George MacDonald: The Gifts of the Child Christ

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In drawing the Jack of Diamonds for Week 22 of my 2014 Deal Me In project, I read George MacDonald’s short story “The Gifts of the Child Christ”.  This is the first work I’ve read by MacDonald whom I’ve heard of occasionally as a Scottish author who significantly influenced C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.  I originally picked this story because it had a Christmas-like title.  I was looking to include a Christmas story in my DMI list knowing full well that the story might not get chosen near the holidays.  It might get chosen at – say – the end of May.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

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According to www.online-literature.com, MacDonald lived from 1824 to 1905 and became known for writing fantasy stories for children (of which this is not one).  In reading about his writing, it seems the word “gentle” is often used to describe it.  Based on “The Gifts of the Child Christ”, I would consider that word to be appropriate, but this story is not gentle in a light-hearted manner.  It’s a strong gentle.  It reminds me of another “Gift” story – O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”.   Whereas O. Henry’s story shows the intense sacrifice resulting from a couple’s love, MacDonald’s story begins with the selfishness of three people and a little girl entwined in their lives.

On Christmas Eve the church bells were ringing through the murky air of London, whose streets lay flaring and steaming below. The brightest of their constellations were the butchers’ shops, with their shows of prize beef; around them, the eddies of the human tides were most confused and knotted. But the toy-shops were brilliant also. To Phosy they would have been the treasure-caves of the Christ-child–all mysteries, all with insides to them–boxes, and desks, and windmills, and dove-cots, and hens with chickens, and who could tell what all? In every one of those shops her eyes would have searched for the Christ-child, the giver of all their wealth. For to her he was everywhere that night–ubiquitous as the luminous mist that brooded all over London…

MacDonald skillfully weaves the story by alternating between the points of view of each character.  This technique brings out each adult character’s self-absorbed isolation.  The point of view of the little girl serves not so much as a contrast to the adults but as an indication of the impact of the adults’ selfishness.  When a Christmas Day tragedy brings together the adults and the little girl, the path to hope and forgiveness suddenly doesn’t seem as difficult.

It would be very easy to put this story in the Hallmark Channel category; however, MacDonald’s writing contains a sadness, even in the end, that keeps it from being sentimental.  It makes me want to continue exploring his writing.

 

 

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Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut is an equal opportunity offender.  Published in 1973, Vonnegut scathingly satirizes society, art, religion, politics, and just people in general.  I have to laugh imagining readers who don’t quite understand sarcasm getting red in the face with anger as they read Vonnegut’s barbs.  Regardless of whether one is liberal, conservative or something else – he’s making fun of YOU!

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A plot does exist in this story.  Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover (what a 1970’s name!) wants to know the meaning of life so he heads to the Midland City Art Festival.  Kilgore Trout, a (more or less) renowned author and recurring Vonnegut character, has been asked to speak at the festival – much to his surprise.  The story revolves around these two characters separately traveling to the festival and the whacky characters they meet along the way.

I could talk about the profanities and obscenities that abound throughout the narrative in both word and pictures and how 90% of them are very tongue-in-cheek, but most readers are going to find them either funny or offensive – not much middle ground.

The sheer genius of this work, though, has nothing to do with what could potentially get this novel banned by less than free-thinking politicians.  Vonnegut puts himself in his novel as a character, but it isn’t as a fictional character – it’s his real self.  For much of the novel, he is sitting in the cocktail lounge of the Midland City Holiday Inn wearing mirror sunglasses.  I don’t think any author has ever given me a more vivid picture.  While he is sitting there, he contemplates what to do with his characters who are mingling at the bar or waiting on customers.  Vonnegut does this in a beautifully seamless manner that has no hint of a gimmick.  I won’t soon forget a scene like this:

And I sat there in the new Holiday Inn, and made it disappear, then appear again, then disappear, then appear again.  Actually, there was nothing but a big open field there.  A farmer had put it into rye.

It was high time, I thought, for Trout to meet Dwayne Hoover, for Dwayne to run amok.

I knew how this book would end.  Dwayne would hurt a lot of people.  He would bite off one joint of the right index finger of Kilgore Trout.

And then Trout, with his wound dressed, would walk out into the unfamiliar city.  He would meet his Creator, who would explain everything.

 

 

 

 

Graham Greene: Alas, Poor Maling

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I’ve now read four short stories by Graham Greene and his novel, The Power and the Glory.  I guess when it comes to works of literature, four out of five isn’t too bad.

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As I drew the Seven of Spades this week, I looked forward to another story by Graham Greene, “Alas, Poor Maling”.   But, alas, I didn’t find it anywhere near as appealing as the other Greene works I’ve read.

Maling suffers from a peculiar stomach ailment.  As he hears music throughout the day, his stomach picks it up (records it, if you will) and plays it at inopportune times.  When I say “music”, I mean real music…like the Brandenburg Concerto.  This causes some rather uncomfortable moments at places like the theater.  The story takes place in 1940 London and Maling’s stomach has the audacity to mimic the tone of the air raid siren causing havoc in his business meetings.

How embarrassing.

The only reason I haven’t completely dismissed the story is the dry British wit with which Greene writes.  For a few moments, that was worth a small chuckle; however, mostly, I just scratched my head.

My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

One of my greatest discoveries since blogging about books has been the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut.  Up until now, I’ve only read three of his novels.  Both his short stories and his novels brilliantly contain his sometimes wicked, sometimes playful wit.  I’m fascinated with Vonnegut’s ability to comment and observe society with a zany story about aliens or a story about a down-to-earth couple buying a new house.  He can put to wonderful use both outlandishness and subtlety.

I’ve now read a fourth Vonnegut novel, Mother Night, and for me it continues to prove his genius.  I would consider this novel to be a little more in the subtle category than the other three that I’ve read.

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Howard J. Campbell, Jr.  is American-born but grows up in Germany prior to World War II.  Through circumstances not completely in his control, he becomes a spy for the Americans during the war.  Like any good spy, he pretends he is the enemy.  For Howard’s disguise, he becomes a radio personality spouting Nazi propaganda.  After the war, he lives in relative seclusion in the United States until he begins to discover that several groups of people are interested in him.  Some consider him a hero and others a war criminal.  Apparently, Campbell disguised himself a little too well.

I loved Vonnegut’s idea of pretending.  One of my favorite passages reveals Campbell’s insight into his spy activities:

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.  So many people wanted to believe me!

I’m still thinking about the novel’s ending.  I understand Campbell’s decision in contrast to all of the absurdity around him; however, I’m not sure I really like it.  Maybe I’m not suppose to.

Anton Chekhov: The Bet

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For Week 20 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project, I drew the Queen of Diamonds which corresponds to Anton Chekhov’s “The Bet”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I haven’t read much of Chekhov’s writing, but it seems like I’ve read more as I’ve confused Chekhov with Franz Kafka from time to time.  But enough about me and on to the story.

It’s not an easy story to write about without giving away details that are better discovered by readers, themselves.  The bet from which the story gets its title results from a nice little party conversation between a banker and a lawyer in which they debate whether death or prolonged isolation is worse.

I wouldn’t say that the story packs an emotional wallop (at least it didn’t for me) but it does have one of the better intellectual punches of any of the stories I’ve read recently.  As to who won the bet?  That question will keep the mind of any thinking reader occupied for at least a few days after finishing the story.  I have my own theory, but I won’t prejudice anyone before they read it.  And as to book lovers in general, there’s something for them to think about, also.

The Natural by Bernard Malamud

Robert Redford played Roy Hobbs in the 1984 film version of Bernard Malamud’s 1952 novel The Natural.  The very dated edition of the novel that I borrowed from the library had Robert Redford on the cover.  As I began reading, my imagination couldn’t help but make me think of Redford as Hobbs; however, as I continued reading, in my imagination, Redford morphed into Humphrey Bogart. The novel has a film noir feel with many morally ambiguous men, including Hobbs, himself, chasing after women whom I could easily imagine as Lauren Bacall.

As a thirty-five year-old rookie, Hobbs finally sees his dream of playing in the big leagues realized as he signs on with the Knights in Chicago.  Hobbs is an enigmatic character and that mystery and vagueness only work sometimes.  More often than not, I found myself in the role of Max Mercy, the reporter bent on finding out who Hobbs really is.  Answers are very slim – to Mercy and the reader.

The atmosphere and time period are developed well by Malamud giving the reader an idea of a time when Ebbet’s Field was still standing and the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn.  However, the atmosphere wasn’t enough for me to consider this a great novel. Perhaps in the realm of baseball novels, it was good, but I prefer W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe.

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Ernest Hemingway: Soldier’s Home

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In selecting the Ace of Clubs this week (My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.), I read Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Soldier’s Home”, full of disillusionment, despair, and loneliness – all the things that make Hemingway’s stories great.

Harold Krebs returns home from the war (World War I, in this case) to what seems to be a small town in Oklahoma.  The town has had time to “move on”, something Krebs still hasn’t done.  He finds himself frequently lying to people about his state of mind and about the war: “Krebs acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration…”.

On the surface, the story seems to be about Krebs’ lying and his inability to deal honestly with his war experience.  Underneath the surface, though, Hemingway seems to point out, or at least raise the question, that perhaps the rest of the town is lying in their willingness to forget the war and continue on with life.  I enjoyed the story’s tension that could move back and forth between the two.

I found it interesting that Kreb’s mother is portrayed as religious.  Hemingway doesn’t paint her unsympathetically; however, he makes clear that Mrs. Krebs’ faith has nothing to offer her son.  When she expresses her desire to pray for Harold, in typical Hemingway fashion, much is said with little:  “Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.”

Krebs’ father is incredibly distant.  Much of the concern his parents have for him is expressed through his mother as “your father thinks” or “your father said”.  His father is always at work.

Hemingway beautifully brings the reader’s sympathies toward Krebs’ situation of not being able to resolve his war experience as quickly as his parents and hometown would like.  But the town isn’t made up of idiots.  With the usual subtlety and understatement, Hemingway seems to use the town to ask the question “If we don’t move on, what’s the alternative?”.  Good question.