Sunday, February 28, 2016

Eight Short Stories About Divorce or Separation

Title: Access to the Children
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: Dumped

"Access to the Children" is primarily a story of regret and delusion. The main character had an affair and left his wife and kids. After his lover leaves him, he becomes desperate for what he gave up. He sees his kids every Sunday, but throughout the story there's little sense that he knows them. He's taken to drinking heavily and settling them in front of a TV until it's time to take them home.

What he clings to is the hope that his ex-wife will forgive him and take him back. He insists that this will happen; he's even predicted a date for it. Meantime, he drinks. His alcoholism simultaneously fuels his delusions and serves as proof that he's deluded. His complete self-destruction isn't inevitable, but it's likely. And though the story doesn't show him lashing out violently at anyone, it remains a possibility, a deep unease stirred up by the thoughts of a destructive man.

Title: Amor Divino
Author: Julia Alvarez
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The main character, Yolanda, is going through a divorce while living near her grandpa, who has dementia. She is one of several Yolandas in her family, including her grandpa's late wife. Stories run in parallel in "Amor Divino" - the young Yolanda and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, and her grandma, Yolanda, and her grandpa, with their love that was legendary in the family (though the image of their famous love fractured when her grandma fell ill and railed bitterly out of her illness at the end of her life).

Love manifests in unexpected moments, sometimes when there's desperation for it, a need to see it realized a certain way. In this story it feels like a narrow stream that disappears for long stretches underground and surfaces, from time to time, in brilliant, harsh light.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Week in Seven Words #279

As we approach the lake, we hear a girl cry, "Kimmy! Kimmy!" Her voice is urgent. Is a child drowning? But there's no sense of emergency at the scene. The people standing along the shore are interested in what's going on, but not tense or afraid. Kimmy, as it turns out, is a dog. We see her head poking out of the water as she paddles towards a small wooded island in the middle of the lake. Her owner calls her from the shore, to no effect. She lands on the island and disappears into the scrub. Some time later, a rowboat with police and park rangers heads out to capture her. By the time we finish walking around the lake, she's at he bottom of the boat, exhausted and sopping, her adventure over.

The trees are maracas filled with birds.

The ones who remain silent, what do they think? From time to time, they smile or frown. Other people talk past them. At the end of the meeting, they slip outside without looking at anyone.

Ten different crayon drawings of Helen Keller on a backdrop of concrete and construction paper.

A girl with fierce, matted hair rides her bike up and down the hill, over and over, as if she wants to flatten it under her wheels.

I'm the only one who shows up for his lecture. He takes it in stride, telling me that even if I fall asleep, he'll benefit; he'll at least get a chance to revisit his thoughts, maybe experience new insights.

All around her, people eat, talk, and laugh, the kids chasing each other. She sleeps, her head on her arm. I don't know why, but I get the sense it's the first time she's been at peace all day.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Week in Seven Words #278

First impression of the school corridors: bulletin boards, artwork, and the reek of disinfectants.

I pace in the rectangle of light from the doorway.

"I'll stick around for an hour" becomes "I'll stay all night."

They tried to console him in his grief by telling him that other people have suffered too. But when does that approach work? Did they think other people's pain would ease his own, or that it would be a good idea to somehow shame him out of his sorrow?

A powerful mental rush where I feel focused and thirsty for knowledge.

The kids have been coached to repeat lines, hop on cue and wiggle around dancing when the teacher tells them to. They're old enough to start feeling embarrassed by the silliness, especially because it's orchestrated by adults and not spontaneous.

She says, "I'm worried." What she doesn't say is, "I need to control you." But those other words are there, whether she realizes it or not. I'm not going to pretend they aren't.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Five Older Movies to Watch on Valentine's Day

Or on other days. I watched these in the last year and a half, and have been meaning to write about them. This list is an excuse to. They're all quite different from each other, and make an interesting mix.

Title: The African Queen (1951)
Director: John Huston
Language: English (and a little German and Swahili)
Rating: PG

Hepburn bogart african queen.png

This is a fun, uncomplicated movie set in German East Africa during the start of World War I. Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) is a grungy, adorably monkey-faced Canadian steamboat captain who delivers mail and other supplies in the area. Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is a stern and decorous British missionary who needs to get out of German territory.

In Charlie, there are echoes of previous characters Bogart has played - men who want to sit out a war and stay neutral. Rose, on the other hand, is determined to use Charlie's steamboat to make an unexpected strike at the Germans. Hepburn combines in her the spirit of a warrior with the demeanor of a prim spinster. She and Allnut fall in love, and their wedding ceremony is funny (and brief). Along with Hepburn and Bogart's performances, another reason to watch the movie is that it was filmed mostly in Africa, with great difficulty.

Title: Design for Living (1933)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Language: English (and some French)
Rating: Unrated


A good Lubitsch movie is like champagne. In this one, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) illustrates ads for a living and meets two impoverished artists on a train: a painter, George Curtis (Gary Cooper), and a playwright, Tom Chambers (Frederic March), who is quick to tell her, "I write unproduced plays. I'm very good at that kind." She becomes their critic, driving them towards commercial success. She's also deeply attracted to them, finding it difficult to choose one over the other, and who can blame her. As the movie progresses, the question changes from which one of them she should choose to why can't she have them both.

Design for Living is good-natured, witty, risqué, and really funny. Gilda has one other suitor in the movie, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton), who presents a safe, respectable and also soul-killing choice, as they have no compatibility. Should someone settle for safety as a mere escape from difficult decisions and intriguing, unconventional possibilities?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Week in Seven Words #277

Ten open jars are spread out on her table, including two for peanut butter and one for pickles. A newspaper lies folded in half in front of her chair, next to a crusty fork and a lid that doesn't fit any of the jars.

The waiter is one of the most charismatic people we've ever met. When he glides up to our table, we kind of forget about the food. Radiant with warmth and good humor, he grins, tells jokes, offers vivid descriptions of dessert. We would pay him to eat with us.

The boy hits replay again on Abbott & Costello's "Who's on First" routine.

We're lost in a white hallway with a white-and-black checkered floor. "I'm here," says his disembodied voice, its path distorted by sharp turns and the high ceiling over the corkscrew stairs.

She refuses only because she likes to hear us plead with her.

The dog slips between me and the chess board, her tail sweeping pieces off as she stares at me with a solemn expression.

The house belongs now to someone else. The tree she planted may be ripped out or cut down. Few people remember the work she put into that yard.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Jews at the heart of Ivanhoe

When I started reading Ivanhoe for the Classics Club Challenge, my first impression was of a medieval fashion show. As a pioneering author of historical fiction, Sir Walter Scott lavishly described his characters' clothes and armor, shown off against a backdrop of old castles and other atmospheric settings - girdles, doublets, linked mail, kirtles, robes, coarse sandals, all sorts of medieval outfits and accoutrements.

I thought at first that the book would be a fairly straightforward tale full of what you'd expect from a medieval setting - jousts, feasting, banter by the campfire, song and drink, knights winning the favor of ladies.

And all of those elements are present. There's light-hearted action and humor, and knights who have to reclaim or retain their standing. But Ivanhoe also takes an unexpected turn when it introduces two prominent Jewish characters - Isaac and his daughter, Rebecca.