Talk Amongst Yourselves

The Limerick of Destiny.Title: The Riddle of Life and Death

Authors: Tillie Olsen (Tell Me a Riddle), Leo Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilych)

Rank: 526,004

Blurb: “Masters of short fiction illumine questions of pain, suffering, medicine, fate, and, most starkly, ‘Why am I dying?'”

Customers Also Bought: “Essential Leonard Cohen”

Footnote: This morning’s post inaugurates a threatened monthly event, the real Stinque Book Club. The Management has agreed to open a multipurpose room for the occasion and waive the cleaning deposit. Please note that a gratuity of Two Buck Chuck to the janitor is appreciated.

The Riddle of Life and Death [Amazon]

Buy or Die [Stinque@Amazon kickback link]



I red teh book about riddles. It wuz guud. I lerned about life and dead. I think Tillie Olsen was a really kewl guy. I hope he rites mor buks.

On the road in the South. Still incognito, clutching my nansen passport and avoiding truck stops.

From Tell Me a Riddle, “For in this solitude she had won a reconciled peace.”

I have no idea what this sentence is supposed to mean. But I have an unreasoning desire to kick it down the stairs. Such arty fanciness spreads itself thickly over all four stories in the collection. I also have no idea what would possess anyone to put Olsen’s pre-fab story together with Tolstoy’s flinty late masterpiece. Or why the author’s estate would have allowed it. Surely they couldn’t be foolish enough to invite comparison? I suspect it has something to do with someone in a university somewhere having bright ideas about something. Which is what her writing most suggests: a clever grad student out to impress. The author is forever standing behind her characters jumping up and down, waving her arms. Sometimes she goes whole hog and elbows her way in front of them, so desperate is she that we should notice her originality. Which provoked extreme impatience in this reader. I found the death scene unconvincing and worked-up with, here and there, some fine details that jumped out from behind the blather of “artistic” writing. And although the title story is told in a third person sort of perched on Helen’s shoulder, for some reason the narrative voice enters into the same Katzenjammer patois as is spoken by the couple at the heart of the tale. Again, I felt the author’s main purpose was to impress the reader with how remarkable her style is instead of getting on with the purpose at hand. Whatever that might be.

I’m saving Tolstoy for next month. Read Olson’s story twice. It was dense and sad.

Benedick has thrown down a gauntlet. I liked the writing. Now I must away to Sport.

I read both, not knowing that we were only discussing Riddle this month. I have a problem following directions. I thought the emotional impact of Riddle was more direct when she showed instead of told. Mrs. DB is hustling me out the door to go hiking; more later.

The Olsen story was terribly bleak and sad, but like Benedick, I found the writing style too consciously clever and a distraction from the story’s pathos.
But then, I’m the kind of Philistine who just wants the writer to tell the story, dammit.

Um. Yeah. So, like, somehow I missed the memo that this book club was actually jumping off, so I didn’t do my homework. ::lurks::

@JNOV: Me too. Wanna hang out in the back of the class and make trouble?

Not much talking amongst ourselves here. I’m verklempt!

::paper airplane thrown into back of Benedick’s smarty-pants head::

Those of us who didn’t read the assignment could talk about what we have read recently that pleased us. I’ll start. At Target recently I saw the DVD of Master and Commander on sale for $5. I had never seen it. I bought it, watched it, and went to the library the next day and took out the first three of Patrick O’Brian’s 20 Aubrey/Maturin novels. Less than two weeks later, I am now nearing the end of the ninth one. Tomorrow I’m off to the library again to stock up on the remaining eleven. I haven’t had this much fun since I discovered how much I liked Alan Furst’s WWII novels. In fact these are more fun than Furst because there are many more funny bits, also exotic animals.

@lynnlightfoot: I’m on book 14. There is also a volume of maps of the various battles, and a nautical dictionary tied to the series. I read the Horatio Hornblower series as a kid but these are way better.

Admittedly, her style is not my favorite. I find it a bit too self-consciously spare and chockablock with sentence fragments struggling for meaning. But there are moments where I think it serves the story better than a more effusive style would. The scene with the husband’s relatives, for example:

“Have you thought maybe she’d do better at Palm Springs?” Rose asked. “Or at least a nicer section of the beach, nicer people, a pool.” Not to have to say “money” he said instead: “would she have sand to look at through a magnifying glass?” and went on, detail after detail, the old habit betraying of parading the queerness of her for laughter.

And I think she did a fine job of balancing that pervasive bitterness (“Ah how cheap you speak of us at the last”) with occasional moments of tenderness (him carrying her in from the rain while she, delirious, sings a love song) without it feeling too forced or treacly.

One thing I would have liked to see explored more is the relationships with their children and grandchildren. He refers, perhaps somewhat bitterly, to “grandchildren whose childhoods were childish, who had never hungered, who lived unravaged by disease,” but seems nevertheless proud that they “would be nobility” to the people back home in Olshana. So much of their life together was spent as caretakers to these children, and yet it doesn’t factor in to the story as much as one might expect.

@Dodgerblue: Yes!

Thanks for the tips about the volume of maps and the nautical dictionary. I’ve been spending a lot of time with my atlases and wishing for a nautical dictionary. I’ll look for them at the library tomorrow.

I also noted with interest O’Brian’s biography of Joseph Banks, which I intend to read as soon as I finish the novels.

Sorry, my dog ate my homework. I swear!!!

*sniff* OK, class, who smells like pot?

@lynnlightfoot: I just finished a biography of Pantera guitarist Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, who is in a class by himself of heavy metal guitarists who followed the Big Four of US American thrash (Anthrax, Megadeth, Metallica and *growls* Slayer, who themselves followed the New Wave of British Heavy Metal made up of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and a ton of other bands including Venom, whose LP “Black Metal” marked the birth of a new genre that eventually lead to Norwegian church burnings. Anyway . . .)

Even for fans of “don’t write, just tell the story”, this was just a little too much of that, and not enough of the exploration of Pantera’s music and exactly why the late Mr. Abbott was so revered. It just says that he was. And that he drank a lot and was a cool guy. Why did “Cowboys From Hell” capture metal heads and the rest of the record buying public the way it did? What else was happening in pop music and hard rock when “Vulgar Display of Power” was released? We don’t get enough of the context or background of Pantera’s music from “Black Tooth Grin: The High Life, Good Times and Tragic End of ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbot” by Zac Crain, a writer from D magazine in Dallas. Still, I’ll give it a B coz it rocked and made me dig out “Official Live: 101 Proof” , Pantera’s post “Great Southern Trendkill” live cd yesterday afternoon.

Some of you may recall that Dime was shot on stage on the 2004 anniversary of John Lennon’s death by a deranged guy who had been discharged from the Marines for being psycho.

@lynnlightfoot: As you probably know, most/all of the sea battles in the books are based on real events, using ships’ logs, contemporaneous letters etc as source material. This guy really did his homework. Trekkies will notice a Kirk/Spock relationship going with Aubrey/Maturin.

@lynnlightfoot: I’ve been just chugging along to the best of my ability. REALLY enjoyed watching “Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains,” and I was doing okay until a freak run-in with an asshole in a FB chatroom last night. I’d avoided this person for almost a year, and then TA-DA, there he was. Should’ve just left the chat, but I stayed until he wrote something so horrific and disgusting that I had to leave. Fucking triggers! I’ve been trying to recover all fucking day. Hope to have a new shrink and therapist tomorrow.

Right now I’m digging “Tell No One,” with periodic breaks due to intrusive thoughts and general rage, and I think it’s so awesome Kristin Scott Thomas got her start in the werst film evah “Under the Cherry Moon.”

/end buzz harshing

@redmanlaw: Dude, I love you, but I mean, really. Pantera? How many brain cells did you kill reading that book?

@Dodgerblue: When I read “ships’ logs” my mind went all kablooie and I thought of people reenacting naval battles with ships make out of Lincoln Logs. Yup. Time for some new meds.

@JNOV: Enough so that I forgot to put primers into two of the rifle cartridges I was loading yesterday. Picked ’em up and powder was pouring out from the bottom. Might have also been the residual effects of exhaustion, a brutal hearing on Friday and a late night martini and Guinness on Friday after getting home from a six hour roadie from Flagstaff. I should always remember that my hangover ammo often turns out like shit. I did manage to put some rounds on paper today with that ammo I made that worked and my WW2 rifle that I busted out to mark D-Day.

/back to putting sliding screen door in office.

@mellbell: I, too, would have liked more exploration of the relationships with the children and grandchildren. After the diagnosis, we never hear about the son Paula and his family again. I was unclear at times on exactly where the two main characters were. The beach I thought at first was the Jersey shore until she mentioned San Francisco. I always felt off balance–as the author perhaps intended–and was never really sure what was going on.
I recently read and enjoyed Revolutionary Road (haven’t seen the movie) and found its portrayal of the suffocating prison marriage can become , complete with acrimony and bitterness, to be most effective. And enough to make me want to avoid the institution for a bit longer.

@JNOV: Weren’t you in the Navy? My Dad was in the Navy in WWII. He hated the Marines, who were the guards at the Navy brigs.

@Dodgerblue: How funny! Yes, I was enlisted for 6 years. I was a Hospital Corpsman, and I spent most of my stretch at Camp Pendleton.

I actually liked the Marines, but they hate all Navy except for Corpsmen, cuz we’re the only ones that go out in the field with them. And the Marines are part of the Navy, so they hate that they’re not a separate branch. And Navy hate Marines — the ships used to drop them off to die are called “Gator Freighters.” But they were good patients.

They’re stripped of their identity and critical thinking skills in boot camp and the extra training they have – I forget what it’s called, but it’s like boot camp +.

@Mistress Cynica: There is a definite sense of dislocation, and also some irony in how the wife, who seems content, after a fashion, in her surroundings, is ultimately uprooted, but not in the way her husband had anticipated. “Revolutionary Road” is on my bookshelf, like so many other books, just waiting to be read. The movie is excellent, quite worth seeing. I’m still disappointed that Kate Winslet was nominated for the Oscar for “The Reader” rather than “Revolutionary Road.” She won for the wrong movie.

I didn’t have any idea we were having a book club, so instead of having done my homework with reading, I did some writing. This story is, as it says, intended to be read aloud at a theater cabaret evening, in the final timeslot, which is traditionally devoted to smut. So the language and story are terser than I normally write (to keep it under 10 minutes), and the subject matter slightly more risque. It’s also the third draft, so I don’t consider it finished yet, but it’s pretty good.

For those Stinquers on FB, the reason I’m not posting it there is that I’d prefer people hear the story before having read it, and I’ve got too many friends who are potential audience members. ;) It’ll be more publically linked after it’s been performed.

Love Potion

Criticism welcome, but I may ignore it.

@Dodgerblue: Oh, and most Medal of Honor recipients: Hospital Corpsman. Posthumously.

@JNOV: Didn’t know that. My dad was a corpsman in Vietnam.

@IanJ: Love it!!! Wish I could hear it read aloud.

@Mistress Cynica: Cool, thanks! Maybe someone will tape it. I still have no idea when I might get to perform it, since I think Spin the Bottle is booked up through August, maybe longer. It’s the first Friday of every month, though, so if you find yourself in Seattle for some weird reason…

All four stories in the collection are variations on the theme of homelessness at its most pompous and O’Neillish. The family at the heart of the first story reappear in the others. The trouble is that the author is so busy knocking us out with her ‘style’ that we don’t know who the hell anyone is. Jeannie, the nurse, is one of the family. The idea of a woman refusing to be made homeless by the weakness of her husband who then is taken off to visit her children before she dies thereby making both of them homeless is a terrific idea polluted by fancy typewriting skillz and bluster. The author is clearly blessed with talent which is what makes her vanity all the more annoying.

One moment of beauty: the smell of their old friend’s apartment. Very choice detail: shocking and true.

Like some of the others who’ve commented before me, I found the writing a little confusing and scattered. Mostly, though, this story just reaffirmed my belief that marriage sucks.

MellBell gets the A for best summing up what I felt but couldn’t articulate. I agree with Jamie and Cynica that reading this book made marriage look really fucking bad. The whole time I read the story I was saying “Why can’t the asshole husband die?” I also liked the fact that the protagonist was not fond of her children and grandchildren. Think of this novella in the context of the era in which it was written, and that’s pretty groundbreaking.

I need to suss Ewalda out, because he’s the one who recommended the story for this month.

So we’ll talk about Leo Tolstoy’s story on the first Sunday in July, for those of you who didn’t get the previous memos.

@IanJ: Looking forward to reading this.

@Whoever: Revolutionary Road is one of my favorite books. So totally captures the suffocating late ’50s/early ’60s marriages of the eee-lete. The movie is fantastic and Kate W should have won for that instead of The Reader, but it worked out in the end, I suppose.

@JNOV: Star Trek is so totally, completely, based on the Master and Commander novels, its absurd; the captain, and his buddy, the ships surgeon, travel around, visiting strange islands, on a five year voyage ( I am exagerating there), but really, its the same schtick.

@SanFranLefty: It’s a very short story, only 1500 words. My attempts at a dramatic reading time out to a bit over 8 minutes. I doubt it will consume more than 2-3 minutes to read.

Also: the commentary around this story you guys are reading doesn’t make me want to read it at all.

HAHA our first book club selection–and we HATE it!!! i love us.

@Promnight: Which makes the decision to base “Wrath of Khan” on Moby Dick all the more brilliant.

BTW, my weekend was spent (mostly) shunning books. I read a total of maybe five pages of “The Women” by T.C.Boyle, finished this week’s Sports Illustrated and knocked off the daily fishwrap with plenty of time to enjoy the first real weekend of the summer. Said enjoyment included a yard party with ten kids friends of the Nabisco Youngers, bicycling, and Film, or more correctly Movies: the new Star Trek (Five Galaxies on that one) and the old but previously unseen “Superbad”, which I nominate for not only one of the funniest things I’ve seen in awhile but also for Best Use of Ted Nugent in a Soundtrack (“Stranglehold”, when “Seth” enters Weird Guy’s party for the first time).

@SanFranLefty: I’m actually relieved to hear that the Olsen and Tolstoy stories were split. Like some others, I read both. Now I have time to read something else before we make the next selection.
Last weekend, I went through my library for my annual book purge and found a high number of books I started but never finished. (I blame my addiction to the new book smell and clearance sales.) I am determined to finish those books before the summer is done.

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