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What I didn’t See
2021/10/04 09:12
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Writer:

Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestseller digs into our past, present and future in the quiet , witty and incisive way. With clear and insightful prose, Fowler’s stories measure the human capacities for hope and despair, brutality and kindness.

 

“Halfway People” invents a fairy-tale world for her son; “Booth’s Ghost” haunted by his fame as “America’s Hamlet” and his brother’s terrible actions;” Norah” faces a rebellious teenager torture in the World Fantasy; “The Pelican Bar” confronts Shirley Jackson Award winner to Mama Strong, the sadistic boss of a rehabilitantion facility; “What I didn’t see” narrates her recounting descents.

 

Story:

What I Didn’t See is a collection of Karen Joy Fowler’s short stories, the first such collection since 1997’s Black Glass. Most of the stories in this collection have been published elsewhere, with the oldest (“The Dark”) first published in 1991 and the most recent (“Halfway People”) in 2010. So it’s unsurprising that they don’t immediately form a unified collection. However, while it would be reductive to say that literature is Fowler’s subject, this is a frequently recurring thread that is useful to hang on to.

The title story, “What I Didn’t See”, was published in 2002. This story about a group of people on a gorilla hunt in the 1920s does not on the surface show allegiance to any particular genre. Despite this it won a Nebula award in 2003. While not visibly SFnal in itself, the story is in conversation with one of the great short stories of the genre, James Tiptree Jr’s “The Women Men Don’t See”. Tiptree’s story is about alienation, both with regard to race and (primarily) gender and to actual aliens. Fowler’s narrator, unlike Tiptree’s, is a woman who becomes in part complicit in the unseeing of women. (r.2)

Reviewed by Annie Clarkson
This collection was gripping from the start. The opening story, The Pelican Bar, has a sassy teenage character Norah. She is defiant, difficult and perhaps like many teenagers we know. Only this is not a typical story of adolescence. Norah is taken away to a sadistic boot camp and the norms of expected society are skewed and pushed to the extreme. It’s a compelling read, shocking and gratuitously detailed.

Many of Karen Fowler’s stories take us into such dark places, whether they are buried in war tunnels in Vietnam or in the darkness of a fairy tale. They contain abductions, abuses, assassination, cults, and war. At times they are magical or surreal, but the writer grounds her stories in such vivid physical details ("skin rashes, eye infections, aching teeth, constant hunger, stomach cramps") that they feel all too real. And the feelings of paranoia, jealousy, humiliation, love, fear are so ingrained into the characters of these stories that they seep into the reader.

Every story reaches its mark. There are moments, perhaps where a reader might feel unsure where a story is going, or feel a little lost. But, always, we are brought around. By the end all momentary doubts are transgressed as we realize, this writer knew where she was taking us all along.

There are two stories that concern Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The first is from the perspective of the John Wilkes Booth’s family and is beautifully written. Fowler writes gripping historical stories that bring us intimately close to the times and geographies of her characters. The second is from the perspective of a girl whose mother owned the boarding house from which the assassination was planned and executed. It is a very different perspective on the event, and brings us a subjective view of a girl in love with the man who killed him.

All stories in the collection are powerful, but The Dark stayed with this reviewer for a particularly long time. It opens with a series of seemingly unconnected strange incidents occurring years apart in Yosemite. Then we follow Keith, who is researching bubonic plague and we are taken to different parts of the world and times exploring pandemics. Finally we go to Vietnam where Keith is testing rats for bubonic plague in tunnels. The narrative skips around and our imagination bridges the gaps between the different places and people, until we become infected with Keith’s paranoia about the wild boy in Yosemite, and Victor the strange "tunnel rat" in Vietnam. It’s an energetic story that fires all our synapses and leaves questions that left this reviewer wanting to immediately read the story again.

There are no obvious stories in this collection. All of them take unexpected trajectories. They are collectively witty, quirky, strange, beautiful, disturbing, mythical, original, and authentic. We can follow the decline of a grandma with Alzheimer’s in the same book as witnessing a gorilla hunt in the Congo. Rather than take a theme, or an overall narrative arc, or focus on a certain part of the world, these stories take in diverse subject matter and geographies. This means we are can never be sure where we are or what each page might bring. This is eclectic approach to a collection is exciting, and steers us away from the safer approach that many other collections take.(r.1)

 

“The Pelican Bar” is a short about Norah, an unruly teenage girl who is sent by her parents to a Mama Strong’s facility designed to to correct unruly behavior via physical and psychological torture the teenagers. However, Norah must undergo a long and difficult ordeal while trying to maintain her sense of self-identity. The story explores themes of human nature, self-interest, and identity.

 

Highlights vs self- reflection:

1.Science is observation. African produces no scientists.

2.p.176: Simple darwinism could expect a social arrangement of monogamous married couples or whether the male would all have harems.

3.p.182:silent rather unvogivable.

No clue to find the problem

4.p.182:every day is a blessing of the long life.

Cherish each day

5.p.166:the blacks have not noticed. Science is observation and Africa produces no scientists.

6.p.166: seizure of the woman i dismiss as superstition and exaggeration

7.p.166: The spiders in Africa are exhilaratingly aggressive. Many of them have fangs and nocturnal habits

8.p.166: In those days all gorilla hunts began at Lulenga

 

Golden Sentence:

1.Trees are as close to immortality as the rest of us ever come.

2. In everyones life there are people who stay and people who go and people who are taken against their will.

3. The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once youve gone over that cliff. Saying nothing was more amendable, and over time Id come to see that it was usually your best course of action.

4. When I run the world, librarians will be exempt from tragedy. Even their smaller sorrows will last only for as long as you can take out a book.

5. Im unclear on the definition of person the courts have been using. Something that sieves out dolphins but lets corporations slide on through.

6. I wonder sometimes if Im the only one spending my life making the same mistake over and over again or if thats simply human. Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?

7.p.188: The older I get, the more I want a happy ending.

Conclusion:

1.Porters got chained and beaten,

2. Like red dimond, saving gorilla’s life do scarify some lives.

3. I think the one about the immortality cult and the one about the teen sent away for brainwashing boot camp will stick with me.

4.p.174: “we’ll never see them as we’re dressed. Our clothes make too much noise when we walk. Civilization is a boundary to the nature.

5.p.178:Never shoot gun angry

6.p.178:Russel has beaten her to them, so strange why Russel need to beat her to show this to gorillas?

7.p.182: There is nothing new under the sun and maybe all those women carried by gorillas, maybe they all freely chose it? To be harem of the gorillas? That’s really unbelievable.” a woman who becomes in part complicit in the unseeing of women.”(r.18) Just like Beverly disappeared, and no one found it out, Even when Edie’s wife found out that Beverly already gone with the wind!

8.p.83:”The world is full of people who couldn’t be convinced of cold.” Why needs to be convinced the cold? So many people don’t use their sense at all. They better believe what they see than to other’s persuation. Death couldn’t convince them, their insane trail to becoming their own believers.

9.p.87:fell in love with a shrub oak.- what if we are fooled by our feeling? How to trust the feeling when others feel she is in danger?

10.p.91: no one of the immortals left always during the trial-we are responsible for our deeds.

11.p.164: “you are never alone in the jungle.” We are part of the nature

 

Vocabulary:

obituary

problematization

inherent sexism

tribune

menstruel

spill of sunlight

vicinity

harem

infinite

vacated

parable

chowderless

diverged

postmistress

coquettish

overly lenient

sidle

frisky

allegiance

complicit

 

Questions by Clive:

The twelve short stories included here have a rare authenticity about them—they feel just strange enough to prove true. This effect is heightened by Fowler’s sly mixture of the real and the invented. Published here for the first time is “At the Pelican Bar”: This is one of the most depressing stories ever written, or at least that Ive read. Its concept, of a rebellious teenage girl who is sent to a "reform school" where she is essentially tortured until she turns 18 and cant be legally held any longer, is all-too-realistic, sadly. Even the fact that, in some sense, she doesnt break under what she experiences hardy makes it triumphant.  I don’t think it is useful to read all of the stories or discuss them. 

“Booth’s Ghost”: A really quite touching semi-autobiographical semi-story of the family of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, focusing on his brother Edwin but generally covering the familys response to one of its members suddenly becoming a byword for evil.

“The Last Worders”: An interesting story of the bond, not always affectionate, between twin sisters. The made-up city of San Margais, where the story is set, its invisible river, and its poetical civil war given the story a kind of Borges feeling. Raphael Kaplinsky doesn’t really work, though.

“The Dark”: A rather weird mashup of a feral-child story, a Vietnam war story, and a disquisition on the plague, which doesnt entirely hang together.

“Always”: A quite well-done cult story told by a member who accepts that she was indeed a cult but seems fairly unconcerned about that, plus some musings about immortality.

“Familiar Birds”: This story doesnt have much too it, in the end: Daisy and the narrator don’t like each other but there’s not much of a story and since they’re both kids we don’t necessarily get to know them. Theres a hint of the fantastic here, but thats all.

“Private Grave 9”: This is a nice twist on an Agatha Christie story, featuring a mystery writer who has come to an archaeological dig to try to find materials for a murder mystery set at an archaeological dig and thus is slowly creating the conditions for such a murder. Plus, the narrator may not be quite sane. Another story with just a hint of the fantastic.

“The Marianas Islands”: Mostly about the narrator’s grandmother, who was an interesting woman with a submarine, but theres not much of a story as such.

“Halfway People”: A retelling of Hans Christian Andersens fairytale "The Wild Swans", recentered on some brand-new characters. Interesting and well-done.

“Standing Room Only”: JW Booth, again, but this time with a focus on the daughter of one of his co-conspirators, Anna Surrat. However, she isn’t really interesting enough to carry the story, and the time travel angle is played a little too subtly.

“What I Didn’t See”: Probably the best story in the collection, a problematization of old-fashioned "Dr. Livingston, I presume" African exploration, with its negative effects on both the natives and the wildlife, and its inherent sexism.

“King Rat”: The collection closes on a rather dark note, with an autobiographical (maybe?) story which isn’t really a story about a Norwegian friend of the author’s family and his family tragedy.

 

Questions:

1.      "The Pelican Bar" is hard to forget but is it because the story says something that we should hold onto about the utter extremes of human experience and strength?

2.      “The Pelican Bar” tells us the story of Norah, who is sent off to a special boarding school the day after her fifteenth birthday, but like all of Fowler’s stories we never know who abducted her and why the abuse? 

 

3.      Fowler has two short stories that revisit Lincoln’s assassination from an entirely different perspective.  She has admitted that she is very interested in it and many Americans are.  Why does Lincoln hold such a fascination for Americans?

There are two stories that concern Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The first is from the perspective of the John Wilkes Booth’s family and is beautifully written. Fowler writes gripping historical stories that bring us intimately close to the times and geographies of her characters. The second is from the perspective of a girl whose mother owned the boarding house from which the assassination was planned and executed. It is a very different perspective on the event, and brings us a subjective view of a girl in love with the man who killed him.(r.16)

- Stockholm syndrome is an emotional response. It happens to some abuse and hostage victims when they have positive feelings toward an abuser or captor.(r.17)

 

4.      "Always," is one of the finest stories in the collection, not only features one more early twentieth century female who "doesnt see”: the narrators boyfriend convinces her to join a cult that promises immortality, and, even though she remains a believer after the cult itself has completely disintegrated around her.  Why do people want to live forever?

p.87:“the war served the purpose of corporations and politicians so exactly that there would always be another one and another, until the day some president or prime minister figured out how to declare a war that lasted forever. Wilt said he hoped he’d die before that day come.

 

5.      Some people claim that only the weak are drawn to cults. Is this true?

“The line between delusion and what the rest of us believe may be blurrier than we think.”

“its a mixture of wanting self-improvement and community, as well as timing.”

‘cult a set of rules that let certain men get laid-Fowler”

 

6.      If there is a weak point in this collection, I would not assign it to any particular story, but rather to what I would describe as a more general problem of ending apparent in a few otherwise excellently written and excellently constructed narratives.  Is this the key to a wide dislike of short stories, that the endings often feel unsatisfactory?

“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”
― 
Lorrie Moore

 

7.      Many of the stories talk about the idea of “belonging”.  What is it about belonging that drive people to do things and say things that may not be who they are?

"Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are."

- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

 

8.      Fowler often paints a beautiful painting with the words but some of these stories left me cold.  Which ones struck you as powerful and which ones didn’t connect with you?

(what I didn’t see)

P

.182: There is nothing new under the sun and maybe all those women carried by gorillas, maybe they all freely chose it? To be harem of the gorillas? That’s really unbelievable.” a woman who becomes in part complicit in the unseeing of women.”(r.18) Just like Beverly disappeared, and no one found it out, Even when Edie’s wife found out that Beverly already gone with the wind!

Book Club Meeting: October 4, 2020.   (by Clive)

What We Didn’t See

Today was a treat.  We gathered to discuss Karen Joy Fowler’s stories which were all highly challenging and thought-provoking. They often deal with scientific and historical themes (or both), and many start from those ‘what if’ ideas that many members appreciated or found interesting. Her fascination with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln is explored in not just one but two stories. Her infatuation runs so deep that she doesn’t see the events that are about to unfold.  Fowler borrows from horror, mystery, and even folklore.  She rewrites fairy tales and even does a passable Agatha Christie.  All of these stories share a common thread in their uneven characteristics and how much discussion they provoked.  Fowler often feels like some stranger you meet on a train who narrates these bizarre tales that are disturbing yet comfortable. Carol enjoyed The Marianas Islands” and talked about how the narrator sounded like a distant relative relating old family tales that on one hand seem impossible but on the other just might be strange enough to be true.

Of course, one of the biggest draws for me was the title story “What I Didn’t See.” This story generated a lot of controversy with Lily, Lydia and Emma because it seemed the message the author was giving us was not immediately clear.  I think most members could say something positive and negative about each and every story in this collection.  I can’t thank the members enough for participating so actively in discussion of a challenging book.  Fowler uses the strange as a way to illuminate the normal and for many members it didn’t always hang together well.  However it was great to have the chance to discuss stories that were so different from the stories we have read before.  Emma ended our meeting with a quote by Lorrie Moore, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”  

 

Related Reading:

1.review: http://www.theshortreview.com/reviews/KarenJoyFowlerWhatIDidntSee.htm

2.review: http://globalcomment.com/review-karen-joy-fowler-what-i-didnt-see/

3.Mount Mikeno: https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%B1%B3%E5%87%B1%E8%AB%BE%E7%81%AB%E5%B1%B1

4.why kill gorilla: https://kknews.cc/zh-tw/science/mmvgj39.html

5.Berunga; https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E5%B8%83%E5%80%AB%E5%8A%A0

6.Karen Joy Fowler: https://www.karenjoyfowler.com/what-i-didnt-see

7.quotes from Karen Joy Fowler: https://www.azquotes.com/author/17770-Karen_Joy_Fowler

8.questions: https://www.kpl.gov/uploadedFiles/Books/Book_Club_in_a_Bag/guide-we-are-all-completely-beside-ourselves.pdf

9.review: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8130322-what-i-didn-t-see-and-other-stories

10. Pelican Bar review: http://www.bookrags.com/The_Pelican_Bar/#gsc.tab=0

11.Castle abd dragons: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VGFbsHhQWnQ

12. The pied piper of Hamlin: https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%8A%B1%E8%A1%A3%E9%AD%94%E7%AC%9B%E6%89%8B

13.Lulenga: https://geographic.org/geographic_names/name.php?uni=-2847823&fid=1014&c=congo_democratic_republic_of_the

14.why cult: https://www.insider.com/why-people-join-cults-according-to-therapist-who-treats-survivors-2020-9

15.perfect woman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Perfect_Woman_(1949_film)

16.short review: http://www.theshortreview.com/reviews/KarenJoyFowlerWhatIDidntSee.htm

17.stockholm syndrome: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockholm_syndrome

18.Book review:

https://globalcomment.com/review-karen-joy-fowler-what-i-didnt-see/

19.Agatha Christie: https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E9%98%BF%E5%8A%A0%E8%8E%8E%C2%B7%E5%85%8B%E9%87%8C%E6%96%AF%E8%92%82

20. Lorrie Moore: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorrie_Moore

Dear All,

 

Many thanks to Clive for writing the October Book Review - "What I didnt see"  to us.

 Book Club Meeting.docx

 

Great news that my classmate, Nora, join our book club, she is an experienced career lady, she used to be a purchasing manager in a Foreign company and also engaged in teaching work in a public elementary school, now she is retired. 

 

We are very pleased that the pandemic of Covid-19 in Taiwan has gradually alleviated, the restaurant also starts to open and return to normal, so our Nov. meeting, we will go back to Quibit Cafe.  we are so sorry that Faye, the host in November, is still staying in New Jersey, so our discussion time for the Nov. meeting, we will start one hour ahead and the meeting will be finished in an hour, but we still can continue to discuss for the part of our Kaohsiung group. We feel sorry that the inconvenience causing to everybody.  

 

Due to one year is going to the end, we need to pay our annual fee for 2022 again, NT$1500 for KIWC as a welfare fund, NT$500 for our book club. 

 

Every October, we also need to remind you, we start to collect your recommendations for the 2022 book list, we shall appreciate it if you can recommend any good books for us.  The deadline for the recommendation is Nov. 12. Please recommend eagerly.

 

Nov. Activity:

Book:    Grit - The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Author:  Angela Duckworth

Leader:  Faye Wang

Time:    12 noon, November 1, 2021

Place:   Qubit Cafe (Hanshin Arena) No.6, Lane 50, Bo-Ai 3 Road, Zuo Ying District, Kaohsiung.  Tel:07-3459477

            高雄市左營區博愛三路506

 

We can start to have lunch before 12 noon, discussion time, or you can have lunch while we are discussing. We look forward to seeing you soon, please let me know if you are absent.

 

Florence Cheng - Correspodent

 

 

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