Posted in Short Stories

“Morality” by Stephen King

I read Stephen King’s short story “Morality” this week.  The cover of the book said it was “chilling” so I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I haven’t read a lot of Stephen King’s work.  What I’ve read prior to this story, I’ve enjoyed.  It wasn’t quite the case with this one.

It starts out well enough, with a married couple, Chad and Nora, struggling with finances.  Chad is a substitute teacher trying to write a book.  Nora is a physical therapist taking care of an elderly pastor who is recovering from a stroke.  The pastor realizes Chad and Nora’s difficulties and makes a proposal to Nora.  Before he dies, the pastor wants to commit a sin – not just a little sin but a BIG sin.  He’s willing to pay Nora $200,000.00 to help him.  He explains to her the sin and what she has to do.  Nora tells Chad the situation and then they struggle to decide whether they should do it.

At this point, my interest was piqued because the reader doesn’t yet know what this “sin” is and what Nora has to do.  The premise of the story was something it seemed only Stephen King could create.  However, this is where the story starts to disappoint.  The actual “sin” that Nora commits, while a crime, is by no means as “chilling” as I would have expected.  The other aspect that drove me crazy was that the pastor didn’t do anything other than pay Nora.  I suppose by paying her he was somehow  involved in committing the sin, but for someone who was really excited about “sinning”, he didn’t do much of the dirty work.

Chad and Nora’s marriage takes a strange, but not unforeseen, turn before the story ends.  While I was disappointed in this story, I’m still planning on reading more of King’s work.  Perhaps his short stories aren’t as fascinating as his novels and novellas.  I haven’t read enough of any of them to make an informed decision, though.

Posted in Fiction

“Turned out the wicked stepmother had an alibi.”

I’m convinced that fairy tales were meant to be played around with.  Perhaps this isn’t the most appropriate term, but that seems to best describe John Connolly’s novel, The Book of Lost Things.  Possible reasons that fairy tales seem to scream out “change me”  or “update me” could be that they are relatively old.  We don’t necessarily know exactly when they originated.  Many of them probably originated through spoken word and were changed frequently before they were ever written down and then perhaps they continued to be changed throughout the generations to come.  Or perhaps they express ideas and concepts that are inherently human; and therefore, we can’t seem to stop going back to them.  These are simply guesses.  I’m not a fairy tale expert.

This is the first book that I’ve read that I discovered from another blog.  Lily Wight gave the book a decent, although slightly mixed, review.  I was intrigued by the premise so I gave it a try.

The Book of Lost Things is the third story in a row that I’ve read where wolves play an important role.  David, the young boy and hero of the novel, encounters unusual creatures called Loups.  According to a story his friend, The Woodsman, tells him, they are the descendents of a union between Little Red Riding Hood and a certain Big Bad Wolf.  Call me old-fashioned but this was just a little creepy.

The novel turns Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on its ear in an hilarious turn.  The dwarves advocate the oppressed working class and desparately want to get out from under Snow White’s enormous appetite.  The wicked stepmother who got the blame for Snow White’s extended nap, actually had an alibi, while the real culprits were found out when a meddling prince showed up to ruin things.  As humorous as this section of the novel was, it was a completely different tone from the rest of the book, making the novel seem disjointed.

However, David’s story resonated with me to a certain degree.  As a boy in England during the start of World War II, life was rough for him.  He found comfort in the books in his bedroom.  As strange happenings took place, he was wisked away into the world of his books and stories.  It was in this strange world that he faced his demons: fear, grief, anger, jealousy.  He came back from this place a better person and better able to deal with the twists and turns life gave him.

And I just thought of another reason fairy tales can be updated, changed and played with – you can’t get sued by The Brothers Grimm.

Posted in Short Stories

“A brave heart and a courteous tongue…”

The next story in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is “Kaa’s Hunting”.  As I’ve mentioned previously, I have difficulty separating the stories from the Disney movie in my imagination.  I don’t know whether this should be considered good or bad, but either way, I’m not sure I can do anything about it!  So even before reading the story, I knew that Kaa was a snake.

The movie doesn’t stray very far from the story, surprisingly.  This time, though warned by his friends Bagheera and Baloo, Mowgli fraternizes with the Monkey-People and gets captured by them.  The description of Mowgli’s capture and his subsequent “swing” through the upper echelons of the jungle (literally) made for a great section of the story and could very well be the next ride at Disney World.  As in the movie, the Monkey-People want Mowgli for his “man” abilities such as building huts.  They take him to a ruined city where they proceed to party into the wee hours of the night, something they tend to do every night – and day.  Their attention span doesn’t really lend itself to building huts.

Bagheera and Baloo, not being able to fight the Monkey-People by themselves, call on the services of one of the few members of the Jungle feared by the Monkey-People, Kaa, the Python:

Generations of monkeys had been scared into good behaviour by the stories their elders told them of Kaa, the night-thief, who could slip along the branches as quietly as moss grows, and steal away the strongest monkey that ever lived.

The Law of the Jungle allowed Bagheer and Baloo to join forces with Kaa and rescue Mowgli from the monkeys.  After Mowgli’s friends battle the monkeys and Kaa puts them in a trance with his “Dance of Hunger”, Kaa and Mowgli exchange pleasantries with Kaa telling the “manling” that he has “a brave heart and a courteous tongue”.  And while they part ways as friends of sorts, the reader gets the idea that Mowgli might be wise not to keep his back turned on Kaa for very long.

What I find interesting about these stories is the relationships between the various creatures of the jungle.  The alliances and enmities do not always keep with those of the natural world.  They also can change on a moment’s notice- possibly, more like humanity than the animal kingdom.

Posted in Short Stories

“…for the price of a bull and on Baloo’s good word.”

I read Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Mowgli’s Brothers” last night – it’s a part of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  I confess that in reading this story I can’t help but picture the Disney animated movie that I’ve grown up with.  The real story is a little less tame than Disney’s, but I think Walt Disney and his associates must have at least read the Kipling stories to create the characters in the movie.  One note of interest (at least to me) is that Disney’s movie version was the last movie that Walt Disney worked on, himself.

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The story is the opposite of the novel I just read, Jack London’s White Fang.  In that novel, a wolf goes to live with “man”.  In this story, Mowgli, a child, goes to live in the jungle with wolves.  Bagheera, the panther, while ferocious to the rest of the jungle displays a firm gentleness in protecting and befriending Mowgli.  Baloo, the bear, teaches Mowgli all about how to find food – without a lot of effort.

When the wolves are at their council to determine whether Mowgli should stay, Bagheera offers a dead bull to the pack.  Because the council needs two members to speak up for Mowgli (other than his wolf parents), Baloo offers his affirmation of Mowgli.  Therefore, Mowgli is allowed to stay with the pack “for the price of a bull and on Baloo’s good word.”

As Akela, the wolf leader, grows old, the question comes up again as to whether Mowgli can stay.  Sheera Khan, the tiger that originally chased Mowgli into the jungle as a child, continues to hold a grudge against him.  As he has planted seeds of doubt into the minds of many of Mowgli’s “brothers”, they try to hand him over to the tiger.  Mowgli uses “Red Flower” (fire) that he’s stolen from the man-village to ward off his attackers on the council and then decides it is his time to return to his village, though it’s not without much grief and tears.

The animals in Kipling’s stories are more anthropomorphic ( I like using that word) than in London’s novels.  While there is still talk of the “Law of the Jungle”, it’s a law that is made up by Kipling himself for his stories; whereas, London’s “law” seems to be based more on nature in “real life”.

Posted in Fiction

“…god and mystery and power all wrapped up…”

To man has been given the grief, often, of seeing his gods overthrown and his altars crumbling; but to the wolf and the wild dog that have come in to crouch at man’s feet this grief has never come.  Unlike man, whose gods are of the unseen and the overguessed, vapours and mists of fancy eluding the garmenture of reality, wandering wraiths of desired goodness and power, intangible out-croppings of self into the realm of spirit – unlike man, the wolf and the wild dog that have come in to the fire find their gods in the living flesh, solid to the touch, occupying earth-space and requiring time for the accomplishment of their ends and their existence.  No effort of faith is necessary to believe in such a god; no effort of will can possibly induce disbelief in such a god.  There is no getting away from it.  There it stands, on its two hind-legs, club in hand, immensely potential, passionate and wrathful and loving, god and mystery and power all wrapped up and around by flesh that bleeds when it is torn and that is good to eat like any flesh.

Something about Jack London’s novels, particularly White Fang and Call of the Wild, make me think of nature movies I used to watch as a kid.  The animals were not anthropomorphic – it was simply live animals on film with a narrator (like Morgan Freeman) telling the story.  Even though I would typically think of these films as less than entertaining,  the beauty of the scenery and the animals, along with the story-telling, pulled me into the movies in spite of myself.

While an aspect of London’s novels have some similarities to these movies, he always takes me by surprise with his insights and writing as in the paragraph I quoted above from White Fang, which I just finished reading.  White Fang’s references to man as “gods”, both in wrath and in love, gives a unique perspective to the relationship between man and animals and an insight into London’s view of the world.  I continue to get the impression that London sees a difference between humanity and the animal kingdom; however, he wishes there was not a difference.  He sees animals as having a straight-forward, less complex life that I think he finds appealing.  Sometimes I find it more appealing, too.

White Fang‘s plot is the opposite of Call of the Wild.  White Fang is born in the wild and comes to live with men – both men who are good to him and men who are not.  While Buck, in Call of the Wild, lives with men and then finds himself in the wild.  I may have to read Call of the Wild again, sometime soon.

Posted in Libraries

Here’s to the Boone County Public Library of Northern Kentucky!

In honor of National Library Week (April 8 -14, 2012), I wanted to give a shout out to the Boone County Public Library of Northern Kentucky.  This library more than holds its own when compared to some other larger libraries.  I’m able to get almost any book I’m looking for in addition to movies and music.  Occasionally, they may not have a book I’m looking for, but they can get it for me through interlibrary loans.  Last year, they got a book for me from a Florida library within two weeks.

They also have a concert schedule that I would recommend to anyone interested in live performances of various types of music – free!  I saw folk singer Jeffrey Foucault about a year ago.  It wasn’t just one of the best free concerts I’ve ever seen.  It was flat out one of the best concerts I’ve seen, period.

In the age of eReaders, they haven’t fallen by the wayside, by any means.  eReaders can be borrowed and many eBooks are in their collection, instantly ready to download to your own eReader.

They have numerous activities and programs for both kids and adults.  In connection with The Hunger Games movie, they provided several activities for teenagers with the movie as a theme.  They also conducted a class to teach people how to plan a Disney vacation.  Anyone who needs to brush up on their Microsoft Office skills, they periodically hold classes on Excel, Word, Access, etc.

I thank BCPL for being such a vital part of the life of my family!

Posted in Essays

We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman

It’s always interesting as I read books throughout the year how one will stand out as being the one to beat as my favorite.  Because I mostly read fiction, it’s even more interesting that the one that’s having the biggest impact on me this year is a non-fiction book.

I always thought of a philanthropist as someone who got a college dorm or hospital wing named after them.  We Make A Life By What We Give by Richard B. Gunderman  provides an amazing  look into the role of philanthropy in our lives.   While the act of fundraising and the need for money in philanthropic activities is never discounted by Gunderman, he makes a brilliant case for the fact that we are all philanthropists.  I love the term he uses, “amateur philanthropist”.  The term is not used with any sort of condescension; in fact, he encourages philanthropic activities to be born out of ordinary people’s imagination as they move step-by-step into lives characterized by an ever increasing generosity – regardless of how much money they may have.

Small Cover Image

As listed in the book, Gunderman’s credentials include Vice Chairman, Radiology; Director Pediatric Radiology; and Associate Professor of Radiology, Pediatrics, Medical Education, Philosophy, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.  The book consists of 22 essays in which he pulls information and insight from this vast background in Medicine and Education.

The theme of a community of people of all backgrounds coming together in generosity to make the world a better place recurs throughout many of the essays.  Gunderman’s idea of philanthropy takes Lao-Tse’s well-known proverb a step further:

Give a person a fish, and we feed him for a day.  Teach a person to fish, and we feed him for a lifetime.  Share with a person the joy of helping others learn to fish, and we enable him to participate in a goodness that transcends any particular lifetime.

How we go about sharing the experience of “helping others learn to fish” takes more than just money according to Gunderman:

Our most important philanthropic resource is our imagination, our dreams.  What do we think is possible?  What purposes larger than ourselves are we capable of discerning and working on behalf of?

Recently, I experienced a little bit of this “community” when my wife and kids raised money for the charitable organization, Kids Against Hunger.  Within walking distance from where we live, there are several fast food restaurants, gas stations, beauty salons, grocery stores and medical offices.  When the owners and managers of these businesses were asked by my wife and kids if they would like to donate anything – whether money directly to the cause or gift cards for drawings at the fundraising event- the overwhelmingly positive response made me think that they understood this was more than just about getting a little bit of advertising.  It seemed that they understood, even in a small way, that this was what a community was all about and they were very eager to work together to feed children half-way across the world.

While I could go essay by essay and reveal all of the nuggets of truth in this book, it would be better for me to simply say “read the book”!  A couple of the essays stood out to me.  “The Good Samaritan” takes Jesus’ well-known story from Luke 10 and beautifully applies it to the potential we have for generosity in today’s philanthropic climate.  I’ve always been fascinated with Jesus’ ability as a storyteller – but that’s probably something for a different post.  “Lessons from the Least “gives examples of human worth from a friend of Gunderman’s who works with mentally-disabled people.

Frequently, he touches on a topic that is near and dear to me:  reading.  Specifically, he points to the reading of fiction resulting in a better understanding of the aspirations we all have as human beings.  Much of the world (or my world, anyway) views fiction as unimportant entertainment.  I found it refreshing for someone with Richard Gunderman’s educational pedigree to grasp the fact that, as an example, “some gain invaluable insight into the human significance of poverty” from reading Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  He uses numerous examples from the Bible, Homer and other literary works to support and illustrate his points.

It’s difficult to do justice to such a wonderful book in a blog post; however, I thought I would be more remiss in not trying.

Posted in Short Stories

For Esme – With Love and Squalor

A few posts ago, I indicated that Jack London’s “Moon-Face” was my favorite short story that I’ve read so far this year.  While I still think it’s brilliant, I’ve read another one that may have topped it.

It’s another one of those stories that got mentioned in a book that I read a while ago.  My former book club read Michael J. Fox’s book  Always Looking Up:  The Adventures of An Incurable Optimist a few years ago.  Fox happens to mention that one of his daughters is named Esme after J. D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme – With Love and Squalor”.  At that time, I had pulled out my copy of Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger that I’ve had since around 1982 and looked up the story…but never read it until now.


Nine Stories

An American soldier, who’s also a writer, on duty in England in 1944, wanders into a church where a children’s choir is practicing.  He notices that a girl of around thirteen has one of the better voices.  After the practice has ended, he stops by a cafe where the girl from the choir along with her governess and younger brother also happen to visit.  The girl, whose name is Esme, seems rather intelligent and forward.  She strikes up a conversation with the soldier.  Her younger brother, Charles, takes a liking to the soldier, too.  The short conversation that takes place impressed me as the type of conversation one would have that, when it’s over, one thinks “I’ve just made a friend”… even if one never sees them again.  Prior to leaving, Esme asks the soldier if they can write to each other.

War and a nervous breakdown happen and in the midst I admit I had to look up the word “squalor” – it meant what I thought it meant, filth and misory.  Again, in the midst of all this, the innocence of the conversation in the cafe kept coming back to me, adding a beauty to the story that I was not in the least expecting.