Beastly Thoughts

(Cupid & Psyche at the Louvre)

Heh heh, yes I should more properly call this post “Thoughts on Alex Flinn’s
novel, Beastly,” but what would be the fun in that? (Plus maybe the search
engines will generate a few interesting page views of my blog this way… 🙂 )

It’s an old story, Beauty and the Beast, which is itself a very, very old story
if you were to choose to go all the way back to the Cupid & Psyche myth in
classical mythology. My first exposure to it was the Classics Illustrated
“Junior” comic of the same name.

These comics comprised a significant share of my early reading and – there being a finite number of them in the house – were
read over and over by me. (I can still picture some of the frames even as I’m
typing this today) Then later, in Junior High School, we were forced to read
Bullfinch’s Mythology and along with it the Cupid (Eros) and Psyche myth. Then
in my college years I discovered C.S. Lewis and his take on the story, Til We
Have Faces.

In the late ’80s the story appeared again in the somewhat cheesy,
Phantom of the Opera-esque television series, Beauty and the Beast, with Ron
Perlman and Linda Hamilton (of Terminator movies fame) in the title roles.
Disney checked in with it’s big budget animated film in 1991.

I’m sure there are
other instances but these are the ones I remember.

It was last spring, however – shortly after I entered the blogosphere – that I
began to read and hear about this new novel via other bloggers. Even though it
was a YA novel, it sounded like fun so I read it. (and can I just reiterate here
that, although I’m a middle aged guy, I feel no compunction about indulging in
some good, fun YA Lit every now and then. Condemn me if you will!). I found it
quite enjoyable and recommended it to a few other adult reading friends and they
all liked it too.  So, when it was picked by a member of my book club as our
February book for 2011, I read it again (it’s only 200 pages and a quick read)
to refresh my memory.

In this retelling of the story, the “beast” is a high school student, Kyle
Kingsbury, who is quite full of himself. A member of the elite crowd at an upper
crust private school, he is certainly ripe for his comeuppance, and that’s
exactly what he gets when he angers a young witch by pretending he is going to
take her to a dance. She curses him and turns him into some kind of furry beast,
giving him two years to find to find someone he loves AND who will love him back
enough to kiss him and break the curse. When Kyle’s father is unable to find a
“cure” for him that money can buy, he sets him up in a nice apartment with the
family maid, Magda, and a tutor to look after him (i.e. washing his hands of his
“embarrassing” son).

The story is essentially one of redemption, as Kyle’s forced isolation begins to
lead him to see things – and life – quite differently. Many members of my book
club commented on how predictable the book was, and I agree – with one notable
exception of a plot twist (you’ll have to read the book yourself to learn what
it was). I also enjoyed the several homages paid to the more classical versions
of the story. Kyle grows a garden and greenhouse and cultivates roses, for
example, and when an intruder trespasses there he thunders, “Who has dared to
disturb my roses?” immediately afterward thinking to himself in italics, “Why
did I say that?” this little touch of levity was, to me, a bit of a reassurance
that the book wasn’t taking itself too seriously. I found that refreshing.

The author has also written a ‘modern version’ of Sleeping Beauty as well. (Alex is a “she” by the way)

Alex Flinn’s website may be found here.

There is a movie adaptation coming out next month.  A trailer may be viewed here.

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Martian Invasions and Chrono-Synclastic Infandibula (do I even need to add “Oh, my!” to that?)

We had another great & educational (for me, anyway) meeting at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library today. We had two new attendees – visitors all the way from Lake Land College in Mattoon, Illinois – and seven attendees who were “veterans” of multiple meetings already.

For the second month in a row** our discussion leader, Phil Watts (also one of the directors of the KVML), launched the meeting with the reading of a quotation from an article from the magazine “Stop Smiling” that Vonnegut had sent him personally a few years ago. Here is at least part of the excerpt:

“Kurt Vonnegut: I was born in Indianapolis, but I’m a Chicagoan who lives in New York. I went to the University of Chicago.

SS: Do you think the Midwest is a good place to grow up?

KV: If George W. Bush got mad enough at me and exiled me back to Indianapolis, I could make a decent life there. I could hack it in Indianapolis.”

This month’s quotation, however, reminded us all of how, at the end of the novel – when Malachi Constant returns to earth – he wants to go to Indianapolis (the reason Constant gives for this is that he had heard that Indianapolis was “the first city ever to hang a white man for the murder of an Indian”; one of our club members informed us that this was a reference to the Fall Creek Massacre). That’s why I love these meetings. Someone there “knows at least something about anything” it seems.

Our meetings always conclude with Phil asking us each to rate the book on a scale of one to ten, and Sirens of Titan seemed to receive the lowest marks of any we’ve read thus far. One member was enjoying it so little that he didn’t even finish (although toward the end of the meeting he – as did I – felt a little chastised (his word) by the rest of the group because of everything about the book that they pointed out and that he hadn’t considered.) I get a similar boost of my own opinion of the books at every meeting. This is why book club discussions are good! Divide and conquer! What you may miss or fail to appreciate may be gleaned from the book by a fellow reader.

I had a couple of impressions that I shared with the group. One was that how – now that I’ve read “a lot” of Vonnegut’s works – I’m really enjoying how often I see common threads or themes or even specifics. E.g., the planet of Tralfamadore figures both in this novel and also is where Billy Pilgrim “ends up”(?) in Slaughterhouse Five. Another was the similarity of the short story “Harrison Bergeron” from Welcome to the Monkey House to how people “handicapped themselves” in The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent in Sirens of Titan. There haven’t been many authors of which I’ve read so much that I have begun to appreciate them on this level.

The second was how familiar the appearances of Rumsfoord (now existing as a wave phenomenon as a result of his intersecting a chrono-synchlastic infandibulum – no, I didn’t make that up – in his space travel) were to me. They sounded awful lot like the supernatural or hallucinated appearances of The Black Monk in Chekhov’s short story of the same name. Another eerie similarity was that Kovrin, the main character in Chekhov’s story, was – although brilliant (at least that’s my interpretation) – forcibly “cured” of his mania of greatness by the administration of medicines. Check that story out sometime (I have found it “for free” on line in many places).

For awhile, we also lapsed into a discussion of censorship after one member shared a personal story of how a baptist minister and his congregation in Richmond, Indiana, stormed a school that had the audacity to include Slaughterhouse Five in its reading list. One member of the club suggested today that we observe “a moment of silence” in respect of all the librarians who seem so often to be on the front lines against this brutish, bullying behavior.

I realize now, after rambling on for far too long, that I haven’t said much about the plot of the book, and – now that I think of it – I don’t think I will, other than to say that, despite how it sounds, it’s not really a “science fiction” book. In fact the blurb on the back cover of my edition is TOTALLY misleading and inaccurate. And this is a recent edition, not one published in the sixties trying to cash in on the popularity science fiction.

One final thought: one of our members commented on how reading Vonnegut “makes me think of the strangest stuff!” (me too!) and that the creatures called “Harmoniums” found in the caves of Mercury where Malachi and Boaz sojourn (there! I mentioned part of the story) made him think of the “Shmoos” from the old Al Capp cartoons. I had no idea what he was talking about and had to look that up. For once, it’s nice not being the oldest person in a group!

**(I liked the quotation Phil shared last month even more. It’s wonderful: “…as I say regularly in lectures, you practice an art to make your soul grow, not to make a career, be famous or be rich. It’s the process of becoming. It’s as essential to the growing up process as food, sex or physical exercise. You find out who you are that way. I used to challenge audiences, but I don’t face them much anymore. I’d say, “Write a poem tonight. Make it as good as you possibly can. Four, six or eight lines. Make it as good as you can. Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it to anybody. When you’re satisfied it’s as good as you can make it, tear it up in small pieces and scatter those pieces between widely separated trash receptacles and you will find out you have received your full reward for having done it.” It’s the act of creation, which is so satisfying.”)

Finally, the Siren – a classic character in literature for over 3,000 years…

Doubleheader

That’s right. It’s book club doubleheader day in my world. Lunchtime meeting downtown at the KVML to discuss Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, then after work meeting with The Indy Reading Coalition (MY book club) to discuss Alex Flinn’s Beastly. How crazy is it that both my clubs meet the same day? My book club always meets on the fourth Thursday of the month and the KVML Book Club always meets the LAST Thursday of the month. Yes, of course, that is usually the same day…

Oh well, I guess I shouldn’t complain, but it does leave me running around all over town today. Unless maybe I just took the afternoon off. Hmmm…

I’ll try to throw a couple posts up about these two books in the near future. I have to say that Sirens was probably my least favorite Vonnegut read thus far, but maybe my fellow readers will enlighten me to the point of greater appreciation at our meeting today.

Endgame – The Latest Biography of Bobby Fischer

It is not often that books have a significant emotional impact on me. Even reading the great tragedians ancient and “modern” – the likes of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Shakespeare – does not leave me emotionally exhausted. I am usually able to step temporarily into the world of known fiction or drama and return relatively unscathed into the world of reality once my reading is done. The true tragedies, however, which do not allow me this luxury, are those found in non fiction. The story of former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer is just such a tragedy, made even more poignant for me due to the almost thirty years I spent wandering the landscape of chess competition.

(below: Endgame and the author, Frank Brady)

Author Frank Brady also wrote an earlier biography of Fischer, Profile of a Prodigy, which I have posted about before, and was one of the few chess books I read over and over when I first discovered it at our local library. Unlike many of my fellow chess tournament competitors, I enjoyed the lore of the game as much as the game itself. Who were the champions? What were they like? What made them tick? How did they become so good? Bobby Fischer’s approach was almost monomaniacal. With a genius level IQ (reportedly measured at 180), he would likely have mastered anything that he focused this tremendous mental horsepower on; he just happened to choose chess. I take that back. I don’t think he “just happened” to choose it. Chess is a game where everyone competes on an equal footing. Young or old, rich or poor, socially skilled or socially inept. The starting position is the same for all, it is only through your decisions that you ultimately succeed or fail. I think this was a tremendous appeal for Fischer, who would certainly fit the ‘short end’ of the three comparatives I listed above.

Like most, I was already familiar with the story of Fischer’s rise to the top of the chess world, culminating in his 1972 match against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. Brady’s new book also fills in the details of what happened AFTER that match. How Fischer subsequently refused to defend his title in 1975; how he nearly drifted into anonymity living a nearly skid row existence in Los Angeles, how he re-emerged in 1992 to play a rematch against his old rival, Spassky, in war-torn Yugoslavia (violating U.S. sanctions and law in doing so, leaving himself a fugitive).

It’s also the story of his wandering the world as a “man without a country” for the remainder of his life, his descent into paranoia and isolation, his extreme anti-semitism and his celebration of the 9/11 attacks. This last offense was more than U.S. Officials were willing to tolerate, and they revoked his passport, leading to his arrest in Japan in 2004. Spending many months in jail in that country, he was finally extended an offer of citizenship by the tiny country of Iceland, once the scene of his greatest triumph. He lived in Iceland the remainder of his life, but had even begun to wear out his welcome there when he became ill and died in early 2008.

The saddest parts of the book for me are his final years in Iceland. How he had temporarily settled into a routine of eating at a certain restaurant and spending the rest of the day at a favorite bookstore just reading (and reading about everything, not just chess), how he had been discovered there by journalists who later staked out his known haunts in hopes of a story on the recluse. He never really found peace. Even after his death, his body was exhumed for DNA testing in one final, posthumous Indignity. Such brilliance and promise ending in such a tragic waste. It makes one’s heart heavy…

Below: a solitary Fischer at a favorite hot spring in Iceland.

Recently, the former world champion Garry Kasparov wrote a lengthy review of this new book.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber

Yesterday morning, I drew the ten of hearts as part of my 2011 short story reading project. The suit of hearts was designated my “mostly favorites” suit – stories that I had read before and enjoyed. So, I went to look up what short story I had attached to that card. Lo and behold, it was James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. I’ve read this very short story a couple times before, I think. At least once. The one time I definitely remember reading it was in a high school English class. I can’t remember the exact title of the class (although something about ‘social protest literature’ was part of it, I think).

One thing that is remarkable about that particular class, however, is that I have many specific first memories of books and stories that came from it. The teacher was perhaps best described as “a former hippie,” and I even remember one day in class we learned about Arlo Guthrie and the song Alice’s Restaurant, after which she tried to talk some of us who had a class together in the following period to walk in and burst into song with “You can get almost anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant…” Lacking her passion for protest, we decided not to follow her suggestion.

Other interesting assignments and exercises I remember involved analysis of political cartoons in The Indianapolis Star, a dissection of the lyrics of The Beatles song, Eleanor Rigby, reading the John Lennon story, “Araminta Ditch” ( which we learned was his thinly disguised way of saying “aren’t men a bitch?”). One day we also each had to bring in a record or tape of a song that had some deep, or protest-worthy meaning. (Im not sure, but I think I chose “Grand illusion” by Styx) Overall, despite its unorthodox curriculum, this class had a lasting impression on me and presumably my fellow students as well. I believe that this was also the class where I was introduced to the fictional character of Walter Mitty and his “secret life.”

The percentage of literary characters that make it into the mainstream of the modern English language is a tiny one. One such character who does make the cut, however, is that quintessential daydreamer and henpecked husband, Walter Mitty. This great short story starts in the crowded cockpit of plane, where the action is thick and frenetic. Just as the reader is about to strap himself in for a great adventure story, however, he – along with Mitty himself – is shaken back to the real world as his wife scolds him, “You are driving too fast, dear.” It was just a daydream, one of four crammed into this wonderful and impossibly short story. In his daydreams, Mitty is a man of action, respected, admired, and even feared. Unfortunately just the opposite of his true, mundane existence.

(Author James Thurber)

I also love the way Thurber transitions between the reality and daydreams in the story. In one case, after his wife admonishes him for not wearing his gloves, his next daydream finds him in the role of a world-famous doctor, snapping on his surgical gloves in order to save a life no one else can. Most readers have probably read this story either as a requirement in school or as part of their literary explorations. If you haven’t, however, now might be the time. It is available for free on-line. One place where you can find it is:

http://bnrg.eecs.berkeley.edu/~randy/mitty.html

What about you, have you read The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? Any other Thurber recommendations? I’d love to hear of them.

-Jay

The Girl With the Millennium Trilogy Sequel?

Apparently, the longtime companion of the late Stieg Larsson (he’s the author of the wildly selling “Millennium Trilogy” – in case you’ve been living under a bookshelf) wants to finish off a fourth volume he had planned (and allegedly written about 200 pages of). There is an article at the NY Times about this, but not much more detail is provided. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. So much money is potentially at stake that I wouldn’t be surprised if we haven’t seen the last of Lisbeth and Mikael…

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/17/a-word-from-stieg-larssons-partner-and-would-be-collaborator/?ref=review

Are you one of the millions and millions of people who have read these books? Why do YOU think they’re so popular?

Bankruptcy for Borders

Sad to read about this, but I think almost everyone assumed it was inevitable.

http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/02/16/borders-files-for-bankruptcy/

I just got what may be my final shipment Monday from Borders (I ordered the new Bobby Fischer biography from their downtown Indy location since they didn’t have it in stock). I always jokingly referred to them (Borders) as “Full Price Books.” I feel kind of bad about that now. Well, a little.

Just Finished: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell


I had a very mixed reaction to this book. Published in 1996, it won awards and is still highly acclaimed. It didn’t quite work for me, though. The fact that it showed such promise (for my reading taste and subject matter interest) and didn’t deliver for me leaves me unable to recommend it. There is a sequel, titled “Children of God,” but I don’t think I’m going to make the time investment necessary to read it as well.

Briefly, the story is one of humanity’s first contact with an alien civilization and how an expedition is funded and sent by the Jesuit order to “learn” from God’s other children in the universe. The main character, Jesuit priest Emilio Sardoz, is an expert in learning languages, and drawn to the expedition by the fact that the communication received is in the form of “singing.” The musical quality of these songs is haunting and alluring and seems “inspired by God.” Sardoz is joined by several others on this mission, including the astronomer who discovered the signal, a brilliant and beautiful woman, Sofia Mendez- a kind of intellectual indentured servant in the future that this novel paints – an older married couple, one of whom is a doctor, and a few other “hard core Jesuits.” These people form a Tolkein-like Fellowship and journey to the alien civilization, conveniently located “next door” in the Centauri star system (roughly four light years from Earth, I think).

The novel takes place in two time lines, which is part of the reason I struggled with it. It begins in 2060 (the year the “mission” – or what’s left of it – returns to Earth. Through continued ‘flashbacks’ we also learn the sequence of events in 2019, when the discovery is made and the mission takes place. Part of the problem with this is that – when the reader is in the “2019 chapters” he already knows some of what’s going to happen to the mission, including which members won’t make it back. This taints the reading for me.

The other – and perhaps the main- problem I had with it was the kind of ‘casual’ or matter of fact approach to the mission, as though these discoveries were made and these projects were undertaken all the time. It was just too hard for me to suspend disbelief. There is no discussion or concern about “contamination” of the newly discovered world (or its contamination of the members of the mission). Well, it is brought up once, when an expedition member dies and there is discussion about burying him – “will his bacteria contaminate the ecosystem?” To quote Dr. McCoy in (I think it was) Star Trek III: “Hell of a time to ask!” The mission can conveniently eat native plants and animals, quickly picks up the language of the first race they meet (bipedal humanoids of course, but with tails).

This brings up one aspect of the novel that idid find fascinating, though. Russell created the two main races on the new world (the “Runa” and the “Jana’ata”) as having evolved as a predator-prey relationship, which I found very interesting. There’s just not enough of this type of stuff in the book, however. There is, if you’ll forgive me for putting it this way, “Too much God” in it. The sci-fi backdrop is really just the setting for a story of Sandoz’s struggles with belief and faith, which is fine if that’s the book you wanted to read. It wasn’t the book I was wanting or expecting, though. One thing it did do however, was kindle an interest in me to learn about the history of the Jesuits and their missions here on earth, particularly to the “New World” of our own planet’s Age of Discovery.

I’m beginning to ramble so I’ll end the post here. I welcome others’ comments or viewpoints on this books, though.

Psst! I’ve Updated my “Blogroll”…

Hi folks,

Just a heads up that I’ve added some new links (and removed some ‘inactive’ ones) to my blogroll.  I try to keep my number of links down to a reasonable number, since I’ve seen so many other bloggers have scores or even hundreds of links.  Rest assured all of the links on my blogroll are ones I actually check regularly and enjoy following.  Give them a visit if you’d like.  Just tell them you’re a citizen of Bibliophilopolis stopping by for a visit… 🙂

-Jay

“He knew that a battle had been fought over his soul, and that evil had not prevailed…” A.C. Benson’s ‘The Slype House’

Author A.C. Benson

Saturday mornings in 2011 have brought with them a new and welcome tradition. Thanks to my short story reading project (“Deal Me In”), it has become my custom on Saturday morning to draw a new card from the deck to see which short story I shall read next. This morning brought me the king of spades…

When I started this project (Inspired by Prongs’ “52 weeks, 52 books” reading project) I roughly assigned the stories in my pick list to “suits” with some common theme. “Diamonds” were to be stories recommended by others, “Hearts” were to be favorites that I was re-reading, “Clubs” were to be stories I had not previously read, but had wanted to, and “Spades” – ah, the darkest of the suits – were to be ghost stories, long one of my favorite reading genres.

This was also a story I had read once before, but nearly fifteen years ago. How I found it for this year’s reading project was that it was in one of my favorite ghost story anthologies, “The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories” edited by Richard Dalby.

This is the volume that introduced me to Bram Stoker’s story, “The Judge’s House,” and also one of my all time favorites, “The Ash Tree” by M.R. James. I have a bad(?) habit of defiling the contents sections of any anthologies I own, writing the date that I read each story, and tagging it with an asterisk if I found the story particularly good (occasionally, there is even found a two-asterisk story, but that is very rare; some of them are featured in the Hearts suit if this project, however). This story was marked with an asterisk, although I could remember NOTHING about it, which perplexed me. That is why I added it to this project.

“The Slype House” the story of one Anthony Purvis. He is an unfortunate soul who has hardly known any love in his life. Though of a rich family, he was a sickly child whose mother died when he was young, while his father had little interest in raising or devoting any time to him. When he was sent to university, he was picked on by his peers and formed a resolve to gain power and make himself a name – “he had determined that as he could not be loved he might still be feared.” In part, this ambition leads him to study The Dark Arts, inspired in part by an old doctor of the college “who feared not God and thought ill of man” and devoted himself to the study of “the black influences that lie in wait for the soul.”

Anthony lives abroad awhile and returns to collect his inheritance when his father dies. He spends some of the inheritance on “The Slype House,” where he can devote himself to his studies safely away from his fellow man. The house (described wonderfully by Benson) is, fortuitously, next door to a kind of monastery or church. As he grows older and reaches the age of fifty, Anthony begins to ponder his own mortality and becomes worrisome about “what lies beyond” this life, concluding that he “had made a few toys, he had filled vacant hours, and he had gained an ugly kind of fame – and this was all.” His melancholy induced by these musings leads him to try to (presumably) call upon the ghost of his dead mother, who is the main character in the only memories of love that he possesses. Naturally, his efforts in this regard lead to unintended consequences, and the fate of his eternal soul is left in jeopardy…

You should really read this story. I absolutely loved it.

“The Slype House” can also be found for free on the Internet. Here is where one PDF of the story resides:

http://www.horrormasters.com/Text/a1316.pdf

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