Rain Check by Levi Andrew Noe

I have an urge the few times that Kim and I step away from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books in order to review something contemporary to have both of us review whatever book it is separately. We have similar views on many things, but quite different on others. Regardless, we each come to our own conclusions in our own ways and it fascinates each of us to see how the other goes to work on something we’ve both picked up. It’s almost as much fun to compare as it is to read the book itself. That’s why when I heard Kim was going to check out Rain Check by Levi Andrew Noe I thought I’d take a week to do the same myself.

Now, there are a number of different kinds of pieces in Rain Check, so I could talk about a lot of different things. They’re all flash fiction stories, but a great deal of variety can be formed with very few words. For example, there are both travel pieces, like this section from “Southeast Asia Blues”:

He took the 50-pound bag off his back. For the hundredth time Jack thought about the last time, somewhere in the undreamable future, when he would take that bag off for good. How his shoulders would weep with joy. He hated the hurt, how the hurt made him complain, how the complaints made him regret, and how the regret drove him to homesick laments. Traveling, at least his kind of wandering way, was a weary business. Jack had to give the aches and pains their place in this adventure. It was only fair.

and there are also stories in our backyards about young boys unintentionally causing damage playing with fire, like this bit from “Prometheus”:

He sprayed his arm again, with much more hairspray this time. He lit it and watched the flames dance up his arm.

“This must be how they do it in the movies!”

He danced around, trying to wave the fire out. He only managed to fan the flames. Then a look of true feat entered his eyes. He rolled on the ground, beat his arm on the grass. Eventually he put the flame out, but his skin was red and he was clutching his arm in pain. Tears welled up.

Robbie stepped toward Leo, but as he moved closer he saw the grass in front of him ignite. It was slow at first, he thought he could put it out by stomping on it. But more smoke poured out from hidden depths in the brown grass. Then flames licked at Robbie’s pant legs. He jumped back.

“Run!” Robbie yelled to Leo.

The thing that strikes me the most throughout all the different kinds of stories is how Noe handles the flash form. In all the pieces I used to come across reading submissions for Grey Sparrow Journal before they went pure poetry, I was always looking for flash that could bring forth a narrative emotional singularity. In flash, as I see it, you have room for one “note.” That may not seem like the same note throughout a flash piece due to reveal, surprise, and other structural aspects, but it’s all still the “sounding” and “resonation” of only one “bell.” Either each word, each image, each everything ties completely together into a unified whole to sound that one note and resonate and you get wonderful glory (barring fugue-like experiments where juxtaposition and contrast of these things is the whole point, but isn’t that really just separate parts of the same note anyway?), or the piece falls utterly apart and it doesn’t work at all. What Noe has here in Rain Check is a complete grasp of this, and an unfailing ability to bring it all together for the single note, whichever one it is at that time, each and every time.

This is some good stuff. Definitely don’t take a rain check on Rain Check. You won’t want to risk missing out.

William Kennedy Reading

Kim took last week to talk about attending the Stephen King reading in Omaha recently and I thought I should take this week to do something similar. Although, I don’t think I really have a comparable reading to talk about. I’ve been to more than I can count over the years, but though I’ve heard some great writers read (Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Sherman Alexie, Margaret Atwood, Tom Robbins, Etgar Keret, and so on), I don’t think I’ve ever had one that was as personally significant to me as Stephen King’s reading was to Kim, for whatever reason. So, I thought I’d reminisce about the first reading I ever went to: William Kennedy.

By now, I’ve read a few books by Kennedy (Legs, Roscoe, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, Very Old Bones, and Ironweed), but at the time I’d only read Ironweed. I still haven’t read everything by him. The reading was for Roscoe, in 2002 or so, which didn’t end up being one of my more favorite Kennedy books. I was actually there, and had read Ironweed, due to my obsession with Hunter Thompson at that time period. Thomson knew Kennedy, thought very highly of his prose, and had mentioned him in some pieces I’d read. So, I picked up Ironweed, and went to the Roscoe reading.

It was in the basement of the Elliot Bay Bookstore, back when they used to be in Pioneer Square. It was a good reading, I liked Kennedy even more after attending (though Ironweed had cemented that enough even if I wasn’t as big on Roscoe). Mainly I was struck by how mild and calm Kennedy seemed with respect to Thompson. I know writers don’t necessarily get into writers who are like them personally, but this was night and day compared to what I imagined of Thompson (who I never did get to see in person). That’s one of the big things I remember.

After all, this was fourteen years ago now.

The other thing I remember is some hipster-looking guy in a beret asking what was clearly a question meant to show off and give the guy a chance to talk rather than actually engage with the author. I hear these from time to time, and they irritate me. If it’s about trying to show off to the group and the importance of having a chance to talk rather than engaging the author/their work/literature/life in some way, as I saw this person’s question dealing with Aristotle and the better angels of our being and such, then my view is that it’s better you don’t ask it because you don’t really have a question, Kennedy seemed to feel similarly, because he didn’t seem sure what the hipster had asked and seemed to suddenly feel that the guy might be dangerous in some way, though he tried to answer. He seemed as put off by the guy’s grandstanding as I did, though maybe that was just me.

Anyway, this wasn’t an experience as significant as Kim’s with Stephen King, but I wanted to share a reading experience of my own. Though I may not have had one that was quite as important to me, I put big stock in these kind of events and go as often as possible. I simply view it as part of reading and writing.

 

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Do I even need to discuss the plot behind Moby-Dick by Herman Melville? Is there anyone who doesn’t know about Ishmael’s observing Captain Ahab’s overwhelming obsession to bring down the white whale? Does anyone (both the large number who haven’t read it but still know it and the somewhat fewer who actually have read it) not recognize the opening line: “Call me Ishmael?” I really feel this is one book that really doesn’t need a whole lot of discussion.

But, let’s talk about whaling a bit:

In connection with this appellative of “Whalebone whales,” it is of great importance to mention, that however such a nomenclature may be convenient in facilitating allusions to some kind of whales, yet it is in vain to attempt a clear classification of the Leviathan, founded upon either his baleen, or hump, or fin, or teeth; notwithstanding that those marked parts or features very obviously seem better adapted to afford the basis for a regular system of Cetology than any other detached bodily distinctions, which the whale, in his kinds, presents. How then? The baleen, hump, back-fin, and teeth; these are things whose peculiarities are indiscriminately dispersed among all sorts of whales, without any regard to what may be the nature of their structure in other and more essential particulars. Thus, the sperm whale and the humpbacked whale, each has a hump; but there the similitude ceases. Then, this same humpbacked whale and the Greenland whale, each of these has baleen; but there again the similitude ceases. And it is just the same with the other parts above mentioned. In various sorts of whales, they form such irregular combinations; or, in the case of any one of them detached, such an irregular isolation; as utterly to defy all general methodization formed upon such a basis. On this rock every one of the whale-naturalists has split.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for 3rd for Paul Auster, 2nd for Russell Banks, 5th for John Banville, 8th for Andrea Barrett, 7th for Bebe Moore Campbell, 4th for Michael Chabon, 4th for David Anthony Durham, 4th for Jim Harrison, 8th for Adam Haslett, 3rd for John Irving, 7th for Norman Mailer, 9th for Bobbie Ann Mason, 1st for Patrick McGrath, 9th for Joyce Carol Oates, favorite at age 25 for Richard Powers, 7th for Francine Prose, 10th for Ian Rankin, and 9th for Louis D. Rubin Jr.)

Vivid portrayal of the slipperiness of good and evil, depiction of all consuming vengeance, the arrogance of man, the indifferent power of nature, a detailed portrait of whaling, there are so many functions going on in Moby-Dick. Everyone seems to know of it. Of those who have actually read it, the camps are fiercely divided. Some adore it, some hate it, and some hate it so much that they despise that others adore it and insist it shouldn’t be considered a classic.

But, let’s take a minute to talk about whaling:

In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’ gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t’ gallant cross-trees. Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To be sure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its fleshy tabernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Personally, I do look up to Moby-Dick quite a bit. The action parts are layered and gripping. I see all kinds of things in them and am on the edge of my seat. The whaling parts do make the book a real slog to get through, but I see functions those perform as well. The picture it gives of that way of live, the long time building up just to tear down in a single moment, I can see it…though I can also understand why so many get so angry about this book.

But, let’s talk about whaling just a bit more:

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale; Colnett’s, Huggins’s, Frederick Cuvier’s, and Beale’s. In the previous chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins’s is far better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale’s is the best. All Beale’s drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.

I mean, Melville does take a while to get around to things. He has a marvelous story and wonderfully developed characters, but it is a long walk to get there. Everything is so meticulously laid out. Still, I think there is something in that. He spends so long making everything so concretely there, then he smashes it all in one quick second. Personally, I’m still a fan and I still respect the hell out of Moby-Dick.

Note: before this went live, I came across a Simpsons’ quote I just had to pointlessly add:

Homer: What kind of example would I be if I didn’t take revenge on things?
Lisa: Dad, you can’t take revenge on animals. That’s the whole point of Moby Dick.
Homer: Lisa, the point of Moby Dick is, “Be yourself.”

Ask the Dust by John Fante

Me again. No worries, Kim will be back for the next two weeks. Anyway, on to this week.

Like many Fante aficionados, I came to the works of John Fante by a winding route. I was obsessed with the beats for a while, leading someone to clue me into Charles Bukowski. An eventual obsession with Bukowski of course led me to Fante, one of the writers he looked up to most. In fact, I’m not sure anyone would be reading Fante now if Bukowski hadn’t worked so hard to rescue Fante’s work from obscurity. Bukowski himself seemed to think Fante’s work was superior, and his advocacy for continued attention to it was perhaps the purest thing Bukowski ever did. Regardless, that all led to Fante’s Ask the Dust.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Douglas Coupland, 9th for Heidi Julavits, and 4th for George Pelecanos.)

In Ask the Dust, Arturo Bandini is a young struggling writer living in a Los Angeles slum during the depression. He isn’t going anywhere fast, but neither is anyone else at that time.

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.

*****

“I just got a letter form my agent,” I told her. “My agent in New York. He says I sold another one; he doesn’t say where, but he says he’s got one sold. So don’t worry Mrs. Hargraves, don’t you fret, I’ll have it in a day or so.”

But she couldn’t believe a liar like me. It wasn’t really a lie; it was a wish, not a lie, and maybe it wasn’t even a wish, maybe it was a fact, and the only way to find out was watch the mailman, watch him closely, check his mail as he laid it on the desk in the lobby, ask him point blank if he had anything for Bandini. Bit I didn’t have to ask after six months at that hotel. He saw me coming and he always nodded yes or no before I asked: no, three million times; yes, once.

He falls in love with a waitress named Camilla. Camilla is herself in love with a co-worker who can’t stand her. Bandini struggles to stay alive, struggles with himself, and struggle with his love for Camilla as she disintegrates. He tries to rescue her, but she continues following the co-worker who hates her. Eventually, the co-worker drives her away and she walks off into the empty desert.

I left him standing there and walked out a quarter of a mile to the top of the ridge. It was so cold I pulled my coat around my throat. Under my feet the earth was churning of course dark sand and little stones, the basin of some prehistoric sea. Beyond the ridge were other ridges like it, hundreds of them stretching infinitely away. The sandy earth revealed no footstep, no sign that it had ever been trod. I walked on, struggling through the miserable soil that gave slightly and then covered itself with crumbs of grey sand.

After what seemed like two miles, I sat on a round white stone and rested. I was perspiring, and yet it was bitterly cold. The moon was dipping toward the north. It must have been after three. I had been walking steadily but slowly in a rambling fashion, still the ridges and mounds continued, stretching away without end, with only cactus and sage and ugly plants I didn’t know marking it from the dark horizon.

Personally, Ask the Dust is one of my favorite works by John Fante. It’s gritty in a way that is very different from more testosterone focused male writers. Bandini is imperfect, but in a personal way rather than an admonishing way. The sentences are tight and clean, but there is a soulful beauty that seems most important. Life is hard, but people struggle anyway. One of the ever-present themes seems to suggest the title of one of Bukowski’s books of poetry, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. If I were ever able to choose a list of favorite books, one of Fante’s would almost have to make it. Ask the Dust might be that one.

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times by Charles Dickens seems to me to be somewhat of a bleak and unhappy novel. Of course, I think it’s supposed to be. I’ve heard it mentioned recently as an example of what pure free market would result in, regardless of whether or not it would make the most sense economically. I suppose the main idea would be that whether or not a system would make the most sense economically, human life would be miserable if the only concern taken into account was economics.

I’m not taking any position on that either way, particularly since this is a book. I’m just getting that as what Dickens was asserting.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Thomas Mallon and 8th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mr. Gradgrind runs a school in Coketown devoted to facts only, training for only economic pursuits:

‘NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

*****

‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’

The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

His children are dissatisfied by their education, craving more from life. His son ends up robbing a bank and dying in America. His daughter marries a fraud of a mill owner (he claims to have been self made from horribly difficult origins, but it is revealed that he was well raised and made his mother stay away when he became successful so he could put forth his self-made image) 30 years her senior, both at her father’s urging and to try to save her brother. She is emotionally crushed and the mill owner humbug ends up tossing her over anyway. In short, Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy does not lead him, or those he cares about, to a good place:

‘Bitzer,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, ‘have you a heart?’

‘The circulation, sir,’ returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, ‘couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.’

‘Is it accessible,’ cried Mr. Gradgrind, ‘to any compassionate influence?’

‘It is accessible to Reason, sir,’ returned the excellent young man. ‘And to nothing else.’

They stood looking at each other; Mr. Gradgrind’s face as white as the pursuer’s.

‘What motive—even what motive in reason—can you have for preventing the escape of this wretched youth,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘and crushing his miserable father? See his sister here. Pity us!’

‘Sir,’ returned Bitzer, in a very business-like and logical manner, ‘since you ask me what motive I have in reason, for taking young Mr. Tom back to Coketown, it is only reasonable to let you know. I have suspected young Mr. Tom of this bank-robbery from the first. I had had my eye upon him before that time, for I knew his ways. I have kept my observations to myself, but I have made them; and I have got ample proofs against him now, besides his running away, and besides his own confession, which I was just in time to overhear. I had the pleasure of watching your house yesterday morning, and following you here. I am going to take young Mr. Tom back to Coketown, in order to deliver him over to Mr. Bounderby. Sir, I have no doubt whatever that Mr. Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr. Tom’s situation. And I wish to have his situation, sir, for it will be a rise to me, and will do me good.’

Few people end up well. The one or two who did had a hard enough road through the book, and often managed to find meaning in life through appreciation of imagination and beauty. With only beauty and imagination, one starves. However, Dickens seems pretty strong on the position that merely not starving without beauty and imagination is at least as bad a fate as starving amidst beauty and imagination.

Hard Times is a pretty simple story for Dickens. There is none of the amazing coincidences or fantastic happenings that characterize David Copperfield or such like that. It’s merely a very simple, moving story. Perhaps a bit predictable at points, but I have to remember that I’m viewing the story through a modern lens. Regardless, Hard Times is still an enjoyable book to read…unpleasant as it is.

Not Quite So Stories by…..

DAVID S. ATKINSON.

Today, I am talking about Dave’s new book, just out. The title is “Not Quite So Stories”. This is Dave’s third book to be released. You can see me talk about the previous two, here and here. I loved Bones Buried in Dirt and The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, as you can see in those blog posts I linked to.

Like I texted Dave on Thursday, while I did love both of those books, I LOVE Not Quite So Stories. I think it is one of the best contemporary short story collections I’ve read in a very long time.

Here are my reasons for loving these stories. Loving with a capital L of course:

  1. These stories often are about “normal” life (a housewife displaying some classic OCD symptoms getting through her highly regimented day) with something “surreal” mixed into it (the prisons in the area are overpopulated so by lottery, certain citizens have been chosen to board prisoners in their homes for a month) and the result of the blending (a square is drawn with a grease pencil on an immaculate kitchen floor and a prisoner is deposited into the square to stand there while the woman goes about her day). The stories are both important for the characters in them (who is this housewife? How does she cope with changes in her day?) and for the blend of surreal (how does she deal with a prisoner left without guard in her kitchen?). Dave has stitched together stories where you can’t even tell where the surreal has been attached into the ordinary. Dave makes it easy to climb right into the tapestry of the story that he’s woven. There is no reason to suspend any disbelief. You have none while reading one of these stories.
  2. Who wouldn’t love a story about a hotel in Europe that had to figure out a way in today’s world to set themselves apart, so did so by creating a rate in which they intentionally disrupt and disturb their patrons? You just have to read it. Anyone that has travelled to Europe, or anyone that has really just traveled anywhere that involved staying in a smaller hotel or b&b will recognize and get a kick out of the story.
  3. These stories cover my requirement for a good story. But they also leave you thinking about a certain convention or more (more as in cultural standard/law, not as in the adjective) in a way you previously didn’t. Like a spouse battle over toilet paper and the correct way to place it on the holder. Or a person picking out a plot and paying for its maintenance past their death.
  4. These stories are tight. You can tell the amount of work that went into polishing them. The care and love that went into these stories shines through.
  5. For me, some short story collections are best read cover to cover. Others are best parceling out bit by bit. Dave has hit my happy medium in which either method works great for reading them. This is why I was late in posting because I started to read and realized I wanted to experience them both ways, reading a few in a turn, then just one, then a few, then just one. These would be great for any reader you know that doesn’t have a lot of time in their day to read but wants to have something good for when they do get a few free minutes. But it’d also be good for that reader you know that devours everything that comes their way.

I am directing you now to where you can purchase Not Quite So Stories so that you can go and buy it. Now. You can buy at B&N or Amazon.

Have a great rest of your weekend!!

 

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part two Mr. Bridge

As I mentioned before, I was going to talk about Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell in two separate but sequential entries due to their odd connected yet disconnected relationship. Mrs. Bridge was last time. Now we get to Mr. Bridge.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mr. Bridge is written similarly to Mrs. Bridge. It’s got the similar small sections, covers the similar events of the same upper middle class white family in Kansas City in the early part of the twentieth century, and all that. The difference is now we see it all from Walter’s, Mr. Bridge’s, view.

A copy of the will was in the safe-deposit box, and though he knew every word of it he sometimes read it through, searching for possible points of contention. The logic and clarity of the will were pleasing to him; the measured cadence of the sentences he had composed was reassuring, as though the measure of his mind must be respected when it was read aloud at some future date. Often he read to himself particular passages from the will, imagining the delight and surprise with which it would be heard for the first time by his wife and by the children, not merely for the precision of the language but because they had no idea of the value of the investments.

Only once had he shown her the contents of the box. Then he had pointed out an envelope containing five one-hundred-dollar bills to be used in case of emergency, and had unfolded a few certificates and gone over them with her so they would seem familiar; but he had minimized the total worth of the documents in the box. Women tended to behave curiously where money was concerned. She was not extravagant, at least she had not been extravagant so far; if anything she was quite the opposite, worrying mildly about the cost of almost everything. Still, change was in the nature of women and no good could come from letting her know his exact worth.

It is interesting how different a perspective we get in this from two people who are still so closely related. It’s the same family, the same white respectability of the era of the World Wars, but minor differences can yield big shifts.

Mr. Bridge is somewhat of a role in Mrs. Bridge than a person. In Mr. Bridge he is a real person, one of a relentless provider. Any time his family is in need, he redoubles his efforts to provide for them…regardless of what they actually need. He clings to the only things he knows. Often what they need is him as a person, and his drive to provide for them in response makes things worse. He dramatically fails his family and the same time that he is a dramatic success in serving his family.

Mr. Bridge was too exasperated to go back to bed. He paced through the house examining the doors and windows again. He thought of how often he had told his son to make certain the house was locked. It had been a waste of time. He returned to the bedroom, reached under the mattress, and pulled out the pistol. He had planned to give it to Douglas on his twenty-first birthday, but now he decided not to. He shifted the gun from one hand to the other, weighing it in his palm and fondling the knurled grip and the icy barrel. Twice a year he cleaned and oiled the gun, and occasionally he lifted a corner of the mattress to see if it was where it belonged. There was always a chance Harriet would steal it. He did not like the fact she knew about the fun. If she did take it and sell it or give it to some Negro in the North End there could be a great deal of trouble. It could very well be used in a holdup. She had been warned never to touch it, and each time he looked he found the gun in the same place; yet he could not forget that when Douglas was a child she had shown it to him.

The clock in the hall struck three times. He was surprised. An hour had passed since he went down stairs. He shoved the gun into the holster and slid it beneath the mattress. He hung his robe in the closet, stepped out of his carpet slippers, and lay down in bed carefully so as not to disturb his wife.

Connell’s characterization is just as impressive in Mr. Bridge as in Mrs. Bridge. The tiny points that bring each of the characters so wonderfully to life are so carefully and sparingly placed. Although, I was already familiar with most of these characters from Mrs. Bridge, so Connell did not have to do as much for them. Frankly, I liked Mrs. Bridge better. I think there were a few points where Mr. Bridge himself seemed a little off in his reactions to things. Mrs. Bridge never did that.

Bottom line? One probably should read Mr. Bridge if one is going to read Mrs. Bridge. However, the latter is more moving than the former…at least for me.

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell- Part one Mrs. Bridge

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books has a single entry for Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge, both by Evan S. Connell. They are highly related, even companion pieces. However, they are separate books. Should one discuss one without discussing the other? Mrs. Bridge had been part of my MFA curriculum, Mr. Bridge only being something I looked at later on my own. Obviously they were separate, but there was obviously enough connecting them that I was compelled to look at Mr. Bridge. I debated, and then decided to do both separately…but sequentially. Mrs. Bridge will be this week and Mr. Bridge on my next go. That seemed the best compromise to the situation.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, Mr. Bridge was 10th for Ethan Canin and Mrs. Bridge was 3rd for Denise Gess, and 4th for Meg Wolitzer.)

Mrs. Bridge is written in little episodes that depict an upper middle class white family in Kansas City, starting around 1920, from the perspective of India Bridge, Mrs. Bridge. Considering the conformity of class in that era? This is it. The characterization is marvelous. Mrs. Bridge strives, and frets endlessly for that. Her life is for the most part stolid, and we have to ask whether it is ultimately satisfying.

Her first name was India—she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.

Mrs. Bridge has a good life overall, but it feels so stifling. She actually works for that consciously, but there are times where I felt that this was a product of environment and she wouldn’t have if she’d known better. Glimpses seem to shine through to her, but then something happens and they are gone.

Somehow, despite it being pretty much a good life, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Mrs. Bridge. There was so much more that life could have been for her. I feel sorry despite having not a huge amount to feel sorry about, and I think Connell makes me feel it pretty deeply. In fact, though I hate to give away the ending,

I’m going to quote from the ending section to show this. It shouldn’t matter. This isn’t the sort of book you read to find out a result. You read to see what happens along the way. In this bit, Mrs. Bridge is trying to back her car out of the garage. Her husband, the good but distant provider, is long gone. Her kids are out in the world living their lives:

Thinking she might have flooded the engine, which was often true, Mrs. Bridge decided to wait a minute or so.

Presently she tried again, and again, and then again. Deeply disappointed, she opened the door to get out and discovered she had stopped in such a position that the car doors were prevented from opening more than a few inches on one side by the garage partition, and on the other side by the wall. Having tried all four doors she began to understand that until she could attract someone’s attention she was trapped. She pressed the horn, but there was not a sound. Half inside and half outside she remained.

For a long time she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, not knowing what to do. Once she looked at herself in the mirror. Finally she took the keys from the ignition and began tapping on the window, and she called out to anyone who might be listening, “Hello? Hello out there?”

But no one answered, unless it was the falling snow.

Talk about a freight train impact of an ending.

Mrs. Bridge was recommended to me for the skill in the characterization, and I have to agree. Connell’s characters spring up three-dimensional from just a few well-placed details. The craft behind that is impressive. If I’ve managed to absorb any of how Connell manages that I’ll count myself lucky. I mean, the characters make this book. It centers around one of the most small-minded women I’ve ever heard of. It should be utterly vapid and uninteresting. It isn’t. Mrs. Bridge is absolutely fascinating.

 

Candide by Voltaire

Candide by Voltaire is another one of the classic novels that most people are familiar with but not enough people have read. More people have read Candide than many other classics firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, but there are still a large number of people are familiar with it without having read it. That’s a shame, because it’s a good time and actually pretty accessible.

(Note: We’ll have to refrain from discussing herein the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.)

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Julian Barnes, 10th for Clyde Edgerton, and 1st G. D. Gearino.)

Candide begins the story living a sheltered life in the paradise of a Baron’s household, schooled as an optimist by his mentor, Professor Pangloss. However, the mantra that Pangloss endlessly chants, “all is for the best” in the “best of all possible worlds,” doesn’t help them much as Candide and Pangloss are driven from the Baron’s household and suffer a litany of indignities and tribulations.

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses.

“It is demonstrable,” said he, “that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end. Observe, that the nose has been formed to bear spectacles—thus we have spectacles. Legs are visibly designed for stockings—and we have stockings. Stones were made to be hewn, and to construct castles—therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Pigs were made to be eaten—therefore we eat pork all the year round. Consequently they who assert that all is well have said a foolish thing, they should have said all is for the best.”

Candide listened attentively and believed innocently; for he thought Miss Cunegonde extremely beautiful, though he never had the courage to tell her so. He concluded that after the happiness of being born of Baron of Thunder-ten-Tronckh, the second degree of happiness was to be Miss Cunegonde, the third that of seeing her every day, and the fourth that of hearing Master Pangloss, the greatest philosopher of the whole province, and consequently of the whole world.

One day Cunegonde, while walking near the castle, in a little wood which they called a park, saw between the bushes, Dr. Pangloss giving a lesson in experimental natural philosophy to her mother’s chamber-maid, a little brown wench, very pretty and very docile. As Miss Cunegonde had a great disposition for the sciences, she breathlessly observed the repeated experiments of which she was a witness; she clearly perceived the force of the Doctor’s reasons, the effects, and the causes; she turned back greatly flurried, quite pensive, and filled with the desire to be learned; dreaming that she might well be a sufficient reason for young Candide, and he for her.

She met Candide on reaching the castle and blushed; Candide blushed also; she wished him good morrow in a faltering tone, and Candide spoke to her without knowing what he said. The next day after dinner, as they went from table, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen; Cunegonde let fall her handkerchief, Candide picked it up, she took him innocently by the hand, the youth as innocently kissed the young lady’s hand with particular vivacity, sensibility, and grace; their lips met, their eyes sparkled, their knees trembled, their hands strayed. Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh passed near the screen and beholding this cause and effect chased Candide from the castle with great kicks on the backside; Cunegonde fainted away; she was boxed on the ears by the Baroness, as soon as she came to herself; and all was consternation in this most magnificent and most agreeable of all possible castles.

This is pretty much how all the novel goes. There’s much more to it than that, but it seems like a good summary to me. Of course, we omit any discussion of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484.

By the end, Candide and Pangloss (at least somewhat) have concluded that optimism is crap. Pangloss rails about it, but Candide ends up taking a pragmatic approach. All is not for the best, this is not the best of all possible worlds, but beating their breasts about it isn’t going to do any good. They still have to go on living, regardless of the nature of the world (or of the cleaver Voltaire didn’t have in 1484).

Candide, on his way home, made profound reflections on the old man’s conversation.

“This honest Turk,” said he to Pangloss and Martin, “seems to be in a situation far preferable to that of the six kings with whom we had the honour of supping.”

“Grandeur,” said Pangloss, “is extremely dangerous according to the testimony of philosophers. For, in short, Eglon, King of Moab, was assassinated by Ehud; Absalom was hung by his hair, and pierced with three darts; King Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, was killed by Baasa; King Ela by Zimri; Ahaziah by Jehu; Athaliah by Jehoiada; the Kings Jehoiakim, Jeconiah, and Zedekiah, were led into captivity. You know how perished Crœsus, Astyages, Darius, Dionysius of Syracuse, Pyrrhus, Perseus, Hannibal, Jugurtha, Ariovistus, Cæsar, Pompey, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Domitian, Richard II. of England, Edward II., Henry VI., Richard III., Mary Stuart, Charles I., the three Henrys of France, the Emperor Henry IV.! You know——”

“I know also,” said Candide, “that we must cultivate our garden.”

“You are right,” said Pangloss, “for when man was first placed in the Garden of Eden, he was put there ut operaretur eum, that he might cultivate it; which shows that man was not born to be idle.”

“Let us work,” said Martin, “without disputing; it is the only way to render life tolerable.”

The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their different abilities. Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops. Cunegonde was, indeed, very ugly, but she became an excellent pastry cook; Paquette worked at embroidery; the old woman looked after the linen. They were all, not excepting Friar Giroflée, of some service or other; for he made a good joiner, and became a very honest man.

Pangloss sometimes said to Candide:

“There is a concatenation of events in this best of all possible worlds: for if you had not been kicked out of a magnificent castle for love of Miss Cunegonde: if you had not been put into the Inquisition: if you had not walked over America: if you had not stabbed the Baron: if you had not lost all your sheep from the fine country of El Dorado: you would not be here eating preserved citrons and pistachio-nuts.”

“All that is very well,” answered Candide, “but let us cultivate our garden.”

Candide is a delightful little book. Voltaire has a wonderful sense of humor (though obviously not the cleaver he didn’t have in 1484) that keeps me laughing amidst all the bad things that happen. I love how absurdly quickly and consistently things go bad, virtually for everyone in the book but particularly for Candide. I think Voltaire was more concerned about his message than his story, but I guess that is to be expected since he didn’t take novels particularly seriously. Candide is still a remarkable book.

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

Today we’re going to talk about one of the true monsters (my copy weighing in at somewhere over 1533 pages) of English literature, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Or, The History of a Young Lady. Or, as I liked to call it, Clarissa Explains it All.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Emma Donoghue and 4th for Vendela Vida.)

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is an eighteenth century epistolary novel about a young woman named, oddly enough, Clarissa. Clarissa’s family is newly wealthy and seeking entrance into the nobility. As part of that, they look to marrying the virtuous Clarissa with Robert Lovelace. However, her brother gets into it with Lovelace and then her family hates him, instead wanting to marry Clarissa to a man she despises. Due to an accident of circumstance, Clarissa ends up going off with Lovelace, though firmly committed to remaining virtuous, and the increasingly despicable Lovelace spends the rest of the book trying to undermine her virtue. He drugs and rapes her before eventually meeting his own horrible end, at least his being deserved.

I was once more offering the key to the lock, when, starting from his knees, with a voice of affrightment, loudly whispering, and as if out of breath, they are at the door, my beloved creature! and taking the key from me, he fluttered with it, as if he would double lock it. And instantly a voice from within cried out, bursting against the door, as if to break it open, the person repeating his violent pushes, Are you there?–come up this moment!–this moment!–here they are–here they are both together!–your pistol this moment!–your gun!–Then another push, and another. He at the same moment drew his sword, and clapping it naked under his arm, took both my trembling hands in his; and drawing me swiftly after him, Fly, fly, my charmer; this moment is all you have for it, said he.–Your brother!–your uncles!–or this Solmes!–they will instantly burst the door–fly, my dearest life, if you would not be more cruelly used than ever–if you would not see two or three murders committed at your feet, fly, fly, I beseech you.

O Lord:–help, help, cried the fool, all in amaze and confusion, frighted beyond the power of controuling.

Now behind me, now before me, now on this side, now on that, turned I my affrighted face, in the same moment; expecting a furious brother here, armed servants there, an enraged sister screaming, and a father armed with terror in his countenance more dreadful than even the drawn sword which I saw, or those I apprehended. I ran as fast as he; yet knew not that I ran; my fears adding wings to my feet, at the same time that they took all power of thinking from me–my fears, which probably would not have suffered me to know what course to take, had I not had him to urge and draw me after him: especially as I beheld a man, who must have come out of the door, keeping us in his eye, running now towards us; then back to the garden; beckoning and calling to others, whom I supposed he saw, although the turning of the wall hindered me from seeing them; and whom I imagined to be my brother, my father, and their servants.

Thus terrified, I was got out of sight of the door in a very few minutes: and then, although quite breathless between running and apprehension, he put my arm under his, his drawn sword in the other hand, and hurried me on still faster: my voice, however, contradicting my action; crying, no, no, no, all the while; straining my neck to look back, as long as the walls of the garden and park were within sight, and till he brought me to the chariot: where, attending, were two armed servants of his own, and two of Lord M.’s on horseback.

Here I must suspend my relation for a while: for now I am come to this sad period of it, my indiscretion stares me in the face; and my shame and my grief give me a compunction that is more poignant methinks than if I had a dagger in my heart. To have it to reflect, that I should so inconsiderately give in to an interview, which, had I known either myself or him, or in the least considered the circumstances of the case, I might have supposed would put me into the power of his resolution, and out of that of my own reason.

For, might I not have believed, that he, who thought he had cause to apprehend that he was on the point of losing a person who had cost him so much pains and trouble, would not hinder her, if possible, from returning? That he, who knew I had promised to give him up for ever, if insisted as a condition of reconciliation, would not endeavour to put it out of my power to do so? In short, that he, who had artfully forborne to send for my letter, (for he could not be watched, my dear,) lest he should find in it a countermand to my appointment, (as I myself could apprehend, although I profited by the apprehension,) would want a device to keep me with him till the danger of having our meeting discovered might throw me absolutely into his power, to avoid my own worse usage, and the mischiefs which might have ensued (perhaps in my very sight) had my friends and he met?

But if it shall come out, that the person within the garden was his corrupted implement, employed to frighten me away with him, do you think, my dear, that I shall not have reason to hate him and myself still more? I hope his heart cannot be so deep and so vile a one: I hope it cannot! But how came it to pass, that one man could get out at the garden-door, and no more? how, that that man kept aloof, as it were, and pursued us not; nor ran back to alarm the house? my fright, and my distance, would not let me be certain; but really this man, as I now recollect, had the air of that vile Joseph Leman.

I would normally hate to do this much of a spoiler, but I’m guessing that either you know all this already or you won’t read the book in any event. This is a book that is commonly referred to, but not so commonly read.

It surprised me that Clarissa was written by the same author as Pamela. Sure, Clarissa is a bit preachy in spots and can dwell on a few things that don’t really advance the plot, but the difference is astonishing. Clarissa is the far superior work, in my view.

Clarissa is actually moving, containing developed, human characters who come alive and engage the soul. Though I think Pamela would have been better if cut from 500 pages down to 150 or 200, I found very little in Clarissa that I would cut. Richardson apparently learned a bit between Pamela and Clarissa. Pamela is more of a curiosity piece as I see it, but Clarissa is a truly wonderful early example of what the English language novel could accomplish.

Of course, I don’t actually expect that you’ll read the whole thing.