Sunday, July 27, 2014

2nd Annual Beat the Heat Readathon

My "Deal Me In Lite" challenge is going so well that, what the hey, let's throw another short (short-ish) challenge/readathon in there, just for fun!

The 2nd Annual Beat the Heat Readathon (signups here) is being hosted by Jessi at Novel Heartbeat and Reanna at Phantasmic Reads, and runs from August 11 to September 1.  I'm a little nervous about launching out on a readathon during this time, because it's traditionally an uber-busy time of year for me, what with school starting back up and things like that.  Luckily, the rules are very simple: set your own goals for the three-week period, and READ.  I can do that, although I don't know what my actual goals will be yet.  Whatever they are, you can rest assured that they will be modest.

I'll keep this post updated with what I choose for the readathon, plus my progress.  Stay tuned!

I received the following book for my 50th birthday, and it looks like just the thing to breeze through as part of this readathon: 50 Things To Do When You Turn 50, edited by Ronnie Sellers.

I also think I will be tackling Summer's Lease by John Mortimer.  It's been on my TBR list forever, so it's high time I read it, plus... Summer!

UPDATE (August 30, 2014):
I have now finished this readathon -- my wrapup post can be found here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Solid Wood" by Ann Beattie

Deal Me In Lite, Week 4: “Solid Wood” by Ann Beattie

This week’s story comes from The Best American Short Stories 2007, and was chosen by the Ace of clubs.  It is the first story by Ann Beattie that I have ever read, and my verdict is, interesting, but not compelling.  It’s one of those kinds of stories that you have to read more than once to understand all the layers of the story, and all the veiled meanings.  To be honest, however, one reason I had to read this story twice was, the first time I read it was late at night, and my brain must have been pretty fuzzy because I missed a whole lot of things in the story that I only got the second time around.  (Memo to me: DON’T DO THAT!)

Anyway, my general impression of this story is that there are a lot of important things that are unsaid by the characters, and that is actually part of the point of the story, I think.  The narrator, Jake Stiles, is visiting Key West with his sister Doris, and while there they decide to look up the widow of a mutual friend.  This friend, Jacob Foxx Greer, never appears in the story, but he is the person who ties all the events of the story together.  He was Jake’s teaching colleague, a famous writer, and he was also Doris’ college professor and the father of her child.  Having had the child at 19, Doris gave it up and so she never knew her son, or Jake his nephew.  We are never quite sure how much of this is known by Clemmie, Greer’s widow, but the impression one gets from the story is, she knows everything and has just chosen to ignore it.  In fact, at one point she comments that she thinks Greer married her because he could count on her to not remark on the obvious.

The title of the story, “Solid Wood,” is enigmatic, but comes from a magic performance the group (including Clemmie’s daughter Penny who is visiting from out of state) attends one evening at sunset on the hotel pier.  “Maurice the Magnificent” performs once a year, out of respect for the white doves he uses in his very brief performance, and his rare performance happens to coincide with Jake and Doris’ visit.  Jake and Doris initially have no interest in attending the show, but Clemmie calls and specifically invites them to it, saying that Maurice is a “friend’s son.”  She also mistakenly calls him Martin at first (a Freudian slip?).  During the performance, Doris is recruited as Maurice’s assistant, and she vouches for the integrity of two juggling pins that Maurice is using in his act, verifying that they are “solid wood.”  But they are not, of course, because soon white doves come flying out of them along with flames.  This seems to be a metaphor for the solid appearance of the relationship Jake, Doris, and Clemmie have, but which is apparently shot through with holes and secrets and maybe even hard feelings.

I liked this story, and would be interested in reading more of Ann Beattie’s work.  Have you read much of her work?  Any stories of hers you would recommend that I read next?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Literary Wordcount Infographic

I found this while perusing the blogosphere the other day, and found it extremely intriguing.  So I thought I would pass it on to you.  Via, originally from Cartridge Discount.  Methinks this might be an interesting list for some kind of reading challenge!  (Click on the ShortList link above to see the original [and readable] image in all its glory.)

Saturday, July 19, 2014

“My Double; And How He Undid Me” by Edward Everett Hale

Deal Me In Lite, Week 3: “My Double; And How He Undid Me” by Edward Everett Hale

This week’s story was chosen by the four of hearts, my card suit designated for humor (for some reason), which takes us to The Classic Humor Megapack, and to the story “My Double; And How He Undid Me” by Edward Everett Hale.

Before I read this story and did some online research, I was completely unfamiliar with the name and work of Edward Everett Hale.  However, according to Wikipedia, he is one of those authors who was pretty famous in his day, if not so much anymore.  He came from a well-connected New England family, and if his name sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because he had some famous relatives.  Hale’s father was the nephew of Nathan Hale, the famous Revolutionary War hero executed by the British for espionage (you probably have heard his most famous quote, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country”).  And Hale married into a well-connected New England family, as his wife’s relatives on her mother’s side included the famous Beechers (Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Henry Ward Beecher, among others).  He was also a minister in the Unitarian church, and went on to become a writer of some renown, especially in the realm of social reforms such as the abolitionist movement and religious tolerance.

This story was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1859, and it was the first short story Hale ever had published.


This is a humorous short story that is not actually that humorous, although I do worry that humor is one of those things that is very much a product of the times in which it is produced.  Just look at the universe of Internet memes out there, including the one above, as an example of some of our modern sensibilities.  Of course, I am not suggesting that humor cannot stand the test of time as other forms of writing can, but I definitely think that it is a genre that becomes stale much quicker than other genres.

What, for example, is the reader supposed to do with this passage from Hale’s story:

The misery was and is, as we found out, I and Polly, before long, that, besides the vision, and besides the usual human and finite failures in life (such as breaking the old pitcher that came over in the Mayflower, and putting into the fire the alpenstock with which her father climbed Mont Blanc)—besides, these, I say (imitating the style of Robinson Crusoe), there were pitchforked in on us a great rowen-heap of humbugs, handed down from some unknown seed-time, in which we were expected, and I chiefly, to fulfil certain public functions before the community, of the character of those fulfilled by the third row of supernumeraries who stand behind the Sepoys in the spectacle of the “Cataract of the Ganges.”

Wait, what?

There SEEMS to be some humor there, just judging from the writing style and allusions to things like an old pitcher that came over on the Mayflower, but I confess I don’t see it.

The premise of this story is funny in itself, and it had the promise of being pretty funny overall.  The protagonist is a minister who finds himself ever busier and busier trying to fulfill all of his religious obligations with his congregation as well as all of his civic obligations.  He wracks his brain trying to figure out some way to do everything he needs to do, but comes up short – until one day, when he and his wife are on vacation and they happen to see a man who, remarkably, is the spitting image of the minister.  So he sets about hiring this man to work for him, and also arranges to have his hair and clothing altered so as to become a passable double.

However, this man is not a learned minister, but an uneducated and shiftless day-laborer, so to make sure he will be able to function in society, the minister teaches him four phrases which, he thinks, should suffice for all of the social settings in which the double may find himself.  The phrases are:

1. “Very well, thank you. And you?”
2. “I am very glad you liked it.”
3. “There has been so much said, and, on the whole, so well said, that I will not occupy the time.”
4. “I agree, in general, with my friend on the other side of the room.”

As I mentioned earlier, you can see the humor inherent in this plot, and you can see how it is going to work out, as well.  The double gets tried out at a variety of functions, each more significant and perilous than the ones before, with fair success.  Then comes the biggest test of all, in front of a huge gathering at which the Governor will be present, and at which the minister assumes it will be practically impossible for the double to get a word in edgewise.  Predictably, this turns out to not be so, and the double is the only one called on to speak.   He starts using the phrases in awkward and embarrassing ways, gets flustered, and then goes completely “off script,” causing a huge sensation and leading to the downfall of the minister as referred to in the title.

Surely it is not necessary for me to write that I did not like this story at all.  But this story did get me to thinking more about the question I raised above.  What is it about some humorous stories (the works of Mark Twain, P.G. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson, and some of Dickens springs immediately to mind) that enables them to stand the test of time and still strike us as funny decades or even centuries later, while many other stories that should have been funny, or may have been funny at one time, are definitely no longer funny?  I’d appreciate your comments in the…. comments.  (Ha)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Toga Party" by John Barth

Deal Me In Lite, Week 2: "Toga Party" by John Barth

For week two of my Deal Me In Lite challenge, my half-deck of cards presented me with the two of clubs, which takes me to The Best American Short Stories 2007.  This volume is interesting to me because it is edited by Stephen King, himself a pretty fine short story writer, although that is not what he is best known for, of course.

“Toga Party” is an interesting, yet disturbing story.  The central event is the toga party of the title, a soiree being thrown by a couple as a kind of housewarming party to celebrate the finishing of their house, which sounds pretty much like a "McMansion," as Barth describes it in the story.

Why a toga party?  No one in the story seems to know, except that it sounds like great fun to them, and they spend many hours thinking about what to wear and also what to say as their “password” upon entering the party – some phrase in Latin is to be uttered by the guest as they arrive, and this is one of the only really humorous parts of the story, as some of the choices of phrase include things like “et cetera,” “status quo,” and “Ave Maria.”  More than one reference is made as well to the toga party of “Animal House” fame, but this toga party is decidedly darker.

This is NOT your John Belushi type of toga party.

Dick and Sue Felton, the main characters of the story, are a happily married and seemingly happily retired couple living in the suburbs.  They have a nice house, plenty of leisure time, and also no real direction in life.  They have hobbies such as golf and tennis, but don’t seem to do anything of significance, and they have a comfortably distant relationship with their children and grandchildren, who live elsewhere and visit only once or twice a year.  They are both in good health and self-sufficient, but they also know that this will not last forever.  Dick in particular thinks a lot about end-of-life issues, and even goes so far as to find a website that tells him how much longer he may have to live.  The Feltons also spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about their will and their estate, which has been set up to cover every eventuality, including what would happen if they die together.  This turns out to be an ominous foreshadowing of the story’s events as they unfold.

Dick and Sue have a mutual friend, Sam Bailey, who also figures prominently in the events of the story.  He has recently lost his wife (in fact, the date of the toga party is the one-year anniversary of her death), and his outlook on life, always seemingly pessimistic, has gone only downhill since then.  He attends the toga party as well, and his actions there (involving a machete that Dick unthinkingly adds to his own costume) play a pivotal role in the unfolding of the story.

This is a dark and depressing story, although extremely well-written.  Barth expertly draws the reader into the lives of his characters.  The story had an additional significance for me because more than once the characters refer to the events in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina as a way of heightening the doom-and-gloom aspects of the story, and having lived through Katrina myself, this kind of thing resonates strongly with me.

In short, not a happy story at all, nor one with any kind of redemption or resolution (in fact it strikes me as overall pretty nihilistic), but a good story to read nonetheless.

Monday, July 14, 2014

"All on a Summer's Night" by Ray Bradbury

Deal Me In Lite, Week 1: "All on a Summer's Night" by Ray Bradbury

This week, the inaugural week of my so-called Deal Me In Lite (with many apologies to Jay at Bibliophilopolis), began with the draw of the six of spades, which means a selection from Bradbury Stories.

I have never read a lot of Ray Bradbury’s work, and I am especially ignorant of many of his short stories, so this was an excellent re-entry into his work.

 “All on a Summer’s Night” seems to be classic Bradbury – not in the creepy, weird way of many of his horror and science fiction stories, but in an evocative, sweet-pleasures-and-emotions-of-childhood-way.  The story focuses on a Fourth of July evening of a bygone time, what seems to be a simpler time when people did things like sit on their front porches on a summer evening.  Douglas, a young boy who lives in his grandparents’ boardinghouse, has fallen in love with books and their authors, thanks to the efforts of a Miss Leonora Welkes, an older lady of indeterminate age, who has a room in the boardinghouse.  Miss Welkes is the town librarian, and she is responsible for introducing Douglas to new “friends” such as Longfellow, Whittier, Poe, Shakespeare, and other authors.

Part of what makes this story so affecting and so magical is the evocative language and imagery that Bradbury uses throughout:

How many nights in winter had he gone down to the stone public library and seen Miss Welkes there with the stamp pad at her elbow and the purple ink rubber stamper in her hand, and the great book sections behind her?

In winter, he trudged home through icelands of magic, in summer through bakery winds of sorcery; the seasons given substance by the readings of Miss Welkes who knew so many people and introduced them, in due time to Douglas.

Douglas basically has a noble, boyhood crush on Miss Welkes.  He sees a side of her that no one else sees – everyone else in the boardinghouse thinks that she is a dried-up, cobwebby old maid.  The male boarders certainly ignore her in favor of three younger ladies who capture their attention.  But Douglas sees Miss Welkes as a fascinating woman who knows the fascinating people who wrote all the books in the library.  He decides to act on his crush by buying her a present using money he had saved up for buying fireworks.  He buys Miss Welkes a bottle of perfume, “Summer Night Odor,” which he notes costs him 97 cents for the bottle.  He leaves the gift anonymously at the door of Miss Welkes’ room, and comes to realize that she thinks one of the men in the boardinghouse bought it for her.

What happens next, I will leave for you to find out when you read the story, but suffice it to say that the story ends on a bittersweet note that is absolutely perfect.

I enjoyed this story very much, and with its focus on books and libraries and the love of reading, it was a fantastic (and totally serendipitous) beginning to my Deal Me In Lite project!