Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Thursday, July 5, 2012

How came my short story collection title - and a review of Mount Can't

When I arrived at the title of the first short story in my collection Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories, I meant for the sphinx to be like that at Delphi, a sphinx with riddles.  The first story is about the hierarchy of computer saavy.

The computer was a riddle in the1980s.  While finishing coursework for a graduate degree, I worked in university departments and must have tried the programs of about six manufacturers in one year.  Computers then were not standardized and often, employees in a department were struggling with manuals that to most, were in hieroglyphics.  I can still remember these manuals being handed around and then a group standing around the computer, attempting to interpret.  “Just press Escape” was often a solution, the Escape key having generic magic.

In my advanced creative writing program, I was the only one who wrote some of my work on a computer.  When asked about it, I said that my writing seemed less finished than on a typewriter. I could backtrack, delete, paste, and get myself confused with a new program.  Yet I knew writing with a computer had many advantages. 

The new language and icons reminded me of ancient Egypt although I hadn’t thought about that subject much since grade school.  I’d thought more about religion and one year, I gave up, feeling like the furrowed-foreheaded, trying to comprehend astronomy.  I said to myself, “The human brain isn’t made to comprehend God.  My cat pulls a book from my bookcase, copying me, but a human attempting to understand God might be like a cat trying to read a book.”

At the used antique and bookstore where I worked, The Cult of the Cat by Patricia Dale-Green came across the desk.  Looking through it, I found a papyrus picture of a cat reading hieroglyphics.  On closer examination, I saw that the cat was staring at a snake symbol.  Yet I thought this so funny that I photographed the picture and put it on my eBay used book site.  I didn’t know much about image use but one day, I googled the image.  Finding that I was using a Bodleian Library image in my eBay banner, I wrote to them, saying I was willing to pay the use of it for a few months and that I had removed it.  The permissions person wrote back and said they would like to try lending the electronic image for a year on eBay. They liked my bookstore there and gave me a deal.
So I got used to my Egyptian cat and then I began to read up on Egyptology.  I found it entertaining, like “The Flintstones” when I was a kid.  Egyptologists differed in their interpretations of that three-thousand year nation.  One source said they rubbed noses instead of kissing until the Greek period.  Their children’s illustration of the war between the cats and the dogs looked like Seuss.   Finally I read Herodotus, the only historian who answered the question I couldn’t fathom  - how those great pyramids could be built, using the labor they did.  In 2500 B.C. it would seem easy to flee such a civilization, especially if a person could build a boat.  The ridiculous project of 100,000 people laboring for one, according to Herodotus, somehow happened during the reign of wicked pharaohs.  He obtained this information talking to Egyptians in 500 B. C.  He didn’t say how these pharaohs could force labor but I think it may have been from either promises or fear.  He wrote of a machine they used in moving blocks up the step pyramids.  I’d thought the ancient people might have been impressed with technology and prosperity, that they flocked to Egypt the way people flocked to New York City.  Not so.  Those great pyramid pharaohs had oppressive power, perhaps from having more people on their side than on the laborer’s side.  Apparently, that’s why the pyramids were never built so high again.  Aristocrats leveled the pharaoh’s power by the tenth dynasty.

I made up my book title before I studied any of that.  So I wondered again about the title but liked it still.  The issues with the computer and the internet are really staggering.  I was very impressed at how the computer industry shared so much technology and made it affordable when they could have been elitist.  In the early 1980s, people thought the computer was being managed by dorks who were leading us into robotic life.  Surprisingly, the internet gave us identity after cities made us feel anonymous.

The stories in CuriosityKilled the Sphinx and Other Stories are usually modern dilemmas in which answers could be pessimistic or otherwise.  If we can imagine how to survive them.


My review this blog is of  Mount Can't by Anne Arlington, for those who like eccentric characters and historical parade.  I agreed with the first reviewer - "Unlike anything I have ever read" - very original!

Eccentric characters clash with government after the threat of a volcano disrupts a quiet village that attracts tourists for the historical interpretation done there. As the history employees try to preserve the integrity of their jobs and to suppress the rumors, they each belie their contemporary interiors. The doctor, the park manager, the funeral home director, despite their proclivities with eighteenth century hobbies, emerge in their desperation as men intent on outwitting the intrusion of the state. Enter Farrell, a woman hired to publicize. Her past relationship with Effen, a harpsichord player, brings on the sort of news that we read today.

The author is brilliant in portraying the odd turnarounds of these characters and she develops their quirks in the mounting tension. The present tense used throughout emphasizes their grasping of a quiet life, built on the colonial past of the village. This book is different, original, and all the while, the action is influenced by the world we know, causing a kind of madness to pervade. It has pathos, is funny, and it typifies our modern age.

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