Friday, September 27, 2013

On "Country Lepers" by Brad Felver (6823 words) ****

Who's helping whom? That's a question posed in Felver's odd letter to his narrator's new lover. Divorced from his old living situation, the narrator goes to live with an old man who has something of a skin condition, an old man who is willing to put up with the narrator and his obsession with his former wife and her new boyfriend. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Monday, September 23, 2013

On "Girl in the Mirror" by John W. Buckley (7464 words) ****

Reading this story, I was reminded a bit of a story I'd read in a creative writing class years ago, an account of a tongue piercing. We don't get a tongue piercing here, and the language isn't nearly so artificially lyric, but what we do get is a wonder portrait of a younger girl trying to find herself and trying to hook a guy on whom she has a crush. Sometimes, discovering yourself is about discovering another person. Read the story here at Menda City Review.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

On "Minutes of the Last Meeting" by Daniel B. Meltzer (2456 words) ***

Verisimilitude is an object of many a writer's pen. But realism, as we think of it, is rarely realistic. Fiction has its own tone, its own level of reality, different from history writing or letters--except in those instances when fiction takes on the tone of history or of letters. Enter Meltzer's "Minutes," which is a sendup of just that: minutes from a meeting. The tale documents why I so rarely care much for attending meetings. Read the story here at Prime Number.

On "The Four Loves" by C. S. Lewis ***

A minister got me thinking about the biblical word for "love." He was talking about the Greek term "agape" meaning the love of God, perfect, selfless love. It's a common refrain among Christian teachers. But I was suddenly contemplating the Greeks themselves. The Greeks had no concept of God as Christians do; they had a pantheon of gods. So from where springs a term specifically referencing Godly love? That cannot be how it was used in the Greek.

Some research on the Greek terms--storge, philia, eros, and agape--conveyed to me that the meanings are not perhaps as settled as Christian teachers make it out to be. Indeed, "agape" is often used in the Bible to represent a selfless Godly love, but it can sometimes be used for selfish loves as well (the love of money, the love of the world). "Philia" might be the love of friends, but it is also used in a selfless sense (John 16:27 and Titus 3:4 use "philia"). I tried looking for the term "agape" in contemporary works outside the scriptures but found few; it was, outside the Bible, not so often used apparently. So perhaps the "Godly love" usage took some precedent even among first-century Christians. But not completely. Leave that to the 1800s, to an author who predated C. S. Lewis, and then to Lewis himself and this defining book. Those who give little credence to the differences between philia and agape blame Lewis for making the distinction so concrete, too concrete. But many of these same critics then said they'd never read the Lewis book; I decided I couldn't be one of those, that I needed to see what Lewis himself said.

Interestingly, the term "agape" did not come up in Lewis's book, so far as I remember. But the concept, as espoused by Christian teachers, certainly did. There is a human love and a Godly one, the latter one to which we aspire. This love, Lewis calls, in his final chapter, charity (as in the KJV translations of 1 Corinthians 13). To inherit that "heavenly kingdom," Lewis says, we must give up our natural loves for a spiritual one, must let the natural transform into the spiritual: Our earthly love can enter the heavenly kingdom "only on one condition; not a condition arbitrarily laid down by God, but one necessarily inherent in the character of Heaven: nothing can enter there which cannot become heavenly. 'Flesh and blood,' mere nature, cannot inherit the Kingdom. Men can ascend to Heaven only because the Christ, who died and ascended to Heaven, is 'formed in him.' Must we not suppose that the same is true of a man's loves? Only those which Love Himself has entered will ascend to Love Himself. And these can be raised with Him only if they have, in some degree and fashion, shared His death; if the natural element in them has submitted--year after year, or in some sudden agony--to transmutation."

In this sense, Lewis does pose a spiritual love as above a physical love. I'm not as sure the Bible makes this distinction quite as certain. In places, God's love for man is denoted as "philia"--friendship/brotherly love. And yet Lewis, when speaking in metaphor of earthly loves, equates God's love more with the other two Greek words: "Friendship is very rarely the image under which Scripture represent the love between God and Man. It is not neglected; but far more often, seeking a symbol for the highest love of all, Scripture ignores this seemingly almost angelic relation and plunges into the depth of what is most natural and instinctive. Affection is taken as the image when God is represented as our Father; Eros, when Christ is represented as the Bridegroom of the Church."

But a concordance search shows neither "eros" nor "storgi" explicitly appear in scripture. Meanwhile, "philia" (and derivatives) is used at least six times in reference to love between God and man.

Interestingly, Lewis does hold friendship love in a fairly high but special esteem, enough that, before I got to his chapter on charity, I thought he might not actually hold a strong view of hierarchies of love. What Lewis admires about friendship love is that it is the one love that is not as much based on need or on giving (a distinction he sets up in the first chapter and returns to in the last and which I will discuss shortly). It is, as he notes, "the least natural of loves; the least instinctive, organic, biological, gregarious and necessary." There is no expectation that your friend do something for you other than that you simply enjoy each others' company--though should a need arise, friends will help one another out--and then go back to being friends. While "eros," Lewis notes, is about naked bodies, "philia" is about naked souls. Good friends drive us toward goodness, while evil friends drive us toward the evil. Friends hold each other in high esteem, esteeming themselves more lowly than the others in their coterie (but the danger is that the coterie itself will often view itself as higher than those outside it).

I noted that Lewis makes a big deal about need and giving. He says, in his first chapter, that all earthly love is based on these two principles. At first, we might be inclined to say that God is the giver and humanity the needer, and that might make us think giving a superior love. "Need," we might say, is selfish. But Lewis points out that no one would claim that a baby who needs its mother or a child who looks up to and for his father is selfish. So we cannot quite equate need love with selfishness but rather a different form of love. (Indeed, a give love could be selfish as well, if the reason for the giving is to prop up one's own egocentric needs.) Spiritual love, however, Lewis points out in his last chapter transforms and transcends these components. And in fact, the greatest form of love is simply appreciation.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

On "Oranges" by Anthony Doerr (2032 words) ****

Reading some people's writing seems so effortless that it's hard to believe that hours of craftsmanship went into the final product. Doerr's tale "Oranges" is one of those. Ostensibly a love story about two people who meet on the plane, the tale sets one perfect word after another. Oranges, as one might imagine, play a large role, a kind of motif running throughout--their juice, their smell, their skin, their core--but most off the one in which a gifted person peels them whole, making of them a single string, like history--sets of events--rolling around and around and around to make finally a whole. Read the story here at rkvry.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

On "Nevada County" by Sarah Marshall (2689 words) ****

Marshall's "Nevada County" is about a runaway, a thirteen-year-old with an idea of what being an adult means and no idea whatsoever. She is playing at being a hooker, at being independent. She has no money and is headed nowhere fast unless it's down. This is a story more about a character than a plot, a sketch of sorts, that reveals, in a final telling detail, how little this gal is and how much more she has to learn. It's a heartbreaker. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

On "Paul" by Daniel Davis (3740 words) ***

There's a kind of cold scariness to this tale that starts out as a sort of existential mystery. Chris--or is it Chris?--is sitting in a bar when a man comes up and starts talking to him as if he is Paul, an old acquaintance the man hasn't seen in a year. Usually, when people tell another that they are not who the person is looking for, that's the end of the conversation. We bow out, apologizing, a bit sad, a bit confused, a bit embarrassed. Not here. The man insists that Chris is Paul. And so goes the story to its rather ambiguous and frightful close. Read the story here at Stirring.

On "Enemies, a Love Story," by Isaac Bashevis Singer *****

Singer's novel reminded me of why I like fiction, and that is not a small feat. As I've gotten older, I've found myself more and more drawn to nonfiction. I think that is because nonfiction seems somehow more important or pertinent to me. But when I return to books for rereading, it is almost always a fictional work, not nonfiction. Why is that the case? And why does so much fiction, in my older years, fail to impress?

I think that is because a lot of contemporary fiction seems to be simply that: a story. And I want to walk away from a book with more than a story. I good book makes me think (and most nonfiction does that) or it makes me feel (some fiction does that); a truly great book makes me do both.

Singer's book was more one for thinking. But it was also great storytelling. The plot revolves around a man with three wives. The setting is post-World War II New York. Herman Broder has survived the Holocaust by hiding out in a hayloft. The woman who sheltered him--his family's former servant--is now his wife. We get the sense, as the novel continues, that Broder married her more from duty than desire (though early on this isn't necessarily as clear). Broder also has a mistress, another Holocaust survivor. This woman gets pregnant at one point and insists on marriage. Beyond that, there's Broder's former wife, who apparently did not die in the concentration camps as he had been led to believe: she's resurfaced. How Broder keeps these plates spinning is truly engaging.

But along the way, we also wrestle with what it means to exist and to have faith and to love. Interestingly, Broder's servant wife, Yadwiga, grows more religious as the novel progresses, becoming Jewish (giving up Catholicism). This, at times, even infects Broder, who wishes to return to his faith. But in a world where "all the good Jews" were killed (that is, the ones faithful to Torah and their beliefs), faith in God no longer seems to make much sense. Try as Broder might, he can't bring himself any longer to do what is right.

Of course, Broder was never a saint to begin with. He treated his first wife awful and took little concern in his family. So in a sense, we also are watching a man trying to reform--and failing--which is itself rather fascinating and sad. Also amazing is to see how these three women--and how much these three women--love this man, even at great cost to themselves. Unable to choose, Broder contributes to the ruin of each of their lives.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

On "The Divorce Party" by Deenah Vollmer (713 words) ****

All the old cliches are here but made new because in Vollmer's world, the reception occurs when the marriage is over rather than when it begins. It's a strange way to look at a relationship--or the end of one. And certainly, I suppose, there may be some truth to it, the idea of new beginnings mixed with that tinge of sadness at the end of other things. One will miss marriage as one misses singlehood. If only our lives didn't become so entwined that such splits weren't more angst driven. But then again, among those who have been married six times (as with a person I recently met), maybe one gets used to such things. Read the story here at Volume 1 Brooklyn.