A Month of Short Stories 2014, Day 18 – Araby

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 eighteen – Araby, by James Joyce.

Read it online here:

Araby

When I read Araby… re-read, actually. Of course I’ve read it before… many times. It is part of Dubliners… and reading that is necessary to life, sort of like oxygen or water. I’ve read it many times and every time I read it I discover something new.

When I read Araby I thought of Harry Potter. I thought of The Hunger Games. I though of why I don’t like to read Young Adult Fiction very much.

You see, the overarching idea of Young Adult fiction is to portray an ordinary young person, one usually somewhat downtrodden but mostly terribly ordinary, and reveal that they are something special. The world opens up, and through struggle, shows how important the young person is, how necessary, and how extraordinary things will be from now on.

It isn’t hard to understand how attractive that is. It is escape, it is fantasy, it is hope. Everyone dreams of being a special person with special talents and a special destiny. A Young Adult work of fiction puts a structure on that hope and shows the way (through plenty of challenges) into a bright shining future.

It is, of course, complete bullshit.

“You are not special. You’re not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You’re the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We’re all part of the same compost heap. We are the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

And that is where literature comes in, real literature. Like Araby. It shows the truth.

Araby tells the story of a young man in the thralls of his first love. It is something we all experienced and all remember. He does not completely understand what is happening to him.

He does not understand what will happen in the future but decides to go with it anyway. He does not understand what will happen.

But he finds out.

The young lady changed the position of one of the vases and went back to the two young men. They began to talk of the same subject. Once or twice the young lady glanced at me over her shoulder.

I lingered before her stall, though I knew my stay was useless, to make my interest in her wares seem the more real. Then I turned away slowly and walked down the middle of the bazaar. I allowed the two pennies to fall against the sixpence in my pocket. I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out. The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.

Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.

What I learned this week, February 14, 2013

craft_growler

10 Gorgeous Growlers

A pint of beer is delicious, but not as delicious as four pints…poured into a massive bottle…that you can take with you. I’m talking growlers, people—everybody’s favorite Big Boy Traveler. We’ve rounded up 10 of the sleekest, prettiest, downright sexiest growlers on the market. These aren’t just growlers, these are conversation starters, party starters, and veritable works of art. It’s okay to drool.

In my opinion, the most gorgeous growler is one I have in my hand, with cold Lakewood Temptress, Peticolas Velvet Hammer, or even Revolver Blood and Honey filling it.


Four reasons US business leaders want to import Danish-style cycling

At long last, cycling is being supported by American business – not out of environmentalism but because it’s delivering profit


Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy

From 2006, an excellent piece from the Michigan Law Review.

Abstract:

This Essay examines what the Harry Potter series (and particularly the most recent book, The Half-Blood Prince) tells us about government and bureaucracy. There are two short answers. The first is that Rowling presents a government (The Ministry of Magic) that is 100% bureaucracy. There is no discernable executive or legislative branch, and no elections. There is a modified judicial function, but it appears to be completely dominated by the bureaucracy, and certainly does not serve as an independent check on governmental excess.

Second, government is controlled by and for the benefit of the self-interested bureaucrat. The most cold-blooded public choice theorist could not present a bleaker portrait of a government captured by special interests and motivated solely by a desire to increase bureaucratic power and influence. Consider this partial list of government activities: a) torturing children for lying; b) utilizing a prison designed and staffed specifically to suck all life and hope out of the inmates; c) placing citizens in that prison without a hearing; d) allows the death penalty without a trial; e) allowing the powerful, rich or famous to control policy and practice; f) selective prosecution (the powerful go unpunished and the unpopular face trumped-up charges); g) conducting criminal trials without independent defense counsel; h) using truth serum to force confessions; i) maintaining constant surveillance over all citizens; j) allowing no elections whatsoever and no democratic lawmaking process; k) controlling the press.

This partial list of activities brings home just how bleak Rowling’s portrait of government is. The critique is even more devastating because the governmental actors and actions in the book look and feel so authentic and familiar. Cornelius Fudge, the original Minister of Magic, perfectly fits our notion of a bumbling politician just trying to hang onto his job. Delores Umbridge is the classic small-minded bureaucrat who only cares about rules, discipline, and her own power. Rufus Scrimgeour is a George Bush-like war leader, inspiring confidence through his steely resolve. The Ministry itself is made up of various sub-ministries with goofy names (e.g., The Goblin Liaison Office or the Ludicrous Patents Office) enforcing silly sounding regulations (e.g., The Decree for the Treatment of Non-Wizard Part-Humans or The Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery). These descriptions of government jibe with our own sarcastic views of bureaucracy and bureaucrats: bureaucrats tend to be amusing characters that propagate and enforce laws of limited utility with unwieldy names. When you combine the light-hearted satire with the above list of government activities, however, Rowling’s critique of government becomes substantially darker and more powerful.

full essay available for download


One-month countdown for Snuffer’s to reopen at original Lower Greenville locale

Snuffer’s on Lower Greenville is the first place I went to when I first visited Dallas in 1980. It had only been open for a year. A couple years later I moved into an apartment on the same block – it became our go-to place. I’m glad it’s re-opening on the original location and not too bothered by it being in a new building (the old one was spectacularly uncomfortable) but I will miss going and sitting in the same booth I remembered from 34 years earlier.


8 new acoustic songs to start out your day



What are the chances that a particle collider’s strangelets will destroy the Earth?

“Johnson and Baram are concerned that these changes might increase the possibility that the collider will generate strangelets, hypothetical particles consisting of up, down, and strange quarks. Some hypotheses suggest that strangelet production could ignite a chain reaction converting everything into strange matter.” Leading to the Earth becoming “an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred metres across.”

Great… and I thought I had enough to worry about.


An Art Deco Airplane!

Buggatti 100P (click to enlarge)

Buggatti 100P
(click to enlarge)

LE RÊVE BLEU – IL SOGNO BLU – THE BLUE DREAM
Our MISSION is to build and fly a replica of the Bugatti 100P, the most elegant and technologically-advanced airplane of its time

Our VISION is to recreate – and share with others – the brief period in the late 1930s when Ettore Bugatti and Louis de Monge collaborated to create this singularly unique airplane

Our VALUES include a commitment to honoring the memory of those who designed and built this plane

Invisible Cities

Cities & Desire 5

From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream, they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive’s trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.

This was the city of Zobeide, where they settled, waiting for that scene to be repeated one night. None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman again. The city’s streets were streets where they went to work every day, with no link any more to the dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long been forgotten.

New men arrived from other lands, having had a dream like theirs, and in the city of Zobeide, they recognized something from the streets of the dream, and they changed the positions of arcades and stairways to resemble more closely the path of the pursued woman and so, at the spot where she had vanished, there would remain no avenue of escape.

The first to arrive could not understand what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.

—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Invisible City - Gateway to Arcturus

Invisible City – Gateway to Arcturus

Thin Cities 5

If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.

—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

For a month, starting on June 1, I read a short story every day and wrote a journal entry about them. For me at least, (I don’t know about how it was for you) it was a fun, interesting, and educational experience and exercise. One thing I learned is how wide the world of short fiction is – how varied and variable, diverse and divisive the styles, techniques, and artistry.

So I vowed to continue reading widely… and that brought me to a book by Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities (PDF). Technically, it’s a novel – a short novel. However, it is made up of a long series of very short sketches, each one describing a different, fantastic city – fifty-five in total. These are framed by an outer story, where Marco Polo is talking to Kublai Khan and telling the tales, thereby describing the cities he has visited.

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

The descriptions can be read individually, in relation to each other, and to the deep philosophical questions raised by the framing story.

It is short and easy to read, yet complex – with hidden aspects and dimensions that have to be teased out. It is so full of unique and interesting ideas that it slowed my reading down… I’d devour a half page and then have to rest to let the concepts and thoughts born by the text stop vibrating and resonating inside my head, let it all calm down, before I could read some more.

The book shows a lot of influence of Jorge Luis Borges… and is one book that is referred to as Borgesian. It is full of self-referential conundrums, mysterious contradictions, and postmodern enigmas.

I have to be careful about what I am reading when I write, because my reading is such an influence on what I write. I put up an entry containing something I wrote, Free Breakfast, while reading Invisible Cities a few days ago.

I would love to write like Italo Calvino… though nobody would read it. His fiction is a lot of fun, but it isn’t, for example, something that will ever be as popular as, say Harry Potter.

Now that I think about it… wouldn’t that be cool? A postmodern, Borgesian Harry Potter.

It could explore the duality of Harry Potter’s life. He lives in a cupboard, ignored, miserable, and hopeless for part of the year, then spends the rest in a world of Magic… where he is the chosen one. Which life is the real one… which is the real Harry Potter? Could the dire tragic life of poor Orphan Harry be so demoralizing that it drives him crazy? – Is the whole magical world of Hogwarts born from Harry’s desperation – an imaginary world where he gains unthinkable power and importance – where he becomes the chosen warrior in a war against the ultimate evil?

And what about Voldemort? He shatters his soul into a handful of pieces and stores each one in a Horcrux. He achieves immortality, at the price of a broken soul. Do these items then become Voldemort? How can a soul exist without consciousness? The potential for paradox and existential exploration are endless.

Even something as simple as the paintings…. Dead people make an appearance in the moving, talking paintings of Hogwarts. Is this a form of limited immortality? Do the paintings know they are dead? Are they sad? Are there moving and talking paintings with subjects that were never alive? Why not? If so… what are their memories? Do the dead paintings sleep? Do they dream of the living?

That would be a book worth reading… if someone had the skill to pull it off.

Hidden Cities 1

In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no bigger than the head of a pin which, if you look at it slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the antennas, the skylights, the gardens, the pools, the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not remain there: a year later you will find it the size of half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses its way toward the outside.

Olinda is certainly not the only city that grows in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring. But in other cities there remains, in the center, the old narrow girlde of the walls from which the withered spires rise, the towers, the tiled roofs, the domes, while the new quarters sprawl around them like a loosened belt. Not Olinda: the old walls expand bearing the old quarters with them, enlarged but maintaining their proportions an a broader horizon at the edges of the city; they surround the slightly newer quarters, which also grew up on the margins and became thinner to make room for still more recent ones pressing from inside; and so, on and on, to the heart of the city, a totally new Olinda which, in its reduced dimensions retains the features and the flow of lymph of the first Olinda and of all the Olindas that have blossomed one from the other; and within this innermost circle there are always blossoming–though it is hard to discern them–the next Olinda and those that will grow after it.

—-Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Never Let Me Go

After slogging through the seven Harry Potter tomes I wanted to read something completely different – so I decided to read the novel, “Never Let Me Go,” by Kazuo Ishiguro, the author best known for “Remains of the Day.” It was one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 novels of all time.

It is a subtle story, told in three parts. The first is set in Hailsham, a boarding school in England. The story is told as a memory by Kathy and concentrates on her and two other children at the school, Tommy and Ruth. The three are followed through the short time they stay together after they leave school and then their fate as adults.

I’m not sure how to describe the genre of the novel. It is usually described as a Dystopian Science Fiction Novel – or even as a “Sci-fi Thriller” – but that does the story short shrift. It is not set in a distant future, but in an alternate recent past, one shaped by fictional postwar scientific advances that are by no means beyond probability or comprehension to readers of today. I won’t discuss exactly what these are in order to not spoil the novel, in case you want to read it (and you should). If you want to know, you can read here.

But it is not a typical Science Fiction novel. It is told in Kathy’s voice, and is full of her concerns. She concentrates on the small, everyday interactions between her and the people that she loves, while the terrible truths lie sleeping, just off screen, ready to wake at any moment. She knows, but does not know. As one of the teachers at Hailsham says, “You are told, but not told.”

In the end it is a romance. Kathy loves… but she doesn’t have enough time.

Neither do any of us.


Now, after finishing, I realize that, even though my intention was to read something completely different than Harry Potter, there are a lot of similarities. The style and intent are opposites – Never Let Me Go is an elegiac postmodern literary tour-de-force while the Harry Potter books are, for all their sound and fury, children’s stories.

Yet they both start in exclusive British boarding schools for very special children. There isn’t much difference, really, between Hailsham and Hogwarts. The students are cut off from normal society – hidden from and shunned by ordinary people. The theme of children trying to find their way without parents is central to both, as are the issues of fate, duty, and sacrifice.

Both feature childhood love triangles – in Never Let Me Go it is two girls and a boy – and the difficulties of navigating the riptides of love as the three move from being children to adults.

Oh, and finally, both have been made into films… though not very many people saw the cinematic version of Never Let Me Go. I picked it up from the library and it is good – though without Kathy’s hopeful voice narrating things it is terribly sad. Somehow, actually seeing the awful fate that awaits these doomed children from Hailsham is so much harder to take.


The title of the book and film is from a song on a cassette tape that Kathy picks up at a school swap meet. For the film, they had to come up with the actual music of the fictional Judy Bridgewater.

These two songs have nothing to do with the book or film… but I like them anyway.

NEVER LET ME GO Featurette – Working Together

Official Trailer (possible spoilers)

Harry Potter and the Too Many Pages

My kids have a history with the Harry Potter books. They were just the right age… Well, Nick was at first. He read the first three or so – I remember going to the bookstore in Mesquite at midnight and picking up the books as they were released, so he could start in the next morning. He would devour them.

Nick reading Harry Potter.

Nick reading Harry Potter. Is this the first one?

As the years went by, the books came out while we were out of town, in the middle of summer vacation. Once, we knew we would be in Santa Fe, New Mexico. So I reserved a copy at a bookstore there and Nick and I (he was old enough to stay up now – I don’t know which book it was) went down to pick it up. I remember the night – there was some serious nerdery going on in that bookstore – kids in costume, groups, organized events. I also remember one girl that had a friend in St. Louis. Since midnight there was an hour earlier, her friend was reading her the first chapter over her cell phone while she waited.

Nick sort of grew out of the books. He says he hasn’t read the last two. Lee took over… catching up and reading the rest as they came out. We learned the last book would come out while we were driving through West Texas so we reseved a copy in Amarillo. Back in the hotel, he went down to the lobby and stayed up all night (he has always been a night owl) – reading the thing. He said some strange people came into the hotel after three AM, but they left him alone. He finished the whole book about the time we left in the morning.

I had read the first book, gobbled it down quickly not long after it came out but never read any of the others. I saw… some of the films… maybe three of them. I sort of put them out of my mind as the years went by. I thought about reading them – but the massive size and the time it would require put me off.

But now that they are available as ebooks – I decided to read them on my Kindle. Somehow, the invisible digital bytes hiding inside the tiny tablet seemed less onerous than lugging around giant paper tomes and over four thousand pages of the US edition. So I charged through all seven, one after another. It took a few weeks – I have been busy, but with the Kindle I can carry it with me and grab spare minutes here and there. I liked to take it with me on my bicycle and stop to read when I wanted to take a bit of a rest.

So… what did I think about the beloved series?

First, the experience of reading this much in one gulp is overwhelming. I’ve said before that I have to be careful about what I’m reading because it has such a strong effect on my writing. I was pretty much unable to write any fiction while wallowing in the world of Harry Potter. I did squeeze out a couple mediocre tales of children or teens that didn’t fit in anywhere – lonely, confused, and abandoned… not my usual fare.

But it was an interesting experience – being immersed in J. K. Rowling’s world.

Unfortunately, reading like that does show the flaws in the books pretty starkly. Without a gap between the books the repetitive nature of the first six is obvious and tiring. It’s really the same story told six times. The last one breaks the chain… it is a fully realized grown-up novel.

Also, her overuse of creaky literary crutches – hackneyed plot devices – stuck out. The Harry Potter series is the home of the Hallowed MacGuffin. If you don’t know what a MacGuffin is… read this. Every book revolves around some object (or person), sometimes referred to in the title, that have all the characters dancing around like puppets on strings. But, in the end, that object (or person) really has nothing to do with the actual story at all. That makes it a MacGuffin. The later books have multiple MacGuffins.

There’s nothing wrong with a MacGuffin, of course. You could not have detective stories without them. Hitchcock loved them. The Maltese Falcon is the classic MacGuffin… and there’s no better story than that. But Harry Potter overused them – and when you read all the books and they keep hitting you one after another… a bit much.

She also likes to have all her characters stand around at the end of the books and speak directly about what was really going on – giving out plenty of information that was crudely, cruelly and sometimes arbitrarily withheld from the reader up until then.

And then there’s the Pensieve. Every writer struggles with backstory and point of view. In the Harry Potter books the point of view is held tightly to the hero (with the exception of a prolog or afterward here or there) and she needed a way to bring in information that wasn’t otherwise available to Harry, either by time, space, or the needs of the plot.

So, invent a Pensieve – basically a big bucket – and whenever you need to bring in information that Harry isn’t privy to, have the hero stick his head into the bucket – he falls in, and exactly what you need to have the story go forward (and nothing more) is delivered… by magic.

I shouldn’t complain – it works – but it’s a bit obvious, awkward, and lazy.

Still, though, after all the creaky prose and obvious plot devices it is one hell of a story. Especially when it’s read in one enormous gulp – like a professional eater and a mountain of hot dogs – the world of Harry Potter is irresistible and addictive. You can’t stop reading.

There is plenty there to strike a chord, plenty more to think about. It’s easy to see how it has sold so many copies and become such a touchstone for so many people of several different generations.

I’m just glad I’m done so I can get back to my own pitiful little world.