Thursday, May 30, 2019

On "The Tree" by H. P. Lovecraft (1634 words) ***

Two artists vie to build a statue, but in the course of their work, one dies--vaguely becoming a tree. The supernatural effects go on to change the community. Read the story here.

On "Between Athens and Jerusalem" by John J. Collins ****

This book describes how Jewish people and Greek people interacted with one another during the second temple period, especially from 200 BC to 200 AD. Collins does this primarily through looking at apocryphal Jewish writings from this period, but also by looking at historical and social elements.

Gentiles, to some extent, took on Jewish customs during this period--many began to take off one of the days of the week. Some went to synagogue. Many were impressed by Judaism as a kind of philosophic religion or by the fact that it was monotheistic. But the focus isn't as much on those who took on Jewish customs as on the ways that Jews reacted to Gentiles.

In that respect, Jews wrote with various strategies to show that they were in fact every bit as intelligent their Greek conquerors. One strategy included playing up the philosophical angle of the religion. Another strategy included claiming that Greek ideas actually originated with the Jews. With many diaspora Jews, the law, while important, was not the overwhelming concern that we think of it being in rabbinical Judaism. Greeks might have as much affinity and promise of a good life as a Jew if they generally stuck to moral laws of God--dietary laws, circumcision, these things didn't matter so much in much of the diaspora literature.

Collins provides some great summaries and analysis of Alexandrian thought and history, more than I can sum up here, as he does of various specific texts, most of which I have never read.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On "The 37" by Mary Miller (2097 words) *****

"The 37" seems a fitting end to Miller's Always Happy Hour collection. It's about a woman who tries. What I mean is that it's about a woman who, despite her constant anxiety, forces herself to travel, to go to places and to do things that she's uncomfortable with, like riding the bus. And in a sense, that's the most healthy thing a person can do--even if that person's mental state is seemingly unhealthy. Read the story here at Joyland.

On "Always Happy Hour" by Mary Miller ***

There is much that I enjoy about Mary Miller's writing. It's accessible; it's gritty; it's realism in the form that I much enjoyed when I was younger: dirty. These are stories about plain, old everyday life. They're not going to wow you with narrative innovations; rather, they're going to plod along wowing with the content of the words.

"Introductions" is a case in point of how good Miller can be when she is "on." This story is about an insecure woman fretting over her fairly secure relationship. Is she smart enough to be with her well-read boyfriend? good enough? pretty enough? Why is he still with her? Will they last? It's true to the feel of a lot of relationships, which makes me wonder to an extent why we live this way, why we want relationships when we don't feel ourselves worthy of them.

"The House on Main Street" focuses on a similar gal, though here insecurity is replaced by a kind of willingness just to be and a longing to be more. The narrator lives with a Yankee, both students in an MFA program in Mississippi. The New York City roommate frets constantly over how backward the South and southerners are, though showing herself not much more sophisticated than those around her at every turn, except in superficial ways (she drinks wine!). The narrator has settled into a pseudorelationship, a friends with benefits relationship, with another grad student who would marry her in a heartbeat. She thinks a lot about her ex-husband, even calls him occasionally, though she also wonders why, since she tells us she no longer knows what she saw in him. We're left wondering why the heart wants what it wants.

As the collection continues, some of the stories fall into a rut, becoming different versions of one another and harder to distinguish. In "Proper Order" a new (visiting?) professor invites students to her house for a party, largely with the intention of sleeping with one of them. She knows this is a horrible idea, but it's beside the point. Her life choices have generally been bad, and she thinks of how her students still have the ability to make the right decisions and choices, leading to better lives--this, even though the teacher is only shortly out of grad school, though not writing, after publishing a first book.

"The Longest Covered "Walkway in the World" seems a somewhat less effective version of the opening story of the collection. A woman goes out with her boyfriend, a divorce with a child he shares with his wife, taking daily turns at custody. The woman expects, at any time, to be rejected, for the man to go back to his wife. She aims to be a better person, worthy of love, but constantly believes she is incapable of that.

By contrast, "Uphill" is a fun story that seems somehow less than the sum of its parts. In it, a woman travels with her boyfriend to do a favor for a "bad guy"--a friend of the boyfriend's--taking a photo of a woman for which a substantial amount of money will be given, because, you know . . . The whole mystery at the center of this tale is part of what makes it so intriguing. Bad things are probably happening, but you're never certain exactly what those things are. As Mark Richard once said in a workshop I took from him, not knowing is often more powerful.

"Dirty" features some really memorable lines and some interesting characters, though the story as a whole doesn't seem to go much of anywhere. It features a gal and her boyfriend and their close other friend, who is dating a fat girl but won't admit it.

"He Says I Am a Little Oven" is about a woman on a cruise with her boyfriend an his parents. As with the main character in most of the stories in this collection, the relationship seems temporal and unsteady, the woman herself unsteady and often unemployed, dependent on the boyfriend.

"Where All of the Beautiful People Go" is a story about a pool party. A gal is hanging out with a much older female friend who debates whether to return the furniture she racked up on her newly dead mom's credit cards, who has prostituted herself because her husband can't get it up anymore, and who had an accident that may have affected her brain years before the narrator and the woman met. It's also a story about how accidents (and accidents of the mind) can change our whole being and circumstances, how utterly unpredictable our lives can be.

"Love Apples" is a story about a woman throwing her life away, at least that's how I read it. She has a fairly decent, if boring, husband, who she is divorcing to run off with a man from the Internet, her "boyfriend," whom she has never met in real life and who doesn't really know what she looks like. It seems to be a story about really bad decisions we make in pursuing dreams or in living them--for the moment.

The weather plays the role of an important secondary character in "Hamilton Pool," where drought has sapped the landscape in which Darcie and her ex-con boyfriend trundle along in survival mode, not really working, trying to deal with a past that was hard and brutal, one the boyfriend tells first wanted then unwanted stories about.

The title story serves as a kind of template for the book as a whole, insofar as it includes a typical female narrator and her boyfriend. The latter is jobless, has a child he shares with an ex, and the former feels very lucky to have him in her life--so much so that she worries about losing him, even as she drinks a lot.

"Little Bear" does something similar in a very short space, but the focus in this one is on the mom (who is actually married) with her child. She thinks on how ephemeral all these family blessings are and hopes desperately that things don't fall apart.

"First Class" is one of my favorites in the collection. Although boyfriends also feature in the background of the story, the focus is on the friendship between two women, one a spendthrift lottery winner and the other her unhappy hanger-on. The two take a trip with each other, the latter traveling on the former's dime. The hanger-on doesn't like her friend or the trips they take, and yet she finds herself oddly compelled to stay. The story answers the question why.

"Charts" focuses on the relationship between two sisters, one adopted, the other a divorcee who relishes the home, the things, she got in the divorce but who like most of the characters in the book has anxiety issues, such that when her sister comes to visit, she does her best to avoid serious social interaction.

In the end, the collection is, as one review states, a book about Texas (and Mississippi) women making bad choices. And in a sense, it is--but those choices are grounded in a sense of anxiety about losing love or not believing in the value of one's mundane life. And if that's one thing about Miller's stories that places them into a sector of fiction, it is the focus on the mundane, which much like Ann Beattie's or Bobbie Ann Mason's work, eventually makes most of them seem much the same.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

On "Happy Hour" by Denis Johnson (1590 words) ****

This short piece about drinking, scrounging by, and trying to score a certain woman expertly exhibits the kind of crazy randomness that rocks Johnson's stories. We're never sure quite where we're going to end up--perhaps popping horse meds. Read the story here at Granta.

On "When Christians Were Jews" by Paula Fredriksen ****

I started off with much excitement and anticipation of reading this book, which I'd been wanting to get to for quite some time. Fredriksen promised to approach the subject of early Christianity, it seemed, from a Jewish perspective, which makes sense, given that the early Christians were Jews. Alas, in some ways, I was a bit disappointed, but in yet others this proved a profitable read.

I'll start with what was not as I had hoped. First, while Fredriksen writes very accessibly, I had a hard time following a through argument. A lot of interesting subjects--and some not so interesting--are explored, but I didn't really feel like there was much of a unifying thesis. Second, Fredriksen's approach is very much one informed by in-vogue secular ideas about the Jesus cult: namely that Jesus was not worshipped in the first generation. That veneration grew with time and mythology. It's an easy assumption to make, because that after all is how most myths are born. But to make such an argument, Fredriksen has to assume that all of the New Testament other than Paul's writings was written significantly later, in the last first century or early second. And even problematic passages in Paul's letters are seen as being mistranslations: Jesus isn't "God" as we read Paul's writing in English but "a god." Fredriksen's stance with regard to her biblical sources is further testified to by the way that she often claims there are contradictions. Some of these I can easily see any reasonable person making such a claim about; but others seem preposterous. For example, she claims that Paul's not writing about persecuting Stephen by name means there's a contradiction and that it likely did not happen as it is written about in the much-later-written Acts. The mere fact that someone does not mention an event in specificity but only in general does not make for a contradiction nor excuse for dismissing its reality. If I were to write that many acts of Islamic terrorism happened in the early 2000s but never mentioned 9/11 specifically, that would not mean that 9/11 did not happen.

What I liked about Fredriksen's work, however, came late in the book, when she focused on the interaction of pagans with Jewish Christians. Here she left me with much to think about. That's not to say there aren't interesting points earlier: they are nestled in among the larger text. What is perhaps most refreshing was exactly what I came to the text to read about: that Fredriksen does not read into the early Christian movement an anti-Judaism. She sees Paul as very much Jewish, which is not something many other scholars seem to recognize. Unlike those scholars, Fredriksen sees Paul as part of the movement that Peter and the apostles forged rather than as one who stole into the movement and introduced a Christianity devoid of its roots.