Thursday, January 16, 2020

Two Very Different Short Stories Featuring the Wind

Title: Mistral
Author: Raoul Whitfield
Where I Read It: Hard-Boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories

The mistral is a violent wind best known for its effects on Provence in the south of France. The wind may rage for hours at a time. In Raoul Whitfield's story, it mirrors some of the moral chaos in the plot and represents a powerful force that a person can't escape.

The main character is a private detective whose agency has tasked him with finding a criminal on the run. The detective comes to realize that the man he's looking for is marked for death; the people who hired the agency are also criminals, and their purpose is murder. Caught in these dangerous, morally muddy circumstances, the detective realizes he has an opportunity to give his target a warning. Why would he want to help him get away? Maybe there's something honorable about it – giving one criminal a fighting chance against other criminals.

Title: A Windy Day
Author: Janet Frame
Where I Read It: Prizes

The sun is fresh, never left standing or sour, poured out clean on the stones for the dusty-throated wind to lick.
"A Windy Day" is a delightful, fresh, poetic, and unsettling picture of seasonal change. In this case, the arrival of spring. The author doesn't settle for observations of flowers blooming or ice thawing. She makes the changes disconcerting. She takes the familiar and renders it fantastical and topsy-turvy.
The motorcyclist, his knees tight against his mount, surges through the tidal streets, riding a seahorse to the lonely shore.
Reading this piece, you see the world wide-eyed and appreciate how strange it can be. Day-to-day life doesn't have to be ordinary.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Week in Seven Words #492

He makes his wrestler figurines tussle in the grass. When called indoors, he leaves them propped against a lamppost to rest until the next match.

We walk along the river right after sunset. The buildings blush slightly before going pale in the dark.

Outside in the dusk I watch fireflies and listen to crickets while thinking, "Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst."

A weed that has overrun the garden beds is very nutritional. It's amazing how something dismissed as a pest can contain more nutrients than the vegetables it's supplanting.

The women all look similar: long, wavy-haired wigs, super high heels, thin figures, babies hanging around them and on them.

For the entire subway ride, she speaks to her kids in threats. ("I'll slap the sh*t out of you," she snarls at one point.)

He squirms in the photos, grins while dancing with his friends, and delivers a speech in a dogged way, as a commitment made and seen through.

Week in Seven Words #491

When she speaks in English, her tone changes. It makes me think of confidential chats over coffee. It's a voice that invites you to share secrets.

The artistic touches really do lift the mood in the room. Even if they're just some colorful panels on the napkin dispensers, or a few star-shaped sculptures made of paper dangling from the rafters.

The doctor seems impatient. He orders some tests, and it feels more like a stalling tactic because he's not sure what else to do, but who knows.

She just taps into me, and comfortable conversation flows out.

The river is dimpled. The silver bridge glistens in the pale, pink light.

Being in pain feels lonely.

Sometimes people ask you, "Are you well, are you well, are you feeling better?" in a way that stresses you out, because you want to just reassure them. They need to be taken care of, their agitation soothed, regardless of how you're feeling.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Deal Me In - A Less Intense Version

This year, I'd like to read The Best American Essays of the Century (editor – Joyce Carol Oates; coeditor – Robert Atwan). I've already read some of the book, but there are many interesting-looking essays that remain. With that goal in mind, I'll be participating in Jay's Deal Me In Challenge, and more specifically the "Full Moon Fever Version," which requires just one suit from the card deck – that's what I can realistically commit to given the other things I'd like to read this year... plus, you know, work, chores, all that. (Click on the link for more details about Deal Me In and its variations, especially if you're planning to read essays, short stories, or other short pieces this year.)

These are the essays I've chosen. Randomly picking a card from a suit (let's go with hearts) will determine reading order. And for each of these, I'll respond with a blog post either here or at Bright Across the Lifespan.

Ace: "The Devil Baby at Hull-House" by Jane Addams

Two: "Once More to the Lake" by E.B. White

Three: "Artists in Uniform" by Mary McCarthy

Four: "The Marginal World" by Rachel Carson

Five: "The Brown Wasps" by Loren Eiseley

Six: "A Sweet Devouring" by Eudora Welty

Seven: "Perfect Past" by Vladimir Nabokov

Eight: "Illumination Rounds" by Michael Herr

Nine: "The Search for Marvin Gardens" by John McPhee

Ten: "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying" by Adrienne Rich

Jack: "The Solace of Open Spaces" by Gretel Ehrlich

Queen: "A Drugstore in Winter" by Cynthia Ozick

King: "Heaven and Nature" by Edward Hoagland

Monday, December 30, 2019

List of Books I Recommend (2019 Edition)

Over the past year, along with continuing to read good short fiction, I've enjoyed some books I'd like to recommend here.

Three of the nonfiction books deal with critical thinking and the ability to discuss ideas:

How to Think by Alan Jacobs, which I wrote about in this post – What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It's Not Just Intelligence).
The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford, which I wrote about here.
The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which discusses various policies and attitudes that are preventing kids from becoming more resilient and emotionally and intellectually mature.

In another nonfiction book, the author traveled around the U.S. for half a year and recorded conversations with a variety of people – The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom, which I wrote about here. Come to think of it, this book also deals with critical thinking and honest, well-informed discussion (and their frequent absence from conversations, speeches, and interviews).

Another nonfiction book, The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal), discusses some aspects of the Holocaust that are most difficult to explain and discuss, particularly the psychological effects (on victims, tormenters, bystanders). He's exploring how humans think and feel in circumstances that are deeply, deliberately inhumane.

For novels, there are a bunch I'm recommending:

Two Shirley Jackson novels – We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Road Through the Wall. Although they're different in many respects, they both present confining worlds for their characters. In one, it's a home where the reclusive remnants of a family live years after a horrible crime. In another, it's a street in a 1930s California suburb, where everyone is deeply conscious of class, sex, race, and religion, and cruelty and loneliness flourish even in respectable homes. Dysfunction is prevalent.

Speaking of confined spaces, As We Are Now by May Sarton is a powerful novel about a retired math teacher who is placed against her will in a nursing home and struggles to keep hold of her sanity and spirit:
Yes, I am afraid of a torture far worse than petty harassments, the torture of not being believed. I am afraid of being driven mad.
One of the heart-breaking things is, as the novel goes by, you want to keep believing her (and you can of course) but there might also be a doubt in the back of your mind about the accuracy of some of her perceptions. That uncertainty, however small, is part of the experience of reading this novel. And then she will say things like, "I am not mad, only old. I make this statement to give me courage," and it hits you once again how alone she is.

You'll find another interesting and tricky narrator in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I wrote about here. Mr. Stevens, the butler to end all butlers.

In Good Behaviour by Molly Keane, the narrator also leads a narrow life, where much passes her by, and the reader may realize things about her family and acquaintances that remain unnoticed by her.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has a teenaged narrator keeping a journal about her life in an old castle. Her dad is a writer stuck in what appears to be a hopeless state of writer's block. Other castle inhabitants include her sister, brother, and sweet, eccentric stepmom; also, a young man who continues to live with the family and help them out even though they can't pay him anymore and are barely staying afloat in their genteel poverty. I enjoyed the narrative voice in this coming of age story.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson is a novel that begins and ends in Australia. The main character struggles to escape from her backwater town only to return there towards the end of her life and wonder why she had left. A strong voice, vivid descriptions, and insights into regrets and what-ifs make this one worth reading.

I also read more Australian novels from the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries series by Kerry Greenwood. Miss Fisher is a wealthy society lady and private detective in 1920s Melbourne, and the secondary characters in the books are memorable too. I haven't read each book in the series, which starts with Cocaine Blues, and some of the books are better than others, but overall the experience is like sampling chocolates from a large box.

Moving on to something quite different – Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg). The novel is set a couple of years after Stalin's death, and the characters are the patients and medical staff at a cancer hospital. They're facing the personal upheavals of disease and the political shifts that might mean a return for an exile and the fall of a once-favored party official. The hospital is its own little world reflecting different aspects of Soviet society and politics.

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo is set in a small town in NY state. The town itself is a character, as well-written as the rest of the characters who are very much a part of their surroundings. You couldn't picture them living elsewhere. (Years ago, I watched an adaptation of the novel starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy, and I remember liking it. I'm glad that watching it made me add the book to my to-read list.)

I recently wrote a post on narrative point-of-view inspired by Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones. The novel focuses on three fifth-grade students in Atlanta during the child murders of 1979-1981. I like how distinct each character is in this book.

Then there's The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster. It cuts back and forth between the adulthood and childhood of a psychologist who works with troubled young girls. The psychologist herself needs to deal with guilt and isolation stemming from her own childhood, in particular a life-changing day when she took her cousin's baby out for a walk without permission.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Week in Seven Words #490

The cafe is cozy, dimly lit, with a decor of dark wood and cream. What kills the atmosphere is a large, loud TV mounted on the wall, the people on it yammering away.

The splinter doesn't hurt so much, because it has lodged in a callus.

The wind stirs the pages of her speech, as if reminding her to look away from the words and at the audience.

Hearing good feedback on a draft of my novel sweetens a week of painful, worrisome symptoms.

A teenager takes a swig from a large bottle. "Water is the best f*cking drink," she says. "It's my best friend."

One man gives a lecture on confronting viewpoints radically different than your own. Another holds a discussion group that reminds me of sitting around in a dorm room at 1 a.m. pondering the meaning of life.

We haven't seen each other in a while, so over pizza we have a short, intense conversation that we try to pack with all kinds of important things – family, politics, cultural differences, the tendency of pigeons to crap on roofs and balconies.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Week in Seven Words #489

On a traffic island, as we wait for the light to change, she demonstrates capoeira moves, fight-dancing at a post.

It occurs to me an hour into my trip that the black sun hat I'm wearing is terribly unflattering. But I'm already miles from home and need that sun protection. Guess I'll have to look like a time-traveling Puritan.

On our way to dinner, she reports what someone else said about me. Whether she's relating the other person's comments accurately or editing them heavily, I don't know. The only result is that I feel uneasy. Not motivated to change, just motivated to spend less time with her and with the third party she's eager to quote.

The unannounced interruption to subway service makes our trip over an hour longer. We need to get off the train at one stop, take a bus to another stop, get on another train, and finally switch to another bus. After that comes a short shuttle ride. But it makes our arrival even sweeter. We appreciate, even more, the wide-open view of the river, the soft lawns, the flowers pulsing with color among evergreens and rocks. The air is also so clean.

The peonies are a creamy pink. They look like pastries.

siddur (סדור)
One woman talks about treasuring the repetition in prayer. Another speaks beautifully about the legacy of the Siddur. I like not just the learnedness of the discussion, but the frankness. People don't often talk about prayer in a way that's both scholarly and personal.

The light falls in a pearly sheet on glass bowls with cacti, on poppies in a cream-colored vase, on a pink crocheted cap.