Review: That Distant Land

That Distant Land, Wendell Berry. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2004.

Summary: A collection of short stories about the Port William membership not part of the longer novels.

If you’ve read a number of the fictional short stories of Wendell Berry, it is likely that you have encountered some of the stories in this collection. Stories from three earlier publications are represented here, although some differ slightly in the telling: The Wild Birds, Fidelity, and Watch with Me. I didn’t mind, though. It was delightful to revisit the courtship of Ptolemy Proudfoot and Minnie Quinch, to chuckle when the temperate Minnie determines to “dispose” of the half-pint of Old Darling Ptolemy had bought for lambing, or feel a sense of vindication when Ptolemy reveals he is far from the country bumpkin and gets the last laugh in “The Lost Bet.”

Two of the stories from Fidelity were a particular joy, both involving the lawyer Wheeler Catlett, who worked as hard to preserve the membership as any in Port William. The title work, “That Distant Land” conveys the bittersweet reflections also found in “The Wild Birds” at the losses to modernity Port William has suffered but also his dawning realization that the illegitimate son of Burley Coulter, who Burley wants to inherit his land is also part of that membership, not only by birth but through his care of the land in the company of Burley and others of the membership. “Fidelity,” I think is simply one of the greatest pieces of short story fiction. Danny “rescues” (or kidnaps, in the eyes of the law) Burley from the hospital where he is being kept alive on life support which is merely prolonging his dying at great expense. This was before the hospice movement, and the recognition of how providing a dignified dying in a familiar place is indeed fidelity to the dying. The beauty of what Danny does (not euthanasia but simply allowing Burley a natural death) and the way the membership stands together to protect him from the legal ramifications is both consummate storytelling and thought provoking.

There were several stories I hadn’t read before that I savored. “Making It Home” tells the story of Art Rowanberry’s military service, his recovery from the physical wounds and the mental ones that remain, as he walks home through countryside once again familiar, making it in time for dinner. “The Discovery of Kentucky” is one of those wisdom tales that shows how pompous pretensions can go sideways at the inaugural parade when a float to commemorate Kentucky is manned by Burley and his friends, when best-laid plans go awry and when the float sponsor totally fails to realize how the sign he has posted will be read in light of everything else. “The Inheritors,” which closes out the collection describes one of the final encounters between Wheeler Catlett and Danny Branch. Wheeler, who is slowly failing of body and mind, persuades Danny to drive him to a stock sale and then subjects Danny to a hair-raising drive home on the wrong side of the Interstate. Through it all, one senses an intimacy between the two, a passing of the baton and a blessing as Wheeler comes to the point of relinquishing his membership as Danny fully takes it up.

This is a fantastic collection of 23 of Berry’s Port William short stories, the best thing to read if you haven’t read any of the other works represented here. The arrangement of the stories is chronological and tells the story of a community over nearly a hundred year period. The book also includes a detailed map of Port William and a family tree of the Beechum, Feltner, and Coulter family lines. This is a great accompaniment to the Port William novels, which are indicated chronologically in the table of contents. All told, this work is one more reminder of the great contribution Mr. Berry has made to American literature.

Review: Watch With Me

Watch With Me: And Six Other Stories of the YetRemembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch, Wendell Berry. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2018 (originally published 1994).

Summary: Six short stories and the title novella centered around the Port William resident, Tol Proudfoot and his wife, Miss Minnie and their life on a rural farm, part of the membership of a rural community.

This one had me at the title, both for its length, and the “yet-remembered” part. For Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot was a memorable man–a big man of 300 pounds who seemed to be a-bursting out of his clothes, which looked disheveled within minutes of him donning them. He carefully farmed 98 acres, just enough and not two acres more. He was a good judge of horses and all livestock, as well as a good judge of people. Miss Minnie Quinch Proudfoot was as diminutive as Tol was large, but just as impressive. This book of short stories and a novella trace their life together and the lives they touched from the time they began to court until a few years before death parted them.

The first story introduces both of them and tells how Miss Minnie, who had had eyes for him as he for her, consented to let Tol see her home after the Harvest Festival. “A Half-Pint of Old Darling” renders the amusing story of how Miss Minnie, a local temperance movement leader, got pie-eyed drunk on some Old Darling whiskey Tol had bought for his new calves. “The Lost Bet” recounts the time Tol had the last laugh with a store owner who belittled him. Tol was great with livestock and could drive a horse with aplomb, but struggled mightily with his new Model A. “Nearly to the Fair” recounts their attempt to be driven by Elton Penn to the state fair, never quite getting there.

Tol and Miss Minnie never had children and the hospitality they showed to a homeless father and son during the height of the Depression showed the unspoken heartache between them. As the father and son are leaving, Tol half-jokingly says to the man, “We could use a boy like that.” After they left “Tol put on a clean shirt and his jacket, and cap and gloves. Miss Minnie began to clear the table. For the rest of that day, they did not look at one another.” With an economy of words, Berry expresses the bond between them, the diligence of their daily lives, and the unspoken ache they both felt. The last of the short stories recalls a riotous incident from childhood when the family was gathered at Old Ant’ny Proudfoot’s and the boys managed to dump both a cat and a dog down the chimney resulting in all hell breaking loose with the company. Told a few years before his passing with tears of laughter running down his face, “It was Tol’s benediction, as I grew to know, on that expectancy of good and surprising things that had kept Lester’s eyes, and Tol’s too, wide open for so long.”

“Watch With Me,” the final novella is another incident, from 1916, of those “good and surprising things.” Thacker “Nightlife” Hample was prone to spells. Prevented from preaching at the revival at Goforth Church, he comes by Tol’s place, spies an old shotgun that had been loaded to kill a snake, takes it and walks deliberately away, mouthing threats to kill himself. Tol and his nephew Sam and several others follow as a distance, as Nightlife walks on, oblivious of them while they are far from oblivious to the danger of the shotgun. They follow a day and a night, losing him in the woods only to have him come to the fire where they had fallen asleep, uttering Jesus’ words “Couldn’t you stay awake? Couldn’t you stay awake?” He then leaves, taking them in a big circle back to Tol’s workshop. It’s a fine story of human fidelity and frailty–of friends who drop their work to watch their “teched” community member, not sure what they can do, but realizing they needed to be there, even at risk to themselves. That’s what it was to be a “member” of this community.

This is a wonderful collection I never knew existed, introducing me to an older member of Port William. The fine writing says just enough to suggest the things Berry wants us to see–the wonder of marital fidelity with all its flaws, the attentive care to land and crops, and animals, and people that makes for a healthy place, and the laughable incongruities of life. We witness the gentle respect people show for one another’s fallibilities, where people are protected from the worst versions of themselves, offering them space for redemption and growth. Berry makes us long for what was in this fictional town, and what could be in ours. He gently poses the question of us of what it may be to be the Tol, the Miss Minnie to others. We miss what Berry is saying if we only long for the world around us to be like these people and fail to hear the invitation to be like them ourselves.

Review: Orsinian Tales

Orsinian Tales, Ursula K. Le Guin. New York: Library of America, 2016 (originally published in 1976).

Summary: A collection of eleven short stories set in the fictional eastern European country of Orsinia taking place between 1150 and 1965.

This is a lesser-known collection of Ursula K. Le Guin short stories published after her Earth-Sea books, where I first encountered Le Guin many years ago. These are set in an imaginary country, not in another world, but in Eastern Europe in the fictional country of Orsinia. The eleven stories span a period between 1150 and 1965, although not in chronological order.

The first story, The Fountains, suggests the basic theme running through these stories. An Orsinian scientist comes to Paris for a science conference, and takes the opportunity to escape and view the Fountains of Versailles, only to return once more to his hotel and the surveillance of the secret police. This and the other stories chronicle the efforts of people to exert their own freedom against the restrictive circumstances of their lives. A military man excels in his career only to realize he’d sacrificed what and who he’d loved forty years earlier in The Lady of Moge. A clerk with a family longs to be a musician, and despite counsel, determines to keep working on a large composition that will take him years to finish and may not provide any economic benefit. Others seek work that will help them move beyond survival, or love that seems out of reach. In The House, a divorcee comes back to her first husband to re-establish a broken relationship.

The stories pieced together trace the history of this country from a feudal power to an eastern bloc country. Many of the stories portray what seems a relatively dismal life of eking out an existence under some kind of authoritarian regime. The sense of this all was trying to find some glimpse of happiness in a life that is hard and then you die. Characters seem to seek the transcendent in a world where this doesn’t exist.

No doubt these are finely crafted tales. But the disconnected character of the stories, the jumbled chronology, and the bleak outlook of the stories failed to capture my interest. Remembering the Earth-Sea books, The Lathe of Heaven and The Left Hand of Darkness, I anticipated more. I didn’t find it here.

Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2008.

Summary: A collection of short stories set in a small coastal village in Maine, centering around an aging and abrasive middle school teacher, Olive Kitteridge.

Olive Kitteridge is characterized at one point in this book as having “a way about her that was absolutely without apology.” Her son at one point described her moods as capricious and that she never accepted responsibility for the ways she affected others. She was tall and imposing, irascible and difficult. And yet. She could cut through niceties to help a young man ready to take his life, or truly sympathize with a widow while her own husband was a vegetable. What you saw was what you got, and yet there were hidden depths to her that could catch you by surprise.

Olive Kitteridge and her husband Henry live in the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Olive is a middle school math teacher and Henry a pharmacist. Elizabeth Strout develops Olive’s character through a series of chronologically arranged short stories featuring different people in the town. Olive is not in every one of them but recurs throughout the book, intersecting with a number of the characters as she retires from teaching, sharing life with Henry, a most accommodating husband, as they go through life’s changes and grief’s, including a son for whom they built a house, only for him to move across country at his wife’s behest, only for her to divorce him, and then for him to return to New York and a new marriage. Olive grieves so much she won’t drive past the house, leading to an improbable adventure at the local ER.

The stories explore the challenges and comforts of marital love, the infidelities of mind and body of different villagers, including Henry at one point for his pharmacist assistant Denise. There are heartbreaks and verbal wounds that are not easily healed. But one thing you will never find is hypocrisy from Olive. One of the highlights was when Olive overhears her new daughter-in-law making fun of her clothes. Most of us would fume and pretend we had not heard. Olive goes into the daughter-in-law’s closet and deviously ruins several articles of clothing. She can be maddeningly matter-of-fact in her acceptance of life’s hardships. What else ought one expect of life?

Despite all the flaws and foibles and failures of individuals, Strout portrays a community that somehow coheres, that is there for each other in the hardest moments. She creates a place and a character rooted in that place in Olive–the houses she builds, the tulips she plants, the donut shop she and Henry loved to get donuts from. Olive and the others endure loss and glimpse their mortality, making there way through life and finding what comfort they can in each other.

In the end, we see a character who seemed utterly certain of herself, who does not change, but turns her honesty upon herself and comes to more settled terms with the person she is, and the possibilities of her remaining life. There is both fine writing and fine insight into the human condition here.

Review: Tales of the Jazz Age

Tales of the Jazz Age, F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York, Open Road Media, 2016 (first published in 1922).

Summary: A collection of eleven short stories, the most famous of which is “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

For those who only know F. Scott Fitzgerald, this collection of short stories reveals other sides of the mind of Fitzgerald. Personally, I found this collection uneven. Only one seems to be truly profound, “O Russet Witch!,” a reflection on the choice between safe conventionality, and the risky, unconstrained life.

The most famous in the set was “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Fitzgerald turns a thought exercise about being born old and growing backward into a story.

“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is kind of a grown up fantasy in which a school friend is invited to spend a holiday in an off-the-map Shangri-la, complete with an attractive sister, until he learns of the secret of the place, and its sinister impliction.

Two in the collection were amusing. “The Camel’s Back” revolves around a costume party and a camel costume for two. “Porcelain and Pink” is a one act play set in a suds-filled bath-tub.

Then there is the pathetic in “May Day” in which old classmates from Yale meet up, one down on his luck, and full of self-pity. Not an attractive figure, and his friends are no better.

To be honest, the other stories in this collection seemed to me to be caricatures, or just plain strange. The only virtue in some of these stories was that they were short. For those who are Fitzgerald fans, of course you will want to read these. For the rest of us, I felt there were a few good stories and the rest were mere padding.

Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

loneliness of the long distance runner

The Loneliness of the Long Distance RunnerAlan Sillitoe. New York: Open Road Media, 2016 (originally published in 1959).

Summary: A collection of nine short stories set in the pre-and post-World War II British working class, characterized by a strong sense of anger, alienation, and desolation.

There was a season in my life where I was into running–anywhere from 5K races to half marathons. This book kept coming up but I never had a chance to read it. It’s probably just as well, because even the title story had far less to do with running than loneliness. It is a book that could have been the inspiration for the Beatles “Eleanor Rigby.” All the lonely people.

The title story is about an adolescent boy from working class origins caught up in petty crime and sentenced to “borstal,” a kind of reform school. He is permitted to train outside the fences for a long distance competition, and much of the story is his private thoughts on those runs, culminating in the struggle between being awarded a light work load if he wins versus not wanting to comply with the borstal administration.

Other stories describe:

  • An upholsterer “Uncle Ernest” abandoned by his wife, exploited by some young girls for food and money in a cafe, yet who become the one bright spot in his life until the police warn him against ever seeing them again, leading him to turn to drink.
  • A religious education teacher who combats the tedium of dealing with unruly boys through fantasizing about the shop girls across the street from his classroom winter, until faced down by one particularly defiant boy.
  • A postman abandoned by his wife after six years of marriage, taking up with a housepainter. Later she begins to visit again, often in need of money, saying the housepainter had died, musing about “The Fishing Boat Picture” until he gives it to her, then finds it in a pawn shop and buys it back. Neither the picture nor the former wife fare well.
  • “Noah’s Ark” is a carnival ride that culminates a day of cadging money by two poor boys whose big thrill is getting on the ride without paying, chased by the ride operator.
  • A man who tries (and fails) to hang himself, persuading a young neighbor boy to help him in “On Saturday Afternoon.”
  • “The Match” is not just about a losing soccer match but how two men return to their wives, one engaging in domestic violence, while his friend overhears the fight in the bliss of being newly-wed.
  • In “The Disgrace of Jim Scarfedale” a young neighbor narrates the sad story of mama’s boy Jim, who to prove he is not, marries and divorces in haste, returns to mama, while secretly pursuing a disgraceful life across town.
  • “The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller” is an actual account of Sillitoe’s youth, where he was led in street gang activities by Frankie, a warrior who loved to do battle with a rival gang. Separated by war, their lives take very different courses, Frankie’s downward, Alan’s upward, as he discovers in an encounter years later.

These are not uplifting or “feel good” stories, as you can well see. What they do describe are young men who feel trapped in a banal existence, lashing out in anger, whether through criminal activity, violence against others, or turning that anger inward in self-destructive behavior. It is not unlike the accounts of the rust belt working class in J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Like that book, these stories narrate the reservoir of free floating anger as well as hopelessness or even deep loneliness of people who feel there is no way out of their situation. Sadly, stories like these could be written from characters in most of our cities. “All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?”

Review: The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow

The Affair at the Bungalow, Agatha Christie. New York: Witness Impulse, 2013 (originally published in the anthology Thirteen Problems in 1932).

Summary: Actress Jane Helier tells a story of a mysterious burglary at a bungalow in the town where she is acting in a play, involving a woman impersonating her and an unfortunate young playwright. Miss Marple, professing to be baffled, privately hints at a different story.

Most readers are familiar with Agatha Christie’s full-length mysteries. This is a delightful short story originally part of an anthology titled Thirteen Problems first published in 1932, and now available in e-book form as a stand-alone short story.

Jane Helier, an actress, is with a party of friends including Miss Marple, and turns the conversation to a mysterious event that happened to a “friend” of hers, who is quickly found out to be Jane herself. She was in a town by a river (“Riverbury”) as part of a play company when called upon by the police to confront a young man arrested for burglary. The story gets more interesting when the young man, a playwright, claims he was summoned to a bungalow, the site of the burglary, by Miss Helier. Of course, when he sees Miss Helier, he realizes the other woman was not her. He had called at the bungalow, was introduced by the maid to “Miss Helier,” had a drink, and woke by the side of the road, only to be arrested for burglary. It seems that a case of jewels owned by the mistress of a wealthy city man has been stolen while the house was empty. The mistress was an actress, herself married.

By then it is obvious that the young playwright, Leslie Faulkener, was innocent of the crime. But who stole the jewels? The actress, the maid? The party weights all the angles of the story, and at the end, even Miss Marple professes to be mystified as to the solution, and their ire is further aroused when Jane Helier herself offers no resolution.

As the party is breaking up Miss Marple whispers in Jane’s ear, leaving her startled. Did Miss Marple know more than she let on, that not all was as it seemed? And what did she mean when she said, “What I do realize is that women must stick together–one should, in an emergency, stand by one’s own sex. I think that’s the moral of the story Miss Helier has told us”? What did Miss Marple whisper in her ear?

The one question, which mystifies Miss Helier herself, also mystified me and that is how did Miss Marple know? The resolution of the mystery hinges on information Miss Helier had not told anyone, including Miss Marple, introducing new characters not known to us. How did she know? Was it the vagueness at points in the story? The fact that Miss Helier herself does not know the ending?

In this case, one has only to read twenty-one pages to discover what is going on. But the story demonstrates Christie’s art–to draw one into a crime puzzle–in this case one without a murder, and finish it with a surprise


Review: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am the first male of all my friends to read this book. Maybe it is just that men often don’t read something other than adventure or detective fiction or stick to non-fiction or sports or don’t read–or maybe I’m just indulging in stereotypes! At any rate, this Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories is well worth reading by both men and women because of the exquisitely fine writing and large themes captured in short narratives.

Lahiri is a woman of Bengali Indian descent, born in London, raised in Rhode Island by a mother who valued her Bengali Indian heritage, and educated in Boston. These short stories reflect the complicated challenges of negotiating heritage, immigration to a new country, and the impact these have upon relationships as modernity and traditional cultural values clash.

Jhumpa Lahiri (c) Marco Delogu

Jhumpa Lahiri (c) Marco Delogu

The title story, “Interpreter of Maladies” typifies this clash as a Bengali tour guide for Americans explains that his other job, serving as a translator for a physician opens up an odd intersection of these two worlds with a foreign couple he is serving as guide. In “This Blessed House” we have an Indian couple who buy a house in the US that is filled with the trappings of its previous Christian owners and we have the comical and thought-provoking clash between husband and wife of what to do with all these artifacts of a foreign religion that were part of the home. In “Mrs. Sen’s” we have a traditional Indian wife of a university professor in the US, who supplements the family income by watching children, and who struggles between her traditional role and the pressures of her husband to learn to drive.

There are also stories about the clash of traditional cultural values and modernity in areas of marriage and sexuality. In “A Temporary Matter” we see a struggling arranged marriage that comes to a crucial turning point during a series of power outages. “Sexy” narrates two affairs, including one between a Bengali and an American, who works with a Bengali friend who has just told her about her cousin’s husband’s affair. “The Third and Final Continent” explores the dynamics of arranged marriages and immigration and an unlikely catalyst to real love forming in the person of a 103 year old landlady.

A last category seems to be the ephemerality of relationships, which include the story “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” “A Real Durwan”, and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”.

What it seems all these stories have in common is change. Relationships that grow, and those that die. People that come and go. Ways of living confronted by the circumstance of migrating to a new culture. We long for permanence and hope that in a place, in a person, in a set of values, we can find that. In the world Lahiri describes, we see in these short pieces the large, existential drama of the search for what lasts in a world of change.

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Publishing Trends: The Kindle Single

One of the publishing trends that I’ve become aware of since I’ve had an e-reader is that of the Kindle Single. This is what we might in the past call a short story or essay or reporting piece. The challenge for these short pieces is that up until now, they have generally not been stand-alone pieces. They appear in anthologies or magazines or sometimes in a collection of pieces by that author. Publishing the piece all by itself just hasn’t generally worked.

The Kindle Single ranges from 5,000 to 30,000 words, can be in one of a number of genres, and either can be an already published work on the Kindle platform or one considered for publication as a Kindle single. Kindle’s editors make selections. Authors, if selected receive 70 % royalties on publications priced between 0.99 and 4.99. Here is Amazon’s Kindle Single Submission Policy.

It seems to me that this opens up a new avenue for authors to get their work published, and known of itself–not lost in a journal or anthology. It also affords publishers the chance to publish authors without the laborious process of writing and editing a full length work, or waiting for there to be a collection of short stories. The site Good E Reader notes that Penguin and Random House are now publishing short stories in this format and that all this may lead to a renewal in this form of publishing.

I’ve not dipped into this area yet. I would be curious if readers have found some good short stories in e-published form? And if any writers come across this, has this been a way to get your writing out, and more importantly, have you seen many sales?