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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Sunday, June 17, 2018

One of singer's best stories and one of Cheever's worst

Reading a few more selections in the norton Anthology of short fiction 3rd ed, including Isaac Bashevis Singer's famous The Spinoza of Market Street, which oddly I'd never read before .  Clearly one of his best stories, free of the mordant cynicism and occasional misogyny of his "american" stories yet not mired I. The sentimentality and yearning for a lost world of his shtetl stories. This story is a study in personality, specifically of the ill, elderly scholar, Dr. fischelson, who has devoted his life to the study of Spinoza and has done his best to model his life's on the tenets of S's stbinking, essentially, if I have this right, attempting to view all human life from the perspective of god and realizing that we are just a minute part of the cosmos so attention to worldly matters is meaningless and interferes w our purpose on earth. So dr F suffers from his illnesses and maladies and looks out his window on the teeming life below - a busy street in Warsaw in 1905 - a street whose life is disrupted by the outbreak of war, to which dr f presumes to be indifferent. All changes when his neighbor cares for him during a near fatal illness (and starvation) and eventually he agrees to marry her. In a rarity I think for singer he describes the sexual joy of their first night together and in the morning a sexually awakened dr f looks out the window at the cosmos above and acknowledges that he has become someone Spinoza would call a fool - tho we might call him a mensch. Also rea John Cheever' story the fourth alarm, about a suburban husband (of course) spurred to seek a divorce when his wife becomes an actor and takes a role in a play in manhattan that involves nudity and on-stage sexual acts. In my view this embittered story is one of jc's weakest and hold little interest except inform its offered insight on Cheever's repressed homosexuality, his tension between suburban propriety and urban exuberance, and his strained relationship w his wife, a poet ever competitive w her husband's literary success. Why ri cassill chose this story over so many better ones (the airplane crash story, the brotherly rivalry story, e.g.) is a mystery - perhaps to settle a grudge against a rival?

Saturday, June 16, 2018

placing Chekhov among some of his contemporaries

One way to appreciate the excellence of Chekhov's stories - their sorrow, their pacing, their strangely open endings - is to compare them w the work of Chekhov's contemporaries, even the best of them. Reading further in the 3e of the norton anthologynof short fiction I read stories by three near contemporaries - Saki, Stephen crane, and Edith Wharton - each of them fine but each still embedded in the tradition of the well-made story, w a formal conclusion, a central action, and to some degree w a twist of fate. saki's open window is a short piece that has a surprise ending but is more of a romp or a quip about a mischievous young woman who delights in tricking house guests - I won't give it away, it's worth reading and will take two minutue. Crane's story, the blue hotel,  best of these three, is a long tale about a fight among gamblers in a Nebraska town in deep winter - leading to a death foreshadowed at the outset. The conclusion, in which we sense the complicity of several men in the killing is strong and surprising and raises the story above the level of western adventure. The Wharton story, the muse's tragedy, is her take on a more famous story (the aspern papers) by her friend h James and tells of a young man infatuated w the woman who was presumably the use and inspiration for his favorite poet. Story has potential but wharton wrapped it in a long and unlikely letter from muse to the young man thanking him for loving her but breaking it off - sad in its way (reminds me a little of rosencavlier, a great opera) but a little schmaltzy as well. This was a random selection and is not to say that these are the greatest short stories by Chekhov's contemporaries- esp if you count near contemporary Joyce - but they give perhaps a sense of the typical English-language literary piece of the time. Today of course the open stories of Chekhov, Joyce, Hemingway are the norm -  and much abused by fledgling writers who think a story can end effectively w protagonist gazing at the sea or the stars.

Friday, June 15, 2018

An overlooked Chekhov short story

Coming across a Chekhov story I'd never read (or at least don't remember having read), in this case in the Norton Anthology of short fiction (3e), Is always a revelation and a pleasure. Yesterday read A visit to Friends, sandwiched between 2 much more famous stories (lady w lap dog and the darling) and I have wonder how his one's been overlooked - maybe because there are so many great Chekhov works we can't find room in our brains for another? In this terrific story the protagonist is a 30something Moscow lawyer who receives a note from two women longtime friends inviting him to visit them in the country.  The invite stirs him to memories of youth when he was in love w one of the women (playfully called Va). But he knows what the invite means: they're in financial distress and  the other woman Ta, short for Tatiana) and her unfaithful and self-pitying husband , Sergei - want to hit him up for a "loan" and free legal advice. The young man goes and senses that he , that they all, have grown much older and their carefree youth is gone. He finds Sergei odious. And then there is Ta's sister, Na (Natalia?) - and the man senses without ever saying so that the whole purpose of the visit is to set him up w Na , which would solve their problems. He flirts w her, dances w her but in the end - this is Chekhov! - he cannot bring himself to live her and all go off into the despair and loneliness of their lives.  This fine short story has all the anguish and elements - the elusiveness of happiness, the longing for connection w others just out of reach, the pride of the wealthy on the verge of despair, self-centered "types" as he calls them (a great moment in this story is the man' s realization  that he too is a "type") characteristic of Chekhovs great dramas.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

A surprising setting for a Bellow story

Came across a Saul Bellow story that I'd never read nor in fact even heard of in an old edition of the Norton Anthology of Short Stories, Leaving the Yellow House, which turns out to be a narrative about a 70-something widowed woman living alone in an isolated town in the far west built upon the ruins of a tungsten mine and on the shores of a volcanic lake probably in Nevada tho Bellow doesn't specify. He does denote in I think the first sentence that Hattie is one of only six white people in the town - a strange almost racist observation (there are native Americans, blacks, hispanics, but they don't seem to count) tho it does set up the social miles and mentality of the community. Hattie is embittered and debilitated, a far-along alcoholic,and the story concerns her doomed efforts to live independently following a car crash - she insists she lost control when she sneezed, a comic motif in this long piece, whereas everyone knows she was blind drunk. In a touching manner, several of the few townsfolk do come to her aid but none is willing to take her in permanently unless paid for their efforts, understandably - tho Hattie has no money to spare. (In part this story, from 1957, is about the absence of social services in the US and the bogus nature of the belief if independence and minimal government.) Bellow does a great job giving us a vision of the isolated community, w both humor and pathos. Most surprising to me was that this story is in the Bellow corpus; everything else I've read by him is about Chicago or Jewish intellectuals or gonifs and shysters or Manhattan - all of it urbane or broadly comic (e.g. Henderson); this shows a thematic or at least topical range in his work (it was included in the Mosby's Memoirs collection) that I'm guessing most readers are unaware of; perhaps other works in that collection peer off in different directions as well - an oportunity for Bellow to spread his wings so to speak. Q

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Adichie's insight and her observations on two cultures

About 1/4th of the way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanuh (2013) as her protagonist , Ifemelu, leaves Nigeria to begin postgraduate studies in the US (the novel actually begins w her 13 years later as she is a successful academic or writer living in Princeton, w most of the first 100 pp or so giving us the back story). Her Aunt Ulu (so?) picks her up at the airport and brings her to her apartment in Brooklyn, where I is to live until she begins her studies in the fall. Most of this "arrival" section concerns I's first observations on american life - a double vision of sorts in that I is observing the new culture w the perspicacity of a field anthropologist as well as observing the various ways in which her aunt has changed as she adapts to American life. These observations are I think what has made Adichie a world figure. She has a sharp eye for detail in writing about her immigrant communit and uses this precision to tell not only an immigrant's tale but also as an aid in her cultural dissection of America: the way we talk, drive, raise children (her aunt has a 5year-old son, Dike), what we and our children watch on Tv, how we shop and how we eat, and, as to the immigrant community, the need to assimilate, to advance in career, to impress those who have stayed behind, to adopt American mannerisms, to put the best face on everything, and to play the game, so to speak, for ex., to get I a job her aunt gets her an ID from a fellow Nigerian who'd returned home, so I now has a new name like it or not (oddly the first name is Ngozi) so there's a sense of us against the system, doing whatever it takes, this is America (and Nigeria as well). So - I'm getting insight into a new culture but I'm not caught up in the narrative, which is languishing ever more chapter by chapter.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Many characters and plot elements in Adichie's best-known novel

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie continues in section 2 of her 2013 novel, Americanah, to set up the forces of conflict in her plot: stepping back from the near-present of part 1 w the protagonist, Imfelu, settled and successful in academics in the us but preparing for unknown reasons to return to her native Nigeria and reconnect her first love, Obinze (?) who is successful as well as married, CNA show us I entering college and having her first sexual experience w O and just beginning to dabble in student politics (and showing interest in a student activist leader) as, in parallel, we learn the fate of her aunt Uma, who had become the "kept woman" of the boorish but all-powerful General but whose world of prosperity is ripped away from her when the G dies in a military plane crash ((a coup maybe?). U leaves Nigeria w infant son for the US, setting up a line of opportunity for"we I,Aline, I's later emigration. Aunt U's story interests me more than I's at this point, as it's so foreign to Americans cultural experience- whereas I in many ways could almost be an American family - w first-generation college student issues. A lot of events and many characters and 3 significant settings in first 100 pp of this episodic, well-realized, ambitious if conventional novel.

Monday, June 11, 2018

An unusual story about a tragedy and its aftermath by David Gilbert

David Gilbert's story, fungus, is the third and final piece in the New Yorker summer reading double issue ( what does it mean that two of the three are set in Portland Oregon?), and it fits loosely w the parenting theme of the issue. This story is about a young father whose wife and older daughter have recently died in a car crash ( we learn nothing about them aside from this salient fact) who is trying to keep his life in order as he raises their six-year old daughter and fends off well-meaning condolences and solace from his friends. The central event is their purchase of a car to replace the one involved in the fatal accident. At some points this is a heartbreaking story as we see the protagonist trying to ease his daughter's pain in sometimes strange ways such as letting roam at will in the car lot to pick out their next car no questions asked. The story also delves into the spirals of the man's thoughts as he obsesses on numerous topics but avoids thinking about the central issue in his life. Gilbert writes w that sharp urbane wit we associate w the Brooklyn writers and draws on a store of arcana: the protagonist has lots of thoughts about the indie rock. Suicide of his 90s youth (all of which was obscure to me) as well as lots of literary and cinematic references (Roethke, Slinger, Antonioni) probably not obscure to most readers; there is a hint that the protagonist may be a writing prof but that is only adumbrated. In fact the entire story is remarkable in being one of the few that have a potentially dramatic back story that is never developed - the whole narrative is in the present and we have only hints to and glimpses of anything preceding the nominal events in the foreground of the narrative;'the protagonist's interior life is developed but he pointedly refuses to reflect on the tragedy in that has changed him forever.