Fiction on the Web

My weekly reviews of literary journals and genre magazine leads me to a distinctively eclectic e-zone.

Every Monday and Friday, Charlie Fish publishes a new story to the Internet site he calls Fiction on the Web.

What they say about themselves: “FICTION on the WEB is a labour of love. Every single story on here is hand-picked and carefully edited by me. I don’t have a staff, and I don’t make any money. I do this because I want to give authors a chance to get their work out there, and I love sharing great stories with the world. FICTION on the WEB has been online since 1996, which makes it the oldest short stories website on the Internet. Hundreds of stories have been enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of readers. This new incarnation of the site aims to take advantage of the latest trends in connectivity while keeping things nice and simple.“

Issue reviewed: None. All stories are available only on the website. For this review, I read back a few weeks to get a feel for the site.

Genre: Hard to assign a category to this site. Some stories were straightforward literary realism, others had a distinctly speculative or horror element. I think Charlie chooses the story that appeals to him at the moment.

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Who To Call In Case Of Emergency,” by Marina Rubin, published on September 14. When a coworker faints and is taken away by ambulance, Tulip leads a campaign to update everyone’s contact information. This leads her to develop a close friendship with Senna, who is very unlike the straight-laced and “vanilla” Tulip. A satire of office life that is both outrageous and realistic.

Clapperboard RatingThree Klacks. Engaging characters and storylines throughout the stories.

Profanometer: Dammit. Most of the language was pretty clean.

Stake Out

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

Getting a surveillance warrant was the first of Detective Warren’s challenges. Finding the optimum location for the listening device was the next big hurdle.

Prior investigative work had identified the suspect’s basement as the headquarters of the multi-state narcotics operation. Warren’s device needed to be close enough to the suspect to pick up clear audio but distant enough to avoid detection.

Warren’s mole in the operation identified the solution. The basement was also used for drying herbs. Hiding the bug among hanging garlic cloves worked perfectly.

Warren chuckled, remembering that vampires didn’t like garlic, making this a perfect stake out.

Day 190

Some aspects of my pre-COVID life have returned, and while they weren’t what they used to be, they’re good enough for now.

Our local library has been actually been open well over a month, but I didn’t feel comfortable going there until a couple weeks ago. Signs at the entrance mandate mask wearing, although enforcement is not a staff priority.  Plastic shields protect staff at the checkout and reference desks; a plastic card attached by velcro to the checkout terminals allows patrons to indicate when they’ve been used and require sanitizing. I usually go to a small room designated for quiet study for my writing, and every other of the six cubicles there is blocked off with yellow tape. Keeping social distance is rarely an issue, especially since I go at low-volume times. I’ve begun to start my weeks with a three-hour writing session at the library, and find it’s a refreshing way to begin my labors.

This morning I entered our community gym for the first time since March. I went at 11, and there were perhaps three dozen people there, about a quarter of what I would have expected before the pandemic. The locker rooms for men and women were both closed. A family locker room with three private bathrooms provided the only changing area, so in the future I’ll arrive already wearing my workout clothes. The running track was closed; the pool was open only by appointment, and I didn’t feel comfortable asking about the hot tub, one of my treats in less anxious times. Many of the weight machines, stationary bikes, and treadmills were moved from an area that was certainly overcrowded down to one half of the basketball court, leaving plenty more space for my treadmill run. My knees ached at this first run in half a year; I went slow, and not for long. Keeping social distance was again not an issue.

At both the library and gym, I’ve been wondering about the vigilance over sanitizing contact surfaces. If there have been documented cases of people catching the coronavirus from touching something previously touched by a carrier, I haven’t read about it. The virus definitely spreads through droplets, perhaps even aerosols; social distancing and mask wearing are essential. But there seems to be too much attention still being paid to surfaces. I’m not going to stop anyone from continuing to play this tune, but neither am I going to sing along.

Inheritance and Opportunity

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

“I can send you a picture. Todd, it’s perfect!”

“No picture, Joanie. It’s just there on the curb?”

“On trash day! Probably bought a few years ago by one of the wealthy couples in this block. When their baby outgrew the high chair, they left it for someone else to take. Like us!”

“Or they found something wrong with it and cut their losses.”

“What’s the harm in finding out?”

“What’s the benefit of inheriting someone else’s problem?”

“Todd, cynicism prevents you from seeing so many opportunities.”

“And your exuberance is why we get into so many bad situations.”

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.

Cream City Review

At the beginning of this year, I set a goal of writing a review each week of a literary journal or genre magazine. I‘m giving myself a Christmas break, so I’ll be stopping at 50 weeks. Thirteen to go after I hit the Publish button on this one. 

Founded in 1975, Cream City Review is published twice a year from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

What they say about themselves:Cream City Review is Milwaukee’s leading literary journal devoted to publishing memorable and energetic pieces that push the boundaries of writing.  Continually seeking to explore the relationship between form and content, Cream City Review features fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, visual art, reviews of contemporary literature and author interviews. Published biannually, Cream City Review is a volunteer-based, non-profit journal which has attracted readers and submissions from around the world. Approximately 4,000 submissions are received each year from both unpublished and established writers.

The name Cream City Review pays tribute to the publication’s home in Milwaukee. Known as “The Cream City,” Milwaukee is the birthplace of the yellow-colored brick made exclusively from clay native to this area. The “cream” bricks, first made in 1835, proved more durable and aesthetically pleasing than the traditional red bricks produced by East Coast kilns, and quickly became Milwaukee’s most characteristic building material.”

Issue reviewed: Volume 44, Number 1 (Spring/Summer 2020)

Genre: Experimental Literary Fiction

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Stray,” by Aram Mrjoian. When a dog with no identification shows up in Ella’s home (which is actually the summer home of her late grandfather), she searches through the neighborhood to find its owner. A recent college graduate uncertain about her future, Ella is as much a stray as the dog she takes care of.

Clapperboard RatingOne Klack. The stories focus on form rather than action.

Profanometer: Dammit. The language was surprisingly clean.

Day 183

My wife serves as cantorial soloist for our synagogue. In years past, the typically vacant rows at the back of the temple are filled for Rosh Hashanah services, and she performs in front of a few hundred congregants.

This Friday evening, she’ll be by herself in a studio we’ve crafted from one of our college son’s bedrooms, singing and chanting in front of a computer logged in to a Zoom session.

I can’t think of a religion which doesn’t incorporate singing. Even the Amish have hymns! (In the unlikely event anyone of Amish descent is reading this blog, I love you guys enough to have a little fun with you.)

A religious history professor of mine once explained that angels are usually depicted as singing because singing requires their entire being. I’m hardly musically inclined — my several attempts at learning guitar have all ended in frustration with the F chord — but the angelic theory makes experiential sense to me. I hum (softly) and the reverberation flows down to my toes; I dance (if nobody’s watching) and my mind is clear; I sing (badly) and I don’t even feel my body.

Singing is the air of spirituality.

Yet it’s also one of the worst activities for spreading an infectious disease such as COVID-19. The case of the church choir practice in Washington state from March put an end to most public religious gatherings in America. Religious buildings tend to be older, with poor air circulation and rooms designed to encourage handshaking and embracing.

There will be no government ban on religious services in this country; the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is the core verse of our secular Bible. But the overwhelming majority of congregations have acted responsibly and have taken their services online. My church hasn’t met indoors since March, and has just recently experimented with limited outdoor worship. My wife has been conducting Shabbat services from our home for half a year, and we expect that will continue well into 2021.

This Friday’s service, however, is on a much larger scale; the temple has hired a production company to supervise the Zoom meeting and make sure this Jewish New Year runs smoothly. Nobody’s happy with this arrangement; the energy of communal singing can’t be replicated online. But we all know this is the best responsible solution to a problem that’s not going away any time soon.

Relief

The latest in my series of reviews of literary journals and genre magazines.

Relief is “a journal of art and faith” that publishes one print issue a year.

 

What they say about themselves: “For over a decade, Relief has helped shape the landscapes of faith and imagination for readers around the world. In our annual print journal, we feature fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, graphic narrative, and reviews by some of today’s finest literary practitioners, alongside emerging voices. We also publish new reflections on our blog each week—meditations by diverse writers pondering our contemporary moment through the rich lenses of art and faith.

Relief eschews tidy ‘inspirational’ writing that represses the troublesome and complex dimensions of our lives. Instead we are dedicated to human flourishing through literature.

In architectural terms, a relief is a raised projection of figures or forms on a flat surface. It is an image caught somewhere between 2D and 3D. For us, relief is a metaphor: It is work that nudges us toward a fully-embodied reality, toward seeing face-to-face rather than in a mirror dimly. We celebrate writing that broadens our perspectives on the world and humanity, moving us ever closer to the true and beautiful — and in turn, the true and beautiful bring us another kind of relief.”

Issue reviewed: Spring 2020

Genre: Spiritual (mostly Christian) literary fiction

One Story I’ll Remember Not to Forget: “Summit,” by Anna Trujillo. Seeking a momentary escape from her stressful job and uninspiring life, an anonymous young woman hikes regularly on a nearby mountain. When she encounters someone at the summit one day, she’s forced to make an important decision. The main character’s physical struggle mirror her inner turmoil in a clear way without being heavy-handed.

Clapperboard Rating: One Klack. The characters wrestle with their conscience more than they do with each other.

Profanometer: Gee Willikers. Not a profanity or blasphemy in sight.

Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s first novel may not be made into a Hulu series, but is nevertheless an engaging family drama.

James Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants who attends Harvard in the 1950s and meets Marilyn, a white woman with dreams of being a doctor. It’s an era when open xenophobia is acceptable, women aren’t expected to have professional careers, and interracial marriage is still illegal in many part of America. When they move to a small college town in Ohio to raise a family, they begin a comfortable but unsatisfying life. James never overcomes his disappointment at not earning a professorship at Harvard; Marilyn resents turning into her mother, who’s refused to see her since Marilyn’s wedding day; their children do well in school and make friends, but always feel separate from their peers.

There are many things I liked about this novel — the mystery introduced on the first page is solved in a manner that seems both literary and realistic — but perhaps its greatest accomplishment is the subtle but powerful depiction of the microaggressions faced by ethnic minorities in America. One passage in particular deserves a full quote:

You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express — a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You aw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers — Chinese — Japanese — look at these — and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear. You saw it when waitresses and policemen and bus drivers spoke slowly to you, in simple words, as if you might not understand. You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you’d been cut out and pasted in. You thought: Wait, what’s she doing there? And then you remembered that she was you. You kept your head down and thought about school, or space, or the future, and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.

The prose isn’t as as polished as Little Fires Everywhere; narrative perspective jumps suddenly and often between characters, and while many of Ng’s metaphors are quite interesting some are forced, almost seeming perfunctory, the writer feeling a need to create a metaphor when one isn’t really needed. Yet Ng’s debut is still superior to the best efforts of most other novelists. I’m anxious to see where Ng leads her readers in the coming years.

Day 176

We’re about to have a nasty fight in our country about the role of contact tracing in the battle against COVID-19.

From a purely medical perspective, the argument for contact tracing is pretty sound. When someone tests positive for the coronavirus, find out who that person has come into contact with over the past two weeks and test those people as well. If one of the contacts tests positive, search for their contacts and test them as well. Quarantine anyone who tests positive until recovered. Isolate the disease and stop its spread — this seems like the right approach to a virus this infectious and deadly to people with compromised health conditions.

But should contract tracing be compulsory? And should technology be used to enhance tracing efficacy?

The prevalence of mobile phones is allowing a disturbingly easy yes to both questions. A study released this week claims that last month’s Sturgis rally was the source of over a quarter million new COVID-19 cases. This conclusion has, for now anyway, taken attention away from the study’s use of “anonymized cellphone location data” — in plain language, tracking the movement of Sturgis attendees without their knowledge or consent.

That word “anonymized” is a novelty for me. Implicit in its meaning is that personally identifiable information (PII) was at one point associated with the location data but was taken away (anonymized) for the purpose of the study.

The authors of the study may be decent fellows, but the data in its previous “unanonymized” state likely still exists somewhere. And not everyone wanting access to that data would have good intentions.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist. If anything, I put too much trust in government. But this information is too powerful to be used without extreme caution. And I have a feeling a lot of people in the coming weeks are going to ask what cautions are in place.

Maybe it’s time for us to look at those consent agreements we so blithely accept without reading. Maybe we should consider whether getting alerts on our phone about a store or fitness club we visit frequently is worth allowing an electronic device to report our every movement to whoever pays for that data. Maybe we discover this wonderful technology is a raring beast in desperate need of a harness.

But I’ve strayed far from my original topic. We need contact tracing in the fight against COVID-19, and tracing should be enhanced by technology. But let’s keep the damn data anonymized, and deny any access to its associated PII. Public health and personal privacy should never be mutually exclusive.

Warped

PHOTO PROMPT © CEAyr

You read the instructions, right?

Why are you worried? Look around, we’re in 19-freaking-32!

More like 19-thirty-wrong. This is Baxter Street, which was gentrified and given a retro facelift a decade ago. It always looks like this.

But the cars. Check the registration sticker on that license plate!

Yeah, strange. But if we really did travel back to 1932, why does that streetlight have an LED bulb?

You sure about that? Maybe it just looks like an LED.

Holy mackerel! We’re not in 1932… people from 1932 have come here!

Crap! Where’d I leave those instructions…

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest.