Dead Animals by CS DeWildt

Today we’re going to do something a little bit different here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books. We mentioned in our initial posting that we might deviate from our normal format from time to time, i.e. not just reviewing a book from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. One thing we said we might do is occasionally look at a book that isn’t from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

That’s exactly what we’re doing today. We decided to take a brief break from our usual format and talk about Dead Animals by CS DeWildt (Martian Lit August 2013; $9.99 paperback, $4.99 Kindle).

I was already interested in Martian Lit before hearing about this book, myself having had a story recently published in their journal and having gotten a peek at their upcoming release of Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands by Nathaniel Tower. I was even more interested when I heard they were releasing work by CS DeWildt. Anyone who is familiar with his novella Candy and Cigarettes won’t have to wonder why.

Anyway, I finally got a chance to read Dead Animals and I dug it enough that I thought we’d take a day on here to talk about it. We good with that? Oh, that’s right…you can’t answer until after I post. Guess we’ll just have to go for it and see.

The aspect I love best about the short pieces in Dead Animals is the contrast between the brutal portions of the world DeWildt gives life to and the delicately beautiful point of significance revealed in a character. The brutality is grittily stated, but the point of significance isn’t belabored. It could almost escape you, but lets you hold on for just long enough to marvel at it. The effect is really well done.

Let’s take a look at a bit from “That Boy Got Dynamite in His Hands” by way of example:

“You want to die, Shit Eater?” Bryan said. He looked at me as if to access my complicacy, to wrangle me further in with some personal insult, but I closed my eyes and he dismissed me, putting his attention back on Harold. He lifted the hoe to his shoulder. “I’m killing frogs. I’ll kill a couple big faggy ones too.” And we saw the pile, or I saw it. I felt that Harold had known all along what Bryan was doing. I stared at the pile of green death for a long time, there must have been at least thirty frogs, mutilated, spilling their guts and drying out in the last of the summer sun. The flies were buzzing, lighting upon the bounty and flying off again when their tiny hairs were touched by threat of a stray breeze.

After Harold acts, tossing a lit M-80 to mutilate the frog-killing psychopath Bryan, the character’s return to Harold’s home. The narrator mistakes the following, thinking it’s about what Harold did to Bryan, not connecting this to Harold’s highly depressed father who they left back at the house:

As we hit the edge of the yard, Harold’s mom hit the front door, crossed the yard and ran down the drive to meet us, crying for Harold. Her car remained where it had been and I knew she should have been at work. The distance between Harold’s mom and me seemed to be unbridgeable, like some timeless, spaceless void where beings saw each other, moved toward one another, but were never quite able to reach. It was a hell and I saw the hand again, the last finger falling away and I knew it was what I deserved. As she took Harold into her arms I saw the ambulance, partially hidden by the curve in the blacktop and the purple dogwood that had just begun dropping its leaved. Did they bring Bryan here? Evidence of what we’d done in case we tried to deny it?

I think you can see what I mean: the disgusting slaughter of the frogs and the reader’s aching knowledge of what the narrator doesn’t realize. Many of these stories manage to pull off this effect, this contrast between the horror that is the world and the (sometimes heartbreaking) beauty that somehow manages to exist within it.

Stepping beyond this aspect, though, the stories of Dead Animals contain solid writing. Tangibly evoked settings, fully developed human characters in well-chosen brief moments, there is little not to like. There is a lot that can be disturbing in these stories, but if you check out Dead Animals I don’t think you’ll be able to argue that you weren’t moved. It certainly does that.

The Gospels–Bible

The Bible has six authors that listed it in their top ten. Andrew Hudgins, Haven Kimmel, Erin McGraw, Richard Powers, Robert Pinsky and James Salter all listed it in their top ten.

I’ve been breaking the Bible up bit by bit, Genesis and Ruth and Esther

From my first entry on Genesis, I have pasted a paragraph.
I know you’re probably wondering why the Bible is even important to you if you’re not Christian. Why it’s something that as a book lover, you should even be interested in. Andrew Hudgins wrote about this in The Top Ten. He points out that the Bible is a great story itself, also “The Bible is also the source of great stories, by geniuses from Dante to Dostoevsky, Faulkner to Thomas Mann, and the poetry of the Psalms echoes through great poetry from William Blake to Walt Whitman to T.S. Eliot”. He also says “”the greatest story ever told”, in the majesty of its telling and the power of its message, has taught an entire culture how to think about love, suffering, and transcendence, and it has fundamentally colored the language by which we talk about everything.” And this is why it’s important, even if not a believer.

So, now that I have the preliminary out of the way, let’s talk about the Gospels. These consist of the books of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John. The Gospels are the books that deal directly with Jesus and His life, death and resurrection. The virgin birth, which most people are aware of as a cultural reference even outside of a direct religious connotation, is only covered in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke. These books also cover Jesus’s visit to the Temple at thirteen, where he has stayed behind. All of the books deal with Jesus as an adult, but different events or a different perspective on the same events. The parables of Christ, that of the prodigal son, the group that is without sin may cast the first stone and quite a few other recognizable ones from works of literature.

Also in the Gospels are words of Christ that tell us that where we fed the least of them, we have fed Him, and where we have written to those in prison who are suffering, we have aided Him, where we have clothed those in need, we have helped Him. It’s where Jesus says to turn the other cheek. It’s where he says to the disciples, “follow me” and they do.

It’s also where we see Jesus taken by the Romans, and beaten. He is then forced to carry His cross and is nailed upon it. Towards the end, He looks up to the heavens and yells “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”. It’s where when the Marys (yes, the infamous Magdalene and the Virgin Mary) go to clean Jesus body and to anoint it that they find the stone rolled away and Jesus gone. And an angel tells them that He has risen.

I often think that if people read the Gospels, and didn’t know Christians that make things seem different, more people would be Christian. Os Guinness (one of the Guinness beer family and theologian) says in the book “The Call” that the biggest threat to Christianity are Christians themselves.

It’s also where you see that as a Christian (if you are one) we should be helping others, in any way we can, and do so gladly.

There it is. The Gospels. Tune in next week when Dave returns with another entry!

Have a great week! Go to a pumpkin patch or something!

Antony and Cleopatra–Shakespeare

Margaret Drabble listed Antony and Cleopatra in her Top Ten.

I’ll be honest.  I wasn’t very fond of this one.  For some reason, it just…didn’t hit with me. 

This takes place a few years after the play Julius Caesar (which I didn’t read, maybe if I had read that one first, I would have liked this one better).  Basically, the power of Rome has been divided into three.  Antony, one of the 3, has been living the last few years in the arms of Cleopatra, while his wife remains in Rome.  Then she dies.  And the play begins.

And here’s where I spent a lot of time…not paying a lot of attention.  So basically, the play goes on and on and on.  Some things I’ve discovered, I will mention briefly below.

1.  No one ever seems to ban Shakespeare.  Yet, some of his plays, like this one, are highly sexualized.  I had this thought over and over while reading it.  Do they not get upset about it, because they can’t understand it?  I mean, obviously, I have strong issues with book banning, so I’d like to think that this was it.  I mean, it insults the intelligence of those that want books banned.  So, I’m going to keep that theory.  But, seriously?  Why??? I mean Shakespeare is like your dirty old uncle who tells ribald jokes from behind his hand at Thanksgiving dinner!

2.  Either suicide was really popular back in his time, or it was a very thrilling way to end a play.  This one also ends in tragedy.  (Stop reading now if you’d rather not see any spoilers)

 

It’s tragic in that both Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide.  The high point of the play for me was Antony’s inability to kill himself effectively.  First, he attempts to get his servant to do it, his servant knifes himself instead.  Then he tries to fall on his sword but doesn’t kill himself outright.  So then he gets to have one last scene with Cleopatra, who shows yet again (like she does throughout the play) that she’s a selfish you-know-what.  Antony dies and before Caesar can force her into returning to Rome and living out her days there as a trophy for him…Cleopatra gets a poisonous snake to bite her.  Thus, ending her life.

I feel like I should be writing more here.  And maybe it’s just a mental thing, or maybe it’s just that I truly did not enjoy this play at all…I just have nothing more.

You can comment and yell at me, if you disagree and loved this play.  You can comment and yell at me, if you feel I should have said more.  Or, I guess, if you’re having a bad day, you can just comment and yell at me 😛 Though I might ignore those.

Have a great weekend! I promise to have a longer and more cheery post next Thursday!

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (French: Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”) is another one of those books which feels completely familiar to me but which I’ve never read. Though it turns out that I didn’t know the story as well as I thought I did (and maybe this is the case for everyone else who thinks they know it but haven’t read it), I was familiar with this unfortunate story of love involving the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda, the deformed but essentially good Quasimodo, the twistedly evil Archdeacon Claude Frollo, and a whole crew of other characters.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Mary Gaitskill)

Regardless, let’s get to the story. Quick summary: lots of people love Esmeralda but she doesn’t love any of them. Well, let’s be a little more specific than that. Quasimodo loves Esmeralda after she shows him a singular act of kindness despite his previous attempt to kidnap her (at the behest of Archdeacon Frollo). Archdeacon Frollo claims to love her, but it’s really more of a dark obsession and he is willing to kill her if he can’t have her:

“Alas! you have looked coldly on at my tears! Child, do you know that those tears are of lava? Is it indeed true? Nothing touches when it comes from the man whom one does not love. If you were to see me die, you would laugh. Oh! I do not wish to see you die! One word! A single word of pardon! Say not that you love me, say only that you will do it; that will suffice; I will save you. If not–oh! the hour is passing. I entreat you by all that is sacred, do not wait until I shall have turned to stone again, like that gibbet which also claims you! Reflect that I hold the destinies of both of us in my hand, that I am mad,–it is terrible,–that I may let all go to destruction, and that there is beneath us a bottomless abyss, unhappy girl, whither my fall will follow yours to all eternity! One word of kindness! Say one word! only one word!” 

 

She opened her mouth to answer him. He flung himself on his knees to receive with adoration the word, possibly a tender one, which was on the point of issuing from her lips. She said to him, “You are an assassin!” 

 

The priest clasped her in his arms with fury, and began to laugh with an abominable laugh. 

 

“Well, yes, an assassin!” he said, “and I will have you. You will not have me for your slave, you shall have me for your master. I will have you! I have a den, whither I will drag you. You will follow me, you will be obliged to follow me, or I will deliver you up! You must die, my beauty, or be mine! belong to the priest! belong to the apostate! belong to the assassin! this very night, do you hear? Come! joy; kiss me, mad girl! The tomb or my bed!”

Meanwhile, Esmeralda loves the dashing Captain Phoebus de Châteaupers, who doesn’t love her at all though he did save her from the kidnapping attempt and is willing to pretend to love her in order to sleep with her:

Phoebus returned and seated himself beside her, but much closer than before. 

 

“Listen, my dear–” 

 

The gypsy gave him several little taps with her pretty hand on his mouth, with a childish mirth and grace and gayety. 

 

“No, no, I will not listen to you. Do you love me? I want you to tell me whether you love me.” 

 

“Do I love thee, angel of my life!” exclaimed the captain, half kneeling. “My body, my blood, my soul, all are thine; all are for thee. I love thee, and I have never loved any one but thee.” 

 

The captain had repeated this phrase so many times, in many similar conjunctures, that he delivered it all in one breath, without committing a single mistake. At this passionate declaration, the gypsy raised to the dirty ceiling which served for the skies a glance full of angelic happiness. 

 

“Oh!” she murmured, “this is the moment when one should die!”

 

As you can see, the love decagon here is pretty complicated. Obviously, this is not going to end well. In fact, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame was far more tragic than I expected from Hugo based on having previously read Les Misérables.

Mind you, tragic isn’t actually a problem with a novel, though one does tend to rail against it while reading, but I kept unfavorably comparing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame to Les Misérables for other reasons. This book does create some pretty intense emotion, but nothing like that of Les Misérables. I felt, but I just didn’t feel as much…certainly not as much as I expected to.

Further, Hugo does do his traditional thing of pausing the story for endless pages to ramble about unrelated topics just as in Les Misérables, but here it doesn’t seem anywhere near as appropriate to the book. I understand that meticulously detailing the architecture of Paris helps set the scene, and the novel is intended to be historical, but going on for so many pages without getting back to the characters or events? Why spend so much time bemoaning the fact that modern Paris has given up stone for plaster? I could see a relationship between the story in Les Misérables and the seemingly endless discussion of street French, but this architectural diatribe baffled me.

Upon finishing The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, I have to say that I wished I had read it before Les Misérables.  This is a good book, but it just didn’t move me the way that Les Misérables did. Perhaps if I’d read it first and not had the basis for comparison then I would have enjoyed it more.