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.