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:

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

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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?

 

Just Finished: Bagombo Snuff Box

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Over the past couple weeks, I’ve truly enjoyed devouring this collection of short stories by Kurt Vonnegut. Short story anthologies or collections, by their very nature, are somewhat difficult to rate or review, even when all the stories are by the same author. While contemplating this post, I found myself reminded of a batch of favorite cookies, you know the kind, “Like Mom Used to Make.” When they come out of the oven, your anticipation heightens as the aroma and diffusing heat of the oven trigger a textbook Pavlovian response. They’re all the same kind of cookies, so you know you’ll like any individual one of them, but they’re not all exactly the same, depending on their placement on the cookie sheet, the possible vagaries of the oven, or – as in the case of something like chocolate chip cookies – the “local chip concentration” in the batter used for that particular cookie. In spite of these variables, though, when you eat one, there is little doubt you are eating a chocolate chip (or oatmeal butterscotch (Hi,Kim!), or whatever type) cookie.

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So I savored the chance to read this new “batch” of Vonnegut stories, and though some I enjoyed more (or less) than others due to their “crunchiness” or “chip volume,” there was no doubt when I finished one that I had just read a Vonnegut short story, and I was not a little sad when I realized that the entire batch had been consumed. Okay, this labored analogy is starting to make me hungry, so on to the stories…

Though sometimes labelled as a “Science Fiction” writer, Vonnegut wasn’t really one, though two of the stories could be fit into that mold, the lead off story, “Thanasphere,” and later in the book “2BR02B” (the “0” in the title should be taken as “naught” – get it?). Both were quite good, the former – written way before man’s first orbital flight – speculating on what we would encounter, and the latter envisioning a somewhat grim future with a Federal Bureau of Termination and Ethical Suicide Studios that call to mind the 1973 sci-fi classic film, Soylent Green, released eleven years after this story was first published.

(below: Edwin G. Robinson as Sol Roth in Soylent Green’s version of an “Ethical Suicide Studio”)

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Three of the stories – “The No-Talent Kid,” “The Ambitious Sophomore,” and “The Boy Who Hated Girls” – all featured the recurring character, George M. Helmholtz, the “band director of Lincoln High School,” who I first encountered in the superior story, “The Kid Nobody Could Handle” from Vonnegut’s other collection of short stories, “Welcome to the Monkey House.” I was also among those treated to a great “live” reading of this story (by fellow KVML book club member, Janet) this spring at Bookmama’s Bookstore’s “Vonnegut Day” here in Indianapolis. (below: treats for ‘Vonnegut Day’ at Bookmama’s.  Why, yes, of course that’s “monkeybread” 🙂 )

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The three Helmholtz stories in this collection were not among my favorites, however, and I wondered who the real-life inspiration for this Helmholtz character that “keeps showing up” might have been, or whether he could be a conglomerate of various teachers Vonnegut remembered from his days at Shortridge High School. Maybe one of my fellow book club members will have the scoop for me on this next week…

As you might expect from Vonnegut, there were a couple stories clearly influenced by his experience in the war, the somewhat comic “Der Arme Dolmetscher,” where a hapless protagonist is recruited to be a translator because in high school he had memorized, and was still fond of repeating, the first stanza of Heine’s “Die Lorelei” – without even understanding the meaning. The poignant “The Cruise of the Jolly Roger” is much deeper and thought-provoking, however.

If I had to come up with a “common theme” throughout this collection, it would probably be that most of the stories deal with the “struggle to find happiness” if you want to call it that. Happiness in one’s job, one’s relationships, and one’s place in society are all covered,often more than once. I was reminded of Thoreau’s observation about most men leading “lives of quiet desperation” during many of these stories. (Below: an illustration from The Saturday Evening Post from the story, Custom-Made Bride)

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Stories of this type were also my favorites in this collection. I’ve already posted about one of them, “The Package” earlier this month, but here I’d also like to recommend “Lover’s Anonymous,” “Custom-Made Bride,” “The Powder-Blue Dragon” and “This Son of Mine.” The last of these, which my friend Dale also just posted about on his blog Mirror with Clouds, came up by coincidence in my reading order just the day after Father’s Day. The story deals with two fathers and sons and their relationships, which have been sabotaged and crippled by misunderstanding. In fact, I’d argue that misunderstanding (during the search for happiness) is another common theme in this collection, perhaps best illustrated in the “Lovers Anonymous” story already mentioned.

Well, I’ve done it again and rambled on far longer than I like to in a blog post, but Vonnegut is one of my favorites, and it’s hard for me to stop sometimes. 🙂 By my count I’ve now read over sixty of his short stories, and the well will soon run dry since there will be no more forthcoming. I am not happy about this.

So, what about you? Are you a Vonnegut fan or have you read any of his short fiction? What are your favorites?

Another Vonnegut Short Story

I’ve started working my way though the Vonnegut collection of short stories, “Bagombo Snuff Box,” and on my lunch hour today, I completed the fourth one, entitled simply “The Package” -a story first published in Collier’s Magazine in July, 1952 – almost exactly sixty years ago…

(above: the issue of Collier’s in which this story appeared.  I love how it says “top summer reading – six short stories” at the top)

***minor spoilers included***
Friends Earl Fenton and Charley Freeman are the same age. They went to the same college and were brothers in the same fraternity. Where they were different, though, was the fact that Charley’s family had money. Earl’s did not. In the setting of this story, Earl hasn’t even heard from Charley for over thirty years but gets a phone call from him “out of the blue” as Earl and his wife are just returning home from a lengthy vacation (you see, after college Earl has worked hard and become a shining example of the Self-Made Man).

Upon receiving the call, Earl, who is by nature a friendly person, invites Charley to come to their house (a brand new “package” house, with all the latest technology and gadgets). Coincidentally, moments later the developer they bought the house from calls and also invites himself over, along with a photo crew from a prominent “Homes Magazine” to do a story on them.

While awaiting the arrival of both invited parties, Earl begins to wish he hadn’t been so quick to invite Charley, as his memories of those days, which he confesses to his wife, are not all pleasant. “It does something to a man having to go around waiting on guys his same age, cleaning up after ’em, and seeing them with nice clothes and all the money in the world,” he says. Add to this uneasiness Charley’s somewhat strange appearance (his clothing looks a little threadbare) and behavior (he seems unfamiliar with a tv set, for example – “ah, tv, short for television, I suppose”) after he arrives, and Vonnegut has set up a nice little ‘morality play’ on class consciousness or maybe even class obsession.

For me, It was the mystery surrounding Charley, that made this story interesting. Where has he been? (he says upon seeing Earl for the first time, “This is a pleasure I’ve had to put off for a long time.”) “What has he been doing? Was he in prison? (as Earl’s wife suspects) Why have his fortunes fallen? The reader is kept in suspense about these questions until the very end of the story, which … I hope you will read yourself…

Buddhist Catnaps

Any regular visitor to Bibliophilopolis will already know that I am a big fan of the short story form. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that the June meeting of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s book club will be covering his collection, “Bagombo Snuff Box.” Twenty-four new morsels for me to feast upon!

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An even greater delight was Vonnegut’s own introduction to the book, where he repeats his eight rules for “Creative Writing 101” which I’d seen before but was nonetheless happy to encounter again. (I’ll quote them for you at the end of this post).

What I enjoyed most in the introduction was his speculation that reading short stories can often have kind of a therapeutic effect, relating how in high school “While I am reading, my pulse and breathing slow down. My high school troubles drop away. I am in a pleasant state somewhere between sleep and restfulness.” He then describes that he would often recommend a particularly good story to his father who, upon returning home from work, would be “tired and blue” and that Kurt would tell him, “I have just read this story I think you might enjoy.” He then observes the same impact on his father, “Dad starts to read. His pulse and breathing slow down. His troubles drop away, and so on.”

This doesn’t necessarily, technically prove anything, although Vonnegut believes it does:

“It proves that a short story, because of its physiological and psychological effects on a human being, is more closely related to Buddhist styles of meditation than it is to any other form of narrative entertainment. What you have in this volume, then, and in every other collection of short stories, is a bunch of Buddhist catnaps.”

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I did read the first story, “Thanasphere”*, from this book last night and enjoyed it. Written in 1952, it’s a creepy speculation about what humanity might discover when they eventually reach “outer space.” Also shocking was the similarity between this story and a failed NaNoWriMo project I attempted last year(!) My story was set about ten years later, but also involved an unpleasant surprise for an early astronaut. (*Thanasphere is the fictional name suggested in the book as a name for he “outer shell” of the atmosphere where the atmosphere ends and “dead space” begins. Those familiar with Greek will appreciate the appropriateness of that term…)

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Have I forgotten about Vonnegut’s eight rules? No. Here they for your perusal:

“1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

Sounds like pretty reasonable advice, don’t you think?

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!