Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

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Back in early 2006, after repeated recommendations by my friend Jim, I finally read Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series. In case you’re not familiar with the series, one of the themes is that of a world that has run down, a civilization that has decayed to the point that it could hardly be called one any more. At one point, in one of the later books, the hero Roland stumbles upon a kind of “control room” where apparently the conditions of the world of his and his companions can be adjusted by changing the settings on the room’s control panels. Now, the fact that our lives are governed by forces beyond our ken is certainly not a new one (see Homer, for example) but this technological manifestation of a control room was a neat twist that I hadn’t encountered before.

What I think I’m coming to realize now, the more I read, is that many authors have access to such a control room of sorts – one that not only changes the destinies of the characters themselves, but also the laws of nature or rules of the world they inhabit. Many of the stories in Kevin Wilson’s collection, “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth” take place in a world whose conditions have been tweaked ever so slightly. Behavior and environments that “could never be” in The Real World are present, and present with such a light touch that even a stodgy reader is able to suspend disbelief and enjoy the stories nonetheless…

Of the eleven stories in the book, only a couple didn’t “do it” for me. Of the remaining nine, there are some real treats. “Grand Stand-in” deals with a woman who works for a kind of rent-a-grandmother service for families whose children don’t have a grandmother and are thus robbed of the experience. (See? Not part of the world we live in, but not that far removed from reality.) Things go swimmingly for the stand-in Grandma until she gets a new “assignment” for a family whose grandma is… still living.

Another favorite was “The Museum of Whatnot,” featuring a young woman who works in a museum of curiosities. Her mother is concerned that she’ll “never meet a man” while working in such an oddball place, and it seems she may be correct – until a doctor begins visiting every day, just to look at the museum’s collection of spoons…

“The Shooting Man” is the darkest of the tales, but also quite effective. It would not be out of place in a collection of Flannery O’Connor short stories:  A husband is insistent that his wife go with him and his friends to see a traveling sideshow-type performance that includes the famous “shooting man” – who appears to shoot himself in the forehead every night for curious audiences. She doesn’t want to go, but eventually relents. Predictably, she finds it gruesome and distasteful, while he becomes a bit too curious to learn what the “trick” is.

The title story involves three recent college graduates who, searching fruitlessly for some aim in life, having “devoted our academic careers to things we couldn’t seem to find applicability to the world we were now in.” So (why not?) they begin to tunnel in the backyard of one of their parents’ homes…

Probably my favorite though was the longest story titled “Go, Fight, Win” whose main character is a sixteen year old girl who is the “new girl” at school, and whose mother pushes her to try out for the cheerleading team. “Penny” doesn’t really want to, but does so for her mother’s sake, or perhaps just to get mom off her back. Add to the mix a strange and precocious neighbor boy and Penny’s obsession with building plastic model cars (Aha! That story finally explained the book cover picture) and the result is a great story. I enjoyed this short book and was also impressed with how convincingly he wrote from the female voice in some of these stories.

Has anyone else read any Kevin Wilson? I first heard about him last July through Melody’s blog, Fingers and Prose.

(Below: author Kevin Wilson. Looks an awful lot like poker player Tom Dwan!)

The author’s website may be found here.

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“Tour and Duty” by Rebecca Emin

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This was the second story of my 2013 version of “Project: Deal Me In.” (this year, Hearts is my suit for female authors.)

I discovered this story via the book blogosphere, where I learned the book is a part of – “A Knowing Look and Other Stories.” I purchased an e-copy last spring and read the title story right away. I liked it and thought I should include one from the book in my next annual short story reading project. Randomness led me to pick the story “Tour and Duty” and when I created my deck it became the queen of hearts, which I drew this morning… (sorry I can only include a screen capture of the book here, but for some reason I was having trouble downloading a copy online)

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This story is very short, maybe the shortest one I will read this year. I don’t know if it qualifies for the term “flash fiction” but my guess would be yes.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a term that is well known in today’s world (and that hasn’t always been the case). My take on this story was that it explores some more subtle manifestations of PTSD – one needn’t be missing a limb or jumping at every loud noise to be suffering. The protagonist in the story spent time with her (and the reader doesn’t learn the sex of the protagonist at first either, which I found interesting) unit in the mountains of Afghanistan, and much of this time hiding from potential discovery by the enemy. We don’t learn how or why this situation has come about, but we do know that she escapes with her life, unlike some other comrades she muses about upon her return.

Returning home is a shock in many ways. Emin relates that it is “always a shock to the system to come back from somewhere so bleak and isolated, to the developed world with networks of roads, fully working communications and running water, not to mention electricity as well as gas.”

Though uninjured, our returning soldier has brought back some ‘baggage’ from her tour of duty. Something she dreads telling her fiancé about, but circumstances soon dictate that NOT telling him isn’t an option. I can’t really say more without a major spoiler alert, which I don’t want to include. You’ll have to read for yourself.

I generally prefer a little more ’meat’ on my short stories and am always impressed when one so short can get the job done, as is the case with this one.

(below: an Infantryman from 10th Mountain Division outside a cave in the mountains of Afghanistan, April 06, 2004. (US Army photo by SPC Gul A Alisan) (Released). From http://www.25idl.army.mil/deployment/oef%20afghanistan/deployment/12april04pictures.htm)

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If you are interested in buying this collection, it’s only $2.99 at Amazon and may be found at http://www.amazon.com/Knowing-Look-And-Other-Stories/dp/1471647943

Ray Bradbury’s short story, “The Veldt”

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My first short story of 2013 as part of my annual project (see here for more details) is Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt” from his collection of stories titled “The Illustrated Man.” The stories in The Illustrated Man are introduced and linked by the title character, who is covered head to toe in tattoos (or “skin illustrations” as he insists they be called). The first story, “The Veldt,” is introduced by a tattoo of a lion. The story was first published separately in the September 23, 1950 edition of the saturday Evening Post under the title “The World the Children Made.”

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“Handing Over the Reins”

George and Lydia Hadley are, we are to assume, a typical couple of the future. They want the best for themselves and their family and spare no expense when acquiring a sort of “automated” house complete with a “nursery” for their two young children. This is a special nursery, however – one that reads the thoughts of the children and creates whatever landscape or situations they dream up (think of the “holodeck” on Star Trek, only with the programming coming directly from the minds of its inhabitants).

The Hadleys discover there is a price to pay for “turning over” control of their lives to machinery (of course, they ponder this as the mechanism of the house is preparing their dinner ). They are disturbed because the children are spending too much time in the nursery and are apparently obsessed with its setting of an African grassland (the “Veldt” of the story’s title). The lions that inhabit the Veldt give the parents quite a scare when they visit the room while the children are away at a party, and the Hadleys decide it is unhealthy for the children to be interested in a place where there is “so much death.” (The lions are always “feeding on” something and sometimes the parents can hear screams from behind the door that sound “familiar.”)

When they confront the children about Africa, the kids deny that the nursery has that setting. When challenged to “go see for yourself,” the daughter heads down the hall and into the nursery, which then produces a lovely forest scene. The kids are hiding something. Willfully. Perhaps they are rebelling because they were denied “a rocket trip to New York” referenced earlier, or perhaps they have just reached “that age.” Whatever the reason, the elder Hadleys are concerned and consult a psychiatrist, who recommends they shut down and dismantle the “nursery.” They agree, but did they wait too long?

(below: Claire Bloom & Rod Steiger in the Veldt from the movie version of “The Illustrated Man”)

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I found a copy of this story on line at http://www.veddma.com/veddma/Veldt.htm  Give it a read. It’s not very long.

When reading this story, I was reminded a bit of Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (which I’ve blogged about before), where protagonist Paul Proteus discusses the industrial revolutions that have taken place in human history: the first one produced machines that devalued human muscle, the second one, devalued human routine mental work, the third one – currently in progress, he argued in 1952 – would produce machines that devalue human thinking. The Hadleys have accepted the machines of this third wave, even turning over the duty of “babysitting” to machines – with predictable results.

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Have you read Bradbury? Any favorite stories? Have you seen the (often critically panned) movie adaptation of The Illustrated Man (with Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom)?

(below: the edition of The Illustrated Man that I own)

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2012 Year End Survey

A Year End Survey (long but fun to fill out). I found this at A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff.

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THE BEST IN BOOKS 2012
1. Best Book You Read In 2012? (You can break it down by genre if you want)

Hmm… I read a lot of good ones. For fiction I’d have to say The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Non-Fiction is an even bigger toss-up, but I’ll mention “Final Jeopardy” by Stephen Baker, which is the story of IBM’s “Watson,” a computer that defeated two of Jeopardy’s greatest human champions in 2011. Currently doing my second stint in the Jeopardy! contestant pool, I found this book very interesting.

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers. This is the story of a girl from the slums of Kampala who, through learning and growing proficient at chess, rises above her circumstances. As a former tournament chess player, I found the author’s frequent and obvious misunderstanding of some common chess knowledge disappointing.

3. Most surprising (in a good way!) book of 2012?

Pandora by Joanna Parypinski. I took a chance on this one. In late 2012 I began to try to be more aware of independent and especially local authors. I found Parypinski’s debut novel to be both engaging and well-constructed. I plan to continue my efforts to read first time or local “undiscovered” authors in 2013.

4. Book you recommended to people most in 2012?

Non-fiction: probably Susan Cain’s “Quiet: ThePower of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.” Fiction: Hmm… I’ve recommended Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 to several people, but only one thus far has been brave enough to undertake reading its 1,000 pages. I still recommend Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle” books often, and “The Gargoyle” by Andrew Davidson.

5. Best series you discovered in 2012?

I don’t usually read series, but a first book that showed potential was Leigh Bardugo’s “Shadow & Bone,” discovered by me via Laini Taylor’s NY Times review. Both are YA authors – not my normal reading genre.

6. Favorite new authors you discovered in 2012?

I’ll take this as “new to me” authors. Too many to name them all, but Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, and Willa Cather spring to mind immediately.

7. Best book that was out of your comfort zone or was a new genre for you?

How about Gilead by Marilynne Robinson? I don’t usually enjoy books steeped in religion or spiritual themes, but Robinson wrote so well I couldn’t help myself.

8. Most thrilling, unputdownable book in 2012?

I can’t think of any that truly fit this category, but I will mention that I enjoyed the first two books of Mike Mullin’s “Ashfall” series. Plus he’s an Indiana author. 🙂

9. Book You Read In 2012 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year:

I rarely re-read something so soon, but I’m sure I’ll revisit the short story collections “Bagombo Snuff Box” (Kurt Vonnegut), “I Am No One You Know” (Joyce CarolOates), and “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” (Haruki Murakami) often…

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2012?

Tough one, but I’ll go with Somerset Maugham’s “The Painted Veil”

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11. Most memorable character in 2012?

I’ll go with twelve-year-old Paloma from Muriel Barbery’s wonderful – and polarizing – The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Maybe Renee from the same book as a co-winner…

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2012?

Either Gilead by Marilynne Robinson or Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.

13. Book that had the greatest impact on you in 2012?

I don’t think I can answer that one. I’ll switch it to the author that had the most impact and say Kurt Vonnegut.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2012 to finally read?

Oh, Jeez. Well, people have been recommending The Handmaid’s Tale and The Elegance of the Hedgehog to me for years. I shouldn’t have waited until 2012 for either of them.

15. Favourite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2012?

“…this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe.”
– From Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (E Pluribus Unum)

16.Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2012?

Shortest: “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London and “Free Will” by Sam Harris (also two of my LEAST favorite books of 2012). Longest: “Memory Babe,” an exhausting biography of Jack Kerouac.

17. Book That Had A Scene In It That Had You Reeling

Hmm… I’m still reading it, but the honeycomb scene in James Alexander Thom’s “Panther in the Sky.”

18. Favourite Relationship From A Book You Read In 2012 (be it romantic, friendship, etc).

How about Alex and Darla from “Ashfall” and “Ashen Winter?”

19. Favourite Book You Read in 2012 From An Author You Read Previously

“Bagombo Snuff Box” by Kurt Vonnegut

20. Best Book You Read That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else:

Probably “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” which I first heard about at The Sleepless Reader.

Book Blogging/Reading Life in 2012 (optional)
1. New favourite book blog you discovered in 2012?

Several good ones. The Book Wanderer and Multo (Ghost) come to mind immediately. I can’t remember which from my blogroll I “only” discovered in 2012, so you should probably just visit them all. 🙂

2. Favourite review that you wrote in 2012?

I don’t do “traditional” reviews but maybe this one on Fahrenheit 451:

3. Best discussion you had on your blog?

My favorite was this one on “The Value of the Indefinite”

4. Most thought-provoking review or discussion you read on somebody else’s blog?

I’be been following a yearlong string of comments on author Susan Cain’ blog about the book, “Quiet.”

5. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?

Easily author James Alexander Thom’s visit to the KurtVonnegut Memorial Library last spring.

6. Best moment of book blogging in 2012?

No single moment. Just discovering great new books and great new book bloggers.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

“The Lie” by Kurt Vonnegut. I suspect this story must be assigned reading in a lot of classes in a lot of schools. I didn’t even write this post in 2012, but it got the most hits.

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love?

Meh, I don’t care so much about that.

9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

See blogroll and sites mentioned above.

10. Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

Just my own “Project: Deal Me In” short story reading project where I Pick 52 stories to read. This is the second year I’be done DMI,and I’m doing it again in 2013. Check my page for my 2013 selections for details. You should try this project! 🙂

Looking Ahead…
1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2012 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2013?

Too many to mention, sadly.

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2013?

Maybe the third book in Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle?” I think it’s due for release in 2013.

3. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging In 2013?

Shoot for quality over quantity in reading – maybe read fewer books,but get “into” them more. Post and comment a little more frequently and regularly. Try to better integrate with my new Twitter account (@bibliophilopoly ). Maybe shoot for 75,000 visitors this year. Most importantly, I intend to focus more on local and “independent” authors. I’m looking for suggestions for the latter, if you want to help.

Well, that’s it for me. What were your 2012 highlights?

Bibliophilopolis is Three Today!

My humble blog turns three today. It sure doesn’t seem like I’ve been doing this for three years. It’s been an enriching experience for me, and I’ve discovered so many new (to me) books and authors and book blogs.

Thanks to all who have visited, commented, recommended, advised, and entertained me since 1/1/2010. I think I will re-up for another year…

-Jay

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