I started a second blog…

It likely won’t be of interest to most “Citizens of Bibliophilopolis,” as it deals with personal memories and reminiscences, but if you’re a child of the 60s or early 70s and thus a “relative contemporary” of mine there may be an occasional post of interest. I created it mostly to “silence my Mom” ūüôā as she has been urging me, “You should write some of your memories down, Jay.” ever since she started to read the blog of my friend, Scott. I’ve only written one post thus far, but will try to write something there every week or two. It is called “The Warped and Faulty Reservoir”* and may be found at the link below.

http://thewarpedandfaultyreservoir.wordpress.com/

*John Steinbeck described his memory as “at best, a warpy, faulty reservoir.” His memory is much better than mine….

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More Vonnegut: Hocus Pocus

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In Merriam-Webster‚Äôs Dictionary, it is the second definition of “hocus-pocus” which pertains to the title of this Vonnegut book from 1990. The second definition is: “nonsense or sham used especially to cloak deception.” In this book, Vonnegut undoubtedly relies on his experiences in World War II to construct the character of¬†the protagonist, Eugene Debs Hartke, a veteran of the Vietnam War. Contrary to Vonnegut‚Äôs personal experience a as a soldier, however, Hartke was a career military man who rose the ranks to become quite an important cog in the machinery of the U.S. war effort in Southeast Asia, even supervising the final evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon (pictured above).

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The protagonist’s name comes, of course, from the famous labor leader/socialist Eugene V. Debs, and an outspoken anti-war “junior senator” from Indiana in the 60’s, Vance Hartke (below). In fact, one of¬†my fellow-members of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club had met Senator Hartke on a couple occasions, describing him as one of the more “oily” politicians he ever encountered, and that Hartke had a habit of, when shaking one’s hand, kind of wrapping his other arm around his ‘victim’ and even changing his stance, thus preventing the recipient from making a quick exit(!)

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Part of the hocus-pocus perpetrated is in Hartke’s speaking to the newly arrived “recruits” and in his dealing with the press (likely enhanced by Vonnegut’s own experience working in public relations” for corporate giant, General Electric.)

Hartke’s military experience does not take place during the time frame of the plot of this novel, however, and we learn of it mostly through “flashbacks” and memories. In the novel, we learn that Hartke spent his post-war years teaching at “Tarkington College” in the finger lakes district of New York. After being the victim of a conspiracy he is fired from that post but promptly finds a new job across the lake, teaching at a prison whose administration has been privatized and is now run by the Japanese.

The novel is written by Debs from the prison where he is now an inmate. Among the many quirks of the novel, we are told that it was written in its entirety on small scraps of whatever paper Hartke found available, including matchbook covers, blank endpapers that he had ripped out of books in the prison library, brown wrapping paper, and backs of business cards. The other quirk, which frankly felt a bit gimmick-y to me, was that he would not write out any numbers in the book – e.g. instead of writing “two days later” he would write “2 days later.” I was never quite sure of any value added from this, but have come to expect quirkiness from Vonnegut and suppose at this point I would be disappointed if there weren’t any.

What I did like about this book was the humor that it contained. While Vonnegut is known for his humor, he outdid himself this time. I laughed out loud several times while reading. In one exchange, just after Hartke has been fired and is wandering around town he meets someone who is headed over to the prison for a job interview:

He said, ‚ÄúThey’re hiring teachers over there.”
I asked if I could come with him.
He said, “Not if you’re going to teach what I’m going to teach. What do you want to teach?”
“Anything you don’t want to teach,” I said.

Another funny moment is when a minor character asks Hartke if he’d “seen him on “The Phil Donahue Show,” which Vonnegut describes as:

“a 1-hour show every weekday afternoon, which featured a small group of real people, not actors, who had had the same sort of bad thing happen to them, and had triumphed over it or were barely coping or whatever.”

Bull’s-eye,Kurt!

The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library met to discuss this book last Thursday. Hocus Pocus was one of the more universally liked of our readings, earning an 8.4 rating in our traditional post-meeting informal vote. This is one of the highest ratings I can remember us giving.

Another¬†intriguing component of the novel was the inclusion of a machine galled the “GRIOT,” which was designed to predict the fate of a person after certain¬†basic information was entered into it. The relatively small amount of data needed for input is remarkable too: age, race, degree of education, current level of drug use – are those really the only significant contributors to our fate? While reading, I thought perhaps GRIOT was an acronym for something that the author purposely didn’t explain. The KVMLBC, however, includes in its membership a former literature teacher¬†who informed us that “griot” is a west African world for the conveyor an oral tradition among families, who each would have a member designated as a griot. I think she said that griot was the word used for the stories being told as well. (I always learn something at these meetings) ūüôā

We also have among our membership an amateur poet, who usually shares a work – somehow related to our current¬†selection –¬†with us at the end of¬†our meetings. At¬†January’s meeting, one of the other members questioned the poet about the rhyming structure used, and whether it had a name, etc. Apparently, this got our poet thinking, and he tried a new form this month, the “diamant√©” poem. Wikipedia describes the form as:

“The poem can be used in two ways, either comparing and contrasting two different subjects, or naming synonyms and antonyms for another subject.

In the poems, the subject is named in one word in the first line. The second line consists of two adjectives describing the subject, and the third line contains three verbs ending in the suffix -ing which are related to the subject. A fourth line then has four nouns, again related to the subject, but only the first two words are related the first subject. The other two words describe the opposite subject the lines then are put in reverse, leading to and relating to either a second subject or a synonym for the first.

Here is the order:

                                   Noun

                       Adjective-Adjective

                         Verb-Verb-Verb

                      Noun-Noun/Noun-Noun

                         Verb-Verb-Verb

                       Adjective-Adjective

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Noun”

Bill’s poem, which I snapped a picture of with my iPhone (to capture not only the words but the nice, aesthetic presentation) is shown¬†below, with the author’s permission:

Have YOU read Hocus Pocus?¬† Any other Vonnegut? What do you think of one of Indiana’s finest authors?

Six down, Forty-six to go…

Each Saturday morning this year, I draw a card from my short story deck to randomly see which of my 52 planned stories I will read next. When I’m good I read the story the same day, but I often fall behind. I was good this week, though. ūüôā

I am also enjoying how the hand of fate often seems to pick a story that is somehow appropriate for me at the moment. This morning, for instance, I woke up in a pretty good mood. There’s nothing better to “bring you down” than a Flannery O’Connor story, though, and now my mood is back to a more normal middle of the curve…

“The Geranium” was O’Connor’s first published short story and was one of the six that she submitted for her masters thesis in the creative arts. It’s also part of the collection, “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”

***Spolier Alert***

It’s a depressing story of an older man (“Old Dudley”) who has left his home in the South to live out “his declining years” in New York with his daughter. Moving was a rather spontaneous decision that he now regrets, and made partially just because when he was a boy he had seen New York in a picture show, “Big Town Rhythm.” We don’t get the impression that his daughter much cares for him other than taking care of him is “doing her duty.” Dudley had never imagined how alien a place The Big City would be to him and longs for his carefree days fishing on the river back home and using his daily catch to supplement the fare at the boarding house where he was living before the move.

The city is also a place he doesn’t fully understand. He got lost once on a simple errand to get groceries down the street. The “underground train” (subway) is a mystery to him, and it seems they always “just have time to make it” whenever they must catch one. He is shocked when he learns that seeing a black man in the hallway of his daughter‚Äôs building doesn’t mean that one of the other tenants has “got ‚Äôem a nigger” but rather the man is possibly going to rent the apartment next door.

One small joy that helps keep him going in this strange environment is looking across the gap between his daughter’s apartment building and the next and seeing a potted pink geranium. The neighbors, who he doesn’t know, put out the geranium every day about ten and take it in at five-thirty.

As you might guess with an O’Connor story, though, his one lifeline to happiness comes crashing down by the end of the story, and what lies behind where the geranium would sit is a rude, nameless neighbor who threatens Dudley about looking into his apartment, warning him that, “I only tell people once.” What Becomes of Dudley after this we can only guess, but the reader must know that there is now a finality to his “big city unhappiness.”

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Back on Schedule with my Short Story Reading

I completed three short stories this weekend. Two for my “one story per week” project (which I’m now caught up on again) and one for a “Great Books” discussion group meeting this evening. I’ll just mention them briefly here, maybe writing more about one or two of them later.

First, I read the sci-fi tale, “Instinct” by one of the household names of that genre, Lester del Rey. This is a tale of the future, where humankind has died out and the “alpha race” of the planet is now robots (robots!). Apparently, there is an ongoing project to re-create man as the robots have learned that the. One thing they are “missing” in their existence is a kind of instinct. Some interesting moments, but not one of my favorites from all the short stories I’ve read recently. You may know I have a random method of choosing the order in which I read my 52 selected stories. Sometimes this leads to strange coincidences. Last week was also the much-anticipated release of the debut CD of future(?) alternative music star, Lana del Rey (no relation).

Secondly, I read Haruki Murakami’s “The Mirror” from his collection of short stories, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” This one was quite short, but Murakami packs quite a punch in just a few pages. This is the story of a man who worked as a night watchman, and after being in a gathering of people who shared each of their ghost stories, is compelled to tell his own. The ghost he encounters on his rounds one night turns out to be just his own reflection in a mirror (or is it?). Some great moments here, my favorite of which is when he seems to realize that, instead of what he does being reflected in the mirror, he senses he is being compelled to mimic the actions of his counterpart… Spooky, good stuff.

The third tale is the classic Edgar Allan Poe story, The Black Cat. Like the more famous “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it involves a man trying to hide the evidence of his crime, only to unwittingly reveal it due to guilt or overconfidence or supernatural reasons. The narrator is a condemned man of questionable sanity and a clear victim of alcoholism, which ostensibly leads him to his crimes. There is also some mechanical similarity to “A Cask of Amontillado” (wink, wink). Good reading.

Have YOU read any good short stories lately?

My First Exposure to P.G. Wodehouse

Two saturdays ago, in selecting my third short story of the year, I drew the five of clubs and was led to P.G. Wodehouse’s story, “Pig Hoo-o-o-ey!” (at the beginning of the year I assigned 52 short stories to the cards in a standard deck and throughout the year will draw one per week to randomize the order in which I read them. This is something I had so much fun with last year that I’m doing it again in 2012).

I have a good friend and fellow reader who has been recommending the humorous Wodehouse to me for years. She is a big fan of the “Jeeves” novels and stories, and says she occasionally retreats to Wodehouse after more heavy reading. Due to her influence, a recent trip to Half Price Books included in its haul the collection, “The Most of Wodehouse.” Upon reading him for the first time, I can see why she enjoys him so much. He is one of the funniest writers I’ve read the past few years.

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***Some Spoilers follow*** The story “Pig-hoo-o-o-ey!” is only eighteen pages long and features the memorably comic character of Lord Elmsworth. There are actually two story lines woven together in this tale. It seems the Earl of Elmsworth’s “pig man” has run afoul of the law and has been tossed in jail for a couple weeks (negatively impacting the appetite and well-being of Elmsworth’s prize Berkshire sow, preposterously named “The Empress of Blandings” – and just before “the eighty-seventh annual Shropshire Agricultural Show). At the same time, Elmsworth’s niece Angela has broken off her engagement to her family-approved fianc√© in favor of a suitor from her youth, who has recently returned from America.

The vein of humor running richly through the story relies upon Elmsworth’s nearly total preoccupation with the crisis of his potentially prize-winning pig’s condition. Whenever anyone brings up the other topic, he at first assumes they are talking about HIS problem instead. A happy ending is tidily reached, however, when it is discovered that Angela’s American paramour spent some of his time abroad working on a farm in Nebraska and becoming educated in the manner of raising and handling pigs.

Overall, a great little story that I liked a lot. I don’t have any other Wodehouse in my line-up of stories for my 2012 short story project, but I do have this whole volume of his work at my disposal… I suspect I will return to it more than once in the coming year.

What about you? Have you read any Wodehouse? What do you think of this author?

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(P.G. Wodehouse)

February Reading – The Month Ahead

I used to post almost every month about what was coming up in my planned reading. This routine post often aged into a public record of my lack of resolve and general slacking, which may have led to my discontinuing it. I think I’m going to try to start doing it again though, as perhaps it will make me feel more accountable and get more reading done. (yeah, right) Anyway, here goes:

Sign-Talker by James Alexander

This book was recommended by my Mom (“Hi, Mom!”), who has read many of Thom’s books. I’ve read one other, “Follow the River,” much of which is set in the Kanawha & New River area in West Virginia, where I have family ties. The Sign-Talker is the fictionalized story of George Drouillard, a half-Native American hunter/interpreter who was part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. I’m already pretty far into this one and may finish up tonight. That would be fortuitous since the author will be at the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library‚Äôs monthly “First Friday” event tomorrow. I’d like to go meet him.

Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut

This is the KVML Book Club’s selection for February. I know nothing about it and don’t even have a copy yet. It will be nice to return to Vonnegut this month, though, after struggling mightily to get through Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” last month.

Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia

The second book of my unofficial planned “twelve author biographies in twelve months” project. I started this biography of Jack Kerouac once a few years ago but didn’t finish. I plan to start from scratch. It’s huge.

MacBeth by Shakespeare

This is the February play for an online year-long Shakespeare reading challenge (that I’ve lost track of where it actually is; I’m so bad). I re-read A Midsummer Night‚Äôs dream last month and really enjoyed the return visit. Hopefully I’ll feel the same way about MacBeth. Plus there are witches in this one…

Short Stories

I’m one behind schedule in my one per week project, but I’m sure I’ll read a bunch this month. Next up is Lester del Rey’s sci-fi tale, “Instinct.” I’ve also been enjoying following the weekly short story meme over at Breadcrumb Reads. Learning of lots of new short stories and authors that I. Will be reading this year and into the future, I’m sure.

Well that’s my currently planned month of reading. What about you? What’s on your February reading list?