Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A good sweet year to you

It looks like I'm behind schedule with the Week in Seven Words post for this week, so I plan to post two of them at a time early next week. What with holiday preparations and other things, I haven't had time for proper blog fun these past few days (overdue blog visits are also on the schedule for this weekend!)

Rosh Hashanah is starting really soon... I wish you all a happy, sweet, and successful year. Be well.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Worth Watching: You Can't Take It With You (1938)

Title: You Can't Take It With You
Director: Frank Capra
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Alice (Jean Arthur) and Tony (Jimmy Stewart) are in love. Alice comes from a household of fun, free artistic people presided over by her grandpa, Martin (Lionel Barrymore). Tony comes from society's upper crust; his father, the arrogant and powerful Mr. Kirby (Edward Arnold), is a banker. Martin is already a thorn in Mr. Kirby's side; his refusal to sell his house prevents Mr. Kirby from completing a lucrative deal. At last the families meet, in an evening that includes fireworks, a wrestling match, some jail time, and a courtroom scene with an adorable judge (Harry Davenport).

The film features a house full of eccentric people, so it has at least one good thing going for it right there. My favorite of the bunch is Alice's mother, Penny (Spring Byington), a sweet absent-minded lady who writes plays at her desk in the main room as fireworks rumble from the cellar, and her other daughter, Essie (Ann Miller), dances ballet while setting the table; Essie is supposed to be clumsy, so Ann Miller does her best to look like an amateur dancer. Another character I like is Mr. Poppins (Donald Meek) who is rescued by Martin from a mindless job and installed as a permanent house guest, working mostly from the cellar on his masks and mechanical toys. I don't remember if the movie ever explains how Martin has enough money to support a large household. Maybe he worked for years and saved up, or maybe he really never paid any taxes.

cast pub still - you can't take it with you 1938

The wily and kind Martin, played wonderfully by Lionel Barrymore, is contrasted with the avaricious Mr. Kirby whose values slowly shift from the jail scene onwards. Mr. Kirby's character development is one of the best parts of You Can't Take It With You - it's a gradual dawning, as he realizes that he's a distant father with little joy in his life and no true friends. Edward Arnold is a subtle expressive actor, and I loved one point in the film when he's in an elevator and the doors open on a large board room full of men hungrily applauding him and waiting to gorge on the profits he'll make from a landmark deal; the close-up on his face shows dismay and spiritual exhaustion, in a powerful moment.

His son, Tony, was never cut out to be a banker. Stewart plays Tony as goofy, gallant, and mischievous - which makes him a delicious romantic lead; he's the kind of guy who can laugh at himself while softly and confidently flirting and moving in for a kiss. In the course of the film he grows up a little and takes his first steps away from the life that's been laid out for him since birth.

Like Tony Alice is also different from her family, but she has a close loving relationship with them. Of everyone in her family Alice is the least eccentric, though even she prefers sliding down banisters to taking stairs. Jean Arthur makes Alice sensible without being boring, and gentle without being meek. She has a quiet feistiness, and in the courtroom scene the underlying steel in her emerges.

Alice and Tony are in love from the start. What they need to figure out is how to marry happily when they come from such different backgrounds. Alice's family likes Tony, but Tony's family, particularly his haughty mother (played by Mary Forbes), thinks Alice is unsuitable.

As Alice and Tony's relationship is tested, a fellowship slowly forms between Martin and Mr. Kirby. Martin at one point loses his temper and berates Mr. Kirby, then apologizes and gives him a harmonica. The harmonica becomes the symbol of their friendship, and of the simpler happier life that Mr. Kirby wants to settle into by the end. Martin effectively rescues Mr. Kirby much as he did Mr. Poppins.

Tony, Alice, Martin and Mr. Kirby

Though class conflicts are central to the film, at its heart it's more about what's important in life. The film's title comes from the observation that you can't take money with you to the grave and beyond; if you're letting your heart wither as you pursue wealth, if it gets to the point where you're sacrificing everything and everyone for it, then what kind of life are you leading?

Memorable sights and sounds
Harmonicas lead to happiness. A harmonica duet has the power to reunite quarreling lovers and give them hope.

I didn't see this film primarily as a comedy though there are funny moments throughout. Jimmy Stewart screaming like a murderous toddler is among them (in the very same scene where he offers a marriage proposal). He's showing Alice how since infancy all he's ever needed to do to get what he wants is yell loudly enough. Stewart's comedic talent also extends to some awkward dancing and the mild, natural way in which he says funny things.

Stand-out scenes
The courtroom scene is a highlight, with all of Martin's friends from the neighborhood showing up in contrast to Mr. Kirby's four lawyers. This is the scene were Alice makes a stand against her future in-laws' snobbery, and Mr. Kirby is already beginning to see how impoverished his existence is.

I enjoyed all the scenes with Tony and Alice too, when it's just the two of them. They banter, confide in one another, and bring love and levity to stuffy places like Tony's office or a high-end restaurant.

Tony and Alice on a date

Further thoughts
Sometimes the film drags along or a point is belabored. Regardless it has a heart and a strong cast of characters. One of the lessons it leaves you with is not to live an anxious miserly existence. Love your life and the people in it and don't live in constant fear.

*All images link back to their sources (Flickr; Flixster (community); Wikipedia).

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Week in Seven Words #85

Résumés remind me of straitjackets.

Apple sauce and apples smeared in almond butter. Autumn foods.

Padding around the apartment, wearing socks to stay warm. Different books wait for me on tables and armrests.

When she's fearful she likes to recruit people to her fears. She gets them excited and ready to act, agitates them, like a girl splashing around on the beach getting water in people's eyes and convincing them a shark's fin is just a dozen feet away.

The large padded envelope she brings me is splashed with bright colors and streamers, and it yields cards and smaller envelopes like starbursts.

One lingering summer night. It's balmy out on the porch, where the trees creep close and leaves rattle on the paved path.

Sing, Sing, Sing played by The Benny Goodman Orchestra beats and blares and explodes out of my laptop. It's the kind of music that can make people feel like born dancers.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Week in Seven Words #84

I'm a spider, a rabbit, and a table. When I'm done being a table, another player gives me pointers on how to be an even better one. It's more difficult to transmit the idea of table-ness than I'd thought.

The community garden is tucked between old apartment buildings, the greenery running up the walls, the flowers sleepy in the odd patches of sunlight, people drifting around with rakes and watering cans, tending to the plants and to their own well-being.

A time to catch up with loved ones - blasting songs from the 50s on the car radio and singing along with unbearable falsettos; curling up on a dark curving sofa to chat and puzzle over a movie; talking behind closed doors with someone who has such faith in me it's a little scary, a relief but also nerve-wracking; stopping and listening as little ones show me things: drawings, toys, costumes and games, letters of the alphabet written with care.

Places to sit: A bench in a cathedral garden where the grass runs wild and a sculpture of an angel flanked by sun and moon rears up beyond the fence; the front steps of the cathedral, overlooking Amsterdam Avenue, where I plonk down to check on a developing pinky toe blister; the front steps of an art museum overrun with people and hopeful pigeons.

Swirls of birthday cake flavored frozen yogurt topped with tiny chocolate-raspberry truffles. I scrape my spoon inside the paper cup to catch the last drops as I stroll down 81st street to the museum.

I'm a rowboat on an ocean.

The game Smartmouth gives you two letters and requires you to quickly come up with a word that begins with the first letter and ends on the second; the way we're playing, the word must be at least four letters long. On Y-B we're all stumped. On E-K we're also stumped until she strolls up, glances at the letter tiles and says "Embark", after which she listens to our groans of 20/20 hindsight and strolls away. Next comes Hangman, where we try to stump the older children with 'yak', 'chrysalis', and 'unfashionably', but they're wise to our use of unusual letters and words and do well in figuring things out.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 stories from Adaptations

Collection: Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen
Editor: Stephanie Harrison

This anthology has excellent selections from both obscure and well-known authors along with a discussion of how each story came to be adapted for the big screen. The following three stories are all bleak, in different ways. I grouped them together here because they gnawed at me as I read them and when I thought about them after.

Title: Babylon Revisited
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Charlie Wales squandered his money, health, marriage, and guardianship of his young daughter, and has only recently gotten back on his feet. His sister-in-law, Marion, is his daughter's current legal guardian, and Charlie needs to prove to her and to her husband that he has given up his old habits of drink and dissipation. It doesn't help that he and Marion dislike one another. She blames him for the death of his wife, Helen, while he thinks she's hanging onto his daughter's guardianship out of spite and resentment of his wealth. In his heart he knows that Marion's hesitation to trust him is understandable, even as he seethes at her pettiness; he's eaten up by shame at how careless he once was with everything important.

Charlie cuts a lonely tired figure who has a long road ahead of him. He can't undo the past or shake off acquaintances from his years of wild living and big spending. What keeps him going is his dream of a future where he's settled, stable, with his daughter beside him, his one hope for redemption. Every day more time is lost, his daughter grows older; the dream might recede from him. Even though the end of the story isn't hopeless, it still hurts to read it.

He would come back someday; they couldn't make him pay forever. But he wanted his child, and nothing was much good now, beside that fact. He wasn't young anymore, with a lot of nice thoughts and dreams to have by himself. He was absolutely sure Helen wouldn't have wanted him to be so alone.


Title: The Basement Room
Author: Graham Greene

This story sinks you into the shoddy and pathetic mess that the characters make of their lives. The bleakness is beautifully written and unrelenting.

While his parents are away a young boy stays at home with Mr. and Mrs. Baines, the husband and wife who serve as butler and housekeeper. As the story progresses he gets submerged in the darkness of their lives; they burden him with secrets, use him as an accomplice to their deceit, and by the end expose him to deadly violence. Mrs. Baines is terrifying; she reminds me in some ways of Madame Defarge from A Tale of Two Cities, keeping meticulous and bitter track of all the wrongs done to her and all the misdeeds that deserve punishment. Mr. Baines is not frightening so much as irresponsible and weak. Both of them are doomed.

The night-light stood beside the mirror and Mrs. Baines could see bitterly there her own reflection, misery and cruelty wavering in the glass, age and dust and nothing to hope for. She sobbed without tears, a dry, breathless sound; but her cruelty was a kind of pride which kept her going; it was her best quality, she would have been merely pitiable without it.

Making matters worse we get glimpses of the boy's life years into the future, on his deathbed attended only by his secretary; Greene wants to make sure we know that the boy will be scarred for life and will grow up mistrustful of others, unproductive and deeply alone. Throughout the story the reader feels as trapped as the child, swallowed up by the shadows that the adults project on every page.

Title: Killings
Author: Andre Dubus

Matt Fowler's son has been killed. His son's killer, Richard Strout, is walking around free before the trial is set to start, and Matt and his wife, Ruth, keep seeing him everywhere; it's eating them alive. Matt decides he doesn't want to wait for a trial, which might result in a lenient sentence. He wants to kill his son's murderer. Those are the hard simple facts. But nothing else is simple.

Richard Strout is not a sympathetic character. He has always spelled trouble for other people. Matt knows this. He also knows that Richard lives, breathes, wears underwear, goes out drinking, has photos in his home, other people in his life who might care whether he lives or dies. Matt becomes conscious of "circles of love" surrounding Richard; some of those circles Richard himself has ruptured, others might still be intact. As the story draws towards the end a net seems to gather around the characters. There's a strange intimacy between them: Matt touching the muzzle of his gun to Richard's head in the dark of Richard's car. Taking control of another man's life.

It's a complex and powerful story. Some events, even gunshots, seem to take place in a world that has a hushed, underwater quality to it.
They stood still for a moment. The woods were quiet save for their breathing, and Matt remembered hearing the movements of birds and small animals after the first shot. Or maybe he had not heard them.


Other stories from this collection are The Sentinel (by Arthur C. Clarke), along with Auggie Wren's Christmas Story (by Paul Auster), The Harvey Pekar Name Story (by Harvey Pekar), My Friend Flicka (by Mary O'Hara), and A Reputation (by Richard Edward Connell) plus these three here.

This post has been linked to at Short Stories on Wednesday #10 over at Bread Crumb Reads blog.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Across the street from the WTC

Across the street from the World Trade Center site is St. Paul's Chapel.


The church dates from the American colonial era and is the oldest continuously used public building in NYC. It didn't sustain structural damage on 9/11/01; trees in the churchyard took the brunt of the falling debris as the twin towers collapsed.


On his inauguration day in 1789, George Washington prayed there (NYC was the U.S. capital then) with members of Congress.


Two hundred and twelve years later, St. Paul's Chapel became a base for workers involved in rescue, recovery and clean-up following the attacks on the World Trade Center. In between shifts they could come to the church for food, foot rubs, back massages, conversation, counseling, prayers, comfort, a shoulder to cry on, soothing music, a place to sleep. The church was packed with volunteers, helping out 24/7.

Messages of support also came in from around the U.S. and the world.



If you visit the church these days you'll find 9/11 exhibits and memorials. They're often personal and very moving. The deceased are remembered (including those who died in the act of saving other people or trying to); the exhibits also recount the many acts of love, healing, assistance and selflessness that followed, along with the nightmarish work undertaken by the first responders, recovery and clean-up workers.



I was in Manhattan on 9/11; thankfully many blocks away from Ground Zero. My first sight of the attacks was an enormous mass of smoke against an otherwise lovely blue sky. I have just fragments of memory from the rest of the day: hearing on an elevator that the second tower had collapsed, and spending most of the day going from one place to another looking at TV screens for updates. Also calling and IM'ing family and friends. Thinking back on it I remember how people didn't want to be alone, but were leaving apartments, offices, dorms to gather into groups and try to make sense of what was going on.

My first bus ride down there felt like an approach towards a large, open wound. Last time I was there in late December '09 the feeling wasn't as strong but it was still present.


View of the WTC site from the churchyard of St. Paul's Chapel, December '09.

No matter how extensive the rebuilding and restoration, the place will always feel raw.

I've had many discussions with people about the attacks, their evil and their global and political ramifications. I was a teenager at the time. The attacks, and the discourse surrounding them, markedly shaped my thoughts about the world and how I evaluated other people's worldview.


WTC site, August '08.

What I've kept returning to are memories of how people rose to the occasion in the aftermath, in large and small ways. Thinking about this doesn't solve the bigger problems, it doesn't erase the horror, but it's an antidote to unhealthy pessimism and a reminder of how people can continue to be decent, brave, and unselfish even in an inferno.


WTC site, December '09.

The salvation of man is through love and in love. - Viktor Frankl

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Worth Watching: Autumn Sonata (1978)

Title: Autumn Sonata
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Language: Swedish (and some English)
Rating: PG

Eva (Liv Ullmann) and her mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), haven't seen each other in seven years. Charlotte is a brilliant and celebrated pianist, touring around the world. Eva lives a quiet life in a parsonage with her husband, Viktor (Halvar Björk); she also cares for her sister, Helena (Lena Nyman), who suffers from a progressive illness. After Charlotte's longtime companion and lover passes away, Eva invites her to visit the parsonage. Eva hopes for some sort of reconciliation with her mother, a closeness they've never shared. When Charlotte arrives tension mounts between them, and in the course of the night years of pent-up anger, bitterness, and hurt boil over.

Liv Ullmann's magnificent performance as Eva bares layers of emotion, whether she's flying into a rage or quietly sitting beside her mother as Charlotte animates the room. There are a couple of scenes where Eva is observing her mother silently; no words are necessary because Ullmann's face expresses everything: sadness, admiration, resentment, longing and wonder. This especially comes out in the scene where Charlotte is at the piano explaining and then playing a Chopin prelude that Eva plodded through earlier.

Ingrid Bergman's performance is also powerful. She handles Charlotte's complexity beautifully, the shifts in her mood - she can be lively and coquettish, then stalk around a room looking anxious and lost. Charlotte is a passionate artist, living in her own world, loving the fame and admiration that isolates her from others even as she laments her difficulty connecting with people. She has also been a distant mother; her treatment of Eva is fond but superficial. In the company of both her daughters, Charlotte feels guilt-ridden and suffocated. She's probably ashamed of them too; she can make brilliant music but was unable to produce a brilliant daughter. Eva lives as a shadow, and Helena's illness is so unbearable to Charlotte that Charlotte avoids her.

Eva's husband, Viktor, observes the mother-daughter drama with resignation. Viktor is kind and perceptive but also passive. At the film's start he addresses the viewer directly and reads from a book that Eva has written: "One must learn to live. I practice every day. My biggest obstacle is I don't know who I am. If anyone loves me as I am I may dare at last to look at myself. For me, that possibility is fairly remote." He then tells us that he wishes he could make her understand that she is "loved whole-heartedly"; the difficulty is, he can't find the right words to make her believe him. He's a friend, a gentle companion, but too tired for any passionate emotions or interventions.

The Charlotte-Eva relationship dominates the movie. Eva can't live with her mother and can't live without her; Charlotte is a beloved mother, a hated enemy, an angel whose blessing is sorely desired, and a scapegoat blamed for every sin and mischance. The relationship at some points shifts from mother-daughter to accused and accuser, as Eva brings up every bit of childhood neglect, subtle cruelty, maternal inadequacy and selfishness ("All that was sensitive and delicate, you attacked. All that was alive, you tried to smother") and throws them in Charlotte's face. Charlotte isn't a good mother, but there are times when Eva goes too far, carried away with her need to blame Charlotte for everything, past and present. What does she want from her mother at this point? Would she be satisfied if Charlotte admitted responsibility for her mistakes? Does she still want her mother's love and approval?


Eva's own child, a boy, died at a very young age. In one scene, set in his old nursery, she tenderly speaks of how she senses him near her and feels that he's still alive. This strikes Charlotte as morbid and fanciful, detached from reality - more evidence that Eva is a disappointing neurotic daughter, an impression strengthened when Eva's musings turn philosophical: "To me, man is a tremendous creation," she says. "In man is everything from the highest to the lowest." She adds, her face dreamy and contemplative, "There are no limits. Neither to thoughts nor feelings. It's anxiety that sets limits." (This applies not only to love - once Eva moves past her anxious attitude of trying to please her mother, there is no foreseeable limit to her anger.)

Eva's warmth towards her son contrasts with Charlotte's limited ability to love. But one also wonders what sort of mother Eva would have been had her son lived and started growing apart from her, into his own self, as all children do. Would she have smothered him, stunted him, done everything she could to keep him secured to her? Or would she have been a wonderful mother? As it is she's much more of a mother to her sister, Helena, than Charlotte ever was to either of her daughters. I love how Ingmar Bergman presents these characters to us for close consideration, allowing us to see different sides of them.

Memorable sights and sounds
Autumn colors permeate the film. Fallen leaves and pink flowers. Walls and furniture in warm shades of yellow, brown, and cream. Eva, first seen in a long red dress (Charlotte will later wear a red dress too, with pearls). Eva's and Charlotte's hair. Their eyes red-rimmed with tears.

The camera often lingers on the actors' faces; I can't look away when this happens - the human face is a world in itself. Though the screenplay is powerful the dialogue is sometimes too stiff and stagey (maybe in part because I'm reading an English translation in the subtitles); the feeling of intimacy and humanity is preserved by the close-ups on the faces and the force of the actors' performances.

Stand-out scenes
There's one scene I returned to a few times: when Charlotte watches Eva play Chopin's Prelude No.2 in A minor and then plays it in turn, explaining the piece to Eva (the pianist Käbi Laretei, who was also Ingmar Bergman's ex-wife, played both Eva's version and Charlotte's). The camera settles on the actors - Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Bergman both brilliant - and the scene as a whole sums up their characters' relationship. It's also I feel the best written part of the movie; to understand a work of music and write about it clearly and unpretentiously is difficult.
"Chopin was emotional, but not mawkish. Feeling is very far from sentimentality. The prelude tells of pain, not reverie. You have to be calm, clear and harsh. Take the first bars now. It hurts but he doesn't show it. Then a short relief... but it evaporates at once, and the pain is the same. Total restraint the whole time... The prelude must be made to sound almost ugly. It is never ingratiating. It should sound wrong. You have to battle your way through it and emerge triumphant."

Later in the movie Charlotte will speak of her own childhood, spent with cold parents; music became her means of expression. Unlike Charlotte, Eva's most profound expressions of emotion and thought emerge in her reflections on human nature and her abiding love for her son. Both Charlotte and Eva are capable of deep connections, but in such different ways. The scene of the Chopin prelude echoes throughout the whole movie; when I think about it now, my skin prickles.

Further thoughts
There's a raw nerve running through the movie. The characters tap at it and flinch. They can't help themselves. They're locked together in love, pain, rage, and endless struggle.

(*Image links back to its source: Wikipedia)

Week in Seven Words #83

When we walk outside we're mostly silent, snug in our separate shells. But at the café we talk for hours, about books and bedbug infestations, future road trips and finding a job.

Before I'm even out of my chair she's there, catching me up in a hug.

They ask me where I'll live, what I'll do. I tell them I don't know; I don't know yet. It's a dissatisfying answer that tempts people to jump in, answer for me and tell me what to do. I'm more appreciative of the responses I get from those who are open to a number of possibilities and willing to discuss them.

The boy is barely taller than the large black dog that walks beside him. The leash is held loosely in the boy's hand, but the dog doesn't drag him or pull free; even when the boy swats at him with a broad green leaf, the dog slowly and patiently plods along, accustomed to the young child's pestering.

Their Lego city has expanded to include a marina with pirates, mermaids and people on jet skis.

As the storm gusts around outside I'm reminded to check that I have enough non-perishable food. Opening a cupboard I find tuna cans and chocolate-covered blueberries. I'm set.

At the park we find a bench in the shade and catch up over lunch - pitas plump with hummous, tahini, hot sauce, falafels, and Israeli salad. It's a brilliant day. A breeze sweeps in around us, chasing away the stagnant heat. The leaves overhead are green and gold. At one point a toddler comes up to us, smiles, stares and waits to see what we'll do; his parents hang back, his mother a touch embarrassed and his father amused, both of them fondly tolerant of his need to investigate people.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 stories from Carry On, Jeeves

Collection: Carry On, Jeeves
Author: P.G. Wodehouse (Pelham Grenville Wodehouse)

Carry On, Jeeves centers on Bertie Wooster, a jovial air-headed upper-class English bachelor, and his manservant, the cool, impeccable and intelligent Jeeves (a "gentleman's gentleman"), who manages Bertie's life and rescues him and his friends from various mishaps. The stories are set in the early 20th century; a gentleman like Bertie could have an easy-going life waking up late, dining at his club, and drinking throughout the day. Carry On, Jeeves is a fun collection; I didn't read more than one or two stories at a time - there are plot points that tend to repeat, though Wodehouse's cleverness with the English language is always a delight and the main reason I read his work. These are the stories that stood out for me:

The Aunt and the Sluggard
Most of the stories feature one of Bertie's close friends who is usually a slacker with a silly nickname (e.g. Biffy or Sippy). In this one the layabout is nicknamed Rocky (short for Rockmetteller); he lives in a cabin out on Long Island, NY where he spends most of the month sleeping and meditating on the movements of earthworms, except for a few days where he writes bad poetry that gets lapped up by American magazines. One reason I'm recommending this story is the poetry, a fine example of Wodehouse's satirical talents:
The past is dead,
Tomorrow is not born.
Be today!

In Wooster-Jeeves stories there's often a domineering aunt or uncle making demands on a slacker nephew. Bertie suffers such oppression from his Aunt Agatha, but in this story the victim is Rocky. His aunt lives out in the Midwest and would like him to send her colorful descriptions of life in New York City; in exchange she'll give him money and keep him in her will. Most men would be ecstatic at such a deal, but Rocky isn't most men; the thought of living in NYC, away from his cabin and earthworms, is horrifying to him.

Fortunately for him Bertie happens to be visiting NYC, and the plan is to send Jeeves out to do research on the city's high life; the image of Jeeves smoking a fat cigar at a cabaret and scrutinizing 5th Avenue fashions is classic. Of course things get complicated when Rocky's aunt, enthralled by his accounts of city life, decides to visit. Meantime Bertie and Jeeves have their own angst to work through. Another recurring plot point in these stories is Bertie rebelling against Jeeves by wearing a hideous outfit or refusing to shave his mustache. It's a regular battle of wills between them. Invariably they work through these rough patches in their relationship, with Bertie seeing the error of his ways.


Bertie Changes His Mind
It's strange to think of a Wooster-Jeeves story as dark, but this one has a darkness to it. Rather than being told from Bertie's point-of-view, we hear the tale from Jeeves. Jeeves is always clever, resourceful and manipulative, but the way he manages Bertie in this story is a little disturbing - he squashes Bertie's unprecedented desire for a more meaningful life. At the beginning of the story Bertie is out-of-sorts and wonders if there's more to life than waking up late, drinking, and being amiable. He considers inviting his sister and her children to live with him for a time, just to see what it would be like to have kids around. To Jeeves these impulses are alarming. If Bertie seriously contemplates marriage, and finally weds and has children, it will likely result in Jeeves having to find another position. Jeeves likes things as they are; he has a comfortable situation, and he has no intention of letting Bertie disrupt the relationship they have established, with Jeeves as a fatherly puppet master and Bertie as a mostly likeable (though at times recalcitrant) child.

There's some hilarious writing here, especially when Jeeves reflects on his former employer, Montague-Todd. As for the method he uses to cure Bertie of any wishes for a family - it's both funny and humiliating. Poor Bertie. Who knows what kind of man he might have become, and what meaning his life might have had, but by the end of the story he's back to his usual self. Settling down at the end of the day he explains to Jeeves why he's contented with his life again:
"I mean, looking at the clock and wondering if you're going to be late with the good old drinks, and then you coming in with the tray always on time, never a minute late, and shoving it down on the table and biffing off, and the next night coming in and shoving it down and biffing off, and the next night - I mean, it gives you a sort of safe, restful feeling. Soothing! That's the word."


Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest
Bertie's leisurely stay in New York City is disturbed when he finds out he has to look after 23 year old Wilmot (nicknamed "Motty"), the sheltered son of one of Aunt Agatha's friends, Lady Malvern, who hails from Much Middlefold, Shropshire. Wilmot seems at first to be a peaceable twit who will sit quietly in Bertie's apartment sucking on his walking-stick and leafing through books all evening before retiring to bed with a glass of warm milk. What Bertie doesn't count on is that a young man who has never been granted much independence will go wild in a place like NYC. As he explains to Bertie at one point:
"I've been cooped up in the ancestral home at Much Middlefold, in Shropshire, and till you've been cooped up in Much Middlefold you don't know what cooping is! The only time we get any excitement is when one of the choir-boys is caught sucking chocolate during the sermon. When that happens, we talk about it for days. I've got about a month of New York, and I mean to store up a few happy memories for the long winter evenings."

If Wilmot gets in trouble going on wild benders through the city, Bertie will face the double wrath of his Aunt Agatha and of Wilmot's mother. Thankfully Jeeves finds a devious way of helping Bertie out and making sure Motty will be kept confined.

Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest has the distinction of being the first ever Wooster-Jeeves tale I read. I love Bertie's happy ramblings and how they contrast with Jeeves's worldliness, eloquence and masterful understatements. There's no one who talks like Bertie: "Won't you have an egg or something? Or a sausage or something? Or something?" and -
It's only after a bit of breakfast that I'm able to regard the world with that sunny cheeriness which makes a fellow the universal favourite. I'm never much of a lad till I've engulfed an egg or two and a beaker of coffee.

*I've added this post to Short Stories on Wednesday #8 at the Bread Crumb Reads blog.