The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleConfession time: I watched the first two episodes of the Amazon version of this book back when it first came out, and then a few months back I thought I would start it up again, since I’d be reading the book for book club. Ten minutes into the episode, I realized I had pulled up episode three of the second season instead of the first. Ten minutes of watching, just slightly baffled, not sure why the show seemed so off.

As you may guess, that’s kind of how I feel about this book. Part of this is because the book and the show are not the same at all, except for the very basic premise, and part of it is because the book does such weird things with that premise that I could barely keep up with what was going on.

The basic premise: that the Axis powers won World War II, and Germany and Japan have divided up the United States, east and west, respectively.

In the book, we stay on the Japanese side of the States, where lots of things are going on. There’s a guy who sells pre-war American merchandise to wealthy Japanese collectors, and who wants very badly to sell nice things to one couple, and also maybe sleep with the wife? Then there’s another dude who works in a factory that makes counterfeit collectible merchandise, and he leverages his knowledge of that illicit fact to start a business creating fancy post-war American jewelry, which is not in any sort of demand but he hopes it could be. Then there’s yet another dude who is some sort of German spy type fellow who wants to make a deal with some high-powered Japanese, but when his Japanese contact is held up he has to decide between making some potential waves or losing the deal entirely.

Also, meanwhile, in a DMZ area between the two halves of the States, there’s a chick who gets involved with a dude who is a little obsessed with this book that everyone else in this book is also obsessed with, in which that author posits what would have happened in a world where the Allied powers won the war, which is not what actually happened in our world but is not a terrible approximation of what could have happened, I guess? And so they go to meet the author, but weird things happen, and weirder things happen when the woman arrives, and this whole plotline is so strange, I can’t even.

This book, the one I read, is far more interesting academically than entertainingly. I like what Dick does with the ideas of class and race and what it’s like to live as a second-class citizen in what used to be your own dang country. I also like how he uses the I Ching to talk about ideas of destiny versus free will. There’s a lot of thinky thoughts to have while reading this book. But as a story, as something with a beginning and middle and an end and a plot and characters and all that? Eh. It’s all right. It kind of makes me want to go watch the show, which takes a much more story-focused tack from that basic premise, but then I remember those ten minutes and I’m like, eh.

Recommendation: Eh. Unless it’s for book club, in which case there’s a lot of good stuff to talk about and it gets a solid “Yeah.”

Weekend Shorts: Wool #3 and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast, Some More

Goodness, it has been so long since I actually read these stories that I can only hope I will remember all the good parts! With any luck I will be getting back into the swing of this, though, and there will be more short story goodness in the future. Especially this Wool series; it’s turning out to be really quite awesome!

wool 3Wool #3: Casting Off, by Hugh Howey
After the expectedly-not-as-great-as-the-first-story second story of this series, I was a little bit nervous about continuing on. For no good reason, it turns out! This installment opens with our newly minted sheriff, Juliette, heading out for a cleaning, which is a very bad thing indeed. She ponders just how she got herself into this predicament, which naturally segues into the actual story of how she got herself into this predicament. Yeah, it’s not the most original opening, but I am a total sucker for its kind and so this story scored points with me right from the beginning.

Howey gets into the meat of the political shenanigans here, with our new sheriff attempting to do her job and certain people making that basically impossible but with a shiny veneer of helpfulness that makes it hard for Juliette to argue. Unfortunately, the people who are actually being helpful to our sheriff are the ones who are about to make boatloads of trouble and make our opening happen. But it’s what happens after that opening sequence that makes me really super-duper excited for the next installment…. Man, I wish these stories were longer, so that I could say more about them, but on the other hand I can read more of them if they’re shorter, so…

The New Yorker Fiction Podcast“We Were Nearly Young”, by Mavis Gallant
Dang, this story. I didn’t really catch it while listening to the podcast, but I caught the gist of it in the discussion afterward with Antonya Nelson and thought it was pretty intriguing. Then I found a copy of the story here, and eyes-read it, and kind of fell in love with it.

The story itself is about a group of twenty-somethings all living in the same run-down building in Madrid in the fifties, being poor but being together and therefore being more or less happy, until such time as one of the twenty-somethings ruins the status quo. The group dynamics reminded me a bit of something like The Likeness or The Secret History, and so of course I was sold.

But what really makes the story so wonderful is the language Gallant uses, which is just so pretty that even though I wasn’t paying enough attention to it being read I knew it was a beautiful story. A line that especially drew me in in the print version: “It was not the English bun-face, or the Swiss canary, or the lizard, or the hawk; it was the unfinished, the undecided, face that accompanies the rotary sprinkler, the wet Martini, pussyfooting in love and friendship, expense-account foolery, the fear of the open heart.” Mavis Gallant, this is not the last time we shall meet.

“A Day”, by William Trevor
Where the last story was a bit confusing to me on first listen, this one dragged me right in. In it, a woman called Mrs. Lethwes spends a day pondering another woman called Elspeth. Elspeth is a bit of a mystery figure at first, is she Mrs. Lethwes’s sister? Friend? But as the story progresses, Trevor fills in more details about the Lethwes family and this Elspeth character, at least how Mrs. Lethwes sees and imagines them, and you (well, I) start to feel like you have totally had this particular day before in your life, up to and including all the attendant alcohol.

I think the best part of this story (spoilers?) is that you never find out what’s actually going on outside of Mrs. Lethwes’s head. Is Elspeth the way she imagines her? Is this day going to end the way Mrs. Lethwes thinks it will? Is it all just the alcohol talking? I DON’T KNOW AAAAHHH! And I love it.

Weekend Shorts from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastI haven’t been reading too much this week, so I’m glad to have this podcast just waiting for me on my phone when I need a quick escape into fiction. Last week I tracked down print versions for you to follow along in, but that proved to be far more difficult this week so I’m going to have to leave that up to you — but of course the audio is just waiting for you!

“I Bought a Little City”, by Donald Antrim

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I started listening to this, I was like, “I know this is only the third story I’ve listened to on this podcast, but I think it’s going to be hard to top.” And it will be.

In this awfully hilarious little satire, our intrepid narrator buys Galveston, Texas (as you do) and decides not to do anything drastic, except, you know, tear down some houses and build up not-too-imaginative new developments and have the newspaper publish diatribes against him because maybe his city people won’t want to do it themselves? It is very very weird, and Donald Antrim reads it so straight-faced that all I could do was laugh.

“You Must Know Everything”, by Isaac Babel

This was a weird story in a much different way. It’s got a pretty slow start, with a young narrator just sort of talking about his life and his day hanging out with his grandmother, but then toward the end it gets very serious, with the grandmother making the titular pronouncement and some other pronouncements that are maybe not quite what you would expect. I definitely appreciated this story more after the discussion with George Saunders (whose work I have checked out from the library right now!) about the cultural and societal implications of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.

“Somewhere Else”, by Grace Paley

More culture! It’s almost like these segues are planned, though I doubt that they are. As Nell Freudenberger, who discusses the story, says, this is a story about pictures. At first, it’s a story about a Western tour group in China in the 70s, when people weren’t really going to China, and the big event is an argument about taking photographs of Chinese citizens without their permission. Then the story shifts perspective to another picture-taking event in a completely different place with completely different people. The politics and privilege inherent in this photographic objectification (and the objectification of travel in general) are something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so listening to this story talking about the same thing from so many years ago was kind of cool!

“The Gospel According to Mark”, by Jorge Luis Borges

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. This is another story that starts off slow and then takes a turn for the exciting at the end, though on a second listen you can almost feel the buildup and where things start going very wrong. As Paul Theroux discusses, there’s a bit of a horror element to it, and it is definitely that type of horror that is my favorite, the kind you’d find in Shirley Jackson‘s work or certain darker Flannery O’Connor pieces. You should definitely track this down and give it a read or a listen and then another and then possibly another, because it will give you new things to think about every time.

How about you guys? Any short stories to share?

Weekend Shorts: Human Division Extras and The New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The Human DivisionFrom The Human Division: “After the Coup” and “Hafte Sorvalh Eats a Churro and Speaks to the Youth of Today”

If you’ll recall, I read The Human Division in serialized e-book form, so when the official print compilation came out and had extras, I was like, hey, wait a second. Those extras have since been made available for free on the internets, but since I am apparently too lazy to make the required account and also since I happened to see the hardcover come into cataloging at my library, I figured I’d just grab the book and read the extras there.

“After the Coup” I have actually read before, when it was maybe on at some point, but I was more than happy to read it again. This story takes my good friends Harry Wilson and Hart Schmidt and puts them in a diplomatic situation that is really more humorous and disgusting than it is political. Wilson, the one with the genetically engineered body, finds himself recruited to an exhibition match in an alien martial art against one of said aliens, a sort of amphibious creature whose martial arts skills are a combination of awesome and totally cheating, but of course Wilson makes the best of it.

“Hafte Sorvalh” etc. was new to me, and differently interesting than “After the Coup.” This one is definitely political; the gist of it is that the resident Conclave (the bad guys, more or less) diplomat sits down to eat some churros which end up going cold while she explains herself and her race and the Conclave and the potential for upcoming war to some inquisitive schoolchildren. I like the explanations Sorvalh gives, and I like the way it sort of sets up what I assume will be the next set of stories in this universe.

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastFrom The New Yorker Fiction Podcast: “Reunion” by John Cheever and “How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” by Junot Díaz

I’m finally catching up on my previously months-long backlog of podcasts, so of course it’s time to throw a new one into the mix! This is not a bad one to do that with, either, since the episodes are comprised of a short story and some commentary and thus take less than twenty minutes, at least so far. It is also helpful in my new quest to read more short stories, because a) I don’t have to actually seek any stories out and b) I get to listen to stories I wouldn’t have known existed to seek out.

“Reunion” (scanned copy here) is the very first story on this podcast, read by Richard Ford more than six years ago (I have a little catching up to do, yes). It is a very short story about a kid, probably late-teenage, stopping in New York City on a train layover to meet up with the father he hasn’t seen in three years. The father takes his son around some nearby bars, generally being an ass to all the wait staff and not generally getting a drink out of them, and the son realizes that maybe three years wasn’t long enough to have been away. I loved the way Ford read this story, making the father’s exclamations and insults both hilarious and depressing, and Cheever certainly nailed that awkwardness of seeing a person for the first time in a long time and not getting what you expected.

“How to date a brown girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie)” (nicely formatted version here) is a story that I probably would not have read on my own, and it still kind of isn’t. It stars a kid who, as you might guess, is explaining to someone (probably himself) how to date a girl, with contingency plans in case she’s white or black or local or an “outsider” or whatever. It’s an interesting look into the complexities of dating in a community I’m not familiar with, in a time — 1995 — that is so different from my own dating time, but with, in the end, a very familiar truth of what being a horny teenager is like. This story was read by Díaz himself from an older recording, with discussion by Edwidge Danticat afterwards, and I’m defnitely going to have to seek out work from both of these authors.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

So, I read this for RIP two years ago and found it pretty fantastic, if easily spoil-able. And then a while back I found it on OverDrive as an audiobook and plopped it on my “for future reference list” and then I had disappointing times with the audio for The Turn of the Screw and I put off listening to it for fear of a repeat.

But I should have feared not! For this audio version is everything that The Turn of the Screw was not, with the narrator all suspenseful and whispery and actually way more creepy than I had previously thought Merricat to be. Excellence!

And so, yes. There’s a Merricat, and her family is about half dead, including one person who is basically half-dead himself, and her sister Constance doesn’t leave the house on account of the town doesn’t care if Constance was acquitted of murdering her family, they’re still jerk-pantses who like to sing songs about murder. And they sing them at Merricat when she goes into town, but she just imagines them all falling dead and she feels better.

That’s pretty much how the whole book goes. Also: the town is full of mean people, Merricat’s house is a refuge, a relative comes to call who starts to combine the two, hell breaks loose. Don’t let townies into your house, is the moral of this story. Also beware the power of people in large groups (this is from the woman who wrote The Lottery, after all), the power of very aggressive people, and the power of superstition. And arsenic. Arsenic is bad stuff, guys.

I would tell you more specific things, but part of the charm of the story is in how Jackson sets everything up to be revealed, although even knowing the “secrets” of the book I still found a lot to love in it. So you should just go ahead and read it twice in a row. It’s a short book. No problem.

Recommendation: For people who are or like to be creeped out by children and/or mobs. Also people who like poisonous mushrooms.

Rating: 9/10
(RIP Challenge)

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote

I had meant to post this last week, but with Blogger acting up I figured I’d wait until I was sure everything was fixed. This turned out to be an excellent idea, as a) Blogger ended up eating a couple of my posts and b) by waiting, I made it to the book club meeting for which I read this book AND we watched a companion movie. So I have lots to talk about!

So, the book. I’d been meaning to read this, oh, forever, so I’m glad the book club made me do it. Before reading it, though, I just knew it was an important book that people read, and also a true crime story, another thing I’ve never read. The reason it’s important is because it is a true crime story written as non-fiction but in the style of a novel, with people doing things and talking to each other and expositing their own story. This was apparently a very new thing, and the conceit does fall apart in places, like any time Capote includes an entire letter or confession or whatever that just goes on for pages and pages or when there are scenes where you know Capote had to be making some stuff up because he just couldn’t have that information.

The story itself is about the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, who in 1959 were murdered quite unexpectedly and brutally in their own home. Capote’s novelization presents the murder and investigation in a really interesting manner, as the Clutters die fairly early on in the story and the rest of the book is spent first in figuring out the whodunnit and then in pondering about the whydunnit. The book jumps back and forth between the Kansas investigation and the murderers on the run until, of course, the two meet, and then there’s a bunch about jail and the trial, which is more intriguing than I originally thought it would be.

I quite liked this book even with its problems, and so did the rest of my book club, and after we talked about it we watched Infamous, which is a recent movie about Capote and how he managed to actually write this book. I thought it was a perfect complement to the book, as it’s structured similarly and touches on the unreliable narrator problems of In Cold Blood while taking its own liberties with Capote’s story. Brilliant, really. And it was really the unreliable narrator parts that intrigued me most — the movie brings up the fact that Capote never took notes during interviews, preferring to write things down with 99 percent accuracy later (mmhmm), and that he reworked “quotes” until they sounded better, which did not surprise me in the least. The movie even points to one bit of In Cold Blood that is just outright fabricated! I may need to go read the book that Infamous is based on.

Recommendation: For the Criminal Minds/Law and Order/other crime procedural lover in your life.

Rating: 8/10
(A to Z Challenge What’s in a Name Challenge)

Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

When I was in elementary school, I had a Spy Club. My two best friends (at the time) and I would go out into the neighborhood and write down what was going on, no matter how boring it was, and then we would meet in my room to discuss. I don’t know for certain, but I can only imagine that this was brought about by me reading Harriet the Spy.

As such, I have very fond memories of this book, in which one Harriet M. Welsch spies on people for fun, writing down everything she thinks about them from the mundane to the mean. Then, as these things go, Harriet’s notebook gets picked up by her schoolmates, who find out just what Harriet thinks about them (focusing on the mean things, of course) and completely shun her. Then, in my memory, Harriet does something nice and everyone is friends again.

Spoiler: that is totally not the case! Oh my goodness. I had completely blocked from my mind how terrible of a person Harriet is. When her notebook is revealed to everyone, her first stop is the stationery store (this is an old book) to get a new notebook for writing down even more vicious things than before. And what brings her back to her friends is lying. Lying! She gets told by her former nanny that little white lies are very important for getting along in society, and so she just tells everyone j/k, lol, she was totally lying about all of those things she said. And apparently the other students believe her, even though they’ve been reading Harriet’s mean screeds about other people in the school newspaper. Mmmmmmmmhmm.

So now, on the one hand, I feel very differently about Harriet. I’m even a little scandalized. But on the other hand, I have different fingers, and also I love this book a little more because it is so honest about how life tends to be. Granted, I’m not sure that Harriet would ever actually be accepted back into her old circles, but I can certainly believe that her friends would at least try to forgive her. I definitely see the Harriet of seven days after this book ends already getting in trouble again.

Recommendation: Perhaps this should be read by older kids, or at least ones mature enough not to take the ending as a license to lie all willy-nilly. Also good for adults who have a disposition toward schadenfreude.

Rating: 9/10
(Flashback Challenge)

See also:
Book Nut
Bermudaonion’s Weblog

Pass me yours, if you’ve got ’em.