Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Two tales from The Oxford Book of American Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of American Short Stories
Editor: Joyce Carol Oates

Title: The Middle Years
Author: Henry James

Dencombe, a novelist, has moved to the seaside to try to revive his failing health. As he looks over his latest novel he realizes that he's reached the full flowering of his talents only now, at a point in his life when he's too ill to work. When he was younger and healthier he wasted years and made many mistakes as he slowly learned to write well:
It had taken too much of his life to produce too little of his art. The art had come, but it had come after everything else. At such a rate a first existence was too short - long enough only to collect material; so that to fructify, to use the material, one should have a second age, an extension.
In the course of the story Dencombe is befriended by the young and optimistic Dr. Hugh, the personal doctor of a countess who has also come to the seaside to convalesce. The part of the story involving the countess and her female companion, a pianist, seemed flat compared to Dencombe's musings about art and life and his connection with the doctor. The doctor's companionship gives Dencombe an opportunity to share some wisdom, confide his doubts, and maybe even experience some hope - not necessarily the hope that he'll live much longer, but the thought that maybe he really did do what he could with his life. The best moments in the story are marked with that painful mix of triumph and futility that's so much a part of what makes people beautiful.
"A second chance - that's the delusion. There never was to be but one. We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

Title: Sweat
Author: Zora Neale Hurston

Delia Jones, a pious washerwoman living in the segregated South, has survived years of marriage to the brutal Sykes, who has recently taken up with another woman. Although it's gotten to the point where she can better stand up for herself against his physical abuse, she'll now have to resist his attempts to kick her out of their home, which she paid for through her own labor - doing laundry for white people. Sykes tries to end this battle of wills by bringing home a snake, which he keeps in a box as a pet; Delia is terrified of snakes, but digs her heels in harder and refuses to leave.

Sweat has a pressure cooker atmosphere, heat and tension rising; you know the snake isn't going to stay confined, not for long - and Sykes may have set himself up to fall on his own sword. One of the strongest points to the story is Delia's endurance. Suffering has toughened her but hasn't made her brutal or spiritually brittle; she has become stubborn, intent, grateful for small joys, and hopeful of better things to come. Even though Sykes mocks her for laboring over white people's laundry, she believes in the dignity of her work. Sykes resents her job probably because he relies on the income she brings in, and also because her job has given her some measure of security and independence and the means to stand up to him. Delia can rely only on herself in this story. At one point some of the men in town consider beating Sykes up - not so much for his years of abusing Delia but for the fact that he's running around openly with another woman - but they never get around to it; the heat makes them sluggish, and they'd rather sit on the sidelines and make condemnations instead of doing anything. She's on her own.

Delia isn't a saint; she's just as strong as she can be, repeatedly tested. And Sykes isn't a one-dimensional monster. He's brutish and evil, but he's human too, which makes the sum of his life all the more sad and horrible. At the end, he and Delia share one look of mutual knowledge; there's a little bit of Sykes in Delia, and a little bit of Delia in Sykes.


Other stories in this collection include The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe.


This post has been linked to on Short Stories on Wednesday #29 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Worth Watching: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Title: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Director: John Hughes
Language: English
Rating: R (because of the f-word monologue)

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, Neal Page (Steve Martin) is wrapping up a tedious business meeting in New York City and plans to fly home to Chicago right after. When he leaves the meeting to rush to the airport, he doesn't expect the stressful convoluted journey that follows: a snow storm diverting his flight from Chicago to Wichita, and from there a scramble to get to Chicago via train, bus and car, in the company of a cheerful blabber-mouthed shower curtain ring salesman, Del Griffith (John Candy), who makes it his personal mission to get Neal home in time for Thanksgiving dinner.

This is a good buddy film and road trip movie, because it's funny, because Steve Martin and John Candy are wonderful here (the best I've seen them), and because the movie has surprising moments of depth and sadness. Beneath the humor there's sometimes a good amount of pain, and you don't expect it in a movie like this. The characters have humanity.

Neal Page and Del Griffith sitting on Del's trunk

Del blabs on and on, leaves a mess behind him and laughs at corny jokes. He's big-hearted and friendly, has a large body, lugs a heavy trunk around - a big guy in a number of ways. You can't not notice him. He strikes me as someone who's grateful for any good company or bit of friendliness that comes his way. Happy with little pleasures. He's expansive when it comes to laughter and conversation (or one-sided chatter) but when he's hurt he handles his feelings with restraint, with a bruised dignity; his eyes show a wounded defiance.

It isn't surprising that Neal hurts Del a few times during the movie. Neal is fastidious and reserved, jealous of his personal space. To be thrown into close quarters with a loud messy stranger while his travel plans fall apart is painful for him. He tends to seethe and wince for a while and then snap, hitting at Del or at others with pointed sarcastic insults. But just as Del can be both annoying and lovable, Neal can be "a cold-hearted cynic" (as Del puts it) without coming across as really hateful; inside he's just tired and wants to get home to his wife and kids.

From Del, Neal learns to lighten up a little and be more compassionate to others. From Neal, Del learns... it's hard to say. I guess he realizes at one point, sitting in a burned out shell of a car on a snowy night, that he could try to shut up from time to time. Because Neal is the more finicky character, the one who lacks the common touch, his subtle and gradual change of heart is the real focus of the movie.

Del is his friend, whether Neal likes it or not, and most of the time he really doesn't like it; for much of the movie he goes along with Del out of desperation, because he wants to get home. So that's Del's job: to bring him home, and to wear him down while also unintentionally showing him how to be a better person. And they do have some lovely moments of bonding.

Del Griffith and Neal Page driving

Memorable sights and sounds
Owen. Owen wins for memorable sights and sounds. He's a minor character but he looms large in the mind and senses. The way he says "Stubbville." The way he snorts - not a long loud snort, but a little hog noise that makes his unsmiling face contort. And the look on Neal and Del's faces as they take him in, sort of marveling at him and at the circumstances that have brought him into their lives.

Then there's one of my favorite moments in the film: John Candy doing the Mess Around. It's night. Del is driving while Neal sleeps in the passenger seat. And suddenly Ray Charles is on the radio. This is a beautiful moment, because Del is shimmying and bopping his head and puffing on a cigarette as he pretends to play the piano on the dashboard. John Candy, you are missed.

Stand-out scenes
There are a number of little lines and scenes that jump out. Some of the lines don't sound like much when you aren't familiar with the movie. For instance, "you're going the wrong way." But the "you're going the wrong way" scene is a great example of how the filmmakers and actors took what could have been a conventional scenario in a road trip movie and turned it into something unique and funny.

The same can be said for Neal's f-word monologue. It isn't just about the f-word and its gratuitous use. The lines are delivered with exquisite timing and emphasis (Steve Martin I suspect had a lot of fun with this scene). For reasons that I'll leave you to discover, Neal has sort of lost it, broken down a little from the stress and frustration. But he doesn't rave at people. He still has a certain composure. He can explain himself reasonably well. On the receiving end of his monologue is a woman who works at a car rental agency. She has sweet plump cheeks and a hint of poison in her smile. And the final word belongs to her. (She's played by Edie McClurg, who's also the school secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.) One of the things I like about this movie is that as far as I can remember Neal never gets away with being insulting or rude to anyone; there are always consequences for him, or some sort of sharp wake-up call.

Finally when talking about stand-out scenes I have to mention the part where Neal and Del reach Chicago. It gets to me every time.

Further thoughts
One of the reasons I like this movie is because I grew up with it. This might have been the first R-rated film I watched (except for some of the language most of the film is pretty tame, especially by today's standards). I've lost count of how many times I've watched it or parts of it over the years, usually around Thanksgiving. It's a kind of comfort movie for me.

Neal Page and Del Griffith carrying Del's trunk

*All images link back to their source (Rottentomatoes)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Site with free programming lessons

I found what looks like an awesome site, Code Year, that will teach you computer programming by sending you a free lesson every Monday. The first few lessons of the year are up on the website for anyone (like me) who didn't discover this at the start of the year. I'm excited about this, because I was planning to develop my computer skills this year beyond what I know of Microsoft Office, a handful of statistics programs, and basic html.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A guest among gorillas

Fewer than one thousand wild mountain gorillas are left in the world. About two and a half minutes into this video, there's an awesome encounter between a man and a small group of these gorillas. There are some moments of tension initially, especially before the large one settles down (notice how the man is keeping his head down at first and also making sure to avoid eye contact, which can be a sign of aggressive intent), but mostly it's an experience of joy and wonder. I love how they settle around, sniff him out, groom him a bit. He's a novelty, but non-threatening and vaguely similar to them so he remains welcomed, fortunately for him.

Week in Seven Words #103

The takeout sushi and blaring battery-powered car have distracted him for long enough. He crawls to the bookcase in the corner of the room and uses a shelf to pull himself up and stand before it. We think it's wonderful that he's interested in books at his tender preliterate age, and when he starts to scratch the spines of the books, up and down, it looks like he's trying to break through them to get to the good stuff inside. One of his older siblings tells us that he likes scratching them because of the funny sounds they make, a raspy choir of book spines; we shouldn't start calling him a scholar yet. But maybe that's how a kid starts loving books, because of the weird sounds and sensations, the look and feel of them.

Snow coming down like curtains around the world.

He tells me what he needs for inspiration. It isn't the recreation room with its tables full of old folks bent over pieces of paper. It isn't the ballet playing on the large T.V. in the corner, though he watches it from time to time with a far-off look in his eye, Romeo locked in dance with Juliet to the music of Prokofiev. What he needs is a room with a piano and sunlight and peaceful solitude.

I stare out the window and pretend that the lab technician is not currently rooting around in the crook of my elbow trying to coax blood out of my vein.

Blow up a balloon and pinch the end shut between your fingers. Then tape it to a straw. Slip the straw onto a wire or long piece of string, and tie the wire/string between two chairs or the walls of a room. Release the balloon. As the air flows out, the balloon-straw contraption rockets forward. Most of the time. Sometimes the balloon makes a horrible whining noise and deflates in agony without moving.

On Martin Luther King Day there's a sing-a-long at the nursing home. The pianist and singer, who isn't much younger than the residents, grew up in the segregated South. The audience, mostly wheelchair-bound and living in different states of lucidity and coherence, were a part of that era too; it's likely that there are civil rights protesters and activists among them, and people who went to hear King speak. Some of them remember, and for others this is a pleasant interlude of songs unconnected to anything past or future. But often they know the words; the words and melodies and sentiments of old beloved songs stay with them even when other things crumble.

People expect cutesyness from young kids. They want to imagine that a first or second grader for instance doesn't have any serious fears or frighteningly complicated thoughts. Probably because as adults we often can't handle those kinds of thoughts well ourselves, and we hope that children won't demand more of us than the regular pat reassurances.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Extracts: Love and growth in Journal of a Solitude


Growth is demanding and may seem dangerous, for there is loss as well as gain in growth. But why go on living if one has ceased to grow? And what more demanding atmosphere for growth than love in any form, than any relationship which can call out and requires of us our most secret and deepest selves? - from Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Two tales from 50 Great American Short Stories

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: The Girls in their Summer Dresses
Author: Irwin Shaw

This story is like a hard piece of candy. It seems bright and sweet at first but when you crack into it you find out it's brittle and hollow. The sweetness fades fast.

A husband and wife take a stroll down 5th Avenue. They've decided to spend the day together instead of meeting up with friends. It's meant to be an intimate time for them, but the husband keeps looking at other women with a gleam in his eye that his wife recognizes from when he first laid eyes on her over five years ago.

What follows is a conversation that exposes and widens the distance between them, the thinness of their intimacy. The husband (who at some points reminds me of a kid in a candy store) tries to be easygoing throughout, and says quietly devastating things in a reassuring voice, as if that will soften the blow.

And I can imagine what the wife is thinking. Not only the question that's voiced - whether looking and coveting will ever lead to adultery - but also the question of why he married her to begin with. If he looks at other women the same way, what makes her special? It's never clear why he married her specifically; she has a number of good qualities, but are they sufficient for him? And if he sees some of the same qualities in other women, or if those women are just as intriguing in their own way, where does that leave her? When he says, "I love you," on what level does he mean it? At one point she says, desperate, "I've made a good wife, a good housekeeper, a good friend. I'd do any damn thing for you." He tells her that he knows; he clasps her hand in his. But he can't tell her what she hopes to hear, not without lying.


Title: A New England Nun
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Louisa Ellis and Joe Dagget are engaged but haven't seen each other for years. Joe has been working abroad; Louisa has lived alone. When he returns it's clear that they've grown apart; they behave like kindly acquaintances. What's more, Louisa has carved out a life for herself. Her house may be small, but it's hers. She has her own little garden, and a large dog that has a fearsome reputation in the village. Inside her home everything has its place, and she lives in peace.

Freeman writes about rooms, interiors, and personal space like no author I've come across yet. This is where her characters really come alive: in privacy, living quietly beyond the notice of other people. Her descriptions of 19th century New England village life and the countryside are also lovely.
Louisa could sew linen seams, and distil roses, and dust and polish and fold away in lavender, as long as she listed. That afternoon she sat with her needlework at the window, and felt fairly steeped in peace.
When Joe visits Louisa's house he feels out of place, a bull in a china shop. And by marrying him she knows she'll have to give up her home and move in with him and his mother. The fact that she has independent means of her own, however modest, gives her more of a choice of how to live her life. Both she and Joe are honorable enough to keep their promises to each other, even if their hearts aren't in it; they would still get along tolerably well. She also senses that this will be her last chance to get married, and that if she asked almost anyone they would say that she should. But who can understand, as she does, the pleasures and blessings of her calm solitary domain?


Other stories from this collection include The Blue-Winged Teal (by Wallace Stegner) and The National Pastime (by John Cheever), along with Silent Snow, Secret Snow (by Conrad Aiken) and The Damned Thing (by Ambrose Bierce).


A New England Nun also appears in Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Week in Seven Words #102

I'm pointed to Clockwords: Prelude, a game where the object is to quickly type words with certain designated letters, so that the letters can be shot at mechanical spiders who are out to steal secrets from your laboratory. As in Scrabble, the letters have different values, and can be further imbued with special powers, like the ability to explode and take out more spiders, who make a pulpy sound when hit. The game is amusing, and carpal-tunnel-syndrome-inducing. Mentally challenging, but a little depressing too (will I waste my words on spiders? Wear out my fingers and wrists for this?).

Stumping around outside on a cold soggy dreich day where the trees look like stale gray vegetables found in the bottom of a fridge drawer.

Feels like rock and gravel are getting scraped away from my throat so that my voice will eventually find its way out.

A small lump of warm bread pudding with cinnamon and raisins, dissolving around my fork.

As a toddler he hears it all the time - no, don't dismantle the phone; no, don't put your sneakers on the cushions; no, don't wander off with strangers. No.

One of the first books I'm reading this year is a collection of dystopian short fiction.

I love how we take the stories apart, studying and discussing them. What's best is when we raise questions the author hadn't consciously asked but wove in while getting to know the characters and living through their struggles.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Week in Seven Words #101

This past fall I visited the 9/11 Memorial in New York City; where each tower stood, water spills for thirty feet into a pool and then descends into a dark square hole that looks like the mouth of an abyss. I think of the memorial as I walk in Times Square, where the city doesn't seem to have a past, but exists only in the colorful flashy present.

High Line Park in NYC was built on a long section of elevated train tracks, now half-buried in long yellow grasses and shrubs. There are many interesting perspectives from the park: streets flowing across the city, the Hudson River bearing its freight, a view of slanting roofs, balconies and elevated patios, the Empire State Building peeking over a swarm of apartment buildings.

New Year's Eve: a fun movie, some intense video games, and a couple of hours of noise music made more bearable by the vodka cranberry I've been nursing since half past eight.

Balloons tumble down East Houston Street between the wheels of buses and cars.

A cold unyielding wind that numbs my jaw.

The street is full of bright signs with Chinese characters and tiny restaurants accessed via basement stairs, a center for Buddhism and red banners everywhere, and then suddenly you find an old splendid synagogue rising into a blue sky.

It's a day for walking and peeking into shop windows along the way. Mannequins in glittering dresses are on display, flowers entwined around reflections of the street outside, earrings and brooches in neat rows, stacked cups in different rainbow colors.

Week in Seven Words #100

Tempting chocolate truffles in a golden box.

Group photo: fitting thirteen people on and in front of a sofa, then programming the camera's self-timer. The first couple of times nothing happens, and we sit there smiling at the camera as it stares back at us with its glossy black eye. On the third try the person adjusting the camera gets it to work but doesn't arrive back at the sofa on time, so the photo shows her from behind as she tries to dive back in next to her husband. Finally it works. After a moment's hush we cheer, and the sudden noise makes the baby startle and burst into tears.

He's beaming as he rocks back and forth on the large green plastic rocking horse; it's a hand-me-down from older siblings who now sit beside him clapping and singing "Yankee Doodle Went to Town" to make him go more quickly.

Settled on a cluster of rocks by the lake, an elderly woman scatters crumbs around her and calmly greets the wheeling gulls.

A display at the train station shows an old-fashioned village where lights glow from little homes, happy figurines have snowball fights or glide among the evergreens on sleds, and a train travels round and round it all on a looping track. The display draws people who smile and pause to lean over it. They tip themselves for a moment into the village where everything is repeating, moving without going anywhere; no progress and no end, and for a few seconds, peace.

There are joys planned out for them: food brought from the outside and musicians who do their best to sing beloved old songs. There are also moments of spontaneous joy that feel more real and lasting even though they're over quickly - as the party winds down they bat a balloon around; it glances off their fingers and stays airborne for a few happy minutes.

It's winter but feels like autumn. Turtle Pond looks like a sheet soaked in deep blue ink, and beyond it the Great Lawn is green and gold. The shadows of trees stretch out on the grass as if they're taking a leisurely nap.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Coughing Through Shostakovich

One of my short stories, "Coughing Through Shostakovich," has been published in Subtle Fiction and can be found here.

Several pieces of music crop up in the piece, including this one by Tchaikovsky (here it's performed by Eugene Ugorski on violin and Konstantin Lifschitz on piano; in the short story it's the main character playing it solo on violin):