Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Greek Classics Challenge 2012

I'm joining in on the Greek Classic Challenge for 2012 hosted by Howling Frog Books. I've read The Iliad and The Odyssey in my college days but have had nothing to do with ancient Greeks since then. I plan to remedy that next year.

There are multiple challenge levels to choose from and I've chosen the rather timid Sophocles level which requires me to read 1 to 4 books. I'm not sure yet about the books I'll be reading and thankfully we aren't required to post a list but I'm certain Sophocles and Plato will figure on my reading list next year. Exciting times :)

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Top Ten Stories of All Time

A couple of days ago, I came across this post on Flavorwire  listing, what they call, the top 10 short stories of all time. Now that is just the kind of over ambitious claim that is designed to raise hackles all over the place. Obviously, no one can condense centuries’ worth of short stories into one handy little countdown and no two people can possibly agree over the stories that ought to make it to such a list. Of the top of my head, I could think of at least fifty stories that deserve to be on a top ten list. But here’s the thing; I love lists. So I had to check this out and having done that, I had to read all of the stories on the list that I hadn’t read yet. That made for a busy two days but it was largely worth it. Unfortunately, there was one story on the list that I could not find online or in my library so I offer my opinion on the (allegedly) top nine stories of all time. The stories are listed in random order on Flavorwire, there is no best or worst. I’m listing them here in the order in which I read them which is pretty close to the original list.

1. “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor” by JD Salinger
I’ve read this story as part of Nine Stories by JD Salinger and blogged about it here. It is one of Salinger’s better known stories. It’s about an unnamed sergeant who meets a gentle young girl called Esme just before he goes off to war. The myth of Esme sustains him through the squalor of war and its aftermath.
I didn’t find this story online, although admittedly, I didn’t look very hard since I had already read it. Do read it though, it’s a classic.

2. "Silver Water" by Amy Bloom
A woman talks about Rose, her beautiful and talented sister and Rose’s slow and painful descent into madness. The story also looks at Rose’s family, who are grappling to deal with their new reality. It’s tough to talk of such things and not be morbid or grim. Amy Bloom manages to make it funny and poignant at the same time. Read it online here.

3. “The Dead” by James Joyce
Garbriel and his wife are at their aunts’ annual bash. It’s not a good night for Gabriel and life of the party he is not. This is also the night when his wife chooses to tell him about her past relationship.
This isn’t my favourite story from the Dubliners (I’ve posted about my favourites here). Firstly, it really pushes the boundaries of the form in terms of length. Also, I found it hard to feel anything much for any of the characters. You can find the story here.

4. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The title tells you, very literally and explicitly, what the story is about.  Marquez’s fallen angel is very different from Tolstoy’s (What men live by?). The old man is anything but ‘angelic’ and is temporarily turned into a freak show. I urge you to read this here. It’s a master class in magic realism.

5. “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham
Staying with the angels theme, White Angel is about two brothers growing up in Cleveland in the sixties and their experiences with drugs, sex, growing up and death.
I was a bit disappointed in this one. When I started to read it, I expected it to be a very impactful story, but somewhere along the way it started to feel very mediocre. I’ve read stories like this before and really didn’t find anything special here. Still, if you’d like to try it for yourself, find it here.

6. “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
A southern family on a road trip run into an escaped convict, The Misfit with disastrous results. I don’t want to give away anymore of this iconic story although it is more shocking than suspenseful. Give yourself a treat and listen to this free audio of Flannery O’Connor reading out the story herself.

7. “Emergency” by Denis Johnson
This is a strange little story that somehow manages to be captivating. It’s about two men who work at a hospital and their crazy drug-induced reality. It takes a bit of focus to keep up with the alternating realities. One doesn’t mind it though because the story is entertaining even while it’s confusing.
I heard this story as a podcast, narrated beautifully by Tobias Wolff. 

8. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
There is something vaguely similar about ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Emergency’. The drugs, the two men and recurring theme of blindness. But Carver keeps things taut and Cathedral is much more skilfully woven. The whole story plays out over one evening, in one house, with just three characters. 
This story is a reminder to me that I need to read more of Carver. You can find it online here.

9. “Dance in America” by Lorrie Moore
A disillusioned and tired dancer is visiting with an old friend Cal. Cal’s son Eugene is very ill and the family is straining to deal with the situation. Eugene himself is a thoughtful and intelligent kid. And he likes to dance.
This is one of those stories where nothing much happens, certainly nothing is resolved. Yet it is very satisfying. You can hear a podcast of it narrated by Louise Erdrich.

10. Brownies” by ZZ Packer
This was the only story on the list that I didn’t read since I could neither find it online nor in my local library. Anybody read this story? Thoughts?

Phew! That was exhausting but fun. I still think top ten lists of stories are a bit ridiculous but I really enjoyed reading some stories that were new to me and revisiting some that I’d read and loved before.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

Ever since I watched Midnight in Paris (which I loved) I’ve been meaning to read A Movable Feast. The book is a memoir of Ernest Hemmingway’s years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920’s. Although it is Hemingway’s story, it is also about so many other writers and artists who were called ‘the lost generation’.  Most importantly it is about Paris.

This isn’t written like a traditional autobiography, in that there is no chronological progression of the story. In fact there is no ‘one’ story but a series of sketches on different people and different seasons. Gertrude Stein, Ford Maddox Ford, T .S .Eliot, James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald, all feature in this tale. As does Hemingway’s first wife Hadley whom he loves more than life itself (until he leaves her for another woman).   
Generally, I find Hemingway’s style of writing too bone dry for my taste. His declarative statements and his way of using a dozen ‘ands’ in each sentence gets a bit tiring after awhile (“ you lie and hate it and it destroys you and every day is dangerous...”). But in A Movable Feast, this works. When writing of a beloved city, one is always in danger of sounding like a tourist brochure. Hemingway’s writing keeps things crisp and fresh.

There are times when this book reads like a gossip magazine, featuring literary icons instead of the latest it-girls. Hemingway is merciless with those he does not like and not any gentler with those he does like. Gertrude Stein is pictured as vain, Wyndham Lewis had the ‘face of an unsuccessful rapist’, Ernest Walsh was a conman and Zelda Fitzgerald a shrew. Scott Fitzgerald doesn’t come off too well either but to be fair; Hemingway is unstintingly appreciative of Fitzgerald’s writing. “If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.” Hemingway obviously saw himself as an alpha male, the undisputed hero of the book with not a single blemish on him. The critical eye and the poison pen that he lavishes on everyone else are never once directed at himself.  Even in the matter of the affair which broke his first marriage, Hemingway lays the blame entirely at the door of the supposedly manipulative ‘other woman’ who plotted to trap innocent ol’ Hem.

However, one can almost forgive him his vanity when he writes of Paris. That is when the text really sings. There is no artifice or pettiness. Hemingway shows you the Paris he loved. The bookshops, the cafes and their waiters, the fishermen and the goat herds. (http://hemingwaysparis.blogspot.com/ has some great photos of the places and people Hemingway writes about.) There are also some really amusing anecdotes like the one about Ford Maddox Ford ‘cutting’ a man and the one where Scott Fitzgerald is convinced he is about to die of lung congestion.  Stories like these, besides being immensely enjoyable also give you a sense of that time and its people

 A Movable Feast is a prejudiced, yet enjoyable ode to Paris and the writers and artists that made up Hemingway’s immediate circle.  The Lost Generation and their fascinating lives make for great reading although they don't seem any more ‘lost’ than our own.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Heavenly Tales by Mark Twain.

“Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all—the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.” —Twain’s last written statement

It is Transcendentalist Month in blogdom, hosted by A Room of One’s Own and so I decided to read my favourite humorist and transcendentalist, Mark Twain. I call him a transcendentalist with some hesitation because Twain never proclaimed himself as such. Also, he was notoriously inconsistent about many of his social, political and religious beliefs so pinning any kind of tag on him is dicey. However, I do believe that some of his works embody the transcendentalist philosophy very clearly. Whether this was intentional or not, I do not know. Perhaps those with better knowledge of the movement can analyse this better.

Transcendental or not, Twain was undoubtedly witty and original. This week I read two of his short stories that deal with similar themes of the afterlife, sin and justice. But both stories are as different as can be. You can read both stories here.

Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven
“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious”. When a story begins with these words, you know it’s going to be a crazy ride. Captain Stormfield, about whose life nothing is known, is whizzing through space, racing comets and generally enjoying his trip to heaven. But heaven, when he finally finds the right one, is nothing like he imagined it would be. Luckily he runs into an old acquaintance from his earthbound days, who tells him all about this strange new land. Twain paints us a heaven that is split into kingdoms and communities. Moses and Buddha are major celebrities and so are some of the lesser known mortals. Wings and halo’s are mere ornamentation and no soul is denied anything, within reason.  

This story is classic Mark Twain. Humorous, compassionate and imaginative. Twain was born on the day Haley’s comet visited our stratosphere and he died, as he had predicted, when it came around again. Consequently, he was always somewhat obsessed with comets and it shows in the initial passages of this story too. The character of Captain Stromfield is a mere sounding board and Twain uses his cluelessness to thresh out his idea of heaven. This heaven is built on the same principles that Twain valued and sought in this world too. Equality, opportunity and compassion. It’s a funny perspective on the afterlife but not without genuine insight. 

Was it Heaven? Or Hell?
Margaret Leester, a widow, lives with her two maiden aunts, Hannah and Hester, and her sixteen year old daughter Helen. The four of them live in absolute harmony. Hannah and Hester are lovable and kind but their moral standards are ‘uncompromisingly strict’. Margaret and Helen do not mind this until one day Helen commits the worst sin imaginable. She tells a lie. She confesses it to her aunts later and although we are never told what the lie was, it is implied that it was trivial and harmless. The aunts however, insist that she confess to her sick mother as well thereby unknowingly exposing her to the illness. Suddenly, all the lines between good and evil are blurred and the aunts find their version of morality put to the test.

This is a very sombre and tragic tale. Hardly what you would expect from Twain.  The story explores the concept of sin and what it really means. Are standards of moral behaviour more important than inherent goodness? Does the end justify the means? Twain deliberately leaves you to decide the ending.

As I mentioned before, the two stories deal with similar concepts but the styles and even the language is so different that it feels like they’ve been written by different authors.  I’d definitely recommend reading them both, if only to see which Twain you like better.

Short Stories on Wednesday is hosted by Risa at http://breadcrumbreads.wordpress.com/

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Play Day: Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett

Waiting for Godot was the first “grown up” play I ever saw. I wasn’t entirely grown up myself at just 14. It was a very simply mounted production that stuck to Beckett’s script pretty faithfully. The two principal actors were beyond talented and brought a real effervescence to the play. I enjoyed the performance immensely. Whatever symbolism and existential undertones the play had, I neither understood nor cared about. I just thought it a lot of fun. It was only years later, in literature class, that I realised how intimidating this play can be. Critics and scholars and professors seem to delight in making the play as inaccessible as possible. But at the heart of it, it’s really a very simple play. A play where nothing happens. Twice. A brainteaser, yes, but then what work of art isn't?

The play is pretty much summarized in the title itself. It is about two guys waiting. For someone name Godot. We never find out who Godot is or why these guys should wait for him. The implication is that they don’t know either. We know very little about the two men except that they are called Vladimir and Estragon. There are faint allusions to them having seen better times but it has hardly any bearing on anything. To pass the time while they are waiting, the two engage in ridiculous banter, horse around with their boots and hats, and at more than one point they even consider hanging themselves. “Nothing to be done” is a recurring motif here.

Then there are Pozzo and Lucky. Two of the most inscrutable characters you ever did see. But then “inscrutable” is a word that keeps cropping up when you’re reading anything by or about Beckett. There is also the character of the ‘boy’ who brings the two tramps messages from Godot. Actually, he brings the same message, twice. Godot himself is the central character. But we know nothing about him. Nobody does. It isn’t even known if he exists.  It is often suggested that Godot is meant to be a metaphor for God, an unknown entity who we spend our whole lives waiting for.

The trouble with Waiting for Godot, and also its main strength is that it is so completely open to interpretation. This can be challenging for the average reader, like me. Especially when the interpretations get increasingly obscure and confusing. But Beckett didn’t intend it to be a puzzle. There is no right answer. You can make what you want of it and if it makes sense to you, you’ll be right. When I first saw the play, the interaction between Vladimir and Estragon seemed very like a Laurel and Hardy sketch. That is how the actors chose to play it. I also loved Lucky, his crazy dance and nonsensical ramblings. Waiting for Godot (A tragicomedy in two acts) is a prime example of the “Theatre of the Absurd” movement.  It is meant to be absurd and ridiculous. Rather, it is meant to mirror the absurdity and ridiculousness of the human existence. Why bother to ‘figure it out’?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Stories from the Dubliners

“When I first met Joyce, I didn't intend to be a writer. That only came later when I found out that I was no good at all at teaching. But I do remember speaking about Joyce's heroic achievement. I had a great admiration for him. That's what it was: epic, heroic, what he achieved. I realized that I couldn't go down that same road.”

That’s Samuel Beckett, the great playwright and novelist, talking about James Joyce. Since I adore Beckett (Coming soon: a post on Waiting for Godot) I’ve always wanted to read Joyce as I imagined both writers to have a similar voice (not so). I started, very ambitiously, with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but life intervened and I had to abandon it midway. I’ve had Ulysses on my TBR list for as long as I've had a TBR list. Sadly, I just never seem to get around to it. Part of the reason is that Joyce really doesn’t make it easy for the reader. So, I decided to take the safe route and test the waters with his short story collection Dubliners. These are the only short stories he wrote and a couple of them seem a bit too long to even qualify as short stories. I’m not going into word counts and such, if Joyce calls them short stories, I’ll take his word for it. But for this post, I'm going with two of his shorter and simpler stories.

A Little Cloud

Little Chandler (so called due to his ‘littleness’ of stature and manner) is due to meet his old friend Gallaher at a bar after work and this imminent meeting preoccupies him through the workday. Gallaher is the wild child who has made it big. Little Chandler’s life seems horribly bleak and mundane in ‘dirty Dublin’ compared to Gallaher’s glitzy life in the great cities of the world. Chandler tells himself that it isn’t too late for him. He could still become a celebrated poet if he put his mind to it.

I really liked this story. Joyce really captures the ‘littleness’ that Little Chandler feels and the increasing desperation with which he hangs onto his flimsy dream. The last scene is particularly sad, not because anything bad happens, but because Chandler’s little bubble bursts over a triviality, underlining the ordinariness of his life.


Maria works at the Dublin by Lamplight laundry. She has an evening off for Halloween and is excited about spending it with Joe whom she had nursed as a boy. On the way to Joe’s house she picks up some treats for Joe’s family, only to reach there and realise that a plum cake she had bought was either stolen or lost on the train ride.

Maria is another one of Joyce’s ‘little’ people. Ordinary, pitiable yet very likable. Maria, unlike Little Chandler, doesn’t dream of being anything more than what she already is. She has ungrudgingly accepted her lot in life and has neither complaints nor hopes. Yet, when she sings a song at the very end, she unwittingly pours all her longing into it. Maria is one of those characters who by their very simplicity affect you more than the shinier heroes.

Dubliners could actually be the title of any of Joyce’s books since they are all essentially about people living in Dublin. Joyce himself said, “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” If you read these short stories, you will see what he means about the universal contained in the particular. These characters are very conscious of themselves as Dubliners but they could actually inhabit any city and any time. You can read both stories here.

Short Stories on Wednesday is a weekly event hosted at http://breadcrumbreads.wordpress.com/.

image http://danliterature.wordpress.com/james-joyce-ulysses/