Category Archives: Reading

More short stories and Donne

“The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawhtorne
Interesting, however instructive. The sort of thing that would be tough to get away with in modern times. Well-constructed, varied, yet formal sentences that make for a smooth and engaging read. As for the meaning, it is summed up by the last line: “The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and living once for all eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.”

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson

The fact that we don’t know for sure until the end of the story is what makes this story so good. These townspeople seem pretty normal, but then there’s this feeling throughout the story that there’s something not quite right, and then the bottom falls out. The reader is shocked and provoked because the implication is that a person will go along with just about anything if they are conditioned by social tradition and expectation. Sadly, there’s truth in that.

“Go And Catch A Falling Star” by John Donne

Oh, please. Women are coming into their own, but it’s men who try to insure the continuance of their genetic substance through playing the odds. Perhaps in Donne’s time things were different because women were oppressed and not encouraged to love, but to learn to love the men who were picked for them. That must have been hard to fake. Go and catch a falling star? You whiny poet penis. Was this your excuse for celibacy or buggery? Had you ever even loved a woman?

 

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Some short stories and a poem

“The Overcoat” by Gogol

I know Gogol was a realist, that he preferred to write about “dull and repulsive” characters, but there does seem to be an optimism there. However mundane Akaky’s work and life are, there is still this possibility that hovers beneath the surface of the story, telling the reader to choose creative work, that if one isn’t lucky enough to secure a life’s work doing something creative then it’s essential to have some kind of creative outlet. Also, this story demonstrates the tragedy that there are some people who work and work and work for so little material reward. Blah. Blah. Blah. The story just made me think how having creativity and love are what make life worth living. Akaky was dull and repulsive, but there was a hint that he could have been something more, and that is why we care about his sad fate, and why his story makes us reflect and take inventory of our own lives.

“A Company of Laughing Faces” by Nadine Gordimer

“She longed to break through the muffle of automatism with which she carried through the motions of pleasure. There remained in her a desperate anxiety to succeed in being young, to grasp, not merely fraudulently to do, what was expected of her.” This story is about loss of innocence and how society, its expectations and conventions, assault the individual. The “one truth and the one beauty” for Kathy is not just the sight of the dead boy, but also what he stood for: innocence, curiosity and awe.

“Young Goodman Brown” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

How easily our faith is shaken. Hawthorne’s naming of Goodman Browne’s wife was no accident. Evil exists. People are weak and flawed. You’ll be miserable if you let the knowledge of that shake you.

From “He is More Than a Hero” by Sappho

“If I meet you suddenly, I can’t speak—my tongue if broken; a thin flame runs under my skin, seeing nothing, hearing only my own ears drumming, I drip with sweat, trembling shakes my body and I turn paler than dry grass. At such time death isn’t far from me.”

In my experience, I’ve only felt this way about someone who is still what I imagine them to be, because I haven’t spent sufficient time with them to see them for who they really are. This kind of infatuation is more of a self-love—a worshipping of our own imagination. There are far deeper loves, though they are less showy, than that.

“Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston

I admire authors who do dialect well. It’s something I’m not so confident in. Maybe I lack a refined sense of the sound of language. Maybe I’ve focused too much on word meanings. Anyway, Sykes got what he deserved and now Delia can live free. This story seems to be warning about how our sins come back to haunt us—snake and all.

 

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"Up At A Villa" Helen Simpson

“Up at a Villa” by Helen Simpson (in Zoetrope)

The writing is good. The cynical tone is consistent and reinforced by the author’s masterful use of description. In the opening lines, for example, sh writes,

“They were woken by the deep-chested bawling of an angry baby. Wrenched from wine dark slumber, four of them sat up, flustered, hair stuck with pine needles, gulping awake with little light breaths of concentration. They weren’t supposed to be here, they remembered that. They could see the baby by the side of the pool, not twenty yards away, a furious geranium in its parasol shaded buggy, the large pale woman sagging above it in her bikini.”

I didn’t care for the story. The parents are passed out drunk by the side of a pool and their baby is just sitting there by the side of the pool in a buggy? These seem like sophisticated people. Baby’s dad is too busy reading the “Times” to take any notice of the child and in fact is irritated by the baby’s presence. He tells his wife that he’s not attracted to her post-pregnancy body. The young couple with them are even shallower than the young parents. I’m left thinking that these two must have made the decision to have a child, there are other options after all. They must have gone through nine months of development and anticipation. They must have, filling their own roles, experienced childbirth. Where are the signs of that? I cannot like or sympathize with these characters. The story ends with a flight—an adrenaline rush as the two couples flee from detection (they’d snuck in to a hotel pool) and ends with a “photographic instant” of the “little family frozen together”. The ending predicts a continuation of the dead relationship this couple has with each other and with their child. A relationship that doesn’t even hint at any intention, any complexity, any love, not even to show how small it is in comparison to the selfishness and insecurity. The description was dreamy and affecting, but the story didn’t seem real and the characters were all pathetic.

This makes me think of what I was reading last night by Gogol on realism, “But the author who dares to bring all that he sees out into the open is otherwise. All those things that indifferent eye fails to notice—all the slimy marsh of petty occurrences into which we sink, all the multitude of splintered everyday characters who swarm along the drab, often painful road of life—he shows them clearly in relief, thanks to the power of his merciless chisel, so that the whole world may view them.” Perhaps this is what Simpson is doing in “At the Villa”, but still, I can’t help but think that her characters are too shallow to be real.

 

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The Yellow Wallpaper by C.P. Gilman

What a fabulous story! I don’t care that it may be a bit contrived, a bit heavy-handed, the symbol of the woman in the wallpaper too obvious for our modern times. It’s just so perfect, right down to the final image of the woman (no name?) crawling over her painted control-freak husband (John–common name) again and again and again. The language is perfect. The words all right and wonderfully suggestive and full of wit. And…in its time a broad social critique.

 

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"A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings" by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez

The second sentence, “The world had been sad since Tuesday”, is just excellent. It introduces the central idea of this story, the self-centered nature of human beings which leads to complicity in wrong, even downright cruelty, and definitely neglect. Things are not going well for Pelayo, Elisenda and their sick child, hence, the world is sad. A pathetic fallacy. This is again demonstrated in the couple’s exploitation of the “angel” man to gain wealth and security and in how Elisenda regards the man’s appearance around the house as annoying and like living in a “hell full of angels”. All the characters in the story can only think of how the winged man can help or hinder them. It’s only when Pelayo cares for the man for the first time–giving him a blanket and a shelter to sleep under that the angel becomes well enough to fly away. Elisenda is happy that the angel is gone “because he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the sea. ” This couple’s reluctance to be compassionate and complete lack of curiosity or desire to cultivate their own sense of the fantastical shows their self-centered, mundane existence keeping crabs out of their home. I think there is also a message here about how people are willing to entertain ideas as long as they are convenient to them, such as the existence of angels.

 

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"A Simple Heart" by Gustave Flaubert

Felicite, ironically named, is never happy. Her life is full of devotion, submission and servitude. She is uneducated. She does not think for herself or have any hobbies or ambitions of her own. Her love is excessive and largely unappreciated and unreturned. There are some occasions where she receives objects of affection from her mistress and her nephew, but never any substantial gestures of love. She clings to these objects in an excessive, pathetic way. In truth, I don’t feel sympathy for her because she has no self, no identity to connect with. She clings to trinkets and remnants of lives she lived through. She is, as the title suggests, simply heart, without inspiration or direction or any of the complexity that is being human. It’s appropriate that she eventually goes blind–she’s blind all along, blindly devoted, which even for someone as simple hearted and “single-minded” as she is, does not lead to happiness or contentment. It’s a dead life she lives, full of relics of the dead, waiting for her own death.

 

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"Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m not sure what to make of the title, except that maybe it refers to the change in the main character and how visiting the city he spend his youth frivolously in causes him to reflect on the change.
This is a sad story. Even with films like Mr. Mom to pave the way for change, we still live in a society that is slow to forgive the sins of fathers and reluctant to entrust them with nurturing tasks. I was annoyed at the end when the fact that the aunt had a headache prevented Charlie from gaining custody of his daughter and that he didn’t try more desperate measures to get custody.

 

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"The Open Boat" by Stephen Crane

I love this story! Crane’s portrayal of life’s irony and the wit and care he takes to portray it makes this story thought-provoking and affecting.
One of my favorite lines is: “The injured captain, lying in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection and indifference which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring when, willy-nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down.” The mocking tone of this line makes dejection absurd. Silly humans with our silly notions of invulnerability!

 

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