A Moment of Grace

Have you ever fallen in love with a short story? I have. “I Stand Here Ironing” by Tillie Olsen, “A&P” by John Updike, “The Dead” by James Joyce, “A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri, and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway are just a few I love. “After Rain” is another. It’s a real charmer.

“After Rain” is the title story of a William Trevor short story collection. In the story, Trevor returns to one of his on-going themes, the exploration of a woman’s inner life, her alienation from her environment, her loneliness, and her dignity in the face of that loneliness.

If ever there was a woman in purgatory, it is Harriet. Harriet, a thirty-year-old English woman, had plans. For vacation, she was going to an island spa with her lover. Until he dumped her.

Pensione Cesarina is the consolation prize she gives herself. She chose the Italian hotel because her parents vacationed there when she was a child. Not only is she faced with her own failures at love, her parents were failures as well, both having committed adultery, then divorced.

The story begins in the dining room of the hotel. From her table for one, she orders the same wine she’s ordered all the other nights of her stay. All she has done for the past eleven days is read and stroll through the town and visit the church, not as an act of faith but rather as something to do to pass the time.

Trevor gives us sentence upon sentence, detail upon detail, of the life of the room. He contrasts the four solitary diners with the gregariousness of the other parties, detailing each with their own individuality.

As Harriet sits and dines, moments with her former lover flood back into her thoughts, intensifying her loss. She questions why she made this return visit to the place her parents chose to bring her. She wonders not why her affair had to end, but why did it end before the holiday and not after. It seems like her life has been made up of endings. Unlike the beginnings of young love in the room. Two young Englishmen are hooking up with two Belgian girls. One a stylist, one studying the law.

One of the other solitaries, an older man, joins her at her table. This is the only time in the story when Harriet carries on a conversation. And it’s a conversation with someone she sees as an intruder. Instead of listening to his words, she finds herself daydreaming of what might have been if only her lover had not dumped her. After the older man leaves, she realizes that he was lonely just like her. It is becoming obvious that she is oblivious to her surroundings.

And to what should have been obvious to her. She was unable to see her parents’ divorce coming. She has been unable to see that she has fallen in with lovers who aren’t up to her desire for more in a relationship.

The next morning, a stroll through the town and a seat on a park bench and a rehashing of a conversation between herself and her former lover. She missed all the signs. She was convinced she was happy. Then she’s on for more of the town and then, to get out of the rain, a cappucino and the memories of her parents taking delight in this place.

In the center of the town is the Church of Santa Fabiola. Harriet wanders inside and sees a painting of the Annunciation. Then Trevor describes this painting that will change Harriet’s life in as much detail as any other single thing in the story.

The Annunciation in the church of Santa Fabiola is by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo, no one is certain. The angel kneels, grey wings protruding, his lily hidden by a pillar. The floor is marble, white and green and ochre. The Virgin looks alarmed, right hand arresting her visitor’s advance. Beyond—background to the encounter—there are gracious arches, a balustrade and then the sky and hills. There is a soundlessness about the picture, the silence of a mystery: no words are spoken in this captured moment, what’s said between the two has been said already.

Harriet’s eye records the details: the green folds of the angel’s dress, the red beneath it, the mark in the sky that is a dove, the Virgin’s book, the stately pillars and the empty vase, the Virgin’s slipper, the bare feet of the angel. The distant landscape is soft, as if no heat has ever touched it. It isn’t alarm in the Virgin’s eyes, it’s wonderment. In another moment, there’ll be serenity.

When she leaves the church, Harriet notices a change in herself. The rain has cleared things out. The heat has been replaced by a coolness emanating on the road. A bird sings. It seems like the world around her has been invaded by softness.

She returns to the Pensione and walks in the garden. She struggles to make “a connection to that she knows is there.” Then it comes to her. “The Annunciations was painted after rain.” And so the story continues for a few pages more, revealing that change of hers to her. She has been given the grace to continue her life but not in the isolation and alienation she once felt. She is now connected to the world around her.

This is not the only story in the collection where the supernatural impacts the mortal. In “Lost Ground”, a Catholic saint appears to a Protestant teenager. As the stories reveal, sometimes the supernatural can bring grace, sometimes not. It all depends on our response.

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Janacek’s Sinfonietta, Two Moons and Little People

1Q84
by Haruki Murakami

944 pages. Knopf (October 25, 2011).

Murakami’s 1Q84 has a 19th century feel to it. Not just because it is long. Rather, the Japanese writer seems to be saying to the reader,  “I have a story to tell, and I am going to take my time telling it. If you stick with me, you will be rewarded. So relax. Enjoy the journey.”

Even though 1Q84 takes place in an alternate world, it is not about rings, wizarding schools, or families going for a throne. It is about Aomame (pronounced Ah-oh-mah-meh) and Tengo in 1984 Japan, trying to escape a religious cult and connect with one another.

Murakami opens his novel with a thirty-year-old Aomame. She sits in the back of a taxi, listening to Janacek’s Sinfonietta. Her cab is stalled in traffic. The driver lets her know that the cab isn’t going anywhere for a while. But there is a way for her to get to her destination and make her appointment. Get out of the cab, go to an emergency exit, climb down the stairs, catch a train. As she gets out of the taxi, he warns her, “Please remember, things are not what they seem.” Then she steps into the alternate world of 1Q84.

The next chapter introduces Tengo. In his early thirties, he is a single man. He teaches math to high schoolers prepping for their university entrance exams. He is also an unpublished writer and a reader for an editor. He has read a manuscript by a seventeen-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, called Air Chrysallis. The writing isn’t good but the ideas conveyed are unique. The editor asks Tengo to rewrite the manuscript. Then the editor will submit the novella to a major literary contest. This is Tengo’s entry into 1Q84.

This alternate world centers around a religious cult called Sakigake. Fuka-Eri was the daughter of the leader of the cult. And her novella reveals certain secrets about that cult. One of these secrets is the Little People. Throughout 1Q84, the cult threatens Tengo and Fuka-Eri. Through her actions, the cult goes after Aomame as well.

Murakami slowly spins a spider’s web, dropping information drip, drip, drip. You’re being pulled into the web. The closer to the center you’re pulled the more dangerous things get for the two main characters. Slowly the connections between Aomame and Tengo are revealed. That they have a connection through Janacek’s Sinfonietta. That they both can see the two moons. That they went to grade school together. Despite everything you may have heard about the novel, it is a love story. Sakigake will do everything it can to keep them apart.

1Q84 isn’t for everybody. After all, it is a novel written for an adult audience of experienced readers. But Murakami has created two characters I came to know intimately and liked very much. They not only have breadth but the depth of personality that makes for a marvelous story. Few contemporary writers have given the reader as complete characters as Murakami in his 1Q84. And I will miss them.

Not your same old dystopia

the The Handmaid’s Tale
by Margaret Atwood.
320 pages. Anchor; 1st Anchor Books edition (March 16, 1998)

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel. A good definition of dystopian is a utopia that backfires, thanks to humanity’s ability to screw up any dream. In other words, the more that a group of human beings try to create the perfect society the more they create an imperfect society.

Atwood’s novel is not the first nor will it be the last dystopia. Before her novel, there was 1984Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange. Recently we’ve been given updated reports from the Continent of Dystopia in the form of The Hunger Games and Divergent. I’d say that, if you are looking for a good dystopian novel, Atwood gives us about the best of what can be done with the genre.

And since the novel was published, there have been a movie and a tv series based on the book. I’d advise reading the book before seeing either because there’s so much to be missed that appears as subtext in the novel.

Labels can keep a reader away from a novel that should have a wider audience. And this is true of Atwood’s book. Yes, it can be said that the novel is feminist. Yes, it can be said that it is an attack on the patriarchal system. And yes, it can be said that it is an expose’ of certain fundamentalist religions. The problem is that, when we label a novel these things, we limit the audience for its story.

Offred is not the protagonist’s real name. She was given that name by the theocracy. We never discover her real name. Once upon a time, she lived with her husband, Luke, and her young daughter. Then the United States was overthrown by a theocracy. When the family tried to escape the new order, they were caught. Offred never discovers what happened to Luke or her daughter.

In the society this new theocracy has created, most women cannot have children. Those who have the potential to give birth are set aside as handmaidens (or concubines) for the upper classes. Offred is one of these women.

First she was taken to a re-education school, then she was placed in the Commander’s home. During her most fertile period, the Commander has ritualized sex with her to produce a child.

Atwood has used Orwellian elements in the society. The Eyes are reminders of Big Brother. The taboo against reading and words like grace and freedom are forbidden.

I was struck by how much the society paralleled certain societies these days with their religious police searching for any infraction of the rules. The society of Handmaid’s Tale has ritualized all relationships, using the rituals to prevent relationships. And infractions there are.

It seems that everyone at every level is bending or breaking the rules. The Commander breaks them by having private meetings with Offred and playing Scrabble with her. The Commander’s wife breaks the rules by offering to set Offred up with a sex partner who will make her pregnant because Big C is not up to the task.

It seemed to me that one of the major themes, if not the major theme, of the novel was the loss of intimacy. Women are not allowed to talk to each other, to create friendships. And men are locked into their roles as Commanders, Angels and Guardians. No touching allowed.

With the help of the Commander’s wife, Offred ends up having an affair with Nick, the chauffeur. If they are caught, they will both be punished. Appearing close to the end of the novel, she visits Nick. These lines gave me a sense of this lack of intimacy:

With the Commander, I close my eyes, even when I am only kissing him good-night. I do not want to see him up close. But now, here, each time, I keep my eyes open. I would like a light on somewhere, a candle perhaps…

The people in the society infringe on the rules because they are longing for intimacy, the intimacy of love and the intimacy of friendship. Maybe the loss of intimacy is the real reason behind the society’s sterility.

Atwood’s novel continues to be relevant. These days it is not some religious police that intervenes to prevent intimacy. It is technology. In this sense, Atwood has seen into the future and written a very prophetic novel, as prophetic as 1984, and maybe more so.

A Monday Xtra: Why Kindle is so Kindle-licious

I appreciate that many of you prefer physical books. But I have come to enjoy eBooks as well. The reason I am posting this is not to say eBooks are preferable to physical books. If you are reading, you are awesome. I am writing this simply to state that both have strengths and weaknesses.

So here are fourteen reasons I am happy with eBooks.

1. Convenience. I am one of those peeps who carry a book everywhere. I read them at lunch. I read them standing in line at the grocery store. Some books are too heavy to carry around. They can be thick and cumbersome. Not so with an eBook. The size and the weight are the same whether I have one eBook or fifty on my Kindle.

2. Reading at lunch. I have not found a place holder that would hold different sized books in place while I ate.

3. Reading faster. I am a slow reader. When I first got my Kindle, I immediately read five books on it. Then I read a physical book. An interesting thing happened. My reading speed increased. My reading speed increased to about 1/3 faster than previously.

4. I often read more than one book at a time. I can easily switch from Emma doing her matchmaking to Miss Marple solving a mystery to James Bond going after Goldfinger, then return to Emma and her new boyfriend.

5. The Kindle and other eReaders are designed to make reading easy on your eyes.

6. I don’t need to look for large print books. If it is on Kindle, I can adjust the font size and the margins.

7. Out-of-print books and books I could not find previously are now available.

8. Easy access to a dictionary. I click on a word in an eBook and the definition pops up.

9. eBooks are often less expensive.

10. For a writer, an eBook is a great way to send your work out into the world initially. Once a writer has built a readership, then that writer has some negotiating power.

11. For a publisher, an eBook is an opportunity to find out if a writer will have a readership. Before heavily investing in print costs.

12. Publishers can easily correct mistakes without having to create a new edition. Even reference book editors make mistakes or facts change. For instance, it could be that astronauts discover the world is truly flat or half round and flat on the bottom. Updating the facts in eBooks are as simple as upgrading to accommodate that information.

13. If you are upset over poor formatting by established publishers, I am too. I also get upset over some publishers throwing together physical books and having them fall apart after one or two reads.

14. And I have all that shelf space I used for books now available for other things like DVDs, plastic flowers, etc. I know I have way too many et ceteras. My closet is bursting with them.

Disclosure: Amazon did not make any contribution to me for these words.

Book Review: A wonderful bit of writing 

I want to thank Beth of I didn’t have my glasses on for calling my attention to Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume.

Opening lines of a novel or a short story are always an invitation. Some opening lines are so oft-putting, you just know that a visit with the folks in this house is not going to be worth the effort. Or the time.

A good opening is a Welcome mat that invites you into the story. It says, “C’mon in and sit a spell. You’re sure to have a mighty fine time.” Sara Baume opens her novel, Spill Simmer Falter Wither with these words:

He is running, running, running.

And it’s like no kind of running he’s ever run before. He’s the surge that burst the dam and he’s pouring down the hillslope, channelling through the grass to the width of his widest part. He’s tripping into hoofrucks. He’s slapping groundsel stems down down. Dandelions and chickweed, nettles and dock.

Those are the words of Ray, a 57 year old man in this first person account. He lives alone in a coastal Irish village in the house he inherited from his father. He has only the memories of his father to keep him company. He’s “too old for starting over, too young for giving up” (p. 12). He rescues a one-eyed dog he names One Eye. They are both outcasts, the man and the dog.

When Ray goes to the grocer to buy some food, he reflects:

The grocer’s girl, April, talks loudly on the telephone as she scans my goods, forgetting to proffer a paper bag. I’ve always imagined April was born in April and has three sisters called May, June and July, perhaps an only brother called December because if the summer is a woman, so the winter much be a man. (p.23)

As Ray and One Eye bond, the man takes on a dog’s eye view of his world.

Now the food bowl is the epicenter of your existence, to which the house is attached, and everything beyond radiates from, like sun beams. (p.36)

On a walk with One Eye, Ray comments:

I wish I’d been born with your capacity for wonder. (p.41)

Then this:

Now you are my third leg, an unlimping leg, and I am the eye you lost. (p.43)

And there is a joy Ray experiences when he lets One Eye run free in a field outside the village.

You wag your tail. This is the first time I’ve seen you wag your tail. “GOOD BOY!” I yell. (p.48)

One day, while Ray and One Eye go walking, the dog attacks a collie. Ray finally gets One Eye to let go. The collie runs away with its female owner it chasing him. Ray takes One Eye home and hides in the house, afraid of what may happen next. After a while, Ray and One Eye continue their walks. They go out at dawn and find places where they can walk and not have a repeat of the incident with the collie.

Then it happens again. One Eye goes after a shih tzu. Ray retreats back into his house. He is afraid of losing One Eye. The local warden comes for the dog. “A complaint’s been made.” How Ray responds to that complaint drives the rest of the novel.

The friendship that grows between the animal and the human is chronicled in detail in Sara Baume’s beautiful novel. For the first time in each’s life, they have a friend. As I read, I was completely pulled in, not only by the language, but also by the character study of Ray, revealing his rich inner life.

Not only does he open up his perceptions of the world to One Eye. There is also a running dialogue about his dead father. So strong is his memories that it can be said Ray’s father is the third of three major characters.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a book that you will remember long after you put it down. One thing is for sure. Sara Baume has created one of the most moving novels I have ever read. And, in case you’re wondering, Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a mondegreen for Spring Summer Fall Winter.

Sara’s second novel, A Line Made By Walking, is out. From the reviews on Amazon, looks like she has a winner with it as well. It will be interesting to follow this writer five, ten, twenty years down the road to see where she leads her readers.