Monday, August 29, 2011

Week in Seven Words #82

Without all the work of writing papers one would think I'd be less busy, but instead the days are cluttered with chores I'd postponed, errands to run, an apartment to neaten and organize in preparation for a new life.

I walk down a puddly brick corridor lined with trees, white flowers, and benches soaked in rainwater.

Slices of white peach on a damp paper plate.

Getting a library card is always a happy occasion. On this one the largest word is FREE, written in white letters on a red background. It reminds me of Emily Dickinson: How frugal is the Chariot/That bears a Human soul.

The library's second floor is one long room with a raftered ceiling and some skylights showing sun and tumbling clouds. It's cozier than I expected, tables and shelves packed close together, babies crawling around among heaps of board books in the children's section by the picture window. We're in a boat voyaging across a quiet ocean; the skies are untroubled.

Ten pm at the supermarket; I'm in a floaty-minded relaxed mood. Fellow shoppers include: an off-duty security guard, her face waxy with exhaustion; a mother herding a pack of squalling overtired children; a middle-aged man in a cut-off tee buying huge bottles of organic fruit juice. It's been a long day. I stop by the snow-white onions and try to figure out where the bananas have been relocated to.

The ground shakes. Shortly after, we shake hands and part. An unexpected earthquake coincides with a meeting that marks a change in the course of my life.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Short stories on Bread Crumb Reads blog

Last night I discovered Bread Crumb Reads, where the hostess has a feature, Short Stories on Wednesday. She writes about stories she's read and on each post allows for visitors to link back to their blogs with their own recent reviews of short fiction (this week I linked to my recent write-up of the Oxford Book of English Detective Stories). So if you read and/or review short fiction, consider visiting and participating. Also the blog as a whole strikes me as a strong, well-written book blog with good recommendations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Worth Watching: Love Affair (1939)

Title: Love Affair
Director: Leo McCarey
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Michel (Charles Boyer) and Terry (Irene Dunne) fall in love on a cruise ship. He's a wealthy French playboy and dilettante; she's a singer. Both are already engaged to be married. Once they reach the U.S., they agree that if in six months they're both single, they'll meet on the 102nd floor of the Empire State building; Michel also wants to use this time to prove to Terry and to himself that he can work for a living. The six months pass, it looks as if the promised reunion will take place, but on her way towards meeting him Terry gets hit by a car. Unsure if she'll ever be able to walk again, she decides it's best not to contact Michel until she's more certain of her prognosis.

The film could have gone overboard with melodrama, but there's an intelligence and restraint throughout, much of it coming from Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne; they don't overact.

Dunne and Boyer in Love Affair

Dunne is a subtle actress; with a twitch of an eyebrow or a sidelong look, she can convey happiness, hope, or resignation. She has kind, knowing eyes, and looks sometimes like she's laughing inwardly at a private joke. Boyer can also act with depth and range; compare him during those careless flirtations at the start to what he's like in the final scene. Boyer and Dunne have chemistry, and there's also a warm friendliness between their characters that makes the romance sweeter.

The sweetest character is Michel's grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya), who gets many well-deserved hugs. She lives in Madeira, and when the cruise ship stops there, Michel and Terry visit her. It's a turning point in the film, with Terry seeing Michel as a doting grandson capable of devotion and tenderness, and Michel developing serious feelings towards Terry, who wins the approval of his grandmother.

Ouspenskaya in Love Affair

The romance between Terry and Michel shows different sides of love: pink champagne and kisses, warm domestic comforts, and - the part they need to work on – faith and trust in the face of hardship. Michel's grandmother, sweetheart that she is, does her part both intentionally and inadvertently in bringing them together.

They're blessed with two of the friendliest and most forgiving exes in movie history; breaking the engagements seems to go easily for them, unlike the car accident, injuries, and various plot contrivances that lead to painful misunderstandings.

Memorable sights and sounds
Charles Boyer's delicious accent and devilish eyebrows.

Michel's eyebrows

There's a beautiful shot of Dunne in a white dress and wide-brimmed hat standing in the chapel in Madeira; pale light slants down on her.

I also love the moment when she pushes open a glass door on her balcony, and it catches a reflection of The Empire State building. It was at the time the tallest building in the world.

Stand-out scenes
The following scenes are all bittersweet in some way.

There's Terry singing Plaisir d'Amour at the piano, as Michel's grandmother plays; the singing is meditative and enchanting. Michel studies Terry intently as she sings, at times glancing away from her and then back as if he can't help himself. He and his grandmother also exchange a couple of knowing looks. As the song goes on we hear something that sounds like a death knell in the distance, but is only the horn of the cruise ship calling the passengers back.

Terry also sings at a nightclub in a black dress and glimmering jacket. Sing, My Heart is the song; Dunne is classy, expressive, and intelligent, a joy to watch.
Pretend you're glad, my heart.
Although you're sad, my heart,
He mustn't know it.

Any mention of memorable scenes must include the final one, with its nuance and layers of emotion, and an ending that isn't unreservedly happy.

Dunne with shawl in Love Affair

Further thoughts
I've never seen the famous remake of this movie, An Affair to Remember, with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. I'm not in any rush to either, after watching Love Affair.

*All images link back to their sources (Rottentomatoes; Wikipedia)

Chain Gang Tap Dance - The Holst Sisters

A cute and tricky dance routine from a pair of sisters I haven't been able to find out more about. Was this their only recorded performance?

Week in Seven Words #81

A flash of lightning fills up the window like an enraged eye peering into the room.

It's the same situation with the same actors, but I describe it quite differently depending on the person I'm talking to.

Before leaving the library I drop my backpack on the sofa by the exit and start to rearrange its contents. That's when I see him wave hello from the other end of the room. He comes over, we talk, and the tightness in my chest eases. Sometimes a friend is there at the exact right moment, just when you need friendship most but don't hope for it or think to ask.

The shape of the past few years resembles in some ways an inverted parabola, arcing up and then declining.

Until the decision is made, it's difficult to breathe.

The writing is ragged with indecision. A sluggish paragraph is cut through by a flash of insight all in capslocks, followed by a puddle of diluted thoughts that trickle off in ellipses.

I look like I'm getting somewhere, typing and rifling through papers, but it's only an illusion of progress. Over time I grow tired and start to sink.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 4 tales from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories
Editor: Patricia Craig

Title: Bring Back the Cat!
Author: Reginald Hill

Joe Sixsmith, a Brit of West Indian derivation, is a fledgling private eye called on to help find a cat that's gone missing. The owner, Mrs. Ellison, is a neurotic woman who lives in the sort of neighborhood where a man with Sixsmith's skin color is usually mistaken for the gardener. Her family is a strange, antagonistic bunch: a husband who lounges around reading the paper and pretending he's uninterested in Sixsmith's amateurish sleuthing, and two sullen, dysfunctional teenagers - a son, Auberon, and a daughter, Tittie (an apt nickname). Their next door neighbor, Bullivant, is cantankerous and has a ferocious dog (the prime suspect?).

There's more going on in this household than a missing cat, and from the start Sixsmith is in over his head. Part of what makes the story funny is that the people he interviews assume that he knows more than he does, so they offhandedly share things about themselves that startle him; at times he hits on the right line of questioning by accident. Sixsmith is not a stupid man by any means, just inexperienced, with a tendency to mull things over rather than make quick timely deductions. He's a likable guy with a dry sense of humor, and he does his best to deal with these people; by the end he's uncovered everything, inadvertently, and only realizes it after the fact.


Title: The Killing of Michael Finnegan
Author: Michael Gilbert

After a spy is brutally murdered, his widow and two of his colleagues work together to track down the killers and attempt to foil a terrorist plot. The story contains a novel's worth of material: a back-stabbing insider, forced confessions, some politics, sharp efficient characterizations, strong emotional moments, a race against the clock, and dry humor mixed in with the deadliness of the characters' undertakings.


Title: The Oxford Way of Death
Author: Robert Barnard

It has happened twice in the last year that a student would begin to read his weekly essay to a normally comatose old gentleman, only to find on concluding his piece that he had been reading for some time to a corpse.

At St. Pothinus's Hall, the Fellows are for the most part aging and wedded to their ways; they don't care much about their college's poor academic record, so long as they can stay comfortably encrusted to their posts. When the Fellow responsible for teaching Ancient Persian passes away in front of his one student, the other Fellows wonder who can replace him. The mischievous Wittling, who teaches classics, finally points out a suitable candidate: Sandowa Bulewa, who is - horrors! - a woman. Not only a woman, but a young black woman who had studied at Cambridge and the Sorbonne. With the exception of the story's narrator, Peter Borthwick, who at age 47 is the second youngest man there and considered too forward-thinking, the Fellows can't stomach the thought of Sandowa Bulewa as a colleague, though Wittling is willing to give it a try if only to stir things up and make trouble. Little does he know that his suggestion will lead to his death.

The Oxford Way of Death is an excellent dark comedy, a funny and disturbing look at the amorality, conformity, and stagnation often found in academia. Even the forward-thinking narrator, good at stating his principles and making his indignation known, will subside like the rest. As he says: "It's amazing what we liberal intellectuals can take in our strides, when we set our minds to it."


Title: Three is a Lucky Number
Author: Margery Allingham

"At five o'clock on a September afternoon Ronald Frederick Torbay was making preparations for his third murder." Torbay is a black widower, and one way the author builds suspense is to have him think back on his first two murders even as he's getting ready for the third. In some respects his wives have been similar - middle-aged women, unnoticed and unused to affection, who also have some money; in other ways their personalities have differed, with his current wife (and soon-to-be victim) the most sensible one so far. The story's spark comes mostly from the details, the mounting suspense, and the hope that Torbay will get his comeuppance.


Other recommended stories from The Oxford Book of English Detective Stories: Death on the Air (by Ngaio Marsh) and Great Aunt Allie's Flypapers (by P.D. James).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Week in Seven Words #80

When in doubt, buy them a gift card for a book store.

I half-expect an angry email. Instead I get concern, what sounds like a willingness to understand. I'm surprised. Years ago it would have been different. I wish I had possessed the confidence and faith to speak sooner.

Sitting on the floor gives me a strange perspective of the table and its unsteady piles of intermingled books, papers, notebooks, and journals. A water bottle looks like an alien totem, and the lamp towers solemnly over the laptop. Everything seems large and somewhat foolish, like children's toys meant to be tossed around and banged up.

No matter how many papers I go through, by the end of the day I'm no closer to having it figured out.

The reading of the Book of Lamentations starts unexpectedly from a soft-spoken man at the back of the shul.

About an hour before the fast ends, I start getting distracted with thoughts of food. My stomach isn't rumbling, but there's an odd clench to it, as if it's disgruntled but too polite to whine.

I feel like I should have learned about Nancy Wake prior to her death at age 98. She hasn't passed unnoticed, but she and others like her ought to be better known.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fail better

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." - Samuel Beckett

A site that lays out the spectacular failures of successful people.

And for reasons unclear to me, I think this piece fits - there's something wistful and regretful about it, but at the same time it's clear and beautiful, and becomes light-hearted sometimes.

The Finale of Haydn's Sonata No. 53 in E minor.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Week in Seven Words #79

I love hearing people talk about a piece of writing that got to them in some way, whether they like it or not; the passion in their analysis is beautiful.

The children's section of the bookstore is full of possibility and vision. Richly illustrated picture books show moonlit skies, animals reveling in meadows, wizards roaming the woods with wands flashing. The walls sing with color. It's sequestered from the rest of the store, a world apart from the blander adult aisles, the racks of sweatshirts and wrinkled magazines.

I like this stretch of neighborhood, especially in the morning hours. On one side of the street there are trees and a branch of the public library; on the other side there's a post office, bookstore, and a smattering of tables beneath an awning. The day isn't too hot yet, people look pleasant and determined, and there are no lines at the post office.

She buys me an 18-month planner. It has a pale green cover with gold butterflies and scrolling leaves.

On the phone she blocks me out, so I resort to email. For several minutes I type, explaining what it is I feel and why it is I need to be heard, a claim to attention I rarely make; and after checking that the words aren't angry or hurtful, but just too firm to ignore, I send it off instead of saving it as a draft that will never see the light of day.

The other room hums quietly with the T.V., with her footsteps, drawers opening and sliding shut. The place doesn't feel like a vacant shell.

My fingers on the keys feel coated in it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Week in Seven Words #78

I could be a cartoon - a wide-eyed foolish girl in a canoe paddling towards a waterfall. I know it's there, right ahead. I can hear it, I can feel the impending descent in my bones, but I think that if I brace myself in my seat and hold the oar a little tighter I'll glide over the edge gracefully. Maybe the best I can hope for at this point is to make it amusing - the canoe shoots out, hangs in the air; I smile, look down, say "uh oh" in a goofy voice, and plummet. Laughter will help me crawl out of the wreckage later.

Stepping out into a cool morning that promises rain, I walk slowly and focus on breathing.

The yolks sizzle and crisp in the pan. Cheese bubbles, and the salsa spits red and green.

Stunned by the heat of the afternoon, I sprawl on my bed with a book and read by the light that beats in through the blinds.

The large owlish sunglasses change her face so much that only the fact that she's staring in my direction and smiling makes me stop walking and take a closer look.

For everything I do I wonder if I could be doing something better, more worthwhile. I'm so caught up in 'what-ifs' that I get little done.

The remaining roses are a pale brittle pink, as if they have a skin condition.