Saturday, December 19, 2020

Week in Seven Words #531

This covers the week of 3/22/20 - 3/28/20.

Social media: callousness, fear mongering, and a little bit of fun.

They organize a worldwide hour of prayer. At such and such a time, say the following psalms, and know that even if you're alone in your room, others are praying with you.

Masked dog walkers in the dark. They look furtive, as if they're doing something that's only borderline legal.

They're concerned but also feel a grim satisfaction over what they see as a long overdue humbling for arrogant humans.

At night, the grocery store is mostly empty. The few shoppers are listless, moving as if a breeze is pushing them about. A Beach Boys song plays in the background ("Good Vibrations"). From under shelves of snack foods, a rat emerges in a thick blur of motion. It vanishes under a shelf of drinks. 

They've recently made their yard more drought resistant. Islands of plants in the midst of small colorful rocks. They take refuge in it now, settling on folding chairs to breathe in the crisp air.

Strangers asking me if I have enough toilet paper is something new.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Six Short Stories for a Chilly Evening

These probably won't warm you up. There's something bleak about them.

Title: Death of a Professor
Author: William Trevor
Where I Read It: The Hill Bachelors

A little vipers' pit of academia, where a prank obituary gets published about a professor, and he eventually finds out. Supposedly high-minded people mired in pettiness. From what I remember, any moments of grace in the story come from the professor's marriage, where it seems there's a genuine kindness, a sincere wish to protect feelings and cover up embarrassment.

Title: Gravel 
Author: Alice Munro
Where I Read It: Dear Life
She may have thought she could manage well enough. And I may indeed have thought that she could do anything she wanted to.

Two siblings live with their pregnant mom and her boyfriend by a gravel pit. The pit is just there, waiting to become the site of tragedy. The attempt to make sense of the events around the pit involves what-ifs that are haunting but impossible to resolve. Could the surviving sibling have rushed for help sooner? Did their mom's boyfriend know how to swim? Given how unreliable memory can be, the answers may be completely inaccessible. But the narrator's mind is still caught up in the questions, particularly, Why, why did it have to happen at all. Even if the narrator could somehow travel back in time and into another person's mind, what answers would there be?

Title: The Hospice
Author: Robert Aickman

This story wraps you up in dread and eeriness. An unhealthy, creepy, stifling atmosphere.

The main character, Maybury, takes a shortcut and gets lost in a neighborhood of hedges and poor lighting where he's attacked by a cat-like creature. (Possibly a cat, but it's hard to tell. There's much that's hard to explain about this captivating story.) He comes across what may be some lodging for travelers:


Even though it doesn't appear to be a medical establishment, there's a cloud of sickness over everything. The inhabitants live a kind of regimented, unwholesome existence that isn't fully explained. They gorge themselves at dinner, as if they're getting plumped up for someone else to feed on. The room Maybury is given is hot and has no windows. He's pressed into strange, uncomfortable interactions.

It's unclear what's real. But Maybury seems trapped, as do the others, physically and mentally. Maybury's entrapment begins even before he enters the hospice; it wasn't his idea to take the shortcut. Maybe the residents (prisoners?) of the hospice represent people caught in their own appetites and struggling like flies against sticky paper. That's only one possibility.

Title: Mrs. Manstey's View
Author: Edith Wharton
Where I Read It: Manhattan Noir 2

Perhaps at heart Mrs. Manstey was an artist; at all events she was sensible of many changes of color unnoticed by the average eye, and dear to her as the green of early spring was the black lattice of branches against a cold sulphur sky at the close of a snowy day. She enjoyed, also, the sunny thaws of March, when patches of earth showed through the snow, like inkspots spreading on a sheet of white blotting-paper; and, better still, the haze of boughs, leafless but swollen, which replaced the clear-cut tracery of winter.

Mrs. Manstey is a widow who lives in the back room of a boarding house. The view from her window is her world really, and Wharton captures all the interest and variety the character experiences even from this limited vantage. Then, in a neighboring property, a tall wall goes up...

Title: Some Letters for Ove Lindström
Author: Karin Tidbeck
Where I Read It: Jagannath

This story comes from an anthology that's like a small, odd but lovely tree in the corner of a yard. Each story is a fruit, and some are lush and full with a complex flavor. Others you hesitate to bite into. You push aside some of the fragile branches and find a pair of eyes blinking at you.

In this story, the main character's estranged father has passed away. She had cut off contact with him because of his excessive drinking. Years ago, when the character (whose name is Viveka) was a small child, her mother left the family. There had always been a touch of otherworldly mystery about the mother.

Viveka, who is in between jobs, returns to the place out in the country where she was born. She settles there, cuts herself of – or is being cut off, because what happens in this story feels like a mix of personal crisis with a pressure from some external force. Like a fantasy, as if someone hitting rock bottom will be recalled to another world or another type of existence, instead of just sinking into unglamorous isolation.

Title: Tough Men
Author: Edna O'Brien
Where I Read It: The Love Object

The story portrays a blighted adulthood and a promise of manhood (and its stature or rewards) that hasn't materialized. A shopkeeper waits with two other men for someone else to come by with what seems to be a good investment opportunity. The shabbiness of the scam, the frustration and anger boiling up to no effect are what stood out most for me.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Week in Seven Words #530

This covers the week of 3/15/20 - 3/21/20.

They trawl through several stores, buying bottles of water where they can.

Her semester cut short, she's flying home on short notice from thousands of miles away.

His temper is fraying. He's stressed out about the tanking economy and deeply worried about his job.

We pass joggers, kids playing basketball, a temporary memorial to synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust, many trees, an obelisk, rows of stores closed.

On a bench in the garden, a woman is reading. Three patient, relaxed dogs are nestled around her.

Ducks with white and black backs peel away from the water.

Some people are going about with masks. More than during the previous week. They give the streets an eerie feeling, normal daily activities mixed with strangeness and unease.