (920 words) ***

This story bears mention for the title alone. Titles are tough, and I love it when an author can put one out there that manages to be original, totally unique, and somehow befitting the story. These are two ironists on their way to work, two people with a whole lot of smirk, and not much interest in stepping aside for others. But they're going to meet their end. Read the story here at Up the Staircase.

Friday, December 20, 2013

On "The Other Two" by Edith Wharton (7477 words) *****

Wharton's turns her attention to the life of a man who has married a twice-divorced woman. His discomfort, as it becomes clear during the early days of the marriage, with her previous husbands is hard to read about. Like most things we are handed in life, the husband learns simply to accept what has come before him--and even that these men are much better men than his wife ever let on. I have friends who are still friends with their ex-wives, who are even friends with their ex-wives' new husbands. Perhaps, our culture is slightly different now, the way that people so often remarry or even go from one boy/girlfriend to another, often dating someone a friend and acquaintance once slept with. Still, as a guy, I find myself more in tune with the man's discomfort in this story than with the seeming ease that various people I know seem to carry themselves in such situations. I suppose we all do have a tendency to make things look easy from the outside. Read Wharton's story here.

On "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells ***

I have not read much science fiction outside of the work of Philip K. Dick, who forged a reading list of mine a couple of years ago, so I've decided to embark on a reading list of classic science fiction.

I say I haven't read much, but in fact, I actually read quite a bit of the nineteenth-century science fiction (Jules Verne particularly comes to mind) when I was a kid. Forced to read one thousand pages per quarter from a select reading list, Verne and authors like him were often my staple. Had more contemporary science fiction books been on that list (and in the school library), I'd have definitely tried them. Thing is, I loved sci-fi--mostly because of Star Wars (something I probably wouldn't find myself drawn to as much as an adult, prequels notwithstanding)--or so I thought. But the few times I've read more contemporary stuff, I've usually been disappointed. I think that's because, as with sci-fi movies, while I like philosophical ideas and intense thrills, I'm not much for action. I'm more of an Alien fan than an Aliens fan, for instance.

So the reading list this time will include mostly those twentieth-century masters I haven't ever read, and I'm hoping they'll be interesting more for their ideas than for their action and, in addition, that they'll be at least fairly decently written. (The other issue I have with much genre fiction is the degree to which authors rely on cliches, but a good author, I've found, often doesn't, meaning that when younger, I often dismissed genre fiction out of hand when I should have considered each work separately, because as I discovered when reading a mystery list about a decade ago, there are some really brilliant genre writers out there. The classics are often classics for a reason, and I was wrong to be snooty about them.

The Time Machine, however, was a bit of a disappointment. I enjoyed the first few chapters, as Wells waxed poetic on ideas about physics that I would have thought postdated him (the connection between traveling through time and traveling through space, and the dynamics of the fourth dimension), but the story got rather hokey once the narrator headed off into the grand future.

Of course, the description of future was itself a social commentary. In it, humankind had evolved into two factions: a light and a dark, a good and an evil. But while the ones who lived above ground were peace loving, they had become so appeased with easy living that they failed any longer to advance. For Wells, this seemed a dangerous proposition. We must struggle if we are to evolve (there seemed a slight critique of communism here, as if the greed of capitalism is something we should want, as opposed to the peace communism would supposedly bring). But by the same token, those below ground had descended to the lowest rungs of decency, becoming essentially cannibals, even as they continued to use machinery.

Most of the plot revolves around the narrator's time machine being stolen and him attempting to recover it so that he can get back to his own time, a familiar plot indeed, though perhaps unique in Wells's time. The book is available online here.

Monday, December 16, 2013

On "Six Easy Pieces" by Pauls Toutonghi (409 words) ***

Taoutoghi short in six parts is a collection of highlights, involving psychology and cars. Small Doggies, where I first read this piece, tended to excel at these kind of pieces, short, lyrical passages that are fun to read just because of the order and choice of the words. I like how Toutonghi fits these six pieces together. You can now read the story here at Nailed.

On "Asperger Syndrome" by Brenda Smith Myles and Richard L. Simpson **

The subtitle of this book is "A Guide for Educators and Parents," and indeed that's what it is. Basic and fairly clear, it lays out what Asperger is and how it can best be managed in the context of education and of home. But it's vary utility and scope is also it's downfall, at least for me. Academic in its approach, I found my senses largely dulled, and wide as it was in scope, I found myself less interested in vast sections written specifically to educators. Still, it was a useful introduction to the phenomenon and one that I hope I can take with me as I read further into the topic.

What exactly Asperger is is, of course, part of the difficulty. It's easy to denote that it is high-functioning autism and that it involves more often an inability to read social cues than an inability to engage with the outside world at all (there's even some experts now who claim--though not in this book--that Asperger is in fact not even an aspect of autism but a wholly separate condition involving problems in another section of the brain). But diagnosing a person with the disability is a much more difficult thing, as every person is unique, and while many symptoms are shared by those who have Asperger, not all of them always are--or are to the same degree.

The child with Asperger can be very intelligent in some ways. The difficulty is generally in being able to filter his or her social interaction with others. Most are fairly withdrawn, preferring their own world to shared activities (my girlfriend's son, however, is an extrovert and so doesn't really fit many of these tendencies). Often, they have issues with stress and an inability to cope with such stress. They prefer structure and routine to disorder and can act in negative manners when such structure is interrupted. They can think and recall in very concrete manners but have difficulty interpreting actions or applying them to everyday life. So, for example, they might be able to read a book and tell you everything that happened in it, but drawing conclusions about what the events actually mean would be a struggle. Or they might learn that it's wrong to hit someone on the playground but then fail to be able to realize that such a rule applies also in the kitchen. (I'm reminded of Temple Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures, which does a much better job of explaining how such people might think. Memory is often very strong, but unable to group things into abstract concepts, such people often have trouble processing thoughts in at timely fashion and understanding how one specific item relates to another.)

While the education sections provide many tables and practical tips with regard to how to help Asperger children understand verbal and mathematical concepts, keep schedules, and interact with students (assign helpers, use visual cues along with written ones, etc.), the most interesting chapters to me where those closer to the book's end. Chapter 4, for instance, talks of transition to adulthood, which as the book unfortunately shows is a difficult process that many such children never manage to bridge, as evidenced by the unemployment rate among those with Asperger. Not only is the stress of major change difficult for such people to handle, but also, lacking often the ability to self-regulate, such people find it difficult to place themselves into situations that require independent living.

Chapter 5 proved to me the most interesting of the chapters. It essentially was a set of case studies--stories from families with children who have been diagnosed with Asperger. What is clear is that all of these children were very loved but that the disability definitely drained the resources of the parents and siblings and teachers. Many times this was because the diagnosis was arrived at only later in life. The first tale seemed especially tragic. It involve a girl who was fine living in her own world until she began to come to a better understanding around ages 6-8 of herself identity. At that point, unable to properly deal with others and friendless as a result, she began to act out in self-destructive ways that brought her attention and concern, which set up a repeating cycle of more and more dangerous acts and claims. The next three stories were luckily not quite as dour. In each, the family forged a plan and had a certain degree of outside help in terms of therapy for the child. The biggest challenge, it seemed, for one of these families was balancing the needs of their Asperger kid with those of the other children. In this case, they had to specifically set out time for the other children so that the one child didn't completely hog every bit of that time. Furthermore, having a person with Asperger syndrome in the family sometimes meant that even the siblings had trouble making friends, since other children didn't want to deal with the child with the disability. In each case, the degree of difficulty seemed to vary as well, with some children making seeming progress and others likely to continue on a course similar to that which they are on for the rest of their life.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

On "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen (9113 words) ****

Not quite the Disney cartoon--but would one have seriously expected that--this is no happy tale, except maybe in some kind of heavenly salvation sort of way. The youngest mermaid in the family awaits the day she can go to the surface, and the day that she does, she witnesses a shipwreck and saves a prince, with whom she falls in love (and unbeknownst to her, so too does the prince). To become human and seduce the prince, she has to sell her voice to the merwitch (a voice she can reclaim, along with a soul, if the prince falls in love with her; if he takes another woman, however, she will die on the spot). Without a voice, she's incapable of expressing her love or her identity to the prince, who finds her beautiful but, who in a case of mistaken identity, settles on another woman. Oh, there's a bit more, and of course there's Andersen's brilliant set of descriptions as well, which you can read here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On "Wutown" by Alia Volz (2091 words) ****

This story reminds me a bit of the work of Daniel Orozco. Like Orozco's often absurdist fiction, Volz sculpts a tale from a seeming log. Unlike Orozco's story "Officers Weep," which places love in the context of a police report, Volz's story focuses on the work itself--only, it's not police work. It's meter man work. Officer Wu is on a mission. He's the old stalwart, motivating the young meter people to do their best, to write out as many citations as possible--and he's also, unfortunately, on his way out. Retirement won't come easily for Wu. He's going to keep writing tickets until someone chains him up and locks him away. The mix of serious tone with seemingly trivial work makes this piece shine. Read the story here at Defenestration.

On "Keys to Successful Step-Fathering" by Carl E. Pickhardt ***

This is a basic primer on stepfathering, denoting a number of issues that stepfathers are likely to encounter. Its very simplicity made it a bit less than surprising. I can't say that I learned much from it. However, it is a good basic reminder of the issues and feelings that stepfathers face.

For example, the author begins by focusing on how such fathers necessarily feel about entering a marriage that involves this responsibility. It's perfectly normal, Pickhardt assures such men, to feel ambivalent. On one hand, stepparenting is a great opportunity that can bring much joy to all parties involved, but on another, the children are a constant distraction from the relationship one is trying to forge with one's spouse. There are ambivalencies on the part of the children as well, who might compare the new dad to the old or view the new one as an invader of sorts. Pickhardt says that feeling out the new roles in a family take time, and that as long as everyone is "just getting along" then that's good enough.

He denotes advantages of being a stepfather to a son and to a daughter, as well as the disadvantages to each, provides various strategies for dealing with conflict, establishing authority, dealing with discipline, and so on.

As a straight read, most of the book came off as common-sense information. However, I could see its use as something to dip in and out of when situations present themselves. Sometimes, we need refreshers, even with common sense.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On "The Tavern Wench of Venice" by Molly N. Moss (2713 words) ***

Leona is in search for a recipe and knowledge. What exactly makes the ravioli at the Flaming Chalice so good? The answer proves to be more than she would have ever planned on, more in the sense of being death-threateningly dangerous. I'm not a huge fan of fantasy fiction, but this one manages to break the mold in a way I'd not seen before. Read the story here at Silver Blade.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

On "How to Spend a Cul-de-sac Summer" by Jaime Netzer (822 words) ***

I've been seeing more and more often stories as sets of instructions. Here's one that combines the instructions with a tale of innocence lost. What I like about this piece is how subtly that innocence is lost. There's this craving to do wrong but also a craving to do right by mom's commands. Slowly, the main character moves further and further from mom toward the inevitable. Read the story here at Twelve Stories.

On "Blowout in the Gulf" by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling *****

Ostensibly about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, this book proved to be much more. Sure, the first two chapters discuss the goings-on during the blowout and its immediate aftermath, and the last chapter discusses steps that can be taken to minimize the chances that such disasters happen again in the future, but in between are more than one hundred pages about the history of the oil industry. Having read Stephen Coll's book about Exxon just a short while ago, that one focusing mostly on Exxon from 1989 to 2010, I found this text much more reader friendly to a person less informed about the industry.

I found particularly interesting the discussion of how the petroleum industry came to be. Oil, which occasionally seeped up from various spots on the globe, was typically used for things like pitch, but it wasn't really used for energy consumption until the whale industry began to have problems providing enough in terms of supply for the world market. Looking for a means to find oil without killing ever-decreasing numbers of whales, one man hit upon the idea of using petroleum. Then, someone else, thought about the idea of drilling for oil, once oil seeps seemed to be exhausted.

There is also, in the book, an extensive discussion of oil technology--just how drilling works and what a blowout preventer is. That part was in some ways rather dull, and while written for a lay reader, still a bit technical for my tastes. Still, knowing just how that process works was useful to know.

Much of the text is given over to the idea of energy independence, which the authors think is a political promise without any substance. The United States began exporting more oil than it imports in 1971, and we are not going back (although there is no discussion of fracking, which offers, I suppose, possibilities for energy independence that we didn't have even a few years ago). What the authors are clear about is that oil is a finite resource and eventually, whether thirty years from now or one hundred (depending on what new technologies and discoveries might arise), we're going to have to deal with it. More drilling is not the solution; that simply leads to faster depletion. Rather, we need to find ways to conserve, and by doing that, we can avert an eventual disaster that we have control over.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On "Eyes" by Vito Racanelli (1819 words) ****

"Eyes" is the nickname of the main character, a somewhat dimwitted older man who is hired by drug dealers to look out for the cops and to occasionally beat up or intimidate people who need that sort of treatment. But despite that criminal background, "Eyes" is someone fully sympathetic in Racanelli's treatment of him, a man without a lot of other choices. I'm reminded of a few homeless people I've known who preferred the street to a shelter. Read the story here at the Center for Fiction.

Friday, November 22, 2013

On "That Whooshing Noise before the End" by Bob Thurber (1367 words) ****

So this tale transplants a French film about divorce and a couple on the verge of their own. Okay, perhaps not the most interesting premise. But now try this: the couple is already separated, as of eight hours ago. And yet, here they are at the movies together. Sounds ridiculous, but that's what makes it incredibly interesting. (I'm reminded a bit of the tales, in the recent economic crisis, of couples forced to continue living together beyond their divorce. Why bother divorcing?) Read the story here at the Center for Fiction.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On "Snowed In" by Gary Percesepe (515 words) ***

This short tale works in metaphor and language. It's a familiar metaphor, but Percesepe adapts it well. The weather outside--it's winter and stormy. Inside, there's a fight going on, or the tail end of one, and yet also there's passion. In a sense, that's what this story is all about: turmoil--emotional and physical. Read it here at Twelve Stories.

On "Amazing Dogs" by Jan Bondeson ***

This was not quite the book I was expecting. I'd read about when it first came out, but for whatever reason, the thing that stuck in my head was Nazi dogs: the relationship between the Nazis and dogs and how the Nazis used dogs for particular ends. Very little of that is in the book. The book is more about famous dogs in general. As such, it has some interesting tidbits that would likely interest a canine lover. Not a dog person myself, I found myself shrugging my shoulders at much of the material, other than when I learned something historical I hadn't known about. In that sense, studying something like the dog in history can be fascinating, as it enlightens one to various aspects of our culture that existed just a century or two ago. Also selling this book: the magnificent illustration program. The book is, in itself, gorgeous.

Bondeson splits her material up by topic, as one might expect. There were several chapters on dog intelligence and communication. Much of this I was familiar with from the psycholinguists reading list I'd plowed through a few years ago. There were tales of dogs who could count (or not--as the Clever Hans effect is often at play) and of dogs who could supposedly communicate in various ways. Most interesting were those that managed, somehow, to say a few words of human vocabulary. This would be very unusual and difficult, as dogs vocal cords don't really allow for such.

Another chapter discussed dog actors. Apparently, in Victorian times, there was a liking for dog plays for a short while. Many times, the real fun of the play, however, was seeing how the dog would mess the play up, as dogs do tend to do as they want at times.

Another chapter focused on dogs that traveled by themselves. This is not something we see much of today: dogs on public transport just because they want to be. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of my friend Al's dog Max and how that dog sometimes would manage to get out and wander around the neighborhood for an afternoon. Al denoted how interesting it could be when Max got back, as sometimes Max would have ornaments from his travels, be it pizza crust or whatever.

Dogs have had various uses in days gone by that we don't see much of anymore. They've been used, for example, to collect money for the poor. (People were more inclined to give money to a collecting dog than a human. But not unlike some less-than-trustful humans, some dogs had a way of spending their earnings rather than bringing them back to the charity where they belonged.) Other dogs were used to turn roasts on a fire (turnspit dogs, they were called, a breed all but gone now). This job sounded incredibly horrid and the dogs terribly maltreated. Still other dogs were used to churn butter.

Bondeson then turned her attention to a few specific breeds, one bred to swim well and the other to rescue folks. This latter we know as the Saint Bernard, but the famed cask around its neck is mostly legend.

Of particular interest was a chapter on rat pits. A great sport was made for a while in the 1800s of dogs killing rats. Competitions in which a trained dog was put into a pit to attempt to kill one hundred rats faster than its counterpart dog became popular. Quite a gruesome spectacle--and one that fell out of vogue as people's sympathy with animals has grown.

And that in turn leads to Bondeson's account of a riot caused over a statue in a park dedicated to a dog who was killed in medical research. Medical students, incensed by this statue, rioted to pull this statue down. Defenders of experiments on dogs faced off against animal rights activists. This kind of love for the creatures we keep as pets, in turn, has led to a few pet cemeteries over the years, which is where Bondeson brings her book to a fitting end.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On "Why No One Writes Lyric Realism Anymore" by Kate Petersen (2827 words) ****

Not so much a story as a collection of vignettes about a hypothetical family, Petersen's short essay on the nature of our current literature is perhaps a bit tongue in cheek. Of course, nearly every literary writers writes some form of the lyric realism of her description: a family of four, dogs, cats, love stories, eating out, all the mundanities of life done up in fancy lingo. And yet, we remain fascinated. Or not. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

On "South of Hartford" by Frank Haberle (1358 words) ***

Haberle does what he does here by keeping things clean. The story starts in tragedy--or what could be tragedy--a very bad auto accident. By keeping to the details, Haberle avoids melodrama. As for lyricism, that's the stuff of dreams, and Haberle gives us a bit of that too, in its right place. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On "The Mother Thief" by Leah Erickson (4981 words) ****

I've long been a fan of stories about werewolves and vampires in theory; however, in execution, such stories don't tend to interest me much. It's more the tradition and oddity of such ideas that intrigues me, I realize, then the actual stories that come from such traditions. Erickson's "Mother Thief," however, managed to keep me focused--well into the part where we learn that Grace is mother to a werewolf. Part of what is intriguing is the realism the Erickson brings to the subject matter, and another part, I think, is that the wolf theme becomes emblematic of another part of Grace's life. Eric, her former husband, was her best friend until marriage--until she brought him into her home. And in the same way, the transformation of this child from near-human to near-wolf leaves Grace's home battered. Nature--and marriage--are glorified, but really, in the end, both are indifferent, subject merely to what we make of them. And yet, within all of this there is passion, the passion of the wolf. You can read it here at the Coachella Review or here at Jenny Mag.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

On "Killing: A Primer" by Matt Tanner (588 words) ***

This one took a couple of read. Tanner does the unspeakable here, killing off cute things. At first, I wonder, Why? I mean, it's disturbing, sure. But why focus on this moment? What exactly changes in the main character's life. And then, you realize that there's a back story here, that this event isn't something the character went looking for, and that this event is something that haunts the character. Read the piece here at Saltimbanque Review.

On "Riding with Strangers" by Elijah Wald ***

A big fan of Kerouac, especially when I was younger, I often had romantic notions of taking off on a hitchhiking tour of the country. But I knew that I would never dare such a thing. In reality, I suppose, I'd rather drive across the country--and would have preferred that even then. There is something that scares me a bit about getting into cars with strangers and also makes me feel a bit of an imposition. I'd have been more likely to hop a freight, had it been legal and halfway safe.

Nevertheless, I think I had higher hopes for this book than it could manage to deliver. It reminded me a bit of a book I own called Zen Driving. It's slick, written very clearly for a trade audience, and it delivers on that count. But I think sometimes trade books can be a bit too slick, such that they seem almost formulaic and glib, as if some editor went through and removed from it the interesting points of personality and made everything safe.

Which is not to say that Riding with Strangers is a bad book. I enjoyed it. It was a quick read. But I didn't find it very inspiring, and it's best sections--about the history and culture of hitching--were short and gathered in the middle of the narrative.

The book runs like this. Wald decides to hitchhike across the country, from his home in Boston to friends in Seattle. Over forty, he's done such trips many times. We get to go along for the ride, meeting his various compatriots, people who give him rides. We find out that hitching is much quicker than we might expect; he's rarely stuck anywhere for more than a couple of hours, and as he puts it, he gets across the country faster and more comfortably than he would on a bus.

In one of the more interesting asides, he discusses the ethnicity of those who give him rides. He notes that the ethnicities have become more varied in the past decade, that one can see the changing nature of the country just in who proffers rides. If he's on the Interstate, it's more than likely going to be someone who is not a white native-born American (at least, it proves so on this trip, picked up as he is by a Mexican and numerous recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia). If it's a country road, it's more than likely going to be a WASP. He almost never is picked up by African Americans (and never by Africans). He muses that this goes back to the long history of racism in the country, as well as the nature of where African Americans live (big cities). There's a notable difference when he goes South and finds that shared rides are actually more common. As he notes, as far as race goes, in the North, white people don't care if a black people get big as long as they don't get too close, but in the South it's just the opposite: white people don't mind how close they get as long as black people don't get too big. I thought it actually a very interesting observation, having grown up out West and moved to the South; I'd always felt the West more tense and racist--but less open about racism as well. This may be why

Interior chapters focus on the origin of the word "hitchhike," hitchhiking techniques, hitchhiking manners, and which types of vehicles make for the best or the most likely drives. Turns out hitching out of a large city is difficult, because most drivers are in a rush and aren't going far and don't want to stop. It's easier to hitch on a smaller highway. Truck and rest stops make good places to scare up a ride, which often consists of just asking around. One can also position one's self at an on-ramp. Signs are dubious but sometimes helpful. Women generally have an easier time getting rides than men (no surprise there), and more than two is a crowd. Big trucks are good for rides; SUVs, however, seldom offer a lift.

Also: it's illegal to hitchhike in many states. That was perhaps the most interesting thing to me, how the writer had to dodge cops or be careful with where he tried to get a ride, and it sort of makes the prospect of hitchhiking to me even less appealing. I might well be fine asking for a ride, but if I might get harassed by a cop for doing so, such isn't going to be to my liking.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On "97 Sketches of the Same Naked Man" by Matthew Olzmann (877 words) ***

This piece is pretty much what one expects: descriptions of a naked man. But it is the essayistic thought behind the work that makes Olzmann's tale shine, the way that he mimics that thought in the artwork itself. The naked man is dead, and as such, what does his life amount to? What of these works of art? How much do each of us leave undone when we depart without warning? Read the tale here at Twelve Stories.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On "Dracula in Six Movements" by Megan Giddings (1023 words) ****

Here's a clever take on an old tale. I haven't read many works about vampires, but those I have read have obviously paid much homage to certain gothic elements. Giddings work doesn't have that feel, however. Dracula here is caught up in the pop cultural milieu, in fact his own image within the milieu: he looks at himself in the mirror, he thinks of movies he's figured in, he worries over the letters he sends. His life--and his dreams--aren't all that different from ours. He wants to impress the woman he's in love with. Read the story here at Knee-Jerk.

On "Not Just Roommates" by Elizabeth H. Pleck ***

Pleck wants cohabitors to have the same rights (and arguably obligations) as married folk. As she sees it, this is one of the last lines of civil rights that has not been fully fixed in the legal and government realm. Morality should have nothing to do with the law.

Many of these observations seem absurd to me. Why even have marriage if cohabitors have all the same rights (and obligations)? And what is the law other than our codified sense of morality?

The book is engaging, however, as an exploration of the history of cohabitation and of changing community standards. Sadly, laws against cohabitation have often been put in place or enforced, not primarily because they were meant to uphold marriage (the general excuse), but because they helped to foster other less worthy societal goals. For example, community officials, at various points in history, have "dropped in on" women who were on welfare. If a man was found living with the woman (or even if it was only suspected, because she had a boyfriend of sorts, live-in or not), then she was booted off the welfare roles, saving the government money. The object here was to save money rather than to actually help families. Likewise, cohabitation laws have also been used at times to prevent interracial relationships. Finding it illegal to marry, interracial couples also found it illegal to forge a live-in relationship outside of marriage. In other words, just plain illegal.

The latter is an issue that affects the gay and lesbian community now. And Pleck's chapter on that is rather fascinating from a legal standpoint. In times past, many gays and lesbians called into question the whole culture of marriage, seeing it as limiting to sexual freedom and as indoctrinating as to an old patriarchal view of society. However, gays and lesbians also found themselves out of luck when it comes to many of the rights granted to married couples (shared health insurance being a big one, various inheritance and estate issues as well), so a vast segment pushed to have those rights accorded to themselves also. Some communities reacted with domestic partnership laws that have benefited live-in romantic partners as well. But a domestic partnership isn't always recognized with the same legal force as marriage, and the difference--even in name--suggests that one form of relationship is more legitimate than another. Hence, a community that has often called into question the value of marriage ironically also has ended up pushing for the right to have marriage extended to itself.

Which gets back to the question of why accord the same rights and obligations to people living together as to those who marry? Why live together rather than marry, if all the same rules apply? And vice versa? Is it the government's job to encourage marriage or to be involved in the marriage business at all?

I can see where an argument can be made for simply letting every person, married or not, have the same tax benefits, visitation benefits, health-care benefits, be it that the partner is a spouse or not. But why stop there? Why not "just roommates"? After all, how fair is it to extend such rights to people who are in love versus to those of us--me for most of my life--who have not managed to find such love but who might have another person who might benefit from the same legal amenities?

In this case, maybe marriage should be left to our religious and other institutions. Attach no government policy to such a status whatsoever. After all, our government has made a mockery of it anyway, the way that couples can forge and unforge such pacts with such ease such that marriage often isn't any more than a contractual agreement to live together for a time anyway.

But then again, government does have a role to play in encouraging behaviors that contribute to the stabilization of society, and I would argue that marriage, when implemented in a proper way, does just that. Yes, children are resilient, as Pleck argues in the first chapter, but a child raised in the stable home of a married couple is generally going to end up having an easier go at adult life than one who is bounced from home to home, single parent to stepparent to single parent. In the end, on a social dynamic sphere, the institution of marriage is about the kids (more than the couple).

Friday, October 25, 2013

On "What Do We Have in Our Pockets?" by Etgar Keret (521 words) ***

Not sure this counts as a story. It's more a thought piece, a question posed and answered. The rising arc in this case is one not of conflict, climax, and resolution but of mystery posed and mystery answered. But it's a form that can work just as well for flash or even for many a work of fiction. Keret here asks us to meditate on the contents of his pocket, on why he carries so much about. Alas, I carry most of these things myself, but not for the same reason, and unfortunately, in my forty-plus years, I've never had the kind of opportunity Keret's narrator dreams of having. Read the story here at Failbetter.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On "Canada" by Laura Breitenbeck (1580 words) ****

The old cliche is that women like bad boys. And certainly, in this short tale, that seems the case. Bad boys--and the nation of Canada--become the place of dream and imagination to a girl bored by her comparatively safe surroundings. We want what we don't--and what we can't--have. Read the story here at Superstition Review.

On “Daring Wives” by Frances Cohen Praver ***

This book discusses why women cheat on their husbands, using mostly cases studies arranged by type of household (stay-at-home wives, working wives, older women with younger men, remarriages, same-sex affairs, and sexually hungry wives). I read the book mostly because I was curious as to why women cheated but also to see what sort of men their husbands were. I found myself identifying with the men in the stay-at-home section of the book but not with the men in the rest of the book.

The two husbands in the case study in the stay-at-home section could be described this way. The first one was a hard worker who supplied for his wife materially, but he was not very passionate. The second husband was one who was not very motivated to improve his life but who on the whole was a morally stand-up guy. In both cases, the wives found their husbands boring and wanted more from them in terms of passion. In the first case, the wife resented the fun and adventure her husband got to have at work while she stayed at home and took care of the house; he'd come home tired and not want to entertain her. In the second case, the wife pushed the husband to better and better jobs. She got off on the power this made her feel, but such also caused her to lose respect for her husband. The first woman had an affair with a man who she felt appreciated her more, especially physically. The second had an affair with a classic bad boy, a man into the drug culture who lived on the edge. What I learned is that if I were to ever marry, I do need to pay attention to my wife's need to feel desired--not something I would necessarily be very good at, I've learned, since I may not always be in the mood to “desire.” I also need to remain motivated to keep improving myself, but outside of that, I don't know that I could do much to prevent something like the second situation.

The other sections of the book either focused more on the women and their personal problems or presented husbands that were very unlike me: controlling, domineering, angry, and so on. In most cases, as the author brings out, the women were looking for something missing in their marriage, not necessarily or primarily sex. Even in the case of the women who wanted sex that their husbands couldn't or wouldn't provide, the route cause of this generally came from some need to feel heavily wanted or to avoid feeling inferior and so on.

While I enjoyed the case studies quite a bit, I don't think my views align with the author's at all in terms of morality. She stresses throughout that extramarital affairs are not a sin, and that women should not be shamed into thinking such. We all need to find what fulfills ourselves. This whole idea runs contrary to how I would say our society should be structured. If sin is breaking a law, and law is ultimately about showing love to our neighbor (as well as to ourselves), then sin is a breaking of love. All's well and fine, I suppose, to go off and have an affair to fill your own needs if that's all you care about, but marriages are about supplying for your spouse and family, and if we can't do that, then there is something desperately wrong. Extramarital relations damage that ability to supply love. A better way to seek such fulfillment is to find a way to communicate those needs to those around us, without resorting to hurting them.

And while the author seems bent on saying there is no sin, it's interesting that she'll use loaded vocabulary in places to describe certain kinds of actions or people. Women were once in the “cruel clutches” of doctors, for example, who tried to cure them of being overly sexual. If there is no morality, then there is not cruelty. There is only action and reaction. Of course, the author doesn't really mean that there is no morality, as becomes plain in her conclusion, wherein she spells out a new morality based on women's needs and a more egalitarian sense of power within marriage. All well and fine, but that means that there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and bad--and sin. The issue I have with “new morality” is that it often throws out the “old morality” because of some twisted ideas that got connected to it (e.g., women's inferiority), when in fact the morality as a whole (putting others' needs before our own) makes a lot of sense.

So while I value the book for its specific examples, I can't say I came away feeling like we're moving to a better place, when an academic is telling us to simply do what feels good no matter what those actions do to others.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On "Vox Staccato and the Eight-Bit Mafia" by Garnett Elliott (4201 words) ***

This story is pure pulp, but it's written with the flair of pulp masters, and that's why I'm featuring it here. The tale is about one Travis, a man sent to fix video game developers, keep products coming to market at the appropriate time. Alas, his job is supposed to be more genteel than he was aware of, and for that, some consequences are about to be paid. Read the story here at ThugLit.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

On "Scold" by Arthur Diamond (6334 words) ****

Diamond's "Scold" works off a set of stereotypes--or rather, it begins there and asks us to think about them in the context of religion. Rabbi Barsimson, along with a black nurse, helps an Asian lady who falls down one day in the street. The black nurse makes a series of comments about Jews that essentially places the rabbi into a set of typically Jewish distinctives he doesn't fit. The story shifts here to the rabbi's congregation, which is selecting a new rabbi--one who is a lesbian who uses puppetry as part of her sermons. The older members in the congregation have no interest in such a rabbi; the younger ones, however, support her. Barsimson seems both supportive and dismissive of the new way--he knows that he can't change what's coming, but he recognizes that it must be accepted, just like the fact that the congregation itself will likely dissolve in the next year, replaced with a mosque (unbeknownst to most of the lay people). The key, perhaps, is to stick together, to help one another, Barsimson seems to hint, but he never quite manages to articulate it other than with the bloodstains that still rest on his pants. Read the story here at Ascent.

On "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera *****

I've intended--wanted--to read this book for a long while. Somehow, I managed to make it to four other books by Milan Kundera over the past couple of decades before I got to this one. I put off, for a long while, seeing the movie, in part because I didn't want the movie running through my head or ruining the "what happens next?" element of the novel.

And then, I gave in, watched the movie. I feared I'd probably ruined the book. And in a few ways, arguably, I may have. When Tereza and Tomas and Sabina wander into the pages, I end up with the movie actors in my head rather than Kundera's prose (although he doesn't give long physical descriptions of most of them, so at least the film doesn't completely obliterate the actual facts of the book). But in most ways, the film had no bearing at all on how I felt about the book. For one, the book isn't chronological, while the film is. This made for some interesting reading, despite having seen the film, examining the cyclical structure, how Kundera returns several times to events from alternate points of view--and then realizing how the filmmaker would have had to put all of this in "order."

Second, this is Kundera writing, and how could I have thought the movie could even come close to exhausting the book? The thing about Kundera--and I write this in regard to his novels (I found his story collection somewhat disappointing, as well as his book on writing)--is that his work is as much philosophy as it is fiction. He proposes particular ideas, and then he works them out with his characters. In this way, he makes concrete what other philosophers fail to, and what's more, he complicates whatever he has to say in interesting ways.

A major theme of this novel is borne in its title. Kundera spends a good chunk of the text discussing the way to happiness and fulfillment. Is the better life the light one or the heavy? Happy lives are carefree--but such would mean they lack depth or great meaning, which are themselves means toward happiness. Heavy responsibilities weigh us down, take away from our ability to enjoy things, and yet, they are what makes things meaningful and thus lend to our happiness. And so, which is it? Or is it some kind of combination? Or do we even get a choice of one or the other?

As Kundera points out at some point, all meaning in life is eventually robbed from us through death. I love this line: "Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion." The idea is that our memories, our history, is turned into some kind of silly amusement for generations that come after us, trinkets that are sold in the market; rides, restaurants, and theme parks that tourists gamble away time in. These are the means by which future generations remember us, the means by which we stick around, and they are also the means by which we are forgotten. Eventually, even the trinkets go away, and the amusements give way to things in more recent memory. (I think of the 1950s restaurants that were so popular in the 1980s. I think of the bar in town called 8Es, which already has its follow-up 9Ds. In one of the Back to the Future films, the main character goes to a 1980s-themed restaurant, which is all kitsch, as the filmmaker figures on the 1980s being remembered, as we were remembering the 1950s then.)

Tomas, a doctor in Czechoslovakia just before the Russian takeover in the 1960s, has love dropped in his apartment so to speak, when he meets a young server in a coffee shop. She comes to his apartment--as so many women do--but unlike most said women, she stays, because she gets sick. And then, she stays for the long term. Tomas continues his philandering ways, but the young woman, Tereza, stays with him. They go to Switzerland when the Russians come to Czechoslovakia. But Tereza wants to return home and does; Tomas, who has devoted his life to the heavy work of aiding sick people, decides to follow--and as a result, must give up his career, for the two of them were anti-Communist sympathizers who cannot be allowed to hold important jobs, even though such means the nation is not served by the medical talents that Tomas has. Tereza, one day, realizes that Tomas has had to give up everything for her--life in the city, his women, his career. She feels sad for him, guilty, but he says in fact that he is the happiest he has ever been. Weight? Lightness? Both? Does it matter?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On "At the Edge of the Earth" by Brandon Patterson (3896 words) ***

Patterson's tale is one of exploration, not unlike those of the 1400s and 1500s, when Europeans realized (again) that there was land beyond the sea. During that time, writers like Jonathan Swift could write fantastic tales like Gulliver's Travels and have some people believe them halfway seriously. Patterson wanders into that world through the life of John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto, as he prefers to call him. But in the realm of fantasy, the world turns out not to be a sphere but rather flat--or, to be more precise, perhaps like a cylinder, with the top flat but the rest round. The meaning of this is what makes for a tale not unlike a Twilight Zone episode. Read the story here at Prime Number.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

On "Stranger Danger" by Hadley Moore (4192 words) ****

I love Moore's "Stranger Danger" for its little observations that ring so true. Katherine is a single mom. The father, however, is kindly very involved in her son's life, as is his wife. There's a moment, toward the beginning of the story, when Katherine realizes that her boyfriend is not going to stick with her after her son's birth. "I wonder who's he'll be," he says. But that's not the most chilling detail. I find one a bit later to be so incredibly true to people who don't fit the mold of the typical American trajectory. As a single mom whose father's son is married, Katherine feels like the interloper in her own son's life, as if he has a perfect family of his own, and she's just a glorified babysitter. I love that detail because I can so identify with it, as perennial single guy among married and childed friends. I'm still the kid, the not fully adult one, even though I'm older than a lot of those around me. Because of how things came out in life, I never got to grow up. Katherine, too, feels this sad kind of halfness. I thank Moore for bringing this woman so well to life. Read the story here at Ascent.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On "Grandeur" by John Carr Walker (3929 words) ***

Paul Bowles has a story wherein a man and a snake change consciousness. Walker's "Grandeur" reminds me a tiny bit of that story, not because two creatures exchange consciousnesses but because it is a story about transformation, about man becoming animal--in this case, bird. In the narrator's singularity of vision, it is hard to think in any other way. Read the story here at Prime Number.

On "The Happiness Myth" by Jennifer Michael Hecht ****

In this book, Hecht sets out to discuss what makes us happy and to denote how some of our ideas about what makes for a happy life may be wrong--or at least are culturally determined by the particular place and time in which we live. Once basic living needs are met, happiness generally does not go up or down depending on how much one has. Happiness can't be said to have grown over the millennia as technology has gotten more sophisticated and given us more of what we want. It is a constant. So wherein does happiness reside?

For the answer to this, she begins by looking at four philosophical perspectives--that happiness resides in finding yourself, that happiness resides in ridding yourself of desire, that happiness resides in indulging your desires, and finally that happiness resides in seizing the day (bearing in mind always that death lies just down the road).

Next she turns to four items she says can bring happiness but that our society often claims do not: drugs, money, body, and parties. Actually, society says all these things can bring happiness, but how these things are configured in that happiness quotient depend on the culture and time in which we exist--and that is closer to what Hecht appears to be claiming.

The chapters on drugs were particularly enlightening, as Hecht takes a historical perspective on the usage and nonusage of banned substances. Cocaine, for example, is banned in our own day, but into the early 1900s had been used as an elixir for those needing a bit of a pick-me-up, even among pregnant women. The coca leaf is, of course, still used among peoples in South America, chewed to make life a little sweeter. Its overuse and concentration led it to be considered dangerous--and eventually got it banned. Opium experiences a similar descent. But today, we have other drugs--prescription drugs--that can relieve our depression, no more safe if misused than some of the banned substances. Our culture in part determines what is okay and what is not. Of particular note here is a religion (I can't recall now the particular faith--perhaps Mormons) who banned alcohol and tea but who allowed the usage of a particular herb in a drink that later turned out to be a much more dangerous predecessor to our contemporary amphetamines. Likewise, she draws on an interesting study that connects religion and drug usage--showing that those who experience "highs" and transcendent experiences on a drug during a religious experience are more likely to remain devoted to that religion (the problem is that most druggies lack the discipline demanded of religion, and most faiths look down on drug usage).

The section on bodies was probably the next most interesting to me. In it, Hecht shows how various diet and exercise fads have come and gone and how certain things we see as healthful today were seen as just the opposite a century ago. Exercise, for instance, is now seen as so good that we go to gyms to work out because we don't get enough of it in our work; in the 1800s, exercise would have been seen as expending energy were are better off conserving if we wish to live long. In the end, it seems that moderation in all things is most likely to breed healthful, happy living.

I found the sections on money and parties less intriguing. The section on money largely focuses on what materialism gives and fails to give us. And the section on festivals seemed a bit dubious to me to begin with, as parties, to me, seem the essence of happy moments. That is why they are thrown. Hecht focuses on ancient Greek festivities and shows how they might be related to our human need to occasionally leave off our traditional roles.

I enjoyed this book as an historical account of how humans have viewed various fads and various ideas about how we can best be healthy and happy. It is when focusing on these details that Hecht is at her best.

Friday, September 27, 2013

On "Country Lepers" by Brad Felver (6823 words) ****

Who's helping whom? That's a question posed in Felver's odd letter to his narrator's new lover. Divorced from his old living situation, the narrator goes to live with an old man who has something of a skin condition, an old man who is willing to put up with the narrator and his obsession with his former wife and her new boyfriend. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On "Girl in the Mirror" by John W. Buckley (7464 words) ****

Reading this story, I was reminded a bit of a story I'd read in a creative writing class years ago, an account of a tongue piercing. We don't get a tongue piercing here, and the language isn't nearly so artificially lyric, but what we do get is a wonder portrait of a younger girl trying to find herself and trying to hook a guy on whom she has a crush. Sometimes, discovering yourself is about discovering another person. Read the story here at Menda City Review.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On "Minutes of the Last Meeting" by Daniel B. Meltzer (2456 words) ***

Verisimilitude is an object of many a writer's pen. But realism, as we think of it, is rarely realistic. Fiction has its own tone, its own level of reality, different from history writing or letters--except in those instances when fiction takes on the tone of history or of letters. Enter Meltzer's "Minutes," which is a sendup of just that: minutes from a meeting. The tale documents why I so rarely care much for attending meetings. Read the story here at Prime Number.

On "The Four Loves" by C. S. Lewis ***

A minister got me thinking about the biblical word for "love." He was talking about the Greek term "agape" meaning the love of God, perfect, selfless love. It's a common refrain among Christian teachers. But I was suddenly contemplating the Greeks themselves. The Greeks had no concept of God as Christians do; they had a pantheon of gods. So from where springs a term specifically referencing Godly love? That cannot be how it was used in the Greek.

Some research on the Greek terms--storge, philia, eros, and agape--conveyed to me that the meanings are not perhaps as settled as Christian teachers make it out to be. Indeed, "agape" is often used in the Bible to represent a selfless Godly love, but it can sometimes be used for selfish loves as well (the love of money, the love of the world). "Philia" might be the love of friends, but it is also used in a selfless sense (John 16:27 and Titus 3:4 use "philia"). I tried looking for the term "agape" in contemporary works outside the scriptures but found few; it was, outside the Bible, not so often used apparently. So perhaps the "Godly love" usage took some precedent even among first-century Christians. But not completely. Leave that to the 1800s, to an author who predated C. S. Lewis, and then to Lewis himself and this defining book. Those who give little credence to the differences between philia and agape blame Lewis for making the distinction so concrete, too concrete. But many of these same critics then said they'd never read the Lewis book; I decided I couldn't be one of those, that I needed to see what Lewis himself said.

Interestingly, the term "agape" did not come up in Lewis's book, so far as I remember. But the concept, as espoused by Christian teachers, certainly did. There is a human love and a Godly one, the latter one to which we aspire. This love, Lewis calls, in his final chapter, charity (as in the KJV translations of 1 Corinthians 13). To inherit that "heavenly kingdom," Lewis says, we must give up our natural loves for a spiritual one, must let the natural transform into the spiritual: Our earthly love can enter the heavenly kingdom "only on one condition; not a condition arbitrarily laid down by God, but one necessarily inherent in the character of Heaven: nothing can enter there which cannot become heavenly. 'Flesh and blood,' mere nature, cannot inherit the Kingdom. Men can ascend to Heaven only because the Christ, who died and ascended to Heaven, is 'formed in him.' Must we not suppose that the same is true of a man's loves? Only those which Love Himself has entered will ascend to Love Himself. And these can be raised with Him only if they have, in some degree and fashion, shared His death; if the natural element in them has submitted--year after year, or in some sudden agony--to transmutation."

In this sense, Lewis does pose a spiritual love as above a physical love. I'm not as sure the Bible makes this distinction quite as certain. In places, God's love for man is denoted as "philia"--friendship/brotherly love. And yet Lewis, when speaking in metaphor of earthly loves, equates God's love more with the other two Greek words: "Friendship is very rarely the image under which Scripture represent the love between God and Man. It is not neglected; but far more often, seeking a symbol for the highest love of all, Scripture ignores this seemingly almost angelic relation and plunges into the depth of what is most natural and instinctive. Affection is taken as the image when God is represented as our Father; Eros, when Christ is represented as the Bridegroom of the Church."

But a concordance search shows neither "eros" nor "storgi" explicitly appear in scripture. Meanwhile, "philia" (and derivatives) is used at least six times in reference to love between God and man.

Interestingly, Lewis does hold friendship love in a fairly high but special esteem, enough that, before I got to his chapter on charity, I thought he might not actually hold a strong view of hierarchies of love. What Lewis admires about friendship love is that it is the one love that is not as much based on need or on giving (a distinction he sets up in the first chapter and returns to in the last and which I will discuss shortly). It is, as he notes, "the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary." There is no expectation that your friend do something for you other than that you simply enjoy each others' company--though should a need arise, friends will help one another out--and then go back to being friends. While "eros," Lewis notes, is about naked bodies, "philia" is about naked souls. Good friends drive us toward goodness, while evil friends drive us toward the evil. Friends hold each other in high esteem, esteeming themselves more lowly than the others in their coterie (but the danger is that the coterie itself will often view itself as higher than those outside it).

I noted that Lewis makes a big deal about need and giving. He says, in his first chapter, that all earthly love is based on these two principles. At first, we might be inclined to say that God is the giver and humanity the needer, and that might make us think giving a superior love. "Need," we might say, is selfish. But Lewis points out that no one would claim that a baby who needs its mother or a child who looks up to and for his father is selfish. So we cannot quite equate need love with selfishness but rather a different form of love. (Indeed, a give love could be selfish as well, if the reason for the giving is to prop up one's own egocentric needs.) Spiritual love, however, Lewis points out in his last chapter transforms and transcends these components. And in fact, the greatest form of love is simply appreciation.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

On "Oranges" by Anthony Doerr (2032 words) ****

Reading some people's writing seems so effortless that it's hard to believe that hours of craftsmanship went into the final product. Doerr's tale "Oranges" is one of those. Ostensibly a love story about two people who meet on the plane, the tale sets one perfect word after another. Oranges, as one might imagine, play a large role, a kind of motif running throughout--their juice, their smell, their skin, their core--but most off the one in which a gifted person peels them whole, making of them a single string, like history--sets of events--rolling around and around and around to make finally a whole. Read the story here at rkvry.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On "Nevada County" by Sarah Marshall (2689 words) ****

Marshall's "Nevada County" is about a runaway, a thirteen-year-old with an idea of what being an adult means and no idea whatsoever. She is playing at being a hooker, at being independent. She has no money and is headed nowhere fast unless it's down. This is a story more about a character than a plot, a sketch of sorts, that reveals, in a final telling detail, how little this gal is and how much more she has to learn. It's a heartbreaker. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

On "Paul" by Daniel Davis (3740 words) ***

There's a kind of cold scariness to this tale that starts out as a sort of existential mystery. Chris--or is it Chris?--is sitting in a bar when a man comes up and starts talking to him as if he is Paul, an old acquaintance the man hasn't seen in a year. Usually, when people tell another that they are not who the person is looking for, that's the end of the conversation. We bow out, apologizing, a bit sad, a bit confused, a bit embarrassed. Not here. The man insists that Chris is Paul. And so goes the story to its rather ambiguous and frightful close. Read the story here at Stirring.

On "Enemies, a Love Story," by Isaac Bashevis Singer *****

Singer's novel reminded me of why I like fiction, and that is not a small feat. As I've gotten older, I've found myself more and more drawn to nonfiction. I think that is because nonfiction seems somehow more important or pertinent to me. But when I return to books for rereading, it is almost always a fictional work, not nonfiction. Why is that the case? And why does so much fiction, in my older years, fail to impress?

I think that is because a lot of contemporary fiction seems to be simply that: a story. And I want to walk away from a book with more than a story. I good book makes me think (and most nonfiction does that) or it makes me feel (some fiction does that); a truly great book makes me do both.

Singer's book was more one for thinking. But it was also great storytelling. The plot revolves around a man with three wives. The setting is post-World War II New York. Herman Broder has survived the Holocaust by hiding out in a hayloft. The woman who sheltered him--his family's former servant--is now his wife. We get the sense, as the novel continues, that Broder married her more from duty than desire (though early on this isn't necessarily as clear). Broder also has a mistress, another Holocaust survivor. This woman gets pregnant at one point and insists on marriage. Beyond that, there's Broder's former wife, who apparently did not die in the concentration camps as he had been led to believe: she's resurfaced. How Broder keeps these plates spinning is truly engaging.

But along the way, we also wrestle with what it means to exist and to have faith and to love. Interestingly, Broder's servant wife, Yadwiga, grows more religious as the novel progresses, becoming Jewish (giving up Catholicism). This, at times, even infects Broder, who wishes to return to his faith. But in a world where "all the good Jews" were killed (that is, the ones faithful to Torah and their beliefs), faith in God no longer seems to make much sense. Try as Broder might, he can't bring himself any longer to do what is right.

Of course, Broder was never a saint to begin with. He treated his first wife awful and took little concern in his family. So in a sense, we also are watching a man trying to reform--and failing--which is itself rather fascinating and sad. Also amazing is to see how these three women--and how much these three women--love this man, even at great cost to themselves. Unable to choose, Broder contributes to the ruin of each of their lives.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

On "The Divorce Party" by Deenah Vollmer (713 words) ****

All the old cliches are here but made new because in Vollmer's world, the reception occurs when the marriage is over rather than when it begins. It's a strange way to look at a relationship--or the end of one. And certainly, I suppose, there may be some truth to it, the idea of new beginnings mixed with that tinge of sadness at the end of other things. One will miss marriage as one misses singlehood. If only our lives didn't become so entwined that such splits weren't more angst driven. But then again, among those who have been married six times (as with a person I recently met), maybe one gets used to such things. Read the story here at Volume 1 Brooklyn.

Friday, August 30, 2013

On "Brandy Has My Eyes" by James Hain (1825 words) ***

This tongue-in-cheek tale poses a question regarding the future. What if your proginy could visit you in the past? Is this a con? I think I'd likely settle for the latter conclusion, but Hain makes playing with time so fun that it's a good thing one father decides to run with the time travel story. Read the tale here at Jenny Mag.

Monday, August 26, 2013

On "To Pieces and to Death" by Amanda Rea (4005 words) ****

Here a fish takes on the obvious metaphor for a man, and a dead fish, we might say, is a dead man--or a divorced one. But the story isn't about the man but about the woman, the one who left him and now has second thoughts. He's a sweet guy but not one she wants to be with anymore. Meanwhile, her neighbors have fights, the woman is abused. This man will keep his lady, perhaps too long. I'm reminded of various relationships I've known of, those where people hung on far beyond the relationship's potential because they hated to face a future alone, and others where a person has the guts to end said relationship but then feels all the same despair as the one who is broken up with. The end of things is rarely easy. Read the story here at Wazee Journal.

On "Kinship Myth in Ancient Greece" by Lee Patterson ***

This book takes on the subject of how myth is related to diplomacy--and most specifically to diplomacy in ancient Greece. If one knows Greek mythology well (I don't), then this book might well prove of quite a bit of interest. I found myself, however, lost in the details, while I found the general idea of the book quite compelling--that is, exploring how we create myths to forge desired relationships. Conquering another country, for example, sounds a lot better when the venture is constructed in as imperialism but as "freeing a people" from other oppressors or "reuniting" an old kingdom. If one can pose your political and military ends as attempts to aid your fellow family members from long ago, perhaps your victims may well feel placated or your own peoples will find strong enough reason to support your purposes. Patterson, in his introduction, gives the example of Hitler claiming early on that the British shared his Arian roots, extending olive branch while he did as he wanted with the mainland of Europe--the Brits didn't buy it.

The most interesting discussion of a specific incident in the book for me was the one that was loosely linked to the Bible, the stories of which I am much more familiar with. Knowing the particular myth and peoples under discussion aids understanding--and interest--a lot. The incident involves letters being sent between Sparta and the high priest Jonathan, claiming kinship with one another. Patterson investigates the supposed roots of such kinship and also whether the letters were likely authentic. Patterson notes that the roots may stem back to Daenus, a son of Abraham through Keturah, though the myth itself seems focused more on Moses. Apparently, descendents of Daenus may have fled from Egypt for Greece instead of the Promised Land. (There are also legends about the tribe of Dan trading with--and partly settling in--Greece, which Patterson doesn't broach.) Anyway, the idea that a Greek king would write to Jonathan about their common ancestry in Abraham, Patterson finds to be dubious. More likely, the correspondence was more due to Jonathan than to the Greeks--hence, the emphasis on common ancestry in Abraham rather than in a Greek figure. The details of the story would have, perhaps, helped Jonathan strengthen his position among the Jews by appeasing certain Hellenic Jews. Anyway, it was an interesting discussion of how a story about one's past--true, fabricated, or some combination thereof--can be put to use for power ends.

Patterson was my roommate for two years of graduate school, and part of this research started as he was working on his thesis. I'm glad to finally have had the chance to read the final results.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

On "Song of the Turkey Vulture" by G. E. Tallant (6403 words) ***

Here's a tale about seasons--of one's life, of the life of a place, and of a year. Cara is an older lady struggling against sickness. She has two dear friends down the road from her. All of them do farming of a sort. But the town is moving in, and the three of them aren't getting any younger. The significance of the title becomes clear in the last section. Read the story here at Terrain.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

On "North Of" by Marie-Helene Bertino (5479 words) *****

This is my favorite story from Bertino's marvelous collection. It involves a woman bringing Bob Dylan home to visit her family--a mom who is clueless as to who Dylan is and a brother whose growing hatred of life doesn't allow him even to enjoy meeting a visit by his idol. What I like so much about it is the mix of absurdity--that someone could, on a seeming whim, bring home one of the greatest rock stars of all time (or the president or whomever)--and folks around deal with it so utterly nonchalantly. The narrator shows Dylan all the places she hung out as a child, in a sense sharing her life story. At one moment, someone recognizes Dylan--but as some other star. And yet, behind all of this is a familial relationship that is falling apart and that gives the story its true heart. Read it here at Electric Literature's Recommended Reading.

On "Safe as Houses" by Marie-Helene Bertino ****

Winner of the 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Bertino's collection shines with stories often tongue-in-cheek and usually a bit odd in their telling, if not their focus on the strange narrator. The best stories in the collection manage to present psychological ideas in very literal ways.

Perhaps the best of examples of this ("This Is Your Will to Live")--though it is better as an idea than in execution--involves a salesman literally laying his heart on a platter for a woman. Another example--and a truly fun story to boot--is "The Idea of Marcel," which involves a couple going out with their ideal selves, that is, with the person they would like to date instead of the person the person is. How far are we willing to stray from ideal for a relationship? And how much of an ideal fades simply because we get to know a person? There is a certain joy in a first date admittedly.

In "Free Ham" a family deals with the burning down of a house. "Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours" is more a collection of great lines than a story, which the narrator admits right from the beginning. And the lines are good enough that the "story" remains compelling enough to complete reading. In "North Of," probably my favorite story in the collection, a woman brings Bob Dylan home to visit her family--a mom who is clueless as to who Dylan is and a brother whose growing hatred of life doesn't allow him even to enjoy meeting a visit by his idol. In "Great, Wondrous" young folks perform secret superhero-like miracles at a college, at the cost of a life. "Safe as Houses" involves burglars who break into homes not to steal things of monetary value but to break things of emotional value so that families will come to appreciate one another. And in "Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph" involves a gal trying to get over a boyfriend by living in a convent and teaching Catholic school.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

On "The Edge of Water" by Kevin Jones (2891 words) ***

There's a kind of schtick that goes along with most fiction, a style that tells you this is a made-up story rather than nonfiction or even autobiography. Contemporary fiction exists in this strange land between the film and history. I'm going to tell you a story in words. I'm going to use descriptions to show how well I can use them, and I'm going to drop in lines of dialogue that will be used in the movie adaptation. I'm also going to use narrative in a format that is sort of like reading about what happened last night at the riots, but it's going to be much more full of detail about minor things that don't matter--and I'm going to make them matter.

That's why, an opening like that of Jones's "Edge of Water," is so pleasant. It had, for me, the feel of authenticity. I see now that I was being manipulated, as in any fiction, but starting off, I was launched immediately into a voice. This, I felt, is a real person writing these words, telling me about his recovery from his accident during the Iraq War. That voice is a start, and with it, Jones carries readers through to the tale's confrontational end. Read it here at r.k.v.r.y.

On "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian" by Wallace Stegner ***

This book essentially recounts the life of John Wesley Powell, especially as it involves his work as an explorer, geologist, and Washington administrator. I was drawn to it because Powell is referenced in so many books about western water rights and because it was written by Wallace Stegner, whose work has not previously disappointed.

Perhaps had I not had such high expectations I wouldn't have been disappointed by this one either. What you get is a hagiographic portrait of the man's work, one that doesn't seem near as interesting as Stegner's random thoughts on the west in his book of essays Where the Bluebird Sings to Lemonade Springs or as in depth and nuanced as the character studies that show up in his novels.

Powell's claim to fame in water books is that he set up the hundredth meridian as the border between wet and dry land in the United States. In the east, there would never be worries; in the west, there would be nothing but. But of course, Powell did a whole lot more than that.

The book starts with a short summary of his earlier life, which included a stint in the army during the Civil War, during which he lost half of one arm (not that he let that stop him from rejoining). Afterward, he set off on an exploration of western rivers. The description of his first descent of the Green and Colorado proves exciting at times indeed, if a bit long winded. Much time is also spent disparaging Powell's detractors. The idea of the West post-Civil War world was one that was often wildly optimistic, with some claiming it as a Garden of Eden if only people would plant trees (the weather would change) or that the rapid-heavy rivers were actually navigable. Making down the Colorado proves dangerous indeed.

More and more, however, Powell's life is taken over by his work gathering funds and government support for his scientific surveys. He begins to leave the exploration to others, and the book shifts mostly to his battles with Washington bureaucrats, some of whom resent government paying for science (the arguments about socialism versus the free market go back more than a hundred years, it turns out).

One of the most interesting sections to me, after the discussion of the first foray downriver, had to do with maps of the Old West. Powell set out to map the United States, a task that was not even finished in 1952, when Stegner was writing. It's crazy to think it took so long to do something that is now essentially completed and updated regularly using satellite technology. Anyway, in the early days, many cartographers simply assumed rivers continued on, using anecdotes or other mapmaker's work as their sources, so often water would be plotted where it didn't appear, rivers would be joined that didn't join and lakes would appear that didn't exist. Powell set out to correct this.

The other most interesting sections for me had to do with Powell's irrigation survey, something that was related to his attempt to map the country. It was Powell's desire to spell out where the best dams could be built and what land could be easily irrigated. His hope was to hold off speculators while helping out people who might put a life savings into land that had no adequate supply of water. Of course, the survey took forever, and local politicians grew restless and eventually got the survey tossed so that development could occur without adequate planning. But ten years later or so, after droughts and other "I told you so" problems, many of Powell's ideas were readopted under other names.

Of course, I couldn't help but wonder if Powell could do anything wrong. Such is hagiography.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

On "The Door Key" by Hans Christian Andersen (4188 words) ****

One of the more amusing and potentially sophisticated tales of Andersen, this one recounts the life of a man who believes that his key holds prophetic powers. Twist it to find out what letter comes next. The future can be spelled out in a few seconds. Is the man self-deluded or is there power in the key? Does it matter? Perhaps, delusion and belief, perception and imagination, are opposite sides of the same coin. Read the tale here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

On "A Man Called G." by Renee Reynolds (1344 words) ****

This is the story of a hypochondriac, or not. It's also reminiscent of Ionesco's Rhinoceros. It's the story of G., a man who takes a fall for a company and whose reputation is tarnished forever on thereafter. In that sense, though a similar plot device is used, the tale is quite different from Ionesco's in its actual substance. Here, the rhino snout is not a fad to imitate but a kind of albatross around the neck, a feature that must be worn for the rest of life, uncomfortable as it is. Read the story here at Unshod Quills.

Friday, August 2, 2013

On "This Strange Way of Dying" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (5170 words) ***

Death takes a bride in this tale--or tries to. The story starts off like fantasy, but the longer it runs, the more it feels like fantastic realism of the Latin American variety. I'm reminded also of the work of Georges Battaile, whose book Erotism ties sex (or love) and death together. When we lose ourselves to another, we essentially die to ourselves. And in this way, the two aren't far apart. Moreno-Garcia's tale falls solidly within his theory. Read the story here at GigaNotoSaurus.

Monday, July 29, 2013

On "Prison Girls" by Emily Alford (8070 words) ****

The child--or in this case, the young teen--offers a great perspective for stories. That combination of naivete and the hard situations of life is compelling, especially because stories generally focus on moments of change, on moments where that naivete is broken, replaced by some deeper understanding of the world around. Because of this potential, the story about the child is used often--and often not to very good effect.

Alford's tale, however, is not one of those. This is a tale where the child's perspective works perfectly. Madison is a consummate liar, sent to a boarding school by her parents and her psychologist to overcome her bad habit. She also doesn't like anyone--or life in general. She's about to learn some very tough lessons, however, at the instigation of a Ukrainian janitor. Think "Boy Cries Wolf" but with the complexity of a Dickens novel. Read the story here at Trigger.

On "There Is No Year" by Blake Butler ***

This innovative novel is not easily summarized, as unlike most works of fiction--indeed, unlike many works of nonfiction--there is no concrete narrative, no problem that needs to be resolved, no thrust toward climax and resolution. What there are are motifs and words and images, some of them amazing, a joy to read. In fact, it is this, Butler's constant play with language that drove me to read another of his books, despite my only halfway satisfaction. (That I was satisfied only halfway but read all four hundred pages of text in less than a week says something about how engaging the work is, despite my not being able to put a finger on exactly what happened or what the book even is.)

Motifs are a strong part of the book: family, homes, bugs (most especially ants), death, dreams, the letter O, boxes, light, circles, copies, disease--all these play a part. On the surface, the book is about a family--a father, mother, and son--living in a home. Early on, the family discovers a copy family within their own home. The copy home, discovered later by the dad, hints at one of the book's likely themes: the dark underside of all life--our inevitable deterioration and death. While the real home has two stories with stairs leading up to the second floor, the copy home has two stories with stairs leading down to the bottom. The copy home has no windows, just darkness.

At various points in the book, the family tries to sell the home. The son grows sick. The son befriends a girl at school and goes to her home. The dad goes to a job to stare all day at a computer, at the light in a computer, a job that each day grows farther and farther away, as if the boredom of driving can extend not just time but space. The son too stares into a computer, playing a game that has no point or ending--a figure simply walks across a room on a screen until being haphazardly destroyed, only to be resurrected and start again.

The father clears the family's mailbox of creepy crawlies, merely to find them return in greater numbers each time that he opens the slot. The son worries about ants eating his flesh.

Perhaps, if anything, the book's title hints at the overall trajectory of this work: this is a novel written outside of time. There can be no motivating plot that propels readers on because "there is no year." There is just one long dream that leads, inevitably, toward death or light or whatever one will have these things to be over and over.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

On "Somewhere the Desert Hides a Well" by Maria Deira (6846 words) ***

I like genre fiction that has an aura of simply being a regular, realistic story. Maybe it is a regular story with just one thing off, or it's a story that starts off realistic and takes a sudden turn to the weird. Deira's story is of the latter variety. What I like about such stories is that they're easier to identify with. They're still about human beings doing human things, except that this one thing . . . and you know what else? Real life goes on, even as the weird multiplies.

In Deira's story, students returning from an academic bowl somehow end up being discovered passed out in a van in a field. No one knows what happened, but foul play from the team's coach is suspected. It's a tale of mystery straight out of the X-files. Read it here at Giga Noto Saurus.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

On "Covered in Soot" by Lynnet Ngulube (1005 words) ****

What can I say? This piece starts slowly enough, but it manages to shock--twice. The first shock involves an act of violation, random, quick, disgusting, like the male streaker that ran through a class of teen-age girls when I was in high school but more personal, more hurtful. The second is even more powerful. Here, a teen-age girl goes with her father and sisters to meet her grandmother at the train station. She's a teen-ager; she doesn't want to be there, and like many a teen-ager, she's sullen and moody. And she pays. Read the story here at Our Stories.

On "Speak, Memory" by Vladimer Nabokov ***

This is certainly one of the most elegant memoirs I've ever read. In fact, it reads more like an accumulation of discreet remembrances than a sustained narrative, and in that is probably where Nabokov often lost me. When I read reviews of certain contemporary authors, the reviewer will quote certain lines, will talk about the brilliance of a particular phrase or sentence, but the whole is left untouched, as if all readers want are these singular pieces of brilliance. There are a lot of pieces of singular brilliance in Nabokov's memoir.

I particularly liked the book when Nabokov focused in on a particular subject for a while and sustained the discussion such that I could walk along with him for a while. One chapter, for example, focuses on his love--and how he came be it--for collecting butterflies. Another focuses on the various home instructors he and his brother had. One talks of the emigrant Russian literary culture of the 1920s. And one talks of fleeing from one part of Russia to another in the midst of the Bolshevik revolution.

Nabokov's feelings about Lenin are particularly strident. He notes his unease with peoples in the Western world, where liberals tend to hold Lenin up and conservatives tend to talk him down, but for entirely different reasons than Nabokov would. Nabokov comes across as a liberal who unfairly finds himself thrust into the conservative camp because Western liberals don't know the true story of Russian socialism. I couldn't help but sympathize with Nabokov's feelings of being politically misunderstood.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On "A Beijing Feast" by Peter Tieryas Liu (1700 words) ***

I like Pang Nan, the character at the center of this tale. It is, perhaps, a story more centered on him than on the narrator, if it's even a story. Liu's piece reads more like an account of a final interview, but at its heart is the fascinating subject, a filmmaker who is larger than life and who likes it that way. Better to fail disastrously than to wallow in mediocrity. He wants to make a two-hour movie in which nothing happens and then everyone dies, and he does. This is an arthouse guy to the extreme, and while I'd never want to watch one of his movies, hearing him pontificate is interesting indeed. Read the story here at Fox Chase Review.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

On "The Gardener and His Manor" by Hans Christian Andersen (2496 words) ****

Something of a story about politics and popularity, this piece traces the life of a caretaker of a rich couple's garden. The rich couple doesn't know what is in their own garden and tends not to appreciate its contents until someone else praises what the gardener sells out of the garden to kings and diplomats. Andersen no doubt was critiquing a culture that values the foreign over the homegrown merely for the sake of exoticism and "sophistication." Look at home--there's sophistication right there, he's saying. But some folks will never learn. Read the story here.

On "Private Empire" by Steve Coll ****

This exploration of the culture and recent (last twenty-five years) history of Exxon did not turn out to be as interesting to me as Coll's book on the Bin Ladens. I think that may be because the book seemed to sprawl so far and wide like a discrete set of articles rather than like a single narrative or a singular argument. Still, I suppose that's in keeping with Coll's point--that Exxon is wide ranging, sprawling, a world power not unlike any nation-state.

And indeed, Exxon's loyalties, as the book makes clear, are chiefly to itself and its shareholders. At one point, the former CEO even states as much, when asked why Exxon doesn't do more to help out with energy costs and jobs in the United States: our responsibilities are to the shareholders not to any particular nation. And yet, ironically, Exxon, when it needs to be, is an American company, happy to take advantage of tax discounts, U.S. military assistance, and U.S. diplomatic assistance. I can't say multinational companies come off looking very nice in Coll's rendering.

The book begins with an account of the Exxon Valdez spill, an event that would shake Exxon badly and that would lead to a heavy focus on safety, in an attempt to never repeat such an incident. It would also lead--as would many other similar events--to a long set of court cases that Exxon would appeal and appeal and appeal until penalties were rejected or reduced to a negligible amount for the damage done. Most galling of all in this regard would be how Exxon, while agreeing to pay for damages to water supply and property values a leak at a gas station caused--but not any kind of penalty beyond the actual physical damage--would eventually even contest what physical damages it agreed to pay. Another lawsuit from people in Indonesia would sit in courts for such a long time that the people who brought the suit would die before seeing any benefit. If you're a regular person, forget ever getting anything from corporate bigwigs.

Other chapters focus on how Exxon works with powerbrokers in Africa, Indonesia, and Russia. They bring out how difficult it is to show a concern for human rights in nations where the rule of law is often that of the local rebel group, where who's in charge might change from day to day, where pirates range freely.

Why bother drilling for gas in such locations given the risks? Wall Street. Exxon and other oil companies continually have to show that they have replaced or surpassed the number of oil reserves they've used up or lost in a given year. This means looking for oil in bad places, merging with other oil companies, playing shady with the numbers (counting certain technologies Wall Street doesn't count as reserves).

Coll starts with Valdez and ends with the BP Gulf spill of 2010. In between, Exxon merges with Mobil; liquified natural gas comes to be a resource of growing importance; and tar sand oil begins to be profitable. There's a lot here to chew on.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

On "The Lakes of Florida" by Charlie Smith (2110 words) ****

It's wonderful to read a writer in utter control of the language, and that's what Smith does here, effortlessly churning out one gem of a phrase after another. The story itself is collage of events. There's a basketball star whose lost his girlfriend and also who has lost his job to drinking. There is a father and son hanging out drinking at a boat house. There is a tall tail about an alligator wrestler. All of them are here, in almost less space than a college paper. Read it here at Fifty-two Stories.

Friday, July 5, 2013

On "The Snake Charmer's Arms and Other Altered States" by Alexandra Isacson (484 word) ***

Not so much a story as a set of musings by belly dancers and the like, Isacson's anecdotes sparkle primarily on the linguistic level. "Touching your hair while dancing is not an invitation," the first dancer advises, "but never touch your body." It's bits like this, dancer musings I'd never have considered that make this piece memorable. Read the story here at the Fox Chase Review.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On "The Banker and the Poet" by Matthew Sharpe (9427 words) ****

Sharpe's tale is a story of contrasts--heart and head, art and money, poverty and wealth. I'm reminded a bit of other buddy stories, opposites who stick together, like the friends in Sideways or the brothers in Adaptation or True West. Rick works in investment. He has a girlfriend and can have virtually any gal he wants. He lives well. He's a winner. Alec is a poet. He sometimes gets the gal but more often doesn't. He lives poorly. He, we might say, is the loser, at least when playing against Rick. And yet, they are friends, with conversations about philosophy that would put most others' conversations somewhere on the level of kindergarten swing-set dares. One other thing: Alec is about to fall in love, with a transsexual prostitute. He is about to ruin his life, what there is of it, and Rick is about to find out just how much he too can love. Read the story here are Failbetter.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On "Whoa, Hey" by Julie Odell (887 words) ***

This story delves into a situation that may not be all that uncommon--the return of, or reference to, an item from one's past from someone in the past. How are we to interpret such signals? I think about this quite often, as do many other people, as searches of just about any dating forum shows. A woman you meet in a chat room online seems friendly and interested and ends a pleasant follow-up e-mail with "Take care." Over the course of the next week, you hear nothing more to your reply--was the line a generic closing with response to follow much later or a subtle kiss-off? A man you work with and who you've had a crush on for a while offers you a ride home one day, knowing you always take the bus. Is he just being considerate, or is he subtly signaling an interest? Wouldn't it be easier if we just asked? Wouldn't it be easier if we could ask? In this story, the object of concern is a necklace, a gesture, from an ex. What is the ex trying to say? Find out by reading the story here at New World Writing.