Tag Archives: fiction

A 1000 Words & Too Many Frowns

This week’s Daily Post Writing Challenge is a creative writing prompt: A picture is worth a 1000 words. 1000 words on this picture that the Daily Post provided. See links below and in the comments on the Challenge post for what others wrote about the same photo. Maybe a picture is worth more than 1000 words after all! Here are my 1000 words, a fictional story inspired by the photograph:

It is one of those days — one of those memories — I don’t think of too often, but when I see that photograph, my sister and I standing there holding my father’s hands, I’m sure that I will never forget — have never forgotten — that day.   But, the thing is, I don’t know if I really do remember it.  Maybe I only remember the photograph from its perch on my mother’s dresser.   I wonder if it helped her to remember.

The three of us in front of our building on a cold Spring day.   My dad never wore a coat after March, so it must have been early April.    Years later — during my punk rocker days in the 80’s — I had a skinny, grey tie just like his.  My hair was dark like his too in the 80’s.   Without the Brylcreem look.  I thought it looked natural. Never would have had a sports coat, though.

In the photo, I’m wearing a coat that had this stupid velvet bit around the neck.  It was really itchy.   I remember my mother leaning over me to button the coat and straighten my tie.  Her perfume was strong and she was careful not to get any of her makeup on me. She kissed the top of my head before she put on the hat.  I got lipstick on your hair.  Now you have to wear your cap so it doesn’t show in the picture she said.  My sister had a new coat too.  She could barely say the word pink but we all knew it was her favorite.  Pink is still her favorite color.  The two of us haven’t changed that much I suppose — she loves pink. I hate coats and ties.  My father?  I don’t remember my father any other way except how he looks in that old photo.

The old apartment building.  Mother used to send us to the basement to play among the storage units and the washers, avoiding the Super, in the days after this was taken.  Later in the Spring, there were flowers growing up that trellis, though she wouldn’t have planted them.  Mother wouldn’t have noticed those bits of pink and red that showed through the window of our street-level apartment.  I don’t know.  Maybe she never opened the blinds.  It was always dark.

My sister says that she remembers her coat.  Pink with white pearly buttons and a bonnet to match.  No, the roses in front weren’t pink, she tells me, but she doesn’t remember what color they were.   I remember the color; she remembers the flower.   And that coat, she exclaims.  My first new coat!  Her chubby little legs must have been freezing.   I think she only remembers from the photograph too, but she insists.

My mother’s handwriting scrawled on the back:  Easter Sunday, 1961.   The year is certain, but I don’t ever remember going to church.  Isn’t that what families do on Easter?  Go to church?  Maybe that was the last Easter we went.

Or maybe we were only going to my grandparents.  Mother would have made me wear a bow tie for that.  My perfect little gentleman! my grandmother would sing.  Maybe I was that way in first grade.  But I can look behind my eyes in that photograph and see the truant, the troublemaker, the punk that I surely always was but had not yet become.  I wanted to run and play, get away, not smile for a silly photo.  Even  at age five I knew it was all crap.  I’m sure of it.  I must have known.

Do I remember my father that day?   Do I remember his frown?  My sister and I were mimicking him.  Did we really look that much alike?   Do we always have a look of fleeing on our faces?

Daddy yelled at us to be still, my sister states.  She tells me that I kept squirming out of the frame until he took my hand.  He yelled at Mother too, telling her to hurry up and press the damn button.

Would he have said ‘damn’?  I asked.  She remembers it that way.   I see it in the photograph.   Perturbed.  Annoyed.   Press the damn button, will ya?  That was what made my sister cry.  In her pretty pink Spring coat and being yelled at.   I remember it now that she mentions it.

No wonder I wanted to pull away.   Wanted to run away.  Away from my sister.  Away from my mother.  Away from my father.   To the playground or the ball park.  Later to some parking lot where I could smoke a cigarette and talk about chicks with my friends.   Run away from all that stifled and cramped and itched like that grey coat and hat.

Yea, I remember it alright.   Like it was yesterday.   Because, after that day, it was my whole life.  Wanting to run, just like my dad.  Away to someplace mysterious where there weren’t ties and suitcoats and hats and wives who wanted to take pictures and drive to the grandparents on Easter Day.

Runaway to places where I could smile.  To places where I could be free.   Just like my father.

I remember that photo in its place of honor on my mother’s dressing table for years.   I wondered if it helped her to remember him or to forget him.  My sister says it was to remember him.  The whisky was to forget.

For me, I remember that as the last time I saw my father although history tells me something else.   But, the photograph, the three of us standing there in front of our building trying to look like it was a happy occasion:  that I remember.   Mostly grey, a bit of pink, but no details about what types of flowers colored my Mother’s world.

How can you remember it that way? my mother protests.  It was a happy day!  My sister smiles.  I guess I never could talk to them.      I remember the photo, Mother, I reply.   On your dresser.  In a brass frame.  

A few other Picture Worth A 1000 Words for the DPChallenge:

A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words (bouhaha-access)
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words (My Sanctuary Journal
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words (Pride in Madness)
Weekly Writing Challenge (S1ngal)
The Easter That Wasn’t (NRHatch)

>Raymond Carver: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

>I was intrigued by the choice for this month’s selection of my book club, Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. My book club has been meeting for eight years, but in recent months we’ve had some major changes in the makeup of the group, which have changed the dynamic. Not necessarily as a result of that change, but recently, our book choices have been pretty rotten. When my good friend, and trusted bookgroup member, S. sends me an email to informing me that I don’t want to be bothered with picking up a copy, I know to take that advice.  At one point a few months ago, I decided that if we didn’t start reading “decent things” –which I defined vaguely as “not crap”–, I would consider dropping out. Every once in a while, reading something light and irrelevant can be good escapist reading, but when it is a constant diet of pap, well, I just don’t have time.

So, when A. suggested Carver’s first book of stories, I was intrigued and looked forward to interesting reading in the month ahead. This is an especially interesting choice since short story collections historically have not been very good discussions for this particular group. But, since the dynamic has changed, I’m glad that we are trying a collection again. I was also looking forward to this because I had not read Carver, which has seemed like a deficit in my reading. The only work that I know of his is the poem What The Doctor Said, which is a poem that has stuck with me since I first read it five years ago. Such persistence is surely a sign, if not of a good writer, at least of a good poem, and is certainly enough to merit reading more of his work, even if I had never heard any thing else about him (which, of course, I have).

When I went to the bookstore over the weekend to pick up the book, I was disappointed that they did not have this particular volume of short stories. But, they did have The Collected Stories of Raymond Carver. Since this included all of the stories from What We Talk About, I decided it was a good choice. What I realized later was that this volume also included all of the original, unedited, versions of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.  Knowing that Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, had done extensive edits, I couldn’t wait to begin to read these works side by side.

Thus far, I’ve read the first three stories in the collection. I had intended to read all of them, as published in the original 1981 volume, before reading the earlier drafts. But, after reading “Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit”, I couldn’t wait to read the original.  Because the original was so much longer there had to be a big difference in the versions and I couldn’t wait to see what that was. 

I found “Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit” to be a bit sparse, too sparse to be much of a story.  It sets a mood of regret, resignation about the realities of one’s life, dissatisfaction with one’s spouse and children. But, the original story “Where is Everyone”, while it addresses the same situations and circumstances,  has so much more detail. I realized that I knew the characters from the first story, but found that I liked learning more about them in the second one. Did I need to know that his wife relapsed into alcoholism for the story to work? The narrator tells of his battle with alcoholism, but does it make a difference to know that his wife is struggling to remain sober too — something that isn’t obvious in the first story.  Do I need to know that his mother knows about his wife’s affair? How does it change the story that the last lines in the published version are spoken by his wife and not his mother? Is this really the same story?  Can I go back to the published version and read it again without feeling that my perspective has been tampered with?

It is an interesting exercise to look at the stories side by side, but I have to wonder – which really represents the author? Does it really matter that they were edited so extensively?  Does the extensiveness of the edits suggest more than editing, perhaps a co-authorship.  Do the edits make the stories by Carver and Lish, rather than just Carver?  Are they somehow different to the extent that they deserve an asterisk beside them — something to denote that they aren’t “real” Carver stories?   Just reading one of the stories in both versions raised these questions.  

Perhaps I need to read more of the works as originally published before I go back to reading those earlier drafts.   What does one even call those — early drafts? unedited manuscripts? I’m not sure what would be appropriate if they are all as different as these two stories.  These stories don’t seem like similar beings but completely different species. I don’t know if I can compare them. Or that I want to. I do, however, want to read more of Carver’s stories and will later read more of the earlier, unedited versions for comparison.  I may though only have more questions, not answers.

>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.

>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.

>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.

>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.

>The Moment: Joyce’s The Dead

>Cross posted at A Curious Singularity

There is a peculiar feeling that I experience from time to time that I like to think of as ‘The Moment’. It isn’t one moment that stands apart from all others; it isn’t necessarily something profound, maybe not even memorable over time. Yet, it is a discernible present, a second or two that seems to last a little longer than a fleeting tick of the clock. Time seems to hang suspended for just long enough to perceive a difference. And, then, nothing is the same again.

It may happen when I’m reading a book. Or maybe when walking down a street in an unfamilar city. It may be a point during a conversation with an acquaintance. It is a melding of time and space in which I realize something that I did not know before. A moment of complete transformation where there isn’t any going back: the point where a new town suddenly is made familiar; a new concept is learned; or a deeper understanding is gained of what makes your friend laugh or worry or cry so much that you now know them better than just a few minutes before.

Call it an epiphany, eureka, a paradigm shift, or a sudden flash of insight; it is what I call ‘the moment’. It is palpable, perhaps measurable in some strange mathematical system. One’s senses reel as one’s brain steps quickly to rearrange all of the pieces into a new understandable pattern. It is this kind of a moment that is the culmination of James Joyce’s The Dead.

There is so much that you could say about this story. Volumes of criticism have been written about Joyce. A simple Google query for “Joyce The Dead Criticism” returns a mere 1.1 million hits. Just looking at a few of them makes my head spin. I don’t really care about knowing all of the obscure references to people and places in Joyce’s life that are reflected in this story. For me, to think that one can segregate one’s experiences from one’s writing is almost incomprehensible. So, while it may be interesting to know that Aunt Julia and Aunt Kate are based on real people that Joyce knew, or that Mr. Browne, the Protestant guest at that party, was named after a Protestant Irish minister, I don’t think that it is a very useful means to look at a piece of fiction. I think Joyce wanted the reader to get something more out of this story than allusions to things in his life.

While the story does give one insight into Irish hospitality, or a glimpse into the politics of Irish nationalism, or a view of how men and women interacted in Dublin at the early part of the 20th century, I think Joyce’s chief purpose in The Dead is to depict how one man’s view of the world, of everything he knows to be true and real, can change in a heartbeat, a change so profound that he looks anew on his family, friends and life as if he had never seen them before.

The Dead is told from Gabriel’s viewpoint, except for a brief beginning. Gabriel is a man consumed by self-doubt, by his social and familial obligations, and by an unrelenting sense of superiority. He regrets his conversation with Lily; he frets over the correct words for his speech, and he frequently muses over the lack of culture of his aunts and their social circle. These feelings seem disproportionate to the responses of the other party quests. Lily may think the available men in her social class are cads, but she doesn’t seem offended by Gabriel’s inquiry as much as he thinks she might be. Miss Ivors seems initially to be jovial in her talk with Gabriel, but he elevates it to a conflict that is noticed by others. He worries about his toast to his aunts and how others will perceive it, but the guests do not seem critical of his remarks. The Aunts and their friends seem to be versed in arts and in the politics of the day — at least to the point that it interests them — but Gabriel views them as naive, backward, uneducated. He believes that his views are considered, informed, and correct. Despite his self-recrimination regarding what he says and how he may be viewed, he is confident in his assessment of others.

Until the end of the story and the moment of his realization that maybe he doesn’t understand things in his world at all. With Gretta’s revelation that she once loved a young man who was willing to die for her, Gabriel realizes that he has never had –and never will have — such a profound emotional connection with his wife. He realizes that the talk about dead people at the party was more than just chatter about someone from the past. It was a reminiscence of those people who had a profound impact on people’s lives. The Dead are shadows, Gabriel realizes. The memory of the dead continues to influence the lives of the living. Realizing this his understanding of his wife, his aunts and others at the party is transformed.

It is his epiphanic moment that changes his life forever. The known city is now foreign; the once invisible dead are now seen in his world; his lack of love for Gretta exposed. In a moment, Gabriel Conroy realizes for the first time something that was present previously. In a brief fleeting moment he realizes the truth about his life. And nothing will be the same again.

>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.