We read to each other, at first constantly, then sputteringly, and then, with my stroke, it ended. I'm trying to assemble which fictions that I read to her. (For some reason, it's much easier to remember the ones I read to her than the ones Velma read to me.)
So, at random, probably added to later:
Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise
→ "Nobody's Home"
→ "My Boat"
Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds
Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman
J.G. Ballard, "Billenium"
Algis Budrys, Be Merry
Gene Wolfe, The Eyeflash Miracles
→ The Death of Doctor Island
R.A. Lafferty, "Continued On Next Rock"
→ "Nine Hundred Grandmothers"
→ "Slow Tuesday Night"
→ "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne"
Avram Davidson, "Take Wooden Indians"
→ "The House the Blakeneys Built"
Neal Barrett, Jr, Skinny Annie Blues
→ "Perpetuity Blues"
→ " 'A Day at the Fair' "
Jonathan Carroll, The Land of Laughs
Alasdair Gray, Five Letters from an Eastern Empire
→ "The Great Bear Cult"
→ "Homeward Bound"
Michael Bishop, "The Quickening"
Pamela Dean, The Dubious Hills
M. John Harrison, "Egnaro"
Francesca Lia Block, Weetzie Bat
Greg Egan, "Learning To Be Me"
Kate Wilhelm, "Baby, You Were Great"
Damon Knight, "Semper Fi"
→ "The Handler"
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
→ The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Howard Waldrop, "God's Hooks!"
→ "Horror, We Got"
Leigh Kennedy, "Her Furry Face"
C.M. Kornbluth, "The Last Man Left in the Bar"
→ "The Advent on Channel Twelve"
Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280
I forgot one thing in my "review"! I couldn't understand half of the Scots lingo. It was funny, but sometimes I was very lost, and MacNeill's commentary didn't clear it up at all. I'll bet that in America it was never published. (My editions are Pan.) Fraser in the introduction to the second book he says diffidently that lots of people begged for a glossary, so he provides a skimpy one. I think it helped in two or three places. Oh well.
I'm slowly enjoying reading again, at least sometimes. Complicated reads are still frustrated for me at the sentence level. And I can't delve into why I'm enjoying anything*, let alone analyze anything. But I'm going to report what I'm reading, because.**
The last two books I've read in the previous year were The General Danced at Dawn and McAuslan in the Rough, two books of short stories somewhat based on true events of George MacDonald Fraser's life as a lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders after World War II, mostly in North Africa. I bought them used at St Vincent de Paul; I didn't know they existed, but I read (a long time ago) almost all the Flashman books.
They're mostly good. Fraser is funny, of course. The viewpoint character, MacNeill (presumably Fraser), is complicated and he looks back on himself with kindness but sometimes of course he's wrong. Mostly he's good, trying to lead, eventually learning. He's very much the opposite of Flashman. Sometimes that's embarrassing. With Flashman you know he's a cad and a coward. With MacNeill, his views of Arabs, in passing but everywhere, is uncomfortable-making. There is a story that is about a black man who wants to play with the band, and the author is at pains to point out this was in the forties. The dialogue in which the black man gets in is fascinating, one of the the best in the book, diving into the heads of several of the men, and you can see how very carefully Fraser gets dialog. But Arabs? Apparently Fraser hasn't seen the necessity of treating Arabs as people. (The two books were written in the early seventies.) I'm not treating Fraser severely, I think; I think he's a good guy, etc. (Anyway, he's a good writer.) But I wouldn't recommend these two books to Arabs***.
(Another thing that bemused me. I'll just quote:
This was in the days when the British Army was still spread all round the globe, acting as sentry, policeman, teacher, nurse, and diplomat in the wake of the Second World War, and getting no thanks for it at all.
No irony, if you're wondering.)
But another good thing or two. There are several long paragraphs, usually setting up the story, economical and pleasing, lots of them with long sentences linked with several semi-colons. It looks easy, but. Eventually I started looking for them, because it was pleasing. And the characterization was fleshed out immediately, even though they were mostly comic characters.
I bought them thinking that these were comic novels (or linked short story collections), like the Flashman books, and the publishers sold them that way. But they were not really; comic-tinged, but human, lived-through books.
* I wrote this before writing what came after. I, uh, will still defend that "can't delve into why" thing... my thoughts around my thinking is always scattered, and I still, looking back on what I've immediately written, is how I didn't express most of my thoughts clearly through my brain-fog.
** "because" is the word of the year according to the American Dialect Society. I approve.
*** I know late in life Fraser took shots at "political correctness". If you want to point this out, and j'accuse! me: yawn.
Yesterday we went to St. Vincent de Paul thrift store again. We're making it a habit; it's only half a block away. We got clothes, glassware, etc. I like best the one small room that's devoted to books. I almost always find at least one. This time I found four:
The Country of the Pointed Firs and other stories by Sarah Orne Jewett (Doubleday Anchor paperback, 1956). Selected and with a preface by Willa Cather (1925).
A Vintage (1968) collection by Paul Goodman: People or Personnel and Like a Conquered Province in one. I've never read either of them, and I'm salivating just reading the title of the first one.
Writing Home by Alan Bennett, a 634-page Faber paperback that collects essays and diaries.
And: a 1907 hardcover (Doubleday, Page & Company) edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie called Famous Stories Every Child Should Know. It's a series; the spine and the cover says The What Every Child Should Know Library. It's published by -- ready? -- Keep-Worthy Books. (It's a subsidiary of The Parents' Institute, apparently, publishers of The Parents' Magazine.)
A good haul. (cost: $5.06)
A story about a succesful, unpopular lawyer in the 1820s in the Border States, who moonlights as a slave trader. A slave in his thirties with consumption was sold by the lawyer; he dies two days later. The lawyer covers it up; the only witness was another slave, a blacksmith, and a slave's word is no good in court. The purchaser knows he got cheated, but can't do anything.
The lawyer and purchaser meet by chance that night, while the purchaser is getting his horse shod by the blacksmith. The lawyer decides to be fair, or at least half-fair. But the purchaser growls, and reaches for (the lawyer thinks) his gun. The lawyer shoots the purchaser. But the purchaser's hand is empty, and he is dead. The lawyer is quickly surrounded; the unarmed man, dead, and the lawyer, alive and holding the smoking gun. The lawyer, panicked, turns to the blacksmith slave. The slave is silent.
"Virgin Violeta" by Katherine Anne Porter.
Violeta is fifteen, infatuated with cousin Carlos who writes poetry. But Carlos is taken by Blanca, Violeta's older sister. Carlos is casual with Violeta. But when the two of them are alone, Carlos holds her arm kisses her: "Violeta opened her eyes wide also and peered up at him. She expected to sink into a look warm and gentle, like the touch of his palm. Instead, she felt suddenly, sharply hurt, as if she had collided with a chair in the dark. His eyes bright and shallow, almost like the eyes of Pepe, the macaw. His pale, fluffy eyebrows were arched; his mouth smiled tightly."
Violeta is terrified; Carlos then does denial: He kissed her like a cousin. "'Ah, you're so young, like a little newborn calf," said Carlos. His voice trembled in a strange way. 'You smell like a nice baby, freshly washed with white soap! Imagine such a baby being angry at a kiss from her cousin! Shame on you, Violeta!'"
The story is a violation, and Violeta, while clear that something is wrong, doesn't know what it is. And she keeps it inside. But her infatuation with Carlos, and his poetry, has turned bitter.
[Katherine Anne Porter, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider"]
Oblivion, thought Miranda, her mind feeling among her memories of words she had been taught to describe the unseen, the unknowable, is a whirlpool of gray water turning upon itself for all eternity . . . eternity is perhaps more than the distance to the farthest star. She lay on a narrow ledge over a pit that she knew to be bottomless, though she could not comprehend it; the ledge was her childhood dream of danger, and she strained back against a reassuring wall of granite at her shoulders, staring into a pit, thinking, There it is, there it is at last, it is very simple; and soft carefully shaped words like oblivion and eternity are curtains hung before nothing at all. I shall not know when it happens, I shall not feel or remember, why can't I consent now, I am lost, there is no hope for me. Look, she told herself, there it is, that is death and there is nothing to fear. But she could not consent, still shrinking stiffly against the granite wall that was her childhood dream of safety, breathing slowly for fear of squandering breath, saying desperately, Look, don't be afraid, it is nothing, it is only eternity.
Granite walls, whirlpools, star are things. None of them is death, nor the image of it. Death is death, said Miranda, and for the dead it has no attributes. Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely withdrawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself composed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. Trust me, the hard unwinking angry point of light said, Trust me. I stay.
"Hello," said Dr. Hildesheim, "at least you take it out in shouting. You don't try to get out of bed and go running around." Miranda held her eyes open with a terrible effort, saw his rather heavy, patient face clearly even as her mind tottered and slithered again, broke from its foundation and spun like a cast wheel in a ditch. "I didn't mean it, I never believed it, Dr. Hildesheim, you mustn't remember it--" and was gone again, not being able to wait for an answer.
The wrong she had done followed her and haunted her dream: this wrong took vague shapes of horror she could not recognize or name, though her heart cringed at sight of them. Her mind, split in two, acknowledged and denied what she saw in the one instant, for across an abyss of complaining darkness her reasoning coherent self watched the strange frenzy of the other coldly, reluctant to admit the truth of its visions, its tenacious remorses and despairs.
"I know those are your hands," she told Miss Tanner, "I know it, but to me they are white tarantulas, don't touch me."
"Shut your eyes," said Miss Tanner.
"Oh, no," said Miranda, "for then I see worse things," but her eyes closed in spite of her will, and the midnight of her internal torment closed about her.
[Katherine Anne Porter, "Pale Horse, Pale Rider"]
Friday I finished Porter's "María Concepción", the first story in Porter's oeuvre, and my first story since my stroke.
"María Concepción" is the story of a young murderess in Mexico. She was left by her husband and his lover, fifteen-year-old María Rosa, to go to war. The two come back as deserters; Concepción kills Rosa. The town bands together behind Concepción; she was liked, and Rosa was not.
María Concepción is impressively numb. At the end, she is happy, but her husband is now numb.
Today we began with pain. My physical therapist was switched; Douglas was now my PT. And boy, he caused hurt for a half an hour. And I mean, I wept. My arm was bad -- the tone was steadily worsening, and finally it was time to do something about it. It will be bad every day for at least a while. But what can I say? This is the road to being better. I hope.
So I rewarded myself. I sat down, coffee in hand, and I read a story from The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter. This was my first story, for pleasure, since my stroke. It's ten times harder than before. But I can do it. I chose Porter because, A) she's adult; B) she's awesome; and C) she's pellucid; she's not difficult, but she's very very good.
Now it's been half an hour writing this post. It's tiring. But still: I am improving, every day. And now I can read fiction. It's good. It's funny; for the past ten years, my fiction reading dropped to nearly nothing (except for pay). But now, post-stroke, I'm itching for fiction. And now, I can. Slowly; but I can.
Greg Egan, "Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies" (1992 Interzone, reissued in Egan's Axiomatic, 1995)
Egan is as interesting as any science fiction writer alive, but his huge strength -- endlessly surprising ideas that open beneath the reader like trapdoors, each trapdoor sufficient for an astonishing story by itself -- is mitigated by areas in which he is just passable: characterization, style, tone, motivation, dialogue. He's not bad at any of these -- reading Egan is never painful -- but there'd be very little reason to read him if not for his ideas (and his development of the ideas).
"Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies," unfortunately, isn't one of his well developed stories. The idea is interesting -- humanity has had some kind of mass sea change in which prevailing belief systems manifest as psychic forces that compel all within their range to believe, and the city of the story is divided into zones of belief that vie and shift, with the protagonist one of a minority who seem to have kept free by constantly keeping between the zones, never being overwhelmed by any one belief system.
This is interesting, but Egan uncharacteristically only gives his idea a single twist, and that a light one (the paths being traveled by the uncaptured are, perhaps, themselves a zone, and existence in a non-believing state is no more subject to free will than any other). The rest of the story is a kind of mechanical exposition of a day spent as this kind of philosophical nomad, including an unconvincing and unnecessary attempt to explain how the situation ("the Meltdown") came to pass, ending in an argument over the twist explained above, but leaving the protagonist fundamentally unchanged -- and his decision to leave his companion does not signal any deep change in the protagonist, but rather in the companion.
There is some decent business with the protagonist trying to work through thoughts while subject to a constant barrage of psychic philosophical propaganda; but the story would have been much better if there were more of that, more development, more anything, really. It's an idea sketch, without even a plot draped over it. Strangely, it's the last story in the Axiomatic collection, so presumably either Egan or the publisher thought it one of his best. It isn't, but even failed Egan is intriguing.