Wednesday, February 27, 2013

On "A Million Pieces" by Amye Archer (540 words) ***

This story's a tough one. The piece essentially takes prolife literature and puts it into fiction. But it's really not just a rendition of the disgusting details of an abortion; it's a tale about a woman who lives in abortion day in and day out--not quite a point of view I'd thought much about, nor one I'd want to live. Read the story, formerly published at Emprise Review, here at Fictionaut.

On "The Bridal Wreath" by Sigrid Undset *****

The first volume in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, The Bridal Wreath essentially tells of Kristin's three would-be loves. But the novel is much more than that. It is a study of medieval Norway, at a time when Christianity has only recently taken hold, when pagans still roam some areas of the country, when the Norwegians still think of themselves as Danes. And it is a story of love versus duty and faith.

Kristin grows up the daughter to two very religious parents, the first surviving offspring, after four brothers have died early on in their lives. She grows up next to a young boy named Arne, a child from a not-so-well-to-do family. Her own family is of vaguely noble birth, and her father is the kind of hard worker that good fortune comes to the family. Kristin is not a match for her friend Arne.

Instead, she is matched by her father with a kind and dutiful man named Simon. At first, she is enthused by this betrothal. But some displeasure arises when Arne expresses an interest in her. It is impossible, of course, since he is of low birth. He decides, heartbroken, to set off to foreign lands, but before he leaves, he asks that Kristin meet him one final time. This she does, to her own downfall, for on her return from the meeting place, a man decides to take advantage of her. Though she escapes her would-be rapist, her honor is compromised, the man claiming that she's done inappropriate things with Arne, and her own absence, caused by the troubles created in her escape, lend a kind of credence to his words. Simon and her father decide it is best to send her to a nunnery for a year, till the scandal dies down.

But the medieval world is full of unsavory men, and while there, Kristin has yet another run-in with another set of bad fellows, and this time she is saved by the so-called knight in shining armor, a man of noble birth who soon begins to pine for her. But his armor isn't so shiny as we soon learn. He has lived much of his youth with a married woman and fathered two children by her, and in the process he has been banished from his family and squandered most of his wealth. No matter, Kristin likes a dangerous dude and quickly falls in love.

And herein yet more complications ensue. She's already betrothed to Simon, and getting out a wedding proves not to be so easy, for it will bring dishonor to herself and to Simon and will be much to her parents economic disadvantage as well. Nevertheless, Simon agrees to let her go, much to his own hurt, hiding many of things that would ruin his betrothed's reputation. In all, Simon seems a man of great honor whose attention to duty is unfortunately rewarded by a less-savory partner in life, an older, sickly woman who struggles to give him children.

Meanwhile, Kristin works hard to convince her father to let her marry the disreputable Erland, a man who can't seems to lack all self-control and can't even manage to return the family cart in good repair. He cheats with another man's wife (he was young, his excuse) and deserts her (she's married, his excuse--only when she is freed, he fails to live up to his promise to her to marry her) in favor of Kristin. He may be a swaggering hero, but he is untrustworthy and irresponsible and likely a lot of trouble. And somehow, eventually, her father is persuaded to give Kristin to this bad man, to allow this love match to go forward, even though he suspects it will lead to much sorrow for them all.

The story ends with the reflections of her parents, in which secrets from their own parental match are exposed, calling into question not only what constitutes love but what constitutes duty.

The translation of Undset's original language reads awkwardly, in what I assume is a deliberate attempt to mimic an ancient language, and after a short bit of getting used to the tongue, it works quite well. Appendixes explain some of the traditions of the medieval Norwegian world. In all this proved a fine start to a trilogy that I'll be sore tempted to return to in order to know the future sections of the story.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

On "Kill Me with Chocolate" by Frank Scozzari (3719 words) ****

This easy-to-read story is a quest. A man is sent out to buy fine chocolate in the middle of the night in a city where the stores are not open twenty-four hours. Along the way, we are given lessons on love and on the nature of romancing a lady. Sometimes (actually, usually), women are really confusing to guys. Read the story here at Referential.

On "Hedda Gabler" by Henrik Ibsen ****

What a strange play this one is. As with Ibsen's trilogy centering around social issues, this one also deals, to some extent, with societal propriety and morals. But it's not so didactic as those others, and while the main character, Hedda, wants so badly not to conform to societal expectations, her desires hardly fall in a moral line. For her, freedom is everything--and everything she feels she can't get. She longs for an ideal world, in fact pushes others toward it (to their own peril), which she fears doing anything that would shock others.

As the play opens, Hedda has just gotten married to a scholar whom she finds a bore and with whom she's just gone on an extensive six-month honeymoon (made up in part by her husband's continuing research). She is consumed with taste and money, and as such, she has gotten her husband to purchase a house way beyond his means (and this, mostly just for a joke to her). Men, by turn, are consumed by her, dropping by to be the third wheel, wanting her to commit unbecoming acts with them and shocked that she would marry whom she has.

One of these is another scholar who has lived the life of a libertine and has repented and now has written a couple of fantastic books. He also once dated Hedda, before he got on the straight and narrow. As such, she has been disappointed by him, and she aims to get him back into the ideal world of total freedom, where societal opinions matter not at all. In the end, she manages to corrupt him again, but perhaps not in the manner that she had hoped, and the last act of "courage" becomes her own.

The introduction noted that Hedda is a character without a play, struggling to find the role in which she is to act. It seems a good observation, for indeed, like many of Ibsen's women, she is a showy figure meant to amuse but lacking substantial place in a male-dominated world, and the results are not pleasant. You can read the play here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On "A Thing I Did" by Colin Winnette (234 words) ***

I think of this piece more like a prose poem than a story, but nevertheless here it is, because it's pretty cool. Winnette builds a prose boat and sets sail. See where it goes. Not too far, this one, for reasons to be discovered. Scroll down and read the story here at Blue Fifth Review.

On "An Enemy of the People" by Henrik Ibsen ****

The last in Ibsen's trilogy that includes A Doll's House, this one also attacks hypocritical Norwegian (yea, all) society, but unlike the first two plays, it does not focus on the role of women. Here, the centerpiece is a doctor who discovers that a town's main tourist attraction--its baths--is polluted by sewer water that is causing various diseases. Confronted with this truth, he lets others in town know. He starts with the leadership, who reject his charges on the basis that the town depends too much on the baths, and any bad publicity would turn tourists away and it would cost too much money and time to fix them.

The press, however, is very ready to jump on the doctor's side. However, those involved with the paper have their own agendas, whether power, money, or love. When these motivations prove not to look to bear any fruit when taking the doctor's side, the press quickly turns on the doctor to uphold the interests of the townspeople. After all, who wants to pay higher taxes to fix a problem or see less revenue from tourism?

With leadership and the press squarely backing a do nothing philosophy, the doctor is shunted by all. He loses his job, because he refuses to retract his report regarding the baths. His family loses its home; his children are kicked out of school and lose their jobs; his wife loses her inheritance. The situation is hopeless. What's more, rumors are rife that the doctor is in on a deal for himself (his father-in-law has bought shares in the baths at cheap prices and now insists his son-in-law retract his report so that he can make a killing in the market, and some dubious members of the press insist they want a cut of the profits--or the doctor's name will be mud). So what does the doctor do? He chooses to help the poor.

The latter is the doctor's heroic end, but is it realistic? The family may now have a "job" to do, but where exactly is it going to get the money to pay for the food and clothes?

I like to see a person of great virtue stand up to society, but as the play brings out, it's a rare person that does so. Even the so-called moderates prove unwilling to really sacrifice for the common good. However, I guess the play is a bit more optimistic than I am about people and about the human race. Were this something I'd have written, the doctor would have eventually buckled, justifying his compromised actions with lame excuses and feeling guilty the whole way. And if the doctor had remained true? He'd have ended up like Corey at the end of Arthur Miller's The Crucible--defiant but crushed dead beneath a set of stones.

This play hits hard at situations that, as adults, we face all too often. Remaining true to convictions inevitably comes up against everyday living, and often pits one conviction or concern against another (supply for family or refuse to be silent regarding an evil). Money makes the world go round. You can read the play for yourself here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

On "The River" by Christine Sneed (6372 words) ***

Unfortunately the long-term unemployed are all too familiar these days. Sneed's tale is about one of them, a man who decides to take up his time preparing for a lawsuit to crack down on pollution. Meanwhile, his marriage is falling apart. And his daughter, whose point of view this story comes from, just wants things to stay as they are, but her efforts seem only to create more trouble. An interesting sidelight is the daughter's boyfriend, who has gone off to college, and like the parents in this story, the girl and her boyfriend no longer talk. In a sense, then, the story is about breakdowns of communication--for the daughter, the communication breakdown is in a passive, nonconfrontational manner that we see echo throughout all her interactions. Read the story here at TriQuarterly.

On "Ghosts" by Henrik Ibsen ***

I now see why A Doll House is anthologized so much more often than Ghosts, the second in a trilogy of plays about Victorian-era Norway. The themes are similar, but where A Doll House carries a certain realness to it, Ghosts to me seemed overwrought and even a bit silly (especially its instantaneously disastrous end). Like A Doll House, Ghosts indicts Norwegian society for thoughtless slavery to a societal morality that is all about appearance rather than heart.

Mrs. Alving is an older woman who gives generously to her church and who does her duty to family. Married for a long-time philanderer, she kept quiet about his affairs so as to keep the man's reputation intact. The personal cost of this adherence to duty is about to take a deeper toll than she could have ever imagined, even now after her husband has died.

The pastor comes off as the least respectable of the characters, as well as the most hypocritical. In one passage, he becomes incensed that a layperson in his congregation married a fallen woman for money. And yet, Mrs. Alving points out, she married a fallen man--out of duty to her family, and at the urging of the pastor himself. The pastor claims that circumstances are different. (Later, when the pastor learns that the layperson didn't marry for money, the pastor accepts the man back into fellowship, only later to praise the man when he volunteers to take the fall for the pastor with regard to something the pastor has done in exchange for a favor involving monetary compensation.)

The "ghosts" of the title references the idea that one's ancestors' sins come back to haunt you (to the third and fourth generation, as the Bible would say). Here, Mr. Alving Sr.'s ghost haunts the characters in numerous ways. Their son, as it turns out, learns that he has contracted syphilis from birth. A woman the son falls in love with turns out to be Mr. Alving's own daughter by another woman. Mrs. Alving, who finally deigns to recognize, reveal, live by the truth, is redeemed too late and loses all, bound, again, by her duty to family. The play is in the public domain and can be read here.

Monday, February 11, 2013

On "The Railroad and the Churchyard" by Bjornsterne Bjornson (about 10,125 words) ****

Bjornson's story of two local friends and then enemies vying for control of the local government board explores issues of economy, friendship, government, and community, all the while providing a look at how mid-nineteenth-century Norwegian society worked, at least insofar as I have understood it from some of the nonfiction that I've read on Scandinavian culture. Democratic ways of running a community seem to go back pretty far in the far north. Here, the community decides on things together, but as in all such communities, some men have more sway than others.

The person with sway here in Knud Aakre, whose upbringing encouraged self-education and wide reading. Aakre serves as the chair of the governing body for the community, and he is assisted by his less-educated friend Lars Hogstad--at least until the story really gets going. Lars, at some point, comes to see Knud's ways as too conservative; the community pays higher and higher taxes but gets less and less for its money. A railroad wants to come through town. There will be easy money, investment. And it is with some good arguments that Lars wrests control of the board for himself, destroying a friendship in turn. Knud licks his wounds, bides his time, largely withdraws from public life. Lars becomes a bigger and bigger man, even serving on councils that pull away to the capital. The community flourishes--for a time. Speculation, as generally happens, proves dangerous, and all the community's loss of wealth eventually brings Knud's more somber ways back to the public notice, especially once it becomes known that the proposed railroad will run through the graveyard, disinterring the ancestors. Is Knud's concern for the community or only himself? Are they not, on some level, the same thing? A few choice events bring the story full circle. You can read it here.

On "Captain Mansana and Other Stories" by Bjornsterne Bjornson ***

Bjornson was a contemporary of the better-known Norwegian Henrik Ibsen. I was pulled to Bjornson for the Norwegian portion of my Scandinavian reading list because he is known as a writer of short stories about the common person, and such subject matter has often been of interest to me (going back to my high school reading of John Steinbeck).

This little book, however, does not start off with a tale of commoners but rather with one about nobility. The title story, Captain Mansana delves into the life of a man who fights for the revolution for the common people and whose father died doing the same. The story itself is set mostly in Italy. But it is hardly about the revolution either. It is, by and large, a love story, as we follow Captain Mansana as he falls for first one woman and then another. The first woman he falls for is a noblewoman known for breaking men's hearts, who in fact relishes in this reputation and in maintaining her cold front. Mansana, however, is up to the challenge and, like any leading men, does exactly what he sets out to do, winning her in a race she does not exactly voluntarily submit to. Soon, it is the woman who is pestering Mansana, begging to spend time with him. And Mansana, feeling cornered, wanders off to a village in Italy, where he finds himself falling for a common girl--and truly, it is a girl, barely into adulthood. He defends her honor, as her cousin sports with her but without serious intentions. This defense, however, exposes his own true feelings, as well as the feelings of the cousin, who begins to take the young woman seriously. The two fight for the gal's attentions, while the woman who has broken many a heart begins to wonder where her fiance has wandered off to. It takes some family intervention to get things back on the right track.

Surprisingly, given that Mansana is the title story and apparently had some fame in the near term, I found the other two stories in this collection more interesting. Not surprisingly, they had more to do with common Norwegians in the second half of the nineteenth century. "The Railroad and the Churchyard" explores the enmity and friendship between two men who struggle for power in a rural township. "Dust," meanwhile, explores religious and moral themes.

In the latter story, a traveler goes to visit a couple who has two young boys. The husband feels that it is impossible for people to raise children; the wife meanwhile finds that she has no way to reason with her husband. Likewise, the wife and housekeeper have some beliefs in immortality and in the divine, while the men in the story--especially the husband (but possibly the narrator as well)--tend to believe only in physical existence. These two ideas pair off against one another when another young boy in the neighborhood drowns in a nearby iced-over lake. The children are assured that the boy has gone to a better life with God by the housekeeper. The husband comes to the conclusion that the children must be sent away for education, sparking unrest from the mother and from the boys themselves, who when punished, run away. The search for the boys takes up much of the story, but suffice it to say that when they are found, not all is well. Have them fallen prey to the immortality myth, choosing death and life with God rather than to the harsh treatment of their father? Or has God answered the housekeeper's prayer and sent the boys away so that the father can learn that they must not be separated from the mother for schooling? A final irony closes the tale, calling into question the eternal order ("mysterious are the ways of God," notes the housekeeper), a far cry from Hans Christian Andersen's overtly religious fairy tales.

A major motif in "Dust" is in fact dust. It settles on the elements in the couple's house, impossible to be gotten rid of, just as stone accumulates in graveyards without ceasing or snow on the trees in winter. Does the snow come down from the heavens, as the mother at one point explains, or does it come from the earth and fall back to the earth, as the narrator explains? And what is immortality? Is it the ancient Nordic concept of fame and great deeds carried on in stories of one's descendents, or is it some kind of life eternal in the heavens? Where is our final resting place?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

On "The Man Who Lived Like A Tree" by Dan Powell (726 words) ****

Here's something of a fantasy, something of an allegory, something of a not sure what to think. The tale takes a family tree and makes it literal. Or it takes a man and makes him figurative. Or it does both. Either way, one ends up feeling for this family and for the way that it is with us humans--all those ancestors we don't remember and are slated to join. Read the story here at Referential.

On "Seven Gothic Tales" by Isak Dinesen ***

Each of Dinesen's seven tales revolves in some way around the difference between appearance and reality. In the opening story, "The Deluge at Nordeney" a flood threatens an area of the country, and one set of people--including a priest with a grand reputation--return with a last boat to save a family stuck on its rooftop. The boat won't fit all, so some people have to stay behind, on the roof, and hope that the waters don't rise overnight so far that they don't survive. In the midst of this, the various roofgoers tell stories about their lives, including the famed priest, who turns out not to be who he is thought to be. Add to that a woman, an old maid, who was thwarted at any attempt to love--only, she rejected all suitors and accepted only one suitor she knew would fall away before the marriage could be consummated, thus to win the sympathy of others.

In "The Old Chevalier" a spurned lover walks out to the street after being dumped and is accosted by a beautiful woman who simply wants to spend time with him to ease her own mind and self. In the process, the eases the lover's grief--until she asks for money for spending the night!

In "The Monkey" a man tells his aunt he want to be married, and his aunt suggests a woman, who, it turns out, refuses. She will not marry. The aunt cannot let this stand, so--in a series of events that would likely never be put to print in the current surrounding--invites the woman to dinner and instructs her nephew to rape the woman. He does not, though much can be assumed, since the woman was made so drunk that she does not remember the night. Add to this another element: the man's reputation in town has become such that if he does not marry in a hurry, he will never.

In "The Roads Round Pisa" a count, married to a woman who is jealous, not of other women but of her own riches (and thus refuses to wear them), is caught up in a series of events that puts him into contact with a young man, who it turns out is not a young man at all but a woman. This woman stood in for another in a marital bed, the supposed wife not interested in consummating a marriage to a man much older than herself, especially as she is in love with another. (Ironically, the impotent old man had also employed another to fulfill his obligations, hoping to get his wife pregnant.) A duel results. This seemed to me perhaps the story the most typical of this theme of illusion in the book.

"The Supper at Elsinore" recounts the story of a man and his two never-married sisters. The man, who enjoys life at sea, especially as a pirate, leaves his bride-to-be just before his wedding and never again reappears. Various tales float about regarding his life--or death. The sisters, meanwhile, spurn various lovers as youths and relish complaining of their "old-maid" fate; thus, they are greatly relieved when their brother's former fiancee marries, leaving them as the sole objects of tragedy. In the end, the brother returns, in the form of a ghost.

Three men on a boat serve as the frame in which the main story of "The Dreamers" takes shape, which proves to be a story with yet other stories within. Three men fall for a single lady at various times. And each time, she wanders off and leaves the men, to grieve and search for their lost love. In the end, we discover that each of them love is the same woman and that she is not the same woman that any of them loved at all. Identity, the woman notes, is made to be cast aside. We should be more than one person; we should be many people. Thus the woman, when these three men meet her again, no longer recognizes the men, for she is a different woman altogether. And yet, we also learn the story--the true story--of her life and why she wishes never to be herself again.

"The Poet" concerns a old man who falls in love with a young woman. A problem ensues when a young protege of his also falls for the woman. But who does the woman love, the old man she is to marry or the young man can't stand to leave her. Add to this the idea that this man's "leave taking" is actually a planned suicide (unbeknownst to his acquaintances) and that the suicide turns instead into a jealous murder. Has the old man, all along, been living in a dream world?

The writing throughout was exquisite. Yet I found myself often lost in these tales, not up, at the current moment, for the concentration that is required of stories within stories within stories, as so many of these tales involved. The stories comment on one another and often end up having quite a bit to do with the overall story itself, but this is one collection--as I noted when rereading "The Poet" just to figure out how the details added up--that bears a second reading, even perhaps demands it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

On "Mullins" by Robert Sachs (2028 words) ***

Take this one with a long string of winks. Sachs pairs a self-centered no-it-all with a naive aid. The latter believes all that the former says and works tirelessly to make the former happy and fulfilled. The former is crotchety. Together, they make for a fun if silly pair. Read the story here at Black Heart Magazine.