“I Blame Kurt Vonnegut.”

A few weekends ago, I did something I had long doubted I would ever do again. I participated in a chess tournament – for the first time in almost six years. And I blame Kurt Vonnegut. The connection is that the historic building (pictured above) where the tournament was held, The Athenaeum, was designed by Vonnegut’s architect grandfather. Also, the leader of our local Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club is a director of The Athenaeum Foundation. So, when I got an email soliciting participants in a tournament held there, I figured “what the heck” and entered on a lark. I didn’t expect too much, even though I was a respectably-rated player back in the day. I was the fifth highest-rated player in the tournament, which featured no masters, but included four other players rated in the “expert” category.

The tournament was a “quick” event (for chess tournaments, anyway) where each player had 30 minutes of thinking time to budget for the whole game. I was still incredibly nervous due to my rustiness, but I was paired with a fairly weak player in the first round and won fairly easily after some sloppy early play by me. In the second round a faced a stronger opponent, but he was ‘cooperative’ at a crucial moment and committed an error which allowed me to emerge victorious. The third game was a struggle. I faced a high schooler who had won a scholastic tournament held at the same location earlier in the day. I mishandled the opening variation I chose (one which I used to be quite familiar with) and was immediately in a dangerous situation. I held things together by a hair though, and the game ended in a draw.

That result left me temporarily in 2nd place with 2.5 points out of 3. One player had won all three games and thus had 3 points out of 3, no one else had more than 2 out of 3. So, mostly by good fortune, I found myself playing on the top board for the final round with a chance to actually win the tournament(!) if I were victorious. I wish I could tell you that is what happened, but I went down to defeat against a player with a slightly higher rating than mine. I didn’t go down without a fight, though, and he was complimentary of my play afterward, graciously marveling at the fact that I played so well (as he thought, anyway; he didn’t see some of my earlier games) after not having played in a tournament for so long.

At this point, I hope that this was a one-off appearance on the “tournament scene” and that I haven’t re-activated the “pernicious” chess virus as described by a former World Champion.

Mikhail Tal: “When one of us first plays chess, he is like a man who has already caught a dose of microbes of, say, Hong Kong ‘flu. Such a man walks along the street, and he does not yet know that he is ill. He is healthy, he feels fine, but the microbes are doing their work… a few days pass, and suddenly you involuntarily begin to sense that, without chess, there is something missing in your life. Then you may rejoice; you belong to that group of people without a natural immunity to the chess disease…”

I met the former world chess champion Mikhail Tal in Chicago in 1988. It was the site of that year’s “National Open” chess tournament, and he was the star attraction, drawing many to enter the tournament with the slight hope they might be paired with the legend. I drove up from Indy with two of my chessplaying colleagues, one of whom had already achieved a master rating in the United State Chess Federation. And this guy didn’t even enter the tournament, he simply stood on the sidelines and watched each of Tal’s games from start to finish, absorbing whatever he could. Sadly, I did not get paired against Tal and had to slug it out with other ‘amateurs’ for the six rounds, but I did get to meet him and shake his hand, and it was exciting to be a fellow participant with him in a tournament.

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The Romance of Certain Old Clothes – a short story by Henry James

Henry James

Today I remembered that I still have a lot of short stories left to read this year for my project, so I drew a card and found the ten of spades, which pointed me to the story, “The Certain Romance of Old Clothes,” by Henry James. James’s writing is somewhat of an acquired taste. Many describe him as “too wordy,” and I would have to admit that this often feels true. In spite of this, I have managed to read a lot of his work over the years. My book club even read one of his longer stories, The Turn of the Screw, one of the more famous ghost stories in literature. This story I read today, also categorized as a “ghost story,” is much lesser known – I think for good reason.

Read the story for yourself online here.

I didn’t find it too much to my taste. **Spoiler Alert** First of all, there is no ghost until the last page of the story, which takes place in the pre-revolution America of the 18th century. It deals with a “single mother family” of a woman (“a widowed gentlewoman”) her son, and her two daughters. Her son Bernard is sent off to England to be properly educated and returns with a friend, Arthur Lloyd, who we quickly learn is fated to pick one of Bernard’s charming sisters, Rosalind and Perdita, as his bride.

This “selection process” seems an excruciatingly long affair, and, despite the agreeable nature of the two young ladies, becomes too much of a burden for their gentle natures to overcome, and jealousy inevitably comes a calling when Arthur’s favor settles upon Perdita. Rosalind’s jealousy, AND Perdita’s disappointment in it, leads to a kind of “civil estrangement.” When complications arise during the birth of Arthur and Perdita’s first child, a daughter, Perdita is crushed to learn that her husband, absent at the time of these troubles, was with Rosalind (though innocently, it seemed to me).

Although the daughter survives, Perdita does not, and in a fit of spiteful deathbed bitterness, extracts an oath from Arthur that he will not give away any of her fine gowns, except one to be saved for their daughter, knowing that Rosalind covets them. The surviving sister, somewhat predictably, moves in to claim Arthur, scandalously not long enough after the death of her sister. She does have the decency to delay inquiring about the gowns and when she does is initially gently rebuked, but becomes more insistent and almost nagging, finally weakening Arthur to the point where he throws up his hands and concedes.

Only in the final paragraph, when the greedy Rosalind heads to the attic to open the trunk of clothes, does the bitter ghost “appear” (actually it doesn’t even appear in the story, we only learn of its attack after the fact) to protect the coveted wardrobe.

I have one Henry James story to go in my 2011 short story project. It’s “The Middle Years,” which I remember nothing about other than I really enjoyed it many years ago when I read it for the first time. I added it to my “hearts” suit (favorite stories to read again) when I created my list of 52 stories to read. I look forward to that one, but The Romance of Certain Old Clothes will likely not be re-read by me.

What do you think of Henry James? What have you read by him?

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Can’t Read or Write…

I’m in a total literary funk. I’m in the reading-writing-blogging doldrums again. About to resort to extreme measures and put a longboat over the side and try to tow myself out…

I skipped both of my book clubs last week. Too busy at the office to escape for the midday meeting at the Vonnegut Library (hadn’t finished the book anyway), then was planning to attend my final meeting (I announced my ‘retirement’ a couple weeks ago)of my personal book club, but when it turned out I would be the only attendee (in person) in addition to the host, I suggested we just cancel, and we did. It was “a good run” for me as far as book clubs go. Just over five years, 50+ books and roughly the same number of short stories.

I’m sure I won’t be able to resist “trying again” with a new book club at some point, but I doubt it will be soon.

“His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead.”

James Joyce’s Short story “The Dead”

I read this story as part of my 2011 short story reading project (one story per week, 52 total for the year; I’m a little behind but have been catching up).  Like many of us, I find James Joyce somewhat tough going so it was not without some trepidation that I drew the Ace of Clubs from my random story selection generator – i.e. a standard deck of playing cards.   I checked the length and groaned a bit when I discovered it to be 38 pages. Ugh.  The story is from his collection, The Dubliners, published in 1914

****Warning: The following contains Spoilers****

This story took awhile to pick up speed – for me, at least. Most of the “action” takes place at a dinner party held by sisters Kate and Julia Morkan.  At the party we are introduced to many of the guests – and their shortcomings – (e.g. Freddy Malins, the man who drinks too much). We also learn that the ladies are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gabriel Conroy, their nephew.  From their anticipation, we assume Gabriel is a kind of rock that “holds things together” for the ladies at their parties.

If you’re somewhat introverted, like me, parties like the one described are often exercises in tedium and social discomfort.  In fact, reading the story was also a bit of an exercise for me early on.  Eventually, though, we learn that Gabriel too is of this ilk. Though able to successfully navigate the social obstacle course such parties present, it seems he too would “rather be somewhere else.”

When an acceptable time to leave finally arrives, he is more than ready, as he has begun to feel a rekindled passion for his wife: “She seemed to him so frail that he longed to defend her against something and then to be alone with her.” After they make their escape and journey back to their lodgings he “… pressed her arm closely to his side, and, as they stood at the hotel door, he felt they had escaped from their lives and duties, escaped from their home and friends and run away together with wild and radiant hearts to a new adventure.”

His flames of passion are doused, however, when he learns that the origin of her odd mood, which is at least partially the cause for his heightened passion, is that a song from the dance at the party has recalled to her mind the memory of her first love, a young man who essentially “died for love of her.” Gabriel is hurt since, “while he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”

Gabriel takes the realization of her true feelings fairly well, all things considered, and becomes reflective on his life and their lives together, musing as he lays down beside her in bed that “One by one, they were all becoming shades.  Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.”

I liked the story. Although the first 75% or so was pretty tough going, the payoff of the last six pages or so was very well worth it.  Apparently, there is speculation in the world of literary criticism on whether “the dead” in the title of the story refers to the actual dead, or to the living, who are as Gabriel says, “becoming shades…” I’m not sure. What about you, have you read any James Joyce? Have you read this story? What do YOU think of him (or it)?

(Author James Joyce)

Rough Days in Chain Saw History…

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I recently read Sherman Alexie’s short story, “War Dances,” which included some of the most humorous material I’ve read so far this year. Alexie, a Spokane Indian, writes a lot about his alcoholic father and his foibles. He wrote a short poem about one incident:

“When I was nine, my father sliced his knee
With a chain saw. But he let himself bleed
And finished cutting down one more tree
Before his boss drove him to EMERGENCY

Late that night, stoned on morphine and beer,
My father needed my help to steer
His pickup into the woods. “Watch for deer,”
My father said. “Those things just appear

Like magic. “It was an Indian summer
And we drove through warm rain and thunder,
Until we found that chain saw, lying under
the fallen pine. Then I watched, with wonder,

As my father, shotgun-rich and impulse-poor,
Blasted that chain saw dead. “what was that for?”
I asked. “Son, my father said, “here’s the score.
Once a thing tastes blood, it will come for more.”

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Alexie goes on to explain the many embellishments he made to the actual story to satisfy the demands of his poem, but it is a funny story and good poem nonetheless. It reminded me of a somewhat similar “incident” during a childhood visit to my Granddad’s property in West Virginia… Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve read some more short stories…

In my ongoing effort to catch up on my 2011 reading project, I’ve read six more short stories (click on ‘deal me in selections’ to the left to see the full list) in the past few days. They are:

“A Terribly Strange Bed” by Wilkie Collins
“The Black Monk” by Anton Chekhov
“The Ash Tree” by M.R. James
“The Dead” by James Joyce
“The Adventure of the Speckled Band” by Arthur Conan Doyle
“War Dances” by Sherman Alexie

This “burst” has put a further dent in my backlog and I’m down to just over twenty to go for the rest of the year. I plan to write posts related to at least a few of these stories, most of which i enjoyed immensely. Next up is Howard Pyle’s “The Cock Lane Ghost.” Can’t wait!

Have you read any of these stories? What are some of the favorite short stories you’ve read this year? Who are some of you favorite short story writers?

“Hey, wanna see something really scary?”

(Yep, there’s Dan Aykroyd again, this time from the intro to Twilight Zone: The Movie from back in 1983, before – AND AFTER – he asks the question of the driver of the vehicle…)

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It’s October, and Hey, I “want to READ something really scary” this month. MY book club is cooperating with its (sort of) annual Ghost Story Month, but I WANT MORE! Friday night, I read about a book titled, A Monster Calls, which sounded great so I downloaded immediately. It was short – only about 125 pages – and was a very good book, but it wasn’t scary enough. My own personal short story reading project for 2011 (Project “Deal Me In!”), which I’m woefully behind on has conspired a little to help me through October. Maybe. I’ve assigned my 52 stories (one per week) to the fifty-two cards in a standard deck (see the “Deal Me In selections” on the “pages” section on the left margin of this blog for the list), and the Spades suit represented largely ghost or horror stories. As luck would have it, I’ve only drawn a few of them so far this year, so there are lots remaining to be picked. Maybe a few will come up in October as I’m trying to catch up…

I’m asking for recommendations from my readers and fellow bloggers. What are some of your favorite scary stories or novels? I will put any suggestions on my TBR list…