Saturday, November 30, 2013

On "How to Spend a Cul-de-sac Summer" by Jaime Netzer (822 words) ***

I've been seeing more and more often stories as sets of instructions. Here's one that combines the instructions with a tale of innocence lost. What I like about this piece is how subtly that innocence is lost. There's this craving to do wrong but also a craving to do right by mom's commands. Slowly, the main character moves further and further from mom toward the inevitable. Read the story here at Twelve Stories.

On "Blowout in the Gulf" by William R. Freudenburg and Robert Gramling *****

Ostensibly about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, this book proved to be much more. Sure, the first two chapters discuss the goings-on during the blowout and its immediate aftermath, and the last chapter discusses steps that can be taken to minimize the chances that such disasters happen again in the future, but in between are more than one hundred pages about the history of the oil industry. Having read Stephen Coll's book about Exxon just a short while ago, that one focusing mostly on Exxon from 1989 to 2010, I found this text much more reader friendly to a person less informed about the industry.

I found particularly interesting the discussion of how the petroleum industry came to be. Oil, which occasionally seeped up from various spots on the globe, was typically used for things like pitch, but it wasn't really used for energy consumption until the whale industry began to have problems providing enough in terms of supply for the world market. Looking for a means to find oil without killing ever-decreasing numbers of whales, one man hit upon the idea of using petroleum. Then, someone else, thought about the idea of drilling for oil, once oil seeps seemed to be exhausted.

There is also, in the book, an extensive discussion of oil technology--just how drilling works and what a blowout preventer is. That part was in some ways rather dull, and while written for a lay reader, still a bit technical for my tastes. Still, knowing just how that process works was useful to know.

Much of the text is given over to the idea of energy independence, which the authors think is a political promise without any substance. The United States began exporting more oil than it imports in 1971, and we are not going back (although there is no discussion of fracking, which offers, I suppose, possibilities for energy independence that we didn't have even a few years ago). What the authors are clear about is that oil is a finite resource and eventually, whether thirty years from now or one hundred (depending on what new technologies and discoveries might arise), we're going to have to deal with it. More drilling is not the solution; that simply leads to faster depletion. Rather, we need to find ways to conserve, and by doing that, we can avert an eventual disaster that we have control over.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On "Eyes" by Vito Racanelli (1819 words) ****

"Eyes" is the nickname of the main character, a somewhat dimwitted older man who is hired by drug dealers to look out for the cops and to occasionally beat up or intimidate people who need that sort of treatment. But despite that criminal background, "Eyes" is someone fully sympathetic in Racanelli's treatment of him, a man without a lot of other choices. I'm reminded of a few homeless people I've known who preferred the street to a shelter. Read the story here at the Center for Fiction.

Friday, November 22, 2013

On "That Whooshing Noise before the End" by Bob Thurber (1367 words) ****

So this tale transplants a French film about divorce and a couple on the verge of their own. Okay, perhaps not the most interesting premise. But now try this: the couple is already separated, as of eight hours ago. And yet, here they are at the movies together. Sounds ridiculous, but that's what makes it incredibly interesting. (I'm reminded a bit of the tales, in the recent economic crisis, of couples forced to continue living together beyond their divorce. Why bother divorcing?) Read the story here at the Center for Fiction.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On "Snowed In" by Gary Percesepe (515 words) ***

This short tale works in metaphor and language. It's a familiar metaphor, but Percesepe adapts it well. The weather outside--it's winter and stormy. Inside, there's a fight going on, or the tail end of one, and yet also there's passion. In a sense, that's what this story is all about: turmoil--emotional and physical. Read it here at Twelve Stories.

On "Amazing Dogs" by Jan Bondeson ***

This was not quite the book I was expecting. I'd read about when it first came out, but for whatever reason, the thing that stuck in my head was Nazi dogs: the relationship between the Nazis and dogs and how the Nazis used dogs for particular ends. Very little of that is in the book. The book is more about famous dogs in general. As such, it has some interesting tidbits that would likely interest a canine lover. Not a dog person myself, I found myself shrugging my shoulders at much of the material, other than when I learned something historical I hadn't known about. In that sense, studying something like the dog in history can be fascinating, as it enlightens one to various aspects of our culture that existed just a century or two ago. Also selling this book: the magnificent illustration program. The book is, in itself, gorgeous.

Bondeson splits her material up by topic, as one might expect. There were several chapters on dog intelligence and communication. Much of this I was familiar with from the psycholinguists reading list I'd plowed through a few years ago. There were tales of dogs who could count (or not--as the Clever Hans effect is often at play) and of dogs who could supposedly communicate in various ways. Most interesting were those that managed, somehow, to say a few words of human vocabulary. This would be very unusual and difficult, as dogs vocal cords don't really allow for such.

Another chapter discussed dog actors. Apparently, in Victorian times, there was a liking for dog plays for a short while. Many times, the real fun of the play, however, was seeing how the dog would mess the play up, as dogs do tend to do as they want at times.

Another chapter focused on dogs that traveled by themselves. This is not something we see much of today: dogs on public transport just because they want to be. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of my friend Al's dog Max and how that dog sometimes would manage to get out and wander around the neighborhood for an afternoon. Al denoted how interesting it could be when Max got back, as sometimes Max would have ornaments from his travels, be it pizza crust or whatever.

Dogs have had various uses in days gone by that we don't see much of anymore. They've been used, for example, to collect money for the poor. (People were more inclined to give money to a collecting dog than a human. But not unlike some less-than-trustful humans, some dogs had a way of spending their earnings rather than bringing them back to the charity where they belonged.) Other dogs were used to turn roasts on a fire (turnspit dogs, they were called, a breed all but gone now). This job sounded incredibly horrid and the dogs terribly maltreated. Still other dogs were used to churn butter.

Bondeson then turned her attention to a few specific breeds, one bred to swim well and the other to rescue folks. This latter we know as the Saint Bernard, but the famed cask around its neck is mostly legend.

Of particular interest was a chapter on rat pits. A great sport was made for a while in the 1800s of dogs killing rats. Competitions in which a trained dog was put into a pit to attempt to kill one hundred rats faster than its counterpart dog became popular. Quite a gruesome spectacle--and one that fell out of vogue as people's sympathy with animals has grown.

And that in turn leads to Bondeson's account of a riot caused over a statue in a park dedicated to a dog who was killed in medical research. Medical students, incensed by this statue, rioted to pull this statue down. Defenders of experiments on dogs faced off against animal rights activists. This kind of love for the creatures we keep as pets, in turn, has led to a few pet cemeteries over the years, which is where Bondeson brings her book to a fitting end.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On "Why No One Writes Lyric Realism Anymore" by Kate Petersen (2827 words) ****

Not so much a story as a collection of vignettes about a hypothetical family, Petersen's short essay on the nature of our current literature is perhaps a bit tongue in cheek. Of course, nearly every literary writers writes some form of the lyric realism of her description: a family of four, dogs, cats, love stories, eating out, all the mundanities of life done up in fancy lingo. And yet, we remain fascinated. Or not. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

On "South of Hartford" by Frank Haberle (1358 words) ***

Haberle does what he does here by keeping things clean. The story starts in tragedy--or what could be tragedy--a very bad auto accident. By keeping to the details, Haberle avoids melodrama. As for lyricism, that's the stuff of dreams, and Haberle gives us a bit of that too, in its right place. Read the story here at Necessary Fiction.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

On "The Mother Thief" by Leah Erickson (4981 words) ****

I've long been a fan of stories about werewolves and vampires in theory; however, in execution, such stories don't tend to interest me much. It's more the tradition and oddity of such ideas that intrigues me, I realize, then the actual stories that come from such traditions. Erickson's "Mother Thief," however, managed to keep me focused--well into the part where we learn that Grace is mother to a werewolf. Part of what is intriguing is the realism the Erickson brings to the subject matter, and another part, I think, is that the wolf theme becomes emblematic of another part of Grace's life. Eric, her former husband, was her best friend until marriage--until she brought him into her home. And in the same way, the transformation of this child from near-human to near-wolf leaves Grace's home battered. Nature--and marriage--are glorified, but really, in the end, both are indifferent, subject merely to what we make of them. And yet, within all of this there is passion, the passion of the wolf. You can read it here at the Coachella Review or here at Jenny Mag.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

On "Killing: A Primer" by Matt Tanner (588 words) ***

This one took a couple of read. Tanner does the unspeakable here, killing off cute things. At first, I wonder, Why? I mean, it's disturbing, sure. But why focus on this moment? What exactly changes in the main character's life. And then, you realize that there's a back story here, that this event isn't something the character went looking for, and that this event is something that haunts the character. Read the piece here at Saltimbanque Review.

On "Riding with Strangers" by Elijah Wald ***

A big fan of Kerouac, especially when I was younger, I often had romantic notions of taking off on a hitchhiking tour of the country. But I knew that I would never dare such a thing. In reality, I suppose, I'd rather drive across the country--and would have preferred that even then. There is something that scares me a bit about getting into cars with strangers and also makes me feel a bit of an imposition. I'd have been more likely to hop a freight, had it been legal and halfway safe.

Nevertheless, I think I had higher hopes for this book than it could manage to deliver. It reminded me a bit of a book I own called Zen Driving. It's slick, written very clearly for a trade audience, and it delivers on that count. But I think sometimes trade books can be a bit too slick, such that they seem almost formulaic and glib, as if some editor went through and removed from it the interesting points of personality and made everything safe.

Which is not to say that Riding with Strangers is a bad book. I enjoyed it. It was a quick read. But I didn't find it very inspiring, and it's best sections--about the history and culture of hitching--were short and gathered in the middle of the narrative.

The book runs like this. Wald decides to hitchhike across the country, from his home in Boston to friends in Seattle. Over forty, he's done such trips many times. We get to go along for the ride, meeting his various compatriots, people who give him rides. We find out that hitching is much quicker than we might expect; he's rarely stuck anywhere for more than a couple of hours, and as he puts it, he gets across the country faster and more comfortably than he would on a bus.

In one of the more interesting asides, he discusses the ethnicity of those who give him rides. He notes that the ethnicities have become more varied in the past decade, that one can see the changing nature of the country just in who proffers rides. If he's on the Interstate, it's more than likely going to be someone who is not a white native-born American (at least, it proves so on this trip, picked up as he is by a Mexican and numerous recent immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia). If it's a country road, it's more than likely going to be a WASP. He almost never is picked up by African Americans (and never by Africans). He muses that this goes back to the long history of racism in the country, as well as the nature of where African Americans live (big cities). There's a notable difference when he goes South and finds that shared rides are actually more common. As he notes, as far as race goes, in the North, white people don't care if a black people get big as long as they don't get too close, but in the South it's just the opposite: white people don't mind how close they get as long as black people don't get too big. I thought it actually a very interesting observation, having grown up out West and moved to the South; I'd always felt the West more tense and racist--but less open about racism as well. This may be why

Interior chapters focus on the origin of the word "hitchhike," hitchhiking techniques, hitchhiking manners, and which types of vehicles make for the best or the most likely drives. Turns out hitching out of a large city is difficult, because most drivers are in a rush and aren't going far and don't want to stop. It's easier to hitch on a smaller highway. Truck and rest stops make good places to scare up a ride, which often consists of just asking around. One can also position one's self at an on-ramp. Signs are dubious but sometimes helpful. Women generally have an easier time getting rides than men (no surprise there), and more than two is a crowd. Big trucks are good for rides; SUVs, however, seldom offer a lift.

Also: it's illegal to hitchhike in many states. That was perhaps the most interesting thing to me, how the writer had to dodge cops or be careful with where he tried to get a ride, and it sort of makes the prospect of hitchhiking to me even less appealing. I might well be fine asking for a ride, but if I might get harassed by a cop for doing so, such isn't going to be to my liking.