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.