Thursday, May 30, 2013

On "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Anderson (6308 words) ****

The big surprise to me is that this, so far as I know, is not a movie, no not even an animated one. It seems perfect for retelling in that format. As with so many of the tales we know, there is a bad stepmom. This wicked stepmom sends a princess scurrying from her castle, as well as the princesses eleven brothers, who she consigns to being swans during the daylight hours. Luckily, the princess meets her brothers one day in the forest and through this reacquaintance is able to change the lives of them all. But before then, other antics include a flight across the ocean on the wings of the swans, a kidnapping, and a marriage to be consummated against the princess's will (mostly because she's more interested in breaking the spell on her brothers). All comes out well in the end, except Andersen sort of leaves the wicked stepmom in her place. Read the tale here.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

On "Your Response Should Be in the Form of a Question" by Alex Luft (3818 words) *****

Here's a story that is fairly up front about what it is: a story. Or not. It also claims that it won't do a lot of things that a story does, which lends credence to the idea that it's not really a story. It's a story about a story. It's enough of a metafiction piece to get under a reader's nerves and certainly to keep readers distant from the characters themselves in what would usually be a daunting situation (a couple working on a baby, the husband having just lost on Jeopardy!, their only means to pay for the technology needed to make a baby possible). But Luft's piece is as much about the plot itself as it is about the way that we read stories and what we expect or don't, and in that comes its wonderful twist. Read the story here at the Adirondack Review.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On "Going Down Like Little Jesus in Sun Hole" by Nathan Blake (2009 words) *****

Wow! Some stories use language in ways you haven't heard before, and some use words not only in new ways but in ways that somehow seem perfectly put together. Limp, wet cigarettes are pulled from between thighs in this story; they're worried away, ash brushing against a chest. And amid all this, someone catches fire, and someone else, and someone else. Love is a dangerous thing. Read the story here at the Collagist.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

On "Somebody’s Sweetheart" by Jennifer A. Powers (926 words) *****

I love the mix of menace and quiet in this piece. Powers places off the two perfectly, so that we're never sure of one of the character's intentions. One moment he's soft, the next possibly not so. Part of fear isn't knowing what's coming but not knowing what's coming. Never take a ride from strangers. Read the story here at Diverse Voices.

On "The Manila Rope" by Veijo Meri ***

This short humorous war novel reminded me of Hasek's The Good Soldier Švejk, particularly in how its obvious attempts at humor didn't really translate to my own intellect. Meri's world is rather slapstick, which doesn't tend to be the kind of comedy I like.

This isn't to say that I began the novel thinking it would be funny. It start with a soldier named Joose finding a rope in the road. He decides to keep it, but because German overseers will likely think he stole it, he decides that he needs to conceal it during his trip home, his temporal leave. So far, the piece seems to be about Finn poverty and German overbearingness. There are tragic, realistic, sad tones.

Joose conceals the rope by having it wrapped around his torso. As such, he appears a very portly man. The rope, however, is too tight, and once Joose boards his train home, he finds himself passing out frequently; others think he is drunk.

The train itself becomes an avenue for storytelling, and various short humorous tales about the arm are told between soldiers as they proceed across the country, Joose growing sicker all along the way.

The humor is a kind of gallows humor, which is most evident in the incidents of trains visiting a particular station. An officer who fails to board on time runs after the train; failing to catch it, he eventually steals a hand trolley and wheels after the train only to be hit by another train down the tracks. He breaks several limbs and is demoted. Later, Joose's train enters the station, and seemingly without a commanding officer, the station master is unable to order the troops back onto the departing train; as a result, the train simply sits in the station, till an angry officer finally shows up to ask why the train still hasn't left.

This also happens to be the station where Joose's home is, so here he disembarks, walking "drunkenly" home, where his wife mistakes him for being sick--very sick. Then she realizes that the lesions around his midsection aren't lesion but a rope, and she cuts it off down the middle. Lot of good sneaking the rope has done. Joose seems to have gotten some bad gangrenely growths in the meantime, so sick, he sits at home listening to visitors tell yet more funny war stories of a gory nature.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

On "The Gentrification of the Void" by Sacha Siskonen (1912 words) *****

The editors of Alice Blue Review have a knack for pulling out short pieces with lots of lyricism and a some cool ideas, and this is one of the better ones I've read there of late. The tale is a recounting of a man's eco-tour of the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean. I mean, why not? It might be an incredible and horrible addition to our planet, but if as long as it's there, we might as well turn it into something to market, something to visit and bring back souvenirs from. If my description makes this seem kitschy, that's because in a sense it is, and yet, by the story's end, Siskonen manages to pull off something also "beautiful." Read the tale here at Alice Blue Review.

On "People in the Summer Night" by F. E. Sillanpaa ****

When I was describing this book to a friend last night, he said it sounded like an Ingmar Bergman film. And I suppose, in its focus on everyday life, it is. And were I to focus on the major theme of this work, it would seem hopelessly cliche, because essentially the book is about the cycle of life and death. Ho hum. Let's go read something with a little more pizzazz.

But what makes this work more than its rather perfunctory theme is its execution. And really, isn't that the case with all works of fiction? There really aren't more than seven major themes available, one professor of mine once noted. Unfortunately, I've forgotten what those themes were, but I can totally understand the argument. Human life, even amid constant technological change, still centers around a stable and limited number of concerns.

Sillanpaa chooses to tell his story over the nights surrounding a weekend, mostly Saturday and Sunday. He focuses not on a single character but on a town. I was in some ways reminded of Susan Orlean's Saturday Night early on. During the first thirty pages, all Sillanpaa seems to do is introduce character after character and what they're doing. No plot seems evident. If he weren't such an amazing descriptivist, one would quickly put down the book. So many people thrown at a reader at once means any one of them is hard to follow or to feel much for.

But then, the characters start to settle out, and so does the story. If the first and last thirty pages are each focused on mundane descriptions, the middle one hundred and packed with plot. A young man arrives from out of town to court a young lady, and together with another couple, they rush off to a party. A man's pregnant wife goes to check on a sick cow and ends up in labor, the midwife not to be had and the doctor needing to be fetched. The problem is that that doctor is off on another visit: elsewhere in town one man has stabbed another to death and struggles in vain to bring the man to life. That dead man's wife, meanwhile, dallies with other men in her house, serving them beer and looking out for the husband who will fail to return.

The events don't really come to an end so much as they become subsumed in the general ebb and flow of life itself. These intense moments of love, birth, death, Sillanpaa seems to be saying, fade into the general mundanity of existence.

Friday, May 10, 2013

On "Un Deux Trois" by Susan Tepper (579 words) *****

Tepper's short tale is a twist on the old doors metaphor/game show/whatever you will. She tells us what is behind each one, asking us to guess the answer to a simple question. The story, if it is such a thing, is somehow mysteriously and unexplainably powerful, which is really the best kind of power a story can have. Read it here at Pure Slush.

On "The Kalevala" by Elias Lonnrot ****

Based loosely on ancient epics and folktales, this Finnish epic poem runs from a creation of sorts to a Christ child of sorts, with all its strange tales in between. It is, so I read in the introduction, really the beginning of Finnish literature, insofar as it was the great epic written at a time when Finland was really coming to its own, pressing for its own national identity. One certainly couldn't do much better--it's a marvelous work. The particular translation I read as well, by Keith Bosley, is a lot of fun. Bosley notes that Finnish poetry is heavily alliterative, more even than Old English poetry. Placing rhyme or metric measures onto the work in translation would be to do a disservice to it, as would be trying to mimic completely  the Finnish poetic devices. Instead, he settles on a purely syllabic verse (nine syllables--sometimes five or seven to a line); it seems to work well, especially as lines often repeat, as they would in a rhyming kids' tale (think, for example, of the repetition and refrains in "The Three Little Pigs").

Summing up The Kalevala is difficult, and while I'll try here mostly so that I can one day return to this write-up to refresh my memory, it'll be a sorry recounting. The beauty of the piece is really in the language mixed in with the plot itself, which at times as a bit fuzzy to me.

We start with a kind of creation of sorts, from which springs the old man Vainamoinen. I say "old man," because by the time he gets around to doing anything in the narrative, which is fairly quickly, he is already old in the eyes of others. One of his first acts is to try to find a wife. Unfortunately, in what will become a constant theme for him, the woman, whose father he convinces let him have her, rejects him because he is to old. She chooses, rather, to jump into the sea and kill herself. Vainamoinen builds a boat and goes to sea, and while at sea, finds a mermaid, who turns out to be this woman reincarnated, but he doesn't get the mermaid either.

Enter now the blacksmith Ilmarinen, who goes north to find a woman of his own. After settling in the north country, he goes about his job of forging metal into tools for the people around--and, it seems, of creating the sky. He doesn't get his lady until sometime later, however, when Vainamoinen comes calling. The latter is the better match, the family feels, as Vainamoinen is well off, but the young lady is none to smitten of the idea of being paired with an old man, and so she chooses to marry Ilmarinen.

One more would-be lover yet enters the tale, Lemminkainen. He marries a lady, promising never to go to war if she never runs off to go visiting. The promises, however, are broken on both sides, and Lemminkainen goes off again to find another lady. In the process of trying to woo a lady of the north, he manages to get killed. His mother goes searching for him and, finding him, reconstructs him. He's warned to be more careful, but again he wanders off, this time to Ilmarinen's wedding, where he manages to kill the brother of Ilmarinen's bride. More revenge follows, so Lemminkainen flees his home and wanders a far island for a while, sleeping with various women. When he returns home, finally, after a few years, he finds his home burned.

Ilmarinen, meanwhile, loses his wife to murder. And now the three of them, all sorrowful, Vainamoinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkainen wander toward the northlands to seek a certain vengeance of their own. There, they steal something called the Sampo. They do it by use of a pike's comb--the bones of a great fish that Vainamoinen manages to catch. The music puts the people asleep. But Lemminkainen's desire to sing--Vainamoinen, known for his musical abilities, refuses--wakes a bird who wakes the people of the north, who then come chasing after the three thieves. In vengeance, the hag, the northern queen, steals the sun and moon, which the three then go in search of. Ilmarinen tries to forge a new moon and sun, then tools to help Vainamoinen free them, but the hag of the north senses her eventual likely loss and frees them of her own accord.

The story of these men ends there and turns toward the birth of a young child to a virgin, who has eaten a berry that has made her pregnant. Vainamoinen's days are noted as being numbered. The narrator bard exhorts others to join his song and write yet other epics, setting up the Finns for yet more literature.

Alternate translations can be found here, here, here, and here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

On "House of Halls" by Joe Aguilar (1736 words) *****

Wow! That was my reaction as I read this story, which is not to say there isn't more to say. Told in three chunks, Aguilar's story has the kind of surreal feel of a Borges piece. The House of Halls is just that, a house made entirely of corridors. It costs money to visit this house, and Aguilar's going to let us in. That's the first part. More description and travelogue than story, but such a fascinating place that we don't care much that there's not a heavy plot, or at least I didn't. The next section is a meditation on meaning and metaphor, a poem really, with its seeming imperative: don't think too hard. And finally, in the last section, we come to the story that's going to tie these things together, a love tale or not. Read the piece here at Web Conjuctions.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

On "I Looked for You, I Called Your Name" by Laura van den Berg (6450 words) *****

This is the second story of van den Berg's I've read, the first being a tale in One Story. I can see why she's something of a sensation. She's a master of virtually every aspect of a a well-written piece: interesting plot, full characters and setting, and wonderfully surprising sentences.

You know you're in for strangeness when the author opens with "The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing." We don't tend to think of emergency landings as the beginning of troubles but rather than end. But then, this is a narrator whose view of the world is decidedly negative and whose experiences certainly compel negativity. She may survive, but how well?

There's a moment in the tale when the narrator talks of how only her husband and she can see the twist in her nose, and it's enough to show how this relationship is one built on a certain degree of pretense and uncertainty. Is the narrator predisposed to viewing her husband as less than desired and lets that color the rest of her life, or is she simply one who is predisposed to seeing everything as less than desired? Decide for yourself here at Tinge.