Sunday, January 12, 2014

How To Train A Rock Short Insights and Fiction Flights By Paul Steven Stone

How To Train A Rock
Short Insights and Fiction Flights
By Paul Steven Stone
Blind Elephant Press
Cambridge, MA
ISBN: 978-1442117214
189 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Today’s wordsmiths too often celebrate a paucity of sentiment in their writings, as if that sweet tasting, very human trait belies and obfuscates man’s anxious condition in this brutish world. Quite the contrary, the hopefulness and refined feelings associated with fresh-air altruism and the demanding activism, generated by a heart needled with sorrow, define civilization as we know it and, more importantly, desire it.

Paul Steven Stone in his book, How To Train A Rock, uses various emotional versions of informed sentiment in his short insightful essays and affecting mini fictions to great ends. He does this with diverting humor and an edge, albeit a gentle edge. There is nothing squishy or maudlin here. Stone’s pieces range from the absurdly jocular to the profoundly sad, to the upliftingly lyrical. His tone is consistent and wondrous. In short he knows what he’s doing.

One of Stone’s signature fictions he entitles Pretty White Gloves. It dramatizes the plight of the homeless in the person of the Major, a former Marine begging out on the street in 4 degree weather. The pretty white gloves are the memories of his young daughter’s dress up gloves on Easter Sunday and also his Marine dress gloves that he had worn at military funerals. You could say that they symbolize human aspirations and dignity.  They also are, ironically, what the Major’s frostbitten hands have unfortunately become.

Not far beneath the surface of these farcical fictions and essays a poet, by temperament, works his magic. The lyrics of Listen To The Wind soar lovingly off the page. The author alternates poetic stanzas with prosaic wisdom in an amazing symbiosis.  Here’s a bit of what this writer does,

Listen to the wind,
the playful wind.
Listen to it shake the trees
with laughter rustling in the breeze.
Listen to the wind
the playful wind

    Be like me the wind said, and never take your-
self too seriously. When I was a child, I would puff
myself up with my own importance, just like you,
boy. But now I know that every tree I bend down will
only straighten itself once I’m gone.
    Be like me, the wind said, and enjoy the game
while you can.

The Torturer’s Apprentice is a clear-eyed essay in which Stone cleverly places his reader in a hellhole of a cell with a tortured party, or perhaps the reader is the tortured party. I have a quibble with this piece, but let’s move on for the moment. The author comes to his subject from an idealistic perspective; he argues that the tortured victim deserves his natural rights and protections as opposed to, say, a mindless predator. Stone appeals to his readers’ better angels. Of course there are many humans who are mindless predators or worse, and whether they are born with any natural rights seems an open question.  Stone admits at least one exception that proves the rule, when he says,

This is not about one-in-a-million scenarios where terrorists have hidden a ticking nuclear bomb. This is about the humane treatment of everyone else on the planet.

Fair enough. But here lies my quibble. From time immemorial everyone else’s nation seems to use a degree of torture and they use it not only to extract information and punish, but also for amusement. The barbaric Iroquois, besides perpetrating genocide on their fellow Native Americans, also institutionalized and ritualized torture. Some northern Afghans during their war with the Russians were notorious for skinning their captives alive. Not that the so-called civilized nations are much better in that respect. Rome used crucifixions regularly. Consider Jesus. But even the churches are not immune. The Catholic Church concocted the Inquisition. The Puritan church in New England tortured accused witches. My point is that this problem might be a bit deeper and more ingrained than first appears. But you can’t rationalize torture. Therefore Stone’s instincts and outrage are well taken. In fact if things are ever going to change we’ll need many more Paul Steven Stones believing in the essential goodness of man.

In the author’s title essay, he admonishes us to be attentive and respectful as he details the secret life of rocks and the techniques we must use to safely conduct these sentient beings into a fruitful adulthood. Stone is quite funny in this piece but (as usual) in a gentle sort of way as he pushes the gag for all its worth. In the end he warns his perceived enemies thusly,

…And whoever
threw that rock through the Institute’s lab window
yesterday, I should warn you your rock has already
conveyed your vital information to the police who
are now on their way.

Another of Stone’s humorous pieces, It’s My Phone, I’ll Shout If I Want To, tries to save the world from its own idiocy. His protagonist intends to purchase a sweater at the GAP while at the same time juggling a series of phone calls from his mother, who has medical issues, from his editor, and from a telemarketer. The scene borders on the theater of the absurd but, as most of us know, nails some pretty common and very real incidents. And, for God’s sake, don’t miss the twists and turns in Stone’s irony that raise these pieces up into the rarified air of serious literature.

Underlying all his pieces, Stone’s penchant for didacticism powers everything. He’s a true believer, but not a preachy true believer. If you want to start tomorrow in a better frame of mind, read this now teary, now laugh-out -loud book tonight. Things will get better.

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