short story review #2: Goodbye, My Brother

A particularly bedraggled and worn copy of The Stories of John Cheever has been sitting up on my bookshelf for years. The top half of the cloth jacket on its back is missing, the front bottom right corner is chewed off, the spine is  stripped down to bare pages at the top, and black strings hang off various spots where the cover is torn. Although some of the stories go back as far as 1949, the book itself was published in 1978, so its seemingly ancient facade is not a product of time but of the low shelf on which it was placed, giving our late dog, Pepper, easy access.

The opening story is Cheever’s oldest, written when he was freshly discharged (honorably) from the army at the end of WWII. In his preface, he admits that he finds his earlier stories proof of his own immaturity and is embarrassed by this documentation, but he writes that the stories are redeemed for him by the memories of the people and places he knew when he wrote them.

One would assume that as a successful and revered writer, he no doubt saw his earlier works as lesser than his later ones, either in terms of skill or their literary value.

My reaction was that his writing was not lacking in any way, but that his narrator was immature, although he was certainly meant to be the sympathetic character in the story. 

Every summer the Pommeroy family gathers at the beach house—the cold widowed matron who has strong opinions about everything and everyone, her two older sons with their wives and children, and her recently divorced daughter.

They all seem to come from the same mold except the youngest brother, Lawrence, who  has been estranged from his mother for several years but has decided this summer to join the family at the beach house and bring his own wife and children. Everyone else is lively and clever whether they’re swimming or swilling martinis. The more practical Lawrence is portrayed as gloomy and judgemental.

When his mother has too much gin and talks about the improvements she’s planning for the house, Lawrence remarks that anyone who builds a house at the edge of a cliff on a sinking coastline is foolish and that living in one is dangerous. His mother tries to unsuccessfully steer the conversation toward the upcoming dance. When Lawrence warns that they could all be drowned if they stay in that house, his mother responds, “I can’t bear it” and fills her glass with more gin.

Okay, Lawrence may be a bit of a wet blanket, but the man has a point. The rest of the Pommeroys seem to be in a state of denial, never speaking of their dead father or the crumbling sea wall that protects the house from high water. Their life is playing high-stakes backgammon, preparing for boat-house dances, and going for a swim the moment a conversation turns too serious.

I may a pragmatist, but I see Lawrence as the sane one. However, as I continue reading, I begin to feel vaguely uncomfortable, suspecting that the young John Cheever wanted us as readers to relate to the older brothers, who  drank cocktails, went boating, and went by nicknames like Chaddy.

So it surprised me when the narrator not only wallops his little brother in the back of the head after an argument, but upon seeing the blood flow from his head, wishes his brother were dead “and about to be buried, not buried but about to be buried, because [he] did not want to be denied ceremony and decorum in putting him away.”  

When I finish the story, it occurs to me that perhaps Cheever has played a trick on me. By viewing Lawrence through his older brother’s eyes, the reader is led down a trail blazed by the seemingly reliable narrator who has this idea of who his brother is, and so we believe him.

But after the narrator walks away from his bleeding brother on the beach, he casually decides to go for a swim. Is this the moment that Cheever planned all along—a sudden revelation that we as readers have been duped by an unreliable narrator dressed in swim trunks rather than sheep’s clothing?

Was this the equivalent of a literary practical joke, penned by an admittedly immature writer?

No, I think in the end it’s just a story imitating life, where people are rarely villains or saints but somewhere in between. And isn’t each one of us at the core an unreliable narrator?

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My top 10 funny headlines (plus 3)

A headline in the El Cerrito Patch made me laugh and read more: “Former Mayor Found with Tarts in Kensington.” Of course they were pastry, not the human female variety. http://elcerrito.patch.com/articles/former-mayor-found-with-tarts-in-kensington 

It got me thinking about funny headlines. Headlines can provide information and be boring, or they can make you laugh and grab your attention.

And then of course I had to search for more…

Alton attorney accidentally sues himself

(http://madisonrecord.com/news/contentview.asp?c=148217)

Dead body found in cemetery

(http://enewscourier.com/local/x657357773/Dead-body-found-in-cemetery)

Ford, Reagan Neck in Presidential Primary

(Ethiopian Herald, 2/24/76)

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge

(Milford Citizen 7/12/82)

Japanese scientists grow frog eyes and ears

(Daily Camera, Boulder, CO 1/4/00)

Marijuana issue sent to joint committee

(The Toronto Star 6/14/96)

Boy, declared dead, revives as family protests

(The Columbus Dispatch 9/29/91)

Obesity rubs off

(The Cincinnati Post 10/15/03)

Experts: Fewer blows to head would reduce brain damage

(The News & Observer Raleigh, NC 3/9/10)

Statistics on women: Some good, some bad

(Women in Communications 2/76)

That’s what I came up with. (You gotta love Google!) List funny headlines that you find in the comment section.

Cookies with a purpose?

I love reading local news. The El Cerrito Patch had this interesting tidbit about a guy from Berkeley who saw a void in the market and filled it.

I felt that cookies were untapped in functionality, and so I made functional cookies….Each cookie does something. (points at individual cookie samples) This one, instead of a snack, has one cup of coffee in it and it will jack you up. This one, instead of a snack, is a protein bar and has ten grams of protein. That one, instead of a snack, is a libido enhancer.

Since when did cookies have to do anything but be yummy and satisfy my sugar craving? I think this whole multi-tasking thing has gone too far. What’s next—eggs with fun facts written on them? String cheese that actually works as string? Cotton candy that can also be used as insulation? A beverage that cleans copper? Oh, wait, that’s already been done. (Have you dropped a penny into a glass of Coke lately?)

Why does food need to have more than one purpose?

Although it does make for an interesting challenge: come up with really clever ways to make food useful. I anxiously await your ideas of other functional foods.

To read more about Akiva Resnikoff, the inventor of cookies with a purpose, read http://elcerrito.patch.com/articles/whos-who-akiva-resnikoff-owner-of-the-cookie-department?ncid=M255

Caterpillar’s crossing a catastrophe

Actual news item: In China a train had to stop because the tracks were covered with, you guessed it—caterpillars. Now you’d think that some caterpillars on the track would pretty much go unnoticed, even if there were thousands of them, considering the comparative size and the speed at which a train usually travels.

But the article reported that the train began to lose traction with the rails—apparently caterpillar guts are quite the slippery substance.  Still, it seemed inconceivable that a few caterpillars could affect something as large and substantial as a locomotive, so I read on.

The caterpillars covered a half-mile of track. Have you seen how small just one caterpillar is? Can you even do the math to figure out how many caterpillars it would take to span 2640 feet? And if they were crossing the track, we’re talking about the width of one such creature, not the length.  Think about it.

Workers had to clean off the tracks with shovels before the train could resume its journey. So all those little arthropods sacrificed themselves with nothing to show for it but a delay in the train schedule and some annoyed rail workers.

So the question is this: if a train is traveling at 60 miles an hour across China and half a mile of caterpillars cross the tracks in front of the train, how many fewer butterflies will there be in the world?

14 hours of reading for 14 libraries

Yesterday afternoon on what has got to be the hottest day yet of 2011 I was among a small group of stalwart library users putting on a read-a-thon, trying to let people know that the city of Oakland is planning to close 14 of their 18 libraries.

FOURTEEN OUT OF EIGHTEEN? That’s crazy, you may say. And you would be right. I don’t even live or work in Oakland, but I was outraged.

From 6:00 am until 8:00 pm on Monday, June 20, people read aloud at the Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland in 15-minute stints. The idea was that for each of the libraries slated to close, there would be an hour of reading aloud to protest that closure. Fourteen libraries=fourteen hours. There was also a book give-away, Oakland library heart stickers, free pizza and bottled water, and petitions to sign, asking Oakland’s city council to reconsider this madness. That was my job.

I first wandered among the people sitting on the steps of the amphitheatre. Since it didn’t take long to get the signatures from the 15 or so people listening to the reading, I ventured a little further to the grassy area where people were walking their dogs, eating their lunches, and taking naps in the 90+ temperature. Most of those people supported our cause and signed the petition.

Then I walked over to the backside of the amphitheatre where people wore business suits and security badges on lanyards. They were walking briskly coming from or going to lunch carrying cold drinks and chatting with each other. They either ignored my attempts to get their attention, said they didn’t have time to sign because they were on their lunch break, or countered my words with “I don’t use libraries,” or “Well they have to cut spending somewhere!”

Since that was sort of depressing and not very productive, I returned to the faithful few. By 1:15 the lunch crowd was thinning out and the temperature was still rising. Someone, who is a genius in my opinion, brought a kiddie pool where I occasionally dipped my hot feet, especially after we added the ice that didn’t fit in the cooler.

Young Adult author Nina LaCour read her fan mail aloud. Annie Barrows read  from one of her delightful Ivy & Bean books. My friend Lucille Bellucci read a chapter from her novel, and several people chose picture books to share. I read Ask Contessa, my advice column purportedly written by a cat.

Despite the oppressive heat, there was lots of good will going around. Many thanks to the other reader who sat and listened to me read after she finished and even laughed at the parts I was hoping were funny.

I understand that the city of Oakland, like almost every other city in California, and even many across America, is out of money. They are having to make tough choices, tighten the old belt buckle, and all that.  So under these circumstances, I can see cutbacks—reasonable ones. Although they’ve already shortened library hours and reduced the number of days, they could do more of that. Or they could have a rotating library system, in which every library closes for one week every 18 weeks, creating one-week furloughs for library workers twice a year, which is awful but would keep them operating. Or if they really, really have to close down one or two branches, I would even understand.

But leaving only four libraries for half a million people when there used to be 18? That’s a huge reduction in the amount of available books. It’s eliminating access to computers to those who can’t afford them. It’s removing a safe place for kids to go after school until an adult gets home. It means a huge number of librarians and support staff are out of work. It’s a dismal future.

Tonight the city council meets and votes on the fate of Oakland’s libraries. Please send positive thoughts in their general direction. We’ve got to protect libraries!

 

Speak (the novel) really did speak to me

Recently I complained that I haven’t read a really good book in a while. And because I decided that life was too short to read a book that wasn’t that good, I haven’t been finishing many books.

But a few nights ago I had insomnia and went upstairs to watch TV. Afterward, I decided to read. But the book of short stories I was reading was on my bedside table downstairs. Rather than fumbling in the dark, which would alarm the dogs, who would wake up the entire house, I chose a book from my kid lit shelf in my little writing nook.

Both the haunting cover and the American Library Association Honor Book sticker caught my eye. Glowing reviews on the book jacket for this debut YA (Young Adult for the uninitiated) novel from Laurie Halse Anderson sealed the deal. It turned out to be just what I was looking for. Speak is beautifully written and has a distinct voice. Since it was published in 1999, I’m a little late on reviewing it, but it’s so good that I have to write about it.

The novel begins on the first day of high school for Melinda, the protagonist and narrator. She is already an outcast due to an event at the end of 8th grade that she hints at but doesn’t explain fully. Anderson deftly captures Melinda’s conflicted feelings toward her classmates and the torture she experiences sitting at an assembly.

The kids behind me laugh so loud I know they’re laughing about me. I can’t help myself. I turn around. It’s Rachel…Rachel Bruin, my ex–best friend. She stares at something above my left ear. Words climb up my throat. This was the girl who suffered through Brownies with me, who taught me how to swim, who didn’t make fun of my bedroom. If there is anyone in the entire galaxy I am dying to tell what really happened, it’s Rachel. My throat burns. Her eyes meet mine for a second. “I hate you,” she mouths silently.

As devastating as that exchange is, Melinda bites her lip and swallows all the pain. And she continues repressing to the point that she stops speaking. Her old friends won’t have anything to do with her, her parents are busy, and her teachers seem to have their own issues.

Because Melinda doesn’t converse, the reader hears others talk at her and the silent answers in her head. Much of the book is inner dialogue. As dark as the subject matter is, I laughed out loud several times at her humorous observations, particularly of her teachers:

Mt. Stetman won’t give up. He is determined to prove once and for all that algebra is something we will use the rest of our lives…. He comes to class each day with a new Real-Life Application. It is sweet that he cares enough about algebra and his students to want to bring them together. He’s like a grandfather who wants to fix up two young kids that he just knows would make a great couple. Only the kids have nothing in common and they hate each other.

Apparently the book was made into a movie starring Kristen Stewart before she was cast in Twilight. But I want to issue a spoiler alert—don’t read the reviews or it will give too much away.

I didn’t even know I liked YA, but this is the best book I’ve read in months. It’s inspiring me to write. Maybe I should write for young adults…

A Serendipitous Visit

Since my goal for the summer is to read more short stories, I thought I’d keep with the theme and present my own third-place winner in the California Writers Club short, short story contest sponsored by the Sacramento branch.

A Serendipitous Visit

Isabel hovered over the cast iron pot that had produced concoctions for generations. Although she should have known the recipe by heart, she squinted at the yellowed index card. She sighed—the last ingredient had to be fresh, and it was the hardest to get.      

Bam, bam, bam!

Who could that be? She wasn’t expecting anyone. Most people passed by without stopping. She sometimes overheard kids on her front porch daring each other to knock, but when they saw her at the window, they usually fled, squealing “Witch!”

Isabel trundled over to receive her surprise visitor.

The moment the heavy wooden door squeaked open, a boy with glasses and a clipboard began to speak: “Hi, my name is Malcolm and I go to Sleepy Hollow Middle School. I’m here to offer you unbelievably good bargains on some of today’s most popular magazines. Do you watch TV? Because I can guarantee you the very best price on TV Guide.”

Isabel couldn’t believe her luck. This was just what she needed.

“Actually, young man, I don’t own a television set, but do come in and warm yourself by the wood stove.”

“Why yes, ma’am, thank you.”

She closed the door behind him, locked it, and dropped the key in her apron pocket in one smooth motion as she led him over to the bubbling pot atop the wood stove.

“I smell something good—I bet you’re a cook. Well, you’re in luck, ma’am, because I have not one, but three cooking magazines to choose from. There’s Bon Appetit, Cook’s Illustrated, and Cooking Light, which is for people trying to lose weight.”

Here he patted his own protruding tummy with a knowing nod, but after a brief scan of her thin frame, he added, “But I doubt you need to worry about that, ma’am.” 

“I don’t need any cooking magazines. I have all the recipes I’ll ever need. In fact I have a prize-winning recipe for boysenberry jam,” she said holding the index card up, careful to have the recipe facing her.

“Prize-winning?”

“Yes, it wins the blue ribbon every year at the county fair,” she added proudly.

“Every year? You must have lots of blue ribbons then,” he said, casually searching the dark cobwebbed walls.

“And top jam wins $25 in cash. Of course if I were interested in money…”

“And who isn’t?” asked Malcolm with a chuckle.

“I’ve had offers—from restaurants, cookbook writers, even big names in the food industry…”

Malcolm’s eyebrows raised just a fraction.

“But I would never sell my recipe,” she declared, clutching the index card to her chest. “And no one would ever guess the secret ingredient that makes it so…” she paused, “…so intensely boysenberry.”

It occurred to her that this boy had been sent here for a purpose—it was serendipity.

“Perhaps you’d be interested in one of our other fine magazines. You see, for every magazine subscription, I earn a point toward prizes. But I’m aiming for 50 points, the grand prize, and the title of Junior Sales Champion of King County.”

He stood there, clipboard in hand, looking at her with such . . . what was it? An innocence, she thought, nodding.

“Is that your prize-winning jam there?” Malcolm asked, eyeing the bubbling pot.

There was an undeniable twinkle in the old woman’s eyes as she said,

“Yes, and it’s almost done.”

*          *          *          *          *

In the food section of the Sleepy Hollow Gazette was a piece about the county fair Jam-off. Above the article was a photo of a bespectacled, grinning thirteen-year-old boy with a bandage on his arm holding a jar of his winning boysenberry jam. The caption read: “Middle-school student Malcolm Crane, youngest winner in the history of the Jam-off.”

According to the judges, there was quite an upset this year. One judge commented, “Isabel Cook has won that contest every year for the last 40 years. Nobody knew her recipe—she kept it top secret. But she passed away just before the contest, so I guess that recipe will go with her to the grave.”

In a different part of the newspaper was this item: Isabel Cook, 93, was found dead on the floor of her home Thursday night, cause of death unknown.

“Probably a heart attack or a stroke,” surmised Sheriff Grant.

But it made no mention of the torn bit of index card clenched in her fist or the trace of blood beneath her fingernails.