“A Tree of Night” by Truman Capote

This post is done in conjunction with “Short Stories on Wednesdays,” a weekly meme hosted by Nancy at Simple Clockwork. Please feel free to participate and share with us what short stories you are reading.

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First, another coincidence… Although I pre-plan the 52 short stories I am to read during the year, I select the order I read them in randomly. This is accomplished by drawing a new card from a deck of playing cards, as I have assigned each of my stories to one of the fifty-two cards in a standard deck. Fate often seems to play a hand in what story I am led to read each Saturday when I do my drawing. Saturday, August 25th, I drew the ace of clubs and was led to Truman Capote’s short story “A Tree of Night.” The coincidence? Capote died in 1984 – on August 25th. Isn’t that something? 🙂 My stories for 2012 may be found here.

***Minor Spoilers follow***
A Tree of Night, first published in 1949, is a very short story that relies heavily on atmosphere to hook the reader. The hook didn’t sink in too deeply for me, but I did like the story. It’s about a young woman (a sophomore in college) traveling by train to Atlanta. It opens with her waiting on the platform of a train station, and Capote’s descriptive first few paragraphs are really well done and set a sinister mood which endures throughout the story. For example, he says, “it had rained (earlier) and now icicles hung along the station-house eaves like some crystal monster’s vicious teeth.”

When our heroine, Kay, boards the train, she finds only one seat available (ah! There’s the hand of fate again), and this next to an odd-looking couple: a somewhat drunk woman and her deaf-mute male companion. Though she would rather just be left alone, Kay is continually accosted by the woman to engage in conversation. Additionally, she is put on the defensive by the penetrating, intrusive questions of the woman.

She learns that the couple ekes out a marginal living as traveling performance artists, with the “performance” being a faux burial of the deaf-mute. Their business card says “LAZARUS – The Man Who Is Buried Alive – A MIRACLE -SEE FOR YOURSELF – Adults, 25 cents, Children, 10 cents” As the woman says, “Buh-leave me, it’s a hard way to turn a dollar.”

Eventually, Kay “flees” the couple and seeks some fresh air at the forward part of an observation platform. Her anxiety increases as she remembers tales she heard as a child which apparently were her region’s version of the bogey-man:

“Kay knew of what she was afraid: it was a memory, a childish memory of terrors that once, long ago, had hovered above her like haunted limbs on a tree of night. Aunts, cooks, strangers – each eager to spin a tale or teach a rhyme of spooks and death, omens, spirits, demons. And always there had been the unfailing threat of the wizard man: stay close to the house, child, else a wizard man’ll snatch and eat you alive! He lived everywhere,the wizard man,and everywhere was danger. At night, in bed, hear him tapping at the window? Listen!”

Of course, the couple aren’t really “through” with Kay yet. Perhaps to not risk dispersing the atmosphere he has created, Capote does not go into detail about what manner of foul play occurs (Robbery? Or something more?) and the reader is left to fill in the blanks for himself.

I wondered if the “deeper meaning” of the story lies in how, in childhood, we are often (with best intentions) “protected” by the grown-ups spinning tales
like that of the “wizard man,” but that these tales often remain imbedded in us, and can harm our ability to function normally – and safely – in the adult world. Something to think about, anyway.

What do you think of Capote? Anything else by him you’d recommend? All I’ve read is this story and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Bookish Confessions

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Top Ten Tuesday is a wildly popular weekly meme hosted by the talented folks over at The Broke and the Bookish. Check out their blog to see what scores of other book bloggers came up with for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday.

I’ve been blogging for over two and a half years now, and most of the writing I do about books is pretty tame. However, if I were to have – like Dorian Gray – a second blog that I kept locked in the attic with a screen over it, these are some of the things that would be posted on it…

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Bookish confessions:

1. I once used an old textbook as a coaster(!) I know, I know, it’s horrendous, but – if you knew my landlord at the time, NOT using a coaster may have led to an even hotter eternal damnation. Honorable mention here goes to the fact that I almost burned my Economics textbook in college.

2. I’ve never read any of the following: Ulysses, Sense and Sensibility, Don Quixote, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, etc. etc. See the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels of All Time for another fifty or sixty. Fortunately, this list is getting shorter.

3. I have well over six hundred books in my house about one subject – chess. (I used to have a problem) In my defense (as if that statement were defensible!) I used to only have about half that many, but about ten years ago bought a fellow chess addict’s entire library when he was strapped for cash. I assumed he would buy them back at some point, but not yet.

4. I actually read “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Just the first book. It was written horribly enough that I didn’t go on. It had just become popular, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Sometimes this works out (e.g., Hunger Games, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) but sometimes it doesn’t.

5. I have so many books at my house I sometimes (well, often) can’t find one I’m looking for. Catcher in the Rye? The Great Gatsby? Hemingway’s short stories? Where, oh, where are you?!?

6. I am unable to listen to audio books while commuting back and forth to work. I envy people who are able to do this. Me, I’m just trying to “stay alive on I-465.”

7. I have books that people loaned me that I never returned. The opposite of this is also true. (Does that make it right?)

8. I am, for being an otherwise reasonably intelligent man, a pretty damn slow reader. I hate this.

9. I once hated reading about Greek and Roman mythology. (it was because I was being forced to read it for fifth or sixth grade when I wanted to be doing other things) I still can picture that onerous blue-covered edition of Bullfinch’s Mythology. Of course (happy ending), I love it now. I even was a Classics Minor in college.

10. Speaking of college, it’s time for my worst confession. My senior year I took a really neat class in medieval and middle English literature. I had a really weighty textbook for it that was chock full of some of the great works. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Beowulf, etc. Between the time of my last class and graduation, I sold it back to the bookstore so my fraternity brothers and I would have more money to buy beer.

Well, thats it. Guess I’ll see you “in the fires” – as Johnny Cash would sing.

What about you? Do you have any bookish confessions you’d like to make? It’s good for your bookish soul. Do you feel a little bit better about yours now??

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Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Manned Missiles”

One of the books I enjoyed the most during my first year of blogging (2010) was Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” It’s only natural, then, that when I was planning my 2012 short story reading project, I would include at least one of the stories from that collection.

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As many already know, the year 1957 marked a turning point in the new space age. Unexpectedly – to the United States anyway – the Soviet Union launched the satellite, Sputnik, into orbit, which became a visible, public (it was visible to the naked american eye as it hurtled over our continent) reminder that we weren’t “in the lead.” It served to shock the United States out of a complacent delusion of technological superiority and was an event that sparked the “space race” which led t0 the July 20, 1969 moon landing.

It was in this climate that Vonnegut’s story “The Manned Missiles” was published in the July 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. (see cover picture below, which trumpets “five stories and a complete mystery novel!”)

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***Spoiler Alert!***
This story is unique among Vonnegut’s work because it was the only thing he wrote in “epistolary” form. It consists entirely of an exchange of letters between the fathers of a pair of astronauts, one American and one Russian (I guess I should’ve said an astronaut and a cosmonaut?). Anyway, we learn that both sons are dead and their deaths are somehow related (Vonnegut withholds the details, portioning them out gradually). The Russian son, Stephan Ivankov, is the first man in space and the American son, Bryant Ashland is sent up immediately after Ivankov in a kind of reckless technological one-upmanship between the nations. An “accident” has occurred, however, and both sons were killed.

The letters between the fathers seem intent on convincing the other that, in spite of what has happened, the sons were “good men” and not the villains that the governments and media involved seem to want to paint them. Ivankov’s father, a stone mason, had long struggled with why his son wanted to be a pilot and later a cosmonaut. Having eventually figured him out, he shares with Ashland’s father that “It was not for the Soviet Union but for the truth and beauty of space, Mr. Ashland, that Stephan worked and died.”

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Ashland, who runs a gasoline station, concludes his letter to Ivankov by admitting that he’s “crying now” and that, “I hope some good comes now from the death of our two boys. I guess that’s what millions of fathers have hoped for as long as there have been people.”

The story is made even more poignant by the fact we learn near the end that the two “baby moons” (that’s how Vonnegut refers to satellites and spacecraft in the story) have, after the accident, split into a bunch of baby moons, drifting apart, two of which are… Ivankov and Ashland.

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This story interested me mainly because of the time in which it was written. What must it have been like to be in America in the late fifties, seeing Sputnik fly over head and know the U.S.A.was “behind…”

This weekend also marked the passing of American Astronaut, Neil Armstrong, who became the first human to walk on the moon eleven years after this story was published. A few years back, I read a good biography of Armstrong, “First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong” by James R. Hansen. It’s well worth reading, if you’d like to learn more about the remarkable life of an inspiring man.

Bradbury Crater!

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How cool is it that the Mars Curiosity Rover’s landing site has been named “Bradbury Crater?”

http://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_2340.html

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LEFTOVERS – from the July meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library Book Club meeting about “Palm Sunday”

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As the size of a book club grows, the amount of time each member has to be heard shrinks (assuming the length of the meetings remains the same). This is beginning to happen to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club. I went to our July meeting armed with several things I would like the group to talk about, but didn’t get a chance to voice most of them. This is fine. I have a book blog where I can talk about anything I want. 🙂 So as a result, I have some leftovers from the book I’d like to share.

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Published in 1981, Palm Sunday is an outstanding collection of mostly essays, speeches, and excerpts from letters with a sprinkling of previously unpublished fiction. It’s not a book I would recommend to those not already familiar with Vonnegut’s oeuvre, but is full of his trademark witticism and truth-speaking, no matter if the latter may be painful to the reader.

One of our members, Karen, asked a great question near the end of the meeting, and we didn’t really have time for everyone to weigh in on it. It is perhaps more appropriate for our group, where most of us have read a lot of Vonnegut already. Her question was, “What new thing did you learn about Vonnegut from reading this book.” My reflex answer would be something cheesy like, “too much to pick just one,” but I’ll share a couple.

I did get some detail on KV’s brief encounter with another favorite writer of mine, Jack Kerouac. I had known from other sources that Kerouac had visited Vonnegut’s home in Cape Cod, and that Kerouac had behaved in a boorish manner. Here in this book we learn the pity felt for Kerouac by Vonnegut. “There were clearly thunderstorms in the head of this once charming and just and intelligent man.” He goes on to relate how Kerouac almost picks a fight with Kurt’s son, Mark, when the latter shows up dressed in what might be described as typical beat generation gear. It seems Kerouac was disturbed by this. “You think you understand me,” he said to Mark. “You don’t understand me at all. You want to fight about it?” Interesting and sad at the same time time. (below: Mark Vonnegut, M.D. See the resemblance?)

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(author Jack Kerouac)

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Another hitherto unknown trove of information dealt with his family history, presented as it had been compiled by a family friend named John G. Rauch. It’s always interesting to learn more about the background of a favorite artist, and the urge to come up with some “Ah, well THAT explains it!” moments is almost irresistible. In reality, though, too many factors are in play to truly figure out why someone “turned out the way he did.” Vonnegut adds a page or so with the postscript of Rauch’s history. Quoting Goethe, he advises that “Whatever it is that you have inherited from your father, you are going to have to earn it if it’s to really belong to you.” Words of wisdom.

Vonnegut also gave us a little more of a glimpse into his time at General Electric in Schenectady, New York. He expresses that he has a mysterious (he actually uses the word “irrational”) persisting concern about whatever became of his coworkers there, noting that they became a somewhat tight-knit group and that they shared the common ground of all “just getting our footing as adult citizens.” He also speculates that “I may have been born with some sort of clock in me which required me to love those working alongside of me so much at that time.” He sadly adds that the company’s view of what sort of relationship they should have with their coworkers was different. “It was the Darwinian wish of General Electric, of the Free Enterprise System, of course, that we compete instead.” Sad. He lasted there three years, from 1948 to 1951. Coincidentally, I just finished my third year at the most “corporate” job I’ve ever had. Almost gives me the idea it’s time to go. Hmmm….

There were some parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy, though, particularly a labored “musical comedy” based upon Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,” for which I couldn’t wait to end. The strongest parts of the book to me were the author’s interview of himself (chapter five) as published in the Paris Review in 1977. You can tell Vonnegut is happy to seize the opportunity to answer all those questions he wished he had been asked. Great stuff.

Another favorite section of mine was from his chapter (13) concerning his children. He says, “What is my favorite among all the works of art my children have so far produced,” and chooses a letter written by his youngest daughter, Nanette, who was working as a waitress in the summer of 1978 when an irascible customer made complaints about a fellow waitress’s service. This other waitress was fired as a result, and management posted the customer’s letter of complaint on the company’s bulletin board. Nanette wrote him back (heh heh) and really let him have it, but in the nicest, most civil language you can imagine. The complete text of the letter is included in the chapter. It’s too long for me to re-type but its conclusion is representative:

“I feel it is my duty as a human being to ask you to think twice about what is of importance in life. I hope that in all fairness you will think about what I have said, and that in the future you will be more thoughtful and humane in your actions.”

Now, what was that I was saying earlier about heredity…?

(Below: The Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis)

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Kaleidoscope by Ray Bradbury

Short Stories on Wednesdays

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Short Stories on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Nancy at A Simple Clockwork. Participants read (at least) one short story a week and post about it, usually linking to their post in a comment on Nancy’s site. It’s a great way to learn about new stories and writers. Many times the stories posted about are available for free on line and are linked within the post – as mine is this week. I am participating in this meme in conjunction with my own short story reading project for 2013 – “Project: Deal Me In!”

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I drew the six of spades from my short story deck this past weekend. This year, stories in that suit are supposed to be of the “Ghost, Scary, or Sci-Fi” category. An argument could be made that this Bradbury story qualifies on all three grounds.

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The human experience has been changed in many ways by technology. One of these ways, which this story led me to ponder about would be a human’s sometimes increased knowledge of the specific time of our inevitable death. We do not hear the old-time stories where a doctor gives his patient “six-weeks” to live* or some other somewhat arbitrary period as often as we used to. As our medical science has become more precise, so has its ability to more closely estimate the time of our “expiration date.” In this short story by Bradbury, the crew of a rocket ship that has been rocked by an explosion knows exactly how much time will elapse before their life must end.

Though hurtled into space through a gaping hole in their ship, the crew are protected by their spacesuits, but do not possess any means of locomotion. They have become human satellites. The radio transmitters in the helmets are functional, though, and that allows the handful of crew mates to maintain conversation as they fly apart in whichever direction the blast sent them. Knowing their doom is imminent, the men react different ways. Some with childlike terror, some with bitterness, some with meanness, some with the contentedness of A Life Well Lived. The character from whose point of view the story is predominantly told is the captain, Hollis. He muses about things in his life left undone and dreams unfulfilled. Of all the crew, he is the only one for whom his trajectory will lead him to fall into Earth, which allows a cute, poignant ending to this tale. Not a bad story, but not among the best I’ve read this year either.

Ever since the news of Ray Bradbury’s death earlier this year, I’ve been wanting to read more of his work, which, with the exception of “Fahrenheit 451” I had thus far neglected. What other books or stories of his would you recommend? I acquired this story in an anthology picked up at a used book sale. It’s titled The Omnibus of Science Fiction, first published in 1952, it includes 42 stories, many by pioneers in the genre

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I found this story in a few places online. One of them is here http://www.scaryforkids.com/kaleidoscope-by-ray-bradbury

*remember the one about the doctor who gave his patient six weeks to live? The patient couldn’t pay his bill so the doctor gave him another six weeks. Ah, the classics…  🙂

Short Stories on Wednesday – “Seeds” by Sherwood Anderson

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Short Stories on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Nancy at A Simple Clockwork. Participants read (at least) one short story a week and post about it, usually linking to their post in a comment on Nancy’s site. It’s a great way to learn about new stories and writers. Many times the stories posted about are available for free on line and are linked within the post – as mine is this week. And yes, I am a day late with this post. 🙂

Many of you already know about my own short story reading project, and how I, before the year begins, select my fifty-two stories and assign each of them to a playing card in a standard deck of cards. This is how I randomly select the order I which I read them – I simply “pick a card, any card.” 🙂 I drew the six of clubs from my dwindling deck Saturday morning, and this meant I was to read Sherwood Anderson’s short story, “Seeds.”

***SPOILERS ALERT**** Sherwood Anderson is most famous for a collection of related stories titled “Winesburg, Ohio.” Neither this story, nor the other Anderson story I read this year, “The Egg,” are part of that collection, however. When reading “Seeds,” I was immediately reminded of a fraternity brother of mine from college, who frequently taunted his older brother, who majored in psychology, with thoughts of becoming a psychiatrist (as it turns out, he didn’t). The younger brother always said – of psychiatrists – “they never actually CURE anybody!” I always suspected there was a kernel of truth in this, and after reading this Sherwood Anderson story, suspect he felt the same way.

The narrator of this story begins by relating an encounter with a psychoanalyst friend or acquaintance. The psychoanalyst explains his frustration and his need to get away and become ’untangled’ from his many patients and their lives. Eventually the narrator impatiently chides him, “Men like you are fools. You cannot go along that road. It is given to no man to venture far along the road of lives.” He goes on to say, of the psychoanalysts work in general that “The illness you pretend to cure is the universal illness. The thing you want to do cannot be done. Fool — do you expect love to understood?”

The psychoanalyst defends his profession eloquently: “What you say can’t be done can be done. You’re a liar. You cannot be so definite without missing something vague and fine. You miss the whole point. The lives of people are like young trees in a forest. They are being choked by climbing vines. The vines are old thoughts and beliefs planted by dead men. I am myself covered by crawling creeping vines that choke me.”

The story then has a total change of setting and time, and the narrator tells us a seemingly unrelated story of an unmarried young woman who came to Chicago from Iowa, settling in a boarding house and attracting the attention of all the young men around with her sometimes forward yet inconsistent behavior. She would clearly be identified, in today’s world anyway, as someone with some kind of “mental health issues.” Her behavior wears old, and as she is about to be expelled from the house, a hero intercedes on her behalf.

I found the hero “LeRoy” one of the more sympathetic characters in all the short story reading I’ve done so far this year. Anderson describes him as having “…something very sweet in his nature. He is a painter, but I have often wished he would decide to become a writer. He tells things with understanding, and he does not paint brilliantly.” Later he adds, “LeRoy the painter is tall and lean and his life has been spent in devotion to ideas. The passions of his brain have consumed the passions of his body. His income is small and he has not married. Perhaps he has never had a sweetheart. He is not without physical desire but he is not primarily concerned with desire.”

Anyway, to make a long story short, LeRoy’s intercession on the woman’s behalf, in the end, came to nothing and reinforces the narrator’s belief in his original conversation with the psychoanalyst. In a kind of nifty role reversal, the narrator tries to suggest to LeRoy how he might have handled the situation differently. LeRoy counters with, almost verbatim, the same arguments used by the narrator at the beginning of this tale. I wonder if what Anderson ends up trying to say with this story is that neither the narrator nor the psychoanalyst have it right about human nature and interrelation, and that perhaps it takes a uniquely sensitive character, like LeRoy, to hit upon the right mix of involvement and laissez-faire when it comes to dealing with others. I found it a very interesting, thought-provoking story. I read it through a couple of times in an attempt to plumb its depths – and still probably missed a lot.

Oh, I almost forgot, there was another great quotation from this story that I wanted to share. “There is a note that comes into the human voice by which you may know real weariness. It comes when one has been trying with all his heart and soul to think his way along some difficult road of thought. Of a sudden he finds himself unable to go on. Something within him stops. A tiny explosion takes place. He bursts into words and talks, perhaps foolishly. Little side currents of his nature he didn’t know were there run out and get themselves expressed.” I really liked that. 🙂

How about you? What have your read by Sherwood Anderson? Any favorites? And what short stories have you read this week or recently?

This story may be read for free in several places on-line. One such place is: http://www.online-literature.com/sherwood-anderson/1474/

Below: Sherwood Anderson (from the NYPL digital archives)

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August Reading – The Month Ahead

It’s August already, and time to think about what reading I might be able to accomplish in the new month. Strangely, for the first time in a long time, I don’t really have much of an idea which direction I’m going in an upcoming month. The one exception is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Armageddon in Retrospect,” a posthumously published collection of essays on war and peace that is being read by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club for August. Worth noting is that this book, I think, is the ONLY Vonnegut book I haven’t read yet, so this will be the last ’first read’ I’ll be able to do of one of his books. I’m both proud of and sad about this.

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What else, hmm… Well, I’ll have four or five short stories as part of my annual project, but I won’t know what they are until I draw a card from those remaining in the deck each Saturday morning. By the way, I was thinking about making my annual short story “Deal Me In” project a public Reading Challenge next year. Do you think many (any) people would be interested? I’ve never hosted a challenge at Bibliophilopolis, so I’m apprehensive.

What other books might I read? I have started Claire Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens, which would count toward my “author biography” project that I’ve been neglecting. I’m also very interested in the new bio of the Bronte sisters that I think has just come out, or is about to. It weighs in at a staggering 1,000+ pages, though.

Maybe I’ll finally get around to Panther in the Sky by James Alexander Thom too, as I’ve been promising for some time.

Another possibility is Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” which got my attention a while ago, and of which Dale at Mirror with Clouds has reminded me of recently.

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Geez, I have 20 books on my “to read” shelf on Goodreads.com. Seems like I ought to be able to come up with something, right? Or… perhaps you could help guide me. What do YOU suggest I read in August?