In this installment of our book club, we looked for thoughtful, dark reads fitting for a foggy November and December. Cozy up with a cup of tea with us and read on.
“Rough Deeds” by Annie Proulx
I’d recently read The Shipping News and wanted to start the next round of our book club with something “November-y.” You know, lots of nature, maybe some adventure, and a little dark.
Lo and behold, I found a short story by Annie Proulx called “Rough Deeds” published in The New Yorker. Released in anticipation of her novel Barkskins, a 700+ page bear which I have but am intimidated to read, “Rough Deeds” is an account of historical fiction, following the life of Duquet, a man of French origin living in North America during the 18th century.
“In New France, which people more and more called Canada, for the old Iroquois word kanata, Duquet was everywhere—examining, prying, measuring, observing, and calculating.”
We all acknowledged that Duquet is cunning, ruthless, and prideful. We also agreed that he’s a terrible person. For some, this was enough to make the story unenjoyable at first, but further discussion around Proulx’s language brought them around. We found the story gripping, its language evocative, and were compelled to follow Duquet’s years-long journey from rough-cut entrepreneur to wealthy businessman.
So, why should you read a story about an ambitious, morally suspect, 18th-century man? Well, for one, it’s a brilliant look at life in the 18th century. For another, Proulx’s language illustrates a master at work:
“During the early evening, the mildness went out of the weather. The sky filled with clouds the color of dark grapes, torn by flailing stems of lightning. An hour of rain moved along, and behind it the temperature dived into winter. Duquet woke at dawn, shivering. There was not a breath of wind, but every twig and branch bristled with spiky hoarfrost. In the distance, wolves howled messages to one another, their cries filleting the morning.”
“The Buddhist” by Alan Rossi
This time around, I chose the short story “The Buddhist” by Alan Rossi. I found the story and writing style interesting—the prose is fairly simple, but what interested me the most was investigating the details that make up the Buddhist’s past and help explain the self-deprecating behavior he portrays throughout the story. Reading the story introduces questions like, “What does it mean to be human?” and, “When does something helpful become something harmful?” The protagonist is seen mentoring a woman and telling her about his own introduction to Buddhism. I’m sure he meant for his story to come across as inspiring, but… Well, read for yourself:
“Why wasn’t I interested in climbing or kayaking anymore; why didn’t I care about playing any of the instruments I used to play? I didn’t joke the way I used to; I didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs or even seem to enjoy eating—everyone was basically saying the same thing.”
Reading “The Buddhist” was like watching a trainwreck. Readers will wait helplessly as the Buddhist further isolates himself from other people and the things that once brought him joy. He justifies these actions to himself and his mentee through an unfortunate string of circular logic that follows him throughout the story. We can only read between the lines and hope that the Buddhist begins to change his perspective after the story ends.
“I tried to show her that her feelings contained no reality, they were impermanent, based on the belief of a false self.”
“St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves” by Karen Russell
As we rounded out 2018 and looked to our future book clubs, we decided that come the new year our discussions would be guided by predetermined themes. So for our last theme-less club—aside from us trying to identify “November mood” which is a smidge tougher than October, as you can imagine (Halloween provides much more short-story fodder than, say, public-domain texts about turkey or stuffing)—I decided to simply pick another Karen Russell piece. Last time around I had us read “Bog Girl” which we all seemed to thoroughly enjoy.
I figured that, well, wolves eat a lot of birds (check!) and there’s definitely maybe fog rolling around a facility named St. Lucy’s (double check!).
“A low granite wall surrounded St. Lucy’s, the blue woods humming for miles behind it. There was a stone fountain full of delectable birds. There was a statue of St. Lucy. Her marble skin was colder than our mother’s nose, her pupil-less eyes rolled heavenward. Doomed squirrels gamboled around her stony toes. Our diminished pack threw back our heads in a celebratory howl—an exultant and terrible noise, even without a chorus of wolf brothers in the background.”
As we dived into the story, no one seemed to mind the exceptionally loose interpretation of “foggy-November piece” nor a ham-fisted Russell doubleheader. We had another satisfying discussion, as lycanthropic lineage ponderings replaced the bog’s borderline-necrophilic coming-of-age arguments.
“And there was Mirabella, shucking her plaid jumper in full view of the visiting cardinal. Mirabella, battling a raccoon under the dinner table while the rest of us took dainty bites of peas and borscht. Mirabella, doing belly flops into compost.”
The nuns of St. Lucy’s are tasked with transforming young wolves, with names like Hwraa! and Gwarr!, into well-to-do, civilized young ladies, with names like Jeanette and Claudette. This piece is cleverly written and full of charm (a “proper fairy tale” as Caitlin put it) as well as, personally, quite heartbreaking. As the only one whose formative years consisted of being stuffed into Catholic school—where tartan skirts battled the crisp Collared Shirts of Untucked Sovereignty to the north as they tickled forever-fresh knee scrapes to the south—I think I took to this piece a little more than the rest of the group. My untamed calf hair itches under the ghosts of stocking past just thinking about it.
“The sisters swept our hair back into high, bouffant hairstyles. This made us look more girlish and less inclined to eat people, the way that squirrels are saved from looking like rodents by their poofy tails. I was wearing a white organdy dress with orange polka dots. Jeanette was wearing a mauve organdy dress with blue polka dots. Linette was wearing a red organdy dress with white polka dots. Mirabella was in a dark corner, wearing a muzzle.”
A great story for your next book club; a most excellent story if your book club consists of a wild pack of werewolves.
“I’ll Be Waiting” by Raymond Chandler
There’d been a joke after finishing “The Buddhist” that November’s theme was “unlikeable protagonists.” My selection was easy—I love Chandler, but I’ve found few of his characters “likeable.”
Besides, one doesn’t get much darker than noir.
“I’ll Be Waiting” takes place in a hotel with filled with “shadowy loungers” and “memories like cobwebs.” It is fair to say that little happens in the story: the “house dick” meets a woman, meets the man who’s come looking for her, and convinces the man to leave. A lack of narrative motion and a sense of emotional detachment—the characters have no interiority, so that feeling must be gleaned from appearance and action—made it hard for some of us to invest in the story. But the language eventually drew us all in.
“I’ll Be Waiting” was published in 1939, before the literary tropes associated with pulp and noir became so ubiquitous as to border on self-parody. There is no self-consciousness displayed in passages such as
“I was married to him once. I might be married to him again. You can make a lot of mistakes in just one lifetime.”
“He held a gun. He held it as though he knew about guns.”
While sentences like these filled me with a low-level glee, others were drawn in by the strong stylism of Chandler’s language. Water imagery appears throughout, seen first in protagonist Tony Reseck’s “quiet, sea-gray eyes” which later become “as simple as forest water.” Repetition of descriptions and frequent anaphora create a strong sense of rhythm. Descriptive sentences are both lush and taciturn, avoiding commas and conjunctions when a period could do. Adjectives rarely deploy without a partner.
I won’t spoil our thematic discoveries for you, because it’s well worth diving into this story with a group of your own. Beneath the tropish trappings, something truly strange and intricate lurks.
Three Poems by Wallace Stevens
For our second round of readings, I chose a trio of poems by American poet Wallace Stevens. The three poems we discussed are “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (1923), “The Idea of Order at Key West” (1934), and “Of Mere Being” (1955). The three poems differ in significant ways but all exemplify Stevens’s taste for plump, surprising phrases and his penchant for producing perplexion in his readers’ minds. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” contains a series of thirteen brief, oblique vignettes, each of which is pierced by the enigmatic blackbird:
“It was evening all afternoon. / It was snowing / And it was going to snow. / The blackbird sat / In the cedar-limbs.”
This is Stevens at his concisest and—dare I say?—his cheekiest. “The Idea of Order at Key West” finds Stevens striking a Shakespearean pose, rolling out grand lines of pentameter in an exploration of poetry itself, which Stevens calls:
“Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred, / And of ourselves and of our origins, / In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.”
“Of Mere Being” is the final poem Stevens wrote. It offers the elusive image of “the palm at the end of the mind,” in which sits a “gold-feathered bird.” The poem, an homage to the impossibility of understanding, is both elegiac and light-hearted, and the final line leaps off the page with its sonorousness and humor:
“The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.”
Have a theme suggestion for our next round? We’d love to hear from you! Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Book Club Recommendation”.