Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Reading Dostoyevsky Short Stories

I have a lot of literary classics on my shelves. Too often, however, I get caught up in reading the latest and greatest in modern literature to take a step back and enjoy something timeless. So it was with great interest that I dove into two collections of Fyodor Dostoyevsky short stories. These two books contained a few of the same stories, but were not completely similar. There were 13 short stories in total, but three were in both, leaving 10 unique short stories from one of the greatest names in Russian literature.
Dostoyevsky is a difficult read. Not because it is overly dense or dry – although one of the stories was incredibly dry, individual breakdown later – but because Dostoyevsky’s work comes from a period where male figures were the end-all, be-all of the story. Only in a rare case in these stories are women treated decently. Not well, just decently. Throughout the selection, women are bullied, beaten, mentally tortured, and overly doted upon. To put in modern parlance, there are serious incel themes in Dostoyevsky’s short stories. Enough for me to have to research what other writers have already written about Dostoyevsky’s possible issues with women. Granted, I only read 10 short stories of his incredibly prolific selection but there was a too many occurrences to discount. 

Let’s look individually at a few of the 10 stories I read: 

White Nights – This was the only story I had read before. Years ago, I remember enjoying this story but upon a second read, the main character definitely has social problems. In this story, a male loner meets a sad young girl along one of his nightly walks. Despite her telling him she has a love interest, he claims to fall in love with her over the course of a week. While her current beau is out of town, our loner protagonist keeps her company and they do get to know each other. When she claims she doesn’t know if her interest will be returning, the main character suggests she write him a letter. There is a delay in the love interest’s reply, disappointing the young lady and making the main character think he has an opening in the life of the one woman he has ever talked to ever. After the delay, the love interest returns and the main character resigns himself to the lonely existence he had before with no interest in finding anyone new. 

Did 19th century St Petersburg have that bad of a social scene or was the main character that anti-social that he, in his 20s, could not imagine finding anyone else? He only knew this girl for a week and he was convinced she was the girl of his dreams and that there would be no other opportunities for a relationship. Dostoyevsky captures incel thinking here generations before the term became popular. 

The Christmas Tree and a Wedding – This story was disturbing for a modern reader. It was short in the book I have, at barely 12 pages. But its content made me feel somewhat dirty and incredibly annoyed. This story begins with a socialite attending an end-of-year party for the pre-teen daughter of a prominent gentleman. While there he notices another socialite, this one with a sour-temper and poor demeanor. This second character attempts to make good with the prominent gentleman and tries talking to the young girl. The narrator thinks it odd, but continues his own socializing. Five years later, he walks past a wedding. When he looks inside, he recognizes the bride as the same young girl, now 16, and her husband as the poor demeanor, sour-tempered man from the previous party. The narrator describes the young bride as disinterested, teary-eyed, and looking for mercy. 

I guess this was commonplace in 19th century Russia but reading about a teenage girl who was courted then married to an evil man by the age of 16 is creepy. I realized Dostoyevsky writes about the downtrodden and the mistreated often, but the acceptance of the situation by the narrator made me do a double take. I had to re-read the final page where the narrator notices the couple, sees the young girl’s plight, but still walks out of the church and goes about his business. The young girl has no agency, rather she is a pawn between the rich father and the opportunistic antagonist. 

Notes from the Underground – I really did not like this story. The first half was the rambling of an anti-social man with severe social anxiety. The second half was his description of events leading up to him being completely anti-social. It reminded me of the movie Taxi Driver and there are others who make that connection. Perhaps I should appreciate Dostoyevsky for creating the genre of disgruntled, frustrated men who look negatively at the world’s progress. Maybe if I was more like that, I would appreciate it more, but that’s not me. 

While the comparisons to Taxi Driver are apt in the first half of the story – which really could have been cut or switched with the second half – the second half of the story is even closer to Scorsese’s film. After 50 pages or so of his anti-social screed, the narrator tells a story of how his life with severe social anxiety. He has few, if any, friends, he over-analyzes every interaction, and tries far too hard to impress people. When they either react or fail to react, he completely misreads their opinions of him. After completely fumbling an attempt to socialize with past classmates, he gets drunk in their company and desires to fight the leader of the group. When he gets to their watering hole ready to fight, he finds no one but a prostitute. He sleeps with her, then goes on a rant, insulting and degrading her. He then offers to help her and get her out of her lifestyle. 

Following those events, the prostitute does find him and looks to better herself. But instead of being the hero, his social anxiety again flares and he breaks down in front of her. After she realizes he is social imbalanced and only talks a good game, she leaves. He returns to his over-analyzing and anti-socialness. 

Again, Dostoyevsky gets credit for popularizing and breaking ground with the anti-social anti-hero, but I finished this story thinking this character seriously needs help. 

A Gentle Creature – Another horrible main character and another tragic woman. Again, our narrator is a male with serious social problems. This story starts with a man sitting next to the body of his deceased wife, who has recently committed suicide. That might be a sympathetic premise if not for the fact that he mentally tortured her. For some reason – perhaps it was the culture at the time – our narrator has a complex about owning a pawnshop. He is also battling guilt for not being as aggressive during his time in the service as those in his unit. He takes both of these guilts out on his wife. 

Of course, just as in The Christmas Tree and the Wedding, the main character of A Gentle Creature is a creepy man, this time in his 40s, with an obsession with a younger bride, again 16. I struggle to think how these two could have interacted as husband and wife. He chides her for her immaturity and passion, not realizing that she is not an adult, at least by modern standards. He often mentions that he has to break her of her old ways of thinking. His methodologies include lying to her, ignoring her, and not telling her any of his faults until it is too late. While he does this, he also holds over her head the broken family and poor circumstances she came from. 

There is a scene in this story that is reminiscent of a scene in another Scorsese film, Good Fellas. Struggling with her abusive husband, the young girl takes a gun and points it to the main character’s head in an attempt to kill him and end their marriage. Whereas Henry Hill grabs the gun from his wife, the main character in A Gentle Creature lays silent, calling her bluff. When she fails to pull the trigger, he congratulates himself for breaking her down again. 

The torture eventually gets to the young girl and she throws herself out of an upper floor window, plummeting to her death. After she is gone, the main character remains clueless, not realizing the amount of stress he put on her. 

I am so curious as to Dostoyevsky’s inspiration for this story. Another story in which I ended up despising the main character. 

Akulka’s Husband – This story was very short, only 10 pages, so I will keep the review short. But it is just as disturbing. The main character is a young man in prison who tells the tale of why he is incarcerated. In his younger years he associated with the local bully. Being from a poor family, he thought this was the best way to gain prestige. After the bully claimed to have slept with a local rich man’s daughter, the main character joined the bully in belittling the girl, calling her unpure and a whore. Their torments caught on throughout the town, making her undesired by any other man. The main character’s mother, knowing the girl’s reputation, tells her son to marry the girl so they can be part of a richer family. When he does, he faces the wrath and ridicule of his friend, the local bully. 

During the course of their marriage, the main character finds out that the bully never did sleep with his now wife. When he accuses the bully of lying, the bully flips the narrative and tells the husband that he was drunk during the ceremony so there is no way he was in his right mind during the vows or the consummation of the marriage. The main character agrees with the bully, claiming again that the bully is his best friend. The idea that he might have been tricked into wedding the girl infuriates him and he repeatedly beats her until bringing her in a field and slitting her throat. 

When the authorities find the wife, they arrest the husband, and put him in prison. 

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man – Lastly, here is the only story in the entire collection I actually liked. In this story, a sullen man is taken on a trip to an alternative Earth after meeting a young, unfortunate girl. This story was vastly different than the previous stories as instead of trying to save her, the negative main character blows her off and goes home to ponder suicide. Thinking the world is worthless and he equally has no place in it, he stares at his pistol until he falls asleep. 

He dreams that he shoots himself in the heart and his spirit flies through space and lands on an alternate Earth where there is no science, no religion, no power, no money, and most importantly, no struggling. There are only people joyously celebrating being alive on this Earth. Unfortunately, his pessimistic attitude about life sullies the society and eventually they fight, create divisions, and suffer. For his sins, he wants nothing more than for them to kill him. But they do not. 

When he awakens, he realizes that the joyous Earth was better than the Earth he came from. Although his friends and neighbors think his story of another Earth is ridiculous, he changes his entire perspective on life and attempts to make the world a better place, to include finding the young girl and helping her. 

This had sort of A Christmas Story plot, although instead of three ghosts, our main character is taken to another planet. I will have to see when Dickens wrote A Christmas Story compared to when Dostoyevsky wrote The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. I also need to look up the science fiction influence. I did not expect to read the idea of flying through space in a 19th century Russian short story. 

Overall, I wasn’t very impressed with Dostoyevsky’s short stories. If you were keeping track, there were five stories about men whose interactions with women ranged from lovelorn to abusive to murderous. Only in The Dream of a Ridiculous Man did the man do the right thing after being inspired by a female interaction. Ironically, it was the interaction that was the shortest and the one that was rejected by the man that created the most enlightened character. 

Of the two books of Dostoyevsky short stories I own, I will probably only keep the one with A Dream of a Ridiculous Man. The other book will probably be traded or donated. The less incel lit I have, the better.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Great Book Signing at Hello Again Books in Cocoa, Florida

On May 28th, I had another awesome book signing event. This time I was at Hello Again Books in Cocoa, Florida. 

I was really excited about this event as Cocoa is close to my parents' house and it was an opportunity for them to see me doing my author thing. My mother came by as well as my brother. I also had several friends come by, many from high school and some who have moved into the area through the years.

Years ago, my mother used to own her own bookstore. I used to think that I was at least as good of a writer as the worst writer in that store. That was my motivation to write a book and have it published. I wanted to be on the shelves of bookstores. 

To not only be on the shelves, but to be signing books and to have bookstores promote me as an event is icing on the cake. It is a very cool feeling. One that I doubt will get old any time soon.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Returning to the Crossroads and Selling My Debut Novel

In 2009, I took a trip to the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I journeyed there after five days in Memphis with no plan and no idea what to expect. As luck would have it, I arrived during the Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Music Festival. I had the pleasure of not only exploring Clarksdale, but also seeing some great local bands and meeting some great local people. Clarksdale was one of the highlights of that great adventure.

Thirteen years later, I finally returned to the Crossroads. This time, I brought my debut novel, Curveball at the Crossroads, which was highly influenced by my first trip to the Mississippi Delta.

I published the 2nd edition of Curveball at the Crossroads in November 2021. One of the biggest changes between the first and second edition is the new cover designed by famous blues artist Grego "Mojo Hand" Anderson. Grego was great to work with and did an amazing job capturing the essence of the book in the new cover. Best of all, I was able to piggyback on Grego's reputation to open more doors for the book. 

One of those doors was with Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues Folk Art Store in Clarksdale. Roger carries a lot of Grego's art, so I knew Cat Head would be a logical fit for my book. After emailing Roger and sharing news of Curveball at the Crossroads, Roger agreed to order copies of my book and we discussed a possible book signing. He recommended I visit during the 2022 Juke Joint Festival. After looking up the event, I quickly bought my plane and event tickets.

Not only was I visiting Clarksdale again, but I was also having my first out-of-state book signing. 

To make things better, Clarksdale is Curveball at the Crossroads' spiritual home. I believe every book has a spiritual home. It could be the author's home, but it might not be. It might also be where a scene of the book takes place, but it also might not be. A book's spiritual home is the place that inspired the book. For example, if a visit to medieval castle inspired me to write a wrote a fantasy tale of knights and elves that took place in an imaginary kingdom, then that real life castle is my book's spiritual home. Although Curveball at the Crossroads takes place in Rosedale, Mississippi, Clarksdale is definitely its spiritual home.

Because I booked so late - I did not realize hotels for the Juke Joint Fest fill up a year out - I ended up in an Airbnb about an hour away in small Como, Mississippi. According to wikipedia, Como has a total area of two miles and is home to 1,200 people. Much smaller than my current home of Tampa, Florida.

Despite of, or perhaps because of its size, Como was the perfect place place to stay. It was quiet, it was serene, and my host and the guest house I stayed in was amazing. Couldn't have asked for a better place, even if my drives back from Clarksdale along Mississippi's dark, two-lane highways were kinda creepy. But that's part of the fun, and who knows, it might be the inspiration for another book or at least another scene.

I arrived in Mississippi on a Thursday afternoon. After checking in and unloading my bags, I drove to Oxford, Mississippi, home of the University of Mississippi and, more meaningful to me, Square Books, one of the most famous independent bookstores in the Southeast.

Square Books was everything I thought. A cozy, two-story bookstore in the middle of the town square, Square Books had a perfect mix of current best sellers and regional authors. After giving them a copy of Curveball at the Crossroads to sample, I bought a small pile of new books for my own collection. With luck, they will like Curveball at the Crossroads and I will be making a return trip to Square Books soon.

After grabbing a beer at an Ole Miss bar and eating dinner at a southern diner, I returned to Como to plot my weekend in Clarksdale. My book signing at Cat Head in Clarksdale was scheduled for noon, so I knew I had to leave early and get up even earlier. So after planning and plotting, and getting some new reading done, I called Day 1 of my adventure a success and went to sleep.

I woke up the next morning, ate breakfast, got ready, said hello to the horses outside the guest house, and headed down to Clarksdale. Not knowing how busy Clarksdale or Cat Head specifically would be or the parking situation for the festival, I arrived an hour early. Although I got a good parking spot a short walk from Cat Head, Clarksdale was already buzzing. Bands and bluesmen were already playing and tourists were already milling about, buying t-shirts, festival programs, posters, and other blues memorabilia.

Clarksdale is not a very big town. Bigger than Como, but not very big compared to other metro areas. Downtown Clarksdale, home of the Blues Museum, the Ground Zero Blues Club, Cat Head, and several juke joints, is only a few blocks. But due to a decline in the national and regional economy, Clarksdale relies on its music festivals to generate revenue. Even though the Juke Joint Festival wasn't officially starting until Saturday, there were already several vendors and food stands on the streets of downtown Clarksdale. And wherever a performer could fit, there was someone playing the blues. They played in front of stores, in stores, on corners, on the railroad tracks, and even on the back of trucks. Live music was everywhere.

After briefly checking out the scene, I walked into Cat Head. Roger was already busy, but found the time to set me up in a front corner of his store. He had several copies of my book already in his store, so I grabbed all his copies for my table. I also brought several copies signed by cover artist Grego "Mojo Hand" Anderson.

Within five minutes of setting up, the first customer walked to my table looking to buy a book. When he saw I also had two Curveball at the Crossroads posters that I was using for the table, he offered to buy one of those as well. First customer, first sale. Also sold a poster to boot.

Customers ebbed and flowed through Cat Head for most of the early afternoon, perusing the shelves, checking out the wares, and for many, walking to my table to see what I had to offer. Within the first hour, I sold the copies Mojo Hand signed and was running low on the other copies. Over ten books were gone in the first hour. I was excited.

By the end of the second hour, I was out of books. Every copy Roger had in his table of books was sold. People were excited to talk baseball and blues. Among the customers who visited my table was Michael Kinsman, head of the San Diego Blues Festival. Michael and I talked about future orders and his idea of presenting the book to prominent blues media writers he knew. Not only did he buy a book, he wanted more to share with others!

All in all, it was a fantastic book signing. I did not expect to sell out. Even Roger admitted maybe he should have ordered more. But, on the other hand, two hours is a good amount of time for a book signing. I had the rest of the day and the rest of the festival to enjoy.

For the remainder of Friday, I walked the streets of Clarksdale, consulting my festival program on which bands will be in which bars when. I saw some absolutely fantastic acts, from acoustic street performers to full electric bands, culminating with Ted Drozdowski's Coyote Motel. Coyote Motel was blues with a stoner groove. Very cool stuff. In a bit of coincidence, one of their better tunes was called "Josh Gibson", after the 1930s Negro League baseball star. So baseball and the blues started and ended my day.

Driving back to my Airbnb Friday night was another adventure. The roads from Como to Clarksdale formed a square, with Como in the northeast corner and Clarksdale in the southwest. To return to Como, I could go north first, then west, or west first, then north. I decided to retrace the path I took to Clarksdale, heading north first, then west to return to Como. What I did not think about, however, was how dark and lonely those two-lane Mississippi highways were. Rural Mississippi at night is complete darkness. Ain't nothing out there but you, the road, the woods, and graveyards.

I woke up Saturday morning, again said hello to the horses, and drove back to Clarksdale. I started the day seeing renown bluesman Terry "Harmonica" Bean. Terry Bean was a must-see for me. Not only because of his music, but because of his backstory. Back in the 1980s, Terry Bean was a can't miss baseball prospect from the local high school. Legend has it, he could throw over 90 miles an hour with both arms, and was as good a pitcher as he was a hitter. He was the real deal with a ticket to the pros. Then it all came crashing down with an injury to his right arm.

If that sounds familiar, it's because it is the backstory of JaMark Reliford, the main character in Curveball at the Crossroads. Except, whereas JaMark made a deal with the Devil to return to baseball, Terry Bean followed in the footsteps of other family members and became a bluesman. He has been playing the blues ever since, travelling the roads and performing in small bars and juke joints throughout Mississippi. Along the way, he has become an encyclopedia of the region, blessing listeners with stories of how life used to be in the Delta.

Following Terry "Harmonica" Bean, I met with my old friend "St. Louis" Frank Chambers. Frank is another walking encyclopedia. He used to travel from St Louis to Clarksdale regularly until moving permanently to Clarksdale years ago. I met Frank at the Riverside Inn in Clarksdale during my first visit in 2009. The Riverside Inn is a historical landmark that the people of Clarksdale are refurbishing after years of wear and tear. In 2009, I stayed a few nights in the hotel and Frank was a regular in the lobby/lounge, mingling with the visitors and catching up with "Rat", the owner of the establishment. Frank and I connected on Facebook and have been in touch ever since. Although he doesn't go the festivals anymore and age is starting to catch up, he is still as connected and personable as ever. We went to Clarksdale's best (maybe only?) Mexican restaurant for lunch and caught up on the last 13 years.

After lunch, Frank and I went to the Riverside Inn to see how the old place was doing. The inn has seen better days structurally as a tree recently punctured the roof and the wooden foundation needs updating. But because it is a cultural landmark, they are getting grants and donations to fix it up. Although I stayed there during my first trip, I asked if one of the new caretakers for the old place could give me a tour. From Aretha Franklin to Ike Turner to JFK, Jr to Bessie Smith (who died in the building when it was a hospital), the names of people who stayed in the Riverside Inn is long and distinguished.

I said farewell to Frank, left the Riverside Inn, and returned downtown to the Juke Joint Festival. I stopped in the Delta Blues Museum as well as Ground Zero Blues Club. The Ground Zero Blues Club is partly owned by legendary actor Morgan Freeman and his picture graces the wall along with so many other blues and Clarksdale legends. I bounced around for a few more hours, saw a few more musicians, and even returned to Cat Head to buy myself some swag.

By Saturday evening, I had two shows left to see, Terry "Harmonica" Bean again and Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, a 23-year-old blues phenomenon who has already played the White House and won a Grammy. Kingfish was to not be missed.

Although I saw Terry "Harmonica" Bean earlier in the day, there were two reasons why I failed to give him a copy of my book after his morning show. The first reason was because I left before he finished. The second, and more important reason, was because I was out of books. However, in my visit to Cat Head, I saw they had two new copies of Curveball at the Crossroads among the books. So, yes, I bought a copy of my own book to give to someone else. Such is the life of a small writer.

When I got to the Delta Blues Alley Cafe, Terry was setting up. I was able to talk with him for a minute or two and present him with a book. He thanked me and told me that he was the Mississippi equivalent to classic '80s baseball stars Dwight Gooden or Bret Saberhagen. Hopefully we can talk baseball and blues again sometime. 

Terry "Harmonica" Bean's show early Saturday evening was a fun jam, not too dissimilar from his morning show, but with a better crowd. He rocked some John Lee Hooker-style boogie blues and got folks dancing. There was also beer served at the evening show, so alcohol was probably amplifying the audience participation.

But unfortunately for Terry "Harmonica" Bean, his show overlapped with the headliner for the entire festival, the star of the region, the next great blues ambassador, Christone "Kingfish" Ingram. After 30 minutes of Terry Bean, folks started filing out of the Blues Alley Cafe to walk the few blocks to Kingfish's show.

For some interesting reason, the concert coordinators of the Juke Joint Festival decided to set Kingfish up in an old bank, not outside on the main stage of the festival. The bank was a cavernous old building, with the word "BANK" outside, just as you expect an old bank to be in a old southern town. There were a few hundred chairs aligned inside the bank with band's setup along the back wall. Although the building had the frame of a bank, it lacked any of the inside bits and pieces, such as a teller counter, offices, and any other furniture. Perhaps it was biggest empty building in Clarksdale.

Layout aside, when I got there, I found a spot close to the side of the "stage". I was approximately 15 feet from Kingfish's left. So I never saw him head-on, but it was probably the closest I have ever been to a Grammy winner performance.

For those who haven't seen or heard of Kingfish, he is the real deal. Straight from the cast of Buddy Guy and the 3 Kings of the Blues - Albert, Freddie, and BB, Kingfish has the chops and riffs to play the blues the way the legends did. He has been blazing a path through the blues scene with his first two albums, already winning the aforementioned Grammy, being featured on national TV, and playing the White House for the Obamas back in 2015. He is as big a deal as deals come in the blues.

Interestingly, when I was scrolling through my pictures from my 2009 visit, I have a pic of Kingfish playing in a kid's band when he was 10 years old. Now 12 years later, I had a chance to see him again.

Kingfish did not disappoint. He rocked through several of his own songs and many blues standards. Although it was a short show - only an hour - he proved again that he is the future of traditional blues.

After Kingfish's stellar performance, I rolled back to Como, full of all new blues memories. My flight back to Tampa was early on Sunday, so I missed the final day of the 2022 Juke Joint Festival. But from my trip to Oxford, to my book signing, to lunch with an old friend, to closing with Kingfish, my return to the Crossroads was a huge success.