Just Finished: “The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents” by H.G. Wells

I’ve spent a rather pleasant afternoon with two great writers – H.G. Wells and Kurt Vonnegut. As coincidence would have it, my two “main” book clubs are reading short story collections this month. I had already started the H.G. Wells collection several days ago, and today I was kind of alternating between the two, finishing the last five Wells stories and reading the first four of Vonnegut’s collection, “Welcome to the Monkey House.”

I think Wells is a splendid writer, and went through a “Wells Phase” in the late 90s, reading “tons” of work by him. Many of the stories in this book I had read before, in a used paperback collection (one of those non-standard sized oddities that wreak havoc with the symmetry of one’s bookshelves), but there were a few unknown nuggets for me here as well.

I was struck once again by Wells’s capacity for placing ordinary people – or maybe more accurately, people with ordinary points of view – in extraordinary situations, and seeing where that takes them. He also has a great skill, in my opinion, in giving brief physical descriptions of characters which convey a whole lot of information – a handy talent in a short story writer I suppose. The engineer in the story “Lord of the Dynamos” comes to mind as an example.

Which stories were my favorites? that’s a tough one. Of the fifteen stories in the book, I’ll pick four: “In the Avu Observatory,” “Aepyornis Island,” (and a shiny nickel prize to the first reader who can tell me how to pronounce that!) “The Lord of the Dynamos,” and “The Diamond Maker.” I’ve already commented on “The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes,” which is also quite good. There were only a couple that I didn’t like: “Triumph of a Taxidermist” and “The Temptation of Harringjay.”

My book club is discussing these stories in a couple weeks and I’ll probably share some of the others’ impressions here later.

Below: Aepyornis Maximus. This was a real creature (!) though extinct. I had no idea!

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Now reading: “The Stolen Bacillus and other Incidents” by H.G. Wells

This collection of short stories is the October selection of my book club, The Indy Reading Coalition. Usually, in October we have a seasonal theme of ghost stories, or – last year – we read a collection of Edgar Allan Poe works. We struggled to decide on something this year but finally went with H.G. Wells who, though not a writer of the horror genre per se, did write a lot of off-beat, unusual stories. Plus, our club had read and enjoyed one of his other stories (“The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”) as part of our “Short Story Month III” in July of this year.

In addition to this collection, I’m looking forward to a busy reading month in October. I plan to finish Mockingjay (the final installment in Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy) and also read “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier to count toward my personal Project: Civil War reading. Then, late in the month I have another meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club, which is reading “Welcome to the Monkey House” – another short story collection. That’ll be a lot of short stories to read in a month, but Im looking forward to it. That would make four “books” in October, which is kind of my “par score,” but if I read anything else this month it might by The Sparrow, or A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I’ve wanted to get started on for a long time.

That’s me. What’s on your agenda…?

Short Story Month III is shaping up nicely…

Each July my book club takes a month off from our normal reading pattern and reads a bunch of short stories.  Every club member picks a story and either sends a link to an online copy of the story, or just a copy of the story itself to the other members.  We have about 8 short stories to read for the month.  Some are short, some are long.  Some are, in fact, very short, but none are very long.  Usually, we have a total of around 100 pages to read – i.e. a much lighter “reading burden” than a normal month for us.

Thus far, members have selected the following stories for this year:

Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving

The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County by Mark Twain

The Education of H*Y*M*A*N  K*A*P*L*A*N by Leo Rosten

The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen

The Old Woman and Her Pig by “Anonymous”

The FLowering of the Strange Orchid by H.G. Wells

The Copper Beeches by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

N by Stephen King

I think we have just one more member yet to select.  What about you?  Are you in a book club, and does your club ever read short stories?  Have you read any of the above stories?  Which do you recommend?

Short Story Month (looking at some Salinger)

Each July, my book club takes a ‘break’ and reads a group of short stories.  Each member selects one story and shares it with the group via a link to on-line availability or a photocopy or an emailed PDF file.  Everybody reads all the stories (generally, this has been a much lighter ‘pages to read burden’ than a normal month) and then we meet and discuss our thoughts.  In the past, I’ve picked out past favorite stories of mine that I’ve read more than once: Chekhov’s “The Black Monk,” Kipling’s “The Brushwood Boy” are two of my picks.  This year, I thought I’d try to find a new story.  With that in mind, when I was shopping at “Full Price Books” (er, I mean “Borders”) for my book club’s June  book (In the City, at Least Someone Would Hear Me Scream by Wade Rouse – as it turns out, this book only becomes available in paperback tomorrow, and they were sold out of the hardcover copies.  This provides me with an excuse to go back downtown one day this week after work and stop by my favorite pub, O’Reilly’s, which is just around the corner from Borders J)

Anyhoo… since they didn’t have the book I wanted, I browsed  for a while and picked up a couple books.  One was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, which I’ve coveted for quite a while (ever since my bookclub read the same author’s Love in the Time of Cholera in early 2007 – still one of my favorite’s that my book club has read) and which I look forward to reading.

The other book I picked up was “Nine Stories” by J.D. Salinger.  It’s a collection of – you guessed it – nine of his short stories.  Now, awhile back – around the time of J.D. Salinger’s death – I had posted about finally filling a gap in my cultural literacy by reading Catcher in the Rye (Nope, still haven’t done that), and perhaps feeling guilty about never getting that done led me to buying this book.

I read two of the shorter stories in the little café (actually if you’ve been to the downtown Indianapolis Borders you know this is a misnomer) before I left the store.  Neither one of them would I recommend to my book club.

The first one was called “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”  I don’t know if you’ve read it or not but **Spoiler Alert!** I found it distressing and a bit confounding.  A woman (Muriel) is on her honeymoon (or second honeymoon I guess) with her husband, (Seymour Glass) who is apparently mentally disturbed & suffering from unspecified troubles.  I had the impression or made the conclusion (though baseless) that he was a former soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder.  His wife is vapid and the reader is persuaded via a phone call with her mother, which is related in the early part of the story, to form an easy dislike of her.

Seymour spends some time on the beach and encounters a very young girl (Sybil), who he apparently has had some contact with at the hotel in which they are both staying.  (He plays the piano and she has sat with him on the piano bench as he played).  He compliments her on her “blue swimsuit” and she points out to him that it is “yellow”; as they swim out a bit into the ocean he tells her the story of the Bananafish.  I had a brief fear that the story would veer off onto some  weird, “pedophiliacal” course, but it doesn’t. The gist of the story of the bananafish is that it eats so many bananas that it cannot swim back out of the ‘hole’ it swam into to eat the bananas.  (are the bananas in the water?  – I have no idea).  Anyway, after the swim, he goes back to the hotel room and, while gazing at his sleeping wife, takes out a gun and kills himself.  Pretty light reading, huh?

I read somewhere on-line that the Seymour character is supposed to be a ‘sensitive, fragile person” his name Seymour “see more” and “glass” as in fragile. The criticism cited on answers.com questions “is Seymour the bananafish who has glutted himself with the simple pleasures of life (like swimming with an innocent child) but who then must die because such rapture cannot be sustained? Or is he afraid of becoming like the bananafish, making his suicide his only solution for forsaking the sensual pleasures of the world?”  I guess it’s possible. Thumbs down from me on this one.

The second story I read was titled “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” and deals with a man who receives a phone call from a friend while he is enjoying the company of a female.  The friend goes on and on about how he doesn’t know where his wife is and how he should have never married her because she apparently sleeps around.

I like this one a little better as I assumed early on that the woman with Lee (the phone call receiver) is in fact Joanie (the phone caller’s wife).  This belief is supported later when Arthur (the phone caller) asks if Lee minds if he stops by to talk, and Lee is not too encouraging of the idea.  He basically tells Arthur to relax and that Joanie will surely come home and ‘barge in’ any moment now.  The conversation ends, but the phone rings again not long afterward.  Arthur says “She just barged in,” etc. and that everything is okay.  I suspect he is lying to ‘save face’ or for other purposes, but I believe the ending is open to interpretation.  I don’t think I will recommend this story to my club either, though.

The search continues.

Book Club forum at Barnes & Noble

A funny thing happened to me on the way to inquire about my nook® at Barnes and Noble last night…

I wanted to show them a problem with a book I downloaded (Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox – my book club’s May selection), where the nook copy has many chapters that are in ALL CAPS.  Can you believe that? How frustrating to be reading along and run into that.   They tried downloading the same book to their demo model and noted the same problem.  One guy says, “I’ll go get the book of the shelf here and see if it’s like that too.” (!!)  I told him “I’ll bet you a shiny nickel it isn’t…”   (It wasn’t; this was the same guy who kept ‘pushing’ on my touch screen to select options instead of just touching/tapping.  It’s a touch screen, buddy! I wanted to yell…).  They are going to look into the problem, and call me back.  They mentioned something about downloads being ‘non-refundable’ which, if they stick to that and don’t offer me a store credit or something, there will be “a problem.” 🙂  I mentioned that I “kind of need a resolution soon as I need a readable copy for my book club meeting next week.” 

At that point, one of them says, “Oh, are you here for the book club forum?”  I said, “The what what?”  Apparently, totally by random, I was in the store about 35 minutes before some meeting on how to form, run, pick books, and hold meetings for a book club.  I said that I guess I’d better stay to represent my book club and maybe learn something.  Anyway, they had free tea and cookies(!) for this meeting and there were about 16 or 17 of us who showed up.  The age range was probably from around 35 to 75.  I was one of only two men in the group.  (This is about the same ratio I see among people who blog about books and reading).

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Now reading Travels With Charley

This will be my second time around for this book.  It was picked by someone in my book club to be our book for March of this year. Since I already finished our February book, I thought I’d go ahead and refresh my memory on this one.  After one day I’m already about 40% through with it.  A great read.  Steinbeck is a quality writer, and I can really tell the difference compared to some of the other stuff I’ve read lately.

This book makes me want to go on a road trip… Oh, and get a dog, too. (but not a poodle; I mean, come on…)