Reading all around the World

Reading All Around the World

In some–no, many–ways I feel very fortunate. One example: Although I am from a small (and shrinking) city in the Midwest and although I’ve lived in said city my whole life, excepting my time at college–which was only 25 miles up the road–, and a semester in Italy, I have had the good fortune to both meet people from all over the world and people who have traveled the world. Some, like me, have family that has been here for several generations, but unlike me, still have strong ties to their ancestors’ cultures, often throught their churches. Some I’ve met have been immigrants, firmly settled here, or students, just passing through. And some I know–including some family members–have lived oversees, fully experiencing another culture and country. Regardless, I have found that there is no better way to reinforce that people everywhere, despite our cultural differences, are much the same at the core, than to engage with people–sometimes even at the most minimal level–who have experienced another culture. My initial opinions on the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq were complicated by my acquaintances with an Iraqi-American who had fled Hussein’s government and a Bosnian who had survived the siege of Sarajevo. My awareness of the history of Crimea was not from the evening news, but a former roommate from the region. My concern over Syria increases from the many Syrian Christians in my hometown.

But we are not always so fortunate to meet people from elsewhere. Or even when we do, it may only be in passing and we never know their story. Even 14 years ago, when I was in Italy, there were many African migrants who I would pass on the streets, or sit across the aisle from at the Episcopal Church on Sundays. But I never actually met any, knew their names, knew their stories. Only that they were. On the other hand, books can bring us there. I’ve never been to Chile, but The House of the Spirits taught me much about Chilean history and about Chileans impacted by forces larger than themselves. Add to that the many wonderful books I’ve read from other countries, and I’ve long been wanting to expand my reading beyond my typical U.S.-Britain, occasional Spanish-language material.

So I knew I wanted to jump on board when I saw that Jean of Howling Frog Books was hosting a Reading all around the World–well, not challenge, but adventure, I knew I wanted to join in.

Buttong: Reading all around the World

But I’m adding my own personal twist. See, when I was first thinking about my own project for this–long before Jean announced the Club–I thought I would pick books out for an international reading project based on people I’ve met. Perhaps a little more limiting that the entire world, but with roughly 200 countries to choose from, it seemed a good way to narrow down my options. And wouldn’t you know it–when I started to list them out, I had no trouble reaching 50 (albeit, some of the connections are a bit tenuous).

There are few rules–a minimum of 50 countries (reader-defined) either fiction (author must be from/live in said country) or nonfiction about a country, no time limit, no pressure (see Jean’s post for details). I highly encourage anyone interested in expanding their reading past their comfort zone-countries to join in!

I’m tentatively aiming for five years, knowing the reality is more like ten (ambition never hurts!). My current list, subject to change, in alphabetical order:

  1. Afghanistan
  2. Argentina
  3. Australia
  4. Belgium
  5. Bosnia
  6. Brazil
  7. Canada
  8. Chile
  9. China
  10. Colombia
  11. Croatia
  12. Cuba
  13. England
  14. Estonia
  15. Fiji
  16. Finland
  17. France
  18. Germany
  19. Greece
  20. Guatemala
  21. India
  22. Iran
  23. Iraq
  24. Ireland
  25. Italy
  26. Jamaica
  27. Japan
  28. Kenya
  29. Mexico
  30. New Zealand
  31. Nicaragua
  32. Niger
  33. Pakistan
  34. Peru
  35. Philippines
  36. Poland
  37. Qatar
  38. Romania
  39. Russia
  40. Scotland
  41. Spain
  42. Sri Lanka
  43. Sudan
  44. Sweden
  45. Switzerland
  46. Syria
  47. Thailand
  48. Turkey
  49. Ukraine
  50. Wales

This should be fun! Now, which country to choose first…?

Reading

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Garden gate - Charleston South Carolina
Where might the garden gate–and the New Year–lead us?

Happy New Year!

I know many people are happy to see 2016 gone. It wasn’t kind to many of us–well to be honest, I knew in Dec. of 2015 that 2016 would never be a great year. Personally, however, I don’t believe it was quite the worst year I’ve had, as despite the negatives–and there were plenty–there were plenty of positives as well. And while there may be reasons to be concerned about what 2017 may bring, I find that I’m an optimist at heart, and have observed that although at times life may seem bleak, if we look hard enough we may find something to hearten us. While I don’t believe that it is wise to hide ourselves away from negative news, nor do I think it is healthy to focus solely on what distresses us, but better to look for the good as well and for what we may do, no matter how small. At unexpected times, I was reminded last year of how something as simple as a smile or holding out a hand to another can uplift someone when they are feeling down. And while I will lay out plans and goals for the coming year below, if I can just remember this, if I can endeavor to be always kind, even to those I dislike or cannot trust, then I will have accomplished something more meaningful than plowing through a list of books.

But, much the same as opening a new package of notebook paper has long inspired me, turning of a calendar page and dropping of a ball inspires in me an excitement for what this coming year holds. I was determined to end 2016 neatly–cleaning, organizing, finishing. Well not everything. I wasn’t going to make myself crazy/stay up all night just to finish a recently restarted knitting project. But I finished the two books I most wanted to finish to end the year, I finally put away papers that have been piling up since last January! and recycled/shredded others, I finished off reading the last week’s worth of local papers. (Wow–there are so many great things happening locally, including some wonderful building revitalization projects.) And so, despite lacking a fresh coat of snow to give the world a “new” feel (rather, it’s all melted at the colors are muted browns and greys, warmed by winter sun), everything feels fresh and new. I pulled out a couple books this morning, eager to make a start on my upcoming projects and goals.

But first, I really should remember last year–I had quite a few goals and challenges, but how did I do?

2016 Goals:

  • Read at least 25 books this year Met! (Just how many books I read depends on how you count; I only counted books I both started and finished in 2016, and grouped all of the Beatrix Potter 23 Tales into one for the count.)
  • Resume the Reading Ohio project – Met! (Five books)
  • Focus more on my Classics Club list – Met! (I read eight titles off the list. Sure, there are still plenty to go, but…)
  • Start adding in some contemporary translated fiction. Oops. I didn’t read any translations more recent than the 1960s, while I wanted to read at least one that was no older than 2000.
  • Plenty of Children’s Classics! – Met! (I hosted the Classic Children’s Literature Event in April, for which I read Emil and the Detectives, The Jungle Book, and a number of Beatrix Potter tales. Later in the year, I finished off the Potter tales and added in some Susan Cooper and Tuck Everlasting. By my count, a total of 28 different titles.)

2016 Challenges:

  • o’s Reading England 2016. Goal: level 1 (1-3 counties). – Met! I didn’t write posts for these books (yet…), but I did read two books.
  • The Classics Club’s Women’s Classic Literature Event. Goal: min. 4 classics by a woman author (not counting contemporary). – Met! (Counting the Beatrix Potter’s as one title.)
  • Karen at Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics Challenge. (All books must be at least 50 years old.) Goal: hit all 12 categories. – Fail! Well, I did read books that would fall into six of the categories, but I only wrote posts for five. And I hadn’t thought to ask, but someone did for this year’s edition, and a poetry collection wouldn’t actually count, so…five books, with four posts. It was a fun challenge, regardless. (Actually, I may have read an acceptable 20th century classic–Silence–, but that depends on whether the cut off is any book written before 1966 or including 1966. Whichever interpretation, again, no post.)
  • Keely at We Walked Outside and Saw The Stars’ Ancient Greek Reading Challenge. Goal: level 1 (1-4 texts). – Fail! I didn’t read a single one!
  • Jen at The Introverted Reader’s Books in Translation Challenge 2016. Goal: Conversationalist (4-6 books). – Met! (Four books)
  • Samantha’s Shakespeare 400: The Bardathon Challenge 2016. Goal: Mix-and-match Shakespeare (min. 5 Shakespeare experiences: read/watch/listen/perform/play). – Met! (Read four plays and watched three)
  • o’s The Pickwick Papers readalong. Runs from March 2016-November 2017.  – Yeah…I failed to keep up with this one a long time ago.

So not too badly, I don’t think. (If you really want to know which titles I read for each goal/challenge, the complete list is here.)

As far as the reading itself, I really felt 2016 was excellent. Just a few months ago, I wasn’t so sure, but as I read more to finish off the year/recalled what I had read earlier, I’m really happy with the titles I finished.

I read quite a wide variety this year, pushing my boundaries a bit: 5 plays, 1 poetry collection, 2 non-fiction titles, 4 translated titles, 3 short story collections, 3 works by African-American writers, and my first ever Japanese novel. Most were good or better; the only title I really was disappointed in was Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which did feel a bit more like fan fiction, but I will acknowledge that it might give a different impression when watching it staged, as it was written for. Although there are 13 different male authors compared to 9 different female authors I read this year (I think I counted correctly), part of the reason for the gap is that one book (Above the Shots) was co-written/edited by two men and Harry Potter was a joint effort between J.K. Rowling and two male collaborators. So much for stats.

My Top Books of 2016

The two books I read this year that I believe will stick with me longest are both translated works. I still can’t believe how well I remember Miguel Ángel Asturias’ The President [El Señor Presidente], the story of a small group of people just trying to live their lives under a tyrant. Highly recommended. And I only just recently finished Shūsaku Endō’s Silence, a novel investigating faith and belief in the most difficult of circumstances. It has already proven a most thought-provoking read and I imagine I will be still thinking of it months from now.

Less thought-provoking, but wonderful to read as well was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I found absolutely delightful. I am keeping my eye for any local productions of this play, which is now one of my favorite Shakespearean plays (along with Much Ado About Nothing). Also delightful was my reread of Pride and Prejudice–I really had forgotten how much I simply enjoy reading Austen.

I had not expected to read any nonfiction in 2016, but I am really happy with the two titles I did read. But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman was a bit of a mind-bender and Above the Shots: An Oral History of the Kent State Shootings by Craig S. Simpson and Gregory S. Wilson I found excellent as my first experience reading oral history. By comparing and contrasting the points of view of so many people who were in or around Kent in May 1970 (as well as official records), I came to a better understanding of how any story can be a matter of perspective, and how even those who witness an event my find their own understanding changing over time. This was actually a topic touched on But What If We’re Wrong? as well, so they proved excellent companion reads.

Looking Ahead

I’ve already posted about the two year-long challenges I’m planning on participating in for 2017: Deal Me In and Back to the Classics. I didn’t really see too many challenges I was interested in this year–thankfully! I have some areas I want to focus on as well. After a decent Reading Ohio year, that project will likely be on the back burner as I try to get to some more of my Classics Club titles and (really, this year, I mean it) some contemporary translated fiction.

  • Since I made my goal of 25 books last year–and it feels like a reasonable number for me–I’d like to hit 26 this year. One every two weeks should be doable.
  • I’d like to match my 2016 total of at least 8 titles from my Classics Club list.
  • To define “some” – let’s make it 2 works in translation (written in +/- the last 25 years).
  • Plenty of Children’s Classics! – so YES, I do plan on another edition of the Classic Children’s Literature Event, likely again in April.
  • Actually blog about most of those titles in a timely manner.

I also have some non-bookish goals that I’d like to work on this year:

  • Learn how to properly use my camera. I bought a DSLR last May, and while I have the automatic settings down pretty well, I’m still in the dark on anything else. Fortunately, I have a DVD series to go through to help.
  • Finish 3 decent-sized knitting projects. I’m thinking a sweater and two shawls.
  • Resume trying to regain my lost high school Spanish. I started using the Duolingo app; I’d like to make it through all the Spanish lessons this year.
  • Properly go through all my files/folders/papers. For example, I still have school notes that I, reasonably, saved to study for the Architectural Registration Exam, but then just stuffed them in the closet when the studying was done. It’s been years; I’m not likely to need them again–time to purge.

Here, with the optimism of the first of January, it all seems reasonable. Right?

Happy Reading!

 

Challenge

Back to the Classics 2017

Okay, so I didn’t exactly complete the 2016 Back to the Classics challenge (mostly for not blogging about–more details in my year-end-wrap up post this weekend). But it was fun anyway, and I like the categories this year, so I’ve decided that this would be my second and likely final year-long challenge for 2017 (not counting my own plans).

Button - Back to the Classics Challenge 2017
Karen from Books and Chocolate is hosting again, and describes it this way:

Here’s how it works:

The challenge will be exactly the same as last year, 12 classic books, but with slightly different categories. You do not have to read 12 books to participate in this

  • Complete six categories, and you get one entry in the drawing
  • Complete nine categories, and you get two entries in the drawing
  • Complete all twelve categories, and you get three entries in the drawing

And here are the categories for the 2016 Back to the Classics Challenge:

1.  A 19th Century Classic – any book published between 1800 and 1899.

2.  A 20th Century Classic – any book published between 1900 and 1967. Just like last year, all books MUST have been published at least 50 years ago to qualify. The only exception is books written at least 50 years ago, but published later, such as posthumous publications.

3.  A classic by a woman author.

4.  A classic in translation.  Any book originally written published in a language other than your native language. Feel free to read the book in your language or the original language. (You can also read books in translation for any of the other categories).

5.  A classic published before 1800. Plays and epic poems are acceptable in this category also.

6.  An romance classic. I’m pretty flexible here about the definition of romance. It can have a happy ending or a sad ending, as long as there is a strong romantic element to the plot.

7.  A Gothic or horror classic. For a good definition of what makes a book Gothic, and an excellent list of possible reads, please see this list on Goodreads.

8.  A classic with a number in the title. Examples include A Tale of Two Cities, Three Men in a Boat, The Nine Tailors, Henry V, Fahrenheit 451, etc.

9.  A classic about an animal or which includes the name of an animal in the title.  It an actual animal or a metaphor, or just the name. Examples include To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, The Metamorphosis, White Fang, etc.

10. A classic set in a place you’d like to visit. It can be real or imaginary: The Wizard of Oz, Down and Out in Paris and London, Death on the Nile, etc.

11. An award-winning classic. It could be the Newbery award, the Prix Goncourt, the Pulitzer Prize, the James Tait Award, etc. Any award, just mention in your blog post what award your choice received.

12. A Russian Classic. 2017 will be the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, so read a classic by any Russian author.

(More details/rules at Karen’s original post.)

This should be fun! I can actually think of a book for just about every category–now as to whether I’ll get to them all or not… I’d certainly love to! I really want to read some Greek classics this year (finally), which would hit #4 and 5; there’s a likely Austen reread in my future (3 or 6) and it’s been a while since I read a Gothic classic (7), but I have a list.

Thanks again to Karen for hosting. Now what to read first…?

Challenge

Deal-Me-In Challenge – 2017

The last few years I’ve watched other bloggers make and post lists for a challenge hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis–52 short items (frequently short stories, but often also including poems, essay, or plays), each linked to a specific playing card. The idea: over the course of the coming year to select a card for each week then read that item in the appropriate week of the year. And it’s always been tempting–nothing too long to read, a great way to spend some time with literature types I don’t usually read. I finally succumbed to the temptation year, but under the strict understanding: I will almost certainly fail (I’m placing my bet on week four 😉 ). Actually I stand a lot better chance if I don’t commit to posting on everything I read, so, whether I do or not will probably be by whim. Regardless, I’m hope this helps me continue to push my reading boundaries away from longer forms.
Deal Me In Short Stories Challenge Logo

My List is half short stories / half poems (for weeks with more than one poem, the poems in question are very short). All selections are from collections either on my own shelves or pilfered from my parents (they won’t even notice…)

Hearts – short stories
A – The Leader of the People – John Steinbeck
2 – Mr. Know-All – W. Somerset Maugham
3 – The Old Demon – Pearl S. Buck
4 – Young Archimedes – Aldous Huxley
5 – Butch Minds the Baby – Damon Runyon
6 – Suspicion – Dorothy L. Sayers
7 – The Open Boat – Stephen Crane
8 – My Oedipus Complex – Frank O’Connor
9 – The Snows of Kilimanjaro – Ernest Hemingway
10 – Six Feet of the Country – Nadine Gordimer
J – The Boarding House – James Joyce
Q – The Brute – Joseph Conrad
K – Lead Her Like a Pigeon – Jessamyn West

Spades – short stories
A – Vanka – Anton Chekhov
2 – Hautot and His Son – Guy de Maupassant
3 – A Letter to God – Gregorio López y Fuentes
4 – The Little Bouilloux Girl – Colette
5 – The Ruby – Corrado Alvaro
6 – A Double Game – Alberto Moravia
7 – Maternity – Lilika Nakos
8 – God Sees the Truth, But Waits – Leo Tolstoy
9 – The Walker-Through-Walls – Marcel Aymé
10 – The Augsburg Chalk Circle – Bertolt Brecht
J – The Procurator of Judæa – Anatole France
Q – My Lord, the Baby – Rabindranath Tagore
K – Modern Children – Sholom Aleichem

Diamonds – poetry
A – To the Memory of My Beloved Master, William Shakespeare – Ben Jonson
2 – L’Allegro – John Milton
3 – Il Penseroso – John Milton
4 – Lycidas – John Milton
5 – To a Mouse – Robert Burns
6 – Tam o’ Shanter – Robert Burns
7 – Kubla Khan – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
8 – Morte d’Arthur – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
9 – Ulysses – Alfred, Lord Tennyson
10 – A Grammarian’s Funeral – Robert Browning
J – Pioneers! O Pioneers! – Walt Whitman
Q – O Captain! My Captain! – Walt Whitman
K – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d – Walt Whitman

Clubs – poetry
A – Sonetos I, LXI, LXXXI – Juan Boscán
2 – Sonetos & “Da mi basia mille” – Cristóbal de Castillejo
3 – Sonetos I, IV, X, XI – Garcilaso de la Vega
4 – Sonetos XIV, XXIII, XXIX, XXXII – Garcilaso de la Vega
5 – Canción III – Garcilaso de la Vega
6 – Canción V – Garcilaso de la Vega
7 – Madrigales I, II & Soneto I – Gutierre de Cetina
8 – Sonetos V, XX, XXIII – Francisco de la Torre
9 – Endecha II – Francisco de la Torre
10 – Soneto al rey nuestro señor – Hernando de Acuña
J – Oda I – Fray Luis de León
Q – Oda III – Fray Luis de León
K – Oda VII – Fray Luis de León

I look forward to starting this one – come Sunday! It should be a nice challenge. A thank you to Jay for hosting.

Uncategorized

Christmas Carol

Christmas 2016 - the Old Gatehouse in the Snow

Ring out, ye bells!
All Nature swells
With gladness at the wondrous story,—
The world was lorn,
But Christ is born
To change our sadness into glory.

Sing, earthlings, sing!
To-night a King
Hath come from heaven’s high throne to bless us.
The outstretched hand
O’er all the land
Is raised in pity to caress us.

Come at his call;
Be joyful all;
Away with mourning and with sadness!
The heavenly choir
With holy fire
Their voices raise in songs of gladness.

The darkness breaks
And Dawn awakes,
Her cheeks suffused with youthful blushes.
The rocks and stones
In holy tones
Are singing sweeter than the thrushes.

Then why should we
In silence be,
When Nature lends her voice to praises;
When heaven and earth
Proclaim the truth
Of Him for whom that lone star blazes?

No, be not still,
But with a will
Strike all your harps and set them ringing;
On hill and heath
Let every breath
Throw all its power into singing!

“Christmas Carol” by Paul Laurence Dunbar (The Complete Poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1913)

Personal Great Books · Spanish Language Lit Month · The Classics Club

Completed: The President [El Señor Presidente]

Cover: The President by Miguel Angel AsturiasThe President [El Señor Presidente]
Miguel Ángel Asturias
(Guatemala, 1946)
Frances Partridge, translator

It’s been months since I read The President and yet I find it still lingers. Parts may be fuzzy and vague, but details still stay sharp—elements of the plot, of the natures of the characters. Even scenes that seemed but loosely tied to the main line of the story still clank around my head. It is a powerful novel.

Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! The women felt the divine power of their Beloved Deity. The more important priests paid him homage. The lawyers imagined they were attending one of Alfonso el Sabio’s tournaments. The diplomats, excellencies from Tiflis perhaps, put on grand airs as if they were at the court of the Sun King at Versailles. Native and foreign journalists congratulated themselves on being in the presence of a second Pericles. Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! The poets felt they were in Athens, so they announced to the world at large. A sculptor of saintly figures imagined he was Phidias, smiled, rubbed his hands and turned his eyes to heaven when he heard the cheering in the streets in honour of their eminent ruler. Señor! Señor! Heaven and earth are full of your glory! A composer of funeral marches, a devotee of Bacchus and also of religion, craned his tomato-coloured face from a window to see what was happening in the street. (Chapter XIV, “Let the Whole World Sing!”)

The titular President shows up but little directly—just a scene here or there—but his presence haunts every moment, every interaction. He is authoritarian, a tyrant, and the poisonous atmosphere his government engenders enables those beneath him to be just as cruel and petty and vindictive. It is such cruelty that sets the plot in motion, as a group of homeless taunt one of their own. His instability will lead to an unexpected murder, which event enables others of more power and position—seeking to consolidate wealth or favor or power—to go after personal enemies, dragging along many innocent citizens in their wake. But there is one ray of hope in the story, in an unexpected romance between a favorite advisor of The President and the daughter of one of The President’s political enemies. Indeed, while The President is an illustration of how fear and lust for power or influence makes monsters of men, it also offers us the redeeming power of love.

The President is a novel set in a county never named, but imagined by many to be author Miguel Ángel Asturias’ native Guatemala. Perhaps Asturias left his setting unnamed to keep distance between himself and the politics at home, but leaving the country anonymous allows the reader to imagine any number of possibilities. This tyranny by man is non-specific, it is possible anywhere, everywhere, in anyone.

Originally intended as a Spanish Lit Month/August Classics Club Spin read, The President counts for the Back the to Classics Challenge as a title which has “been banned or censored”—although written in the 1920s and 30s it was delayed from publication until 1946 by the censorship of the Guatemalan government. It is also on my Classics Club and Libros Españoles project lists.

Reading Ohio

Completed: Folks from Dixie by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Cover: The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence DunbarFolks from Dixie
Paul Laurence Dunbar
(U.S., Ohio, 1898)
as republished in The Complete Stories of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Ed. Gene Andrew Jarrett and Thomas Lewis Morgan
Forward by Shelley Fisher Fishkin
(Ohio University Press, 2005)

It is a very fortunate thing that I took notes as I made my way through some of Dunbar’s stories this past spring; it has been so long since that I read them, that my memories have grown faint. Although I had at hand a collection of the entirety of Dunbar’s short fiction, I opted at this point to stick with just those stories making up Folks from Dixie, the first published collection of short stories by Dunbar.

One trouble I had reading the stories from the  21st century perspective was trying to make out where Dunbar was portraying realistic situations (as his contemporary critics praised him for) vs. what was expected by his white audience–was he pandering in stereotype or were his stories accurate? Is it one of those things where we look back years later and see stereotype or cliché but it was fresh or unusual at the time? Regardless, it was an interesting set of stories and characters, with settings in both the north and south, among the poor and the middle class and the previously rich, with characters both black and white. Dialect is employed liberally–and not just African American Vernacular; one of the stories is set in West Virginia and so an Appalachian dialect is used as appropriate. Faith, community, and family are the predominant themes. Some stories are heart-warming, some amusing. Some portray the complexities of relationships between blacks and whites both before and after the Civil War, while some focus entirely on African American characters.

Even more so than I noted in Dunbar’s poetry, a happy–or at least uplifting–ending seems almost requisite. Even when everything seems to have gone wrong, or every opportunity is there for the story to take a darker turn, it always seems to work out in the end. I couldn’t say if this was reflective of Dunbar’s own personality or point-of-view or simply if it was what would sell. (And I know too little of the era’s short stories to know if such positivity was generally common in published short fiction. They do perhaps bring to mind the short stories of L.M. Montgomery which are also consistently uplifting.) In a way though, it is refreshing to read, at least when the current reality of 2016 seems to always want to take the darker path. And it is perhaps our 21st century cynicism that makes me notice Dunbar’s optimism.

“Anner ‘Lizer’s Stumblin’ Block”

A plantation story—all the characters are slaves—yet, it feels odd, as if it is one of those stories that is romanticizing the plantation era, even though written by a descendant of slaves. Quite the contrast to Charles W. Chestnutt. But it is striking to me, from both Dunbar’s and Chestnutt’s stories, there is almost the sound as if slaves were just allowed to walk around wherever—that is, Sam is out “‘coon hunting” and the other slaves go to revival service—I would have thought they’d be more limited, more confined. What is accurate?

In this, Anner ‘Lizer goes to a revival service & finds herself wanting “‘ligion,” but she can never seem to overcome some “stumblin’ block” that keeps her from leaving the “mourner’s bench.” This “stumblin’ block” turns out to be Sam: Anner ‘Lizer isn’t sure if he wants to marry her or Phinny, another slave. It is an ironic story, as seen in the difference between what Anner ‘Lizer is really thinking and what the other slaves think she is thinking, i.e., they think she is solely focused on getting religion, while in reality she can’t get Sam off her mind.

“The Ordeal at Mt. Hope”

He passed vacant lots which lay open and inviting children to healthful play; but instead of marbles or leap-frog or ball, he found little boys in ragged knickerbockers huddled together on the ground, ‘shooting craps’ with precocious avidity and quarrelling over the pennies that made the pitiful wagers. He heard a glib profanity rolling from the lips of children who should have been stumbling through baby catechisms; and his heart ached for them.” (17)

Another southern story, but this one post-war and in an all-black community. It is an interesting look at the contrasts between an educated, northern black man and his uneducated southern small-town counterparts. Although in some ways I suppose it might stereotype, just including a standard-English speaking black man was, I would guess, an accomplishment for the late 1800s. On a certain level, it is a universal story and shows that some things haven’t changed (and some never well)–young folks not doing what their elders want, the lure of alcohol and other temptations, the wariness of a small town of outsiders, the way communities just sit in hopelessness, seemingly unwilling or unable to try to change anything and make things better. Indeed, “Mt. Hope” is an ironic town name, yet true to Dunbar’s form, it is flipped on its head to be accurate by the end.

He could not talk to Elias. He could not lecture him. He would only be dashing his words against the accumulated evil of years of bondage as the ripples of a summer sea beat against a stone wall. It was not the wickedness of this boy he was fighting or even the wrongdoing of Mt. Hope. It was the aggregation of the evils of the fathers, the grandfathers, the masters and mistresses of these people. Against this what could talk avail?” (21)

“The Colonel’s Awakening”

A very sad story of a southern gentleman whose mind has been in the past ever since his two sons were killed in the war. Two of his former slaves (“servants”) care for him, pretending for him that it is just the same as it always was. But rather than romanticizing the antebellum South, with servants staying out of loyalty to their master, it appears that due to age, they don’t know how else they might live. The colonel is however portrayed sympathetically, despite his past slave-holding. Loss is universal.

…and in the haste of the retreat he had been buried with the unknown dead. Into that trench, among the unknown, Colonel Robert Estridge had laid his heart, and there it had stayed. Time stopped, and his faculties wandered. He lived always in the dear past. The present and future were not.” (26)

“The Trial Sermons on Bull-Skin”

A church is in need of a new pastor, but there are two factions who cannot agree on who it should be. It is decided to give the two choices each a Sunday sermon, and the faction leaders embark on plots to win over others to their side while undercutting the other. I found it quite an amusing story, even knowing how common such a congregational fractures are, for Dunbar keeps it lighthearted, and there never seems any real danger that this will split up the church–though perhaps some feelings will be long hurt.

“Jimsella”

Here, we have a portrait of domestic distress: abandonment and adultery, but in the end the power of an infant brings the father/husband back hope. A bit of a sweet story, actually, despite how unpromising it begins. It is yet another example of Dunbar’s penchant for uplifting endings. “Jimsella” is set in a northern city–perhaps New York? According to the introduction to The Complete Stories, this would have been a challenge to preconceived notions of the era’s readers, expecting to only see former slaves or their descendants in the rural south.

“Mt. Pisgah’s Christmas ‘Possum”

This one was perhaps less jolly that I might have expected for a Christmas story, as it turns out that Brother Jabez ate 3 of the 4 Christmas ‘Possums! I admit, before reading this collection, I had never contemplated the thought of eating ‘possum, but apparently it would not have been uncommon in Dunbar’s day, as a number of stories reference it.

“A Family Feud”

The old woman had been a trusted house-servant in one of the wealthiest of the old Kentucky families, and a visit to her never failed to elicit some reminiscence of the interesting past. Aunt Doshy was inordinately proud of her family, as she designated the Venables, and was never weary of detailing accounts of their grandeur and generosity. What if some of the harshness of reality was softened by the distance through which she looked back upon them; what if the glamour of memory did put a halo round the heads of some people who were never meant to be canonised? It was all plain fact to Aunt Doshy…” (45)

This is different in that this story, while a plantation story, is the story of a white family, specifically a father and son, and the split that nearly happens between them over the woman the son chooses to marry. It is told by an old woman who had been a slave on the plantation, and one of the characters was the master’s son’s old nurse who does what it takes to reunite the two. It is interesting to me in that it illustrates the complexities of relationships between master and slaves. There is perhaps a bit of romanticism of the past, but I would guess that–considering the story told in The Help–the idea of such relationship between nurse and son is not complete fiction. A sweet story, really.

“Aunt Mandy’s Investment”

A swindler sets up an investment (Ponzi) scheme, convincing the poor blacks of a city he’s just arrived at that if they invest with him, they will reap the benefits and avoid the white man gaining their money. An old lady, Mandy, comes to him privately to invest her little savings that she might bring her son back from out west. This is a charming story, the reader knowing by now that Dunbar will work it all out–for Mandy at least.

“The Intervention of Peter”

Peter, desperate to prevent his master from dying in a duel (of honor), takes matters into his own hands and is about to fire an old fowling piece at the opponent when discovered, a discovery which causes all concerned (save Peter) to howl with laughter. Looking at this and “A Family Feud,” I notice that Dunbar seems to be showing that the slaves have more sense than their masters. Is this where we see him subverting the plantation story?

“Nelse Hatton’s Vengence”

The people had eaten their suppers, and the male portion of the families had come out in front of their houses to smoke and rest or read the evening paper. Those who had porches drew their rockers out on them, and sat with their feet on the railing. Others took their more humble positions on the front steps, while still others, whose houses were flush with the street, went even so far as to bring their chairs out upon the sidewalk, and over all there was an air of calmness and repose save when a glance through the open doors revealed the housewives busy at their evening dishes, or the blithe voices of the children playing in the street told that little Sally Waters was a-sitting in a saucer or asserted with doubtful veracity that London Bridge Was falling down. Here and there a belated fisherman came straggling up the street that led from the river, every now and then holding up his string of slimy, wiggling catfish in answer to the query ‘Wha’ ‘d you ketch?'” (59)

A tramp shows up on the back door of former slave Nelse Hatton’s house (in Ohio), begging for food. Nelse’s wife reluctantly sets the table at Nelse’s insistence, and he and the tramp have a conversation while the tramp eats, leading to the discovery that the tramp is “Mas’ Tom,” the son of Nelse’s old master. Excited, he wants to introduce his family, but his wife, Eliza, scorns meeting the man who gave her husband a scar on his neck. Her anger brings Nelse’s to rise, and for a moment we are afraid he will do as he once vowed and kill the man. But in the end, Tom Hatton having expressed remorse for the scar, Nelse gives him his Sunday suit and money to return home to Kentucky.

This is another illustration of the complex relations between (ex)slaves and (ex)masters. But I think the kicker is Nelse’s final statement: “Bless God, ‘Lizzy, I feel as good as a young convert.” Religion/faith may not be overt in this story, but it colors the end.

“At Shaft 11”

Unlike the other stories, in this one, a white man, Jason Andrews, is the primary protagonist, or at least as much as anyone is in the story. (A black man, Sam Bowles, is another.) It is a story of a mine strike—and it seems to be anti-union.  Or at least, pro-capitalist. The black men are the strike breakers, Jason is against the strike, but has left the mine so his white friends can’t say he profited. This interaction between black and white takes on an interesting dimension when it also equals strikers vs. strike breakers: even without a racial aspect, tension leading to violence seems highly likely. Interesting to me, also, unlike Chestnutt’s stories in which his ex-slave story teller frequently used “n—-r” to refer to his fellow African Americans, this was the first story in which Dunbar employed the term, and there in the voice of the strikers.

“The Deliberation of Mr. Dunkin”

This is a very familiar story, about the courting of a very pretty young woman, Miss Callena Johnson, the new school teacher, by Mr. Alonzo Taft, although he is supposedly acting on behalf of his friend, Mr. Dunkin.  It is so familiar, in fact, that I read it already this year—The Two Gentlemen of Verona— and I’m sure elsewhere as well. Of course, all works out in the end, and the collection ends on a very charming note.

3/3 posts relating to my spring reading of Paul Laurence Dunbar works. Read as part of my Reading Ohio project and for the category “a volume of classic short stories” for the Back to the Classics Challenge.