“Stories Time!”

Tonight is my book club’s annual “Short Story Month” (where instead of reading a single book, we read short stories; each member picks a story for the group to read); this year we had eight of our nine members suggest a short story. I finished reading the last of them last night and… I liked them all! A few brief thoughts follow:

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”

This story was totally NOT what I was expecting. I guess I should’ve known that Fitzgerald was capable of a story like this since we read his “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” a couple of years ago, but this one blew me away. The protagonist is a young man sent off to prep school where he disappointedly marvels at the “exceeding sameness” of his classmates. He does bond with one of them however, and is invited to spend a holiday with the family at their home out west. His new friend Percy brags that his father is the richest man in the whole world and owns a diamond “as big as the a Ritz Carlton” hotel. The visit leads him to a kind of domestic Shangri-La which Percy’s father stops at nothing to protect. A fantastical story which I enjoyed quite a bit. I also discovered on YouTube a copy of an old radio theater adaptation of the story which I listened to with amusement. I’ll try to add a link to that when I find it again.

Jack London’s “A Piece of Steak”

This one was my pick. I read it during one of my favorite high school English classes. It’s a classic story of the age old struggle between youth and experience. Dramatically taking the form of a wily old prizefighter’s bout against an “up and coming” contender who has strength but not experience. London’s descriptions of the characters are extremely well done. Sadly, I’m reaching the age where this theme is of more interest to me than I’d like to admit…

Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”

This was probably the third or fourth time I’ve read this story, which is found in many anthologies. Taking place during the American Civil War, it deals with the execution – by hanging – of a man who tried to sabotage the bridge in the title of the story. What the reader is treated to is a Twilight Zone-esque tale with a twist of an ending. Good stuff.

Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki Tikki Tavi”

I haven’t read Kipling in awhile, but he did happen to write one of my all-time favorite stories, “The Brushwood Boy.” <insert goosebumps> This particular story deals with the time honored, proverbial fight between a Cobra and a Mongoose, and is set in colonial India. It reads a bit like a children’s tale but, I believe, still makes great reading for adults. It called to mind for me a book I read one summer during my college years that dealt with the history of The British East India Company and all the exotic lands it controlled. Sadly, looking back today, I can recall almost nothing of the details of that book. 😦

“Casey at the Bat” – a poem by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

Short and sweet. This famous poem is not dissimilar from the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable where overconfidence meets its comeuppance. Today’s readers can scarcely know how popular this poem was in its day, and how deeply woven into the public consciousness it was.  My dad would frequently quote from it (a favorite taunt of his during any kind of game where he held the advantage was “it’s looking dark in Mudville…”) and I suspect it was well known in his family when he was growing up. This poem, like several of our stories this month, touches on a classic theme too – in this case the “hubris” of “The Mighty Casey.”

“A Shameful Affair” by Kate Chopin

This one may have been the least memorable of this group, and I’m not sure I like the ending, where the readers kind of left to speculate about just what has happened. I think I know, but am also anxious to hear what my fellow club members think tonight. The story, in a nutshell, is about a bored “aristocratic” girl who has a dalliance with a rough around the edges farmhand (who is an eminently more likable character than she is) and the consequences that follow.

Alice Hoffman’s “The Conjurer’s Notebook”

This author may be the “discovery” of this year’s Short Story Month for me. It certainly wins the Oscar for “Best Character” in the form of the female character, Dorey, who lived (by her wits) through the holocaust, marries an American soldier and returns to America, where she meets his possessive grandmother, Violet. I loved this story and am eager to read more by this author. As Hoffman describes, Dorey is one of those people who “knew how to deal with what happened to them in this world” while “others do not.”

A.M. Burrage’s “Smee”

I’ve read this story many times. It’s one of my favorite ghost stories ever, and I’ve written about it here on this blog before, so I’ll just refer you my previous post.

Links to most of these stories are posted at my book club’s website (see blogroll to the left) if you’d like to read some of them for free.

What about you, do you have experience with any of these authors or stories? Are any of them among your favorites? Would you recommend other stories by them?

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Isaac Asimov – The Great Explainer

I’ve just spent the most pleasant few hours this morning – guzzling hazelnut coffee as I began to explore the first 120 pages or so of Isaac Asimov’s “I, Asimov: A Memoir.” I’ve been blown away by what I’ve read thus far.

My experience with Asimov thus far in my reading journey has been woefully light, especially considering he was one of the most prolific writers of all time. Years ago, I read “Foundation,” one of his seminal works, and meant to press on with the subsequent books in that series but never got past the stage of purchasing a few of them. Our paths crossed again, more fruitfully, in 2008 when I had an ambitious reading plan (“Project: Shakespeare”) wherein I hoped to read through the bard’s plays over a year’s time. I chose as my guide for that project Asimov’s book, “Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare,” with which I’ve probably logged about as much time as any book in my reading life (and still haven’t read it all!). I’ve since learned that he also wrote a “guide to The Bible” which I’d like to give a whirl at some point. I also read his famous collection of related stories, “I, Robot'” a few years ago.

Why I am enjoying this memoir so much? Well, while I certainly make no claims to possessing an intellect even remotely close to his, I do feel as though I’ve found a kindred spirit in him, especially in how he describes his youth and how (and where) his intellectual curiosity led him. I also share his notion of having “problems with ANY people who are above me in ANY hierarchy” (my emphasis) which is why, he explains, a career path of self-employment as a writer was a welcome one for him. He also praises public libraries, which I also happily endorse (I’m sitting in one as I type this, as a matter of fact!). Growing up relatively impoverished, the library was a godsend for him:

“For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it.”

Sadly, he also reminds us (and this was written more than twenty years ago) that:

“Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.”

Stay tuned for more about this great book, as I suspect I will blow through it’s 700+ pages fairly quickly…

Any other Asimov fans out there?

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Just Finished: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

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“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Cersei Lannister

Okay, I finally made it through this thick slice of “epic” fantasy. I have to admit that I was a little bit predisposed to NOT like this book. I am distrustful of fiction where a whole, vast world has been created as a stage and the reader is counted upon to learn it and all its inhabitants. I am distrustful of a book that opens with a map of “the world” where I, a reasonably competent student of geography – or so I’d like to think, recognize nothing and am starting from scratch. I am distrustful of a book that requires a large appendix with names and relations of characters, historical lists of the rulers of various kingdoms. (does the reader really gain any insight by a list of seventeen kings of the Targaryen Succession – all of which predate the action in this novel – other than the author has let his imagination run away with him?)

There have been comparisons of the series to Tolkein which I feel are unwarranted and pretentious – though I’ve heard Martin doesn’t make them himself. And – I wonder – are the “R.R.” initials his real name, or part of a pen name? If a pen name, then I am tempted to label him Tolkein wannabe. If not, then what an incredible coincidence: J.R.R. Tolkein, George R.R. Martin, hmmm… I’m also amused by books like this and what parts of real history they decide to keep. It seems like knights, jousting, swordplay, and the concept of royalty and lines of succession always make the cut. (and yes, this is a book where the main characters frequently have names for their swords – I guess I’m distrustful of that too…)

But enough of what “bothered” me about this book. There are many things that I liked as well. At its heart, it’s full of political scheming and intrigue, lusty and graphic battle scenes, characters good and evil – sometimes loathsomely evil – many of whom are adolescents and just learning their way and the ways of this young, still magical world. In fact, come to think of it, all the best characters (for my money) with the exception of the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, are basically youngsters.

And let’s not forget the “direwolves” (like regular wolves only bigger and, well, “direr”…). Early in the novel, the children of Eddard Stark, ruler of Winterfell, come upon a dying female direwolf, still nursing a litter of pups. The pups are all adopted by the children and figure prominently throughout the book. They become fiercely loyal to their “masters” and are not infrequently called upon to save the day. “Normal” wolves are present in Martin’s imagined world as well. Early on, upon hearing a wolf howl in the distance we get, “Something about the howling of a wolf took a man right out of his here and now and left him in a dark forest of the mind, running naked before the pack.” I liked that.

There are also the “Dothraki,” a warlike tribe, the leader of whom has the good fortune to wed Daenerys, the beautiful – and quite young – heiress to one of “the Seven Kingdoms”. It seems clear to me (a big “fan” of Genghis Khan) that these people are a transparent rip-off of the Mongolian hordes of the late Middle Ages, an irresistible mounted force spreading death and terror wherever they ride. They are fond of drinking fermented mare’s milk, and skilled bowmen in the saddle – both direct similarities with the armies Genghis Khan and his successors commanded.

I suppose I’ve written enough at this point. I guess the real question is will I continue on and read the subsequent books in the series. I am undecided at this point. I’m troubled a bit by the fact that there are several yet to be published (I think eight(?) in all are intended). Martin is going to have to pick up the pace too as he’s not exactly churning them out, either. I admit that I was also motivated by the fact that there’s an HBO series of A Game of Thrones now too – which I haven’t seen, but would like to.

What about you? Have you read this novel or series? What is your take on them, and the genre? Do you think I should “press on?” Let me know.

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“Quote” is a verb – and a couple other issues…

“Quote is a verb!” – or so a college professor of mine frequently thundered… Its use as a noun, though, is so part of the mainstream that I don’t think he’ll ever prevent its use as a noun. In his own college years, he had a reputation as a student of prodigious ability – often related to us by his colleagues or other professors – which made it difficult to challenge him or believe otherwise. To this day, I still feel a slight cringe when someone says “quote” when, technically, they should more properly say “quotation.”

Another favorite campaign of his was against “This wholesale use of nouns as adjectives!” An example he particularly hated was “personality conflict.” Did he really expect us to go around saying, “She and I have a conflict of personalities,” or “our personalities are in conflict?” I don’t know.  What I DO know, however, that at least his eccentricities got me thinking more about parts of speech and how they are used. Sadly, I’m still not that polished, but I often think about my days in his Roman History class when I’m writing. In fact, this was the same professor who wrote “This is probably worthless…” next to a book in a bibliography for one of my papers (which I blogged about before).

My dad was also influential as a grammatical watchdog when I was growing up. I could never say, “My brother and me are going to the store” without eliciting a grimace. So here’s a hearty “Yea!” for all those who help us write good, er I mean WELL – no matter how annoying they can sometimes be. (and no, I won’t say “Yay!” ’cause THAT’S NOT A WORD!” 🙂 )

Jack’s Book

A couple of months ago I wrote about a trip to Half Price Books to pick up “I Capture the Castle” for a book club read. As usual, I didn’t escape the trip without picking up some other, random purchases. More recently, I made a similar trip to pick up “The Sun Also Rises” for yet another book club read. This time, my “collateral damage” included “Jack’s Book,” an “oral history” of the famous author, Jack Kerouac, by Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee. I read this book over just a couple days last weekend. I recommend it highly, but only if you are already somewhat familiar with Kerouac.

I’ve read several biographical accounts of Kerouac (& friends) in the past, but what made this one unique was the lengthy quoting of his friends (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Luanne Henderson, John Clellon Holmes, Al & Helen Hinkle, Lucien Carr – the list goes on an on). It was fascinating to read again about some of these stories that I already knew but to this time hear them through some of the other characters and in their own words.

Kerouac’s interlude at Big Sur received more attention in this book than in some of my other reading. It was truly a sad stage of the author’s life to read about. Lenore Kandel (the then girlfriend of poet Lew Welch) had this to say about that: “He (Kerouac) was in a very bad place, and he went there to clear his head. But it’s a really elemental place, Big Sur, and it really burns. I guess it must be a little like an acid trip, a very heavy concentration of reality.”

Another thing I pondered while reading – and this is kind of a favorite speculation of mine – is whether or not this group of friends and aspiring writers (later to become known collectively as “The Beats”) knew they would become as famous as they did, or rather that their work and the “movement” would take hold. Clearly their ambition or goal was clear, but did they really think it would become reality? I remember a discussion at a book club meeting last year where we were talking about the book, Fahrenheit 451, which certainly has become an undisputed classic, and I posed the question “Do you think Bradbury knew he had something special when he was done writing?” I like to think he did, at least to some degree. The same goes for the “Beat Generation” standard bearers. I guess what I really hope is that it’s not just a kind of crapshoot whether books become popular or not.

Another memorable observation in the book – this one by John Clellon Holmes – was this one: “Most books that come out are contained. That is, ‘I want to read that book.’ But what happened when On the Road came out was , ‘I want to know that man.’ it wasn’t the book so much as it was the man.” He noted also that Kerouac became “more and more confused as it went on.”

This book also contained several more “convergences” with my other recent reading. The authors describe a meeting of Kerouac with Kurt Vonnegut in the late sixties in Cape Cod. Apparently, Vonnegut and others were playing poker, and Kerouac joined in but was not on his best behavior (drunk again) and kind of made an ass of himself in that company. Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” is also quoted at one point, and Holmes mentions that he had discussions with Jack regarding how “Dostoevsky wrote in the 1880’s that Russia is talking of nothing but the external questions now,” and that “with appropriate changes, something very like this is beginning to happen in America, in an American way.” The book also re-prints the famous, original New York Times book review by Gilbert Millstein, which helped launch On the Road, and within it is a reference to The Sun Also Rises: “Just as, more an any other novel of the twenties, “The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the “Lost Generation,” so it seems certain that “On the Road” will come be known as that of the “Beat Generation.”. I love it when all my reading starts to link together like this.

How do you feel about Kerouac?

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Uphill, Downhill…

Does anyone else do this? When I begin reading a new book, I make a mental note of how many pages there are (with e-readers of course, I don’t even need to make a mental note any more – it’s right there on the screen!), and, as I make progress, am constantly obsessing about how far along I am. This is especially true of longer books, e.g. A Game of Thrones (that I’m reading now). It’s like an involuntary muscle in biological terms. I can’t really help it and usually don’t consciously think about it (think heartbeats or breathing). Last night I took great comfort in the fact that, “Aha! I’m now over 25% through this monster!” – this after spending time mentally dividing the total number of pages by four – time I suppose I could/should have spent reading a couple more sentences…

The best moments, though, are when I approach and pass that halfway point. Ah, the relief! I’m now headed “downhill.” All I have to do to finish the book is less than I’ve done already! Perhaps this relief is because, at least subconsciously, “proof” has been provided that I CAN finish. There’s also something to be said about the fact that all those pages already read provide momentum. It almost feels like once I crest that halfway point the reading becomes easier. I’m now going downhill. Not quite coasting, but maybe the cargo of words I’ve already loaded helps me pick up speed on the downhill side of the book.

I do the same thing when I’m driving long distances too. Yesterday afternoon I had a 180-mile drive I was not looking forward to. My old mental “progress bars” kicked in there as well. And when I passed the halfway point somewhere outside of Louisville, I felt the old familiar “relief.” (I’m sure I’ll do this again when I drive back this afternoon.)

I also tend to break long drives into smaller, familiar distances, e.g. “Ah,I now just have two round trip drives to work left and I’ll be there.” That sounds a little better than, “Ugh, I have 85 miles to go…” etc. Sometimes I do the same thing with books. E.g. “I’ve only read 250 pages (not even half) of this monster, but that’s the equivalent of some other “whole books” that I’ve recently read.” This fuels my “sense of accomplishment requirement” and helps me to press on.

Am I the only one who can’t help thinking like this when I read? Tell me I’m not alone! 🙂

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Some Additional, Final Thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”

“It’s a madhouse! A maaaaadhouse!!” – Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes…

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I finally finished Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, last Friday (yes, a day late for the readalong) In this book, almost every single character is either mad (in the “crazy” sense), or believed to be mad, or declares one or more of his fellow characters to be mad. I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes for disconcerting reading, and distracts one from thinking or realizing “what is this book ABOUT anyway?”

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. I know what it’s about to ME, however. The titular character, Prince Myshkin, has returned to Russia after several years in a sanatorium in Switzerland, where he was treated for epilepsy and for being an “Idiot.” Though now well, he too easily takes people at their word, and is incredibly naive which, naturally, lands him in trouble frequently. The main source of his “troubles” is that he falls in love. Twice. Once with the strikingly beautiful “fallen woman,” Natasia Fillipovna, and then with the (also beautiful) young daughter of a general, Aglaya Ivanovna.

What I think the novel is saying, perhaps, is that civilization has reached the point that a transparently, unfailingly good and altruistic person “doesn’t stand a chance” in a world of greed and self serving motives. Myshkin will believe anything anyone tells him. He wants to like everyone, or at least find a reason to like them. Try to murder him? No worries. He will “understand” your motives and still be your friend. Mock him? He will fall in love with you for all your other qualities. Laugh at his proposal of marriage? No matter. All you need do is apologize with apparent earnestness and all will be forgiven.

So what is to become of a man like this? Well… ***SPOILER ALERT!*** one of the women he “loves” is murdered by his enemy/friend and the other marries a rich, expatriate, Polish nobleman, who turns out to be actually “none of the above” and turns her against family and friends. This sends a reeling Myshkin back to an asylum, perhaps suggesting that is the only place for someone of such a pure and noble nature in Dostoevsky’s 19th century world. Kind of a downer, huh? Thus, I was fairly disappointed with this book, even though shining through the translation was much of beauty and interest, including some deep thoughts on capital punishment. I’ll lea e you with the following beautiful passage so you hopefully won’t feel to negatively about this book:

“An old, forgotten memory awoke in his brain, and suddenly burst into clearness and light. It was a recollection of Switzerland, during the first year of his cure, the very first months. At that time he had been pretty nearly an idiot still; he could not speak properly, and had difficulty in understanding when others spoke to him. He climbed the mountainside, one sunny morning, and wandered long and aimlessly with a certain thought in his brain, which would not become clear. Above him was the blazing sky, below, the lake; all around was the horizon, clear and infinite. He looked out upon this, long and anxiously. He remembered how he had stretched out his arms towards the beautiful, boundless blue of the horizon, and wept, and wept. What had so tormented him was that he was a stranger to all this, that he was outside this glorious festival.”

This recollection occurs when he – as he frequently found himself – was at a loss to understand the actions and motives of other characters in the novel. Not a bad read, but I much preferred Crime and Punishment to this one.

Your thoughts…?

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