Category Archives: A prose flourish

“Preparations for Grace, or, What to Do When the Music Stops Playing”

A good many years ago now, when I was an awkward adolescent making timid but determined steps forward in an avocation of being culturally aware, there was a sponsorship group known as the Community Concert Association which made it possible for moderately well-known musical artists, soloists, and dancers or dance troupes to tour our complacent little backwater of a town.  Our town would possibly have been omitted from this flattering arrangement if it had been one whit smaller, more rural, or deeper in the surrounding countryside.  There was also the fact that it was the county seat, and had a number of professional people from larger areas and more prestigious educational systems living and raising families in what they thought of as a “safe” and unremarkable place.  I was fortunate enough to have a mother who, though a widow, thought it important to make such performance viewing opportunities available to me, and so she set aside part of her small income, stretching it enough to cover my attendance at the season of concerts and ballets each year.  It was just a taste of intellectual freedom and enjoyment, just enough to set my appetites for more as I grew older.  I can still remember sitting in a crowd composed mainly of adult couples up in the balcony, where I had chosen to sit so that I could see better in the crowded high school auditorium.  The seats were not ranked according to preferential spots as they are in most performances; it was first-come, first-served, and the balcony meant that I didn’t have to look over heads or miss the echoes of the music that floated up into the overarching ceiling.

I can still remember, and in fact except for a blurred recollection of many a night taken together, one night stands out as the symbolic equivalent of the whole endeavor, which took place during the 1970’s, when the entire area was burgeoning and growing with cultural and monetary progress, which only began to recede again once the mid-80’s were over.  But let me concern myself with this one night, which stands out for me as the epitome of grace and accomplishment, though initiated by a failure, of sorts.  It’s a shame that I didn’t know at the time just how strongly this impression would stay with me, and that I didn’t preserve the dance program, or remember the male dancer’s name.  But perhaps by consecrating his memory in a stray paragraph or two, I have more accurately or feelingly preserved his moments with us on stage, which just dropping a name or a company moniker would not do, as that would only commemorate his gift to us for those who are knowledgeable enough to be acquainted with his or their work, and would neglect to foster awareness of just what he gave to me and others that night for everyone to understand.

The first few performances of the evening were by small ensembles of dancers, round dances and pas de deux and other such exhibitions of talent.  And don’t get me wrong, all of those artists, as far as I can recall, were quite accomplished.  But they were in no way remarkable each from the other, but were just as good as they were supposed to be.  They filled the bill, as it were.  Finally, as the last performance of the evening, the single male dancer who was going to dance alone came out to thunderous applause, which was possibly because he was known to be someone more important than the other dancers had been, the troupe’s manager, for example, or possibly because the county audience had more or less had enough for one evening, and was looking forward to the last moments of the night’s performance.  He took his place on stage, struck a pose, and waited.  And waited.  There was a moment’s shrill squawk from backstage, then a tearing sound, then a wail.  Still composed, he broke formation, stepped to the side of the curtain, and spoke with someone behind the scenes.  We saw, I saw, him hesitate for just a split second before something in his manner seemed to state, “Right.  Okay.  Well, we’ll just have to see what we can do about that.  We’ll have to go ahead.”  As it turned out–and as he stepped forward to the footlights to explain to us in broken English heavily accented with Russian, or Slavic overtones–the tape had broken which contained his music.  Seemingly unfazed by this, he proposed to us that he would dance without the music.  There was a slight murmur from the crowd, presumably because now there was nothing to tap one’s foot to, and such a small-town area as this was not overly fond of male dancers as it was.  The immodestly tight tights, and all that.  Male friends of mine who were taking lessons in the only dance studio in town had already encountered such prejudices.  But from his first leap high in the air, the audience seemed to waver, and change its mind:   he was dancing in time to something which he could hear and we couldn’t, quite obviously.  We watched him and marveled as he swept and swooped and cast himself upward like a reverse waterfall, and then came down again on both feet, and then started the whole thing all over again, with what seemed like a magical ability to keep pace with some hidden music.  And in fact, that’s what he was doing:  showing an extraordinary degree of preparation for moments of grace when he could have gone away and protested that someone or something he counted on had failed him.  When he was eventually done, he struck a strong, masculine, and thoroughly accomplished pose on stage and let us look at him, the man who could suggest musical tones just by imagining them clearly enough.  To my great delight, the audience loved him.  When the troupe came out, group by group, he got the largest round of applause; his own troupe applauded him as well.

I hesitate to draw a moral from a tale like this, because it seems preachy and overly goody-goody.  Suffice it to say, that when my own Ph.D. instructors told me about what my task in passing a Ph.D. exam ultimately consisted in, and they used the expression “Grace under pressure,” I knew what they meant, whether I can be said to have succeeded in showing it or not.  It meant that I was going to have to leap high whether there was any music for me or not, and that the audience expected to be pleased whether or not I was feeling harmonious at the time.  I needed to rely, that is, on hearing inner harmonies, and seeking out whatever grace I had come equipped with already.

On a lighter note, I was also privileged to see yet another exhibition of grace under pressure from a beautiful troupe of ballet dancers, mostly female, who were onstage up in Toronto during the time I attended graduate school there.  They had been passing round and round on stage in a circle, doing parts of Swan Lake, when suddenly amidst the exhibitions of fluttering tutus and pointing toes there struck a huge clunking noise.  The noise itself detracted from the visual elements, though it wasn’t easy to see what had caused it.  The ballerinas continued to circle, some dropping out at the wings, some swooshing into the line from the same spots, and all circling close and closer to the front of the stage.  Imagine the audience’s surprise when, just as the twelfth or so ballerina bent gracefully over her own toes, she also picked up a huge semi-circular object and carried it out of the round when next she exited!  There was some nervous laughter as the watchers realized that the ballerinas had been dancing around a heavy weight which had fallen from the ceiling, which could have struck or tripped up any of them, and yet, since it didn’t, they had chosen the neatest, most audience-friendly way of removing it so that their fellows wouldn’t fall over it.  Again, there’s no fail-safe remedy for such moments, such unpredictable moments, but there are people who manage to incorporate the grace notes and arpeggios of chance into their routines, and those people, to my way of thinking, make their own sort of music and sound their own sorts of rhythm for the universe.

We all have moments when we are in tune with something we can’t name, which yet fills us with a nameless sort of confidence and then leaves again before we can get its calling card or take its number down, something which is too busy in the universe to allow any of us to hog it.  But we can prepare to greet it on those odd occasions when it walks up, slaps us on the back, gets our suggestions, and makes off again while we run off to tell the other so-and-sos in our life whom we met.  As far as I know, the best way of being prepared for it to call again is to celebrate it when it comes, because as we know, everyone likes to hear himself or herself mentioned with approval; and who’s to say that grace isn’t like the rest of us, waiting to be approved of and mollified?  In any case, rejoicing is rare enough, and we can all rejoice together when we witness an instant of grace, our own or someone else’s.  And together we can hear the music of what was intended for us, even if it sometimes seems, as it sometimes does, that the music has been borne away, the tape rent, the trumpeter silenced.  The music is ours, from the time we make it ours until it accompanies us through the final performance, and we strike the last post and wait for applause, the music that, though others may not be able to hear it, we can imagine as we dance, and can set our steps to, all the way to the very end.

©4/21/2019 by Victoria L. Bennett

(P.S. to my readers–This is my essay which was inspired by a reading of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.)

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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 Private Lives of Cats”–a runaway bestseller?

For months now, people have been mentioning to me a book called The Secret Life of Bees, so dutifully, I’ve put the book on one of my library websites and am waiting for it to get off a waiting list.  In the meantime, however, and due to various promptings from my feline companion, Lucie-Minou, a ravishing calico torbie young lady who will be 4 years old on July 2, I’ve been speculating that perhaps there needs to be a (yet another, yes) book about cats which details and examines issues including their innermost secret thoughts, longings, urges, and etc., as far as these can be determined by a mere human audience.  Always taking into account, of course, that cats are natural performers, not like dogs, rollicking clowns, but sleek, Oscar-winning stars of the show.

But let’s get first things first, you say.  What’s a calico torbie?  A calico torbie is a three-way cross between a calico (black, white, and orange), a tabby (in this case gray and brown) and a tortoiseshell (markings like a tortoiseshell, in various cat colors).  And Lucie-Minou says, “Now that you’ve satisfied your profoundly repugnant concern about the colors of my fur, let’s get on with it!”

What do Lucie-Minou and Fluffy and Pom-pom and Sylvester and Hector and Gilgamesh and Chloe and Bella all think about while peering forth out of sometimes narrowed eyes at the world?  When hiding under the edge of the bed with two feet peeking out, what personal history of grandeur makes them assume that humans will be able to resist touching the two little feet, or tickling the little back where it lies curled?  When Lucie-Minou leaves the bedroom at night after I tell her “Goodnight, sweet kitty,” (hoping of course that she’ll curl up at my shoulder and stay), does she simply go into the other bedroom and sleep on the pile of clean, unsorted laundry, where I’ve found her when I seek late at night, or is she secretly planning a coup, involving her Fancy Feast Broths, or perhaps the space on the couch that is in contest between her and my guests?

I know, of course, that she recalls her own past life (and that of her ancestors) as royalty in ancient Egypt, and any time I forget and tickle her tum, she puts up with it for a bit and then gives me the not entirely civilized reminder of a paw on my hand with a claw just barely extended.  But what, what, what, is she thinking while she suns herself by the living room window, or is she merely sunbathing as we all do after a long, hard winter?And what is the mystery about her and the opera?

About her and the opera, you say?  What do you mean?  Well, it’s like this.  Every night of the week, our local classical radio station broadcasts the music of all sorts of classical composers, as it does all day, for that matter.  When Lucie-Minou and I are ready for bed, I take a book or my crochet and turn in, and put the radio on.  And she jumps up on the bed and both purrs and kneads her claws in the covers as the music plays.  She will stay until I turn the music off most times.  But woe and betide! On the two weekend nights, the station plays opera, and Lucie-Minou, in her apparent abhorrence or disdain (which is it?) for the human voice as an instrument leaps off the bed and goes to sit alone in the living room for the evening.  I’ve learned (or been trained) to cut off the radio or not even turn it on those nights in order to keep her with me.  So far so good, she is indifferent to opera.  She has a right to her choice.

But then, what’s so special about the opera “Norma”?  For, I have a subscription online to opera, and I decided the other day to play “Norma,” which I had never heard before.  Now, Lucie-Minou has many times heard me play the operas during the daytime, when I am in my chair in the living room, where she often likes to sit (at opera-less times) on my lap.  But her reaction to the opera has basically been the same as usual:  she goes into another room, sulking or not, it’s hard to say.  When the beginning strains of “Norma” sounded, however, she just twitched her ears slightly and maintained her position on the carpet, a little ways away.  It’s a short opera, only two acts, and as the action hetted up and the singing became more impassioned, she glanced at me curiously, which means with wider eyes than usual, because though cats are constitutionally curious, you can rarely get a self-respecting cat to admit that humans are interesting, or at least not often.

Suddenly, to my great surprise, she launched herself up onto my computer table, and then strolled across my midriff and sat herself down, in between me and the laptop, apparently so that she could see and hear better.  She sat there, ears still twitching, for a good half hour, so that I felt like saying “Down in front!” since she was very slightly obscuring my view.  Then, when her basic questions were satisfied, such as why a Druid priestess would fall in love with a Roman general, and why they spent so much time mewing at each other instead of chasing back and forth across the scenery, one in pursuit, one fleeing, she got off my lap, but continued to sit by my chair, apparently listening, until the opera was over!  When the introductions and interviews came on at the end, she took her leave from the room, and when I went to look for her, she was having a post-performance luncheon at the silver bowl.  No clapping for her!  So, what provoked this change of heart, and was it only the one opera that she liked?  Should I try “The Barber of Seville” again?  Or perhaps, with a bit more caterwauling, “Carmen”?

Yes, it’s all still a mystery to me.  But I live in hope that someone, someday, will write a book entitled The Private Lives of Cats.  Or something like that. 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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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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Gathering material for a memoir: “A Cat’s-Eye View of These Mean Streets”

Dear Loyal Readers,

I believe that it has now been roughly two months since I regularly posted anything to this blog, and while that is outrageous, I had my reasons, namely that first, I was completing crochet projects for Christmas, and then that (regrettably but unavoidably) I picked up a nasty laryngitis-sore throat bug during the holidays themselves, and was busy trying not to be too miserable, so as not to ruin my own and others’ good time.  But by way of apology, I would like to offer you my first ever guest post, done by an aspiring author who is handicapped by the absence of opposable thumbs, and digits on her little mitts long enough to type with.  She is my new roommate, Lucie-Minou, and we not only share living space now, but also share the same last name; that is, if I can ever effect change of her opinion that she adopted me, whereas I think I adopted her.  For now, she will only consent to be called “Lucie-Minou,” which is a Frenchified name given her because when I heard her say “Miaow,” and not “Meow,” I knew that she would prefer it.  Since I am only her amanuensis for this post, however, let me cease typing my own greetings, and give you the direct words (as far as I can claim to understand by inference and occasional miaows and lots of purrs and pats with a paw) of the aspiring author who has been staring out windows to gain perspective, and gathering materials for a memoir of her life up to now.  I suspect that her efforts will also owe something to fiction, due to the number of times she’s knocked down the same books from the lower shelves until they lie by her food bowl, apparently for reading with her meals.  So far, her interests seem to lie with Jane Smiley’s Ordinary Love and Good Will, Barbara Howes’s edition of The Eye of the Heart:  Short Stories from Latin America, a pocket anthology of Robert Frost’s Poems (edited by Louis Untermeyer), e.e.cummings’s Erotic Poems, Loomis’s and Willard’s Medieval English Verse and Prose, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Collected Novellas.   Here, then is Lucie-Minou:

“Bonjour, mes amis!  There, we’ve now settled the question of whether I know any French for real and true.  I have to say that I pride myself on being able to be a sort of universally acceptable speaker, and frankly Shadowoperator is being a bit pretentious in assuming that my miaows are perfect enough to suit the French, certainly at least the Parisians, who themselves are very particular about their language.  Furthermore, as we are learning by our reading of a book loaned us by a friend who also is allowed to share space with a cat (Patricia Barey’s and Therese Burson’s Julia’s Cats:  Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats), “Minou” is a masculine cat name, not usually used for a female cat.  Still, I find it acceptable because I am in some ways an old-fashioned girl, and don’t mind bearing my father’s or my erstwhile husband’s last name, whichever of them gave it me (philandering husbands are a sore subject with me, however, best left out of the memoirs).

But on to my working life.  Right now, I am putting together materials in my head for a memoir, called tentatively A Cat’s-Eye View of These Mean Streets, about my early life (which to this point remains shrouded in mystery, except that I have a birthdate of 7/2/14), and then my woeful sojourn on the streets of a small Vermont town, belly swollen with young after being put out by my faithless human friends for something which was not, after all, my fault.  I was, however, lucky soon to find other human friends, who though they couldn’t keep me were able to bring me to a shelter, where I introduced myself to Shadowoperator and her nephew Charles when they came in requesting a cat.  Well, I may be a bit shy, but after all, I too am a literary cat, though at that point one with few options other than to present myself, and if a cat was wanted, I felt I could certainly fit the bill.  To paraphrase Shakespeare, “If you stroke me, do I not purr?”  Unhappily (though I don’t mean to go into this extensively in my memoir, my perspective basically being a bowl-half-full one), I lost my kittens because they were stillborn.  I will touch on that lightly in my memoir, as it was a definitive moment in my life, but not a permanently damaging one.  I am quite happy right now to be where I am doing what I am doing, and I think my memoir, which will handle both past and present, with a hopeful note of future doings, will reflect that.  Basically, though not wanting to give too much away, I plan to filter my own early days and days on the street through the more comfortable perspective of my present-day life, spent safely inside a condo without access to the street, watching from a window high above the goings-on of other beings not so lucky.  There are moments, yes, when I approach the condo door and sniff at it, detecting unusual smells and sounds, and then I feel my curiosity rising.  But when Shadowoperator hears me miaow at her to open the door and very solemnly says that prohibitive and final word “No,” I am content to let her go out without me.  For now, anyway.

But you are probably wondering about the other portions of my day.  Well, first we have breakfast.  That’s an English word I know.  Then, I do some portion of my memoir, looking out at the street for inspiration.  Then, after Shadowoperator has something called “coffee,” and her own food, there’s sometimes play in the desk chair with a bird on a stick, or a session of stroking, or a brush (I prefer usually to have my fur done while I recline in the desk chair, since I’m allowed to finish the job by pulling my claws in the chair back when we’re done.  It’s really quite bizarre how humans react to the places I choose to pull my claws–some places “No!” and some places “Good kitty.”  They really are peculiar about it).  Then, I find one of my two favorite sleeping spots and curl up for a nap, a long nap, coming out only to eat a bit or use the facilities.  Periodically, Shadowoperator sticks her head in the room to inquire where I am, what’s the good kitty doing, do you want a brush? and other such things.  She baby-talks to me constantly, sings to me lyrics we’ve put to other old songs, and I put up with it, though I do put my ears back when she hits a wrong note, or when she chooses to tell me that it’s time to change my litter because I’m “such a little ‘tinky-poo!”  Really!  Some things are not meant to be subjects of funning.  Anyway, the day progresses, and sometimes I go to see what she is doing, and sometimes she comes to see what I am doing.  When it starts getting dark, she comes back into my main room hangout and closes the curtains and turns on the lights for me (she knows I can see in the dark, but it seems to comfort her to turn the lights on, so I let her do it.  Besides, humans can trip over one quite easily in a dark room, and I don’t like those misunderstandings we have when she’s trying to reassure me that she didn’t mean to run into me).  Then, we have supper, another human English word I know, and persisting in her determination to have me artificially multilingual, Shadowoperator warns me repeatedly to “use les dents.  Chew your food, don’t just swallow it!”  This comes from a problem I have because I had a tooth coming in for a while, and I gulped my food so as not to hurt the gum line, which sometimes resulted in an upchucking later.  But these things happen, and for the most part (which seemed to amaze my human friend no end) I always regurgitated on a flat, wipeable surface, for her convenience.

I know several other words, too.  There’s “treat,” and “play,” and “down,” and “brush,” and my play antagonist, the “comb,” and a few other bits and pieces I’ve picked up.  For example, when we’ve finished our nighttime play, there’s the sentence “Okay, time for bed.”  I hang around for a minute or two, just to see if this is negotiable, but it’s usually not.  I also feel that I know what “Come up on the bed” means, because when my friend says it, intending to brush me or stroke me or go to sleep with me at her feet, I do it, and then she says, “Goodnight, Lucie-Minou,” and sings a little night-time song that the two of us know.  And then we go to sleep.  Of course, I do get up at night and roam around, sometimes accidentally knocking something off.  When this wakes my friend up, she comes to see if I am hurt or have made any sort of difficult mess, but so far we’ve managed just fine together.  At this date, I am very pleased with my new life, though I sometimes despair of being understood completely, because my human friend only knows a few cat words, and the only one she says even half-way right is a more or less happy word, “prrrrrrtt!” and no one’s happy all the time.  No, I am philosophical:  this is far better than what I had before, and I do my best to remain content.  Even my curiosity about the main hall door remains somewhat in abeyance, because I was recently curious about one of the closets, and when she opened it to let me see what was inside, that dreaded monster which she calls “vacuum cleaner” was inside!  So, I suppose there is some reason for caution.  I hissed, she petted me, and we went on with our game in the smaller condo hall, but I couldn’t remain easy.  Still, that’s for another time.  So, now that you know some of the material I will be covering in my memoir, I hope that you will respect my fellow artists and artistes as well, and check to inquire whether your cat, dog, parakeet or whatever you may have is planning a similar venture.  Except for the turtles, of course.  With them, it’s a bit plodding; they tend to be the old school philologists, and spend a lot of time arguing about the meanings of different word roots and grammatical endings in the works of others, and their “creative” efforts (to be kind about the matter) are deep, rather boring, and sometimes inconclusive.  They too have their advocates, however, and I would be wrong to slight them.  We all have our work to do, after all.  At this stage, it would be fitting to end as I began, and say ‘Au revoir, mes amis,’ and I hope you have had such good luck for the New Year as to find a new friend like I have found in Shadowoperator and she has found in me.”

Well, there you have it:  my first guest post, by a treasured and devoted friend.  I hope and trust I have accurately transcribed her miaows and purrs and pats.  As the medieval monk told his scribe, “When you transcribe correctly, it is my work.  When you do it badly, it begins to be yours,” or words to that effect.  Lucie-Minou seems to feel her obligation to speak more directly, and not merely to appear as a subject as did another medieval monk’s cat “Pangur Ban,” or Christopher Smart’s cat “Geoffrey.”  I would like to wish her all good luck with her creative venture, and all of you reading some form of pet to help you with your happiness factor.  Yours most joyously, vociferously, and sincerely,

Shadowoperator

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