Sunday, April 28, 2013

On "Rock and Bone" by Holly M. Wendt (5553 words) *****

This tale reminds me a bit of one of my favorite stories--John Steinbeck's "Flight." It isn't for any of the plot that I'm reminded. Rather, it's the way that Wendt chooses to tell this tale--as well as the tale's setting. This is a silent and lonely film. There's almost no dialogue. It's a piece told in a woman's head and in the concrete details of the landscape and the her move through it.

Kim is on a road trip, on her way to visit a friend named Jill. There's a motorbike gathering going on, and she passes a few of these riders as she drives, coming into contact with them when she pulls off to eat or to guy gas or to take a leak. She makes a momentary connection with one rider in particular, such that when they're driving along in a freak rainstorm, she notices his bike go down miles in front of her on a Nebraska highway. One shouldn't be so absorbed by a tale that essentially recounts a woman's grizzly discoveries in somber and gruesome detail, but it's a testimony to Wendt's writing that one is. Read the story here at Memorious.

On "The Shadow Girls" by Henning Mankell ***

I came to Mankell looking for contemporary Swedish crime fiction as part of my ongoing Scandinavian reading list, opting for Mankell's work because I figured it less likely to be recalled in the middle of my reading than Steig Larsen's. The Shadow Girls, I suppose, is crime fiction of a sort; the girls are illegal immigrants, and the book is about a man who tries to give them voice. There is no illegality beyond their national/border status and a bit of pick-pocketing, which is mostly made light of. There are no real thrills, and the mystery to be answered is mostly, Who are these women?

I found myself most drawn to the main character and his life. Joseph Humlin is a poet. How a poet can make enough to live off of writing books would be a very good question in the United States, but I would assume that in Sweden, Humlin is likely the recipient of various generous government grants meant to keep Swedish literature and arts alive, since any writer or artist would have a very limited national audience. Nevertheless, Humlin's publisher is not immune to wanting sales, and sales these days come from crime novels, so that is what the publisher wants Humlin to write.

Humlin won't have it. Sure, his poetry books barely clear one thousand copies, but he's not going to write what every other person in Sweden seems to be putting together, including his stock broker and his mom. Instead, he decides to focus on illegal immigrants, to tell their story, an idea that comes to him one day when he meets a certain woman from Africa named Tea-Bag (or Florence).

What follows is an account of Humlin's attempt to teach these immigrants how to write, how to find their own voices, while Humlin struggles to find his own peace. He's lost most of his money on the stock market; his overbearing girlfriend wants to have a kid; he's not sure he's really a good writer.

The characters surrounding Humlin's everyday life are fascinating and fun. I wish I could have felt the same about the immigrant women. The women are in the shadows, which means that they often change identities. They live on the edge, trying to avoid being caught by police--or by anyone who might transport them back to the world from which they come. Where that world is is slowly shared with us . . . sort of. That they so often change stories and seem so enigmatic as to be almost incomprehensible means that I never felt much kinship with them, and their stories, as they unfolded, didn't much hold me as enthralled as they hold Humlin (or indeed Mankell).

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

On "No Cat, No Father" by Alana Ruprecht (4285 words) *****

If you told me you were going to tell me a story about a father who comes back to your house as a cat, I'd say that you were not likely to succeed very well. I'd expect a lot of disbelief on the part of the characters, a lot of questioning about how the father got to be this way. Ruprecht does none of that, however. A dad can become a cat, and everyone in the story knows it. It's just a fact of life, the way things are.

Instead, the characters focus on how to deal with the cat. You see, the father was not a good man--and he's no better as a cat. He expects to run the household, but he doesn't expect to work to provide for the household. He's lazy and selfish. He's a cat.

And he's cute. You can't help but like him on some level, to want to take care of him, and in that is the danger. He's a cat.

I'm sure that some scholar has written about how pets are replacements for children and for lovers in our contemporary world. Ruprecht takes the logic of that, the implication of that, to its full extreme. What is love, and how well can an animal fill in for the things that are missing from our lives? Read the story here at Summerset Review.

On "Barabbas" by Par Lagerkvist ****

Another novel focused on religion from one of Sweden's great writers, Barabbas tells the hypothetical story of what happened to the thief Barabbas after he was set free in exchange for Jesus Christ. One could look at the biblical account as being a microscale metaphor for the larger concept that Christ gave his life for all. Barabbas the thief lives on because Christ died in his stead. I can't help but think that Lagerkvist is playing off this idea as he tells of the follow-up events.

The difference is that Lagerkvist is writing in the twentieth century when high thinkers no longer believe that such an event could have occurred. So now we have all the miraculous events of the Bible brought down to the physical sphere. Barabbas witnesses one of the miracles: the darkness after Christ dies. And he get first-person testimony of a couple of others: one who has seen Christ risen and one who was dead and now lives. The darkness, Barabbas comes to question the reality of; he had lived so long in dungeons and so many others didn't notice the darkness that he wonders if the state of the sky was merely an illusion of the mind (though later others testify of seeing the darkness). The first-person testimonies are told, but how, without witnessing such events himself, can he believe?

It is not for want of belief that Barabbas doesn't manage to come to belief. At some point, after spending some time among Christians and witnessing the martyrdom of one (Barabbas--always one to act in this world rather than to hope for the "next"--kills the man who casts the first stone and later helps burn Rome, when he believes that Christ has returned to destroy the city), this Barabbas ends up, late in life, a slave in the copper mines, where the man chained to him proves to be a Christian. When this Christian finds out that Barabbas was in Jerusalem when Christ died, he is astounded--especially when Barabbas adds to said account by claiming to see the very resurrection of Christ (contributing to the doubts we might have regarding the first-person testimonies Barabbas has heard from others). The man's Christianity eventually leads them out of the copper mines into the fields as slaves--an unheard-of blessing--but also it leads eventually to the Christian man's demise. For one day, it is found that the man will not worship Caesar, only Christ. Barabbas who was saved from the mines by the man's testimony of Jesus to their superior now betrays his friend; Barabbas denies Christ when the man is taken away for declaring Christ. Asked by the master, "Are you a believer?" Barabbas's answer is "No, but I want to believe." He wants--but he cannot.

And in this is the crux of the problem for Barabbas, a man who wanders the earth wanting desperately to believe in something greater than himself, wanting to believe in God, but who ultimately is unable to come to have such understanding or faith. Barabbas's fate is that, I would venture to guess Lagerkvist is saying, of modern man.

Others dies for Christ; Barabbas can only die for death itself.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

On "Miss Orange Blossom County" by Emily Koon (810 words) *****

Emily Koon's tale is a reminiscence of something that sadly is a memory of many children in the United States, including me--the summer of a serial killer. For us, it was the Night Stalker, and it meant that in our unconditioned house the windows had to remain shut at night, and there was no sleeping on the floor next to them. That had been our boon in the summer, that breeze coming in to keep us cool. Koon's killer stalks only teen-aged girls, and the girls in this story aren't quite old enough to get all of the details right, but that's what make the tale all the more heartrending and scary . . . and sad. Read the story here at Tinge.

On "The Dance of Death" by August Stringberg **

Here's Strindberg's extremely negative take on life and marriage. For him, it seems, marriage is full of the most intense of hates and the most intense of loves--but the play focuses almost entirely on the hate. Why stay together, if there is so much hate? Because, it seems, the characters fear worse being alone.

The play revolves around an army captain and his wife, Alice. The captain, in the first half of the play, is growing sick. A friend named Curt comes to visit. It turns out that the captain has in times past fathered Curt's children and had a relationship with Curt's wife. Alice is not allowed to talk on the phone--the captain has installed a telegraph machine, believing she won't understand it. Alice and Curt begin an affair, once the captain notes some particularly horrible things he's done or doing to both of them. Turns out the captain is lying, and then Curt regrets his fling; Alice, however, claims that the captain is lying about lying. In the end, once Curt goes off, the captain and Alice sort of reconcile.

Part two involves the captain and Alice's daughter Judith and Curt's son Allan. The latter has a crush on Judith, who plays the constant tease. Her interest, however, is in men who have higher positions in the army, one of whom the captain is to set her up with. The captain warns Curt of an impending financial disaster; Curt ignores the warning, knowing that were he to heed it, he'd be ruined. He is ruined anyway. More horrible stuff ensues until finally the captain dies, and Curt and Alice look back on his life--the life this man they've hated--with fondness (they once loved him after all). I'm okay with cynicism, but this one was even too cynical for me.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On "Magpies" by A. G. Synclair

I had planned on featuring three poems today, but the links for all three of them have gone dead--alas, the nature of online journal. Here's one I did manage to refind, republished in a different journal. If poetry is all in the language--and in a way it is--then Synclair's "Magpies" is an examplar of it. I am remembering the blurbs on some of the contemporary poetry books I've read, how single lines will be pulled out, so that's what I'll do here, for it's the final line "you . . . framed October under glass" that just astounds me. Out of context, it's not as incredible as it is in the poem itself. And you can check it here at the Eunoia Review (originally, it appeared in the Legendary).

On "The Miracles of Antichrist" by Selma Lagerlof *****

Something I enjoy about many pre-1945 novels is the kind of explicitly philosophical bent that they take. Of course, contemporary novels don't necessarily eschew philosophical ideas. Rather, those ideas don't seem to me to be as on the surface either because I, as a contemporary, am too close to the material to see what the author is doing within a historical perspective or because contemporary novels, bound within the morass that is postmodernism, are a-philosophical (there is no discussion of belief, morality, etc., because such things do not exist--there is only, ultimately, the personal).

Lagerlof is of an earlier era. In Miracles she explores the contours of belief and how belief in and of itself shapes our world. The world, for Lagerlof, is still split between two camps, the Christian and the anti-Christian, the spiritually focused and the earthly focused. And what we believe--which one we believe in--ultimately colors our perception of that world. Is a miracle a miracle or merely happenstance that we correlate as miracle? And even if it is a miracle, what does that miracle mean?

To bring this story to bear, Lagerlof uses what really to me felt like a narrative from the fantastic realist school of writing, yet which predates those Latin American geniuses by half a decade or more. The tale is that of a statue--a Christchild statue that sits in a cathedral and does miracles for those who pray to it. One English woman, so swept up by the beauty of the statue, steals it and replaces it with a cheap replica, the crown of which reads, "My kingdom is only of this world." (The statue itself miraculously returns to the cathedral on its own and deposes the fake, but the fake lingers on in the possession of various collectors. Much, in the book, counterposes the mythic era of the distant past with our own tawdry one, as if miracles are best explained in the distant past.)

Step in many decades later, and that fake statue has now somehow made its way into yet another cathedral. It arrives with the tolling of bells that no one has pulled. Are the bells a miracle, a sign for Donna Micaela as she believes even though everyone else can hear them? Or are they in fact a warning about what is to unfold?

The story is set around the actions of Gaetano, a young man who eventually converts to socialism--to working for the good of the poor people of the world--and of Micaela, a believer who falls in love with Gaetano but who sees Gaetano's lack of faith as a great evil. One night, after Gaetano is sent to prison for his socialist activity, Micaela receives a vision that she believes is key to gaining Geatano's release, as well as restoring his faith in God. She must build a railroad to the town. The railroad will bring riches to the town's poor people. Each time something in her plan fails, she returns to the statue, prays, and seemingly miraculously the trouble is lifted and the next stage in building the rail is able to go forward. Soon the townspeople themselves begin to believe, and the Christchild garners a huge following.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this focus on belief comes in the character of the man with the evil eye. He is a man around which bad luck seems to congregate. People come to believe he has an evil eye, and eventually, despite his own best thinking, he comes to believe such also and becomes a hermit. Micaela, knowing the man's railroad skills, seeks him out, and though evil seems to come with his appearance, when the two step before the Christchild, all evil is lifted. Or is it merely all perception of evil, for the evil-eyed man himself claims that his evil eye is merely superstition. In the end, it doesn't matter. Either way, belief is what makes the man evil, and belief in the Christchild's healing power is what makes the man good.

But what is the antichrist, if this Christchild can change so much in the world? In fact, we learn, after the railway is built, that not much really does change. It is the world outside that causes things to continue on as before, those who don't believe in the Christchild, those of the town come to believe. But when the real identity of the Christchild is exposed as being that of the fake, all faith is spurned. If these were not miracles performed by the Christchild, what were they?

Antichrist looks like the Christ, Lagerlof notes. They both perform miracles. But antichrist, like the socialists, concerns himself with the things of this world, while Christ focuses on the things of the next world. Antichrist is a replica of Christ--one concerned only with physical well-being. Is the Church better off pointing people to the true Christ and spurning movements like that of socialism, or is it better to embrace the concern for the physical well-being of people and use that to point toward the greater spiritual well-being that even antichrist must bow to?

Friday, April 12, 2013

On "A Good Guy" by Haley (969 words) ***

A while ago I had thought about writing a story in parts that used the same lines of dialogue but in vary different settings and with very different meanings. I never have gotten around to writing such a story; it would be challenging and potentially clumsy. Haley's story doesn't quite do that either, but what she does well here is use a set of refrains or thoughts from two different perspectives. The situation isn't all that unique, but I like how the repetition of the language lends the story a kind of obsessiveness that would not be uncommon in such a setting. Read the story here at Everyday Fiction.

Monday, April 8, 2013

On "A Sea Change" by Jean Ryan (3595 words) ***

Ryan's tale takes both elements of the title and renders them concrete. The story is one of change and one of the sea. And it's one of love--different shades of it: mother and daughter, girlfriend and girlfriend, woman and animal, woman and work, woman and food. In any relationship, we only control one-half of the partnership, and that certainly comes to the fore here. Mom can't control daughter, girl can't control friend. We develop on an arc all our own, and love, it seems, is just the element of being there during the time that arcs intersect. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

On "The Journey Home" by Olaf Olafsson ***

Like Halldor Laxness's Atom Station, this book revolves around a lot of the fallout from World War II as it involved Iceland; only here the focus is even more personal. The narrator is a woman on her way home--though not for the first time. It's a testament to Olafsson's skill that he was able to weave several plotlines involving the same characters but in different eras together so seamlessly.

I say "seamlessly," but the book was definitely easier to read in long sittings than it was to read in shorter ones. Because each section might pick up in a different time period, and because various plots involve journeys back to Iceland, I did have difficulty sometimes, when I had been away from the book for a day or so, figuring out what was going on, where I was, which plotline I was following.

In standard order, the plot goes something like this: the narrator is an Icelandic woman whose parents want her to get a good business education. Instead, she takes up cooking as a side job and falls in love with it. This leads her eventually to, against her parents wishes, move to Britain, where she learns more about being a chef and has a job. There, she falls for a young Jewish man whose parents still reside in Germany during the lead-up to World War II. The letters from his mom become more ominous (that is, vaguer), so he returns to Germany to check in on them--and, of course, never returns.

Meanwhile, the narrator's parents (especially her mom) are having conniptions about her living with a man out-of-wedlock. When she more or less knows that her beau Jakob is not coming back, she packs up to return to Iceland for a visit. There, she gets a job as a private chef for a housebound woman and her family. There also, that family's son returns from Germany and, one night, essentially rapes the narrator. She becomes pregnant, and she returns to her family (by now her mother is recently dead), and her dad takes care of her and gets a family to adopt the baby the narrator will have. Meanwhile, a friend back in England, Anthony, has some ideas about turning his family inheritance--a big, old house--into a bed and breakfast and persuades the narrator to move back to be the cook and half-proprietor. They live together there for decades, serving others, until the baby that she had is graduating from school, which necessitates a visit to Iceland to see him as an adult, though she's not known him since his adoptive parents came into his life.

Told in straightforward fashion, the tale, I see here, is not as engaging as it is in its weaving of multiple time periods. What's also missing is this summary is Olafsson's pretty firm handle on the central character. Oddly, she's not someone I particularly liked. She seems very sure of herself, very stubborn, and very snobbish; others around her make all kind of mistakes, but she is always in the right. She reminded me a bit of Olive Kitteridge, though perhaps not quite as annoying or as interesting.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On "Looking for a Knight in Shining Armor" by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley (926 words) ***

This story reads like an extended joke, and as such, it's an amusing one. Wrigley has combined the fantasy genre with today's online dating scene, and this is the result. I don't think I'd qualify--nor would I want to. Read the story here at Daily Science Fiction.