Category Archives: Fiction

Weekly Photo Challenge – Dreaming (and a bit of flash fiction)

I walked quickly up the steps, careful not to trip over the roots erupting from the stones. I shouldn’t be here. As I climb each step my vision grows narrower. My heart pounds. In the shadows I can only focus on a few steps in front of me. I am approaching the house, but I can only see the limbs and cobwebs. A spider moves. A few minutes before there had been no breeze. It had been light. Or just a light. I don’t remember.

In the morning, a photograph sits on the dresser. Did I awake here yet?

This is part of the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s theme is Dreaming. Check out others’ contributions here.

>New Books in My House

>A box was left at the usual dropoff point, the place on the front walkway near the edge of the drive that looks like a front porch only to the driver of the big brown truck. I’d been looking for it for a few days, my latest order from Amazon.

It’s an interesting collection of books, three books that have nothing to do with one another, that might appear to not have been ordered for the same reader.

The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, by Sandy Tolan, is a book I heard about on NPR when it was published a few years ago. It sounded like a interesting book but I never got around to ordering it. I thought of this book as recently as a few months ago — I even remembered its name — although I have no idea what caused the title of this book to drift across my brain. So, when I heard The Lemon Trees was the next title for one of my book clubs, I thought If only it was the same book…. This is not the type of book that we usually read, and the selections recently have been rather lightweight. When I went to order it, I was surprised to find that it was exactly the book I had heard reviewed previously.

The second book is for another book discussion group, and it, too, is unusual for this group. The Lemon Tree because it is non-fiction and somewhat serious might be an appropriate book for this second group. But, what are we reading for December? I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw the email: Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord Out of Egypt. I almost didn’t buy it, but decided I was being too much of a snob. I have so many preconceived ideas about this book and am convinced that I will hate it. I decided I wouldn’t spend more than $10. It was .20 cents over and I needed the extra to qualify for free shipping (so I could have it arrive on time, in the middle of the yard, in the rain…). The book was stuffed into the box in a way that crumpled the cover. Even though it is a book that I’m not too excited to have, I wasn’t happy at the packaging. I read the first chapter. It is about what I expected and don’t know that I’ll make it through the entire 337 pages, but I’ll try to keep an open mind. Blahhhhh!

The third book, and the one that I was most eager to arrive, is Sandi Shelton’s Kissing Games of the World. I’ve been reading Sandi’s blog for awhile now and I always find it worth my time to stop by to read her posts. BlogLily recently wrote a review of it that prompted me to click open another browser window immediately and order Sandi’s book. I read the first chapter this evening and knew that if I didn’t put it down, I would stay up all night reading it. Unfortunately, I have to work tomorrow, so it will have to rest until tomorrow night, when I can start to read it while doing some preparatory baking for Thanksgiving.

It struck me after I leafed through the opening pages of each of these books, that I have one book that is about a historical figure, but is completely a work of fiction as there is no historical record for when Jesus of Nazareth was seven years old, one work of fiction, that, in the first few pages, grabs you with very real characters, and one non-fiction book that tells the stories of several people, who in telling their stories, are conducting a very real political act.

>On reading that Lessing has won the Nobel Prize

>Doris Lessing is one of those writers of whom I always feel that I should have read more. I’ve only read one of her short stories and it instantly comes to mind when I hear her name.

Our Friend Judith is commonly anthologized. My first reading of it was in the text used for an Intro to Lit class I taught as a grad student. I had never read anything by Lessing at the time but I was not unfamiliar, if perplexed, with her reputation. In my undergraduate classes, she was praised by professors in Women’s Studies classes, and merely mentioned by professors in Literature classes. “Oh yes, Lessing. Well, the feminists seem to like her a lot”.

My first reading of the short story was, therefore, influenced by these comments. In retrospect, I’m not sure that I ever had a professor mention Lessing that had actually read her work. The syllabus was mandated; Our Friend Judith was for the unit discussing character and an unreliable narrator. It is a good story to teach these concepts.

Naive readers will state that the story is about nothing much, except for an old spinster who gets upset about a cat. When I was teaching this story (in the mid-80’s), some students might state that the story is about a woman who is independent and her friends who are envious that she is. Some would have picked up on a ‘feminist’ twist to this story, perhaps because they had run to the library to read criticism in order to sound as if they knew what they were talking about. But few realized from the first reading that the story was more about the busybody narrator and her gossiping friend Betty than it was about Judith.

I reread this story the morning after reading that Lessing won the Nobel Prize. Twenty-odd years after reading it for the first time, I still like it and I am still admiring of the structure of this story. Maybe some day I’ll read more of Lessing’s work. Maybe it is similar to this brief story. Maybe then I’ll understand if there is a reason –other than the blatant sexism of my 70’s era Literature professors –for their comments.

>If I Lived on this street….

>…. I would have to smile every time I looked up at the building with these wonderful creatures:

But would I notice them every day? How many times have I walked by these and not noticed them? Do they tell me the true character of the building? Do they reveal or mask the likely lives of those that live in the building or those who pass by each day?

A few weeks ago I had a car service pick me up at the airport. It was the same service I use frequently. Yet, had I never used them before, my impression would have been that they weren’t very good. The driver was late. He went to the wrong terminal. He complained. He drove without his seatbelt, the alarm buzzing seeming only to irritate me. It was the dirtiest limo I have ever been in. I told him to take the Queensboro to Westside Highway to Canal and the Holland Tunnel. He insisted he take the BQE to the Midtown Tunnel, across Midtown to the Lincoln. I rolled my eyes as we merged onto the BQE and I spied the worse mid-morning traffic jam I’d ever seen in New York.

But, he did know to get off the expressway and take city streets to get me to my destination on time. I saw a part of Queens I probably never would have been in. “What a different city than Manhattan” I thought. Later, after I arrived at my meeting (on time!) I marveled at his bizarre brilliance in taking a most unlikely route: through several sidestreets in Queens to 59th Street Bridge (for all of you readers over 45 who remember the tune….hum a few bars of the Simon & Garfunkle song and feel groovy), north a few blocks, then east to FDR, past drab Lower East side buildings and past the skyscrapers in the Financial District, south to the very end of Lower Manhattan, through funky Tribeca, and then north on West Side Highway… Canal and the Holland. The quickest LAG to NJ trip I’ve ever made! Sometimes the quickest route is not a straight line between two points.

So what do apartment-building statues that look like the offspring of gargoyles on the Gothic-styled cathedral around the corner, an old song from the 60’s, and a dirty car/effective driver have to do with anything other than they all made me smile in a small way on the same day? And what does this have to do with books? (Yes, books… this is a quasi-book blog so this lazy blogger should talk about them sometime!) Well, they all seemed to fit with the book I was reading the same week — Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

One gives nothing away to say that Invisible Cities is about Marco Polo explaining cities he has visited to Kubla Kahn. And one doesn’t divulge a plot spoiler by saying that all of the cities described are the same place. Kubla Kahn knows Marco’s deceit, and he plays along with the game, even describing his own cities, pointing out the obvious features that Marco has overlooked. It doesn’t even matter that the city is Venice — Venice, Italy, or Venice, California, or Venice, Florida, or some Venice that only exists in your mind. Or that it is in the 11th century, or the 16th, or some century yet to come.

The chapter titles bemuse and bewilder: “Cities and Memory”, “Cities and Desire”, “Cities and Signs”. “Thin Cities”. “Trading Cities”. “Cities and Names”. “Cities and Eyes”. “Cities and the Dead”. “Cities and the Sky”. “Hidden cities”. “Continuous cities” . . . . All describe a city that once existed, or never existed, or exists now and will exist in the future.

I can’t tell you any more about the book without it sounding like a dry compendium of cities and their social ills. I can only tell you that it is a truthful description of a place that is familiar and people you know even if you’ve never met them. I can only tell you that it should bring a smile to your face or a tear to your eye. It might make you think that you’ll pay closer attention to your city the next time you take a walk, or drive, or hurry somewhere. It might make you look for the city that was and the city that is and the city that might be, if only on maps in your imagination.

>Reading Like A Reader

>Last year, soon after it was published, I started reading reviews and blog posts about Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like A Writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them”. It seemed that there was no middle-ground: either the review/blogger loved the book, or he hated it. I had seen the book in the store before I had read discussion of it on-line and I had been intrigued by the title. But, I felt like I didn’t need someone to tell me how to read, so it was placed back on the shelf. Later, after reading so many items about this book, I did buy a copy because I wanted to read Prose for myself.

I read the first four chapters soon after I got the book. I put the book down after those four chapters and didn’t pick it up again until I read Dorothy’s post a few weeks ago about it. Litlove and Stephanie also wrote about it recently. Since I was on a spree to complete several in-process books over the holiday weekend, I picked this one up & started it where I left off.

There were marks and comments in the margins of the first few chapters — obviously I had reacted to reading the text — but I could not remember anything significant about the book. That should have told me something about this book. I began reading it determined to complete it, and did so. Now a week later, I struggle once again to remember something distinctive in this book.

Prose’s book doesn’t cover anything that someone with more than one or two introductory classes in literature shouldn’t have already learned. This could be an additional text for a beginning creative writing class. She dissects texts to offer up examples of fine writing, starting with the basic unit — words — and working her way through sentences, paragraphs, narration, etc. Some of the works she cites inarguably are examples of fine writing. Some of them, for the avid reader, are not unfamiliar, and one can appreciate Prose’s efforts to find such wonderful examples to support her points.

Yet, I don’t think that I learned anything new from this book. Her book may be a guide to an aspiring writer, but I think that it would have to be one who hasn’t yet studied much about writing.

Is it for readers? I don’t think so. I think that people who are avid readers do not need an instructive text on how a writer might approach creating a literary work. Aspiring and beginning writers might benefit. In the early chapters Prose writes about how a close reading of a text is beneficial to the writer. In fact, she suggests that this could be a better approach than a writing workshop.

I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision that the writer had made. And though it’s impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction.

This book is intended partly as a response to that unavoidable question about how writers learn to do something that cannot be taught. What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire. And so the book that follows represents an effort to recall my own education as a novelist and to help the passionate reader and would-be writer understand how a writer reads.

Prose writes about how it is reading that taught her to how to write, not writing classes. She says that the writing workshop is beneficial to learn to line-edit, but it is from reading that she learned how to write. I’m not sure why, in the initial chapters, she tries to advantage the reading of good writers over writing workshops. If such workshops teach one how to line edit, isn’t that also what a close word-by-word reading would do by example? Can you do one without the exposure to the other? Is this really a dichotomy that should exist?

More importantly, does this really matter to the “passionate reader“? I’m not sure that there is one way to read a work. I think that even an unschooled reader, that is one who hasn’t been introduced (is indoctrinated too strong a word?) to literary studies, can certainly enjoy a work of literature without needing to be able to dissect the manner in which the writer developed the character. One can read a short story by Chekov (Prose discusses his work extensively) and enjoy the pleasure of reading a story, perhaps connecting to it on an emotional level. On a different level, the same reader could reflect on how Chekov crafted his story, analyzing the way in which it was built, the seemingly effortless technique used to develop his characters. This leads to a different appreciation of the story and a deeper understanding of Chekov as a master craftsman of the short story, but does not necessarily reflect a closer — or better — reading of the text. This is just a different kind of reading of the text. Prose is right that would-be writers should study the examples of well-known authors and their works in this manner, but I don’t think it is a necessary approach for “people who love books”.

Then again, maybe I only think this because it took me nearly 20 years after earning my Masters to detox from the academic bs that had tainted my enjoyment of reading. Sure, I can discuss works using the terms of literary analysis and criticism — and sometimes I do in this blog. But, sometimes, there is just a sheer joy in reading and it’s okay to say “Wow! That book was great!” because that’s all that needs to be said.

>Summer Reading or The Whale

>I’ve always been a bit curious about the idea of “beach reads” or summer reading. Do people who don’t typically read readily devour books while on vacation? Are avid readers more likely to pick up a trashy, guilty-pleasure novel during July and August when the sun glares so brightly at the beach that it’s difficult to read the words on the page? Would a bibliophile actually want to get greasy sunscreen marks on a book?

I don’t want to discourage people from reading, but I don’t know that many non-readers who suddenly become readers during the summer months. I know that in some locales it is standard to assign a Summer Reading list. I was never required to read anything over the summer when a teenager, although I do remember one summer when my older sisters (they were probably 13 or 14 and I was 9) had a contest to see who could read the most books during the summer. They happily burned through numerous paperbacks. I abandoned the contest early in my struggles with my book, a story of frontier life titled A Lantern in Her Hand. I remember nothing about the book, only its title. Now, one of my sisters reads a lot of throw-away romances and the other hardly reads anything that isn’t work-related. And I read all the time. I think I’d beat them both in a rematch.

Summer tends to be a time when I seem to finish more books, but I think it has less to do with the season than it has to do with getting to the middle of the year and realizing how many books I have started. Since it’s usually a ridiculously high number (approx 15 started but not finished since Jan. As I said — ridiculous!), I typically vow to not start another book until I finish my books in progress. I usually have as much luck with that resolution as I did with the summer challenge with my sisters years ago.

I do remember one extreme reading summer. I was in summer school, trying to take as many classes as I could so I could finish my BA by December, when I was due to run out of money and had lost my funding. I took four American Lit courses — a lower-level Modern Amer Lit survey, an upper-level American Poetry since 1945, a class on the 20th century novel (mostly Faulkner and Hemingway) and a class on Hawthorne, Melville and Poe. It was this last class that I dreaded. The professor was a stickler for good writing — I owe most of what I learned about writing from her; any mistakes are because I have forgotten the rules, not that she didn’t teach them. She was a task-master, demanding full participation and possessing highly advanced skills for ferreting out anyone who hadn’t read even one page of the assignment. Imagine my fear than when I saw the reading list. Surely we wouldn’t read Moby-Dick? We only had 4 weeks. But, there it was on the list: that lengthy novel with entire chapters devoted to obscurities like uses for whale blubber sprinkled amongst the hundreds of pages of absurd megalomaniacal attempts to kill a big, predatory fish.

I worked in a bar busing tables that summer. This was a bar frequented by townies, not college kids who had mostly abandoned Midwest College Town for the summer. In between slopping suds and burning fries in the fryer, I’d drink cheap beer and read a few pages. Most afternoons I spent on a beach blanket–the nearest thing resembling something to do with a beach I saw that summer–in the front yard of the dismal student rental, drinking more beer and reading Melville’s masterpiece.

I loved Moby-Dick. It was the best summer “beach” read ever. I’ve been thinking recently that I should re-read it. Maybe I’ll even read the chapters on whaling and making oil from blubber.

>Reading The Road

>I started reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the other night. I’ve read much about this book — both positive and negative. I haven’t read much fiction this year, and although I have several other books I’ve started, I decided that I wanted to start yet another. Since I’ve been spending a lot of time with non-fiction this year, this is a definite departure from the other books I’ve been reading.

I’ve only read about 70 pages and I haven’t decided yet exactly what I think about the book or McCarthy’s writing style. This is the first book by him that I have attempted to read. The first sentence of the novel drew me in: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” But then I stumbled when I read the next: “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before” Dark beyond darkness? “Overwrought sentence” was my first thought; trying too hard to be poetic. But I read on. Phrases written as sentences. How can one make sense without a noun & a verb? I don’t get it, at least not very easily.

But, as I continued I realized that this is a great example of a writer knowing the rules so that he can effectively break them. The disjointed phrases, the half-thought sentences do mean something. Each sentence builds upon the others to create a desolate and bleak voice. I don’t like the lack of punctuation in places; I don’t like that there aren’t any chapter breaks. But, I do like how it all works together to form McCarthy’s tale of a father and son struggling through a nightmare landscape in hopes of finding someplace that will be a refuge from the apocalypse.

I liked the following passage in which the father finds an unopened can of Coke which he gives to the boy:

What is it, Papa?
It’s a treat. For you.
What is it?
Here. Sit down.

He leaned his nose to the slight fizz coming from the can and then handed it to the boy. Go ahead, he said.
The boy took the can. It’s bubbly, he said.
Go ahead.
He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said.
Yes. It is.
You have some, Papa.
I want you to drink it.
You have some.
He took the can and sipped it and handed it back. You drink it, he said. Let’s just sit here.
It’s because I wont ever get to drink another one, isnt it?
Ever’s a long time.
Okay, the boy said.

In just a few short sentences, the reader understands that the drink is not just a treat, but a gift. The father doesn’t want to hurt his son’s feelings when his son wants to share, so he obligingly takes a small sip, but he wants for his son to enjoy it. Through the boy’s realization of what a singular gift this is, McCarthy depicts how bleak and barren their world is.

Ever’s a long time the father says.
And the boy knowingly agrees.

I look forward to reading more of this book and I’m sure I’ll post about it again.



Item #1: Following up on my ‘what I did for fun’ post: yesterday I went for a bike ride. The intention was to ride to Butler U, meet up with a walking group, and then walk through the gardens. Here is a picture that I snapped while there:

What I like about this photograph is that you can see the blooms on the redbud tree framed by the green bush below and the blue sky above. If you look closely, you can see the leaves on the tree are about ready to burst forth, but for now, it is the smaller bushes and trees that reign with their early foliage and blooms.

What was fun about the ride was that my son rode with me. For those of you who don’t know or have forgotten the teenage syndrome of ‘can’t be seen in proximity to a parental unit’, I must explain how rare and unexpected of an occurrence this was.

What we didn’t plan for was how heavy the winds were yesterday and how much it would slow us down. We didn’t arrive at our destination until an hour after the group was to depart — 3 times longer than we estimated. Didn’t matter though; the fun was in the journey. Not so much fun was the return trip home. Rode about 15 or 16 miles, which is far more than my usual bike trip around the neighborhood. And it wasn’t all flat! Ack! My legs are killing me today!

Item #2: Biking to Butler reminded me that we’re going to hear a lecture on 4/27, given by this guy, probably the best-known writer originally from Indianapolis. I’ve heard Vonnegut speak twice, the last time about 25 years ago. It will be interesting to see if he still rambles on and on in a way that surely must be unique to him — rambling, yet interesting. There was a nice article in the local paper a few months ago in which Vonnegut said he was honored to be recognized in this manner by his home town — a recognition that he said that none of his peers had received from their hometowns.

Item #3: Categorizing films
My husband told me this evening about a podcast he heard today that posed the question: Can you name 10 great movies about women’s friendships with other women? This was aired on Filmspotting; although I don’t have time to listen to podcasts often, I really like this one. A listener response to a show last week challenged the hosts to come up with 10 movies revolving around friendship between two women that aren’t also about women’s dysfunctional relationship with men (rules out Thelma and Louise), or about lesbianism.

When my husband asked me this, I found it difficult to name more than one. I begrudingly named Beaches, although I never thought it was a great movie. Beyond that, I’m at a loss to name other movies. Spouse’s comment was that women aren’t able to cut through the Hollywood boundaries to get recognized in the film industry and that there are no good parts for women because male writers don’t know how to write about the average female.

What about you? Can you think of any movies that fit this category?

>The Movie Was Better Than the Book

>It isn’t often that I can state that I saw a movie that was better than the book on which it was based. In many ways, it makes sense that this would be true; in a novel, even a short one, the writer has the means to present information in ways that are not possible in a movie. Narration in a book can change from one chapter to another. The point of view of different characters can be explored. Background information can be provided. Description can be given that allows the reader to create in his mind what a character looks or sounds like, to envision how a place looks, smells, feels.

In a movie, all of this information is given through more limited means: the camera and the words and actions of the character. I don’t think that movie viewing necessarily is less interactive than reading, although I think in our media-saturated culture, it is easier to be less attentive to the manipulations of the camera, to be less aware of what might be happening that we aren’t told and how that might influence our reactions, set us up for a surprise, convince us to sympathize with one character over another. Although film offers the discerning viewer the opportunity to enjoy or to analyze on various levels, such as the cinematography, movies can be enjoyed only on the action level, if that is only what the viewer chooses to give to her viewing. While there are books that are mainly plot-driven too, it is more likely that a movie will live or die by its plot.

To translate a book into a movie is difficult because of the length that is afforded the novelist. A screen writer must be more concise because of the medium. The interpretation that is offered is that of the director. Translations of short stories, because of the compactness of the narration may be more suited to film. An obvious example that comes to mind is Brokeback Mountain. All that is in Annie Proulx’s compact but lush story was in Ang Lee’s film. Only one additional scene in the movie is added to indicate the passage of years and to convey what directions the lives of the main characters took. There is little difference in the story-telling between the two forms of the tale; the chief difference between the two forms comes from the dazzling scenery of the mountains in the film. The length and compactness of the story aided the adaptation to film; a longer story or novel would have contained more and something would have had to have been omitted to fit the film format. In this case, however, the movie is truly a re-creation in a different medium of Proulx’s short story.

It is because of the differences between a novel and a movie that I think that I almost always prefer the book to the movie adapted from the book. Too much needs to be cut out of most books, leaving the movie a sad empty shell, barely reminiscent of the book. Characters are eliminated or morphed into one. Places are changed. Details that serve as the glue to hold the book together are omitted. Overall, although I love the movies, I am almost always disappointed in an adaptation from a book, even if I read the book after I’ve seen the movie.

A few days ago, the Hobgoblin wrote a review of P.D. James’ The Children of Men. Generally, he found that the characters were lacking and the book, overall, disappointing. I commented on his post that after seeing the movie, and having read 1/2 of the book, I was perplexed that anyone had read the book and even considered it for a movie. It isn’t that the book is unfilmable; it is because the book, although it suggests some thought-provoking ideas, is just not that interesting as a novel. The characters are one dimensional and the ideas are not fully developed.

This is the first P.D. James’ book I have ever read. I’ve always heard great things about her works, but who-dunnits are not my usual reading fare. Had I never heard of her, I’d be unlikely to read anything else by her. I have promised some of my James-loving acquaintances that I will still read one of her mysteries, but I did not like this book at all. Had I read it before I saw the movie, I wouldn’t have seen the movie either. But, having experienced both the movie and the book, I will say that the movie was much better.

In the book, the author introduces many ideas that are not elaborated upon. Many of the characters are one-dimensional. Few serve a purpose other than to advance a small piece of the plot, and sometimes their behaviors are incongruent to the character previously introduced. The motivation of the main character Theo is not clear, whether it is in writing a diary describing what he sees as the last of his days on the planet even though he knows there will be no future generation to read his memoir, or his falling in love with the first woman on the planet to become pregnant in 25 years. Why does he love her? Is it because there is something remarkable about her other than her pregnancy? Is it because he is attracted to her physically or psychologically? Is it because she is fertile — something that his character should be smart enough to realize but never does. Why does Theo dislike his cousin Xan, the dictator of England, so much? Why did Theo abandon his governmental post? Why is Xan his enemy — or is he his enemy? Xan is portrayed as being devoid of feeling, only interested in power. But, is Theo much different? The reader never really knows.

P.D. James brings up many interesting ideas in this short novel. She depicts a world devoid of hope. She suggests that as a dying race there would be no interest in religion. For a book full of religious symbolism as well as a few outwardly religious characters, she does little to suggest that the people in her imagined world need religion. The faithful and the religious fanatics seem to not care much if others don’t agree with them, even when they have changed religious practices such as christenings into social occasions for celebrating their pets, keeping a ritual that is suggestive of life, but which plays into the insanity of not having children to love and nurture. She suggests that the government is evil, yet its Stepford-wife citizenry seem not to care as long as they are safe and happy. But, when James suggests that the government is abusive and murderous, she does little to indicate why. There is a lengthy scene describing the state-sponsored suicide ritual. In this scene, one character, introduced earlier as someone who wouldn’t willingly participate but now senile and probably incapable of such a decision, tries to abandon her suicide attempt. She is attacked by the state police and killed. But there is no reason why the government would do this. With a dying population not yet having exhausted its resources, there is no reason to kill its citizenry except to be brutal.

Initially Theo becomes involved with the radical group because he is politically convenient as the nearest relative to the dictator. But the group’s goals change once there is a pregnancy. This change suggests the corruption of power, but the idea is never fully explored. That hope for the future doesn’t die when the father of the child dies is not convincing. Theo’s eventual triumph and conversion to faith and hope in the future is so foreshadowed that the predictable climax loses its power to be suspenseful and a fulfilling conclusion for the reader.

So why is the movie better? The same characters in the book are in the movie, although there are some significant differences. The character of Theo is still a cynic but his motivations for becoming involved are different; Julian is still a radical, although her character is less significant in the movie. The radical group, the Five Fishes, is still pivotal to the plot, but in a much different way. The self-absorbed Omegas, the last generation to be born, are hardly discussed in the movie. The world of the movie teeters on the brink of chaos as in the book. There is no hope in a world of a dying human race, little reason to plan ahead, many reasons to be suspicious.

But, where the narration of the book fails, the movie succeeds. By changing the world to be more recognizable as our own– a future that could be 2008, not 25 years in the future as James’ book was when published in the early 90’s — the world becomes believable. The nationalistic fervor that pervades England in the movie is frightfully understandable for any country struggling with culture wars taken to the extreme: anyone who is an outsider is to be feared; anyone who fights against governmental policies is a terrorist and should be hunted by the police and deported to the chaos outside the borders of the country. In the movie, the birth of the child is heralded in a refuge camp. In an unforgettable scene, warring factions stop fighting at the sound of a wailing baby. In the movie, the pregnant woman is little more than a child herself, both excited and fearful of giving birth. The corruption of politicians and the police is more believable; without family to care for, self-interest, whether expressed as pleasure or power, is paramount for most. In a polluted, toxic waste environment, cynicism is abundant. In the movie, Theo is a hero who abandons his self-absorbing cynicism when he realizes that he can make a difference in the world; in the book, although he becomes involved in life-altering activities, he never rises above his own self-interest to be considered a hero.

In the end, the movie is better than the book, but not because of the medium. It is better than the book because the plot is more coherent, the characters better crafted, the world depicted more believable. Sometimes, it is the writing after all, not the medium, that makes a work successful.

>Right and Wrong Readings of Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants


cross-posted at A Curious Singularity

When I saw a few months ago that Kate had selected Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants for the January discussion at A Curious Singularity, I was excited. This was a story I was familiar with and one that I would have something to write about. And then I read the story a few days ago and I realized that there is still more to understand about this story.

I knew before I read Hills Like White Elephants for the first time that it dealt with abortion. I first read it in a Women’s Studies class in the late ’70s, not in a literature class. I recall being a little confused — how did they know it was about abortion? — but I understood why it was a valuable text for discussion in the context of that class. It was not the type of discussion that was likely to have happened in any of the American lit classes in the the male-dominated, Western Canon-oriented English Department at Conservative Midwestern State College.

The next time I read Hills Like White Elephants was in the early ’90s, again as part of the assigned reading for a class. This time, it was a literary theory class (this time at small urban public univ with non-traditional students), and Hills was assigned for the portion of the class where Reader Response theory was to be discussed. And what a discussion it was! The class was small — 3 strong feminists, 1 ardent anti-abortion proponent, and 1 woman desperately trying to become pregnant. In retrospect, I realize what a great selection this story was for discussion of Reader Response theory; Hemingway’s sparse text does not give up it’s secrets easily to a careless reading. But, I’m sure the professor never imagined the impassioned discussion that this story provoked. The discussion did not focus on the abortion issue as you might guess. Rather, the discussion was intense because the infertile woman believed that the ‘operation’ the girl and the American discuss in the story referred to a procedure to unblock the fallopian tubes, one that would ‘just … let the air in’ as the text states.

The class argued for 2 hours whether this was a valid reading; if the text means what the reader experiences is there such a thing as a ‘wrong’ reading? I firmly believed that it was wrong. Unequivocally. Obnoxiously, I planted my flag and stood my ground. That was not what the text supported. Or did I mean it was not what Hemingway meant? I could never believe that one could correctly read this story in this way. And what kind of parents would the girl and the American make anyway? They are sarcastic, bitter, manipulative people whose lives consist of looking at things and trying new drinks.

Fast forward to this week when I last read Hills Like White Elephants. This time reading the story, I couldn’t help but read it without thinking of that woman’s reading from 15 years ago. The language in the story is vague. Jig and the American talk as a couple might in public if they were avoiding the topic, or if they didn’t want an eavesdropping outsider to know why they would be taking the train heading towards Madrid. But, the fertility angle still seems to me like an inaccurate reading. I then read some of the posts and comments on the Curious Singularity’s site. Some had commented that they didn’t understand what was going on and welcomed the information presented in the posts. As much as I don’t like the ‘here’s the key to unlock the secret of the text’ approach, I do understand how some readers might be confused and how having the context explained would allow them to re-read the story and consider it in a different light.

I re-read the story one more time, this time considering it strictly in terms of the dialogue. How would this play out if two people were speaking the lines as if it were a play? When reading the story in this manner, one can understand the passage of time. The action comprised in less than 2000 words didn’t take place in 5 minutes. There are long periods of silence when Jig and the American drink their beers and later order the Anis del Toro, where they look at the landscape and try to say clever things about it, when they wonder about the train’s arrival time, or if they will board the train when it pulls into the station. If one hears the stretches of silence, Jig’s utterances can be seen as attempts at making conversation and at placating the man. It doesn’t work and his attempts at persuading her regarding the abortion seem manipulative. He is domineering; she submissive, eager to please him, though she jabs and pokes him with her sarcastic verbal sparing.

Stark. Pared down. Long silences instead of narrative description. These things aid in creating the atmosphere of the story, present a backdrop, and develop a tension between the characters that not only fills in the blanks regarding the ‘action’, but also suggests the inevitable unhappiness between Jig and the American no matter what they decide regarding the abortion. No matter which direction the train they board is going, they have a ticket heading in the direction of more unhappiness.