Help Wanted – Project: Author Biographies

I’ve decided on my “main” reading project for 2012. I intend to read 12 biographies of favorite/famous writers during the year. I think I should be able to keep up with a one per month pace, shouldn’t I?

Here’s where I could use some help, though: I have a couple “in the pipeline” – one of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and another of Kerouac (Memory Babe). I also saw on line one about the Bronte sisters that looked good. (the book looked good, not the sisters – I don’t know what they looked like 🙂 ). But I don’t know yet which books will fill the other slots.

So if any of my loyal (or even new) readers want to make a few suggestions, I’m wiling to be guided on at least a few of the twelve…

Anyone?

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“And the Nominees Are…”

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As the year winds down, I begin to think back over the books I’ve read during the year and which were the “best.” So, I’ve come up with six categories and five nominees in each for my “Bookademy Awards.” I’ll list them below and then post my winners on New Year’s Eve. (Yes, I do already have winners in mind, but would welcome commentary on the nominees and admit I could be swayed, so feel free to put a good word in if any of your favorites are listed…) Oh, and I used the word, “best,” in my category names because it sounds more like the Oscars that way, but a more appropriate word in this case is “favorite.”

Without further ado, here they are:

Best Book (Fiction)
1. After Rain – William Trevor
2. Cutting for Stone – Abraham Verghese
3. 1Q84 – Haruki Murakami
4. A Prayer For Owen Meany – John Irving
5. The Tattooed Girl – Joyce Carol Oates

Best Book (Non-Fiction)
1. I, Asimov – Isaac Asimov
2. Jack’s Book – Barry Gifford & Lawrence Lee
3. Endgame – Frank Brady
4. Hiking The Continental Divide Trail – Jennifer Hanson
5. We Make a Life by What We Give – Richard Gunderman

Best (or Most Memorable) Character:
1. Owen Meany (A Prayer for Owen Meany)
2. Wolf Larsen (The Sea Wolf)
3. Twins Marion & Shiva Stone (Cutting for Stone)
4. Aomame (1Q84)
5. Nastasia Filipovna (The Idiot)

Best Writing
1. Haruki Murakami
2. Joyce Carol Oates
3. William Trevor
4. Ernest Hemingway
5. Anthony Trollope

Best Short Story
1. The Brushwood Boy – Rudyard Kipling
2. A Clean, Well Lighted Place – Ernest Hemingway
3. The Black Monk – Anton Chekhov
4. The Conjurer’s Notebook – Alice Hoffman
5. The Slype House – A.C. Benson

Best New (to me) Author
1. Anthony Trollope
2. Alice Hoffman
3. Haruki Murakami
4. John Irving
5. Paulo Coehlo

“It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times…”

Jack London’s short story, “The Chinago.”

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My short story reading project for 2012 is winding down, with just a few stories to go. The latest I read was The Chinago. It takes place on a plantation in Tahiti, which is worked by some 500 Chinese laborers, who are called by their French overseers “Chinagos.” A murder has been committed on this plantation, and the French have rounded up five suspects (I don’t know if they were the usual ones or not – I am hearing the voice of Casablanca’s Major Renault in the back of my head as I’m typing these words), none of whom are guilty. The story’s protagonist, named Ah Cho, on top of the fact that he and his fellow accused men know who really did commit the murder, marvels at how five men can be accused of murder when the victim was stabbed twice (“at most this was the work of two men”).

The story illustrates how the French colonists barely thought of the Chinese laborers as human, and we repeatedly hear the phrase “just a Chinago” as if they mattered less than other people. The story also involves a case of mistaken identity with tragic consequences, and yet another execution (so much of my reading this year has involved executions, not by design but rather coincidence) this time by guillotine. I don’t want to write any more about the detail of the plot – I want this post to remain spoiler-free. 🙂

A copy of the story may be read for free online

I do have a copy of this story “somewhere” in my library in one of my many short story anthologies, but when it came time to read it, I wasn’t home, but at one of my favorite coffee shops so I searched for it on line and found it. This set me thinking about how wonderful it is to live in such an age of easily accessible information as we do. I remember reading one of my all-time favorite books, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, and how, when Franklin was young, he was so desperate for books and reading material. How much easier it is for us today. Even if this story wasn’t available for free in the public domain, I could surely have bought and downloaded it in a couple minutes as well. I wonder what Franklin, with his hungry intellect, would think of that?

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Jack London.  What have you read by him?

(below: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  This is the same cover as the edition I have.  Mine has nearly disintegrated from being read so many times)

Comments on Comments (and comments on “comments on comments”)

I think almost all bloggers love to get comments on their posts  (not counting spam comments, of course).  The interaction and discussion is usually a reason why we started blogging in the first place.  Many of us watch our stats frequently as well, looking for how much traffic our sites get.  But “raw traffic” is not the end goal for me, or for, I expect, most others.  I suspect most of the traffic I get is image searches for pictures of authors I post, or maps from books.  For example, my post on A Game of Thrones, which included a map, churned out big traffic for a long time; same thing for a post on Stephen King’s Under the Dome.  But that traffic is largely NOT representative of people actually reading posts.  A comment, though, that’s the real treasure chest that we seek…  A comment means that a visitor actually did read your post (or at least part of it), and it sparked them enough to “join in the discussion.”

So, here’s my little survey for myself about Comments. & I’m sure many others have done this before, but if it’s not too tedious, I’d love to hear other bloggers’ thoughts about this (hey, that’s more comments, right!?)

  1. What makes you comment on another blog?
  2. How often do you comment on other blogs?
  3. Do you reply to comments others leave on your blog?
  4. How frequently do you read the comments left on your blog, or check for new comments?
  5. Do you leave more comments than you get, or the other way around?

Here are my answers:

  1. There are several reasons.  One is that someone has posted about a book I’ve read and on which I want to put in my two cents .  Sometimes, I make a return comment.  If I have a new commenter show up on my blog, I always make it a point to visit their site in return, hopefully finding a recent post of some interest to me, or one where I can add some color to a discussion.  I also like to make the occasional “congratulatory comment” in the case of someone writing a really good post – one that makes me think, or laugh, or ponder some new avenue of literary exploration.  I’ll also comment if, solely by reading their post, a new book has become known to me that I will actually read.  This has actually happened more often than I expected it would.  When a blogger’s book has tipped the scales and influenced me to read something I wouldn’t otherwise have read, I want them to know about it.  I will also often throw in a comment suggesting further reading that they – or their other comment-ers – might like based upon their post.  I always appreciate when others make these suggestions to me (even if I don’t always act on them).
  2. The short answer is “not enough.” I probably only average between 10-15 a week, but I try to make sure my comments are somewhat meaningful, going for “quality over quantity” I guess you’d say.  It seems I’ll go through a spree of commenting for a few days and then nothing for awhile.  I’ve recently deliberated whether or not I should make one or two days a week “comments days” where I try to “give back” to my fellow bloggers.  Does anyone else have designated days that they generally make comments?
  3. I try to reply to all comments (I still get few enough that this is possible), unless it is the type of comment that obviously does not need a response.  I like wordpress for replies to, as you can reply to a specific comment rather than the whole thread.  If I’m not mistaken, it doesn’t look like Blogspot allows this.
  4. I have to admit that I greedily read them almost “immediately.”  I’ll check my dashboard a couple times a day, and when the little comment indicator is there curiosity doesn’t allow me to ignore it…
  5. I’d guess it’s close to equal (which is as it should be, isn’t it).  I may leave a little more than I get, but the difference is not enough to hurt my feelings.

 What about you?  Would you care to share your … comments?  🙂

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” – December meeting of the Vonnegut Library Book Club

The KVMLBC met for the last time in 2011 yesterday. Our book for this month was Vonnegut’s final published work, A Man Without a Country, a collection of essays published in 2005.

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When I was put on the spot during our meeting and asked, “Well, Jay, what did you think?” I replied, perhaps unfairly, with something like, “Well, it was another nearly lethal dose of pessimism.” But it IS full of pessimism. Vonnegut himself admits that late in life, one is less and less able to fend off the despair of life with humor, citing Mark Twain as an example and at one point saying that “Twain and Einstein gave up on the human race at the end of their lives.” I hope I don’t end up like this.

In spite of all the pessimism, however, the book is also thankfully sprinkled with little anecdotal pockets of uplifting moments. I enjoyed for example, reading about Vonnegut’s trips to the post office and how much he enjoyed meeting and talking to others waiting in line. And how he was “in love” with the cashier:

“I am secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t know it. My wife knows it. I am not about to do anything about it. She is so nice. All I have ever seen of her is from the waist up because she is always behind the counter. but every day she will do something with herself above the waist to cheer us all up. Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have it ironed flat. One day she wore black lipstick. This is all so exciting and generous of her, just to cheer us up, people from all over the world.”

I wonder if this woman ever read this book or knows she has been made famous in a small way. This also reminded me a little of the scene in his book, Jailbird, where a man walks into a coffee shop and finds kind of an oasis of gentle, comforting humanity. I’ve written about this before .

Another section I really liked was when Vonnegut compared his two uncles. One uncle (Dan) seemed to be just the kind of blowhard that he despises. He relates a scene that took place after the author had returned from World War II, and Uncle Dan kind of slaps him in the back and proclaims, “Well, you’re a man now!” (“So I killed him.” Vonnegut jokes)

By contrast, there is his “good uncle” Alex, whose principal complaint about his fellow human beings was that they “so seldom noticed it when they were happy.” He goes on to relate how Uncle Alex would occasionally, such as when the family was all sitting around sipping lemonade on a beautiful day, interrupt the others and say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!” Vonnegut continues by telling us that he has taken up the banner of his uncle and makes sure he says this occasionally too, as do his children and grandchildren. He urges us to do the same.

I suppose if I were a witty fellow I would have said those words sometime during our club’s meeting last thursday. If those monthly meetings aren’t nice, I don’t know what is. They are almost invariably a struggle for me to get to, as they are held in the middle of the day on a weekday I have to tear myself away from work – and whatever the “crisis du jour” is that always seems to be going on – for a few hours (commute downtown time, meeting time, grab a bite to eat time – it adds up), but they always end up being kind of an oasis of thoughtful reflection, discussion, and culture in the midst of my daily version of the rat race. The meetings always seem to end far too soon, and I hate having to return to work afterward.

I should mention, too, that at this meeting there was displayed a show-and-tell item as a kind of centerpiece to our circled tables. It seems Bill, the library’s historian had seen for sale on eBay a trophy from a 1938 skeet-shooting championship in Indianapolis sponsored by none other than Vonnegut Hardware. He watched the lonely item gathering a bid-less dust on the eBay site and as its time was expiring, contacted the seller and asked if – in the case of no bids being received – they would be interested in donating it to the library. They were, and Bill picked it up on the way to the meeting. Somewhat humorously, I got the impression that he wasn’t fully appreciative of the scale of the item, which turned out to be “the size of a small man” (okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much). So, it presided over our discussion with a towering presence…

(Below: the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in downtown Bibliophilopolis Indianapolis)

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Also, this month I’m going to append below the fold the “official” unofficial summary of our meeting, which one of our members (Dave) has been diligently creating for us in recent months.  It provides more detail of what was discussed than my personal impressions above and might give the reader a deeper impression of what our club is like.

MEETING OF THE KURT VONNEGUT BOOK CLUB,  DECEMBER 15, 2011

The Indianapolis regiment of the KV Book Club met on 12/15/11.  The alleged agenda was the discussion of KV’s collection of essays “A Man Without A Country”  published in 2005.  Many of the articles appeared previously in the left-wing rag “In Our Times”. Read the rest of this entry »

Short Story on Wednesday – “The Red Signal”

Here’s a bit of trivia for you: Who is the English language author who has sold more books than any other? I ran across this question earlier this year while participating in a trivia fundraiser event for the Indiana Bar Foundation (no, I’m not a lawyer but, God help me, I have several friends that are 🙂 ). I and my team failed to come up with the answer they were looking for, which turns out to be… Agatha Christie.

I haven’t read much by her over the years – a couple short stories and the book, Ten Little Indians, which was one of my first introductions to The Mystery Novel. A couple of weeks ago I read her short story, “The Red Signal.”

So, do you believe in precognition or premonitions? I don’t. Not really, anyway. The funny thing is, that for those who have a ‘random’ or coincidental dream or premonition that actually does come true, it is understandably hard to convince them that their experience was not “supernatural” in any way.

“The Red Signal,” touches on this theme in a tidy succinct way. We join the action at a dinner party at the home of Jack and Claire Trent, where one of the guests is the famous alienist (I’ve always loved that word), Sir Alington. Another guest, Dermot West, is also the nephew of Sir Alington, and in love with Claire Trent, the wife of a good friend.

Conversation has turned to the supernatural, and whether or not premonitions are possible. Sir Alington, of course, provides the voice of reason at the party, and successfully provides a “rational explanation” for the examples cited by Dermot of his own premonitions, which to him are presaged by an internal warning which he calls “The Red Signal.” Asked if he has seen the signal recently, he says “no,” failing to tell his fellow diners that he was seeing the signal that night. The evening’s entertainment includes a house call by a psychic who conducts a seance, at the conclusion of which she has a vague warning (funny how often vagueness is part of their “advice”) about “not going home.” But, to whom does this apply? And is it related to Dermot’s “Red Signal?” That’s all the detail I’ll go into as I don’t want to have to write “spoiler alert.” 🙂

The beauty of this story’s construction, though, is that Christie somehow weaves the tale so that the “don’t go home” warning could actually be applied to almost any of them. It’s not a long story, and is more of a crime story than a pure mystery. I recommend it.

“Short Story on Wednesday” is a meme hosted by Breadcrumb Reads and is now in its 22nd edition…

“A Good Marriage” a novella by Stephen King from the collection “Full Dark, No Stars”

I finally drew the three of spades for my “project: deal me in” on Saturday, and was thus finally ‘allowed’ to read the last of the four novellas in this Collection by Stephen King. I’ve written about the other three (1922, Fair Extension, and Big Driver) elsewhere on this blog. This last story was titled “A Good Marriage.”

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***SPOILER ALERT***
King mentions in his comments in the back of the book* that the “inspiration” for this story came to him when reading about the “BTK” killer, Dennis(?) Rader, who, if some are to be believed, carried out his heinous acts unbeknownst to his spouse. King began to speculate upon what the course of events would be if a spouse DID find out her husband was secretly a serial killer. Chapter one describes how the “happy couple” had reached this point in their lives, only hinting about “that day in the garage” where the reader assumes some discovery is made or some incident occurs.

There is good suspense as the wife goes through a natural stage of denial and then ponders what to do about her situation. Her resolution is a bit surprising, but in a way I liked the way King wrapped things up, especially with the final paragraphs involving a visit to the wife by the shrewd, semi-retired detective.

This was not my favorite story in the book though – actually maybe my least favorite, perhaps in a dead heat with the story, Big Driver. Still, King fans – and I count myself among them – are likely to enjoy it.

*One thing I really appreciate about Stephen King is that he frequently gives us a peek into his process, as he does in this collection. As readers,we’re often thinking, “Where did this story come from?!” and the like. King is gracious enough to let us know.

The Landscape of Dreams

This post marks my first participation in the “Short Story on Wednesday” meme hosted by Breadcrumb Reads. I learned of this meme via Che’s wonderful blog From Kafka to Kindergarten. Please give them both a visit.

“Rummy things, dreams. Wonder what makes mine fit into each other so…” -George Cottar, in “The Brushwood Boy”

Note: This post contains minor spoilers; I don’t think it would “ruin” the story for you, but you are welcome to read the story first if you’d like. It can be found on line here.

One of my all-time favorite short stories has got to be Rudyard Kipling’s “The Brushwood Boy,” which I just read for, I think, the fourth time. I’ve even posted about the story once before on this blog. It was one of my 52 stories in this year’s “Project: Deal Me In!” For those new to my blog, this is a project wherein I read one short story a week, determined by a random draw from a deck of cards (52 cards, 52 weeks in a year; convenient, yes?). Each story is assigned to a specific card, and the suits roughly represent types of stories (e.g. Hearts were favorite stories that I’d read before). This Saturday morning I drew the three of hearts and was thus led back to this enchanting story.

In it, we follow the somewhat condensed life story of one Georgie (later George) Cottar, an English boy of great imagination and easy manner, and something of a dreamer. We are first introduced to him as a three year-old who has had a fright, seeing “a policeman” on the grounds of his family’s property. We see later why this might disturb the young boy.

Away to school, we see him start off slowly, but eventually rise to leadership, via his athletic prowess and unaffected manner. His dreams take a back seat as “ten years at an English public school do not encourage dreaming.” Later, he takes his place in the British Army and thereby, due to “the regular working of the English Empire” ends up at a post in India. His successful rise remains uninterrupted there as he “sought popularity as little …(there) as he did in school, so therefore it came to him.”

Through this time, he begins to dream again, and notices that although most of his dreams are the normal dreams that we all experience, there are also a class of dreams that return him continually to the same dream landscape. He even begins to create a map of this landscape, adding to it whenever he has another of his special dreams. He also has a companion on his travels in this dreamscape, the imagined Princess Annieanlouise, from his childhood fantasies and imaginings. Together, their travels in this landscape and “The City of Sleep” are only interrupted when “Policeman Day” enforces their sad return to the realm of wakefulness.

Part of his uniqueness is that George somehow remains “an innocent” throughout his tour of duty, much to the disbelief of his fellow officers and his parents. It is only upon returning home to England (“There’s no place like England – when one has done his work”) that he finds that he is not the only person who is familiar with “his” landscape. I don’t want to go I to greater detail which would truly spoil the story, but it never fails to evoke goosebumps from this reader.

Another reason why I find this story so special is that I, too, “discovered” a landscape to some of my dreams. During my college years, I began to notice that I had several dreams that, though not “recurring dreams” in the classical sense, did appear to have common geographic elements. I even went so far as drawing a rough sketch of my landscape. Sadly, over the years, my “warped and faulty reservoir” (nod to John Steinbeck) of memory has become less and less able to remember my dreams, although sometimes I do still wake with a lingering trace of memory of having been wandering on “The High Path” along the mountain ridge of my own “dream landscape”…

(Rudyard Kipling)