Vacation reading or “Winter is coming.”

Having just returned home from Orlando, Florida,  I thought I would post a little about the reading I did on vacation.  I started George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones.  At page 300, I’m finding it entertaining and a little difficult to keep track of all the families, who’s married to whom, whose brother is king of where and whose sister is queen of here.  I’ve read other novels that involve large numbers of characters (e. g. War and Peace)  and I’ve found that stressing out over how everyone fits into the story is detrimental to the enjoyment of the story.  Kicking back and not worrying about it usually results in everyone falling into place.

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If anyone asks (and nobody has, at this point) how this novel compares to the fantasy series by that other author with the same middle initials, I will warn them that I am very, very biased towards that other author and his series.

But I am enjoying A Game of Thrones and if I would compare it to another novel, it would be more like Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth.  Not knowing which characters to trust makes me want to continue reading to see what happens.  I think 300 pages is only a drop in the bucket for this sweeping saga.  And I have yet to watch any of the HBO series.

So far, I’m assuming that the Stark family are the good guys.  Eddard and Catelyn, while not really grabbing my attention, have some potential as honorable characters.  I’ve taken more of a liking to Jon, Bran and Arya.  I am wondering whether the division between Arya and Sansa will heal or drive them further apart.  And assuming the Lannisters are the bad guys, I have to hand it to Tyrion for making me like him.  Daenerys’ storyline is a little on the creepy side, but I’ll give it a chance.

If I had to pick my favorite characters at page 300, they would be Ghost, Summer, Grey Wind, Lady, Nymeria and Shaggy Dog.  A story with wolves can’t help but be good.

Truman Capote: A Diamond Guitar

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It’s Week 26 of Deal Me In 2014 which means we’re at the halfway point.  I selected the Ace of Hearts which led me to Truman Capote’s short story “A Diamond Guitar”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis

Up until now, the only Capote stories I’ve read have been his holiday stories, “A Christmas Memory”, “The Thanksgiving Visitor” and “One Christmas”.  They are all excellent and have made me want to read more of his work.

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“A Diamond Guitar” is a well-crafted story with well-developed characters.  Mr. Schaeffer, an inmate at a farm prison for committing murder, begins and ends the story alone (in prison, but alone).  In between, he befriends a Cuban kid, Tico Feo.  Tico, an inmate himself, entertains the rest of the prisoners by playing Spanish songs on his guitar decorated with glass diamonds.  He also tells stories about his adventures prior to prison – most of which everyone knows are lies.

Capote conveys a certain innocence with Tico’s and Mr. Schaeffer’s friendship.  At times, the innocence works; however, other times, it seems at odds with a story about a farm prison.  This story was written in 1950, before Capote’s famous work of non-fiction, In Cold Blood.   I’ve never read this book, but perhaps my expectations for “A Diamond Guitar” were influenced more by the film versions of In Cold Blood than by his holiday works.  I expected holiday stories to be a little sentimental, but not a prison story.  However, “A Diamond Guitar” is good enough for me to continue exploring Capote’s work.

Jack London: Negore, The Coward

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Hey!  It’s Jack London week here at Mirror w/ Clouds!  I just finished reading his novel  Before Adam and posted about it here.  Then, this week I drew the Eight of Hearts for my Deal Me In 2014 project which brought me to London’s short story “Negore, The Coward”.   My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.  Jay also posted about this story last year.

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“Negore, The Coward” poses some interesting questions both from a literary standpoint and from a philosophical one.  Negore is branded a coward by his people of Alaska as they fight the Russians in the mid-Nineteenth century.  His reasoning behind his act of cowardice isn’t actually known until he returns to his people and to Oona, the woman he loves.  Oona only half accepts his explanation, but gives him an opportunity to prove himself once more.  I’m still not sure how I feel about Oona.  She asks for a lot.

But attempt to prove himself is what Negore sets out to do.  Does he succeed?  I’ll have to leave that up to anyone who happens to want to read this story.  It can be found here for free.

As I’ve said, the story asks some fascinating questions.  Which is better – a dead brave man or a coward who has managed to survive?  Are there things worth dying for or should survival be priority?  Aside from these philosophical questions in general, I also couldn’t help but be curious about what Jack London, himself, thought.  Survival plays a key role in much of his writing.  The brutality of nature tends to be a common enemy to humanity.  Just a gut feeling makes me think London could very well have thought that anyone who is able to survive, regardless of the means, has a certain amount of bravery and cowardice is only in the eye of the beholder.  Are there noble reasons to be considered a “coward”?  Can sacrifice be viewed as “cowardly”?

All in all, a very enjoyable and thought-provoking story.

 

 

Before Adam by Jack London

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And so it is with much that I narrate of the events of that far-off time.  There is a duality about my impressions that is too confusing to inflict upon my readers.  I shall merely pause here in my narrative to indicate this duality, this perplexing mixing of personality.  It is I, the modern, who look back across the centuries and weigh and analyze the emotions and motives of Big-Tooth, my other self.  He did not bother to weigh and analyze.  He was simplicity itself.  He just lived events, without ever pondering why he lived them in his particular and often erratic way.

I’ve posted before about how much I enjoy Jack London’s descriptions of the wild North.  His ability to capture a certain rugged, individualistic mindset among the bitter cold and snowy wilderness never ceases to amaze me.  I discovered his lesser known novel Before Adam via Jay’s post at Bibliophilopolis. 

London’s unnamed narrator describes a series of dreams he has during the novel’s present day (early Twentieth century) that takes him back to the Mid-Pleistocene era.  The dreams are so vivid that the narrator believes he is living out the adventures of his pre-historic ancestor whom he calls “Big-Tooth”.

While the present-day narrator pops in every once in a while, the bulk of the novel is Big-Tooth’s story.  The plot is not complicated and London’s writing is different in style.  At first,  I was disappointed that his writing did not include more of his great descriptions of the environment.  I felt like the writing was choppier, more immature; however, as I continued reading, I concluded that London still brought forth the same themes of his better known writings and that the writing style he used in this novel could be described as primitive – as was the time period about which he wrote.

One of the more fascinating scenes comes as Big-Tooth and his friend, Lop-Ear, steal a glance at the fire used by the Fire People (called so because they were the only ones who had fire).  They watch it with the same wonder as anybody who has watched and used new technology.  Fire, landing on the moon, the internet – as the reader, London allows me to put the same emotions and questions to fire as I could to any of the technological advances in my lifetime or London’s.

In the brutal man vs. nature story of Big-Tooth and his people, London quite realistically gives them a sense of humor.  While Big-Tooth and Lop-Ear are not as developed mentally to get sarcasm or the finer details of wit, they enjoy playing games with each other, playing jokes, and laughing:

In spite of the reign of fear under which we lived, the Folk were always great laughers.  We had the sense of humor.  Our merriment was Gargantuan.  It was never restrained.  There was nothing half way about it.  When a thing was funny we were convulsed with appreciation of it, and the simplest, crudest things were funny to us.  Oh, we were great laughers, I can tell you.

As far as favorites go, I probably don’t rank Before Adam up there with other London novels such as The Sea Wolf and The Call of the Wild but it added more dimension to an already favorite author.

Herman Melville: The Piazza

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My gut instinct tells me that Herman Melville’s short story “The Piazza” will end up being my favorite short story from my Deal Me In 2014 project.  I chose it when I drew the Ace of Spades this week.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Last year, I read Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick and was swept away by his tale of Captain Ahab’s pursuit of his white whale nemesis.  In the novel, Melville always took me by surprise when he would mention something specifically American – such as  comparing a whale’s stomach to the Kentucky Mammoth Caves.  The international aspect of the story was so compelling that I sometimes forgot I was reading an American author and an American novel.

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Even with no sea adventure, “The Piazza” has a similar effect; however, it’s almost the opposite.  An unnamed narrator (Melville, himself, perhaps)moves to a secluded home on a New England mountainside.  Immediately,  he remedies the problem of a non-existent piazza.  The majority of the story takes place from this new piazza as the narrator views the landscape surrounding his home.  He doesn’t simply describe his surroundings but imagines them through the lens of his well-read and well-traveled mind.  Much of the American characteristics of this geography gets melded together with the South Seas, Shakespeare, Homer and Milton.

At one point, his eye catches a small house on another mountainside.  I loved his musings as he notices it:

…the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail.

When the New England weather ceased being advantageous in viewing the cottage, his thoughts go this way:

…wishfully I gazed off towards the hills; but in vain.  Either troops of shadows, and imperial guard, with slow pace and solemn, defiled along the steeps, or, routed by pursuing light, fled broadcast from east to west – old wars of Lucifer and Michael; or the mountains, though unvexed by these mirrored sham fights in the sky, had an atmosphere otherwise unfavorable…

The narrator eventually leaves his piazza for a small trip that results in an unusual encounter, but this story will continue to amaze me for the manner in which I was whisked into someone’s world simply by the imaginings of his landscape.  Melville is a master.

 

The Violent Bear It Away

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Last week, I was sitting at my kitchen table eating breakfast getting in a couple of pages of The Violent Bear It Away when Rayber, the schoolteacher in the novel, flashes back to his attempt to commit an horrific act of violence toward his idiot son.  Thinking about it for the rest of the day, it was a reminder that Flannery O’Connor is not for the faint of heart.  She’s not for the politically correct, either.

Prior to the flashback, Rayber muses about his feelings for his son, Bishop:

He did not believe that he himself was formed in the image of God but that Bishop was he had no doubt.  The little boy was part of a simple equation that required no further solution, except at the moments when with little or no warning he would feel himself overwhelmed by the horrifying love.  Anything he looked at too long could bring it on.  Bishop did not have to be around.  It could be a stick or a stone, the line of a shadow, the absurd old man’s walk of a starling crossing the sidewalk.  If, without thinking, he lent himself to it, he would feel suddenly a morbid surge of the love that terrified him – powerful enough to throw him to the ground in an act of idiot praise.  It was completely irrational and abnormal.

In O’Connor’s world, one human being can encompass the capacity for incredible love and intense hatred.

In her world, the bushes burn and the crazy become prophets.

In her world, an old man can lay in his handmade coffin telling his grand-nephew how to bury him – making the scene morbid and funny.

Yeah, that’s O’Connor’s world: morbid and funny.

I wish she had been able to write more.

 

G. K. Chesterton: The Song of the Flying Fish

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“The Song of the Flying Fish” is the second story I’ve read of the many that G. K. Chesterton wrote about his detective priest, Father Brown.  Based on the two that I’ve read, it seems that Father Brown tends to stay in the background, slowly making his way to the forefront in time to solve the story’s mystery.

In this one, Mr. Peregrine Smart’s hired hands guard his expensive ornamental goldfish bowl with fish made of gold and rubies for eyes.  Boyle and Jameson hear a bump in the night.  While Jameson runs downstairs, Boyle looks out the window to see the apparition of a man singing a strange song calling forth “his fish”.  The window breaks and the fish are gone.

In this case, the “usual suspects” are the neighbors –  the doctor, the banker, a Count.  No Colonel Mustard or Professor Plum.  The doctor suggests the song made the window break and the Count suspects mystical happenings.  It’s Father Brown who realizes the answer is so close nobody can see it.

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I’m captured most by these stories because of Chesterton’s imaginative writing style.  As I’ve mentioned before, he can be a very quotable author.  Here are a few passages that got my attention:

Outside, the last edges of the sunset still clung to the corners of the green square; but inside, a lamp had already been kindled; and in the mingling of the two lights the coloured globe glowed like some monstrous jewel, and the fantastic outlines of the fiery fishes seemed to give it, indeed, something of the mystery of a talisman, like strange shapes seen by a seer in the crystal of doom.

And this one:

Only Boyle, for the first time, noted consciously something that he had all along been noting unconsciously.  It was like a fact struggling in the submerged mind and demanding its own meaning.

And I thought the first line was a good one:

The soul of Mr. Peregrine Smart hovered like a fly round one possession and one joke.

Chesterton’s imagination makes mystery and illusion as much fun as the answers.

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