Saturday, December 28, 2013

On "Cotton" by Lydia Copeland Gwyn (266 words) *****

Copeland's so magnificent sometimes. Like another piece of hers I highlighted a few years ago, this one sings with the night (of a new love, cast against an old). I don't know that it's a story so much of a remembrance, a brilliant moment, or set of moments, impressed into the page--or the screen, since you can read it here at New World Writing.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

On "Had You Been a Believer, You'd Have Known You Were Headed for Hell" by Jessi Lee Gaylord (920 words) ***

This story bears mention for the title alone. Titles are tough, and I love it when an author can put one out there that manages to be original, totally unique, and somehow befitting the story. These are two ironists on their way to work, two people with a whole lot of smirk, and not much interest in stepping aside for others. But they're going to meet their end. Read the story here at Up the Staircase.

Friday, December 20, 2013

On "The Other Two" by Edith Wharton (7477 words) *****

Wharton's turns her attention to the life of a man who has married a twice-divorced woman. His discomfort, as it becomes clear during the early days of the marriage, with her previous husbands is hard to read about. Like most things we are handed in life, the husband learns simply to accept what has come before him--and even that these men are much better men than his wife ever let on. I have friends who are still friends with their ex-wives, who are even friends with their ex-wives' new husbands. Perhaps, our culture is slightly different now, the way that people so often remarry or even go from one boy/girlfriend to another, often dating someone a friend and acquaintance once slept with. Still, as a guy, I find myself more in tune with the man's discomfort in this story than with the seeming ease that various people I know seem to carry themselves in such situations. I suppose we all do have a tendency to make things look easy from the outside. Read Wharton's story here.

On "The Time Machine" by H. G. Wells ***

I have not read much science fiction outside of the work of Philip K. Dick, who forged a reading list of mine a couple of years ago, so I've decided to embark on a reading list of classic science fiction.

I say I haven't read much, but in fact, I actually read quite a bit of the nineteenth-century science fiction (Jules Verne particularly comes to mind) when I was a kid. Forced to read one thousand pages per quarter from a select reading list, Verne and authors like him were often my staple. Had more contemporary science fiction books been on that list (and in the school library), I'd have definitely tried them. Thing is, I loved sci-fi--mostly because of Star Wars (something I probably wouldn't find myself drawn to as much as an adult, prequels notwithstanding)--or so I thought. But the few times I've read more contemporary stuff, I've usually been disappointed. I think that's because, as with sci-fi movies, while I like philosophical ideas and intense thrills, I'm not much for action. I'm more of an Alien fan than an Aliens fan, for instance.

So the reading list this time will include mostly those twentieth-century masters I haven't ever read, and I'm hoping they'll be interesting more for their ideas than for their action and, in addition, that they'll be at least fairly decently written. (The other issue I have with much genre fiction is the degree to which authors rely on cliches, but a good author, I've found, often doesn't, meaning that when younger, I often dismissed genre fiction out of hand when I should have considered each work separately, because as I discovered when reading a mystery list about a decade ago, there are some really brilliant genre writers out there. The classics are often classics for a reason, and I was wrong to be snooty about them.

The Time Machine, however, was a bit of a disappointment. I enjoyed the first few chapters, as Wells waxed poetic on ideas about physics that I would have thought postdated him (the connection between traveling through time and traveling through space, and the dynamics of the fourth dimension), but the story got rather hokey once the narrator headed off into the grand future.

Of course, the description of future was itself a social commentary. In it, humankind had evolved into two factions: a light and a dark, a good and an evil. But while the ones who lived above ground were peace loving, they had become so appeased with easy living that they failed any longer to advance. For Wells, this seemed a dangerous proposition. We must struggle if we are to evolve (there seemed a slight critique of communism here, as if the greed of capitalism is something we should want, as opposed to the peace communism would supposedly bring). But by the same token, those below ground had descended to the lowest rungs of decency, becoming essentially cannibals, even as they continued to use machinery.

Most of the plot revolves around the narrator's time machine being stolen and him attempting to recover it so that he can get back to his own time, a familiar plot indeed, though perhaps unique in Wells's time. The book is available online here.

Monday, December 16, 2013

On "Six Easy Pieces" by Pauls Toutonghi (409 words) ***

Taoutoghi short in six parts is a collection of highlights, involving psychology and cars. Small Doggies, where I first read this piece, tended to excel at these kind of pieces, short, lyrical passages that are fun to read just because of the order and choice of the words. I like how Toutonghi fits these six pieces together. You can now read the story here at Nailed.

On "Asperger Syndrome" by Brenda Smith Myles and Richard L. Simpson **

The subtitle of this book is "A Guide for Educators and Parents," and indeed that's what it is. Basic and fairly clear, it lays out what Asperger is and how it can best be managed in the context of education and of home. But it's vary utility and scope is also it's downfall, at least for me. Academic in its approach, I found my senses largely dulled, and wide as it was in scope, I found myself less interested in vast sections written specifically to educators. Still, it was a useful introduction to the phenomenon and one that I hope I can take with me as I read further into the topic.

What exactly Asperger is is, of course, part of the difficulty. It's easy to denote that it is high-functioning autism and that it involves more often an inability to read social cues than an inability to engage with the outside world at all (there's even some experts now who claim--though not in this book--that Asperger is in fact not even an aspect of autism but a wholly separate condition involving problems in another section of the brain). But diagnosing a person with the disability is a much more difficult thing, as every person is unique, and while many symptoms are shared by those who have Asperger, not all of them always are--or are to the same degree.

The child with Asperger can be very intelligent in some ways. The difficulty is generally in being able to filter his or her social interaction with others. Most are fairly withdrawn, preferring their own world to shared activities (my girlfriend's son, however, is an extrovert and so doesn't really fit many of these tendencies). Often, they have issues with stress and an inability to cope with such stress. They prefer structure and routine to disorder and can act in negative manners when such structure is interrupted. They can think and recall in very concrete manners but have difficulty interpreting actions or applying them to everyday life. So, for example, they might be able to read a book and tell you everything that happened in it, but drawing conclusions about what the events actually mean would be a struggle. Or they might learn that it's wrong to hit someone on the playground but then fail to be able to realize that such a rule applies also in the kitchen. (I'm reminded of Temple Grandin's book Thinking in Pictures, which does a much better job of explaining how such people might think. Memory is often very strong, but unable to group things into abstract concepts, such people often have trouble processing thoughts in at timely fashion and understanding how one specific item relates to another.)

While the education sections provide many tables and practical tips with regard to how to help Asperger children understand verbal and mathematical concepts, keep schedules, and interact with students (assign helpers, use visual cues along with written ones, etc.), the most interesting chapters to me where those closer to the book's end. Chapter 4, for instance, talks of transition to adulthood, which as the book unfortunately shows is a difficult process that many such children never manage to bridge, as evidenced by the unemployment rate among those with Asperger. Not only is the stress of major change difficult for such people to handle, but also, lacking often the ability to self-regulate, such people find it difficult to place themselves into situations that require independent living.

Chapter 5 proved to me the most interesting of the chapters. It essentially was a set of case studies--stories from families with children who have been diagnosed with Asperger. What is clear is that all of these children were very loved but that the disability definitely drained the resources of the parents and siblings and teachers. Many times this was because the diagnosis was arrived at only later in life. The first tale seemed especially tragic. It involve a girl who was fine living in her own world until she began to come to a better understanding around ages 6-8 of herself identity. At that point, unable to properly deal with others and friendless as a result, she began to act out in self-destructive ways that brought her attention and concern, which set up a repeating cycle of more and more dangerous acts and claims. The next three stories were luckily not quite as dour. In each, the family forged a plan and had a certain degree of outside help in terms of therapy for the child. The biggest challenge, it seemed, for one of these families was balancing the needs of their Asperger kid with those of the other children. In this case, they had to specifically set out time for the other children so that the one child didn't completely hog every bit of that time. Furthermore, having a person with Asperger syndrome in the family sometimes meant that even the siblings had trouble making friends, since other children didn't want to deal with the child with the disability. In each case, the degree of difficulty seemed to vary as well, with some children making seeming progress and others likely to continue on a course similar to that which they are on for the rest of their life.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

On "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen (9113 words) ****

Not quite the Disney cartoon--but would one have seriously expected that--this is no happy tale, except maybe in some kind of heavenly salvation sort of way. The youngest mermaid in the family awaits the day she can go to the surface, and the day that she does, she witnesses a shipwreck and saves a prince, with whom she falls in love (and unbeknownst to her, so too does the prince). To become human and seduce the prince, she has to sell her voice to the merwitch (a voice she can reclaim, along with a soul, if the prince falls in love with her; if he takes another woman, however, she will die on the spot). Without a voice, she's incapable of expressing her love or her identity to the prince, who finds her beautiful but, who in a case of mistaken identity, settles on another woman. Oh, there's a bit more, and of course there's Andersen's brilliant set of descriptions as well, which you can read here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On "Wutown" by Alia Volz (2091 words) ****

This story reminds me a bit of the work of Daniel Orozco. Like Orozco's often absurdist fiction, Volz sculpts a tale from a seeming log. Unlike Orozco's story "Officers Weep," which places love in the context of a police report, Volz's story focuses on the work itself--only, it's not police work. It's meter man work. Officer Wu is on a mission. He's the old stalwart, motivating the young meter people to do their best, to write out as many citations as possible--and he's also, unfortunately, on his way out. Retirement won't come easily for Wu. He's going to keep writing tickets until someone chains him up and locks him away. The mix of serious tone with seemingly trivial work makes this piece shine. Read the story here at Defenestration.

On "Keys to Successful Step-Fathering" by Carl E. Pickhardt ***

This is a basic primer on stepfathering, denoting a number of issues that stepfathers are likely to encounter. Its very simplicity made it a bit less than surprising. I can't say that I learned much from it. However, it is a good basic reminder of the issues and feelings that stepfathers face.

For example, the author begins by focusing on how such fathers necessarily feel about entering a marriage that involves this responsibility. It's perfectly normal, Pickhardt assures such men, to feel ambivalent. On one hand, stepparenting is a great opportunity that can bring much joy to all parties involved, but on another, the children are a constant distraction from the relationship one is trying to forge with one's spouse. There are ambivalencies on the part of the children as well, who might compare the new dad to the old or view the new one as an invader of sorts. Pickhardt says that feeling out the new roles in a family take time, and that as long as everyone is "just getting along" then that's good enough.

He denotes advantages of being a stepfather to a son and to a daughter, as well as the disadvantages to each, provides various strategies for dealing with conflict, establishing authority, dealing with discipline, and so on.

As a straight read, most of the book came off as common-sense information. However, I could see its use as something to dip in and out of when situations present themselves. Sometimes, we need refreshers, even with common sense.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

On "The Tavern Wench of Venice" by Molly N. Moss (2713 words) ***

Leona is in search for a recipe and knowledge. What exactly makes the ravioli at the Flaming Chalice so good? The answer proves to be more than she would have ever planned on, more in the sense of being death-threateningly dangerous. I'm not a huge fan of fantasy fiction, but this one manages to break the mold in a way I'd not seen before. Read the story here at Silver Blade.