Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Worth Watching: Stage Door (1937)

Title: Stage Door
Director: Gregory La Cava
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

I had a feeling I'd like this movie, and I was right.

Much of it is set in The Footlights Club, a boarding-house for aspiring actresses and other stage performers trying to make it big (or at least find work) in New York City. Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers) is a smart-alecky blonde who butts heads with her new roommate, Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn), a bright Midwesterner who seems to have an enviable amount of money and more booksmarts than real experience. Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick) is enjoying jewels, furs, and fine dining paid for by her sugar daddy, while Kay Hamilton (Andrea Leeds) has failed to find any new work after she made her successful debut on the stage a year earlier. The other boarding house inmates - played by the likes of Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Constance Collier, and Ann Miller – keep each other's spirits up by hanging out together and cracking jokes.

Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden and others in Stage Door

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Interview with Kathryn Ionata

I'm happy to bring to you this interview with Kathryn Ionata, a writer I was introduced to online by another interviewee (Elizabeth Spencer). Since then I've read and enjoyed the work she's sent me, along with this wonderful interview.

Kathryn Ionata is a fiction writer and poet whose work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Philadelphia Stories, Wisconsin Review, Hawai’i Review, U.S. 1 Worksheets, Aries, Schuylkill Valley Journal, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing Fiction from Temple University in Philadelphia, and has taught writing at Temple University, The College of New Jersey, and Penn State University-Abington. Her website can be found here.

HK: Why do you write?
KI: I write because I don’t know what I would think about if not stories. My parents tell me that I’ve been creating stories my entire life, before I could write them down. Storytelling feels like an integral part of my makeup. Not necessarily good or bad, but just there. It’s very difficult to explain because I don’t know what other people have in their heads in place of stories. Probably real life, but sometimes I prefer to think about the way things could be rather than the way they are. I don’t write every day, but I think about writing every day, many times a day.

HK: Share with us some of the most important writing lessons or advice that you've given your students.
KI: Something I try very hard to emphasize with students is the importance of setting. I’m indebted to Joan Mellen, my graduate mentor, for instilling in me the value of time, place, politics, history, and culture in fiction. After I had taught creative writing for a couple years, I noticed that most students, of all levels of experience and skill, tended to shy away from any kind of setting. I saw a lot of stories of indeterminate time and place. I think that comes from an effort to make the writing accessible to everyone, but the result is the story doesn’t feel fully developed. So I started making a concerted effort to address this.

I tell my students that setting is not just time and place, but that time and place are what create setting. This past semester my students read Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and did an activity where they had to change the setting, and explain how the story would change accordingly, which it always did, sometimes in hilarious ways. I’ve also played Bruce Springsteen songs such as “Born to Run” and had students analyze the setting created in the lyrics.

HK: In what ways has getting an MFA in Creative Writing benefited you? What do you think people should know before choosing to pursue this degree?
KI: In short, being in an MFA program made me a better writer. Not only do I know more about literature, but being forced to spend two years concentrating on my writing made me a better writer at the end than at the beginning. Beyond my own writing, the MFA program I was in awarded me a very generous scholarship where I taught one or two classes every semester, and I discovered how much I enjoyed teaching. Plus, I had a great support system of faculty and peers. I met some wonderful friends in my MFA program, and I’ve been lucky enough to read their extraordinary writing and get some amazing feedback.

I would advise anyone considering getting an MFA to think about what they want out of such a program, and plan accordingly. Maybe you want to work with nationally recognized writers, or maybe it’s more important to be in a program that emphasizes literature, or teaching. You may not get all of these things out of one program because each will have its own strengths and weaknesses. Do some research and see what appeals to you. I think one of the most important things you can find out about a program is what classes students are required to take each semester. You probably want to find a program that allows you the chance to take lots of writing classes so you have time to focus on your writing. I’ve had friends go into MFA programs where there was so much scholarly work required that they didn’t have much time to focus on their own writing.

HK: Tell us about something you wrote that you're really proud of (and why you're proud of it).
KI: I’m very proud of a poem I wrote called “A Supermarket in Pennsylvania” that was published in Philadelphia Stories. The poem features a speaker who sees her former psychiatrist in a grocery store. I thought it was a very serious poem, but when I read it at a reading, people laughed at the line “I saw my old psychiatrist at Trader Joe’s.” I’ve always admired people who can inject humor into their poetry and I felt proud that I had managed that. I also like that the poem is very succinct—I reined in my prosaic nature and the final result is that much better because it’s controlled.

I am quietly proud of my current novel in progress, but it’s too new for me to talk about.

HK: If you could choose any three authors, dead or alive, to meet with you to discuss literature and give you feedback on your writing, who would they be and why?
KI: I would definitely want Emily Brontë there. The passion she invokes in Wuthering Heights is unparalleled—not just romantic passion, but the story itself has an inherent passion in the instability of the characters. I would love to talk about the creating and rendering of families with Louisa May Alcott. Little Women is one of my favorite books, for sentimental reasons but also because of the dynamics of the March sisters. And I think I’d round out the group with Dorothy Parker in the hope that some of her biting wit would rub off on me.

HK: What are your current projects and some of your future plans as a writer?
KI: I recently finished the first draft of a short story about a group of Italian-American teenage boys living in North Philadelphia in the 1970s. I’ve been trying to do these characters and that setting justice for years, and I hope that I’m getting closer. I am also trying to work on the novel I mentioned before. I didn’t have much time to write during the fall semester, so I’m a little rusty, but I hope to have more time over winter break. The novel is about a mother and daughter, or maybe mothers and daughters, plural. Topics to be included are the 2012 presidential election, Joni Mitchell, marriage, “the one that got away,” aging parents, and nose piercings. And that’s all I want to say for now.

Thank you, Kathryn!

Week in Seven Words #149 and #150


Here's another batch of two weeks of words.

And exciting news: The e-book I co-authored with my brother is now available on Amazon.

Friday, December 14, 2012

If you're celebrating Hanukkah...

I hope you're having a great holiday, full of light and warmth.

And if you want to see what nerdy Jews come up with in their spare time:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Good Short Fiction: A Wilderness Station (by Alice Munro)

Title: A Wilderness Station
Author: Alice Munro
Collection: Selected Stories

All my life I found this a good rule to follow - to get as much pleasure as you could out of things even when you weren't likely to be happy.

A Wilderness Station is an epistolary story that makes you feel like a bird flying over a forest, getting glimpses of people below and what they're doing, while knowing that parts of them will stay concealed. You'll never know the whole story.

Simon Herron, the man who dies (murdered?), is the only major character who doesn't get a voice. We see him through other characters, and we see them through letters and secondhand accounts. At the start of the story you're flying over Canadian wilderness, a frontier just being broken into by settlers. There's Simon and his brother, George, trying to make a life in the woods. They're joined by Simon's wife, Annie McKillop, who was betrothed to Simon via mail.

You might be thinking there's a love triangle, but there isn't. There's death, cruelty, mystery, guilt, and what appears to be insanity. Munro has a gift of letting multiple lives unfold across generations within a single short story. She leaves us to make sense of what we see; like historians armed with some primary documents and with our own imagination and preconceptions we try to understand what happened to these characters, before and after and during a fateful day in the woods.


Other stories in this collection include: Dance of the Happy Shades and Lichen.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Week in Seven Words #147 & #148


It's good to be back.

I was sick for most of last week, which threw me off my regular posting/writing schedule. So I've mixed up two weeks in words into one post. A word salad, served up for you. Here you go...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Week in Seven Words #146

The office park is a tidy warehouse for people, with a view from each window of asphalt and bare trees.

I'm in the passenger seat a lot, watching the world coast by past the window. I can't remember the last time I was behind the wheel.

There's a meeting house feeling to the room, all of us in chairs along the white walls as people take turns sharing stories and thoughts.

Escaping from the depths on the back of Beethoven's 9th.

He doesn't understand that "1" isn't a difficult number to get when rolling a die, that you've got as much of a chance of landing on it as any of the other numbers. He insists that if he curls his fingers a certain way when he touches the die, he'll get it. Once he's made up his mind, he forgets about all the times the die doesn't land on 1 and remembers only when it does.

On Hangman she cheats, uses her best friend's nickname.

The trees catch the light in their leaves and throw it at you in a blaze.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

10 reasons to watch Gaslight (1944)

Title: Gaslight
Director: George Cukor
Language: English
Rating: PG

Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) used to live with her aunt, a famous opera singer who was strangled to death in her own home. Years later, when studying music in Italy, Paula falls in love with and marries Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), a pianist. The two move back to her aunt's old home in a pretty London square, where Gregory patiently sets about destroying her sanity.

(The expression gaslighting - when you deliberately cause someone to doubt their own sanity, judgment, and other mental faculties - comes from the 1930s play on which this movie is based, though the movie itself is what really popularized its usage.)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Week in Seven Words #145

Fat snowflakes swimming past my eyes. The world is wrapped up in snow.

Despair is always waiting with open arms but I don't look his way, not this time.

In the subway car I'm just one brick in a wall of solid flesh.

The dog got a haircut. Now when she stretches up on her hind legs to poke her nose over the edge of the table she looks part-canine, part-rodent, and part-pixie, with liquid alien eyes.

Conversations with people who have a gleam in their eye that tells me they're not really hearing me out, just waiting to pounce on what they expect to hear. Why should I talk, when they already know what I'm going to say?

Before reading comes pretend reading, where she turns the pages, recites the words she knows by heart, points out the pictures, and to all appearances looks as if she's reading.

I'm heading into new territory on unsteady legs, as if there's ice under my feet.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Smoker's Guide to Health and Fitness

On the occasion of the 37th Annual Great American Smokeout, it's fitting that I reveal to you: A Smoker's Guide to Health and Fitness, an e-book I've co-authored with one of my brothers, who's a family medicine doctor.

In his practice he has a number of patients who smoke and many others who used to. The majority of them care about their health, even if they're not always doing what's best for them (including smoking, eating poorly, and not getting enough physical activity), so it occurred to him to write up the kinds of information he shares with them in an e-book that would address their total health and fitness, mental and physical, no matter what stage they're at (e.g. smoking and trying to quit, smoking and not attempting to quit, stopped smoking years ago but have concerns about elevated cancer risk). Earlier this year he asked me to help him with this.

The book is not yet available but we've set up a site for it which we hope will become a community for people interested in improving their health and promoting good health among others - without shaming smokers or focusing only on their cigarette use (as opposed to addressing all of their health needs):

SmokersFitness.com is the site.

Two additional reasons to go there:

1) We're now hosting a giveaway of the book that includes a gift card to a major online retailer you book-lovers out there might appreciate (so don't hesitate to sign up, and also to spread the word to smokers and ex-smokers in your life who would benefit from the book).

2) In the "Contact the Authors" section you'll get to see a photo of me. Camera shy as I am, I've never put a photo up on this blog, but there I'm unveiled in all my co-authorial glory...

Seriously, I'm happy to have helped my brother with this. He's a wonderful doctor, cares about his patients and goes beyond the textbook in thinking about their issues and helping them out; he doesn't see them as a walking checklist of symptoms, but as individuals, and in addition to treating their existing problems he places a great deal of emphasis on prevention and good health habits.

It's also been interesting co-authoring a book, fitting in what I'm writing to what the other person is writing and not being the only one who's got a say as to what goes in the book or is left out as the writing progresses; I've co-authored smaller academic pieces before but not something like this (the other large writing projects I have underway at the moment are just my own).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Happy Third Birthday, Sill of the World

For some reason I never celebrated the first or second birthdays of the blog, but why not start now with the third?


Some fun facts:

1) The first post I ever wrote was about life forms that live in inhospitable places, such as bacteria found in boiling acidic water. Clearly I knew where this blog was headed.

2) I wrote that first post on a Friday the Thirteenth. I don't believe in the superstition of Friday the Thirteenth, but I still love that of all days to launch a blog I chose that one.

3) When I started this blog I had only one reader: myself. Now I have people visiting, commenting, emailing me, from every continent (except Antarctica, that final hold-out...)

4) I started this blog on a lark, because I needed a regular creative outlet. I was at a stage then (and for a while after) of not wanting to share my work publicly. But now that's changed, and slowly I'm sending my work out, writing for publication, and emerging into the light once more. I'm not the same person I was then, and I hope this blog keeps growing as I grow.

Thanks for helping me make the journey so wonderful.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Week in Seven Words #144

I had meant to post this earlier in the week, but better late than never...

The first time I step outside after the Frankenstorm, the air is cold and raw, like breathing ice crystals.

Early Sunday morning, the lines at the grocery store spill out the door.

Flickering lights and rain lashing the windows, but thankfully no flooding. No long-term loss of power. Unlike other parts of the city and eastern coastline, which are unrecognizable now.

Young kids have a hard time focusing on multiple details. I see it during a game of Dominos where the child pays attention to one feature or number but overlooks another. Juggling details simultaneously is tough.

I want to smack the people who go online to tell everyone that the coming storm is "hyped up" and that there's no need to evacuate or prepare for it in any way.

People clustered at the library looking for a warm place to read, sleep and use the Internet for the first time in a couple of days.

If they lose the first game, they tell me it isn't fair if I win the second one too. Even if the game is purely chance, a matter of how the dice land, they still want me to lose somehow, to appease their notion of fairness and make things right with the world.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One beautiful autumn afternoon in Central Park

I took these photos in Central Park a week and a day before Hurricane Sandy hit (here are some reputable charities to donate to, if you want to help the recovery efforts).

It was a beautiful autumn day the likes of which we won't see again this season, I think.



Friday, November 2, 2012

NaNoWriMo Notes #2: Super Power Caps Lock

If you were to look at the draft of my novel you'd find passages written entirely in caps lock - sometimes a sentence or two, other times several pages.

Whenever I'm writing and suddenly get a new and exciting idea that feels right, that makes sense and completes the scene or character, I hit caps lock and start typing at a fast pace. Doing this helps me focus on the writing and capture as much of the new idea as I can, instead of getting caught up in more minor concerns like sentence structure and consistent punctuation. Later drafts will take care of those.

This super power caps lock habit reminds me of the old Super Mario Nintendo game when Mario eats a spotted mushroom and balloons in size, looking that much more formidable as he stomps on his foes or dodges man-eating plants that shoot fireballs.

Super Mario

Week in Seven Words #143

It's great to be able to laugh with the people you work with.

I don't know what I'll see by the wine store each time I pass it. Sometimes it's a family with kids who've gotten their faces painted. Other times it might be a man on a cigarette break, or a woman screaming at the back window of a car, where she sees her own reflection.

A bottle of wine, some boardgames, and some bad television make for a lazy evening.

Many problems come from mental blocks. When you're convinced from the start that you'll do badly you generate a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can't think about anything else aside from how badly you'll do. Why is it so much easier for me to see this tendency in other people than it is to catch it in myself?

People can't admit they've shown up just for the booze and food, so what they do is throw in some lofty speeches that they can pretend to pay attention to while getting liquored up.

Calling up a friend I haven't spoken to in a while to find out he's in the hospital on his birthday.

At the Shakespeare Garden, poetry and stinging insects are perennial.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NaNoWriMo Notes #1: Trusting Yourself When You Write

November is National Novel Writing Month, which I'll use as an additional push to keep my novel-writing on a tight schedule and maybe finish this draft of the book earlier than my 12/18 self-imposed deadline.

One issue that's important to me and that I struggle with is trusting myself when I write. In Ann Lamott's book, Bird by Bird, I came across a great analogy for what it's like to write an early draft of a novel:
E.L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.
and later she writes:
You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self-doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you are doing it right. Just dance.

Letting go and just writing is still something I need to work on. What helps is to remind myself that I need a warm up period - usually during the first fifteen minutes or so of writing I'm too worried about how things will turn out; I'm too much at a remove from the work. But if I let myself ease into the writing, my grip loosens on the steering wheel and I can drive into that dark night, with only a hazy idea of my destination and some milestones along the way, and focus instead on what the headlights are showing me. If I drive without trusting myself, the car will move in fits and starts, and I'll inch along, lose momentum, and stop at the side of the road, unable to continue.

What it comes down to is fearlessness and trust. I must be able to trust myself and what I'm capable of when I write. Instead of fearing the blankness beyond the blinking cursor, I need to barrel into it with everything I have. Sometimes it doesn't seem like much, but time and again I surprise myself. A character that seemed to go nowhere suddenly has a story, a motive, a purpose that makes sense. A location I mentioned in passing twenty pages back becomes I place I can walk through and touch and smell. I just have to keep writing.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

10 reasons to watch Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Title: Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Director: John Huston
Language: English and Spanish
Rating: PG

Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are down on their luck in Tampico, Mexico when they team up with Howard (Walter Huston), a cheerful, motormouthed old miner who's made and lost several fortunes hunting for gold around the world. They head into unexplored territory to look for gold, and though they're beset by many external threats - heat, harsh terrain, bandits, and other miners who might kill them for their loot - the worst danger they face is from each other.

Tim Holt, Walter Huston and Humphrey Bogart as Curtin, Howard and Fred C. Dobbs

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Three disturbing stories for Halloween (or any other time you wish to be disturbed)

Title: The Damned Thing
Author: Ambrose Bierce
Where I read it: Fifty Great American Short Stories (ed. Milton Crane)

A creepy little horror piece about a man living alone in the wilderness being stalked by something he can't see. The story begins with the coroner examining his body, so you know how it ends for him. All he's left behind as a clue is his journal, where he describes day by day, with growing dread, the thing stalking him. I first read this story years ago and still remembered some of the details. It gets lodged in your brain like a splinter.


Title: Silent Snow, Secret Snow
Author: Conrad Aiken
Where I read it: Fifty Great American Short Stories (ed. Milton Crane)

If I tell you that this is a terrifying story about snow, you might think it's something like a Jack London story with people getting trapped in log cabins in the dead of winter and eating the frozen remains of their friends. But the snow here exists only in the mind of the protagonist, Paul - it's like a static hissing, building up slowly between himself and the rest of the world.

What makes the story so disturbing isn't only that Paul's life is dimming around him, but that he welcomes it; he craves the secret oblivion of the snow and wants the rest of the world to disappear. Is he going insane? Rejecting outer reality for something inward and alien to others? Maybe. That he's the son of typical middle class parents in Anytown, USA heightens the eeriness (there's a Twilight Zone feel to the story). I love how the author takes what could have been an absurd premise and makes it frightening:

The hiss was now becoming a roar - the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow - but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.


Title: The Tell-Tale Heart
Author: Edgar Allan Poe
Where I read it: The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (ed. Joyce Carol Oates)

"And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?"

When it comes to deranged narrators, no one beats Edgar Allan Poe. This one isn't the elegant, depraved madman of The Cask of Amontillado, who lures his victim into the catacombs for an elaborate premeditated demise. The narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart is holding onto his sanity by a thread. His actions are clumsy and sad. When the police arrive he tries so hard to seem sane (I love how, even though everything takes place from his POV, we can guess what the officers are thinking as they listen to him try to make polite chit-chat in the room where he's buried the body). As in The Cask of Amontillado, this narrator has us stand alongside him and witness his crime; he wants us to understand him. But he also has a conscience, which surfaces through the madness.


Other stories in Fifty Great American Short Stories include: The Blue-Winged Teal (by Wallace Stegner) and The National Pastime (by John Cheever); along with The Girls in their Summer Dresses (by Irwin Shaw) and A New England Nun (by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman).


Other stories in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories include: The Middle Years (by Henry James) and Sweat (by Zora Neale Hurston).


This post is shared at the The Short Story Initiative at Simple Clockwork.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Week in Seven Words #142

She talks without pause about books, school, computers, e-readers, clothes, and soccer, and apologizes (unnecessarily) for talking too much, even as she tells her younger sister not to interrupt her.

The trees are dusted with yellow and pale orange, and the shadows are long as we stand together beside the remains of a picnic. Most people have left, except for a businessman who tells us about his mystical healing powers.

I don't think it's best for me to stay in my current home for more than a year or two. We'll see.

In the car, an atmosphere of rancor and brokenness.

His speech is made up of several beautiful threads that don't get tied together.

Seared tuna with avocado and mango. The ingredients separately don't move me one way or another, but together they're bliss.

He looks away at one point, tears in his eyes, as he asks for advice. My voice sounds stronger and wiser than I am; the words emerge from a place that's deeper than the surface pettiness and worries in my life. But I don't know if any long-term good will come of this conversation.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Interview with Nancy Cudis

Nancy Cudis has a passion for writing, reading, and promoting great books and stories (especially little-known gems) on her blog, Simple Clockwork. Anyone who loves to read and write about short stories should participate in The Short Story Initiative on her blog, which has attracted a community of enthusiastic readers. I'm fortunate to count Nancy as an online friend and fellow blogger, and am happy to introduce her here.

Nancy is an award-winning blogger, writer, part-time student, full-time community development worker, and a former news reporter. She blogs about short stories, Philippine literature, poetry, books, and personal experiences at her blog, Simple Clockwork. She lives in Cebu, Philippines where she can trek the mountains or drive to the beach or party at a club at any time she wants because of their proximity. She pursues her Masters in Media Studies at a local university. She is active at Cebu Bloggers Society Inc. and recently formed with Geezelle Tapangan of geemiz.com the Cebu Book Club.

On to the interview...

HK: Why did you decide to take up blogging? What has been most rewarding about it (and what's been the biggest challenge)?
NC: Restlessness. It started with being restless more than a year ago. I had left a three-year news reporting stint that required me to submit at least two news stories a day six days a week; then I suddenly found myself in a new five-days-a-week office job that expected me to do more editing and coordination than writing. At the same time, I have more free time to do what I want, which I used for reading and traveling. But writing is something I have always loved doing. One morning, I woke up, feeling frustrated and knowing that I just have to write again. So I started with a personal blog in January 2011. Ten months later, after stumbling upon a supportive community of book bloggers, Simple Clockwork transformed into a book blog, although I did not completely veer away from personal non-book related accounts worth sharing.

At first, I was reading and blogging without direction. I was stretching myself thinly by being everywhere, in any genre that captures my fancy, for any author who took an interest in my efforts. It took me some time to discover what I really wanted to do for my blog. Eventually, blogging for a purpose has become more important to me. Sometimes I feel like a literary activist or an advocate, believing highly in the books, stories, and authors I feature and hoping just as highly that readers and visitors alike will pick them up and include them in their reading menu and be inspired to live better. And you know what’s rewarding about all these? Those special moments when I wake up, open my email, and receive out-of-the-blue comments on old posts telling me how much my blog has inspired them or helped them a lot. Naturally, these incidents would fire up my drive to blog more.

HK: How do you choose which books you'll read? Do you have a reading plan, or are your choices more spontaneous?
NC: Because of my spontaneous experience with starting a blog, it is no surprise I spontaneously choose the books or short stories I read. But when I really like a book or a short story, I really rally for it, but still open to the fact that not all will fall for it. That is one beauty of the book blogging community; there is a lot of positive energy going on and at the same time, there are constructive criticisms, too. If I had experienced otherwise, I would have left the book blogging scene a long time ago.

Rather than a reading plan, I have an editorial calendar, which determines what I read and blog for the month. It is something I did as a news reporter and which is an old habit I could not shake off. Fortunately, it is working for me pretty well in blogging. I have a good mix of short stories, Philippine literature, mythology, comics, children’s books, classics, and romance--genres that particularly hold a special place in my heart.

HK: When you think of books or short stories that you've loved, what qualities make them memorable to you?
NC: Whether it’s a book or a short story, what makes it memorable for me is the ability of the writer to gracefully capture my attention and bring me to a screeching climax and a heart-wrenching resolution. For me, the plot of a story is only as good as how the writer delivers it.

HK: What themes/topics/ideas are you most interested in exploring when you write your own fiction?
NC: I have long been writing short stories, several in high school and college and some just recently. I’m now attempting to write a novel. My eyebrows are always knotted together getting the story going. But all these stories have a common denominator--the dynamics of human relationships.

I’m perennially amazed at how people interact with each other, online or offline, and how we change a lot over time without us consciously aware of it. I think we are interconnected by an invisible thread and how we interact with each other will determine how long or how short that thread will become. I’m equally interested in how people think and how their thinking impels their actions. I’m a reflective person, perhaps a little introverted. So human relationships and human thinking are some things I would like to explore in my future fiction.

HK: If you could choose any three authors, dead or alive, to meet with you to discuss literature and give you feedback on your writing, who would they be and why?
NC: American writer O. Henry, English crime writer Ruth Rendell, and Filipino writer Amador Daguio.

As I have often written in my blog posts, reading O. Henry’s works is like having a glass of wine with him on the balcony and watching the world unfold before our eyes. His works reflect his laidback and relaxed personality yet he delivered many powerful and witty short stories. I would like to be with him on that balcony, not just observing the people on the streets but also talking about my writing.

On the other hand, Ruth Rendell is fantastic. She wrote some of the most mind-boggling works I have come across with. Reading her stories is like riding a train wherein I have to grip something because any time the train’s speed will escalate faster and faster...then stop. Oh, I would not want to ride with her on that train to discuss literature; perhaps after I get off the train, so I could ask her properly how she does it--write admirably gripping stories (and she makes them look so easy to write!).

Amador Daguio would make a great person to walk or trek the mountains with. Reading his works, I could imagine him pointing out huts of native tribes and we would be exchanging clever stories about them, or having a picnic with him and trading over-the-top stories to answer our incredulous “what if” questions. I would like to ask him how to vibrantly capture Filipino stories on paper in a series of short stories. I think that would be really neat.

HK: What are your current writing projects, and what do you hope to work on in the future?
NC: My blog in itself is a writing project. I hope for each blog post to be relevant. I have a lot of plans for my blog, including partnerships with groups that advocate reading and literacy. My hope is that more parents will appreciate the value of encouraging reading to their children at an early stage. While I iron out the details, I will continue The Short Story Initiative, which encourages bloggers and readers to share the short stories they have read. I also work with Mel U of The Reading Life for our joint venture wherein we share our thoughts on Filipino short stories. Every now and then, I try to pick up my pen (yes, I sometimes still use pens) to write a short story. I hope to make a collection of them in the future.

As this is the last question, let me take this opportunity to thank you, Hila! You sure ask really good and thought-provoking, if not tough, questions, and I thoroughly enjoyed answering them!

Thanks, Nancy, for participating!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Worth Watching: Victor Victoria (1982)

Title: Victor Victoria
Director: Blake Edwards
Language: English
Rating: PG

It's 1934, and the scene is Paris. Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) is an out-of-work soprano who can hit fearsomely high notes. She meets Toddy (Robert Preston), a self-described "old queen" and out-of-work cabaret singer. He has an idea to help her break into the Parisian nightclub scene: she'll pass herself off as a female impersonator named Victor. Everyone will think she's a man who's really good at looking and singing like a woman. Other than Toddy, no one will know that she's a real woman.

Julie Andrews and Robert Preston in Victor Victoria

Friday, October 19, 2012

Week in Seven Words #141

When I go somewhere new and don't know anybody, instead of hanging around awkwardly with my drink and thinking about who I should approach and whether anyone will approach me, I try to find a bookcase; then I can half-browse for books, half-scope out the room without feeling like a spotlight is on me.

When shouting/singing/dancing/whirling people pour into the room and fill it wall-to-wall, I slip outside for a breather.

Why are so many educators humorless? When they make jokes they look pained and nervous, as if they've colored outside the lines and won't get a sticker for their work.

As he lectures us in a nasal voice, admitting no interruptions, he reminds me of a tortoise. A pedantic tortoise in an pea green coat. Thinking about him this way makes him more human to me.

Passive-aggressive silence is more effective, and obnoxious, than an explicit renunciation.

The Prayer for Rain permeates us.

At last the heat is on, and the floor no longer feels like permafrost.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Week in Seven Words #140

"What do your parents do?" I ask. "As little as possible," she says.

I notice when the kids don't know how to pronounce a word they say the first sound or syllable, and then let the rest of the word die in their mouth. 'Significant' can turn into 'sigf.' Then they move on to the next word without looking back, as if they've committed a verbal hit-and-run.

Geese settle onto the baseball diamond, where they strut from one mud puddle to another with awkward majesty.

She shows how happy she is to see me by drawing a spontaneous stick figure portrait of me surrounded by hearts and balancing a blue dog on my head.

Rain plinking on my shoulders as I sit in the Sukkah.

During the Hallel prayer service, the lulavs rustle, and a wind seems to rise and fall in the room.

"What do you want to do on your birthday?" I ask. "Anything I can get away with," she says.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Week in Seven Words #139

They're identical twins in platform shoes and airy skirts, wearing jewelry with mystical designs. If I had to guess their age I'd say they're in their 50s, but they carry themselves like much younger women, brushing back the hair from their face and perching bird-like on their seats during the Kol Nidre service on the eve of Yom Kippur. I don't even know them but I have a feeling they're pretty awesome.

On Saturday afternoon a little girl, maybe three or four, shows up to synagogue wearing shoes with built-in squeakers. Every time she takes a step they let out a loud high chirpy noise. Two questions cross my mind as I try to concentrate on praying: 1) Why would you have your child wear shoes like that to synagogue? 2) Why would you buy shoes like that to begin with? Children are already experts at making noise; they don't need your help.

The first married couple: man and woman stand apart and discuss the pains in their legs and whether there will be rain later in the evening. The second married couple: man and woman sit on a bench, hold hands and say nothing.

The orange-yellow mums in the flower pot by the window look like a multi-faceted sea creature, small insects swimming in and out of it.

Towards the end of the fast on Yom Kippur I'm mellow. During the short afternoon break between synagogue services I sit in a nearby park, where my mind throws open its doors and says, "Welcome world," to the trees, the passing cars and pedestrians.

He speaks eloquently, but his story would have been more powerful had he not ended it with a request for money.

teshuva (תשובה‎)
The Hebrew word for 'repentance' is teshuva, which means 'return.' You've gone off course and now it's time to come back. Teshuva is important all year round but is especially emphasized in the 10 days spanning from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. On Sunday we go out to lunch, mindful of what happened last month. But unlike last month there are no fights this time, no recriminations that ruin our plans.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Worth Watching: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Title: In the Heat of the Night
Director: Norman Jewison
Language: English
Rating: PG/PG-13

An influential businessman in a small Southern town has been murdered, and the first suspect brought in for interrogation is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). Why Tibbs? He's a black man and was found sitting alone at the train depot with a wad of cash in his pocket; in the eyes of Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger) and his ragtag crew of officers, he might as well be sentenced on the spot. When it turns out that Tibbs - Mr. Tibbs - is the best homicide detective in Philadelphia, makes more money a week than Gillespie does in a month, and was only passing through the area after visiting his mother, he's recruited to help solve the case. Reluctantly, after some pressure from his own police chief, he agrees.

Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs and Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie

It's not a happy situation for Tibbs, working in a hostile town where he could easily get arrested, beaten or shot. Tibbs can't just be good at what he does. To receive basic human consideration, he has to be the best; he has to meet the highest standards of professionalism if he even wants to be tolerated. I don't think we ever see Tibbs eat anything, wear anything other than a suit, or sleep. He has to be more than human.

Poiter delivers his lines a little too stiffly here, compared to his performances in a couple of older films. Maybe the extra stiffness reflects the strain of having to play - not for the first time - two roles in a movie: the role of his character (who's trying to stay alive, solve a crime, and show racist people that he's a person worthy of respect) and the role of Poitier the Emissary, put on the big screen to comfortably show white audiences in the late 1950s through the 1960s that black people can be good and kind and smart too.

Before Poitier, black actors didn't get prominent parts on-screen, with the exception of some musicals. From what I've seen they were mostly portrayed as slow, child-like, and/or servile. Poitier broke down some of those stereotypes by playing intelligent characters, people with nobility and courage and strong will. But to endear himself to white audiences, he wasn't allowed to be sexual, and he needed to be shown as helpful to white people. In the movies I've watched so far, his characters weren't boring or perfect, and he portrayed people who had backbone and wouldn't accept racist insults. He broke ground in cinematic scenes where he wrestled down racists (in the The Defiant Ones), called them 'boy' (in Lilies of the Field), and in this movie, slapped them. Those scenes still have power today, but they were much more shocking when the movies first came out. Still, Poitier was limited in his choice of roles, because he had to present a certain image to movie-goers.

In any case, I think in this movie the strengths of his performance lie not so much in the delivery of his lines but in his intense facial expressions, and his body language suggesting defensiveness and leashed strength; he has a compelling screen presence. His demeanor is a sharp contrast to Steiger's Sheriff Gillespie, a laconic bulldog of a man who slouches around, chews gum, puts his feet up on his desk, and hides a sharp mind behind an easygoing manner. Gillespie is racist, not so much with true conviction as with a need to feel superior to others in some way, given his nonexistent personal life and low-paying, high-pressure job in a backwater town. Tibbs's city manners, cleverness and sophisticated crime-solving techniques reluctantly impress him even as he's eaten up with jealousy and outrage.

Rod Steiger as Sheriff Gillespie

Detective Tibbs and Sheriff Gillespie don't become friends, but Gillespie does come to see Tibbs as a man worth respecting and defending. In one great scene that captures their relationship and its uneasiness, Gillespie hosts Tibbs in his home where they talk over drinks. Letting Tibbs into his house is an unspoken sign of respect from Gillespie, who doesn't like having guests over. In the course of their conversation, they discover some things they have in common (two law enforcement officers, leading a lonely life with lots of hard, tiring work), and Tibbs starts to look a little relaxed for a change. But then the feeling of fellowship startles Gillespie - it's suddenly too much, sharing confidences with a man who should be inferior to him but isn't - and he retreats back into his racist mindset and shuts Tibbs out again, leaving Tibbs disillusioned and regretful. As long as he can see Tibbs as an officer, Gillespie is able to work with him, but he keeps retreating from the idea of Tibbs as a man.

That scene felt a lot more real to me than the ending, which hit a wrong note. Suffice it to say, Tibbs solves the murder, and he's about to leave this little town where maybe he's changed some people's perceptions. Gillespie arrives to see him off at the train station. At this point the filmmakers (and Poitier) make it seem like Tibbs really needs the recognition from the sheriff. He doesn't just want the victory of getting acknowledgement from a man who thought he was dirt at the start of the film, or the satisfaction of changing some people's minds; he seems to actually need Gillespie's approval. (Not like in Lilies of the Field, where the recognition he wants from Mother Maria feels more like the respect a person demands from a worthy contender.) Here it seems that Tibbs wants a pat on the head.

Tibbs and Gillespie along with Endicott's servant in the famous slap scene

I haven't said much about the murder, because while there are some suspenseful moments and colorful (and yucky) minor characters the movie is worth watching mostly because of Poitier and Steiger and their dynamic.

I also love the feel of the movie in some of the scenes. There's the blur of lights in the beginning with Ray Charles singing In the Heat of the Night. Also the unexpected moments of humor or irony; for instance, the first character in the film who respectfully addresses Tibbs as "Mr. Tibbs" is one of the most racist characters, Endicott (Larry Gates), who lives like a plantation owner of yore. He regards his workers with paternalistic condescension and pines for the good old days where he could get away with shooting the uppity ones. These days he can't even deliver a slap without getting one back.

What I wanted more of was Tibbs's thoughts about the situation he's in. Not his need for acknowledgement or his need to stay alive and stay one step ahead of those trying to kill him, but his thoughts on being in alien territory. Usually he's in Philly, well-respected and in his element; in the South he's rejected and threatened by white society and doesn't fit in among the other black people who are still kept in "their place." His mother lives in these parts, and he understands some of the culture - seen especially in his conversation with Mama Caleba (Beah Richards), a character who plays a key role in the murder mystery. But what does Tibbs think? He's an emissary from another world (in this case, a big city in the northern U.S.), just as Poitier himself bridged two worlds in mainstream cinema, his films becoming part of an important transformation in American culture.

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

Friday, September 28, 2012

Week in Seven Words #138

Meeting kind people in stairwells.

He holds the last shofar note for an eternity. In that note is every hope, appeal, and wordless scream.

The men behind me in line at the post office act as if they're in purgatory: they lament the delay, dissect the reasons for the delay, wonder aloud how long they must wait until they can hand their letters or parcels over for deliverance.

He's become accustomed to speaking about people as if they're abstractions. He prides himself on talking about heinous crimes with little feeling or outrage and providing "logical" explanations of crime and justice that sound tidy on paper but fall apart when applied to the messy reality of human life. I think he derives superiority from feeling that he's "above it all" when for the most part he's confusing callousness with rationality. But his comments do highlight how any system of justice on Earth will always have shortcomings of one kind or another, though some of course are much worse than others.

The sign that the High Holidays have commenced: a dish of honey on the table, for dipping challah and apple slices.

Casting my sins into a soft swollen gray river.

At first she seems sullen and withdrawn. But just give her the chance to speak, without getting impatient or trying to win her over with fake smiles, and a more interesting picture emerges.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Interview with Juliet Wilson

I don't remember when I first discovered Juliet Wilson's blog - Crafty Green Poet - but I've always found it worth visiting for many reasons including the haikus and other poems, beautiful photos, descriptions, and discussions of nature (she lives in Scotland), posts on crafty projects, and reviews of movies and books (for reviews also check out another blog she runs, Over Forty Shades). I'm happy she accepted my invitation to be interviewed here.

For starters, here's some background on Juliet:

Juliet is a writer, crafter, adult education tutor and conservation volunteer. She has written poetry since she lived in Malawi for two years, but recently has started writing much more fiction and non-fiction. She is currently working on her first novel. She blogs about literature, nature, environmental issues and recycled crafts at Crafty Green Poet and edits the poetry journal Bolts of Silk.

Now on to the interview...

HK: Why do you write?
JW: I write basically because I feel I have something to say and because I enjoy it. I like putting words together and polishing them to create something that hopefully other people will enjoy.

HK: Why are you drawn to poetry in particular?
JW: Poetry was what first spoke to me I think, thanks to a school teacher who used an excellent poetry anthology in introducing us to poetry. Plus I have always been a relatively concise sort of person, so the fact that poems can be really short appealed to me. (My favourite poetic form is the haiku, both for its brevity and its connection with nature.)

HK: What do you think your strengths are as a writer, and what do you hope to improve on?
JW: I think the fact I'm very concise benefits my poetry. However, now that I'm working on a novel, I'm starting to think I need to expand my writing sometimes! In general I think there's always room to improve and I enjoy attending writing classes.

HK: Through your art (and your blog) you communicate a love of nature and a commitment to environmentalist principles. In what ways has your art been an effective vehicle for addressing and promoting various environmental issues? (e.g. have you found that your work has changed people's minds, made an issue better known, etc.)
JW: This is an interesting question and it can be difficult to find out the answer, particularly looking at the bigger picture of environmental issues! I do know, though, that several people have read books after I've posted reviews about them (one reader of my blog seems to read almost every book that I review!). A couple of my readers have left comments on my blog to say they've started getting out into nature more often as a result of reading my posts.

HK: You also make a lot of crafts (and recycle materials while doing so). Describe what you feel are some of your cleverest moments of craftiness.
JW: I recently blogged about bookmarks I made from left over thread and chunky beads (which inspired a few people to make their own!). Even more recently I've been making bookmarks threading small beads onto discarded fishing line that I found by the Water of Leith, the river I volunteer to help look after. These are probably my best examples of using imaginative recycling to make pretty things that people want to use.

HK: If you could assemble a panel of any three poets (dead or alive) to give you feedback on your work and discuss poetry with you, who would they be and why?
JW: Margaret Atwood because she knows how to make every word count and every poem of hers feels significant. Chrystos because she has such a wonderful way with words and such a clear sense of connection with nature as well as a genuine engaged commitment to human rights, yet even her most political work is lyrical. Edwin Morgan because of his amazingly inventive poetic imagination. I think those three would make for a very stimulating discussion on how to make the most imaginative and powerful poetry.

Thank you, Juliet!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Louisa by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Title: Louisa
Author: Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Where I read it: A New England Nun, and Other Stories

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's stories are set in 19th century rural New England, and her female characters, in one way or another, don't fit the mold of "normal" or "respectable" womanhood; they don't always do what's expected of them by their families and by society at large. They aren't necessarily rebellious in a flagrant way. They're pious and hard-working, much like their neighbors. But from one story to another there's something that sets them apart. They might be marginalized, living on the fringes of their society, in poverty, old age, and/or spinsterhood; they might be too firm and independent, with too little care for what others think, or they might have some unusual interest or hobby. They make unconventional decisions that aren't immoral but nevertheless raise eyebrows.

In this story, Louisa is a young woman who has no money and is pressured by her mother to marry. She used to work as the schoolteacher in her village, a job that earned her enough income to support herself, her mother, and her senile grandfather. But then the position was given to the daughter of the school's superintendent, and what other jobs are available to a rural village woman in Louisa's position? She raises some crops on the scarce land her family owns, and she helps out with the hard labor of planting and harvesting on other farms. It's barely enough to keep her family afloat.

Her mother meantime is leaning on her to get married to a young man who's shown an interest in her. But Louisa refuses to respond to his overtures. It's not that he's terrible in some way, it's just that she doesn't love him, and she wants to avoid a marriage of convenience driven by a lack of options. It's an impractical way to behave, her mother thinks, but Louisa's whole life is made of hard practicalities and this is her one "romantic notion" - marrying for love, if she marries at all. In the meantime she treasures her self-sufficiency.

So what happens to Louisa? The author it turns out decides to give her an important triumph. I won't say what, only that it involves a long difficult walk - a symbol for strength of will and independence. Freeman shows, without melodrama, both Louisa's desperation and her refusal to compromise herself in the face of desperation. It's a powerful story, not least because it could have easily had a different ending, with circumstances requiring Louisa to give in after all.


Other stories in this collection include: A New England Nun.


This post is linked to at the September round-up of the Short Story Initiative at Simple Clockwork.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Week in Seven Words #137

Two elderly wheelchair-bound ladies sit side by side in an elevator. One reaches over to the other, clasps her hand, and says, "Your hair is white." A pause, before the other replies, "I haven't been in the sun for so long." They lapse into silence.

Little girls in a ballet class, spinning, spinning, stumbling, one of them picking her nose as she twirls.

He wrinkles his nose at the pink frosting on the cupcakes. I tell him the color doesn't matter because once it's in his stomach it's going to look like the pizza he just ate.

Phone static swallows up most of what he's telling me. The only thing I can make out is his reference to I Love Lucy.

She's half-pixie, bangs her head on the table, smiles, clutches my hand, wants a co-conspirator in mischief and song.

Do any of them think of this as their safe place? It has a warren of bookshelves and desks, a lounge, a little room with computers, and no windows looking out onto the outside world.

A local train turns express, sweeping me off to a stop I didn't intend to go to.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Resolutions for Rosh Hashanah and my birthday

Rosh Hashanah is approaching, and just recently I celebrated my birthday (on the Western calendar; my Hebrew calendar birthday is coming up soon). It's a good time to remind myself about important resolutions:

To successfully fight inertia, to not squander time, to be mindful of my blues, to make and embrace opportunities (in work, in love, in performing kindnesses), to study every day, to connect with more people, to not let my fears rule me, to accept uncertainty, to put less weight on the words of naysayers, to take care of my health, to be mindful of what I'm blessed with.

I hope everyone has a healthy, sweet, happy, memorable, and meaningful year.


Week in Seven Words #136

The narrow lot has been abandoned by everything but hibiscus flowers, promiscuous against the brick walls and chain-link fence.

With me she doesn't have to put on a pretense that all is well.

Beyond a red door and up a narrow set of stairs I find a new foothold in the world.

Yes, roaches can be found in computer keyboards. (But thankfully not mine!)

Well-meaning and self-important men are sometimes thwarted by poor acoustics.

I get a sense that it's a welcoming society as long as you're a certain sort of person, otherwise you must oblige them by remaining invisible.

During the two hours I spend in a room with stained glass windows, a storm blows over the city.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Short Story Initiative (Getting to Know You Post)

Nancy Cudis, at Simple Clockwork, had been hosting Short Stories on Wednesdays (which she had taken over from Risa at Breadcrumb Reads). Now Short Stories on Wednesdays has morphed into the Short Story Initiative. At the end of every month Nancy will put up a post where bloggers can add links to their own posts on short stories from the past month; she even has suggestions for monthly short story themes, but those are optional, and to participate you can write about any short stories.

To start off the Short Story Initiative Nancy has suggested a getting to know each other post with the following questions:

1. Why do you want to join The Short Story Initiative?
I love reading short stories, and I'd like to connect with other bloggers who have a similar interest.

2. What kind of short stories do you read? Is there a specific genre or culture or nationality you would like to explore through short stories?
Looking through the growing list of short fiction recommendations (at the Reading Lists tab above) I wasn't able to find a type of short story I've liked best. It just has to be a good story and memorable in some way (I haven't yet come across a story with zombies that I like, so maybe 'zombie fiction' is out for me). I read a variety of styles and genres, and I'm branching out to different nationalities and cultures as well. One of my goals is to read as many of the Oxford series of short story anthologies as possible, when they're available at the local library; they offer collections of short stories from cultures around the world (e.g. The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories).

3. Who is your favorite short story writer? Why?
I don't have a single favorite author. Most of the anthologies I read present a mix of different authors, either from a certain culture or writing about a certain theme (e.g. love, crime, cats).

4. What is the most memorable short story you have read?
Tough one... Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" for the dementedness of the narrator, Isak Dinesen's "The Immortal Story," Graham Greene's "The Destructors," Alejo Carpentier's "Journey Back to the Source," Mary E. Wilkins Freeman's stories (surprisingly so, because they aren't full of magnificent dramatic events, but they linger in the mind for a long time after).

5. What is your experience with short stories in the past? Is it a good or bad experience?
I don't remember having bad experiences with short fiction. I used to read short stories in high school and liked them well enough, but then hardly read them at all for close to ten years. But last year I dove into them again. I don't remember what suddenly rekindled my interest.

6. Share one book confession when it comes to short stories?
It's harder for me to read short stories online because I get fidgety reading multi-paged works off of a computer screen. I prefer reading out of a book (I haven't tried e-readers yet). Not much of a confession, but there you go.

7. Share something about yourself that has nothing to do with short stories.
I'm mildly addicted to Khan Academy videos.




Sunday, September 9, 2012

Week in Seven Words #135

The awkwardness when the doctor attempts polite chit-chat during an annual check-up. How do you like the city so far? Uh, it's great. Super. Lots to do here, yep.

Among the harried people rushing from block to block there's one person sailing along half-nude on a bicycle and wearing a glittery silver wig.

Old men on a bench outside a cafe looking around at a neighborhood that's changed.

Evergreens and harbor air.

Health insurance options.

A grove of trees, a copper bell, and geese.

There are many stories to be found in the silent houses.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Why Governor's Island Gave Me a Sci-fi Vibe

Last Sunday, a free ferry from the southern tip of Manhattan took me to Governor's Island.


My initial impression was the following...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Week in Seven Words #134

The mind tends to make decisions based on familiarity and comfort. But this time I stop myself and ask, "Why?" - Why are we going for this problematic option that will cost more and give us a poorer return on our efforts?

When reading at the park on Saturday afternoons I'm used to seeing squirrels dart across the small paths by the lake. What I'm not prepared for are rats. Rats don't belong here. The first rat is a large one with a long tail dragging behind it. The second rat, which darts out a minute later, is smaller and might have been cute had it been in a cage at the pet store. Rats aren't 'park animals.' They're pests or pets (or lab specimens). Then I remember meeting with someone once in an old building in west Philly where our conversation kept getting interrupted by loud thumps from inside the walls. "The squirrels are lively today," she told me, and I guess any animal can be a pest if it violates the boundaries people have placed around it.

After playing piano for half an hour I sit down again in front of the computer and forget how to type. For ten seconds or so my fingers can't settle on the keyboard and every movement I make with them feels alien. It's as if my brain is still in piano mode, wanting me to play chords and trills instead of typing (this is what a trill looks like on the keyboard: jkjkjkjkjkjkjkjkj). It takes a mental shift just to get started again.

She plays hopscotch on a basketball court where her brother and his friend shoot hoops with a soccer ball.

We're a pair of misfit Jews.

More bookshelves!

We talk over runny eggs. At the table next to us a baby shrieks.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Worth Watching: Still Walking (2008)

Title: Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Language: Japanese
Rating: Not rated

Still Walking (film) POSTER.png
From Wikipedia, Fair use

An elderly wife and husband host their children and grandchildren for the day; the reason behind the family gathering isn't obvious at first, and at least one of the children, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), wishes he didn't have to come at all, to be reminded that his parents consider him a big disappointment because of his career choice and because he married a widowed mother, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa).

But the movie isn't a stormy drama. The members of the Yokoyama family are polite, for the most part; they try not to be confrontational. They mill around the house, cooking together, talking about this and that, teasing each other into laughter and wounding each other with oblique remarks. There are beautiful close-ups of food simmering in pans, of the hands of young children reaching for pink blossoms in sunlit air. But the movie is never self-conscious about its beauty, just as it isn't self-conscious about the quiet moments of pettiness and cruelty that maintain the tension in the film, even if there's nothing earth-shaking going on on the surface.

The director likes to arrive at things sidelong. One of my favorite techniques that he uses is to have a character stand alone listening to other characters talk in a different room. There's a strange feeling of both connection and isolation, of listening in on people who are closer to you than anyone else but in some ways are still strangers.

An eerie moment in the film is when you hear the talk and laughter of the family posing for a photo off-screen, while on screen the camera lingers on a room where the photo of a deceased family member, Junpei, is displayed. Junpei has been dead for a dozen years, but now it feels like he's alive and listening. Memories of the dead are evoked to hold people together or to drive a wedge between them.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Good Short Fiction: 5 Tales from 44 Irish Short Stories

Collection: 44 Irish Short Stories
Editor: Devin A. Garrity

It was difficult to get into 44 Irish Short Stories, and I put it aside for a while, but eventually I came across the following five stories, which I thought were all good. I love their wry humor - it doesn't matter how dark the subject matter is, you can see the authors writing about it with a hint of a smile. Reminds me of Jewish humor - can't escape life's misfortunes so you might as well laugh.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Week in Seven Words #133

I love summer nights, after it's rained earlier and the air is soft and balmy. I could walk for miles on nights like these.

Blotchy red roses and delicate purple flowers on display along Amsterdam Avenue.

A spell of cathartic writing, where I pour out all the simmering anger and shape it into something useful.

Lunch hour: Shakshouka with haloumi cheese, a corner table, and a good book.

Struck by the number of strangers around me - people I'll never know, who brush up against my life as I brush against theirs when we dodge past each other on a crowded sidewalk.

An unspoken "let's pretend it never happened" instead of a spoken "I'm sorry."

I haven't played chess since childhood but all it takes is a few games and I start to see the connections again between the pieces. Instead of sending them out in disjointed short-sighted moves, I start to get how one can protect another, how they can operate in tandem to pose a threat to and capture opponent pieces. I have fun rediscovering all of this.

Monday, August 20, 2012

10 great places for reading outdoors in downtown Philly


When I lived in Philly my apartment wasn't in Center City (downtown) but I did walk around a lot there and I can vouch for each of these places as excellent reading spots along with being good outdoor hang-outs; some of them are crowded and lively, while others are quiet and out of the way.

People often raise safety concerns about Philly, but I never felt unsafe in any of the places listed below (mostly because I visited them in the daytime, usually on Sunday afternoons); in any case, use your common sense and listen to your instincts if you feel uncomfortable anywhere.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Undine Spragg: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Edith Wharton's The Custom of the Country was one of my selections for the Classics Club Challenge. It's a masterpiece of social commentary and psychological insight, and at times I wanted to throw it across the room (or rather, throw its heroine and her associates across the room).

The heroine of the novel is Undine Spragg, a superficially beautiful woman who glitters and consumes and believes herself to be entitled to everything she takes from others (because it's not really taking, in her view, it's more like receiving what she deserves for simply existing).

Penguin cover of The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Undine regards everyone and everything as a means to her personal gratification. Other people can go about their lives and do whatever it is they want to do, as long as they're satisfying her wants. If they aren't, it means they're wrong and perverse and the whole planet has gone off course, and Undine will do everything in her power to right it. If people's lives get destroyed in the process, it's hardly her fault for asserting her rights. (She's very big on "rights" while having no empathy or sense of what's right.)

This character so disgusted me that I had to put the book down for a while. But ultimately I kept reading for two reasons: 1) Wharton is a masterful writer, who uses sharp, beautiful prose to peel back the layers of her characters and expose them to their very veins 2) I started to read it as a dark comedy - at times a very dark comedy, with lots of painful irony, and a heroine who gets away with everything because through her Wharton is exposing the wider culture where a monstrous human being like Undine Spragg can be be nurtured, indulged, and helped towards social triumph, even though the majority of women in her position would have faced more severe consequences.

At the start of the novel, which is set in the early 20th century, she's arrived in New York City with her parents in the hopes of marrying into high society. Her father made some money in the Midwest, which is why they can try to attach themselves to the well-monied New York crowd. In NYC they find two main kinds of wealthy families. There are the nouveau riche - people whose backgrounds might be quite similar to Undine's: the men made it big in business, they're ostentatious, caught up with what's trendy and showy, don't have a drop of aristocratic blood or much in the way of education and culture. Then there are the older families who've been the elites for a while; they aren't necessarily rolling in money (in fact they see business as something distasteful), but they do have fine homes and an appreciation for tradition, family, fine culture and education.

Wharton's sympathies seem to lie with those older families; at the same time she's merciless towards them, exposing their ineffectuality in the face of a more brazen, unprincipled and acquisitive culture. Undine's first husband, Ralph Marvell, is from one of the older families and is the most sympathetic major character of the book, but he's passive when he shouldn't be and makes blindly foolish decisions that class him with the rest of Undine's enablers. These constitute a diverse group including her parents and assorted society notables, who act towards Undine out of various motives or weaknesses of character, but have the unified effect of letting her get away with whatever she wants.

Undine isn't an independent woman, not by a long shot. Willful, yes, but she needs other people to admire her, amuse her, and supply her with money for everything she wants. She wilts when she's away from other people; she has few mental or emotional resources of her own and isn't expected to make money on her own. When she slips from one husband to another, she's exchanging one dependency for another, and is conscious of how she can lose everything if she makes one wrong move. Her power comes from learning how to read other people and draw the desired response from them. She relies on her beauty, and on an ability to adapt herself to situations and become to a limited extent what others want her to be. To intelligent, sensitive and poetic types (like Ralph) she may seem like a pool of water whose glittering surface conceals unexplored depths, until they dive in and injure themselves on the hard, shallow bottom.

(Ralph also had the conceit of becoming Undine's teacher - she was meant to be his fresh, innocent Midwestern muse that he would guide through a new world of art and literature - another variation of the woman dependent on the man while inspiring him as an object of beauty, though softened by Ralph's hope that they truly would become companions.)

Part of Undine's artful use of her beauty is how she suggests qualities she doesn't have (or understand) by knowing what they should look like on the surface; she's great at striking a meditative pose, or looking fresh and innocent or sweetly somber. Her ability is a wider comment on the culture she belongs to - an imitative American culture short on real feeling or a sustained attention span, where people mimic Old World, European-style mannerisms while having little appreciation for anything lasting and deep. The model of marriage among the wealthy business class in this culture (and promoted as the cultural ideal) is one where money is substituted for intimacy. The husband works at Wall Street to keep his wife as a creature of luxury and feed her bottomless demands for more stuff; it's not as if she's expected to occupy her mind with anything else. When they do spend time together, it's mostly in the company of other people, at grand dinners, opera, theater, and other outings. Everything is prized for its surface appearance.

As someone who lacks depth of feeling and empathy, places a price tag on everything and everyone, and has no clue about how money is made, Undine is the model woman of her culture, the best reflection of its ideals: ignorant, ruthless, and demanding, a monstrously spoiled child. She has some male counterparts in the book - Peter Van Degen, for one, a beast of a man whose money is a means of satisfying every appetite... but even more than Peter there's Undine's real match: Elmer Moffatt, a somewhat mysterious figure who keeps popping up in the book like a jocular devil - stout, red-faced and full of grand schemes. Had she been a man, Undine might have been a lot like Moffatt; she has that business-like mind and eye for opportunity. But because she was raised to be a kept creature, she must use her business acumen to secure people she can depend on for a steady cash flow and social cachet.

There are many gems in the writing: artistic ("... night after night the skies were wine-blue and bubbling with stars"), humorous ("Mrs. Shallum, though in command of but a few verbs, all of which, on her lips, became irregular...") and insightful about human nature ("Everybody wanted him to write – everybody had decided that he ought to, that he would, that he must be persuaded to; and the incessant imperceptible pressure of encouragement... acted on his restive nerves as a stronger deterrent than disapproval"). It's a cutting, amusing, and absorbing novel, a great book.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Week in Seven Words #132

He's too young to read the Lord of the Rings, but he's been permitted to watch the Peter Jackson movies with an adult present and collect some of the Legos (including a Lego Shelob with a length of web-like rope coming out her rear end). To me it's an odd way of discovering that universe, when you first know the characters as movie stars and collectible toys.

I haven't been following the Olympics much, except for hearing about Michael Phelps, watching a few women's gymnastics videos, and occasionally checking in on weightlifter Sarah Robles. One thing I do watch is the match where Misty May and Kerri Walsh win their third Olympic gold in a row. It's awesome to see how close they are as friends in addition to being an unbeatable team on the court.

I introduce one of them to the world of blogs. The other is making her own world, a poster of an imaginary country with a list of stats: language, currency, major rivers, a capital with a strange name.

Between the trees I see a beautifully green and scummy pond.

Unproductive hours trickle by followed by a burst of activity and inspiration. I always worry about those hours when I don't seem to get as much done as I want, but maybe they're necessary for whatever it is the brain needs to do.

He greets me with a high heel in each hand.

After I leave a friend's apartment building in NYC, a man approaches me as I stand alongside a small family of tourists at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. He's bald and somewhere between the age of 35 and 50. "The way you stepped out of that building," he says in a heavy Russian accent, "it was as if you were stepping onto water. It was amazing." What he means by that, I can't say, so I say nothing. "Do you speak Russian?" he asks. "No," I say. "Maybe one day you'll learn," he says. "Maybe," I agree. "You know what I say when people ask me if I play the violin?" he asks, laughing a little. "I tell them, 'Maybe one day I'll learn.'" He laughs again. Then he asks, "Where are you from?" I'm tempted to say 'Earth' but instead say, "The U.S." He nods thoughtfully. "You don't look as if you belong here..." He looks at me expectantly, but when I make no reply, he shrugs and says, "Ah well, you have the right to be alone," and walks off quickly. The light changes, and I cross the street, looking back a couple of times to make sure he isn't following me. He isn't. Whatever his intentions were, something was definitely lost in translation.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Worth Watching: The Triplets of Belleville (2003)

Title: The Triplets of Belleville
Director: Sylvain Chomet
Language: French and English (though there's hardly any speech)
Rating: PG-13

Fred Astaire gets eaten by his shoes. That's (in part) what happens in the fun and creepy musical number that opens The Triplets of Belleville. The movie drags at times, but I'm glad I stuck with it. It brought me into a world where an old woman can paddleboat across an ocean and team up with three other old women to take down the French mafia. An inventive world, where household objects can become musical instruments and dogs can serve as spare automobile parts without getting hurt.

The film post features several characters riding bikes with information about the film surrounding them
From Wikipedia, Fair use

The story unfolds as follows: a woman raises her orphaned grandson, who has a passion for bikes. She becomes his trainer when as a young man he competes in the Tour de France. From the Tour de France he's kidnapped by French gangsters and taken across the ocean to the city of Belleville, a place where people love to live large and consume things. His grandmother, and her dog, Bruno, who's just as loyal to his stomach as he is to his owners, follows them. In the city she meets the Belleville Triplets - three sisters who sang in music halls during the 1930s. They still eke out a living performing music (I won't tell you what kind, because I was laughing in surprise) and live in a seedy apartment building. Together they take on the mafia.

The quality of the animations is one reason I kept watching the movie. They're rich and varied and full of caricatures. The competitive bikers have bulging thigh muscles and noodle-like arms. The mafia henchmen are like giant menacing boxes that merge together. In one funny scene a maitre d' at a nightclub flops around obsequiously at the arrival of an important gangster. Typical cinematic events are also caricatured, namely a car chase where the villains repeatedly shoot at but keep missing the slow-moving heroes, who hit back successfully every time.

Some of the caricatures are disturbing, others show a wry cynical humor, while others are full of child-like joy. The Belleville triplets look like happy musical crones. They're lovable fringe-dwellers, materially poor but leading a bizarre and cheerful life in a society that revels in excess; although they're one of the musical spectacles in this movie, they love what they do beyond the attention it gets them. The scene under the bridge where they make music with the stranded grandmother is beautiful; it's the music of people who aren't noticed but don't care, because they're alive and happy and able to sing and dance, and what else matters?

Music really is used to great effect in this movie. For instance during the short scene where the grandma is paddleboating across the ocean, through a stunningly beautiful storm that's stirring up giant waves and making the clouds and water gleam with lightning, the Kyrie from Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor comes on, and I got goosebumps.

The movie doesn't have dialogue. With a couple of exceptions the only spoken words are in songs or in radio or television (a similar device to what you see in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times). The music and the visuals are eloquent enough and make the world of the movie what it is: a place where the tragedies are absurd, the triumphs are joyful and silly, and beauty and perversity sometimes seem indistinguishable.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Week in Seven Words #131

As welcoming gifts they present me with a chocolate-frosted cupcake, a card with a blue cave troll on it, and a paper bracelet with a pink shiny heart.

At the moment there's only anger, a razor sharp focus that admits no sense or compassion.

"Never enough" are the words I use to bludgeon all my efforts.

The dog, when she isn't curled up on my lap, makes for a good armrest.

When I sense that I'm being pressured to conform I resist on instinct, even before I'm able to articulate why.

Music blooms out of the dusty speakers.

Four branches bearing different leaves (star shaped yellow, oval green) meet across a light blue sky.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Interview with Relyn Lawson

Among my friends online I'm lucky to count Relyn; we've been visiting each other's blogs for a while now, and on hers I've always found warmth, inspiration and beauty, and a love of life - seen in her photos, lists, her thoughts on what she's grateful for, poems she spotlights, and other delights; you can tell she sees the world with joy and wants to share that joy and wonder with everyone. Now she's here to share her creative insights and some of her wonderful photos (each photo in this post is hers).

Like every woman she knows, Relyn Lawson wears many hats. She is a wife, mother, teacher, dreamer, writer, photographer, chocoholic, laughaholic, all-around passionate woman. She excels at the art of silly, and knows that encouraging others is her sacred calling. Relyn believes that the secret of a happy life is to be consistently and purposefully grateful. To that end, she and her family list something for which they are grateful each and every night before going to bed. You can find that list here. For more of her photography, musings, ramblings, and other nonsense, you should visit her main blog, here.

Now for the interview...

HK: How did your passion for photography develop? Has the world come to seem different to you after looking at it through a camera lens?
RL: The Christmas I was nine, I received the camera I had been longing for. Since then, I have spent a good bit of time trying to capture the beauty and joy that I see around me. I guess that's what photography really is for me - trying to make my own soul visible. I remember longing to spend my life taking pictures long before I knew there was such a thing as a professional photographer. As I became a teenager, I knew that being a photographer was possible, but very impractical. There was no way I could spend the money it would take to become a proficient photographer. Think of the cost of film and developing and equipment...

I tucked that dream away and kept taking pictures. But my focus was different, my pictures were an effort to trap memories, not to create art. I didn't really believe I had the means to become good at photography. I had already written off that dream as impractical and likely impossible.

And then I started blogging.

And the longer I blogged the more photographers I was exposed to. I saw normal people; working mothers, students, and hobbyists; all creating beauty - sharing their souls. By then, technology had caught up with my heart's desire. I knew that with digital photography, I could afford to chase after my old dream. I started saving and in less than a year, I was able to buy my Big Girl Camera. Oh, happy day.

I'd always seen the world as though through a lens. Now, I had the equipment to begin to learn how to show the world what was already in my head and my heart.

HK: What do you believe are your strengths as a photographer? And what do you hope to improve on or work towards in the future?
RL: I think my greatest strength as a photographer is really my most defining personal characteristic. I am exuberantly, passionately, completely in love with people and this beautiful life we've been given. I love life. I love this gorgeous world. I love people and their interesting, beautiful faces. I love it all! And, I love to use my camera to show you the beauty I see and to share my joy with you.

As far as what I need to improve on with regard to photography? Well, that is also a defining personal characteristic. I need to work on self-discipline. I need to focus on learning and improving and growing. There's so much to learn! I am happily married and we have a ten year old daughter. I am a second grade teacher and very involved at church. It's astounding how much time all of those relationships require. I always have a camera with me, but I rarely give photography the attention and effort, the focus, it really deserves.

HK: What's your preferred camera, and which photo editing/formatting software (if any) do you use? Why?
RL: I own a Cannon T2i, and I love it. I have several lenses, but I find myself shooting with my 50mm prime most often. My completely wonderful husband gave me Photoshop Elements over a year ago, but I still can't use it. It's that time thing again. It takes a lot of time and focused attention to learn Photoshop. I have only so much time to spend and I'd rather take pictures. For now I edit using PicMonkey and I am pretty happy with it. However, I know that I am going to have to spend some serious time learning PSE before I can move my photography on to the next level.

HK: What qualities do you believe make for an excellent photo? What tends to draw your eye most, both when taking photos and appreciating other people's photos?
RL: I love a photo, any photo, that hints at a story. The photographs I love all hold stories in their depths. I want my photographs to draw you in, to make your head begin to buzz with the story behind the image. I don't just want to take a picture of a pretty house. I want the house to make you day dream.

I don't want to take a picture of a pretty girl. I want you to wonder who it is she's thinking about, who she's missing...

HK: You work as a teacher and are also a mother and aunt. What are some of the most important lessons you've learned - about people, art, or anything else - from the children in your life?
RL: As a teacher, I've learned to ask, "Why?" before making any kind of judgement or decision. Children often do things that seem strange or inappropriate to adults. I find that if you ask "Why?" and really listen to the answer, you'll learn so much. You'll learn about the child, about the world around you, and especially about yourself.

I love the way that children laugh at every opportunity. They know how to turn any moment into fun. They make friends easily and find the world to be filled with wonder. The best thing about spending my life with children is that I have company in my silliness and joy.

HK: What do you think are the best ways to foster creativity in children, along with a passionate engagement with the world?
RL: Oh, I love this question. I think fostering creativity and passionate engagement in children requires two things from adults. First, you must also be creative and engaged. Children don't learn what they don't see you live. Further, children don't learn what they don't live. So, buy the paints, bake the invented cake, get dirty, make the mess. I repeat: Make the mess!

Also, remember to listen to their ideas. It's not so much that we have to teach children to be creative. I think most of us simply have to work at not stifling the creativity they are already bubbling over with. Here's something to try: Next time a child in your life has an idea they are enthusiastic about, no matter how inconvenient, help them make it happen.

HK: Do you have any specific advice for aspiring photographers or, more generally, advice for other people pursuing an artistic passion? For instance, what would you say to people who fear they'll lose enthusiasm for what they do and feel uninspired, or who fear rejection for their work?
RL: I think we all struggle from time to time with feeling uninspired and unmotivated. When we do, blogs are a great source of both inspiration and motivation. Then there's time with friends, a short trip, museums, gorgeous movies, time spent being silly, listening to children laugh... I could go on and on about what inspires me. But, mostly, I find that I just need to pick up my camera. Nike was right all along, Just Do It!

Thank you, Relyn!