Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Stories from Stephen King's Just After Sunset

Collection: Just After Sunset
Author: Stephen King

When King finds the emotional center of a story, shows us the hearts of his characters, it makes all the difference. There are stories in this collection that have an interesting premise but don't develop. Sometimes there's too much straining for effect. But here are three stories I like because they're gripping and for the most part are told with heart. Each has its own unique atmosphere of horror.

Title: The Gingerbread Girl
Emily is running from the horrors in her life. She takes up running after her baby dies from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Separating from her husband, she moves to a family property in Florida where she'll need to use her running abilities, along with her ingenuity and will to survive, in order to escape from a psychotic neighbor. (There's a painfully suspenseful scene where the main character tries to break free from a chair she's tied to before the homicidal neighbor returns to torture her and finish her off.) At its heart the story is about someone striving for life. Emily fights to live and outpace the terrors the world holds for her.

Title: N.
Told in a collection of case notes, letters, and newspaper clippings, the story is a horrifying mystery centered on a psychiatrist and a patient, referred to as N. in the case notes, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). N. has many of the usual compulsions of people with OCD, such as the need to count things a certain number of times, arrange things in certain ways and perform other rituals. But he tells his psychiatrist he's doing this for a very real reason: to prevent the reentry of a demonic entity into the world.

Given that people with OCD believe that their rituals and compulsions stave off disasters, the psychiatrist at first thinks that his patient is merely imagining this Lovecraftian entity. But when he visits the site that his patient tells him about, a remote field in rural Maine with a grouping of rocks where the creature might break through, he begins to have second thoughts. He develops his own compulsions. But is this terrifying creature of darkness real? Or has the psychiatrist merely taken on the symptoms of his patient, which does happen sometimes?

Title: Willa
The story sort of crumbles into bittersweet goo as it goes on, while still remaining sad and chilling. It starts with a group of passengers waiting in a remote Wyoming train station. The train is set to come at any moment, but David can't find his fiancée, Willa. The other passengers tell him not to go looking for her; many of them don't like her. David doesn't even realize how long she's been missing, and he remembers how she's sometimes chided him for not being able to see what's right in front of his eyes; like most people, his capacity for denial is strong. When he finds her, he discovers that some things, like their love for each other, haven't changed and that "perception and expectation together" really are powerful.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Week in Seven Words #193

Most of their conversation consists of the same complaints getting aired, followed by the same bits of reassurance and advice. The advice-giver's voice remains steady, a series of low round notes. The complainer alternates between an agitated but soft melodic line and the occasional crescendo to keep us all on the edge of our seats.

The buses can't travel a block without wheezing. The newspapers twist in pain beside the curb.

What they've tuned into reminds me of some of the T.V. shows I used to watch as a kid. The ones with multi-talented teens who seem to do everything at their high school except study and go to classes.

Traces of a plaster face on the wall, the white mouth shaped into a tiny 'O' and the eyes blank.

Steam seems to come off of everyone at the restaurant. All the diners are dumplings.

She listens with all outwards signs of compassion. Inwardly she's wondering how much time has passed and how best to interrupt without seeming to interrupt.

The wind rushes across the river in the dark, flooding the street and making the leaf-shadows dance.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Week in Seven Words #192

A guy, a gal, and a third wheel are sandwiched together on a crowded bus. The guy and gal feel each other up and occasionally remember to include the third wheel in their whispered conversation. The third wheel laughs a lot and shares anecdotes about weird cellphone conversations she's recently had.

They find the strength to meet beneath the harsh lights and talk. They understand each other's inertia, emptiness and fear.

Gold hair on a dappled picnic blanket.

On one side of the park there's a broad river, tolerating a few sailboats on its shuddering back. On the other side, there are rows of buildings that look like cardboard boxes.

Her voice is lovely and sorrowful. She remains still as she sings, even when the children chase each other around her waving their swords and shrieking.

Restless crowds seek junk food and bad comedy on a beautiful day.

Sometimes they don't sound human. They talk about themselves as if they're machines that need the right kind of tuning, the optimal dosages of medication to keep their parts moving.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Morocco (1930): Reckless love or loveless stability?

Title: Morocco
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Language: English (with some French and other languages)
Rating: Unrated

Morocco (film) 1930 Josef von Sternberg, director. Marlene Dietrich, cross dress, top hat.jpg
By Paramount Pictures, Josef von Sternberg, Public Domain, Link

In Marlene Dietrich's first nightclub act in Morocco, she saunters out in tux and tails, a cigarette in hand, and the crowd immediately starts booing. Maybe it's because she's a newcomer in town; maybe it's because she's in a tux and not in a more revealing costume. She takes a seat, smokes her cigarette, and looks out at them all in cool amusement. Serene and untouched, she studies them. When she moves, she's unhurried. She's got all the time in the world, she seems to say, and sooner or later they'll be wise enough to pipe down. Either way, it doesn't matter to her.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Review of An Unexpected Descent

At her wonderful blog, where you will see lots of thoughtful reviews and recommendations of different books and short stories, Naida has shared her thoughts about a story I recently published, "An Unexpected Descent."

I loved reading her reaction to it. She makes some excellent points about the characters (who are children) and what might possibly happen to them when they grow up.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Week in Seven Words #191

In the dark, the bracelets look like glowworms wriggling over each other.

Their singing sounds like gentle pleading.

Orange liqueur burns my throat and settles with bittersweet warmth in my head.

Beside a windy leaf-strewn path in the park, he talks about his break-up. We nod in sympathy. We don't let on that we could see it coming months ago.

Staid men, pillars of the community, holler like frat boys. It's supposed to be a display of joyful exuberance, but it frequently comes across as forced.

Chairs in disarray, people nibbling on chicken as others pray. The afternoon festivities wind on in unfocused joy.

A man in medieval garb hums under his breath as he cuts past the bicyclists in the park.

Friday, November 22, 2013

An Unexpected Descent

Bartleby Snopes recently published a short story I wrote called "An Unexpected Descent."

You can read it here.

Enjoy! (Though be forewarned, it's a grim tale…)

Week in Seven Words #190

He introduces himself by one name and gives me a business card with a different one. "They're both my names, in a way," he says without further explanation.

Windswept park benches are my new favorite place to read.

It feels good to talk to someone who understands family dysfunctions and can laugh about them mirthlessly with you.

They press against the tables and gouge the food platters.

She's a shrewdly cute old woman, but it's easy to imagine her fifty years younger, lording it over her children, deflating them.

Her apartment contains antiques, stained glass, and undisturbed shadows.

We drag our chairs out into the sunlight and talk about how to be inspired.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Three Du Maurier Stories from Don't Look Now

Collection: Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier
Author: Daphne du Maurier

For some of the stories, I didn't accept the premise; sometimes there was an over-reliance on coincidence and clairvoyance. But even in those cases, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the story.

Du Maurier is great at upending reality and writing about people who, in one way or another, are trapped in their own minds. They perceive a reality that they can't communicate to others; other people don't want to (or can't) understand them or believe them. Everywhere they go, they're failed by family, friends, the police, doctors, everyone we usually think can help. She understands this kind of terror and isolation. Even when one of her characters experiences clairvoyance, which you'd think would give them a greater understanding of what's going on around them, they're still blind in all the ways that matter.

Her stories will definitely stick with you. These are the three I liked best:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Week in Seven Words #189

Traffic noise pours in through the window with the cold air and sharp lights.

She's brought lunch for her child in a Tupperware container. She peels off the lid and releases the scent of deli meat. For a moment, we can all taste the sandwich.

She prefers to straighten her hair, but I like it as it is, in an orange cloud around her head.

One of the young men speaks about visiting Syria on an idealistic mission of cultural outreach. The other shakes his head and tells him he'll get his throat cut out.

Being present in the moment, experiencing hope but relinquishing expectations.

The room is bathed in gray light. I linger for a few minutes, enjoying the calm.

As the gates close, they crowd in around me. There's an urgency to the chanting and murmuring.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Interspecies communication: Beluga and mariachi band

This took place in Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut a couple of years ago, where the band had been performing at a wedding.

(I came across the video here.)

Week in Seven Words #188

Cold chicken, sandwiches, and an easing of tension.

It's an episode of self-destruction. Her senses splinter, her mind pursues the dozen sins and slights she thinks are aimed at her. With a single-mindedness, she runs the evening to the ground. Afterwards, her eyes are suspiciously bright, but she can't see that she shares any part of the fault for how badly the evening went.

The color of the day is burnt umber. That's what I feel in me: low-key anger that crisps and singes and stirs up the ashes. But I'm at peace from time to time as well. The day is one of shocking beauty.

Most of the notes are breathy and weak. But the last one comes alive and is held to the limit of human breath.

spun sugar
Weaving fragile lies for the children, so that they'll continue to not put a name to what they might suspect.

He assumes a humble, pious pose and speaks as one who has little experience of the world. Maybe I'm in too cynical a mood to appreciate what he's saying.

Food leaking from aluminum trays. Liquid on the carpet. Little of what matters is salvageable.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Groundhog Day (1993): Egotist learns to love himself and others via a time loop

Title: Groundhog Day
Director: Harold Ramis
Language: English
Rating: PG

Hell is being stuck with yourself when you're full of self-loathing.

Phil Connors (Bill Murray) strikes people as having a high opinion of himself. He's a Pittsburgh weatherman full of contempt for his colleagues; he's convinced he's headed for a more prominent spot on national TV. An assignment to cover the Groundhog Day festivities at Punxsutawney is a personal affront to him; he hates the yokels in small towns and their silly traditions. When a snowstorm forces him to stay overnight in Punxsutawney with his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell), and cameraman, Larry (Chris Elliott), he's gone through what he probably considers the most pointless, boring day of his life.

Until the gets up the next morning, and finds out it's Groundhog Day all over again.

Time is stuck in a loop, forcing Phil to relive the same day over and over. At first, he thinks he's going nuts. How can it be that he's waking up every morning at 6:00 am in the same bed and breakfast, with the same song playing from the alarm radio? As he realizes that this is real, and he's actually trapped in Punxsutawney in a 24-hour loop, he begins to indulge his hedonistic side: speeding, thieving, seducing women, eating junk food the way a man would when he doesn't have to care about cholesterol and cavities.

Groundhog Day (movie poster).jpg
From Wikipedia, Fair use

Friday, October 25, 2013

Week in Seven Words #187

For sale at the Renaissance Faire: Ye olde funnel cakes and cheesecake on a stick.

The event is advertised as a chess match with actual people as chess pieces, going head to head on a grassy field. Only, it doesn't look like chess. There are some poorly choreographed sword fights and a guy who leaps into battle with a pair of rubber chickens. The people sitting behind us on the stands are speculating about the real-life occupation of each fighter. "That one's an insurance salesman," they say, "and that one's probably a secretary."

It's worth watching the artists and musical folks, the ones who make lovely clay bowls and wear a phantom-like mask as they play the organ.

Their menagerie contains ducks, pigeons, and a tortoise. Also a kookaburra, trapped in a mesh cage far from its native soil. Across the lane, a patient camel waits to take children on its back and plod with them around a field as their parents wave and snap photos from the side.

The maze is advertised as an Amazing Maze, but the only amazing thing about it is that we actually coughed up an extra couple of bucks to wander through its short, creaky corridors.

The first time he rides on a school bus, he's over 60. Some experiences are too good to pass up on in life.

It's a parade of dignified queens and saucy barmaids, warriors in eclectic armor and non-magical folk who wish they were wizards. Some have sprouted fairy wings; others have clapped aluminum swords to the waistband of their jeans. The ale on offer helps fuel their fantasies.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Three Short Stories About War from Around the World

Story Collection: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry
Editor: Donna Rosenberg

Title: One Soldier
Author: Katai Tayama
Translator: Jai Ratan

This story is more or less a one-man death march, and the soldier it focuses on could be anyone. He's Japanese, fighting against Russia in the Russo-Japanese War, but the details of the war don't matter. All we see is him, leaving a military hospital prematurely because he can't stand to be there anymore, and trying to catch up with the other soldiers in his company. He realizes, while marching through the countryside, that he's still sick with beriberi, a horrible condition brought about by thiamine deficiency. He thinks about the glorious ideas that made him eager to participate in the war, and the possibility of dying from cardiac arrest after straining to walk for miles with beriberi. Or, even if he survives, the thought that he'll be trapped anyway, gunned down somewhere. War is a giant trap, and every moment he's alive he's in pain. The heart of the story is his terrible cry: "This pain, this pain, this pain!"

Title: The Soldier
Author: Krishan Chandar
Translator: (Info not provided)

Shortly after the end of World War II, a Pakistani soldier returns to his village. He wishes with everything in him that life will continue as before, only with the added benefit of people regarding him as a hero. But he knows, from the start, that everything will be different. He's lost his leg, and people notice the loss of the leg more than the medals he's received for his heroics; the glory of his sacrifice is tarnished by pity. Others have moved on with their lives, and there he is, an object of pity among them, beloved to them but also strange and upsetting. What does he live for at the end?

Title: War
Author: Luigi Pirandello
Translator: (Info not provided)

Although it's set against a backdrop of war, the story is not so much about war, but more about the difference between people's thoughts and the misleading impressions they give with what they say. There are a group of parents in a train car whose sons have enlisted in the military. They squabble about who has cause to worry most, and one passenger delivers a monologue on patriotism, and how "our children do not belong to us, they belong to the Country..." He nearly convinces one woman that she hasn't risen to the occasion and that she should resign herself to the possibility of her son dying in war. But all it takes is one innocent question to expose his own love and grief, which can't be quieted by any amount of tribute paid to abstract principles.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Week in Seven Words #186

A lack of productivity is suffocating.

The cashiers summon customers by waving red flags.

A number of people think that 'natural' automatically means 'desirable' or 'immutable.'

Branches snap and fall, no longer able to bear their own weight.

An inability to handle uncertainty lies at the heart of so much misery and evil.

Can people change in their essentials? It's hard enough to get rid of a single bad habit. What about five or ten of them? What about the dark, habitual thoughts that choke the life out of the mind?

In the library, two old men fight over a hat. The owner of the hat allegedly took a newspaper away from the other guy, who retaliated by snatching the hat away and refusing to return it. They argue loudly, the hat-owner shrill and indignant, the hat-snatcher muttering filthy insults.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Cool makeup artist on YouTube (and potential Halloween ideas)

Get inspired by this makeup artist who's been posting many tutorials on YouTube.

Here's one for achieving "The Terminator" look, part of her special effects series:

Her other tutorials include series of arty designs and popular Halloween choices ranging from Arwen to Voldemort.

She's also made videos for each of the seven deadly sins. Here's gluttony:

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Week in Seven Words #184 and #185

He struggles with reading and math but maybe he'll get the life he wants anyway, his photo in Sports Illustrated and a mansion with many sports cars.

Old cakes topped with sugared roses wilt in the dull white light.

It doesn't need to be perfect; it just needs to get done. It doesn't need to be perfect; it just needs to get done.

A drippy optician, sniffling while squinting at a computer that doesn't work.

She pulls back the moth-eaten curtains and discovers a world that's forgotten she exists.

They've recruited an unfunny comedian to hand out flyers for their comedy club. People will be sure to come.

Light breaks in waves against my brain.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Come Dance with Me in Ireland by Shirley Jackson

Title: Come Dance with Me in Ireland
Author: Shirley Jackson
Where I read it: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry (ed. Donna Rosenberg)

Three women get their feathers ruffled and their civility questioned when a poor peddler, possibly drunk, shows up at the door.

Mrs. Archer is a new mother, at home with her baby and entertaining two neighbors: Mrs. Corn and Kathy Valentine. (Blanche is Mrs. Corn's first name - 'Blanche Corn' sounds brittle and bleached.) Mrs. Corn looks at the man in distaste, convinced he's drunk. Kathy Valentine wants to help him, but doesn't really see him; she thinks she knows all about him based on what she's heard or read about poor men ("they always eat pie"). Mrs. Archer feels that she ought to help him, as long as he doesn't sit in the good chair with his dirty overcoat. She's reluctant to turn him away, as he isn't feeling well, but she can't bring herself to treat him like she would a real guest; her courtesies come in half-measures, carrying insults.

Even though there's nothing supernatural about this man, the story has echoes of tales where a humble beggar is really an angel or royalty; he and the women are, in his own words, "of two different worlds." He may be a poet (he says he knew Yeats). Or he may be a peddler of shoe laces, nothing more or less. Whoever he is, he no longer has the stomach for self-conscious, half-cringing displays of politeness. Mrs. Archer may pass the test he poses, but with a poor or middling grade (and what would you honestly do in similar circumstances?).

[Edited: 1/2015]

Monday, September 23, 2013

Week in Seven Words #183

I sit through an episode of an awful TV show. It's only bearable when watched with people who can laugh with you at how bad it is. It hits me yet again that I've lost a lot of patience for TV; I know there are good shows out there, I just rarely turn on the TV and bother to look.

Green eyes, bony limbs, the grace of a cat. She's a creature made for shadows.

A spray of white roses against brownstone. A yellow window framing bookshelves and a burgundy couch.

A cat, arching and yowling in the mouth of a dark alley at something it can see but we cannot.

Raccoons paddle around in the shallows of the urban lake. They forage among the weeds and rocks. From the bridge, some people throw bread crusts and chips. A large, bold raccoon brushes aside these offerings and scampers closer, looking up, maybe waiting for something more substantial to fall from human hands. What would happen if he were to climb up on the bridge?

Maybe in holding my feelings back, I'm giving them too little opportunity to grow. Maybe they should learn, however painful it is for them, that I'm not who they'd like me to be and that they'll have to deal with that.

He mutters to himself and jingles the keys in his hands. He's given small but important tasks, so that he'll always feel a part of the community. But sometimes he goes to the end of the street and looks across it, not as if he's seeing only the buildings on the other side but what's beyond. He knows that he could have been more, were it not for the unsolvable problems of his brain.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Thin Man (1934): Murder, wit, and martinis

Title: The Thin Man
Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

There are few movie couples more fabulous than Nick and Nora Charles. Their electric banter, chemistry, and continuous boozing make for great entertainment.

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora

Nick (William Powell) is a retired private eye whose only ambition now is to enjoy the wealth of his heiress wife, Nora (Myrna Loy), a "lanky brunette with a wicked jaw" (his words). They're very much in love, rib each other constantly, and enjoy drinking and doting on their terrier, Asta. But as they're taking a trip to NYC at the start of the film, they're approached by Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan), the daughter of a crotchety, absent-minded inventor who once worked with Nick. She doesn't know where her father is, and as the movie progresses, it appears he's in trouble - first because he's gone on a trip without telling anyone where, and secondly because he's implicated in a murder.

The movie is clever and funny with great dialogue. And while Nick and Nora are the ones who truly shine, there's also an amusing cast of supporting characters made up of crooks, greedy opportunists, soft-hearted romantics, a young man who's overly attached to his mother, and police officers who aren't so much stupid as unimaginative. Nick gets pulled into the mystery surrounding the case, and Nora both helps out and watches, concerned and entertained. The climax of the movie is a dinner party where all the suspects (and police) are invited.

Whimsical, funny, doesn't take itself seriously - it's a great movie to relax with.

Nick and Nora Charles Christmas morning gifts

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

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Week in Seven Words #182

A cold wind whisks me off the bench.

Toddlers play tag, round and round the fountain in a flurry of giggles and screams. It falls on the youngest, a boy with curly brown hair and a shy smile, to be "it" most of the time; occasionally, his mother scoops him up and runs with him to give him an advantage over the others.

At a small park by the subway station, a rat pokes around an elevated bed of shrubs, as people sit and read and chat just a foot or two from its twitching nose.

The clock face looks feverish in the dark.

A curtain of gnats hang over the lakeside path.

The show is a celebration of percussion; anything from stomping feet to brooms to trashcans can be turned into a musical instrument. Even newspapers can rustle together in a compelling rhythm.

I'm not sure where I am, only that it won't be hard to find my way out. In the meantime, I'm surprised by the appearance of a swampy pond, a stream pouring over leaf matter and rock, a clearing covered in yellow grass where an empty bench awaits a reader.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

7 stories from around the world

Story Collection: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry
Editor: Donna Rosenberg

Title: The Doctor's Divorce
Author: S.Y. Agnon (Shmuel Yosef or Shai Agnon)
Translator: (Info not provided)

"The Doctor's Divorce" shows a man trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy. A doctor starts up a relationship with a nurse at his hospital and marries her; from early on, there are signs that his ability to love people (instead of just claiming possession of them) is questionable. When she tells him there was another man in her past, he begins to pretend in an exaggerated, unconvincing way that it doesn't bother him, even as he thinks about it obsessively. He just knows that the existence of this other man will drive a wedge between him and his wife. And that's what happens, but only because he can't let the matter drop. He kills any chance of intimacy or happiness with his wife; maybe he's incapable of being in a relationship that has either of those qualities.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Week in Seven Words #181

"Did You Ever" is a game that gives me more insight into him. It seems he's been spending his time in a more innocent and straight-laced fashion than I imagined.

Antsy and slightly light-headed with thoughts of food.

Legs falling asleep as I labor over a difficult text.

A pasta dish that isn't meant to be. First I absent-mindedly leave the pasta cooking in the pot for too long, until it turns rubbery. Then I figure, why not have rubbery pasta anyway? So I dump some cheese on it, only to realize that the cheese is looking unusually blue, in spite of not being blue cheese and not overshooting its expiration date.

The raspberry vinaigrette is too sweet and syrupy for my salad. It's almost as if it would go better with waffles.

She's right on the other side of the wall and has no idea they're discussing her with such frustration and disparagement.

When you ask them what they did today, they enjoy saying "nothing," maybe because it gives them a little power over you. A mystery they can preserve or reveal at will.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Animal Farm: Funny and depressing

I don't remember if I'd read Animal Farm when I was younger (I only know for sure that I'd read 1984), so when I picked it up for the Classics Club Challenge, I knew only the general plot and a couple of the more famous quotes that have made their way into the wider culture, like "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

The book tells the story of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent rise of Stalin, only the events take place on a farm. The deposed czar is a drunk, incompetent farmer who mistreats the animals, who all represent different figures or types of people in society. The pigs, cleverest of the creatures, are the leaders of the revolution, and two emerge on top afterwards - Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Trotsky).

Just the fact that it's animals makes some of these events so amusing, as when Napoleon gets one of his propaganda pigs to write a song in his honor. Here's one verse:

Friend of the fatherless!
Fountain of happiness!
Lord of the swill-bucket! Oh, how my soul is on
Fire when I gaze at thy
Calm and commanding eye,
Like the sun in the sky,
Comrade Napoleon!

But then, the amusement always fades after each of these incidences when it hits you, yet again, that this actually happened to people. That there are still places like this. And if you view what goes on from the outside, it's a combination of the deeply horrible and the undeniably ridiculous. That's a part of the genius of Animal Farm, showing this. Because it's ridiculous when a bunch of sheep chant, "Four legs good! Two legs bad!" But it's also depressing: sad enough when actual sheep do it, and much worse when you think about the real-life people they represent.

I forget which edition I read, but there was an intro that discussed how thankfully the dystopian visions of writers such as Orwell and Huxley don't seem to have panned out, and that the books were important warnings but that the human spirit has triumphed (or something of the sort)... and yet, they're still relevant and always will be. When you read Animal Farm, you're reminded of the kinds of things you see in politics all the time: the brazen rewriting of the past (counting on people's short attention span, ignorance, or intimidation to get away with it), the chanting of inane slogans to drown out meaningful debate, the power-grabs and erosion of rights, the push for a utopia that will just cause more misery, new idealistic politicians turning into the same old corrupt ones and rationalizing their crimes as actions taken for the greater good...

Anyway, if you haven't read it, do so. It's a great book. And you could finish it in an afternoon; it just breezes by.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Week in Seven Words #180

Up on the hill, she sits on a rock, stares at the ground, and silently battles her demons.

Night is the best time to slip out. The air is breathable, the sidewalks are mostly empty, and the world is softer and more muted.

I miss out on a chance to reconnect with her, because a phone call seems like too much effort at the time.

He will fail in part because his parents don't care enough about his success.

All of the stuffed animals are wide-eyed. Some look gullible; others look stoned. A few have clearly peered into the heart of the universe and discovered the mysteries therein.

Romeo and Juliet embrace in the twilight.

They toss the baseball in an arc back and forth; it hits their mitts with a clop. Clop, arc, clop... like a metronome, keeping time at sunset.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

8 stories from around the world

Story Collection: World Literature: An Anthology of Great Short Stories, Drama, and Poetry
Editor: Donna Rosenberg

Title: The Black Cat
Author: Edgar Allan Poe

For as long as he can remember, the narrator in Poe's story has preferred the company of animals to men. He marries a woman whom he describes as having a compatible temperament, and she brings several pets into their home, including a black cat named Pluto who becomes his most cherished companion. However, being a Poe story, their harmonious home life isn't meant to last, and the peculiarities that had set the narrator apart from his peers at a young age now take a darker turn. He becomes a violent alcoholic, and though he lashes out at his wife, she remains for the most part in the shadows of this story, mentioned now and then but taking second place to Pluto, who bears the brunt of his cruelty.

What follows is torture, murder, and walled-up bodies. The story is told in a first-person, mentally unhinged narration, a Poe specialty (though this character is unique, not a repeat of other narrators). I love how The Black Cat conveys the perverse joy people take in damning themselves; they know that what they're doing is wrong, but do it for that very reason ("the unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself"). And it's also a tale of domestic violence. The wife, subtly erased, is only mentioned now and then (almost as soon as we've forgotten she exists - until we can't forget any more); in a strange way, as the narrator strikes out at his cat, I also sensed he was striking out at her, where she stood in the shadows.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Week in Seven Words #179

He cuts a path for himself through the crowd by alarming people, shoving his face into their faces and talking loudly to himself, as if they aren't real outside of his mind.

So much of conversation is aimed at establishing and defending one's status, saying what we think is important to other people and what will help us play the role we've assumed in our social circle. In the meantime, other thoughts fight to get out and are smothered in self-censorship.

The dark river wears glitter on its face.

So much of what happens between these bookshelves is an exercise in getting by with a bare minimum of effort and time.

Although I don't know it at the time, he's testing me. His reserved and polite demeanor masks his watchfulness; he notes my mannerisms, gets a rough idea of my temperament. I don't think he's doing this consciously. But he'll use his discoveries to his own advantage next time we meet.

Fireworks in the shape of dumbbells, weeping willows, and badminton birdies.

He talks about how we need to put the broken pieces of ourselves back together.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

One of my favorite blogs is going on hiatus

But it will still stay up on the web. So be sure to bookmark Robert Frost's Banjo and enjoy the music, poetry, and other delights.

Please Give (2010): What do these characters really want to give? What can they give?

Title: Please Give
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Language: English
Rating: R

In Please Give, the characters struggle with emptiness or guilt, and often latch onto superficial relief for their problems; they may be bored with themselves and looking for quick fixes to make them feel important and needed. For instance, let's look at Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), a middle-aged couple who own a furniture store where they sell mid-20th century pieces. The way they acquire their goods is by showing up at the homes of people who've recently passed away and buying the furniture at a bargain price; they then resell at thousands of dollars in profit, because their customers think that ugly 1950s end tables are trendy. Recently, they've also purchased the apartment of their cantankerous next-door neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert); she's over 90, and they're waiting for her to die so that they can break down the walls between the apartments and renovate.

Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt in Please Give (2010)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

Cover image for A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains

Isabella Bird was an Englishwoman who traveled to remote corners of the world in the second half of the 19th century; she became the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society and wrote extensively about her travels. Unusually, she traveled alone, and in A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, she gives vivid and frank descriptions of life in the Rocky Mountains when they were first being settled; she visited there when she was in her forties.

She roughed it, sleeping in the homes of settlers, in dilapidated cabins, and sometimes outdoors; wherever she went, she worked alongside her hosts, assisting them with their chores. She was an accomplished horsewoman, braving bad weather and spotty trails on horseback, and at several points helping people round up cattle; most of the time she didn't ride sidesaddle, but seated herself as a man would. She wound up befriending a desperado, "Mountain" Jim Nugent, who helped her ascend Long's Peak. All of her writing renders the natural world beautifully, but even when she's in raptures over a particular location (such as Estes Park), there's always a steadiness to her work; you could tell she had sharp eyes and a good head on her shoulders. She comes across a variety of people in the Rockies and on the bordering Plains, and makes an unsentimental analysis of settler society, both the favorable and unfavorable qualities of it.

The book - a compilation of letters she wrote from the Rockies to her sister back in England - is a treat, for its literary and historical value. So dive in and travel alongside her:

There were snow patches, snow slashes, snow abysses, snow forlorn and soiled looking, snow pure and dazzling, snow glistening above the purple robe of pine worn by all the mountains; while away to the east, in limitless breadth, stretched the green-grey of the endless Plains.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Week in Seven Words #178

The more she runs, the more the dog chases her, until she's finally curled up in a ball on the couch giggling as the dog licks her ears.

I open the door and startle a cardinal into flight. It glides across the pavement like a drop of blood.

Fireflies dip in and out of the hydrangea bushes.

The voice recognition software built into my computer twists my words out of shape sometimes, but for the most part it's very helpful. What I need to get used to is speaking aloud as I work; how will it affect my writing on the occasions when I use it?

The tomato sauce on the pizza bagel is a watery paste, something tomato-ish, and I can still taste the cold bite of the freezer at the heart of the bagel.

Plastic animals camp on the windowsill. They've crossed the cool plain of the air conditioning vent and now have an unbroken view of metal and concrete canyons.

After finally turning off the TV, they start up a drawing contest and ask me to be the judge. It feels weird though to assign scores to their artwork, and they get exasperated with my reluctance.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Worth Watching: Pickup on South Street (1953)

Title: Pickup on South Street
Director: Sam Fuller
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Pickup on South Street isn't the best film noir I've seen, but it's held together by some powerful scenes, most notably Thelma Ritter's character, Moe Williams, summing up her life as a man points a gun at her head ("I have to go on makin' a living so I can die").

The main character is a pickpocket, Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), a smirking jackass for the most part; throughout the movie people keep wanting to deck him, and I don't blame them. At the start of the movie, he steals from Candy (Jean Peters), a 'fallen woman' who's got principles and guts, but also has the unfortunate tendency to give herself over to men like Skip or, even worse, her old boyfriend who deceptively uses her to deliver top-secret information to the Commies.

Movie poster for Pickup on South Street

Because the movie was made in the early 50s, the anti-Communist message gets hammered in a little too much, as lowly criminals and stool pigeons repeatedly tell each other that they'd never stoop to helping the Commies out. Never ever. But the movie isn't about the Cold War; the Commies are just convenient villains. What the movie really focuses on is how petty criminals and other people well-acquainted with street life stay one step ahead of the local police, the FBI, and the Commie villains; they tangle with powerful forces and often come out on top.

Thelma Ritter's performance as Moe Williams is what I recommend most about Pickup on South Street. At the start, Ritter is hilarious, playing what seems to be her usual delightful role of straight-talking wisecracker. But then her character slowly cracks open, revealing sadness and depth. Moe walks the streets selling ties; she also rats people out by selling information to the cops. Her greatest goal in life is to get buried with dignity, not in potter's field but in a classy cemetery. She's the kind of character I love to come across - not a type, but a person.

Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street

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

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Week in Seven Words #177

What do we learn in museums? Sometimes it's only 'oohs' and 'ahhs' and a fact or two. How many times do we really connect with what we're seeing - immerse ourselves in it?

He flies around the souvenir shop like an agitated moth, landing on treasures and launching off them again. Finally, he clutches a prize to his chest, but keeps circling as he's told to put it down again.

A butterfly lands on her shirt front, right on her breasts. She stares at it, eyebrows raised, until it flutters off. "Must be a boy," she says.

Palatial buildings are home to the offices of petty bureaucrats.

The White House is beautiful, but in a strange way looks like a hollow 3D puzzle of itself.

Fun word games give structure to the hours we spend on the road.

Swimming through images captured by Hubble. Strolling in a warm, gray drizzle. Looking out from between low-hanging branches at the Tidal Basin and Jefferson's pale monument.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Mateo Falcone and The Return of the Prodigal Son

Story Collection: Great French Short Stories
Editor: Paul Negri

I highly recommend these two stories.

Title: Mateo Falcone
Author: Prosper Mérimée
Translator: Stanley Appelbaum

This brutal story explores the concept of honor, and how it can be far removed from mercy and humanity. Set in Corsica a couple of centuries ago, the story shows a society where men are inseparable from their guns; there's a striking image of a husband and wife walking home, with the wife burdened under a heavy load of chestnuts, while the husband merely carries two rifles - as it's beneath a man's dignity to bear anything but his guns. Murder is acceptable, as long as certain conditions are met, chief among them an insult to one's manhood - whether it's to a man himself, his family, or his property, with a blurry distinction between the three.

The action centers on the young son of Mateo Falcone, a well-known property owner. The boy is at home alone when a criminal approaches him and asks for shelter from pursuing soldiers; the boy agrees, after the criminal pays him a small sum. Soon after, the infantrymen show up, headed by a sergeant who bribes the boy to reveal the whereabouts of the criminal. More than one betrayal follows.

Title: The Return of the Prodigal Son
Author: André Gide
Translator: Wallace Fowlie

After wandering far afield, the prodigal son in the story returns to his home and enters into dialogue with four family members: his father, his older brother, his mother, and his younger brother. Each family member represents a different aspect of the prodigal son's struggle between his desire to seek in the wilderness what he can't find in society, and the forces that lead him to renounce his wanderings.

His father represents comfort and stability, along with the bonds of love. Interestingly, his father seems to understand that love can be expressed in multiple ways - that his son could have loved him both from the comforts of home, and from the wilderness, without forgetting or despising him. As for the prodigal son's older brother, he's taken over as the authority figure in the house and represents a strict morality, holding that there's only one true way of life that one must follow with complete obedience. With the mother, the prodigal son speaks of self-denial and humility, placing the needs of others over his own and defining himself only by his relationships with his family; he renounces his need to seek a personal identity beyond that. And then, what brings the story round full circle - in his younger brother, the prodigal son discovers what he once was, or thought he was.

What I love about the story is how it explores different sides of morality, especially as it's expressed in conformity to societal norms. What keeps people from straying from their obligations and duties? What is both attractive and terrifying about the wilderness?

I also thought of the story from the angle of religious practice. In some ways, the father represents divine love, while the elder brother is impatient with the complexity of this love and claims to be able to cut through it and see the one truth that must be submitted to without question:
"I know what the Father said to you. It was vague. He no longer expresses himself very clearly, so that he can be made to say what one wants. But I understand his thought very well. With the servants, I am the one interpreter, and who wants to understand the Father must listen to me... There are not several ways of understanding the Father. There are not several ways of listening to him. There are not several ways of loving him, so that we may be united in his love."
The elder brother, who sets himself up as an enforcer of his father's will, is really attempting to rule over his own father as well, defining him narrowly and making him conform to his own vision. A religious fundamentalist, or any strict ideologue really, would think this way.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Week in Seven Words #176

The papers show me a barely literate boy who can't understand a mathematical word problem because the vocabulary is too advanced for him. For years he's lived like this (no one intervened?) and now they expect that sixteen hours of summertime intervention will prepare him for the sixth grade.

A silent figure at a window, she watches the flags, the batons, and the floats. She can probably hear the cheers through the thick, dark glass.

He offers passers-by a joke for a buck. His takers are a skeptical-looking teenager and a sobbing toddler.

He plays the violin huddled in on himself, as if he wants people to think that the music is flowing out of a bodiless entity.

Closed to the public, the promenade becomes a place where shadows stroll and spots of sunlight skip on the pavement.

Ducks preening in a brown pond.

Booths selling blue ceramic teapots and ornate doll heads.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Worth Watching: Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)

Title: Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

This movie succeeds because it's consistently ridiculous and funny. It doesn't let the tone ever slip to melodrama or serious romance; it's a farce from beginning to end, where the characters behave as if the hilarious things they say or do are matter-of-fact. The story finds some inspiration from The Taming of the Shrew, which the husband - played by Gary Cooper - turns to for some guidance in how to deal with his wife. However, he's the one who winds up tamed, and not by being denied food or clothing, or getting mentally beaten into submission.

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife.jpg

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Week in Seven Words #175

For the first time in a while, I watch an NBA game. I like most of it, especially when the scores are close, and it's not clear who'll come out on top. Some of the players act like children though; they could still be adolescent boys. They're also living the life that many adolescent boys fantasize about. In a weird way, it's not an adult life.

When he asks me to play Legos with him, he's less interested in playing than in showing me what he's built in minute detail, like an architect or engineer explaining his latest work.

He hangs out in the background, waiting for us to entertain him. He needs some crumbs of attention and entertainment; maybe we'll show him a funny Youtube video.

In some ways he eats like a grownup. But then, most grownups don't wind up with pieces of avocado on their butt when they're done.

He pushes the plastic car around on the board game of Life, without understanding the milestones.

Every time we drive along this route, we get into the exact same argument. It's like the road has a hold on our minds.

They giggle at the British accents of cartoon nannies and hounds.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Cover image for Why Nations Fail

Written by a psychiatrist who survived Auschwitz, it's a book that will change your life.

I'll just leave an excerpt here:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Worth Watching: About Schmidt (2002)

Title: About Schmidt
Director: Alexander Payne
Language: English
Rating: R

Who is Warren Schmidt and why does he have reason to despair?

Early on, we watch Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) at his retirement party. His best friend makes a toast and tells Warren that a man can be proud if he looks back on his life and sees a loving family, good friends, and meaningful work. And while, on the surface, Warren seems to lay claim to that legacy, it isn't long before he realizes that his life is empty. His years of work in insurance are irrelevant to the young man succeeding him on the job. He's disconnected from the community and from friends. Now that he's at home with his wife all day, he realizes that she's virtually a stranger. And though he thinks with fondness of their one daughter, Jeannie (Hope Davis), all of his fond thoughts center on her as a young girl. The adult Jeannie is a stranger to him as well.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Week in Seven Words #174

Negativity masquerading as helpfulness.

Familiar circumstances, even when they're unhappy, can seem strangely comforting.

Laying down the foundations of another home on the web.

I'm clumsy, inefficient, but unwilling to give up.

Dark, compelling music that must have emerged from the recesses of a tortured soul.

One of my most reliable guides is that feeling of squirming wrongness in me that wriggles to life when I'm about to make an untenable compromise.

Puffs of warm air across the pages as I read.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Week in Seven Words #173

She understands him and is fond of his curmudgeonly ways.

We don't look alike, but people can tell we're related. It's the posture maybe, the way we hold ourselves. Or some facial expression. I don't know what it is, but I smile when people make this observation.

She's nervous, but poised. Proud of this moment, but also good-naturedly self-deprecating.

It's been a while since I acted on my love of cheesecake. So I try three different kinds this time. Not large portions, but smallish melting pieces to be savored.

A display of cupcakes that looks like a flowering shrub.

I can't remember all their names. They all kind of look the same too, boys and girls, making noise and running around.

That dress in the back of the closet; I feel more light-hearted, putting it on.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Art and Life in The Picture of Dorian Gray

At the start of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is a dazzlingly handsome young man who's sitting for a portrait in the studio of Basil Hallward, an artist. Observing both of them is Lord Henry Wotton, who preaches a philosophy of life where sensory pleasures are paramount to everything else. (How much Wotton actually believes in this, or in anything else, isn't clear.)

Cover image for The Picture of Dorian Gray

When the portrait is finished and Dorian looks at it, he realizes that it won't be long before he'll lose his radiant looks; like everyone else, he'll age and die. He wishes he could remain young, and that only his portrait would age.

His wish comes true, though he doesn't realize it at first.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Week in Seven Words #172

Beneath a tree that's touching the ground with its upper branches, they read the Ten Commandments. People listen quietly and eat ice cream.

He thinks that if he stops telling jokes, he'll be boring. People will wonder why they're talking to him. So he doesn't relax. It's a fine day outside, and he's got a kindly, patient audience, but he can't stop forcing the jokes.

Without prompting, he belts out a funny song and acts out all the voices. Silliness can be beautiful.

A large dog in a wine shop, moseying among the shelves.

Because we all talk when watching TV, it still winds up being quality time with them. In reaction to what's on the screen, they reveal things about what they think and feel, and they ask questions.

A bench beneath a tree by a fountain. The shadows in the afternoon move slowly.

I look around, and I can't truthfully say I'm eager to meet any of them.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Cover image for Why Nations Fail

The authors advance the thesis that the primary reason behind a nation's economic failure or success is its political system. For instance, does a given society have more inclusive political and economic institutions that allow meaningful participation from a broader variety of people, including various groups with competing interests? Or is the distribution of power much more limited, with those in power extracting wealth from others and using it largely to stay in power and advance their own narrower interests?

The authors offer a wide variety of examples from all different parts of the world and periods in history. For example, they discuss why the Industrial Revolution took off in a place like Great Britain, while technological progress was slower in other parts of Europe (with progress generally much more limited in Eastern vs. Western Europe). What was it about the changes in Great Britain's society leading up to the late 18th and early 19th century that helped lay the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, especially given that Britain was poor and underdeveloped for so much of its history? What was the legacy of colonialism in different parts of the world, given the different kinds of political institutions put in place by colonial powers (including the way they used existing institutions in the lands they took over)?

The editing of the book could have been much better. The book often gets repetitive, sometimes with the same point repeated across consecutive paragraphs. Still, it's a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Worth Watching: Ball of Fire (1941)

Title: Ball of Fire
Director: Howard Hawks
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

This screwball comedy features a linguistics professor, Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper and a nightclub entertainer and gangster's moll, Sugarpuss O'Shea (what a fabulous name), played by Barbara Stanwyck.

Potts, who's working with several other professors to put together an encyclopedia, is gravely innocent; he's part man, part schoolboy. When he goes around town making careful note of new slang to include in the encyclopedia, he winds up in a club where O'Shea explodes onto the stage to the drumbeats of Gene Krupa. That scene, with Stanwyck wearing a costume that looks like a barely contained supernova, is one of the best in the movie; the music is great, because yes, that's really Gene Krupa accompanying her, first on drums, then on matchsticks.

Ball of Fire movie poster.jpg

Stanwyck's sex appeal depends in large part on the sharpness of her wit and the look in her eyes, not to mention how comfortable she is in her own skin. As a brilliant actress, she also shows us - largely through minute changes in her facial expressions - how she's slowly falling in love with the stodgy Potts, when at first she just thinks of him as a dope. As for Cooper, he's good at pretending to be a man who's convinced himself that he's just fine with celibacy, while looking both quietly terrified and deeply intrigued as O'Shea slinks into his life.

Stanwyck and Cooper work so well together and enjoy a strong supporting cast: the other professors, who are all cute old men, and O'Shea's boyfriend for much of the film, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews), a gangster trying to avoid getting arrested for murder. Much of the dialogue is funny, as when O'Shea is trying to convince Potts that she isn't feeling well and needs to stay the night ("I'm a pushover for streptococcus"). Some of the screwball comedies I've come across are uneven in quality or less funny than they're made out to be, but this one is enjoyable throughout.

*Image links back to its source (Wikipedia).

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Week in Seven Words #171

Dozens of photos drying on the living room floor.

He has too much chocolate cake on his plate, so she takes some of it from him. Instantly, his mouth quivers and his eyes get moist. She puts it back and gives him an endearing smile. "Do you want to share it with me?" she says. "Can I have some of it?" He considers for a moment, then breaks off the tiniest crumb and places it on her outstretched palm.

My suspicion is that I'm not going to run into her again - at least, not any time soon. I'm glad we part ways bickering, because anything else would be too sentimental for us.

Keeping to myself, sharing only general information, is a form of self-protection. No amount of shouting or guilt-tripping is going to bring the walls down.

Kids have a great sense of timing. This one gets out of bed to get a cup of water just as the most violent scene in the movie (with nudity thrown in for good measure) is underway.

It isn't an honest movie. It starts off with some interesting characters, flawed and suffering from psychological problems. Were it a better movie, it would have stayed true to them throughout. Instead, the tone about halfway through shifts to a generic romantic comedy, with little actual comedy. These characters could have gotten a hopeful or happy ending, but one that was still true to them. Instead, the filmmakers ignored their complexities and buried them in cliches.

Her wit is maturing, and it's wonderful to witness.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Worth Watching: The Trip to Bountiful (1985)

Title: The Trip to Bountiful
Director: Peter Masterson
Language: English
Rating: PG

The Trip to Bountiful has one of the most beautiful opening scenes I've ever watched: a mother and her young son running through a field of bluebonnets. They're full of life. They look as if they could run forever.

Flash forward a few decades, to the 1940s. The mother, Carrie Watts (Geraldine Page), is now an old woman. She lives with her son, Ludie (John Heard), and his wife, Jessie Mae (Carlin Glynn), in a small Houston apartment. Ludie isn't the carefree boy he once was; he's recovering from an illness and trying to get a promotion at work. He and his wife haven't been able to have children. Jessie Mae is a self-centered, petty woman, who needles her mother-in-law at any opportunity she gets. I also sensed resentment in her, that she has to live with her mother-in-law in close quarters, and that Carrie makes her feel inadequate as a homemaker and wife. The two just get on each other's nerves, and Ludie is, for the most part, tired and withdrawn.

Living in that little apartment is driving Carrie insane; she's reduced to being a child, squabbling with her daughter-in-law. She's cut off from the only kind of life that ever gave her meaning. Realizing that she's in poor health, she's overtaken with the desire to see her old home again in Bountiful, Texas, out in the country. She won't let her son and daughter-in-law stop her.

Week in Seven Words #170

The keeper of keys has bats in his belfry.

He talks and talks, and the point of his talk is just outside our reach, like a firefly winking in and out of existence.

Her smile is brittle. She's only sure of herself among books.

From spirituality to bagels. I'm walking the surprisingly thin line between profundity and absurdity.

The tulips are in Technicolor, saturated in red and yellow.

Rumpled hair, a coffee cup loose between his fingers. The familiar crinkle in the corners of his eyes.

During the group meditation, my mind floats and expands, then abruptly contracts. The process restarts. The mind rises like a balloon until it reaches the end of its string. Then it descends and hits the floor.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In the society of daffodils

There are pariahs:


Battles between different factions:


And sweet consolations whispered to friends and lovers:


Friday, May 10, 2013

Week in Seven Words #169

Playing freeze tag by the train stop, the kids slither onto the platform and sprint across grassy lots. They laugh and scream and occasionally curse.

The cherry tree holds light and shadow between its branches in perfect stillness.

It isn't an orchid show, it's a masquerade ball. Each orchid, a prince, a duke, an empress, wears a vibrant mask and sways to music in the garden.

His face is pink and stubbled, and his laugh has as much joy as he can force into it.

The branches are weighed down by a mass of magnolia blossoms. Soon the blossoms will fall to the ground and rot, but now they're still in their full flush, a decadent pink, inviting people to draw them aside as a curtain and seek privacy.

Daffodils streaming down a rocky hill.

The sound of the waterfall washes everything away, all the noise in our heads.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Worth Watching: Born Yesterday (1950)

Title: Born Yesterday
Director: George Cukor
Language: English
Rating: PG

In Born Yesterday, Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) slowly emerges from the 'dumb blonde' persona she's buried herself under for years in order to get by in life. At the start of the movie, she's arrived in Washington, D.C. with her boyfriend, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford), a crooked businessman who's trying to bribe his way to greater political influence. Brock was born in Jersey and is in the junk business, sort of a 1950s Tony Soprano.

Billie drifts through life with her mind turned off. She gets furs and jewels and verbal, and sometimes physical, abuse from Brock, who also uses her as an unwitting stooge for some of his deals. However, he finds that when they try to mingle in D.C. society, she comes across as too crass and ignorant. (So does he, but he thinks she's the only one who needs more polish.) His solution is to hire a journalist, Paul Verrall (William Holden), to teach her about culture and proper speech.

Paul gives Billie a lot of books, shows her historic sites in D.C., and talks to her like one human being to another. She starts to think for herself, and they fall in love.

Billie (Judy Holliday) and Paul (William Holden) in Born Yesterday

I like that Billie isn't dumb; she just acts dumb. Once she becomes less ignorant and naive and learns to think for herself, she's a force to contend with. She's also still recognizably Billie, not some polished socialite (this isn't My Fair Lady). I also like that Paul isn't her 'white knight.' He doesn't charge in and rescue her or tell her what to do, other than to keep reading and thinking. She figures out what Brock is up to on her own and decides to leave on her own terms, while thinking of a plan for how to stop him; only then does she recruit Paul to be her accomplice.

Holden is a sweetheart as Paul, and Crawford plays Brock both as a comical ignoramus and as a genuine menace who only understands two kinds of power: money and physical force. But it's Holliday's performance that the movie rests on, and she holds it together. Like the movie as a whole, her performance is a skillful blend of comedy and drama, as seen in the way she can toss off a funny line and then, in a heartbeat, look lost and vulnerable. Not all performers, or movies, would handle these transitions well.

*The image links back to its source (Flixster Community).

Friday, May 3, 2013

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: We've Got Issues

Cover image for We've Got Issues by Judith Warner

We've Got Issues by Judith Warner discusses different factors that account for the sorry state of mental health services for children and early intervention for learning disabilities in the U.S. There's much to debate in this book, but even if you disagree with some of the premises or feel that she needs to dig deeper into some of the issues, I think you'll find that her approach is refreshing, as she doesn't blindly demonize people, whether they be parents, psychiatrists, or teachers. She also points out flaws in much of how the media reports on children's mental health, including their misinterpretations of data and their use of children as mere symbols representing larger societal problems.

Week in Seven Words #168

I keep hearing that we're living in an evil age, more evil than ever. I'm not convinced. People have always been capable of atrocities and day-to-day cruelty. Now, however, we have the Internet, which can tell us about every crime in every town the world over, giving us the illusion that evil has suddenly exploded everywhere.

"Emile! Zola!" he cries, but his dogs have already broken free to chase a squirrel across the grass.

While taking photos of flowering trees in the garden, I hear, beyond the shrubs, two people breaking up, their voices low and pained.

Cherry blossoms frosting the rim of the reservoir.

When does news reporting cross the line into voyeurism?

The argument over whether salt was expensive or not in the Middle Ages threatens to disrupt the harmony of the meal.

Some of the magnolia blossoms stretch towards the darkening sky. Others are captured in lamplight.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Three Tales from The Thirteen Problems

Collection: The Thirteen Problems
Author: Agatha Christie

In The Thirteen Problems, all of the stories, except for the last one, emerge in the following way. A group of people meet at someone's home and take turns sharing real-life mysteries. The story-teller knows the solution to the mystery, and the others have to guess it based on the clues provided.

Miss Jane Marple is present in each group, and because she's an old-fashioned, unprepossessing spinster who's lived in a small village all her life, nobody thinks to include her at first. They don't know that living in a village has given her many opportunities to study human nature, and behind her gentle demeanor is a steeltrap mind that misses little. Unsurprisingly, she amazes them all.

What I liked about the collection as a whole was that it shows some of Christie's strengths as a writer. Each tale is a puzzle that the reader can try to solve before Miss Marple presents the solution; the reader feels like one of the participating guests. In each tale, Christie does a number of things efficiently. She carefully lays out each mystery, using well-sketched characters and clever misdirection. She also highlights the personality of each story-teller based on what he or she chooses to share with the guests, who often rib each other and make amusing or interesting remarks as the tale unfolds. As such, she's sustaining two levels of story, one with the circle of guests, and the other with the tales they share.

Three of the tales stood out for me enough to write about them here.

Gorgeous Orchids - Part I




A first taste of what I saw at the New York Botanical Garden on Sunday, the second to last day of their Orchid Show.

I don't think I'd ever been to the botanical garden before; it's a dream, especially this time of year.

Week in Seven Words #167

She drinks from a dirty glass and eats tongue between slices of old brown bread.

Music from the IRS hotline tinkles in my ear, as I try to write while on hold.

The blankets are rumpled and strewn with pie dishes and tin trays. People stand around talking and sizing each other up. Every conversation I'm a part of seems to involve a game that I don't want to play.

The sky growls thunder and hisses a promise of rain. Still, we must stop for frozen yogurt.

Depending on who you ask in the room, the dog is an adorable treasure or, at best, a nuisance.

Discovering that I need to fill out a five-page tax form that comes with at least 50 pages of instructions.

Along with the five-page form, there's another form. And another. There are always more forms.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Taking a break from watching the Boston coverage

My main sources of information about the Boston Marathon bombings over the past few days have been and, but I realized today that I have to give those a break, after seeing essentially the same message ("suspect remains at large") repeated several times over the course of the day with different wordings ("manhunt underway," "suspect on the loose," etc.) to give the impression that there are new developments.

This is a nightmarish situation, but for people who aren't currently in the thick of it, let's step back. People who ought to know better are pouncing on every bit of new information and running with it, regardless of whether it's confirmed or not. Same goes for trying to come up with a narrative, right this moment, to explain the attackers' motives, when they were just identified yesterday and we still don't know everything about them and how they got to the point in their lives where they thought it would be an awesome idea to kill and maim random people. I hope the surviving one is captured soon. But please let's deal with this patiently. I understand the urge to speculate, but doing so publicly, while re-tweeting rumors and fake photos and delivering broadcasts based on information from unofficial sources, is irresponsible.

Not that I think this post will have an effect on that. Just wanted to vent a little.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Week in Seven Words #166

The kids in his class keep an eye on each other's reading levels, indicated by colors assigned by the teacher. The information isn't advertised, but they all know anyway from sneaking peeks into each other's notebooks and folders; the competitiveness is fierce, even at this young age. Instead of asking him where he stands in relation to the other kids, I tell him to focus on his own progress. And he really has improved. He's less prone to skipping over words he doesn't know or mumbling them quietly. Instead, he stops, tries to pronounce them (out loud or to himself), and asks if he doesn't know. He's starting to dip into simple chapter books. Does the competitiveness help? If it gets students to read more and maybe enjoy reading too, does it matter?

In the game of monkey in the middle, it seems there are two monkeys, and neither is in the middle.

On a lazy holiday afternoon, I'm reading in the sunshine.

Discovering delicate purple crocuses among the daffodils.

Food is coming out of my pores, I'm so full.

He spins the globe as a self-soothing mechanism. The sound of the world rattling around and around calms him.

She's memorized the book so she can read it to me even without knowing all the words. Then she can focus more on the acting: belting out dialogue in different voices or speaking in a stage whisper.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Worth Watching: Mildred Pierce (1945)

Title: Mildred Pierce
Director: Michael Curtiz
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

The movie opens with a man getting murdered. "Mildred" is the last thing he says. From there, the setting shifts to a nearby dock, where Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) is walking by moonlight. Is she the murderer?

Mildred is the kind of person who could have enjoyed much more success and contentment in life had she not been in the habit of nursing vipers at her breast. One of them is her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), who's monstrously spoiled.

Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth as Mildred and Veda in Mildred Pierce

The other is Monty (Zachary Scott), a man whose character is so cloying and rotten I found him physically revolting. He starts off as Mildred's lover. Then he becomes her second husband. He's like fruit that's been lying out in the sun for days; he just makes you want to gag.

Joan Crawford and Zachary Scott in Mildred Pierce

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Good Short Fiction: Several Tales from 50 Great American Short Stories

Collection: 50 Great American Short Stories
Editor: Milton Crane

Title: Cluney McFarrar's Hardtack
Author: John McNulty

During the Second World War, a veteran of the First World War talks about some of his experiences fighting overseas. He focuses on one night, after a battle, when he doubles back to snatch up some hardtack dropped by a fallen soldier. Everything in the story gathers towards the moment when he's about to enter the dark and silent wood full of the bodies of dead soldiers.


Title: A Dead Issue
Author: Charles M. Flandrau

This one is written elegantly and incisively, about a man in his early thirties who turns out looking foolish when he returns to teach at his alma mater, Harvard. Even though he's at least a decade older than most of them, he fraternizes with the undergraduates at the club he used to belong to when he was a student; at the same time, he feels isolated from people closer to his own age.

The story brilliantly shows his need to be liked and to belong somewhere, and how he has trouble leaving the security of that old club and its easy associations. Maybe he recalls with nostalgia the friendship of his own classmates, bonds of fellowship that he thought would stay with him and support him throughout his life; he thinks he can recreate those bonds with a younger generation. Because he hasn't moved on, he risks compromising his principles as a teacher to be chummy with the students. They're young and self-centered and carefree, and they show him an easygoing friendliness that doesn't mean much. How will the main character find his place in life as he grows older, with his face still turned towards the past?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Week in Seven Words #165

By the end of the Seder, it's pretty much just the two of us singing determinedly. Occasionally someone else joins in, then drifts out again.

At the start of my cold, when the symptoms are heaviest, I wish I could set up a forcefield around me to ward people off, both for their sake and for my own. Then I can sneeze and cough as much and as loudly as I want without drawing comments.

Dew settles gently into dark places.

I can't shake off the feeling that the only way they make money online is by selling books and courses on how to make money online.

Every year we ask the same questions, which is good, as we've sometimes forgotten the answers.

She's cooked heaps of delicious food, but I wish she would enjoy her own cooking more. She gets up often, sits at the edge of her seat, and monitors the meal. Maybe she wants to confirm that her food is being enjoyed the way she feels it should.

The tulips, drooping in the purple vase, soon rise towards the desk lamp.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Worth Watching: Like Stars on Earth (2007)

Title: Like Stars on Earth
Director: Aamir Khan
Language: Hindi
Rating: PG

A smiling, young Indian boy sits at a desk with his head resting on his folded arms in front of him. Behind him and to his right, a young Indian man is doing the same and is looking at the boy. Above them is the film's title "Taare Zameen Par" with the subtitle of "Every Child is Special". Drawings of a bird, plane, octopus, and fish are in the background.
From Wikipedia, Fair use

People who are markedly different are sometimes celebrated for the gifts they bring to the world. But most of the time, other people seem determined to crush them.

There's a Japanese proverb: "The nail that sticks out gets hammered down." Fit in, fall in line, and life will be easier for you; you'll find no understanding or accommodation from the rest of us.

Like Stars on Earth is set in a middle-class suburb in India and centers on Ishaan Awasthi (Darsheel Safary), a young boy who makes basic mistakes in math and writing, follows his drifting attention wherever it takes him, and also has abundant talent in art.

The movie has some colorful animated sequences, and one of them shows us his reasoning as he writes down 3 as the answer to 9 times 3 on an exam. Spaceships are involved.

His parents are distraught, though his mother is more sympathetic to him than his father, who sees his behavior simply in terms of disobedience. He has an older brother, also sympathetic to him, who's the model son: an excellent student, an athlete, the pride of the family. Ishaan, on the other hand, can't seem to get anything right, and no one understands him and why he has so much trouble at school.

Eventually he's sent to a different school, with stricter discipline, that's meant to straighten him out. There he lapses into depression, until a substitute art teacher (played by the movie's director, Aamir Khan) notices his plight and figures out how to reach him.

Some scenes are overly long, and there are times when you can feel the filmmakers shamelessly grabbing onto your heartstrings and refusing to let go. I still think it's a movie worth watching, and Darsheel Safary is an excellent (and adorable) young actor who inhabits the role of Ishaan. The movie becomes a celebration of different kinds of human expression, with a focus on the voice and art of a boy who has dyslexia. The hope is that people will pay sincere attention to and understand those who are often lazily dismissed as troublemakers, idiots, and freaks.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Week in Seven Words #164

For the first time in an embarrassingly long while, I can see the bottom of my desk drawers. It's a cathartic moment.

She's a competent person who psyches herself out, her thoughts chasing suspicions and omens.

My knuckles are raw and bleeding, as if I've punched a wall, but the only things they've battled against are dust and cold, dry weather.

In a heartbeat, she feigns hysteria, her voice plaintive and her eyes moist. Cars zoom by on the highway.

He's in a bowler hat and a red bowtie, and he sits in the front row. From there, his tired jokes and loud asides are sure to disrupt the speaker.

Cleaning for Passover means a fresh start. Everything looks neater and more spacious. There's room to work and grow. I'm not going to be buried in the detritus of past years.

I'm amazed at how patient he is, fiddling quietly with the picture book as he waits for me to wrap up a conversation on the phone.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Blue Iguanas of the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park

Last month, I took a few days off for vacation, and my destination was Grand Cayman. One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, where you can come across the island's blue iguanas, a species that can grow over five feet long.

The blue iguanas, which are native to Grand Cayman, came very close to extinction (there were less than 20 left in the wild in 2002). The botanic park is one of the sanctuaries on the island where they're breeding and their population levels are rising.

They roam freely in the park, and so it's likely you'll see them as you walk around.

Here's one that was relaxing in the sand garden. A park volunteer pointed him out and said he'd just chased another male off his territory, so he was likely tired out. He tolerated the company of six or seven tourists standing around taking photos.


Another one was stalking around a picnic area. There are signs warning you not to feed them, but I suspect someone fed this one anyway, because it was moving towards us in an eager, possibly aggressive way. When they're warning you off, the blue iguanas bob their heads and open and close their mouths; this one wasn't making that kind of display, but it still put us on guard, so we backed off. They're herbivorous, but they can bite.


Lastly, we were on a woodland trail, which in February was dry and brown, and one of them came out ahead of us on the trail. It walked for a bit, stopped, bobbed its head and opened and closed its mouth at something in the shrubs, kept walking, stopped a few more times to do the whole aggressive head-bobbing display again, and finally settled in a spot of shade right in the middle of the path.


We decided not to try and walk around it, as it was keeping an eye on us and had made aggressive displays. It really liked the shade, right on that spot on the path.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Nonfiction Book of the Month: Women's Letters

Title: Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present
Editors: Lisa Grunwald & Stephen J. Adler

I'm thinking of starting a monthly feature where I highlight a good nonfiction book I've read. Because March is Women's History Month, this is my selection for the month.

The cover for Women's Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present

I read this one cover to cover, though it's also possible to skip around the book and sample different letters. A number of these American letter writers are famous (e.g. Abigail Adams, Emily Dickinson, Clara Barton, Julia Child), while others are obscure, though not less interesting.

The topics are enormous in range. You'll see arguments on multiple sides of important political and moral issues in the U.S., including slavery, the persecution of Native Americans, major wars, the suffragist movement, civil rights, and birth control and abortion.

The women here write about love, sex, academics, travel, religion, pregnancy, their jobs inside and out of the home, fashion, family issues, illness, and death.

Some of them served in the military (including a military nurse with multiple battle stars giving an account of treating concentration camp survivors at the end of WW2). Others never seemed to have ventured out of their home state. Some of the writers were slaves or former slaves (including women who didn't know how to read or write, dictating their letters). Within pages of each other, one woman describes a party game involving poetry and another describes undergoing a mastectomy without any anesthetics. You don't know for sure what you'll come across as you turn to a given page.

For each letter, the editors have provided some historical and biographical background, so you can get a sense of the letter's context.