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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What I learned this week, November 28, 2014

Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, Dallas, Texas

Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, Dallas, Texas

How Political Leadership Makes City Streets Bikeable

Bike tour group in front of the Belmont Hotel murals. (click to enlarge)

Bike tour group in front of the Belmont Hotel murals.
(click to enlarge)


Nasa Photo

Nasa Photo

All these worlds are yours, except Europa. Attempt no landing there. Use them together. Use them in peace.

Europa Is Stunning In Close-To-True Color


GoPro Tour of my favorite Dallas hike/bike trail.


I’ll bet you thought “Dallas Culture” was an oxymoron. And here they found fifteen

15 Things We’re Thankful For in Dallas Culture

I’d add Dallas Aurora returning for 2015. The last one was more than fantastic.

Shane Pennington's screen inside the Dallas City Performance Hall, with Jazz Trio.

Shane Pennington’s screen inside the Dallas City Performance Hall, with Jazz Trio.


This has always been one of my favorite movie scenes,“We will sell our bracelets by the roadside; you will play golf and enjoy hot hors d’oeuvres. My people will have pain and degradation; your people will have stick-shifts. The gods of my tribe have spoken. They have said, ‘Do not trust the Pilgrims, especially Sarah Miller. And for all these reasons, I have decided to scalp you and burn your village to the ground.”

Thanksgiving, as Told by Wednesday Addams…


Drug Overdose: The Real American Epidemic


Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

The Harvard Classics: Download All 51 Volumes as Free eBooks


Delicious, pretentious, and easy. What else do you want?

Bringing Sous Vide to the Home Cook

Life After High School

I read a lot of short stories. A lot.

All my life I have read voraciously and read short stories particularly. After the advent of the ebook and the portable reader I have been able to kick it up a notch. My Kindle goes with me everywhere and I’m able to read in the small nooks of time that I can scare up. The short story is particularly good to gobble up in these little snips and sips. I usually read one at lunch and another before I go to sleep. That’s two short stories a day… and over a few years… over a handful of decades… they add up.

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

Forty years ago, I had an English professor ask me about my reading habits. I told him I had gone to high school in another country and life there consisted of days of boredom sandwiched between moments of stark terror. I had picked up the habit of reading whenever I could.

“But it is mostly junk,” I said, “Cheap Science Fiction and stuff like that.”

“Your sense of story is very strong.” the professor said, “Talking to students over the years, I think that the important thing is to read and it doesn’t really matter what you read, as long as you read a lot.”

Not too long ago, on this very blog, I did my Month of Short Stories entries – where I wrote about a short story each day. I enjoyed doing that and promised to write more about particular works that caught my fancy.

The other day I finished a large collection of Joyce Carol Oates short stories called High Lonesome. It brings together her own favorites over forty years – from 1966 to 2006. Oates is a very prolific writer and it was good to peruse this sampling.

Alice Munro recently won the Noble Prize for her short stories and I like to compare the two writers. Munro is the unassailable master of the form – but on the whole, I prefer reading Oates. Munro’s writing concerns the life she has led and the people she has known and the wisdom she has acquired. Wonderful stuff and I am so happy she deservedly won the prize. However, Oates goes one step beyond – she kicks it up a notch. Oates writes about the void… the beyond… the horror that lies right on the other side of the tender membrane that divides our world from the realm of madness.

That is something I am interested in.

There are a lot of great and interesting stories in the collection, including the classic “Where are you going, Where Have You Been?” and the amazing “Heat” – which I wrote about before. Today, I want to talk about one of the later stories in the collection, “Life After High School.”

Spoilers will be written, so please, surprise everyone and read the story first. I found a PDF of it here.

“Life After High School” seems to be a popular story for school essay assignments – there is a lot written about it on this interweb thing. I looked at more than a few – and everybody seems to completely miss the point of the story.

You see… it’s really three stories in one. The first two are tricks played on the reader – then she hits you with the hammer, the third.

The first three quarters of the story is the tragic tale of unrequited love where Zachary Graff, the intelligent but socially awkward teenager falls in love with Sunny Burhman, the attractive and popular girl that everyone likes. He eventually, Senior Year, works up the nerve to propose to her and she, of course, says no. He is so heartbroken he kills himself by running his car in a closed garage. This devastates Miss Burhman, and she is “Sunny” no more.

So far, so good. An oft-told tale, one that every reader, especially a young person, will recognize and understand.

But Oates throws a twist. The story isn’t “High School” – it’s “Life After…” and, decades later a middle-aged Sunny Burhman contacts another student, Tobias Shanks, from those days. They meet for lunch and Sunny discovers that the two boys were gay lovers and that Zachary went to see him after she had rejected Zachary and, moreover, Zachary had left him a suicide note.

So now the story has morphed into one of a sensitive young man destroyed by society’s disapproval and Zachary’s proposal to Sunny was his last, futile attempt to “fit in.”

And that is where most people that read it leave the story. It is where I was ready to leave it… but not everything fit.

For example, the description that Oates provides of Zachary was a little odd. She said that most people were afraid of him. That doesn’t fit with the usual view of an odd, awkward, gay loser.

Also, Sunny says to him, “Zachary, it’s a free world.” But his response is, “Oh no it isn’t, Sunny. For some of us, it isn’t” A foreboding answer for a young person. There are plenty of other incongruities – I’ll leave some for you to find – enough to make my point clear on a second reading.

But finally, there was a detailed list of items that were found in his car at his death, it was said to be oddly littered. There was a Bible, some pizza crusts, textbooks, size eleven gym shoes, a ten foot piece of clothesline in the glove compartment, and the engagement ring in the car. (italics mine)

What was that all about? Why tell us all this? Chekhov’s gun says there has to be a reason… a good one.

So I was a little suspicious of the story. And then, I came to the last line… and the whole story changed. You see you think the story is one thing, then you think it’s another – and with the simple, final sentence it all changes, radically, for the last time.

After they have talked and read the suicide note, Sunny, almost as an afterthought, says:

“What do you think Zachary planned to do with the clothesline?”

And there it is.

Zachary wasn’t simply an awkward, misunderstood teenager… he was a killer. He didn’t propose to Sunny because he loved her (though he certainly did) – he was trying to get her into his car so he could kill her. When he failed, he went to see Tobias Shanks, his other love, and tried the same thing with him. Only then, with his homicidal needs frustrated, did he then off himself.

And the girl knew it. Sunny didn’t change her life after high school because of guilt over her rejection of Zachary. She was devastated because of the realization of how close she came to evil, how near she was to being an innocent murder victim, how thin that membrane that protects us really is.

Now… that is a story.

The funny thing is, reading what other folks thought about the tale, nobody else seemed to get it.

Here’s an analysis that is confused by the clothesline and the final line – the most important part of the story.

The clothesline is a symbol whose meaning is up for interpretation because the story does not give it a definite role. It could have been used to force Tobias or Sunny into coming with Zachary or Zachary could have planned to use it to kill himself

Here’s one that only notices the coldness of the final question (in my opinion, her detachment is her armor against the horror that lies beyond)…

Barbara Burhman’s final question in the story, “Life After High School” by Joyce Carol Oates was an appropiate closure because it is a reflection and direct unfolding of one of Barbara’s defining core characteristics and how she really truly feels about Zachary: cold-hearted indifference.

and finally, this one, simply says,

In the extract it was mentioned that Zachary had a clothesline in the glove compartment when the police found him dead in his car. It shows us that if the carbon monoxide did not work to kill him, he would have used the clothesline. It is an appropriate closure to the story because it shows Barbara and Tobias that there was nothing that they could do to save him. Zachary was determined to kill himself. I guess it shows some relief that he would have committed suicide sooner or later, if they might have saved him from the car.

Yeah, right. That’s a pretty slim reason to put that sentence in there for a writer of Oates’ skill. It’s like Chekhov included a gun so that the protagonist could have something to clean.

Am I off base here? Am I reading something into that last question that isn’t there? Is this really a tale of teenage angst, society’s rejection, and doomed love? Am I nuts to read into it a brilliant subtext of homicide and madness?

I don’t think so.

What do you think? – That’s assuming you do.

The War of the End of the World

I finished the first of the really big books I have on my list The War of the End of the World. I read it on the Kindle, but the hardback edition has 576 pages – so it isn’t the longest book in the world, but it’s long enough.

There was a ten-day setback in there when I misplaced my Kindle. I couldn’t find it for over a week and it was driving me crazy. The thing goes with me where ever I go, so I can get a little reading done in the small drips and dregs of time that are sometimes allotted to me – and that’s risky. I’ve come close to losing it twice – leaving it on a train once and on the roof of my car another time (where it fell off along a Frisco road) – but each time a good Samaritan found it, looked me up and contacted me.

This time I was pretty sure I had not left it someplace… but you never know. It turned out it was in the garage where I set it down in a dark, little-used corner when I went back there to get something.

Finding it made me happy and let me finish the book.

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

Misplacing your portable electronic reading device is a first-world problem. The conflict at the heart of The War of the End of the World is not.

The novel is based on true events at the end of the nineteenth century in a dried up, impoverished, and forgotten stretch of worthless desert in the Brazilian state of Bahia. There, after a horrible drought that kills a good part of the population appeared a wandering preacher, Antônio Conselheiro (“the Counselor”), who went from village to village, collecting a rag-tag group of followers, repairing churches and spreading the word of God.

He eventually gained thousands of converts, and they settled on an old farmstead named Canudos – transforming it into something of a religious commune. At its peak, more that thirty thousand people called Canudos home – making it the second-largest city in Bahia. This attracted the attention of the newly-minted Republic of Brazil which did not agree with the teachings of The Counselor. The central government began sending military expeditions and then…. Well, let’s just say, things do not turn out well.

For anybody.

The book, by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, is a vast kaleidoscope of characters – all pulled into the firestorm of disaster that is the War of Canudos.

It was more than a little confusing at first (about half the male characters seem to have the name João or Antônio) and I put together a little crib sheet listing everybody and their relationship to the story. After a few hundred pages that wasn’t necessary – the list stops growing as fast and the denizens of the pages become burned into the reader’s mind sufficiently.

The theme of the book is the danger and the tragic results of fanaticism. Every character sees the world in an inflexible view – and pays for that in spades. The Counselor is a man of great power and wisdom and is able to attract a huge following – converting the most evil of bandits and incorrigible criminals into paragons of religious virtue and conviction. Yet, he can’t understand the implications of what he has done and the horror that will inevitably befall the faithful.

The central government does not see a religious settlement – they see foreign spies and secret plots – because that is all they are able to see. The wealthy landowners only see land and cattle thieves and can’t comprehend anything else.

It is a sad story with results that are beyond appalling.

That’s the first question that a reader must answer, “Why was Canudos destroyed?” But the answer, when you think about it, is, “How could it not?”

And that’s the mark of a mature work of fiction – the ying-yang pull of hope and the inevitable doom. You only wish that some of these people that you have spent so much time with… even some of the evil ones… are able to find some sort of justice, some closure, some comforting balm in the midst of their endless suffering and hopeless struggle.

And some do.

But it is only temporary.

Great Big Books

For a goodly period of time now I have been reading short fiction. That is a good thing – I ‘m writing a mess of short fiction and I should read material similar to what I’m working on – plus, I simply don’t have spare time to waste on anything other than a series of wordly aperitifs.

A snack is not a meal, however, and I have felt an irresistible desire to devour a more hearty course of scribbling. There is a heartiness and depth to a long book. There is a feeling of victory as you down the entire thing. And there is meaning of a subtle nature that can only be conveyed over a longer period of time and greater number of pages.

So I opened up a new Collection in my Kindle library called, simply, “big” and have been watching for sales on ebooks. Even the heaviest tome only takes up a few billion bits of electron cloud inside my Kindle – and the price can be surprisingly affordable. There is no better bargain in the entertainment world than a long book. I’ve been working on variety too, from classics to modern, to homegrown to translated – it’s not hard.

Of course, I’m (mostly)leaving out long books I’ve read before (actually, I’m leaving out books I remember reading). The two that come to mind immediately are “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and “Moby Dick.”

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

My list so far:

  • Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon (I’ve read about a third of it in the past – will start over. That seems to be how I read Pynchon… dive in, go as far as I can, then beat a retreat until I can return to the scene and soldier on)
  • The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (I know, not technically a single book. I’ve read the first one in the series, but remember little. Like the Pynchon above, I’ll have to start fresh).
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
  • Battle Royale, Koushun Takami (saw the film, now I want to read the book. It’s surprisingly long – there must be a lot in there that didn’t make it onto the screen).
  • The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky (I read this in school. Wrote a paper about it. Don’t remember a single thing. Have to read it again).
  • The Three Musketeers, Dumas (After reading The Club Dumas, now I want to go over the source material. It’s been filmed to death, of course, so I’m curious about the original)
  • Cryptomonicon, Neal Stephenson
  • The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (Started this years ago, couldn’t get going. We’ll see how it goes this time)
  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (I know nothing about this book. Intend to keep it that way until I start to dig in).
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • War and Peace, Tolstoy (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami (I’m a big fan of Murakami. Time to tackle his Big Book)

There are two I don’t have and am waiting to pick up on sale (I have time):

  • 2666, by Roberto Bolaño (I have this one in hardback – but would like to have an electronic copy before diving in)
  • Underworld, by Don DeLillo (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)

And finally, I’m starting with:

The War of the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Kindle gives you running percentage that shows how far you are – a very helpful goal-setting device for devouring something Big. I’m at about sixty-six percent and enjoying the tome. It’s a horrific semi-historical account of an uprising around the previous turn of the last century in a poverty-and-drought-devastated area in Brasil.

I have a method of working my way through big, long, complicated books like this. I keep a pen and paper and carefully sketch out characters as they appear. The kaleidoscope of scenes filled with picaresque folks that comes strolling across the page can get confusing and frustrating without memory aids. This one is especially difficult because many of the protagonists have the same name. Usually, once I get about halfway through, I don’t need the notes anymore, as the characters have become close acquaintances of mine… over time.

I have no idea how long this will take or whether I’ll stick to it (will probably take breaks). I hope I’m able to live long enough.

What I learned this week, March 08, 2013

The True-Life Horror that Inspired Moby-Dick

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael


What’s on Tap: Proposed laws good for beer – and Texas

blonde1

 


10 biggest fast food failures

I remember looking at a bag of potato chips and seeing the warning “May cause anal leakage.” Yeah, right.



 11 Foods You Can’t Buy Anywhere Anymore

and not alltogether a bad thing.


Could the ancient Romans have built a digital computer?


The 10 best restaurants in Dallas-Fort Worth

The 10 Best Gift Shops in Dallas
I would add La Mariposa to the list.

The 5 Best Theater Companies in Dallas



Stuff I want:

Titanium Escape Ring Packs a Shim and a Saw

Cube 3D Home Printer