Friday, June 25, 2010

The Cure – Mary Ward Brown

Mary Ward Brown - June 18, 1917

Not surprising that Updike decided to include this short in the collection. If a story had to do with the latter portion of one’s life especially the section where we die, it seems as if the story was almost a shoe-in.

I think about death, and I think about my own death which is obvious when one looks back over my posts.

Now in thinking about my death, I also think about ways to avoid a premature death. I really pay close attention to what I eat and I engage in pretty intense physical activities throughout the week – all with the intention of making my life more pleasurable and extending out my life.

Now, with a little boy on the way, I have even more of a reason to keep the old heart a beat’in.

Putting my body through some of the runs I choose to make causes a bit of discomfort from time-to-time. When I first started running I searched every imaginable website for the cures to fix what was hurting me. I eventually learned to take the advice of my own body and allow it to cure itself through time and rest. Our mind and body can do wonderful things and when we are in tune with it and choose to really listen to it, the best prescriptions are written by us.

In the Red Room – Paul Bowles

Paul Bowles - December 30, 1910 – November 18, 1999

I don’t think a week goes by that I look back at a situation I was in, and discover that I was unable to make myself understood to someone, and must have looked like the incompetent man that I too often see myself as.

Twice today as a matter of fact, during a conversation, I found a away to incorporate the telling of a story that had now need for inclusion in the conversation. The people that were on the receiving end of my tale will certainly think twice about engaging me in conversation again. You see, I am aware that what I say and what I write is...well...nothing all that special.

I know that my command of the language both spoken and written is nothing special. The fact that I recognize that though is good. I believe I have my ego in check.

I wonder, why though I feel the need to share my stories. To inject them into conversations?

To take people into my “Red Room”?

Most people don’t really want to hear other people’s stories unless they ask to hear them. If you offer to tell someone a story, chances are that they will only listen to it with one ear.

I need to keep this irritating little habit under control.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Unknown Feathers – Dianne Benedict

Dianne Benedict - September 17, 1941

Another wonderful story placed into this anthology. I think I need to be in the right frame of mind to accept a story that blurs the lines of reality, and I must have been in that mood because I thought this story really held me. Given Updike’s fascination with all things about life – the decision to include this story must have been easy for him.

Benedict has a Vermont connection and one that is even closer than just a shared connection to the state with me. She received her MFA and taught at Vermont College which was part of Norwich University...which I attended.

This story -

It’s passed though my mind on more than one occasion that I could easily be erased from this earth in a second. A simple smack from a car rounding a corner, smashing my head on the street could end it all.

I don’t let this knowledge dictate the way I lead my life...rather, I lead it like most of us do in this world...that was are going to live a long drawn out life dying of old age.

This is the default setting that we are born with (most of us) and it works out just fine for us humans.

I will also admit that I have thought about the final days and hours of my life before. Will I be laying in a bed passing between dream states out of touch with reality? With my interest in consciousness and discovering the levels of it, its boundaries (if there are any) and the secret powers it holds for us, I think that the time of death will be a very interesting state of mind to find my particular mind in.

I imagine that someone like Aldous Huxley had it right. He instructed his wife to feed him with a nice dose of LSD as he was fading out. That option certainly sounds good to me. I think any efforts to ease the anxiety of the process of its last few hours certainly can’t hurt, and if it is what the dying man wants then it should be granted.

One time when my father and I were sitting in the forest behind his house, drinking from a bottle of “Isle of Jura’, he looked off into the woods, and said that when he was at the point of dying, he wants to be chained up to a tree with a bottle of scotch and left to die. I’m pretty sure that some of us have made similar statements when drunk, and feeling a little goofy.

Now, he has to know that this little wish will never happen because first, we don’t live in a time where that sort of thing can be done anymore and second, I wouldn’t be the one doing it for him and I’m pretty sure I’m the only one he has every said this to.

There was some honesty with himself in his statement and an almost prophetic longing for what he subconsciously knew would never be. It revealed a lot about him...his past life and where he was at that moment in his world.

All of that is changed now.

His ability to look off into the crisp green woods and imagine a beautiful passing has now changed into a vision where dusk is fast approaching, the forest is getting darker, and cobwebs are forming between the branches of dead tree limbs. The forest is no longer green for him.

I suspect his final days will be spent in a bed with crisp white sheets and the sounds of medical equipment.

Is that really better?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Naked lady – Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell - August 1, 1957

We all have rats and snakes inside of us. Both are lurking below the surface and both stick their noses or forked tongues out from time to time...and we must decide if we will allow them to cohabitate or permit one to rise above the other.

Allowing one type of sin to trump another isn’t really a tough decision. You just choose to live in a deeper, stronger state of “sin’.

As I’ve detailed quite frequently here, I’ve wrestled with my lack of self-discipline. Sure, I’ll recognize my inability to wrestle it under control as a sort of sin. I should have more control. I think that in some cases with me, there is the need to purchase a snake and allow him to clean up the rats but at the same time I don’t think that I would have the fortitude to allow the snake to have free run to devour the rats. Perhaps the best tactic would be to introduce the snake for short periods of time and allow him to clean up... hoping that the rats don’t have the chance to multiply to a level that will overwhelm the snake and his cleaning efforts.

I’ve asked M before if she thought that I was a bit “off” the norm. I have some strange mannerisms and behaviors and when I step back to look at myself and my behavior, I really feel a bit of awkwardness about the way I act.

Why do I say what I say, why do I do what I do...make the goofy sounds and facial expressions, talk with my hands, become passionate and vocal about something that doesn’t warrant that sort of behavior?

M does a wonderful job at reassuring me that everything I do is what makes “me”...”me”. She is of course right but I have that constant tugging feeling inside of me questioning everything about me...that tugging must be the snake and the rat.

Bell does a wonderful job of showing that that sin exists within each of us, and that sin is what makes us human, coupled with Updike’s constant exploration to expose and address sensitive points of what makes us human makes this a welcome addition to the anthology.

The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance – Lee K. Abbott

Lee K. Abbott - October 17, 1947


I thought, as recently as a few months ago, that my father would sit me down – over a single-malt or two, and lay out a huge secret story from his past. I thought that it would be something about my parent’s marriage (why they did it), my birth (why they had me) or possibly he would unload all of his baggage and confess to all the affairs that I always suspected he had during he and my mother’s marriage.

Now that his memory is fading, I doubt this will ever happen. I’ve been able to probe his long term memory, about his college years, and he has been quite able to remember those days – versus what happened about 2 hours ago.

We all have our secrets, but this story and the story within the story, told to a son by a father, triggered a strange line of similarity to what I have always thought my happen one day between my father and I.

Son and fathers have a unique bond but unfortunately it’s a bond that I think he and I don’t have.

I was happy to read this story and thought it to be a strong opening to the volume. If the stories continue in this manner, Updike will not disappoint with his selections. Then again, it really won’t take much to be better than the last volume.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Introduction - John Updike

In 1984 I turned 12.

A month after my birthday I was going to be entering the seventh grade. The divorce of my parents was four years behind me and I had settled into life as best as I could. My mother had remarried and my father was dating but I can’t at this time remember the name of the woman.

My life in 1984 was actually pretty uneventful. I was between elementary school and high school. I had not yet hit full-blown puberty (that was 2 years away) but my interest in girls and sex had arrived.

It was a strange time for me. I think 12 is a tough age.

I wrote the above in hopes of it leading me into some sort of introduction to the introduction of “The Best American Short Stories” 1984, but I can’t seem to find any connective ties between it and the opening pages of this collection

I think that the only connection is that at 12 I was on the edge of change – Updike’s characters wrestled with change.

I am a bit intimidated about commenting on the words of Updike just as I was with John Gardner and Joyce Carol Oates.

You don’t get much heavier than Updike.

I have read the introduction he wrote for the anthology, read his interview with “The Paris Review”, read the profile of him from “Contemporary Authors Online”, read various webpages from fans as well as critics and I will be making an attempt to listen to two interviews with him before I post this intro.

I think the best way to get my feelings across about him without completely making a fool out of myself is to paste a couple of quotes by him that really stood out to me.

“When I write, I aim in my mind not toward new York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the book on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.” (The Paris Review interview)

This is a wonderful little piece of information about Updike – that he has the thought or at least the thought to say that he is aiming towards a certain audience. A nice little way to say that he is aiming at the heart of America.

"There is a great deal to be said about almost anything," he explained to Jane Howard in a Life magazine interview. "Everything can be as interesting as every other thing. An old milk carton is worth a rose." (Contemporary Authors Online)

This quote gives hope to me when I think about this little exercise that I am involved in. I have over these past couple of years written about a lot – and a lot of what I have written has been a bunch of worthless drivel.

Terry Gross From NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed Updike in 1989 – 20 years ago and they focused quite a bit on his latest book “Self-consciousness”.

-“Writing is a funny kind of magic you know? You can take a series of painful experiences and just in writing about them you somehow get rid of the pain.

-“When you write about something, in a strange way, you become “lightened of it”.”

Both of the above really speak to me because I feel that what I am doing with this wole exercise is getting rid of some pain as well as lightening my mental load and learning a bit about myself.

- “The whole idea of a face is slightly funny isn’t it?”

Again – put nicely and I can relate as I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with my features.

- “Well, I think telling the truth is kind of a ruthless act. Both in specifics, since you do invade some privacies, in fiction and in the larger way, you are trying to or I am trying to as it were, to rub humanities face in the facts of our existence.

That there is much that is ignoble and desperate about being a human being and my fiction is in part motivated by pointing these things out.

So yes there is something ruthless and cruel... even to generate suspense, it’s a bit of a tease isn’t it?

So there’s a kind of sadistic element in the writers attempt to keep the readers interest.”

Gross asks him - “Do you think it’s your demons that keep you writing?”

-“I think there is something demonic in the complete writer – yes.

I think that an ideally nice person would probably not become a writer; I try to write pleasantly, fairly more than pleasantly. I feel there is much in life that is frightening and unpleasant and that we are among other things cruel beings and all of these all of the shadow side of one’s self knowledge of course goes into writing and in a way energizes it. It gives you the energy to undertake this fantastic activity every morning.”

So, I could go on and on pasting and typing up quotes by Updike all day. There really are some wonderful turns of phrase out there but I need to get reading this volume and stop dwelling on this man.

The introduction that Updike provides is pretty standard without any real notable pronouncements.

“I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity...”

“Each is a glimpse into another country: an occasion for surprise, an excuse for wisdom and an argument for charity.”

Now, before I start to report on these stories, I’d like to touch again on the love/hate relationship that David Foster Wallace had with Updike.

The fact is that I am probably classifiable as one of very few
actual sub-40 Updike fans. Not as rabid a fan as, say, Nicholson Baker,
but I do think that The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm and The Centaur are
all great books, maybe classics. And even since Rabbit Is Rich -- as his
characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any
corresponding indication that the author understood that they were
repellent -- I've continued to read Mr. Updike's novels and to admire the
sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.

John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists? by David Foster Wallace The New York Observer October 13, 1997

and then -

"Because Updike, I think has never had an unpublished thought. And that he’s got the ability to put it in very lapidary prose. But that Updike presents one with a compressed Internet problem, is there’s 80 percent absolute dreck, and 20 percent priceless stuff. And you have to wade through so much purple gorgeous empty writing to get anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill.

You really do don’t you?

Yeah. I think he’s a nasty person. And I’ll tell you, if you think I hate him? Talk to – bring up his name to [to J. Franzen]. "

Page 92-93 of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”.

And the above quote was made in 1996 during Wallace’s Infinite Jest tour. A year before he wrote the New York Observer piece.

I feel the two above criticisms are exactly as Updike would like to have his writing interpreted.

Wallace wrestled with his own demons and mental illness, and was, at times willing to discuss his depression and how it was pulling him under.

Updike draws a line connecting ruthlessness, sadistic tendencies, truth telling (which some people don’t like to hear) and his writing.

I don’t think Updike would consider Wallace’s charge an insult – rather, I think he would take it as someone pointing out the obvious. “Big deal” he would say.

Perhaps it was a cheap shot from Wallace – perhaps it is the “young” bucking up against the “old” – which would be welcoming and expected of and to both authors.

In either case, I seem to have presented myself another case of the snake eating his tail.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Best American Short Stories 1984 – The Book and the Contents

The physical condition of this volume of the BASS is quite good. It does appear that there was a previous owner who read some of the stories because of the crease marks along the spine. There is almost no wear on the book around the outside edges and there are only a couple of pages in the back of the book that have been accidentally dog eared – probably during shipping. The pages look tight and I won’t have a problem with this volume as I did with the last of having pages slide out on me.

Contents below.

The Best American Short Stories 1984 ed. John Updike & Shannon Ravenel (Houghton Mifflin, 1984)

xi Introduction John Updike

1 The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance · Lee K. Abbott Georgia Review, 1983

13 The Naked Lady Madison Smartt Bell The Crescent Review, 1983

19 Unknown Feathers Dianne Benedict MSS, 1982

35 In the Red Room Paul Bowles Antæus, 1981

45 The Cure Mary Ward Brown Ascent, 1983

56 Gent Rick DeMarinis Cutbank, 1983

72 A Father’s Story Andre Dubus · nv, 1983

95 Lena · Mavis Gallant New Yorker Oct 31 ’83

106 Inexorable Progress Mary Hood Georgia Review, 1983

123 The Artificial Moonlight Donald Justice Antæus Spr/Sum ’83

140 Morrison’s Reaction Stephen Kirk Greensboro Review, 1983

150 Thorofare Susan Minot New Yorker Jun 27 ’83

161 Glimpse Into Another Country Wright Morris New Yorker Sep 26 ’83

177 Nairobi Joyce Carol Oates The Paris Review, 1983

184 Rosa Cynthia Ozick New Yorker Mar 21 ’83

223 The Cold Room Lowry Pei Stories, 1983

238 Things to Be Thrown Away Jonathan Penner The Yale Review Spr ’83

243 Bruins · Norman Rush New Yorker Apr 4 ’83

255 Foreign Shores · James Salter Esquire Sep ’83

271 Caddies’ Day · Jeanne Schinto Greensboro Review, 1983