Tag Archives: stories

Thoughts on “Half-Witch” by John Schoffstall

One of my best friends sent me this book as a gift, and since he is someone whose opinions on literature I highly value, I promptly added it to the reading list; but when I discovered that he was listed in the Acknowledgements for his assistance to the author, I moved it to the top of the proverbial pile.

The book is a fantasy story about two girls, Lizbet and Strix, who are on a quest to retrieve a magical book. Their travels take them to some unusual places and the adventures strengthen their bonds of friendship.

After overcoming some dangerous challenges, the two girls have an interesting exchange regarding storytelling.

“We are travelers from over the Montagnes du Monde,” Strix yelled. “We have wonderful tales to tell, of thrilling adventures in our strange, foreign land!”

“We do?” Lizbet said.

“You almost had your soul blown out of you, remember? We fought off a murderer?”

“Those weren’t thrilling,” Lizbet complained. “They were terrifying and horrible.”

“’Thrilling’ is when awful things happen to someone else,” Strix said. “’Horrible’ is when they happen to you.”

(p. 127)

The perspective of the audience is integral in the sharing of stories. The storyteller can try to elicit certain responses from the audience, but ultimately how a story is received depends upon the listener. An individual’s experiences, likes and dislikes, personality traits, and so forth, all contribute to how that person will respond to a particular story, which is why some genres appeal to some people while others do not.

In order to complete the quest, Lizbet had to allow herself to become infused with negative characteristics, which were later removed.

“Are you sure you got every last bit?” Lizbet shrugged her shoulders and stretched her chest. It creaked, and armor plates rang against each other. “I think I can still feel something I don’t like. Something biting and restless, that wants to fight for no reason.”

“I got it all,” Strix said. “But while it’s in you, it changes you. That can’t be helped. Everything you do molds you, and squeezes you into its shape. Your heart always has the imprint of everything you’ve done, everything you’ve been.” Her voice was pained.

(pp. 310 – 311)

This is true. We are the sum of all our experiences, whether they are good, bad, or indifferent. Every action we take, no matter how trivial it seems, has a direct and lasting impact on who we become. Nothing happens within a vacuum. It would serve us well to internalize this truth.

That’s about all I have to share regarding this book. It was a fun read and I am glad that this book made it my way. Thanks for stopping by, and have a great day.

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Covid-19 and The Decameron

I confess that I have only read about half of The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio. But yesterday, I saw a friend’s Facebook post that included a quote from the text, which inspired me to reread the Introduction, which is relevant to what we are dealing with in these times of Covid-19.

So to provide a little background about this book for those who do not know about it:

The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of The Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Tales of wit, practical jokes, and life lessons contribute to the mosaic. In addition to its literary value and widespread influence (for example on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), it provides a document of life at the time. Written in the vernacular of the Florentine language, it is considered a masterpiece of classical early Italian prose.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Boccaccio describes how the plague originated in the East and then spread to the West, eventually infecting people in Florence, similar to the advent and spread of our current pandemic.

I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of one thousand three hundred and forty-eight, when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.

(p. 1)

Boccaccio then details the initial response, how the city restricted entrance by individuals showing signs of infection. This is the same as the initial response by the US and many other countries as the virus began to spread.

In Florence, despite all that human wisdom and forethought could devise to avert it, as the cleansing of the city from many impurities by officials appointed for the purpose, the refusal of entrance to all sick folk, and the adoption of many precautions for the preservation of health; despite also humble supplications addressed to God, and often repeated both in public procession and otherwise, by the devout; towards the beginning of the spring of the said year the doleful effects of the pestilence began to be horribly apparent by symptoms that shewed as if miraculous.

(p. 1)

Next, he describes how the infection was not only passed from sick to healthy persons, but that the germs also survived on materials and could be contracted that way.

Moreover, the virulence of the pest was the greater by reason that intercourse was apt to convey it from the sick to the whole, just as fire devours things dry or greasy when they are brought close to it. Nay, the evil went yet further, for not merely by speech or association with the sick was the malady communicated to the healthy with consequent peril of common death; but any that touched the clothes of the sick or aught else that had been touched or used by them, seemed thereby to contract the disease.

(p. 2)

Finally, individuals are described as going into “voluntary exile,” essentially social distancing until the threat of contagion has passed.

Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they were also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estates, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.

(p. 3)

The social distancers of Boccaccio’s time passed the time by telling stories. Thankfully, we have tools of communicating which were not dreamed of in 14th century Italy. We can share our stories via phone calls, video conferences, social media, and numerous other platforms. In times like this, the stories we share matter. They allow us to stay connected to our humanity. This is why I continue to write here and share with everyone.

As you are staying home, I encourage you to talk with people you know, reach out to those who may be alone, and help each other through these difficult times. Stay safe!

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The Symbolism of the Doors in “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

This was probably my most anticipated book of 2019. A while back, I read The Night Circus by Morgenstern, which instantly became one of my favorite books and the one I most frequently recommend to people asking me for suggestions regarding books to read. I actually preordered this book so I could get it the day it was released. Now, with books that you have high expectations for, sometimes it is hard for them to meet those expectations. But while The Starless Sea is not as good as The Night Circus (a difficult book to surpass, in my opinion), it was still excellent and well worth the read.

The book is a tale rich with symbolism that traces a young man’s discovery and journey into a subterranean realm populated with stories.

Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tales laid in tiles upon the floors, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers. Stories catalogued and cared for and revered. Old stories preserved while new stories spring up around them.

(p. 6)

This image symbolically describes the human collective unconscious, that vast repository populated with all the stories and myths that have existed or will come into being. Every writer, poet, artist, and musician seeks to tap into this reservoir of inspiration, and some, like Morgenstern here, attempt to describe it. But it can only be described symbolically, since the wellspring of artistic creativity is something that exists beyond our comprehension. But we all sense its presence, just below the surface of our psyches.

While art can be a reflection of the mystical source of consciousness, it also has the ability to draw the audience into the realm of the mystical through the use of symbols. The door is one of those symbols, representing the transitional space between ordinary reality and the deeper realms of the subconscious.

The son of the fortune-teller knows only that the door feels important in a way he cannot quite explain, even to himself.

A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.

He traces the painted lines of the key with his fingertips, marveling at how much the key, like the sword and the bee and the doorknob, looks as though it should be three-dimensional.

The boy wonders who painted it and what it means, if it means anything. If not the door, at least the symbols. If it is a sign and not a door, or if it is both at once.

In this significant moment, if the boy turns the painted knob and opens the impossible door, everything will change.

(p. 13)

Doors to the subconscious exist not only in art, but they can manifest spontaneously anywhere in the world, instantly transporting an unsuspecting individual into the proverbial Wonderland of an altered state of consciousness.

There are numerous doors in varying locations. In bustling cities and remote forests. On islands and on mountaintops and in meadows. Some are built into buildings: libraries or museums or private residences, hidden in basements or attics or displayed like artwork in parlors. Others stand freely without the assistance of supplemental architecture. Some are used with hinge-loosening frequency and others remain undiscovered and unopened and more have simply been forgotten, but all of them lead to the same location.

(p. 61)

There is a very subtle yet extremely important warning hidden in this passage. Morgenstern writes that some doors “are used with hinge-loosening frequency.” I interpret this as a caution to those who use consciousness-expanding drugs as a portal to glimpse the hidden realms of the subconscious. Just as doors can become unhinged, the human psyche can also become unhinged when thrown open too frequently through the use of certain chemicals. While it can be difficult to seek out the undiscovered doors in remote locations, it seems a much more prudent path for those seekers of deeper knowledge.

As William Blake famously asserted in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” The Starless Sea is yet another door for us to enter into the infinite and ineffable expanse of the human creative spirit. And now the wait begins for Ms. Morgenstern’s next novel.

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Hellboy Omnibus Volume 2: Strange Places

The more Hellboy I read, the more I appreciate the quality and depth of these graphic novels. This volume is brimming with literary and occult references: H.P. Blavatsky, the kabbalah, the tetragrammaton, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” just to name a few. So while the books can be enjoyed solely for the entertainment value and the artwork, there are also layers of references and symbolism that deeper readers will find engaging.

In the book, the conqueror worm becomes a symbol for the cyclical decline of the human race, out of which a new race of humans will ultimately evolve.

… and we are all to be nothing but food for a conquering worm. It’s true. The worm is ringing down the curtain on the human race. For a while now all will be gravel and smoke. But look back to the beginning. Mankind was born out of that kind of smoke. The first race of man, the pre-human Hyperboreans… and that was mankind’s golden age… And when the polar ice crushed that world, a new race of man raised itself up from the beasts. The second race. Human… Atlantis. Lemuria. Sumeria. Babylon. Human civilizations come and go, but the human race has endured. Down long, hard centuries…

(pp. 196 – 197)

A symbol that I find very fascinating is the crossroads, and Mignola uses it nicely in this text.

You are now standing at the very crossroads of your life. And all your roads lead to strange places.

(p. 237)

This speaks to me on a personal and global level. From a personal perspective, I feel like I am at one of those points in my life where things are changing, and my life, stable for many years, is now filled with uncertainty and disruption. Not that this is bad, in fact it is good, but it is strange. And on the global level, I sense that the world is at a crossroads, that our entire reality is about to change, and we will all be thrust into a “strange place,” regardless of which road we collectively traverse. These are strange days, indeed.

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Thoughts on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I was searching the tables in a book store a while back, as I am wont to do, and came across this book. I had read The Buried Giant by Ishiguro and loved it, so I decided to give this one a read, especially since it was one of the books that influenced the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017.

The story follows a group of friends from a special school, whose students face a grim future. While the main plot of the story is thought-provoking, it is the subtle explorations of humanity that makes this an incredible work of art. I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it, but I will say this deserves a spot on everyone’s “must read” list.

OK, let’s take a look at a few passages that stood out for me.

“But that wasn’t all,” Tommy’s voice was now down to a whisper. “What she told Roy, what she let slip, which she probably didn’t mean to let slip, do you remember, Kath? She told Roy that things like pictures, poetry, all that kind of stuff, she said they revealed what you were like inside. She said they revealed your soul.”

(p. 175)

I have always believed this. Art provides a way for an individual to express aspects of their being that cannot be conveyed through standard conversation. And yes, stories and poems are comprised of words, just like common speech, but it is what is unsaid, the cadence of the language, the metaphors and symbolism, which all combine to allow the artist to share something so deep that only a poem or well-crafted story could possibly come close to imparting that hidden part of the self to another human being.

I’ve thought about those moments over and over. I should have found something to say. I could have denied it, though Tommy wouldn’t have believed me. And to try to explain the thing truthfully would have been too complicated. But I could have done something. I could have challenged Ruth…

(p. 195)

In this passage, Kathy is remembering how she participated in the psychological bullying of her friend Tommy by staying silent and not speaking up. It is a painful lesson that too many of us learn the hard way. I learned it when I was quite young. I had a friend named Mason, and one day, a kid who usually bullied me directed his anger and hatred toward my friend instead, and I did nothing, grateful for the respite from my own torment. But the real torment came afterwards, when Mason confronted me for not standing by him. I made some lame excuse, but he was wise enough to see right through it. It’s a memory that haunted me for a long time. But I learned a valuable lesson, that silence is not acceptable when facing injustice. Not taking action makes you just as guilty in the end.

“… You built your lives on what we gave you. You wouldn’t be who you are today if we’d not protected you. You wouldn’t have become absorbed in your lessons, you wouldn’t have lost yourselves in your art and your writing. Why should you have done, knowing what lay in store for each of you? You would have told us it was all pointless, and how could we have argued with you? So she had to go.”

(p. 268)

This is the ultimate existential dilemma. We all know what’s in store for us. So what’s the point? Why struggle like Sisyphus? For me, it is precisely my lessons, my art, my writing, and my relationships with the people I love that give this life meaning. And in fact, knowing that death is inevitable makes me cherish my limited time here. It inspires me to do things that have lasting meaning and value. It’s not the end that matters. All ends are the same. It’s what you do while on the road that gives life meaning.

To sum up, this book is powerful, disturbing, inspiring, and elegantly written. If you have not read it, I highly recommend doing so. His Nobel Prize is certainly justified.

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Hellboy Omnibus Volume 1: Seed of Destruction

So over the years, I have read numerous off-shoot and stand-alone issues of Hellboy, but had not read the primary arcs, which was why I was excited when I heard they were publishing an omnibus series containing the complete saga. This first volume contains five stories, as well as some artist sketches and a little bit of history about the development of the characters and story. The stories are brimming with material that interests me: paranormal investigation, the occult, conspiracy theories, mythology, social criticism, and so forth. And the great storytelling is augmented with artwork that fits well with the overall theme. Also, what is so cool about this book is that Mike Mignola is both writer and artist, an impressive accomplishment.

While all the stories in this volume are great, I want to focus on the last one, “Almost Colossus,” which explores concepts of God, science, the relationship between creator and creation. It’s kind of like a reworking of the Frankenstein story.

Anyway, couple quotes that are worth sharing.

“Brother, you think these humans are our betters. Not so, believe me. We two are the triumph of science over nature. Mankind to us should be like cattle, ours to use for whatever purpose we decide. We are not monsters, but the future and the light of the world!”

(p. 304)

Here we have a classic expression of hubris. The created, or creature, begins to feel superior to the creator, and employs scientific logic to back up the claim. I see this as symbolic of the human impetus to feel godlike through the acquisition of knowledge and power. And not just equal to God, but greater than God.

“Today the light of the world will be born again, and from this day forward mankind will bow and scrape before the God of Science.”

(p. 318)

This is a definite reference to the Prometheus myth, as well as the myth of Lucifer as the light bearer. Science has replaced God for many people in this age. And although I consider myself a spiritual person, and have faith in a divine consciousness, I confess that I find myself irritated at people who disregard scientific evidence because it conflicts with their established religious beliefs. As much as I hate to admit it, I too often bow before the God of Science.

While this book has challenging ideas woven in, it is still a fun and entertaining read. If you are a fan of the graphic novel genre and have not read Hellboy, I highly recommend checking it out.

Thanks for stopping by, and have an incredible day.

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Thoughts on “The Queen of the South” by Arturo Perez-Reverte

I found this book a while ago while visiting a university campus for an event. There was a display of books for the taking, asking a mere 25 cents each donation, so I picked this and a few others and left my dollar. I had decided to grab this one because I had read The Club Dumas by Perez-Reverte years ago and loved it, so I figured I would check this one out. It sat on my shelf for a while, but I finally started reading it. It took me a while to finish because of all the other stuff that’s been happening, but I finally completed it and am ready to share some thoughts.

The book is classified as an “intellectual thriller” and it’s about a woman who becomes involved in the drug trade and works her way up to a position of power. There’s a lot of intrigue, as well as some twists, which makes it an interesting read.

There are some psychological themes that are explored in the book, and I thought about focusing my blog post on those, but then I opted to write about another theme that is near and dear to my heart: books and reading.

While doing a stint in prison, Teresa, the protagonist, starts reading, which has a profound impact on her life.

“Books are doors that lead out into the street,” Patricia would tell her. “You learn from them, educate yourself, travel, dream, live other lives, multiply your own life a thousand times. Where can you get more for your money, Mexicanita? And they also keep all sorts of bad things at bay: ghosts, loneliness, shit like that. Sometimes I wonder how you people that don’t read figure out how to live your lives.”

(pp. 163 – 4)

While I believe that there are life lessons that you cannot learn from a book, I also believe that the knowledge and experience shared through books are indispensable when navigating life’s winding roads.

Reading, she’d learned in prison, especially novels, allowed her to inhabit her mind in a new way—as though by blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction, she might witness her own life as if it were happening to somebody else. Besides teaching her things, reading helped her to think differently, or think better, because on the page, others did it for her. Although it was also true that with novels you could apply your point of view to every situation or character. Even to the voice that told the story: sometimes it would be that of the narrator, either with a name or anonymous, and sometimes it would be your own. She had discovered with surprise and pleasure that as she turned each page, the book was written, as though for the first time, all over again.

(p. 189)

While I don’t know if I believe that reading blurs the “boundaries between reality and fiction,” I think that reading acts as a mirror, that books reflect our human experiences and allow us to examine them from a new perspective. Additionally, we all bring our own experiences to what we read, and therefore, books and poems take on different meanings for different readers based upon their individual histories. But, like Teresa, I often project myself into stories that I read, and that feeling is what resonated strongly for me when I read this paragraph.

I’ve heard it said that everyone has a book within them, waiting to be told. Essentially, we all have a hidden story, a personal tale, so to speak. This is a realization that Teresa has later in the book.

Then he poured more vodka, until the bottle was empty, and it occurred to Teresa that every human being has a hidden story, and that if you are quiet enough and patient enough you could finally hear it. And that that was good, a lesson that was important to learn. A lesson that was useful, above all.

(p. 244)

This is definitely true. If you listen and allow people the space to become comfortable, they will eventually share their story with you.

While I personally feel that The Club Dumas is a better book, this one is definitely worth reading. I also hear that there is a TV series based on this book. I may have to check that out.

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