Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On "97 Sketches of the Same Naked Man" by Matthew Olzmann (877 words) ***

This piece is pretty much what one expects: descriptions of a naked man. But it is the essayistic thought behind the work that makes Olzmann's tale shine, the way that he mimics that thought in the artwork itself. The naked man is dead, and as such, what does his life amount to? What of these works of art? How much do each of us leave undone when we depart without warning? Read the tale here at Twelve Stories.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On "Dracula in Six Movements" by Megan Giddings (1023 words) ****

Here's a clever take on an old tale. I haven't read many works about vampires, but those I have read have obviously paid much homage to certain gothic elements. Giddings work doesn't have that feel, however. Dracula here is caught up in the pop cultural milieu, in fact his own image within the milieu: he looks at himself in the mirror, he thinks of movies he's figured in, he worries over the letters he sends. His life--and his dreams--aren't all that different from ours. He wants to impress the woman he's in love with. Read the story here at Knee-Jerk.

On "Not Just Roommates" by Elizabeth H. Pleck ***

Pleck wants cohabitors to have the same rights (and arguably obligations) as married folk. As she sees it, this is one of the last lines of civil rights that has not been fully fixed in the legal and government realm. Morality should have nothing to do with the law.

Many of these observations seem absurd to me. Why even have marriage if cohabitors have all the same rights (and obligations)? And what is the law other than our codified sense of morality?

The book is engaging, however, as an exploration of the history of cohabitation and of changing community standards. Sadly, laws against cohabitation have often been put in place or enforced, not primarily because they were meant to uphold marriage (the general excuse), but because they helped to foster other less worthy societal goals. For example, community officials, at various points in history, have "dropped in on" women who were on welfare. If a man was found living with the woman (or even if it was only suspected, because she had a boyfriend of sorts, live-in or not), then she was booted off the welfare roles, saving the government money. The object here was to save money rather than to actually help families. Likewise, cohabitation laws have also been used at times to prevent interracial relationships. Finding it illegal to marry, interracial couples also found it illegal to forge a live-in relationship outside of marriage. In other words, just plain illegal.

The latter is an issue that affects the gay and lesbian community now. And Pleck's chapter on that is rather fascinating from a legal standpoint. In times past, many gays and lesbians called into question the whole culture of marriage, seeing it as limiting to sexual freedom and as indoctrinating as to an old patriarchal view of society. However, gays and lesbians also found themselves out of luck when it comes to many of the rights granted to married couples (shared health insurance being a big one, various inheritance and estate issues as well), so a vast segment pushed to have those rights accorded to themselves also. Some communities reacted with domestic partnership laws that have benefited live-in romantic partners as well. But a domestic partnership isn't always recognized with the same legal force as marriage, and the difference--even in name--suggests that one form of relationship is more legitimate than another. Hence, a community that has often called into question the value of marriage ironically also has ended up pushing for the right to have marriage extended to itself.

Which gets back to the question of why accord the same rights and obligations to people living together as to those who marry? Why live together rather than marry, if all the same rules apply? And vice versa? Is it the government's job to encourage marriage or to be involved in the marriage business at all?

I can see where an argument can be made for simply letting every person, married or not, have the same tax benefits, visitation benefits, health-care benefits, be it that the partner is a spouse or not. But why stop there? Why not "just roommates"? After all, how fair is it to extend such rights to people who are in love versus to those of us--me for most of my life--who have not managed to find such love but who might have another person who might benefit from the same legal amenities?

In this case, maybe marriage should be left to our religious and other institutions. Attach no government policy to such a status whatsoever. After all, our government has made a mockery of it anyway, the way that couples can forge and unforge such pacts with such ease such that marriage often isn't any more than a contractual agreement to live together for a time anyway.

But then again, government does have a role to play in encouraging behaviors that contribute to the stabilization of society, and I would argue that marriage, when implemented in a proper way, does just that. Yes, children are resilient, as Pleck argues in the first chapter, but a child raised in the stable home of a married couple is generally going to end up having an easier go at adult life than one who is bounced from home to home, single parent to stepparent to single parent. In the end, on a social dynamic sphere, the institution of marriage is about the kids (more than the couple).

Friday, October 25, 2013

On "What Do We Have in Our Pockets?" by Etgar Keret (521 words) ***

Not sure this counts as a story. It's more a thought piece, a question posed and answered. The rising arc in this case is one not of conflict, climax, and resolution but of mystery posed and mystery answered. But it's a form that can work just as well for flash or even for many a work of fiction. Keret here asks us to meditate on the contents of his pocket, on why he carries so much about. Alas, I carry most of these things myself, but not for the same reason, and unfortunately, in my forty-plus years, I've never had the kind of opportunity Keret's narrator dreams of having. Read the story here at Failbetter.

Monday, October 21, 2013

On "Canada" by Laura Breitenbeck (1580 words) ****

The old cliche is that women like bad boys. And certainly, in this short tale, that seems the case. Bad boys--and the nation of Canada--become the place of dream and imagination to a girl bored by her comparatively safe surroundings. We want what we don't--and what we can't--have. Read the story here at Superstition Review.

On “Daring Wives” by Frances Cohen Praver ***

This book discusses why women cheat on their husbands, using mostly cases studies arranged by type of household (stay-at-home wives, working wives, older women with younger men, remarriages, same-sex affairs, and sexually hungry wives). I read the book mostly because I was curious as to why women cheated but also to see what sort of men their husbands were. I found myself identifying with the men in the stay-at-home section of the book but not with the men in the rest of the book.

The two husbands in the case study in the stay-at-home section could be described this way. The first one was a hard worker who supplied for his wife materially, but he was not very passionate. The second husband was one who was not very motivated to improve his life but who on the whole was a morally stand-up guy. In both cases, the wives found their husbands boring and wanted more from them in terms of passion. In the first case, the wife resented the fun and adventure her husband got to have at work while she stayed at home and took care of the house; he'd come home tired and not want to entertain her. In the second case, the wife pushed the husband to better and better jobs. She got off on the power this made her feel, but such also caused her to lose respect for her husband. The first woman had an affair with a man who she felt appreciated her more, especially physically. The second had an affair with a classic bad boy, a man into the drug culture who lived on the edge. What I learned is that if I were to ever marry, I do need to pay attention to my wife's need to feel desired--not something I would necessarily be very good at, I've learned, since I may not always be in the mood to “desire.” I also need to remain motivated to keep improving myself, but outside of that, I don't know that I could do much to prevent something like the second situation.

The other sections of the book either focused more on the women and their personal problems or presented husbands that were very unlike me: controlling, domineering, angry, and so on. In most cases, as the author brings out, the women were looking for something missing in their marriage, not necessarily or primarily sex. Even in the case of the women who wanted sex that their husbands couldn't or wouldn't provide, the route cause of this generally came from some need to feel heavily wanted or to avoid feeling inferior and so on.

While I enjoyed the case studies quite a bit, I don't think my views align with the author's at all in terms of morality. She stresses throughout that extramarital affairs are not a sin, and that women should not be shamed into thinking such. We all need to find what fulfills ourselves. This whole idea runs contrary to how I would say our society should be structured. If sin is breaking a law, and law is ultimately about showing love to our neighbor (as well as to ourselves), then sin is a breaking of love. All's well and fine, I suppose, to go off and have an affair to fill your own needs if that's all you care about, but marriages are about supplying for your spouse and family, and if we can't do that, then there is something desperately wrong. Extramarital relations damage that ability to supply love. A better way to seek such fulfillment is to find a way to communicate those needs to those around us, without resorting to hurting them.

And while the author seems bent on saying there is no sin, it's interesting that she'll use loaded vocabulary in places to describe certain kinds of actions or people. Women were once in the “cruel clutches” of doctors, for example, who tried to cure them of being overly sexual. If there is no morality, then there is not cruelty. There is only action and reaction. Of course, the author doesn't really mean that there is no morality, as becomes plain in her conclusion, wherein she spells out a new morality based on women's needs and a more egalitarian sense of power within marriage. All well and fine, but that means that there is such a thing as right and wrong, good and bad--and sin. The issue I have with “new morality” is that it often throws out the “old morality” because of some twisted ideas that got connected to it (e.g., women's inferiority), when in fact the morality as a whole (putting others' needs before our own) makes a lot of sense.

So while I value the book for its specific examples, I can't say I came away feeling like we're moving to a better place, when an academic is telling us to simply do what feels good no matter what those actions do to others.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

On "Vox Staccato and the Eight-Bit Mafia" by Garnett Elliott (4201 words) ***

This story is pure pulp, but it's written with the flair of pulp masters, and that's why I'm featuring it here. The tale is about one Travis, a man sent to fix video game developers, keep products coming to market at the appropriate time. Alas, his job is supposed to be more genteel than he was aware of, and for that, some consequences are about to be paid. Read the story here at ThugLit.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

On "Scold" by Arthur Diamond (6334 words) ****

Diamond's "Scold" works off a set of stereotypes--or rather, it begins there and asks us to think about them in the context of religion. Rabbi Barsimson, along with a black nurse, helps an Asian lady who falls down one day in the street. The black nurse makes a series of comments about Jews that essentially places the rabbi into a set of typically Jewish distinctives he doesn't fit. The story shifts here to the rabbi's congregation, which is selecting a new rabbi--one who is a lesbian who uses puppetry as part of her sermons. The older members in the congregation have no interest in such a rabbi; the younger ones, however, support her. Barsimson seems both supportive and dismissive of the new way--he knows that he can't change what's coming, but he recognizes that it must be accepted, just like the fact that the congregation itself will likely dissolve in the next year, replaced with a mosque (unbeknownst to most of the lay people). The key, perhaps, is to stick together, to help one another, Barsimson seems to hint, but he never quite manages to articulate it other than with the bloodstains that still rest on his pants. Read the story here at Ascent.

On "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera *****

I've intended--wanted--to read this book for a long while. Somehow, I managed to make it to four other books by Milan Kundera over the past couple of decades before I got to this one. I put off, for a long while, seeing the movie, in part because I didn't want the movie running through my head or ruining the "what happens next?" element of the novel.

And then, I gave in, watched the movie. I feared I'd probably ruined the book. And in a few ways, arguably, I may have. When Tereza and Tomas and Sabina wander into the pages, I end up with the movie actors in my head rather than Kundera's prose (although he doesn't give long physical descriptions of most of them, so at least the film doesn't completely obliterate the actual facts of the book). But in most ways, the film had no bearing at all on how I felt about the book. For one, the book isn't chronological, while the film is. This made for some interesting reading, despite having seen the film, examining the cyclical structure, how Kundera returns several times to events from alternate points of view--and then realizing how the filmmaker would have had to put all of this in "order."

Second, this is Kundera writing, and how could I have thought the movie could even come close to exhausting the book? The thing about Kundera--and I write this in regard to his novels (I found his story collection somewhat disappointing, as well as his book on writing)--is that his work is as much philosophy as it is fiction. He proposes particular ideas, and then he works them out with his characters. In this way, he makes concrete what other philosophers fail to, and what's more, he complicates whatever he has to say in interesting ways.

A major theme of this novel is borne in its title. Kundera spends a good chunk of the text discussing the way to happiness and fulfillment. Is the better life the light one or the heavy? Happy lives are carefree--but such would mean they lack depth or great meaning, which are themselves means toward happiness. Heavy responsibilities weigh us down, take away from our ability to enjoy things, and yet, they are what makes things meaningful and thus lend to our happiness. And so, which is it? Or is it some kind of combination? Or do we even get a choice of one or the other?

As Kundera points out at some point, all meaning in life is eventually robbed from us through death. I love this line: "Before we are forgotten, we will be turned into kitsch. Kitsch is the stopover between being and oblivion." The idea is that our memories, our history, is turned into some kind of silly amusement for generations that come after us, trinkets that are sold in the market; rides, restaurants, and theme parks that tourists gamble away time in. These are the means by which future generations remember us, the means by which we stick around, and they are also the means by which we are forgotten. Eventually, even the trinkets go away, and the amusements give way to things in more recent memory. (I think of the 1950s restaurants that were so popular in the 1980s. I think of the bar in town called 8Es, which already has its follow-up 9Ds. In one of the Back to the Future films, the main character goes to a 1980s-themed restaurant, which is all kitsch, as the filmmaker figures on the 1980s being remembered, as we were remembering the 1950s then.)

Tomas, a doctor in Czechoslovakia just before the Russian takeover in the 1960s, has love dropped in his apartment so to speak, when he meets a young server in a coffee shop. She comes to his apartment--as so many women do--but unlike most said women, she stays, because she gets sick. And then, she stays for the long term. Tomas continues his philandering ways, but the young woman, Tereza, stays with him. They go to Switzerland when the Russians come to Czechoslovakia. But Tereza wants to return home and does; Tomas, who has devoted his life to the heavy work of aiding sick people, decides to follow--and as a result, must give up his career, for the two of them were anti-Communist sympathizers who cannot be allowed to hold important jobs, even though such means the nation is not served by the medical talents that Tomas has. Tereza, one day, realizes that Tomas has had to give up everything for her--life in the city, his women, his career. She feels sad for him, guilty, but he says in fact that he is the happiest he has ever been. Weight? Lightness? Both? Does it matter?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On "At the Edge of the Earth" by Brandon Patterson (3896 words) ***

Patterson's tale is one of exploration, not unlike those of the 1400s and 1500s, when Europeans realized (again) that there was land beyond the sea. During that time, writers like Jonathan Swift could write fantastic tales like Gulliver's Travels and have some people believe them halfway seriously. Patterson wanders into that world through the life of John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto, as he prefers to call him. But in the realm of fantasy, the world turns out not to be a sphere but rather flat--or, to be more precise, perhaps like a cylinder, with the top flat but the rest round. The meaning of this is what makes for a tale not unlike a Twilight Zone episode. Read the story here at Prime Number.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

On "Stranger Danger" by Hadley Moore (4192 words) ****

I love Moore's "Stranger Danger" for its little observations that ring so true. Katherine is a single mom. The father, however, is kindly very involved in her son's life, as is his wife. There's a moment, toward the beginning of the story, when Katherine realizes that her boyfriend is not going to stick with her after her son's birth. "I wonder who's he'll be," he says. But that's not the most chilling detail. I find one a bit later to be so incredibly true to people who don't fit the mold of the typical American trajectory. As a single mom whose father's son is married, Katherine feels like the interloper in her own son's life, as if he has a perfect family of his own, and she's just a glorified babysitter. I love that detail because I can so identify with it, as perennial single guy among married and childed friends. I'm still the kid, the not fully adult one, even though I'm older than a lot of those around me. Because of how things came out in life, I never got to grow up. Katherine, too, feels this sad kind of halfness. I thank Moore for bringing this woman so well to life. Read the story here at Ascent.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

On "Grandeur" by John Carr Walker (3929 words) ***

Paul Bowles has a story wherein a man and a snake change consciousness. Walker's "Grandeur" reminds me a tiny bit of that story, not because two creatures exchange consciousnesses but because it is a story about transformation, about man becoming animal--in this case, bird. In the narrator's singularity of vision, it is hard to think in any other way. Read the story here at Prime Number.

On "The Happiness Myth" by Jennifer Michael Hecht ****

In this book, Hecht sets out to discuss what makes us happy and to denote how some of our ideas about what makes for a happy life may be wrong--or at least are culturally determined by the particular place and time in which we live. Once basic living needs are met, happiness generally does not go up or down depending on how much one has. Happiness can't be said to have grown over the millennia as technology has gotten more sophisticated and given us more of what we want. It is a constant. So wherein does happiness reside?

For the answer to this, she begins by looking at four philosophical perspectives--that happiness resides in finding yourself, that happiness resides in ridding yourself of desire, that happiness resides in indulging your desires, and finally that happiness resides in seizing the day (bearing in mind always that death lies just down the road).

Next she turns to four items she says can bring happiness but that our society often claims do not: drugs, money, body, and parties. Actually, society says all these things can bring happiness, but how these things are configured in that happiness quotient depend on the culture and time in which we exist--and that is closer to what Hecht appears to be claiming.

The chapters on drugs were particularly enlightening, as Hecht takes a historical perspective on the usage and nonusage of banned substances. Cocaine, for example, is banned in our own day, but into the early 1900s had been used as an elixir for those needing a bit of a pick-me-up, even among pregnant women. The coca leaf is, of course, still used among peoples in South America, chewed to make life a little sweeter. Its overuse and concentration led it to be considered dangerous--and eventually got it banned. Opium experiences a similar descent. But today, we have other drugs--prescription drugs--that can relieve our depression, no more safe if misused than some of the banned substances. Our culture in part determines what is okay and what is not. Of particular note here is a religion (I can't recall now the particular faith--perhaps Mormons) who banned alcohol and tea but who allowed the usage of a particular herb in a drink that later turned out to be a much more dangerous predecessor to our contemporary amphetamines. Likewise, she draws on an interesting study that connects religion and drug usage--showing that those who experience "highs" and transcendent experiences on a drug during a religious experience are more likely to remain devoted to that religion (the problem is that most druggies lack the discipline demanded of religion, and most faiths look down on drug usage).

The section on bodies was probably the next most interesting to me. In it, Hecht shows how various diet and exercise fads have come and gone and how certain things we see as healthful today were seen as just the opposite a century ago. Exercise, for instance, is now seen as so good that we go to gyms to work out because we don't get enough of it in our work; in the 1800s, exercise would have been seen as expending energy were are better off conserving if we wish to live long. In the end, it seems that moderation in all things is most likely to breed healthful, happy living.

I found the sections on money and parties less intriguing. The section on money largely focuses on what materialism gives and fails to give us. And the section on festivals seemed a bit dubious to me to begin with, as parties, to me, seem the essence of happy moments. That is why they are thrown. Hecht focuses on ancient Greek festivities and shows how they might be related to our human need to occasionally leave off our traditional roles.

I enjoyed this book as an historical account of how humans have viewed various fads and various ideas about how we can best be healthy and happy. It is when focusing on these details that Hecht is at her best.