Capote in Kansa by Kim Powers and an Interview with the Author

Capote in Kansas by Kim Powers takes a lot of chances. Recreating the lives of not one but two well known and well respected American writers and dealing with subject matter that has not only been covered by others, but covered very well. It is to Mr. Powers great credit that he pulls it off, giving readers an entertaining and haunting experience by telling us a story we already think we know.

Capote in Kansas is the story of Truman Capote and Harper Lee, their difficult lifelong relationship, their time together in Kansas researching In Cold Blood and how the subject of their research continued to haunt them long after the book was published.

Towards the end of his life, Truman Capote, who spends most of the novel at his home in Palm Springs with only his maid, Myrtle and a plumber he is infatuated with, has begun to fell the presence of Nancy Clutter’s ghost. (Nancy Clutter was one of four family members whose vicious murder became the subject for Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood.) Capote never wrote anything of substance again and ended up isolated from most of his friends and acquaintances. In Mr. Powers’ novel, he seems to regret this situation which is probably what causes him to think Nancy Clutter’s ghost is haunting him. Capote calls Harper Lee in the middle of the night, frantic with fear convinced that Nancy Clutter has come back from the dead to seek revenge on him for exploiting her life and her murder.

Harper Lee, Capote’s childhood friend, currently lives with her sister in their family home in Mississippi. She also never published anything after the success of her first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which come out shortly after In Cold Blood, and has only recently begun to appear at public functions. In Mr. Powers’ novel she is also haunted, by the Clutters, by memories of her deceased brother whom she writes letters to, by the real man Boo Radley was based on, and by her now failed friendship with Truman.

Both people emerge as fully formed, believable characters in Mr. Powers’ novel. I was initially skeptical about this, I usually avoid fictionalized stories like this one, but after a few chapters I was hooked. Truman Capote was nothing if not interesting, and Harper Lee continues to fascinate if only by her absence, so Capote in Kansas can easily give the reader a sense of gaining insider knowledge. Some of this is a bit prurient at first, but by the end of the novel, I felt that I had come to understand the situation and the characters. The attempt to reconcile a long lost friendship, to apologize for things said and left unsaid, gives the book a human touch that would have otherwise been lost in the somewhat sordid details of Truman Capote’s end as interesting as those details are. Mr. Powers’ book serves as an attempt to bring both Capote and Lee back into the fold, so to speak. I think he succeeds.

It certainly must be said that the story of In Cold Blood and its creation is simply a fascinating one. Two effete southerners from New York City head off to the Kansas prairie and try to meet and interview just about everyone in town. I still find it difficult to believe that they pulled it off. Through both character’s flashbacks we see several scenes of their time in Kansas including the night Truman took several locals out to dinner and then dancing at what must have been the only drag bar in Kansas much to Harper’s chagrin. The fact that it’s so hard to believe only makes it more believable.

I first published this review as part of a  Capote in Kansas virtual book tour.  As part o the tour I got to do an a interview with the author Kim Powers, part one tomorrow and part two soon after. I also re-read both In Cold Blood and TO Kill a Mockingbird as part of my preparation for the interview.   Reading these three books together is an excellent idea for any book club. I’ve enjoyed looking at the three of them together and have gained from the experience.

As Mr. Powers is also the author of The History of Swimming, a screenwriter and regular contributor to ABC’s Good Morning America.

A few weeks ago there was a discussion on many book blogs about the importance of first sentences. I think they are very important, but many other book bloggers felt otherwise. What do you think? How much effort went into “She’s back. She’s after me.”? How important is the first sentence?

The first sentence is crucial. The first few pages are crucial. I’ve gotten so precious about my time lately that if a book doesn’t grab me in the first few pages, I abandon it.

The interesting thing about my first sentence – Truman calling Harper Lee on the phone and saying, “She’s back. She’s after me.” – is that it wasn’t originally the first sentence. Originally, I had begun the book with something that now comes almost at the end, the description of their train ride from New York to Kansas: “Why they took a train instead of a plane she didn’t know…” It’s a line that just came to me, and I liked the rhyme in it, the sense of motion, and the odd little detail that comes soon afterwords, that Harper was working as an airlines reservation clerk when Truman asked her to accompany him. (That first sentence was also a bit of a play on the title, which was originally Truman in Kansas, meaning to conjure up Harry S. Truman and his whistle-stop train tours. The editor asked me to change it to Capote in Kansas, liking the alliteration of that more.

The section that starts with the ghost of Nancy Clutter (ghost or drunken hallucination?) coming back to “haunt” Truman had originally come some 60 or so pages into the book, but as I kept writing, it just seemed like a natural place to start, a way to kick off the story I really wanted to tell, of being haunted by the past, and the question are we really ever able to escape our demons?

Capote and Lee are both haunted by the Clutter family, people they never met in life but portrayed in detail In Cold Blood. After doing the same with so many people in Capote in Kansas, is there anything or anyone you are haunted by?

I’m haunted by something I wonder if Truman and Harper were haunted by – and it’s a bizarre thing, and maybe says far too much about me. I’m haunted by the idea of meeting the people I’ve written about in the afterlife, and getting their reactions to my books! That might sound like the height of arrogance, but it’s honest, what can I say. I constantly think about reuniting with my two brothers and parents in heaven – if I’m lucky enough to make it there – and getting their accolades or their condemnation for what I wrote about them in The History of Swimming.

I wonder if Truman or Harper ever wondered about that – coming face to face with the Clutters in the afterlife, and being judged for what they wrote, if they got it “right or not.”

I do believe in ghosts, by the way, but mine aren’t the type that go bump in the night. They’re the ghosts that come to us in our dreams, or the ghosts of guilt that haunt us (me, at least) during our waking hours.

It’s does not seem uncommon to fictionalize the life of someone who has died, but fictionalizing the life of someone who is still alive, as Harper Lee is, seems like a much shakier proposition. How did the possibility that Ms. Lee might read Capote in Kansas affect the writing of the book?

I know it was certainly one of – if not THE – riskiest thing I did in Capote in Kansas. However, I didn’t let the thought of Harper actually reading the book at some point influence my writing. I wasn’t attempting to discredit her in any way, or cast aspersions on her character (her mental state, her sexuality, etc.); I was just genuinely trying to create a flesh and blood character built out of what I knew about her, filling in the dots where she hadn’t filled them in herself. I deliberately called her Nelle, her real first name, to get the onus of “Harper Lee” out of my head, to make her almost a fictional character. At one point, I even thought about renaming all of the real things in the book – changing the titles of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood, giving Truman a different name, giving Boo Radley a different name, etc. (I was going to call him “Caw,” which I think is what they called the real Boo Radley.) But those real names have such iconic power, and some of my early readers said I would lose that if I changed them. Even if I had changed them, you would have been able to put two and two together to figure out who I was really writing about, which I think is sort of disingenuous and cheesy. I had printed out the definition of “roman a clef” and taped it over my desk, and kept thinking I would move towards that, but I didn’t.

In the final analysis, I didn’t feel I was saying anything libelous about Harper Lee. (I don’t think Truman would care what anyone wrote about him, as long as they WERE writing about him.) I think I actually come out on the side of defending Harper. The publisher’s lawyer read the book and felt that, while it was out there, it wasn’t libelous or slanderous. I’ll tell you something else, very honest, that probably won’t be too popular: I had a lingering feeling of anger at Harper Lee, that she had never written anything else, and had become so reclusive about her life. I think an artist – and that’s what she became with the success of Mockingbird– has a responsibility to be available, to keep producing. It’s a strange thing: so much about writing and art is private, as are so many artists. “Let the work speak for itself.” You’re exposing your innermost self., whether you’re writing autobiographically or fictionally. When I wrote my first book, a memoir called The History of Swimming, I knew my life would then become public property. You’re putting yourself out there. (Obviously, Harper Lee hasn’t suffered, nor has the success of the book, by her NOT talking about it – I just wish she had. I feel it’s your duty, once you make such a public statement.)

I also think people sometimes hide behind the idea that you can write about someone real after they’re dead – in an “inspired by” kind of fiction—and that it’s okay the minute the person has died, but NOT OKAY until they are. I think that’s an easy game people play.

I’ve definitely taken some heat for it. Some reviewers and readers think I absolutely crossed the line by writing about the famously private Lee. I don’t know if they mind WHAT I wrote, or the fact that I DID it – while she was still alive. I just know the character I wrote and called “Nelle Lee” seems to fit what I know about the real Harper Lee, and make sense of a life she’s never discussed. (I’m a very polite Southern boy most of them time; I just think “art “needs to be a little rude, and shake people up a little, to see things they hadn’t thought about before.)

Having said all of that, it’s probably hard for people to believe how much I respect her work and what she did, so many years ago. I just wish she had kept doing it.

I was hesitant to read Capote in Kansas at first because it came to my attention so soon after seeing both Capote movies on DVD. Have you seen the movies? Any preference between the two? Did you fear that they might affect your novel one way or another?

I’ve seen both movies. I was about ¾ of the way through my book when I first heard of their existence – and immediately thought I had been scooped at a great story. I almost abandoned my book , for fear the movies would steal my thunder. But then I realized I was too far along, and that my book was quite different – focusing on so much more than just their time in Kansas.

I actually think “Infamous” – the second movie – is the better one. As uncomfortably flamboyant as Toby Jones, who plays Capote, is, I feel like it’s probably a more accurate portrayal. And the movie has a strange kind of exuberance, compared to the inordinate depression “Capote” left me with. I made a point of not seeing either of them until I had finished my book and it had been turned into an editor.

You’ve written in many genres: memoir, novel, television journalism, a screenplay. Do you have favorite? What are the advantages and challenges of writing across so many genres?

I do have to say I prefer writing books, as hard as they are. At least, at the end of the day, they’re more or less yours. Of course, an editor’s hand is probably in it, but not to the degree of the dozens of people who’ve shaped what you finally see on screen, from your screenplay. I had written about half a dozen screenplays (one, an indie film called “Finding North,” actually got made), but I was ultimately so frustrated at all the levels you had to go though to get someone to say “Yes.” I decided a book would be a million times easier. I had been playing around with the material that ultimately became The History of Swimming for several years, and something came over me that just said, “You’re going to make this a book or else.” (Conversely, I’ve been thinking of turning one of the screenplays into a novel, so it could then be sold to the movies! Then I could say, “Here! I just happen to have the screenplay already done!”)

There’s one story I’ve come across that would make a great “narrative nonfiction” novel, as they’re called (like The Perfect Storm or Erik Larson’s books), but I just don’t trust myself that I could be that rigorous about researching it. Too many painful memories of grad school! At a certain point, I want characters to do what I want them to do.

My TV writing – for Good Morning America, Primetime, and 20/20 – has always been my “waitress job,” as I call it. A great waitress job, mind you, but something I do for income. Yet at the same time, that writing has completely informed my books. In TV, you always have to tease things out so that viewers come back after the commercial break, leave them with a big unanswered dangling question to be answered IF they come back. That’s what my books are like, I think. Fairly cinematic and fast moving, one scene moving into the next. The early screen writing informs that as well. Believe me, I’d love to write a big sprawling John Irving book, but I just don’t know if I have the skill to spin out something so epic.

Were you ever tempted to write a clear cut reconciliation scene between Capote and Lee? They could have had one over the phone if not in person. The reader knows that Lee has figured out what the snake boxes meant and, I believe, come to terms with Capote, but Capote never knows if the snake boxes worked.

I never thought about writing a direct or literal reconciliation scene between Harper and Truman, but a sort of “dream” reconciliation came about very organically, at the very end of the book. Harper has gone to the cemetery, pieced together the “game” Truman has been leading her through. She falls asleep on a graveyard plot that has great childhood significance to both of them, and she first dreams of their initial trip to Kansas. Then that seques to her dreaming of saying goodbye to Truman, now.

I think dreams have a sort of sixth-sense reality, and maybe protect us from things that would be too overwhelming otherwise. I’m sure I sound crazy here — but I felt as if she were saying goodbye to Truman, and he to her. I’ve had numerous goodbye dreams like this with my twin brother, of us finally getting to say the goodbye in dream land that we weren’t able to on earth. So I do feel as if they get their final moments of closure with each other.

You mention in the afterward that you saw the movies before you read the books. What was your first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird in print? What was your reaction to the book after having been so affected by the movie? Did you have a similar experience reading In Cold Blood for the first time versus seeing the movie?

I’m embarrassed to say that it took me a relatively long time to actually read Mockingbird. For the longest time, even for someone obsessed with books, and a voracious reader as a kid, I just continued to think, “The movie IS the book.” I don’t think it was until my sophomore or junior year in high school that I actually read it. A friend of mine was giving a book report on Mockingbird for an English class, and the teacher made her say “a crime against a woman” instead of “rape” for the Tom Robinson story. That made me really want to figure out what she was talking about! I was surprised at how much humor there was in the book, that didn’t come through in the movie. Even Truman, who wrote one of the very first blurbs for the first printing, commented on the humor. That humor notwithstanding, however, I continue to think it’s one of the most perfect movie adaptations of a book ever (perhaps because it had a voice-over narration.) I was fascinated by the narrator in the movie – and thought the voice was so spot-on, it had to be Harper Lee herself narrating the movie. It was actually the actress Kim Stanley. So much of that book seemed to come directly from my life – the playing outside late at night, the neighborhood kids thinking there was a “Haunted House” in the neighborhood. (Ours’ was Mrs. Duncan’s house, a widow who wore all black and had a shrunken head hanging from the rear-view mirror in her car. We started the rumor it was her husband!) And of course, we dared each other to run up to her porch.

My experience with In Cold Blood was quite different. Again, I saw the movie long before I read the book, which I don’t think was until I was in college. The movie scared me to death – especially the murder scene when it’s finally shown: black and white, that swinging light bulb, Nancy Clutter begging for her life. When I’d visit relatives who lived on farms – and I grew up in Texas, and had lots of farmers for relatives – I was scared to stay overnight, for fear of being murdered in my sleep. Their houses were always so isolated, so far away from anybody else that no one could hear us scream.

Reading the book was the first time I really grappled with the idea of the death penalty – and the seemingly contradictory commandments of “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The thing that the book has that’s missing from the movie is just the breadth of the wide open plains of Kansas, the geographic landscape and the huge numbers of people that Truman and Harper Lee talked to, to piece together that narrative. For years, I accepted it all as the gospel truth, and it’s really only when I began digging into research for my book that I came to sense a lot of it was somewhat dramatized – the essential truth – but “expanded” to get the drama that Truman wanted.

I remember seeing Truman Capote on the Phil Donohue show when I was probably 13 or 14 and being more than a little frightened by him. He was one of the few gay people in the public eye at that time and he was not someone a 13-year-old boy in suburban America in the mid 1970’s wanted to be like. (We had no idea that Paul Lynde and Liberace were gay in my family.) My partner had the same experience. He was actually horrified that he might end up looking and sounding like Truman Capote. I suspect that Mr. Capote frightened many gay chidren who later came to admire him as my partner and I did. What were your reactions to first seeing Mr. Capote? Did you see him before you read him like I did? (I’m presuming that we are in roughly the same age bracket based on your photo at the back of your book.)

I did have many of those same feelings. I don’t remember exactly the first time I saw Truman, but I think it might have been some of his many appearances on The Johnny Carson Show in the late 60s and early 70s. You could just hear the audience trying not to laugh at his voice, but sense Truman almost daring them to at the same time.

I think my first sense of Truman came from a wonderful TV adaptation of his short story “A Christmas Memory.” Geraldine Page was in it playing Truman’s old cousin Sook, trying to make fruitcakes at Christmas. I read autobiography into everything I saw (as I somewhat still do), and I sensed that Buddy, the little boy, was Truman. Whatever I thought of him as an over-the-top adult, then, I would think back to “A Christmas Memory,” and remember that sad, incredibly moving childhood, and his isolation and relationship with that lonely old woman. It made me feel more sympathetic toward him, and everything he had gone through.

In high school, Truman was actually in that Neil Simon movie “Murder By Death.” By then, I was old enough to make jokes about him – but at the same time think this is what I was cursed to become as a gay boy/man. To my horror, I probably even aped some of his mannerisms, just to appear “eccentric.”

You must have spent a great deal of time with the characters in Capote in Kansas. Now that a year has passed since it was first published, whom do you feel closer to? Lee or Capote?

My allegiances constantly shift, but I have to say I remain fond of both of them. (Sort of like an actor weasling out and saying they love all the roles they’ve played.) The book started out more about Truman, and then Nelle (Harper) took prominence. In some ways, it’s more her book by the end, than Truman’s. I feel great sympathy towards her, and come to love her most, in the two letters she writes to her dead older brother, Ed. They’re the only sections in the book in first person, and I really felt I “got” what she might have sounded like – if she had done something as crazy as write a letter to her dead brother, that is! (A bizarre coincidence, although you take everything you can get as a writer: I’ve lost both my brothers, my twin Tim and my older brother Ed, and the fact that her older brother was also named Ed just enabled those two letters to come pouring out of me – as if I were writing to my old, dearly missed brother.)

So I feel very close to Harper when I think about her loss, and about getting to the end of her life and wondering if she had done enough. When I was writing the book , I was going through some health issues that made me very reflective about mortality, and about the legacies we leave behind, and all of that found its way into Harper.

On the other hand, I felt great sympathy towards Truman, who had somewhat turned himself into a monster, but I think he knew it; I don’t think that’s who he really wanted to be. My twin brother was an alcoholic and I absolutely saw another person take over during his drinking jags. It’s almost like I could see the real Tim, the innocent little child, inside the drunk, saying, “It’s not me! I want to make him stop, but I can’t!” I felt that about Truman, and it was very important to me that I was able to give him peace and grace by the end of the book, by finding his way back to his childhood, and his innocence.

You didn’t mention her, but I also came to love the third main character in the book, Truman’s housekeeper Myrtle Bennett. She’s very much based on Truman’s real housekeeper in his desert home of Palm Springs. She was one of the few who stayed with him, when everyone else jumped ship. She was a Cotton Club dancer in her life, and I loved to fantasize about how she got from that, to Truman.

I read on your website that this is your first virtual book tour. How closely have you followed book blogs up to now? What do you think book reviewing and book promotion will look like five or ten years from today?

I’ll be honest – I haven’t followed book blogs that much, mainly because they’re too terrifying! I find myself getting jealous of other writers and the attention they’re getting. When I was publishing my first book, I read them very aggressively – looking for tips, angles, anything. (I did the same thing with movie magazines, when I was trying to be part of that world.) Then I found myself getting overwhelmed by them. You could spend the rest of your life just reading blogs and not ever writing if you really wanted to be thorough.

But the publishing world – and the role of blogs in them – has changed tremendously in just the four or five years since The History of Swimming first came out. Then, all the advice I got was to not bother with blogs, they were few and far between, and I’d just be writing to the choir, not the converts I wanted to make. By the time Capote came out, they were a bigger deal, but I was still told the internet didn’t really “sell” books. (I think I was getting some bad advice.) But in the year since it did come out, this year between the hardback and paperback, they’ve become the be-all and end-all, especially since so many newspapers have lost their book sections.

Blogs are a great way to reach savvy readers, and I’ve done a huge amount of outreach just on my own through the internet, trying to reach readers and book clubs. Blogs are almost the only way to get information out. (It’s like we’re all burrowing underground, like the people who still read books in Fahrenheit 451, having to hide out and memorize our favorite books, to pass on.)

I remain primarily a reader so I would like to ask if you have a third book in the works? What do we have to look forward to from Kim Powers?

There is a third book in the works. It’s actually finished, but not yet sold. I just finished up my umpteenth draft of it this weekend and delivered it to my agent. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel called The Movies We Watched (The Year My Father Killed My Mother.). How’s THAT for a title? Even scarier that it has the basic DNA of my childhood. It’s about a little boy who obsessively goes to the movies every weekend, and keeps a scrapbook with the ads of all the movies he sees. His mother has died, and bit by bit he becomes convinced – from things he sees in the movies – that his father literally killed his mother, in order to be with his new girlfriend. The little boy then begins playing detective to try and catch him. It’s sort of the prequel and the sequel to The History of Swimming – my childhood, and the time after my twin died of AIDS.

The little boy sections are somewhat reminiscent of the voice in that novel from a few years ago, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. My book follows the real movies I saw week after week in 1966-67, when my mother mysteriously died. And then another character starts intruding in the years 1986-87. He works in a movie house, and you think it’s the little boy grown up. But it’s not. (I mention that because I read on your blog that Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is one of your favorite movies, and it features in the book!)

My partner and I have many pets. Our dog, Dakota, is regularly featured on Ready When You Are, C.B. because she has eaten so many of my books. So, to conclude, I’d like to ask if you have any pets, and what relationship do they have with your books?

Like you, my partner and I are big dog lovers. We’re on our fourth, having raised three who’ve now gone on to “grad school,” as we call it. The current dog is a cute little Yorkie/Maltese named Frankie, after Frankie Valli. She’s a puppy, still, about a year and a half years old, but surprisingly good at not chewing things up.

Our first dog, however, a lab mutt named Franny, was the big chewer, and loved to devour my paperbacks. I remember for years the one paperback she seemed to like the most: the Edmund White nonfiction book called States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. I could track her growth by the teeth marks in that book!

Sounds like another dog with excellent taste in literature.



All of this material first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B.  This is one of my favorite projects from the years I spent at Ready When You Are, C.B.  I don’t do many author/book tours anymore, but they were lots of fun.  Sometimes.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, LGBT, Noir, Novel | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

In Miton Lumky Territory by Philip K. Dick

In Milton Lumky Territory by Philip K. Dick is not what the author’s readers have come to expect. Not exactly. Known for his paranoid science fiction dealing with alternate realities, Philip K. Dick began his career writing stories about ordinary workers trying to make a go of it in 1950’s and 60’s America. His early, realistic novels were not published during his lifetime, but have recently become available. There seems to be a growing interest in Philip K. Dick these days.

In Milton Lumky Territory is free of science fiction elements and largely free of paranoia as well, but the characters should be familiar to long-time fans of Philip K. Dick. The hero, Bruce Stevens, is a small time businessman looking for a good deal on wholesale typewriters so he can make a go of it selling them in his new wife’s shop in Idaho. Along the way he hooks up with Milton Lumky, a paper salesman and long time friend of his new wife. Bruce does not have an easy time finding a good deal on the typewriters and also has trouble convincing his wife that he is capable of running her shop. She was once his fifth grade teacher which does not make their marriage any easier.

This plot sounds remarkable close to that of The Man in the High Castle but there won’t be any alternate reality surfacing to explain why Bruce Stevens can’t get a break. Instead, the story stays firmly rooted in reality, but this is not a bad thing. The story is a portrayal of work which we don’t get very often in contemporary fiction. How a businessman goes about his business without a murder, or a kidnapping, or an alien, coming along to spice up the storyline can actually make for an interesting tale as it does in In Milton Lumky Territory.

If you’re a fan of Philip K. Dick, as I am, then reading these early novels offers several rewards. We can see the development of the archetypal Dick hero, the more-or-less ordinary Joe in over his head with the deck stacked against him. We can also see the beginnings of Dick’s paranoid outlook on society. While there are no “forces” in In Milton Lumky Territory, forces do seem to be aligned against the hero. Milton Lumky knows where Bruce can get a great deal on electric Japanese typewriters. (Remember when those were new.) But on the way to the warehouse in San Francisco, Lumky becomes ill and has to stay behind in a motel. Bruce can’t get as good a deal without Lumky; in fact, he can barely get any deal at all he has so little money. Additional obstacles appear as Bruce keeps on trying to open his typewriter shop, so many that the novel begins to take on the paranoid tone of Dick’s later science fiction novels.

I suspect that these early novels will laregly appeal to longtime fans of Philip K. Dick. One has to wonder what would have happened if he had been able to publish any of them. Would he have gone on to write the science fiction classics he did? I like to think that there is an alternate reality out there somewhere, one where Philip K. Dick went on to become a sort of Philip Roth, writing realistic stories about everyday people. Of course, one may ask if that reality is the real one or the alternate one?


This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009.  I’ve been moving all of my old reviews over to this new blog.  I expect I’ll be running quite a few the next couple of weeks since school is starting tomorrow and I’m in the midst of reading Richard House’s book The Kills which is over 1000 pages long.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, Novel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Quintessence of Ibsenism by George Bernard Shaw

ibsen shawMy thanks to Amateur Reader who blogs at Wuthering Expectations for pointing this book out to me a couple of months ago.  Amateur Reader is a much better student than I have been with The Quintessance of Ibsenism (I confess to both skimming parts and not reading it all the way to the end) so please check his posts out if you’d like a more thorough and thoughtful response to Mr. Shaw’s little book.

On with what I have to say…

In The Quintessence of Ibsenism  George Bernard Shaw works his way through all of Ibsen’s plays to develop an overall theory of them.  It’s a decent theory and an interesting read.  The two were contemporaries and both wrote works dealing with similar themes, namely the condition of women, throughout their careers.  While I’ve not seen the complete works of either, I’ve seen enough to recognize how the two may have influenced each other, or at least why Ibsen was so important to Shaw, important enough to write a book about him.

Basically, Shaw believes Ibsen’s plays are about the corrosive effects of duty and ideals on the development of human society.  Shaw describes Ibsen’s work as all involved in this discussion, even the early more fantastical works like Peer Gynt, which I confess I walked out on at the first intermission.  I love Ibsen’s more realistic plays, A Doll’s House, The Master Builder and Ghosts, but there was no way I could sit through four hours of trolls,  a student production no less.

Shaw describes how duty works against human progress here:

The point to seize is that social progress takes effect through the replacement of old institutions by new ones; and since every institution involves the recognition of the duty of conforming to it, progress must involve the repudiation of an established duty at every step.  If the Englishman had not repudiated the duty of absolute obedience to his king, his political progress would have been impossible. If women had not repudiated the duty of absolute submission to their husbands, and defied public opinion as to the limits set by modesty to their education, they would never have gained the protection of the Married Women’s Property Act, the municipal vote, or the power to qualify themselves as medical practitioners.

Part of the way duty functions to maintain societal institutions is by creating an ideal, a representative figure who behaves in a fashion everyone else should admire and follow. For Ibsen, and quite often for Shaw, the ideal in question was the ideal woman, the Victorian Age’s Angel in the House.  (One has to keep in mind that Shaw was born in 1856 and lived until 1950.  He saw these ideals in action, the price people paid to maintain them and their eventual fall as well.)  In both A Doll’s House and Ghosts we see Ibsen presenting his audience with an ideal woman and then presenting us with the price she has paid to maintain this ideal.  In both plays we see the error inherent in doing one’s duty and in being an idealist.

Amateur Reader read The Quintessence of Ibsenism while working through all Ibsen’s plays, which is an admirable project, but one I did not undertake.  To be honest, I sort of enjoy reading plays, but I’d much rather see them.  I’m lucky enough to live in an area where both Shaw and Ibsen are regularly staged.  If you ever get a chance to go see Ghosts, do.  Very few plays have made as strong an impression on me as the closing scenes of Ghosts did.  Shaw does not move me nearly as much, though he is always very funny, and usually a bit disturbing.  I list Major Barbara as my favorite.

There’s a good chance that your public library has a copy of The Quintessence of Ibsenism  gathering dust on a back shelf somewhere.  If you’re a fan of or a student of Ibsen or of Shaw I think you’ll find it interesting even if you don’t read the entire book.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, English Literature, Scandenavian Fiction | 5 Comments

Sunday Salon: Back to School Edition

wpid-img_20140806_085216.jpgToday is the last day of my summer.  I go back to work tomorrow and I’m really dreading it.  This will be year 25 for me–maybe I should have a party.  I wish it could be a retirement party.

We did get a last hurrah trip in this month when we drove down to Santa Monica to visit the Getty Art Museum and see a couple of friends who have moved down there.  We’ve both basically lived all our adult lives in California but have spent maybe 20 days in the Los Angeles area.

We had a great time.  I thoroughly enjoyed Santa Monica and Venice Beach both.  I looked for the skateboarding bull dog but could not find him.  Venice Beach has become this fantastic outdoor head shop with people dressed in green handing out discount coupons for prescription marijuana alongside police officers who are simply there to keep the peace.  (It can happen in America.)  I’ve no interest in smoking stuff, I really was just looking for Small World Books and enjoying the sights.

Santa Monica is much more upscale than Venice Beach.  Visiting the pier there was lots of fun and the beach is beautiful.  I got to stop in at Hennessay and Ingalls a bookstore devoted to coffee table books. Lots of wonderful architecture books, but there was an upset toddler in one corner whose mother was simply not going to go home yet in spite of how badly the child wanted to leave.  So I had to go.  Just a block away was the pedestrian mall, yes they have these in Los Angeles now, which was hopping with the after work crowd

We spent an evening in Hollywood with the tourists, visited one of the wax museums there and enjoyed the Getty though more for the building and the view than their collection.  I even found a new hat that fits me at a shop near Main Street in Santa Monica. (See picture above.)

I had lunch in San Francisco with my old book club this week.  It was fun to get together with everyone and I got to browse both Borderlands and Dog-Eared Books afterwards.  I didn’t buy anything.  I’m book-shy lately because I just got my copy of The Kills by Richard House which is over 1000 pages long.  It’s getting lots of rave reviews lately.  I’m enjoying it but I’m not raving.

I think it’s tied to this whole back to school vibe slash funk I’m in.  I did go in to school one morning last week to set up my classroom.  I put green paper on my boards which is a change from the usual blue, fixed them all up with work from last year’s students so the room looks good and unpacked all of my book club books.  I don’t know what I’m going to do with book clubs this year, which may be the cause of my funk.

Last year’s book clubs were annoying overall.  Last year was really the first time I’ve had a class of page counters for many years.  Whenever time came  to select new books,  the majority of students went looking for whatever was shortest.  They ended up reading a lot of books they didn’t like as a result.  Since the district is phasing out the GATE program and I’ll be down to just one section, I’m likely to have even more page counters this year.  I’m leaning towards bringing back reading logs, using class time for reading, assigning page goals instead of book goals.  These strategies all worked back when I started two decades ago in a classroom full of below-grade-level readers.

The pendulum keeps on swinging.

Tomorrow there will be a faculty meeting.  We’re sure to talk about common-core and probably project based learning.  I think the whole country is sick of common-core by now so you won’t hear anything more about it from me for today.  Our current superintendent is very big of project based learning.  There’s been pressure on me about not going to the three-day training but I keep on insisting that I’ve been teaching for 25 years and I have been doing project based learning since back in the days when we called it ‘teaching’.

We’ll see what happens.

Dakota is still having A-level days in the meantime.  She is begging to go outside as I type this.  We’re off to Point Isabelle, dog paradise, later today once the fog leaves, even if it doesn’t.  Then I suppose I’ll be reading The Kills hoping it gets to the rave review sections fairly soon.  I have Haruki Murakami’s new book sitting on the table next to me, calling its siren song…..

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A Short Story Review Anthology: Hemingway, Williams, Babel, Alexie, Cunningham, Paley, Murakami, Kinsella

The train passed very quickly a long, red stone house with a garden and four thick palm-trees with tables under them in the shade.

I wonder how many graduate students have written papers on the use of railroads in the works of Ernest Hemingway. It’s striking how many of his stories are set on trains or in railroad stations. The railway journey as metaphor for the journey of life. It really seems like it would make a good paper to me. Fortunately, I do not have to write graduate papers anymore.

A Canary for One” is the story of three people on a journey across Europe. A married couple share a compartment with a woman who will be visiting her daughter. She is taking the daughter a canary. They are all Americans living in Europe so their conversation soon becomes easy and revealing, turning to intimate topics, the kind of things one can comfortable confess to strangers on a train. The two women do most of the talking which is about the woman’s daughter and the man she’s about to marry. Can an American woman find a successful marriage to a European man?

A Canary for One” is not a great Hemingway story but it’s good enough. There is, as always, undercurrent of tension in the dialogue, something else going on that we don’t find out until the very end of the story, that makes it much more compelling reading than it should be. Things happen on trains. Try to imagine three people having a conversation about something serious on an airplane. Two people, maybe, but not three.

You can find “A Canary for One” in The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway published by The Scribner Library of Contemporary Classics. Hemingway comes in and out of vogue, but he has to be considered a master of the 20th century short story.


The Inventory of Fontana Bella” by Tennessee Williams describes the last day in the life of Principessa Lisabetta. Having outlived all of her husbands, the Principessa is surrounded only by servants who take her to the summer house across the lake, the Fontana Bella, at her insistence.

Once there, they all gather on the terrace where the Principessa wanders about taking an inventory of all the objects in the house. The house is closed and empty, but the Principessa remembers every item in it, each item’s history, where it came from, what it’s made of, what it’s worth. She is both sharp as a tack and completely mad, just the sort of character Tennessee Williams loved, a very rich Amanda Wingfield, a successfully married Blanche Dubois.

In the end, the Principessa’s story touches the reader. In spite of how pathetic her situation has become, she maintains a strange sense of dignity that I found myself admiring. I don’t want to end up like her, but if I do, I hope to face it like she does.


In Isaac Babel’s short story “Awakening” a young boy rebels against his family and his community, but the rebellion is of a different sort. For a long time, it was assumed that the young would go to school to get a good career, become doctors or lawyers. Stories were written about children who rebelled against this life-path to become musicians or artists. In Mr. Babel’s story this situation is turned on it’s head. It’s every parents dream to have a musician for a son or daughter. Rebellion becomes skipping music class to pursue non-artistic interests.

This story comes from Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories which is an unusual collection to say the least. I often do not know what to make of the stories in it; sometimes I’ve been left wondering just how they qualify as short stories. “Awakening” is definitely a short story, that much is clear. But is it a serious one, or is it a spoof? Don’t ask me. I did find it kind of funny when the Russian Jewish father comes yelling after is son, ready to beat him for not wanting to be a musician like all the other good children in the town. I hope I was supposed to find it funny.


This review brings together two of my favorites, Sherman Alexie and The Horn Book magazine.

Sherman Alexie writes stories and novels about his experiences as a Native American. This year (2009) his first novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, was published which is probably why he has a short piece in the current issue of The Horn Book magazine. If you’re not a teacher or a librarian, you’ve probably never heard of The Horn Book magazine and you’ve been missing out. The Horn Book covers what’s new and excellent in children’s and young adult literature. Each issue features many reviews, with starred reviews you can always trust to be a sign of excellence, and articles by experts in the fields of children’s and young adult lit. It’s consistently one of the more interesting magazines about books that I read.

This months issue is a back to school issue featuring many articles by different authors on the theme of school and books in schools. Sherman Alexie’s story “I Still Wish” is just a page long.You can read it here. I’m viewing this review as something of a test–how do you write a review of something that is just one page long? Can I do it without a spoiler. No. Consider yourself warned.

Plot summary? Popular in high school, Sherman Alexie sees the least liked boy in school blindsided by a bully. He is tempted to blindside the bully in retaliation but doesn’t because he believes it is better to be peaceful. He regrets this decision all of his life.

Character? Sherman Alexie, Edgar the nice but meek boy, Darren the stoner/bully. In just a few words, with only the briefest of plots, each boy is clearly drawn for the reader, each not just a character in a story, but someone we probably knew back in school.

Theme? Violence versus peace, revenge, social injustice. There’s a lot of meat in this very brief tale.

What I most like about this story, and about much of Sherman Alexie’s stories, is that it does not go where we expect it to but it is true. We’re supposed to value peaceful behavior over violent but we don’t want to. As a reader, I really wanted to see Sherman get revenge on Darren for Edgar, even though I know it probably would not have ended well. If I were the school principal, I’d have had no choice but to suspend both Darren and Sherman after all. That would be justice. But it wouldn’t satisfy as much as revenge.

I wonder what my students would have to say. Maybe I’ll find out….


“Ignorant Armies” by Michael Cunningham is about two gay men who grew up together. Tim and Charlie, the story’s narrator, are best friends in high school. In love with the same girl, who dates Tim, they form a friendly threesome until the girl leaves Tim, and Charlie kisses him.

The two boys drift apart but never completely lose touch with each other. As adults, they meet again in Chicago where they both live. Tim has gone from man to man until ending up with Mark, a stable guy twenty years his senior. Charlie, still single, still largely in love with Tim, again becomes part of a friendly threesome. He watches Tim and Mark’s relationship deepen to the point where they exchange rings. Mark does not want a ceremony, the story was written in 1994 so a legal marriage was unavailable, but he does want the visible symbol of rings.

Michael Cunningham never leaves a happy ending alone. As he does in his early novels he takes the characters of “Ignorant Armies” to their happy ending and then keeps going. Tim and Mark have found a true, lasting love. Charlie is well integrated into their family, he views Tim as a brother and Mark sees him as a brother-in-law. Things are great. But life keeps on going and it has only one ending. Mark dies from AIDS. Tim and Charlie are allowed to attend the funeral, but Mark’s family will not let him be buried with his ring. So afterwards Tim and Charlie visit Mark’s grave and bury the ring in the ground of his grave as best they can. Tim, who is now sick, makes Charlie promise to bury him with his ring on and Charlie does. But in the end, he cannot. Charlie has always loved Tim, always wanted to be for him what Mark was. He is by Tim’s side at the end, but it is Mark’s name Tim calls. Charlie takes the ring from him afterwards and keeps it.
“The Pale Pink Roast” is a good example of why I like Grace Paley so much. The plot is a simple one–two former lovers meet after many years apart. Anna has just begun to show her age, while Peter has just begun to come into his own.

A year ago, in plain view, Ana had begun to decline into withering years, just as he swelled to the maximum of manhood, spitting pipe smoke, patched with tweed, an advertisement of a lover who startled men and detained the ladies.

(“A year ago, in plain view,” I love that.) Anna is married and has a daughter; Peter is still single and still a little bit in love with Anna.

Grace Paley’s heroines, at least the one’s I’ve read about so far, are in charge of their lives and are do not hesitate to go after what they want. Anna wants to have sex with Peter one more time. She quickly contrives to make this happen by asking him back to her new apartment to help put up a set of venetian blinds. Afterwards, Peter is disappointed to discover that Anna is happily married and has no intention of leaving her husband for him.

“Why did you do it? Revenge? Meanness, Why?” he asks.

“Honest to God, listen to me, I did it for love, ” she replies.

There’s not much story after this point, but I have left one delightful surprise for you, should you choose to read “The Pale Pink Roast.” Ms. Paley’s women, and her men, are full of surprises.

If you’ve read a story or two and would like to leave a link to them you can use Mr. Linky below. This month I’m giving away one copy of Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. For one entry, become a follower. For five entries leave a link to a short story review on your blog. Each review earns five entries. Dakota will be selecting the winner on Tuesday, June 30.


 No one wants to give away the ending in a review. This guiding principle is much more difficult to follow in a short story review than it is in a book review. It’s even more difficult when reviewing a Haruki Murakami story.

Haruki Murakami’s use of magical realism sneaks up on his stories. He lulls the reader into the everyday and then adds a, sometimes very small, dose of the improbable. Without noticing it, several paragraphs or pages later, the reader believes in the impossible things that are happening. To give anything away risks spoiling the magic. In his short story “Birthday Girl” a young woman has to work at her restaurant job on her 20th birthday. During her shift she meets an old man who says he can grant her one birthday wish. If I say anthing more, I might give something away.

If you’re willing to play along with Murakami, you’ll not regret it. That may be the best way to view reading Haruki Murakami, not as reading but as playing along. It’s lots of fun.


Al Tiller is not a bad team manager. Through his long career in baseball he has managed all levels of players, from bush league minors to big time professionals. By big time professional I mean the Chicago Cubs, a team notorious for losing season after season. It’s hardly Al Tiller’s fault that he gets his job with the Cubs years before they finally made it to the series ending a 100 year title drought, the longest of any team in professional baseball.

When the Cubs start to do well, when it looks like they might make it to the playoffs, might actually win the pennant, Al begins to have dreams and to encounter odd interviews on the late-night sports radio call-in shows. These dreams and signs lead Al to a disturbing conclusion– if the Cubs win the pennant, Armageddon will arrive. Just when Al should be enjoying what looks like a sure shot at the World Series, he begins to wonder if he should start throwing games in order to save the world.

In 1984, when W.P. Kinsella’s collection of stories about baseball, The Thrill of the Grass, was first published, this was probably a delicious old joke. Many a Cub fan, many a Cub foe had probably made just such a remark after a brief winning streak. Maybe will win the pennant this year. Sure, but if that happens won’t the world end. Today, Mr. Kinsella’s stories offer a kind of nostalgia, a vision of what baseball used to be like when professional sports still had a kind of innocence about them. It’s easy to like his characters, to root for them even when they are bound to fail.

There’s something about baseball, or at least about baseball stories, that looks backward to a simpler time, a lost age before we all had to face reality. I suspect this is, at heart, a form of escapism. If so, just take me out to the ball game.


All of these reviews first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  as part of Short Story Sunday or Short Story September (2008-2009).   I confess that I first started reviewing short stories as a way to come up with content for by blog day after day.   There was no way I could read enough novel length material to post every day, so I figure why not do a short story once a week.  

I came up with the content I needed and ended up becoming a fan of short stories. As an added bonus, I got to read a bunch of great writing, too.

Posted in American Fiction, Classic, Fiction, Japanese Literature, LGBT, Russian Literature, Short Story, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment