Sunday, March 31, 2013

On "A Puddle of Dead" by Grayson Bray Morris (1974 words) ***

Much of science fiction resides in the ideas it offers to readers. In that sense, sci-fi isn't unlike Einstein's old mind experiments. And Morris here certainly has an idea. If we could extract energy from the dying body, concentrate it, and make that body come to life again, would the effort be worth it? In one sense, Morris is simply updating the old question of whether it's better to burn quickly and brightly or to simmer coolly for a long, long time. Read the story here at Daily Science Fiction.

On "The Fragmentation of a Sect" by David V. Barrett ****

This is the first truly scholarly study of the Worldwide Church of God and its various offshoots I've ever come across. As such, it was rather fascinating to read about the church of my birth and my continuing fellowship. Barrett isn't an evangelical with an ax to grind (though I did get the sense that he might be Episcopal or of some vaguely mainstream Christian sect); rather, he's a sociologist, one interested in why people make the decisions that they make. The study essentially applies rational choice theory to the religious choices that people make, based on who went where and why after the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) radically changed its doctrines in the mid-1990s.

WCG was a Sabbath-keeping church whose major tenets also included the celebration of the biblical (Hebrew) holy days, adherence to biblical food laws, a binitarian concept of God, tithing, and an adherence to a British-Israelite worldview of history and prophecy. In 1986, its pastor general Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA) died, passing on power in the church to Joseph W. Tkach, who over the course of the next decade would oversee the church's transformation to mainstream evangelicalism. In the process, the church would fragment into various offshoots--four hundred and counting at present--the three major ones being Philadelphia Church of God, Global Church of God (the bulk of which later would become Living Church of God), and United Church of God. Each group would hold similar doctrines. So how did people make their decision about where to attend?

After a brief introduction laying out the theory behind the study, the book provides a brief summary of the church's doctrines and then of its history. The author seems largely objective with regard to laying out the doctrines, rather than skewing them as most evangelically based studies have done in the past.

His account of the history is a bit more biting, but understandably so. As he notes throughout, it is almost impossible to find history on the church and its various pastor generals that is not either ridiculously hagiographic or ridiculously slanderous. He chooses to present elements of both views, since the differing viewpoints themselves have much to say about the nature of the choices that people have made.

Still an adherent to much of what HWA taught, I tend to think some of the more scandalous claims about him are probably rumors created by people with hateful agendas. Yet, having grown up in the church and knowing how the church tended (in the spirit of trying to avoid ruining people's reputations) to hide bad things from view, I also know that "truth" when it comes to much of what has gone on in WCG or its offshoots is sometimes hard to come by. Sometimes, a minister might be on a pedestal one day, and the next day, he might be gone and all mention of him swept aside as if he never existed. The reasons might remain a mystery or they might be revealed by someone with a particular agenda, and that someone might not be telling the truth either.

And then there are the contradictions that Barrett raises, even in the writings by the church about its history. Some people perceive as HWA as a humble and kind man; some perceive him as arrogant; almost all agree that he had a temper and could be hard to work with (certainly, his job wasn't an easy one, as people around him vied for power, lending reason for paranoia). A lot has to do with how those people knew HWA. Since I was just a teen when he died, my own perceptions are based a lot on recordings, and I tend to perceive him like the apostle Paul: determined and diligent but not someone I would particularly enjoy being around. And so it comes to the history, wherein HWA had a tendency to talk about how God had uniquely revealed things to him, things that often came from other sources. Of course, one could say that HWA was unique insofar as putting all those things together or that he was not a scholar and so not aware of the need for scholarly documentation or . . . But whatever conclusions one might reach about how he came to his understanding, he clearly was effective as a preacher.

After a discussion of the church's history, its struggles in the 1970s, and then its transformation in the early 1990s, Barrett turns to his analysis. The first part of his analysis focuses on church government, which turns out to be of great importance to his eventual conclusion. WCG was, in its later days, run hierarchically. As such, people were expected to fall in line with the ministers above them, and the ministers to fall in line with the ministers above them. So what happens when the doctrines that those above no longer match with the doctrines that were formerly espoused, save in the matter of the doctrine of government? Does one hang on to the government, or does one let go of said doctrine to hold to the other doctrines? Barrett nicely even explores, though briefly, those who have stayed in WCG despite not believing in most of the doctrinal changes, precisely because of this belief.

Barrett's discussion at this point widens a bit. He talks about what can happen with a religion's founder dies. Essentially, it can move from a charismatic leadership style to a rational one, and it can remain stable. Or in the process, it can lose steam and although stable eventually dissolve. It can also change or reform, but in that process, it might also divide. He shows examples from various religions.

Finally, Barrett gets to a chapter based on an albeit sadly too small survey of members that explores among other things how and why people made the choices they did: what finally compelled them to leave, where they went, how, and why. The two basic factors, Barrett says, that previous researchers would point to would be family/friends and doctrine, but Barrett points out a third factor that would influence where people went: leadership (which he terms a "moral" choice as opposed to a "religious" or "social" choice). Interestingly, people's choices were much less likely to be based on friends and family. However, just as interestingly, their choices were almost as likely to be based on the leader/minister as on the doctrine. That's right: people follow their ministers. I was reminded of my attendance with the church in Fort Worth after the 1995 split. One congregation had left with UCG, as that minister had left; one congregation had stayed with WCG, as that minister had stayed. (Both ministers adhered to the same doctrines, as the minister who stayed did not abide by the new WCG teachings, so leaving was not a matter of "religion.") Very few members transferred from one congregation to the other when this happened. Similarly, in a recent split in my local congregation, probably 80 percent of the congregation followed the minister into a new group. We really do just follow the leader, it seems.

And some of us get tired, as is evident in the survey as well. While many initially left WCG with one of the various offshoots, quite a few people have since become stay-at-home believers, sick of the political power games that so-called ministers play in an attempt to garner followings for themselves.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

On "The Gun Tastes Awful" by Tony DuShane (1056 words) ***

The premise is a bit familiar and some of the thoughts too, not because I've had them necessarily but because I've read them, seen them in film, and so on. But DuShane does manage to do something a bit different with the premise through the portrayal of the main character himself (I assume it's him). I'm reminded of the film The End, only this time there isn't a redemption, a feeling that, yes, life is worth living. Read the story here at Cherry Bleeds.

On "The Atom Station" by Halldor Laxness **

Set in a time shortly after World War II when Iceland was debating allowing NATO to place nuclear defense materials on its soil, Laxness's novel is mostly about a seemingly naive country girl from the north part of the country coming of age in the South. Politics, though, is a loud backdrop. The people don't want the bombs. The politicians, however, are working on a way to make the deal happen.

Meanwhile, the girl comes south to work as a nanny and to take harmonium lessons. The mistress in charge of her wants to make sure that the girl does not get involved with the communists, whose influence the woman sees as being pervasive among the young in the city. Such warnings prove to have the opposite effect, as the girl takes an immediate interest in going to a cell meeting. That said, she remains mostly politically uninvolved throughout the first portion of the novel.

Her real interest is the club that forges around her harmonium teacher, which features several men and ladies who like to discuss art, culture, and occasionally politics. One of these men accompanies the girl home one evening, and having lost her key, she ends up spending the night at his place--and losing her virginity in the process.

Meanwhile, the children she cares for are growing up as well. The mom runs off to America. The dad, a politician himself, takes an interest in the nanny. The children drink to excess, party, sleep around.

Somewhere in the book's center both the girl and one her charges end up pregnant. The charge gets an abortion at the urging of her father. The girl, however, returns north to have her child, Gudrun. There, the dad, a policeman, comes calling, now in the money.

The girl grows restless and returns to the south to the father who she was a nanny for (and who has fallen in love with her, to the point that he works on legislation to her liking), to her organ instructor, to her club, and finally to the father of her child, who she finally decides is worthy of her and her daughter (once his riches prove less than real and he is carted off to prison). She wants to make something of herself, to be a woman who is not simply a slave or a harlot. But what is there to be made into, when all the world is likely to blow up and start over again?

Saturday, March 23, 2013

On "The Kind of People That Drive These Roads" by Keith Rosson (6054 words) ***

There's a lot to like about this story by Keith Rosson--he's taken down the rules for good storytelling and made a chunk of writing fit right within it. The piece starts with a bit of violence--or rather the aftermath of it. I'm reminded a bit of an early scene in the Coen Brothers adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men. There, two police officers wander a field of dead men after a drug shootout. Here, officers discuss the troubles that exist out in these country places, a dead boy lying under a bit of barbed wire. One of the officers has shot him, and that officer now will have to deal with the guilt for the following year--and with some kind of ghostly retribution. The surprise here, however, is how the other officer deals with the shooting (and in fact it is this character who proved the most intriguing to me)--and in that dealing is the sorrow of the piece, a growing understanding on the part of the main character that justice isn't about that at all but naked retribution. The piece makes for a good story, but there's enough here that were Rosson to slow things down, he might well get a novel out of the material. Read the piece here at Burnt Bridge.

On "The Sagas of the Icelanders" ***

This anthology provides a taste of what Icelandic peoples were writing in the Middle Ages. Most of the sagas here were written down between 1200 and 1400, with the actual tales taking place around 900 to 1100, as Iceland moved from being heathen to Christian. This puts an interesting spin on many of the stories, as the authors sometimes find a need to put a good word in for Christianity, yet they do so largely without saying too much negative about the former ways: those before Christianity were heroes living large. Interestingly, their often murderous actions don't seem all that different after their conversion. Still, I can see why the Icelandics were viewed as perhaps the greatest poets of the era among the Scandinavian peoples. For such a small population, they put together a remarkably interesting body of work.

An interesting trait of all of the sagas is how they weave in history and genealogy. This weaving makes them seem like actual histories, while in fact, so the introduction notes, most of them were to a large extent fiction.

The longest of the sagas in the book is Egil's Saga. It recounts the heroic life of Egil Skallagrimson, but really, the tale starts several generations earlier, with a family in Norway and a man who remarries in old age. By this young wife, he has two children who, upon his death, are disinherited by the family of the first wife. This sets up much of the violence that follows--and the family's move to Iceland. On the death of the holder of the father's land, a man named Thorolf takes over, but the disinherited portion of the family is not given a portion of the land. Two members of this family take positions in the king's court thereafter and spread vicious rumors about Thorolf. Though loyal to the king to the nth degree (paying great amounts of tribute on various raids that he goes on), Thorolf falls into disfavor. It is believed that Thorolf is keeping back riches for himself and is plotting to become king of the northlands of Norway. Eventually, the king invades Thorolf's land and kills the man. His relatives take vengeance, including Skallagrim, and after this, they banish themselves to Iceland for safety. Finally, Egil enters the story, as a child. His father marries back into the Norwegian line, but his descendents are denied inheritance of the land, and Egil reaps revenge. Various viking raids are recounted. And finally, Egil grows old and settles down to full-time life in Iceland, where in one of his last acts he banishes another family who tries to steal his son's land. The Norwegian family disputes that largely escaped Iceland now come to rest in the new country.

The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal focuses more on a community (i.e., a family or group thereof) than any one person. As such, I found it a bit difficult to follow insofar as there was no center around which to focus my interest. Some individual chapters were engaging. Of the most pleasing were the tales of Ingimund and his sons Thorstein and Jokul (causing much confusion here, many relatives bear the same name). Ingimund lives in Norway and has no interest in moving to Iceland, but a seer prophesies that he will, and eventually, he lets destiny persuade him act accordingly. Once there, he builds a notable homestead and later in the narrative, in kindness, takes in a man no neighbors want living with them. This man one day kills Ingimund when he casts a spear at him, others having previously bothered the man about fishing in a certain river. Ingimund returns home, half a spear still in him, and dies. His sons Thorstein and Jokul decide to exact revenge. Thorstein throughout is the reasoned one, Jokul the hothead. Luckily, the brothers get to the man before his mother, a witch, can cast a spell on them--the brothers kill both. Despite such violence, by and large, Thorstein's more reasoned way of living generally wins out, and the family has peace. (In one interesting episode, a haughty man nearly bumps Thorstein into a fire at a festival Thorstein himself hosts. Jokul knocks the man down. For the insult, the men decide to duel. Thorstein, in an effort to put off the duel, in a manner characteristic of his general generosity, actually places himself under the man's onerous conditions for peace, but when the man insults the family in the process, Thorstein's proffered peace is rescinded. Weather keeps the duel from occurring, and later, when the man and his cohorts attempt to exact more ruin, Thorstein and Jokul gather more men and, with mere threats, send the ruffians packing.) Overall, this saga seemed more concerned with families finding peaceful means to live together than with heroic accounts of battles and adventures.

Like the other long sagas, The Saga of the People of Laxardal involves several generations of a family, but unlike those others, it seems to have a more-unifying feature to keep all the parts working together. That feature involves, fairly early on, a prophecy that is made to a young woman in the tale: Gudrun. And unlike the other tales, the women, especially Gudrun, have a a prominent role here. Gudrun is told that she will marry four men and what the features of each man will be and how they will die. The saga then brings each of those to pass, as she marries a not-so-good man, a rich man, and man of great fame, and so on. But she also has much to do with bringing about the events that happen in her life and in the life of the community. Also of note in the story is Olaf. the son of a woman of noble birth--an Irish queen who was sold into slavery. His children, notably two sons, along with a foster child would divide an inheritance. The foster child would prove to be of some trouble, as he would be the object of jealousy among the various heirs. As long as Olaf is alive, he keeps the peace in the community, but his death brings about a constant striving that happens thereafter. And this is where Gudrun and other women come in. For the fights between the men are often not simply male one-upsmanship. They are inspired by--even pushed upon the men--by the women, who will not stand by to allow their husbands, their children, their heirs to be dishonored. Revenge is often sought at the bequest of the women in the story, rather than initially that of the men. This is my favorite of the longer sagas in the book.

The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey's Godi is a shorter saga centered around one event and as such memorable reading. Essentially, it tells the tale of a man who vows to kill anyone who rides a certain horse of his that he has dedicated to a god. (It reminds me a bit of a similar incident in the book of Judges, wherein a man promises to sacrifice the first thing that exits his house upon his return from battle if he wins: that thing turns out to be his daughter.) The man ends up regretting his vow, but nonetheless he kills the man who rides the horse in an effort to salvage the owner's sheep. Here, the story becomes the familiar one of revenge by feuding families, as the family of the man killed refuses a very generous offer to pay for the death, instead taking the killer to court, and then, instead of that, eventually killing many of the killer's servants and forcing the killer from his land. Time passes, the killer becomes richer in a new land and returns to take his own revenge and retrieve his land.

The Saga of the Confederates is largely a legal drama, with various peoples taking each other to court rather than fighting things out. The hook here, however, is that the court is hardly a place of justice. Odd is a self-made man who ventures off to travel, leaving his farm and his job as the overseer of his community under the management of his friend Ospak. On Odd's return, Ospak does not relinquish his management role until Odd nearly forces him into it, which leads to some bitterness. Ospak handles things by attempting to kill Odd, but instead kills Odd's brother. They go to court to resolve the situation. However, a couple of people at court are jealous of Odd's success, so they dismiss Odd's suit against Ospak on technical grounds (not unlike, it seems, the way our own American system often works). Odd's father steps in and bribes a couple of judges and Ospak ends up getting his just punishment anyway, to the disgust of the two men who tried to dismiss Odd's suit. These two men learn of the bribe and take Odd to court themselves for bribery. Once again, Odd's father bribes a couple of judges, and Odd comes out ahead. Father and son, who early on do not get along well, are reconciled. This piece reads more like a short story than most of the sagas, focused around a distinct set of events and characters as it is. The author obviously didn't think much of Iceland's legal system in the early Middle Ages.

Gisli Sursson's Saga is a tale of revenge that I could see being easily adapted into a movie (albeit a violent one). It starts off rather predictably, with an account of the various families and with a killing. In other words, it's not unlike the other sagas. However, not too far into it, the story settles on Gisli as the main protagonist, a man who avenges the killing at the start of the tale and who then suffers the consequences. The rest of the saga, which is the majority, recounts Gisli's life in hiding, as the relatives of the dead man continually seek him out. In the end, Gisli has to make one final heroic stand, which cannot be said for most of the relatives, who remain more prone to hire bounty killers--most of whom meet death--to do their deeds than to risk their life to avenge the dead man with their own hands.

The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-tongue is the tale of a love triangle that ends in tragedy (and starts, as many sagas do, with a prophecy that comes true). The Saga of Ref the Sly made for lively reading, but by the time that I got to it, it hardly seemed that unique (Ref kills a man in revenge, sails from Iceland off to Greenland for safety, is slandered as gay, kills some men in revenge, is sought out, but ducks away from his pursuers, killing a few in the process, repeat revenge plot in Norway, live to old age and die).

The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga are mostly nonfiction and are interesting as primary documents regarding the Viking exploration of the New World. They don't have quite the rich uniform quality of narrative that some of the better sagas have, however.

The book closes with several tales. I found these interesting, but as long as the sagas sometimes could be, I actually enjoyed those more. The tales seemed like short stories without a lot of character development; the sagas seemed somehow richer.

Introductions and appendixes frame the sagas and tales and provide some very useful background information.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On "Turnpike" by Heather Austin (2497 words) ****

In "Turnpike," the narrator considers whether to marry the boyfriend who seems to be losing interest in her but who also has just proposed. Meanwhile, she meets a girl who was once struck by lightning, strikes up a friendship, and shares stories of her love life with her. This isn't a piece where a lot goes on, and yet the writing is elegant and unusual enough that it pulls a reader along. What exactly does go into making a lifetime commitment, and when does one know the right one? Read the story here at Saltimbanque Review.

Friday, March 15, 2013

On "What Happens to a Girl Who Lives Alone" by W. J. Barris (364 words) ***

Here's a short with a sinister feel. There is a horror behind this story, a horror before, a horror coming. But in its brief spate of fewer of five hundred words, all we get is the feel of that horror, the dread, the sadness, the warning: don't do it. Don't stay single. Read the story here at the Vestal Review.

Monday, March 11, 2013

On "I Will Love You Forever" by Michaele Jordan (3969 words) ****

The movie Talk to Her poses an interesting quandary about love. What is the difference between a man who falls in love with someone who cannot love back and a man who falls in love with someone and subsequently stays in love with someone after she loses her ability to love back? Jordan's tale takes this idea to a different level. What is the difference between love as an emotion and love as a set of actions? If the only way that we can discern emotion is through action, does it matter? Why? Interesting questions, indeed--posed in the guise of a tale about a man who falls in love with a nonhuman on another planet. Read the story here at Redstone Science Fiction.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

On "The Mission" by Emily Gray Tedrowe (8084 words) ****

Tedrowe's story mines the world of current events. It reminds me a bit of some of the stories I've read while working on anthologies that focus on a special event. Nonfiction has the allure of being true, and in today's media-conscious world, where new journalism is nothing out of the ordinary, fictional pieces describing world events don't seem to me quite as necessary. And yet, they still have their power, that ability to get below the surface and explore how such events affect a person on an individual level. Perhaps one day, there will be story anthologies about the war in Iraq--now already fading in the news--and this well might be one of them. It's a tale of a sister opposed to the war whose brother goes off to fight it, of families torn apart the way the very country was, of contradicting impulses--to support our relatives, our troops, or to hate the work that they are doing. Read the story here at Fifty-two Stories.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

On "Alaska" by Tom Franklin (1103 words) ***

Here's is a flight of fancy. It's a tale about about two guys imagining what they'll do one day when they finally work up the guts to abandon all that they have and know. Alaska is a place far away, a place one constantly heads toward--but the aim isn't to arrive at Alaska. The aim is to take off for Alaska and to ponder the wonderful and long experience along the way. The aim is to dream and keep dreaming. Read the story here at Fifty-two Stories.