Friday Feed (8/23/2019)

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Happy Friday, friends!

I need to take a quick breather from the #52Stories sprint, so here’s a list of updates and interesting links for your perusal:

  • First, a quick sneak peak for what’s next on #52Stories: Lately, I’ve been reading stories by Phoebe Gilman and Wendell Berry, as well as working on notes for stories by Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and Flannery O’Connor. I’ve got a big stack of short story collections on my shelf from the library, as well, so we are set and ready to go. I hope you’ve been enjoying these entries–I sure have!
  • In addition to short stories, I’m currently still reading through Dr. Al Mohler’s new book on the Apostles’ Creed (and really enjoying it), and I’m a little ways into Jocko Willink’s Disclipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual. With other obligations ramping up in my life, I’m having to dial back my long-form reading quite a bit for the next month or so.
  • Speaking of Dr. Mohler, his annual list of recommended summer reading is always worth a look. Of course, his definition of “summer reading” may be a bit different than everyone else’s.
  • I found this Washington Post article about the challenges of student journalism at Liberty University quite fascinating. The issues described aren’t just limited to universities with presidents currying presidential favor. Some elements of this sounded a bit like my own minimal experience at a private Baptist university.
  • We’re entering an exciting and challenging season at my church, as we’re contemplating merging with another congregation and reforming as a new body. (We would appreciate your prayers on this issue over the next several months!)  This story about a successful church merger was an encouragement to read at such a time.
  • I forget at the moment who recommended the webcomic Wondermark to me (Amanda? Matthew? One of you lovely people…), but if you’re not reading it, it’s a hoot. This recent entry hits a little close to home, if you’re an expert procrastinator like I am.
  • This admonition from Tim Challies is a good reminder that creative work (especially things like blogging) are best when they’re focused on doing good by the audience.
  • Great writing advice from the king of pithy posts, Seth Godin.
  • And finally, a few videos I dug recently:

Ben Kenobi has PTSD–this one’s heavy:

Childish Gambino covers Chris Gaines (Garth Brooks’ pop start alter-ego):

I love “How It Should Have Ended,” and this is another homerun entry:

That’s all I’ve got. See you next week, gang. Stay outta trouble, okay?

52 Stories #23: “The Go-Getter” by Peter B. Kyne

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Happy Wednesday, friends! Today’s #52Stories selection is actually a novella published back in 1921 that was recommended to me by my old pal Cory Robinson on Facebook. Was I sufficiently motivated by this inspiring tale? Let’s find out!

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The Pitch

A highly-motivated war veteran pursues a job in a rival corporation and faces unusual challenges to win his would-be CEO’s approval.

The Payoff

This novella is what you might classify as “fict-spirational” or, more plainly, didactic writing: a story that is meant to teach a specific lesson. The Go-Getter was around 60 pages long, in the edition I read, with another 25+ pages of commentary by the author on the various lessons the reader should take away. It was a quick read, rather plain and obvious in parts, but pleasant enough. I’m not sorry I read it, but it didn’t make much of an impact.

The Takeaways

So, what can we learn from Peter Kyne’s early-twentieth-century fable? Let’s find out:

  • The basic plot of the story can be boiled down to this: Cappy Ricks, the CEO of a multi-national lumber corporation, is discussing with his 2 trusted lieutenants his concerns about the head of their division in Shanghai, when a bright young man asks to see him. This salesman, Bill Peck, is a veteran of the Great War with physical disabilities resulting from combat, but his can-do attitude and refusal to take no for an answer impress Ricks, who decides to give him a job. He instructs his division head to give Peck the “skunk lumber” accounts, as a challenge to see if Peck is all talk or if he can follow-through. Once Peck bests those challenges, Ricks gives him one final challenge to test his mettle. The climax of the book is Peck’s frantic and somewhat humorous efforts to complete this impossible task–but at this point in the story, the ending is all but guaranteed.
  • It doesn’t take a graduate degree in English to pick up on the types and stock figures with which Kyne populates this story: the untrustworthy steward, the faithful follower with no confidence or initiative, the bitter middle manager, and of course our protagonist, the go-getter, Mr. Self-Motivated and Results-Oriented. The twenty-page recap of the lessons learned seems pretty unnecessary, but I wonder if part of my cynicism is that there have been an avalanche of business and productivity books written in the last 100 years, such that so much of this feels like old hat? Is this my chronological snobbery at work?
  • I guess the real question is, does it motivate the reader? And the answer is…sure? Maybe I’m not in the right reader for this type of motivational literature, though it’s funny that I have of late found myself drawn to books about self-improvement, productivity, and business/marketing skills. This one felt a bit hokey to me, but I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment. I think my problem is that this story was very paint-by-numbers, and from the moment Bill Peck walks in the door, you know he’ll end up with the Shanghai manager job. The ordeal of the Blue Vase was an entertaining, if circuitous, way of getting there, but it was no surprise at all when Ricks explains himself to Peck.
  • Maybe that’s the problem. The story was too obvious for its length. The Blue Vase adventure felt like a foregone conclusion. If there were a way to cut down on some of the unnecessary dialogue, or perhaps introduce different challenges for Peck to overcome, it wouldn’t have felt so rote. Also, Peck was too perfect of a protagonist to be a role model.

In the final summation, I think The Go-Getter is clearly a book of its era that suffers by comparison to other short stories as well as other inspirational business texts. Perhaps it should get more credit for being an early example of the genre, but that doesn’t save a straight-forward and predictable story from being much more than window dressing for the author’s moral lessons. It wasn’t a bad book, so I wouldn’t dissuade you from reading it. I’d just caution not to expect too much from it.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #22: “Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s #52Stories selection is a religious allegory/fable by arguably the greatest fantasy author of the 20th century, the architect of Middle Earth himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. (Thank you to Matthew Marks on the Goliverse Facebook page for the recommendation!)

So, does Tolkien’s genius extend to his short fiction? Let’s take a walk together and find out!

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The Pitch

A would-be painter struggles to finish his masterpiece before taking the long journey that awaits all flesh.

The Payoff

This one turned out differently than I expected! In a few theology books I’d read in the past, I came across summaries of this story, but those summaries (at least how I recall them) were quite different from how the story itself actually resolves. It seems that Tolkien, who was famously negative towards allegory, couldn’t help himself when writing this parable–and readers familiar with that other famous Inkling’s writing will see similarities. It’s a pleasant journey with a decidedly theological flavor, and definitely worth the trip.

The Takeaways

So what was it about “Leaf by Niggle” that I found so charming? Err, um, just–okay FINE, hang on a moment while I put down my writing… I really need to get back to that soon, but if you MUST know, let the Seurat-style spoilers (i.e. in “pointilist” prose) commence!

  • Note: Okay, so what follows ended up being essentially a summary of the full story with commentary. It’s longer than I had planned. I don’t normally like to summarize these stories in their entirety, but I just found this one so interesting and pleasant that I can’t help myself. So, again, if you haven’t read the story, the following will spoil everything for you. Please seek it out and read it on your own, and then come back. 
  • First paragraph: “There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go; indeed, the whole idea was distasteful to him, but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, be he did not hurry with his preparations.”  From the outset, the reader can see the obvious metaphor Tolkien establishes. The “journey” is referring to death–but much more than that, to the world-to-come. Niggle, like so many of us, knows it awaits him but does his best to busy himself with other things rather than prepare for the inevitable.
  • In the summaries I’d read before, Niggle was presented as someone who selflessly put aside his own desires to pour out for others. Yet, as it’s actually written, Niggle is like so many of us: frustrated by interruptions of his own plans, irritated by the thoughtlessness of others, yet softhearted enough to at least feel bad that he doesn’t do more to help. In this, I really appreciate how Tolkien doesn’t describe his main character as an alabaster saint. Niggle does indeed help others, but does so with grumbling, sighing, and some muttered curses. His heart, while somewhat tender, is not completely bent toward loving others. There is still some soul-work to do.
  • Niggle’s neighbor, Mr. Parish, is the greatest source of his distraction and frustration. Parish is a constant source of need, often requiring Niggle’s assistance due to his infirmities. He critiques Niggle’s failure to maintain his garden well, but yet ignores or secretly mocks Niggle’s paintings, which are the joy of his life. The fact that the neighbor is named “Parish” is noteworthy here, as a “parish” is also the word for a district that is under the care of a specific church and priest. I’m sure there are many in ministry who at times find their own “Parish” to be a source of criticism and neediness, with little thanks or praise. (Not me, certainly, but others, I’m sure…)
  • As his days run out, Niggle realizes that his great masterpiece is not going to be finished as he likes. His best laid plans have gone awry, and in the end, he embarks on a rain-soaked bicycle ride to get a doctor for Parish’s wife, knowing it may well cost him the last of his productivity. It does; Niggle “recovers” in time for the House Inspector to arrive and inform him he failed to help his neighbors properly with their house, and for the Driver to pick him up for his long journey.
    • Two notes here: I’m not sure if the House Inspector is meant to be metaphorical in the context of the story, but I’m inclined to think he is–a representative of the Law who weighs Niggle’s life and finds him wanting.
    • Also of note is that the Driver comments how little luggage Niggle has prepared for his expected-if-unplanned journey. All Niggle finds he has in the bag he grabbed are his paint box and sketchbook, representative of the thing he loved most. But he has failed to store up treasures for the life to come, and this will come back to haunt him.
  • Here’s where the story takes a sharp turn from what I was expecting: I had heard the story related that Niggle then arrives at his “destination” to find the perfect, beautiful Tree that he’d always been trying to paint but never could because he kept stopping to help others–in other words, his “masterpiece” is the life of service he lived.  But that’s not how it goes at all! (Could I have misread them so badly?) Instead, Niggle is taken to what he describes as a prison or work camp, where he is forced to labor for what seems like hundreds of years. In the context of the allegory, Niggle ends up in Purgatory!
  • In this purgatory, Niggle is left to his thoughts as he is force to do “work” that echoes the works he failed to do properly or speedily in life: digging holes (gardening) and building (repairing his and Parish’s house). This period of confinement results in regret over his failings as a neighbor. His heart softens to Parish’s natural infirmities and limitations. His past selfishness becomes a point of sorrow and repentance.
  • As Niggle’s “case” is reviewed by unseen Voices (which reminded me of conversation between the “angels” Joseph and Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life), it is noted that Niggle’s heart was in the right place but hadn’t functioned as it ought, and that his “head wasn’t screwed on properly.” Yet, despite being a “little man,” his sacrifice at the end stood in his favor, as does his current disposition toward Parish. Niggle graduates to the next level of purgatory. No longer confined to a prison, he is given stewardship of a house and property with a view of The Tree and The Mountains that had so filled his dreams and imaginings in life. This is Niggle’s do-over, in a sense–but he won’t be alone. Parish has made the journey and joined him. Now, Niggle and Parish become friends, and learn how to be good companions and neighbors as they share this place and build their adjacent cottages. Finally, the time comes for Niggle to move “further up and further in,” heading to the mountains (following a shepherd, it should be noted), while Parish waits at their pleasant plot of land (which comes to be called “Niggle’s Parish”) for his wife to join him.
  • The final scenes of the story provide a dual-ending. There’s a conversation on Earth between a school master and town councilor about Niggle’s estate being sold off and the pitiful legacy he left. (This section seemed a clever twist on the “Christmas Future” scenes of A Christmas Carol.) The greedy councilor is dismissive of Niggle’s “foolishness” but the teacher is taken by a fragment of Niggle’s painting, which he keeps and later displays in an art gallery: “Leaf, by Niggle.” Meanwhile, in the Other Place, “Niggle’s Parish” becomes a convalescent home for souls making the journey to the mountains, and it is noted that this caused the home’s namesakes to laugh until the mountains rang with their joy.

In the final tally, Tolkien’s religious parable is really about a man who struggles to value the things that matter most in this life and whose heart must be reshaped before receiving his final rest. Tolkien’s Catholicism shapes this narrative, as he takes Niggle through a few stages of “purging” before he is ready to ascend the Mountain of the Lord.

Even for Christians who don’t hold to this doctrine, the story is still a good reminder that, no matter what other plans or pursuits we have in this life, there are some things that matter most and have eternal impact. Our days on earth are limited, so if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we should be about our Master’s business while there is yet daylight.

I was surprised by this story (and by its overtly Catholic nature) and enjoyed reading it very much. After reflecting on it, I find myself thinking about what I value most and how I can spend my days pursuing things with lasting impact. That alone makes this a worthwhile read.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #21: “The Picture in the House” by H.P. Lovecraft

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s #52Stories selection is my first real experience with the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, as I consider his 1921 story, “The Picture in the House.” The Lovecraft name has become synonymous with supernatural horror, and I was curious finally to explore his work for myself.

So, what did I think? Gird up your loins, dauntless reader, and proceed!

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The Pitch

A traveler takes refuge from a storm in what appears to be an abandoned house, only to find there is one inhabitant…and he’s hungry.

The Pay-off

I made the mistake of choosing a Lovecraft story that was conveniently located in a collection I had picked up to use for another story in this series, so I went ahead and read that one rather than searching out what might be considered his better/best work. At least, that’s what I hope, because if this story is considered one of Lovecraft’s better works, I’m fine with not reading anything else of his. Does that tell you what you need to know?

The Takeaways

Fair warning, adventurer—there be spoilers ahead. Take heed, lest ye

You know what, I’m just going to stop, because giving you spoilers might actually be doing you a favor by saving you the trouble of reading this.

Steel yourselves, brave the fell wind, and hark:

  • You can certainly credit Lovecraft with having a distinct style—even if that style is “15-year-old goth kid with a thesaurus and an axe to grind.” The sentences were belabored and flowery to the point of being silly. Reading his prose almost became a game of “How could I rewrite this sentence in as few words as possible?” I understand that he’s trying to set the mood, but his verbosity quickly became ridiculous. Suffice it to say, this was a jarring shift in style after reading Hemingway’s sparse text.
  • First line: “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.” Yet, he continues, New England holds the greatest horrors, “…for there the dark elements of strength, solitude, grotesqueness, and ignorance combine to form the perfection of the hideous.” Yikes.
  • Lovecraft’s narrator (and likely Lovecraft himself) holds a deep and bitter prejudice against the Puritans who settled New England, describing their “gloomy and fanatical belief that exiled them from their kind” and their “appalling slavery to the dismal phantoms of their own minds.” Having actually read Puritan writings and theology, one wonders if Lovecraft has actually read the Puritans, or is merely working from academia’s stereotypes of these early American immigrants (who were fleeing religious persecution, not “exiled” as if they were banished from polite society, thank you). Indeed, the narration was so arrogant about New Englanders  past and present that I hesitated to feel bad for the evil that would imminently befall him.
  • The short version of the plot: In November, 1896, the narrator (a genealogist) is travelling by bicycle through New England, when he breaks into what looks like an abandoned house to wait out a storm. He discovers an ancient book about exploration in Africa, that falls open to a woodcut picture of a cannibal tribe’s “butcher shop,” if you will. As he stares at the picture, he hears a creak in the floor above, and a creepy old man comes down to greet him. Rather than demanding he leave, the old man welcomes the stranger and comments on the open book and its pictures. The old man begins describing how the pictures stir up murderous, hungry impulses in him, when suddenly a drop of blood falls from the blood-stained ceiling above and lands on the page. Then (and this is a bit unclear) there is a clap of thunder, and the narrator is struck by the old man and presumably killed. Or so I thought. Per the Wikipedia entry, a bolt of lightning destroys the house and brings oblivion to the narrator, preventing him from a dark fate–which is the plain reading of the text, but I thought that was too easy and that HPL was being more artistic? Silly me.
  • If the narrator is killed, in either case, how is he able to write this story? Or am I not supposed to ask?
  • But yeah, that’s really all there is to it. A traveler almost (?) falls victim to a cannibalistic recluse in the New England countryside. Also, Puritans are creepy and bad. Thanks, H.P.!
  • Okay, I admit, this is probably an unfair summary/review. HPL sets the mood and tone of the story with his descriptions and language, and I admit, there’s a growing dread as the tale unfolds. I just wish he had set aside the unnecessary potshots at Christianity, because it took me out of the story and made me more guarded and critical of the narrator. (A brief Google/wiki search clears this up: HPL rejected his culturally-Christian roots in childhood and from then on held to a persistent and antagonistic atheism/agnosticism throughout his whole life. Yet all that time, he wrote quite often about powerful, malevolent gods/demi-gods who destroy, corrupt, and drive mad the helpless characters in his stories. There’s QUITE a bit to analyze there, eh?)

All this to say, I was…not a fan of this story. While the references and allusions to Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones” mythology that I’ve come across in other media have been intriguing (including one of my favorite stories so far in #52Stories!), this entry was a dreary mess. I might give him another shot, but if it’s more of the same, I won’t be digging any further into the Lovecraft bibliography.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

52 Stories #20: “A Clean, Well-lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s selection is Hemingway’s 1933 classic story, “A Clean, Well-lighted Place.” I got the idea to read this one from FX Turk via the Gut Check Podcast. Thanks for the inspiration, fellas.

So what’s this story about? More than just “alcohol,” lemme tell ya.

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The Pitch

An old man drinks alone at a table, while 2 waiters watch and comment.

The Payoff

That really is the entire story, in that one line of description–but it’s so much more than that. This sparse story carried an emotional heft I wasn’t ready for. It resonated deeply with a past season of my life, and I found myself unexpectedly moved. Definitely seek this one out and read it. (I would further recommend finding a printed version, rather than one of the many PDFs floating around the internet. Due to Hemingway’s complete disdain for dialogue attribution, any formatting errors in digital copies end up confusing the reader as to who is speaking at certain points.)

The Takeaways

I have a few thoughts about this story, so sit back and pour yourself a beverage (with or without a saucer to catch the spillage):

  • First: Hemingway’s economy of language. I was fully engaged in a scene he describes in only the barest of terms. I could hear the music, I could feel the breeze, I could smell the city. With the briefest strokes, he paints a complete picture.
  • At its heart, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is about how people (men, specifically) battle loneliness. The married waiter wants to rush home to sleep beside his wife. The soldier outside is pursuing the company of (presumably) a prostitute. But both the old man who drinks and the older waiter who watches lack such companionship. In a way, they are each other’s company, as they silently occupy the same space. This is why the waiter is hesitant to rush the old man out the door. The old man, despite being rich and having some family nearby, had attempted and failed to kill himself when the loneliness became too much. Now, he just drinks alone in the cafe until closing time.
  • As the old man goes and the old waiter closes shop, the waiter then tries to find somewhere else to go. Here is where the title comes into focus: he, like the old man, sought a clean, well-lighted place–someplace he could sit by himself but in the presence of others, so that he didn’t have to confront the loneliness and silence of his empty apartment. It was the emptiness, the all-encompassing nada, that he was avoiding. The waiter recites a version of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary, as the words are overcome and replaced with nada, nada, nada. It’s this nada that lonely men avoid by seeking out cozy spots to drink (or read, or write). There was a season of my life in which, despite having family and friends nearby, I myself ate many meals and spent many evenings in clean, well-lit places, reading, scribbling notes for stories unwritten, hiding away from my own nada.
  • [Now that I think of it, it makes all the more sense that for many years my favorite piece of art was Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, which depicts the epitome of a “clean, well-lighted place.”]
  • “After all, [the waiter] said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” These final words were a bit heartbreaking, because he’s right. There may be many who have trouble sleeping because they feel isolated.

“A Clean, Well-lighted Place” was short but surprisingly moving, and I grokked it on a fundamental level. One of my favorites thusfar.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

“I ain’t gonna work on Susan’s Farm no more…”

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So…how much is your time worth?

Last night, while looking at a freelancing site, I was shocked how many people underestimated the time and effort required to complete the jobs they posted. In one instance, a poster offered $5 per 4000 words proofread, and flatly stated that if the price wasn’t right for you, then you weren’t the right person for the job. (This comes out to a fraction of the average burger-flipper’s hourly wage.)

I was both amused and offended. “You need to value my time better!” I smirked.

Then the irony dawned on me: I don’t value my own time even that much.

I had just spent 2 hours watching Youtube videos as I finished the dishes and sat down to unwind at the end of the day (not an uncommon occurrence).

Youtube sells its users’ attention/eyeballs to advertisers. Essentially, we’re the product being sold. And I gave Youtube a few hours of my time to sell for…what? Fractions of pennies?

I enjoy content creators on the platform who cover geek culture or video games. But after giving away hours and hours of my attention for a trifling bit of amusement (“a-muse”=”not-thinking”), I start to wonder if $5 per 4000 words might be, comparatively, a princely sum.

I use Youtube for lots of things: music, information, but mostly distraction. It’s often background noise while I work or do chores–a sometimes distracting video-podcast. To be honest, I was afraid to look up how many hours of partial or full attention I’ve given away to a platform that seems to be more interested in reshaping my worldview than supplying my entertainment needs. But I went ahead and did it just now.

26+ hours in the last 7 days.

More than an entire day in the last week. Almost 4 hours a day of this ubiquitous screen demanding my partial or full attention. I’m…mortified.

It’s time for me to step back from Susan’s Farm, find another source for my daily music listening, and (crazy thought) go without a daily distractor for a few weeks. I don’t like being a product. Beyond that, I don’t like that I’ve consumed all this media without producing much of anything. This feels really out of balance.

If Youtube is the way you unwind, I get it. It’s cheap, and there’s lots of options. I hope it benefits you.

But looking at those numbers, I have to wonder if, for me personally, there may be a better way to spend these fleeting moments, even in leisure. (Perhaps I need to re-read Digital Minimalism or Competing Spectacles for inspiration.)

52 Stories #19: “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher.

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Today’s entry in #52Stories is “A Brief Moment in the Life of Angus Bethune” by Chris Crutcher, recommended by my buddy James on Facebook. This 1989 short story was published in a collection called “Athletic Shorts” and would go on to be the basis for a film adaptation (called Angus), which I believe is James’ favorite movie.

So what did I think? Let’s get to it!

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The Pitch

An unlikely candidate is crowned “Winter Ball King” and is determined to make the most of his big moment: a dance with his lifelong crush.

The Payoff

I have mixed feelings about this one. There are elements of the writing that I really liked, and others that took me out of the moment. Some of the story elements seemed unnecessary, but on the whole they don’t really detract from the narrative. The tone of the story is very early 90’s and clearly geared at middle/high-school-aged kids, so it feels a bit heavier on the “Bart Simpson” snark than I would prefer. (I guess that means I’m an “old man yelling at clouds” now?)

The Takeaways

So what worked? What didn’t? Does this story “get its moment”? Let the spoilers commence!

  • Right off the bat, I was a bit thrown off by the “voice” of the narrator. Angus is a high-school senior in 1989, but his word usage and cultural referents are sometimes a bit older. You could argue he’s very close to his grandfather and spends most of his time with his parents, so it’s not out of the question that he would consistently refer to older cultural icons like Robert Redford or use words like “tomfoolery” unironically. But in the end, it really does sound like a middle-aged man writing the dialogue of an 18 year old. The fact that the songs that factor into the climax of the story would be considered “dad-rock” by even late 80’s standards only emphasizes the age disparity between author and narrator.
  • On top of the weird cultural discussion, there’s the sarcasm. I get it, he’s portrayed as a “tough kid” with a good heart. But even how he mentally describes his parents is pretty mean. I don’t know if Crutcher is consciously or subconsciously channeling Holden Caulfield here, but the thing is, I despise Holden Caulfield.
  • You can definitely tell the story was written 30 years ago, because man, some of the terminology would NOT fly in our current PC culture.
  • Don’t let all this criticism fool you, reader. I did genuinely like Angus as a character. Crutcher presents a flawed but very sympathetic protagonist, who becomes a kind of everyman for those of us who didn’t make prom king or get our “moment.”
  • “All I want is my moment.” This is the driving theme of the story: the pursuit of a perfect moment that will make for a lifelong memory. Angus really needs a “win,” and he’s self-aware enough to know that he won’t get many.
  • There are some really nice set-ups and callbacks in the narration and dialogue: Angus saying he has no illusions that Melissa Lefevre (his dream girl) will be so taken with him she’ll want to leave with him; the discussion of how Angus’ football skill comes from his ability to shadow his opponent and watch his hips to know where to go; his fear of his sweat being off-putting to Melissa. Crutcher creates some delightful symmetry throughout the story with these elements.
  • Angus’ unusual homelife could have been used as a major plot device (and would have, if the story were written more recently), but Crutcher manages to keep it secondary to the dance plotline. The fact that Angus has 2 sets of gay parents, and his relationship with all of them collectively, does inform much of his character in the story (and gets quite a bit of attention in the middle section of the story), but it doesn’t feel like this is the capital-P Point of the narrative.
  • Crutcher employs high-school-movie tropes (the big dance, the football-star bully, the untouchable dream-girl, the nobody who’s thrown into the spotlight by the machinations of others), but he does so in a way that still feels natural–the tropes become touchstones, connecting this story to all the other stories we love in this sub-genre.

In the end, I enjoyed this story, despite its flaws. Crutcher demonstrates he’s a solid writer from a technical standpoint, and he made me cheer for Angus as he “got his moment.” If you’re so inclined, you should check this one out. Not a classic, but not a bad time, either.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

52 Stories #18: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Next up on “#52Stories Sprint Week” is Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 story, “Harrison Bergeron,” recommended by friend-of-the-blog Matthew Tuck! Thanks for suggesting this one, buddy!

What did I think about Vonnegut’s story? Let’s get into it!

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The Pitch

In a society where fairness is enforced, the exceptional are considered a threat to order and happiness.

The Payoff

Oh man, this one was fun. What a great concept. Vonnegut’s subversive wit shines here as he gives a glimpse of a society gone mad with equity. The focus of the story isn’t so much on plot as on fleshing out the brilliant concept–how a government might enforce “equality” by driving everyone toward a common middle. It’s a bit ironic that Vonnegut, who was personally sympathetic to the ideas of socialism as a way of benefiting the common man, describes a kind of ideologically and characteristically socialist state. At any rate, this story is a hoot. Definitely find it and check it out.

The Takeaways

Let’s not waste any time. On to the hail of spoiler-filled bullets, which by government mandate will not be any longer or more wordy than any other post’s bullets:

  • First line: “The year was 2081, and everyone was finally equal.” From the outset, Vonnegut’s sardonic voice sets up the reader for what’s in store.
  • [AH! I’m having a hard time organizing my thoughts. I want to talk about everything at once! I apologize for repetition and stream-of-consciousness points. Blame it on these infernal headphones.]
  • The story describes an equality-by-government-fiat, held in place by multiple constitutional amendments and by the iron will of the Handicapper-General of the United States, Diana Moon Glampers. Over the course of the story (which is not only short but fast-paced in its humor and movement), Vonnegut describes the pursuit of “equality” as the intentional flattening of excellence or personal exceptionalism. Success, brilliance, and genius are privileges (if you’ll forgive the modern label) for which the gifted should feel shame (e.g. a ballerina apologizing for having a beautiful voice and going on to speak with an exaggerated squawk) and be willing to be penalized. The goal in this society is to be as close to average as possible, so as not to offend others who are less gifted than you. I don’t know about you, but this seems a bit…relevant, almost 60 years later.
  • George and Hazel Bergeron are sitting in their living room, distracted and dazed by television. This seems like a pretty clear commentary on media-obsessed culture, but that could just be a surface level reading since it’s such low-hanging fruit. Their passivity in the light of the screen is demonstrated when they barely register the exciting and tragic events that unfold before their eyes. Nevertheless, Vonnegut takes that trope up a notch by noting Hazel’s sudden bursts of tears–as if awareness and understanding are trying to fight through the fog. Very likely, her tears at the beginning are in part for their son, who was stolen away by the government for being too gifted.
  • The satire of the “handicaps” (a word always used to describe the arbitrary encumbrances placed on people, never actual disabilities) takes on an absurd degree. George’s noise-headphones to prevent extended deep thought, the masks and weights worn by the dancers, the burdens placed on Harrison by the state, all demonstrate how far well-intentioned people will go in the name of equality. This takes a more ridiculous turn when men with actual speech impediments are shown to be the newscasters of this society. Hazel’s response to a frustrated news anchor who can barely get words out perfectly encapsulates this thinking: “That’s all right–he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.” This is “everyone-gets-a-ribbon” thinking at its fullest.
  • By contrast, George refers to the age when people competed with each other all the time as “the dark ages.” People are afraid of being better than anyone else, of succeeding if others fail.
  • The namesake of the story is George and Hazel’s son, Harrison. Though he’s said to be only 14 years old, he’s described as an Adonis. The reader seems to be encouraged to visualize him as older, more powerful and self-possessed, a seven-foot-tall superman who breaks free of his bonds and declares himself to be the Emperor on live television before he and a beautiful ballerina he proclaims will be his queen are shot and killed, live on air, by a shotgun-wielding Handicapper-General.
  • To be honest, the only real critique I have for this story is that when Harrison himself shows up, he’s just a little too much. He’s described as an almost epic figure, which makes his original stated age ridiculous. His aggrandized statements are completely silly (although that, to be fair, is age-appropriate), and the description of the dance became too fanciful for my taste. I was all-in for the biting social satire, but the gravity-defying ballet dancing took me out of the moment.
  • In the end, Harrison is dead, the TV broadcast is interrupted, and George and Hazel miss the whole thing. George was distracted and Hazel was dazed, and they exchange a tragic bit of dialogue. George asks why Hazel has tears in her eyes, and she says she doesn’t know–perhaps there was something sad on the television before the program stopped. “Forget sad things.” “I always do.” “That’s my girl.”
  • One wonders if a society full of Hazel’s and George’s is destined to be ruled by a bureaucracy that demands an average populace. If a people can be lulled into complacency, and discouraged from striving for excellence, they would be pretty docile in the right pair of strong hands.

This one was a delight to read. And as an added bonus, I hear there is a short film adaptation that was made recently. I’m planning on seeking that out. I’ll let you know what I find!

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

 

52 Stories #17: “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

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[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

Happy #52Stories “Sprint Week”! (One day late, sorry–yesterday was a “day off” spent running household errands!)

We’re kicking things off with a classic from 1948–Shirley Jackson’s lighthearted and whimsical tale of ritual small-town murder.

What did I think? Let’s find out! (Does everyone have their names in the box? Good.)

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The Pitch

Townsfolk gather to find out who “wins” the yearly drawing.

The Payoff

Stories like this are tricky, because the twist is so well-known that it’s hard to approach it with fresh eyes. Even not having read the story until now (surprising, since it’s often included in high-school curricula), I was still well aware of the broad strokes of the plot, such as it is. It took a second reading to pick up on some of the subtleties and allusions Jackson works into the piece. Nevertheless, it’s a quick story that’s worth your time, so if you haven’t read this story, and somehow don’t know about the ending, definitely seek it out and enjoy.

The Takeaways

If there are any sweet souls unfamiliar with the story, I’ll go ahead and give a SPOILER WARNING from this point forward. Go read the story and then come back.

On to the barrage of bullets, like so many scattered stones!

  • Opening line: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day.” Definitely sounds different the *second* time you read the story.
  • Jackson makes a few brief allusions to the history of the Lottery–the transition of pieces of bark to strips of paper, the practice of chants or salutes, the battered old box handed down from generation to generation. There are references that those foolish young folks who want to end the Lottery would likely prefer going back to “living in caves.” In just a few sentences here and there, Jackson gives the reader a sense that this village (the location of which is merely described as south of “the northern village”) has been doing this for a long time, and that the progress of the Lottery mirrors the advancement or progress of “civilization,” such as it is in this context.
  • If you’re familiar with the Old Testament, you likely would pick up on the similarities to the judgment against Achan: the community is gathered, the clan is chosen, and then the guilty party is singled out, taken away, and stoned by the community. I don’t know enough about the author to discern if this story is meant to be on some level a critique of what seems like arbitrary or cruel mob violence framed as divine judgment in the Biblical version.
  • “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” The first time I read the story, I skimmed right over this line, but on second look, I realized that this is the “why” that seems shockingly absent in the rest of the story. The Lottery isn’t just a random practice of communal violence–it’s a ritual to secure a good harvest. Though the story is set in the twentieth-century American heartland, it could have easily been any other culture in millennia past. Perhaps this is a statement about the nature of human superstition being the same across time and space.
  • There is a certain sad irony that Tessie Hutchinson, late to the party, “forgetting what day it was” (perhaps as an indication of her hesitation to participate), ends up being the “winner.” Or the fact that Old Man Werner, who has defied the odds for 77 long years, is the most adamant supporter of the Lottery, and bemoans how folks have “changed” and are sometimes less enthusiastic than he’d like. One wonders how he would have reacted if he was the one to draw the black mark.
  • I first wondered if this story, published just 3 years after the end of the second World War, is meant to be a subtle examination of anti-Communist anxieties and the growing concern about a changing world. However, I think my earlier thought on the universality of human superstition and fear is more on the mark (no pun intended). Jackson isn’t writing about a mob trying to ferret out a subversive or dangerous element. It’s a story about tradition: a tradition that too many are afraid to question, even if year after year, on a bright and sunny summer day, they must put to death one of their own.  Sometimes, the darkness of men’s hearts is monster enough.

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Agree? Disagree? Any observations of your own? Let me know in the comments!

A #52Stories Update.

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Happy Friday, friends!

So you may have noticed that my initial plan of reading and reviewing a short story every week hasn’t quite panned out. Point of fact, this is the end of Week 32 of calendar year 2019, and I’m only 16 stories in!

Well, your faithful-if-inconsistent correspondent is going to put himself on the spot by declaring next week “#52Stories Sprint Week“!

Starting Monday, expect to see a flurry of posts reviewing and discussing short stories from my #52Stories list, including such notables as Asimov, Vonnegut, Tolkien, Bradbury, Jackson, Hemingway, and more!

I don’t think I’ll be able to get caught all the way up to Story #33 in my list by the end of next week, but I’m gonna make a good run at it.

If this project isn’t really your bag, that’s fine–just bear with me while I catch up over the next few weeks, and then we can settle into our normal (inconsistent) blogging on other subjects after that. Maybe sign up for email updates, so you can just check in when a post interests you? That link is on the right or below, depending on your browser configuration.

That’s it for now. See you next week, friends, and happy reading!