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Teens in extremis and showing that a presence is better than a legacy–Jennifer Niven’s “All the Bright Places”

By and large, I do not read much YA fiction.  Nevertheless, I have sometimes been sufficiently attracted by the combination of an appealing or curious title and a front cover which promise between them a “good read,” and so it was in this case.  Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places chooses to initiate the reader’s awareness of bright places and just what makes them doubly bright sometimes, with her hero and heroine both having made their way individually to the top of a school bell tower, where they become better known to each other while each is in the midst of a personal moment of crisis.  The hero, a senior boy named Theodore Finch, one of the “bad boys” and quirkier persons in the senior class, meets up with Violet Markey, who is basically a good student with a deep personal grief in her recent past.  Though they are vaguely cognizant of each other as members of the same class, their serious acquaintance has previously ended there, since Violet is leery of being seen as a friend of someone so markedly different.  But all that is about to change.

Theo takes it upon himself to rescue Violet from the predicament she’s gotten herself in by not only helping her down from her precarious perch on the opposite side of the tower, but by also allowing her to pretend to all and sundry that it was she who helped coax him out of an apparently suicidal state.  Both of them are seeing school counselors already at the beginning of the novel, he for his perverse behavior and school-skipping, she for grief counseling concerning the death of her slightly elder sister Eleanor in a car wreck earlier.  Since everyone in the school comes to believe the fiction that Theo was the one helped down, his gentlemanly behavior in deferring to her puts him in an even more serious situation, not only with his counselor but also with most of the students, who consider him a “flake.”  With some initial resistance from Violet, gradually the two become co-workers on a Geography project (exploring the state sites of Indiana, which is where the novel is set), then friends, then lovers.

There are other subjects in the novel, however, and the major one does not even become apparent (or at least exteriorized) until near the end of the novel, in Theo’s sections (the novel is divided up into a back-and-forth narration style something like journal or diary entries between Violet and Theo, with occasional quotes from their Facebook messages to each other).  Some of these subjects include school bullying, the hypocrisy of some teenage friendships, dating mores, family relationships in split or fractured families or families who have suffered a loss, and parental abuse, to name a few of the more obvious.  Over and above all these, and woven in with them as it gradually becomes manifest, the major subject is one which I will not spoil by revealing; it has something to do, however, with one of the reasons the “bright” places seem so very bright in Theo’s and Violet’s world, a reason which Violet only gradually becomes conscious of as she is drawn into the magical, sometimes contrarious, sometimes without-rules world of Theo Finch.

For, Theo’s manically-charged celebration of life, which he shares at his best moments with Violet, periods during which he thinks of himself as being “awake,” alternate with black moods like his abusive father’s, during which he isolates himself and calls himself “asleep.”  As Violet eventually starts to improve in her own life, becoming less sad and morose due to Theo’s attentions to her, we see Theo beginning to slip once again and in a serious way into a state which has before only been foreshadowed in the novel.  Though he does part ways with Violet during a meaningless quarrel the two of them have, he leaves a legacy for her which, nevertheless, though she treasures it, is less valuable to her by far than his presence.  It is this legacy, “all the bright places,” that he enables her to enjoy, and the author, Jennifer Niven, comments upon it expansively not only in her sections addressed directly to the reader, but in her list of help agencies and organizations for the benefit of people like her two characters, Violet and Theo.

Having said all that I’ve said about the seriousness of this novel, I think it’s important to add that the material is very lightly handled, and with due respect for the target audience.  The attitude is both mature and maturity-seeking, not for a moment “talking down” or sounding a note awry, though there are pictures in the novel of well-meaning adults who do not manage to avoid these troubles.  All in all, I think this a novel well worth a read, even for someone who is no longer a teen, or even a young adult.  And after all, we were all young once, as people sometimes say, and many of us have confronted similar issues or persons, whether young or not.  I hope you will have a chance to read this book, and will share my admiration and respect for its author and handlers.

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A Meditation on Memory, Called (Rather Obviously) “Memory”

This is a poem which came to me after 2-3 days of poetic inactivity, and I can’t vouch for its quality, though I hope it passes muster.  There is a rather transparent metaphorical reference to a certain public official in the phrase “scoff-law in office,” but considering the things he’s signed so far, they are, as Hamlet put it, “custom[s]/More honor’d in the breach than the observance.”  Therefore, the metaphor is simply one drawn from our times; I’m not complaining that the executive orders haven’t been carried out, which considering most of them would be a distinct improvement.  The poem, of course, as a whole has only general applications to the way people remember, and is not intended to be political at all.

Memory

Memory
Is a funny thing
It restores what
We've never had;
It makes us dreams,
Wild approximations
Of our daily life
So that we see strange symbols
At night
And yet, we know, if we think
How to read the starry graphs
That turn up
When our faces are pressed
Into our pillows,
Non-cognizant,
One would have said.
Memory
Makes us hate our foes
All the more
For remembering their depredations
From before,
It presents us to ourselves
As weak victims
Or mistaken aggressors,
Neither in the middle
Nor moderate,
Though we think, perhaps,
That we exaggerate.
Memory
Dances with our ambitions
And keeps track
Of the one-two-three step
To reassure us
That we really are not great dancers,
But need the loud count
Like everyone else.
And last,
Memory purges us
Of our opportunities
To forget
Pains and hardships,
For of course
Our early warning systems
Are necessary and vital
To our well-being.
All in all,
Memory is a scoff-law in office,
Who signs papers
It doesn't abide by,
And creates havoc
Just when we have restored
Order.
But to create order
Without the orb and scepter
Of remembrance
Never mind
The fell instances of memory,
Would be impossible.
So, we tolerate the demon markers
Of the individual instance
For the sake of the overall picture.
God grant us
That the whole come true and right
Before we tuck us
Further into night.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/30/17

That’s all for now.  Though I’ve knocked off for the last three days (after all, housework and chores have to be done too!), it’s good to feel back in the swing of things.  Shadowoperator

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A new copyrighted poem for this site, “A Moment’s Rest on Old Laurels”

Dear Fellow Posters and Bloggers,

It’s been so very long since I posted regularly, and I’ve also been reading more irregularly, but now that the New Year is here, I’m hoping to improve my record and get back to doing one of the things I love best, which is interacting with those of you who write in (very much appreciated) and also enjoying the sight of how many people the world over have been here over the last few years, and have done me the honor of reading.  They are always welcome to comment too.

I’m breaking new ground in a sense, because I haven’t regularly written poetry for about seven years now, and I am trying to get back to it.  This is a brand-new poem, just written today, and edited and re-edited a few times.  It’s got a few staggered rhythms, and a sort of “where are the horse and rider?” gist to it in parts, and I know better (have been taught better, that is) than to post a work which is not as “cold” as death and calmly viewed and reviewed for a long time first.  But I’m hoping that you’ll like it anyway, and may find something in it.

“A Moment’s Rest on Old Laurels”

True emptiness
Is not a Buddhist virtue;
And then, real silence,
Almost never heard.
Big darkness resides closely:
Daylight's second self,
True heartbreak, too,
Requires not a word.

All find one day a night too close, too feeble
To breathe in first and then, at last, breathe out.
Sometimes there's nothing to be said about it,
Sometimes, there's only just a labored shout.

To show true colors often takes great courage,
Or maybe great knavery,
Shining and shameless and wry.
Decisions are often merely taken in passing
Or oftener still, are timely well put by,
Or oftener still, are timely well put by.

Where is the proving ground,
Where is the halter
That leads the horse
To champs where he feeds?
How was he able to breast 
Through the battle
In elder days of his rider's need?

Tell me, oh tell me,
Oh wise ones before me,
How can I counter the lame and the halt
When they say to me surely
As I go on two legs,
My false steps
That felled me
Were my own damn fault?

And God in Her Heaven
If such One there be,
Choose wisely between
The opponent and me,
To seat us securely
Each safe in each part,
Where neither wage war
Or defraud counterpart.

For surely there is
In the universe wide
Somewhere that broad ocean,
That unfathomable tide,
Which carries all over
To mysterious shores
And poems and diatribes
Matter no more.

For now, I am hampered
By meter and rhyme,
And so pass my small way,
Relinquish my time;
Remembering, day was
When I too ran fast,
And good fortune smiled on me,
Victor at last.

©Victoria Leigh Bennett, 1/5/17

That’s all, for the time being.  It’s old-fashioned in parts concerning some concepts and of course it rhymes, but sometimes a good jog-along will keep you warm when it’s cold outside, even if the sense is partially morose-sounding.  Have a great first week of the New Year, and if you’re where it’s cold, wrap up (if you’re where it’s warm, remember, your turn will come, if not for cold, then for rain.  These days, we all have so many calamities in world weather that we need to be mindful of each other.  Ta! for now).

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The Biography of a Song–Alan Light’s “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah'”

Today, I’m writing about a song which is my favorite popular song of all time, and one about which there is not only a lot of concord (that it is a great song), but also a lot of disagreement (that it is spiritual, that it is full of primal sexuality, that one artist or another has done a better job of conveying its “basic” meaning, that one version or another is the best, etc.).  I don’t know which artist I first heard sing it, because I turned the television on in the middle of a performance just in time to catch the lyric lines “She tied you to a kitchen chair, she broke your throne, she cut your hair,” and somehow, the incongruity of the notions of a throne and having one’s hair cut by a woman at home (or perhaps the collision inherent in the idea of a kitchen chair being like a throne) caught my attention in a very primary way.  I fell in love with the song immediately, but in spite of this book’s insistence about the ubiquity of the song, when I went to a local DVD and CD store to obtain a copy of the media form it was on, I only encountered absolute blankness from the clerks.  I did not know at the time that it was by Leonard Cohen, the famous Canadian composer and songster also responsible for such songs as “Bird on a Wire.”  I had seen the song performed by a much younger man, a very soulful character also, however, but not one whose name I remembered hearing.

My next encounter with it was on Bon Jovi’s 2008 DVD “Live at Madison Square Garden” (which, however, I did not get a copy of until about 2012 or so, or certainly a few years after its first production, anyway).  It has remained my favorite rendition of the song except for Leonard Cohen’s, and that’s because it has at least five of the now current seven stanzas (I would really love to see the original 80 stanzas just to read, but that remains for another time).  The only thing I did not like about Leonard Cohen’s own version was that he was in London at the time, and he stuck the name of his performance locale in the song when he performed, which he apparently did in other places as well.  I don’t like it particularly not because of any resentment towards London, but because I like the song the way it is, and don’t like it much when any artist or artiste kowtows to a local audience instead of during a “pure” version of the song.  But that’s just my own obsession with completeness and purity speaking; I understand that the local audiences of the various places went wild when he did it.

And now, to the ostensible subject of my post, the book itself.  The book is uneven, in that it offers a wealth of interesting detail about the song, its development, and history of production and reproduction, but also throws a bunch of famous and not-so-famous names at you, which gives a feeling of “I guess you had to have been there.”  It sometimes descends to the level of “he-said-she-said” or gossip, but for the most part, it is well worth an attentive read.  It contrasts the way the different artists performing the song have seen it, because each artist seems to have wanted to make it his or her own, even to the extreme (in my view) of leaving words and stanzas out.  The frontispiece quotes are from Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley, in that order, and thus offer the two most famous attitudes and artists’ views of the song.  Cohen said, “‘Hallelujah’ is a Hebrew word which means ‘Glory to the Lord.’  The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist.  I say all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have an equal value.  It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way, but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”  Perhaps the song’s most popularly famous performer (somewhat possibly because of his own later and untimely demise), Jeff Buckley, said “Whoever listens to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth.  The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm.  It’s an ode to life and love.”

One particular thing that this book did for me, however, was to encourage me to reach beyond my own limits:  because I tend to prefer songs by their original composers or first singers (or both), because I tend to prefer to get all the lyrics and not just half or the mere repetition of a few words and a chorus, and because I get distracted when there is more than one key interpretation to a song, I found this book a challenge.  It forced me to see that the song does indeed belong not only to Leonard Cohen, but to the world, and while that’s entirely a good thing, because it seems to communicate a sort of togetherness and community spirit, I do still feel the right of my own preferences:  I, too, am in the world!  And perhaps that realization, for each person who hears the song or reads the book, is the single most valuable thing about either.

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Case study, tribute, answer, or meditation?–Julian Barnes’s “The Sense of an Ending”

A month or so ago, I wrote a post on William Trevor’s book of short stories “After Rain,” and referenced in relation to it the fine scholar Frank Kermode’s critical work first published in 1967, The Sense of an Ending.  You may imagine my perplexity when I discovered on my library website a fairly new book, published in 2011, by Julian Barnes, a novel of sorts also called The Sense of an Ending.  My perplexity was mainly because at no point in the opening pages of the book and nowhere within is Frank Kermode given a nod for his work, except in the overall sense that it becomes overwhelmingly obvious by the end of the book that it is a sort of case study of, answer to, tribute to, or meditation upon Kermode’s work.  Perhaps it is all of these.  At any event, Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker prize and was nominated for other awards for this work, so Wikipedia’s confidence that the book is at least a “meditation” upon Kermode’s thesis seems well-founded, because the publicity attendant upon such fame would make it unlikely that the book could be seen otherwise.

To reiterate Frank Kermode’s notion, that humans, being uncomfortable with their short life span, have to imagine themselves as part of a historical curve of a sort of golden age in the past, to which their own lives are the present leading to an important future, is to deal with many imponderables, and yet it certainly makes sense in the way Barnes envisions it.  Barnes is in fact doing in a work which isn’t entirely novel-like what Kermode says critics must do:  whereas poets help to make sense of the way we see our lives, critics must help make sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.

The main character, the narrator, Tony Webster, tells a story in two parts in which he is engaged in the first part in telling about his younger years with his friends Alex, Colin, and Adrian, and his failed romance with Veronica (Mary), whose mother also comes into the story.  Later, Adrian writes to tell Tony that he and Veronica are now together, and Tony responds.  Then, Adrian commits suicide not long after another apparently less vital and virile classmate has done the same thing.  The remaining three friends engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation about why Adrian did it that they had shared as intellectually gifted students.  In the second part, we see Tony much later, as a retired man who has since been married to someone else, produced offspring, and been cordially divorced.  He is now reevaluating the earlier years because Veronica’s mother dies and leaves him a diary of Adrian’s; Veronica, however, is in between Tony and the bequest, and prevents him from a complete reading of the diary.  It is in dealing with her as someone who still parallels him in age that he questions himself and thinks about his past in a radically different way than he traditionally has.

“You get towards the end of life–no, not life itself, but of something else; the end of any likelihood of change in that life.  You are allowed a long moment of pause, time enough to ask the question:  what else have I done wrong?”  This is the almost casually stated thesis of Barnes’s work, not casual in the sense of its eventual importance, but in the way he slips it into the woof and weave of many other questions and ponderings about history and in particular personal histories.  For example, from his boyhood days, come memories of hilarity in the classroom at a dullard who, when asked what happened in a historical period of complexity, answers:  “There was unrest,” and when prodded to comment further, goes on to say, “There was great unrest, sir.”  Yet, this comment comes back with some significance to haunt Tony as an older man.  In the last paragraph of the book, he states, “There is accumulation.  There is responsibility.  And beyond these, there is unrest.  There is great unrest.”

That Barnes has pointed out time as one of his avowed subjects is clear from the first, when he says, “We live in time–It holds us and moulds us–but I’ve never felt I understood it very well.”  He elaborates, “ordinary everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly:  tick-tock, click-clock.  Is there anything more plausible than a second hand?  And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability.”  What is as malleable as time, apparently, or as a result of time, is memory, which lives in and changes with time, for Tony is suddenly shocked by a picture of his younger self in a letter which Veronica does return to him with a few of the diary pages before burning the rest.

And yet there is further shock to come–I will not ruin the surprise near the end of the book, for though this is a serious literary endeavor and not a suspense novel, there is a twist near the end which underlines many of the points that Tony gradually becomes aware of as he re-thinks his earlier history.  Suffice it to say that the novel is a very good book in this reader’s opinion, and one well worth the Man Booker Prize.  And I like to think that Frank Kermode might find it a fitting tribute (case study? answer? meditation?) as well.

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The Shape Events Take in the Human Mind–William Trevor’s “After Rain”

Finally, I am back to blogging again, and it has been a long time since I could really call myself a regular blogger, several months in fact.  Therefore, I hope my readers will be patient with a very long post, to make up for all the time away.  Also, I need to issue spoiler alerts for the short stories in this volume, but since they are literary short stories and not suspense or mystery ones, but ones which a person might read again and again for their staying power and quality, I don’t feel so bad about that.  So here goes:

In his well-known short volume The Sense of an Ending, Frank Kermode said, “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives.”  To again quote and paraphrase Kermode, this critique is thus “at two removes” from life itself, and at one remove from “the meaning of the work.”  Humans, he indicates, are “uncomfortable with their own short life span, and they try to make sense of the beginning, middle, and end of history and histories,” seeing themselves in “a middle” which is particularly important to “a future.”

I find Kermode’s words particularly interesting in the evolving story pattern which develops in William Trevor’s collection of short stories, After Rain.  Even when the characters are near the end of their lives, as are the devoted husband and wife who are snubbed by their son at his birthday celebration in “Timothy’s Birthday” in the third story of the collection, there is no real compositional sense of resolution at hand outside of what characters think.  Characters markedly have trouble making sense in any sustained way of their facts and changes near the ends of their lives, or fail to do so, as does Eddie the “rough trade” character in the same story.  By contrast, they sometimes (especially as one gets farther into the book) create whole worlds of events to happen or which they surmise have happened.

In the first story (to go back a bit), “The Piano Tuner’s Wives,” the blind piano tuner accepts that his second wife may be lying to him about things his first beloved wife described to him in detail, in order to claim her own place at his side, but he doesn’t seem to feel any need to resolve the contradictions:  instead, he faces the remainder of his life with two different versions of reality as his compass.

The story “The Friendship” is anticlimactic at the end, which spells the end of a long friendship over what was a moment’s choice of deceit in the story.  The two friends merely separate, but the finality of it, though stated, is not emphasized at its otherwise preeminent and important place at the end of the story with anything like strong emotion.  It seems instead deliberately understated.  Though they separate for good, the emphasis is rather on the day as an ordinary day, which prefigures “A Day” later on.  Yet even though no one can foresee the future, the deceitful character tells herself that the other will mention their resolve to part later on, and even thinks she knows what the circumstances will be.

“Child’s Play” is a story in which two children, Gerard and Rebecca, are thrown together as playmates because two of their parents are cheating with each other.  There is a divorce, and a new family structure is formed.  The adults are never known by their own names, but in a reversal of their importance to themselves and the children’s minor positions are known only by appellations such as “Gerard’s father,” “Rebecca’s mother.”  The children play together by imitating the words and phrases they have heard the parents say, underlining the actual rockiness and irony of the children’s ability to possess them.  But even this pattern gets disrupted in the sudden impermanence that comes from the adults’ inability to behave well themselves in terms of their children’s interests.  The children’s game is broken, and with no future to it in sight.

“A Bit of Business” is a story in which two hoodlums, Mangan and Gallagher, are busy looting empty homes left empty while people go to see the Pope in Phoenix Park.  Mr. Livingston, an older man, is left by the Herlihys to mind their flat “while the Guards [are] all out at the park,” as they tell him.  He thinks that they really just wanted him to be able to watch the Pope on their television set, and so isn’t prepared for the two crooks when they break in on him; they are equally surprised to confront anyone at home.  But the rest of the story follows the action of the two burglars, who pick up a couple of girls, or “motts,” as they call them, and spend the day drinking and taking advantage of the girls’ only too willing favors.  The worst thing that happens to them this day at least is that at the end of it, the girls become insistent about seeing them again, which promise the men do not intend to keep.  The end of their day consists in each wondering how long it will be before Mr. Livingston gives an accurate description to the police, their individual regrets that they didn’t kill him while they had the chance, and their questions, each to himself, as to whether the ability to kill was acquired.  Their future, such as it is, is one in which they imagine themselves caught.

In “After Rain,” the scene taking place once the refreshment of rain is over doesn’t happen until the last sentence, which it is compared to a visual scene in the background of a painting of the Annunciation in the Church of Santa Fabiola, in a town in Italy where a young woman has gone after the death of a love relationship.  She stays in a pensione she visited when a child.  Going to the church and viewing the painting, the young woman thinks that it was intended to show a scene that happened after rain.  “The story of Santa Fabiola is lost in the shadows that were once the people of her life, the family tomb reeks odourlessly of death.  Rain has sweetened the breathless air, the angel comes mysteriously also.”  Thus, her past and her present and her future too are telescoped just as in the Annunciation the angel was both a vision to Mary of the future and a prefiguration of the Angel of Death.  Still, the angel’s coming mysteriously is the source of the title of the whole book of stories, for the entire collection has mysteries and predictions and truncated endings as its modus operandi.  The entire book falls under the rubric of death in terms of death of relationships, as in this story, and each story ends and yet most don’t really resolve.  Therefore, after the rain, though it may seem to clear the air, the mystery of the angel remains.

The story “Widows” is perhaps not so much about the death of a relationship or death itself as it is about the transformation of a relationship, just as the Tarot card “Death” signifies not actual death but change.  In this case, the relationship between two sisters is fated to change.  Catherine (a recent widow who was happy with her husband) and Alicia (a widow of many years, who had an unhappy marriage) live together, and in this composition have to deal with a dishonest odd-jobs man with the outsize (and inaccurate) name of Thomas Pius John Leary, who insists that the job done for them before Catherine’s husband died is not paid for.  This is a kind of fraud that he and his wife are likely to practice on a widow, but because she can’t find the receipt that proves her husband’s payment, Catherine eventually feels she has to pay.  He presses, by insisting that he has no copy of a receipt in his book.  Alicia, the stronger and older sister, wants to report Leary to the Guards for trying to run a confidence trick, but even though she always protected her sister in their youth, Catherine won’t allow it now because of a strange sort of pride and desire for privacy about her married life.  “….Catherine was paying money in case, somehow, the memory of her husband should be accidentally tarnished.”  The relationship between the sisters is conditioned in the present by the relationship each had with her husband:  Alicia’s husband was a disappointment, Catherine’s was a jewel of a gentleman.  Thus, Alicia cannot understand Catherine’s protectiveness towards her own husband’s memory.  But as Catherine realizes the morning before she goes to pay the undue debt, “[w]hile they were widows in her house Alicia’s jealousy would be the truth they shared….widows were widows first.  Catherine would mourn, find in solitude the warmth of love.  For Alicia there was the memory of her [own] beauty.”  This story too has no obvious ending, other than an implied one, but this makes it more complete than the stories which are placed before “After Rain” in the book.  Indeed, the stories featured after that pivotal title story all seem to have at least some implied ending if not a complete one.

Another aspect of family membership, motherhood in particular, appears in “Gilbert’s Mother.”  Rosalie Mannion, who is the “Gilbert’s mother” of the title, is in a story which is chilling for two (at least) different reasons:  the first is that if Gilbert is the serial miscreant being covered in at least one local news story, then he is too clever to be caught.  The second is that it’s his own mother who suspects him of being that person and her suspicion is parsed in a grammar of differences that she has noticed about him, at least in her own imagination, since he was two.  “It was always the News, on the radio or the television, that prompted her dread.  When a fire was said to have been started deliberately, or a child enticed, or broken glass discovered in baby-food jars in a supermarket, the dread began at once–the hasty calculations, the relief if time and geography ruled out involvement.”  The story is left unfinished in a sense, because even though there’s never any proof against Gilbert, the suggestion is that he controls his mother and makes himself the center of her life by manipulating her fears about him.  Yet, he is never arrested or accused of anything in any but his mother’s mind.  Inasmuch as there is the Biblical clause “and Mary pondered these things in her heart,” and the central story of this collection, “After Rain,” is connected with a painting of “The Annunciation,” so this story is the negative version of the Virgin Mary’s “ponderings.”  The destiny of a child, who can foresee or control it, even its mother?

“The Potato Dealer” is a tale in which yet another birth occurs, in which the unwed mother, Ellie, is married off to a much older potato dealer, Mulreavey, to hide her shame.  He is willing to take her for the sake of her uncle’s farm and lands, a deal made for the future.  While he doesn’t insist on his “conjugal rights,” Mulreavy does expect to inherit the farm from Mr. Larrissey, Ellie’s uncle.  When the baby, Mary Josephine, is born, Ellie remembers the real father, a visiting priest, but whereas she treasures the child for the sake of this real father’s memory, Mulreavey accepts the child out of greed, practicality, and even a small measure of affection.  Finally, though, when the child is ten, Ellie can no longer keep the father’s identity a secret, and tells the potato dealer he was a priest; her family is angry with her.  Then, that same evening, she tells the child.  The local priest is as angry with her for revealing the truth as he is with her for her original activity with the visiting priest.  In the end, the revelation doesn’t much affect the relationship between Mulreavy and Ellie.–So, what is the story’s point?  Interestingly enough, and obviously enough as well, I suppose, when viewed from the perspective of the child’s name (Mary Josephine, family names, “Joseph” being Mr. Larrissey’s first name), this is about a modern version of the Biblical story of Christ, with a priest (God’s representative) standing in the place of the Holy Dove.  The story is shot with many ironies, but most of all, it suggests human dimensions to the divine birth, dimensions that one can imagine in any time or any place.  Most of all, the events are like those of a storm which has been long coming, and thus again “after the rain” is a representational idea.

Events in Northern Ireland are in the forefront of “Lost Ground.”  Briefly, it is the tale of a Protestant boy who is slain by a member of his own family for saying that a woman who called herself St. Rosa kissed him with a holy kiss in his father’s apple orchard.  Before the bitter ending, however, the reactions of people on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic split are shown.  His brother-in-law, the Protestant minister, tells him to forget about it and not to mention it.  The Catholic priest tries to help him identify the woman as a known saint, assuming that she was actually a saint, but is privately resentful and angry because the appearance wasn’t to a Catholic.  His family gradually restricts his movements until he is confined to his room permanently, because he becomes convinced that he has to go from town to town and preach about her appearance to him.  Finally, when his whole family but one is away for the day at a Protestant march, his one brother remaining, who is a butcher and a sort of gangster, comes with a friend and murders him.  And even though most of the family members secretly know that this is what happened to him, yet they as well as the other guessing members of the community remain silent.  The story ends:  “The family would not ever talk about the day, but through their pain they would tell themselves that Milton’s death was the way things were, the way things had to be:  that was their single consolation.  Lost ground had been regained.”  This is yet another story in a progression of Christianity-related material, yet even though there’s a discernible pattern of events to it with a discernible ending, the tragedy of the fighting back and forth in the Northern Ireland of the time is highlighted:  one side loses ground, then the other side.  At times, it must have surely seemed that there was indeed no ending.  And the fact that none of the family members actually witnessed the event of the boy’s murder yet that all accepted it was necessary and had been done by a family member–what if it wasn’t?  What if it had been the breaking and entering that they apparently represented it as in public?  Again, there are characters surmising, not being sure of an ending, yet creating it for themselves.

In the short piece “A Day,” reminiscent in a sense of a dark Mrs Dalloway, though it’s seemingly simple enough, there is a sudden surprise “ending”; of course, the scene is rather of repetition and continuation and not of an actual isolated event at all, by the time that the story is over in words.  Mrs. Lethwes’s day is presented, event after event, a simple unfolding of a daily routine.  In the course of this routine, we learn that her husband, who is apparently a very kind and considerate person, is cheating on her, at least to judge by an intercepted letter of his which she read and threw away (we know only a few isolated facts from it which she assumes as a matter of course, and we never see the letter.  Is it possible that there is some other explanation?).  She is barren, and is afraid that her husband intends to leave her for the other woman, whom she imagines to be younger and more fertile than she.  The story moves slowly, chronologically, through the day.  It is only at the cocktail hour, while she is preparing dinner, that we hit upon the crux of the matter:  for her repeated cocktails as she is fixing the food show that she is in fact an alcoholic, which is the real surprise.  It seems that she drinks out of fear every day, of that being the one day in which her husband will come in and announce that the other woman is pregnant and that he is leaving her, Mrs. Lethwes.  The story ends with her having passed out, as it appears she often does, and her husband carrying her away gently to bed.  The emphasis in this story is divided between the ending she thinks is coming, and the continued sense of her husband’s love and gentleness, one playing against the other.  One wonders if it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The last sentence of “Marrying Damian” is in a certain sense a motto for the whole book, but more of that in a moment.  This story, as the last one in the book, is indeed entitled to have the last word, though the plot doesn’t force this conclusion.  Though the story  is evidently complete, it reverts in a way to the overall foregoing pattern of something unresolved.  When Johanna is five, she tells her mother, Claire, and her father (the “I” of the story) that she is going to marry Damian, a family friend who is their age, and who is already married.  A brief tale of the years passing shows them manifesting consternation and some amusement as Damian weds and divorces woman after woman.  He is their soap opera, if you will.  They don’t take Johanna’s words seriously.  After all, it’s not their problem.  But then comes the day when, on one of his periodic sponging visits, Damian and Johanna meet again;  she is twenty-seven.  The parents fear at once that she is taking to Damian as one of her human projects to an alarming degree, and that the conclusion is foregone.  Yet, they do not feel that they can do anything about it.  As the speaker sees it:  “It was too late to hate him.  It was too late to deny that we’d been grateful when our stay-at-home smugness had been enlivened by the tales of his adventures, or to ask him if he knew how life had turned out for the women who had loved him.  Instead we conversed inconsequentially.”  In a way, this story has commonalities with “Gilbert’s Mother,” in that a character is postulating a series of actions that may or may not be true, though in this case they are future actions; in the case of Gilbert’s mother, she is guessing at the actions of his immediate past.  And in both cases, their surmises are a sort of annunciatory angel, as in the central story’s artistic reference, though a sort of this flawed world, which may be imperfectly true.  What we are in fact being given a chance to see and speculate upon in this collection is in fact the number of times our actions are inconsequential and incomplete, until we shape them by our own beliefs and prognostications.  Then, they become the plots in our lives whose structures seem given by our stars.  As the character above says, we try to duck beneath what we may have caused to happen by “convers[ing] inconsequentially.”

Indeed, this is a fine book of stories, and one of the best I’ve ever found for carrying a theme from beginning to end.  I hope that you will read this book for yourself, for even if you know the plots by my recalling them, the point of a fine story is in the number of times it can be reread or retold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Filed under A prose flourish, Full of literary ambitions!, What is literature for?