“…old Homer, whoever he was…”

I read two more essays by Marilynne Robinson from her collection When I Was A Child I Read Books.  One was titled “Freedom of Thought” and the other was “Imagination and Community”.  Both touched on similar philosophical and sociological themes that revolved around the process of writing fiction.  Her essays give me much “food for thought” as well as someone who can express my thoughts about reading much better than I can.  I also learn new words when I read her essays.  The new word this time around was “apophatic” meaning “involving a mention of something one feigns to deny”.  Robinson uses this word to discuss the concept that there are ideas worth writing about that do not necessarily have words to describe them or “reality that eludes words”.

She looks at her own life as a writer with some wonder and a little disbelief.  I enjoyed her description of a day in her life when she forgets to call her “real-life” mother because she is involved with a dilemma one of her fictional characters needs to work through.

She writes a wonderful paragraph in which she illustrates the concept of community by using her book shelf:

I love the writers of my thousand books.  It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent.  I love the large minority of the writers on my shelves who have struggled with words and thoughts and, by my lights, have lost the struggle.  All together they are my community, the creators of the very idea of books, poetry, and extended narratives, and of the amazing human conversation that has taken place across millenia, through weal and woe, over the heads of interest and utility.

At one point, Robinson asks the question “Why write fiction?”  Her answer is simply “I don’t know”.  I would venture an anwer to that question using some of the ideas she talks about:  there are ideas and concepts in the world we live in that are best described in stories as opposed to text books.

Maybe it could win an Emmy…

Occasionally, I feel the need to read a book simply for entertainment.  This need seems to always come during the summer.  As summer unofficially began this past weekend and the pool opened, I decided to read the second novel in Lisa Lutz’s Spellman series, Curse of the Spellmans.

The novel includes the same smart comedy contained in the first book, The Spellman Files.  The novel or the series would not win the Pulitzer or Nobel by any means, but it could win an Emmy if it was made into a sitcom.  A sitcom in book form is probably the best way to describe the book and the series.  I have to admit that I’ve been known to enjoy a sitcom or two over the years (or decades, actually).

The second novel again tells the misadventures of the the Spellman family and their Private Investigation company.  The story is told by the middle daughter, Isabelle, a thirty-year old reformed delinquent.  Her sixteen year-old sister, Rae, makes for a likable sidekick as they perform Lucy and Ethel-type antics while investigating their suspicious new neighbor, John Brown, known throughout the book as “Subject”.

Henry Stone, a mild-mannered cop, gets caught up in these antics much to his dismay.  However, as the story progresses, he becomes more attached to the sisters than he cares to admit.  One of the humorous parts of the first novel was Isabelle’s fascination with the old tv show, Get Smart, and her detailed knowledge of every episode.  In the second novel, Henry Stone introduces the girls to the series, Dr. Who.  Isabelle and Rae tend to want to only watch the newer episodes, while Henry insists that they watch episodes from forty years ago in spite of the poor special effects.

It seems Henry and Isabelle could perhaps strike up a more romantic relationship in the future, but like most sitcoms, it will probably take a while for them to actually express their feelings to each other.  Numerous distractions will probably keep them apart for at least a few more episodes… I mean books.  There’s at least three more of which I’m aware in the series.

Jack London’s “The Water Baby”

Unlike many of London’s short stories (at least many of the ones I’ve read so far), “The Water Baby” takes place in warm, tropical Hawaii.  John Lakana, whom I presume is a relatively young, native Hawaiian, is fishing in a lagoon with his seventy-something friend, Kohokumu, who is also a native Hawaiian.  Their discussion takes a philosophical turn.

Kohokumu tells Lakana the tales of Maui, a Hawaiian equivalent to Hercules, and Maui’s battle with the sun.   The sun is “evidently a trade-unionist” and only wanted a six-hour day.  Maui was more of an “open shop” kind of guy and wanted a twelve hour day.  They compromised – the sun got winter and Maui got summer.

On a more serious note, the two of them briefly touch on both Christianity of the Hawaiian Bible translated by missionaries and the more naturalistic ideas of science.  However, Kohokumu continually talks of  stories of the island mythology from his youth.  In the course of this conversation, Kohokumu concludes that “Man does not make truth.  Man, if he be not blind, only recognizes truth when he sees it.”

The discussion continues with a story about “The Water Baby” who lived a long time ago when the island King grew angry with his subjects.  Everyone knew the King loved lobster.   The Water Baby, who could talk to fish, came up with an ingenius idea of getting lobster to appease the King.  He could understand the plans the sharks were making to eat him when he tried to dive to get the lobsters.  The Water Baby threw lava rocks into the lagoon deceiving the sharks while he jumped in after on the other side.  He did this 39 times getting 39 lobsters.

After the story, Lakana is skeptical that this actually happened.  Kohokumu “proves” that this is true by stating that he has seen the 39 lava rocks when diving to the bottom of the lagoon.  Of course, Lakana’s thinking is that the lava rocks don’t prove that the story is true, the story is a way to explain the lava rocks.  A slight difference.

London’s writing is as beautiful as ever in this story (his last one, published in 1916).  I thought that the story seemed to be broken up into too many parts, though.  There was the Maui story at the beginning, Lakana and Kohokumu’s discussion, then the Water Baby story.  They all tied in to the same theme but just made the whole story a little disjointed.

Sonny and Cher on Noah’s Ark with Two Pythons

But a narrative takes its own direction, and continues on, almost automatically.  And whether he liked it or not, Tengo was a part of that world.  To him, this was no longer a fictional world.  This was the real world, where red blood spurts out when you slice open your skin with a knife.  And in the sky in this world, there were two moons, side by side.

Fantasy? Science Fiction? Mystery? Romance? Something just plain weird?  All of the above? Probably.

A ten-year old girl takes the hand of a boy in her grade school class without saying a word – then lets it go.  Soon after, she disappears from the boy’s life.  Twenty years later, both still have the moment seared into their psyche.  Strange and unusual circumstances begin to bring Tengo and Aomame together, but something also seems to want to keep them apart.

Haruki Murakami’s novel 1Q84 reminded me of the television show Lost.  Numerous little pieces of a large story get intertwined to keep you guessing and wondering how the story will finally wrap up.  Murakami makes several “nods” to Charles Dickens in this novel.  I had read somewhere a while ago that the Lost creators were huge fans of Dickens.  I have a feeling that Murakami might also be a Dickens fan.  Murakami skillfully includes minute details in his story that end up being important later on, similar to both Lost and Dickens. Murakami also makes several references to Anton Chekhov, a writer I’m not as familiar with but want to be.

Throughout the novel, the reader is never sure what is actually real and what is not.  Are the characters in this world or another world?  Murakami’s writing can take on a beautiful dream-like quality that enhances this question.  Unlike the TV show Lost, I was fairly certain how the novel would end.  And also, unlike Lost, I was right.  I think it’s the sign of a great writer when a reader can tell which way a story is going to end and still be wow-ed by the ending.  Surprise is sometimes overrated.

However, I just couldn’t shake one question about the novel.  Somewhere in the middle, Tengo describes some sort of vision/daydream that involves Sonny and Cher on Noah’s Ark with two pythons.  This was one of those minute details that just didn’t seem to have any significance other than to make me wonder – which perhaps is significant.  Oh well..the beat goes on…

“Fathers and Sons” by Ernest Hemingway

My summer before 10th grade,  I received a reading list for my AP English class.  On the list was a disclaimer of sorts that indicated that, while the books on the list were considered some of the greatest works in American literature by Pulitzer and Nobel winning authors, they could contain material that was offensive so we were encouraged to use discretion in picking what we read.

As a result of this list, I discovered Ernest Hemingway.  Just as his writing style revolutionized the literary world of his day, it revolutionized my reading world during that summer.

While I don’t believe Hemingway’s short story “Fathers and Sons” was on that list, if it was, it would probably be one of the works that necessitated the disclaimer.  The story involves Nick Adams, a recurring character in several of Hemingway’s stories, on a drive in the country with his son (whom we know is younger that twelve).  While he’s driving, Nick begins to reminisce about his own father who has since died.  He recalls his father’s physical features, especially his eyes.  He also recalls three things in which his father influenced him:  fishing, hunting, and “women”.  Nick thinks back fondly and gratefully for his father’s positive influence and guidance in two of these areas – the other one, not so much.  I’ll let you figure out which is which.

I would not say that Hemingway hits on a universal theme between fathers and sons, because not all fathers are like Nick’s father.  I will venture to say that he hits on common themes among many fathers and sons.

I’m still not sure whether the Nick Adams stories are in any kind of chronological order.  In each of the stories I’ve read, the reader gets hints of things that have happened outside the story, but no specific details – as though that’s left to another story.

“Relevance was precisely not an issue…”

In 2011, I read Marilynne Robinson’s three novels, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Home, and Housekeeping.  Since reading Richard B. Gunderman’s collection of essays on philanthropy, We Make A Life By What We Give, I’ve been fascinated by essays.  I guess essays are to non-fiction what short stories are to fiction.  As much as I enjoyed Robinson’s fiction, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that she has several collections of essays.  I picked up When I Was A Child I Read Books and read the title essay “When I Was A Child”.

Her essay starts out with “When I was a child, I read books…Surprising as it may seem, I had friends, some of whom read more than I did.”  She goes on to talk about her childhood out west in Idaho.  I love the way she states that “[r]elevance was precisely not an issue for me” in choosing what to read.  In other words, she didn’t care about the perception by the world around her of what she chose to read.  It seemed she found relevance for her in whatever she as an individual happened to read regardless of what others thought.

She continues to expound on this idea of “individualism” in discussing the culture of the West (meaning the western United States).  She relays an incident when a man from Alabama asked her what the difference was between the West, the East and the South.  Her response was “that in the West ‘lonesome’ is a word with strongly positive connotations”.  From reading her works, my guess is that Robinson isn’t promoting reclusiveness or hermitage, but simply pointing out the thought that “lonesomeness” is a part of any new frontier.  Being alone isn’t a sign that something is wrong.  “Alone”can have strengthening benefits.

Myself being a voracious reader of things that are not always perceived as “relevant” by the world around me, I found Robinson’s essay both insightful and comforting.  I thoroughly enjoyed her statement about people in saying “when I see a man or a woman alone, he or she looks mysterious to me, which is only to say that for a moment I see another human being clearly.”

Another essay in this collection is called “Imagination and Community”.  After reading about being “lonesome”, I’m curious what she might have to say about community.  That will probably be the next essay on my list to read.

Do any other voracious readers out there feel “lonesome” – in a positive way?

 

The Buzz About “The Mother Hive”

Last week I read Jack London’s short story, “The Strength of the Strong”, which was a reply to Rudyard Kipling’s attack on Socialism in the form of his short story, “The Mother Hive”.  This week I read “The Mother Hive” and liked it just as well as London’s story.

As the title would suggest, the story’s setting is a bee hive with a certain working order that maintains the life of each individual bee.  One day, a negligent guard bee lets in a dreaded Wax Moth.  Throughout the hive’s existence, the bees have been warned that a Wax Moth that infiltrates their world will destroy their working order and eventually will destroy their world.  The Wax Moth begins to tell the bees that their work and order isn’t necessary, that the traditions of the hive are simply outdated and that the bees could have just as much of a good life by rejecting the traditions with which they have been living.  One bee, Melissa, sees the error of the Wax Moth’s ideas but is unable to prevent the majority of the hive from buying into them.  As a result, the bees end up eating parts of the hive that are not meant to be eaten and giving birth to strangely shaped baby bees which continue to eat the hive.  Melissa is able to persuade only a few bees to secretly raise up a Princess Bee to replace the current corrupted Queen Bee.  As the hive becomes increasingly decayed, the Bee Master eventually burns it while Melissa, the Princess and the few bees in Melissa’s camp “swarm” to the Oak Tree to start a new hive and a new life.

The story is written as a fable, almost a fairy tale, and stands up with the best of them.  It’s beautifully written and is probably one of the best stories by Kipling that I’ve read.  The way he is able to take the natural world and infuse it with a battle for good and evil is amazing.  The burning of the hive by the Bee Master is painted brilliantly in sweeping apocalyptic prose.  I have a feeling that perhaps the politics involved may have in some way kept it from being thought of as a great story in some circles.  I have not done exhaustive research as to the specific circumstances or events that may have prompted Kipling to write this story.  The only information I could come up with was that the story was his attack on Socialistic ideas that he thought were infiltrating his society.  The story itself does not specify the Wax Moth as a Socialist; it simply shows the Wax Moth undermining the traditions that have kept the hive going.

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If I would recommend these two stories to anyone, I would probably suggest reading “The Mother Hive” first and then read London’s “The Strength of the Strong”.  The idea that Jack London would stand up for socialism was a little surprising to me.  His characters all seem to be rugged individualists that pull themselves up by their boot straps.  It’s difficult to imagine Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf as a socialist.  At the same time, I’m reminded that many of London’s rugged individualists end up dead.  I plan on reading biographies of London and of Kipling in the near future, perhaps this will shed some light on their lives and political beliefs.