Posted in Short Stories

Kurt Vonnegut: Thanasphere

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The King of Diamonds this week brought me to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Thanasphere” from his collection Bagombo Snuff Box.  It’s one of the type of stories that has gotten Vonnegut the reputation of being a science-fiction writer, even though he has written some brilliant stories that would not fall under this category.

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I wish I could say that I liked “Thanasphere” better than I did.  Perhaps it was the fact that the story involves the first man to orbit the earth and the story was written before anyone had really orbited the earth.  I had a “been there, done that” feeling while reading it. Although, if I was interested in conspiracy theories (which I’m not), the story might make me wonder what I don’t know about space travel.  What secrets are out there and who really knows about them?

I enjoyed the conversations between the three major players:  Major Rice, the astronaut in space; Dr. Groszinger, the scientist involved in the mission; and General Dane, the military man in charge.  Both science and  the military have to deal with some unsettling discoveries from Major Rice.  Discoveries in the form of “voices” – but maybe not voices one would expect to hear in space.  I think I’ll just leave it at that.  Feel free to read the story to find out more.

Posted in Short Stories

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Camel’s Back

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Now that I’m back to my usual Deal Me In Short Story Project, where I’ve assigned a story to each card in a standard deck and I pick one each week, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “The Camel’s Back” from his collection Tales of the Jazz Age.  After reading the humor of Mark Twain for the past week, I was surprised to find that I was reading a Fitzgerald story with a Twain-esque sense of humor.  Unfortunately, by the end of the story, the hilarious premise fizzles out.

Tales of the Jazz Age

The story takes place sometime after World War I and revolves around a group of young men who seem to have a significant amount of money and spend their days and nights going to parties.  For anyone who has read or knows much about Fitzgerald’s work, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.  I haven’t seen the recent film version of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but I have enjoyed Fergie’s song from the movie “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody”.  When one of the young men, Macy, is asked if he’s going to a particular circus-themed costume party, he replies ” ‘Me? Sure I’m goin’. Never miss a party.  Good for the nerves – like celery.’ ”

After Perry Parkhurst is dumped by his girlfriend, Betty Medill, he intends to go to the circus-themed costume party; however, he has difficulty finding a costume.  The only one left is a camel that requires two people.  His next difficulty is finding someone to be the back-end of the camel.  He finally pays somebody off the street to do this, eventually explaining to his friends that the man came with the costume.  As he contemplates going to the party where his recently ex-girlfriend will be, he thinks perhaps that they may rekindle their romance:

His mind even turned to rosy-coloured dreams of a tender reconciliation inside the camel – there hidden away from all the world…

After accidentally hitting the wrong party, the “camel” makes its way into the right one and proceeds to flirt with Betty.  Betty, not knowing that the camel is Perry, doesn’t really mind the flirting.  It’s here that the story tends to leave it’s fantastic premise and stops being quite as funny.  In the introduction to my copy of Tales of the Jazz Age, Fitzgerald indicates that this story is his least favorite of the group.  I wonder if he would have liked it better if he simply stopped before Perry, as the camel, met Betty.  That tends to be my opinion.

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain: A Day At Niagara

Ad Hoc Short Story Week featuring Mark Twain:  Day 5

“A Day at Niagara” completes this week of Mark Twain stories and this one happens to be my favorite Twain story I’ve read so far.  Twain’s fictionalized version of himself takes a trip to Niagara Falls and expresses his comments along the way.  His attitude toward the touristy area is similar to the attitude I have had on occasion toward Disney World.  I was surprised as he described the Falls area with all of the hotels, gift shops, restaurants, and special tours at how much it sounded like a tourist attraction today as opposed to 1869 when the story was published.

Mark Twain

One of Twain’s more famous stories is “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”.  I read this in Junior High as an example of how well Twain wrote in a dialect or accent.  Much of that story was told by a narrator with a thick southern accent.  Stories like that make me want to read it out loud to get the full effect.  “A Day At Niagara” makes use of dialects in an incredibly funny manner (although probably politically incorrect by today’s standards).   As the narrator visits some of the gift shops where Native Americans are making jewelry, he attempts to talk to them in their own “dialect”.  Of course this could come off completely offensive if it wasn’t for the fact that the “Native Americans” respond back to him in their own accent and dialect – and it’s by no means Native American.

In my opinion this story better illustrates how the writing of dialect and accents can make a story brilliant.  And I have a feeling that writing in various accents isn’t as easy as Twain makes it look.

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain: Cannibalism in the Cars

Ad Hoc Short Story Week featuring Mark Twain:  Day 4

While riding on a train, Mark Twain’s fictionalized version of himself meets up with a “Congressman” who tells “Twain” a story.  Once I saw the word “congressman”, I was sure political satire was sure to follow.  I wasn’t disappointed.

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The story involves a group of congressmen on a train in the middle of nowhere during a blizzard.  After the train is stranded for a week, the group finally decide they need to elect someone for breakfast – not someone to find breakfast or fix breakfast, but someone to be breakfast.

The elections that follow are flat-out hilarious.  Elections are not only held for breakfast but for dinner, also.  When I thought it couldn’t get funnier, the story teller describes which congressmen made for pleasant fare and which did not.

The only slight disappointment occurred when the reader is taken back to the original train with the story teller.  Twain’s fictionalized version of himself is morally appalled at the story; however, one of the train conductors indicates the story teller was simply crazy and the reader gets the impression that perhaps none of the story really happened.  Personally, I would have rather been left with the events as they were.

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain: A Curious Dream

Ad Hoc Short Story Week featuring Mark Twain: Day 3

Mark Twain’ short story “A Curious Dream” comes with the subtitle “Containing A Moral”. I liked how Twain warns the reader that one of those pesky morals is coming so as not to be completely surprised at the end.  I found it to be a rather odd moral, but a great short story.

Mark Twain

If you are looking for scary stories, you might enjoy this one; however, the humor that one expects from Twain may keep it from being truly scary.  It reminded me of his story “A Ghost Story” .  Both stories could prove that Twain may have been skilled at writing horror, but since I’ve laughed frequently during these stories, I really don’t mind that he chose the funny over the scary.

Once again, Twain’s fictionalized version of himself tells the story.  During a dream, he is walking down a street when he encounters skeletons leaving a grave yard.  He sits down to have a friendly conversation with one of them.  The skeleton is carrying his gravestone with him and complains to “Twain” about the way his descendents now treat the dead in the graveyard.  It wasn’t always this way as the skeleton explains:

“Yes, sir, thirty years ago I laid me down there, and was happy.  For it was out in the country then – out in the breezy, flowery, grand old woods, and the lazy winds gossiped with the leaves, and the squirrels capered over us and around us, and the creeping things visited us, and the birds filled the tranquil solitude with music.  Ah, it was worth ten years of a man’s life to be dead then!”

The skeleton continues to discuss the various families that are represented in the graveyard and how the dead have become fed up with the way the living have neglected them recently.  One description of the dead Anna Matilda Hotchkiss exhibits evidence of the previously mentioned ability of Twain to write horror.  His description of her was quite scary.

This story reminded my of Neil Gaiman’s A Graveyard Story although I enjoyed it a little more because, in spite of the humor, the story refrained from being sentimental.  Twain seemed to turn another old adage on it’s ear: “You can’t take it with you”.

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain: The Facts in the Great Beef Contract

Ad Hoc Short Story Week featuring Mark Twain: Day Two

Mark Twain’s short story “The Facts in the Great Beef Contract” gives the impression of an exaggerated fable, a tall-tale perhaps.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized how much it was like a fairy-tale.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain’s fictionalized version of himself tells the story that begins with John Wilson Mackenzie, of Rotterdam, Chemung County, New Jersey.  Mackenzie obtains a contract to sell 100 barrels of beef to the United States Government – William Sherman to be exact. While Wilson chases Sherman all over the world in an attempt to deliver the beef (and get paid), he is unable to actually catch up with him.  Prior to being scalped and having his beef stolen, Mackenzie draws up a contract to bill the government.  Each person to receive this contract subsequently dies until it reaches the hands of Mark Twain’s fictionalized version of himself.  The narrator seeks out one government official after another only to get the same answer: this official doesn’t deal with beef contracts, someone else does.

I found it incredibly funny to put government bureaucracy in the place of a “kingdom” from a fairy-tale.  In addition, hilarity ensued when one man attempts a great “quest” in trying to get paid by the government.  In many fairy-tales, questors, after much difficulty, obtains their reward.  Unfortunately, this story doesn’t follow the fairy-tale mode that closely.

Posted in Short Stories

Mark Twain: Journalism in Tennessee

Ad Hoc Short Story Week featuring Mark Twain:  Day One

Today I’m posting about Mark Twain’s short story, “Journalism in Tennessee”.  As one might expect, wit and sarcasm abound.

The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain

The story is told from the point of view of Twain’s fictionalized version of himself as he takes on a job with a Newspaper in – you guessed it – Tennessee.  He doesn’t initially understand his boss’s instructions when told to write an article on a particular subject. Apparently, journalism in Tennessee is much more cut-throat.  While the barbs are flying in the op-ed section, bricks and bullets and hand grenades fly between the varying newspapers in the community.

I wondered at the point Twain was trying to make in this story.  Aside from simply being funny, it made me ask several “deeper” questions.  Can one write opinions to the extent that they seem like bullets or bricks or hand grenades?  There is that old adage “The pen is mightier than the sword”.  Maybe Twain’s humor serves to enforce that idea.  I also had to think of this story from a different perspective.  Do opinions, written on paper, really warrant the anger and offense and fear that people sometime take to them?  It could be worse, they could be real bullets.  Then there is another question:  Do real bullets begin with opinions written on paper?

Much to ponder in such a short story.

Posted in Non Fiction

The Pastor: A Memoir by Eugene H. Peterson

Eugene Peterson is probably best known as the author of the widely popular (and, in some circles, controversial) version of the Bible called The Message.  While I haven’t read much of his work, although I have read The Message some, I happened to pick up his memoir and read his introduction.  In it, he referred to William Faulkner, Anne Tyler and Herman Melville.  My first thought was “Ah, a religious dude who likes literature, I might have to read the rest of this.”  So I did.

The Pastor: A Memoir

I enjoyed his ability to keep spiritual ideas from being simply maxims, platitudes or clichés. He covered three areas that I found most appealing as he described his journey from childhood to college and on to his vocational life as a pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland.

First, his childhood in rural Montana during the depression gave his life “sacred space” in his words.  His father built a log cabin in the side of a glacier several miles from their home to which his family continues to vacation even today.   He describes the importance of this homeland:

But wherever I went, I always ended up here.  This was the geography of my imagination:  the sighting of a pygmy owl in feathered silence pouncing on a field mouse on Blacktail Mountain, the emergence through spring snow of the first avalanche lilies in Jack’s Meadow, surprising a grizzly bear, the iconic beast of these mountains, on the Garden Wall trail.  Holy ground, sacred space.

Next, while he went to college and did graduate work in New York City (significantly different from Montana), he coached a church basketball team and in the process, ran into a number of artists who didn’t much care for church but hung out at his church, anyway.  The idea that these artists considered their trade a vocation was a new idea for him.  They would be staying along this artistic path regardless of whether they made money or not.  He also noticed how they were not afraid to embrace a certain ambiguity of life – a mystery:

The artist has eyes to connect the visible and the invisible and the skill to show complete what we in our inattentive distraction see only in bits and pieces.

And finally, he takes a scene from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and applies it to his pastoral life.  In Melvilles’ novel, when chasing a whale the ship’s crew continuously rush around grabbing the oars and working in a frenzy to get the whale in the right position.  All except one: the harpooner.  This person sits quietly and still among the chaos waiting for the right moment to release his weapon.  Ishmael, Melville’s narrator, puts it this way:

To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.

Peterson explains his application of Melville’s idea this way:

Melville’s harpooner found company in my imagination with Jesus’ metaphor that feature the single, the small, and the quiet – salt, leaven, seed – that have effects far in excess of their appearance.  Our culture publicizes the opposite: the big, the multitudinous, the noisy.  Is it not, then, a strategic necessity that some of us deliberately ally ourselves with the quiet, poised harpooners, and not leap, frenzied, to the oars?

Peterson writes in a manner that feels comfortable.  I got the feeling I was having coffee with him.  He only briefly discusses what lead him to write The Message.  He spent some of his time while a pastor as a professor, also.  The pastor vocation; however, always seemed to be what he was “meant” to do.  When once asked what he liked about being a pastor, his reply was “the mess”.  Through the stories he retells of the people he has met and with whom he has interacted over the years, the reader understands “the mess” in a more positive light than one might first think on hearing the term.

 

Posted in Short Stories

“The Remarkable Rocket”

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There’s something offbeat and quirky about Oscar Wilde that I’m beginning to like.  He gets better with each story.  I admit I wasn’t sure about him when I read “The Fisherman and His Soul”, but now I’ve read “The Remarkable Rocket” and I might become a fan.

The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde

The story starts out as a typical fairy tale with a Princess marrying a Prince.  The quirkiness begins with the Prince’s father (that would be the King) doubling his servant’s salary of zero – “but it was still an honor”.  As the wedding festivities continue, the King explains the firework presentation.  The princess had never seen fireworks before.

It’s at this point that the story takes an odd (but likeable) turn to the fireworks, themselves.  Making the fireworks anthropomorphic, Wilde gives the reader a glimpse into this little community made up of Squibs, Catherine Wheels, Roman Candles and last, but not least (at least not in his mind), a Remarkable Rocket.

The contrast between the Rocket’s arrogance and the rest of his world’s refusal to accept his arrogance provides for most of the humor in the story.  The Rocket’s high and mighty attitude toward himself would be just plain annoying if it wasn’t for the Squibs and Catherine Wheels and Roman Candles who completely ignore his uppity mindset.  They bring the Remarkable Rocket to the point of being almost dillusional – well, to everyone but himself.  This was one of the funnier pieces of unwanted advice that the Rocket gave his friends:

It is a very dangerous thing to know one’s friends.

I’m curious as to whether this story was ever made into a movie or rather an animated short.  While it seems the type of story that screams “make me a cartoon”, I’m not sure that a film would necessarily capture the humor Wilde put into the story.  But I would still watch it.

Posted in Fiction

The Tree of Here by Chaim Potok

I read The Tree of Here, the second children’s book written by Chaim Potok.  I read The Sky of Now earlier this year.  Since both of these books are out of print, I appreciate The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County for hanging on to these.  He’s been one of my favorite authors for most of my adult life, and while his novels have had more of an impact on me, I have always been curious about these two kids’ books.

The Tree of Here

The Tree of Here is the story of Jason who finds out he is moving from his current home (which isn’t exactly specified) to Boston.  He goes through typical emotions of a young boy having to leave his house and friends behind.  He talks to the dogwood tree in his front yard.  And since it’s a kids’ book, it’s no problem for the dogwood tree to talk back.  Jason takes a small dogwood sapling to his new home (it also talks to him on the ride to Boston).

Both of Potok’s kids’ books are subtle and sweet.  I’m glad I read them.  He has two non-fiction books that could be interesting (they may be out of print also):  The Gates of November and Wanderings: A History of the Jews.  

Potok is mostly known for his novels.  I’m curious if anybody out there has read his non-fiction?