52 Stories #25-26: Two Stories I Liked More than I Honestly Expected To.

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Welcome back to #52Stories, in which I examine 52 short stories to discover what makes them resonate with readers. Today, I’ll be covering 2 stories that I put off reading for a long time–as in, I had the library books physically on my shelf for almost 2 months before finally reading them. As it turned out, I enjoyed both and look forward to discussing them with you!

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#25: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” by Amy Hempel (1985)

(recommended by John Reid on the Geek Out Loud Facebook page)

The Pitch

A woman visits her best friend at the end of a fatal illness.

The Payoff

It took me a couple of tries to get through this one, to be honest. The first time, I don’t think I was in the right headspace to read this story, which addresses a serious subject much the way its protagonist tries to–with humor, distraction, and avoidance. Once I was able to make myself sit down and push through, I came away unexpectedly moved and a bit heavy-hearted. While it’s not a story I would recommend easily, it was intriguing and instructive.

The Takeaways

Spoilers from here onward, gang:

  • In this story, the protagonist (whose name is never mentioned?) is the “best friend” of a woman dying of a fatal illness (presumably cancer) in a California hospital. It  seems the women have drifted apart, especially in the early stages of the dying woman’s illness, but the protagonist has finally arrived to bear witness to the final stages of her friend’s life. The interactions between these women provide insight into their relationship–while there was familiarity and even love, it seems clear that they didn’t get into deep waters together. As such, facing the spectre of death, they deal with it by avoiding it–exchanging trivia, watching sitcoms, being generally flippant about the impending end. I think, in a sense, that’s how a lot of people face death–by ignoring it or cracking jokes as long as possible.
  • There is mention of the stages of grief, and the fact that there is no “resurrection” stage. This weighed heavy on me, because it belies a worldview that holds no hope past the grave. I don’t know anything about the author’s own beliefs, but for her characters, there is only the inevitability of the end, and their best efforts to ignore it are simply whistling past the graveyard.
  • The story itself is written in a series of vignettes and brief exchanges, snapshots over the course of a few days, glimpses of the thoughts and feelings of these two characters. There’s something to be said about this approach, especially when you’re telling a story that takes place over several similar days. This is a way to hit the “highlights” and keep things moving through the narrative, which I found to be an effective approach.
  • The protagonist leaves at one point, deciding she really can’t be around for the end, much to the anger and hurt of the dying woman. Later, the protagonist says that she might tell the story differently in the future, essentially “rewriting” her narrative to say she stayed faithfully, and no one would know the difference. I liked this insight into the character and her desire to rewrite her regrets.
  • Throughout the story, there’s a running anecdote about a monkey that learned sign-language.  The final few paragraphs concludes this running story with a gut-punch of an ending. Hempel sets this up nicely as a way to indirectly reflect the grief that her character dare not express even to herself. While this approach can be done ham-handedly, there’s a lightness of touch that Hempel employs here, which lends it much more of an impact.

In the final tally, I found this to be a well-written story that frustrated and saddened me in the ways the author intends–and thus was very effective.

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#26: “The Branch Way of Doing” by Wendell Berry

(Berry was recommended by @TeeCeePal on Twitter, but I couldn’t find the exact story collection she named. I hope this will do.)

The Pitch

The son of a rambler becomes the patriarch of a very particular kind of family.

The Payoff

I’d only read a little bit of Berry’s poetry before reading this story, but my, his writing sings. I can see why so many people rave about his work. This story isn’t so much driven by plot as it is a peek into a family history that feels warm and inviting and familiar. Frankly, I wish I could hear more about the lives of these characters, which is the best thing you could ask from a short story, right?

The Takeaways

While the story isn’t humorous as such, there’s a bit of the folklorist-historian in its telling, recalling Garrison Keillor or Will Rogers. You get a clear and firm sense of middle America and its rich history and deep roots. Obviously, this is woven into the the very fiber of the tale; it’s part of a collection of poetry called Roots to the Earth that celebrates the American farmer and farming culture. What I’m getting at is that the story is rich and full, like strong coffee and dark soil, and just as inviting.

The title refers to the culture that Danny Branch establishes in his family, a culture that is endemic of mid-20th-century America: the individualism, frugality, neighborliness, and resourcefulness of the generation that lived through the Great Depression. The Branch’s represent a particular mindset that rejects the flashy and expensive for what is trusted, true, and traditional. In an age like ours that is screen-obsessed and noise-driven, this glimpse of a simpler time and place feels refreshing, if not a bit inspiring.

The only critique (and you really can’t call it that) I have of the story is that it seems to be two or three stories in one. The first section focuses on Danny Branch’s father, Burley Coulter, and his relationship with Danny and the other people in the community. The story then transitions to Danny as an adult and how he and his wife built their family culture and raised their children. The final section of the story (about Danny’s son and his “new” car) then feels a bit tacked on–as if it weren’t so much an illustration of the Branch way of doing as it is a somewhat-related anecdote. While all 3 parts are arguably justified and obviously interesting, I wonder if this instead could have been the seeds of a collection of stories about this family. (I, for one, would welcome such a revision.)

That’s all I want to say, so as to avoid giving much else away. I’m not sure why I was hesitant to read this one, but I’m glad I eventually did. Berry is a wordsmith with a well-deserved reputation, and “The Branch Way of Doing” is a sterling example of that.

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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!

 

Why I Like Being a Baker Books Blogger

I have to confess: I have an addiction. I…I accumulate books way faster than I read them.

There, I said it.

Kidding aside, this…this can sometimes be a problem, especially when my to-be-read “shelf” becomes an entire bookcase. I receive books as gifts, I find cheap ebooks for my Kindle, and the library–my goodness, the library!

But one of the best ways I have found to get access to books, especially books about theology and Christian life, is by becoming an online book reviewer. If you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, you know I will post book reviews from time to time that include the disclaimer that I was given a review copy of the book in exchange for my honest response.

Being an online book reviewer is the perfect way to get access to new books without breaking the bank (or sitting in the library “hold” queue for months!).

I’ve been a review blogger on and off for the last 5-6 years. I’ve written reviews for titles from Crossway, Zondervan, Tyndale, P&R Books, and even a few non-religious publishers (via Netgalley). However, my favorite publisher to review books for is Baker Books.

[Disclosure: Why am I writing about this now? Because this post is partially an entry into a contest put on by Baker for–you guessed it–free books. So I want to be upfront with you about that, reader. That said, every word of this post is true, and I stand by it even if this weren’t part of a contest entry. Okay, are we all clear on that? Cool. Thanks.]

Here are 3 reasons I enjoy being an official “Baker Books Blogger”:

  1. They publish books I actually want to read. Some Christian publishers send out their list of books for review, and as I glance over it, I find myself making a “disgusted Clint Eastwood” face. But Baker Books are often right in my wheelhouse, touching on issues that I find intriguing or areas I know I’d like to grow in understanding. Sometimes, if I’m in a busy season, I’ll just delete other reviewer emails unread, but I always open emails from Baker.
  2. They send actual physical books! Most online book review programs will send you a PDF or maybe an epub file that you have to figure out how to upload. There will be conversion and formatting errors, making the draft difficult to read. They often don’t integrate easily into the Kindle bookshelf. If you’re excited about the book, you just deal with it, of course, but most of the time, it’s a bit irritating. By contrast, when you review for Baker, you can request physical books. There are real, honest-to-goodness, paper-and-ink books on my shelf that I’ve received from and reviewed for Baker. The willingness to pay extra to print and ship books to reviewers puts Baker Books in a different class altogether.
  3. They are more relaxed about timelines. Okay, admitting this may not make the Baker folks happy, but: I’m sometimes pretty late on these reviews. With other publishers and platforms, that is a huge no-no. You can get locked out of the platform, or lose the ability to request any more review books. With Baker, it’s more relaxed, which I really appreciate, since there are times when you request a book and then run into a really busy patch at work or at home. Truth be told, I currently owe Baker a handful of reviews from books I’ve received but haven’t read yet. (Those are coming, y’all, trust me.) What I’m saying is, being a Baker Books Blogger doesn’t feel like a job or a chore. It’s sometime I enjoy doing, when I have the opportunity to do so. I appreciate that.

If you are interested in reviewing books on your website, Amazon reviews, or other social media outlets, I think you should check out the Baker Books Blogger program.

I’ve enjoyed being part of it, and hope to continue doing so for as long as they’ll have me. (As long as I catch up on my back-log of reviews, I guess!)

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Have you ever been part of an online book review program? I’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below!

52 Stories #14-15: Two Stories about the Problem with Utopia.

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Whew! I’m a bit behind, aren’t I? Well, today we will be considering two stories about the underbelly of Utopia–“how the sausage is made” when it comes to “perfect” societies.

The first story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” was recommended to me more than 15 years ago by my friend Ben Doudt, and the second, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” was a surprising discovery of mine as I hunted for new short reads.

Obligatory spoiler warning: If you haven’t read either of these stories, skip over the “Takeaways” sections to avoid plot details.

Okay, no more chatter–let’s go!

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#14: “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, and then reveals why anyone would think of leaving.

The Payoff

This isn’t a story so much as a fable or vignette (much like Bradbury’s “August 2026”). There isn’t a plot in the story proper; it’s all description and one-sided dialogue, as the narrator escorts the reader through the scene, providing commentary and clarification. In the end, when the final twist is revealed, the reader is left to question whether they would want to live in Omelas themselves–and whether they currently do.

The Takeaways

I first read this story about 15 years ago and then again this spring, and to be honest, then as now it didn’t leave much of an impression on me. The descriptions are beautiful, vivid and full of color. The reader can “see” the scene quite clearly. But it’s little more than a moving painting. The narrator is openly non-committal on details of their societal advancement, which is smart if you’re trying to make a story timeless; however, it also becomes more abstract, like a parable. It almost feels as if she’s making it all up on the fly, more than describing something with a history and weight to it.

LeGuin paints the picture of a humanist utopia, without king or creed, where the sun is always shining and everything is perfect–but that’s the problem. It’s too perfect. (My mind went immediately to the plot of “The Matrix”–we naturally reject a dream world that is too perfect.) So she introduces the child–a “feeble-minded” child, locked away–“born defective…or become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.” A child whose pleas are ignored. “They all know it’s there, all the people of Omelas.” All the perfection of their utopia relies on keeping the broken child suffering. “Those are the terms.”

Here, LeGuin pulls her final trick. She presents “the terms” and leaves the reader to grapple with the question: can such a society be considered good, just, or perfect? Can the suffering of a single child be tolerated in exchange for a utopia in which everyone else thrives?

But here’s my problem with the climax of the story: these “terms” are utterly arbitrary. LeGuin never seems to clarify why these are the terms: is it that all children born with disabilities are “put away”? She only mentions the one child–she specifically describes him/her as “the” child, one single child. It’s the knowledge of this one child that drives some citizens to abandon this utopia in pursuit of something else, something that provides more peace of mind, perhaps.

I don’t know. This story is hailed as a classic, but it just doesn’t land for me. An interesting concept, but if it’s trying to be a morality tale, the premise is stretched to a breaking point.

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#15: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” by N.K. Jemison

The Pitch

The writer presents an idyllic vision of a peaceful and advanced society, along with the hard choices required to protect it.

The Pay-off

I decided to read this story as soon as I found out it was written as a kind of response to LeGuin’s, but I have to admit I was not quite prepared for what awaited me. Jemison’s story is a counterpoint, a challenge, a provocation. While it could be read as a stand-alone story, I think it’s best taken in concert with LeGuin’s original. “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is a well-written tale that leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. It was unclear as I read it if it was meant to be satire or straight-forward, cautionary or aspirational. And there’s the rub.

The Takeaways

There is a LOT to unpack here.

“It’s the Day of the Good Birds in Um-helat!” NKJ opens with this line and unspools a beautiful description of this African jewel of a city. The name of the city is an obvious wink at Omelas, but NKJ exceeds LeGuin in terms of vivid descriptions. My imagination was transported. For a little while.

The author emulates the narrative voice of ULG’s story, but takes it to the next level. There is also a great deal of fourth-wall breaking, making the narrator another character in the story. However, rather than the narrator being a guide for the reader, the narrator quickly becomes an antagonist to the reader. There is frustration in the narration, anger, resentment. When describing the disparity of pale-skinned executives and dark-skinned workers and the policies implemented to address that, the narrator says this is not to promote diversity, “a grudging pittance of respect.” The narrator disdains such passive change. The narrator describes “the treason of free speech” by saying “We hesitate to admit some people are [expletive] evil and need to be stopped.” (Yet, the narrator never clarify who defines what is evil.) Later: “This is Um-helat after all, and not that barbaric America. This is not Omelas, a tick of a city, fat and happy with its head buried in a tortured child.” Yowsa.

At this point, the narrator turns her attention to the reader, declaring any feelings of recoil or provocation as evidence that the reader actually approves of the evil of Omelas, or even our own world. The narrator assumes the reader is responding, “How dare you…”

And this is where I actually got annoyed–not at the society being described (as the narrator suggests), not at all–rather, what irritated me was the unbearable condescension and accusations of the narrator.

According to the narrator, our world is a “benighted hellscape” compared with the bright and shining Um-helat. And just how is the utopia of Um-helat preserved? Essentially, there are “caretakers” who look for people consuming or spreading hateful or wrong ideas, and then the caretakers murder them. Yep, that’s it. “They will bury him in a beautiful garden…[that] holds all the Um-helatians who broke the law. Just because they died as a deterrence doesn’t mean they can’t be honored for the sacrifice.” So, a mass grave of social dissidents executed by the agents of the state? Cool.

The narrator justifies this behavior as being a necessary “blood sacrifice to keep true evil at bay.” The story ends with the narrator calling the reader to join the dream and build Um-Helat in our world, even if that means war and the “purging scourge.” And that’s it.

There’s part of me that really, really hopes this is just masterful satire of a totalitarian progressivism…but I doubt it is. While some reviewers and readers online rightly call this a cautionary tale, others defend it, saying that a just society must be fought for by any means necessary. Yeesh.

My 3 biggest takeaways from this story (and to a lesser degree from “Omelas”) are as follows:

  • The problem with Utopian visions is that they are built on a faulty understanding of human nature. To the humanist/materialist mind, man is perfectable with the right social settings and the right information. This is a flawed premise. Mankind is by nature corrupt, selfish, sinful. We need new hearts, not new societies.
  • Utopia requires conformity at all costs. No outside voices are tolerated, no dissenting views are allowed. Thought and speech must be policed and controlled in the name of freedom, tolerance, inclusiveness, and justice. Utopia is a prison without bars and locks, but a prison nevertheless.
  • A very astute observation from my beloved, as I was discussing both stories with her: In order for man to create his perfect humanist society, someone always has to die for “sin.” This statement gobsmacked me. See the wicked parodies of the Passion in the death of the innocent in Omelas, the slaying of the subversive in Um-helat. See in our own “hellscape” as the Molech of Freedom and Autonomy fed day and night by the broken bodies of the unborn. Whenever mankind seeks to build a perfect world, they always lay their bricks upon the bones of those who stand against them or get in their way.

The evidence of good writing is sometimes that it evokes strong responses, either positive or negative. If that’s the measure, then N.K. Jemison is a talented writer.

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

52 Stories #13: “Catch That Rabbit” by Isaac Asimov

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For my second selection today, let’s take a look at story from Asimov’s classic 1950 short-story collection I, Robot, at the recommendation of Dave Hunt over at the “GOLiverse” Facebook page.

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The Pitch

On a distant asteroid, two employees of “US Robots” try to diagnose a peculiar glitch in their mining ‘droids that results in sudden work stoppages and impromptu dancing/marching.

The Payoff

“Catch That Rabbit” was pretty good, if a bit thin. The fact that it’s part of a collection of connected short stories makes me wonder if reading it in context would add some missing heft. (Then again, maybe not.) As it stands, this one was still a good read. The resolution of the “mystery” was funny, and I enjoyed the interactions of the main characters more than the plot itself.

The Takeaways

The best thing about this story really was the dialogue. The patter between Mike and Greg reminded me of the classic comedies of the 30’s and 40’s–that quick-firing, slang-filled dialogue that established immediately how familiar and comfortable these two were with each other. You get a bit of an “Odd Couple” vibe from these two, and it was fun to see them work out the problem they faced. In other words, the dialogue felt natural, not staged for exposition. It’s a good reminder that your characters are “real people,” not just authorial mouthpieces.

There was a nice level of humor in a story set-up that could have easily turned into a “menacing robot attacks” tale. From the sarcastic comments about the company’s tolerance of mistakes to the fact that the head robot “Dave” (DV-5) has enough personality to be a third character, the overall feel is playful. Even when the engineers get themselves trapped in a cave-in, I was never concerned that they wouldn’t get out okay (though that would have been the perfect point for the plot to turn). The tone was consistent throughout, which I appreciated.

Asimov also manages to tie this piece back into the overall story collection, not only by re-using these characters (who appeared in the previous story in the book, if I recall correctly) but also by maintaining the Three Laws of Robotics as a prominent discussion point. It didn’t feel forced, either. Fears about a potential robotic uprising were easily dismissed, because these rules still apply. As I’m thinking about my own plans for an interconnected short story collection, this idea of having consistent “in-world” rules/elements is a good reminder of how these stories hang together.

On the whole, I liked “Catch That Rabbit” but I think it may suffer a little by being read out of context.

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

52 Stories #12: “–All You Zombies–” by Robert Heinlein

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This week’s selection was recommended by Webster Hunt. (I’m still not sure if Web was trolling me…) I found this story in a collection of 20th century science fiction short stories from the library. I can’t find any legit sources online, so you’re on your own.

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The Pitch

A “temporal agent” (a.k.a. time-travelling…cop or something?) goes to ridiculous lengths to recruit a new agent for his organization.

The Payoff

Folks, when I asked my social feeds for recommendations, I hoped I would get some stories that would stretch me, take me outside of my wheelhouse. …Be careful what you wish for.

Heinlein’s story is a bonkers time-travel tale that just couldn’t be bothered with resolving paradoxes or explaining much of anything. The weirdly-forced sexual references left me feeling a bit grimy. As such, I didn’t like it much at all. But hey, here’s to new experiences, right?

The Takeaways

I have to admit, there’s just not much to this story. It’s not much more than a plot-gimmick (aren’t they all?), but I’m struggling to find any resonant themes or ideas. Maybe it’s just meant to be a bit of fluff to amuse and entertain. If you enjoy Heinlein’s writing, and you just want a silly yarn to pass the time, this might suit you.

The story seems like one giant time-travel paradox (though I guess that point is arguable), with some painfully-on-the-nose imagery and allusions and a dose of unnecessary sexual references. It seems like Heinlein got the hook for the story and didn’t really bother creating a world around it or even justifying it. I almost wonder if he was relying too much on the shocking and lurid elements of some of the reveals. (Ironically, what may have shocked or surprised 50 years ago now seems almost ordinary or boring.)

Who knows? Maybe I’m a big doofus and missed the gold that’s here. If you’ve read the story and liked it, let me know why in the comments. I’m willing to keep an open mind.

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

The4thDave Reviews: “Competing Spectacles” by Tony Reinke

competing-spectacles-book

In a culture wholly driven by the moving image, we feed on spectacle every moment of the day. We are awash in the blue glow of screens almost from the moment our eyes open in the morning, until we collapse into sleep at night. While a library of books has been written about the good and bad (mostly bad) of a digital or image-driven culture, there have been considerably fewer authors in the last half-century who have focused on the deeper spiritual ramifications of constant spectacle.

In recent months, I have enjoyed (and discussed) books by Andy Crouch, Cal Newport, and Senator Ben Sasse, regarding the need for distance and perspective when it comes to digital media, but these arguments have been overwhelmingly pragmatic and relational. As I noted in my review of Digital Minimalism, I was keenly aware of Newport’s lack of spiritual perspective; that is, he had a good sense of the effect of digital obsession on the mind but no sense of how it bends the soul.

This is why I am thrilled to recommend Tony Reinke’s latest work to you: Competing Spectacles: Treasuring Christ in the Media Age.

In Competing Spectacles, Reinke fills in that missing piece in the important discussion of screen addiction and digital distraction by focusing on the cumulative effect such diversions can have on our spiritual life and growth.

In this follow-up to 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You, Reinke examines the prevalence of “spectacles” in our culture, and how spectacle saturation affects the spiritual appetites. The good news is, he doesn’t simply take the anti-tech position of “screens bad, stay away!” Rather, in the first section of the book, Reinke examines the nature of spectacle in several facets of cultural life, the power that spectacles have on us, and the way our appetites for such entertainment are developed.

In the second section of the book, Reinke considers what Christianity has to say about spectacles–particularly, which spectacles can and should capture our eyes and minds. This section really sings, as he applies the transforming truth of the Gospel gently but directly to our tendency toward amusement and distraction.

Near the end of Part 2, Reinke provides “Summations and Applications” that help the reader think through how we can put these truths to work in our hearts and daily lives. He concludes with a beautiful vision of what happens when our gaze is rightly fixed on a Spectacle worth observing.

Throughout the book, I was struck by by Reinke’s eloquence, recalling the proverb about words fitly spoken being like “apples of gold in settings of silver.” Had I been reading a paper copy, there would be several sections with entire pages highlighted, underlined, and starred. Once in a while, I had to just stop for a moment to appreciate a perfectly crafted sentence. Reinke outdid himself in the mechanics and construction of his prose in this book.

Final Recommendation

In the very first chapter, Reinke calls Competing Spectacles “a theology of visual culture,” and the description is apt. This isn’t just a book about screen time and self-control, social media addiction and the degradation of societal decorum. This book is inherently and blessedly theological in scope, and as such, it fills a glaring gap in this important discussion.

I heartily recommend Competing Spectacles to all my readers, and particularly those who (like me) have been wrestling with the effect of digital media and entertainment on their hearts. This book should be part of every Christian’s library, where it can be revisited from time to time for reconsideration and reflection.

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Note: I have been provided an advance copy of the book, in exchange for an honest review. The preceding thoughts are entirely my own.

52 Stories #10-11: Two Stories About Consulting Detectives.

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This week, I’m delighted to discuss two stories about the most famous consulting detective in literature: Sherlock Holmes. The first is a tale by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called “The Red-Headed League.” The second is another unexpected delight from Neil Gaiman, titled “A Study in Emerald” (recommended by Pedro Jorba on the GOLiverse Facebook page). So, can I deduce some interesting insights from these stories? Elementary, dear reader!

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“The Red-Headed League” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Pitch

Sherlock Holmes is hired to find out why his client was paid to copy pages out of the encyclopedia. Naturally, the game’s afoot.

The Pay-off

This is a pretty standard Sherlock Holmes story–a curious case, a few interesting details, and a brilliant Sherlock deduction that’s almost too clever by half. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t stick to the ribs. I’ll try not to give too many details, in case you haven’t read it before.

The Takeaways

I wonder if I’m a bit too familiar with the Sherlock formula, because as soon as one minor character was introduced, I knew something was up. I’ve read just enough Doyle to know to look for minor details and unusual characters. (Though I’ll admit, I totally passed over one key detail.) When it came down to it, I had basically figured out the broad strokes before the story’s climax. I wonder if this is more due to the fact that Doyle is essentially the gold standard for the genre, so his techniques have moved from innovative to perhaps a little cliched. Readers familiar with the formula know what to watch for, in other words. (Think of it as the detective-fiction version of the “Shyamalan Problem.”)

I feel cheeky to even mention it, but it almost feels like ACD makes Watson a little too dense in order to make Holmes look even more brilliant by contrast. I’ve always understood that Watson was no fool, and I think ACD sometimes does the character a bit of a disservice in order to make his hero shine. That said, oftentimes the resolution of a case depends on Sherlock’s encyclopedic knowledge of arcane details (very likely unknown to the reader) and his keen observation of details we must be told rather than shown. Frankly, it takes away some of the fun if there’s almost no way we could have worked out the solution ourselves. In those instances, the climax is basically “Oooh, look at the big brain on Sherlock.”

That said, if you haven’t read “The Red-Headed League,” it’s worth your ten minutes or so. It’s not a bad little tale, even if it’s not one of ACD’s best. Here are a few favorite quotes from the story:

  • When Sherlock walks a civilian through his deductive process and they respond that it now seems almost obvious, Sherlock quips, “I begin to think I make a mistake in explaining.”
  • “As a rule, the more bizarre a thing is, the less mysterious it proves to be. It’s your commonplace, featureless crimes that are really puzzling.”
  • And the source of one of my favorite Sherlockisms: “[German music] is introspective and I want to introspect.”

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“A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman

The Pitch

The consulting detective and his military veteran sidekick are called in on a grisly murder scene involving a member of the royal family. Then things get…weird.

The Payoff

Oh my goodness, y’all. I was ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED by this story. Gaiman turns the formula (and the reader’s expectation) on its head, as he spins this variation on Doyle’s classic “A Study In Scarlet,” filtered through the unearthly prism of H.P. Lovecraft’s paranormal horrors. This story is another entry in Gaiman’s collection Fragile Things, and I cannot encourage you heartily enough to read it. It’s my favorite #52Stories read so far, and will no doubt be in the running for top-five at the end of the project. If you have any appreciation for Sherlock Holmes, file this under “Must Read.”

The Takeaways

I’m loath to divulge much if any detail, so I’m going to go ahead and put up a SPOILER WARNING right here. I want so badly to talk about it, but I would hate to ruin the fun for you, reader.

I mean it: If you haven’t read the story yet, bookmark this page, go read it, and come back. I’m serious, do it. You really do want to read this story with no advance details other than what I’ve given so far.

We all caught up, class? Okay, good. Onto the bullets!

  • The last time we looked at a Gaiman story, I mentioned that the normal-seeming story veered suddenly off the rails with dialogue and details that made me do an actual double-take. This was no different: specifically, when the sleuth asked our narrator, “Was it the number of limbs?” Um, I’m sorry, WHAT?
  • I adore the “advertisements” between each section, which feature subtle allusions to other horror icons (though I had to do an internet search for one Anglo-centric reference in particular). It’s the type of added detail that might feel a little strange and disconnected to readers who aren’t familiar with classic literary horror, but for geeks like me, the references made me actually giggle.
  • “They call her Gloriana because she is glorious. They call her Victoria, because she was victorious in her conquest of us hundreds of years ago, and because her name cannot be spoken by human tongue.” Paraphrased from memory, but still my favorite line from the story. Making Queen Victoria one of the Great Old Ones was inspired.
  • Gaiman’s off-handed reveals of the religious and political realities of the story are stunning. What an effective way to leverage the reader’s assumptions in order to surprise.
  • There is so much deep Sherlock lore in this story. I’m not fully conversant in the Holmes cases, but I knew enough to catch the more obvious Easter eggs. I also freely admit that I looked up a few names or phrases that seemed to have meaning behind them. Gaiman employed a deep familiarity and obvious love and care for the source material when he constructed this gem.
  • THAT ENDING! I’m still “shook” by the final reveal, y’all. Remember the last scene with Paul Giamatti’s character at the end of The Illusionist? The sequence in the train station, mixing flashbacks, Edward Norton’s voiceover saying “Everything you have seen is an illusion,” and the shots of Giamatti, camera spinning around him as his middle-distance concentrated stare breaks into a smile of understanding and appreciation. He laughs once and claps his hands as the pieces fall into place. THIS, this EXACTLY, is how I felt when I read the last few paragraphs of “A Study in Emerald.” When Gaiman pulls off the final trick, revealing the identity of the murderers, I was gobsmacked. What a triumph. What a masterpiece of sleight-of-hand.

I loved it. I just loved it. AAAAHHH. So much fun.

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

 

 

 

 

52 Stories #8: “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick

aerial view of city with lights during night
Photo by Andrew Haimerl on Pexels.com

[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]

This week, I wanted to talk about another classic tale from legendary sci-fi writer Phillip K. Dick. Thanks to my long-time friend Trevor Taylor for the recommendation of a PKD story!

I read this story in a PKD collection I checked out digitally from the library. You can find it here.

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The Set-Up

Douglas Quail dreams of having adventures on Mars and pays Rekal, Incorporated to convince him he’s been there.

The Pay-off

“He awoke…and wanted Mars.”

I’ve never seen Total Recall (either version), the famous film adaptation of this material. Going into this story, I had heard that it involved memory manipulation, Mars, and a woman with…unusual physiology. (That last one is apparently just in the first film version.) Nevertheless, the source material had a reputation as being one of PKD’s finest short stories, and it did not disappoint. I appreciated the details, the escalation, and the way the story resolves, though it was just oblique enough that I had to read the last few paragraphs again to make sure I understood what he was implying.

The Takeaways

Now, the hail of spoilery Martian bullets–and if you aren’t satisfied, we’ll refund half of your fee (that’s more than fair, Mr. Quail):

  • Let’s jump right to the big twists: first, PKD reveals that Douglas Quail actually *was* a secret Interplan agent, and then doubles-down by revealing that he is in fact the most important person alive, on a cosmic level. That’s…bold. One thing you have to appreciate about PKD, he just GOES FOR IT. No half-measures.
  • That said, there’s an almost quaint groundedness to his settings, as if he can’t quite fully imagine the great leaps of technology affecting every part of life. Example: This is a world of space travel and memory wipes, of 3-D hologram phones and cranial implants, but they still use “microtape phone books” and typewriters with carbon paper. Just a reminder, kids: you actually do live in The Future, with your email and Google and whatnot.
  • Buried in this pretty straight-forward science-fiction story is an interesting peek into the life of someone who just needs to feel important, as well as a brief consideration of the nature of memory and experience. Is having the memory of an experience a suitable substitute for literally experiencing it? You could draw a jagged line from Rekal’s pictures-and-props approach to the fragmented documentation of life we maintain on our social media feeds. “I don’t remember much about the concert, but I got some great footage on my iPhone…” Is it really that different? As Morpheus would say, “…Hm.”
  • Some of PKD’s grammatical construction got under my skin–to the point where I jotted it down. Example: “You remember,” the policeman said, “your trip…” There is no reason to break up that phrase, Phil. None. Stop it. Stop it now.
  • Was Kirsten an Interplan operative, in place to keep an eye on Douglas? It’s not explicit, but PKD implies yes, and that Douglas knew this all along, at least subconsciously. It reminded me for some reason of The Truman Show. (By the way, would you like some of this delicious Mococoa Drink?)

In a word, I liked the story–it was a tidy and effective sci-fi story that gives you just enough to be satisfying while leaving several questions unanswered. It doesn’t have any emotional resonance, but it’s well constructed and fun. You should read it.

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

The4thDave Reads: “Digital Minimalism” by Cal Newport

We’ve seen the blog posts and editorials for years: “How I Gave Up Social Media for 30 Days and It CHANGED MY LIFE!” “Why I Quit Facebook and Got My Life Back” “Quitting Instagram Helped Me Lose 40 Pounds and Run The Boston Marathon!!!” (Okay, maybe not that last one.) Hand-wringing posts about the dangers of online culture, social media addiction, and how often we contemplate quitting (or quit and then come back) are almost becoming a cliche lately. (Guilty.) But no matter how many productivity gurus talk about the power of “digital detoxing” and the benefits of set fasts from social media, many of us are still struggling with this form of addiction. (Yes, us, I’m a junkie just like you.)

I read these types of posts constantly. The most clear-headed thinker I’ve found on this topic is Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown and author of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work. I’ve shared the link to his TED talk about quitting social media in the past. I heard sometime last year that his next book would deal with the idea of “digital minimalism” and was immediately intrigued. Well, it was well worth the wait.

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in A Noisy World is a persuasive call to reconsider the choices we make about our digital lives.

Newport challenges the reader not to throw away all technology–he’s no Luddite seeking a purely analog life–but rather to ask very pointed and thoughtful questions about why and how we use technology. He challenges the notion that a mere potential benefit of a device or service is a good enough reason to adopt its use, or that having more features is automatically better. He draws the reader’s attention to the fact that we are the product being sold by social media corporations, and that our time and attention have been monetized for someone else’s benefit.

Beyond a Simple Detox

Newport suggests a 30-day challenge: an intentional digital fast (with common-sense provisions for certain necessary work/life demands), followed by a slow and deliberate re-integration of tech. During this post-fast period, he suggests that we ask 3 questions of our devices and apps: Does using this tool support a belief or priority that I deeply value? Is this the best way I can pursue that ideal or value? Can I optimize the way I use this device or program in pursuit of that value?

For example, if we use social media for keeping up with our family, Newport would argue that what we’re doing when we like or share or comment is mere connection, and it doesn’t take the place of real communication. Instead, while we might still use social media in a very limited way (both in time and scope) to catch up on news about our loose circle of acquaintances, we should also pursue actual communication with people who matter to us via in-person visits, phone calls, or even video chats (for far-flung loved ones). The complexity of face-to-face and voice-to-voice communication, Newport writes, is what provides the richness of human interaction–a complexity that text-based communication falls short of providing.

Don’t Click “Like”

Throughout the second half of the book, Newport gives recommendations of practices one can pursue as part of the “Attention Resistance” pushing back against screen consumption. Some of these ideas are pretty simple (make time for solitude, go for walks, pursue an analog leisure activity that requires physical exertion), while others are a bit more challenging, at least for me.

One such challenge Newport makes is to stop clicking “like.” He talks about how social media introduced the “like” button as a way of providing a minimal amount of feedback that still stimulates the user (the “digital slot-machine” idea of irregular positive feedback conditioning). I struggle with this, because I use the “like” button a LOT (as those of you on my socials can attest). However, I see what he means. A real-world example: I just posted on Facebook 42 minutes ago that we were having another baby. As of right now, 3 people have actually commented (2 of which said “congrats!”), and 20 people have hit the “Like/Love/Wow” emoji. [Update: I’ve gotten more comments since then, but the ratio of reactions to comments is running about 4-5 to 1.] Now, I do appreciate that these folks reacted to the news (that’s how Facebook describes it–reacting), but the vast majority so far have only reacted enough to click a mouse or tap a screen and then likely moved on with their scrolling. And I can’t fault them; that’s just what we do, isn’t it? But Newport suggests we stop, because this isn’t actually communicating anything. It’s one bit of information, a blip on the radar. And it’s a far cry from actual human community.

(And for the record, if you are one of the “likes” on my FB wall right now, this isn’t a slam against you. Thanks for taking a moment to read this. But hey, gimme a call sometime, so we can catch up, yeah?)

One Weakness

The only critique I have of Digital Minimalism is a worldview issue. Newport is writing from a secular perspective, so when he talks about the evolution of man as a social animal, he is missing a glaring clue as to why we are social creatures. Mankind was created by a personal, social, communicating God, a God who speaks and interacts with His creation, and because we bear the imprint of His image, we are social and communicative beings. That’s part of the reason why this reduction in human interaction is so unnatural; we were made by God for community, but our community is being undercut by a digital counterfeit that steals time away from incarnated interaction. The spiritual element of this whole idea is missing from Newport’s thinking on this subject, which is why other books by authors like Tony Reinke and Andy Crouch are necessary and helpful supplements to the ideas Newport presents.

Final Review

Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism does more than simply point out the problem of digital addiction and social media enslavement. Newport helps the reader consider how to use these tools in a way that is healthier and more intentional than simple consumption and constant attention. While I think there are some blind spots in his argumentation due to differences in worldview, I would happily recommend this book to anyone who struggles with the idea of giving up digital tech or social media but still wants to reconsider the way he or she approaches these tools.