England is a pervading theme in this August's stories, especially early in the month. The first story allows the last three words of this review's title. After that we have a review of an Englishman's memoir; a story about looking at England 8,000 years in the past; another story of England, this one about seventy years in the past; and still another story set in England, this one more or less in the present.
I had trouble getting a handle on the main character in "Salt" by Lesley Bannatyne. Since she taught her ESL kids for thirty years she's got to be, realistically, fifty at least and probably older. Yet her friend Astrid, virtually the same age, comes across as someone in her thirties, and except for the references to the time spent teaching, and the one reference to wrinkles toward the end, Deb seems to be a woman in her late thirties or early forties. How many women over fifty would bare their breasts in public? The character would have been more solid if the author had allowed Deb to be realistically about thirty-eight or so.
I got a definite Dorothy vibe near the end. "She closed her eyes and breathed in the salt. It was her bedrock, this salt, here, this Quincy Bay salt, from where she was born, and where all that she had earned, and built, and planted, and loved, was." This really compares in tone with Dorothy's observation just before she clicks her heels: "...if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with!" The adult (ery) encounter with Hal is the catalyst that spurs Deb's introspection to discover the same thing Dorothy's adventure revealed to her. There's no place like home.
"Letters to Soldiers" by Jon Arthur Kitson and "My Solicitor" by Derek McMillan have two obvious similarities. Both stories take place in England, and both stories, written by men, feature a woman as the central character. From there, though, they differ in almost every respect.
It could be argued that "Letters to Soldiers" isn't really a story. There is no plot, no conflict, no physical description of Cynthia at all. But at the end we see a story, a big one, packed into a very small package. The story is full of emotion without the use of any descriptions of emotion in voice or expression.
During the Viet Nam War one of the protest slogans was, approximately, "In nature children bury their parents. War violates nature, causing parents to bury their children." This is a paraphrase of a quote by Herodotus. This story reminded me of that. Very well done.
"My Solicitor" is totally different. It is indeed a fully constructed story with a plot, a conflict, and a solution. I really can find nothing to criticize, try as I might. It is entertaining, clever, and well-written.
"Tight Pants" has an opposite similarity (like that oxymoron?) to the previous two stories. The story, written by a woman, takes place in the mind of a male character. Bria Burton does a good job of portraying a wimp. And it took the worst day of his life for him to realize he was a wimp. I'm not so sure he started out that way, but judging from his thoughts regarding his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Natalie, he just can't stand conflict. It was probably his nature to begin with, and was then reinforced by parents, friends, co-workers, etc. He was like blood in the water to sharks. Everyone he met could sense his weakness and pounced upon it.
Has he realized it before this mugging? Almost certainly, yet it's been so much easier to just go along. Nothing was important enough to rebel against and get stubborn.
Fara saved his life twice. She saved him physically from possibly getting shot in the head, and then she gave him a shot—of inspiration—in his heart. His life can now be his.
I wonder what Natalie thought of the new man?
My only head-shake at this story was that he's not really dressed to go running with her. Running in skinny jeans has to be akin to dancing while wearing clown shoes or swimming in an overcoat. He better jog to the nearest clothing or sports store and get some shorts and tank tops. Oh, and running shoes would be good, too.
"Untethered" by Eric Erickson gives us a different look at the same problem as "Tight Pants." What, after all, is more tethering than skinny jeans? Art, however, is not the passive wimp from the other story. He was confident, free, and betrayed, though he didn't know it. In "Tight Pants" the narrator is given his freedom by a woman. Art's freedom, on the other hand, has been sucked away by the woman he has married. And he never realized it. She never shared his dream. It seems pretty clear they don't really communicate. He quit his job two weeks ago and she didn't even notice. She just wanted the house and the kids. Did he? We can't be sure, but he had 'em, wanted or not, because she did. Kate is practical. I get the impression that all through their twenty-seven years of marriage, except for that camping trip, she has kept him "grounded." That pressure of her hands on his shoulders and that matronly shake of her head are no strangers to him. And in his final attempt to be young again, to do what his heart tells him is right, Kate has squelched it with a gentle but unyielding practicality. That he hated that job makes no never-mind to her. His job assured the secure life she wanted.
The saddest part of all is that on the camping trip so many years ago, she did the free and irresponsible thing while he slept. He's lived with a delusion his whole married life. At the end, there is only silence. The delusion is gone and he has nothing to fill that void.
Another really good story that offers no opportunity for criticism. If this keeps up, I may have to return to creative writing for P&S.
But wait! There is one more story: "Looking Back" by Sarah Long. I took all the other stories in the chronological order of their appearance, but I skipped over this one. Now I'm going to look back on it because it invites the most discussion.
The word "impressive" means it left an impression. In that respect, this was one of the two stories that I found impressive. "Letters to Soldiers" was the other.
I'm not an astrophysicist, so I don't feel comfortable criticizing the science of the story. I liked the concept of looking back and seeing something totally unsupported by what we think we know. Alien visitors, and apparently not beneficent in their designs.
The idea of the old woman looking right into the telescope and advising "hide" was a cool touch.
But just before that and the rest after, problems developed. With the audience, sure, but also with the story.
The last time we see Frederick, he is holding her hand, and that's before the images appear. Then he just disappears from the story like he was never there. No mention of him releasing her hand, stepping away, nothing. The narrator and Anna might as well have been there without him.
The disturbance of the audience is well done, except that Frederick apparently had no reaction at all. But then suddenly two black-clad men show up, gas everybody except the mother and child because she has managed to hide.
Second objection (her husband's disappearance was the first): “All subjects saw the footage,” I hear one man’s muffled reply. “We destroyed them on site.”
No professional would say "destroy" when referring to people. "Terminate," or "neutralized" is far more likely. "Destroy" could apply to the footage, but footage is singular and the man said "them."
Third objection: We are led to believe that this is the first time this has been done, so how can the agents be so prepared for the application of gas to eliminate the audience? Plus, the agent's words imply that this has been seen before. How? When? An extra hundred words or so early in the story could have given a hint or some kind of background that would explain this.
Fourth objection: and I'll admit it is on the edge of justified. What happens to the mother and child does not have to be part of this story, so their jump out the window is a reasonable ending.
But what is going to happen to this woman? Will they survive the jump? Almost certainly. But she's wearing a cocktail dress, which implies high heels. Landing from a second story window in high heels is going to produce a shattered ankle or worse. Maybe they are jumping onto bushes or some kind of landscaping that will offer a softer landing? Maybe she chose to wear flats because she broke a heel. These are all things that could have been mentioned casually early in the story with only a few words, and allow the reader to hold out hope for their escape. But, again, what happens after is not part of this tale, so these things are not necessary for the completeness of the story.
But, dammit, I couldn't stop thinking about that landing!
One last bit of commentary. I want to review the review. "A Review of So, Anyway... by John Cleese" by Gael DeRoane, seemed contradictory to me. The reviewer approached it from a personal perspective, so I'm going to do likewise.
Like him, I do not "get" English humor. "Benny Hill," the one time I watched it, had me looking for a barf bag in ten minutes. I was at someone else's house and they watched it because (God forgive them) they thought it was funny. I bailed out and went elsewhere to watch a pinochle game. That was twice as entertaining.
I have never watched "Monty Python," primarily due to my experience with "Benny Hill." Because of those intentional avoidances, the references to Basil Fawlty were completely wasted on me.
I almost never read memoirs anyway, since I usually find more truth in fiction. So, I thought his first four paragraphs (minus the Fawlty reference) were great, and after that it all went downhill.
After reading this review I'm not sure if Mr. DeRoane wanted to dislike the book going in and was forced to change his mind by the quality of Cleese's writing, or if he liked it from the get-go and is just kidding the reader with his introduction. If the second, well done. But if the first, I wish he'd written the review without the build-down and just praised it to his satisfaction.
The best thing about the review was the author's suggestion that there be a worldwide Ministry of Good Manners. Whether putting Mr. Cleese in charge would be a good idea I have no opinion, but he is absolutely correct about the need for such a ministry.
The last two stories of the month betray the review's title, but I felt I could let the majority rule.
The end of August marks the unofficial end of summer. Kids return to school, most outside swimming pools will close a week or so later, and the days decline in hours while the nights get longer. This collection of stories served as a generally calm and collected way to usher out the heat and prepare for the cool.
Fred Waiss is a former high school teacher and coach who writes poetry, articles, short stories, novellas, and novels as the muse attacks; as an author he considers himself a work in progress.