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.


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.


Second Anniversary and some favorites…

Today is the second anniversary of my blog!  It’s been a fun outlet for all of my reading and I’m looking forward to what 2014 will bring.  It’s always been difficult for me to pick favorite books or stories, but there have been a few that stand out over the past year.

My favorite short story is J. D. Salinger’s “DeDaumier-Smith’s Blue Period” and it would also rank up there as the funniest story I read this year.  William Trevor’s “After Rain” was a very close runner up as favorite and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Camel’s Back” was a close second for funniest.  A few honorable mentions would include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”, Willa Cather’s “The Enchanted Bluff”, Salinger’s “The Laughing Man” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Ambitious Sophomore”.

William Trevor and George Eliot are the winners for favorite “new-to-me” authors with Margaret Mitchell and Mark Helprin being next in line.

Picking a favorite novel has proved to be a harder task but I’ll go with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick which I finally read after it sat on my shelf for a very long time. And finally, here are a few quotes from the past year that I enjoyed:

Doubts of all things earthly, and intuitions of some things heavenly; this combination makes neither believer nor infidel, but makes a man who regards them both with equal eye.

-Ishmael in Melville’s Moby-Dick

Men will sometimes reveal themselves to children, or to people whom they think never to see again, more completely than they ever do to their confreres. From the wise we hold back alike our folly and our wisdom, and for the recipients of our deeper confidences we seldom select our equals. The soul has no message for the friends with whom we dine every week. It is silenced by custom and convention, and we play only in the shallows. It selects its listeners willfully, and seemingly delights to waste its best upon the chance wayfarer who meets us in the highway at a fated hour. There are moments too, when the tides run high or very low, when self-revelation is necessary to every man, if it be only to his valet or his gardener. At such a moment, I was with Mr. Crane.

-Willa Cather on meeting Stephen Crane in her essay “When I Knew Stephen Crane”

The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul.  Not drowned entirely, though.  Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs.  He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.  So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.

-and Melville again from Moby-Dick

Reading in 2014 – the long and the short of it

Since today is the first day of the final month of 2013, I thought I would post about my reading plans in 2014.  I’ve discovered that I don’t like having to follow a long list of books.  I’m going to continue reading for The Classics Club and my goal of reading 60 classics in three years.  It’s just that my final list of 60 won’t look like my original list.  In 2013, as I read a book that I considered a classic and it wasn’t already on my list, I simply added it and took another book off the list.  I’ve read 22 classics in 2013, so I’m meeting my goal. Back in February, I bought The Count of Monte Cristo and it’s been sitting on my dresser ever since – taunting me.  So in 2014, Alexandre Dumas’ novel will be my one-book reading project.

My favorite reading project of 2013 was my Deal Me In short story project.  Apparently, I don’t mind following a long list of short stories.  Ever since my former book group, the Indy Reading Coalition, started reading short stories every July, I have become increasingly more appreciative of this form of fiction.  One of the members of this book group, Jay at Bibliophilopolis, started a project a few years ago where he selected 52 stories that corresponded with each card in a regular deck of cards.  Since there also happens to be 52 weeks in a year, he randomly selected a card each week and read the story that went with that card.  In 2013, I joined him in doing this with my own list of short stories and found it to be a fun project that was easy to stick to throughout the entire year.  Well, I still have four stories to go for this year, but I think I’m going to make it.

For 2014, I’ve put together another list of short stories (I’ve come up with 48 stories and made 2’s wild).  I’m looking forward to randomly reading these over the next year.  In determining which stories to use, I feel like I left some authors out; however, even though William Trevor and Haruki Murakami didn’t make the list, I plan on reading ad hoc stories and novels from these authors.  I also feel like I snubbed Jack London by only putting two of his stories on the list, but since he is the author I’ve posted about most on my blog, I don’t feel that bad.  And I’m fairly certain I will be reading more of his work in the coming year.

What are your plans for reading in 2014?

William Trevor: The Piano Tuner’s Wives

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William Trevor’s short stories have a mood that blends the happy and the sad – blends them into something beautiful and real.  “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” stands as evidence of this.

William Trevor

Owen, a piano tuner and blind, married Violet forty years ago.  After Violet dies, he marries Belle.  Forty years previously, he had chosen Violet over Belle.  Belle never married after that rejection and based on the story, never seemed to really get over it.  By most standards, Belle was the prettier woman – but Owen was blind and looks didn’t matter.

The story revolves around descriptions of the two marriages and in usual Trevor fashion, major plot devices are not needed to keep the reader interested.  Violet and Owen complimented each other well during their marriage.  Violet managed to become Owen’s eyes giving him more than adequate words for his imagination.  She also became his driver and propelled his piano tuning business to something more than it would have been without her.

Belle, by all indications, as gracious a woman as Violet, has to live in her shadow.  The shadow, though, seems to be cast more by Belle herself than by Violet or by Owen.  Owen gets two different pairs of eyes to help him see – both in some form or fashion influenced by the other.

Book Sale!

Periodically, my public library, Boone County Public Library (that’s the Boone County in Northern Kentucky of the Greater Cincinnati area), has a book sale.  My guess is that the books that they sell are the ones that have gone through the reading cycle and now don’t have a huge demand.  Since my reading typically doesn’t depend on what’s currently popular, I almost always find something of interest to me when I check out the sales.

This past weekend, the Scheben branch held its sale.  Yesterday afternoon, I wandered over to see what I might find.  It’s interesting that the books for sale are not necessarily in any specific order as the other books in the library.  I think they had them grouped roughly by genre.  I thoroughly enjoy walking up and down the rows of books seeing what might catch my eye.  My two middle kids were with me.  They looked briefly at the teen section then went and sat in a corner with their iPods.  They knew Dad might be a while, but they’re used to it by now.

Here is a rundown of the books that I found:

– The Reef by Edith Wharton:  I have yet to read anything by this author; however, one of her short stories is on my Deal Me In list.  That particular card has not yet popped up in the deck, yet.  I don’t think this novel is as well-known as her novels Ethan Frome, House of Mirth, or Age of Innocence.

The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck:  I will probably read this very soon.  I’ve gotten a sudden interest in Steinbeck.

Nights At The Alexandra by William Trevor:  I’ve discovered Trevor’s short stories this year and have greatly enjoyed them.  This novella will probably get read in the near future, also.

A Passage to India by E. M. Forster:  Forster’s novel A Room With A View has been a favorite of mine for a long time; however, I’ve never read any of his other works.  This one and Howard’s End seem to be the other novels of his that pop up on my radar from time to time.  I think all of his novels have been made into Merchant/Ivory films.

Anchored In Love: An Intimate Portrait of June Carter Cash by John Carter Cash:  The fact that this book was written by Johnny and June’s son made it difficult to pass up- which reminds me that I have Johnny Cash’s autobiography on my shelf somewhere.  I need to read that, too!

Song Yet Sung by James McBride:  My wife just read McBride’s autobiography The Color of Water for a book group.  I’m not sure what she thought of it.  Something about this novel sounds intriguing even though I was a little disappointed with his World War II novel, Miracle at St. Anna.

– And finally, I found a short story compilation that I am sure will get used for my 2014 Deal Me In project.  Bernard Malamud, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Anton Chekhov, to name a few of the authors included.

The great thing about this book sale was that I got the above books for free!  Each summer, BCPL hosts an adult reading program where adults read books, listen to music and watch movies from the library for “Library Bucks”.  Over the past four summers, I have accumulated an entire drawer full of these.  I can use them at the book sales or to pay fines (which I admit I occasionally have).  It’s looking like I might not ever spend the Library Bucks as fast as I get them.  I only spent five of them for these books!

Check out the website here of a great public library!

“Cheating at Canasta” by William Trevor

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A middle-aged Englishman named Mallory sits at a table in an Italian bar in William Trevor’s short story “Cheating at Canasta”.  So far in my reading of Trevor, this seems to be a common situation -but he makes it work.

The Collected Stories

Mallory sits in this bar at the request of his wife, Julia, whom we learn suffered from an “affliction” that caused her to not remember much.  Though, Trevor doesn’t specifically say, I had the distinct impression that Julia has now died.  The couple frequented the bar during their visits to Italy and Julia told Mallory to visit it again for the both of them.

The title of the story represents the love Mallory had for Julia when they played cards during her sickness.  He always let her win and she always enjoyed it.

During his visit, Mallory overhears an American couple arguing at a nearby table.  They are the kind of people that Julia would have called “Scott Fitzgerald” people, “a surface held in spite of an unhappiness”.  The female of this couple refers to her sister and brother-in-law, Geoffrey.  I think a lesser writer would have had difficulty going through these relational levels from Mallory and Julia to the American couple to Geoffrey and his wife.  It could have been confusing, but Trevor never veers from the central focus of Mallory.

A sadness exists throughout the story as Mallory fulfills Julia’s wish.  Trevor expertly combines the sense of loss and the sense of comfort in visiting a place that holds memories of someone who can no longer visit the place with us:

Tomorrow what has been lost in recollection’s collapse will be restored as she has known it:  the pink and gold of Sant Giobbe’s Annunciation, its dove, its Virgin’s features, its little trees, its God.  Tomorrow the silenced music will play in the piazza of San Marco, and tourists shuffle in calles, and the boats go out to the islands.  Tomorrow the cats of Venice will be fed by ladies in the dried-out parks, and there’ll be coffee on the Zattere.

Trevor also used a painting of The Annunciation in his beautiful short story, “After Rain”.

William Trevor: Three more stories

I read three more stories by William Trevor over the weekend and he’s still keeping my interest.  I’m not sure whether these stories rise to the level of “After Rain”, but I’m glad I read them.

“A Friendship” was my favorite in which Francesca is torn between her marriage to Phillip and her long-time friendship with Margy.  In similar fashion to “After Rain”, the current story tends to take place in an Italian bistro while the real story takes place in the form of flashbacks within the minds of all three characters.  The friendship and the marriage almost become characters themselves.  While the marriage relationship seems to win in the story, Trevor’s beautiful writing made me think that he was just a little more sympathetic toward the friendship.

“Timothy’s Birthday” puzzled me the most out of these three stories.  If I go back to Jay”s (at Bibliophilopolis) idea that Trevor’s writing gives impressions as opposed to always having a set plot, I would say that his impression in this story is disappointment.  Charlotte and Odo plan their adult son Timothy’s birthday dinner as they do every year.  However, this year, Timothy sends his nineteen year-old friend Eddie to tell them that he’s not feeling well and won’t be able to make it.  The puzzling aspect revolves around what seems like an odd business relationship between Timothy and Eddie.  It’s never quite spelled out, but Timothy’s parents seem just as puzzled by it.  They fully realize that Timothy simply doesn’t want to come to their dinner for him.  Like the other stories I’ve read, Charlotte, Odo, Timothy and Eddie all take turns telling the story.

“Child’s Play” tells the story of a boy and a girl becoming friends as a result of their parents’ divorce.  Gerard’s mother marries Rebecca’s father.  The two children act out scenes from their parents’ divorce during their playtimes and ultimately tell the entire story.  Actual scenes from the parents get melded together with the children’s acting to the point that it doesn’t matter who’s doing the telling.  It’s an unusual way to organize a story, but Trevor pulls it off.  I’m not sure that a lesser writer would have been able to do it as well.

Look for more William Trevor stories in the future!