Two by Steven Millhauser

One of the great things about book blogging is getting exposure to authors that I might not otherwise read.  This year Katherine at The Writerly Reader has been reading stories from The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser.  I grabbed a copy of this collection at the library and have read two of the stories so far.

The first one was “The Sepia Postcard”.  If nobody already has, I will dub Millhauser the “king of details”.  His protagonist gets away from a problem relationship to a sleepy seaside resort (I’m guessing New England because there are references to lobster) where he wanders around by himself in a funk.  Fantastic descriptions abound of the gift shops, the rare book store, the bed and breakfast, the meals, his room, the shopowners.  All of these details add up to a “this is what it comes down to” attitude for the lonely visitor.  He wheels and deals, but not to his benefit, and buys a sepia postcard.  As he continues his stay, the postcard appears to change.  I couldn’t tell whether the postcard was actually changing or was it simply reflecting what this lonely man was feeling.  He saw what he wanted to see.  I think the reader can decide what they want to see, too.  For me, the story worked either way.  It reminded me a little of a William Trevor story.  The plot was not intricate, but I could get inside this guy’s head.

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The other story, “Klassik Komix #1”, started out to me as a gimmick, but ultimately became more.  Gimmicks aren’t bad if they are well-done and this one certainly was.  Instead of the trend to put prose stories into the form of comics as graphic novels, Millhauser takes a comic book story and puts it into prose.  Each panel is described in comic book detail (more great details) and a story unfolds about Alfred becoming a “Lobster Man” (more lobster, too).  Occasionally, Alfred  thinks (designated by a balloon with little bubbles leading from Alfred to the balloon) or speaks (designated by a balloon with a little pointy thing pointing in Alfred’s direction) with lines that sounded very familiar to me, including a panel where women are talking about Michelangelo. I finally googled one of the lines and realized why.  It  also gave me an idea as to Alfred’s last name.  I’ll just say that it involves T. S. Eliot.  At the end of the story, Alfred sits down to write – a poem perhaps or maybe a love song.  A prose comic book, lobster man and T. S. Eliot combine for an unusual story, but one that works brilliantly for me.

I have several short story collections that I’ve been reading for several years.  Kurt Vonnegut’s Bagombo Snuff Box and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tales of the Jazz Age.  I don’t know why I tend to take my time in reading short story collections other than I don’t want them to end.  The Barnum Museum might fall into this category; however, some of the stories sound interesting.  One of the titles is “A Game of Clue”.  I don’t know if I can wait to find out what Millhauser does with this.

 

 

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Nathaniel Hawthorne: Young Goodman Brown

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Week 39 of my Deal Me In 2014 short story project brings me to my final Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Young Goodman Brown”.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

I think this is another story that is fairly well-known but I happened to have not read until now.  I have found Hawthorne almost as intriguing this year as Herman Melville.  Both authors are stalwarts of Nineteenth Century American Literature.  To make still another comparison, I’ve been surprised at how downright scary Hawthorne’s stories can be – just as scary as Edgar Allan Poe, another of Hawthorne’s American contemporaries.

Young Goodman Brown says goodbye to his new wife, Faith, to embark on a journey in which the reader (and Faith, I think) never gets the full details as to the reason.  The reader gets the distinct impression that less than noble intentions are behind the journey.  Along the way, Brown meets up with an older man.  Is this man behind the purpose of his travels or is he unexpected?  The reader isn’t sure.  It doesn’t take long to realize that the older man is most likely the Devil himself.  Through eerie descriptions Goodman and the Devil travel through the woods.  The Devil seems to take pleasure in pointing out how many of Goodman Brown’s church people are secretly working for him.  Ultimately, Goodman gets the impression that even his wife, Faith (great name!), might be in cahoots with his travel companion.

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The story leaves many questions.  Is this all a dream of Goodman Brown or is it real?  Hypocrisy of religious people seems to play a prominent role in Hawthorne’s stories.  However, Young Goodman Brown doesn’t seem to be completely pure (or puritan) in spite of his name (another good one!).  The possible change in Faith is what makes me think the story is more dream than real.  If any character is pure, it would be her.  But if this is a dream, it’s a dream that has a drastic effect on the rest of Young Goodman Brown’s life.

In this story, as in all of Hawthorne’s stories I’ve read, I love the way he describes the rugged colonial Massachusetts landscape.  Letting him take me back to a younger country with forests and footpaths, scary though they may be, will make me continue to visit and revisit Hawthorne’s writing.

Banned Book Awareness Week 2014

This week is Banned Book Awareness Week and typically during this week each year, I read a banned book in celebration of my freedom to discern for myself what I will read or not read.  I actually have two books that I plan to read; however, due to an extra busy work schedule, I’m fairly certain that neither will get read completely this week.  So look for future posts about these books that have been found on banned book lists during the last few decades:

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

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Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

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I also have two more wild cards in my Deal Me In 2014 Short Story Project and whenever one of those pops up, I plan to read a short story by Salman Rushdie, one of the more extreme victims of book banning that I can think of in my lifetime.  I would also recommend Rushdie’s literary thriller of a memoir Joseph Anton,  an entertaining thriller if it wasn’t for the fact that it was true.  I posted about it here.

So maybe October will be Banned Book Month for me.  In the meantime, celebrate your freedom to read!

G. K. Chesterton: The Red Moon of Meru

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A priest, a mystic and a skeptic walk into a bazaar.  Actually, there are several skeptics and a few mystics and, as usual, for G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, not everything is as it appears in “The Red Moon of Meru”.   These characters have names like Lord and Lady Mounteagle, Hardcastle, and Tommy Hunter.  All of these characters begin the story in conversation about the fortune tellers at the bazaar.  Much is made of what is real and what is not real.  Illusion is a major theme in this episode.  What is in the eye of the beholder and what is cold, hard fact are questions debated between everyone including Father Brown.

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They all make their way to the museum owned by Lord Mounteagle to look upon his prized ruby from India known as the Red Moon of Meru.  As Mounteagle allows his guests to handle the gem, the reader gets an idea of what is going to happen.  When one of the guests accidentally (or a little too coincidentally, in my opinion) lays the stone on a window sill, everyone sees an unknown hand, or perhaps a sleight of hand, snap it away.  After an initial struggle among some of the guests, Father Brown begins to figure out what happened.  At the same time, the ruby mysteriously reappears right where it was.

This story lacked the very quotable Chesterton that I enjoy; however, I appreciate the manner in which the ending veered from the standard detective story.  All of the guests leave with the impression that the stolen ruby was simply an illusion.  They all saw what they wanted to see.  Of course Father Brown knows the truth but he lets everyone leave without knowing it – everyone except his detective friend disguised as a phrenologist (someone who tells the future by the configuration of one’s skull).

I suppose it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility for a priest-detective to stumble across a repentant thief?

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

Graham Greene: Dream of a Strange Land

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I drew the Eight of Spades this week for my Deal Me In 2014 project which gave me my final Graham Greene story of the year, “Dream of a Strange Land”.  Greene’s work has been hit and miss.  When it’s a hit, I’ve really enjoyed his work.  When it’s a miss, I really haven’t.  I’ll call this story a hit.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

A doctor called Herr Professor receives a patient in his large home.  The patient makes a plea for the doctor to continue treating him as he has; however, the patient has Hansen’s disease, better known as leprosy, and anything less than putting the patient under quarantine would be against the law.  Greene begins to paint with subtle and unusual stokes the fear that grips the patient at the thought of isolation .  It seems that the patient is already significantly alone and isolated and taking away the small and minute pleasures that give him even an ounce of joy is more than he can stand.  I found it interesting that the patient didn’t have a huge family or a ton of social connections from which he would be taken away.  Greene tends to take things in a direction that one wouldn’t expect.  His subtlety in doing this reminds me of William Trevor’s stories.

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Then we cut to a different scene where Herr Professor receives a military acquaintance who has decided that a party for his General will be moved to the doctor’s house including a large orchestra and gambling casino.  In a matter of hours, the doctor’s house is turned into a hustling and bustling “to do” with many guests, lots of drinking and gambling, and lively music.  The reasons behind this change of plans for the party is never really explained which is probably the one issue I would have with the story.

The patient makes his way back through snow and pine trees to the doctor’s house during the party (of which he is unaware) to make one final plea.  Not expecting to hear and see the party through the window, the patient almost feels he is dreaming in a strange land.  Through the window,  the doctor and patient exchange a final glance in which the patient realizes it’s not a dream.

This story is a great study in mood and atmosphere.  The difference between the extravaganza in the house and the quiet snowy evening outside gives the reader a contrast that works amazingly well and takes care of whatever shortcomings there might be in the plot.

Note:  Thanks to Emilia (see below) for pointing out that the story does contain a specific reason for moving the party to the doctor’s house.

The Guns of August – Battle

I finished Barbara Tuchman’s great book The Guns of August in completing the section she calls “Battle”.  I admit that this was the more difficult section as the battles were described well, but in great detail.  I have always had difficulty following narrative documentation of military engagements.  Tuchman included several maps, but I found my own on the internet and even some old-fashioned paper ones to help me out.  What I liked about this book and what I have alluded to in my previous posts is Tuchman’s readability.  She makes this book different from a textbook – although it would be a great one- but does not turn it into a “story” in the sense of historical fiction.  All of the characters and the battles are laid out based on what I can’t help but believe is actual documentation and evidence.  And at the same time, this is also on what I feel her historical opinions are based.

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Another brilliant aspect to this book about which I initially had questions is her inclusion of only the first month of the war.  I felt I would somehow feel left hanging when I got to the Battle of the Marne.  She uses this battle as the pivotal event that kept the war going longer than anyone ever thought.  Germany was defeated in this battle and thereby not the automatic victor of the war; however, the Allies did not win the victory that could have ended everything.  From 100 years in the future, I can’t help but think “hmmm…interesting”.  And I need no other reason for her to have stopped the book at this point.

In Tuchman’s opinion:

When at last it was over, the war had many diverse results and one dominant one transcending all others: disillusion.

If I had to put the dominant theme of early twentieth century literature into one word, it would be “disillusion”.  Tuchman quotes D. H. Lawrence on the book’s final page:

All the great words were cancelled out for that generation…

 

Previous posts:

A Funeral and Plans

Outbreak

 

Junot Diaz: Edison, New Jersey

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It’s Week 36 of my Deal Me In 2014 project and I’ve selected the Two of Diamonds, only the second wild card so far this year.  My Deal Me In 2014 list can be seen here.  DMI is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

Junot Diaz has been an author on my radar for a while and I’ve seen him pop up on all kinds of lists over the last few years.   I recently purchased The Oxford Book of American Short Stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Diaz’ story “Edison, New Jersey” is included and, having been born in 1968, he has the distinction of being the youngest author in this collection.

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An unnamed narrator who could potentially be a fictional version of Diaz tells the story that takes place in an area of New Jersey heavily populated by immigrants from the Dominican Republic (where Diaz is from).  The narrator, whom the reader knows is relatively young, works with his older partner, Wayne, delivering pool tables and game tables for a retail store.  Here is his great description of pool tables:

Most people don’t realize how sophisticated pool tables are.  Yes, tables have bolts and staples on the rails but these suckers hold together mostly by gravity and by the precision of their construction.  If you treat a good table right it will outlast you.  Believe me.  Cathedrals are built like that.  There are Incan roads in the Andes that even today you couldn’t work a knife between two of the cobblestones.  The sewers that the Romans built in Bath were so good that they weren’t replaced until the 1950’s.  That’s the sort of thing I can believe in.

The plot consists mainly of the day to day events of the narrator and Wayne.  They talk about their women and their families while delivering the merchandise.  The narrator refers to his ex-girlfriend as simply “the girlfriend”.   In a flashback, he refers to their morning routine of guessing what kind of people he will come in contact with during his day.  At the end of the story, he plays another guessing game with Wayne as to where they will end up making deliveries.  He takes a map of his district, closes his eyes and points to the map.  It’s Edison, New Jersey.

Sometimes, in literature, this idea of randomness occurs with themes of life’s meaninglessness and lack of purpose.  While this story contains some hints of difficult times for the narrator, his family and community, the randomness here contains potential and possibility.  Yes, the two deliverers spend their money as fast as they earn it; however, this reader gets the impression that the narrator is eventually going to make something of himself.

I see more Diaz on the horizon.