Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Week in Seven Words #384

The town is charming and delicate. There's a sheltered dock with a gazebo, and a street with shops displaying quaint, insubstantial things. Only the vehicles seem out of place: heavy, expensive cars and a bus that wheezes to a stop to take us away.

A dazzling set of motorcycles outside a convenience store. Some of the riders head inside, others stretch out on a grassy slope that leads down to the trees.

They stand at opposite ends of a coppery pool and play catch. If the ball lands in the water, the game will end.

A bird drops backwards from a branch, then twirls midair and rockets off.

The dirt track ends at a clearing steeped in early evening light. Logs and flat rocks are scattered around it, as if at nightfall creatures will emerge from the trees to take their seats and hold an assembly.

When hiking a familiar route, he brings a book for the gentler sections. This time it's a collection of Emily Dickinson's poetry. Another time it was short stories by Chekhov.

Sometimes the path is made up of wood planks or smooth dirt. Other times, it's a jumble of rocks and roots that jerk my ankles in different directions.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Week in Seven Words #383

A fatty meal, followed by shooting hoops in the driveway and a video introduction to the largest dogs in the world.

It would be an eerie statue to visit at night, the Alice in Wonderland who sits on her giant mushroom at the east side of the park. She's smiling, dead-eyed, while the Mad Hatter grins unpleasantly beside her.

On three occasions, strangers approach me at a bookstore or convenience store for advice on which birthday card to buy for their boss. I don't know why I've been chosen to help, but it's a responsibility I try not to take too lightly.

Somewhere in the trees, there's a frenzied drummer. To the east, a charity walk pours down a broad paved path. Cheerleaders with dazzling pom-poms shout encouragement. In a clearing across from the cheerleaders, LARPers skirmish with foam weapons. Another group practices capoeira, and a saxophonist, playing under a bridge, is enfolded in the echoes of his music.

On a terrace by the lake, a man with a guitar sings "Layla." He performs with heart and a voice rough with age. His music colors the stones and the water, and it nourishes the people who walk by. A few smile at him.

The kids are in high spirits. They dance (including swing dance!) and sing to the music churned out by a piano player who labors body and soul to do justice to Duke Ellington. The evening's low point is at the start, when a teacher uses the words 'hip' and 'cool' and then looks like she can't get the taste of them out of her mouth.

The storm smashes through the park like a tantrum. Branches dangle like the arms of marionettes.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Three movies about people with precarious lives in the US

Title: Ballast (2008)
Director: Lance Hammer
Language: English
Rating: Not rated

At the start of the movie, a man has committed suicide off-screen. The people he leaves behind include his identical twin, Lawrence (Michael J. Smith Sr.). The movie takes its time revealing who everyone is. The suicide disturbs their already difficult lives and stirs up emotions that could overwhelm them. In the course of the movie, they redefine their lives in some ways and draw together to keep from succumbing to despair and poverty. Sometimes, they seem like the only three people in their world (if one died, only the other two would notice - though at one point there's also a kind neighbor, played by Johnny McPhail, whose intervention saves a life).

The two others are Marlee (Tarra Riggs) and her teenaged son, James (JimMyron Ross). James is a misdirected kid. The adults in his life have serious hardships of their own, so that in spite of good intentions they don't always offer him the guidance he needs, though they try. The school he goes to seems to give him only opportunities to be preyed on. His life is closed-off and lonely, though the filmmakers thread some hope into it, in his changing relationship to a gun: a gun he first uses to express anger and a show of control, then uses as possible self-protection, until he does something with it to attempt to prevent further death.

Where the characters live, in the Mississippi Delta, the landscape is muddy and gray in the winter (sometimes it's startling, like when birds in a noisy mass burst into the sky). The characters cling to the lifelines they can find, including a gas station and convenience store that's been abandoned and might serve as their livelihood and a second chance of sorts. Maybe these characters would be worse off, more lonely and directionless, if they were apart from each other.

As the movie ended, I wondered what would happen to James. His mother wants to save him from violent kids, but can she protect him from the demons inside, the impulses of self-destruction? What's his place in the world, living with despondent, angry adults? There's a shot at the end of the movie of a man in the front passenger seat of a car, and for a second I thought it was James, but no - the movie has remained in the present. James is in the backseat. But this could be his future, traveling through the same ruts in a muddy landscape.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Week in Seven Words #382

In the late evening, a man does Tai Chi by the river. His fluid, practiced movements make him a graceful silhouette against the last blaze of sunlight on the water.

We're at a long rectangular table. It seems to be under the influence of different weather phenomena. At the far end, three people are rumbling with thunderous anger. In a chair near them, a woman suddenly smiles and speaks in a reassuring voice, like sunlight breaking through clouds. Among the children, there's balmy, breezy weather; they're relaxed, laughing and chatting.

His explorations take him through a room full of alcohol, oysters, and chatter. (What are people eating and wearing? How is the restaurant organized, indoors and outdoors?) We watch volleyball players next. "What do you notice about them?" he asks. I mention that they're all men, roughly 25-40 years old. Maybe they're co-workers or in an amateur league. But there's something else I haven't mentioned. "Look at how they're all smiling," he says. He's noticed their happiness.

In quiet corners of the elevated park, people are curled up on benches - sometimes in pairs or in small groups of friends, other times reading alone or murmuring into their phones. One woman meditates in lamplight. The park snakes past apartment buildings on the level of their upper floors. The window shades are not entirely effective. There are still glimpses of life at home: a pair of feet in a foot bath, the flicker of a TV, an empty, neatly made bed, an empty bathtub in dim blue light.

Clouds coast on a baby blue sky. The horizon has softened to a shade of peach. Fishermen set up a boom box that plays soft percussive music.

It's amazing that this is really Jupiter I'm seeing - the pinprick of light resolving into an image of the distant planet. Almost as if I could touch it.

The dance she comes up with is a sequence of summer images: bees, sprinklers, back strokes, ocean waves, and sunshine.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Week in Seven Words #381

He rehearses his chorus song sweetly and a little goofily.

He's delighted by the rides he's taken on the subway. He likes observing people's behavior, how they make use of limited space and what they do to pass the time during their commute. As an older man, he hasn't become jaded. He loves to investigate and explore, and the mundane can be fascinating.

Leafy trees look like they're wearing green ruffled blouses.

She brings flash cards to the table. Her mouth is pressed to a thin line as she flips them over by her plate. Her food goes largely ignored.

People often unleash their anger on an easy target, but here she doesn't - she's nice to the waitress, who was nervous about getting blamed for the restaurant's mistake.

It's been a while since I received a bear hug. It lasts long enough for the warmth to settle into my bones, but stops short of making me feel trapped.

The meal is heavy. The diners sag, and their eyelids flicker against the weight of sleep.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Week in Seven Words #380

I'm in Brooklyn somewhere, after a late dinner, and every subway station I go to is closed, the stairways to the tracks boarded up. I wander out to a boardwalk overlooking an ocean. I can see the moon not by looking at the sky but by looking through the dark, transparent ocean. The moon is glowing through the water. It's enormous.

The conversation deteriorates into peevish muttering. Again, no progress towards a solution or even an understanding.

In a crowded, noisy room, they find a window seat tucked behind curtains, where they press up against each other and whisper.

During the meal, he scrolls through headlines on his phone. He rarely reads the articles. Only headlines, which make him feel vindicated sometimes but angry mostly.

After the party, they fall into a couple of chairs and kick off their heels. The table is covered in used glasses and liquor bottles filled to different levels. They pour drinks and clink their glasses, which probably aren't clean, in a wordless toast to a night well-spent.

She walks barefoot to feel the rasp of the stone on her feet.

She slips an invitation under my door. It's for a dinner, a few weeks from now.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fraught Parent-Child Relationships in Daniel Deronda

Like other novels by George Eliot, Daniel Deronda is dense and rich. Eliot has an exquisite sensitivity to the inner life of her characters and the way they're struggling with or making sense of their place in their society and culture.

Three of the characters (Daniel, Gwendolen, and Mirah) struggle to find a place for themselves in the world. For different reasons, they're not at home in their own lives. Parent-child relationships are a key reason they feel lost or are experiencing a crisis.

Gwendolen isn't a likable character, but she's rendered sympathetic by Eliot, especially as the novel unfolds, and she begins to question who she is and how she can ever learn to be good. She's raised out in the country in a respectable family that's fallen on hard times. The most influential adults in her life are her mother and uncle. Her mother, who seems to have known only unhappiness in marriage, clings to Gwendolen, and often Gwendolen needs to be a mother to her. Her uncle is short-sighted in some ways and fails as an adequate father figure for her.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Week in Seven Words #379

Canceled plans give the weekend a deflated feeling.

The fat trophy on his desk, the one I can imagine filled with mead, is a trophy he made for himself, celebrating something athletic (the inscription is small).

When he makes a nasty comment, it's similar to how he might squat and defecate in public and look you in the eye while doing it. Even if you turn away, you're left with the image of him exulting over his excrement.

She has another nightmare, but this time she also has someone's hand on her shoulder, comforting her.

She likes affection, but what she values more is trust. Let them give her the keys to a car or house, the permission to plan a wedding or offer investment advice, and she'll be happy.

One of them is enthusiastic about life and wants to learn more about it; he'll open his window and take pleasure in a tree branch, crooked like an elbow. The other one, who is roughly the same age, keeps the windows shuttered and rarely opens the door, but acts as if she knows exactly what's going on in the world.

It isn't a good idea for her to read true crime novels, just like it wasn't a good idea for her to look through WebMD for hours. Now she'll think someone is going to brain her with a statue, possibly because she has rabies.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Week in Seven Words #378

He brings out a glass bowl with six strawberries bathed in whipped cream.

The kid is determined to pretend that she's happy. She speaks in greeting card platitudes and draws smiley faces on her work. It's her way of getting through a childhood that's starved of love.

The day is flush with sunlight, and the air smells clean. I walk for an hour and feel calm.

He spins the fidget toy on the surface of the desk (spin spin spin), his attention focused entirely on it and not on his book.

The silver din of utensils and the voices sparkling and roaring pin me to the doorway for a moment, before I step into the restaurant bar during happy hour.

The cat doesn't belong to anyone in the building. He moved in, and some of the residents took responsibility for veterinary fees. Now he wanders the corridors and curls up for hours in the courtyard among potted plants and folding chairs.

Her gratitude catches me by surprise, and I don't know if it's deserved. I smile awkwardly, and the thoughts seem to empty from my head to make room for confusion.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Book recs from what I've read over the last few years

I plan to make these an annual post. What I have here are some recommendations from among the books I've read between 2014-2017.

I've read more from the Classics Club Challenge than I’ve yet written about (like Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty, both recommended). Some of the others from the past few years that I recommend: Villette, Of Human Bondage, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Periodic Table, Ivanhoe, Persuasion, The Living Is Easy, The Age of Innocence, and Old Goriot.

Here's an ongoing list of short stories I recommend; I've added many over the last few years, and I mention where I read each one, so hopefully you'll find some good short story collections to check out.

One of the standout history books is 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War by Charles Emmerson, a fascinating look at major cities around the world in 1913, including London, Buenos Aires, NYC, and Vienna. Full of rich depictions of politics, economics, and other elements of culture. Also, it's eerie reading about various predictions or other analyses people made at the time in light of future developments.