Sunday, June 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 68: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Porcelain and Pink (#90)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Porcelain and Pink" (1920) from F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922:

As a devoted 30 Rock fan, I sometimes wonder how well certain fits of timeliness will date. When Liz Lemon references the balloon boy hoax of 2009 or when Paul proposes to Jenna by singing "Zou Bisou Bisou," a la Mad Men season five, it's worth wondering how well those jokes will play in a few years. (I barely remember the balloon boy hoax, though I did just start watching season five of Mad Men.)

So there's a point in this one-act, one-scene playlet where one character in a bathtub starts referencing everything from Bergson (who I've heard of) to Gaby Deslys (who I haven't). The LoA headnote is pretty good about explaining certain references, though I also like to imagine that section growing as time goes on. (At what point in time will "bathtub" have to be explained?) Also, I'm glad the LoA page notes how reaction to this was mixed, particularly around the idea of a naked woman in a bathtub--funny, prurient, or stupid bathroom humor? Story of your life, right?

The piece itself could be performed, but it's clearly written as a closet drama. The stage directions especially come from an opinionated narrator. It's the kind of voice that's free to inform us that "beautiful girls have throats instead of necks." And the rest of the piece is occasionally fun, as when the literature-minded boy of the older sister and the irreverent younger sister try to communicate about lit. At the end of the day--that is, the day today--it's a puff piece; in 1920, it probably marked Fitzgerald as a man who would investigate any topic or bathtub.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 67: Anonymous, A Dream (#155)

Anonymous, "A Dream" (1831) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of my favorite books: it's deeply humane, while retaining some sense of humor, and it rightly criticizes Southerners and Northerners for their attitudes toward blacks, while simultaneously noting that it is not always easy to find a moral guide. It is also, from our vantage point, a very troubled book, especially from the vantage of someone who wants a truly multicultural basis: "We are all equal," says Harriet Beecher, "after all, aren't we all Christians?" Er, well, not so much, says this atheist Jew.

And for all that some of the black characters are as intelligent and sensitive as any of the white characters (and yes, for all that there is variation in the whites), from our vantage, some of Stowe's characters seem like they'd be at home in any of the pro-slavery literature of the period. After all, it doesn't matter to Stowe if blacks are childlike innocents who love bright colors and to dance--what's important is their Christian souls. But to us, those stereotypes aren't helping anymore. There's a reason that "Uncle Tom" transforms from a saintly do-gooder of the 19th century to the 20th century meaning of collaborator.

Similarly, this anonymous (signed "T.T.") essay-story from the abolitionist Liberator magazine may have a great vision of an America where black and white (and Native Indian, in an aside) are all equal and intermingled. (Oh, Cheerios interracial ad, you're too good for us now.) T.T. writes pretty strongly and with some humor, as when he notes that this future utopia came about after "some bright geniuses made the discovery that black men have rights as well as whites." Also, the frame is an oldie but a goodie, with a powerful end: after thinking about different scales of time, the narrator "visits" the future, finds that it's awesome, and then gets woken up--all of the beautiful sounds of the future turned into the horrible sounds of the slave-trading present.

At the same time, I can't help but cringe when the races get assigned their particular strengths, as if this were a roleplaying handbook where elves can see in the dark: black people have grace, white people have industry, etc. For all that "A Dream" is on the right side of history, its reliance on a certain view of race clearly marks it as part of its time.

(That said, I want to address the "well, everyone was racist back then" argument that I usually hear when discussing older science fiction/fantasy works. First, no, not everyone was racist back then, no matter when "then" was. We have so many stories of people crossing color lines and mingling, so there were some people who weren't all that racist.

(Second, the "everyone was racist back then" argument fails to take into account the different types of racism and the different racial arguments. "T.T." here happens to fall into the "races have particular strengths and weaknesses" argument, but he clearly misses the other types of racism that condone slavery--and even skewers them. In other words, "everyone was racist back then" stops the conversation, when we should start the conversation by asking, "what are the different ways people were racist?" As we can see in "A Dream" and Uncle Tom's Cabin, people who thought the races could mingle also felt that there was some innate distinction between them.)

Friday, June 28, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 66: Theodore Dreiser, The Country Doctor (#159)

Theodore Dreiser, "The Country Doctor" (1918) from Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, Twelve Men:

In typical Dreiserian fashion, "The Country Doctor" is one long sketch of a semi-fictitious character; as the LoA note remarks, the doctor here is a combination of two rural doctors, only one of whom Dreiser actually knew. I say that this is typical Dreiser because, for a fiction writer, Dreiser sure did like to stick to the facts. (Which is one reason why Dreiser gets a certain amount of love in historical circles. We might want to say that this interest in the truth comes from his time as a journalist, but journalists back then weren't always interested in the truth. High school tends to focus on the idea of Hearst and "Yellow Journalism," but really the idea of "journalistic ethics" barely exists in any time before 1920.)

The anecdotes that make up "The Country Doctor" are pretty standard "good doctor to poor region" stories: he didn't always collect on his debts, he had a nagging wife about that; he went anywhere at any time of day to help a sick person; he used any trick he could to help people, including folk remedies or getting them mad, if that's what it took; he was somber but humorous; etc. There are some anecdotes that are atypical for this sort of character, such as that he loved spring and birds, going so far as to keep some pet crows who kept stealing from him and his family.

But after 20 pages of anecdotes, all we really have is a distant sketch about a particular person. It's almost more interesting to try to read into it and see what's missing. For instance, we hear how the doctor never collects debts and could be off to a big city where he would be rich and famous--and then we're also told that he's got a black manservant around the house. If nothing else, that's a reminder that a certain class of labor was cheap enough for even a poor country doctor.

As for structure, Dreiser starts with two longish personal anecdotes--how the doctor prescribed a folk remedy for his dad, which little Dreiser had to gather; and how he woke the doctor in the middle of the night to come look in on his sister, which resulted in a scary walk back for little Dreiser--and only after establishing his personal connection to the doctor does he branch out and start giving anecdotes from other people.

Short story read-aloud, week 15 and 16

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod)

Leonid Andreyev, "The Abyss": An older and very lyrical/metaphorical story about a pair of young lovers wandering through a wood, until some men attack (and rape?) the woman. Somewhat shocking to think of this being printed in 1902 Russia. More of a tone story than character/plot story.

Rudyard Kipling, "At the End of the Passage": A bunch of Englishmen in India get together for a game of cards, one of them dies later of terror of the country--which may be curse-related. For Kipling, I thought this was somewhat less structured and interesting than his usual--fun to hear the language of the Englishman ("bumblepuppy" and "punka-wallah"), but not enough arc to the story.

Dixon Chance, "Beware the Jabberwock, My Son": A dad watching his son discovers this old mirror (his wife wanted) gives access to some horrible monster. Fine, but nothing really memorable.

Scott M. Roberts, "The End-Of-The-World Pool": Two boys discover this decrepit pool (attached to the house their dads are rehabbing) has some monster/lure; the focus on this is all about the boys' relationship--their fighting and their making up. Which gives it a nice grounded topic when the language sometimes gets away.

Nathaniel Katz, "Beyond the Shrinking World": When the world is being pulled apart, some magic knight has to go kill the source (or rather the demigod who is using the world-pulling-apart power). Started out interesting, but lost steam for me as it settled into that epic quest groove.

Liz Argall, "Mermaid's Hook": A fun inversion of mermaid tales as a mermaid rescues a slave who gets tossed off a slave-ship. That inversion was just about all I got from this. It's possible I'm just not listening closely this week.

Megan Arkenberg, "The Copperroof War": A house that is also a city that is also a kingdom starts to get into a strange new war with itself--and the protagonist has to track down the culprit and all of the various love triangles. Fun but also serious with an inventive setting.

Arthur C. Clarke, "Rescue Party": Aliens come to earth just before the supernova to see what they can rescue. A very old story with some issues and some interesting out-there aliens. Not the mundane sf we've got a lot of now.

Claudine Griggs, "Growing Up Human": Robots study human info to become more human. Funny, as they don't really understand what's going on; and only a little tragic, with none of the melodrama of "Now I understand your tears," etc.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa, Crime City Central)

Cordwainer Smith, "The Game of Rat and Dragon": A fine audio version of story that I'll cover in my Cordwainer Smith reread next monday.

Ben Ames Williams, "A Voice From the Fog": A man defends his no-swimming opinion by telling a classy little ghost story. In some ways, this 1917 story fits very well with the "club story" tradition: a bunch of dudes sit around and one tells a story. Only, rather than being in a club, these dudes are camping out. The ghost story is pretty predictable--businessman kills his partner and is drawn back to scene of the crime where he is himself killed by drowning--but since this story is narrated by a character within the story, he can give some deft characterizations without raising too many objections. So when the narrator says that there's nothing sadder than a man who smiles all the time, we don't want to argue, as we might if it was an omniscient narrator telling us the way it is--this is just one guy's opinion.

Christopher Fowler, "The 11th Day": A truly horrific and wonderful story: a woman without many connections in the world gets stuck in an elevator with a man who doesn't have many connections. I actually couldn't listen to this when I was falling asleep because I could take the dread engendered by the day-by-day countdown of how they're stuck and no one's coming to rescue them--especially with the title which gives away how long they'll be stuck. Here's a spoiler: At the end, the woman is dying and the two confess their love now that they are close, and I so wanted it to end there, with that beautiful and horrific moment... and then the man repairs the elevator and leaves, since it was all a scheme of his to create that beautiful shared moment. It doesn't ruin the story, it merely recasts the entire thing as horrific rather than just terrible.

Alastair Reynolds, "Sledge Maker's Daughter": Here's another story nominated for the BSFA 2007 best short story award and another story where I feel like shrugging. The opening is interesting, following a woman on her errands in some medievalish setting and her run-in with a powerful villager who wants to coerce her into sex. But then she goes to the old woman's house and the crone explains the whole world--the ice age they're coming out of is due to the space war sucking out energy from the sun and here's a technological marvel from some nice man in armor. So at the end, we have this woman who now has great tech to protect herself. But the entire second half of the story is info-dump from the old woman, with no conflict.

Jeff VanderMeer, "Shark God vs. Octopus God": A very silly name with some little silliness throughout--like the Shark God living in this mythic time and constantly cursing--but so well done, with a reader-satisfying comeuppance for the Shark God.

Elizabeth Bear, "And the Deep Blue Sea": In a post-apocalyptic landscape, a motorcycle courier debates giving up her cargo to a satanic figure, in payment for getting more years of life. I enjoy the mix of sf tropes and horror tropes--Satan transforms the landscape so that, instead of the fantastic apocalypse of the future, the motorcyclist travels through real environmental disasters of the past. I very much felt the burning heat of the southwest, but that might have more to do with my current location (the burning southwest) than with the writing. Also, the debate doesn't really have teeth for me since we don't really know the stakes.

Joe Haldeman, "Graves": A story I've read before, in which a Vietnam War forensic team goes to check out a weird corpse; they get fired on, killing a soldier; and then they go back to find the US soldier eviscerated and the weird corpse gone. There's no definite answer that, yes, this is a type of Vietnamese undead. And the story itself is so slight and prosaic in the Vietnam War genre: guy goes out, sees something horrific. But here's a story where the unglamorous details really sell it, from the guy smoking near the flame thrower to the transportation of beer as necessary rations.

Gwyneth Jones, "La Cenerentola": In the future, rich people will have new technologies to reproduce, which seem to go beyond simple genetic reconstructions to something more holographic; on vacation in Europe, an American couple meets up with a woman who has two perfect twins and one horrible little child, who may or may not be abused (as "la cenerentola"--Cinderella). There are a couple twists here that seem more confusing, including the narrator's wife's anger when the narrator discusses the twins one time too many.

Spider Robinson, "Distraction": A light tale with excellent voice: two criminals--one experienced, the other a novice--break into a house that weirdly fights back; but the wrap up is the silly "we broke into a writer's house," which deflates any actual feeling of story.

Kage Baker, "Likely Lad": A teen with a mutation that lets him control computers/electronics has normal teen urges, but can't act on them because of legal issues around teens; so his AI playfriend program, which (a) has the personality of a pirate and (b) has his moral restrictions removed by the teen, tries to get the teen into smuggling to distract him from sex. A light and fun story, featuring sugar smuggling and an over-zealous anti-smuggling patrol-captain. It's fun and low stakes, and it keeps our sympathy on the smugglers by representing the teen somewhat realistically--he's never had sex, all he knows is what he's seen on the holo-tv. There is one dangerous note in the fact that he's a mutant and the breadth of his abilities are as yet unknown.

Steve Aylett, "Gigantic": A strange story where a scientist-crackpot has visions of death and aliens; at the end, the aliens come and drop all the dead bodies that people are responsible for. Now, I might quibble with this notion of singular responsibility--all the Holocaust victims fall on Berlin, which seems to be forgetting all the help that came outside of the capital--but it is a striking image. Aylett reliably brings the weird.

Lawrence Block: "Keller the Dog-Killer": I have just subscribed to the Crime City Central podcast, which starts with a story about the hitman Keller: he gets hired to whack a dog by two women who turn out to have ulterior objects in mind. Block keeps Keller sympathetic by making his victims petty, back-stabbing, and/or monstrous (the original dog's owner gets off when her dog kills another); as well as presenting Keller as a man who is noble and tough enough to do the hard job (of killing the dog himself).

Marilyn Todd, "Something Rather Fishy": A Britain-set story about an ex-con-woman who realizes her con-woman friend is actually a black widow. There's a happy ending where the ex-con kills the black widow--whose first victim was a friend--and marries her old sweetheart. Todd does a fun thing to mark the long timespan by noting what bands were popular at the time; which more-or-less fits the narrator since she was friends with a band back in the day--and yet, the music angle is only tangential.

Chris F. Holm, "A Simple Kindness": A man sees a pretty woman on the subway leave a bag behind, so he grabs it, and finds himself caught up in a blackmail scheme (the bag is full of pictures). A very old-fashioned "the lady was trouble"/"I'm a sucker for a pretty face" story. A little too simple and old-fashioned for my taste.

Cheryl Wood Ruggiero, "Eleven Eleven": A homeless girl with a memory problem something something something. The POV/voice work here is fine, setting us within that girl's mind; the only problem is that she has a very limited view of the thing. At the end, when she has some memory of what happened, I got lost at the sudden revelation and confusion of the girl's POV.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 65: Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Gray Champion (#65)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Gray Champion" (1835) from Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches:

Before discussing Nathaniel Hawthorne, I always like to gesture towards Jane Tompkins's great Sensational Designs, which nicely points out how our notion of Hawthorne's canon status has changed over time. And I like to point that out because I think too many people come out from high school having read (or, let's be honest, having pretended to read) The Scarlet Letter and being turned off to Hawthorne as a heavy, joyless writer. (And again, honestly: how many students get confused about whether Hawthorne was or was not writing in Puritan times? Because I totally did.) But Hawthorne can be joyous and fun; House of Seven Gables isn't just a meditation on time and justice but also a rom-com.

All that said, "The Gray Champion" fits pretty well with the notion of the joyless Hawthorne, as he here goes through a historical event with a bit of fantasy: during the (totally real) rule of Edmund Andros, Hawthorne imagines a near-violent crowd event that is disrupted by a ghostly figure that is the spirit of Puritan resistance. If you're not me, you're probably most interested in the vision of resistance and the issue of church vs. state. (In Hawthorne's retelling, the Puritans resist Andros because he serves the Catholic King James and the Puritans want to keep church and state separate.) This historical event allows Hawthorne to discuss his theory of government, where "any government that does not grow out of the nature of things and the character of the people" is deformed.

If you are me, which is unlikely but not impossible, the two most interesting things are (1) the way Hawthorne uses the "King in the Mountain" trope--e.g., King Arthur is sleeping and will return when we need him most, as is King Barbarossa, Charlemagne, and several others. Here, whenever things get bad for New Englanders, the spirit of the Gray Champion will show up: "I have heard, that whenever the descendants of the Puritans are to show the spirit of their sires, the old man appears again." The crowd of resisters in some ways revives this spirit of resistance, which is marked as both metaphorical and literal, in that the spirit comes from the grave. (There's definitely a connection to be made here with Walt Whitman's "A Boston Ballad," where a parade of republicans calls forth the spirits of old rebellion against monarchy.)

And if you're me, you're also interested in (2) the way that Hawthorne represents a crowd. Almost all of Hawthorne's fictions revolve around or include some pivotal crowd scene. (Try me: name something by Hawthorne and I'll find you the crowd scene or scenes.) For instance, in "My Kinsman, Major Molyneux," a newcomer to town finds his relative being hoisted out by a monstrous and costumed crowd. So here, the crowd both has a single purpose and, sometimes, a single voice--
"Whence did he come? What is his purpose? Who can this old man be?" whispered the wondering crowd.
--but is also marked for its diversity, since it includes everyone. Now, Hawthorne isn't as interested in representing the variable crowd as Whitman is--he's usually more interested in the unity of the crowd. After all, they share one spirit in that Gray Champion. But crowds, we can find, are hard things to represent; and especially here where the crowd of Puritan-spirited resisters (with one voice) is opposed by a disunified crowd of the governor and his men, all of whom speak with their own voice. It's how Hawthorne gets to paint one crowd as organic and of the people; and the other crowd as artificial and fragmentary.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 64: Lafcadio Hearn, Some Strange Experience: The Reminiscences of a Ghost-Seer (#8)

Lafcadio Hearn, "Some Strange Experience: The Reminiscences of a Ghost-Seer" (1875) from Lafcadio Hearn: American Writings:

Lafcadio Hearn has the strangely unfortunate fate of having a great name and not much fame attached to it. He comes up sometimes in discussions of ghost stories; and film buffs may know that the movie Kwaidan was based on his collection of ghost stories (and some notes on insects) of the same name. All of which pales in comparison to how fun his name is to say: Lafcadio Hearn.

The LoA page for this story doesn't go too in-depth with Lafcadio's background, focusing mostly on the time he spent in Cincinnati (after Greece and Ireland, before New Orleans and Japan), working for one newspaper or another. Today's entry is an example of some of his journalism from that time, which showcases one of his interests in ghosts and spirits. (His other major vein seems to have been true crime, so there's some overlap there.)

As for the piece itself, it's ten pages of anecdotes from a "reluctant medium" who has worked in various houses as a domestic servant. If you like ghost stories and horror, you'll see several tropes here: headless riders, faceless ghosts, the ghost pulling the blankets off the bed, etc. If you like ghost stories (as I do), you'll also see some gaps here and there: wait, the headless rider is the ghost of a man who was stabbed in the heart--so why is he headless?

As a collection of anecdotes, there's no through-line or structure to the piece other than "Here's another story." Which is actually, I think, a benefit here: Lafcadio Hearn sets the scene in one paragraph, giving a description of the seer, and then he seems to mostly get out of the way. Except for one side-note, the rest of the piece is her telling stories (supposedly); and even if her anecdotes lead her to non-ghostly matters--like the scientific gentleman who was almost killed by a poisonous snake when he... cooked it and served it to a gun-toting neighbor--Hearn gives her free rein. By staying out of the way, Hearn makes it seem like we're just listening to this woman tell stories around a kitchen hearth.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 63: Rudyard Kipling, An Interview with Mark Twain (#16)

Rudyard Kipling, "An Interview with Mark Twain" (1890) from The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works:

Mark Twain is a fascinating figure who can be seen both as an exemplar and a radical of his time; and so my only hesitation with a collection like this one (or the collection on Lincoln that came up here) is that it may list to the side of our current understanding of Twain. That is, it's all well and good to read how Kipling loved Twain--but shouldn't we also hear how various others thought his works were juvenile, or cynical, or etc. Luckily, we have an interview with the editor, the great Shelley Fisher Fishkin, where she notes that she was most interested in how other writers felt about Twain.

However, although Rudyard Kipling had already published several books of short stories, his visit with Twain is less as a fellow writer and more like a worshipper meeting his idol. The opening is a pretty cute and somewhat Twainish recollection of how Kipling tried to track the man down throughout the northeast; but after that, we give the floor over to Twain and his feelings about writerly things.

Hilariously, at this moment, as in ours, one of the things that's on Twain's writerly brain is the businessy side of writing: copyright and the prospect of international copyright. I can't say that Twain's notion--copyright as real estate--bears much relevance to today's arguments, but it's a nice reminder that this argument has a long history.

Similarly, when they get to talking about a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Kipling may sound like a fan from today. The whole set-up of the question--will Tom marry Becky Thatcher?--is at the heart of many a fan-fic; and when Twain playfully suggests that he'll write two books, one where Tom triumphs and one where he fails, Kipling is aghast at Twain's playing with such a real person. Kipling's response is a direct attack on Twain's notion of copyright: "because he isn’t your property any more. He belongs to us.” Can Stephen King's Misery be far behind. where Kipling kidnaps Twain and forces him to write the relationship that Kipling wants for the characters that are now his?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 62: Mary Austin, The Scavengers (#92)

Mary Austin, "The Scavengers" (1903) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

One reason why I'm doing this project is to read works that I might not otherwise read; and the Mary Austin's "The Scavengers" is a great example of that. It's a short piece, which I recommend, especially to people who live in the southwest. As much as I'm a believer in the role of imagination and sympathy in literature--as Richard Ford said to a writing class I was in, the foundation of literature is "you can know what I can imagine"--there's a certain extra thrill from recognition. As I see turkey vultures more often than I see rain, this piece resonated with my experience.

"The Scavengers" is Chapter Three in Mary Hunter Austin's 1903 The Land of Little Rain, a collection of observational essays about Owens Valley, CA, where Mary and her husband settled. There's a whole bunch of background here about Austin, which the headnote covers--move to the artists' colony at Carmel, divorce, strained relationship with Ambrose Bierce (which seems to be a rite of passage for California writers), collaboration with Ansel Adams, etc. The LoA headnote covers all of that.

What I find most interesting about "The Scavengers" is its variations in tone and subject, while still maintaining a coherent approach towards the natural world around her. Mary Austin sometimes humanizes the scavengers, such as the buzzards--
It is when the young go out of the nest on their first foraging that the parents, full of a crass and simple pride, make their indescribable chucklings of gobbling, gluttonous delight.
--and sometimes she seems more intent on naturalistic observation sans comment--
The young birds are easily distinguished by their size when feeding, and high up in air by the worn primaries of the older birds.
--and she'll slip between the two without any segue or hesitation: those two lines I just quoted are right next to each other. She also sometimes includes a bit of sentimentality, as when she notes,
It is seldom one finds a buzzard’s nest, seldom that grown-ups find a nest of any sort; it is only children to whom these things happen by right.
That seems like a scarring childhood event, but you can see the connection between childhood innocence and natural wonder, a well-worn sentimental vein, which was as strong at the turn of the century as it is today. (See Jackson Lears's No Place of Grace, which would itself be a pretty good title for this sort of desert landscape essay.)

What's curious and notable about Austin's essay, beyond the style, is how wide the subject matter is, taking in coyotes, cattle dying by starvation, crows, buzzards, lack of water, and sheep herds. While her title tells us she's going to focus on one particular aspect of the environment, she recognizes how that one aspect relates to the entire natural landscape. So we can see how she comes to the end of this chapter, where she notes that man fits in "the economy of nature," but that still, "there is not sufficient account taken of the works of man." This is a definite well-spring of amateur naturalism and conservationism.

"The Game of Rat and Dragon" (1955) (Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith #4)

In my post on "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell," I argue--well, more like assert without argument--that Cordwainer Smith invents the sexy cat-girl trope and subverts it by pointing out how C'Mell status as a sexy cat-girl is intertwined with her status as a slave/underperson. But when you read "The Game of Rat and Dragon," you might lean towards the interpretation that Cordwainer Smith really liked cats.

The plot here is practically non-existent, since the only things that happen are that (1) a bunch of human telepaths get ready for a space flight with their cat-derived partners, (2) the space flight is attacked by the mysterious anti-life dragons, and (3) the main human recuperates in a hospital and feels more love for his cat-derived partner than for the human nurse. If that's too much plot for a haiku, it's not too much for a sonnet.

In fact, most of the story is setting description, with a sideline in character description that further does work as setting. So we learn about the telepaths and their pin-sets (amplifiers) and the cat-derived partners who see the space monsters as rats and attack by launching light bombs. If there's a lesson here for aspiring sf writers, I would say that you shouldn't be afraid of making the science weird and metaphorical. I mean, the "dragons" here could pretty easily fit in with some trans-dimensional Cthulhoid horror and the idea of driving off monster with light has a childish simplicity that never seems silly when you're reading this story. (Afterwards, however, you might wonder if hiding under a blanket would be equally effective in driving off the dragons.)

As usual, Cordwainer Smith makes some connections in these stories (the plano-forming ships are piloted by scanners and that sort of travel makes the Instrumentality possible); and as usual, there are many nice little details, like the fact that the cats don't think in words and are disappointed when the "rats" they kill disappear.

But that all gets us to the weird part of this. There's nothing wrong with forbidden love stories. I'm not even sure there's anything wrong with love that's forbidden because of species-difference. But as another story where a man loves a cat-creature, I think we're within our rights to ask Cordwainer Smith, "why cats?"

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 61: Susan Glaspell, The Hossack Murder (#72)

Susan Glaspell, "The Hossack Murder" (1900-1) from True Crime: An American Anthology:

At a University of Chicago workshop, Debby Applegate described how she fixed her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher by reconsidering it as a mystery story: the facts needed to be embedded in the narrative. I thought of this while reading the eight dispatches that make up Susan Glaspell's reporting on the still-unsolved Hossack murder because of the tension between facts and story here.

While the earlier articles stick to a no-nonsense, just the facts tone--the first is only 85 words!--Glaspell shifts gears into a more colorful, emotional, sentimental tone later, which is less journalistic and more personal. We get drops of this personal tone in some of the earlier pieces, as when we hear murder suspect Mrs. Hossack "looks like she would be dangerous if aroused to a point of hatred"; or when we hear that "Slowly but surely the prosecution in the Hossack murder case is weaving a web of circumstantial evidence about the defendant that will be hard to counteract."

But this personal tone comes out especially--and a little too much for my taste--in the Easter dispatch that begins, "Seldom, if ever, have the people of Indianola seen such an Easter sabbath as Sunday." Glaspell isn't clumsy--she uses the repetition of the question "Is she guilty?" and "Will they convict her?" to some effect. That first effect is actually to drive home the distance between guilt and conviction for a crime.

And yet, what strikes me most about this collection is how so much seems to be left out. Glaspell reports that the case against Mrs. Hossack weights heavily on the affair of the dog in the nighttime--but that's the first time we ever hear about the dog. (A little googling around will find some very interesting use of the dog Shep for both prosecution and defense.) Then there's the issue of the relation between Mr. and Mrs. Hossack, which is never really described--possibly because Glaspell is keeping to the court facts. (Though I really think the court case would look into the possibility of abuse as a motive for murder.) Finally, at the very end of this collection, we get this bomb-shell:
It is universally believed at Indianola that if Mrs. Hossack did not murder her husband she knows who did.
Wait, what? If this opinion was so wide-spread, why are we only hearing about it now in this abrupt fashion? Here's a moment where I feel that Glaspell is trying to walk a careful tightrope between telling an interesting story and sticking to the facts, and doesn't quite pull it off.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 60: Willa Cather, A Wagner Matinée (#67)

Willa Cather, "A Wagner Matinée" (1904) from Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings:

A guy living in Boston gets a visit from the aunt who helped raise him out in the culture-less wilds of Nebraska; this aunt is very musical and from Boston originally, so they go see a performance of some Wagner music, which deeply affects her. As the note at the LoA site says, Cather got in some family trouble for this story, since they didn't like their Western home depicted as being culture-less wilds--and after reading the story, I'm not sure what else there is here.

It's one of those stories where the narrator watches someone else have an experience, which means that the story is fairly plot-free, but also not super interesting on a character-level: we don't get to feel that experience first-hand--what exactly is Aunt Georgiana realizing when she listens to these songs?--and the second-hand experience comes through a character whose defining feature is "guy who lives in Boston now."

Also, so much of the story is spent describing the Wagner, that I think I would have to mark as correct any student essay which described the theme of this story as "you should really listen to Wagner."

This is a short note, which is a shame for my 60th post. I'm now currently 1/3rd of the way through the 180 Stories of the Week. Of course, for every seven stories I do, they add another--so I should be done in 20 weeks.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 59: Charles W. Chesnutt, Baxter’s Procrustes (#41)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "Baxter’s Procrustes" (1904) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays:

"Procrustes," besides sounding like a vaguely disreputable political position, is the name of a Greek mythical figure who dwelled on a major Greek road and would invite travelers to stay the night; only he so desired things to fit perfectly that he would stretch people out to fit the bed or cut off their legs until they fit. (If he ever cut off too much and then had to stretch but stretched too much, etc., we could say Greek myths also gave us the "eight hot dogs, six hot dog buns" problem.)

So when we read about a club named after the Bodleian and committed to books--thought they also have an excellent pipe collection--we might have some inkling that these are people who have a Procrustean allegiance to form: as long as the square peg fits into the hole, it doesn't really matter what the peg is made of. We get this idea not just from the title, but from a number of hints along the way:
[the club's collection of book-related artifacts includes] a paperweight which once belonged to Goethe, a lead pencil used by Emerson, an autograph letter of Matthew Arnold, and a chip from a tree felled by Mr. Gladstone.
That is, no actual books.
With light, curly hair, fair complexion, and gray eyes, one would have expected Baxter to be genial of temper, with a tendency toward wordiness of speech.
Surprise, surprise--he ain't so genial; and even the perfectly-pleased-with-himself narrator notes there's some slippage between what's on the outside and what's on the inside.

So when Baxter is asked to give his poem "Procrustes" to be made into a book, and everyone pays attention to the form of the book rather than the contents, Baxter either gets his revenge, proves his point, or plays a joke by getting a blank book printed up. And no one will check because, like all great collectors, they want to keep the book in "mint in box" condition. But then, the joke is on him: even after his trick is revealed, the book club decides that this is a fine situation, since all they care about is the outside of the books. As the president of the club notes,
To the true collector, a book is a work of art, of which the contents are no more important than the words of an opera.
So here's a story where everyone goes away happy or at least goes away. Baxter played his joke; and the club is fine with their narrow interest in externals. Which is probably why the LoA header quotes some people on how the satire here is deft and underplayed and gentle and soft-spoken.

Of course, the elephant in the smoking room here is race, a topic on which Chesnutt has thought and written quite a lot. 

(Sidenote: There's a conservative charge that liberal identity politics is really racist because we won't allow race to be forgotten; that, for instance, we read Chesnutt as dealing with race because we won't let a black man not talk about race. As a liberal, the real problem I see is not that we read race into the work of a black man who wrote extensively on race relations and--ahem--wasn't allowed into a book club because of his race; the problem is that we give white men a pass on this topic. Memo to people: Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Steinbeck, etc., all wrote about race. And, yes, the fact that the book club that Chesnutt wanted to and eventually did join still doesn't accept women raises the necessary issue of sex/gender, which is pretty notable here by its absence. Do these smokers read or even acknowledge books by women?)

It's easy to read this as ribbing a certain sort of pseudo-book lover; but people who care more about the externals than the internals is also clearly an issue of race for Chesnutt. If you've read Chesnutt's delicious Marrow of Tradition, this might call to mind the separation in the train car by race, which means that all the upper-class blacks have to mix with lower-class blacks, even though they have more in common with the upper-class whites. 

"The Thrilling Adventure Hour"

I've been shotgunning The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast, a stage show and podcast in the style of old-style radio. In fact, I've been listening to so much of that, that I'm pushing off this week's "Short story read-aloud" till next week. And as much as I want to label this as "short story profit," the old-style radio medium is pretty different; for one thing, the show gets a lot of mileage out of the delivery of the lines and the excitement generated by guests, two aspects not replicable by a short story.

That said, I do want to talk about just what fun TAH is, both in their parodic poking fun of their source material and their disregard of fidelity to the original. So, for instance, we have a hard-drinking detective couple, as in The Thin Man, only this detective couple can see ghosts and monsters. And then they also occasionally break the fourth wall and make pop culture jokes about our own time. So they're not going entirely for fidelity; their guiding star is always "what would be fun?"

TAH also hits hard on some recurring jokes, which clearly has a variable rate of return. For instance, the "Captain Laserbeam" stories have a set pattern, where the only things that got slotted in are the ridiculous names of his foes and the repeated lines that Captain Laserbeam hears as he gets the will to break out of the newest death trap.

While some of the segments are pretty formulaic, TAH also features some stories with some serious change, such as "Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars": while Sparks starts with his Martian sidekick (a la Tonto), I'm right now up to a point where he's lost his status as marshal and has a new sidekick.

So, in a way, the anthology series gives them the leeway to cover a lot of ground, both in content (space-western, detective-horror, etc.) and in structure (formulaic, growing, musical, etc.).

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 58: Mary Bedinger Mitchell, A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam (#142)

Mary Bedinger Mitchell, "A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam" (1886) from The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It:

As we've discussed before, I think, eyewitness histories are a great way to do an end-run around our own historical knowledge; i.e., we know how the whole Civil War turned out, so we know what the meaning of Antietam was--"the bloodiest day," a nominal victory for Lincoln, a failure on the part of McClellan, etc. By reading an eyewitness account, we skip the meaning and get into the experience.

Unfortunately, this eyewitness account was published 20+ years after the events of 1862; so while it does nicely describe some of the experience, it also gives us a more canned form of history, with references to some other events and a reliance on summary to capture the town's experience, rather than a dramatization of what Mary herself experienced at 12, when the war came to Shepherdstown.

There's a curious similarity with Bierce's Civil War story from this Sunday, in that Mary spends a lot of time describing the landscape, but also makes it meaningful--though, in this case, meaningful for the everyday life that is soon to be interrupted; so we hear of how a hill was tedious if you had a wheelbarrow--which will be less an issue when Mary is helping doctors amputate limbs.

Mary also gives some sense--through pure assertion--of the miserableness of the Confederate refugees going through the town. However, it's worth noting that the prevailing tone of the piece is something more like slight amusement, the sort of ironic detachment that time gives. So we can laugh at the story of the amateur nurse who nearly gets shelled and is focused primarily on not spilling the gruel she needs for one of her charges; or the story of the younger sister who is sent from one ad hoc hospital by her sister (really Mary) in order to stay safe with her mother at another ad hoc hospital--only mom thinks this position is too dangerous, so sends the kid back.

Some choice lines:

September, 1862, was in the skies of the almanac, but August still reigned in ours; it was hot and dusty. 
Some doctors also arrived, who—with a few honorable exceptions—might as well have staid away 
Of course they [amateur hospital aides] were uncouth and often rough, but with the wounded dying about us every day, and with the necessity that we were under for the first few days, of removing those who died at once that others not yet quite dead might take their places, there was no time to be fastidious; it required all our efforts to be simply decent, and we sometimes failed in that. 
It is curious how much louder guns sound when they are pointed at you than when turned the other way! 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 57: Kate Chopin, Athénaïse (#161)

Kate Chopin, "Athénaïse" (1896) from Kate Chopin: Complete Novels & Stories:

You remember how the movie Adaptation starts out as something weird and then swerves into a parody of the action movie that characters discussed earlier, as if to give one more meta twist to the story--or because they didn't know how to actually end it? Or, you know how, in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, there are moments where Cersei or another evil woman is thwarted by her society's sexism and you end up torn between happiness at the failure of some evil scheme and unhappiness at the society's sexism?

Those feelings somewhat capture my reading experience of "Athénaïse," a very very long story (by LoA Story-of-the-Week standards). Athénaïse is an unhappy young wife, who expresses some unhappiness at the situation of being a wife, tout court: her husband is perfectly pleasant, but being a wife isn't for her. To drive home the unpleasant corollary, the husband brings Athénaïse home and remembers bringing a slave home through this same territory when he was a boy.

But Athénaïse isn't exactly a feminist icon here. Other characters reveal that this is just something she does: she starts something--like going to a convent school--and then gets tired of it and wants out. Similarly, her agency is somewhat undercut by her attachment and reliance on her ne'er-do-well brother Monteclin; and then it's further undercut by the acceptance by just about everyone, including the omniscient narrator, that she's young and ignorant. The story ends with her learning that she's pregnant and returning happily to her husband.

So we're given a superficially happy story that remains somewhat upsetting: "unhappy young wife becomes reconciled to her life" should be happy. And Chopin makes us see this as a happy ending with the reminders of how kind and open and reasonable and passionately loving the husband is. But to reduce "protest against system" to "childish pique" and to wipe it away with "she'll know better when she's pregnant" leave a bad taste in my mouth.

From a technical and historical standpoint, I'm surprised by how often the omniscient narrator lays out the issue for us, from Monteclin's jealous dislike of his sister's husband to growing love of the newspaper-man who falls in love with Athénaïse during her retreat to New Orleans. In such a long story, today, you wouldn't probably do that so narratively in such a long story, but would try to dramatize scenes (which Chopin also does).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 56: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bernice Bobs Her Hair (#174)

F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" (1920) from F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922:

I have a vague recollection of reading this in school once, but I have no recollection of my reaction of what we talked abou then. If you've never read it, the basic outline is (a) popular cousin Marjorie educates her visiting and unpopular cousin Bernice; but (b) when Bernice starts to become more popular than Marjorie, even stealing the attention of her best beau Warren, Bernice issues an ultimatum: you've been talking about bobbing your hair, so if it wasn't a bluff, let's go do it; and (c) being caught in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation, Bernice bobs her hair and feels awful about it now that she's no longer pretty; so (d) she leaves early, making sure to cut off Marjorie's hair on the way out of town.

The POV is detached, a little ironic, and omniscient, giving us views from cool Marjorie's, lovelorn Warren's, and sentimental Bernice's positions. So in the discussion between Marjorie and Bernice on whether or not Little Women-style stories should be their models, we get little views from each mind. But let's cut out that ironic POV tone for a moment, and note that the plot is almost textbook high-school makeover rom-com: with a pretty girl helping a less popular girl to be popular and then the helpee turning into a threat that must be destroyed, the only thing we're missing is where some boy comes out and tells Bernice that he always kind of liked her before and/or now he realizes what a monster Marjorie is.

Plot- and character-wise, what sets this story apart is the bitter, bitter end, where Bernice loses the boy, runs away from the town early, and inflicts vengeance on her cousin. It's a great example of how certain formula can be twisted by upending some expectation. (Not that Fitzgerald is exactly dealing with expectations or formulae here; only that from our reading position, the power of this story is what sets it apart from the stories we see now.)

Bonus: As the LoA page notes, a lot of this story comes from Fitzgerald's own advice in a long letter to his sister on what boys like.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 55: Flannery O'Connor, The Train (#40)

Flannery O'Connor, "The Train" (1948) from Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works:

When I first heard the term "Southern Gothic," I thought it referred to stories likes "Dracula on the Mississippi" or "Frankenstein of New Orleans"--stories that don't exist, but easily could. I didn't understand that it wasn't the trappings of the Gothic exactly, but more the thematics--the crumble, the ruin, the degeneration, the immorality, the haunting of the past. And as much as I've read Southern lit, I'm not sure I can think of any other story that so captures the Southern Gothic as Flannery O'Connor's "The Train."

Like Edith Wharton's "A Journey," O'Connor's "The Train" locates train journey as a site of horror, a mix of private and public space. And just as Wharton's story used some free indirect discourse to capture both what was happening and how the journeyer felt about it, O'Connor situates her narrative focus firmly in the unbaked and unhinged mind of Hazel Wickers, who would become Hazel Motes in Wise Blood, when "The Train" was rewritten as the first chapter.

Haze Wickers isn't exactly a reliable narrative focus, in part because he doesn't always focus so well. The story opens
Thinking about the porter, he had almost forgotten the berth. He had an upper one. The man in the station had said he could give him a lower and Haze had asked didn't have no upper ones; the man said sure if that was what he wanted, and gave him an uppe one.
It goes on like that for five more sentences before the porter is mentioned again, and in all that time, we're left with the question of what Haze is thinking about. And the question: "If he's thinking about the porter, why does he seem to be mostly thinking about his berth?" Or put another way: Why is he trying not to think of the porter?

Haze's story is very slow to come out and is very often marked in that down-home dialect. Apparently, he's coming from the army camp to visit his sister, but he took a detour to visit the old town. On the train, he finds a porter who looks like one of the black people of the town--a boy who ran away and might not know about the Horrible Thing that happened to his father. There's a talkative cabin-companion and an awkward trip to the dining car, both of which are interesting as historical, anthropological stories and as delaying tactics before we hear about the Horrible Thing.

And here's where O'Connor throws us a curve: the standard story here would be for Haze to tell the porter, "your father got lynched and I'm haunted by the memory." But as it turns out, the old town is totally deserted, the black man died of cholera, and Haze is haunted by his dead mother, who he imagines walking through the dead town. The slow dread of being locked into Haze's POV comes out in the double image of his mother, unconfined to any coffin, and Haze, confined to his upper berth without exit.

Honestly, this story reminds me of what's missing from O'Connor that is suffocatingly present in Faulkner, which is a notion of history. Haze's story turns out to be a personal story verging on madness, and though it plays with certain tropes of the South, it never digs in the way Faulkner does. The result is something closer to Poe's personal madness stories than Faulkner's historical and national investigations.

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Post-Mortem (season one)

Maybe I'll add more to this if I can get through season two. Let that line mark the tenor of this post: I've rewatched season one of Dollhouse primarily because I wanted to rewatch something and 26 episodes of that seemed a lot more manageable than 144 of Buffy or 110 of Angel.

If you haven't watched Dollhouse, don't think I'll make you in order to read this post. Here's the gist: in contemporary L.A., there's a super-science organization that can create people by imprinting personalities onto empty people--Actives or dolls. They get those dolls through a few different ways; the main character Caroline/Echo was caught breaking into a Rossum Corporation lab and needs to sign up to get away from the law (I guess). Meanwhile, FBI Agent Paul Ballard is the only person who thinks the "dollhouse" is real and tries to track it down.

So there's a fun premise, but it never really works out. Even with a little dollop of that "artificial family" thing that Joss Whedon seems to like so much, none of these characters really gets all that interesting. First reason is the obvious: half of the cast has no personality, identity, or desires. Second, the "crusader fighting to find the truth" has some fun moments, but is very cliche and uninteresting. Does he want to find the truth or save the girl? Blah. Also at the end of season one, he gets some leverage over the Dollhouse and uses that to free the doll who was used to manipulate him--the woman who probably signed up to get away from her grief over her dead child. How is that helping anyone?

There's also the central nonsensical elements: there's this super secret organization that has dozens of regular people who just help out, like the masseurs who take care of the dolls. How is that secret? The central idea of blank Actives waiting for admins to fill them up has interesting parallels with actors waiting for writers/directors; but there's something that doesn't quite fit with how they talk about bodies having some residual soul or the personality being the soul.

That said, there are some excellent moments, most of them having to do with the "real" characters of the Dollhouse: quirky lonely genius Topher (it's wonderful and sad when he "makes a friend" for his birthday), hard-edged but soft-hearted Adelle, the mysterious Doctor Saunders. There's some parallels here with other Whedon stories, like: Whedon enjoys when old people act inappropriately, as they do here in "Echoes" or in Buffy's "Band Candy." There's also some great moments when some of the dolls get imprinted with personalities of other actors, which gives them some opportunities to act. (See also Buffy "Who Are You.")

I do want to single out the last episode of season one, which takes a radical departure and shows the future apocalypse that results from this technology, for both a radical and interesting idea; and a really terrible execution. Here's just one issue: if the world ends sometime between 2009 and 2019 and the issue is stolen or lost identity, how long would it take for people to start using cyberpunk/apocalypse names like Mag and Zone? It's a dumb allegiance to the trope of cyberpunk apocalypse without any real thought.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 54: Ambrose Bierce, A Horseman in the Sky (#98)

Ambrose Bierce, "A Horseman in the Sky" (1889) from Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs:

When I was young, I took from my sister's room two books of Bierce stories: In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, his collection of non-supernatural stories, and Can Such Things Be? Since then, except for some regrettable moments of racism and sexism, I've loved everything about Bierce, from his enlistment in the Union Army to his disappearance in Mexico. I've loved his cynicism and boundless misanthropy and his louche sense of humor.

So going in to "Horseman in the Sky," I know where it's going, both because I know his style and because I've read this before: when a Bierce story begins with a father and son splitting ways and ends with one man killing another, I'm pretty sure that it's going to be either patricide or filicide. Rather fitting for Father's Day, if you take the Karamazovian/Freudian view that all children want to kill their fathers (and vice versa).

If you didn't know Bierce, then the final admission that the son killed the dad might work as a gut punch. I wonder how it would have worked if Bierce had given it a more "Lady or the Tiger?" vibe: start with the facts--that's my dad and if I don't kill him, I've failed my brothers-in-arms--and then move to the decision.

That counterfactual question aside, Bierce leads up rather nicely through the garden path, switching POVs whenever it suits him. So we get a bird's-eye view of the landscape, which is rather boring until you realize the moral meaning of it (another connection with Poe): it's a dangerous position for this army to be in but also the position they need to take in order to attack the other army. Then we get a little biography of the lone sentry and his sighting of a lone scout on the other side. Then we get the POV of a totally different guy, who sees the horse and rider go over the cliff in a way that looks fantastical to him. It's dizzyingly quick but never actually dizzying, even if we don't strictly need for the plot that third person--the witness and confessor to whom the son tells his patridical action. Is it the omniscience of the narrator that gives him that leeway? The focus on this one particular moment in time that everything is leading to or away from?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 53: Leo Tolstoy, Tolstoi Holds Lincoln World’s Greatest Hero (#7)

Leo Tolstoy, "Tolstoi Holds Lincoln World’s Greatest Hero" (1909), as told to Count S. Stakelberg from The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now:

An entire book devoted to what other people thought of Lincoln. It reminds me of the classic narcissist joke, "Enough about me, let's talk about you--what do you think of me?" Anyway, this article originally appeared in 1909 with the headline, "Great Russian Tells of Reverence for Lincoln Even Among Barbarians." I think we can all agree that that's a better title.

After a one paragraph frame (I went to Tolstoy to ask him about Lincoln), the rest is Tolstoy's thoughts and an anecdote. If you know Tolstoy, you can guess the thoughts: all other famous guys are all about war and stuff, but, like, Lincoln, he was all about love, you know? There's a great moment in Malcolm in the Middle (stay with me), I think, where a kid has to play Abe Lincoln in a school play and is freaking out. Come on, says the mom, everyone loves Abe Lincoln, to which the kid responds by noting all of Lincoln's lesser known issues, like suspending habeas corpus. The saintly, "Christ in miniature" view of Lincoln just doesn't seem realistic; though it is interesting that Tolstoy can look at a guy who pressed for war (and rightly so in my mind) and think "there's a guy who loves peace." Similarly, I may have to go see an eye doctor from all the rolling I was doing during Tolstoy's "it was god's plan for him to die young."

That said, the central anecdote here is rather hilarious: Tolstoy stops with some Muslims, who hate progress and change, but even they have heard of Lincoln and wish to hear more about how great he is. Although they already have a pretty clear idea of the guy: "He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses." I assume he was also last of his line and able to tame dragons, too.

There's also a bit that Tolstoy plays straight but which I think could be a great source of comedy: Tolstoy off-handedly notes that these barbarians could probably get a picture of Lincoln in town. So when Tolstoy leaves, one of them comes with him to town to get the picture, which Tolstoy "was now bound to secure at any price." I wonder if Tolstoy was thinking, "I was being polite!"

Friday, June 14, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 52: George Washington, Account of the Battle of Monmouth (#46)

George Washington, "Account of the Battle of Monmouth" (1778) from George Washington: Writings:

George Washington's account of the Battle of Monmouth for Congress has a very dry tone: we did X, they did Y; because we had to march fast I told the men not to carry their Zs; etc. The headnote at the LoA site makes the connection between Washington's dry factual account and his self-control and privateness.

Where Washington most departs from "just the facts, ma'am" is when (a) he comments on how everyone was brave--which is a dry moment with very little in the way of example or evidence; and (b) he comments on the up-coming court-martial of General Lee--or as Washington puts it, his "peculiar Situation."

Apparently, other eye-witnesses of the engagement make a lot of Washington's bravery--he fought on after his horse was shot out from under him. He also was supposed to have lost his temper at General Lee and cursed tremendously. I only wish that had made into his otherwise dry report.

It's so dry, there's not really even enough tone in here to use this as a good source of period-writing style.

Short Story Read-Aloud, Week 14

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Shane Halbach, "My Heart is a Quadratic Equation": A cute tale that's cutely narrated, but doesn't leave me with much to go on: it starts with just a science-minded woman who has trouble finding a man, until she finds a science-minded man, and they turn out to be mad scientists. Cute premise and short.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Ian Whates, "Gift of Joy": An ex-assassin who can change his appearance ekes out a living as a prostitute, fulfilling women's fantasies; but can't escape when his ex-bosses come to get him to kill the president (and maybe impersonate him after?). A real melancholy story that moves maybe a little slowly from normal situation to dissatisfaction to disruption.

Chaz Brenchley, "Terminal": In a universe where people can upload their minds and get new bodies, a man falls in love with a woman, only to learn that she's actually a decoy and not the original upload; meaning that the administrators will take her out when they do an audit. A certain literary vibe and a nice use of metaphorical aliens in the floating leviathans who need some stone as ballast to hold them down. Not my favorite since very little happens and all the revelation is rushed at the end, but for the theme of up/down, well worth reading.

Ted Chiang, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate": Story within story within story, circling around one of Ted Chiang's main themes: free will, fate, intention, and outcome. A fabric merchant tells a story to a caliph about how he met an alchemist with a time-travel gate; the alchemist tells the merchant three stories of people who traveled--a rope-maker that gets advice from his future self to make him rich; a weaver steals his own riches, which ruin him; and the rope-maker's future wife goes back in time and saves him and then teaches him to be a good lover (to her past self). The fabric merchant eventually circles around to his own story, of how he went back in time to try to save his dead wife from an accident, which he fails at, though he does get a message from her that she loves him, thus allowing himself to get past his grief. This story won the Hugo and Nebula for best novelette; and (without knowing the competition) I'll say it deserves them. Chiang doesn't overwrite and lets the (false) omniscient view of each character's feelings carry the story. Because there's a tale-telling quality to each story, he can get away with that false omniscience, which he doesn't undercut in a post-modernist move. He takes every moment sincerely.

Barbara Barnett-Stewart, "Sins Of The Living": A fun setting in some Puritan setting, though the story still doesn't make much sense or horror to me: a man kills his father and wife when he catches them together (though the idea of a Puritan going on a killing spree with an old-style gun is unintentionally funny), but then gets to take it back--and he still ges punished.

Peter Crowther, "Jewels In The Dust": An old woman keeps expecting to die and rejoin her lost husband, while her son, daughter-in-law, and grand-child prepare for a picnic. This story jumps around from mind to mind, and each mind's emotions are played so reasonably that it drew me in. The ending is also very sweet as grandmom gets a visit from her dead husband and learns to take pleasure from every day. It's not at all original as a message, but the feelings are all nicely balanced. Interesting that hopping from person to person doesn't increase irony here--oh, dad that X, but mom thinks Y--since each person focuses on some different thing.

Ken MacLeod, "Lighting Out": A fascinating bit of space opera world-building: humanity has colonized the stars and the planets, though they ruined earth. A woman gets business advice from her mom's partial (i.e., a mental copy) that is supposed to synch with her real mom, but isn't; the partial is using the business to spread the partials as virus. This won the BSFA award for 2007, and I can see why people liked the setting work and ideas here; but as a story, it's loosely constructed and not as on-point as Ted Chiang's story.

E. Hoffmann Price, "Live Bait": E. Hoffmann Price is one of those authors that pops up frequently in various anthologies for weird tales, but I've never before read one of his crime stories. Here, a roguish vigilante gets blackmailed by a criminal. There's a lot of fun writing here--the story opens with a note that the heroic hero was probably considered handsome by his mother but not really anyone else--but most of the story tips towards the cliches hinted at by my use of "heroic hero." It's very pulpy. in line with The Shadow and The Spider.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 51: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Signs of the Times, Compensation, & When Malindy Sings (#151)

Paul Laurence Dunbar, "Signs of the Times," "Compensation," & "When Malindy Sings" (1897, 1905, 1897) from American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century:

Here's a reality check: Paul Laurence Dunbar was born to two ex-slaves soon after the Civil War--so, not much of a leg up on life--and he died when he was 33, but he still managed to produce some very well-regarded poetry. At least, William Dean Howells regarded it well.

The two poems from 1897--"Signs of the Times" and "When Malindy Sings"--are in black dialect and a pretty thick one too. If you have trouble reading it, I've always found good dialect speaks more clearly. The first poem is a comedic piece with an undertone about a sassy turkey who doesn't know that Thanksgiving is coming, despite all the signs. That undertone--menace, with a touch of cranberry sauce--might be more in my reading of it, since there's really nothing in the bird to make him lovable.

The second poem is not only in white English (I don't like to call it standard, which is a hop-skip-jump away from ordinary, right, and natural--three words I would never use to describe our mishegoss of a language); but it also expresses a very ordinary sentiment.

The third poem is another dialect poem--and why are they arranged like that? This one addresses (first) a Miss Lucy who is trying to sing by the numbers, but can't hold a candle to the untaught spirit of Malindy. Excuse me if that last sentence holds too many cliches, but I thought it appropriate for the "natural genius beats taught skill" setting of the story, especially when it reads to me like a variation on "white people sing like this, black people sing like this." There's a powerful move at the end, when we hear that Malindy is singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," but that's maybe my favorite part.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 50: James Thurber, A Box to Hide In (#77)

James Thurber, "A Box to Hide In" (1931) from James Thurber: Writings and Drawings:

This story is three short pages--not even three considering the large Thurber drawing in it--so I'll wait while you go read it.

Done now? Didn't you love the straightforward weirdness of the guy asking for a box to hide in? There's no beating around the bush here. And the way so much of page 2 and 3 revolve around the narrator's fantasy of what would happen when his cleaning lady found the box and died of shock when he laughed or barked inside it.

There's no story here; except for the little bit of weirdness the narrator shows, he's hardly a character. But here's a lesson from Thurber and Arrested Development: a character can be comedic if he sticks to his POV, no matter how strange that POV seems.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 49: Charles W. Chesnutt, The Doll (#120)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Doll" (1912) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, & Essays:

One of my favorite stories about Charles Chesnutt is that he was championed by William Dean Howells; but when Chesnutt wrote a fictional account of a race riot, Howells complained that it was "bitter, bitter." It's about a race riot, man, what do you expect, sunshine and lollipops?

Similarly, the headnote at the LoA site says that Chesnutt's "Baxter's Procrustes" is a light-hearted story, when really it's all about fitting in and the punishment of sticking out. Which is kind of an important issue to Chesnutt, who plays a lot with the intersection of race and class (and to a less extension, gender).

So what is "The Doll" about? It reminds me of this recent fantasy story involving a barber and the count who killed his kid, where the question is, will the barber kill the count when he comes for a shave?

Here, the story starts with a black barber at a fancy white hotel; his little daughter asks him to get her doll fixed; and then we switch to see the interchange between a Southern politician and a Northern one who talk about race, and to prove his point--that blacks aren't worth much--goes into the barbershop and insults blacks while getting a shave. He even tells the story of how he killed a black man in self-defense. Now, by the coincidence of drama, this barber knows the story because the black man who was killed was his father. So now the barber has multiple tensions: here's a man insulting his race, killing his dad; but on the other hand, he's got a daughter and the race to worry about.

So, in its way, it asks the same question as the fantasy story: what will the barber do? But here the issue is layered with serious issues. It's not a subtle or very personal story, but the way it layers issues and exposes various versions of the same story or truth is very interesting. It's not the best Chesnutt I've ever read, but any Chesnutt is better than none at all.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 48: Jack Snow, Midnight (#96)

Jack Snow, "Midnight" (1946) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from the 1940s to Now:

I don't  quite know what to say about this. It has the form of an EC Comic, like Tales from the Crypt: a man is so obsessed with evil that he studies it in various forms around the world, finally sending his spirit out to occupy many horrific situations at midnight--only, he's put in the position of the victims of horror and he can never escape since it's always midnight somewhere.

Which would be a fun twist if it wasn't given away somewhere halfway through. I appreciate the fact that this is a six-page story, so instead of pointlessly dramatizing the "I like horror" scenes, Snow can simply narrate that in summary. After all, it would be somewhat rhetorically hard to keep topping the horror.

But as a story, going from sentence to sentence, this prose doesn't move forward very well. The summaries are too quick and the character is too unbelievable and the instances of horror just don't really horrify since they too are barely described.

The best part of this might be the description of the over-the-top evil clock, which is campy, but at least gives an image.

The New New Thing: Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Pasho" (2004) and "The Calorie Man" (2005)

First, I want to note that almost all the stories in Pump Six are long:

  • "Pocketful of Dharma" pp1-24
  • "The Fluted Girl" pp25-48
  • "The People of Sand and Slag" pp49-68 
  • "The Pasho" pp69-92 
  • "The Calorie Man" pp93-122 
  • "The Tamarisk Hunter" pp123-136
  • "Pop Squad" pp137-162 
  • "Yellow Card Man" pp163-196 
  • "Softer" pp197-208
  • "Pump Six" pp209-230
And maybe that's part of my disappointment with them: they take a long time and there's generally one image that pops. Take "The Pasho," which breaks from the formula I previously extracted from Bacigalupi's short stories--"(1) inhuman(e) condition (2) is disrupted by possibility of betterment (3) only for the world to prove much worse"--but still hits hard only at one moment in the long tale.

Here, "The Pasho" is the title of a learned man who has been to the big city in a watery environment; and now he returns to the desert village of his youth, where they still keep the old ways (such as "quaran," which is clearly "quarantine"--one of the hints that this world is post-apocalypse). He's a new man returning to the traditional world, so you'd think the tension is between progress and stasis; but the Pasho's main role is to throttle progress down, so that the changes that are made are considered and manageable.

So it's unclear what's inhumane here: the Pasho's interest in manages progress? Or his traditional grandfather's interest in war? Both seem pretty human and neither seems anywhere as bad as the previous apocalypse. Here's the spoiler: after trying to blend back into the old town-life, the Pasho reveals that his mission is to kill his grandfather, thus preventing a new war, all of which happens in the last page. On one hand, you'd think this structure was a gut-punch surprise. But on the other hand, because of the story's ambiguity, this surprise never becomes as meaningful as a gut-punch, either as tragedy or victory. Now this is a funny complaint to make, and it reminds me of my complaint about the open ending of "The Fluted Girl," but I'm no longer really interested in "Lady or the Tiger?"--I'd like a story to have a POV and take a stand for something. (At least, today I do.)

So, even if "The Pasho" upends the Bacigalupi plot formula, it still focuses a lot of feeling on one particular moment in time that takes a while to get to.

By contrast, "The Calorie Man" seems a little richer, both in the world-building and in the characterization. This is the story of Indian expat Lalji who has left his family--where they may have starved thanks to genetically modified infertile seeds--who lives on the fringes of the energy corporations that now trade in food: the calories from various agri-products go into modified animals for conversion into kinetic energy or stored in springs. For instance, his helper Creo is pretty good with his gun--which has to be pumped up and shoots out spinning disks that don't seem to go as far as bullets. (Any relation to Nerf products is accidental, I'm sure.)

Lalji is hired to ship a scientist who knows how to crack the seeds' infertility problem, which means he's a target by the corporations and the IP police. Naturally, things don't go as planned--Bacigalupi takes seriously the "gun on the mantlepiece" theory of foreshadowing--though there is a semi-hopeful end to this: though the scientist gets kills, he's already created his monopoly-cracking seeds--seeds that are fertile and will mix with other seeds, spreading fertility.

I not only like the mixed-to-happy ending here, but I like the way that Lalji's image of the seeds his family planted gets echoed through the story, as past to run away from and as future hope. I also like the fact that this story deals with something serious about our own time--IP laws and GM food. This story breaks the formula by keeping (1) and (2)--inhumane/strange conditions and promise of betterment--but doesn't pull a switch with (3), the tragic ending. And while Lalji is haunted by his memory of abandoning his family, his condition seems more relatable: not a crippled and exploited worker, but just a guy caught in the middle. That relatability, I hope, makes this story effective.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 47: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wall Paper (#178)

A procedural note: I line up the seven random stories for every week after the LoA announces what new story they have for that week. (Note: I might be a week ahead.) That way, the latest stories have a chance to get into the rotation. This is something I thought I would say today since this story just came up.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wall Paper" (1892) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

It's hard to know how to approach Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper": Gilman was big into social reform and feminism and very much before her time. (Not only did she get divorced, but she sent her child to live with her ex and his new wife, saying, among other things, that father's have parental rights; and that her daughter's "second mother" was as good as her first. So when people started writing utopian novels where children were raised by the whole of society, you can bet she got in on that.)

But that's not what makes this story hard to approach. What makes it hard to approach is that, since about the 1970s when it was rediscovered, it has taken a central position in our history of American women's writing. Here's a fun chart I made using Google Ngram, where I charted how often the phrase "The Yellow Wall Paper" (and some variations) appeared over time; do you notice that rise in the 1970s leading to a huge boom in the mid-90s?

So there's lots to say here about this story and its reception: rejected at some magazines for being too dark, published in 1892, republished in a great short story anthology in the 1920s, then kind of disappearing. Honestly, here's a story that would be both super uncomfortable and super fitting for the 1950s and the hystericization of nonconformity.

But if we try to step away from the social reception, what do you get if you just read this story by itself? Coincidentally enough, this was the first question I faced in grad school, where we had to do a close-reading of the story. But you don't really need a degree to see how Gilman repeatedly sets us up and then pulls the rug out from under us:
But what is one to do? I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal—having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition.
The narrator seems to admit that writing is exhausting work--and then hits us with the Woolfian idea that what's exhausting is having to hide it. (If only she had a room of her own!)
I don’t blame her a bit. It must be very humiliating to be caught creeping by daylight!
I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.
Here the narrator seems to be a little insane, seeing a woman in the wallpaper and ascribing certain feelings to her--and then she hits us with this crazy notion that she's also a creeping woman. (Which will then blossom into the idea that she was the woman caught in the wallpaper.)

That's not the only rhetorical trick Gilman pulls with her Poe-esque narrator and her descent into (the socially-conditioned) madness (of her time). (Here's a mind-twister: did I go to grad school because I loved parentheses or did grad school make me love parentheses?) Gilman also does the time worn trick of having the narrator protest too much: "I asked her in a quiet, a very quiet voice, with the most restrained manner possible" could very well be the truth; or it could be her disconnect from society.

There's really so much going on in this story; I'm not sure I would call it subtle, but I do think it's rich.

(Bonus: despite the obvious (and semi-biographical) reading that this story has to do with children and post-partum depression, H. P. Lovecraft argues that it's about a woman going mad in a room where a madwoman once lived (and possibly still haunts). Of course, for Lovecraft, we probably want to avoid anything that has to do with sex.)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 46: Edith Wharton, Kerfol (#12)

Edith Wharton, "Kerfol" (1916) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937:

I've been looking forward to re-reading this story since I started this life-destroying project over a month ago. "Kerfol" might be the first Story-of-the-Week that I read, as the capsule description hit a sweet spot for me. What can I say, I'm a sucker for ghost-dog stories. (Ghost-dog stories might actually be a significant subgenre of the ghost story. Anyone got any ideas of other ghost animals in stories?)

The last time I read an Edith Wharton story, I noted how closely it resembled a 1950s episode of Suspense! or other similar radio show. This story is an out-and-out ghost story that could easily fit into Weird Tales of the 1930s or a radio show of the 1950s or even an Amazing Stories tv show of the 1980s.

Like many a turn-of-the-century ghost story, there's a frame: the narrator is a visitor to Brittany who goes to see the old manor of Kerfol, where he discovers many silent dogs; after that initial moment of weirdness, his human host smacks his forehead because he forgot that today was the day the ghost dogs come back and to explain the story, the host gives the narrator a big book that explains the story. Only after that frame (see lots of M. R. James and Henry James and even H. G. Wells) we get the main ghost story from the 1600s about a lonely wife whose older husband strangles all her dogs, who then return in ghost form to protect her and kill him.

For personal and argumentative reasons, I love when writers like Wharton get into what's today considered "genre," but was in her time, more-or-less, considered "writing." Hawthorne, Melville, James--all your favorite dead white men wrote stories of ghosts, supernatural events, or unexplainable weirdnesses. And it's even better when these writers do so well, as if they've read and understood works that might not get taught in today's classrooms. Unsurprisingly, Wharton turns in a great strange ghost story. (I say "unsurprisingly" because she's just generally a great author.)

First, as in many of the best ghost stories, the frame carries some thematic weight: while the host tells the visitor that Kerfol would be perfect for such a wanna-be hermit, the narrator protests that, really, "under my unsociable exterior I have always had secret yearnings for domesticity." That question of sociability and domesticity are the cruxes of the husband/wife relationship, which seems domestic, but may actually be pretty unsociable, with the husband not allowing the wife any friends.

The story is shot through with that idea of control--of ownership--of the fungibility between human-animal and animal-animal relationships. (That is, whenever we hear that killing dogs isn't a big deal, the narrator reminds us that some nobles in the 1600s would kill their peasants just as easily.) So the fact that the husband gives gifts to the wife is shown as part of his kindness; but when the same gift is used to strangle a dog, we see how dangerous a gift can be.

Wharton also knows how to build an atmosphere of slight dread, starting from the confused description of the trees leading to Kerfol--"I know most trees by name, but I haven't to this day been able to decide what those trees were"--and building to the strange but non-threatening appearance of the silent dogs in the depopulated manor, who keep coming and coming and doing nothing but watch her. It's a perfect example of taking something familiar and having it act in a non-familiar way to build unease.

And, in the grand tradition of the ambiguous ghost story, we're left with some serious questions here. Not whether or not the ghost dogs were real or just a psychological hiccup, as in James's Turn of the Screw, I think. There's really nothing in the text to make us doubt the dog ghosts haunt Kerfol. What remains ambiguous are the timing and nature of the ghosts. Everyone acts as if there's one day the ghosts come back, but it's unclear what that one day is--the day they killed the husband seems likely, but it's unclear (and there are many other important dates in the story). And, perhaps more important, why do the dogs keep coming back? They've gotten their revenge, their beloved owner is no longer around, so why come back? And why don't the humans in this story come back?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 45: Edward Field, World War II (#22)

Edward Field, "World War II" (1967) from Poets of World War II:

Did you know that the Library of America has an entire book on the Poets of World War II? I did not and I'm not sure if I understand the logic here: are they trying to sell poetry to World War II aficionados or selling World War II to poetry buffs?

And I say that as someone who found this account riveting: Edward Field tells, in step-by-step fashion, how his bomber got hit over Germany; they tried to make it back to England; the crew ditched in the North Sea; several crewmembers died; and the survivors made it home to fly more missions. It was "a minor accident of war" but seems more dramatic and representative. It's told with a straightforward propulsion and telling details, as well as occasionally touching on certain themes of heroism and sacrifice. As a poem, the simplicity and unadornment are incredibly moving. (It helps that I read this on Memorial Day.)

But I would just as easily be riveted by this poem if I found it in a collection of World War II writings. Or even, heck, as a sidebar in a history book. The headnote at the LoA website makes the point that this story is just the truth of what happened to Field. So this poem could do double duty: personal memoir of the event (though published long after, so we might take that into account, which we have to with all sorts of "eyewitness" accounts) and poem.

I also think this poem would be a great teaching tool for students who are trying to write their own poetry. In my experience, first-time poets tend to ape what they think of as poetry, which means rhyming in elementary school and sentence fragments in high school. In contrast, Field's story is told in crystal clear and crystal complete sentences. I'd love to take a verse from this and put it into paragraph form and then ask the students to versify it by introducing line-breaks. Where do they go and how do line breaks affect our reading?

Short story read aloud, week 13

Escape Artists (Escape PodPodcastlePseudopod

Adele Gardner, "Fine Flying Things": An excellent flash idea stretched out to short story length: all the cats become buoyant and fly away; a man eventually lets go of his cat--which seems like a metaphor for pet death--but then he eventually starts to float away himself, which might be a metaphor for him accepting his mortality or just being more accepting in the abstract. As I said, startling image, but no real character identification to bring the reader through.

Julia Rios, "Oracle Gretel": A remixed fairy tale, where Hansel has been transformed by a cat (to protect him from being eaten by the witch) and where Gretel has to learn to give up on an impossible love (her teasing boss). I enjoyed the writing, but as a story, I don't know that I was brought into much of the plot. As identifiable as impossible love is as a character issue, the stakes here seem so low. When Gretel decides to start over elsewhere, she just puts on her magic shoes and walks far away.

K. J. Parker, "The Dragonslayer of Merebarton": A middle-aged knight gets tapped to fight a dragon. This is narrated by the knight who has a slightly arch sense of humor; the story takes place in a pretty ordinary world (as far as I can tell, it's Earth and our narrator is an ex-crusader, not a professional monster-hunter because there aren't a lot of monsters running around); and the story starts with him trying to save some coin by mending a chamberpot by himself. So even though the story is pretty ordinary (people band together to kill monster), the main character and style of telling makes it something new.

Lightspeed and Nightmare 

D. Thomas Minton, "Dreams in Dust": In a post-water world (water was destroyed/stolen by Orbitals), a man with plans for a well stumbles on a family that has an oasis; of course, the family doesn't want him there even if he thinks he can save the world. A short story that is pretty simple and talky in plot (wanderer talks about his hope for water, distrustful dad remembers one of the last rains) but that packs a lot of world-building into tiny phrases: the dewatering of Earth by orbitals, the genes the wanderer has to help him survive in the desert, etc. None of it is super original, but because of that, Minton can just gesture towards it--even if they're tropes, it has a verisimilitude because it's not explained.

Cast of Wonders (Protecting Project PulpTales to TerrifyStarship Sofa)

Arthur J. Burks, "Flying Suitors": Here's one of those spicy air stories I've heard of (sort of): a woman is trying to decide which of two pilots to marry and has her brother vet them, but then they all get caught by natives and have to escape. The whole set-up is very funny and interesting to me--could I today get away with introducing characters by having the narrator vet them for marriage so we get little capsule descriptions of each?

Tom Thursday, "There's Hicks In All Trades": A Ring Lardner-esque story of a fight promoter/boxing trainer who has a grudge against another. The narrator's boxer seems to be winning when the enemy promoter rings the fire alarm, which causes the boxer--and volunteer firefighter--to forfeit the match by leaving the ring. It's such a minor story, but the language and POV of the narrator are so hilarious and weird that it carries the story easily. I'm going to be on the lookout for Tom Thursday stories.

Captain S. P. Meek, "When Caverns Yawned": I won't be on the lookout so much for Captain Meek stories. This is the sort of story that, I think, gives pulp a bad name. (Although the dangerous natives of "Flying Suitors" don't help.) The plot involves a dangerous Communist who has a shrinking ray that he uses to shrink ground and cause earthquakes above. Now, if you had a shrink ray and wanted to destroy a city, why not just shoot the city with the shrink ray? The characters are super broad and perfect in that Doc Savage way--brilliant, physically amazing, etc. There is a moment of comedy (intentional?) at the end when the doctor has defeated the villain and then starts to fall down. For a moment, I thought, "The strain has been too much and he's dying of a heart attack," but no--he's merely very tired from being up for four days straight. Bonus points for making the US president a paragon of nobility with no real qualities and connecting the super-scientist villain to socialist labor movements in the US--in 1931!

Tim Waggoner, "Long Way Home": Wonderfully weird in that an overprotective mom tries to get home with her son while the sky rains blood and monsters--and the blood transforms people into monsters if they get it in their mouths. It's so delightfully weird--and it takes a while for everyone to catch up with the paranoia of the mom--that for a long time I really expected the climax to be "mom is having another schizophrenic break." That I would have really loved. This story, however, doesn't really explain any of that--why is mom so nervous about the blood at first while no one else is?--and just ends with the idea that this monster invasion is real and mom "saves" the kid by changing him into a monster.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 44: Gregory Djanikian, Immigrant Picnic (#79)

Gregory Djanikian, "Immigrant Picnic" (1999) from Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing:

Usually I start off a description of poetry with lots of disclaimers--I don't really read that much poetry, I don't write poetry, I don't scan very well, oh that's shiny look over there--but the truth is, I've always liked poetry; I've always read poetry; and I've always written and critiqued poetry. But, here's some more truth for you, in my experience, poetry is most often used by the average person (and by a fair deal of poets) as a sort of base-line of expression. If you're upset, you can write a poem about how upset you are. What's the point of critiquing that? It would be like critiquing someone's mood. Maybe someone out there shares that mood and would enjoy that poem.

(Also, I really don't scan well when reading, and I also dislike the bog-standard ostentatious poetry reading voice taught accidentally by college poetry courses.)

Djanikian's "Immigrant Picnic" doesn't really fall into that category. There is some feeling here, the slight amusement and bemusement (and C-musement?) of a son in one culture trying to communicate unimportant material with family in another culture. Change this to "a son talks about being gay to homophobic parents" and you have a much more serious culture clash. Here the culture clash is about language itself: Djanikian's immigrant oldsters don't get American idioms. The fact that they don't get this on the Fourth of July adds extra relish to that question of belonging.

Now, we could make an argument that the sort of playful misunderstandings of language are a type of poetry--a balance between sense and nonsense. I think Djanikian is interested in making that argument elsewhere, but here, the slippage is so unimportant, and the ultimate move, from parents not fitting in (in this minor way) to the son remembering the land of his birth, is rather predictable. In a poem about language flying away, I want what the Fourth of July should give me: fireworks. Not leftover potato salad.