Finally Finished: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

This book is probably the one – of all my readings thus far this year – that I have the most ambivalent feelings about. The second half of the book went much faster for me (reading speed-wise) than the first half. I’m a bit hung up on why this should be so. Is the second half better than the first, or is there just more action as the book approaches its climax just as Inman approaches his home? There is also the not to be underestimated factor that I actually focused on this book during the past 36 hours or so. This likely added some continuity for me when compared with the short spurts of time I grudgingly doled out to it during the first 29 days of the month. As is usually the case, the real answer is a combination of these (and probably unknown other) factors. Bottom line is, though, that I’m finished, and I have to admit I’m a results-oriented guy… :-). I’m not going to give away plot details in this post, so no spoiler alert, but I will say that if you want every mountain, valley, tree, plant, road, rock, river, run, rill, or rivulet in Appalachia described In detail, this is your book.

The book is often described as a “Civil War novel,” but I’d have to take exception to that. The Civil War is only the backdrop before which the story of Inman and Ada – and the land of Western North Carolina itself – can be told. The novel is more about the transformation of people. Both Ada and Inman change drastically during the time of their separation. Not just their character changes, but they both undergo the physical changes that only true hardships can effect.

Another theme that seems to run through the novel is that of what I guess I’d call “wounded-ness.” Many, if not all of the major characters are wounded in some way, most physically, but some emotionally or psychically as well. The country itself (here I do not mean the land, but the concept of the nation) is also wounded – something the reader really comes to appreciate as he follow Inman On his journey homeward. It is notable as well that there are several “healers” throughout the book: Ruby (Ada’s friend and ‘savior’), Inman himself, the old goat-herding woman that Inman meets in the mountains, and “The Power of Love” itself when Inman and Ada finally come together.

Also of note are the similarities this story has to the epic poem, The Odyssey of Homer (and do I really have to say “of Homer?” Oh well, I already did, and I’m not taking it out). After finishing the novel, I read a little about it on line, and found one interview with the author wherein he acknowledges that he re-read The Odyssey as part of his research. I agree that Inman is heroic and endured a long journey home after a war, but he is no Odysseus. And I guess we can be both grateful and disappointed by that. If I had to know one of them personally, I’d choose Inman. I feel he is more heroic in the modern sense, and does not mirror the ancient’s cunning – and self-serving intelligence. Nor his infidelity. Can you say “Calypso?”

I also was reminded while reading this book that many soldiers from the Civil War walked home (regardless of the enormous distance sometimes involved). Didn’t Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind also walk most of the way home upon his release from the Federal POW camp? I am reminded also that the “only ghost I’ve ever seen” (I won’t retell my personal ‘ghost story’ here, but since it is, after all, Halloween, I’ll include a link to my earlier post describing it in detail) was likely a Civil War soldier repeating his long walk home.

I must finish by saying how disappointed I was by the ending of this book. I don’t know how others felt (perhaps you can add a comment here? ) but I was uncharacteristically angry…

Cold Mountain

Alright, folks…Enough is enough. I’m going to finish this dang book this weekend if it kills me.

On a related note: this may be my last post.

“In Hiding” – a short story by Joyce Carol Oates

Yes, I have become addicted to reading a short story in the morning as part of my routine. Now that my “required reading” of short stories for my two book clubs (both meeting today!) has been exhausted, I am turning to a couple other collections I have loaded and ready on my Nook reader.

The first is Joyce Carol Oates’ collection, “I Am No One You Know,” which I purchased because I thought one of the stories was going to be part of my book club’s short story month in July. However, the member who had originally picked a story from that collection (the disturbing “The Girl With the Blackened Eye”) retracted it and picked something else. Too late for me, as I had read it anyway, but now I am left with a whole book of Stories to nibble on in the mornings.  Below: Joyce Carol Oates

The second is William Trevor’s collection, “After Rain,” which was brought to my attention by one of my favorite bloggers, Ana, over at Ana the Imp (a link to her awesome blog is on my blogroll “to the left”) Her blog is often about history and politics, but I have also found her insight on books helpful, and she has yet to steer me wrong. I’ve only read the first story in this collection, but I’m sure I’ll be posting on some of them as time goes by. Below: William Trevor

Back to today’s story. ****SPOILER ALERT!**** “In Hiding” is about a “single mom” poet/writer who finds herself beginning a correspondence with an inmate serving a life sentence (he claims to be innocent, naturally) who has poetic ambitions of his own. Though hesitant, she allows the correspondent relationship to slowly grow, and he sends her more and more poetry and excerpts from his diary. She is painted earlier in the tale as a typical low self-esteemed person; her husband – who she was surprised would ever like her in the first place – left her and she is now living (hiding?) in a small town in New York. I guess this is why she willingly engages in this correspondence.

She sends the inmate some paperback books and other collections of poetry, and even inquires with various publishers about the possibility of publishing some of his poetry, but without success. Eventually, their correspondence lessens to a trickle and then stops. She speculates that perhaps he has found another correspondent and is actually relieved. Some time later, she receives a form letter from an “Innocents Defense Fund” – or something of the like – requesting financial assistance in the inmate’s interest. She sends $500, receiving another form letter that thanks her. She begins to feel that her contribution was too small and sends another $1,500. Another thank you – another form letter – follows.

Nothing happens until one day, looking out the front window of her house, she sees a strange car with out of state license plates in her neighborhood. Something tells her “it’s him” as it creeps past her house and turns right further down the block. It returns shortly after and slows to a stop in front of her house. A man gets out, looking very much like the photos that the inmate had sent her. She retreats to an inner room of the house in fear, and there is a knock on the door. She waits, but then in horror hears her son answer the door (she has forgotten that it’s Saturday, and he is home). He seeks her out In her “office” where she has slid into a closet-like alcove, and the story ends with his inquiry, “Why are you hiding, Mom?”

Short and sweet. I like that how the story ends – or at least what happens next – is left to the reader.

Have you read any Joyce Carol Oates? What do you think of her as a writer?

Progress Report

Well, here it is almost the end of October already. I’ve read most of my required reading for the month, with the exception of having the second half of Cold Mountain yet to finish. Boy, is that book ever slow going for this reader!

To divert myself, I’ve begun reading Thomas Hardy’s Two on a Tower. It is proving to be a great story and I can’t wait to finish it and get something written on it for my fellow citizens of Bibliophilopolis. I read all the “major” Hardy novels years ago, and am very much enjoying my reintroduction to him via this book.

Upcoming for November, I plan to read another book related to the Civil War, about the West Point class of 1846, which included several key generals in the war. I also plan to read the November selection of my primary book club – P.T. Deuterman’s Darkside. That should be an easy, diverting read for me. I also have Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns in the queue. This is a borrowed book, so I’d like to get to it soon, and I really enjoyed the other book of his that I’ve read, The Kite Runner. I’ll also have another Vonnegut title assigned by the KVML book club, but I won’t find out what that one is until tomorrow, when we meet to discuss Welcome to the Monkey House. These books, along with finishing Two on a Tower, would give me a count of five for November, one better than my par score of four, and leaving me at 46 total for the year, where I’ll hopefully be able to get my par four in December to make 2010 my most prolific reading year to date. Hurrah!

What about you? Are any of these books on your to read list? Have you read any of them already? Let me know your thoughts or suggestions for future reads..

Sent from my iPad

“EPICAC” (no, not “ipecac”)

This is the title of yet another of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House. It’s the story of an operator for some behemoth-ic government-owned computer called EPICAC. I’m sure this name is intentionally similar to both “UNIVAC” (an actual early generation computing machine) and ipecac – as in the well known emetic, “syrup of ipecac.” The computer operator apparently has the hots for one of his co-workers (described as a “crackerjack mathematician”) who won’t give him the time of day because he’s unromantic and boring. Imagine that – not too different from a current stereotype, huh?

By the way, If this story sounds somewhat familiar to you, it may be because it was in part appropriated by Rod Serling and Bernard Schoenfeld for a 1964 episode of the tv series “The Twilight Zone” titled “From Agnes – with Love.” (***Spoiler Alert***) In that story, however, the computer actually falls for the operator, not the girl.

In the Vonnegut story, however, the computer innocently asks of the operator (never named in the story) “what’s the trouble?” and the hapless guy explains about the girl, Pat. After getting some background information (“what’s girl?”, “what’s love?”) EPICAC helps the operator by writing a long, wonderful poem which the operator passes off to her as his own. Pat is predictably impressed and begins to see the operator in a new light. They share a kiss and later he asks the computer to write another poem about the kiss. This time it’s a short and beautiful, “immaculate sonnet”

“Love is a hawk with velvet claws
Love is a rock with heart and veins;
Love is a lion with satin jaws,
Love is a storm with silken reins.”

I have to say that’s pretty good for a computer, eh? I wonder what Ray Kurzweil’s cyber poet would think of that? Would it give up and unplug itself?

Anyway, things proceed swimmingly and the operator begins to think about marriage. After talking with EPICAC and explaining the situation (“what’s marriage?”), the machine agrees that Pat is a worthy candidate for matrimony and says “I’m ready whenever she is.” The operator is taken aback and tries to explain to the computer the impossibility of such a marriage (sprinkling in a few lies to make his case more palatable to his “friend” the machine – he says he is made out of protoplasm and will last forever, and says a woman cannot love a machine – that it’s fate, which he also has to define) In the end, the machine “can’t go on” (“I don’t want to be a machine. I don’t want to think about war.” – the latter is his primary function) and sort of burns itself out when “left on” overnight by the operator (nothing like that tight government security, huh?). The operator is fired from his job for his neglect, but also cleans up many rolls of printed tape (this is how EPICAC communicated with its users) from the room. He discovers that it contains a going away present from the computer: 500 years of anniversary poems for him to give his wife. How sad. I felt a pity for the machine not too dissimilar to that which I felt for Frankenstein’s monster when reading that classic a couple months ago.

Have you read this story? Do you remember the “classic” Twilight Zone episode?

(below: actor Wally Cox in “From Agnes – with Love” 1964)

Nook readers to be sold at Wal-Mart

I heard on the news this morning that Wal-Mart will begin selling the Nook reader soon. This is the e-reader I own (although most of the e-reading I do is on my Nook app on my iPad), and it is fighting to gain market share alongside Amazon’s better known “Kindle” e-reader. I’m sure being available at Wal-Mart will boost sales, but will it be enough? B&N is fighting to survive the upcoming transition many readers are making to e-reading and – although they were late jumping into the market – have been aggressive in pushing the Nook. It’s still not very well known to the general public, though. For instance the morning news anchor of our NBC affiliate pronounced it “nuke”(!) a couple times in this morning’s story. I’m guessing he hasn’t read much more than what’s on his TelePrompTer lately, though…

I think it will be fascinating to watch how this plays out in the next few years…

Why not become a “Friend of the IMPCL?”

Today’s editorial page of the Indianapolis Star contains a few paragraphs urging us to become supporters of the IMPCL (Indianapolis Marion County Public Library). With economic conditions being what they are, it is no surprise that public libraries are also feeling the pinch of budget-tightening measures. Some changes have already been made, predominantly in the reduction of operate hours for libraries in the IMPCL system.

I personally have often benefited from one of the Friends’ programs. They organize a bi-monthly “Secondhand Prose” book sale at the Library Services Center, where the public can buy used, donated, or “withdrawn” books from the library at very reasonable cost. (I always leave with a ‘bag of books’). “Friends of the Library” get the benefit of first crack at the inventory at preview sales the night before the sale officially begins.

For my local readers (on any readers, actually!),more information on this worthwhile cause can be found here

(below: the central branch of the IMPCL)

“The Lie” – another great short story by Kurt Vonnegut

the lie wttm

I’m sorry if my readers are getting tired of all these posts about Vonnegut stories. BUT, I’m almost done with this collection, after which you’ll be getting a reprieve. Maybe. (You’ll probably just have to endure the tedium of a new tangent of my reading…)

***Spoiler Alert***
Put yourself in this situation: you’re a young boy being driven by your parents up to enroll in an exclusive prep school – a school that every boy for many generations of your wealthy family has attended, and of which “three graduates … have gone on to become president of the United States.” There is only one problem, however. You failed to pass the entrance examinations. Your parents have considered your passing the exams as a foregone conclusion – so much so that they didn’t even notice that no official notification of your test results had ever been sent to them. Of course, the notice had been sent – and included heartfelt “condolences” from the headmaster, a personal friend of your father – but you had intercepted it, tearing it up to postpone the horror of your parents’ discovery of your failure.

This is the situation that young Eli Remenzel finds himself in, and it provides the backdrop for the short story by Kurt Vonnegut titled “The Lie.” The story isn’t really so much about Eli Remenzel’s dilemma as it is about the concept of wealth and privilege. On the drive up, Eli’s father (a doctor) is adamant about his son’s not receiving any special treatment at the school. This is in response to his wife (described as an “ambitious” woman with no money of her own, and “openly curious and enthusiastic” as to the ways of the rich) asking if Eli would have a fireplace in his room. She’s also curious as to how many Remenzels have attended Whitehill, i.e., “Is Eli number 31?” etc. Doctor Remezel is annoyed with her constant questioning.

Later, when “the jig is up” and Eli’s secret is being discovered via the headmaster’s gentle, embarrassed attempts to tell the doctor, Sylvia (the mother) is the first to realize what’s going on and sympathizes with her son, who moments ago had bolted from the room when faced with imminent discovery. “We’ve got to find Eli,” she says. “That is the first thing.” The doctor, however, disagrees. “The first thing is to get him admitted to Whitehill.” While Sylvia searches for the boy, he proceeds to try to use his influence to get Eli admitted anyway – just the opposite of what he has been preaching about ‘special privileges’ the whole story long. Upon being refused special treatment, he realizes that he was wrong to try, and admits as much to his incredulous son (“A Remenzel has asked for something special!?” says a disbelieving Eli).

This story was only twelve pages long, yet Vonnegut crams a lot of story into a few pages, much like many of the stories in this book. Highly recommended.

Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Deer in the Works.”

I read this Vonnegut story yesterday morning. I found it poignant and it struck a nerve with me and probably would do the same with anyone who has made difficult decisions about one’s career and the path it takes. **spoiler alert** It’s really quite sad. It’s about a young man, David Potter, whose family has just gone from four to six – his wife having recently given birth to twins (for the second time, no less!). This increase in his responsibility has prompted him to attend a sort of job fair – in today’s parlance anyway – for the local major corporation, The Ilium Works. I like that name, by the way. It calls to mind Homer’s Iliad… Also the poem by Christopher Marlowe, “The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships”

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven is in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena.
I will be Paris, and for love of thee,
Instead of Troy, shall Wittenberg be sack’d;
And I will combat with weak Menelaus,
And wear thy colours on my plumed crest;
Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,
And then return to Helen for a kiss.
O, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
When he appear’d to hapless Semele;
More lovely than the monarch of the sky
In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;
And none but thou shalt be my paramour!

above: Christopher Marlowe. Sorry for the digression (you’ll get used to it if you’re a new “citizen” of Bibliophilopolis)

Anyhoo, back to Mr. Vonnegut’s story… David had been for a few years the editor of a small newspaper. It wasn’t a very profitable business, but it was one he loved and he had the freedom of being more or less self-employed. When he “interviews” at the job fair, he impresses to a degree that, even though they don’t currently have a position open of exactly the type he’s after, they offer him a job anyway. Predictably, when he learns what his salary will be, he is seduced by the prospect of a better life for him and his family and accepts. He happily tells his wife, who is skeptical since she knows how much he loved the paper. He convinces her – actually probably just reassures himself – that it is the right decision.

Upon his arrival on his starting day, however, he begins to see the price he will have to pay for “improving his station” in life. He is disturbed by how the company has charts and graphs of anticipated salaries & growth of employees, as if his entire career – and life – have been pre-ordained by this corporate entity. Once inside “The Works” he must also come to grips with the gargantuan size of the place, getting lost and disillusioned. The position he has taken, incidentally, has more or less to do with “publicity” for the company, and at some point during the first day, the “exciting” news that a deer is loose within the company grounds leads his boss to direct him to cover the “story.”

In the course of trying to find where the deer is supposed to be – and getting lost again – he learns that the deer is likely to be killed and the venison served at the annual “Quarter Century Club” picnic (for those who have worked at The Works for over twenty-five years). Throughout these events, Potter begins to fully comprehend the cold, thoughtless “machinery” that is the entity known as “The Works” and realizes he no longer wants to be a part of it, despite the cost. He helps intervene on the deer’s behalf, and when it escapes the fence through a gate he follows it, closing the gate behind him. The last line of the story is perfect: “He didn’t look back.” Bravo!

below: a younger Kurt Vonnegut


16 down, 25 to go… “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut

(I love this book cover too, by the way.  What is that – a 54-long!?)

I’ve settled into an enjoyable little routine of late. As fate would have it, I live on the opposite side of town from where I work. I have a 20+ mile commute each day, most of it on Indianapolis’s encircling I-465 interstate. Now, if I leave the house to get to work close to my normal hour (8 a.m.) traffic is heavy and thus the commute tedious and stressful (not to mention more time consuming). So, my normal custom is to drive up early, then enjoy a cup of coffee at a shop near my office while reading the paper, checking emails, etc. Lately though, I’ve started my day even earlier, and added reading a Vonnegut short story and maybe a few favorite blogs as well.

Somedays I even have time to write a blog post, something I’m trying to be more consistent about doing. Anyway, this morning I knocked off the 16th of Vonnegut’s 25 stories in this collection. Today’s treat was “The Euphio Question” in which three men “discover peace of mind.” Apparently through some vague, unknown process, the hissing static sound emanating from regions of space where there are no known celestial objects (maybe this is the CBR? Cosmic Background Radiation being described?) had, when amplified, an euphoric effect on those who heard it. One of the three men is an unapologetic capitalist and immediately begins thinking of ways to cash in on this effect, many of which involve using the effect to dull the senses and reason of those he is selling something to.

An experiment is performed (one of the three men is a scientist) after a consumer-sized box unit is created – with the idea of eventual wholesale. (Vonnegut has to be lampooning television a bit here; the story was written in 1951) Of course the experiment goes wrong (although I guess that depends on one’s viewpoint) and the machine stays on for days, leaving those within range dull and senseless ( but also euphoric!). This is enough to convince all but the unscrupulous capitalist to give up the idea, and one of the men smashes the device with a poker from the fireplace.

All in all a great little story. Has anyone else “out there” read it? What did you think of it?

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