Just Started: “In the Devil’s Territory” by Kyle Minor

20130731-080238.jpg

This book is a collection of short stories. I read the first one this morning.

“I begin to catalog my selfishness, and the list is long and unyielding.”

So thinks the first-person narrator of the short story “The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party.” He is an overmatched young husband with a three year-old son and an extremely pregnant wife who has been confined to “bed rest” for weeks. Add to the cast of characters his visiting parents who have travelled eighteen hundred miles in order to be with the family and help them through this difficult situation. The mother has recently survived a serious surgery herself and is probably not the best choice as a comforting influence at this time. The father? Well, he’s more sympathetic to his son’s challenges, but also continues to follow a life-long policy of always taking his wife’s side in any argument with their son. The piece de resistance? It’s also almost Christmas, a holiday that the narrator doesn’t like due to the excessive (and premature) celebration of it throughout his childhood.

The story is not without humor, though – as one might suspect from the title. The narrator’s often feeble efforts to cope with his situation climax in his decision to have a party to celebrate the first football game of the Bowl Game Season. (“I am a person who cannot get excited about Christmas but who can get excited about Texas Christian and Northern Illinois and a sham of a bowl game.”)

Does the narrator grow during the story? Perhaps a bit. He and his dad spend the last page or two pondering ’the meaning of life’ as they watch his son play with legos during the second quarter…

I’ll give the story a thumbs up and will look forward to reading the rest on this collection, which was on my personal top ten books to be read this summer list.  I first learned about it via the blog of The Missouri Review.  What about you?  Are you familiar with this author? What are some good short stories or short story collections you’ve read lately?

 

Advertisements

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

20130730-073620.jpg

“Only the real wind-up bird could make the sound. Only the wind-up bird could wind the world’s spring the way it was supposed to be wound.”

I doubt I would make a very good protagonist in a Haruki Murakami novel. I am too much the skeptic, too much grounded in “the real world.” Adherence to the real, physical laws of the world is “optional” for the characters in his books – at least in the ones I’ve read anyway. The splendid novel, “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” is no different. I’d guess also that Murakami is a firm believer in the concept of fate, and that concept is one of the things he explores in this book, which will be very hard for me to describe or summarize. Here’s a feeble effort, though…

What is the wind-up bird in the title? Well, it’s an unseen (but not unheard) bird that sings a strange song outside the house of Toru Okada every morning – a sound that resembles the winding of a spring. There is a mystical quality to the bird’s call, almost as if it is winding a watch that becomes the day ahead for Okada and the other characters in the book. When he stops hearing the bird, the real-ness of the world he knows begins to unravel.

He begins to encounter changes and difficulties in his life. His cat disappears, his wife, Kumiko, leaves him, he meets a strange teen-aged girl who lives in a house down the street. He discovers a dried-up well on an abandoned property down the alley. He likes to go down into the well to think about things. (These episodes are explorations in the art of sensory deprivation, I think). He is visited by an old man, a veteran who is delivering an inheritance from an old acquaintance, Mr. Honda, who has passed away. After one interlude in the well, Okada emerges with a strange blue-black mark on his face that is not a bruise and won’t go away. Perhaps it is this mark which leads the mysterious woman, “Nutmeg,” to befriend him and look after him to some degree.

The novel becomes a surreal detective story, as Okada searches for his wife, even though her “goodbye letter” says she doesn’t want to see him again. There is also the influence of a nefarious and powerful brother in-law (with seemingly supernatural powers) who must have something to do with Kumiko’s disappearance and might be preventing her from contacting Okada (the brother in-law never really approved of the marriage). How do all these things tie together? Murakami leaves most of the heavy lifting on that count to the reader. I was a little disappointed that there were so many loose ends at the book’s conclusion. Somehow this didn’t make me like it less, however. Murakami seems to have a knack for writing things that, written by anyone else, would likely seem ridiculous and contrived. In this novel, the thin-ness of reality is explored, and a sense of intertwining fate is prevalent.

Oh well, i don’t feel like i did a particularly good job of describing this one, but if you find yourself looking for a little reading to escape the hum-drum reality of your day to day world, you should consider taking a sojourn with one of Murakami’s novels. The Japanese title of this book is “Nejimakidori kuronikuru.” I would struggle to pronounce that myself, but I like to imagine it sounds beautiful if spoken by a native Japanese speaker. I also learned that a couple chapters of the book were published in the New Yorker magazine as short stories.

(author Haruki Murakami; yes, he has this cat obsession thing going on…)

20130730-073610.jpg

(Below: Vassily Ivanchuk <foreground>, the brilliant and erratic genius & chess grandmaster from the Ukraine. He’s long been one of my favorite chess players. What does he have to do with this post? That’s a fair question. Last year, while being interviewed at the annual tournament in Gibraltar he was asked what he liked to read. In his rich, thick Ukrainian accent he said “I particularly enjoy the novels of… Murakami.” That made me smile, and somehow I was not surprised.)

20130730-073638.jpg

Jane Austen currency!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one must be pretty important to have one’s face printed on a nation’s currency…

I was very happy to learn that classic author Jane Austen was recently chosen to be the future image on the Bank of England’s 10-pound note. News media are falling all over themselves to find ways to insert the words “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” into their reports of the news. One short article may be found at USA today:

She will replace Charles Darwin (that’s Charles Darwin, not Charles Dickens!) whose bearded visage currently graces that denomination. It’s good to see Jane getting some deserved recognition, eh?

20130729-064824.jpg

We Are What We Pretend to Be – Vonnegut’s “Alpha and Omega” Stories

20130725-071538.jpg

I just finished reading the second half of this book, which purports to contain author Kurt Vonnegut’s “first and last works.” I already posted about the first one, “Basic Training,” which I enjoyed. The second one was not as well received – by this reader anyway.

The second novella, “If God Were Alive Today,” is the rambling story of Gil Berman, a brilliant but greatly troubled comedian. To me it was too much of a re-telling of themes that we regular readers of Vonnegut have encountered many times before. This one was unfinished as of the author’s death in 2007, and I think you can tell.

20130725-071547.jpg

“Excuse me, stewardess, I speak Vonnegut” (taking some liberties with June Cleaver’s – er, Barbara Billingsley’s dialogue in Airplane)

What it did contain, however, was something I’ve noted at the meetings of The book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis. Vonnegut comes up with (often hilarious) new definitions for commonplace things. I threatened before to “come up with a quiz” including some of these so here it is:

Do YOU speak “Vonnegut?”

Match the term Vonnegut uses with the “real life” word or words. Admittedly,some of these are just traditional ’similes’ I guess, but nonetheless, lets see how you do…  (I’ll post the ‘answer key’ as a comment in a few days)

vonnegut matching

Oh and I also learned a new word from this novella. Do you know what puttees are? You’ve seen them. They are the leggings frequently worn by British soldiers in World War I (see picture below)

Woolwraps

The Man in the Black Suit – a short story by Stephen King

Looking for a quick read this morning I somehow settled on a horror story. (I had read over 200 pages of Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle yesterday and needed a break from that…)

20130722-075921.jpg

Written in 1994 (and first published in The New Yorker), this Short Story by King deals with the reminiscences of an old man in a nursing home, who decides to use the gift (a diary) of a niece whose name he can’t remember to finally record the story of something that happened to him when he was nine years old: An encounter with The Man in the Black Suit. He hasn’t felt he could ever tell anyone the terrifying story but perhaps he could write it.

As a young boy, Gary goes fishing on a summer afternoon and, after catching a couple of trout, falls asleep on the grass. When he awakens, it is to the terror of realizing that a bee has lit on his nose. His terror is justified, as his older brother had died by means of a allergic reaction to a bee sting. Gary tries to nudge the bee to fly off, trying in vain to blow upwards out of his mouth. It’s not enough to move the bee, though, and it only is moved to action by a clapping sound made by a man who is suddenly standing behind Gary. A man in a black suit – who has appeared out of the woods that extend for miles away from the stream…

Okay, so, at least for my part, this was a good, scary story. Even if it didn’t particularly stand apart from other King stories I have read, it was good reading and was effective at producing goosebumps for me in a couple places. (and I will say that I hope I never run into The Man in the Black Suit in my travels!)

What struck me most about it, oddly enough, is how tidily it fit in with a couple other works I’ve read recently, namely Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and the short story “The Lighthouse Keeper at Aspinwall” by Henryk Senkiewicz. All three deal in some way with memories accessed from across a vast expanse of time, and also with how aging changes us. I just love it when things I read in an unplanned order turn out to complement each other in unanticipated ways. I guess you might says this one of my greatest joys in reading.

What about you? Have you read this story? (It was also published in the collection of fourteen stories, “Everything’s Eventual,” so maybe you read it there?) And what good literary coincidences have you encountered in your reading lately? And it’s never too early to start thinking about what scary stories I want to read this October, Any suggestions?

20130722-075931.jpg

The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall by Henryk Sienkiewicz

Henryk Sienkiewicz

20130720-092753.jpg

This story is also known as “Latarnik” (I think) the Polish word for lighthouse keeper.

Near the Isthmus of Panama a lighthouse keeper dies, and a replacement must be found quickly. The only candidate to present himself is the 70-year old “Yankee” (by way of Poland) named Skavinski. Why does he want the job? He has spent his life wandering the world and yet never quite achieving his dreams and is ready to rest. He tells his potential employer, “This place is one of those which I have wished for most ardently. I am old, I need rest. I need to say to myself, ’Here you will remain. This is your port.’”

Though the man who hires him is a little skeptical about his fitness for the job due to his age, he gains the position nonetheless, and it is everything he thought it would be. He grows “intoxicated with happiness.” He becomes finely tuned to the natural rhythm of the island where the lighthouse sits.

“At last it seems to him that the heavens, the water, his rock, the tower, the golden sandbanks, and the swollen sails, the sea-mews, the ebb and flow of the tide – all form a mighty unity, one enormous mysterious soul; that he is sinking in that mystery, and feels the soul which lives and lulls itself.”

He is still an aging man, though, and of course is not immune to the fears and anxieties that operate on one who is growing old.

“Sailors assert that sometimes when the sea is greatly roused, something from out the midst of night and darkness calls them by name. If the infinity of sea may call out thus, perhaps when a man is growing old, calls come to him, too, from another infinity still darker and more deeply mysterious; and the more he is wearied by life the dearer those calls are to him. But to hear them quiet is needed.”

Near the end of the story, when Skavinski has discovered “a rest so great that it nearly resembles half-death.” The reader is greeted with a one-sentence paragraph: “But the awakening came.” I must admit my reading pace accelerated for the final four pages, eager to learn what this awakening was and what effect it would have on him.

20130720-092844.jpg

I had not heard of Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916) before assigning this story to the ten of diamonds for my 2013 annual reading project. I found it in my Great Short Stories of the World anthology, which presents the stories in order of the nationality of their author. Sienkiewicz also wrote the novel Quo Vadis. I haven’t read it but am familiar with that title from the 1951 Hollywood movie of the same name.

20130720-092810.jpg

What a great story this was! It’s available free online. Would you like to read it?

I’ve often joked that the ideal job for me would be that of a lighthouse keeper (as long as the lighthouse had Internet access, of course!). I actually enjoy solitude and prefer it most of the time. I’ve also visited several lighthouses in my day, the most famous being the great lighthouse at Cape Hatteras in North Carolina (pictured below after its painstaking relocation in 1999). What about you? Have you read Sienkiewicz or other Polish authors? Have you, too, ever dreamt of being a lighthouse keeper?

20130720-092801.jpg

See my “deck” of short story selections here. Diamonds are my suit for authors I had not read previously.

20130720-092818.jpg

“Three Girls” – A short story by Joyce Carol Oates

Brushes with greatness

David Letterman used to have a segment on his show where he went into the audience and did quick interviews with “ordinary people” who had had a fleeting encounter with a celebrity. If I recall correctly, when the audience member finished relating his story, Dave would then read his show’s “writer’s embellishments” which added some more (comical, of course) flavor to the story. It was a popular segment (though not on the same level as his “stupid human tricks” -naturally!) and one of my favorites.

(Hoosier native David Letterman in 2011)

20130719-073734.jpg

The Joyce Carol Oates short story, Three Girls, from her great collection “I Am no One You Know” documents a brush with greatness that two young, college-age girls experienced. Told in a sort of flashback format and in the second person as one girl is years later recalling the story to the other, it was a compact and thought-provoking story.

The two girls – not named in the story – are in New York City at “Strand Used Books” at Broadway and Twelfth. And who should they see in the poetry section? None other than Marilyn Monroe! The famous actress is dressed down – almost like a man in a long overcoat – an obvious attempt to avoid recognition and the accompanying harassment that is so often the price of fame. The two girls are described by the one telling the story, who says, “we were not ’conventional’ females. In fact, we shared male contempt for the merely ’conventional’ female.” Until they meet Monroe in the store, they would have assumed that she was one of those “conventional females,” but as they watch her browse and peruse several books they begin to realize that she is not unlike them. “Here was the surprise: this woman was/was not Marilyn Monroe. For this woman was an individual wholly absorbed in selecting, leafing through, pausing to read books. You could see that this individual was a READER. One of those who READS. With concentration, with passion. With her very soul.”

The two girls clumsily watch the star while trying to look like they’re not watching her. They begin to feel protective of Monroe, who has found at least a momentary anonymity in this bookstore which is a favorite haunt of theirs. Seeing the actress in a new light, they feel pity for her burden of fame. I particularly liked the following passage: “And that was the sadness in it, Marilyn Monroe’s wish. To be like us. for it was impossible, of course. for anyone could have told Marilyn Monroe, even two young girl-poets, that it was too late for her in history. Already, at age thirty (we could calculate afterward that this was her age) “Marilyn Monroe” had entered history, and there was no escape from it. Her films, her photos. Her face, her figure, her name. To enter history is to be abducted spiritually, with no way back.”

(below: author Joyce Carol Oates)

20130719-073743.jpg

A great short story, only about ten pages, but like almost all of Oates’ work that I’ve encountered, it did not disappoint. It had the added bonus in that this tale was missing that “dark element” that is prevalent in much of her fiction.

20130719-073752.jpg

I have found the “I Am No One You Know” collection to be a great group of stories and have posted about several of them before. (The Mutants, Cumberland Breakdown, and In Hiding to name a few) What are your favorite works by Joyce Carol Oates? Have you had a “brush with greatness” you’d like to share with the citizens of Bibliophilopolis?

(Below: actress Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits {her final film})

20130719-073800.jpg

What do You Know of Henry Darger?

Do you know anything of the story of Henry Darger? I’ll confess that before my lunch break on Tuesday I only knew that name from a song from the 2001 Natalie Merchant album, “Motherland.” It’s a haunting tune with beautiful orchestration in parts; I don’t know why I never investigated its origins before…

But that changed when I clicked on a link someone had shared Tuesday on Facebook or Twitter. It was to a post on Flavorwire titled “10 of the Most Cryptic Texts in the World.” They had me.  I was stopped dead in my tracks when the second work mentioned was attributed to someone named Henry Darger. As I said above, I knew that name but had never given much thought to who he was, or even if he was indeed a real person. He was indeed.

20130718-074332.jpg

(above: one of the only three photographs known to exist of Darger)

The Flavorwire article only offers the following “Reclusive artist Henry Darger created an elaborate mythology surrounding a battle between child slaves and vicious overlords that was realized in a 15,145-page saga called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” That was enough to set me off searching the Internet.

Henry Darger (1892-1973) was a short, unassuming man who worked almost his entire adult life as a custodian in Chicago. It was what he did in his off hours that was remarkable. In addition to the 15k page novel, other posthumous discoveries were thousands of works of art (some containing, frankly, rather disturbing imagery) and vast other writings, including his nearly 5,000 page “History of My Life.” His work has become a frequently cited example of “outsider art” (I’m not sure how exactly this is officially defined, but I prefer to think of it as art without the benefit of any formal training).

(below: the Vivian Girls evading capture?)

20130718-074751.jpg

Darger spent several of his early years in the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, and the experiences he had therein certainly played a role in his developing the rich mythology – the most prominent theme of which was children in peril – that he chronicled in his magnum opus. I can’t help wondering what this man’s life was like, with its daily drudgery of work, capped by what must have been to him comfortable evenings of returning to the sanctuary his small, one-room apartment and re-entering a rich fantasy realm and working tirelessly on his art. How little we know about what rich, inner lives that perhaps are being led by some of the  people in our everyday world!

(below: some of Darger’s manuscripts)

20130718-074759.jpg

There was an award winning documentary film about Darger that was released in 2004, which may be found on YouTube (though not viewable on mobile devices). Thus far I’ve only seen a few minutes but I will definitely watch the rest over the weekend.

There is an excellent Wikipedia article on Darger as well that includes a few examples of his art. This article included the following which made me chuckle a bit: “Darger himself felt that much of his problem was being able to see through adult lies and becoming a ‘smart-aleck’ as a result, which often led to his being disciplined by teachers and ganged up on by classmates.”

Here are the lyrics to the Natalie Merchant song, and a link to a recorded version:

20130718-074341.jpg
HENRY DARGER

Who’ll save the poor little girl?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who’ll save the poor little girl?
o, Henry…

Who’ll tell the story of her?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who’ll tell it all to the world?
o, Henry…

Who’ll buy the carbon paper now?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Who’ll trace the lines of her mouth?
o, Henry…

Who will conquer foreign worlds
searching for the stolen girls?

Princesses you’ll never fear
the patron saint of girls is here!

Who will draw the calvary in
risk his very own precious skin
to make our Angelinia a free and peaceful land again?

Henry

Who’ll love a poor orphan child?
Henry Darger
Henry Darger

Lost, growing savage and wild?
o, Henry
o, Henry
o, Henry

Were you aware of Henry Darger? I fear I may be the only person with literary interests never to have heard about his story…(?)

Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

20130716-074103.jpg

“Do you really remember when the moon was made?” I asked. “I remember lots of things.”

This book is about memories. It is even introduced with a quotation form Maurice Sendak: “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.”

Our narrator, returning (for a funeral) to the neighborhood of his childhood feels compelled to drive down to ‘the end of the lane.’ This is where the “Hempstock Farm” is located. It’s “the oldest farm thereabouts” and is even “listed in the Domesday Book,” that great 11th-Century survey commanded by William the Conqueror. The narrator only vaguely remembers how, as a seven year old, he was friends with 11-year old Lettie Hempstock, and that she had helped him through a time of troubles. His memory is incomplete, however (“suppressed” would be the better word) but, with his return to this pastoral setting, the whole memory of the traumatic childhood incident comes flooding back to him.

20130716-074127.jpg

What did the unnamed narrator of this novel know but not wholly remember? A lot of things that would scare adults, that’s for sure. He knows that the Hempstocks are much more that what they appear to be. He knows that his family’s new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton (and how great of a villain’s name is that?) is not who she appears to be either.

As the story of the childhood episode unfolds, Lettie’s family is slowly revealed to be in some way supernatural and a moment of carelessness on their part causes him to stumble into a encounter with another supernatural entity – this one malevolent. Lettie puts this creature to flight,but not before it gains a “foot”hold with the young boy when he forgets Lettie’s order to not let go of her hand during the encounter.

The boy’s peril increases at breakneck pace, as Ursula Monkton begins to take over his household and the reader is kept on edge as he waits for the Hempstocks to come to his rescue. They surely will, right?

I loved the book. At first I wondered if the narrator’s memory of the childhood event were the product of ex post facto imaginings, a seven year old’s attempt to deal with the trauma of being witness to the discovery of a suicide, the death of his pet cat, or unwittingly discovering the infidelity of his father. But the framing story of his returning to the neighborhood as an adult, and his “second” meeting with one of the Hempstocks, seemed to corroborate his memory. I also loved how well Gaiman told the story in the first-person voice – of a seven year old. Impressive.

His encounter with “Old Mrs. Hempstock” in the epilogue leads him to ask her (regarding his memory), “Is it true?” Her reply, “What you remembered? Probably. More or Less. Different people remember things differently,and you’ll not get any two people to remember anything the same.”

(below: I can neither confirm nor deny whether a pensieve from the Harry Potter movies was used in the crafting of this story)

20130716-080117.jpg

This book was just released last month and was my first venture reading Gaiman, who is wildly popular (1.8 million followers on Twitter!). I downloaded his novel, “American Gods,” a couple years ago but still haven’t gotten to it. If this short book was representative of his writing, I doubt I will be disappointed if I finally take the plunge and read that one next. What are your thought’s about Gaiman? Have you read any of his work, and if so, what did you think of him?

(below: author Neil Gaiman)

20130716-074150.jpg

Now Reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

20130715-072236.jpg

An isolated alley. A strange, teenaged neighbor girl who fakes a limp. A mysterious bird that (though never seen), rooster-like, heralds each new day. A mysterious woman with a red-vinyl hat. A despicable brother-in-law. A missing cat named after a despicable brother in law. I can almost imagine author Haruki Murakami having a hat full of little strips of paper on which things like this are written, and pulling a dozen or so from them when it’s time to write a new story or novel. Well, maybe two hats. Since it’s Murakami, one would have only strips of paper that somehow relate to a cat or cats. The items above are some of those he drew from the hat in order to write the novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I’m about two-hundred pages into this novel so far. It hasn’t been my favorite Murakami by any stretch, but as usual it has just the right mixture of hints of the supernatural and prosaic daily activity (I’m sure I’ve read about his characters preparing more meals than any other writer’s) . The main character, Toru Okada, is low-key and relatively unambitious personally, but since he’s “the same character” I’ve found in all of the Murakami novels I’ve read thus far (well, at least he has the same “voice” anyway), I’m finding the fictional landscape comfortable and the reading easy. I should wrap this up by the end of the month and will report back on my thoughts.

Have you read this one? It will be my fourth Murakami, after 1Q84, Norwegian Wood, and Sputnik Sweetheart. Which Murakami work should I tackle next after this one?

« Older entries