Executioners and Coincidences

I think I’ve written before about how much I enjoy it when I spot common threads betwixt different works I’ve read. I’m even notorious at my book club for springing “book club trivia” pop quizzes on my fellow members. When we read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle I of course contributed, “Now, can you tell me what other books we’ve read that prominently featured dogs?” (for those playing at home, we’ve also read Call of the Wild, Marley and Me, and Travels with Charley). Or when we read Cry of the Kalahari, I was compelled to ask, “In what other books that we’ve read does at least some of the action take place in Africa?” (ha! I may have to look that one up myself now, but I know two were A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah, and Napoleon’s Pyramids by William Dietrich). Sure, I’m probably annoying to them sometimes, but I like when your “collected readings” begin to form associations in your brain and knit together. I think it’s part of the process of becoming more literary – is it any wonder I slightly rejoice when I sense this happening?

(Above: Franz Kafka) It was quite a coincidence this past weekend when, as part of catching up on my 2011 reading project, I read two short stories back-to-back that both featured executioners. The first was Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” a disturbing tale set in an unnamed locale and featuring unnamed characters, described only by their positions (The Officer, The Soldier, The Traveller, and The Condemned Man). The second was Thomas Hardy’s story, “The Three Strangers.” This one takes place at a party on the eve of an execution in a nearby village (quite the spectator “sport” not so long ago in history). The three strangers who drop in on the party are, unbeknownst to the other attendees, all related in some way to the upcoming event. I didn’t particularly enjoy either of these stories, if you’ve got to know the truth. I’m a huge Thomas Hardy fan, but this one didn’t do much for me, other than early in the story when he describes the countryside and the home where the party is held. I don’t have much experience with Kafka (other than a passing acquaintance with the unfortunate Gregor Samsa) and found his story too twisted for my tastes.

Reading the two stories in succession, however, did get me thinking about execution and executioners and pondering how often my reading has touched on those subjects. I was shocked (shocked!) to find many instances, a lot of them from books I’ve read recently. Some examples: In my favorite Dickens novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the climax takes place on the guillotine stand during the so-called Reign of Terror.

Earlier this year, I read Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, where much discussion is given to capital punishment since Nikolai had witnessed a “near execution” at some point (and the author himself nearly died at the hand of a firing squad “in real life”). I could also include The Boy in the Striped Pajamas as dealing with “mass executions” (what a disgusting term!). There was also John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, a non-fiction book about a wrongly accused man who spent years and years on death row awaiting execution. There’s also Slaughterhouse Five, which includes an execution of the one POW who stole the teapot (or whatever it was). So it goes. The first book I thought of, though, was Stephen King’s The Green Mile. It at least features, with the exception of that one despicable guy (Percy?), more humane “executioners.” Maybe this is why it was the first that popped into my head.

Well, I’ve pretty much succeeded in bringing myself down now. Hopefully you’ve stopped reading by this point. 🙂 When you think about it, it’s pretty shameful that we, as a species, even have the term “executioner” as an acknowledged profession. That would be awkward to explain to an intelligent, benevolent Alien visitor to the planet wouldn’t it?

What about you? What literary coincidences have you encountered in your recent reading travels?

Advertisements

Memories of Music Lessons – Amy Tan’s short story, “Two Kinds”

For my next read in my Short Story reading project, I drew the eight of hearts.  The hearts suit is supposed to represent favorites that I’ve already read.  How did I decide on them?  Well, I always asterisk my favorite stories in anthologies and this one had an asterisk…  🙂

I guess this is actually the third time that I’ve read this story. It resides in one of my favorite anthologies, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories – edited by Joyce Carol Oates, which I received as a Christmas present in 1993.  I read this particular story for the first time in 1994.  Then, in October of 2007, my book club chose The Joy Luck Club to read, and this story is one of the interrelated stories contained therein.

**Note: This post contains SPOILERS, read no further if you want to first read this short story**
The story deals primarily with, as Joyce Carol Oates puts it, “a complex emotional relationship between a Chinese-born mother with a strong personality and her American-born daughter.”  That actually sounds a little boring.  For me, it brought back personal memories of my own childhood, when I was “coerced” into learning a musical instrument (violin in my case, piano in the case of this story).

The early part of the story explains how the mother is always on the lookout for stories about “remarkable children” in hopes of finding some field where the daughter will become a prodigy. At some point, when watching a young Chinese girl perform on the piano on the Ed Sullivan show, that medium becomes the latest route to prodigious-ness for the daughter.  Meaning well, the mother hires a fellow resident in their apartment building, one Mr. Chong, to give her daughter piano lessons. Sadly, Mr. Chong is deaf (“Like Beethoven!” he proudly says) and the daughter’s lessons suffer accordingly.  Her initial attempts are wonderfully described as “…some nonsense that sounded like a cat running up and down on top of garbage cans.”

(below: Author Amy Tan seated at the piano in ‘happier days’)

Things come to a climax when the unwilling student performs at a talent show. Confident with an inflated sense of her own skill – thanks in a large part to having a deaf teacher – she performs miserably, embarrassing her parents.  The daughter, relieved it’s over, thinks that at least that she would never have to play the piano again, but her mother – at the next ’regularly scheduled practice time – tells her to “turn off tv” and practice.  The daughter makes a stand and it “gets ugly,” with her saying cruel things to her mother relating how “as I said these things I got scared. It felt like worms and toads and slimy things crawling out of my chest, but it also felt good, as if this awful side of me had surfaced, at last.”  How many times has this parent-child confrontation taken place throughout history, and how many forms has it taken?  Great story, probably almost universally relate-able among readers.

How does this relate to my personal memories of music lessons?  Well, I’ll put that part below the fold if anyone cares to read on…

Read the rest of this entry »

Re-booting a Neglected Project

Since we’re nearing the end of the third quarter of 2011, I found myself beginning to daydream about what my unofficial reading project for 2012 might be. Then, however, I inevitably started thinking about how badly I’ve neglected my 2011 reading project, “Deal Me In,” where my goal was to read 52 short stories (one per week) in 2011. Checking my records, I found that – after roughly 38 weeks, I’d only notched 19 completed stories from my list so far. Disgraceful, yes. Surprising? Sadly, no, if you’re familiar with my inveterate slacking…

In this project, I had assigned a story to each card in a standard deck of playing cards (leaving the “deuces wild” to allow me a few unplanned reads) and then determined which story would I would read next by drawing a random card. Each suit had a common theme: favorites, ghost stories, recommendations, etc. So, yesterday I rebooted the project and since then, in an effort to catch up, I have read six more stories. I enjoyed most of them so much it has made me wonder how I managed to have neglected the project in the first place.

I also began to think that I should renew this project for next year and indefinitely going forward. I mean, how hard should it be to commit to reading one measly short story per week? You’re right. Not hard AT ALL. :-). So, expect a few posts in the next week or so that relate to the stories in my catch up phase. Funny, perhaps the reason I’ve gotten started again is that I emerged from last week’s flurry of “required” reading of novels and sat there unable to decide what book to read next. It was my indecision which led me back to my short story project. Stay tuned. 🙂

How are your 2011 reading projects coming along? Surely I cannot be alone in my slacking…

Sent from my iPad

“This is Not Shakespeare, Louie…”

20110919-050344.jpg

In a scene from the great movie comedy, Trading Places (surely you’ve seen it…what, you haven’t? Well, go rent it now and watch. I’ll be here when you get back. :-)), Louis Winthorp, the cultured character played by Dan Aykroyd, upon discovering the first name of Jamie Curtis’s character, says, “Ophelia?! You realize, of course, that that’s…” She interrupts him and says, “I know. Hamlet’s girlfriend. He goes crazy; she kills herself. This is not Shakespeare, Louie.” Remember that?

Anyway, I was somewhat reminded of it recently when I read Michelle Ray’s book, Falling for Hamlet, which is a contemporary-based retelling of the classic tale, with very few changes. The few changes are significant, though, and deal with the fate of at least one of the major characters. That’s as much of a spoiler as I’m going to give you. Read the book yourself if you’re interested.

20110919-050752.jpg

I, for one, found the book a pleasant diversion from what I normally read. The author wrote it with a young audience in mind, and it is told in the first person by the Ophelia character. The story is also framed around a criminal investigation and a talk show appearance by one of the major characters (how’s that for modernizing?). The author also includes some lengthy notes on how she came to write the book and also on her background with the play and Shakespeare. I admire her courage for taking on such an ambitious work, knowing in advance she would likely encounter ridicule or hostility from some “purist” quarters. Overall, I think she did a great job.

I enjoyed how she weaved the modern, technological world and its idioms to the story. We see the young characters text messaging each other (one of the texts reading “strnge things afoot @ the circle K” in a nod to the movie Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which I chuckled at). We also get lines like “Horatio took his iPod out of his jacket and focused on untangling the wires.”. We learn the first names of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern when they are introduced to someone and say. “Billy Rosencrantz, Dave Gildenstern.” I also love that the young characters are fans of a rock band named “The Poor Yoricks” and that one of their favorite tv shows is a musical reality program called “Denmark Divas” (sounds a little similar to a show here on the Fox network, doesn’t it?).

Of course I’m no expert on what dialogue between teenagers should sound like these days, but I found it to be natural and credible. The narrative voice of Ophelia was strong and she made some good observations about her world. At one point, while she was kind of ‘on the run’ and had a clandestine meeting with Horatio at a coffee shop, upon watching the other customers file in and out she says, “It occurred to me that those decisions at the coffee shop about what flavor and how much foam might be the only element over which these people had any control for that entire day. Perhaps that was why everyone loved their latte-machiatto-double-shot-light-whipped whatevers.” Insightful AND humorous!

Has anyone else out there read this book? Or better yet, how do you feel in general about modern retellings of older, classic (dare I say sacred?) stories? I’m intrigued every time I see a title like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” but this is the first book I’ve read – at least recently – that falls into this category.

(below: Author Michelle Ray)

20110919-050821.jpg

A Busy Book Week in Bibliophilopolis

Or at least it could be. Lots of stuff going on in town. We’ll see how much I actually get to do.

(1) Tomorrow, author Majie Alford Failey is discussing her book, We Never Danced Cheek to Cheek: The Young Kurt Vonnegut in Indianapolis and Beyond, at Bookmama’s Bookstore in Irvington. I stopped by Bookmama’s last week as their “Shared Pages” book club was discussing The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, one of my favorite short stories. At that time, I learned of this week’s event and bought a copy of the book. It’s only 150 pages or so, and I’ve already started it.

(2) Wednesday, the “Great Books” reading group is meeting at the Nora Library to discuss Sinclair Lewis’s classic book, Main Street. I’ve always wanted to read this and have downloaded to my Nook reader and gotten started, but I doubt I’ll be able to finish by then. I need to get to one of their meetings soon, though, as I asked to be included in their emails long ago but have yet to show up for anything. 🙂

(3) Thursday (Part I) The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club, in honor of Banned Books Week, is reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I completed my reading of this classic just yesterday and plan to attend this meeting for sure, barring unforeseen crises at the office (this is the club that meets in the middle of the day on a weekday; many of its members are retired).

(4) Thursday (Part II) My book club, The Indy Reading Coalition, meets to discuss Rex Stout’s Some Buried Caesar. I just read this short book last year, and don’t know if I’ll re-read just review to re-familiarize myself with whodunit. I can’t miss e meeting, though; my attendance record of about 58 out of 60 meetings is something I take pride in. 🙂

Do you ever have weeks this filled with book-related ‘events?’ I think is is a first for me…

It’s Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week’s top ten – in recognition of BBAW (that’s “Book Blogger Appreciation Week”) is:

” Top Ten Books I Read Because Of Another Blogger.”

I don’t always do these top ten lists, but they’re always fun and this one also is a good list to give a nod to some fellow book bloggers, so here goes…

9. Oh, yeah.  I forgot to say I only could come up with nine… This one (and the next few) are books that I don’t know where specifically I first heard of them, but I do know I read them because I learned of them within the blogging community.  So for number 9 I’ll go with Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games.  Yes, it’s intended for a little younger reader than me, and yes it’s a little out there, but it was a great story (actually a trilogy, along with the follow-ups Catching Fire and Mockingjay) and a fun, diverting read.

8. The Ubiquitous The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (book and series).  A towering best seller, I think driven by the great character of Lisbeth Salander.  I’d like to meet her.  I think.

7. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan.  Another book outside of my usual genre, but an entertaining, diverting read for me.  Here’s what I had to say last year.

6. Beastly by Alex Flinn.  I can’t remember which blog I first heard about this modern retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story.  I did download it at about the same time as my blogging colleague, Jade, at Chasing Empty Pavements though, so I’ll give her a plug.  This book became a pick in my book club as well and we all enjoyed it.  My original post about the book may be found here.

5. Under the Skin by Michel Faber.  Learned about via The Literary Nomad.  An interesting concept for a book blog, where the blogger “visits” a country by reading a book about it or taking place in it.  This book was creepy but a real page turner.  A beautiful alien (reported to be portrayed by Scarlet Johansson in an upcoming movie adaptation) picking up hitchhikers in Scotland.  How could I resist? My original post is here.

4. Gullivers Travels by Jonathan Swift.  I read this one because Allie at A Literary Odyssey hosted a read along.  Like other read alongs I’ve participated in, I started off with great intentions only to fall behind the schedule.  I did finish it, though, and I’m so glad I did.  I took a lot out of it that I am ‘carrying around in my head.’  Truly a classic work, and I can’t believe I waited until I was so “old” to finally get around to reading it.

3. Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy. I learned of this previously ‘unknown’ Hardy book at Chris’s blog, “ProSe.”  A great, lesser known work by one of my favorite authors with a predictably intricate plot.  Great 19th century literature!  My original post about this book was written back in November 2010.

2. After Rain by William Trevor.   Heard about at one of my favorite blogs, Ana the Imp.  Not exclusively a book blog (lots of politics and history too), but I take her book and movie recommendations seriously.  This is a collection of short stories by an recognized master of the form.  I posted about several of them this year.  Lost Ground, After Rain, and Gilbert’s Mother.  The first two were my favorites.

1. The Warded Man by Peter Brett.  Heard of through Borough of Books. My friends and I have all enjoyed this book and its sequel, Desert Spear.  We are eagerly awaiting the third book…  My praise of the book was written this past May.

Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture by Chris Edwards

Fallacy (noun):
1. A false or mistaken idea
2. An often plausible argument using false or invalid inference
(Merriam Webster dictionary)

Recently, I was happy to hear of another local talk and book signing by an author who embraces skepticism.  On Friday, September 2nd, local author Chris Edwards gave a brief talk about Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, then fielded  questions prior to signing his new book, Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads & Fallacies in Pop Culture.

On a personal note, I came by my skepticism slowly over time.  I can remember many a time – from when I was growing up – watching certain tv programs featuring pseudoscience (the ones that I remember most were those related to Erich von Daniken’s “Chariots of the Gods” series of books  – dealing with the now familiar ‘ancient aliens’ theories – and also the Leonard Nimoy narrated “In Search Of…” tv series, which hit all the traditional crypto-zoological and paranormal hot spots).  While we were watching, my Dad, a mathematician by training and a schoolteacher by vocation would periodically grunt an editorial “Bull!” when claims on these programs got out of hand.

In my youth, however, I have to admit that my friends and I ate all this stuff up.  We loved the paranormal speculation that was so easy to find in books or on tv.  We followed what I’ve since learned is a normal learning curve.  Those who have garnered a little bit of knowledge are even more likely to believe a lot of fringe claims and fallacy-supported propositions than those with very little education at all.  Later, though, as we gained even more knowledge, we began to see pseudoscience for what it is (and what the name implies).  It reminds me of a famous quotation that I want to attribute to Benjamin Franklin but suspect that is not correct (help me here if you know!).  It runs something like this:  “If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, how much must I have then so as to be out of danger?”

Then in recent years, I have become a fan and regular listener of the podcast “The Skeptics Guide to the Universe,” hosted by Dr. Steve Novella, who has become kind of a hero of critical-thinking for me.  Skepticism, it is important to remember, and as the author quotes Michael Shermer as saying, “…is a method, not a position.”  If I only had a dime for every time someone criticized my skepticism by pleading “well, if you just had an open mind…” or something similar.  As Novella says (and I’m paraphrasing here), critical thinking and scientific literacy is like an inoculation against being taken advantage of in modern society.

So, all of this is kind of my way of saying, I guess, that Edwards’ book is kind of preaching to the choir in my case.  Oh well, on to the book itself…

Edwards approach in the book is to examine a particular popular book, movement, or belief in each chapter.  Applying the harsh light of reason to the claims of today’s fads.  One critic described the book this way: “Watching Chris Edwards wield his critical thinking skills is like watching someone walking a brace of pit bulls. . . . No folly escapes unmauled, and no reader will want to miss the fun.” Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry

The “victims” in the book include:
Robert Pirsig’s philosophical attacks on science found in the popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Edwards humorously points out that he’d like to “provide maintenance for his (Pirsig’s) logic.”  Coincidentally, my book club read this book in the past year, and I guess I spent so much effort just trying to understand it, his attacks on science were lost on me.

Michael Crichton’s “Intellectual Defense of the New Age”
I’ve read many of Crichton’s books, and was unaware of his embracing new age philosophy.  Edwards is a fan of his also, and I could tell when reading how ‘disappointed’ he was in finding that a favorite author so blithely stood in “the enemy camp.”

“The Celestine Fallacy”
I’d of course heard of James Redfield’s bestseller – at least by title, but had never learned anything about what the subject matter was.  After reading Edwards’ book, I will happily avoid The Celestine Prophecy.

Rhonda Byrne’s bestselling book, The Secret
Edwards is merciless in exposing The Secret for the pure, unadulterated  bullshit which it is. My Dad would’ve been proud.

Deepak Chopra’s & Dinesh D’Souza’s claims regarding “Afterlife”
In these chapters (and others) the author points out how happily the pseudoscientists have latched onto the science of Quantum Physics. It’s almost as if they’re saying “Aha! Scientists are uncertain!  Anything we say that can be called uncertain is okay now; we’re no different from scientists!”  Edwards laments the wording of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle but also points out how it’s so often misunderstood:  “In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, the cat never was both dead and alive.  It was either one or the other.”  An important distinction.  I was reminded of something I read elsewhere which said “If you think you understand quantum physics, then you don’t understand quantum physics.” (dang! I’m unable to attribute that quotation as well.  Anybody know?)

Ray Kurzweil’s “Singularity”
This was the part I was most looking forward to reading, as I am somewhat familiar with futurist Ray Kurzweil, having read his The Age of Spiritual Machines many years ago and also enjoyed his book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long enough to Live Forever.  Chris Edwards points out that he is “so frustrated” with futurists because “they have a tendency to attract very smart people.”  I also own (though haven’t yet read) Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near, where he postulates that, with the advance of computer technology, at some point the Universe will “wake up” and everyone may live forever.  Edwards points out the similarity between this and the eternal life promised in many religions.  He does the same thing with some of the claims of the New Age movement – they are simply retreads of age old myths or promises.

Edwards finishes up with a catalog of fallacies (false arguments).  These are good for logical, critical thinkers to know and familiarize themselves with (and in fact make a good companion to the other “skeptical book” I’m reading, Christopher DiCarlo’s How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass, which is a crash course in critical thinking.)

The book includes several chapters which were originally published as articles elsewhere, Skeptic magazine for example.  As a result, there is some inevitable repetition of his main points. This of course did not diminish my enjoyment of the book.

September Reading

Okay, so it’s already the morning of the eighth and I’m a little bit late with this monthly post. As a result, I’ve already finished two books this month. One I had already read about two thirds of (We Make a Life by What We Give by Richard Gunderman) but it still counts as a September book. I hope to write a post dedicated to this book soon. The second is Chris Edwards’ Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads and Fallacies in Pop Culture. The author lives in central Indiana and gave a brief talk and book-signing at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library last week. This book – as you might guess by the title – shines a critical light on much of the pseudoscience in today’s world. More on this one later as well.

Enough of what I’ve finished already. What do I still have to go? Well I have a couple required reads as usual. One, for my personal book club, is Rex Stout’s Mystery Some Buried Caesar. This will actually be a re-read for me as I read it when it was the chosen book for Indianapolis’s “One City, One Book” program awhile back. I even went to a discussion about it at Bookmama’s Bookstore. It’s short and I know I can blast through it in a couple days when the time draws near. Stout is also an Indiana native (although he grew up in Kansas, I believe).

The second “required read” is for The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club. The club is switching things up in September by NOT reading a Vonnegut novel this time. Instead, in honor of Banned Books Week, we are reading the frequently banned or censored classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This book happens to be one of those classics which I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read. That is about to change. 🙂

A semi-required read would by Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which I’m about 75% done with at this point. Is a six-hundred pager, though, and I originally started reading it since it is the September pick for the “Critical Mass Book Club” at the Carmel Public Library (where I went last month for the Flannery O’Connor discussion). While I’m not officially affiliated with that group, I was impressed with its size and vibe when I visited.

I have another book that I’ve already started that I’d like to wrap up this month too. That’s Christopher DiCarlo’s How to Becone a Really Good Pain in the Ass. Another author and voice of the skeptical movement, he visited Indianapolis recently on his book tour. This book will doubtless be similar to the Spiritual Snake Oil book I’ve already finished, but it is a little heftier and more of a guide to logical and critical thinking rather than a debunking of specific fads & pseudoscience, etc.

A couple other wild card reads might be For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway and The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham, both classic which I’ve been wanting to read for some time.

Well, that’s it for me (isn’t that enough!?). What are YOU reading in September…?

Unplanned, unofficial blogging hiatus…

Yes, I’ve been on one. 🙂  I apologize to my regular readers for my irregular posting lately.  I hope to get back on track soon.  I have a scrap heap of started but unfinshed posts that I need to whip into shape.  At least I haven’t been on a reading hiatus, though, so hopefully I have a lot to write & share with you.

-Jay