“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway

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I always struggle to write my thoughts about classic stories or authors, likely thinking my humble writing will not do them justice, and that there is likely “nothing new under the sun” to be said about them. That said, below are some of my disorganized and rambling reactions to Hemingway’s short story classic, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which was the King of Clubs in my Project: Deal Me In this year

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You often hear it said that “nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.” And what is the ultimate deadline? Wouldn’t that be one’s own approaching death? I’ve never thought about it before today, but is that where the term DEADline comes from? (a quick check of my Merriam Webster app indicates not: “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.”) Interesting, but I digress… (big surprise there)

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

Harry is dying. “Stranded” on safari with the towering Mount Kilimanjaro as a backdrop, he is laid up with a gangrenous leg (from failing to tend immediately to a thorn scratch – and I suspect it is not coincidental to the story that he was felled by something relatively harmless instead of, say, being victimized by a charging rhinoceros). Help has been sent for, but it’s uncertain whether it will arrive in time. Attended by his wife and a few native servants, Harry has also begun to attract the attention of vultures, whose acute senses know a terminal case of gangrene when they smell one.

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We also are familiar with the concept of one’s life “flashing before one’s eyes” in cases of near death accidents and the like. Given that, I guess it only makes sense that a slower death would allow a slower replay of one’s life. This is what happens with Harry, a writer whose best works are already behind him. During the story he continually has “flashbacks” to other times in his life, reminding himself of opportunities lost and behavior that would have been better if altered. All the things he was planning to write about someday when he was fully “ready” will now likely be lost. He even blames his wealthy wife, whose patronage of him and his craft has only made him lazy and enabled him to become a heavy drinker. He realizes, though, in a period of lucidity, that it’s not her fault. He would’ve found another rich patroness if he hadn’t landed her.

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The wife remains hopeful that the rescuing plane will arrive soon, but when a hyena trots by the camp Harry has a realization:

“…just then it occurred to him he was going to die. It came with a rush; not as a rush of water nor of wind; but of a sudden, evil-smelling emptiness and the odd thing was that the hyena slipped lightly along the edge of it.”

I loved the way Hemingway personified Death in the hyena, having it creep closer and closer in his imagination:

“…just then, death had come and rested its head on the foot of the cot and he could smell its breath.
’Never believe any of that about a scythe and a skull,’ he told her. ‘It can be two bicycle policemen as easily, or be a bird. Or it can have a wide snout like a hyena.’”

Then later:

“It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move or speak…”

For those (likely few) who have not read the story, I don’t want to reveal the ending but hope that you will read it for yourself. One place I found where it may be read online for free is: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/heming.html

This is one of Hemingway’s most famous short stories, but there are many others. Which are your favorites?

(Below: the collection of Hemingway stories that I own)

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(Below: the 1936 issue <and below that, the first page of the story> of Esquire Magazine where this story first appeared)

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(The Snows of Kilimanjaro was also made into a movie – starring Gregory Peck {hey! that’s two posts in a row about works with a tie-in with Gregory Peck movies – how’s that for a coincidence}.)

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“The Professor’s House” by Willa Cather

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I first discovered Willa Cather last year during my annual short story reading project. Her short story “The Old Beauty” was probably in my top ten favorite short stories of 2012 (and the competition was tough, let me tell you!). Last month, when I found out that a local library branch was reading one of her novels for its February discussion, I thought that a good enough excuse to read it myself. (The discussion isn’t until Monday, but I’m hoping to make it)

The Professor’s House is a different kind of novel than those I’m used to. About two-thirds of the way through, it fractures into an elaborate first-person narrative of the backstory revolving around the character Tom Outland. Up until that part of the book, we are familiar with Tom only through his former interaction with the title character and his family. One of Professor Godfrey St. James’ daughters was even formerly engaged to Tom, who had died tragically in The Great War (that’s World War I for those unfortunate enough to be born later and to know there was more than one “world” war).

Tom was also the inventor of a machine, the patent for which brings in a considerable amount of income, which he willed to the professor’s daughter (since married to another man). We also learn that, in all his years of teaching, Tom was the one student who truly stirred the Professor’s intellect.

But what does all this have to do with a Professor facing a middle age crisis? This is, after all, what the novel is ostensibly about: at about age fifty, the professor and his wife are finally moving to a nicer house. Problem is, he doesn’t want to leave the old house, which includes an “attic” workspace, cold and drafty and dangerously heated by an unreliable gas stove – not to mention the room is shared with the family’s part-time seamstress and her dressing forms. It is in this attic that the professor has pursued his true passion – writing a multi-volume book, “Spanish Adventures in North America.” He eventually, against the advice of others, decides to continue renting this old house so that he will not lose the use of this cherished “office.”

When he declines to go on a European trip with his wife, daughter and son-in-law so that he may continue his work, he decides to work on the “diary” of Tom Outland. Outland, while working in New Mexico on a ranch, was actually a co-discoverer of some old native american ruins in the cliffs of the remote “Blue Mesa.”  The diary is more of a journal of Tom and a partner’s discoveries there, but it is at this point the novel switches gears and launches into “Tom Outland’s story.”  (I have since heard that this story was originally an independent work of Cather’s and that “The Professor’s” parts were later added as a framing story) Outland’s story was easily my favorite part of the book, with its magical descriptions of the southwest (a favorite region where I have often traveled and vacationed) and of the discovery of the ruins.

I’ll admit to being somewhat confused initially about how everything ties together with these two stories, or rather story within a story, but I think I’ve found a passage where Cather comes close to explaining it:

 “He (The Professor) had had two romances: one of the heart, which had filled his life for many years, and a second of the mind – of the imagination. Just when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off for him, along came Outland and brought him a kind of second youth.”

So, for me, not too different in age from the Professor, this book is about the possibility of awakening a second childhood in oneself, and immersing oneself in its enjoyment.  And I love that phrase “when the morning brightness of the world was wearing off”…

(Below: Ruins of cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly National Monument in New Mexico.  I’ve actually been up there! Canyon de Chelly was also used as a backdrop for a somewhat cheesy western movie, “McKenna’s Gold,” starring Gregory Peck and …Omar Sharif(!) – have you seen it?)

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Have you read any of Will Cather’s novels or stories?  Which are your favorites?  Which would you recommend I try?

Below: Willa Cather (one of the few pictures I could find of her smiling!)

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Reading a Book You “Know” You Won’t Like

Do you ever, for whatever reason, read books that you pretty much KNOW you won’t like? I’m considering taking that step (and not for the first time) soon…

One of my Sunday morning (or federal holiday morning – Happy President’s Day!) traditions is to treat myself to breakfast ’somewhere nice’ (or at least nicer than my kitchen). Of course, I always take my iPad on these solo excursions since one can only read the back of artificial sweetener packets so long before boredom sets in. My favorite bookmarked site for this routine is the ‘Book News and Reviews’ section of the NY Times book pages http://www.nytimes.com/pages/books/

I often learn of new books of interest to me here, or sometimes discover reviews (by those more literate than I) of books I’ve already read. Another favorite exercise is to review the top seller lists (I usually check the combined print & e-books version) to see if I’m “keeping up with the Jones’s.” This morning, I didn’t find much else that interested me, but one book did catch my eye: Jim Marrs’ “Our Occulted History: Do the Global Elite Conceal Ancient Aliens?” The NY Times links to a review by Christopher Kelly in Texas Monthly titled “Thinking Beyond the Creationists and Darwinists.”

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Shortly after reporting Mr. Marrs as saying, “I pay my taxes. I go to church. I live my normal life, and I don’t make wild claims that are unsubstantiated.” Kelly proceeds to say that,

“Mr. Marrs’s newest book, “Our Occulted History,” is a consideration of the possibility that both the Darwinists and the creationists have it wrong, and that modern man might have actually been bred by “space-faring overlords” from the planet Nibiru. The Nibiruians, in Mr. Marrs’s interpretation, may still be exerting their influence over Earth by controlling “a small group of international yet interconnected individuals” who run the financial and news media industries.”

So, I’m forced to wonder, THESE claims are neither wild nor unsubstantiated? The planet Nibiru exists (contrary to the studies of tens of thousands of reputable astronomers through history) and alien overlords are influencing our lives here on Earth? I’m sure if I read the book I’ll learn that those legions of scientists who disagree are likely in on the conspiracy. Isn’t that the great thing about conspiracy theories? All evidence to the contrary – or lack of evidence in support – is dismissed as part of the conspiracy!

Now, I enjoy watching Ancient Aliens on cable as much as the next guy. After all, we need a good laugh now and then (Why it’s run on The History Channel or The History Channel 2 is beyond me, though, and as a History Major I find this disgraceful). I’ve even threatened to come up with an Ancient Aliens drinking game – e.g. drinking every time it goes to a commercial with a questioning phrase like “or could it be that…” followed by some wild, UNsubstantiated, hare-brained claim. Just watch it someday (as long as you can stand it). The narration is overripe with logical fallacies and basically asks a lot of hypothetical questions.

So, this morning I thought, “I should buy and read this book, then review it on my blog applying a lens critical thinking and skepticism.” Though that feels a little mean-spirited, at the same time I strongly feel that those less credulous among us should speak out in hopes of helping others not to be tricked or manipulated into believing a bunch of hokum. When I looked the book up on Barnes and Noble, I discovered that the nook version is ridiculously priced at $14.99 which may negatively influence my decision whether or not to read it. (& speaking of credulous, I remember when I First bought my nook reader being told “almost all books would cost no more than $9.99,” but before long I was seeing 10.99, then 11.99, 12.99 and now often 14.99. What a bunch of price gouge-ers! Now THAT is a conspiracy!)

What about you? Do you ever read books you “know” you won’t like? What reasons do you do this? I imagine “I had to read it for school” would be the most common, but what are some others?

P.S. Come on, History Channel. You’re better than that.

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“Theft” by Katherine Anne Porter

I completed my sixth short story from 2013’s “Project: Deal Me In” this last weekend. Although I doubt anyone is actually keeping score, I DO realize this will only be my fourth post related to this project. I’ve also read John Updike’s “Gesturing” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf” and still entertain hopes of eventually posting about them. :-):

Note: This post includes SPOILERS. I couldn’t find the story online anywhere.  I have a copy of it in the John Updike edited book, The Best Short Stories of the Century, which was a gift from my fellow citizen of Bibliophilopolis, Richard. (Thanks again, Richard!)

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Saturday morning I drew the Jack of Hearts. Hearts being my suit for “women authors” in this year’s project, I was led to Katherine Anne Porter’s story “Theft.” I read a story by Porter (“Flowering Judas”) for last year’s project, but somehow it didn’t make a lastng impression on me. This year’s story was much better received – by this reader anyway.

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Checking in at only six pages, “Theft” is one of the shorter of the short stories I’ll read this year. The theft which gives the story its name doesn’t really happen until the mid-point of the story, although the first sentence hints that  something may be missing: “She had the purse in her hand when she came in… She surveyed the immediate past and remembered everything clearly. Yes, she had opened the flap and spread it out on the bench after she had dried the purse with her handkerchief.” If it weren’t for the title of the story, this passage could also describe a simple “misplacement” of the purse rather than hinting it’s been stolen.

The main, unnamed character’s “survey of the immediate past” gives us a glimpse into the apparently dissipated life she must lead (for my part, I thought she mighti as have well been traipsing around Paris with that crowd from “The Sun Also Rises”) which gives us some footing when the story is rejoined “live.”

After a visit by the “janitress” of the building where she lives, she notices the purse is missing and that there can naturally be only one explanation for her purse’s disappearance. She frets for awhile because she realizes that it would be “impossible to get it back without a great deal of ridiculous excitement.”

Eventually, after considering that the purse, though having little real value and not containing hardly any money, had been a gift, she confronts the woman, who at first energetically denies the accusation. The janitress soon relents, however ,admitting the act and pleading “don’t never tell on me. I musta been crazy. I get crazy in the head sometimes, I swear I do.” She explains that she thought she’d give the purse to her seventeen year old daughter, who could use some “nice things” to help her attract a man. The telling passage is “She’s got young men after her maybe will want to marry her. She oughta have nice things. She needs them bad right now. You’re a grown woman, you’ve had your chance, you ought to know how it is!”

“You’ve had your chance.” Ouch! After this, the woman tries to give the purse back to the janitress, who then doesn’t want it either. “I guess you need it worse than she does!” Is the final, cutting barb thrown at her by the janitress.

Though the stolen item had been recovered, I thought the woman had lost far more in terms of her own dignity and self-respect. The final musing of the woman is “I was right not to be afraid of any thief but myself, who will end by leaving me nothing.”

What have you read by Katherine Anne Porter? She is most famous for short stories, but did write at least one novel (that I’m aware  of). Any recommendations?

(Katherine Anne Porter (1890-1980); picture from Wikipedia)

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Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry”

“It was a bright cold day in 1839 and the clock was striking thirteen…”

Do you recognize this sentence? Probably not exactly, as I have sacrilegiously tweaked the first sentence of George Orwell’s classic novel “1984.” I often ponder the genesis of literary works and wonder how accurately – if indeed at all – their lineage may be traced. Was Orwell familiar with the following story?

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I was unaware of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Devil in the Belfry” until this past Saturday morning. As is my custom I drew a card from my deck representing my 52 short stories in my annual reading project and was presented with the two of spades. This year “deuces are wild” in my project, so by my “rules” I am allowed to pick any story I want as long as I try to stay within the guidelines of the suit. This year spades represent “stories of a darker nature,” and I was happy to comply.

It’s funny how I decided to pick this story, though. My place is (almost literally) littered with short story anthologies, many of which specialize in “dark” stories. Saturday morning, I had returned to my toasty bedroom to read (it was bitterly cold overnight) and realized I didn’t bring any physical books with me, AND that my iPad (also full of material worthy of the spades suit) and iPhone (loaded with the same Nook app) were now down the hall in my living room charging up. Looking around, I saw my original iPad. Though not as up-to-date with my nook library, it was fully charged and did include The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. And isn’t that all one really needs if he wants to laze around in bed reading a bit before starting his day?

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First published in 1839, this was a truly odd story. It was reminiscent to me of something by Washington Irving, who liked to describe the old (often Dutch) towns of New York State. Poe’s town is in a Dutch borough called “Vondervotteimittis”* (Yeah, I had trouble pronouncing that too, more on this in a minute…) and is kind of a seventeenth century Shangri-La, where nothing much has changed in the collective memories of its inhabitants. It is a well ordered community, where the houses are all essentially the same, as are the crops and even the personalities of its citizens. The dwellings are built in a circular formation, surrounding the borough’s pride and joy, its beautiful, seven-faced clock in the steeple of the “House of the Town Council.” It has seven faces, naturally, so that it may be readily seen from any dwelling in the surrounding village.

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Regularity and uniformity have been carried to the extreme in this place, however, and the reader suspects that a town whose three precious resolutions are: “…it is wrong to alter the good old course of things,” “There is nothing tolerable outside of Vondervotteimittis,” and “…we will stick by our clocks and cabbages” is in for some kind of rude awakening. That reader would be correct.

The story may be read on line at http://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/dvlbfyd.htm
If you don’t care to read it, proceed to the spoilers.

***Spoiler Alert***
The existing order is overturned one day when several inhabitants notice a strange personage approaching their town from the surrounding hills. The ’person’ is carrying a fiddle “five times his size” and heads straight to the bell-tower, and attacks the belfry man. The inhabitants are too under the routine spell of the clock (by force of habit, they must count along with it as it rings out the 12 o’clock hour) to stop this devil’s actions. Once the tower has tolled for the twelfth time, though, they are ready to act – only to be confounded when it rings thirteen. The borough is thrown into chaos, and Poe ends the story with an “appeal to all lovers of correct time” to at some point march en masse to evict this devil in the belfry to restore order…

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Here I must also admit that I’ve never read Orwell’s 1984 (yet another serious gap in my cultural literacy). Perhaps this Poe story – which I viewed mainly as just as interesting curiosity – was “sent” to me to remind me to rectify this cultural literacy gap.

Are you familiar with Orwell’s famous novel? Do you know if he was aware of this Poe story? Why do you think the novel begins with the clock striking thirteen? I eagerly await edification.

*say “Vonndervotteimittis” out loud and see what it sounds like… Did you get “Wonder what time it is?”

(below: Charlie Daniels. – The Devil Went Down to Vonndervotteimittis???”)

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February Reading – The Month Ahead

I haven’t done one of these posts in awhile, but I thought I’d share what’s in store for me, reading-wise, in the month ahead…

Starting with my “required reading,” I have two books and one short story I’ll be reading for book clubs or discussion groups.

First, for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club, we’re reading “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.” This will be a re-read for me, as I read it last year “immediately” upon discovering it was the only one of Vonnegut’s novels that I hadn’t read. I look forward to giving it a deeper reading this time, though, in hopes of being better prepared to “discuss it intelligently” with the largely erudite membership of that group…

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I’ve also just started today in reading Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House,” which is the February selection of a discussion group at a local library whose last meeting I crashed when I learned they’d be discussing Muriel Barbery’s “The Elegance of the Hedgehog.” I became hungry for more Willa Cather after reading her wonderful short story, “The Old Beauty,” as part of my annual short story reading project last year.

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Speaking of short stories, I’ll be re-reading Isaac Beshevis Singer’s classic tale, “Gimpel the Fool,” for a local discussion group/chapter of the Great Books Foundation. It’s been so long ago that I read this one the first time, though, that it will be practically the same for me as reading it for the first time. (Memory problems…)

(below: Isaac Beshevis Singer)

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Other, non-required reading includes Lloyd Alexander’s “The Prydain Chronicles” of which I began a “nostalgic re-read” of last month. I first read these books when I was but ten or eleven years old. The fact that they were written for younger readers has not diminished my enjoyment of them this time, though. I’m already on the third book (of five), and they’re quick reads so I also am padding my book total for 2013 (heh, heh).

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I’ll also have four short stories for my 2013 short story reading project that I’ll Knock off this month. In fact, I finished the first one yesterday (Poe’s “The Devil in the Belfry,” which I had never even heard of before today.) but there will be three more, decided – as always – by the turn of (hopefully) a friendly card.

What else? Oh, I’m considering reading Anna Karenina for a discussion at a bookstore in March, and it’s so long I’d better get started on it in February if I’m to have a chance at finishing it in time. Dale at Mirror With Clouds has said he’ll consider reading it along with me too – any other takers?

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One other book I’m intrigued with is “Generations of Winter” by Vassily Aksyonov, a novel that I first learned about via Ana’s review at Ana the Imp. I’m a long-time pushover for “anything Russian” (perhaps a relic from all those years playing chess, that favorite of Russian pastimes…) so this would be a natural choice for me too.

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That’s about it for me, although I’m sure I’ll read some other random short stories as well. But what about YOU? What books and stories are in your reading plans for February 2013?