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.