May is Short Story Month, Part 1

Yes, there is an official “Short Story Month.” Who would’ve thought? As the honorific is designed to do, this writer of short stories ( has been thinking of the ones I like the most, the stories that become better with multiple readings. So I made a list, roughly in chronological order. In order to narrow down the choices (millions have been published, I suppose) I’ve limited myself to American ones. That’s okay. The short story is probably the most American of the literary genres, though story lovers, obviously, shouldn’t ignore de Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, etc. I’ve also limited myself to one story per author.

So here goes:

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving. Most people know the premise of the story, even though few have read the original. That’s a shame, because it is a masterpiece of the form. It’s also a great story about food.

“The Birthmark,” Nathaniel Hawthorne. I once got in an argument about the ending of this story with a woman I was dating. I maintained that Georgiana doesn’t really die at the end, but ascends to heaven, just like Mohammed. She didn’t agree. We never went out again.

“Ligeia,” Edgar Allan Poe. Nobody manipulates the first person viewpoint better than Poe. There are typically two versions of a Poe story: the story as reported by the narrator, and the story as it actually happens. If you believe the narrator, “Ligeia” is a horror story. If you don’t, the narrator is a murderer trying desperately to cover his tracks. It’s not a horror story…

“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” Herman Melville. This is probably my all-time favorite story. Many readers miss the point of the closing section. If you believe Bartleby prefers not to do stuff because of his experience working in the dead letter office, you are just as clueless as the befuddled narrator.

“A White Heron,” Sarah Orne Jewett. I’m not sure if there is a better short story about a sexual awakening.

“The Story of an Hour,” Kate Chopin. One of the most read short stories in the English language. Short, sweet, and to the point. We now call stories like this “short shorts,’ or “flash fiction.” Surprisingly, not all readers get the irony at the end.

“The Blue Hotel,” Stephen Crane. The author didn’t write much before he died at the age of 29, but oh what a legacy. This story shows that the “Wild West” was romanticized decades before John Wayne started making movies.

“To Build a Fire,” Jack London. These days the author is held in higher regard abroad than he is at home. Funny how that works. Story shows that sometimes dogs are far smarter than men.

“Editha,” William Dean Howells. The author is known more as a critic and novelist than a short story writer, but “Editha” is a classic of anti-war literature. Every person who got caught up in post-9/11 war lust should read it. Apparently, George W didn’t.

“The Beast in the Jungle,” Henry James. Like most of the author’s novels, this story is long and complex, and not much seems to happen. That’s the point. The last page is devastating.

To be continued…


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How to be Politically Correct in the 21st Century

Consider AMC’s zombie series “The Walking Dead.” Based on some comic books (oh, sorry, graphic “novel”), the six-episode 1st season premeired after the conclusion of the 4th season of “Mad Men” in the fall of 2010. No one, supposedly, expected it to fare well. But it became a big hit, ensuring a 2nd season this year.

Why did it become a hit? Well, it’s pretty darn good, despite the fact that it contains nearly the exact same set up of “28 Days Later” (Main character is in a coma in a hospital. When he wakes up, flesh-eating zombies roam the earth and civilization has pretty much collapsed). Each episode is filled with gripping tension, and there’s just enough gore to remind us of the serious situation the few survivors face.

The show is also very politically correct. (Odd, considering the very un-PC “Mad Men.”) The PC movement (at its best, at least) tries to break down stereotypes of minorities, or under represented cultural groups. “The Walking Dead” accomplishes this by challenging these commonly held stereotypes:

1. BLACK MEN MAKE CRAPPY FATHERS AND HUSBANDS. After waking from his comma, the first survivor Rick meets is Morgan, a black man who will do anything to protect his son. At the first sign of trouble he doesn’t bail on his family, even after his wife becomes a zombie. He loves his wife so much, in fact, that it takes every ounce of emotional strength for him to put down the zombie she has become.

2. HISPANIC MEN ARE MONEY-GRUBBING GANGANGERS. Rick eventually finds his way to Atlanta, where he is rescued by a handful of other survivors. In the process, though, he drops a bag full of guns and ammo. Unbeknownst to him, another gang wants the guns. This gang is led by Guillermo, a young, tattooed Hispanic man. Most of his followers are Hispanic as well. Uh, oh. What’s Rick to do about these heartless thugs that surely want the guns to rape and pillage? But no, even though Guillermo seems mean at the beginning, he is a gang leader with a heart of gold. The gang is just trying to protect an old folk’s home after all the cowardly doctors and nurses took off. Only a lowly paid (and Hispanic) aide cared enough to stay behind.

3. ASIAN-AMERICAN MEN ARE MARTIAL ARTS EXPERTS AND/OR “IT” GENUISES. Glenn, one of the survivors Rick teams up with in Atlanta, is neither. He can shoot zombies, but he can’t kung-fu kick them. And technology? He drives a car with its alarm blaring for hours. Why? He doesn’t know how to turn off the alarm.

4. YOU CAN’T TRUST “THE MAN.” The “Man” in this case, is Rick, a policeman so dedicated to his profession he refuses to take off his uniform. In one scene he risks his life just to retrieve the deputy’s hat he dropped in a fight with the zombies. He is the hero of “The Walking Dead,” noble and brave almost to a fault. He is the last remaining representation of law and order for this little band of survivors. Show a cop like this in a negative light? Not since 9/11…Cops are heroes now. We must honor them. (Of course there are limits, like when they’re 9/11 first responders in desperate need of health care. Then they can go fuck themselves.)

But wait, if all these characters are good guys, who are the antagonists? Will Zombies be enough? Apparently not. Which leads us to our last stereotype:

5. WHITE SOUTHERN, RURAL MEN ARE RACIST, UNEDUCATED, GUN-TOTING MANIACS WHO CUSTOMARILY ABUSE MINORITIES, BEAT THEIR WIVES AND RAPE THEIR CHILDREN. Certainly “The Walking Dead” tries to undermine these stereotypes? Not exactly. Rick has to handuff Merle to a rooftop to keep him from beating on the “chinks and niggers” in the group. You’d think facing hordes of flesh-eating zombies would make you color-blind. Well, it does if you’re black or hispanic, but not if you’re rural white. Rick’s heart is just too big to leave the big oaf chained to a rooftop, even though Merle will likely try to kill him as soon he’s free. So off Rick goes, back to the zombie paradise we like to call Atlanta. In tow is Daryl, Merle’s equally pea-brained brother, as well as the “nigger and chink” Merle wanted to pummel even before he got handcuffed to the rooftop. Sure, they’re risking their lives for someone who wants to kill them. Their hearts are too big to refuse. Oh, and then there’s Ed. Another rural white man. He beats his wife for no apparent reason, and a few hours before he’s eaten by zombies, he expresses “interest” in his little daughter.

There you have it. Need to make fun of someone? Stick to the rural white southerner…Seriously, Hollywood, are you surprised when these guys hate on you? Trading one stereotype for another? Not a good move. Look at the swelling ranks of the Tea Party/Birther Movement for proof.

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Thoughts on “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars”

Don’t know. Don’t care. Never seen them.

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Why I’m a Jayhawks Fan

In February 1988 I was a senior at the University of Kansas. I sat in a common room on campus, and overheard another student bitch and moan about the sorry state of Kansas basketball. The Jayhawks were on a serious skid. They had just lost to top ranked Oklahoma yet again. The young student felt cheated. He poured his complaints onto a bored looking coed, claiming the only reason he went to Kansas was because of their basketball team. Now he regretted ever coming to Lawrence. What a dope, I thought. It’s not like the kid was on the team. He looked about five foot six, and couldn’t have weighed more than 140. Why would he choose a school based on their basketball team?

Despite that kid’s fears, the Jayhawks made the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid. Few experts had high expectations for them. Kansas was unranked on Selection Sunday, and were seeded as a 6. Danny Manning, their star player, was having a good year, but two years earlier, Kansas made the Final Four, and in a losing effort he finished the semi-final game with more fouls than points. It seemed unlikely the team would make much noise this year.

That particular semester I had a Monday night literature class. The day after Selection Sunday the professor started class by proposing a contingency plan if the Jayhawks made the final game of the tournament. The university would most certainly cancel classes in that situation, and this was a night class. One missed day was really a whole week. We might have to reschedule for a Sunday night. After saying all this, pretty much the entire class erupted in laughter. The idea of the team making it that far was just too ridiculous.

They did, of course. And they ended up beating Oklahoma in the title game. Up to that game I didn’t really care about basketball. I was much more about baseball and football. I had grown up in Western New York, and basketball just wasn’t the sport. The pro team in Buffalo lasted just two years. And college hoops? The only major program was at the much despised University of Syracuse. So unlike the dope, I did not choose KU for its basketball team. I knew who Danny Manning was; every one did. I even had a class with him. (Physical Geography. He only came on test days. All the other classes two very beautiful women sat in and took notes for him.) Like everyone else in Lawrence, I watched the title game. The university did cancel class. And yes, it was a very exciting game. This basketball isn’t such a silly sport, I thought, despite the gay-looking shorts. Even though I didn’t really care before, I was happy the Jayhawks won. For weeks after I hoped to run in to that dope from the common room. Oh I so much wanted to laugh in his face.

And now it’s 23 years later. Kansas is on the verge of another Final Four. If they win the whole thing, I will have the same impulse I did in 2008 when they beat Memphis for the title. I will want to search out the dope, point in his face, and laugh uncontrollably. I think there are worse reasons to be a fan.

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What’s the matter with women these days?

At Indiana State University we have a general education literature course with variable themes. My theme for this semester is “The Plight of Women.” Back in the fall a male student emailed me and asked if it was all right for him to take it. “Dude,” I said. “I’m a dude too, and I’m teaching the blasted course. Don’t worry. It’s not a class on dude bashing.”

Indeed. It’s often a course in women bashing. And not by this dude, or that dude. No, it’s more of a woman on woman slugfest.

I’m not sure if there’s a more maligned character in American Literature these days than Edna Pontellier, heroine of Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening.” When the novel was published in 1899 Chopin was crucified by critics. (Those who like to rip Oprah Winfrey and her book club might want to remember how professional critics treated Chopin and Melville and Hurston and Whitman and etc. before they cast stones. If history is any indication, those little Oprah Book Club stickers might mean more to what becomes the literary canon than anything coming out of the New York Times Book Review.) I think “The Awakening” is a great novel, both to teach and to simply read. Over the past decade or so, I’ve found it more and more difficult to convince many female students of the novel’s merits. Why? They hate Edna. Who is this woman, complaining about her life? She’s relatively wealthy, her husband doesn’t beat her, she’s got kids. What’s her problem? She’s living the American Dream. That should be enough. But no, she doesn’t want to be married. She wants a room of her own, a place to paint and to listen to Chopin. How selfish. For a room of her own she abandons her kids and drowns herself in the Gulf of Mexico. What a horrible person.

Nora, protagonist of “A Doll’s House,” gets the same response. Like Edna, she lives a comfortable life only to abandon it, along with her children, at story’s end. Many women in my class find the dumping of the kids the worst thing anyone could do. Edna is torn about it, too. Doesn’t stop her, but as her family doctor points out, the guilt is “nature’s way of securing mothers for the human race.”

More than twenty years ago, as a grad student, I taught composition at Wichita State. The department used a Dolphin Reader as a text. A couple times I assigned a Wendell Berry essay. I don’t remember which one, but like most of his stuff, it was about an appreciation of nature. Many of the females in the class found the essay incredibly offensive. One woman berated me for assigning it. Really? Wendell Berry? He’s as white bread as you can get. It wasn’t his admiration of nature that got to them. No. At one point in the essay he mentions his wife typed up his work. How dare he, the students argued. All this stuff about the wonders of nature and the dangers of technology, yet he turns around and forces his wife to type up and make presentable to potential publishers his crappy little essays and poems. What a dick, using his wife that way.

How things have changed.

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Yes, You CAN Tell People: On Writers and Self-Promotion

Yes, You CAN Tell People: On Writers and Self-Promotion.

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Interview with author Jean Rodenbough



Questions regarding to my book, Rachel’s Children: Surviving the Second World War:

What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you believe you achieved them?

I felt compelled to write about the time of World War II, in part because I was a child during that time and lived in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese military. My purpose in gathering the stories of other children and their experiences was to illustrate the need for an end to wars, in light of the horrors perpetrated on non-combatants as well as the military.
There has been a growing volume of books which deal with that time, and I wanted to tell the story from my perspective as presented by the stories.
The test of whether my goal has been achieved will be the reactions of the readers of the book.

Can you share some stories about people you met while researching this book?

I met Walter Falk, who now lives here in Greensboro, whose name was given me as one of the children in the Kindertransport, a rescue operation for (mostly) Jewish children in Germany and Poland, sending them to Great Britain, most of them to England but also to other countries in the British realm. Once the war began when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the program was ended. Walter and I have become friends and after getting his story, detailed previously in a feature by one of the writers for the local newspaper. We now meet occasionally and share our stories and also current activities. He is in his mid-80’s and remains active and interested in news events here and elsewhere in the world. His wife died a few years ago, and he lives alone in his home.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Making decisions about what to include. I found a number of collections of stories told by those whose childhood was spent in the midst of that difficult time. At first I extracted some of their experiences, but then realized these stories had already been made public, so I took them out of the book and simply summarized their circumstances. Instead, I was able to get stories from those I knew personally for the most part, and made their experiences the relevant ones. I still had to decide what to include and how to use them. The book took such a long time to write chiefly because of these decisions.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Aside from the sense of accomplishment in fulfilling my goal of writing about the children of that war, I had a variety of other good feelings in writing it. I felt strongly about making a case for never having another war, a hope that so far has not been fulfilled. Another major enjoyment, or at least satisfaction, was using my poetry as commentary on events and situations described. There are times when poetry can speak to deeply emotional conditions of hardship better than prose, whether in narrative or in historical detail.

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Cinematic Interlude: How to Win an Oscar

It’s that time of the year again. Stories about ill-gotten Oscars blanket the internet. We’re reminded that many truly crappy films have won “Best Picture” (Chicago, Crash, Titanic, Out of Africa, Million Dollar Baby, Oliver! blah, blah, blah), and that if an actor wants to make the final cut, a good way to do it is to play a handicapped person, as long as you heed Robert Downey’s advice in Tropic Thunder and don’t go “full retard.” (Colin Firth takes the advice in “The King’s Speech.”) Another sure bet for actors is to play a real person. In just the past 10 years, actors have won for portraying Queen Elizabeth, June Carter, Ray Charles, Harvey Milk, Truman Capote, Idi Amin, Wladyslaw Szpilman (The Pianist), Leigh Anne Tuohy (The Blind Side), Edith Piaf, Aileen Wuornos (Monster), Virginia Woolf and Erin Brockovich. This year Colin Firth, who plays King George VI, is fighting it out with James Franco (127 Hours) and Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network).

Still, you got to get the roles, and pretty much all those acting Oscars were well-deserved. I don’t want to gripe about them. Intead, I wanna bitch about truly stupid Oscars, even worse than the ones “Chicago” got. Let’s start with one specific award given in 2002. “Frida” won Best Make Up. Ever seen it? A good enough film, but “Best Make Up?” I remember watching the Oscar telecast. Selma Hayak, who portrays Frida Kahlo, went nuts. For what? An eyebrow. That’s pretty much the height of the make up in that film. Frida Kahlo’s unibrow. Other films that came out that year? The Two Towers, The Time Machine, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Star Wars: The Attack of the Clones, Star Trek: Nemesis…Even if you don’t like genre films like this, can you acknowledge that their make up teams had a few more challenges than giving Selma Hayak a unibrow???

There are two Oscar categories I truly hate: Best Song and Best Costumes. Best Costumes? Damn straight. I’m pleased when films that go all out (LOTR, Harry Potter, etc) get the award, but more often than not it goes to a so-called “costume” drama, a Jane Austin adaptation or something. What exactly do the costume designers “design” for such films??? Can’t they just drag their team to an ethnography museum in London, point to a dress and say, “Make that?”

Best Song. Ugh. I was pleased last year when the telecast did not have some aging pop stars sing their crappy little Disney songs, and we didn’t have to hear all the tired jokes about Randy Newman’s latest nomination. In some cases, a winning song is absolutely essential to the movie. That’s especially true in musicals like “Once.” Other movies revolve around a song, like “Hustle and Flow,” and that song, if it’s good, should be recognized. But how many songs win that you don’t even remember hearing in the movie? Sometimes the song is played over the credits, but if it’s a long movie you’re too busy running to the john to listen to it, and who watches credits on dvds? Cher raised a fuss about some crappy song from her crappy movie “Burlesque” not getting nominated this year. Maybe I am a little sad about that. Maybe in the middle of the song, on live tv in front of millions of viewers, she would’ve died. I don’t mean bombed, like screwing up the lyrics or something, but literally dying. She just keels over and croaks, hitting the stage and, because of all the “work” that’s been done on her, she shatters like a porcelain vase. Then every time she resurfaces after two years of surgery and recovery in South Africa, we wouldn’t have to listen to all the bonehead celebrities talk about how great she looks.

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Characters drive the stories in ‘Halibut Rodeo’: Part 2 – Indiana Statesman

Characters drive the stories in ‘Halibut Rodeo’: Part 2 – Indiana Statesman.

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