Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Thoughts about Tampa, by Alissa Nutting

This novel's anti-protagonist narrator, Celeste, is so focused on her own sexual needs, which can be filled only by having sex with unformed adolescent boys, that other elements of what we might consider essential to life, love, friendship, civic duty, and intellectual stimulation, are absent from her consciousness.

But what's brilliant about Alissa Nutting's work is that Celeste's story of putting all her effort into seduction and domination is really an indictment of our culture's similar effort to sexualize and dehumanize itself. Tampa the city has little or nothing to do with the story; it could have happened in any sterile suburb in any part of the country. By setting it in a generic city, Celeste's perverse and cruel acts point right back at us and our larger culture. Like so much covered in the media, Celeste is so glib, so oblivious, so immune to guilt that even though she admits she has "broken" her victim, Jack, there is no remorse for it, not even a crumb. And there are no people in her life that matter to her unless they can be used to further her mission. 

To Celeste, all people are judged by their sexual worthiness. In her mind, no one is worthy of her but young boys. Therefore, she mocks and ridicules her colleagues, the parents of students, students who do not meet her criteria, and her hapless husband. This mockery is all internal, but it is written in such a way that reminds us that culture does this to anyone who isn't beautiful and camera-ready, through television, internet comments, and anywhere else where the id can run wild. While this book was written as satire and some people say they found some of Celeste's narration 'darkly funny,' there is nothing amusing about it when you consider her power to destroy lives because she gets away with so much based on her (very superficial) qualities of attractiveness.

Celeste's narrative becomes at some level pornography; all the actors in the story are reduced to bags of meat that will or will not satisfy Celeste's tastes. And in our culture, we are subject to that same tendency. Stories about beautiful, i.e., worthy of sexual congress, women are elevated into myth on cable television, and hot teachers fulfill the fantasies of their maturing students. Tampa shatters the myth that hot teachers are doing their male students a big favor. Celeste's primary victim, Jack, is ruined by the end. She rejects his love, puts him in constant danger of being caught, and will allow nothing to get in the way of her desires. 

But even if Celeste cannot feel sorry for Jack and his family, we certainly can.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

Alice Munro
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Published in 2001, Vintage Books

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
Two girls on the cusp of womanhood, Edith and Sabitha, bring out the worst tendencies of each other in a small town. They connive against the Sabitha's father's housekeeper, writing fake letters to Johanna from Sabitha's ne'er do well father. It is Edith who is the smart one, and though she is not kind, she can intuit the sad and lonely lives that Johanna and the father must live. In the end, Johanna does end up with the father and they have their own son. It's a long short story that combines the inner lives of several characters, burgeoning sexual curiosity of the girls, how small small town life can be, and more.



Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sunday Sentences: Alice Munro

Taking a page from Quivering Pen and Lynne's Book Notes, here are the best sentences I read this week. At the time, I was wondering how I could tweet them for fullest impact, but this is better:

From "Differently," published in Alice Munro's Friend of My Youth:

The bleak apartment in the run-down building, the bad-tempered old woman who was knitting a sweater, the doctor arriving in his shirtsleeves, carrying a brown-paper bag that Maya hysterically believed must contain the tools of his trade. In fact, it contained his lunch--an egg-and-onion sandwich. Maya had the smell of that in her face all the time he and Mme. Defarge were working her over.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Munro, Friend of My Youth

Alice Munro
Friend of My Youth
Vintage Contemporaries, 1990
#s in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series #34-43

Friend of My Youth
This is a nested narrative wherein the narrator has recurring dreams that her mother, afflicted by some kind of neurological disease at the end of her life, returns to the narrator fully formed and healthy. "I would say [to her dream mother] that I was sorry that I hadn't been to see her in such a long time--meaning not that I felt guilty but that I was sorry I had kept a bugbear in my mind, instead of this reality--and the strangest, kindest thing of all to me was her matter-of-fact reply. Oh well, she said, better late than never. I was sure I'd see you someday." The bulk of the story is another story, a memory of the mother right before she was married, when she taught school and boarded with a family who practiced an extreme form of Prebyterianism. Two sisters (one married, the other not) live in an unadorned, unimproved house, divided into two parts, one for the married couple and the other for Flora, the single woman and the teacher. Flora was engaged to Robert, but he impregnated the other sister and was forced to marry her. The narrator recalls all that her mother had told about this situation, then imagines how she would write the novel of the story, and in this imagining, she rehearses her own conflicted feelings about her own mother. It's a complex psychological study, worthy of another read.

Five Points
Brenda is married to the older, disabled Cornelius. He was crushed in a mine accident. Brenda is having an affair with Neil, three years younger, but who has some traits that resemble Cornelius's. The core of the story belongs to Brenda, but there is also a backstory that belongs to Neil. He tells Brenda about a girl who ran the coffee shop in Victoria, BC. Neil was part of the hippies that were emerging at the time; they would do drugs and hang around the shop. The girl who ran the shop was fat and unattractive; for some reason, she paid the boys to have sex with her and eventually, the boys ganged up on her and extorted her for money, which ended up ruining the family financially. Neil denies being part of the ordeal, but eventually admits that he received forty dollars.

Rumination on the nature of dreaming as it relates to the "other" state of infidelity:
In dreams you can have the feeling that you've had this dream before, that you have this dream over and over again, and you know that it's really nothing that simple. You know that there's a whole underground system that you can call 'dreams,' having nothing better to call them, and that this system is not like roads or tunnels but more like a live body network, all coiling and stretching, unpredictable but finally familiar--where you are now, where you've always been.
This story is complex in its sexuality, its ruminations on the nature of men, and of working. Brenda yearns to bask in the masculinity, wants somehow to surrender to it: "She loves the sight of Neil's bed--badly made...not a marriage bed or a bed of illness, comfort, complication. The bed of his lust and sleep, equally strenuous and oblivious. She loves the life of his body. so sure if its rights. She wants commands from him...to be his territory." Brenda's real marital life is about care taking now, and will be forever more. But she claims for herself the other relationship, even as it deepens and causes greater pain. In the end, they fight, a study in the psychology of communication, where each person willfully misunderstands the other to gain power.

Meneseteung
The narrator of this story recounts the life of a poet, a woman, orphaned and alone in a frontier town. The way the town newspaper (and by extension how the people of the town judge each other as people in small towns are wont to do) is key component. And by the end, it seems as though Almeda's life is conjecture of the narrator, a way to honor and give tribute to an artist who no one cared enough about to truly know as a person.

Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass
Hazel is visiting Scotland. She's retired, a widow. She goes to an inn where her husband once stayed when he was in the war, where he had a brief affair with a young girl named Antoinette, who is now aged and the owner of the same inn. Hazel wants to engage with these relics of Jack's past, but no one can (or will admit to) remembering him. It's a complex story with a ballad inserted that mirrors a situation of illegitimacy for a girl who lives with Jack's distant aunt and a man who eats daily at the inn.

Oranges and Apples
Story of a long marriage. A department store heir marries one of the clerks, a woman who has few ambitions other than to live and read and be part of the family. But a Polish man comes to town and some kind of relationship develops between the wife, Barbara, and the newcomer. The husband catches wind of it on an afternoon "that changed his life."

Pictures of the Ice

Goodness and Mercy
A mother and daughter (the mother is dying) take a cruise.

Oh, What Avails
A sister and brother, their lives together and apart. "Dead-Eyed Dick."

Differently
Cuckolding and punishing revenge amongst three couples in B.C.

Wigtime

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Betty Draper's comments were not out of character

In the first episode of the sixth season, Betty Draper glibly suggests to her husband that he "rape" the fifteen-year-old friend of Sally, Betty's daughter. Henry looked shocked (as anyone would) and many people who blog about Mad Men said that she had crossed a line, even for Betty. But Betty has always crossed lines of behavior, whether for shock value or for the volt of adrenaline that Don mentions elsewhere in the episode. I can think of a number of incidents:

1. She shot the neighbor's pigeons.
2. She manipulated a situation where a friend succumbed to lust and then Betty shamed her for it.
3. She teased the mechanic in the dead of night on a dark road.
4. She seduced a stranger in a bar in the backroom.
5. She allowed the neighbor boy, Glen, to cut a lock of her hair and didn't fully realize why the mother thought it was weird.
6. She became angry and jealous because Glen became friends with Sally.
7. And in this episode, she hangs out in the flophouse and reprimands the youths for being rude.

Betty routinely plays with boundaries. She's not a villain. But she is clearly struggling with her prescribed roles and is complex; her behavior is often in reaction to the way she is treated by men, especially in the earlier seasons. Mad Men would suffer for not having her in the show, though it would be interesting to see her find a purpose and thrive in it.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Honeydew, Edith Pearlman #33

Honeydew
Edith Pearlman
From Best American Short Stories, 2012
Originally appeared in Orion
#33 in the I read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

A private day school and a forbidden ravine and a centruy-old suicide get mentioned in the first paragraph.

The headmistress, Alice, is perturbed by a superb but anorexic student named Emily; her anger is such that we are told that "this tall bundle of a twigs that called itself a girl--Alice's palms ached to spank her." Alice meets with parents; the father is a detached physician who scolds Alice and the wife: "Emily must find her own way to continue to live," which the narrator tells us is "useful and true."

Alice is pregnant by Emily's father, the physician. He will not leave his wife.

Manna is described as being excrement, called by nomads "honeydew." Emily is fascinated by this concept.

The biological lives of insects is the thread that holds the story together. It's surreal and satirical.


North Country, Roxane Gay #32

North Country
Roxane Gay
From Best American Short Stories, 2012
Originally printed in Hobart
#32 in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories project

A faculty engineer named Kate embarks on a sad cruise of Lake Superior with a less than desirable set of colleagues. She is African-American, and must endure questions like, "Are you from Detroit?" She tells us, "Shortly after that, I will begin telling people I have recently arrived from Africa. They will nod and exhale excitedly and ask about my tribe. I don't know that in this moment, so there is little to comfort me." She meets Magnus as she comes to the deck for air.

Loneliness is pervasive in North Country. Kate despairs the life of the town. She tells her mother more than once that she might not survive. She has a one-night encounter with Magnus; he seems very interested in her but she pushes him away.

Kate remembers being with a liar, her dissertation advisor, the father of their stillborn baby.

She finds her way to Magnus and he is persistent and ignores her reluctance. He teaches her to milk a cow. There is separation, hurt feelings, an igloo. It's beautiful.

"Hello, Everybody" AM Homes #31

"Hello, Everybody"
A.M. Homes
From Electric Literature, Volume 5, #1
Kindle Single
#31 in the 300 short story project

Like the characters in Homes' May We Be Forgiven, the characters in this story are hyper-contemporary. They are late-adolescent and have intellectualized tattoos, body logo branding, acne, and psychotherapy. The girl, Cheryl, has a family that lives in bathing suits, is addicted to plastic surgery, and has a dog named "Rug." The mother had a failed operation to change the color of her eyes. They eat in restaurants with names like Micro-Macro, where they are served "Tiny designer-sized macrobiotic bites." Walter is Cheryl's best friend, a fish out of water who's been away at school for awhile and comes back to visit the family.

It has a surreal George Saunders vibe, parody, satire, a depressing commentary on modern, detached, artificial life.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Creatures, Marisa Silver #30

Creatures
Marisa Silver
From the 12/17/12 New Yorker
30# in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

The story of James, a father, angrily dealing with the perception on the part of a nursery school that his son Miles is dangerous. Weaving from the present to James's childhood, when he is part of a terrible accident involving a hunting rifle and a very stuffed-up friend named Freddy, who is tormented by his father. There is a lot of lashing out and passive aggression.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline #24-29

George Saunders
Civilwarland in Bad Decline
Stories and a novella
Riverhead Books, first published 1996
#24-29  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Civilwarland in Bad Decline
Absurdist and violent, the narrator recounts the decline and fall of a simulated Civil War park, replete with gangs, ghosts, a hired killer, and the narrator's own bloody death. The story follows the narrator's conscience; he starts out as a functionary, a yes-man, but by the end, as more innocent people are targeted and killed, he sees what he has helped destroy. There is a scene where one of the ghosts gets caught in some kind of violent loop and must reenact the murder of his own family, a ghost killing ghosts and the narrator himself will soon be a ghost. There is horror all around.

Isabelle
Some terrible people cope with special needs, murder, and love. Poverty, miseducation, and despair are the undertones.

The Wavemaker Falters
The ghost of a boy who was killed at a water park of some kind (mermaid shows and fake Basques who pretend to speak for the customers) haunts the man, the wavemaker, who was responsible for his death. The Wavemaker sinks deep into depression as his wife has an affair with a supervisor. The boy, Clive, speculates on all the things he'll miss, and as he meets ghosts from other times and realms, is introduced to words like 'nosegay' without understanding what they mean. These characters could sustain a full novel.

The 400-Pound CEO
Jeffrey, an abused, obese invoice clerk in a raccoon-killing, false-hope to its customers company, suffers at the unending cruelties of his co-workers and boss. In a twist of fate, he ends up accidentally killing the boss who was going to do grievous harm to a reporter ready to expose the firm's lies. There's a lot of misery in this story, and a meditation on God and a possible subGod who has been torturing the world's weakest, most needy humans, those who need the most and are ineligible for love and dignity.

Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz
The narrator owns a failing franchise for allowing people to upload holographic scenarios and live alternate realities. He also can offload real memories from brains onto hard drives, thereby transferring experiences and knowledge from one person to one or more others. He finally runs out of people from whom he can take memories, so he writes himself a detailed note and erases much of himself, all in sacrifice for an elderly woman who needs constant nursing care.

Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror
Mary is a very old woman, around 92, who is still working, under the thumb of a petty tyrant. Pickled babies (all her own stillborn children) haunt her from their jars and she is under constant surveillance and retribution for the bad behavior of the customer. Her whole bad luck history is woven into the story, and in the end, she can't even triumph in her own suicide. Oh, and there are genetically altered see-through cows.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Heathcock, Volt #23

Alan Heathcock
"Volt" from the collection, Volt
#23  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Sheriff Helen is back a few weeks after the flood of the story, "Peacekeeper." I'm not sure "Volt" would entirely hold up without the previous story. Or, perhaps it would stand alone, but knowledge about Helen and what she'd recently endured certainly adds a rich layer to this story. There's another big storm and the already damaged town is further wrecked by too much rain. Helen is asked by law enforcement from the county seat to pave the way for an outstanding warrant arrest. So Helen has to approach the suspect's home and encounters stiff and violent resistance. In the meantime, she also has to grapple with her own guilt about keeping her slowly-deteriorating mother in a nursing home. Sheriff Helen deserves her own novel.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Hadley, "Married Love and other stories" #11-22

Tessa Hadley
Married Love and Other Stories
2012 Harper Collins
#11-22
 in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Married Love
A young girl, 19, has an affair with a much older professor of theology. He leaves his 2nd wife and marries Lottie, against the wishes of her bohemian, non-married parents. It's a Casaubon situation, though the husband is patient but unhappy. Lottie has a number of children and is very unhappy. She tells her brother that "my life is so grey." Edgar takes up with his second wife for the comforts of marriage that Lottie is unable or unwilling to bestow on him.

Friendly Fire
Shelly and Pam sometimes do cleaning jobs together. In this story, they are cleaning the mess of men who work in a plant. The story is about Shelly, her worry over her son fighting in Afghanistan, the loss of her sexual drive. Hadley's gorgeous descriptions of the outdoors is juxtaposed with the filth of the warehouse. And she paints the scene of these hard-working women quietly: "They sat there for a few minutes, too tired to move, giving the car time to recover...While they waited, their breath began to fog up the car windows."

A Mouthful of Cut Glass
Sheila and Neil introduce each other to their parents. Sheila is cut to the bone when she hears Neil's mother discuss how much she does not like Sheila. The ending leaves an ambiguity about whether or not she and Neil stay together. As he sits in her father's study and she spies him through the window, "She was taken aback by this stranger of hers...The shock of it was voluptuous; she felt with a shudder that the closer Neil came to her, the less familiar he was."

The Trojan Prince
A young man, James, in 1920 has decided to become a seaman and in the interval before he is to go off to his training, he kills time with his girl cousins, one who is rich and the other, motherless and a ward of the family. Connie, the ward, is brash, and doesn't have the refinement of Ellen,who is more cautious. James idolizes Ellen, but identifies with Connie. James's father has always told a story of being shipwrecked and how he eventually escaped; James knows that the story is probably untrue. But at the end, James really is involved in a shipwreck and a harrowing escape on a rope over the churning sea and he is competent and ablebodied. In the end, it is Connie's company he wants, not Ellen and a house full of furniture.

Because the Night
A story about the chasm between childhood and adulthood. The frame pivots between the wild parties her parents host; in the beginning, the event of a party riles up the children, Kristen and her brother Tom; they see themselves as enemies of the partygoers even though they deeply love their parents and their parents love them. But as they grow up and the brother Tom pulls away from the family, an interloper neighbor boy spends more and more time at the house as he moons over Kristen's mother. The story is rich in detail and especially emotion. The darkness of the night, a well, and parents who become more mainstream, conventional, and middle-aged. Kristen craves the comforts of home and her room even as she begins to mature.

Journey Home
A brother, stranded at the Paris airport for several days during a snowstorm, can't reach his sister, who has a history of self-harm and has facebooked to the effect that she has broken up with another boyfriend. He leaves messages, his phone dies, he tries to get a friend to intercede, all to no end. This isolation gives him time for his worry to build and build. He is an art historian and spends time looking at Titian's Pieta. The worry culminates when he thinks, "Worse is always possible past the worst thing you're afraid of."


In the Country
Julie is Ed's wife. They gather with Ed's family at the country house to celebrate Ed's mother's sixtieth birthday. Julie has a sort of love for the family, but always feels like an outsider, and she consciously holds back things about herself from them to maintain a level of reserve. It's not clear if this is for self-protection or to maintain a sense of self that she feels she might lose if she were to reveal it. One of Ed's sisters has a new boyfriend, an actor, Seth. The bones of the story are that Julie and Seth have an illicit encounter in one of the guest cottages. No one ever finds out, and Julie does not feel guilt for it later. The filler details around the encounter make the story rich. There's lots of discussion about the mother-in-law's past, how she was as a young woman, apart from this family she and Ed have borne and built. And Julie's secret, which she shares with Seth alone, that she was voluntarily part of a Christian sect when she was seventeen, that she ran away from home and submitted to this group, then walked away and made her own choices. Julie shows Seth the way she dressed, the way she prayed, and tells him about her sexual encounters in the cult. She becomes the actor, and the pantomime brings them to their own moment of physical tryst. There is a pulse in the story, and it's summed up by the line, "The understanding came to her that these alternating moods were two pulses in life, opposite and yet related, like the expansion and contraction of a heartbeat: one diffusing sensation and sending it flying apart, this one gathering it in the living centre."

The Godchildren
Three non-related middle-aged people who were all once godchildren of a now-dead somewhat scandalous woman meet in her home to divvy up possessions. The story's climax is in a flashback when the teenagers had gathered to visit and be given a liminal space in which to get away from home and school at Vivian's house. On that night, they all leave together, only to sneak back and watch Vivian through her bedroom window, where she puts on a show, either for them or for an imaginary audience, it's unclear. There were the usual complications and entanglements of girls and a boy, and the present versions of each remind me of the 7-Up (now 56-Up) series that shows a set of British people from the time they were small children to the present day.

She's the One
Ally and her family are grieving over the loss of her brother. She works in a writing centre and makes an awkward friendship with a failed novelist, Hildy, who had given up on writing about something that happened to her when she was a girl. Storytelling is a theme, books as an unsuitable salve to our hearts' deepest wounds.

In the Cave
A woman, post-coitus, considers the moment when her inflated hopes for love were burst. Her lover had explained that cave paintings, thought to have been "the product of induced shamanistic hallucinations...for the people who painted [the ones he was studying in South Africa], the rock face may have seemed only a skin stretched between them and another order of reality." So the woman had lots of time to consider this idea while he was away, and on the night in question, he bursts this by attributing it all to neural impulses, "telling you something's happening when it isn't...There is no ineffable."

Pretending
A woman who has lived a troubled adult life recalls an odd friendship with a girl who had been marked as "trouble" and "naughty" when they were girls. Roxanne was a ward of the state and even though she tried very hard to redeem herself--because she was very smart and capable--we are told that she never even had a chance to make it into the good school. The time the two girls spent together was spent pretending, intense playacting, completely immersive stories and practice for adulthood, and Roxanne did all the planning and directing. The narrator of the story claims that she herself was normal and limited. The story is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's A Cat's Eye and a Robin Black story about a girl called Harriet.

Post-Production
A rich movie producer drops dead suddenly in front of his wife; the story follows her life for a year afterward.






Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lipsyte, The Climber Room #10

Sam Lipsyte
The Climber Room
From the 11/21/11 New Yorker
#10  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Tovah is in her later-30s and like many other people, underemployed, drifting, lonely. There has been an annoying biological switch that has suddenly set to "baby," even though she is contented being alone. She works in a day care center and a parent who calls himself Randy Goat pays particular attention to her. Themes of economic breakdown, gender, and body image, and sexism; they are all here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Canty, Mayfly, #9

Kevin Canty
Mayfly, from the 1/28/13 New Yorker
#9
 in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series
James and Molly, Jenny and Sam. Two couples, no happiness. On the drive to Jenny and Sam's mountain mansion somewhere away from Denver, James and Molly collide with a swarm of butterflies. The story centers on James and his misery, and how he and Jenny wallow together in misery of their mates when those mates drive down to Denver for the night.

Friday, January 25, 2013

A&P, Updike #8

A&P by John Updike
From the New Yorker Fiction Podcast
#8  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

When I realized that the reader, Allegra Goodman, chose Updike's serially anthologized story, one I've read in at least two and probably more English classes, I was surprised at the conventionality. But I listened anyway and it was a treat to hear the narrator's angsty and appreciative prose as he tells the story of girls who dare to come to the grocery store in their bathing suits. Sammy is inexperienced and arrogant; a common combination. His probably temporary rejection of the mores of the time, must, as Goodman said in her interview, have seemed very fresh.

Chaon, Fitting Ends #7

Fitting Ends
Dan Chaon
First published in Triquarterly
Best American Short Stories 1996
#7  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

The story starts out with the ghost of the narrator's brother appearing on the train tracks a couple of years before he actually dies on those same tracks. But this isn't a supernatural story, but is rather a psychological haunt; the narrator is wracked and ruined with his lingering and unspoken guilt over a lie he told that pushed his brother over the line from rehabilitation to deep despair.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hadley, Experience, #6

Experience
Tessa Hadley, from the 1/21/13 New Yorker
#6  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

The story of Laura, recently dumped by her husband, still young, housesitting for a more sophisticated older woman. There's an attic, a diary, pornography, and Laura reaching a space where she has almost none of her married possessions nor money. An encounter with one of her benefactor's lovers sends Laura on her way to independence and adulthood.

Other things I read: "Becoming Them" ; James Wood

The 1/21/13 issue of the New Yorker features a personal essay by James Wood about the universal experience of watching one's parents (and by extension, ourselves) shift, age, shrink, then die. He mentions a story by Lydia Davis. I haven't read any Davis fiction, only her translation of Madame Bovary a couple of years ago. The crux of the essay is, "It's just the river of time, and a waste of time, but there it is. And sometimes I murmur to myself, repetitively, partly to calm myself down,'How shall I mourn them?' How indeed?"

Monday, January 14, 2013

Horrocks, Sun City, #5

Caitlin Horrocks
"Sun City," from the New Yorker, 10/24/11
#5 in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

"Sun City" is the story of a girl who is helping settle her late grandmother's effects after she's died. The grandmother had a roommate, Bev, and it's fairly clear that Bev and the grandmother were lovers. The granddaughter, Rose, is also gay. There are lots of family complications, hurts, and a sweet scene at the end that is a moment of peace between Rose and Bev, while a guinea pig watches loyally from the edge of a pool.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 Reading Delights

Books I enjoyed in 2012 (not necessarily published in 2012)

Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Good storytelling, and I learned about a time which I'd held only brief and hazy beliefs.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Good lord. This is a smart, funny, and devastating story of love. I read it right after a young family member died suddenly. All I have to do is think about the last quarter of this book and I want to do things over again, and better.

Canada by Richard Ford
This is my favorite read of the year.

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes
1960s Arizona noir. Well-crafted and moody. It goes well with the stupidly hot summer we had.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I read this when I was a teenager and I remembered almost nothing about it. There's no way I could have understood everything it is about, especially the philosophy. I think you either like Steinbeck's layered and sometimes histrionic stories or you don't. I was sucked in then, and again this time around.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
You can tell that Richard Ford read a lot of William Maxwell; their narrators in Canada and this novel share a common ethos. I am attracted to the longings of children, the pangs of homesickness, the lure of the close-knit family. There's a lot of that in this book.

May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes
This is a story that fits like a glove to today's culture. It's satirical, but it's also full of love. Other Homes' books I've read before didn't have the love.

Long, Oubliette, #4

David Long
"Oubliette" from the New Yorker, 10/10/11
#4 in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

This is a story about a mother and daughter who are pulled apart by the mother's illness. Where the girl, Nathalie, can remember moments of closeness with her mother, there is a distinct break as the mother becomes especially ill, chronically ill, and erratic. There is a complication too where Nathalie has always felt very close to her father. The last line tells us that Nathalie's mother has been a chore and will continue to be so, "...the world would go on--not where it had left off but on the other side of this nothing time. And when it did, though she couldn't quite see it yet, Nathalie would begin the never-ending task of not forgetting her mother."

Galchen, The Lost Order, #2

Rivka Galchen
The Lost Order
From New Yorker, 1/7/2013
#2  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

Story starts out, "I was at home, not making spaghetti." The story is told in a kind of frenetic stream of consciousness, where a woman talks about dieting, body image, gender dressing. It evokes a kind of nervous energy, feels real.Then her husband calls and asks her to look for his missing wedding ring. We see that maybe she's more unstable than we were let on because she says that her husband says, "I'm so sorry, my love...His voice has hairpin-turned to tender. Which is alarming." She calls herself a "daylight ghost." We find out she had once been an environmental lawyer. She quit in an impulsive move, and her husband supports her decision. She says to a UPS delivery woman, "It's like you knock on your own nightmare."

And maybe she is her own nightmare. In the final confrontation of the story, her husband questions her and reveals that he thinks she's hiding secrets. She is disconnected from him, from reality, and says at the end, "Maybe I'm the dreamer...Maybe I'm the man."




Colwin, Mr. Parker, #3

Laurie Colwin
"Mr. Parker"
Published 1973
From the New Yorker Short Story Podcast, airdate 8/1/12
Read by Maile Meloy
#3 Short Story Project, 300 in 2013

This is a coming-of-age story about a young girl who takes piano lessons from a teacher in the neighborhood. His wife dies, and that death marks a transformation in the girl, her relationship to her mother, and to her own understanding of what it means to perform well enough, through practice, to make real music.

It's a simple story really, but the language used carefully describes the fading process that life deals out to older people. There's also a running theme of innocence vs. knowing. It's not funny, like Colwin's novel Happy All the Time, but in a small number of words, the reader is let in on the girl's inner life.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A note on the Parenthood abortion storyline

Just because the show let Drew have his own opinion and didn't spend much time on Amy's POV doesn't mean she looks like the "bad" person in the situation. Lots of stories are told from the woman's side, but this time, we get to see it through a (very important) secondary character. Values are not necessarily ascribed just because they didn't tell the story the way we've always seen it before. Just because Drew was mourning the loss of a baby doesn't mean NBC was throwing angry "values" viewers a bone. Amy is not wrong, and Drew is not wrong either. And damn, he does everything he can to support her. And yes she is distant, but she's sad and scared too.

Borges, Shakespeare's Memory, #1

Borges
Shakespeare's Memory
From the New Yorker Short Story podcast
First published in English, 1998. Airdate of podcast: 12/2012
#1  in the I will read and take brief notes on 300 short stories series

The character in Borges' story is bestowed with Shakespeare's memory. Palaces and caverns.  "Regions... of shadow, regions that he willfully shunned." The narrator tells us that we cannot experience all of our memories at once, that they come to us in parts, and likewise, his slow absorption of WS's memory is revealed to him in the same way. He says that "after some thirty days, the dead man's memory had come to animate me fully." He almost thought he was Shakespeare. He senses a deep guilt in WS's memory. "The offense had nothing in common with perversion...The three faculties of the human soul, memory, understanding, and will are not some mere scholastic fiction." WS was the artist, but the narrator sees his own life as more extraordinary. He eventually cannot bear to be the keeper of the memory, so much agony is he in. He gives the memory, per the ritual, to another keeper, and then must go about trying to erase the WS memory from his mind. "The only solution...strict, vast music, Bach." He concludes, "I am a man among men...Unsettled by small, fleeting memories that are perhaps authentic."

Impressions: feels European, without the dramatic crises we see in contemporary short fiction. But it has deep threads of history and permanence, another characteristic we miss in our internet-fueled consciousness.