Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On "The Things I Did and Did" by Mel Bosworth (511 words) ***

Bosworth captures the odd and unlikable world of the bus. A couple is traveling across country; so is another couple. One is a couple in the "romantic" sense; one is simply two kids. They spend the trip staring at one another awkwardly, trying to sneak in time for music, bathroom, sex. Read the story here at Bull.

Friday, December 26, 2014

On "Seven Points for Love" by Alexander Luft (4569 words) ****

"Seven Points for Love" uses the motif of a game of Scrabble to rehearse the events of a marriage and eventual divorce. Indeed, dating may be a game, but so is life. The point scoring comes at the end. Read the piece here at Coachella Review.

On "Total War and Social Change" edited by Arthur Marwick ***

I wanted to read a book that went into theories of total war as part of the preparation for reading best-sellers from the World War II era, and this is the one that I ended up choosing--rather haphazardly. As such, it was not perhaps as theoretical as I was hoping. Marwick uses his edited collection to try to prove points that he's made in other books of his own: that total war doesn't change social structures but rather speeds up or intensifies changes in social structures that are already in process. For the most part, each of the essays help to support Marwick's point in some manner.

None of the essays focus on the United States, the focus of my reading list, but then arguably the United States did not engage in total war, at least if one is to consider the destruction rendered on the society at home. But I tend to think of total war not only in those terms but in terms that involve the community's entirety of resources. In that sense, the image that has often been presented to me of World War II in the United States is that the country was entirely mobilized, even if actual fighting on its shores was close to nill--whole industries were still turned over to the war effort. In this book, the focus is rather World War I France, Britain, and Germany and World War II USSR, Germany, France, and Britain.

The very first essay in this book, however, ironically, seems mostly to try to debunk Marwick's general thesis. There, the author argues that contrary to popular belief, World War I did not greatly change women's roles in France; if anything, it re-emphasized women's domestic roles, and any work pushed on women outside the home was a temporal abnormality of the war. (If any changes came about, he notes, it was simply in morality, as women, free to move about, became less prone to stay faithful to their husbands and families.)

Alistair Reid, writing of World War I Britain, does quite the opposite, restating essentially in his thesis what Marwick has denoted as the social consequence of total war--that World War I sped up social changes in Britain that were already in the process of becoming. That said, he too sees little permanent change to women's roles in the workforce. Rather, he states that the war increased the power of the lower classes and helped to equalize wages. However, in a seeming contrast to his overall point, the Great Depression following the war reversed all these gains.

The article on Germany in World War I shows how heavy industry became much more important at the cost of small business owners. In addition, farmers became better off because of food shortages. Changes in economic structure (including the loss of farming income following the war) contributed to the rise of the Nazis.

For the USSR, World War II helped to solidify Stalin's and the communists' grip on power while failing to transform the society in real terms. In other words, the USSR became more totalitarian. (Interestingly, there was an increase in the number of party members but the politically powerful members remained those who had come to age during the revolutionary times rather than later.)

In perhaps the most interesting essay to me, Mark Roseman shows how the Nazis in World War II Germany did their utmost to keep the civilian population from feeling the effects of war--and largely succeeded until fairly late in the war. This was in large respect because the Nazis did not feel that they had a sufficient grip on power to ask for greater sacrifice from the German people. (It kind of reminded me of how the United States fought its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--borrowing the money rather than raising taxes and generally paying little comparative attention to these events in the popular culture. Our lives go on as normal.) Many of the social changes wrought by the Nazis--namely the weakening of class identities--actually lived into and set up the democratic government that was to follow (and in fact many of the powerbrokers were former Weimar Republic and Nazi officials).

World War II in France ultimately merely accentuated changes already taking place, placing the state more centrally in individuals' lives (even if different factions during the war, because of France's defeat, might well have torn it apart). And for British women, World War II did not significantly change their roles at home, but what it did do was lead more older married women into the workforce permanently as part-time lower-paid workers.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

On "How to Talk to Children About Death" by Andrew Roe (1060 words) ***

The title pretty much says everything here. Roe explores the difficulties of explaining what death is and what happens after it to someone just coming onto the scene in terms of life. I remember, as a four- or five-year-old, one time in the bathroom telling my mom I didn't want to die. I obviously was thinking about it too. It scared me. Now, older, I think I'm more scared about how I die and what I leave behind--not that I still don't want to die. Read the story here at Fwriction.

On “The Civilian in War” edited by Jeremy Noakes ***

This edited collection discusses the civilian during World War II in eight countries--Britain, Germany, the USSR, the United States, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and France. As is typical of collections by different writers, the quality and scope is a bit uneven, and the whole doesn’t quite hang together. Still, there’s a lot to think about here.

In the introduction to the volume, the editor discusses some key differences between World Wars I and II. The former reaped havoc on some nations, sparking revolution (most notably in the USSR), while strangely, the latter in fact seemed mostly to inspire national unity. Why the difference? The editor makes a point that it had to do with morale, and each nation, conscious of problems created in the First World War did its utmost to keep the morale of the citizenry high. And strangely, though the Second World War involved more civilian casualties (it was, in fact, even more of a “total war”), citizens didn’t by and large react against their governments. Rather, they worked for their governments.

This focus on morale is sustained throughout the earlier essays in the collection and then seems to fall away as one proceeds through the book. Britain, the first nation covered, kept morale high through fuller employment, increased wages, maintaining food supply, providing entertainment, and keeping hope alive. The same could be said for the United States to a large extent, though its experience was markedly different, since its citizens bore so little of the war’s violence directly. That essay instead focuses on how, despite this, the war changed social circumstances in America, leading to the changes in civil rights and women’s rights that would rock the country in the years after the war.

Germany’s citizenry felt the war very directly. There, the government maintained conditions that were relatively good for Germans but poor for most others. Basing its laws on the idea that the Germans were the supreme race, all other ethnic groups suffered from poorer working conditions and smaller rations, in descending order depending on how inferior a given race was. Labor shortages throughout the war meant that Germany was constantly have to import or enslave foreignors.

Views of Russian citizenry are somewhat hard to come by, but in general the USSR too suffered from various shortages of food and material, as it lost land to the Germans and as the government attempted to take more from its farmers, whose yields actually decreased during the conflict (especially as men were drafted into the army). Regulations regarding the church and other pre-Soviet national traditions were relaxed in part to help instill more desire to fight for the nation (whereas before the communist regime would have put the kabash on such things). Stalin was elevated to heroic status and consolidated power via the war.

Japan’s citizenry was largely kept in the dark about the war by the state media. While young men were trained from school age in a national militaristic agenda and people were told that all was well abroad, the common person felt the effects of the war through various shortages and eventually bombing.

Italy’s position is unique in that its citizens ended up split between the Allies and the Axis. Having never really united as a country, it sort of fell apart into regions and civil war. In this sense, Italy’s experience of World War II would seem to me to be more like many national experiences of World War I.

The Netherlands fell quickly and early, surprised to be attacked, having stayed out of the First World War as neutral and intending to do so throughout the Second. As one of Hitler’s “superior” races, the Dutch were treated better than many other conquered nations--but as shortages began to manifest themselves later in the war, the Dutch suffered first, since resources were held for German needs. Many Dutch, drafted into the German labor pool, opted to go into hiding or find other ways to avoid laboring for Germany. They turned out not to be so compliant as Hitler had expected.

The Poles were the exact opposite on Hitler’s scale of ethnicities, and Hitler essentially desired to wipe them off the map. In addition, Polish citizens experienced three different types of war--as part of a formally adopted portion of Germany, as a remnant of Poland controlled by Germany, and as a formally adopted part of the USSR. In all cases, though to differing extents, the Poles had to maintain their culture in secret, as they found their language and so on banned.

The article on France was a strange fit for this book, as it focused mostly on women during war--and the fact that women were encouraged to do their part for the war domestically but not much in terms of taking an active military role.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On "So Then Pam Wakes Up and Bobby's in the Shower, Acting Like Nothing Happened" by Emily Koon (442 words) ***

One has to like this story if only for the title. I love how it spools out to a story of its own, one that one recognizes once one's into the narrative itself if one is of a certain age. The tale here is one of laziness and expectation and desire, the way that we can fall into a rut and how that can wear away at the people around us. I'm reminded a bit of Raymond Carver's work, only here the scale is even much smaller--but similar characters. You can read the story here at Fwriction.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On "A Negative Number" by Rochelle Germond (1282 words) ****

Here's a clever story about obsession, in this case about weight and food. The goodness here is in the telling, which isn't much unlike the title. Read it here at Coachella Review.

On “Human Smoke” by Nicholson Baker *****

There are so many ways to approach this book that I’m not sure where to begin. Maddening, discouraging, intriguing--Baker’s book is a history of World War II, a collection of historical vignettes, and a careful selection of facts such that the war is viewed in ways that Americans are not used to seeing it in.

On one level, and this is really, I think, Baker’s main task, it is a history of passivism in the face of war. In this sense, it is a unique take on the Good War, since our usual view is on that of the supposed heroes. Here, the heroes are those who refused to go to war in the first place, and those who pushed for negotiation and compromise come off looking much more intelligent and kind than those who put up defenses and forced military action. As such, Britain’s prime minister Chamberlain, who famously signed away parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler seems somehow more heroic than Winston Churchill, who stood up to Hitler. And indeed, placed in chronological order, with a focus on avoiding war, Chamberlain does seem the more reasonable character. Churchill comes off perhaps worse than Hitler himself in Baker’s text--belligerent, petty, desirous of killing as many civilians (particularly Germans) as possible. As Baker brings out, it was Churchill who started the aerial bombing of Germany before Germany started bombing England. (That said, Germany's earlier bombing of Poland is virtually ignored. An interesting side note: bombing campaigns, thought to lower civilian morale, appear to have done just the opposite--the more people were bombed, the more citizens wanted revenge and thus for their own armies to bomb the other nation. Bombing of others actually "raised" morale. Vengeance begets more vengeance.)

Likewise here also, Roosevelt comes off as someone not quite so wonderful either. While milder than Churchill, Baker shows that Roosevelt wanted the war and was doing very much what he could to stir up the embers of hate with Germany and Japan: supplying war materials to Britain and Russia, building up a larger and larger peacetime army as 1941 neared, placing ships in Hawaii to keep them closer to Japan, exploring the possibility of bombing Japanese cities (even though the United States was not at war with Japan yet) from China and elsewhere, cutting off gasoline and other necessities to the Japanese. Several times, Roosevelt is noted as saying that he can’t fire the first shot (due to election pledges) but that he can try to force the other’s hand.

I suspect Germany and Russia come off in a slightly lighter light than usual because the main sources of material were in the English language (especially the New York Times). Russia’s treatment seems scant, given how many died there and how it treated its own people in addition to the Germans. Germany, because of its treatment of the Jewish people, obviously still looks like a horrible belligerent. And yet, over and over, the idea of moving Jews out of Germany (rather than killing them) is posited, but no one wants them (save for the Dominican Republic, looking to whiten its population)--not England, not the United States. Britain does its best to keep more Jews from moving to Israel, and Madagascar is proposed as a good locale, save that the British blockade keeps many a ship from getting out of European waters.

And while Baker’s point, that if everyone refused to fight, there would not be--could not be--a war, is clear, the kind of short shift that some of the causes of Britain’s belligerence get seems a bit unfair. Yes, history is written by the victors, and so we rarely see some of the causes of German and Japanese irritation in such detail as we see here, but the fact that Hitler repeatedly broke promises (to take over only part of Czechoslovakia, to not attack Russia, etc.), rather undermined the repeated efforts, once the war started, toward various peace accords, for peace in part depends on trust.

Still, one comes away from the whole with a sick feeling, knowing the utter devastation and the number of lives taken, many in utterly cruel forms, in the name of various national honors, of money, of politics. There is, one could posit, never enough reason to kill another human being.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

On "Dinner Conversation" by Christian Aguiar (233 words) ***

This is one of those stories where you only see the top of the iceberg until the end, one of those stories with the fighting couple, and the mystery. So much depends on what we don't know until the end. You can read it here at Boston Literary Magazine.

Monday, December 1, 2014

On "The Uninvited" by Kristine Ong Muslim (411 words) ***

Muslim's four-hundred-word descent into madness and revenge might demand a second or third reading--it did so from me. But it's compelling enough that you might well be up for such. Let's just say that this is a horror story I wouldn't want to be part of--and it's something I'd generally avoid seeing on film. Read the piece here at Flywheel.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

On "The Second Four" by Mel Bosworth (237 words) ***

Bosworth's tale combines elements of a popular joke beginning with the not-so-familiar experience of being witness to something shameful and not knowing what to do about, not even being able to talk about it. It's this odd juxtaposition that makes the piece captivating. Read it here at Flywheel.

On "The Second World War" by John Keegan ****

I'm starting of a list of best sellers of the World War II era with several books of history about the war, before I launch into the actual best sellers. The idea is to look at how a "total war" might impact the kinds of books that sell and that people read during it. It seems to me like here in the United States, during my life, even when we are at war, the entertainment industry goes along as always and whatever war we're fighting is almost just background. Could the same be said of World War II, one of the most all-out wars that this nation has fought, where every resource, it seemed, was devoted to victory in Europe and Japan?

Keegan's book is a useful and largely traditionalist account of and introduction to World War II (he tends to discount revisionists who might claim that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened or that Truman wanted so badly to test the nuclear bomb that he ignored any possibility that the Japanese might surrender before it was dropped, etc., and discounting such claims seems a wise thing to do in a book that aims to tell a basic but thorough history).

Keegan starts by discussing the causes of the war, going back to the days before the first world war, showing how industrialization, conscription, and even democracy changed the way in which war was waged. Healthier people meant there were more young men to fight--and to die--as population in Europe exploded. Industrialization meant that the means and capacity to make weapons was greatly enhanced (indeed, many weapons, prior to the atomic bomb, were thought to be the weapon that would, in a sense, end war-making ability of nations, since there seemed no good defense against it, be it a gun or a tank--but each time, defensive weapons and strategies have been found, and war has continued, with even more bloody results). More-productive economies meant there was more surplus to spend on war and on weapons. Conscription meant that populations could demand a greater voice in governance; and, to reverse the idea, the vote meant that populations shared the blame for government war-making decisions and took part in them, and the general idea of the equality of men meant that armies too became equalizing forces (no longer was the army the realm of nobles alone). Indeed, the mechanization of war also replaced the strong man as the greatest fighter with the smart man as the greatest--the one who could come up with the best new weapons systems.

What also emerges from the book is the incredible toll that the war took on various nations, particularly Russia, Poland, Germany, and Japan. The reasons for the war are also explored. Hitler, it seems, was in large part out for revenge, which seems a terrible way to run a nation. He was also after greater resources (one reason to invade the USSR). Japan, too, was after resources. There, the Japanese felt hamstrung by the United States because of its various economic policies, which aimed to aid China and which punished Japan for its takeover of Chinese land and other parts of the Asian Pacific. It was the removal of the United States from this sphere that was Japan's goal--and the economic profits it would reap.

In both the cases of Japan and the Germany, it seems to me as if the steps toward war were ill thought out, seeing as they had far fewer resources on which to draw. Hitler thought Britain could be worn down to side with him; he thought the USSR could be crippled by his swift action. Japan thought the United States could be pushed off as well. But the USSR and the United States both had resources far beyond the Axis powers. The USSR moved its factories out of Germany's way and thus continued to build tanks and bombs even after Germany had marched nearly to Moscow. The United States, although having a paltry navy at the start of the war that was fairly well damaged at Pearl Harbor, had great capacity to catch up quickly.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had points where the war could have taken a turn for the significantly worse, but I tend to think that such would have merely prolonged the war rather than shifted the winning side. One great fortuitous happening for the United States happened at Midway Island. Had Japan successfully managed to sink the U.S. fleet there, the United States would have had significant difficult mounting a counterattack, as its foothold in the Pacific would have been compromised. Likewise, had Hitler not insisted on holding on to Stalingrad so long, the German army might not have taken on so many losses in Russia. But really, it seems to me that had Germany not attacked Russia and had Japan not attacked the United States, Britain would have fallen (indeed, Britain likely would have fallen had the United States not entered the war), and the world would be much different today.

Interesting chapters in this book deal with strategic dilemmas of individual leaders. What also emerges is a view of each leader, three of whom were very invested in military matters. Roosevelt, by contrast, let his military men do most of the work and make most of the decisions--and even seemed to have a kind of distaste for war (an irony, since Hitler thought Roosevelt the reason the United States had gone to war--that is, that the people themselves had little stomach for it).

In the end, Keegan denotes that the war's terrible consequences may have discouraged large-scale war from ever happening again. I tend to think that is highly optimistic.

Friday, November 21, 2014

On "Mix Tape" by Elisha Wagman (ca. 7300 words) ***

When I was in high school, at dances, I would tell the gal I was dancing with what a particular song reminded me of--even at that time, even when the songs were current. This one reminds me of Star Search, because that's where I first heard it. Wagman's music and memory connection is a bit more meaningful than my own. The story is a collection of memories attached to songs, but what makes it such a heartfelt read is knowing exactly why these songs are being chosen for this mix tape. Jasmine is a girl dying of a disease, who knows she's dying, and whose final act--or close to final--is creating a mix tape for the single mother she's leaving behind. Read the story here on page 30 of Fiction Fix.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On "Dante and the Lobster" by Samuel Beckett (4325 words) ***

I've only read a couple of plays by Samuel Beckett. It is said that of his dramas, the real joy is in watching the performance. Unfortunately, the portion of one performance of Waiting for Godot that I saw took a more somber view of the play, and the whole was rendered incredibly tiresome. Indeed, such could easily be the case with much of Beckett's work, for so much of it is about the tiresomeness of existence, the struggle to find meaning in a life that wanders by us. Here a man goes out to buy lobster for a meal. In the course he has a bit of toast, discoursing for a long while in his mind on the proper way to have bread of the warmed sort. It's stream of consciousness in Beckett's own fashion (it seems that such practitioners each have their own style, be they Joyce, Faulkner, or other). Still, I have read elsewhere that this short piece is a good introduction to Beckett's prose, and if so, it's worth a read if one is curious. Read the story here at Evergreen Review.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On "Kingdom of the Jellyfish" by Thomas Andrew Green (878 words) ***

Many a short is essentially an extended metaphor, and that's what Green does wonderfully here. The tale is about one family that comes to live with another, about how it imposes itself for a brief time and then disappears as if it had never been. It's about how we all do that, all us living beings, even the jellyfish. Read the story here at Apple Valley Review.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

On "Medicine Show" by Charles Ramsay McCrory (1749 words) ***

In McCrory's world, pharmaceutical salesperson's are as likely to use their products as candy bar kids are to eat there. Neither person on this trip is exactly enthused by the work laid out for them, but sometimes the benefits are in the product itself. I love McCrory's use of language here. I could have read more. Read the piece here at Eunoia Review.

On "Gone with the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell ****

My wife was the impetus behind my finally reading this one. So many women I know refer to this as one of their favorites, and so many women have talked delightedly about Georgia (though they've never been to the state) because of this book. I'm left wondering with regard to the latter, why? I don't think Georgia comes off looking all that grand, nor the South as a whole.

Mitchell's text, though, is a rich one, allegorically and historically, and it features a set of very well-drawn characters and some beautiful writing. I felt like I got a good sense of the nature of southern living before, during, and after the Civil War. Mind you, it's a white southern point of view. Yankees in general are portrayed as opportunists, and blacks, though frequently present, fall into rather simplistic stereotypes: the loyal servant who won't leave even if no longer a slave, the lazy human being who won't work or learn anything except when forced to as a slave, the corrupt pervert. Mitchell presents most of the book from her main character Scarlett O'Hara's point of view, and that's a good thing, because the few times she does venture into trying to speak for the former slave, it comes across to me as patronizing.

The point of view of the Yankees, by contrast, is complicated by the point of view of the various southern characters and how their own assumptions about Yankees are to some extent called into the question. Leading into the war, the assumption is that the Yankees are cowards who won't fight and who will easily back down if forced to fight. The short war that's expected proves to be much less than short, and the trials that hit the region hit hard. And while Yankees are hated, some of the soldiers, the southern women find out, prove to be rather gentlemanly (and some not).

But then, that's part of what Mitchell does throughout this book, chiefly through a character who herself is not knowingly drawn completely into the southern mystique. Southern culture is built on a set of artifices that the war itself tears down but that the community continues to try to live by. These artifices have to do with proper gender roles, which Mitchell (via the war) calls into question, and class roles. The war pushes all these things to the side. High-class women take to the fields or take on jobs to survive (though what jobs exactly are allowable still remains something of an issue). Men raised to be effete plantation owners find they have no role in the South once the plantations are done away. And yet, the community is one of constant hypocrisy. A woman might be criticized for performing certain kinds of work to save her family, but the family will take the money made from the work to continue to live by its noble pretensions.

The headstrong Scarlett is a woman who doesn't exactly follow those pretensions. She's mostly interested in getting men to fall for her. But one man, Ashley Wilkes, won't--or does but won't allow himself to object to his family's desire that he marry someone else. This sets up the plot of the entire book, for Scarlett longs for him throughout, and she lets that longing guide and eventually destroy her life (as well as the lives of others), as she marries someone else out of revenge and ignores men who truly love her, never recognizing that she and Ashley have little in common.

And in this is what I see as the book's ultimate allegory. Ashley represents a kind of noble, southern gentleman who goes along wholly with society expectations and who, because of it, is himself destroyed. Yet Scarlett sees only an ideal throughout, just as people continue to see an ideal South that exists only in the past. There's no going back, but she learns too late that that ideal no longer exists, if it ever existed at all. One might hope that she has learned her lesson by the end (tomorrow is, after all, another day, as the famous line from the book states a few times), but I get the feeling that she has merely transferred ideals onto another man. She constantly seeks after a past that she can't have. So it goes with the South and the postwar southerners, who long for a time that is no longer.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

On "My Mother’s Boyfriends" by Liz Wyckoff (867 words) ***

I'm reminded a bit of the Jim Jarmusch film Broken Flowers. In it, a man goes back to visit is a set of ex-girlfriends to find the mother of his son. Here, a mom takes a daughter on a tour of her old beaus, showing up how unimpressive they are, hoping to convey a somewhat different lesson, one the daughter finds she couldn't not keep if she tried. Read the story here at Annalemma.

Monday, October 27, 2014

On "Jennifer Aniston Comes to Stay Awhile" by Jared Yates Sexton (3051 words) *****

I saw Jared read this story in Atlanta and was totally mesmerized. Too often, during a reading, I find myself moving to other thoughts, drifting in an out. But Jared's performance, along with the story itself, kept me focused. Here, Aniston comes to stay at the narrator's house. She stands in for the angst we feel about our own love lives, the idea that we will never be loved, never find it, countered by the idea that by settling on just one person we might be missing out on the real one we belong with. Read the story here at Punchnels.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On "One or Two Afternoons" by Lincoln Michel (1211 words) *****

I've long thought about writing a story in two parts, both of which involve the exact same dialogue but in utterly different contexts. I've never gotten around to that tale, and I'm not sure that I have at this point the two correct settings for such a piece. But I do like the idea of two pieces commenting on one another in a kind of parallel track. Although involving different sets of dialogue, Michel's piece is a cool tale of contrasts and of deceptions. What's more to a point in this tale is what isn't here, all the details left out. Violence between ex-lovers gets pit-for-pat treatment here, but on parallel tracks. Read the story here at the Collagist.

Friday, October 17, 2014

On "What You Know" by Jennifer Pashley (1161 words) ****

Here's a hard one about growing up too soon. Pashley's narrator talks about adult things while the things the others around her talk about are "cool" kid things. The effect is one of harsh contradistinction. I'd have been one of the kids showing off how to make stick figures with Popsicle sticks. I'm not unhappy to have missed out on a harsh upbringing, though there are times I feel like I've been stuck in that more innocent world with no nice way to stay in unless I remain alone. The next step is scary, but isn't that the point? Read Pashley's piece here at Memorious.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On "All She Wanted" by Beth Newcomer (2930 words) ***

Newcomer's story revolves around the love life of one Maizie, who discovers, over the course of her life more and more about the man she really wants--which is not one who checks off every item on her list and who has, simply, one special quality. Read the story here at Diverse Voices.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On "Stalagmites" by Christine Hennessey (2676 words) ****

A cave takes on metaphoric undertones in this tale of a marriage on the brink of ending. A child tries desperately to keep her parents together on this final vacation together, where for a brief moment there is a bit of hope. Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

On "The Miracle Boy" by Patrick Irelan (3810 words) ***

The story begins with a kid walking on water, and as one might expect, such an action brings with it a fair amount of notice from the community around and a certain amount of exploitation by the family involved. Irelan's tale takes a rather snide look at the media and at what we consider special. Just what is a miracle? Can't something we consider "ordinary" be just as much of one? Read the tale here at Defenestration.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

On "My Name Is Dave and I Am Dead" by Matt Demers (1515 words) ***

What if you could attend your own funeral? What if you could continue on with life, more or less as usual, after you were dead? These are the questions that Demers poses in this unusual piece of fiction. The narrator comes to some interesting--and perhaps not too hopeful--realizations. Read the story here at Defenestration.

Monday, September 22, 2014

On "Other Woods" by Nichole Lefebvre (1266 words) ****

A tiny bit of childhood is recounted here, how the warnings of adults take on the height of terror. The kids are not to go into the woods. There are gangs in them. They go anyway, but one of them goes farther than any of them have ever gone before. What will become of her is anyone's guess. Read the story here at the L Magazine.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On "Chicken Grethe's Family" by Hans Christian Andersen (4987 words) ***

In this story, Andersen adapts a tale by the Scandinavian writer/playwright Ludvig Holberg, someone unfortunately not on my reading list this time around but whose influence on Danish literature was obviously significant, since both Kierkegaard and Andersen mention him in their works. The story is essentially that of a spoiled girl who upon growing up ditches two marriages to respectable men in favor of a childhood friend of the lower class. Why? The public will never know, and neither exactly will we. Riches only mean so much, of course, and life means a whole lot more. Andersen adds another layer to the tale, having Holberg visit the woman to get the story, and then wrapping the whole thing inside a frame story about a women who now lives in the girl's childhood home. And this being Andersen, of course, nature, in the form of birds, has to have a bit of a say in what's happening as well. Read the tale here.

On "Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell ***

It's been decades since I read a work of George Orwell's, and I think that I probably did not appreciate just how fine a wordsmith he was when I last read him, as a teenager. Back then, within about one year, I read 1984, Animal Farm, and Coming Up for Air, caring only for the first and rather surprised I didn't much like the second. That was back in the mid-1980s.

Down and Out has been on my list for a while, perhaps since reading Jack London's People of the Abyss or Ehrlich's Nickel and Dimed. I'd say this work is probably on par with London's classic, and it covers much the same territory. There's one difference, however. Orwell, at least as the work is narrated, isn't going out and living among the poor for some journalistic cause. He is poor--he's a down-and-out writer. Unable to find enough work, he finds himself scraping by in a Paris apartment. He takes up working poor jobs, as he can find them. This means working in a restaurant as a dishwasher for seventeen hours a day, seven days a week.

During this time, he falls in with a Russian guy who supposedly can get him a good restaurant job. But the Russian is out on his luck too, having sustained a work injury that keeps people from wanting to hire him as a waiter. They get a coup when a friend of the Russian decides to open a restaurant himself--only, the problem is that the restaurant takes much longer to open than planned. Months pass. They go to work in a hotel restaurant. When the newer restaurant finally does open, Orwell finds that this promised new job is actually worse than the hotel he was working at (seven days on, instead of six). Eventually, wiped out, he writes to a friend back in London about a job and is promised one.

When he shows up in London, however, he finds his friend is gone and the promised job delayed accordingly. With little to his name, he is forced again to do as he can to get by. This time, there aren't any other jobs in the offing, however, so he spends time on the street and in various shelters. Along the way, Orwell offers advice on the best type of shelters, who the poor really are, and how to pawn clothes. He also compares poverty in Paris to that in London; the latter nation does a better job of forcing the poor off the street, which isn't to say that that is actually the better system, as it essentially means their more persecuted. I rather enjoyed the Paris section a bit more, for what can be said about homelessness as Orwell describes it is that there's a certain redundancy to it. At least, with a job or the prospect of better possibilities to come, there was something to cheer for.

Friday, September 12, 2014

On "The Mating Behavior of Great Tits" by Joshua Malbin (12:13 minutes) ****

I'm not generally a fan of animal stories--that is, for stories told from the point of view of animals--but Malbin does something fascinating here in terms of really getting into the heads of birds as if they have the same kind of emotions that humans do. Much of what happens is that a bird comes to have peace with the way in which life goes from year to year, the cycle of life. I imagine that this is also the way in which we too come to have a certain piece with the elements of living and dying, with how those we know come and go, all the bits of heartache that come with it and the way that our lives go on. Listen here at the Drum.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

On "The Porter's Son" by Hans Christian Andersen (7058 words) ***

In terms of class mobility, Scandinavian countries are, from my understanding, much more equitable than my own native America (which even pales now compared to Britain apparently). It's kind of a sad state. However, to what degree class mobility has to do with merely finances and to what degree it has to do with social strata is another matter. Growing up in the United States, I do find it strange that one would dismiss marriage candidates based solely on the fact that they aren't nobility. And yet, when I think a bit more deeply about it, we aren't immune to such distinctions. Just the other day, someone described a family as "redneck," though the person they were talking of supposedly transcended the family status. Maybe we are still more inclined to judge on individual merit.

Anyway, "The Porter's Son" is about such distinctions--two children that grow up together, one as a janitor's son, the other as the daughter of a general who employs the janitor. Despite the fact that the janitor's son goes on to serve in the king's cabinet and is rich and talented to boot, nothing seems to be able to win him approval for the daughter's hand. He is, in the end, not of noble class. One gets the feeling, from many of Andersen's tales, that Andersen did not approve of such distinctions. Read the tale here.

On "The Mississippi Chinese" by James W. Loewen ***

Years ago, when I was doing grad school in Mississippi, I went to visit my office mate during the summer, whose home of origin was on the Delta (Cleveland, Mississippi to be exact). It was a fun two-day visit, though mostly because it was spent with him rather than because I liked the locale at all. There was a lot of poverty--mixed among quite a few well-to-do places. Restaurants were largely fast food. There was little to do, even though there was a college in town (where my friend's father taught). But there was the Mississippi River, which I got to go visit and walk into (what muck!). And there was the Delta itself, that long, flat expanse. Eating out at Burger King or something like it, we saw a young, pretty Chinese woman visiting the restaurant as well. And that's when my friend mentioned the Delta Chinese. It was nothing more than that, a mention ("you never heard of the Delta Chinese?"), but it sparked an interest.

Loewen's book is about these Chinese. I was somewhat disappointed, toward the beginning, as I was hoping for a history, whereas Loewen's study is more of an sociological one, though history takes a part to be sure. And having been written in the early 1970s, the study is dated, as Loewen himself admits it's going to be (changes in civil rights were changing the findings drastically). And yet, I left the book feeling anxious, angry, sad, and intrigued, for the book is really about racism as it existed then, which caused me to reflect on how racism continues into the present--and the part I play in it.

As for how Chinese ended up migrating to the Delta, that is in itself an interesting story. There were never a lot of them, but relative to other areas, the number was significant enough that they are a known factor. In post-Civil War Mississippi, planters needed to find a way to replace their slave labor. Most continued to use black laborers, taking them on a sharecroppers, who they thoroughly exploited. But because some former slaves weren't too keen on staying within the system, some landowners began bringing in Chinese, who had been working in New Orleans, on the river, or for the railroad. They promised great riches--and delivered to them the same as they delivered to their black counterparts--that is, very little.

The Chinese were generally men, there to make money to send home to China. And rather than be exploited as sharecroppers, they often set about becoming merchants--grocery store owners, to be exact. They would set up small grocery stores in black neighborhoods, and sell to the locals. In this way, they began to become wealthy. (Why blacks couldn't do the same themselves is something Loewent discusses. For the Chinese had an advantage: not being truly local, they didn't have a community that expected them to support them when times got tough; hence, a Chinese merchant could more easily cut off bad debtors than a man who might have to cut off a cousin or niece or friend and who would suffer social consequences as a result.)

The wealth, in turn, transformed the Chinese. Once placed at the black end of the spectrum in Mississippi's biracial society, they began to move into the white end. Indeed, Mississippi's segregated world had a hard time figuring out where to put them at times. Some cities were able to have separate Chinese schools, but most insisted Chinese children go to negro schools; one Chinese family even sued to attempt to get their children into a white school. In time, however, Chinese made the leap--and became almost white.

As Loewen was writing, however, much of this was breaking down, as schools were integrating and society industrializing. African Americans were moving out of the Delta to find city work. Those who stayed were often more well to do and thus had access to transportation to be able to visit larger supermarkets. Thus, Chinese groceries were beginning to disappear--and the Chinese were beginning to migrate out of the South as well.

Loewen spends much time talking about the racial system of Jim Crow Mississippi. He shows how racism can pervade even one's feelings about one's self or one's own race: blacks sometimes kept each other down based on a system that valued whiteness even in the black community (pride, for example, in shopping at a white-owned store rather than a black-owned one). He shows how the blame for racism and prejudice didn't rest solely with lower-class whites, unlike what many social theorists and what many higher-class whites would claim. While violence might pour out from lower-class whites toward blacks, often the two groups had more to do with one another--were more integrated--than higher-class whites were with either. In fact, it was more often, as Loewen shows, these higher-class whites who would vote on school boards and so forth to keep blacks or Chinese out of their schools--but then blame it on lower-class whites not allowing it. That's not to say that lower-class whites escape blame. People in Mississippi at the time were in castes of a sort, and generally people wanted to move out of their caste or maintain the higher caste they were in--and thus racist maneuvers were undertaken to maintain power, prestige, or status quo. It was these chapters that were hard, at times, not to be angered by--the way people treat one another. And they often left me thinking about how far we've really come, which is probably not far at all. There may no longer be Jim Crow laws, but on some level, voluntary segregation still exists (how often, really, after all, does my social circle involve people of other races?), and by extension, even our rhetoric regarding poverty programs in this country could still be tied to highly coded racism (as the rhetoric revolving around race, even in the 1960s, was often coded in terms of wealth or education). The problem is, of course, that while some people are poor because they really are lazy (as some would claim), others are there by circumstance (as others would claim), just as some are rich because of how hard they have worked to earn what they have (as some would claim), while others have simply inherited it (as others would claim). We can't generalize social policy, and yet because social policy is aimed not at the individual but at society as a whole, we have no choice but to do so, and thus the class (and race) prejudice that results. We all continue to suffer for it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

On "Deer Hunting" by Olyn Ozbick (2 pages) ***

This short tale revolves around the subject in the title. Three men, two of them escaping wives, waiting for the weekend to end. They can't keep track of where each of them are, let alone where the deer might be. I read this despite it being on Flash Paper, of which I am no fan. You can read it too, on page 24, of Crack the Spine's fifty-first issue.

On "The Locked Room" by Paul Auster ****

The last book of the New York Trilogy, The Locked Room is also perhaps the most traditional. Told from the point of a first-person narrator and essentially recounting a man's interactions with a strange childhood friend, the novel at first seems to have little in common with its two predecessors.

The narrator receives a call one day from a woman who has married his childhood friend Fanshawe. Fanshawe has disappeared, but he's left instructions to his wife that his friend should take over his literary estate. Fanshawe was a writer, though he never published. The narrator is to review the work, consider its worth, and then either destroy it or find a publisher. Like most who come in contact with Fanshawe, the narrator is a huge fan, and he is happily taken by the three novels, three plays, and book of poetry that Fanshawe has left behind--and so too is a publishing friend. (The narrator is a writer too, but one of the journalistic stamp, unable ever to break into the literary world.)

Meanwhile, the narrator falls in love with Sophie, Fanshawe's wife, and since Fanshawe had disappeared, he begins courting her. Until . . . He receives a letter from Fanshawe. The letter denotes that Fanshawe is alive, that he has made a decision to leave the world behind, and that he has given himself seven more years to life. He enourages the narrator to go forward with taking care of Sophie and his son.

The narrator is troubled by the letter but goes forward anyway. His troubles begin to overwhelm him, however, and he decides to revenge Fanshawe, to find him and kill him--or at least expose him. Meanwhile, others are claiming the narrator is Fanshawe, and to quell those rumors, the narrator agrees to write a biography of his friend, which is really just a means for him to find said friend.

Here's where the book begins to dovetail into the other two books of the trilogy. Names from the other book show up. There is a private detective named Quinn (from the first book); there is a man named Peter Stillman (also from the first book); there is a red notebook. (It turns out the narrator is the author of the first two novels of the trilogy.) There is an obsession with symbol, language, and meaning, and there is one particularly intriguing scene toward the book's end when the narrator finally confronts Fanshawe. It isn't Fanshawe, though (or is it?). It's a man who the narrator decides is Fanshawe, as if the decision, the application of meaning, is what matters--more than any meaning in and of itself. To decide a man is Fanshawe and act accordingly is what matters. So too with language and literature. We have a heap of words that we put the meanings to and that we go about in faith as if those meanings mattered.

Then, finally, of course, there's the locked room--the place we're not allowed to enter. But I won't get into that, because I can't. The novel won't let me. You'll just have to read and discover its contents for yourself.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On "Taking" by Alix Ohlin (6:14 minutes) ****

Ohlin turns a childhood game into a metaphor for a much more serious and disturbing life event. The childhood game involves taking an object from a room and seeing if the sister knows what the object is. The narrator is not so good at the game, but some things can be taken that affect one forever thereafter. Listen to the story here at the Drum.

On "Ghosts" by Paul Auster ***

The second book of Auster's New York Trilogy, this one is more of a philosophical journey than anything else, something to be enjoyed on an intellectual level but not much else. It explores similar themes as the first book in the trilogy, but fails to quite live up to the first. Had I read it first, perhaps my opinion would be slightly different, but somehow I doubt it.

In Ghosts every major character is named after a color. Blue is a detective who has been hired by White to follow Black. Brown is his idol, and it is to Brown that Blue appeals, only to find the advice disappointing, if not completely absent.

Black, Blue finds, does little more than write. Following him is boring. Blue sits and observes and writes about Black, who sits and writes and observes also. Blue becomes paranoid as the story goes on, wondering if perhaps White and Black are in cahoots. Has White actually hired Black and Blue? Blue begins to make stuff up about Black, in part because it's more interesting, but also to see what kind of reaction he'll get from White. Will White know? Do White and Black speak to one another?

As time goes on, Blue finds himself less and less interested in writing about Black and, indeed, writing at all. The writer is a detective of sorts, but that work is less than exciting at times.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

On "A Story from the Sand Dunes" by Hans Christian Andersen (13,455 words) ***

One tragedy after another comes in this story by Andersen, which largely avoids the elements of fairy tale. It regards a young child of nobility whose ship is torn apart before he can remember and who ends up growing up in a small fishing village, adopted by parents who lost their child in another tragedy. The boy is God's miraculous replacement (never mind that all the other shipgoers died). The boy grows to be a man and makes good friends with one particular other young male in the village. They fall for the same girl. The boy saves up to buy a house, and the gal agrees to marry the boy because she knows she'll be better off with him, even though she actually loves the boy's friend. The boy chooses to hand over his house to his friend, as well as the girl, and leaves the village to travel the world. Only . . . there's a murder, and the boy ends up in prison. And then later, he ends up in another town, where he meets a lovely woman, who again is taken away from him by the sea. In addition, his mind is taken too. And so this dreadfully depressing story comes to an end . . . almost. Andersen was apparently very religious, and the hope of eternal life often ends up playing a role in his stories, and it's no exception with this tale. Read the full story here.

On "City of Glass" by Paul Auster *****

This is possibly the best novel I've read this year, certainly the best in a long time. The first of a trilogy, I look forward to the next two parts of it. Auster's book was written in the mid-1980s. It's hard for me to believe that it is about thirty years old and that it took that long for me to get to. Novels like this were works written in the 1950s back in the mid-1980s, and they were classics of a sort. It's hard to believe this would now be essentially a classic, in that sense, tested by time.

The novel is about a writer--a writer on many different levels. Daniel Quinn is a the main character. He writes detective novels under the name William Wilson (the name of a baseball player for the Mets, and the name, I believe, of a character in a Poe story about a man with multiple identities). Wilson in turn writes about the detective Max Work (maximum work of literature?). Quinn receives an anonymous call. The caller is asking for Paul Auster, a private detective.

After a couple of calls, Quinn decides to pose as Auster. The woman on the line is looking for help protecting a man Peter Stillman from his father of the same name. The father experimented on Stillman at a young age, similar to experiments keeping young children in a room without language to see what would happen. The abuse did no good for the son, and the father, who was imprisoned for his evil doings, is fresh out of jail. The son needs protection.

Quinn's job is to offer said protection. He embarks on following Stillman Sr. around. Stillman has a double, and Quinn has to choose which one is real. Stillman walks his days away in patterns that suggest letters that suggest words. What does it all mean?

Quinn eventually finds the real Paul Auster, who is a writer, not a detective. The two sort of collude for a bit, but not well and not for long. And Quinn in turn finds his musings growing progressively shorter and more meaningless, as Stillman's whereabouts get harder to trace.

Language is a major theme of this book, as is identity. Even the body seems a major element of it--nudity is stressed quite a bit early on. It's as if the body is all that is real, as if language is a slippery attempt to define the meaning of who we are, to give those bodies identity.

Monday, August 18, 2014

On "Mirabeau, the Truant" by Andrew Brininstool (4687 words) ****

Mirabeau is a peeping tom. He is also a boy on the cusp of being a teenager, a boy with a father suffering from depression, a boy with certain problems adjusting to the world around him--or understanding it. His best friend is Tug, a home-schooled fatty who is also a bully. The world around them is coming apart--the sky is literally falling, remnants of the space shuttle. But in the midst of this, there are small moments of beauty that make life worth living. Read the story here at Better.

On "The Elephants Teach" by D. G. Myers ***

In The Elephants Teach D. G. Myers traces the origin of the teaching of creative writing in the university, and in the process he tells the history of the teaching of English in the university. For the last several years, I've felt as if my studying English was ill advised; I'd have done something more useful had I studied, for example, one of the sciences. But young, I was idealistic and decided to study something I love: writing and reading. Nowadays, I tend to think I could have done such without a degree; I could have studied some other field and had something to write about. The problem . . . When I look back on it, I realize that I never enjoyed studying the sciences, and so I'd have likely consigned myself to misery trying to do so. And in total, my life hasn't worked out badly; I just often wish I felt more like I had a "real" skill.

Myers's book merely confirmed a lot of what I've come to feel--that English degrees, and especially writing degrees, are essentially self-reproducing. English students study English to teach other students to teach English. And creative writers study writing to teach others how to teach others how to write.

Myers starts his work off with a discussion of philology, which predated the modern English program. Philologists studied language the way a linguist does, focusing mostly on grammar and on etymology. Where did this word come from and how should one use it? Writers, as with today, could rarely make a living writing, so they often had other professions, and only rarely did one choose philology--or the teaching of a foreign language.

It was in the late 1800s that English departments began to take shape. Philology fell from favor as the idea of composition took hold. Composition--teaching others to write--started out to be, according to Myers, actually much more like creative writing. The idea was to be creative--and teachers often didn't care what one composed be it an essay, a story, or a poem. Many classes were forged around the idea of daily compositions--journals. Part of the impetus for teaching writing, however, was also for people to learn an appreciation for reading--not so much to become a professional writer.

But as composition became more popular and was added as a requirement to many school's prerequisites, so too did composition come under fire, just as it does today. What exactly should composition teach? Creativity? Critical thinking? Rhetorical argument? Literary appreciation? Business-oriented writing for specific disciplines? As composition moved more closely into the line of rhetoric, creativity began again to be placed on the back burner.

Writers, however, began to enter the academy more and more as a means to support themselves. (Myers examines the founding of various writing colonies, which is also a rather fascinating discussion.) And that's when New Criticism came to the fore. The idea was that writers would read texts closely, examine them, see how the text worked internally, rather than looking to its linguistics or its historical origins. Criticism was, thus, a part of teaching writers to write and readers to read. (The elephants teach refers to the idea that a zoologist study not just the animal from the outside but that the zoologist actually become the animal--he or she lives the life of the elephant to understand how it is constructed. So it is that a writer lives the writing life, reads like a writer, to understand how a piece of writing is forged.)

But eventually criticism and creative writing split off. And thus we now how several segmentations in an English department--linguists, rhetoricians, critics, and creative writers. Though the process started in the 1920s, much of the influx of writers to the academy happened after World War II, with the advent of the GI bill and the upswing in the number of degrees being granted. These people needed something to do, and the federal government was happy to pump more money into the system. Creative writing was a cheap program for a university to start (most such universities were not a state's flagship institution but an outlier, looking for a program to include among its specialties). And so it is. An excess of English professors and of money led to more creative writing programs being established, which led more such programs and more and more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On "Month to Month" by Sean Gibbon (2647 words) ***

Not so much a tale as a collection of voices, desperate ones. The narrator is a former drinker trying to stay sober--a biker. Archie is too--and a painter. Tyler--a former contractor. All of them had potential. All of them are older and seemingly going nowhere, settled, except perhaps Archie. He's still working at it, and maybe that's what makes for an artist. Read the story here at Agni.

Friday, August 8, 2014

On "Clod Hans" by Hans Christian Anderson (about 1300 words) ***

I've read that many of Anderson's tales are fairly political. Unfortunately, not knowing the context of his writing very well, most of this is lost to me (and to most of today's readers). In some cases, however, the points are pretty over the top and thus hard to miss. "Clod Hans" is one of the more entertaining (and humorous) stories in that vein. It's a tale of three brothers who compete to marry a princess, two smart, and one incredibly stupid. Guess which one wins? And this is how we get our leaders! Read the tale here.

On “Marriage, a History” by Stephanie Coontz ****

Coontz discusses the history of marriage from prehistoric times to the present. I was expecting her to denote that marriage moved from being an affair based on familial decisions, extended families, and convenience rather than true love to one based on a “love” system, and that is exactly what Coontz establishes. However, in that story, Coontz sees an institution that has never been wholly stable and a change in marriage in our modern day that would inevitably lead to its currently changing definition.

The introduction recounts how Coontz came to her topic and was surprised by the history she found--more surprised than she expected to be, though she'd known that the 1950s ideal was a temporal thing. In that introduction Coontz covers various types of marriage as they have existed through history, including agreed-on relations between the same sex, polygamous and polyganous marriages, and even one society that has no marriage concept at all. Marriage, as Coontz brings out, has been throughout history a way of organizing human society. The society without a marriage system was very interesting to read of. Children are raised by this entire African community.

Marriage among the rich and powerful was generally a way to increase one's power and riches. And even among those who were not so well off usually used marriage as a way to aid the community as a whole. Many a marriage was created to gain land, whether it be to merge two countries or two fields.

Much of this changed once the Church entered the picture. As the Church extended its power, familial concerns with regard to treaties were no longer as important as getting the approval of the Church for various things--like marriage itself, or divorce. Interestingly the Church's stance toward divorce and remarriage was not always what it is today. However, as the stance toward divorce became stronger, it became more important for kings to have Church approval to rid themselves of unwanted wives using the Church's ability to declare such marriages annulled. That was needed, not for love, but to ensure heirs--women who could bear sons.

Once the Reformation, happened, that ushered in a time when the Church no longer had say in when and whom people married. It also ushered in the Age of Reason in due time, and with that the foundation for marriage based in love, since society less and less devolved around extended familial relations.

Marrying for love thus started its beginnings in the Renaissance and found full form in the Victorian era. But that era saw husbands as protectors for a frail and frigid but moral sex; women hated sex, but men too needed to avoid it as much as possible. (This was different from the previous era/generation, when women were seen as temptresses, to prone to sexual desire and pulling men away from things that really matter.) As the twentieth century came into being, women came to be seen as more sexual, and men lost the protective aura.

Women increasingly entered the workforce and married older--through World War II. Then the 1950s came, and men came home, taking the women's jobs and taking advantage of GI bill to further their education. In this time, marriage moved to a younger age, divorce actually decreased, and the nuclear family came to be the norm, with men as the breadwinners. This “long decade” lasted only fifteen years, and then marriage continued to develop on its way.

For the issue with love as the basis of marriage means that when love is no longer there or you happen to love someone untraditional, then the extension, by reason, of what should constitute acceptable marriage is no longer based on community standards but on individual desire. And that is why divorce became more common, and why now gay marriage is finding its place into our culture. It also means that other changes to marriage are likely to come.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

On "Ib and Little Christina" by Hans Christian Andersen (4436 words) ***

Anderson must have suffered from some kind of lost childhood love, because this theme seems to present itself in story after story of his. Here's one of the better ones. Ib and Christina are young friends. The fortuneteller provides to them a hint of their future, but it proves to be deceptively accurate. Christina grows up, moves away, and marries up. Ib struggles on as a poor man. But fortunes turn quickly, and all is not what it seems. Somehow, I'm to believe that Ib should be satisfied with a replica of Christina. Read the story here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

On "Great, Wondrous" by Marie-Helene Bertino (9761 words) ****

In this story from Bertino's collection, students at a Christian college perform a set of superheroic acts. One of them has the ability to make things disappear. The other has the ability to move things via thought. Put the two talents together, and walla, magic will happen. The talents will only get used for good, we promise. But in the end, sorrow will result, the cost of miracles. Read the story here at Five Chapters.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On "Under the Willow Tree" by Hans Christian Andersen (6106 words) ***

This is one of the few Andersen stories I've that feels like a story rather than a fairy tale. The plot is a familiar one. Two kids grow up together, and one of them is in love with the other, but the other thinks of the childhood friend like a brother. They go their separate ways, one off to riches and fame, the other to a life as a regular Joe. The tale does not end well. What makes the story intriguing, however, is the mileage that Andersen gets out of two gingerbread cookies that are shared with the friends as kids and the mileage he gets out of the weather and the European foliage, all of which ride along with the familiar plot. Read the story here.

On “Shutting out the Sun” by Michael Zielenziger *****

One of the best texts on Japanese culture that I've read, this book initially seemed like it would be a disappointment. Zielenziger starts off his book writing about the hikikomori, and since that discussion takes up the first several chapters, I initially thought I'd ended up reading a book on some uniquely Japanese psychological problem. The hikikimori are adults who live at home with their parents, usually holed up in their room. Unable to take the pressure of integrating socially, they choose to wile away there time alone. The psychological problem sounded to me not dissimilar to autism or Asperger's syndrome, but in fact the problem is uniquely Japanese, as such people integrate normally into foreign societies. Usually, a bullying experience or something similar is the cause for the decision to withdraw from society; the hikikomori, Zielenziger claims, are often people who are too individualistic to fit in in Japan's very conformist society.

Zielenziger's discussion moves then to a more general discussion of Japan, a society, he claims, is essentially a hikikomori nation--a country that historically withdraws from other nations in the world. Here's where the book gets interesting: Zielenziger hypothesizes on why the Japanese are the kind of people they are and on why Japan, which had so much promise economically in the 1980s, fell into economic disarray in the 1990s and has not wholly recovered.

Zielenziger then goes into a history and culture of Japanese business. Japan's economy and politics is routed in the feudal culture that predates the modern world. Even though the United States transformed Japan in terms of its economic system, opening it up to the world, it did not transform the Japanese spirit. Hence, even though Japan became capitalist, the country transferred its warrior culture to the economic world: trade essentially remained one way (few imports, many exports), and businesses became the new extended families that one conformed to and that took care of the people.

Because Japan lacks a moral compass outside of societal conformity, Zielenziger hints, the Japanese often lack a sense of greater purpose or individuality. As such, capitalism becomes the end all and be all even more than it does in Western countries. A chapter is given over to fads and materialism in Japan, and how that is often the means by which Japanese gain a sense of “self,” which is not a sense of self at all but of cliques or groups.

It's at this point that Zielenziger gets into some of his most interesting discussions, comparing Korean culture to that of Japan's. Korea doesn't have quite the same tendency to cut itself off, and it thus doesn't have hikikomori. As a nation invaded multiple times by neighbors, Korea's independence is relatively short lived. It too has gotten rich in the capitalist realm, but unlike Japan it has managed to recover from the 1990s doldrums. This is because it has opened its economy to foreign investors. (Japan, meanwhile, closes itself off, maintaining corrupt or zombi firms, and slowly driving itself into debt. It was a nation of savers, but its debt has grown in the last few decades. That said, statistically, on the Web, it is still as far as I can tell a creditor nation, unlike, say, the United States, to which Zielenziger often compares Japan--I don't see the American system as all that great; then again, Zielenziger later notes how our two nations contribute to our mutual problems, since Japan allows us to drive up our debt by buying it.)

Zielenziger then goes into a very interesting study of why this might be so, and he comes to the conclusion that it is because Korea adopted Christianity (or at least one-third of Korea did). This has created a more Western sense of self that no longer looks entirely to the group for personal action and decision making. Zielenziger isn't trying to claim the Christianity is the boon of the world or anything like that--he's Jewish--but he is saying that Western ideas do lend themselves more to globalization and to the flexibility necessary to transform a culture when economic turmoil and other problems arise.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

On "The Shadow" by Hans Christian Andersen (4726 words) ***

This tale has more of a feel of Poe in its absurdity. It's about a man whose shadow decides to live on its own and whose shadow eventually overshadows the man, so that the two swap places. There are obvious metaphors here to the way that one's position in society can switch around as well, but it's a fun ride, at least until its rather disappointing and predictable end. Read the story here.

Monday, July 14, 2014

On "It Was Written in Blue" by Emmanuel Iduma (3048 words) ****

So much fiction is written about small moments, little tawdry things. It takes a story like Iduma's to shock us back into knowing that the world is writ large, that the issues, for many, are those of life and death. Obinna had an affair with his brother's love; they haven't spoken in four years. He's changed. Can he be forgiven? Stick these events amid Christian versus Muslim, and the whole idea of forgiveness becomes something much larger than that of one family, unless one is talking about the family of man. Read the story here at Sentinel Nigeria.

On "The Faiths of the Founding Fathers" by David L. Holmes *****

I came to this book after becoming familiar with Holmes's volume on the faiths of the postwar presidents. In this volume, Holmes discusses the religious beliefs of the first five presidents of the United States, as well as a set of others responsible for the foundation of our nation. He also gives background to the state of religion in the United States and the colonies during the Revolutionary period. In all, he aims to be debunk myths that have sprung up around the founding fathers with regard to their religious beliefs, enough to anger both evangelicals and some atheists. Proving exactly what the first five presidents believed, however, is perhaps more difficult than might be initially supposed. This is because we are limited by what these men left behind in their writings and by what others say about them, and these things do not necessarily speak to what went on in these men's minds.

Holmes makes the claim that the first five presidents of the United States were Deists. This claim is easily proven in the case of a man like Thomas Jefferson, whose views on religion and Christianity and fairly well known and represented in the writings that he left behind. Such a claim is a bit more difficult in the case of someone like George Washington, whose views and actions in some ways contradict such an interpretation, or someone like James Monroe, who was simply silent on religious matters.

Holmes begins by discussing the religious culture of the times. Most Americans were religious, and most were protestants of some sort. Anglicanism actually had a much larger hold on the country than I had realized, and Catholicism, which one tends to learn in school was well-founded in Maryland, actually had little hold (the leaders of Maryland were Catholic, but the people were Anglican). Unorthodox views were heavily present in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, where there tended to be greater freedom of religion. Deism was popular among the educated classes and supplanted the teachings of denominations at many of the denominationally sponsored universities during this time. Hence, the nation's leaders were often Deistic in their persuasion--or at least heavily influence by such ideas (the latter is much easier to prove than the former).

Next, Holmes moves on to the individual men. There seems little doubt that Franklin and Jefferson were Deists, though both men saw the Bible as a source of great wisdom and believe in a power that had forged the universe. Washington, however, was a churchgoer who encouraged others to go to church. Holmes sees Deistic tendencies in Washington because the man rarely talked of Jesus (he used, rather, terms Deists would more often use to talk of God, such as Grand Architect) or of personal salvation, and there is some evidence that he did not take communion. His attendance at church, furthermore, was sporadic (though his lack of attendance usually occurred when he was living in the country, far from available churches). I came away feeling like Washington could have as likely been a lukewarm Christian as a Deist. What is clear, though, is as Holmes points out, Washington's myth was rewritten by later generations to make him into a more religiously Orthodox man than he actually was.

John Adams and his wife were Unitarians. For Holmes, these seem more or less to equate with Deist. Holmes splits Deists into two camps: Christian Deists and non-Christian. As such, Adams falls into the former camp, save that Unitarians aren't technically Christians, if we are to follow the line of thinking that Christians must belief in the Trinity and other orthodox beliefs (Unitarians rejected the Trinity among other beliefs). As a Unitarian, Adams believed essentially in Arianism, the idea that Christ was a created being rather than coeternal with God from the beginning. However, unlike Jefferson, Adams believed in miracles and other various aspects of scripture. Still, Adams has as much trouble with the ideas of overly religious people as he did with overly Deistic people, such as Thomas Payne.

Madison's beliefs are a bit more difficult to fathom out, but his heavy association with Deists suggests that he leaned toward this set of beliefs, at least during the years in which he was on the political stage. Later in life, he apparently returned more toward orthodox Christianity. Monroe's silence, for Holmes, is an argument for Deistic beliefs, something I find a bit hard to buy as an argument (just because someone doesn't talk religion doesn't mean the person is fill-in-the-blank of what you want him to be). Also pointing to Monroe's possible Deist impulses was his membership in the Freemasons, an organization among with Deism was popular.

While the men may have been Deists, most of their wives, save for a few notables, fell more into the orthodox Christian camp. Holmes speculates on reasons that men made up most of the Deistic movement, while women stayed more closely aligned with churches. Holmes then turns to men who were very clearly Christian in outlook who helped forge the country: Samuel Adams and John Jay among them. He spells out how to "spot" a Deist versus a Christian. And then he closes with a chapter on our contemporary presidents. What is clear is that in the early Republic, while presidents tended to go to church (even if nonbelieving), they were not as outspoken about religion compared with the general population as our contemporary presidents are (who often espouse quite staunchly Christian beliefs in order to appeal to the electorate).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On "What Happened in the Library" by Nancy Stohlman (885 words) ***

Years ago, the television show Trying Times explored the idea of a person being hired to party for a person who doesn't have time to party (with Steven Wright as the partier extraordinaire). Stohlman takes a similar tact in her story about the library. You know all those books on your shelves you intend to get around to reading one day? Yeah, hire a reader for yourself. The results don't turn out quite as expected. (A companion story explores living in a museum.) I like Stohlman's attachment to the zany. Read the story here at Connotation Press.

On “The Collaboration” by Ben Urwand *****

I preface Urwand's book by saying that there are some things I dislike about being human—and most especially being an adult. One of those things is ethical dilemmas, or more precisely the dilemma of choosing whether to follow one's own ethical standards or to follow the money or the boss. One might idealistically say that one should always follow one's ethical standards, but what if what one does for a living often brings you into conflict with those ethics, or brings to sets of ethical beliefs into conflict. It's easy to say one would never work at making missiles, but what of making guns, which have practical uses as well as illicit ones? This type of conundrum comes up often in artistic fields. You work as a producer of a music album, and you might disagree with the contents of a particular song. Do you allow the artist to have his or her say? Do you refuse and thus force the artist to compromise or possibly lose out on the artist's work completely? As an artist, do you cut the illicit song to sell the album or do you give up on the contract and the possible career to stay true to your art?

In the case of 1930s American movie studios, the CEOs chose wholly to remain wedded to the dollar and to making films, compromised films, rather than risk losing a chunk of their audience and the accompanying profit margin. And for that, Urwand provides a very damning portrait, a portrait that seems to show what is wrong with corporate America in general, that in the case of caring about people versus caring about money, the latter always wins. (But of course the issue isn't always as easy as that. Had studios condemned the actions of a particular nation, they'd have lost not only money and access to markets--those working for them would have lost jobs. At what point do you stop collaborating and start attacking? Where exactly is that border? Sometimes, it's hard to say.)

The issue at the heart of Urwand's book, the “collaboration” that takes place, is between Hollywood and Nazi Germany. “Collaboration,” may be something of a strong word. Hollywood didn't set out to make movies for the Nazis. However, it did compromise with the films it did make to appease Germany. At first, Urwand's case seems a bit weak. Even today, films are edited for particular foreign audiences. But as he pushes his case and moves us forward in history, the choices the heads of the studios make seem more and more dubious.

In the lead-up to World War II, Germany passed a law that studios that made movies that were anti-German could not only see those films banned but all their films. Germany would also squeeze others to avoid distributing the movie (and as it took territory would extend bans to the new lands). This resulted in Hollywood studios not only censoring scenes from movies but eventually abandoning some projects wholesale.

Most disturbing is the way that Jews were essentially written out of Hollywood films, even though the majority of the executives were Jewish. Nazis didn't want and wouldn't allow positive portrayals of Jews on screen; eventually, the Nazis didn't even want Jews working on movies that were to be released in Germany. So for a decade (and longer than that), the Jew disappeared from cinema.

Urwand spends time talking about which films were popular with the Nazis, which weren't, and which were not made because of them. Interesting passages discuss films that particular people took up trying to get made that never came into production because not only did the studios refuse to make them, but people in the industry refused to finance them or be involved with them. Even some Jewish organizations stepped in to keep such films from being made, so afraid were they that portraits of Jews might alienate others and contribute to anti-semitism.

A really interesting passage comes at the end, and it is this perhaps wherein Urwand's point seems the most damaging. After World War II and the defeat of the Germans, major studio executives took a tour of Germany. Their desire was that Germany no longer be allowed to make its own movies (they even urged Congress to ban film stock in Germany)--there were propaganda excuses for this, but essentially the real reason seems to have boiled down to having a captive audience to sell American movies to. Millions of Jews died in the war, and little was ever done for them by the industry; the only concern, it seems, was making money.

Friday, July 4, 2014

On "Mouth" by David Ryan (3139 words) ****

Ryan's "Mouth" hits on past, present, and future in a way that I haven't quite seen before. The story begins with a wedding of sorts, one brother visiting the other. And then, quickly, it becomes a story about an accident, the way that one comes upon such emergencies in real life, without warning. And it becomes about bodies and mouths and shame and hope and desire and dreams and fear. Read the tale here at Failbetter.

On "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan *****

Labeled a novel, this is essentially a short story cycle. Each chapter picks up on a minor character from one of the previous chapters and tells a tale from that point of view. The episodes are not in chronological order. As such, I had at times difficulty remembering who a particular character was or where I'd come across the character before.

I'm a fan of short story cycles. I feel like they give me something I love--short stories--with a bonus--short stories that build on one another. What I'm not a fan of is publishers' attempts to rewrite such collections as something they aren't: novels. Or "novels in stories." I mean, come on. Is the American audience so averse to short stories that we have to label collections of them in a way that hides just what is being read? And does such labeling really pay off? Someone looking for a novel is going to be dissatisfied, and someone looking for stories might well pass the book up.

The stories here center around music and publicity. Most of the tales mention a woman named Sasha or a man named Bennie. Bennie is a record agent. Sasha is his assistant. We catch them--through other characters or themselves--at various times in their lives. So the book begins with Sasha on her analyst's couch, discussing why she likes to steal and how that makes her actually feel. She is also discussing Internet dating--and most particularly a date with a man named Alex, who discovers her table of stolen goods. I'd completely forgotten Alex by the time I got to the end of the book, which closes with a tale about Alex himself, working as a publicity agent for Bennie, who by now has been fired by the label he started and is having to start "fresh" with an old friend with whom he played in a band as a teen, a friend whom he once dismissed when that friend was more or less homeless and Bennie at the top of his game.

In between, we get tales of Bennie's band, of Bennie's mentor (an older record executive with a penchant for picking up barely legal girls, marrying them, siring by them, and discarding them a few years later), of offspring of that mentor on safari, of the brother of Bennie's wife come home from jail and rediscovering his love for promoting causes, of the woman--an actress--who put that brother in jail for kidnapping and attempted rape, of a publicist who hires that actress to give a dictator a softer appearance to the public, of Sasha's uncle going to search for the twenty-something her in Europe (where she has gotten into drugs, thievery, and the sex trade), and of Sasha's children's obsession with the pauses in songs.

The tales themselves seem to be on some level about the passage of time and how we can never hold on to the things we once were, though we obsess about them, that wonderful, joyous, beautiful, painful past: our youth.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

On "The Sweethearts" by Hans Christian Andersen (803 words) ***

Arguably a seize-the-day tale, this story recounts the life of a top and a ball. The ball is too stuck up to marry the top, and then, years later, when the ball is past its prime and ready for a relationship, the top no longer has any interest. Cynical Andersen strikes again. Read the tale here.

On “The Geography of Bliss” by Eric Weiner ****

This has been on my list for years, but our local library doesn't have it. Not long ago, a coworker of mine was talking about the book, and he had a copy, and he loaned it to me. The idea of the book is what drew me to it, and no doubt others, since it became a best-seller. Weiner travels to various countries to find out what makes the people in these places happy (or unhappy). I found the idea to be slightly more interesting than the execution. Weiner is an NPR reporter, and the chapters feel very much like a sort-of-tongue-in-cheek NPR report, the kind that's both engaging and annoying. I guess I was wanting something a bit more methodical; instead, Weiner sometimes often goes off on tangents--intriguing, but not necessarily germane to the point at hand.

This is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. It definitely got through it quickly and had, at times, a desire to read past my daily allotment of time and pages. The book also made me think a bit about my own happiness or lack thereof and the places that I have lived. Weiner says that happiness tends to hit highs in childhood and old age; I'd heard that happiness, rather, builds with age, which means I should be happier in my forties than my thirties than my twenties, and so on. The point of this is that when I think of California and my childhood, I do indeed think of those days with a great amount of pleasure. I also think highly of Mississippi and of Georgia. The only place I did not enjoy my life in was Texas, and even there, I look back on those harder times with a certain fondness for the very hardness of them.

But of those places, in which was I happiest, and where would I choose to live if I could be in any one of them? The latter is what should be used, Weiner says, to declare “home.” I'm not sure I agree with that. Right now, I'd choose to live in Georgia, as I do. But there are circumstances and reasons for such thinking. Were resources not an issue, California still holds a great appeal, but partly it holds appeal for my history with it. Would I really want to live there? I love the town I live in currently, and most of my friends are here. I can't go back to the California of my childhood. In fact, I'd return to something more like the California of my young adulthood, where I increasingly felt that I didn't fit in. That is not a place I'd want to live in.

Recently, I married. I still love the place I live, but I have come to see it in some ways as having less importance than it once did. No longer single, I'm not as dependent on my network of friends; in fact, I rarely see them anymore. The need for places to go by myself is no longer there. Were circumstances to work out, I could see moving again. I see such with trepidation, given how happy I have been here and how connected to the community I feel, but my bride and stepchildren do not have that same connection (yet) and that in turn affects, to an extent, my own feelings about my current abode (though I can't say I have much desire to move to the snowy northern Midwest either).

Weiner's tour of countries starts off with those near the top of a list of the happiest nations on Earth. The Netherlands, where the study/survey was/is tabulated, ranks as the happiest of all, and it is there that Weiner begins, interviewing the professor responsible for starting happiness studies. Why, Weiner asks, do the Dutch rank as so happy? Perhaps it is the permissiveness of the culture? But then he goes to Sweden, a more uptight country, and finds people there quite happy as well. A trip to Qatar shows that money isn't everything in terms of happiness, as does its opposite, Bhutan, a relatively poor country I'd barely heard of that ranks relatively well on the happiness scale. The key for the Bhutanese is to not desire too much. A trip to Moldova is a trip to a supposedly very unhappy place, where everyone feels poor (perhaps, the key with riches is not to feel poorer than those around you, and poor Moldova rests within a sphere of richer countries--it also had a recent period of relative ease that it's lost out on; indeed, it is easier, I think, to be happier never having had most of the time than to have had and lost, though not always, since sometimes having had an experience is enough to make us happy simply to have had it and allows us to move on). Iceland is a country of heavy drinking and little sun, but people there are happy. British mask their happiness in a quietness and ease. In India, Weiner goes to an ashram and an anti-ashram to see what exactly such things have to do with our happiness. And finally, he returns home, suggesting that Americans are perhaps less happy than they should be because they move around too much (ironically, he suggests that people's ability to move is what makes for happy people in his afterword). The epilogue does a nice summation of all that Weiner has presented, and if you don't want the colorful human interest tales, it might just be enough to show you all of Weiner's findings.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On "The Traveling Companion" by Hans Christian Andersen (7456 words) ***

In the tradition of the bloodier fairy tales out there, this one tells the story of a man who happens upon a very helpful friend with magic powers. In the course of the tale, the man also happens into a village with a beautiful princess who also happens to be a witch. Each suitor has to answer of her three questions correctly, and she will be their spouse. Otherwise, they die. And many are the skeletons in the castle. She's really beautiful apparently, because the man decides to go for her regardless. Behind her power, we learn, is a horrible ogre. Things don't look so good. Sounds like a fairly typical attempt at a relationship. Read the tale here.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

On "The Body" by Julianna Spallholz (498 words) ****

This short piece seems more a poem than a story to me. But either way, what makes it special is the way the Spallholz makes me reconfigure and reconsider the world by putting everything not in an identity but in a mere body. Suddenly our physical presence seems to hold the most reality. Read the story here at Noo Journal.

On "Neuromancer" by William Gibson ****

On sentence level, this is one of the best-written books on my science-fiction reading list. Gibson seems genuinely interested in writing pretty words. I have on some level intended to this this book for decades, but on another level, it's always scared me a bit--seemed a bit too dry and detailed--and so I've stayed away. I'm glad I finally dared get past the first few pages. It is dense, but it's also a great read.

I wanted to read Gibson's work on the science fiction list in part because it is considered, so far as I understand, seminal in the creation of the cyberpunk genre. I never quite knew what that was, but now that I've read Gibson, I think I have some understanding. We're talking Matrix here, and indeed, much of what would later show up in those Matrix is anticipated here in Gibson, who himself writes of the Matrix and of people living in and out of a cyberspace world. Amazingly, this book was written back in the mid-1980s, when the Internet was the playhouse mostly just of the military and of a few true computer geeks (like some of my friends were).

The story revolves around a man named Case, who once did some high white-collar crimes, bilking companies he worked for of millions with savvy computer hacking. He might have had loads of money, but his accounts were frozen and the companies fried his brains to ensure he never worked in computers again. When we meet him, he is a drug dealer and a drug addict hanging on the streets of Tokyo.

Someone wants him to go to work for them. They want him badly enough that they offer to pay for surgery to correct his brain ("offer" may be a light word here--they more or less insist). In exchange, Case has to do some computer work for them. As it turns out, this computer work involves a lot of hacking into alternate cyberspace worlds, monitoring others, and searching for something. This is where things are a bit murky and dense and why Gibson's work demands close or second readings. Case doesn't know exactly who his boss is working for--and thus who he is working for--so he goes in search. In part, this is because the correction to his brain is temporal; if he quits, toxins will be released that will return him to his fried-brain state. Eventually, Case figures out that he's working for an artificial intelligence (that's right, for a computer), called Wintermute. Wintermute's got designs on the human race, on computer's generally. What exactly they are never became clear to me. At points, the narrative shifts so often between the computer world and the real world that the two begin to blur.

Nevertheless, it's a fun ride.