The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe is a weird little book. Let’s just start out with that as an opener.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Kathryn Harrison.)

A guy disappears. A schoolteacher, who rails against ordinary life, goes on a little holiday collecting insects, about which he purposefully though without reason tells people almost nothing. He wanders into a little village on the seaside with all these homes at the bottom of pits in the sand dunes. Having made no plans for where to stay, upon being confronted he asks if he can be put up in a village house.

He can:

He was escorted to one of the cavities on the ridge of the dunes at one end of the village.

From the ridge a narrow path went down the slope to the right. After they had walked on awhile, the old man leaned over into the darkness and, clapping his hands, shouted in a loud voice: “Hey! Granny! Hey, there!”

From the depths of the darkness at their feet a lamp flickered, and there was an answer.

“Here I am! Here! There’s a ladder over by the sandbags.”

Indeed, without the ladder he could not possibly have got down. He would have had to catch hold on the cliff with his bare hands. It was almost three times the height of the house top, and even with the ladder it was still not easy to manage. In the daytime, he recalled, the slope had seemed to him rather gentle, but as he looked at it now, it was close to perpendicular. The ladder was an uncertain thing of rope, and if one lost one’s balance it would get hopelessly tangled up. It was quite like living in a natural stronghold.

What they omit telling him until later (too late) is that he cannot leave:

He wondered if he should say something to the woman before he left. But, on the other hand, it would only embarrass her to be awakened. Anyway, what should he do about paying her for the night’s lodging? Perhaps it would be better to stop on the way back through the village and give the old man from the cooperative the money—the one who had brought him here the day before.

Stealthily he went out.

The sun was boiling mercury, poised at the edge of the sand cliff. Little by little it was beginning to heat the bottom of the hole. He hastily turned his eyes away from the intense glare. In the next instant he had already forgotten it. He simply stared at the façade of the sand wall.

It was unbelievable! The rope ladder had vanished from the place it had been the night before.

The village intends to keep him in the pit forever with the woman (who is not a granny despite the quote above). They are to clear the sand that is blown into the pit. This is what they need to do all day, every day. Supposedly, this needs to be done so that the village survives and isn’t forever buried in the sand, there not being enough villagers to do it, but why keeping their particular cavity clear of blown sand helps isn’t ever really specified. They raise no crops or livestock, nothing else. They just have to clear the sand endlessly, which will be taken up in baskets by people who bring them food, water, and other necessities.

As one might expect, the man tries to escape. Repeatedly. As one also might expect, this does not go well. Eventually, he finds a way that he actually can escape. However, he doesn’t. He just stays there, doing what he’s supposed to be doing, planning on one day escaping after all. As with everything else except the sparse prose of the text, the reasons behind this aren’t explicitly specified.

The Woman in the Dunes is a very strange little book. The writing is crisp and the subject is pleasantly unusual. The protagonist can get a bit annoying, but I think that actually helps the reader accept what happens to him. It’s just such an odd thing, and there’s a great deal of meditation on the nature of living underneath a very simple structure. The Woman in the Dunes is intriguing to say the least.

Rain Check by Levi Andrew Noe

I have an urge the few times that Kim and I step away from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books in order to review something contemporary to have both of us review whatever book it is separately. We have similar views on many things, but quite different on others. Regardless, we each come to our own conclusions in our own ways and it fascinates each of us to see how the other goes to work on something we’ve both picked up. It’s almost as much fun to compare as it is to read the book itself. That’s why when I heard Kim was going to check out Rain Check by Levi Andrew Noe I thought I’d take a week to do the same myself.

Now, there are a number of different kinds of pieces in Rain Check, so I could talk about a lot of different things. They’re all flash fiction stories, but a great deal of variety can be formed with very few words. For example, there are both travel pieces, like this section from “Southeast Asia Blues”:

He took the 50-pound bag off his back. For the hundredth time Jack thought about the last time, somewhere in the undreamable future, when he would take that bag off for good. How his shoulders would weep with joy. He hated the hurt, how the hurt made him complain, how the complaints made him regret, and how the regret drove him to homesick laments. Traveling, at least his kind of wandering way, was a weary business. Jack had to give the aches and pains their place in this adventure. It was only fair.

and there are also stories in our backyards about young boys unintentionally causing damage playing with fire, like this bit from “Prometheus”:

He sprayed his arm again, with much more hairspray this time. He lit it and watched the flames dance up his arm.

“This must be how they do it in the movies!”

He danced around, trying to wave the fire out. He only managed to fan the flames. Then a look of true feat entered his eyes. He rolled on the ground, beat his arm on the grass. Eventually he put the flame out, but his skin was red and he was clutching his arm in pain. Tears welled up.

Robbie stepped toward Leo, but as he moved closer he saw the grass in front of him ignite. It was slow at first, he thought he could put it out by stomping on it. But more smoke poured out from hidden depths in the brown grass. Then flames licked at Robbie’s pant legs. He jumped back.

“Run!” Robbie yelled to Leo.

The thing that strikes me the most throughout all the different kinds of stories is how Noe handles the flash form. In all the pieces I used to come across reading submissions for Grey Sparrow Journal before they went pure poetry, I was always looking for flash that could bring forth a narrative emotional singularity. In flash, as I see it, you have room for one “note.” That may not seem like the same note throughout a flash piece due to reveal, surprise, and other structural aspects, but it’s all still the “sounding” and “resonation” of only one “bell.” Either each word, each image, each everything ties completely together into a unified whole to sound that one note and resonate and you get wonderful glory (barring fugue-like experiments where juxtaposition and contrast of these things is the whole point, but isn’t that really just separate parts of the same note anyway?), or the piece falls utterly apart and it doesn’t work at all. What Noe has here in Rain Check is a complete grasp of this, and an unfailing ability to bring it all together for the single note, whichever one it is at that time, each and every time.

This is some good stuff. Definitely don’t take a rain check on Rain Check. You won’t want to risk missing out.

Micro Adventure Series

Kim stepped briefly away from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books to talk about some of her favorite series of books. I thought I should talk about something along those lines, but I’m not a huge series fan. I’ve read a few here and there, but I’m not hugely fond of them. Maybe the kind of things that need to be done for a series compromise the book level view a bit, at least as far as what I’m looking for, it’s hard to say. I have been at least somewhat fond of one or two, but perhaps not enough for a post. There was one that interested me quite a bit, but for perhaps different reasons than one might expect. As such, we’ll go ahead and talk about the Micro Adventure series, despite the fact that I only ever read one of the books.

This was an 80’s Scholastic series written in second person where you were supposed to get involved with the action by typing in a Basic program (designed for Apple, which translation tips for other systems, since there were so many versions of the Basic programming language at the time), figuring out how it worked, and “hacking it” to get it to do what you needed (i.e., change the program to kill the robots instead of the humans). The idea was to teach programming a bit, and along the way have a space-age action adventure.

I only ever actually read Micro Adventure No. 6 Robot Race by David Anthony Kraft. Found it in one of the Scholastics and picked it up.

I was fascinated, despite never getting around to typing any of the programs into a computer and “hacking” them as instructed (my parents rarely would hook up our Commodore Vic 20 for me). A half-human/half-computer evil named Brutus was leading a robot army against the world. You were a computer wiz teaming up with ACT (the Adventure Connection Team) to stop him.

That was about it.

Seriously, it was cheesy, the programs were pretty simple to modify (though some were interesting), and there wasn’t a huge amount to it. Still…it was fun. I would totally have bought the others in the series if I’d ever seen any in the subsequent Scholastic. I never did though, the above being the only one I ever checked out.

Still, it was enough of a pull that I went looking for a copy to get again twenty years later. I have it even now, sitting right next to me as I write this.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I have to say, I was expecting to find that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was the original idea for Dead Poets Society. After all, iconoclast teacher shapes students to be exceptional certainly sounds like that. I thought was going to find that Muriel Spark had anticipated Dead Poet Society by twenty years, and that it was a story of young women not young men. However, though there are a number of similarities and there may have been an influence, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is more complicated than that.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 4th for A.L. Kennedy and 3rd for Alexander McCall Smith.)

After all, Miss Brodie is not pursued by students eagerly coming towards the world, ending up then dramatically shaping who they become as people. Rather, she seeks them out…intending to cultivate a select few into the “crème de la crème.” She’s unconventional and individualistic, but she’s also somewhat blindly opinionated and has highly subjective views of what is cultivated or not, far from perfect. She’s also a bit ridiculous in endlessly talking about how she’s working “in her prime” (the phrase “her prime” must be referred to hundreds of times within the space of this relatively short novel, both by Miss Brodie and the girls) to lead these young women out of themselves:

Miss Brodie stood in her brown dress like a gladiator with raised arm and eyes flashing like a sword. “Hail Caesar!” she cried again, turning radiantly to the window light, as if Caesar sat there. “Who opened the window?” said Miss Brodie dropping her arm.

Nobody answered.

“Whoever has opened the window has opened it too wide,” said Miss Brodie. “Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar. One should have an innate sense of these things. We ought to be doing history at the moment according to the time-table. Get our your history books and prop them up in your hands. I shall tell you a little more about Italy. I met a young poet by a fountain. Here is a picture of Dante meeting Beatrice—it is pronounced Beatrichay in Italian which makes the name beautiful—on the Ponte Vecchio. He fell in love with her at that moment. Mary, sit up and don’t slouch. It was a sublime moment in a sublime love. By whom was the picture painted?”

Nobody knew.

“It was painted by Rossetti. Who was Rossetti, Jenny?”

“A painter,” said Jenny.

Miss Brodie looked suspicious.

“And a genius,” said Sandy, to come to Jenny’s rescue.

“A friend of—?” said Miss Brodie.

“Swineburne,” said a girl.

Miss Brodie smiled. “You have not forgotten,” she said, looking round the class. “Holidays or no holidays. Keep your history books propped up in case we have any further intruders.” She looked disapprovingly towards the door and lifted her fine dark Roman head with dignity. She had often told the girls that her dead High had admired her head for its Roman appearance.

She’s also a fascist.

She molds her girls as she wants them, even trying to get one of them to become the lover of the art teacher, whom she herself loves but cannot have because he is married. The school wants her out and relentlessly tries to force her retirement, but she skillfully avoids this until one of her own students deliberately betrays her…simply to overcome Miss Brodie, to put a stop to her seemingly unstoppable influence.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a wonderful novel for both the characters and the interpersonal complexity. You have to love how vivid and differentiated each of these people are. More than that though, you have to adore how they interact across time. It’s certainly not all good, but it is rich and complex. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie a marvelous book, and unsettling in many unexpected ways.

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

Maybe it’s the national chaos this election year, but I felt it was time to read something mired in panicked imperialism. Thus, we’re looking at Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee this week.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Jim Crace and 9th for Jim Shepard.)

Waiting for the Barbarians focuses on the Magistrate, the empire’s minor official who has been running his tiny town on the barbarian frontier for thirty years. It isn’t an important place, but it’s peaceful. There’s been talk for forever about the barbarians massing to take them over, but on the ground the Magistrate has seemed to see nothing of the sort. He doesn’t even have facilities for prisoners. Bandits swipe one or two cattle here or there, but for the most part they keep to themselves and concentrate on their nomadic lifestyle. However, things change when a visiting officer from the empire arrives to do something about the barbarians.

For one thing, the Magistrate is a good and peaceful man. He lives by the law, which he understands is the best that they have rather than perfect justice. Still, he is utterly unprepared for the kind of pointless cruelty of which the visiting officer (and indeed the empire and eventually most everyone around him) is capable:

“These are the only prisoners we have taken for a long time,” I say. “A coincidence: normally we would not have any barbarians at all to show you. This so-called banditry does not amount to much. They steal a few sheep or cut out a pack-animal from a train. Sometimes we raid them in return. They are mainly destitute tribespeople with tiny flocks of their own living along the river. It becomes a way of life. The old man says they were coming to see the doctor. Perhaps that is the truth. No one would have brought an old man and a sick boy along on a raiding party.”

*****

“Nevertheless,” he says, “I ought to question them. This evening, if it is convenient. I will take my assistant along. Also I will need someone to help me with the language. The guard, perhaps. Does he speak it?”

“We can all make ourselves understood. You would prefer me not to be there?”

“You would find it tedious.”

*****

Of the screaming which people afterwards claim to have heard from the granary, I hear nothing.

Horrified by what he sees done by the empire, he obsesses over a barbarian girl who had been blinded and had her feet broken, taking her in and performing odd quasi-sexual rituals involving washing and oiling her. Eventually, he takes a few soldiers on a long and dangerous journey to return her to her people, but upon his return he is arrested under suspicion of aiding the barbarians. He is tortured by the empire, though not as badly as what they seem to do to the barbarians, and is abandoned and laughed at by his own townspeople.

Of course, then things go badly for the empire. The barbarians, who had left things relatively alone for so long, cunningly manage to destroy crops, troops, and more. The empire’s soldiers all flee, leaving the town to its fate. The Magistrate just steps back up again, quietly trying to help the people of the town figure out how they’re going to get through the winter.

Waiting for the Barbarians is an interestingly spare exploration of imperialism and human cruelty. The writing is solid, though some of the paragraphs can swell a bit. For the most part the lines are clean though, and the descriptions are tangible. I liked how concrete everything was at the same time that the exact empire and place was left vague enough that it could be so many places. Waiting for the Barbarians is not going to be one of my favorite books, but it might be one of my favorite Coetzee books.

Books I Quit

Kim had to confess last week that she had, apparently for not the first time, not finished reading The Iliad. I don’t think we can blame her for that. We want a post, but Homer isn’t easy. She’ll get there, but in her own time. That sort of classic should be enjoyed, not forced (unless it’s a student who wouldn’t read it any other way, then go ahead and force). Regardless of any of that, I thought it might make Kim feel a little better to take this week to talk about a few books that gave me trouble as well.

Now, I can’t immediately remember any books that I tried and quit without having come back to them eventually. Usually I do, or at least I have as far as I remember. There are a couple that took me a few tries though, sometimes over the course of ten years or so, so we’ll talk about those.

The first was War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. I imagine people can understand this one. I think I first got a paperback of this in 1994. I tried reading it, and then tried reading it again a few months later. I didn’t get very far in. Of course, I was seventeen, but still. I don’t think I read more than a couple hundred pages on either attempt. Those who know War and Peace know there’s a hell of a lot further to go than that. In any case, I stopped both times. Then I quit trying for a while. I thought about it, but I didn’t read it. I can’t remember if I even tried it again until the time I read it. I might have, I might not. Regardless, I had a copy when I got to the semester break during my first year of law school. I figured I wasn’t going to ever have that much time again without work, school, or significant other putting some kind of demands on me, so I gave it another shot…and got through just fine. I think I just needed to get a certain momentum in to carry me through.

Same with In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (alternatively translated as Remembrances of Things Past). I first got the gigantic two-volume silver set with the alternative title I mention in the parenthetical. That was maybe in 1998, or perhaps as late as 2000-2001. I tried to get into it because Kerouac spoke of it so highly and I was still really into him, but I couldn’t get past the bit where he talks in the beginning about dreading going to bed and the confusion he experienced waking up in the middle of the night. You might laugh, or you might know and not scoff. After all, he goes on about this for at around a hundred pages. I just couldn’t take it, especially with the weight of those tombs making my wrist numb as I tried to, and gave up. I tried at least two times, though I can’t remember how many precisely before the summer of 2005. Summer 2005 was when I picked up the 6 volume more modern set with the title above. I was summering at a firm in Kansas City before my last year of law school. Though I lived just around the corner from the Plaza and did do a bit of drinking on the weekend with the other summers (as well as some during the week by myself), I didn’t really know anyone in town and didn’t really have much to do. Sometimes I could watch the young coeds in the pool directly outside my window (it was a large apartment complex with a lot of young college kids), but not all the time. I got a lot of reading done, including just steaming through one volume of Proust after the other. Again, once I got momentum to get through him talking about not wanting to go to bed, somewhere over a hundred pages perhaps, I powered right though.

I’m sure there’s got to be a book I’ve quit and haven’t come back to, but I just don’t remember. I’m sure it isn’t as important a book to me as these two were that I really wanted to read and had trouble making myself do. Anyway, I just wanted to confirm to Kim that she wasn’t alone on this and I’ve failed to get through a challenging book I really wanted to read a couple times myself.

William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.