Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Into the Wind – Robert Henderson


Robert Henderson March 19, 1906 - December 3, 1998

Before I enter into writing about this story, just a quick observation.

I’ve often wondered about the placement of the stories within these volumes. I naturally (at least natural to me) thought that the volume editor would place the stories in a specific order. It would seem that perhaps they would like to set some sort of theme...family, deaths, depression, stages of life – etc.

Maybe they felt that placing the stories into the volume with their most favorite at the beginning would ensure that a particular story would be read – thinking that a potential reader of the volume would purchase the book, make it through several shorts and then move along to something else.

A funny set of recent coincidences took place that prompted me to think about this...but I have a strange feeling that I have written about the story placement before.

Since I read these stories in order, after each story, I look back at the brief biographical information about the author. I noticed that with the current volume, all the authors were listed in alphabetical order and at the moment, I questioned this because my memory (which may have been incorrect) told me that the author bio’s appeared in the order that the stories appeared in the book. I checked the table of contents, and Elkin had the stories lined up in the book alphabetically by the author’s last name. Hum –...did Oates or Solotaroff?

Nope – their picks were not listed in alphabetic order.

Now since I have a bitter taste in my mouth concerning the picks by Elkin, I have created a little dialog between him and Ravenel.

“Hi Stanley – this is Shanon”

“Yeah whadda ya want”

“ Well Stanley, there’s just one last thing concerning your selections for this year’s Best American Short Stories volume”.

“Yeah what”

“Well, is there are particular order that you would like the stories to appear?”

“I don’t give a shit”. click.

Simple. –

Now, I imagined this little dialogue before I heard 2 interviews with Tobias Wolff.

The first was on the edrants.com site under the Bat Segundo interviews. Bat – who is an absolutely incredible reader just steamrolls over Wolff concerning his writing, and some similarities that appear in several of his stories. Wolff reacts pretty defensively...which is what I would expect of him – but it honestly makes him look like a jerk. I think he could have relaxed a bit more...but then again, this is Wolff.

Anyway, I’m off track –

Bat asks him about the placement of his stories in his collection “ Our Story Begins” and Wolff gives his reasons why he had the stories placed in no particular order. Wolff feels that the average reader of a collection does not read the collection from front to back. They pick it up and look for a story that might suit them for the moment, a story that fits into a desired length (shorter for bedtime) or if it is a volume with a variety of authors, one might be looking for a work by a specific writer.

I then listened to the Writers on Writing podcast which featured an interview with Wolff and I made it into about minute 3 when he responded to a question with an answer almost word for word from the Bat interview citing authors, books and even the same little anecdote within the answer. –Ugh – man, he was on the circuit promoting his book. Bummer.

So, I suppose that I shouldn’t look to deep into the placement of these stories because I really have no idea behind the decision making process...or if one even exists concerning this. It is my opinion that the individual who compilies the stories should consciously decide where the stories go based on a message he/she wishes to impart. – But that’s me.

“Into the Wind”

Henderson told Contemporary author: "I have always moved toward writing, even in childhood. Though making a living has sometimes intervened (along with indolence), writing has been a basic preoccupation and still is. It is a very slow process, and the results have been fairly small. Aside from some early efforts, I have published chiefly in the New Yorker--essays, paragraphs for the `Notes and Comments' section, and a number of short stories."

Here is a pleasant story. It held my attention and once again, when there is a male character that is mourning or reflecting on the life he once had with his now deceased wife, I seem to really be drawn into the story.

I love my wife deeply. We have been married for 9 years and 3 months. We have known each other since October of 1998. I remember the first time I laid eyes on her.

The exact moment, the level of light, the temperature in the hallway and room.

It is a memory that I reflect on enough in an attempt to permanently sear it into my mind.

Part of the motivation outside of love that provoked me to ask her to marry me was the feeling that I couldn’t live without her. I couldn’t possibly move forward in my life without her. At the time in which I wanted her to become my wife, there were some pretty well defined paths before me. Well, actually 2 paths. I know that if I had chosen the path that I am not on now, my life would have been miserable. I now that she is responsible for many of the good things that have happened in my recent past. Her ability to correct my course “on the fly” is incredible.

I can actually feel an ache in my chest when I imagine my life without her and when I encounter stories like “Into the Wind” the ache returns.

I often think about our final days, and I selfishly wish that when our time comes, I would be the one to go first.

But then I think further into that thought and I hurt because I know the pain that she would feel, and I couldn’t possibly imagine her living with that heartache.

Her – staring out of a dusty window at empty tree branches- mind empty, long grey wisps of hair falling across her thin face. A soft audible whimper escaping between breaths – legs weak and knees trembling from lack of nourishment.

Me- a stooped grey man, dressed in a faded flannel shirt, worn at the elbows. Cloudy eyes behind smudged glasses, mouth agape, leaking scotch fumes.

-Alone.

The wind that I would be facing as I paddled my boat alone would just be too much. I haven’t the wisdom or strength yet in life to propel my boat to its destination alone.

Crying.

Score – 9 out of 10.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The First Clean Fact - Larry Heinemann



Larry Heinemann (born 1944)

I find it funny, maybe a bit strange that this is the first story addressing the Vietnam War that I have come across in my reading project. It took 2 ½ volumes.

1980.

Perhaps it was the curse of the 1970s that prevented a mention or thought of it.

Sure, I know when this was first published...but why have there not been other stories until now?

Heinemann –

Reading interviews with the author, he doesn’t hide how he feels about the Vietnam War and his experience there. His honesty is brutal but needed and I think that the honesty was needed then and perhaps it is needed now...since we seem to be living in the age of the endless war.

But are we really “at war” or has this reality that we exist in now just become the new normal?

Where are the anti-war novels and short stories of today?

Interesting isn’t it?

Ahhh...yes...there isn’t any money behind an anti-war novel. There is plenty of money behind novels such as Joker One (not necessarily pro-war – but not really anti).

How many accounts from retired Generals or Majors are out there describing the battles that they engaged in?

Are these war porn novels? I read Joker One and enjoyed it. I considered it a war novel though. I did not consider it an anti-war novel.

I’m not going to weigh in on one side or another on the endless war(s) that we are in now...but I think that it would be quite healthy for the country to ingest some of that poison I discussed several entries ago. We need to hear about the nasty things that go on in war. We need to hear about the deaths in Iraq and the growing deaths in Afghanistan. The deaths of our young citizens as well as stories of death and horrors inflicted on the citizens of countries we happen to be conducting military operations in. We need to hear about the billions of dollars being used to fund these wars...the corruption of governments that we support...but you know what? It ain’t sexy, and it won’t sell – so you aren’t and won’t hear about it.

Perhaps, several years from now, after some of the grunts return and take advantage of the GI Bill education they deserve, (currently, there are many vets doing this) they will publish these stories and novels, and we will all sit back and say wow – we never knew...we were so busy spending money with our credit cards watching “The Bachelorette” on our 80 inch plasma T.V. to noticed how messed up you are and how you want to kill everyone due to PTSD.

Look – I know I am simplifying this – wayyy over the top simplification.

I just feel that what is going on out there is not healthy, and we aren’t paying close enough attention to what is going on in our collective name.

Sure, there is an all volunteer military force. – Try to get a job outside of the military though. Good luck.

The stats for survival within the military are great. Pay is wonderful – not to mention the benefits. Problem is – what if you are one of those guys from North Dakota who is a PFC sent on a mission and not though any fault of you own...kill a child.

Yeah – good luck dealing with that for the rest of your life.

Am I insulting someone by asking that? Should I not even dare ask that?

What is so wrong about discussing the killing that was, and is being done, with a returning soldier?

Yes, the subject should be approached respectfully – you don’t just go up to a guy and say “hey did you kill anybody over there?”

Where do I get off talking like this? What combat experience do I have?

Well- no combat experience – but does that restrict me from asking that question? I think that asking questions and not being punished for asking them is one of our greatest freedoms – and those freedoms – were purchased with blood. Were they purchased with the blood of the men and women fighting today? No – are they honestly defending my right to ask those questions by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan today?

Do the Taliban have a military force that could actually take down our government and restrict what I am saying right now?

‘Be careful” all you slippery slope people say...

Who is more likely to take away my freedoms? The Taliban in a village in Afghanistan or the current or future government of this country?

Yemeni terrorists trained in Sudan launch attacks on American soil and kill 2,000 innocents. Will that action take away my freedoms or will the actions taken by my government to “protect” me take away my freedoms? It’ll 2001 all over again but this time Total Information Awareness will be public – not hidden behind door 641A, as it is now.

I think that being a walking contradiction or holding beliefs that can seem on the surface as being contradictory is healthy.

Sure, you can look on my bio over there on the right and see that I was in the Peace Corps. But please, I won’t label you without truly knowing you if you don’t label me without truly knowing me.

I have many questions in my head.

Questions that take weeks, months and years to answer. Some questions may never be answered. But it is through my reading that I am able to go deeper into my question, become more confused, or see some light at the end of the tunnel.

-Look, I know that I’m not a great writer. I’m not even a good writer. Please, count the mistakes on this page.

I can’t explain my positions very well. I have trouble putting down on paper what I really feel – or at least making others understand what I really feel. I can recognize a good writer when I read them – and I know I’m not one. I just put words on the screen and it makes me feel better. And isn’t that what its all about?

What did this story leave me with? It left me with the thought that we need to recognize dissent.

Stop being afraid. Consider the other side. Just because someone doesn’t agree with you on a certain position doesn’t mean that they are going to kill you...or that they support those who want to kill you.

And I’m not talking about dissent directed towards the war or the government. I am talking about dissent that contradicts what you hold the truth to be – in anything.

From your favorite TV show, to an author, a movie, a car...anything. Just stop being afraid of those who don’t agree with you.

We need to question more. Question everything.

Look at where we are as a country. Look at where we could be going. How did we get here? Where were the questions? Where are the questions?

Here are a couple of passages taken from interviews with Heinemann.

The Atlantic interview June 1997

Writing about what you know or don't know is hardly the issue. As I take it, storytelling is guided self-discovery, a meditation; it means listening deeply down into your most human (and humane) imaginative resources.

Sometimes your imagination is overwhelmed by a single subject or event. The Holocaust, Vietnam, the South, growing up black. Conrad wrote beautifully about the sea and sailors; so did Melville. Kafka made a career of nightmares. Virginia Woolf wrote about the English upper-middle class. The trick, always, is to connect the story with the wider world of human relationships and experience.

Logosonline - Interview from 2003

We all heard the stories of getting spit on, that mythology, when we were overseas. I can tell you that when I arrived home I was not in the mood. Some years ago I read from Paco’s Story at the University of Wisconsin and it was the only time I ever lost my temper at a reading. This guy, a history professor and the faculty pill, I was later told, said if he had met me at the airport he would have spit on me. I came out from behind the podium. I was shaking with anger and I said, “Shooting someone with a rifle and spitting on them comes from the same place in the heart. Second, I had just come from a place where I didn’t take any shit from anybody. You spit on me and you get your ass kicked within an inch of your fucking life.” I am not going to be ashamed that I came through the war that in one piece. I’m not proud of what happened in Vietnam, either. How can an honest person be proud of such a thing? But I am not ashamed.

I don’t think a month – a week goes by without me thinking about the path that my life has taken. I think that because of my work, and the exposure to the military that we have here in Norfolk, I often wonder where I would be if I had entered into military service. I won’t deny that at times I regret not entering the service.

The chances for me to sign on the line were numerous and all too easy.

From high school – entering at the age of 18 – enlisted

-To college – possibly the Reserves and then off to the Officer Corps.

I actually had my father – not discouraging me from joining.

What kept me from taking that step? Once again, this is where I drift into the thoughts of predestination.

Where is my life going? What is out there waiting for me?

Score - 9 out of 10.

Hey – why don’t you take the above as a work of Fiction – a story? It’ll make the pill go down easier. I promise.

The Faithful – Elizabeth Hardwick



Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007)

What a wonderful author Elizabeth Hardwick was, and what wonderful things she did for the American literary community and its adherents.

It’s too bad though that this story did absolutely nothing for me. I was completely lost throughout it and I felt that I had my time wasted.

I wondered aloud what exactly I had read.

I will note that this was published in the New Yorker, and I feel that I can draw a similarity between this story and one of the stupid cartoons that the magazine publishes that no one understands but laugh about when in groups looking at it...just to seem “in the know”.

Really, honestly, what the hell was this?

I’ve got nothing here.

Score – 1 out of 10 (one point because it was published...probably just because you were part of the New York elite).

In case of survival – T. Gertler


Who is T. Gertler?

– Birth date and/or death date unknown...

I have a love hate relationship with the online world. In cases such as now, when I am attempting to discover more about an author, I find the resources on the net incredible.

For example, I cannot now seem to get enough of William H. Gass. Through the generosity of my public library, I have access online to The Review of Contemporary Fiction. This periodical over the past 15 years or so has devoted plenty of paper to Gass.

I can now get my Gass fix on! Interviews, papers by noted authors on Gass, studies on a variety of subjects by Gass himself...there is so much there.

Man...the guy really is a genius.

Concerning the current author I am researching – T. Gertler – really, there isn’t a whole lot out there on her. I did discover one treasure that offered a wealth of information.

Through the discovery of an interview Don Swaim conducted with Gertler , which is available online, I was able to learn her first name (Trudy) as well as get a rough estimate of her age. Age really isn’t that important, but I like to get a sense of where an author was in their life when they wrote a particular story.

Gertler gave her interview in 1984 – to discuss the recent publication of her first novel. In the interview, she states that she was 18 in 1965...the second and final year of undergraduate schooling. So – birth year could be around 1947 – she was 37 or so in 1984...my age now...

another one of those weird coincidences I seem to be running across with these readings.

Today – 2009 – would make her around 62.

Her interview, which is pleasant – nothing spectacular – is the full ½ hour interview that Swaim would later cut down to around 3 or 4 minutes for broadcast. I am so grateful that these raw interviews have been posted because without them, so many little details that I have questions about would never be answered.

I really enjoy just listening to the audio of these interviews rather than seeing a video. I think the videos are too distracting. Gertler has a great voice. Her command of English is what one could expect of a writer.

Another added benefit of these full unedited interviews is hearing the raw writer. For example, I never expected that Gertler would have only attended 2 years of college...and her reasons for doing so, and not especially wanting to return are wonderful.

Onto the story.

I can really feel the 1970s in this selection.

Clawing through the fog of memories of my 8 years in that decade...maybe 2 or 3 of those years with the ability to really form some vivid - lasting memories, which are memories of my life in Virginia Beach.

Long walks down abandoned train tracks with my father to fly a kite in what seemed to be a huge field of wheat.

Sunday morning walks through the woods to our little church on Virginia Beach Blvd. and finding turtles to carry home and poke at.

Listening to my mother sing Carley Simon and Boz Scaggs in the kitchen.

Playing on the jungle gym in our backyard.

Crawling around the kitchen island chasing my little sister and slicing my shin open on a hard-candy tin leading to 5 stitches and leaving a scar that I can glance at regularly these days...32 years later.

All wonderful times before our family disintegrated into a statistic.

Aside from those childhood memories, the 1970s in my mind today represent a decade in this country’s past that should be erased from our collective history. I find it hard to think of anything good that came of that decade. It was born from the spasms and upheavals of the 1960’s and buried by the progressive 1980s.

Repression.

Self-repression. This short story illustrates perfectly the black soul that lived within our society during the 70’s.

I can taste the acid of hate in my throat as I write this. God, that time makes me physically ill, and the pitiful man in this story makes me want to spit.

We wouldn’t talk to each other, we hid behind our work, our affairs, our money, our alcohol, our dysfunction.

We did not communicate. And look where that took us. Divorce, addiction and suicide just to pull out a few of society’s ills.

If there is a life lesson that I consider to be the most important that I have learned in my short 37 years on this earth, it would be the value of communication with others.

Just talk.

Don’t hide, don’t bury your problems, don’t lie...put everything out on the table and communicate with each other.

Now what you say, or what I say, may not be pleasing, but in the long run of life, feelings will be spared, emotions will not be damaged and consciences will be clean.

I loved the reminder of this important lesson.

Score : 9 out of 10.