Ernest Hemingway And His Short Stories

For today, I read a collection of Hemingway’s short stories. The paperback is called “Hemingway The First Forty-Nine Stories”. I figured that I had enjoyed the other Hemingway I had read for the blog, so I’d hit his short stories too. (Hemingway is an area where Dave has read extensively, and alas, I have not. But, that means I get to read Hemingway, so I guess I can’t be too disappointed in myself).

Melissa Bank, Clyde Edgerton, Kent Haruf and Susan Minot all listed Hemingway’s short stories in their top ten book lists.

Collections of short stories can be both hard and amazing at the same time. It’s hard reading short stories to blog about because there’s so much to talk about. And, also, I feel a bit of pressure to not skip any (Truth time: I will sometimes still skip one here or there). Also, when it’s short stories all by the same author, the tone and feel of them are similar (this holds true for almost eveyr author I’ve read their short stories), so it can feel a bit like plowing towards the end even when I am loving all of them. At the same time, I do love short stories, especially ones written well. Or beyond well. And Hemingway fits the bill of beyond well. I also am not completely sure if I entirely agree with people who think him spare with his words. He really isn’t. His dialogue can be a bit short and snappy, but sometimes his dialogue sounds more natural and more like true conversations between people. When I read Hemingway, I truly get a good sense of place from his works. Like, I can see where the setting is, I can see the people there. So, to me, even if he doesn’t use as many words as other authors, he uses the right amount of words for -him-.

Hemingway’s short stories have a lot of death. And coming of age. And in The Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber and The Capital of the World, death is mingled closely with the coming of age, in The Capital of The World, death itself is the “coming of age”. A lot of his “common” themes are here. Soldiers in war time. Bullfighting. Women and booze. Fishing. But, each story is unique, even when it has one of his common subject matters. The Snows of Kilimanjaro is also in this collection. And at first, I just felt a little eh about it. But, as it went on, I got more absorbed into it and at the end understood why it’s one of the titles everyone associates with him.

But, my favorite story in the book is also one of the shorter ones. is Hills With White Elephants. In it, Hemingway mainly tells the entire plot of the story through the dialogue between the two main characters. I looked it up online because I wanted to see more about it (it’s actually a story that you think about when you’re done), and of course, some people have gone through and ascribed symbolism to every tiny, tiny thing Hemingway put in there. Like the beaded curtain separating the bar from the tables outside the train station. And that is a reason why I tend to avoid most literary analysis. I love seeing symbolism and archetypes and all of that. I love talking about it. But, I hate when some people take an author who is a “classic” like Hemingway and make them into these symbolism Gods, who craft their words so that everything is a huge symbol. And ot me, I doubt that they are, any more than any contemporary author today is. Hemingway probably wrote about the beaded curtain because it a) added depth to the scene by providing surrounding detail and b) gave the 2 characters something else to speak about. Or! It’s possible he sat next to a beaded curtain like that more than once in his life while drinking at train stations, and like the woman, sat and ran a couple of the beads through his fingers. I think people who read “literary classics” with a fine toothed comb looking for every symbol or what could be a symbol are actually being assholes to the original author. I bet the original author partly wanted people to hear his or her story and to be entertained by it. So, when you dissect it to every word and every punctuation mark, you’re destroying the story. And, for most literature by most authors, it’s the story they want you to hear. Not the thought that two beads possibly meant her and the man, or the consequences of two different decisions she had to make. /end rant

So, read this. Or at the very least, read the stories I’ve mentioned here.


What I’ve Been Reading: “He” by Jon Konrath

Kim came up with the idea for us to take a couple weeks to talk about books we’d been reading recently as opposed to our usual lists. She went through a couple, but I’m only going to talk about one: He by Jon Konrath.

Part of this is that I don’t think anywhere near enough people are familiar with Konrath. I’ve read quite a bit: Fistful of Pizza, Summer Rain, The Memory Hunter, Rumored to Exist, Sleep Has No Master, The Earworm Inception, Thunderbird, and Atmospheres. That should tell you quite a bit about what I think of Konrath as a writer, but also should tell you I’m in a good position to evaluate He in context of Konrath’s writing in general. Both parts are involved in why I want to talk about the book, as well as part being the fact that the book intrigued me.

Konrath has done some good realism and some good science fiction, but his work really shines for me when it gets strange. This is the main body of his work, wild and aggressively humorous streams that connect pop culture elements (almost in a jazz-like fashion of semi-formlessness and repeated themes such as NyQuil, Maria Carey, fried foods, collectibles, old computers, Lunchables, and so on) logically and seemingly randomly together while painting absurd yet accurate depictions of the modern American consciousness. Not perhaps quite stream of consciousness in the context of the author’s consciousness or the consciousness of a character, it’s almost more a core sample of the mishmash the collective unconscious has surely become in the face of modern information overload.

Some of Konrath’s works (such as Fistful of Pizza, Sleep Has No Master, The Earworm Inception, and Thunderbird) are full of shorter pieces that do this on a microcosm scale. The most interesting for me though (such Rumored to Exist and Atmospheres) form a full novel arc out of these streams. That’s incredibly difficult to do, but Konrath has managed to pull it off with inventiveness and energy. This can also be a little challenging for people who don’t already get it or who don’t read far enough in for it all to dawn on them.

He is a little different from either of these two areas of Konrath’s bizarre writings. In this one, Konrath is experimenting with bringing more structure to the thread within the million screaming voices. He is a book with an overarching arc, but it is assembled in the form of 100 intertwined micro-fictions. It goes all over the place, keeping true to Konrath’s more strange and mass media brain dump techniques, but it keeps the sections in bite size chunks, individualization within a mass homogenization, deviance wedded with conformity (that might not make any sense, but oh well). It interested me as a reader who likes grappling with Konrath’s more challenging stuff, but it also seems like it’s going to be easier for newer readers to understand what Konrath is really doing.

Let’s take a look:

He smashed the McDonald’s window into spider-webbed pieces with an Avengers commemorative Thor sledgehammer from an AM/PM convenience store, pushing the large pane of laminated safety glass into the restaurant. The hammer pounding attack sounded like the percussion track from a forgotten Kraftwerk album, echoing through the ghetto neighborhood at top volume.

“Bring back the McRib or I will fuck you up!” he screamed, spinning in circles with the eight-pound sledge extended at arm’s length like a demented helicopter rotor blade. “Bring back the McRib! Bring back the McDLT! Keep the hot side hot! You mother fucking secret Muslims can’t keep us down! We will not stand for the unchecked aggression of our cold side getting hot and vice-versa!”

That just gives a taste, but I think it illustrates what I’m saying pretty well. I’d like to give more to demonstrate this all more completely, but I don’t want to give away too much of the book.

It’s weird, it’s strange, it’s funny (guaranteed to offend almost everybody at least once somewhere along the line or double your money back presuming you overpaid by four times for the book to begin with and bought the book before the 1972 cut off date for this offer), and it’s an engaging read. All these He’s, as I read I really think that in drawing them as bizarre and impossible individuals Konrath has managed to capture and convey the macrocosm essence of what it feels like to be living in this country right now.

Those who already know Konrath picked up on this one pretty fast (based on me and the others I’ve seen). If word gets around though, I have to think we’ll have some new people joining us. It’s some good stuff and more people ought to know about it.

What I’m Reading

So, this week, I decided to do something different.

About two or three weeks ago, I was in a reading drought. It was one of those times where I restlessly would pick up a book and then put it down. Nothing was engaging. Nothing was interesting. Books at the bookstore and the library would just stare at me, their covers promising nothing but boredom.

Then, it ended. Most of the time, when a drought ends for me, it begins slowly. A book here, a book there, until slowly more and more books start looking like they promise something other than boredom. This time was different. This time, suddenly within 2 weeks, books began flooding me. So, some of them were really amazing and some that I’m still reading promise to be amazing. I decided to tell you about them.

(Side Note: Greg installed Windows 10 on my laptop. Then Windows 10 resolutely refuses to install right on his computer, so he has taken his out of commission. The last time I used my laptop was in September of 2014.  This is what I had to say about it when I wrote about Oryx and Crake “I had quotes from the book to show this, but I am typing this on my laptop and between a slow internet connection and a falling apart keyboard, I am currently typing at 10 wpm (maybe 20) and constantly still having to backspace to correct when the spacebar does not work or the shift button sticks  or the word comes out all messed up.  So, since the last paragraph took me 5 minutes, and I currently want to throw my computer through a window, I am ending RIGHT HERE.”. I currently am using it and while the fan still appears to be having its possible overheating problem and while the battery still refuses to work unless plugged in, I am currently able to type at approximately 50 wpm without it messing up. Which, while not close to my typing speed is definitely much better. Thanks for reading through my laptop travails here. And our Windows 10 woes. Before you ask anything, I probably am explaining Greg’s issue with installing Windows 10 wrongly. Please ask him any questions you may have.)

So, anyway. I’m going to talk about a few of the books that I really think some of you might want to check out.

  1. Queen of the Tearling trilogy (of which only 2 are completed). by Erika Johansen: I actually read this over a month ago (including the 2nd one Invasion of The Tearling) but I loved it so much I have to talk about it briefly. This begins a fantasy trilogy, that is both a dystopian story and a straight out fantasy novel all at the same time. The main character is a woman. She is neither thin or beautiful. The world created in this book (Invasion of the Tearling) is rich. There are small hints of the dystopian nature of how the world the story takes place in comes to be. In the second one though, there are flashes that actually occur in the dystopian environment that bore the fantasy environment in the books. It’s sounding way more confusing than it actually is, but there isn’t an easy way to write out without giving spoilers. If you’re a fantasy fan and are wondering what to read while waiting for Rothfuss, Sandersen, and Martin to get their acts in gear and release their next book damn it, this should help out a bit.
  2. Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (of which all 3 are written and published). This is actually billed as a YA series and while it’s true the main character is 17 and while it’s true that a romance is at the center of the book, the content and themes make it a series that if you found it in the Fiction section of B&N, you’d have little idea it was meant to be a YA series. Now, I LOVED this series. But when I explain it now, you will be scratching your heads and wondering “What the hell???!!!”, but trust me and check it out. Okay, there’s a girl (of course there’s a girl) who is a student at an art school in Prague. But, she’s not a normal student (of course she isn’t), she is a student who has dozens of small wishes to use up, and a job going around the world collecting the teeth of humans and animals. Where would she have such job that would cause her to travel the world getting teeth is the question I sense in your head right now. And how does she travel the world while also being an art student is another question. Well, here’s where it starts getting even weirder than the thought of a person having a job collecting teeth.  See, Karou (her name, of course) grew up in a workshop. But not a normal workshop. Her “foster father” and “foster family” are all chimaera. They have both human and animal aspect together. Brimstone (her foster father) is always in need of teeth. Karou doesn’t know what he does with them, but he is always assembling them together. He employs humans around the world, both decent and horrible, whom sell him teeth in return for wishes. Karou is the pick up person. And the deliverer of payment. The workshop door opens up in different cities depending on where one may want to go. But! hark! Suddenly burnt handprints are appearing on the doors in all the cities. And here the seraphim enter. Yes. The angels. And the story explodes from there. Anything else is a spoiler. But the characters and the storyline are amazing, the plot twists and turns wildly and things that make barely any sense are peeled away layer by layer, until they do make sense.
  3. (Okay, my laptop is starting to do the stupid mix up letters if I type too fast thing. Ugh.) The Seventh Gate by Richard Zimler. This book is -not- a fantasy novel. It’s a historical fiction that begins shortly before Hitler’s rise to power (1932) and goes into the 50s (there are references to time frames after this). And when I just looked this up, apparently it is the 4th book in a series called the Sephardic Cycle. But, it is definitely a novel you can read on its own (the previous 3 appear to be that way as well). The main character, first person narrator, is a German girl (Aryan) named Sophie. When the story begins, Sophie’s father is a Communist. She has a younger brother and a mother. She’s 15, and appropriately enough does not get along well with her mother. She is in love with her childhood friend. The book does a great job of describing Jewish life in Berlin at this time and how much of it was interwoven into the “Aryan” fabric of the city. Jews in Berlin were Germans more than anywhere else in Germany. Sophie meets a woman one night, a visitor of an older Jewish gentleman in her building. Vera is grotesque, very tall with misshapen features (she has elephantitis). Sophie ends up fascinated. She ends up making friends with Isaac, the Jewish neighbor who has a group of friends that incudes Vera, Rolf and Heidi, a married dwarf couple, and a deaf couple Marianne and KH, as well as Julia, an herbalist with a grown son who is mildly retarded, as well as others. Isaac is a follower and scholar of Kabbalah Judaism. She becomes close with them (partly due to her brother, Hansi, who seems to be autistic, though it is never named with any term). She remains close to them, even defying her parents after her father has a “epiphany” after Communists start getting arrested and converts to fascism and Hitler’s way. This story is at its core a love story. Not just between Sophie and her romantic partner, but between Sophie and her close friends, Sophie and her mother and most importantly in many ways, Sophie and Hansi. This book details life in the beginning stages of Hitler’s power and the effects and the small ways that morphed into the large ways that not only were Jews persecuted against but those that were different in any way from the Aryan ideal. If you are a fan of historical fiction or find yourself watching a lot of Holocaust/Nazi documentaries on Netflix, or if you’re just a fan of a good story, read this book. Warning: Sophie is not shy about describing her sex life. I apologize for any name misspellings in this, I listened to it rather than reading the actual book, so I didn’t see how the names were spelled.

And, there you have it. I was going to talk about a  couple of other ones, but my laptop and it’s refusal to allow me to type at a speed I like and my having to back up on every word and retype it is starting to piss me off. And I’d rather not throw it out the window.

Have a great weekend!

The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble

Anthony Keating is bored at his house in the English countryside. He had been bored with his life in the world of television and had gotten wrapped up in property development. However, the property world, and indeed much of England’s economy, is crumbling in the 70s. He’s trying to take it easy after having a mild heart attack at a young age, but the economic shakeout may make him lose everything and his love is off in Wallacia trying to deal with a rebellious daughter in prison for a fatal traffic accident. In the midst of all this, Keating is trying to figure out his life and what he wants to do with it. This is The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Douglas Coupland.)

If it seems like I’ve poured out a lot of detail without a lot of forward motion, this is kind of how The Ice Age felt for me. By the 49th page we’ve had a ton of backstory and Keating has gotten as far as cooking some sausages. Then more backstory:

The sausages were now burning on the outside. He cut one in half to see what it looked like on the inside. Rawish, still. God, he though, I need a drink. But he had vowed, promised himself not to.

Len would not be getting a drink in Scratby, either. Unless all those television series which showed prisoners secretly brewing liquor in the kitchen from yeast and old apple peelings were accurate documentaries rather than fantasies.

The fail in which Jane Murray had found herself did not sound as lenient as Scratby. Nor was the concept of bail much appreciated in Wallacia, according to Alison. Four weeks she had been there, without even a formal charge. Whereas Len, after the warrant had been issued, had had some months to rearrange his affairs, to sell this and buy that and transfer the other, before standing trial.

Anthony had never been fond of Jane. Sultry, sulky, she had resented his existence, his relationship with her mother, and had been rude and offhand whenever he spoke to her. It was largely on her account that he had never tried to live with Alison: they had been going to wait, till Jane left school, left home, before setting up house together. Perhaps she had had the accident on purpose, to keep them both apart? He recalled with distaste meals in Alison’s house, with Jane picking petulantly at her plate with a fork, making hostile comments on the cooking if ever she spoke at all and often walking off, leaving the room without a word as though Alison and Anthony’s joint presence was too much for her to be expected to deal with. A petty, childish creature. Nothing ever satisfied her. She criticized everything; Alison never retaliated. She was a pretty girl, heavier in build than her mother, with a heavy, sulking, pre-Raphaelite mouth: when she was older, he guessed she would look rather like Janey Morris, and just as destructively dissatisfied. He wondered what kind of treatment she was getting in the Krusograd jail. It would do her good to eat some disgusting meals, he unkindly reflected.

The sausages did not taste too bad. He had them with a tin of baked beans. Take it easy, the doctor had said. But it wasn’t very easy to take it easy. Mustard helped.

Frankly, most of the book appears to be a contemplation of the changes going on in England in this era. That’s interesting stuff, but the characters and story seemed a bit like decoration on top. I’m sure others would disagree, but it would have seemed better to me to leave the characters out of it and just talk about the changes in the world. Or, have more go on with the characters. That’s just me, though.

Just so little actually happens with the characters. They do some things, but most of the book seems to be backstory. 90% of the book appears to be revealing the status quo, and then suddenly at page 270 out of 320, something actually happens. Keating becomes a spy, goes to rescue Alison’s daughter in Wallacia, and ends up in a Wallacia prison camp.

Boom, extreme sudden burst of action at the end of a slow moving, dense book. Where the hell did that come from? I know the girl has been there from page 1, but this change was really sudden, and really strange given the rest of the book. I really don’t understand the motive for it much at all.

I still put that on just me, though. My tastes.

From all my whining, you might get the wrong idea. I did enjoy reading The Ice Age, but it’s just that it was a bit of a slog.

The writing is solid and it’s crafted well, but the pacing is really strange to me. There’s a little forward motion, then tons of backstory. Most of the motion must be in the backstory, but it didn’t feel like it moved very much at the time. Then, sudden action all at the end. I’m sure it’s due to my personal taste in not caring as much for endless lines of detail mashed together, which I recognize is not the way everyone feels, but that’s where I come out. The Ice Age a solid work, but it really was quite a slog for me.