Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Deal Me In - A Less Intense Version

This year, I'd like to read The Best American Essays of the Century (editor – Joyce Carol Oates; coeditor – Robert Atwan). I've already read some of the book, but there are many interesting-looking essays that remain. With that goal in mind, I'll be participating in Jay's Deal Me In Challenge, and more specifically the "Full Moon Fever Version," which requires just one suit from the card deck – that's what I can realistically commit to given the other things I'd like to read this year... plus, you know, work, chores, all that. (Click on the link for more details about Deal Me In and its variations, especially if you're planning to read essays, short stories, or other short pieces this year.)

These are the essays I've chosen. Randomly picking a card from a suit (let's go with hearts) will determine reading order. And for each of these, I'll respond with a blog post either here or at Bright Across the Lifespan.

Ace: "The Devil Baby at Hull-House" by Jane Addams

Two: "Once More to the Lake" by E.B. White

Three: "Artists in Uniform" by Mary McCarthy

Four: "The Marginal World" by Rachel Carson

Five: "The Brown Wasps" by Loren Eiseley

Six: "A Sweet Devouring" by Eudora Welty

Seven: "Perfect Past" by Vladimir Nabokov

Eight: "Illumination Rounds" by Michael Herr

Nine: "The Search for Marvin Gardens" by John McPhee

Ten: "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying" by Adrienne Rich

Jack: "The Solace of Open Spaces" by Gretel Ehrlich

Queen: "A Drugstore in Winter" by Cynthia Ozick

King: "Heaven and Nature" by Edward Hoagland

Monday, December 30, 2019

List of Books I Recommend (2019 Edition)

Over the past year, along with continuing to read good short fiction, I've enjoyed some books I'd like to recommend here.

Three of the nonfiction books deal with critical thinking and the ability to discuss ideas:

How to Think by Alan Jacobs, which I wrote about in this post – What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It's Not Just Intelligence).
The Tyranny of Opinion by Russell Blackford, which I wrote about here.
The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, which discusses various policies and attitudes that are preventing kids from becoming more resilient and emotionally and intellectually mature.

In another nonfiction book, the author traveled around the U.S. for half a year and recorded conversations with a variety of people – The Lies They Tell by Tuvia Tenenbom, which I wrote about here. Come to think of it, this book also deals with critical thinking and honest, well-informed discussion (and their frequent absence from conversations, speeches, and interviews).

Another nonfiction book, The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi (translated by Raymond Rosenthal), discusses some aspects of the Holocaust that are most difficult to explain and discuss, particularly the psychological effects (on victims, tormenters, bystanders). He's exploring how humans think and feel in circumstances that are deeply, deliberately inhumane.

For novels, there are a bunch I'm recommending:

Two Shirley Jackson novels – We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Road Through the Wall. Although they're different in many respects, they both present confining worlds for their characters. In one, it's a home where the reclusive remnants of a family live years after a horrible crime. In another, it's a street in a 1930s California suburb, where everyone is deeply conscious of class, sex, race, and religion, and cruelty and loneliness flourish even in respectable homes. Dysfunction is prevalent.

Speaking of confined spaces, As We Are Now by May Sarton is a powerful novel about a retired math teacher who is placed against her will in a nursing home and struggles to keep hold of her sanity and spirit:
Yes, I am afraid of a torture far worse than petty harassments, the torture of not being believed. I am afraid of being driven mad.
One of the heart-breaking things is, as the novel goes by, you want to keep believing her (and you can of course) but there might also be a doubt in the back of your mind about the accuracy of some of her perceptions. That uncertainty, however small, is part of the experience of reading this novel. And then she will say things like, "I am not mad, only old. I make this statement to give me courage," and it hits you once again how alone she is.

You'll find another interesting and tricky narrator in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I wrote about here. Mr. Stevens, the butler to end all butlers.

In Good Behaviour by Molly Keane, the narrator also leads a narrow life, where much passes her by, and the reader may realize things about her family and acquaintances that remain unnoticed by her.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith has a teenaged narrator keeping a journal about her life in an old castle. Her dad is a writer stuck in what appears to be a hopeless state of writer's block. Other castle inhabitants include her sister, brother, and sweet, eccentric stepmom; also, a young man who continues to live with the family and help them out even though they can't pay him anymore and are barely staying afloat in their genteel poverty. I enjoyed the narrative voice in this coming of age story.

Tirra Lirra by the River by Jessica Anderson is a novel that begins and ends in Australia. The main character struggles to escape from her backwater town only to return there towards the end of her life and wonder why she had left. A strong voice, vivid descriptions, and insights into regrets and what-ifs make this one worth reading.

I also read more Australian novels from the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries series by Kerry Greenwood. Miss Fisher is a wealthy society lady and private detective in 1920s Melbourne, and the secondary characters in the books are memorable too. I haven't read each book in the series, which starts with Cocaine Blues, and some of the books are better than others, but overall the experience is like sampling chocolates from a large box.

Moving on to something quite different – Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg). The novel is set a couple of years after Stalin's death, and the characters are the patients and medical staff at a cancer hospital. They're facing the personal upheavals of disease and the political shifts that might mean a return for an exile and the fall of a once-favored party official. The hospital is its own little world reflecting different aspects of Soviet society and politics.

Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo is set in a small town in NY state. The town itself is a character, as well-written as the rest of the characters who are very much a part of their surroundings. You couldn't picture them living elsewhere. (Years ago, I watched an adaptation of the novel starring Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy, and I remember liking it. I'm glad that watching it made me add the book to my to-read list.)

I recently wrote a post on narrative point-of-view inspired by Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones. The novel focuses on three fifth-grade students in Atlanta during the child murders of 1979-1981. I like how distinct each character is in this book.

Then there's The Unknown Bridesmaid by Margaret Forster. It cuts back and forth between the adulthood and childhood of a psychologist who works with troubled young girls. The psychologist herself needs to deal with guilt and isolation stemming from her own childhood, in particular a life-changing day when she took her cousin's baby out for a walk without permission.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Week in Seven Words #490

The cafe is cozy, dimly lit, with a decor of dark wood and cream. What kills the atmosphere is a large, loud TV mounted on the wall, the people on it yammering away.

The splinter doesn't hurt so much, because it has lodged in a callus.

The wind stirs the pages of her speech, as if reminding her to look away from the words and at the audience.

Hearing good feedback on a draft of my novel sweetens a week of painful, worrisome symptoms.

A teenager takes a swig from a large bottle. "Water is the best f*cking drink," she says. "It's my best friend."

One man gives a lecture on confronting viewpoints radically different than your own. Another holds a discussion group that reminds me of sitting around in a dorm room at 1 a.m. pondering the meaning of life.

We haven't seen each other in a while, so over pizza we have a short, intense conversation that we try to pack with all kinds of important things – family, politics, cultural differences, the tendency of pigeons to crap on roofs and balconies.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Week in Seven Words #489

On a traffic island, as we wait for the light to change, she demonstrates capoeira moves, fight-dancing at a post.

It occurs to me an hour into my trip that the black sun hat I'm wearing is terribly unflattering. But I'm already miles from home and need that sun protection. Guess I'll have to look like a time-traveling Puritan.

On our way to dinner, she reports what someone else said about me. Whether she's relating the other person's comments accurately or editing them heavily, I don't know. The only result is that I feel uneasy. Not motivated to change, just motivated to spend less time with her and with the third party she's eager to quote.

The unannounced interruption to subway service makes our trip over an hour longer. We need to get off the train at one stop, take a bus to another stop, get on another train, and finally switch to another bus. After that comes a short shuttle ride. But it makes our arrival even sweeter. We appreciate, even more, the wide-open view of the river, the soft lawns, the flowers pulsing with color among evergreens and rocks. The air is also so clean.

The peonies are a creamy pink. They look like pastries.

siddur (סדור)
One woman talks about treasuring the repetition in prayer. Another speaks beautifully about the legacy of the Siddur. I like not just the learnedness of the discussion, but the frankness. People don't often talk about prayer in a way that's both scholarly and personal.

The light falls in a pearly sheet on glass bowls with cacti, on poppies in a cream-colored vase, on a pink crocheted cap.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Week in Seven Words #488

The dad's "SHHHH" is at first louder than the rising pitch of the child's tantrum.

The view opens up to brown hills and sunlight in visible tracks angling down from the clouds to the water.

The young woman sitting behind us on the bus is being taken on a guilt trip by her mother. She fretfully pleads her case – that she isn't staying away from home too much, or using work and friends as excuses for avoiding home. She lists dates and times when she was in fact at home, but her case is crumbling, the judge unforgiving.

She has become ridiculous to her friends, largely because her voice turned into a blaring horn as her hearing deteriorated. But there's nothing ridiculous about the joy that transforms her face when her grandson visits unexpectedly.

She glances at her daughter, who's asleep open-mouthed on the sofa, then looks away with pinched lips. "Look what's become of her," she murmurs, her disappointment genuine.

The dog is sleek and golden, friendly and energetic. He also loves eating feces, any feces he can find. His own, the cat's, another dog's. He isn't picky.

The wine bottle rolls out of the fridge and shatters, and for an hour after we're still finding bits of it. Splinters of glass wink at us from unexpected places, such as a couch cushion. What brought the glass to the couch? The soles of someone's thick socks.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Week in Seven Words #487

A narrow path takes us through a narrow park. I get the feeling that I'm in an alimentary canal, a digestive tract. There's enough food and shit scattered around to strengthen that impression.

Anxiety is like clinging to a salt-caked rock miles from shore as cold waves slap you around.

A cat investigates the automatic doors. She's too small to open them on her own. When a human passes through, she sticks her head and some of her body into the gap but quickly pulls back as the doors close. Maybe she's afraid of being trapped in the building, an unfamiliar place that smells heavily of humans and disinfectants.

Decades later, she still behaves like an unloved little girl not getting enough attention from her parents.

She eats cake with popping, slurping noises.

She has tripped and is lying facedown with her face in her hands. What hurts her more than the bruising is the awareness of a crowd around her, staring.

rubber band
She walks away from the math problem and for a few minutes pretends it isn't lurking in her notebook. With a sigh, she returns to it. Solves it. Smiles.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Six Fun Movies to Watch During the Holiday Season

A few years ago, I made a similar post, which will give you several more recommendations. These movies aren't themed for the winter holidays, but they're fun to watch on a cold night with a warm drink, like hot apple cider with rum, and they're (mostly) family-friendly. (Yes, even The Maltese Falcon can be fun for the whole family... why not.)

Title: Cinderella (1997)
Director: Robert Iscove
Language: English
Rating: G

This is a Rodgers & Hammerstein musical adaptation of Cinderella, set in a pretty Disney version of a European town. The stepmother's house looks like it's made of stained glass and melted crayons. I like how vivid all the colors are in this one, including the lush blues and purples of the ballroom scene.

The cast is vibrant. Whitney Houston plays the fairy godmother, Bernadette Peters is the stepmother, Whoopi Goldberg is the queen (an opinionated lady who makes squeaking noises of dismay), and Jason Alexander (best known as George Costanza on Seinfeld) is a royal servant with an Italian-ish accent and a song-and-dance number about the upcoming ball.

Paolo Montalban is cute as the prince, and Brandy Norwood plays a lovely, fragile-looking, and sometimes vacant-looking Cinderella. I like how, even before the prince finds her at the end, she decides to leave home, knowing that she deserves a better life than the one she has with her stepmother and stepsisters.

Title: How to Steal a Million (1966)
Director: William Wyler
Language: English and some French
Rating: Not rated

This movie has the absurdity of a screwball comedy. The leads, Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, associate under highly improbable circumstances and look beautiful while doing so. (O'Toole is so damn charming here. Reminds me a little of Peter Wimsey - intelligent, doesn't appear to take much seriously, but is more serious than he appears.)

Anyway, Hepburn plays Nicole, the daughter of an art forger who passes himself off as an art collector. He's a Wizard of Oz type of scoundrel. One thing leads to another, and Nicole realizes that to keep her father's crimes from being discovered, she'll have to steal a statue he loaned to a museum. Simon (Peter O'Toole's character) arrives on the scene as a burglar who may be able to help her. Or so she thinks.

Week in Seven Words #486

The concierge could have undergone Marine Corp boot camp training and would still not have been prepared for this particular guest and her battery of demands.

Rain gushing like the sky is full of faulty plumbing.

The cloying scent of flowers and dog feces in a narrow park.

Dressed in gym shorts and gray tees, they've plonked themselves down on a couple of pink armchairs and are now discussing whether Noah's ark could have been built.

They get sucked into a game set in another world, where there are portals opening to demonic realms and taverns where you can quaff an ale by a roaring fire.

We're eating at the bar, conversation minimal, eyes mostly on the food. We're seated shoulder-to-shoulder in quiet companionship.

They know which part of the store their child has run off to, because he's left a trail of crumbled crackers for them to follow.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Week in Seven Words #485

We sit at our own table, each of us with a little heap of food, including shawarma. At one point, a man with a sonorous voice sings "Hatikvah," and that's the highlight of the evening.

He normally has little to say, but with so many ladies around, he becomes more lively and charming. He shares cheesy, non-threatening jokes and plays up how nice he is to his mom.

The day is damp and unexpectedly cold. We meet at a pizzeria and sit at a sticky table, where I read through her writing. It's full of twisty, creative ideas and sparks of humor. But it needs more patience. She likes telling the reader everything upfront about a character's background and personality, when some things should be discovered more slowly.

Phone calls to three different offices to deal with an insurance claim rejected because of a paperwork error at a doctor's office.

The eggplants go into the ground in bright green shoots. Each plant gets its own mound, where it's tucked in for the next stage of growth. One woman presses her fingers to her lips and caresses the leaves of the ones she has planted.

They hand out lollipops to struggling students. Your grades may have tanked, but at least you get to saturate your mouth with artificial cherry flavor.

Contorting into different positions. I'm not sure how this is supposed to be relaxing. Ow, my back.