A Halloween Tale

It’s October, and you know what that means. It’s harvest time. It’s time the leaves on the trees are red and gold and orange. Seems the trees make an extra-special effort this time of year. The birds take off for their southward journeys. The squirrels make a last minute snatch, gathering up a few more nuts for the coming chilly days of winter. It’s October, and Halloween’s a-coming.

Already carved pumpkins are showing up in folks’ windows and on their lawns. They’re letting us know that the show is coming soon. That show being costumes and trick-or-treating galore.

Yet, over the years, Halloween’s been the runt of the holidays. Unlike Independence Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, Halloween didn’t start showing up in the national consciousness till the twentieth century. And it didn’t even have its own story. Until “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree.

All great stories invite the reader in with an invitation. Here’s the invitation from The Halloween Tree:

It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small norther part of a Midwest state. There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…

Boys.

And it was the afternoon of Halloween.

Eight boys show up for trick-or-treating in a variety of costumes. Tom Skelton is dressed in skeleton bones. There’s a witch, a mummy, an apeman, a gargoyle, a beggar, a ghost and Death himself with his scythe. There’s only one boy missing. And that’s Joe Pipkin.

Joe Pipkin was the greatest boy who ever lived. The grandest boy who ever fell out of a tree and laughed at the joke. The finest boy who ever raced around the track, winning, and then, seeing his friends a mile back somewhere, stumbled and fell, waited for them to catch up, and joined, breast and breast, breaking the winner’s tape. The jolliest boy who ever hunted out all the haunted houses in town, which are hard to find, and came back to report on them and take all the kids to ramble through the basements and scramble up the ivy outside-bricks and shout down the chimneys and make water off the roofs, hooting and chimpanzee-dancing and ape-bellowing. The day Joe Pipkin was born all the Orange Crush and Nehi soda bottles in the world fizzed over, and joyful bees swarmed countrysides to sting maiden ladies. On his birthdays, the lake pulled out from the shore in midsummer and ran back with a tidal wave of boys, a big leap of bodies and a downcrash of laughs.

In other words, this Joe Pipkin was a mighty fine fellow. And the other eight boys waited in anticipation to see what he would be dressed as. But poor Joe is whisked away on a journey of life or death.

With the help of a creature named Moundshroud, the eight follow Pipkin to the celebrations of the origins of Halloween by the ancient Druids. They find themselves among the mummies of Ancient Egypt, the ceremonies for the dead by the Greeks and the Romans, the gargoyles of Notre Dame in Medieval France and the Day of the Dead in Mexico. Each ceremony has a jack-o-lantern on the Halloween Tree.

Are the boys able to rescue their friend, Joe Pipkin? And, if they do, what will it cost? Only by reading The Halloween Tree will you be able to discover the answer.

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Uncle Bardie’s Book Selection: Summer Lightning

Summer Lightning
by P. G. Wodehouse
320 pages. The Overlook Press (September, 2003).

P. G. Wodehouse had a way with words. He walked that tight rope that comic writers, at least the great ones, walk. One step  to the left or one step to the right and they fall off into the abyss. But Pelham Grenville was always funny. In an English sort of way. As the saying goes, he had the knack. Only Mark Twain had more knack.

“Summer Lightning” takes us away to the fresh air and the country life of Blandings Castle. This tome could have easily been titled “Produce That Pig”. Instead Wodehouse chose “Summer Lightning”. Not sure why. The pig isn’t carrying that name. She is named the Empress of Blandings and that enormous pig is Lord Emsworth’s pride and joy. Lord Emsworth is the lord and master of Blandings Castle.

Unfortunately, the Empress is pig-napped. By none other than Ronnie Fish, Emsworth’s nephew and the son of Old Miles Fish of the Brigade Guards. In other words, Ronnie’s blue blood has blue blood. But he has no money. Dash it all.

So, what does a blue blood with no money do if he wants to marry a chorus girl named Sue Brown? He comes up with a scheme. He’ll temporarily borrow the pig, hide it out, then return it to his uncle for a rapturous applause from said uncle.

I was stunned to hear that someone of the aristocratic persuasion would sink so low. I blushed. My illusions were shattered. To break one of The Commandments. It’s one thing to break the adultery clause which aristocrats often do. At least, in the stories. But theft. No way. These are the noblesse oblige.

And the thefting does not stop there. The Hon. Gallahad, Emsworth’s bro, has all the dope on everybody in his class. For him, that is everybody that matters. Society, you know. He’s been saving up for years. Now he is producing his Reminiscences.

Those memoirs are so dastardly dastard two people want them snatched. Emsworth’s sister, Lady Constance, and Emsworth’s next door neighbor, who is accused of pig-napping. It seems thievery is alive and well among the aristocratic class at Blandings Castle. First the pig, now the manuscript.

On top of that, Hon. Galahad is going to steal the suspected pig stealer’s pig. Take that, you dastardly fellow. When all is said and done, this is the story of two pigs in a pokey, don’t you think?

Talk about your regular getting your signals crossed. Ronnie not only has goo-goo eyes for Sue Brown. Lord Emsworth’s niece, the exceedingly charming Millicent Threepwood, has shown interest in the good lord’s secretary, Hugh Carmody. Actually she’s shown more than interest. She’s in love.

Well, Hugh has to go into town. London, that is. To hire a detective for the missing pig. While he’s there, he decides a night on the town is just the thing. Calls up his old buddy, Sue Brown. She says, “Why not? What can it hurt?” They go dancing. Before he knows it, he will have some ‘splaining to do.

Ronnie, being the Fish he is, decides to drive up to London for a night with the Suze. Sees the Suze with another guy. Steam shoots out of both his ears and a volcano goes off. He heads back home and does the next best thing. Becomes engaged to Millicent who has found out that she too has been betrayed. I am telling you guys. Don’t do the bachelor or bachelorette party. It can end up with the wedding doing a Titanic.

Rupert Baxter, that most efficient of former efficient secretaries of Lord Emsworth, tells Emsworth’s sister, Lady Constance, he can deduce with all his deductibilities and find el missing pig-o. She believes him ’cause he’s her fav.

And who do you think this former secretary has his eye on for the leading suspect? The current secretary. Sounds like that green-eyed monster Jealousy has been let loose. Even if Hugh didn’t do it, the suspicion is enough to destroy Rupert’s rival in his Lordship’s affections.

But Hugh must have a partner. That pig is going to need tending while Hugh is gallavanting about, doing his thing. And does Mr. Efficiency have a suspect in mind? Yes, he does.

None other than Beach the Butler. Poor Butler. It sounds like the whale is about to be beached. Not only did he help Ronnie Fish, he is now suspected of the deed. Talk about something being rotten in Denmark. The fish is beginning to smell.

For whatever reason that fickled finger of fate has, Hugh and Millicent are thrown together. They discover the Empress. Before you know it, Beach shows up to feed the pig. When inquisitioned, he has a story. A story that will rescue Hugh from the purgatory of bachelorhood and allow him into the heaven of marriage to his one true love, Millicent. 

What’s the story? Now that would be a spoiler.

A Moment of Grace

Have you ever fallen in love with a short story? I have. “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, “A&P” by John Updike, “The Dead” by James Joyce, “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway are just a few I love. “After Rain” is another. It’s a real charmer.

“After Rain” is the title story of a William Trevor short story collection. In the story, Trevor returns to one of his on-going themes, the exploration of a woman’s inner life, her alienation from her environment, her loneliness, and her dignity in the face of that loneliness.

If ever there was a woman in purgatory, it is Harriet. Harriet, a thirty-year-old English woman, had plans. For vacation, she was going to an island spa with her lover. Until he dumped her.

Pensione Cesarina is the consolation prize she gives herself. She chose the Italian hotel because her parents vacationed there when she was a child. Not only is she faced with her own failures at love, her parents were failures as well, both having committed adultery, then divorced.

The story begins in the dining room of the hotel. From her table for one, she orders the same wine she’s ordered all the other nights of her stay. All she has done for the past eleven days is read and stroll through the town and visit the church, not as an act of faith but rather as something to do to pass the time.

Trevor gives us sentence upon sentence, detail upon detail, of the life of the room. He contrasts the four solitary diners with the gregariousness of the other parties, detailing each with their own individuality.

As Harriet sits and dines, moments with her former lover flood back into her thoughts, intensifying her loss. She questions why she made this return visit to the place her parents chose to bring her. She wonders not why her affair had to end, but why did it end before the holiday and not after. It seems like her life has been made up of endings. Unlike the beginnings of young love in the room. Two young Englishmen are hooking up with two Belgian girls. One a stylist, one studying the law.

One of the other solitaries, an older man, joins her at her table. This is the only time in the story when Harriet carries on a conversation. And it’s a conversation with someone she sees as an intruder. Instead of listening to his words, she finds herself daydreaming of what might have been if only her lover had not dumped her. After the older man leaves, she realizes that he was lonely just like her. It is becoming obvious that she is oblivious to her surroundings.

And to what should have been obvious to her. She was unable to see her parents’ divorce coming. She has been unable to see that she has fallen in with lovers who aren’t up to her desire for more in a relationship.

The next morning, a stroll through the town and a seat on a park bench and a rehashing of a conversation between herself and her former lover. She missed all the signs. She was convinced she was happy. Then she’s on for more of the town and then, to get out of the rain, a cappucino and the memories of her parents taking delight in this place.

In the center of the town is the Church of Santa Fabiola. Harriet wanders inside and sees a painting of the Annunciation. Then Trevor describes this painting that will change Harriet’s life in as much detail as any other single thing in the story.

The Annunciation in the church of Santa Fabiola is by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo, no one is certain. The angel kneels, grey wings protruding, his lily hidden by a pillar. The floor is marble, white and green and ochre. The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor’s advance. Beyond—background to the encounter—there are gracious arches, a balustrade and then the sky and hills. There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what’s said between the two has been said already.

Harriet’s eye records the details: the green folds of the angel’s dress, the red beneath it, the mark in the sky that is a dove, the Virgin’s book, the stately pillars and the empty vase, the Virgin’s slipper, the bare feet of the angel. The distant landscape is soft, as if no heat has ever touched it. It isn’t alarm in the Virgin’s eyes, it’s wonderment. In another moment, there’ll be serenity.

When she leaves the church, Harriet notices a change in herself. The rain has cleared things out. The heat has been replaced by a coolness emanating on the road. A bird sings. It seems like the world around her has been invaded by softness.

She returns to the Pensione and walks in the garden. She struggles to make “a connection to that she knows is there.” Then it comes to her. “The Annunciations was painted after rain.” And so the story continues for a few pages more, revealing that change of hers to her. She has been given the grace to continue her life but not in the isolation and alienation she once felt. She is now connected to the world around her.

This is not the only story in the collection where the supernatural impacts the mortal. In “Lost Ground”, a Catholic saint appears to a Protestant teenager. As the stories reveal, sometimes the supernatural can bring grace, sometimes not. It all depends on our response.

Janacek’s Sinfonietta, Two Moons and Little People

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami

944 pages. Knopf (October 25, 2011).

Murakami’s 1Q84 has a 19th century feel to it. Not just because it is long. Rather, the Japanese writer seems to be saying to the reader,  “I have a story to tell, and I am going to take my time telling it. If you stick with me, you will be rewarded. So relax. Enjoy the journey.”

Even though 1Q84 takes place in an alternate world, it is not about rings, wizarding schools, or families going for a throne. It is about Aomame (pronounced Ah-oh-mah-meh) and Tengo in 1984 Japan, trying to escape a religious cult and connect with one another.

Murakami opens his novel with a thirty-year-old Aomame. She sits in the back of a taxi, listening to Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Her cab is stalled in traffic. The driver lets her know that the cab isn’t going anywhere for a while. But there is a way for her to get to her destination and make her appointment. Get out of the cab, go to an emergency exit, climb down the stairs, catch a train. As she gets out of the taxi, he warns her, “Please remember, things are not what they seem.” Then she steps into the alternate world of 1Q84.

The next chapter introduces Tengo. In his early thirties, he is a single man. He teaches math to high schoolers prepping for their university entrance exams. He is also an unpublished writer and a reader for an editor. He has read a manuscript by a seventeen-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, called Air Chrysallis. The writing isn’t good but the ideas conveyed are unique. The editor asks Tengo to rewrite the manuscript. Then the editor will submit the novella to a major literary contest. This is Tengo’s entry into 1Q84.

This alternate world centers around a religious cult called Sakigake. Fuka-Eri was the daughter of the leader of the cult. And her novella reveals certain secrets about that cult. One of these secrets is the Little People. Throughout 1Q84, the cult threatens Tengo and Fuka-Eri. Through her actions, the cult goes after Aomame as well.

Murakami slowly spins a spider’s web, dropping information drip, drip, drip. You’re being pulled into the web. The closer to the center you’re pulled the more dangerous things get for the two main characters. Slowly the connections between Aomame and Tengo are revealed. That they have a connection through Janacek’s Sinfonietta. That they both can see the two moons. That they went to grade school together. Despite everything you may have heard about the novel, it is a love story. Sakigake will do everything it can to keep them apart.

1Q84 isn’t for everybody. After all, it is a novel written for an adult audience of experienced readers. But Murakami has created two characters I came to know intimately and liked very much. They not only have breadth but the depth of personality that makes for a marvelous story. Few contemporary writers have given the reader as complete characters as Murakami in his 1Q84. And I will miss them.

Not your same old dystopia

the The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood.
320 pages. Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. A good definition of dystopian is a utopia that backfires, thanks to humanity’s ability to screw up any dream. In other words, the more that a group of human beings try to create the perfect society the more they create an imperfect society.

Atwood’s novel is not the first nor will it be the last dystopia. Before her novel, there was 1984Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange. Recently we’ve been given updated reports from the Continent of Dystopia in the form of The Hunger Games and Divergent. I’d say that, if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, Atwood gives us about the best of what can be done with the genre.

And since the novel was published, there have been a movie and a tv series based on the book. I’d advise reading the book before seeing either because there’s so much to be missed that appears as subtext in the novel.

Labels can keep a reader away from a novel that should have a wider audience. And this is true of Atwood’s book. Yes, it can be said that the novel is feminist. Yes, it can be said that it is an attack on the patriarchal system. And yes, it can be said that it is an expose’ of certain fundamentalist religions. The problem is that, when we label a novel these things, we limit the audience for its story.

Offred is not the protagonist’s real name. She was given that name by the theocracy. We never discover her real name. Once upon a time, she lived with her husband, Luke, and her young daughter. Then the United States was overthrown by a theocracy. When the family tried to escape the new order, they were caught. Offred never discovers what happened to Luke or her daughter.

In the society this new theocracy has created, most women cannot have children. Those who have the potential to give birth are set aside as handmaidens (or concubines) for the upper classes. Offred is one of these women.

First she was taken to a re-education school, then she was placed in the Commander’s home. During her most fertile period, the Commander has ritualized sex with her to produce a child.

Atwood has used Orwellian elements in the society. The Eyes are reminders of Big Brother. The taboo against reading and words like grace and freedom are forbidden.

I was struck by how much the society paralleled certain societies these days with their religious police searching for any infraction of the rules. The society of Handmaid’s Tale has ritualized all relationships, using the rituals to prevent relationships. And infractions there are.

It seems that everyone at every level is bending or breaking the rules. The Commander breaks them by having private meetings with Offred and playing Scrabble with her. The Commander’s wife breaks the rules by offering to set Offred up with a sex partner who will make her pregnant because Big C is not up to the task.

It seemed to me that one of the major themes, if not the major theme, of the novel was the loss of intimacy. Women are not allowed to talk to each other, to create friendships. And men are locked into their roles as Commanders, Angels and Guardians. No touching allowed.

With the help of the Commander’s wife, Offred ends up having an affair with Nick, the chauffeur. If they are caught, they will both be punished. Appearing close to the end of the novel, she visits Nick. These lines gave me a sense of this lack of intimacy:

With the Commander, I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close. But now, here, each time, I keep my eyes open. I would like a light on somewhere, a candle perhaps…

The people in the society infringe on the rules because they are longing for intimacy, the intimacy of love and the intimacy of friendship. Maybe the loss of intimacy is the real reason behind the society’s sterility.

Atwood’s novel continues to be relevant. These days it is not some religious police that intervenes to prevent intimacy. It is technology. In this sense, Atwood has seen into the future and written a very prophetic novel, as prophetic as 1984, and maybe more so.