Category Archives: Articles/reviews

How to write a how-to book–Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”

Most of us who write, have aspirations to write, or just like reading about good writing and how it’s done have heard of Anne Lamott.  She’s the fine essayistic voice behind such classics as Bird by Bird (her book on teaching writing) and other, more obviously spiritual books such as Help, Thanks, Wow (her book on what prayer is all about) or her books about her son’s and grandson’s youth (Operating Instructions: My Son’s First Year and Some Assembly Required:  My Son’s First Son respectively).  The breadth of the things she can write about (because she also writes fiction) is astounding, but behind it all is a firm grounding in just what makes us human and reachable by others; for Lamott, it’s our sense of humor.

Today, I would like to share just a little of what I think makes for success in her work, and it is this sense of humor she shares with us so readily.  Even when she’s discussing situations in which she has encountered the most fragile of writers’ egos, or the most obnoxious of them, she does so with a rich appreciation of their underlying connection to her and her own experiences.  She shares little snippets of these experiences constantly, and while being aware that she must once have agonized over things just as much as the rest of us do, we are coaxed along through the narrows, shoals, and dead falls of being writers by her amused look at her own trials and difficulties with other writers, publishers, editors, family, and day-to-day confusions.

True, it’s often hard for us to laugh when our own work is concerned, and Lamott discusses at length in several spots how some of her students seemed nearly to want to call her a fraud because she couldn’t give them quick and easy answers about how to get published.  Her take on this whole conundrum was that one should write for the sake of writing, and publish when possible, if possible.  Her final encouraging word seems to be that writing is a spiritual task, a fulfillment of personal goals more precious and worthwhile than the mere search for fame and fortune.  Now, one could also believe that it’s easy for her to say, since she is a famous and respected writer.  Except, of course for the fact that she discusses freely her own search, at first, for fame and fortune, and the sum and total of her book’s argument (though it’s really important to read the whole of her book and not rely just on my word) is that true satisfaction comes not from finding fame and fortune through one’s writings, but from the process, as I know you’ve heard it said before.  It’s just that Anne Lamott makes the best argument for this frequently-cited idea with a grace and hilarity which you won’t find in other writing guides I’m familiar with, where everything is self-serious and clunky, even, full of nice one-liners supported by lengthy paragraphs, which, however well-intentioned, rely on some particular set of tricks of the trade some of which even contradict those in other writing guides.

Lamott is nothing if not blessed with a light touch; this makes her book easy to read, which is not a curse:  it’s free of causing that overwhelmed feeling one often has after reading a writing guide, that feeling of having too much responsibility weighing one down, that feeling of being unequal to the task of writing as advised.  This may be because Lamott doesn’t come up with a particular theory of writing, or support a particular style; instead, she gives general advice about where to seek for material starting out (from one’s childhood, from overheard conversations, etc.), about how to accept criticism in a beneficial manner, about how to know when criticism is not based on good fellow feeling, about how to deal with what publication is really like, about how to deal with writer’s block, and other issues facing those who are rank beginners and who are seasoned writers equally.

Anyone who is interested even in the issue of how other people write whether or not they write themselves might find a good read and more than a few chuckles in this book, which though funny as hell is also gifted with an underlying commitment to the subject that it’s easily possible to sense.  After reading this book and finishing it a couple of days or two ago, I felt the impulse to write an essay other than a literarily-based essay on a work of literary fiction, such as I ordinarily publish here.  Though it doesn’t have the comic power of Anne Lamott, it’s a piece such as she advises us to write, based on things from our own lives, and so I want to share it with you, my audience, and will use it as my next post.  Until then, make an effort to get a read of Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, or indeed any of her others while you are waiting to read that one, and I promise you will be entirely delighted with her material and her voice alike.

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The Best-Laid Plans–Sarah Dunn’s “The Arrangement”

The Scottish poet Robert Burns once famously said, “The best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley,” which is just to say that no matter how well we think we’ve planned, destinies have a way of coming along to f–k us up, the more as we’ve planned the harder.  In the upscale suburban community of Beekman in Sarah Dunn’s hilarious comic novel The Arrangement, the planning concerns marital conditions which range everywhere from ordered though mildly boring to outright acrimonious and divorce-prone.  Different couples in the community, though different in various ways, are mostly the same in the ways they’ve organized their lives around their children’s schools and future well-being, mostly college-bound young people as they are.  Trendy stores and shops are there too, but they are trendy in a very recycling-cum-farmer’s market-cum-craft shop-cum-socially conscious sort of way.

Enter Lucy and Owen, an apparently loving and overwrought young couple dealing with a child under ten, Wyatt, who shows characteristics both of autism and ADD, or even ADHD.  They have done all they conscientiously can to improve his life, but he is totally out-of-control a good part of the time.  This eats away at Lucy, whereas Owen deals with it by strategically (and usually successfully) coming up with redirects for Wyatt’s attention.  The couple also socializes with other couples in the community mostly just as they would were everything “okay,” which is an odd way of pretending that nothing is wrong when it clearly is.  Yet, no reader who has covered the first fifty pages or so would assume that there was anything wrong with the marriage itself, so the “remedy for no disease,” as it were, is odd.  What I mean to refer to is their assumption that they might benefit by adopting an “arrangement” which another couple tells them about at a private dinner they are sharing:  the open marriage.  The couple tells them that the arrangement is only for six months, and that there are ground rules.  They are intrigued, but at first don’t assume it’s an arrangement meant for them.

After a while, however, they finally decide to go ahead with it.  Their ground rules include things like “No texting (or sexting) to the other man/other woman inside the house,” “no falling in love,” “no more than a six month’s time span,” “no discussion of the situation in depth,” etc.  At first, Owen is all excited over the plans, and finds someone almost immediately, a craft store owner named Izzy.  Lucy takes a little longer, but finds someone, Ben, through a friend.  They’ve agreed that they don’t need to discuss things about their meetings, but the funny thing is that they end up lying to each other and being deceitful as if there were genuine, old-fashioned, unequal affairs going on.  And, Izzy ends up intruding into their marriage in a way that’s entirely inappropriate to the arrangement; Owen, over the course of time, realizes that she is sort of “crazy,” as her ex had conveyed to him when they spoke.

A lot of the humor of this book arises from the fulfilling of expectations which should have been perfectly normal with a regular old-fashioned affair, and the odd way both Lucy and Owen are startled when this happens.  There’s also a marvelously funny scene in which the whole community participates in a “blessing of the animals” at the local church, with mismatched and unlikely (and dangerous-to-mix) animals, who abruptly rebel from their owners and commit havoc on the surroundings and on each other:  this is the perfect symbolic scene for the themes of the book, or perhaps I should say the scene is the perfect objective correlative, for the people themselves and how they run their lives.

That the book ends more of less happily is due partly to the fact that Lucy and Owen, after spending time living apart while Lucy is falling out of love with her own friend, Ben, as Owen has done with his, Izzy, manage to get back together.  But for the satirical light of the book, this happens against a backdrop of other couples breaking up or making less happy arrangements for their lives.  To make Lucy’s and Owen’s way a little easier, Wyatt shows some signs of getting less erratic and concentrating more on what people say to him

Note that this book is in no way a heavy duty intellectual challenge.  It’s funny in a light way, well-written and free of most grammar and style errors, and a delight to read for its witty dealings with upper middle-class lives and mores.  It would be good to see other offerings from this author to see if there’re more scintillatingly satirical works in store.

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When truth is reached through shadows and illusions–“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Since I’ve first read the play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”  I’ve often casually wondered why the tale of an alcoholically debauched night between two academic couples, one seasoned and supposedly mature and the other neophyte, should have been given its title, with a major talent of the writing world (who was excluded from academia because she was a woman) featured by name.  At first, I followed up a suggestion, unfounded, made to me by someone who said that as neither of the couples purportedly have surviving children, it was named because Virginia Woolf was not allowed to have a child, due to her bouts of mental illness.  While there may be many truths that history, literary as well as other kinds of history, may hide, I could find no suggestion in what I know of Virginia Woolf to support the theory that she wanted children.  In fact, she apparently turned down Leonard Woolf a couple of times because she wanted to avoid sex and marriage.  Next, my theory became the idea that as marriage is often fearsome and turbulent for many, the title referred to this very desire to avoid marital intimacy.  But then, beginning with George and Martha, the older couple in Edward Albee’s play, all the dirty linen and even the hypothetical dirty linen of marital intimacy is aired in front of the opposite couple, the younger of whom are Nick and Honey, who after a while of this badgering begin to reveal some ugly secrets of their own.  So, I was no further along.

I was perhaps making my mistake, though, by my preference for George’s character, because he is the one who seems at some moments to be the ringleader of the group, though Martha plays a strong hand as well.  He, for instance, christens the “games” of societal frauds and truth-tellings between the two couples, who are spending a sodden late night visit together, Humiliate the Host, Get the Guests, and Hump the Hostess, and he is the senior academic of the group at the college where Nick is also employed.  But this didn’t get me much further, once I decided to try to look at the group more objectively, perhaps, certainly more equally, with each having a part to play.  It’s a funny play, funny in a biting, acerbic, sardonic fashion, which is George’s main mode of utterance most of the time, so I feel I may be excused for at first regarding him as more central than the others.  It’s an odd, surrealistic scene, typical of the ways many people going on a bender feel about their surroundings while they are doing it; I can speak from experience in this regard.  It’s sort of reality turned inside out, with people saying things they normally only think when they are in such a situation, where they mostly stick to polite manners, fighting off drunken impulses even when three sheets to the wind, only discussing the evening frankly with their mates when they arrive home.  But in this case, in different groupings of four, three, and two, they find themselves in a metadialogue, discussing what happens as it happens.

What actually happens here, though, does have something to do with a certain quote from Virginia Woolf, which I uncovered only today:  “A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.”  Martha and George seemingly have a routine they go through around other couples, and an agreement not to discuss their progeny, a son, whom it is difficult to discern if they ever really had.  They keep threatening each other with the revelation of something about him in front of the guests, who are uncomfortable and want not to hear at first, and it’s difficult to know if it’s that he died in an accident caused by himself or George, or that in fact he doesn’t exist.  The suggestions run counter and rampant, but by the end of the play, it would seem (though the one truth is not for certain) that, as they end by telling the guests together, in a seeming truce between them which ends their war of words and threats, they never were able to have a child.  If this is the truth which has caused all their angst and pain, and their conflicts and battles, their use of the other couple to get back at each other, and then their mockery aimed at the other couple, then it has been revealed after a reaching through myriads of shadows and illusions they have created, and it ends the play.  Thus it’s not only a feminist who reaches some form of release and freedom, however temporary, by telling the truth about her life, but both Martha and George, in their drunken revelations and conflicts, who by the end of the play have rehearsed once again (and one feels this play has a repetitive loop sense reminiscent of others like “Waiting for Godot”), and come up with the truth(s) of their life, both the things they pretend, the illusions, and the haunting agony that compels them through their lives.  Martha’s drinking problem in particular is in the forefront of their diatribes against each other, though both imbibe heavily; it is  Martha (in the perspective of 1962, when motherhood was still believed to be more innate and stronger a feeling than fatherhood) whose tragedy it is a little more than George’s that either 1) their son died, or that 2) (as seems more likely, since it occupies the ultimate ending position in the play’s plot) they never had a son.  And yet, both of them tell Honey and Nick at the end that “we” were not able to have a child, which is a sign of their apparent strong and twisted love for each other.

I know I perhaps should have issued a spoiler alert for the benefit of those who have not seen or read this play yet, considering the things I’ve revealed about it, but the point is to read or see it and perhaps get something new from it each time.  An excellent experience is to catch a revival theatre viewing of the version of this play with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, directed by Mike Nichols; I promise for searing, scorching dialogues and portrayals of marital pain, it won’t disappoint.

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Rupi Kaur and “The Sun and Her Flowers”–When simplicity is enough

Upon first perusing Rupi Kaur’s second book of poetry, The Sun and Her Flowers, published in 2017 hard upon the heels of her extremely successful first book, Milk and Honey (which I haven’t yet read), I was at first a little disappointed.  The complicated devices and figures I, at least, prefer to find in poetry were missing.  The poem was a long sort of prose poem of most short, declarative sentences, with a few questions strewn here and there, interspersed with clever sketches of the stages of a woman’s life.  The most complicated comparison seemed to be that of comparing people to sunflowers, which, in the titles of the various divisions of the poem, go through stages of “wilting,” “falling,” “rooting,” “rising,” and “blooming.”  That seemed at first not only too simple, but a little simple-minded.  But something kept me reading, anyway.  Perhaps it was the desire to see the “plot” fulfilled, which is one of the characteristic things analysts say drives the reading of a prose work.  I mean, given the organic governing metaphors, and the theme of “to everything a season,” a certain uplift at the end was to be expected, it was apparent.  Still, this particular evocation of the growing season had somehow become more interesting than just the generalized comparison:  she had sneaked it in on me.

As I read, I followed the poem through the delineation of a violently-inclined love affair and its end, the grief and desolation which follow the ending of even a bad love, the gradual recuperation that, if one is basically life-oriented and sensible, one tries to develop or find, the impulse toward re-growth that follows, and the also gradual rise into a new love and a community awareness of the family as a whole.  But let’s take that a little slower.  The first parts of the poem are addressed to a “you” who is a bad influence; then, gradually the “you” disappears; then it morphs into a “you” who is a sudden and surprising treasure; then, an awareness of the loves of different generations of the family develops; then, a recounting of the difficulties that migration presents even to two parents or forbears who love each other, and a detailing of the anxieties and separations they must endure for their families comes next; then, a modest gesture toward discussing the life of societal pressures and how this affects immigrants in a new country sums up the whole.  Really, by the time I finished the book, I was quite impressed with just how forcefully and completely this poetic vision had fulfilled itself, and all in a series of simple, non-capitalized, mostly unpunctuated sentences.  (Not that capitalization or punctuation are regular in poetry anyway, as a general rule, or that they are to be expected in free verse, but when one is confronted with apparent simplicity as a device, one can begin to question whether or not it’s overdone.  Happily, such was not the end result in this case.)

By this time, I was sufficiently humbled to want to read the graceful (and again, simple) biographical sketch of Rupi Kaur which takes place at the end of the book.  It was a bit vague, and I would have liked more details (which, like jewels, or buds, if one prefers to stick to the organic metaphor, were strewn throughout the summary).  Basically, the artist’s statement was that “I am the product of all the ancestors getting together and deciding these stories need to be told”).  One set of topics which I have not touched upon yet, and which the poem also dealt with in detail was female liberation from the restraints of a conventional and hidebound societal influence, and how various generations of women have achieved it.  As the blurb stated, and as I have in a general way sketched out above were:  “love, loss, trauma, healing, feminity, migration, and revolution.”  That’s just about said it all, but that’s saying a lot.

There are many different styles and kinds of poetry kicking around these days, and everyone can mostly choose for himself or herself which to pursue for edification, but if you read no other book of poetry this year, it’s at least arguable that you should read this one, which is based in technique upon the poet’s experiences in delivering performance poetry in places in Canada, her country of adoption.  After all, you can hardly go wrong with a long poem which has not only an organic metaphor governing its development, organic metaphors consistently expressing things “all flesh is heir to,” but which also describes a particular historical experience of a large group of people.  Give it a read; I think you’ll be both pleasantly surprised and greatly impressed, whatever your first impression, or your overall take on performance poetry.  As for me, at some time in the near future, I’ll be dipping into Milk and Honey by the same author, to see what word experience she started out by allowing me to immerse myself in!  Shadowoperator

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“The Jewel of Seven Stars”–Memory, the Visual, and the Tricks Played by Them

Many years ago, about twenty-five years ago now, I first read Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars.  Bram Stoker, you know?  The same Bram Stoker who wrote the original novel Dracula, about the now-famous vampire(s) and their hunters.  The book I’m writing about today also has to do with the subject of the undead, though of a different kind:  this book has in it as main interest a female mummy.  Other sub-topics include astral projection, reincarnation, and animal sympathies (or aversions), among others.

Now, when I think back on the book as I recalled it from memory, one main image dominated my thoughts; that was of the heroine, Miss Margaret Trelawny, being experimented on by her father and other interested male friends (that sounds lewd, but I don’t mean for it to, or just downright gory and repellent, which I don’t mean for it to either).  I recall an image of her asleep on a bed in a sort of dungeon, with one hand crossed upon her chest; her hand had seven fingers on it, including the thumb.  That was the main governing image I retained of the book, and in order to disenchant the reader from this image, I’m going to issue a spoiler alert, and tell some of the actual book’s secrets.

First of all, the book begins in a somewhat Victorian way, with a just-begun courtship of Miss Trelawny by a somewhat older lawyer, Mr. Malcolm Ross.  He gets drawn into her life because something mysterious is happening in her life, and she calls for his help.  It turns out that her father, who is somewhat stern and forbidding and not well known to her, has been mysteriously attacked in a room in which there was no other living person, only a host of Egyptian artefacts and remnants of a tomb, all of which he had previously transported to his house in England from Eastern sites.  In the course of the investigation, her father, who is unconscious from the first attack, gets attacked several more times, with a near miss or two as well.  There is no visible person or thing to be seen attacking, and this is in spite of a faithful watch kept in the sickroom by Miss Trelawny, Mr. Ross, and several friends and associates including two different policemen, two nurses, a research acquaintance and friend of Mr. Trelawny’s, and a doctor or two.  Which is to say, the contemporary forces of reason and intelligence at the time the book was set in.

The main part of the book takes place between the beginning of the courtship and the time when Mr. Trelawny awakens from his trance, and is comprised of all the guesses and questions (and partial answers) the other characters come up with, especially regarding the female mummy, who has seven fingers on one hand, and whose mummified cat has seven toes, just as Margaret’s pet cat Silvio also does (who for mysterious reasons all his own keeps attacking the mummy cat).  In fact, the number seven is extremely prominent in the story, turning up everywhere.

Here’s the problem:  Margaret only has five fingers on each hand, not the seven I remembered, and it’s not Margaret who, near the end of the story, is experimented on by being placed in a sarcophagus and going through the magical resurrection ceremony that Mr. Trelawny had discovered in his research of the female mummy:  it’s the mummy herself!  All the mysterious suggestions that Margaret and the female mummy are related in spite of space and time are suggestions left tantalizing and unresolved.  And the book has, I will spoil this part too, a happy ending.

While this book is not a masterpiece, not nearly as thrilling and chilling as Dracula, for example, it is a “good read,” and I would certainly recommend it for a few nights of minor suspense.  There are in the book a couple of author’s plot mistakes (places where he contradicts something he previously said).  And, you may find the sentimentality of the love story silly, or annoying.  Never mind; this is a book with sheer entertainment value, and not much actual Egyptology of a genuine kind.  This is a couple of cuts above such books as King Solomon’s Mines and She by H. Rider Haggard, with a frothy charm all its own; or, perhaps given the constant mention of the odor of embalmed beings with all their enchantments and inducements to trance, I should say this book has a smoky charm all its own.  In any case, I’m very glad I read it a second time, and got both the visual image and the plot straight, at least.  Isn’t memory a funny thing?  That one image could leap out at you, and so dominate the surrounding landscape of the rest of the novel as to change one’s memory of the actual plot.  This book has no sense of humor, but it doesn’t need one:  it has mystery, and a mild form of creepiness.  Why not give it a shot?Shadowoperator

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Women without men–short story traditions about toughness and resilience

In 1927, Ernest Hemingway published a collection of short stories called “Men Without Women” in his famous and much-imitated minimalist style.  The stories contained few female characters, but were grouped rather around themes relating to toughness, resilience, and the things which challenge and sometimes defeat these characteristics, especially in the lives of men.  Seventy years later, in 1997/98, the noted Hemingway imitator Richard Ford, writing in his own variation of the tradition, now known as “dirty realism,” published “Women With Men,” in which the toughness of the tone and the themes of finding ways of being resilient (and sometimes not making it) were also prevalent.

Taking place in the same time span, however, two other authors in other parts of the globe were writing on the basic subject of “women without men,” and about the toughness and strength required not of men, but of women, in their places in male-dominated societies.  One was Amador Daguio, writing from the Philippines, and sometimes from other places where he studied away from his home.  The other, a little younger, was Bessie Head, writing from South Africa, living some of her life in exile in Botswana.  Both wrote of tragic situations in the lives of their characters, one, Daguio, of the unhappy end of an otherwise happy relationship, the other, Head, writing about the horrific end of an unhappy relationship.  I’ll delineate some of the plot details of the story I’ve selected from each one, even though to do so is perhaps to spoil somewhat the outcome.  Still, both stories will bear up time and again to readings and re-readings, and the quality is in the writing, not alone in the plot.

In Amador Daguio’s story, “Wedding Dance,” the story takes place in a traditional Kalinga society.  The young man in the story, Awiyao, is on his way to his second wedding, a marriage undertaken purely for the purpose of conceiving a child.  He stops by the home of his true love, his first wife, Lumnay, whom tribal custom allows him to set aside because they have been unable to conceive, after seven years.  Though both of them tacitly acknowledge that the fault may lie with either or both of them, they both adhere to tribal custom, and consider it inevitable, though later Lumnay has a wild moment of considering rushing into the elders’ group and protesting, in effect ending the custom.  He offers her both the hut they have shared together and the field they worked together as hers to keep, but the only thing she asks for is her string of marriage beads, valuable in their own right, and personally valuable to her.  He urges her to attend the dance, and to think of finding a new husband, but she refuses.  The story ends, after she has made an abortive walk to the outskirts of the dance but withdrawn, with an extremely poetic passage, the very opposite of “dirty realism,” and somehow full of the desperate kind of hope that is all she has left, in emotional terms, anyway.  She has gone to the bean field:

“A few more weeks, a few more months, a few more harvests–what did it matter?  She would be holding the bean flowers, soft in the texture, silken almost, but moist where the dew got into them, silver to look at, silver on the light blue, blooming whiteness, when the morning comes.  The stretching of the bean pods full length from the hearts of the wilting petals would go on./Lumnay’s fingers moved a long, long time among the growing bean pods.”

Hope and the celebration of moments of love and affection are all that are left as well in the starker story by Bessie Head, called “The Collector of Treasures.”  In it, Dikeledi Mokopi, the heroine, has been deserted by the husband of her three children, Garesego, for a number of years.  This is after she has already had a hard life as a child and young woman.  Yet still, she is spoken of as “the collector of treasures” because she finds isolated moments of happiness and contentment to buoy her up and carry her through, these moments being her “treasures.”  “She had filled her life with treasures of kindness and love from others and it was all this that she wanted to protect from defilement by an evil man.” Garesego has in fact moved in with a concubine, whose children he treats as his own, and  he never comes to see his own children or take any responsibility for them.  As a counterpoint to this relationship, her new neighbors, who celebrate and come to love her, also take the place unofficially of her lost breadwinner.  Paul Thebolo and his wife Kenelepe, who become her fast friends, supply her in abundance with foodstuffs and household goods in exchange for her crafting and cooking and small hand manufacturing jobs, for which she refuses to take any pay.  Their relationship with each other is one of love and understanding, and Kenelepe, to her husband’s amusement but implied refusal, loves Dikeledi so much that she offers to lend Paul to her for lovemaking, after Dikeledi discusses it with her and she discovers that Dikeledi’s husband never even attempted to love her properly.  But of course, after eight years of happiness, there’s bound to be a snag:  the eldest son of Dikeledi is ready for school, but with all her savings, she hasn’t managed to save enough.  When she approaches Garesego for it, he insults her by casting a supposed relationship with Paul in her face, and then says he will come home so that they can settle their differences.  Dikeledi knows that this means he wants sex, so she sends a message of apparent compliance, and prepares her home.  After he has had one last meal there, and she has given him one last opportunity to say that he will help, which he more or less refuses, she allows him to fall asleep from his heavy meal.  Then, using a knife she had placed in secret at the ready, she cuts off his genitals.  When Paul Thebolo finds out what she has done, he swears to her that they will take her three children and raise them as their own, sending them to school.  The conclusion (which actually takes place in a flash forward at the very beginning of the story) happens in a prison area which Dikeledi shares with other women who’ve committed the same crime.  She settles in and makes herself happy there too, finding someone to love, a friend, and prepares to live out her life sentence.  It is made clear that this is her fate because this is her nature, to be resilient and strong, and to find good things wherever she can to be happy and pleasant about.

Though both men and women in the tradition I’m writing about show strength and resilience, toughness, what the British call the “stiff upper lip” quality of not overly complaining about one’s difficulties, in the stories about women what is emphasized more is the ability simply to endure, to wait, to bear the burdens of life, often in societies that don’t offer them the same outlets as men have.  The story “Wedding Dance,” which ends with an implied parallel between Lumnay’s chances for happiness and the returning of the harvest season each year, suggests that perhaps she will after all accept the offered bean field from her erstwhile husband, and find a way to go on, thus changing in a small way the tradition she speaks about at the beginning, of returning to her parents.  The tradition is broken, of course, in a much more violent and what is usually thought of as a “masculine” way with Dikeledi, who commits murder with a knife in order to keep her life undefiled.  She has, of course, defiled her own hand with the deed, but this crime is a crime for which the author clearly and under the given circumstances shows sympathy and understanding, and implicitly asks the reader to do so as well.

In both cases, the prose, though it mentions rough circumstances and cuts the characters no slack, is clearly different from that of the American precursor authors.  The entirety of “Wedding Dance,” though slightly and strangely atilt from the fact that it is not the two lovers in it who are going to be married, is extremely poetic and flowing, and indicative of love as is often displayed in a line of dance.  In “The Collector of Treasures,” the story uses language as simply as possible, but it looks deeply into the heart of Dikeledi and analyzes her thoughts and feelings in a way that Hemingway and Ford prefer generally not to do, their forte being to get the reader to do the work.  Yet, all four authors are placing their characters in situations that anyone could relate to, and though they are situations very different from each other, they all stem from basic human relations and needs, as all good short stories do, as all good writing does, for that matter.

I hope you have enjoyed this post, readers; it’s the first I’ve had time to do for quite some time, but I hope to be posting more again soon.  If you’re looking for a place where these two stories can both be found together, along with many more, some of which I may also write about soon, look for a 1995 Harper Collins volume, quite large, called Modern Literatures of the Non-Western World:  Where the Waters Are Born.  The editors are Jayana Clerk and Ruth Siegel.  Spring approaches!  Shadowoperator

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Some serious God-talk for a contrary soul, no holds barred: Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers”

To reveal a truth that puts me in the rearguard (if anywhere at all) in the procession of people who expect things from a mysterious eternal source, not only do I refuse to give that source a conventional name, such as Allah, Yahweh, Christ, Buddha, etc., but I find great difficulty in being thankful.  I’m the grumpy child, the child who’s never satisfied, who grouses and complains about everything and wonders why things aren’t different, even though I myself haven’t perhaps done that much to make them different.  To others of more thankful vein, it sometimes seems that I believe we all enter the world with a certain amount of currency to spend, and I’m angry because I got shortchanged by the Powers That Be.  What Anne Lamott instead insists in her guidebook to prayer, Help, Thanks, Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers is that we’re all born with the same spiritual currency, and we can either shortchange ourselves and others, or recharge our “gift cards” by realizing that life is, in fact, a gift, and that we have the power to increase our appreciation and enjoyment of it, and to get both us and others through some of the rough spots.

When I first started reading her book, I found the trustfulness and the willingness to compromise with God annoying (as if one has a choice about compromising with an eternal principle, but then of course, she seems to think we do, in a sense).  She seemed to go from inspiration to inspiration, from eager acceptance of a divine force to a certain easy relationship with it, though she emphasizes throughout the book that these things aren’t true.  I had a certain skeptical “Oh yeah, sez you” attitude about it, which wanted to say that it’s just impossible to be so much on “hail-fellow-well-met” terms with some of the really suckassy things that happen, both in the name of God, and in the name of the negative principle (which some call “evil”), and which we’re asked to believe is a sub-province of God’s concern, one which he or she has reasons, mysterious ones, for not controlling better.

I continued to read, however, waiting for the “punchline,” as if someone were telling me a joke or tall tale; there had to be a punchline, a conversion scene, a “I-can-top-everything-I’ve-already-said-with-something-that’ll-knock-your-socks-off.”  I was getting near the end of the book and thinking that though less talented writers had sometimes given me something significant in less well-crafted words, that this epitome of the golden phrase had for once disappointed, when I found my passage.  This is something that usually happens to people in a prayerful audience when the minister or prayer leader says something that touches home, and then sometimes there’s an invitation to “come on down to the front and worship,” and that part always has infuriated me, and embarrassed me both for myself (my can sunk firmly in my seat, not budging), and for those who drift thankfully and solemnly down to the “front.”  In fact, I have only been in that sort of prayer gathering once or twice as a child or adolescent, the church I mainly attended not being so demonstrative, but existing, however thankfully, on a more “I’ll give you a call from my cell phone later” sort of relationship with divinity.

But certainly, thanks in part to the good humor and honesty of Lamott’s spiritual manual, for it is certainly something anyone in the habit of seeking illumination should have a look at, I had that important “ah-ha!” moment near the end.  I wasn’t expecting it, though so much of value had gone before (and I was sulky about that, because it meant I couldn’t dismiss the book wholesale).  Here, as if she knew me well and knew how many times I have dieted and starved and tried to get my avoirdupois under control, is the passage I ran across, full of simplicity and yet full of her particular brand of jesting about things which we often wince from, when they are dealt with by more solemn or thankless hands:

“You mindlessly go into a 7-Eleven to buy a large Hershey’s bar with almonds, to shovel in, to go into a trance, to mood-alter, but you remember the first prayer, Help, because you so don’t want the shame or the bloat.  And out of nowhere in the store, a memory floats into your head of how much, as a child, you loved blackberries, from the brambles at the McKegney’s.  So you do the wildest, craziest thing:  you change your mind, walk across the street to the health food store, and buy a basket of blackberries, because the answer to your prayer is to remember that you’re not hungry for food.  You’re hungry for peace of mind, for a memory.  You’re not hungry for cocoa butter.  You’re hungry for safety, for a moment when the net of life holds and there is an occasional sense of the world’s benevolent order….So you eat one berry slowly….Wow.  That tastes like a very hot summer afternoon when I was about seven and walked barefoot down the dirt road to pick them off the wild blackberry bushes out by the goats….Wow.”

This seems so colloquial that one might almost miss the artistry.  And because I’m not a happy camper, I demand a certain level of artistry; I tell myself I deserve it, as a professional reader, but perhaps the truth is also that I sometimes engage in games of one-upmanship with other more fortunate writers, who’ve hit the print page.  That is, of course, my privilege, as a trained reader, but it also can blur the distinction between major issues of composition and minor faults or inattentions.  In Lamott’s quoted passage above, she not only hits on a huge human issue, the issue of displacement activity, a psychological phenomenon in which one urge or desire to act is replaced with something apparently less intense (in some cases, not this one, less harmful, as when a bird under challenge from another bird will whet its beak on a branch, or attack something inanimate).  She gets at the issue of real desires vs. cheap replacements that are no good for us.  And, she shifts the narrative from the “you” it starts out in to the “when I was about seven” part as if piercingly aware of the defensiveness people like me have to being rescued by gods.  Now, granted, berries are better, but in my ordinary life, “the wildest, craziest thing” I might do is to go into a health food store and buy blackberries.  Or at least, it runs a close race with other forms of genuine activity, because I’m likely, being on a reduced budget, to convince myself that berries at a health food store are way more expensive than a candy bar, which is cheap eats for all who dare disregard their health.  At any rate, this was my passage, the passage that particularly touched me.  It reminded me of all the times my five-year-older aunt and I rode up into the country with my grandfather on his repair truck (he worked for the Coca-Cola Co., and the big supply trucks often overheated or broke down up in the hills where they travelled in the summer).  My aunt and I usually found berry bushes, totally wild and unsprayed because they belonged to the earth, not to farmers or growers, and we collected and ate berries to our hearts’ content.  Now, my aunt is in a nursing home and will probably continue there, despite the fact that she is not very elderly, because she had a brain bleed about a year ago which decreased her ability to function.  Trying to take a page from Anne Lamott’s book, I attempt to place the one experience of her, speaking haltingly to me over the phone, side-by-side in the eternal scales with my youthful experience of gathering berries together, and thanks to Lamott, it’s a bit easier to do, even for someone like me, who feels a little safer on the non-trusting side of life.

So, that’s really all I had to say:  Lamott’s book is a lovely book, one that you may fight with as you like, but that may turn out to have something for you too in it, even if you are not profoundly spiritual, as I believe she must be.  After all, you don’t have to say “God,” or even “god,” or even “goodness me!” if you don’t want to.  All that’s required is a mindful attention to the up currents as well as the down currents, and a resolve to be a better, or at least a more completely whole, person. shadowoperator

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“Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel”–Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself”

As the French playwright and thinker Jean Racine once claimed, “Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel.”  Horace Walpole echoed the sentiment, but put the two clauses in the reverse order.  Whatever the order, the sentiment is one that often applies to the way fiction, not to mention drama, works.  The unique thing about the work of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is that it produces both feelings at the same time in those who read it, not the usual sense of tragicomedy, but a studied blankness of effect and affect both at the end of each of her short stories in this book, which bears the subtitle “Love Stories.”  And this is not a case in which one can blame the translation, which those who know Russian claim is an adept one (by the translator Anna Summers, who has translated others of Petrushevskaya’s works as well).

I say that there is a “studied blankness of effect and affect both” because there is:  the blankness of effect is contained in the continual twist which takes place at the end of each short story, where one is expecting a sense of resolution.  There is in each case a sense of nothing really being resolved, but a sense of reality, of truth to real life and to the way thing actually happen, of the oftentimes inconclusive result even of big events in life.  Just because so many other fictions proceed by well-worn formulas, this lack of final effect produces its own sense of surprise and shock, and often a rueful chuckle at one’s own expectations.  The blankness of affect relates to the marked restraint of feeling in the narrator’s exposition of her characters and their situations:  she doesn’t feel sorry for them in the conventional sense, doesn’t play sad little violin solos on her creative instrument, and doesn’t encourage the reader to feel sorry for them either.

And yet, one does feel for these characters, when all is said and done.  It’s the author’s own sense of balance and discipline in dealing with the sorrowful facts of these character’s lives, with their strange and funny solutions to their predicaments, with their often unmerited suffering and undeserved rewards, which make this book the book it is.  It’s as if the author took a whiny, mournful, disgruntled little series of events, and removed the vital connections of characters’ trajectories up and down in feeling and action, and instead put a laugh here, and a poignant remark there, in places where they weren’t before expected.  And she doesn’t pull her punches, or bestow or waste any sympathy on her characters; such sympathy as they deserve, they may or may not get from the other characters (and in a final way from the reader, at the end of each story), but they don’t get it from the narrative voice, which is calm and full of detail and fact, but which only supplies these and insists that the reader come to his or her own conclusions.  Yet, from this restrained puppeteering, there is tenderness, coming from who can say where?  All one knows when reading is that Petrushevskaya is like a canny and watchful parent, who without apparent doting or pride harshly pushes her progeny forth, in such a way that she cunningly wins that doting for them from the audience, who feels for them that they have such a dragon of a progenitor that they surely deserve to be lauded and made much of by their auditors.

Even the title of this book is one which bestows that strict tone of restraint on events:  the major events of that story, “there once lived a girl who seduced her sister’s husband, and he hanged himself,” are ones which are taken away from the reader who hopes to follow the path of major events.  The title instead insists that there is something else of importance, and it is thus that the reader must enter the story and supply the feeling, the startlement, the connections between event and feeling.  This is a book which rewards curiosity and investigation well, and which gives the reader sated by ordinary fictional motifs and sallies the charge of a lifetime.  I hope you will read it soon, and discover just how original a talent Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is.

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My all-time favorite Halloween movie, and why (without spoilers)–“An American Werewolf in London”

Now it’s time, my readers, for my nearly annual Halloween post, and though I would like to cast a few shivers down your spines myself, for the sheer glory of being able to say that I could write almost anything and get by with it, I’m not talented in several directions, and that’s one of them.  As well, it may sound funny to say that a particular film is my “favorite” scary film, when I have not made a habit in even the slightest way of either watching scary films or posting on them.  Nevertheless, to my way of thinking (and when I was young I did have a penchant both for scary films and television shows, when I could sneak them past the household censor), this is the film to which no other scary  film I’ve seen trailers of quite manages up, and the standard by which I measure all chills and thrills of that kind:  “An American Werewolf in London.”  Here’s why:

There is a strong human emotional response to being frightened, and that is to giggle nervously, as if hoping that it is all a joke, and not true.  Films and fictions which play off that reaction are usually more successful simply because (for example) a dessert which has both sugar and a little salt in it tastes better than a dessert would just with sugar:  the “salt” of the successful horror film is the comic moment (as in, “I’m taking this with a grain of salt,” indicating only partial belief, hence the tendency to giggle, as if being teased).  This moment seems to reassure us that all is not as bad as it would seem.  But of course, in a true horror film, once that comic moment has passed, a truly horrific scene follows, and if done correctly, scares us even more.  Some films have played on this, but none I’ve encountered do it quite as well as this by now venerable movie.

For example, this movie has not one but two stock or stereotypical kinds of situations to play off of, both of which it uses to both comic and horrific advantage:  the horror film’s moments of heightened activity, such as the witches’ den and the warning given there, the original werewolf’s initial attack, complete with only partial visuals of slavering jaws and reddish eyes, the results of the first attack along with the discounting of the werewolf story by local police, and so on and so forth.  The second strain of stereotype is a play on the by-now-familiar ruefully comic routine concerning the naïve or innocent American in the Old World, of which London is the example in this case, though of course the story must begin on the moors, as is only appropriate and conceivable, playing on both American and British urban suspicions of rural settings and the people there.  Though there are also moments of gore, they are not in the forefront as much as in more recent films (or at least, in the trailers I have seen, and yes, ignored), as this movie is quite intelligent and doesn’t depend entirely on the “oh, gross!” factor for its success.  Of course, there must be a love interest, which in this film is played by the lovely and extremely talented Jenny Agutter, as a nurse in love with the young American.

Without spoiling it for you (and believe me, I haven’t begun to tell you about all the scary and funny moments of this film), I cannot do more to persuade you to see this film for the first time, or if you’ve already seen it, to see it again.  So, have a happy, scary, safe and funny Halloween, and don’t eat too much candy (you never know when you might need to run from a monster or visiting American on the loose)!

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Heat, love, fear, discovery–literary suspense in Pen’s and Bruni’s “Desert Flowers”

Paul Pen’s novel Desert Flowers, translated by Simon Bruni, begins with a simple, natural, and graceful flow of narration as–and for that matter stands as–an overwhelming and sometimes frightening testimony to family and parental love, no matter the cost or parents involved.  Daily routines, though sometimes seeming a trifle eccentric to one or the other of the family’s members, are the accepted currency from each of them to the others, the things they are teased about or provoked into sharing and demonstrating.  And though romantic love “like that in the novels” between individuals, whether younger or older, is featured as a corollary subject, it is made to seem smaller, less compelling, and in the end less significant in some respects, than the deep and abiding love that a child and parent (or the two parents of a child) have for each other, even when one or both are in the wrong.

Desert Flowers, named for the mother and five daughters at the center of the novel’s focus, all of whom have floral names, is also a tense and original suspense novel, one which manages to paint in the hues and tones of mystery here and there amidst the familial picture as it develops.  It is possible almost to breathe in the sere desert air, to observe the changes of morning, night, sunrise, twilight, to sense the quotidian dangers of the plants and animals around about, to live with the characters in their pictured surroundings as the prose first pauses, then races ahead, then takes a moment to accustom the reader to variations of momentum and balance as quickly changing as a desert sky and as awe-inspiring.  After a heart-stopping opening prelude introducing the parents, Rose and Elmer, at night, when they at first believe (prophetically enough) that there is an intruder in the house, we change to a slow adagio of a first movement, which blends various repeated melodies of the family’s daily harmonious routines, making them seem uncharacteristically bland at first by comparison with Rose’s initial panic, which smacks more of the usual self-proclaimed suspense novel.  When the reader has been kept waiting a bit impatiently to find out the cause of her alarm for a sufficient period of time in which to wonder about Rose herself, however, the pace quickens suddenly and unexpectedly with the addition of a different theme of a stranger appearing without warning in the center of the family group when Elmer is away from home.

As with many real situations, the characters Rose, Elmer, and the young stranger, Rick, end up playing a game with each other in their struggles to one-up the opponent without departing from the strictures of good manners and seemly deportment.  But little by little, a second movement of the piece develops after an interlude of time when Rick is trying to piece together clues about his host and hostess and their family, almost as if he has some reason or other to find them suspect.  In this second movement, it is rather Rick who emerges as the questionable party for a time, and we follow his footsteps as he does things which do not suggest that he is a good guest or at least not one without flaw.

To continue the metaphor of a piece of music, the third movement is a movement of secrets half-revealed, with all three of the adults participating in the jumps of logic and understanding taking place, a movement of back-and-forth recriminations and accusations, whether made silently in the quiet of the desert night and one’s own mind, or in the daylight confrontations amongst the three of them.  Though the book has been an interesting and pleasurable read up until now, it is this movement which produces that frisson of luxurious fear in the readers’ minds, and a temptation to start choosing sides.  But that must not be yet, for there are two more movements to come, and compelling reasons why all three adults are vital and worthwhile beings.

The fourth movement is one of quick and unanswerable violence and retribution, yet exactly who is being punished?  The answer is not as obvious as it might otherwise seem to be, as even the children come in for their share of the suffering, however unnecessary or undeserved.

The fifth movement is one full of surprises, not only plot twists and a final, rewarding fictional ending that has elements both of justice served and of a cliff-hanger; there are also surprises, here at the very end, in some of the characters, whom one might otherwise have thought of as already fully developed.

All in all, this is a fine work of what one must after all call literary suspense fiction, since it has both the evocative and lovely language of the portraiture of the characters’ surroundings and the terse, carefully underwritten language of the literary thriller.  It’s not often that a book which starts out so very innocently and wholesomely, with a family’s daily concerns and small victories and challenges, has one unable to stop turning pages by a little before the middle of the text, but so it is here.  I would recommend it to anyone who truly enjoys literary suspense.  Shadowoperator

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