Saturday, May 30, 2015

On "Pique Assiette" by Ann Hillesland (3024 words) ***

Hillesland's story grips with sad little moments. A sister visits her grandmother and sister. The latter is taking care of the grandmother--but not in an entirely appropriate manner, or so the narrator things, until she has to spend an afternoon with the grandmother herself. "Do whatever you want," the care-taking sister says, "like you always do," in response to an offer to help. One hears the resentment in a single line, and it stings. Read the story here at Stirring.

Monday, May 25, 2015

On "Rabbit Hole" by Kelly Rede (4215 words) ***

Rede uses the familiar story of Alice in Wonderland, mixes in a bit of the Wizard of Oz and fairy lore, and creates something wholly unique. Dorothy is stuck in a story, which is a marvelous place, but like all good things, stories too must come to an end. Read it here at Four Star Stories.

On "Strange Fruit" by Lillian Smith ****

A surprising choice for Publishers Weekly's number one best-seller of 1944, Smith's book is a work of high modernism with an emphasis on racial disorder in the at-that-time recent South. The first three years of the war featured best-selling Christian fiction that was arguably much more accessible and certainly much less prone to likely creating controversy. Smith's book focuses on a love affair between a black woman and a white man and the fallout created by it. The novel is told from various perspectives and is often in stream-of-consciousness.

The Andersons are highly educated southern blacks from the town of Maxwell--more educated, in fact, than many of the white folks around them. Though educated, the narrator notes, the Andersons do not buck the southern system--they're "good" blacks. The novel seems to show something different than that. One of the siblings, Bess, certainly falls in line with the expectations thrust on her by society, but her brother Ed has left the South because of his hate of the town and the South's racist views and laws. Nonnie, another sister, doesn't really follow the conventions of the society and doesn't seem to much care how that might ostracize her.

It is Nonnie that takes up with a white man named Tracy. Tracy has returned from the army after World War I and doesn't have much in the way of ambition. He comes from a upper-crust family in the town, and it is expected that he will marry a certain white gal he has taken out for some time. Tracy, throughout, fights with himself whether to follow convention or follow his heart. But the answer seems self-evident: there is no possibility that he could ever be with Nonnie. At best, he could refuse the upcoming marriage and taking on a farm (or some other job), but he proves less than able to stand up against expectations.

Complicating things is the fact that Nonnie is pregnant with Tracy's child (the rest of this paragraph is full of spoilers). As this discovery makes its rounds among some of the townspeople, the reactions vary, though they are generally negative. The pregnancy leads eventually to Tracy's murder and to a black man--a childhood friend of Tracy's--being lynched, though the man had little to do with the murder.

Religion comes in for quite a critique here, as it is in many ways the ministers who urge Tracy to "do the right thing" and to avoid black town and to marry the right woman. Right and wrong are defined culturally rather than on some higher moral plain.

How this ended up the best-selling novel of 1944, I have no idea. Perhaps, the prospect of interracial sex was enough of a controversial subject to propel the book to the top of the charts. Certainly, the novel doesn't have much bearing on World War II, other than the fact that there is a mild critique of race relations insofar as African Americans served in the military, defending the country, and came home to a racist society that treated them as subhuman--a critique that would continue during World War II and that would eventually lead to the civil rights movement.

No matter, it is nice to see something comparatively complex sold so well.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

On "Lake Michigan" by Paula Bomer (7785 words) ***

I'm reminded of a story by Brock Clarke about a family reunion/vacation at a lake cabin that goes terribly awry. Bomer's tale covers similar ground, but with less humor and a quieter sense of grief. We grow old, and our lives are not as we would wish them, and the past is never as good as we remember it. Maddy is an advertising executive in New York City. Her sister is a housewife in Los Angeles; her parents are aging--her father battling chronic depression--in hometown Indiana. They opt for a reunion at a lake house, one last hurrah for dad. Unfortunately, the home is smaller than remembered and less beautiful; the family time together proves to be less glorious than remembered as well, each person quickly getting on one another's nerves. One senses a certain jealousy among all of the family members for how their lives have turned out, a certain stubborn clinging to the superiority of their decisions, be they family or career. Read the story here are Better.

Friday, May 15, 2015

On "The Relative Weight of Angels" by Avril Breckenridge Barron (5940 words) ***

Here's a story about death in various forms--the death of pets, the death of siblings, the death of children. Here's a story about what it means to be one of the ones left behind, one of the ones who's going to be left behind again and again and again, because, after all, you're the youngest. How do we survive this mess? Everyone has their own coping mechanism. Read a few of them here at Carve Zine.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

On "Walang Hiya, Brother" by Melissa R. Sipin (7474 words) ***

Kweli publishes a lot of interesting stories insofar as they come from very differing points of view and culture. Here's a tale about arranged marriage, but it's more about the guy who's being arranged than the woman. He's being "sold" essentially for money, someone who needs citizenship papers. It's a fascinating look at a Filipino community. Read the story here at Kweli.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On "Who Are You Supposed to Be?" by Elise Burke (4342 words) ****

It's nice to read something by a writer who seems sure of herself and her material. Here, a young adult woman kavetches over what to wear to a Halloween party and how to act at it as well. She's newly single, after breaking up with a five-year boyfriend, and she's also a bit sentimental for a sister she barely knew. It's not that there's a lot going on here in the story itself but that Laura comes to us fully formed. This could be any party and any girl, but it also is completely just this one girl. Part of a collection of "party" stories, I expect to read more. You can read this story here at Swarm.

On "Under Cover" by John Roy Carlson **

Publishers Weekly's best-selling nonfiction book of 1943 is a work of its era. I can see how it sold so well back then and also why it does not live on as some sort of classic now. Imagine, if you will, a book about Islamic terrorist in the United States, a book that names names, tells of white-bred American citizens who are plotting with Muslims to place the country under Sharia law and of a few politicians who are out to help them. Very juicy . . . except this book is about American Nazis in the lead up to and during World War II. And most of those Americans are no longer famous, if they ever were. Hence, not so juicy now.

Carlson's name is a pseudonym for a man who uses an assumed name when investigating these various right-wing groups. The man himself is an Armenian who came over to the United States as a youngster, having suffered, with his parents, the prejudice of peoples in the Old World. One Christmas in New York, a couple of men assassinate the bishop of their Armenian church. These men claim ties to a right-wing group. And thus Carlson's mission is born: to penetrate such groups and find out how they are working in the United States.

What follows are accounts of Carlson, posing as an Italian American, visiting various right-wing organizations and becoming, at times, a pseudo-member. He starts low, helping to sell right-wing newspapers (but mostly destroying them and claiming he sold them) and attending meetings of various right-wing groups. Eventually, he starts his own paper, which he distributes only to people who are already of a right-wing persuasion. This gives him credibility that he's able, from then on, to use a door to various "American First" or "America for America" groups.

Many of these groups are anti-Semitic. Many believe in using democracy to spread their doctrines and then ending democracy once they come to power. Many take Germany's side in the war or are antiwar. Many probably are dangerous. Carlson goes to cities all over America to get the scoop: New York (including black Harlem, where there are African American Nazi sympathizers), Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Boston. Carlson tracks down various politicians who given an ear to some of the people in these groups. And Carlson gives out addresses and phone numbers too!

And yet, I couldn't help but feel that some of the people mixed up in these groups were, besides those who were clearly racists or national socialists and those who were crackpots at best, probably simply antiwar. Carlson writes frequently of those who are appeasers or defeatists, those who don't want to fight this war, slotting them in with outright traitors. And in that, it seems, there can be a danger, as there has been at other times of war. I'm reminded of a conservative talk show host who once asked, "How can you be a Democrat and call yourself an American?" Or of another such host who said that Congress's lone nay voter with regard to handing George Bush vast power after 9/11 should be kicked out. When did our country become a one-party state? Isn't that what exists under dictatorships?

Carlson claims to have wanted to investigate Communists as well but to have been unable to get past the screeners. His main problem, as he notes, is not with opposing parties (he likes middle-of-the-road Democrats and Republicans) but with the right and left extremes. In that regard, he's probably like most of us Americans.

Some interesting figures did pop up in the book. Senators Gerald Nye and Benjamin Wheeler seem like intriguing figures to read more about, given their ties to some of these organizations. Likewise, a priest named Father Coughlin who hosted an anti-Roosevelt (pro-Nazi?) radio show, until he was kicked off the air in the middle of the war, is a very interesting figure that I'll probably want to read a book about at some point in the future.