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.