Monthly Archives: October 2011

Pontoon Boat – by Garrison Keillor – from the collection: Leaving Home

I love the news from Lake Wobegon. Okay, every week seems to be a quiet week there, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a lot going on under the surface of the small town community. For those who aren’t familiar with the Lake Wobegon stories, they feature on Garrison Keillor’s radio variety program, A Prairie Home Companion which broadcasts on PBS radio. The stories revolve around a meek, god fearing community in Minnesota, whose people don’t like to show off and seem to get unhappy if everything is going their way. Basically, if you can understand what a Lutheran is, you have the key to Keillor’s Wobegon stories.

Keillor was a writer long before he was a popular presenter and his pieces read well on the page. I was lucky enough to be given the collections, Leaving Home and Life Among the Lutherans recently as a gift. I adore the Wobegon stories and have subsequently devoured both books. Keillor has a whole range of publications about Lake Wobegon though, including numerous novels. I had to pick one story to talk about, and I went with the one story that was duplicated in both collections. I know it’s a little show-offy to concentrate on the stand out story, and I’m not sure the citizens of Lake Wobegon would approve, but I settled on Pontoon Boat anyway.

Wally, the owner of the local bar, buys himself a pontoon boat to sail on the lake. He loves his boat but can’t show off to his patrons about it. He can only speak about how troublesome owning a boat is. However, he loves his boat and keeps inviting people out on the lake for boat rides. When Wally invites the mayor, Clint Bunson out, Clint remembers that a delegation of Lutheran ministers are coming to town and it would give them something to do to go out on the lake. The ministers arrive two months later, all 24 of them. The pontoon boat of course can’t comfortably hold 24 lutheran ministers, plus Wally and the mayor, but Wally doesn’t want to speak up and reveal himself as some type of ‘amateur sailor.’ So the overladen vessel sets out onto the lake, with the ministers politely crowded in the back. Of course, things go wrong, Fortunately the water is not deep. The story ends up with ‘Twenty four ministers, up to their smiles in water, chins up, trying to understand this experience and its deeper meaning.’ Just wonderful.

Thanks to the power of the internet, I can link a Garrison Keillor story right here. If you have  a quiet moment, sit back and enjoy the news from lake Wobegon.


Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Uncategorized


Nut Ward Just East of Hollywood – by Charles Bukowski – from the collection: Tales of Ordinary Madness

kamakura ofuna japan by masaaki miyaraBukowski. The best description I’ve heard said about him was that he was the poet laureate of skid row. Nihilism and alcoholism mix with Los Angeles poverty. He has a kind of understanding in his work that he is in the gutter and deserves to be there. My favourite stories of his read like diary entries, which I am sure they are at least partially. He drew from his own life, barely disguising himself in his stories as Henry Chinaski. Nut Ward Just East of Hollywood is narrated by Chinaski, but at times his first person narration will speak to the reader as he was the writer of the piece, saying that he’s telling the story and he’s happy to jump the narrative around the place.

The story doesn’t tell much. Chinaski lives in a squalid apartment, he is visited by Mad Jimmy who seems to be reasonable enough (at least when your only point of reference is Chinaski). However Chinaski says that Jimmy is wanted in court for breaking his girlfriend’s rib in a domestic argument.  Jimmy freaks out but only to the extent of boring Chinaski, so Chinaski rings their mutual friend Izzy to move Jimmy along. Izzy arrives and kicks Jimmy out, but not before stealing his bottle of wine. Afterwards Chinaski and Izzy settle in to get drunk.

That’s the plot, if one had to pull some sort of narrative backbone out of the piece. But what happens really doesn’t matter. It is Bukowski’s descriptions of everyone and his eye for detail, along with insightful oddness which makes one keep turning the pages. Chinaski is given two garbage bins by his landlord, but it is still not enough to hold all his empty wine and beer bottles, so he has to smash the glass first in a wooden box the shape of a coffin in the middle of his lounge room. Only some of the glass always escapes and cuts up his feet. His doctor is an ex-Nazi with stories of being captured by the allies and having stinkbombs and used rubbers full of ant poison thrown at him.

Does this piece deserve to be considered fiction? Yes. I am not sure if all the events described happened to Bukowski in one night, or if they were separate incidents taken from over ten years and merged together. Characters may be composites, one person in the room could be real, while someone else might be joined together from five separate people. I am sure there is no adherence to an accurate retelling of events, but an attempt to catch the documentary feel of an occasion by stitching bits and pieces together. I am sure he winds up with something more truthful than any incident that actually happened.

Yes, Chanaski (Bukowski) is a sexist, an alcoholic and a low life. But he also reads voraciously and listens to classical music. One does not excuse the other. They are all ingredients that go into the mix. In great darkness sometimes one can find great beauty.

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Posted by on October 13, 2011 in Bukowski, Charles


Standing Ground – by Ursula K. Le Guin – collected in Unlocking the Air and Other Stories

rally for planned parenthood by FibonacciBlueWhen I first borrowed the collection Unlocking the Air and Other Stories from my local library, I didn’t realise that I had, in fact, read The EarthSea series by Le Guin as a child. I had found Unlocking by running a catalogue search for short story collections and hers was one of the few the library had which I hadn’t already read (note to self: find a new library). Though she may be noted for her science fiction/ fantasy work, the stories in the collection are reasonably grounded in the current day. The collection I read only drifted as far as magic realism, which, while quite fantastical, didn’t have any wizards.

The story that I went to first, Standing Ground, seems to have lodged in my mind the longest. It was originally written for Ms magazine, a publication I’ve never read but feel I ought to have. Now that I know they have short stories in it, I might be inclined to pick one up in the future (that is if it’s still around). Standing Ground doesn’t shy from controversy. It is the story of two women going past protesters to access an abortion clinic. At first we think that there is a mother daughter relationship between the younger and older woman, and there is, only it is the other way round. Delaware is the teenage daughter of Sharee, a mentally handicapped woman and it is Delaware, who is there to support her mother.

Despite her disability though, Sharee is clear that she does not want the pregnancy as it is the result of date rape. Sharee can clearly see the difference between her first, wanted pregnancy of Delaware, and with the current one, thinking of it as: ‘Mac had hurt her, cut her, made this wound inside her.’ Sharee seems to be able to view the abortion procedure with a clarity lacking to those around her.

The story also focuses on the protestors outside the clinic. Mary and Norman. Norman is old and doesn’t like the restrictions placed on him by the church’s organising body who say how the protest is to be conducted. Mary thinks that Norman is a fool, and is going to get them into trouble the way he swings his protest sign about. Both believe God is on their side, but Mary and Norman dislike each other personally. Their bickering seems to contrast with the solidarity inside the clinic.

Standing Ground is not propaganda, but no doubt, being published in Ms, it would have sympathies towards the one side of the argument. It looks more at the difficulties the issue raises in people’s lives. I don’t know if I am doing Le Guin justice here by speaking about a literary short story when she is more famous for science-fiction stories, but having read Standing Ground, I have thought about it often since and wanted to share my thoughts about it. The good thing about this blog though is I can return to an author in the future and look at some of their other work, so expect a Le Guin science fiction piece sometime in the near to medium distant future.  (At least before 2020, I promise you.)

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Posted by on October 1, 2011 in Uncategorized