Beer and Batuman

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”
― Elif Batuman, The Idiot

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

Oblique Strategy: You are an engineer

In my struggle to live life outwardly, I spotted an event on Facebook that looked interesting. There was going to be a Book Club discussion at The Wild Detectives in Bishop Arts. I love that place – named after a Roberto Bolaño novel – it has a carefully curated collection of books, coffee and beer. What else do you need? On the weekends, they turn the wifi off – so people will be forced to talk to each other.

What could be better than to meet in a place like that and talk about a book?

The selected tome was The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The book is a bildungsroman about a ninteen-year-old woman attending her first year at Harvard.

I only had a little over a week before the meeting so I set up a spreadsheet with the number of pages per day I had to read. I have a terrible confession to make. I had a nice heavy hardback copy and the Kindle version. I never picked up the physical book. The new Paperwhite is simply too good.

I’m sorry.

The book was very interesting. Terribly well-written, it was unique in that the protagonist, Selin, was the most passive main character I have ever read in a novel. She drifts along, only slightly buffeted by life. Reading about her, I had the image of a person sliding down a featureless sheet of ice, silently observing the scenery go by (in very great and subtle detail).

So my feelings on the novel were mixed. It was interesting in that this woman’s life in her freshman year was incredibly different than mine (in a bildungsroman you can’t help but compare the protagonists experiences to your own) – for example: sex, drugs, and rock and roll make no significant appearance in her life at all.

One interesting aspect of the novel is that it takes place at the very beginning of the internet age: Selin is confused at first by this email thing – until she embraces it and has the most significant relationship with a slow email conversation with someone she met in Russian class.

The Wild Detectives is way across town from my ‘hood and I fought through the traffic after work, arriving early enough for a preliminary beer (Texas Ale Project‘s Fire Ant Funeral – if you are interested).

I really enjoyed the discussion. We started talking about the cover (I never even noticed there was a rock on the cover). Talking about the email, someone brought up that it was like letter writing in the time of classic Russian Novels (like Dostoevsky’s own version of The Idiot) people would write letters to each other, the distance and time separating the two adding a surreal aspect to a relationship.

A very nice way to wile away an evening.

The next novel we will discuss is The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet. I bought a hardback copy at the bookstore – I’ll avoid temptation and not buy the Kindle version. We won’t meet until January, so I won’t need a spreadsheet to egg on the pages.

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Book With Wings

“If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business, because we’d be cynical. Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down.”
― Ray Bradbury

(click to enlarge) Book With Wings Anselm Kiefer Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

(click to enlarge)
Book With Wings
Anselm Kiefer
Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 13 – The Last Night of the World

A year ago, for the month of June, I wrote about an online short story each day for the month. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day Thirteen – The Last Night of the World, by Ray Bradbury
Read it online here:

The Last Night of the World

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
—-Final two lines of T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
—-First two lines of Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice

Bang, Whimper, Fire, or Ice. Today’s story, The Last Night of the World by Ray Bradbury postulates that the world will end with a dream. Everyone will dream the same dream and realize that it is all over… not because of what we have done, really, but because of what we haven’t.

The story was published in Esquire – they say of it, “One of twelve short stories the late science-fiction legend wrote for Esquire. And, weirdly, perhaps the most lasting.”

It’s a calm apocalypse, a soothing end to things. Nobody riots, nobody goes nuts… they simply live the last day pretty much how they lived every other one.

It was written in 1951 and I think of how it resonated in the time. This was the greatest generation, after all, and they should have been reveling in their victory over evil. But what do you do as a follow-up?

The couple in the story has two small daughters. The opening scene is one of tranquil family life with the girls playing blocks on the parlor rug by the light of green hurricane lamps. The couple drinks brewed coffee from a silver pot out of cups with saucers.

That’s not a modern family – time has sped too much. Today they would be gulping Starbucks from paper cups while rushing from soccer practice to dance class while text messaging each other to remember to pick up a frozen microwave dinner on the way home.

The last thing the woman does is go down to the kitchen and turn off the water tap – she left it on after they had done the dishes together. If I had written the story I would have her go down there and turn it on – have her express a desire to leave the water running for eternity. But that’s the difference between 1951 and 2014.

The one thing in the story I don’t understand is the date. It states that the world will end on February 30, 1951 – a date which obviously never existed. I’m not sure what to make of this.

They sat a moment and then he poured more coffee. “Why do you suppose it’s tonight?”

“Because.”

“Why not some night in the past ten years of in the last century, or five centuries ago or ten?”

“Maybe it’s because it was never February 30, 1951, ever before in history, and now it is and that’s it, because this date means more than any other date ever meant and because it’s the year when things are as they are all over the world and that’s why it’s the end.”

“There are bombers on their course both ways across the ocean tonight that’ll never see land again.”

“That’s part of the reason why.”

“Well,” he said. “What shall it be? Wash the dishes?”

Knockemstiff

After I finished Volt I moved right on into another book of short stories set in the gray area between doomed small-town America and the outskirts of hell. This one is called Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock. The eighteen stories take place from the sixties to the nineties and contain a lot of interconnected characters – all living (if you can call it living) in a small Ohio town with the odd name of Knockemstiff. It seems like a stretch of literary license to make up a name like that for a set of stories like this – but the town used to exist. The author actually grew up there. There is even a map in the front of the book – like a trailer park trashy Lord of the Rings. One woman that shows up in several stories has KNOCKEMSTIFF as a tramp-stamp tattoo.

The author says that some of the events in the stories were inspired by stuff he saw – but the real inspiration was the decades he spent as a blue collar worker  – a meatpacking plant and thirty years at a paper mill. After three marriages and four stints in rehab he quit work to write.

The first story, about a boy with a drunken, violent father, who gets the both of them in a nasty fistfight in the concession stand of the Torch Drive-in movie theater during a showing of Godzilla. It was pretty horrific in its details – the kid’s father drinking whiskey from the car’s ashtray and wiping the sweat off his head with a paper bag – but it was well-written and effective and not too over the top.

Now then, though, the second story, Dynamite Hole… well, to say it was over the top is a bit of an understatement. These are not stories for the easily offended or the weak of heart. Dynamite Hole is a true journey to the heart of perversion and hopeless doom. Do not read this book if you don’t have a strong stomach and a good sense of the separation between fact and fiction.

Now, I really liked this book. That does not make me a bad person. This is a fiction, these are lies. Even if the town once existed – this stuff did not really happen like this (I hope). It is a set of horrific tales about the dregs of human scum… all of which somehow end up in the same tiny hamlet – soon to become a well-deserved ghost town. Maybe sharing a read with these folks makes me feel a little bit better about my own flaws… I don’t know. It’s well written, interesting, entertaining – that’s good enough for me.

Even the titles of the stories seem to seep with quiet disaster.

  • Real Life
  • Dynamite Hole
  • Knockemstiff
  • Hair’s Fate
  • Pills
  • Giganthomachy
  • Schott’s Bridge
  • Lard
  • Fish Sticks
  • Bactine
  • Discipline
  • Assailants
  • Rainy Sunday
  • Holler
  • I Start Over
  • Blessed
  • Honolulu
  • The Fights

Minor characters in one story turn out to be the protagonists in another. I thought of going through one more time and making a chart of who was related to whom and who did what and what nasty end they came to. But before I could get started, I decided I didn’t really want to spend that much time with these people… at least not right now.

Despite the deep horrific lives these folks live – the Bactine huffing, the living for years in abandoned cars out in the woods, the tons of stuff I won’t even write them down here – there are moments of hope and redemption. In one of the last stories, Blessed, a father is driving with his family into the city so his wife can sell some blood (he can’t sell any because of the hepatitis). The father’s promising burglary career as a second story man was destroyed when he fell off the roof of a pharmacy in the middle of the night. The little family road trip goes about as horribly wrong as possible. What really bother’s him, though, is the fact that he has come to realize that his son is mute. When they return home, his wife won’t let him back into the house until he cleans up (for well-deserved reasons).

As he peers into the window, he sees and hears his son talking excitedly to his wife, the boy’s mother. He isn’t mute – he only refuses to speak in the presence of his dad. The father takes this as a good sign and determines to go on, as best he can.

Such is life in Knockemstiff.

 Gothic Hillbilly Noir?

Winosburg, Ohio

‘Knockemstiff’ Writer Pulls No Punches

REVIEW OF KNOCKEMSTIFF BY DONALD RAY POLLOCK

Another Project – Kindle Case

Well, I installed a monitor on my exercise bicycle and then I built a case for my camera. Now, I decided on another stupid project – something I would be better off buying… but anyway.

You see, I lost my Kindle. It was my 2nd generation model – the one I received for Christmas two years ago. I felt awful. I know that a replacement isn’t that expensive anymore but I hate losing gifts – plus I try to take care of my valued possessions and I felt like an idiot. I do carry my Kindle with me literally everywhere (that’s the idea of having one) and will pull it out and read for a few seconds whenever a spare moment comes up (that’s the idea of having one) – so I suppose it was inevitable that I would misplace it eventually.

So after a week or so of terrible withdrawal symptoms, I gave up and waltzed over to the closest Everything Store and bought one of the little Kindle 4 with special offers. It was only 79 bucks and came with a discount and a gift card so it ended up costing less. I keep all my books organized, categorized, and  backed up with a program called Calibre (very highly recommended if you have an ebook reader) so it was a simple task to load all the books onto my new device.  I already have more books on the damn thing than I can probably read in the rest of my life.

The thing is tiny. It is also very light. I had to think a bit about how to carry it. I had spent a bit of money on a genuine Moleskine cover for my old Kindle. It protected the device well and came with a Moleskine Reporter Notebook attached for quick ideas while I was reading. I didn’t want an attached case for the new Kindle, however. The nice thing is its tiny size and feather weight – it makes it easy to hold. But I needed something to protect it while I was carrying it. I played around with some small sleeve-like things and a tiny plastic box that I lined with foam, but none of these fit the bill.

After thinking about it, I decided to make my own. I wanted something to protect it, maybe disguise it, and something that wasn’t much bigger than the Kindle itself.

So I decided to hollow out a book.

The first step was a stop down at the big main Half-Price Bookstore where I walked down the clearance sections with my Kindle measuring it against the books. I wanted a hardback that was only a half-inch or so bigger than the Kindle. I learned a little bit about bookbinding too. A lot of modern hardcovers are bound with the signatures glued directly to the spines. I didn’t want one like that – I wanted a book with the signatures glued to a flexible piece of cloth or paper that was separate from the spine. I wanted one that looked like this – so I could slice the pages out of the book while keeping the spine intact.

Most importantly, I didn’t want to pay more than one dollar.

I found a used copy of Dancing at the Harvest Moon, by K. C. McKinnon that met these requirements. I apologize to Mr. McKinnon and his fans. I apologize to book fanatics everywhere. It feels sacrilegious to carve up a perfectly good book (even a used one for sale for a buck) to make a portable home for an ereader. Sorry. Get over it. I promise to actually read another copy of the book when I get time. There is even a movie, with Jacqueline Bisset – and I promise I’ll watch it if I get the chance.

OK?

On with the slaughter.

Here is the book I chose, and the Kindle. And a razor knife. Oh, the humanity.

The first step is to cut the pages away from the spine and end boards with a razor knife.

Next, I used the knife to divide the pages into three groups, keeping each group glued together as best I could. I helps to cut at the borders of the signatures. The center section is the thickness of the Kindle, with the rest of the pages divided evenly into two groups.

I thinned out some carpenter's glue with water to stick all the pages together.

Next, I soaked each of the three groups of pages in the glue. This was pretty hard - trying to get the glue between all the pages. Then I stacked them up, with plastic between each group so they wouldn't stick together, and weighted them down to dry.

This was the part that didn’t work too well. I thinned the glue too much and it didn’t stick like I wanted it to. Also, anyone that has experience with water-based adhesives will recognize that once the pages are wrapped in plastic and weighted down they will never dry. I had to unwrap them and set them out to dry, which took a long time. I have to think of a better way to do this.

I’m thinking of epoxy resin thinned with alcohol – though that would be a real fire hazard. I’ll work on it.

When you look online, most folks only spread glue on the outside of the pages and then cut down through with a razor knife. I wanted to go a little more serious than that – I wanted to glue the pages together into something like a block of wood and then cut the center section out with a band saw.

I traced the outline of the Kindle on the center section and then cut it out on the bandsaw. One edge is open - the book spine will go there and keep the Kindle from falling out.

Again, here, I didn’t do as good a job as I should. You can see that the paper wrinkled as I was cutting. Plus I was in too much of a hurry and didn’t mark or cut the outline as neatly as I would have liked. It works great, but looks a little ragged. I’ll be more careful next time.

Then I glued the cut out center section to one of the end pieces and then glued both end pieces to the cover boards.

At this point, I spent some time applying extra glue to the sides of the stacks of paper and to the exposed paper. I thought about lining the opening with thin foam, but the paper itself is a pretty good cushion. After I took this picture I peeled away a couple pages until a nice picture of a duck was displayed. I also cut a piece of good quality paper and glued it over the ragged exposed spine – mostly to give it a bit of a neater look and for a bit of reinforcement.

It took a long time to dry. I couldn’t resist messing with it, but any problems could be fixed with a little bit of glue-water mix.

Finished, with the Kindle inside.

Closed, it looks like a perfectly ordinary boring book.

The only thing left is to put a closure onto it. I thought about concealing small magnets in the glued pages, but that’s a bit more complicated that I want to get this time. I need to go to a fabric store and buy some elastic so I can drill a couple holes and install an elastic closure, Moleskine style. I should have done this before I glued the pages to the cover boards, but I didn’t think of it.

I’ll use this for a while, and then, if it works well, I’ll do a second generation – applying what I learned. Hopefully, it will look a bit better and I’ll put in the magnetic closures… that would be cool. Maybe a space for a pen. Maybe a little spot to keep a USB charging cable…

The mind boggles.

Oh, by the way… while I was working on this, I got my old Kindle back. I left it somewhere and the people that found it couldn’t figure out how to get my information off of the Kindle. After about a week they thought of looking in the attached Moleskine Notebook where I had my name, address and phone number. I am very appreciative and thankful they called me and I was able to pick it up. After thinking about it for a while I decided to keep the new, smaller Kindle and let Lee take the old one back to school with him.

The Wasp Factory

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.” – Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory, opening lines.

The Wasp Factory is the first novel by Iain Banks, published in 1984, and the minute I saw the opening sentences I knew I would read the whole book. He had plenty of time to think through the opening, and it is crackerjack. How can you not be irresistibly intrigued by a first person narrator (probably unreliable), “Sacrifice Poles,” an escaped brother (escaped from what?), and a “Factory” (capitalized) that foretells the future.

I had seen mentions of the book here and there – mostly associated with strings of adjectives such as: dark, disturbing, violent, disgusting, hard to read, gruesome, grotesque, unparalleled depravity, monstrous, shocking… and plenty more. Well, so far so good. Then I found it mentioned in a book titled 500 Essential Cult Books. That was enough for me to move it to the front of my to-be-read queue.

Always, when I read a first-person work of fiction, I like to start to work out how reliable the narrator is. In “The Wasp Factory” the protagonist, Frank Cauldhame, is surprisingly honest, reliable, and self-aware. Especially considering he is a sixteen year old serial killer (though he claims his days of killing human beings are over) eunuch, living on an isolated island with his father, trying to deal with life through an endless series of violent, cruel, and depraved rituals – a litany of horrific obsessive compulsive behaviors that, while nasty and disgusting, are the only defense that he has against the hopeless situation that he is trapped in.

As the book goes on Frank’s constructed mythology begins to make internal sense. His series of altars, rites, and symbolic defenses begins to come together as a terrible religion that he has developed in response to a hostile world. For me, one of the surprisingly disturbing sections was a relatively innocent night Frank spends drinking at a pub on the mainland with a friend of his. He drinks way too much and struggles through a horrible night of sickness and vulnerability. It serves as a reminder of how helpless he is once he ventures away from his carefully constructed bulwarks of ritual.

It is a first novel, however, and sometimes you can almost hear Iain Banks thinking, “Let’s see – how can I up the horror a little bit more, what to do next? What taboos can I break now? What will crawl out from under this next rock?” It’s a harrowing ride, but if you are willing to go along with it – there are rewards. Frank is an undeniably unforgettable character and one that you will be glad you met in fiction – because you certainly won’t want to meet him in real life.

Don’t invite him to your family picnic.

The novel picks up momentum, unveiling secret after mystery after shocking revelation. Frank’s brother is on his way home, his father is beginning to seriously unravel, and even the island itself seems about to unleash some final cataclysmic horror as the novel comes to a terrifying climax.

It is at this point that the novel did let me down a little bit. The promised Götterdämmerung never does arrive. Instead there is a “twist” ending – which, although it certainly isn’t expected and does explain more than a few mysteries – for me, it failed to really satisfy the promise of the earlier story. It left me flat – which is a shame, because the rest of the novel was really something – though I’m not sure exactly what.

If nothing else, The Wasp Factory is a unique and polarizing piece of literature. A lot of people have written about the book, with a lot of widely varied opinions. I spent way too much time surfing around looking at WordPress Blogs that discuss The Wasp Factory. Read through some of these – you might learn something.

Blog Reviews of The Wasp Factory