Review: Hamburger

by Daniel Perry
Thistledown Press

hamburgerHamburger, Daniel Perry’s new collection of short fiction published by Saskatoon’s Thistledown Press, is loaded with clever, provocative, thoughtful tales.  Perry’s stories span moments from comedy to horror to pathos, and the collection explores familiar themes such as travel, discovery, loss, and false belief. But Perry’s fresh voice, narrative twists, and playful telling will keep readers turning pages.

Even the briefest of Perry’s stories are peopled by ordinary folks at unusual, sometimes awkward moments. Some involve little epiphanies, such as “Rocky Steps,” which features a single mother with thwarted dreams. Some reveal universal human failings, such as “Gleaner,” which looks at small-town life and how rumours work. Several stories involve dying parents and how their families are affected by grief and change. What stands out about these stories is their emotional core: the basic humanness of characters in stark circumstances.

Also impressive is Perry’s reach. Some of the stories take experimental forms, from the second-person address of the title story to the alternating narration of “Pleasure Craft,” in which waterskiing becomes an opportunity for remaking a relationship. There’s also the short speculative fiction “Aria di Gelato,” which explores the tiny important moments of a life, and “Be Your Own Master,” a twisted noir-ish story in which a program of self-improvement goes horribly wrong. The self-consciously David Foster Wallace-inspired “Vaparetto,” in which a writer traces the extremes of personal attachment and intellectual detachment, is written with a wry voice and a dab hand. It’s tight, sly storytelling.

Speaking of writers, quite a few of the stories in this book are about writing and the privilege and costs of the writing life. Perry has said that the arc of the volume reflects the development of a young writer, from aspiring to accomplished. The final story, “Three Deaths of James Arthur Doole,” uses various forms of storytelling, including a professional writer’s take, to explore how people create the stories they need from the materials they have. It’s admirably done.

From witty micro-fictions to fully developed short stories, Perry’s narratives are engaging, appealing, and surprisingly emotional. Hamburger is a rich, tasty pick!

 

This review was originally published on http://www.skbooks.com.

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Review: Every Man Dies Alone

by Hans Fallada
Melville House, 2009

EveryManDiesAloneEvery Man Dies Alone is disturbing, engrossing, and powerful. Based on the real experiences of a married couple’s resistance to the Nazis, it is an insightful story of love, standing up for one’s beliefs, and the atrocities committed by power that is fed by fear.

Enno and Anna Quangel are middle-aged, working-class Berliners whose son is killed in France. Together they launch a private war against the Führer, dropping anonymous postcards around Berlin in an attempt to expose the Nazis as insane bullies and destructive liars. As their campaign advances, their lives entwine with dozens of other Berliners’ in unimaginable ways, some compassionate, some desperate, some despicable. Their commitment to resistance is tested again and again, but Anna and Otto demonstrate how vital to human being are integrity, honour, kindness, and courage.

The novel evokes consistent tension in the reader; it also speaks with immediacy and an almost ultra-real level of detail. The action is relentless, unflinching. Readers may find the novel reminiscent of Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers (1987) in its entwining of various plots and of Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River (1994) in its look at the daily lives of Germans under Nazism, but it is stylistically distinct. The author uses some interesting technique in tense shifting to bring the reader into the moment of the action, and the diction is exquisitely managed to enrich character, setting, and situation (kudos to the translator!).

This is a long novel — some 500 pages — but it moves extremely quickly and kept me consistently wanting to know what would happen next. The footnotes and afterword are nice touches. I was not familiar with some of the more obscure elements of Germany society under the Nazis, and greatly appreciated learning more about the author, Hans Fallada, whose work is new to me. This is a masterful novel, and learning that Fallada wrote it a matter of weeks makes it even more impressive.

Anyone interested in the Second World War, social justice, or the psychology of fear should enjoy this novel, as should anyone who simply wants a compelling read. It is extremely well written and will leave a reader with much on which to reflect.

 

Originally published on LibraryThing on July 12, 2009.

Max’s choice

When I was in my teens I read John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, an assigned text that propelled me into studying the Modernists and Modernism generally. You may remember that the key to the novel is the word timshel:

 But the Hebrew word, the word timshel — ‘Thou mayest’ — that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ — it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’

In a closely argued essay about Where the Wild Things Are, Desmond Manderson explains how the story of Max may be read as a tightly compressed telling of the growth from strict obedience to personal responsibility — timshel, if you will:

 A rule can never capture the complex process of judgment that must always be experienced as both bound and unbound, unique and universal. To be responsible is precisely to respond to the particularities of a situation, and to make a choice in relation to it. Merely to apply in rote fashion the words of a rule is no exercise of responsibility at all, because it involves no decision at all; it is, in fact, to claim that one ’s hands are tied. No one would ask a machine or the wind to act responsibly. Obedience, then, is the polar opposite of responsibility. The recognition of difference, and the necessity of continually making judgments that attend to that difference, marks the end of the possibility of unquestioning obedience and the true dawn of responsibility. (123)

I love the ideas about law and love this essay traces, and how Manderson ultimately argues that the critical, thinking being is the best legal subject — and how he puts reading at the centre of that process. I like the normative claims and the ethical subjectivity he argues for. This is a fresh analysis of Sendak that has potential for opening up many other children’s and YA texts.

 

Source: Desmond Manderson, “From Hunger to Love” (Law and Literature 15.1: 87–141).

 

What if I kissed the teacher?

It was almost a decade ago that I first read Mark Bracher’s powerful essay “Transference, Desire, and the Ethics of Literary Pedagogy.” At that time I was a fairly fresh post-secondary instructor, beginning my doctoral studies and feeling my way between literary theory and pedagogical theory. In this essay Bracher argues that “transference is ubiquitous in literature classes” (128). From my own experiences in the classroom, as both student and teacher, I cannot dispute Bracher’s assessment. I believe teachers and professors in literary disciplines, including writing courses, should read and reflect on this essay, for it makes vital observations about our behaviour and ethics.

Importantly, Bracher argues, the teacher cannot help being the object of transference, at least for some students. Contemporary pedagogical practices almost ensure that it will happen:

In such a situation, strategies designed to reduce or eliminate the coercive and seductive force of authority actually have the opposite effect, because they function surreptitiously to reinforce the transference. The first strategy, the democratic, egalitarian gesture in which the teacher attempts to function as just another member of the class, often makes students suppose that this subject, the egalitarian teacher, really does know — knows or understands something about students’ abilities that other, more traditional teachers do not. As a result, students’ admiration for and enthrallment by such teachers is often increased rather than decreased by the teachers’ attempts to give up their authority. The second strategy, the “up-front” and honest acknowledgement and expression of the teacher’s own political or epistemological bias, with its assumption that students can counter the teacher’s authority with their own if they can recognize the teacher’s bias, mistakenly assumes that disagreeing with an authority neutralizes its force. In actuality, such admission of bias on the teacher’s part often simply transmutes the force of overt authority into a more subtle, transferential form even more powerful than the overt form: students may be so taken with the teacher’s honesty (or insight, or self-awareness) that their faith in the teacher’s authority is made even stronger. The third strategy — that of exposing the contingent, constructed nature of authority — also results in increasing the force of the teacher’s authority through reinforcing the transference, for such discussions, like the acknowledgment of one’s authority and the egalitarian gesture, succeed above all in confirming the students’ supposition that the teacher is a subject who really knows — in this case, knows epistemological truths that not only the students but also most other teachers don’t know. (128–29)

He continues:

The question, then, is not whether to operate with transference authority, but rather how to operate with it in an ethical and effective manner — that is, how to have a significant impact on students, but without subtly coercing or seducing them into particular beliefs, values, desires, enjoyments, or behaviors. (129)

Ultimately, Bracher argues that teachers must become more conscious of the kinds of outcomes we seek in the classroom, since the ultimate goal of teaching is to effect some kind of change in the learner (and presumably the teacher). While psychoanalytic pedagogy is largely ignored in today’s classrooms, Bracher’s essay offers nuanced insights about how teachers actually operate and how we may even work against our declared intentions. I recommend his essay highly.

Source: Mark Bracher, “Transference, Desire, and the Ethics of Literary Pedagogy” in College Literature (26.3: 127–146).