“Perfection” by Mark Helprin

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I drew my first wild card for Week #9 of my Deal Me In 2014 project and chose Mark Helprin’s “Perfection” from Jay’s list at Bibliophilopolis.  He also sponsors the Deal Me In challenge.  And I chose this story because I was the one who recommended it to Jay (even though I had yet to read it, but I think – or at least hope – I disclosed that fact at the time of my recommendation).  I do need to make a note to myself, though, to check out the length of a story before I recommend it to anyone.  At 70 pages, “Perfection” pushes the limit of being considered short.  But I would say that it has the feel of a short story as opposed to a novella – and I finally got a baseball story!

Philosophy, theology, metaphysics, baseball, and the meaning of life can always be rolled up into a really good story.  Think about Kevin Costner hearing “If you build it, they will come” in Field of Dreams – definitely a religious experience (and based on the novel, Shoeless Joe, by W. P. Kinsella).  Helprin’s story may not be quite what Kinsella’s story is, but it’s enjoyable all the same.

A minor infraction of the rabbinical code involving Swiss chocolate causes Roger, an adolescent Hasidic Jewish boy, to pull the New York Yankees out of a slump:

Early in June of 1956, the summer in New York burst forth temperate and bright, the colors deep, the wind promising.  This was the beginning of the summer that was to see the culmination of a chain of events that had begun, like everything else, at the beginning of the world, but had started in a practical sense in March of the previous year, when the Saromsker Rebbe opened the wrong drawer.

Helprin skillfully brings to life a few famous people such as Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, the latter complete with his unusual way of summing up the world.  I’ve always thought it a difficult task for an author to incorporate historical figures as fictional characters.  He also has some fun with accents and the Yiddish language.  When asked how much he weighs, Roger replies “Thirteen and three-quarter shvoigles”.  Not knowing the equivalent in pounds, he further indicates that “there are eight beyngaluchs in a shvoigle”.   Helprin’s warmth and humor remains in tact for the majority of the story.

However, a downside to the story does exist.  I’m not fond of the technique in which one of the characters gives a lecture or has a conversation where they explain the meaning of the story – just in case the readers don’t get it.  Personally, I think a good story can stand on it’s own.  And “Perfection” could definitely fall into this category without having Roger lecture the Yankees in the locker room as to the meaning of his involvement with them and the meaning of life in general.  Even so, I still got a little chuckle out of the lecture.

This story is included in Helprin’s collection Pacific and Other Stories. 

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Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin

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The storm that raged in him tonight could not uproot this hatred, the mightiest tree in all John’s country, all that remained tonight, in this, John’s floodtime.

James Baldwin’s novel Go Tell It On The Mountain reminds me of a Flannery O’Connor story.  It’s raw, gritty, gut-wrenching, but underneath is a compassion and a wisdom that explodes along with the rage of the fourteen year-old protagonist, John Grimes.

The structure of the novel grabbed my attention as much as the characters and plot.  The “present time” of the novel takes place over the course of one evening, a Saturday night tarry service at a Pentacostal church in 1930’s New York City, and makes up the first and last chapters.  In between, three chapters flash back to the lives of John’s relatives – his Aunt Florence, his father, Gabriel and his mother, Elizabeth.

The flash backs flesh out the reasons for John’s anger, especially the anger towards his father.  The “sins of the fathers” theme runs throughout the characters’ histories.  As the novel progresses, the reader becomes aware that John’s rage, whether for better or worse, will require an outlet and a resolution.

in the storm – was something-something he must find.  He could not pray.  His mind was like the sea itself: troubled, and too deep for the bravest man’s descent, throwing up now and again, for the naked eye to wonder at, treasure and debris long forgotten on the bottom – bones and jewels, fantastic shells, jelly that had once been flesh, pearls that had once been eyes.  And he was at the mercy of this sea, hanging there with darkness all around him.

The final chapter brings about this resolution in a way that’s unusual but not necessarily unexpected.  In spite of the circumstances and histories that are out of John’s control, he has a choice to make. This rage is his responsibility.  When all is said and done, and the tarry service is over, I couldn’t help but admire Baldwin’s wisdom in determining who would change and who would not.

Everything I’ve read about this novel includes a quotation by Baldwin in which he says that, this, his first novel, was “the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.”  Baldwin may have had his own rage to deal with and I have a feeling this book may have been his outlet and his resolution.

I will be thinking about this novel for a long time to come.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand”

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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Ethan Brand” is what I thought my Edith Wharton story choices would be.  It’s rather scary.  Last year, I read his story “Feathertop” and thought it was very similar to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  “Ethan Brand” reminds me of Washington Irving.  It’s a combination of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

Ethan Brand returns to the village of Graylock after a twenty year absence in which he conducts a spiritually sinister quest.  His quest is legend among the townspeople and his return peaks everyone’s interest.  The majority of the story is set at a lime-kiln in the middle of a dark night.  A few of the locals inquire as to the result of Ethan’s search – did he find his answers?

After reading the story, the subtitle, “A Chapter From an Abortive Romance”, gives me chills but I couldn’t help but laugh a little.  It reminded me of Jack Nicholson as The Joker in the Batman movie from the late 80’s when he asks “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moon light”?

As the morning takes over the darkness, the reader and the villagers of Graylock discover a grizzly ending.

Hawthorne almost teaches a lesson here; however, he settles for telling a good story.

Edith Wharton’s “The House of the Dead Hand”

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It’s Week #7 and both of my Edith Wharton stories are off my DMI 2014 list.  This second one, “The House of the Dead Hand”, in spite of the creepy title, wasn’t a ghost story.  I guess if I want to read her ghost stories, I’ll have to do a little more research than just grabbing a couple of titles from a table of contents.

“The House of the Dead Hand” reminded me of some of Willa Cather’s art stories that I read for my DMI 2013 project; however, I would probably take Cather’s stories over this one.  A privately-owned Leonardo DaVinci painting takes center stage in a story that I just couldn’t get into.  Sybilla, the young girl who owns the painting, lives in the title house so named because of a marble hand over the front door.  One might say that an art critic reviewing the painting gets caught between Sybilla and her suitor who loves her but can’t marry her because she doesn’t have enough money.  She could have enough money if she sold the painting; however, Sybilla’s father won’t let her sell the painting.  By the time I got to the end of the story, I didn’t care what happened to any of the characters.

Every once in a while, some of Wharton’s descriptions warranted some notice, such as her description of the house itself:

As he passed out of the house, its scowling cornice and facade of ravaged brick looked down on him with the startlingness of a strange face, seen momentarily in a crowd, and impressing itself on the brain as part of an inevitable future. Above the doorway, the marble hand reached out like the cry of an imprisoned anguish.

But overall, even some interesting writing here and there couldn’t get me to recommend this story.  Of the three Wharton stories I’ve read – “The Bolted Door”, “All Souls’ “, and this one, I would say “The Bolted Door” is the best one.  I haven’t completely written off Edith Wharton.  Some day, I will probably read one of her novels – some day.

Beowulf

I remember reading Beowulf in high school, or at least parts of it, but didn’t remember much about it.  After just finishing it, I have to say that hanging out in mead-halls and fighting monsters doesn’t seem to be a bad way to live life.  I probably read this too fast and should have read more of the commentary that came with it.  While the translation by Seamus Heaney was good and easy to understand I sometimes thought something got lost.  I can’t really point to anything in particular – just a gut feeling.  The edition I had was illustrated with beautiful photographs of weapons, landscapes, paintings of monsters and other items that gave additional insight to the poem.

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There’s a quote by G. K. Chesterton that I’ve always enjoyed that says:

I don’t deny…that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die.  I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.

I think the author of Beowulf could have been both priest and poet.  The poem blends perfectly God’s Providence with Man’s might -or perhaps I could say man’s “free will” but that could be stretching it – and who wants to get all theological about a story with monsters, anyway?  And while death lurks around every corner, the warriors face it head on and won’t go down without a fight.

I think the next epic poem I read might be Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  But I’ll read it a little slower – I’ll take it a pilgrim at a time.

 

Edith Wharton’s “The Bolted Door”

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It’s week #6 in my Deal Me In:2014 project which is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis and this week I picked the Queen of Hearts and read Edith Wharton’s short story, “The Bolted Door”.  I picked a couple of Wharton’s stories with somewhat ominous titles as I discovered last year that she wrote a number of ghost stories.  As I’ve found out, though, you can’t always judge a story by the title.

“The Bolted Door” does have a mysterious and suspenseful tone; however, it’s a very clever reversal of a murder mystery.  Instead of the reader being curious about who may have commited a murder, the reader gets to know the murderer right off the bat – Hubert Granice.  Unfortunately, Granice, who wants to get his crime off his chest and make it public knowledge, commited his dastardly deed a little too well.  Try as he might, he cannot get anyone to believe that he murdered his rich elderly cousin for money.  Instead, the greater his attempt at turning himself in, the more he is considered “crazy”.

I laughed out loud when Granice first explained his story to an attorney friend. Apparently, Joseph, Granice’s cousin and victim, had a hobby growing melons (yes, melons).  Joseph took great pride in his gardening and took great pleasure in describing his produce:

‘Look at it, look at it — did you ever see such a beauty? Such firmness — roundness — such delicious smoothness to the touch?’ It was as if he had said ‘she’ instead of ‘it,’ and when he put out his senile hand and touched the melon I positively had to look the other way.

I don’t know, but perhaps such an odd relative may have contributed to Granice’s difficulty in convincing anyone of his guilt.  He continues to give his story to detectives, investigative reporters and finally to the District Attorney.

I’m not sure exactly where the title of the story comes in to play.  Initially, Granice waits for his friend’s knock at the door as he prepares to tell his story; but, the door isn’t necessarily bolted.  The story ends with some potentially bolted doors; however, none are noted explicitly.  If there are any Edith Wharton fans out there who may have an idea of the significance of the bolted door in the story of the same name – feel free to chime in!

Jack London: An American Life by Earle Labor

After taking much longer than I anticipated, I have finally finished Earle Labor’s definitive biography Jack London: An American Life.  Anyone who has enjoyed Jack London’s works would most likely take an interest in this book.  Labor’s well-researched material provides major insight into the life and times of this complex man.  Most of my curiosity going into the book revolved around how London’s stories of the self-made man with the “pull yourself up by your boot straps” mentality could be reconciled with his membership and support of the Socialist Party.  While Labor recognizes what might seem to be a disconnect, he doesn’t spend a significant amount of time discussing it.  I would have enjoyed hearing the thoughts and ideas of a London expert, but perhaps a little London mystery is worth preserving.

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Labor places a considerable amount of emphasis on London’s status as a celebrity.  In a world without radio, television and internet, a time when authors were the major source of entertainment fascinated me.  Jack London made newspaper headlines on a regular basis and in today’s world he would have at least occasionally been on the front page of supermarket tabloids.  His famous South Pacific voyage on his boat the Snark captured much of the world’s attention.

London’s personality is one of perseverance, win or nothing, fear had no place in his world.  My favorite lines from the book are about London, his second wife Charmian and the rest of the crew of the Snark:

If fear had been a word with meaning for these natural-born seekers, the Snark might have been no more than a clever pun in a Lewis Carroll poem.  If fear had been meaningful in any context other than the fear of failure, Jack London might have been delivering mail in Oakland instead of receiving mail in the South Seas.

In spite of his outgoing attitude, London was known to cry over wounded animals and go out of his way to rescue a baby bird from drowning.

It would be interesting if this book brought about a revival of Jack London popularity – maybe to compliment the Jane Austen revival that seems to go on and on.