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.