“…I’ll always say it was a library card that killed them…”


This tantalizingly mysterious quotation is from the novella, “Basic Training,” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Yes, he later drops the “Jr.” from his books, but this one was written before he made that change, so I’ll include it here). Written while Vonnegut was working as a PR man for General Electric, this novella was originally rejected by publishers of that time, The Saturday Evening Post among them. Published for the first time in 2012 in electronic format by Rosetta Books, it initially took the top spot in Amazon’s kindle charts. Now, it has been combined with the author’s “last” (unfinished) work, “If God Were Alive Today,” and published as “We Are What We Pretend to Be.” This combination book is the July selection for the book club of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library here in Indianapolis.


(picture from wikipedia)

Basic Training is the story of a youth, Haley Brandon, who has moved to live and work on a farm owned by his uncle, a rigid and hyper-organized man referred to even by his own family as “The General.” Haley’s new “household” consists of The General, his three daughters, and a hired hand, Mr. Banghart, who is a great worker but also seemingly unstable. Haley, a musician by training and aspiration, finds the work of baling and stacking hay backbreaking and one of his cousins irresistible. He chafes under the draconian rules and “punishments” meted out by The General (i.e., sleeping with no pillow for two weeks!) and eventually flys the coop after he and the farmhand are involved in a costly accident and fear general’s wrath. The refugee’s sojourn in Chicago is eventful to say the least.
(below: Chicago of 1950; postcard found at http://chuckmancollectionvolume15.blogspot.com)


Oh, you may be wondering about the quotation in the title of this blog post… early on in the story the General is telling the story of another young man “a lot like” Haley, who seemed destined for greatness because of his “well-readedness.”

“He was always reading books, books, books – anything he could get his hands on. We used to ask him to come fishing or to play baseball, and things like that, and he always had she same answer: ‘No thanks, I just got a new book that looks very interesting.’ Sometimes he’d forget to stop reading for meals. By the time he was fifteen, he knew more about the royal family of Siam and the slum problem in Vladivostok than I knew about the back of my hand. All his teachers swore he was a genius, and said he’d be at least President of the United States when he was thirty-five.”

When World War II broke out, he was of course made an officer, but when the going got tough, he “cracked up immediately” since he “didn’t know the first thing about leadership,” which led to a whole company being wiped out – a tragedy the General blamed, naturally, on the man’s life of reading as opposed to action.

The story plucks many elements from Vonnegut’s own early life where, as a sixteen-year old boy, he would frequently ride to “the Rainbow Farm” of his father’s cousin, just outside of Indianapolis. The young Vonnegut was also in love with one of the farmer’s daughters and went to do work on the farm just to be close to her. This information is shared with us in the delightful introduction to the book, written by the author’s daughter, Nanette. In my “drive-by research,” I wasn’t able to find where this novella was still on sale by itself, but the combined book may be found at: http://www.amazon.com/We-Are-What-Pretend-To/dp/1593157436

Have you read this novella or book? How do you feel about all these authors whose unpublished works continue to leak out long after the authors have passed away?

Dragging Wyatt Earp


This book is a nostalgic memoir by a current Indianapolis resident who was born and raised in and around Dodge City, Kansas. Rebein begins by documenting the frequent upheaval of of his early years as his parents seemingly obsessively engage in constant remodeling and building projects related to their family home then later, in one of my favorite sections, he describes the years he spent as a child hanging around a auto salvage yard owned and operated by his father. What a wondrous playground that must’ve been for a young and curious mind! (Well except for the junkyard dogs, maybe, but even their story was interesting).

He also recounts his discovery of a great appreciation of the natural beauty (that which remained by the time he was born, anyway) of the area and the joys of hunting, initially with his many older brothers and later with a friend of the same age. He references several times a book I rarely hear of, but which spent years on the little built-in shelf on my mom & dad’s bed: Custer’s (yeah, THAT Custer) “My Life on the Plains.” I never actually read it myself though I can still vividly picture it on that shelf – a mainstay in the home where I grew up. This book may inspire me to finally read it!


Rebein documents the changes to Dodge City, as it takes on more of a “modern” mantle, with all the shortcomings and loss of tradtions that entails, but he also explores the history of the region. Maybe my favorite section was the one titled “The Search for Quivera” (Quivera being a legendary name for the Kansas area, searched for by the Spanish explorer, Coronado, and those who followed in his footsteps).

A favorite quote:
“Imagine what the plains must’ve been like in that long-ago time before they were given over entirely to the production of ’commodities.’ “

He also covers a brief stint as a modern day cowboy, working the giant “feed pens” of the area, where the big business of beef supply may lead me to someday give up cheeseburgers. Don’t hold your breath on that one, though. 🙂 Rebein closes with a narrative of his mid life (crisis?) quest to ride a bronco in a real rodeo. Though discouraged by many, he sees it through and has his try at completing that “eight seconds” ride that has seduced so many thrill-seekers for generations.

(below: the landscape of modern-day Dodge City now includes a gaudy casino)


I thoroughly enjoyed this book and actually found it pretty easy reading too. I’ve been to and through Kansas several times, and stopped in Dodge City itself in 2002, though much of that visit is lost to my fading memory. I remember more distinctly a visit to Hays, Kansas, and wandering the historic Fort Hays for a few hours and getting perhaps a hint of what the feel of the once-great vastness of the Prairie must have been.

At its core, the book is an embrace of nostalgia, and accepting that feeling somewhat as a “friend” rather than allowing it to drive one to melancholy. This final quote, I believe, captured the spirit of the book.

“There’s an undeniable sadness to all this that resonates even today – the circus gone, the party over, the days of debauched glory all in the past. Innocence gives way to experience, the child grows to adulthood, the young colt goes into harness and is made to pull the wagon of duty.”

This book is being discussed by the “Shared Pages” book club at “Bookmama’s Book Store” (link at left) tonight.  I hope to make it, and if I do may add an update (or some photos) to this post at a later time. Oh, the title of the book? It refers to Wyatt Earp Boulevard, where the teen-aged author and his contemporaries “cruised” and sometimes raced in Dodge City. As a side note, I’ve also read a biography of Wyatt Earp, though many years ago.  It was Stuart Lake’s excellent “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall.”  One thing I remember from it was Mr. Earp’s paradoxical advice about gunfighting: “Take your time.”


So, is Anyone Watching “Under the Dome” on CBS?


As many of you likely already know, CBS began broadcasting a television adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Under the Dome, a couple weeks ago. I’ve read a lot of Stephen King over the years and, while this particular book wasn’t among my favorites (I originally posted about it here, in Bibliophilopolis’s infancy), thought it might have great potential for small- or big-screen treatment. Although I was impressed and excited to learn that Breaking Bad veteran, Dean Norris, was cast to play Big Jim Rennie, so far I’ve been a little disappointed in the series – but I’m not anywhere close to abandoning ship yet! Besides, the book is somewhat “special” to me for other reasons…

(below: actor Dean Norris as “Big Jim” Rennie.  Norris’s most famous role – as a DEA agent in Breaking Bad – has a great literary tie in: the mid-season cliffhanger for Season 5 of that series involves him doing some, er, <ahem> “bathroom reading” of Walt Whitman(!) and making an important discovery…)


“The First”

There is doubtless a magical quality about something that is a “first.” Think about it. Everyone remembers their first car, their first job, their first date, first kiss, first… well, we could go on and on. While I don’t remember my first book (I don’t count educational “readers” like “On Cherry Street”), I do remember my first eBook. It was in February 2010 that I finally took the plunge and bought an e-reader, opting for Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” product. I still have it, but do almost all of my e-reading on my iPad or iPhone now (via the Nook app, though). Anyway, I was having coffee with a friend one Saturday morning and as a fellow reader, she was interested in seeing my brand new Nook and “what it could do.”

I remember showing her how to navigate to the “store” where one could purchase items from B&N. I think she asked something like, “…and how soon do you get it after you order it?” My reply was, “I think almost immediately,” then, being the inveterate wise guy that I am, I said, “Lets find out!” So I ordered “Under the Dome” which was still a pretty recent release that I had been eyeing for a couple weeks. She (and I) were both kind of amazed at the ease of this transaction. “So you can read it right now?”
Secretly, though, I was still a little worried about reading on an e-reader vs. reading a “real” book. I had already planned, though, to make my first e-read a book of this nature. Nothing too deep that I would want to be highlighting and underlining passages in, etc. This process was painstaking and time consuming on the Nook anyway. My friend, who was then doing some seasonal tax preparation work hadn’t planned on staying long that morning was about to leave:
“So, are you going to read that now?”
“Yep. Well, not the whole thing, obviously.” – but as the Lazy Daze Coffee House does have splendidly comfortable “real” furniture, I thought there wasn’t likely to be a better way to spend the next hour or so than slowly sinking into the cushions as I knocked out fifty pages or so of this new novel – and my first e-book!

I remember being pleasantly surprised at how quickly I forget the fact that I was using an e-reader. I made it up to about page 75 as I recall and finished the book a couple weeks later. So, I’ll always remember this book as my first experience with an e-reader. What about you? Do you remember your first eBook? Your first book? Audio book? Are YOU watching Under the Dome on CBS? Do share… 🙂

(Below: a first-generation Nook reader – similar to mine)


(Below: here’s a blast from the past:  this was the “Ginn Reader” book that I started learning to read with – “On Cherry Street”)


Why Don’t They Make Games Like THIS any More?


“The other night at the bar” (I know, I know…) I learned of a “literary game” I had never heard of before. A card game called “The Game of Authors.” Per my policy, I was at a bar that includes the Buzztime Trivia network (try it some time!) among its offerings (I’m a trivia addict, catching Jeopardy! whenever I can, etc., etc.) and – of course! – I was playing. Another ’regular’ customer and trivia player was sitting to my left, and at one point in the game he or I or both of us confused a literary work’s authorship between Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Eventually settling on the right answer, he explained how he knew it.

“It was from this card game I had as a kid,” he said. “The cards had pictures of authors on them with four or five cards per author, each with a different title of a work of his on the face.” How had I never heard of this game? How had my parents, who I thought had gotten us every educational game known to man, overlooked it? When I asked how it was played, he surprised me again and said, “It was kind of like ‘Go Fish.’” Of course I instantly looked it up on my smart phone and found many references to it. Now my goal is to purchase a set for my “library.”


Have you ever seen or heard of this game? (What a ‘sneaky’ way to help children learn the names of authors and their works!) What other literary or educational games were you playing in your youth (or adulthood!)? A couple others I can remember was a gas station chain (Shell, I think) giving away free (with a fill-up, I presume) aluminum coins featuring all the U.S. Presidents (one on each coin, of course). I loved riffing my fingers through them as a kid, and can still hear the ‘clinking’ sound they made as I’m typing this… I also remember coke or pepsi or “Tab” having collectible bottle-caps for awhile, each featuring a famous historical figure. I can recall peeling off a thin plastic film underneath the cap that uncovered the ‘portrait.’ The only one I can remember today, for some reason is “Amelia Earhart!” How about you, what were some of the educational games you enjoyed?

(below: I found some pictures of the Shell coins online; it was called the “Shell’s Mr. President Coins” game – does anyone else remember these? For more info on the Shell’s Mr. President Coins game, see the link http://billjamie.com/Shell/Shell-Coin-Game/Mr-President-Coin-Game/Mr-President-Coin-Game.html which goes into great and fascinating detail.)


Another Day in The Era of Not Quite


A little while back, I posted about the story, “Against Specificity” by Douglas Watson, from his collection “The Era of Not Quite.” Last week, I found myself with a little unanticipated free time and was able to get some ad hoc reading done. So I turned back to Watson’s slim volume of stories and read the rest of them. I was impressed with the quality of these stories and also with how well, despite how short several of them were, they conveyed many thought-provoking themes. The “star” attraction was easily the story from which the collection takes its title, “The Era of Not Quite.”

I’m a habitual underliner/highlighter when I read, and I can often go back to a previously read book and gauge how much I enjoyed a book by the “per capita” highlights. When reviewing this story for a potential quote or two to use for this post, I was surprised at how densely highlighted it was.

The Era of Not Quite relates the story of Hal Walker, a middle aged, shy and timid man who is an avid reader and as a result of recently reading novels by Samuel Beckett realizes he has “…been living like a Beckett character – someone waiting around for life to begin or end.” Hal’s undemanding job (he works at a phone company, and his job is to update the phone directory when someone dies) allows him plenty of time to read.

His reading opens his eyes to the many shortcomings of his life, and one day he arises deciding it is “a fine day on which to risk everything.” In Hal’s case, this means telling the town librarian, Eileen, about his love for her. She has always been nice to him, and in his limited scope of experience in the ways of the world, he reads more into this than is intended. He shows up at the library with a red rose for her. (In one of my many highlighted passages, he contemplates “What a shame that love required the murder of flowers. Or did it? It seemed to in books, but perhaps in life it didn’t. Perhaps love didn’t require anything outside itself.”)


Things don’t go as he hoped. If they did, we wouldn’t have this story, or I guess we may just have a different story. Eileen’s rejection (or at least what he interprets as such) throws him into further self-examination and recrimination. On his way out of the library a “a band of malevolent children ran past him, pointing at him and laughing.” He flushes and thinks, “do they already know what a fool he was? Does everyone know?”

The hapless Hal later turns his thoughts to a co-worker, Madge, who has also always been nice and, unlike most others, deigns to talk to him. He wonders what she thinks of him. He wonders “Did she read at all? If not, what on Earth did she do with her free time?” (Ha ha!) Pondering his situation, Hal thinks: “Now would be a good time to reread The Death of Ivan Ilych. He had always found the book comforting, especially when he was acutely lonely. When tangled up in small troubles, let Tolstoy lift your thoughts up to big troubles. That was the idea, anyway.”

He doesn’t own a copy of the book, though, since he usually borrows it from the library. With his wounds of rejection still fresh, he cannot face Eileen at his own library so hops on the “out of town bus” hoping to find a different library. The rest of the story deals with Hal’s “adventures” on the bus; he sees from the bus window a library in a neighboring town, but strangely doesn’t stop to “go into this library that was new to him and explore the countless worlds stored on its bookshelves.” He decides to head instead to the sea, which he has never seen but always dreamed about. I loved the ending:

“The sea didn’t care that Hal was coming to see it. The sea had its own problems, chief among them the terrific allure of the moon.

“Yes, the dry, barren moon exerted a great pull on the earthbound soup of life. Such is the way of things. It may even be that the sea originally sent life onto the land as a way of getting a little bit closer to the moon. Or maybe that is a fool hypothesis.

“What is certain is that the very fabric of the world yearns for that which it cannot reach.”

And so, in that last sentence, perhaps we learn why there are so many Hal Walkers in our world…

There were several other great stories in this collection (“The Man Who Was Cast into the Void” was another favorite) but none made as great an impression on me as this one. The book may be found on Amazon at  and the kindle version is “only” $7.69. Or you could ask for it in your local library – that’s would Hal Walker would do. 🙂

The Willows by Algernon Blackwood

At the halfway point.

This weekend’s short story was the 26th of my year-long, one story per week reading programme. I am now halfway through, and what a number of great stories and authors I have discovered! (So much that I think I will have some kind of “Short Story Project Awards” post at the end of the year.)

The Willows


Story 26, picked by my drawing the queen of spades from my short story selection deck,  was one of the best yet: Algernon Blackwood’s (somewhat long) story, “The Willows,” named by none other than H.P. Lovecraft as the best “weird story” ever written. I own this story as part of the great anthology “The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories” edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I have read and enjoyed several stories from this weighty volume, and once again I’ll give a crediting nod to fellow blogger Nina, on whose blog “Multo(Ghost)” I first learned of the book. The Willows, first published in 1907, is a story of an interlude during two men’s canoe trip down the Danube river. They have the misfortune of stopping for the night on a small, acre-sized island, in a 50-mile stretch of the river between Vienna and Budapest where is found “a region of singular loneliness and desolation” in which the river sprawls into a swampy landscape dominated by small willow bushes (the transitory nature of the land does not allow for them to grow into full sized trees).


On this island, the men slowly begin to realize that where they have decided to make camp is actually one of those rare points on the globe where the region of unknown forces and entities “touches ours – where the veil has become thin.” They spend a night listening to the strong winds blow and the narrator imagines all sorts of horrible reasons behind every slightest noise. His companion, (referred to throughout as only “the Swede”) though at first thought by the narrator to be a man “devoid of imagination,” is actually the first to catch on to the fact that they have blundering-ly trespassed where they neither belong nor are welcome.

“All my life I have been strangely, vividly conscious of another region – not far removed from our own world in one sense yet wholly different in kind – where great things go on unceasingly, where immense and terrible personalities hurry by, intent on vast purposes compared to which earthly affairs… are all as dust in the balance.”

What will become of them? Especially after damage to the canoe (caused by … the wind? They’d like to think so…) forces them to stay on the island a second night. I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own, should you choose to read this wonderful story yourself (link below).

After reading this story, I feel as though just-returned from the Danube river myself, as Blackwood’s narrative earns that favorite compliment of many authors: “I felt like I was there!” I don’t know if I will ever see the Danube with my own eyes, but that river has long held a particular fascination for me. As a long-term student of ancient history and “the classics’, I always think of it as the, at one time, northern border of the great Roman Empire, separating it from the mysterious, barbarian-infested lands beyond…indeed, in the early part of the story, they pass the ruins of the once-mighty roman garrison at Carnuntum, grounds (pictured below) once trod by none other than Marcus Aurelius…


Much longer than most of the short stories I have read this year, I barely got this one done “in one sitting.” In spite of its lengthiness, however, I encourage you to read it, as I feel its acclaim is well earned. It may be found “for free” in many places on line. One place that I found is here:

(below: the Danube river.  The action of this story takes place somewhere in the stretch between Vienna and Budapest)


(Below: Algernon Blackwood – a prolific author of stories of the supernatural)


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