Busy busy busy…

Two things must happen today. I must escape the office – in the midst of a short-staffed quarter-end – long enough to run downtown (and then back) for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club meeting, and I must, MUST finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot!

I’m in the home stretch of the latter, with perhaps 90-minutes of reading to go. My feelings about this book have been very ambivalent (“very ambivalent?” can one say that?), and I look forward to trying to write a post about it. It’s one of the more quotable books I’ve read this year, and I find myself highlighting a ton of observations and witticisms. But it’s also just crazy. It’s “all over the place,” and I don’t really know from one chapter to the next what the plot or theme is supposed to be. After reading the autobiography of Anthony Trollope earlier this year and about his attention to plot detail, I suspect he would run from The Idiot in terror…

For the KVMLBC, we read “Wampeters, Foma, and Granfallons,” which is essentially a collection of Vonnegut’s non-fiction writings or transcripts of speaking addresses he gave at various places. This was a much easier read for me, although I must say I begin to grow fatigued with Vonnegut’s pervasive pessimism about our species. He’s so brilliant and “convincing” though that it’s difficult to escape “unscathed” (or “un-depressed?”) after reading him.

These two books briefly intersected in Vonnegut’s essay “Excelsior! We’re Going to the Moon! Excelsior!” (one of my favorite ‘chapters’ and originally published in the New York Times). He talks about the important symbolism of the first human footprint on the moon and quotes the Russian: “One sacred memory from childhood is perhaps the best education,” said Feodor Dostoevski. Vonnegut also says, “I hope that many Earthling children will respond to the first human footprint on the moon as a sacred thing. We need sacred things. The footprint could mean, if we let it, that Earthlings have done an unbelievably difficult and beautiful thing which the Creator, for Its own reasons, wanted Earthlings to do.” Very nice.

I’ll let you know later how things went today. My time at the coffee shop is running down and I must report to the salt mines, er, office, shortly…:-)

Sent from my iPad

Advertisements

“Bumper Crop”

 

Without fail it’s my favorite book club meeting each year:  “Short Story Month!”  We’ve been doing this every July now, starting with 2008.  Each of our nine members picks a short story for the members to read.  Most of them pick a ‘famous’ story that’s available in the public domain and thus on the internet, while a couple share an actual copy or copied pages from a book.  I love the variety and the change of pace from our normal meetings.  And there are always a few previously unknown gems discovered (at least by me, anyway.)

This time around, we even have a couple repeat stories.  With some member turnover since inception, a couple stories that have been picked before were picked again (well, one was a short story picked during our “Ghost Story Month” – another favorite meeting of mine), but we decided to just read them again anyway.  Some members hadn’t read them the first time, or weren’t part of the club the first time, and heck, they’re just darn good stories too.

So far, we’ve heard from all but one member (come on, Carla! 🙂 ), and here’s what we’ve got so far:

F. Scott Fitzgerald – “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz”

Kate Chopin – “A Shameful Affair”

Ernest Lawrence Thayer – “Casey at the Bat”

Jack London – “A Piece of Steak”

Rudyard Kipling – “Rikki Tikki Tavi”

Ambrose Bierce – “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

Alice Hoffman – “The Conjurer’s Handbook”

A.M. Burrage – “Smee”

I consider this a bumper crop of stories.  Yeah, yeah, I know Casey at the Bat is a poem (the member who picked that one is a chronic troublemaker…  🙂 ).  Also the member who selected An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge described it as “a dark story that keeps you hanging until the end.”  If you’ve read that story before, you may appreciate the humor in that description…  Chopin, Thayer, and Hoffman are all new authors for the club, whereas for some of the others we’ve read novels, and some are making their second appearance in Short Story Month.

What about you?  Have you read any of these stories?  Have you ever participated in a book club that read short stories (either every now and then, or exclusively)?  I’d love to hear about it…

 

So, “Jeopardy!” invited me to a contestant audition…

Back in February, I participated in an on-line tryout for the television quiz show, “Jeopardy!” and thought that I did pretty well. It was a fifty-question test, and there was very limited time to answer each question before the next one popped up. I figured that I did just about as well as the other time I went through the audition process. That was back in 2004. I made it “all the way” that time and was in their contestant pool while Ken Jennings was winning his 75 shows in a row (and hurting my chances by not allowing the show to turn over a new champion every few days). They never called me, although I did see a few people from the group I tested with on the show. At that time, they told us, “you’ll be in our files for about 16 months; if we don’t call you within that time, you’ll have to try out again.”

So, I’ve been “bitter” all these years (ha ha) yet spent the time “constructively” by sitting in multiple bars that run the Buzztime Trivia network, taking on all comers – usually with success. In that time I’ve neglected or ignored opportunities for the online tryouts – at least until this year. Sony Television is very secretive about their testing process too, not telling you how many of the fifty questions you need to get right to be eligible, only saying that more people pass the test than they have room for at their auditions and basically,”don’t call us, we’ll call you.” In other words, by passing the online test, you’re still in a “lottery” to possibly get an audition, just one that has a hat with fewer names in it. So, I figured I would never hear from them…

BUT, a couple weeks ago I got an email inviting me to an in-person audition in Lexington, Kentucky next month. So, I will be sacrificing a vacation day to drive the three-ish hours to see if I can get into an even smaller hat with even fewer names in it. I’m excited and nervous both. I’d love to get on the show and win some “big money,” but the shows I’ve been watching lately have been a little discouraging. Well, except for last Thursday, which I would have absolutely crushed, lol. All the reading I’ve done over the years has really helped my “trivia skills” as has having a very wide range of interests. The fifty question test I took on line, had roughly 20% literary-related questions. I’ll paste the list below (warning: including answers) the fold, If you’re curious. Wish me luck!

Read the rest of this entry »

The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates (a damn good writer…)

I took a break this past weekend from my “regularly scheduled” reading and read a book that I’ve had on my iBooks app for about a year. It’s Joyce Carol Oates’s novel, The Tattooed Girl. The funny thing is I don’t remember when I bought/downloaded it or why. I know last summer someone in my book club had picked a JCO short story for our short story reading month, and I seem to recall that I had foolishly/accidentally bought an e-copy of the book both on my Nook and my iBooks app. But now I only see The Tattooed Girl in my iBook library, and NOT I Am No One You Know, the short story collection. Maybe I had meant to download the one book and accidentally downloaded The Tattooed Girl. Regardless of all that, I am really glad I had, because I really, really liked the book. In spite of being pretty dark and often depressing, it is one of my favorites thus far this year.

In addition to the title intriguing me (yes, I may be that shallow when it comes to girls and tattoos 🙂 at least that’s what some of my friends would argue… ) in the midst of the Stieg Larsson books’ juggernaut, the storyline was interesting to me too. Described in the Goodreads.com summary as a tale of “dark passions, prejudice, and the strange forms love can take” it also included several themes of interest to me, personally (in addition to the aforementioned tattoo fascination). The main character, Josh Siegl, is an introverted, middle-aged scholar who has, several years ago, written a best seller about the holocaust, and a family’s tragic navigation of that event. Although now working on a new translation of Vergil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, he has been “drifting” for some time now, and is also beginning to experience symptoms of a neurological disorder. Though “in denial” about his condition, he does decide to take the drastic (to him anyway) step of hiring an assistant. His various neuroses, however, lead him to find a reason to avoid hiring any of the qualified applicants. Something of a “cold fish” Oates says of him at one point, “He hated raw emotion, melodrama. He hated the willful sabotage of reason, the triumph of the blood.” Now that’s good stuff…

Enter Alma, the title character, who Siegl meets while she is working in a bookstore. Though not very literate, she somehow catches his attention and interest, and she ends up becoming his assistant. We the readers have met her previously when she wandered half-starved into a cafe where Siegl frequently plays chess, meeting there the waiter Dmitri, a predatory, bitter, small-time criminal/pimp amalgam. He pays her enough attention to win her confidence and make her fall in love with him. This allows him to use her, as pretty much everyone has all her life. (in a nice touch, Oates has the Alma character coming from a Pennsylvania town – perhaps based upon the actual town of Centralia – which an underground coal mine fire has rendered a nearly literal hell on earth).

Dmitri’s influence helps poison Alma against Siegl, leading her to adopt his anti-Semitic and holocaust denial views and opinions. Siegl is for a long time ignorant of her anti-semitism and continues to treat her kindly. Both of them experience personal growth as a result of their association, but the reader is unsure if the growth will be enough to overcome Siegl’s illness and Alma’s prejudice. I hoped for a happy ending. Whether or not that hope was in vain I’ll leave for you to find out if you choose to read this excellently written novel.

20110627-124031.jpg

From Mule Driver to Astronomer – Milton Humason

I happened upon a great program last night on PBS. It dealt with the building of a succession of larger and larger telescopes in the early twentieth century – primarily with George Ellery Hale’s efforts related to those at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, and later the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt. Wilson near Pasadena and the 200-inch one at the Palomar Observatory, which enjoyed a 40+ year reign as the most powerful telescope in the world.

The Palomar Observatory:

20110623-073105.jpg

So, what does all this have to do with books, you ask? Isn’t that what this blog is supposed to be about? Well, I’m getting to that… Several years ago, I read a fascinating biography of Edwin Hubble, Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae by Gale Christianson. You may have heard of the space telescope named after him. I just randomly found that book in a local bookstore, and I was going through my “Astronomy Reading Phase” at the time, AND it was written by a professor at Indiana State University, just over an hour down the road from here. I had to buy it.

20110623-073023.jpg

I liked the book for several reasons. First of all, it dealt with one of the momentous scientific discoveries in history. With what we know today, it’s easy to forget that up until Hubble’s time, astronomers thought that the Milky Way galaxy was “pretty much it” as far as the universe was concerned. Sure, there were these troubling, fuzzy nebulae that could be found pretty much anywhere you looked, but those were just pockets of gas, right? Wrong. Hubble discovered that they were other galaxies, just very far away (hmm… that phrase sounds familiar). The size of the known universe, in one giant leap (now there’s another familiar phrase) forward grew beyond comprehension. Add to that another, just as momentous discovery that these distant galaxies were racing away from us, and that the further away they were, the FASTER they were racing away – meaning we live in an expanding universe – and, well, that’s a lot of work for one man’s resume. But it wasn’t just Hubble…

What I primarily enjoyed about the book was that it introduced me (or rather re-introduced me, as I discovered while preparing this post that he was featured in an episode of Carl Sagan’s epic “Cosmos” television series) to Milton Humason. These days, the type of person who kind of drifts through college or early life without a “major” or career choice has become rather cliche, but here’s a guy who worked as a mule driver(!) during the early days of the construction of the observatory on Mt. Wilson – at the time a remote and somewhat primitive, rugged landscape – then later, developing an interest in the science being done there, took a job as a janitor at the observatory, which in turn led him to volunteer to be a night assistant, taking many turns at the telescope.

Humason, it turns out, had a great talent for observation, and became Hubble’s partner in many of his discoveries and work. Hubble usually got the credit, but Humason was an integral part and became a respected astronomer in his own right. Perhaps I was also drawn to Humason because, frankly, I didn’t find Hubble to be a very likable person. An anglophile with an affected British accent who was not shy about inventing bits of personal history designed to heighten his reputation, I knew that if I had known this man in person, I wouldn’t have liked him.

So, a tip of the cap this morning to Milton Humason and to those out there like him. Not everyone finds the career or life path they want early on, and sometimes the career finds you…

Milton Humason:

The Sun Also Rises

This was my first Hemingway novel. Initially, I was a little disappointed because it didn’t seem to be “about anything.” Kind of the literary equivalent of Seinfeld’s proverbial “show about nothing.” The action deals predominantly with a bunch of friends – though seemingly not “close” friends for the most part – none of whom (other than the narrator, Jake) seem to have jobs, idling away their time in post World War I Paris and later Spain, getting drunk and getting into petty arguments and hurting each others’ feelings. But of course there’s more to it than that.

Right away the novel struck a few chords with me. One is a nearly universal wanderlust that I would argue almost everyone experiences at times during life. I, for one, am a “chronic sufferer” of this. It seems I always want to move somewhere else, move on to something different, go on a long trip of discovery; in short, anything to avoid the enemies of routine and staleness. Very early in the book, Robert Cohn exclaims, “All my life I’ve wanted to go on a tip like that,” but will “be too old before I can ever do it.” Sadly, though, Jake crushes our hopes later when he says “Listen, Robert, going to another country doesn’t make any difference. I’ve tried all that. You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.” I must say I disagree – and hope he’s wrong.

Possibly my favorite parts of the novel, in fact, are the two episodes when Jake “gets away from it all” – once when he goes on a fishing interlude with his friend Bill en route to Pamplona, and then after the dust settles (literally!) from the bullfighting, and he sojourns in San Sebastian. I almost felt like I was on vacation myself when reading those parts. The latter one also seemed to be a respite for the narrator – AND the reader – from the manic scramblings of the group of friends. It was refreshing.

Then there’s The Bullfighting Thing. I confess that I’ve never understood the appeal of the “sport” – and likely still don’t. Especially in recent years the tradition has been increasingly attacked and condemned for its barbaric nature. What this novel gave me more of an appreciation for, however, is that for most it’s not the killing that people love so much as the traditions of the spectacle. We get a brief glimpse into this when learning about those known as “aficionados” which I took to mean “those that get it” and understand the deeper meaning of what’s going on. I remember years ago reading a book about the series of annual chess tournaments in Linares, Spain (for years they were the chess equivalent of Wimbledon in professional tennis) where attending bullfights was a frequent diversion for the grandmasters on their days off. I learned then something of the super-celebrity status of many famous bullfighters – kind of like what we see that Romero is on the eve of in this book – including the legendary Manolete.  Below- a picture of Hemingway himself (white pants; close to bull) in the ring…

20110622-074943.jpg

Okay, here’s a slightly off-topic digression for you. While reading book two of the novel, a song kept running through my head. It’s by a band that I bet you’ve never heard of, The Judybats from Knoxville, Tennessee. On their 1991 album, “Down in the Shacks Where the Satellite Dishes Grow,” there was a song called “Saturday” that references bullfighting. Here’s a quick sample of lyrics:

He dreams of being a matador
Waving the cape
Killing the killing machine
A hero of the ring he drives his car
His spirits soar his spirits soar

It’s actually a great “undiscovered” CD and band if you’d care to check them out. 🙂

I also really like the book cover of the edition pictured below. It’s so sensational and, like many, is somewhat misleading about the contents of the book. Check out the agony-filled face, the bottle of wine, the gnarled, tortured hands. This is not how I pictured Jake while reading. Then there are the salacious teasers: “Could he live without the power to love?” and “It was a cruel way to be wounded.” Blah blah blah. I guess that’s what moves paperbacks off the shelves, though.

Well, I see I’ve exceeded my recommended blog post length. But what about you? Have you read The Sun Also Rises? What did you think about it and about Hemingway? Which of his novels should I read next? I’d love to hear from you…

20110622-074906.jpg

 

Bad Blogger!

Yesterday, I was supposed to have published a post about Part III of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. That didn’t happen. I have a lot of other stuff/obligations going on at present and just haven’t gotten back to The idiot yet. My apologies to my fellow Dostoevsky read-alongers. If I can knock out part III in the next couple days I’ll put a post up, but more likely I will just combine parts III and IV I to a final post at the end of the month.

-Jay

Sent from my iPad

WordPress Appearance settings for iPad users

This is for my fellow bloggers who use wordpress. A while back, they added a default appearance for word press blogs being viewed on an iPad. I (an ipad user) discovered this by accident when I opened my blog page one day and it kept redirecting to the url with /cover at the end, and at first made me wonder is someone had hacked my blog.

To make a long story short, I don’t like the default iPad appearance AT ALL. And I liked even less that they changed this unilaterally – AND I think only the blog owner can change the default, not the person browsing on an iPad. Several of the blogs I read regularly are word press blogs and many of them default to this “cute-sy” annoying iPad “app-like” theme. When I’m browsing, I want to browse in my browser, not have pages converting to an appearance I immediately have to change to “normal view” each time.

Does anyone else out there find this distracting, or is it just me? I don’t know enough other iPad users who are also frequently in the blogosphere, so I don’t have a feel if it’s a matter of taste or not. I, for one, prefer the normal browser view and encourage others to turn the default off. You can do this in the dashboard under Appearance-iPad.

June reading – what’s “on tap” for me this month

Seems like my month is kind of already mapped out for me, reading-wise. Let’s start with the “required reading”…

20110606-074445.jpg

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

This is my personal book club’s selection for June. I actually read about the first 2/3rds of it yesterday. This means it has about 1/3 to go to redeem itself from its current “disappointing” status. I mean, all I keep thinking thus far in this book is, “My God, don’t these people have jobs?!” 🙂 it seems the narrator, Jake, spent about two and a half hours working at his typewriter in one chapter, but that’s it so far. If this book is indeed supposed to capture the “Lost Generation” of post-WW1, I can see why it’s called that. It seems the characters spend most of their time sitting in cafes, restaurants and nightclubs either hurting each others’ feelings or telling each other to go to Hell, or advising each other not to “be a fool” and getting “tight” (drunk).

Wampeters, Foma and Grandfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the June selection for the KVMLBC. It’s a collection of essays by Vonnegut (with the exception of one short work of fiction). I read the first six or seven of them on Saturday. Many are very good, but a couple didn’t capture my interest at all. It’s still Vonnegut, though, and his unique wit is always present. Thumbs up so far on this one.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

This is the first book of The Barsetshire series by this prolific author of the 19th century. I read The Small House at Allington earlier this year and also the author’s autobiography. Both kindled an interest in me to read more by Trollope. I also have book two of the Barchester series, Barchester Towers, waiting in the wings as The Warden is a mere 284 pages.maybe I’ll get to both of them(?)

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

I was reading about this in the NY Times book section yesterday. Many may know that this series of books is being adapted by HBO and is soon to be aired. This first book is quite lengthy (about 800 pages in my ebook version), but sounded good so I downloaded and explored the first couple chapters last night. I think it will go fast, and my recent reading of the first two books of Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle” has whetted my appetite a bit for works of this genre.

Hmm… what else is there? Well, there’ll be a few short stories of course, and I have a few unfinished books from prior months that I still need to knock out. It’s “summer” here though, and I tend to read less “when it’s nice outside” so it may be a challenge to get my standard dose of four or five books in this month. We’ll see..

What are YOU reading in June?

Sent from my iPad

Lost Ground – a short story by William Trevor

image

(Above: St. Rosa of Lima)

I recently completed the wonderful short story collection, After Rain, by William Trevor – a recognized master of that form. I’ve posted about a couple other favorites from this volume before (Gilbert’s Mother and After Rain), but this other story, Lost Ground, was also among my favorites.

***spoilers follow, but I hope you will want to read this story after reading this post…***
Milton Beeson is a young boy (“not yet sixteen”) in a Protestant family living in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood. His family owns an orchard and he is “the hope of the family” since his older brother has proclaimed that if their father leaves the orchard to him he will sell it. One evening, on a trip to examine the upper orchard, Milton encounters a strange woman. Not sure who she is or how she came to be there, he stands somewhat dumbstruck as she approaches him and kisses him before leaving. He says nothing to his family, but the following afternoon he purposefully accepts a chore that will take him to the upper orchard again. Once again he sees the strange woman, who this time speaks to him saying, “I am St. Rosa,” and mysteriously says to him, “Don’t be afraid. When the moment comes. There is too much fear.” Young Milton is appropriately confused by this apparition (he has come to believe that this woman, whose kisses were “dry as a bone,” was “not alive”) and tells no one about his encounters for almost ten months.

The image and memory of the woman continue to haunt him, however, and he eventually visits a local priest to tell him his story and ask him what to do and also to ask, “who is St. Rosa?” The priest is (privately) somewhat taken aback that a saint would chose to appear to a non-Catholic boy and advises Milton to do nothing and tell no one about his encounters. Eventually, Milton cannot keep the knowledge to himself and tells others, even including his family. All his father seems to hear of it, though, is that he “went to a priest’s house?!” and slaps his face twice.

Milton later feels the calling to preach about St. Rosa and begins wandering the countryside and neighboring towns on his bicycle, seeking opportunities to do so. His family is beside themselves and takes increasing drastic steps to prevent his expeditions, deciding that he is no longer “right in the head.” In a country (Northern Ireland) where the opposite camps of Catholics and Protestants often come into violent conflict, the situation deteriorates predictably into tragedy. A sad and troubling story, but I loved the mood that Trevor’s writing settled me into as I read this story. Much is left unanswered at the end, but perhaps this makes the story even better. Highly recommended.

(below: William Trevor)