Tuesday, October 16, 2018

On "The Shunned House" by H. P. Lovecraft (10,749 words) ****

Similar in some ways to "The Lurking Fear" this story revolves around a single house, one that holds fascination for the narrator growing up. It has a fungal problem, and occasionally, the narrator spies what he thinks is something lurking about inside. He gets the owner to agree to let him spend time in the house, and his uncle, who has an equal interest, comes along. Alas, the narrator loses his uncle to the house. I'm not giving away much, because readers learn this a third of the way into the story, though we don't discover how until the end. Lovecraft is at his best when trying to rationalize the irrational, and the most of this story is just that. But as with so many of Lovecraft's story's the final horror is a bit disappointing in its attempts to be horrifying. Sometimes the unknown is scarier. Read the story here.

On "Quiet" by Susan Cain ****

Long on my reading list, this book explores the world of introverts. Its first half contains some accounts of interesting studies, but its second half turns into a self-help book, which was not exactly what I was thinking this would be or what I was looking for. On the whole, this books reads as great mainstream commercial nonfiction, but as such it does feel like it lacks a certain amount of gravity, gravity that is hinted at in the first half of the book when it gets into its various discussions on culture.

Cain suggests in the first chapter that there was a shift in the early twentieth century away from a focus on character toward personality, a shift that is mirrored in a shift from a focus on introverts to extroverts (as such, she kind of links personality with extroversion and character with introversion, which isn't exactly a truism). Nevertheless, the point is that the American focus on extroverts, on being loud and friendly and "out there" with your desires and offerings, on sharing among large groups, means that the skills of introverts are often overlooked or ignored.

Cain backs up such assertions with finding and examples from the world of business and education, anecdotes such as that of an introverted man who had actual experience in survival skills but who in a class exercise in business school could not be heard over the voices of the many extroverts who knew much less about what they were talking about. She writes of how extrovert-centered idealism, which has resulted in concepts such as the open office and group work often result in less than intended results. Open office environments are actually less productive; group work often renders less creative solutions to problems than lone individuals often can. She writes of the financial world and how introverts tend to be more careful, less risk taking, and how the finance is dominated by the risk-taking extrovert class, which helps to forge a bubble and bust economy.

How did we get here? Dale Carnegie found confidence in public-speaking classes and went on to write classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People and taught others how to be successful, and that success was largely tailored around extrovert-type values.

From here, Cain moves toward self-help: how to deal with your opposite in relationships and at work; how to deal with an introvert kid. Much of this seems fairly self-evident or aimed at people who are at extreme ends of either spectrum.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

On "Mama" by Lucia Berlin (13 minutes) ***

In "Mama," Berlin returns to some recurring characters of hers. Carlotta here rehearses stories about Mom for her dying sister Sally, whose relationship with their mom was cut off when she married a Mexican--stories about alcoholism but also about love and sacrifice, some of them embellished. Carlotta may have stayed on Mom's good side, but Sally seems the more forgiving. Listen to Berlin read it here at Soundcloud.

On “The Getaway” by Jim Thompson ****

One of the more classic Thompson titles is almost entirely about an attempt to escape, or run away from, a crime that has been committed. The couple at the center of the narrative rob a bank. Then bodies start piling up as they flee, with the intent of retiring to a criminal paradise. Much has been made of the surreal ending, as the crooks go from hiding in a cave that barely fits their bodies, where they take sleeping pills to avoid pain, to hiding in a pile of manure, to crossing waters to get to El Rey, to finally landing in their supposed paradise, a place that proves to be less than ideal.

Unlike The Kill-Off, the characters here seem better drawn. But I think that after reading as much Thompson as I have, I've rather soured on the body count and the murders and the violence. Or maybe I just prefer stories about conmen. I loved The Grifters, and some of my favorite scenes in this book involved a similar con situation, wherein our couple loses their bag of riches to a guy swindling people out of keys to lockers at a train station. It's a gripping middle section that involves no so much violence as mental acrobatics between the characters involved.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

On "The Horror at Red Hook" by H. P. Lovecraft (8,323 words) ****

Here, detective takes to never again wanting to set foot in a certain kind of home. The story sets out to explain why, for the cause is more than the collapse and resulting psychological illness that is given as a reason. And thus we descend into a piece about a man named Robert Suydam who seems to get younger as the story proceeds, eventually marrying a young bride. How he finds this fountain of youth is the clincher on this one. Read the story here.

On “Black Klansman” by Ron Stallworth ****

Recently made into a Spike Lee movie, this memoir recounts the author's time as an undercover detective investigating the KKK. The twist: he's a black man. How does a black police officer become a member of the Klan? He does so on something of a whim.

One day, reading the classifieds, he finds an ad inviting people to join the Klan. He sends in a letter denoting his interest, not expecting anything back. Surely, this is a joke. But a few weeks later, he receives a response. From that comes a telephone conversation and a meeting. For the meeting, he has to have another cop pose as himself.

From there, several cops from the Colorado Springs Police Department become involved with the Klan in an effort to keep it from taking hold in their community. The black police officer also becomes involved in investigating anti-Klan groups who have violent tendencies (similar to today's Antifa). He also forges an interesting relationship (mostly on the phone) with David Duke, the Klan's grand wizard.

The tale is one that resonates with the current state of our country in terms of the viciousness of people at both far-out ends of the political spectrum—and how that can filter down to the mainstream, as racist and violent views are “cleaned up” for regular folks. It's also a very funny book, which is a good thing, because the investigation itself seems, by the end, something much less important than the fact that a book is devoted to it might make it seem to be. The investigation prevented some local disturbances, which is important, but one doesn't get the feeling that it reveals anything astounding about these groups that we don't already know or changes anything in our country.

Monday, October 8, 2018

On "Emergency" by Denis Johnson (3569 words) *****

Georgie, the narrator's friends in this piece, is one of those characters that sticks in one's head. He's a drughead who seems only semiconscious of things going on around him but who somehow manages to make good repeatedly--not necessarily out of some sense of love or goodness, just out of sheer luck. He stands in contrast to the narrator, who tends to think of his life as falling apart, of himself as one who constantly messes things up for others. I was curious to know how Georgie would be portrayed in the film version, and I wasn't disappointed, though in some ways, that portrait now sticks in my head more than the one that was in my mind before. Georgie was a bit more subdued in my mind, whereas now he is always over the top. The story can be read here at Narrative Magazine.

On “The Kill-Off” by Jim Thompson ***

As the back of this book denotes, this is not so much a who done it as a who will do it. The victim of the murder is alive for two-thirds of the book, though fearful of her impending murder. Through various points of view, Thompson shows that multiple people have reasons to kill the woman, a gossiper who has ruined many a reputation and life among those living in the town. Her younger husband might kill her to get her money (and also the money owed to him that she has confiscated from his work for herself), in part to run off with a new love interest. That love interest might kill her because she's not a very innocent gal and obviously wants to be able to marry her lover. The son of another local might kill her in order to steal money from her to be able to run away with a gal he has an interest in. And so on.

The conceit is an original one, but alas, the characters seem here prisoners to it and to the plot that Thompson has set out. As such, the book doesn't quite live up to its full potential.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

On "In the Vault" by H. P. Lovecraft (3416 words) ****

A shorter but well-done piece by Lovecraft, this one revolves around a gravedigger/mortician who builds cheap coffins and pays the price one night when he accidentally gets locked in the vault where coffins are kept as they await burial. Read the story here.

On "The Criminal" by Jim Thompson ***

This multiperspective narrative is not a mystery or thriller in any conventional sense. It's actually rather predictable. It's more of a character study and an indictment of the criminal justice system.

The tale revolves around the rape and murder of a young woman. Each character has his or her own view as to whether the young man charged deserves to be. His parents recount how the son grew apart from the father and how he has been skipping school and how they had conflicts with the parents of the woman killed. The son describes how the event occurred, but the tale leaves off at a crucial moment, such that we as readers don't know whether the man did or did not do the killing; what we do learn, though, is that the man was seduced and the woman was not so innocent as one might think. Enter the legal system and the newspapermen. The latter want a good story to tell and thus promote a rape and murder scenario with the young man at the center. This means that though the DA may well have thought the man innocent, the legal system feels obligated to charge the teen. Nothing is about justice so much as about money and individuals' jobs and careers.