Friday, August 22, 2014

Six Short Stories About Different States of Mind

Title: The Balloon of William Fuerst
Author: Lowell B. Komie
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions


A short, funny story but one with a familiar pang in it, the feeling of life getting wasted on triviality. The main character is an attorney who starts to hear air escaping from his ears - "a hiss of all the useless acts." He imagines his head is a balloon, with air leaking out. How does he think he can fix the problem, without leaving a job he feels trapped in? Maybe helium is the answer! If nothing else, at least he'll sound like a new person...

Title: Bitter Grounds
Author: Neil Gaiman
Where I Read It: Fragile Things


Before reading "Bitter Grounds," I hadn't come across any zombie fic that interested me. But this story is further proof that it's never the subject matter that's the problem, but the way it's handled. Any topic can be written about in an interesting way.

This isn't a typical zombie fic. There are no rotting corpses staggering around - no brain-eating, post-apocalyptic monsters. It's more a confusing and fascinating story of escape and loss of identity, of blurred boundaries between people and between the living and the dead. It begins with a man who can't deal with his life anymore:
"In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving."
One day, he drives and just keeps on driving, with no particular destination or purpose. And then starts to move between different identities. Through circumstances described in the story, he steps into the shoes of an anthropology professor invited to give a talk in New Orleans about tales of undead Haitian coffee girls. Nothing in this story is as it seems, and by the end, you have to wonder who is this man, and who has he met along the way? Not sure if this is a nightmare, or if he's ripped through the fragile tissues that life's made of.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Week in Seven Words #222 & 223

222

disconnect
A couple in the park: Man and woman strolling, he pontificates, gestures broadly, makes authoritative pronouncements about things he only half-knows at best, while the woman nods, murmurs, surreptitiously checks her phone.

faerie
The enchantment of pink blossoms floating around your head.

patchy
Blonde willows and raggedy weeds by the pond.

pistons
I understand the enjoyment people get from running, but not from jogging. Running can give you a feeling of freeness. Jogging has always struck me as mechanical, like you're a machine pumping up and down.

shocked
The park is artificial, so the lakes can be drained or filled at will. The fish might be stunned out of their habitual routes and find themselves on their sides, eyeing a terrible sun.

tableau
Facing north, heads uplifted, four turtles frozen on a sunny rock.

treble
And there he is again: The half-naked man, kneeling in the tunnel and playing the violin.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Visiting Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO

This past Sunday had ideal summer walking weather. For the most part, it wasn't too hot out; not too unrelentingly sunny. Lots of cool breezes. A great day to be outdoors. Granted, part of my trip to Brooklyn Heights was an indoor historical lecture/tour, a really good one, but after that I walked along the beautiful waterfront.

The visit began at the Clark Street subway stop in Brooklyn Heights. One of the first things I noticed is that a few of the streets have fruit names, apparently because lots of fruit used to be delivered to warehouses here. Here is Pineapple Street, with buildings of a suitable color.

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A little bit north of that, between Orange and Cranberry Streets, was where the history lesson began. This was at Plymouth Church, where the famous 19th century abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, used to take to the pulpit to speak out against slavery.

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That's his statue, and to the left of him, an engraving of Lincoln, who prayed a couple of times at the church. In addition to serving as a platform for abolitionist preaching, the church was also a station on the Underground Railroad, the series of homes and other potential hiding spots that runaway slaves used to escape north.

Even in NY they weren't safe. Although slavery was abolished in NY state by 1827 and other northern states had also struck down slavery, southern slaveowners still had a claim to the escaped slaves. Northerners were obligated by law to hand them back over or risk getting fine or going to jail. There were also bounty hunters or slave catchers who actively pursued escaped slaves (and sometimes, if they didn't find who they were looking for, would capture a freeborn person who fit the description more or less). Runaway slaves generally tried to make it to Canada.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hobson's Choice (1954): Biting humor and surprising warmth

Title: Hobson's Choice
Director: David Lean
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

Watching Hobson's Choice made me happy. It's British comedy at its best, with brilliant characters, a tender and hilarious romance, and a satisfying ending.

Set in the late 19th century in England, the movie features Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton), who runs a bootmaking business and who abandons his shop every day to go drinking. He lets himself do this because he's got three grown daughters running the shop for him for free; the younger two are a bit flighty, but the oldest, Maggie (Brenda de Banzie), is smart and has a strong business acumen. He's counting on the fact that she'll remain a spinster and take care of him and his shop until he dies; he's also not too eager to marry off his younger daughters, Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales), as he's reluctant to spend money on a wedding. In this way the movie starts: Maggie overseeing the shop and the other daughters helping out, while a talented but extremely humble boothand, Will Mossop (John Mills), toils away in the cellar to make the high-quality footwear the shop is known for. Henry Hobson, in the meantime, drinks and jokes around.

The Hobson family in Hobson's Choice

Week in Seven Words #220 & 221

220

asthmatic
Buses wheezing in the heat, looking battered and ill.

bitterness
They dwell on other people's failures, because they want to justify the lack of risk-taking in their own lives and distract themselves from their profound regrets.

briny
Broken, brown ground and a river that smells like an ocean.

brittle
Judging, measuring, comparing. Never just listening. Never accepting.

emerald
It's a precious green lawn in a neighborhood full of industrial lots, billboards and old apartment houses. Bright flowers have sprung up on it, and people hover around, starved for the simple beauty.

off-putting
"Nobody jumping out of it today," he says in an odd, cheerful voice after staring for a few minutes at the Freedom Tower.

self-defeating
She walks with the group because she wants to improve her fitness, but she gets winded too easily and has trouble keeping up. Discouraged, she settles on a bench and smokes a cigarette.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hopping over to Staten Island: Snug Harbor Gardens and Alice Austen House

Staten Island was the only New York City borough I'd never been to - until today.

The best way to get there is with the free ferry that leaves the southern tip of Manhattan. Some people just ride the ferry back and forth for the amazing views of the NYC harbor, Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor's Island, bridges connecting different islands… Like here, you see a bunch of helicopters against a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge:

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And here's the Verrazano Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island (with a Manhattan-bound Staten Island ferry passing us by in the foreground):

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You can't not take a photo of the Statue of Liberty too. It's a compulsion.

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The ferry terminal on Staten Island conveniently has a bunch of bus terminals radiating off of it, with buses ready to take you to different parts of the island. This visit we stuck to the northeast part of the island, first taking the S40 bus to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. Crossing the two-lane road from the S40 bus stop to the back entrance of Snug Harbor is a treat, because there are no traffic lights and crosswalk, and cars are zooming at you from both directions (in one direction hidden by a bend in the road). So you've got to time things just right and then hustle.