Tag Archives: Book Discussion

>Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

>Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those books that has been on one of those self-created “I should read” list since it was first published in 1982. I’m not sure why it took over 2 decades to finally make it’s way into my hands, but once I opened the book last week, I couldn’t put it down. It even provided a brief respite during the middle of a busy day, where I closed my office door and read for 15 minutes — something that I never do.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant was a choice for my book group this month, selected from a list of book options in the local library’s “book group in a bag” program. This is a program of a nearby town’s library system that allows one person to select a title and checkout 8 copies and a reader’s guide for 6 weeks — a great program for book groups. They even can provide copies in large print, which two of the people in my group need. This is the kind of ‘your tax dollars at work’ thing that just makes me smile.

One person in my group had read the novel previously and spoke highly of it. She told me the other day that she could not wait to discuss it because she had an entirely different perspective reading it 20 years later. Two other members of my discussion group have commented that they didn’t care for the book. I look forward to a lively discussion this evening, although I suspect that I might have to refrain from shouting: How could you NOT like this book?

Dinner is the story of Pearl Tull, a hard-working, determined, emotionally distant and bitter woman left to raise three children on her own. The book covers four decades in the lives of Pearl and her three children, Cody, Ezra, and Jenny. Cody is smart and handsome, but spiteful and plotting, and so envious of his brother Ezra that it consumes him. Ezra, soft, doughy, and somewhat clumsy as a boy, is a peace-maker, the kind of person who wants to make everybody happy, even at the risk of his own happiness. He offers care for others in their woundedness and is loved for it, except by his siblings, who scoff at his efforts. Jenny, though determined like her mother, struggles to not be a stiff-lipped control-freak like Pearl, and she finally settles into a chaotic family life that seems to bring her some sort of purpose and acceptance of life, if not peace, in its total disorganization.

Each chapter of the book focuses on a different character, sometimes presenting the events totally from the perspective of that character. One chapter, in the middle of the book and in the middle of the chronology of the plot, is even written in the present tense, which I found a little disconcerting. When I read a book where the narrative perspective changes, I find myself wondering who the book is really about. The first several chapters of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant appear to be about Pearl. But, then the book changes, and seems to be about Ezra and Cody, stuck in a life-long struggle, like Esau and Jacob. Sometimes the book feels like it is about Ezra, but then the reader’s perspective is swayed, and you feel like it is really about Cody who can never quite leave his family behind, no matter how desperately he tries to distance himself. In the end, the book isn’t about any one of them, but about a family; a dysfunctional one for sure, but a family nonetheless. Reflecting the name of Ezra’s restaurant, The Homesick, an underlying theme in the book is that although one may hate one’s family, one is often wistful that we can gather into families where all are happy and without regret, homesick for the family we want, not the one we may have. Like Tolstoy’s famous opening line of Anna Karenina, we are reminded that such idealized notions don’t exist. ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is not a happy book. It’s characters all have flaws — like any human being. This unhappiness is why I suspect that people in my book group may not like it. But, I think it is what makes the book so good. Tyler’s novel is beautifully crafted, and, despite the sadness and gloom of the lives of the Tull’s, is a great book to read.

>Away From Her/The Bear Came Over the Mountain

>A few months ago, one of my reading groups selected Alice Munro’s collection of short stories, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage for its monthly selection. I had the book on my shelves for a few years, but had never finished reading it. About a year ago, one issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review had featured Munro and I found the articles interesting. I was looking forward to discussing Munro’s work with the group.

I was surprised that nobody in the group liked Munro. How could they not? I thought. I passionately made my case for Munro: the clearly defined characters, succinct, accurate description that vividly creates an image, a sparseness of setting that perfectly echos not only the physical but also the emotional landscape, stories about women that are true to the core. They all agreed, but still, they found Munro’s work to be depressing in its achingly raw truthfulness. My fellow readers found the women characters to be real, but they didn’t want to live their lives. Reading one story after the other was too much.

I can understand that sentiment. I like reading one or two stories at a time, not an entire collection. Maybe that’s why it takes me a few years to work my way through a collection of short stories. Munro’s stories certainly demand such reading. Her stories are best read individually, and perhaps, with significant time in between each reading least the reader burn out from reading so much heartache, loneliness and real life.

By the time my book group met, I had not finished all of the stories in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, including the last one in the volume, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. Soon after that meeting, I heard that this story was being made into a film. Away From Her opened recently and, based on its 95 rating on Rotten Tomatoes and the strength of Munro’s work, I went to see it today. I think this is an excellent movie. Although the story is gut-wrenching at times, the film doesn’t stoop to melodramatic sentiment. While the subject is similar, this isn’t The Notebook.

Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) have been married for 45 years and Fiona is losing her mind to Alzheimer’s Disease. Fiona enters a nursing home and is separated from Grant for the first time in their marriage. He is unable to visit for the first month. Rather than be confused as to why her husband hasn’t visited, Fiona forgets her husband and falls in love with another patient. The movie, though, isn’t just about Alzheimer’s. It is about the curve balls that life throws at you and how you deal with it over time. It is about loss, and about love refined by the trials of a long marriage.

Directory Sarah Polley said this about the type of love portrayed in the movie:

It was the opposite kind of love than we usually celebrate in films, which is new love without knowledge and without hardship. It’s the whole idea of love after life has had its way with you, and after you have kind of failed each other and things have gone off the rails. Yet love still somehow exists between them.” – 2007 AP interview on “Away From Her”, as quoted on http://www.imdb.com

I think Polley achieves this in this film. The love between Grant and Fiona is immense; after Fiona forgets Grant, his love for her continues unabated.

Julie Christie’s performance in the film is remarkable, as are the performances of Gorden Pinsent and Olympia Dukakas. Like the characters in Munro’s story, the characters in the film realistically struggle with their lives. Dialog is used in the movie to convey ideas presented in the short story as dreams or past events, but the screenplay nicely handles these without being too preachy. The scenery in the film plays a part too; shots of the cold, snowy Canadian countryside seem to echo Christie’s character’s confusion and loneliness.

After I returned from the movie this afternoon, I retrieved Munro’s book from the bookshelves and read “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”. Although a few insignificant changes were made– necessitated most likely by the medium —
the film is true to the story. Like Munro’s story, the film is stark, yet compelling in the manner in which Munro accurately depicts the plight of Alzheimer’s patients. The screenplay is also true in sticking to the same narrative as Munro’s story, with one small exception that I found jarring. Towards the end of the film, the nurse who has been helpful to Grant throughout his wife’s stay at the nursing home, condemns his past affairs. While Grant is remorseful about it, he had put it in the past until his wife’s deteriorating memory begins to focus things in the past. Kristy, the nurse, pointedly tells him that his behavior is typically male, that maybe his life only seemed okay to him, but not to his wife. This seemed out of character for the nurse to say, given her nurturing to both her patients and to Grant. At first I thought these words were exactly what one would expect a Munro character to speak. But, this scene is not in the story. On reflecting on it after reading the story, I think that this scene states explicitly what Munro’s stories typically only imply. In that regard, it seemed out of place, but not entirely out of context with the story.

I would recommend seeing this movie and reading Munro’s story.

>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.

>Christmas in Harmony

>Philip Gulley’s Christmas in Harmony isn’t the type of book that I usually read. I was convinced that I would hate it, but steeled myself to slog through this short book for a bookclub read. So, I was surprised that I found myself laughing aloud throughout the 80+ pages of this book.

This was my first venture in reading of the fictional town of Harmony and its lovable but flaky inhabitants that are gently ministered to by Pastor Sam Gardner. It’s almost Christmas when the story opens and the members of the Harmony Friends Meeting want to do something different for Christmas Eve services. Irascible and unpredictable, Dale Hinshaw is determined to have a progressive Nativity pageant — sort of like a progressive dinner, but without the cocktails, horsd’oerves, entree and dessert. In addition to the chaos of the crass rendition of a Nativity scene, Pastor Sam Gardner deals with children skeptical about Santa Claus, finding the perfect tree, arguing with his wife over the sending of greeting cards, an exploding truck, the loneliness and fears of his congregation, and with attempting to build an inclusive congregation in a church where the parishioners are wary of strangers. What ensues is funny, heartwarming, and charmingly descriptive of how people deal with changing traditions without losing the ‘true’ meaning of the Season.

The fictional town of Harmony is a nostalgic place, a sort of mid-western American Brigadoon. It is a nostalgia for a time and place that has never existed, but that we all at some time wished had. Harmony is a town that is befitting of its placename; despite the flaws and quarrels of its inhabitants, is a harmonious place of grace and forgiveness, where the reader ends up loving the characters in spite of their foibles.

This is a quick read that is perfect for someone looking for a short holiday-related book. It is a delightfully sentimental book that will put a smile on your face and make you want to hang some mistletoe and colored lights, although you might re-think the plastic creche set on the front lawn!

This is my first post for Carl’s holiday fun challenge.

>Current reading….

>Although I haven’t been doing much blogging for the last week or so, I have been reading. I’m making steady progress through Willa Cather’s My Antonia. It was my reading group’s pick this month. Although we already met to discuss it, I still intend on finishing it.

At the same time, I’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead for another book discussion group. I have about 80 pages left before tomorrow’s discussion, so I hope I get it finished.

Although it is coincidental that I’m reading these two books at the same time, I’m enjoying that the locale for both is the Great Plains. It’s interesting to see how each writer describes the land.

Gilead captured my attention in the first few sentences. Here is an excerpt from the first paragraph, as the aging and dying narrator begins drafting a letter to his young son to be read when he reaches adulthood:

You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

What gorgeous writing! I’m sure I’ll have a lot to say about this after I’ve finished reading. Now, a little more than 1/2 through the book I’m perplexed as to why Robinson set it in 1956. Other than the easy ability for the narrator to write about his grandfather and the Civil War, setting the book in the mid-50’s doesn’t seem necessary. However, maybe there is something in the plot yet to be revealed that would only work in the 1950’s. Another thing that I like about the book is that while the letter is often prosaic, there is a quality that indicates that it was written by an old person, especially when the narrator seemingly repeats things.

>Dry and Dusty

>Oh my! I just started to read Ivanhoe this evening, this month’s selection for my book club.

At the beginning is the Dedicatory Epistle (as if that isn’t enough to frighten away a trepidacious reader), addressed to Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. Dryasdust? Dry.As.Dust?

I fear that the name is not meant to be funny. Oh my! What lies ahead?

In the Epistle, the fictitious Laurence Templeton writes:

He who first opens Chaucer, or any other ancient poet, is so much struck with the obsolete spelling, multiplied consonants, and antiquated appearance of the language, that he is apt to lay the work down in despair, as encrusted too deep with the rust of antiquity to permit his judging of its merits or tasting its beauties. But if some intelligent and accomplished friend point out to him that the difficulties by which he is startled are more in appearance than reality, if, by reading aloud to him, or by reducing the ordinary works to the modern orthography, he satisfies his proselyte that only about one-tenth part of the words employed are in fact obsolete, the novice may be easily persuaded to approach the “well of English undefiled,” with the certainty that a slender degree of patience will enable him to enjoy both the humour and the pathos with which old Geoffrey delighted the age of Cressy and of Poictiers.

Cautiously, I approach Chapter 1 and am surprised to read the author addressing me, the reader, providing a bit of backstory:

This state of things I have thought it necessary to premise for the information of the general reader, who might be apt to forget that, although no great historical events, such as war or insurrection, mark the existence of the Anglo-Saxons as a separate people subsequent to the reign of William the Second, yet the great national distinctions betwixt them and their conquerors, the recollection of what they had formerly been, and to what they were now reduced, continued, down to the reign of Edward the Third, to keep open the wounds which with the Conquest had inflicted, and to maintain a line of separation betwixt the descendants of the victor Normans and the vanquished Saxons.

After choking down that bit of brevity, I read this beautiful description and almost overlook that there are nearly 100 words between the Initial Cap of hundreds and the terminal endmark following solitude.

Hundreds of broad-headed, short-stemmed, wide-branched oaks, which had witnessed perhaps the stately march of the Roman soldiery, flung their gnarled arms over a thick carpet of the most delicious green sward; in some places they were intermingled with beeches, hollies, and copse-wood of various descriptions, so closely as totally to intercept the level beams of the sinking sun; in others they receded from each other, forming those long sweeping vistas in the intricacy of which the eye delights to lose itself, while imagination considers them as the paths to yet wilder scenes of silvan solitude.

This continues on, subsequent sentences competing for the highest adjectival word count and then, the reader gets to the action a few pages later after the scene has been set.

“Betray thee! Answered the Jester; “no, that were the trick of a wise man; a fool cannot half so well help himself. But soft, whom have we here?”
“A murrain take thee!” rejoined the swineherd; “wilt thou talk of such things, while a terrible storm of thunder and lightening is raging with a few miles of us? Hark, how the thunder rumbles! and for summer rain, I never saw such broad downright flat drops fall out of the clouds; the oaks, too, notwithstanding the calm weather, sob and creak with their great boughs as if announcing a tempest. Thou canst play the rational if thou wilt; credit me for once, and let us home ere the storm begins to rage, for the night will be fearful.”

Elizabethan dialog?

Hark, let us home this book into the dustbin with Mr. Dryasthesame and Sir Whatishisname. I do not posses such a slender degree of patience, nor such a vast well of time, to enjoy the humor and pathos of this. No earthly way this reader will finish this tome by Thursday night hence.

>Muriel Spark: The Only Problem

>To take on the book of Job is a monumental task. To refute the book of Job — or at least to challenge some of the conventional thinking regarding the work, even suggesting that it shouldn’t be part of the Bible — is an equally daunting task. Yet, Muriel Spark, in The Only Problem does just that.

The Only Problem is a short novel (about 130 pages) about Harvey, a wealthy, self-proclaimed student (as opposed to ‘scholar’) who is writing a treatise on Job. He has abandoned his wife, Effie, about a year before the narrative begins, and can’t be persuaded by either his brother-in-law Edward or sister-in-law Ruth to provide a cash settlement in a divorce that both he & his wife want. Ruth travels to France with Effie’s illegitimate child Clara to convince Harvey to do the moral thing, but, instead, separates from Edward and becomes Harvey’s lover. Soon, all are caught up in events beyond their control when Effie joins a terrorist group that incites violence throughout the region where Harvey & Ruth are living. Harvey can’t reconcile the idea of the wife he used to love with the terrorist she has become; nor can he admit that while he doesn’t want to live with Effie, he loves her and while he doesn’t love Ruth, he wants to live with her.

Ruth flees the police surveillance and media-frenzy and returns to live with Clara’s father. Retreating from the scholarly, intellectual discussions common in her life with Harvey, Ruth adapts to the environment of her new lover, Ernie, even taking on his distinctive lower-class accent. Without Ruth or Effie, Harvey’s thoughts about Job become more obsessive, his perception of being tortured more pronounced. In the end, Ruth, about to give birth to Harvey’s child, moves back to France to raise Clara and the new child with Harvey. A year after the narrative begins, Edward comes to visit them, Harvey has finished his work on Job, a sense of harmony in the lives of all seemingly has been restored. With his writing on Job completed and his acceptance of Effie’s political actions having resulted in her death, he states he will live a 140 years with his 3 daughters — just like Job.

In the opening pages, Edward has a theory that “people have an effect on the natural greenery around them regardless of whether they lay hands on it or not; some people, he would remark, induce fertility in their environment, and some the desert, simply by psychic force” (p 323-24). Like the comforters in Job, Edward believes that one’s actions affect one’s fate. Harvey, on the other hand, struggles with the ‘only’ problem — how can a loving omnipotent God also be the author of suffering? Why would such a Creator allow his faithful followers to suffer through no fault of their own? It is only Job’s faith that redeems him, despite the beliefs of the comforters and Job’s wife, that he should turn his back on the god who has abandoned him. This is the antithesis of Edward’s view: individuals don’t make their environment. As much as we seek to control it, it is out of our control.

Harvey does not ‘suffer’ in the same way that Job suffers, but he is a ‘tortured soul’. Harvey is very wealthy, yet chooses to live with only basic comforts. While he sees injustice in the world, he doesn’t take action to prevent it. He regrets losing his wife, yet he is the one who walked away — literally, on the autobahn — from his marriage. He doesn’t want people to be around him, yet cannot live completely as a hermit. He seeks to control others — telling Edward to cut his hair; telling a maid that it is her fault that he will not bring his guest to the lunch she has prepared; wanting to be alone, but unable to tell Nathan, an unexpected guest and unknown conspirator of Effie’s, to leave. Yet, the more Harvey seeks to control, the more the situation with Effie — a situation he has no power to control at all – gets out of hand. The fallout from Effie’s terrorist activities take over his life with everything from property searches, suspicions of wiretapping, constant police surveillance, lengthy interrogations, and a treatment by the media that makes him look more villainous than his terrorist-wife.

And, yet, Harvey could have controlled some of it, or at least influenced it’s effect, if he had taken different actions. If he had simply granted his wife a divorce, the media and police attention would have been different. If he wasn’t as self-centered as he is, he might have seen the harm he caused Effie and Ruth. He would have cared less about trivial things like the length of Edward’s hair, and would have cared more about inadvertently hurting Anne-Marie’s feelings by destroying a bouquet that was meant to cheer him up. If he had talked about Effie and distanced himself from her in a press conference, he wouldn’t have been portrayed as he was because he chose to talk about his scholarly work on the book of Job instead of terrorism. As a result, he not only harms himself, but Ruth and Clara as well.

It is difficult for the reader to see Harvey as suffering like Job. He does suffer, but not nearly as much as he thinks he does. But, maybe that is the point — one’s sufferings are one’s own. They may not be mythic like Job’s, but one’s miseries are one’s own to endure. And that is where faith comes in.

Spark, a convert to Catholicism, does not hit the reader over the head with her thoughts on Job and religion. Harvey struggles to engage most people he meets in discussion about Job. Mostly, this fails. As Spark often does in her work, she includes in the narrative a clever bit, so brief it almost could be missed, that the French do not understand who Job is. “It was difficult to get across to them what the Book of Job was. Harvey’s French wasn’t at fault, it was their knowledge of the bible of which, like most good Catholics, they had scant knowledge” (p 359). Elsewhere, there is a discussion regarding the correct translation of the Bible to understand whether Job’s wife admonished him to ‘bless’ or to ‘curse’ God. What Spark subtly does by including this, is to set up the difference between faith and reason. Harvey tries to figure out the ‘only’ problem by reason. Others don’t understand because of their faith, a belief in things not seen. One can choose to believe that one’s actions predetermine or influence one’s fate. Or, one can choose to believe that, despite a loving God and one’s faith in him, bad things can happen. The solution to the ‘only’ problem may be to not use Job as a moral yardstick. Rather, be ignorant of Job (or, at least ignore him), of the ‘only’ problem. Instead,choose to do what is right and moral, and choose to be content with it. As Harvey states at the end, he will live 140 years, like Job. He stated earlier that Job probably continued to suffer. Harvey will too, despite the sense of harmony in the final chapter.

>Some preliminary thoughts on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

>The Slaves of Golconda‘s next read is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and discussion starts June 30th. See here and here for those participating and more info. (Yes, there. Scroll down past the World Cup posts for Slaves info, then scroll back up & read ’em!). I’ll post more at the end of the month and after I finish reading ‘The Only Problem’ for extra credit. But here are some preliminary thoughts:

I love this description at the beginning of Chapter 3:

The days passed and the wind blew from the Forth.

It is not to be supposed that Miss Brodie was unique at this point of her prime; or that (since such things are relative) she was in any way off her head. She was alone, merely, in that she taught in a school like Marcia Blaine’s. There were legions of her kind during the nineteen-thirties, women from the age of thirty and upward, who crowded their war-bereaved spinsterhood with voyages of discovery into new ideas and energetic practices in art of social welfare, education or religion. The progressive spinsters of Edinburgh did not teach in schools, especially in schools of traditional character like Marcia Blaine’s School for Girls. It was in this that Miss Brodie was, as the rest of the staff spinsterhood put it, a trifle out of place. But she was not out of place amongst her own kind, the vigorous daughters of dead or enfeeble merchants, of misisters of religion, University professors, doctors, big warehouse owners of the past, or the owners of fisheries who had endowed these daughters with shrewd wits, high-coloured cheeks, constitutions like horses, logical educations, hearty spirits and private means. They could be seen leaning over the democratic counters of Edinburgh grocers’ shops arguing with the Manager at three in the afternoon on every subject from the authenticity of the Scriptures to the question what the word ‘guaranteed’ on a jam-jar really meant. They went to lectures, tried living on honey and nuts, took lessons in German and then went walking in Germany; they bought caravans and went off with them into the hills among the lochs; they played the guitar, they supported all the new little, theatre companies; they took lodgings in the slums and, distributing pots of paint, taught their neighbours the arts of simple interior decoration; they preached the inventions of Marie Stopes; they attended the meetings of the Oxford Group and put Spiritualism to their hawk-eyed test. Some assisted in the Scottish Nationalist Movement; others, like Miss Brodie, called themselves Europeans and Edinburgh a European capital, the city of Hume and Boswell.

They were not, however, committee women. They were not school-teachers. The committee spinsters were less enterprising and not at all rebellious, they were sober church-goers and quiet workers. The school-mistresses were of a still more orderly type, earning their keep, living with aged parents and taking walks on the hills and holidays at North Berwick.

But those of Miss Brodie’s kind were great talkers and feminists and, like most feminists, talked to men as man-to-man. (pages 40-41)

That this is the start of the third chapter must have been a deliberate decision by Spark. Not only does this give a wonderful description of Miss Brodie, it also puts into context the school and the other spinster school teachers. Although the preceding chapters also start with a descriptive narration, this is more detailed, longer. It sets the a different tone, in a way, and is a pivotal chapter in the book.

Interesting how the main qualities of each girl is repeatedly told in the first few chapters. Also what became of them. This isn’t true with Sandy, the main character and Brodie’s betrayer, although the reader does learn that she became a nun. By the time you know that Sandy is her betrayer, it isn’t news. Interesting — is this meant to be a mystery of sorts? I think more likely that the author is just being very judicious about revealing too much about Sandy before she is ready to reveal her as the betrayer.

The narrative makes many jumps in time. Although the main portion of the story takes place in about 7 years, it makes reference to events over a 30 year period. Spark does this skillfully, jumping back and forth from a few years earlier, to many years later.

Spark converted to Catholicism mid-life, but before this book was written. Sandy becomes a Catholic in the book and the conversion is portrayed as a larger betrayal, or repudiation, of Miss Brodie. Yet, the actual conversion is not covered in any detail. This reminded me of the conversion of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, which I also read recently. Not that the conversion is the same, but that it is matter-of-factly revealed to the reader. A less careful reading of the book would suggest that Sandy credits, in a positive way, Miss Brodie with her conversion and subsequent inspiration for her book on psychology and faith, but I think a careful reading is that Miss Brodie’s lessons showed the way not to be. But how much like Jean Brodie is Sandy?

“Sandy felt warmly towards Miss Brodie at those times when she saw how she was mislead in her idea of Rose. It was then that Miss Brodie loked beautiful and fragile, just as dark heavy Edinburgh itself could suddenly be changed into a floating city when the light was a special pearly white and fell upon one of the gracefully fashioned streets. In the same way Miss Brodie’s masterful features became clear and sweet to Sandy when viewed in the curious light of the woman’s folly, and she never felt more affection for her in her later years than when she thought upon Miss Brodie as silly.” (page 109)

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” (p 110).

Was Sandy just like Jean Brodie? Did she become the antithesis of her? Or merely her in just another form. Regardless, she was influenced by her, and in a way very different from the other girls in the Brodie circle.

I will need to think more regarding these quotes and how Miss Brodie folded the story of her love for Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Lowther into her tale of her dead lover from WWI. And how this parallels Teddy Lloyd’s paintings of the Brodie girls so that they all looked similar to Jean Brodie.

I saw the movie on television when I was in my early teens. I recall Maggie Smith’s elegant portrayal of Jean Brodie. I also recall distinctly my mother telling me to turn off the tv, admonishing me to not watch ‘such crap’. It’s been over 30 years since I saw the movie, but I think the religious aspect is downplayed, if it is even there at all. I can’t imagine what my mother’s objection was. Perhaps that Miss Brodie liked the Fascists? I was too young I think to understand the movie; I remember thinking that Miss Brodie was admirable because she was an intellectual, interested in her ‘girls’ learning about love, art, and politics. I was too young to realize that she was a control freak and how misguided her views on politics and art were.

>On Reading ‘The Complete Stories of Truman Capote’

>The Complete Stories of Truman Capote was this month’s selection of my reading group. I’ve been mildly interested in reading In Cold Blood since seeing Capote last winter, but never thought about reading his short stories, although I had read some in the past. So, I was looking forward to this book. I was disappointed.

It’s not that any of the stories were bad; I just had little interest in any of them. Capote was skillful at crafting sentences, and some of the stories begin with such intriguing leads that you can’t help but continue to read. Yet, I can’t say that there was any particular story that stands out, only a few that I can remember two weeks later. And, that seems odd to me. Just because a story is short doesn’t mean your memory of it should be.

Interestingly, we had a lively discussion regarding the book, although nobody thought there was a particular story which stood out among the collection. One of the topics of discussion was what a short story should be. One member of the group said the stories in this book were about ‘nothing’ because there was neither plot nor character development. I found this an interesting comment because I think that sometimes the short story form is most effective when it is only descriptive of a character. It is like looking through a peephole at a snippet of a life. When it works well, that snippet tells you all you need to know about the character, whether it is through dialogue or description, and leaves you thinking both ‘What happens next?’ and that you know how that character will respond.

In some ways, the brief focus that is given in a short story can be the ultimate manipulation of the reader: the author provides exactly what he wants the reader to know — and the reader buys into it, thinking that they do know all there is. Given that, it’s interesting to wonder about what is given and what is omitted in a particular story.

Another thing that we discussed in the group was whether Capote would have wanted a ‘complete’ collection of his works. Maybe he too would have felt that despite some cleverly crafted phrases, some of the stories just didn’t hold up. Had he still been alive, would he have chosen to publish ‘The Best of…’ rather than ‘The Complete Works’? Maybe he would have done both because of the publicity implications. He was, after all, one who could continue to work the talk-show circuit for years after he had published anything.

In the introduction to the book, Reynolds Price writes “America has never been a land of readers, not of what’s called literary fiction in any case. And in the twentieth century, only two writers of distinguished fiction managed to become American household names — Ernest Hemingway and Truman Capote.” Price writes further that their notoriety was due more to their larger-than-life personalities than for their writing. Capote certainly was a celebrity in a time when celebrities were different than they are today, or at least there were fewer of them, and they remained in our collective consciousness for longer than a weekly newsmagazine stays on the coffee table. But, does Capote merit being placed beside Hemingway as a writer? I don’t think so; at least I don’t think that from reading his short stories. Maybe it’s because I can remember how I first reacted to reading Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River”, or “Indian Camp” or “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” in high school, and how I reacted reading them again college. Or 10 years later. Or 20 years. I can remember how I didn’t understand ‘Hills Like White Elephants’ at first; I would have said it was ‘about nothing’. But, then I read it again, and while maybe nothing happens action-wise, I realized that story is about so much. I didn’t get that kind of a feeling from reading any of Capote’s stories. Not only do I doubt that I will remember how I felt when I first read them, I doubt that I will remember that I ever read them at all.

I haven’t read enough of Capote to make comments regarding his entire body of work. But, there is little in his short stories to persuade me to read his other works. Perhaps Capote was only a celebrity, more famous for being a writer, than for his writing.