North Carolina School Board’s ban of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”

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Well, here we go again. With impeccable timing (just in time for Banned Books Week!), a county school board (the picture below is from their website) in North Carolina recently voted 5-2 to remove an acknowledged literary classic, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” from their library and reading list for students. This was after a complaint by a junior student’s mother who submitted the required forms and detailed supporting documentation. (Copies of all this may be found in the source material link below)

When the individual school she registered her complaint with decided not to take any action, she appealed the decision to the Randolph County school board. Her appeal, poorly written, included a ‘warning’ that “I and other companies are looking into other ways of having great attention come to this matter publicly.” The board caved and voted to remove the book. There has been a lot of negative public reaction to this censorship, and a special meeting has been scheduled for tomorrow. From the agenda, it looks like they will be reconsidering the decision and voting again. The meeting is at five p.m. EST tomorrow (9/25), and I will pause in my day & have a moment of silence of my own (concurrent with the scheduled moment of silence in their agenda) to hope that the board this time realizes the perils of censorship and where it may lead. I urge you to do the same.

Source material for tomorrow’s special board meeting:

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Below, the county’s Board of Education. All but the vice-chair Emily Coltrane and Todd Cutler have initially voted to “ban” the book. Board member Mason was quoted as saying “I didn’t find any literary merit” in the book. I am curious what his background is, and on what basis he made that determination. The materials and news that I’ve read on this story did not provide any additional info.

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The Long Rain by Ray Bradbury

This post is published in conjunction with the R.I.P. VIII Challenge (R.I.P. = “Readers Imbibing Peril)

“Too much of anything – even a good thing – is not necessarily a good thing.” (I forget where I heard or read that – maybe in many places.)

Water is essential to life. All of the searches by astronomers for exosolar planets that might harbor life focus on the “Goldilocks Zone” where a planet’s proximity to the sun – and thus its temperature – make water in its liquid form a possibility. In spite of that, we have been reminded even just this week in the national news of flooding in the Boulder, Colorado area, that too much water can be a bad thing. A very bad thing indeed.

(From USA Today: Some of the destruction in the Boulder area.)

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Too much water is the predicament facing the four characters in Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Long Rain. They’ve crash landed on the planet Venus which, in this story anyway, has already been colonized to some degree by Earthmen. The problem with Venus, though, is that it never stops raining there. The entire human colonization consists of some 120 “sun domes,” where an artificial – and dry! – environment is maintained. The challenge for our crash landed crew: can they find their way to one of the sun domes before the rain drives them crazy. Plagued by the inability to sleep or rest, limited rations, a compass rendered unreliable by an electrical storm, and almost crushing despair, their survival seems an unlikely proposition.

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I don’t think the story is available anywhere on line (not that I could find, anyway), but any used book store worth its salt probably has several copies in stock of Bradbury’s acclaimed collection, “The Illustrated Man,” which contains The Long Rain. I have been working my way through my copy of The Illustrated Man for awhile now. There was also a 1969 movie adaptation which featured several of the stories in the collection, including this one. Reviews are mixed regarding the merit of this film, however. It also features the story, The Veldt, from this collection, which was part of my 2013 short story reading project. My post about that story is here if you’d like to take a look.

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The story was first published in a 1950 edition of Planet Stories magazine under a different title (“The Death Rain“). I couldn’t find the exact issue which featured this story, but pictured below is a cover of another one that also featured Bradbury.

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What is your favorite Bradbury story or novel? (Wouldn’t it have been great to grow up in an era rich with all these pulp magazines full of fantastic tales?)

(Below: A beaming Ray Bradbury…)

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“The People of the Pit” by A. Merritt

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(this post is presented in conjunction with the R.I.P. VIII Reading Challenge)

There was once a great age of pulp horror and science fiction magazines here in the United States. Though that age is now long gone, I do often run across one of its revenants in my reading – particularly my short story reading. I encountered such a one yesterday in my early morning, pre-work reading ritual. I scanned the titles of my anthology “The Weird: A Compendium of Dark and Strange Tales” and stopped on A. Merritt’s story “The People of the Pit.” I had heard neither of this story nor this author, but I plunged “downward” nonetheless.

“The land of the Hand Mountain was accursed they said.”

Our narrator, Frank, and his companion, Anderson, are prospecting in the far north. They have specifically in their sights a region of the “lost five peaks,” from which legend said that “gold streams out like putty from a clenched fist.” They were unable to induce any Indians to go with them, though, because of the region’s cursed nature.

Making camp one night, the prospectors witness strange lights (not the known aurora) and hear odd sounds seemingly emanating from the peaks.

“From the North and high overhead came a whispering. It was not the rustling of the aurora, that rushing, crackling sound like the ghost of winds that blew at creation racing through the skeleton leaves of trees that sheltered Lilith. It was a whispering that held a demand.”

Not long after they see what appears to be a four-legged creature emerging from the surrounding wilderness and approaching their camp. As it grows nearer, they realize it’s a man – a crawling man. The man has been crawling so long and far that his hands are grotesquely bent and “worn to the bone.” That matters little to the man, a fugitive with a band of yellow metal around his waist that trails a small chain. He is just happy to be finally out of reach of his “pursuers.” Beside the campfire, he relates his story…

He, too, was searching for the five peaks but had the misfortune of approaching them from the opposite direction, discovering on his route the ruins of the gates of an ancient city and a road leading toward the five peaks. Passing through the gates he related that:

“Before me was – sheer space! Imagine the Grand Canyon five times as wide with the bottom dropped out. This is what I was looking into. It was like peeping over the edge of a cleft world down into the infinity where the planets roll! On the far side stood the five peaks. They looked like a gigantic warning hand stretched up into the sky. The lip of the abyss curved away on each side of me.”

The man also discovers that there are steps(!) carved into the side walls of the pit and decides to explore downward…

The rest of the story I’ll leave you to discover for yourself (links below). I will say that I was less impressed with Merritt’s descriptive prose regarding the pit and its “inhabitants” than I was of his relating of the “natural” world above it. There were also a few distracting references in the story to an apparent mythology of which I knew nothing, but was perhaps expected to by the author(?) Nevertheless, I enjoyed the story, and its set up (narrator camping in the north is visited by a mysterious stranger) is coincidentally very similar to the Jack London story “A Relic of the Pliocene” which I also read recently.

(below: From Librarything – the cover of the 1918 issue of All-Story Weekly magazine that contained the first publication of “The People of the Pit”)

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Listen to it here:

Or, better yet, read it here:

What about you? Have you ever heard of A. (Abraham) Merritt? (pictured below) In my quick, fly-by research I learned his writing is rumored to have greatly influenced the tv show “Lost.” He was also a world traveler who had reputedly accumulated over 5,000 books on the occult. In short, a perfect author to read for R.I.P. VIII! 🙂

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Stories of “Mythic Indy”

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While it’s true I don’t technically live in Indianapolis, I was born – and currently work – here, and it is in this city where I spend most of my time. Given this, I was excited when I learned that the local, on-line magazine, “Punchnel’s,” was going to publish a series of stories under a “Mythic Indy” premise. I think they’ve been publishing one a week, and I’ve been reading them as they come out. All of them may be found at:

http://www.punchnels.com/category/fiction/

I’ve enjoyed several, but the one I’d like to recommend is “The Man on the Monon* (If You Believe)” by Ben H. Winters.**

This is the story of Louis McMaster, a.k.a. “Sweet Lou,” and his enduring, unwavering devotion to his lost love, Mary Ann. Or is it? The first several paragraphs document the rise of industry and the railroad ‘culture’ in Indianapolis (coincidentally – as noted above –  my home town, not to mention the real world “sister city” of this blog’s imaginary “Bibliophilopolis”). In the following short span of words, the reader gets a good feel for the great golden age of the railroads. Winters describes:

“It wasn’t just the coal and steel cars, either, wasn’t just the heavy metals running in and out of the city on the Monon Line. It was people that got moved around too, people in their hundreds and thousands, people running North for work or South for a week of R&R on the Gulf of Mexico. It was hobos crouched drunk among the cargo, it was men in top hats and waistcoats—the sorts of things people wear on trains, you know?—murmuring about portfolios and dividends standing swaying gently in the dining car. It was ladies in long skirts and complicated undergarments, glancing up from behind a broadsheet paper to meet the eyes of a handsome stranger. It was contented people of all stripes, smoking in the smoker to the clankalank of the wheels beneath, rolling over and past and through the City with a Capital C. People fell in love in those sleeper car berths, people struck deals, won fortunes over cards, while the city shot past in the dark.”

But all this just leads us up to the time of Sweet Lou, a “fullback at North Central and roof-layer,” and the surface story is about him and his ill-fated love for Mary Ann, who at one point leaves town for Chicago (the really big city) to tend to an ailing relative. Steadfast and true, Lou patiently awaits the return of his love, and the longer he waits the clearer it is (to the reader, anyway, not necessarily to Lou) that she is not returning. It is what happens to the railroad and the city while he waits and ages that is probably the “real” story here, and only the soul-less among us will not feel the ache of nostalgia while reading. (I guess the ache is more acute if you’re older, but even younger readers ought to be able to understand the concept of change – and also the lack of it – within the story.

Read it for yourself on-line at http://www.punchnels.com/fiction/the-man-on-the-monon-if-you-believe/ or try some of the others at the other link above if you feel I’ve spoiled this one too much… 🙂

*(“Monon,” for those not from around here in the midwest is a famous local rail line – if you listen carefully during the great sports movie, “Hoosiers,” you can hear actor Gene Hackman threatened with being run out of town “up Monon line!” – you can see how impressed he was with this threat in the picture below)

** Does this author’s name sound familiar to you?  Maybe it’s because of his 2009 book “Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters.”

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Where on earth is the Monon line?

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“The Way We Live Now” by Susan Sontag

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This was story/week 36 of my one story per week reading project, “Project: Deal Me In!” Not for the first time this year, I was almost wholly ignorant of the author. I’d heard of her name, of course, but that was about it. What I found here was a very well-written but also very depressing story of a dying man and how his circle of friends react to and deal with the situation. The story shares its title with a work by Anthony Trollope, but the words “the way we live now” also appear in the story’s dialog, so I’m unsure of the ‘deeper meaning’ of her choosing to recycle a Trollope title. Maybe Trollope’s own words in his autobiography (which I’ve actually read) provide a clue, but I don’t necessarily think so.

“Nevertheless a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places, has become at the same time so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable. If dishonesty can live in a gorgeous palace with pictures on all its walls, and gems in all its cupboards, with marble and ivory in all its corners, and can give Apician dinners, and get into Parliament, and deal in millions, then dishonesty is not disgraceful, and the man dishonest after such a fashion is not a low scoundrel. Instigated, I say, by some such reflections as these, I sat down in my new house to write The Way We Live Now.”

Though not mentioned by name, it becomes quickly apparent that the affliction the man is suffering with is AIDS. Originally published in 1986 in The New Yorker magazine, the story was highly acclaimed at the time and became a touchstone work in world of the arts that dealt with this new and dreadful disease.

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In my reading, I was confused at first by the names and lack of names. “Oh, is THAT the name of the ‘patient’ or, wait, no that’s another friend’s name…” and so on. I found this a little distracting but decided to go with the assumption that it was intentional by the author, who perhaps wanted the many friends to represent different “types” and how these different types dealt with the situation.

As I mentioned above, I found it very depressing and it also brought back some unhappy personal memories (as I’m sure it must with many readers) where I found myself part of a similar “cloud” of friends circling an ailing family member. It’s still a story worth reading, though, as Sontag really nails a lot of the emotions that such a group runs through. At only sixteen pages, it’s a pretty quick read too. I own it as part of my “Best Short Stories of the Century” anthology, which I’ve already mentioned (and pictured, so I won’t do it again here) several times on the blog.

Anyone else read this? Do you have recommendations for further reading from this author?

(Below: author Susan Sontag)

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H.P. Lovecraft: “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”

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This post was written in conjunction with the R.I.P. VIII Challenge. See here for more details and here for other participants’ posts.

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H.P. Lovecraft’s mythical city of Sarnath became inhabited by the descendants of shepherd folk when suitable living space grew scarce in the land of Mnar. But they were not the original inhabitants of the region where Sarnath stood. That honor goes to a race of creatures who called their own city on the site “Ib.” Not human, the people of Ib were “beings not pleasing to behold” and from an older race of “a world still inchoate.” Lovecraft describes them: “they had bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice.” Add to this that the city was situated on a vast lake “that is fed by no stream and out of which no stream flows,” and you have a perfect Lovecraftian dreamscape.

But what is the story here? Well, as is often the case when a more advanced civilization meets a less advanced one, it doesnt turn out well for the less advanced one – the people of Ib were essentially exterminated to make room for the new inhabitants. They were slaughtered without mercy, and a great statue of their water lizard god, Bokrug, was even taken to be displayed as a trophy in the new city of Sarnath. The other great monoliths of the Ib were toppled into the lake, to share its bottom with the shapeless, “jelly-like” bodies of the murdered inhabitants of Ib.

The residents of Sarnath prosper in spite of the unpleasant beginnings of their city, which are in the distant past at the time this story was written. What kind of vengeance will be visited upon Sarnath? We know from the title of the story that “Doom” is coming, but what form will it take? Read the story for yourself at one of the links below. It only takes 15-20 minutes.

Read it at: http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/ds.aspx

Or listen to it at: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Av76oPyQCWw&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DAv76oPyQCWw

Other Lovecraft posts of mine:
The Dunwich Horror
The Statement of Randolph Carter

The story was first published in June, 1920 in an amateur fiction magazine called The Scot. It was also the “title story” of a later collection of Lovecraft’s shorter works. I own it in the volume pictured below, 1995’s “Dreams of Terror and Death” which features an introduction by … Neil Gaiman! I had “never heard of him” when I bought this years ago…

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Challenge Accepted!

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Okay, I’ve caved in and will be participating in a reading challenge. I am cheating a bit, though, since I would have likely met the requirements anyway by my normal reading patterns. I guess I didn’t need to admit that, did I? 🙂

Anyway, it’s the “R.I.P. VIII” challenge. RIP standing for “readers imbibing peril”(!) I love it! There are various levels of participation, but I – not surprisingly – have selected the “Peril of the Short Story” option. In September and October I will read and post about several (maybe more 😉 …) short stories in the “Mystery, Suspense, Triller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, and Supernatural” genres. You are welcome to join me in this challenge – if you dare! Here is a link to the host site.

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And now I’m off to pick out some stories for this. As always, I will happily accept recommendations from readers and fellow citizens of Bibliophilopolis…

I’ve just returned from “The Devil’s Territory”

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Just where is “The Devil’s Territory?” Is it comprised of the biblical fire and brimstone hell? The landscape of complex and impossible tortures in a painting of Heironymous Bosch? Or is it possibly in a place we’re less likely to look or suspect – our everyday world and its inhabitants? From reading Kyle Minor’s story collection of that title, it seems that final option is as likely as the others.

(Below: The “hellscape” panel from Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”)

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This slim volume contains only six stories, two – including the title story – are somewhat longish, but still readable in a single sitting. I’ve already written about one, The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party, but here are some glimpses at the others that I hope might make you curious enough to try this collection yourself.   ***minor spoilers may follow***

“A Day Meant to do Less”

This one deals with the hell of despair of dealing with an infirmed, demented aging parent. Reverend Jack Wenderoth usually leaves the care of his mother to his wife, but circumstances leave him to fend for himself with her. Little does he realize that, as he tries to cope with the psychological difficulty of preparing to bathe her, in her own addled mind she mistakes him for a murdering molester with whom she survived a childhood encounter. Chilling stuff.

“A Love Story”

This one relates the life a “sexually confused” man whose career path includes being a student at a bible college and later settling into a “traditional” marriage, only later encountering his former college roommate, leading to predictable marital distress.

“Goodbye Hills, Hello Night”

The most overtly violent of the stories begins with the line “Here’s the truth of it. I never killed no one,” and proceeds to document a spree of “rousting” by young men that results in a death. The matter-of-fact-ness of how the men react to the situation they’re now in may indicate they’ve spent some time in The Devil’s Territory too.

“The Navy Man”

The collection strays a little off the track with this modern nod to the famous Anton Chekhov story, “The Lady With the Pet Dog.” It’s not a bad story, but why would an author go there? Minor notes in a kind of subtitle that the story is “After Chekhov.” I wouldn’t complain, but the author himself invites the comparison, and even the most respectful reader is likely to think of a famous exchange between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in 1988… one almost wants to say, “I’ve read Anton Chekhov.  Anton Chekhov is a favorite of mine…” etc., etc. 🙂

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“In the Devil’s Territory”

The Last (and the title story) of the collection is the best, as far as I’m concerned. It stayed with me for a few days, and whenever a story does that, it earns high marks from me. And yet, I can’t say that I fully understood the story, which roughly follows the life of a woman who, when younger, heroically leads her fugitive family to freedom – out of East Berlin and from behind the Iron Curtain. For sheer narrative, this art of the story was well done and quite gripping.

Suddenly, though – *poof* – we’re in Florida in 1970. The reader knows he is still in the same story, but is not clued in immediately as to how this new narrative relates to the one that started the story. We are suddenly in the story of High School Student Wayne Adams. We leap again to 1978, with Wayne a young man, wishing to escape from behind the “iron curtain” of his own family’s type of life and plans for him. We leap again to 1986, and it is Wayne’s son who is a fifth grader with behavior problems – or at least is viewed as such by his teacher at a strictly religious school – a teacher famous for her heroic escape from East Berlin a quarter century ago… Alas, she has become a petty tyrant at the school and her struggles with and against Wayne’s son, Ronald, dominate the latter parts of the story.

“Measure my words,” she said, “I’ve lived under the Nazis and I’ve lived under the Communists in East Germany, and now I suffer a hundred indignities in the godless West, and I’m still proud to be an American, but not when I see your messy desk, your crayons and pencils and erasers I say in disarray, I say in a state of shame like you bring me, like you bring my classroom, your classmates. A state of shame like you bring yourself.” Is her tyranny a faint echo caused by her sufferings form years ago, or is the propensity for a tyrant-victim relationship a natural order of things that civilization settles into? One of several questions this story made me ponder..

Ronald’s situation with his teacher becomes intolerable and, as urged by his dad, he takes drastic measures to “ruin” her. The final leap the story makes is to the present (or “Now” – as the heading of the chapter states), and Ronald is not without guilt about sabotaging his former teacher’s position at the school. He even tells his wife about her and that “…she escaped from East Berlin, made her daring rescue, her hero’s journey three times across the River Spree, so that she could make her way to West Palm Beach, Florida and ruin the lives of fifth grade boys.” His attempts to track down his former teacher (“she must be in her late eighties, or even nineties by now”) do not come to fruition.

If you’re looking for something fresh and different, you might want to give this collection of stories a try.

Find it at Amazon or Barnes & Noble: