Four stories from The Jungle Book

A long time ago, prior to my blogging, I started reading the stories in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  Over the last few days, I read the last four.

“Tiger, Tiger” presented another adventure for Mowgli.  After being cast out of the wolf pack because of the tiger Shera Khan’s threat to take revenge on Mowgli and his adopted family, he goes to live with humans in the man village.  Using his skills and instincts he has learned from the wolves in addition to his responsibilities among the humans, Mowgli ingeniously traps and kills Shera Khan.  Mowgli casts the tiger’s hide onto the floor of the wolves’ meeting place in what I thought was an incredible image.  One gets the idea that Mowgli doesn’t completely fit in with the jungle or the humans and finds himself having to stand alone many times, but this lonesomeness gives him a strength and wisdom that he wouldn’t otherwise have obtained.

“The White Seal” doesn’t take place in the jungle but in the Bering Sea.  Kipling’s descriptions of the thousands of seals on the beach of an island brings to mind numerous National Geographic nature specials I watched as a kid.  This story involves Kotick, a white seal that saves much of his fellow animals from human destruction by scouting out the ocean for a safer place to reside.  He ends up being a sort of “Seal Messiah” – having a white coat adds to this effect.

“Toomai of the Elephants” could be called my favorite of these four stories.  Little Toomai is the fourth generation of elephant keepers for the British army in India.  He is eight years old and has a special relationship with Kala Nag (which means Black Snake), the oldest elephant in the army.  Little Toomai doesn’t want to wait until he grows up to work among the elephants, but the adult men tell him that he won’t be working with the elephants until he sees them dance.  This is similar to telling somebody they won’t do something until “pigs fly”.  But one dark night, Kala Nag uses his large trunk to lift Little Toomai onto his back and takes him deep into the dark jungle.  Toomai witnesses what the other men think is only a legend.  What made this story unusual from Kipling’s other stories in this collection is that the animals don’t talk or take on human characterisitics.  This gives the final scene with the elephants a powerful, almost sinister, feel.  It gives the sense that Toomai’s experience is truly special.

The final story is “Servants of the Queen”.  While it might not be my favorite of these stories, it was probably the most humorous.  The camels, horses, elephants and cows in the Queen’s army in India all chit-chat with each other about military life.  Some of them fight with each other some of them laugh with each other.  One of the funnier moments is when the cows indicate to the other animals that they don’t like working with the British as well as they do the Indians – the British eat them, the Indians don’t.

I highly recommend these stories and the other ones included in The Jungle Book.  I probably recommend Kipling’s short stories more than I recommend his novels.

“After Rain” by William Trevor

This week I picked another wild card for my Deal Me In Short Story Project – the two of spades.  As I enjoyed William Trevor’s story “Sacred Statues” last week, I thought I would pick another of his stories, “After Rain”.  I’m glad I did.  Last year around this time I read J. D. Salinger’s short story “For Esme -With Love and Squalor” and knew that it was going to be the story to beat for my favorite.  No story last year ever did overtake it, although I read a lot of great “runners up”.  Jay at Bibliophilopolis posted about this William Trevor story in 2011.  “After Rain” is now my 2013 short story to beat.

Harriet is spending a vacation at the Pensione Cesarina in Italy.  Her story is full of vivid descriptions of the dining room, the people dining, and the Italian countryside.  She’s vacationing alone.  Her story is also full of reflections on the recent break-up of a relationship as well as the divorce of her parents twenty years prior.  As a child, her parents brought her to the Pensione Cesarina.

After her dinner one day, she takes a walk to the nearby village and ducks into a church during a rain shower.  Inside the church she views a painting of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel tells Mary she will be giving birth to Jesus.  As she leaves the church and sees the countryside after the rain, she seems to have some unspoken revelations about herself, her relationships and her parents.

(This painting of the Annunciation is by Maurice Denis)

The story doesn’t use a concrete plot.  William Trevor tells Harriet’s story with what Jay calls “impressions” – impressions of loneliness, impressions of loss and mourning, impressions of renewal and impressions of hope. While the religious painting and the rain shower act as catalysts to Harriet’s revelation, I find it difficult to describe her experience as “religious”.   These impressions don’t leave the reader with set answers.  Much like the painting and the rain, Trevor’s story lets us simply look and wonder.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House won the National Book Award for fiction in 2012.  She is another new (to me) author of whom I’ve heard some good things and whose books I’ve seen for a while in bookstores.  Her novel A Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer.

An attack on his mother changes the life of 13 year-old Joe Coutts and his father, Bazil, a tribal judge on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in 1988.  While Joe’s mother remains in bed in a state of deep depression, Joe and his friends, particularly his best friend, Cappy, embark on a mission to find the attacker.  A refreshing aspect of the novel was the relationship between Joe and his father.  Because of the danger involved in the manhunt, Bazil is understandably afraid of his young son’s involvement; however, he is able to rise above his fear allowing their relationship to grow as they both try to find answers.

The novel begins as a mystery; however, quickly becomes more than that.  The attacker is identified but remains loose due to technicalities in the laws governing the reservation.  This description of a tribal cemetery brings together the religious and legal aspects that meld together with the modern world:

They lived and died too quickly in those years that surrounded the making of the reservation, died before they could be recorded and in such painful numbers that it was hard to remember them all without uttering, as my father did sometimes as he read local history, and the white man appeared and drove them down into the  earth,  which sounded like an Old Testament prophecy but was just an observation of the truth.  And so to be afraid of entering the cemetery by night was to fear not the loving ancestors who lay buried, but the gut kick of our history, which I was bracing to absorb.  The old cemetery was filled with its complications.

Father Travis Wozniak, an ex-Marine priest ran the Catholic youth organization on the reservation.  I think his character perhaps was meant to show the “white man’s” attempt to Anglicanise the Native Americans; however, he didn’t quite bring everything together in my mind.  He seemed to be set up as a more important character than he ends up being.  One of the more humorous episodes in the novel occurs when Joe’s friend, Cappy, “sins” with a girl from a summer missionary group.  Feeling guilty, Cappy goes through the traditional confession process.  During the confession, Father Travis emerges from the confessional in a rage to pulverize the kid.  Cappy, however, is able to outrun the ex-Marine for what seems like about two pages.  As much as I laughed at this scene, it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the novel.

Erdrich’s beautiful narrative brings the story to an ultimate act of vengeance and it’s effect on Joe and his friends.  As the boys are driving off into the sunset to an ending that has been foretold, I felt a bizarre sense of foreboding freedom:

I know there’s lots of world over and above Highway 5, but when you’re driving on it – four boys in one car and it’s so peaceful, so empty for mile after mile, when the radio stations cut out and there’s just static and the sound of your voices, and wind when you put your arm out to rest it on the hood – it seems you are balanced.  Skimming along the rim of the universe.

“Sacred Statues”

It’s always a pleasure to discover great new (to me) authors.  I had heard of William Trevor, but had never read  any of his work.  I included three of his stories in my Deal Me In Short Story Project this year.  This week I drew the King of Clubs which corresponded to Trevor’s “Sacred Statues”.  After reading this, I don’t think I’m going to be able to get by with only three of his stories.

Corry, a sculptor, creates statues of saints and other religious icons.  Trevor portrays his talent as brilliant.  Prior to the time of the story, Mrs. Falloway, a patron of the arts, sponsors Corry; however, it doesn’t pan out financially.  His wife, Nuala, expecting another child, attempts to engage in an “under the table” adoption deal with an insurance agency couple who are unable to have children.

Trevor beautifully shows a handful of people living in a world of unfulfilled desires.  The desire of Corry to make a living as an artist is powerfully strong and wonderfully understood by Nuala.  The writing is so subtle and nuanced that I had to think about the story for a while and realized that I could come up with a number of different ways to interpret it.

Most of the interpretations I thought about revolved around questions.  Can the need to create art be more powerful than the need to make a living?  Is it worth following a religion that doesn’t seem to  care whether you follow it?  If a talent is truly “God-given”, why does a mother feel she needs to give up her child for money?

A great story and great questions – with very few answers.  I’m looking forward to more stories by William Trevor.

Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie

I’ve now finished the other book I started at the end of 2012, Joseph Anton: A Memoir by Salman Rushdie.  It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 24 years since Iran issued a fatwa (death sentence) against Rushdie after he published his novel The Satanic Verses, a novel deemed blasphemous by some fundamentalist Muslim leaders.

I’ve never read any of Rushdie’s novels (that will hopefully change this year) but I happened to see an interview with him on the gloriously boring BookTV (weekends on CSPAN-2) channel and was surprised at how humorous and good-natured he appeared.  His thoughts on free-thinking and freedom of speech prompted me to check out his memoir that he recently published.  I now highly recommend it.

Born and raised in India by parents with Muslim backgrounds, Rushdie’s second novel, Midnight’s Children, won the Booker Prize in 1981.  He seems to have always considered India to be his home even when he was banned from stepping foot in the country.

If it wasn’t for the fact that a man’s life was at stake, I would find the situation with The Satanic Verses rather humorous.  The leaders of the free world don’t want to appear to be against free speech and free thought but at the same time they don’t want to appear to be blaspheming a major world religion.  A man simply writing fiction put them in quite a conundrum.  I laughed when Rushdie said Margaret Thatcher was much more “touchy-feely” than one would have imagined.  He didn’t have much fondness for her; however, he doesn’t display much fondness for any heads of state regardless of their political persuasion.  Many of them found it easier to blame him for “stirring up trouble” than to blame an actual nation.

Rushdie’s story at times takes on the feel of a literary political thriller:  one has to stop and realize that this really happened.  He seems proudest of the fact that through all of this he was able to maintain a relationship with and be a father to his two sons.  With all of the frustrations of being under police protection, he developed a bond with his protectors that lead to a gracious parting at the end of the book.  They all called him “Joe” as his code name was “Joseph Anton” (because it had a better ring than “Conrad Chekov”).

He also talks about socializing with the world’s literary aristocracy.  Some supported him, some didn’t.  I found his letters back and forth between John LeCarre, who did not support him, surprising.  He talks of hanging out with Kurt Vonnegut; however, prior to the fatwa, he gave Vonnegut’s book Hocus Pocus a less-than-stellar review.  They didn’t have much to do with each other after that.  I’m dating myself, but I remember Vonnegut appearing on a talk show around the time that all this broke out.  He spoke in support of Rushdie and of free speech.

Rushdie has some great thoughts on freedom of speech and freedom of expression and the book is very quotable.  I think this paragraph superbly sums up his ideas about the importance of this freedom and the importance of literature itself:

All writers and readers knew that human beings had broad identities, not narrow ones, and it was the breadth of human nature that allowed readers to find common ground and points of identification with Madame Bovary, Leopold Bloom, Colonel Aureliano Buendia, Raskolnikov, Gandalf the Gray, Oskar Matzerath, the Makioka Sisters, the Continental Op, the Earl of Emsworth, Miss Marple, the Baron of the Trees, and Salo the mechanical messenger from the planet Tralfamadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan.  Readers and writers could take that knowledge of broad-based identity out into the world beyond the pages of books, and use the knowledge to find common ground with their fellow human beings.  You could support different football teams but vote the same way.  You could vote for different parties but agree about the best way to raise your children.  You could disagree about child rearing but share a fear of the dark.  You could be afraid of different things but love the same music.  You could detest each other’s musical taste but worship the same God.  You could differ strongly on the question of religion but support the same football team.

War and Peace: DONE!

Taking longer than I anticipated, I finished Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace last night.  I have to admit that I feel very relieved to have finally finished it.  The conflict between the temptation to give up and the pressure to keep going became intense toward the end.  The following from page 1217 seemed appropriate to my situation (as well as the situations faced by the characters in the novel):

To be able to walk hundreds of miles a man must believe that something good awaits him at the end of those hundreds of miles.  He needs the prospect of a promised land to give him the strength to keep on.

I guess my “promised land” is the accomplishment of a goal.  I would recommend the novel to anyone with the caveat that they plan on taking their time.  While the novel is worthy of the time I spent reading, it probably won’t make it to my All-Time Favorites list.  The five principal characters of the story,  Pierre Bezuhov, Nicholas Rostov, Natasha Rostov, Andrei Bolkonsky and Maria Bolkonsky, all fascinated me from time to time; however, I didn’t find myself attached to any of them.  Pierre Bezuhov’s quest for meaning in life and the triumphs and disappointments that he encounters along the way probably came closest to resonating with me.

I found it interesting that the novel ended much the way it began – with Russian aristocracy discussing life and politics with all of the disagreements that go along with that.  The only difference is that the adults at the end were the kids at the beginning.

Throughout the novel, Tolstoy throws in his own scholarly thoughts regarding history, philosophy, religion and the human condition in general.  In spite of the temptation to skip these parts and get back to the story, I found that they tied in well with the fictional narrative.  Tolstoy’s ability to jump back and forth between these two different writing styles without making it jarring stands as a testament to his genius and the status of War and Peace as a classic.

Here are my other posts on this novel:

War and Peace: The first 54 pages

War and Peace: Book 1

War and Peace: Book 2

War and Peace: Book 3

“A Rose For Emily”

It’s the second week of my Deal Me In: Short Story Project – 2013 and I’ve already drawn a wild card, the two of hearts – I swear I shuffled them!  For the wild cards, I’m going to pick a story from somebody else’s list – i.e. Jay over at Bibliophilopolis.  Since he has been doing this for several years, now, he has several lists I can choose from.  So this week I read William Faulkner’s short story, “A Rose For Emily”.

I’ve posted before about a literary theory I have about surprise endings.  A good writer can  lead the reader along in a good story and then blow them away with a surprise ending.  Those stories can be enjoyable; however, I tend to believe great writers can take readers along in a great story giving them every thing they need to know exactly where the story will end up – and still blow them away at the end.  I found this short story by Faulkner to fall into the latter category.

Emily Grierson lives in a small southern town sometime around the turn of the twentieth century.  The story jumps back and forth in time to explain her reclusive nature.  She and her family tend to be quite the topic of conversation among the townspeople.  The story contains several episodes involving the townspeople confronting Emily about oddities surrounding her living arrangements.  While I didn’t find myself having much sympathy for Emily right off the bat, as the townspeople became more and more intrusive, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for her a little bit.  In my mind, the final straw came when the Baptist minister and his wife confronted Emily about riding with her “beau” around the town on Sunday afternoons.

As I mentioned, almost from the beginning, Faulkner gives the reader everything they need to know about how the story will end.  I can’t really say that the ending was a surprise to me.  Emily’s visit to the drugstore in the middle of the story pretty much clinched it.   In spite of knowing where the story was headed, the ending was probably as completely satisfying as any story I’ve read.  I’m not against surprise endings – I just don’t think great writers need them.

As an aside, just in case anyone wonders whether I’m still reading books, the answer is “yes, I am”.  I only have 40 pages left in War and Peace and I will be free – I mean I will have accomplished my goal.