Friday, March 30, 2012

Week in Seven Words #112

A small group of tourists stands at the curbside and shouts at a squirrel to get off the road. "Watch out! Cars are coming!" It reminds me of people who yell at the screen during a horror movie ("Run, run! No, not upstairs!"). At last the squirrel does turn around and head back onto the grass instead of trying to cross the street. The tourists cheer. I don't know how much credit they give themselves for the squirrel's self-preserving choice.

Sitting on a sunlit patio while waiting for the bus, I hear an eardrum-busting excuse for music coming from a loud speaker by a restaurant. It sounds as if someone had roared and slobbered into a microphone and recorded it for posterity.

The subway scrapes along the tracks, setting people's teeth on edge.

Digital fingerprinting doesn't work for me for the most part, so I have to get it done the old inky way, as part of a background check for a potential job. When I'm done I'm tempted to finger paint on the yellow-gray walls.

When the bus is out on the freeway I can read. But when it hits traffic or starts to lurch through the city I have to close my eyes to stave off motion sickness.

As she talks about her troubles over the phone I stare at a patch of sunlight by the lake. I want to bring us both into that light, so we can stand together in it and be warm.

As the geese sun themselves obliviously on the rock, the ducks sneak past them and go for the breadcrumbs.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Worth Watching: Dinner at Eight (1933)

Title: Dinner at Eight
Director: George Cukor
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Dinner at Eight is set among upper class Manhattanites during the Great Depression and ends with a dinner party that's not as important as it's made out to be. The substance of the movie is the build-up to the party: the people on the guest list and the comedy and drama of their lives. As the movie unfolds, you wonder who will show up at the end, and in what state (disillusioned, heartbroken, morose, contented). Who will live and who will die? In the movie some characters suffer setbacks, others double-cross their rivals, and a few make peace with their lives. Private, sordid tragedies are gilded with witty remarks and sharp humor.

Most of the characters in this ensemble movie are memorable, in part because of the well-written screenplay but also because of the quality of the actors. Even the ones in the smaller roles shine, like the maid, Tina, played by Hilda Vaughn, who maintains an appearance of regal boredom while blackmailing her equally sneaky employer, Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow).

Jean Harlow alone is a great reason to watch Dinner at Eight, as she plays the kittenish Kitty, who conducts her day-to-day affairs from her bed. Harlow is funny and makes an art form out of lounging around in satin. Though Kitty is an ignorant person in some ways, she's not to be underestimated, as her husband, Dan (Wallace Beery), finds out. Dan isn't such a stellar guy himself - a coarse and unscrupulous businessman who steamrolls people in pursuit of his ambitions. The Packards' antagonistic marriage is one of the most entertaining parts of the movie, mostly because they deserve each other. Their spats are ridiculous and ugly as each tries to get the upper hand over the other.

Both Lionel Barrymore and his younger brother, John, are in this movie, with Lionel playing a more gray and enervated character, Oliver Jordan, whose business is failing along with his heart. John's character, the washed-up film star, Larry Renault, is a more striking figure. Renault used to be famous, more for his handsome profile than for his acting talent, and in the darkest scene in Dinner at Eight he hits rock bottom. It's one of the most brutal depictions of self-sabotage, despair and self-loathing I've seen so far in movies (the brief helpless sobbing noise John Barrymore makes is haunting). But even at the end of that scene there's a faint touch of humor, as he adjusts himself so that his beautiful profile is facing the door.

In a way those who make it to the dinner at the end are survivors. The character who's probably best at surviving is Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an esteemed stage actress who has weathered fame, shifting fortunes, and numerous male admirers and reached an advanced age where her looks have faded but her strength of mind has not; she's not as self-deluded as some of the other characters. Dressler has a fascinating face, especially her eyes, which sometimes seem to be staring at horrors only she can see. Carlotta's charm and sense of humor keep her afloat, and I love how Dressler delivers her lines, which are among the funniest in the movie; the last word in Dinner at Eight belongs to her.

Carlotta is also a good example of how the characters' lives are interwoven in the movie. She's Oliver Jordan's former love interest and current friend, welcomed by him with sweet happiness no matter what else is going on in his life. She's friendly with his snobbish wife, Millicent (Billie Burke - "Glinda the Good" in The Wizard of Oz), who's throwing the big dinner party. And at one point she becomes the confidante and advisor of his daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), when the young woman desperately needs some guidance.

Dinner parties are great scenarios because of everything that lurks beneath the polite formalities. Appearances must be maintained, and people who despise each other shake hands, embrace and pretend they're friends. People who are crushed have to swallow their pain and look untroubled. In this wonderful movie there isn't a single personal secret that's fully a secret; however none of the guests knows everything about the others. Like all people, they act on a mix of imperfect knowledge and obliviousness.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Turtles on fallen trees

In the comments for the Week in Seven Words #111, I was asked about the turtles clinging to the branch - how many and what size?

Here are a few photos. The turtles were in different groups on branches or slender tree trunks that had sunk into the lake in Central Park, NYC.




And here's another cute branch-climber I spotted:


Friday, March 23, 2012

Week in Seven Words #111

de novo
Pockets of purple crocuses on a bare meadow. The first whisper of pink in the trees.

I don't like to think of the path as a dead-end, because it brings me to a place that's very much alive, full of sunlight on rocks and the slosh and smell of lake water.

On a warm winter day he sits bare-legged by the lake and types on his laptop.

The turtles clinging to the fallen branch look like fat brown buds.

She doesn't keep anything she draws, whether it's abstract shapes or an absent-minded lady or a generous bouquet of flowers. She signs her name on the drawings and leaves them on the table when she's done. This time she gives me one of them as a gift; the rest can be marveled over or binned.

In the azalea pond the fish swim in the reflections of trees.

In the reading room the austere portraits don't look at you; they pretend you're not there.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Good Short Fiction: "The Dead" by James Joyce

Title: The Dead
Author: James Joyce
Where I read it: Dubliners

I first read "The Dead" in high school, and as I picked it up again recently I remembered one scene clearly. It's when Gabriel Conroy is looking up the stairs at his wife, Gretta, who has paused on the landing to listen to music being played in another room. I remembered the "panels of her skirt" and the atmosphere of that moment - a woman arrested by music and memory, observed by her husband, who is oblivious to everything but his own feelings of desire and tender possessiveness at the sight of her. He doesn't consider what her own thoughts might be.
There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would paint her in that attitude. Her blue felt hat would show off the bronze of her hair against the darkness and the dark panels of her skirt would show off the light ones. Distant Music he would call the picture if he were a painter.
Gabriel is the central character in this story, and for most of it he's self-important and self-conscious, unable to connect deeply with other people and step into their shoes. The scene I've just described takes place at the end of a long dinner and music party at his aunts' house. Earlier he gave a speech at their table, a task he took to with relish, nervousness and condescension. Gabriel likes to be at the head of a table, particularly if everyone recognizes that he belongs there, carving the roast and bestowing wit and eloquence on the less cultured guests.

Gabriel's attitude towards Ireland, his home country, is colored with the polite regard and subtle contempt with which he treats other people in "The Dead." He wants to find favor in the eyes of his aunts' guests, so he holds forth on old-fashioned Irish values ("genuine warm-hearted courteous Irish hospitality, which our forefathers have handed down to us"). At the same time he's embarrassed of his country; in his eyes, his wife's major fault is that she came from the Irish countryside, because he's the sort of man who thinks of himself as worldly and prefers to vacation in Continental Europe.

Joyce is setting Gabriel up to be humbled, to step outside of himself. Even from the start Gabriel's central position in the story is always being threatened. Other guests come and go, and he's buffeted by them, pushed off the page by their colorful personalities. He makes some egotistical blunders that bely his image as an attentive sophisticated man, and he wavers with self-doubt. At one point he's dancing with another guest, Miss Ivors, who comments on his lack of connection with Ireland. When he loses his composure and tells her that he's sick of his own country, she asks him "Why?" and he can't answer. By the end there's something of an answer; Gabriel's distaste stems in part from his discomfort with himself and his unwillingness to confront what's lacking in his life and experiences. He's too softly civilized to accommodate his own country and its people, its passions and history.

At the end of the story he's softly shattered like a clump of snow. It's a terrible and gentle scene, and there really is snow falling outside. The colors and sounds of the party fade beyond it. It's difficult to dislike Gabriel, especially after that last scene. His soul roams widely and melts into the land, where the dead are alive and living people like Gabriel die briefly and taste things bigger than themselves, as the snow falls over everything.
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves... His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I was inspired to write about "The Dead" this week because of Irish Short Story week over at The Reading Life blog.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Week in Seven Words #110

On Purim I discover two new synagogues. One is more formal, ordered, and elegant. The other is smaller and more relaxed, with an atmosphere of scrappiness and inspiration, impassioned talks that spill over their time limit. I'm drawn more to the second one than the first, but they both have interesting programs; I like that they're only several blocks apart, making it easier for me to bounce back and forth between them.

In kindergarten one of the first phrases he picked up was 'no fair.' He uses it in a complaining tone for just about anything that doesn't go his way, sometimes with justification, other times not. I don't know if he understands what 'fair' really means, aside from "things didn't happen the way I thought they should" - but then again many adults use that as the operative definition of 'fair' as well.

As she grows older she has a more flexible way of playing with her toys. Instead of sticking to a rigid script, she's more apt to improvise or respond to improvisation, to start up longer conversations and interactions between the characters. It makes an hour of My Little Ponies more entertaining.

As I watch them howling with laughter at the dining room table, I smile and remember how as a child just about anything could set me off when I was in a certain mood, and I'd be laughing so hard my stomach would hurt. It still happens these days - this doubled-over, knee-slapping happiness - but much more rarely. (It reminds me of my favorite scene in Mary Poppins: the tea party on the ceiling and that wonderful song, "I Love to Laugh.")

When people need to stay in a hospital they're fighting not only the original illness or condition that landed them there; in too many cases they're also battling medical incompetence and strains of bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

The day has a warm and expansive personality, greeting me with a kiss to the cheek as I step out the door.

In the middle of a Foosball game I can't come up with a word for the spinning bars on which the player figurines are mounted, so I just call them 'shish-kebabs.'

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Classics Club Reading Challenge

A Room of One's Own is hosting a classics book reading challenge. [UPDATE: The original blog this was hosted on has been deleted, and it's now being hosted at The Classics Club blog.] For people participating, it's a commitment to read at least fifty classic books (and other works) in five years. What's a classic? Good question. It can mean books with some measure of greatness, resonance or influence. Books that can or probably will withstand "the test of time." There's no settled definition, and expressions like 'greatness,' 'resonance,' and 'test of time,' are fruitful sources of discussion.

In any case, I came up with a list of fifty books. There was an option to include short stories but I don't think I'll add short stories to the list; I already read them regularly, and I'd like to use this challenge as an opportunity to get to more books in my to-read (and to re-read) list and share my thoughts with others. Most of these I've never read before; some I read when I was a teen, so I'd like to revisit them. Each time I read one I'll at some point write about it on the blog. This post with its list will be linked to in the "Reading Lists" tab above (under the Books and Plays section), so you can look it up in the future.

My personal deadline for the challenge is 3/13/2017. (Pausing to imagine myself five years from now.) The sign-up page also asks me to mention prizes or rewards (if any) that I intend to give myself on successfully completing the challenge. Reading great literature is its own reward, so I don't intend to supplement it with additional prizes. But if anyone wants to send me an Amazon gift card I won't object. Other deadlines have taken precedence over this one :) But I'm still planning to finish the list!

Here's the list:

S.Y. Agnon: A Guest for the Night
S.Y. Agnon: Only Yesterday

Louisa May Alcott: Little Women

Jane Austen: Persuasion

Honoré de Balzac: Old Goriot

Saul Bellow: Humboldt's Gift
Saul Bellow: Mr. Sammler's Planet

Anne Bronte: Agnes Grey
Anne Bronte: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Charlotte Bronte: Villette

Willa Cather: Song of the Lark
Willa Cather: A Lost Lady

Anton Chekhov: Uncle Vanya

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone

Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Idiot

Maria Edgeworth: Ormond

George Eliot: Adam Bede
George Eliot: Daniel Deronda
George Eliot: Silas Marner

E.M. Forster: A Room with a View

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: Faust

Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar of Wakefield

Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun

Henrik Ibsen: A Doll's House

Sarah Orne Jewett: The Country of the Pointed Firs

Franz Kafka: The Trial

Kawabata Yasunari: Beauty and Sadness

Primo Levi: The Periodic Table

W. Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage

Molière: The Misanthrope

Elsa Morante: History

Lady Murasaki: Tale of Genji

Baroness Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel

George Orwell: Animal Farm

Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet

Sir Walter Scott: Ivanhoe

William Shakespeare: As You Like It
William Shakespeare: Twelfth Night

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Italo Svelvo: Zeno's Conscience

Eudora Welty: The Optimist's Daughter

Dorothy West: The Living Is Easy

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton: The Custom of the Country

Oscar Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Émile Zola: L'Assommoir

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A long walk on a beautiful day

Sunday afternoon in Union Square (NYC) people were asked to write or draw what makes them happy on a post-it note, to add to a growing collection.


Many things make me happy but the one I put down was a "long walk on a beautiful day," which is what I got to enjoy Sunday afternoon (in case you're wondering, the lady in the photo isn't me - for one thing I've got dark hair, and it rarely stays in a neat ponytail).

I could have also put down "upside-down elephants." Those make me happy.


So do pretty flowers by the sidewalk.



And eerie or mysterious window displays.



I was also treated to a display of raw nature. It's not that I like watching pigeons getting eaten, but I've never seen a hawk feast on a pigeon before.


In Tompkins Square Park there was a hawk up in a tree relishing pigeon innards, as about thirty people stood around taking photos of it (that's what drew me to the scene to begin with - that, and the way the hawk would occasionally lift its head and cry out, maybe to warn us off, as if we'd be interested in taking the pigeon from it. The cry of a hawk is startling, especially when you hear it right off of Avenue A).


I'm pretty sure it was a hawk. There were some people present who seemed to be experts on birds and called it a hawk. But if any of you know for a fact that this can't be a hawk but must be some other predatory bird, leave a comment.

What else caught my eye on yesterday's walk...

Not only upside-down elephants but pink elephants. And yawning lions.


It really was a beautiful walk.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Week in Seven Words #109

The leaves when they return will conceal rubble, graffiti, and skeletal fences.

Van Gogh painted flowers that vibrate and gardens that rise up to meet you.

On the grill the hamburgers are spitting grease.

I like watching people sprint up the art museum steps pretending they're Rocky. Rocky's statue isn't at the top of the steps though; it's planted at the bottom, where people who can't or don't want to race up the steps and pump their arms in the air can still stand next to him and flex their biceps for the camera. Somewhere in those unused muscles is the strength of a boxer.

For his nephew he laid out almond blossoms on a blue background - the skies of early spring, explored by blossoms and criss-crossing branches.

In each portrait there's a story - a harlequin in a winter forest, a lady who doesn't meet your eyes, a man who is considering his profits while smoking a pipe.

Back in Halloween someone strung up a plastic skeleton outside the apartment building across the street. On New Year's Day it was still there wearing a festive hat. The hat has since disappeared, and it received nothing for Valentine's Day. Now it grins down on the street, anticipating spring like the rest of us.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Good Short Fiction: Three stories from Tales of Wrykyn and Elsewhere

Collection: Tales of Wrykyn and Elsewhere
Author: P.G. Wodehouse (Pelham Grenville Wodehouse)

These are light-hearted stories set in early 20th century English public schools, where the boys have two main concerns: outsmarting their teachers and winning cricket matches. Wodehouse takes pleasure writing about these little misfits and hooligans living in the self-contained world of whatever school they attend (George Orwell suggests in his essay on Wodehouse's conduct during WWII that it's a world Wodehouse in some ways never left). If not for Wodehouse's way with words and funny characterizations I wouldn't have checked this volume out; as it is, it's fluffy and fun, and an interesting look at a different culture. There's some cricket terminology now floating around in my head along with other odds and ends.

Title: The Autograph Hunters
Dunstable (I love that name) is indifferent to academics but devoted to manipulating teachers. When he finds out that his favorite teacher collects autographs he tries to get him the autograph of a famous author who never gives them out. His first tactic is to write beseeching fan letters from made-up people, including a grieving mother. The fan letters are the best part of the story, because how do you go about writing them without having read anything the author's written? Dunstable's plan B involves trespassing and introduces us to a groundskeeper who has a thorough understanding of the male psyche:
To the keeper's mind the human boy up to the age of twenty or so had no object in life except to collect eggs. After twenty, of course, he took to poaching.


Title: The Guardian
Thomas Shearnes is a smart-mouthed little snot who looks like an angel. The only person who actually thinks he's an angel is his mother, and when her darling boy starts school she sends money to an older student, Spencer, to get him to look out for Thomas. At first Spencer is happy to accept the money without doing anything, but one of Spencer's friends, Phipps, who "possessed the scenario of a conscience," urges him to at least check up on Thomas. Spencer does so, to his regret.
"That kid," said Spencer to his immortal soul, "wants his head smacked, badly."
Thomas is an entertaining brat who's good at looking out for himself. I also enjoyed the conversations - if you can call them that - between him and Spencer.


Title: Jackson's Extra
It looks like Jackson, a star cricket player at Wrykyn, won't be able to participate in a match against a rival school because he's gotten in trouble with his strictest teacher, Mr. Dexter. Fortunately the resourceful and cunning O'Hara hatches a plot to save him. Mr. Dexter is a Snape-like teacher - he hands out detentions left and right, treats his students like convicts, and complains to the school's Headmaster about the worst troublemakers, in this case Jackson and O'Hara. He and O'Hara are described as "ancient enemies," because in the small world of the boarding school minor conflicts take on epic proportions. That's part of the fun of Tales of Wrykyn and Elsewhere - there isn't a whole lot at stake for the characters, nothing is a matter of life and death, but try telling them that.


This post has been linked to on Short Stories on Wednesday #2, which is now at the Simple Clockwork blog.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Week in Seven Words #108

Online dating has been mostly a bore so far. When you meet people in person you experience them as the complex 3D creatures they are, and not as small photos supplemented with the same descriptions over and over - "intelligent, fun-loving, one-of-a-kind" - like personal ads in a Lake Wobegon newspaper.

Time has to be balanced in your mind so that you don't tip too much into the future or sink too frequently into the past.

In the night my thoughts are cold black diamonds.

I talk into the phone, knowing that he's there at the other end even though I can't hear him.

Sometimes you look back on your week to find that one of your prominent memories involves a pitched battle with a backed-up toilet. Oh well.

When I'm feeling low about my writing I think of the words as weak magnets sliding down the front of a fridge.

At the library I spot a DVD Whisperer. He caresses their spines and speaks to each one - "Should I watch you tonight? Or you?" - then cocks his head and listens for the answer.