A third week of short reading recommendations, as you escape your house/office for a mug of joe on the porch–the book I finished yesterday, an article about writing fantasy, and a Netflix movie review.
Yesterday I finished reading Unlonely Planet by Billy Curry. Having canceled our plans for international travel in October, this book gave solace. I think of the author as Billy because he comes across as good-natured. Unlonely Planet is Billy’s memoir of a journey from Nepal to Brazil with many countries in between. Throughout the book, Billy’s very personal, unapologetic, and relaxed approach to travel is delightful.
Humble roots, an outdoor life,
trudging and trekking,
twice lightning, once
So now when traffic,
snarling and winding,
stops dead. I have envisaged
minutes left on my timer.
Kindku from Unlonely Planet
page 31 of 235
Melancholy men, they say, are the most incisive humorists; by the same token, writers of fantasy must be, within their own frame of work, hardheaded realists.
Once committed to his imaginary kingdom, the writer is not a monarch but a subject.
I love the movie Secondhand Lions. According to the internet, this movie (2003) is based on a memoir, Unstrung Heroes, by Franz Lidz, a book loved by Lidz’s readers. I hope to be one of them someday.
I can watch Secondhand Lions over and over again. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine play two eccentric uncles who reluctantly agree to care for their teenage grand nephew, Walter, one summer. Even though this movie is about two old men and a boy on a farm, adventure is not lacking. There’s a lioness, piles of cash, and many villains. If you have overlooked Secondhand Lions on Prime or Netflix, stop doing that.
Inspired by Walter’s terrible mother, I searched for more stories about bad parenting. I found this article “The 10 Crappiest Parents in Literature”. My vote is King Lear for the worst father, and I’m still searching for the worst mother. I would love to know your thoughts–please comment and follow. I seem to be making Back Porch Reading a regular thing.
More recommendations for short reading, as you escape your house/office for a mug of joe on the porch–a kindku, a short story by Charlie Fish, and a short story by me.
Kindku Brain Break
From this post by Word Craft〜Prose & Poetry, I learned what a kindku is and then wrote one. This was a brain break for me. I chose a page from a book I had just finished reading, Love and Summer by William Trevor, and did my best with following the rules. The kindku has seven lines, 43 syllables, and a positive tone.
Garden tools rust on the lawn.
The blackened doorbell,
stranger things are known,
sounds. We’re restless on
razor’s edge for the door’s
sentimental, you greet us.
From page 52 of Love and Summer by William Trevor
Short stories are good back porch reading. Since I am playing with words this week, I thought “Death by Scrabble” by Charlie Fish fit the theme and the heat of these dog days. Having once been an avid scrabble player, I did find this story amusing.
The second short story, also set in the dog days of August, is called “Red, Luck, and Blue”. I used two prompts from the Reedsy Prompts Contest: 1) Write a story about another day in a heatwave; 2) Write a story about someone’s popsicle melting. After some consideration, I did not enter the contest, mainly because I don’t like following contest rules.
Red, Luck, and Blue
Some people are lucky. That’s what Karen’s new friend, Bridget, said to Susan as they stood together on Karen’s lawn. Susan looked around at the place Karen had bought six months ago after her divorce. It came with a burbling brook, a spacious green yard, an outdoor patio, and plenty of space for a garden.
Already a small crowd was gathering on the deck. Balloons and streamers, still up from the Fourth of July, adorned the porch railing and framed the guests in that space.
Half a dozen children were escaping the heat. Shoes off, they splashed in the gurgling water.
The day was blistering. Susan had her hair clipped up, but no breeze cooled the sweat trickling from her hairline down her neck, down her spine, and down the backs of her legs. She wondered how Bridget could eat that chicken wing. Of the entire grand spread of food, watermelon was the only thing she had tasted.
“How so?” Susan asked.
“Well, first she wins that money, and then she buys this place,” Bridget spelled out.
“You have to play to win,” Susan said. Karen had done just that to the tune of being thousands in debt before she hit the big one.
Susan smiled at the image in front of her. A small girl, wading in the brook, held tight to a red, white, and blue popsicle, which was melting down her hand. An older girl, her cousin, told her to switch and wash the sticky hand in the stream. The younger had none of it. She seemed to think she would lose the her treat if she let go.
Sixty yards across the grass, a silver car pulled into Karen’s driveway. Recognizing it, Susan made an excuse and eased away. She tried to appear relaxed as she headed towards the back of the garage. Once there, she loitered, pretending to admire Karen’s flower bed. The garage blocked her view of the driveway; soon, however, the car’s owner came into view on the deck.
Susan slid around the corner of the garage. Although Susan had not meant to do it, she was avoiding Karen’s ex-husband, Len. When she reached the driveway, all was clear. Len had left the deck.
From the driveway, Susan could hear Len’s voice. It grated on her nerves. She wondered how to say goodbye to Karen and not run into Len. Maybe she could hang out in the house until Karen came inside.
As she crossed the driveway past Len’s car, Susan noticed a package sitting on the passenger seat. She glanced again toward the party. Some guests were sheltering under the deck awning; others were supervising children or enjoying the water themselves. Len was down at the brook.
Susan tried Len’s passenger door. It opened. As though by reflex, she snagged the box and shut the car door. She pulled her keys from her dress pocket, unlocked her trunk, and seconds later, secured the package under a blanket. Her heart pounding, she entered through the front of the house to the kitchen.
Karen was rooting through a drawer. She pulled out scissors.
“What are the scissors for?” Susan asked.
“I’m going to cut down the streamers,” Karen said.
“There’s Labor Day,” Susan answered.
“I’m not having a party then.”
Susan recognized Len’s influence. He liked to pick at Karen for every little thing. Upon arrival, could he be normal and compliment some detail, the food, the flower beds? Who but Len cared about tatty streamers?
Susan knew not to argue. “I’m going to take off,” she said.
“I have a project I’d like to finish today.” It wasn’t a lie. Her project was the theft of Len’s package.
Driving home, Susan reflected a tiny bit upon her motives. She was mostly an honest person. She couldn’t even remember the last time she had stolen something. Did curiosity explain why she had checked Len’s car door? Possibly. Was thrill-seeking the reason why she had stashed the package in her trunk?
Her husband was on his way out when she returned home. He had new friends now that he was done with Len. What had started as Len burning bridges to his childhood friends would probably end with the loss of Susan’s thirty-year-old friendship with Karen. Most people, when they get divorced, separate everything about their lives. Karen kept letting Len come around.
Susan changed out of her dress into shorts, a t-shirt, and her garden shoes. The garments stuck to her moist skin. She gathered her gloves, a rag, and a shovel and headed to the woodpile in the back yard. After removing part of the stack, she dug a hole, about a foot square, where the wood had been.
That accomplished, Susan retrieved the package from her car. It weighed about three pounds. Shaking it, she heard muffled clinking. The box was not taped for mailing as she had first thought. It had been opened and taped again. There were no identifying markings.
The package did not fit entirely in the hole. Susan dug out a few more shovelfuls. The second time the fit allowed for more room around the package. She tossed dirt onto it and smoothed the ground level. After she had stacked the wood back over the spot, she wiped off the shovel with the rag.
Though she knew she was behaving like a criminal, Susan included the dirty rag with another bunch and washed them. After a shower, she opened a beer and watched one of her shows.
The next morning Karen called. The party was great until the end, she said. Len discovered a package missing from his front seat and blamed Karen. She and Len had gotten into a heated argument. Karen had threatened to call the cops if Len didn’t leave.
“What was that about?” her husband asked.
“Same story,” Susan said.
As she peeled potatoes for salad, Susan observed the small wildlife in her tiny yard–squirrels, a cardinal, a tiger swallowtail. She let her eyes rest upon the woodpile and imagined what might be buried under it. She hoped whatever was in that box was irreplaceable
Enjoy your weekend! Stay cool, and say no to Scrabble.
Take note of the publication date. Be aware there is much mention of people and events of the past. If you are unable to identify Daniel Webster, Judge Hathorne, or John Calhoun, you may want to make use of this Wikipedia article (spoiler alert). I recommend you read the story before looking up anything.
Three former presidents spoke at the funeral for John Lewis on July 30. I read each of these speeches rather than listening to them. An orator’s greatest weapon is his or her voice. Often, when listening, I, distracted, do not catch all of the words.
I am so very happy that English is my fist language. I am trying to learn another language, Spanish, but the more I explore it and teach English as a second language, the greater my pleasure for having English as my first language. Why? Because English makes no sense!
Oh sure, to those of us who are native speakers it makes perfect sense. We just memorize it and the rules. We study phonics, memorize the letter sounds and sight words and practice using them all together in one happy concert of language. But as I teach it to children overseas and get the pleasure of dissecting it for learners of all ages, it really makes no sense!
Now, before anyone takes offense, think of the basics of English, you know, phonics. Phonics is the relationship of letters to sound. Simple, right? First you start with the ABC song. You know…
Murder ballads lurk on the dark side of folklore. From The Twa Sisters, an old Northumbrian song, to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, written and sung by Bob Dylan, murder ballads narrate what happens when selfishness, jealousy, abuse, and revenge come into play. Paul Slade describes murder ballads as “tabloid newspapers set to music,” which “never stop mutating.”
Down by the River
In a murder ballad, taking a walk can be dangerous as in an old bluegrass song Banks of the Ohio. Songwriters give their twists to this song’s basic plot. Edwin, also known as Willie, lures his girlfriend away to the river or to the field, where he stabs her to death. The woman’s refusal to marry the young man is the motive, or, as in Down in the Willow Garden, the murderer’s father tells him to kill Rose Connelly. In Young Florilla, Florilla begs for her life and even forgives Edwin, but he still kills her. Lack of motive or madness as reason is also present in Neil Young’s Down by the River. In older songs, the unspoken cause may be an unwed pregnancy.
In some songs, as in Young Florilla, narration alternates between the murderer and his victim. In Where the Wild Roses Grow by Nicholas Cave, the dead Elisa Day and her murderer tell the tale. Equal opportunity murder occurs in Olivia Newton John’s version of Banks of the Ohio, where the woman commits the crime. Versions of Delia’s Gone sometimes give sympathy to Delia, 14, or, as in Johnny Cash’s account, the viewpoint is from the killer who describes Delia as “low down and trifling,” and the “kind of evil make me want to Grab my sub machine.”
Songs from the killer’s perspective end with either the killer running away or caught and awaiting his punishment. As Marty Robbins sings in El Paso, “I had but one chance and that was to run,” or the Kingston Trio in Tom Dooley, “When the sun rises tomorrow, Tom Dooley must hang.” A third outcome is that the killer is justified as in Frankie and Johnny by Jimmy Rodgers. Frankie says, “Lord he was my man and he’s done me wrong.”In a traditional ballad, Duncan and Brady, Duncan shoots Brady dead in what appears to be self-defense. A more recent murder ballad, Goodbye Earl by the Dixie Chicks, tells how Mary Anne and Wanda turn Earl into “a missing person who nobody missed at all” before he can put Wanda back into the hospital or worse.
Goodbye Earl is a fun song unless you are Earl or someone like him. Two other songs about women getting revenge are Janie’s Got a Gun by Aerosmith and Two Black Cadillacs by Carrie Underwood. Maybe there is some justice for Florilla, Elisa Day, and Rose Connelly in the lyrics of these modern-day songs.
Murder ballads of yesteryear cover a range of murderous motives from unrequited love to cheating lovers to escape from abuse. As in Tom Dooley, the murderer can even claim innocence. Artists also sing about senseless murder, crimes without motive. The Grateful Dead has a song, Me and My Uncle, where the motivation is greed, but what is the reason for the death in Country Death by the Violent Femmes?
Because sensational current events are often the inspiration for murder ballads, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska and Shankill Butchers by Colin Melroy of the Decemberists follow tradition in singing about senseless killings. Is it a comfort to know that Americans are not the only violent people? Shankill Butchers are an Ulster band of killers who sharpen “their cleavers and their knives” and ride out to kill Catholics but end up slaughtering their own too. This ballad warns that the Shankill butchers “used to be just like me and you”before “something went horribly askew.” In Nebraska, a young man takes his girlfriend along on a ride to gun down strangers. Told from the murderer’s point of view, the convicted killer is on his way to the electric chair and answering the age-old question why: They wanted to know why I did what I did/ Well sir I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.
Older, misogynistic songs turn young women into victims for daring not to marry a man. Poor Delia might not be the best person, but she is judged for being evil and killed for it. Judgmental murderers also kill Brady, Catholics and Protestants, and a cheating man (Two Black Cadillacs). Sometimes the deed seems justified like the deaths of Earl and Janie’s father. In all cases, the police, if summoned at all, do not arrive until after the deed is done. Is a common underlying theme to all these various ballads an underlying disdain for the law or its ability to bring justice?
Drawn to the macabre or the dark comedy in these songs, are we seeking answers about our inner selves? If I felt deeply wronged, would I shed blood? Would I ever let the darkness override my conscience? Would I put myself above the law?
Thank you to my daughter and husband for their help with this article. There is a wealth of useful information out there on this topic. See these websites.
A nerdy paper I much enjoyed writing had a catchy title, something like “A Discourse Analysis of the Narrative Joke”. It featured my father-in-law, Brad, the best joke teller I have ever known personally. He told me several jokes which I recorded and then analyzed.
Not many people tell long jokes. I would love to do so if not for the uncomfortable fact that I don’t remember them. I’m still stuck on knock-knock jokes. Who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Ba-na-na-NAH.
Though many things can make us laugh, not all of them are jokes. Jokes differ from other funny occurrences by being much more generalized and always prepared. A joke consists of the set up and the punchline. Its content can be dirty, clean, or offensive; its structure is of either the riddle or narrative variety.
Knock-knock jokes are an example of the riddle form. Easy to remember and good for a quick laugh, the riddle type of joke may be the most common. The set up is pitched as a question with hopefully no response. The teller can then gleefully deliver the punchline.
Pause please, I’m looking for jokes about Coronavirus and I’m finding plenty of articles expressing indecision over whether or not it’s okay to laugh at Coronavirus jokes or memes, but I’m not finding any actual jokes. Do people think that a meme takes the place of a good riddle joke? A picture with a funny caption is much like a cartoon, is it not? Here are some examples of riddle jokes:
Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?
She wanted to wash up on shore.
What do Princess Diana and Pink Floyd have in common?
Their last big hit was the wall.
Let’s not overthink this. Riddle jokes are almost always in poor taste. Regardless, we laugh. We can’t help ourselves. But context is everything with a riddle joke, and if you don’t know who Natalie Wood was or can’t remember how Princess Di died, then there is no humor here. Sigh. What is the world coming to when there is so much funny fodder and no good riddle jokes?
If the riddle joke is a lost art, say it isn’t so, then I might also be out of luck trying to find a good narrative joke. So I’m going to tell one of my father-in-law’s jokes, preserved not by memory but transcribed in my notes. These are his actual words, real, live words, so please excuse the grammar. I hear his voice as I type them.
The Lawyer and the Sharks
Then they tell the story about the doctor and the lawyer and the priest who were out on a fishing boat about two hundred yards off shore. The tide was going out from the island. All of a sudden their motor broke. They went to use the oars that were in the boat and they were rotten. They had never been used and they just fell to pieces.
So there they were about 200 yards offshore, the tide was coming out, they were getting washed out further to sea and they said, ‘Well, I guess we could swim for it. Two hundred yards isn’t too bad.’
Then this pack of hunter sharks came in and started circling the boat. And they were getting washed out further from the island. So finally the priest said, ‘Look, I’ll offer up my best prayer to God,’ and he said, ‘I’ll swim to shore, God will protect me. I think the sharks will let me alone.’
By this time there’s quite a crowd watching them from the beach. So the priest dove into the water. Well, he didn’t get five strokes until the sharks were all over him and a frothy, bloody stain came to the top of the water and that was the end of the priest.
Then the doctor said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve spent my lifetime helping mankind.’ He said, ‘Maybe God’ll protect me.’ So he dove in and he didn’t get six strokes until, same thing, blood and froth and bits of skin and hair flying in the air. That was the end of the doctor.
So the lawyer, of course he waited until last, but then he jumped in and he just swam right to the shore and the sharks just parted for him as he went along. And when the lawyer got to the shore and he walked up on the beach, the local residents came running down to him and said, ‘How did that ever happen?’ and they said, ‘That wonderful priest and that wonderful doctor, the sharks ate ‘em up.’
The lawyer said, ‘Simple. Professional courtesy.’
Most of the story jokes that I could find on the internet were not nearly as long as the ones my father-in-law used to tell. (Yes, sadly, he passed in 2004.) He loved to embellish his stories with little details and comments like the one about the lawyer being the last to go. Brad was an obstetrician/gynecologist at the top of his field who didn’t appreciate lawsuits over events where nature had taken its course. What you have to understand about Brad is that he could tell this joke to a lawyer friend and definitely get a laugh.
The same key components which occur in the structure of a story–orientation, evaluation, complicating action, and resolution–also take place within the structure of the narrative joke. Repetition is vital to the minimal structure of the joke due to its reinforcement of key points for the listener who may not have gotten it all the first time. Introduction and transitional phrases, plot and vocabulary are all repeated.
In the plot of “The Lawyer and the Sharks”, three is an important number. The three professionals think of three ways to get to shore–the motor, the oars, and swimming; and three times something goes wrong all of a sudden. Then the same three men take turns diving into the water.
The sequence of threes establishes a pattern and the breaking of that pattern feeds into the unexpected. The lawyer, for example, does not say a prayer but jumps into the water and is unharmed. This is unanticipated. In the joke the unexpected follows the breaking of the pattern and sets up the listener for the joke’s punchline which, if you knew Brad, you should have been expecting.
How many Irishmen does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
After I published this post, I found The Big Apple 300+ Coronavirus jokes. Where did the Terminator find toilet paper? Aisle B, back. And more!!
Follow My Blog
Please subscribe or leave a comment by returning to my Home Page and entering your email address. I post about twice a week–one article and one chapter.
A Summary of “Smallpox fears stir memories of heavy toll Indians suffered” by Donna Healy
A Billings Gazette article from 2003 discusses how smallpox was spread among Native Americans especially the Blackfeet and Crow tribes. Significant to our present situation with COVID-19, smallpox was a disease well-known and constantly present in Europe, but deadly to native Americans who had no prior exposure and no immunity.
One myth about the spread of smallpox to Native Americans is debunked. “Intentional infection” is not documented says Michael Casler, a park ranger for the Fort Union Trading Post National Historical Site, but it seems not much aid was provided either. Warnings to natives to stay away were misinterpreted and at least one inoculation attempt proved disastrous.
Native Americans had their own methods for coping with smallpox: isolation, suicide, and sending their children on spirit quests. Those whose tribes were wiped out by the disease might have joined other tribes.
The short story “Bon-Bon” is strange, and I admit that I do not entirely understand it. I have read it because it is a devil tale and because it is American, written by none other than the illustrious Edgar Allan Poe.
Bon-Bon is a successful French restaurateur who is engaged in writing a philosophical treatise on the French philosophy of his day. Apparently, Bon-Bon is an expert at philosophy, and if only he did not drink so much, maybe he would finish his book. The devil visits Bon-Bon for reasons unknown to me. Is he looking for a soul to eat? Is he particularly interested in tasting the soul of a philosopher?
Poe describes the devil as tall and skinny and wearing worn clothing made for a shorter person. Most of his head is bald except for the very long hair reaching down his back. Even though he wears “green spectacles, with side glasses,” he has no eyes. Besides the spectacles, he carries two other items on his person: a stylus and a little black book.
Bon-Bon is not at all disturbed by the identity of his visitor. Instead, he sees an opportunity to learn about philosophy. The devil critiques Bon-Bon’s book as “clever” but needing improvement. He says that Bon-Bon’s “notions” remind him of Aristotle, who had only hit upon “one solid truth in all that he has written.”
As their conversation progresses, Bon-Bon becomes increasingly drunker while learning nothing useful about philosophy and too much about which souls the devil finds tasty. Bon-Bon discovers only that his soul is not a shadow or a stew or a soufflé. It is a fricassée.*
The drunk restaurateur is quite all right with having his soul be a fricassée and offers it to the devil. But the devil refuses it, saying that he is well supplied at the moment. What then was the devil’s intent in visiting Bon-Bon? Perhaps, the devil is a kind of chef and has work to do on Bon-Bon’s soul before it is ready to eat.
*The meat in a fricassée is cut into pieces, braised, and then served with a white sauce.
You don’t need me to tell you that Washington Irving (1783-1859) is a famous American author. In school most of us read at least one of his short stories–“The Devil and Tom Walker”,“Rip Van Winkle”, or “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.
Stories where the devil offers a deal in exchange for a man’s soul are common. The deal is made, but then the man (or woman) thinks better of the bargain and tries to cheat the devil. Sometimes he succeeds like Johnny does in the song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”. Although the devil has preyed upon Johnny’s weakness, pride, Johnny’s arrogance is proved valid when he defeats the devil in a fiddle duel.
Washington Irving’s Tom Walker is not as lucky or clever as Johnny. Miserable, miserly Tom Walker has no God-given talent coming to his aid. To escape his bargain with the devil, Tom “prayed loudly and strenuously, as if heaven were to be taken by force of lungs.” Do Tom’s prayers save him? Irving’s story is well worth the read if you are unsure of the answer.
Folktales are stories that have been passed orally down through generations. By this definition “The Devil and Tom Walker ” does not qualify as a folktale since it is written. But, this story, and others like it, are based upon the same traditions, themes, and morals as the older tales. Maybe they can be categorized as folk narratives, a much broader genre that covers myths, fairy tales, and jokes.
I define my own narrative, The Devil and Ella Davis, as a folktale novel. Ella Davis is abducted from her middle age back to her youth in order to pay her great grandmother’s debt to the devil. Although my tale is influenced by time travel and alternate history fiction, its Irving-inspired title aims to establish it as a folk legend.
Let all the griping money-brokers lay this story to heart.
— Narrator in “The Devil and Tom Walker”
Follow My Blog
Please subscribe by returning to my Home Page and entering your email address. I post about twice a week–one article and one chapter. Leave a comment below.