Friday, December 30, 2011

11 things I (re)learned in 2011

1) You can only fool yourself for so long.
Any part of your life feel like a sham? Answer that question honestly. You can't hide behind a job title or among other people. The turmoil and falseness will tear you apart inside, and cracks will form on the surface. It's best to have a reckoning with yourself, no matter how painful. What abilities, relationships and personal traits have you left untended? What fears and pains did you ignore as they festered? Did you manage to do some good? What don't you regret? And what comes next?

2) Don't expect too much from others.
I almost wrote this as "don’t expect much of anyone," but it sounded like a bit of grumbling misanthropy, which isn't my intention. What I mean is that people don't owe you things - not love or success or approval - and they're not to be confronted with a feeling of entitlement or burdened with too many lofty expectations. There might be people in your life who are generally much better than others at understanding you and treating you with love, care and generosity of spirit, but they're still human, and they can't read minds.  This isn't about accepting bad treatment from others; it's about seeing them as they are and not putting unreasonable burdens on them.  With an attitude of not expecting too much you're more likely to receive good things with gratitude instead of taking them for granted. And if you're in a bad situation or the target of toxic behavior you might be able to deal with it more effectively instead of spending a lot of time railing at everyone and everything about the unfairness of it all.

3) Demand the best of yourself
By"the best" I don't mean someone else's best or a set of superhuman expectations that you will either never try to live up to or will inevitably fall far short of if you do try, resulting in shame, guilt, inertia, melancholy, and perhaps an eensy bit of satisfaction that you managed to sabotage yourself so nicely. Don't set up your life so that you're spending most of your time licking your wounds and feeling sorry for yourself.  What do you love and hope for? What do you want to give to the world? How do you want to improve? Set goals, plan out the steps you'll need to take towards them, and expect that if you mess up or if things don't go your way, you'll pick yourself up, reassess, learn and keep going. Over and over.

4) You can't demand the best of yourself without being able to forgive yourself
A lack of forgiveness suggests little hope and faith.  Under these circumstances it's much harder to work well, live well, and see your own efforts as worthwhile because you're not really focused on the future (or on the present) anyway.  It's also much harder to avoid similar mistakes or poor choices in the future and to repair past wrongs, because you feel that your efforts will be useless.  Guilt and regret are meant to prod you towards meaningful change; they aren't signs that everything you do is futile and that there's no hope for you.  Don't be so hard on yourself.  Pining for inhuman perfection will keep you from being productive, loving, and engaged with life.

5) Figure out why you're procrastinating
It's not always easy to identify 'wasted time,' because 'wasted time' can give you inspired ideas and necessary relaxation.  Or it can wear you down and make you miss opportunities.  It's also a matter of attitude: you look at what you did yesterday or the day before, and you may see something good in it, some potential, or just dismiss it out of hand as lost time.  Either way it's not coming back.  Often it's a gut feeling: you know you're wasting time and putting off the important things, but you can't seem to stop procrastinating.  Why? Ask yourself what it is you're afraid of or what you hope to avoid.  Are you setting yourself up to fail? Maybe you think the work is fundamentally worthless or pointless; you can't think of a meaningful purpose for it.  Maybe you want to keep things exactly as they are and not face any surprises.  In any case, really think about why it is you're procrastinating (sincerely think about it, and don't just use it as yet another exercise in pointless procrastination).

6) An all-or-nothing attitude is counterproductive
One way to hold back from doing anything meaningful is by telling yourself that you won't bring about a perfect outcome or solution.  Either you want everything "just right" (whatever that means), or it's not worth doing at all: another example of superhuman expectations.  With that attitude there wouldn't be civilization.  No society can prevent or justly punish all crimes; does this mean we should stop writing and enforcing laws and stop fighting to redress judicial wrongs? Contributing to a charity won't prevent or stop every instance of hunger or sickness or pain in the world, but could it improve the life of at least one person? An all-or-nothing attitude is an excuse not to work towards anything worthwhile for yourself and others.

7) Instability is a fundamental part of life
Circumstances are always changing.  You're changing.  Life is fragile.  Living involves a series of adjustments, sometimes minute, other times huge and staggering.  If you pretend otherwise you will stagnate and be blindsided by circumstance.  There's a lifelong struggle for balance as you deal with all the shifts around you and in you.  You want to have a steady sense of self, a steady purpose, without being too inflexible or too changeable.  

8) There's no escaping from yourself
So don't be passive about your life.  And don't let others tell you what you should be; they're not the ones who will live every second of every day with the results of those choices.  Hear other people out, learn from them, value meaningful criticism, but ultimately make your own choices.  Words of approval and acceptance can feel like everything but they aren't, especially if they come from people who want you to compromise yourself.  They might have the best intentions.  They might think their advice will spare you from future pain and disappointment.  Their good intentions might also be mixed up with (or superseded entirely by) other motives: the need to control you, the need to live through you, etc.  If you're not what they want you to be then you become difficult and unmanageable.

9) Being kind is undervalued
It's seen as a weakness, or as a trait to develop in yourself if you aren't clever, good-looking, young, or rich.  There's a misconception that it's easy to be kind, because anyone can do kind things.  And it's true; anyone can.  But it's not always easy.  Not when you're having a bad day, when your temper is foul or when you're frustrated and other people are right there as perfect targets for your anger.  It's not easy when you're feeling short-changed and bitter, or when the people you're kind to respond rudely or ignore your efforts.  Part of being truly kind is also discerning the individual needs of different people, as opposed to pushing the same kind of charity or help on everyone regardless of who they are and what they really want or need; this can be very difficult to do well (and under some circumstances almost impossible).

10) Have patience
You will rarely get immediate results.  You will rarely get the exact results you expect.

11) "Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts."
You said it, Churchill.


Be well, and have a great new year.

Week in Seven Words #99

Near the athletic complex I walk through a network of trails and elevated walkways without being sure where I'll wind up: on the main street or on a lonely embankment by the river. 

Two people in stark contrast: one of them doesn't say outright that he cares but shows it, while the other one proclaims in a smooth, affected voice that he cares (really really cares) but gives little evidence of it in his actions. 

The last of my old office is cleaned out. I close the door behind me and look back only once.

I carry a notebook with me because I never know when I might see my way through a dead end in the plot. 

Lunch at the park on a stone ledge with the sunlight sinking in between the trees; I can't think of a December where I was able to eat comfortably outdoors. 

I watch a movie to relax a little and celebrate, and as it turns out some of the themes are fitting for the day: people strive, accomplish, and move on. They don't rest on their laurels. 

Two candles on the menorah tip towards each other and share a flame.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Worth Watching: Pillow Talk (1959)

Title: Pillow Talk
Director: Michael Gordon
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Jan Morrow (Doris Day) is an interior decorator who leads an uncomplicated life fending off the advances of a friend and client, Jonathan Forbes (Tony Randall), and preparing hangover remedies for her maid, Alma (Thelma Ritter). The one disturbance in her life is that she doesn't have a private phone line in her home but has to share a party line with a man she's never laid eyes on before: Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), a songwriter who holds up the line sweet-talking a succession of women. Jan and Brad bicker over the phone, with Brad initially writing her off as a prude with bedroom problems, but when he realizes who she is and what she looks like he decides to seduce her. Figuring that she'd reject him out of hand if he reveals his true identity, he masks his voice with what's supposed to be a Texan accent and introduces himself as Rex Stetson. One thing leads to another, the truth comes to light, the lothario loses his heart, and Jan gets her revenge as only an interior decorator can.

Doris Day in Pillow Talk

Rock Hudson's character annoyed me for most of the film with his fake Texan accent and relentless dishonesty, and by the time he gets around to humbling himself a little I still didn't like him.  At least he's lovely to look at and seemed to have fun with his part.

Doris Day plays Jan as a sharp self-possessed woman with a warm smile.  It's not often that she falls in love but when she does her feet get knocked out from under her.  Day delivers her witty lines crisply, and she's overall a good leading lady for this film.

But the film is worth watching most for Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter. Randall gets good screen time as Jonathan Forbes, not only because he's trying to woo Jan but because he's also Brad Allen's best friend.  Jonathan is sly, neurotic, rich, and in his own way quite honest about himself; the film gives him some terrific lines, and he fills the screen with a simmering manic energy.  He's the kind of guy who courts a woman by telling her that his previous three marriages "were just a revolt against my mother" and reacts to his best friend's dishonesty by saying: "I should have listened to my psychiatrist; he told me never to trust anyone but him!"

Then there's Thelma Ritter as Jan's maid, Alma, who reports to work each morning with a hangover (telling the elevator man, after a ride up to her employer's apartment, "you don't have to break the sound barrier").  Even when she's woozy Alma can still see things pretty clearly; she's straightforward, straight-talking, and likes her drinks neat.  I looked forward to Ritter's appearances in the film, just as I did with Randall.  At some point I was even hoping for a bizarre twist where Alma and Jonathan decide to get hitched, with Alma mothering him and Jonathan keeping her supplied with quality liquor.

You know Jan and Brad will get together at the end; even their names sound similar. Enough said about them.  I thought Jonathan and Brad's friendship was a treat.  It's fun to have a friend like Jonathan; he doesn't stay mad at you, and when he's cackling over your downfall he's still courteous enough to fix you a drink.  As for him and Jan, they may have no romantic chemistry, but their banter can be really sweet and funny.

Memorable sights and sounds
Jan is a snappy dresser.  Snappy clothes, snappy dialogue, sharp colors, and a classy Doris Day.

An evening dress worn by Doris Day in Pillow Talk

There's also a memorable interior decorating job towards the end.

Stand-out scenes
At one point Brad figures that in order to win over Jan, he'll need to get to her through Alma.  He doesn't count on Alma drinking him under the table.

Thelma Ritter and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk

Another good scene features Perry Blackwell, a pianist and singer, performing at a club. She sings "Roly Poly" with Doris Day (which got stuck in my head), and a couple of other songs including one that takes a sly jab at Brad and his lying.

Further thoughts
If this movie were a drink it would be a strawberry kiwi daiquiri with a little turquoise umbrella sticking out the top.

*All images link back to their source (Rotten Tomatoes).

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Worth Watching: The Defiant Ones (1958)

Title: The Defiant Ones
Director: Stanley Kramer
Language: English
Rating: PG

'Joker' Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) are both serving time in a chain gang in the southern US. When a van transporting them crashes on a rainy night, they take the opportunity to escape. The problem is they're chained to each other, a highly unusual (pretty much unrealistic) circumstance in the segregated South. In order to outpace their pursuers and survive, they're forced to tone down their mutual animosity and work together. As they struggle through forests and swamps and narrowly escape a lynch mob, a bond slowly forms between them which is tested when they reach a farm run by a lonely woman (Cara Williams) who seems to offer them their first real shot at freedom.

Brilliant acting from both Curtis and Poitier. Curtis plays 'Joker' Jackson as a man with a giant chip on his shoulder. He feels he's always been short-changed in life and never became anyone important; even the crime he's serving time for was a petty theft, nothing memorable and bold. Jackson's face often twists up as he thinks about all the things he wants in life that remain out of reach. As for Cullen, he knows all too well what that's like, and unlike Jackson he doesn't have a chance at real upward mobility; as a black man in the segregated South, he's been told from an early age that he has to just grin and bear it. "Be nice," he mutters at one point, mimicking people who have given him well-meaning advice. "Be nice."

Poitier plays Noah Cullen as reflective, coolly defiant and principled, with anger simmering inside him. He's not one to shy away from confrontation. He was put in the chain gang for assault, and he doesn't let Jackson talk down to him or get away with racist insults. Because that's one of Jackson's few consolations - poor as he is, he can try to claim superiority to Cullen. But Cullen fights back, physically and verbally. At the same time there are moments even early on when he treats Jackson with a tired sympathy, an understanding of Jackson's festering disappointments. And Jackson himself, when he can push aside his bitterness, shows concern and a troubled conscience, especially later in the film.

Joker Jackson and Noah Cullen

The well-written dialogue and the performances turned in by Curtis and Poitier would have been enough to make this a strong film, but there are a couple of memorable supporting characters who also add to its richness. One of them is Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who's in charge of the search party pursuing the escaped convicts. Instead of making him a ruthless and relentless hunting machine of the sort typically seen in movies, the filmmakers wrote him as a decent guy who balances justice with mercy. He prefers to have the convicts back alive and not as bullet-ridden or dog-bitten carcasses. At several points, he needs to persuade his colleagues to use restraint.

Theodore Bikel as Sheriff Max Muller

And then there's the lonely woman on the farm (Cara Williams). I'll call her Lonely Woman (like the song sung by Sarah Vaughan) because it seems the filmmakers didn't give her a name, though oddly enough they named her young son Billy (Kevin Coughlin) even though his part is smaller. Lonely Woman is lonely because her husband abandoned her and Billy, and there's no one around for miles; her farm is relatively isolated, making it ideal for two convicts to spend the night. Though one of the primary purposes of her character is to show how Jackson has changed in the course of the film, she's an interesting person in her own right. When a couple of chained convicts turn up at her home, she takes it in stride. She's watchful, cautious, with a sharp eye for opportunity. Like Jackson, she's desperate to see the world and leave her current life behind her.

Cara Williams

I like how Jackson and Cullen confront one another repeatedly in this film, not just in angry and violent conflict but also in conversation; their speech is more intense than their physical fights, especially when they're reminiscing or assessing their lives. Jackson can't keep on ignoring Cullen's humanity. By the end of the film, he'll be placed in a position where he'll have to decide what's worth more: his own freedom or Cullen's life.

As for Lonely Woman, she and Jackson are kindred spirits. Had Jackson met her at the start of the film, her racist attitude towards Cullen wouldn't have given him pause, but by the time he stumbles into her farmhouse he's grown a little in understanding, while she's had no similar opportunity. Their brief connection is nonetheless powerful, and I admire Tony Curtis and Cara Williams for the way they let their characters' attraction simmer through long speculative glances across the kitchen - and then later in a soul-baring conversation in the dark, their faces full of yearning.

Memorable sights and sounds
Cullen's singing, especially at the end of the film. He sings because he can; there's no law against it. He sings with a kind of strained brightness, as if he's dragging his voice out into the sunlight. His singing can serve as a wall between himself and his circumstances, a shield he holds up to deflect attack. He also uses it to provoke others; I suspect he secretly itches for someone to try to shut him up so he can retaliate.

Stand-out scenes
I mentioned earlier the soul-baring conversation between Lonely Woman and Jackson; it's a luminous scene. They have real humanity. They're flawed, their attitudes can be downright ugly, but they also evoke sympathy. That's part of the beauty of the The Defiant Ones.

One of the stand-out conversations between Jackson and Cullen takes place at night when they're hiding on the outskirts of a village and waiting for the opportunity to break into the grocery store and steal some food. It's probably their most civil exchange in the movie so far. It doesn't mean they suddenly like each other, only that they relate to each other as men who are frustrated at every turn, well-acquainted with disappointment but not resigned to their lot in life. As they talk, they watch lights in the village houses slowly flick off.  What follows is mob justice, a desperate and despicable protest made by Jackson as he pleads for his life, and a wonderful appearance by Lon Chaney Jr. as one of those rare people who can be a voice of reason when everyone else is calling for blood.

Further thoughts
These questions keep coming up throughout the film: What does it take to get other people's respect? And what does it mean to really respect yourself?

*All images link back to their sources (Flixster Community and Rotten Tomatoes).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "Puss-Cat" and "The White Cat"

Collection: Tails of Wonder and Imagination: Cat Stories
Editor: Ellen Datlow

Title: Puss-Cat
Author: Reggie Oliver

Godfrey is a washed up theater actor who used to perform in supporting roles alongside the late Sir Roderick Bentley, a legendary thespian. In the story Godfrey is sitting around talking about Roderick ("Roddy") over drinks, and even though Godfrey is an interesting man in his own right - world-weary and full of forced cheer, his tongue loosened by drink - you sense that his life has revolved and will always revolve around Roddy. "Puss-cat" is the term of endearment that Roddy, an insatiable womanizer, used for all of his girlfriends and mistresses, and Godfrey spends the most time talking about one of them: Yolande, an ingenue who caught Roderick's attention after she berated him for hurting a stray cat that hung around the theater where they were rehearsing. As Godfrey puts it:
Yolande, you see, was one of those people who is instantly drawn to anything even more defenceless than herself.

There's so much deliciousness in this story, the way it's crafted in a loose narrative where each detail slips in at just the right moment. In Godfrey's reminiscences the characters come alive: Roddy, grand and careless, the charismatic egotist par excellence, and Yolande, who is way in over her head when it comes to love and life and the often sordid business of theater. And Godfrey himself, with his witty asides and drink-deadened heart, what little surprises he has in store for us. I love how the humor in the story can suddenly give way to a deep bruising darkness.

I also love the detail about each theater having its own cat, a stray who saunters around and owns the place (and keeps mice from chewing on wires and cables). Isn't it curious that Roddy, a man of the theater who calls all his girlfriends "puss-cat," really hates cats? Theater cats are a critical part of this tale.


Title: The White Cat
Author: Joyce Carol Oates

There was a gentleman of independent means who, at about the age of fifty-six, conceived of a passionate hatred for his much-younger wife's white Persian cat.

Julius Muir is in his fifties; Alissa, his wife, is in her thirties. It's her second marriage, and his first. She's pursuing an acting career in the city and spends a lot of time with her circle of theater friends, including men her own age. Julius meantime hangs around his large estate outside the city collecting valuables and wondering why he still feels lonely.

Into this picture of marital health steps Miranda, the cat. Miranda seems to show affection to everyone but Julius, and it drives him up the wall. He bought her, didn't he? Out of his loving, considerate heart he gave her as a gift to his wife, to cuddle and dote on. He sustains her, provides her with a home. Why won't she let him touch her? Why won't she love him? If someone were to ask him, "Julius, dear boy, is it really the cat that's bothering you or is it your wife?" he would say that of course it's not his wife. He loves his wife; it's just her cat he can't stand. Her beautiful ungrateful cat.

So he starts plotting how to kill the cat and make it look like an accident. It's a sad spectacle for the most part. Creepy and pitiable. He married a woman who is unsuited to him and to his ideal of marriage, and he thinks offing her cat will change things? But he's not really thinking, is he; he's going off the deep end.

Sometimes a story has a dominant color, and for this one it's a pale icy blue. Husband and wife may be cordial to one another but there's a chill on the marriage. Even Julius Muir's passions give off little heat. I see him bluish and oxygen-starved, with little to nourish him from within or from without.

Love can't be bought or demanded. And revenge doesn't always go as planned. It's painful to watch Julius square off against a house cat, and feel the futility of everything he does. Tormented by the thought that maybe a man like him can't inspire love.


Other stories from this collection: Coyote Peyote (by Carole Nelson Douglas), Every Angel is Terrifying (by John Kessel), Tiger in the Snow (by Daniel Wynn Barber), Gordon the Self-Made Cat by Peter S. Beagle, and Guardians by George R. R. Martin.


This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #23 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Week in Seven Words #98

It's an older part of the city, and it's nearly empty. I like it that way - quiet with cobblestone paths, grass, old bridges over dried-up streams, old brick homes topped with ornate weathervanes, gardens abandoned in winter, their fountains dry.

It comes on a soft bun with dark green lettuce, raw onion, salsa, guacamole, and spicy chipotle sauce. They call it the El Mariachi burger. It's a good burger.

80s teen movie: stale classrooms, social misfits, angst, puffy hair, and Molly Ringwald.

Different authors writing on completely different topics can have a beautiful resonance in one's mind. While picking over a creative problem, I come across an essay on Aldous Huxley by the departed Christopher Hitchens and some wonderful passages from May Sarton's Journal of a Solitude, and they sound an intriguing chord in my thoughts.

At the park I follow a faint thread of music and find two pairs of swing dancers by the fountain.

I'm starting to really understand what a precious gift this time is. So much is up in the air, but it's a beautiful opportunity nonetheless. I'll kick myself if I miss out on it and don't do what I'm called to do at the moment.

At the supermarket it's non-stop holiday jingles. And I want to know why so many of the recent recordings are sung in a breathy melodramatic quaver. It's a holiday jingle. Sleigh bells ring-ting-tingling should hopefully not evoke emotional torment.

Week in Seven Words #97

The world's a mop bucket.

A cold and squelchy afternoon. Rain plops onto my red umbrella.

On the train some people carry large open bags full of smaller rustling bags, magazines, paperback novels, crumbled cookies and leaky sandwiches; one woman pulls out a Yuletide stocking and starts stuffing it with chocolates. Other people are more spare and self-contained: all they need is a laptop and headphones, and they're settled inside a world within a moving world.

Even when there are no new messages or calls coming in, email and phone can be so distracting.

Washing jeans by hand requires some energy and open-mindedness (agitating the soapy water is the fun part, rinsing is slightly less fun). Smelling of lavender they dry nicely even indoors, in that little nook by the window fan.

It's a terrible thing when someone holds out a hope to you and then snatches it back.

As we walk at dusk he tells me that I brighten his day.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Queen liked Scrabble

I like Queen; I've listened to their music since I was a kid. I haven't looked up the more recent concerts with Brian May and Roger Taylor, because for me Queen isn't Queen without the four of them: May, Taylor, John Deacon, and of course Freddie Mercury.

I'm also a fan of Scrabble. So it was a delight to find this little Youtube clip of the group playing Scrabble while touring. They've never really fit the stereotypical rocker image (a few years ago May - lead guitarist, the guy with the big curly head of hair - completed his PhD in astrophysics).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Autumn in Philly

I've posted twice on Autumn in New York, but Philadelphia is beautiful too in the fall.








Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Haircut"

Collection: The House of Fiction (2nd ed.)
Editors: Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate

Title: A Good Man is Hard to Find
Author: Flannery O'Connor

A family goes on a road trip - a father, a mother with a baby on her lap, two bratty older kids, and a grandmother who has smuggled along her cat - and they end their journey at the mercy of a killer who has escaped from jail. The killer, known as The Misfit, attempts to be philosophical about what he does. He and the grandmother talk about faith and morals as his lackeys lead the family two and three at a time deeper into the forest. The tension, suspense, and feeling of dread remain intense even on a second reading; knowing what will happen allows you to recognize foreshadowing details. This is a story I still think about, mostly the conversation between the grandmother and the killer.
The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was.

Throughout the story the grandmother shows a powerful streak of selfishness and shortsightedness, but there's something heart-breaking about her too even from the start - her attempt to remain relevant to the world and to her family, and prove that she's right and sees things clearly. That she's got a solid, unshakeable view of the world. Her family is dismissive of her, ignoring or scoffing at her opinions. To get what she wants at one point she tells a lie, a seemingly harmless, child-like embellishment that nudges them off the main road and into the killer's territory; when she realizes that she's lied just as much to herself as to her family, that her memory of cherished past events is faulty, her violent reaction leads to their car crashing. So the breakdown of her worldview proceeds.

The grandmother places a lot of stock in good blood and respectable manners, and seems to believe that those qualities alone are sufficient protections against evil; she's too well-bred to ever be evil herself, she thinks, and her lady-like ways will surely shield her from attack. When confronted by The Misfit she tries to save her skin by saying she's a lady. At the very end, grieving and desperate, with everything she cares about stripped from her, it seems she has returned to a more child-like state (or at least a time when she was much younger, before establishing a more solid, certain position in the world). It's a state from which she can start anew; she has gone closer to the root of herself, the source of her misunderstandings about life. Does she see things more clearly now? Or will she just flail in her grief and confusion, and try to latch onto anything that might offer comfort?

When she finally tells the murderer, "you're one of my own children," what does she mean? If it's a simple affirmation of a human bond between them, how much of this perceived bond is influenced by the fact that he's by that point wearing her son's shirt? Has the shirt facilitated a deeper understanding of shared humanity, or provided a comforting delusion she tries to latch onto? (That her boy, a "good man," is still with her… perhaps in a different form.)

Earlier, she had kept insisting that The Misfit must come from good family, good blood; she professed a faith in him based on no real evidence - by the end, is calling him her son a new manifestation of that desperate belief, or does she gain a fresh insight into the heart of The Misfit, and also into herself - an admission that her good blood and breeding have meant nothing, now that she has nothing; she and the Misfit are two people with nothing meaningful on Earth left to them. So she will reach out to him, for now he's truly a child of hers, with the same lot in life, and sharing a humanity with her own.

The Misfit, throwing the grandmother's values back in her face from the start, has a thoughtful air and gentlemanly manners that stand out all the more when contrasted with his brutality. In his conversation with the grandmother he seems to want a sympathetic audience, someone to understand his take on morality, see him, make sense of him and grant him some generosity of soul; but when the grandmother reaches out for him at the end, he can't bear it. He hates her touch, maybe because he doesn't trust her understanding of him; he can't stand the faith that might be delusion. Or maybe because her loving gesture, her desperate, whole-hearted impulse towards connection, reminds him of everything he's rejected throughout his rootless life.


Title: Haircut
Author: Ring Lardner

In "Haircut" a small-town barber reminisces about a fellow townsman, Jim Kendall, who died recently. He refers to Kendall as a good-natured prankster, but every anecdote he shares unintentionally reveals that Kendall was a cruel man, the kind of guy who could destroy a reputation or a life with a laugh and gloat about it after.

Like the barber, Kendall's friends and acquaintances were cheerful callous bystanders; they laughed along with him and didn't care about the scars he left on others. When Kendall dies it's not at any of their hands. The barber talks about some other people who in one way or another never fit into the town's society and so were naturally the butt of Kendall's attacks; if Kendall had power over someone, including members of his own family, he would exploit it. At the end, after he's brought about misery and heartbreak, he dies in a way that he might have found kind of funny had he ever been able to laugh at himself.

I admire Lardner's skill with characterization, and how he tells a compelling story through the barber's secondhand account. The barber and others like him are willfully blind to evil. They encourage it, delight in it, and let it run rampant. If enough people are laughing, then nothing can possibly be wrong; it's just a joke.


[Updated: 1/2015]

"A Good Man Is Hard to Find" can also be found in this anthology.

This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #22 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Week in Seven Words #96

Thanks to my Scrabble partner I find out that this is a kind of rough basaltic lava. It's also a great way to get rid of superfluous vowels and fit words into tight corners of the board.

It's a small cozy café with pizza, lasagna, salads and soups, and only a handful of tables. What makes the place itself special is one of the people who works there. He flirts and jokes, and in the middle of our meal walks up to us and shares a tale about a carpenter who reunites a pair of estranged brothers by building a bridge over the river that separates their properties.

I'm heading down the street on wobbly legs. Clearly I need to lie down. But first, a stop at the library.

Recently this stretch of sidewalk had a leafy golden roof, grand and bright like a corridor in an Oriental palace. Now it looks gutted, the leaves gone and the branches like brittle kindling.

As I approach the river the wind rakes through me, and even the buildings shiver.

I bring Fantasia with me and watch them laugh at the dancing hippos and the fairies spreading rime and dewdrops on pliant leaves.

With every phone call I feel a spike of tension. I don't know what the news will be on the other end. I can only pray for the best.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Good Short Fiction: "The Blue-Winged Teal" and "The National Pastime"

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: The Blue-Winged Teal
Author: Wallace Stegner

After Henry Lederer's mother dies, he leaves school to stay with his father, John, who has quickly slipped back into the kind of life he led before his marriage: a life of poolrooms, cheap hotel rooms, and girlfriends with "unreal hair" and perfume "like some gaseous poison tainting the clothes it touched." Henry's mother had held the family together; when she was alive his father had possessed a decent job and home. Now Henry can barely stand to look at his father, whose regression to his old life seems to show contempt for Henry's mother.
Henry had no desire to ease the strain that had been between them for months. He did not forgive his father the poolhall, or forget the way the old man had sprung back into the old pattern, as if his wife had been a jailer and he was now released.

Henry plans to tell his father that he's leaving; he'll go and get a job elsewhere and eventually return to school.
They could part without an open quarrel, maybe, but they would part without love. They could part right now, within an hour.

The evening he decides to announce that he's leaving, he discovers something that changes the way he sees his father and himself. In the poolhall his father brings up Henry's mother in a conversation that touches on chinaware and blue-winged teals, and Henry sees his father's eyes before the older man hurries from the room.
You know nothing at all, you know less than nothing because you know things wrong.

People struggle with grief in different ways; Henry's father has given up on himself. Could Henry help prop his father up, the way his mother did? Maybe his father is too old and too lost, beyond help, or maybe Henry doesn't have it in him to stay there in the poolhall underworld and try to pull his father out bit by bit without losing himself in the darkness. Henry is young, and he wants his own life; he wants the sunlight and the wider world. Maybe the only consolation offered to the sad, damaged characters in "The Blue-Winged Teal" is the son's more sympathetic understanding of his father.


Title: The National Pastime
Author: John Cheever

To be an American and unable to play baseball is comparable to being a Polynesian and unable to swim.

A classic American image is a father and son playing catch with a baseball on the lawn outside their home. As a young boy, Eben had once dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player and on a fateful Sunday afternoon had asked his father to play catch with him. His father, Leander, at first refused, then grudgingly consented following a private quarrel with Eben's mother. The two of them faced each other on the lawn, and what happened next scarred Eben for years to come:
Then I turned my head to see something - a boat on the river. He threw the ball, and it got me in the nape of the neck and stretched me out unconscious... When I came to, my nose was bleeding and my mouth was full of blood. I felt that I was being drowned.

From then on, baseball makes Eben feel physically sick. Through his childhood and into his adulthood, he tries with mixed success to hide his fear. His abnormal feelings towards baseball stem from his abnormal relationship with his father. Leander, the son of a ship's master, is dramatic and mentally unstable. He resents his son's very existence. He quotes from Shakespeare and could be a Shakespearean character himself, a wild and wily king presiding over his country house outside of St. Botolph's, Massachusetts. He haunts his son, even from afar.

The story follows Eben into adulthood. He marries, becomes a father. His life with his wife and kids is loving and untroubled, free of the dysfunctional family dynamics that marked his childhood. For a long while he can't really make peace with his past or lay it to rest, and the taste of blood in his mouth emerges during baseball games like a nasty smell from behind a closed door. Wounds deeply inflicted can emerge in absurd ways, and Cheever writes about the characters and their circumstances with a touch of dark humor. Leander himself is a mix of tragic and comic, a mean old man and an eccentric codger.


Other stories in this collection include: The Girls in Their Summer Dresses (by Irwin Shaw) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman), along with Silent Snow, Secret Snow (by Conrad Aiken) and The Damned Thing (by Ambrose Bierce).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"It's good to live it again"

A little over a year ago I posted photos of autumn in New York - more specifically Central Park - that I took on Thanksgiving weekend 2010.

Now just this past Thanksgiving I returned to Central Park with my camera, for another taste of my favorite season in one of the loveliest places I know of.






Thursday, December 1, 2011


"Cast-offs" is a short story I wrote that's been published in the December issue of Halfway Down the Stairs. Their theme for December is Farewell.

If you're interested in reading the story, here's the link. I'll also add it to the list of my writing at the top of the page.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Week in Seven Words #95

My plate has something of everything: turkey and spicy beef, mashed yams and herbed potatoes, cranberry sauce, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and a slender wedge of potato pashtida (a Jewish/Israeli frittata/quiche type of food, cooked here without a crust). Apple cider is served for drinks, and for dessert there's some of the sweet corn bread that was baking while we ate dinner.

Infants can look more solemn, critical and perceptive than the adults around them.

While gift-shopping at a bookstore I see cupcakes everywhere: cupcake calendars, cupcake recipe books, cupcakes on cards. Maybe there's always been a plethora of cupcake products, and I haven't noticed. Now they leap out at me in shades of pastel lavender and dark blotchy chocolate, kittenish pink and creamy white, sporting sprinkles or periwinkle candles.

We leave the paved path by the lake and go down a muddier offshoot; damp and soft, it coils past rocks and crackling bushes with berries.

I love the painstaking way they spell and write, focusing intently on each letter as if they realize how vulnerable language is to error and miscommunication. And each word they spell correctly is a door springing open.

My new glasses seem to have finally made peace with my brain and eyes.

She uses scrap paper, old shoeboxes, felt, string and other odds and ends for her crafts projects; things that her family might have thrown out become the cards and presents she gives them on special occasions.

Good Short Fiction: 3 tales from The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories
Editor: A.S. Byatt

Title: The Destructors
Author: Graham Greene

In London several boys have formed a gang. They content themselves with playing games and committing petty infractions, until a new member makes a more radical suggestion: to destroy the one house in the neighborhood that wasn't bombed during the Blitz. The man who lives there knows some of the boys, and they have nothing against him personally. But the thought of tearing down the home and everything in it - every possession, every piece of furniture, every plank and pipe and wall panel - is irresistible. They wait for the man to leave his house on a brief holiday, and they begin their work.

As I read this I thought of William Golding's Lord of the Flies and found Greene's story to be more chilling in some ways. The destruction here takes place in the heart of civilization, and it isn't driven by anything like revenge, anger, bloodlust or other out-of-control emotions. The boys don't steal anything, and they even admit that they don't hate the homeowner. In systematically destroying the house from the inside, while leaving the outer walls to collapse last, they work like single-minded termites. It's a kind of pure impersonal evil, not fueled by any emotion or ideology, except perhaps for the excitement of destruction and some deep-seated antipathy towards anything beautiful and worthwhile; maybe this uncompromising need to destroy lies at the core of every evil act. They spare nothing in the house, and wipe out every vestige of the man's identity within it. That this happens in a neighborhood already scarred by the Second World War makes it even more disturbing. The house survived the bombings only to succumb to a different manifestation of evil that seems inescapable; it's a part of day-to-day life, in wartime and peacetime, and exists even in the hearts of children.


Title: Solid Objects
Author: Virginia Woolf

The story begins with two men arguing politics as they walk along a beach. We don't hear the substance of their argument, and soon they give it up in favor of resting on the sand for a while. One of them throws pieces of slate out onto the ocean, letting them skim over the waves; the other man, whose name is John, wriggles his fingers into the sand - a childlike gesture - and finds a piece of green glass resembling a gemstone.

From then on he becomes obsessed with finding broken discarded objects that have an interesting appearance, such as fantastically shaped pieces of pottery and china, smooth lumps of iron and chunks of rock.
Anything so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything—china, glass, amber, rock, marble—even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do.

As he combs through alleys, shrubs, and train tracks, his political career quietly implodes. Human affairs seem like background noise or faded wallpaper in comparison to the vivid objects that John finds; the objects endure as John's life slips by in his constant search for more of them. Each new find has to be more interesting than the last one. John's ambitions have been diverted into strange channels; the story never touches on what his political positions were, or what he had hoped to get out of life before discovering that first piece of green glass on the beach. None of it seems to matter.


Title: The Toys of Peace
Author: Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)

Harvey Bope has been asked by his sister to buy some peaceful toys for her sons, Bertie and Eric, when he next visits. The National Peace Council has recommended that boys be given toys that have nothing to do with war, so as to foster more peaceful impulses in them. Harvey is skeptical that "peace toys" will have any impact on his nephews' inclinations, but he decides to try the experiment. He brings them something altogether different from "the 'Siege of Adrianople' toy" they received from their Aunt Susan:
"It's a fort!" exclaimed Bertie.

"It isn't, it's the palace of the Mpret of Albania," said Eric, immensely proud of his knowledge of the exotic title; "it's got no windows, you see, so that passers-by can't fire in at the Royal Family."

"It's a municipal dust-bin," said Harvey hurriedly; "you see all the refuse and litter of a town is collected there, instead of lying about and injuring the health of the citizens."

In addition to the municipal dust-bin he's brought other civic buildings (including a municipal wash-house), along with figurines of civilian leaders. The kinds of toys, and the boys' reaction to them, are hilarious. The boys' resourcefulness is also a delight, as they turn the peaceful figurines and buildings into war toys:
Peeping in through the doorway Harvey observed that the municipal dustbin had been pierced with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannon...

Clever and funny as the story is, it also has an underlying sadness. When Harvey observes at the end that he and his sister "have begun too late" in their peace toy experiment, you sense that he's not just talking about how old the boys are but about humanity as a whole.

Bertie and Eric, inspired by the riveting accounts of past battles they've read about, play at war with swashbuckling dialogue and cheerful slaughter. There's still an innocence to their play, because they don't know what it's like to be in real battle. In their lifetime there will be two world wars. H.H. Munro himself didn't survive WWI; when the war began he voluntarily fought as a soldier and was killed in France in 1916. The collection in which this story first appeared, The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, was published posthumously in 1919.


Other recommended stories in this collection include At Hiruharama (by Penelope Fitzgerald) and Nuns at Luncheon (by Aldous Huxley).

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A smurf, a goose head and gratitude



It's funny how I thought I'd be able to walk through Times Square this morning. I caught the tail-end of the Thanksgiving Parade. I'm not a fan of standing around watching parades, so the short time I was there was good enough for me. I'm glad I didn't remember about the parade's location in advance either, because the floats were a pleasant surprise. Giant smurfs make me smile. The dangling head of what looks like Mother Goose both creeped me out a little and made me smile, not that I have anything against Mother Goose.

To get to the 1-line subway platform at the Times Square stop, I wound up making a detour around the crowds and into the Port Authority station, which felt like a rabbit warren. Good thing the signs were clear so I could know where I was going.

Here's a nice video from a Jewish site. The topic is blessings as a form of gratitude; as long as we're alive we can express gratitude. Whether or not you're Jewish or religious the video gives a sense of perspective on life's problems and a reminder of things to be grateful for, so I thought I'd share it on Thanksgiving.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Worth Watching: Miss Potter (2006)

Title: Miss Potter
Director: Chris Noonan
Language: English
Rating: PG

Based on events in the life of Beatrix Potter, the film begins with Beatrix (Renée Zellweger) seeking out publishers for The Tale of Peter Rabbit. In one publishing house she's grudgingly assigned to the most inexperienced editor, Norman Warne (Ewan McGregor), with the expectation that her book will flop. Instead Beatrix becomes a popular author, with Peter Rabbit the first of many characters she introduces to the world. The film depicts her vivid imagination, her love of writing, art, and the natural world, and the way she uproots herself, with love and losses along the way, from the London home she shares with her parents to Hill Top Farm in England's Lake District.

The gentleness of the film tempers the characters. Even Beatrix's mother, Helen (Barbara Flynn), is not as abrasive as she might have been; she isn't malicious but exasperated, unable to understand her daughter's inclinations (though it still feels as if the film flattened her character to turn her into a mouthpiece of upper class snobbery). Beatrix gets sniffed at for being an unmarried lady with literary and artistic dreams, and until she meets Norman her work is viewed with condescension. But the film has no real villains.

What Beatrix struggles against is a world of stultifying constraints and soft expectations. Her passion for her work keeps her from getting dragged into a narrow life with a stale social circle and handful of acceptable activities. Beatrix resists, sometimes angrily but for the most part playfully. At the start of the film she has no friends except for the characters she's imagined. The money she eventually earns as a best-selling author allows her greater freedom from other people's control and grants her the ability to lead her own life, a world inhabited by her characters and by the people she loves.

Printing the book

Beatrix Potter's drawings are the most vibrant characters in the film, and the other characters - Beatrix herself, Norman, Beatrix's kindly father, Rupert (Bill Paterson), who gave up his own artistic dreams - tend to be at their most lively when their thoughts and hearts are caught up with Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddleduck.

The film shows the self-realization of an individual, an author and artist who finds her true home and reaches a kind of peace in her life. Norman and his sister, Millie (Emily Watson), are the first people who see Beatrix for who she is, unconditionally.

At first Beatrix and Norman are partners and co-conspirators; Beatrix wants to get her work published, and Norman wants to prove that he can back a successful book. Their partnership develops into a warm friendship full of mutual admiration, which further develops into love. Both of them are awkward and shy. They grow towards one another like two odd plants mingling their leaves and letting their stems intertwine.

Beatrix and Norman

Millie and Beatrix, who are close, steadfast friends, make for an interesting contrast in character. Millie is more bold and outspoken than Beatrix; she likes to make a statement, to joke and say shocking things, whereas Beatrix tends to be more quiet and reflective, calling little attention to herself outside of her work. But even though Beatrix is more subdued, she has firmer convictions and sticks to them more consistently, working on her books and later on devoting herself to land conservation in the Lake District.

Memorable sights and sounds
Lakes, trees, golden grass and wooded slopes, farmhouses with airy, dusty rooms full of treasures: these are some of the visual delights offered by the film. Beatrix's room in London is also lovely, with its window seat and long table full of watercolors.

Her art is beautiful. Occasionally the film animates the creatures to show how alive they are to her, but even better are the shots that linger over the still images, warm and full of life, giving you the sense that if you look away the animals really will start moving around.

Stand-out scenes
I loved the opening sequence, with close-ups of Beatrix preparing the instruments of her art and starting to paint in blue colors. A glass of water clouds up with blue.

There's also a poignant scene where in the midst of grief Beatrix tries to paint, and her creatures flee from dark fish and birds that threaten to consume them. She's isolated in her room, until Millie comes and helps bring her back out into the world.

Further thoughts
The film would go well with a blanket and a mug of tea on a rainy afternoon. It's gentle, warm, poignant and quietly inspiring.

I like how it shows the joy an artist and writer takes in her work and the world around her. However, I would have also wanted to see Beatrix's scientific pursuits, particularly her interest in mycology, the study of fungi. It would have been interesting to get a deeper look into the mind of someone who can observe the world with both an exacting scientific eye and imagination and whimsy.

Beatrix Potter at work

The first lines of the film: "There's something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You can never quite tell where they'll take you."

*All images link back to their source (Flixster community).

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Week in Seven Words #94

With new determination I open up a Microsoft Word document that's been untouched for months, and I begin again.

At the concert we sit closest to the violists and bass players. This way we're more aware of all the layers in the music, its rich harmonies, and the one moment where the lead bass player strikes a note out of tune. We're happy to hear all of it.

They sit around a table in the cafeteria pouring liquids of different densities into tall plastic containers - corn syrup, dish washing soap, vegetable oil, water, alcohol - and mostly they don't care about the bigger picture, only that it's fun to look at the liquid layers and see if their friends have made a mess. But from time to time they'll connect what they're doing to chemistry and to the properties of the world, before returning to the really important questions: will something spill? Or blow up?

On two different subway trips, a musical duo sing in Spanish and strum on guitars as they stroll from car to car.

The mild cold I come down with helps me mellow out a little.

One school I visit reminds of a nest with birds huddled close beside a clutch of eggs. Another school reminds me of an airport terminal where litter blows across the clean bare floors.

At bedtime their parents slip out of the room for a short while to unwind, and I read them a story, then another one: The Berenstain Bears in their treehouse with the pink-trimmed windows poking out of the upper leaves. Brother and Sister Bear learn that if they watch too much TV or fight all day, they'll miss out on life.

Week in Seven Words #93

I'm walking on the open palm of a beautiful day. There's water, gold and orange trees, blue skies holding rain clouds at bay. I feel raw and tired inside but the day is gentle.

School is giving him a certain knowingness. He's starting to pick up spelling and reading, the ways of the world, the lingo of kindergarten (awesome!).

Taking the long way home I find a lovely street, quiet and shaded with trees. I'm glad I chose to walk off some of my restlessness and map out a new neighborhood on foot.

Two branches of the public library within a block of each other. A prime piece of real estate.

In the room where I've been run through a proofreading test I see a motivational poster on the wall depicting a pencil stub and the word Persistence, followed by this line: We've exhausted all possibilities... let's get started.

In a strange way I've missed this: the stale breath of the station, the rumble of approaching trains, the clatter of trains pulling into or speeding past the platform.

Dusk settles in the afternoon. Buildings and statues catch the last light and hold it close for as long as they can.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 Tales from Great American Short Stories

Collection: Great American Short Stories: From Hawthorne to Hemingway
Editor: Corinne Demas

Title: The Birthmark
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

After a scientist marries a woman of beautiful character and appearance, he becomes obsessed with the birthmark on her cheek, her one apparent flaw. He's convinced that as a scientist he has the means to rid her of this imperfection.

The birthmark, shaped like a small hand, is a symbol of his wife's humanity and mortality. Most men wouldn't have considered it a flaw but instead would have seen it as a distinct feature, perfectly imperfect and uniquely hers; the reason it becomes a flaw here is because the scientist can't stop fixating on it. His wife loves him deeply and permits him to proceed with his experimentation, but after reading through a journal of his previous work she wisely grasps his limitations:
Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach.

With heavy symbolism Hawthorne illustrates the arrogance and idealism of scientists who think they have the capacity to undo anything in nature. Like other quests for impossible perfection this one ends in disaster. Hawthorne's cautionary tale addresses people's conviction that science can and should be used to eradicate anything regarded as a flaw.


Title: The Flight of Betsey Lane
Author: Sarah Orne Jewett

Betsey Lane, Lavina Dow, and Peggy Bond are three old ladies living on a poor-farm in New England. Betsey is the youngest and still dreams of traveling; when she hears about the Philadelphia Centennial, she's determined to attend. She's seen very little of the world and isn't going to miss out on this chance.

Jewett writes fresh, vivid characters. Their lives aren't whitewashed; they're forgotten by the community and spend most of the day in a cluttered room carrying out small chores. At the same time they're comfortable with themselves and, in a quiet way, full of life; they aren't pitiful.
They were close together, knee to knee, picking over a bushel of beans, and commanding a view of the dandelion-starred, green yard below, and of the winding, sandy road that led to the village, two miles away. Some captive bees were scolding among the cobwebs of the rafters overhead, or thumping against the upper panes of glass... There was a cheerful feeling of activity, and even an air of comfort, about the Byfleet Poor-house. Almost every one was possessed of a most interesting past, though there was less to be said about the future.

Betsey does get to go to the Centennial, and who knows what will come next. She's open to possibilities and doesn't let age, lack of money, or other people's expectations kill her spirit of curiosity and exploration.


Title: Paul's Case
Author: Willa Cather

Paul is young, impatient, sensitive and impractical. He has a love of beauty and refinement, a taste for flowers, champagne and theater. If he could, he'd escape from his lower-middle-class neighborhood, where everything feels dull and flat to him. Paul wants the lifestyle that only lots of money could give him but hates the thought of the decades' worth of drudgery required to even have a shot at wealth. The one job he loves is working as an usher at a music hall, because it brings him closer to brilliance and color; he doesn't realize that art itself demands years of patient work. It seems he wants only to feel, to revel in elegance and sensuousness. But life can't be lived that way, and Paul knows it; only he keeps hoping that somehow he can lose himself in his dreams and step into the world of illustrious hotels, perfume, silk, hothouse flowers and delicate luxuries.

Paul eventually shows the extent of his desperation. His vivid imagination is in some ways greatly limited, and at a crucial point in the story he fails to imagine that life can ever be better for him. There's also no one he can talk to about his struggle. His need for escape is not just a lazy ploy to avoid work. He feels out of place in his family and community and has a tendency to be high-strung. He doesn't fit in anywhere except for the rarefied places that he craves but that are denied to him. It's as if he was born into the wrong world, and he refuses to adapt to it in any way. By the end of the story he's given himself a taste of a dream life, while knowing it can't last; after that he denies himself a return to his everyday life, with its complexities, sordidness, and (he realizes too late) possibilities. Cather's complex portrait shows a boy who, by choice and by his nature, fails to negotiate with reality.
When Paul went down to dinner the music of the orchestra came floating up the elevator shaft to greet him. His head whirled as he stepped into the thronged corridor, and he sank back into one of the chairs against the wall to get his breath. The lights, the chatter, the perfumes, the bewildering medley of color--he had, for a moment, the feeling of not being able to stand it. But only for a moment; these were his own people, he told himself. He went slowly about the corridors, through the writing-rooms, smoking-rooms, reception-rooms, as though he were exploring the chambers of an enchanted palace, built and peopled for him alone.
I wonder if Paul's appreciation of this grand hotel and the way of life it represents was deepened by the fact that he didn't have a long time to stay in it. Had he constantly lived in this world, in "the bewildering medley of color," he might have grown used to it and not been as moved by it. Then again, he might have been able to enjoy its beautiful variety. That's something we don't get to find out.


Other stories from this volume include: The Cask of Amontillado (by Edgar Allan Poe) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman).

"Paul's Case" also appears in this anthology.


This post (and this one) have been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #19 at the Breadcrumb Reads blog.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Extracts: As long as you're alive

"But you're alive and as long as you're alive everything's really all right, in spite of everything else. No matter what happens, as along as you're alive everything's all right."
- from Camilla by Madeleine L'Engle


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 4 tales from The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories
Editor: Roberto González Echevarría

Title: Journey Back to the Source
Author: Alejo Carpentier
Translator: Harriet de Onís

Journey Back to the Source tells the story of Don Marcial's life from end to beginning. Time flows backwards.
Crow's-feet, frowns, and double chins vanished, and flesh grew firm again. One day the smell of fresh paint filled the house.

Sometimes the story seems like a video being rewound, but often there's a forward-moving feeling to the backwards flow of time. Don Marcial is escaping from what he's become, retracing a path towards innocence. There is no other way to reclaim this innocence, except to go forward into the past.
And a splendid evening party was given in the music room on the day he achieved minority. He was delighted to know that his signature was no longer legally valid, and that worm-eaten registers and documents would now vanish from his world. He had reached the point at which courts of justice were no longer to be feared, because his bodily existence was ignored by the law.

However, even in his comparatively innocent childhood, there's death and darkness (beliefs that he might have taken into himself unquestioned as a child and then with adulthood fully embraced or allowed to flourish, without bothering to understand them).

The story is full of rich language and psychological insight, as in the following observation of Don Marcial on his death bed:
What had begun as a candid, detailed confession of his many sins grew gradually more reticent, painful, and full of evasions.

The final lines of the story blend beginnings with endings.
Then he shut his eyes - they saw nothing but nebulous giants - and entered a warm, damp body full of shadows... Clothed in this body's substance, he slipped toward life.


Title: Midnight Mass
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Translators: William L. Grossman and Helen Caldwell

A seventeen-year-old student is visiting an older male relative, a man who openly cheats on his wife. One evening before midnight mass, when the rest of the household is asleep, the student and the wife have a long conversation.

The two are intimate. They don't have sex. They're intensely aware of each other. She speaks more freely and has a more open expression than he's ever seen. He observes her closely, noting minute changes in her appearance: her posture, the expression in her eyes, the way she moves her hands and arms.
Usually her gestures were slow, her attitude calm. Now, however, she rose suddenly, moved to the other side of the room, and, in her chaste disarray, walked about between the window and the door of her husband's study. Although thin, she always walked with a certain rocking gait as if she carried her weight with difficulty.

On that one evening time is suspended. There's an atmosphere of possibility and revelation. The neglected wife is seen for who she is and for what she could be, and that's part of the intensity of her conversation with the student. They are alone together, removed from other people and from the conventions of daily life.


Title: The Switchman
Author: Juan José Arreola
Translator: George D. Schade

A traveler arrives at an empty train station and wonders when his train will come. He speaks to an an elderly switchman who finds it funny that the traveler expects any train to show up. At length the switchman describes the irregularities and inefficiencies of the country's rail system.

The elaborate description of train troubles is what first drew me into the story; the switchman talks about inaccurate railway maps and about trains that stop where they shouldn't, don't move for days on end or just appear at random hours.
"This country is famous for its railroads, as you know. Up to now it's been impossible to organize them properly, but great progress has been made in publishing timetables and issuing tickets. Railroad guides include and link all the towns in the country; they sell tickets for even the smallest and most remote villages. Now all that is needed is for the trains to follow what the guides indicate and really pass by the stations. The inhabitants of this country hope this will happen; meanwhile, they accept the service's irregularities and their patriotism keeps them from showing any displeasure."

I could see the trains as a metaphor not only for life and its unpredictability but also for people's tendency to passively give themselves over to a governing power:
"The hope is that one day the passengers will capitulate to fate, give themselves into the hands of an omnipotent management, and no longer care to know where they are going or where they have come from."

Does the right train ever come? And by the end, does the traveler still care about its destination? What he might content himself with is just the feeling of being on a train, of going somewhere (anywhere) or at least having the illusion of motion.


Title: The Third Bank of the River
Author: João Guimarães Rosa
Translator: William L. Grossman

This story makes sense to me on a gut level (I think).

When the narrator is a child his father decides one day to get into a rowboat and live out on the river.
Father did not come back. Nor did he go anywhere, really. He just rowed and floated across and around, out there in the river. Everyone was appalled. What had never happened, what could not possibly happen, was happening. Our relatives, neighbors, and friends came over to discuss the phenomenon.

The father's strongest connection is with his son, the narrator, who leaves provisions for him on the river bank; they don't interact in any other way. The father remains on the water in all kinds of weather, in all seasons, staying mostly out of sight and not speaking to anyone. Years pass, and the narrator is the only family member who doesn't move away from the river. Then one day he figures out what he needs to do to get his father back on land.

It's an eerie and absurd story. There's never a clear explanation for why the father chooses this course in life and what it even represents. It's as if he's pursuing an obscure path or calling that his son, the narrator, might be drawn to one day. Or maybe the narrator will escape from his duties and from the burden of his father's legacy and leave the old man behind on the river, completely cut off from everyone.

[Edited: 1/2015]

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Week in Seven Words #92

A library has no business being closed.

Side streets beckon to us as we walk. Their houses and trees are pressed close, their sidewalks are rumpled and scratchy with fallen leaves. They're dotted with pumpkins, and their windows peek out from shutters and flower boxes.

Revelations on a Friday afternoon. I have just enough time to send out some emails and make a couple of calls before I abstain from technology for the next twenty-five hours. Monday will be here soon enough. Meanwhile I need to retreat into my Friday night and wait. Patiently.

In the park the fountain is drained. The water has given way to scattered leaves and children barreling around in the basin on tricycles.

'What-ifs' and 'if-onlys' can breed and multiply and take hold of your soul if you let them.

What comforts me: singing aloud, which brings a kind of catharsis. Meaningful reading, which shores up my sense of purpose. Another person's laughter, which spreads joy.

It hurts me to see you hurt, she says, grimacing at my bandaged wrist.

Week in Seven Words #91

Soliciting food, the cat butts its head against my shins. Under the table its eyes glow, beseeching.

The lake in Central Park isn't as large as it seems to us. From where we sit it seems to spread out for many blocks, disappearing in a bend beyond the bright trees and sliding away past the Bow Bridge.

Fifteen minutes of people-watching from inside a coffee shop. The large window shows a rainy street, umbrellas writhing and jerking in the wind, people swimming through the rain and flopping breathless into the shop.

After tea and a warm shower, I slip into the large comfortable bed and lie awake for several minutes as the room seems to hum around me.

At the walk-in flu shot clinic there are three tables set up, each with a nurse. As I fill out the forms, I hear a startled "Owww!" from a lady at the first table. Maybe she's sensitive, I think uneasily. The next woman who goes there clenches her fists as her face crumples in agony. A man follows her and bites down on his lip until it bleeds. My companion notices the nurse's technique: a swooping sideways thrust that seems to go for the bone. When the guy organizing the clinic tries to nudge us towards the stab-happy nurse, we plant ourselves next to the other tables instead.

I look for a pair of glasses that are unobtrusive, that don't leap out of my face in brash designs or completely alter the shape of my eyes. Good glasses shouldn't call attention to themselves. But that also means they're more difficult to find on the shelves, among the showier models.

Dinner guests mixing together are a kind of recipe as well; each person is a different ingredient with his or her own flavor. Unusual combinations can prove delicious. (And yes, I sound like Hannibal Lecter.)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Worth Watching: The King's Speech (2010)

Title: The King's Speech
Director: Tom Hooper
Language: English
Rating: R (because His Royal Highness doesn't stammer when he's cursing a blue streak)

The Duke of York (Colin Firth), known as "Bertie" to his family, is second in line to the throne after his older brother. Bertie prefers to stay out of the public eye; the few speeches required of him are disastrous on account of his stammer. At the arrangement of his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), he undergoes speech therapy with Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who demands great effort and openness from him. In spite of some progress, Bertie still stumbles during moments of nerves and high emotion. After his father, George V (Michael Gambon), dies and his brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), abdicates the throne, Bertie becomes King George VI. On the eve of WWII he's required to broadcast an important speech with a strength and eloquence he's convinced he'll never possess.

The King's Speech movie poster

Lionel Logue is passionate, wry, and just a little bit bonkers (in a manner unique to Geoffrey Rush). His character is also deepened by personal disappointments and struggles, such as his inability to start up a career as a Shakespearean actor.

Lionel Logue

From Colin Firth's Bertie you get a sense of a decent man who's fun to be around when he can relax, which isn't often. The few people who make him feel at ease are his wife and daughters (the elder of the two became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952). As his wife, Helena Bonham Carter is good at mixing upper-class restraint and properness with the sense of fun and play that she's brought to other very different movie roles.

I got a kick out of the fact that they made Winston Churchill a character, though I laughed too because I recognized the actor who plays him (Timothy Spall) from only one other role: Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter films. He doesn't look sufficiently different from Peter here and doesn't have a large enough part to make himself a distinct character, so I kept thinking of him as an animagus politician. Another "cross-over" moment that briefly threw me out of the film was the scene where Lionel Logue's wife, Myrtle (Elizabeth Ehle), meets Bertie for the first time. Ehle starred as Elizabeth Bennet in the BBC's grand 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, which also made Colin Firth famous as Mr. Darcy; it's probably still the role that Firth is most strongly associated with. So to have the two of them meet in a quiet room tipped the movie back into the Regency era for a few seconds, and I expected him to launch into a pompous marriage proposal. But then I was tilted right back to the 1930s, because Myrtle Logue treated the king with a nervous deference that Elizabeth Bennet would never have felt in the presence of Mr. Darcy.

Relationships and conflicts
Bertie and Lionel become friends, though it's a struggle, and they fight along the way. Bertie hates appearing vulnerable, and he's had to deal with so many quacks that it takes him time to trust someone; he's also conscious of the difference in station between him and Lionel, and it isn't easy for him to get used to Lionel's informality. Add to that the pressure of his public duties and the fact that he had thought, with great relief, that he'd never be king, and friction between the two men is inevitable. With the exception of his wife and daughters, Bertie tends to be reserved around everyone, in part as a defense mechanism against the mocking he's endured over his stuttering.

Bertie is sweet to his daughters and has a steady source of warm support and companionship from his wife, who consoles him, cheers him up, banters with him, and occasionally sits on him or stuffs things into his mouth. Firth and Bonham Carter play well off each other.

Bertie and Elizabeth

Memorable sights and sounds
Lionel runs Bertie through various exercises that lend themselves to interesting visuals (like Bertie rolling around on the floor) and sounds (vowels belted out with mixed dignity and silliness). At a few points in the movie, Bertie also speaks in song; if he couches his sentences in the melody of a familiar song, he stutters much less or not at all. This use of song sometimes has a comic effect but at other times is used to highlight a personal melancholy.

I also loved Bertie's expression as he hears himself deliver a soliloquy from Hamlet. Lionel had him record it while being drowned out by music so that he couldn't actually hear himself speak. Later on, after breaking off in disgust from Lionel Logue and his unconventional methods, Bertie listens to his own voice speaking steadily, and it's a wonderful moment of revelation. Shakespeare in general is woven nicely into the movie (including Lionel's audition for the part of Richard III).

Stand-out scenes
The King Edward's Chair scene. Bertie's confidence initially lapses, and it seems that he's going to give up again on working with Lionel. But after Lionel insolently drapes himself over King Edward's Chair, which is the throne used during a monarch's coronation, Bertie's anger at Lionel's presumption prompts him to eventually shout out that he has a voice! Bertie also shows himself to have a feeling and respect for tradition that contrasts with his older brother's depicted carelessness in abdicating the throne to be with Mrs. Wallis Simpson.

Another great scene is the climactic delivery of the speech on the eve of WWII ("In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history..."). The movie cuts back and forth between Bertie picking his way through it word by word, with Lionel standing opposite him, gesturing and coaching, and the king's large audience including various people in their homes, Bertie's family in the palace, and his older brother and Mrs. Simpson.

Further thoughts
Though the movie isn't a documentary and was made to show a man overcoming challenges to rise to the occasion, it still interests me to think about how the filmmakers played around with history and with the characters. For the sake of drama, the relationship between Lionel and Bertie was compressed to a shorter period of time, when in fact they had been working together since the 1920s; and who knows if they ever got to be this informal with one another by the end. I haven't read enough about the characters in general to venture a guess as to what they were like with each other. The movie also omits the whole issue of Neville Chamberlain and appeasement (along with George VI's public show of support for Chamberlain after the Munich Pact) and depicts Churchill and George VI as being friendly and supportive of one another from the very beginning. The filmmakers shape it so that everyone seems more or less united at the war's start, with George VI hoping that his speech impediment won't prevent him from being a resolute figurehead, a symbol of strength and resistance. And it's true that during the war, he and his wife appeared often in public, and visited various places in the UK and abroad, to boost morale.

Here's an actual recording of George VI, delivering the speech on September 3rd, 1939:

The text of the speech is here.

*All images link back to their source (Flixster community).